Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

 

Brad Hill: Blog: Q1 2009 (January to March)

Short-winded blatherings on whatever is currently occupying the part of my brain that deals with photography. Updated sorta weekly.

30 March 2009: First Impressions: Nikon GP-1 GPS Unit

I've been a long-time user of GPS units - I live in the woods and spend a lot of time wandering around alone focused on anything but where I am - so they kind of come in handy in ensuring my survival. Traditionally (if such a word can be used with GPS technology) I've used hand-held mid-range Garmin units (like the GPSMAP 60CSX) and been very happy with them. When Nikon starting producing cables to connect 3rd-party GPS units to their pro cameras (to record location data in an image's metadata) I quickly pounced and bought one - I loved the idea of being able to record location data WITH an image...lots of good uses for this (in documenting sightings of rare birds, being able to return to the precise location to where you previously shot an image, etc.). The combination of Garmin GPS and Nikon cable worked fine, but there was one major drawback - convenience. No issue with attaching the cables - the problem comes from the simple issue of "where do you put the GPS?" (and "...how do you hold it when shooting images?"). To get decent reception, the unit needs to be in the open. I often have my hands full with my camera (and long telephoto lens) - if I clip the GPS to my body I run the risk of pulling the cable out of the GPS (or my camera) when I put my camera down and move a little. I suppose I could tape the GPS unit to my camera and/or lens, but...this would be a pain. End result of this inconvenience issue - I almost never end up hooking my GPS to my camera and embed the location data.

Enter the Nikon GP-1 GPS unit - it's an extremely small GPS unit that hooks into your camera's hot shoe and a cable runs from the unit to the camera's 9-pin port (for most Nikon cameras). The unit contains no battery - it draws its power from the camera's battery. It has no display - it simply records the positional data (lat, long, altitude, time) "in" the image. (NOTE: With the D3 and D700 - and possibly other Nikon cameras but I haven't tested them - you CAN display lat, long, altitude and time on your camera's LCD screen without capturing an image). And this is all I want it to do. And, most importantly, the unit is extremely convenient to use...so I use it. Additional information (tech specs, images of it, etc.) about the unit can be found on virtually any of Nikon's many websites...

Some observations...

1. It works as advertised. Like with any GPS unit, the longer you keep the unit on, the more data points it samples (and averages), and the more accurate the positional data it produces. Not surprisingly, the positional data it produced matched that of my Garmin hand-held very closely.

2. It can suck (batteries). There are a few set-up options for the GPS (logically found in your camera's "Set-Up" menu) that can have a major impact on the unit's accuracy AND your camera's battery life. The key option is "Auto Meter Off" (in the GPS entry of the Set-Up menu). If you choose "Enable" for this option, the GPS unit stops sucking battery power when the camera's light meter shuts itself off (camera still on, of course). If you choose "Disable" for this option, both the camera's light meter and GPS unit stay on the entire time the camera is on with the GPS attached. There are many consequences of this. First, you'll get more accurate GPS data embedded in your metadata - the GPS is always on and averaging readings. Second, the GPS is always ready to go - there's NO "find and lock-on satellite" time. So EVERY image will have accurate GPS data embedded in it. Third, because both your GPS and camera's light meter are perpetually on, your camera's battery will drain VERY fast (in a matter of hours, even if you're not shooting). So...you have to make an active decision: accurate and instantaneously available GPS data OR decent camera battery life? Not necessarily a problem, but definitely something to be aware of...

3. It IS pricey. My unit cost about $250 (Canadian). If you look around at the price of GPS units out there, the GP-1 seems pricey for what it offers - comparably priced GPS units have almost infinitely more functions. But, it is extremely convenient and small. Plus, it bears the Nikon logo - which automatically jacks the price up (and means people - like me - will buy it!).

I like the product and I'm glad I own it. I will use it - at times a lot. Those with a need (or desire) to embed locational data into their images will very likely be happy with this product, but it's definitely not for everyone.

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

23 March 2009: Spring Has Sprung...Mountain Bluebirds Return

We've had a very nice winter in my neck of the woods, but the coming of spring has been delayed a little. By now I should be photographing migrating Bald Eagles and getting ready for songbird season. But until last Friday we had 100% snow coverage (about 15 cm deep) and had seen few of even the hardy and/or early migrants...

But..over the weekend, spring sprung - and with a vengeance. Combine double digit (Celsius) temperatures, high winds, and plenty of sun and we now have zero snow cover. And plants shooting sprouts. And, most importantly, the migrating birds have started to move through! On Saturday we encountered paired up (male and female) Mountain Bluebirds checking out our nest boxes and the skies are chock-full of eagles. In honour of the returning birds, I've added some previously unseen (and new-ish) shots of some of my favourite seasonal feathered friends in my "Latest Additions" gallery.

Coming soon...new eagle flight shots, bluebirds, swallows and more! I love spring - it's time to do some serious shooting!

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

12 March 2009: UPDATE: 2009/2010 Instructional Photo Tours - Remaining Available Openings...

If you're considering participating in any of the Instructional Photo Tours scheduled for 2009 or 2010 you better act fast - there's only a few remaining spots left open. Here's the current status of the trips...

1. Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen - Spring 2009

STATUS: Sold out.

2. Spirit Bears and the Great Bear Rainforest - Autumn 2009

STATUS: One spot remaining.
OVERVIEW: Don't miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime trip! The Spirit Bears and the Great Bear Rainforest Instructional Photo Tour 2009 combines a full day of professional photography instruction with 8 days of touring the Great Bear Rainforest in search of Spirit Bears, Grizzlies, several species of whales - all while travelling through some of the most photogenic scenery on Planet Earth! You will be given the tools and the opportunity to capture breath-taking, professional quality images of rare, endangered bears and absolutely stunning scenery.
DATES: September 25 to October 4, 2009.
COST: $4950 CDN including all taxes. Currency converter available here.
REGISTRATION: Contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca to reserve your spot!
MORE INFORMATION? Download this brochure (PDF: 864 KB) for trip itinerary, accommodation details, and more!

3. Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen - Spring 2010

STATUS: Two spots remaining.
OVERVIEW: In spring of 2010 I am offering a new, extended Instructional Photo Tour of the Khutzeymateen Valley. By extending the "traditional" Khutzeymateen Grizzlies trip by two days, the absolute best grizzly viewing and photography trip available anywhere just got even better! The Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour 2010 combines a full day of professional photography instruction with 5 days of fabulous grizzly bear viewing and photography in the Khutzeymateen Inlet - Canada's ONLY grizzly sanctuary. Following our day of photography instruction in Prince Rupert, BC, we will travel to the Khutzeymateen via floatplane. We'll then stay aboard the beautiful Ocean Light II - a comfortable 71' ocean ketch (sailboat). We will be assisted by two professional bear guides during our 5 days of working intensely with the spectacular Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen (in the most magical setting imaginable)! This trip is simply an extraordinary experience and provides unsurpassed photographic opportunities!
DATES: May 27 to June 3, 2010.
COST: $4299 CDN including all taxes (all inclusive from Prince Rupert, BC). Currency converter available here.
MORE INFORMATION AND/OR REGISTRATION? Contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca for additional information or to reserve your spot! A brochure for this trip will be available soon.

3 March 2009: PMA Predictions? No. Wish List? Yes.

Today marked the beginning of the Photo Marketing Association (PMA) Annual Trade Show where everyone who's anyone (in terms of photographic products) is showing off their "new & improved" products. It's fashionable right now to make "predictions" about who's going to announce what this week. i was going to do this myself and list my Nikon predictions. But, I don't think Nikon is going to do much at this show that will interest the keen nature photographer - I think any Nikon product announcements at PMA will be geared more to the consumer market. And, if I'm being completely honest, I really don't pay much attention to what's going on in the point-and-shoot world or in the "entry level" SLR market. So my predictions wouldn't be worth diddly-squat. Instead, I'm going to focus on my "Wish List", i.e., the things that I think Nikon needs to introduce to satisfy enthusiastic amateur and professional nature photographers (and things I may want!). Hopefully someone at Nikon is listening!

One other comment before I get into my wish list. One way many folks like to attract attention to their websites is to gripe and complain about the products currently being made by their chosen manufacturer of camera equipment. I'm NOT going to do this - I'm simply going to be honest and point out what I think is currently missing from Nikon's camera/lens lineup. For the record, I think Nikon currently has an AWESOME selection of products and I know MANY very happy Nikon shooters. Even 18 months ago you could have argued that Nikon was lagging behind Canon in digital SLR offerings. But since Nikon introduced the D3, D300, D700, and, most recently, the D3x there are a lot of Nikon shooters out there with BIG GRINS on their faces (and I'm one of them). And, I know a LOT of Canon shooters that are looking at the top Nikons with envy. In fact, between this envy and some current anger at Canon's recent and arguably flawed high-end product introductions, I know a lot of Canon shooters who have switched to Nikon or are at least contemplating the switch. So...if you're looking for an anti-Nikon rant you might as well quit reading right now...

My wish list:

1. Another 24.5 MP FX Camera Body.

What I want: This is simple: Just a D700 with a sensor from the D3x dropped in. Keep the build quality identical to the D700 (and keep the production of this body in Japan). Call it a D700x. Logical price point should be somewhere in the $3299 to $3799 USD ($3499 to $3999 CAD) range. I want and would buy one of these.

Will Nikon Do It? Yes. Nikon always likes to use the same sensor in multiple bodies, and if they EVER want to pay off the R&D cost involved with the development of the D3x sensor they need to put it in another, less expensive body. But don't expect to see it announced until late spring at the earliest, and probably shipping by mid-summer. If Nikon was really smart they'd put a priority on getting this camera to market as soon as possible. While the reviews of the D3x have varied from very good to astounding, it isn't selling too well (which is completely due to its price). But introduce a D700x and price it in the $3500 range and it will sell like hot-cakes.

2. A Professional Quality Higher Res DX Camera Body.

What I want: This is simple: Just a D700 with a DX sensor that has a resolution of about 16 MP. Keep the build quality, environmental sealing and feature set similar to the D700 (and keep the production of this body in Japan). Call it a D400. Logical price point should be somewhere around $1999 USD ($2199 CAD). I want and would buy one of these.

