Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

 

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

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

On this page you'll find all my 2020 blog listings (immediately below). And, further down this page you'll also find some key (and very popular) gear-related blog entries from 2019 (jump to that section now).

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


I. 2020 Blog Entries...

24 Dec '20: Capture One 21 - Initial Impressions...

Many regular followers of this blog will already know I am a long-time Capture One Pro user. In fact, it's been my go-to raw processing and primary workflow tool since 2004. Just over a week ago Phase One released Capture One Pro 21, a major (and for those with "perpetual licenses" a paid) upgrade. As a Capture One Pro beta tester I had early access to the new version - I've been using it for about 5 weeks now. So I've had sufficient time with it to get a handle on how it performs. Here's some of my thoughts on some of the key new features and/or improvements in version 21:

1. Improved Performance!

Those who take the time to read the release notes for Capture One 21 MAY notice the following vague statement: "Capture One 21 brings improved performance to different asset management tasks". And that statement comes with this caveat: "Performance improvements depend on the individual setup of the operating system, hardware, and other running processes." Well, that caveat may well be true, but for THIS user of Capture One Pro the increased speed of "cataloging" tasks on my largest catalogs (those containing over 100,000 images) has made the price of the upgrade close to worth it in itself!

Well, at least for ME, this is the MOST impactful improvement in the new version of Capture One 21. Context is important here: I am using a "getting long in the tooth" iMac 5K as my primary "image management and image-editing" machine and with Capture One 20 (and all previous versions) I had been experiencing lags in performance when doing things like culling images in virtual "Smart Albums" in those very large catalogs. BUT, the minute I started using version 21 for these same tasks the speed bump was striking. I HAD been debating replacing my iMac 5K with a new iMac Pro in the near future but now (and primarily because of the big performance bump when using Capture One 21), I feel I can hold off until the M1 iMacs are available. Note that users who have "hotter" computers than I do (or don't have huge catalogs!) may not find the speed bump as noticeable as I do.

2. The Dehaze Tool

The only truly new tool in Capture One 21 is the new Dehaze tool. This tool offers similar functionality to the Dehaze tool in Lightroom - it's functionally a "haze killer" and used in foggy or hazy scenes to increase contrast. Those with sufficient post-processing skills CAN get to the same result using Levels and Curves adjustments (especially when selectively applied), but almost everyone will get to the result QUICKER using the Dehaze tool.

Does it work well? Yes! And as with MOST contrast adjustments, I'm personally finding it MOST useful when applied selectively (using layers and Capture One's excellent masking tools).

How does it work? There's really only two controls - a slider (where you adjust the "amount" or strength of the adjustment) and a "Shadow Tone" selector that is used to select a tone in the hazy/misty portion of your shot. The Shadow Tone selector will automatically pick a tone in its default mode, but if you want to manually choose the shadow tone yourself you simply use the eye-dropper tool in the bottom right corner of the Dehaze panel and click on your desired tone in the image. The Capture One user guide states that "For optimal results, the shadow tone should be picked preferably on a hazy and dark area". After a lot of experimentation with the Dehaze tool I'd say that advice is spot-on!

3. Speed Edit

This is a feature set that "power users" or those working in a production environment will absolutely love, but more novice users may not find too useful. Long story short, Speed Edit allows you to use keyboard shortcuts in conjunction with your mouse or pen/tablet to edit images without having to click and drag sliders in the interface. So, for example, if you want to adjust the exposure of your image you simply hold the "Q" key down and drag your mouse (or stylus) to the right to increase exposure or to the left to decrease exposure. At this point Capture One gives you 19 different controls that can be used with Speed Edit. And you can use the default keyboard shortcuts chosen by Capture One or change them to other keys you may find easier to remember or access.

My thoughts about the usefulness of Speed Edit? I LOVE it! Not only am I a long-time user of Capture One Pro, but during an average week I spend a LOT of hours processing raw images with it. So...realistically...I probably fall into the "power user" category. And I have to say the time I save using Speed Edit adds up pretty quickly...and who doesn't like to save time? This is a cool new feature!

4. Easy Brush Adjusting

This is another new feature that speeds up your workflow - so it's another new feature set that's likely to be notable mainly to those who do a lot of image-processing. In some respects it's like Speed Editing - but in this case you use certain keystroke combinations in conjunction with a mouse or tablet/trackpad/pen to quickly change the parameters of any brush (size, hardness, opacity and flow). So not a revolutionary new feature, but another handy timesaver.

5. ProStandard Camera Profiles

Capture One 21 introduces a new type of camera profile that are intended to render colors more naturally and, according to Capture One, they have the three primary purposes:

• Better preservation of color across contrast gradients, resulting in more natural colors from shadows to highlights
• Better transition between colors of different hues
• More standardized colors across different camera models

What have I noticed about the new profiles? The differences between the Z7 ProStandard profile and the "default" Z7 Generic profile are subtle, but they are noticeable. As advertised, you can see a difference in color (between the two profiles) as you move from a highlight area to a shadowy area (with the ProStandard profile holding color better in the shadow regions). Note that on my dual monitor system (an iMac 5K display paired with an Eizo CG279X) the differences in the profile are only really visible on the monitor I consider my primary "editing" monitor (my Eizo). At this time the ProStandard profiles are available only for a limited number of cameras, with more profiles added in future releases. Here's the list of profiles for the 3 brands of cameras used most commonly by wildlife photographers:

• Nikon: D810, D850, Z6, Z7
• Canon: 5D II, 5D III, 5D IV, 5DS R, R5, R6
• Sony: a7 III, a7R II, a7R III, a7R IV, a7C, a6000, a6300

There are some other new features in Capture One as well (e.g., a re-designed Importer, HEIF file support, enhanced tooltips, etc.) but I think most users will find the 5 new features listed above to be the most significant upgrades.

And then there's the $64,000 question: For those who own perpetual licenses (as opposed using the subscription service) is the upgrade to version 21 worth the money? That's a tough question for me to answer for others, but I will say that FOR me just TWO of the improvements (the increased performance of my large catalogs and the Speed Editing) are enough for me to be happy with the money spent on the upgrade. And I THINK other "power users" will feel the same way.

Finally - and as a bit of naked self-promotion - for those who may be interested I offer fully customized online tutoring on ALL aspects of a Capture One based workflow. And what better way could there possibly be for a nature photographer to use their pandemic time than improving their Capture One workflow? All details about my online tutoring are available here...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

11 Dec '20: Coming Soon...My Initial Impressions of the Nikon Z7 II

I was updated yesterday on the status of the delivery of my Nikon Z7 II. While Nikon did their part in getting the Z7 II headed in my direction on schedule, there have been a few shipping delays directly attributable to the COVID-19 situation that will delay the camera getting into my hands until about next Tuesday (Dec 15th). I will be taking delivery of a MB-N11 battery grip at that time as well (along with some other bits and pieces like a second EN-EL 15C battery, additional CFexpress cards, etc.). So I will likely have my first impressions on the camera posted here somewhere in the December 18-22 timeframe.

Note that I was also informed yesterday that the Z-mount 50mm f1.2S lens that is also coming my way WON'T be in the same delivery. The "fault" on the delayed delivery of the 50mm f1.2 lies most squarely on my shoulders...unlike the Z7 II I hemmed and hawed on ordering the 50mm lens, with the net result that a few others got ahead of me on the priority access list to that lens (ohhh...the indignity!). All I'm reading into this delayed delivery of the 50mm f1.2S is that at least initially the quantities shipping are quite limited. I expect at least a few conspiracy theorists to use my "non-receipt" of the 50mm f1.2S as proof that Nikon has secretly gone out of business...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

7 Dec '20: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review: Final Two Sections Completed!

I have just updated my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E field test and review by adding its final two sections: my Musings from Just Shootin' and the Final Wrap-up.

Here's where to go for the review and/or to check out the new information:

Start at the beginning of the review
Jump directly to the Musings from Just Shootin
Jump directly to the Final Wrap-up

And for those wanting "just the facts", here's the FINAL SUMMARY of my Final Wrap-up section:

There are three negatives of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E that are apparent after even a cursory reading of its specifications - it's quite big, it's quite heavy, and it's VERY expensive.

However, after extensively testing and shooting with the 120-300mm f2.8E the list of its superlatives far outweighs those obvious and real negatives for me. Those superlatives include:

Optically the 120-300mm f2.8E is virtually flawless. It offers exceptional edge-to-edge sharpness at all focal lengths and all apertures, including when shot wide open. And, the quality of the out-of-focus zones (or bokeh) is simply fantastic. Critically (especially for wildlife photographers), the optical performance with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter is exceptional, and qualifies at least as "very good" with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter.

• The Vibration Reduction system of the 120-300mm f2.8E also performs exceptionally well - it was best in class of all the lenses that compete with it most directly. The VR performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E allowed me to fully eliminate camera shake and successfully hand-hold shots down to shutter speeds (in the 1/40s range) where subject movement (especially when shooting wildlife) becomes the biggest concern in capturing a sharp image.

• The Autofocus Performance of the 120-300mm f2.8E shot native (without teleconverters) was simply unmatched in capturing sharp shots of extreme action by any other lens in this field-test. With the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter the autofocus of the 120-300mm f2.8E outperformed the autofocus system of the Nikkor 180-400mm (shot without a teleconverter). And, with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter the autofocus of the 120-300mm matched that of the Nikkor 180-400mm shot with its built-in teleconverter engaged.

When one moves away from testing situations and just starts shooting with the 120-300mm f2.8E in a field setting the most obvious observation is the exceptionally high "hit ratio" of in-focus shots it produces. Paired with a high-end DSLR (or adapted to shoot with a Z-series body) it is almost hard to miss a shot with the 120-300mm f2.8E!

Each of Nikon's last three professional-level telephoto or super-telephoto F-mount zoom introductions have set the performance bar progressively higher. The Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E brought prime-level sharpness and autofocus performance to the popular 70-200mm focal length range. At the time I thought it would be impossible for Nikon (or anyone else) to produce a better zoom lens. But then the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E was introduced, and it similarly produced prime-like image sharpness. Plus, the 180-400 offered this sharpness even when shot fully wide-open. Then came the 120-300mm f2.8E, and it matched (or exceeded!) the optical quality of its two predecessors, and added even better autofocus performance. Critically to wildlife shooters, both the optical performance and the autofocus performance of the 120-300mm extended to situations where teleconverters were used. With the rapid transition to mirrorless technology, I honestly don't know if Nikon will ever introduce another F-mount telephoto or super-telephoto zoom. But even if they don't, they've left F-mount shooters - and those Z-mount shooters willing to use "adapted lenses" - in good shape for years to come. Which is a good thing, especially given that it may be years before we see Z-mount versions of the 120-300mm f2.8E or the 180-400mm f4E.

While comparing the quality of zoom lenses of different focal lengths is fraught with challenges, if I was put on the spot and asked which lens is Nikon's BEST telephoto or super-telephoto zoom lens EVER, I'd cast my vote for the 120-300mm f2.8E.

And the timing of the wrap-up of this lengthy review couldn't be better...later this week my Z7 II (plus MB-N11 battery grip) should arrive! It never ends...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

30 Nov '20: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review: Autofocus Performance

I have just updated my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E field test and review by adding a new section on Autofocus Performance.

Here's where to go for the review and/or to check out the new information:

Start at the beginning of the review
Jump directly to the Autofocus section

For those wanting just the barebones info, here's the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY of the Autofocus section:

If you are looking for a telephoto lens with a blazing fast autofocus system that produces extremely high proportions of sharp shots and keepers of high-speed action sequences you can do no better than the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E. Simply put, the AF system of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E is astonishingly good for capturing action and produced the highest proportion of sharp actions shots of ALL the lenses it was tested against. Note that definitions of "sharp shots" and "keepers" can be found in the section on AF testing methods.

At 300mm the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E had the highest capture rate of sharp shots by a wide margin, and its overall keeper rate was also higher than any other lens in the test. When combined with the TC-14EIII and shot at 400mm the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E produced a much higher rate of sharp shots than the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (shot without its built-in TC engaged). At 400mm the 120-300mm plus TC-14EIII also beat the 180-400mm (sans TC) in overall keeper rate.

When tested at 560mm the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E (plus 2x TC) and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (with built-in TC engaged) produced virtually identical numbers of sharp shots and keepers.

Coming next...my observations from months of "Just Shooting" the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E. Stay tuned...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

22 Nov 2020: In Memory of the Ocean Light II


In Memory of the Ocean Light II

Tragically, in early November a freak accident irreparably damaged a wonderful ocean-going vessel - The Ocean Light II. Many visitors to this blog will already know that I have been leading photo tours on BC's wonderful coast aboard the 71' Ocean Light II sailboat since 2008. The Ocean Light II has served as both a floating "base camp" and a superb form of transit for thousands of intrepid adventurers since the late 1990's...and she helped produce "bucket-list memories" for all who had the pleasure of spending time aboard her.

What happened? While undergoing annual maintenance in "dry-dock" a fire broke out within the shed she was sheltered in. The fire spread under the hull and scorched it quite badly, and the heat became so intense that her hatches melted and some smaller spot fires broke out in the interior. While it initially appeared that the damage may have been reparable, closer inspection over the last 10 days revealed extensive damage throughout the boat and it became apparent that the boat couldn't be returned to the state necessary to provide the experience for adventurers that it formerly could.

When I received the call last night confirming her demise, I felt just gutted. Since 2008 I have spent over a year and half of my life on the Ocean Light II. But, that pales in comparison to the time and emotional attachment of four others to the Ocean Light II - my sincere condolences are extended to Sarah Ellison, Tom Ellison, Jenn Broom, and Chris Tulloch...all of whom who have spent a HUGE chunk of their lives aboard the Ocean Light II - and with her almost as another family member. I honestly can't imagine how they must feel...

On a more positive note, I look forward to assisting in creating new memories, traditions, and awesome experiences with Ocean Light II Adventures aboard the still un-named - and worthy - successor to the Ocean Light II in 2021 and beyond! We'll have an exciting new beginning...

Those wishing to find out more about the Ocean Light II can visit the "About Our Boat" page of Ocean Light II Adventures website. And you can see some more images of the Ocean Light II in "action" in my Gallery of Latest Additions.

So RIP Ocean Light II - you brought joy, adventure and good times to all who boarded you...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

07 Nov 2020: My Word of the Day: RELIEF!

One simple word expresses how I am feeling right now: RELIEF! And based on the emails and texts I am receiving now (from all over the world) - that word expresses what a whole lot of others are feeling as well.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

02 Nov 2020: Follow-up on: "My Transition to Mirrorless..."

This entry is a follow-up to two recent blog entries: (1) my 29 October entry where I described the state of my own transition from Nikon DSLR to Nikon mirrorless cameras and where I posed 5 questions to Nikon that would ease the pain and uncertainty of the remainder of my mirrorless transition and (2) my 31 October entry where I presented Thom Hogan's attempt to answer (or provide his "best guesses" for) those same 5 questions.

