I complain about my cameras a lot. Hey, I am an active customer. I personally would love to have a customer like me, loyal, vocal, critical. It’s my right and duty to point out all the crap regarding products I purchase, use, and more importantly continue to purchase. I am not a camera salesman, I don’t work as the marketing arm of Nikon or any other camera company. I don’t make a living or even part of a living promoting gear. Why the hell would anyone want to hear all of the “good things” for cameras they already have or for that matter cameras they’re considering buying? It baffles me. Tell me all the bad stuff. With that out of the way here’s the truth of the matter — they all have bad stuff one way or another. If you shoot a Canon, Fuji, Pentax, whatever and read all of my hatefulness towards any particular “Nikon thing” and somehow take that as relative to some sort of perfection, think again. I buy Nikons because overall I like them more than other systems and cameras. I’m not a masochist — at least when it comes to gear.
I thought I would take a moment to give some praise to my chosen picture taking machines. Specifically the D600 but for the most part many other similar Nikon bodies some older, some newer. Hands down the D600 and now D610 are the best value and some of the best performance going. Decent viewfinder, Reasonable focusing system, top-notch image quality, really great controls, fast enough, good features, great flash system, huge selection of glass from old to brand new to third party, on and on and on.
What’s the rub? A noticeable drop in out of the factory quality relative to previous generation Nikons. Is this a big deal? It is if your used to Nikon but in my own experience it’s about par for the course with a lot/most other brands. Most of those things are nits that you really really, really have to be on your game to notice and reproduce. Like the fact that my focus sensor is absolutely not aligned exactly with the sensor distance. Calibration required. Hell most people wouldn’t even know. Same goes for the mis-registration of focus point indicators with the exact location of where they are reading. Mine are all a hair to the top and right of the indicators on the focus screen. I can test this and I know about it but in reality it makes no difference when shooting real world subjects. It’s just bothersome nagging thing that you know is there.
All anecdotal evidence suggests that Nikon might have gotten wise and cleaned up their act back to “normal Nikon” with the D610 and D810. Well early reports from people I trust suggest this. I hope so. My Nikon Df is absolutely perfect in every way I can measure — “normal Nikon”.
What else? What else compared to say mythical brand/model X? Well for one thing let’s talk about color and OOC JPEG’s. Nikon’s auto WB (as well as most other cameras I’ve ever used) have absolutely unbelievably bad auto White Balance. What’s more is that even the preset WB things like “daylight” are not to my particular taste… Most point and shoots have better AWB. That goes for a lot of cameras with really good IQ as well. Learn to do color the way you like it, that way you can shoot what you want instead of being a slave to some notion of “best AWB”. Fuji’s auto WB is the best of seen in a real camera and what most people rave about when they talk about “Fuji color”. That’s pretty funny considering the sources that rave about this. Personally I don’t give a rats ass about AWB if I’m shooting “for real” or if I’m shooting RAW. So where do you start with that? We’ll get yourself a frigging gray card or color checker and set a preset WB, shoot a frame with the card in the frame — done. If you can’t manage that you may as well hang it up.
Tip One — use DX framing for WB.
That brings us to tip numero 1. All Nikon FX cameras have the option for forcing DX crop mode. Put it in your quick menu. If you happen not to be using long glass setting a WB preset can be a pain in the ass. The wider the lens the worse it is. Even a 50mm is not great for setting WB off of a itty bitty grey card like a color checker passport. Even when you do there an issue. You are so stinking close to the target that you block light and flavor the color of the light with the camera, your shirt, your skin, everything. Use DX crop mode on FX bodies and it’s far easier. If you happen to have something brand new like a D610, D810, D4s, or Df use the “spot WB” feature. Same thing but even a smaller area. It works great either way.
Tip Two — Out of Camera JPEGs
If you like to have good looking OOC JPEG files see tip number 1 and then move on to taking a day or two fiddling with the Picture Control tweaks. You can go way too far with this by making your own Picture Controls but just playing with the tweaks in camera are usually enough to get you anywhere you really want to go.
