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...

22 June 2015: The Nikon D7200 Shutter Release Button - A Trivial Update to a Niggly Issue?

In my last blog entry discussing how various bits and pieces of new gear panned out during my Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen photo tours I made reference to a very niggly issue I experienced with the Nikon D7200's shutter release button. In short, I found that compared to the FX bodies I had with me the shutter release button had to be pushed MUCH further to trigger the shutter. To save anyone from scrolling down and hunting around for my comment, here's exactly what I said:

"Second, compared to both the FX bodies I had with me, the actual shutter release on the D7200 has to be pushed SO MUCH further to actuate the shutter. This is probably a non-issue to those shooting ONLY the D7200 (they'd quickly get used to it), but I don't know how many times I'd switch from my D4s or D750 to my D7200 and wonder why the shutter wasn't triggering when I pushed the shutter release ("Oh right, I have to crush this camera's shutter release down to take a picture"). Little thing? Not always."

Well, it appears that not all D7200's are alike (at least in this regard). David B from Australia emailed me with this comment:

"I have just purchased a 7200 after waiting some weeks for a shipment to arrive. I have found that the shutter is release is like a "hair trigger"...very easy to accidentally fire it. It would appear, as this shipment would of be a fairly recent manufacture date, that perhaps some modifications have been been to the shutter mechanisms sensitivity, although it feels that they may of gone to far the other way."

David may be on to something with his thoughts that Nikon has modified the shutter release mechanism to make it more sensitive. Or, perhaps it's indicative of a bit of slop in quality control at the factory where the D7200s are produced. Either way, I think for most users this would be quite a trivial issue and certainly not something that should impact too strongly (if at all) on one's decision to purchase the camera.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

16 June 2015: Khutzeymateen Postscript ...and Gear Musings

Regular followers of this blog will know that I recently returned from leading back-to-back photo tours in the remote Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary on the northern British Columbia coast. The Khutzeymateen is Canada's only dedicated grizzly sanctuary and is home to a large number of grizzlies, and many more pass through it. Over the 9 days I was in the sanctuary we encountered a minimum of 35 different bears - and it's anyone's guess how many more were lurking in the thick rainforest out of our view. During our trips we can access only a small portion of the full sanctuary (i.e., sections along the edges of the Khutzeymateen Inlet and in the tidal estuary at the head of the inlet). The entire region is roadless and can only be accessed by water or air.

The 2015 Khutzeymateen Scene...

The Khutzeymateen is found within a larger region of the central and northern BC coast that has become known as the Great Bear Rainforest. It's the largest intact tract of temperate rainforest left on earth and, like all rainforests, in most years it gets a whole lot of rain. Typically the spring season is drier, and during most of my Khutzeymateen photo tours we have mixed weather - some rain, some overcast, and a little sun. And that can often lead to beautiful foggy and moody scenes, and lighting conditions that most photographers just love. However, the weather during my two photo tours this year was off-the-charts abnormal - 9 straight days of blazing sun with only about a total of 30 minutes of light rain (over the entire time!). Super nice weather if your goal is to be comfortable while sitting in a Zodiac inflatable boat, but...wow...did it give us some lighting challenges!

But, contrasty mid-day lighting aside, the grizzlies this year were just great. And what was most amazing to me was that my two consecutive trips were SO different - as my first 5-day photo tour ended it was like someone just flipped a switch and totally changed the distribution and behaviour of the bears. Long story short, during my first tour we witnessed an incredible number of bear-bear interactions (and many things I have never seen before in my decade of visiting the Khutzeymateen). We had an incredible number of male-male interactions - everything from gentle "displacements" of one male by another through to male-male chases, and even one all-out "monster male vs. big male" serious (and incredibly intense) fight. We had female-female interactions, including even female-female chases as jealous mating females ran competitors off their "turf". And we had a lot of male-female interactions - including a lot of sightings of two-headed bears...you would almost have thought we were watching rabbits breeding at times (we even had multiple pairings on single beaches!). In short, during my first trip it was almost like we had bear-breeding chaos going on. It's interesting to note that the single dominant male that controlled the social order of the upper Khutzeymateen inlet for the past two decades or so was missing (if still alive he's now well over 30 years old) - and what we witnessed seemed just like a power struggle between competing males to fill the vacuum left by the absent dominant bear.

Then, come Day 6 and the beginning of my second tour, breeding behavior and most of the aggressive bear interactions just stopped. And many of the large (through to huge!) competing males just disappeared. Everything instantly calmed down and the more commonly seen "local" bears (including yearling and recently weaned cubs) made their presence known. And they gave us some great (but very different) bear experiences and photo ops.

Khutzeymateen Gear Talk!

During my time in the Khutzeymateen I continued with my real-world testing of many pieces of "newish" gear that have landed in my lap over the last few month. This includes the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom lens, the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR lens, the D7200, and a camera body I picked up a few weeks back and haven't said much about (publicly) yet - the D750. Here's a few words on how they performed...

Sigma Sport 150-600 Zoom

First, a quick caveat: One of the things I was hoping to determine during my time in the Khutzeymateen was just how well the Sigma Sport performed under low light conditions. I was reasonably confident it would be fine in low light when paired with a D4s (given how the ISO can be cranked up so high and still deliver), but I was hoping to get a first-hand feel for its real-world usability in low light wildlife photography when used with the D750 and the D7200 (which are bodies used by far more wildlife photographers than D4s's are). BUT...our endless sun during my Khutzeymateen 2015 photo tours scuttled those plans...

Anyway...as the trip wore on and I used the Sigma Sport 150-600 more and more (and spent my spare time assessing images shot with it), my confidence in its performance grew almost exponentially. In the Khutzeymateen we shoot primarily from a Zodiac inflatable boat, which necessitates hand-holding lenses (from a less-than-perfectly stable platform). But even given this I found I could capture extremely sharp shots at all focal lengths (on my FX bodies) while using only moderately high shutter speeds (i.e., at a shutter speed of 1/focal length of the lens or slightly slower).

In the Khutzeymateen (like with the majority of situations when one is photographing wildlife) we were not in complete control of photographer-to-subject distance, and the focal range of 150-600mm proved to be close to perfect for a tremendous number of the shots I wanted to capture during the trip (from extreme close-ups through to more distant "animalscape-type" scenes). In selected instances I DID preferentially turn to my 400mm f2.8E VR lens and captured images that I couldn't have duplicated with the Sigma lens. But the number of occasions when you're in the exact right position and distance-to-subject with a big prime lens compared to a wide focal range zoom can be very limited. When I tallied up the percentage of shots taken with each of the lenses I brought into the Khutzeymateen I was surprised by just how commonly I turned to the Sigma Sport lens - here's some numbers to chew on:

The Sigma Sport 150-600mm: Used for 57% of all shots taken
Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR: 28% of all shots (including when combined with teleconverters)
Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR: 8% of all shots
Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR: 4% of all shots
Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm VR: 2% of all shots
Nikkor 24-120mm f4 VR: 1% of all shots

Note that there's probably a bit of an upward bias of the percentage of time that I used the Sigma lens simply because I was still actively testing it (which means I was not always approaching EVERY shot with the attitude of maximizing the absolute quality I could extract from the scene as I would normally do). But, if it wasn't working extremely well for me I wouldn't have kept shooting with it (and never would have INCREASED the amount I shot with it during the trip, which is something else I observed happening over the course of my time in the Khutzeymateen). Note also that the fact that I used the AF-S 80-400mm VR for 2% of my shots shouldn't imply to anyone I have lost faith in that lens - my lack of use of it was simply because I had a competing lens along (the Sigma 150-600mm) and preferentially shot with the Sigma. If I had NOT brought the Sigma along I would have used the 80-400 dramatically more.

Here's a couple of examples of the type of output I was getting out of the Sigma Sport 150-600mm lens during the trip - one at the short end of the focal range, one at the long end of the focal range:

Putting the Bite On (185mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)

Rinse off those paws...(600mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)

A Final Important Caveat About the Sigma Sport 150-600mm Lens: I have received a number of email from folks who have purchased the Sigma Sport 150-600mm lens because of positive comments I have made about it on this website. Most have been very happy with their purchase. However, a few have returned the lens because it was far larger and/or heavier than they expected. This may be partially my fault because I have not dwelled on the size and weight of the lens. The reason for this is that I come from a perspective of someone who owns some very large and very heavy Nikkor super-telephotos, including the VERY big and hefty Nikkor 600mm f4 VR. Which means - to me AND in a relative sense - the Sigma Sport 150-600mm lens looks and feels like a mid-sized lens (a flyweight!). However, if the largest lens someone has ever owned BEFORE buying the Sigma Sport 150-600mm lens is a 70-200mm f2.8 zoom, then it is likely the Sigma lens will seem like a veritable tank! My recommendation: Either get your hands on one BEFORE you buy (actually see it and lift it up!) or - if that's not practical or possible - ensure you buy it from a source with a liberal returns policy.

Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR

Prior to leaving for the Khutzeymateen I made no secret about how much I loved the new (and diminutive) 300mm f4 PF VR lens. My reasons for this were its small size and light weight, optical quality (chasing the legendary 300mm f2.8 VR in absolute sharpness and not too far behind on bokeh either!), and excellent AF and VR systems (assuming you get one without the well-known VR problem!). So...why did I use it for only 4% of the shots I captured in the Khutzeymateen? Simply put, the Khutzeymateen is a place tailor-made for medium-to-long telephoto zooms (think Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm VR or Canon's excellent new version of the 100-400mm zoom or the Sigma Sport 150-600mm). When I was in the "perfect" range for a 300mm lens and had time to switch lenses, the 300mm delivered as I have already come to expect - exceptionally well!

And, one of my guests on the trip (hey Joan from Texas - hope you don't mind!) had a number of lenses to shoot with on the trip, including the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm, the 400mm f2.8E VR, and others - but invariably when I looked at what was in her hands it was a D4s with a 300mm f4 PF VR paired with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter. When I asked her why she was shooting this combination so much she said "Why it's just so darned light and easy to use I LOVE it!".

Here's one example of the kind of output I got out of the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR when I did turn to it:

At Ease: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.9 MB)

Nikon D7200 DSLR

I purchased the Nikon D7200 a few months back to complement my D4s and for the additional reach it offered me (or, if you will, the extra pixels that would be added to subjects when shot from the same location I'd normally shoot my D4s from). I did NOT buy it as an action camera or as a low-light camera - no rational photographer would think it would measure up to a D4s for action or low-light shooting.

So - how did the D7200 perform in the Khutzeymateen (and don't forget that the 2015 edition of the trip was not a low-light trip)? MOSTLY as expected - which means I was MOSTLY happy with it. The reality is that given the proximity of the bears and the fact that I was using the Sigma 150-600mm so much, during this year's Khutzeymateen trips I had LITTLE need for the reach "extension" of the D7200 (and thus rarely needed to turn to it). Only 6% of my shots during the trip were taken with the D7200. But when I DID turn to it, the camera absolutely met my expectations.

Here's two examples of the type of output I obtained in the Khutzeymateen when using the D7200:

Down Time (D7200 with 400mm f2.8E VR - 600mm EFL): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)

Savannah! (D7200; 300mm PF VR; TC-14EIII - 630mm EFL): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)

Note that the image immediately above of the Savannah Sparrow was taken with a camera/lens combination (D7200 DX body, 300mm lens, 1.4x TC) that delivers an EFL of 630mm and can produce very high quality output - all in an incredibly small and light overall "package" that's very easily hand-held. Wildlife and bird photographers who must hike in to shooting locations or simply don't like the inconvenience and challenge of working with the big super-telephotos SHOULD take note of this!

Careful readers (and maybe some that aren't so careful!) will have noticed that immediately above I said that the D7200 performed MOSTLY as expected (as opposed to EXACTLY as expected). What was the problem? One combination I had HOPED that would work well in the field was the pairing of the D7200 with the Sigma Sport 150-600 at longer focal lengths - in the 500mm (750mm EFL with 1.5x crop factor) to 600mm (900mm EFL). But, although the D7200 seems to pair well with the Sigma lens at shorter focal lengths (around 400mm or less) - my results with focal lengths of about 450mm+ were substandard - images that were simply quite soft (even with a pretty major bump in shutter speed). And they didn't come CLOSE to comparing in sharpness or overall image quality to the images shot on either of my FX bodies (D4s or D750) with my 400mm f2.8E VR with the 2x TC-20EIII teleconverter (so a focal length of 800mm).

Why didn't the D7200 plus Sigma 150-600 (at 500-600mm focal length - so 750-900mm EFL) not work out well? I'm not sure yet (and from the images captured during the trip with this combination I can't really tease potentially competing variables apart). It COULD be something as simple as focus-tuning. Or, because I needed a fair amount of shutter speed to hand-hold this camera-lens combination I needed to crank up the ISO of the D7200 into a range that is a little beyond where I feel comfortable taking that camera (it's rare that I can capture an image I'm happy with above about ISO 2000-2200 on the D7200) and luminosity noise starts impacting on image sharpness and overall image quality. In the near future I'll be doing some additional testing to tease apart the possible reasons why I didn't get the results I had hoped with the D7200 plus Sigma lens (and hopefully find a way to overcome the limitations of this combination). Stay tuned.

I noticed two other "niggly" issues with the D7200 during my Khutzeymateen trip. First, while I very much like the coverage of the viewfinder that the focus brackets extend out to (i.e., much further to each side than with Nikon's FX bodies), I found that the focus brackets themselves were simply too large for my liking in the viewfinder. On more than one occasion this meant I couldn't focus precisely enough using the AF system to get a shot I wanted (e.g., between/through a small gap between foreground grass blades onto the eye of a bear) and was forced to try use manual focus (and these were situations where I know I could have used the AF with either my D750 or D4s).

Second, compared to both the FX bodies I had with me, the actual shutter release on the D7200 has to be pushed SO MUCH further to actuate the shutter. This is probably a non-issue to those shooting ONLY the D7200 (they'd quickly get used to it), but I don't know how many times I'd switch from my D4s or D750 to my D7200 and wonder why the shutter wasn't triggering when I pushed the shutter release ("Oh right, I have to crush this camera's shutter release down to take a picture"). Little thing? Not always.

Even with owning and experiencing a D7200 I still see a large market (dare I say "need"?) for a higher end DX DSLR body from Nikon. The D7200 CAN be used to complement a D4s or D750 quite effectively, but I can't recommend it as one's SOLE camera for those who are serious about their wildlife photography. I would still snap up a pro- or semi-pro level DX camera (D400? D500?) in an instant if Nikon offered it. But...as I've said for the last three years...I'm not holding my breath for that one (but I REALLY hope I'm wrong).

Nikon D750 DSLR

My D750 arrived so recently that I intentionally avoided saying too much about it here on my blog (and my thoughts about its performance) before my Khutzeymateen trip. I still own a Nikon D600 and - truth be told - always liked it VERY much...better than expected ISO performance, great sensor with excellent dynamic range, sufficient resolution for most types of shooting, OK autofocus, etc. The D750 - wow - everything the D600 does and so much more (and WHAT an AF system!). I love this camera. In fact, I don't mind going on record with saying that if I could only have ONE camera it would be a D750. It does so much so well (and almost nothing in a "substandard" way). As a wildlife photographer I would like a slightly faster frame rate and a larger burst size, but the reality was I rarely felt limited by either of those factors in the Khutzeymateen, even when I was shooting action. By the end of my two Khutzeymateen photo tours I found I ended up shooting my D750 more than any other camera I had with me - I used it for a full 48% of my shooting (though my D4s wasn't far behind at 46% of my shooting).

I'll be saying lots more about my impressions of the D750 in the coming days...so for now I'll just show a few representative shots captured with that camera during the trip:

Khutzeymateen Dawn (D750 with 70-200mm f4 VR @ 155mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 0.8 MB)

The Contender (D750; 400mm f2.8E VR; TC-20EIII - 800mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.9 MB)

One final comment for the gear-heads (like me!) - you'll find many more comments about my experiences with various bits and pieces of gear during my 2015 Khutzeymateen tours if you read the commentaries associated with the most recent - and soon coming - image posts in my "Gallery of Latest Additions"...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

10 June 2015: Back from the Khutzeymateen!

I've been getting a pile of "Where the heck are you?" emails - so I guess it's time for a quick update!

I AM back from leading back-to-back photo tours in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary. And I've been real busy with the normal post-trip logistics (including cleaning my camera gear, etc.). Of course, I have thousands of images to cull through...and many to post-process. I have already begun posting images from the trip in my popular "Gallery of Latest Additions" - check 'em out if you have a chance.

In the near future (hopefully tomorrow) I'll post a summary of how the new gear I've been testing (such as the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom, the Nikon D7200, etc.) performed during my time in the Khutzeymateen.

Cheers...and more soon...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

21 May 2015: What's Coming: Absence, Then Updates...

COMING ABSENCE: At daybreak tomorrow I leave to lead my annual Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Photo Tours (info on all my photo tours right here). I'll be away until about June 5. Given the Khutzeymateen is completely off the grid on the northern BC coast, there will be no updates to this blog or website until shortly after June 5.

COMING WEB UPDATES: I've completed all the systematic testing of all the new gear in my possession, including the lenses that make up the "Long Lens Wars" series (which includes head-to-head testing of the Tamron and Sigma 150-600mm zooms, the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm, and selected Nikkor primes that overlap the zooms in focal length), the Nikkor AF-S 300mm f4 PF VR, and the Nikon D7200. And, I will be taking several of these products (pretty much all except the Tamron 150-600mm zoom which failed to earn a spot in my wildlife kit) into the Khutzeymateen for a couple of weeks of shooting under demanding conditions. Shooting under controlled test conditions is one thing, performing under tough field conditions is another. And, by the time I'm back from the Khutzeymateen I'm sure I will have a comprehensive view of how the Sigma Sport lens, the 300mm f4 PF VR, and the D7200 really measure up! So expect some interesting info (and a lot of images to peruse) when I return!

At this point I CAN say that the D7200 is matching my expectations pretty much EXACTLY. It's a competent DX body that complements my D4s (and other cameras, like my D750 and D800e) very well. It's not a stellar low light performer and to date I have been "capping out" pushing its ISO much beyond 1600. And, it's frame rate and burst size CAN be limiting at times. But...it is doing exactly what I expected - giving me the extra reach (and pixel density) I need in some situations. And it's more than capable of producing stellar images (what a great image sensor overall!).

With respect to the lenses I've been testing - I'm comfortable saying the following now (I realize a lot of folks are waiting for detailed image-quality test results that could be important factors in their coming purchase decisions). And, I can honestly say I'm downright excited at the prospect of using both of these lenses on my Khutzeymateen trip:

The Sigma Sport 150-600mm: My testing of this lens - and in particular head-to-head comparisons of its image quality compared to Nikkor zooms and top-end primes at overlapping focal lengths - has REALLY opened my eyes. Simply put, the Sigma Sport 150-600 has far exceeded my expectations in all regards. While not quite as sharp as the top Nikkor primes, it's not far off! And - it has optically out-performed (considering both sharpness and quality of out-of-focus zones) the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm VR! Similarly, its AF performance has been MUCH better than I expected - not quite as impressive as the big Nikkor primes, but absolutely on par with the AF-S 80-400mm VR. Given the price, size (not svelte or tiny, but a runt compared to the Nikkor 600mm f4 VR) and performance, this is simply an amazing package.

The Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR: I had been waiting for a replacement to the "old" Nikkor 300mm f4 VR for a number of years. I had expected improved optics and a good VR system. I hadn't expected the lens to be smaller than "compact" Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR or lighter than the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 zoom. And, I thought my hope that the lens could go pretty much head-to-head optically with the legendary 300mm f2.8 VRII was probably a bit unreasonable. Well - it wasn't - the difference in optical quality between the two 300mm lenses is incredibly small (detailed results to be presented after I return from my photo tours) and limited mostly to miniscule differences in quality of the out-of-focus zones at close subject distances. For years I have been looking for a compact walk-around lens that I could use on daily walks in the woods that could produce top-notch images when called upon to do so. And that's exactly what I'm getting with the 300mm f4 PF VR (even when I throw TC's on it!). For my needs - it's not an exaggeration to call this a "transformational" lens (really - I just LOVE this lens).

Much of what I'm saying about the two lenses above has come from detailed scrutiny of the image quality of thousands of images that I haven't reported in detail yet on this website. I'll provide these details (plus more info and images from my photo tour) when I return from my photo tours...

In the meantime - here's wishing you all good light and cooperative subjects while I'm away "playing" with a few griz and treating 12 lucky folks to the experience of their lives! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

20 May 2015: VR Tip: The Nikkor 300mm f4 PF On a FIRM Tripod...

In the manual that accompanies the new Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR lens it is ambiguous what VR setting (On, Off, or what Mode) the lens should be set to when shooting from a tripod. The manual indicates that the mode that should be used when on a tripod varies with the shooting conditions, yet offers no insight into what shooting conditions each VR mode is suitable for.

In a May 11th blog entry (below) I stated that the Sport VR mode seems to work very well when the tripod head is left loose and free to pivot (which is a practice that is common among wildlife shooters). Subsequent testing has confirmed this finding.

But what VR mode should be used when all tripod-head adjusting knobs are tightened right down on a firm tripod? I tested this using short (5 meter), moderate (25 meter) and long (> 1km) distance subjects - all to the same results. In short, the sharpest images were obtained with the VR turned OFF. I did find that at shutter speeds of 1/250s or shorter (faster) the VR mode seemed to have no impact on image quality, but at longer shutter speeds - notably in the 1/180s to 1/20s range - use of the VR (in either mode) produces less sharp ("softer") images. Interestingly, this is the same shutter speed range where many copies of the 300mm f4 PF have exhibited VR problems when the lens is shot hand-held. Note that I have extensively tested the VR on my copy of the lens and it works perfectly ("as advertised") when hand-held at all shutter speeds.

During this testing I took advantage of the situation and simultaneously tested the VR function (and image quality) of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII in a head-to-head fashion. Interestingly, I found both "VR OFF" and "VR ON - Normal" both worked fine (produced sharp images) when "bolted down" on a firm tripod (exactly as its manual indicates). I didn't test "VR ON - Active" mode with the 300mm f2.8 VRII firmly locked down on a tripod (as I could think of no situation where anyone would ever have the need to do that in a real-world setting). I will comment soon on image quality comparisons of the two 300mm lenses (the new f4 PF version vs. the "legendary" f2.8 VR version).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

19 May 2015: VR Issue Persists on the Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR

Way back on April 16 I reported on Nikon's response (and "fix") on the VR problem exhibited by the new Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR and that was being widely reported online. Long story short, on several official Nikon websites (e.g., Nikon UK), Nikon acknowledged that some users were experiencing problems with the VR-mechanism on their new lenses and that it could be fixed with a firmware update. Note that Nikon indicated at that time that lenses with serial numbers of 205101 or higher had already been updated and would not show the problem. Here's what Nikon UK currently has on their website regarding the problem:

"We have confirmed that when the AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens is used with the D800, D800E or D810, images captured at shutter speeds of around 1/125 s with the VR function enabled (NORMAL or SPORT) sometimes exhibit noticeable blur. To reduce the occurrence of this, we will offer a service for updating your AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR firmware. When cameras other than the D800, D800E or D810 are used, this firmware update is not needed."

Anyway - yesterday I received an email from a long-time Nikon user who lives in Hawaii. He purchased a 300mm PF VR lens directly from Nikon USA after the VR problem was acknowledged and with a serial number HIGHER than the affected range. His email included sample photos taken with the lens (VR ON and VR OFF) that looked exactly like sample images I had previously seen where the known VR problem was present. Long story short, his lens is exhibiting the same VR problem, and on multiple cameras. Here's his exact quote:

"Though the problem with the VR is not astigmatism, the results look the same. Double lines in one plane (this case horizontal) as well as a loss of contrast. The problem of occurs consistently on the 300F4 (with or without the 1.4 tele) at shutter speeds of 1/80 to 1/160th. Worst camera is the D750 followed by the D800 and then the D7200."

So the problem is still out there, and does not appear to be limited to situations when the new 300mm f4 PF VR is used with a D800-series camera. I have no way of knowing how widespread the problem is, but I can say with full confidence that my copy of the 300mm f4 PF VR does NOT exhibit the problem - I have tested it extensively and the VR is performing exactly as it should.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

16 May 2015: The Continuing Fight AGAINST BC's Wolf Cull: The Billboard Campaign

Most of the regular visitors to this blog are aware of the fact that I'm active in the fight against British Columbia's current wolf cull. One of the main objectives of the anti-cull campaign is to alert the public that the cruel and inhumane (and ecologically nonsensical) cull is taking place. And to accomplish that we've initiated a billboard campaign.

