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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

22 December 2013: 2014 Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Photo Tours Now Sold Out...

A few days back I posted an update on the availability of my photo tours for 2014 (18 December entry immediately below). Since then the last spot on my spring Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen photo tour has been sold...which means that all of my Khutzeymateen trips for 2014 are now fully sold out. I'll post details about my 2015 Khutzeymateen tours in the near future.

Anyone considering joining me on my autumn "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" photo tours should note that I'm down to ONE spot left on those trips (see below or on my Photo Tours page for more information about these trips) - so we're definitely into "ya snooze, ya looze" terrain on those trips!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

18 December 2013: Photo Tours Selling Out...

Just yesterday my Owls of Manitoba Photo Tour sold out for 2014, and a number of my other photo tours are either sold out or close to being sold out. So here's a very brief listing of all my 2014 tours, including both the number of remaining spots and a link providing additional information (for each tour that has room left on it). Expanded listings and detailed information about each tour can be found on my Photo Tours page.

1. "Owls of Manitoba" Photo Tour (early March 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: All 3 versions of the "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tours described above are narrowly focused on photographing grizzly bears. They are intimate, intense and incredible experiences in an absolutely pristine environment. Those looking for a coastal photo tour featuring a wider array of Great Bear Rainforest wildlife and scenes should consider the "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" trips listed below.

5. "The Wildlife of Canada's High Arctic" Photo Tour (June/July 2014)

• Number of Remaining Spots: Lots!
• For More Info: Details here on my Photo Tours page.

6. "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions & More" Photo Tour (May/June 2014)

• Number of Remaining Spots: 3.
• For More Info: Download this PDF Brochure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

6 December 2013: Other Mammals Gallery Updated...

I've just added a dozen images to my Other Mammals Gallery. This gallery is quickly becoming dominated by shots of aquatic mammals captured on my annual summer Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More photo tour and I think I'm beginning to do a disservice to the gallery by calling it "Other Mammals" (as though it's an afterthought). While it's no secret that I like photographing carnivores (and bears in particular), I have to say that I now find photographing aquatic mammals - from whales to sea lions to sea otters - equally compelling.

While the new images are sprinkled throughout the Other Mammals Gallery, the bulk of the new ones begin right here...

My own favs? Thqt's always a tough question to answer, but here's a few I kinda like...

Blackfish

All Wrapped Up

A Cuddle Amongst Chaos

One of the newly added shots (Catching the Wave - Surfin' Sea Lion) depicts such an unusual event that it ended up being shown in newspapers around the world, but I have to say that it isn't among my personal favourites.

As I mentioned above, the vast majority of the images now in the Other Mammals Gallery were captured during one of my Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More photo tours - at this time I still have 3 spots open on my August 2014 edition of this trip. Details about this trip and my other photo tours are available on the Photo Tours page of this website.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

3 December 2013: Bear Gallery Updated...

I've updated my popular Bear Gallery by inserting six of my favourite images from my 2012 Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen photo tours. Each of these images cycled through my Gallery of Latest Additions, but that was quite some time ago - so it's very likely many of the newer regular visitors to this website haven't seen them. These images were shot during one of my early "real-world, low-light" shoots with the Nikon D4, and several of the images were captured at some pretty high ISO's (up to ISO 10,000). I chose these 6 images purely on my own judgement of their quality and appeal and - very interestingly - when I checked the metadata, each of the 6 were captured using the same configuration of equipment - a D4 and a 400mm f2.8 VR lens (and I had lots of lenses with me on the trips these were shot on).

In several cases I've posted links to high resolution (2400 pixel on long axis) versions of the images - you'll find those links in the commentary that's exposed when you click on the "In the Field" tab below each image.

And here's the new images in the Bear Gallery...

An Eye Out (ISO 800)

Cautious Curiosity (ISO 3600)

Touching the Void (ISO 1250)

Olympic Trials - Khutzeymateen Style! (ISO 6400)

The Thinker - Ursid Version (ISO 10,000)

Bold. Bashful. Beautiful. (ISO 720)

BTW: My 2014 Khutzeymateen trips are almost sold out (only one spot remains), so if anyone seeing these images says "man...I gotta go to that place"...well...you better contact me pronto! I'll be providing details about my 2015 Khutzeymateen photo tours in the coming weeks (and I'll be accepting registrations beginning on January 2, 2014). Details about ALL my photo tours are available on the Photo Tours page of this website.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

30 November 2013: Introducing...The Animalscapes and Enviroscapes Gallery!

Back on November 18 I added an entry to this blog called "Wildlife Photography: It's ALL About Filling the Frame - Right?" where, despite the title, I argued that wildlife photography is about SO much more than just getting close to animals and producing tight "full-frame" shots of wild animals. If the amount of email a blog post generates is a measure of its popularity, that was one very popular post! All of those who emailed feedback to me expressed agreement with my musings, and several of them told me they found the post encouraging to them personally (in most cases it was because of the fact that "animalscapes" can be successfully shot with affordable equipment, such as a mid-level DSLR and a 70-200mm zoom).

In that same blog post I went on to make the following comment: "PS: Don't be surprised if you see a new "Animalscapes" gallery on this website in the coming months...". Well...guess what I ended up doing for the last several days (while many others were enjoying turkey and family)? Yep, sitting in my office processing images, writing copy, and building a whole NEW gallery for this website!

So...with no further ado (but more ado immediately below the link)....

The Gallery of Animalscapes and Enviroscapes

I'm opening the gallery with 24 images and, like all the galleries on this website, it will grow and mature over time. Several of the images in the gallery can be found "buried" in other galleries, but there are several "never-been-seen-in-public-before" images in the gallery. And, many of the shots in the gallery WERE captured with very "non-exotic" gear - the lead image in the gallery (called "The Ethereal Great Bear Rainforest") was captured with a Nikon D7000 and a 70-200mm lens (hand-held, without an expensive tripod!). Oh, and BTW - several of the 24 new layouts include links to LARGE versions of the images (2400 pixels on the long axis) - you'll find those links in the commentary accessed by clicking on the "In the Field" tab immediately below the main image.

One minor word of caution (and/or a caveat): While it's easy to get encouraged and motivated to go out and shoot animalscapes (and I truly hope this is the net effect of anyone viewing the gallery), there's a reason one tends to see WAY more "up close and personal" shots of wildlife than animalscapes: they're darned tough to pull off - both in the field (including just "finding them") as well as behind the computer. But enough of that - check out the gallery and then get out in the field in search of your OWN animalscapes!

Cheers...and Enjoy!

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

25 November 2013: Summer 2014 Aquatic Mammals Photo Tour - Update...

I've received a few emails recently saying "Uhhh...you said on your Photo Tours page that the brochure for the 2014 Aquatic Mammals photo tour would be available in November 2013 - where is it?" Well...it's November 25th, and the brochure is done (AND on the Photo Tours page). Finally...a deadline for posting something on this website that I've MET! ;-)

Anyway...here are the critical details for that trip...including a link to the PDF brochure!

Summer "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More" Photo Tour:

• PHOTO TOUR TYPE: Both Instructional and Photo Op (non-instructional) versions available
• DATES: August 7 to 16, 2014 (Instructional version); August 8 to 16, 2014 (Photo Op version).
• COST: $4199 Canadian plus 5% GST for Instructional version; $3699 plus 5% GST for Photo Op version.
• NUMBER OF REMAINING SPOTS: 3
• MORE INFO: Download this PDF Brochure

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

This trip always delivers great photographic opportunities for Humpback Whales, Killer Whales (Orcas), Steller Sea Lions, and Harbor Seals. In most years we've also had extremely good success with Pacific White-sided Dolphins, Sea Otters, Gray Whales, Minke Whales, and more. And, beyond the amazing abundance and diversity of subjects, the really distinguishing thing about this trip is that it invariably offers up just amazing backdrops for those great subjects! I can think of no place better suited for capturing breath-taking animalscape shots (and those who enjoy landscape shooting will NOT be disappointed on this trip!).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

21 November 2013: The Great Bear Gauntlet: NPN's Pick of the Week!

My image of a very rotund Spirit Bear fishing in a cascade in the Great Bear Rainforest that's entitled "The Great Bear Gauntlet" has been selected as the Pick of the Week by the Nature's Photographer's Network (NPN).

You can view the image on NPN, as well as what other photographers are saying about the image, right here:

The Great Bear Gauntlet on NPN

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

19 November 2013: Great Bear Rainforest Photo Tours - Update...

Many visitors to this website know that I offer photo tours to two very different parts of a section of the BC coast that has become known as the Great Bear Rainforest (and those who didn't know this before now do!). In late May and early June we visit the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary in the northern end of the Great Bear Rainforest. These photo tours are focused, intimate grizzly bear experiences. And, each year in late September and early October we travel into the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest for photo tours that feature a more diverse array of wildlife, normally including grizzlies, black bears, Spirit Bears, humpback whales, and more.

Here's an update on the status of my 2014 offerings into the Great Bear, complete with some brand new "hot-off-the-press" brochures:

1. Spring "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" Photo Tours:

A. Instructional Photo Tour

• DATES: May 23 to May 30, 2014
• COST: $4999 CAD plus applicable taxes
• NUMBER OF REMAINING SPOTS: 1
• MORE INFO: Download this PDF Brochure

B. 5-Day Photo Adventure Photo Op Tour

• DATES: May 24 to May 30, 2014
• COST: $4499 CAD plus applicable taxes
• NUMBER OF REMAINING SPOTS: 1
• MORE INFO: Download this PDF Brochure

C. 4-Day Photo Adventure Photo Op Tour

• DATES: May 29 to June 3, 2014
• COST: $3599 CAD plus applicable taxes
• NUMBER OF REMAINING SPOTS: 1
• MORE INFO: Download this PDF Brochure

Note: All 3 versions of the "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tours described above are narrowly focused on photographing grizzly bears. They are intimate, intense and incredible experiences in an absolutely pristine environment. Those looking for a coastal photo tour featuring a wider array of Great Bear Rainforest wildlife and scenes should consider the "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" trips immediately below.

2. Autumn "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" Photo Tours:

A. Instructional Photo Tour

• DATES: September 29 to October 8, 2014
• COST: $5499 CAD plus applicable taxes
• NUMBER OF REMAINING SPOTS: 0 (currently sold out)
• MORE INFO: Download this PDF Brochure

Even though this trip is currently sold out, with trips this far in the future cancellations can occur. Please contact me (seminars@naturalart.ca) if you would like to be placed on the waiting list for this trip.

B. Photo Op Photo Tour

• DATES: October 8 to 15, 2014
• COST: $4999 CAD plus applicable taxes
• NUMBER OF REMAINING SPOTS: 1
• MORE INFO: Download this PDF Brochure

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

18 November 2013: Wildlife Photography: It's ALL About Filling the Frame - Right?

I commonly hear wildlife photographers say things like "...wildlife photography is all about lens reach - the longer focal length, the better" and "...I'd love to have a full-frame shot of _____" (a bear, a wolf, a unicorn, etc.). Similarly, between observing photos that are posted in the wildlife gallery on The Nature Photographer's Network (NPN) and those emailed to me from various sources, I see a lot of these "full-frame" shots. In reality, "full-frame wildlife shot" usually means that the subject takes up about 30% or so of the frame. While these types of wildlife shots - which are often captured with long, very expensive super-telephoto lenses - certainly have their place, I would argue that wildlife photography is about SO much more than just "mega" lens reach and tightly cropped "full-frame" shots of animals. And, I have to say I'm getting more than a little bored of wildlife shots where the sole strength of the image is simply that the photographer "got close" to his or her subject.

In seminars and workshops I've given on the topic of wildlife photography I always stress the need for the photographer to consciously consider (i.e., make an "active decision") about how large their subject should be in the frame for maximum effectiveness. This means they have to resist the almost inherent urge to always think "closer is better". Sometimes closer IS better, but often it's not. I have trained myself to think in terms of 3 relative dominances of the subject in the frame - animalscapes (subject very small in total frame - often often 5% or less of the frame), enviroscapes (subject shown within the environment it lives, with subject still quite small in frame - around 10-20% of frame), and what I call active portraits (where the subject is larger in the frame - 30% or more - AND doing something of genuine interest to the viewer). Those interested in reading more about this trichotomy of subject dominance types can read about it here on my "Techniques" page.

Some pros and cons of these "subject small in frame" wildlife shots? Well, on the con side (unless one really likes big challenges), animalscapes and enviroscapes are often extremely difficult to do well - think of how hard it is to pull off a great landscape shot, and then add in the unpredictability inherent in having an animal in the scene (which, more often than not, doesn't care at all about cooperating by being in the correct place, standing in the right direction, etc.). And, animalscape shots don't tend to have too much impact when presented at typical image size (around 750 pixels wide) on the web.

On the pro side? Well, those who don't want to lay out a high 4-figure (or even 5-figure) dollar amount for a super-telephoto lens CAN participate (and participate effectively) in wildlife photography, assuming they choose to look for - and shoot - animalscapes. The lens that I turn to most often for animalscape shots is a 70-200mm zoom lens - historically I used Nikon's 70-200mm f2.8 VR lens (over $2000 new) but recently I've been choosing to use Nikon's newer and excellent 70-200mm f4 VR lens (not much over $1000 new).

Another huge plus to good animalscape shots is they can sell very well! While you might sell a tightly-framed wildlife shot to a magazine or as a stock photo, if you're selling that same shot as a print your market will be limited to "bear-lovers" or "wolf-lovers", etc. (think of how many times you've seen a bear portrait hanging on the wall anywhere but in the home of the photographer who shot it). BUT...you have a much wider potential market for a print showing a compelling animalscape (on average - and as prints - my animalscapes outsell close-up wildlife shots by a factor of about 5:1).

How small can the subject be in the frame and still be identified as the main subject of the image? Real small. Here's a few examples:

1. The Great Bear Gauntlet. In this shot the subject (a white Spirit Bear) occupies under 2.5% of the entire frame.

Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.3 MB)

2. An August Oceanscape. And this time the subject (a humpback whale) occupies less than 0.5% of the image!

Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 0.75 MB)

IMPORTANT NOTE: All the sample images exhibited on or linked to on this blog (and all images on this website) are protected by copyright. I'm fine with personal uses of these images (such as use as desktop images or screensavers), but any commercial use of these images is strictly prohibited by international law.

Oh...and both of these images were shot using Nikon's 70-200mm f4 VR lens.

Anyway...the key point is this: there's a WHOLE lot more to wildlife photography than buying those huge (and hugely expensive) lenses and "getting close" to wildlife. Embrace the "small can be beautiful" philosophy and you'll soon find that your envy of anyone carrying a new 800mm f5.6 VR lens will soon evaporate...

It's ALL about filling the frame - right? WRONG!

Cheers...

Brad

PS: Don't be surprised if you see a new "Animalscapes" gallery on this website in the coming months...

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

13 November 2013: New Magazine for iPad Users: Wildlife Photographic

For a few years now I've been using my iPad as my primary means for obtaining and viewing magazines. A while back - when checking out the Newsstand app on my iPad - I stumbled upon a new electronic-only magazine called "Wildlife Photographic". The magazine is only a few months old (the second issue just came out) and it's already established itself as a quality publication - and one that exhibits top-notch wildlife photos. After having a few discussions with the editor I'm convinced that there's a bright future for this magazine.

At this point Wildlife Photographic is exclusive to Apple's Newsstand. If you're an iPad-owning wildlife photographer I encourage you to check it out. Just go here to find out more information:

Wildlife Photographic

Enjoy!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

8 November 2013: The Nikon Df - Simply Baffling...

On November 5th Nikon announced their much-anticipated "retro" camera - the Nikon Df. To make a long story short, this full-frame (FX) camera combines some pretty state-of-the-art technology (e.g., the sensor of the D4) with a wrapping that's decidedly retro - it looks more-or-less like the decades-old F3 (and a bit like an FM or FE). The AF system comes from the D600/610 and the controls are a mix of mechanical (shutter speed adjuster, ISO adjuster, etc.) and fully modern and electronic (912k LCD on the back, etc.). The camera permits the use of almost any Nikon lens ever made, from AF-S, AF-D and AF NIKKOR lenses through to both AI (Aperture Index) and even non-AI lenses. The price of this "fusion" of old and new technology? In Canada - about $3,000. Major OUCH!

Full specs can be seen on a number of places online, including here on dpreview.com's website.

Since its announcement, I have to admit I've been totally baffled by this new camera. I was going to hold off making any comment about this camera until I either had one in my hands or, at the very least, could perhaps "figure it out" a little better. But I've received about a half dozen emails asking me what I think about it and/or whether or not I'm going to test it out - so I guess I have to say something!

So - for what it's worth - here's my 2 cents worth on the Df: I simply can't figure out what it is for, or who it is for. On the "what is it for?" question: hmmm...I can't think of a single thing this camera can do that other Nikon DSLR's can't do and, in most cases, do better (in other words, it's filling no obvious gap in performance or photographic need). So I have to admit I have no clue what it is for (aside from the obvious - capturing digital images). Can I think of any type of photographer who I'd recommend this camera to? Nope.

So...who is it for? The styling and retro look make you think "consumer collector" - you know, amateur photographers who have sufficient resources to pick up something like this on a "whim" because they think it's cool. But, if that's the market, why put what is arguably Nikon's best sensor in it and price it at 3k? Maybe it's for folks who have a basement full of "antique" Nikon lenses and can only use so many paperweights? Hmmm...how many of those sort of people are actually out there? I don't think too many. Maybe it's a 3rd-world camera designed to be used in places where there's limited access to electricity? Nope, it's only "faux mechanical" - it has a battery that needs charging, etc. So that's not it.

Perhaps I'm thinking about this too analytically and logically...maybe it was just a fun project by Nikon and a way to get rid of a bunch of soon-to-be-obsolete inventory ("hey...lookie here - I just found a box of 4 million D4 sensors that aren't being used - what can we use those for?"). Kidding...

Anyway...this one just baffles me.

Oh right - the other question: Am I going to field test this camera? Well...I actually buy about 90% of what I test. Which means that I mostly test products that I have a need for. I'm a nature photographer with a strong bias towards shooting wildlife. And, you know what? Given what I own already (two D4's, a D800 and D800e, a D600, and a few lenses), I really have a hard time seeing what I need this camera for. Oops...there I go again...being logical and linear in my thinking. I have to remember - don't get logical when it comes to the Df.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

7 November 2013: Into the Great Bear Rainforest - Gear & Gadgets: Part 3

This is Part 3 of a 3-part series where I discuss the gear I used in my most recent photo tours in the Great Bear Rainforest on the central and north BC coast. This part discusses the accessories and "gadgets" I took on the trip, and how they worked out for me. Bear in mind that I have been to the Great Bear Rainforest several times, so it's pretty safe to assume if I take something with me into the Great Bear, it has been "field-tested" up there before (unless, of course, I'm trying out a new product). Part 1 (October 29 entry below) discussed the camera bodies I took, how I used them, how they worked out, and how much I used each of them. Part 2 (October 31 entry below) discussed the lenses I chose to take into the Great Bear and how they performed for me. In both Part 1 and Part 2 I included sample medium-resolution images that helped to illustrate the points I was making. This segment will include no sample photos - the accessories I'll be discussing could be used with any camera or any lens and while they may contribute to the ability to capture (or conveniently capture) a particular photo (e.g., in a torrential downpour you may not get the shot without a rain cover for your camera) they rarely have a major impact on image quality.

I'll limit the gear & gadgets I discuss in this section to those that are directly related to the unique constraints and conditions one has to overcome when shooting in the Great Bear Rainforest - specifically those associated with dealing with rain, carrying gear on daily excursions (both in an inflatable Zodiac boat and while hiking in tough conditions), and staying under the weight limit that most users face when traveling to/from the Great Bear (our total weight limit was 75 lbs for ALL gear). A summary of the unique constraints and restrictions of shooting in the Great Bear can be found in Part 1 (October 29 entry below) of this series.

1. Rain Covers:

Probably the single most important accessory to take into the Great Bear is a quality rain cover. It never fails to amaze me that many photographers will spend tens of thousands of dollars on their camera bodies and lenses and then refuse to spend a couple hundred bucks to adequately protect that investment. And sorry, after years of experience and seeing EVERY form of trick with green garbage bags and home-made, jerry-rigged rain covers imaginable, I have never seen any of these low-cost solutions perform adequately in "real" rain (perhaps they're OK in an occasional light shower, but not west coast rain!).

Over the years I have used two of the high-end brands and can recommend either of them - AquaTech Sport Shields and Think Tank Photo's Hydrophobia covers. Here's a few comments that apply to BOTH of these brands of rain covers. Both brands require proprietary eyepieces that are sold separately (and it seems many retailers forget to mention this when you're in the store!) - so if you're buying one of these, don't forget to get an eyepiece (and be aware that different cameras - such as a D600 and a D4 - may have different eyepieces, so you may need to buy multiple eyepieces). In general, it's easier to operate a PRIME lens under a rain cover than a zoom lens (accessing the zoom ring is always a bit tricky under a rain cover). And, the rain covers tend to fit (and the entire system is easier to operate when using) super-telephotos better than shorter lenses. You will find some camera-lens combinations where there really isn't a cover that fits it perfectly (this is the current situation with the "new" 80-400mm f4-5-5.6 VR on any body). Last but not least, camera straps can completely get in the way and "jam up" the openings where your hands go in. So...I'd advise taking camera straps OFF if one is going to use a rain cover. As an aside - and this may seem like heresy to many - I have seen far more cameras and/or lenses damaged by straps (i.e., catching the strap on something and having the camera ripped out of the photographers hands) than I have seen cameras and/or lenses dropped - you'll see straps on my cameras about 1% of the time (or less!).

Which is my preference - AquaTech Sport Shields or Think Tank Photo's Hydrophobias? Both are excellent, but over the last year I've switched from AquaTech to Think Tank. Why? Lots of little reasons. First, they actually seem slightly more waterproof. Second, I use the "large" version of rain covers the most (e.g., Hydrophobia 300-600 from Think Tank) and I love how the entire cover tucks into a circular doughnut-like (lens-wrapping) pouch when not in use - not only does it make it easy to tuck the rain cover out of the way when not needed, but it also can act like a built-in bean bag that you can rest the lens on. Third, they are a little easier (and quicker) to put on.

For more info on both AquaTech's and Think Tank's rain covers you can go to ONE convenient place to compare features (and even prices) - and you can even buy them there! Here's the key page on Outdoor Photo Gear's website:

DSLR Camera and Lens Rain Covers

2. Tripod Heads:

The only reason I'm discussing tripod heads here is that it is real easy to have two tripod heads (one for general use, one for a super-telephoto) eat up a LOT of one's weight limit fast - take along a Really Right Stuff BH-55 and a Wimberley gimbal head and you'll be left wondering if you really need to take underwear with you!

My preference? I am a big fan of the uber-lightweight Acratech tripod heads. For general day-to-day shooting (so with any lenses but my 400mm f2.8 VR and my 600mm f4 VR) I use AcraTech's GP-s Ballhead with lever clamp - it's light (under a pound), I get none of that irritating "sagging" when I take my hands off it (that sag is particularly annoying when doing macro work), and it's built really, really well. Details on this head are available right here...

What about a lightweight replacement for a good gimbal head (like a Wimberley) - is there any sub 1-pound alternate that is as silky-smooth as a good gimbal? To be honest - no. BUT, I have found a sub 1-pound alternate that works more than adequately and is my first choice for my super-telephotos when I'm weight-constrained (long distance hiking, hitting a 75 lb total weight limit, etc.) - it's Acratech's Long Lens Head. Perfect? Nope? Darned good? Yep. Details available right here...

Taking these two Acratech heads on my Great Bear trips leaves me in a position where I CAN bring along those nice extras, like underwear and my toothbrush.

3. Gear-carrying Devices - Bags and Cases:

Over the years I've found that what works best for me in the Great Bear is using a two-part system - a durable, water-resistant, backpack style bag AND a belt system. I'll deal with each of these in turn:

A. My Photography Backpack:

Open disclosure time - I'm sponsored by F-stop. But I bought and started using F-stop camera backpacks before I was sponsored by them. What do I like about them in general? To begin with, they're "real" backpacks with a great fit - they're not just padded boxes with straps on them. This means I can comfortably carry them for long distances, with a lot of weight in them. In the Great Bear it also means I can maneuver over logs, under logs, on slippery rocks, etc., with greater ease than if using a "box with straps".

Second, I really like how the "camera carrying compartments" (the padded and configurable "boxes" your gear goes in) come in multiple sizes and are interchangeable. F-stop calls these boxes Internal Camera Units, or ICU's. Need to carry just a little camera gear but a lot of non-camera gear? Select a small ICU. Need about a 50:50 mix of camera gear and non-camera gear in your pack? Select a medium ICU. Need to carry a LOT of camera gear or big lenses (up to a 600mm f4 lens)? Select an extra large ICU. Cool idea, and it works.

Water-resistance? Few backpacks are totally waterproof, and the ones that are tend to be extremely difficult to get into fast. If you purchase the optional rain cover for an F-stop bag they are as water-resistant as any (except the few full waterproof bags).

I own several F-stop bags, but I take their largest bag into the Great Bear (the Satori EXP). This bag isn't always allowed as carry-on luggage with some airlines, so if that's a concern, I take along my Tilopa BC, which has always gone on to airplanes WITH me.

Details about the various models of F-stop camera backpacks are available right here...

A final note about F-stop (and my sponsorship may go out the window right now): F-stop is a young company that is totally into making great products. But, they're a little behind on getting on top of some of the less-sexy aspects of running a business - like managing a supply chain (and thus accurately predicting when products will actually be available). So getting the F-stop bag you want, with the ICU's you want, and perhaps the rain cover you want, might not be quite as seamless of an experience as you'd like. Sorry F-stop, but I have to call 'em like I see 'em.

B. Belt System:

Having instant access to a camera, spare lens, and key accessories is critical to me - especially when shooting out of Zodiac in the Great Bear. And for about 3 years I've been using a belt system from Think Tank that I've been incredibly happy with. Probably the single biggest thing I like about it is how fast I can get at my gear. The second thing that I like about it, and which makes Think Tank's belt system my system of choice, is that all the accessories - be they camera holsters or lens pouches or water bottles - are mounted on a slide rail. This means I can re-position with a light push of my hand. So...if I'm shooting out of the Zodiac and need to hug the pontoon with NOTHING in front of me, I can just push it all around my back. Or, if I'm carrying my F-stop backpack, I can push the accessories forward and they don't interfere with my backpack. The final thing that I like about my Think Tank belt system? That many of the accessories from other brands (like some of the lens pouches from LowePro) fit onto the system.

For the curious, here's the bits and pieces from Think Tank that make up my system - just follow the links if you want more information:

Think Tank Steroid Speed Belt V2

Think Tank Pixel Racing Harness V2

Think Tank Digital Holster 50 V2. NOTE: This holster is designed to accommodate a pro body and 70-200mm f2.8 VRII - and it does work with a pro body and AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-56 VR as well. Comes with an easy-to-access rain cover.

• Lens pouches: Lots of options here. NOTE: My preferred lens pouch is one from LowePro (the S&F Lens Exchange Case 200 AW) - it fits lenses up to the size of the Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR.

4. AquaTech Soft Hoods:

I've found that one of the biggest hassles associated with traveling with super-telephoto lenses - to the Great Bear or anywhere else - is the amount of space that their lens hoods take up. A few years ago I stumbled upon a 3rd party product that solves this problem, and a few others too! Now I use AquaTech Soft Hoods on all my super telephoto lenses virtually all the time. These replacement hoods are WAY cheaper than stock hoods, they fold flat for traveling (I put mine on the bottom of my duffel bag), they can't be damaged by banging around, and the weight about the same as the stock hoods - depending on the particular lens hood you're comparing to. Available in various sizes to fit different lenses.

Check the Soft Hoods out right here...

And that's it! Read all 3 segments of this series and you're ready to go the Great Bear Rainforest! Now all you need is a Photo Tour to get you there! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

4 November 2013: Mac OS X Mavericks - Multiple Display Madness!

Most Mac users probably know that Apple recently updated their operating system (OS X) to version 10.9, known as Mavericks. Day-to-day I work on two computers - a MacBook Pro laptop and a Mac Pro (with two displays). As always, when I update to a new OS, I update my machines sequentially - normally I update my laptop first and then - a few days to a week later if all is going well - I update my desktop system. This go round I did the same. Oops...big mistake!

Why? Well, normally I only use 1 display with my laptop - the built-in display. And, when I updated to Mavericks all seemed fine. And there are some new features in Mavericks I quite like - the tabbed finder windows works well for me, I really like that now iBooks is available on all my devices (and that books-in-progress and all annotations are automatically synched between devices) and the battery life of my laptop does seem better (but note that this is an anecdotal observation - a gut feel - and I haven't measured it). BUT when I installed Mavericks on my multi-monitor Mac Pro, one of the main "bullet-pointed" features of Maverick - the "improved" support for multiple displays - instantly started driving me nuts (and has been dramatically reducing my efficiency).

What's the problem? Well...Apple took an already strong feature and completely "randomized" it. Now, when I open Photoshop on my desktop computer with two displays attached, the menu bar might be on my 'left-hand" monitor - or my right-hand monitor - or on both. My customized floating palettes that are supposed to be there (e.g., the layers palette, etc.) might be there and where they're supposed to be...but it's equally likely that they may not be. And half-way through a session those palettes may mysteriously disappear, then reappear (randomly) in the middle of my screen (not anchored to the right-hand side of my right-hand monitor, where they are supposed to be!). Lightroom? Even worse - there are times when it is absolutely impossible for me to access (or see) the full-screen viewer I normally have dedicated to the right-hand monitor. And each time I open Lightroom the splash screen appears somewhere new, and the windows are anywhere but where I left them (and where they should be). I'm finding myself waiting to discover when it will be that I try to open Lightroom on my desktop system and it opens up on my iPad!

Are the problems limited to Adobe apps (and perhaps Adobe had refused to follow some protocol Apple had dictated to them and they're to blame)? Nope. Capture One Pro (my preferred raw converter from Phase One and a product that has supported the use of multiple monitors for years) exhibits another type of chaos - every single time I open the app I have to move and resize the key windows (that used to go exactly where I had left them automatically). Oh...and I'm having the same type of issues with the spanking new version of Keynote (from Apple!).

Sheesh. I'm not the kind of guy to look for one tiny mistake made by a company and scream something like "See - I told you Apple was going to fall apart when Steve Jobs passed away!" But this OS update is very un-Steve like - it's like they have forgotten one key thing: i.e., thinking about how users actually work with their computers!

When it comes to multiple-display support, I think the most appropriate approach for Apple would have been this: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!"

C'mon Apple - please fix up this screw-up FAST - so I (and millions of others) can get back to what we do best - creating unique content with your usually excellent products...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

31 October 2013: Into the Great Bear Rainforest - Gear & Gadgets: Part 2 - Lenses

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series where I discuss the gear I used in my most recent photo tours in the Great Bear Rainforest on the central and north BC coast. This part discusses the lenses I took, and how they worked out for me. Part 1 (October 29 entry below) discussed the camera bodies I took, how I used them, how they worked out, and how much I used each of them. And, I sneaked in a number of high resolution sample images from my most recent trips. Part 3 (coming real soon) will discuss the additional accessories and gadgets that I took along - like tripod heads, rain-covers, etc.

In Part 1 I discussed the unique aspects of shooting in the Great Bear and the constraints they impose when one is choosing gear for a trip into the Great Bear. These include finite gear weight and gear volume restrictions, the need for highly durable gear, the omnipresent low-light issue, and the fact that shooting effectively in this region often requires one to hand-hold large lenses far more often than most would like. Some of the constraints and issues faced on this trip - and how one accommodates them and how the gear that is needed to accommodate them - are not particularly unique, and so at least SOME of what I say in this series is generalizable to other shooting venues. It is up to the reader to decide if the kind of shooting they do (and the places they do it) are similar enough to the conditions in the Great Bear to have applicability to them. I am quite certain that anyone contemplating a photo trip into the Great Bear (including into the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary) will find the information very useful.

IMPORTANT NOTE: All the sample images in this series (and all images on this website) are protected by copyright. I'm fine with personal uses of these images (such as use as desktop images or screensavers), but any commercial use of these images is strictly prohibited by international law.

On Lenses - the glass I selected to accompany those bodies into the Great Bear: Bear in mind I'm mainly a wildlife shooter who shoots landscapes only "opportunistically". This bias definitely impacted on which lenses I took along on daily excursions and, of course, on the proportion of images shot with each of the lenses below. Two further things to keep in mind. First, the weight limit faced on our trip (75 lbs in TOTAL GEAR weight, including clothing, etc.) forces one to play triage on our trip - and virtually any trip - into the Great Bear. Second, we had different shooting venues and conditions each day but rarely knew exactly what we were going to encounter in the field, and choosing the "correct" lens mix on any particular excursion was a MAJOR consideration for all the participants. For me this kind of thing is good fun (I love the "strategic planning" associated with nature photography), but I recognize that the prospect of making mistakes in gear choice can make others somewhat more than a little uncomfortable.

1. Nikkor 400mm f2.8 VR:

Many know this is my absolute favourite lens for wildlife shooting. Yep, there are times when I want more reach (and then, if I have it with me, I'll pull out my 600mm VR), but the focal length, speed, and incredible sharpness of this lens combine just about perfectly for my taste (and shooting style). And, to my mind, these same strengths make it a GREAT lens for use in the Great Bear. This lens lived on one of my D4's for the duration of both trips (though I did run into one situation on one day where I captured about 100 images using it paired up with my D800e). Now before anyone goes out and buys this lens just because of my praise of it I have to make one thing perfectly clear: a large part of why I love this lens - and why I use it so much - is because I can hand-hold it. With no intent of offending anyone (and I'm not trying to blow my own horn) - between-user differences in stature, strength, and technique means that many others might struggle to hand-hold this very heavy BEAST. I have had many tell me that's absolutely impossible to hand-hold this lens for more than about 5 seconds. I don't doubt for a second that this is their experience. But it's not my experience. But if you're thinking of buying this lens and you want to hand hold it...well...I urge you to beg, borrow, or steal one before buying it to see if you actually CAN hand-hold it. If you can't, ask yourself if you're prepared to carry a tripod with you whenever you have this lens with you. If the answer is "no" - well...and this is my honest opinion...perhaps you should consider acquiring the incredibly good AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR zoom (really).