Will Nikon Do It? Sort of. I think Nikon has concluded that pro and semi-pro bodies should be full-frame, and that DX bodies are (for now) for the consumer and the "prosumer" market. Which means they'll produce this camera (at 16 MP resolution), but it will be made in Thailand (or some other non-Japanese location) and the build quality will be in the D200-D300 lineage (rather than the D700 class). Oh, and they'll add video to it (arguably the right move in the consumer/prosumer market). This camera will be announced close to the same time as the D700x - late spring announcement with summer shipping (possibly even a LITTLE earlier, but likely NOT announced at PMA). They'll price the camera a little lower than my "dream spec D400" (i.e., around $1799 USD or $1999 CAD) and it will sell real well (but probably not to me!). Drat!

3. 70-200 mm f2.8 VR Lens Update/Replacement.

What I want: A lens JUST LIKE the current one, except upgrade the VR to VRII and make sure it's built to perform as well on FX bodies as the current one does on DX bodies. I KNOW the current 70 - 200 mm f2.8 is NOT a DX lens, but it more or less acts like one (it doesn't perform well on the currently available FX bodies). I want this lens and would very likely buy one of these.

Will Nikon Do It? Yes. There's a rumour out in web-land that it's going to be an 80-200, and this may be true (perhaps the only way to keep it small in size yet have it work well on the demanding FX bodies??). My preference would be to have it a 70-200 (to complement the "new" 24-70 mm f2.8 FX lens and leave no focal range gap), but it wouldn't be the end of the world if it was an 80-200. When? Any time between now and mid-spring (even possibly at PMA this week). Price? Won't be cheap - probably around $2299 USD or $2499 CAD.

4. 80-400 mm f4.5-5.6 VR Lens Update/Replacement.

What Many Want: A lens JUST LIKE the current one, but with VRII, better optics, and a little sturdier build quality. Price it reasonably and this lens likely would sell like hot-cakes. But...unless they do miracles with the optical quality (compared to the current one), I probably wouldn't buy one - I've been shooting Nikon's pro glass for long enough that I doubt I would be satisfied with the image quality of this lens...

Will Nikon Do It? Yes. I expect Nikon will update this lens soon. When? Any time between now and mid-spring (even possibly at PMA this week). Price? Depends on how much they improve it (optically), but I'm guessing it will come in at about $1799 USD/$1999 CAD.

So there it is - my wish list. Note that I make NO claim that Nikon won't be introducing other cameras and/or lenses in the near future - these are just the ones that I think are most important for Nikon to introduce to keep keen nature photographers happy...and to keep the "switching from Canon" crowd coming...

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

2 March 2009: A Howling Irony...

A little story about the trials and tribulations of a wildlife photographer...

Early Saturday AM I decided to try to put in an effort in chasing down (and, of course, photographing) a pack of wolves. I had a particular pack in mind - a nearby national park has at least one active pack in it and they are often sighted near the main road through the national park. More importantly, this particular pack is very tolerant to humans and you can often approach them quite closely. This assumes, of course, that you can find them. As the crow flies the park isn't far from my home - probably 30 km or so. Unfortunately, by road you have to drive about 100 km to get to the area where the wolves are most frequently seen. Long story short: I cruised back and forth on the stretch of highway where the wolves are most often seen several times, and then spent several hours tromping through the bush with snowshoes. End result: no wolves (and no tracks). I wasn't too disappointed - finding the wolves was a long-shot and I had a nice day anyway...

Come Sunday morning my girlfriend and I decided to take our two Portuguese Water Dogs for a walk on the crown land immediately behind our property. Less than 100 meters from our property line we ran into - yep, you guessed it - wolf tracks! We had been in the same spot late on Friday and there had been no tracks there, so we knew the tracks were, at most, a day old. Which meant they were likely left on SATURDAY - the day I was driving 100 km away in search of wolves! Anyway...we followed the single set of tracks. After following them for about a kilometer (which our dogs thought was great fun - someone should tell the Obamas that Porties LOVE to track wolves!) we encountered a second set of tracks. Then a third set. Then a fourth set. And, finally, a fifth set of tracks. Turns out we had an entire pack of wolves "hanging" around our cabin! Too bad I was 100 km away looking for wolves when a pack was partying back at my home!

I'm not sure that there's a moral to the story...but it does make me think I shouldn't bother getting in my truck in search of wildlife! Probably not such a bad thing...

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

23 February 2009: Seven New Bear Images Added to Gallery...

I've given 7 new bear images a permanent home in the Bear Gallery. Most of these images spent a little time in my "Latest Additions" Gallery...but odds are you haven't seen them all. Just to confuse the heck out of you I sprinkled them throughout the gallery...but to simplify things here's a quick list of what's been added.

1. Early Evening Cruise in the Great Bear Rainforest. A close-up shot of an adult female grizzly swimming the calm (and very blue) waters of an inlet in the Great Bear Rainforest. The commentary for this image (click on the "In the Field" tab below the image) discusses how those hours spent by the computer processing images can help you manage tricky lighting sections when you're in the field.

