Tech articles My thoughts on the gear I use for photography

Nikon D500: A high ISO shot

I've been doing a bit of shooting with the D500 lately, and while doing some editing I came across this image of a Marsh Wren taken at extreme close quarters when it landed on a reed right behind me. The EXIF data shows that it was taken at ISO 2000, but there was very little noise in the file. I have to shoot a lot more before I will have a definitive conclusion, but I'm starting to think that with careful pushing of exposure to the right, great picture quality can be had up to and beyond ISO 2000 - maybe even up to 3200.

Here's a 100% crop of the image without any sharpening or noise reduction applied.



Nikon D500: Ramblings

I've gone and done it again. I bought a camera that I had never seen before. Or used. Or read a proper review of. What gives??

The last DX camera (Nikon parlance for 1.5x crop factor DSLR's) I owned was the Nikon D300S, and I sold it way back in 2012. Almost a lifetime in camera terms. Since then I've missed the combination of reach and speed that a good DX body offers for wildlife photography. As much as I missed my D300S, advantages like high ISO performance, dynamic range and autofocus performance made the switch to a D800/D4 combination a no-brainer. Until now. Why not a D7200 you may ask? The smaller form factor of the body, but mostly a very shallow buffer were the major issues for me.

10fps, decent high ISO performance, cutting edge AF all wrapped up in a tough body - what was not to like? My D4 went on sale the same day I ordered the D500! I got to use a pre-production D500 (and a D5) at a local Nikon event recently, and it seemed that all the hype might actually be true, though I obviously haven't had a chance to play with any actual images. I can hardly wait to get mine!


Nikon 300mm f/4 PF VR: Quick Thoughts

I was pretty intrigued when the Nikon 300m PF VR was introduced. I carry my 70-200mm f/2.8 with a 1.4X teleconverter mounted on a body as a second combo even when shooting with the 600mm, and trust me all that weight adds up! The 300 PF looked like a great option to reduce weight without sacrificing image quality or shutter speeds. On top of that, when paired with a 1.7X or 2x teleconverter, it seemed like a reasonable primary lens on hikes where light weight and a small footprint were primary considerations. So I decided to pull the trigger a couple of weeks ago...


Nikon 300mm f/4 PF VR on Nikon D4 body

After waiting for what seemed like an eternity for the lens to be in stock, I finally received a call that a camera store had one in hand, and whether I wanted to buy it. My quick answer was "Of course I want to buy it, can you overnight it?!". The lens was in my hands on March 27th 2015 and I've now had it for a couple of weeks. While I haven't done enough shooting with the lens to write an in depth review, I thought I'd put together a few thoughts for those of you on the fence about buying one:

Size & Weight
Damn this thing is tiny (for a 300/4)! In size and weight, it's comparable to my 24-70mm f/2.8. It's slightly longer and slightly heavier, but not a significant difference at all. Definitely the lens to carry when small size and weight are a priority. The picture below shows how the 300 PF compares to the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR2 and the 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses.


Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR2, 300mm f/4 PF VR and 24-70mm f/4 VR compared

Build Quality
I would compare the build quality as closer to my 16/35mm VR than my 24-70. That is, from a distance it LOOKS like a metal tank of a lens, but as soon as you pick it up you figure out that the lens is mostly plastic. However, this is in keeping with the 'smaller & lighter' ethos of the lens so I can't say I fault Nikon for making this choice. That said, it does hurt a little that I just dropped close to two grand on a plastic lens :)

Image Quality
I haven't had a lot of time to shoot with this lens, so these comments are going to be very superficial. The image quality seems to be pretty good. However, I do see more chromatic aberration when images are zoomed in to 100% in Lightroom. Not sure if this has something to do with camera and/or Lightroom  not correcting automatically for CA as the lens is too new to have a profile for it, or because the lens simply has more CA than some of my other lenses. More details will follow over the coming weeks as I get more time with the lens.

So far, I'm reasonably happy with my purchase and can't wait to shoot some more with it! I'll post a detailed review over the next couple of months after I have a lot more hands on experience...


Nikon D4S wish list

With the Imminent arrival of the Nikon D4S, I started thinking about what I really need as an upgrade to my D4:

1. More megapixels - I know this is a controversial statement, but I wish I had more megapixels on my D4. Yes, I do own and shoot the D800 and no, it doesn't suit every purpose. Why do I need more MP, isn't the 16MP of the D4 plenty? Yes, 16MP IS plenty, so let me be more precise - I wish I was able to get 16MP in a slightly denser arrangement to effectively multiply my focal length. I shoot a lot of small birds and tend to use the 1.4, 1.7 and 2X teleconverters a lot. If a D4S allowed me to shoot 1.2 or 1.3X crop mode and still gave me 16 MP, I'd be able to reduce my usage of the 1.7 and 2X teleconverters which really slow down AF and degrade image quality to an extent.

2. Move the AF-On button - They moved the AF-On button a little to the left on the D4 (compared to the D3) and it's now a little bit of a stretch for my thumb. Not unusable but slightly uncomfortable - though since I only use the this button for AF (my shutter button is set to operate ONLY the shutter) this is quite a big deal for me.

3. Better video - I'd like D4S video to have the same sharpness as D800 video. I don't know why Nikon couldn't create comparable video modes on two cameras that were released a month or two apart.

4. External control for the auto ISO feature - the thing I'd really like to have is an external control for the minimum shutter speed of the Auto ISO feature. The current option is buried inside a few menus and takes some fiddling to set, and I have missed shots trying to set this. I really find I need this even when shooting with a fixed lens - when I switch from perched birds to birds in flight for example, I need a very different minimum shutter speed and am willing to sacrifice a little ISO bump to get to it.

