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.

I. 2014 Blog Entries...

23 Oct 2014: Great Bear Rainforest Photo Tours - A Postscript...

I'm back from back-to-back, one-week photo tours in BC's wonderful coastal Great Bear Rainforest - and have had a few days to reflect on the experience (and to begin posting images from the trip in my Gallery of Latest Images). The first of the two trips was almost textbook-perfect - we had as good as weather as one can expect in a RAINforest (and it always seemed to clear up when we left our warm sailboat to venture out in our Zodiac or go ashore), we had great subject matter - from Humpbacks to Spirit Bears and Grizzlies (and more!) the abundant wildlife absolutely performed for us, and we all captured some incredibly memorable images. And - just as importantly - we had some plain old fun (and made some new good friends)!

The second trip offered up much of what we had on the first trip, but the rain god Al Dente (long story there) frowned upon us just a tad (yep, it was real wet!). But all still enjoyed the experience and came away with some excellent photos and stories! Those who came equipped with quality rain-gear (for themselves and their camera gear) - as opposed to sponge-wear (right Bill?) - probably hardly noticed the rain (Ok, maybe that's pushing it a bit...).

Besides the obvious (the amazing scenes, the abundant wildlife, the pristine wilderness, and more!), one of the things I like most about the Great Bear Rainforest is that it gives me an opportunity to see how others' gear (including Canon gear) performs under what can be challenging conditions (mostly due to overall low ambient light and to the fact that conditions and logistics force us to hand-hold telephoto lenses more than we'd normally choose to).

So here's some anecdotal observations and comments on the gear that showed up on my two Great Bear Rainforest photo tours and how it all worked...

1. Camera Systems: In total we had twelve eager photographers on the two trips (plus me) - 4 were Canon shooters, 8 were Nikon shooters, and one was shooting video only. There was a lot of pro gear on the trip, including 3 Canon 1Dx's and 5 Nikon D4s's. The group also had a smattering of 5D Mk III's, D4's, D3s's, D810's and D800e's, D600 and D610's, and even a few cropped sensor cameras (Nikon D7100 and Canon Rebel T5i). As mentioned above the Great Bear Rainforest IS - overall - a very low light environment and both manufacturer's flagship cameras (the D4s and the 1DX) DID stand a head and shoulders above the other cameras (performance-wise) in their respective lineups.

2. D4s vs. 1Dx Shootout! (That's my token tabloid-style photo magazine section heading!). It's important to note that on these photo tours we were NOT systematically testing and comparing cameras, but in many instance D4s shooters were shooting side-by-side with 1DX shooters and, in some instances we took time in the evenings to compare shots. Here's some of the things we noticed...

A. Overall Performance? Both flagship cameras performed virtually flawlessly and none of them "broke down". Both allowed the shooters to capture images that could NOT be captured with other cameras in their respective lineups. And, there were very few instances where either flagship provided a distinct advantage over its competitor.

B. ISO Performance? Please read these comments carefully. At most real-world ISO's (in this case up to about ISO 6400) the two cameras showed ISO performance that I'd describe as a saw-off (i.e., both were amazing). But...once we started wandering into the ISO stratosphere (ISO values of 6400+) the D4s began to pull away. By ISO 10,000 to 12,800 the differences were marked - with the D4s showing less visible noise, better tonal range, and better (= more natural) colour. Between ISO 12,800 through ISO 25,600 the gap widened even more, with the net result that SOME D4s shots in that range were pretty usable (some will be appearing in my Gallery of Latest Images in the near future). But I think the key point to take from what we saw on this trip is this: "At most real-world ISO's the two cameras showed ISO performance that I'd describe as a saw-off" (in other words - how often do you really NEED to shoot at above ISO 6400??).

C. Frame Rates and Buffering Out? Both cameras have blazing fast frame rates - 14 fps in the case of the IDX and 11 fps in the case of the D4s. On these photo tours I saw no situations were the 11 fps vs. 14 fps made any real difference in what was captured (or the number of top-shelf images anyone captured).

But...in a few rare occasions the buffer size and number of sequential captures at fastest frame rate before the cameras slowed down (i.e., buffered out) was noticeable. The situations where this occurred was when we were photographing bubble-netting humpback whales. This is an incredibly unique (and incredibly cool) learned behavior where humpback whales blow a large ring of bubbles below the surface and, as the bubbles travel upward, they form a net that traps small fish (like herring). Then, the whales swim upward and, just before surfacing, open their mouths to scoop up (and strain out) a huge volume of water and fish. The key points for this discussion are that (1) the bubbles of the net are visible from above the surface (so photographers know where to point their cameras), (2) just prior to the whales breaking the surface herring leap out of the water (which is the signal to start shooting), and (3) once the whales surface there is a good 3-4 seconds of high-speed action shooting to do before the whales go below the surface again. And, on several sequences the 1DX cameras buffered out and starting shooting much slower BEFORE the action was over (while the D4s shooters happily clicked along at 11 fps until long after the action was over). Note that both the Canon and Nikon shooters were shooting maximum resolution raw files (14-bit compressed). After noticing this I later tested my D4s to see how many shots it would shoot before buffering out (and slowing down). It was 81 raw images. I didn't test a 1DX, but from what I saw in the field I think it was in the 40-50 image range (I'm sure someone will give me the real answer!).

Does this difference in buffer size and associated "frames captured before buffering out" have any real world significance? Well, you CAN find instances - like once in a while when shooting bubble-netting humpback whales - where the faster buffering out of the 1DX could mean you miss a great shot. But I personally think it would be a non-issue at least 99% of the time...

D. Auto ISO Differences: Many shooters like to manually control their ISO. But, in a place where you have low-light and are forced to hand-hold big lenses a lot, a well-implemented Auto ISO system (and one properly set up and "constrained") can be both liberating and a god-send. And, until a firmware upgrade to the 1DX quite some time ago, Canon didn't "get" Auto ISO. But now they do - and the Auto ISO of the 1DX now works very similarly to that of most current Nikons. But, I did hear one complaint about the Auto ISO of the 1DX (from a well-equipped Canon shooter) - she felt that the shutter speed increments which the system allowed you to choose were too large (they are full stop increments, unlike the 1/3 stop increments found on the Nikons).

3. Canon Lenses: This photo tour is mostly about shooting wildlife and ONE Canon lens dominated in prevalence and use during the trip: 3 of 4 Canon shooters came equipped with Canon's highly-regarded 200-400mm f4 zoom (with built-in 1.4x tele-extender). So...based on this huge sample size I think it's safe to say that now almost 75% of all Canon shooters have this lens. Kidding. But I think it is safe to say that for the right segment of shooters (sports and wildlife photographers), the 200-400 has been very well-received and has sold real well. I saw a LOT of images captured using this lens during the trip and have to say that I was very impressed with what I saw (a lot of very sharp images with good colour and great contrast). I didn't see enough processed shots that were captured with the built-in tele-extender engaged to say anything valid about how well that works - but all 3 users of the 200-400 loved the built-in extender and regularly used it. So I think it's safe to say that Canon had a real good idea when they decided to build the extender in.

4. Nikon Lenses - General: One thing was real obvious on this trip - the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR is fast replacing the AF-S 200-400mm f4 VR as the #1 "go-to" lens for Nikon-shooting wildlife photographers. Five of 8 Nikon shooters came equipped with the 80-400 (and at least 4 of them previously owned the 200-400). The remaining 3 Nikon shooters brought 200-400's as their primary wildlife lens.

Personally I continue to be amazed (and more and more impressed) with the 80-400. Optically excellent, relatively small and light (especially compared to the 200-400), and with a really useful focal range - what's not to like? Here's one anecdote that nicely illustrates why I like the 80-400 so much...

Early on during the first Great Bear photo tour we found a cooperative female Spirit Bear (for those that don't know, Spirit Bears are exceptionally rare white-coated black bears, and one of the key species on my "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" photo tours). After fishing for awhile in a salmon stream, the Spirit Bear sent her two cubs (both black) up a tree and went into the forest to lay down and get some rest. She chose a spot directly across the stream and in almost full unimpeded view). After everyone got set up to shoot images of the bear, I looked for a vantage spot. Eventually I found ONE place where I could get a clear shot of the bear, but it involved standing on tip-toes on a tree root on the edge of the stream and leaning on a slanting tree (supporting myself - as I hung out over the stream - with my left arm). And, given I have only two arms, I had to support and shoot my D4s and AF-S 80-400 in one hand. It was an almost mystical scene...but dark, dark, dark...and I needed to use a very high ISO (11,400) to get a shutter speed (1/400s at f6.3 with 400mm focal length) I could hand-hold with one hand. The result? Well...OK - but not great - but I can't think of another lens I could have used to get the shot...here it is - check it out for yourself:

• Of Mosses & Myths: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.0 MB)

5. Nikon Lenses - The AF-S 400mm f2.8E FL ED VR: Ok, I have a new favorite wildlife lens - the "new and improved" 400mm f2.8E VR. I'll leave most of my comments for my coming review of the lens, but for now I'll say...

• That the 2.2 lb weight reduction was incredibly appreciated (it's still not light, but WAY lighter) and I was WAY less tired after a full day of shooting this lens (than with the previous version of the lens)...

• That the VR IS much better than on the previous version - my ratio of "tack-sharp" images captured while hand-holding this lens (mostly at 1/400s) was significantly higher than with the previous version...

• That the lens performs amazingly well with BOTH the 1.4x TC-14EIII and the 2x TC-20EIII teleconverter, even when hand-holding those combinations. Check out these shots...

• AF-S 400mm f2.8E VR + 1.4x TC - Autumn Eagle: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.0 MB)

• AF-S 400mm f2.8E VR + 2.0x TC - Enter Stage Right: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.0 MB)

In my next entry I'll include comments about how my spanking new AF-S 85mm f1.4G lens worked out as well as some thoughts about properly "suiting up" your body and camera for shooting in REAL rain!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

29 Sept 2014: Off to the Great Bear Rainforest...

I'm off to the northern British Columbia coast to run my annual "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" photo tours. The area we'll be traveling through is quite remote and has no cell phone or internet access - so I'll be offline from now through to about October 20 or so.

I'm anticipating putting my new Nikkor AF-S 400mm f2.8E VR to good use during this trip. I also just picked up another of Nikon's sharpest lenses - the AF-S 85mm f1.4G - and am hoping to run into some great 'scapes to test that lens out on.

In my absence I'm wishing y'all good light, cooperative subject matter and great shooting.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

26 Sept 2014: My Week Field Testing the Nikon D810

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did I find? In a nutshell - this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

22 Sept 2014: The Canon 7D MkII: Nikon - Please Take Note!

Over the last few years the "missing camera" from Nikon's lineup that I've received the most email about (mostly asking if I think Nikon is going to produce it) has been a "flagship" level DX camera. Most refer to it as the D400. For whatever reason, Nikon seems to have decided that pros or serious enthusiasts only want (need?) great FX cameras, and not great DX cameras.

Well Nikon, Canon has made it really easy for you to spec the camera of the dreams of many Nikon shooters - simply take the recently announced 7D MkII and "Nikonify" it. The specs on that camera look just fantastic - exactly what a Nikon-shooting wildlife photographer would want.

During the Nikonification of the 7D Mk II, here's a few things to keep in mind:

Please, please, please don't disable it by putting in a crazy small buffer (think D7100). Minimum of 24-image buffer at fastest frame rate please.

• Please ensure that it is compatible with the batteries in the D4/D4s, at least in the optional battery grip.

• Make sure it can accept the same data cards as the D4/D4s (at least ONE of them overlapping in type - and my vote would be for XQD).

• Eyepiece: round please.

• Make it tough and very well environmentally sealed - preferably with Japanese manufacturing.

A final note - over the years I've had a lot of clients bringing the original 7D on my photo tours into the Great Bear Rainforest. Very commonly, the 7D's have struggled with the moisture, with the majority of them simply failing (until being dried out overnight). This included cameras used with quality rain covers and not directly exposed to any rain (i.e., they shut down due to humidity alone). For the sake of future buyers of the 7D MkII I'm hoping Canon has addressed this issue. And, of course, the Nikonified version should be moisture-resistant too!

Good job Canon. This is one Nikon-shooting wildlife photographer that is more than a little envious of the 7D MkII.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

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

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

1. THE GOOD:

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

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

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

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

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

2. THE BAD:

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

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

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

3. THE HONEST:

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

16 Sept 2014: Late Cancellation Frees Up ONE Spot on 2014 Great Bear Rainforest Photo Tour

I JUST received a last minute cancellation for my coming "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" Instructional Photo Tour. This is one of my hottest selling tours (the 2015 trip is already sold out!) - so if you've dreaming about visiting the Great Bear Rainforest - this is your chance! First-come, first-served on this one.

The trip runs from September 29 to October 8 - and departs from Prince Rupert, BC. All the critical details can be found in this brochure...

Brochure: Into the Great Bear Rainforest Photo Tour (PDF; 1.3 MB)

If you're interested in jumping in on this amazing tour you should email me (pronto!) at: seminars@naturalart.ca

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

15 Sept 2014: The Nikon D750 - And Mixed Feelings...

Like many pro and enthusiast Nikon shooters I was looking forward to the announcement of the D750. Perhaps because Nikon chose to label this camera as a 700 "series" camera I had the expectation that this camera would be positioned similarly to the D700 in its day - as a very able companion camera to someone shooting with their flagship camera as their primary camera. So, I was thinking that the D750 might be to the D4s what the D700 was to the D3 (although perhaps even a better companion as it would offer a higher resolution option to the D4s).

Well - Nikon went and introduced a GREAT all-rounder. My feeling - which I know is shared by many other nature and wildlife photographers - is that with current technology a 24 MP sensor hits a real sweet spot - it can have sufficient high ISO performance for most uses, can have enough resolution and dynamic range for serious landscape use, and is still pretty user friendly (meaning that you can hand-hold it with fairly long telephotos mounted and still get sharp shots at reasonable shutter speeds). So, I was really looking forward to seeing the final specs of the D750. If Nikon did just a few things "right" in the specs we'd finally have a FX camera that would be more-than-adequate for wildlife shooting AND more-than-adequate for landscape (and animalscape) shooting at the same time!. Truth be told, I had pretty much concluded that if just a few key spec criteria were met, THIS camera would replace my D4 as my main companion for my D4s.

So what were those key specs I was looking for that would make the 24 MP D750 a great companion to my D4s? Well...here's what I wanted to see - and please keep in mind when viewing this list that as a pro wildlife shooter who often travels to hard-to-get locations using things like float planes and helicopters, practical concerns like total gear weight and volume constraints do matter to me...and carrying two sets of battery chargers and card readers IS a huge "real-world" issue...

• Frame rate of 8 fps (even if having the optional battery grip was needed to get this - like with the old D700)

• Buffer allowing for at LEAST 20-24 shots at 8 fps for 14-bit lossless compressed raw images

• Battery grip with the option of using the D4/D4s batteries (EN-EL18 or EN-EL18a)

• At least ONE XQD card slot

So...suffice to say I was more than a little disappointed to see 6.5 fps maximum, a 15-image buffer (for 14-bit lossless compressed raws), twin SD card slots, and a grip with no "pro" battery compatibility.

Yep, the D750 IS a real solid looking all-rounder and one who is newly entering the FX world should just love this camera. The right resolution. A great AF system. And - most importantly - it WILL be possible to capture absolutely great shots with it.

But I think this camera is mis-named - it should be called a D650 (thanks to Malcolm from the UK for suggesting this to me). And I think I'll pass on this one.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

15 Sept 2014: Sigma Jumps Into "Hyper-Telephoto" Zoom Arena with TWO 150-600mm Zooms!

It would appear that Sigma wasn't thrilled with the idea of leaving the "hyper-telephoto" zoom market to Tamron - they've just announced not one, but TWO 150-600mm F5-6.3 zoom lenses! Sigma will be offering a more durable and pricier ($2299.95 CAD) "Sport" version and a lighter (and presumably cheaper to compete with Tamron) "Contemporary" version of the 150-600.

Links to information and news releases for both new lenses here:

News for Sigma

Note that way back in August of 2013 I reported on my findings of another of Sigma's Sport lenses that I tested - the 120-300mm f2.8 zoom (2013 Blog here - scroll down to August 13 entry). While I found the autofocus of the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 a little lacking, the image quality was absolutely excellent. Hopefully the Sport version of the 150-600 will be similarly strong optically.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

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

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

1. The Metal Crate Becomes a Plastic Briefcase!

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

2. LENS WEIGHT - the crux of the issue!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Tripod Foot Positioning - A Tweak with Consequences!

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

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

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

5. Lens Length

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

6. Tripod Foot

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

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

7. Limited 3rd Party Tripod Foot Compatibility

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

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

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

8. VR Mode Changes

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

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

9. Other Changes?

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

1 September 2014: TC-14EIII Teleconverter and AF-S 400mm f2.8E FL ED VR Lens Arrive

Late last week I got the call that two updated Nikon products of high importance had arrived for me - the TC-14EIII 1.4x telconverter and the AF-S 400mm f2.8E FL ED VR super-telephoto lens. Both had been scheduled for release by Nikon Canada on the 28th of August - the teleconverter rolled in on 27 August, and the lens on the 29th. Hey - if you average 'em out they showed up exactly on time! ;-)

I'll be extensively field-testing both of these products and producing full field tests of them on this website. As has become my habit, I will be producing interim incremental reports on this blog on how the testing of each is going (the final field tests will be published in the Real World Field Tests section of this website). Expect to see a lot of the interim reports on this website over the next few weeks - I want to have a real good handle on how these products perform before I leave on my annual pilgrimage up to the Great Bear Rainforest at the end of the month.

Questions that I am particularly interested in answering to my full satisfaction include: Does the TC-14EIII outperform the TC-14EII when paired with the following lenses: the 70-200mm f4 VR; the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR; the 400mm f2.8 VR (both versions); and the 600mm f4 VR? How does the TC-14EIII plus the new 400mm f2.8E VR (550mm equivalent) stack up against the 600mm f4 VR in BOTH autofocus performance and image sharpness? Is there a noticeable "real world" difference in image quality between the "old" 400mm f2.8G VR and the "new" 400mm f2.8E VR?

Stay tuned...early impressions and test results coming soon!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

28 August 2014: My Tribute to the Good Mom.



Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen

While I love nature, there's no disguising the fact that perfectly natural events can - at times - seem to be harsh, cruel and upsetting. This is one of those times...

Virtually everyone visiting the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary in 2014 got to see (and be entertained by) a female grizzly and her two cubs that were "hanging out" almost daily on an alluvial fan out in the main inlet. Those of us who have been going into the Khutzeymateen for years knew this female as "Clam-digger" (for obvious reasons). I first saw her back in 2009 - on a sandy beach doing what you'd expect a bear called Clam-digger doing (that would be digging up clams). Back then she was thin and, to be honest, not the world's most attractive bear - her coat was patchy, and she had beady eyes (we always wondered if something had happened to her when she was younger and she somehow damaged her eyes - seems like she ALWAYS squinted).

Fast forward to spring of 2014. After not being seen for a few years, Clam-digger reappeared on one of the Khutzeymateen inlet's many alluvial fans, with two 2nd year cubs in tow. Over the years she had aged very well - she had "filled-in" very nicely, her coat was now full and resplendent. She had become a pretty good looking bear (but she still had those squinty, beady eyes!).

Over the remainder of the spring and early summer of 2014 she provided hours of pleasure to the human visitors of the Khutzeymateen - much of it as she did her thing...clamming! And, not surprisingly, her cubs were quickly turning into first rate clammers themselves. It was with no small degree of amusement that we watched one of her cubs (the white-faced one, which we think was a male) clam right beside mom, and promptly steal almost every clam that mom dug up! Mom had the greatest patience with the little thief, though on a few occasions we saw her roar and cuff the little klepto-clammer!

Clam-digger seemed to be a very vigilant mom. Whenever she strayed from the open beach she'd keep a careful eye (albeit a squinty careful eye) out for danger. This shot (which I had initially titled "Psst...don't tell Mom but...) shows Clam-digger the Good Mom in a typical pose, carefully watching over her cubs.

Sadly, Clam-digger is no more. She died in late June while defending her cubs from a large male grizzly who, apparently, had his eyes set on dining on the cubs. While I did not see the encounter (quite thankfully), by all accounts the male grizzly stalked and closely approached (and surprised her cubs), but the Good Mom intervened before either of her cubs were hurt and she took on the much bigger male in an epic but ill-fated battle. During the fight to the death Clam-digger's two cubs escaped.

At present the fate of her cubs is unknown, but when last seen they were doing fine. With luck, there's a decent chance they will survive and, hopefully, live long lives. Perhaps they'll even have cubs of their own and keep the Good Mom's genes "alive". Fingers crossed.

Here's to you Clam-digger - may you rest in peace. I'll do what I can to ensure that images of you are in circulation - and used to help protect bears in BC and abroad - for as long as I can!

For those who had a personal relationship with Clam-digger and became a fan of her and her cute cubs - here's a higher resolution (2400 pixel) version of the Clam-digger Family for your personal use:

A Tribute to the Good Mom. Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 340 KB)

NOTES:

1. This image - in all resolutions - is protected by copyright. I'm fine with personal uses of it (including use as desktop backgrounds or screensavers on your own computer), but unauthorized commercial use of the image is prohibited by law. Thanks in advance for respecting my copyright!

2. Like all wildlife images on this website, the subject is fully wild and completely unconstrained. Besides the potential impact of my presence, nothing has been done to intentionally alter or affect the ongoing behavior of the subject and, of course, there has been no use of any form of bait or other form of wildlife attractants (including vocalizations).

3. This image was captured during one of my "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tour in the spring of 2014. Each year I offer trips into two different parts of the Great Bear Rainforest as well as one to photograph aquatic mammals and oceanscapes near the northern tip of Vancouver Island. And, in selected years, I also offer photo tours to locations to capture other highly sought-after subjects, such as various boreal owl species and wildlife of Canada's Arctic. Details about these trips can be found on the Photo Tours page of this website.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

25 August 2014: Yep, I'm Back At It!

I'm back from my Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions & More Aquatic Mammals Photo Tour (AKA my "Slimy Mammals" photo tour) and back to my "normal" life (though I suspect few would consider my life very normal!). New images from the Aquatic Mammals tour ARE already appearing in my Gallery of Latest Images - so if you haven't already done so, check 'em out!

The Aquatic Mammals Photo Tour was a resounding success. On the subject front, we found and photographed 4 species of "whales" - Humpbacks, Killer Whales, Minkes, and Grays (technically the Killer Whale is a dolphin, but most folks think of it as a whale, as its name suggests). While we found large numbers of our main target species (the Humpacks and Killers), they gave us less "activity" (breaching and/or feeding) to work with than during most years. But...did they EVER know how to swim into some fantastic backdrops (check out that Latest Images Gallery to see what I mean). And, the other key species we focus on during this tour - Steller Sea Lions and Sea Otters - definitely OVER-delivered relative to past years. Suffice to say that we weren't lacking in subject matter.

On the equipment front: While the camera bodies I took on the trip (Nikon D4s, Nikon D4, Nikon D800e) performed exactly as expected (one benefit of doing the ridiculous amount of testing I do on gear is knowing what to expect out of my gear!), and my big primes (400mm f2.8 VR; 600mm f4 VR) continue to amaze me in what they can deliver at wide apertures, to me the real standout piece of gear for the trip was my AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR. This isn't to say or imply that it outperformed my big primes, but I have to say I still had a little of the "it CAN'T be that good..." attitude about it going into the trip. Well...as I processed image after image taken with it during the trip, I have to say my faith and confidence in the lens (which is a really big thing for me) grew and grew. As an example, check out the image of a sea otter entitled "The Return of an Icon" in my Gallery of Latest Images - and...if you have a chance...make sure you check out the 2400 pixel version of the image. After processing that image any hesitation I had to grab for the 80-400 went out the window...

Coming Equipment Tests...

I've been haranguing Nikon Canada about the expected ship date of both the "new" 400mm f2.8 VR prime super-telephoto lens (the E version) and the TC-14EIII 1.4x teleconverter. It's still looking like Canada will see an August 28 release date of these products - and mine should arrive shortly thereafter. So it will likely be mid-September (at the earliest) before you'll see too much about these on this website.

Nikon D810? Nikon has assured me that my testing sample of this camera will be shipped on September 8, and likely be in my hands by about September 12. You can expect my initial thoughts on that camera, and especially how it REALLY compares to the D800 and D800e in the field, shortly after that.

Tamron SP 150-600mm f5-6.3 Di VC? It's looking like Tamron really didn't forecast how well this lens would sell (all sources indicate they are selling like hotcakes!). In Canada it appears to be in almost constant backorder status. It's looking LIKELY that I'll have one in my hands about mid-September. Given everything else on my plate it's unlikely I'll have much to say about this lens before I leave on my annual "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" photo tours in late September (hopefully the lens will arrive before I leave on those photo tours - I'll be able to learn an awful lot about the lens during two weeks in the low-light environment of the Great Bear Rainforest!). Substantive feedback on this lens likely won't come until late October (I don't get back form the Great Bear until October 20 or so).

All for now...cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

5 August 2014: Off to Pursue Slimy Mammal Images!

Just a quick note to let y'all know I'm just about to leave to lead my annual "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions & More" photo tour and will be gone until about August 20. On this tour we spend a week aboard the beautiful 71' Ocean Light II sailboat and cruise the waters and shoreline around the northern tip of Vancouver Island seeking out the best photo ops the central Pacific Coast can offer.

Assuming Nikon and others keep to their announced shipping dates, I should be returning to a virtual cornucopia of new products to test, including...

Nikkor TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter: I'm real excited to see how this long-awaited update stacks up against the old version. Yes, I will be producing a thorough field test of the TC-14EIII.

Nikkor AF-S 400mm f2.8 VR - E version: With its 1.8 lb weight-saving over the previous version this update pretty much can't disappoint! But...will the new optical formula and the new fluorite elements produce images that are noticeably better than those of the previous version in day-to-day shooting? The bar was set VERY high with the previous version (it's hard to imagine a super-telephoto capable of better image quality) - but I truly look forward to doing head-to-head testing of the new and "old" 400mm f2.8 VR to see for myself. And yes, I will be producing a comprehensive field test comparing these two super-telephoto "heavyweights".

Nikon D810: Will the new sensor design (sans optical low-pass filter) plus the pairing with the Expeed 4 image processor result in noticeably better images than the D800e in a true, real-world field setting? That's the question I hope to answer for myself as I assess the D810 - and as I make my own decision as to whether the upgrade from my current D800e to the D810 is worthwhile. And, of course, I'll reveal my findings here...

Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC: Yes, I DO have the new Tamron "Ultra" zoom coming my way for field testing. At the price of about $1250 CAD, this is one of those "...it seems like it's too good to be true" lenses. And perhaps it is - but I was surprised by the image quality of the AF-S 80-400mm VR as well. So...open mind on this one! I've read various reviews on this lens, but many of them were written by users with little or no experience with other super-telephoto zooms or primes and can say nothing about how the lens really fairs against its real competitors. My main goal of testing this lens will be to see how it stacks up against Nikon's AF-S 80-400mm VR zoom and key super-telephoto primes (like Nikon's 400mm f2.8 VR - with and without TC's - and Nikon's 600mm f4 VR). This is one field test you won't want to miss...

So until August 20th...cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

31 July 2014: Taking Action Against BC's Regressive "New" Wolf Killing Plan

British Columbia's wolves are being managed as vermin and the "new" Grey Wolf Management plan of 2014 is little more than a flawed attempt to justify aggressive proactive wolf control...

This blog entry is a call to action - and a personal plea - to anyone who cares about the welfare or conservation of wolves. If you've enjoyed the efforts I've put in to creating and maintaining this advertisement-free nature photography website for any reason, please consider paying me back by adding your voice to this call for action against BC's regressive wolf "management" plan. I'm not asking for any money - just a little effort. The wolves of BC NEED a lot of letters to be written. Thanks in advance.

In a recent article in the Tyee, Gary Allan and I compared BC's "old" wolf management plan of 1979 to the "new" management plan of 2014. Our conclusion...

"Scrap the 2014 plan for the management of the grey wolf. Return to the progressive management plan of 1979. Augment it with what science has learned since 1979, almost all of which dispels the notion of the "big bad wolf" and shows its value to society and ecosystems."

After reviewing and carefully dissecting both the draft and final versions of the latest BC wolf management plan it's clear it's nothing more than a very thinly-veiled effort to justify widespread proactive wolf control. In brief, it is a plan which pays lip service to awareness of (and understanding of) recent studies that clearly show the positive value of wolves in structuring and shaping complete ecosystems and increasing biodiversity, but recommends only actions designed to proactively cull wolf populations to as low a level as possible without actually endangering them. The plan does not contain a single action that facilitates the return of wolves to portions of the province from which they have been extirpated or where they are now represented with only relic populations.

I strongly encourage that anyone who is interested in wolf conservation to read our Tyee article comparing the old and new management plans. If you'd like to examine the 1979 and 2014 management plans for yourself, just click on the links below:

• Read the entire Tyee article: BC's Wolf Killing Plan a Big Step Backwards

Download the 1979 Wolf Management Plan for BC (PDF; 2.0 MB)

Download the 2014 Wolf Management Plan for BC (PDF; 1.4 MB)

Now that the the new wolf management plan has been exposed as being grossly deficient, it's time for two things:

• Making specific recommendations (that are consistent with what modern science has taught us about wolves) for modifications to the 2014 wolf management plan and/or the policies which are logically derived from it (e.g., BC's Hunting Regulations as they apply to the Grey Wolf) and

• Taking direct action to change the plan. In this case, we feel the best approach is a letter-writing campaign directed at key individuals in the BC Government.


PART I: THE LETTER WRITING CAMPAIGN

We strongly encourage you to write letters or emails to the BC Government protesting the 2014 Wolf Management Plan. Because BC government officials have discounted the value of "form letters" in past conservation campaigns, we encourage you to put the letter in your own words (you'll find suggested items to include in the next section below). Here's some key individuals to send your letters to (and sending them to more than one is encouraged!):

Premier Christy Clark
Parliament Buildings
Box 9041
Victoria, BC V8W 9E1
Email: premier@gov.bc.ca

Minister Steve Thomson
Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations
PO Box 9049
Stn. Prov. Govt
Victoria, BC V8W 9E2
Email: FLNR.Minister@gov.bc.ca

NDP MLA Norm MacDonald
Official Opposition Critic for the Environment
Room 201
Parliament Buildings
Victoria, BC V8V 1X4
Email: norm.macdonald.mla@leg.bc.ca

Green Party MLA Andrew Weaver
Room 027C
Parliament Buildings
Victoria, BC V8V 1X4
Email: Andrew.Weaver.MLA@leg.bc.ca


PART II: RECOMMENDED CHANGES TO BC WOLF MANAGEMENT

Here are some key changes to wolf management in BC that you might want to include in your letter. Note that a more detailed discussion of the rationale for each point can be found in the following section (below).

1. A Shift from Widespread Proactive Wolf Control to Limited, Localized Reactive Wolf Management.

2. A Complete Overhaul of Wolf Hunting Regulations in BC. We recommend that wolf hunting in BC should mirror the closely restricted hunting of other top-level carnivores in BC. This means:

• Species-specific tag required to hunt a wolf (priced comparably to black bear tags)
• Bag limit of 1 wolf per season
• Mandatory reporting of all wolves killed
• Hunting season from November 1st to March 31st
• No taking of any wolves in the presence of young-of-the-year
• Hunting is subject to all principles of fair chase (no baiting, no use of dogs, no hunting from any motorized vehicle)

3. Wolf Control to Protect Livestock As a Last Resort Only.

4. Creation of Multiple No-hunting Zones (refugia) for Wolves.

5. Outright Ban of the Use of Poison for Wolf Control.

6. Outright Ban of the Use of Killing Neck Snares for Wolf Control.


PART III: RATIONALE FOR THE RECOMMENDED CHANGES TO BC WOLF MANAGEMENT

1. A Shift from Widespread Proactive Wolf Control to Limited, Localized Reactive Wolf Management. If you read the 2014 Wolf Management Plan, examine the regulations that govern wolf-hunting in BC, and find a way to observe the killing of wolves by provincial Conservation Officers at the request of cattle ranchers, there is only one possible conclusion you can come to: that the BC Government believes that wolf management consists primarily of widespread proactive wolf culling. This basic, ingrained philosophy is based fully in outdated legacy thinking influenced more by fantasy and myth than by scientific fact. It must be replaced with a modern view of wolves as critical components of natural, healthy, and resilient ecosystems.

Critical Background Information: The 1979 Wolf Management Plan recognized wolves as critical components of healthy ecosystems and that any control of wolf populations should be on a limited, reactive basis only. It foreshadowed the many studies that followed (available upon request) that clearly demonstrated that wolves and other top-level carnivores are critical in structuring and shaping virtually all levels of ecosystems (from herbivore to plants to the actual landscape itself) through what are now known as trophic cascade effects. We also now know that family groups of wolves (packs) are much less prone to preying on livestock if they are left intact (simply because intact packs are more capable of catching and killing natural prey than if they are decimated by hunting or culling). We've long known that wolves (and other carnivores) exhibit both density-dependent reproduction and population growth rates. This means that as they recolonize areas they initially expand in population size but, as the carrying capacity of the habitat is approached, reproductive rates and population growth taper until population growth effectively ceases. In the simplest terms - left undisturbed, wolf populations are self-regulating.

If we add in the knowledge that depredation rates on livestock by ALL predators are remarkably low (less than one tenth of 1% of the livestock being grazed in the province by the government's own figures), then the shift in wolf management philosophy from one endorsing limited, reactive wolf control in the 1979 plan to one of widespread, proactive wolf culling in the 2014 plan is beyond puzzling and is logically indefensible.