When did I make sure I had my 400mm f2.8 VR with me? Whenever I thought there was even a remote chance of encountering wildlife. So...almost all the time. Note that I can carry this lens inside my preferred camera backpack (an F-stop Satori with and XL Internal Camera Unit - or ICU - installed, more info about this bag in Part 3 of this series), so packing it along is not a "takes up too much space issue" (though it really impacts on the "how darned much weight can I carry" issue!).

Irritants/drawbacks of the 400mm f2.8 VR when shooting in the Great Bear? The obvious - this is a REALLY heavy lens. Many users would find it challenging (or even prohibitive) to hand-hold this lens in a Zodiac (or any other boat).

Sample 400mm f2.8 VR shots from this year's trip? Well...there's one in Part 1 (below) and many will be appearing in my Gallery of Latest Images, but here's a pretty unique one (and I even used a tripod). And it's of one VERY patient Spirit Bear (which makes it even rarer than your average rare Spirit Bear!) who found the "motionless" fishing technique to be the best (tripod mounted, Live View, cable release, D4, .2s @ f16, ISO 100, 95% of full-frame):

Patience: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.0 MB)

Percentage of images shot with my 400mm f2.8 VR during 2013 Great Bear photo tours? 38%

NOTE TO CANON USERS: Time to eat some crow here. Not only does Canon have an equivalent lens (the 400mm f2.8 IS) that seems as sharp as Nikon's, but their's is a kilogram (2.2 lb) or more lighter. I am totally envious of the Canon version of the lens. Yes, I can hand-hold the Nikon 400mm f2.8 VR, but it would be a LOT easier (and a lot more people could hand hold it) if it was a kilo lighter!

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

I used to say that if you could only take ONE lens into the Great Bear, it should be the 200-400mm f4 VR. But...times have changed, and so has Nikon's lens lineup. Now I will go out on a limb and say this: If you can take only ONE lens into the Great Bear (or Khutzeymateen), it should be the new AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR. Period. Really. Even with the smaller aperture, this lens is SO versatile (and both comparatively small and light) that it is close to a "must-have" lens for any Nikon shooter going into the Great Bear. I always had this lens with me - often paired with my 2nd D4 (but not uncommonly with my D600) - and I put it to good use. For most of the trip I kept this lens and body in a Think Tank Digital Holster 50 (on my waist). The more I use this lens, the more I like it. Yes, the stock tripod collar is awful, but for me this is almost always a "hand-holder" anyway. No - the 80-400mm is NOT as sharp at 400mm as my 400mm f2.8 VR prime, but no lens is (and it's way lighter and smaller than "the beast"). After extensive testing it's my experience that the 80-400mm pretty much rivals the 200-400 in sharpness at all overlapping focal lengths, and it is way smaller and lighter (and obviously offers a much wider range of focal lengths). You won't see me in the Great Bear (including the Khutzeymateen) over the next few years WITHOUT my 80-400.

When did I make sure I had this lens with me? Whenever I went into the field (all the time). And, the fact that this lens - mounted on any Nikon body - fits into Think Tank's Digital Holster 50 (which is designed to hold a pro body and 70-200mm f2.8 lens) is a huge practical advantage and convenience in the field.

Irritants/drawbacks of the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR when shooting in the Great Bear? The hood - and the fact that when reversed in "carrying" position it totally covers the zoom ring. So, if you have to quickly get it out and operational for a quick shot, you either have to struggle with the hood (to access the zoom ring) or you have to just push or pull on the hood to get it to zoom, which is anything but precise. This may seem like a small thing, but if using this lens for quick grab shots is important to you (and it WAS important to me on this trip), then this hood quirk is frustrating and with no real satisfactory work-around. I may experiment with shortening the hood a little (or buying a shorter 3rd party one) before my next major expedition. Note that I used this lens most often with a D4, and if one was using this lens with a body that had significantly poorer high ISO performance, then the low-light conditions of the Great Bear may reduce the practical value of this lens in the field.

Sample 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR shots from this year's trip? Here's one of a black bear cub (at a crazy ISO) that typifies how I often used the lens - for quick shots where there's no time to set up and have to do little more than point and shoot (and vamoose). In this case we stumbled upon this cub while it was on the ground and it instantly climbed the tree. Mom was nearby and completely non-plussed, but we wanted to leave the area fast to reduce the fear and stress on the cub. Hand-held, 220mm, 1/200s, f7.1, ISO 12,800, about 75% of full frame:

Up? Or Down? Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.8 MB)

Percentage of images shot with my 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR during 2013 Great Bear photo tours? 29%

NOTE TO CANON USERS: The most obvious "equivalent" lens in Canon's lineup would be the 100-400 IS zoom - but most Canon users I know are moving away from this lens based on its lack of sharpness. So at this point I think it's fair to say that Nikon users with the 80-400mm have a bit of an advantage over their Canon counterparts (at least when shooting in the Great Bear).

3. Nikkor 24-120mm f4 VR:

In my mind this lens is one of Nikon's best kept secrets (oops...just blew that). This lens is light and small and has a great focal range. Very importantly, it is capable of very sharp output - from edge-to-edge - at most (but not ALL) focal lengths, even when paired up with the demanding D800e. And the VR makes it just so darned handy and you can hand-hold it at very low shutter speeds. If you pair this lens with the AF-S 80-400mm VR (and in my case both plus a pro body could be carried in my Think Tank belt system - more on this in Part 3 of this series) you cover the focal range from 24mm to 400mm in a very light, compact, and optically acceptable way!

When did I make sure I had this lens with me? Almost all the time - but especially when I went out thinking I had even a remote chance of running into great landscape (or animalscape) scenes.

Irritants/drawbacks of the 24-120mm f4 VR when shooting in the Great Bear? I'm not sure it's really an irritant, but here's one drawback - I have found that the 24-120mm loses a lot of edge sharpness after about 90-100mm. Because I knew this I simply "subbed in" another lens if I needed to shoot between 100 and 120mm (and the lens I turned to was the fantastic 70-200mm f4 VR). That plan works, but I'd definitely prefer it if I could get satisfactory performance out of the 24-120mm zoom at all focal lengths...

Sample 24-120mm f4 VR from this year's trip? Here's a completely full-frame shot with the D800e. Tripod mounted, Live View, cable release, 35mm, 0.4s, f11, ISO 100, full-frame:

Salmon Path Through the Great Bear Rainforest: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.6 MB)

Percentage of images shot with my 24-120mm f4 VR during 2013 Great Bear photo tours? 16%

NOTE TO CANON USERS: Sorry, I don't have enough knowledge about Canon's wide angle zooms to comment on how Canon's offerings in this focal range compare to Nikon's (or their usefulness in the Great Bear).

4. Nikkor 600mm f4 VR:

I love this lens, but I personally find on most of my trips that as one proceeds beyond 400mm in focal length there are fewer and fewer scenes that are really worth shooting (unless one wants a collection of eyeball shots). Which is a comment more about average photographer-to-subject distance on my Great Bear photo tours than lens quality or general usefulness. This was especially true during my 2013 Great Bear trips - we seemed to be confronted with a lot of really sweet "animalscape" and landscape shots, but few scenes that truly lent themselves to the reach of the 600mm focal length. I often say that wildlife photography is about so much more than just "lens reach" - and this year's Great Bear trips really proved that point. Those more interested in documentary-style wildlife photography than I am will, no doubt, dispute this point (and fill my in-bin with email!).

When did I make sure I had this lens with me? Only when shooting from our sailboat - so with killer and humpback whales and a few sea lions. Whenever we went ashore and hiked/swam up creeks, the last thing I wanted was to carry both a 400mm f2.8 VR and a 600mm f4 VR. So my 600 stayed on the sailboat.

Irritants/drawbacks of the 600mm f4 VR when shooting in the Great Bear? The obvious - its size and weight. And how that size and weight negatively impacts on the challenges of hand-holding this lens (I do it on occasion and it is possible, but try to avoid it whenever possible).

Sample 600mm f4 VR from this year's trip? Here's a mother and calf Orca pair (the yellow-orange markings on the calf are found in young Orcas for about a year or so before going white). Tripod mounted, D4, 1/1250s, f6.3, ISO 640, about 75% of full-frame:

A Family Affair: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.6 MB)

Percentage of images shot with my 600mm f4 VR during 2013 Great Bear photo tours? 10%

NOTE TO CANON USERS: While the Canon version of this lens is about 0.5 kg (or about a pound) lighter, generally the same comments as above apply to Canon 600mm lens users. In my opinion, 600mm lenses from either manufacturer aren't particularly critical to bring into the Great Bear.

5. Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR:

Having a 70-200mm lens in your pack has become standard "issue" for nature photographers for years. Now that the uber-sharp f4 version is out - along with its weight savings of over a pound over the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII - well...I couldn't be happier. This is a great focal length for creating a lot of landscape - and even more "animalscape" - shots. Because I was still evaluating and experimenting with both the AF-S 80-400mm f45-5.6 VR and the 24-120mm f4 VR lenses I probably used the 70-200mm f4 less than I would have under "normal" circumstances, but it REALLY delivered when I did use it. In fact, what I consider my most treasured shot from the trip was captured with this lens (at a focal length of 100mm). This is a great lens to use with Nikon's mega-resolution cameras - the D800 and D800e.

When did I make sure I had the 70-200mm f4 VR with me? When I thought I had a chance of running into a stunning landscape or animalscape scene that screamed out for the resolution of the D800e - and a lens with the quality to do that camera (and the scene) justice. Which means it went with me on about 50% of our land-based excursions.

Irritants/drawbacks of the 70-200mm f4 VR when shooting in the Great Bear? Absolutely NONE.

Sample 70-200mm f4 VR from this year's trip? How about a virtually "undiscovered" waterfall way up a large creek that we had to access via bear trail? Ok - here ya go (tripod mounted, Live View, cable release, with 70-200mm f4 VR @ 78mm, 3s @ f11, ISO 100, full-framed - uncropped). And, see also the sample D800e shot exhibited in Part 1 of this series (that is currently my favourite shot from my 2013 Great Bear trips).

Undiscovered: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.9 MB)

Percentage of images shot with my 70-200mm f4 VR during 2013 Great Bear photo tours? 6%

NOTE TO CANON USERS: There's an obvious "equivalent" lens in Canon's lineup (the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM) and it's even slightly lighter than the Nikon version, but I haven't seen enough output from that lens to make any statement about how it stacks up against the absolutely excellent Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR.

And that's it for the lenses I used in the Great Bear. Coming in Part 3 (soon!): Comments on all the other accessories I used in the Great Bear - from tripod heads, to raincovers, to nifty alternate lens hoods, and more. Stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

30 October 2013: BC Magazine: The Story Behind the Fall Cover Image...

One of my more popular bear photos was selected as the fall cover for British Columbia Magazine. BC Magazine - as it is often known - has a worldwide circulation (it goes out to 125 countries!) and is available in both print and online versions - the later through Zinio, the popular source for digital magazines.

BC Mag produced an interesting feature called "The Story Behind the Fall Cover" that contains information about how I captured the image. Some of you may find the feature interesting - you can access it right here:

BC Magazine: The Story Behind the Fall Cover

The image used on the cover - along with the technical details behind its creation (both in the field and behind the computer) - can be found right here.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

29 October 2013: Into the Great Bear Rainforest - Gear & Gadgets: Part 1

As many viewers of this website know, I spend a good chunk of time each year shooting images in an area of BC's central coast that's become known as the Great Bear Rainforest. This region is quite remote, with the bulk of it accessible only by boat (or float plane). There are no roads into the heart of the Great Bear. And, being a rainforest, it gets a whole lot of rain. To effectively photograph the scenes and inhabitants of the Great Bear you have to use boats of some form (and we normally use both a sailboat for travel and a 19" Zodiac for inter-tidal access) and be prepared to hike over challenging terrain.

What all this means is that getting into the Great Bear is not easy (or cheap) and, as a photographer, you face the following constraints or issues to accommodate:

1. Weight and Gear Volume Restrictions: On at least some "legs" of most expeditions into the Great Bear you will face weight and/or gear volume restrictions. It might be on your flight to the region. It might be on the float plane transfer from nearest civilization into the heart of the Great Bear. It might be determined by the size of the boats you're using (either the amount of baggage room in your berth, or the amount of room in a Zodiac). It might be determined by how much YOU can carry while walking over slippery, uneven and almost "hostile" terrain. But the key point is you can't ever bring ALL your gear into the Great Bear - you have to play the triage game.

2. Gear Durability: No matter how much you try to treat your tools as jewels, working in the Great Bear can be rough on your gear. Even if you use the best raincovers, backpacks, and vigilance - your gear is going to get at least moist (sometimes simply from the humidity of the region). And, one of the best recipes I know of for bumping and banging your gear around is going for a hike in the Great Bear - you're up, over, or under logs, walking over slippery rocks, wading streams, and more. The bottom line is that if you're gear ISN'T durable, the Great Bear will let you know fast!

3. Low Light! Overcast skies. Rain. Heavy forest. What does all this mean? Often it translates into this: low light (i'd say "no light", but there obviously is SOME light!). So...this puts a large premium on ISO performance. If there EVER was a place where you regularly need cameras capable of quality output at ISO 2500 or more, it's the Great Bear. Fast lenses help too, but bear in mind that fast lenses tend to be heavy (remember - you'll have some weight restrictions on any trip into the Great Bear). And, you better have cameras with AF systems that function well in low light...

4. Hand-holding (of big lenses): The single best "platform" for shooting the scenes and inhabitants of the Great Bear Rainforest is an inflatable (Zodiac-style) boat. And, in most Zodiacs, it's pretty much impossible to use a tripod. And, in most Zodiacs (and in most waters), you have some movement and vibration. So...you end up hand-holding big lenses a whole lot more than you'd normally do. And, you need shutter speeds higher than when hand-holding those same lenses on dry land. How do you get those shutter speeds? Yep, ONE MORE reason why you need great high ISO performance in the Great Bear...

OK...now you have the context. So what gear did I take into the Great Bear - and how did it perform? This is Part 1 of a 3-part series - in this part I'll cover the camera bodies I used in the Great Bear. Part 2 will discuss lenses, and Part 3 will cover the other critical accessories and gadgets. Each part will contain my thoughts on how each piece performed and - where applicable and/or where I have sufficient knowledge - I'll also make reference to how the gear I'm discussing matches up to its Canon equivalent.

IMPORTANT NOTE: All the sample images in this series (and all images on this website) are protected by copyright. I'm fine with personal uses of these images (such as use as desktop images or screensavers), but any commercial use of these images is strictly prohibited by international law.

Camera Bodies: Over the years I've found I like having two camera bodies with me at all times (and having them easy to access and ready to go at all times). While it's possible to take 3 (or even 4) bodies into the field, logistics make it tough to have - or work with - more than two at any one time. So one large decision faced before each outing in the Great Bear is this: "Which two bodies are most likely to cover the photographic opportunities (and challenges) we're going to face today?"

1. Nikon D4 Bodies:

I take two D4's along on my trips the Great Bear. If ever there was a camera body almost perfectly designed for shooting in the wet, low-light conditions of the Great Bear it's the D4. A D4 is almost bombproof and while not waterPROOF, they can get awfully wet with no apparent ill effects. I've said before that the D4 is Nikon's most forgiving high-end body and that it's simply hard-to-miss with this camera (in exposure, in focus, etc.) and that holds particularly true in the Great Bear. The D4's are my go-to bodies on all Great Bear trips and if any particular outing is likely to be focused on wildlife, then I'll be carrying both my D4's with me. But if I'm likely to be shooting some scenery/landscapes I normally opt for carrying one D4 and one of two other bodies (see below). When in the Great Bear I most commonly shoot the D4 with a 400mm f2.8 VR prime lens on it, but this year I also shot it a lot with the "new" AF-S 80-400 f4.5-5.6 VR.

When did I take my D4 with me into the field in the Great Bear? I would ALWAYS be carrying at least one D4. If it was likely that any particular outing would be dominated by wildlife shooting, then I would take both D4's with me. If the probability of shooting landscapes (or "animalscapes") went up, then I would consider subbing out one of my D4's for either a D600 or D800e.

Irritants/drawbacks of the D4 when shooting in the Great Bear? First is weight. The D4 is a heavy body and it definitely contributes a lot more than I'd like in rapidly getting me to my weight limit. And, I still hate Nikon's practice of taking the great idea of having dual card slots and making those two slots different from one another (one XQD slot and one CF slot). That means I have to haul different card readers along and more types of cards. Dumb.

Sample D4 images from this year's trip? Many will be showing up in my Gallery of Latest Additions, but here's the kind of image that I regularly capture with my D4 in the Great Bear - and that really couldn't be effectively captured by any other camera in Nikon's line-up (hand-held, with 400mm f2.8 VR, 1/1250s @ f4, ISO 4500, about 80% of full-framed image):

Soaking It All Up: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

Percentage of images shot with D4? For the record, I used a D4 for 81% of all images I shot in the Great Bear in 2013.

NOTE TO CANON USERS: Until the 1D X was introduced I honestly think Canon shooters were at a disadvantage in the Great Bear (compared to Nikon shooters who had either a D3s or D4). But now that I have spent time in the Great Bear with about a half dozen 1D X shooters, I have to say that there are virtually no situations where a 1D X can't do what a D4 can do (some might argue that at ISO 6400 and above there is still an advantage with the D4, but I'm not 100% sure I agree). Two negatives with the 1D X (compared with the D4, especially when shooting in the Great Bear): First, the Auto ISO function is "crippled" for action shooting with having 1/250s as the highest specifiable shutter speed (tho' current rumours are indicating that this problem is about to be solved via a firmware update). Second, when properly set up the AF system seems almost on par with the D4's amazing AF system (and it's a HUGE improvement over that on the 1D MkIV), but the problem comes with its complexity, especially in setting it up correctly. Between the various functions and "cases" I have seen many a 1D X shooter scratching their head (while the Nikon guys are busy shooting).

2. Nikon D600:

I like the D600 for it's combination of high resolution (24 MP) and the fact that it is still quite "hand-holdable", including with some pretty big lenses (unlike the D800 or D800e). I also REALLY like the User Settings feature - I have one bank set up for general use (with Auto ISO set to "auto" shutter speed) and one for "Action" (with Auto ISO set to minimum shutter speed of 1/1250s and AF on Dynamic Area). I initially was skeptical that the D600 would be durable enough for the rigors of the Great Bear, but I have now completed 5 tours of duty in the Great Bear with my D600 and it has worked flawlessly.

When did I take my D600 with me into the field in the Great Bear? When I headed out thinking I'd be shooting a mixture of wildlife AND scenery - the D600 is capable enough to back up my D4 as a wildlife camera AND it makes a GREAT landscape camera (partly due to its 24 MP resolution, and partly due to its amazing dynamic range). In these situations I opted to leave one D4 behind in preference for the D600.

Irritants/drawbacks of the D600 when shooting in the Great Bear? Two things. First, if I ended up shooting wildlife with some action going on, the buffer size - and corresponding image burst number - was more than a bit frustrating. Second - and this is more a complaint of pairing it up with a D4 - in taking my D600 into the field with my D4, then one needed THREE types of card readers (and three kinds of spare memory cards on my person). Bad camera complementarity.

Sample D600 images from this year's trip? Yep, here ya go - a misty, moody sunrise shot from one of my favorite inlets in the Great Bear (hand-held, with 70-200mm f4 VR @ 190mm, 1/250s @ f5.6, ISO 100, full-framed - uncropped)

Autumn Sunrise in Khutze Inlet: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

Percentage of images shot with my D600 during 2013 Great Bear photo tours? 13%

NOTE TO CANON USERS: This comment may not go over well, but after years of shooting in the Great Bear (including with a lot of Canon guys), I'd say if you're looking for a functional equivalent to the D600 to back up your 1D X, I'd say take a 5D MkIII along. Unfortunately the 7D's I've seen used in there have commonly had issues dealing with the moisture (the most common problem being the battery chamber allowing water entry, with the result that they stopped working until being completely dried out). I don't have enough experience with the 6D to comment on its performance in the Great Bear yet.

3. Nikon D800e:

I've publicly stated before (see my D800 review) that I don't believe the D800 or D800e represents the best camera choice in Nikon's lineup for wildlife photography. I still think that. But, I went into the Great Bear this year wanting to capture some very high resolution landscape shots and, if the conditions were just right, some high resolution "animalscape" style shots. And I used my D800e ONLY when the conditions were "just right" and with high discipline (bolted down on a tripod, using Live View, with a cable release, at low ISO's, etc.). And, used this way, I ended up extremely happy with what I captured with my D800e.

So...when did I actually take my D800e into the field? When I knew there was a good to very good probability I'd run into some great landscape shots or that there was more than a decent chance of "running into" an animalscape shot just waiting to be captured. In other words, I only carried and/or used my D800e when it was likely its mega-resolution and/or huge dynamic range could be put to good use. Of course, in taking my D800e with me I knew I was pretty much committed to carrying along a tripod - so that instantly added to the weight I had to carry.

Irritants/drawbacks of the D800e when shooting in the Great Bear? Well...because I have largely ruled out the D800e as a wildlife camera for my own shooting and because I have accepted the limitations (and recognized the unique strengths) of the D800e...I have darned few. Of course, I wish the two card slots on the camera matched one another, but...sigh...

Sample D800e images from this year's trip? Well...I used it sparingly, but when the time came I have to say I was very happy with what I captured - my current favourite shot from this year's Great Bear Trips was captured with my D800e. Here ya go - and the title refers to how the scene would appear from a spawning salmon's perspective! Tripod mounted, Live View, cable release, 70-200mm f4 VR @ 100mm, 0.4s, f10, ISO 100, circular polarizer, virtually full frame (about 97% of full-frame).

The Great Bear Gauntlet: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.3 MB)

Percentage of images shot with my D800e during 2013 Great Bear photo tours? 6%

NOTE TO CANON USERS: Sorry, unless I missed a big announcement when I was away over the last month, there is currently no real equivalent in Canon's lineup to the D800 or D800e. I know many 5D Mark III owners who really love that excellent camera, but a 22MP camera is not a 36MP camera, and the cameras differ significantly in dynamic range. At this point in time I believe Canon shooters are slightly handicapped over Nikon shooters for capturing landscape and animalscape style scenes.

Coming in Part 2 (soon!): My lens choice in the Great Bear Rainforest...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

27 October 2013: Back from the Great Bear!

I'm now back after two consecutive - and very successful - photo tours into the amazing Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia. The first trip was instructional in nature and all 6 participants absorbed as much information on the technical and creative aspects of wildlife photography that I could send their way! As usual, they were particularly keen to improve their skills in post-processing. And, we were all rewarded with fantastic photo ops of the best subject matter the Great Bear Rainforest could conjure up - including Humpback Whales, Killer Whales, Spirit Bears, Grizzly Bears, Bald Eagles, Harbour Seals, and more. And, of course, we were treated with amazing scenery (and light!) that only the Great Bear can deliver.

The second trip was an "exploratory photo adventure" - meaning that our group of 6 intrepid photographers (and yours truly) went WAY OFF the beaten path and sought out wildlife and scenery in parts of the Great Bear Rainforest that are only very rarely visited. Because we avoided the traditional "tried and true" locations this trip was riskier in the sense of finding wildlife (and wildlife photo ops), but with the higher potential reward of photographing whatever wildlife we found in new and fresh settings. So...we explored new (at least to us) coastlines, inlets, bays, and rivers - by sailboat and Zodiac. And we travelled on foot up many incredibly picturesque salmon streams and rivers - often finding our way through the thick rainforest on bear trails.

Like with the instructional trip, we had great success with Humpbacks, Killer Whales, Grizzlies, Bald Eagles, and Harbor Seals. And, we managed to add coastal Gray Wolves and a large colony of Steller Sea Lions to our list. This autumn there was a very strong run of spawning pink salmon in the Great Bear Rainforest, but by the time we headed out exploring on this trip many of the bears had apparently had their fill of salmon and had "switched" onto other food sources. Consequently we never managed to find the elusive Spirit Bear (though we did find several new locations where - based on signs like white bear fur - we knew they were using just shortly before our arrival). But we found some amazing new locations to work in the future, and all of us came back stoked to return in the future. And we all captured some great images!

Images from the two trips? Yep, they're already starting to appear in my Gallery of Latest Additions. And new ones from these photo tours will be regularly flowing into that gallery over the next few months - so it will be more than worth your effort to keep coming back!

In my next blog post I'll give an overview of the camera gear and accessories I relied on during these two trips - and how all the bits performed under the challenging conditions found in the Great Bear.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

1 October 2013: I'm Gonzo - Into the Great Bear Rainforest...

Where does the time go? First thing tomorrow morning I board a float plane - along with 6 enthusiastic first-time Great Bear Rainforest visitors. And soon thereafter we'll climb aboard our home for the next 15 days - the Ocean Light ii sailboat. We're off to pursue the wildlife, scenery, and wilderness that only the Great Bear Rainforest can deliver - grizzly bears, black bears, the white Spirit Bear, humpback whales, and a whole lot more.

During this entire stretch I'll be without any access to the internet (or cell phones, or TV's, or most anything else that connects me to the outside world). But once I return (sometime around 22 October)...I'll be "connected" again and soon after that all sort of web updates will start appearing - from blog entries, long-awaited product reviews, lots of new images, and a whole lot more.

See ya later...cheers...

Brad

PS: One of the first web updates I'll do after I return will be providing all the details about my 2014 trips Into the Great Bear Rainforest. And you'll find these details, as well as the details about my other 2014 photo tours - on the Photo Tours page of this website.

19 September 2013: Surfing Sea Lion Goes Hollywood...

Those who regularly visit my Gallery of Latest Additions have probably seen at least one of my images of surfing sea lions that I (and a small group of participants on my recent photo tour) had the pleasure of watching and photographing a few weeks back.

Anyway...that surfing Stellar Sea Lion - and his buddies - just got a bit more famous. The UK newspaper the Daily Mail chose to feature the super surfers in an article - the online version of which just appeared yesterday. You can view it right here:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2424287/Sea-lions-photographed-surfing-waves-Vancouver-Island.html

The writers of the story certainly didn't let the facts get in the way of a good story - the article almost reads like the sea lions were elbowing human surfers out of the way at a popular beach (when, in fact, the surfing took place around some isolated rocks off a remote island without a sand-covered beach anywhere nearby). But what the heck...they got the essence of the story "kinda close" to accurate!

The image was also selected by the Nature Photographer's Network (or NPN) as the Image of the Week...you can view that (and what folks are saying about the image) right here:

NPN Wildlife Image of the Week

I've been asked by many where the surfing event took place. It was right up around the northern tip of Vancouver Island - not too far from Cape Scott. We regularly visit the area during my "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions, and More" Aquatic Mammals photo tour (information about this photo tour can be found on the Photo Tours page of this website).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

7 September 2013: Gone Camping...

I'm escaping for 10 days to two weeks of communing with nature (AKA camping) starting today. I'm heading into an area where it's unlikely I'll have internet access so that means no web updates (or responses to email) until about September 20 or so.

For those wanting to contact me to reserve a spot on a photo tour - I'll deal with all those enquiries once I'm back in a "first-come, first-served" basis (in the order in which they were sent to me).

Hoping everyone finds great light and great subjects while I'm away...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

6 September 2013: ATTENTION PHOTOGRAPHERS: Beware of Facebook's New Terms of Service!

Just yesterday Facebook put new Terms of Service and privacy policies into effect that quite radically increase Facebook's ability to use (and abuse and exploit) both your content (including images) and identity.

The American Society of Media Photographers has issued an official warning about the situation, along with an explanation of the changes. Check it our right here:

Beware Facebook's New Terms of Service

I've been asked many, many times why I don't "do" Facebook. There's always been a multitude of reasons, but part of it was that I was wary of even their "old" Terms of Service. With the new ones, I wouldn't even begin to consider using Facebook to establish or extend my professional identity.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

5 September 2013: Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions, & More 2014 Photo Tour Details...

The critical details of my 2014 Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions, & More 2014 Photo Tour have just been released on the Photo Tours page of this website. The trip will be offered in both instructional and "photo op" (non-instructional) versions. The instructional version adds one day of world-class instruction on the technical and creative aspects of wildlife photography at the beginning of the trip. Here's the bare bone details...

Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions, & More Photo tour:

DATES: August 7 to 16, 2014 (Instructional version); August 8 to 16, 2014 (Photo Op version).
NUMBER OF PARTICIPANTS: Limited to 6.
CURRENT NUMBER OF AVAILABLE SPOTS: 5
COST: $4199 Canadian plus 5% GST for Instructional version; $3699 plus 5% GST for Photo Op version. Currency converter available here.
REGISTRATION: Contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca to reserve your spot!
MORE INFORMATION? Contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca for more information and details about this outstanding photo tour. Brochure available by October, 2014.

Additional information about trip location, subjects, links to images captured on previous trips and more can be found here on my photo tours page...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

5 September 2013: Khutzeymateen Grizzlies 2014 - Some Shenanigans and Confusion!

Since introducing my additional Khutzeymateen Grizzlies photo tour a few days ago there's been some movement "behind the scenes" (such as existing clients upgrading to the new tour and some other spots sold) that have affected trip availability. And these moves - plus my last entry - may have produced some confusion as to what is (and what isn't) available in terms of photo tours to the Khutzeymateen in 2014. So...here's the barebones details - including current availablity - on all three of my Khutzeymateen Grizzlies photo tours:

1. Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour (6-day tour):

DATES: May 23 to May 30, 2014.
COST: $4999 Canadian plus applicable taxes. Currency converter available here.
SPOTS OPEN: 3.
MORE INFORMATION? Just download this brochure (PDF; 2.4 MB) or contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca.

2. Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen 5-Day Photo Adventure:

DATES: May 24 to May 30, 2014.
COST: $4499 Canadian plus applicable taxes. Currency converter available here.
SPOTS OPEN: 3.
MORE INFORMATION? Just download this brochure (PDF; 2.1 MB) or contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca.

3. Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen 4-Day Photo Adventure:

DATES: May 29 to June 3, 2014.
COST: $3599 Canadian plus applicable taxes. Currency converter available here.
SPOTS OPEN: 2.
MORE INFORMATION? Just download this brochure (PDF; 2.0 MB) or contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca.

Up-to-date details about all my coming photo tours can always be found on the Photo Tours page of this website.

Clear as mud?

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

3 September 2013: New Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Photo Tour for 2014!

I've just added a new version of my popular "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tour for late spring of 2014. The new trip is a "photo-op" style trip (no formal instructional component) which offers 5 full days in the amazing Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary. Here's a summary of my 2014 Khutzeymateen trips which still have spots available:

1. Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour (6-day tour):

DATES: May 23 to May 30, 2014.
COST: $4999 Canadian plus applicable taxes. Currency converter available here.
MORE INFORMATION? Just download this brochure (PDF; 2.4 MB) or contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca for more information and details about this unique photo tour.

2. Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen 5-Day Photo Adventure:

DATES: May 24 to May 30, 2014.
COST: $4499 Canadian plus applicable taxes. Currency converter available here.
MORE INFORMATION? Just download this brochure (PDF; 2.1 MB) or contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca for more information and details about this new photo tour.

What about the 4-day Khutzeymateen Grizzlies Photo Op tour? Sorry, it's already sold out for 2014.

Details about all my 2014 photo tours may be found on the Photo Tours page of this website.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

2 September 2013: Slippery, Slimy Mammal Images...

Images from my "Slippery, Slimy Mammals" (known more formerly as my "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More") photo tour are now beginning to appear in my Gallery of Latest Additions.

I'm already getting enquiries about next year's version of this photo tour - I'll have details about that trip posted on my Photo Tours page by the end of the week. Patience! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

28 August 2013: Surfing Sea Lions - And Lots More!

I'm just back from my "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More" photo tour and madly digging my way through a mountain of email while trying to process scores of new images. The trip was a resounding success and we were treated with a virtual cornucopia of subject matter to photograph: plentiful killer whales in killer light, humpbacks doing their thing (including both bubble-net feeding and breaching) in front of breath-taking backdrops, sea otters (including kits) pulling graceful aquatic antics, amorous gray whales doing what amorous animals do, and lots more. Expect a lot of new images to be showing up in my Gallery of Latest Additions real soon...

But as one who has spent years of his life studying animal behaviour, the highlight of the trip for me was definitely a scene we stumbled upon in the last few days of the trip - a troupe of about 20 surfing Steller sea lions. Yep, surfing sea lions...and they were really rippin'. We've visited this sea lion colony several times in past years and stumbled upon the amazing scene as we headed a little further offshore than normal. The area is pretty exposed to the open Pacific Ocean and is characterized by continuous and pretty large ocean swells. When we approached some isolated rocks where the swells were breaking into large waves we noticed about 20 sea lions bobbing in the surf. And, sure enough, on each wave that broke a little off to the side of the rocks one or more sea lions would begin swimming like crazy to catch it. And, to our amazement, they would ride out the waves for hundreds of meters (often tucking right inside the curl!). Then, they turn right around and go back and do it again!

Skeptical that wild animals would spend a ton of energy "aimlessly" playing at something with little apparent survival or adaptive benefit (or at least one that wasn't immediately obvious)? I was. But seeing was believing. And it was something that was uber-cool to photograph...check out this shot:

Catching the Wave - Steller Sea Lion: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

We watched the sea lions for a good 20 minutes or so that day and returned the next day when the tide was around the same height. On the second visit it was so foggy we could hardly find the rocks, but when we did, there were the sea lions surfing away! We watched for a good half hour and saw single wave riders, several pairs of wave riders, a few triplets, and even one occasion where 4 sea lions rode down a wave in unison. We also noticed that the sea lions only caught waves that broke away from the rocks (and joked that they had all obviously learned from Frankie's ill-fated rock ride a few years back). Absolutely amazing, and so, so cool...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

14 August 2013: Away on My "Slippery, Slimy Mammals" Photo Tour

At daybreak tomorrow I leave to lead my annual "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More" photo tour (more informally known as my "Slippery, Slimy Mammals" Tour!). I'll be gone until August 26. So expect no web updates until shortly after then. Emails sent to me may remain unanswered until then as well.

Until then - good luck with all your photo adventures - be they big or small. And may Photeus (that ancient pagan god of digital photography) bestow you with great light and great subjects!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

14 August 2013: New Photo Tour for 2014: The Wildlife of Canada's High Arctic

I've just finished putting the final logistic touches to bed for my newest photo tour - The Wildlife of Canada's High Arctic. This late June/early July tour is available in both instructional and non-instructional (or "photo-op") versions. If you've ever dreamed of visiting the Arctic and photographing the birds, mammals, and scenes just not seen in more southerly latitudes - well...this is your chance to make that dream come true...

