Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

 

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

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

On this page you'll find all my 2017 blog listings (immediately below). And, further down this page you'll also find some key (and very popular) gear-related blog entries from 2016 (jump to that section now).

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

I. 2017 Blog Entries...

500mm Wars - Nikon vs. Sigma Blog Posts: A Rolling Directory

In time my full review comparing the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR lens to the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 will have a single permanent home (in my Field Tests section of this website). In the interim, I will be continuing to post a series of blog entries describing how my field-testing of these two lenses is progressing. To facilitate viewer navigation and "cohesiveness" of the on-going series here's a dynamic (rolling) directory to the "500mm Wars" series. This directory will be updated with each blog entry on the topic and I will keep it at the top of this page until I have completed the final single review.

Directory to Blog Entries: 500mm Wars!

12 Dec 2016: 500mm Wars 1: Intro and Background
20 Dec 2016: 500mm Wars 2: Physical Characteristics
29 Dec 2016: 500mm Wars 3: AF Tuning Values...
11 Jan 2017: 500mm Wars 4: Optical Performance
29 Jan 2017: 500mm Wars 5: Stabilization and "Hand-holdability"
14 Feb 2017: 500mm Wars 6: Musings from Just Shootin'
22 Feb 2017: 500mm Wars 7: 1.4x Teleconverter Performance

A Few Words on Funding and Donations

In my introduction to this detailed field test I disclosed that - for reasons of objectivity and credibility - I was self-funding this project. Since then a few folks have emailed me expressing appreciation for the time and effort I'm putting into this field test. And, they offered to send donations to offset the cost. To be clear, I don't accept donations (or "tips") for my work. However, if you would LIKE to help motivate me to continue this work I am very open to (and would highly appreciate) that in lieu of giving ME a donation you send it to the science-based conservation conservation group I work most closely with. This group - The Raincoast Conservation Foundation - does excellent work (including funding of peer-reviewed scientific studies) and has been a key player in saving much of British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest.

Donations can be made in two ways:

1. Directly to Raincoast at: www.raincoast.org/donate/. If you choose this route YOU will receive the tax receipt.

2. Send ME the donation via PayPal at payments@naturalart.ca. If you choose this route I will receive the tax receipt. Note that the donor will receive full verification of the donation to Raincoast.

Thanks...Cheers...And Enjoy!

Brad

23 Feb 2017: Arca-Swiss Replacement Foot for Sigma 500mm f4 Sport

It's funny how inbound emails come in "topic-specific" bursts - and they're often about things I haven't mentioned here in awhile. Just yesterday I received four separate emails on the same topic - where to get an Arca-Swiss compatible replacement foot for the new Sigma Sport 500mm f4 lens (or which lens plate to use).

At present I am using an Arca-Swiss compatible foot from Jobu Design that was made for the Sigma 150-600mm Sport. The bolt pattern is perfect, as is the amount of "drop" on the foot (there's no interference when the hood is reversed and there's plenty of room for your fingers - even with "thickish" gloves on - if when you are using the foot as a carrying handle). The only down side is that foot is longer than it needs to be, thus a bit heavier than it needs to be. This is because Jobu intentionally made it LONG so that you could find a balance point with the 150-600 regardless of the body OR focal length you are using. You can see (and even order) that foot right here:

Replacement Foot For Sigma 150-600mm Sport

But is anyone going to produce a replacement foot specifically designed for the Sigma 500? Yes, and it's Jobu Design again (and it looks like none of the other common sources of bling like this - meaning RRS or Kirk - will be doing a foot for the Sigma 500). I communicated with Jobu yesterday and the Arca-Swiss compatible foot for the Sigma 500 should be available in less than a month. And...here's where you get the info about it:

Replacement Foot For Sigma 500mm f4 Sport

Cheers...

Brad


500mm Wars: Sigma vs. Nikon

22 Feb 2017: 500mm Wars 7 - Nikon vs. Sigma: 1.4x Teleconverter Performance

Within my 11 January 2017 blog entry (here) I made reference to the optical performance of the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport and the Nikkor 500mm f4E when each was paired with their respective current teleconverters (the Sigma TC-1401 and the Nikkor TC-14EIII). Based on email and comments I've received I think there's a need for me to call out, clarify, and expand a little on what I said. Please note that these comments are limited to the two 500mm lenses with their 1.4x teleconverters and do not apply to their 2.0x teleconverters - I have not and will not be testing those. It's my view that at this point in time (and with the autofocus systems currently available to us) 2x teleconverters have very limited usefulness in a field-setting on f4 lenses. I have found that 2x teleconverters can produce excellent results on f2 and f2.8 lenses (and they have full autofocus capabilities with those lenses) - so in the case of Nikon the 200mm f2 VR (any version), the 300mm f2.8 VR (any version), and the 400mm f2.8 VR (both E and G versions) can produce excellent results when paired with the TC-20EIII.

I. CLARIFICATION OF PREVIOUS COMMENTS

OK, way back on 11 January I said a few things about the optical quality of the two 500's when paired with their TC's, including:

"When the most current 1.4x teleconverters (the Sigma TC-1401 and the Nikkor TC-14EIII) were added to the lenses the remarkable optical similarity [between the two 500's] continued - I could detect no consistent differences in quality (again both in sharpness and the quality of the out-of-focus zones) between the lenses paired up with their TC's. Both lens and TC combinations were quite soft when shot wide open (i.e., at f5.6) but sharpened up somewhat by f6.3 and more by f7.1. Both were maximally sharp by f8 (stopped down a full stop from wide open when teleconverter attached). Personally I would not shoot either of these lenses wide open with their teleconverters attached. Speaking subjectively (and after looking at thousands of images shot with the 500's and with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR with their teleconverters) it is my opinion that both the Sigma and Nikon 500mm lenses experience MORE image degradation when paired with their respective 1.4x TC's than the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR does."

Clarification: I stand by this comment, but want to make it clear that this comment was NOT intended to convey anything negative about the image quality of either of the two 500's with their 1.4x teleconverters. In my view that performance (of either 500 plus TC) doesn't match that of the 400mm f2.8E VR with the TC-14EIII, but the 400 plus TC should be considered the "reference standard" for teleconverter performance - I feel that it's the absolute BEST quality you could ever expect out of any teleconverter/lens combo - it works phenomenally well! You can get VERY good results out of the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR plus the TC-14EIII AND the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport plus the TC-1401. If anyone's experience with teleconverters is limited to using them with zoom lenses it is likely they would to be BLOWN AWAY by the image quality they can obtain with either of these two 500mm primes plus their TC.

Here's a few sample images to illustrate what I mean - both were shot with the Sigma 500 plus TC-1401:

Red Squirrel - Nikon D5, Sigma 500, TC-1401: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG; 1.17 MB)
Red Squirrel - Nikon D500, Sigma 500, TC-1401: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG; 1.3 MB)

And, on 11 January I also said (in reference to the TC performance with BOTH 500's):

"Again, the same "stop down 2/3 of a stop to get sharpest results" trend was obvious, but in this case that meant 2/3 of a stop from f5.6 - which means you want to shoot this lens plus teleconverter at f7.1 or smaller apertures to get sharpest results. And, at all apertures there was a very slight softening of the image with the teleconverter on. So, if you stack up the slight image softness when shot at the largest apertures AND the slight image softness associated with the presence of the teleconverter itself, I am left feeling that I would only rarely shoot the Sigma 500mm f4 with the TC-1401 teleconverter [or the Nikkor 500 with the TC-14EIII] at apertures larger than f7.1."

Current Comment: No need for further clarification (but the info was probably worth calling out!).

II. SOME ADDITIONAL COMMENTS ON 1.4X TELECONVERTER PERFORMANCE

OK...since January 11 I have done quite a bit more testing (and good ol' "just shooting") with both 500's and their respective TC's. Here are some further thoughts:

1. Comparative Image Quality? I'm STILL finding that the two 500mm lenses shot in combination with their respective 1.4x TC's are virtually identical optically!

2. Autofocus? Subjectively, both 500's slow down slightly in initial image acquisition when their 1.4x TC is used. The slowdown isn't dramatic, but rather than almost instantly "snapping" into focus when shot native (which both lenses do very well), they sort of smoothly "slide" into focus! I have no real way to measure the slowdown in focus acquisition, but I'd estimate it at about 30% slower (than if the TC isn't in place). Both lenses still focus FAST. While I haven't had the opportunity to test focus-tracking on fast moving subjects with either lens plus TC in a field setting yet, based on what I've been seeing with slowly moving subjects (e.g., walking dogs), I'd be surprised if either combination struggled much with most bird-in-flight shots (probably not good to use them for full-frame shots of swallows in flight, but I doubt you'd have ANY problem with gulls, ravens, hawks, eagles, et cetera).

Note that I HAVE compared the initial focus acquisition using all 55 selectable focus points on both the D500 and D5 and my comments immediately above about the slight slowdown in initial acquisition of focus applies equally to ALL focus points (i.e., I saw no difference in the slight slowdown between any of the focus points on the AF array). Please note that here I am referring ONLY to speed of focus acquisition here - NOT accuracy of focus (I will discuss that in my Autofocus segment of this 500mm wars series, which is coming within the next week).

3. Are the TC's Worth The Money? Well...this is the type of question that is hard to give a "universal" answer to, but I sure think they're worth the money. And, I will be keeping and using (likely on a fairly frequent basis!) the TC with the 500 lens that ultimately earns its way into my "kit".

Up next? Comparative Autofocus Performance of the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR. Prepare for some surprises...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#500mm_wars_7

20 Feb 2017: SHHH! Schedule of 2018 Photo Tours Now Online!

About a week ago I quietly posted my 2018 Photo Tours schedule online and officially began taking bookings for trips. My entire 2017 and 2018 offering of Photo Tours can be viewed right here on my Photo Tours page. You can jump directly to the 2018 listings using this link...

The astute reader (so everyone who EVER visits this blog and website!) may be wondering two things. First, why the quiet "launch" of the 2018 photo tour program? And, if I was so quiet about the 2018 program rollout, why the heck are so many trips already sold out? Well, both questions have a similar answer. Of course, the trips are in very high demand (and I have a very finite number of spots available). BUT, more importantly, in 2016 I implemented something I called the "Priority Booking List" where anyone who wanted first crack at the 2018 photo tours could go on a list and, in doing, so got first right of refusal on the 2018 trips when I had all the critical details about them (which is almost always in mid-to-late January of the calendar year BEFORE the trip). Based on the number of folks who signed up on the 2018 version of the Priority Booking List - and then booked trips for the 2018 seasons - it was pretty successful!

But...on the positive side for those who weren't on that Priority Booking list, there are STILL a few spots left on some great trips in 2018, specifically on the 2018 Fishing Grizzlies of the Taku Photo Op Photo Tour (info here) and the 2018 Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More Marine Mammals Instructional Photo Tour (info here).

Finally...for those who like to plan ahead...I HAVE posted information on how to get on the Priority Booking List for 2019 - just go here: 2019 Photo Tours Priority Booking List.

Cheers...

Brad


500mm Wars: Sigma vs. Nikon

14 Feb 2017: 500mm Wars 6 - Nikon vs. Sigma: Musings From Just Shootin'

My apologies for a delay in continuing this series...dealing with the repercussions of a not-so-minor and once-in-a-generation snow event (AKA a Snowmageddon) consumed most of my waking hours last week (and I don't sleep a lot).

I've mentioned several times in this series that when I test a lens I combine fairly rigid and systematic field-based tests with sessions where I just SHOOT with the lens(es) in the way I would when "at work". The time spent "just shooting" under less controlled conditions serves multiple purposes, including demonstrating to me how closely the daily use of the lens will match the "theoretical best" performance it exhibits under highly controlled conditions. This is critical to ME in that I almost never shoot under controlled conditions in the field - as a wildlife photographer who works only with free-ranging, non-constrained, and fully wild subjects I end up doing a whole of "cowboy shooting"! Additionally, the time spent "just shooting" gives me a feel for how several different and independent parameters of lens performance interact in the field. For instance, when hand-holding a big super-telephoto lens in the field at least 3 factors can impact on the quality of the resulting images - the lens weight and balance, the optical stabilization system, and the autofocus system. At times we test or evaluate these factors independently, but the reality in the field is that they interact in producing that final image that we either keep or throw away.

So...here's some musings about things I've noticed about how the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR have performed in the field...


I. PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS - IN THE FIELD

As noted in my blog entry on this topic (view it here), there are far more physical similarities between these two lenses than there are differences. In my view only three of the differences between them are likely to have any significance to most users.

1. Lens Weight:

While both of these lenses are significantly lighter than Nikon's "old" 500mm f4G super-telephoto, the Nikkor 500mm f4E is 324 gm (or 0.71 lb) lighter than the Sigma Sport 500mm f4.

The sixty-four thousand dollar question: Is this difference noticeable in the field? Sort of. What I mean by this is that during times when I was doing either formal lens testing or when "just shooting" (involving hand-holding of the two lenses) where I rapidly swapped between the lenses I DID notice the weight difference. But, if I was throwing one of the lenses in a backpack OR walking around in the field with one of the two lenses in my hand (using the tripod foot as a handle), I couldn't have told you by weight alone which lens I was carrying. And, more importantly for me, even with the optical stabilization systems turned off, I found there was virtually no difference in the shutter speeds at which I could effectively hand-hold the two lenses at (I've long thought that balance of the lens-camera system is more important in "hand-holdability" than absolute weight is).

So, for me, the difference in these two lenses in weight is quite inconsequential. However, I would not say this will be the case for everyone. I have no doubt there will be some shooters out there that find they can carry or hand-hold the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR more easily than the Sigma Sport 500mm f4. And, of course, there will be some shooters who struggle to hand-hold both of these lenses, and some who could easily carry or hand-hold the lenses if they were twice the weight!

2. AF Function (AF Activation) Buttons:

This might be a small thing to a lot of users, but it isn't for me. In recent years all Nikkor super-telephoto lenses have come with four buttons arranged in a ring around the distal end of the lens. The concept is that the buttons could be used to control one of several aspects of the lens function (e.g., AF-On or AF-lock) with your left hand (that is positioned near the end of the lens) while you were shooting. Cool idea. The Sigma Sport ALSO has these 4 buttons. But rather than having them on the exact top, bottom, and either side of the lens (the "cardinal" positions - so positioned at 90º, 180º, 270º, and 360º) the buttons are slightly rotated (to the left) and offset from the cardinal positions. In my own case this means the buttons on the Sigma 500 fall in a much better "natural" positions for my thumb (as in, directly below my thumb), especially when I'm hand-holding the lens.

When I'm shooting in the field I use the lens AF Function/Activation buttons to switch between autofocus area modes (this feature is NOT available on all Nikon DSLR's). For example, my preferred "default" AF area mode on the D5 is 9-point Dynamic Area mode, but when using the Nikkor 500 or the Sigma 500 I can switch to a different area mode by pressing and holding the AF Function/Activation button on the lens (I normally use Group Area as my alternate AF area mode, but sometimes I change this in the field).

So...how important is the positioning of the AF Function/Activation buttons? Well...I LOVE the "offset" of the Sigma buttons (relative to the Nikkor buttons) and find them MUCH more usable. Consequently I am using the AF Function button on the Sigma Sport 500 much more often than I have ever used the AF Activation buttons on any of the Nikkor super-telephotos I have owned.

So - for ME - consider this to be "...a BIG little thing". Advantage Sigma.

For other users? I'm sure there are some users of Nikkor super-telephotos that never use these buttons. That MIGHT be due to their arrangement/position. Or, it might be that the user just couldn't be bothered. And, I am sure that there will be some users who love the Nikkor AF Activation buttons and some of those may react exactly as I have to Sigma's re-positioning of these buttons. So the importance of this between-lens difference in positioning of the AF Function/Activation buttons will likely vary tremendously from one shooter to the next.

3. Sigma's USB Dock and Lens Software Configurability:

This is a tough topic to pigeonhole - you normally don't customize your lens while still in the field, but it directly IMPACTS on how the lens performs in the field. In terms of background - most recent lenses from Sigma are customizable, but only if you purchase their USB dock and download and install their free Sigma Optimization Pro software. In the case of the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 lens aspects of both autofocus and optical stabilization can be customized to those with the USB dock and software. And, of course, the software and firmware of the lens can be upgraded by the end-user (as Sigma makes updates available).

One major value of Sigma's system really hit home for me when Nikon announced the need to fix the firmware on their 200-500mm f5.6 VR zoom. A free fix, of course, but you had to box up and ship your lens to Nikon to have them fix the bug. I live in a relatively remote location where couriers won't even come close to my home (it's a 50 km drive to get to the closest FedEx or Purolator depot)...and mail service is slow. So for me the "free" fix from Nikon on their 200-500 would have meant being without the lens for a minimum of one week, and realistically closer to two weeks. Same problem with the Sigma would take me about 5 minutes to "fix" using their USB dock and their Sigma Optimization Pro software.

Ok...but what about the "customizability" of the AF and OS functions? Does choosing different settings really make much difference in the field? Yes, a lot. I will go so far as to say that WITHOUT customization (i.e., using the default lens AF and OS settings the lens comes with and that users who DON'T get the dock will be forced to live with) - and for MY USES of the competing lenses - the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR outperforms the Sigma Sport 500 f4. And, more importantly, I would select the Nikkor 500mm f4E OVER the Sigma Sport 500 f4, even given the huge price difference. Said another way, with a little effort and time (and if you buy the USB dock and Sigma Optimization Pro software), you can fully nullify the performance differences between the lenses by "tweaking" the AF and OS settings on the Sigma lens. In my books, that's HUGE (or is it YUGE?).

And...that leaves with me a few thoughts...

• I think the customizability of the Sigma 500 is so essential to its performance that the USB dock should come WITH the lens (i.e., included with the lens purchase), even if it means the price of the lens has to go up by $50 or so.

• After extensive testing of both the OS system of this lens and the AF performance of this lens (still to be reported in detail), and after considering the target market for this lens (sports and wildlife/nature photographers) I think Sigma has selected the wrong default values for the customizable functions on the lens. Given the USB dock is an optional accessory (that many may choose NOT to buy), this may lead to a large number of owners to be less happy with the lens than they could be. And it may even lead to some lens reviews that might turn out to be less positive than they could be.

It's also worth noting that a lot of folks looking at buying this lens (or any lens) just want to put the lens on their camera and USE IT. They don't want to fine-tune the focusing, and they don't want to take and examine thousands of test images to separate out the nuances of the different custom settings. So "giving them" default custom settings that are a little more carefully chosen (to match the intended user) is kind of important.


II. OPTICAL PERFORMANCE - IN THE FIELD

The outcome of my "controlled" testing of the optical performance of the Sigma and Nikkor 500's was almost astonishing to me - while I didn't expect to find major differences in optical performance, I honestly did NOT expect the two lenses to be virtual clones of one another optically (described in more detail in this blog entry). But what happens to that optical performance when you wander into the field and lose a lot of your control of the shooting situation?

OK...one caveat here: I'm not too into "roadside" wildlife photography and I often hike significant distances to locate my "prey". Which can make doing head-to-head field comparisons of wildlife images shot with "dueling 500's" pretty challenging (carrying ONE 500mm lens into the woods is often challenging in itself...carrying two is a complete pain in the butt!). But, nonetheless, I have found ways to work with the two lenses with wildlife (and my not-so-wild Portuguese Water Dog Poncho) and can say this: When shooting under real world field conditions the optical parity of these two lenses IS retained. This is huge.

So...here's a FEW sample image pairs to look at. I do have many more images to come in my final review. And it's important to note that all image pairs below share absolutely identical camera settings. All were captured as RAW files and processed IDENTICALLY using Phase One's Capture One Pro combined with Adobe Photoshop CC 2017. All Nikkor 500mm f4E shots were captured using VR Sport mode. All Sigma Sport 500mm f4 shots were captured using OS1 optical stabilization mode (customized to Moderate View mode).

1. Bighorn Ram on Ridge:

Image notes: Nikon D5. 1/500s @ f6.3 and ISO 250. Supported on Really Right Stuff TVC-24 tripod with Jobu Jr. 3 Deluxe gimbal head (left loose).

Download Sigma 500mm f4 Image (2400 pixels; JPEG: 1.42 MB)
Download Nikkor 500mm f4E Image (2400 pixels; JPEG: 1.42 MB)

2. Bighorn Lamb and Rabbitbush:

Image notes: Image notes: Nikon D5. 1/500s @ f6.3 and ISO 1250. Supported on Really Right Stuff TVC-24 tripod with Jobu Jr. 3 Deluxe gimbal head (left loose).