2. A Complete Overhaul of Wolf Hunting Regulations in BC. We recommend that wolf hunting in BC should mirror the closely restricted hunting of other top-level carnivores in BC. This means:

• Species-specific tag required to hunt a wolf (priced comparably to black bear tags)
• Bag limit of 1 wolf per season
• Mandatory reporting of all wolves killed
• Hunting season from November 1st to March 31st
• No taking of any wolves in the presence of young-of-the-year
• Hunting is subject to all principles of fair chase (no baiting, no use of dogs, no hunting from any motorized vehicle)

Critical Background Information: At present, the wolf is the only top-level carnivore in BC for which no species-specific tag is required. For almost half of the land mass of BC there are no bag limits for wolves and for virtually all of BC there is no mandatory reporting of kills (which functionally means there is no bag limit for the entire province). In many regions of BC there is year-round hunting allowed, even during the pup-rearing season. Combined, these regulations (or lack thereof) actively encourage the opportunistic shooting of wolves whenever they are seen by anyone with a hunting license and a gun in their hands. Currently, if a group of hunters stumbles upon a family group of wolves (a pack) - even one including pups-of-the-year - they can begin shooting and not stop until all that is left is a pile of smoking corpses. There is no way to interpret this other than the obvious - BC's current hunting regulations unjustifiably treat the wolf as vermin. This must change.

Editorial Note: There are strong ecological, economic, and ethical arguments for banning the trophy hunting of ALL carnivores, including wolves. In practical terms, going from nearly unregulated province-wide, government-sanctioned slaughter of wolves directly to an outright ban on any hunting of them is probably too big a step to have any chance for success. Baby steps!

3. Wolf Control to Protect Livestock As a Last Resort Only. In the rare instances where wolves habitually prey on livestock we recommend that wolf culling is used ONLY if 1) there is clear documentation/verification that the source of predation is wolves and that 2) the owner of the livestock can demonstrate that they have taken every practical non-lethal measure to reduce predation.

Critical Background Information: At present, the rights and welfare of livestock (owned by private entrepreneurs) that are grazed on public crown land take precedence over the naturally occurring wildlife found there. This is despite the fact that the livestock are functionally invasive species and cause many forms of damage to the land, including damage to riparian zones, introduction of invasive plants, the introduction of diseases to wildlife, and more. The 2006 UN report entitled "Livestock's Long Shadow" (PDF of abridged version; 245 KB - complete report available upon request) outlines the full array of damage that the grazing of livestock causes.

In contrast, the predators found on the land help ensure biodiversity, encourage the regeneration of forests, increase overall ecosystem productivity, and even assist in increasing carbon dioxide absorption (references to studies available upon request). Moreover, the cost of predator control (often at the behest of the livestock owner) is borne by all taxpayers of BC.

Taken as a whole, the entire concept of taxpayer-funded predator and/or wolf control on crown land for the perceived benefit of livestock and/or ranchers seems - at best - completely misdirected. It would be easy to argue that a full reversal of the situation (banning livestock from all crown land and encouraging the return of all natural predators) would make more sense to society as a whole - it is undeniable that it would make more sense ecologically. A less extreme position would be to move toward a user-risk model where losses to predation are accepted by the livestock owner as a cost-of-doing-business and "part of the package" for being allowed to damage public land for their own profit.

4. Creation of Multiple No-hunting Zones (refugia) for Wolves. As per the 1979 Wolf Management Plan, we recommend the creation of multiple no-hunting zones throughout the province where wolf populations are fully naturally-regulated and from which cattle grazing is prohibited.

Critical Background Information: The 1979 wolf management plan recognized the intrinsic value of wolves, as well as both their potential economic value (through commercial wildlife watching opportunities) and their ecological value in structuring ecosystems and enhancing biodiversity (even though studies confirming the ecosystem effects weren't published for many decades after the plan came out). Further, the 1979 plan recognized the potential for conflict between ranchers and wolves and specifically indicated that cattle grazing should be prohibited in wolf refugia. Over a century of persecution has left the wolves remaining in the province exceptionally wary and currently unsuitable as candidates for viable commercial wolf-viewing enterprises. However, as demonstrated in several National Parks in and along the BC border (e.g., Kootenay National Park, Banff National Park), once persecution ceases it is not long before wolves lose enough of their wariness to become commercially "watchable" (and further argues for no-hunting zones).

An additional benefit of no-hunting zones is that they would provide the opportunity to study many of the aspects of the behavior and ecology of wolves in naturally-regulated populations.

There are several wilderness regions in BC where cattle are currently not being grazed and are unsuitable for cattle (without massive changes to the landscape, such as widespread massive clear-cutting of forests) and that would be suitable as wolf refugia. The northern portion of Vancouver Island, the entire Great Bear Rainforest, and the Spatzizi region of northern BC are only 3 examples of regions where refugia could be established.

5. Outright Ban of the Use of Poison for Wolf Control. As far as we can determine poison is currently not being used to cull wolves in BC - but is not specifically banned. We request that its use be formally banned.

Critical Background Information: Historically the government of BC used a poison known as compound 1080 (sodium monofluoroacetate ) to dramatically reduce wolf populations in many areas across BC (and despite its use being discontinued in 1961 some wolf populations have still not recovered). Compound 1080 is effective as a killing agent, but the death it causes is prolonged and exceptionally painful and inhumane. Moreover, the use of poisons to control wildlife is very non-specific to the intended target, and many other species (including domestic dogs) are killed when poisons are used.

6. Outright Ban of the Use of Killing Neck Snares for Wolf Control. Unlike poisons, killing neck snares ARE being used by the government of BC and trappers for the killing of wolves. We request that their use be formally banned.

Critical Background Information: Canada is a signatory of the Agreement on Humane Trapping Standards (AIHTS). AIHTS provides a regularly-updated list of traps of humane methods of trapping animals, including both humane killing traps and humane restraining traps. In its current Hunting and Trapping Synopsis the BC government states that it conforms to AIHTS and states that the agreement applies to wildlife management purposes, including wildlife conflict control AND for conservation purposes. There are NO killing neck snares listed by AIHTS as approved for use. Yet, almost amazingly, the government of BC simply exempts itself from abiding by the list of approved traps and uses killing neck snares themselves (for "conservation purposes" by Conservation Officers) and encourages their use by trappers. Why? It's not clear, but presumably because they're cheap, easy-to-use, and coldly efficient. However, they are non-specific and kill many non-targeted animals (including cougars). And those snagged in the snares suffer prolonged and incredibly painful (and terrifying) deaths (see this letter from Dr. Jose Diaz, DVM - PDF; 57 KB).

Supporting Documentation:

List of AIHTS Approved Traps (PDF; 139 KB)

BC Hunting and Trapping Synopsis (excerpt - PDF; 416 KB - see pages 91, 94, abd 95.

Please note that an online petition against the use of killing snares in BC may be found by following the link below - feel free to add your name and voice!

Stop the Use of Killing Neck Snares Against Wolves in British Columbia

Thanks for taking some of your valuable time to read this and for doing the right thing in speaking up against BC's archaic approach to wolf management. Doing the wrong thing for a long time - even decades or a century - doesn't make it right.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

30 July 2014: British Columbia's Wolf Killing Plan a Big Step Backwards

Many of the viewers of this blog probably know that besides being a photographer, I'm a biologist with a strong interest in the conservation of carnivores. And, for those who didn't know that - well you do now!

In North America there's probably no animal that is more polarizing than the Grey Wolf - people either love 'em or hate 'em. Most wildlife photographers, not surprisingly, tend to line up on the "love 'em" side. Unfortunately, the Province of British Columbia doesn't - if the attitudes and actions of their most recent Wolf Management Plan (released in 2014) are any indication, they pretty much hate 'em.

In an effort to expose the cruel and unwarranted persecution of the Grey Wolf by the BC Government to a wider audience, I recently teamed up with another wolf advocated and wrote an article comparing BC's "old" wolf management plan (written back in 1979) with their new and "enlightened" plan (released in April 2014). Sadly, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, the BC Government seems to now subscribe to the "Big Bad Wolf" view and their new management plan reflects this.

Read the full Tyee article here: BC's Wolf Killing Plan a Big Step Backwards

My next blog entry will outline an action that concerned individuals can take to help fight and overturn the plan.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

Arc'teryx's Venta MX Hoody Jacket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Final Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

17 July 2014: Additional D4s Autofocus Comments...

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

15 July 2014: Hey...That's NOT a Tree Swallow!

Very early last Saturday morning I packed up some camera gear and went for a short walk to the opposite side of our property in the East Kootenays. My goal? Photograph one of my favourite species of bird - Tree Swallows - that had taken up residence in a bluebird box on our property. I knew the nestlings were close to fledging and I had little time left to work with them. And, as I walked to the nest box, I knew that even if the swallows had already left the nest it was going to be a wonderful morning just to be outside...

One hour later I was walking back to our cabin, shaking my head in pure amazement after having one of my most intimate and...uhhhh...invigorating wildlife encounters I've ever had!

Great shots of adult swallows feeding nestlings? Nope. Mind-blowing flight shots? Nope. Actually...I didn't capture a single image of the swallows. You could say I got a little...distracted. And here's why:

NOT a Tree Swallow! Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

For those who may be interested in the details of my very memorable encounter, just check out the image entitled "Not a Tree Swallow" in my Gallery of Latest Images and click on the "In the Field" tab below the image.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

10 July 2014: Additional 2015 Photo Tour: Owls of Manitoba!

What could be better than a hot, summery, beach holiday taken during the middle of winter? Well...the answer is obvious: a snowy, chilly, photographic tour in Manitoba, Canada in early March in search of photo ops of Great Gray Owls and other species of boreal forest owls! Yep, we wildlife photographers ARE a twisted breed! Anyway...we just completed sussing out all the logistics for my 2015 Owls of Manitoba Photo Tour, so here ya' go...

OVERVIEW: Southeastern Manitoba has become one of the premier locations on the North American continent for viewing northern boreal forest owls. Great Gray, Northern Hawk Owl, Great Horned, and Snowy Owls are regularly encountered during most winters. And, not uncommonly, Barred, Eastern Screech-owls, Northern Saw-whet, and Short-eared Owls can be added to the list. While numbers of each species fluctuate from year-to-year, in late winter many of these species are beginning courtship and their conspicuousness increases. In 2015 award-winning professional wildlife photographer Brad Hill (i.e., me!) will be teaming up with local naturalist Ken De Smet (co-author of the Manitoba Birds field guide) to offer a March tour dedicated to capturing memorable images of a number of species of boreal owls. Our focus will be on finding and exploiting high-quality photographic opportunities of owls, with Great Grays topping our list of target species. Our goal will be to capture naturally-occurring behaviours and scenes and, to minimize potential harm to our subjects, no form of baiting will be used.

An optional day of professional-level photography instruction by your's truly (Brad Hill) covering essential image-capture skills, techniques, tips, and tricks is being offered at the beginning of the trip. The material covered will focus on helping you capture and create images that can be considered true Wildlife Art! Photographers of all levels are welcomed on this tour, but it will be assumed that most attendees will be bringing digital SLR cameras and that all attendees will be familiar with the basic controls and functions of their chosen camera.

THE CRITICAL DETAILS:

• PHOTO TOUR TYPE: Instructional AND Non-instructional ("Photo Op") options.
• DURATION: 7 days (including arrival and departure days) for instructional option; 6 days for non-instructional option. 4 full days in the field with both options.
• DATES: March 2-8, 2015 for instructional option; March 3-8, 2015 for non-instructional option.
• NUMBER OF PARTICIPANTS: Limited to 10.
• CURRENT NUMBER OF AVAILABLE SPOTS: 9.
• COST: CANADIAN ATTENDEES: $2250 CA plus 5% GST for instructional option; $1750 CA plus 5% GST for non-instructional version. NON-CANADIAN ATTENDEES: $2180 USD plus 2.5% GST for instructional option; $1695 USD plus 2.5% GST for non-instructional version
• WHAT'S INCLUDED: Accommodation, guiding, vehicular needs/transportation once in Winnipeg, MB, breakfasts and lunches.
• ABOUT THE WEATHER: Weather conditions are likely to be cold, with the possibility of snow or rain. It is best to dress in clothes that are appropriate for subzero Celsius (32 degree Fahrenheit) weather. Walking will be limited to short walks on mostly level ground along roads; for a lot of the time we will be inside or near a heated vehicle. Strong, waterproof footwear is advised and head gear to keep you warm is essential.
• WHAT TO EXPECT: An emphasis on photography and capitalizing on quality photo ops rather than maximizing the number of bird species seen or photographed. Easy to moderate walking. Cold winter weather. Good quality accommodation. And OWLS!

REGISTRATION: Contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca to reserve your spot!

MORE INFORMATION? Contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca for more information.

Don't run from winter - meet it head-on...with camera in-hand!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

07 July 2014: Nikon Innovations: Fluorine Lens Coatings & Fluorite Lens Elements

When Nikon announced the new TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter and the updated 400mm f2.8 VR prime lens back on May 14 they also revealed a news fluorine lens coating that will be found on these two new products. And, they also "popularized" another recent innovation - the use of fluorite lens elements (which were first seen in 2013 in the rare and stratospherically priced 800mm f5.6 VR super-telephoto lens). So...we now have fluorine lens coatings and fluorite lens elements. Huh? What are these new innovations and what do they add to a lens' performance? Here's a quick overview:

1. Fluorine Lens Coating: This is a new lens coating that assists in repelling all sorts of gunk from the surface of a lens (like moisture, dust, etc.). As such, it makes sense to be found on the OUTSIDE surface of the outermost lens elements (i.e., those that are exposed TO the elements, so to speak). Nikon has put together a short video showing what the fluorine lens coating does - view it here:

Fluorine Coating Benefits Movie

Where Is It Found? Right now, on two new "lenses" - the new 400mm f2.8 VR (i.e., AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR) and the new TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter. Note that the "FL" in the "official" name of the new 400mm f2.8 VR does NOT refer to the fluorine coating - that's a reference to the presence of fluorite lens elements in the lens. Nikon's other "recent" super-telephoto introduction - the AF-S NIKKOR 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR - does NOT have fluorine coating on any lens surfaces.

Marketing Hype or Real Benefit? If Nikon's claims are true (as shown in the movie above) - and I see no reason to believe they're not - then the fluorine coatings should have obvious benefits. As one who regularly shoots in the often very rainy Great Bear Rainforest, I'm quite looking forward to having a fluorine coating on my new 400mm f2.8 VR.

But what about the fluorine coating on the outer elements of the TC-14EIII? Hmmmm. OK - I'm being totally honest, I question the real value of having fluorine coatings on the exposed lens surfaces of the TC-14EIII teleconverter - when in use these elements are completely shielded from the environment (and rain, and dust, etc.) - the ONLY time they would normally be exposed is when one is either putting on or taking off the teleconverter (and most prudent users take care to shelter the internal surfaces of their lenses - and camera bodies - when changing lenses in the field). A cynic might think that the fluorine coatings on the TC-14EIII are more important as marketing bullet points than factors actually enhancing the performance of the teleconverter. However, I have no real idea what the cost of the fluorine coatings is, or how much they add to the final retail price of the TC-14EIII. If it's only a few bucks...well...I guess the fluorine coating can't really hurt? But when I check my "Marketing-Hype-O-Meter" on the value of fluorine coatings on a teleconverter the readings are decidedly non-zero.

2. Fluorite Lens Elements: Now this is a whole different kettle of fish - now we're talking about entire lens elements made of calcium fluorite crystals. These crystals - and elements made from them - are light, exceptionally clear - so light scatters VERY little when passing through them (very low light dispersion). This means lens elements made from them are capable of rendering excellent colour and without virtually any chromatic aberration. This is good. The bad thing? The cost - fluorite lens elements are NOT cheap! And, as I've mentioned previously, Nikon has indicated that the fluorite lens elements found in the new 400mm f2.8 VR contribute more to the increased cost of the lens than the new materials and/or design/manufacturing changes associated with the 820 gm weight reduction of the lens.

Where Are Fluorite Lens Elements Found? Currently, in two lenses only - the new 400mm f2.8 VR prime lens and the 800mm f5.6 prime lens. Both of these lenses are on the kinda pricey side (think 5-figures of dollars). Both the new 400mm and the 800mm have TWO fluorite elements, and they are the largest elements found in each of the lenses (see this diagram of the lens construction of the new 400mm and this diagram of the lens construction of the 800mm). Note that the purple elements in the diagrams are fluorite elements, not flourite elements (Nikon's error, not mine!).

Note also that the new TC-14EIII does NOT have fluorite lens elements (it does have a new optical formula and a fluorine coating on the outer elements, but not fluorite lens elements).

Marketing Hype or Real Benefit? I can't say (or predict) yet. In theory there definitely should be an optical benefit to the addition of fluorite lens elements. But as a very happy owner of the original 400mm f2.8 VR - which I (and many others) consider to be Nikon's top super-telephoto in optical terms - I'm left wondering how much better the image quality can possibly be on the new lens? Chromatic aberration on the original 400mm f2.8 VR is visually undetectable, and the colour rendered by that lens is simply fantastic. So I guess I'm a bit skeptical. If the optical quality of the new 400mm f2.8 VR IS better (and I AM hoping it is) - wonderful! If it isn't...well...the largest contributor to my decision to shell out for the new lens was the 820 gm (1.8 lb) weight-reduction over the previous version. I do look forward to doing head-to-head image quality tests comparing my current (the original) 400mm f2.8 VR against the new one...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

03 July 2014: 2014 Photo Tour Update...

This entry is going to pretty short! There's only one spot left of all my 2014 photo tours - and that single spot is on my August "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More: Aquatic Mammals of the Central Pacific Coast" photo tour. This week-long trip offers unsurpassed opportunities to photograph some of the most "charismatic megafauna" that the Pacific Ocean can deliver - all from the comfort and luxury of a 71' sailboat. And, in addition to offering great photo ops for marine mammals, because of the stunning scenery in the background, this trip regularly produces fantastic photo ops to capture just great "animal-in-landscape" (or "animalscape") shots. Many of the shots included in both my Other Mammals Gallery and my Animalscapes Gallery were captured on previous editions of this trip...

Want more info? Just download this comprehensive PDF Brochure:

Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More: Aquatic Mammals of the Central Pacific Coast (PDF; 3.1 MB)

Or just contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

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

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

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

The Short Answer: Buy the 80-400mm.

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

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

2. "But what are YOU shooting with?"

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

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

The Short Answer: Yes.

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

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

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

The Short Answer: Huh??

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

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

The Short Answer: It depends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Longer Answer: See the short answer.

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

The Short Answer: Yes and yes.

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

So...summing up:

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

26 June 2014: The Nikon D810 - Bigger, Better, Faster, Stronger?

Nikon has just introduced the replacement DSLR for both the D800 and D800e models - the D810. And, I'm already receiving emails about what I think about the new camera (and I've been asked whether or not I'm going to acquire one and test it).

But hold on - I'm getting ahead of myself. What's new about the D810? As always, one of the best spec spews can be found on dpreview.com (just go here). At the top level, the camera offers the same resolution (36 MP) as both the D800 and D800e. Arguably the biggest change in the camera is the complete removal of the Optical Low Pass Filter (OLPF), which is there to remove moire and false colour and to improve colour rendition. The D800 had a "standard" OLPF and the D800e had a modified OLPF which didn't remove as much moire (or false colour) but did slightly increase image sharpness (and it did work). Hey, hold on, if all they did to this new model was to REMOVE something from an older model, why didn't it go down in price?? Good thinking. Well...Nikon did ADD (or change) a few other things, like improving its frame rate from 4 fps to 5 fps, adding the new Group Area AF option (as per the D4s), inserting a new electronic first-curtain shutter (to reduce shutter vibration) and using the new Expeed 4 processing engine (again, as per the D4s). Whether or not these other changes are something D800 or D800e owners really need is another question (which I can't fully answer yet).

Is the D810 a worthwhile upgrade? I don't know yet - while I have received communication from Nikon Canada offering me priority-access to one (like all NPS members are offered), I haven't tried one yet. As one who has owned and tested (head-to-head) both the D800/D800e here's a few things that may be helpful for potential buyers to chew on:

Improved Image Quality? Nikon is claiming that by removing the OLPF there will be an increase in image quality, mainly through increased resolution (think "sharpness"). This may be true, but if the difference in image sharpness between the D800 and D800e is similar to the sharpness difference between the D800e and the D810, then realizing (or "getting to") the image quality difference will be tough to do in a field setting. I found that the only time you could really see an improvement in image quality between a D800 and D800e was when shooting with medium-format like discipline (firm tripod, cable release, mirror up, etc.) and ONLY with selected high quality lenses (the best of the best). My expectation is that the same WILL apply to the D810: great image quality, but better than a D800e only under very controlled conditions.

Faster Frame Rate? No one will dislike this and it can be made to sound like a big deal (25% faster!). But going from 4 fps to 5 fps isn't a game-changer.

New Group Area AF Option? Another change that's not unwelcome, but the reality is that this is NOT a camera really designed for shooting action (that's what a D4s is for), and the Group Area AF option is most useful when capturing fast-moving (and erratically-moving) subjects. So at first thought this kinda seems like putting brakes from a F1 race car on a Nissan Micra - nice but not really needed. And it does almost feel to me that this new model is getting some things (like the Group Area AF) just because Nikon has the parts and or technology available (and not really because they're needed changes for Nikon's resolution flagship). But I may be totally wrong.

Better ISO Performance? If you read the press release issued by Nikon announcing the D810 very closely it states that the camera has a "wider ISO range" (that you can set). In email communication with Nikon I have been told that the camera has a "one stop better ISO range" - but it is not clear if this comment was simply re-iterating the expanded range that the camera can be set to OR claiming better ISO performance (with respect to noise). A point worth mentioning here is that one of the most significant features of the D800/D800e was its amazing dynamic range (over 14 stops as measured by dxomark.com). BUT, what most don't know is that compared to other models of Nikon cameras (e.g., D4, D4s), the dynamic range of the D800/800e falls off VERY fast as ISO increases - by about ISO 640 the D4 and D4s have more dynamic range than the D800 or D800e. If the dynamic range of the D810 holds up better (as ISO increases) - now THAT will be a significant and noteworthy improvement!

Will I be Getting One? Not without thoroughly testing one first - this go 'round I have to be convinced that the improvement in image quality will justify what it will cost me. And Nikon has already indicated to me that a loaner for testing should be available in short order (in about a month or so).

Will I be Field-testing One? If my loaner from Nikon comes through on schedule (or even close to on schedule), then yes.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

26 June 2014: You Alive Brad?

The number of emails where the sender was wondering about my recent paucity of posts on this blog has been increasing lately (but - hey - there've been lots of new posts in my Gallery of Latest Additions). Some even asked if I was still alive! Yep. Since my return it's been nose-to-the-grindstone time - thousands of images to cull, sort, and process; new Photoshop version (CC 2014) to fully explore; tons of trip enquiries to deal with (Khutzeymateen 2015 almost entirely sold out entirely already!). One thing that has REALLY eaten my time is the increased scrutiny I've been giving my images shot during my May/June Khutzeymateen Grizzlies photo tours - all in an effort to sort out tangible real-world differences in performance between the Nikon D4 and D4s (I was shooting them side-by-side in the Khutzeymateen) and to further sort out the strengths and weaknesses of the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR zoom (I'm getting more and more email asking me about the 80-400 vs. the 200-400, and even some asking me if the difference in image quality between the 80-400 and the new 400mm f2.8 VR really justifies the almost 5-figure difference in price).

Anyway...I'm pretty much caught up now, so expect my normal frequency of posting to this blog to resume soon (possibly even later today).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

07 June 2014: Khutzeymateen Grizzlies 2014: Year of the Cub!

I've just returned from leading back-to-back photo tours into the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary. For those who don't know, each spring I venture into the limited access Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary on the northern BC coast and lead both instructional and "photo op only" photo tours into this magnificent and globally unique "Garden of the Grizzlies" (details about my 2015 Khutzeymateen photo tours - which are selling out very fast - can be found right here on the photo tours page of this website). Each and every trip into this magical land is amazing, but the 2014 editions were simply off the charts. In spring of 2013 we had noticed a paucity of female bears in the area, and several of the recognizable "regular" females were absent. There were a number of possibilities - that they had not survived the winter of 2012/2013; that they had wandered outside the protected region of the sanctuary and met an untimely end at the hands of trophy hunters; or - most optimistically - that they had given birth to cubs and had hesitated to enter the Khutzeymateen estuary and inlet because of the high density of bears found there (fearing for the survival of their cubs). Well, as it turned out, the best case scenario came true, and several females returned to the area in 2014 with yearling (in their 2nd spring) cubs in tow! In fact, cubs so dominated the Khutzeymateen experience this year that it became, quite literally, the "Year of the Cub". Images I captured in the Khutzeymateen in 2014 are already beginning to appear in my Gallery of Latest Images (with many more coming over the next several weeks).

Over the course of the two trips we witnessed many amazing grizzly bear spectacles: mothers protectively watching over their cubs as they fed on grass; cubs nursing from ma; an adult female return to breeding behavior and drive the resident males a little nutty immediately after she weaned her twin 3-year old cubs (this is the first time we've seen cubs remain with their mother into their 4th spring, tho' her time with them this spring was very short). We even watched in amazement as one of the weaned cubs attempted to re-unite with his now "empty-nester" of a mother (suffice to say for now that mom was anything but thrilled with the concept, and made no secret of her feelings...). Add in the "usual" (for the Khutzeymateen) but very dynamic scenes of males competing with one another to claim available females, new-to-the-area bears struggling to find their place in the local pecking order, and bears doing normal day-to-day bear things (like swimming across the estuary right in front of you) and you end up with one of the most compelling experiences a wildlife photographer can imagine.

About the only "down-side" to this year's Khutzeymateen photo tours (and to anyone BUT a photographer this "problem" would be perceived as a very good thing) was that we had just a bit too much sun and light! In fact, during the entire 9 full days I spent in the field in the Khutzeymateen in 2014 I was lightly rained on for a grand total of only 3 minutes! Overall we simply had more light and clearer skies than normal in the Khutzeymateen in 2014, which had two consequences. First, we didn't have to rely on the crazy high ISO's that we usually need in there. Overall that's a good thing, but as one who is still exploring the capabilities of the Nikon D4s...well...suffice to say that I really didn't get a chance to compare real-world ISO performance of the D4s vs the D4! And with the sun came a LOT of contrast on a few days, which negatively impacted on a bit of the shooting we did. But even on the sunny days we got lucky and had cooperative bears that kindly wandered into the shade before posing for us! So Khutzeymateen 2014 didn't produce a lot of misty, moody, and atmosphere-laden shots!

Khutzeymateen Camera Gear: Here's some random observations and/or comments about the gear that was used by your's truly and the participating guests during the 2014 Khutzeymateen Photo Tours...

• I took 3 Nikon DSLR bodies into the Khutzeymateen this year - a D4s, a D4, and my D800e. For the bulk of the trip my D4s was paired up with my favourite "go-to" wildlife lens - my 400mm f2.8 VR. My D4 was seen most commonly paired up with my AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR. And, my D800e and my 70-200mm f4 VR were almost always seen together. This 3 camera/lens system worked extremely well for me - it was very versatile and I almost never felt stuck sitting there with the "wrong lens on the wrong camera". I used the D4s/400mm prime and D4/80-400mm zoom combinations almost equally, but have to say that most my favorite shots from the trip did come from the D4s/400mm prime combination. I used the D800e/70-200mm combination sparingly (only when the combinations and scenes were "just right"), but when called upon for recording "animalscapes" the results produced by that gear combination pleased me very much...

• If the gear carried by my Nikon-shooting clients (which overall were in the majority) is any indication, Nikon is selling a TON of the new AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR zooms. Two short years ago the most commonly seen lens (and the one I recommended as the key lens for a session in the Khutzeymateen) was the almost venerable 200-400mm f4 VR. But by this year things had changed dramatically - I saw only a single 200-400mm f4 VR Nikon in the Khutzeymateen (compared to five 80-400's). And, the images the clients were obtaining during the trip (and those I was obtaining too) have convinced me that the NEW "almost indispensable" lens for the Khutzeymateen for Nikon shooters is the 80-400.

• On the Canon side - despite the heavy price tag of the new 200-400mm f4 zoom - it would appear that Canon is selling a lot of them to serious wildlife shooters. For years the most common Canon lens used in the Khutzeymateen was the long-in-the-tooth 100-400mm zoom (even though many using it were feeling a little compromised by it and openly envied Nikon's 200-400). Now, I'm seeing as many Canon 200-400's as 100-400's. And, almost comically, the Canon users are now seeing great images coming out of the comparatively small and light Nikon 80-400 and looking on that lens with envy! I suspect if Canon now came out with an updated and improved version of their 100-400 (or came out with a new 80-400) a ton of users would jump on it. My guess is that they'll wait a little longer (perhaps a year or so) before doing this (simply to ensure they max out the number of 200-400's they can sell). It never ends...

Lots of images and more stories about our adventures in the Khutzeymateen in the spring of 2014 will be appearing in my Gallery of Latest Images in coming weeks. Don't hesitate to contact me if you're interested in participating in a photo tour into the fabulous Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary in 2015 or beyond. Details about the 2015 trips can be found here on my photo tours page. The Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary is not open to the public, but if you are interested in going in there on your own (i.e., not on a photo tour), I'd recommend contacting the folks I always use to access the Khutzeymateen - Ocean Light II Adventures (contact Jenn via email at adventure@oceanlight2.bc.ca; web: www.oceanlight2.bc.ca).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

21 May 2014: Short Sabbatical - To Lead Khutzeymateen Photo Tours!

Very early tomorrow morning I'm leaving to lead back-to-back photo tours in the fabulous Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary on the northern BC coast. Which means - because the Khutzeymateen is blessed with being in a dark zone for cell/data and radio signals (excepting satellite phones, of course) - there'll be no updates to this website until shortly after I return on June 5 (or so). And, of course, once I return you'll be seeing lots of new images and new observation/insights into how well the Nikon D4s performed under demanding field conditions.

Speaking of photo tours - bookings for all my 2015 trips have been brisk, with some tours already over half full. You can check details about ALL my photo tours for 2015 right here. Note that any trip enquiries received during my absence will be dealt with in a first-come, first-served basis (based on time/date of email enquiries were sent).

Cheers until early June!

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

20 May 2014: Shutting Down the Climate Change Debate

Even though the current Canadian government officially considers those that care about the state of the planet as unpatriotic, naive, and downright evil - and brands us as eco-terrorists - I'm a proud environmentalist who isn't afraid to state my views in public. As such - and because I live very close to the Canadian province with the strongest vested interest in spewing as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as fast as possible (those good ol' tarsands) - I run into my share of militant and vocal climate change deniers. For some reason they seem to think I'm the perfect person to debate the issue with, despite the fact that I'm a biologist by training (and definitely NOT a climate scientist of any form) and I have never acted directly on or written about climate change.

So...when I ran into this amusing yet very incisive video just the other day I was more than delighted - and I did a REAL LOL! Check it out - I think many of you will like it:

Warning: the video may not be suitable for some viewers as it includes some language that some may consider inappropriate

How to Shut Down the Climate Change "Debate" (video)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

15 May 2014: The Scoop on LightZone

A little-known imaging tool (but with an almost cult following) known as LightZone has been part of my workflow for a number of years. In short, this tool will perform raw conversions and gives the user a number of common image-editing tools - such as saturation adjustment, white balance and colour balance adjusters, etc. I don't use many of the tools in LightZone (and I don't do my own raw conversions with it), but I have always liked how it can be used to selectively adjust exposure and mid-tone contrast (using the Zonemapper and Re-light tools). A number of years ago a previous version of LightZone had a tool called "Tonemapper" which provided the user with a fast way to adjust mid-tone contrast and adjust the tonal balance of an image. I saved my preferred settings for that tool as a Custom setting and since then those settings have worked on all subsequent versions of the application. And - most interestingly - installing those saved custom settings in new versions of Lightzone brings back the dialog box associated with the Tonemapper tool (that tool is no longer found in current versions of LightZone - it has been replaced by the Relight Tool which offers different functionality).

Anyway...a few years back Light Crafts (the maker of LightZone) went defunct and for a time the program was unavailable. But a while back a group of software developers re-released Lightzone (with an Open Source license) and it's available again and, best of all, it is now available FREE! So, if you're looking for a more intuitive way to selectively adjust exposure in an image, I'd recommend taking LightZone for a spin - Mac and Windows versions are available for download right here:

www.lightzoneproject.org

If anyone would like my Tonemapper settings (complete with the dialog box they add to the program), just drop me a line and I'll email them to you - and they are cross-platform (work for both Mac and Windows versions of the app).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

14 May 2014: Nikon's Latest Products: New 1.4x Teleconverter; Updated 400mm f2.8 VR Prime Lens

Late last night Nikon announced two new products that are of considerable interest to Nikon-shooting wildlife photographers - the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter and an updated version of the 400mm f2.8 VR prime lens (which officially goes by this new combination of alphanumeric characters: AF-S Nikkor 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR). Both new products are scheduled to ship in August 2014. Here's some of my initial thoughts on both of them:

1. The New TC-14EIII (1.4) Teleconverter

Long overdue and definitely welcomed. I (along with many others) expected this teleconverter to be introduced not long after the updated TC-20EIII, but it's taken 3 years! Let's hope that it doesn't take another 3 years before they update the 1.7x TC! ;-)

So what's new here? According to Nikon there's a new optical system that reduces chromatic aberration (which with today's image processing software is increasingly becoming a non-issue). And, there's been two advances that are geared towards increasing the durability of the TC in the field - a fluorine coating for "...enhanced resistance to dirt and water droplets" and a redesigned lens barrel for "...increased moisture and dust resistance". Funny thing is, I've been abusing my TC-14EII for years and have never had (or heard of anyone having) a problem with the durability of it - so is the increase in durability of the new TC really needed? And, of course, there's a new (and not improved) price for the new TC: $499.95 USD ($549.95 CAD) vs. $399.95 USD ($429.95 CAD) for the "old" TC-14EII.