What follows are my OWN best guesses to those same questions. My guesses are based on publicly available information, a plethora of rumours, email feedback I have received from many since the original 29 October blog entry, and my decades of experience watching Nikon's product development "strategy". My guess are not based on ANY inside information...because I don't HAVE any!

1. When is the pro-level sports/action/wildlife mirrorless body (Z9?) forecasted to be announced and available (I won't even ask for specs for now!)?

I think we'll have a specification-free "pre-announcement" from Nikon stating simply that they are developing a "flagship" mirrorless pro-level sports/action/wildlife camera - and this pre-announcement will come out a few months BEFORE next summer's Olympics (but only if we have Olympics next summer). And, several Nikon-shooting sports photographers will be using pre-production models of this camera during the Olympics. My guess is that the camera will be in the 24-30 MP range with a BSI sensor and will be capable of about 20 fps using a mechanical shutter. Further, I think the camera will have still photography "performance" as its main design goal with video performance being somewhat "down-played" (similar to the situation with the current and still quite new D6). And, I think it will be a large (relative to a Z7 II) and robust/durable body with built-in vertical controls. I think the public won't be able to lay their hands on the camera for a good period of time AFTER the Olympics (like maybe 6 months)?

Two further comments: First, I'm well aware of the rumors out there of Nikon coming out with a 45 or so MP pro-level sports/action camera that will shoot endlessly at 20 fps or faster. I don't buy it. Sports/action (and wildlife) photographers don't NEED 45 MP for most of their uses, and that much resolution would impact negatively on ISO/low-light performance and the rapid transmission of files. And, reversing the logic a bit here, if Nikon IS capable of producing that kind of "Holy Grail" camera (with D6-level ISO performance at 45 MP and faster than a D6) I'll be darned pissed about spending money on a Z7 II not too long before that "can do everything perfectly" Z9 is introduced! ;-)

Second, this doesn't mean Nikon won't come out with ANOTHER high-end camera in the same time frame - and I think THAT one might well be a high resolution camera (likely 60 MP) in a pro-style body. This could well be the camera that Thom described below when he said "I think this is going to be more like a Z7 II in a better body, with the pro features rather than the consumer/prosumer ones (e.g. no Mode dial, Banks)."

2. Is there a mirrorless equivalent to the D500 (i.e., an enthusiasts/semi-pro DX mirrorless body) coming in the near future (or ever)?

My guess is NO. While I think a "mirrorless D500" would sell well, an increasing number of photographers are realizing that you can just take a higher resolution FX body (like a D850 or a Z7 II) and crop the files to get the equivalent of a higher-end DX camera. And I think Nikon is well aware of this. Of course that assumes you can produce a hight resolution mirrorless body that matches both the "snappiness" and the autofocus performance (especially speed and tracking) of a D500.

3. Are either of the two "long" lenses on the current lens road map (the 100-400 S-Line and the 200-600) going to be pro-level lenses (which pretty much equates to "fixed aperture") or are they going to be consumer-to-enthusiast level variable-aperture zooms?

My guess is that these two zooms will be variable aperture zooms that aren't cheap, but much more affordable (and thus having a WAY bigger market) than the pro-level fixed aperture zooms in F-mount of the last few years (like the 120-300mm f2.8E and the 180-400mm f4E). I think these lenses will be used by Nikon to further demonstrate how how the Z-mount allows their optical engineers to produce very "optically solid" lenses (think "biting sharp even when shot wide open" and "edge-to-edge sharpness"). Unfortunately for low-light wildlife shooters (like me) these lenses will simply have too small of a maximum aperture (i.e., will be "too slow") for their most common type of shooting. And, like with the F-mount 80-400mm, with their larger maximum apertures they simply won't allow their users to isolate their subject against creamy smooth backgrounds as effectively as the bigger and faster fixed aperture F-mount zooms do. But zillions of shooters won't care! ;-)

OK...I'm going to guess the answer the next two questions at once...here are the questions:

4. Are we going to see ANY super-telephoto primes in the next 2-3 years?

5. Are we going to see ANY super-telephoto PF lenses? When?

OK...I personally think it would be a brilliant move for Nikon to go with two PF prime super-telephoto lenses in the Z-mount - a 400mm and a 600mm. If I had a dollar for every time a Canon (or Sony) users have looked at my 500 PF with envy...well you know the old saying. AND, they'd come in WAY cheaper - and thus have way larger markets - than non-PF counterparts would. If Nikon did this (and assuming they had a pro-level sports-action body to go with them) I can even see diehard "DSLR holdouts" going mirrorless just because of these two lenses! In my perfect world they'd be a 400mm f4S and a 600mm f5.6S - and I have to say I'd be tempted to buy both! If the 400mm PF was an f5.6 lens I would likely pass on it. And I'll go out on my limb with my guess - I think these two lenses WILL both be PF lenses (and boy do I hope I'm right!). When available? Not until after the 2021 Olympics.

Anyway...there you go. Now we just have to sit back and wait. And wait, and wait...arrgh!

To all my readers in the USA - good luck tomorrow and stay safe, eh? May rationality prevail without violence.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

31 Oct 2020: Feedback on: "My Transition to Mirrorless..."

In my blog entry of October 29 (immediately below) I described the state of my transition to mirrorless. Basically I consider myself "halfway there" with a strong mirrorless kit up to 200mm in focal length, but with the bulk of my gear used for "serious" wildlife shooting still being DSLR-based. I ended that blog entry with 5 questions - directed more or less at Nikon - about what new mirrorless gear is coming our way over the next few years (though I do not expect an answer from them). The answers to those 5 questions would be invaluable in assisting me (and a LOT of others) in planning and budgeting for the transition of the remainder of my wildlife kit to mirrorless.

That blog entry has attracted a lot of eyeballs and produced a lot of feedback. One attempt to answer my 5 questions came from a well-known writer/photographer and Nikon "pundit" that many Nikon-o-philes will be familiar with - Thom Hogan. I thought many readers would be interested in Thom's stab at answering the questions, so I am presenting them here (with permission). Please note that these answers aren't necessarily fact - they are Thom's best guesses based upon publicly available and some private information.

1. When is the pro-level sports/action/wildlife mirrorless body (Z9?) forecasted to be announced and available (I won't even ask for specs for now!)?

"We'll see a pro-level body probably tested at the Tokyo Olympics, probably announced late in 2021. But note I didn't say sports/action/wildlife. I think this is going to be more like a Z7 II in a better body, with the pro features rather than the consumer/prosumer ones (e.g. no Mode dial, Banks)."

2. Is there a mirrorless equivalent to the D500 (i.e., an enthusiasts/semi-pro DX mirrorless body) coming in the near future (or ever)?

"Not that I know of. Canon will hit this space with an RF body, but I haven't heard a peep on the Nikon side that indicates they'll go that route. We will get an update to the Z50, I believe, and that will add features/performance, but that is still down in the D7xxx type of camera."

3. Are either of the two "long" lenses on the current lens road map (the 100-400 S-Line and the 200-600) going to be pro-level lenses (which pretty much equates to "fixed aperture") or are they going to be consumer-to-enthusiast level variable-aperture zooms?

"No, both will be variable aperture, I'm pretty sure. But S-line is a bit like the old Canon L designation: it means that the lens is designed for optical and field excellence. I expect the 100-400mm to be quite good. It needs to be good."

4. Are we going to see ANY super-telephoto primes in the next 2-3 years?

"Yes, 400mm and 600mm. Demonstrated in July 2021, not sure when they'll be available."

5. Are we going to see ANY super-telephoto PF lenses? When?

"It's possible that for the above two lenses, one or both of them are PF. But don't know enough about that yet."

What are MY best guesses to the answers to those 5 questions? I'm going to ruminate about them for a few more days (and collect more feedback from readers) before I answer. November 3rd should be a good day to post those answers - I'm sure nothing else newsworthy will be happening on THAT day! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

29 Oct 2020: My Transition to Mirrorless - Happy @ Halfway...But Stalled?

Like many still photographers I'm trying to find the least painful and most efficient way to transition from a DSLR-based kit over to a mirrorless-based kit. And, again like everyone else (regardless of camera brand), I'm doing it in an almost complete absence of information about when key future products will be available to me. So, as a nature and wildlife photographer I have no idea when key tools like a pro-level sports/action/wildlife mirrorless Nikon body or Z-mount pro-level super-telephoto primes or zooms will be introduced (and actually shipping!). While managing my own mirrorless transition I am also trying to ensure that at any one point in time I have the best possible kit (meaning the one that will deliver the highest quality images under the conditions I normally shoot) in my possession.

I think it's important to point out I'm not making the mirrorless transition "for the fun of it" or simply because change is exciting (to some). First off, it's my opinion that the handwriting is on the wall regarding the long-term future of the DSLR (and, in the shorter term, how much more development of cutting edge DSLR products we'll see). And, more importantly, after using a Nikon Z7 since September of 2018 I am convinced that Nikon's Z-series cameras already work better for me than Nikon DSLR's for selected uses - and have the potential to work better for me than Nikon DSLR's for ALL uses. To explain exactly what I mean by this statement I have to give you a little background on my style of photography and the conditions under which I most commonly do my "serious" shooting...

I am a dedicated (and full-time professional) "outdoor photographer" focused primarily on photographing wildlife. Most of my wildlife photography takes place on British Columbia's s spectacular coast - a place that is often wet and overcast and is generally a low-light environment. Much of my shooting on the coast takes place from within small boats that force me hand-hold lenses (of all sizes) the vast majority of the time. If I have a "specialty" and/or a preference, it's to capture wider-view images of wildlife or "animalscapes" (feel free to check out my Animalscapes Gallery here). But, given the breath-taking vistas that are common (often very ephemeral) in the locations I shoot, I am also a keen "opportunistic" landscape shooter. At this point I am almost exclusively a shooter of stills - and even three months ago I would have described myself as a "vidiot". But...my own personal "COVID-pivot" in my business model shifted me from offering in-person private tutoring to offering customized remote (online) tutoring, and along the way I was forced to spend some time learning the basics of video shooting. And, I'm now not ruling out shooting some video in the field. But, that being said, I am still much more concerned about how a camera (mirrorless or DSLR) performs for shooting stills than I am about its advanced features for shooting video.

OK...flash back to September of 2018. When I took possession of my Z7 plus 24-70mm f4S lens (plus the mount adapter FTZ) I also owned a Nikon D850 DSLR. Most know that these two cameras have identical resolution (45.7 MP) and, at least for me, they have the same primary purpose - shooting animalscapes and/or landscapes. Neither are my primary wildlife cameras - for that I then owned a Nikon D5 (now replaced by a Nikon D6) and a D500 along with a very strong lineup of telephoto and super-telephoto zoom and prime lenses. Based on my previous experience with mirrorless cameras (including a number of Olympus cameras and both a Nikon V1 and V2) I had no illusion that the generation 1 Z-series cameras would be in the same class as the highly-evolved D5 or D500 in overall "snappiness" or autofocus speed.

However, in very short order I realized that for MY uses the Z7 kicked the butt of the D850. First, (and much to my surprise) I loved the EVF and, in particular, the information displayed in it AND the instant feedback on exposure it offered. And, as one who has always been a little disappointed with the optical quality of Nikon's wide-angle zoom lenses, I instantly was impressed with the optical quality of the 24-70mm f4s lens (in my real-world testing it kicked the tar out of the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8E and, because of the IBIS system of the Z7, I could hand-hold it at lower shutter speeds). Other bonuses I instantly appreciated with the Z-system were the ability to focus almost ANYWHERE in the scene as seen through the viewfinder (I often like extreme placement of my subject in animalscape shooting), the improved accuracy of focusing (again, especially when the subject is WAY out of the central region of the frame), and the plugging up of the AF-tuning rabbit hole (I HATE AF-tuning lenses!!).

Fast forward to today. I currently own a Z7 and five Z-series lenses. I have a Z7 II and one more Z-series lens (the 50mm f1.2S) on order. Given the updates on the Z7 II cover almost all the critical items on my "hope list" (see my October 6 blog entry entitled "Some Musings on the Z7 II" for my complete "hope list") I am optimistic that I will be able to use the Z7 II for MORE of my wildlife shooting in 2021 and beyond, but I have no illusion that I'll be able to leave my D6 and D500 at home on serious wildlife shooting sessions.

So at this point I have what I consider "full focal-length coverage" up to 200mm with my mirrorless Nikon gear. I have opted for a mix of zoom and fairly fast prime Z-mount lenses to cover my needs and I have to say that in each case the Z-mount lens has outperformed the F-mount lens it replaced. The common thread I'm observing with the Z-mount lenses is simple (and actually what Nikon promised the Z-mount would allow them to do with lenses) - they're sharper throughout the frame (and pretty much at maximum sharpness) when shot wide open and definitely sharper on the edges at virtually ALL apertures when shot on a high-res body like the Z7. Here's some additional comments about each of my Z-mount lenses:

Nikkor 14-30mm f4S: Not a lens I use a lot, but in my collection for those "opportunistic" landscapes and animalscapes. Purchased to replace my Nikkor 16-35mm f4G VR and I instantly found the Z-mount 14-30mm produced sharper shots, including at much lower shutter speeds when hand-held (i.e., the VR system was much better). Note that in my case lenses in this focal range are "take it along if I'm not over the weight limit for traveling" lenses and thus small size and lower weight takes precedence over the larger aperture of "faster" lenses like the 14-24mm f2.8S.

Nikkor 24-70mm f4S: Similar use for me to that of the 14-30mm f4S...so another "f8 and be there" lens (tho' I consider this lens more "mandatory" to be in my kit when I head to the BC coast than my 14-30). In this case I already owned two F-mounts in this same focal range - the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8E and the Sigma Art 24-70mm f2.8 DG OS. Bottom line in this case is real simple for me - the Z-mount 24-70mm f4S is WAY smaller and lighter than the two F-mount 24-70's and offers equal or better optical performance (especially on the edges). And, like in the case with the 14-30, better VR performance. As an aside, I know several shooters who own the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8S and all are absolutely raving about its optical performance...and I have no reason to doubt them. But for me the faster 2.8 aperture and possibly slightly better optical performance aren't worth the size/weight penalty of the f2.8S version (remember, for me this is an "f8 and be there" lens!).

