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 2016 blog listings (immediately below). And, further down this page you'll also find the key gear-related blog entries from 2015 (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. 2016 Blog Entries...

The Nikon D500 in the Khutzeymateen

19 July 2016: The Nikon D500 in the Khutzeymateen

This entry focuses on how the Nikon D500 performed during an intensive 10 days of photographing grizzly bears in the amazing Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary on British Columbia's northern coast. In my previous entry (scroll down or jump to that entry with this link) I described the particulars/conditions imposed on the photography - and the equipment - by this particular and spectacular wildlife photography venue.


Because I have been leading photo tours in the Khutzeymateen for a decade now I am very familiar with how virtually ALL of Nikon flagship cameras from the D2H onwards have performed there. Additionally, I have shot in the Khutzeymateen with many of their best DX cameras (from several past camera generations), including the D2x, D300, D7000, and D7200. So I have a pretty good feel for what a camera is up against in the Khutzeymateen, and a real good handle on how other "top" Nikons have performed in there.

As mentioned in my previous entry, during my 2016 adventure in the Khutzeymateen we had more rain and heavier cloud cover than in an "average" year, which means we were shooting in quite low light conditions. This lead me to pair the D500 with my 400mm f2.8E VR for MOST of my shooting in there (rather than with the "slower" Sigma Sport 150-600). Here are the details of my default D500 set-up for this trip:

• D500 with MB-D17 battery grip attached (with optional BL-5 Battery Chamber Cover attached, which enabled me to use the "big" EN-EL18a D4s/D5 batteries in the D500).

• Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR lens

• And, all wrapped in my personal favourite "camera-and-super-telephoto" rain cover - Think Tank's Hydrophobia 300-600 cover (info here)

During the photo tour I shot just under 6,000 images with my D500, and just under 90% were shot with the D500-400mm f2.8E VR combination. The remaining 12% of my D500 shots were split almost evenly between two other lenses - the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 zoom and the Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR. Of the shots captured with the D500 plus 400mm f2.8E VR pairing, 74% were shot native (no teleconverter), 23% were shot with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) TC added in (EFL of 840mm), and 3% were shot with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter in use (EFL of 1200mm).

II. BUILD QUALITY, LAYOUT, HANDLING, AND ERGONOMICS was the D500 "in my hands"? Overall - great. BUILD QUALITY is a nebulous characteristic that incorporates a lot of little things, including camera "heft" (too light and a camera can feel cheap; too heavy and the camera is...well...too heavy!), how solidly and positively buttons and moving parts (like the memory card cover) "click" into place, environmental sealing, and more. To me the camera felt similar to a D750 or D800 or D810 in my hands, and definitely more solid than a D7200. Everything on it felt semi-pro to pro level to me. Over the duration of the trip there was a lot of rain and humidity and while I keep my cameras under rain covers as much as possible, I have seen many other cameras fail under conditions like we had this spring (and, if I'm being fully honest, the WORST camera I have ever seen for "just stopping" in humid conditions was the original Canon 7D, though the 7D MkII seems much better). Bottom line: the D500 kept humming just fine when damp or even wet, and left me feeling confident that conditions could have been much worse and it would still "just worked". For me - and a lot of traveling wildlife photographers - confidence that your gear won't let you down is important. I'm currently very confident in my D500.

What about CAMERA LAYOUT? I'm torn about how to report on this. If I report JUST about my own experiences I can give a big thumbs up to how the camera is laid out, including feeling positive about some of the key changes, such as moving the "MODE" button over to the "left" side of the camera and the ISO button to the top-right side of the camera. BUT, I have been shooting with the D5 and D500 combination for quite some time (and I have a camera in my hands on a daily basis). BUT, if I am fully honest and also report on how my clients reacted to the layout changes (and these clients referred to themselves as "binge shooters" AND most of them mixed shooting with a D500 and an "older layout" camera like a D750), well...there WAS some struggling when switching between cameras - and SOME of that struggling resulted in missed shots. So...while I think the layout changes to the D500 (and D5) are great, the transition to the new layout isn't without pain, especially for those who sporadically use their cameras and/or mix them with cameras with the "older" layout style.

HANDLING and ERGONOMICS? Positive #1 for me (as a user of the MB-D17 battery grip) - the almost perfect mirroring of horizontal and vertical controls...IMHO the controls are mirrored even better than on the D5 (more on this in my next blog entry). An even bigger positive for me is the new ability to switch between AF Area modes simply by pushing a button (which button you assign this to is up to you). Given the unpredictability of when action will "break out" with wildlife I LOVE being able to switch from (for instance) Single-Area AF to Group Area (or any other area mode) in an eye-blink. When I first saw this on the D5 (and D500) specs I thought "YES, I'M GOING TO LOVE THAT". Now, after extensive field shooting I can say "Yes, I DO love that feature!" But it's not perfect - I can't figure out why Nikon made it a "push and hold the button to change AF area mode until you release the button" feature rather than a "push the button and the AF area mode changes until you push it again" (in my case that would free up my thumb to do other things rather than just holding down the button).

On to a few COULD BE BETTER handling/operational issues. Heading up this list is the "sub-selector" switch (this is the knurled "joy-stick" most commonly used to move the AF points around the viewfinder). Even though I had a similar control on my D4s (and now D5), I tended to use the multi-selector on those cameras to toggle my focus point around, at least when shooting horizontally. Because the D5 and D500 BOTH have the sub-selector switches, and because this is the most convenient way move the focus point around when shooting vertically on both cameras (assuming you have a MB-D17 grip), I decided to FORCE myself to use the sub-selector as my primary means of shifting focus points on both the D5 and D500. And, being honest, I initially found it quite challenging to reliably move the focus point exactly where I wanted with the sub-selector. It took some practice and, in general, I find the sub-selectors just too sensitive. Now (20k+ shots later with both the D500 and D5) I can use the sub-selectors quite effectively, but still not perfectly (meaning that sometimes the focus point doesn't go exactly where I want it to, simply because I put pressure on the sub-selector a few degrees off the direction I should have). Note that I have received email from many D500 users who have had a much stronger negative opinion on how effectively the sub-selector works for them (and several have said they simply avoid the sub-selector and choose to move the focus point using the multi-selector).

If you can believe what you read on the internet (in places other than THIS website, of course), many Nikon savants are displeased with the built-in flash. Or, more accurately, the absence of a built-in flash. I can understand how the lack of a built-in flash would bother anyone wanting to use the D500 as an "all-around" DSLR or how in some other genres of photography a built-in flash would be an asset. But for THIS wildlife photographer it's a total non-issue. I don't flash wild carnivores and if I am going to use a fill-flash for animals that are predictably tolerant of being flashed I want something more powerful (and often off-camera) anyway. I'm personally GLAD there is no built-in flash on the D500 - it saves me the hassle of taping it closed so it doesn't accidentally bump open and go off (and possibly pissing off a real big grizzly). But that's just me...

III. SHOOTING PERFORMANCE/DYNAMICS does the D500 "feel" when it's front of your face and you're shooting with it? Two words come to my mind: GREAT and PROFESSIONAL. It feels fast - in autofocus (depending a LITTLE on the lens you have on, of course), shutter response (lagtime), certainly frame rate, and...with those crazy burst sizes (yep, you do get 200 14-bit raw images at 10 fps with the fastest XQD cards). Bottom line is that as long as you have it turned on, this camera is ALWAYS ready to go - even if you just shot a long burst. During times when you have cooperative subjects doing lots (think of, for instance, two grizzlies sparring) this "always ready to go" characteristic of the D500 is REALLY nice (and feels very professional!). One small example of the "snappiness"of the D500 (and something I really noticed in the Khutzeymateen) - like with the D4s or D5, when you're resting your index finger on the shutter release it takes only the slightest pressure to actuate the shutter. In contrast, with my D7200 (and perhaps this was just MY sample, tho' I actually doubt it) if I put that same slight pressure on the shutter release...well...nothing happened (I had to use an almost plunger-like motion to get the camera to shoot). When you're rapidly going back-and-forth between cameras this kind of operational consistency is important.

With my D4s and D5 the combination of "light" shutter release and rapid frame rate has always left me feeling that those cameras were like racehorses at the starting gate...just chomping on the bit to go. That's also how the D500 feels to me. And none of my other Nikons - from D7200 to D750 to any of the D800-series - feels quite the same.

METERING ACCURACY? Like the D5, the D500 has the newly introduced RGB sensor that utilizes input from 180,000 pixels (previously Nikon's best cameras used a 91,000-pixel sensor). Among other things (e.g., accuracy/reliability of facial recognition [though no one at Nikon has been able me if that includes bear or wolf faces!], improve AF subject-tracking), the new 180K sensor is supposed to improve exposure control. Basically provide more accurate metering with less tendency to blow out highlights. This is tough to test in the field, but my experience shooting both the D5 and D500 has less tendency to over-expose scenes and/or blow out highlights. I use Matrix metering virtually all the time and have always compensated my exposures based on experience - and that experience had me intentionally under-exposing a LOT of scenes by -0.3 to -0.7 stops (to save highlights). Now, with both the D5 and D500, I have to use exposure compensation FAR less often - I now shoot the majority of scenes "dead on" (based on Matrix metering).

Note that prior to going into the Khutzeymateen I DID have the opportunity to compare how the D4s (91K RGB sensor) metered a variety of scenes versus how the D5 (180K RGB sensor) metered those same scenes. In many cases they produced identical readings, but with high contrast scenes the recommended exposures were often up to 1 full stop different (with the D5 UNDER-exposing the scene - and preserving highlights more effectively - relative to the D4s). It was my impression in the Khutzeymateen that the D500 was acting similarly (and possibly identically) to the D5 in metering - and I used exposure compensation far less with the D500 that I had with other cameras in previous years.

Two final metering comments (applicable to both the D500 and the D5). First, somewhere in the metering algorithm is the same basic assumption that has always been there - that the scene has an overall (or "averaged") brightness of neutral gray. In other words - you're shooting a daytime scene. SO...if you're shooting an early morning scene or late evening scene where the ambient light is LOWER than neutral gray then you have to use exposure compensation and under-expose the scene relative to what you're camera is telling you to do (if you want the final image to appear like what you observed in the field). Of course, if you're a raw shooter you can also do this during post-processing (if you fail to expose the scene "correctly" in the field).

Second, I noticed the EXACT same thing with the D500 and D5 as I have with previous models of Nikon when it comes to metering accuracy of very low light scenes (where you're pushing the ISO very high) - you have to be incredibly alert to blowing highlights (and at high ISO's what the camera perceives as a highlight may be far less bright than what your eye might perceive as a highlight). So...with the D500 once you go over about ISO 3200 watch like a hawk for highlights (or even just "brighter" regions) in your scene - you may have to compensate your exposure (i.e., under-expose the scene) to save highlights more than you'd guess by just looking at the scene (and quicker than you'd have to at lower ISO's).

How about SHUTTER NOISE? The D500 has a pretty quiet shutter, especially compared to Nikon's other top wildlife cameras, like the D4s or D5. And, even better, when you're up-close and personal with an animal that you want to keep calm, it not only has a Quiet mode but it also has a Quiet-Continuous (or QC) mode that clicks along at about 3 frames per second. One little quibble with the Q and QC mode on the D500 - if you compare (i.e., listen to) the D500's "loud" shutter release modes to its quiet modes they certainly sound different, but they actually aren't very different in sound VOLUME (sorry...can't give you decibel values - don't have a noise meter handy).

Did I notice any NEGATIVES when shooting with the D500? Sort of - but only in comparison to one camera - the D5 (well...TWO cameras...if you count the Canon 1Dx MkII, which has the same new feature). The D5 has a new mirror driving mechanism which is supposed to do two things during continuous high frame-rate shooting - reduce image blackout time and increase the stability of the image in the viewfinder. It works really well. So...if you're trying to track a moving subject (think running mammal or bird in flight) and are shooting at a high frame-rate you don't lose sight of the subject and it doesn't "bounce around" as much in the viewfinder (note that the amount of "bouncing around" also varies with the VR mode you are using, with the "Sport" mode increasing viewfinder and subject stability the most). This makes it MUCH easier to improve the framing of moving subjects. Note that the D500 ALSO has a "new" mirror drive mechanism (although I'm a bit confused what it's "newness" is relative to - the D300s?) that is supposed to do exactly what the new one in the D5 does - reduce image blackout time and increase image stability during high frame-rate shooting. Perhaps it does, but it doesn't do it as well as the D5 does. The difference is noticeable in the field.

BATTERY LIFE? By now most of the early internet "hoopla" about ridiculously short battery life of the D500's EN-EL15 batteries ("I got only four images out of my battery before it needed re-charging!!") should have died down. Bad on Nikon for not making it really clear that the D500's EN-EL15 batteries were different than all the previous EN-EL15 batteries (you need EN-EL15's labelled with Li-Ion20 on them for the D500, and not those labelled with Li-Ion01) and that you needed to use the supplied MH-25a recharger (and not the "old" MH-25 recharger).

What did I discover about battery life while shooting in the Khutzeymateen? Nothing. Well...ALMOST nothing - I confirmed that I get thousands of shots out of a D500 equipped with the EN-EL18a batteries when using the MB-17 battery grip (plus BL-5 cover for EN-EL18a compatibility). But note that when I am shooting daily at home with my D500 I normally use it without the battery grip and use EN-EL15's, and by fluke alone (before realizing that the D500 needed the "new and modified" Li-Ion20 EN-EL15's) I used the right batteries and right charger for the D500 batteries and got the expected (and sufficient) life out of them. In my view Nikon botched this whole "sneak in a new-but-identical-looking EN-EL15" episode and got their fingers burned a little. Dumb move.

The DX FACTOR? Not sure what to say about this besides "...appreciated and with the expected consequences". I appreciate - and at times love - the extra reach associated with the cropped sensor (and because the D5 and D500 have identical resolution at 5568 x 3712 image pixels the crop factor translates directly into 1.5x more pixels dedicated to your subject, which translates into a focal length multiplier of 1.5x). And, as expected, the smaller photo-sites (i.e., smaller pixel pitch) on the D500 results in diminished ISO performance relative to the D5 (it's still good, just not D5-good).

In practical terms I found the "reach-extension" of the D500 when paired with the 400mm f2.8E VR to be highly useful - what wildlife photographer wouldn't like an uber-sharp and "hand-holdable" 600mm f2.8 lens? That combination performed just great. When I added in the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter I got a VERY usable, very sharp (and still hand-holdable) 825mm f4 lens (in full-frame terms). Sweet! Inquisitive wildlife shooters might be wondering how the D500 plus 400mm f2.8E VR plus TC-14EIII combination (with an EFL of 825mm) stacks up in image quality against the D5:400mm f2.8E VR:TC-20EIII (EFL of 800mm) combination. So am I. Stay tuned for a future blog entry on that comparison.

How did the D500 pair up with the Sigma Sport 150-600? The answer to this is a little more complex. While lighting conditions weren't really conducive to shooting this combination too much, when I did shoot it I was generally happy with the results. That sounds positive - right? Maybe not. The very nature of that qualifying statement - "While lighting conditions weren't really conducive to shooting this combination too much" - may be very telling. I am left wondering if the gear combinations I primarily shot on this trip - D5 with Sigma Sport 150-600 and D500 with Nikkor 400mm f2.8E - will be reflective of what I feel forced to shoot with in the future. Said another way - perhaps the relatively small maximum aperture of the Sigma Sport 150-600 will limit the real-world usefulness of this lens with the D500 in my own wildlife photography on a fairly frequent basis. The source of the limitation? Getting maximum sharpness out of the Sigma Sport 150-600 requires a LITTLE stopping down, especially at longer focal lengths. This means you're shooting at f7.1 or f8. If you're hand-holding the lens (and/or working with non-static subjects) this can mean combinations of f8 and 1/500s (or even higher shutter speeds). And that, depending on the amount of light you're working with, can mean pretty high ISO values, and possibly ISO's outside what the D500 can really do (i.e., in the D4s or D5 ISO-performance zone).'s something I'm wondering about...and will watch for. Could be that in the real world of wildlife photography the DX advantage in extended reach of your lenses is something that it is often only accessible with your fastest lenses.

And, I can't think of a better segue into the next major section...


As a wildlife photographer who does a lot of shooting on British Columbia's moist central and northern coast there is probably nothing more important to me in camera than ISO performance. This hit me like a ton of bricks when I got my first full-frame camera - the Nikon D3. Not only was that camera incredibly liberating, but it made me want to throw my DX camera (at the time a Nikon D2x) overboard. And, in a way, I did. Yes, after the D2x I tried a Nikon D300 for awhile. It was OK, except for ISO performance. Sploosh...overboard. And I tried a D7000. Sploosh...overboard. And then I tried a D7200. Mostly pretty good...but relative to the FX bodies - the ISO performance sucked. Sploosh...overboard.

So...when I saw the detailed specs of the Nikon D500 - and especially that Nikon had CUT BACK on the resolution of the D500's sensor (compared to the D7200) - I thought "OK, maybe the ISO performance on this DX body will be just good enough for my uses." Now...what did "just good enough" mean to me? ISO 3200. After years of shooting a variety of subjects (many in the impoverished lighting of BC's coast) and carefully scrutinizing thousands of images I KNEW I could use a DX camera for my wildlife shooting if it could consistently produce high-quality images captured at ISO 3200. If I could capture high-quality images (even if the proportion of high-quality images went down a little) at ISO's beyond 3200...well...all the better and I'd be tickled pink.

So...what have I learned about the ISO performance of the D500 after both systematic testing AND through shooting thousands of images with the D500 in the Khutzeymateen? That I'm tickled pink. Here's what I'm willing to go on record with:

I have found I can count on the D500 producing highly usable raw images (for virtually any use) under most scene types up to ISO 3200 (and images often don't require selective noise reduction at ISO 3200). On some scenes and scene types I have found I can push the ISO much higher, sometimes to ISO 6400 (or slightly higher) and still get high quality, and highly usable, images (but most images above ISO 3200 do require some selective noise reduction to achieve maximum quality, and by ISO 6400 they invariably require highly selective and careful noise reduction and post-processing).

Sample D500 Images at Various ISO's:


1. The following images are NOT "straight out of the camera" - I see little or no point in shooting (or presenting) raw images if I am NOT going to "work them". At the end of the day what I am concerned about is what I can squeeze out of a camera's images using the post-processing techniques (including selective noise reduction if needed) and tools available to me. For me - and I think a lot of wildlife photographers - knowing what image quality I can expect to "squeeze" out of an image at a particular ISO is more useful in guiding my future choice of ISO in the field than showing simple untouched images would be. Your own results with D500 images may be better or worse than mine depending on the image-editing software you use, your post-processing skills, and the time and effort you want to put into your images. If you are a JPEG shooter it is unlikely that you would be able to attain the same results (sorry, but a fact is a fact!).

2. All the images linked to below are fully annotated, including capture info, limited processing info (including raw converter used and whether noise reduction was global or selective), and my comments on the shot.

3. While all the images are reduced in size to 2400 pixels (on the long axis), most are either full-frame (un-cropped) or close to full-frame. All images were reduced to 2400 pixels using Photoshop CC 2015.5 using the bicubic image size reduction algorithm. Final sharpening was performed using Photoshop's Smart Sharpen function and may have included additional "intelligent" noise reduction of the Smart Sharpen algorithm at that point.

And The Images...

• ISO 800 - Going Buggy (JPEG: 2.3 MB)

• ISO 800 - Using the Bedrock (JPEG: 2.3 MB)

• ISO 1600 - Evening Snack (JPEG: 2.2 MB)

• ISO 2000 - Coastal Gray Wolf (JPEG: 2.7 MB)

• ISO 2800 - Connecting... (JPEG: 2.5 MB)

• ISO 3200 - Bearing Down (JPEG: 1.8 MB)

• ISO 4000 - Comin' At Ya (JPEG: 2.5 MB)

• ISO 5000 - Veiled Curiosity (JPEG: 2.4 MB)

• ISO 5000 - In the Shadows (JPEG: 3.1 MB)

• ISO 8000 - Sacked Out (JPEG: 3.3 MB)

"But, but...(you ask)...the D500 brochure tells me that I can dial the ISO up to 51,200 and even up to Hi 5, which is equivalent to ISO 1,640,000." That's true - you CAN crank the ISO up to those crazy values and shoot images. And, if you're into surveillance work or simply documenting a rare occurrence ("WOW...a two-headed giraffe in Antarctica...better record that") those ISO's may even be useful. Otherwise...


While my time in the Khutzeymateen adequately "stress-tested" some aspects of the advanced autofocus system of the D500 (e.g., its ability to focus in near dark conditions), the largely static nature of the subjects didn't really allow other aspects of the AF system (e.g., improved subject-tracking) to shine. Here's some observations/comments about what I DID notice about the AF system...

AF PERFORMANCE COMPARABLE TO THE D5? So...did the AF system of the D500 seem as snappy, reliable, and "competent" as that of the D5? This question is germane because in the past Nikon has introduced "sibling" cameras (e.g., D3 and D300) where the AF systems were claimed to be "equivalent" and they sure weren't...and the DX version of the AF didn't come close to the FX version. As far as I could tell - yes, the D500 AF seemed as amazing as that of the D5. I didn't run into a single situation where the D500's AF "balked" at something the D5 could do....

VIEWFINDER COVERAGE - AND TRADE-OFFS? Most will probably know that the D5 has 4 more "selectable" focus points and 30% more viewfinder coverage than the D4s. And, most will probably know that with the cropped sensor of the D500 the viewfinder coverage is MUCH more extensive - the selectable focus points almost touch the lateral edges of the viewfinder and reach noticeably closer to the top and bottom of the viewfinder than on the D5. In the field this is INCREDIBLY nice - no matter how close to the edge of the frame you want to position your subject, you can do it AND focus on it without resorting to the old "focus, focus-lock, and then re-compose" routine. Very importantly, the outer-most focus points seemed to offer reliable and accurate autofocus. But it's important to remember that for the bulk of this trip I was shooting the D500 paired with the 400mm f2.8E VR - and one would expect good-to-excellent AF performance on all focus points with a f2.8 lens.

In contrast, when I was using the D5 with the Sigma Sport 150-600 and tried to use some of the outermost focus points when at focal lengths where the maximum aperture is f6.3 (starting at about 410mm) the AF system couldn't attain focus. This isn't surprising - if you look at a map of the selectable focus points for the D5 or D500 that shows what aperture each focus point needs to reliably attain focus (like this one) you'll see that only TWO of outermost AF points on the D5 or D500 work at apertures slower than f5.6 and faster than f8.

What does this gobbly-de-gook all mean - and how does it apply to shooting in the field? Several times on the Khutzeymateen trip I ran into the situation described above where the D5-Sigma Sport 150-600 combination couldn't focus. While I used the D500-Sigma Sport 150-600 combination less, I never ran into a situation where I couldn't get the camera to focus. Why? Simply because on the D5 the array of selectable focus points is considerably more concentrated in the centre of the viewfinder and if you WANT an off-centre subject you are much more likely to NEED an outermost focus point (that isn't f6.3-compatible) than you are with the D500. The reality is for MOST situations with the D500 you don't need to use those outermost (and non-compatible-with-f6.3) focus points, even if you want to position your subject somewhat off-centre. So in THIS case the D500 AF system functionally out-performs the D5 AF system (and it is all because of the expanded viewfinder coverage of the D500 because of its cropped sensor).

Are there any NEGATIVE consequences of that expanded viewfinder coverage of the selectable focus points in the D500? Good question - and...YEP! I've mentioned before that one consequence of having the same number of selectable focus points cover almost the entire viewfinder means that each focus point is proportionately larger (the clever reader should be out how much larger - think DX crop factor size!). In some situations this could lead to difficulty in placing the AF bracket precisely where you want to and, for instance, picking up a foreground object with your focus rather than the subject. Did this ever happen to my in the Khutzeymateen. As a matter of fact - yes - see this image (JPEG: 1.9 MB) for an example (and note that I cropped the image somewhat to make the issue more visible - the AF bracket size is as per that displayed when viewing the raw image with Capture NX-D). This "bigger focus point size" issue is far from being a major problem...but occasionally it can rear its ugly head.

So...what about FOCUS-TRACKING with the state-of-the-art AF system of the D500? Given the nature of the subject matter in the Khutzeymateen (non-flying, and usually non-running, bears) I got only a few opportunities to use the focus-tracking capabilities of the D500 (or D5). When I did - such as this shot of an eagle (JPEG: 1.9 MB) where I used 72-point Dynamic Area AF for tracking - it worked great. But until I get more opportunities to REALLY push the AF of the D500 I can't say too much more about how good (or if there are obvious deficiencies in) the AF system of the D500.

Please note that I do plan on having an extended blog entry (or possibly a series of blog entries) on the nuances of, and operational guidelines for using, the AF system of the D5 and D500. Outwardly the AF system of these two cameras seems very easy to use (especially compared to the AF system on Canon's flagship cameras) but there actually are a lot of gray areas and subtleties that can influence which mode works best under specific situations.

And there you go...those are the highlights of what I learned about the D500 after 10-days of serious shooting of the D500 in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary.


Do I recommend the D500 as a professional wildlife photography camera? Absolutely.

Which current Nikon DSLR is the BEST camera for wildlife photography - is it the D500 or the D5? The answer to THAT question will vary between users. If we consider AF performance, burst size, metering performance, and other "operational" functions as being nearly a saw-off between the two cameras, then it really comes down to this: What limits YOUR wildlife photography more - the focal length "reach" of your lenses or absolute ISO performance? If you think reach is your biggest limitation and you can live with a maximum ISO in the 3200-4000 range (for most shots), then perhaps your best choice is the D500. If you find yourself limited MORE by ISO performance and see a need to shoot at ISO 5000 or higher on a regular basis - and you're happy with the reach of your lenses on an FX body - well...then a D5 is the ticket for you.

Me? I'm fortunate enough to have the best of both worlds - a D5 AND a D500 for my wildlife shooting. And I'm REAL happy I don't have to choose between one or the other!

Up next? What else - The Nikon D5 in the Khutzeymateen! Stay tuned...



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11 July 2016: The Nikon D5 & D500 in the Khutzeymateen - Part 1

At long last I'm ready to discuss the performance of Nikon's TWO new flagship cameras during 10 days of hard field use in the spectacular Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary on British Columbia's northern coast. My delay in posting this information was simply because I had SO many images to wade through that it took a ton of time and effort! And I really wanted to look very closely at all those images and be SURE that what I was going to report on the performance of each camera (and how they performed as a "matched pair") was accurate.


My first comment is probably the most important one I will make today: I want everyone reading this to be extremely cautious in assuming my results and experiences will be directly applicable to YOU. They may or may not be, depending on how you use your camera, what you photograph, what conditions you shoot under, what lenses you use, et cetera. To help illustrate this point, I feel compelled to clearly list some of the unique conditions and/or constraints that could influence how applicable my results and experiences will be to you:

1. I am primarily a WILDLIFE Photographer:

This means I am considering how the D5 and D500 perform as WILDLIFE cameras - not landscape cameras, not studio cameras, and not "street" cameras. So some issues that may dominate one's shooting in other photographic genres (e.g., how dynamic range may be absolutely critical to a landscape photographer) may not be of critical importance to me. So if I say something like "The D5 is the best wildlife camera ever made" and YOU spend one half of your time shooting wildlife and one half of it shooting landscapes, perhaps another camera (like a D750) is still a better option for you.

2. Use of Natural (ambient) Light ONLY:

In the Khutzeymateen we shoot using natural light only - we do not use flash-fill on the bears. This reliance on natural light tends to put a premium on the ISO performance of a camera, and shooting in the Khutzeymateen tends to put MORE emphasis on ISO performance than many other "natural light only" shooting scenarios (see the next two points below for a further explanation of this). So I can ignore the fact that neither the D5 nor the D500 have built-in flash capabilities because it was irrelevant to me in the Khutzeymateen (and is irrelevant for virtually ALL my shooting) - but that doesn't necessarily make it irrelevant to you.

3. Shooting from an Inflatable Zodiac Boat:

In the Khutzeymateen we do 95% or more of our shooting from a Zodiac. This precludes the use of tripods or other support systems for our cameras. So the vast majority of shooting is done while hand-holding our cameras, including with super-telephoto lenses (the odd person does use a monopod in the Zodiac, but most opt to simply hand-hold their gear). Because we are shooting hand-held from a less-than-perfectly stable platform most shooters are limited to using at least moderately high shutter speeds (rarely slower than about 1/250s). This puts an added premium and emphasis on quality optical stabilization systems AND on camera ISO performance.

4. 2016 - A Rainy Year in the Khutz!

In most years the Khutzeymateen has mixed weather during the May-June timeframe (mix of sun and clouds with intermittent showers). During my late-May/early-June stint in the Khutzeymateen we had much more rain - and associated overcast skies - than normal. The photographic consequence of this was obvious - low light conditions. So...there was even a STRONGER premium on VR/IS systems and ISO performance than in a "typical" year.

Note that I was primarily shooting with TWO cameras and TWO lenses during this photo tour - the D500 and D5, and the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR and Sigma Sport 150-600 f5-6.3 zoom. Because of the low light conditions (and the different levels of ISO performance of the D5 vs. the D500) my "default" camera/lens combinations were the D5 paired with the Sigma Sport 150-600 and the D500 paired with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR (yes, I occasionally switched things around, and occasionally used my Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR on both of the cameras, but over 90% of my shots were captured with the D5-Sigma Sport and D500-400mm f2.8E combos).

5. Camera-To-Subject distances:

Many of the grizzly bears in the Khutzeymateen are quite comfortable having a Zodiac containing keen photographers in reasonably close proximity (most bears basically ignore us). In fact, the bears are usually far more comfortable with it than my first-time clients are! In most situations a photographer in the Khutzeymateen rarely needs more than a 400mm lens (in full-frame terms). Said another way - "reach" isn't normally a problem in the Khutzeymateen, and the additional reach afforded by a crop-sensor camera (like the D500) isn't as valuable - and doesn't stand out as much - in the Khutzeymateen as it may be when shooting in other locations or with other subject matter (like songbirds).

6. Khutzeymateen Bears and Autofocus Performance:

Most of the time the primary subjects in the Khuzeymateen (the BEARS!) are relatively static compared to some subjects (like birds-in-flight). So...besides having some good opportunities to test low-light AF performance of both cameras, most of the time the Khutzeymateen Grizzlies aren't great subjects to use to test the improvements in things like focus-tracking (compared to previous models of Nikons). You WILL see some comments about (and sample images illustrating) focus-tracking in later segments, but overall the subject matter didn't lend itself to sorting out the nuances of focus-tracking performance on either camera.

SO...that's the context for THIS "field test" of the Nikon D5 and D500. I had LOTS of good opportunities to evaluate the handling, the ergonomics, the ISO performance of the two cameras, and some opportunities to evaluate specific aspects of the AF performance (such as low-light performance) of the cameras.

Today you get the "Executive Summary" of what I generally think of the cameras after a focused and extended low-light wildlife shooting session in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary. I will follow-up with 3 more entries (in the coming days) providing a lot more detail - including sample shots - about the performances of the D500, and the D5 and, finally, details on how the two cameras worked as a wildlife "tag-team".

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The Nikon D500 and Nikon D5 in the Khutzeymateen:

The Nikon D500

As a tool for wildlife photography, the Nikon D500 is a quantum leap forward beyond Nikon's previous best DX offering. I view it as a fully professional and highly competent wildlife photography camera capable of producing state-of-the-art imagery under a wide variety of environmental conditions, including down to moderately low light conditions. For my uses it puts a big check mark in all the key boxes - frame rate, burst size, autofocus performance, ergonomics, build-quality, and environmental sealing. ISO performance? I have found I can count on the D500 producing highly usable images (for virtually any use) under most scene types up to ISO 3200 (and only rarely requiring selective noise reduction to ISO 3200). On some scenes and scene types I have found I can push the ISO much higher, sometimes to ISO 6400 (or slightly higher) and still get high quality, and highly usable, images (but most images above ISO 3200 do require careful selective noise reduction).

The Nikon D5

If you drop the light below the comfort level of the D500 then the D5 is the camera to turn to. With its slightly faster frame rate, same crazy buffer and burst size,"almost identical" autofocus system, absolutely bombproof build quality and weather-proofing, and state-of-the-art ISO performance this is definitely the most "limit-free" wildlife and action camera that Nikon has ever produced. ISO performance? Just "better-looking" images than the D4s could produce in that critical ISO 6400 to 12,800 range and "often shockingly good" images up to ISO 25,600 (and sometimes even above that!).

The Nikon D500:D5 Tag-team

Looking for the MOST flexibility possible in a professional-level complementary two-camera wildlife photography system? You can't match the overall performance of the D5:D500 combination with any other two cameras on the market (sorry Canon-users, you have a great camera in the 1Dx MkII, but the 7D MkII doesn't come close to matching the D500). The D5 and D500 are similar enough in layout (even more so if you add the battery grip to the D500) that you can effortlessly move between them without thinking. Add in between-camera memory card capability (for the XQD model D5's) and battery compatibility options and you have a great tag-team of cameras for the traveling wildlife photographer.

Up next - the DETAILS of how the D500 performed in the Khutzeymateen, including key sample images. Another "stay-tuned" thing (same bat-time, same bat-channel)!



PS: My Gallery of Latest Additions is now dominated by D5 and D500 images captured in the Khutzeymateen, and each image comes with a whole bunch of interesting contextual info (just click on those tabs below the image).

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11 July 2016: Higher ISO D5 Images Dribbling Into My Latest Additions Gallery...

Some viewers may not have noticed that I've been regularly adding new D5 and D500 images from my Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen photo tours to my Gallery of Latest Additions. The most recent additions have featured somewhat higher ISO shots captured with the Nikon D5. As an example, Beartopia (currently found right here) was captured at ISO 7200, and Coastal Cruising (sitting in this spot for now) was captured at ISO 20,000.

All the images appearing in ANY of many galleries are accompanied by a lot to contextual info that goes far beyond the simple metadata. As an example, if you click on the "In the Field" tab for Beartopia you'll catch some of my "editorial" thoughts of what I think of's ISO rating for the Nikon D5 (what the heck are they doing over there these days??).

More good stuff coming soon - stay tuned.



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23 June 2016: Capture One Pro Adds Support for D500 Raw Files...

Just a quick note for D500 owners that use Capture One Pro to convert their raw files: Capture One Pro 9.2 was released today and, among other new features, it now supports/recognizes D500 NEF files. More info (and download links, including for free trial version) available right here:

Capture One Pro Download Page

My "summary" entry on the performance of the D5 and D500 during a 9-day stint in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary is coming soon (I'm madly culling and processing sample images - along with scrutinizing and THINKING about the observed results - full time right now!).



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12 June 2016: Khutzeymateen Grizzlies Images Trickling Into My Gallery of Latest Additions...

I'm BACK! After completing two excellent "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tours I'm finally caught up enough to begin updating this blog and posting new images on this website. I've JUST added the first of many new images that will find their way into my Gallery of Latest Additions.

In the near future I'll post a detailed summary of how the Nikon D5/D500 combination fared under the tough (and - this year - very wet) conditions in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary on British Columbia's northern coast. The short version is simple: The D5/D500 combination performed exceptionally well...better than any other combination of cameras I've ever used for wildlife photography. The longer version...outlining what combinations of cameras and lenses worked best, how high I could push the ISO on the D5 and D500, and a whole lot more...will be posted here real soon!

Stay tuned. And...Cheers!


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21 May 2016: Carrying the D500 on Walkabouts - My Holster System

I recently made reference to how much I was enjoying using my D500 paired up the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR lens as my primary "walk around" kit. Note that I live in a relatively remote location surrounded by wilderness, so I have a reasonably good chance of encountering wildlife any time I go for a walk (so for me, a "walk around" kit translates into "highly portable wildlife kit").

Anyway...I also commented on how well that compact D500/300mm PF kit fit into the belt and holster system I use. And, of course, that prompted a lot of questions asking for me for details about that belt-and-holster system. So, here you go...

I use a modular system from Think Tank Photo. It consists of a wide belt system that has an integrated "slide rail" on it that allows you to mount various accessories on the belt AND slide them around. The accessories I regularly attach to it includes camera holster(s), lens cases, water bottle holders, et cetera. I use it in conjunction with an optional shoulder strap system to help balance the weight. I've used the system for several years and have hiked extensively with it and use it ALL the time when I'm shooting out of inflatable boats (for that the fact that the accessories slide around is essential). If I want to carry additional gear I can put on a small-to-moderate sized camera backpack (or daypack) OVER the system without any trouble.

Here are the details of the system, including links to get more information (or even purchase) the key bits:

1. The Belt System:

• Product Name: Think Tank Photo Steroid Speed Belt V2.0
• For More Info or to Purchase: Steroid Speed Belt

2. The Shoulder Straps:

• Product Name: Think Tank Pixel Racing Harness V2.0 (who thinks up these names?)
• For More Info or to Purchase: Pixel Racing Harness
IMPORTANT NOTE: With even moderate weight on the belt you'll want these straps to support a LITTLE weight and to help balance/stabilize the load.

3. The Holsters:

Note that there are several sizes of holster. I own 3 different holsters and always go with the smallest one that will carry the camera/lens combination I want for that day. All the holsters come equipped with rain covers as "standard equipment".

A. My SMALLEST Holster:

• Product Name: Digital Holster 20 V2.0
• For More Info or to Purchase: Digital Holster 20 V2.0
IMPORTANT NOTE: This holster fits my D500 (or similar-sized body) WITHOUT the battery grip attached AND with the 300mm f4 PF attached. It also fits the camera when it has the Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR mounted on it.

B. My MEDIUM Holster:

• Product Name: Digital Holster 40 V2.0
• For More Info or to Purchase: Digital Holster 40 V2.0
IMPORTANT NOTE: Just like the model 20, but wider. So this is the model to go for to use with a PRO body (like a D5) or a D500 with battery grip attached along with a 300mm f4 PF (basically any lens up to about the 70-200mm f4 VR in size)

C. My LARGEST Holster:

• Product Name: Digital Holster 50 V2.0
• For More Info or to Purchase: Digital Holster 50 V2.0
IMPORTANT NOTE: This holster is bigger again. Now you can carry a pro body in it along with a 70-200mm f2.8 VR. Note that a pro body with the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR on it DOES fit in, but that holster is now carrying a lot of weight in it and it's not the most comfortable combination for hiking long distances with.

