You digital people are so lucky. And what do I mean by "digital people"? Michael Reichmann mentioned, in the course of his new Panasonic G1 review, that he encounters photographers these days who never shot film. So do I. It's an amazing if inevitable development in the hobby. Anyway, I often don't think you digital people have any idea how lucky you are.
I've been mulling over a number of things these days. First, I've been mulling over my final thoughts on the Pentax K20D. And I've been mulling over some holistic thoughts about camera development, which is proceeding interestingly as usual. And some thoughts about B&W.
Meanwhile, "camera testing weather" is just about over here in Wisconsin. We had a lovely snowfall this afternoon—great cottony clumps of flakes drifting down from the sky, some seemingly an inch in diameter. Naturally, a picture doesn't do it justice, but just as naturally that didn't stop me from trying:
You should have seen these things. Seriously, I don't think I've ever seen bigger snowflakes. Maybe as big, but not bigger. Not quite the size of canned hams.
Ultimately, I suspect the image quality (IQ) of the K20D is better than that of the Nikon D700, as I shall try to demonstrate in due course. The Pentax has somewhat higher resolution and better detail; it has slightly tastier, richer color than I've so far eked out of the Nikon. But that's only if you're able to use the K20D within its limitations—meaning, at normal sensitivities. That's a big "if," turns out. Where the D700 just obliterates the K20D—and every other digital camera I've ever used, save the D3—is at high ISO's.
The higher, the more better.
I use the K20D about like I use my old Konica-Minolta 7D: freely up to ISO 800, and 1600 when needed, tolerating an acceptable but obvious IQ hit. Those speeds seem luxurious to me. They cover most picture-taking situations easily. They're no hardship, certainly, for someone who grew up on film.
I was able to shoot the snowflake picture at 1/800th sec. at a middle aperture of ƒ/5.6, which is pretty good. IQ is good, too: the D700 is even picking up the snowflakes against the gray sky. I think you can see that even in the online JPEG if you click on the picture to see the larger version. Can you see that? I can see it easily in the full file. I don't know, but I don't think I ever saw film do that under similar conditions.
Even on screen, you have to magnify D700 files considerably to see noise at many sensitivities. What I noticed was that at many speeds, you see pixels before you see noise.
Pixels show up at a definite screen size: at 100% they're not obvious, and at 200% they are.
Which got me to thinking. (It's always dangerous when I try to do that.) Examining D700 files on the monitor at 100%, you cannot see noise at, say, ISO 400. I did some shots at ISO 5000, and at 100% you can clearly see the noise in those. Hmm (cogs turning): What that means is that there's some speed that's the highest speed at which you'll see pixels onscreen before you see noise onscreen. (Does this have any practical meaning? I honestly don't know. The weather's bad, and I'm just dorking around today. Dump-de-dum-dum.) So, just for fun, I went looking for what that speed is.
I did speed-brackets of a number of shots. I think this hits the magic number:
The knives always fall into the disposal. Oh, and sorry about these dreadful "just a test shot" pictures. I suppose we all do that, right? Especially at this time of year, here, with wet snow falling under leaden skies. There's no good light anywhere. Hey, at least I didn't show you the self-portrait I took in the bathroom mirror, so maybe you're luckier than you think.
Anyway, I can sort of see noise—barely—in this picture at 100%. Here's a screen shot from ACR, which you should be seeing at 100% after you click on it to enlarge it:
I think you're seeing just a little noise in this. Kind of hard to tell. There seems to be a little color in that stainless steel that's not stainless-steel color. Bear in mind this is raw straight out of the camera, with no sharpening and no noise reduction. And this is worst-case—in other test shots, the noise is even less obvious.
So what was it shot at? 3200. (<—incredulous voice.)
Pleased as punch
You have to put this in per-spec-tive. I remember when I was young and I'd talk to old guys who'd say things like, "You don't know how lucky you are, having ASA-64-speed Kodachrome. In my day, the speed of Kodachrome was 12!" Well, I'm dating myself, but what the hell, it's my turn to be the old guy: I still remember the days when 400-speed color neg films got decent. Late '80s, early '90s, that was, after Fuji came along and lit a fire under Kodak's corporate butt and the two giants started competing. At that time, I feel confident in saying, we would have been pleased as punch with performance as good as the above from 35mm 400-speed film.
The D700 is achieving quality at least as good with three stops less light.
There's nothing magical about the D700's IQ at normal speeds. It's perfectly good, but I'm reasonably certain you could get IQ as good from any other 12-MP camera if you used them both optimally. (Even some digicams, if the SBR—subject brightness range—isn't too great for the wee sensor.)
But the higher the ISO, the more the D700 will pull away from what you're used to.
Now go back to the snowflake picture. Despite the dark day, I was able to shoot at 1/800th sec. at ƒ/5.6 by shooting at ISO 2500. Dump-de-dum.
The 7D and K20D would both be well into "we give up" territory at ISO 2500, image-quality-wise. The D700 is just reaching cruising speed. You probably wouldn't do this, but I honestly think that if you wanted to, you could use 2500 as your normal, everyday setting with this camera. For everything.
3200. It's the new 400. And some of you probably just don't realize how amazing that is.
Featured Comment from Andy Munro (UK): "Mike, The D700 and D3 have hit a real sweet spot for me (Wedding Photographer). I am amazed (actually continually amazed every shoot) to see detail where there used to be an orangey black mush. Now not only is the noise held in check, the colour is there...fabulous. I just hope they don't chase pixels and lose this 'black cat in a coal cellar' ability."
Featured Comment by Joe Sawicki: "Having done photography in both ages, I really get a kick out of seeing the comments about Camera X or Y where someone insists that the inability to capture at ISO (insert absurd number here) noise free, makes the camera completely unacceptable. Hey, I'm an engineer (can't spell geek without an EE), and I get the appeal of specsmanship, but digital SLRs are years past the point of being unacceptable."