The (in progress) Nikon Z7 Review

Last Updated: 23 October

Last summer (2017), the President of Nikon confirmed what the world was dying to know.  Nikon was in development of a mirrorless full frame camera that would be released “soon.”  Almost instantly, additional specifications and details started to leak out across the Internet.  People eagerly waited for the announcement of what was going to be, without question, the modernization and one of the greatest revelations in digital photography since the design and mass production of cell phone cameras.

After much anticipation, on August 23, 2018, Nikon unveiled the new Z7 and Z6 full frame mirrorless digital cameras.  The wait was finally over.

The Nikon Z7 started shipping worldwide on 27 September — a month after the announcement.  Demand for this camera has been unprecedented, and many consumers will likely be waiting months before they get a chance to own their own model. It has been estimated that Nikon had 40,000 Z7 cameras available at the end of September, with nearly a quarter of those shipping to dealers in the United States.

Over the coming months, I will document my experience with the Z7 in an effort to provide as much information about the camera, shooting experience, and — most importantly — image output. This is not a “one and done” review; I will add to it regularly as I have new experiences with the camera. I truly believe a real review cannot be completed in just a few days — it takes months of continuous shooting — and so this review will reflect that philosophy. I can promise that I’ll cover as many topics as I can, barre one: video. I don’t shoot video, know little about video, and am woefully unequipped to discus video. As far as I’m concerned, the video features in this camera are merely in the way.

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A Quick Introduction: The Nikon Z7 and Z6

The primary difference between the Z7 and Z6 cameras is the resolution and shooting specs; the Z7 features a 45.7 megapixel sensor, while the Z6 features a 24.5 megapixel digital sensor.  Other differences include the number of autofocus points — which is almost twice as many on the Z7 (at 493 focus points) as on the Z6 (only 273 focus points).  There are also differences in the ISO.  The Z7’s ISO ranges from 64 to 25,612 while the Z6 ISO ranges from 100 to 51,200.  Finally, the Z6 can fire a few more frames per second than the Z7. The difference in frame rate is probably a factor of the image size and write speed to memory cards, vice a mechanical difference.

The Nikon Z7 and Z6 represent a turning point, and will definitely become historical milestone in the evolution of digital photography.  Other companies may have released full frame mirrorless first, like Sony, Fuji, and Leica, but Nikon represents the largest company to yet produce a full frame mirrorless camera.  No matter what other companies have done before, the release of the Nikon Z7 and Z6 will go down in the history books as an important milestone in photography.  It will go down alongside inventions like instant film and, of course, the cell phone camera.

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Getting a Nikon Z: Pay Early

I pre-ordered my Nikon Z7 before it even had a name.  When I pre-ordered it with my local camera shop it was just called “the Nikon mirrorless camera that was coming soon.”  Weeks before was announced, I put my name down on the pre-order list, guaranteeing that I will get one of the first units to be delivered in the United States.  The day it was announced and the dealers had pricing information, I paid in full, cementing my place as one of the first to get my hands on the new release.

Because I pre-paid, I got one the day it was released in the United States. By my math, it is also one of the first 1,000 bodies delivered in the USA (more on that later).

The Nikon Z6 will start shipping soon, and I would encourage anyone waiting for that model to pre-pay in order to ensure they get one of the first ones.


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Why Mirrorless: The Future of Photography

As photographers, it’s easy to get high on tech specs.  So before we get wrapped up in the specifications of this particular camera, let’s generically discuss why mirrorless is important.  

Why this mirrorless camera thing is a big deal.  Why this camera, over all other cameras, is a huge turning point in the market. 

The first time I used a full frame mirrorless camera was when I shot the Leica SL in London.  Bringing that full frame electronic newsletter to my face instantly changed my perception on what I thought at the time was a trend — a photography fad.  But when I looked through that electronic viewfinder, I immediately understood the value of a mirrorless full frame camera, and simultaneously understood that I was holding the future. 

One of the problems with DSLR's is that you don't see exactly what you're shooting as you shoot.  There's a mirror that sits in front of the sensor and reflects light from the lens into a prism that you're looking into via the viewfinder.  The limitation here is that the camera can only display a limited amount of information to the photographer through a small heads up display built into that prism.  Furthermore, you are seeing a reflection of light through a mirror, not what the sensor will see. As a result, you are, in some regards, guessing what the sensor will capture based on your experience with that particular camera and the limited information available in the heads up display.

With mirrorless, you get the benefit of seeing exactly what you're photographing at the instant the camera takes the image.  You spend less time having to look at the rear LCD screen to review the exposure and the quality of your image, and spend more time actually composing and creating photographs. 

In other words, if your image is going to be underexposed, you can see that through the viewfinder before you take the image.  You no longer have to remove your face to look at the rear LCD screen or browse a menu — you just see it.

The other noteworthy advantage of a mirrorless full frame camera is that the flange distance between the lens and the sensor is significantly reduced. This sounds highly technical, but it’s worth understanding why a shortened flange distance is so valuable to a photographer.

Flange distance is the distance between the sensor and the front bayonet coupling, where the lens and camera body meet.  In most DSLR’s, the flange distance is somewhere in the range of 50-60mm; however, on a mirrorless full frame camera, that flange distance can be somewhere between 10-20mm.  The result of this greatly reduced flange distance is that light enters the camera with less reduction.

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If you have a longer flange distance, than the engineer that designs your camera lens has to bring in more light for the sensor by making larger optical elements, which translates into larger lenses with more weight and ultimately greater cost.  With a thinner flange distance, more light naturally comes into the camera sensor, allowing the same engineer to design a lens that is smaller, weighs less, and is (hopefully) less expensive. 

This also allows engineers to design lenses that would be pretty impractical on a full frame DSLR; for instance Nikon has already announced the development of lenses with an aperture of f/0.95.  The same lens on a DSLR would likely be so unwieldy and expensive that it will be impractical for a company like Nikon to even entertain building and designing it.

Of course mirrorless is not perfect.  The greatest drawback these days for a mirrorless camera is the battery life.  Because the viewfinder is electronic, the batteries are constantly having to provide electricity for the small LCD screen that you're looking at in the eyepiece. This drains batteries faster than they would in a comparable DSLR camera.  The good news; however, is that battery technology these days is very good.  Even if your mirrorless camera gets a fraction of the battery life that a DSLR might get, batteries are so affordable, they almost can be treated as a consumable.  Buying and carrying four or five batteries to have lots of spares and no fear of running out is really not a big deal.

So why is Nikon's release of the Z7 such a big deal? Why is the Internet and every blogger on YouTube suddenly going crazy when other companies have already released similar cameras?  Because Nikon represents the largest manufacturer to enter this market.  Companies like Sony, Fuji, and Leica — who all got into the market with a full frame mirrorless camera first — don’t have quite the following the company like Nikon or Canon has.


The FTZ Adapter: Keep Your Lenses & Go Mirrorless

If you are a current Nikon shooter and wanted to transition into a mirrorless camera you might have to sell more than you were willing to sell. You probably have a collection of lenses from Nikon that you would have to sell in order to buy another brand’s model.  But now Nikon can hope to sell a mirrorless camera to existing customers by allowing them to use the lenses they already have for their existing Nikon system.

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In order to offer this backward compatibility, Nikon developed an adapter (the FTZ adapter) that allows you to mount almost any existing F-mount lens to the Z7 or Z6 while still maintaining autofocus.  That means if you already own some unique lenses or lenses you really enjoy the character of, you don't need to part with those lenses as part of the admission into the mirrorless club.  This is incredibly well thought out by Nikon because they will be able to corner a large portion of their current DSLR owners and convince them to buy into this new digital technology.

Although Nikon is offering an adapter to make existing F-mount lenses compatible, they are also releasing a new series of lenses designed to maximize the advantages of the new lens mount. The new lens lineup, dubbed the “S-line” contains many of the benefits of previous Nikon lenses, such as nano crystal coated glass. 

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The S-Line of Lenses: A New Dawn

With the announcement of the Z7 and Z6, Nikon also announced the release of three new S-lenses and the development of several more coming soon. The current Nikon S lens lineup is as follows:

    • Nikon Z 35mm f/1.8 (released September 2018)

    • Nikon Z 50mm f/1.8 (released September 2018)

    • Nikon Z 24-70 f/4 (released September 2018)

    • Nikon Z 24-70 f/2.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 58mm f/0.95 Nocti (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 20mm f/1.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 70-200 f/2.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 14-30 f/4 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 50mm f/2.8 (expected 2020)

    • Nikon Z 24mm f/1.8 (expected 2020)

    • Nikon Z 14-24mm f/2.8 (expected 2020)

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The announcement of twelve lenses for this system within the first two years is very remarkable. By comparison, Leica has only released a quarter as many lenses for their mirrorless full frame Leica SL camera, yet it has been on the market several years longer. The difference in lens releases is one of the main reasons this camera’s release will be such a big deal; outside of maybe Canon, no other manufacturer can compete with Nikon’s ability to develop and get new glass to market as quickly. 

Nikon was also teased that they will be developing additional Z camera bodies to meet the needs of other photographers — such as sports photographers — who may require a longer battery life, multiple memory card slots, and high frames per second shooting speed before transitioning from their DSLR bodies to mirrorless.

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Options: Expanding into Zeiss Lenses

I don’t want this to sound like I’m a hater, because I am not. But I don’t think Nikon makes the best lenses. They make fine lenses, but not the best. Fine. Acceptable.

Acceptable, for most. However, I am one of the few who really values good glass.

A good lens is more important than a good camera. The camera can only gather and process the light that the sensor receives. If the sensor gets imperfect light, then you get an imperfect image, and there is nothing the camera can do about it. In other words, the Nikon Z7 is as only as good as the glass you put in front of it.

Ever since I became a Leica shooter, I’ve been a very discerning photographer when it comes to lenses. I now prefer manual focus primes to zooms, and would rather not have to click buttons in Lightroom to “correct” an image by removing chromatic aberrations, distortions, etc. Remember, good light in = good image out.

For dSLRs, Zeiss makes some of the best lenses on the planet. So I have spent quite a bit of time shooting the Z7 with my Zeiss Milvus lenses in order to evaluate the results when I put the best possible glass in front of the Z7. Here are some of my results….

Bridge to Belle Island, Richmond, Virginia. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Urban landscape in Richmond, Virginia. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Exploring an old factory that once made components for World War II tanks. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Inside the old factory. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Abandoned control room of a former water pumping station on the river. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Urban decay. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.


Ergonomics: A Pleasantly Small and Comfortable Experience

Nikon engineers reportedly put great emphasis on the ergonomics and shooting experience they designed the Z7 and Z6.  The right hand grip hearkens back to other Nikon DSLR’s, but unique to this camera are new buttons, wheels, and joysticks enabling you to control camera menus while looking through the electronic viewfinder. The smaller size of this camera compared to most of the DSLRs is currently on the market is extremely advantageous. It will fit into smaller bags, be more discreet, and less intimidating looking than a DSLR body. 

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The Memory Card: The Future is XQD

One of the compromises that had to be made in order to accommodate the smaller body size of the Z7 is that Nikon included only one memory card slot. This fact caused many Internet bloggers to freak out at the announcement, and in many ways distracted reviewers from the camera and the benefits of the camera itself. Rather than talking about the benefits of an electronic viewfinder and the wonderful image quality this sensor will produce, people latched onto the single memory card, and the Internet has been on overdrive discussing this revelation ever sense. Therefore it is only logical that I too jump into the mix with my thoughts on the single memory card decision.

The Nikon Z7 and Z6 both utilize a memory card format called XQD. The XQD memory card is not new, although it's certainly not a mainstream formats (like SD) yet. In fact, when the Nikon D850 was released, it was very difficult to find XQD cards for sale. Thankfully additional manufacturers, including Nikon themselves, have entered the market and it is now possible to find XQD cards from a variety of manufacturers and a whole host of sizes. XQD cards cost quite a bit of money compared to cards like SD, but they are significantly more reliable. SD cards are prone to failure and routinely do fail. XQD cards, by comparison, have a very low failure rate. XQD cards also have a very high data transfer rate, and can read and write in excess of 400 Mb per second. When you're discussing a 45 megapixel sensor that read/write speed is absolutely critical.

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Personally, I think the hubbub surrounding the single memory card issue is being wildly overblown. People have become used to having two memory cards because manufacturers were compensating for the lack of reliability in SD formats by adding backup slots. As a result, consumers got trained on the idea that we need a backup. But you only need a backup if the primary is prone to failure. 

If we think back just a few years ago, when cameras all shot film, we were used to taking the risk that you could have a catastrophic failure and lose all of your images. The difference between film and a single memory card is that film can never be recovered.  No amount of money and no lab can bring film back once it's been destroyed. But if an XQD card did fail, for a reasonable fee, you could pay to have your images recovered. In my mind, the benefits of the faster read/write speed and the reliability that XQD memory cards have negates the “drawback” of having only one memory card slot. And anyone who feels so passionately that they require a backup better be carrying multiple camera bodies and redundant systems anyway.

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Image Quality: Unrivaled Dominance

Some users have dubbed the Z7 as the mirrorless D850, which is a compliment and nod to the exceptional image quality. Nikon raised the bar for dynamic range and sensor performance with the D850, and the Z7 has at least met, if not exceeded, the bar set by the D850.

