My Nikons (along with a battered Leica) got me through the Vietnam war. When I joined TIME in 1972, my Nikon F2s came along. With the help of the new Nikkor 600mm lens, I blasted away at Richard Nixon. He couldn't run, couldn't hide. In the next few years I had amassed more than two dozen covers of the magazine, all shot through the Nikon viewfinder.
However, whether it was my eyes growing older or Jimmy Carter coming to the White House, it got harder to take those pictures. I began to have increasing problems with my focus. I tried using Beatie screens that brightened the viewfinder image, but I still just couldn't see to focus properly.
In the late seventies, Canon offered to let me try their cameras. The first thing I noticed was that I COULD SEE !. The viewfinders just had that much more brightness that it made all the difference. In addition their new optics , even in those pre autofocus days were spectacular. I remember using the new Canon 800mm f5.6 to photograph Jerry Ford during his last debate, and the detail was breathtaking (you can see this picture in my '25 Years of The Presidency" essay on this site.)
Then, along came auto-focus. Canon took a big gamble, and decided to junk their FD series in order to move to the next level of autofocus. Many photographers were critical, but the gamble paid off. Suddenly gray Canon lens barrels were outnumbering black Nikon ones at events around the world.
A chasm developed among photographers. There were the traditionalists who scoffed at autofocus, whom you found behind their Nikons. Generally the autofocus control was taped off. Then there were the autofocus people, clicking away with their Canons. In time, even Nikon had to agree Canon was on to something., and after a long winter's nap they decided to do something about it.
THE NIKON F-5
In to get a fair sense of their system, after all those years of using Canons, I offered to use Nikons for a full month covering the White House for TIME.
With my fingers crossed, I unwrapped the boxes (it took a bit longer that way).
When I started the test period, I asked Nikon to provide me with the same type of cameras and lenses I used on a daily basis.
This boiled down to two F5s, a N90 ( With Canon, those would have been 2 EOS1-ns, one A2,) a SB28 strobe, a wide angle zoom, a medium zoom, a 80-200 zoom, and a 300mm f2.8.
The F5 camera is very impressive. Its all metal chassis, with titanium prism cover looks and feels as if it could go through a nuclear blast. Yet the weight with the eight-battery pack was about the same as my CanonEOS-1n. The motor drive-battery pack is part of the camera body. There are no add-ons that need to be screwed in. With alkaline batteries the motor gives you 71/2 fps. If you use the new NIHD batteries, the speed is boosted to 8fps.
The shutter is a made for action 30 seconds to 1/8000th. It seems very smooth with little mirror bounce. The power rewind is fast and reasonably quiet.
The viewfinder, which is detachable, is held securely in place by a track that keeps moisture out of the assembly. Similarly, all control buttons on the camera have gasket lips that prevent water from entering the body. The viewfinder display is big and clear. A plus over Canon is that the film counter in the viewfinder gives a frame by frame display. The Canon only indicates the last nine frames remaining at the end of the roll.
At first, I thought there were more control functions on the body than needed, but as time went on, I realized there were reasons why they were there. Nikon had obviously learned a lot from Canon. One of the crucial features of the latter is that it is possible to switch the Auto Focus control feature from the shutter button to a rear panel button. This is a crucial feature that is not available on the lower priced N90, but on the F5, it's there, and in fact the function selector number is 4, the same as on the Canon.
The first major difference I noticed from the Canon is that where the rear control knob which sits on back of the film chamber, is used to select either F stop or shutter speed on the Canon, is instead used on the Nikon to select focus points in the viewfinder. At first, I thought this was odd, but in use, I quickly came to appreciate this feature. Covering the President at a press conference I was able to change my focus point in the viewfinder with a simple pressure of my thumb. This is a very useful feature. The focus points show up in the viewfinder as five little boxes, allowing you to select right, center, left, high and low spots. In addition, the focus point becomes the spot meter point. In my opinion, it would, however have been even better if Nikon had outlined the focus point in red as Canon does, rather than black. Nikon says they chose the black outlining in order not to give the photographer "night blindness". In the viewfinder, on the top and the side of the image you will see small illuminated arrows that move to the left and right and up and down depending on the focus point chosen I understand that if you take the camera to a service outlet, they can program the camera to remove the high and low focus points, which would make autofocus even easier.
This idea of taking the camera to a service center for basic programing is a bit peculiar. When the cameras are shipped, the default for film rewind is set to totally rewind the roll. If you want to leave a bit of tab out of the cartridge you have to have that task performed at the service center.
