I am with a group of journalists covering Nikon’s newest lenses and cameras at the Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico. Nikon is hosting us. They have all nine of their newest lenses here for us to try out. Everything from the fixed 200mm F/2 to the updated versions of the 70-200 F/2.8 is available. I’ve played with all of these new lenses and a few stand out. The Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S DX NIKKOR Lens completely blew my mind. The above image was made with this lens using a Nikon D300s body, ISO 400, 1/640th second at EFL 185mm – hand held. This is a sub-$400 lens folks with ED glass and VRII! I can’t believe that Nikon can build a lens with TWO ED elements, VR, Silent Wave Motor and more for around $365. It’s light weight and very contrasty. The zoom movement isn’t the smoothest I’ve ever seen and it’s not weather sealed, etc., nor should you expect it to be at this price, but the color, clarity and contrast are great nonetheless. I confess that I normally wouldn’t consider owning a lens with such a wide zoom ratio and one that costs less then $400, but in this case, I will make an exception. It’s just too versatile to pass up at this price.
Another lens I really liked is the new Nikon 24-120mm f/4G ED VR AF-S NIKKOR Lens. This may be the perfect wide-to-portrait zoom lens for Nikon shooters. It’s super sharp, fast enough at f/4 with a constant aperture and contains all of Nikon’s latest technology including two ED elements, three aspherical lens elements, Internal Focus and Nano Crystal Coating. It’s a greet walk-around lens.
The updated version of the Nikon 200-400mm was fun to play with but I have to confess that I am just not as big a fan of this lens as many of my peers. It’s very heavy, very expensive and a beast to use. Unless you live at Muscle Beach and are in your 20s, you won’t be hand-holding this fellow. Given the price point, I’d rather spend the money on other lenses covering nearly the same focal range. The new version is no doubt better than the old. The improved VR alone makes this lens better. For some it will be perfect. For me, not so much. I am not saying that it’s not up to the challenge optically, I just don’t get it overall. I bought the original (actually two of them) and sold them soon after.
I have also been shooting more with the Nikon Coolpix P7000. It’s proving to be a fun camera. Today I played with the built-in pop-up flash on the P7000 and realized it has DSLR-like features. You can control the power of the pop-up flash from full power to 1/64th power. This makes it easy to provide a kiss of light for portraits who need a little artificial light to improve a photo. The photo above is a quick and dirty portrait of Kelby Media Group’s Matt Kloskowski. I used the pop-up flash at 1/4 power and got a very pleasing result. Without the flash, Matt would have been in shadow as the camera’s meter exposed for the sky. With the flash, it was possible to balance the exposure. Without the precise control (i.e., the ability to shoot at 1/4 power) the flash would have been overpowering. This image is essentially un-retouched, right out of the camera.
I also like the built-in bracketing on the Coolpix P7000. While there is no auto – HDR mode on this camera, the P7000’s auto-bracketing provides one touch, multi-shot photographs that can easily be tonemapped for superb results. The Coolpix P7000 is not perfect. I do believe that in RAW mode it’s a bit slower to respond than some of its competition. That may or may not matter to some users. I need to wait until I can shoot more in RAW, and I also want to see how it integrates with both ACR and Aperture before passing final judgment. Some will also decry the lack of 1080p video on this camera. In my opinion, cameras in this class shooting 720p are more than adequate. Most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference and for under $500 the camera seems to be a bargain with or without it. I’ve already written about the P7000 more extensively here on Photofocus and will again next week.
Nikon also provided us with access to the Nikon D3100 (Better than expected low-light performance and video at under $700) and Nikon D7000. Both cameras are interesting, but the D7000 has me very excited. If you’ve been waiting for serious video to come to the Nikon line, your wait is over. The D7000 is both ergonomically and features-wise, designed to shoot video. The new auto-focus system in this camera is easily controlled with a new AF/M button on the side of the camera. The D7000 that we had access to is a pre-production model. Nikon asked that no images be released to the public from the D7000 because of that. But I can tell you that based on what I saw in the viewfinder, the photos and the video from the D7000 are great. The contrast-based autofocus mode used during LiveView video recording on the D7000 works as well as any contrast-based system. You should know that this isn’t as reliable or fast as the phase-detection AF used on most DSLRs, but it’s a step in the right direction. The low-light performance on the D7000 be compared favorably with the D300s – but it’s no Nikon D3s – it’s also about $4000 cheaper!
I plan to write more about several of these products once I’ve had more time shooting with them at the Balloon Fiesta. And speaking of the Fiesta, it is a blast. Unfortunately, the photos don’t do it justice. Try as I might, I can’t find any way to really show the scale of it. Hundreds of balloons taking off side-by-side into the still blue morning is just something you have to experience to really appreciate. I’ve always wanted to come photograph this event. It’s one of the most photographed events in the country. I had no idea how close I was going to be able to get. You literally can walk amongst the balloons. You’re so close you can touch them. I’ll write a Balloon Fiesta how-to post to supplement this one soon. We have another day of shooting here and then I return home tomorrow.