Friday, March 17, 2017

Lens plate designs for the Nikon 200-500 lens

 Image by Ken Rockwell

Nikon has been getting a lot of bad press lately for questionable investments (360 key mission cameras) and decisions about it's products (cancellation of DL compact cameras) as well as a total no-show at the latest CP+ camera show in Japan in early 2017, the year of their first century - not out.  The interchangeable lens camera (ILS) and compact camera markets are shrinking year on year as more and more people buy smart-phones...

Pity, because at it's core there are some pretty good lens and camera designers that have given us hits like the D3 full frame in 2007, the D700 (the D3 wolf in sheep's clothing) in 2008 and lately (2014) the D810, a camera so phenomenal that two years after it's release it is still considered by many as one of the best all-round cameras out there. And that's saying a lot as since it's release both Canon and Sony have upped the mega-pixel wars and released worth adversaries.

As to lenses Nikon has also been quietly productive coming out in recent years with some ground-breaking designs such as the 14-24 f2.8 wide angle zoom lens that redefined what a zoom lens could or should do.  It was so spectacular that it totaly eclipsed Nikon's own prime 14mm f2.8 lens. A zoom better than a prime you say?!  Yes, I can confirm from personal experience that this was indeed the case.  Since then with a few wobbles along the way (Nikon 70-200 VRII focus breathing debacle anyone) they have managed to quietly come up with some stellar lenses such as their line of f1.8 consumer lenses (20mm, 24, 28, 35) which seemed just as good as their trice more expensive f1.4 versions, or the unique 105 f1.4 portrait lens and let us not forget the insanely expensive but well received 70-200 f2.8 E lens that resolved the focus breathing issue, focuses closer and has finally got it's focus buttons back.  And that lens comes with a particularly well-designed lens foot.

Glad you brought that up about the lens foot.. Because THAT seems to be an area that Nikon has not been at the top of it's engineering game if this man is to be believed.  "This man" is Bjorn Rorslett and he has criticized just about every lens foot design that came out of Nikon since it's transition to AF-S motors and basically has said that they are all cow's manure.  There is now a whole new industry started by people like Really Right Stuff and Kirk and Wimberly that created alternative foot supports for lenses to a) be used in Arca-swiss style clamps, the defacto standard in photography and b) to resolve the issue of less than stellar support in some cases.  We'll get back to RRS in a little while.   Suffice it to say that for around 20 years these manufacturers and now a slew of Chinese copycats have been improving on OEM designs and making money.

If you've reached this far into my post you may be wondering what the whole point of this history lesson has been.  And you would be right in asking that.  So let's now turn away from history in general and focus on my personal experience.  A little over a year ago I went out and bought my very own Nikon 200-500 f5.6E lens (released in 2015).  For any of you uninitiated in the world of camera lenses a 500mm lens is quite a beast, the gold standard for nature photography and pap-style shooting.  Nikon had finally come out with a zoom lens that reached out this far and in a very budget-friendly price of $1395 or thereabouts.  This lens intrigued many reviewers who immediately set the hoards of nature photographers out onto online retailers with the exhortatation of "Buy, buy, buy".. in the vein of Hollywood movies about Wall Street.  And I dutifully obeyed.
And when my lens arrived I was astounded at a) it's size, b) it's weight and c) it's image quality.  It was so good that I nearly threw my 28-300 superzoom away in disgust!  (Later I traded that lens for a 20 year old 80-200 f2.8AF-D, but that as they say is another story).
However all the A + B meant that getting any decent C out of the lens meant proper support. On a tripod. A very big and stable tripod.  Which fortunately I had.  When used in static positions with a Wimberly sidekick gimbal mount (remember the lens plate guys I mentioned above - this is one of them) the lens worked a treat and though top heavy, especially when extended out to 500mm, it still worked ok.
Where the lens didn't work was when hand-held, or when travelling and then walking around with the lens. For example as I might do at the top of a mountain on a 3 day hike taking pictures of rare birds. Or at an airshow with planes swooping everywhere.  Or out a window taking pictures of the couple across the road... Ok scratch that last one!  In those situations it was a real pain in the rear end.
Why?
Well, the badly designed lens foot.  Besides being a cantilevered design, shown by the gentleman I mentioned previously to be thorougly inadequate for locking down a lens to avoid vibrations, there was nowhere to support the lens when you weren't using it.  You either had to sling it onto your shoulder while keeping a hand on the camera or keep it in a bag... a very BIG bag.  Having it hanging from the camera straps around your neck was inviting disaster as both lens and camera mounts were likely to sag and bend from the strain..  Also because Nikon (unlike Tamron in 2017) doesn't build in the arca-swiss dovetail design into their lens feet meant I had to add a plate from, yes, you guessed it RRS from above.  That plate worked fine for fixing the lens to a clamp on a tripod, but there was no-where to attach a strap on the lens itself, as Nikon's more expensive lenses have as standard. Ok, I won't moan here.. I'm getting a $1395 lens that is pretty close optically to a $6500 lens.. I can't expect the same level of finishing. Still...  Nikon could have put just a little more thought into the design..