Download Sigma 500mm f4 Image (2400 pixels; JPEG: 1.7 MB)
Download Nikkor 500mm f4E Image (2400 pixels; JPEG: 1.7 MB)

3. The Sprint - Poncho the Portie:

Image notes: Nikon D5. 1/2000s @ f5.6 and ISO 320. +0.67 stop compensation from matrix-metered exposure setting. Hand-held.

Download Sigma 500mm f4 Image (2400 pixels; JPEG: 1.0 MB)
Download Nikkor 500mm f4E Image (2400 pixels; JPEG: 1.0 MB)


III. OPTICAL STABILIZATION AND HAND-HOLDABILITY - IN THE FIELD

The conclusion of my "controlled" testing of the hand-holdability of the two 500's showed that I could hand-hold the two lenses down to the same range of shutter speeds when shooting in bursts (details can be found in this blog entry).

But when I'm shooting in the field I generally notice - and place importance on - three aspects of optical stabilization.

1. Slowest "Hand-holdable" Shutter Speed

Like all wildlife shooters I am continually looking for the most suitable balance of shutter speed, aperture and ISO. I often work in low light environments and, over the years, have developed a tendency to try to keep to shutter speeds no slower than 1/focal length of the lens when hand-holding super-telephoto lenses (so 1/500s with a 500mm lens). I try to stick to this, but if that pushes the ISO over the "threshold" of the camera in use, then I will let shutter speeds drop further...sometimes to 1/200s or even slower.

What am I finding with the Sigma 500 and the Nikkor 500 in the field? Pretty much what I found in controlled tested - that "in the right mode" both lenses let me shoot freely at 1/500s and get an incredibly high rate of tack sharp hand-held shots (almost 100%). And, both lenses let me go down to 1/250s and still get a very high keeper rate (way over 50%). If I go to crazy slow shutter speeds (where you start risking having a shot ruined by SUBJECT movement) like 1/80s I'm still likely to get some sharp shots and several keepers in a short-to-moderate length burst. So the optical stabilization systems on BOTH lenses deliver well in the field.

What am I considering the "right mode" to use for the two lenses (i.e., what works best for me in terms of cancelling out camera shake)? With the Nikkor lens it can be EITHER of their two modes - Sport or Normal - right down to the "crazy slow" shutter speeds (like 1/80s). With the Sigma you virtually always use OS1 mode unless panning, but still have 3 custom view modes to choose between (assuming you have access to a USB Dock and Sigma Optimization Pro software) - Standard View (the default setting of the lens), Dynamic View, and Moderate View. If I have enough light to be hand-holding the lens in the 1/400s to 1/500s range I found that any of the 3 view modes can be used. Once shutter speeds start dropping down I invariably get the best results using Moderate View mode.

This hand-held shot of young Bighorn Sheep Ram taken with the Sigma 500 (at 1/500s and f7.1) typifies the type of results I am getting with Sigma Sport AND the Nikkor lenses in the field:

Download Bighorn Ram Image (2400 pixels; JPEG: 1.5 MB)

2. Image Stability Through the Viewfinder (BEFORE Shooting)

Another thing that I notice in the field and DOES matter to me is how stable the image appears through the viewfinder BEFORE I start shooting using the various VR or OS modes. Why does this matter? For at least two reasons. First, it can impact on how well you can compose the scene while looking through the viewfinder, especially if hand-holding the lens. If you turn the VR/OS system of a super-telephoto off and try to careful compose a scene while hand-holding the lens you'll know what I mean. Second, if you need precise positioning of your focus bracket to get the shot you want it is MUCH easier if the image you are looking at is stable! It should also be noted that the stability of an image through the viewfinder does have a bit of a psychological component as well - if it APPEARS stable through the viewfinder then the user KNOWS the optical stabilization system is working and tends to be more confident in it (even if this confidence is misplaced...more about this below).

Note that I'm not alone in liking a stable image as seen through the viewfinder - I have received emails from people who have told me outright that they have purchased - and then subsequently sold - lenses that have stabilizations systems that didn't produce "stable enough" views through the viewfinder.

Anyway...what have I been finding in the field re: viewfinder stability of the two 500's in their various modes? The Nikkor is simple - BOTH VR modes (Normal and Sport) produce VERY stable images through the viewfinder. The Normal mode does produce a slightly more stable image through the viewfinder, but the difference between that and the Sport mode is almost negligible (luckily for Nikon...you'll see what I mean by the end of this section).

With the Sigma lens the three custom view modes are VERY different in viewfinder stability - and it's REALLY noticeable in the field. The Standard View (the default view mode on the lens, and the ONLY view mode available to the user if they don't have the USB Dock and customization software) provides very little stabilization of the image as you're looking through the viewfinder. When using this mode when hand-holding the Sigma 500 I actually checked several times to see if the OS system was still on (and I hadn't accidentally turned it off). The Dynamic View mode is at the other end of the "stability through the viewfinder" extreme - it produces the MOST stable image through the viewfinder. It's VERY equivalent to the Nikon Sport Mode in viewfinder stability. And the Moderate View? About halfway between the two other custom view modes - with "decent" stability of the image through the viewfinder (and in most cases it is stable enough to allow pinpoint placement of your focus bracket on a small portion of the subject).

One point I have to make here: One might expect that the stability of the image through the viewfinder is directly correlated with how slow of a shutter speed you can hand-hold the lens at (i.e., both characteristics are demonstrating the same thing - the degree of image stabilization). But, that doesn't appear to be true. I found that the Dynamic View of the Sigma lens (the view mode that provides the most image stability through the viewfinder) didn't allow me to hand-hold the Sigma 500 at as slow of shutter speeds as either the Standard or Moderate Views did!

3. Between-Frame Image Stability During Bursts of Shots

Last - but certainly not least - is something I discovered with my Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and also shows up on the Nikkor 500mm f4E: There can be a dramatic difference in how stable an image is BETWEEN frames in a burst depending on the VR mode you choose. Nikon has simultaneously achieved a new high AND a new low in performance here! Use your Nikon D5 with the 500mm f4E lens in Sport Mode when shooting a high speed burst and you'll be stunned how stable the image is throughout the entire burst (the camera body DOES make a difference here...the image is still quite stable when doing a high speed burst with a D500, but NOT as stable as when using a D5). Examine the images after the fact and you'll notice that EVERY shot in the burst is framed virtually identically - there is simply NO between-frame jumping in Sport Mode.

What happens when you switch to VR Normal mode? Well...just don't shoot a high speed burst in Normal mode if you're prone to motion sickness. You'll puke. It's that bad. And, if you look at the resulting images afterwards you'll learn that it's NOT just viewfinder behavior - the image WAS jumping around that much. In my view, if you shoot in bursts (and what wildlife photographer doesn't?) you really have only one usable VR mode on the Nikkor 500 - VR Sport.

What about the Sigma 500? Well, interestingly...there's almost no difference between the 3 custom view modes in between-frame image stability when shooting bursts. And, all three are very good and approach the between-frame stability of the Nikkor 500 in Sport Mode.

What are the take home lessons on the two 500's optical stabilization systems? Well...if you're the kind of wildlife photographer who wants to pick up a lens at the store and just put it on your camera and NEVER think about its VR settings again - get the Nikkor and put it in VR Sport Mode. If you're the type of user who is willing to experiment with your lens (including modifying customization settings) you can opt for the Sigma Sport and adjust it to perform almost identically to the Nikkor 500 in Sport Mode.

My "default" optical stabilization settings when I'm hand-holding the two lenses? For the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR it's VR Sport Mode. For the Sigma Sport 500 it's OS1 mode with Moderate View custom setting. And after a TON of testing and shooting I think Moderate View mode should be the default mode of the Sigma 500 as it comes out of the factory.


IV. AUTOFOCUS PERFORMANCE - IN THE FIELD

I haven't reported my findings from my controlled, systematic testing of the AF system of these two lenses yet. It's coming soon. But I don't mind saying that at this point (about 2/3 the way through the testing) that I have found no major differences between the lenses (which has surprised me in that I felt before I started testing the lenses that this would be the most likely place where the Nikkor would outperform the Sigma). Please note that it is possible that I could still find something that separates the lens in autofocus performance...so stay tuned for that. Whether or not the difference (if it exists) would make any difference in day-to-day shooting is a separate issue.

But what about when "just shooting" in the field, including with some rapidly moving subjects? I can honestly say that at this point - and for the uses I see myself putting these lenses to - Sigma has finally and completely closed the gap in autofocus performance between their lenses and the best Nikkor lenses. When testing lenses - and often just for fun between lens testing sessions - I shoot thousands of shots of my dogs running, including running directly at me until they fill the frame. This "test" is a tough one for a lens and camera system - it taxes both the Predictive Autofocus capabilities of the lens AND the tracking ability (in that the subject is bobbing up and down and thus continually moving between focus brackets, no matter how hard you try to keep it on a single AF bracket). And, in my mind this "test" is far more demanding on an autofocus system than virtually all bird-in-flight shots (unless, perhaps, you're trying to get full-frame shots of swallows in flight). Here's two samples of what I mean - and both are 95% or more of full-frame:

• Sprong! Download Sigma Sport 500mm f4 Image (2400 pixels; JPEG: 0.9 MB)
Image Notes: Nikon D5 with Sigma Sport 500mm f4 @ 1/2000s & f5.6. 72-point Dynamic Area AF mode.

• Poncho On The Go! Download Sigma Sport 500mm f4 Image (2400 pixels; JPEG: 1.0 MB)
Image Notes: Nikon D5 with Sigma Sport 500mm f4 @ 1/2000s & f5.6. 9-point Dynamic Area mode.

And...the end of my testing of these two GREAT lenses is approaching. I still have a little more testing to do on the AF systems of the two lenses and a few thousand images to scrutinize. And then I'll make my own final decision as to which of the two lenses I'll be keeping. But I think most could guess by now which of them I am leaning very strongly towards. ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#500mm_wars_6


500mm Wars: Sigma vs. Nikon

29 Jan 2017: 500mm Wars 5 - Nikon vs. Sigma: Stabilization and "Hand-holdability"

I. INTRODUCTION

In this blog entry I describe the results of head-to-head field-testing of the optical stabilization systems (and "hand-holdability") of the "new" Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR prime lenses. The goal of my testing was to discover how low of a shutter speed I could hand-hold each lens at and still get very sharp shots (and "keepers") using each of both lens's stabilization and/or customization settings designed for use on static subjects (including with the stabilization systems off). My preliminary testing was done while shooting 3-frame bursts on a Nikon D5. Follow-up - and more extensive - testing was done using multiple repetitions of longer 10-frame bursts more characteristic of how many wildlife photographers work in the field.


II. The THREE SENTENCE SUMMARY

There was extreme similarity in the shutter speeds at which I could hand-hold the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and Nikkor 500mm f4E VR at and still obtain both very sharp shots and slightly less sharp "keepers" when shooting bursts of 3 shots. When I shot several longer (10 frame) bursts of shots using the various stabilization settings on the two lenses I did find some differences between the effectiveness of the settings and the lenses. I obtained a slightly higher number of sharp shots and overall number of keepers with the VR settings on the Nikkor 500 compared to the OS settings available to a Sigma 500 user without access to a USB dock and Sigma Optimization Pro software (i.e., when using the default OS "view" settings on the Sigma lens), but this difference disappeared when I used the Sigma lens with one of its OS customization settings (OS Moderate View).


III. The FULL EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

When it comes to the comparative effectiveness of the optical stabilization systems of the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR vs. the Sigma Sport f4 prime lenses in assisting a photographer when hand-holding the lenses the most accurate summary is this: Just the same, only different. Which means you can pretty much get to the same place (in terms of how slow a shutter speed you can hand-hold the two lenses at), but you have to take different pathways...and each of those pathways is quite different from the others. If you compare the two lenses as they come out of the factory you are likely to find that the Nikkor will allow hand-holding at slightly slower shutter speeds. And you'll find that the image appears much more stable as you look at it through the viewfinder. But both the appearance of the image through the viewfinder and the effectiveness of Sigma's OS system can be modified (and, most importantly, brought into virtual parity with the Nikkor lens) with customization of the OS settings using the optional USB Dock and Sigma Pro Optimization software. One additional result should draw the attention of anyone who likes to shoot in bursts (which includes most wildlife and sports photographers...so most users of these lenses!) - there is ONE VR setting on the Nikkor lens (VR NORMAL) where the image jumps around so significantly BETWEEN frames in a high-speed burst that many would consider it close to unusable in the field (especially compared to the uber-smooth VR Sport mode and all of Sigma's view modes).


IV. RELEVANT BACKGROUND INFO

A lens's ability to counteract camera shake through image stabilization - along with the correlated characteristic of how slow of a shutter speed you can hand-hold a lens at - can have a huge impact on its overall "usability". The importance of effective image stabilization varies considerably between users. For many wildlife photographers a lens that must ALWAYS be shot from a tripod will have a LOT less utility (and it will be used a lot less than if it could be successfully hand-held). But for other wildlife shooters image stabilization is a trivial feature - they may be roadside shooters that always have a tripod available or use such high shutter speeds that the quality of a lens's image stabilization is almost academic. For ME image stabilization is absolutely critical and can be even more important than absolute lens sharpness. Why? A number of reasons. First, while all serious wildlife shooters work in low light on at least a quasi-regular basis, I am in low light environments (like the Great Bear Rainforest) very regularly. Second, I am commonly shooting in places where a tripod can not be used - such as from a smallish Zodiac inflatable boat. Finally, I often am hiking significant distances to get to shooting locations and often don't want the weight of a tripod added to my load (or, alternately, I bring such a small tripod that an optical stabilization system is STILL needed to get sharp shots). For me (and I think a lot of other wildlife shooters) the quality of a lens's image stabilization system will largely dictate how close I can get to that lens's "theoretical" maximum image sharpness (i.e., how much of the theoretical sharpness is "realized" in a field setting). I can easily imagine scenarios where I would choose a slightly less sharp lens if it had a better optical stabilization system over a slightly sharper lens with an inferior optical stabilization system (because MORE of the sharpness would be realized with the lens with the better stabilization).

The point of this preamble? I can't tell any other shooter how important optical stabilization should be for them - that's something they can only decide for themselves. So it's up to you to decide the value of this part of my field-testing (and this blog entry) to you. Could be critical...could be irrelevant.

Before going any further there are two other topics I have to go into a little detail about. First...what matters to me (and I think most shooters) isn't the absolute "measurement" of a lens's optical stabilization system (which, more often than not, is reported as the number of stops of camera shake and vibration that is "cancelled out" by the system). What matters to ME is the shutter speed that I can hand-hold the lens at and still get both tack sharp shots and "keepers". While this is correlated with the quality of the image stabilization system, other variables can be important. These other variables include lens/camera balance (very critical) and lens weight (sometimes critical...but its importance varies DRAMATICALLY between users). The results and findings reported here are primarily about lens "hand-holdability". And, in recognition of how we REALLY shoot in the field (in variable length BURSTS of shots)...the results you'll see below are largely expressed as proportion of sharp shots and keepers in BURSTS of shots.

Note that today's results are about the shutter speeds that I can hand-hold these two lenses at. You may be able to do far better (or a little worse) than me. So the absolute results are probably of little value to anyone. But there should be some value and generalizability in the comparative results - the shutter speeds I can hand-hold the Nikkor lens at VERSUS the shutter speeds I can hand-hold the Sigma lens at (i.e., which can I hand-hold at slower shutter speeds at?).

Second...for this entry to make any sense (and have any value) I have to go into some detail about the different modes and settings (and, for the Sigma lens, the customization available to the stabilization system) of the two lenses. There is definitely some apples-to-oranges things to consider. So...

1. Nikkor 500mm f4E Stabilization System

Nikon uses the term Vibration Reduction (or VR) to describe their system. It has 3 modes that can be selected via a toggle switch on the lens: VR OFF, VR NORMAL, VR SPORT. It is important to note the BOTH of the VR settings (Normal and Sport):

• Support panning AND stationary subjects, and
• both can be used while on a tripod. But just to confuse things Nikon...in their way...states the following their 500mm lens owner's manual:

"NORMAL and SPORT vibration reduction can reduce blur when the camera is mounted on a tripod. OFF may however produce better results in some cases depending on the type of tripod and on shooting conditions" (and, of course, the manual says NOTHING about WHAT shooting conditions they mean).

What's MY experience with the Nikkor 500 f4E VR system and tripods? Identical to what I have found on the 400mm f2.8E VR - if you are leaving the head loose so you can pivot the lens around (like most wildlife shooters do with gimbal heads)...just leave the VR on at most shutter speeds (I have YET to find any negative consequences on image quality of leaving the VR on at shutter speeds beyond which it is helping much, i.e., at 1/750s or faster the VR system is very likely adding little if anything to image sharpness, but isn't harming the shot). If you are tightening down the tripod head and shooting at very slow shutter speeds (like 1/60s or slower) - turn the VR off and do whatever you can to reduce vibration...including using a cable release, Live View, and Mirror Up settings.

OK...so what's the difference between VR NORMAL and VR SPORT settings? If you go to the manual and read their descriptions the gist is this: you get the MOST image stabilization with the VR NORMAL setting (they call it "enhanced" vibration reduction) and VR SPORT setting is best for photographing "athletes" and subjects that are moving rapidly and unpredictably.

What's MY experience with the different settings? I can't disagree with the comments in the manual, but they're kind of obtuse and quite lacking. In the real world here's what I've found: Yes, the VR NORMAL mode does give slightly better vibration reduction at REALLY low shutter speeds (see results below) and the VR SPORT mode is better for "action". But what's lacking is a basic difference between the modes that makes a HUGE difference if you're shooting ANYTHING in bursts (including static subjects): In VR NORMAL mode there is a huge amount of image movement (jumping) in the viewfinder BETWEEN frames in a high-speed burst while in SPORT mode the image is remarkably stable (like rock solid) between frames. This is especially noticeable when using a D5 (where the reduced image blackout time and new mirror-driving mechanism combines with the SPORT VR mode superbly). I've referred to the "image jumping between frames" characteristic before (when discussing the performance of the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR) as the "Herky-Jerky" (or HJ) factor. Note that the difference in this HJ factor between the two modes is so extreme that I simply will NOT shoot bursts with Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR or the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR in VR NORMAL mode. And when a wildlife photographer says they won't use a particular feature when shooting bursts it pretty much means they refuse to use it at all.

2. Sigma Sport 500mm f4 Stabilization System

Sigma uses the term Optical Stabilization (or OS) to describe their system. Like the Nikkor 500 system it has 3 modes that can be selected via a toggle switch on the lens: OS OFF, OS1, OS2. And that's where the similarities end.

OS1 Mode cancels both vertical and horizontal movement/vibrations. This is the mode you use when hand-holding the lens with stationary or slowly moving objects. Basically...you use this mode for everything EXCEPT panning.

OS2 Mode cancels vertical vibration only...this is the mode you use if panning (it doesn't try to cancel out horizontal motion).

Tripod use? Sigma's lens manual says to NOT use either OS mode if your camera is mounted on a tripod. My own experience says you use the OS on a tripod just like you use Nikon's VR system on a tripod - if the tripod head is loose leave the OS system on and it will still provide image stabliization benefits. At slow shutter speeds (about 1/60s and longer) DEFINITELY turn it off - you can watch the image "drift" across the frame (a little) when the VR is on.

Customization of OS Settings? OK...now the plot gets thicker. If you own Sigma's USB dock and have Sigma Optimization Pro software you can modify the OS settings. There are three "view" settings that can be applied to either of the OS modes: Standard View (the default the lens is set with and the ONLY setting you have if you don't have the USB dock and Sigma software), Dynamic View, and Moderate View. Here's what each is supposed to do (and I am quoting the dialog boxes in the software):

Standard View: "The OS effect is well-balanced and suitable for various scenes."

Dynamic View: "This mode offers a recognizable OS effect to the image in the viewfinder. This helps to ensure the composition of images quickly."

Moderate View: "This mode offers an excellent compensation of camera shake and achieves very smooth transition of the image in the viewfinder. The composition of the image remains natural even when the angle of view keeps changing."