Will I be acquiring and field-testing the new TC-14EIII? Yes.

2. The Updated 400mm f2.8 VR Prime - the AF-S Nikkor 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR

In a sense this update is a bit more of a surprise - the previous version hasn't been on the market for too many years and no one describes it as long in the tooth. Many say Nikon introduces new products quite independently of what Canon offers, but in this case I think the introduction of this updated lens is directly in response to the latest (and much lighter) 400mm f2.8 lens offering from Canon. The latest Canon 400mm f2.8 lens was about 1.7 lbs lighter than the original Nikkor 400mm f2.8 VR. And, I suspect it's no coincidence that the spanking new AF-S Nikkor 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR is 50 grams (1.8 oz) lighter than the new Canon 400mm f2.8.

So what's new here? Well, according to Nikon, a plethora of things. But, ONE change dwarfs all the others in importance - the weight reduction of the new lens. The "old" one came in at 4620 gm (10.19 lb), the new one comes in at 3800 gm (8.38 lb). This is a saving of 820 gm (1.81 lb). For those who hand-held the "old" lens (like I often did), this represents a HUGE weight saving and big, big improvement. I have held and shot with the "new" Canon 400mm f2.8 lens and even though it's 50 grams (1.8 oz) heavier than the new Nikkor 400mm, the difference between the Canon lens and the "old" Nikon lens was instantly noticeable and very significant. The weight reduction is NOT an invisible or irrelevant spec change - it's HUGE! But, not surprisingly, you really pay for it - if you look at the pricing (MSRP's) of the "old" and "new" versions of the lenses, you'll find there is a difference in price of $2450 USD or $2700 CAD. So you're paying $84.60 USD ($93.23 CAD) for each ounce of weight you're saving with the new lens. But heck, that's WAY less than the price of gold! ;-)

There ARE other spec differences between the old and new 400mm as well, including a changed VR system (now 4 stops of VR stabilization instead of 3, and the Tripod mode is replaced by the new "panning friendly" Sport mode), two new fluorite elements (which supposedly reduces the already undetectable chromatic aberration found on the previous lens!), an electromagnetic diaphragm (which gives the lens the E signifier), and other small changes. Note that if you read Nikon's press release for the new lens it's really easy to think there are more changes - such as "...buttons on the lens barrel compatible with the new AF functions of the D4s". Uhhhh...those would be the AF Activation buttons used by the new f19 custom function of the D4s (see my 9 April blog entry below for a discussion of this new feature) - and those buttons are DEFINITELY on the "old" 400mm f2.8 VR. Not a lie that they're on the new lens, but the way it's written implies that they're new buttons. They're not. Marketeers - do they have no shame?

Anyway...the key point here is that I seriously doubt if any new feature of the new 400mm f2.8 VR - other than the lighter weight of the lens - will really make much (if any) difference in the results one comes back with from the field. The existing ("old") lens is already one of the best lenses Nikon has ever made and is absolutely amazing optically. This lens update is about weight loss - period.

And - partly in answer to emails I'm already getting - will I be acquiring and field-testing the new AF-S Nikkor 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR? I'm undecided. Anyone who has browsed the image galleries on this website (or read the lens section of my "Stuff I Use" page) will know that the existing 400mm f2.8 VR is my number one "go to" lens for wildlife photography and I use it a ton. And, I know I would just LOVE the weight savings. BUT, the bottom line for me will be the bottom line - the delta between what I can get for my current 400mm f2.8 VR and the price of a new one will jack up the price for the weight saving WAY beyond $93.23 CAD per ounce (likely up to about $140 CAD per ounce!). Is that justifiable? That's the question I - and a lot of other wildlife and sports photographers - will be internally debating over the next few months.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

2 May 2014: Why So Silent?

I've received a couple of emails recently asking me why I've gone a bit quiet on this blog. Nothing to worry about - I just finished a very successful Monday-thru-Friday private tutoring session (yes, I do private tutoring - info available right here) and the "spare" time that I'd normally use for web updates was in short supply. And...beginning tomorrow AM I'll be sneaking away for a bit of a vacation (yes, camera in hand!) for the next week or so. Updates - including more feedback on the AF system of the D4s - will resume on or about May 12.

Cheers...

Brad

PS to Mac: I enjoyed your visit - thanks! I'll be posting our "mini-revelation" about the consequences of using DNG files in Capture One Pro shortly after I return! ;-)

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

25 April 2014: Update: 2014 Great Bear Rainforest Photo Tours Sold Out!

Those two spots that opened up yesterday on my 2014 Great Bear Rainforest Instructional Photo Tour are now gone (so both trips are now fully sold out).

Please note that I am now taking bookings for my 2015 Great Bear Rainforest photo tours - all details available the Photo Tours page of this website.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

24 April 2014: Update: 2014 Great Bear Rainforest Photo Tour Availability

I've recently had a bit of shifting around and "migration" of clients between my two autumn 2014 "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" photo tours. So here's the situation as of today:

1. Into the Great Bear Rainforest Instructional Photo Tour (Sept/Oct 2014)

• Number or Remaining Spots: 2 (previously sold out - so two new vacancies)

• Tour Overview:

This photo tour combines several sessions of professional digital wildlife photography instruction with 7 days of exploring the Great Bear Rainforest and photographing its inhabitants, including Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, Humpback Whales, Spirit Bears, and a whole lot more! Following our day of photography instruction in Prince Rupert, BC, we will travel through the Great Bear Rainforest aboard the beautiful Ocean Light II - a comfortable 71' ocean ketch (sailboat). We will be assisted by professional bear guides during our 7 days of intensely working our way through the Great Bear Rainforest! This trip is simply an extraordinary adventure and provides unsurpassed photographic opportunities!

There will be a number of instructional sessions on this photo tour. On the day before we board the Ocean Light II we will have a full day session covering both the technical and creative aspects of wildlife image capture. Once aboard the Ocean Light II we will have multiple shorter sessions (typically 3) covering various topics and techniques in post-processing.

• For WAY More Info: Just download this PDF Brochure (1.3 MB) or contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca.

2. Into the Great Bear Rainforest Instructional Photo Op Photo Tour (October 2014)

• Number or Remaining Spots: 0 (sold out)

Details about ALL my photo tours are available on the Photo Tours page of this website.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

14 April 2014: Fighting to Save the Great Bear Rainforest - Let BC VOTE on Pipelines!

Many viewers of this blog are familiar with the Great Bear Rainforest along the central and northern coast of British Columbia. It is the largest tract of intact temperate rainforest left on the planet - and by "intact" I mean that all species that were present at first contact by Europeans are still found there. Almost ALL the images in my popular Bear Gallery (and many images found in other galleries on this website, such as in my Scenics Gallery) were shot in this spectacular and biologically diverse region. Describing it as a global treasure is fact, not exaggeration.

Currently there is a proposed project to construct a pipeline that's designed to carry toxic diluted bitumen from Alberta's tarsands to the coastal town of Kitimat, BC - right in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. In Kitimat the bitumen will be transferred to supertankers and traverse the narrow and hazardous channels found within the Great Bear Rainforest (the same channels that claimed the Queen of the North ferry on March 22, 2006). The oil will then be shipped to Asia (mostly China) for consumption, benefitting only those who derive financial gain from the extraction and export of oil.

There is a massive public backlash against both the pipeline and the concept of bringing super-tankers into the pristine Great Bear Rainforest - it goes without saying that the inevitable spill will have incredibly severe ecological consequences. Just this past weekend, the town of Kitimat - the pipeline terminus and location of the tanker terminals (and the single location in British Columbia where there WILL be a pronounced positive economic benefit of the pipeline and associated super-tankers) voted AGAINST (by a margin of 58:42) the project in an official plebiscite! The fact that THIS town WOULD economically benefit from the project (and despite the massive spending by Enbridge in advertising and media campaigns to win the vote) and it still rejected the proposal is incredibly significant.

So...why is this on my blog and what am I driving at? Simply this: we need to bring some direct democracy into this incredibly hot debate. Because the pipeline and tanker proposals are likely to have very serious ramifications for the province of BC and will be felt most directly by British Columbians, it seems absolutely irrefutable that British Columbians should be making the decision. Not Albertans. Not temporary residents of Ottawa. But British Columbians.

So...regardless of your position on the pipeline and tankers, speak up for a fair, province-wide vote on this contentious issue:

Sign the Pledge to Push for a Fair, Province-wide Vote

If you're from BC, please take the two or less minutes it will take to reclaim our rightful decision-making power.

Rant over.

Thanks and cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

8 April 2014: Adobe Adds Nikon D4s Support to Photoshop, Bridge, and Lightroom

Those waiting for Adobe to add "official" support for the raw files of the Nikon D4s to Photoshop and Bridge (i.e., via Adobe Camera Raw being updated to version 8.4) and/or those waiting for support of D4s raw files in Lightroom can now rejoice - the free updates to the CC versions of Photoshop/Bridge and to Lightroom 5.x are now available for download. You know where to get 'em. ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

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04 April 2014: Status of 2014 Photo Tours...

Here's a quick update on the status of those of my 2014 photo tours that take place on BC's beautiful Pacific coast:

1. "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" Instructional Photo Tour (late May 2014)

• Number of Remaining Spots: 0 (sold out).
• Please note that I am now taking registrations for the 2015 version of this trip - just go here on my Photo Tours page for details...

2. "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" 5-Day Photo Adventure Photo Op Tour (late May 2014)

• Number of Remaining Spots: 0 (sold out).

3. "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" 4-Day Photo Adventure Photo Op Tour (May/June 2014)

• Number of Remaining Spots: 0 (sold out).
• Please note that I am now taking registrations for the 2015 Khutzeymateen "Photo Op" trip - just go here on my Photo Tours page for details...

4. "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions & More" Photo Tour (early August 2014)

• Number of Remaining Spots: 3.
• For More Info: Download this PDF Brochure
• This trip takes place near the northern tip of Vancouver Island, BC and we travel and stay on a beautiful 71' sailboat (the Ocean Light II). Besides featuring great photo ops for Orcas (Killer Whales), Humpback Whales, Steller Sea Lions and more, this trip provides more opportunities for capturing stunning animalscape-style shots (with fantastic backdrops) that any of my other photo tours. Many of the most popular photos in my Animalscapes Gallery were captured on previous versions of this trip.

5. "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" Instructional Photo Tour (Sept/Oct 2014)

• Number of Remaining Spots: 0 (sold out).
• Please note that I am now taking registrations for the 2015 version of this trip - just go here on my Photo Tours page for details...

6. "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" Photo Op Photo Tour (October 2014)

• Number of Remaining Spots: 1.
• For More Info: Download this PDF Brochure

Note: The autumn "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" Photo Tours are multi-faceted trips, focusing not only on the bears, but on all the inhabitants of the Great Bear Rainforest - and the entire ecosystem in which they thrive. While the bears are an integral part of these trips, if your sole goal is to photograph bears (to the exclusion of other subject matter you will be presented with), this may not be the trip for you. Individuals wishing for a more exclusive "bears-only" trip are recommended to take a closer look at the spring "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tours!

For more information about the tours listed above, or to sign up for any of them, just contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca.

Details about ALL my photo tours are available on the Photo Tours page of this website.

Cheers...

Brad

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02 April 2014: Capture One Questions (and Answers!)

My last blog entry indicating that Phase One had released an update to Capture One with raw file support for the Nikon D4s generated a surprising amount of email with questions about Capture One. I suspect the main reason for this is that while Adobe has offered up a "release candidate" of Adobe Camera Raw with D4s raw file support, they have yet to update Lightroom 5 with D4s support. And, the fact that I said I considered Capture One to be the premium raw converter on the market might have had a little to do with it too. ;-)

Anyway...here are the two main questions I ended up answering several times over the last few days:

1. What are the differences between the two versions of Capture One - Capture One Express and Capture One Pro?

Both use the same image engine, but there are a number of feature differences. The best list I could found summarizing these feature differences can be found here...

The "extra" features of Capture One PRO that matter most to me are the lens correction profiles, the enhanced noise reduction tools, the ability to make selective (or local) adjustments to a raw file before conversion, the black and white conversion tools, and - last but not least - its support for multiple monitors.

2. Why is Capture One Pro my preferred raw converter?

One comment before I jump into my list of reasons: I'm not at ALL anti-Adobe. I use Lightroom to manage my image collection and it is a rare I don't do SOME Photoshop work on an image (after raw conversion using Capture One Pro). For instance - my final output sharpening for a job is always done using Photoshop (and I sharpen differently depending on the use of that output file - web vs. inkjet print vs. offset press vs. yada, yada, yada). And, there are times when NOTHING can replace the precision (and time savings) of a luminosity selection/mask - and to date I've found nothing that can compare to how Photoshop does those. But...when it comes to raw conversions...I prefer Capture One Pro for the following reasons...

A. Default Camera Profiles. Capture One provides tailor-made camera profiles that (according to Phase One) "...bring out the very best in your camera". Long story short - I REALLY like them. And, more importantly, those profiles are often extremely close to where I want to "end up" with an image. Which means a lot fewer steps/clicks to get there and that means it saves me time! I've done LOTS of experimenting with both Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw and often (but not always) I can get to close to the same place (as when using Capture One Pro) in my raw conversions using those products. But invariably it takes more steps, more clicks, and more time.

B. Noise Reduction. Just like with the camera profiles, Capture One Pro has camera-specific noise profiles that do - overall - a great job. I almost never have to touch the values "chosen" for an image, and I almost never have to do any further noise reduction in any part of my workflow. Of course, the "default" noise reduction values can easily be over-ridden (with high precision) if you want a different look or feel to your image.

C. Capture Sharpening. I like to perform light capture sharpening on my images during raw conversion (with output-specific sharpening coming later in my workflow) - and I definitely prefer the sharpening in Capture One Pro over that in Lightroom or ACR.

D. Light-on-light and dark-on-dark detail retrieval. I've found NO software that compares to how well Capture One Pro can retrieve blown highlights (or lost shadow detail) while still retaining subtle tonal differences in zones you thought were destined to end up as flat tones. Works great.

E. Vibrant Colour. This one is easy - I love how Capture One Pro renders colours. Like with the camera profiles, if I work long enough in Lightroom or ACR I can often get close to the same colours as those rendered by Capture One. But not always...

One word of warning to those who might be thinking of switching over to Capture One from Lightroom (or Apple's Aperture). While some photographers - including a surprising number of pros - use Capture One Pro as their sole workflow tool, it really doesn't offer the full "Swiss Army Knife" soup-to-nuts capabilities of Lightroom or Aperture. You won't be building slideshows or creating a book within Capture One Pro. But if you're concerned about ultimate image quality, or if you're philosophically opposed to Adobe's new subscription model method of keeping their fingers on your credit card, or if you just want to find a quality raw converter for those shiny new D4s raw files, you might want to take Capture One for a spin. Their fully-functional (but 60-day time limited) trial software can be downloaded here...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

31 March 2014: Phase One's Capture One Adds D4s Raw Support!

Phase One's Capture One (including the Pro version) has been updated to include support for raw files from the Nikon D4s. Many (including me) consider Capture One to be the premium raw converter on the market and owners of D4s who use Capture One will be real happy about this!

The updated software (Version 7.2.1) - including a fully-functional time-limited 60-day trial version - can be downloaded right here:

www.phaseone.com/en/Downloads/Capture-One-Pro-7.aspx

Yippee!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

20 March 2014: Protecting BC's Great Bears - An Event. Don't Miss It!

This is an entry specifically for all visitors of this website from British Columbia (or those visiting BC in the near future): I'm joining forces with British Columbia's top conservation organization in two coming events in Victoria and Vancouver focused on protecting coastal grizzly bears and other large carnivores throughout the entire Great Bear Rainforest.

Background Info: Over the past decade or so Raincoast has been pursuing a strategy of purchasing the commercial hunting tenures in the Great Bear Rainforest. In 2005 Raincoast and its supporters purchased an exclusive 25,000 sq km hunting license for $1.3 million. This purchase effectively ended commercial trophy hunting of all large carnivores over a huge section of BC's coast. A subsequent purchase (protecting the Spirit Bear) followed in 2012 (more background info on this unique approach to conservation can be found here...).

The Current Campaign: NOW it's time to take the next step and complete the job. It's time to take action to secure the remaining hunting tenures.

The EVENTS! Join us for an evening of discussion and great imagery entitled "The Ethics, Ecology, and Economics of Grizzly Conservation"! Raincoast's Brian Falconer will lead a discussion on securing the remaining hunting tenures and your's truly will be presenting a photo essay on the bears and other carnivores we're fighting to protect in the Great Bear. Here are the event details:

1. Victoria Show:

• Date: Friday, March 28, 2014
• Time: 6-9 PM
• Location: David Lam Auditorium, University of Victoria
• More Info: Here on Raincoast's website...
• Tickets and cost? Admission by donation, but reserve YOUR spot here
• Official Invitation? Download your electronic invitation (evite) here (great for forwarding to friends!)
• Bonus Items? Of course! Several raffle items, including one of my last two Misty Morning Dip Limited Edition Prints!

2. Vancouver Show:

• Date: Saturday, March 29, 2014
• Time: 6-9 PM
• Location: Ross Beaty Lecture Theatre, UBC
• More Info: Here on Raincoast's website...
• Tickets and cost? Admission by donation, but reserve YOUR spot here
• Official Invitation? Download your electronic invitation (evite) here (great for forwarding to friends!)
• Bonus Items? Of course! As in Victoria, several raffle items, including one of my last two Misty Morning Dip Limited Edition Prints!

Hope to see you there!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

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

A few notes about the shot:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I found: The results are simple to explain:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on the D4s coming soon - stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

07 March 2014: Nikon D4s Arrives...But...

A D4s with my name on it arrived in Calgary, Alberta way back on March 5. Unfortunately (or fortunately I suppose, depending on one's viewpoint), I'm around 800 km away in frosty Manitoba leading a photo tour dedicated to capturing images of owls which features Great Gray, Northern Hawk, and Snowy Owls (with the odd Barred Owl thrown in for good measure). I'll be picking my D4s this coming Sunday on my way back to my BC home.

Expect my first comments about its performance beginning mid to late next week right here on this blog!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

27 February 2014: Carnivores, Trophic Cascades, and How Wolves Change Rivers

Many of the regular visitors of this website and blog already know that the main reason I'm a photographer is to support conservation causes. In fact, I prefer to be described as a conservation photographer rather than as a wildlife photographer. My strongest passion is carnivore conservation. The conservation of those animals occupying the top of the food chain is challenging and those fighting for carnivores run into all sorts of obstacles - most of which are the result of long-held but misinformed biases. Take wolves for example - while absolutely hated by a small minority of North Americans, the reality is that they have a low cost to society (for background feel free to read this: On the Cost of a Wolf), but they also have high value to our society (for background on this go here: On the Value of a Wolf). But try getting a rancher or politician to participate in a science-based discussion on wolf conservation...well...that's a challenge up there with getting a photo of a flying pig.

One of the strongest arguments in favour of actively conserving our carnivores is the ecological concept of Trophic Cascades. Simply put, this well-documented ecological process means that small actions at the TOP of the food chain tumble all the way down to the bottom of a food chain - with massive consequences to the entire ecosystem and even the landscape itself. One of the best examples of a trophic cascade in action - and a strong, strong argument in favour of wolf conservation (and even re-introduction in areas where they have been extirpated) - is brilliantly shown in the following short video. Take 4:33 out of your life (or work day!) and give it a look:

How Wolves Change Rivers (video; 4:33 duration).

For those who want to help in the fight to save our carnivores - the biggest single hurdle faced in carnivore conservation isn't really a technical or logistic one - it's changing the attitude of policy-makers towards cornivores. A great first step is getting folks (including those who are against carnivore conservation) to accept the value and maintenance of carnivores on our planet. And a simple way to do this is to spread the word about this video...so please pass this along!

For the picky critics - to a Brit an elk is a deer (a Red Deer)! Those viewing the video will know what I mean!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

25 February 2014: The Nikon D4s - The Devil WILL be in the Details!

At the stroke of midnight last night (at least midnight somewhere on the planet) Nikon did the expected and announced their new flagship DSLR - the D4s. As most long-term Nikon-o-philes expected, the camera is a refinement - or evolution - of the D4, and remains at 16 MP. The best place to go for the full specification list is right here on dpreview's website...

It would be easy to look at the specs of this camera and ask "what's the big deal?" It doesn't have a teleporter (think Star Trek). It won't soak up atmospheric CO2 and solve the issue of climate change. It won't even improve the gas mileage of your car! And I'm being this facetious to point out how the incredible pace of technological advancement has completely warped what we consider product change or product development.

The D4s offers a huge list of improvements over the D4s - but many of them are important to only limited user groups. For instance, I'm a wildlife photographer first and foremost, so I really don't care much about using face detection (of bears?) to determine metering - but I can see something like that being fantastic for some event photographers or wedding photographers. Additionally, improvements like supporting faster transfer rates when connected via LAN isn't important at all to me, but may be super news for pros in other disciplines.

What are the key improvements of the D4s from this wildlife photographer's perspective? Here's the things that attracted my attention:

• New sensor with claimed improvements in noise at high ISO's (in combination with a new image processing engine - the "Expeed 4" processing engine).

• Improvements in autofocus function - although at this point all we really know is that Nikon is stating "tweaked and improved autofocus algorithms". The D4 AF system was already amazing - if it's significantly better in the D4s - well...this is the kind of thing that can be critical in the field.

• Slightly faster frame rate with full autofocus capabilities (now 11 fps rather than 10 fps).

"What? Only 3 bullet points caught your interest?" Yep, but not all bullet points are created equal - IF the D4s is one stop better in ISO performance and IF those tweaked AF algorithms result in noticeable improvement in autofocus performance in the field, then for me the D4s will be well worth the money. With the D4s - the devil WILL be in the details!

Finally, a few answers to questions I've already received via email:

1. Do you already have a D4s and have you been shooting with it?

No.

2. Are you getting a D4s?

Yes - as soon as possible. Nikon already has my "Priority Purchase" order (for Canadian NPS members).

3. Is there anything else you wished the D4s had or did differently?

Yes - I STILL think it's crazy to have two different card slots - complete pain in the field (among other places). My preference would have been to have two XQD slots. But, on the positive side, they didn't add a third slot (for SD cards). ;-)

4. What about the relative lack of improvement in video capabilities?

For my uses - I couldn't care less. But I do appreciate why this might be important to other users.

5. What about improved battery life?

Nice feature and possibly a noteworthy feature (and bullet point!) for some, but I haven't been limited in battery life in a field situation (even shooting in subzero weather) since the D1. And I often shoot full days in awful weather with big lenses with VR on full-time.

6. What about the new expanded ISO range (all the way up to ISO 409,600 - which is close to ISO one zillion)?

I'm thinking that's likely going to be pretty academic for me. What will be critical for me will be how high of an ISO I can shoot and get very high quality results that I please me and that I can sell - not how high I can dial the camera up to. I did find instances with the D4 where I was able to shoot at ISO 10,000 to 12,800 and get gallery quality results (e.g., check out this bear portrait shot at ISO 10,000). If I can shoot the D4s at up to ISO 25,600 and get quality results that please me I will be in 7th heaven. Fingers crossed.

7. Do I wish the camera was 24 MP?

Well sure - but only if it could be done with no change in ISO performance, burst number and frame rate, etc. Which I'm pretty sure is currently impossible. Bottom line: on this camera speed is far more important to me than going from 16 MP to 24 MP.

8. My thoughts on the new setting permitting the shooting of smaller (2464 x 1610 pixel) raw files?

Not important to me. I use Photoshop in my workflow and know how to crop!

As soon as the D4s is in my hands I will begin reporting my findings and thoughts that are based on real experience with the camera. Stay tuned.

Cheers...

Brad

PS: Twin golds in Olympic hockey - nirvana. Twin golds in Olympic curling - more nirvana. To most Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast, nothing else really matters (but congrats to all our other medal winners). Olympic perfection and Canuck heaven.

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

18 February 2014: Adapting to a High Res World...

Not so long ago it was relatively simple to produce and optimize images for online viewing. You could pretty much assume that MOST displays were in the 72 to 96 pixel per inch (ppi) range and produce appropriately sized (and appropriately sharpened) images that would look fairly similar across devices (baring differences in colour that you can only hope are minor!).

And then came Retina - first on iPhone (326 ppi), then iPad (264 ppi), and then on MacBook Pros (220 ppi). Suddenly our 72-96 ppi display world "expanded" into a 72-326 ppi one! This would be no big deal to how we prep our images for online display if Apple and others moving toward the high density displays showed graphics in their "native" (1:1) resolution. But doing this would mean that all images prepped for that 72-96 ppi world would suddenly be TINY on the high density displays like the Retinas. Deciding that would be bad, Apple decided to build powerful interpolation into their software (including their browsers) and in doing so they instantly "inflate" our images to a "more reasonable" - and much larger - size (so you don't need a loupe or magnifying glass to view a website!). Overall this approach of "blowing up" the size of websites is probably a good one, except for websites of picky photographers (like this one). What were once very sharp images are suddenly soft and, at times, pixelated! Horrors!

There are ways to deal with this new reality, but none are simple and straight-forward or without compromises. Those with a geekoid bent (like me) might be interested in some of the technical solutions as described on the focality.com website, which you can check out right here:

How to optimize images for Retina and high density screens.

I own 3 devices with high density displays - an iPhone 5s, a "new" iPad, and a MacBook Pro with Retina display. I have to admit that it was paining me to see images on my own website that I knew were sharp appear soft and almost fuzzy on my iPad and, to an even greater degree, on my MacBook Pro. I have enough background in digital technology to realize that if I started optimizing images for the high density displays (simply by increasing the resolution of the source images and "commanding" the browser to display them "smaller" on the lower res devices) that the net result would be MUCH sharper looking images on the high density displays, but slightly softer looking images on the lower "traditional" displays (i.e., those in the 72-96 ppi range). There ARE other ways to deal with the problem (outlined in the reference above on focality.com), but bumping the pixel count of the images is definitely the simplest solution.

So...if one's images are going to appear slightly softer on "traditional" displays but MUCH sharper on the new high-density displays - well...what should one do? An obvious variable in the decision is the percentage of displays out there in the "traditional" vs. high density category. Over the last several months I've watched the website traffic on my website closely, and paid particular attention to what's happening with respect to the resolution of the devices used to view my website. Six months ago only 18% of my traffic was from tablets and other mobile devices (and 82% of the traffic was from desktops and laptops). Today, 30% of the traffic is from tablets and mobile devices. And it's almost misleading to say "tablets" - over 90% of the tablets are iPads with Retina displays and almost all the "mobile" traffic (again over 90%) is from iPhones with Retina displays. And, of the laptops/desktops used to view this website (70% of all traffic) a disproportionate number of them are Macs (44%). And a surprising number of them have Retina displays. Bottom line - when I crunch ALL the numbers, 28% of the current traffic on this website is viewing it with a high density display - and that number is growing fast.

So...time to adapt. As of today, all new "standard-sized" images posted in the galleries of this website will be optimized for the high density displays. The "standard-sized" images are those displayed in the main window of any image gallery after a thumbnail is clicked. I don't have the time to instantly convert all the existing images on this website to high density optimized versions, but over time most will migrate to the new format. This will mean that the new images will appear a LITTLE to a LOT sharper to those viewing this website with a high density display (on Retina equipped laptops this will be determined largely by the users settings of the resolution of the display). And it will mean that pixel peepers on more "traditional" displays MIGHT notice a very slight softening of the images (tho' I'm betting if I didn't say anything would have noticed!).

Curious about how large the differences are? Here's a before/after example from my bear gallery (and note that you may have to flush your browser's cache to see the two different versions):

Optimized for High Density (Retina) Displays.

Optimized for Lower-Res "Traditional" Displays.

Check out both images on any or all devices you own - odds are if it's a "traditional" display you won't notice much difference between them. But if it's a high density display (especially Retina iPad or Retina MacBook Pro) the version optimized for a high density display will appear noticeably sharper.

Finally - I have to do the Canadian thing and apologize. To who? Those on lower-speed internet connections or with limited bandwidth. The method I'm using to produce the new high-density-display-optimized-images (that's a mouthful!) increases their file size by about 30% to 80%, depending on the scene. Sorry 'bout that - but...hey...it's a PHOTOGRAPHY website!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

11 February 2014: Introducing...The Natural Art Images Newsletter!

Looking for a simple way to stay on top of critical goings-on in the world of wildlife photography? You know...stuff like real world field tests of current camera gear that provide you with the REAL lowdown on how it actually works in the field and not just what some marketing geeks WANT you to think? How about tips that will help you ensure that your images are the sharpest they can possibly be? And wildlife conservation issues that could affect how you work in the field now and in the future? And a whole lot more...

Well...then there's no doubt about it - you NEED to sign-up for the Natural Art Images Newsletter! And signing up is simple as pie! Just email me at:

newsletter@naturalart.ca

• Stuff you MUST include in your sign-up request: Just your name (first and last) and your email address!

• Optional info you CAN include: Country, province/state, and your camera brand


More About the Newsletter...

A few anticipated FAQ's (and answers) about the newsletter:

1. Are you going to fill my in-bin with junk email?

Nope - not at all. You'll get 4-6 newsletters per year and that's it. And, they'll come ONLY when I have interesting information and/or worthwhile content to share.

2. Are you going to sell or share my email address?

Absolutely NOT. I won't share it, lend it out, rent it out, sell it, or abuse it any way. Guaranteed.

3. Are you going to give me a chance at nabbing your used camera gear BEFORE you put it on your website?

Good idea - sure I'll do that.

4. Are you going to give me a chance at booking a spot on your most popular photo tours BEFORE you put them up on your website or market them anywhere else?

Another good idea - sure I'll do that too!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

5 February 2014: Major Re-working of "Stuff I Use - Lenses" Page

Can you tell that one of my goals for this week was to make some long overdue updates to this website? ;-)

I just completed a major re-working of the page on this website that describes what lenses I use (and why). This page also lists what lenses I have "discarded" - and why I discarded them. The re-working of the page was done to accommodate my acquisition of the AF-S 24-120mm f4 VR; the AF-S 70-200mm f4 VR; and the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR as well as my "disposal" of the AF-S 200mm f2 VR and the AF-S 200-400mm f4 VR.

Here's the link to the updated version of my "Stuff I Use - Lenses" page:

Stuff I Use - Part II: Lenses & Teleconverters (Updated).

More updates coming over the next week or so.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

5 February 2014: Minor Update to AF-S 80-400mm VR Field Test

I made a very minor update to my field test of the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR this morning - I added a sample image that demonstrates the performance of the AF system of the 80-400 when paired up with the D800e (it's in section I-7).

Here's the link to the updated field test:

Field Tests: The Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR (Updated).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

4 February 2014: Minor Update to TC-20EIII (2x) Teleconverter Review

I made a very minor update to my field test of the TC-20EIII (2x teleconverter) today - I added in the performance (and my subjective usability rating) for the TC-20EIII when paired with the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR. In doing so I had to add in a new usability rating on my scale. The new rating is "Non-existent"! There are MANY good reasons to purchase the "new" 80-400mm VR, but performance with the 2x teleconverter isn't one of them!

Here's the link to the updated TC-20EIII Field Test

Field Tests: Nikon's Series III Teleconverters (Updated).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

2 February 2014: "4 Ways to 400mm" Review Updated...

Way back in April of 2010 I produced a field test called "4 Ways to 400mm" that has proven to be exceptionally popular. Four years later and that page is still receiving around 1,000 unique visitors per month. The only problem is that it is out-of-date - in the last year or so Nikon has provided two NEW ways to get to 400mm in a way that's affordable to many users. These ways are through using the excellent new AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR or pairing the equally excellent 70-200mm f4 VR up with the 2x TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter.

How do these two new means of getting to 400mm stack up against the 4 ways I discussed way back in 2010? Check out the updated article right here:

Field Tests: 4 Ways to 400mm (Updated).

Looking for a meaningful way to thank me for all my unpaid work assisting wildlife photographers? Nope I'm NOT going to ask you to open your wallet and donate to me and my dogs. What I'd like best is for you to sign my petition to put an end to the inhumane use of killing neck snares against wolves as practiced by the BC Gov't. And you can do that right here:

Stop the Use of Killing Neck Snares Against Wolves in British Columbia.

Thanks & Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

29 January 2014: Confusion About the Build Quality of the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR

Not surprisingly, my field test of the AF-S 80-400 is generating a lot of interest (over 13,000 views already!) and a lot of feedback via email. Most of the feedback has been very positive and several who own the lens have said that their experience matches the comments and overall tone of my review extremely closely. That's gratifying (and insert one "Phew!" here!).

But one area where there seems to be confusion is on the build quality of the lens, largely because of very conflicting comments/opinions about the build quality than can be found online. For instance, in my review I began the section on build quality with this statement:

"Those who own some of Nikon's "best-of-the-best" lenses, such as any of their super-telephotos or top notch FX zooms (e.g., the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII) will likely be disappointed in the look and feel and general build quality/feel of this lens in their hands. Simply put, if feels more "plasticky" and when the zoom is extended it seems almost "wobbly" and fragile..."

But go to the review of the lens on slrgear.com (here) and you'll find their "official" review says this:

"The build quality in the new Nikon 80-400mm lens is excellent with the barrel comprised of metal and high-quality plastic, all painted with Nikon's typical black stipple finish. The lens feels solid, wide and beefy in the hands."

And, to complicate matters further, here's an excerpt from an email I received from Eric in Japan just a few days back:

"Just a quick feedback on my side: I've been enjoying the 80-400 since I purchased it here in Japan last July. Yesterday it fell down 30-40 cm on soft floor: all the hood's and the lens' plastic thread was broken. Now hood very difficult to use and not fix. My point: good lens, but surprisingly weak for the price."

