Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

 

Brad Hill: Blog: Photography. Nature. Gadgets. Software. Conservation. Whatever.

Not so short-winded blatherings on whatever is currently occupying the part of my brain that deals with nature photography and related concerns. Updated sorta weekly.

On this page you'll find all my 2015 blog listings (immediately below). And, further down this page you'll also find the key gear-related blog entries from 2014 (jump to that section now).

And, finally, if you're looking for a directory to ALL my blog listings EVER - just follow this link.

I. 2015 Blog Entries...

27 January 2015: Updates to: STOP The Inhumane Slaughter of BC's Wolves!

This morning I made two potentially significant updates to my blog post of 25 January about the wolf cull/slaughter that's going on in BC as I write this. The updates are clearly labelled within the 25 January post, but to save time for folks who may be looking for them, here they are again...

1. From Section IV-3 on the lack of scientific backing for the wolf cull/slaughter:

In this section I made the following statement about the key findings of a key study on wolf-caribou dynamics in the Canadian Journal of Zoology: "...the killing of 733 wolves over a period of 7 years...failed to improve adult female survival or calf survival - thus it had NO effect on caribou population dynamics."

Since then I have received a few emails asking how I could have come to this interpretation of the study. Good question. I suspect those questioning me read the Abstract (the concise summary of the study at the beginning of the paper that is supposed to summarize the key findings of the study) associated with the study only. In this case what is arguably the most significant finding of the study is only alluded to in the abstract. If you check page 1033 of the study you'll find the following statements:

"Experimentally, we determined that adult female survival differed between the two populations (F[1,22] = 5.78, P = 0.025), but did not differ between before and after treatment time periods (F[1,22] = 2.24, P = 0.6285) nor did adult female survival vary with the interaction between treatment and population (F[1,22] = 0.64, P = 0.433). However, post hoc tests revealed the LSM had adult female survival rates higher than RPC in 1 of 6 years prior to wolf removal and 6 of 7 years during removal. There was no difference in calf recruitment between before and after treatment time periods (F[1,22] = 1.19, P = 0.2879) nor did calf recruitment rates differ between before and after treatment time periods (F[1,22] = 1.19, P = 0.2879) nor did calf recruitment rates differ between populations (F[1,22] = 1.37, P = 0.2537)."

Translation: As in my original post - the removal/slaughter of the 733 wolves failed to improve adult female caribou survival or caribou calf survival - thus it had NO effect on caribou population dynamics.

2. From Section IV-4 on the wolves NOT being the only predators of Caribou...

Since writing this section I have been made aware of another study indicating even more strongly how the caribou are found within a true multi-predator ecosystem. In their monograph entitled "Calf Survival of Woodland Caribou in a Multi-Predator Ecosystem" (reference and accurate abstract available here [PDF]) Gustine et al. studied predation and other factors impacting on caribou calf survival in northern BC. They were surprised to discover "...the unexpected role of wolverines (Gulo gulo) as the main predator of woodland caribou calves during calving." There are wolverines in the South Selkirks where the wolves are being culled/slaughtered, and (I would presume) in the South Peace region as well. Yet only the wolves are being culled/slaughtered.

And for those visiting this blog for "all things photographic" - fear not, posts pertaining MORE directly to wildlife photography will resume very soon (though many wildlife photographers likely share my concern over the plight of BC's wolves).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

24 January 2015: STOP The Inhumane Slaughter of BC's Wolves!



STOP The Inhumane Slaughter of BC's Wolves!

Post Date: 24 January 2015
Update 1: 25 January 2015: BC population estimates for grey wolves and caribou added to Section II.
Update 2: 27 January 2015: Minor updates to section IV-3 and IV-4 (clearly labelled within those sections).

If you talk to someone who was involved with the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone they'll tell you it was unimaginably divisive. Well, this one is even MORE controversial and more divisive - it's about the inhumane aerial gunning and slaughter of grey wolves - potentially for decades - in a last-ditch effort to save dwindling populations of mountain caribou. I will lose real (and virtual) friends with this post. So be it.

Those who know me will know I don't use terms like "inhumane" or "slaughter" loosely. But I refuse to use sanitizing euphemisms like "cull" or "harvest" or "targeted aerial wolf removal" (which almost sounds like a free helicopter ride!) to hide the barbarity of what's going on in BC right now. You harvest wheat and grass. Wolves are incredibly intelligent, sentient beings with complex social behaviour. Gunning them down from helicopters with semi-automatic weapons is a bloody, messy, cruel, inhumane act - a SLAUGHTER. To highlight the almost insidious spin that allows us to hide the barbarity of this action, throughout this commentary I will refer to the action specified in the current plan as this: the cull/slaughter of wolves. If nothing else, this serves to equalize the spin on both sides.

FULL STOP. There will be many reading this worked up already and wanting to do something. Here you go - your quickest and easiest form of action against this inhumane wolf cull/slaughter. PLEASE sign the following petition - and it doesn't matter WHERE you are from. And, if you're from Europe or the USA or Great Britain or wherever - PLEASE spread the word about this (Facebook, Twitter, whatever!!). This petition grows in strength with each signature.

PETITION: Save B.C. Wolves!

Further actions you can take against the wolf cull/slaughter can be found at the end of this commentary - just follow this link. I have included separate actions that can be taken by anyone from anywhere, anyone from OUTSIDE of BC or Canada, anyone from BC; and anyone who is a member of or supports Wildsight.

Oh, and for any fiscal conservatives reading this and who might normally shy away from supporting environmental initiatives - in pure economic terms, the wolf cull/slaughter is a complete and colossal waste of taxpayer's dolllars!


I. WHY I AM FIRMLY AGAINST THE WOLF CULL/SLAUGHTER.

• Because it is CRUEL and INHUMANE (along with horrifying and disgusting!). Why this cull/slaughter has not been shut down on these grounds alone is a mystery.

• Because the clear and undisputed reason for the caribou decline is HUMAN-MEDIATED HABITAT LOSS and HABITAT DEGRADATION. Killing wolves does NOT bring back the habitat, and the efforts to protect the habitat have been a complete failure.

• Because the best available science indicates that the wolves DO NOT PLAY A SIGNIFICANT ROLE IN THE POPULATION DYNAMICS OF THE CARIBOU.

• Because the WOLVES ARE NOT THE SOLE PREDATORS taking a toll on the caribou (one study on the South Selkirk population even suggests that most adult mortality was attributable to cougars!).

• Because in the smallest, isolated populations of caribou (South Selkirks - 18 or fewer animals) THE MID- AND LONG-TERM CHANCES OF THE CARIBOU RECOVERING IS NEGLIGIBLE, especially in the absence of sufficient suitable habitat for the caribou.

• Because as a keystone species, THE WOLVES HAVE A STRONG AND BENEFICIAL OVERALL EFFECT on the structure of the ecosystem and high value in terms of increasing biodiversity. The culling/slaughter of the wolves for up to decades will have a negative effect on the landscape.

Looking for verification of these claims? See section "IV. FLESHING OUT THE ARGUMENTS AGAINST THE WOLF CULL/SLAUGHTER" (below).


II. COMMON GROUND - AND CONTEXT.

Before getting into the details backing up the arguments the opposition to the wolf cull/slaughter, I have to clear up some misunderstandings and issues that can degrade the quality of the debate between those for and against the wolf cull/slaughter. And they provide context and background...

1. NO ONE - on either side of the debate - wants to see these populations of mountain caribou die out. Mountain caribou are an ecotype of the subspecies of caribou known as Rangifer tarandus caribou. (An ecotype is genetically distinct geographic variety, population, or race within a species, which is adapted to specific environmental conditions). There is NO doubt that these populations of mountain caribou - these ecotypes - are in dire trouble and some are facing local extirpation, but the species is NOT facing extinction. To be clear, we are talking about the loss of specific populations of caribou - NOT the extinction of caribou.

2. For added context, let's compare the actual numbers of two species in BC - the Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) and the Caribou (Rangifer tarandus). The management plan for the grey wolf of 2014 estimates the total number of wolves in BC as between 5,300 and 11,600 (source available here [PDF]). Caribou? 16,000 to 27,000 according to government figures from 2011 (source available here [PDF]). Depending on which ends of the two estimates you want to compare, this means we have anywhere from about 1.4 times to 5 times as many caribou in BC than wolves. Despite a mountain of evidence of the beneficial effects of wolves on ecosystems, there are no recovery plans in place in regions of BC where wolves face local extirpation, and in areas where they are beginning to re-colonize after historical removal by humans (e.g., the Okanagan), rather than being offered protection, they are facing aggressive hunting and trapping. This should give almost anyone pause for thought, and certainly some consideration about our value judgements/perceptions and the pervasive effects of species "branding" and marketing (and, some might argue, spin).

3. NO ONE - on either side of the debate - questions the ultimate reason for the crash in these mountain caribou populations - it is undeniably human-mediated habitat loss and habitat degradation, specifically the loss of the old-growth forests that host the species of lichen from the Alectoria and Bryoria genera the caribou require, especially in winter. Besides logging, other human activity that can impact negatively on the caribou includes recreational activities in backcountry areas (e.g., snowmobiling and heli-skiing), and resource exploration (e.g., seismic lines and roads).

4. Despite what Farley Mowat (in his novel Never Cry Wolf) would like us to believe, wolves do not subsist on mice and voles and, like cougars and sometimes bears, they do kill and consume large ungulates, including caribou. NO ONE is denying this.

5. Before humans made massive changes to the landscape - in this case altered the habitat the caribou require - wolves and caribou co-existed for millennia.


III. THE ACTION CAUSING THE CONTROVERSY AND UPROAR.

On January 15, 2015 the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations of the BC Government announced it was "...taking immediate action to save caribou herds under threat from wolf predation in two separate and targeted actions: one in the South Selkirk Mountains and the other in the South Peace." The targeted action? Gunning down wolves from helicopters. You can read the full news release here: Government acting to save endangered caribou (PDF).

The South Selkirk herd of caribou has been declining for years and is now down to 18 or fewer caribou. The plan is to kill all 24 wolves in the immediate area during the period of snow cover in 2015. No other predators that contribute to the overall mortality rate experienced by the caribou (such as cougars) are targeted. The plan was to commence the killing of the wolves immediately, and the killing HAS commenced.

The South Peace region has four relatively small caribou herds that have also been in rapid decline (Quintette herd - 98-113 caribou; Moberly herd 22; Scott herd 18; Kennedy Siding Herd 25-23) and that the government will attempt to protect from wolves. Their plan is to shoot 120-160 wolves (again from helicopters) during the period of snow cover in 2015.

Note that the government announcement makes NO clear statement concerning how many consecutive years that the wolf cull/slaughter will continue for, though it does state "The goal of this plan is to increase the population of these seven herds (editorial note: this is referring to herds in the South Peace region) to more than 1,200 animals across their range within 21 years." And, some of the scientists involved with the Alberta version of the same "protect the caribou" wolf cull/slaughter have commented on the need for up to four decades of culling/slaughtering. Given the uproar over the current single-year wolf cull/slaughter in BC it is no wonder the government left the total duration of the action vague. If we ARE talking about decades of wolf culling/slaughtering, we are talking about thousands of wolves being removed from the landscape.


IV. FLESHING OUT THE ARGUMENTS AGAINST THE WOLF CULL/SLAUGHTER.

OK - let's put some meat on the bare-bones arguments AGAINST the wolf cull/slaughter.

1. The Inhumane and Cruel Nature of the Killing Method.

The American Association of Zoo Veterinarians (AAZV) and American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) have published guidelines on the euthanasia of non-domestic animals (by the AAZA) and on euthanasia on animals in general (by the AVMA) in 2006 and 2013 respectively (full references available upon request). The humane killing of wild animals requires that they die quickly and almost instantly (by BOTH the AAZV and the AVMA). If an animal is restrained or anesthetized this can be accomplished with a gunshot to the brain (AAZV). With a free-ranging animal, a gunshot to the larger target area of the chest (likely hitting heart and/or lungs) is recommended instead to minimize the likelihood of escape (by the AAZV as well as the Canadian Council on Animal Care - or CCAC).

Now let's think about what's going on here. These wolves are being gunned down from helicopters. The shooters are on an unstable surface that will be flying erratically. The wolves will be running (for their lives, quite literally), including through treed sections. The probability of the initial shot hitting a part of the wolf that will cause instant or near-instant death is low to very low (and, realistically, probably negligible). It can only be assumed that the wolves are being killed only with multiple shots - which is probably the ONLY rationale for using semi automatic weapons.

A careful examination of the BC Government's Wolf Management Plan (e.g., this review appearing in the Tyee) and a review of their hunting regulations makes it clear that, at least unofficially, the government considers wolves to be vermin. They, of course, deny this. However, regardless of their perception of the value of a wolf (vermin or otherwise), they are still compelled to euthanize them humanely. And, the onus should be on those culling/slaughtering the wolves to prove that they are conforming to accepted standards on humane euthanasia - we should not have to catch them "in the act". An easy way to do this would be to provide video evidence of each and every wolf killed from a helicopter (hey, GoPro's and other video cameras are CHEAP compared to helicopter flight time). And, they should be compelled to make this video footage available to government agencies overseeing animal care (e.g., CCAC) or to any member of the public upon a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. And the chance of this happening? Zero. If the public actually SAW what was going on, the uproar would shut this cull/slaughter almost instantly. The LAST thing the government wants in this case is the public to see what they're actually doing.

Out-of-sight, out-of-mind. And cruel and inhumane. Disagree? Prove otherwise by providing us with the video of the cull/slaughter.

2. The Caribou Population Crash Is Because of Habitat Loss.

As mentioned earlier, NO ONE on either side of the debate - not even the government - is arguing against the fact that habitat loss is the main driver in the caribou population declines. In the case of mountain caribou it is made even worse by the fact that the animal specializes during the winter months on species of lichens found predominantly in old growth forests. When it comes to long-term survival (in evolutionary time-frames), over-specialization of diet kills, especially when changes are made to the landscape in chronological time, not geological time. And that's what humans do - make incredibly fast changes to the habitat, changes so fast that highly-specialized wildlife can't react to them. Note that the fact that habitat loss is the primary driver in mountain caribou population crashes is hardly news - see this study discussing it from way back in 1979: Effects of Selective Logging on Arboreal Lichens Used by Selkirk Caribou (PDF).

If you go back and read the announcement by the BC Gov't (here), you can easily end up thinking that the BC Gov't is doing a marvelous job of protecting and/or restoring habitat for the caribou. This simply isn't true (one would call it a lie, but apparently you're not supposed to use that word any more). View this Press Release - and the references provided therein - by the Valhalla Wilderness Watch (21 January 2015) for a very different view of how badly the BC Gov't is handling the Mountain Caribou Recovery Plan, including protecting habitat: BC's Mountain Caribou Recovery Plan Is Failing Disastrously (PDF).

Politics has been called the "art of the compromise". And, if you look closely at how well the habitat protection for the mountain caribou is going...well...the government has taken the art of compromise to the level of a science! When it comes to providing habitat protection for a highly specialized species like the mountain caribou, normal political compromises don't work - you can't have them "share" land with snowmobiles, do only a LITTLE logging, or rely on user-groups to self-police themselves. You have to do the politically unpopular and almost literally fence the land off from all user groups and all resource extraction. If you're not prepared to do that, then the culling/slaughtering of wolves is reduced to simple scape-goating. It's a sorry commentary on the state of our government and society that we can't do the things necessary to SAVE things (like protect caribou habitat) but we excel at ways of barbarically killing things (like wolves).

3. The Best Available Science Says Wolf Culling Has No Impact on Caribou Population Dynamics.

Undoubtedly the most directly applicable study to the efficacy of wolf culling/slaughtering (which they call "wolf managing" - the ultimate euphemism!!) on recovery efforts of mountain caribou was published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology in November of 2014. Here it is: Managing wolves (Canis lupus) to recover threatened woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in Alberta (PDF).

There's a LOT of information in this study, but two points stand out in their significance to the BC wolf culls/slaughters. First, the killing of 733 wolves over a period of 7 years (using both aerial shooting and poison - how this study EVER got ethical approval is astonishing!) failed to improve adult female survival or calf survival - thus it had NO effect on caribou population dynamics. Second, the authors recognize that in small populations stochastic (random) effects can be very important, thus greatly reducing the potential benefits of wolf removal. These random effects can be anything from females being killed by other predators, things like avalanches, or even struck by vehicles, et cetera. Note that the study authors considered "small populations" as those with about 50 females - in the South Selkirks the numbers of females is only a small fraction of this.

27 January 2015 Update: I have received a few emails asking how I can interpret the Canadian Journal of Zoology I reference above as indicating that the removal of wolves in one study group and not another "...had NO effect on caribou population dynamics." Good question. I suspect those asking read the Abstract (the concise summary of the study at the beginning of the paper that is supposed to summarize the key findings of the study) associated with the study only. In this case what is arguably the most significant finding of the study is only alluded to in the abstract. If you check page 1033 of the study you'll find the following statements:

"Experimentally, we determined that adult female survival differed between the two populations (F[1,22] = 5.78, P = 0.025), but did not differ between before and after treatment time periods (F[1,22] = 2.24, P = 0.6285) nor did adult female survival vary with the interaction between treatment and population (F[1,22] = 0.64, P = 0.433). However, post hoc tests revealed the LSM had adult female survival rates higher than RPC in 1 of 6 years prior to wolf removal and 6 of 7 years during removal. There was no difference in calf recruitment between before and after treatment time periods (F[1,22] = 1.19, P = 0.2879) nor did calf recruitment rates differ between before and after treatment time periods (F[1,22] = 1.19, P = 0.2879) nor did calf recruitment rates differ between populations (F[1,22] = 1.37, P = 0.2537)."

Translation: As above - the removal/slaughter of the 733 wolves failed to improve adult female survival or calf survival - thus it had NO effect on caribou population dynamics.

Note that for those who don't have the time or background to wade through the scientific study above, a shorter, more accessible and/or readable version a commentary on the study was just published by the prestigious journal Nature - you can read it online here - or download this PDF: Wolf cull will not save threatened Canadian caribou.

4. Wolves Aren't The Only Predators of Caribou - Just the Ones Being Culled/Slaughtered!

Wolves WILL kill and eat caribou. But so will cougars and, during some seasons, grizzlies. A 1999 study on the very population of caribou in the South Selkirks that is being "protected from wolves" stated that "...most adult mortality was attributable to predation, particularly by cougars...". Download the study here: Population Status and Mortality of Mountain Caribou in the Southern Purcell Mountains, British Columbia (PDF).

IF this culling/slaughtering of the wolves is a sincere, last-ditch attempt (a Hail Mary pass) to save the caribou, it makes no sense to single out wolves when other predators are also taking a toll on caribou. This is especially true in the South Selkirks where the caribou numbers are so low (18 or fewer) and where stochastic/random events that mean the loss of even a single female or two could initiate the final downward spiral to extirpation. So in the South Selkirks this logically means the culling/slaughter of cougars and grizzlies as well.

