Old 09-26-2008, 06:07 PM   #1
John West
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Cool Luck and pixels

I have been away from RP doing the usual summer family stuff, and was pleasantly surprised when my first post upon returning got a Screeners Choice and some very generous comments. Thanks to everyone.

Image © John West
PhotoID: 252414
Photograph © John West


This picture is a good example of the role of luck in photography. I was on a trip with family and friends, and railroad photography was not really on the agenda. No tripod, and only the bare essentials for vacation pix. But we were staying at the Izaak Walton while visiting Glacier, so trains were not far away. So I wander down to the Java Creek bridge on a cloudy morning, and bingo the train comes, the sun appears, and the clouds rise just a bit. How many times over the past 20 years have I stood in this same location with totally mediocre results.

But my real reason for this post is to ask about technical image quality. I know this is an old subject for me, and I'm beating a dead horse, but as much as I like the picture, I do not like the technical quality. It just isn't as sharp as I would like. Before posting I tried a lot versions using different sharpening approaches, but none really gave my the kind of results I used to get with film plus 4000 dpi scans.

Or am I staring at the limitations of a 6 MP camera. This is not a highly cropped image, so there should be plenty of pixels to go around. Or do I really need to get my checkbook out and replace my little D40 (that I love dearly because it is so light and compact) with the dreaded heavyweight D300.

Looking (again, I'm a slow learner) to be educated by folks who know more about the digital stuff than me.
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Old 09-26-2008, 06:22 PM   #2
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Quote:
Originally Posted by John West
It just isn't as sharp as I would like. Before posting I tried a lot versions using different sharpening approaches, but none really gave my the kind of results I used to get with film plus 4000 dpi scans.

Or am I staring at the limitations of a 6 MP camera. This is not a highly cropped image, so there should be plenty of pixels to go around.
One question, did you rotate the image? Rotating an image 1 degree eats up a lot of pixel detail, as every pixel becomes a weighted average of several other pixels, and image quality goes downhill fast.

Second question, lens used, camera settings?

Third question, are you saying that your typical D40 results are not as good as you want, or your results on this particular shot, compared with similar shots from this spot taken on film, are not as good as you want?

A beauty of a shot!
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Old 09-26-2008, 06:25 PM   #3
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John...very nice photo! It's funny you bring up the sharpening here in the forums because when I looked at the shot and was deciding to leave a comment and add to my favorites, the deal maker was the sharpening!

I wondered if you had done some selective sharpening on just the train itself because they way it is now, the train really pops from the background. Also, the cliff across the gorge looks sufficiently sharp. So for me, this photo is sharpened just fine.

The real question is how does it look as a print? From my experience, a print brings out details and quality that is not noticible on a 1000 pixel image on a monitor.

I think the technical quality's fine, but I'm interested in hearing what other folks say...
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Old 09-26-2008, 08:15 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JRMDC
One question, did you rotate the image? Rotating an image 1 degree eats up a lot of pixel detail, as every pixel becomes a weighted average of several other pixels, and image quality goes downhill fast.

Second question, lens used, camera settings?

Third question, are you saying that your typical D40 results are not as good as you want, or your results on this particular shot, compared with similar shots from this spot taken on film, are not as good as you want?
Interesting comment about rotation, never thought about that. Most of my pix get rotated at least a hair if not more, need to think about that chewing up pixels I guess. However this one looks pretty level in the RAW version, so it may not have been rotated.

I was shooting with the 18-200 VR. 1/320, f5.6, 20mm. While the 18-200 has a reputation for being good pretty much through out its range, clearly my settings were not in the "meat" of the lens, so perhaps there was an optical issue.

The sharpness issue is with this lens/camera in general. Sometimes I get excellent results where the "crispness" jumps out, but occasionally one is just not as sharp as I would like. Some time ago I had a picture on the Keddie Wye rejected for being "blurry"....and I had to agree with the screener although I could not think of any reason why it should not be sharp.

I'm guessing that the problem, if there is one, is with the lens, and might even be associated with the VR feature either being misused or not operating properly. Or given Ween's comment, perhaps I am just going through post digitization traumatic stress.

By the way Ween, no selective sharpening was done. But I understand why you asked because the silver and stainless steel of the train does jump out from the background, which is one of the neat things about the shot.

Thanks for the feedback.
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Old 09-26-2008, 08:30 PM   #5
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Quote:
The sharpness issue is with this lens/camera in general. Sometimes I get excellent results where the "crispness" jumps out, but occasionally one is just not as sharp as I would like.
I get this sometimes as well, and I chalk it up to user error and/or environment conditions (read: wind). I think it might come down to me not being as steady as I should at 200mm...and, no, I don't have IS on my 70-200mm.
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Old 09-26-2008, 08:59 PM   #6
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Hi John,

That image looks great on my monitor. I don't really see a sharpness issue with it.

