Nikon D800 – Half-Year Edition

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Like the world needs another D800 review.

The Long Version: I was intending to do a six-month D800 update, but given how much has already been said about the camera I found myself at a loss. So, a month late, I've decided to just quickly touch on the enduring highlights of what I've learned from this incredible camera.

First of all, that whole "megapixels don't matter" thing is a myth perpetuated by people who are selling old cameras. The D800 lets me take photos that no other camera has, including the excellent D700. Compared to the ten and twelve megapixel cameras of my past its resolving power is just spectacular. My personal hallelujah moment came when I went to clone out a speck of dirt, and on enlarging the image to 1:1, I saw that it was actually a gnat – and not only could I count its legs, I could see their shadows.

The sensor is so good that I occasionally use DxO Optics as a front-end for Lightroom 4. It has superior lens correction and differential sharpening, among other benefits, which squeaks better photos out of Nikons' non-phenomenal lens lineup. The cost of the software is about the same as the difference between the D800 and D800E, so I'm happy with that trade.

My personal best battery life was 1600 photos on one charge. Conditions were good: a warm day, using an 85/1.8D and 50/1.4G, only occasional LCD use, and no live view. But a few days later I burned through half of a battery by taking 120 shots and letting my Eye-fi card transfer the small jpegs. Life is complicated, battery life doubly so.

Now I just plan for one battery per 64GB memory card under normal conditions. It works out pretty well, and I only carry a spare under exceptional circumstances. If I really want to squeak the most power out of a battery then I'll add on the grip, which lets me run one all the way down without missing a shot. That's also a great addition for Live View, which is power-hungry and slow, but worthwhile for precise focusing. Life's a barter.

With the notable exception of Live View, the D800 is a very snappy little camera. I'm thrilled to say that despite its slower burst rate the actual shutter-mirror mechanism of the D800 is just as quick as the D700, if not even faster. I judge my shutter speed by the sound of the camera and the mirror blackout, so this is something I care about a lot.

But in Aperture-priority and with Auto Iso enabled the shutter speed almost never drops into the range where I can hear the difference in its duration. And the best part of Auto Iso is that setting a new minimum value, or turning it off, doesn't require a trip into the menus. This is a huge improvement from the previous generation.

I let the camera automatically run up to iso6400, and if it goes that high then it clearly needed to do it. While I watch my dynamic range a bit in very low light I never worry about noise.

A lot has been said of the need to upgrade hard drives and computers for a D800. My 2007 iMac isn't the happiest these days, but it's not about to be replaced, and boosting the capacity of my Drobo is a non-issue. All that I really need from my existing photography support equipment is a way to put bigger paper through my Epson 3880. That's not a bad problem to have.

I started using film cameras because I wanted digital files that would print better than what my 12Mpx digital cameras could do. Even though 135 format resolves less detail than those cameras could, a 4000dpi scan holds up to a lot of enlargement. But now that I'm used to the D800, those little 20Mpx scans seem quaint. My medium format gear doesn't make it out of the house much, either.

The new 24Mpx D600 is promising camera, but if someone offered me a brand new one and $1000 cash for my lightly used D800, I'd say no. Cameras like this are something special.

last updated 23 oct 2012


Buffalo Bus Station

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: A bus station without amenities is a curb.

The Long Version: While I'm far from being a world traveller, I have developed a certain appreciation for bus stations. I've been through the one in Buffalo, New York, on several occasions, and I was recently lucky enough to spend four hours in it during the middle of the night. Writing a review seemed like the only sensible course of action.

Bus stations require certain amenities. First of all, there needs to be a comfortable place to wait. It needs adequate restrooms, some food options, and a place to buy traveller's necessities. All of this should be prominent and close to where the buses load and unload – ideally, within sight of the platforms. It needs to have good wayfinding and information, be clean and welcoming, and be kept in good repair. Buffalo actually manages to do much of this reasonably well, despite fundamentally being a bus station.

Buffalo's bus station – officially the Buffalo Metropolitan Transportation Center – seems to have been designed by someone who's really fond of international airports, because the seating is arranged in rows with enough space to stack weeks' worth of luggage between them. And the generous open space has no bearing on where the doors are for the bus platforms, which might have made sense, leaving the whole result oddly off-scale for the people within it.