4. Lens Cases: Think Tank Photo makes LOTs of different cases, so it's up to you to choose what additional lenses (and cases) to choose from.

• Product Name: Think Tank Lens Cases (assorted sizes)
• For More Info or to Purchase - start browsing here: Think Tank Accessories
IMPORTANT NOTE: Many lens cases from OTHER manufacturers also fit on this system. As an example, I carry my TC-14EIII in a small case on the belt using a Kata C-52 case (sorry...don't know if this one is still available) and my favourite lens case to use on this system is Lowepro's "Lens Exchange Case 200 AW" from their Field & Stream series.

I recognize that EVERY photographer is a little different and likes different things. This particular system works very well for me - but I can't say everyone else will find it to their liking. It does have a bit of the "geek-factor" look to it - in my case I'm not particularly worried about the deer, elk, bears or wolves around my property laughing me when they see me wearing it! Probably the single biggest thing I like about this system is how accessible the gear is - I can have camera out and shooting in just a few seconds (no pack to take off and open up) and I can switch lenses (or add TC's) without putting anything on the ground. And I do love the modularity of it - I can carry almost any mix of gear on it (barring super-telephotos of course). And I just LOVE how it works with the D500 - my most common configuration I'm currently using is the D500 with 300mm f4 PF attached in the Digital Holster 20 along with the TC-14EIII in the Kata case described above AND with my 70-200mm f4 VR on my other hip (in the Lowepro case described above).

Now go shooting...that's what I'm doing next!



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21 May 2016: D5/D500 Updates...Computer Meltdowns and Dead Trucks!

My apologies to all for falling behind in posting updates from my test results and impressions from "just shooting" with the D5 and D500. A combination of "real world" glitches - like an unexpected meltdown of my MacBook Pro laptop (dead logic board) and a malfunction of the heating/air-conditioning system on my truck - ate up about 30 hours of my "spare time". Living in a remote location is just great...until something breaks down! ;-)

I'm off to lead my annual spring "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" Photo Tours tomorrow, but hope to post an update or two before losing internet access fully on May 24th.

Kudos are extended to Apple for rushing my laptop repair and waiving all charges despite the fact that both the warranty and my AppleCare plan had expired.



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9 May 2016: MB-D17 Battery Grips Trickling Into Canadian Retailers...

Just a quick update today - the battery grips for the D500 (i.e., MB-D17's) are beginning to show up at Canadian retailers in limited numbers. Mine arrived today. This likely means they are also now available in many other locations around the globe...

Historically I've always put battery grips on any DSLR that accepts them (like the D600-series, the D750, the D800-series, etc.) and pretty much leave them on all the time. Not only do I like the vertical controls, but as one who uses telephoto and super-telephoto lenses a lot I like how they help balance out the weight distribution of the camera/lens combo. However, I am using my D500 as a day-to-day walk-around camera on my daily sojourns into the forest/wilderness that surrounds my home, and I have already put together a holster-belt system to carry it. With this system I want the camera/lens combo to be as compact and light as possible, so this will be the first camera I've had in years where I'll be using it as much WITHOUT the battery grip as I will with the grip.



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04 May 2016: Nikon D500 Images Trickling Into My Gallery of Latest Additions...

Images I've captured with the Nikon D500 are now beginning to find their way into my Gallery of Latest Additions. So those seeking to see additional images from the D500 should keep an eye out there. For the foreseeable future MOST of the images posted there will be those captured with either a D5 or D500.

Newcomers to this website may not realize that there is a veritable boat-load of additional information associated with each and every image found in ALL my image galleries. In the case of D5 and D500 images there will be discussions of new features (including some of the more "subdued" features) and how they work in the field. As an example, the current "lead" image in the Gallery of Latest Additions (a bull elk with a velvety crown) includes a discussion about how the larger AF points of the D500 can make pinpoint focusing a bit harder on that camera (compared to a D5). To access the additional information simple click on the labelled icons below the main image window (In the Field, Behind the Camera, At the Camera, etc).



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03 May 2016: Into Eagles? A Little Adventure? Some Good Fun?

This coming November I'm venturing up into the Haines, Alaska region to spend some time photographing eagles and other coastal and northern wildlife. While this trip isn't one of my official photo tours (yet), I am taking a small group of adventure and fun-loving photographers along with me. At this point a total of 5 of us are going, and logistically we can have up to 9 folks along. So...that means I'm looking for up to 4 more adventurous souls to join in on the fun. What better way to give your new D5 or D500 a good workout! ;-)

For this trip we'll fly into Whitehorse, YT (Canada) and then travel over to Haines, Alaska via van. Our primary goal in and around Haines will be eagle photography (Haines offers one of the largest congregations of eagles in the world!), but we will be spending some time poking around checking the entire area out and looking for alternate subject matter (including compelling landscapes and other local wildlife). As a "non-photo tour" there will be no formal instruction on this trip, but as always I'll be more than willing to give tips and discuss both the creative and technical sides of nature photography (ad nauseum!). Sometimes the BEST ideas and thoughts about photography (and wildlife) come out when you're with like-minded individuals and have time to "hang out" and just chat...

Trip dates are 21-28 November 2016.

Contact me at if you want more info or if you'd be interested in sharing this autumn adventure with us!



02 May 2016: The Nikon D500 - DX Nirvana?

I've been shooting with the Nikon D500 for 5 days now and I'm comfortable enough with its handling and performance to offer up some of my initial impressions and preliminary test results for your perusal and digestion. When I get a new camera I do a mix of systematic and rigorous field-testing along with a bunch of sessions where I just shoot it like I'd shoot any other camera. And here, after a little more than 4000 frames of shooting, are my early thoughts:

I. The BIG Picture

Many of us - from professional wildlife photographers through to serious enthusiasts and even novices who appreciate good quality, high-spec cameras - have lamented the multi-year absence of a top-end DX-format DSLR from Nikon. While I WON'T say "the wait was worth it" (I did NOT need the wait to appreciate a pro-level DX camera) - I WILL say this: I am just loving my D500. And I am thinking that in the next year the BULK of my wildlife shooting will probably be done with the D500. Yes, when the light goes real low, I WILL (of course) turn to my D5. But I suspect MANY (especially those who don't happen to shoot in low light as much as I do) will think "who needs anything better than this camera for wildlife or action shooting?" after they experience the D500.

Back on April 22nd I posted a blog entry entitled "The Nikon D500: Anticipation, Hopes, and Expectations" (just scroll down a bit to read it) and I can honestly say now that the D500 has met or exceeded each of my expectations. Time for some details...

II. A Few Specifics...

1. Build Quality

Exactly as expected - made in Thailand (not Japan) but definitely in the D750 and even D810 quality range. Yes, if you sit and toggle all the dials and buttons of the D500 and D5 you'll find some on the D5 that feel more "positive" and "click" more firmly into place. While the D500 may not give you the "if I leave my hammer at home I can always use my D5 as a substitute" feel, the camera feels solid and gives you confidence it will hold up and that you can put it to REAL field use (which isn't quite the same as "field abuse"!). And, of course, it's dramatically lighter than the "hammer/D5" (how much lighter it feels once the battery grips are out and we're using the D500 with the D5's big EN-EL18a battery remains to be seen).

2. Ergonomics and Between-camera compatibility:

The big thing I was looking for here was sufficient complementarity in controls, menu options, and available options of user-programmable buttons between the D5 and D500 AND enough between-camera ergonomic similarity to allow seamless camera interchangeability/switching in a field setting. And, Nikon delivered on this. I have my D5 and D500 set up SO CLOSE to identically that I hardly have to think about which camera I am using when I switch between them! Of course, I have not yet used my D500 with the MB-D17 battery grip in place and so there's the possibility that some "non-complementarity" will emerge then (but scanning manuals suggests this won't be a problem).

Note that the D5-D500 complementarity goes beyond controls - the two cameras take the same eyepieces (including the same eyepiece adapters for raincovers), share card types, and - if you add a battery grip to the D500 - can take the same battery type (the "big" EN-EL18a battery). If you're always shooting from your home this "hardware compatibiity" may be a small thing - but to those who travel with their cameras it can be a very practical (and big thing) - no need to carry two card readers, no need to carry two battery chargers, et cetera. For me it's a big deal.

There's even one small thing on the D500 that I wish was on the D5...both cameras have a Function button on the lower left side of the BACK of the camera - on the D5 this is the Function 3 (Fn3) button and on the D500 it's the Function 2 (Fn2) button. Anyway...long story short, there's only 3 options for that button on the D5 (voice memo, image rating, and "Connect to network"), none of which I have any value for me. However, despite being in the exact same position on the D500, the Fn2 button actually has an option I can use (one button quick access to the "My Menu" display - which finally gives me a reason to use My Menu!). Hey Nikon, can you add that option to the Fn3 button on the first firmware update? Thanks...

3. ISO Performance?

OK...I better not hold off on this one any longer. And please note that I will post a blog entry fully dedicated to this topic (and complete with additional sample images) later this week.

I have worked through 2 of the 3 phases of field-testing I do on ISO performance of new cameras (i.e., 2 of 3 scene types). In this testing I am looking primarily at the visible noise of full-resolution raw files when viewed at 100% magnification (though the 3rd scene type I test gives me a feel for how dynamic range varies with ISO). In this testing I am directly comparing 3 cameras - the D500, D5, and D750. Note that I am using the same scene for part of the test that I used when comparing the ISO performance of the D750 to the D7200, so I have a good feel for how the results of the D500, D5, and D750 stack up against the D7200 as well. Note that all images and image comparisons were viewed in LR 2015 and Capture NX-D and there were no differences in my results between these two raw converters. As soon as Phase One adds support to Capture One Pro for the D500 I will confirm my findings using that raw converter as well.

My findings? Real-world ISO performance of the D500 is looking very good - and slightly beyond my expectations. If you are looking at "visible noise equivalencies" between cameras you lose about 1 stop to the D750 (so a ISO 3200 shot on the D500 looks like an ISO 6400 shot on the D750) and about 1.3 to 1.5 stops to the D5 (so an ISO 3200 shot on a D500 looks like an ISO 8000 to 10,000 shot on the D5).

This puts ISO performance (as measured by amount of visible noise) at least 2/3 of a stop BETTER than the D7200. That's good news.

In an absolute sense ISO 3200 shots from the D500 are very usable (i.e., for a variety of uses, including at full resolution) with only very little (and sometimes no) noise reduction. Overall the files seem quite malleable and some images shot at slightly higher ISO's (e.g., in the ISO 4000-5000 range) look very good after selective NR. By ISO 6400 the images TEND to get pretty "chunky" (rough) and while they may still be acceptable as "documentary" shots, I wouldn't use them to showcase my work.

Here's a few sample shots captured in the field (all full-frame but reduced to 2400 pixels for downloading ease):

A. ISO 3200 Sample Image. Here's an ISO 3200 image (processed from raw in Lightroom) that I'd describe as "typical" of what I'm getting at ISO 3200. Note that the subject is in the shade in this shot and I did a SLIGHT amount of shadow retrieval on this shot (which INCREASES visible noise). Very slight (10 Lightroom "units") global luminance noise reduction on this shot:

Download 2400 pixel sample (JPEG: 1.6 MB).

B. ISO 5000 Sample Image. In some scene types ISO 5000 shots are pretty clean and usable - this scene (one of my ISO field-testing scenes that has in-focus, slightly out-of-focus, and completely out-of-focus zones) has had only VERY light selective noise reduction performed on it:

Download 2400 pixel sample (JPEG: 1.3 MB).

C. ISO 8000 Sample Image. This shot of "Gnarly Marley" was captured at ISO 8000 and has had quite strong selective noise reduction performed on it but, at least in my view, is pretty amazing quality for an ISO 8000 shot on a cropped sensor camera:

Download 2400 pixel sample (JPEG: 1.4 MB).

4. Autofocus Performance?

I haven't performed any comparative testing against the D5 yet, but after "just shooting" thousands of action shots with the D500 I am finding it hard to see any major differences in performance between the D5 and D500. But note that doesn't mean there aren't SOME differences in AF "execution" between the two cameras, including some that are a direct consequence of the difference in sensor size. On the D500 the 55 selectable AF points extend ALMOST to the lateral edges of the viewfinder (and noticeably closer to the top and bottom edges than on the D5). This is really nice - there is almost no need to "focus, lock-focus, and re-compose" on the D500. BUT, each selectable AF point DOES take up more of the available real estate on the viewfinder, meaning that you can't be QUITE as precise where you focus with the D500 (compared to the D5). And, going hand-in-hand with this issue, those FX shooters who have come to like how the Group AF Area mode works MAY find that the size of the "group" is pretty big on the D500 (which increases the chance that an object CLOSER to you will be "picked up" by the AF system and throw your subject out of focus).

But overall - and compared to the "last-best" DX camera from Nikon (the D7200) - the AF is just AMAZING on the D500. And, just like the D5, it focuses in the near-dark - if it's too dark to focus this camera there's nothing to see - or shoot - anyway! ;-)

5. Length of High Speed Bursts?

Advertised as 200 frames at the highest frame rate (with the fastest XQD cards) for BOTH the D5 and D500. The reality? 200 frames at the highest frame rate with both cameras. Amazing.

A few noteworthy points on this. First, it seems that Nikon has put a hard-limit on the burst sizes of both the D5 and D500. I tested both of the current "fastest' XQD cards on both cameras - the Lexar Professional 2933x (440 MB/s) and the Sony G Series (400 MB/s) and with both cards the cameras absolutely STOPPED when they got to 200 frames. If you tried a slower card you would get a burst at full speed for a lower number of frames, and then the camera would slow down and "chug along" at a slower frame rate until you got to 200 frames, and then either camera would again just STOP (regardless of how long you held the shutter release down for). With the fastest XQD cards you get 200 frames in a single burst on the D5 and D500 - not one frame less, not one frame more. The cameras are "hard-wired" to stop at 200 frames (possibly to prevent accidental pushing of the shutter release from going on forever, possibly to prevent over-heating of the shutter?).

Second - I did several 200-frame bursts on both the D500 and D5 and occasionally I would get a very brief pause of about 0.5 seconds (hiccup?) after about 185 to 190 frames and then the camera would carry on (at its fastest frame rate) to 200 frames (and then abruptly stop).

D500 Frame rates with lower-speed cards? Glad you asked! I tested a few, and here's what I found (note that your results may differ somewhat - burst rates are slightly scene dependent):

A. D500 with Sony H Series XQD Cards: Full speed burst for 41 frames, then a slow-down and chug along (at perhaps 3-4 fps) until getting to 200 frames (then full stop).

B. D500 with Sony S Series XQD Cards: As with H Series, but full speed burst was for 49 frames.

C. D500 with Sandisk Extreme Pro (95 MB/s) SD Card (XQD card removed): As above, but full speed burst was for 39 frames.

D. D500 with Toshiba Exceria Pro SD Card (UHS-II compatible @ up to 240 MB/s): As with H Series, but full speed burst was for 53 frames.

What about the D5 with slower XQD Cards? Here you go:

A. D5 with Sony H Series XQD Cards: Full speed burst for 77 frames, then a slow-down and chug along (at perhaps 3-4 fps) until getting to 200 frames (then full stop).

B. D5 with Sony S Series XQD Cards: As with H Series, but full speed burst was for 82 frames.

6. Battery Life?

I've had a few folks telling me they had heard reports of rapidly draining batteries on some D500's (note that no one contacted me who had this problem themselves). My FIRST battery charge DID drain down crazy fast, BUT I had this battery in for my full camera setup and then took about 80 shots with Live View on (during early ISO testing). Total number of frames on that charge was under 100 frames. BUT, since then the battery life has been absolutely fine on the camera, and I got slightly over 2000 frames on my last battery charge. Note that I'm in no way disputing what others may have said or experienced - I'm simply saying that the battery life on my camera seems just fine...

3 May 2016 UPDATE: Since yesterday I have had a number of folks email me telling me they are experiencing rapid draining of their D500 batteries. Here's something that MIGHT help (and something I did right off the bat on my camera): Unless you need it, turn Bluetooth OFF (mine was off by default, though with others it seems to be ON by default - perhaps related to how one chose to set up their the classic way with menus vs. with your smart phone?). And, I'd recommend operating with Airplane Mode ON. Worth a try anyways (thanks to Russ W. for reminding me to mention this!).

My final "first word" on the D500? This is just a GREAT camera and I can see it becoming the number 1 choice of many wildlife photographers almost instantly. And I think it will leave some wildlife shooters who DON'T have one (including those using the C-brand) more than a little green with envy. Nicely done Nikon!

Phew! That's it for now. More D500 (and D5) info coming soon...



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27 April 2016: The Nikon D5/D500 and Automated Lens AF Tuning

This entry outlines my experiences with one of the "sexier" new features of the D5 and D500 - the new "automated" autofocus fine-tuning feature that allows you to easily produce and enter ONE fine-tuning value for up to 20 lenses and/or lens and teleconverter combinations. I considered two different subtitles for this entry - either "If it ain't broke don't fix it" OR "Yes, Virginia, despite seeming illogical, it IS possible to use a computer to produce truly random numbers". But I'm getting ahead of myself...

I. Bare Bones Background - AF Tuning Using Nikon's New Approach

Before getting into my experiences, a little bare bones background is needed. The entire concept behind the need to fine-tune the focus of your lenses is that our digital SLR's don't actually focus directly on the image sensor when we're shooting using the optical viewfinder (they can't as the mirror is in the way). Instead, they focus on a second sensor below the mirror that is designed as a proxy (or substitute) for the real image sensor. If that proxy sensor is in the perfect position, then focusing your lens sharply on THAT sensor means that it is also focused sharply on the REAL image sensor. Simple concept. BUT...if there is ANY imperfection in the position of that sensor for any particular lens (and of course, this system assumes the lens is perfectly manufactured and focuses exactly where we think it should), then your focus can be out a little. If you like using fancy terms, this focusing is accomplished using something known as phase-detect focusing.

Full Stop. Most everyone reading this knows that most modern digital SLR's also let you work in Live View mode, where the mirror lifts and you see (on the LCD screen) EXACTLY what your image sensor sees. Of course, we can focus in Live View mode, and when doing this type of focusing there is NO proxy system involved - the focusing is done directly on the image sensor itself. Owing to the "direct" nature of this focusing (with NO proxy sensor involved) this Live View focusing tends to be extremely accurate. And, for the fancy term crowd, this direct Live View focusing uses something called contrast-detect focusing.

Now...clever readers (obviously everyone reading this entry) will instantly think "Hey...if we have TWO AF systems in the camera, one of which is dead-on accurate and the second of which MAY be a bit "out-of-tune", then maybe we could use the accurate AF system to calibrate the sometimes-not-so-accurate one".

Bingo. You got it. And that's the beauty, brilliance, and APPARENT simplicity of what Nikon has done. Those who have gone through the painstaking process of using 3rd party targets and/or software to calibrate lenses before Nikon came up with this clever innovation will appreciate and love what Nikon has done. All you need to do is set up some form of target, put your camera on a tripod, go into Live View mode and focus (using the central bracket ONLY), press two buttons (the AF-mode and movie-record buttons) simultaneously and "poof"...the camera gives you a fine-tuning value for that lens. Simple as pie and only takes 10 seconds - right?

Wrong. As in MAJORLY wrong. This past weekend I decided to experiment and check the calibration of two lenses when mounted on my D5 - my 400mm f2.8E VR and my 300mm f4 PF VR. Actually, I wanted to check the calibration of these lenses when shot native (no teleconverters) and with the 1.4x TC-14EIII (for both lenses) and with the 2x TC-20EIII teleconverters (for just the 400mm f2.8E VR). A lot of experience with those lenses (and studying the focus on tons of images) had left with me the impression that both were tuned close to perfectly (out of the factory) but that there was the possibility the tuning could be a little better (not a lot better, just a little better) when the lenses were combined with TC's. Long story short, it took me almost 10 hours over two full days before I had tuning values I was comfortable with. And my preconceived feeling about the out-of-factory tuning of the lenses couldn't have been more accurate.

So if getting an AF-tuning value only takes about 10 seconds (after you're set up) what the heck took so long? Well, when it only takes 10 seconds to produce a reading you're kinda tempted to take a 2nd reading. And when value #1 is -19 and value #2 is +14 (without changing ANYTHING in the setup) you're kind of tempted to take a 3rd reading. And when that reading is -12 you tend to pull a Trump and say "What the hell is going on here?". And you begin to look very closely at the sources of variation affecting the AF tuning values and - before long - begin to question the value of the entire process. Get ready for the ride...

II. Sources of Variation (in Fine-tuning Values)

With a little research on AF tuning (and a lot of experimentation) you begin to realize there are some widely recognized sources of variation that affect the fine-tuning values and some real unknown unknowns (someone cue that video of Donald Rumsfeld) that also affect the fine-tuning values you get. Here's a quick summary and some discussion on how to handle them:

1. Distance to Subject:

You'll find lots of references to the fact that the fine-tuning values will vary with the distance to the subject. But, you'll be hard pressed to find consistent recommendations as to the distance you should use when fine-tuning your lens. For the D5 system alone (forgetting about what the "old-fashioned guys" like LensAlign said) I found recommendations online to use 25x the focal length of the lens through to 40x the focal length of the lens (so that would be 10 meters through to 16 meters for a 400mm primes lens) and finally through to "your normal camera-to-subject distance" for that focal length of lens. Note that I did try several distances for my lens tuning and I CAN confirm that you will get very different values (up to a factor of 2 or more) at different distances. Seeing that variation made me think the BEST advice was to go with the subjective distance of "normal camera-to-subject distance for that lens".

Let's - for now - pretend that I ONLY use my 400mm at one distance, otherwise the real-world fact that I use it for animal portraiture (real close subjects), animal-in-environment shot (about 30 meters from subject), animal-in-landscape shots (up to several hundred meters from subject) and distant landscapes (up to several kilometers away) would make me throw up my hands in frustration. But, after thinking about how depth-of-field varies with distance (and thus how with distant scenes absolute pinpoint focusing becomes less important) and also about what shots I wanted to ensure were in the BEST focus, I decided to go with a distance of 21 meters for my 400mm lens.

2. Camera Shake I - Growing Extra Hands:

There's lots of references to "making sure you're holding the camera steady while tuning the lens" out there (including the suggestion in the Nikon Menu Guide to ensure you do the tuning on a tripod). When trying to fine-tune super-telephoto lenses I found camera shake to be a HUGE contributor to variation between successive test values. In fact, if the system is shaking too much (and "too much" isn't very much at all), you'll get a "Auto AF fine-tune failed" error message on your LCD. This is probably close to a non-issue if one is tuning wide-angle or shorter focal length lenses, but the reality with super-telephotos is that even with the firmest tripod on the planet if you're not using good long-lens shooting technique you get significant camera/lens shaking and vibration. And, unless you have two or three hands more than I do (I have two), it's nigh on impossible to go from Live View focusing and then re-position your hands to push the two buttons needed all while maintaining good long lens technique while tuning a 400mm lens.

My advice on this one? Experiment with various hand positions and holding techniques (while everything is supported on a firm tripod) that allows you to dampen vibration while still accessing the buttons you need to push on the front and top AND back of the camera to complete the process. Easiest solution is growing a third hand.

3. Camera Shake II - Using VR During Testing?

Being the curious type, when I realized how much impact camera shake had on the tuning values I wondered if doing the tuning with the VR on would produce more consistent consecutive readings. And I further wondered if using the VR might influence the actual ACCURACY of the readings. So...testing time - I took a series of readings (20) for EACH VR state with my 400mm f2.8E VR - so 20 with VR Off, 20 with VR On in Sport Mode, and 20 with VR On in Normal Mode (and then, after throwing out the two wildest readings - those "outliers" - I averaged the 18 remaining values). What did I find? Two things. First, as I suspected, the tuning values WERE far more consistent when I did the tests with the VR On. Second, all 3 averaged tuning values differed. Not by a lot, but this is supposed to be FINE tuning and NOT COARSE tuning - right? As an example, here are the average tuning values I obtained when I "tuned" my 400mm f2.8E VR with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter attached: With VR OFF = 3.7; with VR On in Sport Mode = 5.05; with VR On in Normal Mode = 7.6.

So...are these VR "stabilized" values valid? Don't know. And, which of the values is most accurate? Don't know. Should I just use the value that is the one that corresponds to the VR mode I use most often? Maybe. And, for now, that's what I'm doing. For me (with this lens with the 2x teleconverter on it) that means I use the VR Sport value (and it's nice that's close to the EXACT OVERALL average (of 60 readings!) of all 3 VR modes! Phew!

4. Focal Length:

The Nikon system lets you store ONE tuning value for each lens. So...for a prime lens and a zoom lens you can store just ONE value (BTW - a lens with a teleconverter on it is viewed by the camera as a DIFFERENT lens, so you CAN store the values for a lens PLUS that lens with teleconverter A and with teleconverter B and with teleconverter C). So...with zoom lenses you MUST make the assumption that the lens' focus is stable across all focal lengths (i.e., the lens is parfocal). This may or may not be true and I wouldn't be surprised if the "trueness" of that assumption (i.e., that the lens is parfocal) will vary with the quality control under which the lens is built (which is correlated to some degree with the price of the lens). My thought: If you CAN figure out the AVERAGE focal length you use a zoom at (hint: check it out using Lightroom library filtering) then it's probably best to tune it at that focal length.

5. Lighting:

I saw several sources that indicated that the values may change slightly with the lighting conditions. And, I THINK I noticed that when tuning my lenses (at a 21 meter testing distance - and even longer when I added TC's I was kinda forced to do my testing outside) - I did get more consistent consecutive values when I shot a full sequence (of 20 shots) under overcast as opposed to when I shot them under a mix of sun and cloud. And here again...what lighting should you use? I guess probably the lighting under which you "normally" shoot.

6. Aperture?

In the Nikon Menu Guide for the D5 they recommend that you do your tuning at maximum aperture (wide open). I don't know if this means the values will change at other apertures or not. I hope not, because I almost never shoot absolutely wide open with any lens. So I'd log this in my mind as a "possible" source of variation (and ready to access when I get inexplicable results!).

7. The Unknown Unknowns - Those Pesky Outliers:

No matter how much I refined my technique, how careful I was, and how consistent the values were for a while (I ONCE got 3 consecutive identical values!), occasionally I got an absolutely screwball reading. So...I would be cruising along get values hovering around +5 (+/- 5 units) and then suddenly the next reading would be something like -19. Huh? Note that I could reduce - but never fully get rid of - these outliers if I was meticulous. Should you include these crazy values in your averaged readings? I'd argue no (something went screwy there), but deciding where to draw the line on the "sorta screwy" readings is a judgement call. I suppose if one had the time to do 200 or more readings these "random" outliers would cancel each other out if they are truly random. And I am not going to get into a discussion of sampling theory or data normalization now... MUST be glaringly apparent by now that even though Nikon has made a BIG step forward in the mechanics of lens AF tuning, it is not something you should wander into willy-nilly and just monkey around with. If you just causally do it the way some popular websites suggest (like you can just do a quick tune whenever you want with a quick shot!) you may well be using a crazy outlier as your tuning value and do FAR more harm than good. Nikon's Menu Guide for the D5 says (on page 109):

"Use only as required; AF tuning is not recommended in most situations and may interfere with normal focus."

I'd say it slightly differently: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. If you don't have a darned good reason for thinking your lens AF system is out of tune for a particular lens on a specific camera (and you haven't exhausted all other factors that can contribute to image softness) then don't willingly go down the AF tuning rabbit hole just because you can. Unless you're really careful and meticulous, you can do as much harm as good (and now you can do it really easily and become so obsessed with AF tuning that you have no time left to do...uhhh...PHOTOGRAPHY!). ;-)

III. Some Fluid Guidelines to AF Tuning with the Nikon D5 & D500:

And finally, some straight-forward, real-world guidelines to AF tuning:

1. Target: Pick a high contrast target with sharp lines for the AF system to really lock onto. I used a LensAlign Long Ruler - it has some great detail on it. Make sure the target is absolutely parallel to your image sensor.

2. Distance: Choose a distance that is close to the average at which you use the lens in question and at which you care the most about maximum image sharpness. Think about the DoF at that distance. For instance, if you use your 600mm lens to shoot passerines at 15 meters then that's probably the distance you want to tune your lens at (especially given a 600 has very thin DoF at that distance and if you're out just a tiny bit it shows!). There is no magical formula to use for estimating the distance to use (unless Nikon is taking joy in keeping it from us) - 10x, 25x, 40x or even 50x your focal length might be right for you.

3. KEEP THE SYSTEM STABLE! Keep your camera and lens as stable as possible during the entire tuning process. If tuning super-telephotos this may require experimentation and practice to perfect a technique that works best for you.

4. Use the VR? Open issue. Because I tend to hand-hold my super-telephotos much more than I use them on a tripod, I use VR for the bulk of my work (and for that matter, I tend to use VR even when on a tripod). SO...I chose to use tuning values that I obtained using VR Sport on the two lenses I have tuned to date. In my cases the tuning values were more consistent when I used VR Sport mode (compared to VR Off or VR Normal) and they were almost the perfect average of the other two averaged values (i.e., my VR Sport values happened to be the average of the VR Off and VR Sport values).

5. Focal Length for Zooms: I'd recommend checking which focal length you use the zoom lens at the most and tune at that focal length.

6. Collect - and Average - Multiple "Readings": This is absolutely critical. Any single reading can be quite misleading - it could easily be an outlier. After you have your technique down, I'd recommend taking at least 20 (yes, TWENTY) readings and averaging them to come up with your final tuning value. I'd recommend discarding extreme outliers (that clearly indicate a screwy reading) before calculating your average value. If you're getting as many outliers as "expected" readings then clearly there is something wrong with your setup and/or technique and the resulting tuning values are likely of questionable value (and may make your focus WORSE and your images softer). What you're looking for is reasonably consistent readings (hey, once set-up they only take about 10 seconds) and only a relatively small number of outliers (zero would be great, but that isn't likely).

7. Use Constant Lighting Conditions: If working outdoors, try to work under constant lighting conditions for the entire sequence of tuning trials.

8. TEST THOSE VALUES: When I finally got values that I had reasonable confidence in, I went out and shot a ton of images at various distances and chose subject matter where foreground and background objects (in my case grasses) were continuous with my subject. I then scrutinized those images to confirm the accuracy of focus.

And that's it - simple as pie, eh? ;-)

Oh...and what tuning values did I get after 10 hours of work? Here you go:

1. Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR:

• Native (no TC): Tuning value = 0
• With TC-14EIII (1.4x TC): Tuning value = +5
• With TC-20EIII (2x TC): Tuning value = +5

1. Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR:

• Native (no TC): Tuning value = +1
• With TC-14EIII (1.4x TC): Tuning value = +6

Damn good thing that if I'm learning something I want to know I don't consider it time wasted!

And...yes...D500 thoughts, experience, and comments coming real soon. My first tests will be on comparative ISO performance (after I speed a week or so tuning all my lenses with it...KIDDING).



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22 April 2016: The Nikon D500: Anticipation, Hopes and Expectations.

I got the word a few days back that my D500 was due to arrive at my dealer's shop on Tuesday, April 26th. That should put it in my hands next Wednesday. While I am very much enjoying testing and shooting with the D5, I have to admit that in many respects I'm even MORE excited about putting the D500 to the test. After all, Nikon shooters haven't had a DX-format body with pro specs at their disposal since the D2Xs went the way of the Dodo bird. And while I tried to give both the D7000 and the D7200 a fair chance in the field, they just didn't do the job for me (mostly based on their ISO performance and speed, but also partly on their autofocus performance and overall build quality and durability - they simply weren't professional-level cameras).

A quick reminder and caveat is probably in order here: I'm primarily a nature and wildlife photographer who probably works in low light environments slightly more than the "average" wildlife shooter, largely owing to the time I spend working in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest (and rainforests tend to be pretty dark - and wet - places). Consequently the ability of a camera to focus in dark environments, and to produce quality images in low-light environments and hence at high ISO settings, is pretty critical to me (and possibly more important than to shooters who spend more time shooting in brighter surroundings).

When the D5 and D500 were announced in early January the expectations (and speculation) about how they'd perform included a lot of pretty extreme predictions (or perhaps they were "hopes"). With the D5 I was directly asked if I expected to see ISO performance improved by 2-stops over the D4s ( D500 ISO performance? I've actually been asked if I think it will match that of the D4s ( Anyway, what follows are a few of my hopes - followed by my honest expectations - of how the D500 will perform in the field. Note that my "hopes" listed here are firmly grounded in REALITY - of course I would like the D500 to produce completely noise-free and wide dynamic range shots at ISO 102,400 but...uhhh...this is the REAL world!


1. Hopes...

That the AF performance of the D500 will be exactly on par with the D5 (it has the "identical but DX-ified" system - right?)...but perhaps even better in the field because it offers more complete viewfinder coverage (owing to its smaller sensor). Note that to date I have found the D5 autofocus system to be nothing short of stunning (its performance in - literally - the dark removes any impediment to shooting those 6-digit ISO shots!). In short...if you understand how to use the AF system of the D5 (and it's not rocket science), it's hard to blame the camera if you miss the focus on a shot!

2. Expectations...

As good as the D5 in its ability to focus in low-light. Focus-tracking and predictive autofocus? Very good (and likely good enough for this wildlife shooter), but based on my experience with past FX/DX pairings that supposedly had "identical" AF systems (like the D3/D300 "siblings"), I don't expect the D500 to be quite as good as the D5 on holding the focus on fast-moving objects. And I really hope I'm wrong on this!


1. Hopes...

As good as the D610-D750. I've not hesitated to say that I was very disappointed in the ISO performance of the "last-best" DX offering from Nikon - the D7200. It was on only a few rare occasions that I shot images in the ISO 2000-2500 range with the D7200 that were acceptable to me (from a noise perspective). Most of the time I'm not even happy with the results of the D7200 at ISO 1600. But with the lower resolution of the D500 (compared to the D7200) and the inexorable forward march of technology, I'm hoping that the ISO performance of the D500 will be considerable better than that of the D7200. With my D750 (and D600/D610) I am comfortable shooting up to ISO 3200 and have even captured a few shots at up to ISO 6400 that I found acceptable (like this ISO 6400 shot of a Chickaree captured with my D600) - although normally shots captured at over about ISO 4000 or so with the D600/D750 require selective noise reduction.

2. Expectations...

I honestly can't believe that there will be a breakthrough (or quantum leap forward) in ISO performance with the D500 (which is pretty much would be required to elevate it from D7200 levels to those of the D600/D750). This is especially true after my experience with the D5 - arguably slightly better ISO performance than on the D4s, but only by a very small margin. So...I expect that I'll be capping MY Auto ISO "ceiling" on the D500 at ISO 3200. This means I think full resolution shots in the ISO 1600 to ISO 2500 range will likely be quite good (and suitable for a variety of uses) but by ISO 3200 one will have to start playing selective noise reduction games on the raw images during post-processing (to make them "acceptable" for a variety of uses). For SOME scenes it may be possible to push the ISO even higher (maybe ISO 4000?), but I'm not expecting it will be something I will want to do on a regular basis (which is the main reason I have a D5 - right? ;-)


1. Hopes...

Made in Japan and with the build quality of a D800/800e or D810, including having great environmental seals and that solid "bombproof" feeling that gives you the confidence that the camera can be used (not abused!) in tough field conditions and never let you down.

2. Expectations...

Made in Thailand and with the build quality of a D750 (or slightly better). Don't get me wrong...I LIKE my D750 very much, but it just doesn't quite have the "solid, bombproof" feeling of the D800-series cameras (I KNOW this is a nebulous characteristic...but I suspect those who have used Nikon's Japanese-made cameras will know what I mean).


1. Hopes...

That the "apparent" strong complementarity in controls, menu options, and available options of user-programmable buttons between the D5 and D500 combines with similar ergonomics to the point of allowing seamless camera interchangeability/switching in a field setting. And that the "apparent" complementarity doesn't hide some oversights that we have seen on past models. As an example, I love using the Function Button plus dials to shift between Shooting Banks on the D4s - and was baffled by why Nikon presented ALL the same assignable options on the Function Button on the D800 cameras EXCEPT the ability to switch between Shooting Banks. So far - and based on all info I've been able to find using the camera's user manuals (augmented with the brochure in the case of the D500), it LOOKS like we're close to camera-complementarity nirvana with the D5 and D500, especially if one adds a battery grip (with vertical controls) to the D500.

2. Expectations...

That ONE key option on a critical programmable button that I need to configure very specifically on the D500 to allow me to set up my two primary wildlife cameras (D5 and D500) identically (or "virtually identical") will be missing! Just put this particular (and perhaps slightly cynical) expectation down to a combination of past experience and the intractable laws of a dude called Murphy! ;-)

Finally - a bit of credit where credit is due. It's always easy to criticize a company like Nikon or Canon or Adobe for the things they appear to bungle up or do in a way that doesn't seem to perfect to us. And it's equally easy to overlook all the things they do well and never publicly acknowledge them for doing a lot of things right. I feel compelled to extend some kudos to Nikon over the way they have handled the D5 and D500 product rollouts. Not only are the cameras getting into user's hands when they are supposed to (even up here in Canada!), but we're seeing the accompanying downloadable product manuals being delivered precisely on time and even "earlier than ever before" 3rd party raw support from their partners like Adobe and Phase One (which does NOT happen without Nikon working closely with their business partners). Heck, even the improved product complementarity (of the D5 and D500) is a big improvement over similar "sibling" introductions of the past. Someone at Nikon is doing their job right. Well done - and thanks!



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20 April 2016: The Nikon D5 - Back to the BIG Picture...

It's easy when testing a new and very hi-tech camera to lose yourself in the details and not see the forest for the trees. I've been shooting the D5 for almost a month now, and that shooting has involved a lot of very picky testing (mostly against the camera the D5 is replacing - the D4s) and a lot of good ol' fashioned "just shooting". I have several more detailed and very "nit-picky" reports coming, but this entry is dedicated to some subjective feelings and little (but important) things I've picked up over the last several thousand images when I've been just using the camera...