You're shooting with a very similar set-up to mine. I have the D40x, which is a 10.2 MP camera, but we both use the same lens. At one point, I too had wondered about the sharpness of my photos, so I did some reading and ultimately changed some of my procedures.

The first action that I took was to go to ISO 200 on the camera (the D40x goes down to 100) whenever I needed the lens' maximum focal length. That gave me a little more shutter speed and did cure some of the softness/blurriness in my tele shots.

The second, and more important thing I did was change my sharpening scheme. I had been doing only one sharpening step right before resizing for RP. Then I read some posts from guys here who advocated lightly sharpening again after resizing. Well damn! That made a hell of a difference....so much so that I resharpened and re-uploaded a lot of my pictures. Normally, my first sharpening step is something like USM 100/.7/0 and my second pass on the downsized image is USM 25-50/.5/0. You need to be careful on the second pass, because you can overdo it. I recently got bagged for oversharpening...which is why I gave the range on the second step.

Anyway, I think your camera/lens combination is probably fine unless you really start seriously cropping. If you want a better camera, try the D60, which is a 10.2 MP camera, but just as small and light. If you want to go a step better, the D80s have just come down in price. Still 10.2MP, but with a better focusing array. I still think the D300 is an anvil!!

Personally, I'm looking for a second body and the D80 or D90 look like the choices. D80s are about $600. D90s are $1000 if you can find a store that has them. The D80 is probably the better value.

Thx,
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Old 09-26-2008, 10:16 PM   #7
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I thought I was King Critical when it came to sharpness of an image and your image passes with flying colors, John. The silver/chrome train pops beautifully, as does the trestle and rockface. The only slight, but barely noticable issue may be with the Amtrak logo and livery stripe down the consist but that is extremely minor.

There are several photos in the database, even PC's and SC's that logos are barely readable. Regardless, on it's own merit, I find your image perfectly sharp and well within tolerance, if not upper crust, considering the composition. I've noticed as you go wider you tend to loose sharpness - it's as if there is too much detail for too little space to present. I'll bet the print, heck, even the calandar page would pop to your satisfaction.

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Old 09-26-2008, 10:21 PM   #8
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Cool

I probably need to run a print of the 10x7 300 dpi version. I agree with Ween's observation that a print is a much better basis for critical evaluation.

JBWX
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Old 09-26-2008, 11:17 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mitch
The only slight, but barely noticable issue may be with the Amtrak logo and livery stripe down the consist but that is extremely minor.

There are several photos in the database, even PC's and SC's that logos are barely readable.
Quote:
Originally Posted by John
...a print is a much better basis for critical evaluation.
I very rarely print any of my stuff, but when I do, I am always amazed at the quality improvement of the print over the online version (and I use the quicky, 1-hour Sam's Club option for prints). With this photo:
Image © Chris Paulhamus
PhotoID: 235136
Photograph © Chris Paulhamus


...you can make out the first letters pretty well but you can't clearly read the 'Kansas City Southern Lines' wording in the herald on the front of the cab, but on the 8x10" print I have, you can read it plain as day. The quality difference between an online version of a photo and a physical print is insane.
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Old 09-27-2008, 02:23 AM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ween

The real question is how does it look as a print? From my experience, a print brings out details and quality that is not noticible on a 1000 pixel image on a monitor.
I agree. The few prints I've had made have looked MUCH better on paper than on screen. So much so that I couldn't help but to keep looking closely at the detail that is missed on a computer monitor.
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Old 09-27-2008, 04:06 AM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JimThias
I agree. The few prints I've had made have looked MUCH better on paper than on screen.
I'll bet, for instance, going off your photo as seen in your avitar alone, Jim, I'm just not 100% sure I'd recognize you if I ran into you at some railfan event.

/Mitch
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Old 09-27-2008, 11:07 AM   #12
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A lot of this has to do with the monitors. Most display at 72dpi, which can lead to details that one can see when you display at actual size missing at a lower size, like about 1024x680, at least on my 17" crt.
Of course, when you print with a quality printer, you get the higher dpi, which then does give you an idea of what you're really getting.
Even monitors can vary in sharpness.

I have a D50, which I dearly love, and I've heard that the D40 throws a very clean jpeg as does the D50. I think in this instance I'd blame glass before camera.