2. Grizzly Shaking in Early Evening Light. This image was shot in that early evening light that is just so warm and beautiful. In fact, it was so warm that I actually had to desaturate the colours in the image to make it appear real!

3. Surreal Shaking. A very close-up shot of a male grizzly doing an almost surreal head-shake. Curious about how to make effective motion blurs of wildlife (or any moving subject)? If so, you've got to check out this commentary! Just click on the "In the Field" tab below the image...

4. Sunset for the Great Bear Rainforest? If you like strongly backlit images of wildlife, this is a shot you have to check out. And, the commentary for this image (click on the "In the Field" tab below the image) gives a few tips on how to handle strong back-lighting. It also illustrates what happens to wildlife when mankind interferes with their food supply.

5. Keeping A Snout Out For His Buddies. A grizzly group shot, featuring a "sentinel" keeping track of who's where - by scent. If you thought grizzlies weren't social and/or pack animals make sure you read the commentary over (by clicking on the "In the Field" tab below the image).

6. Rounding the Bend. An animalscape featuring a side-lit griz along a river in the Great Bear Rainforest. Afraid of the shadows produced by side-lighting? If so, click on the "In the Field" tab below the image for a discussion on handling sidelighting.

7. Bad Day to be a Black Bear! A tightly cropped shot of an adult grizzly gnawing on a leg bone of a black bear. What happens when humans deplete the salmon stock and leave almost no food for wildlife that rely it? Well, if you're a grizzly, one thing that happens is that you don't hesitate to attack, kill, and eat black bears! For more info click on the "In the Field" tab below the image...

More images to be added to the galleries soon...stay tuned!

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

16 February 2009: Nikon D3x Out-performs Several Medium Format Cameras?

I write this entry under extreme conflict. While as a dedicated Nikon shooter I like what the first "objective" comparisons between the image sensors of the D3x and several medium format digital cameras says about the quality of the D3x, I fear that it gives Nikon the ammunition they need to keep the price in the stratosphere. Sigh...

But I'm getting ahead of myself - first...the image sensor comparisons to which I'm referring. The relatively new website dxomark.com is a free resource provided by DxO Labs that is dedicated to RAW-based camera image quality. In short, they test the quality of the sensors of digital cameras BEFORE any processing is done on the image data. They combine 3 of the parameters they quantitatively measure (colour depth, dynamic range, and Low-Light ISO performance) into a single metric and publish the rankings of dSLR's (and now medium format cameras) based on this metric. Up until February 3, 2009 they had tested and ranked only dSLR's and a few of the better point & shoots. And, the Nikon D3x lead the pack by a wide margin (the number two and three spots were the Nikon D3 and D700 respectively). In January dxomark.com announced that they'd soon be testing and ranking a number of medium format cameras as well. While the parameters measured by dxomark.com are resolution-independent, most folks likely assumed that the medium format sensors would be vastly superior in dynamic range and colour depth compared to the dSLR's (tho' no one expected them to have very good "Low-Light ISO" performance).

Uhhh...think again. In short, the D3x soundly thumped the 4 medium format cameras that were tested (the 33 MP Leaf Aptus75S; the 39 MP Phase One P45 Plus; the 39 MP Hasselblad H3DII 39; and the 21 MP Mamiya ZD Back). Dxomark.com took pains to note that the relatively low rankings of the medium format cameras (position 7 for the Leaf, position 8 for the Phase One, position 9 for the Hasselblad, and position 24 for the Mamiya) were primarily because of their poor high ISO performance. But if you look closely at the numbers you'll notice something VERY interesting: NONE of the medium format cameras beat the D3x in ANY measured parameter! In terms of dynamic range, the D3x (at 13.7 stops) blows the medium format cameras away (they're all in the 12 range, with the Phase One being the best at 12.9 stops). Colour depth? The Leaf matches the D3x - both came in at 24.7 bits, but both the Phase One and the Hasselblad come in at 24.2 bits. By now everyone knows that the D3x isn't cheap...but these medium format cameras are two to three times more expensive. Hmmm...

So...what does this mean in the real world? It's important to acknowledge that 3 of the 4 medium format cameras tested are of higher resolution than the D3x. If you're a studio or landscape photographer than absolutely needs over 30 MP of resolution then the D3x may not work for you (but upsample a D3x image by only 10% and your D3x is outputting images of 29.5 MP!). And, I think it's unlikely that any dSLR will match the maximum resolution possible for a medium format sensor (currently in the 60 MP range). But if 20 to 30 MP is good enough for you, it would be a MAJOR mistake to overlook the D3x.

What does this mean to nature photographers? It's easy to argue that two other cameras from Nikon (the D3 and D700) are better suited for wildlife photography (largely based on their low-light performance and superior frame rates while capturing 14-bit images). But the D3x is looking sweeter and sweeter as a landscape camera all the time. It's unmatched dynamic range is a huge plus for landscape shooters. It's top-notch colour depth is another big bonus. Add the portability of ANY dSLR compared to a medium format camera and you have an increasingly enticing option for almost any landscape shooter (particularly those who ALREADY have some of Nikon's best lenses, like the 14-24 mm f2.8 FX and the 24-70 mm f2.8 FX). There ARE some landscape shooters who will need more resolution than the D3x offers, but there are plenty who will be able to more than "get by" with 24.5 MP. Expect to start seeing D3x's showing up at your favourite panorama soon...