In the end, I stand by what I said - I think those who have experienced the superb build quality of Nikon's best lenses WILL be disappointed if they expect the 80-400 to be of same build quality as a (for example) 300mm f2.8 VR or even the 200-400mm f4 VR. The hood or other parts on ANY lens (or the lens itself) can break if dropped, but I DO suspect that the "best-of-the-best" lenses would hold up better to the abuse of being dropped than the 80-400 would. To date, my 80-400 has held up fine to heavy, rugged - but non-abusive - field use. Is the build quality of the 80-400 sufficient to please you? I can't answer that...

I have no doubt Nikon could have made this lens with absolutely top-notch build quality. I don't know the financial consequence of this (or how much heavier the lens would have ended up being), but here's something to ponder - would YOU be willing to fork our $2999 or even $3499 for the same lens but with "best-of-the-best" build quality? I probably would, but I suspect many wouldn't. Just food for thought...

Finally...how can I explain slrgear.com's comments about the "excellent" build quality of the 80-400? Don't ask me - ask them! ;-)

My full field test of the 80-400 can be found here:

Field Tests: The Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

27 January 2014: AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR Field Test Complete!

This morning I finished off the last two sections on my AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR field test. The sections just put to bed include Part IIB (with the tongue-twisting title of "Optical Performance at Various Distances, Focal Lengths, and In Comparison to a Variety of Nikkor Lenses") and Part IV - the final conclusion.

My final word on this lens? For me - it's absolutely a keeper - and one I'll be using a lot.

Check the field test out here:

Field Tests: The Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

25 January 2014: Late Cancellation Opens Up 1 Spot on Owls of Manitoba Photo Tour

A late cancellation has opened up one spot on my early March "Owls of Manitoba" photo tour. Those on the waiting list have been contacted and can't step in - so this opening is now officially up for grabs. Great Gray Owls are the "headline act" on this tour, with Northern Hawk-owls nipping at their heels in popularity. Other owls we have a good chance of encountering include Great Horned, Snowy, Barred, Eastern Screech-owl, Northern Saw-whet, and Short-eared.

All the details of the trip can be found right here on my Photo Tours page. Contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca for more info or to book your spot!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

24 January 2014: Update to My Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR Field Test

I've updated my field test on the AF-S 80-400mm by adding information on the optical performance under controlled field shooting. The new information includes comments on overall optical performance, edge-to-edge sharpness and more through to performance with teleconverters. Check it out right here: Field Tests: The Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

23 January 2014: Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR Field Test

Finally - my field test of the "new" AF-S version of the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR is almost done. And, it's far enough along that I've gone ahead and posted it (right here: Field Tests: The Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR).

What remains to be added to the review? A small section in the middle called "Optical Performance Under Controlled Field Shooting"! But don't worry - no bad surprises coming in that section...I'm just finishing writing it up and processing a few test shots and I hope to have it online in a few days. While there will be lots of interesting tidbits in this section, the summary of the optical performance will read something like this: "The optical performance of the AF-S (i.e., updated) version of the lens is far superior ot the original version. While you can find a sharper lens for virtually all the focal lengths offered by the 80-400, you won't find many options that are MUCH sharper. And, most importantly for many, the lens is as sharp as the venerable 200-400mm f4 VR at all overlapping focal lengths (at all distances)."

Many will only have the time (or the energy) to read the "Executive Summary" - so...for their convenience...here it is:

My Executive Summary of the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR:

The AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR is a significant and worthwhile upgrade from its predecessor. It's an incredibly versatile lens that will meet most of the needs for many, many nature and wildlife photographers. The build quality doesn't match Nikon's best and most expensive lenses, but for most uses it's simply good enough - and it stood up to a full field season of rugged field use with nary a problem. The autofocus system proved to be accurate and fast enough to capture any action - from birds-in-flight through to running mammals. The Vibration Reduction technology permitted me to effectively hand-hold the lens at manageable "real-world" shutter speeds (1/focal length and often slower) for all focal lengths. Optical quality? While one can find a Nikon lens that's sharper at virtually every focal length, this is a solid performer over its entire focal range and it produces images sharp enough to please most any user. Image sharpness was comparable to the almost legendary 200-400mm f4 VR at all overlapping focal lengths. The size and weight of the lens makes it extremely portable - whether in a backpack, waist-mounted holster system, or in your carry-on luggage on a plane. Taken as a whole, and for almost any nature or wildlife photographer, this is as close to a "must-have" lens as you can get.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

14 January 2014: Announcing: 2015 Photo Tours!


Announcing: 2015 Photo Tours!

For those who've been waiting and/or emailed me about the details of my 2015 Photo Tours - I just posted them on the Photo Tours page of this website. You can jump directly to the 2015 listings by following this link. Two further notes:

1. When will I begin accepting registrations? Immediately - and on a first-come, first-served basis.

2. Is this ALL my photo tours for 2015? Very likely NOT - I am working on putting together at minimum of two additional tours (and I will post details as soon as I have them).

Historically my two fastest selling tours have been my spring "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" tours and my autumn "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" tours - so if you're hoping to participate in one of those trips it's probably best to contact me in the near future.

Anyone looking for more information than what is found on my Photo Tours page should contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca.

Cheers...

Brad

13 January 2014: The Return of Lysenkoism - In Canada!

I'm going to attempt to keep the bulk of my blog entries in 2014 directly relevant to photography, but sometimes ya just gotta speak out. This is one of those times.

Way back when I was in graduate school (and trust me, that's WAY back!), I took a course entitled "The Philosophy of Science". I just loved the course. Anyway...during that course we talked extensively about Lysenkoism which, for those who don't know, refers to an era (the 1920's through to the 1960's) when, in the Soviet Bloc, the scientific process and scientific thinking (specifically in the field of evolutionary inheritance and good oid fashioned Mendelian genetics) was manipulated and distorted to conform to Soviet ideology (at its most basic, the Darwinian concept of "survival of the fittest" didn't fit well with communist theory). At its worst Lysenkoism resulted in the execution of many biologists and the starvation of millions as Trofim Lysenko's "politically correct" but utterly fallacious genetic principles were enacted and impacted extremely negatively on Soviet agricultural practices. Those interested in this deadly perversion of science can read a nice overview about it right here...

I wrote a paper on the subject and distinctly recall thinking how stupid it was, and how it could obviously never happen in this day and age. Fast forward to the present. Fast forward to a Canadian Government that is doing its utmost to squelch scientists who publish - or even say - ANYTHING that may conflict with their goal of ravaging and exploiting the natural resources Canada in the quickest manner possible (regardless of the environmental cost). Fast forward to a government who has fired over 2,000 federal scientists who were producing inconvenient truths. Fast forward to a government who is focused on having its ideology manipulate, distort, and even crush the scientific process and independent thought.

Why is this appearing in a blog focused mainly on wildlife photography? Well...if the current plundering of science, knowledge, and Canada's unmatched wilderness areas goes unchecked, before long there will be no areas left in Canada that one could even hope to call pristine. And, before long, nowhere where we can partake in true wildlife photography.

I strongly urge anyone - regardless of where you are from - who cares about the integrity of the science and the state of Canada's wild places to view the following full-length special that appeared on CBC's Fifth Edition on January 10, 2014:

The Silence of the Labs.

My thanks are extended to the CBC for having the courage to produce and broadcast this chilling special. Among other things, the current Harper/Tea Party Government of Canada is certainly trying to shutdown the CBC.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

9 January 2014: Back to the Future: NPN Wildlife Gallery Moderator (Again!)

Some of you may know that for a number of years I was one of (or, at times, the only) moderator of the Wildlife Gallery on The Nature Photographer's Network (or NPN). And, some of you may even know that about a year ago I resigned from that role - largely to have more time to invest in some conservation issues. Well - as of January 5 I stepped back into the role of Wildlife Gallery moderator (along with two other excellent wildlife photographers - Lon Sharp and Gary Gulash). If you have the time, you should check out NPN's Wildlife Gallery - in there you'll always find interesting wildlife shots, and often you'll find some simply GREAT shots! The photographers that participate vary from novice through to seasoned professional.

Why do I support NPN so strongly? Well, to begin with, there's the obvious (but very real) reasons - it's one of the absolute best "deals" out there for a nature photographer. It's a welcoming and friendly online community and a fantastic vehicle for learning the nuances of nature photography from some amazing photographers.

And there's one more reason - one that's critically important to me. NPN, and in particular the NPN Wildlife Gallery, has taken a strong stance AGAINST the baiting of wildlife. In the Wildlife Gallery there is a plain and simple rule: images of baited animals are prohibited. Period. This policy is as strong as it gets against baiting. And, it is a whole lot stronger than the rules you'll find in many (most) wildlife photography competitions, including even the renowned Natural History Museum/BBC's "Wildlife Photographer of the Year" competition, which specifically prohibits only the use of live bait (view their entry rules here) - implying that use non-live bait is totally acceptable. You'll see me enter the Natural History Museum/BBC's "Wildlife Photographer of the Year" competition when they ban all use of baiting, and not before.

What is so bad about baiting wildlife for the purposes of photography? To make a long story short, I firmly believe that wildlife photographers should always conform to one over-riding ethical principle:

A wildlife photographer should not intentionally engage in ANY activity known to harm their subject(s).

I find it hard to believe that ANY wildlife photographer will OPENLY disagree with this ethical foundation.

Now...there is ample documentation (I daresay "the preponderance of the evidence") clearly indicating that in almost all cases the supplemental feeding of wildlife is harmful, including even the regular feeding of songbirds (those who don't believe this can email me and I will provide some source references for you to start with). There is a reason that feeding wildlife is illegal in many places. The harmful effects include (but are not limited to) obvious issues like digestive problems and physiological problems (salt balance issues, malnutrition, etc., all the way up to the problem of death) caused by providing inappropriate food to the animals. But they also include less visible problems, such as an impact on spacing behaviour (e.g., collapsing individual or flock territories and thus increasing social strife) to the point where breeding success is inhibited. In the case of mammalian carnivores, the big, big problem is the speed with which they form food associations with humans if they receive supplemental food (including through baiting), and those food associations almost always result in the death of the carnivore. Yep, a fed bear (or wolf, or cougar, or...) IS a dead bear. Is it possible to find a single instance where baiting and/or supplemental feeding isn't harmful to the subject? Sure. But, odds are, if you dig deep enough, almost all instances of wildlife feeding are detrimental to the subject. The best policy? If you can figure out no way to photograph it without baiting it, go photograph something else.

Why does baiting persist? I can think of at least two reasons. First, there are photographers who are unaware of its harmful effects. Photo competitions and magazines that don't prohibit baiting contribute to this feeling of baiting being acceptable (and harmless). Hopefully there are fewer photographers who are unaware of the harmful effects of baiting now. Second, and sadly, there are some who know it is harmful but know it works. And their images are more important to them then their subjects are. And they're willing to bait and even cover it up. I lump this group in with athletes who cheat using performance-enhancing drugs...hmmm...that gives me an idea for a thought-provoking and effective title to an essay..."Baiting - The Wildlife Photographer's Steroids". Hmmm...

Did NPN's aggressive stance cost them any paying members? I am not in charge of membership, but I did notice that certain photographers abruptly ceased posting images in the Wildlife Gallery immediately after the rule was implemented. But NPN stuck to the rule, even if it hit them in the pocketbook. And, for me, because they put the ethics of wildlife photography AHEAD of the profit of wildlife photography I believe they are very worthy of my support. NPN - good on ya'!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

7 January 2014: Nikon Press Release: Announcing a Pending Announcement...

Yesterday Nikon issued made a surprising announcement that contained several critical details that ardent Nikon-o-philes probably had no clue about:

• There WILL be a successor to the D4 flagship DSLR (which, apparently, is now a HD-DSLR).
• Quite shockingly, that successor will be known as the D4s.
• Sometime in the future it WILL be announced, and...
• there WILL be a time when specs, availability, and price will be disclosed.

Of course, the new camera will be better - largely because better things and more goodness factors have been added to it. Those craving more details are encouraged to close their eyes and then vigorously rub them.

And - also of course - with details like this I'm just dying to get my hands on this incredible new machine. One can only imagine the amazing and often stunning things that can be done with this exciting new imaging tool.

And, one can only hope that all versions of the press release used for this ground-shaking announcement were electronic (and not a single sheet of paper was wasted on this inane exercise).

Sheesh.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

2 January 2014: All I want from Nikon in 2014...

What - in a perfect dream world - would I want Nikon to deliver to us in 2014? Funny enough, it's EXACTLY what I wanted them to deliver in January of 2013!

As we begin 2014 even the most cynical of Nikon-o-philes would have to admit that Nikon currently has a pretty solid product lineup for the serious (and professional) nature photographer. The incomparable D4 (sorry Canon 1D X users - your camera is very good, but it's not a D4!). The two kings of resolution - the D800 and D800e. The amazingly versatile and affordable D600 and its tweaked successor - the D610. And a great overall lineup of lenses.

When I stop and think about my personal "in-a-perfect-world" list I can really only come up with TWO products I really would like (I won't even dare to use the word "need") for my own uses - and would absolutely love Nikon to introduce in 2014:

1. A NEW 300mm f4 Prime Lens - with VR:

The more I test and use two of Nikon's newer lenses - the excellent 70-200mm f4 VR lens and the incredibly useful and versatile 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR - the more I want Nikon to update the existing AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4D IF-ED lens. Make it a G lens. Give it a pro build quality. Update the optics to meet the demands of ALL the FX bodies. Make it teleconverter-friendly. And, most importantly, add VR to it - preferably the same VR as on the new 70-200mm f4 VR with up to 5 stops of stabilization and both Normal and Active modes. Don't scrimp on this lens - go for quality, not a price point. And, even if you charged $2,000 or slightly more, you'd sell a gadzillion of them. And make me (and thousands of other shooters) very, very happy.

What do I think the chances of this happening are? Well, exactly ONE year ago I said this:

"Actually...pretty good. It's just so logical...and the current 300mm f4 is REALLY long-in-the-tooth. Fingers crossed on this one!"

And, of course, it didn't happen. So, one year later what do I think? Well - pretty much the same thing - I think it IS likely we'll see this lens - sometime in the future. And I hope to heck I'm not forced to say the same thing 12 months from now!

2. A PRO LEVEL DX Body:

I'm not going to be too hard to please on this one. Give us a DX body with a D700/D800 (Japanese) build quality. Make it relatively compact and with an optional battery grip (that increases its frame rate from 5 fps to 8 or 9 fps). 16-18 MP. D800 level autofocus system. Video? I don't care. Price it at $2k (or even $2500). Call it anything you want - a D400, a D500...whatever. And Nikon would sell tons of them (and cause even more Canon users to make the switch). All without doing any significant parasitizing of the sales of any of the FX bodies.

And what do I think the chances are of Nikon giving us this pro-quality DX camera? A year ago I said this:

"Close to zero. Nikon seems to have decided that the DX format is for entry level, and that all serious users want full-frame. Tons of sports and wildlife shooters disagree...but this is what Nikon apparently thinks. Sigh..."

So what are the chances NOW (a full year later)? Well...given that 2013 saw the introduction of two "non-pro" DX cameras (the D7100 and the D5300), I'd have to say that the chances are even CLOSER to zero (than ever) that we'll see a pro-level DX camera (in 2014, or EVER!).

Anything else I'd like to see Nikon introduce or update in 2014? Well...if I was really pressed I could come up with some other "would-be-nice-to-have" new things from Nikon - maybe like a 400mm f4 VR lens...or an updated 24-70mm f2.8 zoom with a VR on it. But...even if I get only that 300mm f4 VR...well...I'll be happy!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

1 January 2014: HNY - And NPN's Gallery of the Month for December!

First off...to all the visitors of this website - Happy New Year! I sincerely hope that 2014 brings you good light, good subjects, and good times!

Second...a minor announcement. Each month the editor of The Nature Photographer's Network (NPN) chooses a "Gallery of the Month" from among all the NPN members' image galleries. The galleries themselves are automatically generated by any member that posts images in any of the critiquing galleries that are the centrepiece of NPN. In time, members who regularly post images there end up with a sizeable collection of work in their galleries. For instance, I post on NPN about once per week (often with the same image that goes into my Gallery of Latest Additions on this website for that week). My gallery on NPN now consists of 184 images.

Anyway...I found out just a few days back that my gallery on NPN has been chosen as the Gallery of the Month for December 2013! This unexpected bit of recognition was one of those "Oh...I didn't even know I was entered in that" kind of things that more or less came out of the blue - which in some respects makes it even nicer than "winning" something you had knowledge you were competing in!

You can view the "Gallery of the Galleries of the Month" on NPN (i.e., a listing of ALL winning galleries of the month since May 2011) right here. This "gallery of galleries" leads to some pretty impressive images of encompassing numerous nature photography genres (e.g., landscape photography, macro photography, wildlife photography, etc.), so if you have time it's really worth checking out.

To directly enter MY gallery of images on NPN, just go here.

As an aside, I personally consider NPN membership and participation to be one of the absolute best "deals" out there for a nature photographer. It's a welcoming and friendly online community and a fantastic vehicle for learning the nuances of nature photography. I know that many of the regular visitors to this website also regularly visit NPN, either as members or non-member "lurkers". If you're an aspiring (or accomplished) nature photographer and haven't visited NPN, you should check it out!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

II. Selected 2013/2012 Gear-related Blog Entries

As always, all blog entries from any given calendar year are available in my blog archives. For instance, all blog entries for 2013 may be found here...

For convenience, I have retained and collected some of the more popular 2013 (and even late 2012) gear-related entries immediately below (i.e., have extracted and placed all entries for a specific piece of gear together, beginning with all entries for the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR). I acknowledge that the "chronologically-backwards" (newest to oldest) order of the entries some may find this information a little tricky to follow - but there's lots of valuable tidbits here and this listing IS easier than going to the blog archives and hunting down the information.

Here are some links to help you get to the various sections quickly:

A. Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR
B. The Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Zoom
C. The Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f4 VR
D. Ramblings on Miscellaneous Bits of Gear!

A. Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR

23 December 2013: Whatcha Been Doing? My 80-400mm VR Field Test, That's What!

In recent days I've received an email or two asking me what I've been up to (possibly implying that I've been a bit 'lax' in website updates). The answer? Two things. First, I've been updating a lot of the image galleries on this website - things like building the new Animalscapes & Enviroscapes Gallery, adding images to both the Bear Gallery and the Other Mammals Gallery, et cetera!

Second, I've been putting the finishing touches on my AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR final Field Test write-up. Yes, I've taken my time pushing the review out, simply because I wanted to thoroughly test this lens over an extended period and in a wide variety of situations before offering my 'final' opinion on it. I've shot with the lens all over Canada's west coast, in the Rockies, and up in the Arctic - got it wet (don't tell Nikon), bumped it around, and generally shot with it in almost every way a nature photographer could. And, I tested the lens against a LOT of other lenses - the 400mm f2.8 VR, the 200-400mm f4 VR, the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the 70-200mm f4 VR (both without and without teleconverters), and the 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR. So shortly - hopefully before the New Year - you'll get a review that's a whole lot more than a spec-spew or the results of shooting with the lens for a week or so!

For those who impatient types absolutely need to know what I think about the lens right NOW, here's two things that should help you out a little:

1. My ONE Sentence Summary of the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR:

Its excellent optical quality, wide focal range, relatively small size and light weight, and non-astronomical price tag combine to make the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR one of the most versatile and valuable lenses that a nature photographer of ANY level could own.

2. A Field Guide to My Blog Posts on the 80-400mm 4.5-5.6 VR:

I began commenting on and then testing the 80-400mm VR way back in 9 March 2013. I produced a number of running commentaries reporting my experiences with the lens here on this blog but - given the nature of the beast - hunting for and then reading each entry is much more painful than reading a single field test. But...having a field guide linking those blog entries together can help a little...so for the impatient types...here ya go:

9 March 2013: Preliminary Thoughts on the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR. Written before it was in my hands...

9 May 2013: Very First Impressions. Some early practical considerations (including my criticism of the lens hood and the useless tripod collar) and very early experiences on how the lens performs, including the performance of the AF system.

13 May 2013: Up Close and Personal Part 1. Head-to-head comparison of the performance of the 80-400 against both the 200-400mm f4 VR and the 400mm f2.8 VR (at 400mm ONLY) at a distance of about 4.9m (16'). The kind of distance you'd often use the lens at when photographing things like small mammals or small birds.

15 May 2013: Up Close and Personal Part 2. As immediately above, but add in two 70-200mm lenses (the f2.8 VRII and the "new" f4 VR) - both with and without TC's. And in this case I compared many more focal lengths: 400mm, 360mm, 300mm, 200mm, 135mm, and 80mm.

23 May 2013: Moving Back - Part 1. A large array of head-to-head comparisons of lens performance at a distance of 38m (about 125') - the type of distance one often is at when shooting large mammals like deer, elk, bears, etc. And in this case I compared 5 lenses (80-400mm VR, 200-400mm f4 VR, 400mm f2.8 VR, 70-200mm f4 VR, 70-200mm f2.8 VRIi - these last two with and without TC's) at the following focal lengths: 400mm, 360mm, 300mm, 200mm, 135mm, and 80mm.

19 June 2013: Moving Back - Part 2. As immediately above, but now lenses compared at a distance-to-subject of 80m (about 262'). And, I added the economical 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR to the mix of lenses tested.

16 July 2013: Moving Back - Part 3. As immediately above, but now lenses compared at a distance-to-subject of about a kilometer (just under 1100 yards).

18 July 2013: Performance with Teleconverters. How the 80-400mm VR performs with the TC-14EII (1.4x) and TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverters.

There...that ought to keep you busy until I can get the final review written up!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

18 July 2013: The AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR - Performance with Teleconverters

So...how does the updated 80-400mm VR perform when it is combined with Nikon teleconverters? In the not-too-distant past virtually all Nikon telephoto zooms performed only moderately well (some, including me, would say "poorly) when combined with teleconverters. However...with at least some recent lens releases (e.g., the new 70-200mm f4 VR) Nikon seems to have put more emphasis during the design process on how the lens performs with teleconverters. Which is a good thing. And, for me at least, it justified the effort in testing the lens with teleconverters (rather than just discarding the idea of combining this lens with any TC).

NOTE: I no longer own - and don't care to own - Nikon's TC-17EII (1.7x) teleconverter and do not have easy access to one. This entry is based on tests performed only with the TC-14EII (1.4x) and TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverters.

1. Performance of the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR with the TC-14EII (1.4x) teleconverter.

A. What I Did: I performed two sets of tests of the 80-400mm VR paired with Nikon's 1.4x teleconverter and using a Nikon D600 body. Note that in both sets of test I chose to use one focal length only - 400mm. This was done simply because I assumed that most folks using a TC are using it to extend the maximum range of the zoom - it makes little sense to use a TC on a 80-400mm lens when it is zoomed to 200mm!

In the first set of tests I photographed a static object (my good old stump) at one fixed distance with the following combinations of gear: 80-400mm VR native (no TC), 80-400mm VR with 1.4x TC, 400mm f2.8 VR native, 400mm f2.8 VR with 1.4x TC. Images were captured using a firm tripled and using Live View with cable release. VR's were turned off. During this set of tests the ISO was fixed at 100. Images were captured in 1/3 stop increments from "wide open" through to two stops smaller than wide open, and then were captured in one full stop increments after that. This test was performed to reveal any "penalties" associated with the use of the TC (in terms of image sharpness) and to assess how much I needed to stop down (with the TC attached) to attain maximum sharpness. The 400mm f2.8 was included simply as a baseline to compare against.

The second set of tests had more real-world relevance to me (as a wildlife photographer). Again I shot from a tripod, but this time with the head loose and using the optical viewfinder. And I triggered the camera using just the shutter release. And my subjects were now birds, chipmunks, and squirrels. In this case I worked as I would in the field - with VR's ON (the head was loose on the tripod) and using Auto ISO (to ensure image sharpness when working with fast-moving subjects). Again, I varied apertures systematically.

B. What I Found: The results of both sets of tests were consistent: Overall I was quite impressed with the performance of the 80-400mm plus 1.4x TC - the images were surprisingly (to me) sharp. I found I had to stop down one full stop from wide open (so to f11) before I attained maximum sharpness - when shot wide open the shots were decidedly soft (which is almost always the case when one uses a TC on any Nikon lens). While I would be leery of shooting this lens/TC combo hand-held (remember, we're talking f11 to get to maximum sharpness), if one has time to set up on a tripod, this is a viable 550mm option (assuming you have a lot of light or a VERY still subject!!).

Here's a series of shots (f8 thru f16) for you to examine for yourself to see if this is the kind of performance that would work for you. They're of a chipmunk that was kind enough to sit in one place long enough for me to take a sequence of shots at different apertures. The shots are close to full frame and have been cut in resolution down to 2400 pixels across (at this size true differences in sharpness are still visible):

Chipmunk @ f8 (wide open aperture): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

Chipmunk @ f11: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

Chipmunk @ f13: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

Chipmunk @ f16: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

2. Performance of the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter.

A. What I Did: Exactly as above, but this time using a 2x TC.

B. What I Found: When performing the first set of tests (using Live View) my results paralleled what I found when using the 1.4x TC - pretty darned good optical performance. As before, I had to stop down one full stop to get to maximum sharpness - so in this case I had to stop down to f16. But...I won't bother showing you the results. Why? Read on...

When I started the second set of tests (photographing actual animals using optical viewfinder, standard shutter release, etc.) I quickly discovered my D600 would NOT focus with the teleconverter attached. Before thinking, I switched to a D800 (it has a more sophisticated and better AF system) and found the same thing. Wouldn't focus. Then I tried my D4. Still wouldn't focus. Then a lightbulb went on (slowly) in my head - right...even Nikon's best AF systems require an aperture of f8 or larger to work. Largest aperture with 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR at 400mm combined with 2x TC = f11. Duhhh.

After trying to photograph fast-moving small mammals and birds (that require pin-point positioning of of the AF brackets) using Live View for about 30 seconds - it took me that long to realize that was a totally fruitless exercise - I came to the conclusion that using the 2x TC with the 80-400 wasn't really a viable option for me. Would others find it useful? Possibly - as long as they are prepared to use Live View and stop down to f16 (as a start point!). But that doesn't work for me.

3. Use a Teleconverter or Upsize During Post-processing?

Time to throw a wrench into the works. A few years back I experimented with upsizing images (in Photoshop) and comparing the results to images shot with the same lens but with a teleconverter (1.4x) attached. Long story short - regardless of how I upsized the images (step-wise, varying the algorithm, using third party products like Genuine Fractals, etc.) the images shot with the teleconverters were sharper.

Fast forward to 2013 - and Adobe announces Photoshop CC. One of its headline new features is a new up-sizing algorithm called "Preserve Details (Enlargement)". According to Adobe, this new upsampling method allows you to:

"Enlarge a low-res image so it looks great in print, or start with a larger image and blow it up to poster or billboard size. New upsampling preserves detail and sharpness without introducing noise."

Does it work as claimed? Sigh...time to experiment (again!). Long story short...I have found that I can now get sharper images by upsizing an image shot without a TC to the exact image size that would be produced by adding a TC to the lens in question. And, contrast is better (besides slightly reducing sharpness, TC's also reduce contrast of an image). The downside - when you upsize an image you do not reduce the Depth of Field (DoF) of a lens - so if you're looking to use a TC to better isolate a subject from the background via using selective focus and a thin DoF, you won't do it with upsizing.

Confused? Just check out this example:

Teleconverter or Digital Upsizing? Download Image Comparison (JPEG: 618 KB)

4. Take Home Lessons? Will I start to shoot the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR with a TC? Likely not, but that's largely because I'm fortunate enough to own a 400mm f2.8 VR (and a 600mm f4 VR) and the 400 prime does produce better results when paired with a TC than the 80-400 zoom does (the 400mm f2.8 VR pairs better with TC's than almost any Nikon lens). And, to effectively use the 80-400mm VR with the 1.4x TC you pretty much have to be carrying a tripod. And, if I'm carrying a tripod, odds are I'm carrying my 400mm f2.8 VR. BUT...in a pinch it's nice to know that I COULD use the 80-400mm VR with the 1.4x TC and get acceptable results. Or...I could just upsize the shots in Photoshop CC! ;-)

That's it - I'm done testing the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR zoom. All I have to do now is write up my "formal" review - which I'll do as soon as possible. I'll tell you right now that I think this lens is a HUGE upgrade from its predecessor and that it will make many nature photographers quite happy. I'm keeping my test copy - and I will use it in the field (a lot). And...I know this lens - along with my blog entries on it - is already resulting in more than a few photographers placing their 200-400mm f4's up on eBay. If I still owned a 200-400 myself that's what I would do (there you go Dave F. from FL - the answer to your question!). The negatives of the 80-400mm VR? The biggest is the next-to-useless tripod collar...so, so wimpy. But that can be replaced with a 3rd party version that works better (e.g. one from Really Right Stuff) AND I suspect many or most users will be hand-holding this lens a lot (and, on the positive side, that useless tripod collar comes off real easy!).

What's up next? It's a surprise...but I have been field-testing some more Nikon goodies. Stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

16 July 2013: The AF-S 80-400mmm f4.5-5.6 VR - Moving Back Part 3: @ 1 Kilometer

Yes, I'm being anal in testing the heck out of the "new" AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR zoom. Why? Mostly because I want to assure myself how it performs - when I should use it, when I shouldn't and - when I AM using it - how I can squeeze the most quality out of it? I'm also aware that a LOT of nature photographers will be considering purchasing this lens, and it will be helpful for them to know exactly how it has performed for me (and thus how it might perform for them).

This go 'round I compared the performance of the 80-400 with 5 other "solutions" to getting to the same focal ranges it offers (i.e., 80-400 mm), but this time over an even longer distance - about 1 kilometer (0.62 miles - or 1093 yards - or 3280 feet). The rationale for testing this lens over so many different camera-to-subject distances is that others have pointed out how some lenses (e.g., the popular 200-400mm f4 VR) preform well close-up but seem "soft" or "weak" at "longer" distances. While I realize this is a digression - I have to say that after all my "variable-distance" testing I am beginning to believe that this "good up close but poor-at-distance" claim about the 200-400mm f4 is a huge exaggeration and blown completely out of proportion in its seriousness (and the person - who shall remain nameless here - who first wrote about this "problem" did a LOT of 200-400mm f4 VR lens owners and prospective buyers a huge disservice). But I digress...

A. What I Did: I tested the following lenses for sharpness: 400mm f2.8 VRII, 200-400mm f4 VR, 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, 70-200mm f2.8VRII, 70-200mm f4 VR (the two 70-200mm lenses were tested both with and without the 2x TC-20EIII attached, depending on the focal length being examined), and the 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR. I tested at the following focal lengths: 400mm, 360mm, 300mm, 200mm, 135mm, 80mm. I tested apertures from "wide open" through to f16 (but I only report the results below up to f11, as during most field shooting with a lens like this one only rarely stops down past f11). Over the first two stops from "wide open" I shot images at 1/3 stop increments. At smaller apertures (i.e., more than 2 stops away from "wide open") I shot images at 1 stop aperture increments. All images were using a Nikon D600 body and shot from a firm tripod, using Live View and a cable release. All images were shot at a distance of approximately 1 kilometer (or about 0.62 miles or 1093 yards or 3280 feet) from the subject. VR was shut off on all of the lenses (though other testing has shown that with SOME of these lenses the VR can be left on without impacting negatively on image quality). I examined and scrutinized all the images at full-resolution and 100% magnification (1:1).

To help readers get a handle on the type of sharpness differences I'm reporting on, I've produced one composite image that shows a 750x500 pixel crop from the central portion of sample images using the various lenses. I chose 400mm as the focal length for the composite image. Of course, as always it's best to view it at 100% magnification (1:1) to assess sharpness differences. Here's the composite image:

5 Ways to 400mm @ 1 Km: Download Sample Comparison image (JPEG: 1.3 MB)

B. What I Found: A whole lot of similarity to what I found at camera-to-subject distances of 40m and 80m. Meaning, at most focal lengths and most apertures the 80-400mm and 200-400mm zooms were very hard to tell apart in sharpness. Which is an impressive result for the dramatically lower-priced 80-400mm VR. How about the 70-200's with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverters (at focal lengths over 200mm)? The 70-200mm f4 VR (and, in this case, plus TC) continues to impress - it produced noticeably better output than the 70-200mm f2.8 VR plus 2x TC at most focal lengths and apertures. What about at focal lengths of 200mm and less (when the TC comes off the two 70-200's)? Well, at 200mm and below you're slightly better off shooting either of the 70-200's (and particularly the f4 version) than the 80-400mm. What about that 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR "consumer" lens? As I found at an 80m camera-to-subject distance it did unexpectedly well. Between 201mm and 300mm you're better off shooting it than either of the 70-200mm's with the 2x TC. And below 200mm you're slightly better off shooting it than the 80-400mm VR. And, when shooting under 200mm in focal length the 70-300 is quite close in sharpness to either the 70-200mm f4 VR or the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII.

And, for those concerned with the nitty-gritty specifics, here's exactly what I found at each focal length tested.

1. At 400mm? At every aperture tested the 400mm f2.8 VRII was noticeably/visibly sharper than ANY of the other lenses. As I found at the 80m distance, the 80-400mm VR was neck-and-neck in sharpness with the 200-400mm VR at all apertures EXCEPT f5.6 (where the 80-400mm is wide open). By f6.3 the two lenses produced virtually identical output, and it stayed that way all the way up to f16.

What about the shorter zooms plus TC's? Neither 70-200mm plus 2x TC matched the 200-400mm or the 80-400mm in sharpness (at any aperture). And, as I found at shorter distances, the 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC outperformed the 70-200mm f2,8 VRII plus 2x TC at all apertures they could be compared at (f8 and smaller). By how much? Check out the comparison image linked to above to see for yourself.

2. At 360mm? Similar results as at 400mm. The 200-400mm and 80-400mm were virtually indistinguishable at all apertures EXCEPT f5.6 (80-400 wide open at f5.6), where the 200-400mm was noticeably sharper. The 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC ranked third in sharpness (and was visibly softer than either of the "bigger" zooms). And the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC came in last and was noticeably softer than any of the other lenses. For perspective, the only result at this focal length that I would personally consider unusable was the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC when shot wide open (so at f5.6) - there's really no diplomatic way to accurately describe the result - it was simply very bad.