5. Better AF with smaller aperture lenses - my 600mm f/4 is essentially an f/8 lens with the 2X TC attached. The AF becomes very sluggish in all but the best light, so significant improvement to that would be huge for me.
6. External level control for the mic - when shooting video, I almost always shoot with an external mic that feeds into the camera. The level control for the mic input is also buried inside a few menus and is tough to get to in a hurry.
Will Nikon make all these changes? Probably not. But one can always hope!

Camera Review: Nikon D4

I've had the D4 for around a year now, and feel I've had enough time with it to write a reasonable review. As with most of my reviews this won't be exhaustive or a regurgitation of facts - it will deal with features that are important to me in my type of shooting.

Nikon D4

Body & Handling
Overall, I think the ergonomics have been improved over theD3S and D3X bodies that it replaced. Here are some of the major changes and how they affect my shooting:

1. Dedicated video recording button - this is not really a big deal for me. Call me old fashioned, but I found that fumbling for yet another button to start recording a video was too much for me.I simply reprogrammed the shutter button to start and stop video recording while I'm in video mode, and therefore hardly use the video button now.

2. Thumb selector for portrait - this is a HUGE ergonomic improvement! When shooting in portrait mode I used to have to reach over to the main selector button whenever I wanted to change the active focus point, but not with the D4. Honestly, I don't know why Nikon couldn't do this on the D3/D3X series - they had this selector button on the D300/D700 grips when they were launched.

Thumb selector on the D4 (above the "mic" label)

3. New AF selector - there's a separate AF selector button just above the main selector button. Don't use this much.

4. Vertical grip 'thumb' nub - when shooting and carrying a camera for extended periods of time, your thumb's going to get a serious workout holding on to a heavy pro body. Nikon's previous generations of pro bodies had a small channel you could stick your thumb into, but the D4 has added a small rubber nub that's extremely useful when carrying the camera around using the portrait grip.

d4-1-3_med d4-1-4_med
"Old" thumb channel on D3S (left) and "New" thumb nub on D4 (right)

5. Placement of AF-On buttons - there are two button AF-On buttons on the body, and both have been moved on the D4. The horizontal button has been moved to the left and farther away from your thumb. Those with small hands (like me!) now have to stretch their thumbs a little more to reach the AF-On button. Not a huge deal, but annoying after a couple of hours' shooting. The AF-On button in vertical mode (see image above) is inconsistent compared to the position of the horizontal button - in vertical mode you need to reach across and lower, with the result that you have to consciously remember whether you're shooting portrait or landscape when you reach over for the AF-On button. Once again, not a big deal, but ergonomics are one of the primary reasons we buy these expensive bodies and for a $6,000 camera I think Nikon should have paid a little more attention. That said, it's an improvement over the D3-series bodies that had the AF button ABOVE the dial!

6. Focus mode / AF area mode buttons - previous generations of Nikon bodies had an AF area mode selector to switch between the different AF area modes that looked like this:

Nikon D3S AF Area Mode Selector

AF modes (Continuous, Single, Manual) were selected using this:

Nikon D3S AF Mode Selector

Both these functions have now been replaced by a single button (see image below), which when used with the front and rear dials allow you to spin through the AF modes and AF area modes. In practice, it's a little easier to use after you get used to it so I'll call this an improvement.

Nikon D4 AF Mode & Area Mode Selector

7. Live View Selector - the D4 has a selector that you can use to switch whether the LiveView is launched for video or stills. A little more intuitive, so another small win here.

8. Shutter button angle - Nikon mad a big deal about this at launch, stating that the D4 and D800 had more steeply raked shutter buttons that make it more comfortable to use. To be honest, I can't really see a big difference.

Overall, I think the body ergonomics have been improved in small but significant ways, and this makes the D4 easier to use on long, multi-hour shoots.

The ability to autofocus with the central 9 sensors at down to f/8 is a pretty useful feature for me. When shooting songbirds you generally need all the magnification you can get, and I occasionally even use the 600mm f/4 lens with a 2X teleconverter. In good light, AF is usable with the D4 as long as the bird isn't in brush or moving too fast. See my article here evaluating the optical performance of the Nikon 600mm f/4 VR / TC-20EIII combo.
AF speed seems to be slightly better than the D3S, but strangely enough I seem to have a few more AF misses in flight photography than before. I haven't conducted a back to back scientific test (sold the D3S last year) and my strategy for flight photography has changed (moved from single AF sensor to Dynamic Area) so this is not a definitive opinion. I'll update this article as I learn more.

Frame Rate & Buffer
The improved frame rate (9>10FPS) over the D3S is no big deal. The larger buffer is. The D4 has more than double the RAW buffer of the D3S, and all I can say is that I've never hit the buffer on the D4. Did manage to hit the D3S buffer a few times though.

Nikon D4

Video features are much improved over the D3S. I'm not a heavy video user, but I've started shooting a decent amount of video this year and can appreciate the improvements. The obvious improvement is the 1080p mode along with the choice of 24, 30 and 60FPS frame rates (though you can only get to 60FPS by reducing resolution to 720p). An equally important addition however is the ability to change crop mode. The D4 allows you to shoot in 1x, 1.5X and 2.7X crop modes. I use prime lenses 90% of the time, and the crop mode means that I can change the crop mode to get different perspectives of the same scene, allowing me to mix these in post processing and make the videos look more varied while maintaining consistent quality.
I'd also like to comment on the audio features along with the video as that's where the audio is used. The addition of a microphone jack is important because the standard microphone picks up a lot of autofocus, electrical and general vibration and handling noises. I use a Zoom H4N recorder as a mic, and pass a heavily amped signal into the D4. More on the H4N in a separate post.

Card slots
Dual card slots are par for the course in the D4. The addition of the XQD slot is not a big deal to me - I just bought a large XQD card and called it a day. It seems comparable to or faster than the Lexar 1000X CF cards I use, so it's a win.