Just yesterday Chris Genovali of the Raincoast Conservation published a backgrounder piece that explains our opposition to the wolf cull and provides additional detail about the billboard campaign. Here's the article:

B.C.'s Wolf Cull Is Unscientific, Unethical and Unwarranted

We're hoping to expand the billboard campaign across the province of BC, but we need to raise funds to do so. So...anyone interested in supporting this initiative should contact me at conservation@naturalart.ca and I will connect you with the right people.

Those interested in additional information about BC's Wolf Cull and why I am opposing it should view my 24 January blog entry (scroll down or follow this link).

Cheers (and thanks!)...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

14 May 2015: Invermere Presentation Tonight: BC's Current Wolf Cull

This evening I'm giving a presentation on BC's current wolf cull in the town of Invermere, British Columbia. Here are the gory details:

Title/Topic: BC's Wolf Cull: Where Science Meets Ethics & Politics
Location: Pynelogs Cultural Centre
Time: 7:00 PM (doors open at 6:30)
Admission Fee: Voluntary (by donation)

So...if you live in the vicinity...hope to see you there (you WILL come away as an EXPERT on this topic!)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

11 May 2015: Lens Testing - "Big Picture" Revelations and Out-of-Focus Zones...

Those who regularly follow this blog know I'm in the midst of testing a ton of new gear right now - the Nikon D7200, the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR, the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom lens, the Tamron 150-600mm zoom, and a few other things I haven't got around to posting anything about yet (rumor killer - I am NOT testing anything that Nikon has not yet announced or released).

When doing this testing I mix systematic and highly structured field tests with a lot of "just shooting" - and in the process I end up scrutinizing thousands of images (to the point where I go almost cross-eyed). In doing that, it can be easy to be looking for such niggly details and do so much pixel-peeping that you miss the big picture - you know...pretty much not seeing the forest for the trees.

But one thing has become crystal clear to me - when it comes to developing new lenses, the various manufacturers KNOW that most users (and most "pundits") are absolutely fixated on image sharpness (and, to a lesser degree, easily measured things like chromatic aberration). So...they've fixated their efforts on producing lenses that are optically sharp, especially at short-to-moderate subject-to-camera distances (e.g., about 5 meters to 25 or 30 meters). To their credit, both Sigma and Tamron have recently produced 150-600mm zooms lens (and Nikon has produced an 80-400 zoom lens) that are REALLY sharp at short-to-moderate distances.

Some examples? Sure - download and compare (at 100% magnification, or 1:1) the following two images I shot yesterday. The first was taken with what many (including me) believe is Nikon's TOP super-telephoto lens - the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR. The second was taken with the new(ish) Sigma Sport 150-600mm lens @ 400mm (with a slight zoom adjustment to account for focus breathing on the Sigma lens). Both were taken from the EXACT same place, using a tripod, and with identical settings for shutter speed and aperture (though a slight lighting difference meant the ISO varied slightly, but so little it is totally irrelevant). Note that in BOTH cases I stopped down to f11 - this was done solely for the same reason I would have done it when trying to create any image - to control the Depth of Field (DoF) and ensure that both the entire squirrel AND the portion of the stump it was perched on were in focus (a personal preference of mine is to avoid - in most situations - to avoid having multiple out-of-focus zones in a single shot).

Here's the images:

Red - With Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR @ f11: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

Red - With Sigma Sport @ 400mm @ f11: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

The bottom line? As seen on these 2400 pixel images (and they were processed identically) AND on the full resolution originals, there is functionally NO difference in image sharpness!

What? The Sigma Sport 150-600 @ 400mm is as sharp as the coveted 400m f2.8E VR? Yep, with close subjects and careful use it is. And it's awfully darned good at moderate distances (25-40 meters) as well. And the Sigma Sport is even pretty good at distant subjects too (you'd find the Tamron 150-600 in the same league at close distances too, but it falls off quicker in image quality as distance-to-subject increases). If I did this same test using very distant subjects you WOULD notice a difference in sharpness between the lenses, but I've NEVER found a lens as sharp as the 400mm f2.8E VR is at long distances.

But wait. Go back to those images above and look at the out-of-focus zones. And you'll see an easily noticeable difference - the good (and expensive) primes ALWAYS beat the zooms in the quality of the out-of-focus zones. But most lens reviews will pay only lip service to the out-of-focus zones with statements like "...the out-of-focus zones were soft and pleasing" (for almost every lens they report on). Note that these differences in the bokeh (i.e., the quality of the out-of-focus zones) is evident at EVERY aperture these lenses overlap on. And, of course, at 400mm the Sigma Sport has a maximum aperture of f6 and the Nikkor prime has an aperture of f2.8 and at wide apertures like that you can create otherworldly bokeh.

As an example - check out this image of a grizzly cub that I shot last spring using my 400mm f2.8G VR at f3.2:

Tentative - Grizzly Cub @ f3.2: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 0.75 MB)

Simply put you could NEVER capture an image with out-of-focus zones like that with the Sigma zoom. Some advanced Photoshop users could approximate the blur on the out-of-focus background with very careful image-editing, but it's my experience that convincingly pulling of bokeh-blurs is very tough to do successfully in post-processing. Note also that "apparent" (or perceived) image sharpness of your subject is often higher if the quality of the out-of-focus zone is better (simply because the visual contrast between the in-focus zones and the out-of-focus zones is more pronounced).

Similarly, back on May 6 (in my blog entry comparing the image quality at short distances of the new Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR to that of the legendary Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII) I commented on the fact that the out-focus-zones on the 300mm f4 PF VR weren't quite as pleasing as those of the f2.8 version of the lens (but they were still awfully good). My point is simple - image quality of a lens is about more than just image sharpness.

SO...should the quality of the out-of-focus zones matter to you? Now that's something I can't answer. If you look at the two squirrel images above and (pose of the squirrel aside) say "what's the big deal" - well...then maybe the bokeh doesn't matter to you. And that's OK - it means you could save a TON of money by getting the Sigma Sport zoom and NOT buying the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR! But...if you want out-of-focus zones like that seen on the grizzly cub image - well...there's NO free lunch - ya gotta pay.

These days image sharpness is getting cheaper, but bokeh still isn't.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Lenstests_bokeh

11 May 2015: VR Tips: Nikkor 300mm f4 PF & 400mm f2.8E Lenses

A week ago I posted a blog entry about my first impressions and the VR performance of my copy of the new Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR lens. In it I made a few observations about how the two VR modes (Normal and Sport) differed, with the Normal mode offering maximal reduction in vibration/shake and the Sport mode offering a lower HJ (herky-jerky) factor, meaning that in Sport mode the image as seen through the viewfinder "jumped around" less between successive exposures.

Since that time I've done a lot more testing with both the 300mm f4 PF VR and the 400mm f2.8E lenses. Much of the testing has been done with camera and lens mounted on a tripod with either a Wimberley or AcraTech Long Lens Head (which is a really good compact and lightweight "pseudo-gimbal" tripod head for use with super-telephotos - and particularly well-suited to those hiking with big lenses - info on it here...). Like many wildlife photographers, my tripod-based shooting is done with the head loose and free to pivot around. I've found that with the head loose I REALLY like how the Sport VR mode (on both lenses) performs. The actual vibration reduction is definitely sufficient to kill shake at "moderate" shutter speeds (think 1/60s to 1/250s) yet you get virtually no image-jumping between frames (that you CAN get if the VR is on Normal mode).

One other thing I've found during my testing pertains to Nikon's ambiguous answer (in their lens manual) to the question of whether or not the VR should be turned off when on a tripod (they gave an information-free "Yes, but no" style answer, and said it was dependent on the "shooting conditions" - and of course they didn't specify WHAT shooting conditions).

Anyway - here's what I've found with both lenses: I have been able to find virtually NO penalty to (or negatives associated with) leaving the VR on when shooting from a tripod EXCEPT when shooting at very slow shutter speeds, such as 1/10s AND SLOWER. At these speeds, and particularly when your VR is set to "Normal", the image can drift slightly during the exposure, thus softening the image significantly (think total mess). The same can happen when using Sport mode, but in most cases the softening of the image is less pronounced. At those kind of shutter speeds one should be shooting mirror-up and/or in Live View anyway (and with a cable release or other remote).

Cheers...

Brad

PS: I have now been shooting with the new 300mm f4 PF VR lens for just over a week. How am I feeling about it? You could NOT pry that thing out of my kit with the Jaws of Life. I am just loving this new lens - it is exceeding my expectations in every regard (optics when shot native, AF performance, performance with teleconverters, etc.).

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08 May 2015: Nikkor 300mm f4 Images Trickling into Gallery of Latest Additions...

I've begun adding images shot with the new Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR lens to my popular "Gallery of Latest Additions". Note that images appearing there (and in my other galleries) are normally available for viewing in various sizes (often including versions that are 2400 pixels in length on the long axis). And, there is always a LOT of additional information posted along with each image in my galleries - field notes, camera settings, post-processing information, and even conservation information and issues where appropriate. All this contextual information is accessed via clicking on the tabs immediately below the image.

The image I posted in my Latest Additions Gallery yesterday - a Tree Swallow captured at sunrise with a Nikon D750 and the Nikkor 300mm PF VR plus the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter - is attracting a lot of eyeballs. If you're curious about the "usability" of the new 300mm f4 PF VR with the 1.4x teleconverter check that image out...

Much more info on how the 300mm f4 PF VR fares with both the TC-14EIII and the TC-20EIII teleconverters coming soon.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

06 May 2015: The 300mm f4 PF VR: Image Quality With Close Subjects

In my May 4 entry I made some preliminary observations about the quality of the images captured using the new Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR lens. At that time I had only compared the lens to one other lens (the highly regarded Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII) and only at long camera-to-subject distances.

Today I'm reporting on some much more rigorous testing performed at close subject-to-camera distances - 5m (17'). This is the type of distance where one would commonly be working at when photographing small mammals or medium-to-large songbirds. At this distance (and with appropriate subject matter) one can assess both image sharpness AND the quality of the out-of-focus zones over a wide range of apertures. Note that I will use the term "bokeh" interchangeably with the phrase "quality of out-of-focus zones" - when I say an image has "good bokeh" it means that the out-of-focus zones are smooth and, with the best of lenses, almost "buttery" (and very visually appealing). Note that some lens characteristics - such as edge sharpness - are rarely important when working with close subjects such as birds and small mammals whereas they can be critical at longer distances (such as shooting a distant scene). So, I won't discuss (and can't even assess) how edge sharpness compares between the two 300mm primes with the results I'm reporting today (but will when I evaluate image quality at long distances in detail).

Note that I took advantage of good weather conditions yesterday and ended up comparing several different lenses at 300mm, including the 300mm f4 PF VR, the 300mm f2.8 VRII, the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm zoom, the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom, and the Tamron 150-600mm zoom. But today I'm going to report ONLY on the comparison of the two 300mm primes - the new f4 and the "old" standard-bearer, the f2.8 VRII. I will compare all 5 lenses in a future segment of my ongoing "Long Lens Wars" series.

1. RESULTS OVERVIEW:

For the impatient types - here's the quick and dirty take-home lesson: Image sharpness of the 300mm f4 PF VR and the 300mm f2.8 VRII was virtually identical at close subject-to-camera distances (over virtually ALL overlapping apertures) and with all camera bodies I tested (see below for details). Note that with EXTREME pixel-peeping on D800e images (and ONLY D800e images) I could discern exceptionally small sharpness differences when viewed at 100% on a computer monitor, with the 300mm f2.8 VRII being infinitesimally sharper (but simple image sharpening could fully negate the differences in an instant). Similarly, there were tiny differences in image contrast, with the 300mm f2.8 VRII showing a little more sharpness-enhancing contrast. But the contrast difference was so minor that almost no one would ever notice (and could be overcome in seconds during image processing).

But in my view, and for all intents and purposes (and for virtually any image use), the first take home lesson is this: the two lenses are in a virtual tie for sharpness at close distances.

Now...something to keep those who have spent thousands more for the f2.8 version of the lens happy (and it just might help keep the resale value of that lens steady!): there WAS an easily noticeable difference in the quality of the bokeh produced by the two lenses. This difference was consistent over ALL camera bodies and over ALL overlapping apertures (from wide open through to f16). In short, the bokeh of out-of-focus zones of the 300mm f2.8 VR (either version) is simply outstanding. As in EXCELLENT - smooth and buttery.

What about the bokeh of the 300mm f4 PF VR? It's only VERY GOOD to VERY, VERY GOOD! It's my view if that one didn't do head-to-head tests between these lenses, even critical photographers would look at the out-of-focus zones taken with either lens and think they were superb. But, put 300mm f4 PF VR images beside 300mm f2.8 VR images and you CAN see the differences in the bokeh (much more easily than you can see sharpness differences). While I'm spilling the beans a little on a future blog post, both of these prime lenses have much better bokeh than the 3 zooms I also tested them against.

So take home lesson #2 is this: there is a small but consistently noticeable difference in the quality of the out-of-focus zones between the two lenses, with the 300mm f2.8 VRII producing more visually-pleasing bokeh.

2. METHODOLOGY OVERVIEW: Now...for the detailed-oriented types...here's a little more detail about how I compared the lenses:

Cameras Used: I tested the two 300 primes using the following Nikon camera bodies - D800e, D4s, D750, and D7200. I was able to discern those slight differences in sharpness described above in ONLY the D800e images. Given the small pixel pitch of the D7200 image sensor I thought I might be able to see differences in sharpness with that camera as well, but I did not.

File Format: All images captured as 14-bit lossless compressed raw files.

Support System: All images captured from a firm Gitzo tripod (equipped with a Wimberley head)

D800e Capture Regime: D800e images captured using Live View, cable release, "hands-off" and with VR OFF and with the tripod firmly "locked down" (all adjusting knobs tight). All D800e images captured at ISO 100, with shutter speed "floating" as I adjusted aperture

D4s, D750, D7200 Capture Regime: D4s, D750, and D7200 images captured from tripod, but with head loosened slightly and with "proper" long lens technique - sequential series of images were captured with VR OFF, VR ON (Normal), and VR ON (Active or Sport, depending on the lens). All D4s, D750, and D7200 images captured using Auto ISO and a minimum shutter speed of 1/320s (so ISO floated as I adjusted apertures during each test).

Editorial Note: Why did I capture D800e images differently than with the other cameras? With the D800e images I wanted to search for image quality differences using the most disciplined approach possible, which should represent the "theoretical maximum sharpness difference" that could potentially be captured in the field. But, the reality in wildlife photography is that absolute discipline is rarely achievable in the field, and with the other cameras I wanted to see if under "best-practice-but-realistic-in-the-field" conditions those sharpness differences would be realized. Note that the series of captures run using different VR settings (and how the VR settings impacted on the images) will be reported in the near future.

3. "REPRESENTATIVE" SAMPLE IMAGES: This testing protocol produced over 500 sample images to scrutinize (way more if you include the ones shot with the 3 zooms), so there's NO hope I'm posting them all! But the following D800e samples show very well what I mean in terms of the observed differences between the lenses - i.e., the tiny sharpness differences (which were visible on D800e shots ONLY) and the consistent and noticeable bokeh differences:

A. Sharpness Comparison: Links to 1800-pixel crops taken from the central region of images shot with 300mm f4 PF VR and the 300mm f2.8 VRII. No resolution reduction, no image sharpening. Both shots at 100 ISO, f8, 1/250s. Note that I'm presenting these to show how similar the lenses were in sharpness (this is the MAXIMUM sharpness difference I could find!), but also pay attention to the bokeh in the immediate background (far side of the stump). Best to view images at 100% (1:1):

300mm f4 PF VR Sample Image: Download image (JPEG: 0.97 MB)
300mm f2.8 VRII Sample Image: Download image (JPEG: 0.94 MB)

B. Bokeh Comparison: Links to full-frame but resolution-reduced (to 2400 pixels horizontally) D800e images showing bokeh differences. Note that while these samples were shot at f8, there are a number of objects at DIFFERENT distances in the out-of-focus background which aids in the evaluation of the bokeh, including conifer trees in the upper left side (about 30 meters distant), a metal (bluish) yard lantern just to the right of the stump (about 50 meters distant), and the background slopes and trees in the upper right region (about 0.5 km to 2 km distant). Bokeh of both lenses is extremely good, but the image shot with the 300mm f2.8 VRII does have bokeh that is smoother with more subtle gradation between tones and hues:

300mm f4 PF VR @ f8 Sample Image: Download image (JPEG: 1.3 MB)
300mm f2.8 VRII @ f8 Sample Image: Download image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

What About Bokeh At Wider Apertures? Good question. At f4 (with both lenses) the background is obviously thrown MORE out of focus, but the bokeh of the 300mm f2.8 VRII is still noticeably superior. And, of course, you CAN still open up the f2.8 lens MORE and throw the background out of focus even more. So three more sample images, two at f4 (one with the 300mm f4 PF VR lens, and one with the 300mm f2.8 VRII) and one at f2.8 (with the 300mm f2.8 VR):

300mm f4 PF VR @ f4 Sample Image: Download image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)
300mm f2.8 VRII @ f4 Sample Image: Download image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
300mm f2.8 VRII @ f2.8 Sample Image: Download image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

4. DISCUSSION:

While one could use these results to argue for or against either lens (and how one sees the results will likely depend on whether the viewer owns - or has ordered - one lens or the otherl!), I'm personally amazed at the overall image quality at short subject distances I'm seeing the tiny 300mm f4 PF VR produce. I have no reason to expect to find major differences at longer camera-to-subject distances, but will be testing/comparing the lenses at several other distances. With each test I perform (and I have very good news coming on performance with teleconverters soon) I am more and more impressed with the 300mm f4 PF VR.

Next up, some comparisons of how much the 300mm f4 PF and the 300mm f2.8 VRII "like" teleconverters. Ah, what the heck - here's a teaser full-frame image shot with a D7200 and the 300mm f4 PF VR paired with the TC-14EII (1.4x) teleconverter - 1/320s, f8, hand-held, with VR on and in Normal mode (for an effective focal length of 630mm). View this one at 100% (1:1) to assess sharpness:

Red - D7200 & 300mm PF VR with TC-14EIII: Download 2400 pixel sample image (JPEG: 1.6 MB)

More as soon as I can...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#300mmPF_closeup

06 May 2015: Erratum: Oops...Make That The Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VR Version II!

On Monday I reported some results of field testing I had begun comparing the new Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR to the "old" Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VR super-telephoto lens. I erroneously referred to the f2.8 lens as being a version I vintage. To be clear, I was comparing the new 300mm f4 PF VR to the 300mm f2.8 VRII lens. I borrowed the f2.8 lens I'm using in the comparison from a friend and had erroneously assumed it was a Version I lens. Which makes the superior VR performance of the 300mm f4 PF VR lens even more impressive.

I have corrected my May 4 blog entry accordingly.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

04 May 2015: The Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR: First Impressions and VR Performance...

My Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR (more formally known as the AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4D PF ED VR) arrived last Friday. And it's EVERYTHING I had expected and hoped for - and a whole lot less. Meaning - less size, less weight. It's almost impossible to grasp how small and light this lens is (for a FX 300mm lens) until it's in your hands. The most meaningful comparison is to the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VR lens: the "shooting weight" (no lens caps, but with hood on) of the lens is ONLY 25.9% of that of the 300mm f2.8 VR. Or - reverse that if you want - the 300mm f2.8 VR weighs 3.87 times as much as the new 300mm f4 PF VR.

The hard numbers? Carrying weight (including lens caps and hood) for the 300mm f4 PF: 846 gm (1.87 lb). Carrying weight of the 300mm f2.8 VR: 3295 gm (7.26 lb). Shooting weight (hood but no lens caps) of the 300mm f4 PF VR: 814 gm (1.79 lb). Shooting weight of the 300mm f2.8 VR: 3140 gm (6.92 lb).

Length? It's not much longer than the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 zoom (only 1 cm - or 0.4 inches - longer), and it's 188 grams (6.6 oz) lighter than the 24-70! And, it's over 3 cm (more than an inch) shorter than the small Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR (and 74 gm - or 2.6 oz - lighter than the 70-200mm f4). Most users will be able to attach this lens to their Nikon DSLR, hang the combo around their neck, and walk around for hours. Pair it up with a DX format DSLR, and you haven't the most compact and lightweight 450mm (equivalent) lens on the planet!

And here's some answers (and please note several are preliminary...) to the inevitable questions:

1. VR Function: Is the VR mechanism functioning correctly on my copy of the lens? Yes. I tested the VR function on 3 different cameras - the D4s, D800e, and D7200 (and will test it with a D750 in the coming days) - and over shutter speeds from 1/10s through to 1/1000. The VR worked perfectly ("as advertised") using all cameras and at all shutter speeds.

2. VR Function: How Effective Is It? It's a really good VR - I consistently got tack sharp images hand-holding the lens down to 1/20s when in "Normal" mode, and to about 1/40s using Sport Mode. I compared the VR function on this lens to that on the 300mm f2.8 VRII and found that I could hand-hold the 300mm f4 PF VR (and capture sharp shots) down to about 1.5 stops slower than I could the 300mm f2.8 VRII (and with the VR turned OFF I can hand-hold the f2.8 lens at slower shutter speeds than I can the f4 version - which means it is MORE than 1.5 stops better than that on the 300mm f2.8 VRII). More on the "paradox" of the challenge of holding the super-light 300mm f4 VR with the VR off below).

3. VR Function: VR Normal vs. VR Sport? Just like with the 400mm f2.8E VR, there are TWO VR modes on the 300mm f4 PF VR - and they function identically to how they function on the 400mm f2.8E. The Normal mode offers the greatest amount of stabilization - and you can even see this through the viewfinder - the image is "rock solid" stable, whereas there is more "shake" visible when you're on VR Sport mode. And, I found that I could get sharp shots with shutter speeds about ONE stop slower on the Normal mode than I could the Sport mode.

So...what's the Sport mode actually do? It reduces what I think of as the HJ Factor (HJ = herky-jerky). With many of Nikon's earlier VR lenses, and with the 300mm f4 PF VR set to Normal mode, the image can shift quite dramatically between successive exposures in a burst. Through the viewfinder the successive images appear really herky-jerky (they jump around a fair amount) even if the camera doesn't move at all. This can be a real pain when trying to track a moving object or when panning (and note that according to the lens manual, either VR mode CAN be used for panning). However, switch to Sport mode and the HJ Factor goes almost to zero - there's very little jumping of the image between successive shots AND it's far easier to keep the subject framed exactly how you want when tracking or panning a moving object.

So...for maximum image stabilization when hand-holding the lens at crazy slow shutter speeds (1/10s to 1/20s) you definitely want to be in Normal mode. If identical composition is critical between frames or you want maximum effectiveness shooting moving subjects (and you're not down to super slow shutter speeds), use Sport mode.

What about tripod use - should you turn the VR OFF? According to the lens manual..."NORMAL and SPORT vibration reduction can reduce blur when the camera is mounted on a tripod. OFF may however produce better results is some cases depending on the type of tripod and on shooting conditions." So the answer is "yes, but no". Or maybe it's "no, but yes?" Uhhh...Nikon...maybe it would help if you specified WHAT shooting conditions or variables it depends on? But...don't worry, I'll figure this out and provide more clarity in a future blog post...

4. VR Function: Too Light to Hand-hold Without It? Ironically, I find it incredibly hard to get sharp results at moderate shutter speeds (think 1/100s to 1/250s) with the 300mm f4 PD VR IF THE VR IS TURNED OFF. In fact, I did a series of tests comparing the "hand-foldability" of the 300mm f4 PF VR with the 300mm f2.8 VRII with the VR turned OFF - and, almost paradoxically, found that I got much sharper results at slow shutters speeds (1/200s or slower) with the much heavier f2.8 version of the lens.

Why would this be so? I've long thought that lenses that are extremely light are harder to hand-hold than those with more mass. I think (note the word "think"...this is speculation) that it's analogous to trying to hold a light sponge absolutely still in your hand with your arm outstretched vs. doing the same thing with an object with a little more mass - if there's NO weight out there your hand bounces around, but if there's some mass, you can hold it much more still (because you have a force to work against). Of course, balance can play a role too - and I tend to shoot with big bodies (like a D4s or a semi-pro body with battery grip attached) that may not balance well with the light 300mm PF VR. I suppose I could conduct tests with battery grip on vs. with battery grip off to see if this is the case, but frankly that would be a waste of time - I WANT the battery grips on when I'm shooting (for the battery power, and for the vertical controls). All I want to know is what shutter speed I can hand-hold a specific lens at with camera bodies I actually use!