3. At 300mm? Now the issue is slightly complicated by the inclusion of the "consumer" 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR. But overall the picture isn't too complicated - the 200-400mm and the 80-400mm run neck-and-neck for first place in sharpness (at all apertures except f5.6 where the 200-400 is sharper), the 70-300mm is next (noticeably less sharp, but still quite sharp), followed by the 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC, and...bringing up the rear once more...the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC.

4. At 200mm? And now the TC's have come off! And, separating out which images were sharpest at all focal lengths at 200mm and below was far more challenging - the total range of sharpness difference decreased signficantly. So...I'm beginning to split hairs somewhat.

Anyway...to be brief, the two 70-200's now run neck-and-neck as the sharpest choice (e.g., at f4 the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII was slightly sharper than the 70-200mm f4 VR, but at f5.6 and f8 the opposite was true). Who's in third place? Surprisingly, the 70-300mm. Fourth? The 80-400mm. And the softest option (but still quite sharp) was the 200-400mm f4.

5. At 135mm? Now the 200-400 is out of the mix. And the two 70-200's are, to my eyes, virtually indistinguishable (and the sharpest of the lot). And the 70-300 and the 80-400 are almost indistinguishable from one another too - but both are slightly less sharp than the two 70-200's. Extreme pixel-peeping shows that the 80-400 is very slightly less sharp than the 70-300mm at this focal length, but the difference is so, so small as to be virtually insignificant.

6. At 80mm? An easy-to-describe result. The two 70-200's were tied for first. But now the 80-400 is next in sharpness, but only very, very slightly sharper than the 70-300. And it's important to realize that ALL shots were very sharp.

C. Take Home Lessons? What am I going to try to keep in mind from this test whenever I'm in the field shooting? First, if I'm going to shoot a very distant scene at 400mm and the success of the shot is based on maximum sharpness, then I should select my 400mm f2.8 VR. BUT, if "all" I have at my disposal is the 200-400mm f4 VR or the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, I won't be penalized too much at all! If I'm shooting a distant scene that requires a focal length between 201mm and 399mm, then the best option of the lenses tested would be either the 200-400 OR the 80-400 (yes, if one owns a 300mm f2.8 VR and that's what the scene requires, it would be a better choice). What if I'm shooting a distant scene that requires a focal length of 200mm or less? Then I'll grab either the 70-200mm f4 VR OR the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII first (and because it's lighter and smaller and has a better VR, odds are my choice will be the 70-200mm f4 VR).

To date I have found no real weakness in optical performance in the new AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR - it's been very impressive and has definitely exceeded my expectations. What's left to test with it? Oh right...how does it perform with a teleconverter? Stay tuned...tests with both the TC-14EII (1.4x) and TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverters coming soon!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

19 June 2013: The AF-S 80-400mmm f4.5-5.6 VR - Moving Back Part 2: 80 Meters

As discussed in my blog entry of May 23 ("Moving Back: Part 1") there's good reason to examine a new lens's performance at various distances. Previously (May 23 blog entry) I tested and reported that the new AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR zoom lens performed very well at a distance of just under 40 meters. This time I moved back to a distance of 80 meters (about 262') and compared the performance of the 80-400mm zoom to several other lenses (both at a variety of focal lengths and a variety of apertures). This distance is the sort of distance a wildlife photographer might use to shoot an "animalscape" shot where the subject is shown within a (hopefully) beautiful scene. It's also the type of distance a parent might shoot his/her child playing soccer, hockey , football (or whatever!). This go round I added one more lens to the mix at focal lengths of 300mm and less - the Nikkor 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR zoom (which many think of as a consumer lens, and is far less expensive than any other lens used in this comparison).

A. What I Did: I tested the following lenses for sharpness: 400mm f2.8 VRII, 200-400mm f4 VR, 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, 70-200mm f2.8VRII, the 70-200mm f4 VR, and the 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR (the two 70-200mm lenses were tested both with and without the 2x TC-20EIII attached, depending on the focal length being examined). I tested at the following focal lengths: 400mm, 360mm, 300mm, 200mm, 135mm, 80mm. I tested apertures from "wide open" through to f16 (but I only report the results below up to f11, as during most field shooting with a lens like this one only rarely stops down past f11). Over the first two stops from "wide open" I shot images at 1/3 stop increments. At smaller apertures (than 2 stops away from "wide open") I shot images at 1 stop aperture increments. All images were shot from a firm tripod, using Live View and a cable release. All images were shot at a distance of 80 meters (about 262') from the subject. VR was shut off on all of the lenses (though other testing has shown that with SOME of these lenses the VR can be left on without impacting negatively on image quality). I examined and scrutinized all the images at full-resolution and 100% magnification (1:1).

In recent days I've received emails asking me just how noticeable the differences I have been reporting in this battery of tests really are. To help answer this question, I've produced a composite image (for your downloading pleasure!) shot at 400mm using all the lenses (excepting, of course, the 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR) which should give you a feel for the type of differences in sharpness I am talking about. This visual comparison is good in that it typifies the results I obtained at most focal lengths, i.e., that the 80-400mm zoom and 200-400mm zoom performed very similarly to one another and with the 70-200mm f4 plus TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter nipping at their heels. The 70-200mm f2.8 VR plus 2x TC didn't fare too well at this distance. Here's the sample comparison - best to view it at 100% magnification (1:1):

5 Ways to 400mm: Download Sample Comparison image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

B. What I Found: To begin with, a lot of similarity to what I found at 40m. Meaning, at most focal lengths and most apertures the 80-400mm and 200-400mm zooms were pretty much neck-and-neck in optical performance. This says a LOT for the new 80-400mm lens. Are the results as sharp as you'd get out of the "best-of-the-best" primes at key focal lengths (like 400mm or 300mm or 200mm). No - of course not. But the difference in sharpness between those two zooms and the "big" primes aren't as big as some might expect (see the downloadable sample comparison at 400mm linked just above). It should be noted that you don't buy those big primes JUST for sharpness - the big apertures and quality of out-of-focus zones are important too. How do the 70-200's with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverters fare at focal lengths over 200mm? Well, the 70-200mm f4 VR (and, in this case, plus TC) continues to impress me - it produced better output than the 70-200mm f2.8 VR plus 2x TC at most focal lengths and apertures. What about at focal lengths of 200mm and less (when the TC comes off the two 70-200's)? Well, at 200mm and below you're slightly better off shooting either of the 70-200's (and particularly the f4 version) than the 80-400mm at those focal lengths. What about that 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR "consumer" lens? It did surprisingly well. Between 201mm and 300mm you're better off shooting it than either of the 70-200mm's with the 2x TC. And below 200mm you're better off shooting it than the 80-400mm VR. And, under 200mm it is darned close in sharpness to either the 70-200mm f4 VR or the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII.

If you want more specific results, here's exactly what I found:

1. At 400mm? At every aperture tested the 400mm f2.8 VRII was noticeably/visibly sharper than ANY of the other lenses (see that downloadable sample comparison above). While some have made a big deal about how the 200-400 "softens up" at longer camera-to-subject distances, I have found this to be the case only when compared to the outstanding 400mm f2.8 VR. Compared to lenses most real humans own (I can say this because I'm one of the rare birds who DOES own a 400mm f2.8 so I'm in the "non-real" human group too!) the 200-400mm does real well at any distance. But, most importantly to this test, the 80-400mm VR was neck-and-neck in sharpness with the 200-400mm VR at all apertures EXCEPT f5.6 (where the 80-400mm is wide open). By f6.3 the two lenses produced almost indistinguishable output, and it stayed that way all the way up to f16.

How did the shorter zooms plus TC stack up? Interestingly, the 70-200mm f4 plus TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter seemed to do better at this distance than at 40m. While the images shot with this zoom plus TC were softer than with either of the "bigger" zooms, they were pretty acceptable (especially if one applied careful sharpening to them). I can't say the same thing about the results with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus teleconverter - at f5.6 the results were absolutely awful and they didn't get much better as one stopped down! That "new" 70-200mm f4 VR continues to impress me - and this is one more example of that.

2. At 360mm? Other than having only 4 lenses in the mix now, the results are pretty much the same as at 400mm. Meaning that the 80-400mm VR and the 200-400mm VR were almost indistinguishable (sharpness-wise) at all apertures ABOVE f5.6 (at f5.6 the 200-400 was slightly sharper). The 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC wasn't far behind. And the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC placed a distant 4th (and again was absolutely awful when shot wide open).

3. At 300mm? OK, this is getting boring - same overall result. BUT, at 300mm I was able to add the 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR to the mix. How did it fare? Visibly less sharp than either the 80-400mm VR or the 200-400mm VR, but slightly sharper than the 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC. And considerably sharper than the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC. So, while not surprising, this is pretty good performance for such an inexpensive "consumer" lens.

4. At 200mm? At 200mm I compared the two "bigger" zooms (the 200-400mm VR and the 80-400mm VR) against the two 70-200's shot native, i.e., without the 2x TC. And, of course, the 70-300mm was shot native as well.

And, of course, taking the teleconverter off made a big difference to the performance of the two 70-200's. Up to f8 the 70-200mm f4 VR was the sharpest of the lot, with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII placing second (with the difference between the two 70-200's being incredibly small - i.e., one had to look very, very closely to see any difference). In third place? The 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR. Really. And tied for fourth? The two big zooms (the 80-400 and the 200-400). By f11 I could NOT separate out any sharpness differences between the lenses. One point I have to make here - at 200mm the differences between the sharpest lens and the softest lens was really small - shoot ANY of these lenses (carefully) at 200mm and you would be happy with the results. The only lenses I know that would produce sharper results at 200mm are the 200mm f2 VR and the 200mm f4 Micro (based on past testing I have found the 200mm f4 Micro nipping at the heels of the legendary 200mm f2 VR in sharpness at all distances).

5. At 135mm? Now the 200-400 is out of the mix. Easy to describe the results at this distance. The 70-200mm f4 was sharper than all the others (by an infinitesimally small margin) and all the others were tied for second.

6. At 80mm?Another easy-to-describe result. The two 70-200's were tied for first, with the 80-400 and the 70-300 were JUST behind in a dead-heat for second place. All were very sharp.

C. Take Home Lessons? What am I going to try to keep in mind from this test whenever I'm in the field shooting? First, that if I need to shoot a subject at 400mm and at a reasonably long distance, my best choice is definitely my 400mm f2.8 VR (assuming I am carrying it - which isn't a "minor" assumption). Otherwise, I'll be giving up almost nothing (other than one f-stop) in selecting the 80-400mm VR over the 200-400mm VR. And the same holds true down to 200mm. Once I'm below 200mm my best lens choice would be the 70-200mm f4 VR, unless the light is so low that I'd need the extra speed of the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. And, to be honest, as an FX shooter I almost never need to go down to f2.8 due to lack of light (reasons of selecting a larger aperture than f4 to isolate a subject through use of a thin DoF is an entirely different matter, but may matter for some users). I guess for me the final lesson from this testing would be to avoid - at all costs - putting Nikon's 2x teleconverter on the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII when I'm working with a distant subject (but this just confirms what I have found before...and odds are I'd never put a TC on either 70-200 if I had any other option).

From a sharpness perspective the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 continues to impress me. Combine that with its great focal range and very "carry-able" size (what a great travel lens!) and it will surprise almost no one that I have already decided to keep this lens - it has definitely earned its spot in my backpack...

One important caveat about ALL the 80-400mm tests I've done to date. While almost everyone thinks sharpness first, there is more to optical performance than just sharpness. The quality of the out-of-focus zones (that good ol' bokeh) is very important too. To date I haven't been discussing this. But, if you examine the downloadable sample image above you can see the quality of the out-of-focus zones does differ between the lenses, even at a distance of 80 meters. Closer up and the differences in bokeh becomes even more apparent. In my opinion, this is where the 70-200's plus TC's really show their limitations - adding a TC on to a lens impacts MORE on the out-of-focus zones than it does on the sharpness. How does the 80-400 stack up in terms of bokeh? Pretty good. Not quite as good as the 200-400 (at close distances), and definitely not as good as the 400mm f2.8 VR. But given the outstanding "convenience" of this lens, I can live with the small but significant bokeh penalty in most day-to-day use.

Up next? Hopefully a comparison of the 80-400 and other lenses at VERY long distances (think distant scenes). But I'm off to north of the Arctic Circle next week (muskox anyone?), so I won't be able to report on this until shortly after my return on July 5.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

23 May 2013: The AF-S 80-400mmm f4.5-5.6 VR - Moving Back: Part 1

One of the few criticisms of Nikon's 200-400mm f4 VR is that as one moves away from the subject it becomes a little softer (i.e., less sharp). For this reason, I'm testing the new 80-400mm VR against an array of other lenses at a number of distances. This excerpt looks at how the 80-400mm performs against a host of other lenses at a greater distance than the tests described below in previous entries. This time I chose a subject (another glamorous stump) at just under 40 meters (to be exact, 38 meters, or 125'). This is the type of distance many photographers would be photographing some larger subjects at, such as deer, elk, bears, wolves, etc. - so it has "relevance" in that regard.

A. What I Did: I tested the following lenses for sharpness: 400mm f2.8 VRII, 200-400mm f4 VR, 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, 70-200mm f2.8VRII, and the 70-200mm f4 VR (the two 70-200mm lenses were tested both with and without the 2x TC-20EIII attached, depending on the focal length being examined). I tested at the following focal lengths: 400mm, 360mm, 300mm, 200mm, 135mm, 80mm. I tested apertures from "wide open" through to f16 (but I only report the results below up to f11, as during most field shooting with a lens like this one only rarely stops down past f11). Over the first two stops from "wide open" I shot images at 1/3 stop increments. At smaller apertures (than 2 stops away from "wide open") I shot images at 1 stop aperture increments. All images were shot from a firm tripod. Each lens/aperture/focal length combination was shot both using the optical viewfinder and VR in the appropriate mode when tripod mounted (and using appropriate "long lens technique") and using Live View with VR off (using a cable release). I examined and scrutinized all the images at full-resolution and 100% magnification (1:1).

B. What I Found: The broadest generalization of my results is that the new AF-S 80-400mm VR performed far better than I anticipated, especially in the 300-400mm focal length range - there it rivalled the 200-400mm VR in sharpness. In a sense, the 80-400mm VR and the 200-400mm VR "clustered together" in sharpness - meaning that at most focal lengths and apertures it was a toss-up as to which was sharper (and they were always very, very close). Similarly, when one paired the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the 70-200mm f4 VR with the TC-20EIII 2x teleconverter they performed quite similarly to one another, but were never as sharp as either the 80-400mm VR or the 200-400mm VR (again, when comparing overlapping focal lengths). One other result stuck out in all the tests with a greater than 200mm focal length (so when the 70-200mm zooms were paired with the TC-20EIII) - the absolute WORST results were always obtained with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus TC-20EIII when shot wide open (so at f5.6). Just plain awful - you just can't shoot the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII with the 2x TC with the aperture wide open and expect to get decent results (interestingly, you CAN shoot the 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC wide open - which is f8 - and get pretty decent results).

For those who are more detail oriented, here's exactly what I found:

1. At 400mm? At every aperture tested the 400mm f2.8 VRII was noticeably/visibly sharper than ANY of the other lenses. However, at f8 and smaller apertures, both the 80-400mm VR and the 200-400mm VR were very close to the "big prime" in sharpness. At f5.6 the 200-400 was slightly sharper than the 80-400mm VR (f5.6 is "wide open" for the 80-400mm), but at both f8 and f11 I found the 80-400mm VR to be very slightly sharper than 200-400mm VR. Which is really, really interesting (to me at least).

How did the shorter zooms plus TC stack up? Both of the 70-200mm zooms (the f2.8 VRII and the f4 VR) were noticeably softer than the 3 other lenses at 400mm - at all apertures. At f8 the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC seemed very slightly sharper than the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC, but at f11 the f4 version plus TC seemed slightly sharper.

2. At 360mm? I tested this focal length because with SOME Nikon zooms it seems like you get marginally sharper images if you "back off" the maximum focal length a little. But the results were generally unchanged - the two "big" zooms were considerably sharper than the shorter zooms plus TC. I found the 200-400mm to be the sharpest of the lot only at f5.6. At both f8 and f11 the 80-400mm VR was noticeably sharper than the 200-400mm VR - and dramatically sharper than the 70-200mm zooms with the 2x TC.

How did the two "shorter" zooms compare to one another at 360mm? At both f8 and f11 (the overlapping apertures with the TC attached) the 70-200mm VR f4 plus TC was noticeably sharper than the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC.

3. At 300mm? Basically the same result - the only aperture where the 200-400mm VR was the sharpest of the bunch was at f5.6. At all smaller apertures the 80-400mm VR was noticeably sharper than any of the other lens or lens plus TC combos. One other thing stood out - at 300mm the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC was just awful - absolutely shoddy results (as in really, really soft). And i found this to be the case on shots when I had the VR on and used the optical viewfinder and "appropriate" long lens technique AND on shots when I used Live View, VR off, and a cable release. Why? No real clue (sorry!).

4. At 200mm? At 200mm I compared the two "bigger" zooms (the 200-400mm VR and the 80-400mm VR) against the shorter zooms (the two 70-200's) shot native, i.e., without the 2x TC (other than getting "trapped with it on" there's zero reason to shoot a 70-200mm zoom at 200mm with a TC on - makes no sense at all).

Anyway...the results were very interesting here. The 200-400mm f4 VR performed very well at this focal length - it was the sharpest or second sharpest at all apertures. The 80-400mm fared less well - it was only the 3rd or 4th sharpest at 200mm. Overall, I found that when shooting at 200mm the lens ranked as follows (from sharpest to softest): 200-400mm VR, 70-200mm f2.8 VRII, 70-200mm f4 VR, and 80-400mm VR.

5. At 135mm? Now we're comparing ONLY the 80-400mm against the two 70-200mm zooms (couldn't figure out a way to shoot the 200-400mm at 135mm no matter what I did!). Anyway...the 80-400mm placed dead last at 135mm (at all apertures). BUT, it really wasn't much softer than the two 70-200mm's. The best at this focal length? At f4, f8, and f11 the 70-200mm f4 was marginally sharper than the f2.8 VRII while at f5.6 the f2.8VRII nudged it out at best. But this is REAL hair-splitting...in practical day-to-day terms all 3 of these lenses produced sharp, sharp images at 135mm.

6. At 80mm? This is the shortest focal length where the 80-400mm can be compared to the two 70-200mm's. The results? Almost indistinguishable - all 3 were extremely sharp. At f5.6 there seemed to be a slight edge to the 80-400mm (a bit surprising), but at f8 the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII seemed the sharpest. At f11? Sorry, I could NOT distinguish between the 3 lenses. So...all are tied for first (for cup half-fullers) or all are tied for 3rd (for cup half-emptiers).

C. Take Home Lessons? What am I going to try to keep in mind from this test whenever I'm in the field shooting? I guess the biggest take-home lesson is that at medium distances (in this case 38 meters or 125') and focal lengths OVER 200mm you'll do real well with the new 80-400mm VR. At 400mm you WILL do better with the big prime. At 200mm or below you'll do quite well with the new 80-400mm - tho' arguably not quite as well as with either of the two 70-200mm zooms. But this is actually quite amazing performance for the 80-400mm VR. One might reject using the 80-400mm at this distance for other reasons (i.e., you need/want the additional stop or two found on the 200-400mm or the 400mm f2.8 VRII - either because you need it for the light or you want a shallower DoF), but there's no real reason to not consider it based on sharpness of your final images...especially if you have the light to stop down just a tad (from wide open).

My two-sentence summary of my testing of the optical performance of the 80-400mmm f4.5-5.6 VR to date? Very impressive, if you ask me. And very, very versatile.

I still have more testing to do on this lens (at longer subject-to-camera distances), but unless images captured with this lens just "fall apart" at greater distances (which I think is highly unlikely), it's going to be darned hard NOT to recommend this lens as a great choice for an awful lot of folks.

Up next? Sharpness at a greater distance - this time in the 80m (or about 260') range. When? Sorry...I'm off now to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary for my annual pilgrimage (aka to lead two grizzly bear photo tours). So you'll be waiting until about the end of the first week of June before I post any additional results with the 80-400mm. I will be shooting the 80-400mm as much as possible while I'm in the Khutzeymateen (which is often a low-light environment) - so I'll have lots more to say about the lens in June!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

15 May 2013: The AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR - Up Close & Personal: Part 2

In my previous post I compared Nikon's new AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR lens to two high-end super-telephotos - the 400mm f2.8 VRII prime lens and the 200-400mm f4 VR zoom. These comparisons were at the long-end of the focal range and when focused on close subjects (like you would when photographing small mammals and many birds).

Another interesting comparison to make is how the new 80-400mm VR compares to two popular zoom lenses when they are combined with the TC-20EIII 2x teleconverter. The lenses I'm referring to are the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the "new" (or newish) 70-200mm f4 VR. Should owners of either of these two zooms consider buying the 80-400mm VR or should they just buy the TC-20EIII teleconverter? And, what about shooters who own none of these lenses but want to get into wildlife photography - would they be better served by picking up one of the "smaller" zooms and the TC-20EIII or just buy the new 80-400mm VR?

Like with the previous entry, this comparison will be limited to close-range shooting (in this case 4.9m - or about 16'). Unlike the previous comparison, I tested additional focal lengths - and at the very short end of the range (i.e., 200mm and shorter) I tested the 80-400mm against the f2.8 and f4 versions when shot native (without TC's).

And for those who are wondering, I WILL be presenting my findings over longer distances-to-subject in the fairly near future (most of those comparisons have already been shot).

A. What I Did: Pretty much the same as on my May 13 entry - I took a whole lot of controlled shots of a stump that was situated 4.9m (around 16') from the tripod-mounted camera (a D600). For each camera/lens combination I shot images over a range of apertures from wide open to f16. For each camera/lens combination I shot images at 1/3 stop increments for the first two stops smaller than "wide open", and then at 1-stop increments up to f16. I shot images at 400mm, 360mm, 300mm, 200mm, 135mm and 80mm. Which means I almost went cross-eyed staring at and scrutinizing over 800 images (I shot two frame bursts for each lens/focal length/aperture combination).

B. What I Found: A dizzying array of "factoids" for keeping in my back pocket when I'm out shooting, but there were some very interesting trends that I think many may find useful. So here you go:

1. Comparisons Involving the 2x Teleconverter: When I compared the new 80-400mm VR at focal lengths over 200mm (i.e., where the two 70-200mm zooms needed to be paired with the 2x TC) the result was clear - the 80-400mm VR was noticeably sharper. Period. And this trend was obvious at all focal lengths (400mm, 360mm, 300mm) and apertures tested.

And, at the three focal lengths tested (400mm, 360mm, 300mm) and at most apertures, the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII 2x teleconverter was very slightly sharper than 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus teleconverter. But I want to stress that with this "very slightly sharper" observation I was REALLY splitting hairs - unless one looks at these images at 100% magnification and does close side-by-side comparisons, one would almost never notice the sharpness difference between these two 70-200mm zooms when combined with the 2x TC. (BTW: the only exception to this trend was at 400mm and f8 - which is wide open for the 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC combination - for this aperture ONLY the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus TC combination appeared very slightly or arguably sharper than with the 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC).

2. Comparisons NOT Involving the 2x TC: At focal lengths of 200mm and shorter I compared the lenses shot "natively" (without a TC attached). I tested the lenses at 200mm, 135mm, and 80mm. What did I find? The most significant thing was this: there was almost NO difference in sharpness between the three zooms at any of the focal lengths (or apertures) tested. And there was certainly no trend. For example, at 200mm and f5.6 the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII seemed slightly sharper than the other two lenses. But at f8 the 80-400mm VR seemed slightly sharper. But major hair-splitting is going on here!

IMPORTANT NOTE: A major REAL WORLD caveat to the results above - especially those at 200mm and shorter focal ranges where sharpness differences were very small. It's important to remember that all these shots were captured when the cameras/lenses were shot from a large, firm tripod. I suspect that all 3 of these lenses (with and without a teleconverter attached) will often be shot hand-held, especially for wildlife. In this case, the effectiveness of the VR system could easily "overcome" the small differences in image sharpness I observed. In other words, the critical factor in "real-world" image sharpness could easily become determined by which lens offers the best VR system. Subjectively, it's my opinion that the best VR system is found on the 70-200mm f4 VR. The VR systems on the other two lenses seem very similar to me in performance, tho' I get the feeling that the VR on the new 80-400mm VR is slightly better than on the 70-200mm VRII (if you quote me on this, please include the "get the feeling" qualifier!).

C. Take Home Lessons? For me there's some pretty significant lessons here that I will apply to my own shooting:

1. If I'm shooting subjects (like small mammals and/or birds) at close range and I need a focal length of over 200mm I'll definitely opt for new AF-S 80-400mm VR over either 70-200mm VR with a 2x TC. It's noticeably sharper.

2. If I'm shooting subjects at close range and I need a focal range of 200mm or shorter my choice of lens will be driven by concerns OTHER than image sharpness differences, such as the amount of available light and Depth of Field (DoF) concerns.

3. If I was asked whether one should opt for the 80-400mm VR versus one of the 70-200mm lenses plus a 2x TC for shooting wildlife, I'm already thinking I would point them at the 80-400mm VR. But...the performance of the lenses at longer distances (coming soon!) must be answered before I'd be comfortable making a firm recommendation...

What's up next? Comparisons at mid-range distances - the kind you use when working with larger mammals like deer and elk (so about 30-45m or 100' to 150'). And with the 400mm f2.8 VR, 200-400mm f4 VR, 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus TC-20EIII, and the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII. And if you think your head is spinning now... ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

13 May 2013: The Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR - Up Close & Personal!

Many of the nature photographers who are considering purchasing the new AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR will at least occasionally use it to photograph small mammals or birds at close range. I know this is definitely something I would use the lens for. So this morning I took a few minutes to do a little head-to-heat testing of the 80-400mm VR against a few other Nikon lenses at "small mammal" range. The lenses I chose to compare the 80-400mm VR to were the 400mm f2.8 VRII and the 200-400mm f4 VR.

A. What I Did: I simply set up my camera on a tripod about 4.9m (16') from a stump that is known to have a squirrel visit it once in a while. The stump is a good subject simply because it offers fine texture and detail and there is nothing in the immediate background, thus allowing one to easily compare the quality of both the in-focus zones and the out-of-focus zones. All images were captured at 400mm using a D600 camera. I left the VR on (and used the appropriate "on-tripod" mode for each lens). For each lens I shot a sequence of images from "wide open" through to f16 (in 1/3 stop increments for the first two stops, thereafter in full stop increments).

B. What I Found: After scrutinizing several hundred images of a stump for way too long (borrrring!!!), some trends were readily and consistently apparent. In my final field test of this lens I will provide photographic evidence of each of these observations/conclusions - for now you'll have to take my word for it!

1. Significant Focus Breathing on the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR: When I switched between lenses it was instantly apparent that at this close range (4.9m or 16') that the focal length was shortening significantly on the 80-400mm VR lens. This shortening of focal range at close focus distances is often referred to as "focus breathing? and is found on some other Nikon zooms (e.g., the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII). How bad was the focus breathing? Well, at a focus distance of 4.9m (16'), the 80-400mm was equivalent to about a 300mm lens (this was easily checked by zooming the 200-400mm lens until the stump was of equivalent size using both lenses). So, at this distance there was about a 25% reduction in focal length with the 80-400mm VR. Some won't care about this - others will be very concerned about it. Me? Not a big deal to me (I'll just move closer if I have to!). But...if someone is considering buying this lens they should be aware of this "issue".

2. Image Sharpness Comparison: The focus breathing issue confounded the process of comparing image sharpness somewhat, but not so much as to make differences in sharpness undetectable (when viewed at 100% magnification - or 1:1). At equivalent apertures the 400mm f2.8 VR was noticeably sharper than the two zooms (no surprise there). BUT, interestingly, at f7.1 and smaller (more about this aperture choice below) it was incredibly tough to see any sharpness differences between the 80-400mm VR and the 200-400mm VR (at f5.6 - which is "wide open" on the 80-400mm lens at 400mm - the 200-400mm f4 WAS noticeably sharper).

3. The Out-of-Focus Zones? One of the more important characteristics of a "great" lens (and one of the main reasons demanding photographers are willing to shell out thousands and thousands of dollars for "fast" primes) is how smooth and pleasing the out-of-focus zones are. And, this is another area where the results are confounded somewhat by the focus breathing on the 80-400mm VR (different focal lengths of lenses will have differing depths-of-field (DoF), which will impact on just "how out of focus" a background is). Anyway...again a trend was clear (even with the focus breathing): at the widest aperture at 400mm where all 3 lenses could be compared (f5.6), the 400mm f2.8 DEFINITELY had the smoothest ("creamy as butter") out-of-focus zones. Just super sweet bokeh. The 200-400mm VR placed second in this regard, and there was a noticeable difference in the out-of-focus zones between the 200-400mm VR and the 80-400mm VR. BUT, the 80-400mm VR still was surprisingly good.

4. Sharpness When Shot Wide Open? Another of the "hallmarks" of a great lens is that it is very close to maximally sharp when shot with the aperture wide open or, alternately, you have to stop it down very little before you get to maximal sharpness. The 400mm f2.8 VR is VERY sharp at f2.8 and you only have to stop down by about 1/3 of a stop before it is biting sharp. Similarly, the 200-400mm f4 VR is quite sharp (at close distances) at f4. It is slightly sharper at f4.5, but further stopping down makes very little difference in sharpness. The 80-400mm VR? At 400mm it's a bit soft when shot wide open (f5.6). And, it's still soft at f6.3. By f7.1 it's getting sharper, and close to maximally sharp.

So, outwardly that doesn't sound too bad - right? With the 400mm f2.8 VR and the 200-400mm f4 VR you stop down about 1/3 of a stop before getting close to maximize sharpness...and with the 80-400mm f5.6 VR you have to stop down 2/3 to a full stop before getting close to maximum sharpness. Heck, it's only a third of a stop difference! BUT, don't forget you're starting with a smaller aperture to begin with on the 80-400mm VR. So...with the 400mm f2.8 VR you get razor-shop images at f3.2, whereas with the 80-400mm VR f4.5-5.6 you get quite sharp images at f7.1 or f8. That's a BIG difference - and it can REALLY impact on the control you have over your DoF, how well you can separate your subject from the background, and the final appearance of your image.

OK - time for a reality check. Do the issues of focus breathing and the fact that you have to stop down a little more (from an already "narrower" aperture) before getting close to maximum sharpness "damn" the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR to forever being an "amateur" or - at best - an "enthusiast" lens? I don't think so...my view is that it's more a matter of knowing the strengths and weaknesses of a lens (they ALL have weaknesses!) and dealing with the accordingly. Recall that I started this entry about talking about photographing small mammals and birds. Well...while I was playing with my stump this morning, a pesky squirrel shoved his snout into my viewfinder (so to speak) while I had the 80-400mm lens on. And, at the end of the day - it's about the images, right? Check this one out...

Red On Green: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.4 MB)

Is it sharp enough for you? That's your call to make. Right now I'm feeling that this lens's attributes (primarily its great focal range in a compact-enough and light-enough form to easily carry around) outweigh the slight trade-off in image sharpness and DoF control. When I encounter a pine marten attacking a squirrel on the top of a mountain I've had to hike 15 km up, the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR that I have with me is going to take a better picture than my 400mm f2.8 VRII (or a 200-400mm f4 VR) that are sitting back at home because they were too darned heavy to carry up the mountain!

What's up next? Likely some comparisons at mid-range distances - the kind you use when working with larger mammals like deer and elk (so about 30-45m or 100' to 150'). Stay tuned...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

9 May 2013: The Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR Part 1 - Very First Impressions...

My "test" copy of the new 80-400mm VR zoom (which is formally known as the AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR) arrived late yesterday afternoon. This long-overdue upgrade (the lens it was replacing is over 12 years old!) has been eagerly anticipated by many Nikon shooters, and especially by many Nikon-shooting nature photographers. Between its great focal range and reasonably compact size (for a 400mm lens) this lens has almost magnetic appeal and just so much potential. For day-to-day use. For hiking. For wildlife shooting. For sports shooting. And so much more. It's actually hard NOT to be excited about this lens!

Because of this appeal and great potential I will be thoroughly testing this lens over the coming months. It will be headed into the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary with me in a few weeks - and I will have a chance to REALLY push the lens and see what it can REALLY do in there. And, it's already been with me on two casual walks where I've used it the way I anticipate using it a LOT in the coming months - as a walkaround companion that I will be regularly shooting hand-held.

Before I decide to permanently add this lens to my bag I will need to answer several questions, including: Is the lens sufficiently sharp to please me when shot wide open, especially near the long end of its focal range? Is the autofocus system adequate to capture sharp action shots of moving subjects (like birds in flight)? Is the VR effective enough to allow hand-holding of the lens at all focal lengths (and on all FX bodies)? How does it compare at overlapping focal lengths with the popular (but much more expensive) 200-400 f4 zoom? And so on...

What follows are my earliest impressions after "playing" with the lens in the field for only a few hours. Take it for what it's worth...

1. Some Real World Practical Considerations:

A. Packing it Around!

I mentioned above that the lens is quite compact. In real world terms it's not much bigger or heavier than the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. Actually, with hood reversed the 80-400mm VR is slightly shorter than the 70-200mm f2.8 VR. And it weighs only a little under 3 ounces more than the 70-200 (both weighed with tripod foot removed).