Are the cougars or grizzlies being culled/slaughtered? No. Note also that both the Wolf Management Plan for BC and the Hunting Regulations of the province are geared towards maximizing the kill of wolves throughout the province. Are you beginning to get the feeling the BC Government just doesn't like wolves?

27 January 2015 Update: Since writing this section I have been made aware of another study indicating even more strongly how the caribou are found within a true multi-predator ecosystem. In their monograph entitled "Calf Survival of Woodland Caribou in a Multi-Predator Ecosystem" (reference and accurate abstract available here [PDF]) Gustine et al. studied predation and other factors impacting on caribou calf survival in northern BC. They were surprised to discover "...the unexpected role of wolverines (Gulo gulo) as the main predator of woodland caribou calves during calving." There are wolverines in the South Selkirks where the wolves are being culled/slaughtered, and (I would presume) in the South Peace region as well. Yet only the wolves are being culled/slaughtered.

5. It's Simply Too Late To Save Some Of These Populations!

Even if the wolf cull/slaughter had a positive effect on the populations of these caribou herds/populations, the numbers of some of them are now so low that their mid- or long-term survival is highly unlikely. This is particularly true in isolated populations that have no immigration or gene flow, such as in the South Selkirk population. With only 18 or fewer caribou this population is especially susceptible to random mortality factors (anything from avalanches to drowning crossing a stream or getting hit by a vehicle, etc.). Couple this with unsuitable habitat and you're left with virtually no chance of survival of this population.

Simply put, the Government of BC simply waited far too long (measured in DECADES) before taking drastic action to save these caribou - and that drastic action should have taken the form of complete and total habitat protection. Culling/slaughtering wolves NOW makes it LOOK like the government is doing something, when the fact is they avoided the true heavy-lifting needed to protect these caribou decades ago.

6. The Wolves Have High Value - And Low Cost - To the Ecosystem And To Society.

This argument would be largely irrelevant is we knew the wolf cull/slaughter was to take place over only one year. But we don't know that. If the government truly believes - contrary to the best available science - that this cull/slaughter will work to stop and reverse the downward spiral of the caribou now, then they MUST have plans to continue it for years or even decades (for the wolves WILL return, unless they plan to remove them from the entire province, which even I don't believe!). And that means that tracts of BC's wilderness will be deprived of the documented positive effects of wolves for long periods of time. As a recognized keystone species, the positive impact of wolves on landscapes has been documented many times in recent years, to the point that it is no longer challenged by informed biologists or wildlife managers (I'll make no comment on the views of uninformed wildlife managers or biologists other than this - get informed!).

A concise summary of the positive effects of wolves can be found here: On the Value of a Wolf. And, a quick overview of the cost of wolf to society can be found here: On the Cost of a Wolf. And, for those who like to watch videos - just check this one out on YouTube: How Wolves Change Rivers.

It's pointless to even get into an argument on the relative value of wolves vs. caribou on the landscapes in question - no one is arguing for the removal of the caribou. But sadly, in some of these landscapes (such as the South Selkirks) the numbers of the caribou are now so low that the likely are having almost no impact or effect on the ecosystem.


V. WHY ARE A FEW CONSERVATION GROUPS SUPPORTING THE WOLF CULL/SLAUGHTER?

The current wolf cull/slaughter is divisive in itself. It is made more divisive because a few conservation organizations are officially supporting the action. This includes Wildsight in Canada and Conservation Northwest in the USA. A list of those conservation groups AGAINST the wolf cull/slaughter in BC ALONE would be huge. As one would predict, politicians are using this support to justify and rationalize the wolf cull/slaughter - it's giving them some political cover. This includes even some MLA's from the opposition party in BC (e.g., Spencer Chandra Herbert - the NDP MLA for for Vancouver-West End & Coal Harbour and the Opposition Spokesperson for the Environment).

I won't get into - and I don't know - the politics and political trade-offs or benefits associated with the choice by some conservation groups to support the cull/slaughter. A joint blog entry by John Bergenske of Wildsight and Joe Scott of Conservation Northwest explains their viewpoint - view it online or read this version: Protecting Endangered Mountain Caribou (PDF).

In contrast, here's the strong position of opposition to the wolf cull/slaughter as expressed by one of the leading and most highly respected conservation organizations in BC - the Raincoast Conservation Foundation: Five reasons to oppose BC's wolf cull. Chris Genovali of Raincoast has also expressed his and Raincoast's opposition to the wolf cull/slaughter in both BC and Alberta on the Huffington Post: Stop the Brutal Slaughter of Wolves in Alberta and B.C.

I am disappointed with the position of the conservation groups that are supporting the wolf cull/slaughter. I am particularly disappointed in Wildsight - which is the main conservation organization in my neck of the woods. I have expressed my disappointment directly to them, as have colleagues of mine, via email. Because these emails had extensive CC lists and have been circulated far beyond those lists, I feel comfortable with presenting them here. The three folks involved are John Bergenske (Wildsight Executive Director), Dr. Paul Paquet (Senior Scientist, Carnivore Specialist with Raincoast, and one of the world's leading wolf biologists), and myself. There is no dirty laundry here and all 3 parties know one another. And, I have removed email addresses and CC lists. These exchanges serve the valuable purpose of raising many ethical issues and decisions in supporting or opposing the wolf cull/slaughter:

• My email response to John Bergenske's Blog: About Wildsight's Position on Culling Wolves in the South Selkirks (PDF)

• John Bergenske's email response: South Selkirks Wolf Cull (PDF)

• My response to John Bergenske: RE: South Selkirks Wolf Cull (PDF)

• Dr. Paul Paquet's response to John Bergenske:: RE: South Selkirks Wolf Cull (PDF)


VI. A QUICK SUMMMARY

It's my position that the current BC Wolf Cull/Slaughter should be immediately suspended. It is cruel and inhumane treatment of innocent wolves and it does nothing to address the root cause of the decline of the caribou - habitat loss. The best available science indicates it will have no effect on the population dynamics of the caribou, especially in the small, isolated population in the South Selkirks where random population effects far outweigh any effects of wolf removal. While some conservation groups view it as a last-ditch effort worth attempting, it is an attempt by the BC Government to make it appear as though it is doing something to save caribou after they have failed to address the issue of habitat loss for decades. It is a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. It fails on ethical, ecological, and economic grounds. And, like so many times over the past hundred years, the wolves are being made to pay for the failure of humans to do the right thing.


VII. WHAT YOU CAN DO:

1. Action for Anyone from Anywhere:

Take just a few minutes to sign the petition to stop BC's inhumane wolf cull/slaughter:

PETITION: Save B.C. Wolves!

2. For ANYONE from OUTSIDE of BC:

Email, call or write the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training to indicate your reluctance in (or complete boycott on) traveling to BC until this inhumane cull/slaughter is ended:

Contact Info: Ministry of Jobs, Tourism And Skills Training

3. For ANY British Columbian:

Email, call or write your MLA and ask them to oppose the inhumane wolf cull/slaughter:

MLA Contact Info: www.lg.bc.ca/mla

4. For any Wildsight supporter or member:

TELL Wildsight that you oppose their position on the BC wolf cull/slaughter:

Wildsight Contact Info: www.wildsight.ca/contact


Thanks in advance for joining the fight!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

16 January 2015: 2016 Photo Tours Selling FAST!

As I thought might happen, my 2016 Coastal BC photo tours are selling very fast - 20 of the 30 total spots are already gone, with two tours already fully sold out. Here's a quick update on the number of spots remaining for each trip...

1. Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen - Spring 2016:

• Khutzeymateen Grizzlies - INSTRUCTIONAL Photo Tour: Total Number of Participants - 6. Remaining spots - 0 (sold out).

• Khutzeymateen Grizzlies - PHOTO OP Photo Tour: Total Number of Participants - 6. Remaining spots - 3.

2. Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions & More: Marine Mammals of the Central Pacific Coast - Summer 2016:

• Humpbacks & More Photo Tour: Total Number of Participants - 6. Remaining spots - 3.

3. Into the Great Bear Rainforest - Autumn 2016:

• Great Bear Rainforest - INSTRUCTIONAL Photo Tour: Total Number of Participants - 6. Remaining spots - 4.

• Great Bear Rainforest - PHOTO OP Photo Tour: Total Number of Participants - 6. Remaining spots - 0 (sold out).

To register for any of the remaining spots, just email me at seminars@naturalart.ca. Details about each trip can be found on the Photo Tours page of this website, and there are links to PDF versions of the trip brochures in the 15 January blog entry immediately below.

Finally - please note that when trips sell out this fast and this early cancellations are not unheard of. Please contact me (seminars@naturalart.ca) if you would like to be placed on the waiting list for any of the sold out trips. At the time of this writing there is no one on the waiting lists (so you'd be first in line).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

15 January 2015: 2016 Photo Tours!

I'm now taking bookings for all the 2016 photo tours that I've confirmed all details on - which includes all my Coastal BC tours and the 2016 version of my Owls of Manitoba Photo Tour. Note that this is my full "core" program, but I may add a new photo tour (or even two) at a later date.

ALL the gory details can be found on the Photo Tours page of this website. To book a trip, simply contact me via email at: seminars@naturalart.ca

Here are direct links to the PDF brochures for all my Coastal BC Photo Tours:

1. Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen - Spring 2016:

Brochure: Khutzeymateen Grizzlies - INSTRUCTIONAL Photo Tour (PDF: 1.9 MB)

Brochure: Khutzeymateen Grizzlies - "Just the Photo Op, Please" Photo Tour (PDF: 2.2 MB)

2. Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions & More: Marine Mammals of the Central Pacific Coast - Summer 2016:

Brochure: Humpbacks & More Photo Tour (PDF: 2.8 MB)

3. Into the Great Bear Rainforest - Autumn 2016:

Brochure: Great Bear Rainforest - INSTRUCTIONAL Photo Tour (PDF: 2.6 MB)

Brochure: Great Bear Rainforest - PHOTO OP Photo Tour (PDF: 2.4 MB)

While I know it sounds almost tacky or "kitschy" - based on the amount of email and general interest I've seen about these trips (and past history) - I fully expect that the bulk of these photo tours will sell out very, very fast fast. Meaning...a week or less. So if you're looking to participate in any of these great trips, I'd recommend contacting me real soon!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

14 January 2015: In Defence of Primes.

Right now the world of wildlife photography seems to be dominated by the introduction and purchase (and use) of new zoom lenses. Nikon has long had the AF-S 200-400 f4 VR zoom - and for years that was the "go-to" lens for uber-serious Nikon-shooting wildlife photographers. But, with it priced at around $7K, it really was popular only among a small subset of photographers (we wildlife shooters like to think we're the most important genre of photographers, but...then there's reality!). And, of course, there was the ubiquitous AF-S 70-200mm f2.8 VR (versions I and II). On the Canon side there was the 100-400mm IS zoom and their 70-200mm f2.8 IS zoom. But if you went into the field with "real" Nikon or Canon-shooting wildlife photographers, you saw a LOT of fixed focal length (or "prime") lenses being used - fast 300mm and 400mm lenses, and the "old workhorse" - the 500mm f4. But that was back in the stone ages - like way back in 2012.

Fast forward to today. What do you see being used by wildlife photographers today? Well...if the clients on my wildlife photo tours over the last year are any indication (and I get everything from seasoned pros through to novices) - you see a LOT of the new zooms being used. Nikon has apparently sold absolute bucket loads of the AF-S 80-400mm VR zoom - I'm seeing about 10 of those for every AF-S 200-400! And about 20 of them for every big prime (in the 400mm to 600mm range). About 40% of my clients shoot Canon (really - can you believe it??) - and the vast majority of them show up with the "new" 200-400 f4 zoom (with its built-in TC). In just a few short years the shift away from the big primes and towards the new zooms for wildlife photography has been nothing short of astounding. And, of course, by mid-way through 2015 you'll be seeing a lot of Tamron and Sigma 150-600mm ultra-zooms being used out there. What has happened to the primes? Are primes dead (or quickly dying)?

I do a lot of lens testing and try out - and use - a lot of different lenses. I'm the first to admit that zooms have really, really improved. Some of Nikon's recently introduced FX zooms have been absolutely excellent - I'm still awed by how sharp the AF-S 70-200mm f4 VR is - even when shot on the D800-series cameras. And I was really shocked by how good a job overall Nikon did on the AF-S 80-400mm VR (much to the chagrin of many owners of the 200-400mm, many of who are still searching for arguments as to why that lens is "better" than the 80-400, especially when trying to sell their used copy to someone!). I even know pros who call the AF-S 24-120mm f4 VR their "secret weapon" (and I have to admit I WAS - and note the past tense - finding myself gravitating toward that lens when I headed out hiking or snowshoeing).

But a funny thing happened this past weekend. On Sunday AM I went out in search of wolves to photograph. I struck out, but ran into a few scenes that worked in the 85mm focal length. Because I was in my truck, I had brought quite a few lenses along, including both my 85mm f1.4 prime and my 24-120mm f4 VR zoom. I've known for quite some time that the 24-120 tends to "soften up" at the longer end of the focal range (especially on the edges), but I haven't fully figured out where that softening begins. So...I thought "hey, here's a great scene to compare the image quality of the 24-120mm at 85mm to my 85mm f1.4". So I set up my D800e on a tripod, got out my remote release, and shot a bunch of test shots (covering a range of apertures from wide open through to f16) using both lenses. The result? The images shot with the two lenses were like night and day. At all overlapping apertures (so starting at f4 and through to f16) the images shot with the 85mm f1.4 were dramatically sharper (over ALL parts - even the dead centre part - of the frame). The difference in sharpness was so great I was left thinking "well...that's it for using the 24-120mm at 85mm..."

That night I sat down and did a quick filtering of my images taken over the last couple of years, with the goal of seeing what proportion of my "top-shelf" images were captured with a zoom vs. a prime lens. The result? Just over 80% of what I consider my "best" images (which has a correlation with "best-selling" images, though the correlation isn't perfect) were shot with prime lenses. Of those top-shelf images shot with primes, the majority (73%) were shot with my AF-S 400mm f2.8 VR, with the remaining split quite equally between my AF-S 600mm f4 VR, my AF-S 105mm Micro VR, and my 200mm f4 Micro. What about the top images shot with zooms? They were split almost equally between my AF-S 70-200mm f4 and my AF-S 80-400mm VR (with a few shot with my AF-S 16-35mm f4 VR). Interestingly, none were shot with my AF-S 24-120mm f4 VR or my AF-S 24-70mm f2.8. Thinking I might have a few lenses to sell!

Any take home lessons? I'm not sure how universally this applies to others, but this little exercise has clearly pointed out to me that despite owning multiple zoom lenses, primes are still my "bread and butter" lenses. I suppose it's possible zooms have closed the image-quality gap somewhat between themselves and primes, but that gap is still very real and significant.

Does this mean I'm going to quit shooting zooms and become an "I-shoot-primes-only" zealot? Nope. I'm not an idiot - and I do have to carry my own gear when I'm hiking and, like everyone, I face pesky weight and baggage restrictions when I fly. There are times when the practicality of carrying 3 zooms simply wins out over carrying 12 primes!

So...when I'm hiking and going after wildlife you'll likely see me with perhaps ONE prime (and in a month or two that will likely be the new and very small and light 300mm f4 VR plus a TC or two) and one or two zooms (almost always my 80-400mm, plus one other zoom that will likely vary between outings). But if I'm facing fewer weight restrictions (like shooting from a car or boat), you'll see me with a kit composed primarily of prime lenses, with maybe a single zoom along!

Some may think otherwise, but for this wildlife photographer primes are not - by a long, long stretch - dead!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

13 January 2015: 2016 Photo Tour Information Available Soon...

Just a quick heads-up that for those waiting for me to announce my 2016 photo tours - and especially those on BC's Pacific Coast - well...your wait is almost over. I will have all details available - and will begin accepting bookings - in just a few days (likely Friday AM). The announcement will include my ever-popular "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" and my "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" photo tours. If past history holds true, these trips will sell out very quickly. So consider this your "if ya snooze, ya might looze" warning! ;-)

Stay tuned.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

06 January 2015: FINALLY! The Nikkor 300mm f4 is Upgraded. (Yippee!)

At long last Nikon has upgraded one of their venerable wildlife lenses - the 300mm f4 prime. The new version is officially known as the AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR. It's updated with a 4.5 stop VR (this lens needed a VR SO badly!) complete with VR Sport Mode and a tripod detection feature, an electromagnetic aperture control, ED glass, and a Nano crystal coat to reduce flare. And, according to Nikon's research, it's the world's lightest 300mm full-frame prime lens.

Availability? Early February 2015. Price? Street price of $1,9999 USD (in the US) and $2,199 CAD (in Canada).

It will be interesting to see how much interest this lens gets (and how well it will sell). Its precursor was very popular in its time, but that era didn't feature competition for the lens-buying dollar from lenses like the Tamron 150-600mm zoom (going for about half the price of the new 300mm f4 VR) or the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom (going for about the same price as the 300mm). And, of course, even those Nikon shooters who shoot only Nikon glass have the surprisingly good AF-S 80-400mm VR as an option. Even though I own a few zoom lenses and will use them in the right situation and truly believe that the quality of zoom lenses has jumped over the past few years, I think the same is true of the primes (i.e., that they too are getting better all the time). The net result? Well...for those who are concerned about the absolute best image quality, primes still have a rightful place in their kit. And, they STILL work much better with teleconverters than do zooms...

Personally, based on how good a job Nikon has done on other recent lens releases (like the AF-S 70-200mm f4 VR, the AF-S 80-400mm VR, the AF-S 400mm f2.8E VR), I'm eager to start shooting with the new 300mm f4 VR. My expectation is that image quality - including on the demanding D800-series cameras - will be absolutely top notch. I have the same expectation of the VR system and the AF system. Of course, its hood and lens collar will be substandard, but that's just Nikon's way of keeping folks like Really Right Stuff and Kirk in business! On the positive side, owners of the 70-200mm f4 VR and who are considering the new 300mm f4 VR will be pleased to hear that the new 300mm VR uses the same lens collar as the 70-200mm f4 (the RT-1 Collar Ring) - and presumably that means that the same 3rd party lens collars will fit lenses as well. That may be the ultimate example of Nikon taking a lemon lens accessory and making lemonade! ;-)

So nice to start 2015 off with some good news!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

01 January 2015: HNY! And...The Best of 2014!

First off - a simple message: Happy New Year to all visitors to this website - I truly hope 2015 treats you well and you have great success in all your photographic endeavours! And that includes all 360,760 unique visitors (from 187 countries and 7320 cities!) who dropped by this website - and viewed 2,665,365 pages - in 2014! Hope to see y'all - plus a whole lot more of you - in 2015!

Given that it's January 1st, and given that I'm not wanting to be different from about a billion other folks, I guess I need to produce a "Best of" list from 2014. So...here ya go...my list of six "Best of 2014" images (but you'll have to do a LITTLE work from the link below to find the images):

Galleries>Collections...