Nikon makes a point of emphasizing its "exclusive 3D Color Matrixing Meter." At first, I couldn't figure out what they were talking about. I tried putting on 3D goggles, but the pictures still seemed to be two dimensional. I asked other photographers on the NPPA list if they could shed some light on this, but got only one somewhat vague reply. According to Richard LoPinto, who heads Nikon's USA marketing, the camera's 1,000 pixel sensor as well as estimating light values can discern PATTERNS of light. For example, if it sees a band of blue at the top of the frame, and a band of green at the bottom, it understands it is looking at a landscape and can expose accordingly. Because it can understand the real difference in reflectivity between different colors, it can make micro adjustments to exposure. For example, most metering systems work on the principle of 18% gray . As most photographers know, green grass can be used as a gray scale substitute. However, as Nikon's Bill Pekala explains, "summer grass is that 18% gray, but spring grass is actually a lighter green, therefore brighter than 18%. Similarly basing on fall grass would result in slight overexposure. It is this plus or minus 1/2 stop adjustment the color metering can make." In addition, in fluorescent lighting, the meter will understand there is more green in the light, and will subtly increase exposure, which can help improve skin tones.
In combination with the new SB-28 strobe, the third "D" comes into play, which is evaluation of distance from the camera to the subject in relationship to exposure. If a subject is standing four feet from the camera, but only occupying a small portion of the frame, and the background is brightly lit, it understands that the subject is what you are interested in and exposes accordingly.
I do think that the accuracy of the F5 meter beats the Canon, which is also very good. In particular, the Nikon seems better able to handle spot metering. In events where we did not have an opportunity to take incident readings of the platform where the President would be speaking, readings from the buffer zone 15 feet away were dead-on.
Nikon boasts a focus tracking system that can detect direction of movement, and can autofocus with its "Lock On" system at 8fps , but I didn't get an opportunity to check that.
As good as the F5 seemed to be, The N90 was a real disappointment. For one thing there was no rear focus button, and to select f stops in manual, you had to select the apertures on the lens barrel, rather than in the viewfinder. The focus lock button is inconveniently located on the lower right of the lens mount, making it very difficult to lock focus with certain lenses. When used as a complementary camera to the F5, it poses more system differences than a similar Canon EOS1-n and A2 package
With the exception of the 300mm 2.8 AFS lens, I was surprised at how little had changed in the years I had been away from Nikon.
The prime zoom that I use covering the White House is the Canon 28-70mm f2.8. Nikon has no comparable lens. The closest they come is the 35mm-70mm 2.8 . This lens seems as if it came from the stone ages. Not only is itswidest angle 35mm, but the zoom is the old push-pull type. What this means is if I was using it on the N90, to lock the autofocus, which would be activated on the shutter release, I would have to reach around the lens with my left hand and depress the lock button. So what hand do I use to zoom with ?
The 20-35mm 2.8 AF lens is sharp. However, Canon users have moved on to the 17mm-35mm a year ago.
The 80-200 f 2.8 zoom also seems very dated. Actually, I thought this lens must have been one of the older models. I was surprised when a Nikon user told me that in fact the lens had only been on the market for a little over a year. While sharp, it lacks the ability to be manually focused while set in the autofocus mode. In addition, the autofocus with this , as well as most of the older AF lenses seems labored, compared with the speed of the Canons. Because this is an old AF lens, you can't use the 1.4x tele-extender that you can use with the 300mm 2.8, which is a real problem for somebody like me.
The new 300mm f2.8 AFS lens is very good. It is much faster focusing then the AF lenses mentioned above. The problem is that it is a real bear to carry around. As somebody who is moving away from this kind of big glass to the new Canon 300mm f4 stabilized lens which can take advantage of slower shutter speeds to do the same job, carrying this sort of weight on a news assignment seems old fashioned.
I asked LoPinto about the problems with these lenses, and he advises me that Nikon is aware and new optics, such as a 28-70 and 80-200 AFS lenses are "not far away".
It's a minor point, but while they are working on those lenses, Nikon should really try to figure out a way to keep their hoods on the lenses. I remembered that keeping on lens shades was a big problem when I was using Nikons back in the seventies. Now 25 years later, they STILL hadn't figured out a way to lock them on. I was constantly dropping the 20-35 shade, and the 80-200 shade is held on with gaffer tape. PLEASE !
To sum up the F5...it is a very good, heavy-duty , reliable camera for photojournalists. It's metering system is superior. Whether they can justify a substantially higher price per camera over the similar Canon product is open to debate. They have a way to go with their lenses however, and I'm surprised it took them this long.
Oh, one more thing. That Nikon F5, with the 80-200mm got me another TIME cover.
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