So...the D3x is looking better and better all the time (at least to me). But...I still can't get make myself even consider forking out the big bucks they want for this camera. Nikon - you have LOTS of folks drooling now...it's getting close to the time to march the D700x out...

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

9 February 2009: Hauling Massive Super-telephotos Into The Backcountry - Part II

In Part I of this entry (immediately below) I described my desire to take my Nikon 600 mm VR lens, along with a few other bits of gear, on long self-propelled day-trips into the backcountry. To effectively use my 600 in the backcountry I have to be able to get the lens and camera there, plus a support system for the lens (while you CAN hand-hold the VR version of the 600 in some situations, you don't want to do it often or for very long!). I have found that Lowepro's Lens Trekker 600 AW II is a very good solution to the problem of carrying the 600 mm VR and a pro body into the backcountry. Unfortunately, the weight of my preferred tripod (Gitzo 1348 at 2.24 kg or 4.94 lb) and gimbal head (Wimberley Version I at 1.90 kg or 4.19 lb) for using a super-telephoto lens overloads both the Lens Trekker 600 AW II and, more importantly, my back (when combined with the 600 mm lens and camera). So...this part of the entry deals with a lighter weight solution to supporting the camera and lens...

Before I describe the lighter weight "minimalist" support solution I've found for backcountry treks a few caveats are in order. First, I've seen some TINY tripods that will be far lighter and smaller than I'm about to describe. But, if the tripod doesn't support my 600 mm lens and camera body well enough for me to produce sharp images at relatively slow shutter speeds, it's useless for me. Second, I'm lucky enough to have the VR version of Nikon's 600 mm f4 lens, which means I can get by with a little more tripod and tripod-head movement than someone using the non-VR version of the 600 mm (or even 500 mm) version of the lens. I have NOT tested this system over a range of conditions with the VR off, but I'm pretty sure it would be unsuitable for users of the non-VR version of both the 500 mm and 600 mm f4 lenses.

So here's what I'm using - a Gitzo G 1228 MkII Mountaineer 4 section carbon fiber tripod with an Acratech Long Lens Head. This system is light enough (total weight of 1.86 kg or 4.1 lb) that it doesn't throw the balance of the pack out of whack AND I can manage to comfortably carry the combined weight of D3 body, 600 mm f4 VR lens, tripod and head, plus a few extra bits over reasonably long distances (see "Field Test" section below). A few words about the tripod and head:

Gitzo G 1228 MkII Mountaineer Tripod. This is a reasonably "old" tripod - one of the first carbon-fiber leg models that was on the market. It is a 4-section model that weighs in at only 1.46 kg (3.2 lb) with the short (84 mm or 3.3 inch) centre posted in place. The individual leg sections of the tripod are short enough that the entire tripod is only 47 cm (18.5") when folded down. For my uses that means it easily fits on the side of the Lens Trekker 600. The load limit of the Gitzo 1228 is 8 kg (17.6 lb) - my D3 and 600 mm VR lens come in at a combined weight of 7.2 kg (15.9 lb), so it should support the system...

Acratech Long Lens Head. I've owned and really liked the Acratech "Ultimate" ballhead for a few years - it's become my favourite ballhead. But, ballheads don't work too well with super-telephoto lenses. The biggest problem is that if you tilt the lens at all, it's exceptionally easy for the whole system to "flop" in the direction of the tilt. It's so easy to do that using a ballhead with a 500 or 600 mm lens can be downright deadly (for your lens, camera, or both). And, if you tighten the head down so much that flop is impossible, well...there goes the convenience of making quick, minor adjustments to where you're pointing the lens. These are two reasons why the Wimberley head has become so popular - even left loose the head doesn't tilt or "flop" and it's a snap to smoothly make minor adjustments to where the lens is pointed. Enter the lightweight (402 gram or .89 lb) Acratech Long Lens Head. It's not a true ballhead - the head moves in two directions only: it rotates on its central axis and it tilts on a two rails. Rotating your camera and lens (from landscape to portrait mode) requires use of a rotating lens collar on your lens (just like a Wimberley does). The Long Lens Head avoids the "flopping" problem that ballheads have when used with super-telephoto lenses. The key to using the Long Lens Head is finding the right adjustment of the "drag" or tension adjustment on the pivoting rails - once correctly adjusted you can move the head up and down relatively smoothly but have no fear of "flopping" your camera and lens.

I've now tested the Acratech Long Lens Head on 3 separate tripods and can confidently say this: it's a good lightweight solution for supporting super-telephoto lenses and it allows a reasonably high degree of freedom of movement while solidly supporting the camera and lens. In all fairness it is NOT as solid or silky as a Wimberley. And, my copy has some flex in it (particularly between the lens/camera clamp and its support on the pivoting rails). But it's both cheaper and dramatically lighter than a Wimberley.