Now more than a year into the len's release Kirk, then Chinese copycat guys and finally our trusty friends from RRS have come out with some solutions. But do they solve our problems? Let's have a look.  First up is the Kirk/Chinese solution, which I found first about 2 months ago on Ebay.
 
The Chinese ($50) is an close copy of the Kirk ($150) although the plate is not as long - They essentially remade the whole mount including lens collar and integrated an arca swiss dovetail into the foot.  Up to here all is good as it resolves having a lens plate and at $50 (if you're ok with the Chinese copy, which I am) is not excessive considering you'd have to pay around 15-20$ just of the lens plate... and you eliminate the risk of the lens-plate coming loose at any time (it has happened though thankfully no disasters ensued!).
However one glaring design flaw is that they've made the cantilivered design even more fragile and prone to introduce vibration into the lens. I come to this conclusion only by looking at the images online in the ebay advert.. although this very good review in the DPREVIEW forum counters my claim...  I won't belabour the point, but for me it's a case of 1 step forward and 1 step back.
Then a week ago I saw a RRS tripod colar for this lens advertised on B&H!  For the modical amount of $250!  Yes, RRS is not shy of their prices, but I can attest to their quality. But $250???????!  Anyway, let's examine the soundness of  the design.  They too include an arca-swiss dovetail into the lens foot but improve on the Kirk version by setting the foot all the way back and eliminating the cantiliver aspect thereby making a support that is sure to be more stable (though testing would be required to see how stable).  A nice touch is that they've recreated Nikon's own foot release (from their 70-200 line of lenses) which makes taking of the foot child's play.  However in a display of truly not understanding HOW some of us photographers work out in the field, they've added a lens strap to a lug screwed into the bottom of the plate (this may not be included in the package and was in the B&H photo section for the lens).
Why is that not a good thing? For one it makes carrying the lens on a strap and using it on a tripod or monopod mutually exclusive, as you have to unscrew the lug before you can slide the foot into a clamp.  The whole POINT of arca-swiss style plates and clamps is that they are fast to use!  Secondly and more importantly those lugs can come unscrewed very quickly, especially if you're running along with the lens flopping along behind you.. That can spell big trouble.
So although a much more stable design when used on a tripod, the RRS basically negates it's usefulness by not having an adaquate CARRYING solution..

And the solution?
Well I present my MacGyver workaround that hopefully will inspire a lens plate manufacturer to come up with something a) economical b) that solves the cantiliver stability problem c) includes an arca swiss plate into the foot and d) includes a solid carrying connection solution built into the lens plate by placing lug mounts on either end of the lens plate that distributes the weight of the lens on two points and allows the use of comfortable carrying straps such as the Optech. Phew... I can breath now after that long sentence!





I have taken a $20 chinese clamp (great quality by the way) with dual slots for straps to be mounted, threaded through Optech quick release straps, put a plate onto the Nikon lens foot (about $10 for a chinese knock-off, or around $50 for my RRS plate) and now have a stable solution to carry the lens thus and for the modical amout of $30 (or $60).