Image Quality
The high ISO performance and dynamic range of this camera are spectacular! However, I wouldn't say it has made a giant leap in this category over the D3S - it seems to be the same per pixel ISO performance or a little better, with the added benefit of more megapixels.
I'm going to make a pretty controversial statement here - I wish the D4 had more megapixels! Before you start lighting up the torches and polishing the pitchforks, let me explain why. I really don't need more than 16 megapixels in a given image most of the time, but what I do wish for are the same megapixels more densely packed into the middle of the frame whenever I shoot smaller birds (songbirds, etc.) I find myself turning to the D800 whenever the light is reasonable and I'm shooting these kind of subjects and using the in-camera crop to get that extra reach. For the D4 to be my perfect wildlife body, I guess I'm asking for a 1.2-1.3x crop factor with 16 megapixels or so.
Apart from that, I'm pretty happy with the image quality of the D4 - it seems to have that perfect blend of fantastic any-light performance, good image quality and a reasonably sized raw file that doesn't try to drown my computer.

Auto ISO
You'll probably wonder why I'm devoting a whole section to this seemingly inconsequential feature, but believe me this feature has changed how I set exposure 90% of the time. In the old days (pre-D300/D700/D3) we had no auto ISO and I used Aperture Priority mode, setting the aperture to achieve the desired depth of field and then manually setting the ISO to get a shutter speed I was comfortable with. The advent of auto ISO allowed us to set the range for ISO and minimum shutter speed and let the camera decide what to set the ISO at in Aperture Priority mode, but I didn't use this feature much as the maximum ISO settings were in stops and the jumps were too high. In addition, a single minimum shutter speed wouldn't work on zoom lenses where you need a different shutter speed at 70mm compared to 200mm for example. I therefore ended up using the D300/D700/D3 generation of cameras with manual ISO. The auto ISO function in the D4 and D800 has addressed these problems, though not perfectly.
Maximum ISO can now be set in thirds of a stop, which completely solves that issue. The minimum shutter speed can be set as an inverse of focal length - for example if I set it to 0 and shoot with a 200mm lens, the ISO is automatically increased until it achieves a shutter peed of 1/200th of a second. If I set it to +1 and shoot with the same lens, it raises the ISO until a shutter speed of 1/400 is achieved. So this feature now works well with zooms lenses too.
However, all is not perfect yet with this feature. Let's take an example of a shooting session that includes multiple types of birds. When shooting songbirds sitting in trees, I'm comfortable going down to 1/300 with a 600mm lens and will set the minimum shutter speed at -1. Suddenly, if I see a heron coming in for a landing I need a much faster shutter speed and the auto ISO feature is buried 3 levels into the Nikon menu system. The result? A heron with blurry wings, or a missed shot as I fiddle with settings. What I'd really like is to be able to set the shutter speed just like the exposure compensation using a small dedicated dial that has a range from -2 to +2. For that, I would buy the Nikon D5! Nikon, are you listening?!!!

I'm very happy with my purchase of the D4. It's my wildlife camera of choice for low light and action photography, and despite it's size and weight has become the camera we carry with us to take family pictures and videos. It's build like a tank (though it also weighs as much as one!) and can pretty much take any shooting situation in stride. The ergonomics are mostly better, as are the video and image quality. It's an evolution of the D3S rather than a revolutionary camera, and I for one am not disappointed by the fact that Nikon took the safe approach of not fixing what wasn't broken. Please post your thoughts and comment below, or let me know if there are any other aspects of the camera you'd like me to comment on...


Nikon Df: Quick Thoughts

I've been following the Nikon Df teaser videos for the last couple of weeks now, and was intrigued by the possibilities. Nikon made the official announcement this morning, so we now have a clearer picture (pardon the pun) of what this camera offers. The headline specs are:

  • 16.2MP FX CMOS sensor from the D4
  • Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait, Landscape and user definable picture modes
  • NEF, TIFF and JPEG file formats
  • A single SD card slot
  • 0.7x magnification viewfinder
  • Type B BriteView Clear Matte Mark VIII screen with AF area brackets (framing grid can be displayed)
  • 39-point AF
  • Max frame rate of 5.5 FPS
  • 2,016-pixel RGB metering sensor
  • Collapsible metering coupling lever for use with non-CPU lenses
  • Exposure modes include Programmed auto with flexible program (P); shutter-priority auto (S); aperture-priority auto (A); manual (M)
  • ISO 100 to 12800, with the special "Hi" function taking it up to ISO 204,800
  • NO video
  • 710g weight (lighter even than the D610, the previously the lightest Nikon FX DSLR)

I think this is a beautiful camera, and I'll take mine in silver, thank you. The dedicated manual dials and buttons are exactly the direction that I believe pro DSLR's should move in (more on that in a later post), and the Df somehow manages to incorporate most of the ergonomic improvements of the last 30 years in a sleek, retro-style body.


Looks like the same magnification (0.7x) and coverage (100%) as most of the new Nikon FX bodies. One disappointing feature is that the eye point is 15mm (the D4 is 18mm and the D610 is 21mm). What does this mean? This is how far your can take your eye off the viewfinder and still see the full image. A short eye point means you have to squash your eye against the viewfinder, which I personally find fatiguing and annoying.
Nikon seems to imply in their Df literature that manual focusing is a more fun. Why then this they stick this body with the hard-to-manual-focus focusing screen from all their other DSLR's? Nikon had an opportunity to re-introduce a new version of one of their classic focusing screens OR make the focusing screens interchangeable and make manual focus actually USABLE. I view this as a major failing of the new camera.