Field Testing the Entire "Long, Light Foray" Super-telephoto Hauling System: Over this past weekend I had the opportunity to put the entire system to the test. I decided to hike about 5 km in (and out) to an area on a series of cliffs where bighorn sheep congregate above Columbia Lake, BC (only a couple of km from my home). The trek in was over rough terrain, including crossing a few rock ledges covered in ice. While I didn't need crampons, the terrain was steep and rugged and use of a trekking pole was pretty much a necessity. There were several occasions where I needed to grab onto rocks and/or trees with both hands to pull myself up or to support myself while on the side of a ledge. I'm confident I could NOT have got into the area if I attempted to use the "carry-camera-and-600mm-lens-and-tripod-over-the-shoulder" technique (and still have my gear in working order!). The combined weight of my camera, 600 mm lens, tripod, and other assorted essentials was about 13 kg (29 lb) and the Lens Trekker (and I!) managed it without problem. I arrived on location fresh and with all my gear intact (despite taking one 50 ft "slide" down a cliff face!). I managed to find my intended prey (the bighorn sheep) and managed to get several shots of the sheep that I was happy with. I shot with various extensions of the tripod (one section extended only, two sections extended, all 3 sections extended) and at various shutter speeds down to about 1/45s. I was able to capture critically sharp images regardless of the height I adjusted the tripod to (see this Bighorn Ewe in my Gallery of Latest Additions).

In short, I now have a solution for hauling my camera and 600 mm lens into the backcountry and that allows me to capture images of a quality level that works for me. Hurray! I can hardly wait until spring...

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

5 February 2009: Hauling Massive Super-telephotos Into The Backcountry - Part I

Anyone who owns a big super-telephoto lens (i.e., those 500 and 600 mm f4 beasts) knows three things: they're expensive; they can produce GREAT images; and they can be an absolute pain-in-the-ass to haul around. I own a Nikon 600 mm f4 VR lens and absolutely love it. But, between the quality of images it produces and the price I paid for it, I don't want my use of it limited to a few hundred meters from its "home" (be it my house, a car, sailboat, etc.). I have seen and read various descriptions of how you can attach one of these huge beasts to a firm tripod head (like a Wimberley-style gimbal head) and throw tripod, camera and lens over your shoulder and march along. Some authors even discuss how you can drape the tripod and lens over your shoulders (behind your neck) to "comfortably" balance the load. Well, I've tried all these methods and each of them can work - but only for short distances (maybe a km or two) over relatively benign terrain. If, like me, you want to travel longer distances on foot (say 10 to 15 km) over rough terrain where you may need your hands (to grab onto rocks and/or trees or use a trekking pole) the "tripod over the shoulder(s)" method doesn't cut it. Some form of backpack is needed - preferably an all-weather style backpack with a quality, highly adjustable-torso harness system (shoulder and hip support).

I should probably refine my needs for my "super-telephoto carrying system" a little more. I'm looking for a system where I can comfortably carry a 600 mm f4 lens (with hood ON) attached to a pro SLR body, a tripod, and maybe one or two other much smaller lenses (e.g., wide angle zooms). I want a little room for other stuff (windbreaker, etc.), but want to keep the system as comfortable, low-weight, and compact as possible. I also want reasonably quick access to my camera and long lens. The type of self-propelled forays where I'm likely to take my 600 along are "targeted", normally because I'm after a specific subject and have a good idea where to find it - I'm not about to carry my 600 long distances up and down a mountain "just in case". These are focused, targeted excursions so I don't need to bring macro lenses, lighting systems, and other "general purpose" equipment along with me.

Enter the good folks at Lowepro (I say "good folks" because I know how much Lowepro as a company, and the founders personally, contribute to conservation efforts - these guys are good corporate citizens!). Lowepro offers two potential solutions to my problem: the Super Trekker AW II and the Lens Trekker 600 AW II. The Super Trekker is an absolutely massive pack and I owned one before I took delivery of my 600 mm lens. I sometimes use this pack while traveling in my own car - it can hold a TREMENDOUS amount of camera gear. But, for as-light-as-possible walking forays with my 600 VR it doesn't cut it. First, if you fill it up with gear the pack is amazingly heavy - I'm not a small guy (I'm 6'1", 200 lb, and a still-reasonably-fit ex-bicycle racer) but there's NO WAY I could carry this thing up and down mountains all day if it were full of gear. But even if you just take the bare minimum gear with you (and leave the bulk of the pack empty), the pack is still very massive/bulky and can inhibit your mobility in tough terrain.

What about the Lens Trekker 600? I took delivery of one of these late in 2008. This backpack is basically a big lens case with a high quality adjustable-torso harness system. The pack allows for the simultaneous attachment of several of Lowepro's "SlipLock" accessories (like lens cases or water bottle holders, etc.) on the exterior. The pack comes with a tripod carrying system already attached. And, most importantly, the pack gives me almost exactly what I want in a "take my 600 into the backcountry" system: it's relatively compact, light (until I put the camera and lens in), and very comfortable. Because it's a top-loader I can also get my camera and lens out in seconds (as opposed to minutes). For my needs, it's CLOSE to perfection...