I always sharpen a little before posting an image which has been downsized for the internet.

JRMDC, That tip on rotating will apply to me, I'm going to have to be more careful. I rotate way to many of my photos, unaware of what it does to an image. Going to have to do better getting the horzion correct with the camera.


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Oh, and by the way, John..great photo..as many of yours are!

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Old 09-27-2008, 01:01 PM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ed Mullan
JRMDC, That tip on rotating will apply to me, I'm going to have to be more careful. I rotate way to many of my photos, unaware of what it does to an image.
Oh, I probably do it more than anyone. My handheld shots are mostly off one degree, but oddly, sometimes clockwise and sometimes counterclockwise. It has been happening for so long that the only conclusion, which has taken me a long time to find and reach, is that the viewfinder is loose in the camera and sometimes jiggles one way, sometimes the other.
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Old 09-27-2008, 02:25 PM   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mgoldman
I'll bet the print, heck, even the calandar page would pop to your satisfaction.
FWIW, I've typically heard that Calendar companies prefer 8 MP+ images (especially for non-DSLRs).

Googling for this brought up a BNSF employee photo contest page which states this:

http://www.bnsf.com/employees/commun...8-05-12-d.html

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Old 09-27-2008, 02:31 PM   #15
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I went ahead and looked over at Amazon and found the D60 body only for $570 (through a 3rd party seller):

http://www.amazon.com/Nikon-10-2MP-D.../dp/B0012OELSA

The D80 is barely any more, at $600; plus, iirc, it has non-AF-S/AF-I lens autofocus compatibility if you decided to upgrade lenses:

http://www.amazon.com/Nikon-10-2MP-D...2525734&sr=1-2

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Old 09-27-2008, 06:34 PM   #16
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Smile A couple examples

Here are two pix with the kind of sharpness I lust after:

Image © Jeff Terry
PhotoID: 252490
Photograph © Jeff Terry


And this one by Mac Beau was stolen from trainorders.com:
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Old 09-27-2008, 07:08 PM   #17
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Quote:
Originally Posted by John West
But my real reason for this post is to ask about technical image quality. I know this is an old subject for me, and I'm beating a dead horse, but as much as I like the picture, I do not like the technical quality. It just isn't as sharp as I would like.


Or do I really need to get my checkbook out and replace my little D40 (that I love dearly because it is so light and compact) with the dreaded heavyweight D300.


When someone begins talking about sharpness (or lack of,) the very FIRST thing I ask is, "What tripod and head are you using?" In my own experience NOTHING does as much for sharpness as a pro class tripod. I assume you used one for a shot like that. If it was a cheap one (<$300) I have a suggestion. Take a look at some of the newer carbon fiber models from manufacturers such as Slik and Bogen/Manfrotto. An excellent ballhead is the AcraTech Ultimate, or the BH-55. Those run around $300. I have heard that some of the new Giotto heads are actually decent too especially if you aren't using heavy lenses on it, and that costs about $100 I think. When do I use a tripod? Only when I want the photo to be really sharp. Note that most here have been side tracked by talk of camera bodies, which are the least important thing.

As for your D40, it is a nice size and a nice travel body. If you want more MPs for cropping, you could probably find a used D40x on eBay, or maybe the new D60. Another thought is a used D80, which is still a small camera but has some advantages over the D40. For starters, you can use non-AFS lenses on it. It adds DOF preview button which is something I use often. The viewfinder is also a huge step up. If you are patient you should be able to buy a body only for $500 or less. Now that the D90 is out you should begin seeing more of these listed.

Kent in SD

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Old 09-27-2008, 07:50 PM   #18
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Smile Some final thoughts

....at least from me. And thanks to all who have stimulated my thinking and added some new information and insight. And hopefully others have benefited from the discussion.

I'm guessing that my sharpness question with the Java Creek bridge picture is most likely a combination of using the lens at close to its widest setting, and great but flat lighting. Apparent sharpness is not just a technical issue, but is also enhanced by lighting and contrast. Which is probably why I love somewhat backlit pictures. All the generous comments have convinced me it is a good picture. Thanks.

Rambling on a bit.

As a recent convert to digital (my first digital train pic was taken almost exactly one year ago), I am having to learn a whole new approach to using the unsharp mask, with digital images requiring a whole lot less sharpening that my old scanned slides. Sharpening seems to be one of the great art forms of digital processing. FWIW, I usually do a "major" sharpening after processing my TIF "file" image, and then a "minor" sharpening after resizing and converting to JPEG. There have been some really good prior threads on sharpening and I need to go reread those. By the way, here's that first pic taken September 25, 2007, probably could used some rework and resubmission:

Image © John West
PhotoID: 203805
Photograph © John West


I agree about the importance of tripods, not only for sharpness but also for precise framing. I have an assortment of big and heavy Bogen's. Have a ball but prefer the three way levers. But as noted in the original post about luck, the Java Creek bridge pic was taken without a tripod because I was on a family vacation.