At the most "macro" level I'd call the D5 a "you just can't miss" camera. By this I mean that if you understand even the most basic principles of photography (and what the major camera controls do) it's almost hard to capture a shot with this camera that ISN'T sharp and almost perfectly exposed. This thing hardly ever misses!

How this "it just doesn't miss" nature of the D5 is received will vary a little with the audience. We all know there's a lot of photographers who will buy this camera for recreational use. You know the type - baby boomers who always want the "best of the best" and have the money to buy a D5 without thinking about whether or not it's a good business decision to do so. Many in this category are not too inclined to really "tease apart" how every aspect of the camera works - they want to visit cool places and come back with images they love. Well...this group should just LOVE the D5! In many respects, you CAN treat the D5 as the world's best (and largest!) point-and-shoot camera and capture some great images (the good old "f8 and be there" thing).

Of course, SOME pros may not like how their special "little trick" to expose back-lit scenes perfectly are no longer needed (or needed a whole lot less). Or how their particular method of panning that holds the focus of that bird-in-flight better than the camera can (or could) do all by itself is kinda old school now!

But don't get me wrong...the improved metering and improved autofocus of the D5 doesn't mean the camera is JUST a point-and-shoot now. Its layers upon layers of sophisticated functions makes it capable of confusing even the most tech-savvy shooters (and doing some very complex things!). But to me its ability to more effectively and "automatically" deal with some technical issues (like metering and focusing!) means that I can dedicate fewer neurons to technical issues when I'm in the field, and dedicate more of them to creative issues. At the end of the day a great photograph is about how the photographer actually SAW what others didn't (or their split-second timing, or how they chose their depth-of-field, etc.). A camera that can take away more of the "technical clutter" helps everyone focus on what's important - capturing better and more compelling images.

OK...enough of the airy-fairy stuff - exactly what have I noticed about the "new and improved" matrix metering and autofocus systems while shooting in the field? Here's some thoughts:

1. Metering Improvements:

Most every "spec geek" (including me) knows that Nikon went from a 91,000 pixel-based RGB metering system in the D4s to a 180,000 pixel-based metering system in the D5. And we know that this new 180K sensor is now driven by a separate chip. But what we don't know is how they tweaked the overall metering algorithm to use that extra data.

But here's what I CAN say from a month of shooting the D5: the age-old Nikon thing of tending to blow out highlights on isolated bright portions of an image (especially if those bright portions represent a small proportion of the overall scene) is almost a thing of the past. Since getting my D5 I have forced myself to NOT instantly compensate the exposure (by -0.3 to -0.7 stops) to save highlights and I've been shocked how rarely a highlight is lost (and almost never "lost" to the point where it can't be retrieved in post-processing). I've shot backlit scenes (like this one) and "light-subject-on-dark-background" scenes (like this one) and invariably the overall exposure is near perfect out of the camera! It seems to me that with the new metering Nikon has placed more emphasis on getting the exposure of the in-focus portions of an image "right" than they previously did (but note that this is just speculation based primarily on experience - and only a little on empirical testing). Obviously on SOME scenes the exposure recommended by the D5 (using matrix metering) will be identical to that of the D4s, but I have done some testing (to be reported in detail in a coming blog entry) on scenes where the exposure difference on the identical scene is up to 1-stop different on the D5 relative to the D4s (in the favor of preserving highlights on the D5). Already I'm finding with the D5 that I can largely (but not quite completely) forget about exposure compensation in the field and JUST concentrate on the scene. That's pretty liberating.

2. Autofocus Improvements:

The D5's autofocus system also benefits from that same new 180K RGB sensor and independent chip. Nikon claims (in the D5 brochure) that because of the new 180K sensor that the camera can...

" detect even smaller faces, boosting AF performance. Focusing on faces of moving subjects is now easier, thereby aiding focusing during approx. 12-fps continuous shooting."

As a nature and wildlife photographer I am completely uninterested in facial recognition, but I have noticed related positive benefits to the "new and improved" AF system. For instance, while I rarely find a need for 3D-Tracking AF in my own work, I have found in testing it (in the D5 vs. the D4s) that with small distant subjects (in my test cases using both dogs and elk) the D5 has a much easier time sticking with the subject, and this was seen both in the automatically "shifting" focus point better sticking to the subject AND the observed higher proportion of in-focus D5 shots. And, when using either of my two preferred AF area modes (Single Point for static subjects and Group Area for fast-moving subjects) the initial acquisition of focus seems faster and my overall "hit rate" (of tack sharp shots) has gone up significantly.

There are other aspects of the AF system of the D5 that have been "improved" over the D4s - like capability of the camera to focus down to -4EV, more -3EV focus points, etc.) - and I will be saying more about those in the near future. But for now I think it's sufficient to say just this: with a LITTLE knowledge of how it works (and which AF mode/settings you should choose), well...the D5 just doesn't miss.

For years I have felt that the easiest-to-use and most "forgiving" camera in Nikon's lineup has been the top flagship (this dawned on me when the D3 was released and, at least in my opinion, has held in every flagship release since). The improved metering and AF capabilities of the D5 takes this to a totally new level...and I'm just loving it!



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14 April 2016: Even MORE on Capture One Pro...

I've been receiving a lot of email from folks who have decided to try out or even switch over to a workflow integrating Phase One's Capture One Pro. Here's two quick tidbits that may ease the transition for some:

1. JUST a Raw Converter or a FULL Workflow Solution?

In years gone by Capture One Pro was simply a raw converter and thus not a "soup-to-nuts" workflow tool like Lightroom where you could also perform a host of image and file management (and cataloging and keywording) tasks. But a few years back Capture One Pro added cataloging and file management capabilities to the application. you CAN use it as your primary workflow tool. Or, if you'd prefer and with a little thought, you CAN integrate Capture One Pro into a Lightroom-based workflow.

What do I do? I use Capture One Pro as a raw converter only. I use Lightroom for the bulk of my image management tasks, including image importing, culling, filtering, organizing, searching, et cetera. For a limited number of tasks I use Adobe Bridge as well - I simply like its file browning capabilities and it can "see" into the hierarchal folder structure that I use to organize my images (both on my computer's drives and in my Lightroom catalogs). My reasons for sticking with Lightroom for file management include legacy reasons and, to be perfectly honest, while the cataloging functions of Capture One Pro are improving all the time, I still much prefer Lightroom's cataloging and "library" features.

2. Capture One Pro: Should You Work in Sessions or Catalogs?

One of the first decisions a new Capture One Pro user faces is whether to work in Sessions mode or in Catalogs mode. Since its inception as a raw converter for professional photographers Capture One Pro has offered the "Sessions" workflow approach where most users considered each commercial shoot a "session" and kept images in folders within that session. Since adding image management functions Capture One Pro has allowed the user to use Catalogs (similar to Lightroom) to organize their work.

Which should you use? If you're considering a workflow WITHOUT Lightroom integration, you probably want to choose to work using Catalogs. If you are integrating Capture One Pro in a workflow using other image management tools (like Lightroom or Media Pro) you might prefer the simplicity of working in Sessions mode in Capture One Pro. I personally prefer working in Sessions.

Note that there are many more considerations to factor into the Catalogs vs. Sessions decision. For much more information about working in Catalogs vs. Sessions (and the consequences of the choice) I'd highly recommend that same new book by Sasha Erni that I mentioned in previous recent blog entries. In my mind making a decision to change workflow tools is pretty significant and spending under $50 on a book BEFORE making the final decision makes a lot of sense. Here's the book reference again (and NO, I'm not getting a cut on the book sales!):

Title: Capture One Pro 9: Mastering Raw Development, Image Processing, and Asset Management
Author: Sascha Erni

The book is available in electronic (as an iBook from Apple or an eBook from Amazon, and possibly others) and print form. Here are the direct links on and

What's up next? More on the Nikon D5...soon! Stay tuned.



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11 April 2016: More on Capture One Pro and the Nikon D5...

Over the weekend I had time to experiment with converting Nikon D5 raw files (NEF's) using Capture One Pro. And, I received some feedback on Capture One Pro (which has been my preferred raw converter for years) from folks around the globe. So here's 3 tidbits some may find interesting...

1. D5 Raw Conversions with Capture One Pro. I ran into no glitches converting 14-bit lossless compressed D5 raw (or NEF) files using Capture One Pro. One feature of Capture One Pro that many users like is the quality of the built-in camera profiles that come pre-installed on it. When raw support for the D5 was added they (as always) provided a D5 camera profile that - when in use - automatically makes several adjustments to the raw files you are previewing (such as colour adjustments, sharpening, tone curve, noise reduction settings, etc.). As usual, I found the new camera profile (the D5 profile) met my expectations and even before I made any manual adjustments the image quality was excellent. One difference I noticed compared to the default D4s camera profile is that the default noise reduction settings for the D5 tend to be less "heavy-handed" than in the D4s profile - so with many images many users will never feel they have to adjust noise reduction settings. Note that one aspect of how Capture One Pro automatically deals with Noise Reduction always confuses folks - the program automatically changes the noise reduction settings based on the ISO of the image (and in a fashion that's unique for the camera in use), BUT it always APPEARS to be using the same slider settings (i.e., the default slider values for Luminance and Colour Noise Reduction are always the same). So slider values of 50 for both colour and luminance noise reduction for an ISO 100 shot are actually very different than those for an ISO 6400 shot, et cetera.

So from this point on you can assume that any images appearing this website that were shot with my D5 were processed using Capture One Pro (including the ISO 8000 squirrel shot I just added to my Gallery of Latest Additions...).

2. A Good 3rd Party Capture One Pro Resource. It's easy to get a book on Photoshop or Lightroom, but historically there's been less 3rd party assistance available for Capture One Pro. But now there's a good and very up-to-date book available:

Title: Capture One Pro 9: Mastering Raw Development, Image Processing, and Asset Management
Author: Sascha Erni

The book is available in electronic (as an iBook from Apple or an eBook from Amazon, and possibly others) and print form. Here are the direct links on and I'm about 1/2 way through the book myself and despite being a long-time user of Capture One Pro I have picked up several useful nuggets of information and time-savers. Good stuff.

3. Capture One Pro 9.1.1 and Geotagging? I rarely geotag my own images, but I have been informed that this update still fails to enable the "Geotagged" filter which is supposed to identify files with GPS date in their EXIF. Apparently Phase One has been promising they will fix this in "...the next update" for quite some time, but it hasn't happened yet (so travel photographers take note). Thanks to PI from the UK for this tidbit!



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8 April 2016: Support for Nikon D5 Raw Files Added to Capture One Pro

Fans of Phase One's Capture One Pro raw conversion software will be pleased to know that they released version 9.1.1 today - and that it now supports the raw file format of the Nikon D5. Note that Phase One describes the support as "...preliminary, 12 bit uncompressed not supported, Live view not supported". This is a less than optimal choice of words - it does NOT mean that images captured using Live View on your D5 are not supported (it is in reference to Capture One Pro features that are related to tethered shooting, which is most commonly performed in studio settings).

For more info - or to download version 9.1.1 (including a fully-functional trial version) - just go here:

Capture One Download Page...

I'll be using the updated software a lot over the weekend and if I encounter any glitches (which is unlikely) or other noteworthy findings I'll report them here early next week.



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6 April 2016: D5 Control Layout Changes - Good, Bad...or Ugly?

In my 28 March entry entitled "The Nikon D5 - Early Impressions" I included a section on the changes in the control layout of the D5 (scroll down to see that entry, or jump to it with this link...). In short, while I did point out that some users may struggle with these changes, I clearly expressed that I found them favorable myself. Over this past weekend I had an excellent, informative, and thought-provoking exchange with a reader from Denmark who expressed some dissatisfaction with at least some of the layout changes. Not only did Lars Holst Hansen (name printed with permission of course) remind me of some options of a key button on the D4s I shouldn't have left out in my previous entry, but he presented a well-reasoned argument for why many may find the changes awkward to deal with. Thanks Lars!

To be clear and unambiguous here I have to present two things first - an overview of some of the control/button layout changes and new functions, and a little "editorial" info on what I (and Lars) feel will impact on whether one finds the layout changes good, bad, or downright ugly! As always, my perspective is that of ONE nature photographer who specializes on shooting wildlife (with pixels, not bullets).

1. Critical Camera Control Layout Changes and Critical New Functions

First off, I need to separate ALL the buttons/dials and other controls on Nikon DSLR's into two broad categories: those accessible and operable when shooting through the optical viewfinder - most of which are in reach of the thumb of your right hand and/or your right index finger and clustered on the front right side, back right side, or top right side of your camera (when viewed from behind) - and those that are inaccessible while shooting through the optical viewfinder - most of which are on the bottom back, top left or back left side of the back of the camera. Let's call the first category "Dynamic Controls" and the others "Static Controls". On the "perfect" camera every function that EVERY shooter would want to have access to while shooting would be positioned within the Dynamic Control regions and the ones that are most often used when you've lowered the camera away from your eye would be put into the static control regions (so playback functions, menu controls, etc.). Of course, the perfect camera exists only in the mind of the marketeers who want to convince us it is the next model to be introduced and that we can't live without...

A. Key Changes in the Dynamic Control Region of the D5

Exposure Mode button gone from top right region of the D5 to the top left region (on the circular "used-to-be-for-film-rewind" knob). Note that the Exposure Mode button had "lived" in the top right region (within the Dynamic Control Region) for many digital SLR generations. To get yourself into thinking in terms of the logic of camera control layout and what logically SHOULD be there I'd ask you to think about this: How often have you found the need to change Exposure Modes without taking your eye from the viewfinder (especially since Nikon implemented the clever Auto ISO that combines the best of Aperture Priority shooting with the best of Shutter Priority shooting). Just think about it.

ISO button migrates from the Static Control Region on the D4s (and D4, etc) on the bottom back of the camera UP to the top right corner of the camera (in the Dynamic Control Region), functionally replacing the Exposure Mode Button. In my mind this finally and fully recognizes that ISO is - in modern digital cameras - as fully flexible and important to control shot-by-shot as shutter speed and aperture are. Note that the Record Movie button on some previous Nikons (e.g., D4s) could be re-programmed to be the ISO button in the past (thanks to Lars for reminding me of this!).

• An additional and highly configurable Function button appears on the front right of the camera (yep, in the Dynamic Control Region) lateral to your lens. So you now have THREE configurable buttons on the front of the camera - Function 1 (Fn1), Function 2 (Fn2) and the Preview button.

• Note that MANY (most) of the critical buttons and dials that one adjusts on a shot-by-shot basis (AF-ON button, command dial, sub-command dial, multi-selector, sub-selectors) are virtually in the exact same place as always.

B. Key New FUNCTIONS in the Dynamic Control Region

• From the biased perspective of this wildlife photographer (and many I have interacted with in the last week) and I THINK many sports photographers, the most significant new "assignable" function that Nikon has added to option list of several configurable buttons on the camera (and in the Dynamic Control Region) is the ability to change focus area modes at the push (and hold) of a button. So, for instance, you can shift from your current focusing area mode (say "Single-point AF") to a different one you have prescribed (you have Dynamic-area AF 25 point, Dynamic-area AF 72 point, Dynamic-area AF 153 point, Group-area AF, and Auto-area AF to choose from). This "Shift AF Area" function can be assigned to the AF-ON button (both the horizontal or vertical ones) as well as the Fn1, Fn2, Preview, and sub-selector buttons. As a wildlife photographer who works with subjects that may unpredictably "break out in action" with no warning, I find the ability to instantly switch AF area modes a godsend.

My ONLY complaint with how Nikon executed this new "Shift AF Area" function is I wish it was just a "push the button" (and the change holds) implementation instead of a "push and hold the button" (or the change DOESN'T hold) implementation. Meaning to keep the AF area mode shifted you have to continue to hold the button down. Why don't I like this? Think about it - try holding any of the buttons you can program with "Switch AF Area Mode" WHILE toggling the focus bracket and still have a finger on the shutter release. Yep, you need either two thumbs or two index fingers or a hell of a lot more multi-finger dexterity than I have.

2. Editorial Comments: On Camera Complementarity and Changing Critical Camera Controls

I have to list several points here in bullet point fashion - they all factor into what follows...

• Most D5 buyers (and likely most D500 buyers) probably own more than one Nikon DSLR. And, many photographers like to work with more than one camera while on a shoot. Nikon knows this, and the fact that the absolutely most critical dials and buttons ((AF-ON button, command dial, sub-command dial, multi-selector) have reasonably good between-camera continuity within the Nikon lineup. But, when you begin to move buttons into or out of the Dynamic Control Region (like moving the Mode button OUT of the Dynamic Control Region and the ISO button INTO it) you start to impact on between-camera complementarity.

• It's my experience that cameras that are very similar in size and shape (ergonomically) - like a D4, D4s, and D5 - and that have similar uses are the ones that require the most between-camera continuity (of controls). An example: When I'm shooting from a Zodiac in the Great Bear Rainforest I often have TWO cameras at my feet and at times I go back and forth between them very quickly. If those two cameras are a D4s and a D750 they feel very differently the instant I pick them up and my brain instantly knows that one has User Settings for switching between a "collection" of settings and the other has Shooting Banks to do something similar. But...if at my feet are a D4 and D4s, I can easily confuse them and I must rely on them operating almost exactly the same way. Taken to a much different scale, if I'm shooting landscapes with my D800e I'm not even thinking in the same terms if I shooting wildlife with my I don't care much at all about continuity of controls (heck, if I'm shooting landscapes with my D800e I'm likely using Live View mode...which changes everything from how I shoot wildlife with my D-single digit camera anyway).

• The reality is that many D5 or D500 users will own and use them with other cameras of a different generation. So a D5 owner may also own a D4 or D750 or D610 and a D500 user may own a D7200 or whatever. The point is not everyone will be using a D5 and a D500 simultaneously. While Nikon has made a really good effort at making the D5/D500 "siblings" as similar as possible in control layout and implementation of new functions, BOTH are quite different in how you can (and likely will) set them up compared to anything else (e.g., you've never had to figure out where to put the "Switch AF Area" button before!).

• As a PARTIAL saving grace to those trying to pair up and shoot with either a D4 or D4s with a D5 and you really want them as comparable as possible - keep in mind that you CAN re-assign the Record Movie button to "Change ISO Settings" on your D4 or D4s (making those cameras similar to the D5) OR you can program your Record Movie button to "Exposure Modes" on the D5 (to bring back the Exposure Mode button like on all past Nikons).

Where am I going with this? my view - and as one who will be shooting wildlife primarily with a D5 and D500 combination of cameras this year - I LIKE the changes Nikon has made to the control layouts (and addition of new functions) to these cameras. But to incorporate the changes and accommodate the new buttons I HAVE been forced to change how I set-up and use my D5 (and I will be disclosing my EXACT camera custom settings and button programming very shortly) relative to my D4s. After only about 10 days of shooting with my D5 most of the changes have slipped into my subconscious, especially the ones in the Dynamic Control Region. But when I go back to my D4s I'm stumbling along like a novice for a few minutes ("What does this button do again?").

So...and thanks again to Lars for pointing all this you perceive the control layout and function changes in the D5 and D500 - and whether you consider them good, bad, or really ugly - totally depends on what cameras you're pairing up. If you own a single camera and that camera is a D5 or D500 then within a short period of time you'll have no problems and probably love how they operate. Similarly if, like me, you are working a lot of shoots with a D5-D500 combination you'll also like or love the new setups. BUT...if you're pairing a D5 (or a D500) with a D750 or D810 for wildlife shooting (or sports shooting, or whatever) you may stumble some and occasionally be cursing Nikon for forcing you to switch assignable functions on "parallel" buttons (for instance you may end up with AF-ON being "Focus-lock" on your D750 and "Switch AF Area" on your D5). AND, if you're shooting the same subject material with a D5 and a D4s or D4 and quickly switching between them, you have the potential to be close to lost every time you switch cameras...and you may well be thinking the control and function changes are just plain ugly!

Good, Bad, Or Ugly? It's up to the shooter to decide - after all it's THEIR (and your!) perception that matters...

And the testing continues...stay tuned...



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4 April 2016: Nikon D5 Images Oozing Into My Gallery of Latest Additions...

Images I've captured with the Nikon D5 are now beginning to trickle into my Gallery of Latest Additions. So those seeking to see additional images from the D5 should keep an eye out there...

Newcomers to this website may not realize that there is a veritable boat-load of additional information associated with each and every image found in ALL my image galleries. In the case of D5 images there will be discussions of new features (including some of the more "subdued" features) and how they work in the field. To access the additional information simple click on the labelled icons below the main image window (In the Field, Behind the Camera, At the Camera, etc).



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2 April 2016: Feedback On "ISO Performance: Nikon D5 vs. Nikon D4s"

Since I posted my blog entry yesterday on how the ISO performance of the Nikon D5 compares to that of the Nikon D4s my email inbin has been absolutely filled with feedback. The vast majority of it (so far) has been very positive, with many thanking me for sharing my "real world" experiences with the D5. And several other D5 owners have mentioned that they have noticed a similar trend - almost indistinguishable D4s/D5 ISO performance (when comparing full resolution images). Several of the comments brought up interesting issues that are well worth addressing here. I'll make it clear below when I'm paraphrasing a comment and when I'm directly quoting a comment I received:

1. April Fool's? OK...this one is a direct quote:

"Was your D4s-D5 ISO Comparison an April Fool's prank?"

My response:

2. Conflicting Online Reports on D5 ISO Performance: Several folks have commented on this and it's a very relevant issue for many potential buyers. In my view one email hit the nail directly on the head - direct quote:

"I also wonder if part of the reason for the mixed reviews about the D5 high ISO capabilities come from the fact that most of the other compares are vs the D4. Your compare is vs the D4s, which is already an improvement from the D4. Most reviewers said that the D4s was the same as the D4, but that wasn't my experience. If D4->D4s gave 1/3 stop improvements and D4s->D5 another 1/3 (utilizing downsampling to get there), that together is pretty huge to me."

My response: I am in full agreement. When I compared the ISO performance of the D4 to the D4s (way back in March of 2014) I found a complex relationship, with no difference up to ISO 800, and then a slowly increasing difference in ISO performance (favouring the D4s) as one pushed the ISO higher and higher. If anyone is interested in those details they're in my 2014 blog archive (and here's the direct link to that blog entry).

3. The D5 shots look better to ME! Several folks looked at the sample comparison images and wondered if the D5 images were a little better than I was giving them credit for. Paraphrasing them:

"I think I see a small improvement in the D5 shot in Scene 2..."

My response: Could be. But the thing I probably didn't stress enough in my entry yesterday was that the results were almost stunningly consistent (when using BOTH Lightroom and Capture NX-D to view the images) - without exception the image pairs (one D4s and one D5 image) that looked most similar in visible noise were always of the same ISO. For example, if I was viewing an ISO 6400 D5 image it was noticeably "cleaner" than a D4s image only 1/3 of a stop higher in ISO (so ISO 8000) but noticeably "noiser" than a D4s image shot only 1/3 of a stop lower (so ISO 5000). And note that I intentionally chose samples differing by a full stop (the samples shown were at ISO 6400, ISO 12,800 and ISO 25,600) - I could have "cherry-picked" samples where the D4s shot looked a tiny bit better than the D5 sample (like 1/10 of stop better, if that could even be seen!). My critical take-home point was this: If you have to use EXTREME pixel-peeping to separate out noise differences between full resolution images viewed at 100% magnification and shot at a particular ISO...well, there isn't much between them in ISO performance - and certainly not enough to have any impact in the field.

4. D5 vs. the Canon 1DX MkII? Another direct quote:

"I know you're a Nikon shooter but if you get a chance to evaluate the 1DxII compared to the D5 it would be great information. It is hard to find truly balanced and knowledgeable reviewers, and there really aren't any covering both Canon and Nikon that I know and trust."

My response: Funny you should ask. I have been considering making this exact comparison. I'm still looking into logistics so I won't commit yet, but this is a distinct possibility. Stay tuned.

5. On my genetic lineage. One more direct quote:

"Your mother was a rabid Mongolian wolf."

Ahhh...the joys of the internet. Actually, this one was in a language I didn't recognize (or obviously understand), so I used Google Translate to detect the language and translate. I'm sure Google got the language and message wrong and the sender was REALLY trying to say "Thanks for the ISO comparison - you are a gentleman and a scholar." ;-)

6. Raw Converter Bias? One highly technical commenter brought up a really good point that is a bit something all should consider, but something I don't think we can do much about (direct quote):

"Adobe applies unseen and undocumented "corrections" to the raw data before you get to the sliders. An Exposure of 0 on a D5 is actually +.3EV, for example (can't remember what it was for the D4 off the top of my head). Likewise, many of us believe that Adobe's color noise reduction defaults are absolutely total garbage: they tend to be set way too high by default and that masks luminance noise as well as chroma noise, unfortunately. Nikon's NX-D has similar, but different problems to ACR/Lightroom"

My response: Fully agree. This issue of raw converter bias is why I used BOTH Adobe Lightroom AND Capture NX-D (and got exactly the same results - ISO parity when full res images were viewed at 100% magnification). I would have checked the results for even MORE consistency using Phase One's Capture One Pro (my favourite raw converter) if it could read the raw files (Capture One is yet to update their raw support for the D5), but note that Capture One applies even more changes to the raw file (based on their proprietary profile for the particular camera) before you see it as a preview. At the end of the day pragmatism rules and we have to use the tools available to us. And the reality is that between Adobe Lightroom (and Adobe Camera RAW or ACR), Capture NX-D, and Capture One Pro we're hitting the VAST majority of photographers - and if these tools show ISO parity it basically means we DO have ISO parity! Note that I will check the same raw files with Capture One Pro once they add D5 raw support and if I find any discrepancies from the results I reported yesterday I will report them here.

Thanks to all who took the time to provide feedback - everyone benefits!



1 April 2016: ISO Performance: Nikon D5 vs. Nikon D4s

This entry describes the results of my field-tests comparing the ISO performance of the Nikon D5 to the Nikon D4s (and - in a more limited way - to the Nikon D750). Because the appearance and impact of both colour and luminance noise varies somewhat with the nature of the subject (showing, for example, more in out-of-focus zones than in regions of sharp focus) I compared the cameras using different scene types. And, I specifically chose one scene type that had both very bright regions (snow and ice) as well as deep shadows (in an effort to see if the cameras differed enough in dynamic range at any ISO to have a real impact on image quality).

Because the goal of all my gear testing is to understand how various cameras (and/or lenses) will actually perform in the field I chose (perhaps naively) to to do my testing under real low light conditions (as opposed to lighting emulated "in the lab" and when shooting targets). In this case this involved multiple days of pre-sunrise field excursions over Easter weekend. I thank Nikon for delivering this camera in late March as opposed to late June and the creator for placing large mountains on all sides of my cabin (thus delaying the sun from peaking over the mountains at ungodly hours). ;-)

A Quasi-Philosophical Methodological Note:

Differences in camera resolution confound direct comparisons of image noise at various ISO's. Some (e.g., have chosen to "normalize" (or negate) the affects of resolution by reducing the resolution of images captured at various ISO's down to a standard size and THEN comparing image noise. In's case they reduce the resolution of the image down to about 8 MP (the resolution needed to print an image at about 8" x 10" at 300ppi). This approach WILL tell you how your camera performs after throwing away the majority of the pixels (i.e., at 8 MP) and how that compares to other cameras when their pixels have similarly been thrown away, but it will tell you little to nothing about how the full resolution images from different cameras of different resolution compare. And, of course, the very act of resolution-reduction reduces visible image noise, thus cameras with MORE resolution will be exposed to MORE noise reduction when reduced in resolution down to a fixed size (such as 8 MP). In my view as a working photographer, the ultimate utility of an image (such as how large it can be printed or how much it can be cropped and still look good) is determined by how it appears - or can be made to appear with careful post-processing - at FULL RESOLUTION. Thus, my focus in this report was on how full-resolution D5 images at various ISO's compared to full-resolution D4s images. I don't buy 20 MP cameras to produce 8 MP images! Note that out of curiosity, I also examined D5 images reduced in size to match D4s images to see how they compared in noise.

I'll present the Executive Summary first, followed by a longer explanation of what I did and what I found (including sample images). Most readers can (and probably should!) stop reading after the Executive Summary.

One further introductory note: I am a dedicated shooter of RAW images, but have noticed that the quality of in-camera JPEG images have been improving with each camera generation. So during all testing and in shooting a lot of "casual shots" over the past week I have been capturing RAW plus JPEG (max quality) images on the D5 to see how in-camera JPEG images at various ISO's compare to carefully processed raw images at the same ISO. Some may find the comparison images below interesting (and those examining the images will get a feel for the quality of the high ISO D5 images over the critical ISO 5000 to ISO 25600 range compare).


I found the visual appearance of full resolution D5 and D4s raw images (viewed at 100% magnification) virtually identical at all ISO's between 100 and 51,200. This means that I could detect NO difference in the amount of colour noise, luminance noise, or the degree of shadow or highlight tonal detail retained in images of the same ISO. This result was consistent over all scene types examined. In contrast, D750 raw images had about a 2/3 stop ISO "penalty" compared to the D5 or D4s (so, for example, full res ISO 12,800 images from the D5 and D4s showed the same amount of noise of ISO 8,000 images from the D750). When I downsized D5 images to match the size of D4s images the D5 images exhibited a 1/3 stop better ISO performance (e.g., downsized ISO 12,800 D5 images were virtually identical to full res ISO 10,000 D4s images). So, based on my results, Nikon has apparently "squeezed" just slightly more ISO performance out of the D5 sensor compared to the D4s sensor - and, depending on how you look at it, even with pixels of smaller pitch the D5 sensor retains the ISO performance of the D4s sensor...OR if you downsize D5 images to D4s size they exhibit slightly better ISO performance.

METHODS: What I Did:

1. Image Capture: Over 3 consecutive days I shot images at a wide range of ISO's under natural low-light (pre-sunrise) conditions. All images were shot in Aperture Priority Mode at a fixed aperture (f8) from a stable tripod using Live View mode and with a cable release. Here's a quick description of the scenes:

• Scene 1 - My favourite yard stump: I've used this subject for testing the ISO on several other cameras over the years (with same lens, exact same location) so I have a nice collection of "comparison" images. I use this scene as it features a clear, sharp in-focus zone, a partially out-of-focus zone, and completely out-of-focus zone (each zone showing noise somewhat differently). On this scene I captured images using the D5, D4s, and D750. I began at ISO 100 and used 1-stop increments up to ISO 1600, and then one-third stop increments thereafter to ISO 51,200 (and I shot continued shooting images on the D5 at 1/3 stop increments up to ISO 102,400). I used a Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR lens (@f8) for this scene.

Here's a look at what the full frame "scene" looks like: Scene 1 - Burned-Out Stump

• Scene 2 - Columbia Lake - Distant Scene: This pre-sunrise distant scene is fully in-focus, edge-to-edge. For this scene I compared only the ISO 6400 to ISO 51,200 range at 1/3 stop increments, and just with the D5 and D4s. I used a Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom lens (@f8 and 300mm) for this scene.

Here's a look at what the full frame "scene" looks like: Scene 2 - Columbia Lake

• Scene 3 - Findlay Creek - Snow, Ice and Shadows: This mountain creek shot features sharp foreground rocks, sharp to "smooth" flowing water (depending on ISO and shutter speed used for each shot), and a moderately out-of-focus background. Both foreground and background show bright snow and dark shadow regions. For this scene I compared the ISO 100 to ISO 51,200 range with the D5 and D4s. I used a Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR lens (@ f8 and 95mm) for this scene.

Here's a look at what the full frame "scene" looks like: Scene 3 - Findlay Creek

2. Image Quality/Noise Assessment: I compared all images using both Lightroom (CC 2015.5; Capture Raw 9.5) and Nikon Capture NX-D (version 1.4.0). All images were examined both with NO noise reduction whatsoever and with colour noise reduction turned on (simply because colour noise often obscured luminance noise, making it impossible to assess luminance noise). I used the D5 files as reference and looked for what D4s and D750 images matched the D5 images in image noise. So, for example, I would select an ISO 6400 D5 image and then do a side-by-side comparison of D4s images (or D750 images) until I found the one that matched the D5 image in noise.

Note that in one portion of my image assessments I wanted to compare D5 images that were reduced in resolution to match D4s images. In these cases I "processed" (or "opened") the image in Photoshop CC and then downsized the image using the Bicubic (smooth) algorithm in the Image Size dialog box.

All images were compared at 100% magnification (or 1:1) on a "standard" (100 ppi) 30" Apple Cinema Display (using my 5K Retina monitor would have made it difficult to distinguish between images of fairly similar noise at 100% magnification). In practice it was extremely easy to visually separate (or match) images shot at different ISO's (or on different cameras) based on noise - even when using the same camera there were obvious visual differences in noise of shots differing only 1/3 of a stop in ISO.

Note that I found absolutely no difference the results when images were viewed using Capture NX-D or Lightroom. Because I didn't have weeks to dedicate to processing images for presentation here, all images shown below were processed using Lightroom and/or Lightroom combined with Photoshop (Capture NX-D seems to do a GREAT job on noise reduction on the D5 files, but MAN is it crude, "feature-lacking" and a pain to use in a workflow!).

RESULTS: What I Found:

1. Scene 1: The Stump. Pretty much complete ISO performance parity as judged by visible noise in full resolution D5 and D4s raw images (when viewed at 100% magnification) at all ISO's. When I reduced D5 images in resolution to match the size of D4s images (from 5568 pixels on the long axis to 4928 pixels on the long axis) they visually matched up to D4s images shot at 1/3 stop lower ISO. D750 raw images at full resolution consistently "trailed" D5 and D4s images by 2/3 of a stop (so a D750 image shot at ISO 6400 had as much visible noise as D5 and D4s images shot at ISO 10,000). Note in the sample composite image below colour noise has been suppressed to show only luminosity noise (colour noise was absolutely equivalent but masked the luminosity noise). Note that the sample below (ISO 12,800 comparison shown) shows a crop of the central region with in-focus, partially out-of-focus, and fully out-of-focus zones (view full "scene" here). Best to view the sample below at 100% magnification.

• Sample 1 (Scene 1) at ISO 12,800: Download JPEG Image

2. Scene 2: Columbia Lake (distant scene). Again, consistent and complete ISO performance equivalence as judged by visible noise in full resolution D5 and D4s raw images (when viewed at 100% magnification) at all ISO's. When I reduced D5 images in resolution to match the size of D4s images they visually matched up to D4s images shot at 1/3 stop lower ISO. Note in the sample composite image below colour noise has been suppressed to show only luminosity noise (colour noise was absolutely equivalent but masked the luminosity noise). Note that the sample below (ISO 25,600 comparison shown) shows a crop of the central region only (view full "scene" here). Best to view the sample below at 100% magnification.

• Sample 2 (Scene 2) at ISO 25,600: Download JPEG Image

3. Scene 3: Findlay Creek. Same result - ISO performance parity as judged by visible noise in full resolution D5 and D4s raw images (when viewed at 100% magnification) at all ISO's. When I reduced D5 images in resolution to match the size of D4s images they visually matched up to D4s images shot at 1/3 stop lower ISO. Note in the sample composite image below colour noise has been suppressed to show only luminosity noise (colour noise was absolutely equivalent but masked the luminosity noise). Note that the sample below (ISO 6400 comparison shown) shows a crop of the "moderately" out-of-focus zone to include shadowed regions and lighter ice (view full "scene" here). Note that at all ISO's tested I could see no trend in either camera retaining better shadow tonality or highlight tonality (i.e., they were virtually identical in this characteristic too). Best to view the sample below at 100% magnification.

• Sample 3 (Scene 3) at ISO 6400: Download JPEG Image

The one-sentence results summary? D5 ISO performance is pretty much like D4s ISO performance, only a little better! ;-)

BONUS SECTION: Some High ISO Samples (In-camera JPEGs vs. Images Processed from Raw)

Here you go - a variety of high ISO D5 shots captured over the last week comparing "straight out of the camera" in-camera JPEGs and images converted from RAW using Lightroom CC and with tweaks (including selective noise reduction) in Photoshop CC. My goal here was to check out the quality of in-camera JPEGs vs. "processed from RAW and converted to JPEG" shots at various ISO's. As expected, the gap between the files converted from RAW vs. in-camera JPEG's increased with increasing ISO. By ISO 16000 some of the in-camera JPEGs were definitely taking on that "waxy" look of excessive noise suppression. In-camera JPEGs were of highest quality setting (FINE) and based off a slightly modified "Standard" Picture Control Profile. As always - best to view at 100% magnification:

1. Caught Red-handed (squirrel on stump) - ISO 5000:

• In-camera JPEG: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG 1.4 MB)
• Processed from RAW: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG 1.4 MB)

2. Red Chirping' (sassy squirrel) - ISO 10,000

• In-camera JPEG: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG 1.4 MB)
• Processed from RAW: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG 1.1 MB)

3. The Finish Line (Jose the Portie in full flight) - ISO 12,800

• In-camera JPEG: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG 1.3 MB)
• Processed from RAW: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG 1.1 MB)

4. Huh? (curious squirrel) - ISO 16,000

• In-camera JPEG: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG 1.5 MB)
• Processed from RAW: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG 1.3 MB)

5. Slinking In (Poncho the bashful Portie) - ISO 22,800

• In-camera JPEG: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG 1.4 MB)
• Processed from RAW: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG 1.2 MB)

6. The Finish Line II (Jose the Portie in full flight again!) - ISO 25,600

• In-camera JPEG: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG 1.5 MB)
• Processed from RAW: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG 1.3 MB)

Take Home Lessons? Here's what I'm taking away from this ISO testing: The higher resolution Nikon D5 equals the Nikon D4s in "per pixel" ISO performance despite "jamming" more pixels into the same-sized sensor. Thus it is a small step forward in ISO performance. But in real world terms I'll be setting up and using the same ISO limits on my D5 as I did on my D4s (I always set up multiple shooting banks on my own cameras with different Auto ISO settings for different shooting situations). Both cameras can produce extremely high quality images in the ISO 5000 to ISO 12,800 (and sometimes even higher, depending on the scene) range, especially if one shoots raw files and processes them with care, including using selective noise reduction techniques. Beyond about ISO 16,000 both cameras are capable of producing great documentary images to record notable events, but don't expect many jaw-dropping wall-hangers once you're on the ISO 20,000 range (unless, of course, it's of the Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster). The crazy ISO's of 50,000 and above? Yep, I'm definitely reserving those for use only when I DO see a Bigfoot...