Nikkor 35mm f1.8S: I bought this one almost solely for video use and it has delivered exactly what I wanted from it - silent autofocus and thin DoF (I'm using it with my current Z7 as a high quality web cam for my online tutoring). Note that I also own the highly regarded Sigma Art 35mm f1.4 but functionally replaced it with the Z-mount 35mm for two aspects of its performance when used for video - the incessant audible chattering of the AF system when used for video and its almost dizzying focus pull speeds. At this point I have not tested/compared the two lenses for their optical performance when shooting stills (I MAY do this in the future, but it's not super high on my priority list).

Nikkor 50mm f1.2S (on order): I ordered this lens for use in shooting both stills and video and largely for the same reason - the expectation of biting sharp in-focus zones and dreamy smooth out-of-focus zones (yes, I am a lover of good lens bokeh). I have high hopes for this lens for shooting animalscape shots with the Z7 II.

Nikkor 85mm f1.8S: OK...this lens is simply spectacular. I love shooting with an 85mm lens and I have a whole slew of F-mount versions to compare the Z-mount against, including the Nikkor 85mm f1.4G, the Nikkor 85mm f1.8G, and the "used to be incomparable" Sigma Art 85mm f1.4. Compared to the Nikkor F-mounts the Z-mount is sharper shot wide open, sharper on the edges at all apertures, and has virtually NO chromatic aberration (both of the F-mount are really bad on CA with close subjects). How does the Nikkor 85mm f1.8S compare against the Sigma Art 85mm f1.4? For those who don't know, the Sigma Art 85mm is still ranked by dxomark.com as the optically best lens they have ever tested, including against...well...EVERYTHING! Optically the Sigma Art 85mm IS simply incredible! I haven't had a chance to fully field test the two lenses head-to-head yet, but under my preliminary testing the gap in optical performance between the two lenses seems exceptionally small (we're talking major pixel-peeping to see ANY difference). As in - without intense scrutiny there's very little difference in the images they produce. And, the Nikkor Z-mount 85mm is shorter, narrower, and under half the weight.

Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S: If you thought a 70-200mm lens couldn't be better than the F-mount 70-200mm f2.8E, well...you were wrong! The Z-mount 70-200mm f2.8S is better - in pretty much every meaningful way. But to be clear, the differences aren't huge...the Z-mount version is slightly sharper when shot wider open and through to about f3.5, it has slightly sharper edges at virtually all apertures, and the VR on the Z-system DOES allow you to successfully hand-hold the 70-200mm f2.8S down to slightly slower shutter speeds than the 70-200mm f2.8E (when both are shot on a Z7). Autofocus speed? Can't say yet as the limiting factor in AF performance in the equation is the Z7 body, not either lens (this may change with the Z7 II). Bokeh? I can't separate them...both have excellent out-of-focus zones. Oh...and both lenses are about the same size and weight.

So, at this point I am absolutely convinced that my transition to the Nikon mirrorless Z-system has left me with gear that better meets my needs (and produces better images!) when shooting landscapes and animalscapes at 200mm or less than any Nikon DSLR (and F-mount lenses!). Heck, forget the inherent advantages of a mirrorless body compared to a DSLR - the higher quality of the Z-mount lenses alone has made my mirrorless transition at the 200mm and less focal length range worthwhile!

What about the future...do I see the need for any additional lenses or camera bodies in the Z-system for shooting subjects in the 200mm or less focal length range? Well, to be honest, I have no urgent needs. Of course, if/when Nikon introduces a higher resolution option in a mirrorless body (e.g., 60 MP) I will certainly consider it. And, if they happen to introduce a micro/macro Z-mount lens in the 135mm to 150mm range with an f2.8 aperture I would snap it up in a minute. But, aside from that, I'm pretty much set.

What about the other "half" of my shooting - my serious wildlife work - how do I see that transition to mirrorless playing out? Good question! At this point Nikon doesn't have any mirrorless hardware announced - or even on a their published lens road map - that appear poised to challenge the quality or performance of what already exists in my longer focal range DSLR wildlife kit. For the record, the core part of that kit consists of two DSLR's (Nikon D6, D500) and three critical lenses (Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E, Nikkor 180-400mm f4E, Nikkor 500mm f5.6 PF). So...until we see a pro-level action/sports/wildlife mirrorless body and some pro-level telephoto and/or super-telephoto lenses it's likely that my mirrorless gear purchases are pretty much frozen!

In planning (and budgeting) for the transition of my wildlife kit there's certainly some questions I would LOVE to know the answer to. Specifically...

1. When is the pro-level sports/action/wildlife mirrorless body (Z9?) forecasted to be announced and available (I won't even ask for specs for now!)?

2. Is there a mirrorless equivalent to the D500 (i.e., an enthusiasts/semi-pro DX mirrorless body) coming in the near future (or ever)?

3. Are either of the two "long" lenses on the current lens road map (the 100-400 S-Line and the 200-600) going to be pro-level lenses (which pretty much equates to "fixed aperture") or are they going to be consumer-to-enthusiast level variable-aperture zooms?

4. Are we going to see ANY super-telephoto primes in the next 2-3 years?

5. Are we going to see ANY super-telephoto PF lenses? When?

Come on Nikon...I think it would help your loyal shooters a ton (and not hurt YOU one bit) to break from the status quo and give us a better idea what's in the product pipeline! Or would you prefer we switch to Sony (or...perish the thought...Canon!)?

For some reason I think I'm going to be living with my current "short focal length mirrorless" and "longer focal length DSLR" twin/mixed (Jekyll and Hyde?) nature and wildlife photography kit for quite some time! And during that we'll all continue to be treated like mushrooms (kept in the dark and fed a lot of...)!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog_2020_all.html#mirrorless_transition_1

26 Oct 2020: Nikon D6 Pro Tip: Creating and Using Multiple "Recall Shooting Functions" Settings

Despite being hampered in traveling by constraints imposed by COVID-19 I've been able to find time and subject matter near my home to continue to shoot and test my Nikon D6. As many Nikon shooters know the upgrades and improvements made to the Nikon D6 aren't huge headline-grabbing and radically new features. Instead there are a whole lot of small changes. And now - 20,000 images or so into the life of my D6 - I am finding that collectively these changes are very much to much liking. I am finding I am getting great results out of the "biggest" change to the D6 - its re-tooled AF system. And I'm judging that by a noticeable increase in my hit rate of in-focus shoots, especially during action shooting (which is no small accomplishment given how well the D5 already handled action shooting).

And there's another "small" change to the D6 that I really, really like - the tweaking of one of the optional functions that can be assigned to the buttons on the camera - the "Recall shooting functions" option. What does this option do - and what did Nikon change in this button option? The "Recall shooting functions" option allows the user to quickly switch a large group of camera settings simply by pressing (and holding) one (or more) of the D6's customizable buttons. The settings that can be switched with a push of the button include:

Exposure mode
Shutter speed
Aperture
Exposure compensation
ISO sensitivity setting (including if Auto ISO is engaged)
Metering
White Balance
AF-area mode
Focus tracking with lock-on
AF-ON

Moving along...in my case I choose to use "Recall shooting functions" to store a group of settings "optimized" for shooting action (based on the fact that with wildlife shooting action often breaks out unexpectedly and you have to react to it FAST...or miss it altogether). So...if I am shooting an animalscape shot where I'm trying to keep my ISO low (and consequently my shutter speed low) and I'm using either Single-point or 9-point Dynamic-area AF area modes and then some totally unexpected action breaks out I can switch a whack of settings fast and successfully capture the action simply by pushing a button and activating "Recall shooting functions". So here's how - at least for now - I have my "Recall shooting functions" option set up:

Exposure mode = M
Shutter speed = 1/2000s
Aperture = f4
Exposure compensation = 0.0
ISO sensitivity setting = 100 ISO, but with Auto ISO on and with a "ceiling" of ISO 12,800
Metering = Matrix
White Balance = Auto0
AF-area mode = Group C2 (which I have set to 7x7)
Focus tracking with lock-on = Quick vs. Delay at 3, Subject motion = Erratic
AF-ON = toggled to "On"

Now, I personally consider the "Recall shooting functions" to be a high priority option and, as such, I want to be able to access it when shooting either horizontally or vertically and via a button that I can actually HOLD while activating the shutter (i.e., while shooting). Others may have more manual dexterity than me, but of the three programmable buttons on the front side of the D6 (i.e., Preview, Fn1, Fn2) the only one I can quickly get to and HOLD while shooting is the Fn1 button (I reserve the Preview and Fn2 buttons to features that function with a quick push and then "stick" - like "Framing grid display" and "Viewfinder virtual horizon"). So I have chosen the Fn1 button to use to "Recall shooting functions". Any drawback to this? Yep, try getting to the Fn1 button (and holding it) while shooting vertically using the vertical shutter release - it's pretty much impossible. SO...to solve this problem I have programmed a second button to the same "Recall shooting functions" option. What button? The L-Fn (Lens Function) button...which is on pretty much all the lenses I shoot with my D6 and which can be easily accessed when shooting vertically or horizontally (given that there are 4 of them located around the lens barrel on all the lenses I shoot with the D6).

OK...after shooting with the "Recall shooting functions" option on the Fn1 and L-Fn button for a while I found myself wanting something more - I wanted to have several "banks" of "Recall shooting functions" available to me. This became glaringly obvious to me when I was testing different AF-area modes during an early autumn snowfall and all my Group Area AF modes were picking up falling snowflakes between myself and my subject (rendering my subject out-of-focus) while other AF-area modes suitable for shooting action (including 49-point Dynamic-area mode and 3D-tracking area mode) were distracted a lot less by the falling snow. So that left me thinking "Damn...I wish I could set up multiple sets of shooting functions and there appears to be no way to do that." Well...that's the way it SEEMS at first glance...but then it slowly dawned on me (I can be amazingly non-bright) that because the "Recall shooting functions" were accessed (and stored) within a Custom settings bank - and because you have four different Custom settings banks (A through D) - you CAN set up different sets of shooting functions in a D6. Problem solved.

Next problem...how do you switch quickly BETWEEN your custom settings banks (so you can quickly change your stored shooting functions). A quick perusal of the options available for each button on the D6 will show that several of them can be set to switch (or toggle) through the Shooting banks, but none can be set to switch (toggle) through the 4 Custom banks. Damn!

But wait...there's ANOTHER way to switch between functions on the D6 - using the re-designed (and now useful) i-Menu. AND, Custom banks ARE one of the camera functions you can have available in the i-Menu! Best of all, the i-Menu is a touch-sensitive menu on the rear LCD of the camera, which makes it fast to use. So...to switch between one Custom bank and another you just have to hit the i-Menu button, touch the Custom banks icon, and then double tap on the Custom bank of your choice...and presto...you're in a different Custom bank! Takes me two seconds or less to do this in the field. Cool!

Note that to have your D6 set up to toggle between Custom banks with different shooting functions stored in them (and without confusing the heck out of yourself) you have to have EVERY setting in the various Custom banks set up identically EXCEPT the controls for your buttons that you have assigned for "Recall shooting functions". In my case the ONLY thing that varies between my four Custom banks is the AF-area mode set within the "Recall shooting functions". And here - and for now while I'm experimenting with shooting action with different AF-area modes - are how I have my AF-area modes set up in each Custom bank:

Custom bank A: Group Area 7x7 area mode
Custom bank B: Group Area 5x5 area mode (for more distant subjects when "grabbing foreground" might be a problem with 7x7 Group area mode)
Custom bank C: 49-point Dynamic area mode (for reasonably close subjects that are moving steadily and where I want a distinct part of the subject in focus)
Custom bank D: 3D-tracking area mode (as above but where subject may be moving more erratically, thus making it hard to keep within the area defined by the 49-point mode).

And...a final "real world" note on these settings and the concept behind it. The vast majority of wildlife photographers that I know that use Nikon cameras that have Shooting banks and Custom banks (e.g., D500, D850, D5, D6,) only rarely set up their Shooting banks and almost never utilize anything but the default Custom bank. This is largely because it IS very possible to get VERY "lost in your camera" if you do set these banks up AND if you don't use these functions/banks frequently enough for them to become second nature. So if you are a D6 owner but shoot it only sporadically (i.e., you're a binge shooter like so many others)...this method of "extending" the "Recall shooting functions" option may be more trouble than it's worth for you. But I love it! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

14 Oct 2020: Some Thoughts on the Evolved Nikon Z7 II

Late last night Nikon announced the details about their new generation of Z mirrorless cameras - the Nikon Z6 II and the Nikon Z7 II. You can view all the nitty gritty details and specifications about the cameras in several places online, including your chosen official Nikon website or places like dpreview.com or nikonrumors.com. After watching Nikon's flashy announcement video and looking at the specs of both cameras I think it's fair to say that the two cameras pretty much evolved in parallel (i.e., similar overall changes to both cameras) and that the changes are - at least at this point - more evolutionary than revolutionary in nature.

SOME IMPORTANT CAVEATS: Because I own and have shot a lot with the Nikon Z7 (and I don't own a Z6), I'm going to limit my comments to the changes/evolution of the Z7 II. Obviously with the cameras evolving in parallel much of what I'm about to say probably applies to the Z6 II as well. And...my comments are biased by the type of shooter I am - I'm a wildlife/nature photography who primarily shoots still images. I also happen to own a Nikon D500 and a Nikon D6, which allows me to limit my uses of my Z7 (and soon my Z7 II) to the areas that it excels rather than trying to "make it do everything for me". Said another way, I'm NOT expecting a Z7 or Z7 II to be top-notch sports-action camera or my primary wildlife camera (the latter of which is what the D500/D6 combination does superbly). I use my Z7 for landscape shooting and, when the scene justifies it, wider-view wildlife shots (i.e., animalscapes).

Back on October 6 I posted a blog entry entitled "Some Musings on the Nikon Z 7 II" (see it immediately below this entry) where I outlined what I HOPED to see in a Z7 II. I divided my list into two parts - Critical Improvements and Less Critical Improvements. The bottom line is that of the 6 items in my Critical Improvements list Nikon has appeared to have fully or partially addressed at least 5 of them. So, in that regard I'm happy! But the real kicker is that until we have the cameras in-hand and have shot with them we won't know how well Nikon has addressed some of the "issues". For instance, the FIRST item on my list (i.e., the most important thing to me for Nikon to address) was "Autofocus Performance Improvements" - and based on the specs of the Z7 II (including the addition of a 2nd Expeed processor) - and what Nikon has already said about it - it appears that AF performance of the Z7 II WILL be better than that of the Z7. But until I can shoot with the Z7 II I won't know if the AF improvements are sufficient to please me.

Autofocus performance enhancements aside, other improvements in the Z7 II that I am already sure will please me include its faster frame rate, larger burst size, and the addition of vertical controls via the new MB-N11 battery grip (which has EXACTLY the vertical controls I was hoping for, including the addition of a vertical FN button). With these changes alone I'm quite confident (but won't know for sure until I start shooting with it) that I'll be able to do significantly MORE of my wildlife shooting with the Z7 II than I could with my Z7. How much more remains to be seen.