But there is a drawback to the pack. When using my 600 VR I like to use a large, firm tripod (a Gitzo 1348 carbon fibre model) with a not-too-svelte Wimberley head. You CAN carry this tripod on the Lowepro Lens Trekker 600. But not effectively - the tripod attachment system on the pack is attached to relatively loose fabric and even when you cinch the tripod down as tightly as possible, it sways a lot while walking. And, unless you put a LOT of "SlipLock" accessories (and weigh them down) on the OTHER side of the pack to counter-balance the weight of the tripod, your pack ends up pulling and leaning strongly to one side. Note that this counter-balancing solution defeats a major requirement I listed for the system: keep it light.

Is there a solution to the tripod carrying problem? Yep...stay-tuned for "Hauling Massive Super-telephotos Into The Backcountry - PART II" which will appear in a week or less...

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

26 January 2009: Spirit Bears Photo Tour 2009 - 2 Spots Left!

As of today there are only 2 spots remaining available for the Spirit Bears and the Great Bear Rainforest Instructional Photo Tour. Here are the critical details about this fanatastic photo adventure:

OVERVIEW: Don't miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime trip! The Spirit Bears and the Great Bear Rainforest Instructional Photo Tour 2009 combines a full day of professional photography instruction with 8 days of touring the Great Bear Rainforest in search of Spirit Bears, Grizzlies, several species of whales - all while travelling through some of the most photogenic scenery on Planet Earth! You will be given the tools and the opportunity to capture breath-taking, professional quality images of rare, endangered bears and absolutely stunning scenery.

DATES: September 25 to October 4, 2009.
NUMBER OF PARTICIPANTS: Limited to 6.
COST: $4950 CDN including all taxes. Currency converter available here.
REGISTRATION: Contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca to reserve your spot!

WANT MORE INFORMATION? Download this brochure (PDF: 864 KB) for trip itinerary, accommodation details, and more!

If you're even potentially interested in this trip you should contact me soon - there are only TWO spots left!

26 January 2009: HOORAY - Nikon D3x Price Erosion Begins...

To date almost everyone seems to think the D3x is a great camera - by all reports it's an absolutely stellar performer and the new "King" of the hi-res (20+ MP) dSLR's. But, I've not run into anyone who thinks the camera is fairly priced. In Canada it was introduced at $9449 (CDN) - both MSRP and street price. And the dealers I talked to were selling - or were trying to sell - it at that price. I haven't been alone in arguing that at $9449 it's WAY over-priced - the web is full of commentaries calling it a great camera, but dramatically over-priced. It certainly doesn't make sense for ME to buy one at $9449. And, apparently others feel the same way - by last week a number of western Canadian Pro Nikon dealers have dropped the price by $250 and are now advertising the camera at $9199.00. It would seem that the D3x is NOT flying off the shelves in western Canada (an area quite well buffered from the economic malaise hitting almost everywhere else in the world). I haven't bothered checking, but odds are this is happening right across Canada (both the slow sales and dealer discounts on the D3x).

It's important to note that this price decrease is very likely occurring at the DEALER level and does not reflect a price decrease by Nikon (to the dealers). But it does suggest that the product is NOT selling well and that potential buyers (like ME) are hesitating to open their wallets to get a D3x. But if this poor sales trend continues Nikon will eventually have to respond with a price decrease to the D3x.

How low will the price go (and how fast?). Probably not too low - my guess is that it will fall to about $8499 CDN by late spring, maybe as low as $7999 (though I really doubt it will go this low). Instead of lowering the price of the D3x too far, I think Nikon will accelerate the development of a lower-priced model using the same 24.5 MP sensor (a D700 type of camera - likely named the D700x). They'll have to if they want to recover the R&D costs associated with the development of the new sensor.

I have set my own limit as to what I'll pay for a new D3x at a maximum of $6999 (CDN), which probably means I won't ever own one - unless I want to wait until they're obsolete! I suppose if everyone continues to sit on their wallets and chooses to WAIT before buying a D3x (subtle hint) and if, for some reason, Nikon can't come out with a D700x sooner rather than later, then just maybe the price of the D3x will re-enter the stratosphere. I hope so - I do really do want a professional hi-res Nikon dSLR!

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

20 January 2009: My D3x Recommendation?

Over the last couple of weeks I've received a lot of email asking me about Nikon's new high-resolution flagship - the 24.5 MP D3x. The questions all more-or-less boil down to this: What do I think of the D3x? Do I recommend the camera for them? Am I going to get a D3x? I'll address each of these questions in turn...

1. What do I think of the Nikon D3x? To be clear, I haven't used one or even touched one yet. Based off the specifications I have certain preconceived expectations. I expect it to be a top notch camera with superior image quality. I expect its performance to be good at moderately high ISO settings, but not as good as that of the D3 or D700. And, I expect the camera to be signficantly slower (in frame rate) than either the D3 or D700. The first detailed review of the camera by Thom Hogan (read it here) more or less says this - the D3x exhibits top-ranked performance and build quality, but it is slower and doesn't perform as well in low light as a D3/D700. More light is shed on the D3X's capabilities by the testing and rating of the D3x's image sensor by dxomark.com - they rank the sensor of the D3x as the best currently available in a dSLR (and by a wide margin). In short, their tests show the sensor to have: 1. the highest dynamic range of any camera ever tested; 2. the best colour-depth ever recorded; and 3. the third best high-ISO performance of any camera (behind only the Nikon D3 and the Nikon D700). View all the image sensor/camera rankings by dxomark.com here.

