Fixing my Nikon Lens

A few years ago, we sold a house. Freshly funded, I decided it was time to upgrade my old Nikon D40, and I replaced it with a D90. At the same time, I bought the Nikon 18-200mm VR DX zoom lens – covering the range I’d used two lenses for with my D40-based kit. It worked well for me for quite some time. Later, when I had a bit of money to spare, I bought the then-new Nikon 35mm f1.8 DX lens, and loved it’s compact size, light weight and wide aperture. I used it pretty much exclusively, letting the old zoom sit unused.

When I did try to use the zoom again, it was temperamental, and didn’t always want to focus. That put me off using it further. When I got around to a bit of testing, I realised it just wouldn’t focus to infinity when fully-zoomed. It was ok up to around 135mm, but beyond that, it wasn’t happy. In practical photographic terms, infinity isn’t as far away as you’d think, so it wasn’t much good for anything at a distance if I needed the zoom. I put it on one side, and planned to get it repaired at some point.

Anything I decide to do at some point does not get done. So it sat, unused.

Recently, I’ve started looking around at other lenses, wanting a bit more macro capability, and wanting a bit of zoom back, maybe in something a bit smaller and lighter than the 18-200. At the same time, though, I really kind of wanted the 18-200 back. Today, I decided to spend a little more time experimenting with what was wrong with it, with the intention of bringing at some point forward to a more practical soon.

A little testing confirmed the problem I knew it had, but it also seemed to be able to focus a bit closer than it should, as if something had just slipped a little forward or backward, or wasn’t lined up with the focussing mechanism at the place it should be. I started feeling tempted to open it up and have a go at repairing it, though my skills are in no way good enough for that. I found a video online that appears to show the process of removing the front lens element from the lens (though I think it’s a later version of the same lens).

The interesting part was the ring with the cut-outs that surrounded the front lens. On mine, that just turned freely in either direction. It was partially unscrewed already.

I unscrewed it, and lifted the front lens out. That gave me direct access to the lens that turns to focus, and I could see that it barely moves – only a millimetre or so forwards and backwards. If that little movement was the focussing range, the next lens element being unscrewed a bit could throw the focussing off completely. Also, I could feel that the focussing element was very definite about how much it would move – it didn’t feel as though slipping a bit was an option.

I screwed the front element back on, and tested. It worked fine. I’ve had that lens out of action for a long, long time because the front was slightly unscrewed. I’d intended to send it away to be repaired, where someone would have charged me a painful amount of money to give a screw thread a turn or two.

So, now I have my 18-200 lens back, and given that it can focus fairly close (around 50cm) at 200mm, it’s capable of most of the macro stuff I really wanted. It’s like getting a really good new lens for free.

My Photo Workflow

Update: See Part 2, where this all changes a week later.

Me, Reflected

This is what I do with my photos, from originally taking the shot with my DSLR (a Nikon D90 (Amazon UK, Amazon US), though this pretty much all applies to any camera using memory cards), through copying the files to the computer (iMac (Amazon UK, Amazon US)), to importing them into my editing and cataloging software (Apple Aperture (Amazon UK, Amazon US), though much of it would probably apply in a similar way to iPhoto, Lightroom (Amazon UK, Amazon US) and others). It may not be the best way to do these things, though it works for me. I suspect, if anything, it tends towards a bit too much safety, and puts too much time and energy into doing things the ‘right’ way, making it all too time-consuming. I’m photographing as an amateur, though, and losing a day’s shooting won’t cost me in real cash. It might be too little safety if you’re shooting weddings for money.

I’m not saying anyone should copy all this, but there might be some ideas here if you’re interested in this sort of workflow geek-out.

