Chasing Waterfalls… or, My Dalliance with a Full Frame Nikon DSLR

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Cue up ’90s hit “Waterfalls” by TLC.  Or if you’re a bit older, ’80s breakthrough chart topper “Tempted” by Squeeze.  In addition to being two fantastic sing-a-longs, they were both on my mind yesterday as I drove from Eastern Massachusetts out toward the Berkshires in pursuit of waterfalls.  I had four of them in mind: Glendale, Campbell, Race Point and Bish Bash.  It was to be a long day of driving, hiking and shooting.  As such, I was on the road a few minutes before 5AM and parked at the drive-through of our local Starbucks while they were still turning the lights on.  And so… off I went.  But this time, there was something markedly different.

I’m a proponent of mirrorless camera kits for all the traditional and obvious reasons: lighter weight, smaller size, more technical gee-whizardry.  A long time Nikon DSLR shooter, I was happy to abandon the heavier weight as I’ve matured (aged) and… until now, have not looked back.  My camera mount of choice is Fujifilm X having shot extensively with an X-T1 and more recently with the superb X-Pro2.  The sublime X100 was my entree point.

Yesterday presented an opportunity to shoot with Nikon’s fine D750 full frame DSLR.  I had for wide shots a Nikon 20/2.8D and for normal range, the very capable Tamron 28-75/2.8.  My goal was to hike and photograph the waterfalls mentioned above in a day trip I had been wanting to take for a while.  Ideally, waterfall shooting takes place in the Spring when they’re running full or in the peak of Autumn when the color is optimal.  Yesterday was neither of those but sometimes as photographers we have to take what we can get.

This blog post contains my impressions of one very long day of shooting with the D750.  And if you can’t get those two songs out of your head… I’m sorry.

Size and weight.  The X-Pro2 (and X-T2) are most definitely lightweight and that point shines through when shooting with one of their fine prime lenses.  Pop on a zoom, most particularly the workhorse 16-55/2.8 (which I frequently use), and the weight advantage dissipates somewhat. Hiking through the woods and making the – at times – perilous descent toward the base of the waterfalls with the DSLR kit was not a problem.  Overall, I just wasn’t sure the weight was all that much more than what I was used to when in my bag.  I use the smaller version of the Peak Design Everyday Messenger Bag which very nicely spreads the weight of its contents across the base of the carrier’s back so that probably helped.  As far as size, it was comfortable.  The larger grip was… satisfying… and I found myself wondering whether I might at times actually prefer it over the more subdued Fujifilm grip.  Of course, it’s possible to use the grip extender on the X-Pro2 or battery grip on the X-T2 but I’ve always felt that they kind of defeat the purpose.

When carrying the DSLR around my neck while actively shooting… that was another matter altogether.  As the day wore on and I hiked much further than anticipated (and on the unseasonably warm November New England day), I started to feel that weight.  So, in and out of the bag it went as I tried to manage it better.  I found myself missing the lesser burden of a prime clad X-Pro2.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I wish the Fujifilm 16-55/2.8 wasn’t such a beast.

Interface.  Much has been blogged, vlogged, pontificated and espoused about the beauty of the retro Fujifilm click, tap, turn mechanical interface.  Ah, those aperture rings!  I myself have added to this chorus.  But here’s the truth: I enjoyed shooting with the Nikon.  A lot actually.  I remapped the useless-in-still-shooting video button to ISO control and found it a charm to spin the ISO up and down so easily.  The push button ISO dial on the X-Pro2?  Yeah, I didn’t miss that so much.  Rotating the aperture command dial on the top front of the grip was easy and surefooted.  Suddenly, I thought: “hmmm… aperture rings are cool, but I think I could actually live without them.”

So, here’s the thing.  If I’m being totally honest, I may have instantly fallen in love with the Fujifilm interface more so because it was different than because it was better.  I had been spinning the front dial on my Nikon DSLRs for years and never really had an issue with it.  But when I tried the X100 and could dial in the aperture on the lens barrel itself, I felt energized.  There was a spark there, no doubt.  And it was just plain cool.  Did it make me a better photographer?  I’m sure it didn’t… but at the time, I sure would have argued the point with you.

And so, in similar fashion, I have to guard against getting all googly-eyed about the D750’s interface.  It’s different.  Better?  Debatable.  Different?  For sure.

Image quality.  I did not do a scientific test.  And I had the camera out in the wild for one day.  One day.  But I did review the images on my 15 inch Macbook Pro last night and post-processed them in Lightroom.  I played with both JPGs and RAWs.  The full frame image quality of the Nikon is sweet.  Quite nice and the ability to pull details out of shadows and to gain maximum dynamic ranges is great.  BUT… is it actually better?  That’s the question that kept running through my mind.  Again, no hard science here… but my impression in the shooting conditions I encountered, is…

not really.  I did find that I needed to tweak a bit more on the Nikon files than I am accustomed to.  The metering, the JPG treatment, and film simulation renderings on Fujifilm all conspire to generate more usable files out of camera.  Purists may not care, feeling as though it’s critical to accompany shooting with post-processing in order to make the most complete artistic statement.  I might have said that at one time.  But now, having shot Fujifilm for a few years, I like what I get out of camera.  I like that I can do minor adjustments in order to “complete” the workflow or can hunker down for a night of pixel bashing in order to fulfill my vision.  I like having the choice.

Other considerations.  Cropped sensor shooting is more forgiving, not only in terms of depth of field but in general.  For example, I brought a 10 stop neutral density filter, which I’ve used on my X bodies many times and in similar situations, but it was too much for the full frame sensor.  I’m no physicist and can’t argue this point in scientific terms but what might have been a 15-20 second exposure (yes, I like the dreamy, other-wordly waterfalls shots) on my APS-C body couldn’t be captured in under 30 seconds on the Nikon, requiring a shift to bulb mode.  This required more experimentation and trial and error shooting than I like or had time for.

Additionally, there must be key differences between contrast and phase detect autofocus systems, because I always autofocus through the 10 stop filter on my X-Pro2.  On the Nikon, I had to compose, focus, switch to manual focus, place the filter on and shoot.  For changes to composition, I had to remove the filter and repeat the steps.  No thanks.

In closing… Nikon makes some great DSLRs and sure, full frame has its advantages.  I wasn’t shooting portraits yesterday though would be eager to pop an 85 on the Nikon and compare it to the 56/1.2 on my X-Pro2.  Had I done that, maybe I’d feel differently about it.

That said, however, though I may have been tempted by the fruit of another… I think I’ll stick to the rivers and the lakes that I’m used to.

See what I did there?

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4 thoughts on “Chasing Waterfalls… or, My Dalliance with a Full Frame Nikon DSLR

  1. Loved your writing and insights. I did a similar test comparing the same two cameras last week, and agree 100%. Makes me think that anyone who has more than one camera should put one of them back in the box for a month… and then be able to enjoy it as new all over again!

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  2. I use both Nikon and Fuji and like both. The Fuji gear, currently usually the X-T2, sporting primes is often my everyday carry-along. But for demanding situations, like events, the Nikon D810 or a mix prevails. In low light or for situations requiring instant focusing I can count on the Nikon more.
    I do also find that for landscapes the details in Fuji Raw files turn out very blobby when converted in Lightroom. Following the conventional advice to seriously crank the detail slider only makes it worse. Do you use something besides Lightroom to convert your Fuji Raw files?

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