When I want to use a monopod or tripod, I simply loosten the chinese clamp and voilá!
I'm a bit saddened that a company like RRS that supposedly only manufacture lens and camera solutions hadn't thought about the need to hand-carry a lens so obviously designed for hand-carrying.  Makes me wonder what we're paying the big bucks for?!  The Chinese solution is a little bit less thought out although it does solve one fundamental issue (arca-swiss clamp) and with Vibration Reduction (VR) in this lens it is debatable whether the cantiliver issue will be a problem in anything but the longest or shortest exposures.. and at the price they are truly competitive.  RRS does have an elegant design with a removable foot, I do admit. But elegance is trumped by practicality, and there is not enough of it going on here.

My solution is not without it's flaws.  A plate bolted onto the Nikon lens collar can become dislodged.. the lens clamp I've attached to the plate can also work it's way loose if not tied down properly.  But overall and for short periods of time it makes hand-carrying this beast of a lens quite enjoyable.  It's there in your hand when you need it, and you slide it back behind your shoulder when you're walking looking for an image.

So the call is to you plate manufacturers! Can you make a one-piece solution?


Sunday, October 23, 2016

Ponta whale season



Just a "quick" animated gif of a whale jumping outside my window in Ponta do Ouro.. Adobe tutorials are not so easy to follow.. or rather Photoshop is a convoluted confusing mess!  But still managed to string it together.  Enjoy.

Oh.. forgot to mention, for the technically minded I used a Nikon D810 in 1.5x crop mode and shot at 7 frames per second.  The lens used was nikon's maxi zoom, the 200-500, though I'm not sure I used an extender or not.. probably the info is buried somewhere in the exif information if I could bother to look at it.. But there it is.. as.  Oh, and by the way, trying to grab a shot of a whale jumping is akin to take photos of an asteroid from a spinning space shuttle.. Not impossible, just very very hard!

Saturday, April 9, 2016

A little game reserve in Swaziland

Nope. I'm not telling you where it is. Because it's that good. Small. Welcoming. You can walk around and take pictures and see animals and hike.. and really have a wonderful wildlife experience.  Unlike the Kruger where you're confined to your car, this place really lets you roam. And as long as you don't go swimming you should be out of reach of their most dangerous predators (the Crocs!).

Here are some pics of the place.





Thursday, February 18, 2016

Apple woes..

At various points in my life I've made some BIG decisions.  One was to propose to my now wife.  The other was to have a Dog. And when we didn't kill the dog, to have children.  Other BIG decisions, though lower on the Richter scale of BIG, still meant a big change that altered my routine, way of thinking, even life.  One of these was the change from Canon to Nikon.  It is fitting that as this blog calls itself "fotografic" I should have at least ONE big decision that is photo related.. But wait, there's more!!!  Another big decison in around 2001 was from film to digital.  And again in 2015, from digital to film!  But probably the most important BIG decision (after my wife, the dog and kids) was moving from Windows to Apple.  That was a biggie... I mean I was CIO at my contruction company for many years, growing up from a 9600k modem connection in 1994 to VSats and Lotus Notes and Cisco routers and whatnot.  Windows at the time was my life, and I spent as much time tinkering with the innards of my personal laptop as much as actually using it to do things.  Updates, defrags and compacts, shutdown-restarts ad infinitum, blue screens of death, format and re-instals.. The endless software updates (from windows 3.1, windows NT, 98, 2000 and .. oh.. I forget) and incompatibilities that came with every major release..
So one day after a bit of research (Apple users looked so relaxed!) I decided to make the switch.  The fact that my Dell imploded due to some rather dodgy video card did help the decision along.. 1 year guarantees my foot!
So I went out and bought a shiny new iMac and the world was a wonderful new place to be in.  Routines were completely irrelevant now!  I could simply DO stuff on my computer (I was about to say PC... but now it's a MAC) and all that time spent upgrading and whatnot was saved..

Or so I thought.  The change came in 2008.  Since then I'm onto my second Mac, now a Macbook pro, a zillion times faster than the iMac, with 5 times as much ram and hard disk space.. But I seem to be spending more and more time.. upgrading.. and updating.. and cleaning (though thankfully no long defrags into the night). Apple has become just as bad as Windows ever was, and I am now spending more time under the hood than behind the wheel.  Which is unfortunate because while I knew what was going on with Windows I have absolutely none when it comes to Apple.  It just works.. or at least it's supposed to. 