5. Autofocus Performance? I have done preliminary focus tracking tests (yes, the famous Jose-the-Mediocre-Dog-Who-Likes-Running-Directly-at-Me tests) and the AF system seems to be completely equivalent in AF speed and tracking ability to the 300mm f2.8 VRII. In other words, it seems excellent. I will be doing more testing on this in the near future - and if I find results contradictory to this statement (i.e., that the AF system is NOT on par with that of the 300mm f2.8 VRII) I will report it here. If you hear nothing more about this - assume the AF system is excellent.

6. Image Quality - General? Again, preliminary results ONLY. But...image quality is appearing to be absolutely excellent. At this point I've done comparison shots only against ONE other lens (the 300mm f2.8 VRII) and ONLY at long camera-to-subject distances (distances of approximately 1 km). But at this point I can say this - at long subject distances the central portion of the image captured with the 300mm f4 PF VR is on par with that of the 300mm f2.8 VRII (for this test I used a D800e that was tripod mounted and captured the images using Live View and a cable release). What about the edges?? Slightly sharper on the 300mm f4 PF VR. This parallels what I found when I compared the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII with the 70-200mm f4 VR - comparable sharpness in central regions, but sharper edges on the f4 version. Good news for the owners of the f4 lenses!

7. Image Quality - Shot Wide Open? OK, when you opt for an f4 lens you lose a stop of light (of course), but you also partly sacrifice your ability to use a shallow DoF that can help isolate your subject from the background. So...you may well want to shoot wide open on an f4 lens and the germane and critical question becomes "how sharp is it when shot wide open?". Well...I have real good news here - this lens appears to be very sharp at f4. I have more testing to do on this at more subject-to-camera distances, but preliminary results are VERY encouraging.

Please note that image quality is critical to me, and this is an area I will be testing to death over the coming days, including testing it against those uber-zooms @ 300mm (meaning against the AF-S Nikkor 80-400, the Tamron 150-600mm and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm) at a number of camera-to-subject differences. And, of course, I'll supply lots of images to back up what I say about image quality...

8. Performance with Teleconverters? More preliminary results - so far all I have compared are the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter paired up with the 300mm f4 PF VR and the 300mm f2.8 VRII and only at long camera-to-subject distances (about 1 km). BUT, early results are very positive - with the resultant comparison images of the 300mm f4 PF VR plus TC being virtually indistinguishable from those captured using the 300mm f2.8 VRII plus TC.

Please note that while I WILL be testing how the 300mm f4 PF VR does with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter, it's my opinion that because the maximum aperture of that combination is f8 it will have limited usefulness in a field setting (both because of AF performance and because of limited control of aperture and DoF).

How am I feeling overall about the lens after just 3 days of shooting? I have to say I am absolutely LOVING it! If the results of my coming tests confirm my preliminary testing, this may become my most-useful and most-used lens (and it's not impossible it will replace my 400mm f2.8E VR as my all-time favourite lens).

Is it overstating the case to call this a "breakthrough" lens (in terms of a how a new technology - in this case incorporating a Phase Fresnal element - can allow longer focal length lenses to be built much smaller yet with high optical quality)? It might not be...I'm already feeling this is a pretty amazing piece of glass! And...I'm thinking that before long (assuming Nikon can get production up), there won't be too many Nikon-shooting nature photographers without one. In fact, I'm certain that for the foreseeable future the biggest problem Nikon shooters will face will be actually GETTING one! Of course, now I'm wondering when we'll see a compact 400mm f4 PF VR! Sign me up for that! ;-)

Stay tuned for further updates soon (probably Wednesday afternoon)...

Cheers...

Brad

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Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#300mmPF_firstimpressions

29 April 2015: I'm Back...And a Comment on the D7200 "Disability"

I've been back from vacation for a few days and have been busy catching up with things that went on during my escape. Two items are probably of interest to many regular visitors to this website...

1. On the D7200 "Disability". While I was away I received a fair amount of email expressing frustration about the "disability" of the D7200 - its 5 frame per second maximum shooting rate (if you're shooting 14-bit lossless compressed raw files). While like everyone I WISH the D7200 shot at a faster rate, it's my view that because of a few online articles this "disability" has been blown ridiculously out of proportion in terms of its importance. I'll follow up soon with a more extended post about this soon, but in the interim those interested in this topic may find the Field Notes associated with my latest post in my Gallery of Latest Additions interesting. In these notes I touch on the issue.

2. My 300mm f4 PF VR En Route! I returned home to find out that Nikon Canada had received a very small number of 300mm f4 PF VR lenses and had allocated one to me. It should be in my hands by Friday. Any guesses on what I'll be doing this weekend? And, of course, I'll be reporting my experiences with this lens right here (hopefully beginning about midway through next week).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

17 April 2015: Gone for 10 Days...

I'm taking a 10-day vacation beginning today - my usual spring "quick escape before nature starts really partying" - and I get crazy busy - break. I'll have only sporadic internet access while I'm away, so it's unlikely that I'll be posting any web updates prior to about April 28. And, I may be delayed in responding to any email I receive while I'm away.

Upon my return I will be resuming both the "Long Lens Wars" series and reporting on my findings on the performance on the Nikon D7200. One of my first entries upon my return will compare the optical stabilization and "hand-holdability" of the Sigma and Tamron 150-600's to several Nikkor lenses.

Here's wishing everyone good light and cooperative subjects while I'm away.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

16 April 2015: Coming Soon to a Billboard Near You?



Raincoast's Wolf Cull Billboard Campaign

The Raincoast Conservation Foundation launched their Stop BC's Wolf Cull billboard campaign early this morning. According to Chris Genovali, the executive director of Raincoast, the goal of the campaign is to bring draw public attention to fact that the BC government is killing large numbers of wolves in a scientifically illogical attempt to save endangered caribou. In the media release of the billboard campaign Genovali says:

"Rather than address the real problem, i.e., the destruction of life sustaining caribou habitat, the B.C. Government has chosen to scapegoat wolves. The aim of our billboard campaign is to bring attention to that fact. We hope this first wolf cull billboard on the Pat Bay Highway near Victoria will generate enough support from the public that we can spread the message to multiple locations."

The full media release can be seen here: Media Release: Wolf Cull Billboard Campaign; PDF: 76 KB

A PDF version of the first billboard can be seen here: Raincoast's Wolf Cull Billboard; PDF: 873 KB

Those interested in supporting the billboard campaign should contact me at conservation@naturalart.ca and I will connect you with the right people.

Those interested in additional information about BC's Wolf Cull and why I am opposing it should view my 24 January blog entry (scroll down or follow this link).

Cheers...

Brad

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#wolfcull_billboard_campaign

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16 April 2015: Update on the VR Issue on the Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR

I have received a report via email regarding the widely reported VR problem on the Nikkor 300mm f4E PF ED VR prime lens. According to the email, Nikon Germany has confirmed that copies of the lens with serial numbers below 205101 - when used on a Nikon D800, D800e, or D810 - require a firmware update to solve the VR issue. Note that it was not 100% clear to me from the email if the lens needed the firmware update, or the camera needed the firmware update.

There is a service advisory on both the Nikon Germany and Nikon UK's website that communicates this information. It is likely that both the Nikon Canada and the Nikon USA websites will post service advisories soon.

Thanks to Thomas from Germany for alerting me to this information.

Cheers...

Brad

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15 April 2015: The Nikon D7200 - Burst Sizes with the Toshiba Exceria Pro SD Card

Back on March 29 I posted a blog entry entitled "Nikon D7200 - Burst Sizes & Specific High-speed SD Cards". In it I speculated that because most of the "best" SD cards on the market (such as the SanDisk Extreme Pro) don't meet the highest theoretical data transfer rate of the Nikon D7200, it MIGHT be possible to squeeze out a few more frames IF one could find a faster SD card. Several sources had indicated to me that one potentially faster card to try would be Toshiba's Exceria Pro 240 MB/s UHS-II SDHC card. Those wishing to read more about the logic (or lack thereof!) behind this speculation should scroll down to that March 29 entry.

Anyway - late last week my Toshiba Exceria Pro card arrived (thanks to Martin in Zurich for assisting in getting that card to me). And I have tested it in the D7200 (via shooting multiple test bursts of 14-bit lossless compressed raw images). What did I discover with the testing? Some confusing things...like:

1. Smaller "First" Bursts: I shot a number of sequential bursts with the D7200 (at its highest frame rate) using both the Exceria Pro and the SanDisk Extreme Pro cards. In the first group of bursts I chose a featureless overcast sky as the subject. The results? In three consecutive bursts with each card the FIRST burst had a lower number of frames than the two following bursts. With the Exceria Pro the first burst consisted of 17 frames, and the two following bursts had 20 frames each. With the SanDisk Extreme Pro the first burst was 18 frames, and the two following bursts had 20 frames each. So...with a simple scene it was pretty much a saw-off between the two cards. Why both cards recorded fewer images in the first of 3 consecutive bursts is a mystery to me.

2. Scene Complexity and Burst Size: I then shot 3 additional bursts with the D7200 using the two cards, but this time with a more complex scene (a forest scene which included a bright sky in part of the frame - and shot from a firm tripod with each burst being of the exact same scene, both between cards and between sequential bursts). The result? Three consecutive bursts with the Toshiba Exceria Pro card produced 17, 15, and 17 frames respectively. Three consecutive bursts with the SanDisk Extreme Pro produced 14, 18, and 18 frames. So...complexity of the scene plays some role in burst size. And the two cards produced nearly equal results. And the consecutive burst sizes (using an identical scene) using the same card differed (again). Hmmm...

3. Extended Bursts: I then decided to see if the total number of frames that could be captured in 30 seconds (so the frames in the initial 5 fps burst AND then while "chugging along" at a slower frame rate) differed between the cards. And again I repeated the test with both a simple scene (featureless overcast sky) and a more complex scene (that same detailed and tonally complex forest scene). The results?

A. Simple Scene (featureless overcast sky):

• Toshiba Exceria Pro: 85 frames in 30 seconds
• SanDisk Extreme Pro: 88 frames in 30 seconds

B. Complex Scene (forest with mixed lighting):

• Toshiba Exceria Pro: 77 frames in 30 seconds
• SanDisk Extreme Pro: 75 frames in 30 seconds

Take-home lessons? First - there were no consistent or significant differences in the burst size of the D7200 when using either the Toshiba Exceria Pro or the SanDisk Extreme Pro SD cards - both can provide burst rates that match or exceed Nikon's claims for the camera. Second, scene complexity plays some role in influencing burst size, with burst sizes of more complex scenes being consistently smaller than those of simpler scenes. Third, there is some inconsistency (with both cards) in frames captured between consecutive bursts of the identical scene. Clearly burst sizes are influenced by technology, quality control of card manufacturing, and voodoo!

Cheers...

Brad

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09 April 2015: The Nikon D7200 or D750 For Wildlife Photography?

Just over a week ago I mentioned that one effect of all my recent blog posts has been a major influx of questions coming to me via email - and two questions have been coming up repeatedly. Those questions are...

How do the Nikon D7200 and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm get along - and what's the image quality like with that combination?

Which camera would I recommend for wildlife photography - the D7200 or the D750?

I began dealing with the first question in my blog entry of 30 March - so if you're curious about that just follow this link.

So...I'll deal with that second question now: Which camera would I recommend for wildlife photography - the D7200 or the D750? I should also say one more thing right now - the camera I completely and unreservedly recommend for wildlife photography is the Nikon D4s. My second choice? The Nikon D4. After those? Now we're down to the D7200 vs. the D750 issue! ;-)

1. D7200 OR D750? CAVEATS AND PERSPECTIVE...

There's no "one size fits all" answer to this question - every photographer (and every wildlife photographer) is different. Some shoot in low light, others in bright light. Some like to get as close as possible to their subjects, others prefer animalscapes. Some have every Nikon lens and camera body imaginable, others want the leanest and most efficient camera kit possible. And, of course, some don't need to factor economics into the equation, others are keen to use their money as efficiently as possible.

So...I think the best thing I can do is to identify the most critical variables that a wildlife photography should consider in making this decision and suggest how I would weight them. After all, anyone can look up the camera specs on dpreview.com or nikon.ca (or nikonusa.com) - the issue really comes down to how the variables that differ between the cameras should be weighted when choosing a camera for use in wildlife photography.

And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I own a D7200 (and many other Nikon bodies) but I do NOT own a D750. However, I have shot with one enough to know how it performs.

2. D7200 OR D750? THE SAW-OFF FEATURES...

Here's a list of features that are normally important, but are so similar between the D750 and D7200 that they can be safely ignored in choosing one over the other for wildlife photography.

Build Quality: Both are manufactured in Thailand, both are environmentally sealed, and both have excellent build quality. In my view the D750 "feels" to be built slightly better when it is in my hands, but this is largely an intangible and non-quantifiable characteristic (the old pursuit of a definition of "quality" as per Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance!). In my view, when it comes to build quality both cameras definitely pass the "suffiiciency" test.

Resolution: Both are 24 MP cameras - at full resolution the D750's sensor has 6016 x 4016 pixels, the D7200 has 6000 x 4000 pixels. Irrelevant difference.

Fastest Frame Rate (at full resolution): D750: 6.5 fps. D7200: 6 fps. Likely irrelevant to most shooters.

Fastest Shutter Speed: D750: 1/4000s. D7200: 1/8000s. Absolutely irrelevant to almost all shooters (and for ALMOST all wildlife photography, hummingbird wing "freezing" notwithstanding).

ISO Range: D750: ISO 100-12,800. D7200: ISO 100-25,600. Irrelevant difference - no one will be using ISO 25,600 shots from the D7200 for wildlife shooting (trust me!).

3. D7200 OR D750? THE "MIGHT-BE-IMPORTANT-TO-SOME" FEATURE DIFFERENCES...

Burst Size (14-bit lossless compressed raws): D750: 15 images. D7200: 18-20 images. These values assume the camera is equipped with the fastest SD cards available (e.g., SanDisk Extreme Pro or Toshiba Exceria Pro).

Note: Almost all wildlife shooters shoot raw images, and the bulk of them shoot 14-bit lossless compressed raws. For some wildlife shooters (like those who enjoy shooting action like birds-in-flight, running coyotes, or sparring bears, etc.), the fact that the D7200 shoots about 25% more images in a burst might be significant. The question most users should be asking is how limiting the burst size was on their previous camera (and of course how big that burst size was). To D7100 users these burst sizes may look good, but for shooting wildlife action the burst sizes of BOTH cameras are just borderline acceptable. It is something to give considerable thought to. Of course, unless you go to a D-single digit flagship camera (D3s, D4, D4s), there's no DSLR in Nikon's lineup with significantly better burst sizes.

Autofocus: If you look just at the specs of the autofocus systems they look almost identical. For instance, both focus in near darkness, right down to -3 EV. This is astonishing. Even the naming of the AF modules on the two cameras is virtually identical, implying autofocus equivalence (e.g., Multi-CAM 3500FX II vs. Multi-CAM 3500DX II). And, the reality is both work incredibly well (D4s AF performance in a camera costing thousands less!). But one aspect of the AF system that I really like about the D7200 is just how much more of the total frame is covered by the array of AF brackets (owing to the smaller sensor size). And, I continually hear other photographers say the same thing (normally from the perspective of wishing the array of AF brackets on Nikon's FX cameras covered more of the frame). I find with a FX camera I have to focus, then lock the focus, and then recompose a LOT more than I have to on my D7200. For landscape shooting this is no big deal. But when dealing with the mobile subjects characteristic of wildlife photography, having to "focus and recompose" can be time-consuming and it CAN make you miss a shot. It IS something worth thinking about.

Exposure Metering: A 91,000 pixel RGB sensor on the D750 vs. a 2,016 pixel RGB sensor on the D7200. To many this is a spec they overlook. But in the real world it translates into more accurate exposure metering on the D750 (and any camera with 91,000 pixels involved in metering, like the D4s). This "more accurate metering" often translates into fewer blown highlights on images - and it CAN mean "more keepers." Of course, any photographer who is experienced and is comfortable looking at a scene and knowing they have to compensate "x" stops to get the exposure right probably won't care about this. But the reality is that wildlife photography is characterized by long periods of nothing at all happening, with unpredictable bursts of almost everything happening at once...and in those situation almost any photographer can benefit from having a metering system that requires less compensation (and it does take a bit more time to partake in exposure compensation than just to rely on the light meter of the camera). Edge to Nikon D750.

4. D7200 OR D750? THE CRITICAL ISSUE...AND THE ASSOCIATED CONSEQUENCES...

DX vs. FX sensor: Given that these two cameras have the same resolution, the impact of the larger FX sensor on the D750 compared to the cropped sensor of the D7200 is very direct, and it has critical ramifications for the wildlife photographer. The different sensor sizes means you have a clear trade-off to make - you DO get a functional INCREASE of 50% in the focal length of all your lenses with the D7200 compared to the D750, but the D750 has better high ISO performance (owing almost completely directly to the larger pixel pitch of its sensor). How much better is the ISO performance? I can't make a direct comparison because since my D7200 has arrived I haven't had access to a D750. However, by all accounts (e.g., DXOmark.com and other reviews), the ISO performance of the D750 is virtually identical to that of the D600/610. And, I can confirm (through my own testing) that if we consider visible noise only, the D600 has about a 1.3 stop advantage in ISO performance over the D7200. So you can expect about the same difference between a D750 and the D7200.

So....in my mind, the choice between the D7200 and the D750 as the "better" camera for wildlife photography mostly comes down to the issues and consequences to the FX vs. DX sensor. So someone trying to make the decision should think about the following questions:

A. What lenses are in your collection? Do you NEED the extra reach associated with the DX sensor? For MOST wildlife work you pretty much need an equivalent of 400mm (in full-frame terms) to get into the game. Some like longer focal lengths. But few really need much more than 600mm. The answer to the "do you need the reach?" question comes down to what you shoot, where you shoot it, what "style" of wildlife photos you like (close-ups vs. animalscapes), etc. Personally, with my style and what I photograph (harmless things like grizzly bears) I rarely shoot at more than 400mm on a FX body. Note that I said "rarely", I didn't say never.

B. How important is low-light shooting and better high ISO performance to you? You will gain a stop or a little more with the D750 (over the D7200). If you shoot in low light a lot (and most wildlife is crepuscular - meaning active at dawn and dusk when the light is lower) then perhaps it's critical to you. Mind you, if you have to attach a 1.4x converter to your lens to make up the "lost" reach of the FX format, well...there goes that low light advantage (you just lost a stop by using the TC!).

But I guess I should call a spade a spade. How high will I take the ISO on the D7200? Before I disclose that, I do want to say that the amount of visual impact (or image degradation) that increasing ISO has on an image varies with a lot of factors. Noise isn't the only impact - dynamic range, colour depth, and even tonal range decrease with increasing ISO. Visually the impact of increasing ISO varies with the scene, the way the image is viewed (i.e., on a computer display vs. as a print, etc.), whether or not the image is seen in full resolution form vs. down-sampled, etc. And, the degree of "acceptable" image degradation is a real "eye of the beholder" thing - some photographers are super tolerant of noise and flat colour, others aren't. What I've been finding with the D7200 is that I'm pretty happy with most images up to about ISO 1600 - after that it can take some tricky processing (highly selective noise reduction, which at present must be done using Capture NX-D combined with layer blending and masking in Photoshop). Some scenes can withstand slightly higher ISO's - up to about ISO 2000. And, if what I'm photographing is singularly unique (think Bigfoot) - well, I might force myself to push my ISO up to 3200. Note that my view on this might shift slightly when other raw converters (especially Capture One Pro) adds raw support for the D7200.

The D750? Well, assuming it IS equivalent to the D600 in ISO performance - add 1 to 1.3 stops to that. With my D600 I'm pretty comfortable shooting at up to ISO 3200, and occasionally at higher than that (as an example this Chickaree shot was captured at ISO 6400).

5. D7200 OR D750? MORE THINGS FOR POTENTIAL BUYERS TO CONSIDER...

Are you looking for ONE camera to do all your shooting with, or are you looking for camera complementarity? For instance, I own several FX bodies, including a D4s (which is - in my view and if one can throw budget out the window - the clear cut BEST camera on the market for wildlife photography), D600, and D800e. So in making the choice between the D750 and D7200 I'm looking for camera complementarity.

So...for ME, the D7200 can give me something unique (extra reach and more pixels dedicated to my subject matter) and wins out. But, if I could only own ONE camera for ALL my nature shooting - for landscapes, for wildlife, for macro, and more - that camera would be a D750.

COST! Hey...at the end of the day, you'll spend almost twice as much for a D750 compared to a D7200. For some it might be irrelevant, for others it might be critical...

So there you go. Which is the better camera for wildlife photography - the D750 or the D7200? Return to top of article and read again! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#anchor_D750-D7200_Wildlife

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08 April 2015: The Nikon D4s, Burst Sizes, and the G Series XQD Cards

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#anchor_D4sXQD_burstsize

Yesterday I took delivery of one of the new Sony G Series XQD cards. For those who don't know, XQD memory cards are very high speed memory cards that are currently used on two DSLR's only - the Nikon D4 and the Nikon D4s.

Sony is marketing the new G Series cards with claims of read speeds up to 400 MB/s and with write speeds up to 350 MB/s (in plain terms, smokin' fast!). In comparison, Sony's previous two series of XQD cards - which were also thought of as extremely fast - had read speeds of 180 MB/s (for the S Series) and 125 MB/s (for the H Series). Note that some uses may have N Series XQD cards - these have read and write speeds similar to the H Series cards (which they apparently replaced).

My interest in the new G Series cards was prompted by the claim that use of them would up the burst size (total consecutive frames at the camera's highest frame rate - so 11 fps for the D4s) of up to 100 14-bit lossless compressed raw images. Being a curious guy who likes to know what his equipment will actually do in a field setting, I decided to test the card in my D4s. I have a few S and H Series cards in my possession as well, so I was able to compare the burst sizes of the various cards.

My methodology in this test was simple. With each card (G Series, S Series, and H Series) I shot two full bursts of shots. For the purpose of this test I am defining a burst as the total number of frames shot at the camera's highest frame rate before the frame rate slows. The first burst was of a featureless blue sky. The second burst was of a forest scene with a wide tonal range and plenty of detail. I chose the two very different scenes (in terms of complexity of detail, tone and colour) to see if there was an obvious relationship between scene complexity and burst size. With each card I repeated the test twice (so 4 bursts with each card in total). These tests were performed using 14-bit lossless compressed format images.

Here's what I found (and note that because the results were so consistent between trials on the same card that I am only reporting ONE trial of each scene type for each card here). And please keep in mind these bursts are for 14-bit lossless compressed raw format images - burst sizes of JPEG images would be dramatically higher.

1. Sony H Series Card:

Uniform Blue Sky Burst: 55 images per burst (at 11 fps)
Forest Scene Burst: 55 images per burst (at 11 fps)

2. Sony S Series Card:

Uniform Blue Sky Burst: 78 images per burst (at 11 fps)
Forest Scene Burst: 72 images per burst (at 11 fps)

3. Sony G Series Card:

Uniform Blue Sky Burst: 110 images per burst (at 11 fps)
Forest Scene Burst: 93 images per burst (at 11 fps)

The most obvious take-home lesson? The G Series cards DO increase the already very large burst size of the Nikon D4s significantly - and to the degree that Nikon is claiming. Kudos to them for accurate marketing.

What about the effect of scene complexity on burst size? Interestingly, with the lowest speed card (the H Series), increasing the complexity of the scene had no observable effect on the burst size. However, with the S Series card - and particularly with the G Series card - burst sizes were higher with simpler scenes. I do not have an explanation for why scene complexity seems to matter with two series of XQD cards but not the third. I could speculate, but at the end of day - who cares? ;-)

A couple of other observations merit discussion. First, what happens to the camera's performance (frame rate) when one reaches the END of the 11 fps burst with each card? Well, with the H Series card you can keep shooting, but you're down to about 3 fps. With the S Series card you drop down less in speed - to about 5 or 6 fps (at my estimation). And, with the G Series card you drop down even less - you can still shoot (and shoot, and shoot, for dozens and possibly hundreds of frames!) at about 8 fps. So even when "buffered out" a D4s equipped with a G Series cards shoots faster than most other DSLR's! That is impressive.

Second, the new G Series card (at least the 64 GB card I received) ships with a new card reader. That new card reader can read ONLY G Series cards - it does not "see" H, N, or S Series cards. BUT, when I slipped the new G Series card into the XQD card reader that came with my first D4, the card reader saw and read the G Series card just fine (so the new G Series card is backwards-compatible to previous readers, but the new G Series card reader is NOT backwards compatible to older XQD cards). So why even use the new G Series card reader? It's a little faster. I tested transfer speeds on a USB 3.0 port of my iMac 5K and found on a download of 330 14-bit lossless compressed images the OLD card reader took 76 seconds to download the images, while the new reader took 64 seconds (so the new reader took only 86% of the time of the old reader or - turned around - the OLD reader took 19% longer to download the images). If I'm on a weight-restricted trip I'll be taking ONLY my old card reader!