It's the sensor from the D4. I own the D4 so I have only good things to say about this sensor. Being able to get it in a body that's half the price and size of the D4 can only be a good thing. However, I still feel that a sensor with a few more pixels (like the 24MP D600/610 sensor) may have been a better choice, as I'm sure a lot of potential buyers would shoot landscapes with this camera. That said, maybe Nikon's line of thinking was that packing in more megapixels wasn't in keeping with the 'less is more' ethos of the Df. I'll buy that!


AF & Metering
From the non-news department, the Df has an AF sensor with 39 points - likely lifted straight from the D600/610. The 2,016 pixel metering sensor is also most probably from the D600/610.

Use of non-Ai lenses
I don't use a lot of old lenses, so I'll hae to reserve comments on this one until I've had a chance to use the Df with some older lenses. However, people who'll dish out $3,000 for a camera don't seem to me to be the type of users who'll try to save a few dollars by skimping on lenses. Or maybe that's just me...

I think the Df is an interesting product, and the first retro-styled DSLR from one of the big SLR players (i.e. Nikon & Canon). It has a beautiful design and is mostly likely solidly engineered. Nikon took a brave decision to drop video from the specification list, and it remains to be seen whether this decision will hamper sales of the Df. While I'm not a big video user, I'd still like to have it for the times I will need it.
My chief worry about the Df is in the value for money department. The Df body will sell for $2,749.95. The D610 sells for 1,999.95 and has video, a second card slot and arguably a better all-round sensor. Is looking good while taking photographs worth giving up video, image backup and an additional $750? Let me know what you think...

Life at the long end

Late last year, I switched from a Nikon 400mm f/2.8 VR II to a Nikon 600mm f/4 VR II as my primary long lens. It was an agonizing decision, and I knew both options had their advantages and limitations. I thought I'd write this post to give some insight into my reasons behind the switch, as there may be others out there trying to make this same decision that may benefit from it.

The case for the 400mm
  • Amazing sharpness even wide open
  • Greak bokeh and ability to isolate the subject with shallow depth of field
  • Works well paired with the TC-20EIII teleconverter for an 800mm f/5.6 lens
  • A little lighter and shorter

  • The case for the 600mm
  • Holds its own in the sharpness department
  • Autofocuses with the TC-17 and TC-20 teleconverters on both the D800 and D4. 

I used the 400mm for over 3 years, mostly at 800mm with the TC-20 teleconverter (version III - all the other versions are junk!). This amazing lens produced stellar image after stellar image, and if you asked me a year ago I would never have dreamed of parting with it. However, when the D800 and D4 bodies came out sporting autofocus at f/8 I started reconsidering my position. I ultimately went with the 600 because not being able to shoot at 400mm wasn't a big deal, but being able to shoot at 1200mm was (to me) a game changer.

D4 vs D800: Quick Thoughts

I sold my D3S a few months ago and upgraded to a D4. While I haven't used the new body enough to write a full review on it, I've started noticing patterns of when I like to use it compared to my D800. Here are some of my photography situations and how they affect my choice of cameras:
General photography
For most general photography situations (family gatherings, pictures of kids, etc.) I prefer the D4. In addition to the high ISO performance, the smaller file size is a big plus as I'm never going to print these pictures at poster sizes and I like the faster workflow the 16MP files of the D4 give me. True, it's a significantly bulkier camera than the D800, but I almost never use smaller bodies without a battery grip. With the battery grip in the equation, the size differences between the two cameras effectively disappears.

Event Photography
The D4's high ISO capabilities make it a little better than the D800 here - but there's not much in it.

Landscape photography
This is where the D800 comes into its own and pretty much leaves every other DSLR in the dust. Couple it with a sturdy tripod and a stellar lens, and it'll deliver image quality that can only be exceeded by moving up to a medium format camera. All in a small, rugged form factor - what's not to love?!


Macro photography
I use both cameras in macro photography situations, but lean more towards the D800 when I carry my own lighting and the D4 when I don't. If I had to pick one, the D800's superior resolution does it for me.

I'm not a video expert by any stretch of the imagination, and my use of video is mostly to capture memories of our young son. I've read some reports (including the Nikon D4 manual!!) about the D4 video being soft in all but the smallest crop mode, and that the D800's videos are sharper. To be honest, I can't see any difference and I almost always use the D4 for video since it's already lying somewhere around the house :) 

Wildlife (small birds)
When photographing small birds, you can never get close enough. I mostly use the 600mm lens with either the 1.7X or the 2X teleconverter, and I still usually want more reach! This is one area where the D800 clearly trumps the D4 -  I use it in DX crop mode (1.5X) and it still enables me to get 15 megapixels on the subject. As long as the light levels are reasonable and I don't need more than 6FPS, the D800 stays on the tripod and the D4 stays in the bag.

Wildlife (action)
This is a whole different story - action photography requires fast shutter speeds (which means higher ISO) and a high frame rate and the D4 is the clear winner here.


You may have noticed that I didn't mention ergonomics or discuss image quality in detail here. That's because I wanted to give just my first impressions from a couple of months of use, and reserve any detailed analysis for a later blog post. These are both absolutely fantastic cameras and I'm privileged to own and use them both. However, I find that the D4 is a better camera for everyday use. Yes, yes, I know - it's a giant hunk of rubber and metal that sticks out anywhere you take it, and will break your foot it you are unlucky enough to drop it on it! But I positively hate using DSLR bodies without a portrait grip, and with the portrait grip added to the D800 the cameras are pretty much the same size. The D800 comes out of the bag for songbird and landscape photography, and does those two things better than I could have hoped for before this amazing camera was launched.
Overall, I guess I'm saying that the D4 is jack of all trades for MY USE, while the D800 is the master of one (or two) that it does brilliantly. I hope this information has been usefulto you, but keep in mind that any purchase decision has to be based on YOUR usage and not just my thoughts.    