Just follow this link to see all the critical details on my Photo Tours page: The Wildlife of Canada's High Arctic.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

13 Aug 2013: The Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Zoom Lens Field Test - The Reader's Digest Version

When I test and write up my Field Tests on various camera bits I normally write blog entries as I proceed through the testing, then write up a single final Field Test. The field tests can be quite extensive and will always contain sample images. And, the very last thing I do is write up the Executive Summary for that product.

This time I'm going to change my approach and give you the "Readers Digest" version of my full field test (omitting, in this version, some of the detail and most of supporting images) right now. Why? Two reasons. First, my testing of Sigma's new 120-300mm f2.8 zoom lens came about quite unexpectedly - I had only a few days from hearing it was a go through to receiving the lens. And I could only keep it for 10 days or so. So I had zero time to write up blog updates on the various different comparative tests I did with the lens. Second, I'm about to head out on my "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More" Photo Tour and will be gone for a few weeks - and when I get back I know I'm going to be absolutely swamped. Thus it will be awhile before I'll be able to post those sequential blog entries describing my progress on testing the Sigma lens. More than a few folks have been emailing me asking about my thoughts on this lens (even without knowing I was testing it) and I'd prefer not to keep them waiting. So here's all many will need to help them decide if this lens is for them (or not)...

But wait! A tiny bit of background is needed before I go any further. Sigma's new 120-300mm f2.8 zoom lens (which is officially known as the 120-300mm f2.8 DG OS HSM S) is targeted squarely at professionals or very serious enthusiasts. It is officially in their "Sports" class, but Sigma's own website lists its typical uses as "Landscape, Nature & Wildlife, Sports & Action" (hmmm...not a lot left out of that description of uses!). And, the lens is priced at the professional market - it's listed on Sigma's website as going for $3599 USD ("marked down" from a MSRP of $5200, which to me appears more than a little on the tacky side - come on...this is a new lens, did ANYONE ever pay $5200 for it?). All technical details about the lens may be found right here on Sigma's website.

But make no mistake - this lens is designed to capture action. That could mean a sporting event - and especially an indoor sporting event where subjects tend to be closer than in many outdoor events - or, to a nature photographer, it could mean things like birds-in-flight or mammals in motion (sparring grizzlies anyone?).

How does the lens stack up? Here's the Reader's Digest version of my Field Test (supporting images and MANY more details to follow in the full version of the Field Test):

1. Build Quality:

Simply superb. When you first pick up this Japanese-manufactured lens you know that no shortcuts were taken in manufacturing this lens. Every ring moves smoothly, and its finish says "professional". Its heft (and there's lots of that) instantly says "rock-solid construction". And, unlike the new Nikon AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, its tripod collar is stiff and hefty enough to offer rock solid support without ANY flexing. But there IS a price to pay for the speed and sturdiness of the lens: it is NOT light. When in "shooting mode" (meaning with hood on, tripod foot on with a Wimberley Arca Swiss lens plate installed, and lens caps off) the lens weighs 3725 gm (8.21 lb). In comparison, Nikon's 300mm f2.8 VR in the same shooting mode (with the same Wimberley plate installed), weighs over a pound less (in coming in at 3140 gm - or 6.92 lb - the 300mm f2.8 VR is 585 gm - or 1.29 lb - lighter). For Nikon shooters looking for another reference point to compare against, the popular 200-400mm f4 VR weighs in at 3360 gm (7.41 lb). There are some shooters (professionals and amateurs alike) that could find that the weight of this lens hinders their ability to hand-hold it. BTW - if you want to get the 120-300mm Sigma a little lighter, strip off the tripod collar (it does come off very easily) and you'll lose 360 gm (0.8 lb).

2. Optical Performance - Image Sharpness:

A real big thumbs up: this lens is very sharp at all focal lengths. And, when tested on Nikon's most demanding camera (the D800e) the images showed excellent edge-to-edge sharpness. How sharp is the Sigma lens? I'll provide details (and sample images) in the future, but suffice to say it is AT LEAST as sharp as Nikon's premium zooms at all overlapping focal lengths (including the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the 70-200mm f4 VR, the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, and the 200-400mm f4 VR). How does it compare to top Nikon primes at the same focal length? Really well - extreme pixel-peeping on D800e files viewed at 100% show very small differences between Nikon's sharpest telephoto primes (e.g., Nikon 200mm f4 Micro, 300mm f2.8 VR) in image sharpness (with the Nikon primes coming in slightly sharper). But the same thing can be said of ANY Nikon telephoto zoom too - they just aren't as sharp as the best primes.

I was unable to detect any noticeable issue with chromatic aberration on the Sigma lens.

I noticed one very minor negative in optical performance - the amount one had to stop down from wide open before approaching maximum sharpness. With most high-end Nikon lenses, one has to stop down about two thirds of a stop before approaching maximum sharpness. With the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 (and at all focal lengths tested), I had to stop down one to one and one third (so to f4 or f4.5), before approaching maximum sharpness. This doesn't mean that the lens is "soft" when shot wide open (under most situations few would notice the "shot at wide open" sharpness loss), just that it gets a bit sharper when shot stopped down a little more than you have to stop down Nikon's premium lenses.

The take-home lesson on the sharpness of the Sigma 120-300mm zoom is this: I would be surprised if anyone would be disappointed with the sharpness of this lens, regardless of what lenses they are used to shooting (and, of course, those moving up to this lens from "kit" or consumer lenses would be absolutely stunned by its optical performance).

3. Optical Performance - Out-of-Focus Zone Quality (or Bokeh):

This is a very difficult thing to quantify and compare between lenses. But one who has shot extensively with a Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VR or a Nikkor 400mm f2.8 VR (and some other high end lenses) knows good bokeh when they see it. And the Sigma has fine bokeh - I could detect no real difference between comparable Nikons (meaning comparable focal lengths shot at the same aperture with subjects at same distance) and the Sigma in bokeh quality. Another check mark for the Sigma lens.

One final point on optical performance: For some reason, the Sigma lens produced slightly warmer images than any of the many Nikons I tested it against. Some may like this, some may not. I view this as a controllable (in post-processing) difference between the lenses I tested (i.e., between the Sigma and all the Nikon lenses), but not a flaw...

4. In-lens Optical Stabilization:

I haven't come up with a meaningful way to quantify this or come up with a quantifiable comparative test for Optical Stabilization (or Vibration Reduction). So here's what I'll say: The OS system appeared to work about as effectively as the VR system on the Nikon 300mm f2.8 VR ("old" version) and the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VRII (at 200mm) but not quite as effectively as the claimed 5-stop VR on the 70-200mm f4 VR (again at 200mm). Note that major differences in lens weight between the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 and the 70-200mm f4 VR (which is several pounds lighter than Sigma lens) could have easily contributed to the observed difference in image stabilization between the 70-200mm f4 VR and the Sigma lens.

I could find no literature on the advisability of leaving on (or turning off) the OS system when shooting from a firm tripod (I wasn't sent an owners manual for the lens, and there is not a downloadable on the Sigma website - and there should be...are you listening Sigma?) or on which of the two OS modes I should use when the lens is on a firm tripod. So...I tested them. Result: No difference in sharpness (or bokeh quality) when shooting from a firm tripod regardless of whether the OS was on (or what mode it was in).

One more check mark for the Sigma lens.

5. Focus Breathing:

Does the lens exhibit focus breathing (i..e, shortening of focal length when focused near the inner limit of its focus range)? Yes. How badly? Noticeably - I'll show sample shots in my final field test and an estimation of the amount of the focal length reduction. Those who view this as a "problem" (I personally don't) may want to wait to see those sample shots.

6. Performance with Teleconverters:

At least some of the users of Nikon's 300mm f2.8 VR own it partly because of how well it performs with the TC-14EII (1.4x) and TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverters. How does the Sigma perform with these TC's? It doesn't - they're non-compatible (you simply can't mount the lens on them). Ouch! According to Sigma's website, the Sigma 1.4x and 2x teleconverters do work with both the Nikon and Canon version of this lens, but like many Nikon shooters I don't own the Sigma teleconverters, so I can make no comment on how well this lens performs with them. To some users this issue of incompatibility with Nikon TC's may be a concern or problematic.

7. Autofocus Performance:

This is another aspect of performance that can be challenging to compare between lenses. But I'll give it my best shot. And I'll divide it into three categories: Focus Accuracy, Initial Focus Acquisition Speed, and Focus-tracking.

A. Focus Accuracy: This one is easy - perfect (as far as I could determine in the field). When shooting targets (with objects placed in closely spaced intervals before and behind the target) or just "casually" in the field, the Sigma lens focused spot-in accurately with my D600, D800e, and D4 (and when using either live view or the optical viewfinder).

B. Initial Focus Acquisition Speed: I can only offer qualitative comments on this: the lens was "snappy" in acquiring initial focus. But, it was noticeably less snappy than the following Nikkor lenses I tested it against: the 70-200mm f4, 70-200mm f2.8 VRII, 300mm f2.8 VR, and the "new" 80-400 f4.5-5.6 VR. On the positive side, it was WAY faster at acquiring initial focus than the 200mm f4 Micro (on old but optically superb lens). The germane question to consider is this: Would this very slightly slower speed of initial focus acquisition result in missing critical images? In theory - yes. In practice in the real world - I doubt it. It's still darned fast.

C. Focus-tracking: Here I'm referring to the ability of the lens to keep a moving subject in focus regardless of the direction the object is moving (or whether one is panning or not). If the subject is moving towards or away from the camera and moving fast enough it requires a degree of predicative ability on the part of the imaging system (camera and lens). Situations where this predictive ability is needed occur when shooting subjects such as birds in flight, running mammals, race cars bearing down on one on a speedway, sprinters photographed from the end of a track, etc. You know what I mean...

Anyway...I tested focus tracking repeatedly with this lens - both under "spontaneous" shooting situations (with my dogs running around and with a cooperative herd of elk) and under careful controlled situations. I will give details of my testing protocol in my final field test (or future blog entries), but many are probably familiar with my "dog running full speed right at me" test (which is a great proxy for situations like birds in flight, or mammals running almost directly at me like in this shot).

What did I find? In situations where the subject wasn't approaching or moving away from the lens quickly (so moving parallel to the camera's image sensor or even up to about a 45° diagonal to the image sensor) the lens focus tracked as well as any of my Nikon lenses. However, when the subject was moving directly at me at a high speed (my running dog test), the focus tracking ability of the lens was much poorer than that of the two Nikkor lenses I tested it against (both the "new" 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR and the 300mm f2.8 VR). How much poorer? Here are the numbers:

Using Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VR: Percentage of tack sharp images (on leading edge of subject) ranging from 77% (at f2.8) through to 94% (at f5.6).

Using Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 (at 300mm): Percentage of tack sharp images of 95% at f5.6 and 88% at f8.

Using Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 (at 300mm): Percentage of tack sharp images of 24% at f2.8, 41% at f4, and 44% at f5.6.

For each lens at each aperture there was a minimum of 75 images used to come up with the percentages above (yes, my dog Jose was VERY tired after this, but he was very happy with his belly full of treats and the number of cuddles he got between trials - besides Frisbee this is his favorite game!).

Note that in most of the out-of-focus shots produced by the Sigma lens, the lens simply "lagged" behind the leading edge of the subject - by about 15 cm (6") to 30 cm (12"). See the sample images below to assess for yourself the extent of the "problem".

Jose Running - With Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 Zoom: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

Jose Running - With Sigma120-300mm f2.8 Zoom: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

It's possible that if I did this test over and over again that my numbers might shift a few percentage points either way. But, the trend was very clear and I'm sure it would remain clear - in this test (only) the Sigma lens performed far poorer the competition. And, in a way, this doesn't surprise me. The amount of technology behind producing an autofocus system that can meet a test like this is absolutely mind-boggling and I doubt Nikon is motivated to share their proprietary information and secrets with Sigma. So, while I don't know this for a fact, I suspect Sigma is forced to "reverse engineer" their AF system to work with the Nikon lens (and they would have to do the same thing all over again with the Canon version of this lens).

Time to call a spade a spade - just how significant is this problem? It totally depends on how one plans to use the lens. If one is shooting landscapes or animalscapes it's probably totally irrelevant and can be safely ignored. What if one is buying the lens primarily to capture action shots (like birds in flight)? Well...it might be a big consideration (or a big problem). I suppose a positive way to look at these results is this: When shot at apertures one normally uses for action (i.e., stopped down a little from f2.8), almost half of the images shot using the Sigma were very sharp (and we're not paying for film anymore).

NOTE TO CANON USERS: One should not assume that the focus-tracking "problem" discussed here is also found on the Canon version of this lens (different AF mechanics, and different engineering problems to overcome). So there is no reason to think this issue is generalizable across mount-types. The Canon lens could be far better or much worse in this regard than the Nikon version. This "Readers Digest" version of my Field Test (and the "problem" in focus-tracking) should be taken to apply ONLY to the Nikon version of the lens.

The final word? The Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 is well-built and offers stellar performance in almost all meaningful categories we use to measure lens value or worth - it's very, very sharp from edge-to-edge at all focal lengths, with its wide aperture it's great in low light and allows one to isolate their subject beautifully from their background, and in most situations its optical stabilization and autofocus system function effectively. It lags only in one aspect of autofocus performance that may or may not matter to a potential buyer.

Would I buy this lens? Given what I already own, probably not. But, I do find myself wishing that Sigma would have let me keep it for my coming Aquatic Mammals photo tour - based on what I know about the distance the subjects range over and their speed of movement, I can think of no other lens that would have been more ideal for this trip. Take that FWIW...

My thanks are extended to the Canadian distributor of Sigma camera equipment (GenTec International) - and particularly to "my guys" at Robinson's Camera in Calgary (Jeff and Conor) - for their collective efforts in getting this lens to me for testing.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog_2013_all.html#anchor_Sigma120to300

12 August 2013: Photographers of Planet Earth Features Yours Truly...

The highly-regarded independent website Photographers of Planet Earth have just featured me on their website. For the feature I was asked to submit my "favourite" photo and to explain why I considered it my favourite. That was a real challenge for me - simply because I honestly don't have a favourite photo (I like to think my favourite photo is the next one I take!). But if you're curious about which photo I selected and why I selected it, just check out the feature on Photographers of Planet Earth...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

12 August 2013: Field Tests: What's Coming Down the Pipe...

About half of the visitors to this website come for the technical information contained in my blog or my Field Tests (the other half spends the bulk of their time in my image galleries). Recently I've received a few emails from folks either asking me or speculating about what I'm currently testing. Some of the speculation was pretty wild (including products I have never heard of or don't - as far as I know - currently exist). So...as an aid for those liking the technical information, here's a snapshot of the products I'm either currently "playing with" or have completed playing with but haven't written up as field tests yet.

1. Testing Completed But Not Yet Appearing As a Field Test:

This list is far too long and it's a priority of mine to put in a lot of effort to chip away at it. Hey - I'm a busy guy (and NO ONE is paying me to test this stuff!). But...apologies! 'Nuff said.

Nikon D600 Camera Body: Testing completed. I haven't made my fondness for this camera a secret at all and those seeking info about it should scroll down my blog and read the various entries. Producing my Field Test of this camera is at the top of my list of "to-do's".

AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm F4 VR Zoom Lens: Testing completed. There are MANY comments about this lens spread throughout my blog, but the formal review IS needed (to bring it all together in one place). Short story: This is a great lens and has almost completely replaced my 70-200mm f2.8 VRII as my go-to medium telephoto zoom lens. Super sharp (even at f4); very fast AF, great VR, and takes to teleconverters better than the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII.

AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm F4.5-5.6 VR Zoom Lens: Testing completed. Lots of blog entries below on this lens, and it would be impossible to read those and not notice that I am incredibly impressed with this long-overdue update of a "classic" lens. Surprisingly sharp (up there with the 200-400 f4 VR in most real-world shooting situations!), really fast autofocus, "good-enough" VR for most uses and users, quite compact and quite light - what's not to like? Oh right, the incredibly wimpy tripod collar and the zoom-ring-covering lens hood (when reversed). As soon as I have written up my 70-200mm f4 review this one is next. But for readers of this blog it's hard NOT to know that I am going to strongly recommend this lens!

Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 DG OS HSM S: Testing completed. HUH? Sigma? Yep, in producing this lens Sigma has made a statement that they're serious in challenging the big guys (read that as "Nikon and Canon") in the FULLY professional category. And, they were kind enough to send me one to test. In fact, I just packed it up and sent it back to Sigma this morning (and had to put all other field testing projects on hold for the 10 days this lens was in my hands). Based on emails I have received asking me to test this lens (a surprising amount of them!), there is considerable interest in this lens. Expect an "executive summary" of my impressions of this lens in a day or two...but no hints until then!

2. Testing Right Now:

Nikon D800e Camera Body: Testing in progress. This might come as a surprise to some. My D800 Field Test was put to bed a long time ago, and I HAD done limited shooting with a D800e prior to writing it. But as I used my D800 more and more (and, to be honest, became less and less thrilled with it) I began to wonder more about how a D800e would compare. In particular I began wondering if the D800e would be noticeably sharper under real-world shooting conditions. And, I began to wonder if the consequences of the D800e's modified Optical Low Pass Filter (i.e., Anti-Aliasing - or AA - filter) - that part of the camera that purportedly leads to increased sharpness BUT also produces increased moire and false colour - would matter (or be in any way troublesome) to a wildlife photographer. After all, both fur and feathers have very fine patterning where moire and false colour could certainly be an issue. Expect blog entries covering these topics over the next month...(as well as updates to my D800 Field Test that incorporate my findings).

AF-S Nikkor 24-120mm F4 VR Zoom Lens: Testing in progress. Acquisition and testing of this lens came about partly due to the number of emails I was receiving asking me about it and partly because it seems like it SHOULD be a very good travel lens for nature photographers. I suppose if the AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 VR had a VR on it I wouldn't even have considered acquiring and testing the 24-120, but...(and yes you CAN read that as me thinking the 24-70mm f2.8 is lacking because it does NOT have a VR on it). Expect both running blog entries on my experiences with the 24-120mm f4 Vr and a final full Field Test.

Nikon 1 V2 Camera Body: Testing in progress. My Nikon 1 V1 Field Test is amazingly popular and I really enjoyed using the V1. So when the V2 came out I decided to get my hands on one of those (both for my own use and to test). Expect both running blog entries on my experiences with the Nikon 1 V2 and a final full Field Test.

Pivothead Wearable Imaging: OK - I'm betting NO ONE guessed I was testing this product out! What is it? Sunglasses with HD video (and still photo) recording ability. Not worth getting into my rationale for trying this out right now, but expect blog entries on this product in a few weeks. Curious? Check the Pivotheads out right here...

That's it for now...have to run so I can get back to testing and writing up my results! Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

6 August 2013: For Sale: Nikon D800 Camera Body...

I've just put my D800 camera body up for sale. And, it's only ever been driven to church on Sundays by an older member of the gentler sex (probably politically incorrect to say "old lady" these days).

Selling price and all other details are available on my Gear 4 Sale page. First come, first served on this one - so if you're interested don't snooze (or ya might looze!).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

22 July 2013: More AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR Images Appearing...

I've added more images shot with Nikon's new AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR to my Gallery of Latest Additions. The newest posts include a female grizzly captured in low-light conditions in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary and a breeding male American Golden-Plover that I photographed during my recent trip up to the high arctic. Check them out here...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

22 July 2013: 2013 Photo Tour Update: Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More!

There's still a few spots left for my mid-August "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More!" photo-op style photo tour. On this trip we have a plethora of opportunities to capture stunning images of a huge range of aquatic mammals - everything from humpback whales, orcas (killer whales), steller sea lions, sea otters, seals, gray whales, and a whole lot more (including some absolutely spectacular coastal scenes). And, we do this while touring the northern tip of Vancouver Island, BC aboard the beautiful Ocean Light II - a 71' sailboat with all the luxuries of home!

Here are the critical details about this great trip:

• PHOTO TOUR TYPE: Photo Op Tour.
• DATES: August 17 to 24, 2013.
• NUMBER OF PARTICIPANTS: Limited to 6.
• COST: $3599 Canadian plus applicable taxes. Currency converter available here.

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

For more information, just download this brochure (PDF; 4.3 MB) or contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca for more information and details about this unique photo tour.

If you're into great photo ops of fascinating species in an area with unforgettable scenery (and backdrops), you DON'T want to miss this trip!

For information on all my 2013 and photo tours, just visit the Photo Tours page of this website.

Cheers...

Brad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confused? Just check out this example:

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

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11 July 2013: Back From the Land of the Midnight Sun...

My first trip to north of the Arctic Circle is now behind me and I'm back home (and already spending way too much time in front of a computer screen). The trip was a great success and an awesome experience and I AM definitely going back. This trip included time in the Northwest Territories (in and around Yellowknife) which was very interesting and provided some good photo ops. But for me the highlight was the 5 days spent on an arctic island (Victoria Island) in Nunavut.

How would I describe the area? Think rock garden - a really, really BIG rock garden. How big? Over 217,000 sq. km big. That's about 7 times the size of Vancouver Island - and over 8,000 sq km bigger than Great Britain. Think endless rolling terrain, with lakes raining in size from tiny through huge, and most of the dry ground covered in rocks and a carpet of flowers. With amazing clear sky and fresh, crisp air. And nary a tree in sight!

People? Yep, there's people - super-friendly people (they're always smiling and willing to talk to you - makes you wonder what they know and we southerners don't!). There's about 1500 on the island - and most are found in one community, Cambridge Bay. That means the population density is about one person for every 145 sq. km (or one person for every 56 sq. miles). Not what you would call crowded.

Then there is, of course, the endless light (at least in the time around the summer solstice). The quality of the light at midnight - so warm and so rich - has to be experienced to be believed. The photographer's "golden hour" extends from about 11 PM through to 4 AM (yes...photographers can find that getting sleep is a challenge).

What's that old saying - a picture is worth a thousand words? So to save my fingers, here's a typical tundra scene, in this case from a ridge overlooking the ice-covered Beaufort Sea - the Northwest Passage - that appears in the background:

Arctic Rock Garden: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.2 MB)

What about the wildlife? On the mammalian side we encountered two herds of muskox and some Arctic Foxes (with their characteristic "blue" summer coats). And of course, some northern collared lemmings. On this trip we didn't see caribou (or the associated wolves that follow them).

But the birds were the definite stars of the show. Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings replace the familiar urban birds most of us are used to (like House Sparrows and American Robins). Out on the tundra you'll find birds that most "southerners" have never seen before, including jaegers and "arctic-only" species like Sabine's Gull (what a striking bird!). And, of course, you'll see some birds that may be familiar to some (such as American Golden-Plovers), but are found in incredibly showy breeding plumage in the north (and in some cases, ONLY in the north!). If you're into flight shots (those good ol' BIF's) - and especially flight shots of rarely photographed species - there's no better place to go!

Northern Lights? Nope. 24-hour sunlight makes for poor aurora borealis viewing! ;-)

Images? Yep, already starting to appear in my Gallery of Latest Additions. I'll be continuously adding new images to that gallery over the next few weeks, so check back often to see what's new...

What about camera gear? Of course, I took a D4 and my favorite "go to" wildlife lens - my 400mm f2.8 VRII. I captured MOST of my flight shots with this setup, often with the assistance of a 1.4x teleconverter (my 400mm f2.8 VR is one of the few lenses I will regularly use a teleconverter on).

But, I did a LOT of shooting on this trip with my D600 - often combined with the "new" AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR. I've said many times on this blog that I feel the D600 is probably Nikon's most versatile camera for the nature photographer, and I'm even MORE convinced of this after this trip. And, while I'll never argue that the new 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR outperforms my 400mm f2.8 VR (or should replace it in a serious wildlife photographer's kit), I was incredibly impressed with its versatility and optical quality on this trip. In knowing what I know now about the 80-400mm, I'm not feeling even remotely deprived by no longer owning a 200-400mm f4 VR (I sold mine over a year ago). Images shot with my D600 and the 80-400mm VR will be appearing in my Gallery of Latest Additions soon...

What about other gear? Because of the luggage limitations we all face when we travel by air, I decided to take a new short zoom along that I haven't used before (the 24-120mm f4 VR). My thoughts on the lens? I haven't done systematic testing on it yet, but I'm already thinking this is one very under-appreciated lens (yes, the more rigorous testing and field test are planned and will be posted on this website in the coming months). The "Arctic Rock Garden" image above was captured with the D600 and 24-120mm f4 VR (@ 27mm).

Cheers for now...more soon...

Brad

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22 June 2013: Off to the Arctic - I Hope!

First thing tomorrow morning I'm theoretically off to the Arctic for just under two weeks of photography and wildlife viewing. Why "theoretically"? Our trip leaves from Edmonton, Alberta and to get there I must travel through southern Alberta. Which, over the last 3 days, has been hit by a massive, prolonged rainstorm that has dumped over 350mm (that's over a foot!) of rain in some areas and produced severe flooding throughout a widespread area. Twenty seven cities and towns are under a state of emergency and in the city of Calgary alone over 100,000 people have been evacuated from dozens of neighborhoods. Ma Nature is apparently NOT pleased with Alberta! And, as I write this, I'm totally sealed off - every highway leading from where I live in BC's East Kootenays is shut down, either by washouts or simply to keep anyone from going to Calgary.

So...either this will be my last blog entry until about July 5 (if I can find a way to escape!) or it will be business as usual with regular website and blog updates.

A Note On AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR Testing: Between downpours here I managed to get in some comparative "long-distance-to-subject" (one kilometer and over) testing on my AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR zoom. I haven't had a chance to fully scrutinize all the images yet, but I have looked at enough to say that the trends I found at shorter distances are still holding up - specifically that the images captured with the 80-400mm are virtually identical to those captured with the 200-400mm VR zoom. And, the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter aren't too far off in sharpness (from the two bigger zooms). At this distance the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x teleconverter did NOT fare well - images from this combination of gear were a lot softer than with any other lens and/or lens and teleconverter combination I tried. I'll provide more details when I return from the Arctic (or early next week if my trip goes sideways).

So...until next time - whenever that may be - cheers...

Brad

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19 June 2013: More AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR Images...

More images shot with Nikon's new AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR during my trip to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary are finding their way into my Gallery of Latest Additions. For my most recent addition (a portrait of a sub-adult male grizzly) I used Photoshop CC's "new and improved" Smart Sharpen filter for final sharpening for web output. According to Adobe, the new algorithm used in the latest Smart Sharpen reduces halo-effects and "intelligently" avoids sharpening image noise (and can even reduce image noise). While I haven't played with the new Smart Sharpen too much yet, it does seem to do a great job and I quite like it.

To help viewers assess the sharpness of the most recently posted image I also posted a link to a considerably larger (2400 pixel) version of it - you'll find that link in the commentary found under the "In the Field" tab right below the image.

Cheers...

Brad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

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12 June 2013: Lightroom 5, Adobe's Creative Cloud, and More...

Just a few updates and bits and bites today...

1. Lightroom 5: I downloaded and installed my copy of Lightroom 5 late last night. I had heard scuttlebutt that there were going to be some pretty major updates to the app, especially to its raw conversion and image-editing capabilities (so primarily in the "Develop" module). I mainly use Lightroom as an image management and cataloging tool (the "Library" module) so expect comments on changes/improvements in that aspect of its functionality next week. My preferred raw converter is Capture One Pro (from Phase One) and I have no plans of switching to Lightroom for this aspect of my workflow, but in the near future (hopefully next week) I will spend some time examining and evaluating how well the Develop module performs. And, of course, I'll share my thoughts here...

2. Adobe's Creative Cloud: In purchasing Lightroom 5 I joined Adobe's "Creative Cloud". For those who don't know, this misleadingly labelled service (hey, it's just a "pay-through-subscription" model) has been pretty controversial and has some long-time Photoshop-using (and Lightroom-using) photographers pretty ticked off. Long story short - moving forward you'll have to pay a monthly fee to get and use new versions of Adobe's apps. Anyway...as a professional photographer who regularly uses 4 Adobe apps (Photoshop, Lightroom, InDesign, and Acrobat Pro) and occasionally one more app (Illustrator) and who must keep on top of the latest versions of at least Photoshop and Lightroom, I have to say I don't mind the Creative Cloud. When I called Adobe yesterday I got in on an "introductory special" (don't know when it expires, and didn't notice it on their website) that gives me access to ALL their apps for the first year for $19.95 per month (about $240 for the year). Next week Adobe will be releasing new versions of Photoshop and at least some of their other apps (the sales rep on the phone said "all their apps") - and updating even two of them would have cost me far more than $240. I fully understand why enthusiasts using only one or two Adobe apps might be upset by the Creative Cloud service, but for me it makes sense (and I can budget for my apps more easily now).

Given that many users - and especially those who use only one or two Adobe apps - are (quite predictably) ticked off by the Creative Cloud concept, why did Adobe go down this road? Well, as an ex-Adobe employee I have a feeling for how "bumpy" of a cash flow they formerly had, primarily driven by Photoshop updates and upgrade sales. So I'm guessing at least part of the reason was to flatten out the revenue peaks and troughs. And, to get more of Adobe's obscure apps into more users' hands (how many of you were about to buy Muse but may download it if it's included in the price of your 3 other apps?). And, of course, to make more money. And, finally, Adobe has NEVER done the consumer market well (Apple kicks their butt there), and perhaps they're just finally admitting that and providing a program that may well appeal to creative professionals who use several of their apps (and they don't care if they tick off the "average consumer level user"). I don't know...just speculation on my part...

3. Continued Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR testing: Just this AM I shot a whack of shots comparing the "new" 80-400mm VR (at several focal lengths and a range of apertures) at a distance-to-subject of 80 meters. The lenses I compared the 80-400mm to included the 400mm f2.8 VR, 200-400mm f4 VR, both the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the 70-200mm f4 VR (both with and without the 2x TC-20EIII), and even the 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR (thanks for the suggestion Matt). Now I just have to scrutinize the 400 or so images I just shot and summarize the results! Expect an overview early next week (but I can already say that the 80-400 is continue to perform well - including matching up to the 200-400 VR surprisingly well). Stay tuned for more info on that...

All for now...back to processing images from my recent Khutzeymateen photo tours...

Cheers...

Brad

PS: More Khutzeymateen images are "flowing" into my Gallery of Latest Additions - check 'em out when you have a second.

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

10 June 2013: AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR Images...

Images that I recently shot in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary using Nikon's new AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR are now beginning to appear in my Gallery of Latest Additions. As always, each image is accompanied by a lot of contextual information (and the occasional opinion) - just click on the tabs below the image to reveal the info (e.g., the "In the Field" and "Behind the Camera" tabs).

While I do look at (and place some value on) "lab tests", in my opinion what really counts is the results you can actually get in the field under "real world" conditions. I think you'll find the 80-400mm VR images in my Latest Additions gallery pretty illuminating (and useful).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

6 June 2013: Back from the Garden of Grizzlies!

I've just returned from my 9 days of shooting in the misty, moody, and mystical Garden of Grizzlies known as the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary. It's always incredibly challenging to put the Khutzeymateen experience into words - you can only use so many modifying words and phrases before it sounds almost unbelievable: ethereal, intimate, mind-opening, mind-boggling, breath-taking...and so on. But the most gratifying aspect of the photo tours I lead in there is that I KNOW that all the first-time visitors I took in experienced something beyond their wildest dreams and, more importantly, their attitudes about what bears are REALLY like have been forever changed. Ok, I lied, that's the SECOND most gratifying thing - the MOST gratifying is what I saw and the images I captured! But...I feel so fortunate to annually experience the Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen - it may sound like hackneyed marketing phrase, but it truly is a globally unique experience. Great bears, great weather, great scenes - what more can you ask for?

I've begun posting images shot during this year Khutzeymateen pilgrimage in my Gallery of Latest Additions - check 'em out when you have a second. And check back often - there will be lots more images coming over the next while. And for those who want to see what the area itself looks like (and not just what the inhabitants look like), here's some medium-resolution shots (2400 pixel) of a few of the scenes in the Khutzeymateen we experienced last week:

Daybreak in the Khutzeymateen Inlet: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 626 KB)
High Tide in the Khutzeymateen Estuary: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 747 KB)
Khutzeymateen Inlet - Reflections on Solitude: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.4 MB)

I know a lot of folks drop by here to hear about photography gear, and Nikon gear in particular. So here's a brief listing of the highlights of how some of the new gear I was using worked out in the challenging low-light environment of the Khutzeymateen Inlet. Note that I did the bulk of my shooting with two main camera set-ups - a D4 paired with my "trusty" 400mm f2.8 VR and a D600 paired with Nikon's "new" AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR (at times I paired the 80-400 with my second D4). Anyway...here ya go:

1. The Versatile D600: If there was ever a place where the D4 shines, it's the Khutzeymateen. Why? You're in low-light AND shooting big lenses from an unstable platform (an inflatable boat) where it's impossible to use a tripod - so there's a massive premium for high ISO performance. That being said, I captured tons of images that I'm extremely happy with using my D600. The D600 isn't a D4, but I came away from the Khutzeymateen more convinced than ever that the D600 is Nikon's most versatile DSLR. Oh, and by the way, we WERE shooting in wet conditions and I DID get my D600...uhhh...more than damp. And it performed flawlessly. Fast enough frame rate for MOST situations; an AF system capable of handling "big glass" (even jn comparatively low light); a GREAT dynamic range; and enough resolution for landscape shooting. Versatile, versatile, versatile.

2. The AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR: OK - you'll never see me turning away from my 400mm f2.8 VR and going to my 80-400mm VR when I need 400mm of focal length - the big prime IS sharper and faster (and it should be - it's about 5 times as expensive and 5 times as heavy). BUT, the 80-400mm VR continued to exceed my expectations. It was an absolutely excellent companion lens to shoot side-by-side with my "big glass" (my 400 or my 600mm f4 VR). You'll see many an image in my Gallery of Latest Additions in the coming days and weeks that was shot with the 80-400. And I captured many images that I will be easily able to sell to discriminating buyers (including as gallery-quality prints). I have gone on record saying that the SINGLE best lens for a first-time visitor to bring into the Khutzeymateen was the Nikkor 200-400mm f4 VR. But, I'm beginning to wonder if I'm going to have to soon start changing my tune and recommending the 80-400 as the best SINGLE lens one can bring along on this photo tour. I'll say more on this later (after scrutinizing more images). Oh yeah, and it's a WHOLE LOT easier to travel with than the big primes...

