.
Impossible Photography: No Light, No Tripod, No Hope. D700 and a 50mm f/1.2
, ISO 4000 — map & image data — nearby photos Inviting dark path to someone's home, made bright by Nikon -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 — 1/100 sec, f/1.2, ISO 4000map & image datanearby photos
Inviting
dark path to someone's home, made bright by Nikon

I haven't done much since returning to Japan a week ago. Tired from the trip... overwhelmed with work (that I don't even get paid for)... and spending an inordinate time at the doctor for some acute back problems. It's been a long week.

But I was feeling okay last night, so after Mass in downtown Kyoto, I thought I'd give my new Nikon D700's legendary low-light performance a spin, combining it with the fastest lens that I could get my hands on (that is, one that lets in the most light), the same Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 that I borrowed from Zak for my Artsy-Fartsy in Kyoto post earlier in the year.

There isn't a color camera with better low-light performance, and if there's a commonly-available lens with better low-light performance, I don't know of it. So, the combination should let me get all kinds of rich, full-color glossies, without a tripod, in absolute total darkness.

Or something like that.

, ISO 2500 — map & image data — nearby photos Quality Time sparsely-lit restaurant balcony overlooking the Kamo River Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 — 1/100 sec, f/1.2, ISO 2500map & image datanearby photos
Quality Time
sparsely-lit restaurant balcony overlooking the Kamo River
Kyoto, Japan

Besides having no plan beyond shoving the camera and lens into my bag before heading out, I faced two major hurdles...

The first is that I haven't yet opened the D700's manual, so I don't know much about it beyond what I brought over from having used the D200 for a few years. It's not really fair to put equipment to a test like this when it's likely that any failure will be what, in polite conversation, is referred to as “user error”.

The second problem is that there are a lot of things conspiring against getting accurate focus:

  1. At f/1.2, the depth-of-field is very thin, so focus must be perfect to have any chance.
  2. It's hard to focus in the dark, especially when it's so dark that I can't clearly see what I think I'm aiming at.
  3. The Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 is a manual-focus-only lens. Autofocus won't work with it.
  4. The stock focus screen on the D700 is designed for autofocus; it's horrible to use with manual focus. The first time I put the D700 to my eye, I thought the lens I had on it was broken because I couldn't get it to focus, even by hand. It took a few moments to realize that I'd been so used to the sharp “focus snap” of the Katz Eye Focusing Screen I'd put in my D200, that I'd forgot how extraordinary it really is. (Sadly, Katz Eye doesn't yet make a focusing screen for the D700.)
  5. From what I've heard, the “live view” mode on the D700 would allow me to easily get perfect focus, but like I said, I haven't yet cracked the manual, so I don't know how to use it.

Anyway, never to be daunted by the harshness of certain failure, I set out for a 20-minute walk around the Kyoto-nightlife area of Kiyamachi / Pontocho, with the lens fixed at f/1.2, and the camera set to automatically bump up the ISO sensitivity as high as it needed to in order to maintain at least a 1/100-second exposure.

Of course, night photography is relatively easy if you have a tripod and the thing you're photographing isn't moving, so I've posted plenty of tripod-assisted night shots taken over the years with my D200, including cherry blossoms at dusk,  a lantern festivalcherry blossoms over a riverKyoto nightscapesmall stream and cherry blossomsItsukushima shrine,  and cherry blossoms in Gion.

No tripod on today's trip, though.

All the images posted here are straight out of the camera (well, straight out of Lightroom) without any extra post-processing, except for resizing for my blog. (They were shot in the inferior “12-bit NEF” mode, because I didn't realize until today that the 14-bit NEF mode is not the default.)

, ISO 1250 — map & image data — nearby photos Discards -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 — 1/100 sec, f/1.2, ISO 1250map & image datanearby photos
Discards
Portrait-Mode Vertical Desktop-Background Versions
1050×1680  ·  1200×1920  ·  1600×2560     
, ISO 720 — map & image data — nearby photos Tea Room No. 634 -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 — 1/100 sec, f/1.2, ISO 720map & image datanearby photos
Tea Room No. 634

Metering for a reasonable exposure was generally difficult due to the extreme dynamic range in most of the scenes I was drawn to. Often, 99% of the scene would be really dark, with just a few points that, even though they weren't very bright, were so much brighter than the rest of the frame they totally screwed up the metering.

So, both spot metering and exposure lock were my friends, as well as occasional positive exposure compensation.

, ISO 12800 — map & image data — nearby photos almost pitch black, but Not As Dark As They Thought -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 — 1/80 sec, f/1.2, ISO 12800map & image datanearby photos

almost pitch black, but
Not As Dark As They Thought

There was so little light in the scene above, I could tell no more than that a couple was sitting there, and I had no hope that anything would come of the picture. Indeed, the result is boring unless you realize that in reality, the scene was almost pitch black. Private investigators (and peeping toms) will love this camera.

