10,000+ Shots - Still Shooting Strong

Monday, October 06 2003

If you’ve met me in person you probably know I’m usually carrying a big honkin’ camera around. It’s my beloved Nikon D100, and it did set me back a bit, but as I learn how to take full advantage of the camera the price tag seems more and more worth it. I’ve had it since February of this year, and have learned a lot about it that I felt was worth sharing.

There are a ton of good things about this camera, but despite that, I have a few complaints, which is what I’ll focus on for now. Although, as you’ll see, they’re not show stoppers by any means.


If you want to have a flash that integrates well with the camera’s automatic exposure meters, aperatures or shutter speed or both, you basically only have two choices. The SB80DX flash or the SB50DX. I think there is a smaller flash that is also compatible, but it’s no better than the on-camera flash. The problem with these flashes, aside from the limited choice, is that they’re freaking expensive. The SB80DX is at least $330.00, and the SB50DX isn’t far from that.

So what do you get with the SB80DX? Well, fortunately a lot. It’s an incredibly powerful flash, and when connected to the camera makes you feel like a flashing fool. Multiple flashes in a single exposure, super fast recycle rate, and fully articulated flash head for bounce flash. It integrates so well with the camera that in automatic mode, you don’t have to do anything. It knows how to light the shot based on light readings, knows the distance of the subject by flashing a red autofocus grid, and knows the focal length of your lens (which helps it adjust where the flash bulb sits in relation to the flash lens).

So what don’t you get? Perhaps it’s my own pet peeve, but I’d think a flash like this should be able to work remotely in something other than just manual mode. I can set up the flash in manual mode, set on it on ledge somewhere, and use my on-camera flash to trigger the remote SB80DX, but I can only do so with both the SB80DX set up in manual mode and my on-camera flash as well. This means I have plan my shot in advance, or get lucky. I don’t mind either alternative, but sometimes you don’t want to have to rely on either. I don’t have the advantage of seeing a new potentially different shot, and taking it, and knowing it will turn out.

The reason it has to be in full manual mode for both flashes is a digital camera thing. Most digital cameras, whether they’re SLR or point and shoot, send out a few pulses of pre-flash before the full flash fires. This is so that the camera can determine what kind of light it can expect to get back, and so that it can setup the CCD accordingly. These pulses are done so quickly that they’re impossible to detect with the human eye, but very possible for a slave flash to detect and fire too early. On the D100, the only way to disable the pre-flash is to put the flash into full manual mode. Bummer.

But, I’m not too upset. I have a plan. Instead of using my SB80DX as a slave flash (which is prone to getting hit by skateboards) I’ll hook it up to a cord, and use it as a primary flash in my left hand while I shoot with my right, and have it drive other slave flashes. I can go fully automatic, and get slave flashes that ignore the pre-flash. The best of both worlds. A lot of these dedicated slave flashes are small, cheap and rugged.

Dusty Chip
When I first saw little black spots on some of my shots I about wanted to die. I couldn’t believe that such an expensive camera that could take such good shots could also ruin the shots just as easily with dust. The problem with any digital SLR is that the chip that is used in place of film is very prone to getting dust on it. Because it’s not sealed, the body of any SLR camera, film or digital, is at constant risk of getting dust in it whenever a lens is changed. There are ways to minimize dust getting into the camera, but like it or not, dust will get into the camera. Film cameras are less prone to dust showing up in the shot because the plane that light lands on is advanced with each shot, taking dust with it. Also, I’ve heard that CCDs can actually attract dust because they create a sort of static cling. I haven’t tested this idea, but wouldn’t be surprised.

Last night I cleaned my CCD for the first time. Nikon suggests using a blower to blow dust away from the CCD. This does absolutely no good, because the dust is still in the body of the camera, and if anything, it simply moves. It would be nearly impossible to get the dust out of the body by blowing into the body. For persistent dust, Nikon suggests sending the camera to Nikon for cleaning.

I followed a CCD cleaning tutorial for using your own supplies to clean the CCD, and while I was a bit freaked out about the idea at first, after having done it, I couldn’t be more pleased. My CCD is clean, and if you take my practice runs out of it, took only about twenty minutes, including prep time. The actual cleaning process took less than a minute.

To minimize dust, before changing lenses, I take a lens cloth and do a quick wipe down of where the lens meets the body. It’s easy to do, especially when you’re in the habit of keeping the cloth handy. My lens cloth doubles as a grey card, something I use to adjust my camera’s white balance, so I keep it around.

When changing the lens, I keep the camera facing down. Might be futile, but makes me feel good.

From now on, I will probably make sure that I do a CCD cleaning about every other week as part of a camera cleaning routine.

Focal Length
Most people will tell you that a digital SLR has a 1.5x multiplier for the focal length of lenses. This basically means that a normal 35mm lens will actually be a 52.5mm lens. A 35mm lens on a film SLR basically captures what a human eye sees (except that it can’t match the human eye’s peripheral vision). There is no distortion, no “flattening”. On a digital SLR, people will say that it becomes a telephoto.

Now, this isn’t entirely true. What is true is that the CCD on a digital SLR is smaller than a pane of film, so the image that is captured on the CCD is cropped by a certain amount. This means that only the middle portion of the light captured by a 35mm lens is used, which makes it seem as if a 35mm lens is actually a 52.5mm. It’s almost a moot point, except that everything else about the lens is the same – the aperature, the focusing speed and the sharpness.

But, this focal length multiplier motivates people like me to buy wider lenses, so that I can take shots that more accurately capture what my eyes see. The wider the lens, the higher the cost.

The workaround is to simply buy a wider lens, or, move further away from the subject. I have a 15-30mm lens, that is basically equivelant to a 22.5-45mm lens – a more normal range of focal lengths on my DSLR than it would be on a film SLR. I want a fisheye, but need to wait for a much wider fisheye than normal, and one than what can be found at reasonable prices.