Nikon D4 vs. Nikon D800 - Resolution Test

I've seen a lot of people agonize over whether to buy a D800 or D4 for wildlife photography. While it's not an easy decision, one of the most important questions is that of resolution. Does the D800 really have that much more image data compared to the D4? The image below shows the same subject shot by the D800 (left) and D4 (right). I used the the Nikon 600mm VR (version 2) for this test, mounted on a tripod and shooting at speeds fast enough to eliminate any vibration-related blur. I didn't have a chance to do a focus calibration before this test, so please ignore the slight back focus on the D800 image...

Nikon D800 (left) and Nikon D4 (right) sample images side by side 

As you can see above, the D800 image contains significantly more data. In good light and with good technique, the D800 offers a significant cropping advantage over the D4, and this can't be disregarded for wildlife. Of course, occasions where a wildlife photographer finds good light and perfect conditions are few and far between, so the D800 won't win this fight that easily even in terms of image quality! I'll be posting more comparison articles over the next few weeks, dealing with areas like noise and ergonomics.
Links to the original images are below; I've exported them directly from the RAW files using Lightroom with no sharpening or any other changes. Please feel free to check them out and share your own thoughts at the bottom of this page. Thanks!

Sample image from Nikon D4

Sample image from Nikon D800 


Lens Review: Nikon 600mm f/4 VR with teleconverters

Ever since I started using the D800, I've been excited by the prospect of usable autofocus at f/8. However, as most of you know I've used the 400mm f/2.8 VR with a 2x TC as my long lens combo for a while. While this combination delivered outstanding sharpness and accuracy, there was simply no way to go longer than 800mm even if I could afford to use an aperture smaller than f/5.6.
      I recently bought the Nikon 600mm f/4 VR II lens, mainly with the intent of shooting it with the 1.7X and 2X teleconverters to gauge how usable it is. I did some field testing to assess performance (albeit VERY unscientific!) and thought I'd share the results with you. Hopefully this will help those trying to choose between these two lenses and trying to figure out how effective the teleconverters are with the 600.
      I shot all three combinations (bare lens, TC-17EII, TC-20EIII) from a tripod with a shutter speed fast enough to eliminate any camera movement, and the light was good enough to keep ISO's down too. All shots were taken on the D800, at a fixed exposure and within minutes of each other.The files were processed identically in LightRoom 4 - the only change was a sharpening value of +62 and then an output to JPEG. The 100% crops were taken from the center of the image.

Full image with the bare 600mm lens @ f/5.6 (click on the image for full size)

100% crop with bare 600mm lens @ f/5.6

The bare 600mm is pretty darn sharp - the detail on the fence post is captured pretty well. No surprises here then...

Full image with the TC-17EII Teleconverter mounted on the 600mm lens@ f/8 (click on the image for full size)

100% crop with the TC-17EII Teleconverter mounted on the 600mm lens@ f/8

In the past, I've seen the TC-17 deliver a bigger image without necessarily resolving more detail than the bare lens at the same distance, especially on the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR (version 1). No such complaints here - the quality of the glass on the 600 shines through and really delivers a sharp, usable image. The compromise in aperture hasn't been a big deal for me YET - the D800 seems to take it in stride and focuses swiftly and surely. However, busy backgrounds can still throw it off so you need to give focus a manual tweak every now and then. 

Full image with the TC-20EIII Teleconverter mounted on the 600mm lens @ f/10 (click on the image for full size)

600tc20-crop_med /
100% with the TC-20EIII Teleconverter mounted on the 600mm lens @ f/10

With the TC-20, the image in the viewfinder and on the sensor is certainly bigger, but it looks to be like the detailed resolved is similar to the TC-17. Contrast also seems to take a slight hit. Overall, a decent performance but it loses you more light than the TC-17, slows down AF a little and doesn't really resolve any more detail.

The Verdict
I'm pretty happy with the results the 600mm and TC-17 provide, and can safely say that I'll use this combo whenever I need the reach and don't need the AF speed. I wouldn't say that the AF is speed is bad, but I'm not sure it'll be up to handling birds in flight.
      I've always sworn by the performance of the TC-20EIII teleconverter on the 400/2.8, but it looks like the 600 doesn't work as well with this teleconverter. The results are certainly usable, but doesn't provide enough of an advantage over the TC-17 to recommend it. The allure of 1200mm is still too much to resist though, so I'll continue doing more field testing before I discount this combo.
What do you think? Any thoughts and comments are welcome!


Camera Review: Nikon D800 vs D3S - ISO comparisons

I've had the D800 for a while now and have had the chance to shoot with it in less than ideal lighting - mostly between 6 and 7am when bird activity is at it's highest. One thing that has constantly surprised me is the great high ISO capability of this camera as I bought it resigning myself to dealing with significant noise. After a couple of months of shooting, I find myself comfortably shooting into the ISO 3,200 range when the light calls for it, and switching to my D3S only beyond that. The next question to me was - how does it compare against the venerable D3S that was until recently (and some say still) the king of low light / high ISO shooting?
My test included shooting both cameras in controlled lighting (the light from a single incandescent bulb) and set up on a tripod. All images were taken with the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 lens with VR switched off. The pictures were shot in RAW, viewed side by side in Adobe Lightroom 4 at 1:1 ratio (hence the much larger images from the D800), and a screen capture was taken. 
Please note that this test is ONLY intended to show noise and not resolution - from looking at the samples I can see that the D800 was out-resolving the printing capabilities of this seed manufacturer (the subject is a packet of seeds)!

Here are the results of my testing:

ISO 100-400 The images look pretty much the same, save the D800 delivering demonstrably more resolution with a hint more noise. 

D800 ISO 400

D3S ISO 400

ISO 800 I can see a little luminance noise in the D800 image, but nothing that would bother me. The D3S file looks clean.