And here's a few more details about the list. Why SIX "Best of 2014" images? Well...I had to pick SOME number...and "Top Ten" is getting SO boring (so 2013!). And six just happens to fit my default gallery layout. So...six it is! How were the images chosen - were they best sellers, or most viewed, or what? Very unscientifically. Basically, they're images that I keep coming back to repeatedly and never get bored of. Some HAVE sold very well, and some of them have drawn a lot of views. They also represent a mix of styles. Check 'em out - and don't forget to read the entire story BEHIND the image (by clicking on the tabs BELOW each image!).

Some of those following the link above to the "Best of 2014" images may notice something else - that I'm in the process of developing a totally new gallery - my "Collections" Gallery. This gallery will include image groups unified by a particular theme - which may be related to a geographical location or by a chronological unit (like "Best of 2014"). The individual collections will be "opening" in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!

Finally, I'm picking up my shiny new desktop computer tomorrow (an iMac with 5K Retina Display - see entry of 22 Dec 2014 for details and specs). So...I'll be offline for a few days as I focus on integrating the new machine into my workflow.

See ya soon...cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca


II. Selected 2014 Gear-related Blog Entries

13 Nov 2014: The Tamron 150-600: Info Snippet 3: Hand-holding the Lens...

Almost every photographer uses their gear differently. Lots of factors influence how any individual uses their gear - experience, what other equipment or lenses they have to choose from, differences in strength, and more. For me, the Tamron 150-600 will be primarily a wildlife lens, though if it's good enough I will use it on occasion to shoot some distant landscapes. And, because I'm fortunate enough to own a lot of high-end telephoto and super-telephoto lenses - many of which are best used on a tripod - when I see the relatively small and relatively compact Tamron 150-600mm ultra-zoom lens, one of the first thing that occurs to me is that this lens could be a GREAT lens when I face weight restrictions. These weight restrictions might be self-imposed - like when I have to hike a long ways to get to a specific site (bear den, elk herd, eagle nest, whatever). Or - the weight restrictions might be imposed by others - like when I have to hop on an airplane or helicopter. And...these weight restrictions might mean I may have to leave my tripod behind...

So...for me...one of the biggest factors in deciding whether or not I decide to keep the Tamron 150-600 lens will be whether or not I can hand-hold it effectively at the kind of shutter speeds imposed on me by its relatively small largest aperture and the conditions I commonly shoot under (probably even LOWER light than the average wildlife photographer). (Another factor will be how it compares to the Sigma Sport 150-600, but that's another story). Now bear in mind that the ability to hand-hold a lens effectively varies dramatically between users. And, if there is ANY place in wildlife photography where unadulterated machoism reigns supreme is in what people (mostly males) SAY about their ability to hand-hold lenses (and the shutter speed they SAY they can hand-hold them at). Now - no brag, just fact - after leading photo tours with TONS of clients over the years I have concluded this - I am a mutant. I'm not huge, but I CAN hand-hold really big lenses at really slow shutter speeds all day long (and get really sharp results). SO...take what I say below with a HUGE grain of salt - your ability to hand-hold the Tamron 150-600 may be far different from my ability to do so (in either direction).

In my initial blog entry on the Tamron 150-600 (29 Oct 2014 - below) I had an entire section dedicated to my initial findings on hand-holding the lens. This entry is additional information that complements that earlier entry.

So...what did I do to "explore" how effectively I could hand-hold the lens under real-world field conditions? I went shooting with it - sans tripod. And, the day I went out was the perfect test - it was overcast, rainy, and my subjects (bighorn sheep) did what wildlife did...they moved around. So...I had to do what wildlife photographers do - balance shutter speed concerns between subject movement and camera shake, and factor in depth of field issues (aperture choices) and all the issues associated with jacking the ISO up.

What did I find? In a nutshell - that when it comes to hand-holding the lens, I WILL be able to make the 150-600 work in the field. And here's some more specifics:

1. Focal lengths between 150-400mm: I had no problem at all hand-holding the lens at shutter speeds of 1/focal length of the lens (so at 250mm, that meant a shutter speed of 1/250sec). This means while standing and without bracing my left (weight-bearing) arm on anything at all. Of course, this was with the VC (Vibration Compensation or image stabilization) ON. And, over half my shots taken at a shutter speed of one half the focal length (so 1/125sec at 250mm focal length) were acceptable sharp (and when I crouched down and supported my left arm on my knee over 80% of the shots were sharp).

2. Focal lengths between 400mm and about 550mm: Still no problem hand-holding the lens (with no bracing) at 1/focal length shutter speeds - well over half the shots were tack sharp. But when I slowed the shutter speed to one-half the reciprocal of the focal length and did NOT brace the lens in any way, my percentage of sharp shots fell below 50%. When braced the majority of my shots at a shutter speed of one-half the reciprocal of the shutter were tack sharp.

3. Focal Lengths approaching 600mm (including 600mm): Now many of my shots at 1/focal length of the lens (so 1/640s) were slightly soft when I shot completely free (e.g., standing and with no bracing of lens or my left arm in any way). BUT, when braced (e.g., leaning against a tree, crouched with left arm supported on my knee) virtually ALL my shots at 1/640s were sharp, and over 50% of the shots at 1/2 the reciprocal of the focal length (so 1/320s) were quite sharp.

My own take-home lesson? Simple - the Tamron 150-600 passes MY "hand-holdabilty" test. It will be interesting to see how the Sigma Sport compares (at two full pounds heavier).

A final caveat: It's important to note that I captured all the shots described above with my main wildlife camera - a Nikon D4s - that has outstanding ISO performance and thus pretty crazy ISO's were available to me (note the ISO's of the sample shots below). If I had used any other camera for this field "test" my ability to come away with usable shots (without major noise-reducing - and image use restricting - resolution reduction) while hand-holding this lens would have been compromised. But I HAVE a D4s and it is what I would use to shoot hand-held images of bighorns in the field. But if you don't have one...or if your ability to hand-hold a lens differs from mine...well...this lens may not work for you as a "going commando light" - and without a tripod - tool.

And some sample shots - with full annotations included on the shots:

Bighorn Lamb - Tamron 150-600 @ 460mm (1/320s) Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.0 MB)
The Little Bighorn - Tamron 150-600 @ 600mm (1/320s) Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.2 MB)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

06 Nov 2014: 150-600mm Ultra-zoom Tidbits...

Two quick comments relevant to those thinking of picking up one of the new 150-600mm ultra-zooms from either Tamron or Sigma...

1. Update on Autofocus System Failures on the Tamron 150-600mm:

Since my post of November 4 where I reported failures/shutdowns of the autofocus system of the Tamron 150-600mm lens I have received a small number of emails from other users of the lens who have experienced the same problem. All were from those using the Nikon-mount version of the lens. I received no emails from any users of the lens (Nikon or Canon) that have NOT experienced the problem. All I can really say from this is that I am not the only one who has the problem - and I have no feeling at all for how prevalent the problem is - so it could be affecting 100% of the lenses, 50% of the lenses, 1% of the lenses, or anywhere in-between. One of those who emailed me said they had contacted Tamron about it and "...they claimed to not know about the focus delay/no focus issues...". I'll keep my ear to the ground on this problem and report whatever I learn right here.

2. Videos About the Sigma Sport 150-600mm Ultra-zoom:

Those wishing to learn about some of the features (and even after wading through the marketing-speak there ARE some interesting features!) of the Sigma Sport 150-600mm ultra-zoom might be interested in seeing these videos:

http://www.gentec-intl.com/videos/?s=+&brandID=14

It is hard to NOT notice that Gentec is trying hard to position this lens as a PROFESSIONAL lens. While this may be simply an effort to justify the $1000 or so higher price tag on the Sigma lens (in comparison to the Tamron 150-600mm), I hope their claims are true. Who wouldn't want a professional quality lens costing $2300 or so on the market (if, for now other reason, than to keep Canon and Nikon trying harder?).

Note that I do have the Sigma Sport 150-600mm lens coming my way and will do head-to-head testing against Tamron's 150-600mm (as well as against a number of high-end Nikkor lenses).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

04 Nov 2014: The Tamron SP 150-600mm Ultra-zoom: Info Snippet 2: Autofocus System Failures...

My testing of the Tamron 150-600mm zoom involves some very systematic shooting sessions (including a number of quite rigorous head-to-head comparisons with a number of other lenses) and a lot of "just shooting with it" sessions. To date I have done 5 of the "just shooting with it" sessions. And, during two of those sessions the AF system of the lens has simply quit working. Note that while I was carrying the lens in my hands at the time (while hiking), I was following good "lens carrying etiquette" - I was supporting the weight of the lens with one hand, the camera body with my other hand, and I did have a strap around my neck (so there was no undue stress on the coupling of lens and camera). In both instances of AF system failure turning the camera on and off (the "reboot" approach) had no effect. To re-establish AF function I had to both turn the camera off and remove the lens from the camera body - then reconnect the lens and turn the camera back on - before the AF system resumed working.

In the coming weeks I will watch closely for this problem and hopefully identify the conditions that lead to the AF system failure. While so far this problem has been little more than an inconvenience, if this problem persists and costs me some good shots...well...that begins to become a serious consideration in my own decision about whether or not to keep the lens...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

03 Nov 2014: The Tamron SP 150-600mm Ultra-zoom: Info Snippet 1: Aperture Shifts...

New web feature beginning today - between major installments on my progress on the field testing of gear (in this case Tamron's 150-600mm zoom) I'm going to post quick snippets of info regarding things I've discovered while shooting with it. These snippets will be included in my final comprehensive review of the lens.

For me - and I think for most users - the Tamron 150-600mm lens is first and foremost a wildlife lens. Which means it's a lens that's going to see a lot of use in early morning (around sunrise) or late evening (around sunset). Which means, of course, in low light conditions. And...I have received emails from some concerned about what the relatively small aperture of the lens (and smaller as you zoom more) in terms of the ultimate usefulness of the lens in a field setting. Part of understanding how well it will work for you is understanding just where (within the focal range) this f5-f6.3 lens shifts from one aperture to another. You know, at what focal length does the lens shift from being an f5 lens to an f5.3 lens, and to an f5.6 lens, etc. So here you go:

F5: From 150mm to just under 200mm
F5.3: From 200mm to just under 250mm
F5.6: From 250mm to about 350mm
F6: From 350mm to about 460mm
F6.3: 460mm and longer

While I was checking where these aperture shifts occurred I noticed that the focal length reading on the barrel of the lens differs quite a bit from the focal length registered in the metadata of the shot (and far more than on my Nikkor zooms). For instance, if you look at the lens barrel the shift from f5.6 to f6 as the maximum aperture appears to occur at about 330mm. But if you capture an image at that focal length the metadata of the shot says it was taken at 350mm. This may have no real significance in terms of optical quality or how you use the lens in the field, but...being anal...I'm not a fan of...well...imprecision in my gear.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

29 Oct 2014: The Tamron SP 150-600mm Ultra-zoom: First Impressions...

Update Note: I made a few changes to this entry on 30 October 2014 - most were editorial (typographic) in nature, but some were slightly more substantive (such as the addition of the section on the Vibration Compensation (VC) section. But nothing regarding my overall impression of the lens changed (or was altered).

My test copy of the Tamron SP 150-600mm f5-6.3 "Ultra-zoom" arrived late last week and I've shot enough with it (about 1500 shots) to start reporting my thoughts on it. But before I begin I have to be honest with everyone - I ordered up this lens and put it on my "must test" list primarily because - based on its price (slightly over $1000 CAD or USD) - I knew I'd be having a lot of folks asking me about it. I really didn't think I'd seriously consider wanting (or keeping) the lens. Well - part of that turned out to be true - I'm getting all sorts of email asking me about it. I always refuse to venture a strong opinion on gear I haven't personally used, but if privately asked about this lens before using it I likely would have said something like "Well...you usually get what you pay for" or "At that price it really can't be very good." Well...after under a week of shooting this lens, all I'll say right now is I'm REALLY glad I didn't go on record with glib comments like that.

My plans for the testing of this lens include a week or so of "just shooting with it", followed by a lot of head-to-head comparisons with much more expensive lenses, including the following Nikkor lenses (at the appropriate focal lengths, of course): the latest "hit" lens for Nikon-shooting wildlife photographers, the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR; the AF-S 70-200mm f4 VR, the AF-S 400mm f2.8E VR (including with the TC-14EIII teleconverter), and the AF-S 600mm f4 VR. Additionally, I'll soon have the closest competitor of the Tamron 150-600 in my hands for head-to-head testing - the Sigma 150-600mm f5-6.3 zoom (Sport version).

At this point I'm still in the "just shooting it" phase of my testing, but I have begun more systematic head-to-head testing with other lenses at close camera-to-subject distances (tho' I haven't closely scrutinized the results yet). And, after looking at and scrutinizing around 1500 of my "just shooting with it" shots I HAVE formed an impression of the lens.

And that impression is this: Surprisingly competent. And that might not even be strong enough - I'm beginning to think that a better description of the lens is this: Shockingly competent.

OK - back to reality, the lens isn't perfect. Here's a longer version of what I've found to date...both good and bad...

1. Build Quality

I expected a "plasticky" lens with a real "iffy" or "borderline" build quality when I first felt how light the box that contained the lens was. But when I opened it I found a lens with a nice finish and a build quality I'd put on par with Nikon's AF-S 80-400mm VR. So not comparable to the build quality you'd find on Nikon's (or Canon's) highest-end pro zooms or super-telephoto primes, but not too far off. And, I was pretty much shocked at how small (and light) the lens was in my hands - it honestly didn't feel much heavier or look much longer than the AF-S 80-400mm VR. Once I took out the measuring tape and scales I found it a little over 5 cm (2") longer and 214 grams (under 0.5 lb) heavier than the 80-400. But it's important to remember this is a lens that zooms to 600mm and it is SO much smaller and lighter than a 600mm f4 lens that the comparison is laughable (the Nikkor 600mm f4 weighs more than 3 times as much).

Some other thoughts on the build quality and design:

• I instantly liked that the hood - when reversed - didn't cover the entire zoom ring (it does on the 80-400). So you can accurately zoom the lens even if you don't have time to place the hood in the extended position.

• All the moving parts - the zoom ring and focusing ring - move smoothly and, at least on my copy, easily. I have had one report of a stiff zoom ring from a friend (on a rental copy they were trying out), but mine zooms with about the same amount of effort as my AF-S 80-400. To zoom from 150mm right through to 600mm requires a pretty huge twist and may be impossible for some to do in a single twisting movement. But even if it takes a second to do a "two-twist" zoom, it's still a lot faster to do that than to change lenses!

• The tripod collar and foot is easily removable (which is a big plus for some users, including me) AND it is at least reasonably stiff - and thus usable (much more so than the almost useless tripod collar and foot that comes with the Nikon AF-S 80-400mm VR).

• All the controls (focus mode, Vibration Compensation [VC], zoom lock, etc.) are simple and clean - and just highly functional.

• And for those who might care, the lens proudly bears a "Made in China" engraving (the competing lens from Sigma - at least the Sport Version - is made in Japan).

2. Autofocus Performance

The first camera I shot the Tamron 150-600 with was my D4s, a camera which arguably has the best AF system of any DSLR currently available (it is simply amazing). My first shots were of static objects and slow moving subjects - and for those the AF system on the Tamron seemed snappy and responsive at pretty much all focal lengths.

But, being an inherently anal guy, I knew labeling the AF system as "snappy and responsive" was pretty much useless - the same could be said for every lens in my collection (except my Nikkor 200mm f4 Micro - which has an AF system slower than a slug). So...I grabbed my favourite AF test subject (Jose the Portuguese Water Dog) and went for a walk (with a pocket full of dog treats). And, we did several "You sit and stay and then run like hell right at me when I call" test sequences (sequences I have done a gadzillion times with other lenses). All sequences (8 of 'em - and then Jose was too full of treats to continue) consisted of 45-50 images shot of Jose in full stride running directly at me, and captured at 11 fps.

The results: Ok. Competent. Better than I expected. But not as good as I have found when doing the same test with many Nikkor pro lenses. About 50% of the shots were acceptably sharp. That compares to 90-95% of the images being tack sharp or acceptably sharp when I do the same test with my best Nikkors, like the AF-S 400mm f2.8E VR (and also when I do it with the AF-S 80-400mm). And even the sharp shots with the Tamron weren't quite as sharp as with my best Nikkor lenses.

When I scrutinized the images again I noticed that with many of the "acceptably sharp but not tack sharp" shots that the focus was slightly behind the leading edge (or nose) of Jose (by about 5 cm, or 2"), regardless of the focus mode (Dynamic Area vs. Group Area, etc.) I used. So the AF system was ALMOST keeping up with the approaching object, but not quite...with the result being a lot of shots that were fairly sharp, but not tack sharp.

Time for a reality check - a sample image - and all critical tech info is annotated on the image:

Exhibit A: Autofocus Performance

Jose on the Run @ 420mm: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.2 MB)

Although I have a lot more testing to do on the AF system of the Tamron 150-600mm, I've noticed one other noteworthy - and not entirely positive - thing about it. When doing some fairly controlled shooting of birds and squirrels at close range (about 5 meters - or 16') and zoomed out to 600mm the AF system did a lot more "hunting and searching" (racking all the way out and all the way in) than any lens I've used in recent years. So far I've noticed this "problem" only at 600mm and when focusing close to the minimum focus distance, but will watch for it in the coming weeks.

My current feelings about the AF system of the Tamron 150-600? It's pretty good and will handle most subjects most of the time. What about birds in flight? Based on what I found with my running dog test I'd venture that the Tamron 150-600 would be easily able to provide sharp bird-in-flight shots for any slower moving species (think soaring eagle filling 1/2 your frame or less, or geese in flight) but would be hard-pressed to produce a high proportion of sharp shots when photographing faster-flying mid-sized birds (like, for instance, many gulls or crows or smaller raptors). And, if you want to shoot full-frame shots of swallows in flight this is probably not the lens for you. ;-)

NOTE TO CANON USERS: I would be careful in extrapolating what I have found about the AF system of the Nikon-mount Tamron 150-600 to the Canon-mount version. Neither Nikon or Canon share their proprietary autofocus design and autofocus algorithm information with 3rd party lens makers. Which means that Tarmon has to reverse engineer the AF system of Nikon and Canon and build their lens accordingly. It is entirely possible that Nikon's proprietary "code" was easier for them to crack than Canon's was (or vice-versa) and thus entirely possible that the Nikon-mount Tamron outperforms the Canon-mount Tamron in AF performance (or, again, vice versa).