3. The Nikon D4 - The BEST Wildlife Camera on the Market: I know I'll get email from some Canon users arguing the 1D-X is better than the D4, and for some things (that I haven't thought of) maybe it is. But for my money, the D4 is simply the best camera ever made for wildlife photography - and I'm reminded of that every time I shoot it in tough, demanding conditions. Why? Here's my top reasons: Unmatched ISO performance. Great AF, even in low, low light. An incredibly usable Auto ISO system (and in low-light shoots filled with unpredictably occurring action this is absolutely invaluable). And a wide-enough dynamic range. It's almost hard to miss the shot with a D4 (but still possible - trust me!).

4. Think Tank's Hydrophobia 300-600 Raincover Version 2: It's nuts to go into the Great Bear Rainforest without a good rain cover for your camera/lens. For several years I've been using AquaTech Rain Shields and had been quite happy with them. But, an increasing number of participants on my photo tours have been showing up with Think Tank's Hydrophobia Raincover along and seemed to like them - so I figured it was time to try one myself. The result? Loved it. Equal or better rain protection. Easier and quicker to put on. Can be "peeled back" and stored ON your lens (like a donut on your lens and, while doing so, acts as pretty darned good bean bag). So I'm a switcher and WILL be using the Think Tank Hydrophobia moving forward. More info on it right here...

5. AquaTech Soft Hood for Long Lenses: I've been using these hoods when traveling for a few years now and just love them. You can "unroll" them and put them in the bottom of a duffle for traveling. When on the camera you can bang 'em around with no harm. One hood fits the 400, 500, and 600mm lenses. During this trip I was the only one (everyone else had stock Nikon or Canon lens hoods) but by the end I suspect all the other long lens users were thinking "...hmmm...I gotta get one of those". Oh, and WAY, WAY cheaper than replacement hoods for the big glass (from either Nikon or Canon). Where to get more info or buy one? Right here...

All for now...I have IMAGES TO PROCESS!!

One last thing...spots for my 2014 Khutzeymateen Photo Tours are already disappearing. So...if you're intrigued about the Khutzeymateen, just check out my Photo Tour page for more info!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

24 May 2013: Off to the Khutzeymateen...

First thing tomorrow morning I'll be hopping on a float plane in Prince Rupert, BC and making the final "hop" over a few mountain ranges and into the amazing Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary to lead my first of two annual Khutzeymateen photo tours. And, I'll be accompanied by 6 keen photographers who are currently as excited as kids on Christmas Eve!

We have no internet access during our time in the Khutzeymateen, so I'll be posting no updates to this website until I return on June 6. But you can expect more information and feedback on the performance on the AF-S 80-400mm VR lens to appear on this website shortly thereafter.

May Photeus provide you with awesome light and cooperative subjects until I return!

Cheers...

Brad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

In my previous post I compared Nikon's new AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR lens to two high-end super-telephotos - the 400mm f2.8 VRII prime lens and the 200-400mm f4 VR zoom. These comparisons were at the long-end of the focal range and when focused on close subjects (like you would when photographing small mammals and many birds).

Another interesting comparison to make is how the new 80-400mm VR compares to two popular zoom lenses when they are combined with the TC-20EIII 2x teleconverter. The lenses I'm referring to are the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the "new" (or newish) 70-200mm f4 VR. Should owners of either of these two zooms consider buying the 80-400mm VR or should they just buy the TC-20EIII teleconverter? And, what about shooters who own none of these lenses but want to get into wildlife photography - would they be better served by picking up one of the "smaller" zooms and the TC-20EIII or just buy the new 80-400mm VR?

Like with the previous entry, this comparison will be limited to close-range shooting (in this case 4.9m - or about 16'). Unlike the previous comparison, I tested additional focal lengths - and at the very short end of the range (i.e., 200mm and shorter) I tested the 80-400mm against the f2.8 and f4 versions when shot native (without TC's).

And for those who are wondering, I WILL be presenting my findings over longer distances-to-subject in the fairly near future (most of those comparisons have already been shot).

A. What I Did: Pretty much the same as on my May 13 entry - I took a whole lot of controlled shots of a stump that was situated 4.9m (around 16') from the tripod-mounted camera (a D600). For each camera/lens combination I shot images over a range of apertures from wide open to f16. For each camera/lens combination I shot images at 1/3 stop increments for the first two stops smaller than "wide open", and then at 1-stop increments up to f16. I shot images at 400mm, 360mm, 300mm, 200mm, 135mm and 80mm. Which means I almost went cross-eyed staring at and scrutinizing over 800 images (I shot two frame bursts for each lens/focal length/aperture combination).

B. What I Found: A dizzying array of "factoids" for keeping in my back pocket when I'm out shooting, but there were some very interesting trends that I think many may find useful. So here you go:

1. Comparisons Involving the 2x Teleconverter: When I compared the new 80-400mm VR at focal lengths over 200mm (i.e., where the two 70-200mm zooms needed to be paired with the 2x TC) the result was clear - the 80-400mm VR was noticeably sharper. Period. And this trend was obvious at all focal lengths (400mm, 360mm, 300mm) and apertures tested.

And, at the three focal lengths tested (400mm, 360mm, 300mm) and at most apertures, the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII 2x teleconverter was very slightly sharper than 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus teleconverter. But I want to stress that with this "very slightly sharper" observation I was REALLY splitting hairs - unless one looks at these images at 100% magnification and does close side-by-side comparisons, one would almost never notice the sharpness difference between these two 70-200mm zooms when combined with the 2x TC. (BTW: the only exception to this trend was at 400mm and f8 - which is wide open for the 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC combination - for this aperture ONLY the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus TC combination appeared very slightly or arguably sharper than with the 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC).

2. Comparisons NOT Involving the 2x TC: At focal lengths of 200mm and shorter I compared the lenses shot "natively" (without a TC attached). I tested the lenses at 200mm, 135mm, and 80mm. What did I find? The most significant thing was this: there was almost NO difference in sharpness between the three zooms at any of the focal lengths (or apertures) tested. And there was certainly no trend. For example, at 200mm and f5.6 the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII seemed slightly sharper than the other two lenses. But at f8 the 80-400mm VR seemed slightly sharper. But major hair-splitting is going on here!

IMPORTANT NOTE: A major REAL WORLD caveat to the results above - especially those at 200mm and shorter focal ranges where sharpness differences were very small. It's important to remember that all these shots were captured when the cameras/lenses were shot from a large, firm tripod. I suspect that all 3 of these lenses (with and without a teleconverter attached) will often be shot hand-held, especially for wildlife. In this case, the effectiveness of the VR system could easily "overcome" the small differences in image sharpness I observed. In other words, the critical factor in "real-world" image sharpness could easily become determined by which lens offers the best VR system. Subjectively, it's my opinion that the best VR system is found on the 70-200mm f4 VR. The VR systems on the other two lenses seem very similar to me in performance, tho' I get the feeling that the VR on the new 80-400mm VR is slightly better than on the 70-200mm VRII (if you quote me on this, please include the "get the feeling" qualifier!).

C. Take Home Lessons? For me there's some pretty significant lessons here that I will apply to my own shooting:

1. If I'm shooting subjects (like small mammals and/or birds) at close range and I need a focal length of over 200mm I'll definitely opt for new AF-S 80-400mm VR over either 70-200mm VR with a 2x TC. It's noticeably sharper.

2. If I'm shooting subjects at close range and I need a focal range of 200mm or shorter my choice of lens will be driven by concerns OTHER than image sharpness differences, such as the amount of available light and Depth of Field (DoF) concerns.

3. If I was asked whether one should opt for the 80-400mm VR versus one of the 70-200mm lenses plus a 2x TC for shooting wildlife, I'm already thinking I would point them at the 80-400mm VR. But...the performance of the lenses at longer distances (coming soon!) must be answered before I'd be comfortable making a firm recommendation...

What's up next? Comparisons at mid-range distances - the kind you use when working with larger mammals like deer and elk (so about 30-45m or 100' to 150'). And with the 400mm f2.8 VR, 200-400mm f4 VR, 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus TC-20EIII, and the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII. And if you think your head is spinning now... ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

13 May 2013: The Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR - Up Close & Personal!

Many of the nature photographers who are considering purchasing the new AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR will at least occasionally use it to photograph small mammals or birds at close range. I know this is definitely something I would use the lens for. So this morning I took a few minutes to do a little head-to-heat testing of the 80-400mm VR against a few other Nikon lenses at "small mammal" range. The lenses I chose to compare the 80-400mm VR to were the 400mm f2.8 VRII and the 200-400mm f4 VR.

A. What I Did: I simply set up my camera on a tripod about 4.9m (16') from a stump that is known to have a squirrel visit it once in a while. The stump is a good subject simply because it offers fine texture and detail and there is nothing in the immediate background, thus allowing one to easily compare the quality of both the in-focus zones and the out-of-focus zones. All images were captured at 400mm using a D600 camera. I left the VR on (and used the appropriate "on-tripod" mode for each lens). For each lens I shot a sequence of images from "wide open" through to f16 (in 1/3 stop increments for the first two stops, thereafter in full stop increments).

B. What I Found: After scrutinizing several hundred images of a stump for way too long (borrrring!!!), some trends were readily and consistently apparent. In my final field test of this lens I will provide photographic evidence of each of these observations/conclusions - for now you'll have to take my word for it!

1. Significant Focus Breathing on the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR: When I switched between lenses it was instantly apparent that at this close range (4.9m or 16') that the focal length was shortening significantly on the 80-400mm VR lens. This shortening of focal range at close focus distances is often referred to as "focus breathing? and is found on some other Nikon zooms (e.g., the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII). How bad was the focus breathing? Well, at a focus distance of 4.9m (16'), the 80-400mm was equivalent to about a 300mm lens (this was easily checked by zooming the 200-400mm lens until the stump was of equivalent size using both lenses). So, at this distance there was about a 25% reduction in focal length with the 80-400mm VR. Some won't care about this - others will be very concerned about it. Me? Not a big deal to me (I'll just move closer if I have to!). But...if someone is considering buying this lens they should be aware of this "issue".

2. Image Sharpness Comparison: The focus breathing issue confounded the process of comparing image sharpness somewhat, but not so much as to make differences in sharpness undetectable (when viewed at 100% magnification - or 1:1). At equivalent apertures the 400mm f2.8 VR was noticeably sharper than the two zooms (no surprise there). BUT, interestingly, at f7.1 and smaller (more about this aperture choice below) it was incredibly tough to see any sharpness differences between the 80-400mm VR and the 200-400mm VR (at f5.6 - which is "wide open" on the 80-400mm lens at 400mm - the 200-400mm f4 WAS noticeably sharper).

3. The Out-of-Focus Zones? One of the more important characteristics of a "great" lens (and one of the main reasons demanding photographers are willing to shell out thousands and thousands of dollars for "fast" primes) is how smooth and pleasing the out-of-focus zones are. And, this is another area where the results are confounded somewhat by the focus breathing on the 80-400mm VR (different focal lengths of lenses will have differing depths-of-field (DoF), which will impact on just "how out of focus" a background is). Anyway...again a trend was clear (even with the focus breathing): at the widest aperture at 400mm where all 3 lenses could be compared (f5.6), the 400mm f2.8 DEFINITELY had the smoothest ("creamy as butter") out-of-focus zones. Just super sweet bokeh. The 200-400mm VR placed second in this regard, and there was a noticeable difference in the out-of-focus zones between the 200-400mm VR and the 80-400mm VR. BUT, the 80-400mm VR still was surprisingly good.

4. Sharpness When Shot Wide Open? Another of the "hallmarks" of a great lens is that it is very close to maximally sharp when shot with the aperture wide open or, alternately, you have to stop it down very little before you get to maximal sharpness. The 400mm f2.8 VR is VERY sharp at f2.8 and you only have to stop down by about 1/3 of a stop before it is biting sharp. Similarly, the 200-400mm f4 VR is quite sharp (at close distances) at f4. It is slightly sharper at f4.5, but further stopping down makes very little difference in sharpness. The 80-400mm VR? At 400mm it's a bit soft when shot wide open (f5.6). And, it's still soft at f6.3. By f7.1 it's getting sharper, and close to maximally sharp.

So, outwardly that doesn't sound too bad - right? With the 400mm f2.8 VR and the 200-400mm f4 VR you stop down about 1/3 of a stop before getting close to maximize sharpness...and with the 80-400mm f5.6 VR you have to stop down 2/3 to a full stop before getting close to maximum sharpness. Heck, it's only a third of a stop difference! BUT, don't forget you're starting with a smaller aperture to begin with on the 80-400mm VR. So...with the 400mm f2.8 VR you get razor-shop images at f3.2, whereas with the 80-400mm VR f4.5-5.6 you get quite sharp images at f7.1 or f8. That's a BIG difference - and it can REALLY impact on the control you have over your DoF, how well you can separate your subject from the background, and the final appearance of your image.

OK - time for a reality check. Do the issues of focus breathing and the fact that you have to stop down a little more (from an already "narrower" aperture) before getting close to maximum sharpness "damn" the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR to forever being an "amateur" or - at best - an "enthusiast" lens? I don't think so...my view is that it's more a matter of knowing the strengths and weaknesses of a lens (they ALL have weaknesses!) and dealing with the accordingly. Recall that I started this entry about talking about photographing small mammals and birds. Well...while I was playing with my stump this morning, a pesky squirrel shoved his snout into my viewfinder (so to speak) while I had the 80-400mm lens on. And, at the end of the day - it's about the images, right? Check this one out...

Red On Green: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.4 MB)

Is it sharp enough for you? That's your call to make. Right now I'm feeling that this lens's attributes (primarily its great focal range in a compact-enough and light-enough form to easily carry around) outweigh the slight trade-off in image sharpness and DoF control. When I encounter a pine marten attacking a squirrel on the top of a mountain I've had to hike 15 km up, the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR that I have with me is going to take a better picture than my 400mm f2.8 VRII (or a 200-400mm f4 VR) that are sitting back at home because they were too darned heavy to carry up the mountain!

What's up next? Likely some comparisons at mid-range distances - the kind you use when working with larger mammals like deer and elk (so about 30-45m or 100' to 150'). Stay tuned...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

9 May 2013: The Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR Part 1 - Very First Impressions...

My "test" copy of the new 80-400mm VR zoom (which is formally known as the AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR) arrived late yesterday afternoon. This long-overdue upgrade (the lens it was replacing is over 12 years old!) has been eagerly anticipated by many Nikon shooters, and especially by many Nikon-shooting nature photographers. Between its great focal range and reasonably compact size (for a 400mm lens) this lens has almost magnetic appeal and just so much potential. For day-to-day use. For hiking. For wildlife shooting. For sports shooting. And so much more. It's actually hard NOT to be excited about this lens!

Because of this appeal and great potential I will be thoroughly testing this lens over the coming months. It will be headed into the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary with me in a few weeks - and I will have a chance to REALLY push the lens and see what it can REALLY do in there. And, it's already been with me on two casual walks where I've used it the way I anticipate using it a LOT in the coming months - as a walkaround companion that I will be regularly shooting hand-held.

Before I decide to permanently add this lens to my bag I will need to answer several questions, including: Is the lens sufficiently sharp to please me when shot wide open, especially near the long end of its focal range? Is the autofocus system adequate to capture sharp action shots of moving subjects (like birds in flight)? Is the VR effective enough to allow hand-holding of the lens at all focal lengths (and on all FX bodies)? How does it compare at overlapping focal lengths with the popular (but much more expensive) 200-400 f4 zoom? And so on...

What follows are my earliest impressions after "playing" with the lens in the field for only a few hours. Take it for what it's worth...

1. Some Real World Practical Considerations:

A. Packing it Around!

I mentioned above that the lens is quite compact. In real world terms it's not much bigger or heavier than the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. Actually, with hood reversed the 80-400mm VR is slightly shorter than the 70-200mm f2.8 VR. And it weighs only a little under 3 ounces more than the 70-200 (both weighed with tripod foot removed).

This size issue is more than academically interesting - at least to me. Because on my daily peregrinations around my home I can encounter many species of wildlife, I like to keep my cameras and lenses real handy and quick to access (as in "quicker-than-digging-it-out-of-a-pack quick"). I do it by using a Think Tank Steroid Speed Belt (info available here) combined with a shoulder strap system known as a Pixel Racing Harness (info available here) - and I often have a pro camera with 70-200mm lens in a water-resistant holster called a Digital Holster 50 (info available here) attached to the belt system. The great news is that the new 80-400mm fits into the same digital holster (when mounted on a pro body). And, it also fits into another good 200mm lens case (one that also happens to work with the Steroid Speed Belt system) from Lowepro called the Lens Exchange Case 200 AW (from their S&F Series).

In my real world, little things like conveniently carrying a camera/lens around makes a BIG difference in its usability. Of course optics are critical, but so is actually having the lens with you (What's that old saying again? Oh yeah..."F8 and BE THERE!").

So far - big check mark #1.

B. ARGHHH on the Lens Hood!

One of the reasons I (and I suspect many others) have been excited about the new 80-400mm is that it should be a great "always have it with you" lens. That's why I'm excited about it fitting into the system I use when I'm hiking. A related issue is getting that camera out of my holster and ready-to-go fast. The holster helps a ton with this. BUT, when you pull your camera out of the holster and go to shoot (as that perfectly posed elk at sunset gets ready to move), you quickly discover that it is impossible to access the zoom ring on the lens until the hood is either taken off or put in its extended position (specifically, when the hood is in the reversed position, it totally obscures the zoom ring). So before you shoot you have to stop and find the release button on the hood, take it off and either throw it to the ground in frustration OR take MORE time to carefully put it in its extended position. Little thing? Sure. But...bye, bye elk at sunset shot!

So chalk this up as Con #1. Makes me wonder if ANYONE actually tested a prototype of this lens in a real world field setting. So basic...

C. The Tripod Collar?

I'm still waiting for a Arca-Swiss compatible lens plate (from Wimberley) for this lens to arrive, so I have to reserve judgment on how well the tripod collar works. My gut says it's too wimpy and flexible to work effectively (i.e., it may flex/twist and bind up a little), but I may be wrong on that. On the positive side, it comes off easily! If it turns out that the collar is too flexible, at least one 3rd party manufacturer (Really Right Stuff) is in the process of developing both a replacement collar (the LC-A13) and a replacement collar with a foot with an integrated arca-swiss plate (the LC-A13 Package). Mine may be on order soon (but I'm hope I'm wrong on this).

So I'm still on the fence on this one, but that collar and foot seems pretty flimsy to me...

2. Uhhh...But How Does the Lens Perform?

Right - lens performance. OK...consider what follows as VERY PRELIMINARY - and subject to change and/or refinement with more structured and rigorous testing. So far all I've done is walk around with the lens and shoot 500 or so hand-held shots (and I've only had the lens for 18 hours!). But here's some very first impressions (all the shots below are full-frame (not cropped) shots - but I have cut them in resolution to 2400 pixels on long axis to speed download times):

A. Autofocus performance

OK - it absolutely annihilates its aged ancestor in the autofocus department (especially in autofocus SPEED). But...that wouldn't be too hard - the old 80-400 was a dog when it came to autofocus! But the new lens does seem snappy and fast, and I can already say that focus-tracking seems to be good and definitely adequate for most bird-in-flight shots. How do I know? Well, check out this "dog-in-flight" shot (best to view at 100% magnification - AKA 1:1):

Jose Running: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.9 MB)

B. Is it really hand-holdable at 400mm?

Yep, no problem. And, the shot used to illustrate this also shows how all those fancy Nikon letters (ED and Super ED elements; N or Nano Coating) DO help ensure that the lens holds contrast in tricky lighting conditions (in this case strong side-lighting). And, it also shows that you don't have to stop down much (if at all) from wide-open at 400mm to get decently sharp shots (best to view at 100% magnification - AKA 1:1):

Jose Sidelit: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.4 MB)

C. How is it at shorter focal lengths?

Hmmm...at just over 200mm it seems pretty darned sharp. And, at least at near the short end of the focal range (and when used with a 24 MP D600), edge-to-edge sharpness seems pretty good. As always best to examine sharpness on these shots when viewed at 100%:

Blue Kootenay Sunrise: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

Pre-dawn Light: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 959 Kb)

Seems kind of odd to be summarizing much after such preliminary testing - but I think it's fair to already say that the new version of the 80-400mm is much better than its ancient ancestor. And, while I still have a ton of questions to answer before deciding if this lens is a keeper for me, it HAS passed my first crude (but decidedly real-world) "tests" - and with flying colors. Except for that damned hood - that's going to drive me crazy! But, overall...still looking pretty darned good...

More real soon...stay tuned...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

8 May 2013: Khutzeymateen Grizzlies 2014 Photo Tour Info!

What 2014 photo tour info already? Yep, you bet! I just posted all the details about my 2014 Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen photo tours (including PDF brochures) on the Photo Tours page of this website. For those who don't know, the Khutzeymateen is Canada's ONLY grizzly bear sanctuary and is closed to the public (fewer than 200 people - and far fewer photographers - get in their each year) - and it offers up just amazing, world-class photo opportunities for both grizzlies and stunning coastal rainforest scenery.

For your convenience, here are the links to the brochures for both of the Khutzeymateen Grizzlies photo tours I'll be offering in 2014:

8-Day Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour (PDF; 4.8 MB)

5-Day Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Photo Op Photo Tour (PDF; 4.2 MB)

My Khutzeymateen Photo Tours are always extremely popular and traditionally sell out very early (3 of 12 spots for May 2014 are already gone), so if you are interested in either of these trips best to contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca at your earliest convenience!

Cheers...

Brad

7 May 2013: Sharp Hand-held Shots with the Nikon D800 and the Nikon D600

The information contained in this entry first appeared here on April 17, 2013. But, through some mysterious shenanigans that are still puzzling me, the entry disappeared. Because I've received a number of emails asking me about it...here it is again...

Like many users of the D800, I've noticed that it's more than just a tad demanding to use effectively. While it is possible to get extremely sharp, full-resolution images with a D800 (when viewed at 100% magnification - or 1:1), I have empirically found it more challenging to do so than with either a D4 or D600, especially when shooting hand-held shots. When I first saw the specs of the D800 I suspected it might be challenging to hand-hold this camera at the shutter speeds I was used to shooting at with lower resolution Nikon cameras. My guess was that the small pixel pitch (about 4.7 microns, compared to 5.95 and 7.21 microns on the D600 and D4 respectively) would mean that even a very small amount of camera shake would translate into "soft" full resolution images (when viewed at 100% magnification). With such small pixels (or, more accurately, photosites) it's darned easy for a little motion to "drag" an edge in the object you are focused on across one or more pixels, softening the image.

So...a few weeks back I found so time to finally perform a simple test to see if the D800 actually WAS more challenging to hand-hold than a lower-res camera. And, to keep this test real, I chose to use lenses that are commonly hand-held by a lot of users - the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the "new" 70-200mm f4 VR.

WHAT I DID:

I shot several series of hand-hold shots of a distance subject (with a very distinct edge running completely across the frame) using the following equipment: Nikon D600, Nikon D800, Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VRII zoom, and Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR. All shots were taken with the lenses zoomed to maximum focal length (200mm). I chose to use Auto ISO for all shots, with the shutter speed set to Auto (which chooses a shutter speed based on the 1/focal length rule). With each combination of equipment I shot one series of images with NO compensation on the Auto Shutter speed, which translated to a shutter speed of 1/200s. And a second series of images (with each gear combination) were shot with a +1 stop compensation to the Auto Shutter speed - giving a shutter speed of 1/400s. In all cases the VR function of the lens was turned ON, and set to "Normal" mode - which mimics how I would use these lenses in normal day-to-day shooting.

It should be noted that with both my D4 and D600 I have shot thousands and thousands of shots (using lenses of various focal lengths) using Auto Shutter Speed with no compensation (so 1/focal length shutter speed) and, as long as I don't miss on the focus, have captured a very high proportion of sharp hand-held shots (with VR on and in normal mode). Of course, at times I do hand-hold cameras with shutter speeds lower than this and have often obtained sharp shots, but the proportion of sharp shots tends to fall in parallel with slowing shutter speeds.

WHAT I FOUND:

After spending hours painstakingly comparing the shots (at 100% magnification) I found two real clear trends:

1. With the D800 I consistently got a higher proportion of "tack-sharp" shots when I doubled the "normal" shutter speed I would normally shoot at (so, this means that at 200mm I got a much higher proportion of sharp hand-held shots at 1/400s than at 1/200s). This trend was clear when using BOTH the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the 70-200mm f4 VR.

2. When using the D600 and the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII doubling of the shutter speed (from 1/200s to 1/400s) made only a very small positive difference to the proportion of sharp shots captured. And, when the D600 was paired with the new 70-200mm f4 VR the doubling of shutter speed had no impact whatsoever on the proportion of sharp shots captured.

INTERPRETATION & TAKE HOME LESSONS:

Here's how I'll apply these results to my own shooting:

1. D800: I'm going to avoid hand-holding the D800 whenever possible. When I am in a position where I have no choice but to hand-hold the D800, I will be using higher shutter speeds than I normally do with either my D4 or D600. To be safe, I'll likely double the "normal" shutter speed I hand-hold specific lenses at (when using lower-res cameras). It should be noted that my test was "coarse" and that it's possible that simply increasing shutter speed by a smaller increment (e.g., only 50% or 0.5 stop) would be enough. I am still waiting for Nikon to refine the increments of the Auto Shutter Speed mode of their Auto ISO function (it currently is in one full stop increments).

As an aside: This field test really doesn't provide any insight into WHY one has to bump up shutter speeds to get sharp shots with a D800. My guess is that it is related to its small pixel pitch, but other factors (e.g., subtle differences in action required to activate the shutter) could be involved as well.

2. D600: With certain lenses (e.g., the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII) it is still probably worth for me to bump up shutter speeds a LITTLE beyond the 1/focal length rule to consistently capture sharp shots.

3. 70-200mm f2.8 VRII vs. 70-200mm f4 VR differences? Why did I get a higher proportion of sharp shots at 1/focal length shutter speeds when using the 70-200mm f4 VR on the D600 compared to the f2.8 VRII version of the lens? The simplest explanation is what Nikon says - the VR is better on the new version of the lens. But, it should also be remembered that the f4 lens is also 1.5 lbs lighter than the f2.8 lens - and this may have also contributed to the difference. But my gut says that it's the VR - and that it is considerably better on the new 70-200mm f4 lens.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

2 May 2013: Spring Khutzeymateen Grizzlies Photo Tours - FINAL Update

Both my instructional and "photo op" style "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tours are now fully sold out for 2013. So...no more updates on this topic! ;-)

Details about the 2014 editions of these great tours will be available very soon, but those wanting to be guaranteed of getting a spot (several spots are already gone!), please feel free to contact me now for more info (email me at seminars@naturalart.ca).

Cheers...

Brad

1 May 2013: Nikon 1 V1 vs. Nikon 1 V2 - Image Quality

I've been using a Nikon 1 V1 as both a "walkaround" camera and as an accessory for my wildlife photography since shortly after it was first released. I'm sure everyone reading this knows what I mean by "walkaround" camera. But calling a V1 a "wildlife photography accessory" probably requires a bit of an explanation. I have found that the V1 produces surprisingly good image quality when it is combined with "real" Nikkor lenses using the FT-1 mount adapter. With its 2.7x crop factor you can make your "big glass" REALLY big! For instance, combine a 400mm prime lens with a Nikon 1 camera and it has an effective focal length (or field of view) of 1080mm, and a 600mm lens has an effective focal length of 1620mm. When it comes to my wildlife photography kit, my V1 is included as though it was a 2.7x teleconverter - I don't use it often, but once in a while (when I have sufficient light to shoot at lower ISO's and need that extra reach) it comes out of the bag. And on a few occasions it has "saved the day" for me. I've even used the V1 with my 400mm f2.8 lens to capture a few shots that have ended up in gallery exhibitions.

When Nikon came out with the "replacement" model (the V2) in late 2012 I was intrigued. Just by looking at some of the ergonomic and spec changes I was fairly sure I'd like it. But, I had one real big concern - the increase in resolution from the 10.0 MP of the V1 to the 14.2 MP of the V2. This resolution increase meant that the photosites on the sensor HAD to get smaller. And, as photosites get smaller two negative things happen. First, image noise at high ISO's goes up. Second, diffraction-induced image softening at small apertures increases (as many D800 owners who've found that they can't get tack sharp images beyond f11 can attest to!).

So...over the last few days I've done some simple tests. I connected a 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lens to a FT-1 mount adapter, mounted that combo on a firm tripod, and shot a large number of test shots with both the V1 and V2. In the first series of tests I simply fixed the ISO (at ISO 200 for both cameras), and shot a number of images of a stationery stump at apertures from f2.8 through to f16 (in one stop increments). In the second series of tests I fixed the aperture and varied the ISO from base (100 with the V1, 160 with the V2) up through ISO 6400. I captured both RAW and JPEG fine images, and did separate series with High ISO Noise Reduction both on and off.

I'll provide sample images when I publish my full V2 Field Test, but here's a quick and dirty summary of what I found.

Question 1: Are there visible differences in diffraction effects (i.e., diffraction-induced softening as aperture decreases) of the images produced by the Nikon 1 V1 and the Nikon 1 V2?

Answer 1: Nope. With both cameras I obtained very sharp images from f4 through f8 (the f2.8 images were only slightly less sharp). But, at f11 the images of both cameras noticeably softened up (across the entire frame). And by f16 they were quite soft (when full resolution images were viewed at 100% magnification).

Take Home Lesson 1: If you want sharp images with a V1 or V2, don't stop down beyond f8. But there's no significant between-camera differences in diffraction effects.

Question 2: Is there a noticeable difference in noise characteristics of images produced by the V1 vs. the V2?

Answer 2: Only very slight - with the V1 producing images that are slightly "cleaner" at ISO 800 and above. How much "cleaner"? Not much more than 1/2 stop - at most. They're really close.

Question 3: What about "High ISO Noise Reduction" - does it improve the quality of the in-camera JPEG's? Is the in-camera noise-reduction of the V1 and V2 comparable? And, how do the in-camera JPEG's compare to RAW images shot at the same ISO and carefully processed with a good raw converter (in this case, Phase One's Capture One Pro)?

Answer 3: Hey, that's no fair - that's 3 questions at once! Anyway...yes, JPEG shooters will find that if they use the built-in noise reduction feature they WILL - at ISO 800 and above with both cameras - get much less noisy images. But contrast takes a hit, and the images look both "over-smoothed" (that video-game look) and somehow "foggy". In short - for my own shooting I would NEVER be happy with the JPEG's produced in-camera and with High ISO Noise Reduction enabled with EITHER camera at an ISO beyond 400. And with the HIgh ISO Noise Reduction turned off the images at ISO 800 and above are pretty noisy...(too noisy for my taste).

What about RAW captures? The situation improves quite a bit. I found with BOTH cameras I could produce quite clean and acceptable images at ISO 800 (using the default/automatic noise reduction in Phase One's Capture One Pro) with both cameras. ISO 1600 images? They took a little more specialized noise reduction (i.e., they needed a little more noise reduction using Noise Ninja in Photoshop CS6). ISO 3200 images? More work yet...

Take Home Lesson 2: With both cameras I'll shoot regularly up to ISO 800. If need be and the conditions are right, I'll go up to ISO 1600 and if the image was unique enough (think Bigfoot) I'd even go up to ISO 3200. But at ISO's above 400, I'll only shoot RAW images - for me the quality of the in-camera JPEG's above ISO 400 just isn't there.

Finally - V1 vs. V2 image quality? The differences are insignificant to me. Which is good...it means that Nikon did manage to jam about 4 million extra pixels into the small CX sensor of the V2 without negatively impacting on image quality.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

1 May 2013: Spring Khutzeymateen Grizzlies Photo Tours - ANOTHER UPDATE

Just another quick update on the current situation re: remaining spots on my spring "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tours...I'm now down to JUST ONE spot remaining on the Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour (and the Photo Op version of the tour is sold out).

Details about the instructional photo tour can be found on the Photo Tours page of this website. Or, just download this PDF brochure:

Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour (PDF; 2.3 MB)

Contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca with any questions or if you want to snag this final spot...

Cheers...

Brad

30 April 2013: Spring Khutzeymateen Grizzlies Photo Tours - UPDATE

Just a quick update on the current situation re: remaining spots on my spring "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tours...

1. The Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Photo Op Tour: Now fully sold out.

2. The Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour: Two spots remaining.

Details about the instructional photo tour can be found on the Photo Tours page of this website. Or, for your convenience, here's the link to the brochure for the trip:

Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour (PDF; 2.3 MB)

For any additional information about this amazing trip, just contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca.

Cheers...

Brad

23 April 2013: On Carnivore Hunting, Trophy Hunting - and NIKON!

This is a tough blog entry to write - but it touches on something that Nikon-shooting wildlife photographers should be aware of. Why? Primarily so they can decide for themselves whether they believe Nikon has crossed such a large ethical boundary that they - as photographers - are forced to take a ethical stance against Nikon, such as boycotting the purchase of and/or the use Nikon equipment for wildlife photography.

The issue? It's basically a two-part thing. First, Nikon's production of a line of riflescopes which are (according to Nikon USA) "...built specifically for predator hunters" (go to the Viva! website for more specifics on this, plus for additional links to more background info). Second, Nikon's open support and promotion of trophy hunting.

The controversies? The biggest controversy that most are seeing is the hypocrisy of Nikon's marketing materials used for different product lines and different markets - as illustrated by how they are marketing to wildlife photographers and how they are marketing to hunters. To wildlife photographers Nikon has said things like "Nature is full of moments of timeless beauty, to be captured before they are gone forever". Plus they often use gorgeous images of wildlife to sell their cameras and lenses. But then they turn around and create and market products designed specifically to kill wildlife, including carnivores right at the top of the food chain. Additionally, Nikon has sponsored trophy hunting in both the US and Africa.

Some are saying Nikon can't have it both ways - you can't produce and promote products designed to photographically capture the beauty of wildlife while producing and promoting products designed to kill wildlife. Others seem to accept that Nikon can produce and promote products for general hunting, but are infuriated at Nikon for going beyond hunting wildlife to put food on the table. To them actively encouraging trophy hunting and the hunting of predators/carnivores is going just too far for a company that makes a whole lot of money off of the love of wildlife. When you consider that trophy hunting has contributed to a stunning 50 percent decline in lion populations over the past 30 years, it is not hard to see how many wildlife photographers would find the promotion of trophy hunting by Nikon to be completely unacceptable.