I don’t shoot in a lab. I don’t own a white jacket or a clipboard. I am completely and utterly unqualified to tell you anything scientific about the performance of the sensor. What I can tell you, though, is how it responds to my real-world shooting.

The first day I owned the Z7, I went for a hike in a local National Park. It had been raining all week, but was finally a pleasant and sunny fall day. The heavy rain in the proceeding days meant that much of the trail was damp, which is actually great for pulling out color. Logs, trees, bark, and mosses are all more vibrant when they are just barely damp. Knowing this, I aimed the camera at a variety of naturally colorful subjects in an effort to explore the native color rendition and dynamic range of the camera.

To say I was impressed was an understatement, and I am editing these images with a version of Lightroom that doesn’t fully support the Z7 yet! Presumably, there may be incremental improvements to be had in the image quality when Adobe releases an update to Adobe Camera Raw to support the Z7 files.

Anyway, I barely touched the vibrance slider to get the results you see here. Most of the images were under exposed by -1/3 stop (using exposure compensation). Underexposing by a smidge can help preserve shadow detail for post production, so I almost always have the file slightly darker.

The photograph of the waterfall here demonstrates how much dynamic range is captured by the Z7 (be sure to click on it for a full-sized preview). There is still detail in the highlights where the sky and tree leaves meet, as well as great detail in the shadows of the rocks and tree bark. The whole thing is rather remarkable given how complex this scene is — normally I would use graduated neutral density filters to help the camera out, but this was shot without any assistance.

I have not explored much by way of high ISO shooting, and I doubt I’ll ever have much to say there. I really try very hard to avoid shooting above ISO 1600. I would rather use a tripod and take a longer exposure than raise my ISO. I’m sure it’ll happen at some point, but thus far I have no observations on the ISO performance.

Once again, I am reminded how much I appreciate the high resolution of the Z7’s sensor. I used a 200mm macro lens to photograph some bugs and flowers and was pleased to see how far I could crop and still preserve incredible detail in the file. Granted, some of this is attributed to the lens, but the high resolution sensor provides great opportunity to get the most out of uber sharp glass.

Thus far, I have found the metering, auto white balance, and auto focus to be very accurate, but will follow up with more information about those topics in a future update….


Color Rendition: Holy Vibrance Slider

The Nikon Z7 produces beautiful colors. Maybe even too beautiful.

I am used to playing with the vibrance slider in Lightroom in order to put some “pop” in the colors of an image taken with another camera, but the Z7 doesn’t need that. Straight from the camera, the images are bursting with color. They almost look Photoshopped in their RAW format.

I have actually found myself desaturating a few images because the colors were more vibrant than what I wanted. But that isn’t very common, and for landscape photographers, I can attest that the Z7 will preserve your shadow details while still giving you a nice rich blue sky.

Belle Island, Richmond, Virginia. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Look closely at the above photograph. I took this photograph on an overcast afternoon in mid-October. The leaves were just starting to change, and the sun was getting lower on the horizon. This is what I got out of the camera. I cropped the photograph and sharpened it slightly, but that’s it. The rest is au natural. The detail and color preserved in the tree leaves and also in the clouds is absolutely unreal.

Here’s some more examples:

I actually desaturated the corners of the above photograph slightly. I had to, because I thought it otherwise could look “over processed” out of the camera!


Electronic Viewfinder: A Window To the World

The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is arguably the heart and soul of a mirrorless camera. A bad EVF ruins the experience of shooting with a mirrorless camera, so it was critical that Nikon get this new component correct.

My previous experience shooting a mirrorless Leica SL taught me how important the EVF is for composition and previewing the image at the moment of capture. My “keeper rate” of images was much higher with the EVF than with a prism viewfinder, and I had high expectations from Nikon.

As far as I’m concerned, there are a few features that make or break a good EVF:

  • High resolution (so that you don’t see the pixelation of your image)

  • 100% frame coverage (so that you know exactly what you are getting when you click the shutter)

  • Dimmable (most EVFs are aggressively bright, so it’s important that I can dim it)

  • Comfortable (looking at a digital screen can cause eye strain, so it needs to be clear and comfortable)

  • Adjustable heads up display (where you can modify what information is available to you in the display while you shoot)

The Nikon Z7 checks all of these boxes. The viewfinder is responsive, sharp, and pleasant to use. There is minimal lag and only an aggressive shake will create any noticeable shuttering. It is fast to refresh after taking an image, and it seems to be pretty accurate in providing real-time feedback on the exposure.

Thus far, I have only positive things to say about the EVF; it works exactly as I have come to expect, and there has been no disappointment in the rendering of information on the display. I’ll update this section with more comprehensive feedback on the EVF after I’ve used it in more extreme conditions, but so far, so good!

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The Nikon Z7 vs Leica SL vs Nikon D850

I had the same question as — based on the number of emails I’ve received on this topic would indicate — many others have about the Z7: “Can Nikon’s first mirrorless digital camera keep pace with the juggernaut D850”? And how does the Z7 hold up when compared to the established dominance of the Leica SL?

These head-to-head comparisons assume a lot about the definition of ‘better.’ Everyone wants to know which is better, camera X or Y. But the reality is that what is better for me may be worse for you, and I encourage you to read on with a grain of salt. A feature that I like and view as a pro might be a con in your shooting, so keep an open mind. And leave me a comment with your thoughts.

Now to my comparisons….know that I have owned all three of these cameras within the last year. I don’t review things I have only tried out in a demo. I am pulling this comparison from my personal use of cameras I purchased with my own cash.

Nikon Z7 vs Nikon D850

I sold the Leica SL in favor of the D850 because I was motivated by two things that the D850 had over the Leica SL. I quickly regretted that swap. While the D850 is a phenomenal camera, I missed the electronic viewfinder almost immediately. If you want to dig more into the comparison and pros and cons of the D850 vs Leica SL, check out my post where I compare those kings. Anyway, I never fell deeply in love with the D850, and I’m not infatuated with it (unlike so many other internet bloggers). It’s a good camera, don’t mistake me, but it’s just not a camera that speaks to me.

  • Image Quality: A wash.

    • Both produce spectacular results. Seriously. There’s a reason the labs are so in love with these sensors. I don’t test in a lab, but I have been nothing but impressed with the quality of the images both produce. The Z7 is reported to have marginally better dynamic range, but I don’t think it’s an appreciable difference.

  • Versatility: Nikon D850

    • The fact that the DSLR line has been on the market longer means there is more stuff available. More lenses. More after-market battery grips and do-hickeys. The Z7, while able to adapt to most F-mount lenses, looses some functionality with certain lenses. For instance, my macro lens doesn’t autofocus on the Z, but does on the D850. This isn’t a big deal to me, and the Z7 will quickly catch up in the market for availability of after market goodies. But, for now, we wait.

  • Shooting Experience: Nikon Z7

    • The Z7 has an electronic viewfinder. And I’m sorry to all you prism lovers, but electronic viewfinders are far superior. I also think the ergonomics and grip on the Z7 is better. Finally, the button placement on the Z7 and controls I think are a little better arranged. The D850 is very familiar — particularly for anyone who has experience with Nikon DSLRs — but the Z7 is refreshing in it’s modernity and form factor.

  • Size: Nikon Z7

    • No contest here. The Z7 is smaller in every dimension, and it’s lighter and easier to carry while traveling.

  • Autofocus: A wash.

    • Depending on which lens I am using, it waffles between the two cameras as to which is faster to focus. There are some lenses that are certainly faster on the D850, but the converse is also true. I would over an overall edge in focusing to the Z7 just because of the electronic viewfinder, and the versatility that affords in real-time evaluation of precise focus.

Overall, I give the Nikon Z7 a solid “better” over the D850, which mostly has to do with my shooting style. I am a landscape photographer….the trees and mountains aren’t moving. I can take my time to compose, focus, and create the image. For me, the benefits of a small, lightweight mirrorless camera far outweigh any cons this camera has, and the Z7 easily tops the D850 in my mind.

The D850 may be a more versatile camera today, but that will change in time. The Z system is brand new, and Nikon was pretty tight-lipped about the development, so it’s not surprising that there’s a lack of after-market accessories and 3rd party lens options. But that will change with time, and I imagine any benefit the D850 has in this regard today will be neutralized in a year or less.

Nikon Z7 vs Leica SL

This is where things get more complicated for me….I’ve established for myself that a mirrorless camera is far better than a prism DSLR. But when I compare two wonderful mirrorless cameras side-by-side, the evaluation get’s complicated.

The main reason I ever sold my Leica SL was because Leica was behind on the development of new lenses for the system, and I wanted a system where I could mount a 500mm super telephoto and then a 20mm wide angle. But I have always known the Leica glass is optically superior to that of Nikon, and now comparing two similar systems is very challenging.

  • Image Quality: Not sure yet!

    • I used the Leica SL for nearly two years. I published a book with it. I got to know that camera extremely well, and I knew what to expect from every image. I understood the limitations and strengths of the sensor, and when I needed to employ some creativity to capture the image I saw in my mind’s eye. Conversely, I have had the Nikon Z7 for a few weeks. The number of images I’ve taken with it number in the hundreds, compared to the tens of thousands. So I cannot definitively say that the Z7 is better than the SL (yet). However, the results I’ve seen thus far are very promising. The Z7 preserves fantastic shadow detail, has great tolerance for highlights, and has some of the most naturally vibrant colors I have seen in a camera. But until I’ve really pushed this camera to the edge, I can’t declare one of the cameras as better than the other in the image output.

  • Versatility: Nikon Z7

    • Ironically, the Z7 at it’s release was already more versatile than the Leica SL. Both companies released an adapter that allows for mounting of other system lenses on the mirrorless bodies, but Nikon has more lenses available, and therefore more versatility. Leica doesn’t offer long telephotos for nature photographers, nor do they have much selection in macro lenses. Nikon does; and their adapter permits more freedom of application for the Z7 on release day than the Leica SL has achieved in years of development.

  • Shooting Experience: Leica SL, by a hair

    • The Leica SL wasn’t perfect, and one of the most glaring flaws on that camera — the lack of ergonomics and harsh metal build — is actually one of the highlights of the Z7. However, the SL had much more customization, and the controls were a little better laid out and designed than those of the Z7. Nikon has opportunity to narrow that margin by offering firmware updates that permit different customization of the button controls, but until that happens, the SL has the edge in terms of experience. The SL had so many opportunities to customize the controls, that the camera became a natural extension of your brain, eyes, and hand. The Z7 has the potential to achieve that as well, with future software updates.

If I have to pick between the Z7 and SL today, it’s a tough call, but I probably pick the Z7. I’d make that choice based on the availability of lenses, cost, and that the image quality and shooting experience meet or have the potential to exceed that of the SL. Honestly, my attraction to the SL is probably driven more by emotion than anything else; I had a great run with that camera. It travelled around the world with me, and the artwork I made with the SL carries great emotional value. I haven’t had the Z7 long enough to bond with it in the same way.

You’re probably thinking that I talk and write about cameras as though they have feelings. Like that camera is more than just some metal and plastic and wires and circuits. To me, they are.

An effective camera is one that I bond with at a deeper level. Not that I have some sort of weird physical connection — but the connection like a painter has with his brushes and studio. When a camera has effectively become an extension of my eyes and brain, I can use it to capture the most beautiful sights on our planet. I think I’ll get there with the Z7. I think we’ll fall deeply in love, and that camera and I will forge a new bond. But it takes time, and I’m not there yet.

Nikon Z7 vs Leica SL vs Nikon D850

Now I know you want resolution. You read this far…. you don’t want to hear some soppy love story about a camera. You want the unvarnished truth about which is better. And I don’t want to disappoint you. So I’ll give you my personal rankings of these three cameras.

If you handed me a blank check and told me to purchase any of the three today, I would NOT pick the D850. Personally, I don’t see the benefits anymore. I’m all in on mirrorless.

I would buy the Z7. I see a ton of potential in this lineup. The lenses Nikon will release in the future; the promise of what is to come. It’s not a perfect camera yet, and the SL rivals it today. But the head room for the Z7 is much higher. Nikon is a bigger company with more money for R&D. There will be more strides and more innovation in the Z7. There will be more lenses for the Z7. The image quality probably matches or exceeds that of the Leica SL. Objectively, the Z7 today is a better place, and will almost certainly be the better choice in the long term.


Shooting Low and Slow: Hold Still

One of the often under appreciated benefits of a mirrorless camera is that you can effectively hand hold and get sharp images at slower shutter speeds than you can with a comparable DSLR.

In other words, I struggle to hand hold a sharp image at anything slower than 1/60th with the D850, but have no trouble hand holding at 1/20th on the Z7. I have pushed that a little further and - depending on the situation, my posture, and the scene, I’ve been known to sneak sharp images at 1/5th or slower.

What this means in practice is that you can use a lower ISO with the Z7 and achieve a better result. As good as sensors have become at shooting at higher ISOs, it’s still an indisputable fact that the best image will always come from a lower ISO. So if I can hand hold at night at ISO 400 vs ISO 1600, that’s a considerable improvement in image quality.


Adapting Beyond Nikon: Expand the Versatility

Nikon released the Z7 with the FTZ adapter, which allows Nikon F-mount lenses to me used on the Z7 and preserves full functionality on most modern lenses.

Almost immediately, the question became: “What else can we mount”?