3. Image Quality: In-focus and Out-of-Focus Zones

A lot of variables influence our perception of the image quality of a lens. It's common for most reviewers (and lens users) to focus on image sharpness only, but the quality of the in-focus zones ("sharpness") and the out-of-focus zones (often referred to as "bokeh") interact with other factors - like colour, contrast, and lens flaws like chromatic aberration - to determine the overall image quality we see. Modern image-editing software allows us to easily adjust image colour, contrast, and to control flaws like chromatic aberration (and many programs do all this automatically), so I'll limit my discussion here to image sharpness and bokeh. And, I have a lot more testing to do before I can be definitive on image sharpness and bokeh, but I have formed some impressions already. And here they are:

• At close range (up to about 6 meters) and at all focal lengths - the Tamron 150-600 is surprisingly sharp. ALMOST as sharp as some of the best primes (really). I have scanned through (but not closely scrutinized) the test shots I've taken at close range (up to 6 meters) where I compared the Tamron to a variety of Nikkor lenses (both zooms and primes) and overall was impressed with how close in sharpness the Tamron shoots were to the Nikkor lenses. More on this (including sample shots) in a coming blog entry.

• At medium distances (about 10 to 40 or 50 meters)? While I've done a fair amount of casual shooting in this distance range (several of the images below), I haven't done systematic head-to-head comparisons against other lenses in this critical range (especially for many wildlife photographers). So far - and completely anecdotally - the Tamron seems quite sharp at this distance range, but right now I can't make meaningful comparisons to competing lenses (but soon though!).

• At long distances (50 meters or more), including distant 'scapes (landscapes or animalscapes)? I don't know yet - and this will be critical in my own decision about whether or not the lens will become a permanent part of my kit. I'll be particularly interested in how the lens hold up in edge-to-edge sharpness with distant scenes (at various focal lengths), especially on the higher resolution Nikon bodies (like the Nikon D800e).

• I'm a bit disappointed in the quality of the out-of-focus zones (the bokeh) produced at the shorter end of the focal length range (up to about 350mm). To my eye the bokeh seems a big jagged and "jittery", and certainly not smooth and/or buttery. I think you'll see what I mean if you examine a few of the shots below, most notably the shot captured at 250mm.

• At longer focal lengths (400mm and above) and with close subjects the out-of-focus zones are much nicer and it's hard to complain about them. See the shots of the Clark's Nutcracker and the 3 squirrel shots to see what I mean.

• Overall, it appears to me that Tamron placed higher value on designing a lens with maximum sharpness than one with a combination of maximum sharpness AND high quality out-of-focus zones. At a lens priced at just over $1000 there HAS to be some compromises, and if a compromise had to be made I think Tamron made the right call in focusing on image sharpness (both from a "please the most users" and a "slip it by the most reviewers" perspective!).

Sample Images?? Sure...here's a few to chew on! Detailed annotations, including tech specs, are found on each shot. Note that the Tamron ships with a serial number that will activate a freely downloadable copy of SILKYPIX Developer Studio 4.0 for Tamron. According to the information manual for the software (i.e., the information page!) the software...

"...is equipped with a lens aberration compensation function (environmental light amount, distortion, and chromatic aberration of magnification) based on TAMRON's proprietary design data to enable the user to create higher quality images by compensating aberration of the lens during development."

Who do they pay to translate these things? Anyway...sorry Tamron, if I have to use proprietary software to process images taken with THIS lens I'm not about to buy it. I processed all my raw images for this entry using my preferred raw conversion software - Capture One Pro (version 8.0.1). I could find see no indication of significant chromatic aberration (e.g., purple or green fringing on any of the images I shot). So it's probably safe to forget about the Silkypix software!

Exhibit B: Just shooting @ 180mm: Included just for general image quality at short end of focal range...

Jose Hiding: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.3 MB)

Exhibit C: Just shooting @ 250mm: Note in particular the quality (or lack thereof?) of the out-of-focus zone...

Poncho on Lost Ridge: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.0 MB)

Exhibit D: Just shooting @ 350mm: A strongly backlit image...

Focus: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.0 MB)

Exhibit E: Bird on a stick @ 460mmm: Note the image sharpness and the quality of the out-of-focus zones...

Clark's Nutcracker: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

Exhibit F, G, H: Squirrel @ 600mm: This three image sequence is what first made me sit up and think "hmmm...this lens is pretty darned good!" Includes shots at 600mm at 3 apertures: f6.3 (wide open), f8, and f11.

The Scolding I: 600mm @ f6.3: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)
The Scolding II: 600mm @ f8: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)
The Scolding III: 600mm @ f11: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.7 MB)

4. Hand-holding the Tamron 150-600mm

Not surprisingly, I've already been asked the "can you hand-hold it?" question several times. Before I give my answer it's important to realize that the ability to hand-hold telephoto lenses varies tremendously between users. The only way YOU can determine if a lens can be hand-held is to try it yourself - no one can (or should) tell you that YOU can do it (or should be able to do it). And...given where I do a lot of my professional shooting (out of an inflatable boat) I am forced to (and have learned how to) hand-hold some very big telephoto lenses.

So all I can say is this: Yes, I find it quite easy to hand-hold the Tamron 150-600mm lens at most focal lengths at moderate shutter speeds. To date I've have been mostly hand-holding the lens at shutter speeds of 1/focal length in use - so at 200mm I have been using 1/200s, and at 500mm I have been using 1/500s. And I have been getting a very high proportion of sharp shots at up to a little over 500mm.

Interestingly, at over 500mm I have been finding it challenging to hand-hold the lens (again at 1/focal length shutter speeds) and - almost bizarrely - have found that I have MORE success at hand-holding my 11-pound 600mm f4 VR Nikkor than I do in hand-holding the Tamron at 600mm. I THINK the reason is simply because the lens is so light that you have almost nothing to "push" against to create a stable platform (think of holding your arm straight out with nothing in it versus with a half-pound weight in it - most will find that with nothing in the hand it will shake more than if there is a light weight in it). Now do the same thing with a 10-power lightweight lens - that's a whole lot of magnification and any camera movement is magnified accordingly. The minute I do ANY form of bracing of the lens (e.g., against a tree or elbow on knee when I'm crouched) and I have no problem getting sharp hand-held shots at 600mm.

What about the Vibration Compensation (VC) system? How well does it work? How much does it help when hand-holding the lens? I find it challenging to quantify the effectiveness of any vibration reduction system on a camera - it's easy to literally "see them working" through the viewfinder (assuming the system is lens-based or sensor-based with an electronic viewfinder), but I know of no really rigorous way to quantify their effectiveness in a field setting (meaning declaring it a 3-stop improvement in vibration vs. a 4-stop improvement vs. a 5-stop improvement, etc.). All I can really say about the VC system on the Tamron lens is that when turned on I could easily capture sharp images when hand-holding at all focal lengths up to just over 500mm using a shutter speed of 1/focal length of the lens AND when I turned off the VC system far more shots were soft and/or blurred (I would get about a 50% success rate with the VC off vs. over 90% with VC on). Of course, in theory it would be easy to simply vary the shutter speed one is shooting at to get a bit of a feel for how much (in terms of stops) the VC system is contributing to vibration control, but in practice doing that in a field setting without other variables intervening (such as getting tired arms as the testing goes on, subtle changes to one's hand-holding technique, etc.) is tough. For now all I can say is that the VC system worked and both adequate and roughly equivalent to the VR on the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm zoom.

A final word on the VC system. In the literature accompanying the lens it states that the VC system should be turned off when the lens is supported by a tripod. The majority of time when I'm shooting wildlife from a tripod I keep the tripod head (be it a gimbal head or a ballhead) loose - which can lead to wonder if the VC should be on or off in that situation. So...I did a little test when shooting from tripod (with a loose Wimberley head) with VC ON vs OFF. And I found that the VC system worked fine when in that situation (when the VC was ON I did get a slightly higher proportion of sharp shots than when it was OFF). At this point I know nothing about how the VC system works with a fully locked down tripod head OR when panning moving objects (like birds in flight).

So...to summarize my current thinking on the lens: I'm surprised just how good this lens is for the price. At close range I'm getting very sharp shots at all focal lengths. When "just shooting" at moderate subject-to-camera distances - and hand-holding the lens - I'm getting surprisingly good results. I need to do more rigorous testing (including comparisons to other lenses) at both moderate and long subject-to-camera distances before I'm prepared to comment further on the optical performance of the lens. The autofocus system is significantly better than I expected, including when shooting moving subjects (but it is NOT as fast or capable at tracking fast-moving subjects as well as my Nikkor super-telephotos or telephoto zooms are).

Am I ready to recommend the lens? Am I convinced I need one myself? No on both accounts - I need to do more testing - and definitely need to shoot this lens against the new Sigma 150-600 before I can recommend this lens to anyone (or add it to my own lens arsenal). But I have to say it one more time: I am more than a little surprised - and almost shocked - at just how competent this lens is turning out to be...

Stay tuned...next installment coming soon (likely within the next 7 days).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

26 Sept 2014: My Week Field Testing the Nikon D810

It never rains but it pours. Recently I've been rigorously and exhaustively (both for me and the product and product combinations!) the new TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter and the new Nikkor AF-S 400mm f2.8E VR super-telephoto. And then Nikon shipped me a D810 for testing purposes - and gave me slightly over a week to do so. Yikes!

Which means I pushed my other testing aside and started working with the D810, with the goal of assessing if the changes in the new model were significant enough to justify the cost to me of upgrading from my D800e. Logically that meant I would be doing mostly head-to-head testing between the two models. Here's a very brief summary of what I found while comparing the two models. Note that my statements and claims WILL be backed up a later date with sample images (when I produce my full Field Test). And please bear in mind that...

• I am a nature photographer that primarily shoots wildlife, but I also shoot landscapes opportunistically (I don't work in a studio or do product or wedding photography)

• I am fortunate enough to own both a D4 and a D4s, so I am not looking to the D800-series cameras to shoot action. My primary use for them is to shoot landscapes and animalscapes and, even then, only when I am able to work under controlled conditions (like almost always getting the camera on a firm tripod and often shooting mirror-up and/or in Live View mode and with a cable release).

• I am fortunate enough to own a nice selection of super-telephoto lenses and I am NOT using the D800-series cameras as a "faux super-telephoto" (in other words, I'm not using a D800-series camera to give me enhanced ability to crop images).

• I work in a fully raw workflow and don't use Nikon's software to process those photos (I use Capture One Pro), so many of the improvements in the new EXPEED 4 processing engine don't impact on me.

• I don't "do video" (except once in a blue moon using a GoPro) - and I am completely ignorant of video technology (and completely ill-equipped to judge the value of video "improvements").

And for further context - one of the main reasons I initially moved to a D800-series camera (first the D800 and then the D800e) was because of its extremely wide dynamic range - which is often a huge asset when shooting either landscapes and/or animalscape shots. Because the dynamic range of the D800-series falls very quickly as ISO increases (by little over ISO 400 the D4s has more dynamic range than any of the D800 cameras), I care MOST about how the D800's perform at low ISO's (tho' I have to admit that I WAS interested if the noise characteristics of the D810 at high ISO's surpassed those of the D800e - after all Nikon DID expand the ISO range of the camera...perhaps they found a way to improve the ISO performance as well?).

While there are MANY differences between the Nikon D810 and the D800/D800e (this PDF comparison sheet gives a summary of many of the differences), the differences that interested me most pertain to image quality, notably...

1. The complete removal of the Optical Low Pass Filter (as opposed to the modified anti-aliasing filter on the D800e). My specific question here was this: Are D810 images captured in a field setting visually sharper than those of the D800e using the lenses in my collection (which includes some very good lenses, including the AF-S 24-70mm f2.8, the 200mm f4 Micro, the 70-200mm f4 VR - a lens which works extremely well on the D800e; and both versions the AF-S 400mm f2.8 VR)?

2. The change in ISO sensitivity range of the D810 (from 100-6400 on the D800 and D800e to 64-12,800 on the D810) - did it reflect a change in ISO performance or simply a change in camera "adjustability" (adding ISO's you'd almost never use anyway, especially on the high end).

3. Does the new "Highlight Weighted Metering" actually work?

4. Do sensor and/or processing engine differences between the cameras translate into noticeable differences in images captured in a field setting?

What did I find? In a nutshell - this:

1. Differences in image sharpness or "resolving power" between D800e and the D810?

None. At least none that I could find in a field setting when shooting using "medium-format-like" discipline (firm tripod, mirror up/Live View Shooting, cable release, etc.) and some of Nikon's finest lenses. To be honest, this is exactly what I expected - and simply because if you use the D800e carefully and with the "best of the best" Nikon lenses, it can capture unbelievably sharp images. Several comparison images to follow in my full Field Test write-up.

2. Difference in ISO performance between the D810 and D800e as judged by visible noise at 100% magnification of full-res images?

Yes, but not in the direction you might expect. I tested from ISO 64 through to ISO 12,800 (yep, on the D800e I used the "Lo" and Hi" settings) and once visible noise started showing up (at about ISO 320), the D800e showed slightly less visible noise than the D810. But the difference was real small - only about one third of a stop (so, for instance, a D810 image captured at ISO 800 would compare - in visible noise - to a D800e image captured at ISO 1000). In my opinion BOTH cameras have amazing ISO performance (when examining noise only) for a 36 MP DSLR with a very small pixel-pitch. Given how I use the D800-series cameras, I am limited MORE by decreasing dynamic range with increasing ISO than I am by noise.

3. Does the new "Highlight Weighted Metering" actually work?

Yep, absolutely. While it's still possible to blow out highlights when using matrix metering on a landscape shots captured with the D810 at low ISO's, it's become even harder than it was with the D800e (which was darned hard to do already). I noticed exposure values of up to -2/3 of a stop with the D810 (compared to the D800e) in scenes with distinct highlights, even if the highlight portion of the image was a very small percentage of the full scene. Impressive.

4. Do sensor and/or processing engine differences between the cameras translate into noticeable differences in images captured in a field setting?

Yes. Interestingly, the most obvious thing was a difference in White Balance (when using Auto WB1), with most images captured with the D810 being considerably and very noticeably warmer than those captured with the D800e. For my taste the D810 appeared excessively warm and not as representative of the original scene as the shots taken with the D800e, but personal preference quickly enters any discussion of WB when shooting in nature. Note that the difference in WB between the two camera's images was consistently found regardless of how the raw files were previewed and/or processed (e.g., using ViewNX 2, Capture NX-D, Lightroom, or Capture One Pro).

Another consistent difference between the two camera's output was that when processed identically (and with no attempt to extract shadow detail during raw processing) more shadow detail was evident on the images shot with the D800e. Note that with simple adjustments to the D810 files equivalent shadow detail was easy to extract and display. Note also that I found this difference at low ISO's (64 through 200), and it is at low ISO's that the D810 is reported to have a wider dynamic range than the D800e. Whether this difference is due to sensor differences, differences in the how the raw files are "interpreted" by various raw converters (in their "default" profiles for the files), or some other unknown reason is beyond me.

The following image pair - which were taken seconds apart, using the exact same exposure, and processed identically - illustrates the difference in WB (evident throughout virtually the entire image) and "default" shadow detail (note the shaded areas against the moss-covered rock wall). These images were captured at ISO 100 - the remaining tech specs are included in annotations on the images themselves. And, I chose a scene where dynamic range was pushed (on both cameras). Here's the two images:

D800e - Unnamed Creek in BC's Interior Rainforest (JPEG: 2.2 MB)

D810 - Unnamed Creek in BC's Interior Rainforest (JPEG: 2.2 MB)

My quick and dirty summary of the D810 and its "improvements" over the D800e?

Given how I use D800-series cameras (NOT as an action camera and primarily in situations where I have the opportunity for disciplined, methodical technique), I see little reason for me to upgrade from my D800e to the D810. I could find no differences in image sharpness or "resolving" power in a field situation, regardless of the lens used. ISO performance was no better than with the D810 - in fact there was slightly less noise in D800e files shot at moderate to high ISO's. I couldn't find any indication when shooting in the field of the reported wider dynamic range of the D800e (though I did quite like the new "Highlight Weighted Metering").

What about those just entering the "mega-mega pixel" category and who don't have the luxury of having multiple camera bodies, including ones designed and dedicated for action shooting?

Well, if they walked into a camera store and had the choice of the D800e and the D810 at equal (or close to equal) price - of course I'd recommend going with the D810. If you choose to use a D800-series camera for action shooting, the D810 - with its faster frame rate and larger buffer - is undoubtedly the better choice. One BTW needed here - the production D810 I tested had a smaller buffer than "advertised" by Nikon - mine shot only 22 lossless compressed 14-bit NEFs in a burst (rather than the 28 it is reported to shoot).

What about someone entering the full-frame market for the first time and looking for a good "all-rounder" for nature photography - would I recommend the D810?

Nope. Personally, I think both the D610 and the D650 (oops...I mean D750) at 24 MP are better choices. A little easier to hand-hold lenses with, a little better ISO performance, a little better for action and/or wildlife shooting, and still with a wide enough dynamic range (and resolution) to be pretty darned good landscape cameras (anyone remember the 24 MP D3x with slower frame rates, lower dynamic range, poor ISO performance, and a 8k price tag?).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

18 Sept 2014: Field Testing the TC-14EIII 1.4x Teleconverter - Excerpt 1

I'm far enough along in my field testing of Nikon's new 1.4x teleconverter - the TC-14EII - to begin sharing my results. At this point I've shot just over 2000 test images. The vast majority of these were shot using my D4s, although I have shot a number of shots with my D600 (around 300) and a handful of shots with a D800e and a D810. So far all my observations and trends in optical performance have been consistent among the various cameras. I have shot comparison images (i.e., head-to-head comparisons between the "old" TC-14EII and the new TC-14EIII) using the following Nikkor AF-S lenses: 600mm f4 VR; 400mm f2.8E VR; 400mm f2.8G VR; 80-400 f4.5-5.6 VR; 70-200mm f4 VR.

Please note that I will be producing a full written field test that will permanently reside in the Field Tests section of this website. Because many folks appear to be very interested in the new TC, and because its price will permit a lot of folks to buy it, I will be releasing my findings on the TC-14EII in a number of excerpts right here on this blog. While the results of future tests may make me feel otherwise, at this point I'm thinking the final field test will be called "The Good, The Bad, and the Honest"!

CAVEAT: While much of my field testing is done very systematically (to the point of anal), I am testing only ONE copy of the "old" TC-14EII against ONE copy of the "new" TC-14EIII. It is entirely possibly (though I think unlikely) that I have an absolutely stellar copy of the TC-14EII and a lemon of a copy of the TC-14EIII. So, despite my efforts to be thorough, given my sample sizes (N=1), my results should be considered anecdotal and NOT scientific. I cannot claim that what I find (or have found) will be the same as what others will find ("Your mileage results may differ...).