I'll make two speculative guesses about the Z7 II right now...

1. When the dust settles (including after some of the expected firmware updates over time) I suspect that the Z7 II will end up being simply an EXCELLENT "all-rounder" of a camera. And, despite the pounding that I think the camera will get in online forums, I think that that those who buy it with an open mind will grow to just LOVE it.

2. As already noted by dpreview.com, it does seem like the "power" added to the new Z's through the addition of a 2nd Expeed processor is a bit under-utilized. But...I'm guessing that this added processing power will allow Nikon to really "hop-up" the performance of the new Z's via firmware updates over the next year or two. In buying a Z7 II I am not counting on this to be the case (I'm buying it for what it is, not what it might become)...but I am hopeful that the evolution of the new Z's (via firmware updates) will be significant for at least a few years...

That's it for now - I'll have a whole lot more to say about the Z7 II when it's appropriate - meaning when I've actually USED the camera! And I am really looking forward to using it! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

6 Oct 2020: Some Musings on the Nikon Z7 II

Around a week ago Nikon "pre-announced" that updates to their Z6 and Z7 mirrorless cameras were coming soon. These new cameras are called the Z7 II and the Z6 II, which is a bit of a departure from Nikon's normal practice of tacking "s" on the end of the name of a new model update. So instead of a Z6s and a a Z7s we have the II's. Although I'm sure some out there are convinced this new naming protocol is significant and has deep meaning (perhaps a code intended to communicate evil messages to some cult of camera cannibals, presumably all ex-Canon shooters), I'm not even going to speculate on what this new naming convention might mean.

At this point Nikon has not released specifications, prices, or shipping dates of the updated Z Series cameras - we won't get that information until October 14. There have been rumoured specifications published on, quite logically, nikonrumors.com - you can check those out right here. I expect that the rumoured specs are reasonably accurate and I certainly don't have any inside information that allows me to refute or add to any part of the rumoured specification list.

For the record I quite like my Z7 and, in general, it has surpassed my expectations for the uses I put it to. And, for those uses (which primarily are shooting landscapes and animalscapes) I prefer it over its DSLR counterpart - the D850. However, there are a number of improvements that I hope to see on the Z7 II that would, collectively, turn it into a much more versatile camera for me and expand its range of uses (for at least me!). I won't comment here on the Z6 or Z6 II as I don't own a Z6 and have shot with it very little. And, it's likely I won't acquire a Z6 II. Any...here's a list of things I HOPE to see on the Z7 II.

I. CRITICAL IMPROVEMENTS:

1. Autofocus Performance Improvements:

To be honest, I have never thought the AF system of the Z7 was that bad. On the positive side, I have found the AF accuracy of it to be BETTER than the Nikon DSLR that competes most directly with it - the D850. Initial acquisition of focus on a Z7 is not bad either. And, I very much like that you could focus almost anywhere on the viewfinder (and not just the "central" region like in all of Nikon's DSLR's). Moreover, with my own photography style I didn't find the focus-tracking on y Z7 to be limiting. Really. And that's because when I am shooting action I am almost always panning with the subject - and if I'm using a D5 or D6 I opt for either a group area AF area mode or a Dynamic Area AF area mode (i.e., I almost never rely on a "tracking mode" per se). So, if I'm shooting action with my Z7 I use either Wide-area AF (S) and Wide-area AF (L), or Dynamic-area AF area modes. I find they work quite well if the subject is moving laterally across the frame.

However, there is one area of AF that is important to me where my Z7 is absolutely deficient relative to my DSLR's (which right now are a D500 and a D6). This is when shooting a moving object where a large component of its motion is either towards me or away from me. In these cases the Z7 simply does not refocus quickly enough to keep the leading edge of the subject in focus. So if a bird in flight is flying AT me (or a bear is running toward me) a large proportion of the shots of the head of the animal invariably end up out of focus (and with the shoulder regions of the animal sharp as a tack!). So...if Nikon gets the Predictive Autofocus capabilities and/or the "re-focusing speed" of the Z7 II up to how well the D500 (or D850) work and I'll be quite happy. If Nikon gets those capabilities up to the level of a D6 and I'll be ecstatic!

One of the rumoured specification upgrades to the generation 2 Z's is that it will have a "dual EXPEED processor" - and many are thinking this is what is needed to improve the AF performance of the Z's. Whatever it takes - just improve it! ;-)

2. Autofocus Feature Improvements:

I'd like to see the actual feature sets of the generation 2 Z's to more closely mimic those of Nikon's DSLR's. So instead of providing us with Wide-area AF (S) and Wide-area AF (L) area modes please give us Group Area modes (Wide-area modes on the Z work very much like the Group area AF modes anyway). And, give us some choice on the size of the Dynamic-area "watch zone" - so instead of ONE Dynamic-area mode please give us something like what you get on a D500, D850, or D500 - perhaps a 9-point Dynamic-area mode, a 49-point Dynamic-area mode, etc. Going hand-in-hand with these changes would be custom options more similar to those of Nikon's DSLR's...so please give us more control over how the focus lock-on works, more options the AF-C priority selection, etc.

What about things like animal eye detection, et cetera? Well...go ahead and call me old-fashioned, but I care much less about those type of "flashy" features than I do rock solid performance of basic features (see my comments above about improving the Predictive Autofocus capabilities of the Z's). I KNOW having features like animal eye detection helps on the sales floor (be it brick and mortar or virtual), but in the real world when I'm shooting a portrait of a grizzly I DON'T want to lock onto the eye anyway (I won't digress into a discussion of how to keep a grizzly's eye AND nose pad simultaneously in focus here, but suffice to say you don't do it by locking onto the eye).

3. Vertical Controls:

Yep, I really miss the lack of vertical controls on the Z7. In my opinion it's a huge ergonomic omission - and NOT having it limits my use of the Z7 significantly. Unlike what I wrote in my Z9 Wishlist (blog entry of 4 August), I am completely fine with the vertical controls on a Z7 II being supplied via adding a battery grip. So...what I am hoping for is a vertical shutter release, vertical command dial, vertical sub-command dial, vertical AF-on button (that can be customized for use with alternate functions), vertical "joystick" enabling "toggling" of the AF points, and possibly even one vertical Fn button.

4. Camera Speed Improvements:

When I say "camera speed" I am referring to two things: a higher maximum frame rate AND a quicker "wake-up" when the camera is turned on OR the camera is raised to your eye. First the frame rate - I'd like to see a maximum mechanical shutter frame rate of 10-12 fps, but I could live with 8 fps. And, I'd like to see an electronic shutter frame rate of about 20 fps. On the lag time when you turn the camera on or raise it to your eye...cut that AT LEAST in half. I have missed a lot of shots with my Z7 while I waited for it to wake up.

5. Improved Burst Depth:

Here I am referring to the number of frames that can be shot at maximum frame rate BEFORE the frame rate begins to slow down. This isn't solely dependent on buffer size - it's also dependent on how fast the data is written to the memory card. Anyway...give us 50 frames and I'll be happy (but note I'd want more than this on Nikon's mirrorless flagship sports/action camera).

6. Improved Viewfinder Behavior During High Frame Rate Bursts:

So...here I'm looking for a reduction in black out time AND complete avoidance of "projecting" static frames in the viewfinder during a high frame rate bursts. When shooting a Z7 in Continuous High mode the black out time is significant and distracting (making it hard to shoot a moving subject) and when shooting a Z7 in Continuous High Extended mode the viewfinder behavior is just weird (talk about a "herky-jerky" look...holy smokes!).

II. LESS CRITICAL IMPROVEMENTS:

7. Dual CFexpress/XQD Card Slots:

I know having dual card slots is a "must feature" for a lot of shooters (and I can appreciate why), but for me it's not a very big deal. But, if Nikon DOES give us two slots I'd prefer them to be of the same type - and I'd like BOTH of them to be CFexpress/XQD compatible, even if that means the camera has to be slightly larger. For ME, if you offer a camera with ONE CFexpress/XQD slot and ONE SD slot...well...it might as well just have one slot.

8. Custom Button Options:

In an ideal world I'd like to see at least one more customizable button on the camera - and preferably on the right side of the lens mount (where the "Preview" button is found on Nikon's DSLR's). And, more importantly, I'd like to see the custom button options (i.e., in the Custom Controls menu item) allow you to program one or more buttons (including the Lens-function - or L-Fn - buttons) to switch between AF area modes. And, if Nikon does this, I think it should be a "push to toggle" (between AF area modes) rather than a "push and hold" button.

And, while I'm at it, another option I'd LOVE to see on the various programmable buttons is a "Recall Shooting Functions" option as found on the Nikon D6. I simply LOVE this function.

9. DoF Viewfinder Display?

The current first generation of Z's can display an almost dizzying array of info on their EVF's. So I feel almost like a glutton asking for one extra bit of info available...but I'll do it anyway: I'd love to be able to get a readout of my current depth of field (DoF) when I am looking at my subject through the viewfinder. Preferably it would be a readout of the DoF both in front of and behind the subject (in any units you want), but I could live with a total DoF value. The camera has all the info it needs to calculate the DoF...so why not do it? While I'm pretty good at guessing my DoF, I'm still guessing!

10. New Sensor with Increased Resolution?

While I would not turn down more resolution (where IS that 60 MP sensor we've been hearing about??), realistically I'm fine with Nikon using the Z7 sensor in the Z7 II. And if adding a 60 MP sensor would either slow down the camera (i.e., slower frame rate, smaller burst depth, or both) or negatively impact on the Z7 II's ISO performance...then I'm fine with "just" 46 MP! ;-)

11. New Video Features?

This vague specification improvement is on nikonrumor's list, but even though I am now shooting some video with my Z7, at this point improved video performance would be lost on me. I wouldn't complain about new video features that I may come to use in the future, but it won't impact at ALL on whether or not I purchase a Z7 II.

And that's pretty much all I am hoping for - and in some cases expecting - in a Z7 II. If Nikon does deliver the bulk of my critical improvements above I'll be a happy camper and there's no doubt that I'll be using the Z7 II for a larger proportion of my total shooting than I use my Z7 for. And I would certainly use it for MORE of my wildlife shooting.

Well...we'll soon know - we'll have the specs in one short week. I'm looking forward to seeing them. ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog_2020_all.html#Musings_Z7II

28 Sept 2020: Now Available: Customized Remote (Online) Photography Tutoring!

Well...it's finally happened - I've taken my tutoring services online! For over a decade I've been offering in-person tutoring services on all aspects of digital nature and wildlife photography from my home and office in the East Kootenays of BC. During that time I've worked from photographers of all levels from Canada, the US, and several European countries. The only negative associated with the in-person tutoring has been the time (and expense) for those seeking the services had to travel from their home all the way up to my place in western Canada.

So...about a month ago (and now about 20 tutoring sessions ago!) I went online with all aspects of my tutoring services! So that means it's now super convenient for almost anyone to get professional instruction and/or advice in image capture techniques, image post-processing techniques, Nikon camera set-up, gear recommendations, and a whole lot more!

Intrigued? Thinking that there couldn't be a better time to take the time needed to hone your photography skills? Here's where to go for a lot more info on what I'm offering...

• For ALL THE DETAILS on my tutoring services, just go to my Customized Remote (Online) Tutoring Page

• To skip directly to the FAQs, just go directly to the FAQ section!

For more information, or to book YOUR online tutoring session(s), just email me at seminars@naturalart.ca. I'm currently booking sessions in November and beyond!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

17 Sept 2020: The NIKKOR 180-400mm f4E Field Test & Review


The NIKKOR 180-400mm f4E Field Test & Review

I've JUST posted my long overdue AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR Field Test and Review. And...this one is in a bit different format. It's probably best thought of as "resource summary" of pretty much everything I have written on the AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR. So what I'm giving you is a shorter commentary entitled "Musings on the Performance of The AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR" (that includes a whole lot of images shot with with the 180-400) AND links to key blog entries that provide a WHOLE LOT more detail about individual aspects of the 180-400's performance. Realistically I think most readers will find JUST the "Musings" section adequate to answer the vast majority of their questions.

So...with no further ado...here it is: The NIKKOR 180-400mm f4E Field Test & Review.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

31 Aug '20: The Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S (Z-mount) - First Impressions

What follows are my earliest impressions of the new Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S (Z-Mount) after two days of shooting it with my Z7. These comments should be considered anecdotal only, and - at best - an educated "gut feel". At this point I have not performed any head-to-head comparative testing of the new Z-mount 70-200mm against other lenses (including the two Nikkor 70-200's I'll be field testing the 70-200mm f2.8S against - the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 70-200mm f4G). So I can now say things like "Edge-to-edge sharpness seems very good", I can't (and won't say) things yet like "The edge-to-edge sharpness is better than that seen on the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E". Expect much more detail and more objective comparisons against other lenses in my coming Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S field test and review.

So, with no further ado, here are my thoughts:

1. Physical Characteristics: Size and Weight.

The 70-200mm f2.8S (Z-mount) is slightly longer than its F-mount counterpart (by about 17mm, or 2/3 of an inch) but about 70 gm (a little under 4 oz) lighter. When you stand the two lenses up side-by-side the added length comes from adding the Control Ring (which is a customizable rotating ring on the lens located quite close to the camera body). While you CAN feel the difference in weight if you juggle them back and forth between your hands, in real world use the F-mount and the Z-mount 70-200's are very similar in size and "heft". Of course, if you're shooting the lenses on a Z body the length of the Z-mount version is shorter overall in that the Mount Adapter FTZ adds significantly more length to the F-mount lens does the control ring on the Z-mount lens. The key point tho', is that you AREN'T buying the Z-mount version because it's significantly smaller than the F-mount 70-200mm f2.8.

2. Physical Characteristics: Build Quality.

Unlike the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E (F-mount), the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S (Z-mount) is made in Thailand (instead of Japan). In so much as you can judge build quality by just handling a lens (which tells you diddly-squat about durability, quality of dust/moisture seals, etc.) the build quality of the Z-mount 70-200 seems good. The tripod collar rotates particularly smoothly (even smoother than that of the F-mount 70-200's). Similarly, the zoom and focus rings rotate very smoothly. So no complaints (or excessive kudos) on the build quality at this point.

