35mm Q&A

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last update: Aug 1, 2003

Question: I want to use a 2x teleconverter on my Nikkor 180mm f/2.8, but I need to retain the autofocus. The TC-201 is strictly manual focus (AIS) and the newer TC-20E is only for AF-I/S from what I read. Will the modifications you describe for connecting the TC-14E to the TC-20E help in any way? What about using the Tamron 2x?

Answer: I've heard of people modifying their TC-20E for use with regular AF lenses; essentially you file off the tab that prohibits mounting non AF-S lenses (see the question below on stacking converters). You do need to be careful that the lens you mount on the modified converter doesn't strike the front element of the converter, though. But consider this: the results you get with the Nikon converters are so good because Nikon optimizes them to certain lens designs (e.g., you might find you get better optical results with TC-201 than with the TC-20E with a 180mm f/2.8).

Kenko, Tamron, and Sigma all make 2x converters that pass AF info on, though the Sigma shouldn't be used without a Sigma HSM or EX lens. I haven't used the Kenko, but the Tamron shares its 7 element design, so should be similar. In a word: acceptable. There's a definite loss of sharpness and contrast with the Tamron 2x. Corners are distinctly soft, though this is usually not a terrible fault for a telephoto. Light falloff is increased in the corners at the widest aperture, though this, too, isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the change is modest. Autofocus is a noticeably slower, and there's a great tendency to "hunt," especially if the effective maximum aperture is near f/8. You should also be careful about how you support the converter/lens/camera combination. If you mount the lens on a tripod and hang the converter and a heavy body off the back (like an F5), the contacts sometimes make intermittent contact (at least on my sample), and vibration becomes a troublesome factor that reduces sharpness still further. The same thing happens if you mount the camera on the tripod and hang a heavy, long lens off the front of the converter. That said, if you're looking for an "emergency" 360mm and stop down at least one aperture from maximum, the Tamron (Kenko) is well worth the inexpensive price.

Personally, however, I'd use the TC-201 and focus manually (remember, the AF in-focus indicator in the viewfinder still works).

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Question: I've got a copy of your Nikon Field Guide. I'm confused about your exposure adjustment for the simple color zone system (page 23). It seems that it is opposite of the Sunny 16 exposure compensation rule on page 20 (e.g., snow -1 from sunny 16 but light color is +1 for zone system). What gives?

Answer: Be careful not to confuse meterless exposure guidelines (Sunny 16) with metered exposure compensation (the simplified color zone system). Sunny 16 works because it "guesses" the total amount of light available in a scene. So, when I say use -1 from Sunny 16 (effectively Sunny 22), I'm saying use f/22 at 1/ISO as your exposure setting. The simplified color zone system is intended for use to modify the metered reading that you take of a scene. So if you're standing in a snowfield and have taken a reading that says f/22 at 1/125, you add one or two stops of exposure (f/22 at 1/60 or 1/30).

The confusion comes because I've packed a great deal of different information into so few pages. Each table in the Nikon Field Guide is there for a specific purpose, so make sure you know what each does. For the third edition of the book, I've added a short comment that should help future readers, so thanks for the question!

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Question: I've tried to stack the TC-14E and TC-20E as you suggest on page 95 of Nikon Field Guide 2nd Edition, but this doesn't work. Is the book wrong?

Answer: No, just sparse in details (hey, I was in marketing once). To stack two TC-E's, you need to modify your TC-14E slightly. Grab a lens and your TC-14E for comparison. On the rear of the lens you'll see three long "tabs" on the inner part of the mounting ring. Now look at the front of the TC-14E. You'll see two long tabs, but where the third long tab is on the lens you'll see a medium-length tab and a short one (sort of looks like a long tab with a notch taken out). You need to remove the smallest tab. To do so, you should first remove the mounting ring from the lens. You'll see four small screws that hold the ring to the teleconverter body. Be careful not to strip those screws when removing them, as they're usually quite tight. Also be careful when pulling up on the ring--there's a thin metal ring inside that can be damaged if you use force. (If you're at all worried about doing the modification yourself, most photo repair shops can make this modification for you quite quickly, and without damaging your teleconverter.) With the ring removed, file the smallest tab completely off. Be sure to remove every last bit of metal debris caused by the filing. Re-attach the ring. Now, mount the TC-14E on your camera body, then mount the TC-20E on the TC-14E, and finally mount your lens on the TC-20E. If you're using a lens with an f/2.8 aperture, you might even find that autofocus still functions reasonably well (most Nikon bodies start having problems between f/5.6 and f/8). Warning: Obviously, this modification voids all Nikon warranties. If you aren't skilled with tools and don't understand the instructions 100%, don't attempt this at home, folks! Take your converter to a reputable repair shop, explain what you want done, and let a pro do the job if you have any doubts at all. In these days of litigation for litigation's sake please read this: Thom Hogan is not responsible for any damage to your converters or lenses, because you're going to attempt this modification only if you agree that you are the one responsible for anything that goes wrong. If you don't agree to absolve me from all possible damages, then please go back and un-read my answer, making sure to forget any details or where you might have seen them.