1. THE GOOD:

My copy of the new TC-14EIII is working great in all regards - I'm finding great image sharpness (with VERY little - if any - image quality degradation that I can associate with the TC), good contrast, virtually no degradation in autofocus performance with the lenses/camera combinations I've tested, et cetera. I am PARTICULARLY impressed with the quality of results I have received when the TC-14EIII is paired up with two different Nikkor zooms - the AF-S 70-200mm f4 VR and the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR. Why? Because historically Nikon's zooms and teleconverters weren't a match made in heaven - to the point where many would use their TC's only with prime lenses (and I was definitely in that camp myself). But with Nikon's newest TC-compatible zooms this fear of matching them up with TC's seems like a thing of the past...

Sample shots? Sure - here's a few shots taken with the new TC-14EIII - paired up with a few different cameras and lenses. This shots are fairly large (2400 pix on long axis) - best to view them at 100% magnification (1:1) on a monitor/OS that doesn't do a lot of interpolating of images (be careful with those "everything looks sharp" Retina displays). The shorts are annotated with all the tech specs and details. Oh...and sorry about the dog shots - but they're a whole lot more convenient for me to use than wilder life...

Action Shot - D600 with 70-200mm f4 plus TC-14EIII (280mm) (JPEG: 1.7 MB)

Action Shot - D600 with 80-400mm f4 plus TC-14EIII (550mm) (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

Action Shot - D4s with 400mm f2.8E VR plus TC-14EIII (550mm) (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

2. THE BAD:

Despite being very pleased with the image quality of shots taken using the TC-14EIII with a variety of camera/lens combinations, I am having an absolute devil of a time finding ANY difference in image quality between the old and new TC's. I've shot front-lit scenes, back-lit scenes, side-lit scenes, wide open aperture, stopped down aperture, yada, yada, yada. And, virtually invariably, the end result is the same - no observable difference in image quality between images shot using the "old" TC-14EII and the "new" TC-14EIII (despite extensive pixel-peeping). Initially I wondered if there simply wasn't enough resolution on the D4s to show subtle differences between images shot with the two TC's. But, after shooting comparison shots with the 24 MP D600 and two 36 MP cameras (D800e and D810) I'm finding the same thing: No visible difference in image quality (both are excellent).

An example? Sure - here's a shot that shows - to date - the absolute BIGGEST difference in image quality I've found between the TC-14EII and the TC-14EIII. The image below is a composite graphic showing the two shots (captured with a D800e) and what part of the full-framed image the samples were taken from. This image was captured with top/back-lighting and with the area "enlarged" INTENTIONALLY in a shadow region. I captured this image primarily to look for differences in chromatic aberration (along the wire strands) - but found none. Some - with sufficient squinting - might be able to half see (half imagine?) slightly better contrast in the image shot with the TC-14EIII (but don't confuse that with a slight colour difference - which IS interesting and may reflect differences in anti-reflective coatings between the two TC's):

Static Shot - D800e with 80-400mm plus both TC's TC-14EIII (280mm) (JPEG: 1.3 MB)

3. THE HONEST:

While I have a lot more testing to do on the TC-14EIII, I'm already comfortable saying that if you DON'T already own a TC-14EII teleconverter, then you'll be REAL happy with the performance of this TC with a variety of lenses (and cameras). Go ahead and buy one. But can I recommend that owners of the TC-14EII upgrade to the TC-14EIII? Based on my first few thousand shots and MY copies of the two TC's - NOPE.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

15 Sept 2014: Testing Nikon's Latest High End Products - Subtle Incrementalism...

Many regular visitors to this website know that I'm currently field-testing several new Nikon products right now - the Nikkor AF-S 400mm f2.8E VR super-telephoto, the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter, and the D810. Fortunately I own the previous version of each of thee products, so I can do that necessary and critical head-to-head testing that reveals if the spec differences between the old and new really makes a difference in the field. And that means I'm shooting a ton of comparative test shots right now - often very systematically, and almost always "as I'd use the product in the field." And it means I'm doing a ton of pixel-peeping right now.

While scrutinizing the thousands of test shots - to the point of almost going cross-eyed - one very consistent trend is emerging. The best way to describe it is to look into the thought-bubble over my head as I first examine images shot with the new product and then with the "old" product...

• Upon viewing an image shot with the new 400mm f2.8E VR and NEW TC-14EIII:

"Wow...superb quality - that matches the image quality of my 600mm f4 VR shot without a teleconverter..."

• Upon viewing an image shot with the new 400mm f2.8E VR and OLD TC-14EII:

"Wow...superb quality - that matches the image quality of my 600mm f4 VR shot without a teleconverter..."

What about when I compare those same TC's using my OLD 400mm f2.8G VR? Here's those thought-bubbles...

• Upon viewing an image shot with the OLD 400mm f2.8G VR and NEW TC-14EIII:

"Wow...superb quality - that matches the image quality of my 600mm f4 VR shot without a teleconverter..."

• Upon viewing an image shot with the OLD 400mm f2.8E VR and OLD TC-14EII:

"Wow...superb quality - that matches the image quality of my 600mm f4 VR shot without a teleconverter..."

And what about when I line up all 4 images (old and new TC, old and new 400mm lens) and compare them? Here's that thought-bubble:

"Thank god I labelled these - otherwise I'd never be able to tell them apart..."

My point? Well, when examining image quality of still images only, I'm increasingly getting the feeling that Nikon has pushed sensor technology and lens "tweaking" almost as far as they can. Note that I'm not complaining at ALL about the image quality produced by Nikon's best products - I think it's great! But further improvements in their top-end products seem to be now coming in areas other than image quality (such as a welcome loss of 2.2 lbs in their 400mm f2.8, an increase in frame rate and buffer size of the D810, an improvement of video features in the D810, etc.).

And I'm not convinced this is really a bad thing (except possibly - after word gets out - to Nikon's bottom line!). It can mean that those who are in the business of selling their images and feel compelled to keep up with the latest product introductions so that they can continue to be competitive in image quality can relax a little (and pass on upgrading their cameras for a generation or two without becoming non-competitive). I can look at the new D750 camera now and think "Wow - great all-rounder...better than a D3x in virtually all respects and thousands cheaper" and NOT have to order one! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

14 September 2014: Update 2: Replacement Tripod Foot for the New Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR Lens

And one more quick update on the conundrum faced by owners of the new Nikkor AF-S 400mm f2.8E VR who are looking for a 3rd party Arca-Swiss compatible tripod foot (see the last two entries immediately below for a description of the issues/problems associated with using the replacement foot designed for the previous version of the lens by either Wimberley or Really Right Stuff).

Two different sources have informed me that Really Right Stuff's LCF-14 replacement foot (which was designed for the Nikkor AF-S 200-400mm f4 VR) works very well - if not perfectly - with the new Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR lens. Based on this information I have ordered a LCF-14 for my own 400 - and I'll post a short update as soon as it arrives with my thoughts on its fit and performance. Thanks to both Nicholas from Seattle and Simon from France for making me aware of this solution to the replacement foot problem.

Two quick related notes. First, at this point Really Right Stuff is not yet recommending the LCF-14 as the foot to use with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E. Understandably they want to wait until receiving their own copy of the lens and test it before declaring its compatibility (or, alternately, if a newly designed foot would work even better). Second, I currently can't say anything yet about whether Wimberley's replacement foot for the Nikkor AF-S 200-400mm f4 VR (the AP-554) is compatible and/or suitable for use with the new Nikkor 400 (I'm guessing it is, but I don't have a copy to try for myself).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

5 September 2014: Update: Replacement Tripod Foot for the New Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR Lens

In my last entry I outlined the problems associated with using the existing replacement tripod feet from Wimberley and Really Right Stuff on the new Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR lens. The problems in compatibility come about because Nikon has moved the tripod collar and foot attachment point from the front (wider) part of the lens on the "old" 400mm f2.8G VR to the rear (narrower) part of the lens on the new 400mm f2.8E VR lens.

Since then I've talked with representatives from both Really Right Stuff and Wimberley about the situation. Really Right Stuff is aware of the problem and is waiting for a sample of the lens from Nikon before starting the re-design of the replacement foot. They anticipate having a fully compatible replacement foot available in one to two months. Wimberley doesn't anticipate having a re-designed replacement foot available for at least 6 months, and possibly longer.

Note that the existing replacement feet from Wimberley (the AP-452) and Really Right Stuff (the LCF-13) fit on the new lens, and they work just fine for supporting the camera. However, both sit so tight to the lens barrel that they function poorly as handles for carrying the lens, and the Really Right Stuff foot won't allow you to reverse the hood of the hood of the lens (you CAN reverse the hood with the Wimberley replacment foot, but it's a tight fit, with the end of the hood contacting the foot when the hood is reversed).

Lens and TC testing update: I'm still busy testing both the new 400mm f2.8E super-telephoto lens and the new TC-14EIII 1.4x teleconverter (and going cross-eyed staring at thousands of test shots). Expect results to start trickling out here soon...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

1 September 2014: The AF-S 400mm f2.8E FL ED VR Lens - Tale of the Tape (and Scales)

Regular visitors of this website, and especially my image galleries, will know that my favourite lens for wildlife photography is the 400mm f2.8 VR. Back in May, Nikon surprised a lot of people - including me - by announcing an update to the outstanding AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8G ED VR. The new lens was dubbed the AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR. The E designation of the new lens signifies that it has an electromagnetic diaphragm (which supposedly allows for "stable" exposures during high speed shooting) and the FL acronym refers to the fact that the new lens has two Fluorite elements. I'll discuss the use of the fluorite elements (and their optical advantage) in a future entry - for now it's important to note that a major portion of the weight savings - and some critical design changes - are attributable to the use of the fluorite elements.

AN IMPORTANT NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY: In order to avoid inconsistency and confusion, here's how I'm going to refer to the two 400mm f2.8 lenses moving forward: the NEW lens will be denoted as the 400mm f2.8E, and the OLD lens will be referred to as the 400mm f2.8G. And, at times I will simply refer to the NEW lens version as the "E version", and the older version as the "G version".

The remainder of this entry will be dedicated to OBVIOUS PHYSICAL differences between the two lenses...and some of their consequences. I will leave image quality, autofocus, and VR mode changes/improvements for a later time.

1. The Metal Crate Becomes a Plastic Briefcase!

For those that didn't know this, all Nikon super-telephotos USED to come in metal "strongboxes" (crates) with handles on them. The 400mm f2.8E came with an updated and MUCH lighter plastic version that looks like a big, sturdy, plastic briefcase (almost like an "elegant" Pelican case). Nikon calls this case the CT-405 Trunk Case that, according to the Nikon USA website, goes for $520.95 to those who need a spare! Those who use these cases to hold the lens when traveling will likely appreciate the lighter weight of the new case. Most users I know take the lens out of the strongboxes they come in and promptly put the cases away in long-term storage and only use them when they ship the lens to a new owner after selling it. That's what I do. End of discussion.

2. LENS WEIGHT - the crux of the issue!

One of the most attractive features of the new lens is its weight reduction. Nikon has been claiming that the new lens has come in at about 820 gm (1.81 lb) lighter than the old one. I have very good news here: it's considerably more than that. Here's some numbers from my accurate (and very precise) digital scale:

A. Stripped Down Weight (no lens caps, no hood(s), but with Really Right Stuff tripod foot*): 400mm f2.8G = 4685 gm (10.33 lb); 400mm f2.8E = 3790 gm (8.36 lb). My new E version is 895 gm (1.97 lb) lighter than my "old" G version.

*Note that the Really Right Stuff replacement foot (with integrated Arca-Swiss grooves) is 12 gm (0.4 oz) lighter than the stock tripod foot from Nikon. Because I weighted both lenses with the same foot on they slightly influenced TOTAL weight, but not the difference in weight (between the two lenses). See important note below about 3rd party replacement foot compatibility.

B. My Real World "Carrying" Weight (with stock lens hood(s), rear lens cap, front AquaTech lens cap and RRS replacement tripod foot): 400mm f2.8G = 5294 gm (11.67 lb); 400mm f2.8E = 4294 gm (9.47 lb). So, the new E version - as it goes into my camera pack - is a full 1000 gm (2.2 lb) lighter than the old G version.

Where does this additional weight-savings come from? The new lens comes with a single carbon fiber hood weighing 359 gm while the old lens came with a two-piece hood weighing 464 gm.

C. My Real World "Shooting" Weight (with stock lens hood(s), no lens caps, and RRS replacement tripod foot): 400mm f2.8G = 5145 gm (11.34 lb); 400mm f2.8E = 4145 gm (9.14 lb). So, the new E version - when you're shooting it - is a full 1000 gm (2.2 lb) lighter than the old G version.

Full bottom line on lens weight: Whether you're carrying the new lens around or actually using it, it comes in at 1 kg (2.2 lb) lighter than the old version. This is not far off a full half-pound MORE than that claimed by Nikon. And, when you're hand-holding the lens, it's really, really noticeable.

3. Tripod Foot Positioning - A Tweak with Consequences!

This is one of those things that you don't pick up on by reading about the lens (and may not notice unless you have both versions in your hands). But it has a lot of consequences. OK - the new E lens has two fluorite elements, and as it turns out the LARGEST elements in the lens are the fluorite ones. This puts them near the distal end (furthest from camera body). These elements are really, really light. And, the first thing you notice when you pick up the lens is that, unlike the older G version, is that it's NOT front-heavy. The G version was VERY front heavy, and to balance the weight on a tripod Nikon positioned the tripod collar and foot near the FRONT (distal) end of the lens. BUT, the new E version isn't front heavy, so Nikon placed the tripod collar and foot near the rear end (close to the camera body). So what? Well, the OLD bulky, wide, and heavier two-piece hood arrangement found on the G lens was needed so that, when reversed, the hood wouldn't hit the front-mounted tripod foot. With a rear-mounted tripod foot you don't need a 2-piece lens hood.

4. One-piece Lens Hood - Another Tweak with Consequences!

So what's the big deal about having a single one-piece hood on the new E lens rather than the two-piece hood found on the G" lens? The first consequence has already been mentioned - it's lighter (by 105 gm - or 0.23 lb). The second consequence? The single hood on the E lens is 1.7 cm (3/4 of an inch) narrower than the wider two-piece hood on the G lens. This might sound inconsequential, but makes a big difference when you're packing the lens into a backpack. In fact, that wide hood made it such a pain to pack the G lens around that I ended up buying a heavier but more portable soft hood (from Aqua Tech) for traveling.

5. Lens Length

There's a slight difference in length between the two lenses: With the lens hood(s) reversed, the new E lens is about 4 mm (under 0.2 inch) shorter. I suppose this MIGHT make it easier to carry with some packs, but for me that difference is inconsequential. When in extended position, the longer, single lens hood of the E lens makes the E lens about 1.5 cm (0.6 inch) longer than the G version. No real consequence of this comes to mind...

6. Tripod Foot

Nikon is renowned for making excessively large tripod feet for their super-telephoto lenses (by "large" I mean having a foot with a very large gap between the lens and the tripod foot). This means the foot and lens takes up WAY more room than necessary in a pack. I guess one advantage of stock "large drop" foot is that if you want to carry your big lens by the tripod foot and you happen to be wearing boxing gloves, well...you can do it! And, for reasons I will never understand, Nikon's stock tripod feet do NOT contain the grooves needed to make them Arca-Swiss compatible. The first thing that MOST buyers of Nikon super-telephotos do is buy a 3rd party replacement foot with a lower profile and Arca-Swiss compatibility (like the LCF-13 from Really Right Stuff or the AP-452 from Wimberley).

On the good news front - the amount of drop (and the foot-to-lens gap) has been reduced on the E lens. And, Nikon has discovered that folks carry their cameras and lenses using the foot - the foot now has a soft rubber surface on the side you'd be contacting when carrying it - and now it IS much more comfortable to carry. But, the foot still lacks Arca-Swiss grooves. Sigh. I guess Nikon had to leave SOMETHING for the next upgrade. Anyway...I think most wildlife shooters who buy this lens will be looking to replace the foot. But read on...

7. Limited 3rd Party Tripod Foot Compatibility

If you go to either Wimberley's or Really Right Stuff's websites you'll see that they're offering the same replacement foot for the E version of the lens as they did for the G version. The "bolt" pattern and fitting IS the same on the lens, so both the Wimberley and the RRS replacement feet CAN be attached. But you'll run into one or more problems with the 3rd party replacement tripod feet.

First, recall that Nikon has re-positioned both the lens collar and tripod foot on the lens. On the G version it was near the distal (far) end of the lens - where the lens is very wide. Tripod feet at that end of the lens sit facing the rear end (towards the camera) of the lens. And, thus they are oriented toward the narrowing (tapered down) end of the lens. So, even if your replacement foot is very low profile and the foot itself is close to the lens itself where it connects to it, because the lens is tapering DOWN along the length of the lens, there's still ample room for your fingers (even with gloves on) between the tripod foot and the lens. BUT, when you move the tripod collar and head towards the back end (camera end) of the lens, it must be oriented towards the FRONT (and wider) end of the lens. If the tripod foot is low profile at the position it connects to the lens (the narrow end), you can appreciate how small the gap becomes as the lens widens out. Bottom line - the gap between the tripod foot and the lens itself on the E version of the lens is REALLY small (with either the Wimberley or the RRS replacement foot). I have thin fingers, and I can JUST get them through the gap between the foot and the lens. With gloves? Well, forget using the tripod foot as a handle.

So that's problem #1. The second problem? Well, if you're using a RRS replacement foot (the LCF-13), then you physically can't reverse the lens hood into its "storage" position (it hits the end of the replacement foot before being fully in place). Turns out the Wimberley AP-452 foot is about 3.5mm shorter than the RRS foot, and that 3.5mm is all you need to allow you to reverse the hood (and tighten it down). So, you can either grind down the RRS foot, notch your hood (hey, they only cost $1000 USD if you crack it), or order a Wimberley foot. At this time I don't know if Wimberley or RRS are planning to offer new replacement feet to solve the problems associated with using their replacement feet on the E version of the lens (I'm writing this on Labour Day - and both companies were closed and weren't available for comment).

8. VR Mode Changes

There are differences to both the switches to engage the VR system and the VR modes themselves. The G version of the lens used the standard rotating locking ring found on all other Nikon super-telephotos to engage the VR system. The E version has removed the ring and simply added an "Off" position to the toggle switch that was previously used to switch between VR modes. I have mixed feelings about this change. Mechanically it's simpler - which is likely good. And, it may even be another place where Nikon saved some weight on the new lens. BUT, on other lenses - most notably the AF-S 80-400mm VR - I have noticed that this toggle switch is easily bumped and the VR can easily be turned off accidentally. This obviously varies with how you handle your lens and even what case you carry it in (which affects how you grab the lens to remove it from the case). Will this be a real problem on the 400mm f2.8E? Don't know yet...I'll provide an update on this in my final field report.