Camera

I use 8Gb SD cards. They’re big enough to fit all I’m generally likely to shoot in a day, but still fairly cheap. I shelled out a bit more for a reasonably fast branded card this time, though I’m never entirely sure how much difference it makes. Figures from DPReview suggest it’s worth it if you value performance – my D90 can take pics faster with a faster card. I’ve only once ever filled an 8Gb card and had to move on to another, when shooting a wedding. For any normal day or outing, one card is way more than I need, even shooting RAW all the time.

I use a single card, to avoid the inconvenience of having to stop and change. My dad has always preferred to use two or three smaller cards for a day of shooting, so one accident or faulty card can’t lose everything. I’ve never had such a loss, so I don’t worry about it. I’ll probably regret that the first time I do lose a card full of images, but I used to hate having to stop and swap cards around back when cards were low-capacity and expensive.

Reading the Card

My camera mounts as a camera, not a mass storage device, which I don’t like. For that reason, I prefer to take the card out, and use a separate card reader. If the camera mounted like a card reader or USB memory stick, I’d probably just plug it in and use it that way. The card reader I use is the one built into the front of my printer. No reason: it’s just there, and it works ok.

Folder(s) for Images

I have a Photos folder. Inside this, I create a new folder, named for the date, and a very short description of the ‘event’, in the format ‘yyyy-mm-dd ‘. If I took a few pictures whilst wandering around Tiverton today, the folder would be called ’2010-05-07 Photowalk Tiverton’. The dates mean the folders can be sorted easily by when the pics were taken, and the short description means I can have more than one folder per day, if there’s more than one ‘event’. I used to just use the date, but a few occasions came up where I did two very separate shoots, and didn’t like throwing them all in one folder.

Events

Events? I use the term in a similar way to the way iPhoto uses it – any collection of photos taken around the same time. ‘Photowalk Tiverton’ is a pretty common name, as is ‘Canal’. It isn’t usually much of an event. I’m not overly strict on dates. A trip with an overnight stay might still be one event to me, so I’d probably just use the date of the first day.

Why Folders?

I could just import photos straight into Aperture, and let Aperture store them in its library. There are a few of reasons why I don’t.

  • Matches older folder structure – this is how I’ve kept images since before I started using Aperture.
  • Performance – I can keep the Aperture library on the internal HD, which is faster, while the images are on a slower external USB drive. Aperture’s work is spread over two drives, on different busses, too, which may give some performance gains (I don’t know if it really does). I don’t have room to keep all the photos on my internal drive.
  • I can have some of the same images imported into iPhoto. I don’t use iPhoto much now, but have at times. This way, the same images can be in more than one program, without duplicating the images themselves.

If you’re looking at a new setup, have plenty of space on your internal drive, and won’t use other software for the same images, you might want to just push the pics straight into Aperture, and let it handle them. I may yet move the Aperture library to an external drive, and bring the photos in to it, at a later date.

Time Machine (Backups)

Once they’re in the folder, Time Machine handles backing them up. I don’t wait for this, usually, but unless they’re ‘scrap’ images, I don’t wipe the card until I’ve let Time Machine do its thing.

Wiping the Card

Often doesn’t happen until later, or even the next time I use the camera. My D90 can format a card using just two buttons, so I generally format it rather than just deleting the images.

Aperture

I import the images into Aperture, choosing the option to leave the images in their current location. Generally, I try to leave this to finish, then leave Aperture alone for a while afterwards; preferably leaving the Mac pretty much alone, too. Aperture is memory-hungry. Importing takes a while, and Aperture can be busy building thumbnails and previews for quite a while after that. Trying to start working on images before it’s finished can be frustratingly slow. Check the status bar at the bottom of Aperture’s window to see if it’s busy – you can click there to get a window showing you what it’s up to, and how much it has to do.

Tagging and Rating

I’ve been far too lazy recently, and skipped tagging all but the best images. I’ll really regret this later, I know. The best way is to tag all the images with relevant keywords before starting to do anything else. Don’t edit, don’t rate, just add keywords. Doing a lot at once is quicker, as you can usually apply the same keywords to lots of images at once. If you do this, you’ll be able to find images much easier later – rate first, and tag only the best ones, and all the others are pretty much lost for good. In practice, I often only end up tagging the ones I consider good enough to use, which means I’ll have great trouble finding any lower quality shots later.