There may be some photographers who will still be limited by the burst size of the D4s and the new G Series card. I'm not among them - I rarely ever shot a full burst even with the S Series cards. So for me - and with the D4s - I can't see needing a faster card. So with a D4s it's arguable I didn't need a G Series card. However...think D5. If that camera happens to have a little higher resolution (as a complete guess - say about 20-22 MP) AND it stays at 11 fps or even a slightly higher frame rate like 14 fps (just a guess) - THEN the speed differential between the S Series and G Series cards might come more into play for me. Now watch Nikon abandon XQD card for the D5 and watch my card "investment" go down the drain! But for the record, I don't think that Nikon will walk away from the XQD advantage (just a guess).

Cheers...

Brad

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#anchor_D4sXQD_burstsize

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07 April 2015: Long Lens Wars V - Focus Breathing at 600mm...

Way back when I made a comment about how both the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom and the Tamron 150-600mm zoom exhibited quite noticeable "focus breathing". For those not familiar with the term, focus breathing (which is sometimes referred to as lens breathing) refers to the situation where a lens is designed optically in such a fashion that when it is focused on a very close subject the focal length of the lens shortens to some degree. Focus breathing is a common phenomenon with many newer Nikon zooms (e.g., the AF-S 70-200mm f4 VR, the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR). While focus breathing can occur in both zoom and prime (fixed focal length) lenses, it's my experience that focus breathing tends to be more pronounced on zoom lenses (at least in Nikon-land, I can't comment on the prevalence and/or degree of focus breathing in Canon lenses). And, it's also my experience that unless one spends time doing lens tests comparing zooms against primes it is very easy to not even notice that lens breathing is occurring - after all...your metadata still refers to your focal length as 200mm regardless of what your realized focal length is.

Anyway...some people get quite worked up about focus breathing (almost like they somehow got short-changed on their lens focal length when the purchased their lens!). I don't care too much about it. But...I am a curious guy...and that curiosity extends to wondering at what focus distance my Sigma and/or Tamron 150-600mm zoom lenses give me an equivalent focal length of my prime lenses. In particular, I'd like to know how far away from my subject I have to be before either my Sigma or Tamron 150-600mm zooms give me the same focal length as my Nikkor 600mm f4 prime. I suspect this is something that others who photograph small, wary subjects (think songbirds or perhaps squirrels) might like to know too.

So...I spent some time capturing a batch of comparison images (i.e., comparing my Nikkor 600mm f4 prime with both the Tamron and Sigma 150-600mm zooms at 600mm) at various measured distances and then carefully compared the pixel dimensions that a sharp-edged subject within each image occupied. I then crunched the numbers to see how the size of the objects compared to my reference standard (my 600mm f4 prime) and determined approximate focal lengths they were exhibiting relative to that reference standard. Note that I am not claiming that ANY of the focal lengths below are ACTUAL focal lengths - the possibility exists that my 600mm prime was focus-breathing as well. So what's below should be considered simply as a comparison showing how the realized focal length of the two zooms in question stack up against the apparent focal length of a top-end prime lens.

And here's what I found:

1. Equal Focus Breathing on the Sigma and Tamron Zooms. In all, I compared focus breathing at 10 different distances - from the close focus point of the Nikkor 600mm f4 prime (which is about 5.0m or just under 16') up to 36.6m (120'). At each distance the focus breathing of the Sigma and Tamron 150-600mm zoom lenses (relative to the 600mm f4 prime) were virtually identical to one another.

2. Your 150-600mm Zoom Is Often Something Less than That! To be honest, I was very surprised how far one had to be away from the subject before either the Sigma Sport or the Tamron offered the same focal length of my 600mm prime lens. In fact, I had to be OVER 40m (131') away from my subject before there was virtually no difference in focal length between my 600mm prime and either the Sigma or Tamron lenses zoomed to 600mm. Here's some results of my testing and associated number crunching that some may find interesting:

At CLOSEST Focus Distance of the Nikkor 600mm f4 Prime: Not surprisingly, the degree of focus breathing on the two zooms was most pronounced at the closet point I could focus my 600mm f4 prime (5.0m or just under 16'). At closest focus the zooms produced about 81.5% of the focal length of my 600mm lens (or 489mm).

At 7.6m (25'): Both zooms were equivalent to a 529mm prime (88% of my 600mm f4 VR).

At 15.2m (50'): Both zooms equivalent to a 560mm prime (93% of my 600mm f4 VR).

At 21.3m (70'): Both zooms equivalent to a 574mm prime (95.6% of my 600mm f4 VR).

At 36.6m (120'): Both zooms equivalent to a 582mm prime (97% of 600mm f4 VR).

So, take this information for what it's worth. Some could probably care less. But I wouldn't be surprised if a few folks stop and think something along the lines of "hmmmm...that's interesting....and just maybe this zoom may NOT be quite as good for songbird photography as I first thought..."

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

03 April 2015: Long Lens Wars IV - Autofocus Performance at 400mm...

In this entry I compare the ability of 4 lenses to accurately track and focus on the leading edge of a fast-moving subject running directly at them. The lenses tested here are: The Nikkor AF-S 400mm f2.8; the Nikkor 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR; the Sigma Sport 150-600mm; and the Tamron 150-600mm. This test was performed at 400mm on all lenses.

Why 400mm? Several reasons. First, it is often the shortest focal length that many wildlife photographers use to shoot rapidly moving subjects, such as birds in flight. Second, it is the maximum focal length of Nikon's AF-S 80-400mm zoom, and many zooms are at their weakest at their longest focal length. Thus, I thought it would be interesting to compare the "weakest" focal length of the Nikkor to a more "mid-range" on the Sigma and Tamron lenses (while this is an autofocus test, I and others are probably interested in how many truly sharp shots the 80-400 can capture of a rapidly moving subject at 400mm). Third, choosing this focal length removed teleconverters from the equation, and thus all lenses involved in the test were shot native. Fourth, choosing 400mm kept the category-leading Nikkor AF-S 400mm f2.8E VR in the test, and it's always nice to have a reference standard to compare against!

I tested the focus-tracking ability of the lenses using the same ol' "My-buddy-Jose-the-mediocre-dog-running-directly-at-me" protocol described in my entry below from March 24 that was entitled "Long Lens Wars II - Autofocus Performance at 600mm..."

METHODOLOGY: As per my 24 March blog entry below. In the test described today I had more light to work with than when testing at 600mm, so I bumped the shutter speed slightly (to 1/2000s). And, like with the test at 550mm, I decided I wanted to "push" the lenses a little more, so the aperture chosen was close to "wide open" at 400mm on all the lenses in the test (with the exception of the 400mm f2.8 prime).

RESULTS: Here's what I found at 400mm:

1. Overall Summary: The Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR continued to be the reference standard in this test - both in autofocus performance and in that nebulous characteristic we call "image quality". So those dropping a 5-figure amount to purchase the AF-S 400mm f2.8E VR can take a major sigh of relief (especially because they know that with their lens this same test could have been performed with only 25% of the light and they could STILL shoot at this ISO and shutter speed!). Very interestingly, the Sigma 150-600mm and the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm performed virtually identically at this focal length. The rate of "keeper images" they produced was very good in absolute terms, including a high rate of very sharp images. In my view, this reflects particularly well on the Sigma lens, as they would have to reverse-engineer parts of the AF system for use on the Nikon camera. Well done Sigma. The Tamron? It did better at this focal length (than at the lower focal lengths I previously tested). But it still produced very few very sharp shots and trailed the pack...

2. More Details:

Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR: 65 images captured. 46 (71%) very sharp; 15 (33%) moderately sharp; 4 (6%) soft. This means 61 of 65 (94%) could be classified as keepers.

Sigma Sport 150-600mm: 65 images captured. 31 (48%) very sharp; 23 (35%) moderately sharp; 11 (17%) soft. This means 54 of 65 (83%) could be classified as keepers.

Nikkor 80-400mm: 63 images captured. 28 (44%) very sharp; 24 (38%) moderately sharp; 11 (18%) soft. This means 52 of 63 (82%) could be classified as keepers.

Tamron 150-600mm: 66 images captured. 13 (20%) very sharp; 37 (56%) moderately sharp; 16 (24%) soft. This means 50 of 66 (76%) could be classified as keepers.

3. "Representative" Sample Images: Here's a "typical" image from each lens (typical in this case being defined as a representative image from the sharpness class with the most images for each lens). Note that all 4 images below were processed identically (and each image is annotated with the critical details). Best to view images at 100% (1:1):

Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR sample: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.7 MB)
Sigma Sport 150-600mm @ 400mm sample: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.9 MB)
Nikkor 80-400 @ 400mm sample: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.9 MB)
Tamron 150-600mm @ 400mm sample: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.9 MB)

DISCUSSION:

There was ONE result in this test that surprised me - the fact that the Sigma 150-600mm performed just as well as the Nikkor 80-400mm. In my view (and to me), this is quite important - it gives me sufficient confidence in the autofocus of the Sigma 150-600mm so that I wouldn't hesitate at all to use it to capture fast-moving subjects, such as birds in flight. IF the Sigma had performed more poorly than the Nikkor 80-400 at this focal length I would very likely have decided to sell it (after completing my testing). But it's still in the running to remain in my kit. The Tamron? Well...it did do better at this focal length, but still trailed the pack. But it is important to remember that it costs far less than any of the other lenses in this test - and that lower price MUST come with compromises. And...if I had put the Tamron up against lenses a few years old it would do just fine (i.e., the bar is getting higher and higher!).

While I am sorely tempted to do this test once more (at 300mm - and I do have a 300mm f2.8 VR in my possession but...unfortunately...I DON'T have a 300mm f4 VR yet), I think the critical trends are very clear. First, the best primes (both the 400mm f2.8E VR and the 600mm f4G VR) out-perform the zooms in the ability to track a fast-moving subject. The Sigma Sport 150-600mm performs about equally to the Nikkor 80-400mm when both are shot native (no TC's), and slightly out-performs it at focal lengths where one must add a TC to the 80-400mm. BOTH the Sigma and Nikkor zooms ARE up to the task of producing very sharp shots of fast-moving action. And, the Tamron is probably not the best choice out there if one is concerned about getting a lot of sharp shots of fast-moving subjects.

To be clear (and to avoid a mountain of email!) - I will repeat this test once more (at 300mm) in the Nikkor AF-S Nikkor 300mm f4E PF ED VR shows up while I still have the other lenses necessary to perform the test. At this point the only thing I have already decided is that I will be selling the Tamron lens when I have completed my testing (and by then probably helped to kill its resale price - sheesh). Of course I will be keeping my 400mm f2.8E VR lens. And I am feeling like I want to keep BOTH the Sigma 150-600mm AND the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm...there's definitely a bit of an apples and oranges thing there.

Next? That promised entry on my thoughts of the D750 vs. D7200 as cameras for wildlife photography - so stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

3 April 2015: REMINDER - Vancouver Presentation - Saturday Evening: The Bears of Canada

Just a quick reminder to those in the Vancouver and Lower Mainland area of a presentation I'll be giving Saturday evening...

I will be presenting a narrated slideshow in Vancouver this coming Saturday. My presentation is one of the events associated with the world's first International Bear Day. The event is organized and sponsored by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Vancouver's North Shore Black Bear Society, with several other corporate sponsors. My thanks are extended to Ocean Light II Adventures for looking after the costs associated with bring me in for the event.

Here are the bear bones details of my presentation:

• Where? Blue Shore Theatre, Birch Building, Capilano University, North Vancouver

• When? Saturday, April 4

• Time? Evening program - 6:30-9:30 PM

• Admission? Free - but book your tickets here...

• More Info? Just download this poster

So if you're from the Vancouver area and are passionate about bears, bear photography, or bear conservation - hopefully we'll see you there!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

2 April 2015: Update on AF-S Nikkor 300mm f4E PF ED VR?

I have received more than a few emails that have noticed that, or have asked me why, I haven't had any updates on the new(ish) Nikkor AF-S 300mm f4E VR lens. The reason for that is simple - Nikon's stony silence on the lens, its shipping status, and the known VR problem means that there's not much to say. That silence on Nikon's part leads, of course, to widespread speculation on the nature of the VR problem and on when the lens will be shipping in reasonable numbers. Based on the emails and information I have received on the status of the lens here's what I can pass along (and I'll make sure any speculation on my part is clearly labelled):

• Is the Lens Shipping? It's well-known that small numbers of the lenses began shipping quite some time ago (in early February). It is still in very short supply virtually everywhere. Whether any copies of the lens are still shipping now - or have been possibly delayed by a widely-reported VR problem - is unknown to me.

• VR Problem? As soon as the lens got into a few end-user's hands reports started surfacing about a problem in the Vibration Reduction (VR) system. In short, there have been many reports that while the VR works fine at very slow shutter speeds (e.g., 1/10 or 1/20s) and much higher shutter speeds (>1/250s), it seems to be ineffective (and possibly diminishes image quality) in the shutter speed range to about 1/40s to 1/160s (pretty much where most would really want the VR!). It's unclear if the problem is isolated to a subset of the lenses in circulation (e.g., one bad batch) or if it's found in all of them. I can say that of about two dozen emails I have received from owners of the lens, all but two have said their lens has the problem (and two of those folks emailing me have now had their original faulty lens replaced, and the replacement lens had the exact same problem). The two folks who emailed me and said their lens was fine tested it only at very slow shutter speeds (1/10s and 1/20s respectively), i.e., NOT in the shutter speed range where the problem has been reported. If you go to appropriate page on Nikon USA's website for the 300mm f4 VR (here), one of the two reviews of the lens calls out the problem, and the response from Nikon (dated March 31, 2015) is this: "We have reported these findings to our factory in Tokyo. They are investigating this very closely".

I have received word (indirectly via forwarded emails) that other Nikon distributors (e.g., a few different European Nikon distributors) have also informed Nikon Japan of the problem, but that they don't expect a response from them until sometime in April at the earliest.

• Optical Quality and User Satisfaction with the Lens? Virtually everyone who has emailed me has expressed - VR issue aside of course - extreme satisfaction with the lens. Uniformly they've loved the lens's size, weight and its optics (it's reportedly VERY sharp edge-to-edge). Some folks even seem more annoyed by having to give the lens back (to their retailer and Nikon) than they are by the VR problem itself; one user has said he simply doesn't care about the VR problem and another said that given the chance he will repurchase the lens "...even if Nikon doesn't fix the problem as the light weight and size is so nice that it is worth it even without the VR." This speaks volumes about the lens as an "overall package" (and certainly makes me hope that I can lay my hands on one soon, and very preferably one with the VR working!).

And that's all I know about the AF-S Nikkor 300mm f4E PF ED VR - take it FWIW...

Cheers...

Brad

PS: To the best of my knowledge, the rogue anonymous Canon executive providing me with the quote on my APRIL FIRST blog entry has not been found. I think it's highly unlikely he or she ever will be...

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

1 April 2015: Breaking News: Canon Purchases Nikon!

Breaking early morning news from Japan - in a cash and stock deal, Canon Corporation has purchased Nikon. The purchase price of Nikon hasn't been disclosed, but it effectively shuts down competition in the mid- to high-end DSLR market.

When queried about the purchase and what it will mean to the Nikon brand, a Canon executive who wished to remain anonymous said:

"We just can't seem to get the image sensors or ISO performance right, so we decided to purchase Nikon. Rest assured that the Nikon brand and all those millions of Nikkor lenses will remain useful in the years and decades to come. Because of the sensor and ISO performance superiority of the Nikon DSLR's we will position Nikon as our premium brand - like Cadillac or Ferrari. And Canon will remain the Fiat of the DSLR world - perhaps slightly lacking in performance relative to Ferrari, but a whole lot more affordable."

Stay tuned for more details on the purchase and the fate of the Canon executive who made the anonymous statement...

Cheers...

Brad ;-)

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

30 March 2015: Does the Nikon D7200 Like the Sigma Sport 150-600mm Zoom?

Over the last few weeks the gear testing I've been doing (and reporting on here) has produced just a mountain of email, including some great questions. Two very appropriate and logical questions have come up repeatedly...

1. How do the Nikon D7200 and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm get along - and what's the image quality like with that combination?

2. Which camera would I recommend for wildlife photography - the D7200 or the D750?

Today I'll deal in part with the first question, tho' I still have more testing to do with the D7200/Sigma 150-600mm before I'll have a full handle how the two products interact (and what the sweetest spots of the combination are). So my answer for now is just slightly more than "early impressions", and I will expand on it more in coming weeks.

• Autofocus? Those who have been following my "comparison" testing of the autofocus system of the Sigma Sport 150-600mm are probably aware that it has been performing very well when paired up with the D4s (and the results at the 400mm focal length - which I'll report in full in the next day or two - show the Sigma to be very good in focus-tracking at that distance too). I have shot about 500 frames with the D7200 and Sigma Sport 150-600 combination, and I am equally impressed with how the AF system performs with that combo as well. Simply put - it just hasn't been missing (and is real snappy).

• Optical Stabilization? What about hand-holding this uber focal-length combination (which translates into the focal length equivalent of a 225-900mm with the D7200's DX sensor)? Well...so far when hand-holding this combination I have been getting an extremely high proportion of sharp shots when shooting with a shutter speed of 1/focal length equivalent with the optical stabilization system on and set to OS1 mode. This means that when shooting at the maximum zoom on the camera I'm shooting at 1/1000 sec (the camera doesn't shoot at 1/900s!). And, when shooting at a little lower shutter speeds - such as 1/true focal length (e.g., zoomed to 400mm on the lens barrel and shooting at 1/400s) I'm getting a high (approx. 80%) proportion of sharp shots (but at a slightly lower rate than when I was shooting at 1/focal length equivalent with DX equivalency factored in). I will be doing some more systematic testing of how low I can go in shutter speed (at various focal lengths) and still get sharp shots in the near future. Please note that user steadiness and ability to hand-hold telephoto lenses varies between users quite significantly - so your results may differ from mine (in either direction).

• A quick but potentially important side-note: OS ON or OFF on tripod? The Owner's Fold Out Sheet (AKA Owner's Manual) that comes with the Sigma lens indicates that the Optical Stabilization system should be turned off when the lens is mounted on a tripod. This may well be true when the lens and camera are "bolted right down" on a tripod, but I have found that when mounted on a Wimberley II head on a firm tripod and with the head left loose (like so many wildlife photographers - including me - regularly do), leaving the OS system ON causes absolutely no problems, and when focusing on distant subjects at the long end of the focal range (e.g., 500mm to 600mm focal range) leaving the OS on (mode 1 OR 2) definitely improves the sharpness of the images.

• What about image quality? Well, testing for image quality nuances of the Sigma 150-600 (including with the D7200) is definitely something I'm going to pursue systematically soon, but I can say already that when focused on small subjects at close distances (so think small mammals or birds) and at long focal lengths, the D7200 and Sigma 150-600mm like each very much (and produce sharp, sharp shots). Yesterday I had the opportunity to photograph some squirrels with both my 400mm f2.8E VR and the Sigma 150-600 on my D7200. While at 400mm I won't say the Sigma matched the uber-sharp 400mm f2.8E super-prime, it wasn't that far off! Very impressive indeed.

Sample shot? Ok - one for now. D7200 with Sigma Sport 150-600mm @ 600mm (so 900mm with DX crop factor) - or a little less with focus-breathing!

Red: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)

TECHS: Tripod mounted (Wimberley head) with head loose, OS on (OS mode 1). 1/320s @ f11 (for DoF reasons); ISO 500. Full frame but reduced to 2400 pix in Photoshop CC 2014. Processed from raw using Capture NX-D (no choice yet!). Oh...and note that the "not perfect" bokeh (not bad, but not perfect!) is partly a function of the aperture I shot the image at (for DoF purposes) - at wider apertures it does go softer and smoother...

The Sigma Sport 150-600mm continues to exceed my expectations, this time with the D7200.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

29 March 2015: Vancouver Presentation - Saturday Evening: The Bears of Canada

I will be presenting a narrated slideshow in Vancouver this coming Saturday. My presentation is one of the events associated with the world's first International Bear Day. The event is organized and sponsored by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Vancouver's North Shore Black Bear Society, with several other corporate sponsors. My thanks are extended to Ocean Light II Adventures for looking after the costs associated with bring me in for the event.

Here are the bear bones details of my presentation:

• Where? Blue Shore Theatre, Birch Building, Capilano University, North Vancouver

• When? Saturday, April 4

• Time? Evening program - 6:30-9:30 PM

• Admission? Free - but book your tickets here...

• More Info? Just download this poster

So if you're from the Vancouver area and are passionate about bears, bear photography, or bear conservation - hopefully we'll see you there!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

29 March 2015: Nikon D7200 - Burst Sizes & Specific High-speed SD Cards...

Those following this blog already know that the Nikon D7200 burst size is quite dependent on the speed of the SD memory card that is in use. To attain a burst size matching Nikon's claim of 18 frames (14-bit raw compressed format) you must use a 95 MB/s SD card. Because it would appear that even the very fast SanDisk Extreme PRO SDHC/SDXC UHS-I card (which is marketed as a 95 MB/s card AND does produce burst sizes of 18 frames) has write speeds that are somewhat slower (potentially 44 MB/s slower) than the maximum rate the camera can transfer, I have been speculating that if one could find an even FASTER SD card then it might be possible to realize burst size than greater 18 frames.

To test this theory (or, more accurately, this speculation) out I ordered a SanDisk Extreme PRO SDHC/SDXC UHS-II - an SD card with a marketed read speed of 280 MB/s and a marketed write speed of 250 MB/s. However, as several folks made me aware of (thanks to Bill G. and Siddharth M.) this card reverts back to a 50 MB/s write speed if it is used in a UHS-I device, which is what the Nikon D7200 is. Thus it should have no effect on the burst size of the D7200, and may even reduce it.

End of story? Not quite. As it turns out, there IS a very high speed UHS-II SD card (the Toshiba Exceria Pro 240 MB/s UHS-II SDHC) that does not throttle down below the maximum speed of the D7200 when used in a UHS-I device. This card MAY enhance the burst sizes of the D7200 beyond what is realized with 95 MB/s UHS-I cards. The only down-side appears to be that the cards are not readily available (if at all) in Canada or the US. Once I solve the "How do I lay my hands on one of those cards?" problem I'll be able to check if the Toshiba cards actually do bump up burst sizes of the D7200.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

28 March 2015: The Nikon D7200 - MORE on Burst Sizes and Card Speeds!

This entry is a follow-up to my previous entries on the burst size of the Nikon D7200 and how it varies with the speed of the SD card in use. This entry is a result of a lot of feedback and information that has been sent to me by viewers of this website/blog plus my own additional research. Those who didn't read my previous entries on this topic will likely find that today's entry will make a bit more sense (and have more relevance) if you scroll down and read my previous comments on burst size and the D7200 prior to reading this one.

The burst size (number of continuous shots a camera can take before slowing down in frame rate or completely stopping) of a digital camera is ultimately determined by size of the camera's buffer, the data transfer rate of the camera itself, and the write speed of the camera's data storage card (of course, the AMOUNT and RATE of data being transferred - which is related to the resolution of the camera, the file format being used, the rate of image capture, and even selected camera settings that impact on image processing speed - all play a role too, but for now we'll just focus on ONE camera shooting 14-bit lossless compressed raw images at 6 frames per second and that has been set-up to maximize the burst size...the D7200).

The buffer size of the D7200 is fixed (and improved over that of the D7100) - so there's nothing we can do to change that. So let's ignore it for this part of the discussion.

The data transfer rate (the data "pipeline") of a camera will depend on what specification the manufacturer decides - when designing the camera - to meet. Nikon built the D7200 to meet the UHS-I specification, which has a theoretical maximum speed of data transfer of 104 MB/s. This means that the camera will "flow" data TO the memory card at UP TO this rate, but regardless of card write speed, it can't be exceeded. Thanks to Bill G. for this info on the spec of the D7200.

Now...memory cards. Most are marketed base on their read speed, with their write speed normally being somewhat lower. For instance, SanDisk's top UHS-I SD card (the SanDisk Extreme PRO SDHC/SDXC UHS-I) has a read speed of up to 95 MB/s, but a claimed write speed of 90 MB/s. It would appear from my research that the gap between between read and write speed varies somewhat and isn't always linear or a fixed percentage of read speed. And, it would also appear that the...uhhhh..."truthiness" of the marketed read speed of a card varies between manufacturers just a tad (with the big name brands commonly being MORE truthful).