This size issue is more than academically interesting - at least to me. Because on my daily peregrinations around my home I can encounter many species of wildlife, I like to keep my cameras and lenses real handy and quick to access (as in "quicker-than-digging-it-out-of-a-pack quick"). I do it by using a Think Tank Steroid Speed Belt (info available here) combined with a shoulder strap system known as a Pixel Racing Harness (info available here) - and I often have a pro camera with 70-200mm lens in a water-resistant holster called a Digital Holster 50 (info available here) attached to the belt system. The great news is that the new 80-400mm fits into the same digital holster (when mounted on a pro body). And, it also fits into another good 200mm lens case (one that also happens to work with the Steroid Speed Belt system) from Lowepro called the Lens Exchange Case 200 AW (from their S&F Series).

In my real world, little things like conveniently carrying a camera/lens around makes a BIG difference in its usability. Of course optics are critical, but so is actually having the lens with you (What's that old saying again? Oh yeah..."F8 and BE THERE!").

So far - big check mark #1.

B. ARGHHH on the Lens Hood!

One of the reasons I (and I suspect many others) have been excited about the new 80-400mm is that it should be a great "always have it with you" lens. That's why I'm excited about it fitting into the system I use when I'm hiking. A related issue is getting that camera out of my holster and ready-to-go fast. The holster helps a ton with this. BUT, when you pull your camera out of the holster and go to shoot (as that perfectly posed elk at sunset gets ready to move), you quickly discover that it is impossible to access the zoom ring on the lens until the hood is either taken off or put in its extended position (specifically, when the hood is in the reversed position, it totally obscures the zoom ring). So before you shoot you have to stop and find the release button on the hood, take it off and either throw it to the ground in frustration OR take MORE time to carefully put it in its extended position. Little thing? Sure. But...bye, bye elk at sunset shot!

So chalk this up as Con #1. Makes me wonder if ANYONE actually tested a prototype of this lens in a real world field setting. So basic...

C. The Tripod Collar?

I'm still waiting for a Arca-Swiss compatible lens plate (from Wimberley) for this lens to arrive, so I have to reserve judgment on how well the tripod collar works. My gut says it's too wimpy and flexible to work effectively (i.e., it may flex/twist and bind up a little), but I may be wrong on that. On the positive side, it comes off easily! If it turns out that the collar is too flexible, at least one 3rd party manufacturer (Really Right Stuff) is in the process of developing both a replacement collar (the LC-A13) and a replacement collar with a foot with an integrated arca-swiss plate (the LC-A13 Package). Mine may be on order soon (but I'm hope I'm wrong on this).

So I'm still on the fence on this one, but that collar and foot seems pretty flimsy to me...

2. Uhhh...But How Does the Lens Perform?

Right - lens performance. OK...consider what follows as VERY PRELIMINARY - and subject to change and/or refinement with more structured and rigorous testing. So far all I've done is walk around with the lens and shoot 500 or so hand-held shots (and I've only had the lens for 18 hours!). But here's some very first impressions (all the shots below are full-frame (not cropped) shots - but I have cut them in resolution to 2400 pixels on long axis to speed download times):

A. Autofocus performance

OK - it absolutely annihilates its aged ancestor in the autofocus department (especially in autofocus SPEED). But...that wouldn't be too hard - the old 80-400 was a dog when it came to autofocus! But the new lens does seem snappy and fast, and I can already say that focus-tracking seems to be good and definitely adequate for most bird-in-flight shots. How do I know? Well, check out this "dog-in-flight" shot (best to view at 100% magnification - AKA 1:1):

Jose Running: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.9 MB)

B. Is it really hand-holdable at 400mm?

Yep, no problem. And, the shot used to illustrate this also shows how all those fancy Nikon letters (ED and Super ED elements; N or Nano Coating) DO help ensure that the lens holds contrast in tricky lighting conditions (in this case strong side-lighting). And, it also shows that you don't have to stop down much (if at all) from wide-open at 400mm to get decently sharp shots (best to view at 100% magnification - AKA 1:1):

Jose Sidelit: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.4 MB)

C. How is it at shorter focal lengths?

Hmmm...at just over 200mm it seems pretty darned sharp. And, at least at near the short end of the focal range (and when used with a 24 MP D600), edge-to-edge sharpness seems pretty good. As always best to examine sharpness on these shots when viewed at 100%:

Blue Kootenay Sunrise: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

Pre-dawn Light: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 959 Kb)

Seems kind of odd to be summarizing much after such preliminary testing - but I think it's fair to already say that the new version of the 80-400mm is much better than its ancient ancestor. And, while I still have a ton of questions to answer before deciding if this lens is a keeper for me, it HAS passed my first crude (but decidedly real-world) "tests" - and with flying colors. Except for that damned hood - that's going to drive me crazy! But, overall...still looking pretty darned good...

More real soon...stay tuned...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

9 March 2013: The "New" AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR - Preliminary Thoughts...

At long last! Nikon has finally updated its original "super-zoom" - the 80-400mm VR. The new model is officially designated as the AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR. Oddly, there was a full 12 years between version 1 and version 2 of this lens. Perhaps Nikon was waiting until they had just enough acronyms built up to describe this lens...if you go to any Nikon website you'll find this lens features all the critical bits of the alphabet, including "AF-S, ED, VR, SWM, IF, N, SIC, A/M, and M/A". ;-)

An 80-400mm zoom covers an absolutely great focal range for both general nature photographers and wildlife photographers. Add in the relative small size of this lens and you have - at least in theory - a fantastically versatile lens for many types of shooters, and one that doesn't break your back to carry around all day in the field. But, the original version had some very serious - and very limiting - shortcomings, including sharpness that was "iffy" at best (especially at the long end of the focal range), a very slow AF system, a poor (quite flimsy) tripod collar, a penchant for sucking dust into its innards (owing largely to the expanding nature of the zoom), and - at least by today's standards - a barely adequate VR system.

If you peruse the specs (available here on dpreview.com's website) and read a few of the descriptions of the lens that are already online, you'll find the lens offers a totally new optical design (which is promising), both ED (extra low dispersion) and Super ED lens elements, nano-crystal coating on some elements (this reduces flare and improves contrast on backlit scenes and/or subjects), and a 4 stop VR system that automatically detects and adjusts for tripods (which could be cool). And, not insignificantly, the new lens sports a 77mm filter thread - same as on the 16-35mm f4 VR, the 24-70mm f2.8, and the 70-200mm f2.8 VR (I and II). Which means a lot of buyers will already have the filters they need for use with this lens. Which is a very good thing.

But what is all this likely to mean in the real world (and once you get into the field)? I have no doubt at all that both the AF system and the VR system will be vastly superior to those on the previous version. Those two improvements alone will convince many to buy this lens.

My biggest concerns? First and foremost, image sharpness - especially at the longer end of the focal range. To date, I have not found a Nikon zoom with over a 3x total focal length zoom range that I have been happy with in terms of image sharpness. I don't really know why "maximum of 3x optical zoom focal range" (which. of course, includes such venerable and sharp lenses as the 24-70mm f2.8, 70-200mm f2.8 and f4 zooms, and the "hyper popular among wildlife shooters" 200-400mm f4 zoom) seems to be the "magic magnification range" for obtaining high quality imagery with a zoom lens. I just know that, to date, it has been an unwritten rule. I AM hoping that Nikon has found a way to break this rule with the new 5x 80-400mm zoom. I'd love it if this new lens turns out to be super sharp! But...I have to admit I'm more than a little skeptical about how sharp this updated version of the 80-400 can really be...especially when it's attached to the newer high-res, full-frame bodies, like the D600 and D800. Fingers crossed.

My other significant concern? I'm hoping Nikon has found a way to prevent this new extending zoom from sucking dust into its elements - this was a noticeable issue with the old one (if you put it to tough field use).

Yes, I will be testing this lens - with a completely open mind - as soon as I can lay my hands on one. And, I have to say I'm REALLY looking forward to putting this one through its paces - it has SO much promise! If it comes close to delivering on the promises supplied by all those acronyms, this could be one very sweet lens. ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

B. The Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Zoom

13 Aug 2013: The Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Zoom Lens Field Test - The Reader's Digest Version

When I test and write up my Field Tests on various camera bits I normally write blog entries as I proceed through the testing, then write up a single final Field Test. The field tests can be quite extensive and will always contain sample images. And, the very last thing I do is write up the Executive Summary for that product.

This time I'm going to change my approach and give you the "Readers Digest" version of my full field test (omitting, in this version, some of the detail and most of supporting images) right now. Why? Two reasons. First, my testing of Sigma's new 120-300mm f2.8 zoom lens came about quite unexpectedly - I had only a few days from hearing it was a go through to receiving the lens. And I could only keep it for 10 days or so. So I had zero time to write up blog updates on the various different comparative tests I did with the lens. Second, I'm about to head out on my "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More" Photo Tour and will be gone for a few weeks - and when I get back I know I'm going to be absolutely swamped. Thus it will be awhile before I'll be able to post those sequential blog entries describing my progress on testing the Sigma lens. More than a few folks have been emailing me asking about my thoughts on this lens (even without knowing I was testing it) and I'd prefer not to keep them waiting. So here's all many will need to help them decide if this lens is for them (or not)...

But wait! A tiny bit of background is needed before I go any further. Sigma's new 120-300mm f2.8 zoom lens (which is officially known as the 120-300mm f2.8 DG OS HSM S) is targeted squarely at professionals or very serious enthusiasts. It is officially in their "Sports" class, but Sigma's own website lists its typical uses as "Landscape, Nature & Wildlife, Sports & Action" (hmmm...not a lot left out of that description of uses!). And, the lens is priced at the professional market - it's listed on Sigma's website as going for $3599 USD ("marked down" from a MSRP of $5200, which to me appears more than a little on the tacky side - come on...this is a new lens, did ANYONE ever pay $5200 for it?). All technical details about the lens may be found right here on Sigma's website.

But make no mistake - this lens is designed to capture action. That could mean a sporting event - and especially an indoor sporting event where subjects tend to be closer than in many outdoor events - or, to a nature photographer, it could mean things like birds-in-flight or mammals in motion (sparring grizzlies anyone?).

How does the lens stack up? Here's the Reader's Digest version of my Field Test (supporting images and MANY more details to follow in the full version of the Field Test):

1. Build Quality:

Simply superb. When you first pick up this Japanese-manufactured lens you know that no shortcuts were taken in manufacturing this lens. Every ring moves smoothly, and its finish says "professional". Its heft (and there's lots of that) instantly says "rock-solid construction". And, unlike the new Nikon AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, its tripod collar is stiff and hefty enough to offer rock solid support without ANY flexing. But there IS a price to pay for the speed and sturdiness of the lens: it is NOT light. When in "shooting mode" (meaning with hood on, tripod foot on with a Wimberley Arca Swiss lens plate installed, and lens caps off) the lens weighs 3725 gm (8.21 lb). In comparison, Nikon's 300mm f2.8 VR in the same shooting mode (with the same Wimberley plate installed), weighs over a pound less (in coming in at 3140 gm - or 6.92 lb - the 300mm f2.8 VR is 585 gm - or 1.29 lb - lighter). For Nikon shooters looking for another reference point to compare against, the popular 200-400mm f4 VR weighs in at 3360 gm (7.41 lb). There are some shooters (professionals and amateurs alike) that could find that the weight of this lens hinders their ability to hand-hold it. BTW - if you want to get the 120-300mm Sigma a little lighter, strip off the tripod collar (it does come off very easily) and you'll lose 360 gm (0.8 lb).

2. Optical Performance - Image Sharpness:

A real big thumbs up: this lens is very sharp at all focal lengths. And, when tested on Nikon's most demanding camera (the D800e) the images showed excellent edge-to-edge sharpness. How sharp is the Sigma lens? I'll provide details (and sample images) in the future, but suffice to say it is AT LEAST as sharp as Nikon's premium zooms at all overlapping focal lengths (including the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the 70-200mm f4 VR, the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, and the 200-400mm f4 VR). How does it compare to top Nikon primes at the same focal length? Really well - extreme pixel-peeping on D800e files viewed at 100% show very small differences between Nikon's sharpest telephoto primes (e.g., Nikon 200mm f4 Micro, 300mm f2.8 VR) in image sharpness (with the Nikon primes coming in slightly sharper). But the same thing can be said of ANY Nikon telephoto zoom too - they just aren't as sharp as the best primes.

I was unable to detect any noticeable issue with chromatic aberration on the Sigma lens.

I noticed one very minor negative in optical performance - the amount one had to stop down from wide open before approaching maximum sharpness. With most high-end Nikon lenses, one has to stop down about two thirds of a stop before approaching maximum sharpness. With the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 (and at all focal lengths tested), I had to stop down one to one and one third (so to f4 or f4.5), before approaching maximum sharpness. This doesn't mean that the lens is "soft" when shot wide open (under most situations few would notice the "shot at wide open" sharpness loss), just that it gets a bit sharper when shot stopped down a little more than you have to stop down Nikon's premium lenses.

The take-home lesson on the sharpness of the Sigma 120-300mm zoom is this: I would be surprised if anyone would be disappointed with the sharpness of this lens, regardless of what lenses they are used to shooting (and, of course, those moving up to this lens from "kit" or consumer lenses would be absolutely stunned by its optical performance).

3. Optical Performance - Out-of-Focus Zone Quality (or Bokeh):

This is a very difficult thing to quantify and compare between lenses. But one who has shot extensively with a Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VR or a Nikkor 400mm f2.8 VR (and some other high end lenses) knows good bokeh when they see it. And the Sigma has fine bokeh - I could detect no real difference between comparable Nikons (meaning comparable focal lengths shot at the same aperture with subjects at same distance) and the Sigma in bokeh quality. Another check mark for the Sigma lens.

One final point on optical performance: For some reason, the Sigma lens produced slightly warmer images than any of the many Nikons I tested it against. Some may like this, some may not. I view this as a controllable (in post-processing) difference between the lenses I tested (i.e., between the Sigma and all the Nikon lenses), but not a flaw...

4. In-lens Optical Stabilization:

I haven't come up with a meaningful way to quantify this or come up with a quantifiable comparative test for Optical Stabilization (or Vibration Reduction). So here's what I'll say: The OS system appeared to work about as effectively as the VR system on the Nikon 300mm f2.8 VR ("old" version) and the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VRII (at 200mm) but not quite as effectively as the claimed 5-stop VR on the 70-200mm f4 VR (again at 200mm). Note that major differences in lens weight between the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 and the 70-200mm f4 VR (which is several pounds lighter than Sigma lens) could have easily contributed to the observed difference in image stabilization between the 70-200mm f4 VR and the Sigma lens.

I could find no literature on the advisability of leaving on (or turning off) the OS system when shooting from a firm tripod (I wasn't sent an owners manual for the lens, and there is not a downloadable on the Sigma website - and there should be...are you listening Sigma?) or on which of the two OS modes I should use when the lens is on a firm tripod. So...I tested them. Result: No difference in sharpness (or bokeh quality) when shooting from a firm tripod regardless of whether the OS was on (or what mode it was in).

One more check mark for the Sigma lens.

5. Focus Breathing:

Does the lens exhibit focus breathing (i..e, shortening of focal length when focused near the inner limit of its focus range)? Yes. How badly? Noticeably - I'll show sample shots in my final field test and an estimation of the amount of the focal length reduction. Those who view this as a "problem" (I personally don't) may want to wait to see those sample shots.

6. Performance with Teleconverters:

At least some of the users of Nikon's 300mm f2.8 VR own it partly because of how well it performs with the TC-14EII (1.4x) and TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverters. How does the Sigma perform with these TC's? It doesn't - they're non-compatible (you simply can't mount the lens on them). Ouch! According to Sigma's website, the Sigma 1.4x and 2x teleconverters do work with both the Nikon and Canon version of this lens, but like many Nikon shooters I don't own the Sigma teleconverters, so I can make no comment on how well this lens performs with them. To some users this issue of incompatibility with Nikon TC's may be a concern or problematic.

7. Autofocus Performance:

This is another aspect of performance that can be challenging to compare between lenses. But I'll give it my best shot. And I'll divide it into three categories: Focus Accuracy, Initial Focus Acquisition Speed, and Focus-tracking.

A. Focus Accuracy: This one is easy - perfect (as far as I could determine in the field). When shooting targets (with objects placed in closely spaced intervals before and behind the target) or just "casually" in the field, the Sigma lens focused spot-in accurately with my D600, D800e, and D4 (and when using either live view or the optical viewfinder).

B. Initial Focus Acquisition Speed: I can only offer qualitative comments on this: the lens was "snappy" in acquiring initial focus. But, it was noticeably less snappy than the following Nikkor lenses I tested it against: the 70-200mm f4, 70-200mm f2.8 VRII, 300mm f2.8 VR, and the "new" 80-400 f4.5-5.6 VR. On the positive side, it was WAY faster at acquiring initial focus than the 200mm f4 Micro (on old but optically superb lens). The germane question to consider is this: Would this very slightly slower speed of initial focus acquisition result in missing critical images? In theory - yes. In practice in the real world - I doubt it. It's still darned fast.

C. Focus-tracking: Here I'm referring to the ability of the lens to keep a moving subject in focus regardless of the direction the object is moving (or whether one is panning or not). If the subject is moving towards or away from the camera and moving fast enough it requires a degree of predicative ability on the part of the imaging system (camera and lens). Situations where this predictive ability is needed occur when shooting subjects such as birds in flight, running mammals, race cars bearing down on one on a speedway, sprinters photographed from the end of a track, etc. You know what I mean...

Anyway...I tested focus tracking repeatedly with this lens - both under "spontaneous" shooting situations (with my dogs running around and with a cooperative herd of elk) and under careful controlled situations. I will give details of my testing protocol in my final field test (or future blog entries), but many are probably familiar with my "dog running full speed right at me" test (which is a great proxy for situations like birds in flight, or mammals running almost directly at me like in this shot).

What did I find? In situations where the subject wasn't approaching or moving away from the lens quickly (so moving parallel to the camera's image sensor or even up to about a 45° diagonal to the image sensor) the lens focus tracked as well as any of my Nikon lenses. However, when the subject was moving directly at me at a high speed (my running dog test), the focus tracking ability of the lens was much poorer than that of the two Nikkor lenses I tested it against (both the "new" 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR and the 300mm f2.8 VR). How much poorer? Here are the numbers:

Using Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VR: Percentage of tack sharp images (on leading edge of subject) ranging from 77% (at f2.8) through to 94% (at f5.6).

Using Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 (at 300mm): Percentage of tack sharp images of 95% at f5.6 and 88% at f8.

Using Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 (at 300mm): Percentage of tack sharp images of 24% at f2.8, 41% at f4, and 44% at f5.6.

For each lens at each aperture there was a minimum of 75 images used to come up with the percentages above (yes, my dog Jose was VERY tired after this, but he was very happy with his belly full of treats and the number of cuddles he got between trials - besides Frisbee this is his favorite game!).

Note that in most of the out-of-focus shots produced by the Sigma lens, the lens simply "lagged" behind the leading edge of the subject - by about 15 cm (6") to 30 cm (12"). See the sample images below to assess for yourself the extent of the "problem".

Jose Running - With Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 Zoom: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

Jose Running - With Sigma120-300mm f2.8 Zoom: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

It's possible that if I did this test over and over again that my numbers might shift a few percentage points either way. But, the trend was very clear and I'm sure it would remain clear - in this test (only) the Sigma lens performed far poorer the competition. And, in a way, this doesn't surprise me. The amount of technology behind producing an autofocus system that can meet a test like this is absolutely mind-boggling and I doubt Nikon is motivated to share their proprietary information and secrets with Sigma. So, while I don't know this for a fact, I suspect Sigma is forced to "reverse engineer" their AF system to work with the Nikon lens (and they would have to do the same thing all over again with the Canon version of this lens).

Time to call a spade a spade - just how significant is this problem? It totally depends on how one plans to use the lens. If one is shooting landscapes or animalscapes it's probably totally irrelevant and can be safely ignored. What if one is buying the lens primarily to capture action shots (like birds in flight)? Well...it might be a big consideration (or a big problem). I suppose a positive way to look at these results is this: When shot at apertures one normally uses for action (i.e., stopped down a little from f2.8), almost half of the images shot using the Sigma were very sharp (and we're not paying for film anymore).

NOTE TO CANON USERS: One should not assume that the focus-tracking "problem" discussed here is also found on the Canon version of this lens (different AF mechanics, and different engineering problems to overcome). So there is no reason to think this issue is generalizable across mount-types. The Canon lens could be far better or much worse in this regard than the Nikon version. This "Readers Digest" version of my Field Test (and the "problem" in focus-tracking) should be taken to apply ONLY to the Nikon version of the lens.

The final word? The Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 is well-built and offers stellar performance in almost all meaningful categories we use to measure lens value or worth - it's very, very sharp from edge-to-edge at all focal lengths, with its wide aperture it's great in low light and allows one to isolate their subject beautifully from their background, and in most situations its optical stabilization and autofocus system function effectively. It lags only in one aspect of autofocus performance that may or may not matter to a potential buyer.

Would I buy this lens? Given what I already own, probably not. But, I do find myself wishing that Sigma would have let me keep it for my coming Aquatic Mammals photo tour - based on what I know about the distance the subjects range over and their speed of movement, I can think of no other lens that would have been more ideal for this trip. Take that FWIW...

My thanks are extended to the Canadian distributor of Sigma camera equipment (GenTec International) - and particularly to "my guys" at Robinson's Camera in Calgary (Jeff and Conor) - for their collective efforts in getting this lens to me for testing.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

C. Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f4 VR

9 February 2013: TC-20EIII Field Test Updated with 70-200mm f4 VR Results

I have updated my TC-20EIII (2x teleconverter) Field Test with the addition of the results of the pairing of the new 70-200mm f4 VR plus the TC-20EIII. Regular followers of this blog will have already seen these results below (in the 15 and 23 January entries).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

30 January 2013: The Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR, the TC-14EII Teleconverter and Focus Tracking

Wow...already up to "installment 7" in my ongoing series of reports (which will lead to my final field test of the new Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR). For those just joining the discussion now, the previous 6 entries on the new Nikkor 70-200mm f4 can be found with little difficulty by just scrolling down...

In this entry I compare the focus tracking of the new 70-200mm f4 lens when combined with Nikon's TC-14EII (1.4x) teleconverter against two other lenses combined with the same TC - the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the "legendary" Nikkor 200mm f2 VR.

What I Did:

Pretty much the same thing as during my previous focus tracking tests - I utilized the same "tried and true" focus-tracking test using my highly paid partners - my two Portuguese Water Dogs who like running at me at full-speed. Those wanting more detail about the testing should scroll down to the 23 January entry. In this case I used only my D4 (its higher frame rate maximizes "sample size"). All images were shot at 200mm (so 280mm factoring in the magnification of the TC). All images shot at 1/1600s (except one where where there was simply too much light for the aperture I was testing - f2.8 on the 200mm f2 - that one was shot at 1/2000s).

What I Discovered:

1. Focus Tracking Accuracy: One surprise here. There was no difference in the focus tracking accuracy when I was comparing the two 70-200mm zooms and the TC-14EII - over 90% of the images were in sharp focus (sample size for both lens/TC combos was in excess of 150 images). But that's not the surprise - this is exactly what I found when testing these lenses plus the TC-20EIII (2x) TC. But the Nikkor 200mm f2 VR plus TC-20EII had a slightly lower success rate on focus tracking - just under 85% of the images were tack sharp (again a sample size of over 150 shots). To me this is somewhat surprising. But "just under 85%" still isn't too bad!

2. Sharpness Differences?. Interesting results here. First - the most predictable result. The sharpest lens/TC combination was the 200 f2 VR plus TC-14EII - by f4 it produced visibly sharper results than either of the two 70-200mm zooms paired with the TC-14EII. But anyone looking at the sample images below will notice that the images shot with the 200mm f2 VR plus TC aren't THAT much sharper than those shot with the zooms. In itself this is pretty amazing.

Second - the 70-200mm f4 plus TC-14EII slightly out-performed the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus TC-14EII. The difference was only really noticeable at wider apertures. Images shot at f5.6 on the 70-200mm f4 (plus TC) were slightly but noticeably sharper than those shot at f5.6 on the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII (plus TC). So the f4 version of the lens produced sharper images when shot wide open than the f2.8 lens did when stopped down 1 stop. And it parallels what I found when testing both lenses with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter. And to me this is truly amazing - the lighter, smaller, cheaper lens out-performs the bigger, heavier, and much more expensive 70-200mm "king".

At f8 and smaller apertures the differences in image sharpness between the two lenses (plus TC) was so small that I'd consider it totally insignificant for field shooting.

Sample shots? You bet. As always, it's best to view these images at 100% magnification (1:1). Images are about 75% of full frame and then reduced to 2400 pixels on the vertical axis. All critical information is included on the images.

Poncho Running - 70-200mm f4 VR plus 1.4x TC @ f5.6: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

Jose Running - 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 1.4x TC @ f5.6: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

Jose Running - 70-200mm f4 VR plus 1.4x TC @ f8: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

Jose Running - 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 1.4x TC @ f8: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

But Wait...There's More!

If one focused on image sharpness alone then it would be easy and logical to conclude that it makes no sense whatsoever to pay the big bucks for the fast (and big and heavy) super-telephoto prime lens - like the 200mm f2 VR, the 300mm f2.8 VR, 400mm f2.8 VR, etc. Why not just get a good lightweight zoom (like the new 70-200mm f4 VR) and a couple of teleconverters? Well...simply because if you go the zoom plus TC route you end up losing the wide apertures of those big lenses. This is partly because you can use them in lower light, though as the ISO performance of our cameras improves (and as the VR performance get better and better) this factor becomes less important. For me the big reason to pay the big bucks to have those large apertures at one's disposal is the increased control of the out-of-focus zones. A good image - and especially a good wildlife image - is a careful balance of sharply focused zones and out-of-focus zones. If you are using a lens that can open up no more than f5.6 (or f8 if you're using the 70-200mm f4 VR with the TC-20EIII), you have lost a lot of your ability to control your out-of-focus zones. Here's two more images - one at f2.8 and one at f4 - to demonstrate what I mean:

Jose Running - 200mm f2 VR plus 1.4x TC @ f2.8: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.0 MB)

Jose Running - 200mm f2 VR plus 1.4x TC @ f4: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.0 MB)

But if you're going hiking or doing anything with a weight restriction (e.g., flying)...the 70-200mm f4 plus TC's option is VERY compelling!

Those who have followed this series of posts on the 70-200mm f4 are probably beginning to ask "Why would anyone consider buying the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII when this new 70-200mm f4 seems so good?" Well...I have to say that unless someone absolutely needs the apertures between f2.8 and f4, I'm wondering the exact same thing myself.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

24 January 2013: The Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR and the TC-14EII Teleconverter

This is "installment 6" in my ongoing series of reports which will lead to my final field test of the new NIkkor 70-200mm f4 VR.

I've been receiving a fair amount of email recently asking me this: "OK, that new 70-200mm f4 lens seems to do well with the 2x teleconverter - but how does it perform with the 1.4x and the 1.7x?" I've just begun "playing" with the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-14EII (1.4x tc) combination. In the first phase of my testing I just "use" the product (or, in this case, combination of products) to get a feel for what it (or they) will do. So no comparisons yet with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. But I can already say this: the 70-200mm f4 VR and the TC-14EII pair up very well and can produce very good quality images, including when the zoom is used at its maximum focal length (200mm...so 280mm with the TC).

Here's a couple sample shots. It's best to view these images at 100% magnification (1:1). The images were shot with a D600 and are about 80-85% of full frame (but reduced to 2400 pixels on the long axis). They are sufficiently large to get a handle on image sharpness. Note that I shot both of these hand-held at a fairly slow shutter speed (1/80s) to get a bit more of a handle on how far the VR on the 70-200mm f4 can be pushed.

70-200mm f4 VR plus 1.4x TC at 164mm: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 965 KB)

70-200mm f4 VR plus 1.4x TC at 200mm:: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 970 KB)

In the near future I'll do some head-to-head testing comparing the results of the new version of the 70-200mm lens with the "old" f2.8 version when both are combined with the TC-14EII (both on static and moving subjects). Oh...and I won't be testing the 70-200mm f4 VR with the 1.7x (TC-17EII) teleconverter - I no longer own that one (and can't say I miss it!).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

23 January 2013: The Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR, the TC-20EIII Teleconverter and Focus Tracking

This is "installment 5" in my ongoing series of reports which will lead to my final field test of the new NIkkor 70-200mm f4 VR. In two previous entries (January 9 and 15 below) I discussed the results I obtained when using the TC-20EIII paired with the new Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR zoom lens on static subjects. I also compared these results to those obtained when using the same TC but with the professional 70-200mm f2.8VRII zoom. In those tests the new f4 version of the 70-200mm zoom performed at least as well as the f2.8 version and, surprisingly (at least to me), even slightly out-performed the f2.8 version when both were shot at f8 (which is wide open for the f4 version of the lens, and stopped down by 1-stop for the f2.8 lens).

But what happens when the action picks up and accurate and fast focus tracking is needed? Read (and look) on...

What I Did:

I utilized my "tried and true" focus-tracking test: I had my favourite test subject (one of my Portuguese Water Dogs) run at me at full speed and I rattled off shots as fast as the camera could. I used both my D4 and my D600. Both cameras were set as equivalently as possible - to continuous servo AF and either 51-point (for the D4) or 39-point (for the D600). And I used both my 70-200mm f4 lens and my 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lens - both native (no TC) and in combination with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter. For initial focus I used only focus brackets that were f8-compatible. This was not done to accommodate the TC - the reality is that whenever I'm shooting images of moving animals (running dogs, birds in flight, etc.) I use focus brackets near the centre of the array (which happen to be the f8-compatible brackets). All images were shot at 200mm (so 400mm equivalent when the TC-20EIII was attached). All images - with or without the TC - were shot at f8 and 1/1250s.

This is a particularly tough test for a camera and lens - not only is the dog (Jose) moving very quickly, but he is bobbing up and down while running. So the focus point is not only approaching the camera (requiring predictive capabilities in the autofocus algorith), but it is moving from one AF bracket to another continuously. Past experience has shown that virtually all "consumer" lenses (e.g., the 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR) fail this test abysmally and produce almost no sharp images. Most importantly, this test mimics the type of action a wildlife photographer would be capturing in the "real world". And, for legal purposes I feel compelled to mention that Jose is in no way abused during this testing - he is fed lots of treats and this ranks second only to Frisbee catching on his "favourite things to do" list. ;-)

What I Discovered:

1. Both Cameras, Both Lens/TC Combos - Excellent Focus Tracking. To make a long story short, regardless of the camera or lens combination used (including both lenses with or without the TC) the focus tracking was excellent. Overall "in sharp focus" percentage was extremely high - over 90% (virtually 100% with the D4 and any lens/TC combination).

2. Only Very Slight Between-Lens Differences. Overall the sharpest images were obtained when using either the 70-200mm f4 VR or 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lens native (with no teleconverter). Hardly surprising. BUT, the images shot with the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII were very, very close in sharpness. Those shot with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus TC-20EIII were slightly (but noticeably) softer than those shot with the f4 lens plus TC. It's important to remember that ALL shots were at f8. This is "wide open" for the f4 version of the lens (when the TC is in place), but stopped down one full stop for the f2.8 lens. Which makes the performance of the f4 lens (plus TC) even more impressive.

Sample shots? You bet. As always, it's best to view these images (which are all slight crops only) at 100% magnification (1:1), but the differences are visible even at 50% magnification. Of course, magnifications of 33% or 67% are not recommended for examining these shots - long story there...but just don't do it. ;-)

Jose Running - 70-200mm f4 VR NO TC: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

Jose Running - 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

Jose Running - 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

I'm now near the end of my testing of the new 70-200mm f4 VR used in combination with the TC-20EIII teleconverter. I have to be honest and say that the results have really surprised me - the images produced by this lens/TC combination are almost shockingly good. Under the right conditions you CAN produce output that can compare head-to-head with the best-of-the-best primes (like the 400mm f2.8 VR). But I have to add a very critical point here: there are STILL major compromises when shooting with a TC (compared to using a top-notch prime lens), especially when shooting action sequences. First, you need a lot of light. When f8 is your maximum aperture and you're trying to capture sharp action shots you better not go out on a cloudy day. And, when f8 is your maximum aperture, you definitely begin to lose some ability to control your background - meaning there is a very real limit to how much you can throw it out of focus and isolate your subject from its surroundings. What do I mean? One image to show you - this one from my archives...check it out and note what sharp really means (and take note of the background as well):

Jose Running - 400 f2.8 VRII: Download 1200 pixel image (JPEG: 663 KB)

So...if you're the type who REALLY pushes the limits and likes to shoot action in low light or want ultimate control of your out-of-focus zones, then there's still nothing that beats a top-notch prime super-telephoto. I simply could NOT have captured the sequence of whale breaching images featured in my January 16 blog entry (below) if I was using a teleconverter paired with...well...any lens. BUT...under "more normal" conditions (i.e., those under which most real people normally shoot!) the output you can get out of a "mid-priced" outfit (like a D600 with 70-200mm f4 VR and TC-20EIII) are almost scary good.

What's up next? First test-shots with the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-14EII (1.4x) TC. Tomorrow. And...yep...you'll see more "beyond my expectations" results...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

15 January 2013: More on the Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR and the TC-20EIII (2x) Teleconverter

This is "installment 4" in my ongoing series of reports which will lead to my final field test of the new NIkkor 70-200mm f4 VR. In my January 9 entry (below) I commented on the performance of the new 70-200mm f4 VR lens when paired with the TC-20EIII teleconverter - and shot with the D600. I commented on the fact that these results may be "camera-specific" and the positive results I obtained may not be reflective of the results one would obtain when using either the D4 or D800. So...I repeated the same tests with these two other cameras. I was particularly curious how the "lens-abusing" D800 would "react" to the new 70-200mm f4 VR and the TC-20EIII combination.

What I Discovered:

1. Same General Trend! Just like when I tested the the 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC combination on the D600, I ended up with very sharp images when this same lens/TC combo was used on both the D4 and D800.