A final comment: During the time between the announcement of the D5 and it began shipping I heard some pretty "overly optimistic" (and even outrageous) comments about the expected ISO performance of the D5. Things like a full stop (or even TWO stop) improvement in ISO performance!. I suspect much of these lofty expectations came from folks who haven't shot much with a D4s and thus didn't appreciate how amazing the ISO performance of that camera already was. And those folks may well be disappointed in "just" more resolution with comparable ISO performance. For quite some time (and before the D5 announcement) I had been saying "make the D5 20-22 MP with the same ISO performance of the D4s and I'll be happy". I'm happy.

The D500? I'm thinking I'll not be taking that camera much above ISO 3200 (and expecting quality results). But I hope I'm dead wrong! ;-)

And the testing continues...stay tuned.



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30 March 2016: The Nikon D5: NOT a Step Backwards!

On March 28 the popular website published an article entitled "Studio Report: Nikon D5 has lowest base ISO dynamic range of any current FF Nikon DSLR". Read that article HERE...

Based on dozens of emails arriving in my inbin asking me what I thought of this article it's become very apparent to me that a lot of folks have misread or misinterpreted the article. In short, many seem to think that is stating that the D5 has lower dynamic range at its lowest ISO's than the Nikon D4s, D4, or even D3s. This is NOT what said, and they have not presented any data on the dynamic range of the D4s, D4, or D3s. Their comparison (and their reference in the title to "any current FF Nikon DSLR") is limited to the D750 and D810 - two cameras that have ASTOUNDING dynamic range. If you spend time searching the website you'll find that they never got around to testing (or at least reporting their testing) on the D3s, D4, or D4s in the way they tested the D750, D810, and now D5.

However, if you travel to the other very popular source of technical information on camera sensors ( you'll find it's been common knowledge for a LONG time that the D3s, D4, and D4s have less dynamic range at the lowest ISO's than the D750 and D810 (and several other Nikon cameras). If you dig deeper, however, you'll find that the D-single digit flagships have MORE dynamic range than the D750 and D810 by about ISO 800 and above (in other words, the dynamic range of the D750 and the D800-series cameras falls off faster with increasing ISO). So when you get into the critical high ISO range that the D-single digits are expected to perform in, they have MORE dynamic range than other cameras, including the D750 and D810. Note also that the D4s came out long after the D800's were introduced and no one made a big deal over the fact that the D4s had lower dynamic range at base ISO than the D800's.

The germane question is really: Does the D5 (and did the D3s, D4, and D4s) have ENOUGH dynamic range for the intended and primary use of the camera (high speed performance under a wide variety conditions, including in low light). The answer is a resounding YES - and those D-single digit flagships still have MORE dynamic range than most cameras on the market (such as ANY Canon ever built!). The really noteworthy thing is just HOW MUCH dynamic range the D750 and D800-series cameras have (as good landscape cameras should), not HOW LITTLE dynamic range the D5 has at low ISO.

So while presented this article (and particularly that headline) as though it was revelatory information and "breaking news" (and SUCH a disappointment!), it was really just old info that they seem to have just discovered. It's absolutely what informed photographers expected. And a complete non-story.

In short: The D5 is not a step backwards in sensor technology or any aspect of real-world performance that impacts on image quality. It's an amazing image-capturing machine - just like the D4s is...only better!

Oh...BTW...breaking news ONLY found here: Donald Trump uses a combover hair style! Bet you would NEVER have guessed that...



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28 March 2015: The Nikon D5 - Early Impressions...

After arrival of my D5 late on Thursday the 24th, I spent my Easter weekend immersed in setting up, monkeying with, and both "just shooting" and systematically testing the new camera. I have now shot several thousand images with the D5 and examined the bulk of them quite closely. At this point I've almost completed all the ISO testing I plan to do on the camera and have done enough AF testing to give me a bit of a handle on that aspect of the camera's performance (as well as becoming aware of where I have to go with further AF testing). So here's some very early thoughts on Nikon's new flagship.

But First...Some Important Caveats:

1. I am a STILL photographer, not a videographer. In fact, I am an admitted video imbecile and have no immediate plans to change that. As such, I am unqualified to comment on ANY aspect of the video performance of the D5 or any other camera. My comments on the D5 will be limited to features relevant to still photography.

2. I am a nature photographer, and primarily a wildlife photographer who leans towards shooting free-ranging and completely unrestrained mammals - and especially carnivores - under natural lighting. This includes shooting moderately static subjects as well as spontaneous and fast-moving action (that can break out unpredictably). Consequently many aspects of autofocus (AF) performance (including the ability to rapidly change AF modes and settings) and ISO performance are very high on my "a camera must excel at" list.

3. My primary motivation in investing the time and energy to thoroughly test gear is so that I fully understand the item's capabilities and limitations in a field setting - things that actually make a difference to my final images. In the case of the Nikon D5 this means I will be focusing my testing most closely on examining updates (from the Nikon D4s) that will hopefully translate into improved performance in the field. So - as an example - because I rarely have a need to shoot more than 50 images in a single high-speed burst, if a D5 has "double the performance of the D4s in burst size" (and goes from around 100 raw images in a single burst to around 200 in a burst) it has little significance to me (but it may well have significance to some sports photographers). In short, I'm concerned about improvements that are actually "realizable" to ME in a field setting.

So...given that every photographer is different and uses their gear slightly differently, the best way to interpret what I say about any equipment on this blog - and in this case about the D5 - is to ask yourself the following question: "Do my need's match Brad's in this aspect of the performance of the D5?" If so, then it's probably worth considering my point(s). If not...hey...just ignore me! ;-)

I. D5 Control Layout, Menu, and Handling Changes...and Consequences. all my fellow geeks, I read the specs of the D5 very closely the minute they were released. But...until the camera is in your hands you miss some things and/or don't fully understand the consequence of the changes. Here's some new things on the D5's layout, menu options that impact on the use of the camera and really stand out for me:

• Re-org of critical exposure-related buttons/controls: Nikon has changed the position of a key button on the D5 - the ISO button has moved from the lower portion of the back of the camera up to the top of the camera within easy reach of the user's right index finger. you can get to ALL the critical determinants of exposure that user's regularly adjust - aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and exposure compensation - without moving your eye from the viewfinder. This is a GREAT change. I regularly change my ISO values while shooting, including switching from manual ISO to Auto ISO and now I don't have to put my camera down to do so. Little spec change, but with major consequences for me in the field.

• Dynamic switching of AF area modes: The Nikon D4s introduced the capability of allowing the user to instantly switch between autofocus area modes (e.g., from single-point to one of the Dynamic Area modes) by pushing the "AF Activation" button that's found on selected lenses. SO...this meant if you were working a subject that is best handled with single-point AF mode and suddenly action breaks out (like that stationery, foraging bear is suddenly charging at you, or an eagle-in-flight enters the scene) you could instantly switch to a mode better suited to tracking action (e.g., Group Area AF) just by pushing the "AF-Activation" button on the lens. I loved that change. BUT...before long (of course) I wanted this capability for EVERY lens I used, not just the few super-telephotos that had the AF-Activation buttons on them. NOW, with the D5, you can assign this "change AF area mode" to a camera button (e.g., the AF-ON button) and it works with ANY lens you have on. Press and hold the button and "poof", you're in a different AF area mode (of your choosing). This may sound kinda trivial and like one of those "who cares?" things, but the reality in the world of wildlife photography is that action breaks out spontaneously and unexpectedly, and it can happen so fast that you have no way of changing your AF area mode quick enough to maximum the "hit ratio" of the resulting images. Until now. Another little spec change, but again with major consequences for me in the field.

Note that both of these changes above may have "cascading effects". For instance, if you are a fan of "Back Button Focus" (using the AF-ON button) but decide you want to re-assign that button to "Change AF Area Mode" then you may have to re-assign "initiate focus" to a new button, such as the Fn1 button or the new Fn2 button. For most this may be something that they can quickly integrate into their subconsciousness (so that camera operation becomes rapid and intuitive rather than "deliberate and slow"). But for those who want to use BOTH a D5 and D4s at the same time it may mean your cameras are set up quite differently and moving back-and-forth between them might get more than a tad confusing (unless you want to "dumb down" a D5 to a D4s level and set the D5 up like a D4s, which seems kinda like spending extra money for the D5 for little good reason!).

Some other "usually don't grab the headlines" changes that I noticed in handling and performance...

That 1 fps bump is REALLY noticeable! The fastest frame rate of the D4s with full autofocus was 11 fps, and it's 12 fps with the D5. Hardly noticeable - right? Wrong. The D5 is fast, fast, fast - both in sound and how quickly those frames go by.

Smoother Action Shooting. The D5 has a new mirror-driving mechanism that has, according to Nikon's marketing literature, "...significantly reduced blackout time, which ensures the continuity of viewfinder images, while also cutting image blur" when shooting at 12 fps. Really? YEP, believe it. Shooting action at 12 fps is fantastically smooth with this camera - love it.

Brighter Viewfinder. I can't recall seeing this mentioned previously, but while doing head-to-head testing with the D4s I instantly noticed how much brighter the viewfinder of the D5 is. Nice. And unexpected.

There are other differences in handling and use that I'll mention in time (or other places), but for now those are the ones that have really stuck out for me in early use of the D5.

Any Deficiencies and/or Disappointments? Yep, a few. Like...

Ongoing bizarre implementation of the Virtual Horizon feature through the viewfinder. Why Nikon has decided to "hijack" the AF brackets to use in the virtual horizon function in the D5 (like they did in the D4s) while ADDING separate displays in the D750 and D800-series cameras for Virtual Horizon is a mystery to me. I primarily need Virtual Horizon capability when hand-holding my camera and I kinda want it WITH my AF capabilities, not in lieu of!

Auto ISO Could Be Even Better: The Auto ISO's "Auto Shutter Speed Compensation" increments are still too coarse (still at 1 stop per "increment" vs. 1/3 stop per increment).

User Settings Fantasies? I'm still wishing there as a way to tie AF settings to Shooting Banks (as per the U1 and U2 User Setting protocol of the D7200, D610, and D750), although I acknowledge that the new button-based switching of AF Area modes partly negates this need.

II. Autofocus Performance.

OK...Nikon has totally revamped the AF system for the D5 (and D500) and to list ALL the changes would take pages. But suffice to say for now that this is one of the headline features on the D5. Note that many - if not most - users of the D4s consider it to have the best AF system on the market. I wouldn't disagree. An irony of the Nikon D4s (and the last several flagships before it) was that the AF system was so good that it made it one of the easiest cameras on the market to use (to get sharp shots). I know MANY users who use a D4s almost like a point-and-shoot and get an incredibly high number of tack sharp images. Will the new AF system of the D5 take this "just can't miss" nature of the D4s to the next level. Or, is the AF system of the D4s already so good that improvements won't be "translatable" into significantly higher "hit ratios" with the D5?

I haven't had a chance to completely evaluate all the changes yet (or fully understand the significance of those changes), but I will be proceeding with my testing hoping to unravel those questions above. BUT, I have already noticed - and done enough testing - to say several things:

Focuses in the DARK! If you thought the ability to focus at -3 EV was good on the D750, you'll be amazed at what it means to be able to focus down to -4EV. Stunning. And...for those who find a reason to shoot in the dark using the crazy ISO's over 100,000, the camera will find a way to focus.

I LOVE the smaller AF brackets of the D5 (over the D4s). This allows for exceptionally precise positioning of the AF bracket on your subject, which is something I really value.

Expanded Focusing "Area": I was skeptical that the increase in the real estate occupied by the selectable focus brackets within the viewfinder would actually be noticeable in the field. But it IS noticeable...and appreciated. While I would still love to see the region you can move the AF bracket to cover an even wider area, I have found my need to focus, focus-lock, and recompose reduced relative to my D4s. Of course, the focus array of the D500 will cover a MUCH wider array, but the trade-off there is the brackets will be relatively much larger in the viewfinder (see the bullet point above why this isn't necessarily desirable).

Focus tracking using 153-point Dynamic Area, Group Area, and 3D-Tracking appears superb. Which mode you choose will be dependent partly on the predictability of motion of your subject. Here's one example of what Group Area AF did in tracking a fast-moving subject moving directly at the camera (note that with this subject I was able to keep the head region within the boundaries of the "diamond" defined by the group focus brackets). Please note that I haven't had a chance to directly test the focus-tracking (or any other features) of the D5 against that of the D4s yet.

Poncho On the Run: Group Area AF (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

3D-Tracking for Wildlife? This issue requires a tad more discussion. 3D-Tracking incorporates colour information into its tracking algorithm and relies on the subject being a different colour than the background. Historically (D4s and before) I have found it to work quite poorly for most wildlife photography simply because the colour of the subject didn't contrast sufficiently with the background. But the new 180K RGB sensor of the D5 (along with the new AF chip) may be sophisticated enough to change this. SO...I have begun testing 3D-Tracking with my wildlife "action proxies" (AKA Portuguese Water Dogs). Early results are encouraging enough (with VERY high percentages of sharp shots of sequences of images of a rapidly running dog being realized) to justify experimenting more with using 3D-Tracking for wildlife...see linked image immediately below to see the kind of results I was achieving with 3D-Tracking...

Poncho On the Run: Group Area AF (JPEG: 1.3 MB)

Stay tuned for much more on the AF performance of the D5 (and how it compares to the D4s) in the near future.

III. ISO Performance

OK...the million dollar question: how does the D5 compare to the D4s in ISO performance? Note that I have seen rampant speculation and crazy expectations (mostly in email sent directly to me) about this - everything from some expecting a 1-stop improvement in ISO performance to others expecting as much as a 2-stop improvement in ISO performance over the D4s. Uhhhh...this is the real world...and squeezing extra stops of ISO performance out of a high performance camera isn't a simple matter (and not nearly as simple as increasing the highest setting on the dial up to Hi 5.0 - or 3.28 MILLION ISO!).

Some very important caveats here: The Nikon D5 is a 20 MP camera - around 4 MP higher in resolution than the D4s. This translates into a smaller pixel pitch - with the pixel pitch of the D4s being 7.3 µm and that of the D5 being about 6.45 µm. If all else is equal (including the image processing engine and image sensor quality) there is a strong correlation between pixel pitch and image noise, with smaller pixel pitches having more noise. Consequently, status quo in sensor and image processor quality between the D4s and the D5 would mean that there would be slightly MORE noise exhibited by a D5 than a D4s. To have equal or less noise (which most think of as "better" ISO performance) the D5 would need to have a better quality sensor OR a better image processor, or both.

What have I observed? I will be producing a detailed report of my testing protocol and sample images comparing the ISO performance of the D4s and D5 in a day or two, but at this point I am completely comfortable saying this:

When comparing raw image files of the D4s and D5 at full resolution and 100% magnification, I can find NO difference in the visible noise or the tonal range in shadow or highlight regions (or any other difference) at any ISO between ISO 100 and ISO 51,200. Furthermore, I have found BOTH the D4s and D5 about 0.67 stops less noisy than the Nikon D750 (again comparing full resolution raw images at 100% magnification). Said another way (and as an example), I observed identical amounts of noise (and shadow and highlight detail) in the Nikon D5 and D4s at ISO 12,800 and this amount of visible noise is equivalent to the visible noise in D750 raw images at ISO 8000.

So, despite increasing the resolution of the camera, Nikon has managed to equal the ISO performance of the class-leading Nikon D4s (when comparing full resolution raw images at 100% magnification). And this ISO performance is absolutely stunning. Here's an example of a shot I nabbed yesterday at ISO 8000 (and expect many more higher ISO examples in a day or two):

RED: Nikon D5 @ ISO 8000 (JPEG: 1.6 MB)

Cutting out ALL the goobly-de-gook here's what this really means: If you owned a D4s and thought images shot up to ISO "X" (e.g., 6400) were of high enough quality to please you, then you'll find the exact same thing with the D5 - that you can get images of acceptable quality up to ISO "X" (e.g., 6400). It is feeling that until the next technology breakthrough (BIS sensor technology anyone?) almost everything that CAN be squeezed out of CMOS sensor has been squeezed out...

IV. Quick Summary...

My overall assessment of the D5 to this point? Evolutionary, not revolutionary, improvements. But collectively a LOT of little changes have made the D5 an even more capable wildlife and action camera than the D4s. The D5 HAS raised the bar on a lot of fronts, but the bar of the D4s really isn't that much lower. Only time and a lot of shooting will tell us how many awesome images lie in that gap between those two bars (or cameras). But if I'm being fully honest - and I fight off any temptation to add to the hype - I honestly don't think there's too many images that you'll nab with the D5 that you couldn't nab with the D4s.

The Nikon D5: A Little More Superb! ;-)



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24 March 2016: Nikon D5 Arrives...

My Nikon D5 rolled into my dealer's shop in Calgary, Alberta today - just in the nick of time for me to arrange a way to get it into my hands before Good Friday and the Easter weekend (Calgary is almost a 4-hour drive from my "hideaway" in the SE corner of BC). Often Canada seems to be a little "low on the totem pole" in Nikon's worldwide distribution plan - it's not unusual that we get our hands on newly released products a little after the most remote villages of Comoros, Africa. But this go 'round at least a limited number of D5's seem to have rolled in right on schedule. No complaints here. As has been reported elsewhere, the first batch (including mine) shipped with "complimentary" 32 GB Sony G-series XQD cards and card readers (for the XQD models of D5's).

I'll be spending as much time as possible over the weekend familiarizing myself with the idiosyncrasies of the camera and getting some shooting done with it. If conditions and time allow I will begin testing its ISO performance under real-world shooting conditions, including in head-to-head tests against both the D4s and the D750.

So expect to see my initial impressions of the D5 - as well as some preliminary test results - right here very soon, even possibly over the Easter weekend.



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21 March 2016: New Listings: Used Gear For Sale...

I have just updated my "Gear 4 Sale" page to include four new listings of used gear for sale. Here's what's available:

• Nikon D7200 DSLR plus MB-D15 Battery Grip
• Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6G VR Zoom Lens
• Nikkor AF-S 600mm f4G VR Super Telephoto Prime Lens
• Nikkor AF-S 200-400mm f4G VR (Version I) Telephoto Zoom Lens

For full details just visit my Gear For Sale page:

Historically items appearing on this page have disappeared pretty quickly, so if you are interested in any items it would probably be a good idea to contact me soon.



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18 March 2016: Adobe ACR 9.5 Adds Raw Support for Nikon D5, D500

Adobe Systems has released an update to Photoshop, Bridge, and Lightroom that upgrades Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) to version 9.5. Among other things, ACR 9.5 adds support for the raw files of the Nikon D5, D500, and the Canon 1D X MkII.

I don't recall a single situation in the past where Adobe introduced support for the raw file formats for flagship cameras from Nikon or Canon BEFORE the cameras shipped. This is a very positive move - in the past I found few things more frustrating than getting a new camera and waiting for a month or more before the top raw converters began supporting it. I don't know if credit should be given to Adobe (for quick work), Nikon and Canon (for supporting their partner's efforts and getting them the info they needed to accommodate the new file formats), or both. But kudos to whoever is responsible.

While I personally don't use ACR (through Lightroom, Bridge, or Photoshop) for my own raw conversions (my preferred raw converter is Phase One's Capture One Pro), I often use Lightroom when comparing images captured during camera and/or lens testing. The early release of raw support of the D5 will allow me to begin scrutinizing the performance of the raw files from the D5 as soon as the camera is in my hands - which should be very shortly. Like many others, I am particularly interested in how the D5 (and, in time, the D500) stacks up against other Nikon bodies (D4s, D750, etc.) in overall image quality (and particularly in ISO performance).

At present I'm working hard to clear my plate of a lot of other projects so once my D5 arrives I can focus almost exclusively on putting it through its paces. Of course, I'll be reporting all my findings right here...



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15 March 2016: Animalscapes Gallery - Upgraded and Improved!

I've just "upgraded" and improved my popular "Animalscapes" image gallery. The most major changes include:

1. Hi-res Display Optimization: Now all of the "main viewing window" images are optimized for hi-res displays and devices. Bottom line? They'll look better on all Retina and similar displays having resolutions of 144 ppi or higher. Using a lower-res display (72-120 ppi)? You won't notice much difference in image resolution or sharpness.

2. MORE 2400-pixel Images! Now almost all of the images are available in higher (2400 pixels on long axis) resolution. These larger images are found within the notes that are revealed when the "In the Field" tab is clicked on for any image in the gallery.

You can check out ALL the images in right through this door: Enter Animalscapes Gallery.

Not really sure what I mean by "animalscapes"? Well - you're not alone! Just go HERE for a detailed description of what I mean when I use the terms "Animalscape", "Enviroscape", and "Active Portrait" to describe wildlife images.

Cheers...and ENJOY! ;-)


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10 March 2016: New Wildlife Photography Gallery: Marine Mammals

I've just completed a major revision to the wildlife photography galleries on this website - gone is the "Small Mammals" gallery (with some of those images rolled into my "Other Mammals" gallery) and I've just ADDED a new Marine Mammals Gallery that features Humpback Whales, Steller Sea Lions, Sea Otters, Killer Whales, Harbour Seals, Dolphins, and MORE!

The new Marine Mammals Gallery begins with 66 images, each with loads of contextual information...including the "story behind the image", capture and post-processing details, and conservation information. All that info is accessed by clicking on the tabs just above the row of thumbnail images. Some of the images have cycled through my Gallery of Latest Additions, but many have never been displayed before. Here are the critical links...

Marine Mammals Gallery Front Door:

All 66 images can be navigated to from the front door (above), but here's some direct links to specific sections for those who might want to jump around...

Humpback Whale section begins HERE
Steller Sea Lion section begins HERE
Sea Otter section begins HERE
Killer Whale (Orca) section begins HERE
Harbour Seal section begins HERE
Dolphins & More section begins HERE

Note that many "wider views" of marine mammals (with beautiful backdrops) can be seen in my Animalscapes Gallery.

Cheers...and ENJOY! ;-)


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25 Feb 2016: Reminder: Animalscapes Opening Reception on Friday Evening...

Just a reminder to those in southern Alberta who might be interested in attending the opening reception of my exhibition entitled "Animalscapes" - it's on tomorrow (Friday) night. Here are the gory details...

Exhibition Dates: February 20 - April 20, 2016
Opening Reception: Friday, February 26, 7-10 PM
Location: Robinson's Camera foto source; 1228 9th Ave SE, Calgary, AB

Fifty percent or more of the selling price of each Limited Edition Print in this exhibit will go to supporting one of Canada's most effective science-based conservation organizations - The Raincoast Foundation ( Note that the revenue raised will be channeled to Raincoast's campaign to end the trophy hunt of carnivores on BC's coast (info on that program can be found here...).

Here's preview of the print collection on display at the exhibit:

Animalscapes: A Photographic Exhibition by Brad Hill (PDF: 2.1 MB)

Unsure of exactly what I mean by the term "Animalscapes"? Here's an explanation: Subject Dominance - Just How Big?

Cheers...and hope to see (and meet) you on Friday night!


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24 Feb 2016: Is a Nikon DL in YOUR Future?

Just yesterday Nikon announced a new line of cameras - the DL series. These new cameras are premium-level compact cameras with non-interchangeable lenses, a 20 MP BSI sensor (more on that in a second) and, if the marketing is true, high-quality lenses with relatively large maximum apertures (as large as f1.8 on two of the models). There are 3 models initially - with straightforward names describing the equivalency of their cameras focal range in full-frame terms - so we have a DL18-50, a DL24-85, and a DL24-500. The first two models could be described as "pocketable" - the third is more like a "mini DSLR". The best overview I have seen of the three cameras can be found here on DL or No DL? What you need to know about the Nikon DL compacts.

Based on resolution and both menu and control layout, it would appear that Nikon is targeting their own DSLR users as an important segment of the market for these new cameras. If the marketing discharge associated with the cameras is even close to being true (that may sound a bit cynical!) then there is a certain appeal to owning one of these high-quality "pocketables". I particularly like the DL24-85 (that's a focal range I like for casual shooting) and it happens to be the cheapest of the 3 (and is the only one which offers a macro mode).

For me the most interesting thing is the use of a BackSide Illumination (BSI) sensor. In the simplest of terms, this is an "upside down" sensor where the photo-sensitive surface FACES the incoming light without wiring and other parts of the electronic matrix interferring with incoming light. The concept is that MORE of the incoming light actually gets to the sensor without being reflected/deflected. I've seen estimates of where the chance of incoming light being captured by a BSI sensor being as 90% (compared to about 60% for more "traditional" sensors). The obvious point of interest is an improvement of low-light performance. BSI sensors ARE challenging and difficult to manufacture (= expensive). Those wishing to know more about BSI sensors can go check out these two sources: "How back-illuminated sensors work..." and "Back-illuminated sensor" (Wikipedia).

Why is Nikon using BSI sensors so interesting to me? has to wonder if this signals that in the near future Nikon will be using BSI sensors in their premium DSLR's - and we'll see a bigger (quantum?) jump in ISO performance in those. Note that I have been asked several times if I think BSI sensors are going to be used in the D5 or D500. My answer: I have seen (and I have been looking) absolutely no indication that the D5 or D500 will use BSI sensors (I'm sure Nikon would be marketing this if they were). Could I be wrong? Yes. But I think we're talking about technology here that we won't see until we get a D6 or whatever replaces the D500 (hopefully that's not 6 years away for the D500!). But this is pure speculation on my part.

Back to the DL's. Have I ordered one? Yes - I've placed an order for a DL24-85 with optional electronic viewfinder (I hate shooting via LCD screens!). What will I be using it for? As a casual walkaround that's always in my fanny pack or in a small case on my hip. Will I be extensively testing and reviewing the camera? Nope - you MAY see anecdotal references to it here on my blog (and occasionally you may see images posted in my Gallery of Latest Additions shot with it), but I am already too busy trying to keep up with developments in the DSLR world to commit to reviewing another whole category of cameras (and I readily admit I know little-to-nothing about this category and the cameras competing with the DL).

That's it.



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23 Feb 2016: Nikkor 300mm f4 PF plus TC-14EIII vs. Sigma Sport 150-600: Just How Sharp?

My last blog entry comparing the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF vs. the Sigma Sport 150-600 and the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR was partly designed to stem the flow of email asking me details about how they stack up against one another. Seems whenever I try this it's an abysmal failure - even MORE email rolls in asking me for even more details about the lenses being compared. And that's what happened this time...

This go 'round the primary question I've fielded several times (since yesterday) goes something like this:

"OK, I get it - all 3 lenses are real close in sharpness. But does that mean all 3 are soft, all 3 are just OK, or all 3 are real sharp?" Well - it's a good question.

So here's what did to answer that question: This past Sunday I was using my favourite stump to do some testing (of various things, like comparing ISO performance of the D7200 and D750) and I had some friendly Clark's Nutcrackers around. Over the few hours I was shooting shots of the stump the Nutcrackers came by several times and perched on the stump (they're friendly dudes). So I happened to capture some images of them using my Sigma Sport 150-600mm right around 420mm (or 630mm EFL as I was using my D7200 at the time). So...just over an hour ago I decided to go back to the exact same spot and shoot "similar" shots but this time with the 300mm f4 PF plus TC-14EIII (I commonly leave my tripod in place when I'm in the midst of testing things...hey...I live in the middle of nowhere and could safely leave gold sitting out!). It was about the same time of day (coincidentally only 3 minutes apart!) so I had a similar lighting angle and I had similar sky conditions.

So check out the images yourself to see what I mean in terms of these two combinations of lenses having VERY similar sharpness. And, you can get a feel yourself about the "absolute" sharpness of both lenses:

• Clark's Nutcracker - D7200 w/ Sigma Sport 150-600mm: Download 2400-pixel image (JPEG: 1.3 MB)

• Clark's Nutcracker - D7200 w/ 300mm f4 PF & TC-14EIII: Download 2400-pixel image (JPEG: 1.3 MB)

The images were shot with near-identical settings: ISO 200; 1/400s, and f9 for the Sigma Sport shot and f10 for the 300mm f4 PF shot. Both are full-frame shots (reduced in resolution to 2400 pixels on the long axis and sharpened identically). The bird's poses aren't identical, but in my opinion are close enough that the comparison has meaning. As always, best to make image comparisons at 100% magnification (1:1).

So you be the judge of how sharp they are and how much they differ in sharpness (it isn't much!).

Hope this helps.



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22 Feb 2016: The Nikkor 300mm f4 PF & 1.4x TC vs. "Those Two Zooms"?

Recently I've been receiving two very similar questions via email on a frequent basis, which makes me think it's something a lot of wildlife photographers are thinking about - and thus worthy of a blog entry. The questions? Here you go:

1. How does the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF plus TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter compare to the Sigma Sport 150-600mm at the same focal length (420mm FX; 630mm DX) in image quality and autofocus performance?

2. How does the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF plus TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter compare to the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR at the same focal length (420mm FX; 630mm DX) in image quality and autofocus performance?

Here's a summary about what I have found while testing the 3 lenses in question over the past several months. Note that my autofocus comments are based on use of two different FX bodies (a D750 and a D4s) with the 3 lenses - results with other camera bodies (especially DX bodies) may differ.

A. Image Sharpness:

First, keep in mind that the range in sharpness between the sharpest of these lenses and the least sharp of them is quite small (so small that careful sharpening during post-processing could largely negate any image sharpness differences). That being said, I have found that at short (10 meters or less) and moderate (around 25 meters) camera-to-subject distances the 300mm f4 PF (with NO teleconverter) is consistently sharper at all overlapping apertures than either of the two zooms. Which zoom is sharper? The Sigma Sport (slightly but noticeably). At very long distances to subject (distance scenes of subjects a km or more away) the 300mm f4 PF is STILL the sharpest, but interestingly the Nikkor 200-500 is slightly sharper than the Sigma Sport on these distant scenes (I'll report more on this finding in a separate blog entry in the near future).

OK, what happens when you add a 1.4x TC (the TC-14EIII) to the equation (and to the 300mm f4 PF)? Things get a bit more complicated - and the result varies with aperture. SO...shoot wide open (f5.6 for the 300mm f4 PF with the TC attached) and BOTH zooms are slightly sharper. BUT, stop down 2/3 of a stop or MORE (so f7.1 or smaller) and the 300mm f4 PF plus TC-14EIII is slightly (as in very slightly) sharper than the two zooms.

SO...the germane question for most users becomes this: Given YOUR camera body and the lighting regimes YOU shoot under (and even YOUR DoF concerns), can you give up 2/3 of a stop and shoot at f7.1 (or smaller) to "squeeze" the extra sharpness out of the 300 plus TC combination? Sorry, but you gotta answer that one yourself!

B. Autofocus (AF) Performance:

Like with the image sharpness, there is little between these lenses in AF performance (that I've been able to find) and MANY users would find ANY of them more-than-adequate for MOST BIF shots (or other actions shots). Note that I HAVE found the AF of the 300mm f4 PF to be slightly faster focusing than the zooms (especially in initial acquisition of focus) on both my D750 and D4s. And, I have found this to be the case both with and without the TC-14EIII in the equation.

So...for most action shots ANY of these 3 lenses will work just fine for MOST users. If the BIF shot you want is a full-frame shot of a swallow in flight...well...your best bet would likely be the 300mm f4 PF! ;-)

C. A final (relevant?) comment:

After testing and using these three lenses extensively, I think the variables to consider in selecting one over the others AREN'T image sharpness OR AF performance. Instead, here's what I would consider:

1. The Age Old Issue: Zoom or Prime? What's more important to you - the versatility of having 150-600mm in one lens (or 200-500 in one lens) or slightly better image quality and AF performance at a single focal length? In my humble opinion I think MOST users will get the MOST use out of the zooms. With either of the zooms in question you're getting great versatility with very good overall performance.

2. How Important is Portability to YOU? While both the Nikkor 200-500 and Sigma Sport 150-600 are compact and lightweight "packages" for the focal ranges they cover, they're still HUGE compared to the tiny Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR. The KEY feature of the 300mm f4 PF IS its size (or lack thereof) - it's not like Nikon doesn't have another great 300mm prime lens (remember the AF-S 300mm f2.8 VRII?). If maximizing portability is important to you, this one is a no-brainer - get the 300mm f4 PF. with so many things in photography (and life I suppose), there's no "one-size fits all" answer to the "300mm f4 PF vs. Sigma Sport (or Nikkor 200-500)?" question. Every user is different, has different photographic goals, and shoots under different conditions. But I think you'll get to the best solution for yourself if you look beyond just image quality and AF performance (where there is little between the lenses in question) and think about the how important the pros and cons of each lens match your needs. Do you want versatility or do you want a light, very portable package?

What will be in MY camera bag (or holsters) this year? Well, given I don't really see this as an apples-to-apples comparison you'll be seeing me use ONE of these zooms AND the 300mm f4 PF this year (but certainly not for the same thing). If I'm out hiking for the day and likely to encounter wildlife only opportunistically it's likely you'll see me with a D500 with a 300mm f4 PF attached (in a Think Tank holster) and a TC-14EIII in a case on my belt (and very likely a 70-200mm f4 VR in another case on my belt system). If I'm traveling by plane (or helicopter, or any other way when I'm going on a wildlife shoot but have SOME weight and size constraints) and could need a variety of focal lengths you'll find a Sigma Sport 150-600mm in my camera pack (and it's likely my 300mm f4 PF will be left at home).

The Nikkor 200-500 f5.6E VR? You won't see it with me this year - it didn't make the cut for me (or earn its way into my kit!). It was beaten out by the Sigma Sport 150-600mm - my 200-500 is now gone (into the hands of a happy new owner). But I'll say more about why the Sigma Sport "won out" in coming blog entries...stay tuned!



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19 Feb 2016: Sigma 150-600mm Firmware Update Coming (Sport/Contemporary; Nikon/Canon)

Here's something that's bound to interest the many fans of the Sigma 150-600mm "uber-zoom" lens: Sigma has announced that on March 11th they will releasing a firmware update for ALL versions of their current 150-600mm zoom lenses - including both Canon and Nikon mounts for both the Sport and Contemporary models of the lens.

What's coming in the firmware update? According to Sigma:

"It is expected to increase autofocus speed by approximately 20%, to a maximum of 50%, during normal shooting as well as when using "Speed Priority" set through SIGMA Optimization Pro".

For more info, go here: March 11: Sigma 150-600 Firmware Update

Sounds promising - users of the Sport version of the lens (for the Nikon mount) already know that the LAST firmware update had a very positive affect on autofocus speed. In my view a very good lens is about to get even better!

Note that to update the firmware on all versions of this lens you must purchase the optional USB mounting dock. I readily admit that while I initially thought that Sigma's whole concept of producing the USB dock and giving the user the ability to fine-tune and customize the lens - as well as update the lens' firmware - was just so much marketing hype, I am beginning to really like this easily disregarded ("often ignored?") feature. The inconvenience of having to return the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR to Nikon for its almost mandatory firmware update really drove home how convenient the Sigma USB Dock and firmware update system really is. Here's a big thumbs up to Sigma! Nikon - take note.



PS: My thanks are extended to Markus M. and Marco S. for drawing my attention to this information.

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09 Feb 2016: Animalscapes - An Exhibition

Coming soon to a quality camera store near you (if you happen to live in or near Calgary, AB!) - an exhibition of 15 of my favourite Animalscape prints. Here are the gory details...

Dates: February 20 - April 20, 2016
Opening Reception: Friday, February 26, 7-10 PM
Location: Robinson's Camera foto source; 1228 9th Ave SE, Calgary, AB

Fifty percent or more of the selling price of each Limited Edition Print in this exhibit will go to supporting one of Canada's most effective science-based conservation organizations - The Raincoast Foundation (

Not able to attend? You can check out the print collection right here (and feel free to enquire about acquiring any of the prints for your collection while, of course, supporting a great cause!):

Animalscapes: A Photographic Exhibition by Brad Hill (PDF: 2.1 MB)

Unsure of exactly what I mean by the term "Animalscapes"? Here's an explanation: Subject Dominance - Just How Big?



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03 Feb 2016: Quick Update: Catching up on my Nikkor 200-500mm Testing!

Since September I've been posting a fair number of "piece-meal" segments describing isolated aspects of my testing of the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR lens. I have two more reasonably detailed blog posts coming in the next week to 10 days that compare the optical performance of the lens against its primarily competitors at two very different distances - very close range (around 6 meters) and when shooting very distant subjects (distant scenes).

Following those blog posts I'll post a full summary of my test results and overall thoughts on the performance and of the 200-500mm (including what I think of it for use in wildlife photography). Note that I have already completed the optical performance testing described above, and can say now that there will be no negative surprises coming - my preliminary "cautionary green light" recommendation that I gave the lens in my blog entry of 23 September (way below!) still holds.

One final comment - The 200-500mm f5.6E and Teleconverters: I've received a lot of email asking me about how the Nikkor 200-500mm performs when paired with teleconverters. This is probably partly due to the fact that on some occasions virtually all wildlife photographers want/need to have "more" than a 500mm lens. And it's probably partly due to the fact that Nikon has chosen to point out that the lens is "AF compatible with optional TC-14E series teleconverters and DSLRs that offer f/8 support". While this statement by Nikon is true, because the optical performance of virtually ANY lens/TC combination is poor when shot at maximum aperture (which in this case is an aperture of f8), in functional terms the LARGEST aperture one could even theoretically expect to get decent results out of with the Nikkor 200-500mm plus TC-14EIII is f10 or f11. In my view, a telephoto lens that can be shot only at apertures of f10 or smaller - and that has handicapped AF performance on ALL of Nikon's DSLR's (and NO autofocus on many models) - has extremely limited usefulness in a field setting. Because of this, I won't be testing the Nikkor 200-500mm with any teleconverters.

So what's the best way to "extend the reach" of the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR that results in a setup that's actually usable in the field? Well...pair it up with a quality DX body! And, if the camera performs as its specs suggest it will, that means pairing it up with a D500. I suspect we'll see a LOT of Nikon-shooting wildlife photographers using the D500/Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR combination in the next year - and they'll be getting some awesome results with it!