With chairs set only the middle of the hall, Buffalo doesn't have any seating for people who prefer to have their backs to something solid. This might make it easy for the station's police to keep an eye on everyone, and discourage certain elements of local commerce from setting up shop, but it's a tough spot to be in. I wouldn't consider listening to music through my earphones in this layout – it would be far too easy for someone to come up to be from behind while I'm unaware. I hate surprises.

The bus platforms are signed according to carrier, but if you want to know where to wait for the Greyhound to Toronto or New York you'll need to ask the helpful attendant. And then the bus might still need to pull in somewhere else – such is life. At least the station designers realized that the weather in Buffalo isn't always pleasant, and the waiting area is indoors with double doors to keep the wind out. If only it was always like this.

Food options are a mixed success. Vending machines provide the most reliable service, and there's a change machine located in a completely different part of the building for people who don't have those archaic dollar bills. There's also a small take-out operation, quite literally a hole in the wall, that provides food that's not robust enough to be dispensed by robot. I didn't see hours posted for it; it was open past 3am when I was there most recently, although when I've passed through on other nights it has been closed. Finally, there's a small restaurant-like operation that's occasionally open – with different hours each day of the week – that I've never been lucky enough to experience.

There's nothing resembling a convenience store, magazine stand, or drug store for any other necessities. There are a few power outlets scattered around that people were able to use to recharge various devices, though, which is always nice to have. They're not conveniently located for travellers, having been intended for power-washers and floor polishers, but at least they aren't kept locked up.

The restrooms in the Buffalo station are another level of experience. Prominent and close to the platforms they solve two problems, and the mens' is able to accomodate quite the crowd if it needs to. But its barrier-free walk-in intentions must not have taken sight lines into account, because the entrance has been retrofitted with an oversized stall door. From the interior it blends into the wall of stainless steel doors, making it into a lobster trap for the tired, disorientated, or intoxicated.

To add to the ambiance, instead of having a sign marked "EXIT" this concealed door simply says "PULL". Yes, pull. It doesn't have two-way hinges, and being one of the few patrons to understand what the sinks were there for, getting through this door is not an appealing prospect. I'd hook it open with my boot, or hope for someone else to swing it open, and use my elbow to defend myself from it.

The bus station also houses the city transit bus, running under the NFTA banner. It took me a while to find out what that stands for: Niagara Frontier Transit Authority. I hadn't realized that Niagara is still a frontier, and haven't heard that term used to describe a civilized border in years, but I suppose it fits. Indeed, I did go from the pinnacle of Canadian urban sophistication to the American hinterland in less than two hours.

But the NFTA name struck me for a different reason. After all, this is Buffalo the City, named after Buffalo the Animal, which has a particularly brutal and genocidal history on the western frontier. I wouldn't expect them to want to remind people of that, but I've been wrong before.

Another interesting Buffalo experience was to have an armed agent of the government approach me and ask to see my papers. Politely, of course, and when I said that I was returning to Canada he lost interest, but this has happened before when I travel by bus, and I always take offense. It seems a little odd that these blanket stop-and-question episodes don't raise the hackles of the live-free-or-die crowd, but I have to wonder how much of a difference it makes that it's immigration enforcement doing the work. Another happy thought.

Being a border town, Buffalo sees a fair bit of traffic as a waypoint, but not much use as a terminal. That's a bit of a pity, because the station is well-situated in downtown Buffalo, and that's an area that could really blossom with more tourist and commercial activity.

A bus station without amenities is called a curb. The Buffalo station is functional if unwelcoming, capable of handing high volumes of stopover passengers but without the deeper considerations that would make long layovers more bearable. Long-distance bus travel is always an arduous task, and the stations need to be very durable, making this a very tough bit of architecture to succeed at. Buffalo isn't as good as Chicago, Syracuse, or New York; I'd say that it's about on par with Detroit. But it's vastly better than the Toronto Coach Terminal, which happens to be my home station.

last updated 12 oct 2012


Canon Powershot S110

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: The S100 was the series apex so far.