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Question: Is it possible to program the F100 to rewind the film and leave the leader out?

Answer: Many of the newer Nikon bodies (F100, F5, etc.) can be programmed to do this, but it requires that you take your camera to an authorized Nikon service center, where the necessary equipment is available.

Personally, I've never really had any desire to have my camera do this. With the amount of film I shoot on some trips/assignments it would be too easy to get confused and stick an exposed roll back into the camera (don't tell me to mark my rolls--sometimes when the light is just right or an animal is active in front of me, I'm shooting as fast as I can; I can't afford the time it takes to label a roll lest I miss a shot). The times when I have wanted to re-use a roll (when I only partially shoot a roll but need to change to another film stock), a $10 film extractor has worked just fine for getting the leader back out of the cartridge. Still, it seems strange that Nikon goes to all the effort of putting Custom Functions in their latest bodies, but leaves one of the more requested functions off the list.

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Question: How do you clean focusing screens?

Answer: Most focusing screens on pro bodies (e.g., F90x/N90s, F4, F5, F100) are removable. Take the focusing screen out and use a microfiber cloth to clean it. (Tip: get the E-type screen for your camera. Not only does it provide useful alignment lines, you get a little tool that makes it easier to remove the focusing screen on your camera.)

But I suspect you don't mean "focusing screens." Instead, you mean that you see dirt and grime through the viewfinder and want to clean whatever is causing this. Dirt and dust can be on the mirror, focus screen, or prism, each of which is cleaned and maintained in a different fashion.

Mirror: don't use compressed air, and don't use a cloth or fabric to clean the mirror. The mirror is very easily damaged by touch or force, and a damaged mirror can hinder autofocusing and metering. What I use to clean my mirrors is the Statbrush 2000, a small antistatic, camel-hair brush used primarily in darkrooms to get dust off negatives.

Focusing Screen: if it's removable, take it out and brush it off. Don't use pressure or force, especially on the newer screens that show the autofocus sensor in use. Don't use liquids, either, as short of distilled water, bad-for-camera minerals or chemicals are present in virtually every liquid I've seen used to clean cameras, including bottled water. And most of the newer screens are multi-layer, so it's possible to get liquid in between layers, where it not only is visible, but almost impossible to remove.

Prism: Toughest to clean, and easiest to mess up. If your prism is dirty, have a professional clean it (especially true of the sealed F5 prism). If you're going somewhere where dust is a problem (African safari, for example), keep the camera in a sealed plastic bag when you're not using it. (Actually, the technique I now use is to put my entire camera case in a sealed plastic bag between shooting sessions.) If you don't, you'll be having a professional cleaning done every trip!

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Question: Is it harder to compose effectively with a non-100% viewfinder?

Answer: The F3, F4, and F5 are the only recent Nikon models that show 100% of the frame in their viewfinder. The F100 shows 96%. The N90s/F90x and many other models show about 92%. A few bodies show as little as 89 or 90%. What's this really mean in terms of composition?

If you're shooting slides, 100% viewfinders are actually a bit of a nuisance, as most slide mounts "crop" a bit of image, hiding the edges of your photo "under the mount." Unfortunately, slide mounts vary a bit in the amount they cut off, in my experience ranging from the equivalent of a 92% viewfinder to about 94%.

At 92%, you lose almost 3 millimeters across the width of the image. This is significant for two types of photographers: (1) those who make large prints (losing 8% of the image area can be the difference between being able to make a clean 16x20 versus a 11x16); and (2) those who like to place objects at or near the border of the frame (having an object misplaced by 3mm is not trivial!).

My advice if you shoot slides: don't worry too much about it. If your viewfinder shows less than 94%, crop a little more tightly than what you see and be prepared to occasionally have to remount the image in a 100% mount. If your viewfinder shows more than 94%, frame to what you see and know that you may be opening the mount to get the full image, when necessary.

If you shoot negative film but rarely print larger than 8x10, just frame what you see in the viewfinder. But note that the printer probably needs cropping instructions from you to match what you framed.

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Question: With the camera on a tripod using the self-timer, I want to put myself in the picture. Unfortunately, I keep cutting off my feet or head. How do I know where to position myself?

Answer: Figuring out where your feet will be is the easy part. Simply note a detail on the ground and go to that spot. Alternatively, place something on the ground to mark the spot you wish to stand; make sure it's not too conspicuous (for example: a trig or leaf or rock that doesn't look out of place).

Figuring out where you head is going to end up is a little tougher. Here's how I set up a scene:

  1. I set my tripod to half my height (I suppose if you're short and your tripod is really tall, you could extend the tripod to your full height instead). I place the tripod in the spot I think I want to stand.
  2. With my camera, I walk to where I think the tripod will eventually be set. I look through the camera at the scene. To imagine where my head might end up, I "double" the height of the tripod. Generally, I'm looking for a "clear" area (lake, grass, whatever) so that my head doesn't disappear into a mess of detail.
  3. I'll fiddle with the tripod (which is still representing me) and my camera position until I'm satisfied with the result. I'll mark both final positions with a small twig.
  4. Next, I set up the tripod at the camera position, adjust, and lock down. I set my self timer to an acceptable length (typically 15 seconds). Even if I'm not using fill flash (rare), I'll mount my Speedlight on the camera (and point it off-scene if it's not being used for fill), and set it to fire on Rear Sync.
  5. I trigger the self timer and move to the position I marked in step three. If I'm facing the camera, I hold my position when the red ready light stops blinking and goes solid, and hold my position until the flash goes off. If I'm facing away from the camera, I hold my position from the time I arrive at my marked spot until I see the flash fire out of the corner of my eye. Generally, I've found it easier to see the flash than to hear the camera shutter (especially on an F4 or F5).