Put this superb sensor in a feature-filled professional body of a D3 and you have an absolute state-of-the-art dSLR. So...it appears that the Nikon D3x has supplanted the Canon 1Ds MkIII as the king of the high-resolution dSLR's.

2. Do I recommend the D3x? I can't answer this until I use the camera. Plus, regardless of how it works (or doesn't work) for me, other photographers will often have very different needs than I do. Anyone considering this camera (most likely Nikon-invested studio and landscape shooters) has to look closely at the price and decide if the increased pixel count beyond the D3/D700 - and the somewhat decreased high ISO performance - justifies the huge price differential.

3. Am I going to get a D3x? Not right now. I definitely want a high-resolution solution and it will likely be a Nikon. But at current pricing ($9,199 or so in Canada) it would currently be bad business decision for me to buy one now. In my opinion, despite the apparent superiority of its image sensor, the camera is vastly over-priced - by more than $2,000 CDN. If the price drops to $6,999 CDN I might be tempted to buy. But I'm convinced this WON'T happen. I think it's FAR more likely that Nikon will come out with a smaller, lower-priced version of the D3x (basically a D700 with the same 24.5 MP sensor as the D3x). So...expect Nikon to keep the price of the D3x high and keep the camera as more of a brand-positioning statement than a sellable product. But in doing this, Nikon will create a large pool of drooling photographers just dying to spend $4,000 (CDN) or so on the coming D700x. And...presto...Nikon will drive the average selling price of their dSLR's (and their margins) way up. Can't blame 'em!

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

12 January 2009: Update: Nikon AF-S 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 IF ED VR G Zoom to the Rescue?

I've had sufficient time to shoot with and evaluate images from the Nikon 70-300 mm f4.5-5.6 VR to determine whether or not this lens can "fill-in" for the focal range gap created when I sold my 70-200 mm f2.8 VR. The answer - in three forms...

The short answer: For use as a general walkaround lens? Yes. For most serious shooting? No.

The longer answer: If you are upgrading to this lens from a Nikon kit lens (and have not had much or any experience with Nikon's best lenses), you will probably love this lens. It is small, light, easy-to-use, and will produce acceptably sharp images over a variety of situations and with many subject types. Combine this with it's low price and you'll likely feel this lens offers great value! But...if you are accustomed to using some of Nikon's best lenses you will probably immediately notice this lens's optical limitations and the compromises you have to make to squeeze acceptable image quality out of it. But it's still cheap! And, I will continue to use this lens as a very acceptable "walking around" lens - it's just SO convenient!

The longest answer: For details on the performance of this lens, including details of image quality, autofocus performance, VR performance, and build quality, follow this link to my discussion about this lens on the first Camera Gear page...

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

9 January 2009: Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour - Spring 2010

I've received so many enquiries about the "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" Instructional Photo Tour for spring of 2010 that I've decided to post the information and details (which were JUST finalized yesterday) here...

In spring of 2010 I am offering a new, extended Instructional Photo Tour of the Khutzeymateen Valley.

OVERVIEW: This is quite possibly the absolute best grizzly viewing and photography trip available anywhere! The Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour 2010 combines a full day of professional photography instruction with 5 days of fabulous grizzly bear viewing and photography in the Khutzeymateen Inlet - Canada's ONLY grizzly sanctuary. Following our day of photography instruction in Prince Rupert, BC, we will travel to the Khutzeymateen via floatplane. We'll then stay aboard the beautiful Ocean Light II - a comfortable 71' ocean ketch (sailboat). We will be assisted by two professional bear guides during our 5 days of working intensely with the spectacular Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen (in the most magical setting imaginable)! This trip is simply an extraordinary experience and provides unsurpassed photographic opportunities!

DATES: May 27 to June 3, 2010.
NUMBER OF PARTICIPANTS: Limited to 6.
COST: $4299 CDN including all taxes (all inclusive from Prince Rupert, BC). Currency converter available here.

MORE INFORMATION AND/OR REGISTRATION? Contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca for additional information or to reserve your spot! A brochure for this trip will be available soon.

8 January 2009: Updates coming soon...

Between my somewhat futile attempt to be a "normal" human being over the holiday season, taking some time out to do some shooting, and endless bouts of snow removal, I've been a little slow updating this blog. Sorry! Here's what's coming in the next few days - field reports on the following products: Nikon's AF-S 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 IF ED VR G Zoom; the new Lowepro Lens Trekker 600 AW II, and Acratech's new, tiny and lightweight "Long Lens Head" - is the bulky gimbal style tripod head dead? Stay tuned! And, coming tomorrow - details on the Khutzeymateen 2010 "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" Instructional Photo Tour!

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.



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

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