, ISO 3600 — map & image data — nearby photos Dive -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 — 1/100 sec, f/1.2, ISO 3600map & image datanearby photos
Dive

This was the dingy entrance alley to some kind of entertainment/food establishment, itself off a tiny passageway running between two small streets (Kiyamachi and Pontocho). It was “out of the way” to several orders of magnitude, and in more meanings than one.

Much of the lighting came from the establishment's sign at the end of the alley, which is nothing more than a washed-out square of white in this photo because in exposing for the dinginess of the alley, the light from sign itself totally washed out the image sensor. (If I'd had a tripod and the inclination, I guess I could have tried to take multiple shots and create some HDR-like composite, but the whole point of my short stroll was not to make lasting art, but just to see what the camera could do.)

, ISO 5600 — map & image data — nearby photos I... Uh.... Dunno -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl
Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 — 1/100 sec, f/1.2, ISO 5600map & image datanearby photos
I... Uh.... Dunno

I couldn't tell what the thing was in this scene at a shuttered karaoke place, except a monster of some sort. Now that I can see much more detail, I still can't tell.

, ISO 1600 — map & image data — nearby photos Chat -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 — 1/100 sec, f/1.2, ISO 1600map & image datanearby photos
Chat
, ISO 1600 — map & image data — nearby photos Legs sadly, woefully out of focus -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 — 1/100 sec, f/1.2, ISO 1600map & image datanearby photos
Legs
sadly, woefully out of focus

There was plenty of light in this scene, but I had to use spot metering and +2/3 exposure compensation to avoid a silhouette situation.

, ISO 1000 — map & image data — nearby photos Brisk Business -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 — 1/100 sec, f/1.2, ISO 1000map & image datanearby photos
Brisk Business
, ISO 2500 — map & image data — nearby photos Just This Side of Ambiance -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 — 1/100 sec, f/1.2, ISO 2500map & image datanearby photos
Just This Side of Ambiance

This place looked quite nice from outside, so I should have gone in for a cup of coffee, or something. It's right across from the church, so maybe someday I will.

Overall, I'm pleased with what I ended up with, although I really would like to get a better focusing screen.


Comments so far....

Nice shots! Very impressive low-light performance indeed.
I’d be interested to see if on the D700 you see any difference between 12 and 14 bit. I have a hard time seeing it on my D300, at least in the shadows. There might be less posterization in highlights but I have not looked for that yet.

I remember reading your post on that, and my gut feeling is that for most things, 12-bit lossy-compressed NEF is probably just fine. But if I’m going to to push the limits like I did last night, I’d be remiss in not using the best quality (14-bit non-lossy) the camera could offer. It might not really have a practical effect most of the time, but until I know that for sure…. —Jeffrey

— comment by Jao on September 16th, 2008 at 12:25am JST (6 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

Great Pictures !

Lot of good places in Kyoto. Just remembering me being there 4 month ago… but without some so good device. But you can found another nice picture of Kyoto I did at night with a Canon 50mm. (but I’am not a pro) On a rainy day, I tried to take some picture in Pontocho.

Nice and funny to read you all over weeks.

Continue like this.

Fred

— comment by Klee Frédéric on September 16th, 2008 at 2:30am JST (6 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

I know nothing about photography, but these pictures make me want to a) buy a Nikon D700, and b) Take up a serious hobby in photography

These pictures are seriously cool!!!

— comment by Ben on September 16th, 2008 at 8:15am JST (6 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

Amazing photographs. I have my eyes set on this camera and your pics now make me wanna go out and pick it up right now :)

Whats the status of the 12-24mm on this body ?

Nice to see you back, Kalyan. The 12-24/4 is a DX lens, so you’d either get a 6MP image when the sensor is in DX mode, or if you force FX mode, one would expect softness and vignetting at the edges. (Here’s a Digital Photography Review post that discusses the 12-24/4 on an FX sensor.) —Jeffrey

— comment by Kalyan VArma on September 16th, 2008 at 5:25pm JST (6 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

How do you like the D700? I got mine in July and I love it. The viewfinder is an item from god! Way better than the tiny one on my old D200 (Which I still love). Now I am waiting for my 17-35mm to arrive from the shop :)