So...given my strong and public views on conservation and wildlife management (my current campaign against the use of killing neck snares on wolves in BC being the most recent example), I feel that I have no choice but to express my view on this issue (if I didn't I'd be rightly open to criticism of being a hypocrite myself). It is impossible to say anything on this issue without offending or ticking someone off - so I have no doubt I will lose some "fans" with this entry. But that kind of concern has never stopped me before - and you have to stand for something!

So...here are my thoughts:

1. On Corporate Ethics:

Corporate entities don't inherently have ethics - they exist solely to make money. Corporate entities do, however, ultimately inherit ethics or ethical stances from the customer base they are selling to. In other words, if they cross enough ethical boundaries customers WILL quit buying from them and then, if the company is to survive, it will be forced to adopt the ethics of its customers. So Nikon - like any other company - will try to get away with selling things to anyone they can, regardless of the ethics of doing so (kinda like selling arms to both sides in a war, eh?). But now that one of the two "opposing" (or largely opposing - some photographers hunt and some hunters are photographers) customer groups has caught Nikon playing it both ways and is threatening to boycott their products...well...Nikon has to develop some corporate ethics and/or ethical positions FAST - or lose a lot of customers.

2. Is Producing Hunting Products Inherently Unethical?

This is a HUGE can of worms - you could write a book on it. I'm a biologist, and I don't hunt. And I won't hunt. BUT, for decades I have been trying to find and/or develop a science-based/ecologically-based (and logically-consistent) argument against all hunting. An argument that is based on MORE than just emotion. And I haven't been able to do it. I have to concede that when certain conditions are met (such as knowledge of accurate population sizes of prey animals, accurate populations trends, careful monitoring of numbers of animals killed or "harvested", strict hunting regulations and strict enforcement of those regulations, etc., etc.), it is really hard to argue against hunting for food. In North America this means hunting for elk, deer, moose or - in some northern cultures - caribou. In reality I believe there are very few that NEED to hunt to survive, but I can't argue for taking away the right to hunt for food from anyone.

However, I am completely and totally against any form of trophy hunting - not only has it always struck me as barbaric and wasteful, but it is totally against the way natural selection normally operates - the weak and the sick should be culled (preferably by natural processes) in a higher proportion than the biggest and "best" members of a population (which is, of course, what trophy hunting does). Keep up trophy hunting long enough and Big-horned Sheep will become Small-horned Sheep - and we'll start seeing "pointless" elk racks!

And, just as emphatically, I am totally against the hunting of the occupants of the top of the food chain - the predators. Why? It make NO sense ecologically - virtually ALL ecosystems benefit dramatically from having their key predators present in ecologically significant numbers. If anyone wants to examine a review of the preponderance of scientific evidence that supports this view, I highly recommend reading "The Wolf's Tooth: Keystone Predators, Trophic Cascades, and Biodiversity" by Cristina Eisenberg.

So - back to the question: Is Producing Hunting Products Unethical? My answer: Not necessarily.

3. But You've Gone Too Far, Nikon!

So, while I can't really argue that Nikon should not produce ANY products specifically for hunting, I DO believe that in developing products specifically designed and marketed for targeting and killing carnivores AND by supporting trophy hunting, Nikon HAS gone too far.

4. What Should Nikon Do?

In my perfect world, their best move would be to cease producing ALL hunting-specific products (e.g., riflescopes, but not binoculars or spotting scopes). But in the real world, I would accept the following as an acceptable compromise from Nikon:

A. Continue building riflescopes but cease the production of the line of riflescopes designed for predator killing and trophy hunting (which appears to be the Monarch line). I acknowledge that not all of their riflescopes may be used exactly as intended (and that by ceasing to produce the Monarch line other Nikon riflescopes will still kill predators and/or be involved in some trophy hunts). A company can't control all uses of a product they make - I'm sure Nikon cameras have been used for child pornography, but that doesn't mean they should stop making cameras. But to make and market a product specifically designed to kill predators or for trophy hunting (or, for that matter, a camera specifically for child porn) is totally unacceptable.

B. Immediately cease promoting all trophy hunting and the hunting of carnivores.

C. Take a visible and strong public stance against all trophy hunting and the hunting of carnivores.

If Nikon does these things they WILL alienate a few trophy/carnivore hunters. But there are many, many ethical hunters out there who would NEVER consider trophy hunting or the killing of carnivores. And, the number of ticked off trophy hunters - and the revenue "hit" they'd represent - are TINY compared to the number of wildlife photographers Nikon stands to offend (and lose). Compare the total investment in Nikon gear of the average trophy hunter and the average Nikon-using wildlife photographer. No contest - right? It's pretty clear who Nikon should value more.

5. What Am I Going To Do?

Several things:

A. Alert thousands of wildlife photographers to the issue - and let them make up their own mind about whether they want to sign the petition against Nikon or even boycott Nikon products. And I just did that.

B. Write a strong letter to Nikon protesting their production and promotion of products for killing predators and engaging in trophy hunting. And spell out the 3 conditions (in point #4 above) that need to be fulfilled in order for me to continue to use and indirectly promote Nikon photographic equipment.

C. If, given a realistic time frame for Nikon to make the changes above and they don't occur...well...I guess I'll be chatting with Canon! What should that time frame be? I'm not sure - 6 months? A year? 18 months? I'm open to feedback on this...

Nikon - please do the right thing - quit producing and promoting products designed to kill carnivores and for use in trophy hunting. Over the long haul I think you'll also find that doing the "right thing" is also doing the most profitable thing.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

22 April 2013: A Few Spots Remain - Khutzeymateen Grizzlies Photo Tours 2013...

Some "late-in-the-day" trip cancellations have resulted in a very rare occurrence - with just over a month before the tours begin there are a few spots now available on my photo tours. There are two spots remaining on my late May Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour. My early June Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Photo Op Tour also two spots remaining. In most years both of these photo tours are sold out almost a year ahead of time - so here's a rare chance for anyone with a gap in their vacation plans to jump in on one of the world's premiere opportunities to photograph grizzly bears in a wild, pristine setting. What's shooting in the Khutzeymateen like? Just check out the image entitled "Bold. Bashful. Beautiful." that's currently the lead image in my Gallery of Latest Additions - and read the field notes (just click on the "In the Field" tab below the image.

All the details about the photo tours can be found on the Photo Tours page of this website.

Or, for your downloading convenience, here are links to the brochures for both of the Khutzeymateen Grizzlies photo tours:

Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour (PDF; 2.3 MB)

Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Photo Op Photo Tour (PDF; 2.3 MB)

For any additional information about either of these fantastic trips, just contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca.

Cheers...

Brad

22 April 2013: Petition Against Wolf Neck Snares Surpasses 5,000 Signatures!

A few days back our petition to force the BC Government to cease using cruel and inhumane killing neck snares to cull wolves passed a significant milestone - we now have over 5,000 signatures! A big THANKS to those of you who have signed the petition (and an even BIGGER thanks to those who have chosen to promote the petition and our campaign!).

While 5,000 signatures is great and helps us put pressure on the BC Government to begin transitioning to a more science-based approach to predator (and wildlife) management, we DO NEED MORE SIGNATURES! So...for any new visitors to this website, please consider signing the petition.

For those wishing background information on the wolf snare issue I'm referring to (before signing the petition), just check out my Advocacy and Action page.

If you're comfortable just signing the petition, here's the direct link to it:

Stop the Use of Killing Neck Snares Against Wolves in BC

We CAN win this one. Please help us stop the cruel, inhumane practice of choking wolves to death in BC!

Cheers...and thanks for taking a few minutes out of your day to speak up for wolves! ;-)

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

22 April 2013: The Nikon 1 V2 and the Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR

When I first laid my hands on the 70-200mm f4 VR one of my first thoughts was "hmmmm...if the VR on this lens is as good as Nikon claims, it should be an awesome lens to use with a Nikon V1 or V2." I use the Nikon V1 as a "walkaround" camera on my daily peregrinations (AKA...forest reconnaissance...AKA walking my dogs). I've found that when the V1 is combined with quality Nikkor lenses (using the FT-1 mount adapter), it is a great walkaround camera. And, lately I've begun putting the Nikon V2 to the test. The Nikon 1 cameras have a 2.7x crop factor, so a 70-200mm f4 zoom ends up having an "effective" focal length (or, if you prefer, a field of view) equivalent to a 189-540mm f4 zoom. When one can randomly encounter elk, deer, coyotes, wolves, bears, cougars and more on any given dog walk from their home, there's little need to explain why always having a compact camera with a quality 189-540mm f4 zoom on your hip is an appealing concept!

Long story short - yep, the "new" Nikkor 70-200mm f4 works great with the V2. And, with that almost-3x-crop factor, it even works well as an impromptu macro lens. To see what I mean, just check out the crocus image entitled "Cradling the Cup" in my Gallery of Latest Additions (the image I'm referring to is currently in the 3rd position in the gallery, tho' it will shift over time).

Odds are there will be more and more V2 images in that "Latest Additions" gallery in the coming weeks (including more with the 70-200mm f4 VR), so if if you're curious about how you can use the V2 effectively for nature and wildlife photography - keep poking your head into that gallery over the next while!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

16 April 2013: Four...Five...SIX Ways to 400mm!

Because a lot of the folks visiting this website are wildlife photographers - and because the 400mm focal length is such a critical "threshold" to get to when shooting wildlife - my 4 Ways to 400mm Field Test has proven to be very popular. Although it's now a few years old, it's still being visited by over 3,000 people (AKA unique visitors) per month.

But, that review is now a bit long in the tooth (I'd say "sadly" - but it's probably GOOD it's out-of-date - especially now that we have some CHEAPER ways to get to 400mm!). Two particular configurations of gear need to be added to the comparison...the new (and excellent) 70-200mm f4 VR (in combination with the 2x TC-20EIII teleconverter) and the "brand new" updated version of the 80-400mm f4.5/5.6 VR.

So...in the coming days I'll be starting into the testing necessary to update this field report. Stay tuned - I will be updating my blog with interim reports on how things are going, especially with the new 80-400.

For those wondering about my progress on my D600 field test and my 70-200mm f4 VR field test (and based on emails I'm receiving there's a lot of folks who are waiting) - I have one word: soon! But by now, if you've been keeping up with this blog you know the shortest version of my summary of what I think of both of these two products - neither are absolutely perfect but, they're both great performers. And I can recommend both of them for novice through professional photographers (the pros will know if they NEED the 2.8 aperture of the "old" 70-200mm f2.8 VRII or if they can get by with f4 on the new zoom).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

11 April 2013: NEW Photo Tour for 2014: The Owls of Manitoba!

I've just finalized details about my "first of the calendar year" photo tour for 2014. And this one is a brand new offering - The Owls of Manitoba. And, with no further ado, here's the information:

OVERVIEW: Southeastern Manitoba has become one of the premier locations on the continent for viewing northern boreal forest owls. Great Gray, Northern Hawk-owl, Great Horned, and Snowy Owls are regularly encountered during most winters. And, not uncommonly, Barred, Eastern Screech-owls, Northern Saw-whet, and Short-eared Owls can be added to the list. While numbers of each species fluctuate from year to year, in late winter many of these species are beginning courtship and their conspicuousness increases. In 2014 award-winning professional wildlife photographer Brad Hill will be teaming up with local naturalist Rudolf Koes to offer a March tour dedicated to capturing memorable images of a number of species of boreal owls. Our focus will be on finding and exploiting high-quality photographic opportunities of owls, with Great Grays topping our list of target species. Our goal will be to capture naturally-occurring behaviours and scenes and, to minimize potential harm to our subjects, no form of baiting will be used.

An optional day of professional-level photography instruction by Brad Hill covering essential image-capture skills, techniques, tips, and tricks is being offered at the beginning of the trip. Photographers of all levels are welcomed on this tour.

THE CRITICAL DETAILS:

• PHOTO TOUR TYPE: Instructional AND Non-instructional ("Photo Op") options.
• DURATION: 7 days (including arrival and departure days) for instructional option; 6 days for non-instructional option. 4 full days in the field with both options.
• DATES: March 3-9, 2014 for instructional option; March 4-9, 2014 for non-instructional option.
• NUMBER OF PARTICIPANTS: Limited to 10.
• CURRENT NUMBER OF AVAILABLE SPOTS: 10.
• COST: $2395 Canadian plus 5% GST for instructional option; $1895 Canadian plus 5% GST for non-instructional option. Currency converter available here.

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

MORE INFORMATION? Contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca for more information. PDF brochure available by May 15, 2014.

I made an oblique reference to this trip back on April 3rd and instantly got a number of enquiries about it. So I have the feeling the spots may go fairly quickly - so it MIGHT be a situation of "...if ya snooze, ya looze" on this one!

Cheers...

Brad

3 April 2013: Choosing a Nikon Super-Telephoto Lens: 400mm, 500mm, or 600mm?

Between email originating from this website and from those who have attended presentations or photo tours with me, I get a LOT of gear-related questions. And the absolutely most common question I get from Nikon wildlife photographers is this:

"I'm a Nikon-shooting wildlife photographer, and like so many I own the 200-400mm f4 VR zoom. But now I want the best prime lens for wildlife shooting - should I buy the 400mm f2.8 VR, the 500mm f4 VR, or the 600mm VR?"

Most who are asking me this question aren't looking for a spec-spew or to have me quote MTF charts. They want to know what I actually think (based on field experience). So...I've put a few thoughts together on the subject. And you can find them in the commentary associated with my latest image addition. All you have to do is click the "In the Field" tab under the image entitled "Alien @ Sunrise". And you can find that image in two places on this website (with the same commentary). For the next few days it will be the lead-in image in my Gallery of Latest Additions. And, the image also has a more permanent home - for the next year or so it can be found right here in my Birds of Prey Gallery...

And I know that this commentary will have the opposite effect of the intended - rather than reducing my email load it will generate even MORE questions! C'est la vie!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

3 April 2013: Back in the Saddle - Finally!

After an incredibly hectic month of traveling, giving presentations, chasing owls around Manitoba, and 10 days of playing in the desert SW of the US, I'm finally back to my normal routine. Which includes, of course, regularly updating this website.

During the time I spent in the desert SW (mostly in Utah and Nevada) I was mostly hiking but, hardly surprisingly, spent some quality time behind my cameras. Because this trip was more about hiking through some pretty amazing landscapes (and not shooting wildlife images), I chose to leave my D4's at home and took only my D600 and D800 along. Now that I've had a chance to look over the images I captured on the trip I feel more strongly than ever that the D600 is THE camera to buy if one is looking for an "all-round performer" for nature photography. And, personally, I prefer it to the D800, even for landscape shooting.

In terms of "chasing owls around Manitoba"...what I was really doing was "sussing out" (doing reconnaissance of) an area in Manitoba to assess its suitability for an "Owls of Manitoba" Photo Tour in 2014 and beyond (featuring both Great Gray Owls and Northern Hawk Owls). The result? Well...this year there were lots of owls, especially Great Grays and Hawk Owls (we also saw both Snowy and Great Horned Owls). So don't be surprised if you see information about an "Owls of Manitoba" Photo Tour on this website real soon! Oh, and BTW, owl images from the trip have already started appearing in my Gallery of Latest Additions - check 'em out!

Stay tuned...more real soon...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

12 March 2013: An Update On This Year's Photo Tours...

The number of remaining spots on my 2013 photo tours is rapidly decreasing. I'm down to only one spot remaining on my late May Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour. My early June Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Photo Op Tour has just two spots remaining. And my August Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More Photo Op Tour has 4 spots remaining.

All the details about the photo tours can be found on the the Photo Tours page of this website.

Or, for your downloading convenience, here are links to the brochures for each of the photo tours that still have vacancies:

Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour (PDF; 2.3 MB)

Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Photo Op Photo Tour (PDF; 2.3 MB)

Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions & More Photo Op Photo Tour (PDF; 5.2 MB)

For any additional information about any of these fantastic trips, just contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca.

Cheers...

Brad

12 March 2013: Wolf Snares In My Backyard 16 - Media Coverage and the Petition...

Our campaign to put an end to use of killing neck snares by the BC Government marches on. Media interest in the horrific situation has grown - as have the number of signatures on our online petition. For those joining this "story" now (and who will have little clue of what I'm referring to) are encourage to visit my Advocacy and Action page for all the background information...

1. Media Coverage on The Use of Neck Snares...

A number of media outlets, including CBC radio and an assortment of online and print publications, have shown a strong interest in the story of the neck snares - and the battle to get rid of them. Here's just a small sampling of the media coverage:

The Huffington Post: BC's Tortuous Wolf Management

The Nature Photographers Online Magazine: Wolf Snares In My Backyard

The Columbia Valley Pioneer (print and online) - March 8, 2013: War on wolves wraps up (PDF: 15.6 MB)

2. Join the Fight Against the Snares - SIGN THE PETITION!

We're now approaching the 3500 signature mark on the petition to stop the use of killing neck snares. That's great - and thanks to those who have already signed and promoted it. But we do need more signatures! Here's the petition:

Stop the Use of Killing Neck Snares Against Wolves in BC

If you'd like more information before you sign - here's the place to go - my Advocacy and Action page.

For the wolves...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

9 March 2013: The "New" AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR - Preliminary Thoughts...

At long last! Nikon has finally updated its original "super-zoom" - the 80-400mm VR. The new model is officially designated as the AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR. Oddly, there was a full 12 years between version 1 and version 2 of this lens. Perhaps Nikon was waiting until they had just enough acronyms built up to describe this lens...if you go to any Nikon website you'll find this lens features all the critical bits of the alphabet, including "AF-S, ED, VR, SWM, IF, N, SIC, A/M, and M/A". ;-)

An 80-400mm zoom covers an absolutely great focal range for both general nature photographers and wildlife photographers. Add in the relative small size of this lens and you have - at least in theory - a fantastically versatile lens for many types of shooters, and one that doesn't break your back to carry around all day in the field. But, the original version had some very serious - and very limiting - shortcomings, including sharpness that was "iffy" at best (especially at the long end of the focal range), a very slow AF system, a poor (quite flimsy) tripod collar, a penchant for sucking dust into its innards (owing largely to the expanding nature of the zoom), and - at least by today's standards - a barely adequate VR system.

If you peruse the specs (available here on dpreview.com's website) and read a few of the descriptions of the lens that are already online, you'll find the lens offers a totally new optical design (which is promising), both ED (extra low dispersion) and Super ED lens elements, nano-crystal coating on some elements (this reduces flare and improves contrast on backlit scenes and/or subjects), and a 4 stop VR system that automatically detects and adjusts for tripods (which could be cool). And, not insignificantly, the new lens sports a 77mm filter thread - same as on the 16-35mm f4 VR, the 24-70mm f2.8, and the 70-200mm f2.8 VR (I and II). Which means a lot of buyers will already have the filters they need for use with this lens. Which is a very good thing.

But what is all this likely to mean in the real world (and once you get into the field)? I have no doubt at all that both the AF system and the VR system will be vastly superior to those on the previous version. Those two improvements alone will convince many to buy this lens.

My biggest concerns? First and foremost, image sharpness - especially at the longer end of the focal range. To date, I have not found a Nikon zoom with over a 3x total focal length zoom range that I have been happy with in terms of image sharpness. I don't really know why "maximum of 3x optical zoom focal range" (which. of course, includes such venerable and sharp lenses as the 24-70mm f2.8, 70-200mm f2.8 and f4 zooms, and the "hyper popular among wildlife shooters" 200-400mm f4 zoom) seems to be the "magic magnification range" for obtaining high quality imagery with a zoom lens. I just know that, to date, it has been an unwritten rule. I AM hoping that Nikon has found a way to break this rule with the new 5x 80-400mm zoom. I'd love it if this new lens turns out to be super sharp! But...I have to admit I'm more than a little skeptical about how sharp this updated version of the 80-400 can really be...especially when it's attached to the newer high-res, full-frame bodies, like the D600 and D800. Fingers crossed.

My other significant concern? I'm hoping Nikon has found a way to prevent this new extending zoom from sucking dust into its elements - this was a noticeable issue with the old one (if you put it to tough field use).

Yes, I will be testing this lens - with a completely open mind - as soon as I can lay my hands on one. And, I have to say I'm REALLY looking forward to putting this one through its paces - it has SO much promise! If it comes close to delivering on the promises supplied by all those acronyms, this could be one very sweet lens. ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

4 March 2013: A Lean Month for Updates on This Website...

Just a quick heads-up that there will be far fewer updates on this website during the month of March than normal. A combination of speaking engagements (in both Canada and the US), media events, and one tour (Owls of Manitoba) means I will traveling a lot this month - and I won't be behind my desk with time to write.

I know this means some people will have extra time on their hands and will need something to fill it with. So...here's something you can do to kill about two minutes...sign the following petition - and do your bit to help some wolves!

Stop the Use of Killing Neck Snares Against Wolves in BC

For those wishing background information on the wolf snare issue I'm referring to, just check out my Advocacy and Action page.

Cheers...and thanks for taking those few minutes to speak up for wolves! ;-)

Brad

PS to CBC Radio listeners in BC: I will be on BC Almanac tomorrow (Tuesday, 5 March) - and taking calls from listeners - between noon and 1 PM PST.

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

4 March 2013: The Nikon D600 - The Severity of the "Dirty Sensor" Issue...

There has been an immense amount of online chatter regarding the penchant of the image sensor of the Nikon D600 to accumulate dust and/or oil. I have seen the chatter, and I have received an inordinate amount of email about the issue, including from folks who've said they may not buy the camera because of the "problem". I was going to leave my comments on this for my coming D600 field test, but that has been delayed by the time-consuming-but-very-worthwhile wolf neck snare issue I became embroiled in during February. So...here you go - my experiences with the huge problem of dust on the sensor of the D600...

YES, I experienced the "problem" with the sensor of my D600 accumulating some unidentified gunk on it. IF my experience with my copy of my D600 is representative of the magnitude of the problem others are experiencing, it is one of the most overblown non-issues I have ever seen.

YES, during my testing of the D600 I noticed the dust spots on some images shot with the D600. But, during testing I swap lenses ALL the time. And the other cameras I was testing against (the D4, D800) also showed enough sensor specks that I needed to clean them. The D600 WAS slightly worse than the other 2 cameras. So I cleaned the D600 sensor - using a swab and sensor fluid - and I would not consider myself an expert in the cleaning of image sensors. It took me about two minutes. Since then I have shot thousands of images with the D600 and have not had to clean the sensor again. I have the feeling that this is a "when-the-camera-is-new-and-breaking-in" issue, but I do not know that for a fact.

For me, this issue is unbelievably trivial compared to the many strengths and fantastic value of the camera - for almost all uses this camera outperforms the D3x! And, in most cases you don't even notice the spots unless you stop way down (beyond f8) AND have a clean, continuous background (e.g., like a sky). In my opinion, on a bullet list of pros and cons this "issue" should be relegated to the absolute bottom of the list (if not lower). I'm anal about camera performance, and I don't even THINK about this issue on a day-to-day basis. Further, I think if anyone chooses to NOT buy this camera based on this issue they are hurting (handicapping? penalizing?) only themselves.

Have I made my opinion clear on this issue? ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

28 February 2013: Wolf Snares In My Backyard 15 - A Tiny But Meaningful Victory?

I received some news yesterday that will permit EVERYONE who signed our petition to put an end to use of killing snares to do a quick fist pump into the air - complete with a resounding "YESSSS!". And, following your personal celebration, it's time for ALL of us to roll up our sleeves and soldier on. Winning one battle is FANTASTIC, but the war isn't even close to over yet...

1. The Snares Have Been Removed!

Mid-afternoon yesterday I received an email from my local MLA (Canadian thing - it means Member of Legislature) that included the following line:

"I have heard from the Minister of Environment office that the snares have all be removed from the Dutch Creek, Lake Windermere, Columbia Lake area...".

No reason was given to my MLA as to why the snares were removed. While I HOPED the information was true, I didn't want to go public with this until I confirmed it for myself that the snares were gone. So at daybreak this AM I headed out. And, sure enough...the snares have been removed!

2. BUT...The Snares Can Come Back...ANYTIME!

The rest of the key sentence in yesterday's said something else - something that is less positive. Here's the ENTIRE sentence:

"I have heard from the Minister of Environment office that the snares have all be removed from the Dutch Creek, Lake Windermere, Columbia Lake area and no further trapping will take place unless predator conflicts with livestock reoccur."

Which means that we have done nothing YET to stop future use of these disgusting snares to cull wolves and that the current government still feels culling wolves on public land is somehow justified and "good policy".

My take on the situation? Did WE have some impact on the decision by the government to remove the snares? Was our collective voice heard? I think so. Even midway through last week they were still adding fresh bait to the area (to lure the wolves in). And, they have NOT killed the wolves they were targeting (more on this in a minute). This is speculation on my part, but I'm quite sure the government removed the snares to diffuse the situation and to "make the story go away" by taking away the on-the-ground focal point. For those that don't know, we are in the midst of an election in BC, and the opposition party - which is much more environmentally friendly than the current government - is WAY ahead in the opinion polls. And, I think the current government is assuming that if their approach to wolf (and wildlife) management becomes an election issue it won't help them one bit (i.e., that people will believe the "other party" - the NDP - will be more likely to change policies on wolf management than the current government would). I think the government blinked - which means a LOT. And it means this is the time to KEEP THE PRESSURE UP!

3. YES - We Saved Some Wolves!

Early this morning I went into the area where the snares were set to confirm they had been removed. I've been regularly monitoring the area since I found the snares on February 10. And, since I began visiting the area I have seen NO fresh sign of wolves at all - no tracks, no scat, nada. But today...today something different happened, and it was almost magical...

The only trail into the area where the snares were set was set by the Conservation Officer's (or CO's) snowmobile. As I walked in this morning it was apparent that they had visited the area in the last day or two - there were fresh snowmobile tracks. When I was about halfway into the where the snares are found I noticed a number of sets of wolf tracks as they converged onto the snowmobile trail. Because the snow has a hard crust on it right now (and the snowmobile trail is even harder) it wasn't 100% clear how many wolves had joined the trail. But it looked like 5 or 6 - and their tracks were ON TOP of the snowmobile tracks (see this image from this morning) - and headed directly into the area with the snares. You can well imagine how hard I was hoping that the snares were, in fact, gone. Otherwise I was about to stumble upon some pretty awful carnage.

The relief I experienced when I approached the first snare site and found it gone was absolutely palpable. And, the relief grew even more as I walked around and checked out the other 17 or so snare sites - they WERE all gone. And gone in just the nick of time - several sets of wolf tracks went right through small gaps between trees where only days (or hours) before nearly invisible killing snares were set. There's one meadow/field right in the middle of the area where the array of snares were set. This morning it was literally littered with wolf tracks - almost like there was one major wolf party there recently!

Then it got almost a little weird - especially for a scientist and critical thinker like me. Last week there were about 6 snares at the base of slope that leads up to a series of ridges that are partially tree-covered. So I hiked up to the base of the slope to confirm the snares were gone. They were. And then I decided to quickly scan the ridges above with my binoculars. Of course, I didn't expect to see anything. But my eye caught some movement. And then 5 wolves moved into a small opening and stopped. And 10 eyeballs locked onto me for a few seconds. And then they turned, and were gone. But it didn't matter...I couldn't see them anymore anyway - for reasons I won't discuss my contact lenses and binoculars fogged up...

So be proud. I have no doubt at all that your signatures, letters, and calls directly contributed to getting rid of the snares. And, I have no doubt that if the snares were still there this morning, between one and five wolves would be dead right now. You DID save them, at least for now.

And, be proud that you made our government blink! And now, let's dig in and keep shouting until we get rid of the snares forever. Please sign the petition to put an end to this madness. And please keep getting others to sign up. Our voices CAN make a difference - they just did!

For the full back story on the killing snares - visit my Advocacy and Action page.

To directly access the petition against the use of killing neck snares on wolves, just go here:

Stop the Use of Killing Neck Snares Against Wolves in BC

Cheers and thank you so, so much...

For the wolves...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

28 February 2013: Wolf Snares In My Backyard 14 - Petition Passes 2000 Signature Mark!

Yesterday our online petition to put an end to the use of killing snares on wolves (and other wildlife) passed the 2000 signature mark! A huge thanks to all who have signed to date. As you'll soon see, your voice HAS been heard...

For the full back story on the killing snares - visit my Advocacy and Action page.

To directly access the petition against the use of killing neck snares on wolves, just go here:

Stop the Use of Killing Neck Snares Against Wolves in BC

Cheers and thanks...

For the wolves...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

27 February 2013: Wolf Snares In My Backyard 13 - Are the Snares Even Legal?

Here's an interesting - and potentially game-changing - angle on the issue of the use of killing neck snares to cull wolves and other wildlife in British Columbia (and throughout the rest of Canada)...

The Criminal Code of Canada (s402(1)a) states that:

"Every one commits an offence who willfully causes or, being the owner, willfully allows to be caused unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to an animal or bird;"

We have provided impartial evidence that the killing snares being used by the BC Government directly elicit suffering and pain and that death caused by these snares can take hours or even days (see comments and letter by Dr. Jose Diaz in my 21 February blog entry below). By law, wildlife is the property of the crown - which means public property - which means owned by ALL. And, I assume that those placing the snares know they're doing it, i.e., they are doing it willfully.

Now I am no lawyer. And no one on our team has found a precedent for this law being applied on behalf of wild animals caught in snares or traps. But this does raise an interesting question that begs to be asked...and answered:

Is the use of the killing neck snares even legal in Canada?

For the full back story on the killing snares - visit my Advocacy and Action page.

To directly access the petition against the use of killing neck snares on wolves, just go here:

Stop the Use of Killing Neck Snares Against Wolves in BC

Cheers and thanks...

For the wolves...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

26 February 2013: Wolf Snares In My Backyard 12 - Violating An International Agreement

The case against the use of killing neck snares to cull wolves by the BC Government grows stronger by the day. Not only are the snares inhumane, cruel, and capable of inflicting a slow painful death on wolves and any other animal that wanders into them, but their use also is in direct violation of an international agreement!

In June of 1999 the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards (AIHTS) came into effect. Canada is a signatory to that agreement. The provinces of Canada implement its rules and guidelines (see this PDF excerpted from the BC trapping regulations to see how BC claims to follow the AIHTS).

The AIHTS publishes (and regularly updates) a list of certified humane traps for trapping. Here is the most recent list - updated January 21, 2013:

AIHTS Certified Humane Traps 2013 (PDF: 139 KB).

Notice something? There's no neck snares on the list. And, NO killing traps for wolves at all. In fact the ONLY traps for wolves on the list are non-lethal restraining traps.

Despite this, and in clear violation to AIHTS, further on in the BC's published trapping regulations and they list "Killing Snare" as legal for wolves (and a host of other species) - see page 6 (document page 95) in the "Trapping Methods" table of this PDF. In other words, they simply ignore and excuse themselves from - with no explanation - the international agreement that they just paid lip service to following!

So...yet ONE MORE smudge on Canada's international reputation...one more black eye. As many Canadians who've signed the petition against the wolf snares have said - it's almost becoming embarrassing to be a Canadian.

For the full back story on the killing snares - visit my Advocacy and Action page.

To directly access the petition against the use of killing neck snares on wolves, just go here:

Stop the Use of Killing Neck Snares Against Wolves in BC

Cheers and thanks...

For the wolves...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

25 February 2013: Wolf Snares In My Backyard 11 - Partnerships and Press Releases...

First, a personal thank you to everyone who has signed the petition against the use of killing necks snares to cull wolves in BC. Only a few days after its initiation the signatures on the petition already number in the thousands.

Second, a new development: To take the fight against the snares to the next level I have partnered with one of Canada's most highly respected conservation organizations - The Raincoast Conservation Foundation (www.raincoast.org). Raincoast is a science-driven conservation organization with decades of success behind them. And, they bring one of the world's leading wolf biologists - Dr. Paul Paquet - into the fray! Thank you Raincoast.

Here's our first joint action - a press release exposing the BC Government's use of these snares to the world:

Download Press Release (PDF: 102 KB).

Please feel free to pass the press release on to any group, business, or media outlet that you think might be interested in it.

Looking for the back story about the snares or a link to the petition? Just go here for both:

www.naturalart.ca/voice/takeaction.html

Cheers and thanks...

For the wolves...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

24 February 2013: Wolf Snares In My Backyard 10 - The ONE Place to Go...

Given the ever-changing nature of blog entries and the challenges that presents to anyone trying to follow an evolving story, I have created a single new page on this website dedicated to environmental and conservation issues I'm currently involved with. For each issue you'll find a clear statement of what the issue is, a roadmap to information on the story, how to take action, and any additional resources that might help you if you decide to join in and "fight the good fight".

So...for everything you need to follow and get involved with the current fight to ban the use of cruel and inhumane killing neck snares against wolves and other carnivores on public land in BC just go to my new "Advocacy and Action" page:

www.naturalart.ca/voice/takeaction.html

This new page will be updated as additional news, action items, and resources become available for your use.

If you are one of the many soldiers who have signed on for this battle, please send new recruits to that single source! ;-)

Cheers and thanks...

For the wolves...

Brad

22 February 2013: Let's Go Viral - And Get Rid of Those Disgusting Neck Snares!

OK, the time for talk is over - it's time to act. Let's speak out and get rid of the killing neck snares being used against wolves and other carnivores in BC right now - and make sure they don't come back.

Here's the petition: Stop the Use of Killing Neck Snares Against Wolves in BC

For those wishing to distribute the full URL, here it is:

http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/stop-the-use-of-killing-neck-snares-against-wolves-in-b.html

Note to non-BC residents: If you are planning on signing this petition, it won't hurt at all to mention in the comment field that you are boycotting travelling to BC until the Government of BC stops using these inhumane killing snares.

Want critical background information before you sign or promote the petition? Here you go:

1. On the cruelty and inhumane nature of the snares: Scroll right down to the next blog entry below this one.

2. On the ecological, economic, and spiritual value of the wolf - go here: Commentary: On the Value of a Wolf

3. On the trivial cost of the wolf to society - go here: Commentary: On the Cost of a Wolf

Way back in 1970 L. David Mech wrote a classic book simply called "The Wolf". In it, he said this about "wolf haters":

"These people cannot be changed. If the wolf is to survive, the wolf haters must be outnumbered. They must be outshouted, out-financed, and outvoted. Their narrow and biased attitude must be outweighed by an attitude based on an understanding of natural processes. Finally their hate must be outdone by a love for the whole of nature, for the unspoiled wilderness, and for the wolf as a beautiful interesting, and integral part of both."

The time to outshout them is NOW. Please sign the petition. And please spread the word. Let's go viral with this - add the petition to your Facebook page, tell everyone about it on Twitter. Email your friends. Let's make it impossible for the BC Government to NOT listen to us. Go nuts!