Back to the real world. When I initially tested my D7200's burst size using a Promaster SDHC I, Code 6843 card marketed as a 90 MB/s card, I was only able to get burst sizes up to 14 frames, with most bursts being 12-13 frames. When I acquired a SanDisk Extreme PRO SDHC/SDXC UHS-I card marketed as a 95 MB/s card and THEN tested burst sizes they instantly jumped up to 18-22 frames. Huh? A 5.5% jump in card speed results in over a 50% jump in burst size? How?

So...because it bugs be to no end when something doesn't make sense, I decided to research what the write speed of the Promaster card was. Couldn't find a value anywhere. So I downloaded a utility (SDSpeed by flagsoft.com - Mac version available here) to test the cards myself. The result? Testing with the SDSpeed utility showed that the 90 MB/s Promaster card had a write speed of 38.2 MB/s, and a read speed of 29.4 MB/s. What about the SanDisk 95 MB/s card? A write speed of 59.9 MB/s and a read speed of 40.1 MB/s. I can not say that the utility I downloaded and used produced 100% accurate results, but the difference between the ACTUAL speeds of the cards was a whole lot more than the difference in MARKETED speeds suggested it should be (a 5 MB/s difference in marketed read speeds does not equal a 11 MB/s difference in actual read speeds, and the write speed difference was even larger). Truth in marketing - especially of SD cards - is obviously only a very relative thing...

Note that even with the fastest of the UHC-I cards from SanDisk there is still a pretty big gap between the actual write speed of the card (59.9 MB/s) and the theoretical maximum data transfer rate of the camera itself (which was 104 MB/s). That gap is 44.1 MB/s according to the speed test I performed. Even if the software I used to test the card has a margin of error associated with it, I think it's likely that the gap between SD card speed and maximum data transfer rate of the camera is significant.

So...I'm left thinking if that gap between card write speed and camera data transfer rate is partly or fully closed via using an even faster card - like the SanDisk Extreme PRO SDHC/SDXC UHS-II with a marketed read speed of 280 MB/s and a marketed write speed of 250 MB/s - then the buffer should clear even FASTER, thus theoretically producing an even higher burst size than the 18-22 frames I'm already getting. And...I might have just enough frames with that "new and improved" burst size to capture that special shot of a grizzly catching a salmon after chasing it way down a river (and, of course, I would have burned through MOST of the frames in the burst BEFORE the grizzly got to the fish!). I'm NOT expecting a massive increase in the burst size with the faster card, but think it's possible the burst size might climb by a frame or two.

So...the faster card is en route to me and I will test it the moment it gets here. Let's all keep our fingers crossed that by investing in faster cards we can bump up the burst size of the D7200's already way-better-than-the-D7100 bursts even further.

On a final note - another blog reader sent me a reference to a very useful website that does empirical tests of a number of cameras and card combinations to see what kind of real-world results you can expect to see (with your camera and your cards). This test automatically factors in both camera data transfer rate AND card speed. Thanks to Michael K. for sending me this reference. Check it out here:

Camera Memory Speed

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

27 March 2015: The Nikon D7200 - Burst Size, SD Card Speeds, and Odd Behaviour...

The situation with the burst size of the Nikon 7200 is getting more puzzling all the time. It turns out that my FIRST tests on the burst sizes that produced only 12-13 frames per burst (14-bit lossless compressed raws) were performed using a SD card that had a write speed of 90 MB/s (a Promaster SDHC I, Code 6843 card). Promaster doesn't write the speed on the card, and their website lists it as having a speed of 600x. When you track down how that translates into more "traditional" speed ratings, it comes out to 90 MB/s. SO...with a 90 MB/s card I get bursts of 12-13 frames, but with a card only SLIGHTLY faster (95 MB/s - which is only 5.5% faster), I'm getting a major increase in burst size (now up to 18-22 frames per burst, an increase of just over 50%). It's almost like a SD card speed "threshold" (between 90 and 95 MB/s) has to be crossed to get the high burst sizes out of the camera (which makes zero sense to me). Go figure...

I have several different "pairings" of SD cards (meaning equivalently speed-rated cards from both Promaster and SanDisk) en route to me to help sort out the issue, including ruling out if my original 90 MB/s card was simply mislabeled or faulty. Included in the cards being sent my way will be the "ultra fast" 280MB/s Extreme Pro UHS-II cards from both makers (though I suspect they both may be made by SanDisk) to see if burst sizes can be achieved that are even higher than the 18-22 frames I'm getting out of the 95 MB/s cards. The plot thickens - so stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

29 March 2015: Nikon D7200 - Burst Sizes & Specific High-speed SD Cards...

Those following this blog already know that the burst size that is actually attained by the D7200 is quite dependent on the speed of the SD memory card that is in use. To realize a burst size matching Nikon's claim of 18 frames (14-bit raw compressed format) you must use a 95 MB/s SD card. Because it would appear that even the very fast SanDisk Extreme PRO SDHC/SDXC UHS-I (which is marketed as a 95 MB/s card AND does produce burst sizes of 18 frames) has write speeds that are up to 44 MB/s less than the maximum rate the camera can transfer, I have been speculating that if one could find an even FASTER SD card then it might be possible to get a larger burst size than 18 frames.

To test this theory (or, more accurately, this speculation) out I ordered a SanDisk Extreme PRO SDHC/SDXC UHS-II - an SD card with a marketed read speed of 280 MB/s and a marketed write speed of 250 MB/s. However, as several folks have made me aware of (thanks to Bill G. and Siddharth M. for this info) this card reverts back to a 50 MB/s write speed if it is used in a UHS-I device, which is what the Nikon D7200 is. Thus it should have no effect on the burst size of the D7200, and may even reduce it.

End of story? Not quite. As it turns out, there IS a very high-speed UHS-II SD card (the Toshiba Exceria Pro 240 MB/s UHS-II SDHC) that does not throttle down below the maximum data transfer speed of the D7200 (or when used in any UHS-I device). This card MAY enhance the burst sizes of the D7200 beyond what is realized with 95 MB/s UHS-I cards. The only down-side appears to be that the cards are not readily available (if at all) in Canada or the US. Once I solve the "How do I lay my hands on one of those cards?" problem I'll be able to check if the Toshiba cards actually do bump up burst sizes of the D7200.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

28 March 2015: The Nikon D7200 - MORE on Burst Sizes and Card Speeds!

This entry is a follow-up to my previous entries on the burst size of the Nikon D7200 and how it varies with the speed of the SD card in use. This entry is a result of a lot of feedback and information that has been sent to me by viewers of this website/blog plus my own additional research. Those who didn't read my previous entries on this topic will likely find that today's entry will make a bit more sense (and have more relevance) if you scroll down and read my previous comments on burst size and the D7200 prior to reading this one.

The burst size (number of continuous shots a camera can take before slowing down in frame rate or completely stopping) of a digital camera is ultimately determined by size of the camera's buffer, the data transfer rate of the camera itself, and the write speed of the camera's data storage card (of course, the AMOUNT and RATE of data being transferred - which is related to the resolution of the camera, the file format being used, the rate of image capture, and even selected camera settings that impact on image processing speed - all play a role too, but for now we'll just focus on ONE camera shooting 14-bit lossless compressed raw images at 6 frames per second and that has been set-up to maximize the burst size...the D7200).

The buffer size of the D7200 is fixed (and improved over that of the D7100) - so there's nothing we can do to change that. So let's ignore it for this part of the discussion.

The data transfer rate (the data "pipeline") of a camera will depend on what specification the manufacturer decides - when designing the camera - to meet. Nikon built the D7200 to meet the UHS-I specification, which has a theoretical maximum speed of data transfer of 104 MB/s. This means that the camera will "flow" data TO the memory card at UP TO this rate, but regardless of card write speed, it can't be exceeded. Thanks to Bill G. for this info on the spec of the D7200.

Now...memory cards. Most are marketed base on their read speed, with their write speed normally being somewhat lower. For instance, SanDisk's top UHS-I SD card (the SanDisk Extreme PRO SDHC/SDXC UHS-I) has a read speed of up to 95 MB/s, but a claimed write speed of 90 MB/s. It would appear from my research that the gap between between read and write speed varies somewhat and isn't always linear or a fixed percentage of read speed. And, it would also appear that the...uhhhh..."truthiness" of the marketed read speed of a card varies between manufacturers just a tad (with the big name brands commonly being MORE truthful).

Back to the real world. When I initially tested my D7200's burst size using a Promaster SDHC I, Code 6843 card marketed as a 90 MB/s card, I was only able to get burst sizes up to 14 frames, with most bursts being 12-13 frames. When I acquired a SanDisk Extreme PRO SDHC/SDXC UHS-I card marketed as a 95 MB/s card and THEN tested burst sizes they instantly jumped up to 18-22 frames. Huh? A 5.5% jump in card speed results in over a 50% jump in burst size? How?

So...because it bugs be to no end when something doesn't make sense, I decided to research what the write speed of the Promaster card was. Couldn't find a value anywhere. So I downloaded a utility (SDSpeed by flagsoft.com - Mac version available here) to test the cards myself. The result? Testing with the SDSpeed utility showed that the 90 MB/s Promaster card had a write speed of 38.2 MB/s, and a read speed of 29.4 MB/s. What about the SanDisk 95 MB/s card? A write speed of 59.9 MB/s and a read speed of 40.1 MB/s. I can not say that the utility I downloaded and used produced 100% accurate results, but the difference between the ACTUAL speeds of the cards was a whole lot more than the difference in MARKETED speeds suggested it should be (a 5 MB/s difference in marketed read speeds does not equal a 11 MB/s difference in actual read speeds, and the write speed difference was even larger). Truth in marketing - especially of SD cards - is obviously only a very relative thing...

Note that even with the fastest of the UHC-I cards from SanDisk there is still a pretty big gap between the actual write speed of the card (59.9 MB/s) and the theoretical maximum data transfer rate of the camera itself (which was 104 MB/s). That gap is 44.1 MB/s according to the speed test I performed. Even if the software I used to test the card has a margin of error associated with it, I think it's likely that the gap between SD card speed and maximum data transfer rate of the camera is significant.

So...I'm left thinking if that gap between card write speed and camera data transfer rate is partly or fully closed via using an even faster card - like the SanDisk Extreme PRO SDHC/SDXC UHS-II with a marketed read speed of 280 MB/s and a marketed write speed of 250 MB/s - then the buffer should clear even FASTER, thus theoretically producing an even higher burst size than the 18-22 frames I'm already getting. And...I might have just enough frames with that "new and improved" burst size to capture that special shot of a grizzly catching a salmon after chasing it way down a river (and, of course, I would have burned through MOST of the frames in the burst BEFORE the grizzly got to the fish!). I'm NOT expecting a massive increase in the burst size with the faster card, but think it's possible the burst size might climb by a frame or two.

So...the faster card is en route to me and I will test it the moment it gets here. Let's all keep our fingers crossed that by investing in faster cards we can bump up the burst size of the D7200's already way-better-than-the-D7100 bursts even further.

On a final note - another blog reader sent me a reference to a very useful website that does empirical tests of a number of cameras and card combinations to see what kind of real-world results you can expect to see (with your camera and your cards). This test automatically factors in both camera data transfer rate AND card speed. Thanks to Michael K. for sending me this reference. Check it out here:

Camera Memory Speed

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

27 March 2015: The Nikon D7200 - Burst Size, SD Card Speeds, and Odd Behaviour...

The situation with the burst size of the Nikon 7200 is getting more puzzling all the time. It turns out that my FIRST tests on the burst sizes that produced only 12-13 frames per burst (14-bit lossless compressed raws) were performed using a SD card that had a write speed of 90 MB/s (a Promaster SDHC I, Code 6843 card). Promaster doesn't write the speed on the card, and their website lists it as having a speed of 600x. When you track down how that translates into more "traditional" speed ratings, it comes out to 90 MB/s. SO...with a 90 MB/s card I get bursts of 12-13 frames, but with a card only SLIGHTLY faster (95 MB/s - which is only 5.5% faster), I'm getting a major increase in burst size (now up to 18-22 frames per burst, an increase of just over 50%). It's almost like a SD card speed "threshold" (between 90 and 95 MB/s) has to be crossed to get the high burst sizes out of the camera (which makes zero sense to me). Go figure...

I have several different "pairings" of SD cards (meaning equivalently speed-rated cards from both Promaster and SanDisk) en route to me to help sort out the issue, including ruling out if my original 90 MB/s card was simply mislabeled or faulty. Included in the cards being sent my way will be the "ultra fast" 280MB/s Extreme Pro UHS-II cards from both makers (though I suspect they both may be made by SanDisk) to see if burst sizes can be achieved that are even higher than the 18-22 frames I'm getting out of the 95 MB/s cards. The plot thickens - so stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

27 March 2015: Nikon D7200 - Early Impressions Update: Burst Size and More...

Just a quick and necessary update of my early findings yesterday with the D7200...

• Burst Size IS Dependent on SD Card Speed! I expressed frustration yesterday with the substandard burst size I was able to squeeze out of my D7200. Despite trying SD cards of different speeds (both 30MB/s and 90MB/s) I was regularly getting burst sizes of 12-13 frames only - far fewer than Nikon's claim of 18. By late afternoon I obtained a SanDisk Extreme Pro SD card with a speed of 95 MB/s. When using that card my burst size instantly jumped up. Interestingly, I was regularly getting at least 18 frames in a burst, and often higher (up to 22 frames). The actual observed burst size did seem to vary some with scene type/complexity. This increased burst size now matches Nikon's claims - which is excellent and removes my only major disappointment with the camera to date.

This finding means that the D7200 is achieving the higher burst rates through a combination of increased buffer size and faster buffer clearing (the latter of which is tied to card speed). Of course there's nothing wrong with this (all I and most photographers care about is getting the burst rate up, not how it's done), but it does leave me wondering if getting an even higher speed SD card (such as the 280MB/s SanDisk Extreme Pro UHS-II) will provide further increases in the burst size (without knowing where the bottleneck in the data transfer pipeline actually is one can only guess!). And I do think if Nikon makes a performance claim that is dependent on use of a specific 3rd party product they should make that dependence very clear (i.e., clearly qualify the claim and provide details about the conditions under which the performance can be obtained).

• ISO Display IN the Viewfinder - A New Tradeoff: Yesterday I commented on not liking the fact that the ISO value the camera is set to (whether set via Auto ISO or manually set) is not visible through the viewfinder. It turns out you CAN set the camera to display the ISO in the viewfinder, but only by compromising another function - Easy Exposure Compensation. To see the ISO displayed in your viewfinder you must turn Easy ISO (Custom Setting d8) on, which instantly turns Easy Exposure Compensation (Custom Setting b3) OFF. As a long-time happy user of Easy Exposure Compensation I definitely want to keep that function, and I'm a bit puzzled why Nikon has chosen to turn the display within the viewfinder into a new compromise that doesn't exist on other cameras (none of my other cameras has the Easy ISO function, but implementing this new function does not require any additional space within the viewfinder, thus there's no need to have "one or the other" displayed). I do understand that when shooting that the main command dial can only do one thing at a time (in this case either Easy Exposure Compensation OR Easy ISO), but why tie the viewfinder display of the ISO in use to the state of Easy ISO? Odd. Thanks to Elvin T. for the tip about displaying ISO with Easy ISO.

• Further Positive Comments on the Autofocus: Late yesterday afternoon I was doing some additional testing of the focus-tracking ability of various lenses (Sigma 150-600 vs. several others). I was doing the testing with my D4s and when I finished I thought "why not try one run with my D7200?" - so I did. So...I shot a burst of 20 shots (note that burst size!) of one of my dogs running at me at full tilt with my D7200 paired up with a 400mm f2.8E VR (autofocus settings: AF-C; 21-point Dynamic Area). The result? 18 of 20 tack sharp on the leading edge. That's an impressive hit rate and up in D4s territory. Here's a sample shot taken from that burst (1/2000s @ f5; ISO 1000; processed using Capture NX-D with final sharpening in Photoshop CC 2014):

Poncho Running - D7200: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

Some final comments. I haven't begun systematic testing of the D7200's image quality yet, but from my early "just shoot with it" sessions I'm noticing a few things that might become trends. First (and like with the D800e), the D7200 seems to just LOVE the AF-S 70-200mm f4 VR. I'm getting just amazing detail when shooting distant scenes with the D7200 and the 70-200mm f4 VR (even when shooting hand-held). And, likely owing to the small pixel-pitch, I'm already getting the feeling that at lower ISO's this camera will be capable of producing stunning image quality, but only when shot with a lot of discipline. Those who have discovered what the D800e (or D810) is capable of when used with the right lenses and with the right care (and at low ISO's) will know what I mean. I'm already getting the feeling the D7200 will be just as unforgiving of sloppy technique as the D800 series cameras are. Now that the issue of burst rate has been solved, I'm feeling pretty positive about the D7200.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

26 March 2015: Nikon D7200 - Very First Impressions...

As reported a few days back, a shiny new D7200 is now in my hands. I've had a few minutes here and there to "play" with it and have begun forming some impressions of it. Note that these are VERY early impressions and some of my thoughts may shift as I use the camera more and more. Note that I purchased the camera for use as a complementary camera for my D4s for wildlife shooting and NOT as my primary camera. If I grow confident in the abilities of this camera (meaning I am happy with its overall performance) then it will also likely serve as my walkaround camera on my daily peregrinations with my dogs (which take place in a wilderness setting where I CAN encounter a variety of wildlife - from deer and elk through to various carnivores, including coyotes, cougars, wolves and both black and grizzly bears). So even for just "walking around" I want a camera that can produce quality wildlife photos when hand-holding lenses like the AF-S 80-400 - which means it needs to have at least halfway decent ISO performance, but I have no expectations this will be even close to a D4s in ISO performance. Anyway...here ya go:

• Autofocus Performance: As advertised and very, very impressive - definitely the best I've seen out of a DX-format Nikon. Focuses accurately (and virtually instantly) in near-dark conditions (conditions so dark you won't be hand-holding virtually any lens at!). I've shot some action shots with it and it seems to focus-track very effectively, though at this point I can't quantify HOW effectively. At a later date I WILL test its focus-tracking more thoroughly. I WISH the camera offered the Group Area mode of the more recent FX introductions, but it doesn't. I guess that's what my D4s is for! ;-)

• Buffer Depth and Burst Size: NOT as advertised and NOT impressive. Nikon has been claiming a burst size of 18 raw 14-bit lossless compressed images. What burst size am I getting before the camera "buffers out" and slows right down? In almost all "normal" scenes that actually have something in them - 12 frames. When shooting 12-bit raw lossless compressed images I get 23 images in a burst, which is at least a little closer to the advertised burst size of 27 frames. I refused to purchase a D7100 because of its tiny buffer and burst size and considered the CLAIMED burst size of 18 raw images (14-bit lossless compressed) for the D7200 to be just high enough to meet my needs - to find that the claim appears to be almost a 50% exaggeration is very, very disappointing.

Does the buffer depth vary with scene complexity (and the claimed burst rate of 18 frames is from a tonally simple and detail-limited scene)? Possibly (I suppose). So I tried out some different scenes and checked burst size. Burst size of an absolutely featureless blue sky (14-bit lossless compressed raws)? 13 frames. Burst size of a scene with 50% featureless blue sky and 50% distant mountain ridge? 14 frames. Burst size of a blue sky with one small diffuse, low contrast cloud (occupying about 10% of the frame)? 14 frames. Burst sizes of multiple scenes where they WERE detailed backgrounds but with those backgrounds thrown completely out-of-focus? 12-13 frames.

Does the burst size vary with the speed of the SD card (it shouldn't - that should ONLY affect buffer clearing rate and how quickly one can begin shooting again AFTER the buffer is full)? It doesn't appear to - I have tried the camera with 3 different SD cards and all produced the same result. I have ordered the fastest SD card available to see if that will "solve" the problem, but I am not hopeful.

I have to call a spade a spade here: I am incredibly disappointed that Nikon is claiming (without caveat) a burst rate that's almost 50% higher than the camera is delivering for me (18 frames claimed, 12-13 in real world use). Where does marketing embellishment end and plain lying begin? If the burst size I am getting is not abnormal (i.e., I don't have a faulty camera, which I don't think I do) this is quite unacceptable. If a burst size of 12-13 frames was advertised for this camera was what Nikon had advertised I would NOT have bought it (I HAVE already "buffered out" several times during normal day-to-day shooting). Nikon - I am VERY disappointed.

• ISO Performance: Getting a full handle on how both noise and dynamic range of this camera varies with ISO will take more time, but I did spend a few minutes shooting some comparison shots of the D7200 against a few other cameras (D4s, D800e, and D600) at ISO's from 100 to 25,600. I HAVE quickly looked at the raw files with ALL noise reduction turned off and can say that the visible noise is about what I was expecting out of a camera with a pixel pitch of under 4 microns. If I view FULL resolution shots at 100% magnification (critical note - these are full resolution raws with NO noise reduction performed on them and viewed at 100% magnification), the D7200 gives away about 3.3 stops to the D4s. So...I see about as much noise in the D7200 raws at ISO 1600 as I do on the D4s files at ISO 16,000. ISO 800 files from the D7200 look like ISO 8,000 files (with respect to visible noise) from the D4s. I have yet to scrutinize the comparison images I have shot with my D600 or D800e - but will do so soon (and report my findings here).

MAJOR CAVEAT: Please note that my comment that the D7200 is giving away about 3.3 stops of ISO performance (considering visible NOISE only) to the D4s applies ONLY to full resolution raw images viewed at 100% with ALL noise reduction turned off. If you shoot JPEG's the camera itself will do a lot of noise reduction on the images. If you reduce image resolution (as done on the ISO tests of dxomark.com) the images will show less noise. If you shoot raw images the noise reduction will vary with the raw converter you use AND you can adjust the noise reduction. And, of course, what is considered "acceptable" noise levels will vary between individuals. BUT, at the end of the day, no matter how the images are processed they will START about 3.3 stops noisier than D4s images will.

What ISO values will I be comfortable shooting the D7200 at? I can't answer this definitively until I have a better handle on how the dynamic range of its sensor varies with ISO and until the serious raw converters (like Capture One Pro and for many Lightroom) add support for the D7200, but I'm guessing that for my day-to-day shooting (my U1 setting bank) I'll likely set my ISO ceiling on the Auto ISO function at about ISO 1600. In my "Action" user settings (my U2 setting bank) I'll likely set the ISO ceiling one stop higher (i.e., at ISO 3200).

• Ergonomics: While the D7200 feels a little small in my hands, there's enough consistency between button placement and the bulk of my other Nikons that my fingers instinctively know where to go and don't struggle finding key buttons or dials. I purchased the MB-D15 battery pack for the camera (I can't live without the vertical controls and like the extra weight to help balance the big lenses I'm prone to using) - and the same comment regarding my fingers "knowing" where to go (to toggle AF brackets, to find the command and subcommand dials, etc.) applies to vertical shooting too.

• User Interface Pros/Cons: Since I discovered the U1 and U2 stored user settings on my D7000 a few years back, I've LOVED them. This love affair continues on the D7200. To me it makes SO much sense to be able to tie together and store all shooting menu AND autofocus functions in a single place and to be able to toggle between them in an instant. So I can go from my day-to-day U1 settings (aperture priority with aperture set to f8, AF-C single bracket autofocus, Auto ISO set to Auto shutter speed) to my "action" U2 settings (aperture priority with aperture set to f4, AF-C 51-point Dynamic-area AF, Auto ISO set to 1/1600s) with the turn of a button. Note to Nikon: PLEASE add this functionality to your pro level cameras. Oh, and if I'm asking for things right now - please talk to your marketing department and explain to them when a marketing embellishment becomes a lie (i.e., 12 or 13 does NOT = 18).

On the negative side, the biggest omission for me while looking through the viewfinder is NOT being able to see the ISO value selected by the Auto ISO function (as it is displayed within the viewfinder on my FX cameras). I use Auto ISO on a near full-time basis, and the actual ISO selected is something I DO want to know all the time. So for me this is a BIG negative. And, I am still waiting for SOME camera maker to start providing me with an instantaneous read-out of depth of field (DoF) - the camera already knows the lens in use and focal length, distance-to-subject, aperture chosen....so it should be a simple matter to program in a DoF calculation and then provide a single readout of DoF in metric or imperial units. Now THAT would be useful! ;-)

• Build Quality? At the "gestalt at first grab" level the D7200 seems to have a very good build quality - right up there with the D800 series cameras. While we know from Nikon's marketing (oh, oh...another marketing bullet point, just like burst size) that the camera is "environmentally sealed", it will take a while to judge how robust and durable the camera actually is...

• Image Quality? I'm going to hold off commenting on this for a bit...possibly until my preferred raw converter (Phase One's Capture One Pro) is updated to support the D7200 raw format. Until that point I can't make truly meaningful image quality comparisons to my other Nikon bodies. Time permitting I WILL post some hi-res sample shots on this website in the coming days - along with the appropriate "hey...processed with Capture NX-D" caveats!"