Now if you can read these descriptions and figure out when you should use each setting you are a far better person than I am. And...if you can read these descriptions and conclusively decide between two possible interpretations - that the different "view" modes change the full operation of the OS (including the AMOUNT of stabilization) or they only change the view through the viewfinder - then you are ALSO a better person than I am! So...you guessed it...I took it upon myself to suss this out in my testing. One thing I CAN say about the descriptions - with the Dynamic View (and before shooting) you definitely see a more highly stabilized image through the viewfinder (much more like the stable view you get with the VR NORMAL view of the Nikon system). But...as you'll see...stable through the viewfinder doesn't necessarily mean "hand-holdable at slower shutter speeds".

One point I can't stress enough: If you do NOT have access to Sigma's USB Dock and their Sigma Optimization Pro software you have only ONE OS setting for each of the two modes (i.e., for OS1 and OS2 modes) - Standard View. With the USB Dock and the software you have two additional "customization" modes to choose from for OS1 and OS2 - Dynamic View and Moderate View.


V. WHAT I DID

Basically I shot a ton of hand-held shots with the two lenses mounted on my D5 in two different tests, both of which recognized the reality of how wildlife shooters actually shoot - in bursts. In the first test I shot 3-frame hand-held bursts of a large road sign at 40 meters. The sign was large enough to more than fill the viewfinder and image sensor. The sign has sharp edges on the lettering, multiple cracks varying in width, and a textured surface - all of which assist in making sharpness differences between images extremely easy to see. I shot 3-frame bursts at shutter speeds from 1/1600s down to 1/30s in 1/3 stop increments. Because BOTH VR modes on the Nikon lens tries to cancel both horizontal and vertical camera and lens shake - and thus are suitable for shooting static or very slowly moving subjects - I tested the Nikkor 500 f4E using all 3 VR modes (VR OFF, VR SPORT, and VR NORMAL). With the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 only the OS1 mode attempts to cancel both horizontal and vertical movement (and the OS2 mode cancels only vertical movement and is designed for panning), so I tested using OS1 mode only. However, if one has access to Sigma's USB Dock and Optimization Pro Software the OS1 setting can be set to three different custom "view modes" - Standard View (the lens default), Dynamic View, and Moderate View. Consequently I tested the Sigma lens using the following 4 modes: OS OFF, OS1 Standard View, OS1 Dynamic View, OS1 Moderate View.

The goal of this first round of testing? Nothing more than a coarse reconnaissance of the problem, to get a feel for how the systems performed, and to get a feel for the range of shutter speeds I had to examine in more detail to "tease apart" the differences in how the various VR and OS modes of the two lenses performed.

In the second round of testing I shot longer 10-frame bursts (which I believe are more representative of how a lot of wildlife and action shooters work in the field) of a yard torch at a distance of 10 meters. Like with the road sign there was a combination of sharp edges, textures, and surface cracking that made assessing sharpness differences between shots simple. For each VR or OS setting (as described above) I shot 10-frame bursts at shutter speeds from 1/500s to 1/30s in 1/3 stop increments using my D5. Between each "shutter speed run" (for a single OS or VR setting) I switched lenses (to mitigate against any form of bias associated with differential fatigue of my arms). I repeated the entire procedure (meaning the testing of all shutter speeds on all settings) four times.

The goal of this second round of testing? To reveal more subtle differences in the performance of the various VR/OS settings (and to let ME know what shutter speeds I could use at specific shutter speeds and what settings I preferred).

Scrutinizing the images: I assessed image sharpness via examining previews of the raw images using both Lightroom CC and Capture One Pro 10. Images were viewed at 100% magnification (1:1) on a 30" Apple Cinema Display with a native resolution of 100 pixels per inch (ppi). I chose this monitor for all image comparisons because small differences in sharpness are often "masked" when images are viewed at 100% on some newer high resolution displays (e.g., almost ANY image looks sharp on my 218 ppi iMac 5K Retina Display). Yes, like with my testing on optical performance I was basically pixel-peeping!

I categorized all images into one of 6 sharpness categories (as per my 20 Nov 2015 assessment of images shot when comparing 3 "user-zooms" - see that entry right here...). The categories were:

Sharp: All detail on central portion of target object absolutely sharp (good 'ol "tack sharp")
Slightly Soft: Shows any softening of detail in central portion of sign, but careful sharpening in Photoshop would make these shots indistinguishable from those categorized as "Sharp". Still a "Keeper".
Softer: Noticeable softening of image detail; sharpness loss NOT fully recoverable by digital sharpening. NOT a "Keeper".
Soft: Unacceptable image sharpness
Very Soft: Close to garbage!
Very, Very Soft: Pure garbage, AKA a bloody and blurry mess!

While subjective, in practice I had NO problem quickly assigning an image to one of these 6 categories. Only images in the first and second categories (Sharp and Slightly Soft) are images I considered (and later classified) as "Keepers".


VI. RESULTS

A. 3 Frame Burst Shot Testing:

OK - here I looked for two things. First, how slow of a shutter speed could I shoot at and still get "Consistently Sharp Shots"? I defined Consistently Sharp Shots as two of three shots in the burst had been categorized as Sharp (as per the categories above). Second, what shutter speed could I go down to and still get ANY "Keepers" (so at least ONE of three shots in the burst either Sharp or only Slightly Soft). Here are my results:

1. Shutter Speeds Necessary For Consistently Sharp Shots:

NIKKOR 500mm f4E VR

• VR OFF: 1/500s
• VR SPORT: 1/160s
• VR NORMAL: 1/125s

Sigma Sport 500mm f4

• OS OFF: 1/400s
• OS1 Standard View: 1/125s
• OS1 Dynamic View: 1/200s
• OS1 Moderate View: 1/125s

2. Shutter Speeds Needed For AT LEAST One Keeper Per 3-shot Burst:

NIKKOR 500mm f4E VR

• VR OFF: 1/160s
• VR SPORT: 1/80s
• VR NORMAL: 1/100s

Sigma Sport 500mm f4

• OS OFF: 1/125s
• OS1 Standard View: 1/80s
• OS1 Dynamic View: 1/160s
• OS1 Moderate View: 1/80s

3. Stability of Image Through Viewfinder (BEFORE shooting):

What I am referring to here is simply how stable the image appears through your viewfinder BEFORE you actually shoot. This isn't necessarily related to how sharp the final image may end up, but can be important in image composition. It may also help you keep your focus point on the EXACT spot you want it. And, a high degree of stability in the image through the viewfinder certainly reminds you the system is on and working, and may influence your perception of how effective the optical stabilization of a lens is (correctly or otherwise!). Admittedly I have no objective measure of this - it is purely subjective but - at the same time - was extremely obvious.

With the VR/OS systems OFF I had a devil of a time with both lenses in keeping the image through the viewfinder stable and the focus point on a particular same spot on the subject. It was only slightly better with the Sigma lens when using OS1 Standard View (the lens's default setting) and a little better again using OS1 Moderate View. With OS1 Standard View mode some might think the OS system wasn't really operating (it was, it just didn't really LOOK like it was!). Most shooters should notice improvement of the stability of the iimage through the viewfinder when using OS1 Moderate View mode. The three remaining modes - Nikon VR SPORT, Nikon VR NORMAL, and Sigma OS1 Dynamic View - were characterized by having high (and very similar) image stability through the viewfinder - you definitely knew the stabilization mode was working! As you'll see below (and partly by looking at the results above) the stability of the image as seen through the viewfinder is only poorly correlated with how effective the optical stabilization system really is.

4. Stability of Images BETWEEN Frames within a Burst:

Even with short 3-frame bursts it was obvious ONE mode (Nikon VR NORMAL) was different than all the others, including when the stabilization systems were off. Simply put, the image jumped all over the place between frames when using Nikon's VR NORMAL, and much more so than even when the VR (or OS systems) were turned off. This was obvious both while looking through the viewfinder and when scrutinizing images after the fact. If one was shooting only single shots this major between-frame bouncing would be irrelevant (it actually wouldn't exist), but when shooting bursts it's a MAJOR issue for me.

Please note that this between-frame "herky-jerkiness" is most obvious when using a Nikon D5. This is because it has the shortest mirror black-out time and its new mirror-driving mechanism is incredibly smooth - so when one is using VR SPORT mode on a lens with a D5 body the image stability is amazing. Even with the D500 (which also has a new mirror-driving mechanism, but it's less effective than that of the D5) the difference in between-frame shifting of the image between the two VR modes of the Nikon 500 is slightly less noticeable.

B. 10 Frame Burst Shot Testing:

This is one of those "Where do I begin?" sections! First off, there was extreme consistency between the 4 repetitions of this test (which helped convince me the trends were real). Consequently, I lumped the test results together before calculating the percentages in each category you'll see below. This part of my testing produced just under 2800 images to compare and scrutinize and I have a huge number of results. For the sake of simplicity I will present and discuss only the 5 areas that I think most shooters would find most relevant.

1. Lowest Shutter Speed Needed To Obtain 50% or More SHARP Shots Per Burst

NIKKOR 500mm f4E VR

• VR OFF: 1/500s
• VR SPORT: 1/125s
• VR NORMAL: 1/125s

Sigma Sport 500mm f4

• OS OFF: 1/500s
• OS1 Standard View: 1/160s
• OS1 Dynamic View: 1/200s
• OS1 Moderate View: 1/125s

2. Lowest Shutter Speed Needed To Obtain a 100% Rate of KEEPERS (SHARP and SLIGHTLY SOFT shots) Per Burst

NIKKOR 500mm f4E VR

• VR OFF: None of the tested shutter speeds - so a shutter speed FASTER than 1/500s
• VR SPORT: 1/125s
• VR NORMAL: 1/100s

Sigma Sport 500mm f4

• OS OFF: 1/500s
• OS1 Standard View: 1/200s
• OS1 Dynamic View: 1/250s
• OS1 Moderate View: 1/125s

3. Lowest Shutter Speed Needed To Obtain a 50% Rate of KEEPERS (SHARP and SLIGHTLY SOFT shots) Per Burst

NIKKOR 500mm f4E VR

• VR OFF: 1/400s
• VR SPORT: 1/60s
• VR NORMAL: 1/40s

Sigma Sport 500mm f4

• OS OFF: 1/400s
• OS1 Standard View: 1/160s
• OS1 Dynamic View: 1/125s
• OS1 Moderate View: 1/60s

4. Stability of Image Through Viewfinder (BEFORE shooting):

Exactly as reported for the testing with 3-frame bursts: Both VR modes on the Nikon 500mm f4E VR stabilizes the image you see through the viewfinder significantly, whereas with the Sigma Sport 500 the ONLY setting that produces highly stable images as seen through the viewfinder is OS1 Dynamic View.

5. Stability of Images BETWEEN Frames within a Burst:

Again, exactly as reported for the testing with 3-frame bursts (but even MORE pronounced): All the OS1 view modes of the stabilization system of the Sigma lens are very smooth between frames within a high-speed burst, and the VR SPORT mode is absolutely silky smooth between frames in a burst (as in "rock solid" in the viewfinder with the D5). In contrast, the VR NORMAL mode exhibits very noticeable between-frame jumping of images in a high speed burst (to call it very "herky-jerky is an understatement).


VII. DISCUSSION AND CONTEXT

Here's some of my own thoughts about what my testing of the optical stabilization system of these two high-end super-telephotos really mean. First, there's simply no doubt the systems work and allow the user to shoot hand-held shots at lower shutter speeds than possible without the stabilization. No matter how I slice and dice the results I really can't find a 4-stop improvement in the shutter speeds I can hand-hold either lens at (as Nikon claims in their marketing literature), but it is important to note that I am only indirectly testing the stabilization systems (my results are all about "hand-held" shutter speeds and those shutter speeds depend on variables beyond JUST the stabilization system) and the metric Nikon uses to come to that 4-stop claim may be valid in the test they use. But it didn't translate into a 4-stop advantage at shutter speeds I could use for hand-holding their 500mm lens.

Second, if you compare completely "stock" versions of the two lenses (before customizing the Sigma lens) you'll likely get slightly better image stabilization performance out of the Nikon lens (compare the shutter speeds above with both VR SPORT and VR NORMAL modes of the Nikon lens to the DEFAULT OS1 mode of the Sigma lens - i.e., to OS1 Standard View). If you purchase the optional USB Dock and use the Sigma Optimization Pro software to customize the OS1 mode of the Sigma lens you can get virtually identical stabilization results with the Sigma lens as you can with the Nikon lens (compare the OS1 Moderate View results above with the VR NORMAL and VR SPORT results). So...those who aren't into the "technical end" of things - and just want to pick up their lenses at the dealer and just want to shoot with them without taking the time to customize and set them up would probably be better off with the Nikkor 500.

Third, if having a stable image when looking through viewfinder is an important part of a stabilization system to you then you should either select the Nikon lens OR be prepared to customize the Sigma lens (in this case to OS1 Dynamic View). The stability of the view through the viewfinder is VERY similar with Sigma's OS1 Dynamic View and Nikon's VR SPORT and VR NORMAL mode.

Fourth, if you want stable images through the viewfinder DURING a high-speed burst then use ANY mode you want to other than the VR NORMAL mode on the Nikkor 500mm lens!

My favourite modes on each of the lenses? On the Nikkor 500 - it's absolutely the VR SPORT mode (and this is the mode my Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR is always set to). On the Sigma Sport 500? It depends. I LIKE the stability in the viewfinder of the OS1 Dynamic View mode, but it doesn't offer quite as much stabilization as the OS1 Moderate View mode. SO...if I'm in situations where I'm hand-holding the lens at shutter speeds no slower than about 1/400s I prefer using the OS1 mode with Dynamic View. BUT...if the light drops and I need to use slower shutter speeds I prefer using OS1 Mode with Moderate View. And, I have set the lens up so that the C1 setting on the customization switch puts me in Dynamic View mode and C2 puts me in Moderate View mode - so it's EZ-PZ (and fast) to shift between the view modes in the field.

My OWN take home lesson when hand-holding these two lenses in the field? I can be quite confident that I will obtain a high rate of sharp shots and a very high rate of keepers if I shoot either lens at 1/250s or faster. At slower shutter speeds my rate of sharp shots and keepers will begin to fall, and it would be prudent to shoot either slightly longer bursts, more bursts, or both!

See...when it come to the optical stabilization of these two lenses they're just the same, only different! ;-)

Next? Yep, it's time to wade into the comparative autofocus performance. Stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#500mm_wars_5

24 Jan 2017: America FIRST. But the Netherlands SECOND?

OK Donnie, we get it - America FIRST. For now we'll ignore that this is just slightly self evident (and kinda the view of every country in the world...I THINK Putin believes in Russia FIRST). But now the Dutch have put together a POWERFUL case that it should also be "The Netherlands SECOND".

Check out their documentation (no fake news here):

The Netherlands Welcomes Trump in His Own Words

Sometimes you just gotta laugh...

Cheers...

Brad

PS: Thanks to Martin in Austria for alerting me to this...

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

19 Jan 2017: Images from "500mm Wars" Appearing in Gallery of Latest Additions...

Images captured with both the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and Nikkor 500mm f4E VR are now beginning to appear in my Gallery of Latest Additions.

Note that besides the display images you'll see when you first enter the gallery, there is a larger version (2400 pixels on long axis) available for download for each image in that gallery. To access those larger images, just click on the "In the Field" tab immediately below the main image (and you'll see the link in the accompanying text). Of course, all tech specs of the image (and post-processing info) is available below the image as well.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

17 Jan 2017: 2018 Photo Tours

I am just finishing off crossing the final "T's", dotting the final "i's", and dealing with the normal logistic scheduling details on my core 2018 photo tour program. I should have everything put to bed right near the end of January (or in the first week of February at the latest). As soon as I have everything finalized I will update my Photo Tour page of this website.

For those who signed up for the 2018 Priority Booking List - don't worry, I haven't forgotten about you! You'll be hearing from me soon. Info on getting on the Priority Booking List for 2018 trips can be found right here...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

13 Jan 2017: TWO Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Spots Open Up!

A pair of cancellations has opened up two spots on one of my 2017 "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tours. The trip in question (the "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" 3-day Photo Op tour) is one of my most popular photo tours and is a VERY focused grizzly photography experience.

The two spots will be filled on a "first-come, first-served" basis - so if you're interested in participating in this phenomenal experience it would be best to contact me soon.

Here are the barebones details:

OVERVIEW: This "photo-op" style photo tour also offers phenomenal grizzly bear photo ops in a remote and very intimate (and "closed to the public") environment. As a "photo op" photo tour it has a reduced instructional component (no full day of instruction before the trip). It is geared toward photographers who primarily want access to the area and the bears in a non-crowded environment (all the photo tours are limited to 6 individuals to ensure everyone has good shooting angles) with only minimal photography instruction.

DATES: June 2-6, 2017 (June 3-6 in the Khutzeymateen).
NUMBER OF PARTICIPANTS: Limited to 6.
CURRENT NUMBER OF AVAILABLE SPOTS: 2.
COST: $3299 Canadian plus 5% GST. Currency converter available here.
REGISTRATION: Contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca to reserve your spot!

MORE INFORMATION? Just download this this PDF Brochure (2.0 MB) or contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca for more information and details about this great photo tour.

Cheers...

Brad

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500mm Wars: Sigma vs. Nikon

11 Jan 2017: 500mm Wars 4 - Nikon vs. Sigma: Optical Performance

I. INTRODUCTION

One of the most critical variables influencing any lens purchasing decision is the optical performance of the lens. Optical performance becomes particularly critical when deciding on which super-telephoto prime lens to buy - not only are thousands of dollars at stake, but the whole rationale for considering a super-telephoto lens (over a zoom lens covering the same focal range) is the belief that image quality will be of the highest quality.

In this blog entry I describe the results of head-to-head field-testing of the optical quality of the "new" Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR prime lenses. I compared the lenses over a wide range of apertures when shot native (sans teleconverters), when shot with their respective 1.4x teleconverters, as well as against two other lenses - the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR (with and without the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom @ 500mm. I tested the lenses at 3 different distances - with close subjects (7 meters or about 23'), with mid-distance subjects (30 meters or about 100 feet), and distant scenes (1.95 km or about 1.2 miles to subject). I chose these distances as they represent the sort of distances I work with when shooting small mammals like squirrels or mid-sized birds (the 7 meter distance), larger mammals like bears (the 30 meter distance), and what I often refer to as "animal in landscape" (or animalscape) distances. I may add one more distance (100 meters to subject) to the mix, but - based on the results you'll soon hear about - I don't think there's much point!

Note that I approach sussing out lens optical/image quality a couple of ways. The first is examining the "theoretical maximum quality you could EVER get in the field". For this comparison I capture images using a high degree of control (much higher than I would use for about 99% of my wildlife photography). In this case that "higher degree of control" meant that I captured the images discussed today using:

• A firm tripod (Jobu Algonguin - info HERE),
• a firmly tightened down gimbal tripod head (Jobu Heavy Duty MkIV - info HERE),
• Live View, mirror-up, and electronic front shutter curtain,
• a MC-20 Cable release (to focus and to trigger the shutter),
• and with the VR or OS system OFF for all lenses.

A few other image capture notes: For the short camera-to-subject distances (7 & 10.5 meters) I used both a Nikon D5 and D500. For the 30 meter distance I used only a Nikon D5. For the 1.95 km distance I used both a D5 and D500 AND I also added in images shot with a D800e (primarily to examine edge sharpness on distant scenes). I captured images from wide open (f4 for the 500m lenses) up to f16. I used 1/3 stop increments from wide open to f8, then single stop increments to f11 and f16. At each aperture I captured two images separated by an interval of about 10 seconds (to allow any vibration associated with shutter movement to dissipate) and re-focused between successive frames (and this step WAS necessary...there were instances where one of the two shots for a particular lens/aperture/distance combination slightly missed focus and consequently was slightly sharper).

The second way I look at lens image/optical quality (and overall usefulness of a lens) is how find out how much of the "theoretical" image quality can actually be realized in a field setting (where one is commonly hand-holding lenses, or shooting moving subjects, etc.). This realized image quality is influenced by other lens characteristics, including lens weight, balance, effectiveness of the stabilization (OS or VR) system and, of course, the effectiveness of the autofocus system. To get a better handle on this realized image quality in the coming days and weeks I will be testing the VR/OS effectiveness, the AF system, and spending time "just shooting" the lenses as I would during normal would when working with wildlife.

Note that today's comments on image quality are based primarily on the "theoretical maximum image quality" that is possible to extract with each of the lenses. Comments on what I have been actually "realizing" when "just shooting" will come later.

Finally, please be aware I am comparing only ONE copy of each lens and there can be some variation between copies of the same model of lens (I have always believed that between-sample quality variation is lower on high-end prime lenses than lower-priced consumer or "enthusiast" lenses...but that does NOT mean that there can not be some variation between samples in super-telephoto lenses).