The G version of the 400 had two VR modes - Normal and Tripod. On the E version Tripod mode is gone, and you now have Normal and Sport Modes. According to the lens manual (which, BTW, is now just a single sheet large foldout), you use Normal mode for "...enhanced vibration reduction when photographing stationary subjects" and you use "Sport" mode when "...photographing athletes and other subjects that are moving rapidly and unpredictably". So, apparently, there is no VR mode to use when photographing slow, predictably moving subjects (like an animal walking)! Sheesh. Unfortunately, neither the manual nor Nikon's website tells you what the Sport mode is actually doing - so judging when to use each of the VR modes (beyond the obvious) is a bit of a guessing game. Expect to read more about what I have found about the VR modes (and when to use each of them) in the future. Oh, two more points...both VR modes can handle panning...and both can be used when the camera is on a tripod but "...OFF may produce better results in some cases depending on the type of tripod and on shooting conditions". So, in other words, when using a tripod - use either VR mode when you should and turn the VR OFF when you shouldn't. Sheesh again. Come on Nikon - tell us what the VR is actually doing in each mode so we can judge for ourselves when to use it. My GUESS at this point is that the new Normal mode works similarly to the old Normal mode and should be used when on a tripod with the tripod head loosened. Furthermore, I'm GUESSING that the Sport mode works similarly to the old "Active" mode and dampens shake in all directions BUT has been modified to detect panning.

9. Other Changes?

There's now a Security Slot where a security cable can be attached. At the price of this lens that may make sense - I'm thinking I'll hook the cable into the lens, lock it, and lock the other end to my wrist! The lens is also shaped a a little different than the old one - it now smoothly tapers from the wide end down to the narrower end (rather than having a more bulbous distal end as on the G version). The AF Activation buttons have been re-positioned very slightly, but between that and the re-balancing of the lens (much lighter at the distal end), the buttons now reside EXACTLY where my fingers fall when naturally cradling the lens - nice!

So...that's it. There's one huge change in the physical presence of the lens - a weight drop beyond that which Nikon promised! This new lens is a full kilogram (2.2 lb) lighter when being carried or shot (Nikon's claim was that it was only 820 gm (or 1.8 lb) lighter.

What about image quality, autofocus, and VR performance improvements? Coming soon!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

23 July 2014: Gizmos, Gadgets, Gear & Garments #1: Arc'teryx's Venta MX Hoody Jacket

I've decided to add a new on-going series of instalments to this blog - entries where I describe products (you know, gizmos, gadgets, gear & garments!) that really help me work in the field as a professional conservation and wildlife photographer. This series will not include camera bodies or lenses - these will be covered in separate blog entries and/or field tests. The products covered will be items I have purchased, actually USE in the field, and can honestly recommend. And, I receive no compensation or commissions for including specific items in these segments - any links to the products are simply for your convenience so you can check their features or specs out for yourself (or, in some cases, buy them). So what you'll read about these gizmos, gadgets, gear, & garments are my pure untainted opinions of them.

Arc'teryx's Venta MX Hoody Jacket

Wearing the right outdoor clothing can make the difference between simply enduring a bad-weather photography session and completely enjoying it. If you have to travel to remote locations (which seem so often to have extreme climates and weather) and have weight restrictions, then selecting the right clothing can be downright daunting - and critical to the success of your expedition.

Some outdoor photographers - including me - also walk or hike long distances carrying heavy loads on their back. Once at your destination you then stop, and often remain close to motionless for hours on end. So you go from huffing and puffing (and sweating) to stationary - if it's cool out that's a recipe for hypothermia. If your clothing doesn't offer good moisture and temperature control you can be hooped!

In my case I primarily work in two very different environments - the rainy and cool coastal forest of British Columbia (AKA The Great Bear Rainforest) and at the boundary of the Rocky and Purcell Mountains in southeast British Columbia (where I can be found from valley bottom to mountain peak). The coastal environment normally demands Gore-tex to fully repel rain; but for me Gore-tex only works when I'm mildly active at most - otherwise it simply doesn't breathe well enough for me (and I get soaked from sweat!).

On my home-turf in the mountains of southeast BC I face exceptionally mixed weather 12 months a year - and the weather can change in a heartbeat. What I NEED for my work is an all-weather jacket that offers protection from anything Ma Nature can throw my way - rain, wind, snow, and warm-to-cold conditions.

Enter the Arc'teryx Venta MX Hoody Jacket (info about it here on Arc'teryx's website). The MX stands for "mixed weather" - and it's really well-named! This hip-length jacket has it all! Its outer layer is made of two types of Windstopper fabric, which is a Gore product that, by construction, is less waterproof (but more breathable) than Gore-Tex. And, it has a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coating that enhances its ability to shed moisture. Pit zips? Check. Functional hood that really works? Check. Easy-to-use cuff adjusters? Check. Chest pockets that are accessible with a pack on? Check. Lower hem drawcord? Check. Articulated design and cut for maximum mobility? Check. Lightweight? Check. And - of critical importance to me as a wildlife photographer - is it quiet when I move (it's amazing how noisy some jackets are!)? MAJOR check!

How does it actually perform? Amazing. In late May and early June of 2014 I took my Venta MX on my annual Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen photo tour on the northern BC coast. In most years this is a "Gore-Tex" trip, but in 2014 we had much less rain than normal - and a whole lot of sun, wind, and temperatures ranging (often very quickly) from about 7C (45°F) to 18C (65°F). We worked out of a Zodiac boat - often getting splashed with brackish water. And I wore my Venta MX each and every day. I was absolutely astounded with the temperature range over which I was "thermally-neutral" - neither cold nor hot. I never got wet (we had rain showers up to about 30 mins long) - from the inside or outside. And no matter how I contorted myself in the Zodiac to get a shot, the jacket moved with me and never "fought" against me.

Since returning home from the Khutzeymateen in early June I managed to get myself caught in some longer rain showers (of about 90 minutes) while carrying my larger and heavier photo backpacks (which contained the not-svelte 400mm f2.8 VR lens) and while wearing my Venta MX Hoody. Same result - temperature neutrality, no clamminess, and I stayed absolutely dry (inside and out)! Based on that experience I'm convinced that this jacket, when layered up with the appropriate base layers under it, will be superb for snowshoeing or winter hiking in sub-zero temperatures, especially when brushing snow-covered trees or if it's snowing out. And, this will be my number 1 go-to jacket for casual use for the bulk of the winter (while shovelling walks, walking my dogs, etc.).

Some Final Notes:

1. Rain resistance: This jacket served me well (kept me totally dry) during moderate rain showers of up to an hour or slightly more in duration. But if you're likely to be out in "all-day soakers" (like you might find on the BC or Alaska coast in the autumn or winter), then you should look at a quality Gore-Tex coat rather than this Gore Windstopper coat.

2. Temperature Range: Everyone has a different tolerance to warm and cold temperatures (i.e., a different thermal-neutral zone), but most users in temperate regions would likely find this to be a 3-season jacket (autumn-winter-spring) and, unless one is in an Arctic or alpine region, likely too warm for summer use.

3. Build Quality: Arc'teryx is a high-end maker of outdoor wear for hard-core users - the build quality is top notch and unless you happen to wear this jacket into the working end of snowblower or threshing machine, you aren't likely to "break" this jacket! Arctyeryx products AREN'T cheap, but what high quality product is? And the Venta MX is super cheap as can be compared to my coming new Nikkor 400mm f2.8 VR lens! ;-)

4. Cons? Those who haven't purchased high-end outdoor clothing before (and come to appreciate how well it really does work) may find the price of the Venta MX too steep for them. And, the availability of this jacket isn't always great - I had to wait almost 6 months to get mine. As of today, inventory of most colours and sizes (as shown here on Arc'teryx's website) seems quite good - get 'em while they're hot! ;-)

My Recommendation? I highly recommend the Venta MX Hoody to any outdoor photographer that may find themselves in mixed weather conditions and who wants to stay as comfortable as possible while shooting. Period.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

17 July 2014: Additional D4s Autofocus Comments...

Back in April and May I was posting some of my findings and experiences with the autofocus system of the D4s. I'm still experimenting with (and trying to separate out differences in AF performance between) the D4 and D4s and in time I will be posting additional comments on this blog.

And...just yesterday I posted some updated comments on the D4s autofocus system in the commentary (i.e., in the "In the Field" notes) of an image I added to my Gallery of Latest Images. The image was of a Harlequin Duck (brightly coloured duck in flight in front of a green background). Right now the image is in the second position in that gallery (but by next week it will be shuffled further down the line as I add new images). To access the image just click on the icon of the duck in flight (from, of course, the Gallery of Latest Images). You will see the comments when you click on the "In the Field" tab BELOW the image...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

01 July 2014: Musings...Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm or AF-S 200-400mm or 400mm f2.8 VR or...?

If the email I've been receiving lately is any indication, it would appear that a lot of Nikon-shooting nature and wildlife photographers are really agonizing over the direction they should take in fortifying their lens collections. The main culprit in creating the "what-should-I-do?" lens angst seems to be the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR zoom, and those suffering from the ailment include users who currently have no direct means of getting to 400mm as well as those who already own the AF-S 200-400mm f4 VR. A lesser player in the current lens conundrum is the upgraded 400mm f2.8 VR prime lens (formally known as the AF-S Nikkor 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR) that is scheduled to ship in late August. Not only are some considering it instead of a zoom that offers a focal length of 400mm, but many existing owners of the original 400mm f2.8 VR are wondering if they should upgrade to the new (and lighter, and way more expensive) version.

I think folks are turning to me for advice on these lens dilemmas for three main reasons: partly because of my very favorable field test and review of the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR; partly because of my comparative field test called 4 Ways to 400mm; and partly because I make no secret of how much I like Nikon's original 400mm f2.8 VR prime lens (I often refer to it as my main "go to" wildlife lens).

Anyway...here are some of the questions I've been fielding (albeit in somewhat paraphrased form), complete with my answers. I suspect some may find the Q&A's useful.

1. "I'm looking for my first telephoto zoom for wildlife photography - should I buy the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR or the AF-S 200-400mm f4 VR?"

The Short Answer: Buy the 80-400mm.

The Longer Answer: While owners of the 200-400mm f4 don't like to hear this (and some simply refuse to believe it), optically the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 is on par with the 200-400mm f4 at all overlapping focal lengths. For those who don't believe this, check out the samples and commentary of my 80-400mm Field Test. And, of course, the 80-400mm has a BUNCH more focal lengths (the 80mm to 199mm range immediately comes to mind). Plus it's considerably cheaper, lighter, and smaller - and takes the same filters as the many of Nikon's other popular lenses (77mm filter thread).

But there has to be a downside to the 80-400mm - right...and please (say those owners of the 200-400mm who are beginning to feel a bit ripped off)? Yes. The 80-400mm does NOT have an f4 aperture, which means that you lose some ability to shoot with thinner depths-of-field (which can be useful in isolating a subject from a background) and, of course, can be useful in low light situations (though with today's cameras that perform so well at high ISO's this f4 "advantage" is quickly diminishing in importance). And then there's build quality. No one who has seen - or shot with - both lenses would argue that the 80-400 is of the same superb build quality of the 200-400. But the 80-400 seems sufficient in build quality - I haven't heard of durability problems or issues with them - and certainly my own 80-400 is doing just fine after almost two full field seasons of heavy use. I AM noticing more dust internally in my 80-400 than I ever got in my 200-400, but to date it appears to be having no impact on image quality, including in strongly backlit situations.

2. "But what are YOU shooting with?"

Short Answer Only: The 80-400mm - I sold my 200-400 a few years back...

3. "I currently own the 200-400mm f4 VR but struggle with hand-holding it - and it's kinda a pain to carry or travel with. Should I sell it and get the 80-400mm?"

The Short Answer: Yes.

The Longer Answer: Well, I would (and did)! And I know a lot of other folks that ARE doing this - I've had a large number of clients (on my photo tours) over the last year or so who've made the transition FROM the 200-400 TO the 80-400 and don't regret it one bit. They love the convenience of it, find it much easier to hand-hold, and it's just so much easier to travel with. But one thing I WOULD do first - if you own Lightroom or a similar image cataloging tool that can filter your images by lens used and aperture the image was shot at, I'd look at how many of your 200-400 images were shot at f4 to f5. If a LOT of your images were shot in that aperture range, you might want to think twice before dumping the 200-400. But, if you shot a lot of them between f5.6 and f8...well...there's probably no reason to second guess your decision to move to the 80-400.

One final comment: If you looked at the lenses that clients brought on my photo tours just one short year ago, the most common Nikon lens you'd see was the 200-400mm f4 VR (followed closely by the 70-200mm f2.8 VR - which many folks used to accompany the 200-400). Now, the most common lens is already the 80-400mm, which tells me Nikon must be selling bucket loads of them. Funnily enough, now the bulk of 200-400's I'm seeing are Canons! How things change...

4. "I was just about to buy the AF-S 80-400mm and then Nikon went and announced the updated version of the 400mm f2.8 VR - and I'm torn. Which should I buy?"

The Short Answer: Huh??

The Longer Answer: Huh?? This is an "apples and oranges" thing - big time. While the 400mm f2.8 VR (either the new or original VR version) definitely outperforms the 80-400mm at 400mm (using any image parameter you can think of - sharpness, "resolution" on distant shots, bokeh, and more), most users will actually probably get more use out of the 80-400. Why? Well...to begin with...because it...uhhh...zooms. More focal lengths = more situations of use. And, of course, it's way smaller, lighter, easier to transport anywhere, easier to use, et cetera. But to me these lenses are so different - and used for such different reasons and priced so vastly different - that it simply isn't an "either-or" thing. On that note - I DO know many 400mm f2.8 VR owners who ALSO own the 80-400mm. But it doesn't necessarily follow that if you own (and are happy with) the 80-400 then you also NEED the 400mm f2.8 VR (though if you want to use this as "excuse to spouse #162" - go right ahead, but don't blame me if you end up single).

5. "I own the original 400mm f2.8 VR - should I upgrade to the new version?"

The Short Answer: It depends.

The Longer Answer: Ooooh...that's a tough call! There's several upgraded features on the new version of the lens, but two of them really stand out - it's 820 gm (or 1.81 lb) lighter than the original VR version and two of the lens elements in the new version are made of fluorite. The weight saving of almost two pounds is HUGE - and it makes the 400mm f2.8 VR 50 gm (almost 2 ounces) lighter than the Canon version of the lens. Now I've shot side-by-side with Canon shooters who had the "new" Canon 400mm f2.8 lens (i..e, the lightweight one that was almost two pounds lighter than the original 400mm f2.8 VR I was shooting with) and when we switched cameras and lenses I was stunned by how much lighter the Canon set-up felt (and the 1D-X body on the Canon was heavier than my D4). While I CAN hand-hold the original 400mm f2.8 on a D4 or D4s, it doesn't mean I WANT to (or that I wouldn't appreciate the almost 2 pound weight savings). I'm not getting any younger...

What about the fluorite elements? And what is fluorite anyway? Calcium fluorite crystals (which are what the fluorite elements are made of) are exceptionally clear - they exhibit incredibly low light dispersion, which is really just a fancy way of saying that there is virtually zero light scatter through the element. And, this means that lens made with fluorite elements can have both incredible colour characteristics AND virtually no chromatic aberration.

As a quasi-interesting aside: Sources at Nikon have informed me that the increased cost of the new version of the 400mm f2.8 VR (which is about $2500 USD) is more attributable to the new fluorite elements than it is to the parts and/or design changes related to the 840 gm (1.81 lb) weight reduction.

But back to the original question: Should I upgrade? Well, if you must hand-hold your 400mm f2.8 a lot (because, for instance, you're shooting it from a Zodiac boat or somewhere else where a tripod or other support isn't practical) then you'll probably LOVE the new version of the lens. And, if just fantastic image quality (which is what the current 400mm f2.8 offers) isn't good enough for you and you must have the best of the best image quality - well...get the new lens!

6. "I'm a novice photographer but like good quality stuff - and I'm so rich that I don't know what to do with my money - should I buy the new 400mm f2.8 VR?"

The Short Answer: No. Buy TWO and send me one. Please.

The Longer Answer: See the short answer.

7. "Two part question: Will you be getting the new 400mm f2.8 VR and will you be testing it against the original VR version?"

The Short Answer: Yes and yes.

The Longer Answer: Because Nikon has offered me such a fantastic deal on the new version of the 400mm f2.8 VR (i.e., stand in line with everyone else and pay full retail) I have decided to order the new lens. And my plan is to keep my old one for a month or so after I take delivery of the new lens so that I can do the head-to-head testing necessary to produce a field test comparing the two lenses.

So...summing up:

1. Whether or not you own the 200-400mm f4 VR you should buy the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR - you'll love it and use it a ton.

2. If you're a wimp like me, or won't settle for anything but the absolute best, then you can also buy the updated 400mm f2.8 VR. Or...

3. Wait until I do my field test of the new 400mm f2.8 VR and then decide.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

20 May 2014: More On the D4s Autofocus System...Soon!

I've been continuing on with my field-testing of the autofocus (AF) system of the D4s, including doing a lot of head-to-head tests against the Nikon D4. I'm almost ready to report my results on how the Group Area AF system works (and when to use it). And, I keep hearing more and more anecdotal reports of just how much better the AF system of the D4s is, even when using the same settings found in the D4. A great example of this is what Ron Martinsen recently posted on his photography blog. In the May 16 entry, Ron called the AF performance of the D4s "The Greatest AF Performance I've Ever Experienced". Not a bad endorsement from a Canon shooter!

View Ron's report right here (it's the May 16, 2014 entry): Nikon D4s-Real World AF Miracle Shots and...

Official thanks are extended to Old Salty for pointing this article out to me.

I have to admit that beyond the new functionality of the Group Area AF mode, so far I'm not noticing many differences in AF performance between the D4 and D4s (to be fair, the D4 AF performance already was a BIG step up from that of the D3s and already incredibly good). So there are two possibilities - either there really is no major difference in AF performance (beyond the Group Area AF mode) between the two cameras, or I have simply haven't been in the right situation - or come up with the right field test - to find them. Note that many of the things that Ron pointed out are a bit challenging to get a comparative "metric" on (i.e., to effectively quantify), but that doesn't mean they're not real. My biggest interest (including for my own shooting) is in understanding how certain Af characteristics (like holding a subject in sharp focus when distracting objects cross the AF bracket being used - basically the ability to hold focus THROUGH distracting subjects) compare between the D4 and D4s. So right now I'm devising a few new field testing protocols that will mimic or exactly replicate real-world shooting conditions, and where I can fairly compare more aspects of D4 and D4s AF performance. So stay tuned...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

22 April 2014: The Nikon D4s - Installment 5: Sussing out the New Group Area AF Mode

Way back on April 4 (below) I set out three questions about the "improvements" to the autofocus system of the D4s that I wanted to answer. As always, the reason I invest time answering these questions is so that I'll know how to most effectively use the camera in the field, but I see no reason why I shouldn't share what I learn so that others might benefit as well...