How about some specifics? We’ll for black and white the monochrome Picture Control is pretty good and neutral. I personally usually leave brightness alone, bump the contrast up 2 notches, and bump the sharpness up 2 notches. Every once in a while I’ll take the brightness down a notch or two if I’m in a mood for richer gradation. There’s color filters in there as well. Toning too if you like that. I would say I use the BW/Monochrome picture control about half the time or more. Just the way I see. Try it. It’s actually pretty good once dialed into your particular “thing”.
How about color? I can’t say it enough; See tip #1. Okay so now you’ve stopped being increadibly lazy with one of the best color rendering, best dynamic range, best-est, most-est, wonderous-est IQ sensors available, maybe the best balance of size/IQ and you really are ready to fine tune. Okay, start with the Picture Control “Standard”. Bump up the sharpening two notches, the contrast two notches, and bring down the saturation a notch or even two. Unless of course you like your image really saturated then leave it or even bump it up. For me I shoot people and like skin “normal”. For those who like Fuji’s skin tones pay special attention to the hue control all the way at the bottom. Turn it down or to the left two notches, maybe three. Hell turn it all the way down depending on how red/pink you want your images to skew. It’s actually a pretty finely tuned control. One notch doesn’t do that much. If, if, if you still notice your Fuji is pinker/redder after getting WB on par this is where you want to fine tune.
Tip 3 — Focus Fine Tuning.
Calibrate all of your lenses. If you don’t do this forget buying great glass. You aren’t even seeing anywhere NEAR how good your glass is if this isn’t exactly right. I mean exactly right, unless of course you always use live view to focus — doubtful. This is not a hit or miss endeavor. It’s a pain in the ass and takes a lot of time to do a new camera depending on how much glass you have. You have to set up the target and camera exactly right or your answers will be wrong. Do yourself a favor and grab a copy of something like Focus Tune. Take the guess work and eye blistering, headache inducing visual comparisons out of the equation. You’ll thank me. Oh one more thing calibrate the lenses at where you actually use them. Don’t know where you use them in terms of subject distance? Then err on the close side. You will not believe how good lenses like the much maligned 50 1.4G is when you have the fine tuning spot on. Insanely good, it also will show you how good Nikon/Sony has got at the AA filter thing. Most of my decent glass can still excite aliases on certain frequencies of fabric at certain distances, just without the color moire.
Tip 4 — TTL flash.
Do yourself a favor. Use FV-lock correctly. Hit FV-lock before you take the “test shot” then adjust from there, not the other way around. In other words lock in what the computer things then dial in compensation, it won’t move. If you do a test shot then add comp you may be locking in a value you haven’t seen on the back of the camera. When you hit FV lock it does the measurement again and locks that it — not what you just looked at.
On that note go into custom settings and turn your meter time out way way way up, thirty seconds or longer. It will have no material impact on your battery life but it will help you keep your sanity if you use FV-lock and TTL flash. FV-lock resets when your meter times out or you turn your camera off. Same stuff applies to AE-lock as well, if you’re into that kind of working method.
Tip 5 — Know Your Sensor
Push it to it’s limits. Know what white really looks like. Know what the histograms for your preferred Picture control setting look like relative to what’s really in the RAW files. Spend a few hours. Hit every full stop ISO the RAW files start to change and loose their “Beefy-ness” at some point. Know where that is. Know what shadow looks like in the back of camera histogram vs pushing those shadows in post and get to know where your limits of “good” are. Serious shooters used to go ape shit when film companies changed their films because of how much time it took to know what looks like what on that film vs exposure and what the curve shapes where and what tonal separation could be expected under what conditions and when it all fell apart. It’ amazing how many people really don’t take the few hours to get to know what the permanent film they have in the camera actually does or can do and what that looks like now that it’s easy.
Five tips are enough for today. Maybe next time I’ll go into a few other custom settings. Bottom like the D600 and D610 are some of the most amazing and value priced devices out there. If you like full-frame focal length/DOF/angle of view relationships and you like optical viewfinders it’s hard to recommend another camera seriously. The D800/D810 are great too, just 50% more money for not much more juice. They’re bigger too. The real value for those intrepid people out there are barely used D600’s due to the internet mob casting dispersions on them. I dare you to find a better machine than a $1000 used D600.