While my primary focus in this testing was to compare the two 500mm lenses, ultimately I was trying to answer 5 questions:

1. How does the image quality of the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 compare to that of the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR over a wide range of aperture settings and at several distances?

2. How does the image quality of the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 compare to that of the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR over a wide range of aperture settings and several distances when each is paired with their 1.4x teleconverter (the TC-1401 and TC-14EIII, respectively)?

3. How does the image quality of both of the 500mm f4 lenses compare to images captured from the same position using the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR lens and then UPSIZED (or UPSAMPLED) in Photoshop to match the subject dimensions of the images shot with the 500mm lenses?

4. How does the image quality of both of the 500mm f4 lenses compare to images captured from the same position using the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR lens PLUS the TC-14EIII (550mm) and then DOWNSIZED (or DOWNSAMPLED) in Photoshop to match the subject dimensions of the images shot with the 500mm lenses?

5. How does the image quality of both 500mm lenses (AND the upsized and downsized 400mm shots) compare to images captured from the same position using the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 zoom lens shot at 500mm?


II. The KEY TWO SENTENCE SUMMARY: Just The Sigma Sport 500mm f4 vs. The Nikkor 500mm f4E VR

I have NEVER tested any two competing lenses that are so absolutely similar in image quality (at all distances, apertures, and with or without teleconverters) than the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR. Image sharpness, quality of the out-of-focus zones, and the progression in increasing sharpness from wide open through to about f5 (where both lenses approach maximum sharpness) is virtually identical between my copies of these two lenses.


III. The FULL EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

I compared image quality of four lenses plus various lens/teleconverter combinations over a wide range of apertures and at 3 different distances to subject: 7 meters, 30 meters, and 1.95 km. Surprisingly, I could find absolutely NO consistent differences in image/optical quality (in either sharpness or the quality of the out-of-focus zones) between the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR. This was true at all apertures and camera-to-subject distances tested and with all cameras tested (D5, D500 and D800e). Both 500mm lenses showed slight image softness (across the entire frame) when shot wide open (@f4), but both increased in sharpness at f4.5, and by f5 both were approaching maximum sharpness. Both lenses showed very good edge sharpness (and again it was virtually identical between the lenses). The optical similarity of these two lenses when shot "native" (without a teleconverter) was absolutely stunning - if I had not carefully keyworded the images (signifying which image was shot with which lens) it would have been impossible for me to determine which image was shot with which lens.

When the most current 1.4x teleconverters (the Sigma TC-1401 and the Nikkor TC-14EIII) were added to the lenses the remarkable optical similarity continued - I could detect no consistent differences in quality (again both in sharpness and the quality of the out-of-focus zones) between the lenses paired up with their TC's. Both lens and TC combinations were quite soft when shot wide open (i.e., at f5.6) but sharpened up somewhat by f6.3 and more by f7.1. Both were maximally sharp by f8 (stopped down a full stop from wide open when teleconverter attached). Personally I would not shoot either of these lenses wide open with their teleconverters attached. Speaking subjectively (and after looking at thousands of images shot with the 500's and with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR with their teleconverters) it is my opinion that both the Sigma and Nikon 500mm lenses experience MORE image degradation when paired with their respective 1.4x TC's than the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR does.

How do images shot with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR and then upsized in Photoshop (using the Preserve Details algorithm) to match the Sigma and Nikkor 500mm images in magnification compare in image quality to the Sigma and Nikon 500mm images? Not well. The upsized 400mm images were softer (when viewed at 100% magnification) than the images captured with either 500mm lens (at any aperture, including f4 on the 500's). Additionally the upsized 400mm shots showed excessive contrast (and thus appeared "harsher" than the 500mm images).

How do images shot with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR plus TC-14EIII (550mm) and then downsized in Photoshop (using the Bicubic algorithm) to match the Sigma and Nikkor 500mm images in magnification compare in image quality to the Sigma and Nikon 500mm images? Quite well. At all distances images shot with the 400mm plus TC-14EIII (and then downsampled) were very comparable in sharpness AND in the quality of the out-of-focus zones to images captured with both 500mm lenses at apertures of f4 through f5. However, by f5.6 (and thereafter) the images captured using both 500mm lenses were slightly but noticeably sharper than images than the downsampled 400mm plus TC images.

How do images shot with the Sigma Sport 150-600mm (@500mm) compare in quality to the Sigma and Nikkor 500mm images and to the "digitally altered" 400mm f2.8E VR images? Pretty well for a zoom, but it ain't no prime! In other words, at ALL overlapping apertures the 500mm lenses were invariably sharper and with very easily seen "smoother and more buttery" out-of-focus zones (this was true at all distances and all apertures) than the Sigma Sport 150-600mm (@500mm). The Sigma Sport 150-600mm (@500mm) images WERE noticeably sharper than images shot with the 400mm f2.8E VR images that were upsized in Photoshop. However, images shot with the 400mm f2.8E VR combined with the TC-14EIII (550mm) and then down-sized to the magnification of a 500mm lens were sharper than any of the Sigma Sport 150-600mm shots at all apertures (though admittedly at f8 the images were quite comparable).


IV. MORE DETAILS:

Boring Alert! This section may bore some readers to tears, so feel free to ignore it. There are a number of small gems contained within, but the primary conclusions have already been mentioned in the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY. If you're detailed oriented...well...read on!

A. Testing at 7 Meters (D5) and 10.5 Meters (D500)

I chose these distances because they represents the working distance I (and presumably many other nature photographers) use with small mammals such as squirrels and chipmunks and medium-to-large songbirds, such as American Robins, various jay species, et cetera. The target I chose was a stump located in my yard that has good wood-grain detail on it (making it easy to see differences in sharpness) as well as having exhibiting a mix of slightly out-of-focus (or OOF), more OOF, and completely OOF zones (thus providing an opportunity to assess the quality of the OOF zones for each lens at each aperture). Here's a full-frame shot of the subject (with resolution reduced to 2400 pixels in Photoshop CC 2017):

The Subject Stump (with D5 & Sigma Sport 500mm lens @ f8): Download 2400-pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

Please note that in this portion of the test it was impossible to assess edge sharpness (edges on this test subject are far in the distance and thus completely OOF). I'm not bothered by this because when I am working at close distances to my subject I am thinking MORE in terms of the centre sharpness with the background (commonly on the edges) soft. Think "portraiture".

At this distance I tested the Sigma Sport 500mm against 3 other lenses - the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR, the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR, and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom (@500mm). The prime lenses were tested using both Nikon D5 and D500 and both when the prime lenses were shot native and with their respective teleconverters in place. Images were captured at 1/3 stop increments from wide open (f4 for the two 500's, f2.8 for the 400mm prime, and f6.3 for the Sigma Sport zoom) through to f8, and then at 1-stop increments through to f11. Images were captured in a highly controlled fashion (more controlled than during most wildlife shooting sessions) as described in the Introduction section (above)...using Live View, mirror-up, firm tripod, electronic front shutter curtains, et cetera. Note that for each aperture for each lens/camera combination I captured TWO images separated by about 10 seconds (and re-focused the camera between shots). This last step was taken because regardless of how careful one is, at times focus can be "missed" be enough to influence the results (and during my image assessment phase I compared the two images shot at each aperture and selected the sharper of the two...though in most - but not all - cases they were equally sharp).

Note that the test images using the D5 were captured at 7 meters to the subject and those using the D500 were captured at 10.5 meters to the subject (which is 1.5x times larger - the same as the crop factor of the D500).

I assessed image quality via examining previews of the shots using both Lightroom CC and Capture One Pro 10. Images were viewed at 100% magnification (1:1) on a 30" Apple Cinema Display with a native resolution of 100 pixels per inch (ppi). I chose this monitor for all image comparisons because small differences in sharpness are often "masked" when images are viewed at 100% on some newer high resolution displays (e.g., almost ANY image looks sharp on my 218 ppi iMac 5K Retina Display). In simple terms, I was pixel-peeping!

RESULTS AND OBSERVATIONS (@ 7m)

As expected, the D5 and D500 camera bodies produced virtually identical results and trends. For simplicity's sake I am reporting and discussing only the results of the D5 and various lenses shot at 7 meters.

1. Sigma Sport 500mm f4 (native): This lens exhibited the "typical" high-end super-telephoto trend of being slightly less sharp when shot wide open (f4), but sharper as you stop down just a little. In this case at f4.5 the images were slightly (but noticeably) sharper and then slightly sharper again at f5. However, stopping down further produced almost no noticeable increase in sharpness. Interestingly, even on the images shot with the full-frame D5 in diffraction at small apertures (including f16) wasn't much of an issue - the f16 shots were slightly softer than the f11 (or f8) shots, but quite close to the f5.6 images in sharpness. Similarly, there seemed to be virtually no observable chromatic aberration issues (and there were white edges against darker backgrounds...where any color-fringing most commonly shows). OOF zones were smooth and "buttery" looking...and of the high quality you'd expect of a high-end super-telephoto.

2. Sigma Sport 500mm f4 plus Sigma TC-1401 (1.4x) Teleconverter (700mm focal length): Again, the same "stop down 2/3 of a stop to get sharpest results" trend was obvious, but in this case that meant 2/3 of a stop from f5.6 - which means you want to shoot this lens plus teleconverter at f7.1 or smaller apertures to get sharpest results. And, at all apertures there was a very slight softening of the image with the teleconverter on. So, if you stack up the slight image softness when shot at the largest apertures AND the slight image softness associated with the presence of the teleconverter itself, I am left feeling that I would only rarely shoot the Sigma 500mm f4 with the TC-1401 teleconverter at apertures larger than f7.1.

3. Nikkor 500mm f4E (native): IDENTICAL comments to that of the Sigma Sport 500mm shot native (re-read if necessary).

4. Nikkor 500mm f4E plus Nikon TC-14EIII (1.4x) Teleconverter (700mm focal length): Again, IDENTICAL comments to that of the Sigma Sport 500mm shot native (re-read if necessary).

5. Sigma Sport 500mm f4 VERSUS the Nikon 500mm f4E VR: These two lenses could easily exhibit the exact same trends in optical performance (shot native or with teleconverters) but still differ in absolute sharpness. But if they DO, I was unable to find ANY differences in sharpness (at any aperture) OR in the quality of the OOF zones. To be clear, the lenses performed virtually identically (optically) under the controlled conditions the images were captured under. Optically my two copies of the lenses (at this distance) were like clones.

6. NO Sigma-Nikon Differences at ALL? Well...I found one small one. When I captured these shots the sky was overcast, and very early on I noticed that the images shot with the Nikkor 500 were always slightly cooler than those shot with the Sigma 500 (and please note that I was using Auto WB on the D5 and D500). During subsequent formal and informal shooting sessions I observed the same trend. Note that these WB differences (Nikkor cooler; Sigma warmer) were very small and were not apparent when I shot the lenses in full sunlight (and, of course, if one is a raw shooter this capture difference in WB can easily be "adjusted away" during raw processing). I am not sure of the source of the WB difference, but my best guess is that it reflects different coatings of the lens elements used by Nikon and Sigma. The degree of difference can be seen in the sample image below.

What about focus breathing (where some lenses shorten in focal length when focused at close distances) - was there any Nikon-Sigma difference? Nothing significant (my images showed under a 1% difference in the number of pixels dedicated to the subject width, which could easily be explained by minute differences in positions of the lenses on the gimbal head). Please note that I am NOT saying these two 500's exhibit no focus breathing - simply that if you compare the size of the subject within the frame of an image captured at 7 meters there is no obvious DIFFERENCE in the focus breathing of the two lenses (they BOTH could be breathing, it just so happens that it's by the same amount).

7. Sample Images? Stump images are real boring, but here's a (shot at f6.3) that shows the LARGEST difference I could find in image quality. Best to view the image at 100% magnification on a standard resolution (i.e., non-Retina or non-HD) display to search for differences in sharpness):

Sigma Sport 500mm vs. Nikkor 500mm f4E VR @ 7 Meters: Download Comparison Image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)

8. The TWO 500's vs. the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR? I've often wondered if there is really any net benefit of owning BOTH a 400mm f2.8E VR and a quality 500mm f4 lens, especially given how well the Nikon 400 pairs up with the TC-14EIII (550mm focal length) and the TC-20EIII (800mm focal length). So I decided to take the opportunity during this test to also collect sample images shot with the 400mm f2.8E VR and with the 400mm f2.8E VR PLUS the TC-14EIII teleconverter (500mm focal length) and then digitally resize BOTH sets of images to match a 500mm focal length. In the case of the images shot at 400mm I processed the raw images as normal (using Capture One Pro) and then upsized the images in Photoshop CC 2017 using the "Preserve Details" image sizing algorithm to match the subject dimensions (in pixels) of the images captured with the 500mm lenses. With the images shot at 550mm (i.e., with the TC-14EIII teleconverter) I processed the raw images as normal and then downsized the images in Photoshop CC 2017 using the simple "Bicubic" (not Bicubic Sharper, not Bicubic Smoother) algorithm to match the subject dimensions (in pixels) of the images captured with the 500mm lenses.

What did I find? First, that the images shot at 400mm and then UPSIZED (UPSAMPLED) in Photoshop didn't fully match the sharpness of the images of the Sigma 500 or the Nikon 500. And, they had increased (and, in my view, excessive) contrast. This was true at all overlapping apertures, with the images that were most comparable in overall quality (especially sharpness) being the ones where the 500mm lenses were at their weakest, i.e., shot wide open at f4. So...at this point in time a great 400mm lens and image upsizing doesn't quite give you 500mm lens quality (at least at close distances).

Second, that the images shot with the 400mm f2.8 lens PLUS the 1.4x TC and then downsized in Photoshop stacked up quite well against the images shot with both 500mm lenses. In fact, if you looked ONLY at image sharpness, the images shot at f4 with the 400 plus TC (then downsized) were slightly better than those shot with both the Nikkor and Sigma 500's. However, by f5 and beyond the images shot with the 500's were sharper than the 400 plus TC (downsized). And, at ALL apertures the OOF zones of both 500mm lenses were smoother (and, at least for me, more pleasing) than the OOF zones of the 400mm plus TC (I have noted this before in my teleconverter reviews, i.e., that sometimes the greatest image degradation with a TC isn't in the image sharpness, but rather the negative impact on the OOF zones...with OOF zones of images shot with TC's being more "jagged" and "nervous" than the OOF zones of primes shot native).

9. How Did The Sigma Sport 150-600 (@ 500mm) Stack Up? Not too bad, although at a subject-to-camera distance of 7 meters the Sigma Sport 150-600mm exhibited enough focus-breathing that it made an absolute sharpness comparison challenging (at 7 meters the width of the subject stump had 7% fewer pixels, making it more akin to a 470mm lens). That being said, it was still obvious that the images shot with the two 500's were considerably sharper up to and including f7.1. At f8 and beyond the images shot with the Sigma Sport 150-600 were quite close in sharpness to those shot with the two 500's. However (and possibly owing at least partially to the focus-breathing issue of the 150-600), the OOF zones of ALL the Sigma Sport 150-600 were very noticeably less smooth than those shot with either of the two 500's (and at this distance this difference in the bokeh was easily noticeable at all apertures).

B. Testing at 30 Meters.

I chose this distance as my "next" testing distance as it is quite representative of the distance I often work at with larger subjects, including many species of mammals (bears, wolves) and larger birds (such as owls and eagles), and often even including birds-in-flight. For me (and I suspect many wildlife photographers) the optical performance in the 20-50 meter range is extremely important. The target I chose at this distance WAS a Bald Eagle, albeit a life-sized one carved out of wood! As with the 7 meter distance, I chose an angle that included background objects at several different distances, which facilitated comparing the quality of partial and fully OOF zones.

Here are full-frame shots of the subject (with resolution reduced to 2400 pixels in Photoshop CC 2017) captured taken with the Sigma Sport 500 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR (both images shot at f7.1; ISO 400; 1/320s). It is acknowledged this is a butt-ugly scene with uninspiring light...but it was useful for testing purposes! ;-)

Sigma Sport 500mm @ 30 meters (f7.1 on D5): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.25 MB)
Nikkor 500mm f4E VR @ 30 meters (f7.1 on D5): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.25 MB)

As per the 7 meter test my concern at this distance was sharpness of the subject, not edge-to-edge sharpness (and again this scene did not lend itself to assessment of edge sharpness).

Image capture protocol as per at 7 meter distance (Live View, etc.). Image assessment and processing as per 7 meter distance.

Note that at this distance I tested the lenses ONLY on the Nikon D5 (and I have no reason to believe the results and/or trends would be any different on different Nikon bodies).

RESULTS AND OBSERVATIONS (@ 30m)

1. Same Old, Same Old! The overall trends observed at 7 meters were repeated at 30 meters. Essentially there was optical parity between the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR (both extremely sharp with very similar bokeh, and with the same trend with the softest images being at f4, but both lenses approaching maximum sharpness by f5). And, the images from both 500's were superior in sharpness than those captured with the 400mm f2.8E VR and then upsized to the same magnification as those shot with the 500's.

2. Any Change in Results at ALL? There were a few small differences in the results at 7 meters vs. 30 meters. First, while the images shot with the 400mm f2.8E VR PLUS the TC-14EIII (and then downsized to match the magnification of the 500mm lenses) were STILL better than the images shot with the 400mm f2.8E and then digitally upsized (to 500mm), there was a bigger quality gap between the images captured with both 500mm lenses and the downsampled 400mm f2.8E VR plus TC-14EIII images. In short, the images captured with both 500mm lenses were sharper at all apertures than those shot with the 400mm f2.8E VR plus the TC-14EIII and then downsampled to 500mm - including at f4.

Second, the Sigma Sport 150-600mm (shot @ 500mm) fared less well at this distance - the difference in sharpness between both 500mm lenses and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm (@500mm) was much more noticeable.

Focus breathing at 30 meters (with any of the lenses)? Pretty much a non-issue at this distance. The subject height (in pixels) when I compared the two 500's was virtually identical. And, the higher degree of focus breathing on the Sigma Sport 150-600mm disappeared. In fact (and quite surprisingly to me), the subject size (in pixels) on the Sigma Sport 150-600mm was slightly larger than with both 500's (not a lot...only about 1.5% larger). At this distance the Sigma Sport 150-600 (set and "clicked into place" @ 500mm) seemed to slightly lengthen! I found this result so surprising that I questioned its accuracy - so I reconstructed the setup again and took a few shots with each 500 and the Sigma Sport 150-600 (@ 500mm) and got the same result again. Compared to the two 500's the Sigma Sport 150-600mm lengthened slightly at 30 meters. Go figure!

C. Testing with Distant Scenes (1.95 km)

I then jumped up to shooting distant scenes - in this case a rocky ridge 1.95 km west of my home. I often shoot "animalscapes" where the subject animal is a small part of the overall scene, and these are often with quite distant subjects (often in the 500 meters to 2 km range). Because at THIS type of distance I am normally concerned with showing an animal in a complete scene, I normally want the entire scene quite sharp, including the edges. Consequently I chose to shoot this scene with each of the cameras I might select - the D5, D500 and the D800e (the latter of which is quite demanding and tends to show any lens flaws).

Here are full-frame shots of the subject (with resolution reduced to 2400 pixels in Photoshop CC 2017) captured taken with the Sigma Sport 500 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR (both images shot at f5.6; ISO 100; 1/640s).

Sigma Sport 500mm @ 1.95 kilometers (f5.6 on D5): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)
Nikkor 500mm f4E VR @ 1.95 kilometers (f5.6 on D5): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)

Image capture protocol as per at 7 meter distance (Live View, etc.). Image assessment and processing as per 7 meter distance.

RESULTS AND OBSERVATIONS (@ 1.95 km)

1. Groundhog Day - All Over Again! The overall trends observed at 7 meters and at 30 meters were repeated with the subject at 1.95 km. That means almost stunning optical parity between the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR (both extremely sharp, and with the same trend with the softest images being at f4, but both lenses approaching maximum sharpness by f5). And, the images from both 500's were superior in sharpness than those captured with the 400mm f2.8E VR and then upsized to the same magnification as those shot with the 500's. And, the images shot with the 400mm f2.8E VR plus the TC-14EIII (550mm) and then DOWNSAMPLED in Photoshop were still strong - not quite as sharp as the images captured with either 500mm, but darn close.