Thank you with all my heart...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

21 February 2013: Wolf Snares In My Backyard 9 - On The Immorality of the Snares

It's important to fight the big fight against BC's approach to wolf management. But it's also important to stop and think about those snares themselves. While even looking at the snares disgusts me, I'm no expert on how they rank on the "humanity" scale. So, I contacted one of the world's leading wolf biologists - Dr. Paul Paquet - to ask his opinion. And I contacted a veterinarian who is Board Certified by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine in Neurology - Dr. Jose V. Diaz. And I dug up some data on exactly how well-targeted those snares actually are (thanks to Scott MacButch for this). The result - the use of these snares is inhumane, cruel, painful, and with horrible consequences in terms of "collateral damage" to other species.

Here's what the professionals say:

1. Dr. Paul Paquet - Wolf Biologist (pers. comm.):

"They are using the least humane of all the options available to them. Unfortunately for the wolves, snares are cheap, light, compact to carry, and relatively easy to set up. And because they are designed to kill they don't have to be checked nearly as frequently as more humane non-killing methods. Unfortunately they don't often work quite right and the animal can take far longer to die than under laboratory conditions."

2. Dr. Jose V. Diaz - Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (Neurology)

"The physiological responses of the wolf and the dog are the same. Responses to hanging in dogs and cats include neurological (seizures, urination, and defecation) respiratory and cardiovascular effects. The collapse of the circulatory system under controlled situations in animal models can take up to 8.5 minutes under anesthesia. The time that it can take a wolf to die from choking is likely to be longer given that it is conscious at the time of choking and the head or a limb can prevent the apparatus from working as intended. Choking can lead to the accumulation of fluid in the lungs, severe soft tissue injuries, swelling of the head due to loss of venous return and death can take hours through and extremely painful and slow process."

"...I cannot comprehend the decision made by the government of British Columbia to elicit this kind of suffering and pain to a living being and I urge the government to reconsider this policy."

Read Dr. Diaz's full letter here: To the Government of British Columbia (PDF: 56 KB)

3. On the "collateral damage" (other species killed) - email from Scott MacButch:

"A recent response to a state public records request, submitted by Western Watersheds Project to the Idaho Fish and Game Department, shows widespread capture and mortality of non-target species related to wolf trapping and snaring in Idaho during the 2011/2012 trapping and snaring season. One hundred and fifty-four trappers filled out the survey. For the last two years, since wolves in the Northern Rockies were delisted, trappers in Idaho have killed approximately 177 wolves. However, during just the 2011/2012 trapping season these trappers have captured approximately 246 non-target animals. Of those captured, 116 were released alive, 118 were killed, and the fate of 12 others were not reported."

"All the deaths upset me, but what was really disturbing was the 15 dead Fishers (out of 22 incidentally caught in traps) & 13 dead mountain lions out of 26 inadvertently caught. The fisher is listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need, and ranked "G5/S1" (IDFG 2005a). This means that it is globally secure, but within the State of Idaho it is: "Critically imperiled".

View the original source (The Wildlife News, Feb 14, 2013) online here, or download a PDF of the article here (PDF: 365 KB).

OK - ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! These snares MUST GO NOW - from my backyard and ALL of BC - and not come back. Stay tuned for what YOU can do. Coming REAL soon. And get ready to go viral with this...

For the wolves...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

21 February 2013: The Nikon D7100 - Some Very Initial Thoughts...

Boy, Nikon is making it hard on their competitors (and those struggling to keep up on writing thorough field tests) these days! For those who missed it, Nikon announced the D7100 yesterday - a 24 MP DX-format DSLR. As always, I won't bother with a spec-spew here (go here on dpreview.com's website for that). Key highlights include an all-new 24 MP sensor, 51-point AF system with at least some of its components and/or design borrowed from the D800, 2016 pixel RGB-sensor, and a frame rate of 6 fps when shooting in full DX mode (7 fps when shooting in crop mode). All for a street price of about $1500. Interestingly the camera has NO optical low-pass filter (even the D800 had a filter, albeit a modified one). Time will tell if moire effects will be an issue with this camera (those shooting close-ups of birds should be particularly concerned about this).

I don't like to say anything about actual camera performance before I have actually shot with it. I will say that the specs look REALLY good on this camera. If it performs as it should, it could prove to be an absolutely excellent camera for wildlife shooting - it certainly has the specs many have been asking for in a DX camera. In many respects it's probably the camera many wildlife shooters were hoping to have (but couldn't wait for) when they bought their D800, and then their D600. Nikon is calling this their "flagship DX-format DSLR" on some of their websites and/or press releases - so forget about a D4-quality DX camera coming down the pipes. And forget about a D400. Nikon is clearly stating that their FX lineup is targeted at the professionals, and their DX lineup slots in BELOW it.

I have three concerns about the camera - all of which are related to jamming so many pixels into a DX sensor (i.e., related to the extremely small size of the photosites on its sensor - which are significantly smaller than on even the D800). First, as one who shoots a lot in low light (as many wildlife photographers do), I wonder about its ISO performance. Second, with those tiny photosites, will one have to bump their shutter speed up (and by how much) when hand-holding lenses (and will the ISO performance allow us to easily do this without significantly degrading image quality)? This problem will be experienced most by those who "shoot to crop". Third, because decreasing photosite (or pixel) size is strongly correlated with increasing diffraction effects (i.e., image-softening when the aperture is stopped down) I have some concerns about how much one will be able to stop down their aperture on a D7100 and still get sharp shots. Even with the D800 I have found diffraction to be more than a little inconvenient (a major pain, if I'm being honest) when shooting landscapes (where the issue manifests itself most often). The diffraction-induced softening will likely be even worse with the D7100 (though I doubt few will be using this camera for serious landscape work).

In my perfect world - the one where product marketing concerns don't impact on product design so much - I think I'd prefer if Nikon had backed off a LITTLE on the resolution (say to about 18 MP) and thus offered us almost the same overall camera but with slightly better ISO performance, increased "hand-holdability", and fewer diffraction effects at small apertures. But, shockingly, Nikon is not in the business of making cameras just to meet my needs or please me!

I seem to be in a bit of a cynical mood these days (my fight with the BC Government over the placement of killing neck snares targeted at wolves near my home has done that)...but the timing and sequence of Nikon's last 3 DSLR's is probably frustrating more than a few folks out there. I know many photographers who bought the D800 as a wildlife camera - most of which who thought "I'll get the reach I need by cropping". Not surprisingly, they found that demanding camera a challenge to use for wildlife shooting. So many then acquired a D600 (and were quite happy with it). Now comes the D7100, which is what many wildlife shooters were asking for all along - it offers resolution AND reach! Nikon - you are doing one heckuva job of getting people to empty their pockets - again and again and again! I understand Nikon is in business to make money...and boy are we getting some amazing cameras these days. But what I (and thousands) wouldn't give to see an official product-release roadmap (yes, I know - not a hope). And I think that if you keep up doing what you're doing with product releases, before long you just might start training your loyal followers to sit back and wait before buying "...the latest and greatest". I'm just sayin'.

Cheers...

Brad

PS: Yes, I still do write about cameras! But I'd love it if all the wildlife photographers who visit my website would take a few minutes to read about the current wolf "controversy" I'm embroiled in (it all begins below on my February 11 entry). Especially in the coming days (and there's a hint if I ever saw one).

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

20 February 2013: Wolf Snares In My Backyard 8 - Conversations with the Opposition

Anyone following this series of blog posts is aware that I'm awfully upset about the immediate, local situation I "discovered" back on February 10 - the presence of a large array of killing wolf neck snares near my cabin. Most will also know that I am - and have been for quite some time - distressed by the official policy of the government of BC toward the grey wolf, such as the incredibly aggressive hunting and trapping regulations (which, can be pretty much summarized as "open season on the wolf"). In my mind the local situation (those damned snares), while being disgusting, is only a symptom of a much bigger problem. And to change the situation, I have to fight the bigger fight.

As part of fighting that bigger fight I spent an hour or two on the phone with BC's "Provincial Predator Conflict Prevention and Response Coordinator" this past Monday. Although we have very different views on the need to remove wolves from public land in BC, I would describe our conversation as mostly cordial. He even supplied me with a host of facts and figures I was looking for (things like how they verify if cattle is killed by a wolf, how many cattle were killed by predators in the last year, etc.).

On Tuesday a local Conservation Officer phoned me and we had a different sort of conversation. I was informed that a number of the snares were recently disabled or damaged and that a trail camera was taken from the area the snares are in. And, I was informed that "...because of your blog" a file was opened up on me by two different agencies: the Conservation Officer Service (a BC agency) and the RCMP (a federal police force, our closest thing to the FBI of the USA). I guess I'm guilty of finding wolf snares on public land, photographing them, and writing about it. And I guess you know you're doing something right when...

I don't believe in guessing the motivation behind a conversation such as the one I had Tuesday. A skeptic would say it was done to muzzle me. I'm going to take it as a simple FYI. And continue to post my thoughts about both the killing wolf snares near my house and what I think of the Government of BC's policy toward wolves.

To the person or persons who took the trail camera: The Conservation Officer Service would like it back. If you still have it perhaps you could place it in a safe place and call 250-342-4266 and leave an anonymous tip telling them where they can find it. I'd say "from a pay phone"...but I'm not sure there's any of those left!

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

20 February 2013: Wolf Snares In My Backyard 7 - The Cost of a Wolf

We know that wolves impart many benefits to an ecosystem. And we know that if they're managed correctly they can even have a significant and positive economic value to society. So...if this is the case, why on earth does the BC government manage them as "vermin?" Wolves are, of course, owned by the public at large. And we know that the Government of BC manages our jointly-held property and assets for the benefit of all - right? So...the only logical conclusion is that wolves must have a very great cost to society or the BC Government wouldn't be acting so aggressively against them - right?

So what cost do wolves have to society? Turns out it's pretty insignificant. Curious? Check out my "hot off the press" new essay:

Commentary: On the Cost of a Wolf

For the wolves...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

19 February 2013: Wolf Snares In My Backyard 6 - The Value of a Wolf

Finding those cursed killing neck snares in my backyard back on February 10 was, for me a HUGE wake-up call. Among other things, it has provoked me into putting some serious thought into the entire issue of wolf management - and society's relationship with wolves. The snares represented a real emotional shock to me. But the scientist in me immediately began trying to understand - or seek - a logical framework to fight back against BC's current policy toward wolves.

So...if have you ever sat down and tried to associate a tangible value to a non-human living entity? Like, for instance, a wolf? Here's my attempt at the impossible...

Commentary: On the Value of a Wolf

Don't be surprised if this is quickly followed up with a commentary with a title something like "On the Cost of Wolves: Debunking some Myths". Stay tuned.

For the wolves...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

17 February 2013: Wolf Snares In My Backyard 5 - Update on the Snares

Late on Saturday, February 16 I once again visited the area where just one week ago I found the 13 killing wolf neck snares. The snares were set by employees of the Government of British Columbia on crown - or public - land at the behest of a local rancher (those who are viewing this series of entries for the first time should scroll down to my February 11 entry and read the ensuing entries in chronological order).

The good news: No fresh sign of wolves in the area; no wolves or 'by-catch' (such as coyotes) in the snares; and no indication that any wolves have been strangled to death in the last few days (based on condition of snow and foliage surrounding the snares).

The bad news: There were 18 active snares as of Saturday. And, for reasons I can't explain, some of the snares have "shifted" slightly in position - in some cases by only a metre or two. If any outdoor enthusiasts ARE considering going into the area for hiking or snowshoeing I would still strongly recommend against bringing a dog (or wandering child) with you. If you do, please check the GPS coordinates posted on the images linked to my blog entries of 11 February and 13 February (even with the slight shifting of the snare positions these coordinates would allow you to locate and avoid the snares).

I expect this situation of the killing snares to "heat up" somewhat this week, and I will be regularly updating this blog as events occur in the coming days (so stay tuned!). I will be including some new clear actions that those opposed to the wolf neck snares can take to voice their opposition to this disgusting situation.

For the wolves...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

15 February 2013: 2013 Photo Tour Availability Update...

Earlier this week both of my autumn 2013 "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" photo tours officially sold out.

I still have a few spots remaining on both of my spring "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" Photo Tours and my August "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More" Photo Tour. All details about the photo tours can be found on the the Photo Tours page of this website.

Or, for your downloading convenience, here are links to the brochures for each of the trips that still have vacancies:

Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour (PDF; 2.3 MB)

Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Photo Op Photo Tour (PDF; 2.3 MB)

Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions & More Photo Op Photo Tour (PDF; 5.2 MB)

For any additional information about any of these "at-least-once-in-a-lifetime" trips, just contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca.

Cheers...

Brad

13 February 2013: Wolf Snares In My Backyard 4 - Snare Numbers INCREASE!

Late on Tuesday (12 February) I returned to the area where I found the 13 neck snares placed to kill wolves on Sunday (see blog entry of February 11 below for a detailed account of my original discovery of the snares). The good news is that there was no fresh signs of wolves in the area, and all the snares were empty. The bad news is that sometime between Sunday and Tuesday the "authorities" had visited the area and added at least 5 new snares - so there is now a total of 18 killing neck snares in place.

Now, if any dog (accompanied by, for instance, a local outdoor enthusiast out for a hike, cross-country skier, or snowshoer) wandered into the area, it would be a literal killing field for the dog (or several dogs). Most of the snares - which are on easily-accessible public land - are incredibly hard to see (intentionally) and there are NO signs warning of the killing snares being used in the area. On my entry of February 11 I linked an image that showed a snare as clearly as possible - this image shows the more typical situation (with the snare almost invisible):

Wolf Neck Snare - Invisible Killer Download 1200 pixel image (JPEG: 652 KB)

Because of the extreme danger these snares pose to pets, I am again posting this image complete with the GPS coordinates of the snare included in the image's metadata (you can see the GPS coordinates in iPhoto, Adobe Lightroom, and any number of other image viewing tools). Permission is granted by me for anyone to download and re-post the image linked to directly (and the one posted on February 11) on any online medium, including (but not limited to) personal websites, organization websites, and Facebook. Spread the word about these snares - and the photo!

All 18 snares are quite close together (all are within a couple of hundred meters of one another and the majority are on or along snowmobile tracks) and easy to find. PLEASE keep your dogs away from the snares! I assume it is likely illegal for anyone to tamper with these snares, so I won't publicly condone that anyone use the coordinates to find and disable the snares. Even though it could save the lives of one or more wolves.

I will continue to post updates on this situation as events justify.

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

13 February 2013: Wolf Snares In My Backyard 3 - Fighting the BIGGER Fight!

Since my original post on this topic "way back" on February 11 I have received a mountain of email, and many have suggested the best course of action would be simply to cut the snares. I won't disagree that this action could potentially save the life of a wolf or two (and that thought has kept me up at nights since Sunday). The problem is that these snares are "legal" and official government policy (just like Residential Schools where kidnapped First Nations children were forced to attend in the latter half of the last century were). And, as soon as the local Conservation Officers (CO's) checked the snares again they'd simply replace them. And while no amount of money could make me do what they are doing (in setting these snares), the local CO's can hide behind the excuse that if they don't do their job, they can be fired or reprimanded. I had to remind myself of this after I talked to a CO last Friday and had an instant emotional response to finding out they were engaging in "predator-control" somewhere near my cabin. What did I do? Instantly I tried to engage the CO in a debate about wolf control. His response? "Hey Brad, I'm just doing my job."

So...while I won't mind it a bit if those snares develop operational difficulties (like they tend to do when they're cut), to me the more important thing is to help ensure that setting wolf snares drops off the CO's list of job duties. And the only way to do that is to change BC's Wolf Management Plan. And it just so happens that the Government of BC (which is facing an election right now that they are likely to lose and are perhaps a bit sensitive to public opinion right now) is in the process of drafting a NEW wolf management plan.

So...what action can you take? Well...right now the BEST thing you can do is to send any or all of the key BC Provincial politicians listed below a letter (printed, email, whatever) expressing your absolute disgust with the use of wolf snares to needlessly kill wolves to "protect" the interests of special interest groups AND your disagreement with BC's current approach to wolf management.

Best of all, just this morning the good folks at WildEarth Guardians sent me (and gave me permission to distribute) an incredibly useful report that will help arm anyone sending a letter to politicians with some great counter-arguments (ammunition!) against wolf-control and persecution. The report begins with 7 succinct FAQ's that ANYONE who cares about wolves and wolf conservation should read.

Important note to Canadians: While the report provides great information that help refute the claims of special interest groups that are very anti-wolf in their bias, it is based on studies performed in the US. However, virtually all the same conditions and conclusions apply on our side of the border. The only significant difference is that we haven't had the need to spend tens of millions of dollars to reintroduce wolves - yet. But if we don't change our current approach to wolf management, it's only a matter of time before we WILL have to begin a re-introduction program...

Here's the report:

Northern Rocky Mountain Wolves: A Public Policy Process Failure
How Two Special Interest Groups Hijacked Wolf Conservation in America
(PDF: 3.2MB)

My thanks are extended to Karen Keefover (report author), and both Lori Colt and Ray Rafiti for drawing my attention to the report and giving me permission to distribute it.

Who should you send your letters protesting the current wolf snaring and BC's current policy on wolf management to? Here you go:

Premier Christy Clark
PO Box 9041
Station PROV GOVT
Victoria, BC V8W 9E2
Tel: 250-387-1715
Fax: 250-387-0087
email: premier@gov.bc.ca

Hon. Steve Thomson
Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations
102 - 2121 Ethel Street
Kelowna, BC V1Y 2Z6
Tel: 250-387-6240
Fax: 250-387-1040
email: steve.thomson.mla@leg.bc.ca

Hon. Terry Lake
BC Minister of Environment
PO Box 9047
Station PROV GOVT
Victoria, BC V8W 9E2
Tel: 250-387-1187
Fax: 250-387-1356
email: env.minister@gov.bc.ca

Hon. Patrick Bell
BC Minister of Tourism
103 - 770 Central Street
Prince George, BC V2M 3B7
Tel: 250-612-4194
Fax: 250-612-4191
email: pat.bell.mla@leg.bc.ca

Thanks for helping fight the "big fight".

For the Wolves...

Brad

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12 February 2013: Wolf Snares In My Backyard 2 - Beware the Deadly Cow!

My blog post of yesterday has pretty much gone viral and has been seen by thousands and thousands. And my email in-bin has been filling at an unprecedented rate - I will attempt to get back to everyone but I'm asking for your patience. And for the record, EVER SINGLE email I have received has been supportive of what was contained in yesterday's entry.

Earlier today a visitor from Idaho sent me a link to a very current summary of studies on the "wolf issue" - it appeared in The Wildlife News only two days ago (Feb 10, 2013). And, most importantly to me, it contains a ton of solid evidence indicating that the case put forward by the ranching lobby (and the hunting lobby) about the "wolf problem" are simply myths. The author of the summary article is Ralph Maughn and the article is entitled "What real public information about wolves looks like". Here is the link to it:

http://www.thewildlifenews.com/2013/02/10/what-real-public-information-about-wolves-looks-like/

I noticed that the web page this article is on doesn't work too well with some web-browsers, so if you're having trouble with the link or you want a permanent copy of the article for your reference, here's a PDF version of the article:

What real public information about wolves looks like (PDF).

I encourage anyone who is against wolf control and/or wolf culling to read the entire article - it's a very readable summary of a lot of excellent studies that collectively shoot holes in MANY arguments used by the anti-wolf lobby. It's almost the "Wolf Proponents Bible"!

Here's just a small sampling of the arguments that are great to have in your pocket:

1. On Livestock Depredation:

"About 2.6 million cattle, including calves, live in Montana. Seventy-four killed by wolves in 2011 out of 2.6 million is less than 0.003 percent."

2. On Human Safety:

"During a 4 year period last decade, livestock killed 108 people in 4 states and this does not include people killed by vehicle and cattle interactions (CDC, 2009). During this same time period, wild wolves in the lower 48 states killed no one. In the last 80 years, two fatalities, one in Saskatchewan, and one in Alaska, may have been wolf-caused."

3. Effects on Big Game Hunting:

When examining the effects of large predator effects on the Gallatin elk herd, Hamlin and Cunningham (2009) concluded: "Nowhere are data adequate to 'scientifically' assign cause(s) for any declines that may occur."

My thanks are extended to Scott MacButch for forwarding the reference to this incredibly timely article to me.

I will be posting an update to the local situation (13 "legal" wolf neck snares I discovered on Sunday past) in the next day or two.

Thank you for your time...

Brad

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11 February 2013: Wolf Snares In My Backyard - An Ethical Dilemma

Regular visitors to this blog will be aware that I'm a fairly strong opponent to the culling of Gray Wolves (feel free to view blog entries from Nov. 21 through Dec. 6 2012 for evidence of this). So what happens when I discover - on public land - 13 legal wolf neck snares dangling just off the ground a few kilometres from my cabin? The snares were set by Government of BC employees (Conservation Officers, or CO's) to remove a pack of 6 wolves that, according to the CO's I talked to, have been taking some local cattle (or so they suspect).

My first reaction was, of course, that I wanted to go cut the snares. But, I attempt to be a responsible citizen and I do believe in following the law. But what happens when the law is backed by a concept you believe is both ethically AND ecologically wrong? What course of action do you take (beyond not sleeping)?

For the record there is one action I did not take - I did NOT touch the snares. But I did photograph them (and, fortunately, there were no wolves in them and NO sign of fresh wolf activity in the area). It should be pointed out that if I had touched or disabled them, I would have been the prime (and likely only) suspect - until this blog entry likely no other members of the public knew about the snares. So cutting them would have been a somewhat boneheaded move.

And one more "for the record" comment: As a wildlife photographer, biologist and environmentalist I have both a strong love for wildlife and a belief that we should strive towards minimizing our interventions in natural ecosystems. A diverse ecosystem tends to be more stable than an impoverished one, and having natural predator-prey dynamics help ensure the development of ecosystem diversity. Wolves, deer, and elk have coexisted in my area for thousands of years and having wolves around helps keep ungulate populations in check (and even modifies WHERE they will forage).

I also know enough about wolf behavior and ecology to know that one way to GUARANTEE that wolves will turn toward livestock is to kill about half a pack - not only are you likely to take out some of the more experienced animals that teach the younger ones how to kill natural prey (like the elk and deer that abound in this area), but you're also making it unlikely that they will even be able to take down grown elk (and thus can be forced to go after "easier" prey, like livestock).

So if anyone is unclear of my view I will state it unequivocally: it's my opinion the policy of the current Government of BC towards wolves is antiquated, ecologically unsound, ethically bankrupt, and in place simply to placate a single special interest group - ranchers. Not only is it dramatically out of step with what the majority of British Columbians believe in, it is in no way reflective of the modern and progressive relationship we SHOULD have with nature.

Back to the current situation: The area I found the snares in is, in a normal winter, quite inaccessible. It's on what in Canada is called "Crown Land" - which is known elsewhere as "public land". In summer months local ranchers turn their cattle loose in this wilderness area to let them forage, and then round them up in the autumn. In most winters there is no easy access to this area - the only road that accesses the area is along a major power line and isn't plowed to remove snow. However, the road has recently been cleared of snow and you can drive right up the road right now (even with a two-wheeled drive vehicle). The snares are found only about 200 meters off the road - in an area that outdoor enthusiasts can now get to. One week ago I was snowshoeing in the area with my dogs - and there was no signage or other warning that there were killing snares in the area.

So here's a few of the things I'm pondering right now:

• Why is it surprising when you introduce a grazing animal into a wilderness area that some might be taken by predators? The phrase "cost of doing business" comes to mind. So does "institutionalized stupidity". Oh, and there IS a compensation plan in place for ranchers who lose livestock to natural predators.

• Why should my tax dollars go to fund the killing of wolves for the benefit of a private entrepreneur (a rancher)? At the end of the day the wolf is simply doing what wolves do when you put a meal in front of them. Sounds like a government subsidy impacting on the price of beef to me - is it being disclosed under existing trade agreements? And, I wonder if I can contact Conservation and have them knock off a few of my competitors? That last sentence is tongue-in-cheek but I think it points out the ludicrousness of the "sterilize the wilderness for the benefit of a FEW ranchers" philosophy.

• Why isn't the location of the killing snares being disclosed? You'd almost think that the government wants to keep this hush-hush. What does this need for secrecy tell you?

• How will I feel if someone's dog gets nailed by one of these snares and I didn't speak up and disclose their location? Hell, I'm going to feel like crap if a wolf gets nailed in one of these snares and I could have stopped it.

• How humane is it to choke a wolf to death? How ethical is it to do so (when the wolf is just doing what it evolved to do)? Is the actual death acceptable ONLY because it's done "out of sight"?

What does a wolf neck snare look like? They can be tough to see - so here's a photo of one:

Wolf Neck Snare Along the Findlay-Dutch: Download 1200 pixel image (JPEG: 750 KB)

Looks innocuous enough right? Kind of like a medieval instrument of torture. Oh, and by the way, if any "locals" are viewing this - the GPS coordinates of the snare is included in the image's metadata (you can see it in iPhoto and any number of other image viewing tools). The remaining 12 snares are very close by and easy to find. Keep your dogs away from the snares OK? And it is probably illegal for anyone to touch or tamper with these snares. But now there are thousands of possible suspects. And more if you forward the photo along...

Inaction on this one is SO tough for me. Hey wait a minute...maybe I did just do something?

Brad

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9 February 2013: TC-20EIII Field Test Updated with 70-200mm f4 VR Results

I have updated my TC-20EIII (2x teleconverter) Field Test with the addition of the results of the pairing of the new 70-200mm f4 VR plus the TC-20EIII. Regular followers of this blog will have already seen these results below (in the 15 and 23 January entries).

Cheers...

Brad

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7 February 2013: HELP! Which Full-frame Nikon DSLR Should I Buy?

My tardiness in putting out my D600 field test (sorry...but I'm a busy guy!) has resulted in a lot of email flowing into my in-bin. Much of it has been of this nature:

"Help! I'm tiring of waiting for your D600 review and I want to buy a new Nikon for nature shooting NOW! But I'm really confused about which full-frame model to buy - there's so much conflicting information and crap on the inter-web. I shoot a bit of everything - what do you recommend? And PLEASE don't just spew specs at me - what do you actually THINK?"

OK, I have some comparatively strong opinions relevant to this conundrum. But it's important to remember they ARE opinions, and they are coming from the perspective of someone who is, first and foremost, a wildlife shooter. I am not without bias. But I shoot with ALL 3 of Nikon's current full-frame cameras (the D4, the D800, and the D600) and have had a lot of opportunity to shoot them head-to-head. I know you can find alternate viewpoints "out there", and I'm sure I'll hear lots back on this one. But here you go - a short summary of my thoughts on each of Nikon's current full-frame cameras...what I think they're best suited for, and who should buy them. And I know this one is going to draw some flak, but at least I'm honest!

The Nikon D4:

• OVERVIEW: Big, heavy, and expensive. But the best action camera you can buy, bar none. Tough as nails, very high frame rate, and with an amazingly fast and accurate autofocus system - the best AF system Nikon has ever offered. Excellent ergonomics - both when held in horizontal or vertical orientations. ISO performance is excellent and, in a way, "interesting" - if you're shooting at high ISO it has close to the same amount of noise ISO's as the perceived high ISO king (the D3s), but definitely holds better tonal range in the darks and lights - so much so that high ISO shots with this camera simply don't LOOK like high ISO shots. In what's almost a paradox - this is Nikon's most forgiving full-frame camera - it's darned hard to point this camera at something and shoot and NOT get a sharp, well-exposed image!

Drawbacks? Big, heavy, and expensive. And a stupid approach to memory cards (two slots, two different card types) - which means you carry extra needless gear (and card types) into the field.

• Best Suited For? Sports shooting. Serious or professional wildlife shooting - especially for wildlife shooting where low light and/or action is likely to be encountered. Overall the ultimate camera for shooting wildlife.

• Who Should Buy One? Serious sports shooters and wildlife shooters who want the best and are willing to spend the money.

• For More Information: Check out my D4 Field Test.

The Nikon D800/800e:

• OVERVIEW: A tremendously powerful yet enigmatic photographic tool. Best dynamic range of any camera available today - and it's noticeable in the field. The uber-high resolution (and associated very small pixel pitch) has both positive and negative consequences. It's the best solution for large-to-huge prints. But that high res sensor beats up lenses - you'll get the most out of this camera ONLY if you use the best of the best Nikkors. Example? Shoot the 70-200mm f2.8 VRIi at 200mm on the D4 or D600 and you have very acceptable edge-to-edge sharpness. Shoot that same lens on the D800 and the edges are noticeably soft (at all apertures). And don't stop down beyond about f11 (or even f8 with some lenses) if you don't want to start softening up your images because of diffraction. Small pixel pitch also means that camera shake is a bigger issue on this camera than on Nikon's other full-frame cameras - so if you're a "hand-holder" prepare to bump that shutter speed about 1/2 stop faster. AF performance - excellent (and way better than needed for landscape work!). ISO performance? Incredible for a 36 MP DSLR, but not nearly as good as the D4, or even the D600. At the end of the day this simply isn't a forgiving camera in any way - but treat it with medium format-like shooting discipline and it can produce beautiful images. But make no mistake - this is Nikon's LEAST forgiving full-frame camera - unlike the D4, it's REAL easy with this camera to point it at something and get a blurry, out-of-focus shot!

Drawbacks? Already mentioned and, oh yeah...a stupid approach to memory cards (two slots, two different card types). At least Nikon is consistent in their stupidity. And the camera is kinda slow (in frame rate) - too slow for serious wildlife shooting.

• Best Suited For? Landscape shooting and studio work. Also great for "animalscapes" if conditions are just right. Excellent implementation of Live View also turns this into a GREAT camera for macro and closeup work - so next time you need a 36 MP image of a flower or bug...this is the camera of choice (read sarcasm into that if you want to). How 'bout for wildlife shooting (including in DX mode)? Argh...I was hoping you would NOT ask that. In my opinion it's tied for about 6th as a wildlife camera - trailing behind the D4, D3s, D600, D3, and D700 (with battery pack). But about as good as a D3x for serious wildlife shooting!

• Who Should Buy One? Serious landscape shooters who don't want the expense and/or bulk of medium format equipment. And studio shooters. And, those who are prepared to spend the money on a camera dedicated to animalscapes. Not recommended by me for action shooters or serious wildlife shooters.

• For More Information: Check out my D800 Field Test (it includes more on why I can't recommend this camera for serious wildlife photography).

The Nikon D600:

• OVERVIEW: Probably the best "balance" of features available in a camera for nature photography at any price. High enough resolution (and enough dynamic range) to challenge the D800 for landscape shooting, yet not so high that it beats up lenses very badly or shows nearly as much diffraction-induced softening at small apertures. Slightly faster frame rate than D800 is noticeable (and appreciated) in field shooting. Excellent ISO performance - not quite a D4 but surprisingly close! Autofocus performance does not match that of the D4, but again I'd rate it as surprisingly close in real-world terms...easily handles shooting birds-in-flight with a 600mm f4 lens. Overall phenomenal real-world performance for $2k or less...seriously out-performs a D3x in the field. While not quite as forgiving to use as a D4, this camera is much more forgiving than a D800 and is quite easy to produce excellent shots with in day-to-day use.

Drawbacks? Lacks some critical connections for many studio lighting setups. But at least the two card slots are the same!

• Best Suited For? All-round use for nature photography: Not-quite-a-D4 for wildlife shooting, and not-quite-a-D800 for landscape work, but not very far off either of them. And a superb back-up camera for either a D4 or a D800. Unless I'm going to do "serious" wildlife shooting (in harsh and/or low light conditions) or landscape work, THIS is the camera I grab first. Really.

• Who Should Buy One? Only about 90% of the world's Nikon-shooting nature photographers (including MANY who bought D800's BEFORE the D600 was released)! Most versatile DSLR in Nikon's lineup and definitely the best value proposition.

• For More Information: My D600 Field Test is coming soon...

There you go - hope it helps...

Cheers...

Brad

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31 January 2013: Nikon's New 800mm Lens - The AF-S Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR

As most Nikon-o-philes will know by now, way back on January 28 Nikon officially announced its new 800mm lens - officially dubbed the "AF-S Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR". For a cool $18k you can have Nikon's longest lens that has ever sported autofocus - and have VR to boot! And you can have it in April! Because of the price-point of this lens - and its exceptionally specialized use - I wasn't going to bother dealing with it here. But...email has been rolling in asking me what I think of it. So I guess I should say something. And, In general, I've received two categories of questions, which I'll attempt to answer here:

1. What do I think of the lens? Will I be getting one? Is the cost of the lens justified?

I haven't seen, touched, or used the lens - so I can't comment directly on what I think of it. If you look at the published literature about the lens, it does appear that Nikon has poured a huge amount of effort and technology into it (probably the best repository of all available info on the lens is here on the "Nikon National Enquirer"). It's likely a great lens. I won't be buying one (more on that in a minute)...but if someone happened to GIVE me one (to test or have) I wouldn't turn them down. But that's very, very unlikely!

Is the cost of the lens justified? Well...given the technology behind it and the small numbers that will be produced - yes, the cost probably is justified. In fact, it could be argued it's amazingly cheap (and Nikon is likely making ZERO money on it). But...for me the question is slightly different - as a professional wildlife photographer can I justify the price of the lens. Or, more accurately, can I build a logical and rational business case for "investing" in this piece of equipment? No. But some could...let me explain further...

