Maple leaves in October 2006, taken with Nikon D70s handheld with 18-70mm DX lens

A Tale of Two Reviews

I take a lot of pictures.  I mean a LOT of pictures.  I have a camera glued to me or within arms reach just about everywhere I go.  Photography, antiques, and projects are my hobbies.  My degree is in Technical Writing, so it all melded with this blog:  history, antiques, and projects all written about and photographed.  While much of this blog focuses on bringing back elegant living, I can’t help but stray into photography every now and then.  So for today’s post, I’m going to take the path less traveled and cover two reviews, a camera review and a lens review, that are both wrong.  Reviews are important when researching expensive purchases and makers tend to purchase some expensive tools.  That’s why I think there’s some benefit in discussing why you shouldn’t completely trust product reviews.

Anyway, back to cameras.  I was a home inspector for almost a decade and took many thousands of pictures with a point and shoot digital camera.  In fact, I took so many pictures that I wore out numerous cameras and flash cards.  By the end of my home inspection life, I transitioned into the business of taking real estate pictures for real estate agents.  For two years, using conscientiously chosen camera angles and a touch of panoramic photography, my pictures helped buyers find the perfect home.  However, I saw the coming real estate crash and left real estate altogether, but I never gave up photography as a hobby.  It was in my blood.  My paternal grandfather loved photography and shot primarily with Nikon and Lieca SLR film cameras and lenses.  I inherited his photography equipment and, using his old Nikon lenses on my new Nikon D70s (DSLR) digital camera body, became a Nikon shooter.  (I’m sorry Canon shooters, but this post will be rather Nikon-centric.  Regardless, there is good info contained herein, so don’t stop reading.)

Ken Rockwell, Thom Hogan, and many others gave the Nikon D70 and the slightly updated D70s cameras glowing reviews and history shows it to be Nikon’s best selling camera body of all time.  Despite this my experience was different, and I want an apology for this piece of crap camera being foisted upon the world.  I shot with this camera body from purchase in 2006 until I grudgingly replaced it in 2014.  For eight long years I struggled with this camera.  It was a love/hate relationship that produced some incredible pictures and an untold amount of heartache.  To make a very long story short, the sensor in the D70 is not very light sensitive.  The one thing… just one thing… this camera had to do, image light, it couldn’t do.  In bright sunlight or if the subject was well lit, it produced nice pictures.  Conversely, if you weren’t standing three feet from the sun or tried to use a good zoom lens (which always contains more than two pieces of glass – all of which restrict a slight amount of light), you might as well give up altogether.  There was hope though because I did get some good pictures.  The header image and the pictures below were taken in sunlight.

 

The pictures below were taken at night concerts with subjects well lit.

 

Using a strong flash yielded good results as well.  The steam gauge and antique woodworking tool pictures below are just two pictures of many that I took to record the progress of projects.  The photos served their purpose because they show the level of detail I need.

 

Panoramic pictures also worked well so long as the sun was out.

Sweetwater Lake, February 2, 2008, taken with Nikon D70s on tripod RRS pano mount using 17-35mm FX lens, panorama of 14 photos joined with AutoPano Pro

Sweetwater Lake, February 2, 2008, taken with Nikon D70s on tripod RRS pano mount using 17-35mm FX lens, panorama of 14 photos joined with AutoPano Pro

 

The D70s did quite well taking long exposure pictures.  Lock it on a rock solid tripod at night and release the shutter for a 30 second exposure and you were almost guaranteed to get a good picture.

Nighttime 30 second exposure of the moonlit bay in Panama City Florida, June 5, 2008, taken with Nikon D70s on tripod with 17-35mm FX lens

Nighttime 30 second exposure of the moonlit bay in Panama City Florida, June 5, 2008, taken with Nikon D70s on tripod with 17-35mm FX lens

 

These are samples of the few good pictures taken over eight years.  I took over 13,000 pictures with my D70s from 2006-2014 and most were horrible.  It was, hands down, a bad camera.  By crom, even point and shoot cameras took better photos on a regular basis!  I now shoot with a Nikon D7100 and the difference between it and the D70s is night and day.  So why did the D70 get good reviews?  The professionals must have been using a far worse camera prior to being handed a D70 (is that actually possible?).  Otherwise, I have no explanation.  As for the other D70 owners, I believe they rated it well because of the glowing reviews by the professionals.  They wanted it to be good because they paid good money for it.  Or maybe I just ended up with a bad apple.  I doubt it though.  I think this is merely a bad camera that got good reviews from the professionals that were then mirrored by good reviews from misguided consumers.