When I export the images later, the tags I’ve set get carried over, so they’re important for Flickr’s use as well as my own searching in Aperture.

I generally rate anything as ‘reject’ if it’s really bad – out of focus, badly exposed, or just generally bad. I also usually reject all but the best of a ‘set’ of the same image. If I took five shots in a row of the same duck, I pick the best of them, and reject the rest. I then base the stars-out-of-five rating on this rough idea:

  1. Competent, or worth keeping for some reason, but not good enough to share. Also, I often give one star to images I’m going to use in a ‘Photo Construction’ or panorama.
  2. Nothing special, but worth sharing – will be uploaded online.
  3. Good image.
  4. One of my best.
  5. One of my very best. Rarely used – I only have eight images with five stars currently in Aperture, though I haven’t gone back and rated all my old images (yet).

Exporting to Share

I switch Aperture to only show two stars and better. It’s easy then to select all, and export them together, creating a new ‘event’ set in Flickr at the same time. I use the Flickr Export plugin for Aperture to do the exporting. For the little it cost, the ‘pro’ version of the plugin has been worthwhile. I believe the current version of Aperture exports to Flickr without needing a plugin, but I bought the plugin for a version that didn’t, so I haven’t really used Aperture’s own exporting feature.

Sometimes, I’ll export a few separately to add to Facebook. I usually do this with any shots containing people who I know on Facebook, or for any establishments/products/etc I ‘like’ on Facebook.

Aperture Vault

At the end of all this (or sometimes before the exports, depending how paranoid I’m feeling), I update the Aperture Vault. This is a backup copy of Aperture’s database held on another drive. There isn’t really any good reason to do this when Time Machine is backing Aperture up. I’ve always done it, though, and when I lost the contents of my internal disk, and Time Machine turned out not to have been working for a while, I was glad I had. So I keep doing it.

Current Usage

I use my D90 much less now than I used to. Most of my photos are now taken with my iPhone, often using Hipstamatic. The main advantage is that it cuts all of the above out of the process. I take a photo, wait a minute for it to process, and if I like it, push it straight up to Flickr. The phone gets backed up when I plug it in to sync. Every so often, I open Aperture while the phone is plugged in, and pull the new images into one big folder in there.

It’s a lot less organisation, less backups, and lower image quality. In return, though, it’s quicker, easier, and more immediate. That counts for a lot.

The Future

Eye-Fi have just announced that their cards will soon be able to connect to an iPhone app, and push photos from a ‘real’ camera to your phone in a few seconds. That would combine the performance, flexibility and image quality of the D90 with much of the speed, convenience and immediacy of the iPhone. It could be a winning combination for most day-to-day photography.

Playing with Strobes at Home

While Sam is at work, I’ve been spending my time using her chair as a model, experimenting with my Nikon SB-800 and SB-600. I’ve learned a few things I didn’t know before:

  • The Gorillapod makes a good flash holder, turning a chair, or the side of the sofa, into a light stand.
  • Switching the camera to manual, leaving the aperture as it was, and pushing the shutter up to 1/200th kills the ambient from a light bulb quite effectively, and CLS seems to handle the exposure ok still.
  • I can use two groups of strobes, and still control the built-in flash for some front fill.
  • Switching all strobes to manual is quite easy – I had no trouble guessing output levels, then correcting within a couple of shots. The fact that it can all be done from the camera in a single menu makes it quick.

More Light

When I got my new camera gear, I’d included a Nikon SB-600 flash. It worked well off-camera, and I really enjoyed using it. As soon as I did, though, I ran into situations where a second flash would be useful.

