Q&A with Nikon’s Chris Knapp

Categories: Tech Talk Feature

By Mike Zawadzki, Technical Consultant
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While we were all snowed in yesterday, I was able to have a short Q&A; session with Christopher Knapp from Nikon.  Chris is a Technical Sales Representative at Nikon and a really knowledgeable guy.  Not only does he have good advice in terms of how cameras and lenses work, but he also knows how to best use the equipment to create interesting photographs.  He also  teaches Nikon classes at Unique University.

FOR THE BEGINNERS: In this interview, Chris has shared some of the most critical information you can learn as a new DSLR owner.
MZ: Nikon just announced two very interesting wide angle lenses: the 16-35mm f/4 VR and 24mm f/1.4.  What are the advantages of having VR in a wide angle lens like this?  Is there a plan to include VR on even more wide/normal lenses in the future?

CK: As far as the advantages, regardless of the focal length, being able to shoot at slower shutter speeds and still get spectacularly sharp images is greatly beneficial. The other huge benefit is related to composition. Because the VR system is in the lens, essentially, what you see is what you get. While there are certainly benefits to having VR in a lens, I doubt very much that all lenses will include the technology. There are certain applications that it would not be great for, or truly beneficial. Also, remember that VR adds size and weight to the lens as well.

16-35mm f/4 VR Sample Courtesy of Nikon Imaging
MZ: On the topic of VR, I often get asked how it works.  I understand it's pretty complex, but how would you explain it in layman's terms?  What is the difference between the original VR system that was created in 2001 and the new "VR II"?

CK: The easiest way to understand VR, and the technology used with it, would be to explain what is actually taking place inside the lens. In short, there are two sensors: one for pitch and the other for yaw (vertical and horizontal movements). These sensors send information to a microcomputer and adjust certain lens elements to compensate for the vibration or movement of the user. VR I lenses can provide up to 2 stops of compensation, whereas the VR II lenses can provide up to 4 stops.

MZ: The 24mm f/1.4 comes after long anticipation.  For newer DSLR owners, could you briefly explain why someone would want to use a prime/fixed focal length lens instead of a zoom lens?  Can you recommend a relatively inexpensive option for amateurs?

CK: The benefits of shooting a prime lens are evident to any seasoned shooter, but may not be to the average user. Obviously, given the newest example, you have the ability to shoot at an extremely wide aperture, not only for low light situations but also for great depth of field control. Because there is no zoom or VR in this particular lens, it is also much lighter and smaller in size. Using a prime lens also forces the shooter to explore the subject in a different way, by trying different angles for example, rather than altering a focal length.  An excellent budget option would be the new 35mm f/1.8. For around $200, the customer is getting a fantastically sharp lens that gives them the versatility that their kit lens likely would not.  24mm f/1.4 Sample Courtesy of Nikon Imaging

To the left is a portrait taken with the Nikon DX 35mm f/1.8G.  Trust me, Chris is absolutely 100% correct.  The quality that this lens delivers can't be achieved with a kit lens.  If you have any Nikon DX camera, you should have this lens.  I often get asked "I bought this camera, what's the next lens up?"  Customers are often referring to a zoom lens, but I would buy this little baby before anything else.

35mm f/1.8 Sample Courtesy of Nikon Imaging (Click to enlarge)

MZ: What would be your best advice for someone who is just getting started with a DSLR in t erms of getting familiar with all of the functions?  What about general composition and framing?  I find that often people are inclined to say "Oh I can just fix it later with cropping and editing".  How true is this?  

CK: I am a firm believer in "shooting it right the first time" and I try to do my best to teach that as well. The more time you take to understand the camera, its functions and so on, the less time you are going to be spending in front of a computer screen. I would recommend that ALL shooters learn and understand the very basics of photography in's and out's. For example, things like aperture, shutter speed, ISO. Then moving on to more involved things like depth of field and controlling it. Composition is extremely important; it can either make or break any image very quickly. There are many rules to composition, but the best advice I can give anyone is to take a look at what they are looking at. I know it sounds silly, but it's true.

MZ: Obviously there is more flexibility when shooting RAW (.NEF) files, but what features in Nikon's Capture NX stand out from other RAW converters?

CK: With the CaptureNX2 software, you will have almost infinite flexibility when dealing with Nikon RAW files. From the very basic features like changing the White Balance from Direct Sunlight to Cloudy AFTER you take the photo, to the more adjust options of converting to black and white with a RED filter ... as if you shot it that way. You also have the opportunity to correct for exposure, not just brightness or contrast, but actual image exposure, after you take the picture (up to 2 stops +/-). CaptureNX2 is not only extremely powerful, but there is virtually no learner curve, and it takes far fewer steps to create the same edits that it would in some other third party applications.

MZ: Last question.  This kind of weather (LOTS OF SNOW) can provide for some very interesting shots, but all of the reflectivity of the snow is bound to confuse any camera's metering system.  What tips can you give for people looking to take great snow photographs?  What about protecting your camera . . . is it safe to have a DSLR out in the bitter cold?
CK: The cameras are tested under a shooting environment that ranges from 0-40 degrees Celsius. That does not mean that the camera will not function, it just means that it may not function to it highest performance if shot under temperatures outside of that realm. Unless you are shooting in extremely cold environments, the camera will be fine provided it is not getting soaked, but the battery is where the issue lays. I would recommend that the shooter have at least one other battery in their coat pocket, keeping it warm, and swapping out the battery in the camera every 15-30mins. This will help prolong the charge of the battery during cold times.
Shooting snow is not easy, especially on sunny days or when there are heavy highlights and shadows in view. I tend to underexpose the image slightly to avoid blown out areas, but you want to be sure that your shadows are not grey or so dark that the area is "gone." Nearly all DSLR cameras now include a feature called bracketing as well, where the user can select a threshold for a certain number of images with the camera altering the exposure slightly for each. White Balance is also extremely important, and this is when the "rules" do not always apply. Sometimes cloudy might be a great setting, other times something closer to direct sunlight might be. You can also do a White Balance bracket in most DSLR cameras as well. Best advice: Bracket when in doubt.
Snow Samples were taken with a D300s. Courtesy of Nikon Imaging (Click to enlarge)

Below are two snow shots that I took with my D700 and 14-24 f/2.8 lens. If I had not shot these in RAW format, there is no way that I would have as much detail in shadow or highlight areas. Shooting snow scenes is very tricky as Chris explained. My method is very similar and these were not the only two shots I took that night. I bracketed until I found a good balance between shadows and highlights. Additionally, the flexibility when converting into black and white was superb. If I had tried to do this with a JPG file, I would have lost a lot of control in the tonality of the image.
MZ: THANK YOU, CHRIS! Your advice is invaluable and I hope everyone who took the time to read this little interview got a lot out of it.  Please stop by the Unique Photo showroom anytime to check out any of the products we talked about today.  Additionally, if you have any other questions for Chris, please leave a comment here and I will be sure to forward it to him and add it in a future blog post!