The answer is almost anything. Sigma, Zeiss, Tamaron, etc all have made lenses for the Nikon F mount that can be adapted with the FTZ adapter with varying degrees of functionality. Likewise, 3rd party companies are developing adapters for mounting Canon, Hasselblad, Leica, Sony, and other lenses. In due time, there probably won’t be many lenses that can’t be attached to the Z7 in some way shape or form.

Personally, I’ll be investing in an adapter that will allow me to mount my Leica M-mount lenses from my Leica M10 onto the front of my Z7. I love manual focus lenses, and am excited by the prospect of using them on my Z7. There is already one adapter with a plastic mount on the market, but I’ll be waiting for the metal mounts….


Nikon Serial Numbers: Identify Yourself

Nikon seems to have stuck to their traditional serial numbering system for the Z-lineup of cameras.

The first digit of the serial number indicates the region the camera was for sale in, with the number 3 being for USA market cameras. Therefore, a serial number for a Z7 sold in the USA will have a serial number formatted as 3XXXXXX.

In my case, the serial number is 30009XX, representing a late-900’s serial number. It is my understanding that this means I have one of the first one thousand units delivered to the United States.

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Desired Upgrades and Improvements: Dear Nikon

There is no question that Nikon will be releasing several iterations of firmware for the Z7 in the coming months; such is the nature of a new product. There are inevitably bugs that weren’t found prior to the production software being released. These firmware updates also provide an opportunity for Nikon to upgrade a few features in the system, and so I will begin a list of “Dear Nikon” requests for future firmware updates:

  1. EVF Zoom Via Joystick: The joystick (located below the AF-ON button) has some user-customizable features, but there is one customization not included; the ability to zoom into the center of the EVF for precision focusing. As far as I can tell, the only way to zoom in on the viewfinder to check focus is via the + magnification glass button, which is toward the bottom of the body. Unfortunately, to reach that button, I have to contort my hand away from shooting position, so it’s very awkward to use. The Leica SL joystick allowed this feature, and I LOVED it — particularly for macro or telephoto shots. Nikon, please allow me to program the joystick click button as an alternate zoom button.

  2. Faster Joystick Tracking of AF Points: This will sound really stupid…. The joystick on the Leica SL was very responsive to movements of the AF points around the viewfinder. The Nikon Z7 joystick does not move the AF points with the same briskness, and I’d like to be able to speed it up. Please let it take less time for the focus cursor to move across the screen when I hold the joystick.

  3. More Friendly App Integration: Again, I am basing this on my experience with the Leica SL. The SL’s app and wifi integration was much cleaner, and there are too many cumbersome menus that aren’t well explained built into the Z7. Simplify this!

  4. Virtual Horizon Without the Whole Compass: I don’t understand why Nikon feels compelled to put this big compass thing (I know it’s not actually a compass, but I don’t know what else to call it) in the center of the frame with the virtual horizon line. Let me just have the line sans the extra stuff.

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Of course, I’ll also wish for some upgrades that are hardware, and that would have to wait for the next iteration of the camera before they could come to fruition. But it’s never too soon to ask! So here goes my initial list of requested future hardware upgrades:

  1. Built in GPS: Seriously, this technology has been super miniaturized, and it’s fun (and helpful) to see a map of all the photographs I’ve taken based on their geolocation metadata. No extra dongles, just put the GPS in body.

  2. A Slightly Taller Body: Nikon, I appreciate what you did to make this camera smaller and lighter than the D850; my camera bag appreciates it. However, the bottom of my pinky is just barely on the body, and it’d be nice to have a few extra millimeters to feel like my whole hand has a complete grip on the body.

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Must-Have Accessories: Pimp Your Z7

The dealer that sold you the camera would now love to convince you that you need to spend hundreds more in accessories to really get the most out of your camera. BS! But there are a few accessories I recommend for the Z7 to improve the experience:

  • Spare XQD cards

    • At the time of writing, the XQD format of card is still shockingly expensive, but that will change as more companies come to market. In the mean time, have one or two backup cards handy.

  • Spare batteries

    • You can use the EN-EL15A, EN-EL15B, or any of a number of 3rd party lenses. I think it’s worth paying a little more for the EN-EL15B battery, which allows for in-camera charging via USB.

  • Really Right Stuff L-Plate

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This is a living review; I will be updating it continuously in the coming weeks and months as I use the Z7 and can provide first-hand account and testimony of its performance. Until I have put the camera through its paces, I won’t be so irresponsible as to comment on every feature.

Exploring NYC, Part 3: Faces of the City

Over the last few years, I have taken an interest in a form of photography dubbed "street photography." Unlike other photographic disciplines with obvious sounding names (wedding photography / newborn photography), the name "street" does not convey a clear meaning of the art form.

Waiting for an opponent. Two people playing chess outside a park in Manhattan island. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Waiting for an opponent. Two people playing chess outside a park in Manhattan island. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Catching a ride. A young girl rides on her father's shoulders over the crowds of tourists visiting Rockefeller Center during the holidays.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Catching a ride. A young girl rides on her father's shoulders over the crowds of tourists visiting Rockefeller Center during the holidays.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Street photography might be more aptly dubbed "genuine photography" - the goal is to capture everyday scenes and interactions in a new and fresh way to highlight the beauty in our routine life.  When I am shooting the streets, I am looking for genuine interactions; faces, reactions, expressions, moods, and emotions that are genuine and not prompted by the presence of a camera.

Think about it.... when someone holds up a camera to your face, the first natural reaction is to smile and say cheese. But does that smile truly express your emotions and feelings in that moment? Unlikely.

I spy.  A woman looks out from her window on the busy New York streets below. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

I spy.  A woman looks out from her window on the busy New York streets below. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Selfie.  A woman dressed up in her finest fashion prepares her selfie in Times Square.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Selfie.  A woman dressed up in her finest fashion prepares her selfie in Times Square.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Crowd Control.  A NYPD officer directs traffic and keeps the crowds safe as thousands of holiday revelers descend on New York's most popular attractions. Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Crowd Control.  A NYPD officer directs traffic and keeps the crowds safe as thousands of holiday revelers descend on New York's most popular attractions. Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

As a street photographer, I want to capture the subject's emotions and state of being without having the camera enter the equation and effect the expression. In order to do that, I often need to be stealthy and discrete.

A large camera is off-putting. People don't want a stranger shoving a camera in their face. Which is why I use a Leica rangefinder (specifically, the M10) for my street shooting. The small and discrete nature of this camera lets me attract less attention, thereby increasing the odds of going unnoticed by my subject.

Coffee Jolt.  A kid carries two cups of coffee while walking with his parents around the 9/11 memorial.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Coffee Jolt.  A kid carries two cups of coffee while walking with his parents around the 9/11 memorial.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Eye.  A passenger looks out of the window on an express train to Wall Street.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Eye.  A passenger looks out of the window on an express train to Wall Street.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Philosophically, I want every picture I take to be a flattering one. I try to avoid any photograph that could embarrass or humiliate my subject. For instance, I don't photograph the homeless or disabled persons, with few exceptions. 

Ideally, when I am taking street photographs, I am invisible. The person never knows that I took their photograph, or if they do, they are not embarrassed. If someone sees me taking their photograph, I will smile and wave, showing that I'm not a threat. Sometimes I'll tell someone they were beautiful and interesting to me. Surprisingly, most people respond very well to this, and I have never had anyone get mad because I took their photograph.

BFFs.  Two women pose for a photograph in Times Square. I "plucked them out of a crowd" by using a longer focal length and narrow depth of field, thereby blurring the people around them and focusing the attention of the photograph solely on their faces.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

BFFs.  Two women pose for a photograph in Times Square. I "plucked them out of a crowd" by using a longer focal length and narrow depth of field, thereby blurring the people around them and focusing the attention of the photograph solely on their faces.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Stroll.  A man walks in front of the United Nations building. The harsh light and strong shadow became the sparkle that drew me to make this image.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Stroll.  A man walks in front of the United Nations building. The harsh light and strong shadow became the sparkle that drew me to make this image.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

As a photographer, I find street photography offers a unique challenge over some of the other photographic disciplines. When I am making landscape images, I often plan the photo, sometimes to a scientific extreme. But as a street shooter, I take whatever I get and roll with the punches.

If it is sunny outside, I have to work with that. If it's raining, I work with that. 

The impromptu and impulsive nature of this type of shooting means I often "follow my nose" - if the light looks particularly good one direction, I'll walk that way. I walked 14 miles in New York one day without having any real plan - I just wandered Manhattan looking for things that caught my eye.

I remain hyper aware of the location of the sun and will switch to another side of the street if the shadows and light is better there. My head is on a swivel, constantly looking for that sparkle.

Street Blown.  A woman's hair blows around in the wind caused by cars rushing past on the street nearby.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Street Blown.  A woman's hair blows around in the wind caused by cars rushing past on the street nearby.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A cyclist waits for the crosswalk sign to turn in his favor.  I was drawn to the fact that his face was covered, so the only place from where I could draw expression was his eyes, and he rewarded me with a very expressive moment.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A cyclist waits for the crosswalk sign to turn in his favor.  I was drawn to the fact that his face was covered, so the only place from where I could draw expression was his eyes, and he rewarded me with a very expressive moment.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

"Sparkle" - that is what I am looking for as I walk. Sparkle is the photograph. Sparkle is the emotion, the color, the contrast, the shadow, the expression...the thing that pushes me to take the photograph. 

As a street photographer, I am instinctive. When I see sparkle, I shoot. If I wait too long and think about it, I have lost that moment of sparkle. 

When someone looks at one of my images and comments "I never would have seen that" or "how did you catch that," I know they see the sparkle. They are looking at the print and see the sparkle that pushed me to create the image in the first place.

Lost.  This is one of the very rare exceptions I have ever made to my rule about not photographing the homeless. This particular gentleman had positioned himself in the middle of the sidewalk, forcing pedestrian traffic to divert around him and creating a bit of a traffic jam. I wanted to capture the reaction from other people to having to divert around him and the story of what his day must feel like as thousands of people pass him by.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Lost.  This is one of the very rare exceptions I have ever made to my rule about not photographing the homeless. This particular gentleman had positioned himself in the middle of the sidewalk, forcing pedestrian traffic to divert around him and creating a bit of a traffic jam. I wanted to capture the reaction from other people to having to divert around him and the story of what his day must feel like as thousands of people pass him by.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Smile.  A man smiles as he reads something on his cell phone while riding the subway in New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Smile.  A man smiles as he reads something on his cell phone while riding the subway in New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Street photography can also be about story telling. Not every image has a story, but sometimes the story is the sparkle. For instance, take this pro-Tibet rally I saw in New York. Thousands of people were marching across Manhattan to the site of the Chinese Consulate peacefully carrying signs and flags supporting Tibet. 

At one point, their march passes in front of the McDonald's restaurant near Times Square. I immediately saw a story, and began photographing that story.

I was moved at the juxtaposition of American consumerism and the protected right of speech. Here are some people peacefully exercising their First Amendment right to free speech in front of one of America's biggest corporations. To me, this captures the essence of what makes America an incredible country -- there are so many places in the world where this scene would not be allowed, and the combination of the two created an emotional sparkle.

Pro-Tibet rally participants march in front of one of America's icons of global consumerism.... McDonalds.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Pro-Tibet rally participants march in front of one of America's icons of global consumerism.... McDonalds.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

The pro-Tibet rally walked through Times Square demanding peace.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

The pro-Tibet rally walked through Times Square demanding peace.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Stage. Rally goers assembled for a speech near the Chinese consulate.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Stage. Rally goers assembled for a speech near the Chinese consulate.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Street photography often involves people, but there are some images I'll photograph without humans that still tell a human story. Usually, I try to convey human interaction with the environment in the non-people prints. These images may be more abstract and invoke the idea of people without clearly showing any in the scene. Sometimes they capture an irony or something so familiar that we stop noticing its existence. 

A Dinosaur.  A bank of pay phones that see very little use in Grand Central Terminal.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

A Dinosaur.  A bank of pay phones that see very little use in Grand Central Terminal.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Ready and Waiting.  A FDNY truck sits at the ready to respond to any incidents around the city.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Ready and Waiting.  A FDNY truck sits at the ready to respond to any incidents around the city.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

The Commute.  I purposefully blurred this image by jerking the camera in a violent pan as the taxi approached. The goal was to create a shot that captured the blur of commuting and traffic in a city as busy as New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Commute.  I purposefully blurred this image by jerking the camera in a violent pan as the taxi approached. The goal was to create a shot that captured the blur of commuting and traffic in a city as busy as New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Message.  A simple chair might not have had the sparkle to catch my eye, but this chair, with the "No Crying Allowed" message caught my eye.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Message.  A simple chair might not have had the sparkle to catch my eye, but this chair, with the "No Crying Allowed" message caught my eye.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

In some ways, everything I just described about street photography makes it sound like there is a good amount of "pray and spray"- but the art is anything other than. Pray and spray is a phrase used to describe what happens when I photographer just holds down the shutter and aims the camera recklessly in the hope of capturing a good shot.

Look carefully at my photographs and you'll see that isn't possible. Scroll down and look at the three images below (then come back).