That leads us into the bad reviews of the Nikon AF-S 18-300mm 3.5-5.6G VR ED DX lens which I’ll circle back to after some brief explanation.  You’ll note that six of the sample pictures above were shot with the Nikon 80-200mm 2.8 AF-D FX telephoto lens, and they were some of the best pictures taken with the old D70s.  I kept the 80-200mm solely for this reason when I bought the D7100 camera and sold all but two of my lenses.  The 80-200mm lens is generically called an FX or film lens because the light circle produced at the back end totally encompasses a section of 35mm film.  On the other hand, digital or DX sensors are smaller than 35mm, and DX lenses are specifically designed to work with the smaller sensor.  Using an FX lens on a DX camera totally engulfs the smaller sensor and produces a magnifying effect.  For instance the 80-200mm lens equates to 120-300mm when placed on a DX sensor camera (1.5x the original lens measurement, 1.5 x 80mm = 120mm).  When I purchased my Nikon D7100 camera body, I kept the 80-200mm lens as an excellent benchmark lens.  The other lens I kept was the well performing and well rated Nikon AF-S 16-85mm 3.5-5.6G VR ED DX lens which is the wide angle lens I referred to in my post on value lists.  Both lenses combined gave me the range of 16mm-300mm with a small gap between 85mm and 120mm.  These lenses and the 18-300mm are shown below.  The right side picture shows the lenses when fully zoomed (note that the 80-200mm does not extend when zoomed).

 

When Nikon released the 18-300mm DX lens, I thought my dreams had been answered …a truly all in one lens!  With this single lens covering almost the same range, I wouldn’t have to lug around two lenses and constantly switch them out.  So only reading the specs and not the reviews, what can I tell you?

  • It has a 77mm objective (front glass) like the 80-200mm which means it can gather a lot of light.  In contrast, most DX lenses are 52mm, 62mm, or 67mm.  This light gathering ability is a big deal to me after the D70s debacle.
  • It’s a VR lens meaning it has a Vibration Reduction feature to help stabilize the image when the camera/lens is shaking.
  • As a “do everything” lens it won’t do everything as well as a made for the purpose lens.  It’s a compromise like a Swiss army knife.
  • One of those compromises is that it has a larger minimum aperature than other lenses.  I’m not into forced depth of field in a big way so this isn’t that important to me.  (In use, this drawback is negated by the rather shallow depth of field specific to this lens compared to other lenses.)
  • The longer lens barrel means that the on camera flash will shadow the lens in the picture at wide angles.  This means the camera will require a dedicated flash to avoid shadowing while taking wide angle pictures.

Ken Rockwell, Tom Hogan, and others have reviewed this lens and weren’t necessarily impressed.  Customer reviews on Amazon, B&H Photography, and Adorama all show that the customer reviews mirror the pro reviews.  They are wrong.  This is an excellent lens that I’ve shot “real world” side by side comparisons, and I’m very impressed.  Which of the following pictures are from the excellent 80-200mm and which are from the poorly reviewed 18-300mm?

 

Were you able to spot the differences?  The pictures on the top right and bottom row were taken with the excellent 80-200mm and the rest were taken with the poorly rated 18-300mm.  They are all sharp with good contrast, some with simply staggering color rendition.  If you can’t tell the difference between pictures taken by an excellent lens and a poorly rated one, I don’t think the bad reviews hold water.  The 18-300mm is an excellent lens that got poor reviews from the professionals that were then mirrored by poor reviews from misguided consumers. I’m sure the photobugs will be aflame because I stirred the pot and took the stick with me.  However, these are only two reviews.  There are many other reviews (and in many other fields) that I disagree with.  So until next week, question the world and seek to change it for the better.

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