I saw your post about how your angelic wife surprised you with the D700, and it made me all the more anxious to get my hands on mine (which I’d ordered right away, but it arrived the day after I left for The States). Of course, the low-light performance is great, but there are a few “issues” I’ve not yet worked out. Sometimes the on-screen image playback goes wacky, as if I’m looking at a 50′s TV with poor reception. The files themselves are fine when I move them from the card, so I dunno what the problem might be. I also find that the metering doesn’t seem as good as the D200, but since I’ve not yet read the manual, it’s not really fair to blame the camera over my own ignorance, so understanding how the metering might differ from the D200 is something on my to-to list. —Jeffrey

— comment by John on September 16th, 2008 at 11:50pm JST (6 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

Hey, wasn’t that my angelic wife? :)

The “John” above wasn’t you? I figured that you were just trying the ‘h’ on for size… :-) —Jeffrey

Glad you got to test out your D700. I think the metering has changed quite a bit over the last few years with Nikon. They went very different with the D80 and have been toning it back ever since. To me, the D700 is capturing the most usable range I have experienced so far. There is almost never a time that whites are unrecoverable in Lightroom.

Looking forward to more pictures… especially at dawn, dusk and even night! I need to shoot more myself!

— comment by Jon Van Dalen on September 17th, 2008 at 2:03am JST (6 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

Sorry nope not that John. It’s John from VA (I will change my handle to JohnL). Meter wise D200 is still a bit better than the D700 IMHO. I took some shots with the D700 w 50mm f1.4 at Coney Island during my NYC Labor day weekend trip and I ended up setting exposure comp to -0.7 because some shots were over exposed (it was a bit sunny that day)… I had ADR set to Auto so maybe that was the culprit.

Went to Kyoto last March, beautiful place. can’t wait to return next year. n times better than where I live now (neighbor to the breaucrats –> Washington DC).

My 17-35mm arrived so I will go do some shooting this weekend. :)

— comment by JohnL on September 17th, 2008 at 4:56am JST (6 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

BTW, “Discards” by far my favorite from this set. Rare to see you taking “people pics” would like to see more of that.

I appreciate the kind words, but I’m missing something in the connection to the “people pics” comment. (Perhaps I don’t know what “people pics” means, but my first guess would be “pictures of people” :-) ) —Jeffrey

— comment by Jon Van Dalen on September 17th, 2008 at 10:11am JST (6 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

Great photos, serving to increase my D700 lust even further, if such a thing is possible.

However, I would like to see them a bit darker. After all, it is nighttime, and even though the combination of lens and camera can make it seem much brighter than it actually is, I think that, as photographs, they would in general look better with -0.7 exposure compensation or so. After all, the camera doesn’t know it’s nighttime, and the metering system is struggling to get to 18% grey. At least to my eye, more darkness and shadow would have made for more interesting photos, at least for most of these.

— comment by Zak on September 18th, 2008 at 12:51am JST (6 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

Interesting post and shots, I agree with Zak above about dropping the exposure slightly. How many off focus shots did you get? I’m seriously tempted by the D700 (or what ever comes next) due to the FF sensor and dynamic range + high ISO abilities, but until I can replace the screen with one that makes the use of fast manual focus primes as easy as it should be I’m not spending a penny on moving on from the D40 I’m using; which, combined with the 50mm f1.2 has shown me exactly how bad Nikon’s stock focus screens really are.

I don’t understand the comment about “off focus shots”…. are you somehow implying that I might make a mistake from time to time?! Blasphemy! :-) Actually, most were fine because I didn’t take all that many shots to begin with, and I knew that focus would be an issue, so I was careful. There’s one shot that’s quite out of focus, and I sort of like the effect I ended up with, so perhaps I’ll post it. As for the focus screen, wow, it’s hard to believe how bad the stock Nikon one is for manual focus until you get to enjoy a good one for a while, then have to go back. Ugh. —Jeffrey

— comment by LJ on September 20th, 2008 at 10:22pm JST (6 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

Wow, jeffrey, your shots are in the same league as Sushi-Jeff’s! Good stuff!
Wish I could afford a D700 with lenses… I guess my poor 5D will have to do for now ^_^

— comment by ksporry on February 11th, 2009 at 3:55am JST (5 years, 8 months ago) comment permalink

Nice shots here – I was a bit surprised that you didn’t shoot them at even higher ISO, shooting a 1.2 is really for special effects (like just getting the eyes and defocusing the rest) – plus the D700 should be able to shoot easily higher .. and with DxO you can even get a bit more headroom.

— comment by Andre on August 5th, 2010 at 7:25am JST (4 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

sorry, no offense, but you made the worst photos with this combo i ever saw, nearly all highlights are horribly blown out, colors wront to a point where ts just ugly etc

i know you probably dont care, and you dont have to, but you need a few years photography lessons or just practice

— comment by alex on August 20th, 2012 at 4:39am JST (2 years, 2 months ago) comment permalink
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