If the SB-600 worked out well, I’d always intended to add a second, bigger, light. The day came today. The SB-800 seems to be disappearing, replaced by the SB-900. The 900 is bigger, more expensive, and more powerful. A bit more than I need, though, I think. When Jessops in Taunton had an SB-800 at a reasonable price today, I grabbed it.

Even with the extra battery clipped on for faster charges, it fits into my camera bag nicely. Along with the SB-600, it makes a great kit. Stick the 600 where less work is needed, and both can recover quite quickly between shots.

Overall, a nice addition to the kit, and should make a certain assignment in January a bit easier.

Upgrading My Camera Kit

Once we sold our house, and had a bit of money to spare, I wanted to upgrade my camera kit.  I had a Nikon D40, with the kit 18-55 lens, along with a 55-200 VR lens.  Together, they could handle most things, but there were a few problems:

  • I often missed shots because I had the wrong lens on the camera.  Things that move often do so, or fly away, before you’ve had time to change lenses.  Also, if I had the wrong lens on the camera for a shot, I’d often just not take the shot rather than stop in the street swapping lenses around.
  • Although I was generally impressed with the D40 for the low price, it’s not especially speedy, especially with RAW files.
  • 6 megapixels.  Plenty for most things I want to do, but doesn’t leave a lot of spare for cropping.
  • Lighting is very limited with the built-in flash.  I could add an off-camera flash to the D40, but only by adding a controller, or an SB-800 to act as a controller alongside another flash.  Both options are expensive.

I also had a Canon G9, and had taken to carrying and using it more often than the D40, but it was far too slow to use for everything.

My solution was this kit:

  • Nikon D90
  • Nikon 18-200 VR lens
  • Nikon SB-600 flash

So far, it’s done everything I’d hoped and more.  I don’t carry the G9 now, but Sam uses it.  The old Ixus she was using has found a new home.

The Camera

The camera itself is much more of a step-up from the D40 than I’d expected.  It’s quite a bit faster in taking pictures, but seems to make a really big difference in focusing speed, too.  It’s the first camera I’ve used where I get the best results by just letting it look after the focusing all on its own, even letting it choose the focus points to use.  It just gets shots the D40 couldn’t get.

The image quality is great, as you’d expect.  The performance at higher ISO is much better.  RAW files that Aperture wouldn’t open were a problem, but Apple fixed that one in an update.  Handling is very good, and it feels nicely solid.  The metering seems accurate, so I just leave it to get on with it.

The Lens

No more losing shots because I have the wrong lens on the camera – now I only have one lens.  There are obviously image quality trade-offs to get so much zoom range in a single lens, but nothing that’s been too noticeable to me so far.  Being able to go from moderately wide to moderately telephoto in a second is very liberating.  I love being able to grab the camera and take a photo without having to worry about whether I have to take it apart and change lenses first.

The Flash

I’ve never used anything but on-camera built-in flash before.  I’ve been reading Strobist for a while, though, and it starts to get to you.  The SB-600 seemed a better deal than the SB-800, especially as Jessops did it for £50 less when bought with the D90.  I’ve not done enough experimenting with it to give much opinion yet, but I’m impressed so far.

Once everything is set up in the first place, taking a shot with off-camera lighting is very easy:

  • Pull camera and flash from my bag.
  • Switch on the flash, and attach its little ‘foot’ if it needs to stand upright.
  • Point the flash where I want it.
  • Switch on the camera, and press the button to pop up the built-in flash (it uses this to talk to the SB-600).
  • Take pictures.

The camera and flash between them look after everything else.

The Kit

It’s a neat kit.  In total, about the same size as the D40 kit with two lenses, but can do much more.  It’s probably a bit heavier.  It all fits in a nice small Lowepro shoulder bag, so I carry it everywhere.  I’m tempted to add another flash – maybe an SB-800 next, so I can do two-flash setups – but I’m not in a great hurry for that.  Maybe in time for the trip to London that I seem to have been persuaded to go on.