Notice anything in them? Only the subject is in focus. Everything else has a smooth soft blur. That blur, which is referred to as bokeh (a Japanese word), is where the art comes into play. As a photographer, I drew your eyes to the subject- to a pre-determined spot - by precisely choosing what area of the print will be in focus. Don't believe me? Scroll down and look again.

Steps of Time.  Two friends take pictures on the staircase in Times Square. I loved the attire and face of the individual holding the cell phone, so focused the attention of the viewer that direction by having the rest of the image slightly out of focus.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Steps of Time.  Two friends take pictures on the staircase in Times Square. I loved the attire and face of the individual holding the cell phone, so focused the attention of the viewer that direction by having the rest of the image slightly out of focus.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Sharing a Snack.  A mom and son enjoy a Sunday morning snack at an indoor food hall in New York. The scene is very busy with elements that could distract from the story of the shared meal, but selective focus and bokeh help me isolate them and tell the story the way I want.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Sharing a Snack.  A mom and son enjoy a Sunday morning snack at an indoor food hall in New York. The scene is very busy with elements that could distract from the story of the shared meal, but selective focus and bokeh help me isolate them and tell the story the way I want.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The View.  A boy is carried on his dad's shoulders to see the holiday tree in Rockefeller Center.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The View.  A boy is carried on his dad's shoulders to see the holiday tree in Rockefeller Center.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Each of those photographs has a super thin area of the image in focus. Now consider that the camera I use is a manual focus system - there is nothing automated or automagic about it. If I do a poor job of quickly focusing the lens, then my photograph is missed. I usually get one chance - a split second - to turn the focus ring on my Leica lenses to capture that sparkle.

I won't lie - it's hard. I miss more than I catch. But the more I go out and shoot, the better I get. I have a lot of close misses - photographs I'd love another chance to take. But that's not how this works. 

In some ways, the thrill of getting it right is my drug.

I'm addicted to the elation that comes from seeing a perfectly focused shot with the story I wanted captured. That feeling drives me back to the streets, looking for my next fix.

Stormtrooper's Have to Eat.  This man was dressed in a Stormtrooper costume, but had stopped at a deli to get a snack.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Stormtrooper's Have to Eat.  This man was dressed in a Stormtrooper costume, but had stopped at a deli to get a snack.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A police officer waits patiently for the light to chance before she begins directing more traffic over the intersection. The harsh light and strong shadows gave this scene the sparkle I was looking for.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A police officer waits patiently for the light to chance before she begins directing more traffic over the intersection. The harsh light and strong shadows gave this scene the sparkle I was looking for.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Exploring NYC, Part 2: A Day in the Snow

Few things are as magical as a visit to New York City during the holidays, when stores put on extravagant displays, Santa is available for a visit, and holiday markets pop-up across the city. Add a fresh heavy snowfall into the equation, and you have a truly memorable winter wonderland in the city.

A New York City Police Officer prepares this police horse for a ride in the snow

A New York City Police Officer prepares this police horse for a ride in the snow

A couple seeks refuge underneath an umbrella during the snowfall

A couple seeks refuge underneath an umbrella during the snowfall

Photographing snow can be a bit of a challenge. Bad weather always makes for a great photograph, but it's not as easy as just stepping outside, taking a quick image, and having success. I walked over 10 miles in the heavy snow to get these images, and faced several technical challenges along the way.

Snowfall blankets a quiet New York City intersection

Snowfall blankets a quiet New York City intersection

A man strolls through the snow in Central Park

A man strolls through the snow in Central Park

First was the challenge of keeping the camera dry enough. The Leica M10 is technically not weather sealed, but it is pretty hardy. Unfortunately the temperature outside was just warm enough that the snow melted almost instantly when it made contact with my body and the camera, making my hands and the camera very wet (never mind that it also made me very cold!). After several hours, this caused the viewfinder to fog completely.

During periodic breaks indoors, I wrapped the camera in a dry shirt with the hopes that it would help dry out the camera's viewfinder. That worked to an extent, but the remaining moisture would condense anytime I subjected it to a temperature change stepping between the outdoors and indoors. 

A man emerges from the 14th street subway station

A man emerges from the 14th street subway station

Steam rising from street vents adds to the dramatic effect of the snowfall on this New York street

Steam rising from street vents adds to the dramatic effect of the snowfall on this New York street

Second to keeping the camera dry is the challenge of keeping the lens dry. I was far more successful in this endeavor because I kept the camera oriented in my hand so that the lens was either facing downward, or facing downwind of the snow. I never - EVER - use a lens cap when out taking photographs, and certainly was not about to miss a shot because I had covered the lens. 

Taxi cabs lined up on the streets of Times Square during a late evening snowfall

Taxi cabs lined up on the streets of Times Square during a late evening snowfall

A streetsign covered with snow outside Times Square

A streetsign covered with snow outside Times Square

Finally, capturing snow can be a challenge. In a close-up photograph, snow can appear like a blur, rather than a snowflake. The trick was for enough of those blur's to be present in the photograph that the viewer would understand it was not a mistake, but that it was a snowflake.

I don't know how much snow fell in New York on this particular day as it never accumulated beyond a slush on the streets, but it certainly made for a beautiful day of photography.

Two women - presumably en route to a holiday party - stop for food from a street vendor in the late evening snow

Two women - presumably en route to a holiday party - stop for food from a street vendor in the late evening snow

Exploring NYC, Part 1: World Trade Center

Like all Americans old enough to remember the events of 9/11/2001, I have a very vivid and raw memory of that morning. That day would come to define some of my life's most important decisions; would drive me to a career in public service and safety.

A flower in the memorial to the World Trade Center. The shadow of One World Trade casts across the memorial.

A flower in the memorial to the World Trade Center. The shadow of One World Trade casts across the memorial.

This photograph is very powerful to me. I was standing outside the museum and noticed a jetliner flying over One World Trade. My mind started racing with thoughts.... anywhere else in the world, seeing a plane fly over a building is so routine, that it hardly registers. But here, it seemed raw. This is a view similar to the one thousands saw on 9/11 - but with a very different outcome. I took four images of the plane's track over New York City and combined them in this composite. 

This photograph is very powerful to me. I was standing outside the museum and noticed a jetliner flying over One World Trade. My mind started racing with thoughts.... anywhere else in the world, seeing a plane fly over a building is so routine, that it hardly registers. But here, it seemed raw. This is a view similar to the one thousands saw on 9/11 - but with a very different outcome. I took four images of the plane's track over New York City and combined them in this composite. 

The 9/11 memorial and museum only opened in the past few years, and while I have seen the outdoor memorial ponds before, I never had a chance to visit the museum until this most recent trip to New York City. 

I was a bit conflicted about taking photographs in such hallowed ground.

Artists painted 3,000 cards a slightly different shade of blue - each one painting the color of the sky they remember seeing on 9/11. These cards now hang on a wall as a reminder that the memory of those lost on 9/11 cannot be erased.

Artists painted 3,000 cards a slightly different shade of blue - each one painting the color of the sky they remember seeing on 9/11. These cards now hang on a wall as a reminder that the memory of those lost on 9/11 cannot be erased.

September 11th isn't a tourist attraction. The artifacts and memories captured in this museum mark millions of lives changed in the span of a few terrible minutes. I don't want to disrespect the memory of the over 3,000 innocent people killed on that day by turning 9/11 into a photography spectacle. 

A visitor to the memorial paying tribute to some of the victims from 9/11.

A visitor to the memorial paying tribute to some of the victims from 9/11.

A message from supporters of Ladder Company 3; this was part of a fire truck that was smashed when the towers collapsed. 

A message from supporters of Ladder Company 3; this was part of a fire truck that was smashed when the towers collapsed. 

But after a few minutes in the museum, my opinion changed. September 11th was the most terrible of days, a day that we cannot forget. Walking through that museum reopened the emotions from that day that I had long since repressed. I was flooded with sobering memories of what happens when we become complacent and when freedom is not allowed to prosper around the world.

A section of steel from inside the World Trade Center. This particular piece came from the area where the first aircraft tore into the tower, gashing a hole in one of America's most iconic buildings.

A section of steel from inside the World Trade Center. This particular piece came from the area where the first aircraft tore into the tower, gashing a hole in one of America's most iconic buildings.

Names and organizations listed on the memorial wall surrounding the pools in the memorial.

Names and organizations listed on the memorial wall surrounding the pools in the memorial.

Recognizing that many viewers to my website will never have a chance to visit the museum in NYC, I decided to make a handful of photographs that could help convey the emotions and experience I had walking through the museum. 

Four tie-down points. The museum is underground and some of the foundation walls that made up the twin towers are incorporated into the structure of the museum. This part of the foundation remains in the original location. It is one of the few pieces of the towers that still remains as it did on September 11th.

Four tie-down points. The museum is underground and some of the foundation walls that made up the twin towers are incorporated into the structure of the museum. This part of the foundation remains in the original location. It is one of the few pieces of the towers that still remains as it did on September 11th.

Less than a block from the World Trade Center is a fire station home to ladder company 10. Six fireman from this company died rescuing others on 9/11.

Less than a block from the World Trade Center is a fire station home to ladder company 10. Six fireman from this company died rescuing others on 9/11.

I cried twice in the museum. Once while looking at / listening to a selection of voicemail messages left by passengers of those doomed flights to their loved ones. People who left a final message, knowing their fate. I crumbled under the idea of ever having to do something so brave. My second breakdown happened in front of a projection of "missing posters" hung by friends and family searching for their lost relatives. Many of these posters carried a deeply personal message, and my heart broke for every family that had to write a sign like that. One particular sign that pulled me was from a daughter looking for her daddy.

Memories attached to the "last column" - this was the last piece of steel removed from the site. Prior to it's removal, it became a shrine of sorts, with family and friends affixing messages, photos, and flowers to the beam.

Memories attached to the "last column" - this was the last piece of steel removed from the site. Prior to it's removal, it became a shrine of sorts, with family and friends affixing messages, photos, and flowers to the beam.

The top of the last column, with messages and photos to loved ones lost on 9/11.

The top of the last column, with messages and photos to loved ones lost on 9/11.

I could not photograph these things. I could not bring myself to make artwork from the pain of those families. Instead, I chose to photograph objects that were more symbolic of the tragedy.

May we never forget. 

A close-up of some of the memories written upon the "last column".

A close-up of some of the memories written upon the "last column".

Getting Sharp: The Importance of Calibration

You have spent hundreds (thousands) of dollars on camera gear, but are you really getting the best image possible with that lens and camera combination? Do you read reviews about sharp lenses, only to find your photographs never look as impressive as the ones you see online? If you have never calibrated your lenses, then there is a good chance that you are loosing the opportunity to get sharp images.

For instance, see the following photo of a bee pollinating this flower (click to enlarge):

A bee on a flower in an indoor garden in Pennsylvania. Shot with a Nikon D850 + Nikon 200mm f/4 micro lens that was calibrated with the camera.

What is Calibration? Do I Need to Calibrate?

If you have a dSLR camera with autofocus lenses, then you need to calibrate. It does not matter if your camera is only a day old - calibration is not a factor of camera age. Very simply, because your camera and lenses were not manufactured together, there is a slight error that almost certainly exists as the camera and lens communicate in the autofocus mechanism. This error varies lens-to-lens, but exists in virtually every single lens.

The result is that the camera and lens think they have achieved focus, but the resulting images will be out of focus when you look at it later. This is a byproduct of how light is bent around the mirror and prism in the dSLR body, with a different piece of light routed to a focusing element.

Unfortunately, this error probably exists in every lens you own.... even if you have one lens that is perfect, another could be off by a huge factor. So you need to calibrate each lens with each camera individually.

Examples of Calibrated vs Non-calibrated Lens

To help illustrate this, lets look at two photographs I took in a nearby forest. These aren't the best photographs ever in terms of composition, but they do a fine job illustrating the importance of calibration. These photos were taken with the Nikon D850 and Sigma 85mm f/1.4 art lens. The Sigma 85mm lens is considered the sharpest lens ever tested by DxO Labs, so the photos taken with it should blow my mind, right?

The following images shot at f/1.4 with the focus on the scar on the tree bark:

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Notice a difference between the image on the left vs right? The one on the left hardly seems sharp.... especially since it supposedly came from the sharpest lens ever tested?! I took several shots and can confirm they all looked like this - clearly out of focus on the area where I was aiming.

Now let's look at the rightimage, with the lens calibration programed into the camera. For this particular lens, the calibration factor was +20. The result here is clearly better. The bark is nice and sharp, with lots of detail. This looks more like the performance from the sharpest lens ever tested....

Here is one more view, side by side, of the two images cropped in on the focus area.

The non-calibrated image

The non-calibrated image

With lens calibration activated

With lens calibration activated

Bottom line: As you can see from the above images, calibration has a huge impact on the sharpness of your photos. And if you are shelling out the big bucks for camera and lenses, then you should be prepared to spend another $100(ish) to calibrate them.

Lens Align & Focus Tune

The Lens Align target. It is best arranged with a neutral background. I used a cheap $8 tripod to hold the Lens Align.

Without question, the top product on the market for calibrating your own lenses is the Lens Align Focus Calibration System and Focus Tune Software. Designed by Michael Tapes, it's easiest and recommended to buy both products together as you will get the best results by using both.

