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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

From FX to DX; From Pro to Consumer. From a D700 to a D3200

Prologue

Judging by the title, you might think that today's article is about going back to DX from FX. Or, you might think it's about giving up a pro body (like a Nikon D700) to get a consumer body (like a D3200). It's about these things, too, but not limited to them.

Today's article is a wildcard. It applies to you who wonder whether you should get an older pro FX body or a modern DX consumer one; it applies to you who realized you can't afford the FX system and wants to go back to DX; or, as in my own case, you might wonder whether you can combine a pro body with a consumer one (and of a different system, too!).

Taken with the D3200 and the Samyang 85mm f/1.4. Manual focus with an entry-level
camera is not as easy and smooth as with a D700 kind of body.
 As always, I offer you food for thought and photographic experience from the perspective of a professional photographer who is also an amateur (=someone who loves what s/he is doing). Take what you will read here with you, and apply it to your own situation. Each one of us is different. I will not talk to you about cold numbers, resolution charts, shutter lags, fps, or anything like that. These are things you can easily find elsewhere, if they are important to you. Instead, I will tell you how it feels to use a consumer DSLR (again?) if you are used to a pro body.

Background

Regular visitors of AmateurNikon probably remember that I am a professional portrait photographer (and, non-professionally, a landscape & macro photographer as well). My investment is on the FX (full frame) system, but I have been a long time DX user too. However, it has been many years since I last used (on a regular basis, that is) a consumer Nikon DSLR - since the D40 to be exact; about 7-8 years I guess. Since then, I have been using progressively more complex bodies. Nowadays, I mostly use a D700 (occasionally renting a D800 if an assignment requires a higher pixel count).

I recently got the idea of purchasing a body that would have the following characteristics:
- it would be small
- it would be cheap
- it would have a high-resolution, high-performance sensor at base ISO

The obvious choice was a D3200. I was wondering, however, how it would feel using such a body after being used to (in chronological order) a D2x, a D300, and a D700 for 7 or so years (after the D40 I also used a D200 and a D80 for a year or two). Here's what happened:

Findings

  • Ergonomics
It's not as bad as you would think. Yes, the D3200 is far smaller, but there is basically only one difference holding the camera (I have average-sized, Goldilocks-approved fingers: not too big, not too small, not too thick, not too long): With the D700, you can comfortably snuggle your three last fingers on the handle, with the index on the shutter button; with the D3200, the little finger has to go under the body. Not a big deal.
  • Viewfinder, screens, buttons
Let's not hide the truth: DX viewfinders (particularly consumer) are a much different, worse experience compared to FX. The viewfinder is not bad at all (in fact I would call it quite good), but it just doesn't have the amazing clarity of the FX one. Full-frame viewfinders are perhaps the best reason to go FX. They offer a connection with a scene that has to be experienced to be appreciated. I got used to the D3200 viewfinder quickly during shooting, but I noticed that once I went back to the D700 one, I again needed time to get used to the lesser one.

I also expected I would miss the top LCD screen. Surprisingly, I didn't as much as I feared. The D3200 info button brings up all the necessary information and it doesn't get in your way. What I did miss (without expecting I would, in fact) was the dedicated mode button, which allowed me to swap exposure modes without taking my eyes off the viewfinder. I found it annoying that I had to look away to see where I must rotate the dial. Another element I really missed was the ISO display on the viewfinder (or even the info screen, when in Auto ISO; at least you get it when in live view). Which brings us to...
  • Shooting Experience
Obviously the most important aspect. In short: everything has to happen slower with a consumer body, or, if you need the speed, be prepared to allocated more automation to the camera. The FX, pro body, allows you to do pretty much everything without taking your eyes off the (awesome) viewfinder:
Need to see which (Auto) ISO your exposure will have? Check.
Need to swap exposure modes (say, from M to A)? Check
Need to change ISO, WB, or Quality? Check
...And a lot more things like these, which, on a consumer body, you will have to stop, take a moment to change settings (often through menus), then go back. Some scenes allow you to do this, others won't wait (hence, you will need to rely on the camera's automation).

The "rangefinder" feature of the consumer D3200 (that is, receiving focus assistance in the form of a bar) is, on paper, a great feature. But, disappointingly so, I found it extremely unreliable and limited. First of all, you can't use it on M mode. Secondly, and most importantly, it doesn't work with non-CPU lenses! in other words, you can use it only with AF-D (or AF-S, if you want to use them in MF). Thirdly, it just doesn't seem to be as reliable as the one in higher bodies (the one from the D700 is awesome, it lets me focus with great precision even with f/1.4 lenses; with the D3200 I struggled with f/2.8)

The worst kind of bad news are those involving "features"/bugs that are a) clearly different compared to higher-end models; b) the change is not immediately apparent. Such a "feature"/bug is the sneaky Auto ISO increase when you use flash. On a camera such as the D700, when flash is on, Auto ISO is off, unless if it is required for the exposure (in other words, if the flash, even at full power, cannot produce the desired exposure). With an entry-level camera such as the D3200, Auto ISO remains on, and what you get is a balanced ambient/flash exposure even if you did not ask for one! In effect, the camera thinks you're an idiot and wants to avoid giving you a flash-only exposure. The problem is, if you use a slow lens indoors, you can very easily get ISO 6400 (or whatever max value you have told the Auto ISO to use). Not nice.

Static subjects are fine with an entry-level camera. Fast-moving ones
or changing situations in general, less so.

Conclusion

Based on the above, you might think I thoroughly regretted my decision to purchase a D3200. On the contrary! I love it, it's a great little camera, perfect for the reason I got it in the first place: a small, cheap (=expendable) travel camera, with a superb sensor, that can also be used as a high-resolution camera for static objects. I haven't yet tried it, but I suspect landscapes (with a Tokina 11-16mm) or macros (with the Tamron 90mm) will be awesome with it.

Would I give up my D700 for it? Never. The sensor of the D3200 is better at base ISO, but as the lights go down, the D700 is still superior at high ISO. A D300 (the last true DX pro body) vs D3200 would be perhaps a different story sensor-wise (the D3200 is better in all aspects), but the features of the pro body are still unbeatable. 

In the end, if you have used a pro body such as the D700 (or even the D300, to a slightly lesser degree - thanks to the viewfinder), you will find the D3200 experience far more underwhelming. As I said, everything is slower; the immediacy, the connection to the scene is somewhat diminished. As a second body, to be used for controlled situations (or casual occasions, such as travelling light), a consumer body is awesome. Otherwise, I'd take the pro body experience any day. We all have our preferences, but I would have to go back to the D100 or D70 to say "you know what, I'll take the D3200 after all. Else, if I had to own only one camera, even the D200 would be preferable to the D3200 (or D3300). Yes; ergonomics, features, and shooting experience are that important.

Provided your shooting discipline and technique is solid (and you use a high-quality lens), modern Nikon sensors are absolutely superb, especially at base ISO.




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