2. Any Change in Results at ALL? Only one worth mentioning. At this subject distance the Sigma Sport 150-600mm "bounced back" some - while the Sigma Sport 150-600mm shots (@ 500mm) were soft at f6.3 and f7.1, by f8 (and beyond) they were almost as sharp as the images shot with the two 500mm lenses. Based on my experience with many other "super telephoto" zooms over the years (many of which tend to "falter" at very long camera-to-subject distances) this is a strong result.

Any obvious focus breathing on the lenses at this distance? Nope...not an issue.

3. Edge Sharpness Differences? Here I visually evaluated the edge sharpness on images shot with BOTH 500's and the D5, D500, and D800e. It's my experience that if ANY of these three cameras are going to reveal differences in the optical quality of the Nikon 500mm and the Sigma 500mm it will be the D800e. And that camera showed the same thing as both the D5 and D500 did, i.e., that both 500mm primes showed excellent edge-to-edge sharpness. Note that while some other super-telephoto primes (such as the 400mm f2.8E VR which is incredibly sharp across the frame with distant subjects) show good edge-to-edge sharpness, not all do. For instance, my copy of the Nikkor 600mm f4G prime lens was fabulous at short and medium distances, but had very soft edges if you pointed it at distant subjects.


V. CONTEXT...AND A FEW FINAL COMMENTS

For me there is one almost remarkable result coming through (repeatedly) in these field tests on optical performance: That when shot under conditions where you can extract close to the maximum optical performance of each of these two lenses, the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR are almost "optical clones" of one another. I have never field-tested two competing lenses that were so similar optically.

From my perspective the next HUGE question is this: "How much of this optical performance can you expect to fully realize when shooting the lenses under less controlled conditions, i.e., when shooting them more like you would when shooting wildlife?" It's my view that both autofocus performance and optical stabilization performance and "hand-holdability" play a huge role in how much of the "theoretical" optical performance you can actually realize in a real field setting. To get at this realized performance I'm going to do three things: test the AF systems, test the optical stabilizations systems, and JUST SHOOT with both of them in the field. Of course, I've already started the "Just shooting" phase of the exercise...and so far both lenses are looking pretty darn good...check out this action shot captured with the Sigma Sport 500 f4:

The Joy of Running (Sigma Sport 500mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 0.8 MB)

More soon!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#500mm_wars_4


II. Selected 2016 Gear-related Blog Entries


500mm Wars: Sigma vs. Nikon

29 Dec 2016: 500mm Wars 3 - Nikon vs. Sigma: AF Tuning Values...

While I am not one who is fixated on endlessly fine-tuning the autofocus system on my cameras and lenses (I tend more towards a "...if it ain't broke don't fix it" attitude towards AF tuning), I thought it would be prudent to check the focus tuning on the lenses I am evaluating and comparing in this "500mm Wars" series. For consistency's sake, I used the EXACT same protocol in AF Tuning all the lenses in this test which, in this case, means I used the Nikon D5's and D500's "automated" AF tuning features and followed the 8 "fluid guidelines" I described in my 27 April 2016 blog entry entitled "The Nikon D5/D500 and Automated Lens AF Tuning" (jump to that entry with THIS LINK).

Here's a quick list of the camera/lenses and camera/lens/TC combinations I "tuned" for the field tests:

• Nikon D5 with Sigma 500mm f4 Sport (native AND with TC-1401 teleconverter)
• Nikon D5 with Nikkor 500mm f4E VR (native and with TC-14EIII teleconverter)
• Nikon D5 with Sigma Sport 150-600mm @ 500mm (native)
• Nikon D5 with Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR (native and with TC-14EIII teleconverter)

• Nikon D500 with Sigma 500mm f4 Sport (native AND with TC-1401 teleconverter)
• Nikon D500 with Nikkor 500mm f4E VR (native and with TC-14EIII teleconverter)
• Nikon D500 with Sigma Sport 150-600mm @ 500mm (native)
• Nikon D500 with Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR (native and with TC-14EIII teleconverter)

And here's a short list of the values for a few of the variables in the AF Tuning:

Distance to Target: For all combinations with the D5: 25 meters. For D500: 35 meters.

Sample Size: 24 measurements for EACH camera/lens combination. Up to 4 obvious outliers removed from each sample, with most averaged values based on a sample size of 21 to 23 measurements. In almost all cases the measured values were quite stable and outliers were easily identifiable (and relatively rare).

After inputting the tuning values obtained (immediately below) I took test shots of objects with continuous foregrounds and backgrounds and then visually examined the result - all to ensure that the measured tuning values reflected reality (and didn't make the focus worse!). And they did reflect reality! ;-)

Resultant AF Tuning Values - here's the list:

• Nikon D5 with Sigma 500mm f4 Sport (native) = +3
• Nikon D5 with Sigma 500mm f4 Sport plus TC-1401 teleconverter = +1
• Nikon D5 with Nikkor 500mm f4E VR (native) = -1
• Nikon D5 with Nikkor 500mm f4E VR plus TC-14EIII Teleconverter = -8
• Nikon D5 with Sigma Sport 150-600mm @ 500mm (native) = -3
• Nikon D5 with Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR (native) = 0 (zero)
• Nikon D5 with Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR (native) plus TC-14EIII Teleconverter = +5

• Nikon D500 with Sigma 500mm f4 Sport (native) = +4
• Nikon D500 with Sigma 500mm f4 Sport plus TC-1401 teleconverter = +2
• Nikon D500 with Nikkor 500mm f4E VR (native) = -1
• Nikon D500 with Nikkor 500mm f4E VR plus TC-14EIII teleconverter = -4
• Nikon D500 with Sigma Sport 150-600mm @ 500mm (native) = -7
• Nikon D500 with Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR (native) = 0 (zero)
• Nikon D500 with Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR (native) plus TC-14EIII teleconverter = +7

Please note that these values are absolutely unique to MY cameras and lenses...they in no way represent recommended values for your own gear!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#500mm_wars_3


500mm Wars: Sigma vs. Nikon

20 Dec 2016: 500mm Wars 2 - Nikon vs. Sigma: Physical Characteristics

As expected, I took delivery of both the Nikon 500mm f4E VR and the Sigma Sport 500mm last Friday. What follows is my impressions of the physical characteristics of the two lenses. It is not intended as a "spec spew" although I will point out a few specs that seem to have been overlooked by many. I've previously stated that the specs on these two lenses are very similar - after having them in my hands for several days this statement seems almost like an understatement - these two lenses are incredibly similar overall (at least in a physical and "spec sense"). Those wishing to review the detailed specs should go HERE for the Nikon 500mm f4E.

To get a feel for the specs of the Sigma Sport 500mm you have to visit both the spec list on dpreview.com (HERE) and the spec listing on the Sigma Photo website (HERE).

1. A FEW Specification Highlights

Here's a few of the more easily missed or overlooked specs that may be important to some photographers...

Electromagnetic Diaphragm? Yes for both lenses. But note that the Canon version of the Sigma 500mm f4 does NOT have an electronic diaphragm. Why is having an electromagnetic diaphragm significant? Electromagnetic diaphragms ensure stable exposures throughout a high-speed burst of shots (normally only needed when you're shooting at about 8 fps or higher). This is a good thing. Both lenses have it.

Minimum Focusing Distance? 3.6 meters (11.8 feet) for the Nikon 500mm f4E and 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) for the Sigma 500mm f4.

Optical Stabilization Systems? 2-mode VR system for the Nikon 500mm f4E (Normal vs. Sport settings) and 2-mode OS system for the Sigma 500mm f4 (OS1 = hand-held and OS2 = Panning). The stabilization system of both lenses are purported to give a 4-stop advantage in vibration reduction (over non-stabilized lenses). Note that I will be saying much more about how these compare (both theoretically and in practice) in the coming weeks.

Fluorite Lens Elements? Yes for the Nikon 500mm, but NOT the Sigma 500mm. Why is this important? Primarily for weight saving (and it just so happens that the largest and heaviest lens elements on the Nikon are the fluorite ones).

Number of Diaphragm Blades? 9 for both lenses. Why is this important? Having more diaphragm blades impacts on the quality of the out-of-focus (or OOF) zones. This adds an expense compared to having 8 or fewer diaphragm blades.

Country of Manufacture? Japan for BOTH lenses.

Environmental Sealing? Yes for both.

2. What's in the Box?

OK...this might seem like a bit of silly thing to talk about (though not as silly as those ludicrous "unpacking videos" you'll find online!) but it does reflect a "big picture" difference I'm noticing between Nikon and Sigma: one of them seems focused on function and value and the other is...uhhh...a bit more driven by history and tradition (and not too receptive to change). What do I mean? Here's an example: The two lenses come with pretty much the same bits in the box, including carrying case, lens covers, et cetera. And Nikon has spent a bundle on giving you an absolutely beautiful carrying case that looks like high-end luggage. It includes internal "sculpting" to perfectly match the lens. Almost a work of art! Sigma, in contrast, includes a padded cordura case that holds the lens securely but has room for other accessories inside, like a pro body and other bits. And, the Sigma case has backpack style straps on it. In short, the Sigma case is actually quite functional and I can see a lot of owners using it as airline carry-on or even in the field. I'll definitely use that case. I can't speak for everyone else, but I can't imagine using the Nikon case for anything but putting the lens in when I sell it and need to ship it to someone else (which is the ONLY thing I ever did with the similar cases that came with my old and long-gone Nikkor 400mm f2.8G VR and my Nikkor 600mm f4G VR). Nikon case: very nice and classy but pretty useless. Sigma case: not too pretty, but kinda useful and functional.

3. Some Physical/Design Differences BETWEEN the Lenses

While there are an amazing number of similarities between the lenses, there are a few physical differences between them. Here's what I've noticed so far:

AF Activation Buttons ((AKA "AF Function" Buttons on the Sigma 500mm): These are the four round buttons found around the lens near the distal (or far) end of it. With BOTH lenses you can "program" the buttons to do 3 things: AF-On (activate the autofocus), AF-L (lock the focus when in AF-C or continuous focus mode), or return the lens to a preset focus distance (Memory Recall). BUT, the two lenses have the buttons positioned differently - on the Nikon 500 the four buttons are along the top, bottom and side of the lens at 90º intervals. Same with the Sigma, but they are offset from being exactly on top, bottom, and on the sides, with the net result that they fall directly UNDER my thumb (where you want them!) when I'm hand-holding the lens horizontally OR vertically. Smart. Functional. Oh, and BTW...with both lenses the AF-L function of these buttons can be used to change AF area mode (assuming you're using a Nikon body that offers this functionality).

Focus Limiters: Both lenses have a switch to limit focus to specific distance ranges. This can help speed up initial acquisition of focus by preventing the lens from winding all the way in (to closest focus) when the subject isn't too close to you. With the Nikon 500mm there are TWO positions on this switch - "Full" and "Infinity to 8m". On the Sigma there are THREE positions on this switch - "Full", "10m to Infinity", and "3.5 to 10m". I'm thinking I'll quite like the Sigma 3 focus delimiter system (and the distances CAN be customized using the USB dock and Sigma Optimization Pro software - see immediately below).

Customization Switch: This switch is found on the Sigma 500mm only (there's nothing comparable on the Nikon 500) and is used to switch between default lens settings or one of two custom settings you have set up for the lens using the optional USB Dock and free Sigma Optimization Pro software (which can also be used to update the lens' firmware, including changes to the autofocus algorithm). There are many parameters that you can change that affect either AF or OS performance and then assign to one of the two custom functions (as indicated on the switch). I'll leave a detailed discussion about this whole issue of user-performed lens customization (and firmware updates) to a later blog entry, and for now all I'll say is that I think this is a fantastic feature (and it's unique to the Sigma).

Functioning of Lens Collar: As you'd expect with any "big" lens both lenses come with rotating tripod collars and "stock" tripod feet. Of course (and don't ask me why), both lenses have stock tripod feet that are NOT Arca-Swiss compatible and you have to add either a lens plate OR a full replacement foot to use the tripod foot with an Arca Swiss tripod head. So both are equally bad in this respect! But let's go back to the rotating lens collar because THEY differ a little in function. The Nikon 500mm lens collar rotates smoothly and continuously with no detents. In contrast, the Sigma 500 collar has two modes - with detents (at 90º degree increments) on or continuous (sans detents). Smart. And, if you compare how smoothly the two lenses rotate when the Sigma has the detents turned off...well...I have to say the Sigma rotates much more smoothly (as though it's on bearings and with no "play" whatsoever).

Design/Appearance Differences: Both lenses are in a matte black finish and Nikon has chosen to gradually increase the width of the lens from the proximal portion that connects to the camera to the distal portion. The Sigma differs in that the lens stays fairly constant in diameter until past the focusing ring, at which point it jumps quickly in diameter. To be honest I can see no functional difference in the lenses associated with this differing taper. Overall I'd describe the Nikon 500mm as "elegant" looking and the Sigma looks more "business-like" (or more clearly based on function and not form). Kind of modern design with the Nikon vs. Soviet Bloc era design with the Sigma! ;-) Purely eye-of-the-beholder (personal preference) stuff...

4. Perceived Build Quality

Ok...here we go! This is one of those nebulous characteristics that defies definition but we all have a feeling for (reminds me of Pirsig's - from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - almost non-ending search for what "quality" means!).

But this is going to be a short section: both lenses seem absolutely EXCELLENT in build quality and I can't see anything on them that separates them from one another (other than perhaps how smoothly the Sigma lens collar rotates compared to the Nikon). There are many other competing lenses where build quality differences are instantly apparent such as when one compares the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom to the Nikkor AF-S 200-500mm VR or the Tamron 150-600mm zoom - in those comparisons the Sigma Sport was definitely a head and shoulders above both the other lenses in build quality. But the two 500's I'm comparing here...both seem built for long-term professional use. In my mind the build-quality of these two Japanese-made lenses is a complete saw-off. Of course, this is something that tends to show most only after several years of use...so we'll have to wait a while to get THAT report! ;-)

5. Tale of the Tape - Size Differences

OK...not MUCH difference here. If you measure the Sigma lens from where it meets the camera body to the end NOT including the hood you'll find it's 380mm (14.96") long. The Nikon 500mm is 388mm (15.25") long. The lightweight Sigma hood is slightly shorter than the Nikon hood, so when those are added on the Sigma lens measures 522 mm (20.55") to the Nikon's 545 mm (21.45"). So the Sigma is almost an inch shorter when in "shooting" mode.

6. Tale of the Scale - Weight Differences

I weighed the two lenses several different ways. First, I stripped everything off them, including the next-to-useless stock tripod feet. Stripped down the Nikon 500mm came in 324 gm (.714 lb) LIGHTER than the Sigma Sport 500. The Nikon 500mm f4E came in at 2906 gm (6.4 lb) and the Sigma Sport came in at 3230 gm (7.12 lb).

What happens when you put the "required" things on them and them weigh them as they are when you're actually shooting with them (i.e., how do the shooting weights compare?). Well...the hoods are almost equal in weight (286 gm for the Nikon hood and 290 gm for the Sigma hood). I replaced the stock tripod feet (foots?) on both of the lenses with 3rd party feet - in the case of the Nikon 500mm f4E I used a Really Right Stuff LCF-14 (it fit fine and was long enough to balance camera bodies of very different weight - D5 vs. D500 without battery grip - just fine). On the Sigma I used the long Jobu replacement foot that was built for the Sigma Sport 150-600 (again, it fit fine, but in this case it's probably longer than needed to accommodate the balancing of any Nikon body, regardless of weight - info for the Jobu foot HERE). NOW the Nikon 500mm f4E weighed 3320 gm (7.32 lb) and the Sigma Sport 500mm weighed 3644 gm (about 8.03 lb). The difference? 324 gm (.714 lb) again! So...no matter how you look at it...the Sigma Sport 500mm weighs almost 3/4 of a pound MORE than the Nikon 500mm f4E.

Looking for a reference? Well...consider the 500mm lens that the "new" Nikon 500mm f4E replaced (i..e, the 500mm f4G). I weighed one I was recently was shooting with and its shooting weight (with hood and that same RRS LCF-14 replacement foot) came in at 4166 gm (or 9.18 lb). So...the NEW Nikkor 500mm f4E is 1.86 lb LIGHTER than the "old" 500 it's replacing, and the Sigma Sport is about 1.15 lb LIGHTER than the old Nikon 500. So in total weight I'd describe the Sigma Sport 500mm as very good, and the Nikon 500mm f4E as even better!

Will the weight difference between the Sigma Sport 500mm and the Nikon 500mm f4E make a difference in the field? For some - definitely. It could make the difference in whether or not some users can hand-hold the lens effectively (or how LONG they can effectively hand-hold the lens). For others...it won't be that significant...and the Sigma IS still a lot lighter than the OLD Nikon 500mm f4G. Note that at the end of November I shot with the "old" (and heavier) Nikon 500mm f4G for a full week and found even this "older and heavier" lens quite easy to hand-hold. Of course, ultimately lens/camera balance and the effectiveness of the image stabilization system will play a huge role in determining how slow a shutter speed any user can hand-hold these lenses at. Of course, I will be testing that in the coming days.

One final comment on lens balance: I find BOTH of these lenses to be very well balanced. I placed each of them on a gimbal tripod head and the distance between the balance point and the rear of my D5 to be virtually identical (to the millimeter). That "tilt test" confirmed my feeling that the two lenses felt VERY similarly balanced when I was hand-holding them when attached to my D5.

So...where does this leave us right now? Well...a definite and noticeable edge to the Nikon 500 over the Sigma 500 in lens weight. A dead heat in build quality. But an edge to the Sigma in lens features.

Up next? Optical quality at short subject-to-camera distances. Stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#500mm_wars_2

15 Dec 2016: 500mm Wars - Nikon vs. Sigma: Update

Just a few quick updates relevant to my coming "Nikon vs. Sigma 500mm Wars" field test:

1. Lens Deliveries and Testing is on Schedule.

Both the Nikon and Sigma 500mm lenses - plus the Sigma TC-1401 Teleconverter - have arrived at my dealer in Calgary and are awaiting pickup. Barring an unforeseen disruption to my schedule, they should be in my hands tomorrow (Friday, 16 December). This means the first of my blog entries comparing the lenses should appear here early next week.

2. Am I Testing the 500's with Their 2x Teleconverters?

This week I've received 3 emails either telling me they are looking forward to seeing what I find about each 500mm lens when paired with its 2x teleconverter or simply asking me if I am going to test the lenses with 2x teleconverters. At this point I AM planning on testing the lenses with their respective 1.4x teleconverters (the Nikkor TC-14EIII and the Sigma TC-1401) but NOT with their 2x teleconverters. Here's why:

• I primarily field test equipment (and, in this case, equipment combinations) that I am seriously considering using in the field myself. In this case that means I am very seriously considering using one of the two 500's AND its corresponding 1.4x teleconverter in the future. Based on years of using and testing both 1.4x and 2x Nikon teleconverters I can say with a high degree of confidence that there is little chance of me using either of these 500mm f4 lenses with a 2x teleconverter. Why? Read on...

• A 2x teleconverter converts an f4 lens to an f8 lens...which means it has a maximum aperture of f8. I have yet to find a lens/teleconverter combination that is maximally sharp (and usually not even acceptably sharp) when shot wide open (in this case that would mean f8). In most cases you have to stop down 2/3 to a full stop to get sharp results...which means that f8 maximum aperture functionally becomes a f10 or f11 aperture. Many wildlife shooters do a lot of shooting in low-light environments and, given where I do a lot of shooting (such as the cloudy and rainy Great Bear Rainforest), I probably shoot MORE in low light than most wildlife shooters. Simply put, a lens/TC combination that I can't shoot with a wider aperture than f10 will be of virtually no use to me.

• Nikon's latest DSLR's have great autofocus systems and outperform their competition in most regards. But - as Canon users who shoot 2x TC's with their f4 lenses know - one weakness of the Nikon AF system is that only a small subset of the selectable focus points on even their latest cameras are f8 compatible (with both the D5 and D500 only 9 of the 55 selectable focus points are f8 compatible, while ALL of the focus points of the Canon 1Dx Mk II are f8 compatible). Pair a Nikkor 400mm f2.8E on a D5 or D500 with a TC-20EIII and ALL 55 selectable focus points will work, but pair it with any f4 lens and you lose the use of 80% of those focus points.

Please note that I am not saying that it's impossible to get good results (sharp shots) when pairing a Nikon-compatible f4 lens with a 2x teleconverter. But I am saying that there are a LOT of limitations faced when you try using a 2x teleconverter on a Nikon camera paired with an f4 lens in a field setting. And, past experience has clearly shown me that an f4 lens plus 2x TC is close to useless for ME (given the conditions I work under most of the time).