Lens Align

The Lens Align Focus Calibration System is a set of precision manufactured targets that you use to measure optimal sharpness and identify front/back focus alignment issues. The target includes a vertical front panel of calibration targets and a horizontal "ruler" with geometric designs that the Focus Tune software can read. While it's possible to buy and use the Lens Align without Focus Tune, it really doesn't make much sense.

Focus Tune

The Focus Tune software accompanies the Lens Align, and you really can't use the software without the target. The software will help evaluate the sharpness of each image and will measure the front/back focus, helping you identify the best focus adjustment for the lens.

Basic Calibration How-To

For starters, you need to have the Lens Align target, a good tripod for your camera, a cheap tripod for your Lens Align target, and - ideally - the Focus Tune software. You also need to make sure your camera will permit lens calibration / lens alignment adjustments. 

A comprehensive set of instructions is found in this YouTube video - the below directions are designed to give a basic overview of using the system.

The Focus Tune software with all of the images imported and the neon green target set.

  1. Setup your camera, lens to be adjusted, and Lens Align. Use a tripod for the camera and Lens Align. A cheap tripod works best for the target, while you need a sturdy tripod for the camera.

  2. Align the camera and target according to the specifications of the lens (see instructions).

  3. Set the camera to JPEG fine, low ISO (400 or below), and the maximum aperture of the lens (f/1.4, f/2,8, etc)

  4. Shoot a series of five images at the following focus tune adjustments: -20, -15, -10, -5, 0, 5, 10, 15, 20. Defocus the lens between each shot so that the camera has to refocus.

  5. Use Focus Tune to find the cluster of images that is sharpest, then shoot another set of images to refine the setting. For instance, if the sharpest images appeared around 10-15, shoot another series of fives images at adjustment value 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15.

  6. Use Focus Tune to find the sharpest images and identify the value for that particular lens.

  7. Although the camera should remember each setting for the lens in the internal memory, it's a good idea to write them down

  8. Rinse and repeat with each lens!

Sounds easy enough - and it really is! Taking 30 minutes to watch the video instructions will equip you with all the details for the process, but it is really straight forward. Once I knew what I was doing, it took no more than 20 minutes per lens to complete.

But what about zoom lenses? Personally, I calibrated a zoom lens at the focal lengths that will get the most use. For instance, I calibrated my 24-70mm lens at 50mm. A quick test showed that the setting identified for 50mm was also good for other focal lengths. Likewise, if you are using a teleconverter, you should calibrate the lens with and without the teleconverter as you may get different values for each. 

Refining Focus with Focus Tune

A screenshot of the output from the Focus Tune software. The graphic depicts that most of the shots have a front focus issue, but that the last cluster of images are very close to accurate on the sharpness. After additional refinement, it was determined an adjustment of +20 was best for this particular lens.

A screenshot of the output from the Focus Tune software. The graphic depicts that most of the shots have a front focus issue, but that the last cluster of images are very close to accurate on the sharpness. After additional refinement, it was determined an adjustment of +20 was best for this particular lens.

The Focus Tune software really is pretty incredible, and a good buy for anyone calibrating their lenses. In a matter of a few clicks, the software will read each image, evaluate it for sharpness and front/back focus, then will generate a chart and table with focus values. The ideal is to get focus values close to 0. Negative numbers denote front focus, while positive numbers are back focus. 

Looking at the graph on the right, we can see that I had the Nikon D850 setup with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 lens. The clusters I imaged were all front focused, and badly so (as you noticed from the earlier tree bark photos). 

Only the last cluster of images (shot with a focus adjustment of +20 in camera), were remotely close to in focus. 

It takes a little trial and error with testing different values, but Focus Tune does a great job of helping you jump directly to the best results so that you can find the optimum value for each lens. 

Don't be intimidated if you aren't a math major - Michael Tapes makes some great how-to videos to orient you to the whole process.

Focus Tune will show you the sharpest images and overlays a red mask on the calibration ruler, allowing you to see where the precise focus area lies.

Focus Tune will show you the sharpest images and overlays a red mask on the calibration ruler, allowing you to see where the precise focus area lies.

Finalizing the Calibration

Once you have completed the whole process, you will have values ranging between -20 and +20 that represent the lens calibration that needs to be dialed into your particular camera. I would also recommend writing these values down, because they could drift over time, and it is good to know where you started.

Applying the calibrated lens values for my Nikon 70-200mm lens in my D850.

Applying the calibrated lens values for my Nikon 70-200mm lens in my D850.

For reference, these are the values that each of my lenses needed. What you'll see is that every lens required some adjustment - which is why calibration is so important.

  • Nikon 14-24mm: +1

  • Nikon 24-70mm: +14

  • Nikon 70-200mm: +12

  • Nikon 70-200mm w/1.4 Tele: +8

  • Nikon 300mm: +6

  • Nikon 300mm w/1.4 Tele: +6

  • Sigma 85mm Art: +20

In closing, I hope this blog has helped you understand what lens calibration is, why it is so important, and provided a brief introduction into the process. 

The super detail - eyes, pollen, and little hairs - are only possible from an accurately calibrated lens.

The super detail - eyes, pollen, and little hairs - are only possible from an accurately calibrated lens.

Why I am Divorcing the Leica SL... It Was a Fun Fling!

It is official. The paperwork has been filed. As of last week, I became the owner of a Nikon D850, and my divorce with the Leica SL is complete.

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By my estimation, I shot roughly 20,000 images with the Leica SL during our relationship - so it was certainly a serious relationship, but one that cannot continue. 

There were three major driving reasons behind my decision to ditch Leica and return to Nikon:

Issues Surrounding Durability and Reliability

As I have previously chronicled, I have had several service and reliability issues with my Leica cameras. The most recent one, which caused my Leica SL 24-90mm lens to suffer a fatal failure during a trip to Yellowstone National Park soured me permanently.

I understand no camera is immune from breakages, but the failure rate I encountered with my Leica gear far surpassed any issues from any other company. As a professional, I cannot tolerate that level of performance.

Compounding the service issue is the length of time needed for service to be performed. In the case of my SL and lens - they left for the factory in Germany nearly 6 weeks ago, but by Leica's estimation, I probably won't get them back from repair until early 2018. I cannot be without a camera for 4 months - particularly not one that costs as much as the SL.

Lack of New Leica SL Lenses

I was an early adopter of the SL, which carries some risks. One of those risks was that Leica would not release additional lenses for the system with the frequency needed to support the development of the SL line. 

By my analysis, that risk became reality. Leica is woefully behind the curve on the SL lens releases.

I recently met a gentleman who had been part of a Leica SL focus group sponsored by Leica. He signed a non-disclosure agreement with Leica, so he couldn't share the details of his conversation, but the gist was that Leica was trying to find their way with the future of the SL line. It was also suggested that some of the invitees Leica brought to this focus group were people who didn't use this camera all that often. In other words, Leica is seeking advice on how to sustain the system from people who aren't frequent users - that isn't a recipe for success.

The Market Beat the Leica SL

Leica has a long production schedule, but they didn't move fast enough to stay ahead of the industry, and they are being usurped. Nikon is probably releasing a full frame mirrorless camera with a high resolution (~50 megapixel) sensor in the next year...and they just released a D850 that has received mind-blowing reviews.

Using companies like DXOmark, which conducts laboratory testing of sensors, I evaluated my Leica SL to the Nikon D850. In these results, it is clear that the D850 totally surpasses the Leica SL, offering several stops more dynamic range, better ISO performance, and more lens options at a fraction of the price.

Sensor testing by DXO Labs shows the superior dynamics range of the Nikon D850

Sensor testing by DXO Labs shows the superior dynamics range of the Nikon D850

For a small company like Leica to have been successful with the SL, they needed to stay very engaged with their customers and needed to continue to produce lenses and upgrades to keep me interested. They squandered that opportunity. Instead, Leica has focused on their M line, which is probably a better business decision for them.

Now what?

Photography is about so much more than the gear and equipment. But the gear and equipment play an important role in photography.

For instance, I love macro photography, but had not shot any macro work since becoming an SL owner. Why? Because the equipment needed to shoot macro photographs was either unavailable, too expensive, or a combination thereof. I don't want a camera to dictate the types of images I can or cannot make - I want to explore my creative whims! A system that is more mature and offers more flexibility is better for the type of images I want to create.

With the release of the D850, I have decided to return to Nikon. Those people who visit my website and admire my work probably won't notice the change; good photographers can make a great image with any camera. 

Five Things To Know Before Buying the D850

The internet is ablaze with excitement over the Nikon D850; dealers cannot keep them in stock and incredible reviews are fueling a buying craze that has the camera industry in a whirl.

But before you pull out your credit card, there are five things you should know before buying a D850….

1.       A great sensor is only as good as the glass in front of it

I see this on the internet all the time - a photographer attributes too much value to the camera and disproportionately invests in cameras vs lenses. For instance, I recently met a photographer at a trade show who had a D850 and was looking to purchase an 18-400mm all-in-one zoom lens for his camera. The lenses he was looking at were sub-par quality, slow, and not of the same caliber as the D850. Yet he was confused why his photos were not as sharp as others on the internet.

I would recommend having twice as much money invested in lenses as you have in a camera body; the lenses will outlast your camera and a poor lens will only degrade the quality of the image. 

Nikon publishes a list of recommended lenses for the D850. Of course they only recommend Nikon brand lenses, but if you study the list closely, you'll notice they are suggesting lenses with the quality needed to take advantage of the resolving power of the D850. There are no cheap all-in-one lenses on that list for a reason.

Personally, I will be using the following lenses with my D850 in order to maximize the quality of images this camera can make:

  • Nikon Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 G ED IF AF-S
  • Nikon Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 G ED IF AF-S
  • Nikon Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 G ED VR II
  • Nikon Nikkor 300mm f/4 E PF ED VR N AF-S
  • Nikon Nikkor 200mm f/4 D Micro ED IF
  • Canon 400mm f/2.8 FD L * (Modified to Nikon mount)
  • Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art for Nikon

If your wallet can't stomach the idea of buying all of these lenses, I'd recommend looking at buying used lenses from KEH. Buy good glass - even if it's used!

The Nikon 300mm f/4 lens - this thing is an incredible travel telephoto lens

The Nikon 300mm f/4 lens - this thing is an incredible travel telephoto lens

2.       You most likely need to buy a lot of new memory cards

The XQD memory card format used in the D850 is not extremely common - and while you might have a pile of SD memory cards laying around, it might be time to invest in new memory cards. Again, this is an area where quality matters. A cheap memory card won't have the same write speeds as a quality card, which again impacts the performance of the camera. As of late October 2017, a 128GB quality card cost around $200 each, and holds approximately 1,000 RAW images. Be prepared to drop a few hundred more dollars on cards (and a card reader)!

The D850 eats memory cards for breakfast with huge 50MB RAW files! Be prepared to shell out some serious cash to feed this monster.

The D850 eats memory cards for breakfast with huge 50MB RAW files! Be prepared to shell out some serious cash to feed this monster.

3.       You probably need to calibrate your lenses

Have you ever calibrated a camera lens? Do you even know what that means?

Let's say you buy a D850 and mount your old Nikon 24-70mm lens to it. That specific combination of lens and camera were not calibrated by Nikon at the factory, so it's possible there is a minor error in the focusing. If that is the case, then the area you focus on won't be as sharp as it could be...defeating the value of the high resolution sensor.

I have been calibrating all of my lenses to the D850 and would say it is more essential with the extra resolution of the D850 than it might be with other bodies. In some cases, my lenses were seriously mis-calibrated and would have given me flat and less-sharp results. If you want to take advantage of every pixel, then you'll want each image to be as clear and sharp as possible! 

A calibration kit with software costs approximately $125.

Calibrating my lenses for optimum autofocus performance with LensAlign and FocusTune

Calibrating my lenses for optimum autofocus performance with LensAlign and FocusTune

4.       If you want a D850, order from a local dealer

The wait list with major companies is months long, but a local smaller dealer will probably be able to get a camera faster. I was able to get my D850 within 3 weeks of joining a waitlist, and had two dealers get one in stock at the same time.

In other words, if you want to see a D850 this year, order locally.

I got my D850 much faster by joining pre-order lists from several local dealers

I got my D850 much faster by joining pre-order lists from several local dealers

5.       Nikon will probably introduce a mirrorless full frame camera with the same sensor within a year

All of the rumors point to Nikon releasing a full frame mirrorless camera with the same high resolution D850 sensor within the next year. While we don't know much about this camera, if mirrorless appeals to you, then it might be worth waiting. There are no guarantees with these rumors, but I think the assessment is accurate. Before you drop $3k on a new camera, make sure you're not going to suffer buyers remorse in a few months!

Leica SL: The Mystery of the Lost Lenses?

When the Leica SL hit the market in October 2015, it caused a whirlwind of excitement. Here was the mirrorless full frame camera system that professional photographers had long awaited. I visited the Leica Store in Mayfair (London) and played with the demo unit. I was instantly hooked and placed my name on a wait list. On that day, I broke from years of Nikon shooting and transitioned to Leica, believing it was the future.

Today, nearly two years to the day since the SL was released, I am not so sure. While I've had a remarkable experience shooting the Leica SL, there is one major area where the SL lags behind the competition, and where my patience has nearly run dry....lenses.