Anyway...the first thing I really wanted to "suss out" was how the new "Group Area AF Mode" of the D4s performed. For those that don't know, this new AF mode allows the user to group together 5 focus brackets (one in the center and then the four closet brackets, with the outer brackets in the group forming a diamond shape). Nikon has made at least two not-quite-identical claims about why this is beneficial:

"When Group-area AF is selected, the camera uses one focus point selected by the user and one each above, below, to the right, and to the left of the selected focus point, for a total of five focus points, for focusing. By capturing the subject within the five-point group, even if it is small and moving quickly and erratically as is often the case when photographing athletes and animals, the intended scene can be captured with greater certainty without focus shifting to the background." (from Nikon.com). And...

"For faster initial subject capture, use five AF sensors as a single focus point with the new Group Area AF setting." (from Nikon.ca).

When I read these two claims I quickly came to the conclusion that I had to test the Group Area AF system against the Dynamic Area AF system (on both the D4 and the D4s) to really understand what system worked best for (and thus what the optimal settings were for) capturing action such as birds in flight or running mammals.

So...I proceeded to begin testing D4 Dynamic Area AF vs. D4s Dynamic Area AF vs. D4s Group Dynamic Area AF using my "sorta famous" running dog tests. I'll explain the exact test protocol in a coming blog post. The point I want to make here is that I soon discovered that the Group Area AF mode seemed particularly adept at focusing on the leading edge of a subject moving quickly directly at me. Here's some samples to show what I mean:

Jose Running Using Group Area AF: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

Poncho Running Using Group Area AF: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

With the shots above I had intentionally set up a situation where the Depth-of-Field (DoF) would be quite thin (600mm lens and fairly wide apertures), thus "challenging" the system somewhat and to make it clear where the system was focusing. But what I couldn't figure out from these shots was exactly what the Group Area AF system made as its focus priority. Was it the centre of the group as defined by the 5 AF brackets? Perhaps it "averaged" the objects within the group? Or, maybe it was the closest object with the group? To answer these questions I needed to see the exact position of the focus brackets of the Group. So...I opened the raw images in ViewNX 2 to check the focus bracket position and...drat...on the sequences from which these images were drawn, focus bracket position was missing on the bulk of the shots (this is common when using Dynamic Area AF on fast-moving subjects too - when previewed in ViewNX 2 only a small percentage of shots of fast-moving shots show focus bracket position).

So...rather than continuing on with my testing of the performance of the various AF settings on fast-moving subjects I decided to explore the issue of figuring out the focus priority of the Group Area AF system. So...bring on the slightly more static subjects (where I knew the focus bracket position would be recorded) - check out this shot:

Red Squirrel Using Group Area AF: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

Based on this shot, and a lot of very similar ones taken at the same time, I was about 95% certain that focus priority of the Group Area AF was on the closest object within the area defined by the Group Area AF focus brackets.

But, being totally anal (along with realizing knowing this info could be critical to me understanding when I needed to AVOID using the Group Area AF mode), I decided to confirm this by shooting some shots of a TOTALLY static object - check out this composite shot:

Single Area AF vs. Group Area AF: Download 1200 pixel image (JPEG: 534 KB)

Yep, confirmation: the new Group Area AF mode focuses on the closest object within the area defined by the 5 brackets in the focus group.

Now...the most important part: what does this mean in day-to-day shooting? Well, I think it makes sense that when shooting MOST action that the system grabs on to the closet part of the subject within the group area. Think of shooting any subject that's quickly moving toward you - such as a race car, bird in flight, sprinters on a track (or any animal running towards you) - odds are the thing you want in focus is the leading edge of the subject (as in shots of my dogs above). BUT, if you're shooting action shots with thin DoF's and you want to pick something within the group that isn't necessarily the closest thing to you, be careful with the Group Area AF. Want a real world example? OK - you're at the next summer Olympics and you're photographing the men's 100 meter spring final. Right beside Usain Bolt is a Canadian that is the subject of your story. You want to shoot the GROUP of sprinters as they approach you and you want most of the field in the shot - AND you want the Canadian in focus. Well, switch off Group Area AF or you'll never get the Canadian in sharp focus (except when they're still in the blocks) - all you'll get are lots of shots of Mr. Bolt sharp as a tack! Think about it.

What about static subjects - and especially shots where you want a precise selective focus and thin DoF? Be real careful with using Group Area AF. Example? Take a second to look at this shot of a floating grizzly. It was captured with a 400mm f2.8 VR lens AT f2.8 and works only because it has a thin DoF. It needs to have BOTH the near tip of the nose and the eyes in focus to work. To ensure this, I used Single Area AF mode positioned exactly 1/2 way between the nose and eyes (despite what many think, the DoF of long telephotos is distributed 50:50 in front of, and behind, the plane of focus - and on this shot I had only about 3" of total DoF to work with). If you used Group Area AF mode on this shot and focused the group on the same spot, then the tip of the nose, some water of front of it, and a little of the snout would end up sharply focused - but the eyes would be soft. And it wouldn't have ended up on the cover of a few magazines!

OK...the "what does Group Area AF focus on?" issue dispensed with. Now...how does the Group Area AF system compare to the Dynamic Area AF mode in capturing fast-moving subjects. THAT's the topic of my next D4s post! Coming soon...stay tuned...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

9 April 2014: Some Clarification: The Value of the D4s's New f19 Custom Function

One part of my April 4 blog entry on the autofocus performance improvements of the D4s has generated a fair amount of "Huh? Don't quite follow you" email. The part that seemed to confuse quite a few folks was the section pertaining to the new f19 custom function of the D4s which Nikon calls the "Lens Focus Function Buttons". I think part of the confusion stems from the fact that many who read this blog entry probably don't own one of Nikon's super-telephoto primes or zoom lenses that have the programmable buttons in question. So...because I think some users - and especially wildlife photographers - may find this new feature VERY useful, I'll provide a more detailed explanation (including why I think this new custom setting is so cool).

1. The f19 Custom Function - and How it Works:

OK - the f19 custom function allows you to customize one of the options that the AF Activation buttons can perform. What are the AF Activation Buttons? All of Nikon's current super-telephotos and the 200-400 f4 VR zoom have a ring of 4 buttons found on the lens barrel (please see this illustration). BEFORE the D4s you could assign one of three functions to these buttons - you could have them activate focus, lock focus, or return to a pre-set focus distance. How did you assign the desired function to the buttons? By using a 3-position toggle-switch on the lens barrel (please see the illustration again to see the position of the toggle switch).

Enter the f19 Custom Setting of the D4s. What it allows you to do is to take ONE of the existing 3 functions of the AF Activation Buttons (the focus-lock function) and replace (or re-assign) that single function with a whole pile of new options, including have it function as AF lock only, or as AE/AF lock, or as AE lock only, or as Preset focus point, or as AF-area mode, etc. If you choose to re-assign it to AF-area mode, then you are presented with the option to have that AF Activation button instantly change your AF-area mode from WHATEVER it's set at to ANY of the possible area modes - single-point AF; 9-point dynamic area AF; 21-point dynamic area AF; 51-point dynamic-area AF; group-area AF; and auto area AF.

2. So Why Is This a Big Deal and "So Cool"?

It's a big deal because until now there was no way to quickly change ALL of the settings of a Nikon D4 (or D3, or D3s) from those you'd want to be using to photograph a static subject or landscape to those you'd use to freeze high-speed action. When would this scenario present itself? All too often in wildlife photography. It could be when you're working with a calm eagle sitting on a tree while it's eating a fish and then suddenly takes to flight. Or, it could happen when that sleeping grizzly you're painstakingly creating a beautiful animalscape with suddenly wakes up and bolts across a stream in perfect light! What is the normal result in these situations? You say "Shit, I missed it!". That's because in both these two calm-instantly-turning-to-action scenarios (and dozens more) you'd likely want to switch to DIFFERENT settings for your aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and your AF area mode settings. Until the f19 custom function the clever user could program EVERYTHING except AF settings into different shooting banks and quickly switch between those using a button (e.g., the function button) and main command dial. BUT, you'd get bogged down by then having to change your AF area mode settings (by having to also press the AF mode button and then spin another dial to go from, for instance, single-point AF to 51-point dynamic area mode). Assign the f19 custom button to toggle between your current AF area mode and your favourite one for shooting action of erratically moving subjects (likely the new and excellent Group area AF mode) and you can now switch your camera over from one set up for shooting landscapes to one set up for shooting action in literally an eyeblink. So cool!

Is this the kind of thing you'd be doing every day? Nope. But, as I'm learning, the refinements and improvements on the D4s aren't in things you do in most "every day" shooting - they're in those things that count when you're shooting right on the edge. Like shooting hand-held in ultra-low light, or trying to shoot action in near darkness. And in this day and age that's where the money shots are - when you're shooting on the edge...

And enough time spent on this - I gotta go practice switching shooting banks while toggling AF area modes using those now handy-dandy AF Activation buttons! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

04 April 2014: D4s Testing Update: Autofocus Performance...

This is a not-so-short update for those wondering what's up next in my testing (and reporting) on the Nikon D4s. As a wildlife shooter who works a lot in low light environments (like the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia), ISO performance and autofocus performance are among the most critical equipment-related factors that influence my success in the field (finding my subjects is pretty important too - but that's unrelated to the camera I'm carrying!). Installments 2 through 4 on the D4s (below) dealt with ISO performance.

When it comes to autofocus (AF) performance my primary concerns pertain to how well a camera will capture action - subjects in motion. Focus accuracy of static subjects is obviously important, but the flagships from Nikon and Canon have been able to quickly and accurately focus on static subjects for so long that it's really not worth talking about. So let's go back to focusing on action - for me this primarily means birds-in-flight or running mammalian wildlife. One of the main selling points of the D4s is improved autofocus performance - in many or most of Nikon's marketing literature AF performance is one of the first selling (or bullet) points they present.

So...how has the AF system been improved? One "improvement" is obvious and is a new user-selected setting - the new "Group-area AF" feature. According to Nikon.com...

"When Group-area AF is selected, the camera uses one focus point selected by the user and one each above, below, to the right, and to the left of the selected focus point, for a total of five focus points, for focusing. By capturing the subject within the five-point group, even if it is small and moving quickly and erratically as is often the case when photographing athletes and animals, the intended scene can be captured with greater certainty without focus shifting to the background."

On other Nikon websites (e.g., Nikon.ca) Nikon describes the advantage of the Group Area AF setting (the slightly different reference to it - Group-area AF vs. Group Area AF - is NIkon's inconsistency, not mine) as follows: "For faster initial subject capture, use five AF sensors as a single focus point with the new Group Area AF setting."

So...if these two not-really-identical claims are true then the Group-area (or is it Group Area?) setting may be the best AF setting for birds-in-flight or for running mammals (historically I've used Dynamic Area AF for this - and have quite liked it).

Another discrete and concrete "improvement" (albeit a well-hidden one) in the AF of the D4s is for users of Nikon's super-telephoto lenses that have those 4 AF activation buttons found near the distal end of the lens (they're on most of Nikon's super-telephotos and super-telephoto zooms, like the 200-400mm f4 VR and all of Nikon's most recent versions of their big primes). There is a new custom setting (f19 - Lens Focus Function Buttons) that allows you to instantly switch from one type of AF area setting (e.g., Single-point AF to Group-area AF) by simply pushing the AF activation button on the lens (but, for some reason unknown to me, this works only when those activation buttons are switched to work in AF-L mode on the lens barrel toggle). This sounds convoluted and a bit opaque, but here's how it works. Say you have the AF activation button set to switch to the new Group AF mode (which is one option for custom setting f19 on the D4s). And imagine you're using your 400mm f2.8 VR to photography a grizzly calming eating grass in the spring - and you're using single-point AF. Suddenly, that grizzly rears up, sees another bear and starts running. Instantly you want a focus mode that's better for photographing action - like Group-area AF. So you just press one of the four AF activation buttons on the lens and..."poof"...you're instantly in Group-area AF. Cool. Oh, and BTW, despite having the AF activation toggle function set to AF-L on the barrel, if you've set up Custom function f19 that AF-L mode for the AF activation buttons is no longer a focus lock - it switches the area mode only (so you can track moving objects with it). So...with the D4s's f19 custom function activated and set to any AF-area mode, AF-L on the barrel now stands for "AF-area Switch"! I DARE anyone to find a reference to this over-riding or cancellation of the AF-L toggle by the f19 custom function ANYWHERE in Nikon's printed or electronic literature - the ONLY way I figured it out was through thinking about how it should work, followed by experimentation! Sigh. You all owe me one for giving you this bit of potentially very highly useful trivia! ;-)

A final fairly easy-to-understand and appreciate (at least on paper, less so in the field) "improvement" is that you can now shoot at 11 fps with full AF functionality (the D4 only shot at 10 fps with full AF functionality). Hey - it's a 10 percent improvement! ;-)

And then there's the vaguely described AF improvements - the "just trust us" ones. What do I mean? Read this (from Nikon.com):

"Very precise adjustment of AF algorithms based on the Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX autofocus sensor module enables certain acquisition of even erratically moving subjects and those exhibiting little in the way of contrast. D4S autofocus performs even better, keeping the acquired subject in focus, even when it is coming closer, or moving away, at high speed. What's more, the D4S offers better balanced AF control with more precise focusing on the intended subject, and more accurate tracking of that subject, even when photographing team sports, such as soccer and rugby, when action may temporarily obstruct the intended subject."

I get what they're saying - but what does it really mean in the field? And...how on earth to test for it?

OK - enough stage-setting. Out of all this here's what I hope to suss out in my field tests (that I'm already about half-way through):

1. Will the D4s beat the D4 in the number of in-focus shots in a single series of shots of a fast-moving subject when both cameras are in Dynamic Area Mode? And, will the claimed improvement in focus acquisition speed and focus retention at the end of the sequence be noticeable in a field setting (again, using Dynamic Area AF).

2. Will the new Group-area AF mode beat the Dynamic Area AF mode in the number of in-focus shots in a single series of shots of a fast-moving subject? And, will the claimed improvement in initial focus acquisition while in Group-area AF mode (presumably over Dynamic Area AF mode) be noticeable in the field?

3. Will the D4s beat the D4 in AF performance (in capturing action) in very low light conditions (in Dynamic Area AF mode). And, will Group-area AF mode track action better than the Dynamic Area AF mode in low light?

Stay-tuned - answering these questions to my satisfaction is exactly what I'm in the midst of testing right now. I know this kind of testing can outwardly appear to be a bit overboard and possibly even anal, but knowing this level of detail about your camera's AF system can result in either hitting or missing on images like this one. Yep...I definitely have my work cut out for me! And, those knowing how I do much of my AF testing with moving subjects will get this - by early next week I will have two very tired dogs in my home! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

24 March 2014: The Nikon D4s - Installment 4: High ISO Performance: Noise vs. Image Quality!

An interesting dichotomy and even a little controversy is developing online (and presumably in the real world too!) about the high ISO performance of the Nikon D4s. On the one side you have the "testers" who are making comparisons between the D4 and D4s via shooting static targets and/or test patterns and are, more often or not, looking at ONLY noise (the most well known example in this "camp" would be Dxomark.com). Many in this group are claiming that the performance of the D4s and D4 at high ISO's are almost identical (or only a third of a stop AT MOST different, with the D4s just edging out the D4).

On the "opposing" side are those "just shooting" with the D4s and who are almost unanimously (at least based on every email and/or comment I've seen online) saying "hey...wait a minute - have you looked at the images shot in the field with the D4s at high ISO's - they're WAY better than D4 images".

In a sense I fit smack dab in the middle of these groups in how I "test" a camera - I do a lot of "just shooting" with it, but I also test it methodically shooting "real world" targets, complete with in-focus zones, slightly out-of-focus zones, and completely out-of-focus zones (I do this VERY intentionally, as noise has a very different impact in zones that differ with respect to focus and also because removing and/or controlling noise is tricker in zones that are in-focus versus those that are out-of-focus). But where I differ from the "testers" is that I'm finding that my methodical tests and my "just shooting" sessions are showing exactly the same thing - that D4s images are cleaner (with respect to noise) than D4 images. I'll also further suggest that their image quality is better, which is a totally different thing. Which leads to some interesting points:

Image QUALITY is about more than just noise!. SOME of the difference between what the testers are saying and what the shooters are saying is easily dealt with when you considering what each are measuring. In most cases the testers are looking exclusively at image noise while the shooters are subjectively evaluating that holy grail we call image quality. Noise is definitely ONE thing that contributes to image quality, but so do a lot of other factors, including (but not limited to) dynamic range, tonal range, colour depth, tonal range retained in shadows and highlights, yada, yada, yada! I personally found that D4 very, very close to the D3s in image noise at high ISO's (virtually indistinguishable at most ISO's) but found the D4 decidely superior to the D3s in high ISO image quality. How does the D4 compare to the D4s image quality? From what I've seen, there's no comparison - the D4s beats the D4 hands down.

Here's a few quotes from emails from folks who've emailed me after scrutinizing D4 and D4s images (names were only used after receiving permission to do so) - and from some comments on online forums - who agree with the "better image quality with the D4s at high ISO's" argument:

In an email to me Francesco Penna (an IT Professional and Nikon shooter for over 3 decades) from Italy says: "Evidently Nikon engineers have focused on a "fine tuning" of the existing sensor to achieve an improvement in the perceoption of the image at high and very high ISO."

In an email to me Paul Wright (a professional Nikon-shooting press and freelance photographer) from Canada says: "Shot 4 days of National team selection for short-track speed-skating, two days of world fencing, and lots of cars at the speedway. So far like the D4s. Just over 15,000 shots on it. To my eye, D4s at ISO 10,000 looks same as the D4 at ISO 6400".

And on Photographylife.com (link to thread below) DMT (a professional Nikon shooter) says in response to a discussion between Nasim Mansurov and myself about the D4 and D4s high ISO shots: "I must concur with Brad, and add that in real world professional jobs over the past two weeks that the D4S shows at least a 2/3 stop advantage at what I consider medium ISO (3200-8000) and about a full stop at 8000-51,200. It's not just the noise but the clarity, detail in the blacks, color, white balance and overall look of the image (this all 14-bit NEF I'm shooting). The problem with pixel peeping is that is misses the overall impact of the image and the multiple different things that add up to increased image quality. The D4S *does* have better IQ at higher ISOs, but that's only part of the story. The really big thing is the AF, which is simply stunning, along with over a dozen detail changes to the camera's operation that really add up to a significant upgrade."

Note to DMT: I don't have your full name - if you want it published or want a link to appropriate spot on your website/blog please contact me.

For those who haven't seen it, you'll find an interesting, balanced, back-and-forth discussion on the "D4 vs. D4s at high ISO's" and "noise vs. image quality" on photographylife.com. My sincere thanks to Nasim Mansurov for hosting, moderating and participating in this discussion - he was both very fair and very open-minded. The article (and make a point of reading the comment section following it) can be found right here:

http://photographylife.com/nikon-d4s-vs-d4-high-iso-comparison

The Remaining Disconnect - Image Noise and the D4s: One disconnect remains - why do my tests show a consistent 2/3 to a full stop advantage in NOISE for the D4s over the D4 while some other tests (Dxomark.com, Nasim's test on photographylife.com, etc.) show 1/3 stop or LESS difference? I can't say for sure. Perhaps it's possible it's related to between-camera (i.e., quality control) differences in the D4's we used (though I really doubt this). Perhaps it's related to different testing protocols and my inclusion of more zones of focus (the differences between the cameras in noise were most noticeable in the out-of-focus zones and least noticeable in the in-focus zones).