My overall first impressions? I purchased this camera to complement my D4s for wildlife photography. My first two critical factors in selecting it for this use were its resolution and DX sensor format - together they should provide me with MORE total pixels dedicated to my subject and thus - under certain shooting conditions that will be less broad than I can capture images with using my D4s - justify the purchase by giving me some unique output (photos!). I did not expect this camera to be a stellar low-light performer and my very preliminary ISO testing indicates my expectation was reasonable.

Two other features of the camera that were critical to my decision to purchase the camera were the improved autofocus system AND the improved buffer depth and burst size. Early indications are that the AF system will not disappoint. Unfortunately, the burst size of 14-bit raw compressed images doesn't come close to matching what Nikon claims - unless you consider a 50% exaggeration close. If Nikon had marketed burst size values that more accurately reflected real-world use I would have not bought the camera (and I am already - after two days use - regularly running into situations where I'm "buffering out" and being limited by burst size). The possibility exists that my copy of the D7200 is substandard with respect to burst size (which, of course, would speak to quality control), but I would advise that users who are considering purchasing this camera AND who are making that decision largely or partly due to burst size proceed with the appropriate caution (as in...ask to test out one BEFORE buying it!).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

25 March 2015: Long Lens Wars III - Autofocus Performance at 550mm...

In this entry I compare the ability of 4 lenses and/or lens plus teleconverter combinations to accurately track and focus on the leading edge of a fast-moving subject running directly at them. The lenses tested here are: The Nikkor AF-S 400mm f2.8E VR plus TC-14EIII; the Nikkor 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR plus TC-14EIII; the Sigma Sport 150-600mm; and the Tamron 150-600mm. This test was performed at 550mm on all lenses and/or lens/TC combinations.

Why 550mm? Several reasons. First, many users of the Tamron 150-600mm zoom have reported that it is "soft" at 600mm, but sharpness increases if you just back off the zoom "a little". In my focus-tracking autofocus (AF) tests at 600mm the Tamron lens performed quite poorly, and I suggested one possible reason was simply because the overall image quality itself was suspect at 600mm (i.e., soft), thus leading me to classify many Tamron images as "soft" (where at least PART of the softness wasn't due to autofocus misses). Second, another competing lens many users will consider in their purchasing "debate" is the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR - and when the TC-14EIII teleconverter is added to it the total focal length is 550mm. Thus, they may be curious how that lens-TC combination fares against the Sigma and the Tamron zooms. Finally, I own, use, and love the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR lens - add the TC-14EIII to that lens and you have a top-notch 550mm prime lens (one whose images can go head-to-head with the Nikkor 600mm f4 VR, even when you upsize the 550mm images to match the magnification of the images taken with the 600mm f4). So...it is of interest at least to me to see how the "super prime" 400mm plus 1.4x TC does against the new ultra-zooms.

I tested the focus-tracking ability of the lenses using the same "Jose the mediocre dog running directly at me" protocol described in my entry below from March 24 that was entitled "Long Lens Wars II - Autofocus Performance at 600mm..."

METHODOLOGY: As per my 24 March blog entry below. In the test described today I had a little more light to work with, so I bumped the shutter speed slightly (to 1/2000s). And, I decided I wanted to "push" the lenses a little more, so the aperture chosen was "wide open" at 550mm (so f6.3). Note that an aperture of f6.3 is NOT available for the Nikkor 80-400 when the TC-14EIII is matched with it - for that lens/TC combo I shot wide open as well, but it was at f8.

RESULTS: Here's what I found at 550mm:

1. Overall Summary: The Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR plus TC-14EIII performed brilliantly - arguably even better than the 600mm f4 VR in the previous test. The Sigma 150-600 zoom placed second again with a performance I'd describe as very good. The Nikkor 80-400mm VR zoom plus TC-14EIII fell behind the Sigma in autofocus performance, but image quality of those images that were in-focus was quite good. The Tamron 150-600 did slightly better at this focal length than at 600mm, but produced almost no "very sharp" images - and overall image quality of ALL its images was noticeably off that of the other lenses in the test (primarily in contrast).

2. More Details:

Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR plus 1.4x TC: 67 images captured. 56 (84%) very sharp; 9 (13%) moderately sharp; 2 (3%) soft. This means 65 of 67 (97%) could be classified as keepers.

Sigma Sport 150-600mm: 65 images captured. 13 (20%) very sharp; 34 (52%) moderately sharp; 18 (28%) soft. This means 47 of 65 (72%) could be classified as keepers.

Nikkor 80-400 plus 1.4x TC: 62 images captured. 12 (19%) very sharp; 25 (40%) moderately sharp; 25 (40%) soft. This means 37 of 62 (59%) could be classified as keepers.

Tamron 150-600mm: 66 images captured. 4 (6%) very sharp; 38 (58%) moderately sharp; 24 (36%) soft. This means 42 of 66 (64%) could be classified as keepers.

3. "Representative" Sample Images: Here's a "typical" image from each lens (typical in this case being defined as a representative image from the sharpness class with the most images for each lens). Note that all 4 images below were processed identically (and each image is annotated with the critical details). Best to view images at 100% (1:1):

Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR plus 1.4x TC sample: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)
Sigma Sport 150-600mm sample: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.6 MB)
Nikkor 80-400 plus 1.4x TC sample: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.6 MB)
Tamron 150-600mm sample: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)

DISCUSSION:

Overall the results of this test paralleled those of the test done at a 600mm focal length. The Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR prime - even with a teleconverter in use - absolutely kicked butt! This doesn't surprise me at all - not only is the 400mm f2.8E (and its precursor) optically superb and equipped with a blazingly quick autofocus system, but it also takes to teleconverters better than any lens I have ever shot. In fact, it's my view that the 400mm f2.8E VR - when paired with a 1.4x TC (either Nikon version) - can go head-to-head with the 600mm f4 VR. In this test the Nikkor 400 plus TC had the highest keeper ratio (97%) I have ever recorded in this test.

What about the Sigma 150-600mm? While the number and percentage of very sharp shots fell slightly compared to the test at 600mm, the number of moderately sharp shots AND the overall keeper rate increased. So I'd describe the results of the Sigma as surprisingly good and encouraging (again!). There are definitely SOME shots you'd miss with the Sigma that you wouldn't miss with the Nikkor 400mm plus TC-14EIII, but realistically you WOULD end up capturing a LOT of high-quality shots of fast-moving subjects with the Sigma. And...compared to the Nikkor 400mm "super-prime", you'd do it with an investment of around $10,000 less!

The Tamron 150-600mm? Overall it performed a LITTLE better than at 600mm, with most of the improvement coming in the number of "moderately" sharp shots it captured. The number of "very sharp" shots did increase as well, but was still very low. And, even though it's unrelated to autofocus performance, the overall lower image quality (primarily in overall image contrast) is definitely becoming noticeable. At this point in my testing I can't really recommend using (or buying) the Tamron lens if your goal includes capturing quality images of fast-moving objects at long focal lengths (so it's probably NOT the lens to go for if you're into birds-in-flight images). To be blunt, based on what I've already learned about this lens, I don't think discerning photographers would be thrilled with it.

And how about the Nikkor 80-400mm plus the 1.4x TC? To be honest - it did better than I expected. While the overall keeper rate was almost the same as the Tamron, it did produce a significantly higher number (and higher percentage) of very sharp captures. And, the keepers (which were judged solely on autofocus performance) had better contrast and overall better image appearance than those shot with the Tamron. So I'd argue that even with a TC in use, the Nikkor AF-S 80-400 is out-performing the Tamron. But the Tamron IS cheaper.

At this point in my comparative testing the Sigma 150-600mm is definitely out-performing the Tamron 150-600mm. The Sigma is not matching the best Nikkor super-telephoto primes in autofocus performance, but it's not lagging that far behind either. Compare the autofocus performance of the Sigma with the Nikkor primes and THEN compare the prices. The value proposition of the Sigma starts to look awfully good!

What's coming up next? Let's lose the TC's for the final AF performance test - so it will be the same lenses compared at 400mm. Coming soon!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

24 March 2015: D7200 Arrives!

It never rains but it pours. I've been not-so-patiently waiting for various bits of gear for months with almost nothing rolling in. Now, in one week, I've received both the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom and now (just minutes ago) my D7200, plus its MB-D15 battery grip.

My main focus over the next two weeks will be on completing my comparative testing of the Sigma (and Tamron) 150-600mm lenses, but I will be sprinkling in entries on the D7200 as I learn noteworthy things about that camera.

One further note on the D7200: I was made aware it was coming my way last week, but my source of the camera (legitimate source!) wasn't sure if there was a shipping embargo still on the camera or not (meaning - I was asked NOT to mention the model name of the new DX camera coming my way until he had a chance to check whether or not he was supposed to "hold" the camera before shipping it out). Thus my somewhat cryptic references late last week to a "new DX camera" coming my way - that same reference that got many gums aflappin' about me possibly testing a D400! Repeat after me: There is no D400 (for now). ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

24 March 2015: Long Lens Wars II - Autofocus Performance at 600mm...

In this entry I compare the ability of 3 lenses - the Nikkor 600mm f4, the Sigma Sport 150-600mm, and the Tamron 150-600mm - to accurately track and focus on the leading edge of a fast-moving subject running directly at them. This test was performed at 600mm on all three lenses. In many of the reviews of the two zooms in question the only information you can find on autofocus (AF) performance are contained in statements like "the focus speed seemed snappy and crisp" or "...it takes less than a second for the lens to go from closest focus to infinity." As a wildlife photographer I find these kind of comments somewhat less than useful - I want to know something quite different, specifically this:"How do the lenses differ in their ability to track a fast moving subject, including one that is moving directly at me?"

To answer this question to my own satisfaction, I have devised a test using a wildlife "proxy" - one of my Portuguese Water Dogs (Jose). Jose is only a mediocre dog (no "good boy" for him, tho' "mediocre boy" doesn't have the same ring to it). But he runs VERY fast, and he loves to repeatedly run directly at me while my D4s is zipping off shots at 11 fps. Good treats and many cuddles (upon the completion of each test run) ensures he continues to enjoy this testing protocol. Photographers the world over owe Jose a major debt of gratitude.

I like the "Jose running at me" test for several reasons. First, it is very repeatable, both within sessions (that can last almost forever as Jose is the most energetic dog I have ever seen) and between sessions that may be separated by long periods of time. Second, it is a very demanding test of an autofocus system. Not only is Jose moving directly at me at a very high rate of speed, but the part of him I focus on (his head) is bobbing up and down, really challenging an AF system to track the leading edge over a large number of AF brackets. Third, it is a great proxy for fast moving wildlife - such as running mammals or birds in flight. So...it has a real world correlate for me. When I initially began conducting this test years ago (using bodies like Nikon's D2x) the "keeper ratios" of images it produced was under 50%. As time has gone on I have seen the keeper ratio (of newer cameras and newer lenses) go WAY up, to the point where I now regularly record keeper ratios in the 90%+ range. But...put on a substandard lens (with respect to AF performance) - or a consumer level camera - and the keeper rate just plunges. In other words, it's tough enough to separate out the performers from the pretenders!

METHODOLOGY: Here is an overview of the testing procedure:

Image Capture: I set up my camera (in this case a D4s) and the lens to be tested on a firm tripod. I then take Jose about 65 meters away and politely ask him to sit down. And then I suggest he stays put. He obliges. I then walk back to my camera and ensure all settings are correct. In the results reported today I used Aperture Priority Automatic, Auto ISO with minimum shutter speed set at 1/1600s and aperture set to f8. Autofocus settings were Continuous-servo AF (AF-C) and 21-point Dynamic Area AF. AF-C priority was set to "Release" (meaning images would be captured based solely on the shutter release, whether they were in focus or not). Frame rate set to 11 fps. VR is set to OFF.

I then call Jose and he literally explodes towards me. Once he has begun his wild run I initiate focus, and instantly begin ripping off frames at 11 fps. I continue until he gets to me, which is usually in about 6 seconds. And I normally end up with about 65 frames to compare. After sufficient cuddling and wrestling with Jose to make him happy (and a few treats) I change lenses on the camera and repeat the procedure. Much to Jose's chagrin, I normally stop after 5 or so runs.

Image Scrutiny and Data Analysis: The raw images are downloaded into Lightroom for perusal. I review each image at 100% magnification (AKA 1:1) and check for sharpness of the leading edge, which happens to be Jose's nose. All images are classified as Very Sharp (the individual hairs on the edge of Jose's lips AND his nose "crinkles" are easily discernable), Moderately Sharp (slightly softer BUT still sharp enough that with careful selective sharpening the nose crinkles and individual hairs on lip edge could be made easily discernable), or Soft (no amount of sharpening could separate out nose crinkles or hairs). Note that my first two categories (when combined) correlate well with what I would consider "keepers" in my regular shooting and the "Soft" category would be shots I would definitely turf. And...I tally them all up and report my results. Simple as pie!

RESULTS: Here's what I found at 600mm:

1. Overall Summary: The Nikkor 600mm f4 VR performed amazingly well. The Sigma Sport 150-600mm performed fairly well. The Tamron 150-600mm performed very poorly.

2. More Details:

Nikkor 600mm f4 VR: 67 images captured. 56 (84%) very sharp; 7 (10%) moderately sharp; 4 (6%) soft. This means 63 of 67 (94%) could be classified as keepers.

Sigma Sport 150-600mm: 67 images captured. 18 (27%) very sharp; 23 (34%) moderately sharp; 26 (39%) soft. This means 41 of 67 (61%) could be classified as keepers.

Tamron 150-600mm: 65 images captured. 1 (1.5%) very sharp; 23 (35%) moderately sharp; 41 (63%) soft. This means 24 of 65 (37%) could be classified as keepers.

3. "Representative" Sample Images: Here's a "typical" image from each lens (typical in this case being defined as a representative image from the sharpness class with the most images for each lens). Note that all 3 images below were processed identically (and each image is annotated with the critical details. Best to view images at 100% (1:1):

Nikkor 600mm f4 VR (Very Sharp) sample: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.6 MB)
Sigma Sport 150-600mm (Moderately Sharp) sample: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.9 MB)
Tamron 150-600mm (Soft) sample: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)

DISCUSSION:

Focus-tracking of a fast-moving object that is moving directly at you is a very tough test for a lens and camera combination to excel in, and particularly tough for a 3rd party lens. Nikon has a big advantage over 3rd party lens makers because they functionally have to "reverse engineer" the AF system of the host camera. So in this test both the Sigma and the Tamron lens were at a disadvantage. It's my experience that the best prime lenses focus-track better than any zooms, so that's one more reason to possibly explain why both the Sigma and the Tamron performed more poorly than the Nikkor 600mm prime in this test. To be honest, I expected a POORER performance out of the Sigma lens in this test. This IS a demanding test, and a keeper ratio of 61% is not bad at all. Many natural subjects - such as large birds in flight like eagles - move either slower or more predictably (with less bobbing action) than Jose does when running. Part of my testing of the Sigma lens is to determine whether or not I will keep and use it for myself. I find this result encouraging - and it makes me think I just might keep this lens (pending, of course, more testing on sharpness, optical stabilization, etc.).

What about the Tamron? Well - let's be fair. The Sigma costs about twice the price of the Tamron. And the Nikkor 600mm isn't far off TEN TIMES the price of the Tamron (and almost five times the price of the Sigma). If the Tamron performed as well as the other two lenses I'd be scratching my head and wondering why the heck I ever laid out the money for the 600! But in absolute terms I personally wouldn't be too hopeful about using the Tamron to capture challenging action effectively. But I have no doubt the AF system can handle static subjects and some slow-moving subjects reasonably well. One other point is worth discussing. Many of the other reviews of this lens have reported that it's weakest point optically is at 600mm. It's not impossible that simple softness of the lens is interacting somewhat (at this focal length) with a slightly less competent AF system to produce the observed low keeper ratio. I did notice that even in shots where the focus was simply behind the leading edge (Jose's nose and face) that the chest region that WAS in focus was still softer than with the Sigma lens (the Nikkor missed so infrequently that the chest region isn't comparable, as it was outside the sharpest DoF region on the images).

What's coming up next? Over the next few days I'll report the results of a similar AF test using 4 lenses at 550mm - including the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR plus TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter, both the Sigma and Tamron @ 550mm, and the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm plus TC-14EIII. Following that I'll pare back to 400mm. Within the week I'm pretty sure we'll all have a good handle on how the AF systems of these lenses stack up in the real world!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

24 March 2015: Arca Swiss Compatible Tripod Foot for Sigma Sport 150-600mm

Late yesterday afternoon a regular follower of this blog informed me that an Arca Swiss compatible tripod foot for the Sigma Sport 150-600mm was in the works. It's coming directly from Sigma - information about the foot available here:

Sigma Sport 150-600mm Arca Swiss Tripod Foot

According to the information on Sigma's website, the foot is extra long (it looks MASSIVE in the photo at the link above) to allow maximum flexibility in finding the "balance point" on the lens (which varies, of course, with the weight of the camera body attached to the lens). The foot also reportedly has "...more space between the lens and device, and the grip has improved the usage as a handle for carrying."

"Launch date" and pricing on the foot is still TBD. When I hear more I'll pass it along.

Thanks to Paul I. for this tidbit of info.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

23 March 2015: Long Lens Wars I - Sigma's Odd Twist...

After using the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom for less than a week, I can already say that this lens is exceeding my expectations in a number of areas (build quality, optics, AF performance, etc.). I think it's fair to say the Sigma put a lot of thought and work into the design and construction of this lens. Which makes a few niggly little things hard to understand, including:

1. The Ol' Reverse Twist Trick: I currently own 7 zoom lenses - 5 Nikkors, 1 Tamron, and one Sigma. With the exception of the Sigma, ALL of them are "twist zooms" and, more importantly, all of them twist in the same direction to increase the focal length. And, of course, all but the Sigma twist the same way to decrease the focal length. Which means, the Sigma twists in the opposite direction to all the other zooms to increase (or decrease) the focal length. This might seem like a trivial thing, but it translates directly into awkwardness in a field setting - over the weekend I missed a number of shots of wildlife because I twisted the zoom the wrong way, and by the time I twisted it back the pose/eye-contact/whatever I wanted to captured was gone and I missed the shot. It's tempting to say "Hey...just get used to it!" But the reality is I own 7 zooms, and use them all. So it's likely that my "muscle and neural connections" that know (at the subconscious level) how to twist a zoom to increase or decrease the focal length will remain as they are now. So...if I choose to keep and continue to use the Sigma lens I'll continue to have this problem.

Fortunately there's a pseudo-workaround to this little(?) issue - Sigma has done a good job on making this lens both a twist-zoom or a push-pull zoom, complete with building in a nice rubber ring near the distal end of the lens to facilitate push-pulling of the zoom. So now all I have to burn into my subconscious is that when the heaviest of my zoom lenses is in my hands it's a push-pull zoom (and NOT a twist zoom!). I'm not sure that's much better or easier, but...

2. That Non-removable Tripod Collar and Tripod Foot: Many zoom lenses - including the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm zoom and the Tamron 150-600mm zoom - have either removable tripod collars OR easily removed tripod feet. The Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom takes the same approach as many super-telephoto lenses and has a non-removable tripod collar and a "not-conveniently-removable" tripod foot (you CAN remove the foot if you have a 3mm hex key). This is not necessarily that big of a deal, but with a little thought Sigma could have changed a slight negative into a "neutral" or slightly positive thing. Last week I checked if anyone (e.g., Really Right Stuff) had an Arca Swiss-compatible foot coming for the Sigma 150-600 and found that no one was planning on doing one. BUT, if Sigma had VERY SLIGHTLY tweaked the 4-bolt pattern that holds the foot onto the lens collar (by the tiniest of amounts), then any Arca Swiss-compatible replacement foot for Nikon's big super-telephotos would have worked on it. As it now stands, to mount this lens on an Arca Swiss standard tripod head you have to mount a lens plate on the bottom of the foot, adding more weight to the lens.

Back to using the 3mm hex key to remove Sigma's tripod foot. If you are really concerned about making this lens as light as possible for hand-holding it (or, for carrying it) note that removal of the tripod foot (and bolts) saves 112 gm (4 oz). Removing of the foot may also make the lens easier to fit into some camera packs. Removing the foot only takes a few minutes (with that 3mm hex key), but that's long enough to guarantee you probably won't do it on a whim. If I still own the Sigma 150-600mm lens by the time I'm doing my spring photo tours that are largely based out of an inflatable Zodiac and where it isn't practical to use tripods (e.g., my Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Photo Tour), I'll probably be removing the foot for the duration of that trip...

As a final comment on the Sigma tripod foot - for obvious reasons I don't own any Canon super-telephoto lenses and thus can't check if the bolt pattern on the Canon lenses matches that of the Sigma 150-600mm zoom. So...I'd super appreciate it if anyone who owns a Canon super-telephoto AND the Sigma 150-600 could check out those lenses to see if bolt patterns on the tripod feet match up. If they do (and we can use Arca Swiss-compatible replacement tripod feet for Canon lenses on our Nikon-mount Sigmas) you'll make some Nikon shooters happy. What? You don't care about us? ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

23 March 2015: Long Lens Wars - A Few Comments on Coming Blog Posts...

In the coming days and weeks I'll be posting a lot of equipment-related entries on this blog. Many will be related to my findings while field-testing and doing a lot of head-to-head comparisons of the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom to the Tamron 150-600mm zoom AND to the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm zoom. Some of the comparisons will also involve testing the 3 zooms against Nikon super-telephoto prime lenses, specifically the Nikkor AF-S 400mm f2.8E VR and the Nikkor AF-S 600mm f4 VR. While I am keenly aware that a zoom with a wide focal range (like the 3 in question in the coming posts) is a very different "animal" than a super-telephoto lens (and they differ dramatically in price), I know there are many users out there who wonder things like "Are there really enough real-world differences between the Sigma Sport 150-600mm @ 600mm and a super-telephoto like the 600mm f4 to justify shelling out the $10,000 or so for the big prime?" Because I have all the lenses in question the same or similar questions (e.g., "Can I get by today with JUST my Sigma Sport zoom or should I haul along my 600 f4 too?") occur to me. And, the ONLY way I can satisfactorily answer those questions for myself is to do a LOT of comparison testing. And, I have no reason to keep the results to myself...thus the coming blog entries!

Note that I could hold off until ALL my testing of the zooms and primes is complete before revealing any of my result. But, given I must fit lens testing, image scrutinization, and writing up the results between other activities (no one is paying me to do this testing), it could be quite some time before I can produce the final review(s). So...to avoid making those wanting the results wait for ages before having enough info to make their own purchase decision I will be making regular incremental updates here.

Please also note that I am primarily a wildlife photographer and at this point I use a Nikon D4s for the majority of my serious wildlife shooting. So the BULK of my testing will be performed with a Nikon D4s. That being said, I will be doing SOME testing with both a Nikon D800e AND - in just a few days - Nikon's newest "flagship" DX-format camera - a D7200 (no...NOT a D400...which, to my knowledge, does not exist). Of course, there will be blog entries coming very soon that are fully dedicated to my experiences with the D7200.

Because of the way I will be incrementally reporting my findings during the "Long Lens Wars" some readers may not be aware of my field-testing protocols and philosophy (which are clearly stated the official Field Tests section of this website). So...here's a few words on that subject:

Field Testing Protocols and Philsophy:

I test my gear quite extensively in an effort to discover how it will perform for me (using my own shooting style) in a field situation. I don't do these tests for profit, but simply to understand how the product in question will work for me in the field and thus so I can understand how I can use the product to better create images that I can sell. I test gear under field conditions only (no lab work) and use the same techniques I'm likely to use when I'm shooting the particular item in the field. While I do some of my testing very methodically, much of it is pure "field shooting". I do not shoot images of targets under rigidly controlled lab conditions - I shoot images of wildlife (or "proxies", such as my Portuguese Water Dogs) in the field. It's not critical to me to produce results that are generalizable or that are rigorous enough to be published in a peer-reviewed journal - I care about how I can use the gear in the field and how to get the results I need to sell images! While some "lab tests" have a real-world correlate that translates into a limitation in the field, I find an increasing number of tests quite esoteric and the "differences" between two products is real only in a statistical sense (and has no real correlate in producing a quality image, which is NOT a pure science). There are lab-style tests that I keep track of for interest's sake - for instance, I find dxomark.com's published values for dynamic range and for low light performance interesting and useful, but in the case of low-light performance their numbers only have value if you are comparing camera's of identical resolution (their "normalization" process for comparing cameras of different resolution renders their results almost useless, unless your goals is always to make a 8" x 12" print!).