Some wildlife photographers consider the challenge of getting "close enough" to their prey to be their single biggest obstacle to getting "good" wildlife shots. You know - those "full frame" shots. And for certain types of elusive prey this might be the case - so there may be justification for that "...the more reach, the better" argument. It's a variation on the "...if something is good, more is better" way of thinking. But my approach to choosing equipment for wildlife photography differs. When it comes to focal length and lens choice I think in real-world "optimization of all variables" terms. I'm always trying to balance off reach vs. fine control of my out-of-focus zones (depth-of-field concerns). And carrying the lens. And the shutter speed I need to get a sharp image. And I have also found that in MANY real-world situations what I'll call "airborne/atmospheric spatial heterogeneities" (think dust, fog, mist, thermal currents, rain, etc.) can make mitigate against using even a 600mm lens effectively. What do all these variables translate into in the field? The fact that I use my 400mm f2.8 VR at least five times as much as my 600mm f4 VR. And, I know I would use an 800mm lens even less. But this is just ME - I will not argue with others if they say they need this lens or that they will use it regularly. I CAN see some sports photographers (and maybe even some news photographers??) benefitting from this lens. But the amount of benefit I would get from this lens wouldn't justify the expense. And, in my opinion, there aren't many serious wildlife photographers that have a strong enough need for this lens to justify its purchase. In my neck of the woods you'll be most likely to see this lens in the hands of retired oil patch executives. ;-)

I said one thing above that may need a little more explanation - about how the "need for more reach" isn't always critical for a wildlife photographer. For me "getting close enough" (and thus lens reach) is rarely the main challenge in the field. And here's a timely example - about a week ago I posted an image in my Gallery of Latest Additions where the subjects were TINY in the frame. It was shot with a 70-200mm lens at 135mm on a full-frame camera. And, in the discussion associated with the image (the "In the Field" tab) I discuss the issue of shooting good wildlife shots at a distance. The image and discussion I'm referring to can be found here right now (but be aware that the image will be shifting in position within that gallery soon). AND, just yesterday, this very image was chosen as the Pick of the Week by the Nature Photographer's Network...so at least some others share my viewpoint about reach not being the main issue to a wildlife shooter! You can read what others are saying about the image right here on the Nature Photographer's Network website (and you will find a link to a 2500 pixel version of the image).

2. Will I be field-testing the lens?

Well...I'll use one of my favorite malaprops to answer that: only if Nikon decides to send me one "au gratis". So likely not. ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

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31 January 2013: Focus Tracking Test Protocol Addendum...

In all my tests on focus tracking capabilities of various lenses and cameras (including entries in this blog and in several of my Field Tests) I have left out a bit of information that may be useful for some readers. In all current FX Nikon cameras Custom Setting A1 lets you determine the "AF-C Priority Selection". This means that when using continuous servo AF mode (the setting you MUST use for serious focus tracking) you can tell the camera to give priority to focus (so it will only fire if subject is in focus) right through to priority to release (meaning the camera will fire whenever the shutter release is depressed, regardless of whether the subject is in focus or not). The number of AF-C Priority Selection option varies with the camera - two with the D600, three with the D800, and four with the D4. In day-to-day shooting with my D4 I always use the "Release & Focus" option. BUT, for all focus tracking tests (regardless of the camera used) I select the "Release" option. This removes any bias towards the camera shooting in-focus shots only (and thus does not inflate the "in-focus" ratees that I report).

Thanks are extended to Sergey for pointing this omission out.

Cheers...

Brad

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30 January 2013: The Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR, the TC-14EII Teleconverter and Focus Tracking

Wow...already up to "installment 7" in my ongoing series of reports (which will lead to my final field test of the new Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR). For those just joining the discussion now, the previous 6 entries on the new Nikkor 70-200mm f4 can be found with little difficulty by just scrolling down...

In this entry I compare the focus tracking of the new 70-200mm f4 lens when combined with Nikon's TC-14EII (1.4x) teleconverter against two other lenses combined with the same TC - the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the "legendary" Nikkor 200mm f2 VR.

What I Did:

Pretty much the same thing as during my previous focus tracking tests - I utilized the same "tried and true" focus-tracking test using my highly paid partners - my two Portuguese Water Dogs who like running at me at full-speed. Those wanting more detail about the testing should scroll down to the 23 January entry. In this case I used only my D4 (its higher frame rate maximizes "sample size"). All images were shot at 200mm (so 280mm factoring in the magnification of the TC). All images shot at 1/1600s (except one where where there was simply too much light for the aperture I was testing - f2.8 on the 200mm f2 - that one was shot at 1/2000s).

What I Discovered:

1. Focus Tracking Accuracy: One surprise here. There was no difference in the focus tracking accuracy when I was comparing the two 70-200mm zooms and the TC-14EII - over 90% of the images were in sharp focus (sample size for both lens/TC combos was in excess of 150 images). But that's not the surprise - this is exactly what I found when testing these lenses plus the TC-20EIII (2x) TC. But the Nikkor 200mm f2 VR plus TC-20EII had a slightly lower success rate on focus tracking - just under 85% of the images were tack sharp (again a sample size of over 150 shots). To me this is somewhat surprising. But "just under 85%" still isn't too bad!

2. Sharpness Differences?. Interesting results here. First - the most predictable result. The sharpest lens/TC combination was the 200 f2 VR plus TC-14EII - by f4 it produced visibly sharper results than either of the two 70-200mm zooms paired with the TC-14EII. But anyone looking at the sample images below will notice that the images shot with the 200mm f2 VR plus TC aren't THAT much sharper than those shot with the zooms. In itself this is pretty amazing.

Second - the 70-200mm f4 plus TC-14EII slightly out-performed the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus TC-14EII. The difference was only really noticeable at wider apertures. Images shot at f5.6 on the 70-200mm f4 (plus TC) were slightly but noticeably sharper than those shot at f5.6 on the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII (plus TC). So the f4 version of the lens produced sharper images when shot wide open than the f2.8 lens did when stopped down 1 stop. And it parallels what I found when testing both lenses with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter. And to me this is truly amazing - the lighter, smaller, cheaper lens out-performs the bigger, heavier, and much more expensive 70-200mm "king".

At f8 and smaller apertures the differences in image sharpness between the two lenses (plus TC) was so small that I'd consider it totally insignificant for field shooting.

Sample shots? You bet. As always, it's best to view these images at 100% magnification (1:1). Images are about 75% of full frame and then reduced to 2400 pixels on the vertical axis. All critical information is included on the images.

Poncho Running - 70-200mm f4 VR plus 1.4x TC @ f5.6: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

Jose Running - 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 1.4x TC @ f5.6: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

Jose Running - 70-200mm f4 VR plus 1.4x TC @ f8: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

Jose Running - 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 1.4x TC @ f8: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

But Wait...There's More!

If one focused on image sharpness alone then it would be easy and logical to conclude that it makes no sense whatsoever to pay the big bucks for the fast (and big and heavy) super-telephoto prime lens - like the 200mm f2 VR, the 300mm f2.8 VR, 400mm f2.8 VR, etc. Why not just get a good lightweight zoom (like the new 70-200mm f4 VR) and a couple of teleconverters? Well...simply because if you go the zoom plus TC route you end up losing the wide apertures of those big lenses. This is partly because you can use them in lower light, though as the ISO performance of our cameras improves (and as the VR performance get better and better) this factor becomes less important. For me the big reason to pay the big bucks to have those large apertures at one's disposal is the increased control of the out-of-focus zones. A good image - and especially a good wildlife image - is a careful balance of sharply focused zones and out-of-focus zones. If you are using a lens that can open up no more than f5.6 (or f8 if you're using the 70-200mm f4 VR with the TC-20EIII), you have lost a lot of your ability to control your out-of-focus zones. Here's two more images - one at f2.8 and one at f4 - to demonstrate what I mean:

Jose Running - 200mm f2 VR plus 1.4x TC @ f2.8: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.0 MB)

Jose Running - 200mm f2 VR plus 1.4x TC @ f4: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.0 MB)

But if you're going hiking or doing anything with a weight restriction (e.g., flying)...the 70-200mm f4 plus TC's option is VERY compelling!

Those who have followed this series of posts on the 70-200mm f4 are probably beginning to ask "Why would anyone consider buying the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII when this new 70-200mm f4 seems so good?" Well...I have to say that unless someone absolutely needs the apertures between f2.8 and f4, I'm wondering the exact same thing myself.

Cheers...

Brad

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25 January 2013: Spring Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Photo Tours

A couple of recent cancellations have opened up some spots on my late May and early June "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tours. Here's some of the details about these amazing photo tours:

1. Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour:

OVERVIEW: Truly a globally unique (and exceptionally intimate) grizzly bear photo tour. Combines one full day of photo instruction (by your's truly) with 5 full days in the world-famous Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary. Be one of under 200 people - and far, far fewer photographers - annually gifted with the intimate experience of sharing the lives of the Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen.
DATES: May 23 to May 30, 2013
LOCATION: Departs from Prince Rupert, BC
ALL THE INFORMATION: Download this brochure (PDF; 2.3 MB)

2. Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen "Just the Photo Op" Photo Tour:

OVERVIEW: Just like the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour, but with no formal instruction and one day shorter (4 days in the Khutzeymateen). Designed for the wildlife photographer who primarily wants the photographic opportunity provided by the Khutzeymateen but is less in need of formal instruction. Or, one who is looking for a more economical way to do the photo tour!
DATES: May 30 to June 3, 2013
LOCATION: Departs from Prince Rupert, BC
ALL THE INFORMATION: Download this brochure (PDF; 2.3 MB)

All the images in the brochures above were captured (by me) on the photo tours they are illustrating.

Information about my other (summer and autumn 2013) photo tours can be found on the Photo Tours page of this website.

For additional information about any of my "at-least-once-in-a-lifetime" trips, just contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca.

Cheers...

Brad

24 January 2013: The Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR and the TC-14EII Teleconverter

This is "installment 6" in my ongoing series of reports which will lead to my final field test of the new NIkkor 70-200mm f4 VR.

I've been receiving a fair amount of email recently asking me this: "OK, that new 70-200mm f4 lens seems to do well with the 2x teleconverter - but how does it perform with the 1.4x and the 1.7x?" I've just begun "playing" with the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-14EII (1.4x tc) combination. In the first phase of my testing I just "use" the product (or, in this case, combination of products) to get a feel for what it (or they) will do. So no comparisons yet with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. But I can already say this: the 70-200mm f4 VR and the TC-14EII pair up very well and can produce very good quality images, including when the zoom is used at its maximum focal length (200mm...so 280mm with the TC).

Here's a couple sample shots. It's best to view these images at 100% magnification (1:1). The images were shot with a D600 and are about 80-85% of full frame (but reduced to 2400 pixels on the long axis). They are sufficiently large to get a handle on image sharpness. Note that I shot both of these hand-held at a fairly slow shutter speed (1/80s) to get a bit more of a handle on how far the VR on the 70-200mm f4 can be pushed.

70-200mm f4 VR plus 1.4x TC at 164mm: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 965 KB)

70-200mm f4 VR plus 1.4x TC at 200mm:: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 970 KB)

In the near future I'll do some head-to-head testing comparing the results of the new version of the 70-200mm lens with the "old" f2.8 version when both are combined with the TC-14EII (both on static and moving subjects). Oh...and I won't be testing the 70-200mm f4 VR with the 1.7x (TC-17EII) teleconverter - I no longer own that one (and can't say I miss it!).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

23 January 2013: The Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR, the TC-20EIII Teleconverter and Focus Tracking

This is "installment 5" in my ongoing series of reports which will lead to my final field test of the new NIkkor 70-200mm f4 VR. In two previous entries (January 9 and 15 below) I discussed the results I obtained when using the TC-20EIII paired with the new Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR zoom lens on static subjects. I also compared these results to those obtained when using the same TC but with the professional 70-200mm f2.8VRII zoom. In those tests the new f4 version of the 70-200mm zoom performed at least as well as the f2.8 version and, surprisingly (at least to me), even slightly out-performed the f2.8 version when both were shot at f8 (which is wide open for the f4 version of the lens, and stopped down by 1-stop for the f2.8 lens).

But what happens when the action picks up and accurate and fast focus tracking is needed? Read (and look) on...

What I Did:

I utilized my "tried and true" focus-tracking test: I had my favourite test subject (one of my Portuguese Water Dogs) run at me at full speed and I rattled off shots as fast as the camera could. I used both my D4 and my D600. Both cameras were set as equivalently as possible - to continuous servo AF and either 51-point (for the D4) or 39-point (for the D600). And I used both my 70-200mm f4 lens and my 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lens - both native (no TC) and in combination with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter. For initial focus I used only focus brackets that were f8-compatible. This was not done to accommodate the TC - the reality is that whenever I'm shooting images of moving animals (running dogs, birds in flight, etc.) I use focus brackets near the centre of the array (which happen to be the f8-compatible brackets). All images were shot at 200mm (so 400mm equivalent when the TC-20EIII was attached). All images - with or without the TC - were shot at f8 and 1/1250s.

This is a particularly tough test for a camera and lens - not only is the dog (Jose) moving very quickly, but he is bobbing up and down while running. So the focus point is not only approaching the camera (requiring predictive capabilities in the autofocus algorith), but it is moving from one AF bracket to another continuously. Past experience has shown that virtually all "consumer" lenses (e.g., the 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR) fail this test abysmally and produce almost no sharp images. Most importantly, this test mimics the type of action a wildlife photographer would be capturing in the "real world". And, for legal purposes I feel compelled to mention that Jose is in no way abused during this testing - he is fed lots of treats and this ranks second only to Frisbee catching on his "favourite things to do" list. ;-)

What I Discovered:

1. Both Cameras, Both Lens/TC Combos - Excellent Focus Tracking. To make a long story short, regardless of the camera or lens combination used (including both lenses with or without the TC) the focus tracking was excellent. Overall "in sharp focus" percentage was extremely high - over 90% (virtually 100% with the D4 and any lens/TC combination).

2. Only Very Slight Between-Lens Differences. Overall the sharpest images were obtained when using either the 70-200mm f4 VR or 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lens native (with no teleconverter). Hardly surprising. BUT, the images shot with the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII were very, very close in sharpness. Those shot with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus TC-20EIII were slightly (but noticeably) softer than those shot with the f4 lens plus TC. It's important to remember that ALL shots were at f8. This is "wide open" for the f4 version of the lens (when the TC is in place), but stopped down one full stop for the f2.8 lens. Which makes the performance of the f4 lens (plus TC) even more impressive.

Sample shots? You bet. As always, it's best to view these images (which are all slight crops only) at 100% magnification (1:1), but the differences are visible even at 50% magnification. Of course, magnifications of 33% or 67% are not recommended for examining these shots - long story there...but just don't do it. ;-)

Jose Running - 70-200mm f4 VR NO TC: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

Jose Running - 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

Jose Running - 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

I'm now near the end of my testing of the new 70-200mm f4 VR used in combination with the TC-20EIII teleconverter. I have to be honest and say that the results have really surprised me - the images produced by this lens/TC combination are almost shockingly good. Under the right conditions you CAN produce output that can compare head-to-head with the best-of-the-best primes (like the 400mm f2.8 VR). But I have to add a very critical point here: there are STILL major compromises when shooting with a TC (compared to using a top-notch prime lens), especially when shooting action sequences. First, you need a lot of light. When f8 is your maximum aperture and you're trying to capture sharp action shots you better not go out on a cloudy day. And, when f8 is your maximum aperture, you definitely begin to lose some ability to control your background - meaning there is a very real limit to how much you can throw it out of focus and isolate your subject from its surroundings. What do I mean? One image to show you - this one from my archives...check it out and note what sharp really means (and take note of the background as well):

Jose Running - 400 f2.8 VRII: Download 1200 pixel image (JPEG: 663 KB)

So...if you're the type who REALLY pushes the limits and likes to shoot action in low light or want ultimate control of your out-of-focus zones, then there's still nothing that beats a top-notch prime super-telephoto. I simply could NOT have captured the sequence of whale breaching images featured in my January 16 blog entry (below) if I was using a teleconverter paired with...well...any lens. BUT...under "more normal" conditions (i.e., those under which most real people normally shoot!) the output you can get out of a "mid-priced" outfit (like a D600 with 70-200mm f4 VR and TC-20EIII) are almost scary good.

What's up next? First test-shots with the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-14EII (1.4x) TC. Tomorrow. And...yep...you'll see more "beyond my expectations" results...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

16 January 2013: Celebrating the Wild Life...

During seminars, slideshows, lectures, or even casual conversations with other photographers I'm often asked which of my images is my all-time favourite. I usually reply with something like..."the next one". And there's some truth to this - one of the great things about wildlife photography is that there's always strong anticipation and enthusiasm about that "next" image! It's also equally true that while I normally do have ONE favourite image at any one instant in time, but it changes ALL the time. But I have less trouble giving a definitive and non-varying answer to the question "Which is your all-time favourite sequence of images?" For me there's absolutely no doubt - it's a 7-image sequence I shot of a breaching Humpback Whale back in August 2011. I call the sequence "Celebrating the Wild Life" - simply because the graceful leap of these massive animal seems so darned joyful! I processed the first image in the sequence shortly after capturing the sequence. And then I got busy and...well...didn't find the time to process the remaining 6 images until this past weekend. But now they're all up on this website...

The first shot in the sequence is the lead-in image to my Gallery of "Other" Mammals - it can be viewed right here. All the gory details concerning the image capture (and of course processing and more) can be found by clicking on the tabs below the image ("In the Field", "Behind the Camera", etc.).

The six new images that complete the sequence begin here.

While this whole sequence captures less than a second of my total lifetime and life experiences, it's indelibly imprinted in my mind and seeing this sequence of images never fails to bring a smile to my face. I hope that some day I can say I have a sequence I like better than this one. But if I don't...well...I could live with that.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

15 January 2013: More on the Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR and the TC-20EIII (2x) Teleconverter

This is "installment 4" in my ongoing series of reports which will lead to my final field test of the new NIkkor 70-200mm f4 VR. In my January 9 entry (below) I commented on the performance of the new 70-200mm f4 VR lens when paired with the TC-20EIII teleconverter - and shot with the D600. I commented on the fact that these results may be "camera-specific" and the positive results I obtained may not be reflective of the results one would obtain when using either the D4 or D800. So...I repeated the same tests with these two other cameras. I was particularly curious how the "lens-abusing" D800 would "react" to the new 70-200mm f4 VR and the TC-20EIII combination.

What I Discovered:

1. Same General Trend! Just like when I tested the the 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC combination on the D600, I ended up with very sharp images when this same lens/TC combo was used on both the D4 and D800.

2. Little Need to Stop Down! And, like when I tested this lens/TC combination on the D600, there was very little need to stop down to get "acceptably sharp" images when shooting the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII on either the D4 or D800. Said another way - images shot with this lens/TC combination at f8 were surprisingly sharp. This was not the case when I tested the "old" 70-200mm f2.8 VRII with the TC-20EIII on either the D4 or D800 and with the aperture wide open (@ f5.6). Simply put, the images were noticeably softer (than when stopped down, or when compared to those shot wide open on the f8 version of the lens). What about when images from the f2.8 and f4 versions of the lenses (paired with the TC-20EIII) are shot at f8 on the D4 and D800? The images shot with the f4 version of the lens were slightly (but noticeably) sharper!

3. Good Autofocus Performance - on ALL Focus Brackets! When I tested the 70-200mm f4 lens plus TC-20EIII on the D600 I found the AF performance was better than I expected (and even better "than advertised" by Nikon). The only focus brackets that performed in a slightly sub-standard fashion were on the extreme outermost ones (laterally). The D600 has only 7 f8-compatible autofocus brackets, so this was good news. The D4 and D800 have 11 f8 compatible AF brackets and, in general, a better AF module. So one should expect even better AF performance out of the D4 or D800 when using the 70-200mm f4 with the TC-20EIII. And that's EXACTLY what I found - on static subjects I was able to use ALL the 51 AF brackets and there was NO hesitation in initial acquisition of focus (or accuracy). Like with the D600, the autofocus performance of the D4 and D800 when using the 70-200mm f4 plus TC-20EIII exceeded Nikon's claims.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I still have not yet tested focus-tracking/predictive autofocus (think birds in flight) with the 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC combo. Soon. So no comment on that yet.

4. Bokeh and Focus Breathing. When I first started comparing images shot with the 70-200mm f4 VR with those shot with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII (both with the TC-20EIII) I started noticing that the bokeh seemed better (smoother and more visually appealing out-of-focus zones) on images shot with the f4 lens, especially when I was looking at images shot at f11 or f16. This trend of nicer bokeh seemed even MORE pronounced when I started comparing D800 images. When I looked at small thumbnails of the images I noticed that the images from the f4 lens (and remember that ALL these shots were taken at 200mm) showed a slightly higher magnification than those with the "old" f2.8 lens. It's important to note that I was shooting at a distance where any focus breathing (the shortening of focal length when the lens is focused quite closely) exhibited by the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII version of the lens (which is a documented characteristic - and to some a documented "flaw" - with this lens) wouldn't be instantly noticeable. Anyway...long story short - this "better bokeh" and then correspondence with another photographer alerted me to the fact that the new 70-200mm f4 VR exhibited either no - or considerably less - focus breathing. Subsequent quick comparisons at closer distances using the 200mm f4 Micro, the 200mm f2 VR, and both versions of the 70-200mm VR lens told me this: there is no focus breathing at ALL on the new 70-200mm f4 VR.

Personally, with how I use a 70-200mm zoom, focus breathing was not much of an issue at all. I primarily use a 70-200mmm lens for landscapes, "enviroscapes" (wildlife shot showing animal in its environment) or "animalscapes" (wildlife in a massive landscape, with subject small), which means I'm rarely focusing too close. However, for many other types of shooters - portrait shooters and wedding photographers come immediately to mind - focus breathing was an issue. So for some this is another major positive about this new lens (it's becoming increasingly hard to find anything to dislike about this lens!).

How 'bout some sample shots? Sure...and these are ALL shot with the D800 (the D4 shots were - as expected - the best of all...but there's a whole lot more D800's out there than D4's). No apologies offered for using squirrels for these shots - they're convenient, fast-moving, and after how many nuts they've robbed from my jay-feeder, they owe me big time. Best to view the images at 100% (1:1). The images are crops - all are about 75% to 85% of full-frame image and then reduced in resolution to 2400 pixels on the long axis. But if you look at them at 100% each demonstrates what it is supposed to demonstrate! ;-)

Red Squirrel - 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC @ f5.6: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

Red Squirrel - 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC @ f11: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

Red Squirrel - 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC @ f8: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

Red Squirrel - 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC @ f11: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

For those of you waiting for my final field test before purchasing the new 70-200mm f4 VR - well...if you're in the market for this lens...I wouldn't wait any longer...this is just a great lens...

More coming soon? You bet - time for some focus-tracking testing with the 70-200mm's and the TC-20EIII (so many variables, so many combinations to test!).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

10 January 2013: Photo Tour Date Change...

Just a quick FYI to let interested parties know that the dates of my 2013 "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More" photo op style photo tour have just been changed. The old dates were August 10-17, 2013. The new (and final!) dates are August 17-24, 2013.

All the information about this photo tour (including the correct dates) are included on this brochure:

Download Brochure (PDF; 4.3 MB)

Information about ALL my 2013 photo tours may be found on the Photo Tour page of this website. And, if you have questions about any of my photo tours, just contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca.

Cheers...

Brad

9 January 2013: The Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR and the TC-20EIII (2x) Teleconverter

This is "installment 3" in my ongoing series of reports which will lead to my final field test of the new NIkkor 70-200mm f4 VR. Because I've received so many emails asking me about how the new lens performs with teleconverters (many folks seem to be basing their purchase decision on this aspect of the lens' performance), I decided to report my experiences with the new lens and TC's a bit earlier than I originally planned. And while I have more testing left to do (with other camera bodies, the 1.4x TC, and additional focal lengths), my early experiences with the 70-200mm f4 VR and the TC-20EIII (2x) TC are extremely positive and encouraging.

What I Did:

First, I shot a series of comparison shots of a static subject (my favourite stump) at a relative short distance (approx. 3.5m or 11.5 ft) - the sort of distance you'd commonly shoot images of small animals at (e.g., squirrels, some birds such as jays, etc.). The comparisons were all shot from a firm tripod (with head tightened down) and the following Nikkor lenses were used: the 400mm f2.8 VR, the 70-200mmm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII (@ 200mm) and the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII (again @ 200mm). With all 3 lens and lens/TC combos I varied the aperture from wide open through to f16 in 1-stop increments. I used a D600 for all tests. Why? Because I think (in comparison to D800 and D4 owners) more D600 users will be interested in using this particular lens/TC combination. Each shot was taken focused on the exact same point on the stump (using the central focusing bracket) and each image included the stump and background which included objects at various distances behind the stump.

After completing those comparison shots, I took several hundred shots of various small animals (red squirrels, Clark's Nutcrackers, Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Pine Grosbeaks) as they visited the stump. I alternated between shooting the f4 version of the lens (plus the 2x TC) and the f2.8 version - all shots were taken at 200mm (so 400mm equivalent). All images were shot from a tripod with the head completely loose (to facilitate ease of movement and composition) and at 1/400s with the VR on (and in "Normal" mode). With both lens/TC combinations I shot a full range of apertures from wide open through to f16. I used Auto ISO with shutter speed set to Auto (which set shutter speed at 1/400s). All images were shot using natural light - during the session there was light, thin cloud obscuring the entire sky. And, during the shooting I used/tested virtually all 39 focus brackets, including the outermost ones.

What I Discovered:

1. The 70-200mm f4 VR (@ 200mm) plus TC-20EIII is Surprisingly Sharp! The 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC produced much sharper images than I expected. How sharp? Well...at all apertures tested the 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC was sharper than the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus TC. As in NOTICEABLY sharper (when viewed at 100%). As sharp as the 400mm f2.8 VR? No - but closer than I would have expected. It's reasonably well-known that to get maximum sharpness out of the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC you have to stop down at least one stop from wide open, which means you have to stop down to f8. Interestingly, you don't seem to have to stop down from wide open with the 70-200mm f4 VR to get images at (or closely approaching) maximum sharpness. In fact, in every instance where I could make a valid comparison, images shot with the 70-200mm f4 plus TC at f8 (wide open) were sharper than images shot with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII at f8 (one stop down from wide open)! To me this is very surprising - but quite good news for those seriously considering purchasing the 70-200mm f4 VR.

Sample shot? Sure - the one linked right below was shot at f8 (wide open) with the 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC. Best to view it at 100% (1:1). This IS a crop - it's about 75% of the full-frame image and then reduced in resolution to 2400 pixels on the long axis - but it is definitely large enough to give a feel for the sharpness of the image. All critical field notes are included on the image...

Red Squirrel - 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

2. AF Performance (with the D600) OK - this is (or should be) a huge potential concern for those considering buying the 70-200 f4 VR and using it with the 2x TC. The D600 possesses 39 AF brackets, but of those 39 only 7 (in a "cross pattern" in the middle of the array) are compatible with a maximum aperture of f8. What this means is that only these 7 are - more-or-less - "guaranteed" to work with a combination like the 70-200mm f4 VR plus the 2x TC. But...what did I find in the field? That in the real world the news is BETTER than guaranteed. I had no problem whatsoever in acquiring initial focus when using 21 of the most central brackets (i.e., using the central-most 7x3 grid). In fact, the only AF brackets that totally failed in initial focus acquisition were the 6 most lateral brackets (3 on each side). And, when focus was attained I did find I could toggle to even the outermost AF brackets to tweak focus (for instance, if I decided I wanted to focus on an ear rather than an eye and I had to toggle to an outermost bracket to do so) and get good performance. Bottom line - while the AF performance WAS impacted by the TC, there were fewer drawbacks/compromises than I expected.

AF Accuracy? Seemed absolutely spot-on to me - if I could use a bracket to acquire initial focus, the focus seemed absolutely spot-on (without any AF-tuning).

AF performance compared to the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC combo. In MOST cases, no noticeable difference. One area where the "big brother" was more reliable was when attempting to acquire initial focus using the extreme outermost brackets - it always worked with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I have not yet tested focus-tracking/predictive autofocus (think birds in flight) with the 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC combo. So no comment on that yet.

I wouldn't recommend extrapolating too much based on these early results. There IS between-sample variation on both lenses and TC's - so no guarantee that others' results will be identical to mine. And, it's my experience that it's hazardous to assume that lens/TC performance will be identical on different cameras - at this point I can't say definitively how this lens/TC combo will work on the D4 and D800. My GUESS is that it will perform well on the D4. I won't even guess how the high res sensor of the D800 will like this lens/TC combination. I DO think at shorter focal lengths (between 100 and 200mm) the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII will perform just fine when used with the D600.

And, it's always wise to remember that there other compromises when using teleconverters. For instance, with a maximum aperture of f8 the user starts to lose some direct control of their out-of-focus zones. And. when you START at f8 you need quite a bit of light (and/or a camera with very good high ISO performance).

But, when all is said and done, I have to say these results are really encouraging and I predict that a LOT of users will be very happy with how the 70-200mm f4 VR performs with the 2x TC-20EIII. And, it's my guess that the news with the 1.4x TC-14EII will be equally as positive.

Stay tuned...more field test results coming soon!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

4 January 2013: Looking to Actually USE all that Fancy Equipment?

Now that the holiday season is over and all your Christmas wishes came true (or you just bought that new equipment for yourself!) what do you need next? How about a world-class photo tour where you get to REALLY USE a lot of that great photography gear you have! Well...you've come to the right place...

While (as always) my photo tours sell out well in advance, I still have room for 1 or more photographers on each of the following 2013 photo tours:

1. Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour:

OVERVIEW: Truly a globally unique (and exceptionally intimate) grizzly bear photo tour. Combines one full day of photo instruction (by your's truly) with 5 full days in the world-famous Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary. Be one of under 200 people - and far, far fewer photographers - annually gifted with the intimate experience of sharing the lives of the Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen.
DATES: May 23 to May 30, 2013
LOCATION: Departs from Prince Rupert, BC
ALL THE INFORMATION: Download this brochure (PDF; 2.3 MB)

2. Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen "Just the Photo Op" Photo Tour:

OVERVIEW: Just like the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour, but with no formal instruction and one day shorter (4 days in the Khutzeymateen). Designed for the wildlife photographer who primarily wants the photographic opportunity provided by the Khutzeymateen but is less in need of formal instruction. Or, one who is looking for a more economical way to do the photo tour!
DATES: May 30 to June 3, 2013
LOCATION: Departs from Prince Rupert, BC
ALL THE INFORMATION: Download this brochure (PDF; 2.3 MB)

3. Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More: Aquatic Mammals of the Central Pacific Coast Photo Op Photo Tour:

OVERVIEW: Enjoy 7 full days of fabulous aquatic mammal viewing and photography in the Johnstone Strait region aboard the beautiful Ocean Light II - a comfortable 71' ocean ketch (sailboat). Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions, Sea Otters, Gray Whales, and a whole lot more!
DATES: August 17 to 24, 2013
LOCATION: Departs from Port McNeill, BC
ALL THE INFORMATION: Download this brochure (PDF; 4.3 MB)

All the images in the brochures above were captured (by me) on the photo tours they are illustrating.

For additional information about any of these once-in-a-lifetime trips, just contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca.

Cheers...

Brad

3 January 2013: Field Testing the New AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G ED VR - Installment 2

Time for a very brief update on my progress on field testing the new 70-200mm f4 VR. Today a few comments on the VR system...

Nikon claims that the recently released 70-200mm f4 VR zoom lens has a VR system on it that provides 5 full stops of image stabilization. In comparison, the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII has a VR system that Nikon claims has 4 stops of image stabilization and the original 70-200mm f2.8 VR had 3 stops of image stabilization. In full honesty, I don't have the types of tools at my disposal to truly and conclusively verify the VR claims for any of these lenses. All I can offer is anecdotal comparative comments...

My own experience is that it is more challenging to hand hold the Nikon D800 (with any lens) using the same shutter speeds I would hand-hold either my D600 or my D4. My assumption is that is because of the very small pixel pitch of the D800 - and that any camera movement at all more or less "drags" the image over more pixels than on lower resolution bodies (that have larger pixel pitches). Hence the less sharp images. So...I've been experimenting with hand-holding the D800 with the new 70-200mm f4 VR using the same shutter speeds I would use with the D600 and D800 (using Auto ISO with Auto shutter speed enabled - with no shutter speed compensation).

What have I found? Yep...definitely getting sharper shots that I would obtained when hand-holding the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII at the same shutter speeds. Interestingly, the shots I'm getting with the new lens compare favourably to those I get when I hand-hold the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII with shutter speed set via Auto ISO with a compensation of 1 stop (i.e., a doubling of the shutter speed). This implies to me that the new 70-200mm f4 VR is ABOUT one stop "better" than that on the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. Can I verify the "5 stops of image stabilization vs. 4 stops of image stabilization" claim? No.

How 'bout an example? Sure - just check out the image of the Raven (the portrait) in my Gallery of Latest Additions. All the important contextual information can be found by clicking the tabs below the image (e.g., the "In the Field" tab, the "Behind the Camera" tab, etc.). And clicking on the main image will show a larger version of the shot in a new window. That image will be somewhere in that gallery for a good 8 weeks, which should give me ample time to complete my full 70-200mm f4 VR field test.

I will keep monitoring the performance of the VR system of the 70-200mm f4 VR as I use the lens over the coming weeks and if I find out anything new I'll report it here. I can already say the new VR is very good, and it appears somewhere around 1-stop "better" than that on the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

1 January 2013: All I want from Nikon in 2013...

As we begin 2013 even the most cynical of Nikon-o-philes would have to admit that Nikon currently has a pretty solid product lineup for the serious (and professional) nature photographer. The incomparable D4 (sorry Canon 1D X users - your camera is very good, but it's not a D4!). The two kings of resolution - the D800 and D800e. The amazingly versatile and affordable D600. And a great overall lineup of lenses.

When I stop and think about my personal "in-a-perfect-world" list I can really only come up with TWO products I really would like (I won't even dare to use the word "need") for my own uses - and would absolutely love Nikon to introduce in 2013:

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

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

What do I think the chances of this happening are? Actually...pretty good. It's just so logical...and the current 300mm f4 is REALLY long-in-the-tooth. Fingers crossed on this one!

2. A PRO LEVEL DX Body:

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

And what do I think the chances are of Nikon giving us this pro-quality DX camera? Close to zero. Nikon seems to have decided that the DX format is for entry level, and that all serious users want full-frame. Tons of sports and wildlife shooters disagree...but this is what Nikon apparently thinks. Sigh...

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

1 January 2013: 2013 Blog Updates...

Hey - it's 2013! Where the heck did 2012 go? At the beginning of each year I update my blog by archiving the previous year's entries and beginning afresh. As we all flip the calendar over from 2012 to 2013 I'm part way through testing and reviewing two "mainstream" Nikon products - the D600 and the new 70-200mm f4 VR lens. Because there are a lot of folks coming here to follow what I've discovered about these products I'm "archiving" 2012 a little differently than normal. Instead of just cutting off all 2012 entries and placing them elsewhere on this website, I've edited out virtually all of 2012 from this blog EXCEPT my entries pertaining to the D600 and 70-200mm f4 VR, which you'll find below. Of course, if you want to check out all my 2012 entries (or almost all of them...but that's another story), you can always go to the full 2012 Archive.

What about all the information in the blog about the D800 and D4? Well...you can always go to the 2012 blog archive and check hunt for the info. Or, just check out the completed field tests for these bodies. You can find them right here: Field Tests: The Nikon D800 and Field Tests: The Nikon D4.