Maybe I exaggerate when I say it's as bad as Windows.  I mean it's not like I have constant virus warnings or peripherals that refuse to work.  Most of that goes quite well.  It's in the little things that SHOULD work but don't.  As this is a fotografic (sic)  blog, let's talk about my photography.  I have close to 60K pictures in my Lightroom library. I have an iPhone, which is purported to be the best mobile phone on the planet.  And the two have decided they don't know each other anymore.  It's like a relationship gone sour.  And this is a problem because Apple sold me a phone which has 16gb.. except it only has 12.  And that means that after they've installed their Bloatware, and I've installed all my bloatware on it, there is scarcely any space for pictures!  And when I want to download them.. I CAN'T!  Solution?!  Well, I one involved in IT.. I can always find a work-around.. but that implies more time playing under the hood, and less time deleting the 90% crap pictures I took and concentrating on the few decent images that I made. And printing them out.  And framing them. And getting all warm and gushy when people notice them and say how spectacular they are.. Yes, I know I'm dreaming, but it's what you do when you own a Mac.

So does this mean that I made the wrong decision when I forsook Win for Mac? Or Nikon for Canon?  Or my dog for kids?! :-)

Of course not.  It's just the realisation that big changes are not the panacea that they are made out to be, or marketed as.  Certainly apple has made many things easier, but it brings it's own frustrations. And the more I bump up against the walls of the closed garden that is Apple's way of making it's products, the more I become frustrated by their arbitrary decisions on how I must use their products, as well as the momentary glitches that mar their earlier rise to popularity.

Apple has become obsessed with it's own beauty and, much like Narcissus staring at himself in the pond, it simplifies it's products to the point of no return, objects for the mere purpose of being beautiful, and not longer about satisfying our ever increasing need for personal expression, for working with our tools in ways that we want and not necessarily in the way that GOD (aka Steve) intended.  Where will it all end?  Where does a great company like Apple go once it's reached it's zenith?  Well we're either about to colonise Mars, or they will go down.  I can only hope that some humble pie will force them to turn off the reality distortion field that Steve installed and start thinking wholistically about their products, and acting proactively with their customers. 

Rant over.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Tour de Maputo - Coming Soon!



The Tour De Maputo will be taking place in December.  Here are updated posters and dates. We'll start in the 5th and 6th, with final stage still on the 13th.  We've swapped around the stages to make it possible to do 2 back to back stages easier and reduced the distance and changed routes slightly to make them easier to manage and support, as so far race support seems non-existent.  It's the end of the year, no-one has any budget, and everyone in the club wants to race and not to help out.. so it will be a self-timed and self-policed race.  That's fine, we've managed before.  The big innovation will be doing a MTB version at the same time and on the same routes (with less distance).  That should bring together a rather different bunch of riders together!  Come out and have some fun.

Oh, and lastly, 350mts pre-registration at Betinho Bikes and 400mts registration on the day (if we manage to fit you in).  So rather pre-register.  The above are actually the T-shirt designs, which if I manage to confirm numbers will be ready for the final stage on the 13th. But no promisses!  So just KEEP CALM and ride the Tour de Maputo.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Thank you for your feedback on iTunes..


I get this inevitable feeling that Apple is heading for a fall.  Call it a presentiment.  A gut feeling.  A company that rises so fast and is based on consumer products, tied to the whims of the general populance, and that dances to it's own tune (sorry, couldn't resist) making products that people don't need (an Apple watch.. seriously!?) and yet so valuable in the sphere of international investors smells of a house of cards.

Ok.. generalised rant over.

Now to specifics.  You might have noticed from my previous post that my whole itunes library disappeared from my iPhone after I updated the iOS.  I normally am a bit more circumspect about this sort of thing.. but the blasted red dot on my settings was nagging me for months and, well... I succombed. No sooner had I done that and my whole music collection disappeared.  This is more than mildly annoying.  I've put time and effort in collecting, cataloguing and playlisting my music.  And although it's still on my Mac, it's not like I walk around with that glued to my ear, is it?!  My iPhone is my music in my car, playing through my speakers, in the plane with me playing through my earphones.  I don't live for my music.. but I miss it.  And for something to not work like this is more than mildly frustrating.  What is incredibly frustrating is the canned message I got (picture above) when I sent my message of displeasure to Apple.  The forums are alight with problems similar to mine.. but no message from Apple saying "we're working on a fix. Oh, and by the way sorry for the f#$% up."  I thought we customers were kings. But in the Genious world of Apple we are mindless lemmings ready to buy the next product.  So why bother with customer service. 