3. Physical Characteristics: Controls, Ergonomics and Aesthetics.

At the macro level, there is little difference between the Z- and F-mount 70-200's in the positioning and/or ease-of-access of the main controls (the zoom ring and the focusing ring). The first major difference is between the lenses is that the Z-mount version has a 2nd Lens Function button on it, giving the user easy access to more custom functions (or even "shortcuts") with the hand that is supporting the lens. Unfortunately (and probably only temporarily...that is, until we have new mirrorless bodies), the range of custom options you can use with the two function buttons is rather limited compared to Nikon's DSLR's. So, for instance, you can NOT use the buttons to switch to a different AF area mode like you can on Nikon's top DSLR's. And...surprisingly to me, you can't even use some of the custom functions that you use with other custom buttons on the camera body. As an example, on the Z7 you can use the FN2 button in conjunction with a dial to quickly change your AF area mode settings. So the camera CAN do it. But...for some reason, Nikon left this function off the options that you can assign to the two lens function buttons (sigh).

The second major difference in the controls and ergonomics is the now "typical of a Z-mount lens" inclusion of a control ring located near the lens body. This ring can be assigned to control several different functions, including controlling aperture, exposure compensation, or your ISO. Like with all my Z-mount lenses, I like this ring (tho' I do find it a bit tough to access on the 70-200 when shooting in the field compared to how easy it is to access the ring on "shorter" lenses).

The third major difference in the controls is best described as a "control cleanup". The Z-mount 70-200 has replaced the A/M, M/A, M toggle switch with a simple A, M toggle switch. And, the VR switch is gone, as is the AF-L, OFF, AF-ON toggle switch. The bulk of these functions are now simply built into the controls of the body, tho' the A/M vs M/A function (which helped the user specify the sensitivity - and the consequences of accidentally bumping the focus ring) is now just GONE.

On the purely subjective (= personal preference) side are the design aesthetics. To my eye the aesthetics of the Z-mount lenses (and the 70-200 is no exception to this) are almost like Sigma Art lenses - kind of on the Soviet-era "functionalism" or "utilitarianism" side. Between that and the slightly more "plasticky" feel of the Z-mount lenses (compared to their F-mount counterparts) I have to say - that on purely aesthetic considerations - I prefer the F-mount lenses. I wouldn't be surprised if the aesthetic look of the Z-mount lenses is driven more by manufacturing efficiencies (and cost savings) than any thought of "look and feel (but I don't know this for a fact).

Any real functional NITS on the physical characteristics of the Z-mount 70-200? Yep, two - and both are related to the tripod foot. The first is my perpetual Nikon tripod foot nit - it's NOT Arca-Swiss compatible (so to use the lens on an Arca-Swiss ballhead or gimbal head you need to either add a lens plate or a new replacement foot). As with all of Nikon's previous lenses with tripod feet - this is still stupid. Second, Nikon chose to change the mount width of the removable tripod foot - so if you DID invest in a 3rd party foot for your F-mount 70-200 (like, for example Really Right Stuff's LCF 10B or LCF 11) they won't fit on the Z-mount 70-200. Argh!

4. Lens Performance: Vibration Reduction (VR).

While I have yet to perform any systematic testing on the VR performance on either of the VR modes of the lens (which are VR Sport and VR Normal) I can already say that the VR system seems to work extremely well. Nikon claims 5.5 stops of improvement in image stabilization (they claim 4 stops for the F-mount 70-200mm f2.8E) and the Z-mount 70-200's stabilization works on 5-axes vs. 3 on the the F-mount 70-200. At this point I have hand-held shots at 200mm down to 1/10s (using VR Normal) and obtained sharp, sharp results...and I suspect I could have gone even slower. Note that both the lens and body (assuming you're using a Z5, Z6 or Z7) provide image stabilization and somehow (which I'm sure Nikon will never tell us!) the two interact. Anyway...the view through the viewfinder is just rock solid when in VR Normal mode and I look forward to testing this VR system against that of the 70-200mm f2.8E. But I already KNOW that the VR system on the 70-200mm on a Z-series body with IBIS works exceptionally well.

5. Lens Performance: Optics.

On paper the specs of the Z-mount 70-200 optical system look good - everything found on the 70-200mm f2.8E plus more! And the more is an ARNEO lens element coating (which is designed to remove incidental light from vertical directions and thus reduce flare and contrast reduction when shooting into the sun) and a new SR element (= short wavelength refractive) that contributes to the reduction of chromatic abberation.

What can I say about optical performance after my first thousand or so images shot with the 70-200m f2.8S? Not too much yet...but the promise of strong edge-to-edge sharpness and very smooth out-of-focus zones (as per Nikon's promotional literature) SEEMS valid. See the 4 sample images below to see what I mean. Oh yeah, and the lens DOES vignette noticeably when shot at f2.8 and 200mm. How much and how bad relative to the 70-200mm f2.8E (F-mount) lens? Too early to say (but you can bet I will suss this out fully!).

6. Lens Performance: Autofocus.

Because autofocus performance is dependent on BOTH the AF performance of the camera lens AND the camera body in use, and because at this point in time the AF speed and responsiveness of Nikon's Z-series cameras lags considerably behind their top DSLR's, I strongly suspect that we won't be able to fully judge the AF performance of this lens until we have a faster focusing mirrorless body from Nikon. In fact, the final sentence of the introductory paragraph of the "Overview" section of web page dedicated to the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S (at least currently and on both the Nikon Canada and Nikon USA websites) states:

"The NIKKOR Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S sets an impressive new standard for fast telephoto zoom lenses optimized for the next generation of Nikon's advanced mirrorless cameras"

So...while Nikon doesn't state WHICH aspects of the lens's performance is "optimized for the next generation" of Z-cameras...I think you can bet that AF perfomance is at least ONE of them! And that leads to a quick BTW: Nikon...I have purchased the 70-200mm f2.8S...so I am ready, primed, and eagerly waiting for the next generation of advanced mirrorless cameras...please hurry up, eh? ;-)

7. A FEW Sample Images.

Between COVID-19 and an Area Restriction owing to a large wildfire burning near my home, I an currently REALLY limited in my ability to easily access to good local shooting locations. However...here's a few images I grabbed on my property over the weekend.

A. Shot WIDE OPEN at 200mm - Subject Sharpness and Bokeh Quality: OK...here's two shots hinting at how sharp the 70-200mm f2.8S is when shot wide open AND how sweet its out-of-focus zones are. My suspicion at this point is that you'll have NO reason to stop this lens down to get maximum sharpness out of this lens!

Hot August Dog: Download 2400 pixel Image
It's All About How You Hold Your Tongue: Download 2400 pixel Image

B. Edge-to-Edge Sharpness on Distant Scenes? Well...one good thing about having a massive wildfire burning near your home is you can get pretty interesting lighting and colour at sunrise! Two 4800 pixel wide images that strongly suggest edge-to-edge sharpness won't be a problem with this lens!

Findlay Sunrise (82mm): Download 4800 pixel Image
Findlay South (130mm): Download 4800 pixel Image

So...summing up my first impressions of the 70-200m f2.8S? It looks pretty impressive...and I suspect it WILL take the already stellar performance of the its F-mount predecessor to an even higher level. Based on what I have seen so far I think it will likely beat the 70-200mm f2.8E F-mount in at least a few areas, including in edge-to-edge sharpness, absolute sharpness at f2.8 (including in the central region), and VR performance. Relative AF performance will be an unknown until we see the "...next generation of Nikon's advanced mirrorless cameras."

Summaries of my 70-200mm f2.8S field test and review will begin appearing here shortly after I complete writing up my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E review/field test (which should happen in the next two weeks or so). In the interim I will be posting images captured with the 70-200mm f2.8S (Z-mount) in my Gallery of Latest Additions.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog_2020_all.html#70-200_Z-mount_FirstImpressions

28 Aug '20: My Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S (Z-mount) Is Here!

I've been notified that my Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S (Z-mount) zoom lens has arrived at my dealer and is already been sent by courier to me (my dealer is over 300km away from where I live - way over on the wrong side of the Rockies!). If the shipping gods are in a good mood I may see the lens later today. As soon as it arrives I will begin field-testing it. Please be aware that my field test of it won't be as extensive as my on-going (but soon-to-be-complete!) field test of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E. Why? Well...some aspects of its performance can't be directly compared to the F-mount lenses that "compete" with it. Take autofocus speed (or their predictive AF capabilities, or subject tracking) for example. I can think of no objective way that I can objectively stress-test the 70-200mm f2.8S (Z-mount) against the 70-200mm f2.8E (F-mount). This is because there is only ONE camera in my collection which is compatible with both lenses - my Z7 (with the F-mount version of the lens "adapted" to function with the Z7 using the Mount Adapter FTZ). And, if I chose to test both 70-200's on the Z7 the limiting factor in AF speed (and predictive AF, and tracking, etc.) in the test would most likely be the Z7 body itself, and not either lens (unless one of the two lenses was ridiculously slow, which I'm sure is NOT the case). Conversely, if I compared AF speed - and several other AF parameters - by using the 70-200mm f2.8S on my Z7 and the 70-200mm f2.8E on my D6, the obvious and clear winner would be the 70-200mm f2.8E. However, this "victory" would be almost exclusively because of the AF performance of the D6 relative to the Z7...

Two further items merit a bit of discussion:

1. No Z Teleconverter TC-1.4x Yet. At this point my dealer did NOT receive any of the new Z Teleconverters. This isn't to say they are delayed - it could be by Monday I'll be getting the call that my Z Teleconverter TC-1.4x has shown up. When my Z Teleconverter does arrive I will begin testing its optical performance (when paired up with the 70-200mm f2.8S...the only lens it is currently compatible with) against the 70-200mm f2.8E plus the TC-14EIII).

2. My LAST Z-mount Lens Until We Have A Z9? I have to admit I struggled with the decision of whether or not I should "invest" in the 70-200mm f2.8S. As almost everyone knows, F-mount lenses can be adapted to work on a Z-series camera, but the reverse is not true (i.e., there is no way to adapt a Z-mount lens to work on a DSLR). So...in acquiring the 70-200mm f2.8S I am getting a lens that can't be used on my two primary wildlife cameras - my D6 and my D500. This thought concerned me, but only until I used Capture One Pro to filter through all the shots I have shot with the 70-200mm f2.8E and realized that over the past 4 years I have only taken a dozen or so with my D5, D6 or D500. In fact almost ALL were taken with my cameras I use(d) for landscape or animalscape shooting - which means higher resolution bodies like a D800e, D850, and now my Z7. So I'm pretty comfortable "committing" to a Z-mount lens in the 70-200mm focal length range.

However - and even if Nikon delivers some longer focal length Z-mount lenses more suitable to wildlife photography in the next year or so - I am going to hold on purchasing any more Z-mount lenses until Nikon produces a pro-level mirrorless Z-mount camera suitable for sports/action and wildlife shooting (which I am arbitrarily calling the Z9). To be clear, I DO already own 4 shorter focal length Z-mount lenses (the 14-30mm f4S, the 24-70mm f4S, the 35mm f1.8S, and the 85mm f1.8S), but these are NOT "wildlife" lenses per se (yes, I will use them for animalscape shooting, but those shots don't represent the bulk of my wildlife shooting). Bottom line is that even if Nikon comes through with some compelling longer focal length Z-mount lenses (and we know there are two longer zooms on their Z-mount lens road map) I'm not willing to fork out for them until I have a body well-matched to their use (i.e., for serious wildlife photography of all sorts).

Why am I mentioning this? I talk to a lot of wildlife photographers from around the world. The top Japanese camera companies have always been loath to reveal their long-term product plans...and over the years we have come to more-or-less accept this. However, as each of us are considering our most painless changeover path to a mirrorless world the lack of knowledge of what's coming down the road is now a real problem. And, it's my observation that a lot of Nikon shooters (and, for that matter Canon shooters) are now holding off on camera and/or lens purchases more than I have ever seen them hold back in the past. It's my view that this is largely because they don't know what - or how fast - Nikon will give us the products that will inspire enough confidence to allow us to commit to mirrorless. And, of course, this lack of knowledge of what mirrorless products are coming is probably even hurting Nikon's F-mount lens and DSLR sales. Which means Nikon's "secretive" nature is very likely hurting their overall sales right now...and in an accelerating fashion. Maybe, just maybe, Nikon should consider sticking their neck out and let us know what's coming (and approximately when) in the Z-system - including with their new bodies.

Just my 2 cents worth... ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

23 Aug '20: Feedback RE: My Nikon Z9 Wishlist Blog Entry

My 4 August blog entry outlining my personal "wishlist" for Nikon's anticipated flagship-level sports/action mirrorless camera generated a lot of feedback (just scroll down or follow this link to read the entry). It seems as tho' it was picked up (and debated upon) by a number of online photography forums as well.

The vast majority of the feedback I received directly was positive and largely (or in some cases, completely) in agreement with the thoughts I expressed in the wishlist. Two areas where I had more than one person expressing an alternate thought (not to be confused with an "alternate fact") were:

1. RE: "VERTICAL CONTROLS: BUILT-IN OR "TACKED ON"? My position here is that I wanted the vertical controls built-in (or fully integrated) rather than added via a removable battery grip. I wanted it built in for both ergonomic AND durability reasons. Two folks emailed me stating their preference would be to have the vertical controls added via a battery grip. In both cases the rationale was to retain the option to carry a smaller camera (than you would have if the vertical controls were integrated).

2. RE: "Make it ROBUST & NEAR BOMBPROOF!"? Within this section on placing durability near the top of design priorities I stated "...if this means the LCD must be fixed (non-tilting or rotating), or the camera has to be built with more expensive materials to keep the camera bombproof - so be it". Three different people emailed me to indicate that having an extending/tilting LCD was critical to them.

My response to both of these items is pretty much the same: If Nikon fulfills your "alternate wishes" and the Z9 comes without integrated vertical controls and/or with a tilting LCD, and if MY Z9 breaks down in the field because of durability "frailties" associated with either of these features, I will hold you personally responsible and hunt you down!! Kidding! ;-)

Thanks to all those who took the time to send me thoughtful feedback on their priorities on the Z9. Always good to hear the viewpoint of others...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

23 Aug '20: Update RE: On the Cusp of an Emergency...

Just a quick update re: our local wildfire situation and my personal combustion status! Since my post last Thursday on the local wildfire situation a combination of favourable weather (which means low winds coming from the best possible direction, lower temperatures, and higher humidity) plus aggressive fire suppression efforts by the BC Wildfire Service has greatly reduced our chances of being incinerated! The mandatory evacuation order (which we are JUST outside of) is still in place but has not been extended - and I think it is highly unlikely it will be. So odds are I won't have to skedaddle. In fact, things are looking so positive that I have unpacked my critical valuables (camera equipment and a selection of my Arcteryx clothing of course!) from my truck! ;-)

Thanks to all those who emailed me expressing their concerns.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

20 Aug '20: On the Cusp of an Emergency...

Just a heads-up to all-y'all to warn you that for the next week or so I may be hampered in my ability to update things on this blog and website. Why? I live in a mountainous and forested region of SE British Columbia, Canada and on Monday night we had a highly energetic thunder and lightning storm roll through. Unfortunately, on Tuesday a wildfire was found to the west of our place. By mid-day yesterday it was apparent (from the billowing orange smoke) that the fire had grown significantly, and last night an evacuation was ordered for our region. On the positive side we are JUST outside the evacuation zone and at least for NOW we don't have to leave. But that could change at any time.