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27 Jan 2016: Quick Update: Jobu Replacement Feet for Selected Lenses...

A few weeks back I mentioned that Jobu Design had produced Arca-Swiss compatible replacement feet for the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom and the "new" E versions of the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR and the Nikkor 600mm f4E VR (see blog entries below from 8 and 10 January below).

Since that post I've received and installed the replacement feet on both my Sigma Sport 150-600mm and my Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR. The workmanship of the both feet is excellent but - more importantly to me - they've put a lot of thought into their design. Both feet exhibit a good balance of the concerns of keeping the overall centre of gravity of the lens/camera combo low when on a gimbal head with leaving enough room for the foot to function as a handle. And, for slightly different reasons, both lenses require feet with a very long integrated Arca-Swiss plate. In the case of the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR it's because the collar is mounted so close to the camera body that a long plate is needed to get the lens to balance on a tripod. In the case of the Sigma Sport 150-600mm it's because the long extension of the lens associated with zooming from 150mm to 600mm dramatically changes the balance point of the lens (and without a long plate you'd never get the lens to balance at both 150mm and 600mm). Well done Jobu! I can strongly recommend these replacement feet (and I get NO money from any sales that will result from my recommendation!).

Here's where to go to get more info (or to order) either of the replacement feet:

Replacement Foot: Sigma Sport 150-600mm

Replacement Foot For Selected Nikkor E-Series Super-Telephotos



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25 January 2016: 2017 Photo Tours with Natural Art Images

Mid-way through last week I updated my Photo Tours page to include listings for my 2017 Photo Tours. As has been the case for the last several years, demand for these trips is very high and several are now fully sold out. But there are still some spots left available for each of the following trips:

Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen (Trip 3: 3-day Photo Op trip): 3 spots left
The Fishing Grizzlies of the Taku (Trip 2: Instructional or Photo Op versions): 7 spots left
Humpbacks, Orcas, and More: Marine Mammals of the Central Pacific Coast: 1 spot left

For more information on these or any of my other 2017 trips - just follow this link!



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10 January 2016: Jobu Replacement Foot for the New Nikon E-Series Super-Telephotos

Hot on the heels of the new replacement foot for the Sigma Sport 150-600 comes this - a new replacement foot with a VERY long integrated Arca-Swiss plate for three of the "new" Nikkor E-version super-telephoto lenses. Which lenses? Three of the new "fluorite" ones - the 400mm f2.8E VR, the 600mm f4E VR, and the 800mm f5.6E VR. These 3 lenses all have the tripod collar near the rear of the lens (on the last model of the 400mm f2.8 VR and the 600mm f4 VR they were near the FRONT end of the lenses) - which means even though they have lighter front elements they are very front-heavy when you're grabbing the tripod foot. How to solve the problem? Put a much longer plate on the foot. In Jobu's words:

"This foot is rather taller and longer than we would normally design, but leave it Nikon to make this a challenge. The new E-series FL lenses have a large diameter lens hood and a neoprene cover which need to be cleared by the foot. The lens foot is also positioned far back on the barrel of the lens making it necessary to extend the foot a full 7" long to balance properly with light camera bodies."

Full info (plus online ordering) for this replacement foot is available here:

Replacement Foot For Selected Nikkor E-Series Super-Telephotos

My own (for my 400mm f2.8E VR) is already en route - and I will provide more feedback about the foot when it arrives and I've tried it out.



PS: I literally laughed out loud when I read a "tip" on the Jobu web page for this foot: "You don't need to balance your lens and camera with the silly neoprene cover! It must add nearly 1/2lb of weight to far end." ;-)

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08 January 2016: Jobu Replacement Foot for Sigma Sport 150-600mm Zoom

Here's something I've been waiting on for awhile - I just got word that Jobu has begun shipping their Arca-Swiss-compatible Replacement Foot for the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom lens. Jobu has a built a solid reputation by quietly putting out well-thought out and nicely manufactured products (made in Canada!) that perform very well under tough field conditions.

The change of length (and balance point) of the Sigma Sport 150-600mm lens during zooming makes getting a low-profile foot that is long enough to balance most cameras on a gimbal head a bit of a challenge. According to Jobu "Clearance has been added for the lens hoods and we carefully repositioned the mount to allow for best balance with most camera bodies."

Full info (plus online ordering) for the foot is available here: Replacement Foot: Sigma Sport 150-600mm

Please note that this foot is designed exclusively for the Sigma Sport 150-600 - it does not fit the Contemporary model of the Sigma 150-600.



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07 January 2016: The New Nikon D5 and D500 - Some Very Early Musings...

While what can be really determined with certainty simply by examining camera specifications is quite finite (at the end of the day ya gotta USE the camera before you really know too much about it), a careful combing through of the specs of these two new cameras has told me this: Nikon is finally beginning to "get it". One of my major complaints about how Nikon has operated in the past is how they seem to develop each camera in relative isolation from other cameras in their lineup - even if the products are introduced simultaneously. One problematic manifestation of this "silo" approach is that the traveling photographer carrying two models of Nikon DSLR's often had to bring along multiple battery chargers, multiple card readers, and remember that the Function button on one camera often offered very different customization functions than the identical button on the second camera. As an example, go ahead and try to use the Function button on the D800e (or D810) to rapidly shift between Shooting Banks the way you can on a D4 or D4s. Oh, Shooting Banks was the ONE option they left off on the D800e/D810 - otherwise the cameras have identical list of options on the Fn button. Why Nikon?

I. On the Paired "Sibling" D5-D500 Introduction.

1. Now...Finally...Excellent Camera "Complementarity"!

Into the old milieu of camera model chaos...enter the D500 and D5 - simultaneously. At least from a specification perspective the biggest change to the D5 (over the D4s) is the dramatically overhauled autofocus (AF) system. We suddenly jump from a 51-point system to a 153-point system (but note that only 55 of the 153 points are "selectable"by the user, though those other 98 points are far from useless!). Suddenly we have 99 cross-sensors (extending ALL THE WAY TO THE EDGE OF THE ARRAY - YES!!), 37 points sensitive to slower than f5.6 but faster than f8, 15 points (9 of which are selectable) that are f8-sensitive, and a whole lot more. Oh, and -4 EV sensitivity on the center AF point and -3 EV on the remaining 152 points. What does this mean? That the camera will focus in near-dark conditions.

Autofocus of the D500? As much as can be seen from all the currently available literature - IDENTICAL in all respects (except viewfinder coverage of the selectable array of AF points - where the DX-sized viewfinder of the D500 is much more fully covered).

Other D5-D500 complementarity? Yep - lots of it. If you choose the XQD version of the D5, then you can easily travel with both the D5 and D500 and use the same cards and same card readers. Batteries? Add the MB-D17 battery grip to the D500 (which I always do for balance and vertical control reasons anyway) and suddenly the two cameras can share the same EN-EL18 or EN-EL18a batteries and chargers. You don't even need a special battery holder for the MB-D17 to accept EN-EL18/18a batteries.

Camera layout? Pretty much as similar as you can have when one camera is a lot bigger than the other.

Metering Technology? Both cameras have new 180K RGB metering sensors. Besides assisting in some AF operations (on both cameras) this means that you'll get consistent metering (and can make consistent exposure compensation) from the two cameras. So now I don't have to remember things like " D750 is less likely to blow those highlights than my D7200 is because the D750 has a 51K sensor and the D7200 has a 2K sensor" when I switch back and forth between my D5 and D500. Cool.

For the first time I have to give Nikon a big check-mark for their efforts on thinking through how these cameras will be used - both individually AND when shot "together". Well done Nikon! Interestingly, I'm already getting tons of email from folks saying they are buying BOTH a D5 and a D500. I think the really well thought-out camera complementarity is contributing to this...they make a formidable pair of cameras for any wildlife shooter!

2. No Camera "Disabling"!

Another indication to me that Nikon has finally "got it" is that they have avoided their habit of functionally "disabling something" on their cameras (why they disabled features was always a mystery to me...maybe to protect the sales of another model??). What do I mean? Take the D750 - or even the D7200. I've publicly stated (see my blog entry of 04 January below) that the D750 is my favourite overall (and currently available) Nikon camera. BUT...its unnecessary Achille's heal is its burst size - about 17 frames (14-bit raws) with the fastest SD card you can buy. Nikon could have prevented that by adding an XQD card to that camera (the XQD card had been around for quite some time when the D750 was introduced).

D5 vs. D500 burst sizes? A cool 200 14-bit raws for both cameras (when using the fastest XQD card currently available - the 400 MB/s Lexar Professional 2.0 card). No disabling here (or anywhere else I can find!). Once more - nicely done Nikon!

II. More Thoughts on the D5...

Just a week ago I was thinking I could probably pass over the D5 and just get a D5s in about 18 months. Ain't going to happen - just too many reasons for me to get a D5. Here's some of the things that make it just a little too attractive to me to turn down (please note that I'm a wildlife photographer...and one that shoots a LOT in low light - sports photographers or other types of photographers may have very different lists...).

1. The New Autofocus (AF) System:

I outlined most of the laundry list of AF improvements above, but the ones that REALLY stick out for me are the improved low-light focusing (-4 EV for the central point, - 3 EV for ALL other points) and the theoretical (until I try it) improvement in focus-tracking (owing to the incorporation of a dedicated AF processing engine/chip and to all those extra non-selectable AF points that I'll call "assist points"). Should this mean significantly improved focus-tracking in low-light conditions? Absolutely. And, as a wildlife photographer who often works with moving subjects (like bears and breaching humpback whales) in dark places (like the Great Bear Rainforest)...this is something I really want!

Any AF complaints, however minor? Yep. One. Viewfinder coverage. Nikon is claiming a "30% increase" in area occupied by the selectable AF points. I believe them. But if you actually look at the coverage compared to the D4 (there's a good graphic showing this on a 30% increase is actually pretty trivial (you can also see a graphic of the viewfinder coverage in the D5 Brochure - PDF: 7.8 MB). Step in the right direction? Yes. But too small of a step. We will still be forced through the "lock the focus and then recompose" process far more than necessary (or wanted) with this new AF array. And, I WILL miss some shots because of this (funny with moving wildlife how little things like this can make such a big difference). Please note that this complaint does NOT apply to the D500 - the cropped sensor (and cropped view through the viewfinder) means you end up with the selectable focus points covering MUCH more of the frame (with the tradeoff being that the "relatively larger" focus brackets of the D500 offset the advantage of "pinpoint" focus point selection of the D5. The solution to this problem? More selectable focus points around the periphery of the existing array. How many more? I dunno - 12 to 15 more? It's not like having 70 to 75 selectable points would be unwieldy (heck, even the Canon 7D MkII has 65 selectable points and I've heard no one complain about there being "too many selectable points"). I guess you gotta leave something to improve on (beyond even better ISO performance) for the D6.

2. Improved ISO Performance?

I have to begin this off with two points. First, ISO performance means a whole lot more than just noise-free images. As ISO climbs, your camera's dynamic range and your image's tonal range (and colour depth) both fall. Bottom line is that that historically high ISO images looked like...well...high ISO images - kinda flat! One of the things that I think was lost on a lot of users was that while the D4 produced high-ISO images that differed very little in NOISE from those of the D3s, they looked a LOT better (because they held their tonal range and colour better at high ISO values, particularly in the highlights and shadows). The D4s took this a step further - hardly any less noisy than the already "clean" D4 images, but the D4s high ISO images looked better again. Suddenly - and in some scenes - an ISO 5000 image from a D4s looked like an ISO 800 image from a few years back.

Second, it's a whole lot easier to change what an ISO dial can do than it is to change actual ISO performance. Said another way, simply upping the maximum value on an ISO dial from ISO 51,200 to 102,400 doesn't mean you have improved real-world ISO performance. Nor does adding a "Hi 5.0" equivalent to ISO 3 billion (OK...million) mean that you'll be able to capture gallery quality work at ISO 1.5 million.

BUT...Nikon knows this. They are mentioning the crazy 7-figure ISO's in the context of surveillance work (not art - natural or otherwise!). And, they clearly pointed out something else (in both their D5 Press Release and in the D5 Brochure) in what I think is a telling statement that - based on past history with the D4 and D4s - quite pleases me:

"The D5 also realizes unprecedented image quality in the high-sensitivity range between ISO 3200 and 12800 - the range favored by sports photographers."

Note to Nikon: This is a range favored by a lot of wildlife photographers too - including this one.

My expectation? Probably only a very minor decrease in visible noise at any given ISO (leaving, of course, some of the "it's only noise that matters to IQ" pundits to continue to claim the Nikon D3s as the ISO "king"). BUT, I expect to see images in the ISO 3200 to 12800 range (and possibly up to ISO 25600) that just look better and - more importantly - that are that much more useful. So at high ISO's I expect we'll see better shadow detail, better retention of highlights (i.e., better retention of dynamic range), better tonal gradations, and better colour.

3. Other New Features I Like?

Yep. Although poorly explained in the D5 brochure, apparently we will be able to switch more easily between AF area modes (and have more options and programmable buttons to do so). This is something that appeals very much to me - action tends to break out spontaneously and unpredictably in wildlife photography and the ability to quickly switch AF area modes can mean you don't miss the shot. Having two more programmable Fn buttons (though Fn 3 button appears to be limited in options) is also good. And the new automated AF-tuning of lenses (using Live View focus as the reference to calibrate AF via the viewfinder against) looks very cool, as well as potentially being a big time-saver. Hopefully it works. Reduced mirror blackout time during high frame-rate shooting is definitely welcomed.

The 20.8 MP resolution? I think Nikon made the right choice here - upping it a bit from the D4s as technology improvements permit, but not forgetting the fine balancing act between increasing the resolution (and reducing the pixel pitch) and decreasing the ISO performance. Not a landscape camera with this resolution, but that's what the D800-series cameras (and, to a lesser extent, the D750) are for.

4. Any "Meh" Marketing Bullet Points?

Yep. While a burst rate increase from about 110 14-bit raw files up to 200 sounds great, it's kinda like upping the fastest shutter speed from 1/8000s to 1/16000s. After achieving a burst size of 100 or so frames it begins to get a bit academic. Touchscreen LCD? Might be nice during image playback, but not a deal-breaker one way or the other.

5. Anything Missing From My D5 Wish List?

Yep. Shooting Banks that work just like the User Settings (U1, U2) of several other Nikon cameras like the D750, D610, etc. Meaning Shooting Banks that can store everything in the Shooting Menu PLUS your AF settings. So when I quickly switch from my "general" shooting bank to my "action" shooting bank (using a Fn button plus command dial) my preferred AF Area mode for shooting action is simultaneously switched. NOTE: It is not impossible that this change has been made, but if it has mention of it has been omitted from all D5 literature I have been able to access at this point.

Overall thoughts on the D5? To me it looks like a significant upgrade that ups the ante (and image capture possibilities) considerably. Can't wait to get mine.

III. More Thoughts on the D500...

Apparently no "credible" source saw this camera coming - right Nikon Rumors? Sorry...just COULDN'T resist that! ;-)

I won't spend a lot of time pontificating on Nikon's about-face on their position on the DX format (i.e., that it wasn't for the most serious photographers and there was no need for a DX flagship). I do wonder what finally made them change their mind (perhaps the obvious sales success of the Canon 7D MkII?). But...whatever it was, I'm very happy to have a high-performance DX-format camera available again.

1. Top Line Specs?

Hard to disagree with - or complain about - any of the top line specs on this camera. I'm glad they backed off of 24 MP resolution (at this point in time I believe 24 MP is just a bit too much for a DX sensor), and the frame rate (10 fps), burst size (200 14-bit raw files with the fastest available XQD cards), and AF system all LOOK great. Note that I'm not yet convinced that the AF performance will be identical to that of the D5, but that is something we won't find out about for awhile. At the macro level this looks like a great camera for the wildlife photographer (and a lot of other photographers too).

Almost oddly, there seems to be less detailed information available at this time for the D500 than for the D5 - I have the "D500 Technology Digest" (PDF: 6.5 MB) and the excellent "D500 | D7200 | D300s Comparison Sheet" (PDF: 4.2 MB) - but to date I haven't been able to find a full brochure for the D500 in anything but Japanese. So it makes it kind of hard to say too much about the camera at this point.

2. ISO Performance?

I've been inundated with questions about the ISO performance of the D500. Without having a D500 in my hand, I can not credibly say too much about its ISO performance. My best guess - based on the camera's resolution and pixel pitch, the inexorable forward march of technology (in this case the new EXPEED 5 processing engine and the new Nikon-designed image sensor), and a lot of years of experience is that it will be better than the D7200 (guessing by about 2/3 of a stop) but not quite as good as the D750. For ME (and my own personal image standards) this would mean that I am expecting it will deliver images that I deem acceptable for most of my own uses up to about ISO 3200. Of course, the highest ISO that can yield acceptable results varies with the scene and I do not doubt that with some scenes the ISO could be pushed higher than ISO 3200 (and for some shots ISO 3200 will be too high). Of course, what is considered "acceptable image quality" varies dramatically between users...if you feel ISO 51200 images shot with the D500 are of acceptable image quality - hey...that's OK with me! ;-)

Please note that this is my BEST GUESS and personal expectation only - I could be wrong. But I believe quite firmly that we will see only incremental ISO performance gains (compared to the D7200) that are evolutionary (and not revolutionary) in nature.

3. Other Positive Thoughts, "Meh" bullet points, et cetera?

Sorry, based on the paucity of detailed information on the D500 it's tough to say much more about this camera. For features that are shared with the D5 (e.g., touchscreen, 200 shot burst size, etc.) my comments above for the D5 carry forward to the D500.

4. Anything Missing?

See my "Shooting Banks" comment above for the D5 - same issue on the D500. Add to that - for some users - the lack of a built-in/pop-up flash (note that this is in no way a negative for me, but there are a lot of different types of users who will buy this camera).

Overall thoughts on the D500? To me it looks great! Like with the D5 - I can't wait to get mine. But - Nikon...why did it take SO bloody long to give us another serious DX camera?



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05 January 2016: Nikon Formally Announces the D5...AND THAT D500!

I don't think I've ever been this happy to be wrong - despite having several highly credible sources tell me that a "DX flagship" was around the corner I stubbornly refused to fully believe a D500 was coming (see my 24 December blog entry below for my full comments on the D500 "rumour"). Well...that D500 was just announced by Nikon (along with something called a D5!).

Both new cameras offer a totally new 153-point AF system (with 99 cross-sensors). The 20.9 MP D500 becomes Nikon's first DX camera utilizing the XQD card (and early reports are that 10 fps shooting can be sustained for up to 200 raw images before slowing down). It will also have an articulating touchscreen LCD (2.4 million dots). The standard ISO range of the D500 is 100-51,200 and is expandable to ISO 1,640,000.

The 20.8 MP D5 offers a standard ISO range up to 102,400 and an "extended" range up to 3,280,000 ISO (you read that right). Nikon is claiming "...unprecedented image quality in the high-sensitivity range between ISO 3200 and 12800 - the range favored by sports photographers" (and - as an editorial note - a lot of wildlife photographers!). Other D5 highlights include a new 180,000 pixel RGB metering system (which should take autofocus performance even higher than with the D4s) and the ability to shoot at 12 fps with full autofocus capability and 14 fps without full AF. The central focusing point is now sensitive down to -4 EV (AKA focusing in the dark) with the 152 other points sensitive down to -3 EV. Like with the D500, the 2.4 million dot LCD has touchscreen functionality. And, also like the D500, the D5 will allow users to capture up to 200 raw images at the maximum frame rate.

In short, the D5 story is one of a major jump in AF performance and a lot of other smaller - but very welcome - tweaks.

Get all the info (specs, press announcements, etc.) on both the D5 and the D500 right here:

Expect more comments and thoughts from me on this "dual flagship" announcement tomorrow. Man, are Canon users ever going to be jealous! ;-)



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04 January 2016: My 5 Favourite Gear Acquisitions of 2015

First off - if you're reading this I'm happy that you had a safe New Years! I hope it was fun and that 2016 is a good year for you. And - of course - I hope that you capture TONS of memorable images in 2016!

In my mind 2015 will go down as a year where a lot of my thinking about "what the best gear is" for wildlife photography evolved. I won't go so far as to call it a paradigm-shattering year, but by year's end I was MUCH more willing to shoot my "serious" wildlife images with a "non-flagship" DSLR, with a NON-Nikkor ZOOM lens (as opposed to only with a Nikkor prime), and with a WAY lighter tripod and tripod head combination.

What follows is a listing of MY favourite gear acquisitions for 2015. Note that this doesn't necessarily mean that the product was first introduced in 2015 - simply that 2015 is when it became a long-term member of my personal gear kit. So...with no further ado...

1. The Nikon D750

I readily admit that I was unhappy with ONE aspect of the D750 when it was first announced back in September of 2014 - its "speed" as manifested in both its maximum frame rate and burst size. To this day I wish the D750 was a little faster and, more importantly for me, had a bigger buffer which increased its burst size of RAW image files.

Because of its relatively low speed I held off getting a D750 until May of 2015. But since getting mine, and shooting tens of thousands of shots with it, I have come to think of the D750 as Nikon's most versatile DSLR - it's really good at a LOT of things and bad at almost nothing! I would go so far as to say this - if I could only have ONE DSLR, it would be a D750.

Why? Here's my top reasons...

The Sweetest Sensor! The 24 MP sensor of the D750 is (for me) a near perfect "optimization" of resolution, ISO performance, and dynamic range. Enough resolution - and dynamic range - for most landscape work. Great ISO performance - I have been able to shoot this camera at up to ISO 6400 on a very regular basis (ISO performance IS somewhat scene-dependent, so I won't to so far as to say I can "always" shoot this camera at ISO 6400 and get very usable results). And, last but not least, this camera doesn't show lens flaws (or is as hard to hand-hold) as the higher resolution D800-series cameras (which makes it less demanding overall - and more user-friendly - than the D800's).

A WONDERFUL Autofocus System. This thing focuses pretty much in the dark. And, if there's ANY aspect of the AF performance of a D4s that's better...well..I haven't been able to find it (and that is saying a LOT). Soon after I started using the Group Area AF mode after its introduction in the D4s I started to REALLY like it - so I was quite thrilled the D750 had it as well.

Ergonomics. I love the deep grip of the D750 - just fits my hand so well. I always buy a battery grip when I buy a Nikon DSLR (with the obvious exception of any of the D-single digit flagships, which don't have or need them) so I did so with the D750. Not only did it give me the vertical controls I wanted and the added weight helped balance the unit when paired with a heavy telephoto lens, but it ALSO had the deep (vertical) grip. Nicely done!

You know how you just "gravitate" to a camera or lens that you like? That's the way it is for me with the D750 - I simply just love to shoot with it. And since getting it I have shot with it over 2x as much as with my historical "go-to" wildlife camera, my D4s.

Complaints after using it for 7 months? Main one is same as I had when it was first introduced - frame rate and (especially!) burst size. But...I suppose if it was much faster and with a bigger burst size it would majorly cannibalize D4s (and soon D5) sales, and I think Nikon learned a lesson when they came out with first the D3 and then the "almost identical but way cheaper" D700 quite soon thereafter. Secondary complaint? No adapter for the battery grip to accept the bigger and better EN-EL18 (or 18A) battery that's used in the D4s (Nikon builds such an adapter for the D800 series cameras).

My final comment on the D750: Despite my complaints about the speed of the camera, in the real world I have rarely found it to actually hamper my wildlife shooting. Yes, in the few instances where I was shooting bubbling netting humpback whales (an action that can go on for almost 7 seconds) in 2015 the burst size was NOT adequate...but for 99% of my wildlife shooting it was just fine. I can whole-heartedly recommend this camera to virtually any Nikon-shooting nature photographer (and if you're a Canon shooter don't try this camera or you'll start thinking about the "s" word).

2. The Nikkor 300mm f4E PF ED VR

Despite a rocky introduction plagued by both VR malfunction issues on a number of different cameras (and to this day Nikon still insists it was just on the D800-series cameras, which is simply false) and by product shortages, I can honestly say that I just LOVE this lens. And, based on email I'm getting, TONS of other folks do too. In fact, I know people from around the globe who acknowledged that their copy of the lens had VR problems but refused to give it up even temporarily to have it fixed and/or replaced (the old "no way am I parting with this thing..." argument).

I love this lens because of its combination of portability and optical quality. While in SOME rather limited situations you can see a very small difference in optical quality between this lens and the legendary 300mm f2.8 VR - for all intents and real-world purposes there's virtually no difference in quality between them. I live in a very rural location that's surrounded by wilderness - on even my daily dog walks I can run into wolves, grizzlies, coyotes, cougars and several "flavours" of deer. I can put the the 300mm f4 PF on a D750 and put both into a waist holster and hardy notice I'm carrying it. If I add just one teleconverter onto my belt system I end with an incredibly portable, high-quality kit for those unexpected wildlife encounters. Sweet!

My top reasons for loving this lens?

Size and Weight! Finally...a high-quality 300mm lens that you can hang around your neck ALL day! This lens is lighter than the old version of the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 zoom!

Very High Optical Quality. VERY close to the 300mm f2.8 VR in overall optical performance, and sharp when shot wide open (yep, a LITTLE sharper at f4.5 and f5, but not by much). And...with real sweet bokeh (don't forget the importance of the out-of-focus zones!). How sharp is this lens? You have to be an extreme pixel-peeper to see any difference in image quality between this lens and the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VR. And without doing carefully controlled head-to-head tests in the field most users (including this user) would never notice the difference. It's that good.

Teleconverter-friendly. I have achieved VERY good results with this lens when paired with either the "old" TC-14EII or the newer TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverters. Which means it becomes an incredibly small and hand-holdable 420mm f5.6 VR. While I have had very optically-acceptable results when paired with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter, the maximum aperture of f8 impacts on its autofocus performance a LOT (and you'll want to stop that down to f10 to get really sharp results). In short, I don't really find the 300mm f4 PF plus TC-20EIII too usable in a real field setting.

What about its performance with the TC-17EII (1.7x) teleconverter? I no longer own that TC, so I have no first-hand experience with it. I have received reports (in particular personal communication from one photographer who shoots that combination a lot) that the 300mm f4 PF and the TC-17EII work VERY WELL together. I'm personally holding out on getting another TC-17EII (I've owned two and not really been thrilled with them) in the hope and guess (but NOT a prediction) that Nikon will soon offer a new version (a TC-17EIII) of this dated teleconverter.

VR Performance. My copy of the 300mm PF VR has NOT shown a VR problem, and I happen to be extremely happy with how the VR works. Love the "Sport" mode. Interestingly, despite (or perhaps because) of its very low weight, I actually have a DEVIL of a time hand-holding this lens if the VR is turned off (I can hand-hold the 400mm f2.8E VR with the VR off at slower shutter speeds than I can hand-hold the 300mm f4 PF, and the 400mm f2.8E VR is 5-times as heavy!).

My final comment on the 300mm f4 PF? Love it - for me it's a breakthrough product. Would LOVE it if Nikon offered a 400mm f4 PF, but not holding my breath on that (or predicting that we'll see one...ever).

3. The Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 DG "Ultra-zoom" Lens

I have to say the performance of this lens has been MY surprise of the year. I've never been a 3rd-party brand (private label...whatever) lens fan. Decades ago I tried a few Tamron lenses that worked poorly and bought Nikkor lenses there ever after...until now. In late 2014 and 2015 several manufacturer's came out with wide focal range "ultra-zoom" lenses - Tamron has a 150-600mm f5-6.3 lens, Nikon came out with the 200-500mm f5.6E VR, and Sigma has two versions (the lower-priced "Contemporary" and the higher-priced - but still very affordable - "Sport" models) of the 150-600mm f5-6.3. I've extensively tested ALL of them (with a LITTLE testing left to do) and only one of them has a guaranteed spot in my wildlife photography kit - the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3. I must acknowledge that I have not yet made my final decision regarding keeping or getting rid of my Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR, but I think it's likely it will "go away" in 2016.

The Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 isn't necessarily for everyone. Some (and I suspect most of these forks have never owned any super-telephoto primes) find it too heavy for them to hand-hold or to carry. The Sigma Sport is NOT svelte/light - as a matter of fact it is one of the densest (heaviest for its size) lenses I've ever owned. But, at 2860 grams (6.3 lb) it is a LOT lighter than my new "lightweight" 400mm f2.8E VR (3800 gm or 8.4 lb) and a featherweight compared to my 600mm f4G VR (5060 gm or 11.2 lb). And, arguably it could replace BOTH of those lenses. It's all relative (until you're carrying any of these lenses up a mountain, and then the absolute weight becomes very real!).

One other negative of this lens that will matter to some users is its penchant for vignetting (darkening in the corners) by up to about 2/3 of a stop at all focal lengths when using larger apertures. Vignetting with this lens (and any lens that exhibits this trait) isn't noticeable on all scenes/shots, and is extremely easy to deal with during raw processing. For me it's a minor inconvenience, but some may view the issue differently.

So why do I like the Sigma Sport 150-600mm so much? Here are my reasons...

A Winning Combination...of its great focal range and very good optical quality! I don't need to say much about the focal range - it's simply obvious that a zoom range from 150mm to 600mm covers a tremendous number of shooting situations faced by wildlife photographers. And, more importantly, there is virtually no optical weak spots on the lens over this entire focal range. Moreover, it's sharp from virtually wide open at all focal lengths. And at all camera-to-subject distances - from minimum focus distance up to infinity. And...the quality of out-of-focus zones is very good as well - while I've found that the Nikkor 200-500 edges it very, very slightly in this regard, it certainly beats the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm and the Tamron 150-600mm in bokeh quality.

Excellent (and FAST!) Autofocus. The Sigma Sport was on par with the Nikkor AF-S 80-400 in autofocus speed and accuracy out of the box (with its original firmware) - after its first firmware upgrade it was better. We're talking close to Nikkor super-telephoto prime performance now.

Excellent Optical Stabilization. Compares favorably to the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR in this regard (and the 200-500 has an excellent VR system). At its default settings you SEE more camera shake through the viewfinder than with many of the new Nikkors, but judging by the actual image quality the optical stabilization leaves nothing to be desired.

USB Dock. Sigma offers an optional USB dock that allows the user to easily "tune" and customize various aspects of the lens functions (autofocus, optical stabilzation, etc.) AND to easily install firmware updates. This is a great idea and I love it - recently I updated the firmware on this lens in about 5 minutes. In comparison, and partly because I live in a rural area with slow mail and courier service, to update the firmware on my Nikkor AF-S 200-500mm f5.6E VR (and there IS a firmware update I need to do) I will be without the lens for about 2 weeks (and I have to pack the darned thing up and ship it off, which wastes my time). Big edge to the Sigma over the Nikkor. My only complaint with the USB dock is that I think it should be included with the lens purchase (and not an optional accessory).

Build Quality. While some may dislike the "Soviet Era" styling of the Sigma Sport (it definitely has a "utilitarian" look and feel) the build quality and "built like a tank" nature of this Japanese-made lens is instantly apparent the minute you put it in your hands. Simply instills confidence in its durability (and I certainly CAN'T say the same thing about the Tamron 150-600mm or the Nikkor 200-500mm - they fit the stereotype of their country of manufacture - China). Sorry...but a fact's a fact.

A LOT of Little Things! There are a lot of nice little touches on the Sigma Sport - from the "detents" at every ninety degrees on the rotating lens collar to the "soft lock" at all focal lengths with a numbered inscription on the barrel...and through to the choice of zooming via push-pull (via an easy-to-grab rubber ring) OR using the twist-ring. It's obvious that lots of thought went into the design and construction of this lens.

My final comment on the Sigma Sport 150-600mm? I began using this lens with a negative bias against it (and ANY 3rd party lens) but each time I used it - especially in head-to-head tests against other much higher priced lenses - the more this lens impressed me with its performance. Now, I find hand going to it FIRST when I'm deciding what lens to use in a particular situation. In other words, this lens overcame a preconceived negative impression the right way - by performing well day-in and day-out. Well done Sigma.

OK - the next two items on my list might surprise many readers. And both were added to my wildlife photography kit as I slowly realized a few things over the 2015 season. First, I do a LOT of shooting while hand-holding lenses. This is because several of the photo tours I lead are boat-based, and we often end up shooting from an inflatable Zodiac boat which precludes tripod use. Anyway...over the years I have become quite proficient at hand-holding big lenses. And, of course, the optical stabilization of many lenses (and the ISO performance of the cameras they're used with) have improved greatly. Now add to those facts another reality: the weight and baggage limits of the traveling photographer seem to be going DOWN more than they're going UP (or at least the cost of excess luggage is going up!). Now let's stick in yet one more reality: the vast majority of us are NOT getting younger and carrying 80 lbs of gear on our back (or over our shoulder) doesn't really seem to be getting easier as time goes on.

So...with all this in mind earlier this year I looked at my almost decade-old Gitzo 1348 tripod (carbon fiber...yes...but still bloody heavy) and my Wimberley II gimbal head and thought to myself "y'know...I think this tripod and head have slowly become complete overkill...I bet I could get by with a system half the weight that would still adequately support my gear..."

And that leads to...

4. The Jobu Jr. 3 Deluxe Gimbal Head

One of the best things about leading photo tours and doing a lot of private tutoring is that I get to see what other photographers from around the globe are shooting with. During my 2015 "Humpbacks and More" photo tour one of my guests showed up with a Canadian-made Jobu Jr. 3 gimbal tripod head (thanks Harold!). I was struck by how small (and how light) it was, and yet it seemed completely and fully functional. When I looked at my Wimberley II I started thinking "why the heck does this thing need to be so big and heavy?". So as soon as I got back to civilization I ordered a Jobu Jr. 3 Deluxe head and have been completely and absolutely happy with it!

Like with the Sigma Sport lens, this gimbal head might not be for everyone. Those who have become accustomed to using a Wimberley may (at first) find having the two tightening knobs on different sides of the head awkward (but it IS faster to adjust them when you can use two hands!). And, some of the knobs ARE quite close together (e.g. the knob to tighten the Arca-Swiss clamp and the one to rotate the entire head). me these are trivial issues compared to the difference in weight - the Jobu Jr. 3 Deluxe comes in at 680 gm (1.5 lb) compared to the Wimberley II at 1428 gm (3.15). So...the Jobu Jr. 3 comes it at slightly more than 1.5 lb lighter (half the weight!). Oh...and at current currency exchange rates the Jobu Jr. 3 Deluxe is about one half the price of a Wimberley II (so I guess they cost the same per gram or per pound!).

Please note that Jr. 3 Deluxe is only one of 4 gimbal heads that Jobu makes and some with extremely large lenses (e.g., 600mm f4 primes) may find a "larger" gimbal from Jobu (like the Heavy Duty Mk IV) better suited to their needs. I have been using my Jobu Jr. 3 Deluxe with all my lenses up to a Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR and have been extremely happy with it. I DO own a Jobu Heavy Duty Mk IV as well - you can expect a comparison of this head with the Jr. 3 Deluxe on this blog in the near future. And, those wanting information on ALL the Jobu gimbals NOW can go here:

Jobu Gimbal Heads

5. The Really Right Stuff TVC-24 Tripod

Another thing I noticed with my photo tour clients over the last few years has been a shift away from Gitzo tripods and to American-made Really Right Stuff (RRS) tripods. So...when I was in my "this Gitzo is overkill and a pain to travel with" frame of mind I decided to check out RRS's offerings. And I bought a RRS TVC-24 tripod. And I'm totally happy with it - my wallet is a lot lighter, but so is my tripod (777 gm - or 1.72 lb - lighter).

I have to add a big caveat in here: While I stand about 185 cm (6'1") tall, I rarely set up my tripod so that my camera's viewfinder is at eye-level when standing straight up - my preference is to bend over slightly and be in a position where I can quickly angle my lens up or down and still easily see through the viewfinder. And, in the big picture I RARELY shoot on steep hills where one leg must be extended far longer than the others. The TVC-24 is a short tripod - at maximum height it works exactly as I like (bent over very slightly), but others may find it too short to meet their needs (but note that RRS makes a series of tripods of different lengths).

Anyway...I'm really liking the performance, workmanship, carrying length (fits INSIDE most airline-approved carry-on), and weight of the new tripod. The tripod has all the standard features found on most high-end tripods, including rubber ball feet, quality CNC machining of the metal parts, large diameter but thin-walled carbon fiber legs, smooth "Twist Grip" leg extension locks and more. Compared to my "old" Gitzo it is far easier to carry while traveling OR on the side of my camera backpacks. You can check it out for yourself right here:

The RRS TVC-24 Tripod

With the combination of my new leaner RRS tripod and Jobu gimbal head I have saved a total of 1525 gm (3.4 lb) over my previous Gitzo-Wimberley setup. And the carrying length (with legs unextended) is 17 cm (6.7") shorter, which means it catches FAR fewer branches when its strapped to the side of my backpack.

In a world with shrinking traveling weight restrictions and my aging body that's...well...good stuff! And it's something that makes a difference each and every time I throw my camera backpack on my back...



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II. Selected 2015 Gear-related Blog Entries

24 December 2015: A Nikon DX "Quasi-Flagship" Coming Soon?

I don't normally like to propagate rumours - I have better things to do and there is a website fully dedicated to it that does a good job. I'm only passing this information along because we're in that season where a LOT of gear is being purchased and IF this rumour IS true, it could impact significantly on imminent lens and camera body purchase decisions for a lot of people. the last 10 days I've received 3 separate and independent communications (via email) telling me that a semi-pro (or even higher) quality DX body from Nikon is going to be announced in January. Two of these three sources have been spot-on in the past re: what they've told me was coming, and the third is from a new source that I really can't say too much about (simply because I don't know).

The interesting thing is that I'm getting scant specs, but those I am getting are consistent from all 3 sources - DX format, 10 fps, a "very good" buffer (whatever that actually means) and selling for around $2300 USD (which is about a billion dollars Canadian these days...well..actually around $3100 CAD). This consistency could say something about rumour credibility (or it could mean all 3 of my sources got THEIR information from the same source). Note that at least one of the sources derives their income from Nikon.

The name of the camera? I've heard it's the D400 (the Holy Grail!), though I personally think that IF the camera DOES come, it makes more marketing sense for Nikon to christen it the D500 (for complementarity to the already "announced-to-be-sometime-announced" D5).