Counter Opinion: Today I met the Canon Powershot S110 for the first time. I own and really enjoy the S100 – my full S100 review is here – so I'll jump straight to my executive summary: assuming the slower f/2.0~5.9 lens can be tolerated then the S110 remains an excellent choice despite its modest differences, and even fewer improvements, from the S100.

Feel free to stop reading now if you like, but as always, I do have some subjective opinions as well.

First, the paper changes: A Wi-Fi antenna replaces the built-in GPS. The geo-tagging feature is one that I've left enabled on my S100, but fewer than 600 out of my 4300 photos show any location data, and I know some of it is wildly incorrect. On the other hand, wifi connectivity is something that I had with my eye-fi SD card, but I stopped using it because its power draw was unsustainable with the little NB-5L battery that the S100 and S110 both use. I'll call that change between the models a draw, pending word on how well Canon's engineers have handled the power management problem, but for now I'd keep that card reader handy. (Having a second battery is just good hygiene.)

The touch screen is well done. I like that it's a consistent and natural interface that lets menu items be selected directly through the screen as well as with buttons, while the menu structure and options still remain essentially unchanged across the past decade. That's a huge plus. The touch-to-focus feature was fun the first time, but by the fifth time it was frustrating: every time I picked the camera up I would change the focus zone. That would be the second thing I'd want to disable if I ever bought this camera – right after the sounds, but before the AF Assist lamp – but that's not an option. The touch-screen and touch-to-focus appears to be a mandatory feature.

I also suspect that the autofocus is just a smidge faster than it is on the S100, but I can't prove it; unfortunately I haven't been able to test the S110 in low light, where the S100 tends to embarrass itself.

Physical changes: People must have really loved the handling of the S90 and S95, because the finger grip that Canon added to the S100 is gone again with the S110. The black version at least has a grippy finish, but the new-for-2012 white option is slick paint. Counteracting that is a better thumb rest, but it shouldn't be an either/or choice. Richard Franiec is going to love this camera.

Another ergonomic problem that must have plagued the S100 was the easy-to-find power button, because it has been moved slightly and made smaller. The back panel functions have remained the same, but the domed buttons of the S100 have been replaced by flat buttons that are harder to find by feel. The S110's profile is also slightly boxier than the 90/95/100, and it has had the jimping ridges along the ring control and mode dial replaced with some industrial-style knurling. This provides something of a stylistic tie-in to the Canon G1x, which is an odd choice considering its sales success. Or lack thereof. Overall, I have to say that the S110 avoids the slightly luxurious feel of the S100.

My two biggest complaints about my S100 haven't been resolved. The ring control is still laggy – the camera isn't able to 'stack' commands, so if it can't call up the on-screen indicator for what the ring controls, then turning it has no effect. The other problem is the f/5.9 aperture at the telephoto end of its lens range. With those two hanging over it the S110 remains a camera to be anticipated and compensated for, and no matter how good it is, it doesn't overcome being a point-and-shoot.

And the world changes: Canon pulled off a cute trick with the S100: they snuck in an extra generation that Olympus and Panasonic didn't have an answer to. That newness made the S100 better than the XZ1 and LX5, and its smallness ensured that it appealed strongly to a market all on its own. Today the Olympus XZ2 remains big, Panasonic has gone the wrong direction with the LX7, and Nikon – never a serious competitor with its compacts – has chosen this moment to G7-ify its P310 and remove its raw mode. The G15 and X10 are both much bigger cameras, and don't really play in the same space as the S-series.

The only real competition that I see in the pocketable high-IQ category is the unreleased Fuji XF1. I've been able to use one and was impressed, and it's certainly an upcoming camera to watch for, although it will be hard to justify its launch price. Finally, there's also the Sony RX100, but calling that 'competition' to the S110 is being kind – it's in its own class as far as both quality and cost is concerned, even though it's only slightly larger than the S110. If the price isn't an issue, then the RX100 is an easy call; if it is an issue, then the S110 is also an easy call. That's not a bad way to solve a dilemma.

I can't say that the S110 is the best on the market any more, but if you can't find an S100, it's not a bad substitute.

Counter Opinions are quick "sales counter" product reviews.
As always, viewer discretion is advised.
Last updated 5 oct 2012

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