Next website updates will include addition of the autofocus section to my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E review/field test. And within 10 days or so I should have my 70-200mm f2.8S (Z-mount) and can begin testing that against the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E (and a few other lenses).

Now back to pre-evacuation packing and preparation...cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

4 Aug '20: My Nikon Z9 Wishlist

6 August Update: I added a few comments to the "ERGONOMICS and CONTROLS" section below (about Z9 Customizability)

In 2019 Sony began selling its 2nd generation pro-level sports/action mirrorless camera - the A9 II. And, just last week Canon started delivery of its first flagship level mirrorless camera designed for a wide variety of professional uses (including sports/action) - the R5. While these two pro-level mirrorless cameras differ quite significantly in specifications (most notably in resolution with the A9 at 24 MP and the R5 at 45 MP), both models are clear statements that their makers KNOW that the future is mirrorless for all categories of users - from novices through to professionals.

So now it's Nikon turn to reveal what they have in mind for a flagship-level mirrorless sports/action camera, which I'll arbitrarily call the Z9 (and I have absolutely no clue if Nikon will use this name for the camera). But, to be clear, what I'm referring to is a D6-level camera designed for photographing sports/action, and wildlife.

Another point I want to be perfectly clear on - other than a small group of insiders at Nikon and possibly a few others sworn to secrecy, no one knows when the Z9 is coming. Some pundits have suggested we won't see it until 2024. I didn't agree with this timeline when I first heard it a few months back, and now that Canon has started delivering the R5 to the public I'll go even further - Nikon CAN'T wait until 2024 to release the Z9. If they do they'll be left in the dust.

Anyway...it seems to me that now is the right time to go out with my Z9 wishlist. Keep in mind this wishlist is coming from - and biased by - the head and typing fingers of a wildlife still photographer. So here's my list of the features most important for me in the coming(?) Nikon Z9:

1. Z9 Design Philosophy & Priorities

For me the most important thing in determining how the Z9 will turn out will be the head-space of those in charge of designing it. If I could control their minds I'd want them to keep a clear goal post in mind - design it to be the best possible still photography camera ever made for shooting sports, action and wildlife. Yep, video is real and hugely important to some (heck, I've been quietly immersing myself in it over the last month or so), but please keep the design priority of the Z9 on still photography. And by this I mean when it comes to thinking about general ergonomics, button placement, camera size, etc., think about what a still photographer wants FIRST! Here's a novel idea - maybe look at the D6 as a template to emulate (rather than re-inventiing the wheel)...when it comes to shooting stills of action and wildlife there's currently nothing better. Don't squander the years and years of thoughtful evolution behind the D6 by forgetting about it the first time someone from the marketing departments says "Hey...here's a thought...let's make it pocketable". ;-)

There are a LOT of ramifications of keeping this design philosophy in mind. Here's a few of them:

Make it ROBUST & NEAR BOMBPROOF! Durability and reliability have been the hallmarks of Nikon's flagships over multiple decades. Nikon...PLEASE don't forget this when designing the Z9. Most users of it will want it as robust as the D6. So if anyone tries to convince you it has to be as light as an iPhone - ignore 'em! And if this means the LCD must be fixed (non-tilting or rotating), or the camera has to be built with more expensive materials to keep the camera bombproof - so be it.

SIZE - NOT TOO SMALL: One of the great things about the D6 (and the cameras that led to it) is all the configurable and customizable buttons...AND how they are spaced apart so you don't mix them up when things get hot and heavy on the shooting front. Personally I'd rather have the Z9 closer to size to the D6 than to the Z6 or Z7. I don't have particularly big hands (yes, of course bigger than HIS hands) but good design includes intelligent spacing of the controls and the ability of use ALL your fingers to support the camera (and get to buttons).

WEIGHT: Almost the same comment as above...of course nobody wants an unnecessarily heavy camera, but make it as heavy as needed to give it the robustness a pro-level camera designed for outdoor use needs. And, don't forget that a LOT of users of the Z9 will have a collection of heavy lenses to shoot with it...and making it too light means the camera/lens system won't balance effectively when hand-holding the system with super-telephoto lenses.

ERGONOMICS and CONTROLS: Look again at the D6...both in terms of what buttons we want/need (in terms of number of Fn buttons, etc.) and how they are distributed. And, of course, keeping the ergonomics of the camera similar to that of the D6 means pro shooters will transition over to it smoothly (or shoot both without any "which camera is in my hands now?" issues). There really is no such thing as muscle-memory, but the concept is valid...don't make me THINK about control and button placement when I put down my D6 and pick up my Z9.

6 August Update: Besides providing us with the same number of customizable buttons as on the Z9, I do (of course) want the Z9 to be just as customizable as the D6. At one point I was considering adding "Please switch to User Settings from Shooting Banks" to my wish list. But after more use of my D6 I've got a different suggestion - just make a tweak to the D6's excellent "Recall Shooting Functions" button option. And the tweak I'd like to see is to allow more than one group/bank of Shooting Functions to be saved and recalled. SO...the intent would be that pressing one button on the camera (of the shooters choice) you'd call up ONE set of stored Shooting Functions - and a SECOND button could be customized to call up a SECOND set of stored shooting functions. In this way all those shooters who use Shooting Banks would have them left intact - and those liking the User Settings (of a ton of Nikon cameras, including the Z6 and Z7) would functionally have the same thing available to them with the multiple "banks" of stored shooting functions. So you'd have close to the equivalent of User Settings BUT they'd be in a more accessible (and FASTER to access) location.

VERTICAL CONTROLS: BUILT-IN OR "TACKED ON"? After owning and shooting every flagship since the F4 (yep, that's an F, not a D) and virtually every DX or FX semi-pro camera (like the D200, D300, D500, D850, etc.) I prefer vertical controls that are built into the body rather than tacked on via a battery grip. The ergonomics of built-in vertical controls are invariably a little better - and the camera has higher structural integrity if the "battery grip" and vertical controls are built in (one less point of failure). So my wish is definitely for built-in vertical controls that completely mirror the horizontal ones, including having a second "joystick" (vertical multi selector) and vertical command and sub-command dials, plus at least one vertical Fn button. In my view it makes sense to have the vertical controls added via a battery grip on the Z6s and Z7s, but not on the Z9.

CARD SLOTS/TYPES: This topic almost doesn't need discussion - it pretty much HAS to be CFexpress to get the burst sizes and frame rates that a sports/action camera needs. And, to avoid blowing up the heads of photography forum dwellers, it pretty much has to have two card slots. Kidding aside, while I really don't care if a camera has one or two slots, I appreciate that having two slots IS legitimately important to some other genres of photography (wedding photography, event photography, etc.) and having two slots doesn't bother me at all (and based on the comments I made above about camera size there should be no problem with having room for two of them on my dreamed-up version of the Z9). A final point on card slots: If Nikon does make the Z9 with two slots, please make them the SAME (so both being CFexpress).

BATTERY TYPE: I'm slotting this into this section largely because battery type can impact design. And my preference is for Nikon to keep using the LARGE style EN-EL18 battery type that's found on their DSLR flagships - along with their great capacity and their GREAT cold weather performance - on the Z9. Clearly you could ONLY use these batteries if the Z9 is quite large, and it WILL add to the camera's weight. But between the excellent performance of these batteries AND the convenience of the having your D6 (or D5, or D4s) using the same batteries as your Z9 (especially important when traveling) I will be VERY happy if the Z9 takes EN-EL18's. Unfortunately I don't think Nikon will do this - I expect a NEW battery type in the Z9...

2. Z9 Performance Attributes

So what are my expectations/wishes for how the Z9 will perform? Well...pretty much like a D6 BUT with the advantages bestowed on the camera by having no mirror, an EVF, and some inherent (but yet unexploited by Nikon) AF potential.

EVF Performance: In terms of the quality of the view though the Electronic ViewFinder (EVF) I have to admit I am happy with that of the Z7. Additionally, the exposure feedback you get through the existing Nikon Z's (in terms of EVF brightness mirroring scene brightness and helping to guide exposure decisions) is wonderful. However, Nikon has a lot of work to do on the behavior of its EVF when shooting high-speed bursts. Currently with the Z7 (or Z6) when you choose Continuous H (extended) and with the mechanical shutter enabled the view during the EVF during bursts is almost bizarre...like a jerky slow-frame rate video (and completely unacceptable for shooting fast-moving subjects, especially if you are panning with them). Go to Continuous H mode (using either the electronic or mechanical shutter) and you have significant black-out time that impacts on your ability to shoot fast-moving subjects. The duration of each "blackout" simply must be shortened. Note that I am not suggesting that Nikon must completely remove image blackout on the Z9 (when shooting with its electronic shutter) - after all, even though it is minimal, there is image black out on the D6 (and it's not even remotely problematic to shoot action with that camera). Some (including me) actually LIKE to have a feel for the "frames" being captured via the feedback associated with minor image blackout (as seen on the D6) - I find it somewhat unsettling to shoot in Continuous H (extended) mode with the electronic shutter enabled on the Z7 and have NO image blackout (I find myself wondering the whole time if ANYTHING is being captured). But, the image blackout time on the Z9 must be much better (= shorter and much less noticeable) than on the Z7 or Z6.

EVF/LCD Display Options: In general I would be quite happy to have the same display options on the EVF as on the Z9. Two improvements that I'd like to see would be a Depth of Field (DoF) readout (either total DoF or, better yet, DoF both in front of and behind the subject) AND an indicator that a TC is in use. The D6 does have a "TC-in-use" display visible through its optical viewfinder, but it works ONLY with the built-in TC of the Nikkor 180-400mm (you see a small TC in the lower right corner of the image if the built-in TC is engaged). I'd like to see that TC display on my Z9 whenever a TC is in use.

AUTOFOCUS Performance and Features: While there are some things the AF system of the Z6 and Z7 does better than any of Nikon's DSLR's (AF accuracy; ability to focus and focus-track virtually ANYWHERE in the viewfinder; removal of need for any AF tuning) and in general it is a very good AF system, it's lacking when it comes to shooting moderate-to-extreme action. I've already mentioned some deficiencies in the EVF behavior when shooting action, but even if you are able to keep the subject positioned where you want it with a Z6 or Z7 the camera is simply not able to keep up with a subject quickly moving directly at (or away) from you. In general, initial focusing and re-focusing speed has to be MUCH better in the Z9 than it is on the Z6 or Z7. If focus speed doesn't match that of the D6 then the camera will likely not be successful.

AF features? In the simplest terms I'd like to see the AF area modes of the Z9 match those of the D6 as closely as possible. So in AF-C mode we'd have single point area mode, several Dynamic Area modes (hopefully including one that is tightly clustered like the 9-point Dynamic Area mode of the D5 and D6), a standard Group Area mode, a host of customizable Group Area configurations (as on the D6), and a tracking mode that is as good or better than the 3D-tracking of the D6 but works over the entire viewfinder. So I'm not asking much! ;-)

Face and Eye Detection? While they are not important features for me, of course users will expect to see face and eye detection for humans and animals (and animals beyond cats and dogs please). On this note I am also asked why, as a wildlife photographer, I don't want animal eye detection. The answer is simple - when I am shooting any wildlife portraits (from bears to birds) - I almost never focus on the eye. Rather, because I want the tip of the nose to just behind the eye in focus (and because MOST wildlife have much longer "snouts" than humans), I invariably focus about 1/2 the way between the eye and the tip of the nose and rely on my experience to pick the right aperture and DoF to ensure both eye and nose are in focus. And I don't want to be fighting with an AF system that always goes to the eye.

Number, Spacing and Size of Focus Points? For me getting the number, spacing, and size of focus points right is more important than the "sexier" specs of eye and face detection. I've long said that I like focus points to be relatively small - and with small "jumps" between successive focus points. I personally find the focus points on the D500 - and the jumps between successive points - too large. The D5 - and the Z7 - have focus points that are almost identical in size (as seen through the viewfinder). And, one "toggle" of the point moves it a distance equivalent to the size of the point (so toggle it to the left and what was the left side of the point is now the right side of the adjacent point). What does this all mean? Well..for the Z9 I'd be fine with the Z7 standard in number of focus points (493) as well as the size of and spacing between focus points!

RESOLUTION? In my D6 wish list of 30 October 2019 (see it here) I argued that I wanted the D6 to have between 24 and 30 MP. Nikon didn't deliver that - instead they came back with the SAME resolution as on the D5. Their official rational for this wasn't so they could re-use the same image sensor as the D5, but rather that it was the "optimal compromise" between camera speed (including burst depths) and image/file size (with the implication that 20 MP is enough for sports/action/wildlife shooters). You know, with the 45 MP Canon R5 delivering up to 200 shots per burst at its highest mechanical speed (12 fps) while using the same CFexpress cards as the Nikon D6 (and presumably the Z9) I simply don't buy Nikon's public rationale for sticking with 20 MP on the D6. And, I WANT the Z9 to be in the 24-30 MP range (preferably closer to 30 MP). And, based on what we have seen with the Nikon Z6, it should be able to do this with comparable ISO performance to that of the D6.

ISO PERFORMANCE? Just match the D6 (and thus the D5) and I would be happy. Even if the Z9 jumps to 30 MP this should be possible given the technology advances since the D5 was introduced.

IBIS (In Body Image Stabilization)? Of course. We got 5-axis and 5 stops (when using Z-mount lenses) with the Z7 and the Canon R5 just upped the ante by going to 8 stops of image stabilization. So the Z9 should be at 8 stops with Z lenses. And it would be GREAT if we had 4-5 stops of image stabilization on F-mount lenses, especially given it will be years before the professional level super-telephoto lenses will be available in the Z-mount.

FRAME RATE and BURST DEPTH? This one is easy - 12-14 fps in mechanical shutter mode, 20 fps in electronic shutter mode. My experience is that at higher rates you can spend too many winters doing nothing but image culling! Burst Depth? Anything over 100 frames works for me (and I almost NEVER need 100 frames per burst beyond when I am testing AF systems).