My position on the rumour? For a number of years I have repeatedly stated that I thought a D400 was NOT in the offing. I had not seen (and still don't see) anything in Nikon's product offerings that suggests they are going to introduce a higher-end DX offering. When the D7200 came out I thought this was further evidence that Nikon wasn't interested in offering us a semi-pro (and fast with big buffer) DX camera. I STILL feel this way - I don't think a D400 or D500 is coming. But I could be - and I truly hope I AM - wrong. We are talking about Nikon after all - they can be more than a little challenging to figure out...

So take this rumour FWYTIW (For What YOU Think It's Worth).

To everyone reading this blog who celebrates it - have a Merry Christmas and a safe and happy New Year (even if that last bit seems a bit oxymoronic!). To all others - top of the season to you!



PS: Please note that I honestly know nothing else beyond this point - so I can't give anyone additional details (no matter how much you plead!).

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20 December 2015: The Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR: Optical Quality @ 25 Meters

I. Introduction:

After receiving a batch of "Are you still alive?" emails I decided it was time to get my butt in gear and get back online. Oh...and YES, I'm still alive (and kicking!). My apologies for my absence - I was deep into the planning and logistic necessities associated with my 2016 and 2017 photo tours and sometimes those tawdry revenue-related activities have to take priority over much more fun things, like painstakingly testing lenses and scrutinizing thousands of images. Hmmm...let me think that over (and once you see what's below you may get an idea why it took a while to get this post up!).

Anyway...I suspect any Nikon-shooting wildlife photographer who is agonizing over the question of "Which telephoto zoom should I buy?" will find this entry quite useful. In short, I compare the optical quality - including both the sharpness and the "quality" of the out-of-focus zones - of three lenses that are strongly competing for the contents of the wallets of wildlife shooters. This comparison was done at the distance that I personally often find myself at when photographing wildlife - 25 meters (for those who don't speak metric, that's about 27 yards or 82 feet). The lenses I compared were the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR, the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm at the following focal lengths: 200mm, 300mm, 400mm, and 500mm.

Here are the specific questions I wanted to answer with this testing:

1. How do the three lenses compare in sharpness at each of these focal lengths?

2. How do the three lenses compare in quality of the out-of-focus (OOF) zones at each of these focal lengths?

3. Do the three lenses show the same "variation in sharpness with aperture" (e.g., How sharp is the Nikkor 200-500 when shot wide open at 500mm - and how does that compare to the sharpness of the Sigma Sport when shot wide open at 500mm)? Some might think this is an almost "academic" question, but in reality it's the type of thing that's critical in determining how useful a lens really is in a field setting where we have no control over light or other variables.

As is becoming my habit, I'll give you the Executive Summary first, followed by more details about how I actually performed the tests, followed by more detailed results, and then (finally) a short discussion of the results (hmmm...the research scientist in me is oozing out).

Those who are busy can probably just stop after reading the Executive Summary - it includes all the most important results. But those with the stamina to wade through the rest of the entry will pick up a lot of little gems!

II. The Executive Summary:

Image Sharpness: At almost all apertures and focal lengths I found only very small differences in sharpness between the Sigma Sport 150-600mm and the Nikkor AF-S 200-500mm lens. In most cases the Sigma Sport was VERY slightly sharper than the Nikkor 200-500, but the sharpness difference was so small that it could be easily overcome with only slight sharpening during post-processing. With only a few exceptions (e.g., at 200mm) both the Sigma Sport and the Nikkor 200-500 produced noticeably sharper images than did the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm.

Interestingly, the Sigma Sport needed to be stopped down less from wide open (at all focal lengths) before approaching maximum sharpness - in most instances stopping down only 1/3 of a stop produced very sharp images. In contrast, both the Nikkor zooms needed to be stopped down at least 2/3 of a stop - and at times one full stop - from wide open before approaching maximum sharpness. At 500mm the Nikkor 200-500mm had to be stopped down to a full stop (to f8) to produce images that most would consider acceptably sharp, and at f11 the images were still sharper. In contrast, the Sigma Sport @ 500mm needed only to be stopped down by 1/3 of a stop to get to maximum sharpness (to f7.1).

Out-of-Focus (OOF) Zones: The quality of OOF zones (at all focal lengths and apertures) of the Sigma Sport and the Nikkor 200-500mm were very close in smoothness and overall visual appeal, but when there was a difference invariably the Nikkor 200-500 had slightly smoother out-of-focus zones than the Sigma Sport. The OOF zones of the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm didn't compare favorably to those of the Sigma Sport or the Nikkor 200-500mm - invariably they were MUCH less smooth and almost "nervous" in overall appearance, with out-of-focus objects and lines (e.g. branches) appearing almost jagged and distracting.

III. Methods:

1. What I Did - Field Testing

I shot several series of shots of a stationary subject located 25 meters away (from the camera) using three different lenses - the Nikkor AF-S 200-500mm f5.6E VR, the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3. Separate series of shots were captured at the following focal lengths for all three lenses: 200mm, 300mm, 400mm, and 500mm (obviously excluding the 80-400mm at the 500mm focal length). At each focal length and for each lens I captured images from "wide open" (for that particular lens and focal length) and then at 1/3 stop increments up to f8, and then at f11. Because I almost NEVER shoot wildlife images beyond f11, I didn't bother shooting images at smaller apertures than f11. All images were captured using a tripod and gimbal head (details below).

Note that I repeated the entire test using two different shooting styles. In the first shooting style I used Live View and Mirror Up and triggered the shutter with a cable release and the VR or OS system OFF for all lenses (this was done to get a baseline of the maximum achievable image quality one could expect to get in a field setting). In the second shooting style I shot the images "hands-on", meaning that I used the type of field technique I ACTUALLY would be using in a field setting when shooting wildlife - so left hand putting slight pressure on the top of the lens, the right hand stabilizing the camera on the tripod AND triggering the shutter, and I used the optical viewfinder. In this second series I used the VR setting that I have found to work the best with EACH lens when mounted on a tripod, so VR Sport for the Nikkor 200-500mm, VR Normal for the Nikkor 80-400mm, and OS1 for the Sigma Sport 150-600mm.

Note also that for BOTH shooting styles I shot in Aperture Priority mode with Auto ISO on and with the shutter speed set to 0.5x 1/focal length (so, for instance, 1/100s at 200mm, 1/200s at 400mm, etc.), which mimics the general style I would use in many field settings. I had overcast skies which produced constant lighting for the entire test period.

Here are additional details of my image capture protocol (for those who might be as anal as me!):

Camera: Nikon D750 with battery grip attached
Image Capture Format: 14-bit Raw
Subject: Life-size bald eagle wood carving, complete with fine feather detail allowing easy discrimination of any sharpness differences between images
Background objects: Naturally-occurring tree boughs, branches and/or tree trunks at 1 meter behind the subject, 5 meters behind the subject, and 35 meters behind the subject (allowing very easy discrimination of the quality and "smoothness" of the out-of-focus zones.
Tripod: Gitzo 1348
Tripod head: Jobu Heavy Duty MK IV (info here)

2. What I Did - Image Scrutinization and Sharpness/Bokeh Categorization

All images were scrutinized for sharpness and bokeh "quality" at 100% magnification (i.e., 1:1) in Lightroom CC 2015 (2015.3 Release) on an Apple 30" display (100 ppm). I have no means of objectively "measuring" image sharpness, however for the purposes of this test all I needed to do was rank the image sharpness of images relative to one another (e.g., which is sharper @ f5.6 at 200mm - the Nikkor 200-500mm or the Sigma Sport 150-600mm?) and in practice this was an easy task. Bokeh quality (or out-of-focus zone quality) is even tougher to "measure", but, like with image sharpness, in this test I simply needed to rank the images relative to one another and my testing setup (with several background objects at different distances) made this very easy to do (difference in the smoothness of the edges of the out-of-focus objects - and the overall aesthetic impact of that smoothness of OOF objects - was very easy to see).

IV. Results:

1. No difference in Live View vs. "Hands-On" Shooting Style Test Results:

While a very low number of images (less than 5) were slightly sharper when captured using my Live View testing protocol over their exact counterparts (same lens, same focal length, same aperture) shot using my "Hands-On" protocol, in general I found no difference in image sharpness (or bokeh) when I compared shots that differed only in the shooting style protocol Live View vs. "Hands-On". All test results as stated below showed the exact same trend for Live View and Hands-On protocols (and so I will not list the results separately).

2. Observed Differences in Image Quality:

At 200mm:

Sharpness: The Sigma Sport 150-600mm was the sharpest of the three lenses at all apertures tested. The Nikkor 200-500mm was next sharpest (and VERY close to the Sigma Sport) at all apertures EXCEPT at f5.6, where the Nikkor 80-400mm was slightly but noticeably sharper than the 200-500 (note that at f5.6 the Nikkor 200-500mm is wide open while the 80-400 @ 200mm is stopped down 2/3 of a stop from wide open). At this focal length the three lenses were overall VERY close in sharpness (and certainly within the range where careful sharpening in post-processing could negate the sharpness differences).

Need to Stop Down? Both the Sigma Sport 150-600 AND the Nikkor 80-400 approached their maximum sharpness when stopped down 2/3 of a stop from wide open (and did not get sharper with further stopping down). In contrast, while the Nikkor 200-500 was CLOSE to maximally sharp when stopped down 2/3 of a stop from wide open (so at f7.1), the image did continue to sharpen up slightly more when stopped down to f8, and even slightly more when stopped down to f11.

Bokeh: The OOF zones of the 200-500 were slightly but noticeably smoother and softer in appearance than those of the Sigma Sport 150-600mm at all apertures. The images shot with the Nikkor 80-400 had much less pleasing OOF zones, with OOF objects having sharper edges and much more "nervous" in appearance then either of the two other zooms (and the gap in OOF quality between the Nikkor 200-500 and the Sigma Sport was MUCH smaller than the gap between the Sigma Sport and the 80-400).

At 300mm:

Sharpness: Similar results to those shot at 200mm, with the Sigma Sport being slightly sharper than the 200-500. The Nikkor 200-500 was now noticeably sharper than the Nikkor 80-400, EXCEPT at f8 where the Nikkor 200-500 and the Nikkor 80-400 were indistinguishable in sharpness (both slightly less sharp than the Sigma Sport 150-600).

Need to Stop Down? As above for 200mm, EXCEPT that the Sigma Sport needed to be stopped down only 1/3 of stop before approaching maximum sharpness (meaning it got to maximum sharpness "faster" than the other two lenses).

Bokeh: EXACTLY as at 200mm - the Sigma Sport and Nikkor 200-500 very similar (with a slight edge to the 200-500) and with the 80-400 trailing considerably further behind.

At 400mm:

Sharpness: Almost identical results to those shot at 300mm with the Sigma Sport sharpest, followed closely by the Nikkor 200-500mm. The only difference in the results is that the "sharpness gap" between the 200-500 and the 80-400 was larger (i.e., at 400mm the images captured by the 80-400mm were considerably softer than the other two lenses).

Need to Stop Down? As above for 300mm (with the Sigma Sport "getting to sharpest" the fastest).

Bokeh: EXACTLY as at 200mm - the Sigma Sport and Nikkor 200-500 very similar (with a slight edge to the 200-500) and with the 80-400 trailing considerably further behind.

At 500mm (Sigma Sport 150-600 and Nikkor 200-500 ONLY):

Sharpness: More of the same - a very slight difference in sharpness, with the Sigma Sport being slightly sharper at all overlapping apertures (including f6.3, where the Sigma Sport is "wide open" and the Nikkor 200-500 is stopped down 1/3 of a stop from wide open).

Need to Stop Down? Again the Sigma Sport needed to be stopped down 1/3 of a stop to approach maximum sharpness. The Nikkor 200-500 required to be stopped down one FULL stop (to f8) to approach maximum sharpness.

Bokeh: EXACTLY as at 200mm - the Sigma Sport and Nikkor 200-500 very similar (with a slight edge to the 200-500).

V. Discussion:

For me what the results mean is pretty clear: with MY copies of these three lenses the Sigma Sport is slightly sharper than the Nikkor 200-500, and both are slightly sharper than the Nikkor 80-400 (except at 400mm, where the 80-400 appeared to "soften" considerably and the other two lenses were much more than just "slightly" sharper). I found it interesting that in most cases the Sigma Sport needed to be stopped down less (from wide open) before getting to maximum sharpness than the 200-500mm needs to be stopped down. This is particularly interesting at the longer focal lengths, where the Nikkor 200-500 has an apparent "edge" in having a wider maximum aperture (f5.6 vs f6.3) - because you have to stop down the Sigma down LESS to get sharp images, the "theoretical" edge that the Nikkor 200-500 may have in some situations (e.g., low-light shooting) is largely negated.

As one who is very concerned about the distribution and the quality of the out-of-focus (OOF) zones in his images, I found this field test very revealing. I have to admit I've never really paid THIS much attention to the comparative quality of the OOF zones in a head-to-test before. While there was a very small difference in the quality of the OOF zones between the Sigma Sport and the Nikkor 200-500 (I have to say the OOF zones of the 200-500 really impress me!), the reality is that unless one is doing head-to-head testing most would likely find little to complain about in the quality of the OOF zones in either of these two lenses. But I WAS very surprised how much less smooth and more "nervous" the OOF zones of the 80-400 were. This DOES impact my thoughts about the 80-400 and definitely will likely make me hesitate in pulling it out for some shots.

One bit of context is needed here. There are many times when one is shooting wildlife when the quality of the bokeh is a non-issue. If one is shooting "animalscapes" or "enviroscapes" (those who don't know what I'm referring to with theses terms can read about them here) the photographer is often trying to MAXIMIZE depth-of-field and having almost NOTHING out-of-focus. Wildlife photography isn't always about subject isolation (where bokeh and OOF zone quality can become very important).

One final aspect of the results was interesting to me - the fact that my results differed only very little when I was shooting using a highly-controlled setup (my Live View shooting style) vs. a more "typical" field method - "hands-on" and using the appropriate VR technique (for the lens in question). For me it's nice to know my field techniques and gear settings (particularly the VR settings) are producing images that approach the "theoretical maximum" that could be obtained in a field setting. Conversely, if my normal modus operandi in the field produced images a LOT different than when shot with Live View it would have been pretty disconcerting (and it might have been time for me to just start shooting with my iPhone!).

The final take-home lesson? When it comes to optical quality, both the Nikkor 200-500mm and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm are STILL looking pretty good to me. And, it's a darned good thing that the Nikkor 80-400mm has a pretty big edge in size, weight, and general "portability" over the other two lenses (otherwise...).



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30 November 2015: Phase One's Capture One 9 Released

Phase One has just released a major upgrade to their powerful raw converter and image management software application. Version 9 adds new functionality to both the image management end of a raw workflow as well as improvements to their image processing engine. On the image management side of the equation the biggest news is in improvements to keywording capabilities. On the image processing and editing end, Capture One 9 offers improvements to the following tools: Color Balance, Rescaling, Contrast, Exposure and localized (selective) curves adjustments. This update is a paid upgrade - previous owners of Capture One Pro will have to shell out $99 USD to upgrade to Version 9.

For more information (including a fully-functional trial version of Capture One) just go here: Capture One 9

I've been a fan and user of Capture One Pro for almost a decade. Despite trying to move into an All-Adobe workflow (including my raw conversions) multiple times, I've always come back to Capture One Pro as my preferred raw converter. For those interested in getting the absolute MOST out of their raw files, I'd encourage you to give Capture One a shot!



20 November 2015: Shooting Hand-held with the Nikkor 200-500mm VR Versus...

Welcome to a VERY long and - at least to some - what may be thought of as a very BORING blog entry. Producing the information for this one took a huge amount of effort and time (mostly in image scrutinization). Those that have the staying power to work through the entire entry will likely find a LOT of helpful information in it. Those that don't have the time to wade through this one should just read the Executive Summary below. Funny thing is, these long and boring entries always seem to be the most popular. Go figure, eh? Despite Twitter, long form information presentation is definitely NOT dead! So grab a cup of caffeine and enjoy! ;-)

Based on email flowing into my inbin it appears there's tremendous interest in the new Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR zoom lens. And, again based on the questions I'm getting, it seems an awful lot of folks are trying to decide between the 200-500mm and one of two other lenses - the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 and the Nikkor 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR.

I face a related decision myself - I currently own all 3 of the above zooms and should decide which of them I'm going to keep. Or, if I decide to keep all 3 of them, when I will choose to shoot one over the others. Lots of factors impact on these decisions - optical quality, portability of the lens, preferred subject matter (and average distance to subject) and more.

In my particular case another variable is extremely important to me in choosing or using a lens - its "hand-holdability" (which I'll simply define as the slowest shutter speed at which I can predictably and consistently get sharp shots when hand-holding a lens). Note that this variable - lens hand-holdability - may be more important to ME than it is to many other photographers. Why? Simply because I do a tremendous amount of shooting in low light and in situations where it is impractical for me to use a tripod. Shooting from a small Zodiac inflatable boat in the low light of the Great Bear Rainforest (which is something I do a lot) is one such example of a situation where tripod use is impossible and I must hand-hold a lens in "sub-optimal" conditions.

So...I decided to test the "hand-holdability" of three competing zoom lenses which are popular (and/or growing more popular) among wildlife photographers: the "new" Nikkor AF-S 200-500mm f5.6E VR, the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3.

A Critical Note: Please note that I am intentionally discussing lens "hand-holdability", and specifically not VR (or OS) performance. It goes without saying that one's ability to hand-hold a lens is correlated with the quality of the VR or OS system of the lens, but other variables play a role too. These include (but are not limited to) lens weight (with lighter NOT always being easier to hand-hold), balance of the camera and lens system, user technique, user strength, and (I'm sure) other things. I can check the marketing claims of Nikon or Sigma regarding the VR performance of any particular lens - these are often expressed as number or stops in shake reduction over a non-stabilized lens (e.g., "...counteracts camera shake up to ~4.5 stops"). But while this may be a one "pseudo-standardized" way to express VR performance, it tells me nothing about what I really need to know in the field - what shutter speed can I safely hand-hold in the field (and consistently get sharp shots at) with any particular lens-camera combination? Note also that this blog entry deals with how effectively I could hand-hold the various lenses when shooting a stationary subject. Some VR or OS settings are specifically designed for panning on moving subjects - while I DID test these settings in this test, their performance on a stationary subject isn't necessarily reflective of their usefulness for what they are actually intended for (i.e., panning).

The Executive Summary:

This section is for those who just want the bare-bones results. Here you go:

I found that my success in obtaining sharp hand-held shots (and the shutter speeds I needed to use to get those shots) of stationary subjects was nearly identical with the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 lenses. I had to use significantly higher shutter speeds with the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 than I did with the other two zooms in order to get sharp hand-held shots. Other aspects of the performance of the image stabilization systems (e.g., the stability of the image as viewed through the viewfinder, the amount of between-frame movement of the image in successive images in a burst) differed among the lenses and choosing the appropriate image stabilization mode for any particular scenario can definitely impact the success the photographer will experience in a field setting.

Those looking for a lot more information (including a lot of little "gems" related to the use of these lenses respective image stabilization systems are encouraged to read on.

What I Did - Field Testing:

Ok, so here's what I did: I shot a ton of shots (3200 to be exact) of a large and worn (and very textured) road sign at a distance of 30 meters using a variety of lenses, focal lengths, and shutter speeds. Besides the 3 lenses already discussed, I also tested a few other popular lenses to increase my baseline for comparison - those lenses included the Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR, the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR, and the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR. In this entry I will discuss the results of the 3 lenses mentioned above only (i.e., the 200-500, the 80-400, and the Sigma Sport 150-600).

Here's a bit more detail of my methodology for those who might be interested:

• Camera body used: Nikon D750 with battery grip attached
• Focal lengths tested: 200mm, 300mm, 400mm, 500mm (in that sequence)
• Shutter speed range tested: From 1/1000s down to 1/15s in 1/3 stop increments
• VR (OS) modes tested: For every focal length and every shutter speed I tested all VR/OS modes for each lens - so VR OFF, VR Normal, VR Active or VR Sport (Nikon lenses) and OS OFF, OS1, OS2 (Sigma lens).
• Camera Mode: Manual, with Auto ISO On; all images shot at f8
• Shooting Style: Burst of 2 images shot at each shutter speed (for each lens and each focal length) - camera set to continuous high frame rate.
• Subject: Large road sign with sharp lettering, cracks, and texture (making sharpness distinctions extremely apparent) - see this sample shot...
• Lens sequence: At each focal length I randomized the order of the lenses I shot (to counter any effects of tiring)
• Hand-hold technique: Standing, with left hand supporting lens, and with left elbow "tucked" into my body for support.

What I Did - Image Scrutinization and Classification:

All 3200 images were scrutinized at 100% magnification in Lightroom CC 2015 on an Apple 30" Cinema Display. I categorized all images into one of 6 sharpness categories. The categories were:

• Sharp (all detail on central portion of sign absolutely sharp)
• Slightly Soft (any softening of detail in central portion of sign - careful sharpening in Photoshop would make these shots indistinguishable from those categorized as "Sharp")
• Softer (noticeable softening of image detail; sharpness loss NOT fully recoverable by digital sharpening)
• Soft (unacceptable image sharpness)
• Very Soft (close to garbage!)
• Very, Very Soft (pure garbage, AKA a bloody and blurry mess!)

A couple of further notes on this image sharpness categorization:

• In real terms, it was simple to classify the images - the differences in sharpness with this subject matter were very clear.
• In my own shooting I would consider ONLY the categories of Sharp and Slightly Soft as "keepers".
• The ONLY reason I bothered classifying images into the 4 categories of "Softer" through "Very, Very Soft" was to examine if position in burst sequence (first shot vs. second shot in burst) had any impact on image sharpness (which I will report in a separate blog entry in the near future).
• The thing of greatest interest to me is what shutter speed I can use for each lens (and each focal length) and be pretty much guaranteed to get a sharp shot of a static subject. I judged this to be the lowest shutter speed in which BOTH shots in my 2-shot burst were rated as "Sharp". I looked at images at longer and longer shutter speeds the instant I got to a combination of two shots (in a single burst) where ONE of the two shots wasn't absolutely sharp I considered this to be just beyond my "guaranteed" slowest shutter speed (for obtaining sharp shots).

For example, if (for instance, when examining the images shot with my Sigma Sport 150-600 using OS1 mode at 300mm) I consistently got sharp shots in BOTH images in my 2-shot bursts from 1/1000s to 1/50s but then got an image pair of "sharp, slightly soft" at my 1/40s burst, I judged my "safe speed for sharp shots" for that lens and focal length and OS mode to be 1/50s. In the results shown below this is the shutter speed I am referring to in my statement "Consistently Sharp To". This may sound confusing, but when you look at the spreadsheet of results for each lens/focal length/VR or OS mode combination the cut-off point (in going from a sharp-sharp image pair to ANYTHING else) is completely clear.

What I Learned/Discovered:

Just a TON of things! But before I get into my results there's a few things last things I need to cover:

ON VR MODES: Nikon's VR technology and terminology has evolved over time. It's REAL easy to get confused when comparing VR modes between lenses. So I feel compelled to give a quick overview of how each VR/OS mode on the 3 zoom lenses in question actually works (consider this a mix of what you can find in the manual and what I have learned about the VR/OS modes when actually using them).

I. Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR: Three VR (Vibration Reduction) modes: VR Off, VR Normal, VR Active.

VR Normal on this lens is designed to "counter" lens/camera movement on ONE plane only - so it's definitely the mode to use when panning. VR Active is designed to counter lens movement on multiple planes. SO...if you're on an unstable surface (like in a moving vehicle) OR you happen to be particularly shaky yourself, then use VR Active.

What about if you're shooting from a tripod? If you keep the head loose (think gimbal head) then Nikon suggests it's often best to kept VR ON - in either mode. My own experience tends to support this, but I always use VR Normal when on a tripod with a loose head and have had good success with this setting.

What if you're absolutely "bolted down" on a firm tripod? Personally, I'd recommend turning the VR off.

II. Nikkor AF-S 200-500mm f4.5-5.6 VR: Three modes: VR Off, VR Normal, VR Sport.

This is a new "generation" of VR and VR Normal functions differently than on the 80-400. NOW, VR Normal gives maximum vibration reduction (or image stabilization) and functions to counter movement on multiple planes. Rock steady through the viewfinder on VR Normal (just like VR Active on the 80-400). Great for stationary subjects. Supports panning too (go figure that one out).

VR Sport? Nikon suggests this is the better mode for moving subjects and for panning (though they explicitly state VR Normal works with panning too). On a tripod? Nikon claims both modes can be used on a tripod.

My experience? Identical to what I have found on ALL Nikon lenses offering the VR Normal-VR Sport dichotomy (including the 300mm f4 PF and the 400mm f2.8E VR) - VR Normal gives you a rock solid image through the viewfinder and gives you more absolute shake reduction than VR Sport, BUT the image (as seen through the viewfinder) can jump around DRAMATICALLY between successive frames in a burst.

VR Sport? A little less overall shake reduction and a little less "rock solid" through the viewfinder, but the image is remarkably stable (as seen through the viewfinder and in the final images) in sequential images in a burst (the images don't shift in position). If I am shooting on a tripod with a loose (or even "loose-ish") head I DEFINITELY prefer shooting with VR Sport. Why? Because the image doesn't jump around between frames - and that jumping can be SO dramatic on VR Normal that it can impact negatively on my composition.

III. Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3: Three OS (Optical Stabilization) modes: OS Off, OS1, OS2.

First off, it's important to know Sigma offers customization (via use of a USB dock and proprietary software) of their Optical Stabilization functions. So both OS1 and OS2 modes can be customized in three different ways - Standard View, Dynamic View, and Moderate View. These modes differ in how stable the image appears through the viewfinder and how "smooth" images in a sequence are (versus jumping around, and at this point I think - note that word "think" - how much image stabilization they perform). For the purposes of this test and blog entry I used the default mode that most users (and certainly anyone who hasn't purchased the USB dock accessory) will likely be using - Standard. Note that I hope (time permitting) to tease apart the exact differences between the 3 customization modes somewhere down the road - if I do so I will report my findings in a future blog entry.

OS1 mode is the "standard" stabilization mode and, while not explicitly stated in the instruction booklet that accompanies the lens (it says diddly squat about OS1 mode actually), it appears to counter camera/lens shake in both horizontal and vertical planes. So I use it almost whenever I'm hand-holding this lens (except while panning).

OS2 mode? This modes counters shake in the vertical plane ONLY - it's designed for use when panning objects that are moving horizontally (so probably not the best mode to use if photographing an Osprey plunging straight down from the sky!).

What about use on a tripod? Sigma recommends turning the OS off. I have experimented with shooting the lens on a loose (freely moving) gimbal on OS1 mode and have found it to work absolutely fine.

My Actual Results and Discussion:

Here you go, in point form beginning with most general and applicable down to some pretty picky things!

1. And the Overall Winner in "Hand-holdability" Is?

No matter how I slice and dice the results I come to the same result: an absolute dead heat in image stabilization performance between the Nikkor 200-500mm and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm. So, for example, at a focal length of 300mm I was able to get ALL hand-held shots sharp (i.e., BOTH shots sharp in each two shot burst) down to a shutter speed of 1/50s. Total number of keepers (shots classified as sharp and "slightly soft") in the entire sequence of shots from 1/1000s to 1/15s (in 1/3 stop intervals)? 31 for the Nikkor 200-500. 31 for the Sigma Sport. And so on...

How did the Nikkor AF-S 80-400 compare? Well...badly. And...well...oddly. There wasn't a single focal length with the 80-400 where I could get consistently sharp results down to a shutter speed too close to what I could do with the 200-500 or the Sigma Sport 150-600. For example, at 300mm I could get consistently sharp results on the 200-500 and the Sigma Sport 150-600 down to 1/50s. At 300mm I got consistently sharp shots down to only 1/250s on the 80-400. But, when shutter speeds got VERY low (in the 1/30s to 1/15s range) I was still getting a decent number of keepers with the 80-400 (i.e., a fair number of shots in this range that I classified as "slightly soft"). So while the 80-400 lacked consistency, you could still get quite sharp shots (NOT tack sharp shots) down to quite slow shutter speeds.

The other thing that was very clear when I was looking at the results was that with both the Nikkor 200-500 and the Sigma Sport 150-600 is that the results were quite "linear" and predictable. For instance, at a focal length of 400mm both lenses produced tack sharp shots consistently from 1/1000s down to 1/160s, and then the shots softened slightly (and progressively) as the shutter speed decreased further. But with the 80-400 at that same focal length I got some soft shots even at the highest shutter speeds tested (1/1000s) but SOME sharp shots down to quite slow shutter speeds (1/40s or even slower). I simply could see no real pattern to how the 80-400 VR worked (and this was true for both the VR Normal and the VR Active modes). Note that I'm not saying the VR doesn't work - at all focal lengths both VR Normal and VR Active allowed me to capture sharper shots than with the VR Off. But there certainly seems to be a "randomizer" worked into the VR algorithm of the 80-400! ;-)

One final point here - I found that the shutter speeds I could successfully hand-hold the Nikkor 200-500 and the Sigma Sport 150-600 at to be virtually identical, despite a pretty big weight difference between the lenses (the Sigma Sport is about 730 gm - or 1.6 lb - heavier than the Nikkor 200-500). As I have said before, weight is only ONE factor that impacts on a lens' "hand-holdability" and other factors (specifically balance of the entire camera-lens system and, of course, the quality of the image stabilization system) can play a huge role in how slow a shutter speed you can successfully hand-hold any lens at. Lighter is often NOT better, and lenses that are too light (in an absolute sense, and for the camera body in use) can be very hard to effectively hand-hold. Examples of "light" lenses I struggle to hand-hold with the VR system off (and when paired with a D4s) include the Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR and the "new" Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR.

2. Image Stability as Seen Through the Viewfinder?

Although I didn't TEST this per se, the results were exceptionally clear to me - the Nikkor 200-500 VR in Normal Mode one this one hands down. Simply put, the images as seen through the viewfinder seem absolutely rock-solid with the 200-500.

Second place? The Nikkor 80-400 in VR Active mode.

Third place? The Sigma Sport in OS1 mode. But note again that this feature (stability through the viewfinder) is customizable on the Sigma Sport - and I've already noticed that the "Dynamic View" mode is better than the "Standard" mode with respect to image stability as seen through the viewfinder and that this test was done using the Standard mode.

Why does stability as seen through the viewfinder matter? It's obviously not as important as how the actual images turn out, but it can have a few effects. First, it can be helpful in image composition when hand-holding a camera (if the image is shifting in the viewfinder it can be difficult to compose a shot). Second, it certainly impacts on one's confidence that the image stabilization system is actually working (and possibly even encourage one to "push the boundaries" of how slow a shutter speeds they can hand-hold a lens at). Of course, this "stable through the viewfinder" feature can be used for evil purposes by nefarious salespeople - if I was in a camera store and looked through the viewfinder of a camera with the 200-500 mounted on it and in Normal VR mode and then a camera with a Sigma Sport 150-600 on it in OS1 mode I could easily be convinced that the VR of the 200-500 was WAY better than that of the Sigma lens (and it isn't). ;-)

3. Image Stability BETWEEN Shots in a Sequence?

Here I'm referring to how much an image shifts in position between successive shots in a burst. In previous blog entries I've jokingly referred to this as the Herky-Jerky factor. Like with image stability through the viewfinder, I didn't "test" for this per se, but the trends were vary apparent when I scrolled through the images on my computer.

The clear cut winner - AND the clear cut loser - of this category is the Nikkor 200-500mm VR. Huh? VR Normal mode there is EXTREME jumping/shifting of the position of the subject in the viewfinder between shots in a single burst. So much so that if you were working with a tightly framed subject and used this mode AND shot bursts, you could find that the subject was cut-off in several of the shots. Or, if you were shooting a moving subject you might find it outside the frame on some shots! BUT, switch to VR Sport mode and there is remarkable stability of the position of the subject in your frame between shots (far more consistency than if the VR is turned off and you shake even a small amount).

Note that I have found this exact same thing (VR Normal offers excellent total image stabilization but the images jump a LOT between frames AND VR Sport offers slightly less absolute image stabilization but GREAT between-frame image position consistency) on ALL Nikkor lenses that I have used that offer the VR Normal-VR Sport choice. This includes the 300mm f4 PF VR and the new 400mm f2.8E VR.

How does the Sigma Sport do in this regard? Differently. In OS1 mode the image is FAR more stable between shots than the 200-500 is in VR Normal mode - it's not nearly so herky-jerky (but not quite as smooth between shots as the 200-500 in VR Sport mode). In OS2 there is slightly less between-image (in a burst) positional stability than in OS1 mode, but it's still better than if the OS system is turned off (and still a LOT better than the 200-500 in VR Normal mode). You don't have to worry about image-shifting ruining your composition with the Sigma Sport in either OS mode.

The 80-400? A bit harder to characterize and a bit chaotic in this regard (sound familiar?). Moderate-to-high image shifting (herky-jerkiness) between frames in VR Normal mode, but it seemed to vary some with focal length. Overall not as much image shifting as with the 200-500 (in VR Normal mode) but more than the Sigma Sport (in either OS mode). And, significantly less position shifting when shooting in VR Active mode (better than with VR Off, but still not as smooth as the 200-500 in VR Sport mode.

4. How About Some Actual Shutter Speeds?

OK, I'm supplying these shutter speeds ONLY because if I don't I will be asked for them. But, they really only have any value whatsoever (in an absolute sense) to ME. The ability to hand-hold a lens varies with a lot of factors - you might be able to do a FAR better job at this than I am OR you may not be able to match my results. But odds are the shutter speed at which you can hand-hold theses lenses at will be different than what I can hand-hold them at. What will work for YOU can only be determined by you doing some testing on your own. Which I highly recommend.

Please note that when I say below "Consistently Sharp To" it means that EVERY shot was sharp from 1/1000s down to the listed shutter speed. When I say "Keepers To" it means that I obtained AT LEAST SOME sharp or only "slightly soft" shots (i.e., shots that I consider sharp enough to be worthy of keeping or using) down to the listed shutter speed.

So here you go:

I. At 200mm Focal Length:

i. Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR:

• VR Off: Consistently Sharp To 1/400s; Keepers To 1/100s
• VR Normal: Consistently Sharp To 1/200s; Keepers to 1/25s
• VR Sport: Consistently Sharp To 1/200s; Keepers to 1/25s

ii. Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3:

• OS Off: Consistently Sharp To 1/320s; Keepers To 1/125s
• OS1: Consistently Sharp To 1/160s; Keepers to 1/15s
• OS2: Consistently Sharp To 1/200s; Keepers to 1/160s

iii. Nikkor 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR:

• VR Off: Consistently Sharp To 1/800s; Keepers To 1/320s
• VR Normal: Consistently Sharp To 1/400s; Keepers to 1/25s
• VR Active: Consistently Sharp To 1/320s; Keepers to 1/30s

My Comments @ 200mm: So at 200mm the Sigma Sport SLIGHTLY edged out the 200-500. And it's obvious I have one hell of a hard time hand-holding the 80-400 (especially with the VR Off). This trend of me struggling to hand-hold the 80-400 (the lightest lens of the 3) with the VR Off will remain quite consistent throughout the results below (so I won't repeat it).

II. At 300mm Focal Length:

i. Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR:

• VR Off: Consistently Sharp To 1/500s; Keepers To 1/160s
• VR Normal: Consistently Sharp To 1/50s; Keepers to 1/30s
• VR Sport: Consistently Sharp To 1/100s; Keepers to 1/20s

ii. Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3:

• OS Off: Consistently Sharp To 1/500s; Keepers To 1/125s
• OS1: Consistently Sharp To 1/50s; Keepers to 1/25s
• OS2: Consistently Sharp To 1/320s; Keepers to 1/125s

iii. Nikkor 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR:

• VR Off: Consistently Sharp To 1/1000s; Keepers To 1/250s
• VR Normal: Consistently Sharp To 1/250s; Keepers to 1/20s
• VR Active: Consistently Sharp To 1/320s; Keepers to 1/20s

My Comments @ 300mm: At 300mm the Nikkor 200-500 and the Sigma Sport 150-600 were in a virtual dead heat. And the 80-400 VR behaved...uhhh...erratically. Why I was able to consistently capture sharp shots at a 300mm focal on both the Nikkor 200-500 AND the Sigma Sport at far longer shutter speeds (1/50s) than at 200mm focal length (around 1/200s) is totally beyond me - I have no explanation.

III. At 400mm Focal Length:

i. Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR:

• VR Off: Consistently Sharp To 1/800s; Keepers To 1/125s
• VR Normal: Consistently Sharp To 1/200s; Keepers to 1/30s
• VR Sport: Consistently Sharp To 1/320s; Keepers to 1/30s

ii. Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3:

• OS Off: Consistently Sharp To 1/500s; Keepers To 1/80s
• OS1: Consistently Sharp To 1/160s; Keepers to 1/15s
• OS2: Consistently Sharp To 1/250s; Keepers to 1/60s

iii. Nikkor 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR:

• VR Off: Consistently Sharp To 1/1000s; Keepers To 1/200s
• VR Normal: Consistently Sharp To 1/250s; Keepers to 1/25s
• VR Active: Consistently Sharp To 1/250s; Keepers to 1/20s

My Comments @ 400mm: The Sigma Sport slightly edges out the Nikkor 200-500 at 400mm. For those that might be interested, I also tested out the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR at the same time and got remarkable results with it - In VR Normal mode I got consistently sharp shots down to 1/40s (insert a WOW here) and keepers to 1/25 and in VR Sport mode I got consistently sharp shots down to 1/125s and keepers to 1/40s.

III. At 500mm Focal Length:

i. Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR:

• VR Off: Consistently Sharp To 1/500s; Keepers To 1/250s
• VR Normal: Consistently Sharp To 1/160s; Keepers to 1/30s
• VR Sport: Consistently Sharp To 1/320s; Keepers to 1/40s

ii. Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3:

• OS Off: Consistently Sharp To 1/500s; Keepers To 1/100s
• OS1: Consistently Sharp To 1/160s; Keepers to 1/15s
• OS2: Consistently Sharp To 1/400s; Keepers to 1/125s

iii. Nikkor 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR: N/A

My Comments @ 500mm: Like at 400mm the Sigma Sport very slightly edges out the 200-500 in the modes best suited to shooting stationary subjects (OS1 mode and VR Normal mode), but the differences are incredibly small.