At launch, Leica only had one lens for the SL system - the 24-90mm lens - and promised two additional lenses would follow shortly (a 50mm prime and 90-280mm telephoto). To offset this lack of lenses, Leica also touted how the SL was versatile in it's ability to use lenses from Leica's other lines - including the M and S lenses - when paired with an adaptor. Leica seemed to realize that no one was going to buy a camera system with only one lens option and was trying very hard to cater to photographers by offering cross-system compatibility. While that's all fine and good, using other lenses comes with some disadvantages - most notably the lack of weather sealing and auto focus. For a landscape photographer that is regularly shooting in poor weather, this was a point of concern, although I have used the adaptability in my SL setup.

A year after launch, Leica had come through on the promised lens releases and all was well in SL-land. Three SL system lenses were available, and they had more on the way. 2017 promised to bring the release of four additional system lenses, including a 35mm, 75mm, and 90mm prime lens, along with the 16-35mm wide angle that landscape photographers lusted to own (hint hint.... that'd be me).

Leica SL System Lens Roadmap, as of September 2016

Leica SL System Lens Roadmap, as of September 2016

Quietly, something happened. Lenses stopped showing up. According to the roadmap above, by October 2017, we should have at least two more lenses available, with two more coming any day now. Instead, Leica silently pushed off the release date of these lenses. Now only one lens, the 75mm f/2 ASPH, is slated to arrive in 2017 (maybe? still no word on it), with the other three lenses listed as "coming soon" or "spring 2018."

Could Leica really go a full calendar year without releasing any new lenses for the SL? (The 50mm was released in December 2016, so we won't have to wait long to find out!)

Would anyone really think that's a sign of a healthy camera system?

The rational side of me argues that Leica is trying really hard to produce quality lenses for the SL system, which is why they have been slower in the release schedule. They want only the best lenses on the market, and are busy perfecting them..... right?

Then I open my inbox this morning and see this:

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Seriously? Instead of announcing or releasing lenses for the SL system, it seems the engineers in the glass department of Leica have been on a craze to re-release old 1930s lenses. This is a slap in the face to all of the people who invested in the SL system early. Leica has prioritized these money-grab lenses - collectors pieces for people who will never shoot the lens - over lenses for people who actually want to make photographs.

Fuming over the announcement of a 1930's lens re-release, I decided to stage an armchair war and look up other manufacturers and their lens release schedule for new systems. I compared four other systems - the Fuji GFX 50s, Hasselblad X1D, Sony Alpha A7r, and Pentax 645z. 

What I quickly found is that Leica is behind the curve. The Hasselblad X1D, which is a natural competitor to the SL, only has 4 lenses currently on the market, but it also has been available for 440 days, compared to 750 days for the SL.

Shockingly, Fuji has rocked the market by having six lenses available for it's new medium format system less than a year after launch! Here's a table showing my results:

A comparison of camera systems by release date and current lens availability. In every metric, the SL system is behind the competition. It's worth noting that Sony already had some lenses on the market when they released the Alpha A7r, but they have continued to release new lenses on a somewhat routine schedule. 

A comparison of camera systems by release date and current lens availability. In every metric, the SL system is behind the competition. It's worth noting that Sony already had some lenses on the market when they released the Alpha A7r, but they have continued to release new lenses on a somewhat routine schedule. 

Lack of lenses isn't the only problem facing the SL community - price, speed, and size are also major factors. The SL lenses are massive, and while they may deliver great performance, in an era where competitors are releasing significantly smaller lenses, it's hard to get excited to haul around big glass. The lack of motivation to drag a heavy lens also stems from the fact that these lenses are surprisingly slow; both the 24-90mm and 90-280mm lenses have variable apertures ranging from f/2.8-f/4. Coming from a company that has released f/0.95 lenses, I would expect to see these big heavy (and expensive) lenses maintain at least an aperture of f/2.8 through the zoom range. Finally, we have the price. These lenses are eye-watering expensive, even by Leica standards. 

In an effort to keep the SL relevant in the mind of prospective buyers, Leica recently slashed the price of the camera system. In my mind, this was a sign of bad things....companies only slash prices of a camera when it is doing poorly in sales or about to be replaced. There are no rumors of a "SL2" system hitting the market anytime soon, which suggests to me that current sales are poor, particularly compared to the M10 release. With the new price adjustments, the SL sells for $500 less than the old Leica M240 ($5,995 vs $6,595). In what economic universe does a camera made in 2013 sell for $500 more than a camera made in 2015 with more features? 

I will pause here to say I am not Leica bashing--- I LOVE my M240 and the Leica M system. I just think Leica has stumbled with the release of the SL system, and barring a dramatic turn-around, I would not be surprised if Leica refocused back to the systems that have been very successful. 

Leica does not release sales figures to the public, so we're left to speculate. Price slashes.... delayed lens releases.... a clear focus on producing collectors pieces and historical re-releases.... behind-the-market performance in delivering new options. Are these signs of a healthy system?

Why would anyone buy an SL now? What consumer is looking at the limited options for organic system lenses and is excited by the offerings? And with competitors offering systems with more lenses, more capabilities, and better specs at a lower price, Leica risks loosing adopters of the SL system to newer cameras. 

Personally, I believe the slow release of lenses may be the doom of this system. For the price of joining the Leica SL club, one could easily invest in a 50 megapixel medium format camera (Hasselblad X1D). I have been insanely frustrated by the slow release schedule of the SL lenses - so much so that, combined with recent issues with my gear - I'm considering jumping ship and heading for pastures that have proven to be a bit more reliable in past years. 

What do you think? Am I being too harsh? Or is the Leica SL still a worthy buy?

Long Lens Shooting with the Leica SL

The Leica SL was clearly designed with outdoor, nature, landscape and travel photographers in mind; the abundant weather sealing, GPS. and high-speed shooting were not put into the camera for studio photographers. 

As a landscape photographer, I routinely have use for a telephoto lens. So today I'll discuss the long lens setup I use with the Leica SL.

Using the vehicle as a blind while shooting in Grand Teton

Using the vehicle as a blind while shooting in Grand Teton

For starters, I do not own the Leica 90-280mm lens made for the SL system, much as I would like to. The reason for this is multi-fold:

  1. The Leica 90-280mm, while well made, is overpriced at $6,400. Every other camera manufacturer has a similar telephoto lens offering (normally in the 70-200mm range), and those lenses generally retail for $3,000 or less, with plenty of used options coming in around $1,500.
  2. Competitor lenses, which are already less than half the price, also are faster. The Leica lens only musters f/4 at full zoom, while the Nikon and Canon counterparts are f/2.8 through the entire focal length of the lens. 
  3. In Canon-land, you could buy a 400mm f/4 lens for the same price as the 90-280mm from Leica. In Nikon-land, that same money would buy you a 600mm f/4 lens and still have $2k leftover to spend on a trip! The reality is that for the money they are charging, this lens needs to either be as fast (or faster) as the competition, or it needs to have more range.
  4. The 280mm focal length is just at the short end of what most wildlife photographers would consider a reasonable starting point for their lenses. Most wildlife shooters will carry a 400mm or longer lens.
Bull elk in Yellowstone. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 with 2x teleconverter. 

Bull elk in Yellowstone. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 with 2x teleconverter. 

As it stands currently (October 2017), I am pretty miffed with the rate at which Leica has released lenses for the SL system. Three lens offerings in the two years since the camera was released is weak. Nothing wider than 24mm is weak.

Instead of making a 50mm prime for the SL, Leica should have expedited the production of the 16-35mm lens. There a number of 50mm lenses available on the market for Leica M mount is incredible, so there wasn't a dire need to release that lens first....but that's beyond our discussion here.

Frustrated that I have been left to jerry-rig a long lens solution together, I turned to a manufacturer who knows a lot about how to make great long glass....Canon. For decades, Canon has been a leader in the long lens market, and there are thousands of used lenses to select from. 

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I happened to find myself a very old 400mm f/2.8 bazooka of a lens, and had it modified to accept a Leica R mount. I call this lens a bazooka because it has to weigh upwards of 25lbs! There is no autofocus or image stabilization - it's just a big, old, and solid piece of glass. Because it lacks some of the more modern touches, the Canon 400mm f/2.8 bazooka was pretty affordable - I paid around $800 for the lens with conversion. 

Unfortunately, because it is a bazooka, it's not terribly portable, and I need to have a hefty tripod solution to use it. But that is okay - with the sack of cash saved by opting for this lens, I was able to afford a nice Wimberly head for my tripod to resolve that issue.

You lookin' at me? Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8

You lookin' at me? Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8

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The nice thing is that this lens is extremely sharp, and the EVF of the Leica SL makes it easy to manually focus and track a moving subject. I have now used this lens in Yellowstone for a number of wildlife images, and also used it to shoot the 2017 solar eclipse. In both applications, the lens has done a wonderful job resolving details. And when 400mm isn't enough, I also have a Leica R mount 2x teleconverter that makes the lens an 800mm f/4 lens. Not too shabby!

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As you can see from the snapshot of images included, the Canon 400mm f/2.8 renders beautifully and is incredibly sharp. When supported properly, I am very impressed by the sharpness that can be achieved at f/2.8. I have used the lens for a few landscape images as well, and am very pleased with the results - I don't know if it's good as the 90-280mm lens, but at the price, the results are spectacular. Remember, this isn't a cheap $800 lens -- this lens used to cost $10k, but since it is a few generations old, the lens price has dropped significantly while the quality remains unchanged.

Pronghorn in the snow. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens

Pronghorn in the snow. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens

Two young deer graze in Grand Teton National Park.

Two young deer graze in Grand Teton National Park.

Have you adopted another long lens for your Leica SL? Or did you purchase the Leica 90-280mm lens? Leave me a comment and let me know how you solved this problem!

The Day the Leica SL Failed Me....

The day I hoped would never arrive has, unfortunately, come. The day all photographers hope to avoid. The day their gear fails them.

My experience came a few days ago in Yellowstone National Park - an area with very sparse cellular signal and no camera shops (much less Leica dealers!). Stranded in the middle of a National Park, hundreds of miles from the closest camera shop (800 miles from the closest Leica shop), and on assignment, is no place to encounter a major fault with your gear.

As I have previously discussed, I am a big fan of the Leica SL as a landscape photography camera, although it does have a few faults (durability, LENR issues). But this issue was a major blow to my trust of this camera, and it will take some intense therapy for me to rebuild a relationship of trust with my SL after this experience.

So what happened?

One morning mid-trip, I went out to one of the smaller geyser basins to capture some early morning images of the snow falling over the geothermal landscape. On my way out to my shooting location, I took a few side-shots and everything was working fine. It had been all trip - I was approximately 2,000 images into the project without a glitch. Then it happened.

I zoomed the Leica SL Vario-Elmarit 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH lens to 90mm to compose my photograph, and the lens jammed. For no explainable reason, the lens just stopped zooming, stuck at 90mm. It was never dropped, it just stopped.

I wiggled the zoom ring on the lens and could feel a grinding resistance. It felt like the teeth that control the gearing of the zoom had seized upon themselves, and even with moderate force, there was no movement. Of course I did not want to force the zoom, and since we were not far from the car, we walked back to sit down and inspect the camera.

Inside our vehicle, I removed the lens from the SL body and set the body aside. I then filmed this short video clip as I tried to wiggle the zoom ring:

As you can see, there is very little movement in the zoom ring as I try to rotate it, and the force I was exerting on the lens was about the maximum I was comfortable with.

I was pissed. Up to this point, the SL lens had been very dependable, and normally it is electronics that are more prone to breaking and failures (not to say a lens can't, just not as common). I essentially had a massive and heavy 90mm f/4 prime lens - and while the autofocus still worked, that was about all the lens had going for it. 

The diverse focal lengths covered by the 24-90mm lens makes it my go-to, so the next option available to me was the 16-18-21 Tri-Elmar. There is a LOT of range in focal lengths between 21mm and 90mm.... couldn't the lens jam someplace more useful, like 35mm?!

Frustrated, swearing, and feeling drained of all creativity as my head throbbed with anger at the lens, we went back out to shoot, but I struggled to compose anything of value with the lens. Here I am, working - trying to create images and content that I can sell to pay for these expensive Leica lenses, and the damn thing fails me.

Using the Leica Vario-Elmar 24-90mm lens as a 90mm zoom once it had jammed.....

Some time later, the lens spontaneously retracted back to 24mm; I had my hand applying a light pressure to the front of the lens as I rotated the variable polarizing filter, and slowly felt the lens retracting back toward 24mm. Go figure. For no more reason than the jamming of the lens, it was unjammed.

Feeling daring, I rotated the zoom ring a few times. Clearly all was not well; I felt a stiff resistance in the ring and could hear it blowing air as it zoomed in and out.

For the remainder of the project, the lens "worked" in sub-ideal conditions. At times it would jam (sometimes at other focal lengths), and then it would un-jam just as quickly. Of note, my sensor was covered with dust very quickly, which leads to my un-official suspicion as to the root of the issue.

100lbs heavier and 20 years older.... this Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens may be a beast, but it worked flawlessly with my Leica SL, despite being far less sophisticated.

While I'm not a certified camera technician, I am suspicious that one of the weather sealing o-rings in the lens jammed in one of the gears, causing the jamming. The reason I can hear so much air, feel resistance and have all the dust in my sensor, I suspect is the result of one of those rings becoming displaced, allowing air to be sucked in volume through the lens and into the camera body. When I dropped off the camera with the Leica Store in DC for service, I mentioned the dust being blown into the camera at astonishing speed; the salesperson removed the lens to look at the sensor and nearly gagged with the dust storm present.