Stay tuned for more updates on my music saga as it unfolds!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Apple core..


I am livid. LIVID!  AND NO, I’M NOT using Microsoft.  I’m an Apple user.  Supposedly a subset of contented people, one of the guys in black turtlenecks that drives a Saab or a Volvo stationwagon, who leaves on a Thursday for a long-weekend and comes back on a Tuesday morning..  A guy who lives in a spacious modern apartment with a lapdog and a professional wife who makes more money than me. And I’m happy because I use Apple and others have no idea.  I have great gadgets which just work and I get on with my life.  But that all ended today.  You see I recently updated my iPhone 4Gs (admittedly a rather old model.. as they’re about to release the 6s in September 2015).  And I only updated it because of apple’s insistence.  They stick a great big red marker on your phone and if you don’t want to look like an idiot you end up clicking it. Sort of like the big sticker on the red button which reads DO NOT PRESS and which everyone ends up pressing anyway…
And so now I have an unintelligible music program and NO music.  There I was trying to connect the Bluetooth to the car system and show my son how the music sounds..  I’m fiddling trying to find my 60gb worth of music and just miss being hit by the bus that has just hurtled past.  Great one Apple.  All those health apps eating up space on my phone and it wouldn’t have made much difference to my health.  I chuck the phone on the dashboard so there’s no more temptation to fiddle and leave the radio tuned into the horrible sound of 50’s music. Ah, the joys of LM radio.
You see I think Apple has made a fundamental miscalculation.  Whereas the whole concept of i with a lower case i is that the internet is pervasive, like ether or air or whatever.  We are supposed to breath it in.  But the reality is that spotty coverage, high costs (in Africa, Australia and Italy, the three places I travel to with some regularity) and intermittent quality mean that we’re better off with our off-line stuff than trying to download a radio signal.  I’m tired of trying to access the supposed 30 minutes free wireless you get in café’s.. By the time you set it up, IF YOU MANAGE, the capuccino’s cold!   And another thing.. this idea that phones should have microscopic sim cards that no-one else supports, technology that doesn’t place nice with other systems except itself (isturbation?) have turned my apple from a nice shiny white thing to one that seems rotten to the core.  Music I like to manage. I like to download myself or cut it from my cd collection, not using iTunes.  Photos that I want to copy to my hard-drive and manage in Lightroom.  E-mails that I want on my desktop and not on some cumulonimbus cloud somewhere. Software that I pay for and own, not rent (ok, that’s more an Adobe thing).  And updates for all my devices, not only the ones that Apple thinks I should used.. I mean, I still use my 3Gs, and so does my mother.  A little update of that system wouldn’t hurt sales of the iPhone 6, I’m pretty sure.  I mean Fujifilm with their eternal updates for even discontinued cameras have shown what sort of customer loyalty you can generate doing that. To be fair Apple does that, just not for all models.  Oh and Apple, let me download the updates I want, and not forcefeed me the ones you think I need. And why the hell do I have to download 10gb worth of files for a Mac, iPhone x 2, iPads x2. Couldn’t it just be one file?  I mean bandwith COSTS!   It’s either that or wait till midnight for happy-hour.. and even then the downloads crash because they’re so damn BIG.  Remember bloatware.. It seemed that only Microsoft had that disease.. Well, it looks like Apple is pretty bloated itself.
Yes, I’m definitely fed up with apple. Enough to abandon ship?  Maybe not my Mac, still a nice computer that doesn’t crash like my old Microsoft powered one.  Maybe not my iPads- my kids use them more than me. Certainly my phone, though.  My next will not be an iPhone 7.  I mean who wants a phone where the company can’t even get their grammar correct (small i followed by an uppercase.. that should have been a warning sign!).  No I’ll go for one of these chinese jobbies, with dual sims, and android system and just about all the same apps I need.  And I’m pretty sure they won’t delete my music on my device!
Apple, you’ve been warned.