The Final Take-home Lessons?

After living with and digesting these results for almost a week what take-home lessons are there here for me (and hopefully for a few others)? Here's how I see them:

1. For all intents and purposes, I can shoot stationary subjects hand-held with both the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 lenses at virtually identical shutter speeds (and still get sharp shots!). Both lenses have very capable image stabilization systems. Overall I have to keep shutter speeds considerably higher with the AF-S 80-400 f4.5-5.6 VR to "guarantee" my shots will be sharp. And, given the high degree of inconsistency in my results with the 80-400 it seems that I'd be well-advised to shoot multiple shots at almost ANY shutter speed if I want to be guaranteed of getting sharp shots.

2. If I'm shooting the Nikkor 200-500mm I'll use VR Normal when I feel the need to maximize image stabilization but must keep in mind that images may well shift considerably between successive frames in a burst. If between-frame image position consistency is MORE important than maximum image stabilization then I'll shift to VR Sport mode.

3. If I'm shooting the Sigma Sport 150-600mm I'm pretty much able to use OS1 all the time (except when panning) - it offers really good image stabilization without excessive between-frame image shifting.

4. If I'm shooting the Nikkor 200-500 on a tripod with a loose gimbal head (my primary mode when on a tripod) I'll opt for VR Sport mode (simply because I don't need maximum image stabilization and often between-frame image position consistency IS important to me for compositional purposes).

5. If I'm shooting the Sigma Sport 150-600mm on a tripod (with a loose gimbal head) I can just leave the lens in OS1 mode.

6. While I love the focal range and portability of the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm, as one who hand-holds telephoto lenses a lot I am beginning to wonder if I should consider letting this lens go!

All for now. And, believe it or not, more on hand-held shooting and VR systems coming soon!



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03 November 2015: Focus-Tracking With the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR - Not Too Shabby!

This is a blog entry that is bound to interest those who are considering purchasing the new Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR zoom lens. Why? Because I report on how the lens stacks up in focus-tracking ability of the 200-500 against several competing lenses: the Nikkor AF-S 400mm f2.8E, the Nikkor 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm. This focus-tracking 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, in choosing this focal length I can compare the lens against several others that many shooters either own or might be looking to choose between in the near future. Third, it allows me to compare the 200-500 (as well as the two other zooms) against a top-performing prime lens and "reference standard" - the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR. While it is entirely possible that I would have gotten very different results at other focal lengths (e.g., if I did the comparison at 300mm), I see no a priori reason for this to be the case.

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

METHODOLOGY: Very similar to my 24 March blog entry WAY below. In the test described today I had somewhat less light to work with, so ISO values were higher (all images were captured at f6.3 and 1/1250s, with Auto ISO on - resultant ISO values were between ISO 4000 and ISO 7200) than on the March 24 or April 03 AF tests. In the test I am reporting today I used Group Area AF rather than Dynamic Area (51-point) AF mode. Because I am now using a faster G-Series XQD card I was able to capture longer consecutive sequences at 11 fps - in this case between 104 and 112 images. One other change involves my test subject - this go 'round it was done with my younger Portuguese Water Dog named Poncho (Jose - my older Portie - was suffering from a minor sports injury and asked that I sub in the "B-team" ;-)

CAVEATS and QUALIFIERS: All images were captured with a Nikon D4s camera body. Because many aspects of AF performance are dependent on BOTH the lens AND camera body used, it can't be assumed that the results obtained with other camera bodies would be identical to the ones reported below. But I have no reason to believe that the overall trends would differ. Note that Sigma Sport 150-600mm lens used for these tests HAS had its firmware updated (and the firmware update was designed to improve the AF performance of the lens, which it apparently has (see below).

RESULTS: Here's what I found when comparing the focus-tracking ability of the four lenses:

1. Overall Summary: The Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR continued to excel and was DEFINITELY the reference standard in this test in autofocus (Focus-Tracking) performance. For the first time since I began doing this form of testing a lens obtained a score of "keepers" of 100% - all 110 images shot with the 400mm f2.8E were "keepers" and an astounding 102 (93%) were tack sharp! So those dropping a 5-figure amount to purchase the AF-S 400mm f2.8E VR can take one more major sigh of relief. Both the Sigma Sport 150-600 AND the Nikkor 200-500 performed very well (and very similarly) and I'm quite sure most users would be MORE than happy with their AF performance when shooting fast-moving objects, including birds in flight. Nikon's AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR also performed quite well, but the number and percentage of sharp shots captured with it (as opposed to just "keepers") was lower than the other two zooms.

2. More Details:

Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR: 110 images captured. 102 (93%) very sharp; 8 (7%) moderately sharp; 0 (0%) soft. This means 110 of 110 (100%) could be classified as keepers. This is the highest keeper ratio I have ever recorded during one of these testing sessions (and it can't get any higher!)

Sigma Sport 150-600mm: 106 images captured. 85 (80%) very sharp; 17 (16%) moderately sharp; 4 (4%) soft. This means 102 of 106 (96%) could be classified as keepers.

Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR: 104 images captured. 74 (71%) very sharp; 22 (21%) moderately sharp; 8 (8%) soft. This means 96 of 104 (92%) could be classified as keepers.

Nikkor 80-400mm: 112 images captured. 46 (41%) very sharp; 42 (38%) moderately sharp; 24 (21%) soft. This means 88 of 112 (79%) could be classified as keepers.

3. Two Comparative Sample Images: These two images typify the difference in image quality observed between the "best" lens in the test (the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR) and the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR. Note that both images below were processed identically but the image shot with the 200-500 was captured at ISO 7200 while the image captured with the 400mm f2.8E VR was captured at ISO 4000 (so SOME of the image quality difference could be attributed to ISO differences). Each image is annotated with the critical technical details. Best to view images at 100% (1:1):

Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR sample: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)
Nikkor 200-500mm @ 400mm sample: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.9 MB)


Two findings of this test seem relevant to discuss. First, in my view the Nikkor 200-500mm did very well in this test. While it didn't match the 400mm f2.8E VR in focus-tracking performance one could hardly expect it to! It DID virtually match the performance of the excellent Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom - and this is after Sigma's recent firmware update that improved AF performance of that lens. Moreover, the Nikkor 200-500mm outperformed the AF-S 80-400mm in focus-tracking performance, which will probably cause many to re-consider what lenses should be in their kit, especially if shooting moving objects (such as birds-in-flight) is important to them. Will ALL users be happy with the 200-500mm lens for shooting those good ol' BIF's (birds-in-flight)? Hard to say. The results I obtained would please most anyone - but they were obtained with a Nikon D4s. I THINK those shooting action that requires good Focus-Tracking using OTHER Nikon bodies will get similarly good results (and those shooters will be happy), but only time (and emails pouring in!) will tell!

Second - those who are REALLY meticulous (and with a great memory) may recall that I reported a similar test WAY BACK on 03 April but in THOSE tests the focus-tracking of the Sigma Sport 150-600 and the AF-S 80-400 were virtually identical (jump down to those results with this link). So why did the Sigma Sport 150-600 do so much better than the 80-400 in the results above? I think the observation is quite easily explained - the focus-tracking ability of the 80-400 was very similar in both today's test AND in the test of April 03 (i.e., similar between the two tests), but the focus-tracking performance of the Sigma Sport 150-600 was noticeably BETTER in today's test. Why? Well...since the first test Sigma has provided a firmware update for the 150-600 that was designed to improve "...focusing performance when Continuous servo (AF-C) is in use". Thus, the most obvious explanation is that the firmware update DID improve AF performance, including focus-tracking performance. Well done, Sigma.

Next up in my assessment of the 200-500? VR performance of the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR (at a lot of focal lengths, and against a lot of other lenses). Stay tuned.



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26 October 2015: Using the New Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR in the Great Bear Rainforest...

I always struggle with my first blog entry after returning from extended absences when I've been away leading photo tours. So much learned, so much to share - where to begin? Based on what's been filling my inbin during my absence (and in the week since I've been back) I think the best place to begin is with how the new Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR performed during a two-week stint in British Columbia's amazing coastal gem known as the Great Bear Rainforest.

Background and Caveats: While I shot a few thousand images with the 200-500 during my two-weeks of leading photo tours in the Great Bear, I shot MANY more images with other lenses (which in itself probably says something). While the Great Bear Rainforest is a RAINforest and it is often very rainy there (especially in the autumn), my first week-long photo tour was uncharacteristically dry and sunny. However, by the end of the first 3 days of my second photo tour we were definitely back to average overall rainfall (being hit by a hurricane will do that to you). In a blog entry on 25 September (scroll down to read it) I outlined some of the remaining tests I had planned for the 200-500mm VR - today's entry does not replace or change this list (those tests are still coming) - what follows today is simply some anecdotal observations made by yours truly over a two-week period of using the 200-500 in the field. And, note that SOME of the observations I made are quite unique to the shooting situation I was in and may not be applicable at all to some users - my frustration and the magnitude of the problem with the substandard quality lens hood when used with rain covers (described below) is but one example of a "situation-specific" issue that others may never encounter. Note that I am not sponsored by Nikon (and probably never will be if I keep being so brutally honest) or, as some may think after this entry, Canon.

Finally, please be aware that shooting in the Great Bear Rainforest - where we're commonly shooting hand-held from a sailboat or Zodiac - isn't what I'd call "controlled" shooting. A better description would be to call it "Cowboy Shooting"! tough environments that are hard to get to ya gotta do what ya gotta do, and often ya gotta do it without a tripod!

1. Still A Positive: Overall Optical Quality: The comments I made about the generally good optical quality of the 200-500 back in my 23 September blog entry (read it here) held up during my back-to-back photo tours in the Great Bear Rainforest. In general the images were acceptably sharp and with good contrast at all focal lengths. Similarly, I continue to be pleased with the quality of the out-of-focus zones - they're much better than those you get when using the AF-S 80-400 at the same focal lengths and apertures. In most cases they're on par (or even very slightly better) than those you get when using the Sigma Sport 150-600. Of course, they're not in the same league as you can get with a lens like the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR, but the 200-500 costs about 1/8 of the price of that 400mm prime.

2. Another Positive: Humidity and Moisture Resistance: One thing you quickly find out shooting in the Great Bear Rainforest (even if you use quality rain covers) is how well your lens or camera can handle moisture (for instance, I saw a ton of Canon 7D MkI's temporarily "die" in the Great Bear even though the users of them thought they were fine in wet environments). While I avoided using the 200-500 in heavy rain (for reasons I'll explain below) it was exposed to 100% humidity and rain several times during the trip - and I experienced NO internal fogging or moisture build-up within it. This is a good thing. And note that some other users DID have lenses that fogged internally during these trips (and my second trip was about as wet as you can get!!).

3. Some MORE Positives: "Hand-Holdability" and general AF Performance: As my time in the Great Bear Rainforest went on one thing became REALLY clear to me - the 200-500 is a very easy lens to hand-hold (for an entire day). While I make no bones about the fact I really like the Sigma Sport 150-600, it definitely feels WAY heavier when you're hand-holding it than the 200-500 does (a night vs. day thing for sure). And, at least anecdotally, I really like the performance of the VR system (especially the Sport mode) - the image is rock solid (as seen through the viewfinder) when using either VR "Normal" or VR "Sport" and you can hand-hold the lens at 500mm (at reasonably slow shutter speeds) very easily. Please note I'll be doing comparative testing of the VR system of the 200-500 against several other lenses very soon.

AF Performance? Generally it seemed just fine - very fast and quite accurate. But see point #5 below for an anecdotal "pseudo-test" off the 200-500 against the Sigma Sport 150-600 where the Sigma Sport came out ahead...

4. The First MILD Negative: The AF BUG. Just before I headed into the Great Bear Rainforest Nikon announced the firmware update to the lens to fix a known AF problem (the AF switching to manual focus if you zoom while auto-focusing). And my lens WAS one of the ones affected by the problem. Was it a big problem for me during the trip? Nope. And I DID autofocus while zooming during the trip (and the lens shifted to manual focus mode). But...while I've never seen this discussed online, I have found that very rarely almost ALL Nikkor lenses will experience a AF malfunction and just stop working. And...over the years I've found that just toggling the camera on and off invariably fixes the problem. Consequently, if I experience an AF problem with any Nikon lens I almost instinctively toggle my camera off and then back on (which, given the position of the ON/OFF button on most Nikons, is real easy to do, even with a rain cover on). SO...I can honestly say that while the "Don't zoom while AF-ing" problem was a mild irritant a few times, I missed no shots because of it.

That all being said, what IS a complete pain for me is sending the lens back to Nikon to have the firmware updated. Living in a rural setting and with the slowest mail (and courier) service on the planet I'll likely be without the lens for a good two weeks when I get around to dealing with that problem. It should be noted that if this problem occurred on my Sigma Sport 150-600 all I would have to do would be to plug the USB dock into my computer and update the firmware myself. I like "update in 10 minutes" firmware procedure a whole lot more than "update in two weeks" firmware procedure.

5. The Second Negative: Keeper Ratio vs. the Sigma Sport 150-600: Early in my first of two Great Bear Rainforest photo tours we spent close to an entire day photographing Humpback Whales from the deck of our sailboat. We had tons (quite literally) of humpbacks around us, and they were, of course, always moving and always popping up at different distances from the boat - from absolutely right beside us (only a few meters away) to hundreds of meters away. This allowed me to continuously switch between the Sigma Sport 150-600 and the Nikon 200-500 and shoot away (on both my D4s and my D750). In all I shot over 2000 images between the 4 combinations of gear (D4s with both lenses and D750 with both lenses). And I shot about 500 images with EACH gear combination (at various distances to the subject and at various focal lengths). All 2000 or so shots were hand-held.

Over the next few evenings and early mornings I scrutinized the images with an eye towards rejecting images based on simply sharpness alone (totally ignoring composition, lighting, and other creative concerns). My thinking was that one of the most basic thing we as photographers look for in a lens is image sharpness and that when shooting moving subjects it would obviously be correlated with AF performance. But at the end of the day what REALLY mattered was simple: was the image sharp or not?

What did I find? Several things:

• There was no overall difference in the proportion of "keepers" between the two cameras used - for each of the two lenses used the keeper ratio with the Sigma Sport (and for the Nikkor 200-500) showed no between-camera differences. By this I mean the keeper ratio of the D750 paired with the Sigma Sport was no different than the keeper ratio of the D4s with the Sigma Sport. And, the keeper ratio of the Nikon 200-500 when paired with my D4s was virtually identical to that when it was paired with the D750.

• The keeper ratio was HIGHER for the Sigma Sport 150-600 than the keeper ratio for the Nikon 200-500 VR. How much higher? I rejected 11% of the shots taken with the Sigma Sport and just over 21% of the shots taken with the Nikon 200-500 (based on sharpness alone).

6. The Third Negative: Too Much Twisting To Fully Zoom the Lens. While I noticed it took a lot of twisting of the zoom ring to go from 200mm to 500mm BEFORE I left on this trip, the amount of twisting that was actually required really hit home during the trip. Part of this is because I was often using the lens under a rain cover, and you can only twist the lens so far (from the outside of the cover) when it is under a cover (or the rain cover "over twists" and binds). And, part of this is because I was shooting the lens "against" the Sigma Sport 150-600 (which not only requires LESS twisting to cover a greater focal range, but also it has a rubber ring which permits you to easily grab on and zoom via a push-pull action as well...and this push-pull action is infinitely easier to perform with a rain cover on).

7. The "I'm Putting This Damned Lens Away" Negative (AKA the "I'm close to throwing this thing in the ocean" negative, or the "How a Little Thing Becomes a Really Big Thing" negative). OK - some perspective. We all use our gear differently and each of us will use our gear under different conditions at different times. In my case, I shoot in the rain a lot. Which means I use rain covers a lot. Now, all quality rain covers go around your camera somehow, and then tighten down (commonly with velcro) near the end of the lens hood. If you design a lens hood that requires almost NO rotation to be removed from the lens (AND that dislodges incredibly easily) and then try to put a rain cover over that lens (that has a twist-motion zoom) the net result is that the every time you zoom the lens the hood falls off. And, because it is connected to the rain cover it droops down OVER the lens and everything goes black in your viewfinder (the witty person would call it the "needs Viagra" problem, but I'm not that witty). And, if it's pouring rain, it's next to impossible to quickly put the hood back on without getting the working end of your lens soaked. And, you miss the bubble-netting or breaching whale, or the Spirit Bear that did a once-in-a-lifetime pose for you. And you get so ticked off that you want to throw the lens in the ocean. Grrrrr...

Note that I fully acknowledge that for most users the hood problem (incredibly easy to dislodge, even with a slight bump) will be a minor problem only (most of the time). But it's my view that this lens STILL costs over $1300 USD and to equip it with a 39 cent lens hood that almost spontaneously falls off is incredibly short-sighted. Of course one could duct tape or crazy glue the hood on, but that kinda defeats the purpose of a removable hood (that one can easily travel with).

Summing up - where am I currently at with my thinking about the 200-500? Will I be keeping it (will it earn a spot in my wildlife kit)? At this point I have to admit I'm on the fence. I CAN see that many shooters would really like the lens - it IS quite good optically and it's incredibly good value. But between the "Auto AF Turn-off" function (that requires the firmware update to solve), the lower "keeper" rate I've experienced with it when shooting moving subjects (as compared to the Sigma Sport 150-600), the huge twist that is needed to zoom the lens over its full focal range, and the incredibly annoying cheap hood, I have to say my overall "confidence" in the lens is currently not too high. It is NOT impossible that with more testing my views will evolve and change further (positively or negatively). Stay tuned!



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25 September 2015: Continued Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR Testing?

Over the last few days I've received a lot of email asking me what further testing I'm planning to do on the new Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR. Good question. Here's a quick summary:

• Optical performance at various focal lengths with "medium" camera-to-subject distances (approx. 50-70 meters) compared to the Sigma Sport 150-600mm, Tamron 150-600mm, Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm, and occasionally against selected prime lenses (mostly for reference).

• As above, but with distant subjects (distant scenes) - and against the same lenses listed above.

• Edge-to-edge sharpness, especially at longer camera-to-subject distances. Other optical tests more-or-less examine images the way most wildlife photographers do, specifically " the subject sharp and the out-of-focus zones pleasingly smooth." This test examines images as one would when examining distant scenes where one wants the ENTIRE image in focus and sharp. For this test I will be using Nikon's higher resolution bodies (D750 and D800e).

• Autofocus performance, with special emphasis on its focus-tracking ability of moving subjects (applicable to things like birds in flight, etc.). Comparisons to same lenses listed above.

• "Hand-holdability" of the lens at various shutter speeds (again in reference to other lenses). This isn't a VR test per se, but it examines what is (for most users) the primary goal of a VR system. Note that in this testing lens weight, balance, weight of camera body in use, and probably more (phase of the moon?) all play a role.

• Teleconverter performance with the 200-500, using both versions of the 1.4x teleconverter (the TC-14EII and the TC-14EIII). Because of both autofocus issues and very small (and hardly usable in a real world setting) effective apertures I won't be testing the 200-500 with current models of the 1.7x (TC-17EII) or the 2.0x (TC-20EIII) teleconverters.

• Performance with DX bodies, particularly at longer focal lengths. For the "want more reach" crowd! Will include optical performance, as well as things like AF performance, hand-holdability, etc. I'll be using a D7200 for this testing.

Many know that I am about to leave to lead photo tours in BC's Great Bear Rainforest and will be doing so until mid-October. While I WILL be taking the 200-500mm with me (as well as both the Sigma Sport 150-600mm and the Nikkor 80-400), I won't be doing systematic testing of the lens while away on these trips. I WILL be shooting the lens as much as possible to continue to get a "feel" for certain aspects of it, and these impressions will be reported on this blog once I return. Of course, because the Great Bear RAINforest is a very moist environment, using on this trip will give me a good handle on its robustness under tough field conditions.

When will I begin posting new blog entries that report my results of more systematic testing of the lens (i.e., the tests listed above)? Good question. Realistically, near the end of October.



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23 September 2015: Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR - A Cautionary Green Light?

I have been shooting and doing systematic testing (and scrutinizing the images from) Nikon's new 200-500mm f5.6E VR for a grand total of 3 days. Which means I have just BEGUN my testing. But, as I have found in testing other lenses, one forms an impression on a lens very quickly and it's my experience that this first impression is rarely too far off (continued testing DOES show nuances, isolates and precisely pinpoints strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies, etc.). So I think there's some value in posting this blog entry. I'll begin this entry with two clear statements:

1. The 200-500mm has already FAR exceeded my expectations. I can't deny that the relatively low price of this lens had left me with a preconception that it was going to be a consumer-level lens only. It isn't. In an absolute sense (disregarding price), this is a good to very-good lens. It is capable of producing professional-quality images. Factor in the low price and I am fine being quoted as saying "This is an absolutely incredible lens for the price."

2. You are going to read a lot of positives below, but there's a potential big negative with this lens that I CAN'T comment on yet - while the lens seems to very well-built (more on this below) I can say nothing about long-term durability and other related issues, such as the possibility that this lens could end up being a real dust-sucker (and we won't know that for awhile). I'm NOT saying it will be a dust-sucker or is prone to internal condensation in moist environments (or any other similar problem), simply that they are possibilities. The fact that this lens lacks Nikon's vaguely-defined-but-often-referred-to "environmental sealing" (and that low price) contributes to my concern. This concern is why I am currently adding "Cautionary" to my "Green Light" early assessment of this lens.

What I've Done So Far

To date I've had 4 shooting sessions with this lens (alone and in comparison with other lenses). The first was when I picked it up - at that point I did a quasi-systematic testing of the lens against the following lenses: Sigma Sport 150-600mm; Sigma Contemporary 150-600mm, Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm, and the Tamron 150-600mm. I shot test shots with each lens of a traffic sign (with many objects in near, intermediate, and longer proximity to the subject) at the following focal lengths 200mm, 300mm, 400mm, 500mm (excluding the 80-400 on the last focal length). For each focal length I shot at wide open (for that focal length) and then closed the aperture down in 1/3 stop increments up to f8, and then a 1 stop jump to f11. Owing to diffraction issues and the relative rarity that I would ever shoot these lenses much past f11, I ceased testing at f11. For this testing I used a Nikon D750 body mounted on a RRS TVC-24 tripod and a Jobu Jr. 3 Deluxe Gimbal head (left loose). Shots were made "hands-on" and with VR or OS systems enabled on the appropriate setting for tripod use. Distance to subject was 17 meters (about 55') - a distance in the range that many wildlife photographers shoot. My thanks are extended to Jeff and Tony at Robinson's Camera in Calgary for lending me the Sigma Contemporary lens for this testing (all the other lenses were my own).

Sessions two and three were simply "just shooting" sessions where I shot only the 200-500mm while walking in the woods near my cabin. I used a D4s during these sessions. The goal of these sessions was simply to get a feel for how the lens handled and performed during casual shooting. I shot mostly with the VR on and in Sport mode (my preferred mode for most hand-held shooting with lenses that offer it). Subjects varied in distance and content, but many were action shots of my dogs (to get a bit of a feel for AF performance). While I used several focal lengths and apertures, I wanted to get a handle on how this lens performed at the LONG end of its focal range and with wide apertures, so a lot of shots were captured at 500mm and f5.6. Because wide apertures are often needed to separate wildlife from backgrounds, it's important for me that the lens is sharp when shot wide open (thus the use of f5.6 on the bulk of these shots).

Session four was a rigidly-controlled session comparing the image sharpness and quality of out-of-focus zones at a shorter distance (5.7 meters or 18.7') - the kind of distance you'd use to work with small mammals and some smaller species of birds. The subject was an old stump found outside my cabin where I have captured many images (from the exact same position and overall setup). I used the same overall protocol as in the first session described above but with the following differences: First, I did not have a Sigma Contemporary to use AND I also worked in the "new" Nikkor 300mm PF VR and the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR into the test. So I compared the 200-500 to the Sigma Sport 150-600, the Tamron 150-600, the Nikkor AF-S 80-400, the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF, and the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR. Second, while all images tripod mounted (same tripod and head as described above), the tripod head was rigidly tightened down. Third, VR was OFF for all lenses, and I used a cable release and Live View mode on my D750 for image capture. Same focal lengths and aperture increments tested as described above.

At this point I have shot and scrutinized a little over 2500 images shot with the 200-500.

What I've FOUND So Far

1. Build Quality

Subjectively I'm impressed with the build quality of the lens. Nice finish, and both the focus and zoom rings rotate very smoothly. While this lens doesn't carry Nikon's "environmentally-sealed" designation, there is a rubber seal at the rear of the lens where it mounts to the camera. The lens from Nikon that I find it closest to in build quality would be the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm VR (though note that the 200-500 is manufactured in China, while the 80-400 is a Japanese-made lens). While the lens does NOT match the build quality of the best of the best Nikkors (like their super-telephotos), it is probably "good enough" for most users (even discriminating ones) and most uses. For those looking for a comparative "ranking" of the lenses that this lens compares to in build quality, here's how I'd subjectively rate them on a scale of 1-10 (with being unacceptable crap, and 10 being a lens built exceptionally well, like a 300mm f2.8 or a 400mm f2.8):

• Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR: 7.5 out of 10
• Nikkor 80-400mm f4.5-65.6 VR: 7.5 out of 10
• Sigma Sport 150-600mm: 8.5 to 9 out of 10 (Soviet-era architecture and design style, but incredibly well-built in Japan)
• Sigma Contemporary 150-600mm: 6.5 to 7 out of 10
• Tamron 150-600mm: 5.5 out of 10

2. Design, Function, Ergonomics, and Handling

There's a LOT to consider here, but overall a real good first impression in these areas. In terms of the nebulous "lens feel" and handling - it's comparatively easy to hand-hold and relatively easy to walk around with. As an example, a few days back I spent two hours walking around with it around my neck using a sling-style strap (a Peak Designs Slide) and with just the tripod foot balanced in my right hand - and I was not at all uncomfortable. Its lighter weight makes it considerably easier to walk around with than the Sigma Sport 150-600. In a sense it feels like walking around with a slightly bigger (and slightly heavier) version of the 80-400. For me a significant point is that it does NOT fit into my Think Tank hip holsters (Digital Holster V2.0) the way my 80-400 does. So to take it into the field it will have to be either around my neck with a sling (rarely), in a pack (commonly), or mounted on a tripod that's over my shoulder (occasionally). So while noticeably lighter than the Sigma Sport it fits into the same category as that lens (and all the other zooms I'm comparing it to EXCEPT the 80-400) from a "portability" perspective - in my world anyway!

Time for a bunch of bullet points, ordered almost randomly for your confusion pleasure!

Zoom Ring on my copy of the lens was just about right in tension - easy to zoom but did not extend on its own when hanging from my body.

Controls - Autofocus Mode: Two positions only - M/A (which is autofocus with instant manual over-ride when you grab and twist the focus ring) M (manual focus). Gone is A/M (found on many other Nikons). I never use A/M for me no loss. Others may feel differently.

Controls - Autofocus Limiter: Two positions: Full (min focus distance to infinity) and infinity to 6 meters. Expected, and something I personally rarely use (I almost always keep my telephotos set to Full).

Controls - Vibration Reduction (VR): 2 switches, each with two positions. Switch 1: On and Off. Switch 2: Normal and Sport. Perfect in my books. Normal gives you 4.5 stops of vibration reduction, but the image jumps a LOT between successive frames (good old herky-jerkiness). Sport gives you "somewhat" less vibration reduction, but FAR LESS jumping of the image between frames (very smooth - very low herky-jerkiness!). BOTH VR modes can be used for panning, and both can be used when on a tripod. I can already say that when I'm shooting on a tripod with a loose head (think loose gimbal for shooting moving animals and birds) I'll be using Sport mode (just like with my 400mm f2.8E VR).

Controls - Lock 200: This switch locks the lens at 200mm when engaged. Used most commonly when carrying the lens. OK, but have to say I DEFINITELY prefer the locking system on the Sigma Sport 150-600 - not only can you fully lock the lens at 150mm, but you can "soft lock" it at every numbered focal length (so it holds at the focal length but a firm twist of the zoom ring releases it). This convenient soft lock feature is also found on the Sigma Contemporary 150-600.

Lens hood: Typical Nikon lens hood - kinda flexy, kinda cheap, kinda easy to bump off. Kinda low end. BUT, on the positive side, light and when reversed it does NOT fully cover the zoom ring (like the hood on the 80-400 does). But the hood does the job, and to date I have seen no obvious vignetting caused by it.

Lens collar and Tripod Foot: OK...the lens collar and tripod foot on this new lens may be the first indication that Nikon DOES listen to its users (Yes Virginia, pigs DO fly!). On the AF-S 80-400 the lens collar/foot combination was so wimpy and flexible that it was next to useless (two working positions - take it off, or take it off and throw it in trash can). The lens collar and tripod foot are MUCH stiffer and more usable on the new 200-500. So much so that most users won't HAVE to replace it with a 3rd party foot (unless they want a foot with built-in Arca-Swiss compatibility). Note that the rotating lens collar has markings every 90 degrees, but does not have detents at these points (like the Sigma Sport does, which is something I really like). Note that the tripod foot is of a reasonable size and "profile" - all but someone with gorilla hands could use it as a handle, but it isn't so big and "deep" that it make the lens a lot harder to transport (and it does come off).

Hand-holdability? This attribute combines VR function, lens weight and balance, total weight, and more. I need to spend much more time with the lens before I can comment definitively on this, but it seems good so far and I've had great success hand-holding this lens at moderate shutter speeds so far. Stay tuned for more on this.

3. Optical Quality - Preliminary Findings and Thoughts...

OK...given I'm just really starting into my testing so I have to be careful here! I'll start with my most general findings and thoughts and then get into a few specifics...

Up to about 350mm it is very hard to find major sharpness differences between all the zoom lenses being compared here (the two Sigma 150-600's, the Tamron 150-600, the Nikkor 80-400, and the Nikkor 200-500). You need to do some MAJOR pixel-peeping to detect sharpness differences. I found this to be the case at both subject-to-camera distances (5.7m and 17m) that I tested the lenses at. That being said, at 200mm I would rank the Nikkor 80-400 as the sharpest of the lot, with the Sigma Sport 150-600 nipping extremely closely at its heels, and, in turn, with the Nikkor 200-500 nipping at the heels of the Sigma Sport (and virtually just as sharp at 200mm). The Sigma Contemporary and the Tamron aren't far off at 200mm either!

At 400mm and 500mm things begin to separate out (and I found this to be true at both 5.7m and 17m subject distances) - suddenly the 80-400mm falls off in sharpness (a lot relative to the other lenses). So...sharpest at both 400 and 500mm is the Sigma Sport. It's REAL sharp. BUT, the 200-500 again nips at its heels and is hardly any softer. The Sigma Contemporary comes in a little further back at 3rd sharpest, and the Tamron is noticeably softer again at both 400mm and 500mm. And, right at 400mm the 80-400 is softer again (zoom back to 380mm or so and it's good, but zoomed right out to 400mm and it's soft).

Compared to primes? At the subject distance of 5.7m I brought the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF and the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR into the testing. Owners of these lenses can now take a sigh of relief. Both primes produced images that were instantly recognizable as sharper. And the difference in sharpness between the primes and the sharpest zoom (the Sigma Sport 150-600) was greater than between the 4 closest-competing lenses in this test (the 200-500, the two Sigmas, and the Tamron). Don't take this to mean the zooms are all soft - they aren't. It's just that the 300mm f4 PF and the 400mm f2.8E VR are crazy sharp.

The Nikon 200-500 Shot Wide Open?'s an interesting and significant finding - in all my testing and "just shooting" with the Nikon 200-500 I have found it retains MOST of its sharpness when shot wide open. While it is very slightly sharper at f6.3 and a tiny bit more at f7.1, it is pretty much at maximum sharpness by f7.1 (2/3 of a stop down from wide open). Context? I won't hesitate to shoot this lens wide open at ANY focal length.

For visual context, here's one sample image of a rapidly-moving subject shot at 500mm and f5.6 (wide open). All tech notes included on the image.

• Nikkor 200-500 @ 500mm and f5.6: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.7 MB)

Out-of-Focus (OOF) Zones? my view the quality of the OOF zones (sometimes called bokeh) is not paid enough attention to in most reviews. It may be because it's a subjective characteristic and hard to quantify. But it's my belief that when one is looking at an image, the combination of OOF zones and sharpness interact to affect perception of that image (so with smooth and buttery OOF zones the sharp zones appear sharper). Anyway...I've paid EXTREME attention to the quality of the OOF zones in my scrutiny of the images I've shot with this lens so far (and in comparison to the other lenses). My conclusion? The quality of the OOF zones of the Nikon 200-500 (at all focal lengths, and at all apertures) is the BEST of all the zooms being tested. By a big margin. And, they're almost as "smooth and buttery" as the primes (when comparing the same apertures). Well done there Nikon.

What about the bokeh on the other lenses in this test? Overall the Sigma Sport 150-600 came in second, followed by the Sigma Contemporary. The Tamron was a little further behind. And this might surprise some, but at ALL focal lengths and apertures the most "jagged" (twitchy" or "nervous") of the OOF zones was DEFINITELY found on the Nikkor 80-400. I LIKE the Nikkor 80-400 and it is a sharp lens up to about 380mm (and really sharp at 200mm and below), but the quality of its OOF zones is anything but impressive.

Focus-breathing? Interesting finding here - at a subject distance of 5.7m most modern Nikon zooms (and 3rd party zooms) exhibit a LOT of focus breathing, and can lose up to about 25% of their focal length (so at 400mm on the lens ring they're actually in the 300mm range). Interestingly, off ALL the zooms in this test the 200-500 definitely showed the least focus breathing (and the 80-400 showed the most). In fact, when I compare the images from the 200-500mm shot at 300mm with those of the 300mm f4 PF and the images of the 200-500mmm shot at 400mm with those of the 400mm f2.8E VR, there is only very, very little apparent loss of focal length (note that even prime lenses can exhibit focus-breathing, but usually show much less than most modern zoom lenses).


i. The write-up of my final field test for the 200-500 will contain a LOT of image samples to back up these points.

ii. I still have a lot of systematic testing to do on the 200-500, including its performance at longer distances to subject (where some zooms start to falter). Those who shoot distant subjects a lot should wait for these results before making any purchase decisions.

4. Autofocus Performance

I still need to do a lot of systematic testing before I can say anything definitive about the AF performance. Subjectively it feels fast and accurate (and it SEEMS to be working great on my preliminary "just shooting" sessions with my fast-moving dogs), but stay tuned for more on this.

5. VR Performance

Same as above with AF performance - nothing definitive yet and I need to test this more thoroughly (at this point I wouldn't have detected problems or malfunctions similar to the one that was so prevalent on the 300mm f4 PF VR). Super "solid" looking VR though the viewfinder, but that really doesn't tell one too much. Stay tuned for more info.

SO...where are we at right now in terms of any form of overall recommendation on the 200-500? A cautionary green light - meaning that this lens is already FAR exceeding my own expectations in performance and handling. If the lens continues to test well (at longer distances to subject) and maintains this level of performance over time and doesn't turn out to be a "dust-sucker" and repels moisture and humidity even reasonably well...hey...full green light on it!

Being very specific now - with what I've learned, and if I had to make a decision between the 3 closest-competing lenses discussed in this blog entry, (the new Nikkor 200-500, the Sigma Contemporary 150-600, and the Tamron 150-600) I would choose the Nikon 200-500. How about between new Nikkor 200-500 and the Nikkor AF-S 80-400? To me they're different enough in size and function to keep both, but if one already owns a quality 70-200 (e.g., the Nikkor 70-200mm f4 or f2.8) I'd say this: why keep the 80-400? And what about the Nikkor 200-500 vs. the Sigma Sport 150-600mm? Well...despite the increased weight and increased cost, so far the Sigma Sport 150-600 is staying in my kit!

Note that next week I leave to lead back-to-back photo tours in the Great Bear Rainforest on the central BC coast. The 200-500 will be coming with me, and after that I'll be able to make a very well-informed comment on its ability to repel moisture and humidity! RAINforest!



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18 September 2015: On the Firmware Update to the Sigma Sport 150-600mm Ultra-zoom...

Way back on September 4 Sigma provided owners of the Nikon version of their still "newish" 150-600mm (Sport version) ultra-zoom lens. According to Sigma the firmware "...improves focusing performance when Continuous servo (AF-C) is in use." More information on the firmware update can be found here.

I have updated the firmware on my own copy of the lens. Here's a few comments that current owners (and potential owners) of the lens may find useful:

1. The firmware upgrade requires that the user owns or has access to Sigma's USB Dock UD-01 and has Sigma's "Optimization Pro" software installed on their computer. For those who haven't seen the USB Dock - it attaches to the BACK end of the lens and looks simply like a teleconverter with a USB cable attached to it. The USB Dock UD-01 isn't included with the lens (which I find a bit odd personally) - it must be purchased separately (it's in the $50-$70 range).

2. Despite having the 150-600mm lens (and the dock) for several months, the firmware update was my first use of the dock and the Sigma Pro Optimization software. Long story short - the firmware update procedure was incredibly simple and slick. For the record, the ability of the lens to have its software/firmware (and a limited number of its settings customized) updated via the use of the USB Dock had ZERO to do with my decision to purchase the lens. But, now that I have gone through one firmware update cycle, I have to say that I think the ability to update the lens in this fashion IS a good idea. Well done Sigma.

3. MOST importantly, does the firmware update improve the AF performance of the lens? At this point I can only qualitatively answer this question. Note that the aspect of the autofocus performance of the lens that this firmware is supposed to improve - the Continuous servo (AF-C) mode - is the mode I use on all my cameras almost ALL the time. And, the instant I put the "updated lens" on my D4s the improvement in AF performance was noticeable. Before the update I found that the AF system "lagged" a little when one quickly moved from one subject to another at a different distance from the camera. Now, the lens refocuses much quicker - so much so that I would now call it "snappy".