Cheers...

Brad

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30 December 2012: Dynamic Range and Wildlife Photography - Who Cares?

No...I haven't fallen off the planet - I've just been busy with holiday stuff and doing a lot of testing of a lot of equipment. On that note - the day before yesterday I took a drive in the mountains near my cabin looking for some scenes that would be great for testing Nikon's new 70-200mm f4 VR lens. And, I bumped into a little scene that was probably the best "real world" test of dynamic range of a camera I could ever devise. It was -20C (that's about 8 million below fahrenheit) and even the ravens were hunkered down (and fluffed up) keeping warm. Which made them very approachable while they were sitting on some very white snow. I think you probably know where I'm going with this...black raven...white snow...dynamic range discussion...

So for those of you wildlife photographers who roll your eyes when someone starts talking about dynamic range (probably while thinking "...landscape geek") - well this image is for you (all critical details of image capture and processing are given on the image):

Black on White: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

An interesting thing has happened with Nikon cameras over the last few years. In some respects they've done such a good job on cleaning up the noise on their cameras that the "new" limiting feature when shooting in low light is not noise, but how much dynamic range is left at a given ISO. But even in normal daylight - and even for wildlife shooting - having a broad dynamic range at your disposal can come in real handy...and it can allow you to capture images in a way that you just couldn't have thought about just a few years back. And that's one thing that continues to blow me away in day-to-day shooting with the D600 - its amazing dynamic range!

Within the next week I'll be posting more about my experiences with the 70-200mm f4 VR. I have found a flaw or two...but overall that lens is continuing to exceed my expectations...by a lot. Stay tuned...

It's unlikely I'll have time to post anything more in the next few days - so I hope y'all have a great (and safe) New Year's. And good luck with your photography in 2013!

Cheers...

Brad

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19 December 2012: Field Testing the New AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G ED VR - Installment 1

I've just begun field testing Nikon's latest FX lens offering - the AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G ED VR. This zoom is interesting for a lot of reasons - it's almost a thousand dollars cheaper than Nikon's fully professional AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II. And, being one stop slower than its big brother it comes in both smaller and lighter. It also offers a new VR system that, according to Nikon, offers up to 5 stops of image stabilization. My complete testing of this lens will take at least a month, but I have already developed a few impressions of it that are probably worth sharing. Oh, by the way - I'm going to be testing this lens in a totally selfish way - focusing first on issues of greatest importance to ME! Hey - my time, my blog!

So...what was the first thing I wanted to find out with this lens? This:

Is it sufficiently sharp for most (or ALL) uses when shot wide open (f4) at the long end of its focal range (200mm)?

Why is this important to me? For a number of reasons. First, over the years I've noticed that most Nikon zooms are sharpest at the SHORT end of their focal range - and softest at the long end. And, with MOST (if not all) Nikon lenses they don't approach maximum sharpness until stopped down by close to a stop. And finally, this nature and wildlife photographer often likes to isolate (separate) his subject from the background. This is easy to do with super-telephoto lenses, but much less easy to do with shorter telephotos, like a 70-200 zoom. And, if you can't shoot it wide open and get sharp images it becomes even HARDER to isolate those subjects from the background. By the way - if I haven't mentioned it - I use a 70-200 at 200mm a LOT. And, of course, I like sharp shots. So...when I initially heard about this new lens my first thought was this: "Hmmmm...it better be sharp at f4 (at 200mm) or I'm just not interested...

But I'm getting ahead of myself just a tad...before I get to the "is it sharp when wide shot open at 200mm" question a few bits of house-keeping first.

1. How's the build quality?

Well...you CAN tell it's not a Japanese-built lens (it's manufactured in Thailand). Which means it feels a little more "plasticky", but not by much. Based on build quality this is definitely NOT a consumer-oriented product...it does have that "pro feel" to it. Both the focus ring and the zoom ring are super smooth. The non-scalloped hood is nice and feels more robust than the crappy hood on the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. All the gold "adornments" (the plates naming the lens and declaring it a "N" - or nano-coated - lens and a VR lens) are nice. Definitely built more robustly than the 70-300mm VR. And it has the requisite "environmental" (dust and moisture) seals on it. Will it hold up to years of hard use? Only time will tell. So far all I can say is mine is still working (after one day!). But overall the build quality is definitely high enough to please me.

2. Length and Weight?

Two thumbs up here. The new lens is 27mm (about 1.1") shorter than the f2.8 version. For me this means it fits into a smaller belt holster (when mounted on any pro body) than the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. Which means it's more comfortable to carry with me on day-to-day hikes. Bonus. And, even more importantly, according to my scales it's 610 gm (about 1.34 lb) lighter than the f2.8 lens (I weighed my lenses as I normally carry them - with caps on both ends and with their hoods attached). You know...just a funny thing, but I've noticed that as those around me get older I appreciate carrying less weight. And losing 1.35 lb is NOT insignificant. Hang this lens (complete with any camera body) around your neck and you DEFINITELY notice that it's lighter than its "big brother".

3. OK, OK...but is it "...sufficiently sharp for most (or ALL) uses when shot wide open (f4) at the long end of its focal range (200mm)?

Short Answer: YES!!!!

Longer Answer: OK - here's what I did. I mounted the lens on my D4, set it at 200mm and at f4, took my two favourite "subjects on demand" (my Porties) into the woods behind my house and shot about a bezillion (well...about a thousand) images of them doing a bunch of things - including sitting, running, running at me when front lit, coming at me when backlit, etc. And then I carefully scrutinized the shots and processed a few of them up. And I learned a surprising amount about the lens, including the fact that this lens is really very sharp at f4 and at 200mm. And here's two "kinda half-resolution" shots for you to peruse - all field notes are on the shots themselves. Best to view this at 100% (1:1):

Jose in Snow Motion: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

Backlit Boy: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

So what else have I learned about the lens so far? Lots of things, including:

• Fast and Accurate Autofocus! When I was shooting sequences of one of my dogs (the fast one) running right at me at 10 fps virtually ALL the images were tack sharp. While this is partly a function of the camera body I was using (a Nikon D4), I have no reason to believe that the autofocus performance of the lens would be less satisfactory on the D600 or D800. But I will be testing this shortly.

• Good Flare Resistance. During my hour or so of shooting with the lens I had the opportunity to work with some blindingly bright back lighting. I was expecting some lens flare issues and/or a real contrast problem in the files. But when I looked at the images I was really pleasantly surprised by the contrast and colour (and total lack of flare) in the images. Normally zooms (given the number of elements in them) show far worse problems with internal reflections (thus the flare and "bleached out" look one can get with backlighting) than do primes, but I have to say that this lens performed as good as any of my primes under heavy backlighting. I presume that this is a function of the nano-coating. Big bonus here.

• Nice bokeh! Not only are the out-of-focus zones produced by this lens very smooth and "buttery", but the transition from the sharply-in-focus regions to the completely out-of-focus zones is smooth and gradual, as it should be on a good lens (but isn't always). Check out the background in the image entitled "Jose in Snow Motion" to see what I mean.

I still have a lot of testing to do on this lens and am a long ways away from being able to judge all aspects of it. But...it passed its first test with flying colours.

What's up next? I'm not 100% sure, but I AM real curious about the edge-to-edge sharpness on this lens, particularly on the D800, and particularly on the long end of the focal range. Which, by the way, is one test that the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII does NOT pass with the D800 (the edge softness is noticeable and problematic). If it passes that one this lens may end up staying in my kit!

Cheers...

Brad

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19 December 2012: Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR and Nikon 1 V2 Field Testing Begins...

Late yesterday I received the new Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR zoom lens and the New Nikon 1 V2 mirror-less camera for field testing. I will be performing and, in time, posting full "real world" field tests on both these new products from Nikon. And, like with the D600, I will be posting interim results of various aspects of my testing as I complete them here on my blog. You'll see my initial findings on the 70-200mm f4 VR first...and likely real soon (possibly even later today - I found time to shoot about 1000 frames with it late yesterday afternoon).

My thanks are extended to the good folks at Robinson's Camera in Calgary, AB for facilitating the timely delivery of these new products to me for testing. Robinson's Camera is Calgary's newest full "Nikon Professional" dealer in Calgary and is the shop where I do all my own business. I've known the owner and other key players there for years (yep, those dudes are - like me - old codgers!!). They've always given me GREAT service and have always supplied me with what I need - not what THEY want or feel the need to sell. And yes, they do have both the 70-200mm f4 VR and the V2 in stock! Check 'em out here online...

Cheers...

Brad

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10 December 2012: Coming Attractions: New Field Tests...

For those of you wanting to know what's coming down the pipe in the way of field tests, here's a brief roadmap:

1. Nikon D600 Field Test:

Coming before Christmas (I hope)! Originally I wanted to have this field test in the can by late November, but a few things have delayed it. First was the unexpected and daft Draft Management Plan for the Grey Wolf - which ate a lot of my time (and that of many others in British Columbia). But the bigger reason was that before finalizing this test I felt it was necessary to test the camera with a wider array of lenses than I would on other "higher end" cameras, including popular (or soon-to-be-popular) lenses that many folks in the D600 "target market" would likely use with this camera. Like the 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR and the new 70-200mm f4 VR. Based on email I've received there are at least some folks sitting on the fence about buying this camera and are awaiting my review before making their decision. I'm far enough along in my testing and use of this camera to confidently say the following about it (feel free to quote me) - and as always my full final field test will back up what I say here with lots of example images:

The D600 isn't perfect - but it has definitely exceeded my expectations - by a ton (or more). In my opinion it's an exceptionally versatile camera - probably the most versatile DSLR in Nikon's line-up and really well-suited for nature photographers of all levels. Overall fantastic image quality. Great ISO performance. Excellent dynamic range. Very capable AF system. As a landscape camera it definitely nips at the heels of the D800/800e. More than adequate for wildlife and action photography (but - being fair - it doesn't challenge the D4 in these pursuits...but it's only one third the price of a D4). Unless I'm specifically going after wildlife, the D600 is the first camera I throw in my backpack and it's getting dramatically more use day-to-day than my D800.

I highly recommend the D600. For D4- or D3s-owning pros it makes an incredibly solid back-up camera and one that you won't hesitate to turn to. For most serious/enthusiast amateur nature photographers - you can't go wrong in selecting this camera as your primary tool.

I think the title I've already chosen for this field test says it all about how I feel about the D600: The Nikon D600 - Hitting All The Sweet Spots!

2. Nikon 70-200mm f4 VR Field Test:

Coming in early 2013 (target date of January 31). I'm keenly interested in this lens and will begin testing it in the near future (as soon as my sample arrives). Of course I'm interested in how it generally compares head-to-head in overall image quality and AF performance with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. Specific questions I want answers to - and hope to discover through testing - include:

How will the 70-200mm f4 VR perform with Nikon's current batch of full-frame DSLR's? As shown in my D800 Field Test, even the highly-regarded 70-200mm f2.8 VRII shows significant edge softness when shot at 200mm on the D800 (though much less so than the D4 and D600). Will the new 70-200mm f4 VR be up to the task?

How does it perform when shot wide open (at f4)? For me this is critical - I'm primarily a wildlife photographer and often like to isolate my subject from the background. Which is tough to do with a "short" lens like a 70-200mm - and which often requires you shoot wide open. If the new 70-200mm f4 doesn't attain maximum sharpness until you stop down by one stop (which is not uncommon with even Nikon's best lenses), this functionally becomes a f5.6 lens. And shooting at f5.6 makes it darned tough to really have your subject isolated from the background and "pop". And - at least for me - will seriously impact on the usefulness of this lens.

How will it perform with Nikon's mirror-less cameras, specifically the V1 and V2? With the 2.7x crop factor of the CX sensor a 70-200mm lens gives an effective focal length/field of view of a 189-540mm lens, which is a really nice focal range for use as a walkaround camera for the wildlife photographer. While the 70-200mm f4 VR is only 27mm (1.1") shorter than the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII, it is 690 gm (1.5 lb!) lighter.

3. Nikon V2 Field Test:

Coming in early 2013 (target date of February 15). I made no bones about the fact that I quite liked the Nikon V1. It's capable of surprisingly good images (see my V1 Field Test for many examples), especially when paired with "real" Nikkor lenses (using the FT-1 adapter mount). Will the V2 be even better? Or has Nikon fallen into the trap of bullet-point driven spec wars and "up-spec'd" this one beyond its capabilities? My specific concerns:

Can the small CX sensor handle the increase in resolution to 14.2 MP (and the corresponding decrease in pixel pitch)? Or will the V2 be a noise-machine at 400 ISO and above?

Has the slight shift in camera dimensions made any real impact on the camera's portability (it was already too large to be "pocketable") and overall usefulness?

As always, I will be publishing preliminary results of my testing as I learn things right here on this blog.

Cheers...

Brad

20 November 2012: Autofocus Performance of the Nikon D600

Another excerpt from my coming D600 Field Test - this time touching on the autofocus (or AF) performance of the Nikon D600, including when used with super-telephoto lenses.

But first - some relevant context. When I heard that the AF system of Nikon D600 was based upon (not identical to, but based upon) that of the Nikon D7000 I was concerned. Why? Because I had found that while the AF system of the Nikon D7000 performed very competently with "short" lenses (which, in my book, means "up to and including the 70-200mm f2.8 VR"), at least MY D7000 performed very poorly with "larger" lenses. By "performed very poorly" I mean that it was simply inaccurate at anything but very short focal distances and that in any Dynamic Area AF mode it struggled badly with initial focus. I found this to be the case on the 200-400mm f4 VR, the 400mm f2.8 VR, the 500mm f4 VR, and the 600mm f4 VR. SO...my very first concern was this: Does the AF system of my D600 perform better with "big glass" than my D7000 did? Thus, will my D600 be more suitable as a wildlife camera than my D7000 was? Thus the examples I'm giving today...a few shot with "big glass"...

And, for those who only want the "Quick and Dirty" answer...YES, the AF system of my D600 performs far better with "big glass" than my D7000 ever did. So I consider it - at least from an autofocus perspective - a better wildlife camera than the D7000.

IMAGE NOTES: Since beginning to post high (and often full) resolution test images for your perusal I have received a lot of email thanking me for doing so. However, I have received a few emails asking me to post full resolution images only when it is necessary to do so (to fully demonstrate the point I'm making). Seems like a reasonable request to me. So...in today's case I'm quite sure even "half of full resolution" will be enough to make my points. So...today you get "standard" web-sized images (1200 pixels on long axis) and "half-resolution" (3008 pixels on long axis) images.

1. Static (ish) Subject; REAL Big Glass: I found my D7000 was quite inaccurate in focus with virtually any super-telephoto prime lenses or zooms unless the subject was VERY close. This was NOT a function of lens tuning - no matter how hard I tried to tune the AF system of my D7000 it regularly produced soft images. So...here's one recently captured image of a rare Spirit Bear taken with my D600 and 600mm f4 lens.

White Bear, Muddy Face: Download 1200 pixel Image File - complete with all field notes (JPEG file: 759 KB)
White Bear, Muddy Face: Download Higher-Res (3008 pixel on long axis) Image File - complete with all field notes (JPEG file: 3.1 MB)

2. Autofocus Tracking - My Standard Test! Yep, my standard "Jose the Portuguese Water Dog Running Straight At Me" test. The value of this test is that I have been doing it for a number of years and have comparative "stats" for several cameras, my dog loves it (lotsa treats, albeit healthy ones), and it's a damned tough test to pass - Jose is real fast and, like any dog, he bobs up and down like crazy while running! All results are discussed on the images, but here's the critical finding - with my 400mm f2.8 VR the D600 performed almost as well in focus-tracking as my D3s, not quite as well as my D4, and WAY better than my D7000 (which did NOT pass this test with a 400mm lens).

Jose on the Run: Download 1200 pixel Image File - complete with all field notes (JPEG file: 509 KB)
Jose on the Run: Download Higher-Res (3008 pixel on long axis) Image File - complete with all field notes (JPEG file: 2.1 MB)

3. Autofocus Tracking - Bird in Flight: How 'bout birds in flight with Nikon's longest readily-available (sort of) super-telephoto lens? No problem with the D600. This one was a "forget it" with my D7000.

Jonathon Livingston: Download 1200 pixel Image File - complete with all field notes (JPEG file: 294 KB)
Jonathon Livingston: Download Higher-Res (3008 pixel on long axis) Image File - complete with all field notes (JPEG file: 794 KB)

Other aspects of the AF performance of the D600 - like "do those 39 focus brackets cover enough of the viewfinder?" - will be discussed in my coming D600 Field Test...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

15 November 2012: Nikon D600/D800 ISO Performance - Another Quick Update...

Not surprisingly, since posting some high ISO shots taken with the D600 back on November 11 I've received a number of emails asking me to post some D800 examples (why did I think this would be coming??). I will be posting a number of comparisons between the D600, D800 and D4 when I've completed my D600 Field Test, but for now here's two versions of a ISO 3200 D800 image - both a web-sized (1200 pixel wide) sample and a full-res (7360x4912 pixel) sample. This image was taken very close to the same time (and under very similar conditions) as the previously posted D600 images (from November 11). All processing on this image identical to that performed on the ISO 4500 D600 image. Same "Important Image Notes" as on November 11 posting (so if you want to read them...scroll down a little!). While the D800 trails the D4 (and the D600) in high ISO performance, for a 36 MP DSLR it has pretty amazing high ISO performance. And...here ya go:

Red Squirrel - Classic Pose (D800; ISO 3200): Web-sized:
Download 1200 Pixel Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 581 KB)

Red Squirrel - Classic Pose (D800; ISO 3200): Full Res:
Download Full Res Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 16 MB)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

12 November 2012: Nikon D600 ISO Performance - A Quick Update...

Since posting my comments and images re: the ISO performance of the Nikon D600 yesterday I've received two emails asking me virtually the same thing (so I'm thinking many others may have the same question and I should address it here): What was the relative contribution of the image sensor vs. the raw converter in producing those relatively noise-free images? And, what would they look like if they were processed in another raw converter, such as Lightroom or ACR? Good questions, compliments of Sergey and Manuel.

While I really like Capture One Pro as a raw converter (and the latest iteration of it - version 7 - adds a lot of new features and some excellent improvements) - the noise-free nature of those images is a function of the image sensor of the D600. When noise reduction is turned totally off (in Capture One Pro) the ISO 3600 and ISO 4500 images still look really, really clean. And, I DID play with them in Lightroom (version 4.2) and it's possible to produce output that looks as noise-free as the images I posted yesterday - albeit with more clicks/steps, and not nearly as nice colour! And there goes any hope of me ever being sponsored by Adobe...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

11 November 2012: Nikon D600 ISO Performance - Simply Outstanding!

I'm in the midst of methodically field-testing the ISO performance of my D600 - and how it stacks up against both the D4 and the D800. Prior to beginning testing I had assumed that the D600 would do well in ISO performance and likely come out somewhere between the D800 and D4. In that regard I can already say I was right - it is between the D4 and D800. BUT - and to me this was very surprising - the D600 is really nipping at the heels of the D4 (i.e., is much closer to the D4 in ISO performance than it is to the D800).

I'll provide multiple comparisons (including of different scene types) when my full D600 field test comes out (in a few weeks), but will share a few examples of what I mean right now. The following shots were captured a few minutes after I had done some systematic testing of ISO (comparing the D600 with the D4 and D800) and I decided to simply push the ISO up and do some high ISO shooting of convenient subjects (red squirrels). I sat down near a stump where the squirrels regularly visit (one of their favourite stop off points when they're about to try to steal food from my jay feeder) and set up my D600 paired with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8 VR. I stopped WAY down (these are f16 shots) to limit the light and bump the ISO up (which, of course, gave me a sufficient depth of field to work with these subjects close-up - and keep the critical bits in focus). With Auto ISO enabled I shot away...

IMPORTANT IMAGE NOTES: I am providing both web-sized (reduced to 1200 pixels on long axis) and full resolution uncropped versions of the images for your perusal. These represent quite extreme examples of what you would do with the images, and many uses they would be put to (e.g., making decent sized prints) would fall somewhere between these extremes in terms of resolution requirements. I am doing this because simply giving you resolution-reduced images purporting to show ISO performance can be very misleading - the act of reducing resolution can mask image noise and make even quite noisy images look clean. I would recommend viewing both members of each image pair at 100% magnification (1:1). Note that there was only minimial noise reduction performed on these images, i.e., only during raw conversion (and I used LOWER than the default noise reduction values that are provided by my favourite raw converter - Phase One's Capture One Pro). Critical field notes have been added to the images themselves.

1. ISO 3600 Examples:

• Simply Irresistible: Web-sized: Download 1200 pixel Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 667 KB)
• Simply Irresistible: Full-resolution, Uncropped: Download Full Resolution Image File (JPEG file: 11 MB)

2. ISO 4500 Examples:

• Red Squirrel - Classic Pose: Web-sized: Download 1200 pixel Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 828 KB)
• Red Squirrel - Classic Pose: Full-resolution, Uncropped. Download Full Resolution Image File (JPEG file: 12.4 MB)

My final field test will include a more detailed discussion as to why high ISO performance (with only limited consequences on image quality) can be so useful to a nature photographer (such as the ability to shoot in low light, gaining increased control over your aperture and depth-of-field, being able to shoot at higher shutter speeds and consequently hand-holding bigger lenses, etc.). But for now all I'll say is that D600 owners will not have to envy the ISO performance of virtually any camera on the market. The ISO performance of this camera is simply outstanding!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

7 November 2012: The Nikon D600 vs. The Nikon D800 - at f16...

Yesterday I made the comment that I have found that it's possible to upsize Nikon D600 image files shot at f16 to the resolution of D800 images (also shot at f16) and the resulting images are almost indistinguishable. Specifically, I said "...but when I upsized the D600 images to match the resolution of the D800 images, they were as sharp as, or even slightly sharper, than the D800 images."

Apparently this statement hit a nerve with some folks (presumably D800 users, but that's speculation on my part) - I received a surprising amount of email that diplomatically (and in a few cases, not so diplomatically) suggested I was well...let's just say "full of beans." Fair enough - it's easy enough to just SAY things - I always believe in backing up what I say with images shot in the field. So here you go...

IMAGE NOTES: Images shot at identical settings about 5 minutes apart. All processing identical EXCEPT that in each case I sharpened the final output to provide maximum sharpness (without introducing sharpening artifacts) for that particular image. In other words, I attempted to make each image MAXIMALLY sharp. On the up-sized D600 image (which EXACTLY matches the resolution of the D800 file): I up-sized it using Photoshop CS6 in a single step using Bicubic Interpolation. I experimented with 3 interpolation methods: Bicubic, Bicubic Sharper, and Bicubic Smoother (this last algorithm being the one Adobe recommends for enlarging - or upsizing - an image). In this case the best method definitely appeared to be simply Bicubic Interpolation. Note also that there were a few branches overlapping the creek (and one ugly disposable coffee cup) and rather than cutting them off in the field (or using ropes to tie them back) I chose to digitally remove them after raw conversion (using Content-Aware Fill in Photoshop CS6). Cropping on both images is identical - extremely minor on the horizontal axis, with slightly more vertically (simply for compositional purposes). Finally - although these images are quite large (and more than fill any monitor at 100% magnification) - comparisons between them are best made at 100% magnification (AKA 1:1, or 1 image pixel = 1 display device pixel).

FULL Resolution D800 Image (Autumn Gold): Download Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 6.2 MB)

UP-SIZED D600 Image (Autumn Gold): Download Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 7 MB)

Let the pixel-peeping begin! ;-)

It's important to note that these images were captured at f16 - which is in the zone where diffraction-induced softening of D800 images is known to be prevalent. So...I'm comparing a "handicapped" D800 image with an upsized D600 image (which is "handicapped" a little by the up-sizing and MAY also be handicapped by diffraction-induced image softening). So this little experiment has produced at least a couple more questions. First...what about at wider apertures where neither of the cameras face diffraction issues - can you upsize THOSE D600 files and still match the quality of the D800 files? If the answer is "yes" then a new question comes to mind: why the heck buy a D800? And that's a very good question - I want to know that answer too. So...in the very near future I'll be testing and comparing D600 and D800 files (including up-sized D600 files) shot with a number of lenses and over a range of apertures. So stay tuned for that. AND, of course, there's one other critical question I have: Does the D600 suffer less (and how much less?) from diffraction-induced image softening than the D800? If it does, and if you can upsize the D600 files and pretty much equal the quality of D800 files...well that D600 just might be one VERY hot landscape camera. Which is - at the end of the day - what I really want to know myself...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

6 November 2012: A Growing Fondness of the Nikon D600...

I'm still busy testing the D600 (and prepping images) for my D600 field test (which is coming later this month), but at this point it's probably worth letting a little more of the "...cat out of the bag." So I'll say this...my fondness for this camera is growing more each time I use it.

Why (you ask)? Good question. While I still have more testing to do to "quantify" (and provide visual evidence for) my comments, I'm finding that...

1. You can stop it down! One frustration I have with the Nikon D800 is that when I'm shooting landscapes you have to deal with diffraction-induced image softening when you stop your aperture down. With most lenses the images begin to noticeably soften up by f11 (and even at f8 with a few lenses) and by f16 the softening has become a major problem. So far I'm finding this diffraction-induced image softening to be MUCH less prevalent with the D600 - I have not been able to detect ANY noticeable image softening at f11 using ANY Nikkor lens and so far it seems to be pretty much a non-issue at f16 (tho' admittedly I need to do more testing on this). And...I have shot identical shots with the D600 and the D800 at f16 to compare the results. What did I find? Well...this may be hard to believe, but when I upsized the D600 images to match the resolution of the D800 images, they were as sharp as, or even slightly sharper, than the D800 images. I will provide several examples of this in my final field report, but I do have a few sample images shot with the D800 (over this past weekend) to give you a hint of what I'm talking about. The 1200 pixel images below have all the field notes on them, and the hi-res files (close to full-frame with very minor cropping) will show what I'm talking about a little better...

A. D600 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ f11:

Beaver Meets Man; Beaver Wins: Download 1200 pixel Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 819 KB)
Beaver Meets Man; Beaver Wins: Download Hi-Res (6018 x 4063 pixel) Image File (JPEG file: 10.6 MB)

B. D600 with Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VRII @ f16:

Autumn Gold: Download 1200 pixel Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 819 KB)
Autumn Gold: Download Hi-Res (5950 x 3587 pixel) Image File (JPEG file: 5.0 MB)

NOTE: On the image entitled "Autumn Gold" there were a few branches overlapping the creek (and one ugly coffee cup) and rather than cutting them off in the field (or using ropes to tie them back) I chose to digitally remove them after raw conversion (using Content-Aware Fill in Photoshop CS6)

2. VERY Good ISO Performance. This is another area where I have more testing (and image processing) to do, but I have processed a number of D600 images in the ISO 2000 to ISO 3200 range and I've been extremely happy with what I'm seeing. I'm still in "gut-feel" terrain, but I'm already quite sure the D600 fits into the "better than the D800 but not quite as good as the D4" category. I'll post a few images showing what I mean later this week and lots more when my D600 field test "goes live" in a few weeks.

3. VERY Good Autofocus Performance. This is another place where I've been pleased (yet still need to run a few more field trials). The AF system in the D600 is based upon that which was first used in the D7000, but at this point I CAN say that it handles the "bigger lenses" (both in terms of accuracy of focus and focus-tracking of moving objects, like birds in flight) than my D7000 did. I don't know if this is because Nikon has improved the AF module (above that in the D7000 module) or if it's simply because it works better on a full-frame sensor, but it's working way better for me than my D7000 ever did. A few sample images to follow within a week or so, with even more in that coming field test...

Stay tuned - more on the D600 coming soon!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

25 October 2012: Capture One Pro 7 - With Nikon D600 Raw Support!

YES!!! Today Phase One updated their popular high-end raw conversion software to version 7.0. This paid upgrade ($99 USD) offers a totally new image processing engine (with improved noise reduction, higher dynamic range, as well as better detail and clarity) and a lot of new workflow features, most of which I've not had a chance to play with yet. Expect to see a lot of comments about the new features and improvements right here in the days and weeks to come. Information about Phase One's Capture One Pro 7 can be found right here...

In the short term, the MOST important update to Capture One Pro for me is support for Nikon D600 raw files. To say I have been frustrated with being forced to use Nikon View NX2 and Capture NX2 to convert D600 raw files would be a huge understatement.

To this point I've had a chance to convert only a few D600 files with the new software, but I'm already very pleased with the results. I have historically used Capture One Pro because I love how it renders colour, its sharpening algorithm, its noise reduction, its ability to produce fantastic light-on-light and dark-on-dark detail, and the excellent tailor-made profiles for all the leading cameras. The first few D600 raw conversions I've done with the new version of Capture One Pro have definitely not disappointed me. Here's one full-frame (but half resolution) file from my recent "Spirit Bear and the Great Bear Rainforest" photo tour for your perusal:

Sleeping in a Wet Bed - Download Image File (JPEG file: 1.6 MB)

The only downside of the Capture One Pro update to include D600 support? Now I have no reason to put off producing my D600 Field Test! ;-)

Stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

17 October 2012: The Nikon D600 - First Impressions - Shooting in the Great Bear Rainforest

Since I returned from the Great Bear Rainforest a few days ago I've received dozens of emails asking me what my "verdict" is on the D600. To be honest, at this point I don't have a concrete answer to that question - during my two weeks in the Great Bear Rainforest I simply shot with the D600 (as opposed to systematically testing it). And, I haven't had a chance to process many shots taken with it yet. But I do have some impressions and SUBJECTIVE "gut feels" for it. Please bear in mind that these comments and thoughts are very preliminary and subject to change/evolution as I systematically test the camera and critically assess the output.

So...here ya go - my first impressions...

Overall Impression: I'm really liking the D600. Its build quality, overall responsiveness, ISO performance, autofocus performance and, most importantly. image quality, all exceeded my expectations (for a $2000 camera). And here's what I feel is an important comment on the overall quality and usefulness of the camera: I found myself preferentially turning to my D600 (over my D800) by the second day of shooting with it.

Build Quality: There are several places on this website where I make the statement that I much prefer the feel and overall build quality of Japanese-produced Nikon cameras over those built in Thailand. Well, the D600 is Thailand-built and the D800 is Japanese-built, but the gap in build quality between them is pretty minor. Which is a good thing (and may force me to modify my own views on the correlation between build quality and country of origin). The D600 is surprisingly and pleasingly solid. And, over the past few weeks I did use it in very wet conditions (albeit iwth a rain cover on MOST of the time, but I DID get it quite wet more than once) and it performed flawlessly. It's important to note that the same can't be said of all the other cameras on this trip - some didn't fair nearly as well. Notably, more than one C-branded camera with a 7 in their model name experienced problems/failures in these wet shooting conditions (in fairness, after drying out they resumed working). The D600 simply kept working. No, it's not as robust or bombproof as a D4 - but it doesn't cost $6k or so either...

Overall Responsiveness: In general terms the camera feels quite "quick" - and I'm used to shooting with a D4. While the maximum frame rate while shooting full-frame raw files is only 1 frame per second (fps) faster than the D800 (5 fps for the D600 vs. 4 fps for the D800) - that one extra frame per second is noticable in the field. And 5 fps isn't too darned bad for a 24 MP camera (don't forget that the D3x could only muster about 2.6 fps with full-frame raw files).

ISO Performance: I need to do more testing on this to really get a handle on how high I'll push the ISO on the D600, but a quick perusal of images I shot in the Great Bear Rainforest seemed consistent with what I expected (and seems completely logical) - better ISO performance than the D800 but not as good as the D4. Which makes it considerably better than on Nikon's last 24 MP camera - the D3x. Stay tuned for more details on this...

Autofocus Performance: The AF system of the D600 is based on that used in the D7000. Some viewed this as a good thing. I didn't - I found the D7000 AF system lacking with telephoto lenses longer than 200mm, particularly when using Dynamic Area focusing. During my time in the Great Bear Rainforest I played around with shooting gulls and eagles in flight (mostly with long teleophoto lenses, including the 600mm f4, and mostly using Dynamic Area AF) and I can definitely say that the AF system out-performs that of the D7000 (or at least MY D7000). How much better? I can't say yet, but it seemed to perform extremely well with all the lenses I tried it with (wide angles plus 70-200mm f2.8 VRII, 400mm f2.8 VR, 600mm f4 VR). So overall good news here...

Video Quality and Performance: Not my thing - I have no clue about video and will probably never even bother to figure out how to capture video with this STILL camera. You'll have to go elsewhere for that information (sorry).

Image Quality? Another area where I do need to shoot (and process) more images before I can say too much, but with the images I've looked closely at to date I'll just say this: SWEET!

Sample images? I guess I can't end this without giving you at least SOMETHING to look at...so here's a few full resolution D600 vs. D800 comparison images.

IMAGE NOTES: These images were captured in RAW format using a D600 and a D800 paired with a 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lens. Images below were captured at ISO 100, 1/160s, and at f8. Tripod mounted. Images were converted from RAW using Capture NX2 and all processing on the images was absolutely identical. Image sharpening during raw conversion set to minimum and NO image sharpening was performed after raw conversion. Note that there were a few branches overlapping the bottom left corner of the image (including slightly overlapping the left-most portion of the reflection of the mountain) - I could have broken them off and shot a "clean" image but chose to save the trees and do the clean-up using the clone tool instead! I thought some might be interested in comparing how an up-sized D600 image compared to a D800 image, so I included an up-sized version of the D600 image (and, to be complete, a down-sampled D800 image, tho' odds are most won't care too much about this image!). Oh, and BTW - this scene is definitely NOT from the Great Bear Rainforest - just something I stumbled upon on my return trip home that seemed to be perfect as a comparison shot! Download away - and best to view these images at 100% magnification.

Image 1: D600 full resolution (6016 x 4016 pixels) image - Download Image File (JPEG file: 5.7 MB)
Image 2: D800 full resolution (7360 x 4912 pixels) image - Download Image File (JPEG file: 7.5 MB)
Image 3: D600 image UPSIZED to D800 resolution (7360 x 4912 pixels) - Download Image File (JPEG file: 7.4 MB)
Image 4: D800 image DOWN-SAMPLED to D600 resolution (6016 x 4016 pixels) - Download Image File (JPEG file: 5.6 MB)

Take this information for what you judge it to be worth. I'm still reserving final judgement on the D600, but I am thinking it was smart of Nikon to introduce the D800 BEFORE the D600, otherwise they wouldn't have sold too many D800's! Is my D800 for sale? You know, it just might be...stay tuned...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca



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

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