The major limitation of the D40 so far is the small size of its buffer. I can take only about three pix before it starts to pause, which is tough on a guy who likes steam with the rods down. One big advantage of the lack of pixels is I can get a whole trip's worth of RAW plus JPEG images on a single 2 GIG memory card. I really like the D40, it has been a great starter digital camera.

I'm getting very close to talking myself into buying that D300. Do I really need a D300, no. But I can afford it and once I get it I can quit worrying about what camera to get next because there won't be a next. Of course I said the same thing when I bought my first Nikon F 45 years ago....but it did last about 28 years.

Again, thanks to all those who responded to my question. I find this forum to be very helpful with a bunch of experienced folks freely offering good advice.
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Old 09-27-2008, 08:54 PM   #19
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Speaking of sharpness, I bought an old (but like new) Nikon Micro 55 3.5, had it modified to fit my Nikons. You have to manual focus and the cameras don't meter with it..but when you nail the exposure, the results are fantastic.
I don't have pro grade glass, but this little lens taught me what it does for images. The D300 is a fine camera, and will meter with this lens. And the live view would sure be nice for making macros,too.

But if I had to make a choice, speaking only for me, with a D50 and my D80, it would be glass. And it's more than just sharp, it's those apparent sharpness qualitys like contrast, ect., that good glass brings to the table.

A D80 is right around $600 at places like B&H, brand new USA models. And that viewfinder is just great. It's always a matter of money, though. If I had some, I would have a D300..and the 70/200vr, and probably the new 16/85vr!


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Old 09-27-2008, 08:59 PM   #20
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Noct Foamer

When someone begins talking about sharpness (or lack of,) the very FIRST thing I ask is, "What tripod and head are you using?" In my own experience NOTHING does as much for sharpness as a pro class tripod.
Kent in SD
I should probably start yet another thread on tripods, but as long as I have your attention, Kent, specifically - I'm (gasp) not sure I agree with you, or fully understand, at least, the merits of a "good tripod", or any tripod regarding the bulk of most photographers situations - namely;

Most of us shoot at 1/250th or 1/500th AND most often as wide or wider then 50 mm. Just how much movement are we talking about here? Zooming, sure. Shooting at 1/125th, 1/60th, sure but most of us typically shoot at speeds requiring a shutter fast enough to stop the action and consequently at a speed significantly lowering the relevance of a tripod.

As for a "good $300.00 plus" tripod. A tripod from K-mart should suffice in nearly any instance short of a windy day or a long zoom (and it's consequential vibrations (see sawing) at the fulcrum). A "great tripod" is seemingly overkill 80% of the time - though, I always like to be prepared and do bring such a tripod with me for photos that really matter - namely, night shots, dusk shots, zoom and just in case of a windy day type shots. It's also somewhat useful in locking in that shot as opposed to trying to remember to frame in that cantenary resistor or odd tree.

/Mitch

1/6th pan - we don't need no stinking tripod!
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Old 09-27-2008, 09:41 PM   #21
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Quote:
Originally Posted by John West
The major limitation of the D40 so far is the small size of its buffer. I can take only about three pix before it starts to pause, which is tough on a guy who likes steam with the rods down.
From what I hear, to take true advantage of the D40's continuous shooting buffer, you need some better memory. According to DPReview, with a fast card, you should be able to take six or seven RAW files before it starts slowing down (JPEG is unlimited). Therefore, I would suggest investing in some fast cards if that's your only main reason for departing from your D40. However, 2.5 FPS isn't the quickest if you're seriously interested in doing a lot of continuous shooting, and there's no way around that except to get a higher end camera.

Even though I'm only using a long-zoom P&S, I use a 4 GB SDHC card. I'm quite pleased with the flush times I've experienced so far using it with my SX100 (quick enough that I can typically shoot a telemash, flush the shot to the card, and zoom out quick enough to grab a wider angle).

To see numerous options, go to Amazon and punch in "sdhc card". You would probably get a fair deal for something from them.