Keep in mind that I am intentionally self-funding this field test (i.e., buying the gear!) and while I don't mind investing in the knowledge I will glean from it, I have no interest in burning money! And, buying a Sigma TC-2001 (2x) teleconverter for the purposes of testing (when I am certain I will not use it moving forward) makes no sense to me. If someone else wants to buy a Sigma TC-2001 and send it to me I will gladly add it to the test! And I'm not holding my breath! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca


500mm Wars: Sigma vs. Nikon

12 Dec 2016: 500mm Wars 1 - Nikon vs. Sigma: Intro and Background

In the coming days and weeks I will be field-testing both the new Sigma 500mm f4 DG OS HSM Sport prime lens and the latest Nikkor 500mm lens - the AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/4E FL ED VR. The bulk of the field-testing will be performed in a "head-to-head" fashion comparing the two 500's, but it will also involve comparing both 500's to the Nikkor AF-S 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR (with and without a 1.4x teleconverter) and to the Sigma 150-600mm f5-6.3 Sport zoom shot at 500mm. In short, my goal is to answer the following questions:

1. Which 500mm lens best meets MY needs as a wildlife photographer?

Note that the two 500's have extremely similar specifications (which will be listed in an upcoming blog entry) but differ by about 40% in price (with the Sigma coming in at - quite literally - thousands of dollars LESS than the Nikkor 500).

Historically many professional and serious amateur wildlife photographers (including myself) have been biased against 3rd party lenses, including the offerings from Sigma. Even while the most open-minded of the 3rd party lens "skeptics" would grant that the Sigma lenses might be "good for the price", they really didn't stack up in an absolute sense (judged by image quality, AF performance, etc.) with the best Nikkors. My own eyes were opened (and my bias against Sigma's lenses started disappearing) when I was sent a copy of the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 DG OS HSM Sport lens for testing. Long story short, I was blown away by the overall quality of that lens (the longer story about what I thought of the Sigma 120-300 can be found on my 13 August 2013 blog entry - right here).

If Nikon had a pro-quality DX camera at the time I would have kept (i.e., BOUGHT) the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport lens.

And then, of course, came the Sigma 150-600mm f5-6.3 Sport lens. I have commented extensively about how favorably I think of the Sigma Sport 150-600 and - long story short again - I tested it against virtually all competing zooms (the two appropriate Nikkors - the AF-S 80-400mm VR, the AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm lens, the original Tamron 150-600, and Sigma's own 150-600mm Contemporary) and kept only ONE of them for my own use - the Sigma Sport 150-600mm.

In short, Sigma is now trying VERY hard to "play with the big boys" and doing a really good job at it. And, at this point I have no preconceived notion over which of the two 500's will best meet my needs - I DO think it is possible the Sigma 500 will equal or even outperform the Nikkor 500. During the testing I will be comparing both 500's lenses shot "alone" (without a teleconverter) as well as with their respective teleconverters.

2. How do BOTH 500's compare to Nikon's excellent 400mm f2.8E VR (both shot native and with the 1.4x (TC-14EIII) teleconverter?

3. How do BOTH 500's compare to the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom shot at 500mm? Or, said another way, "Does it really make sense anymore to fork out the big bucks for the big and fast primes?" ;-)

The ultimate goal of all this field-testing for me is to end up with the best quality "kit" for my own wildlife photography needs. I will definitely NOT be keeping BOTH 500's (one will be going up for sale), but it is possible I will be keeping NEITHER of them (if I find there is little real net advantage of the "best of the 500's" compared to my 400mm f2.8E). Along the way I think I'll discover a LOT that will help others decide which of these lenses will be best for them.

What parameters will I be field-testing and/or comparing and examining?

Here's a short list...

Build quality and the "physical features" of the two 500's, including balance and handling
Image quality (sharpness AND quality of out-of-focus zones) at 3 typical shooting distances when shot "alone" and when 1.4x teleconverters are used
Hand-holdability. A short explanation is needed here. My primary concern while shooting in the field isn't "just" VR or OS performance - it's this: "How slow of a shutter speed can I hand-hold the lens at?" While this is obviously correlated with the quality of the VR or OS system, other factors influence it as well, including lens weight and balance.
Autofocus Performance.

Caveats, Qualifiers, and Limitations of My Results:

Everything I do and write about during my field-testing of the two 500mm lenses will come from the perspective of a WILDLIFE photographer. There will likely be LOTS of what I have to say that will apply to photographers of other genres (e.g., sports photographers), but I readily admit my wildlife photographer "bias". And, I will be testing ONE copy of each lens only. While one would like to assume that lenses costing over $5000.00 (in any currency) that they are built with a high degree of quality control and there is little between-sample variation in quality, it's possible that the results I obtain MAY differ a little from what others find with their own copies of the lenses.

I test my gear quite extensively in an effort to discover how it will perform for me (using my own shooting style) in a field situation. I don't do these tests for profit, but simply to understand how the product in question will work for me in the field and thus so I can understand how I can use the product to better create images that I can sell. I test gear under field conditions only (no lab work) and use the same techniques I'm likely to use when I'm shooting the particular item in the field. While I do some of my testing very methodically, much of it is pure "field shooting". Aside from when I'm doing some lens focus-tuning, I do not shoot images of targets under rigidly controlled lab conditions - I shoot images of wildlife (or "proxies", such as my Portuguese Water Dogs) in the field. It's not critical to me to produce results that are generalizable or that are rigorous enough to be published in a peer-reviewed journal - I care about how I can use the gear in the field and how to get the results I need to sell images! While some "lab tests" have a real-world correlate that translates into a limitation in the field, I find an increasing number of tests quite esoteric and the "differences" between two products is real only in a statistical sense (and has little or no real-world correlate in producing a quality image, which is NOT a pure science).

So, in short, these are "real world" field tests from the perspective (and biases) of a professional wildlife photographer. They help me understand my gear. And, based on the web traffic each of my reviews receives and the email I receive from those who read them, they appear to help others. That's gratifying.

Statement of Objectivity:

Hey, I'm a skeptic of what I read online myself. And I always wonder about the "corporate influence" on so-called product reviews (which are often little more than spec spews). For the record, I have received NO differential "perqs" or incentives (real or implied) to push my results one way or the other - I am "sponsored" by neither Sigma nor Nikon. In this particular head-to-head field-test I asked neither Nikon or Sigma to supply me with a lens free of charge for testing purposes. In other words, I BOUGHT the two lenses and will sell one or both of them at the end of the test.

Why the Big Effort on These 500mm Lenses?

This is a great question - this field test WILL eat a lot of my time and energy over the next few months...so why do it? To many wildlife shooters (of any brand) the 500mm lens is their absolute "dream lens". With both Nikon and Canon their top 500's are the smallest, lightest, and cheapest of their "big 3" super-telephotos (that most think of as the 400mm f2.8, the 500mm f4, and the 600mm f4). I have to admit that for my own uses I have always preferred the 400mm f2.8 over the 500mm f4, but as airlines tighten up their weight and travel restrictions (particularly for carry-on bags), the appeal of the smaller, lighter 500mm lenses (compared to the 400mm f2.8) increases. Over the past year or two the two "Japanese giants" of professional DSLR photography (yep, Nikon and Canon) have increased their lens prices to the point where buying a 500mm lens is a huge financial commitment (or, for some, has become totally out of the question!). So...now that Sigma has charged in with a 500mm lens that is about 40% cheaper...well...there are going to be a LOT of wildlife shooters wondering if the lens can match their much more expensive competitors. And you can put me in that group - as one who already owns the wonderful 400mm f2.8E VR I have a hard time justifying buying a Nikkor 500mm f4E VR, but if the Sigma is virtually as good overall...well...it just may end up in my kit. So this extensive field test will help ME make an expensive and important decision - and along the way may help others make similar decisions.

Some Terminology and Abbreviations:

To save typing and reading time, here's some terms and abbreviations I'll regularly be using in the blog entries describing my findings:

• Sigma Sport 500mm f4 (or just "Sigma Sport 500" or even "Sigma 500") = Sigma 500mm f4 DG OS HSM Sports prime lens
• Nikkor 500mm f4E VR = AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/4E FL ED VR prime lens
• Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR = AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR prime lens
• Sigma Sport 150-600 = Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | S zoom lens
• Native (as in "shot native") = without a teleconverter
• TC = teleconverter

So...When Does the Fun Begin?

Soon. My Nikkor 500mm f4E VR arrived at my dealer in Calgary, AB on Friday. The Sigma 500mm should arrive there tomorrow (Tuesday 13 December). I live in the middle of nowhere and have to travel 350 km to pick up the lenses, which is scheduled to happen Friday, 16 December. So...barring schedule gremlins, blog entries on the field testing and comparisons should commence early next week.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#500mm_wars_1

7 November 2016: Hey Brad...What's With the 500mm f4E VR?

A few weeks back I began posting images I took during my two "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" photo tours in late September and early October in my Gallery of Latest Additions. Almost instantly I started receiving emails from folks who noticed that several of them were captured using a Nikkor AF-S 500mm f4E VR super-telephoto asking me what that was about. You know, emails beginning with something like "Hey Brad...what's with you shooting with the 500mm f4E VR - I thought you were a devoted fan and user of the 400mm f2.8E VR?"

Well...guilty as charged - my favourite Nikkor super-telephoto unequivocally IS the 400mm f2.8E VR (and before that it was the way heavier 400mm f2.8G VR). So...this leads to two questions (that I have received repeatedly in the last few weeks):

1. Why Was I Shooting the 500mm f4E VR?

This one is easy - early in my first of two Into the Great Bear Rainforest photo tours my 400mm f2.8E VR had a "mechanical issue" that put it out of commission. The problem? The "flange" inside the lens mount that contains all the electrical connections (that allow communication between lens and camera and control virtually everything on the lens) came loose, with the net result being that lens and camera quit "talking" - which basically means the lens quit working. This problem (which Nikon is fixing under warranty for me) couldn't be fixed in the field. So for 5 of 7 days of my first Into the Great Bear Rainforest photo tour I was limited to using two telephoto lens options on my D5 and D500 - a Nikkor 300mm f4 PF and a Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 zoom (I wasn't too hard up!).

So...where did the 500 come from? Well, during my SECOND Great Bear photo tour a regular guest of mine showed up with a spanking new Nikkor 500mm f4E VR lens. And, she was nice enough to let me shoot it extensively during the following week (in exchange for the use of my 300mm f4 PF, which she just loves and left behind for this trip). Thanks are officially extended to Joan E.! ;-)

Now...as many folks already know...I have the new Sigma Sport 500mm f4 coming my way real soon...and I just jumped at the chance to shoot for several days with the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR (to give me a baseline and gut feel for how it performed before the Sigma arrives). So I went kinda nuts shooting the heck out of the 500...so with all bodies I had along on the trip (D5, D500, D800e), with and without the TC-14EIII (1.4x TC), on tripod, hand-held, using both VR modes, et cetera!

2. My Impressions of the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR?

Shortest Answer: I loved it. But not as much as my 400mm f2.8E VR (when working!).

And the FULL Answer: OK...here's some more detailed impressions, but first some absolutely critical...

Caveats & Qualifiers: What follows isn't a rigorous or systematic lens test - it's just my impressions after shooting a little over 5000 shots with the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR in a field setting over a one week period. During my time with the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR I had no opportunity to do any head-to-head testing with any other lenses. To get a feel for how much I shot the 500 over the week (and how much credibility you can bestow on my "impressions"), here's a few stats:

Of the 5220 shots I took with the 500mm...

• 3146 were with it mounted on the D500,
• 2070 were with the D5,
• and a mere 4 were shot with my D800e (I just didn't have the light!).

Of the 3146 shots with it and the D500...

• 2766 were shot native (no teleconverter),
• 380 were with the lens paired up with a TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter.

Of the 2070 shots with it and the D5...

• 1819 were shot native,
• 251 were shot with it paired up with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter.

Because virtually all this shooting was done in a relatively low light environment, and because I have historically found that ANY lens/TC combination doesn't perform its best when the host lens is shot wide open, I didn't shoot ANY shots with the 500mm f4E VR paired up with the TC-20EIII. A simpler way of saying this is that I have always found that lenses with a maximum aperture of f4 don't really pair up very well with a 2x teleconverter under real-world wildlife shooting conditions (available light and AF limitations really conspire against effectively using f4 super-telephotos in most situations).

I did NOT have the opportunity to AF-tune the 500mm with any of the bodies discussed above (but after scrutinizing the 5000+ images I had no reason to believe there were any significant problems with the AF-tuning of the lens with any of my cameras).

A. Build Quality:

Fantastic - just like all the other Nikkor super-telephotos. The lens owner had "fixed" the one standard problem with all Nikkor super-telephotos - a ridiculously over-sized OEM tripod foot (with excessive space between the actual tripod foot and the lens itself) - through installation of a 3rd party replacement foot with integrated Arca-Swiss compatibiity. I still find it mind-boggling that Nikon hasn't figured out that their stock tripod feet are just too deep and absolutely NEED Arca-Swiss grooves.

B. Handling:

The 500mm f4E VR is 790 gm (1.74 lb) lighter than its precursor the 500mm f4G VR. And, it's 710 gm (1.57 lb) lighter than 400mm f2.8E VR. While I haven't shot too much with the "old" Nikkor 500mm, I have shot a LOT with the "new" 400mm f2.8E VR. And I can say that the 1.57 lb weight difference makes a HUGE difference during a full day of shooting the two lenses hand-held. In a relative sense the 500mm f4E VR feels like a featherweight. While I really have no problem hand-holding the 400mm f2.8E VR, I was way fresher (or less exhausted!) at day's end when shooting with the 500mm f4E VR. Those who find the 400mm f2.8E VR just too heavy to successfully hand-hold may find they can effectively hand-hold the 500mm f4E VR.

Balance? Excellent when paired with a D5 or a D500 with a battery grip (plus EN-EL18a battery) installed. Those shooting smaller Nikon DSLR's (e.g., any of their non-pro DSLR's without a battery grip) will probably find the 500 plus their body "front-heavy". Balance is one of the primary reasons that I virtually always use a battery grip with any super-telephoto.

C. Optical Quality:

Here's where it gets tricky...I find it hard-to-impossible to really judge this without doing head-to-head testing. But after examining thousands of images shot with the 500mm f4E VR my GUT says "Wow...it's really sharp". And - of almost equal importance to me - is the quality of the out-of-focus zones (the bokeh). And the bokeh of this lens is excellent. But, my gut also says that while the 500mm f4E VR is really sharp, it doesn't have the extreme "biting" sharpness of the 400mm f2.8E VR. Anyway...you judge for yourself...here's some 2400 pixel samples of shots captured with the 500mm f4E VR (ALL are hand-held shots):

• Black Bear Portrait (with D5; ISO 12,800): Download 2400-pixel image
• Spirit Bear (with D500): Download 2400-pixel image
• Seal on Snag (with D500): Download 2400-pixel image
• Perched Eagle (with D500): Download 2400-pixel image

How did the 500mm f4E VR pair up with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter? Very well. With the D5 you end up with a focal length of 700mm that, with care and the appropriate shutter speed, some will be able to hand-hold. I was extremely pleased with the sharpness of the the D5-500mm-TC-14EIII combination. With the D500 the 1.5x DX crop factor produces an effective focal length of 1050mm when using the 500mm with a TC-14EIII. Sharp results are still possible but the extreme focal length pretty much demands meticulous technique to get those sharp results. Hand-holding the combination IS possible, but not easy (and may be virtually impossible for some). As always when shooting a TC, you'll get the best results if you stop down 2/3 of a stop or more from wide open (which, in this case, means using f7.1 or smaller apertures. Here's a few sample shots...

• American Dipper (with D5; 700mm): Download 2400-pixel image
• Spirit Bear (with D500; 1050mm EFL): Download 2400-pixel image

D. Autofocus:

Well...seemed lightning fast and accurate to me. Let me put it this way - I couldn't find a gull-in-flight or eagle-in-flight that I couldn't almost instantly focus on (and keep in focus) when I used the 500mm f4E VR with either the D5 or D500. Further, while a few years back I found a slight difference in AF speed between the 400mm f2.8G VR and the 500mm f4G VR (with the 400 being slightly better at keeping fast moving objects in focus), I would be very surprised if one could find virtually any real-world scenarios where the AF speed and accuracy of the newest versions of the 400mm and the 500mm differed. But keep in mind this is a gut feel...

E. VR Performance:

Like with the 400mm f2.8E VR (and several other new Nikkor lenses) the 500mm f4E VR has two VR modes: Normal and Sport. Normal mode maximizes the amount of vibration reduction, while Sport mode maximizes the stability of the image position BETWEEN frames when shooting high-speed bursts (the image doesn't "jump" in position between frames in a high speed burst the way it does when using Normal mode). I have become a HUGE fan of the Sport mode over the time I have had my 400mm f2.8E - it is absolutely stunning how stable images are through the viewfinder when shooting high speed bursts with the D5 (partly owing to the new mirror-return mechanism of the D5). This is equally true of the Sport mode on the 500mm f4E VR - I just LOVE the Sport mode.

Just how effective is the VR on the 500? Well, that logically leads to the next section...

F. "Hand-Holdability":

One of the most important things for ME in a lens is how well I can hand-hold it - and here "how well" actually means "how slow of a shutter speed can I hand-hold it at?". The reality of my preferred style of wildlife photography is that it seldom leads to situations where I can get firmly set up on a tripod and have ONLY subject motion to consider. Whether I'm shooting from a Zodiac or hiking, my reality is that if I can't shoot hand-held there's a good chance I'm going to miss the shot.

The thing about "hand-holdability" is that isn't determined by any single factor - a myriad of variables effect it. They include (but probably aren't limited to) the weight of the lens, the balance of the lens, the magnification of the lens, the user's exposure choices and technique (and, to a lesser degree, the user's strength) and, of course, the quality of the VR system.

I didn't have a chance to systematically analyze exactly how low I could go in shutter speed with the D5 and D500 and consistently get sharp shots, but while hand-holding the 500 with the D500 (an effective focal length of 750mm) I let the shutter speed drift down to 1/320s and consistently got sharp shots (and it's possible I could have gone lower). With the D5/500mm combination I captured hand-hold shots at shutter speeds as low as 1/160s and still consistently obtained sharp shots (unless the subject moved). Note that in these cases I was using the VR Sport mode. Here's a few examples of hand-held shots at these shutter speeds:

• American Dipper (with D500; 1/320s): Download 2400-pixel image
• Black Bear (with D500; 1/160s): Download 2400-pixel image

My subjective assessment of the hand-holdability of the 500mm f4EVR? I came away from the week of shooting with the 500mm f4E VR lens feeling that it was a surprisingly easy lens to hand-hold. Further, I think many who struggle hand-holding the 400mm f2.8E VR would be able to hand-hold the 500mm f4E VR much more successfully.

My overall impression of the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR? It's just a great lens! My OWN preference is still for the 400mm f2.8E VR as my go-to wildlife lens. But for many, the lighter weight, longer reach, and increased ease of hand-holding (or just transporting) the AF-S 500mm f4E VR could easily "tip the balance" and make the 500 their first choice for wildlife shooting.

Finally...back on October 19 I indicated I would be acquiring and field-testing the recently announced (and still not shipping) Sigma Sport 500mm f4 lens. I'm still planning on that. If I can lay my hands on a Nikkor 500mm f4E VR at the same time (which I really hope to do) I will definitely do a lot of head-to-head testing of the two 500mm super-telephotos. Nikon has set the bar very high with their AF-S 500mm f4E VR - it will be fascinating to see how well the Sigma stacks up against it!

Cheers...

Brad

PS: Early this AM I was told the Nikon version of the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 won't be shipping until late January 2017. This likely means it won't show up in Canada until early February...

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Nikkor500mmf4E

19 October 2016: The NEW AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8E FL ED VR - Good as GOLD?

As has been widely rumoured, Nikon has just announced that the updated version of their venerable 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lens is coming soon. The new version of the lens will be called the "AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8E FL ED VR". According to Nikon's literature the updated lens has a new optical formula (including one fluorite element) for better optical performance, an electronic diaphragm (that helps ensure exposure consistency during high-speed bursts), and an improved VR system.