So...stay tuned - lots of info is coming!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

21 March 2015: Killing the Rumours...No D400 Coming My Way...

Based on a flurry of email I received late yesterday, it would appear that some are guessing that a slightly cryptic comment I made yesterday about initiating testing next week on a new DX camera meant that I was receiving a pre-production D400 for testing. That is definitely NOT the case. To be clear:

1. To date, I have never received any products from Nikon (for testing or any other reason) other than through the normal distribution channel (the retail sales channel).

2. To date, ALL my field-testing of photographic products has been for my own purposes. These purposes include thoroughly understanding the capabilities of each product so that I can use them most efficiently AND so that I know them inside and out and can thus assist all the Nikon-shooting clients on my photo tours with their gear. I see no reason whatsoever to keep my findings "secret", so - time permitting - I report virtually all the significant results of my field-testing on this website. If others benefit from the information - great!

3. I receive no "inside" information from Nikon, nor have I signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement (a NDA) with them.

The fact that I have no "official" relationship with Nikon has a big benefit both for me and for those following this website: it leaves me totally free to report what I discover about their equipment with absolutely no bias. If I find that a particular piece of equipment is of inferior quality (i.e., it sucks), I can say that "this thing sucks". For the record, I can't recall ever having to say that about a Nikon product, which is pretty much why I use and like their products. Hold-on...now that I think about it...there have been a few products - like the OLD 2x teleconverter - that were kind of sub-standard. That TC really sucked!

Back to the D400: My thinking on that camera has been unchanged since the D7000 was first announced - that it just isn't going to happen. I haven't seen a single thing in Nikon's product strategy that would suggest a D400 is coming. I don't think they'd be trickling down industry-leading technology (like the improved AF system) into the D7000 line if a D400 was imminent. I hope I am wrong on this, but I don't think so.

I have ordered a D7200 because I have given up on a D400 - I think this product line going to remain as the "flagship" DX-format body and will not be eclipsed by a higher-end DX model line (of course, in a few years there will be a replacement for the D7200). I also think the D7200 WILL complement the D4s nicely in a wildlife photography kit (owing to its 24 MP sensor, its improved AF, the Expeed 4 sensor, etc.). I AM looking forward to receiving that camera and seeing what it will do. Of course I wish it shot at 10 fps in bursts of 50 or more raw images like a D400 likely would...but that's why I have a D4s.

As for the cryptic nature of my comment - there was (and is) a reason for that. But I don't think any Nikon-o-phile should have too tough of a time figuring out what recently announced DX-format camera I'll be receiving soon and testing for my own reasons. If you need MORE of a hint - look up the year of the Munich Olympics. Take the last two digits in that calendar year and put a "D" in front of them, and then place two zeroes after them. Presto - you've got it!

Clear as mud? ;-)

Cheers...

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Brad

20 March 2015: Sigma 150-600mm Sport: Arrival & First Impressions...

As indicated in my last post, my copy of the new Sigma 150-600mm Sport ultra-zoom arrived in my hands this past Monday. While I had a crazy busy week (primarily preparing and delivering a presentation for public consumption on BC's current and scientifically bankrupt wolf cull), I have begun testing the lens - including both some initial "just shooting" with it sessions and some head-to-head testing sessions against the Tamron 150-600 and some selected Nikkor lenses. I haven't had a chance to fully scrutinize the results yet - expect to start seeing those next week. Note that my initial testing was all done using a D4s body - the logic behind this is that my D4s is my primary tool for wildlife shooting and my own primary concern is how the lenses in question perform for wildlife photography. Ergo...I'm testing the lenses primarily with my D4s. Note that by early next week I will also be testing the lenses with a new DX-format camera body from Nikon that I have high hopes to adding into my arsenal this spring as a "complementary camera body to my D4s for wildlife shooting" (I leave it to you to guess exactly what that means!).

Do I have any early impressions? Yes.

First...build quality. On the positive side...the build quality seems great - along the lines of Nikon's super-telephotos (and...to be blunt...in a different league from both the Tamron 150-600 and the Nikkor AF-S 80-400). Simply put - it feels bombproof. The zoom action is exceptionally smooth (and the actual act of zooming the lens is WAY quieter than either that of the Tamron or the Nikon), the finish is excellent, and the action of all the toggle buttons on the lens is smooth yet positive. The "twist-it-OR-push-pull-it" choice of zoom actions (including a the presence of a grippy rubber ring near the distal end of the lens to facilitate push-pull zooming) is nice. I like that the lens comes with a REAL lens hood (so much less flimsy than the hood of either the Tamron or the Nikon 80-400) that will take a beating. I also like the fact that the zoom can be locked at ANY of a number of focal lengths (i.e., locked at any position that has a labelled focal length on the barrel - so at 150, 180, 200, 250, 300, 400, 500, and 600mm) and that they put thought into how that locking mechanism really works - just twist the zoom ring a LITTLE harder when locked and the locking mechanism releases. Quite cool.

On the negative side...the seemingly bombproof build quality of the lens comes with a pretty significant weight penalty. Sigma's claimed weight of 2860 gm (6.3 lb) seems to be dead-on (according to my scales), but it's an absolutely stripped down weight (excluding caps and lens hood). Oh, and the beefy lens hood itself (that I DO like) hits the scales at 290 gm (.64 lb) all on its own. Carrying weight of the lens (so add in lens caps, lens hood, and...for most users...an Arca Swiss plate on the lens foot) comes in at 3330 gm (7.3 lb), which is considerably more than the carrying weight of the Tamron 150-600 (2165 gm or 4.8 lb) or the Nikkor 80-400 (1844 gm or 4.1 lb). Unlike BOTH the Tamron and the Nikkor zooms the lens collar on the Sigma is NOT removable - so those who choose to hand-hold the lenses (and in the process would likely take off the lens collars on either the Nikkor or Tamron zooms) face an even steeper weight differential with the Sigma lens. Note that the stock tripod collar and foot does not have Arca Swiss compatibility (why on earth don't manufacturers add "Arca Swiss grooves" their stock tripod feet??) so you are forced to add even MORE weight (about 80 gm or 3 oz) to the Sigma lens by attaching a lens plate. I checked with Really Right Stuff and Wimberley this morning and neither have plans to make an Arca Swiss compatible replacement tripod foot for this lens - so you have to live with the extra weight of the beefy foot and associated lens plate.

There is a reality check required here. Anyone moving "up" to this lens from smaller lenses (e.g., a 70-200mm zoom) will likely instantly notice and "focus" in on how heavy it seems. But, many others - like me - who are moving "down" (at least in size) to this lens from super-telephotos like 400mm f2.8 lenses or 600mm f4 lenses will think "wow...that's pretty light and compact for a 600mm lens!". Frame of reference!

What about lens length? Carrying length (caps on, hood reversed) of the Sigma is about 2 cm or just under an inch longer than the Tamron (Sigma = 303mm or 11.9"; Tamron = 283mm or 11.1"). The Nikkor AF-S 80-400 is significantly shorter than both - coming in at a carrying length of 228mm or 9". In my world, this means that EITHER the Sigma or the Tamron are going to spend a lot of time INSIDE a backpack-style camera pack, but with the Nikon 80-400 I have the option of carrying it in my hip-mounted Think Tank Photo holster (with pro body attached and featuring real quick access) or inside a backpack. For me this is significant.

Any "performance" first impressions? Nothing firm yet, but after my first 1,000 or so shots I have the gut feel that the AF is faster (and better able to track fast moving subjects than the Tamron). One other gut feel I have after an incredibly quick scan of comparative images (at about 50% magnification and NOT pixel-peeped yet) is that the images are of slightly higher contrast than those captured with the Tamron lenses. Note that both of these observations (AF speed and contrast of images) are just gut feels - I may have different conclusions after more shooting and a more detailed scrutiny of the shots.

Any other early observations? Yes. I have done some close-distance (6m or just under 20') testing of optical performance @ 600mm - comparing it to both the Tamron and to the Nikon AF-S 600mm f4 prime. I haven't had a chance to pixel-peep the results yet, but even at a glance I can say that BOTH the Tamron and the Sigma exhibit significant focus breathing, meaning that when focusing closely the focal length shortens significantly from that indicated on the zoom ring. A quick perusal of the test images seems to indicate that the focus breathing looks about similar in magnitude on the Tamron and the Sigma. I will perform follow-up tests on this - personally I want to know at what camera-to-subject distance the two lenses ARE a true 600mm lens (or a true 400mm lens, etc.).

What? No sample images? Nope...sorry...have been too busy this week for image processing. Oh, what the heck...here's one quick shot I grabbed of a cute little squirrel. This shot about 90% of full-frame, 600mm (or less...focus breathing!), 1/400s, f9, ISO 1800 with D4s (reduced to 2400 pixels on long-axis with Photoshop CC 2014):

Squirrel with Sigma 150-600mm @ 600mm: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

Stay tuned...I'll have much more to say about these ultra-zooms (and perhaps that new "want it for D4s complementarity when shooting wildlife" DX body) in the coming days and weeks! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

12 March 2015: FINALLY - The Sigma Sport 150-600mm Ultra-zoom En Route...

After months of shipping delays and/or product shortages in Canada, I got word yesterday that my copy of the Sigma 150-600mm ultra-zoom was on the final leg of its destination to me. I may get it as soon as Friday, and hopefully no later than Monday.

Once the lens arrives I will begin testing it against a number of other lenses - including some top-notch primes such as Nikon's latest super-telephoto, the AF-S 400mm f2.8E VR. But the bulk of my comparative testing of the lens will put it head-to-head against two other wide-range zooms, Nikon's own AF-S 80-400mm VR and the Tamron 150-600mm. Regular followers of this blog will know that while I found the Tamron 150-600 surprisingly competent and a good value proposition, it didn't succeed in displacing the excellent Nikkor 80-400 from my wildlife kit (and I will not be keeping the Tamron zoom).

The Sigma Sport 150-600 is considerably heavier than - and about twice the price of - the Tamron 150-600. To be honest, because of my past experience testing another "high-end" Sigma lens (the 120-300mm f2.8 Sigma zoom), I expect the Sigma to be very good optically - and likely better than the Tamron in this regard. How it will compare to the Nikon 80-400 VR AND to some key Nikon primes will be exceptionally interesting (at least to me!). I further expect the AF system will be faster than that of the Tamron (especially in focus-tracking of fast-moving subjects, like birds in flight), but only time and testing will tell. I did find the AF system of the 120-300mm f2.8 Sigma lens to be quite good, but not as good as Nikon's own high-end lenses.

I look forward to determining if the Sigma Sport 150-600mm will earn itself a permanent spot in my wildlife kit. You can look forward to some no-BS feedback on the comparative performance of these lenses...none of the companies sponsor me and I allow no advertising on this website - all that matters to me is the performance of the products...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

9 March 2015: The Nikon D7200 as a Wildlife Camera?

Last week Nikon introduced their latest DX-format DSLR - the D7200. Those wanting to see all the specs of the camera can find them here on dpreview.com's website. The key upgrades in the camera over the model it is replacing (the D7100) include a significantly larger buffer (which permits longer bursts of shots at the highest frame rate), and an improved autofocus system (purportedly with better low-light performance).

Since the announcement of the new camera I've been receiving a lot of questions about it. Here are my answers to the questions I have been getting...

1. Do I think the D7200 will be a good camera for wildlife shooting?

Short answer - yes, it should be a reasonably proficient wildlife camera.

Longer answer: The Achilles Heel of the D7100 for wildlife shooting was its extremely small buffer (only 6 raw images - or one second of shooting at its fastest frame rate). The D7200's buffer will hold (or give you a burst of) 100 JPEG images, 18 14-bit lossless compressed raw images, or 27 12-bit lossless compressed raw images. While this can STILL be limiting in some situations (I recall Canon 1D-X users growling last autumn during my Great Bear Rainforest photo tour when their cameras slowed down after about 44 raw images and they saw my D4s was still going at 11 fps after 90 raw images), an 18-image buffer is a WHOLE lot better than a 6-image buffer!

And...because wildlife shooters tend to do a LOT of shooting in low-light (like at dawn or dusk), IF the new AF system on the camera does work significantly better in low-light (as its specs suggest), that will be another beneficial feature for wildlife shooting.

2. Any reservations or concerns about the camera for wildlife shooting?

Yes. While we all know that ISO performance seems to be improving all the time (even at small pixel pitches), it's a simple fact that a DX-format 24 MP camera will NOT have the same level of ISO performance of an FX-format 24 MP camera of the same generation. I do not expect the ISO performance of the D7200 to be bad, but with a pixel pitch of under 4 microns it's safe to assume that the ISO performance of the camera will not be outstanding.

There's at least one other consequence of extremely small pixel pitches that any self-respecting pixel peeper will be aware of - cameras with sensors with small pixel pitches aren't exceptionally forgiving with respect to camera shake. SO...if you are hand-holding them you may have to use higher shutter speeds than you would with cameras with larger pixel pitches. For example, it is far easier to get tack sharp shots when hand-holding a Nikon D4s (pixel pitch of about 7.2 microns) than it is with a Nikon D600/610/750 (pixel pitch of about 6 microns) or a D800/800e/810 (pixel pitch of about 4.9 microns).

Bottom line: compared to Nikon's full-frame bodies (and especially the D4s), you may have trouble getting sharp, clean (noise-free) shots if one is hand-holding a telephoto lens in low light with the D7200. And hand-holding telephoto lenses in low light is NOT an uncommon occurrence when one is shooting wildlife. In other words, the range of conditions under which you can use the D7200 to shoot wildlife with will be considerably narrower than it is with a D4s (you'll hit its limits WAY faster). But the D7200 body is about one fifth the cost of the D4s body. There's no free ride...if you want the closest thing to perfection you have to pay the big bucks. At lower prices there are always compromises.

3. Is 6 frames-per-second (fps) fast enough for wildlife shooting?

This varies completely with what your subject matter is and what it's doing. For a LOT of wildlife shooting, 6 fps is adequate. For some things (some birds in flight, some action sequences like bears sparring) you will miss some shots if 6 fps is your maximum frame rate. But this can be said for ANY frame rate - at 11 fps on my D4s I can STILL miss some things. And - going out on a bit of a limb - I will go on record saying that for MOST wildlife shooters, MOST of the time 6 fps will be adequate for wildlife shooting.

4. I already own a D800 (or D800e or D810) and can shoot that camera in DX-mode to get the "reach" of a D7200 for wildlife use - is there any reason for ME to get a D7200?

Perhaps not. A couple of things to keep in mind - in DX mode a D800-series camera has about 4800 pixels on the long axis, compared to 6000 pixels on the D7200. So shooting a 36 MP camera in DX crop mode doesn't give you quite the resolution of the D7200 (it boils down to 16 MP vs. 24 MP). And, depending on which of the D800-series cameras you have, you will be giving away 1 or 2 fps.

5. Why are so many people on online forums just ripping the D7200?

Hey, it's the internet. As a professional wildlife Nikon-using photographer I evaluate a new camera by asking the following questions:

Given the lens and accessory system I have chosen to invest in, will this new camera allow me to capture images I couldn't with another Nikon camera? And, will it enable me to capture enough of those "couldn't capture any other way images" to pay for itself (or, if was an amateur shooter, to satisfy myself)?"

In the case of the D7200 the combination of resolution, sensor size, autofocus performance, buffer size, and ISO performance should mean that under SOME conditions the D7200 will allow me to capture SOME images I could not capture with another Nikon camera (given the lenses in my hands and the situation I am in at any given time). And - said another way - I personally don't care at ALL what a Canon 7D Mk II or a Pentax model XYZ would do in the same situation - they don't work with my lenses. Personally - and while I acknowledge these things MAY be important to other shooters - I could care less if the camera has a tilt LCD or a USB 3.0 port (I use card-readers) or some new WiFi or "image-sharing" capability - to me those things are just fluff.

My judgement call is that the Nikon D7200 will give me some capabilities I don't already have and the camera WILL pay for itself in short order. And I will capture some just awful shots with it, and I'll capture some mind-blowing shots with it.

6. Will I be getting one?

Yes, I intend to get one and evaluate it as soon as possible. Note that of late Nikon Canada hasn't exactly been in a hurry to get products into the hands of photographers (what 300mm f4 VR??), so I hesitate to say WHEN I will be getting mine or start testing it. It should be sometime between April and 2016.

7. What about someone just ENTERING wildlife photography?

Well...for not much over $1000 they'll be getting a camera with the resolution of a camera costing almost $9,000 a few short years ago (the D3x) - with a better AF system, better ISO performance, and 1.5 times the reach. But no USB 3.0 and no tilt LCD (and it doesn't have a built-in cell phone either).

8. What about the D400?

I think you're looking at it (in the D7200). It's my view that since the introduction of the D7000 Nikon has been very clear in saying FX is their pro format, and DX is for the consumer-up-to-serious-enthusiast market. I could be wrong and we'll see a D400 next week, but I HIGHLY doubt it.

9. But will I unequivocally recommend the Nikon D7200?

Sorry - I won't recommend (or NOT recommend) the D7200 until I have one in my hands and have thoroughly tested it. I think it will be a good companion camera for someone shooting a D4s or other FX camera as their primary wildlife camera. And, I think it will make many amateur-but-quite-serious-wildlife shooters very happy. But the devil WILL be in the details - exactly how good the AF system is, exactly how good the ISO performance actually is. And I won't know this until I have spent time in the field with the D7200.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

26 Feb 2015: A HUGE Statement of Protest to the BC Wolf Cull/Slaughter...

The Government of British Columbia has used the open support of ONE (1) BC-based conservation group as political cover to justify their current and on-going slaughter of wolves. But yesterday an exceptionally clear statement AGAINST the wolf cull was made by a MUCH larger number of conservation groups, eco-tour operators, biologists, and concerned citizens in the form of an open letter to BC Premier Christie Clark. There were sixty-one signators, including 5 National Canadian non-profit conservation organizations, 16 BC-based non-profit conservation organizations, 11 US-based or international non-profit conservation organizations, and 29 concerned individuals that included biologists, eco-tour operators, and more! These voices can be added to the 174,689 people (at the time of this writing) who have signed the petition protesting the wolf cull.

The open letter may be seen here: Open Letter Protesting BC's Wolf Cull (PDF: 139 KB)

What can YOU do to help stop this inhumane and pointless slaughter of wolves in western Canada?

1. Educate Yourself on the Issue: Go here for all the background info!

2. Speak up Against the BC Wolf Cull - please sign this petition: Save B.C. Wolves!

3. Speak up Against the Alberta Wolf Cull - please sign this petition: Stop the inhumane killing of wolves in Alberta.

Thanks - and cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

25 Feb 2015: The Tamron 150-600mm vs. The Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm at 550mm...

By all accounts it appears that Nikon has sold absolute bucket-loads of the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR since it was introduced in mid-2013. No wonder - it's a great lens that rivals the 200-400mm VR in image quality but is way smaller and lighter - and a whole lot cheaper than that lens (here's my review of the AF-S 80-400)! But now both Tamron and Sigma have 150-600mm "ultra zooms" on the market that come in at close to the same price as the Nikkor 80-400 (in the case of the Sigma) or even over a $1000 cheaper (in the case of the Tamron). While I have not yet have had a chance to test the Sigma Sport 150-600mm ultra zoom, I have had a copy of Tamron's 150-600 in my hands for several months and have tested it pretty thoroughly. And, while no one would argue it outperforms super-telephoto primes, it is surprisingly competent - especially for the price.

So there's a least a couple of relevant questions that might come to mind for wildlife photographers (and even more if we factor the Sigma lens into the equation, but because Sigma doesn't seem to like to deliver lenses to western Canada, I'll ignore that lens for now, and possibly forever). For those who own neither the Tamron 150-600 nor the Nikkor AF-S 80-400 and obvious question is "Which lens should I buy?" And, for those Nikon-shooters who HAVE purchased the AF-S 80-400 the questions are "Should I keep just keep my 80-400 or should I sell it and get the Tamron 150-600 (or keep my 80-400 and get the 150-600 in ADDITION to it)?"

I won't even begin to pretend that there's ONE answer to all these questions that will be right for all photographers. To begin with, we are dealing with some apples and oranges here. The Nikkor AF-S 80-400 is 5.5 cm (or 2.2") shorter and 308 gm (or 0.68 lb) lighter than the Tamron 150-600. And - to state the obvious - they cover different focal ranges.

And then there's the issue of teleconverters - owners of the AF-S 80-400 have asked me how images captured with it plus a 1.4x TC compare to images of the 150-600 shot native (at 550mm). Well...it just so happens that yesterday I ran into the exact field situation where I could test just that - how the AF-S 80-400 plus BOTH the OLD TC-14EII plus the NEW TC-14EIII stack up against the 150-600mm. It involved bumping into some cooperative bighorn sheep while I was poking around on some steep ridges near my cabin while carrying all the gear I needed to do the field-testing. Here's some representative test images from that encounter:

• Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm with TC-14EII (OLD 1.4x TC): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.7 MB)
• Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm with TC-14EIII (NEW 1.4x TC): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.7 MB)
• Tamron 150-600mm @ 550mm: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.7 MB)

And here's a few notes that may help some who might be struggling with this "which lens to buy" decision:

1. All the images above were shot at f8. At this focal length this means that the ones shot with the AF-S 80-400 were shot wide open, but the ones shot with the Tamron were stopped down 2/3 of a stop (from f6.3 to f8). Virtually all lenses - shot with or without TC's - produce slightly better output when stopped down 2/3 to one stop from wide open. So even IF you think the 150-600mm image is sharper (which I don't see myself), you'd get sharper results out of the AF-S 80-400 plus TC at f10 or f11. But even with the sample shots above most will argue there is very little optical difference between the shots.

2. Both lenses and/or lens/TC combos exhibited frustrating "glitches" that you wouldn't find on more expensive super-telephotos. In the case of the AF-S 80-400 plus either TC: There were times when the autofocus system (and I was using a D4s) struggled to find focus and I had to toggle the focus bracket to a higher-contrast portion of the image before it would attain focus (e.g., where the white of the head of the bighorn met the darker neck region). When it came to the 150-600 the annoying glitch was one that I frequently encounter (during virtually every session) - three times the AF system just quit working. It resumed working when I toggled the camera off and then back on (i.e., when I "re-booted" the system). Take home lesson for both lenses and/or lens/TC combos: there's no free lunch.

How would these shots compare to ones shot with some premium super-telephotos (such as the 400mm f2.8E VR with and without TC's, or a 500mm f4 VR, or a 600mm f4 VR)? Well...because I couldn't carry everything I own, and particularly not big primes plus these zooms (which says something in itself, right?) and still get to this location, I can't provide absolute proof of this statement...but you'll have to trust me when I say these same shots would have been much sharper if shot with a quality prime. And, you'd have more control over the DoF. Realistically, and with the camera backpacks I own, I could have carried my Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR, TC's (including the 2x TC-20EIII), AF-S 80-400 f4.5-5.6 VR, plus D4s and D800e into this location. And, if I wasn't focused on completing some lens testing that IS the gear I would have carried into this location. The astute reader will know where I'm going with this...

So what's MY answer to the "80-400 or 150-600?" question? For me it's the 80-400. Why? Lots of reasons. Overall I prefer the focal range it offers. My own testing has shown that on all overlapping focal lengths it is sharper than the Tamron 150-600mm. And that same testing has shown me that the AF system of the 80-400 is faster, which can make a huge difference with any action shots (birds in flight, running mammals, etc.). In a pinch - and if I'm not carrying my 400mm f2.8E VR - I can use the 80-400 with a 1.4x TC to go up to 550mm and get comparable performance to the 150-600mm at those "beyond 400mm" focal lengths. Its smaller size and weight is important to me - I can fit a pro body with the 80-400mm into a hip-mounted holster (the Think Tank Digital Holster 50 V2.0) while the Tamron 150-600 doesn't fit into this system. And - last but not least - the AF system of my 80-400 has never just quit working (at the Tamron regularly does for me) and forced me to "reboot" my camera to get it to work. If I was slightly more clever I probably should have waited until AFTER selling my Tamron 150-600 before posting this entry...but I have to tell it like it is...

Cheers...

Brad

PS: Anyone looking for a good price on a slightly used Nikon-mount Tamron 150-600 should contact me soon!

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

25 Feb 2015: Battling Teleconverters II: The TC-14EII vs. The TC-14EIII on Selected ZOOM Lenses

This entry is another minor update to my original entry comparing the new TC-14EIII 1.4x teleconverter with the model it is replacing - the TC-14EII (which can be read by scrolling down to the 18 Sept 2014 entry or jumping to it using this link). In short, in that entry I found that the new TC-14EIII worked extremely well on the lenses I tested it with, but not tangibly (or noticeably) better than its precursor (which was very good as well).