From the above, you may guess that I do a lot of shooting with ISO 50 film before and after sunrise. You're right. And I've found that I can typically hold a pose for 10 seconds without a problem. However, note that if you're going to hold a pose, you may need to exaggerate it a bit, especially if you're pretending to be walking. Don't be afraid to shoot a half dozen variants, some with exaggerated poses. And don't forget reciprocity failure when calculating your exposure on these long shots!

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Question: Someone told me that airports have to allow hand searches of film. Is this true?

Answer: In the United States, FAA regulations require that "If requested by passengers, their photographic equipment and film packages shall be inspected without exposure to an X-ray system." (source: Section 108.17(e) of FARS.) [Note: after September 11th, some airport personnel try to tell you that this isn't true anymore. But the current TSA guidelines still allow for hand inspection. Keep a few high-speed films in your bag and tell the security personnel that you'll be going through more than five X-ray machines on your trip. This makes it difficult for them to stonewall you. If they do, ask to speak to a supervisor, and ask that supervisor to show you the current TSA regulations regarding hand checking of film.] It helps to be polite and to facilitate such searches. I always carry my film removed from film canisters (which I pack in my checked luggage) in a clear bag that I present at the security checkpoint, making it as easy as possible for the security personnel to view the contents.

If you arrive with film in boxes, they will be opened. If you arrive with film in canisters, often the security personnel will open one or more to check to see if there's film in them (that's even true of the clear Fuji canisters!). If you ask them to hand inspect your camera, you will be required to show that it is an operative camera, so make sure that you've got fresh batteries in it! They may even require you to take a picture, or if film is not in the camera, to open the back.

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Question: My dealer offered me an extended warranty on the camera I was purchasing. Should I get it? And does it make a difference whether I buy gray market or official US imports?

Answer: If you purchase a gray market import, get the extended warranty. If you purchase an official US import, then it becomes a matter of who you buy the extended warranty from, what it covers, and whether you're a gambler or not.

Nikon tracks product sales by serial number, so even if you tried to get Nikon USA to fix it at your own expense AFTER the warranty expired, they won't touch gray market products. Worse still, with most of Nikon's latest equipment, they no longer sell parts, service manuals, or test machines to third parties (and when they do, they want serial number confirmation). Thus, many things can't be fixed by your local camera repair shop (example: Nikon has software that can make most models rewind with leader out, and they've got other software that alters battery level indicators on the F5)..

If you have an official US import, you can always send it to a Nikon authorized service center, regardless of whether you've got an extended warranty or not (though if Nikon gives you a completely new camera instead of repairing the old one, your extended warranty becomes worthless, as it usually applies to an individual serial number).

But let's say you get the four year extended warranty and the camera fails in a significant way three years down the line. The company who provides the warranty can't get parts for it (because Nikon doesn't sell those to non Nikon-authorized service centers), the camera in question is no longer made (so they can't just send you a new one to replace it), and perhaps there's a recession going on (and they're scrambling to keep their heads above red ink). What then? Well, the usual scenario is that they offer you a "replacement in kind." What that means is open to a lot of interpretation. Most outfits interpret that to their advantage.

For example, "replacement in kind" could mean: (1) replacement with another camera that costs the same as the original; (2) replacement with a used model of that camera; (3) replacement with the camera with the closest feature set to the original; or (4) replacement with the successor model (if any) to the original. Only 2 and 4 really guarantee you another Nikon, and only 2 guarantees that any accessories you've purchased will continue to be useful.

Some extended warranties get tricky in their language, allowing the company to refund your money if they can't repair or replace your camera. That refund is (1) only the amount you paid for the extended warranty; (2) the amount you paid for the camera less depreciation; (3) the current value of a used model of that camera; or (4) the full price you paid.

Without reading the actual language of an extended warranty, it's difficult to predict what will happen should you ever need to file a claim. I've heard third-hand that people who've bought extended warranties from B&H have been relatively pleased, but I wouldn't rely upon that assessment without a careful read of the contract.

In general, I don't buy extended warranties. First, I usually only buy US imports (the exception occurs when I'm in Japan--I sometimes purchase something there, but Nikon USA honors that warranty if I show them the invoice that proves I purchased the product in Japan). Second, I have an insurance policy on my equipment that covers theft and damage caused by use. Third, I take good care of my equipment (most electronic failures occur early in a product's life and thus usually under warranty; most mechanical failures can be avoided by taking good care of the equipment). If that's not enough and I suffer a catastrophic failure out of warranty, well, that was the gamble I took. Most pros consider the equipment expendable.

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