A few important and relavant notes are needed here. First, at this point I can't quantify the improvement in the AF performance with this firmware update - my comments are qualitative in nature. Second, what I have noticed in quicker re-focusing of the lens while moving from subject-to-subject may or may not translate into improved focus-tracking of a moving subject. Logically one would assume it would, but I can't make a firm comment on that. I will attempt to repeat some focus-tracking testing I performed with the lens in the past and see if quantifiable improvements are apparent. If/when I get around to doing this I'll report my findings here.

4. If one doesn't already own the USB Dock does this firmware upgrade justify purchasing it? In my view - yes.



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03 September 2015: A Q&D Comparison of Sigma's Two 150-600mm Ultra-zooms

Many regular visitors to this blog know I have been extensively testing (and using) the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom for months. Several of my findings and experiences have been reported earlier in this blog (easily accessed by scrolling down) - and I have a lot more comparisons still to present. But I've made no secret of the fact that I'm very impressed with the Sigma Sport 150-600 - I like its build quality, optical quality, AF and OS (Optical Stabilization) performance and its overall usability. Yep, it's heavy compared to a 70-200, but real light compared to most 600's! I've also made no secret of the fact that I much prefer the Sigma Sport 150-600mm to the Tamron 150-600mm.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to spend about 45 minutes or so with the Contemporary version of the Sigma 150-600mm zoom, including snapping off some hand-held comparison shots (I had my Sigma Sport with me at the time, along with my D750). So here are some very anecdotal thoughts about how the two lenses compare - if you will...a Quick and Dirty (Q&D) comparison.

1. Build Quality Impressions: The build quality of the Contemporary 150-600mm surpassed my expectations - I had assumed it would be on the lines of the Tamron 150-600mm. Nope. Much closer to the build quality of the Sigma Sport 150-600 - all moving parts were snug with no play and the finish was simply better than that of the Tamron. Zoom ring and AF ring moved very smoothly, and I liked that the Contemporary version of the lens had the same "soft-lock" of all the numerically indicated focal lengths (meaning you can lock it at various focal lengths but just twist a little harder and the zoom ring releases). In my view it simply didn't feel cheap or "plasticky" - I can't say the same about the Tamron.

2. Size and Weight Impressions: OK - here's a place where the Sigma Contemporary and Tamron lenses are similar - BOTH feel much lighter (and are a little shorter) than the Sigma Sport 150-600. Handling either the Sigma Contemporary150-600mm OR the Tamron 150-600mm feels somewhat like handling Nikon's AF-S 80-400mm VR (though the 80-400 is shorter). In contrast, handling the Sigma Sport 150-600mm feels much more like handling Nikon's 200-400mm f4 VR (and somewhat like handling their 500mm f4 VR). I can't stress enough how much variation in importance there is between users on the size and weight differences in these lenses - I know of several people who bought and then returned the Sigma Sport 150-600mm solely because of its weight. Personally it matters very little to me. Each to their own. But be forewarned that the three lenses in question here (the two Sigmas and the Tamron) DO handle signficantly differently.

3. Thoughts on Optical Quality? OK - I'm not even going to pretend I performed an exhaustive optical field test of the two Sigma lenses. I did do some systematic comparisons and I'm fairly confident that the main trends I noticed would hold up under more rigorous testing, but I'm not about to submit these results to a scientific journal for publication!'s what I found when comparing the two Sigma 150-600mm lenses (and if you're interested in how I captured these comparison shots just scroll down to the "What I Did" section immediately below):

A. Image Sharpness: No obvious difference from 150mm to 300mm. Both looked really sharp, even at 200% magnification. However at 400mm and longer the Sport model definitely had an edge in sharpness, and that edge in sharpness increased with increasing focal length. So at 400mm the difference was visible, but not huge. But at 500mm was more noticeable, and by 600mm very noticeable.

B. Quality of Out-of-Focus (OOF) Zones (or "bokeh"): Now this is interesting...the Sigma Sport images DEFINITELY had smoother out-of-focus zones at ALL focal lengths. Even at 150mm there was a pretty big difference in the bokeh at f5.6. And while the difference in OOF zones decreased a little when I stopped down, it was still even visible at f11 (at 150mm). Although differences in OOF zones are hard to quantify, I'd describe the OOF zones of the Sigma Sport as quite smooth and almost buttery (NOT as buttery as you'd see on a 400mm f2.8, but pretty good). In comparison, the OOF zone of the Contemporary version of the lens seemed almost "jittery" or nervous, and much more distracting (at least to super anal folks like me).

Note that many users pay much less attention to the quality of the OOF zones than they do to image sharpness. I pay a LOT of attention to the quality of OOF zones. And, it's one (of many) reasons I really like the Sigma Sport lens (while I find the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zooms almost identical in image sharpness at all overlapping focal lengths, the OOF zones of the Sigma Sport are definitely more pleasing to my eye).

C. What I Did - My Q&D Image Quality Comparison Protocol:

i. Subject: A "No Parking" sign about 25 meters away. There were lots of out-of-focus objects from immediately behind the sign through to about 300 meters behind. Note that when using a sign like this (with clear, hard-edged black type on a white surface) it's REAL EASY to see any difference in image sharpness.

ii. I took bursts of 3 shots at the target at each focal length and aperture.

iii. Focal lengths shot with each lens: 150mm, 300mm, 400mm, 500mm, 600mm

iv. Apertures I shot at: wide open (so varied from f5.6 to f6.3), f8, and f11.

v. So...with each lens I shot a burst of 3 shots at f5.6 at 150mm, then 3 shots at f8 at 150mm, then 3 shots at f11 at 150mm, etc., with all focal lengths listed above.

vi. All shots were hand-held and taken with Auto ISO set to AUTO SHUTTER SPEED with a shutter speed the double of 1/focal length (so at 150mm the shots were at 1/320 sec, etc.).

vii. All shots with Optical Stabilization ON and in OS1 mode.

So there you go - take it for what you think it's worth. Note that I have no plans to systematically or extensively field test the Sigma Contemporary 150-600mm zoom. I DO have the new AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR en route and I will be extensively testing that lens against several other lenses, including the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm VR AND the Sigma Sport 150-600mm (as well as against some key prime lenses at selected focal lengths). If I can lay my hands on a copy of the Sigma Contemporary 150-600 when I'm testing the Nikkor 200-500 I may add it in for selected comparisons, but that Sigma zoom will NOT be the focus of extensive testing itself (hey, I have only so much time, and I'm really not that interested in the Sigma Contemporary lens for my own uses).



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31 August 2015: Update on Sigma's OWN Arca-swiss Lens Collar and Foot...

Way back on August 4th I posted an entry regarding why I had chosen to use a 3rd-party Arca-swiss compatible foot on my Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom rather than Sigma's own "Tripod Socket TS-81" replacement foot. Long story short, the reasons were twofold: the availability of the foot in Canada and the large size of it (and the impact that could have on the lens fitting into my preferred camera pack).

As it turns out, there may be another reason to seek out a 3rd-party foot for the Sigma Sport 150-600mm lens - full Arca-swiss compatibility! Here's an excerpt from an email I received from Roman B. from New York City regarding his experience with Sigma's TS-81 replacement foot:

As most of us, I wanted TS-81 mostly because of its Arca-swiss compatibility. I must admit I really hated the whole idea of Sigma releasing a replacement for their very own and brand new lens foot and charging so much money for it (12% of the cost of the lens!!!). Since I didn't particularly like an additional plate attached to the original foot, I gave it a try.

My first impressions were very positive. Solidly built, good looking. At the same time - quite heavy (but so is the lens). When attached to the lens, it's taller then the original one, but thanks to this height reversed hood fits easily underneath. And you can easily carry the lens even when wearing thick gloves.

As I said, I wanted this foot mainly because it had the Arca-swiss style groove. And here's the problem. TS-81 is NOT COMPATIBLE with my RRS clamps, not working with Jobu gimbals, either. It looks like it's just a fraction of a mm too low, sometimes even a piece of thick paper underneath solves the problem (of course not a viable and very dangerous solution). As a consolation, it DOES work fine with AcraTech Long Lens head...I decided to keep it.

Note that I received this email in early August, and since then I have received another email from a European photographer who found the exact same thing as Roman describes above - imperfect Arca-swiss compatibility. Please also note that I have no way of knowing if this problem is a quality-control issue and that only some of the TS-81's are affected or if it is a design problem and they all are affected. And, I have no way of knowing if Sigma has discovered the problem and is in the process of (or have already accomplished) correcting the problem. So at this point simply think of this as a "Buyer Beware: Use Caution" message.

My thanks are extended to Roman B. for providing this detailed explanation of the problem with the TS-81 replacement foot.



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09 July 2015: Which New Nikkor Super-telephoto Is Best For You - 400mm, 500mm, or 600mm?

NOTE: This entry is written by a wildlife photographer TO other wildlife photographers. Sports photographers may find some aspects of it useful and/or applicable, but they are not the primary target audience.

About a week ago Nikon announced the update of both their 500mm and 600mm f4 lenses. The updated features on these lenses mirrored those on the previously updated 400mm f2.8 VR lens and included a major drop in lens weight (largely accomplished through the use of fluorite lens elements), an improved Vibration-Reduction (VR) system, and use of an electromagnetic diaphragm that helps ensure exposure consistency when shooting at high frame rates.

Over the last week I've received a large numbers of emails asking me the same question:

"If I can buy only ONE of these super-telephotos, which should it be?"

This is a good question, but it's one that's absolutely impossible to give a "one-size-fits-all" answer to. But...I'm going to attempt to point out the variables that I think are important to consider in choosing the right one for you. For the record I have NOT shot with the new versions of each of the lenses. However, I owned and had extensive field experience with the previous "G" versions of both the 400mm f2.8 VR and the 600mm f4 VR AND while I don't (and didn't) own the 500mm f4 VR, I have shot with it extensively. Moreover, as soon as I could lay my hands on it, I acquired the new 400mm f2.8E VR and exhaustively field tested and compared it against the G version of the lens it replaced (feel free to read my blog entry entitled "Duelling 400mm Super-Primes: The 400mm f2.8G VR vs. the 400mm f2.8E VR" if you're interested in how those lenses compare). Because the updates on the new 500mm and the new 600mm exactly parallel those Nikon made when upgrading the 400mm, I think it's quite fair to assume that the performance and "usability" differences I experienced in going to the new 400mm will be at least similar to those when one goes to the new 500mm and 600mm lenses. In my 02 July 2015 blog entry (just scroll down a little) I rate the relative importance of the updated features on the 400mm f2.8E...and I would be very surprised if this list differs with the 500mm f4E or the 600mm f4E.

In my attempt to provide guidance in selecting the best Nikkor super-telephoto for you I'll start with a listing of the hard, physical facts, and then delve into more subjective considerations.

I. Tale of the Tape (and the Scales)

The first "bullet point" Nikon is emphasizing about all 3 of their new super-telephotos (and quite rightly so) is their reduction in weight. The previous versions of the lenses WERE really heavy and considerably heavier than the "other brand's" comparable lenses. The new 500mm f4E is estimated at 770 gm (1.7 lb) lighter than the lens it's replacing and the new 600mm f4E reportedly comes in 1450 gm (3.2 lb) lighter than the lens it replaces. Note that these reported weight-savings are likely quite accurate - I found that the weight-saving on my own 400mm 2.8E came in slightly GREATER than Nikon claimed.

Anyway - here are the hard numbers:

A. Lens Weight (without hood)

• 400mm f2.8E: 3800 gm (8.37 lb)
• 500mm f4E: 3090 gm (6.81 lb)
• 600mm f4E: 3810 gm (8.40 lb)

B. Lens Length (without hood)

• 400mm f2.8E: 358mm (14.09")
• 500mm f4E: 387mm (15.24")
• 600mm f4E: 432 mm (17.0")

In summary - the 500mm is the lightest of the three, and the 400mm is the shortest. Not surprisingly, the 600mm is the longest and heaviest of them.

II. Subjective Considerations

A. It's About Lens USABILITY:

For some, this point is absolute common sense. At the end of the day, which of the 3 lenses is best for you is the one that provides the greatest usability to YOU (that's YOU, not some famous pro wildlife photographer, not your best buddy, not me, etc.). I see many photographers who check MTF curves and buy lenses based primarily off those numbers. I think this approach - especially with super-telephotos - is seriously flawed. MTF curves MAY give you an idea of what a given lens can theoretically produce, but is only poorly correlated with what any given user will actually realize in a field setting.

Every single super-telephoto user differs in how they use their lenses and cameras (and, of course, in their stature and physical abilities, chosen subject matter, style, and more). Recognizing and acknowledging these variables and choosing the most appropriate lens for you will be more important in determining the quality of the final output (and how much you end up actually using the lens) than will MTF curves.

B. Lens Reach

How important a variable is lens reach (or total magnification)? This totally depends on your subject's size, how close you can get to it, your style and more. Every wildlife photographer will differ in these variables. My personal view is that wildlife photography is about SO MUCH MORE than just getting close to your subject - I don't believe "closer is always better". I do believe reach IS important up to 400mm (meaning, you need to get to 400mm to really get in the game of wildlife photography), but after 400mm other factors can play a larger factor than reach alone. And, of course, among these super-telephotos, more reach will always mean "longer lens to carry" and "heavier lens to carry" (with the obvious exception of the 400mm f2.8, which IS heavier than the 500mm f4).

A note to wildlife photographers focused on documentary shooting and/or species "listing": I recognize that there are a "not insignificant" number of wildlife photographers who primarily or solely use their shots to confirm or document that they have seen a particular species of wildlife (especially birds). Even though this isn't my type of wildlife photography there is, of course, nothing at all wrong with this (different strokes - right?). For these type of photographers absolute reach and magnification may be a dominant concern. I get it. If you are this type of shooter and absolutely rolling in dough then the Nikkor 800mm f5.6 VR may be a great lens for you (really). If you're not rolling in dough, then perhaps the best lenses for you could be either the Tamron 150-600mm zoom or the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom (the latter is an absolutely excellent lens - and a great value proposition).

C. Subject Isolation vs. DoF Control

One reason folks (including me) are willing to fork out $10K plus for a super-telephoto prime is their ability to nicely isolate a subject from its surroundings (with the optical quality and sharpness of some new zooms - like the Sigma Sport 150-600, this may the only real reason left to fork out the big dollars!). Of course, for any given aperture (e.g., f4) the ability to separate the subject from the background directly varies with focal length - so you can isolate a subject better with a 500mm than a 400mm, and better with a 600mm than with a 500mm.

BUT...the shallow Depth-of-Field (DoF) associated with those long focal lengths also means that you have little in focus in the foreground - and that as you go to longer and longer focal lengths, you have a harder and harder time controlling (or "optimizing") your DoF. What this can mean in the field is that as focal length goes UP, you have a tough time ensuring you have enough foreground in focus (and aren't just left with 3 distinct "bands" in your photos - an out-of-focus foreground zone, an in-focus mid-ground, and an out-of-focus background). So keep in mind that as focal length increases, you're going to have a harder time controlling how you use your DoF and balance out (or optimize) how you use in-focus and out-of-focus zones.

Full stop: there are MANY wildlife photographers who probably don't care about optimizing their DoF in their photos. If so, they can forget about this point! Those who might be intrigued by this issue should have a look at this discussion in the "Techniques" section of this website: "Subject Dominance - Just how Big?" (this section discusses how DoF concerns vary between Animalscapes, Enviroscapes, and Active Portraits).

D. Real-world Teleconverter Usability

Years ago - when I primarily shot wildlife with the Nikkor 200-400mm VR (a lens which did poorly with teleconverters) - I didn't think teleconverter (or TC) performance with a lens was much of a concern. When I purchased the 200mm f2 VR and happened to try a 1.4x TC on it, I was blown away with the image quality that the resultant "faux" 280mm f2.8 lens could provide. Since then, I have made it a practice to always check out the optical performance and "real-world usability" of teleconverters, especially on prime lenses.

What have I found? That optical performance, autofocus (AF) performance and overall real-world usability (including how easy it is to hand-hold lenses when paired up with teleconverters) varies dramatically between lenses. In particular, I've found that the f2.8 aperture of the 400mm f2.8 VR (either the G or E version) contributes to making that lens incredibly "teleconverter-friendly" - with excellent optical and autofocus performance with either the 1.4x TC's (both the TC-14EII or the TC-14EIII) or the newer 2x TC (i.e., the TC-20EIII). 400mm f2.8E VR becomes an excellent 550mm f4E VR with the TC-14EII or TC-14EIII and a professional-level 800mm f5.6E VR with the TC-20EIII.

BUT...can't you use TC's with the OTHER two super-telephotos lenses? Yes, of course you can. BUT, their versatility and usability isn't nearly as high. The f4 aperture of these lenses means that you'll experience diminished AF performance overall when used with the 2x TC-20EIII (on any Nikon body, including those that have some f8-compatible focus brackets) and even with the TC-14EII (or TC-14EIII) you'll find them harder to use (than the 400mm f2.8E plus 1.4x TC is).

Here's a particular example to illustrate what I mean. I've been asked a number of times which way I prefer to get into the 800mm focal range - is it a 400mm f2.8 plus TC-20EIII (800mm) or a 1.4x TC on the 600mm f4 VR (840mm)? No doubt in my mind (I've done these tests a number of times) - I prefer the 400mm f2.8 plus the 2x TC. Why? The length and weight (and I acknowledge that the NEW 600mm is lighter) of the 600mm plus 1.4x TC means most users (including me) will have to shoot that combination off a tripod to get decent results. But..for whatever reason (shorter total length, better VR??) I can easily hand-hold the 400mm plus 2x TC. Optical quality? Again, I've got better results out of the 400mm plus 2x TC than the 600mm plus 1.4x TC.

Here are a few images I've captured over the last month (in late May and early June 2015) using the 400mm f2.8E VR plus TC-20EIII. All are hand-held from a floating Zodiac:

• 400mm f2.8E & TC-20EIII on D750 (ISO 1600): The Contender (JPEG: 2.3 MB)
• 400mm f2.8E & TC-20EIII on D4s (ISO 800): Just Pissed! (JPEG: 1.9 MB)
• 400mm f2.8E & TC-20EIII on D4s (ISO 9000): Bug Off! (JPEG: 1.6 MB)

Bottom line? With the 400mm f2.8E I have found (and I think others will find) that they have high real-world usability (and can get quality output with) BOTH 1.4x and 2c TC's. With both the 500mm and 600mm lenses you'll have decent real-world usability with the 1.4x TC, but the f8 maximum aperture when paired with the 2x TC will very much limit the usability of that teleconverter.

E. Autofocus or Image Quality Differences?

As I mentioned in my blog entry of 02 July, I haven't been able to find any significant autofocus or image quality differences between the E and G versions of the 400mm f2.8 lens. I can't say definitively this will be the case with the new 500mm and 600mm lenses (i.e., that there will be no difference in AF performance or image quality between new and old versions of the lenses), but I think it's quite likely.

So...what have I found when using the OLD versions of the 400mm f2.8, 500mm f4, and 600mm f4 lenses in the field? First, that they're all incredibly good. Second, that when working the way I do in the field (which means a LOT of hand-holding of the lenses), I get a higher proportion of tack sharp shots with the 400mm f2.8 than I do with the 500mm or the 600mm f4 lenses. This finding includes when I'm shooting static or moving subjects - which probably is an indication of the combined effect of both realized image quality and autofocus differences (in a field setting). And, when working with distant subjects/scenes (1 km or more away) I have definitely found the 400mm to have the best resolving power (fine image detail).

F. Consequences of Lens Size and Weight

Even though the new versions of all 3 super-telephotos are far lighter than their precursors, they're still darned heavy (and long) lenses. For many users, this will mean all 3 will have to be used primarily from tripods. While lens weight isn't the only determinant on their "hand-holdability", the fact that the 500mm is around 1.6 lbs lighter than the other two lenses will mean that more folks will be able to hand-hold it than the other two lenses. Some users will be able to effectively hand-hold all 3. Bottom line - if "hand-holdabilty" is important to you, find a way to test the lenses before you buy them.

What about carrying weight? If you hike with your big lenses - or are even forced to carry them around all day at various shooting locations (like at sporting events) - then the 1.6 lb savings in weight of the 500mm may have huge appeal to you.

What about lens length? Depending on the camera case and/or pack you have (or can get) this may be important to you. There's only about 74 mm (3") in total length difference between the shortest of these (the 400mm) and the longest (the 600mm), so lens length is probably not a critical issue for most users...

III. And the Verdict Is?

By now most readers should realize that Nikon makes 3 different super-telephotos for a reason - there's a market for all of them! Each lens has its strong points and/or assets, and each has weak points (compared to the other two). But, overall, I most wildlife photographers would be best served by - and get the most use out of - the new 500mm f4E VR. I think the combination of its "mid" focal length and much lighter weight makes for a really nice super-telephoto package, and "optimal" for most wildlife photographers. The 500mm f4E VR is what I'd recommend for most wildlife photographers.

My own choice? Hey, I'll live with the heavier weight and opt for my own perception of slightly higher image quality (as found in my own real-word shooting) and the teleconverter "friendliness" of the 400mm f2.8E. The 400mm f2.8E VR is MY first choice in a super-telephoto for wildlife photography. Do as I say and not as I do? I guess so! ;-)



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07 July 2015: Hand-holding the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR vs. the 300mm f2.8 VRII

WARNING: Boring alert! The meticulous and patient types will find some really good info in this LONG entry, but those looking only for a quick sound-bite that you don't have to think about should go back to Twitter right now. ;-)

As a full-time professional wildlife photographer who is often in situations where tripods aren't practical to use, I'm always striving to find out the limits of "hand-holdability" of the lenses at my disposal. Said another way, it's important for me to know just how slow of a shutter speed I can go to with a given lens (and camera) and still get sharp output. When I took delivery of Nikon's new 300mm f4 PF VR a few months back its small size and light weight - along with its use of the latest vibration-reduction technology - instantly made me wonder how low of a shutter speed I could hand-hold this lens down to and still get sharp results. And, of course, I wondered how that shutter speed would compare to what I can hand-hold the legendary 300mm f2.8 VRII at.

So...that lead to several very boring sessions of shooting bursts of shots at static subjects while hand-holding the 300mm f4 PF VR and the 300mm f2.8 VRII at shutter speeds varying from 1/1000s to 1/10s in one-third stop increments. To make matters worse (and because I've always believed that pixel-pitch influences the shutter-speed at which one can successfully hand-hold a given lens), I made this exercise 3-times as boring by doing it with 3 different Nikon DSLR's - a D4s, a D800e, and a D7200. Of course, the scrutinizing of the resulting several thousand images proved to be dramatically MORE boring than actually shooting them! But...I have to say the effort was worth it for me - I now have a great understanding of the limits to which I can push the 300mm f4 PF VR (and the 300mm f2.8 VRII) on each of my cameras. The exercise also gave me a really good understanding of the difference in the VR Normal and VR Sport modes found on the new 300.

Before I go any further, there's a few very important points I have to make...

Background Info and Important Caveats...

• Nikon (and other lens-makers) often characterize the quality of the image-stabilization systems in their lenses by describing their effectiveness compared to having NO stabilization. So they use statements like "...VR image stabilization counteracts camera shake and vibration up to 4.0 stops...". This probably makes sense from a marketing and "normalization" perspective (so I won't criticize it), but what really matters to me is knowing the shutter speed at which I can hand-hold a given lens at. And that's what this test was designed to do.

• The slowest shutter speed at which an individual can hand-hold any given lens at and still get sharp results is determined by many variables, and the quality of image-stabilization system is only ONE of these variables. Other factors include lens weight (and lighter isn't ALWAYS better), balance of the lens-camera system (which is one of the reasons I instantly add a battery grip to all camera bodies that I use medium- to long-telephotos with), focal length of the lens, shooting technique, strength of the shooter (especially with the heavier telephoto lenses), and more. So technically this is a test of lens "hand-holdability" - not VR function.

• Like many (or most) wildlife shooters, I tend to shoot in bursts of 2-4 shots when working with static subjects (if I'm shooting action those bursts can be considerably longer). If my subject does NOTHING between shots (e.g., doesn't move, doesn't change its position, etc.), all I really need out of a burst is ONE tack-sharp shot. But...the act of shooting in bursts has one more relevant consequence to this discussion - some image-stabilization modes result in the subject's position within the viewfinder "jumping around" quite a bit between successive frames in a burst, even if the camera/lens doesn't move at all. This bouncing or jumping around - which I often jokingly refer to as the "herky-jerky" factor - can be extreme enough with some lenses (or VR modes) to result in a major (and unintentional) re-framing of the subject (to the point where, if tightly framed, some of it may even but cut off). So I was curious about the performance of the VR systems (and modes) when I shot in bursts - and that's something I've never seen anyone actually comment on (in any detail at all). Because it reflects quite closely how I actually shoot, I chose to do all tests utilizing 4-shot bursts.

• Because the ability to successfully hand-hold lenses can vary significantly between photographers, the absolute values I report below have very little generalizability - you may find you can hand-hold the lenses in question at far slower shutter speeds than I can (or did) or you may require higher shutter speeds. But I'm quite confident that the trends I report below accurately reflect my findings and have some degree of generalizability.

So...with that all in mind, I set about checking out the "hand-holdability" of the 300mm f4 PF VR and the 300mm f2.8 VRII with the goal of answering the following questions:

1. What shutter speeds can I hand-hold these two lenses at (with the cameras I commonly use) and still get sharp shots? And, I wanted to know what those slowest shutter speeds were in two different scenarios:

A. The shutter speed at which virtually ALL SHOTS taken are tack sharp and...
B. the shutter speed at which at least one shot in a burst of 4 is tack sharp.

2. What is the real-world difference between VR Normal mode and VR Sport mode on the 300mm f4 PF VR (and when should I use each mode)?

3. Do the "slowest" usable shutter speeds differ among the various cameras I'm currently regularly using* (the D4s, the D800e, and the D7200)?

4. Does using the VR - or any particular VR mode - have any negative consequences that I have to considering when using the VR or a particular VR mode (such as...perhaps...the jumping of the image around between successive images in a burst)?

*Note that the shooting sessions for this particular blog entry took place before I had acquired a Nikon D750 - thus this camera is excluded from the results.


Please note that in this entry I have intentionally omitted many testing and image scrutinization/categorization protocols that I used during this test. This includes details of the target used, how I classified the images in sharpness, how I tallied them up, yada, yada, yada (see, I'm bored even talking about them). My main reason is simply that I don't think most users will care one little bit. Anyone interested in this kind of detail can email me and I'll give them all the detail they want!

1. VR OFF - Both Lenses

A. Slowest Shutter Speed Needed to Get "Always Tack Sharp" Images: I found that I could consistently get tack sharp images (i.e., all images in a burst tack sharp) with both lenses at very close to the same shutter speed, but that the shutter speed needed did vary among the cameras I was shooting with (see "C" below for exact shutter speeds).

B. Slowest Shutter Speed Needed to Get "One or More Tack Sharp Shots Per Burst": Interestingly, when the VR was turned off I gained less that 1 stop in shutter speed when I loosened my sharpness standard to just one or more sharp shots per burst. This finding was consistent among all 3 cameras tested.

C. Between-Camera Differences? I found that with the VR OFF I needed higher shutter speeds to get tack sharp images (using either the "ALL Tack Sharp" or the looser "At Least One Tack Sharp Per Burst" standard) varied between the cameras as follows:

I. VR OFF - 300mm f4 PF:

• D4s: Always Tack Sharp = 1/400s; One+ (= one or more) Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/320s
• D800e: Always Tack Sharp = 1/500s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/400s
• D7200: Always Tack Sharp = 1/640s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/400s

II. VR OFF - 300mm f2.8 VRII:

• D4s: Always Tack Sharp = 1/400s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/320s
• D800e: Always Tack Sharp = 1/640s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/500s
• D7200: Always Tack Sharp = 1/800s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/500s

TAKE HOME LESSON WITH VR OFF ON BOTH LENSES? For me, the comparatively large weight and/or size difference between the two 300mm lenses had only a small consequence on my ability to hand-hold the lenses with the VR turned off. And, I did find exactly what I had noticed anecdotally before - that there seems to be a correlation between pixel pitch of a given camera and the shutter speed needed to successfully hand-hold lenses with it, with smaller pixel pitches needing somewhat higher shutter speeds to get tack sharp results when hand-holding lenses. Said another way - I could hand-hold the D4s at somewhat slower shutter speeds than either of the two other cameras and at 7.21 microns it has the largest pixel pitch of any of them (pixel pitch of D800e = 4.9 microns, D7200 pixel pitch = 3.89 microns).

2. VR Normal Mode - Both Lenses

A. Slowest Shutter Speed Needed to Get "Always Tack Sharp" Images: Using the Normal VR mode on both lenses I found I could consistently get tack sharp images (i.e., all images in a burst tack sharp) at slightly slower speeds using the 300mm f4 PF VR than I could with the 300mm f2.8 VRII (see "C" below for exact shutter speeds). Note that this trend (ability to use slower shutter speeds with the 300mm f4 PF) was consistent among the cameras used, but that again the shutter speeds needed to get sharp results on the higher resolution cameras (with smaller pixel pitches) was higher.

B. Slowest Shutter Speed Needed to Get "One or More Tack Sharp Shots Per Burst": Now here's where the VR on the 300mm PF VR really started to "show its stuff", particularly when used with the D4s - now I'm down to hand-holding the 300mm f4 PF at 1/30s and still consistently getting 1 or more shots per burst that are absolutely tack-sharp. In contrast, while the shutter speed needed to get only one or more sharp shots per burst did decrease with the 300mm f2.8 VRII (compared to getting ALL shots sharp), it didn't decrease nearly as much as the 300mm f4 PF VR did (compare shutter speeds directly below in part "C").

C. Between-Camera Differences? Same overall finding and trend as with the VR OFF - I needed somewhat higher shutter speeds to get sharp shots with the higher resolution (smaller pixel pitch) cameras. And here's the numbers:

I. VR NORMAL - 300mm f4 PF:

• D4s: Always Tack Sharp = 1/100s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/30s
• D800e: Always Tack Sharp = 1/200s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/80s
• D7200: Always Tack Sharp = 1/250s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/80s

II. VR NORMAL - 300mm f2.8 VRII:

• D4s: Always Tack Sharp = 1/160s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/125s
• D800e: Always Tack Sharp = 1/250s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/160s
• D7200: Always Tack Sharp = 1/320s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/160s

D. The Herky-Jerky Factor? Was there a difference in how much the image jumped around between images in a burst when the two lenses were shot in VR Normal mode? Absolutely - the image jumped around FAR more (tho' I haven't quantified how much and thus this is a qualitative finding) between successive frames with the 300mm f4 PF than with the 300mm f2.8 VRII (and, it should be noted, that I really noticed almost no increase in image movement between frames using any of the VR mode - VR OFF, VR NORMAL, or VR ACTIVE with the 300mm f2.8VRII). The jumping around between successive frames with the 300mm f4 PF VR was quite extreme in VR Normal mode - it was noticeable both through the viewfinder during bursts and when I was scrutinizing the images on my computer.

TAKE HOME LESSON WITH VR NORMAL MODE ON BOTH LENSES? I've had no complaints with the VR performance of the 300mm f2.8 VRII when shot in Normal mode, but the VR Normal mode of the 300mm f4 PF VR definitely enables one to shoot at considerably slower shutter speeds than the 300mm f2.8 VRII (and at almost crazy-slow shutter speeds if all one cares about is getting one sharp shot per burst). But that great VR performance of the 300mm f4 PF VR (in normal mode) comes with a penalty - there is a LOT of jumping around (of the image itself) between frames - so much so that if you have tightly framed your subject or composition the resulting image simply isn't what you had in mind (including possibly cutting off parts of the subject). And, if you're shooting bursts at uber-slow shutter speeds, it could be the ONE shot you get that's tack sharp isn't framed the way you want. Just something to keep in mind with the VR Normal mode of the 300mm f4 PF VR. And - with both lenses - keep in mind that if you're using high resolution cameras (those with smaller pixel pitches), even in VR normal mode you'll likely need higher shutter speeds than the guys shooting with D4s's!

3. VR Sport Mode (300mm f4 PF ONLY)

Because this mode isn't found on the 300mm f2.8VRII it's not possible to make between-lens comparisons here. Of course, what becomes interesting is how the VR Normal mode and the VR Sport mode on the 300mm f4 PF VR compare to one another. So here ya go:

A. Slowest Hand-held Shutter Speeds - VR NORMAL vs. VR SPORT: However you slice and dice the results, the trend is clear - the VR Normal mode permitted hand-holding at slower shutter speeds than the VR Sport mode did. Here are the numbers:

I. VR NORMAL - 300mm f4 PF:

• D4s: Always Tack Sharp = 1/100s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/30s
• D800e: Always Tack Sharp = 1/200s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/80s
• D7200: Always Tack Sharp = 1/250s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/80s

II. VR SPORT - 300mm f4 PF (compare to immediately above):

• D4s: Always Tack Sharp = 1/160s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/80s
• D800e: Always Tack Sharp = 1/250s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/160s
• D7200: Always Tack Sharp = 1/250s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/160s

B. The Herky-Jerky Factor? OK...this is what the VR Sport Mode is all about - incredibly stable (and "smooth") image position between frames in a burst - virtually no jumping between frames at ALL. Just as the extreme "herky-jerkiness" when shooting in VR Normal mode was visible during bursts both through the viewfinder and while scrolling through the images within a burst on the computer, the exact same can be said about the constant between-frame positioning (and lack of image jumping) during a burst when using VR Sport Mode - smooth through the viewfinder and when scrolling through the images in the viewfinder.

TAKE HOME LESSON WITH VR SPORT MODE? If you don't need the high degree of image stabilization of the Normal VR mode (i..e, don't need to use extremely slow shutter speeds) and you want between-shot stability in image composition and/or subject positioning within your frame, then use the VR Sport mode! One situation where I have found this mode extremely useful is when one is shooting the 300mm f4 PF from a tripod with a loose head...though the small size and weight of the lens (along with the fact that the tripod collar is optional) probably means many folks will never place this lens on a tripod.

4. VR Active Mode (300mm f2.8 VRII ONLY)

The VR Active mode of the 300mm f2.8 VRII is found on several other lenses in Nikon's lineup and it's quite well established that this mode is designed to use when there are multiple sources of movement or vibration acting on the camera, and that these movements might be on different planes. So...hand-holding your lens out of a vehicle with the motor running (e.g., a car, a zodiac) or while the user is on an unstable surface (e.g., from a canoe, kayak, zodiac) - that's when you should use VR Active mode. But don't use it when you're panning on a subject.

Note that while this particular VR testing (accomplished when I was standing on a stable surface - the ground) wasn't designed to showcase the advantages of the VR Active mode, it does provide some interesting information:

A. Slowest Hand-held Shutter Speeds - VR NORMAL vs. VR ACTIVE: Is there a difference in image-stabilization capabilities between the VR Normal and VR Active mode of the 300mm f2.8VRII? Actually, very little. Here are the numbers:

I. VR NORMAL - 300mm f2.8 VRII:

• D4s: Always Tack Sharp = 1/160s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/125s
• D800e: Always Tack Sharp = 1/250s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/160s
• D7200: Always Tack Sharp = 1/320s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/160s

II. VR ACTIVE - 300mm f2.8 VRII:

• D4s: Always Tack Sharp = 1/160s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/125s
• D800e: Always Tack Sharp = 1/200s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/125s
• D7200: Always Tack Sharp = 1/320s; One+ Tack Sharp Per Burst = 1/125s

B. The Herky-Jerky Factor? I've already alluded to this above - the amount of movement - or jumping around - between successive frames in the 300mm f2.8VRII is minimal - and I found that in all VR modes. In other words - when looking through the viewfinder or when scrolling through successive images in a burst on my computer, I noticed no difference in herky-jerkiness between any of the VR modes - it appeared about equal with the VR off, in Normal mode, or in Active mode.

TAKE HOME LESSON WITH VR ACTIVE MODE? Unless one is panning (which can result in you almost "fighting" with the position of the subject in the frame as it tries to hold it steady), there is virtually no penalty in using the VR Active mode - it seems to remove about the same amount of camera shake as the VR Normal mode, and there is no appreciable difference in how much the image jumps around between successive frames in a burst (both are very low in herky-jerkiness).


I can hand-hold the 300mm f4 PF at slightly slower shutter speeds than the 300mm f2.8 VRII if my goal is to have EVERY image tack sharp. If ALL I care about is getting at least ONE image from a short burst sharp, then I can hand-hold the 300mm f4 PF down to crazy slow shutter speeds (like 1/30s). If I'm using the 300mm f4 PF and I care a lot about the exact framing of the image - or if I want every image in a burst framed virtually identically - then I'm better off using the very "smooth" Sport mode (unless I'm forced down to those crazy slow shutter speeds, at which point being sharp is probably more important than framing the image exactly as intended). Now that I fully understand the idiosyncrasies of the VR of the 300mm f4 PF (and given that my standard operating procedure IS to shoot in bursts in most cases), I'm finding I just LOVE the capabilities the VR on the 300mm f4 PF - hand-holding a 300mm lens down to 1/30s while regularly getting sharp shots within a short burst is pretty astounding!

And...last but not least...I have to always keep in mind what camera I am using when shooting at very slow shutter speeds with ANY VR lens...and if I select a camera with a very small pixel pitch (like the D800e or the D7200), odds are I'll need a little faster shutter speed than when using my D4s to get absolutely sharp shots...



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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.



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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).



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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.



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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.



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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).



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.



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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.


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'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)


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...



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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.



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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. 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)...



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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).



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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.



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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

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!



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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! ;-)


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 or (or - 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.


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!).


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.


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., 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. 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).


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! 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! ;-)



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

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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).



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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..."



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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)


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? 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!



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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...



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...

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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)? 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.



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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.



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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 - 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



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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!



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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.



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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 - 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



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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!



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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.



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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. 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 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 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!).



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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). 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)


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!



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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). ;-)



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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 " 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. 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)


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!



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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.



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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? ;-)



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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). 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).'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'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!



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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. quality. On the positive side...the build quality seems great - along the lines of Nikon's super-telephotos ( be 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 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'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! ;-)



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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...



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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'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.



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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). 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...



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

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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).



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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.



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.



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

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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 " 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...



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08 Feb 2015: Duelling 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...



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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.



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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!).



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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!



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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!



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

2015 - The Whole Shebang
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