Yesterday I ran into a field situation that was well-suited to comparing the performance of the two 1.4x TC's using two Nikon zoom lenses - the AF-S 70-200mm f4 VR and the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR. Long story short, while exploring some terrain near my cabin I ran into a cooperative herd of bighorn sheep. I was able to work at typical distances (10 to about 50m - or about 30' to 150') that one would use these lenses at to work with wildlife, including in situations where you might want a little more reach to get specific shots. In other words, it was almost the stereotypical situation where you would want to use a 1.4x TC to slightly increase your reach. Fortunately, after I sat down and talked softly to the bighorns they quickly settled down and gave me lots of time to switch lenses and/or teleconverters. Note that I took all my test shots with either a D4s or D800e with the host lens zoomed out to maximum - so the 70-200mm @ 200mm (so 280mm with the 1.4x TC's on) and the 80-400 @ 400 (so 550mm with the 1.4x TC's on).

What did I find? Same old, same old! In other words - both of these zoom lenses worked surprisingly well when paired with the 1.4x TC's (and so much better than older zooms of the same focal length) - but when scrutinizing the resulting images I could see no difference between the two 1.4x TC's at any distance to the subject or at any aperture.

Here's two shots taken with the 80-400mm plus the two TC's for your perusal. Even though the images were shot less than a minute apart slight differences in lighting (and position of the ewe) can impact on colour and contrast, so any very small differences you might see in those variables are likely more attributable to light differences than differences in optical quality between the two TC's. Both shots: 550mm @ f8, 1/640s, 400 ISO. Note that both of these shots were captured with the lens's aperture wide open, stopping down by 2/3 to a full stop would increase sharpness a little more (but also bring the background more into focus as well). Both are about 90% of full-frame. EXACTLY the same settings used in raw conversion (using Capture One Pro) and during final post-processing (image size reduction, sharpening for web, etc.) in Photoshop CC 2014:

• Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm with TC-14EII (OLD 1.4x TC): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.7 MB)
• Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm with TC-14EIII (NEW 1.4x TC): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.7 MB)

Some are probably wondering where I sit on my recommendation about the new TC-14EIII (given I'm still unable to find any optical differences between it and the TC-14EII). Here's my current thinking: If you already own the "old" TC-14EII I can't recommend spending the money to upgrade to the "new" TC-14EIII. If you don't already own a Nikon 1.4x TC and would like a little more reach on your telephoto lenses, I can recommend either the TC-14EII or TC-14EIII. If you can find a better deal on an "old" TC-14EII that a dealer has in stock - take it and run (with no hesitation over thinking you'd be better off with the TC-14EIII).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

18 Feb 2015: Support for Alberta and BC Wolf Culls/Slaughters Fades...

During the last week the already very limited support for wolf culls/slaughters in both Alberta and BC has faded even further. Both culls are ostensibly taking place to save declining mountain caribou populations. And, in both areas where the culls/slaughters are taking place the ultimate cause of the caribou declines has been sustained and on-going habitat destruction and/or degradation. To learn MUCH more about the BC wolf cull/slaughter - and many of the same issues pertain to the Alberta cull/slaughter - see my blog entry of 24 January below (follow this link).

1. The NDP of BC Withdraws Their Support of the Wolf Cull:

Until just over a week ago the New Democratic Party (NDP) of British Columbia - the Official Opposition to the BC Government - was reluctantly supporting the two separate wolf culls/slaughters in BC. They had communicated that they had taken a pro-wolf cull/slaughter position because "...the locals tell me there is no other way in their view right now" and "...that local biologists, and scientists tell me the only way to save the caribou is to kill another creature I respect, and admire" (from emails from Spencer Chandra Hebert, NDP MLA - available upon request).

However, after a briefing with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and their team of respected scientists, the NDP issued a NEW official position on the wolf cull/slaughter (as per Harry Bains, the NDP critic for Forests, lands, and Natural Resource Operations). At first reading of the position statement anyone looking to the NDP to take a strong position against the cull would have been understandably disappointed (it reads SO "politically" - in the negative sense of the word), but the key point is that the NDP withdrew their support of the wolf cull/slaughter. And, they encouraged others to be "...speaking loudly concerning their feelings about the wolf cull...". The NDP's full statement may be read here... (PDF: 28 KB).

Why did the NDP not go further and take a stance AGAINST the wolf cull? Sorry, you'll have to ask them - but remember we're talking about politicians here (who will avoid clearly stating a position on ANYTHING if at all possible).

2. The OFFICIAL Position of the Calgary Herald - AGAINST the Wolf Cull!

Just yesterday, in an editorial entitled "STOP CRYING WOLF OVER CARIBOU" (and again following being briefed by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation) the Calgary Herald (southern Alberta's leading newspaper) came out strongly AGAINST Alberta's wolf cull/slaughter. Read their official editorial position here... (PDF: 70 KB).

The comments of Dr. Paul Paquet - Raincoast's Senior Scientist and Carnivore Specialist - appeared to have a major impact in influencing the opinion of the Calgary Herald editorial board. In their editorial they noted that...

"Paquet wrote: "the role of wolves in the ongoing decline of mountain and boreal caribou is a symptom of eroded and lost caribou habitat, not an underlying cause...governments have habitually favoured the destruction of wolves over any consequential protection, enhancement, or restoration of caribou habitat...Killing wolves will not aid caribou recovery nor prevent their continued decline. Other predators, roaded and fragmented habitat, food limitations, and human intrusion into key habitat, will perpetuate caribou decline."

The position of the Calgary Herald against the wolf cull/slaughter is notable for a couple of reasons. First, they influence a LOT of people. Second, they normally tend to favour the conservative government's position on most issues - to have them speak out strongly against the wolf cull/slaughter is an indication of just how clear it is that the wolf cull makes NO sense whatsoever.

It's great to see the support for the wolf cull/slaughter continue to fade away. However, the governments of both British Columbia and Alberta have chosen to remain steadfast in their efforts to convey the APPEARANCE that they are doing something to save declining caribou populations. For them, it's much easier and palatable to face public backlash against the pointlessness and ineffectiveness of the wolf cull/slaughter than to do the heavy lifting required to protect the caribou's habitat from degradation through resource extraction and recreational use.

It's critical that we ramp up the pressure on the BC and Alberta governments to end this pointless wolf cull/slaughter. So here's a few things YOU can do:

1. Speak up Against the BC Wolf Cull - please sign this petition: Save B.C. Wolves!

2. Speak up Against the Alberta Wolf Cull - please sign this petition: Stop the inhumane killing of wolves in Alberta.

Thanks and cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

18 Feb 2015: The Nikon 300mm f4 VR - A GOOD NEWS Story

Early this morning I received an email from a photographer from central New York state who received his new Nikkor 300mm f4 VR last week. He checked the VR function of his lens over a range of shutter speeds (including the 1/30s to 1/320s range. His findings? "...the VR worked perfectly. I did not see the blurriness from 1/60 to 1/160." He tested both the Normal and Sport VR modes (and both worked as expected).

While anecdotal, this suggests that the VR problem that some users have reported (as discussed in the two blog entries immediately below) is not a function of a design flaw and that not all lenses are affected. Which is good news. Let's hope that the problem is limited to one batch of lenses and that working copies of the lens can get into the hands of end-users soon.

Cheers...

Brad

PS: Thanks are extended to M. Bruton for sending me this info. My fingers are crossed for some decent weather to move into your neck of the woods so you can actually get out and use that lens!

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16 Feb 2015: More on the VR Problem on the 300mm f4 VR...

Just a quick update to my comments earlier today about the VR problem that some users are experiencing with the new Nikkor 300mm f4 VR...

Thomas over at Camera Labs has a review-in-progress going on the 300mm f4 VR and - as many have hoped - the new 300 is looking great overall. BUT, the two copies of the lens being tested experienced the same (and quite serious) VR problem...

"But testing the VR at 1/160 sec and 1/80 sec revealed a major issue: the effect of VR was almost negligible with the result that the almost undamped shake ruined most of the shots in this range of shutter speeds."

The review-in-progress and the sample images demonstrating the VR problem can be seen here...

I really hope I'm wrong...but I'm getting the feeling this VR problem could seriously slowdown the process of getting fully functional copies of this lens into the hands of end-users.

Cheers...

Brad

PS: Thanks are again extended to M. Bondø from Norway - this time for pointing out the review of the lens at Camera Labs.

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

16 Feb 2015: Nikon Slips Up a Little on the 300mm f4 VR Release?

In the past few years most of Nikon's product releases have appeared to go very smoothly - at least in my part of the world. Products were delivered on time and usually in sufficient quantity to meet demand - and all but the most cynical or jaded of users were very happy with product quality. Of course, when things go this smoothly for a couple of years the expectation is set that all future product releases will go as smoothly. Well, the release of the 300mm f4 VR has brought us back to reality - it seems to be going a little rockier, and on at least two fronts.

1. Product Delivery: The first issue is simply product delivery - while SOME of the new lenses have found their way into the hands of SOME users (in some countries!), Nikon seems to be way behind in getting them out in sufficient numbers to meet the demand. The situation in Canada is confusing at best - just last week I was told by a source at Nikon Canada that they were shipping "this week" (referring to last week), yet the sales force seems to be unaware of this. Kind of a "...one hand doesn't know what the other is doing" thing. I have no clue why Nikon is behind in getting the lenses out, but if the emails I've been receiving are any indication, a lot of folks are disappointed.

2. Malfunctioning VR System: Back on February 2nd I received an email from a photographer from Norway who had received his copy of the 300mm f4 VR. He was very excited about the lens but, unfortunately, found a problem with the VR system. Essentially he found that in what most would consider the "mid-range" shutter speeds (about 1/40sec to 1/200 sec) he was getting blurred and/or "doubled" images when the VR was used. This, of course, is the EXACT range of shutter speeds where you really want the VR and it must be effective. Here's a sample composite image showing the problem (my thanks to M. Bondø from Norway for sending me this image):

VR Problem of Nikkor 300mm f4 VR (JPEG: 0.39 MB)

Note that the problem was experienced on a variety of camera bodies, including the D800e, D7000, and D5200. At this point I have no idea of how widespread the VR problem is - i.e., whether M. Bondø simply got a bad copy of the lens, or one from a small bad batch, or possibly a design flaw affecting all the lenses. Note that on Saturday (14 Feb) Nikon Rumors mentioned the problem and linked to posts in two forums where other users were reporting the same problem. So it appears that there's reason to believe that the problem is more than a "one-off."

I'm still REALLY looking forward to getting the 300mm f4 VR in my hands - this is a lens I was hoping Nikon would produce for several years. I'm also hoping the VR problem is rare and - for those who have lenses with it - easily fixed (or Nikon quickly replaces the lenses with the problem). I'm thinking that if Nikon reacts appropriately to this two-pronged slip-up (for instance, by getting a good copy of the lens into the hands of a lot of waiting photographers, including this ONE!) in a few months no one will remember it even happened?

This whole situation with the 300mm f4 VR has left me with an existential question: Which is better - receiving a flawed lens on the date you expected or being forced to wait an undetermined time for a fully functional lens? Hmmmm...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

11 Feb 2015: The INHUMANITY of BC's Wolf Slaughter...

Back on 24 January I presented a list of arguments (and supporting evidence) against British Columbia's current wolf cull/slaughter (jump directly to that blog entry). The absolute first point I made was that the cull itself was cruel and inhumane.

Today a group of scientists - including one of the world's top wolf biologists - published a paper entitled "Maintaining Ethical Standards during Conservation Crises" in the journal Canadian Wildlife Biology & Management. In their paper, the authors argue that:

"Experiments that involve the intentional inhumane killing of animals violate the fundamental principles of ethical science and rightfully endanger the reputation of science and scientists, as well as the journals willing to publish them. We recommend that CCAC guidelines be further developed to clearly address field methods used in wildlife studies, namely the shooting of animals from a helicopter, and the use of strychnine in baits."

Both of the current wolf culls in western Canada (in British Columbia and in Alberta) are being framed as "experiments" and involve the aerial shooting of wolves - these authors' comments apply directly to them. Even if the best available science supported the wolf culls (and it doesn't), the culls should be stopped IMMEDIATELY due to their cruel and inhumane nature.

Those wishing to read this bold commentary and critique for themselves can access it here:

Maintaining Ethical Standards during Conservation Crises (PDF: 1.6 MB)

The paper may also be accessed directly from the website of the Canadian Wildlife Biology & Management (right here).

In a recent highly-publicized court case a woman from Vancouver, BC was sentenced to 6 months in jail due to unintentionally (through negligence) killing six dogs in a cruel and inhumane manner. Many argued she should have got a longer sentence. With this government-sanctioned wolf cull/slaughter we have the BC government INTENTIONALLY killing hundreds (or even thousands) of wolves through a cruel and inhumane manner that violates all published standards on the euthanasia of wild animals. Why aren't those responsible for the ongoing wolf cull/slaughter being charged and hauled into court? You'd have to travel to an alternate universe for this to make any sense. Pure hypocrisy.

Please speak out against this inhumane, cruel, and pointless wolf slaughter. Just follow this link to get to a list of actions YOU can take against this inhumane act.

Thanks and cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

08 Feb 2015: Dualling 400mm Super-Primes: The 400mm f2.8G VR vs. the 400mm f2.8E VR

In a blog entry way back on September 1 2014 I described the most obvious physical differences between Nikon's "old" 400mm f2.8G VR super-telephoto and its recently released replacement - the 400mm f2.8E VR. That entry gives a great deal information on actual size and weight differences between the two lenses, as well as brief overviews of the construction and feature changes. That entry can be seen by scrolling down below or you can jump directly to it using this link). I concluded that entry with these two sentences: "What about image quality, autofocus, and VR performance improvements? Coming soon!"

Well...while some may think I work in geological (rather than chronological) time, soon is now! Here is a quick overview of what I have found after doing a lot of head-to-head testing of the G and E versions of the 400mm f2.8 VR. As a brief aside - many have long considered the 400mm f2.8 VR to be one of Nikkor's top professional lenses. I share this view and will go further and state that in my opinion it is their top and most useful super-telephoto lens for wildlife photography. I'll explain my rationale for this statement in a coming blog post. Please note that today's entry is not intended as a replacement for my full review of the new 400mm prime - which should and will include a plethora of images supporting my findings. I still plan on doing that in-depth review when time permits, but I have received so many emails asking me "...what have you found so far??" that I think this entry is necessary. The full review will include details about how I tested each of the characteristics below (optics, AF performance, hand-holdability, etc.). For now I'm just providing an overview of my results (which is what most care about anyway). And please note that a lot of images shot with the new 400mm f2.8E VR - including those shot native and with both 1.4x and 2x TC's - are appearing now in my Gallery of Latest Additions...

1. Optical Performance:

After making an exhaustive number of head-to-head field-based comparisons of these two lenses (over a huge variety of subject-to-camera distances), I have been able to find NO significant difference in their optical quality (as judged by the image quality of thousands of images). Both are incredibly sharp at all distances. Both have exquisite bokeh (quality of out-of-focus zones) when working at large apertures and/or when dealing with close subjects. Both "resolve" amazing detail on very distant scenes - from centre of the frame to any edge of the frame (i.e., edge-to-edge sharpness is exceptional). Both pair up exceptionally well with the 1.4x (either version - TC-14EII or TC-14EIII) or the 2x teleconverters. At this point in time (and until Nikon comes up with something even better), I can't imagine an owner of either version of this lens being dissatisfied in any way by the image quality of the 400mm f2.8 VR. And please note that these comments apply equally to images shot with ALL current versions of Nikon's full-frame cameras (D4s, D600/610, D800e or D810). Simply put - glass just doesn't get any better than this.

The exceptionally careful reader will notice I just said "NO significant difference in their optical quality...". Did I find ANY difference? Yes - and it was in the ONE situation I thought I MIGHT find a difference - in chromatic aberration at the edge of the frame when the 2x TC was combined with the two 400mm lenses. And here's where I could see - but only with an exceptional degree of pixel-peeping - a tiny amount of purple fringing: Subject - dark tree at 50m against a cloudy sky; Lens/TC combination - 400mm f2.8G VR lens paired with TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter; Result - extremely faint purple fringing along the edge formed by the dark tree and light background - and at the extreme edge of the frame ONLY. I could see NO purple fringing in this exact same situation when the "new" 400mm f2.8E VR was paired with the same TC.

How serious is this "problem"? Completely NOT serious - I wouldn't even have found it unless I had the preconceived notion it MIGHT show up as a scenario where a difference could be found between the two lenses. And I would NOT have found it I didn't examine the image edges with incredible scrutiny (and at 200% magnification). Finally, I wouldn't have found this difference if I didn't think to do the exact test where this result MIGHT show up. Otherwise, I wouldn't have EVER - even after years and years of use - noticed this non-problem in day-to-day use of the lens.

Why did I have the preconceived notion that this difference might exist? Blame Nikon. In their marketing literature they expound upon the advantages of the fluorite lens elements in the new (E) version of the lens. Among the advantages Nikon lists are how much lighter they can make the lens AND that the fluorite itself "...intensely blocks the secondary spectrum to effectively correct chromatic aberration with the visible light spectrum..." (this quote from the Nikkor lens glossary supplied on the Nikon Imaging website, which you can find right here). Now any owner of the "old" G version of the 400mm f2.8 VR who read this about the fluorite lens probably quickly ended up thinking "Uhhhh...WHAT chromatic aberration?" And they would have been right - I have NEVER been able to find any visible CA with the old version of the lens. But...this comment from Nikon about reduced chromatic aberration - combined with my knowledge that occasionally TC's exaggerate chromatic aberration - got me thinking...and thus the "test" for CA differences between the lenses when using the 2x TC took shape.

Could I have missed anything in my testing and thus missed other possible differences in optical quality between the old and new lenses? Of course. And I admit that there was one situation I wanted to test but never got around to it - the amount of lens flare exhibited by the two lenses in situations of extreme back-lighting (e.g., shooting a subject that is directly in front of the sun or other strong point source of light). I had hoped to run into the right situation to do this, but haven't so far. And, the proud new owner of my "old" 400mm took delivery of it yesterday (enjoy Mike!). So I won't likely ever test this.

But for the VAST majority of intents and purposes I am comfortable going on record saying this: I have been able to find NO significant difference in the optical quality or output between the 400mm f2.8E VR and the 400mm f2.8G VR lenses.

2. Autofocus (AF) Performance:

Same overall story - after exhaustive systematic testing (and scrutinizing thousands of images captured in a field setting) - I could find no difference in AF performance between the two versions of the 400mm f2.8 VR. Simply put - on my D4s they both performed superbly - including when shot native or with either the 1.4x teleconverter (either version) or the 2x (TC-20EIII) teleconverter. And as a "frame of reference" for how good of AF performance I am talking about - in past years I have compared the OLD 400mm f2.8G VR paired with the OLD TC-14EIII against both the 500mm f4 VR and the 600mm f4 VR and found that the 400mm plus 1.4x TC out-performed both of them (in terms of tracking a fast moving object) by a small but consistent margin.

In short - if you want a super-telephoto with a blindingly fast and accurate AF system, you'll get it with either version of the 400mm f2.8 VR. But I wouldn't recommending going for the new version of the lens based on improved AF performance!

Or, in other words: I have been able to find NO significant difference in the AF performance between the 400mm f2.8E VR and the 400mm f2.8G VR lenses.

3. "Hand-holdabilty"?

Nikon claims that the new 400mm f2.8E VR lens provides one full additional stop of Vibration Reduction performance over the previous lens (so now "4 stops of blur-free handheld shooting" enhancement over the "3 stops of blur free handheld shooting" enhancement of the previous lens). I have no way of directly testing VR performance, but I can (and did) get a handle on what shutter speeds I can hand-hold the new vs. old lenses at (while still getting a high percentage of sharp shots). Note that there IS a major confounding factor in doing tests of "hand-holdability" - the new lens is a full kg (or 2.2 lb) lighter than the old lens. Thus this very noticeable weight-saving could (and likely would) affect how slow of a shutter speed anyone can hand-hold the lens at (and it's possible this weight saving MIGHT be more important to smaller users of the 400mm lens). But, at the end of the day, does this really matter? All that matters to ME is what I can do with one lens over the other in terms of results in the field...

So what did I find? That the new 400mm produced a LOT more sharp shots when hand-held at very slow shutter speeds. And here's some comparisons:

• At 1/400s - 100% sharp shots with new E version of the lens, 90% with old G version;
• at 1/200s - 80% sharp shots with new E version of the lens, 40% with old G version;
• at 1/100s - 60% sharp shots with new E version of the lens; 20% with old G version;
• at 1/50s - 30% sharp shots with new E version of the lens; 0% with old G version;
• at 1/25s - 20% sharp shots with new E version of the lens; 0% with old G version.

My take-home lesson on the "hand-holdability" testing? I can't conclude definitively if the VR on the new version of the 400mm f2.8 VR is 0.5, 1, 1.5 or even 2-stops better than the old version of the lens. But I can say that when I am forced to shoot hand-held at very low shutter speeds I have a much better chance of getting sharp shots with the new lens that with the old lens. And for me this is really, really important.

Next up in gear-related entries? I'm thinking it's time for more feedback on how the Tamron 150-600mm lens stacks up against a host of Nikkor lenses...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

03 Feb 2015: Battling Teleconverters I: The TC-14EII vs. The TC-14EIII on Selected Prime Lenses

This entry is a minor update to my original entry comparing the new TC-14EIII 1.4x teleconverter with the model it is replacing - the TC-14EII (which can be read by scrolling down to the 18 Sept 2014 entry or jumping to it using this link). In short, in that entry I found that the new TC-14EIII worked extremely well on the lenses I tested it with, but not tangibly (or noticeably) better than its precursor (which was very good as well).

This entry is further confirmation of that finding - the new TC-14EIII can produce GREAT images when combined with the right lenses (e.g., the 400mm f2.8 VR prime - either version), but I'm still finding no optical improvement over the older TC-14EII when comparing images captured in a field setting. I've shot several thousand more images since my 18 September blog entry and, in particular, have done a lot of systematic testing using the old and new versions of the 400mm f2.8 VR prime (the "E" and "G" versions) and the 600mm f4 VR prime. During this testing I shot at short distances to subject (approximately 6m, as one would do with some small birds and small mammals), moderate distances (40-65m, as one would when working with larger mammals) and long distances (150m to 1.5km and more, as one would do with distant scenes and possibly some animalscapes).

To be as clear as possible, the bottom line after this additional testing using prime lenses remains the same: Used carefully - and on the "correct" lenses - you can get excellent results with both 1.4x TC's, but I have find no difference in optical quality between them. Bear in mind this testing is based on as small a sample size you can get - one copy of each teleconverter. It's not impossible my copy of the old TC-14EII was a great one, and that my copy of the new TC-14EIII is a bad one, but to argue that is the reason I can't find differences between them seems to me like grasping for straws!

In the coming days I'll be doing even more systematic testing on these two TC's, including with more primes (specifically the 300mm f2.8 VR and the new 300mm f4 VR) as well as with a few key zoom lenses (both the 70-200mm f4 VR and the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR). I no longer own a copy of the 70-200mm f2.8 VR (version I or II) and thus will not be testing that lens with the 1.4x TC's. Anyone wishing me to do that test is invited to send me a complimentary copy of that lens! ;-)

As always, the main reasons for all my testing are to satisfy my personal curiosity (yep, I'm anal) about my gear and to give me the information I need to ensure I yank the best combination of gear possible out of my pack for any given photographic situation I encounter. Hopefully others find the information useful too.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

29 January 2015: Push to STOP the Slaughter of Western Canadian Wolves Expands to Alberta

Late yesterday there was some great news in the conservation world - the Raincoast Conservation Foundation took bold and progressive steps to highlight and stop the multi-year slaughter of wolves in Alberta. The rationale for the ongoing slaughter of the wolves in Alberta mirrors that being used by the government in BC in slaughtering wolves in that province - to protect declining populations of caribou. This despite the fact that the best available science - based on studies of these EXACT populations of wolves and caribou - shows that slaughtering the wolves has no net impact on the caribou's population dynamics (scroll down to the two entries immediately below if you want verification of this claim).

To get an overview of Raincoast's actions and rationale against the wolf cull, just go here:

AVAAZ Petition launched to stop the Alberta wolf cull

To voice your outrage against this pointless slaughter by signing the petition, just go here:

Stop the inhumane killing of wolves in Alberta.

For those looking for some "meat" (and not just irrrational ranting) about the reasons to fight against the cull/slaughter of western Canadian wolves, just scroll down to my 24 January blog entry below and read away (now viewed by over 60,000 sets of eyeballs - and that number is growing fast!).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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 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 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

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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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