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Old 09-27-2008, 10:43 PM   #22
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mgoldman

1. I should probably start yet another thread on tripods, but as long as I have your attention, Kent, specifically - I'm (gasp) not sure I agree with you, or fully understand, at least, the merits of a "good tripod", or any tripod regarding the bulk of most photographers situations - namely;

2. Most of us shoot at 1/250th or 1/500th AND most often as wide or wider then 50 mm. Just how much movement are we talking about here? Zooming, sure. Shooting at 1/125th, 1/60th, sure but most of us typically shoot at speeds requiring a shutter fast enough to stop the action and consequently at a speed significantly lowering the relevance of a tripod.

3. As for a "good $300.00 plus" tripod. A tripod from K-mart should suffice in nearly any instance short of a windy day or a long zoom (and it's consequential vibrations (see sawing) at the fulcrum). A "great tripod" is seemingly overkill 80% of the time - though, I always like to be prepared and do bring such a tripod with me for photos that really matter - namely, night shots, dusk shots, zoom and just in case of a windy day type shots. It's also somewhat useful in locking in that shot as opposed to trying to remember to frame in that cantenary resistor or odd tree.




1. Keep in mind I don't see myself as a "railfan" photographer but rather a classic landscape photographer. I came to digital directly from shooting 4x5. All of the photographers I hung around with had premium tripods such as Gitzo 1548 etc. I was the "cheap" guy with my 1325. While it depends on what genre of photography you are into, I do know that landscape/architectural/nature photographers use a tripod about 90% of the time, and that's my own background. I could argue that most choo-choo shots are merely landscape shots with a train in them.

2. In effect, my "shutter" speed is flash duration, which is about 1/1000 second. I can still see differences in sharpness when I haven't used a tripod v. when I did at that speed. Out here in the wide open spaces, I will often use a 400mm lens for choo-choo shots, always with a tripod. Used to use a Nikon 500mm f4 too.

3. The problems with cheap "KMart" tripods are many. They don't lock up very tightly, they loosen with use, they are very bad about transmitting vibrations, they rarely go to eye level, and on and on. As for windy, it is ALWAYS windy on the Northern Plains where I live. I've twice had gusts of wind pick my camera/tripod up and fling it into a field. I sometimes park my truck in a way to block the wind. Without a tripod out here, I'd have virtually no chance. I went from a $100 Bogen 3001 (actually decent) to a wooden Berlebach (solid but heavy) and finally to a Gitzo 1325/AcraTech head (paradise found!) The difference was astounding. I consider my tripod my single most important piece of gear. Don't know if you've ever owned a premium tripod like that, but once you have you are spoiled for life.


John West--
Also consider the new D90. I think it's what you are looking for. It has the size of the D90 and image sensor (and thus image quality) of the D300. It's less money too. That D70/D80/D90 class is Nikon's best dollar value.


Kent in SD

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Old 09-28-2008, 12:16 AM   #23
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Noct Foamer
John West--
Also consider the new D90. I think it's what you are looking for. It has the size of the D90 and image sensor (and thus image quality) of the D300. It's less money too. That D70/D80/D90 class is Nikon's best dollar value.

Kent in SD
Clearly need to look at the D90. When I started last year with the D40, the goal was a D200, then the D300 came along, and now the D90. This technology stuff moves way too fast for me.
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Old 09-28-2008, 01:10 AM   #24
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Quote:
Originally Posted by John West
Clearly need to look at the D90. When I started last year with the D40, the goal was a D200, then the D300 came along, and now the D90. This technology stuff moves way too fast for me.

Its evolving now 12 is more pixels that a guy needs for 99% of us, I like to make big blow ups if the shot rocks, so the Canon 50D is for me, 5Mk11 is more that i can afford till i win the lotto. Remember pixels are squared, the bigger they get the more you need to see a lot more size in print. You will not see a lot from 8 to 12 but 6 to 15 is a jump thats worth getting a new camera. 2 too 4 is doubled but to double 8 you have too jump to 16

This week was a windy one here in the midwest, A tripod was need at over 100-mm to have a chance of a sharp one.
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Last edited by milwman; 09-28-2008 at 01:23 AM.
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Old 09-28-2008, 02:36 AM   #25
Noct Foamer
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Quote:
Originally Posted by milwman
Its evolving now 12 is more pixels that a guy needs for 99% of us, I like to make big blow ups if the shot rocks,



I agree that 10 MP is clearly enough to make a good sized print, but here's another angle. I generally shoot things a bit "loose" and crop down later. Sometimes I end up cropping away about 3/4 if I see something I really like! That leaves about 2.5 MP. More MP to start with is a benefit in that regard. However, as we all know nothing in photography is "free." The price of high pixel density? More prone to noise, possibly more CA.

Kent in SD

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