2. Little Need to Stop Down! And, like when I tested this lens/TC combination on the D600, there was very little need to stop down to get "acceptably sharp" images when shooting the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII on either the D4 or D800. Said another way - images shot with this lens/TC combination at f8 were surprisingly sharp. This was not the case when I tested the "old" 70-200mm f2.8 VRII with the TC-20EIII on either the D4 or D800 and with the aperture wide open (@ f5.6). Simply put, the images were noticeably softer (than when stopped down, or when compared to those shot wide open on the f8 version of the lens). What about when images from the f2.8 and f4 versions of the lenses (paired with the TC-20EIII) are shot at f8 on the D4 and D800? The images shot with the f4 version of the lens were slightly (but noticeably) sharper!

3. Good Autofocus Performance - on ALL Focus Brackets! When I tested the 70-200mm f4 lens plus TC-20EIII on the D600 I found the AF performance was better than I expected (and even better "than advertised" by Nikon). The only focus brackets that performed in a slightly sub-standard fashion were on the extreme outermost ones (laterally). The D600 has only 7 f8-compatible autofocus brackets, so this was good news. The D4 and D800 have 11 f8 compatible AF brackets and, in general, a better AF module. So one should expect even better AF performance out of the D4 or D800 when using the 70-200mm f4 with the TC-20EIII. And that's EXACTLY what I found - on static subjects I was able to use ALL the 51 AF brackets and there was NO hesitation in initial acquisition of focus (or accuracy). Like with the D600, the autofocus performance of the D4 and D800 when using the 70-200mm f4 plus TC-20EIII exceeded Nikon's claims.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I still have not yet tested focus-tracking/predictive autofocus (think birds in flight) with the 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC combo. Soon. So no comment on that yet.

4. Bokeh and Focus Breathing. When I first started comparing images shot with the 70-200mm f4 VR with those shot with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII (both with the TC-20EIII) I started noticing that the bokeh seemed better (smoother and more visually appealing out-of-focus zones) on images shot with the f4 lens, especially when I was looking at images shot at f11 or f16. This trend of nicer bokeh seemed even MORE pronounced when I started comparing D800 images. When I looked at small thumbnails of the images I noticed that the images from the f4 lens (and remember that ALL these shots were taken at 200mm) showed a slightly higher magnification than those with the "old" f2.8 lens. It's important to note that I was shooting at a distance where any focus breathing (the shortening of focal length when the lens is focused quite closely) exhibited by the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII version of the lens (which is a documented characteristic - and to some a documented "flaw" - with this lens) wouldn't be instantly noticeable. Anyway...long story short - this "better bokeh" and then correspondence with another photographer alerted me to the fact that the new 70-200mm f4 VR exhibited either no - or considerably less - focus breathing. Subsequent quick comparisons at closer distances using the 200mm f4 Micro, the 200mm f2 VR, and both versions of the 70-200mm VR lens told me this: there is no focus breathing at ALL on the new 70-200mm f4 VR.

Personally, with how I use a 70-200mm zoom, focus breathing was not much of an issue at all. I primarily use a 70-200mmm lens for landscapes, "enviroscapes" (wildlife shot showing animal in its environment) or "animalscapes" (wildlife in a massive landscape, with subject small), which means I'm rarely focusing too close. However, for many other types of shooters - portrait shooters and wedding photographers come immediately to mind - focus breathing was an issue. So for some this is another major positive about this new lens (it's becoming increasingly hard to find anything to dislike about this lens!).

How 'bout some sample shots? Sure...and these are ALL shot with the D800 (the D4 shots were - as expected - the best of all...but there's a whole lot more D800's out there than D4's). No apologies offered for using squirrels for these shots - they're convenient, fast-moving, and after how many nuts they've robbed from my jay-feeder, they owe me big time. Best to view the images at 100% (1:1). The images are crops - all are about 75% to 85% of full-frame image and then reduced in resolution to 2400 pixels on the long axis. But if you look at them at 100% each demonstrates what it is supposed to demonstrate! ;-)

Red Squirrel - 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC @ f5.6: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

Red Squirrel - 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC @ f11: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

Red Squirrel - 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC @ f8: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

Red Squirrel - 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC @ f11: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

For those of you waiting for my final field test before purchasing the new 70-200mm f4 VR - well...if you're in the market for this lens...I wouldn't wait any longer...this is just a great lens...

More coming soon? You bet - time for some focus-tracking testing with the 70-200mm's and the TC-20EIII (so many variables, so many combinations to test!).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

9 January 2013: The Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR and the TC-20EIII (2x) Teleconverter

This is "installment 3" in my ongoing series of reports which will lead to my final field test of the new NIkkor 70-200mm f4 VR. Because I've received so many emails asking me about how the new lens performs with teleconverters (many folks seem to be basing their purchase decision on this aspect of the lens' performance), I decided to report my experiences with the new lens and TC's a bit earlier than I originally planned. And while I have more testing left to do (with other camera bodies, the 1.4x TC, and additional focal lengths), my early experiences with the 70-200mm f4 VR and the TC-20EIII (2x) TC are extremely positive and encouraging.

What I Did:

First, I shot a series of comparison shots of a static subject (my favourite stump) at a relative short distance (approx. 3.5m or 11.5 ft) - the sort of distance you'd commonly shoot images of small animals at (e.g., squirrels, some birds such as jays, etc.). The comparisons were all shot from a firm tripod (with head tightened down) and the following Nikkor lenses were used: the 400mm f2.8 VR, the 70-200mmm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII (@ 200mm) and the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII (again @ 200mm). With all 3 lens and lens/TC combos I varied the aperture from wide open through to f16 in 1-stop increments. I used a D600 for all tests. Why? Because I think (in comparison to D800 and D4 owners) more D600 users will be interested in using this particular lens/TC combination. Each shot was taken focused on the exact same point on the stump (using the central focusing bracket) and each image included the stump and background which included objects at various distances behind the stump.

After completing those comparison shots, I took several hundred shots of various small animals (red squirrels, Clark's Nutcrackers, Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Pine Grosbeaks) as they visited the stump. I alternated between shooting the f4 version of the lens (plus the 2x TC) and the f2.8 version - all shots were taken at 200mm (so 400mm equivalent). All images were shot from a tripod with the head completely loose (to facilitate ease of movement and composition) and at 1/400s with the VR on (and in "Normal" mode). With both lens/TC combinations I shot a full range of apertures from wide open through to f16. I used Auto ISO with shutter speed set to Auto (which set shutter speed at 1/400s). All images were shot using natural light - during the session there was light, thin cloud obscuring the entire sky. And, during the shooting I used/tested virtually all 39 focus brackets, including the outermost ones.

What I Discovered:

1. The 70-200mm f4 VR (@ 200mm) plus TC-20EIII is Surprisingly Sharp! The 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC produced much sharper images than I expected. How sharp? Well...at all apertures tested the 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC was sharper than the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus TC. As in NOTICEABLY sharper (when viewed at 100%). As sharp as the 400mm f2.8 VR? No - but closer than I would have expected. It's reasonably well-known that to get maximum sharpness out of the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC you have to stop down at least one stop from wide open, which means you have to stop down to f8. Interestingly, you don't seem to have to stop down from wide open with the 70-200mm f4 VR to get images at (or closely approaching) maximum sharpness. In fact, in every instance where I could make a valid comparison, images shot with the 70-200mm f4 plus TC at f8 (wide open) were sharper than images shot with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII at f8 (one stop down from wide open)! To me this is very surprising - but quite good news for those seriously considering purchasing the 70-200mm f4 VR.

Sample shot? Sure - the one linked right below was shot at f8 (wide open) with the 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC. Best to view it at 100% (1:1). This IS a crop - it's about 75% of the full-frame image and then reduced in resolution to 2400 pixels on the long axis - but it is definitely large enough to give a feel for the sharpness of the image. All critical field notes are included on the image...

Red Squirrel - 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

2. AF Performance (with the D600) OK - this is (or should be) a huge potential concern for those considering buying the 70-200 f4 VR and using it with the 2x TC. The D600 possesses 39 AF brackets, but of those 39 only 7 (in a "cross pattern" in the middle of the array) are compatible with a maximum aperture of f8. What this means is that only these 7 are - more-or-less - "guaranteed" to work with a combination like the 70-200mm f4 VR plus the 2x TC. But...what did I find in the field? That in the real world the news is BETTER than guaranteed. I had no problem whatsoever in acquiring initial focus when using 21 of the most central brackets (i.e., using the central-most 7x3 grid). In fact, the only AF brackets that totally failed in initial focus acquisition were the 6 most lateral brackets (3 on each side). And, when focus was attained I did find I could toggle to even the outermost AF brackets to tweak focus (for instance, if I decided I wanted to focus on an ear rather than an eye and I had to toggle to an outermost bracket to do so) and get good performance. Bottom line - while the AF performance WAS impacted by the TC, there were fewer drawbacks/compromises than I expected.

AF Accuracy? Seemed absolutely spot-on to me - if I could use a bracket to acquire initial focus, the focus seemed absolutely spot-on (without any AF-tuning).

AF performance compared to the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC combo. In MOST cases, no noticeable difference. One area where the "big brother" was more reliable was when attempting to acquire initial focus using the extreme outermost brackets - it always worked with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I have not yet tested focus-tracking/predictive autofocus (think birds in flight) with the 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC combo. So no comment on that yet.

I wouldn't recommend extrapolating too much based on these early results. There IS between-sample variation on both lenses and TC's - so no guarantee that others' results will be identical to mine. And, it's my experience that it's hazardous to assume that lens/TC performance will be identical on different cameras - at this point I can't say definitively how this lens/TC combo will work on the D4 and D800. My GUESS is that it will perform well on the D4. I won't even guess how the high res sensor of the D800 will like this lens/TC combination. I DO think at shorter focal lengths (between 100 and 200mm) the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII will perform just fine when used with the D600.

And, it's always wise to remember that there other compromises when using teleconverters. For instance, with a maximum aperture of f8 the user starts to lose some direct control of their out-of-focus zones. And. when you START at f8 you need quite a bit of light (and/or a camera with very good high ISO performance).

But, when all is said and done, I have to say these results are really encouraging and I predict that a LOT of users will be very happy with how the 70-200mm f4 VR performs with the 2x TC-20EIII. And, it's my guess that the news with the 1.4x TC-14EII will be equally as positive.

Stay tuned...more field test results coming soon!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

3 January 2013: Field Testing the New AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G ED VR - Installment 2

Time for a very brief update on my progress on field testing the new 70-200mm f4 VR. Today a few comments on the VR system...

Nikon claims that the recently released 70-200mm f4 VR zoom lens has a VR system on it that provides 5 full stops of image stabilization. In comparison, the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII has a VR system that Nikon claims has 4 stops of image stabilization and the original 70-200mm f2.8 VR had 3 stops of image stabilization. In full honesty, I don't have the types of tools at my disposal to truly and conclusively verify the VR claims for any of these lenses. All I can offer is anecdotal comparative comments...

My own experience is that it is more challenging to hand hold the Nikon D800 (with any lens) using the same shutter speeds I would hand-hold either my D600 or my D4. My assumption is that is because of the very small pixel pitch of the D800 - and that any camera movement at all more or less "drags" the image over more pixels than on lower resolution bodies (that have larger pixel pitches). Hence the less sharp images. So...I've been experimenting with hand-holding the D800 with the new 70-200mm f4 VR using the same shutter speeds I would use with the D600 and D800 (using Auto ISO with Auto shutter speed enabled - with no shutter speed compensation).

What have I found? Yep...definitely getting sharper shots that I would obtained when hand-holding the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII at the same shutter speeds. Interestingly, the shots I'm getting with the new lens compare favourably to those I get when I hand-hold the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII with shutter speed set via Auto ISO with a compensation of 1 stop (i.e., a doubling of the shutter speed). This implies to me that the new 70-200mm f4 VR is ABOUT one stop "better" than that on the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. Can I verify the "5 stops of image stabilization vs. 4 stops of image stabilization" claim? No.

How 'bout an example? Sure - just check out the image of the Raven (the portrait) in my Gallery of Latest Additions. All the important contextual information can be found by clicking the tabs below the image (e.g., the "In the Field" tab, the "Behind the Camera" tab, etc.). And clicking on the main image will show a larger version of the shot in a new window. That image will be somewhere in that gallery for a good 8 weeks, which should give me ample time to complete my full 70-200mm f4 VR field test.

I will keep monitoring the performance of the VR system of the 70-200mm f4 VR as I use the lens over the coming weeks and if I find out anything new I'll report it here. I can already say the new VR is very good, and it appears somewhere around 1-stop "better" than that on the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

19 December 2012: Field Testing the New AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G ED VR - Installment 1

I've just begun field testing Nikon's latest FX lens offering - the AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G ED VR. This zoom is interesting for a lot of reasons - it's almost a thousand dollars cheaper than Nikon's fully professional AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II. And, being one stop slower than its big brother it comes in both smaller and lighter. It also offers a new VR system that, according to Nikon, offers up to 5 stops of image stabilization. My complete testing of this lens will take at least a month, but I have already developed a few impressions of it that are probably worth sharing. Oh, by the way - I'm going to be testing this lens in a totally selfish way - focusing first on issues of greatest importance to ME! Hey - my time, my blog!

So...what was the first thing I wanted to find out with this lens? This:

Is it sufficiently sharp for most (or ALL) uses when shot wide open (f4) at the long end of its focal range (200mm)?

Why is this important to me? For a number of reasons. First, over the years I've noticed that most Nikon zooms are sharpest at the SHORT end of their focal range - and softest at the long end. And, with MOST (if not all) Nikon lenses they don't approach maximum sharpness until stopped down by close to a stop. And finally, this nature and wildlife photographer often likes to isolate (separate) his subject from the background. This is easy to do with super-telephoto lenses, but much less easy to do with shorter telephotos, like a 70-200 zoom. And, if you can't shoot it wide open and get sharp images it becomes even HARDER to isolate those subjects from the background. By the way - if I haven't mentioned it - I use a 70-200 at 200mm a LOT. And, of course, I like sharp shots. So...when I initially heard about this new lens my first thought was this: "Hmmmm...it better be sharp at f4 (at 200mm) or I'm just not interested...

But I'm getting ahead of myself just a tad...before I get to the "is it sharp when wide shot open at 200mm" question a few bits of house-keeping first.

1. How's the build quality?

Well...you CAN tell it's not a Japanese-built lens (it's manufactured in Thailand). Which means it feels a little more "plasticky", but not by much. Based on build quality this is definitely NOT a consumer-oriented product...it does have that "pro feel" to it. Both the focus ring and the zoom ring are super smooth. The non-scalloped hood is nice and feels more robust than the crappy hood on the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. All the gold "adornments" (the plates naming the lens and declaring it a "N" - or nano-coated - lens and a VR lens) are nice. Definitely built more robustly than the 70-300mm VR. And it has the requisite "environmental" (dust and moisture) seals on it. Will it hold up to years of hard use? Only time will tell. So far all I can say is mine is still working (after one day!). But overall the build quality is definitely high enough to please me.

2. Length and Weight?

Two thumbs up here. The new lens is 27mm (about 1.1") shorter than the f2.8 version. For me this means it fits into a smaller belt holster (when mounted on any pro body) than the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. Which means it's more comfortable to carry with me on day-to-day hikes. Bonus. And, even more importantly, according to my scales it's 610 gm (about 1.34 lb) lighter than the f2.8 lens (I weighed my lenses as I normally carry them - with caps on both ends and with their hoods attached). You know...just a funny thing, but I've noticed that as those around me get older I appreciate carrying less weight. And losing 1.35 lb is NOT insignificant. Hang this lens (complete with any camera body) around your neck and you DEFINITELY notice that it's lighter than its "big brother".

3. OK, OK...but is it "...sufficiently sharp for most (or ALL) uses when shot wide open (f4) at the long end of its focal range (200mm)?

Short Answer: YES!!!!

Longer Answer: OK - here's what I did. I mounted the lens on my D4, set it at 200mm and at f4, took my two favourite "subjects on demand" (my Porties) into the woods behind my house and shot about a bezillion (well...about a thousand) images of them doing a bunch of things - including sitting, running, running at me when front lit, coming at me when backlit, etc. And then I carefully scrutinized the shots and processed a few of them up. And I learned a surprising amount about the lens, including the fact that this lens is really very sharp at f4 and at 200mm. And here's two "kinda half-resolution" shots for you to peruse - all field notes are on the shots themselves. Best to view this at 100% (1:1):

Jose in Snow Motion: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

Backlit Boy: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

So what else have I learned about the lens so far? Lots of things, including:

• Fast and Accurate Autofocus! When I was shooting sequences of one of my dogs (the fast one) running right at me at 10 fps virtually ALL the images were tack sharp. While this is partly a function of the camera body I was using (a Nikon D4), I have no reason to believe that the autofocus performance of the lens would be less satisfactory on the D600 or D800. But I will be testing this shortly.

• Good Flare Resistance. During my hour or so of shooting with the lens I had the opportunity to work with some blindingly bright back lighting. I was expecting some lens flare issues and/or a real contrast problem in the files. But when I looked at the images I was really pleasantly surprised by the contrast and colour (and total lack of flare) in the images. Normally zooms (given the number of elements in them) show far worse problems with internal reflections (thus the flare and "bleached out" look one can get with backlighting) than do primes, but I have to say that this lens performed as good as any of my primes under heavy backlighting. I presume that this is a function of the nano-coating. Big bonus here.

• Nice bokeh! Not only are the out-of-focus zones produced by this lens very smooth and "buttery", but the transition from the sharply-in-focus regions to the completely out-of-focus zones is smooth and gradual, as it should be on a good lens (but isn't always). Check out the background in the image entitled "Jose in Snow Motion" to see what I mean.

I still have a lot of testing to do on this lens and am a long ways away from being able to judge all aspects of it. But...it passed its first test with flying colours.

What's up next? I'm not 100% sure, but I AM real curious about the edge-to-edge sharpness on this lens, particularly on the D800, and particularly on the long end of the focal range. Which, by the way, is one test that the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII does NOT pass with the D800 (the edge softness is noticeable and problematic). If it passes that one this lens may end up staying in my kit!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

19 December 2012: Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR and Nikon 1 V2 Field Testing Begins...

Late yesterday I received the new Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR zoom lens and the New Nikon 1 V2 mirror-less camera for field testing. I will be performing and, in time, posting full "real world" field tests on both these new products from Nikon. And, like with the D600, I will be posting interim results of various aspects of my testing as I complete them here on my blog. You'll see my initial findings on the 70-200mm f4 VR first...and likely real soon (possibly even later today - I found time to shoot about 1000 frames with it late yesterday afternoon).

My thanks are extended to the good folks at Robinson's Camera in Calgary, AB for facilitating the timely delivery of these new products to me for testing. Robinson's Camera is Calgary's newest full "Nikon Professional" dealer in Calgary and is the shop where I do all my own business. I've known the owner and other key players there for years (yep, those dudes are - like me - old codgers!!). They've always given me GREAT service and have always supplied me with what I need - not what THEY want or feel the need to sell. And yes, they do have both the 70-200mm f4 VR and the V2 in stock! Check 'em out here online...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

D. Ramblings on Miscellaneous Bits of Gear!

7 May 2013: Sharp Hand-held Shots with the Nikon D800 and the Nikon D600

The information contained in this entry first appeared here on April 17, 2013. But, through some mysterious shenanigans that are still puzzling me, the entry disappeared. Because I've received a number of emails asking me about it...here it is again...

Like many users of the D800, I've noticed that it's more than just a tad demanding to use effectively. While it is possible to get extremely sharp, full-resolution images with a D800 (when viewed at 100% magnification - or 1:1), I have empirically found it more challenging to do so than with either a D4 or D600, especially when shooting hand-held shots. When I first saw the specs of the D800 I suspected it might be challenging to hand-hold this camera at the shutter speeds I was used to shooting at with lower resolution Nikon cameras. My guess was that the small pixel pitch (about 4.7 microns, compared to 5.95 and 7.21 microns on the D600 and D4 respectively) would mean that even a very small amount of camera shake would translate into "soft" full resolution images (when viewed at 100% magnification). With such small pixels (or, more accurately, photosites) it's darned easy for a little motion to "drag" an edge in the object you are focused on across one or more pixels, softening the image.

So...a few weeks back I found so time to finally perform a simple test to see if the D800 actually WAS more challenging to hand-hold than a lower-res camera. And, to keep this test real, I chose to use lenses that are commonly hand-held by a lot of users - the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the "new" 70-200mm f4 VR.

WHAT I DID:

I shot several series of hand-hold shots of a distance subject (with a very distinct edge running completely across the frame) using the following equipment: Nikon D600, Nikon D800, Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VRII zoom, and Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR. All shots were taken with the lenses zoomed to maximum focal length (200mm). I chose to use Auto ISO for all shots, with the shutter speed set to Auto (which chooses a shutter speed based on the 1/focal length rule). With each combination of equipment I shot one series of images with NO compensation on the Auto Shutter speed, which translated to a shutter speed of 1/200s. And a second series of images (with each gear combination) were shot with a +1 stop compensation to the Auto Shutter speed - giving a shutter speed of 1/400s. In all cases the VR function of the lens was turned ON, and set to "Normal" mode - which mimics how I would use these lenses in normal day-to-day shooting.

It should be noted that with both my D4 and D600 I have shot thousands and thousands of shots (using lenses of various focal lengths) using Auto Shutter Speed with no compensation (so 1/focal length shutter speed) and, as long as I don't miss on the focus, have captured a very high proportion of sharp hand-held shots (with VR on and in normal mode). Of course, at times I do hand-hold cameras with shutter speeds lower than this and have often obtained sharp shots, but the proportion of sharp shots tends to fall in parallel with slowing shutter speeds.

WHAT I FOUND:

After spending hours painstakingly comparing the shots (at 100% magnification) I found two real clear trends:

1. With the D800 I consistently got a higher proportion of "tack-sharp" shots when I doubled the "normal" shutter speed I would normally shoot at (so, this means that at 200mm I got a much higher proportion of sharp hand-held shots at 1/400s than at 1/200s). This trend was clear when using BOTH the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the 70-200mm f4 VR.

2. When using the D600 and the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII doubling of the shutter speed (from 1/200s to 1/400s) made only a very small positive difference to the proportion of sharp shots captured. And, when the D600 was paired with the new 70-200mm f4 VR the doubling of shutter speed had no impact whatsoever on the proportion of sharp shots captured.

INTERPRETATION & TAKE HOME LESSONS:

Here's how I'll apply these results to my own shooting:

1. D800: I'm going to avoid hand-holding the D800 whenever possible. When I am in a position where I have no choice but to hand-hold the D800, I will be using higher shutter speeds than I normally do with either my D4 or D600. To be safe, I'll likely double the "normal" shutter speed I hand-hold specific lenses at (when using lower-res cameras). It should be noted that my test was "coarse" and that it's possible that simply increasing shutter speed by a smaller increment (e.g., only 50% or 0.5 stop) would be enough. I am still waiting for Nikon to refine the increments of the Auto Shutter Speed mode of their Auto ISO function (it currently is in one full stop increments).

As an aside: This field test really doesn't provide any insight into WHY one has to bump up shutter speeds to get sharp shots with a D800. My guess is that it is related to its small pixel pitch, but other factors (e.g., subtle differences in action required to activate the shutter) could be involved as well.

2. D600: With certain lenses (e.g., the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII) it is still probably worth for me to bump up shutter speeds a LITTLE beyond the 1/focal length rule to consistently capture sharp shots.

3. 70-200mm f2.8 VRII vs. 70-200mm f4 VR differences? Why did I get a higher proportion of sharp shots at 1/focal length shutter speeds when using the 70-200mm f4 VR on the D600 compared to the f2.8 VRII version of the lens? The simplest explanation is what Nikon says - the VR is better on the new version of the lens. But, it should also be remembered that the f4 lens is also 1.5 lbs lighter than the f2.8 lens - and this may have also contributed to the difference. But my gut says that it's the VR - and that it is considerably better on the new 70-200mm f4 lens.

Cheers...

Brad

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1 May 2013: Nikon 1 V1 vs. Nikon 1 V2 - Image Quality

I've been using a Nikon 1 V1 as both a "walkaround" camera and as an accessory for my wildlife photography since shortly after it was first released. I'm sure everyone reading this knows what I mean by "walkaround" camera. But calling a V1 a "wildlife photography accessory" probably requires a bit of an explanation. I have found that the V1 produces surprisingly good image quality when it is combined with "real" Nikkor lenses using the FT-1 mount adapter. With its 2.7x crop factor you can make your "big glass" REALLY big! For instance, combine a 400mm prime lens with a Nikon 1 camera and it has an effective focal length (or field of view) of 1080mm, and a 600mm lens has an effective focal length of 1620mm. When it comes to my wildlife photography kit, my V1 is included as though it was a 2.7x teleconverter - I don't use it often, but once in a while (when I have sufficient light to shoot at lower ISO's and need that extra reach) it comes out of the bag. And on a few occasions it has "saved the day" for me. I've even used the V1 with my 400mm f2.8 lens to capture a few shots that have ended up in gallery exhibitions.

When Nikon came out with the "replacement" model (the V2) in late 2012 I was intrigued. Just by looking at some of the ergonomic and spec changes I was fairly sure I'd like it. But, I had one real big concern - the increase in resolution from the 10.0 MP of the V1 to the 14.2 MP of the V2. This resolution increase meant that the photosites on the sensor HAD to get smaller. And, as photosites get smaller two negative things happen. First, image noise at high ISO's goes up. Second, diffraction-induced image softening at small apertures increases (as many D800 owners who've found that they can't get tack sharp images beyond f11 can attest to!).

So...over the last few days I've done some simple tests. I connected a 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lens to a FT-1 mount adapter, mounted that combo on a firm tripod, and shot a large number of test shots with both the V1 and V2. In the first series of tests I simply fixed the ISO (at ISO 200 for both cameras), and shot a number of images of a stationery stump at apertures from f2.8 through to f16 (in one stop increments). In the second series of tests I fixed the aperture and varied the ISO from base (100 with the V1, 160 with the V2) up through ISO 6400. I captured both RAW and JPEG fine images, and did separate series with High ISO Noise Reduction both on and off.

I'll provide sample images when I publish my full V2 Field Test, but here's a quick and dirty summary of what I found.

Question 1: Are there visible differences in diffraction effects (i.e., diffraction-induced softening as aperture decreases) of the images produced by the Nikon 1 V1 and the Nikon 1 V2?

Answer 1: Nope. With both cameras I obtained very sharp images from f4 through f8 (the f2.8 images were only slightly less sharp). But, at f11 the images of both cameras noticeably softened up (across the entire frame). And by f16 they were quite soft (when full resolution images were viewed at 100% magnification).

Take Home Lesson 1: If you want sharp images with a V1 or V2, don't stop down beyond f8. But there's no significant between-camera differences in diffraction effects.

Question 2: Is there a noticeable difference in noise characteristics of images produced by the V1 vs. the V2?

Answer 2: Only very slight - with the V1 producing images that are slightly "cleaner" at ISO 800 and above. How much "cleaner"? Not much more than 1/2 stop - at most. They're really close.

Question 3: What about "High ISO Noise Reduction" - does it improve the quality of the in-camera JPEG's? Is the in-camera noise-reduction of the V1 and V2 comparable? And, how do the in-camera JPEG's compare to RAW images shot at the same ISO and carefully processed with a good raw converter (in this case, Phase One's Capture One Pro)?

Answer 3: Hey, that's no fair - that's 3 questions at once! Anyway...yes, JPEG shooters will find that if they use the built-in noise reduction feature they WILL - at ISO 800 and above with both cameras - get much less noisy images. But contrast takes a hit, and the images look both "over-smoothed" (that video-game look) and somehow "foggy". In short - for my own shooting I would NEVER be happy with the JPEG's produced in-camera and with High ISO Noise Reduction enabled with EITHER camera at an ISO beyond 400. And with the HIgh ISO Noise Reduction turned off the images at ISO 800 and above are pretty noisy...(too noisy for my taste).

What about RAW captures? The situation improves quite a bit. I found with BOTH cameras I could produce quite clean and acceptable images at ISO 800 (using the default/automatic noise reduction in Phase One's Capture One Pro) with both cameras. ISO 1600 images? They took a little more specialized noise reduction (i.e., they needed a little more noise reduction using Noise Ninja in Photoshop CS6). ISO 3200 images? More work yet...

Take Home Lesson 2: With both cameras I'll shoot regularly up to ISO 800. If need be and the conditions are right, I'll go up to ISO 1600 and if the image was unique enough (think Bigfoot) I'd even go up to ISO 3200. But at ISO's above 400, I'll only shoot RAW images - for me the quality of the in-camera JPEG's above ISO 400 just isn't there.

Finally - V1 vs. V2 image quality? The differences are insignificant to me. Which is good...it means that Nikon did manage to jam about 4 million extra pixels into the small CX sensor of the V2 without negatively impacting on image quality.

Cheers...

Brad

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22 April 2013: The Nikon 1 V2 and the Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR

When I first laid my hands on the 70-200mm f4 VR one of my first thoughts was "hmmmm...if the VR on this lens is as good as Nikon claims, it should be an awesome lens to use with a Nikon V1 or V2." I use the Nikon V1 as a "walkaround" camera on my daily peregrinations (AKA...forest reconnaissance...AKA walking my dogs). I've found that when the V1 is combined with quality Nikkor lenses (using the FT-1 mount adapter), it is a great walkaround camera. And, lately I've begun putting the Nikon V2 to the test. The Nikon 1 cameras have a 2.7x crop factor, so a 70-200mm f4 zoom ends up having an "effective" focal length (or, if you prefer, a field of view) equivalent to a 189-540mm f4 zoom. When one can randomly encounter elk, deer, coyotes, wolves, bears, cougars and more on any given dog walk from their home, there's little need to explain why always having a compact camera with a quality 189-540mm f4 zoom on your hip is an appealing concept!

Long story short - yep, the "new" Nikkor 70-200mm f4 works great with the V2. And, with that almost-3x-crop factor, it even works well as an impromptu macro lens. To see what I mean, just check out the crocus image entitled "Cradling the Cup" in my Gallery of Latest Additions (the image I'm referring to is currently in the 3rd position in the gallery, tho' it will shift over time).

Odds are there will be more and more V2 images in that "Latest Additions" gallery in the coming weeks (including more with the 70-200mm f4 VR), so if if you're curious about how you can use the V2 effectively for nature and wildlife photography - keep poking your head into that gallery over the next while!

Cheers...

Brad

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16 April 2013: Four...Five...SIX Ways to 400mm!

Because a lot of the folks visiting this website are wildlife photographers - and because the 400mm focal length is such a critical "threshold" to get to when shooting wildlife - my 4 Ways to 400mm Field Test has proven to be very popular. Although it's now a few years old, it's still being visited by over 3,000 people (AKA unique visitors) per month.

But, that review is now a bit long in the tooth (I'd say "sadly" - but it's probably GOOD it's out-of-date - especially now that we have some CHEAPER ways to get to 400mm!). Two particular configurations of gear need to be added to the comparison...the new (and excellent) 70-200mm f4 VR (in combination with the 2x TC-20EIII teleconverter) and the "brand new" updated version of the 80-400mm f4.5/5.6 VR.

So...in the coming days I'll be starting into the testing necessary to update this field report. Stay tuned - I will be updating my blog with interim reports on how things are going, especially with the new 80-400.

For those wondering about my progress on my D600 field test and my 70-200mm f4 VR field test (and based on emails I'm receiving there's a lot of folks who are waiting) - I have one word: soon! But by now, if you've been keeping up with this blog you know the shortest version of my summary of what I think of both of these two products - neither are absolutely perfect but, they're both great performers. And I can recommend both of them for novice through professional photographers (the pros will know if they NEED the 2.8 aperture of the "old" 70-200mm f2.8 VRII or if they can get by with f4 on the new zoom).

Cheers...

Brad

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3 April 2013: Choosing a Nikon Super-Telephoto Lens: 400mm, 500mm, or 600mm?

Between email originating from this website and from those who have attended presentations or photo tours with me, I get a LOT of gear-related questions. And the absolutely most common question I get from Nikon wildlife photographers is this:

"I'm a Nikon-shooting wildlife photographer, and like so many I own the 200-400mm f4 VR zoom. But now I want the best prime lens for wildlife shooting - should I buy the 400mm f2.8 VR, the 500mm f4 VR, or the 600mm VR?"

Most who are asking me this question aren't looking for a spec-spew or to have me quote MTF charts. They want to know what I actually think (based on field experience). So...I've put a few thoughts together on the subject. And you can find them in the commentary associated with my latest image addition. All you have to do is click the "In the Field" tab under the image entitled "Alien @ Sunrise". And you can find that image in two places on this website (with the same commentary). For the next few days it will be the lead-in image in my Gallery of Latest Additions. And, the image also has a more permanent home - for the next year or so it can be found right here in my Birds of Prey Gallery...

And I know that this commentary will have the opposite effect of the intended - rather than reducing my email load it will generate even MORE questions! C'est la vie!

Cheers...

Brad

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4 March 2013: The Nikon D600 - The Severity of the "Dirty Sensor" Issue...

There has been an immense amount of online chatter regarding the penchant of the image sensor of the Nikon D600 to accumulate dust and/or oil. I have seen the chatter, and I have received an inordinate amount of email about the issue, including from folks who've said they may not buy the camera because of the "problem". I was going to leave my comments on this for my coming D600 field test, but that has been delayed by the time-consuming-but-very-worthwhile wolf neck snare issue I became embroiled in during February. So...here you go - my experiences with the huge problem of dust on the sensor of the D600...

YES, I experienced the "problem" with the sensor of my D600 accumulating some unidentified gunk on it. IF my experience with my copy of my D600 is representative of the magnitude of the problem others are experiencing, it is one of the most overblown non-issues I have ever seen.