I have dropped the camera off with Leica for a trip to Germany, and I hope Leica makes right on this situation by repairing everything under warranty. 

However, this incident has shook my confidence in the Leica SL. I owned Nikon equipment for five years and handled it / used it in the same conditions as my SL. In those five years, I never had a failure. The only issue came at my own hands, when I dropped my Nikon 24-70mm lens on cement. While it didn't break the glass, the zoom mechanism was a little stiff (although it still worked!). 

In two and a half years of full-time Leica use, this will be the THIRD time a piece of Leica equipment has had to take a trip to Germany for a warranty repair that is not the result of user issue. 

Sure, Nikon's / Canon's / Sony's / etc can fail too. But the ratio of Leica failures to Nikon failures is starting to pile up, and my patience for a Leica failure is slimmer given the price of admission. I expect a $600 off-brand, made in China, plastic without weather sealing camera lens to fail. I don't expect a $5,000 camera lens assembled by Germans in white lab coats to fail. 

I understand things can and will break, and I appreciate that Leica's are not immune to failures. But the frequency with which my gear keeps going to Germany for failures ... (1) defective glass on my M240, (2) a sensor issue in my M240 and (3) now this....either makes me the most unlucky person in the Leica universe, or this equipment isn't built to handle the stressors of heavy-duty professional use. 

How did I manage to infuriate the Leica Gods? Why do they damn me with misfortune?!

How did I manage to infuriate the Leica Gods? Why do they damn me with misfortune?!

My local Leica Store (Washington, DC), is convinced I may have one of the most heavily used SL's out there - and given the cosmetic condition of the camera, I'd be inclined to agree. But there are plenty of Nikon / Canon shooters who use their cameras more than I do and do not have the same volume of issues. I never had an issue with those brands..... and this is the point where I start to wonder if it's me or the camera. 

I'm not giving up or throwing in the towel. What happens once the camera comes back from Germany will go a long way in determining my future with this system. I love the camera, I love the Leica lenses, I love the files they produce, but I dread thinking about what piece of gear will be next to take a trip to Germany. And since I don't own a thriving money tree, it's hard to swallow the Leica price tag with the repeated reliability issues I'm having....

Anyone else encounter issues with the reliability of their Leica SL?

Update (Dec 2017): My Leica SL came back from it's spa treatment in Germany working just as well as it was the first day I used the camera. I was charged a minimal fee for the service, but the repairs were covered under warranty. Glad to be re-united! 

 

Ten Years of Photography: What I Wish I Knew When....

I don't remember the exact day in 2007 when I decided I was going to re-kindle my love of photography in a more serious pursuit, but it was sometime in the fall. My mom bought me a basic Canon Rebel dSLR with 18-55mm kit lens to help me focus on my photography, and that moment started a chain reaction that has led me to where I am today.

To be fair, I don't know if my mom remembers buying me that camera. But I remember walking out of the Best Buy store full of anticipation for the things I could do with my new "professional" camera. It's like that feeling we got as kids when you got a new box of crayons. You touched the perfectly pointed wax tips of each crayon and dreamed about the wonderful drawings you could make with them.....

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To mark the 10 year anniversary since that fateful day, I am going to share 10 things I wish I knew 10 years ago - 10 things that would have made the journey of the last 10 years a little less painful, expensive, and more fun!

  1. Take Ken Rockwell With a Grain of Salt. I have nothing against Ken personally - he's found a great following with his reviews, but he is not some kind of messiah. I am shocked how many people I see on the internet cite him as the definitive source on all things photography. But look at his work - he mostly takes pictures of his kids. Unless you are looking to also buy gear for kid photos, think about that as you read his reviews. You wouldn't listen to the advice of a skydiver when buying SCUBA gear, so why listen to the advice of a kid photographer when buying landscape photography equipment? Again, nothing against Ken, because he has some good information on his site, just recognize he's a talented marketer who has a niche, and if his niche isn't your niche, then take that into consideration.
     
  2. Lenses Matter More than Cameras. With all the camera reviews out there, it's easy to think that a camera is more important than the glass, but nothing is further from the truth. I did not appreciate this truth until I started buying nice lenses (and I'm not talking just about my Leica lenses here, there's a big difference between a good Nikon and a cheap Nikon lens). A camera will be out of date in technology in two years, but some of the best lenses I own are from 1985! Buy good glass.
     
  3. It is Better to Have Less Good Gear than More Gear. I think back to some of the crap I have purchased and it hurts my soul and wallet. You really only need a camera, a lens, and a memory card. You don't need a UV filter. You don't need that dongle that makes your camera connect to your iPhone. You don't need a magnifying screen for your back LCD screen. That's all just crap to help make someone rich, but won't make you a better photographer. You know what will? Practice. For every $10 you spend on gear, spend 1 hour practicing photography. Learn to understand light, how to see, and master your craft.
     
  4. Design a Good Storage System Now. Don't wait until you are a better photographer to figure out how to archive your photographs. I don't think I can find any photos I took 10 years ago, because I don't know how I saved them. It took about 4 years before I got serious about my archive system, and I regret that.
     
  5. For The Love of All Things, Shoot in RAW. Don't make me tell you again!
     
  6. Spend Time Studying Photographs You Like. Try and dissect how a photographer took an image you like. What aperture did they use (or at least was it a wide or narrow aperture)? Was it purposefully overexposed or underexposed? What were the hard parts of the image to get right? Is there something you don't know how they made it look that way (you would be surprised how many photographers will explain their technique if asked)? You will learn a lot by dissecting the work of others.
     
  7. Remove Dust Spots. This is the first thing I notice about a photograph- if it has dust spots. If you don't have Lightroom or another photo editing tool, buy one, and figure out how to remove dust spots. 
     
  8. Practice Photography. People often remark that I "must have a really nice camera" when they see my images. It's true, I do have a nice camera. But I could make a nice image with a crap camera. I'm not being arrogant - it's because I have practiced. My nice looking images are not the result of fancy cameras, it's the result of practice. You don't learn to fly a plane by buying a nice one. You don't learn to draw by purchasing nice pencils. So why do people think that nice cameras are the key to nice photographs? Go outside, take pictures in your back yard, and practice. Try something different. Bend the 'rules'. You do not have to go on some grand vacation to take nice photographs - challenge yourself with something very simple. What's the best photograph you can take of a single apple? Can you make that image ironic? Sad? Happy? Practice and find out.
     
  9. Try Shooting Film. I credit film photography as the greatest single source of improvement for my overall photography. I learned more shooting film than I did from years of digital photography....patience, light, composition, and metering. Film cameras can be had for cheap - give it a try.
     
  10. Buy A Good Tripod. It took me almost four years to invest in a proper tripod and the difference it made was huge. I don't like using a tripod to shoot and I avoid using one at all cost, but when you need one, you must have a good one. Cheap plastic junk is exactly that. A tripod is a major purchase and might cost as much as a good lens, but if you care for it, you will be rewarded with a long life of service from your pair of sticks.
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What advice would you go back and give yourself as a beginner photographer? Leave me a comment and let me know!

Writing Revolutions: What is Involved in Authoring a Photography Book?

Writing "Revolutions" represents the greatest professional accomplishment of my career as a photographer, but it was also far more difficult than I ever expected. Today I am reflecting back on the experience to share a look behind-the-scenes at what it took to write "Revolutions".

Mindset

It was important to me that "Revolutions" was done correctly. First, this was the first book I was going to write, and if I did a poor job, it would be the last book anyone would ever buy. The success of any future second book hinges on the first. Secondly, there is something very motivating about knowing you are making something with your name on the front. People can come read my blog and form an opinion about me without ever knowing my name, but that's just not the case with a book. My reputation is right there, front and center. Pride is a good reason to do something the correct way.

Beyond those motivations, I was also compelled by the desire to produce art. Each image contained in the book is artwork, and I wanted the final compilation of these images to be its own piece of artwork. This book is like a miniature gallery exhibit of my work - one that fits in a bag or sits on a coffee table. Most photo books do not feature a narrative story to accompany the images, so "Revolutions" represented two art forms - photography and writing - that needed to be combined into one perfect medley.

Finally, every accomplished photographer I know has written a book, and I believe that is one of the many ways to distinguish between photographers who really care about their craft, and those who consider this a hobby. Sure, you don't have to write a book to be a serious artist (there are many photographers who make a full-time living without writing books!), but I have always seen the time and resource commitment needed to publish a book is a good measure of how serious the artist is about their tradecraft.

Wedding photographers have the benefit of paying customers, but I have never been paid by any of the trees I have photographed. Sadly, writing a book is one of the harder ways to make money as a photographer, because the financial investment required to generate the product is insanely high. In the era of free blogs, who is going to pay money to read?

The Writing

Writing "Revolutions" was the easy part. During the course of the month long road trip that makes up the narrative and photographic story, I took detailed notes and transcribed records of the days. At the end of the journey, I had nearly 40 typed pages of notes and 60 pages of handwritten notes. The book is basically an edited version of those notes; I removed the "blah blah blah" and adjusted the story to articulate only the best parts of the adventure.

Originally I had structured the book into two sections: one with the photographs and one with the narrative story. The reason for this was that I did not want to have to display the photographs in chronological order, which was the logical ordering of images if they were intermixed with a story that was told in chronological order. 

But when we got to editing, that plan was scrapped.

The Editing

Asking someone to edit a book like this is a tricky prospect; I needed someone who would be brutally honest and unafraid of hurting my feelings. Someone who can write better than I can. Thankfully, I know someone just like that! I enlisted the help of a trusted friend and worked on preparing a manuscript that I could present for editing.

A few weeks later, Clara, my editor, was given a hard copy printed transcript of the book that was made at Office Depot. I had generated PDFs of the book from my computer, but that would be hard for her to mark up. I felt like the editor should benefit from being able to turn real pages! With $20 and a copy machine, I created a manuscript that could be viewed in "book form" and allowed Clara to write, scribble, and mark up the thing mercilessly.

Good thinking on my part, because I got a red pen (and permanent marker!) covered book back! Clara suggested some major edits to the story, including to tell it as one story with photographs and text intermixed. At first I was down on the idea - I had spent months putting the book into this format - but upon reflection, I realized Clara was right. There was too much text at one end of the story and the photographs lacked context when not paired with words. 

So I rewrote the whole book.

The transcript I provided to my edtor, Clara. Not only did she mark up the whole document, she even attached additional pages of comments.

The transcript I provided to my edtor, Clara. Not only did she mark up the whole document, she even attached additional pages of comments.

The original version of the book was too text heavy - pages were full of content that really didn't add to the story and would ultimately put a reader to sleep. Clara helped me find that content and remove it, resulting in a cleaner and more enjoyable finished product.

The original version of the book was too text heavy - pages were full of content that really didn't add to the story and would ultimately put a reader to sleep. Clara helped me find that content and remove it, resulting in a cleaner and more enjoyable finished product.

The Re-Write

Following my review of Clara's edits, I re-wrote the entire book. This took months longer than I expected. I would read it one day, like it, then hate it the next. I had to walk away from the project for days at a time to regain the vision needed to see the project clearly. My motivation waivered; I had exhausted months of work and had almost nothing to show for it. On several occassions, I thought about throwing in the towel and declaring the book a source of personal memories.

But I persisted.

Slowly and steadily, I wrote, deleted, wrote, re-wrote, deleted, and wrote again. After a few months, I was ready to look at a transcript again. This time, I decided to order a printed copy of the book that was actually bound and printed in color. I figured this would help me visualize those errors and improvements that still needed to be made, but that I couldn't visualize on a computer screen.

The First Final

Printing a transcript in book format turned out to be a great strategy. I found lots of content, typos, and aesthetics that I wanted to adjust. For instance, the font needed to be smaller, section titles more prominent, and more blank space on every page. These aesthetic tweaks needed to be seen to be recognized.

After a few more weeks, I had re-built the whole book for (what felt like) the millionth time.  Before ordering another copy, I decided to set the whole thing aside for a month. I needed time to forget what the book looked like. To forget how each word read. To detach and come back fresh.

A month later, I returned and found that I was very happy with the text. There were a few typos that I had missed, but I didn't find any major changes. So I shelled out for another bound copy of the book.

A screenshot of the internal page layout of pages 2 and 3 in the final copy of the book. The photo will be creased down the center to form both pages, and if you look carefully, you can see where part of the image repeats just slightly in the center where the binding is placed.

A screenshot of the internal page layout of pages 2 and 3 in the final copy of the book. The photo will be creased down the center to form both pages, and if you look carefully, you can see where part of the image repeats just slightly in the center where the binding is placed.

The Final-Final

Alas, I had nailed it. Almost nine months after the first words were typed into a Microsoft Word document, the final book had taken shape. You don't have to work hard to see the evolution in the book between the various versions! With the book done, it was time to move onto the public relations part - promoting the sale of the book.

Two proofs of the book - opened to the same page. The top book (right) is the first version, while the one in the background (left) was the final transcript of the book. You can see the font size, spacing, title, and asthetics of the pages changed significantly between each version.

Two proofs of the book - opened to the same page. The top book (right) is the first version, while the one in the background (left) was the final transcript of the book. You can see the font size, spacing, title, and asthetics of the pages changed significantly between each version.