Finally, a few more 5-digit ISO D4s shots for your perusal (all tech notes are on the images):

Dark-eyed Junco at ISO 14,400: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.3 MB)

Red Squirrel at ISO 32,254: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

19 March 2014: The Nikon D4s - Installment 3: Just Shootin' at ISO 22800

In my previous blog entry I mentioned I would be soon posting some high ISO shots taken with the D4s after a little more post-processing work was performed on them (and, specifically, with some strategic noise reduction performed on them). Here's the first such image - shot at ISO 22800:

Clark's Nutcracker @ ISO 22800 Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)

A few notes about the shot:

1. What's with the whacky camera settings? Yep, shooting images of a songbird at 1/2500s @ f16 is a bit odd - but it was the only way to get into the ISO stratosphere. Hey - it's a test shot.

2. Things to notice on the shot: Sure, there is a little noise in the shot (remember it's ISO 22800). But what's worth looking closely at is how the sensor picked up and recorded the subtle dark-on-black, light-on-white, and gray-on-gray tone and hue shifts on the bird. I've photographed these birds a lot of times (including at real low ISO's) and it's ALWAYS hard to show how the light gray on the cheek gradually "blends" with the nearly pure white eye-ring on this species. In my view, picking up this sort of detail at ISO 22800 is pretty mind-boggling.

3. Image Processing. This image was processed from raw using Adobe Camera Raw 8.4 (release candidate). Expect to see much cleaner and more vibrant results when I start posting images that were processed using Capture One Pro (i.e., as soon as they add support for the D4s).

A final comment. I've been receiving quite a few emails from D4s owners who are extremely pleased with the results they are getting when shooting it in the field (as opposed to shooting test targets and patterns with it). In an email that rolled in just a few minutes back one D4s owner stated he thought I was being perhaps too conservative in my evaluation of the ISO performance of the D4s (he may be right!). He also said:

"I just can't figure out why these improvements (in the D4s) aren't showing up as dramatically on sites that take pictures of test patterns and test rigs."

I'm with you. And, I suspect that in teasing apart and independently measuring image noise, tonal range, and colour depth in isolation misses something that our eyes instantly pick up on - that these variables (and several more) interact to produce that nebulous characteristic we call image "quality". Either that or Dxomark.com and Dpreview.com are just measuring the wrong things!

Cheers...

Brad

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17 March 2014: The Nikon D4s - Installment 2: Nikon D4 vs. D4s - ISO Performance and Noise

Most serious users of professional DSLR's know that as they crank the ISO of a camera up image "quality" decreases. Part of the decrease in image quality with increasing ISO - and the part that many photographers think of first - is associated with increasing noise (both colour noise and luminosity noise). But, other factors also contribute to the observation that image quality decreases with increasing ISO - as ISO increases you also see a decrease in dynamic range, tonal range, and colour depth, all of which impact on how we perceive the "quality" of an image.

The only theoretically objective standard that's readily available to compare the ISO performance of the image sensors of a wide variety of cameras is that of Dxomark.com. When all of Nikon's top cameras had the same resolution (of 12 MP) I found Dxomark.com's published values (and especially those for ISO performance) useful. However once Nikon started moving the resolution of their cameras up (to a current maximum of 36 MP on the D800/D800e) I started to become very puzzled by their results. Anyone who actually shot a D800 or a D600 in the field knew that those cameras were GREAT in ISO performance for 36 and 24 MP cameras (respectively), but that they weren't even close to matching the ISO performance of the D4. Yet if you examined the "Low-Light ISO" performance values awarded by Dxomark.com, both the D800/800e and the D600 actually scored higher than the D4!

Huh - they're claiming that the D800 has better high-ISO performance than the D4? Ludicrous (! How can this be explained? Well...if you dig into the "fine print" of how Dxomark.com does their testing, you'll find that to "normalize" resolution across cameras, they reduce resolution DOWN to a common standard (that's around 8.4 MP) before measuring noise. Of course, that means you reduce the resolution of a D600 MORE before testing for noise than you do a D4, and with the D800 the amount of resolution reduction (compared to the amount you reduce the resolution of a D4) is even greater again! And, of course, reducing resolution of an image functionally reduces the amount of visible noise in an image - and the MORE you reduce the resolution the MORE noise reduction you do! So you're differentially reducing the variable you're examining before you measure it!

With this "normalization for resolution" in mind, here's how you should read the ISO performance of Nikon's full-frame cameras as measured by Dxomark.com:

Nikon D4: IF you reduce the resolution of the 16.2 MP D4 to 8.4 MP, THEN it's ISO performance value is 2965.

Nikon D600: IF you reduce the resolution of the 24 MP D600 to 8.4 MP, THEN it's ISO performance value is 2980.

Nikon D800: IF you reduce the resolution of the 36 MP D800 to 8.4 MP, THEN it's ISO performance value is 2979.

What's all this mean? Basically that Dxomark.com's scores are valid if you're always going to use 8.4 MP images. But, they say pretty much nothing about the noise characteristics of any camera at FULL resolution (and perhaps I'm odd, but I buy cameras intending to use all the pixels they produce).

Flash forward to March 13, 2014. I take my D4s out and shoot action shots of my dogs running in very low light conditions using pretty crazy ISO's (see 13 March 2014 blog entry below). I'm incredibly impressed with the results and guess that I'm seeing about a one stop improvement in ISO performance over my D4 (based on a lot of experience shooting the D4 in low light).

Now flash forward to March 14, 2014. I wander onto Dxomark.com's website and see they have a written review of the D4s where they state (in the section entitled "Nikon D4s Versus D4"):

"The Nikon D4s can boast of a +1/2 stop improvement over the earlier model, and there's a marginal improvement in low-light performance up from ISO 2965 to 3074, not that you'd notice in real word use."

Being on the anal side, I decided to find out what Dxomark.com says about their scoring differences in ISO performance and found this statement:

"A difference in low-light ISO of 25% represents 1/3 EV and is only slightly noticeable."

So...with a score of 3074 for the D4s and 2965 for the D4, the difference in scores is only 3.6% - so the two cameras should differ by only about 1/20 of a stop. So where did their comment of the 1/2 stop gain in performance come from? I'm confused. And...why did I perceive a big (albeit subjective) difference in ISO performance between the D4s and the D4 while Dxomark.com was claiming the difference in ISO performance of the two cameras wouldn't be noticeable?

What I Did: And, I think you know where this is heading. Yep, time to do my own testing and compare and scrutinize FULL resolution versions of a series of shots captured at various ISO's with both my D4 and D4s. So - I set a high-quality lens up on a tripod and photographed a scene with some in-focus elements, some moderately out-of-focus elements and some completely out-of-focus elements and shot away at ISO's from 100 to ISO 40637. I then processed the raw files using Adobe Camera Raw 8.4 with ALL noise reduction (and sharpening) turned off. And then I spent a bunch of time scrutinizing the resulting full resolution files at 100%. Please note that in this entry (and with these images) I was examining NOISE only (not dynamic range, not tonal depth, not colour depth, and not how well shadow and highlight was retained in the images) - and I used the most important visual tool available - how the images actually LOOKED!

What I found: The results are simple to explain:

Up to ISO 800: No visual difference in noise between D4 and D4s images when viewing the image at 100% (at 300% magnification the D4s images were very slightly "cleaner" at ISO 800, but the difference was INCREDIBLY small).

ISO 1000 and ISO 1250: At MOST 1/3 of a stop "cleaner" images with the D4s. In other words, almost indistinguishable images (in terms of noise).

ISO 1600 through ISO 12800: D4s images noticeably less noisy than D4 images. At each ISO tested (1/3 stop increments were tested) the D4s images that compared to the D4 images in visible noise were invariably 2/3 of a stop higher. So, for example, the amount of noise visible in an ISO 6400 shot taken with the D4 was pretty much the same as an ISO 10000 shot with the D4s (see examples below).

ISO 12800 through ISO 25600: Difference in visible noise between D4 and D4s images now up to one full stop.

Sample images: Selected sample results for your scrutiny (full res crops from the middle of each shot). All technical info included on the images files...

D4 vs D4s @ IS0 800: Download comparison images (JPEG: 485 KB)

D4 vs D4s @ IS0 1600: Download comparison images (JPEG: 888 KB)

D4 vs D4s @ IS0 3200: Download comparison images (JPEG: 959 KB)

D4 vs D4s @ IS0 6400: Download comparison images (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

D4 vs D4s @ IS0 12800: Download comparison images (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

For those who are thinking "boy, those are noisy images..." - keep in mind there was NO noise reduction at any point in the workflow of these images AND that they are full resolution crops. So...NO noise reduction during raw processing, NO noise reduction in Photoshop, and NO noise-reduction via any plug-in. Add a little noise reduction and/or reduce the images in resolution and they begin to look a LOT cleaner fast. For instance, here's an image at ISO 40637 with just a LITTLE noise reduction and then reduced to 2400 pixels in width:

D4s @ IS0 40637: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

Once Capture One Pro is updated to include raw support for the D4s expect to see many more VERY clean high ISO shots from the D4s.

Two final comments. First, this entry deals ONLY with how visible image noise varies with ISO. As discussed in my preamble, because several variables change with increasing ISO (noise, dynamic range, tonal range, colour depth) and because all of these variables impact on how we subjectively perceive image "quality", it's possible that individual users will "see" slightly more (or slightly less) than a 2/3 stop of an overall improvement in ISO performance of the D4s over the D4 when they shoot it in the real world. Based on the first 1,000 or so images I've shot with the D4s I'm already thinking I will be comfortable boosting my maximum ISO (for any given scene) by one full stop when using my D4s.

Second, between my own findings and the absolutely abysmal results of some top Canon camera sensors by Dxomark.com (when I KNOW that those cameras - specifically the 5D MkIII and 1D-x - produce EXCELLENT results) I'm really beginning to wonder about the value of what Dxomark.com is doing. I'm not claiming they are biased towards Nikon (or away from Canon), but rather question if what they're measuring has any real significance to image quality or how our cameras perform in the field.

Cheers...

Brad

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13 March 2014: The Nikon D4s - Installment 1: Hands-on and Some Initial "Play" Shooting

I picked up my D4s last Sunday on my return trip home from my Owls of Manitoba photo tour. And - thanks to a series of avalanches on the Trans Canada Highway that forced me to sit in my car for 4 hours - I had some unexpected free time to study the manual and set my camera up exactly to my liking. Actually, I had SO much time on my hands I was able to literally memorize the manual! But that's another story. Here's a few random "first-thoughts" on the new camera...

1. Ergonomics? For all intents and purposes there is virtually no significant ergonomic difference between the D4 and D4s. Given that for the foreseeable future I will be shooting these cameras almost interchangeably, I think that's a good thing. Yes, the "sub-selector" and "vertical multi-selector" toggle buttons (which are the primary means by which many or most use to move the AF brackets around the viewfinder) on the D4s have a new "knurled" surface and yes, the tiny rubber ramp you rest your thumb on when shooting vertically is shaped very slightly different between the two cameras (and, that ramp does make a bit of difference - the D4s IS more comfortable to hold vertically). But for all intents and purposes EXTERNALLY the D4 and the D4s are the same camera.

2. Menu Items and Set-up? When you have four or five hours on your hands to set-up the D4s with a D4 available for comparison you begin to notice a few differences in the menu items and set-up options on the cameras. As an example, if you use Matrix Metering you'll find there's now the option to (custom setting b5) to have "face detection" on or off. If you happen to be captive in your car and have the time and curiosity to check out what this option does, you'll find that if you consult the manual it tells you that if you toggle it on then it's on, and if you toggle it off, it's off (geez, thanks for that great info - I would have never guessed that!). Fortunately, the screen tips on the camera tells you a little more - i.e., that if toggled on then exposure decisions made by the camera give priority to any faces it detects in the viewfinder. Hmmm. I opted to turn it on (seems like it couldn't hurt). Expect my final review of the camera to include a section describing its effectiveness in detecting bear faces vs. wolf faces vs. eagle faces vs. owl faces! Kidding.

Many of the other small changes in menu options are so small they're hardly worth mentioning. For instance, you can now assign the Preview button to display a grid in the viewfinder with a single push. I kinda like that. The only downside of some of these little additions is that if you like your D4s set up the same as your D4...well...you can't use the new features and maintain set-up parity. Little thing...but it can make a difference in the field.

3. What About Camera Performance? Ahhh - the critical question. Well...I haven't had time to do analytical comparisons of the key "improvements" in the camera (e.g., how the new Group AF function performs; the camera's reported "better" AF algorithms or systematic comparison of ISO performance vs. the D4 in real-world field conditions). But I did do something interesting yesterday - I took the camera out just as the sun was setting and tried shooting action shots under heavily shaded (think dark) conditions as well as after sunset. So I was simultaneously able to get a qualitative feel for how well the AF system worked and begin to understand the ISO performance of the camera. BTW - and my rant below about raw conversion software available for the camera from Nikon will say more about this - PART of the reason I'm not systematically comparing this camera to my D4, D800e or D600 is because I have virtually NO quality raw conversion software available to me at this time. Anyway...here's a little more about what I did:

• Set the camera to Auto ISO with a minimum shutter speed of 1/2000s and with a ISO "ceiling" of 25,600. This means the camera (despite being in Aperture Priority mode) will always "strive" to get to a shutter speed of 1/2000s and choose the ISO (up to ISO 25,600) needed to do so.

• Set the camera to Matrix metering (and I forced myself NOT to use any exposure compensation) - simply to get a gut feel for how it could do with my two black and white "action subjects" (my two Portuguese Water Dogs NOT named Bo) shot in shady and snowy conditions (scenes totally lacking neutral grey)

• Set the AF system to Continuous Servo and 51-point Dynamic Area AF

• Mounted my 400mm f2.8 VR lens on the D4s (with VR on and in Normal mode) and...

• Got my dogs running and having a great old time and...

• I let the camera just rip at 11 fps and do its thing!

What did I find? Well...not much - just mind-blowing performance! Check out these 4 shots. And please keep the following three caveats in mind: First, I converted these images from RAW using Adobe Camera Raw with NO luminosity noise reduction (I left the default value of 25 for Color Noise Reduction unchanged). There was very minor noise reduction during the final sharpening using Smart Sharpen in Photoshop CC (15% on the slider, which I use as my default when sharpening for online presentation of images). Second, I am absolutely certain that I would get even cleaner images if I processed them with my preferred raw converter (Phase One's Capture One Pro) but at this time the .nef files of the D4s aren't supported by Capture One. Third, keep in mind that these images have been reduced in size by about 50% (from just over 4900 pixels to 2400 pixels). I do this because not everyone has an uber-fast internet connection. Be aware that the full res images would show slightly more noise. Anyway...check the shots out - all critical annotations are on the images:

Jose in Mottled Lighting - D4s at ISO 7200: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

Jose in Full Shade - D4s at ISO 14400: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.3 MB)

Poncho in Full Shade - D4s at ISO 16000: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

Poncho Up Close - D4s at ISO 25600: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.3 MB)

At this point I can't quantify how much better the D4s is compared to the D4 (in either low-light AF performance or high ISO performance). I'm already very confident that in low light the AF system is more accurate, faster, and tracks subjects better - and the difference IS noticeable. Soon I hope to be able to quantify this a LITTLE better. In terms of high ISO performance - based on what I've already seen and on a lot of experience shooting in low-light (in the Great Bear Rainforest and other places) I think it's safe to say the D4s is one stop better than the D4 with respect to noise (and it may be MORE than one stop). How dynamic range, colour depth, and tonal range hold up at high ISO's on the D4s (and how that compares to the D4) is still unknown to me.

Even after shooting just 400 images I can say the D4s is a significant upgrade in performance over the D4. Would it be worth it for most D4 users to upgrade to the D4s? I can't answer that yet (and, of course, it will vary with the needs of the particular photographer).

Finally - how does the D4s stack up to the competition? The D4 was already state-of-the-art. I've shot side-by-side with many Canon 1DX owners (I always forget where the darned hyphen goes) and I recognize it is a very, very good camera. Some (probably all owners of it) would claim it is equal to the D4. That's likely true up to about ISO 6400 - but from what I've seen in the field first-hand, after that point the D4 pulls away a little. The D4s, however, is on a different playing field. This should make most 1D-X shooters rejoice - it means the 1-DX MK II will be WAY better than the 1DX-. And that the D5 will be better again. And so it goes on...

4. A RANT on Nikon's Raw Conversion Software. OK - I like Nikon cameras and I have a lot of money invested in Nikon gear. And, Nikon Canada treats me well. And, I'm not the complaining type. But, to ship a $7000 or so fully professional camera to users without offering them ANY intermediate-to-professional level raw conversion software is simply inexcusable. My D4s - and presumably ALL D4s's - ship with ViewNX 2. This software package offers, at best, introductory level raw conversion capabilities. The other option from Nikon? The beta version of Capture NX-D. I dutifully found the unsupported software online (of course it wasn't in the box - and there wasn't even a reference to it in the documentation that came with the camera). I downloaded it and installed it on my laptop. When I tried to open it (and I'm talking about a NEW MacPro laptop that has NEVER had any Nikon software installed on it) - I received an error message indicating my trial period was over and it instantly shut down. Repeatedly. When I installed it on my Mac Pro desktop computer it actually ran, but was slower than molasses in Winnipeg (pick any month), but then again I only have a desktop with a state-of-the-art processor and 64 GB of RAM. And, the features on NX-D (when they finally execute) are little better than those on ViewNX2! At present, neither Adobe Lightroom nor Phase One's Capture One Pro support the raw files of the D4s (and I certainly don't blame them). There IS a Release Candidate of Adobe Camera Raw (version 8.4) that supports the raw files and allows for raw conversion (thankfully). But Nikon's approach of selling someone a $7000 dollar camera and then functionally saying "sorry...you'll have to figure out what do with the files yourself" is completely unacceptable and totally unbelievable. C'mon Nikon - if you can't do it yourself, at least ensure your partners (like Adobe and Phase One) have the information and lead-time necessary to offer what you can't by the time the camera is released. Don't forget - it's about the USER and giving them what they need and have paid for!

More on the D4s coming soon - stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca



Blog Archive - not so fresh but still very readable and relevant...

2014 - The Whole Shebang
2013 - The Whole Shebang
2012 - Almost The Whole Shebang
2011 - The Whole Shebang
2009 - October to December2009 - July to September2009 - April to June
2009 - January to March 2008 - October to December 2008 - July to September
2008 - April to June 2008 - January to March 2007 - October to December
2007 - July to September 2007 - April to June 2007 - January to March