VIDEO? I'm not in any way against video, but I don't think you can design a mirrorless camera to be the BEST at shooting stills AND the BEST at shooting video. So make the Z9 the best camera ever for shooting stills of sports/action/wildlife - and make ANOTHER mirrorless camera (the 61 MP Z7s?) the BEST for shooting video. For the Z9 4K video is enough...leave 8K for the Z7s. Personally I think the video features of the Z7 are good enough to "port over" to the Z9. I have been recently spending time in a self-directed crash course on "all things video" (and I'm using my Z7 for that) and the video features of the Z7 are already pretty mind-boggling.

I know it could be argued that I am asking Nikon to produce a D6 but without a mirror and with an EVF. Yep, guilty as charged - and what's wrong with that? There are some inherent advantages of a mirrorless camera over a DSLR. The features making a mirrorless camera "better" are those associated with the real advantages of the EVF and (at least for now) the potential superiority of a mirrorless AF system. Being "smaller and lighter" isn't necessarily something that will make a sports/action/wildlife mirrorless perform better in the field, especially if ergonomics, customizability, and durability all take a hit. At this point in time - and with existing mirrorless models - Nikon has taken good advantage of what an EVF can offer a shooter, but they haven't leveraged the potential AF capabilities a mirrorless camera CAN HAVE. Yes, we can focus anywhere on the viewfinder, we have amazing focus accuracy, we have no need to focus tune lenses. But we we can't focus (or focus track) with the SPEED of a high-end DSLR. As soon as Nikon can bring DSLR focusing speed to the table - as they SHOULD on the Z9 - well I'd stand in line for that camera!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog_2020_all.html#Z9_WishList

29 July '20: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review: Optical Stabilization and "Hand-holdability"

I have just updated my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E field test and review by adding a new section on Optical Stabilization and "Hand-holdability".

Here's where to go for the review and/or to check out the new information:

Start at the beginning of the review
Jump directly to the Optical Stabilization and "Hand-holdability" section

Here's the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: of the optical stabilization and "Hand-holdability" section:

The two lenses that allowed me to consistently obtain sharp hand-held shots (with ALL shots in the burst sharp) at extremely slow shutter speeds were the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. With these two lenses the VR Normal mode DEFINITELY permitted the use of slower shutter speeds than the VR Sport mode. While VR Sport mode didn't allow me to use the extremely slow shutter speeds that VR Normal did, it was the best mode to use when shooting bursts that required "stability" of images shot in a high-speed burst (as viewed through the viewfinder OR in the final image).

The Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 - when shot in OS1 mode - also provided very good overall performance. While the consistency of getting sharp shots in a burst at extremely slow shutter speeds didn't quite match the two Nikkor zooms, if we relaxed the standards to "at least ONE shot sharp in a burst" or "at least ONE keeper in a burst" (and not all 3 shots in the burst), then the Sigma Sport performed very well. And, in OS1 mode it also produced a high degree of stability in subject position in the viewfinder (and on the image sensor), i.e., it had a low HJ Factor in OS1 mode.

The smallest and lightest lens in the test was the Nikkor 300mm f4D - and it has NO VR/OS system at all. And, I needed to shoot hand-held shots at much higher shutter speeds with this lens (than the bigger/heavier lenses with VR/OS systems) to consistently get sharp shots. Additionally, I had to use quite high shutter speeds to get only 1 sharp shot per burst...or even to just capture keepers. The performance of this lens in this portion of my testing clearly illustrates that VR systems WORK and can MORE than offset lens weight when it comes to the "hand-holdability" of a lens.

Coming next...autofocus performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E (compared to several rival lenses). Stay tuned...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

22 July '20: A Few Thoughts on Nikon's Latest Z Series Product Introductions...

Yesterday Nikon introduced a few new key products to their growing mirrorless Z Series - a new entry level full-frame mirrorless body called the Z5, a new 24-50mm f4-6.3 kit lens, and two new Z-mount teleconverters - the Z Teleconverter TC-2.0x and the Z Teleconverter TC-1.4x. I won't regurgitate all the detailed specs of the new products (check out places like nikonrumors.com, dpreview.com, or any of Nikon's websites for those), but I will offer a few thoughts about the new camera and teleconverters (and I'll skip the new kit lens!).

1. The Nikon Z5

The Z5 features a 24.3 MP full frame sensor and at a quick glance (at the camera or at the specs) it seems very similar to the Z6. In Canada the body comes in about $700 CAD lower in price than the Z6. I suspect it will be well-received and sell quite well.

How do the Z5 and Z6 differ? Here are a few of the most significant differences:

Frame Rate: Z6 = 12 fps, Z5 = 4.5 fps

Card Type: Z6 = ONE CFexpress or XQD card; Z5 = two SD cards

Image Sensors: Z6 = 24.5 MP BSI sensor; Z5 = 24.3 MP CMOS sensor

Autofocus: Same feature set (including dog, cat, human eye-detection), but Z6 detection range from -3.5 to +19 EV vs. Z5 range of -2 to +19 EV (both ranges are WITHOUT invoking low-light AF feature)

Video: Definitely more professional level features are available on the Z6.

From my perspective the Z6 specs out as a somewhat better wildlife camera - and this is largely owing to its higher frame rate, better low-light AF performance, and likely somewhat better low-light ISO performance (owing to its BSI sensor). Which means if one is looking for a mirrorless Nikon wildlife camera I'd recommend taking the extra $700 CAD hit and go for the Z6. For many other photography genres the Z5 would likely do a steller job.

Will I be buying and testing a Z5? No. At this point I am sticking with DSLR's in the sub-30 MP resolution range. I'm prepared to wait until Nikon has a pro-level action/wildlife mirrorless camera (with D5/D6 AF capabilities) before going mirrorless in the "moderate" (30 MP or less) resolution range. But that doesn't mean that in the high-resolution zone (i.e., 45+ MP) I won't leap on a "new and improved" Z7 (Z7s? Z8?) if/when Nikon introduces one.

2. The Z Teleconverters

Based on how well the Z-mount lenses perform, I am expecting that the Z Teleconverters will offer excellent performance. Of course, in the short-term their usefulness will be limited by the number of compatible lenses with which they can be used (and unless I am missing something, the current number of available compatible lenses is zero). According to Nikon's 21 July press release the Z Teleconverters will begin shipping in late August...so one has to assume it is LIKELY that the only Z-mount lens that is listed as compatible with these new teleconverters (i.e., the 70-200mm f2.8S) will begin shipping around the same time.

Will I be buying and testing a Z Teleconverter? Yes, I have already put my order in for a Z Teleconverter TC-1.4x and will be testing its performance on the 70-200mm f2.8S (vs. the TC-14EIII on the 70-200mm f2.8E). I think unbiased information how these two competing lens/TC's combinations perform will be of value to many users. Based on what I learn through testing the Z Teleconverter TC-1.4x I may later purchase the 2x version.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

22 July '20: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review: Performance with the TC-20EIII (2x) Teleconverter

I have just updated my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E field test and review by adding two new sections - Optical Performance with the TC-20EIII (2x) Teleconverter and a section called "Discussion: Using teleconverters with the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E" (this is a more general discussion of how the 120-300's TC performance increases the lenses versatility as a wildlife lens).

Here's where to go for the review and/or to check out the new bits:

Start at the beginning of the review
Jump directly to the Optical Performance with the TC-20EIII (2x) Teleconverter section
Jump directly to "Discussion: Using teleconverters with the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E"

Here's the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: of the optical performance of the 120-300mm plus TC-20EIII combination:

At 500mm the optical performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-20EIII varied with the distance to subject. At the closest distance (8.6m) the 120-300 plus 2x TC was not too sharp - in fact it placed last in sharpness of all the lenses tested. It did place first in bokeh quality. However, at 30m (the mid-distance to subject) trailed the sharpness of the Nikkor 180-400mm (with its TC-engaged) by only an extremely small amount (so small that the difference could easily be negated by sharpening during post-processing). At 30m the 120-300 plus 2x TC was sharper and had better bokeh than the Sigma Sport 150-600mm.

At 560mm the optical performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-20EIII was considerably stronger optically and it did NOT vary with distance to subject. The Nikkor 180-400mm was very slightly sharper (only noticeable when engaged in extreme pixel-peeping) at only f5.6 and f6.3 - at smaller apertures the two lens/TC combinations were indistinguishable in sharpness (and both were considerably sharper than the Sigma Sport 150-600mm). The 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-20EIII had the best bokeh at 560mm.

At 600mm the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-20EIII was considerably sharper and had better bokeh than the Sigma Sport 150-600mm (at all overlapping apertures). In absolute terms the test images of the Nikkor 120-300mm plus TC-20EIII shot at 600mm were extremely sharp.

And, for those debating the purchase of this high-priced, high-performance lens, here's the most critical paragraph from the discussion on using teleconverters with the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E:

"In my view the superlative performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E when paired with TC's dramatically increases the value of this lens for wildlife photography. For me it has shifted the lens from a "speciality" lens for low light and/or animalscape shooting to what I currently think of as my most versatile wildlife lens (even more versatile than the excellent 180-400mm f4E)."

Coming next...optical stabilization and "hand-holdability" of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E (compared to several rival lenses). Stay tuned...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

20 July '20: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review: Performance with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) Teleconverter

I have just updated my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E field test and review by adding the fourth major section on its optical performance - Optical Performance with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) Teleconverter.

Here's where to go:

Start at the beginning of the review
Jump directly to the Optical Performance with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) Teleconverter section

And for those seeking "just the facts"...here's the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:

At 420mm the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII combination performed superbly - over all 4 test distances and all apertures (and when factoring in central region sharpness, edge sharpness, and bokeh) it wracked up more first-place rankings than another other 420mm "solution" - and by a wide margin. As an example, at the closest test distance NO OTHER lens (or lens/TC combination) matched it in central region sharpness until all lenses were stopped down to f8. The single lens that came closest to matching it overall at 420mm was the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII. Here's how the lenses stacked up in 1st place rankings (or tied for first place) in the critical f4 to f8 range:

• 40 first/tied for first rankings: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII
• 6 first/tied for first rankings: Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus Sigma TC-1401
• 31 first/tied for first rankings: Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII plus TC-14EIII
• 12 first/tied for first rankings: Nikkor 300mm f4D plus TC-14EII
• 16 first/tied for first rankings: Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with built-in 1.4x TC engaged
• 3 first/tied for first rankings: Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 shot native.

At 400mm the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII combination and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E shot without its built-in TC engaged battled to what was essentially a draw. There were TWO instances (over all distances and apertures tested) where the Nikkor 180-400mm was very slightly sharper (only noticeable when engaged in extreme pixel-peeping) - and that was at the closest test distance and f4 and f4.5 only. But there a total of 10 instances where the bokeh of the 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII was slightly (but noticeably) better than that of the 180-400mm f4E. In practical, real world terms you can shoot either of these lenses at 400mm at any aperture or distance and get results that are stellar (and virtually indistinguishable).

I can not overstate how well the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E performs when combined with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) TC - its ability to match Nikon's best primes extends to cases where you are using it combined with the 1.4x TC. This increases the versatility of the lens for wildlife photographers immensely.

Coming next...optical performance with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverters. Featuring the Nikkor 120-300mm plus the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter against some worthy competitors! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

14 July 2020: Welcoming Western Canadians: New Late Summer Marine Mammals Photo Tour!


Marine Mammals 2020

22 JULY UPDATE: THIS SPECIAL PHOTO TOUR HAS NOW BEEN ABORTED.

EDITORIAL COMMENT: Canada - and BC in particular - has been very successful in controlling the spread of COVID-19 and "flattening" its growth curve. However, in the last week there has been a small but consistent increase in daily new case rates across Canada and in BC. This uptick in numbers is consistent with the increases expected with the relaxing of restrictions on movement and travel associated with BC's Restart Plan (and was predicted). However, I am not comfortable with encouraging intra- and inter-provincial travel at this time. Consequently - and in the big picture - I am not displeased that this photo tour in now officially aborted.

If you're a keen wildlife photographer who resides in western Canada* and you're just DYING to get out and actually DO some wildlife photography...well...have we got the photo tour for you! We've just added a new photo tour for late August that features the best marine mammals viewing and photography you'll find anywhere. We've built this trip from the ground up to meet and exceed all provincial and federal COVID-19 mitigation measures AND to provide you with unmatched opportunities to capture stunning images of Humpback Whales, Killer Whales, Steller Sea Lions, Sea Otters, and a whole lot more. This is the photo tour where I've captured my most memorable marine mammal images, many of which are currently viewable in my Marine Mammals Gallery.

Here are the bare bones details about the newly added photo tour:

• PHOTO TOUR NAME: "Marine Mammals of the Central Pacific Coast Photo Op Photo Tour - the SPECIAL COVID-19 Edition!
• PHOTO TOUR TYPE: Photo Op Photo Tour.
• PHOTO TOUR LEADER: Brad Hill
• DURATION: 9 DAYS (including arrival and departure days), including 7 full days aboard the Ocean Light II sailboat (a 71-foot ocean ketch).
• DATES: August 29 - September 6, 2020 including arrival and departure days. Evening of August 29 through to the morning of August 6 aboard the Ocean Light II.
• NUMBER OF PARTICIPANTS: Limited to 4 (our normal capacity is 6 guests, but this has been reduced to 4 to ensure our ability to conform to social distancing protocols).
• CURRENT NUMBER OF AVAILABLE SPOTS: 3.
• COST: $5999 CAD plus 5% GST.

Here's where to go for more info:

RIGHT HERE on the photo tours page of this website or...
• Just download THIS BROCHURE (PDF: 3.7 MB)

For this trip we've taken just a ton of steps to minimize the risk of coronavirus exposure, including reducing the number of guests who can participate (to facilitate social distancing), modified our payment and cancellation policies so that even if you have to pull out the day before the trip because you've developed a case of the sniffles you can do so and receive a FULL refund of all funds paid, and a whole lot more. To see an overview of ALL the coronavirus mitigation measures taken by Ocean Light II Adventures (our partner in providing this experience), just download this this PDF.

If you're interested in joining in on this excellent adventure just contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca to start the ball rolling!

Cheers...

Brad

*Our apologies are extended to our past and future international guests for excluding them from participation in this photo tour. There is a currently a prohibition on Americans entering Canada for the purpose of tourism that will expire no earlier than August 21 (and, given the situation in the USA, it is generally believed it will be extended for the remainder of 2020). It is possible that visitors from selected other countries may be permitted to enter Canada before this trip begins, but they will undoubtedly be subject to a mandatory 14-day period of quarantine upon entry, thus making it impractical to participate in this trip.

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

13 July 2020: OUCH! Our 3 Summer/Autumn Great Bear Rainforest Photo Tours Quashed!

Despite our best efforts - and those of our "partners in photo tour crime" - we recently received word that several of BC's Coastal First Nations have closed their territories to commercial tourism for the remainder of 2020. We need access to these territories for all of our summer and autumn Great Bear Rainforest photo tours. Which means that our 3 Great Bear Rainforest photo tours for this coming August, September, and October are no more. Bummer. For the record, I fully understand why remote communities on BC's coast (with very limited health care resources) would want to minimize contact with "outsiders" right now.