YES, during my testing of the D600 I noticed the dust spots on some images shot with the D600. But, during testing I swap lenses ALL the time. And the other cameras I was testing against (the D4, D800) also showed enough sensor specks that I needed to clean them. The D600 WAS slightly worse than the other 2 cameras. So I cleaned the D600 sensor - using a swab and sensor fluid - and I would not consider myself an expert in the cleaning of image sensors. It took me about two minutes. Since then I have shot thousands of images with the D600 and have not had to clean the sensor again. I have the feeling that this is a "when-the-camera-is-new-and-breaking-in" issue, but I do not know that for a fact.

For me, this issue is unbelievably trivial compared to the many strengths and fantastic value of the camera - for almost all uses this camera outperforms the D3x! And, in most cases you don't even notice the spots unless you stop way down (beyond f8) AND have a clean, continuous background (e.g., like a sky). In my opinion, on a bullet list of pros and cons this "issue" should be relegated to the absolute bottom of the list (if not lower). I'm anal about camera performance, and I don't even THINK about this issue on a day-to-day basis. Further, I think if anyone chooses to NOT buy this camera based on this issue they are hurting (handicapping? penalizing?) only themselves.

Have I made my opinion clear on this issue? ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

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7 February 2013: HELP! Which Full-frame Nikon DSLR Should I Buy?

My tardiness in putting out my D600 field test (sorry...but I'm a busy guy!) has resulted in a lot of email flowing into my in-bin. Much of it has been of this nature:

"Help! I'm tiring of waiting for your D600 review and I want to buy a new Nikon for nature shooting NOW! But I'm really confused about which full-frame model to buy - there's so much conflicting information and crap on the inter-web. I shoot a bit of everything - what do you recommend? And PLEASE don't just spew specs at me - what do you actually THINK?"

OK, I have some comparatively strong opinions relevant to this conundrum. But it's important to remember they ARE opinions, and they are coming from the perspective of someone who is, first and foremost, a wildlife shooter. I am not without bias. But I shoot with ALL 3 of Nikon's current full-frame cameras (the D4, the D800, and the D600) and have had a lot of opportunity to shoot them head-to-head. I know you can find alternate viewpoints "out there", and I'm sure I'll hear lots back on this one. But here you go - a short summary of my thoughts on each of Nikon's current full-frame cameras...what I think they're best suited for, and who should buy them. And I know this one is going to draw some flak, but at least I'm honest!

The Nikon D4:

• OVERVIEW: Big, heavy, and expensive. But the best action camera you can buy, bar none. Tough as nails, very high frame rate, and with an amazingly fast and accurate autofocus system - the best AF system Nikon has ever offered. Excellent ergonomics - both when held in horizontal or vertical orientations. ISO performance is excellent and, in a way, "interesting" - if you're shooting at high ISO it has close to the same amount of noise ISO's as the perceived high ISO king (the D3s), but definitely holds better tonal range in the darks and lights - so much so that high ISO shots with this camera simply don't LOOK like high ISO shots. In what's almost a paradox - this is Nikon's most forgiving full-frame camera - it's darned hard to point this camera at something and shoot and NOT get a sharp, well-exposed image!

Drawbacks? Big, heavy, and expensive. And a stupid approach to memory cards (two slots, two different card types) - which means you carry extra needless gear (and card types) into the field.

• Best Suited For? Sports shooting. Serious or professional wildlife shooting - especially for wildlife shooting where low light and/or action is likely to be encountered. Overall the ultimate camera for shooting wildlife.

• Who Should Buy One? Serious sports shooters and wildlife shooters who want the best and are willing to spend the money.

• For More Information: Check out my D4 Field Test.

The Nikon D800/800e:

• OVERVIEW: A tremendously powerful yet enigmatic photographic tool. Best dynamic range of any camera available today - and it's noticeable in the field. The uber-high resolution (and associated very small pixel pitch) has both positive and negative consequences. It's the best solution for large-to-huge prints. But that high res sensor beats up lenses - you'll get the most out of this camera ONLY if you use the best of the best Nikkors. Example? Shoot the 70-200mm f2.8 VRIi at 200mm on the D4 or D600 and you have very acceptable edge-to-edge sharpness. Shoot that same lens on the D800 and the edges are noticeably soft (at all apertures). And don't stop down beyond about f11 (or even f8 with some lenses) if you don't want to start softening up your images because of diffraction. Small pixel pitch also means that camera shake is a bigger issue on this camera than on Nikon's other full-frame cameras - so if you're a "hand-holder" prepare to bump that shutter speed about 1/2 stop faster. AF performance - excellent (and way better than needed for landscape work!). ISO performance? Incredible for a 36 MP DSLR, but not nearly as good as the D4, or even the D600. At the end of the day this simply isn't a forgiving camera in any way - but treat it with medium format-like shooting discipline and it can produce beautiful images. But make no mistake - this is Nikon's LEAST forgiving full-frame camera - unlike the D4, it's REAL easy with this camera to point it at something and get a blurry, out-of-focus shot!

Drawbacks? Already mentioned and, oh yeah...a stupid approach to memory cards (two slots, two different card types). At least Nikon is consistent in their stupidity. And the camera is kinda slow (in frame rate) - too slow for serious wildlife shooting.

• Best Suited For? Landscape shooting and studio work. Also great for "animalscapes" if conditions are just right. Excellent implementation of Live View also turns this into a GREAT camera for macro and closeup work - so next time you need a 36 MP image of a flower or bug...this is the camera of choice (read sarcasm into that if you want to). How 'bout for wildlife shooting (including in DX mode)? Argh...I was hoping you would NOT ask that. In my opinion it's tied for about 6th as a wildlife camera - trailing behind the D4, D3s, D600, D3, and D700 (with battery pack). But about as good as a D3x for serious wildlife shooting!

• Who Should Buy One? Serious landscape shooters who don't want the expense and/or bulk of medium format equipment. And studio shooters. And, those who are prepared to spend the money on a camera dedicated to animalscapes. Not recommended by me for action shooters or serious wildlife shooters.

• For More Information: Check out my D800 Field Test (it includes more on why I can't recommend this camera for serious wildlife photography).

The Nikon D600:

• OVERVIEW: Probably the best "balance" of features available in a camera for nature photography at any price. High enough resolution (and enough dynamic range) to challenge the D800 for landscape shooting, yet not so high that it beats up lenses very badly or shows nearly as much diffraction-induced softening at small apertures. Slightly faster frame rate than D800 is noticeable (and appreciated) in field shooting. Excellent ISO performance - not quite a D4 but surprisingly close! Autofocus performance does not match that of the D4, but again I'd rate it as surprisingly close in real-world terms...easily handles shooting birds-in-flight with a 600mm f4 lens. Overall phenomenal real-world performance for $2k or less...seriously out-performs a D3x in the field. While not quite as forgiving to use as a D4, this camera is much more forgiving than a D800 and is quite easy to produce excellent shots with in day-to-day use.

Drawbacks? Lacks some critical connections for many studio lighting setups. But at least the two card slots are the same!

• Best Suited For? All-round use for nature photography: Not-quite-a-D4 for wildlife shooting, and not-quite-a-D800 for landscape work, but not very far off either of them. And a superb back-up camera for either a D4 or a D800. Unless I'm going to do "serious" wildlife shooting (in harsh and/or low light conditions) or landscape work, THIS is the camera I grab first. Really.

• Who Should Buy One? Only about 90% of the world's Nikon-shooting nature photographers (including MANY who bought D800's BEFORE the D600 was released)! Most versatile DSLR in Nikon's lineup and definitely the best value proposition.

• For More Information: My D600 Field Test is coming soon...

There you go - hope it helps...

Cheers...

Brad

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31 January 2013: Nikon's New 800mm Lens - The AF-S Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR

As most Nikon-o-philes will know by now, way back on January 28 Nikon officially announced its new 800mm lens - officially dubbed the "AF-S Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR". For a cool $18k you can have Nikon's longest lens that has ever sported autofocus - and have VR to boot! And you can have it in April! Because of the price-point of this lens - and its exceptionally specialized use - I wasn't going to bother dealing with it here. But...email has been rolling in asking me what I think of it. So I guess I should say something. And, In general, I've received two categories of questions, which I'll attempt to answer here:

1. What do I think of the lens? Will I be getting one? Is the cost of the lens justified?

I haven't seen, touched, or used the lens - so I can't comment directly on what I think of it. If you look at the published literature about the lens, it does appear that Nikon has poured a huge amount of effort and technology into it (probably the best repository of all available info on the lens is here on the "Nikon National Enquirer"). It's likely a great lens. I won't be buying one (more on that in a minute)...but if someone happened to GIVE me one (to test or have) I wouldn't turn them down. But that's very, very unlikely!

Is the cost of the lens justified? Well...given the technology behind it and the small numbers that will be produced - yes, the cost probably is justified. In fact, it could be argued it's amazingly cheap (and Nikon is likely making ZERO money on it). But...for me the question is slightly different - as a professional wildlife photographer can I justify the price of the lens. Or, more accurately, can I build a logical and rational business case for "investing" in this piece of equipment? No. But some could...let me explain further...

Some wildlife photographers consider the challenge of getting "close enough" to their prey to be their single biggest obstacle to getting "good" wildlife shots. You know - those "full frame" shots. And for certain types of elusive prey this might be the case - so there may be justification for that "...the more reach, the better" argument. It's a variation on the "...if something is good, more is better" way of thinking. But my approach to choosing equipment for wildlife photography differs. When it comes to focal length and lens choice I think in real-world "optimization of all variables" terms. I'm always trying to balance off reach vs. fine control of my out-of-focus zones (depth-of-field concerns). And carrying the lens. And the shutter speed I need to get a sharp image. And I have also found that in MANY real-world situations what I'll call "airborne/atmospheric spatial heterogeneities" (think dust, fog, mist, thermal currents, rain, etc.) can make mitigate against using even a 600mm lens effectively. What do all these variables translate into in the field? The fact that I use my 400mm f2.8 VR at least five times as much as my 600mm f4 VR. And, I know I would use an 800mm lens even less. But this is just ME - I will not argue with others if they say they need this lens or that they will use it regularly. I CAN see some sports photographers (and maybe even some news photographers??) benefitting from this lens. But the amount of benefit I would get from this lens wouldn't justify the expense. And, in my opinion, there aren't many serious wildlife photographers that have a strong enough need for this lens to justify its purchase. In my neck of the woods you'll be most likely to see this lens in the hands of retired oil patch executives. ;-)

I said one thing above that may need a little more explanation - about how the "need for more reach" isn't always critical for a wildlife photographer. For me "getting close enough" (and thus lens reach) is rarely the main challenge in the field. And here's a timely example - about a week ago I posted an image in my Gallery of Latest Additions where the subjects were TINY in the frame. It was shot with a 70-200mm lens at 135mm on a full-frame camera. And, in the discussion associated with the image (the "In the Field" tab) I discuss the issue of shooting good wildlife shots at a distance. The image and discussion I'm referring to can be found here right now (but be aware that the image will be shifting in position within that gallery soon). AND, just yesterday, this very image was chosen as the Pick of the Week by the Nature Photographer's Network...so at least some others share my viewpoint about reach not being the main issue to a wildlife shooter! You can read what others are saying about the image right here on the Nature Photographer's Network website (and you will find a link to a 2500 pixel version of the image).

2. Will I be field-testing the lens?

Well...I'll use one of my favorite malaprops to answer that: only if Nikon decides to send me one "au gratis". So likely not. ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

31 January 2013: Focus Tracking Test Protocol Addendum...

In all my tests on focus tracking capabilities of various lenses and cameras (including entries in this blog and in several of my Field Tests) I have left out a bit of information that may be useful for some readers. In all current FX Nikon cameras Custom Setting A1 lets you determine the "AF-C Priority Selection". This means that when using continuous servo AF mode (the setting you MUST use for serious focus tracking) you can tell the camera to give priority to focus (so it will only fire if subject is in focus) right through to priority to release (meaning the camera will fire whenever the shutter release is depressed, regardless of whether the subject is in focus or not). The number of AF-C Priority Selection option varies with the camera - two with the D600, three with the D800, and four with the D4. In day-to-day shooting with my D4 I always use the "Release & Focus" option. BUT, for all focus tracking tests (regardless of the camera used) I select the "Release" option. This removes any bias towards the camera shooting in-focus shots only (and thus does not inflate the "in-focus" ratees that I report).

Thanks are extended to Sergey for pointing this omission out.

Cheers...

Brad

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16 January 2013: Celebrating the Wild Life...

During seminars, slideshows, lectures, or even casual conversations with other photographers I'm often asked which of my images is my all-time favourite. I usually reply with something like..."the next one". And there's some truth to this - one of the great things about wildlife photography is that there's always strong anticipation and enthusiasm about that "next" image! It's also equally true that while I normally do have ONE favourite image at any one instant in time, but it changes ALL the time. But I have less trouble giving a definitive and non-varying answer to the question "Which is your all-time favourite sequence of images?" For me there's absolutely no doubt - it's a 7-image sequence I shot of a breaching Humpback Whale back in August 2011. I call the sequence "Celebrating the Wild Life" - simply because the graceful leap of these massive animal seems so darned joyful! I processed the first image in the sequence shortly after capturing the sequence. And then I got busy and...well...didn't find the time to process the remaining 6 images until this past weekend. But now they're all up on this website...

The first shot in the sequence is the lead-in image to my Gallery of "Other" Mammals - it can be viewed right here. All the gory details concerning the image capture (and of course processing and more) can be found by clicking on the tabs below the image ("In the Field", "Behind the Camera", etc.).

The six new images that complete the sequence begin here.

While this whole sequence captures less than a second of my total lifetime and life experiences, it's indelibly imprinted in my mind and seeing this sequence of images never fails to bring a smile to my face. I hope that some day I can say I have a sequence I like better than this one. But if I don't...well...I could live with that.

Cheers...

Brad

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20 November 2012: Autofocus Performance of the Nikon D600

Another excerpt from my coming D600 Field Test - this time touching on the autofocus (or AF) performance of the Nikon D600, including when used with super-telephoto lenses.

But first - some relevant context. When I heard that the AF system of Nikon D600 was based upon (not identical to, but based upon) that of the Nikon D7000 I was concerned. Why? Because I had found that while the AF system of the Nikon D7000 performed very competently with "short" lenses (which, in my book, means "up to and including the 70-200mm f2.8 VR"), at least MY D7000 performed very poorly with "larger" lenses. By "performed very poorly" I mean that it was simply inaccurate at anything but very short focal distances and that in any Dynamic Area AF mode it struggled badly with initial focus. I found this to be the case on the 200-400mm f4 VR, the 400mm f2.8 VR, the 500mm f4 VR, and the 600mm f4 VR. SO...my very first concern was this: Does the AF system of my D600 perform better with "big glass" than my D7000 did? Thus, will my D600 be more suitable as a wildlife camera than my D7000 was? Thus the examples I'm giving today...a few shot with "big glass"...

And, for those who only want the "Quick and Dirty" answer...YES, the AF system of my D600 performs far better with "big glass" than my D7000 ever did. So I consider it - at least from an autofocus perspective - a better wildlife camera than the D7000.

IMAGE NOTES: Since beginning to post high (and often full) resolution test images for your perusal I have received a lot of email thanking me for doing so. However, I have received a few emails asking me to post full resolution images only when it is necessary to do so (to fully demonstrate the point I'm making). Seems like a reasonable request to me. So...in today's case I'm quite sure even "half of full resolution" will be enough to make my points. So...today you get "standard" web-sized images (1200 pixels on long axis) and "half-resolution" (3008 pixels on long axis) images.

1. Static (ish) Subject; REAL Big Glass: I found my D7000 was quite inaccurate in focus with virtually any super-telephoto prime lenses or zooms unless the subject was VERY close. This was NOT a function of lens tuning - no matter how hard I tried to tune the AF system of my D7000 it regularly produced soft images. So...here's one recently captured image of a rare Spirit Bear taken with my D600 and 600mm f4 lens.

White Bear, Muddy Face: Download 1200 pixel Image File - complete with all field notes (JPEG file: 759 KB)
White Bear, Muddy Face: Download Higher-Res (3008 pixel on long axis) Image File - complete with all field notes (JPEG file: 3.1 MB)

2. Autofocus Tracking - My Standard Test! Yep, my standard "Jose the Portuguese Water Dog Running Straight At Me" test. The value of this test is that I have been doing it for a number of years and have comparative "stats" for several cameras, my dog loves it (lotsa treats, albeit healthy ones), and it's a damned tough test to pass - Jose is real fast and, like any dog, he bobs up and down like crazy while running! All results are discussed on the images, but here's the critical finding - with my 400mm f2.8 VR the D600 performed almost as well in focus-tracking as my D3s, not quite as well as my D4, and WAY better than my D7000 (which did NOT pass this test with a 400mm lens).

Jose on the Run: Download 1200 pixel Image File - complete with all field notes (JPEG file: 509 KB)
Jose on the Run: Download Higher-Res (3008 pixel on long axis) Image File - complete with all field notes (JPEG file: 2.1 MB)

3. Autofocus Tracking - Bird in Flight: How 'bout birds in flight with Nikon's longest readily-available (sort of) super-telephoto lens? No problem with the D600. This one was a "forget it" with my D7000.

Jonathon Livingston: Download 1200 pixel Image File - complete with all field notes (JPEG file: 294 KB)
Jonathon Livingston: Download Higher-Res (3008 pixel on long axis) Image File - complete with all field notes (JPEG file: 794 KB)

Other aspects of the AF performance of the D600 - like "do those 39 focus brackets cover enough of the viewfinder?" - will be discussed in my coming D600 Field Test...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

15 November 2012: Nikon D600/D800 ISO Performance - Another Quick Update...

Not surprisingly, since posting some high ISO shots taken with the D600 back on November 11 I've received a number of emails asking me to post some D800 examples (why did I think this would be coming??). I will be posting a number of comparisons between the D600, D800 and D4 when I've completed my D600 Field Test, but for now here's two versions of a ISO 3200 D800 image - both a web-sized (1200 pixel wide) sample and a full-res (7360x4912 pixel) sample. This image was taken very close to the same time (and under very similar conditions) as the previously posted D600 images (from November 11). All processing on this image identical to that performed on the ISO 4500 D600 image. Same "Important Image Notes" as on November 11 posting (so if you want to read them...scroll down a little!). While the D800 trails the D4 (and the D600) in high ISO performance, for a 36 MP DSLR it has pretty amazing high ISO performance. And...here ya go:

Red Squirrel - Classic Pose (D800; ISO 3200): Web-sized:
Download 1200 Pixel Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 581 KB)

Red Squirrel - Classic Pose (D800; ISO 3200): Full Res:
Download Full Res Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 16 MB)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

12 November 2012: Nikon D600 ISO Performance - A Quick Update...

Since posting my comments and images re: the ISO performance of the Nikon D600 yesterday I've received two emails asking me virtually the same thing (so I'm thinking many others may have the same question and I should address it here): What was the relative contribution of the image sensor vs. the raw converter in producing those relatively noise-free images? And, what would they look like if they were processed in another raw converter, such as Lightroom or ACR? Good questions, compliments of Sergey and Manuel.

While I really like Capture One Pro as a raw converter (and the latest iteration of it - version 7 - adds a lot of new features and some excellent improvements) - the noise-free nature of those images is a function of the image sensor of the D600. When noise reduction is turned totally off (in Capture One Pro) the ISO 3600 and ISO 4500 images still look really, really clean. And, I DID play with them in Lightroom (version 4.2) and it's possible to produce output that looks as noise-free as the images I posted yesterday - albeit with more clicks/steps, and not nearly as nice colour! And there goes any hope of me ever being sponsored by Adobe...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

11 November 2012: Nikon D600 ISO Performance - Simply Outstanding!

I'm in the midst of methodically field-testing the ISO performance of my D600 - and how it stacks up against both the D4 and the D800. Prior to beginning testing I had assumed that the D600 would do well in ISO performance and likely come out somewhere between the D800 and D4. In that regard I can already say I was right - it is between the D4 and D800. BUT - and to me this was very surprising - the D600 is really nipping at the heels of the D4 (i.e., is much closer to the D4 in ISO performance than it is to the D800).

I'll provide multiple comparisons (including of different scene types) when my full D600 field test comes out (in a few weeks), but will share a few examples of what I mean right now. The following shots were captured a few minutes after I had done some systematic testing of ISO (comparing the D600 with the D4 and D800) and I decided to simply push the ISO up and do some high ISO shooting of convenient subjects (red squirrels). I sat down near a stump where the squirrels regularly visit (one of their favourite stop off points when they're about to try to steal food from my jay feeder) and set up my D600 paired with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8 VR. I stopped WAY down (these are f16 shots) to limit the light and bump the ISO up (which, of course, gave me a sufficient depth of field to work with these subjects close-up - and keep the critical bits in focus). With Auto ISO enabled I shot away...

IMPORTANT IMAGE NOTES: I am providing both web-sized (reduced to 1200 pixels on long axis) and full resolution uncropped versions of the images for your perusal. These represent quite extreme examples of what you would do with the images, and many uses they would be put to (e.g., making decent sized prints) would fall somewhere between these extremes in terms of resolution requirements. I am doing this because simply giving you resolution-reduced images purporting to show ISO performance can be very misleading - the act of reducing resolution can mask image noise and make even quite noisy images look clean. I would recommend viewing both members of each image pair at 100% magnification (1:1). Note that there was only minimial noise reduction performed on these images, i.e., only during raw conversion (and I used LOWER than the default noise reduction values that are provided by my favourite raw converter - Phase One's Capture One Pro). Critical field notes have been added to the images themselves.

1. ISO 3600 Examples:

• Simply Irresistible: Web-sized: Download 1200 pixel Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 667 KB)
• Simply Irresistible: Full-resolution, Uncropped: Download Full Resolution Image File (JPEG file: 11 MB)

2. ISO 4500 Examples:

• Red Squirrel - Classic Pose: Web-sized: Download 1200 pixel Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 828 KB)
• Red Squirrel - Classic Pose: Full-resolution, Uncropped. Download Full Resolution Image File (JPEG file: 12.4 MB)

My final field test will include a more detailed discussion as to why high ISO performance (with only limited consequences on image quality) can be so useful to a nature photographer (such as the ability to shoot in low light, gaining increased control over your aperture and depth-of-field, being able to shoot at higher shutter speeds and consequently hand-holding bigger lenses, etc.). But for now all I'll say is that D600 owners will not have to envy the ISO performance of virtually any camera on the market. The ISO performance of this camera is simply outstanding!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

7 November 2012: The Nikon D600 vs. The Nikon D800 - at f16...

Yesterday I made the comment that I have found that it's possible to upsize Nikon D600 image files shot at f16 to the resolution of D800 images (also shot at f16) and the resulting images are almost indistinguishable. Specifically, I said "...but when I upsized the D600 images to match the resolution of the D800 images, they were as sharp as, or even slightly sharper, than the D800 images."

Apparently this statement hit a nerve with some folks (presumably D800 users, but that's speculation on my part) - I received a surprising amount of email that diplomatically (and in a few cases, not so diplomatically) suggested I was well...let's just say "full of beans." Fair enough - it's easy enough to just SAY things - I always believe in backing up what I say with images shot in the field. So here you go...

IMAGE NOTES: Images shot at identical settings about 5 minutes apart. All processing identical EXCEPT that in each case I sharpened the final output to provide maximum sharpness (without introducing sharpening artifacts) for that particular image. In other words, I attempted to make each image MAXIMALLY sharp. On the up-sized D600 image (which EXACTLY matches the resolution of the D800 file): I up-sized it using Photoshop CS6 in a single step using Bicubic Interpolation. I experimented with 3 interpolation methods: Bicubic, Bicubic Sharper, and Bicubic Smoother (this last algorithm being the one Adobe recommends for enlarging - or upsizing - an image). In this case the best method definitely appeared to be simply Bicubic Interpolation. Note also that there were a few branches overlapping the creek (and one ugly disposable coffee cup) and rather than cutting them off in the field (or using ropes to tie them back) I chose to digitally remove them after raw conversion (using Content-Aware Fill in Photoshop CS6). Cropping on both images is identical - extremely minor on the horizontal axis, with slightly more vertically (simply for compositional purposes). Finally - although these images are quite large (and more than fill any monitor at 100% magnification) - comparisons between them are best made at 100% magnification (AKA 1:1, or 1 image pixel = 1 display device pixel).

FULL Resolution D800 Image (Autumn Gold): Download Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 6.2 MB)

UP-SIZED D600 Image (Autumn Gold): Download Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 7 MB)

Let the pixel-peeping begin! ;-)

It's important to note that these images were captured at f16 - which is in the zone where diffraction-induced softening of D800 images is known to be prevalent. So...I'm comparing a "handicapped" D800 image with an upsized D600 image (which is "handicapped" a little by the up-sizing and MAY also be handicapped by diffraction-induced image softening). So this little experiment has produced at least a couple more questions. First...what about at wider apertures where neither of the cameras face diffraction issues - can you upsize THOSE D600 files and still match the quality of the D800 files? If the answer is "yes" then a new question comes to mind: why the heck buy a D800? And that's a very good question - I want to know that answer too. So...in the very near future I'll be testing and comparing D600 and D800 files (including up-sized D600 files) shot with a number of lenses and over a range of apertures. So stay tuned for that. AND, of course, there's one other critical question I have: Does the D600 suffer less (and how much less?) from diffraction-induced image softening than the D800? If it does, and if you can upsize the D600 files and pretty much equal the quality of D800 files...well that D600 just might be one VERY hot landscape camera. Which is - at the end of the day - what I really want to know myself...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

6 November 2012: A Growing Fondness of the Nikon D600...

I'm still busy testing the D600 (and prepping images) for my D600 field test (which is coming later this month), but at this point it's probably worth letting a little more of the "...cat out of the bag." So I'll say this...my fondness for this camera is growing more each time I use it.

Why (you ask)? Good question. While I still have more testing to do to "quantify" (and provide visual evidence for) my comments, I'm finding that...

1. You can stop it down! One frustration I have with the Nikon D800 is that when I'm shooting landscapes you have to deal with diffraction-induced image softening when you stop your aperture down. With most lenses the images begin to noticeably soften up by f11 (and even at f8 with a few lenses) and by f16 the softening has become a major problem. So far I'm finding this diffraction-induced image softening to be MUCH less prevalent with the D600 - I have not been able to detect ANY noticeable image softening at f11 using ANY Nikkor lens and so far it seems to be pretty much a non-issue at f16 (tho' admittedly I need to do more testing on this). And...I have shot identical shots with the D600 and the D800 at f16 to compare the results. What did I find? Well...this may be hard to believe, but when I upsized the D600 images to match the resolution of the D800 images, they were as sharp as, or even slightly sharper, than the D800 images. I will provide several examples of this in my final field report, but I do have a few sample images shot with the D800 (over this past weekend) to give you a hint of what I'm talking about. The 1200 pixel images below have all the field notes on them, and the hi-res files (close to full-frame with very minor cropping) will show what I'm talking about a little better...

A. D600 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ f11:

Beaver Meets Man; Beaver Wins: Download 1200 pixel Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 819 KB)
Beaver Meets Man; Beaver Wins: Download Hi-Res (6018 x 4063 pixel) Image File (JPEG file: 10.6 MB)

B. D600 with Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VRII @ f16:

Autumn Gold: Download 1200 pixel Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 819 KB)
Autumn Gold: Download Hi-Res (5950 x 3587 pixel) Image File (JPEG file: 5.0 MB)

NOTE: On the image entitled "Autumn Gold" there were a few branches overlapping the creek (and one ugly coffee cup) and rather than cutting them off in the field (or using ropes to tie them back) I chose to digitally remove them after raw conversion (using Content-Aware Fill in Photoshop CS6)

2. VERY Good ISO Performance. This is another area where I have more testing (and image processing) to do, but I have processed a number of D600 images in the ISO 2000 to ISO 3200 range and I've been extremely happy with what I'm seeing. I'm still in "gut-feel" terrain, but I'm already quite sure the D600 fits into the "better than the D800 but not quite as good as the D4" category. I'll post a few images showing what I mean later this week and lots more when my D600 field test "goes live" in a few weeks.

3. VERY Good Autofocus Performance. This is another place where I've been pleased (yet still need to run a few more field trials). The AF system in the D600 is based upon that which was first used in the D7000, but at this point I CAN say that it handles the "bigger lenses" (both in terms of accuracy of focus and focus-tracking of moving objects, like birds in flight) than my D7000 did. I don't know if this is because Nikon has improved the AF module (above that in the D7000 module) or if it's simply because it works better on a full-frame sensor, but it's working way better for me than my D7000 ever did. A few sample images to follow within a week or so, with even more in that coming field test...

Stay tuned - more on the D600 coming soon!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

17 October 2012: The Nikon D600 - First Impressions - Shooting in the Great Bear Rainforest

Since I returned from the Great Bear Rainforest a few days ago I've received dozens of emails asking me what my "verdict" is on the D600. To be honest, at this point I don't have a concrete answer to that question - during my two weeks in the Great Bear Rainforest I simply shot with the D600 (as opposed to systematically testing it). And, I haven't had a chance to process many shots taken with it yet. But I do have some impressions and SUBJECTIVE "gut feels" for it. Please bear in mind that these comments and thoughts are very preliminary and subject to change/evolution as I systematically test the camera and critically assess the output.

So...here ya go - my first impressions...

Overall Impression: I'm really liking the D600. Its build quality, overall responsiveness, ISO performance, autofocus performance and, most importantly. image quality, all exceeded my expectations (for a $2000 camera). And here's what I feel is an important comment on the overall quality and usefulness of the camera: I found myself preferentially turning to my D600 (over my D800) by the second day of shooting with it.

Build Quality: There are several places on this website where I make the statement that I much prefer the feel and overall build quality of Japanese-produced Nikon cameras over those built in Thailand. Well, the D600 is Thailand-built and the D800 is Japanese-built, but the gap in build quality between them is pretty minor. Which is a good thing (and may force me to modify my own views on the correlation between build quality and country of origin). The D600 is surprisingly and pleasingly solid. And, over the past few weeks I did use it in very wet conditions (albeit iwth a rain cover on MOST of the time, but I DID get it quite wet more than once) and it performed flawlessly. It's important to note that the same can't be said of all the other cameras on this trip - some didn't fair nearly as well. Notably, more than one C-branded camera with a 7 in their model name experienced problems/failures in these wet shooting conditions (in fairness, after drying out they resumed working). The D600 simply kept working. No, it's not as robust or bombproof as a D4 - but it doesn't cost $6k or so either...

Overall Responsiveness: In general terms the camera feels quite "quick" - and I'm used to shooting with a D4. While the maximum frame rate while shooting full-frame raw files is only 1 frame per second (fps) faster than the D800 (5 fps for the D600 vs. 4 fps for the D800) - that one extra frame per second is noticable in the field. And 5 fps isn't too darned bad for a 24 MP camera (don't forget that the D3x could only muster about 2.6 fps with full-frame raw files).

ISO Performance: I need to do more testing on this to really get a handle on how high I'll push the ISO on the D600, but a quick perusal of images I shot in the Great Bear Rainforest seemed consistent with what I expected (and seems completely logical) - better ISO performance than the D800 but not as good as the D4. Which makes it considerably better than on Nikon's last 24 MP camera - the D3x. Stay tuned for more details on this...

Autofocus Performance: The AF system of the D600 is based on that used in the D7000. Some viewed this as a good thing. I didn't - I found the D7000 AF system lacking with telephoto lenses longer than 200mm, particularly when using Dynamic Area focusing. During my time in the Great Bear Rainforest I played around with shooting gulls and eagles in flight (mostly with long teleophoto lenses, including the 600mm f4, and mostly using Dynamic Area AF) and I can definitely say that the AF system out-performs that of the D7000 (or at least MY D7000). How much better? I can't say yet, but it seemed to perform extremely well with all the lenses I tried it with (wide angles plus 70-200mm f2.8 VRII, 400mm f2.8 VR, 600mm f4 VR). So overall good news here...

Video Quality and Performance: Not my thing - I have no clue about video and will probably never even bother to figure out how to capture video with this STILL camera. You'll have to go elsewhere for that information (sorry).

Image Quality? Another area where I do need to shoot (and process) more images before I can say too much, but with the images I've looked closely at to date I'll just say this: SWEET!

Sample images? I guess I can't end this without giving you at least SOMETHING to look at...so here's a few full resolution D600 vs. D800 comparison images.

IMAGE NOTES: These images were captured in RAW format using a D600 and a D800 paired with a 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lens. Images below were captured at ISO 100, 1/160s, and at f8. Tripod mounted. Images were converted from RAW using Capture NX2 and all processing on the images was absolutely identical. Image sharpening during raw conversion set to minimum and NO image sharpening was performed after raw conversion. Note that there were a few branches overlapping the bottom left corner of the image (including slightly overlapping the left-most portion of the reflection of the mountain) - I could have broken them off and shot a "clean" image but chose to save the trees and do the clean-up using the clone tool instead! I thought some might be interested in comparing how an up-sized D600 image compared to a D800 image, so I included an up-sized version of the D600 image (and, to be complete, a down-sampled D800 image, tho' odds are most won't care too much about this image!). Oh, and BTW - this scene is definitely NOT from the Great Bear Rainforest - just something I stumbled upon on my return trip home that seemed to be perfect as a comparison shot! Download away - and best to view these images at 100% magnification.

Image 1: D600 full resolution (6016 x 4016 pixels) image - Download Image File (JPEG file: 5.7 MB)
Image 2: D800 full resolution (7360 x 4912 pixels) image - Download Image File (JPEG file: 7.5 MB)
Image 3: D600 image UPSIZED to D800 resolution (7360 x 4912 pixels) - Download Image File (JPEG file: 7.4 MB)
Image 4: D800 image DOWN-SAMPLED to D600 resolution (6016 x 4016 pixels) - Download Image File (JPEG file: 5.6 MB)

Take this information for what you judge it to be worth. I'm still reserving final judgement on the D600, but I am thinking it was smart of Nikon to introduce the D800 BEFORE the D600, otherwise they wouldn't have sold too many D800's! Is my D800 for sale? You know, it just might be...stay tuned...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca



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

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