Two book covers - the cover had minimal changes to the front, just a slight shift in the location of the author name.

Two book covers - the cover had minimal changes to the front, just a slight shift in the location of the author name.

The back cover got a major overall; the top book is the final product, while the bottom one was the earlier draft.

The back cover got a major overall; the top book is the final product, while the bottom one was the earlier draft.

The Printing

With the book finished, it was time to look at printing it. This was the part I was dreading - asking people for money. But the reality was that there is no way to make a book even quasi-affordable without raising enough money to print several hundred copies. Each individual copy, if purchased al le carte, ran upward of $120/book! My target price was $50/book, meaning I needed to raise enough money to get several hundred copies printed at once, in a process called offset printing. 

In the End

This was, without question, much harder than I ever anticipated. Getting a book that qualified as artwork, a book I would put my name on, and a book I could share with the world was a pain in the butt. I have learned an incredible amount about writing a book and the process, which is good - because I'm going to need all the help I can get in generating motivation to ever write another book! I hope you have found this short write up about the process of writing a book helpful and enlightening.... and I hope it gives you a new appreciation of the arts.

Purchase a copy of Revolutions as a book or e-book today!

Posing with the final copy of my book, Revolutions.

Posing with the final copy of my book, Revolutions.

Why I Sold My Leica Q

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today in memory of Kristen's Leica Q, and to remember it's life and photographic contributions.....

Ok, the Q didn't die, but I did sell it. And after writing an initial impressions review where I was totally smitten with the Quirky Q, I owe you an update as to my decision to sell it.

First, let's be clear - the Leica Q is an awesome camera. There are a lot of happy users, and it makes fantastic images. The "bang for buck" is absolutely there. It's a great travel companion, and is a real treat in the lineup of cameras offered by Leica. I have no complaints about the Q. 

But I sold it because it wasn't for me.

I really learned to be a patient photographer when I got into Leica rangefinders. When I shot Nikon's, the camera drove me.... I didn't drive the camera. I let the Nikon think for me, focus for me, read the light for me, and I was lazy. Leica rangefinders - the emphasis on limited manual controls - put me back in charge of the photography, and I became a better photographer because of it.

When I used the Leica Q, I felt myself becoming lazy - slipping back into the camera-think-for-me land. Sure, with the Q you can shoot totally manual and control every setting, but I found I wasn't using the camera that way. I was letting autofocus and aperture priority drive me. 

I already have an autofocus camera - one I adore - called the Leica SL. For those times when I need or want autofocus, I found myself reaching for it. I reached for the Leica Q when I was feeling lazy, and it shows in my photographs. 

If you asked me to select my 100 favorite and best photographs that I've ever taken, the Leica Q wouldn't be represented amongst any of the selectees. That's not because the camera can't produce a result worthy of a top 100 spot - I didn't use it that way. 

I love a rangefinder. The sensation of looking through the precision glass instrument and seeing the world is my crack-cocaine. I'm a rangefinder addict. The Leica Monochrom is one of my favorite cameras to reach for when I need a fix. The feel of the shutter, the slide of the lens barrel focus ring, the stealthy size.... snort. 

The Q never gave me the same excitement. I never got a quiver down my spine when I picked it up. My toes never tingled. It is a fantastic camera, but it never got me excited to take photographs, so my photographs taken with the Q lack excitement. I wholeheartedly believe that a photographer who feels emotion with their camera can better capture emotion with their camera. 

As the announcement of the Leica M10 drew closer, Leica held some killer promotions for saving money on a new Leica M240, so I decided to trade the Q into Leica and get a M240 to feed my rangefinder addiction. I previously owned the M240, but sold it when I got my Leica SL, so it was nice to be reunited with the camera yet again. 

There are times when I miss the simplicity of the Q, but it's been 4 months since the Q and I broke up our relationship, and I have no regrets. I would still recommend the Q to anyone shopping for a great compact travel camera, it just wasn't for me.

Review: RNI All Films 4 Pro

Over the past few years, there's been a resurgence in film photography- folks are going out to buy vintage film cameras and put them back to good use. Two years ago I joined the ranks of photographers returning to film and analog photography techniques. Since then, I've studied printing in darkrooms and explored a variety of film processing and development techniques.

As consumers flock to buy old film cameras, companies are joining in the movement by offering "easy out" film photography.... that is, film photography without the film. One such company is RNI (stands for Really Nice Images), a London-based company selling film presets for digital Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.

Two weeks ago, RNI approached me asking if I would review their "All Films 4 Pro" software suite, which retails for $122 US Dollars. Full disclosure, they provided me a free copy of the software in exchange for my review- though I have reviewed this with the mindset that I had just shelled out my hard earned cash for the software personally. This lady can't be bought with free software (but maybe for cars).

Anyway, I downloaded the software and began the installation on my MacBook Pro. While they offer the features for Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw, I only tested it for Lightroom as that's where I now do 90% of my editing.

Essentially the software is a suite of Lightroom presets designed to make your digital images look like they were taken on film. So if you aren't awesome enough to rock some film and learn a little development, this is how you can get the "look" with your digital files.

The installation of the software was relatively uneventful- RNI provides detailed step-by-step instructions for installing all of the presets and features, and it took me only a few minutes to complete. The software package took approximately 100MB of hard drive space.

After the installation, I restarted Lightroom and saw that I now had hundreds of new presets in the development module. So many presets that I stand no chance of capturing them in one screenshot...... 

When RNI says the software includes "All Films" they are only slightly off.... it includes presets for the most common films, and then a healthy stock of more obscure film. There was only one film I love to use frequently missing from their list, which is the Adox line of film, specifically the Silvermax film.

Anyway, I had a bit of shell shock seeing the list of film choices. It's actually overwhelming! To help with the organization, RNI has folders for each type of film, as follows:

  • RNI Toolkit (contains features like frames, vignettes and lens effects)
  • RNI Films 4 BW (Black and white films)
  • RNI Films 4 Instant (obviously, instant films like Polaroid) 
  • RNI Films 4 Negative (negative color films/ films developed with C-41 chemicals)
  • RNI Films 4 Slide (color slide films / films with development in other chemical combos)
  • RNI Films 4 Vintage (a selection of films that aren't produced anymore)

Ok, so I haven't come close to shooting a 10% of the films offered in these presets, so I stuck to presets for films I have used - Kodak, Ilford, Fuji, etc. As noted previously, my beloved Adox Silvermax is missing from the preset list.

Test 1: Finland Window

I took this photograph on my Leica SL Type 601 in Finland a few weeks ago, and the colors and textures are a good subject to explore the various film presets with. We'll start with the original image as I edited it, then go through a list of presets. Read the subtitles for each to get the film preset name, and click on the files to see an enlarged version.

My original file - edited without any RNI presets

Color Negative Film Presets

Kodak Ektar Preset

Kodak Portra Preset

I don't shoot much color negative film, but when I do, it's either Kodak Ektar or Portra, so those are the presets I can fairly judge. Before applying either preset I thought about the films, what I know about how they render colors, and formed my expectation for how the preset would look, then clicked the button. For the Kodak Ektar, the resulting image is pretty true to my expectation - colors are bright and vibrant with strong black tones. The Portra, however, was not what I expected. In my experience, Portra renders nice pinks and red hues, which is why it's popular for portraiture. But the reds and pinks in the wood became muted and the black looks wimpy. 

If I am judging these presets based on my experiences actually shooting these films, then the Portra comes up a bit short, while the Ektar meets expectations.

Black and White Film Presets

The true test is black and white film. I shoot a LOT of black and white film, specifically Ilford Delta 100, HP-4 and Adox Silvermax. Since Adox wasn't a choice, I experimented with Kodak T-Max, a popular film, but one I don't shoot as often.

Ilford Delta 100

Ilford FP-4 Preset

Kodak T-Max Preset

From my experience, these three presets are fairly true to expected performance, particularly the Delta 100 and HP-4 presets. I have shot hundreds of rolls of each film, and the preset looks pretty true to the tonal composition, contrast, and detail of those films. The T-Max preset is maybe a little heavy in contrast, but I have only shot a handful of T-Max rolls, so I am not the expert on that film.

Other Presets (Slide & Effects)

As previously mentioned, the RNI film presets pack includes some slide and vintage films, plus some effects. I have only shot one roll of slide film before, and it was such an epic disaster to develop that I quickly gave up and retreated to the safety of C-41 color negative film for those times I want color. 

Here's our starting image, again from the Leica SL Type 601. This is Esa, a Finnish man who leads dogsled teams.

Esa, our dogsled guide. Original image from the Leica SL Type 601

I first played with the Fuji Velvia preset, which is the only slide film I'm remotely familiar with. But as mentioned, my experiment developing it at home resulted in a lot of green film, so the RNI preset was sure to be better!

Fuji Velvia 50 preset

Sure enough, nice pop in the colors and beautiful saturation. This is what Velvia is famous for, and the preset delivered. Next I took the same image and played with some of the effects filters. There are a billion effects, from vignettes, contrast, etc.... but I went for "Vintage Lens 4."

Velvia + Vintage Lens 4 Preset

Apparently "Vintage Lens" means reduce sharpness and add a vignette? Because, as far as I can tell, that's what this effect did.

Choices Galore

RNI All Films 4 is full of film preset choices - so many choices that I couldn't possibly begin to represent an opinion on all of them without a heavy amount of BS'ing involved. And I was overwhelmed with choices before opening the camera profiles, at which point I ran for cover. If you want an endless selection of choices, this is your software, but I'd have to start deleting some of the presents I don't like to de-clutter my workspace.

The Problem....

On the surface, RNI All Films 4 offers a lot of presets in their package, which is good considering it's moderately pricey software at $122 US Dollars. But thats the problem. There is other software with film presets (albeit not as many choices) that you can download for free. So you have to be pretty dedicated to wanting almost every film emulsion known to man to shell out the money, and I suspect many folks won't know the difference. If you've never shot film, would you know the difference between the dozens of black and white film emulsions available? Doubtful. 

Which brings me to the next question - who is the target audience? Surely someone who shoots film regularly will just shoot film and bypass the filters. So I am assuming that RNI intends this for a digital photographer who wants to give their images the film look and feel without actually shooting film. But again, so many choices - are there that many Nikon-Shooting-Joe's who know enough about film to appreciate all the film presets?

RNI has a solution for this - which is the Lite version of the software. For $59, you get a smaller subset of the film set, which I expect will appeal to most photographers. If you are enough of a film die-hard to know the difference between HP-4 and HP-5, then you probably shoot them, and don't need a preset.

Sidebar: This Isn't Film Photography

I need to detour away from the RNI product for a second to explain that film photography isn't this simple. I don't just load some film into my camera, snap away and voila. There are two other chemical processes after I take the photograph that determine the look of the final product - development and enlargement. I won't attempt to expand upon this too much, but let me start by explaining that Ansel Adams wrote three very long and detailed books about this process.

To click a preset button in Lightroom - no matter where that preset came from - is disingenuous to film photography. A film photographer goes through three different chemical process to produce a print - it's not just a button click. I can make a film that is light on contrast have more contrast in the final print by changing how I enlarge the negative. I can lighten or darken a negative by extending development by a matter of seconds or changing the water temperature. 

If you want to make film photographs, buy a film camera and learn about film photography. Using presets won't give you the same experience, and your hands won't smell like fixer!

RNI Mobile Apps

RNI also offers a suite of mobile apps for applying these sorts of presets to images and then sharing them on Instagram, etc. To be honest, this is probably the most interesting application of these presets for me personally - I don't use one click filters for most of my photography, but I will use a quick filter if I'm sharing some cutesy selfie on my personal Facebook page. 

I was not given a trial of the RNI mobile apps to review, but based on the photos and videos on their website and Facebook page, I think RNI has built a nice platform for Instagram'ers to modify and share their iPhone images.  

In Summary

The good:

  • Lots of presets to choose from
  • All major film emulsions represented, including a nice selection of vintage films
  • Easy installation
  • One-click use. Easy for any Lightroom newbie to use

The bad:

  • The full suite is pricey, particularly given some of the free choices on the market
  • Adox Silvermax is missing
  • The number of choices can be overwhelming to someone not familiar with film photography

Would I Buy It? Would I Recommend It?

Personally, I would not buy RNI All Films, though that doesn't have anything to do with the product RNI offers. I already shoot film, and if I want the look of film, I'd just grab a roll and go. Some of the features, like the vintage lens presets, are a bit gimmicky too. Not to sound like an elitist, but I shoot Leica cameras - I spend a lot of money to have my images look good and don't have any intention of introducing flaws to a photograph on purpose. 

Would I recommend it? Hum. Depends. I probably would tell someone looking at the RNI films software to start with one of their cheaper and smaller scale products to see if they like the presets before diving into the deep end with preset mania. Had I used the pro version before becoming familiar with film photography, I think I would have been very intimidated by the number of choices. If you don't know much about film photography, start with one of the Lite versions and upgrade later if you like it. RNI lets you upgrade at a discount, and that's where I'd start. 

If film photography does interest you, then also consider spending $50 on a cheap film camera and a roll of film. You'll learn something and have a ton of fun - more fun than you'll have clicking preset buttons in Lightroom!

Have you used any of the RNI products, like their mobile apps? What was your experience? Leave me a comment!