D800 ISO 800

D3S ISO 800

ISO 1600 A little more luminance noise in the D800, but still very well controlled and perfectly acceptable, even for very large prints. The D3S is showing some noise, but it's so minute that you need to stick your face in the monitor to see it!

D800 ISO 1,600

D3S ISO 1,600

ISO 3200 The D3S is just warming up, while the D800 is noisier. The noise though is limited to luminance and isn't that hard to get rid of in post processing. On the D800, this ISO is about as high as I would comfortably go for wildlife photography.

D800 ISO 3,200

D3S ISO 3,200

ISO 6400 The D800 gets noisier and some of the fine detail is being blurred at this point. The D3S is humming a tune and picking its nails while still taking incredible pictures in near darkness. Now that's style!

D800 ISO 6,400

D3S ISO 6,400

ISO 12800 The D800 is breathing hard now, with lots of noise, loss of dynamic range and loss of more fine detail. The D3S on the other hand just realized that it's actually in a comparison test! It shows some noise but nothing that can't be cleaned up in post.

D800 ISO 12,800

D3S ISO 12,800

ISO 25600 The D800 is well out of its depth by 25,600 ISO - it's noisy, fine details are all but gone and colors, contrast and dynamic range are suffering visibly. It looks rather like a poorly executed Pointilist painting! The D3S is showing significant luminance noise, precluding this sensitivity for any critical work that'll be printed at large sizes.

D800 ISO 25,600

D3S ISO 25,600

Summary The D800 is perfectly usable for wildlife photography up to ISO 3,200. WHAT? ISO 3200? YES. It's that good! Incredible performance from a camera that many people say is only for use on tripods in controlled lighting circumstances. The D3S maintains fantastic quality right up a little over ISO 6,400, but I'd stop short of using 12,800 for critical work. As the ISO's climb over 3,200, I'd say the D3S is a 1-1.5 stops better than the D800. What was surprising about both cameras was that most of the noise was luminance noise, which to me is not as objectionable as the considerably more difficult to remove chroma noise (those ugly red, blue and green splotches).
This whole test has been based on a pixel level noise comparison, but we're ignoring one key factor here - the D800 has THREE times as many pixels as the D3S!!! To conduct an apples to apples comparison, I resized the D800 image to 12MP, and applied some sharpening and noise reduction to both images. Take a look at the results:

D800 ISO 12,800 - noise reduction & sharpening applied via Lightroom 4

D3S ISO 12,800 - noise reduction & sharpening applied via Lightroom 4

Can you tell a difference? I certainly think they're pretty comparable in terms of noise. So what I see is that the D800 has identical ISO performance to the D3S at ISO 12,800 IF you're willing to spend 15 seconds in Lightroom dragging the noise slider! On top of that, even downsized to 12MP you can see that the D800 is resolving a little more detail. Amazing!

Overall recommendation (based purely on ISO performance) If you shoot a LOT of images in low light and don't want to spend hours in post processing, the D3S is the clear winner here. However, if you shoot in both good and bad light and don't mind spending a little time working on your low light images, the sheer flexibility of the D800 will serve you better. I hope this review has been useful to you, and please feel free to leave comments or ask questions.


Lens Review: Sigma 300-800 f/5.6 EX APO IF HSM

Affectionately referred to as the 'Sigmonster' because of its size, the Sigma 300-800mm is the second largest DSLR zoom lens currently being sold today at any price (incidentally the largest is also manufactured by Sigma - the 200-500mm f/2.8).
Weighing in at almost 13 pounds, the 300-800 is no welterweight. It has 18 elements in 16 groups, and is an internal focusing design meaning that the front element of the lens doesn't move as the lens is focused.

Build Quality & Handling
As befitting a lens of this price, the build quality is excellent. As you'll find if you read some of my other articles here, I'm not a fan of the finish Sigma applies to their lenses - the dark furry finish seems to magnetically attract scratches and rub marks. However, the body of the lens feels like a solid, professional tool in your hand (or more likely on your tripod).
Kudos to Sigma on the design of their lens foot (Nikon take note here) - the foot is a low profile, solid hunk of rubber-covered metal and fulfills its purpose perfectly. The finger indents on the top means it doubles as a very effective carrying handle. Compare this to the tripod feet on Nikon's large lenses - the Nikon tripod feet are skinny, overly tall, wobbly pieces of deadwood that most photographers replace immediately upon buying the lens.
The zoom ring and focus ring are a little too stiff for my taste, but not a big deal. The single piece lens hood is well made and seems sturdy enough too. 


The HSM motor in the seems pretty fast especially for such a long lens. It's a hair slower than a Nikon 400mm f/2.8 with a 2X teleconverter, but the difference isn't significant. The low light conditions I normally shoot in cause almost any long lens to hunt, but the Sigma didnt seem any worse than other big lenses I've used.
Image Quality
You'll know by now that I'm a big fan of the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 lens, which coupled with a 2X teleconverter has been my primary long lens for a few years now. I shot the lenses side by side and the images below are 100% crops from the center of the image.



So can you guess which picture is from the Sigma and which is from the Nikon? The first one is from the Sigma and the second one's from the Nikon. You can make your own conclusions, but to my eyes the Nikon is quite a bit sharper. This couldn't have been due to lens shake as multiple shots were taken locked down on a tripod with 1/400 sec+ shutter speeds. Ignore the lighting differences as the sun went behind some clouds as I was shooting with the Nikon.

Stopping down seemed to help make the Sigma's output a little crisper, but not by much.

I've been asked a few times why my reviews of long lenses stick to analyzing just the center of the image in a field setting. Wouldn't shots of a test chart in perfect studio lighting conditions provide a much better guide to lens sharpness? I don't doubt it. I'm almost always shooting in bad light and less than ideal conditions, so performance in a studio setting means nothing to me. Also I hardly every put anything in the corners of the image so corners sharpness doesn't mean much either for a long lens.