How does the new 70-200 f2.8E VR compare to the lens it replaces? Well...no one really knows about how the two will stack up optically (yet), but the lens is a bit lighter (110 gm, or about 4 oz) and almost identical in length (it's only 3 mm shorter). But, there's a BIG price difference between the two lenses - the new version of the lens has a MSRP of $3699 CAD (REALLY?? Yes.) or about $2800 USD. Maybe it's just me, but this seems like an almost insane price for a 70-200mm lens. While I don't hesitate to lay out big bucks for products that perform and allow me to capture better images, there is a limit to how much I'm willing to pay for a 70-200mmm lens. And, unless this lens IS as good as gold (because it's certainly priced that way), I think this one has crossed the threshold into the "no way" zone for me.

As an editorial note, I've been using Nikon's "economy version" of the 70-200mm (i.e., the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f4G ED VR) for a few years now and I have to say that I PREFER that lens to the "old" 70-200mm f2.8 VRII - I find the f4 version noticeably sharper on the edges of the higher resolution FX cameras, and it's certainly WAY lighter and smaller. And a whole lot cheaper. At this point it's coming in at almost HALF the price of the new AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8E FL ED VR. I'd recommend anyone considering a new 70-200 to at least try out the f4 version - it sure the heck surprised me (and its size and weight is great for hiking or traveling)

The new AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8E FL ED VR is slated to ship in mid to late November.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

16 Sept 2016: Just Beyond Rumour: Sigma's New Flagship: The 500mm f4 DG OS HSM

I defer to Nikon Rumors in reporting...well...rumours! They simply do a better job at it than I do (and my focus is definitely elsewhere). But...today I received very solid information that could be of interest to a lot of wildlife photographers: Sigma is about to announce their new "flagship" Sports lens - a 500mm f4 prime lens. The lens will be announced at Photokina next week and will officially be called the Sigma 500mm f4 DG OS HSM.

Sigma is positioning the lens at the top of the heap and referring to the lens as the "flagship" of the Sports line. To many happy users of their "highly credible" 120-300mm f2.8 and the 150-600mm f5-6.3 (Sports model) zooms this will mean a lot in terms of confidence of the quality of the lens. And the specs on the lens do look very good. Here's a few of them:

WEIGHT: 3310 gm (7.3 lb). This is only 220 gm (about 0.5 lb) heavier than Nikon's "new" 500mm f4E (fluorite) lens.
LENGTH: 380.3mm (15"). This is very slightly shorter (7 mm) than Nikon's "new" 500mm f4E (fluorite) lens.
COUNTRY OF CONSTRUCTION: Japan
MATERIALS: Magnesium alloy barrel, carbon fiber hood, brass bayonet mount.
OPTICS: 16 elements in 11 groups, including 2 FLD (presumably fluoride?) elements and one SLD element.
NUMBER OF DIAPHRAGM BLADES: 9.
ENVIRONMENTAL SEALING: Dust and Splash-proof construction.
ELECTROMAGNETIC DIAPHRAGM: Yes (Nikon version only).
OPTICAL STABILIZATION: 4-stops; 2 modes (mode 1 for general photography; mode 2 for panning).
CUSTOMIZATION & FIRMWARE UPDATES: Via USB dock.
OTHER: Tripod collar with 90 degree click stops (that can be turned off); optional teleconverters, mount converters, drop-in polarizer, and USB dock available.

Price? I have nothing firm yet, but I would expect it to be significantly lower than the equivalent Nikon or Canon lenses (my best guess...probably 40% below that of their Nikon or Canon counterparts).

It was apparent that at least Nikon noticed the introduction of Sigma's 150-600mm lenses (and appeared to respond with the introduction of the Nikkor 200-500 f5.6 VR zoom). Hopefully Sigma will continue to do good things...nothing like a little competition to keep the "big guys" just a little MORE honest, eh? ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

PS: Thanks are extended to the "Sterling Fox" for the info! ;-)

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

8 Sept 2016: Just Loving the D5's New 9-Point Dynamic Area Mode!

Back on June 23 Nikon released a firmware update for the Nikon D5 (named "C:Ver 1.10"). That update added 4 improvements to the D5...two of these were video recording features that this wildlife photographer (NOT videographer!) can safely ignore. One of the new features added for still photography involves making exposures shot under some types of artificial light more stable and, given I work almost exclusively using natural light (and the artificial light I might add on occasion doesn't flicker), I'm going to ignore that feature for now. The final update? A brand new AF area-mode - a 9-point Dynamic Area Mode - and that's the topic of this blog entry.

Before I go any further there's something I have to make very clear - the NEW 9-point Dynamic Area mode on the D5 is very different than the 9-point Dynamic Area mode found on most of Nikon's previous generation of DSLR's (like the D750, D800E, D4s, etc.). With the D5 the 9-point Dynamic Area mode consists of ONE of its 55 selectable focus points and the surrounding 8 non-selectable focus points immediately surrounding the selectable point. This means that the entire "zone" occupied by the 9-points is still very small - MUCH smaller than zone of the 9-point Dynamic Area mode of Nikon's last generation of DSLR's. If you compare the amount of viewfinder "real estate" occupied by the full "zone" of the D5's 9-point Dynamic Area mode it's only VERY slightly larger than a single selectable AF point on the D500.

So...why did Nikon introduce this new AF-area mode? According to their own press release Nikon said it was "...effective for focusing on a more specific portion of a moving subject." So, for instance, instead of focusing on "just" an eagle in flight, you could now focus on just the head of an eagle in flight (depending, of course, on how close you are to that eagle and what lens you are shooting with).

A VERY QUCK SIDETRACK - On Dynamic Area AF Modes:

It's my experience that Nikon's Dynamic Area modes are poorly understood - and severely under-utilized - by a lot of shooters, especially wildlife shooters (with the net result that many almost never take their cameras off of Single-point area mode). With ANY of Nikon's Dynamic Area modes focus is initiated on the single selectable point that shows up as a rectangular box in the viewfinder - what's "under" that point is what the camera tries to focus on. If the subject moves (or YOU move the camera) enough to move outside that single focus point, then the surrounding points temporarily try to "hold" that object in focus (this is focus-tracking, which should really be called "subject-tracking", but that's another story). IF the subject moves entirely outside the zone defined by the area mode (e.g., outside of the 9-points in the old or new 9-point Dynamic Area mode), then the subject is likely going to end up out-of-focus (OOF) unless you get real lucky and it happens to stay on the same focus plane.

So...why have multiple Dynamic Area modes that differ in the number of points contained within them (and consequently the size of the "tracking zone" they define)? Well...it comes down to precision and accuracy of what the camera focuses on vs. how erratically the subject is moving vs. the odds of the "system" picking up something in the background (or foreground) and re-focusing on that new subject. So...for example...if you are focusing on a predictably moving object on a "clean" background (eagle against a blue sky), then you can probably use ANY of the Dynamic Area modes and keep the eagle in focus (assuming you can pan smoothly). BUT...if that eagle is a whole lot closer and against a chaotic background AND you want to focus on a specific part of the eagle (say, its head...like in this eagle shot captured with a D500), then you definitely want to move to a smaller Dynamic Area mode (for two reasons - so unwanted parts of the eagle don't "catch" the focus AND so background elements don't catch the focus).

OK...back to the 9-point Dynamic Area mode on the Nikon D5. When I first installed the firmware update and checked out the size of the 9-point Dynamic Area mode I was surprised at how small a zone was included. And, I admit, I thought "hmmm...I doubt I'll use that much...it's just too small to be of much use". Boy, was I wrong!

Fortunately, shortly after I had installed the firmware update I led back-to-back photo tours and, between them, I had a diverse array of shooting situations to test out the various AF area modes on both the D5 and D500. By the end of the two tours of duty not only was I REALLY liking the 9-point Dynamic Area mode of the D5. You could even say I pretty much fell in love with it! In fact, I like it so much it has become MY default AF-area mode on my D5. Here's some reasons why...

1. "Sticking" to the subject when Cowboy Shooting!

On many of my photo tours I end up hand-holding some pretty big lenses a lot (partly because much of my shooting is from Zodiacs where tripods can't be used effectively). When I was shooting sea lions and sea otters from a Zodiac on rolling water (subjects bobbing and our Zodiac, me, and my camera moving) I started noticing that the 9-point Dynamic Area mode of the absolutely "stuck" to the subject (and the subject ONLY) MUCH better than Single-Point mode. And the focus "stuck" on the subject even when it moved and/or the camera moved enough for the AF point to "slip off" the subject a little. And, it picked up extraneous objects in the foreground and background (and "sideground") a whole lot less than the Dynamic Area Modes with more points did. In fact, in these conditions (me moving, subject moving...your basic run-and-gun "cowboy shooting!") the difference in success rate (proportion of sharp, in-focus images) between the 9-point Dynamic Area modes and all other focus area modes (on the D5 OR D500) meant I never wanted to use another area mode. Which, sadly, meant I largely put my D500 aside under these shooting conditions...

Here's a sample shot of sea lions shot under these "cowboy shooting" conditions:

• Band of Thugs: Download 2400-pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

2. Precise Positioning of AF - Without Picking up "Distractions".

On my Marine Mammals photo tour we had occasions to shoot static (or nearly static) subjects BUT when we were on an unstable platform (Zodiac in the surf). So...for example...shooting a Black Oystercatcher on shore while we were bobbing in the water. Like with many birds, picking up fine feather detail (particularly in the head and eye region) goes a long ways here in getting a successful shot of an Oystercatcher. With the 9-point Dynamic Area mode I found I could easily hold the focus on the critical part of the bird without the focus "straying" to adjacent regions (like it tends to when area modes with a higher number of points are used).

And here's the exact type of shot I mean:

• Black Oystercatcher: Download 2400-pixel image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)

3. BIF's??

OK...I'm NOT going to claim that the D5's new 9-point Dynamic Area is the best focus mode that Nikon offers for shooting ALL manners of Birds in Flight (those BIF's!). But, I did find that I could keep the small 9-point zone on a number of different types of birds (with different degrees of "smoothness" and predictability of movement) when hand-holding a 400mm f2.8E lens (including many times with a TC-14EIII teleconverter attached). So I was rarely "penalized" (even when spontaneous action broke out) by leaving my D5 set to 9-point Dynamic Area mode as its default area mode.

And here's TWO shots (a BIF and a MIF!) of the 9-point Dynamic Area mode in action on very UNPREDICTABLY moving subjects:

• Gull with Leaf: Download 2400-pixel image (JPEG: 1.0 MB)
• BREACH! Download 2400-pixel image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)

4. What about FULLY Static Subjects?

So...what is the drawback of using the 9-point Dynamic Area mode when shooting fully static subjects? Well...so far I haven't been able to find any. Do you lose some of the focus accuracy you have when you use the single point mode on the D5 (as possibly illustrated by this shot)? Hmmm...I don't THINK so, especially given that the same sized focus point is used to acquire initial focus in both Single Point and 9-point Dynamic Area modes. In that same bear shot used just above (this one!) the outer 8 non-selectable points MAY have just touched that pesky piece of grass, but - at least in theory - the focus SHOULD be prioritized on the square selectable focus point. But sometimes what "theoretically" should happen and what DOES happen in the field are two very different things! I'll keep an eye out for this as I continue to use and test the 9-point Dynamic Area point mode (and if I find any drawbacks to using the 9-point Dynamic Area on static subjects I WILL report it here).

So I guess there's only two critical questions left. When is Nikon going to add the 9-point Dynamic Area mode to the D500 (PLEASE!)? And...is it going to be on the Nikon D850? ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#D5_9-point


The Nikon D5 in Use in the Khutzeymateen

28 July 2016: The Nikon D5 in Use in the Khutzeymateen

This entry focuses on how the Nikon D5 performed during an intensive 10 days of photographing grizzly bears in the amazing Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary on British Columbia's northern coast. In my 11 July blog entry (scroll down or jump to that entry) I described the particulars/conditions imposed on the photography - and the equipment - by this particular and spectacular wildlife photography venue.

In my last blog entry I discussed how the D500 performed during this same photo tour. Because those interested in the D5 may not have read that entry, there will be SOME repetition in this entry (so it can stand alone without constant references to the D500 report). My apologies to those who have thoroughly read the D500 entry (but I'm pretty sure I didn't repeat any jokes!).

I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND:

Because I have been leading photo tours in the Khutzeymateen for a decade now I am very familiar with how virtually ALL of Nikon flagship cameras from the D2H onwards have performed there. Over the years the vast majority of my shooting in the Khutzeymateen has been done with FX (full-frame) Nikon cameras - I have shot EVERY Nikon FX flagship in the Khutzeymateen as well as several of their other FX cameras, including the D600, the D750, the D800, and the D800e. So I have a pretty good idea of what past FX cameras could do under the challenging conditions of the Khutzeymateen.

As mentioned in my July 11th blog entry, during my 2016 adventure in the Khutzeymateen we had more rain and heavier cloud cover than in an "average" year, which means we were shooting in quite low light conditions. In 2016 I was mainly shooting with two cameras - the D5 snd the D500. The lower-than-normal lighting conditions lead me to pair the D5 with the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom for MUCH of the shooting (this was driven by the need of pairing my D500 with the "faster" 400mm f2.8E VR). Here are the details of my default D5 set-up for this trip:

• D5 with Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 zoom

• Wrapped in the rain cover that works best for me when using the Sigma Sport - AquaTech's All Weather Shield Kit (AWS Primary with Medium Extension (info here)

During the photo tour I shot just over 9,000 images with my D5, and 85% of those were shot with the D5-Sigma Sport combination. I shot 10% of those 9,000+ shots with the Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR, and most of the remaining 5% with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR lens.

II. BUILD QUALITY, LAYOUT, HANDLING, AND ERGONOMICS

How's the BUILD QUALITY of the D5? Think in terms of "built like a tank" and "bombproof". While I always use rain covers when shooting in the rain, you always get cameras a little wet when shooting for long hours in the rain. As I've always found with the D-single digit Nikon's, the rain and moisture had no discernible impact on the camera. It's really hard to find something about the D5's build quality to complain about, but some would find it REALLY heavy. When I'm shooting super-telephoto lenses (or zooms like the "not-too-light" Sigma Sport) I find the weight almost advantageous in terms of balancing out the total package weight (making it easier to shoot big lenses hand-held). But if you pair the D5 up with a smaller lens the balance argument disappears and the camera is plain heavy!

But on the truly positive side, if you are a Nikon shooter and need a camera that holds up to years of trouble-free abuse in the toughest of environmental conditions...well...the D5 is it.

What about CAMERA LAYOUT and DESIGN? As with the D500, I'm torn about how to report on this. If I report JUST about my own experiences I can give a big thumbs up to how the camera is laid out, including feeling positive about some of the key changes, such as moving the "MODE" button over to the "left" side of the camera and the ISO button to the top-right side of the camera. BUT, I have been shooting with the D5 and D500 combination for quite some time (and I have a camera in my hands on a daily basis). BUT - just like with the D500 - I have seen users who are shooting a D5 in combination with an "older" Nikon (with the "old layout") struggle a little when rapidly changing between cameras. Since I made this comment in my original D5/D500 blog entries (and again in my recent D500 report) I have received email from over a dozen users agreeing with me - they struggle going back and forth between their D5 (or D500) and their D750 (or D600, or whatever). And, so far no one has argued against this point! I have even had folks email me saying they are now committed to upgrading their D810 to the new version (whatever it's going to be called) because they want to have all their cameras with similar layouts (assuming that Nikon updates the layout to match the D5/D500 scheme...which isn't an assumption I'd bet on...this is Nikon we're talking about!). ;-)

There is one new feature of the D5 design that I find really odd - rather than simply having a removable eyepiece the D5 has a removable eyepiece that screws into a removable "eyepiece adapter" that supposedly (according to the D5 brochure) "...helps quick attachment of a rain cover." Hmmmm...I think they should have talked to someone who uses rain covers ALL THE TIME (like me!) before adding this new piece. I've used rain covers for over a decade and never struggled with switching eyepieces or putting rain covers on quickly before (in fact, I simply put the rain cover's eyepiece on at the beginning of a photo tour and leave it on for the whole tour...so the new adapter is completely unrelated to speed of putting a rain cover on). Oh well, at least now I have a new part that can fall off and need replacement! This eyepiece adapter is a real "WOE?" (What On Earth?) for me. I'd use a different 3-letter acronym for it if this wasn't a PG website...

Also on the design end - thank you Nikon for going with two identical memory card slots (either XQD or Compact Flash) on the D5. Now please do the same when you update ANY other model - give us matched slots (and for the D500 please make it matched XQD slots).

HANDLING and ERGONOMICS? In my D500 report (July 23 blog entry below) I said positive #1 for me (as a user of the MB-D17 battery grip) - was the almost perfect mirroring of horizontal and vertical controls. Surprisingly, the D5 hasn't mirrored the horizontal and vertical controls quite as well. For me the absolute most important two buttons to have "mirrored" between horizontal and vertical shooting positions are the AF-On button and the sub-selector (the focus point toggler) - I want their relative positions to be identical when shooting horizontally and vertically. And they aren't - and they aren't as closely mirrored as they are on the D500. More importantly, I have found when shooting vertically with the D5 (and when using a super-telephoto lens) that the weight of the camera/lens combo makes the camera slip downward enough in my hand that my right thumb REALLY struggles to get to the sub-selector. Once I started noticing this in the field I looked at the relationship between the buttons on the camera (AF-On and sub-selector when used horizontally vs. AF-On and sub-selector when used vertically) and it's no wonder my thumb can't find the sub-selector - it's not "below and to the left" of the AF-On button, it's right below it! And this isn't just a "hard to tactilely find the button" thing - even when I do find it the odd position of the vertical sub-selector makes it REAL hard for me to toggle it effectively. To me this isn't a trivial thing - I kinda like to be able to reliable move my focus points around. Little thing, but with big consequences (like missing shots!!).

Let's go positive now - the new ability to switch between AF Area modes simply by pushing a button (which button you assign this to is up to you) is fantastic. Given the unpredictability of when action will "break out" with wildlife I LOVE being able to switch from (for instance) Single-Area AF to Group Area (or any other area mode) in an eye-blink. When I first saw this on the D5 (and D500) specs I thought "YES, I'M GOING TO LOVE THAT". Now, after extensive field shooting I can say "Yes, I DO love that feature!" But, as with the D500, it's not perfect - I can't figure out why Nikon made it a "push and hold the button to change AF area mode until you release the button" feature rather than a "push the button and the AF area mode changes until you push it again" (in my case that would free up my thumb to do other things rather than just holding down the button).

Another positive move on the D5 is the addition of a new Function (Fn) button, bringing the total number of Fn buttons on the camera to 3. Two of these are on the front side of the camera (beside the right side of the lens barrel) and having one more customizable button up there is welcomed. For me the THIRD Fn button - which is found on the bottom left of the back side of the camera and has VERY limited number of options that it can be set to - is pretty much useless. Why Nikon would put a new button there and not give it a wider range of options is puzzling to me. At present the button can be programmed to do 3 different things: Voice Memo; Rating (of your images during playback), or Connect to Network. Time for a firmware update on THAT button! ;-)

On to a COULD BE BETTER handling/operational issue. Heading up this very short list (at least for me!) is the "sub-selector" switch itself (this is the knurled "joy-stick" most commonly used to move the AF points around the viewfinder). Even though I had a similar control on my D4s (and on the new D500), I tended to use the multi-selector on those cameras to toggle my focus point around, at least when shooting horizontally. Because the D5 and D500 BOTH have the sub-selector switches, and because this is the most convenient way move the focus point around when shooting vertically on both cameras (assuming you have a MB-D17 grip on your D500), I decided to FORCE myself to use the sub-selector as my primary means of shifting focus points on both the D5 and D500. And, being honest, I initially found it quite challenging to reliably move the focus point exactly where I wanted with the sub-selector. It took some practice and, in general, I find the sub-selectors just too sensitive. Now (20k+ shots later with both the D500 and D5) I can use the sub-selectors quite effectively, but still not perfectly (meaning that sometimes the focus point doesn't go exactly where I want it to, simply because I put pressure on the sub-selector a few degrees off the direction I should have). Note that I have received email from many D500 users who have had a much stronger negative opinion on how effectively the sub-selector works for them (and several have said they simply avoid the sub-selector and choose to move the focus point using the multi-selector). To date I have had no direct complaints about the sub-selector from D5 users, but suspect I will after this report gets seen.