Size & Weight
The picture below shows the Sigma 300-800 compared to the Nikon 400 (with 2X TC). They're both big lenses, but the Sigma is a few inches longer and a few pounds heavier. It's definitely enough to feel on a day in the field.


The Sigmonster is a very specialized tool for a specialized application. It's calling card is the sheer flexibility of the zooming. In my experience the greatest benefit is in zooming out to 300mm, finding the subject, and quickly zooming in to 800mm. Having missed great shots in the past due to being a split second late in finding the target, I can't stress enough how important this is.
On the downside, you do trade some size and sharpness disadvantages for this flexibility - some of the name brand prime lenses are noticeably sharper and weigh less to boot. Is this lens the right one for you? If you need the zooming flexibility in a super telephoto lens and don't mind carrying around a gargantuan lens, this might be the one! 


Technique: Getting smooth Bokeh (blurred backgrounds)

Several people have asked me this question over the years, so I'll give you an answer that applies to ALL my photographs. I don't ever remove the backgrounds in my images using software - the soft, blurred backgrounds are the result of the lenses I shoot with and the way I position the background.

I try to stick to lenses with either a long focal length or wide aperture as both these factor into getting a shallow depth of field. My lens of choice for bird photography is the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 VR used mostly with a 2X teleconverter, and for flight shots or very close subjects I use the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR (sometimes with a 1.7x teleconverter). Both these lenses have pretty nice Bokeh, and using the teleconverters further reduces the depth of field compared to a 'straight lens' - for example, the 400/2.8 with 2x teleconverter (effectively 800mm f/5.6) has a smaller depth of field than a straight 800mm f/5.6 lens.

Background positioning
I try to make sure the background is as far away from the subject as possible, as combined with a small depth of field this results in a blurred background. How can you change the distance of the background in wildlife photography? Simple - just reposition yourself so that there's nothing behind the subject for 10-15 feet at least.

An example of good Bokeh - the background is a blurred, soft wash of color and emphasizes the subject

Bad Bokeh - the branches in the background detract focus from the subject


Camera Review: Nikon D300S

The Nikon D300S has been my trusted primary camera for over two years now. This review isn't a scientific test; rather, it's a summary of my own subjective experience with this camera. I've also limited my commentary to areas of the camera I feel warrant my comments; more comprehensive reviews can be found on other sites. 


Body & Handling
I've always preferred a larger body whenever I've used a camera for any period of time. When I sold the D700 and moved to the D300S, I simply transferred the grip from the D700 over to the D300. The camera becomes a dream to use with the grip attached. I recently had a chance to use a Nikon D3, and to me the D300 had two major advantages:
1. Additional focus point selector - the D3 has one method to select the focus point, which is done by using the directional pad. Great for landscape mode, but change over to portait mode and your thumb can't quite reach it. This is a problem in real world shooting, especially for me - I need to be able to change the focus point without taking my hand off the camera. The D300S has an additional directional joystick that can be used in portrait mode.
2. The portrait grip just seems to have a little more meat to it than the D3, making it a tad more comfortable for long periods of use.

Autofocus is a critical part of bird photography. Low light, small subjects, an 800mm effective focal length and f/5.6 aperture would be challenging for ANY camera. I'd say the autofocus in the D300 is adequate. It's certainly better than the D200, but probably a tad slower than the D700. After using a D3 for a bit, I can say than the D3 wins hands down and just seems to lock on effortlessly. That said, focus seems to be accurate, and maybe my expectations of this camera are too high!

Frame Rate
Something I really liked moving from the D700 to the D300S was the increase in base frame rate from 5FPS to 7FPS. I feel that this frame rate is adequate for wildlife photography, though I'd jump at the chance to up this to 9-10FPS!

Crop Factor
The 1.5x crop factor is the DEFINING factor of this camera for me. Compared to a pro full-frame body like the D3 or D4, I have slower FPS, worse low light performance, slower AF and worse battery life. However, locking the D300S onto a small songbird and getting that frame filling shot because of the crop factor sometimes more than makes up for it!

Image Quality
Image quality from this camera is great, until you get into serious wildlife photography. The majority of this type of photography is done either just after sunrise or just before sunset in pretty low light levels. The ability to shoot at high ISO's with reasonable noise levels is a pretty big deal for wildlife photographers. I used to shoot this camera at a max ISO of 800 as this was as much noise as I was willing to put up with. However, I've recently started using Adobe Lightroom for noise removal and man DOES THIS FEATURE ROCK! I'm now ok with shooting upto ISO 1,000-1,250 knowing that I can get rid of the noise in Lightroom without destroying any detail.

The D300S has served me well over the years and it really is a fantastic camera for all-round use, and a very special camera for the bird photographer. That said, I'm eagerly awaiting the arrival of the D400(or whatever its replacements will be called. Check out my blog post on the D400 wish list for more of my thoughts! 


Lens Review: Nikon 400mm f/2.8 AF-S VR

After my failed experiment with the 600mm f/4, I was a little tentative about the 400. While quite a bit lighter, this is also a large, intimidating lens. This time around, I made sure I had the prerequisites - the Gitzo Systematic Series 3 tripod legs and a solid gimbal head (mine's from Calumet Photo).
I can't overemphasize the importance of a good tripod/head combination to support this lens. In addition, lugging this 25-pound deadweight around requires a commitment to frequent shoulder and neck workouts! A lot of people have asked me whether the final result is really worth lugging this setup around, and after 2 years I can say that the answer is a YES! The lens seems to grow smaller every time you use it and it really isn't a big deal any more.