III. SHOOTING PERFORMANCE/DYNAMICS

So...how does the D5 "feel" when it's front of your face and you're shooting with it? I described the D500's shooting feel with two words: GREAT and PROFESSIONAL. Add two more words to the D5 list - LIGHTNING FAST! It feels just so fast - in autofocus (depending a LITTLE on the lens you have on, of course), shutter response (lagtime), certainly frame rate, and...with those crazy burst sizes (yep, you do get 200 14-bit raw images at 10 fps with the fastest XQD cards). Yes, I did say the same thing about the D500, but the D5 feels even faster!

Just like with the D500, the bottom line is that as long as you have it turned on, this camera is ALWAYS ready to go - even if you just shot a long burst. During times when you have cooperative subjects doing lots (think of, for instance, two grizzlies sparring) this "always ready to go" characteristic of the D5 (and D500) is REALLY nice. The shutter release on the D5 is very "light" - it takes almost no pressure to first activate the AF (assuming you aren't using back-button focus) and almost no more pressure to "snap off" a shot or 5. If someone is coming from an "enthusiast" level Nikon DSLR (other than the D500 which is similarly light in shutter action) this light trigger can take some getting used to (but it's not like we're shooting film at 25 cents per shot anymore). But I like it a lot! Like the D4s (and now the D500) the D5 feels like racehorse chomping on its bit at the starting gate...

METERING ACCURACY? Like the D500, the D5 has the newly introduced RGB sensor that utilizes input from 180,000 pixels (previously Nikon's best cameras used a 91,000-pixel sensor). Among other things (e.g., accuracy/reliability of facial recognition [though no one at Nikon has been able me if that includes bear or wolf faces!], improve AF subject-tracking), the new 180K sensor is supposed to improve exposure control. Which should mean more accurate metering with less tendency to blow out highlights. And, when I first started shooting with my D5 (before going to the Khutzeymateen) I instantly noticed the difference in exposure "accuracy" (and especially the tendency to better preserve highlights).Prior to going into the Khutzeymateen I DID have the opportunity to compare how the D4s (91K RGB sensor) metered a variety of scenes versus how the D5 (180K RGB sensor) metered those same scenes. In many cases (like with scenes dominated by mid-tones) they produced identical readings, but with high contrast scenes the recommended exposures were often up to 1 full stop different (with the D5 UNDER-exposing the scene - and preserving highlights more effectively - relative to the D4s). When I was in the Khutzeymateen I noticed that had much less need to use exposure compensation with the D5 (and, for that matter, the D500) than I had with other cameras in previous years.

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

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

How about SHUTTER NOISE? OK...remember two things - I am a wildlife photographer (and real wildlife often doesn't like loud and novel noises!) AND I liked the quiet shutter of the D500. So...I kinda HATE the super loud shutter of the D5. Yeah, it's macho (kinda like running after-market pipes on your Harley), but it's WAY too loud to ever shoot this camera surreptitiously or subtly. Fortunately the camera does have a Quiet mode. In fact, it has TWO quiet modes - Quiet Single and Quiet Continuous (with Quiet Continuous having a frame rate of 3 fps). Quite Continuous CAN be a little tricky to find - unlike on the D500, Nikon chose to not have it shown on the Release Mode Dial (hey, it's Nikon...why would you expect consistency?). To choose between Quiet Single mode and Quiet Continuous mode you have to toggle the Release Mode dial to the stacked squares setting (don't ask!) and then press the "stacked squares" button (left-most button on the lower back of the camera) and rotate the main command dial until you see the Quiet mode on little rectangular LCD on the back of the camera. Then you rotate the sub-command dial (while still holding the "stacked squares" button) and you can select either Q-single or Q-Continuous. Embarrassingly (but not surprisingly given the uber-non-intuitive way to get to Q-Continuous mode) I didn't even KNOW the D5 had Q-Continuous mode until AFTER I got back from the Khutzyemateen (and thanks are extended to Mike W for enlightening me on this!).

Of the many subtle differences between the D4s and D5 (things like slightly faster frame rate, now better than the "it was already good enough with the D4s" burst size, etc.) one thing has really stood out for me when I'm actually shooting the D5. Both the D500 and the D5 (and, almost suspiciously, the 1Dx MkII) have new MIRROR-DRIVING MECHANISMS that are supposed to do two things - reduce blackout time (especially during high-speed bursts) and increase the stability of the image in the viewfinder (again, especially noticeable during high-speed bursts). On the D5 this new mirror-driving mechanism works GREAT - shoot a high speed burst of a static subject and the focus bracket is on the exact same spot from your first to last shot (even with most hand-holding of lenses). And, with a rapidly moving subject it is SO MUCH EASIER to pan or "move with" the subject when you're shooting high-speed bursts. If you couple the D5 with a lens with the VR Sport mode (which similarly helps stabilize images between shots in a burst) the system has rock-solid between-frame image stability. This is one of those things you don't really appreciate when you're looking through a brochure...but when you're looking through the viewfinder and doing some REAL shooting, it's just wonderful! Note that the new mirror-driving mechanism of the D500 works quite well too, but (in my view) it's much less noticeable (in image stability) through the viewfinder than with the D5.

What about the key advancements in things more directly impacting image quality...like ISO performance and autofocus performance? Geez...I thought you'd never ask...

IV. ISO PERFORMANCE...IN THE FIELD!

As a wildlife photographer who does a lot of shooting on British Columbia's moist central and northern coast there is probably nothing more important to me in camera than ISO performance. This hit me like a ton of bricks when I got my first full-frame camera - the Nikon D3. THAT camera was SO liberating - for the first time Nikon shooters could shoot beyond ISO 400 (WOW...ISO 1600-2000 shots that you could actually use!!!).

Long-time users of Nikon's FX cameras may remember the almost revolutionary jump in ISO performance Nikon made BEYOND the D3 when they introduced the D3s. Now we could get great results at insane (for then) ISO's - like ISO 6400 and sometimes higher!

Since then the most discriminating users of Nikon's FX cameras will have noticed more subtle and incremental improvements in ISO performance with the D4 and D4s - noise levels at high ISO's haven't jumped much since the D3s, but overall image quality at high ISO's - including colour depth, tonal range, and just overall appearance HAS improved (sorry dxomark.com, but I completely disagree with your view that the D3s is still the ISO king...ISO performance in the REAL world is about so much more than just visible noise).

So...what about the ISO performance of the D5? Well...way back on 1 April I reported on my field-testing results on VISIBLE NOISE in D5 (vs. D4s) images (jump to that entry with this link). Bottom line: if you ignored resolution differences and just examined identical ISO shots taken with the D5 and D4s at 100% magnification the shots were virtually identical in visible noise. Down-sample D5 images to the size of D4s images and you'd see about a 1/3 stop advantage to the D5.

So...what have I NOW learned about the ISO performance of the D5 after both systematic testing AND through shooting thousands of images with the D5 in the Khutzeymateen? That if you look beyond just luminance noise and consider overall image quality (including colour and tonal range) the D5 performs even BETTER at high ISO's than I initially thought. Here's what I'm willing to go on record with:

At up to about ISO 5000 to ISO 6400 the overall image quality of the D5 is only marginally better than the D4s. However, in the critical ISO 6400 to 12,800 (and sometimes even higher) range the D5 simply excels - with careful processing (sometimes including selective noise reduction) you can get gallery-quality images that simply don't LOOK like high ISO images up to ISO 12,800. And, you can get really good and highly usable shots to ISO 20,000. If you're just looking for documentary-style images, ISO's up to 51,200 ARE actually usable! The ISO 100,000 to 3.28 million range? Well...perhaps useful for law enforcement and/or surveillance purposes...but you aren't going to see those images in too many wildlife photography galleries (either of the bricks-and-mortar OR the virtual type)!

Sample D5 Images at Various ISO's:

IMPORTANT NOTES:

1. The following images are NOT "straight out of the camera" - I see little or no point in shooting (or presenting) raw images if I am NOT going to "work them". At the end of the day what I am concerned about is what I can squeeze out of a camera's images using the post-processing techniques (including selective noise reduction if needed) and tools available to me. For me - and I think a lot of wildlife photographers - knowing what image quality I can expect to "squeeze" out of an image at a particular ISO is more useful in guiding my future choice of ISO in the field than showing simple untouched images would be. Your own results with D5 images may be better or worse than mine depending on the image-editing software you use, your post-processing skills, and the time and effort you want to put into your images. If you are a JPEG shooter it is unlikely that you would be able to attain the same results (sorry, but a fact is a fact!).

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

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

And The Images...

• ISO 1600 - Day Dreamer (JPEG: 2.9 MB)

• ISO 3200 - Shore Bear (JPEG: 3.2 MB)

• ISO 4500 - You Coming? (JPEG: 1.6 MB)

• ISO 6400 - Breakfast Break (JPEG: 2.6 MB)

• ISO 7200 - Beartopia (JPEG: 3.0 MB)

• ISO 10,000 - The Perch (JPEG: 2.3 MB)

• ISO 11,400 - The Good Mom (JPEG: 2.6 MB)

• ISO 12,800 - The Water's Edge (JPEG: 2.4 MB)

• ISO 20,000 - Coastal Cruisin' (JPEG: 1.8 MB)

• ISO 36,000 - Peekaboo (JPEG: 3.0 MB)

• ISO 45,600 - The Beast (JPEG: 3.2 MB)

• ISO 51,200 - After Sunset (JPEG: 3.0 MB)

"But, but...(you ask)...the internet tells me that I can dial the ISO up to 102,400 and even up to Hi 5, which is equivalent to ISO 3,280,000, and still get GREAT shots." That's true - you CAN crank the ISO up to those crazy values and the camera WILL shoot images. But get great shots? When pigs fly...

V. AUTOFOCUS PERFORMANCE...IN THE FIELD!

While my time in the Khutzeymateen adequately "stress-tested" some aspects of the advanced autofocus system of the D5 (e.g., its ability to focus in near dark conditions), the largely static nature of the subjects didn't really allow other aspects of the AF system (e.g., improved subject-tracking) to shine. Here's some observations/comments about what I DID notice about the AF system while in the Khutzeymateen...

VIEWFINDER COVERAGE - AND TRADE-OFFS? Most of you reading this will probably know that the D5 has 4 more "selectable" focus points and 30% more viewfinder coverage by focus points than the D4s. Look through the viewfinder of the two new cameras from Nikon that have the "newest" autofocus system (D5 and D500) and two things will jump out for you. First, the focus points on the D5 are noticeable smaller than those on the D500. This has one very positive aspect - you can very precisely position the focus points on your subject and only rarely run into a situation where you can't avoid foreground objects (that may "distract" the AF system and cause you to miss focus). In 2016 we had a very early spring in the Khutzeymateen and one consequence of this was that the grass was much longer than normal and often overlapped portions of the bears' faces. I found it MUCH easier to avoid the obscuring grass when using the D5 than I did with the D500, all because of those smaller focus points. Check out this image (JPEG: 1.9 MB) to see exactly what I mean.

The second instantly apparent difference in the AF system of the D5 and D500 is the viewfinder coverage - with the D500 the focus points extend almost to the lateral edges of the viewfinder (and quite close to the bottom and top of the viewfinder) while the focus points of the D5 are still very centrally located (even with that 30% increase in coverage). There are at least two consequences to this that can make a difference in the field. First, if you like "off-centre" compositions of your subject you run into a lot more situations with the D5 where you have to focus, focus-lock, and then re-compose. Not a huge deal, but it can lead to slightly missed focus and occasionally missed shots.

The second consequence of the centrally located focus points of the D5 was far more frustrating in the field. Recall that the majority of my shots with the D5 on this trip were when it was paired with the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 zoom. That lens has a maximum aperture of f6.3 at focal lengths of about 410mm and beyond. Now think of off-centre compositions and what that means when using a focus array that is centrally located - you either focus and recompose and/or you use the outermost focus points more (than you would with the D500). Well...as it turns out, the focus points that are compatible with apertures slower than f5.6 and faster than f8 are pretty centrally located (see this focus point map). What these combination of facts meant in the field is that the D5 commonly (not occasionally, but COMMONLY) could NOT attain focus when I was using the Sigma Sport lens at longer focal lengths with off-centre subjects. This was NOT a rare occurrence and it was really frustrating at times.

How about low-light focusing performance? FANTASTIC. I guess when you have a camera that can shoot images at astronomical ISO's you need it to have the capability of focusing in the dark. And the D5 does NOT disappoint in this regard. I was regularly focusing on subjects in dark shade (often well after sunset) and the D5's AF system never balked. Was in noticeably better than the D4s? Yep. Here's one sample shot (JPEG: 2.1 MB) that nicely illustrates what I mean.

So...what about FOCUS-TRACKING with the state-of-the-art AF system of the D5? Given the nature of the subject matter in the Khutzeymateen (non-flying, and usually non-running, bears) I got only a few opportunities to use the focus-tracking capabilities of the D5. Yes I shot lots of images of swimming bears (and a few flight shots of herons and eagles) but those images could have been captured by any modern DSLR (the subjects weren't moving fast or erratically enough to "stress test" the AF system of the D5). But until I get more opportunities to REALLY push the AF of the D5 I can't say too much more about how good (or if there are obvious deficiencies in) the AF system of the camera really is.

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

And there you go...those are the highlights of what I learned about the D5 after 10-days of serious shooting of it in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary.

VI. FINALLY...SUMMING IT ALL UP...

The D5 is without a doubt the single best camera I have ever shot with in the Khutzeymateen. It allowed me to capture images that I could not have captured in the Khutzeymateen ever before (either because of its ability to focus in near-dark conditions or because of the quality of its shots at very high ISO values).

So do I recommend the D5 as a professional wildlife photography camera? Absolutely...and ESPECIALLY if you love the low and fading light that many species of wildlife prefer.

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

Do I recommend wildlife shooters who already own a D4s or D4 to upgrade to the D5? That's the trickiest question yet. To a large degree it will vary with two things (three if we consider your budget!): your preferred subject matter (is it a species that prefers low-light where improved AF and ISO performance become very important) and what other cameras you will be shooting it with. As I mentioned earlier, the D5 and D500 are easy to use in tandem, but if you pair EITHER up with an "older" Nikon with a different control layout you may find yourself struggling a lot in the field. I'm finding myself avoiding using my D750 now that I have the D5 and D500...hmmm...

Up next? What else - How the D5 and D500 complemented and tag-teamed one another in the Khutz! Stay tuned...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#D5_Khutz2


The Nikon D500 in the Khutzeymateen

19 July 2016: The Nikon D500 in the Khutzeymateen

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

I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND:

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

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

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

• Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR lens

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

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

II. BUILD QUALITY, LAYOUT, HANDLING, AND ERGONOMICS

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

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

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

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

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

III. SHOOTING PERFORMANCE/DYNAMICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV. ISO PERFORMANCE...IN THE FIELD!

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

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

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

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

Sample D500 Images at Various ISO's:

IMPORTANT NOTES:

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

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

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

And The Images...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V. AUTOFOCUS PERFORMANCE...IN THE FIELD!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VI. FINALLY...SUMMING IT ALL UP...

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#D500_Khutz1

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

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

CONTEXT AND QUALIFIERS:

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

1. I am primarily a WILDLIFE Photographer:

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

2. Use of Natural (ambient) Light ONLY:

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

3. Shooting from an Inflatable Zodiac Boat:

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

4. 2016 - A Rainy Year in the Khutz!

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

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

5. Camera-To-Subject distances:

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

6. Khutzeymateen Bears and Autofocus Performance:

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

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

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

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

The Nikon D500

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

The Nikon D5

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

The Nikon D500:D5 Tag-team

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

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

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#D500_D5_Khutz1

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Belt System:

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

2. The Shoulder Straps:

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

3. The Holsters:

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

A. My SMALLEST Holster:

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

B. My MEDIUM Holster:

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

C. My LARGEST Holster:

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

02 May 2016: The Nikon D500 - DX Nirvana?

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

I. The BIG Picture

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

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

II. A Few Specifics...

1. Build Quality

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

2. Ergonomics and Between-camera compatibility:

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

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

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

3. ISO Performance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download 2400 pixel sample (JPEG: 1.6 MB).

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

Download 2400 pixel sample (JPEG: 1.3 MB).

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

Download 2400 pixel sample (JPEG: 1.4 MB).

4. Autofocus Performance?

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

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

5. Length of High Speed Bursts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Battery Life?

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#D500_DXNirvana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Distance to Subject:

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

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

2. Camera Shake I - Growing Extra Hands:

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

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

3. Camera Shake II - Using VR During Testing?

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

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

4. Focal Length:

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

5. Lighting:

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

6. Aperture?

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

7. The Unknown Unknowns - Those Pesky Outliers:

No matter how much I refined my technique, how careful I was, and how consistent the values were for a while (I ONCE got 3 consecutive identical values!), occasionally I got an absolutely screwball reading. So...I would be cruising along get values hovering around +5 (+/- 5 units) and then suddenly the next reading would be something like -19. Huh? Note that I could reduce - but never fully get rid of - these outliers if I was meticulous. Should you include these crazy values in your averaged readings? I'd argue no (something went screwy there), but deciding where to draw the line on the "sorta screwy" readings is a judgement call. I suppose if one had the time to do 200 or more readings these "random" outliers would cancel each other out if they are truly random. And I am not going to get into a discussion of sampling theory or data normalization now...

OK...it MUST be glaringly apparent by now that even though Nikon has made a BIG step forward in the mechanics of lens AF tuning, it is not something you should wander into willy-nilly and just monkey around with. If you just causally do it the way some popular websites suggest (like you can just do a quick tune whenever you want with a quick shot!) you may well be using a crazy outlier as your tuning value and do FAR more harm than good. Nikon's Menu Guide for the D5 says (on page 109):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR:

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

1. Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR:

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#D5_AFtune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Metering Improvements:

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

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

2. Autofocus Improvements:

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

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

1. Critical Camera Control Layout Changes and Critical New Functions

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. Key New FUNCTIONS in the Dynamic Control Region

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#D5_newlayout

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

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

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

A Quasi-Philosophical Methodological Note:

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

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

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

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:

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

METHODS: What I Did:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RESULTS: What I Found:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the testing continues...stay tuned.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#D5_D4_ISO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

But First...Some Important Caveats:

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

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

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

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

I. D5 Control Layout, Menu, and Handling Changes...and Consequences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Autofocus Performance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. ISO Performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV. Quick Summary...

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#D5_EarlyImpressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope this helps.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

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

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

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

A. Image Sharpness:

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

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

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

B. Autofocus (AF) Performance:

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

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

C. A final (relevant?) comment:

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

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

2. How Important is Portability to YOU? While both the Nikkor 200-500 and Sigma Sport 150-600 are compact and lightweight "packages" for the focal ranges they cover, they're still HUGE compared to the tiny Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR. The KEY feature of the 300mm f4 PF IS its size (or lack thereof) - it's not like Nikon doesn't have another great 300mm prime lens (remember the AF-S 300mm f2.8 VRII?). If maximizing portability is important to you, this one is a no-brainer - get the 300mm f4 PF.

So...like with so many things in photography (and life I suppose), there's no "one-size fits all" answer to the "300mm f4 PF vs. Sigma Sport (or Nikkor 200-500)?" question. Every user is different, has different photographic goals, and shoots under different conditions. But I think you'll get to the best solution for yourself if you look beyond just image quality and AF performance (where there is little between the lenses in question) and think about the how important the pros and cons of each lens match your needs. Do you want versatility or do you want a light, very portable package?

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

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

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

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

Replacement Foot: Sigma Sport 150-600mm

Replacement Foot For Selected Nikkor E-Series Super-Telephotos

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

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

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

Replacement Foot For Selected Nikkor E-Series Super-Telephotos

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

Cheers...

Brad

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

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

04 January 2016: My 5 Favourite Gear Acquisitions of 2015

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

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

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

1. The Nikon D750

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

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

Why? Here's my top reasons...

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Nikkor 300mm f4E PF ED VR

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

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

My top reasons for loving this lens?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that leads to...

4. The Jobu Jr. 3 Deluxe Gimbal Head

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

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

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

Jobu Gimbal Heads

5. The Really Right Stuff TVC-24 Tripod

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

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

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

The RRS TVC-24 Tripod

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#2015top5



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

2016 - The Whole Shebang
2015 - The Whole Shebang
2014 - The Whole Shebang
2013 - The Whole Shebang
2012 - Almost The Whole Shebang
2011 - The Whole Shebang
2009 - October to December2009 - July to September2009 - April to June
2009 - January to March 2008 - October to December 2008 - July to September
2008 - April to June 2008 - January to March 2007 - October to December
2007 - July to September 2007 - April to June 2007 - January to March