Build Quality & Handling
Nothing groundbreaking to report on this front - as befits a lens that costs as much as a small island, the build quality is fantastic. I did have an issue where the autofocus completely stopped working, but to Nikon's credit they fixed it for free even though my lens wasn't under warranty. Since then the lens has been a model of reliability. I almost always use this on a gimbal head or a rest, so handling isn't an issue in my opinion. I've tried handholding it, and take it from me - it's impossible. No matter how often you hit the gym.


Image Quality & Performance This lens delivers amazingly sharp pictures with good support and long lens technique. Bokeh is unbelievable and really makes the subjects pop. I coupled the lens with the Nikon TC-20EII 2X teleconverter for the first few months that I had it. The results were good but not great - I felt that the compromise in image quality was a little too much. Upgrading to the TC-20EIII teleconverter made a world of difference; I stop down by 1/3 to 2/3 stop for an effective aperture of f/7.1 and the resulting images are tack sharp. Check out the detail on the Dragonfly's wings below (this is a crop of about 10% of the original image):

Eastern Phoebe with Dragonfly

This is also probably the fastest focusing lens I have ever used - it's fast, sure and is a dream to use. However, I rarely use this lens without the 2x teleconverter, and adding the teleconverter sometimes makes the AF hunt a little in low light. However, this and the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 are probably the only lenses that can handle a 2X TC with such ease.
Here are my contributions to the big VR argument - I haven't attempted a scientific test but from what I've seen, using the VR in NORMAL mode it doesn't seem to hurt the images any! How's that for a cop-out?! Seriously, the only time I switch off VR is when I'm doing video - VR makes it sound like you're shooting from inside your local laundromat.

This is one serious lens - both price wise and in the commitment required to use it. However, all this pales into insignificance when  you finally snap that picture of a beautiful songbird in perfect focus with the background a soft, dreamy wash of color. For anyone who hasn't used one of Nikon's big lenses, here's my recommendation : rent one - you'll fall in love and eventually buy one!


Equipment used for Safaris in Yala - 2010

My equipment for the Yala  drives consisted of two setups. For smaller birds and distant subjects, I used a Nikon 400mm f/2.8 VR with TC-20E teleconverter (effectively an 800mm f/5.6) mounted on a D300S body. For lower light and closer subjects, I had a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 mounted on a D700 body. Both setups worked well, and didn't leave me feeling like I was lacking focal lengths.

A word of advice on photographing in Yala - be ready with a shorter lens/camera combination at all times! The winding roads coupled with the dense scrub means you may come upon a leopard or bear without warning, and only have a few seconds before the animal disappears back into the bush. You often don't have time to meter or fiddle with other camera settings. I set all my cameras to Aperture Priority mode and shoot wide open, with the exposure compensation set to minus 1 stop. This works for the majority of lighting situations except where you'll have any sky in your image, in which case I change exposure compensation to 0 or +1. In my experience, keeping the exposure comp. at -1 allows me to pick up a camera and shoot quickly when I see an animal on the ground, and wherever a bird or animal is outlined against the sky I usually find I have the time to change the exposure compensation. 

I also use manual ISO, and as light changes I make sure I keep changing the ISO every 15 minutes or so to give me acceptable shutter speeds. You can do this by pointing the lens out the window at the ground while the vehicle is traveling and using the shutter button to turn on the meter and read your shutter speed.

Lens Review: Nikon 600mm f/4 AF-S

Take my word for it, this lens is a BEAST! Weighing in at around 13 pounds, it looked and felt every inch the professional sharpshooter's lens. During my brief period with it, I wasn't able to get the image quality I felt this lens should deliver - it seemed to back focus a little bit, and sharpness seemed a little off. Of course, the fact that I had it mounted in a $150 tripod probably didn't help either!
This was my first foray into big lenses, and my relative inexperience with good support systems meant I was never able to extract what this lens was capable of delivering. Thankfully, I solved the support problems by the time I got my next big lens…



Nikon 50mm f/1.8 nestled inside the lens hood of the 600


Lens Review: Sigma 50-500mm f/4.5-6.3 EX DG HSM

I've been meaning to do this review for a while now, but just never got around to it. I used the Sigma 50-500mm f/4.5-6.3 (also affectionately referred to as the 'Bigma') for around 3 years. Mine was the non-stabilized version; from what I understand the newer stabilized version (OS) has exactly the same optics.

Build Quality & Handling
For such a (relatively!) inexpensive lens, it's built like a tank! There's very little plastic on this lens (limited to switches and lens hood) and the overall feel is that of a much more expensive item. The zoom ring was a little tight when it was new, but loosened up after a few months of use. The downside of this was that the zoom would 'creep' when pointed downwards. I also can't say I'm a fan of Sigma's 'furry' finish, as it it marks and scratches pretty easily. 
The biggest problem I had with this lens was not really a fault of the lens - it was a design compromise. This lens is big enough and long enough that you want to put it on a tripod with a gimbal head when using it for any length of time. However, since the lens changes length when zooming it changes the center of gravity, making it hard to balance on a gimbal head. 



Image Quality & Performance
The image quality of this lens is pretty decent for how much it costs. In the end, you buy a 50-500mm lens primarily for the reach it gives you, so most of my comments address the 500mm end. The maximum aperture of f/6.3 is a little limiting with low light levels, but it's not too bad. Stopping down to f/7.1 or f/8 gives pretty crisp images. Autofocus is pretty snappy with the HSM motor.

All in all, this is a great lens for the price. I bought mine for around $1,000 before Sigma introduced Optical Stabilization (OS) and it served me well until I moved on to bigger and better glass. The addition of OS has increased the price of this lens by around 50%, so given the choice again I'd probably still go for the non-OS version as I mostly shoot off a tripod or rest and don't need the OS.