SO...does that mean that ALL our photo tours for 2020 are now history? Not quite...we've got some more tricks up our sleeve! If you happen to reside in western Canada and are looking for a most excellent adventure - and un-matched photo ops of Humpback Whales, Killer Whales, Steller Sea Lions, Sea Otters, and more with spectacular backdrops - we MAY just have what you're looking for. Just check out our "Marine Mammals of the Central Pacific Coast Photo Op Photo Tour - the SPECIAL COVID-19 Edition!".

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

5 July 2020: 2020 Marine Mammals Photo Tour Bites the Dust!

The global COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact on our 2020 photo tour schedule - we just officially pulled the plug on our 2020 "Marine Mammals of the Central Pacific Coast" photo tour. In this particular case the trip wasn't suspended by a public health order associated with physical distancing, but simply because ALL the guests on the trip were coming from outside of Canada to participate and, owing to strict travel restrictions preventing ANYONE from outside Canada entering the country for the purpose of tourism, none of them could get to the trip start point! Ouch.

On the positive side, the suspended photo tours and travel restrictions have forced me to hunker down in my mountain "fortress of solitude" and spend some quality time with the local wildlife residing around my house (something I have wanted to do for a few years). And I'm catching up on a LOT of gear testing, image organization and culling, and even digging into my massive backlog of images awaiting some post-processing TLC. Heck, if this keeps up I may even find the time to set-up and begin offering online post-processing tutoring that so many have been asking me to do for years! ;-)

And...I am determined to keep adding new images (and commentaries) to my Gallery of Latest Additions. On that note, the latest entry there is a great example of the type of quality you can get out of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E paired up with the Nikkor TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter...check it out if you have a minute!

Cheers...

Brad

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30 June 2020: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review Update: Optical Performance @ 120mm

I have just updated my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E field test and review by adding the third major section on its optical performance - Optical Performance @ 120mm. I also added a short section following the performance at 120mm entitled "DISCUSSION: OPTICAL PERFORMANCE FROM 120mm to 300mm" that sums up the results of all my optical testing from 120-300mm.

Here's where to go:

Start at the beginning of the review
Jump directly to the Optical Performance at 120mm section
Jump directly to the DISCUSSION: OPTICAL PERFORMANCE FROM 120mm to 300mm section

And for those just wanting the "bare bones" info...here's the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:

At 120mm - and when considering center sharpness, edge sharpness, and bokeh over a variety of distances and a range of apertures - TWO lenses tested out very strongly: the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E and the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8. Both of these lenses produced exceptionally high quality images at 120mm. The highly regarded Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E also tested out very well in terms of image sharpness (both central and on the edges) but - and to my surprise - competed poorly against the two 120-300mm f2.8 lenses in bokeh quality.

Is there ONE lens of the group that you could select in virtually any photographic situation at 120mm - from portraits to landscapes - and know that you are making no compromises in image quality? Yes...the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E. The only very minor "weakness" of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E that I could find at 120mm is that from f2.8 to f3.5 at mid-distances (12m and 24m) it placed JUST behind the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E in central region sharpness. At all other test distance and aperture combinations it placed first or tied for first in both central and edge sharpness.

Coming next...optical performance with teleconverters. Featuring the Nikkor 120-300mm plus TC-14EIII (1.4x) and the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverters against some worthy competitors! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

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23 June 2020: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review Update: Optical Performance @ 200mm

I have just updated my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E field test and review by adding the second major section on its optical performance - Optical Performance @ 200mm. Here's where to go:

Start at the beginning of the review
Jump directly to the Optical Performance at 200mm section

And for those just wanting the "bare bones" facts...here's the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:

At 200mm - and when considering center sharpness, edge sharpness, and bokeh over a variety of distances and a range of apertures - FOUR lenses tested out quite strongly: the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E, the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8, the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E, and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. All produced professional quality output at all test distances and without careful scrutiny it was tough to separate out the performance of these four lenses.

However, when the images from the tests were examined closely, two lenses stood out above the others in the consistency of their performance. They were close to flawless and showed only the most trivial of weaknesses - these lenses were the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Both exhibited full Aperture Independent Sharpness (maximum sharpness in the central region from wide open through to f8) at all distances. At all distances and for every aperture tested these two lenses were ranked (and were tied) for first in sharpness (but note that at a few distance/aperture combinations other lenses joined them in the tie for first in sharpness). The only "weakness" of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E was in the quality of its bokeh at close distance in the f4.5 through to f8 range - here the Nikkor 180-400 f4E slightly beat it out (but note that the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E still beat all the other lenses in bokeh at this distance). The only "weakness" of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E was in edge sharpness at long distance in the aperture range of f4.5 to f5.6 - here it placed second to the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E (but it still beat all other lenses in the test in these instances).

Is it possible to declare a "winner" at 200mm? Probably not. But my own preference is for the Nikkor 120-300mm over the 180-400mm simply because it has the larger aperture of f2.8 and at a 200mm having the f2.8 aperture is important to me. Note that of the 3 lenses in this test with an f2.8 aperture (the Nikkor 120-300, the Sigma 120-300, and the Nikkor 70-200) the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E consistently had the best center AND edge sharpness and the best bokeh in the f2.8 to f3.5 range.

Coming next...optical performance at 120mm. Featuring the Nikkor 120-300mm against these 3 lenses...

• Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8
• Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E
• Nikkor 70-200mm f4G

Cheers...

Brad

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22 June 2020: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review REVISION: Optical Performance @ 300mm

I have just REVISED the section of my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review that covers optical performance at 300mm. What did I change? I ADDED a section to the results where I discuss the relative performance of EACH lens tested at 300mm - this section is called "3. SOME LENS-SPECIFIC OPTICAL PERFORMANCE COMMENTS". I think it's a good addition in that it gives context and relevance to the merits of each lens tested at 300mm. I will keep this section in for the upcoming sections on optical performance at 200mm and at 120mm.

Here's the key links to get you to the review or directly to the section on optical performance (where you'll find the new section described above):

Start at the beginning of the review
Jump directly to the Optical Performance section

Cheers...

Brad

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19 June 2020: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review Update: Optical Performance @ 300mm

I have just updated my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E field test and review by adding the first major section on its optical performance - Optical Performance @ 300mm. Here's where to go:

Start at the beginning of the review
Jump directly to the Optical Performance section

And for those just wanting the skinny on the optical performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E at 300mm against 5 other very credible challengers...here's the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:

At a 300mm focal length - and over all test distances - the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E showed the strongest overall optical performance of all six lenses tested. At close and mid-distances (4.25m, 12m, 24m) the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E consistently ranked first in sharpness. The Nikkor 300mm f2.8G did tie it in sharpness in a number of instances, but never in the f2.8 to f3.5 aperture range. The Nikkor 180-400mm f4E also tied the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E in sharpness at overlapping apertures, but never beat it. At long distance 3 Nikkor lenses were in a virtual dead-heat for both center and edge sharpness - those lenses were the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E, the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G, and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. At long distance the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 did very well in central region sharpness (tying the other 3 lenses), but edges were softer than the other 3 lenses at all apertures.

In terms of the quality of the OOF zones (i.e., the bokeh) two lenses were clearly superior to all others and were tied with each other - those lenses were the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G. The Nikkor 180-400mm f4E exhibited the next best bokeh, followed by the Nikkor 300mm f4D. Both Sigma lenses exhibited significant focus breathing, especially at the closest test distance. This focus breathing had a very negative impact on the bokeh of the two Sigma lenses at the closest test distance (4.25m) and a significantly negative impact on the bokeh at the mid-distance tests (i.e., at 12 and 24m).

So...when all apertures were considered, the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E clearly ranked first in sharpness (central region), was in a dead-heat with the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G in bokeh, and tied the other two top Nikkors in edge-sharpness. Ergo...when it comes to optical performance at 300mm the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E wins. Period.

Coming next...optical performance at 200mm. Featuring the Nikkor 120-300mm against these 5 lenses...

• Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8
• Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E
• Nikkor 70-200mm f4G
• Nikkor 180-400mm f4E
• Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3

Cheers...

Brad

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13 June 2020: New Images...Using the 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-20EIII (2x) Teleconverter

I have just posted my first few shots captured using the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter. When I planned and then began my testing of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E I knew I would be including its performance with the 1.4x teleconverter. But I had no plans whatsover to test it paired up with the 2x teleconverter (and I didn't even own one anymore). However, based on how well the 120-300mm and the 1.4x teleconverter worked together I figured I just HAD to try the lens with the 2x TC. And I can already say it was well worth the effort (and the cost of a new 2x TC).

You can view the shots in my Gallery of Latest Additions - they're the Bighorn Sheep shots and currently they're the first two shots in that gallery. Both were captured at the lens's maximum focal length (so 600mm with the TC factored in) and both with my D6 body. Check 'em out if you have a second...

If you haven't poked around any of my image galleries before you should be aware that each image is accompanied by a slew of contextual information. To access the info, just click on the tabs (with the headings "In the Field", "Behind the Camera", etc.) that are found just below the main image window.

Cheers...

Brad

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11 June 2020: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review: Now Open!

I have just posted the few first sections of my official Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Field Test & Review. I am writing the review incrementally - new sections will appear regularly over the next weeks until the review is done. I will be post alerts right here on my blog whenever new or revised content is added to the review.

At this point the review includes its Introduction and a section on Physical Characteristics.

Next up is the critical section on Optical Performance (when shot native, i.e., without teleconverters) where I compare the optical performance of the 120-300mm f2.8E to a slew of other lenses (at multiple focal lengths and distances). First up in that section will be optical performance at 300mm. At 300mm I compare the Nikkor 300mm f2.8E f2.8E against the following lenses:

Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8
Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII
Nikkor 300mm f4D
Nikkor 180-400mm f2.8E (at 300mm of course)
Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 (again at 300mm)

My goal is to have the Optical Performance @ 300mm section posted by this time next week (baring a pandemic or anything crazy like that).

Here's the permanent location for the review: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Field Test & Review

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. Cheers...

Brad

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8 June 2020: A Few High ISO D6 Images...

In my May 26th blog post (immediately below) I stated that there "...is no improvement in ISO performance of the D6 (based solely on the amount of visible noise present in RAW images at various ISO settings) compared to the D5". That statement was based on some controlled field tests and I am sticking by the statement. However, based on some email I have been getting it would appear that some are thinking that my comments mean that the D6 is a bit of "slouch" when it comes to high ISO shooting. Nothing could be further from the truth...the D5 was already an amazing high ISO camera and the D6 carries that performance forward.

Because several factors influence the visual impact of noise an image (including how much resolution-reduction you perform on the image, the scene type, etc.) - AND because everyone has a different standard as to the amount of noise acceptable in an image - I won't even try to answer the question of "how high of an ISO can the D6 actually be shot at and still produce acceptable images?". I WILL say that if a photographer has good post-processing skills, including knowing how to use selective noise reduction techniques, they should be able to get better results if they shoot RAW images than if they shoot JPEG's. And...RAW shooters should know that not all noise reduction software is created equal!

So here's a few images of some of my neighbours to illustrate these points (I'm under travel restrictions myself, so going with the local critters). Note that the images are FULL FRAME images but have been reduced to 2400 pixels (from the 5568 pixel native resolution on the D6) on the long axis. This reduction in resolution will have made SOME of the noise in the image less visible - if the were shown at full resolution you would see more noise...if they were reduced even more in resolution you would see less noise. And, don't worry...you will see full-resolution samples in my coming D6 review.

1. D6 @ ISO 12,800 (Dusky Grouse Hooting Before Sunrise). Note that this image was captured as a RAW file and I "played with" 3 different methodologies for noise reduction (NR) on these shots: A) Using ONLY selective NR in Capture One Pro 20.1; B) using the DEFAULT NR in Capture One Pro (applied non-selectively) PLUS Topaz DeNoise (Vers. 2.2.2); C) using no NR in Capture One Pro and relying fully on the NR in Topaz DeNoise:

Sample 1: Selective NR using ONLY Capture One Pro - Download 2400 pixel image
Sample 2: DEFAULT NR in Capture One Pro PLUS Topaz DeNoise - Download 2400 pixel image
Sample 3: Processed with Capture One Pro but all NR using Topaz DeNoise - Download 2400 pixel image

2. D6 @ ISO 25,600 (Momma Griz @ Dawn). Note that this image was simultaneously captured both as a RAW file and a JPEG Fine* file. With the exception of the resolution reduction, the JPEG is exactly as it came out of the camera (with the following settings: Auto Picture Control, High ISO NR set to Low [I hate the detail-free waxy look!], and white balance set to "Natural Light Auto"). The RAW file was adjusted/processed in Capture One Pro 20.1 but ALL NR was performed using Topaz DeNoise.

Sample 1: Processed with Capture One Pro but all NR using Topaz DeNoise - Download 2400 pixel image
Sample 2: In-camera D6 JPEG - Download 2400 pixel image

I am already developing my own post-processing "rules of thumb" for D6 raw file processing and I am finding when it comes to noise reduction my rules are pretty much the same as they were with my D5. When it comes to noise reduction, my own preference is to use selective noise reduction (using Capture One Pro's tools) in the ISO 6400 to ABOUT ISO 10,000 range, use a combination of selective noise reduction PLUS DeNoise for images shot at or just above ISO 12,800, and Topaz DeNoise ONLY on images shot at ISO 25,600 and above (and it's not like I shoot many shots at ISO 12,800, let alone at ISO 25,600 and above). Note that these are just guidelines developed from my OWN post-processing and they may not suit the taste of others.

But there is a take-home lesson here. Even if you're quite anal about image quality and image noise, RAW shooters who are comfortable using some of the latest noise reduction software and post-processing techniques can get away with shooting at some pretty crazy ISO's with the Nikon D6 (or, for that matter, the D5) and still get some pretty great results.

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. Cheers...

Brad

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26 May 2020: The Nikon D6: My Earliest Impressions and Observations...

Ok...as mentioned in my last blog entry I took delivery of my D6 on Saturday (the 23rd) and have been jamming in as much shooting, evaluation of images captured with it, and "playing" with it as possible since it landed in my hands. I will be thoroughly field-testing the D6 (against the D5 and a few other Nikon cameras) and be producing a detailed review on it. Today's entry represents only my very earliest impressions and some "factual" observations about the D6 that are mostly devoid of opinion or value judgments. It's based on about 3,000 images I have captured with the D6, both while just shooting with it and while comparing it head-to-head against the Nikon D5.

First...my earliest impressions and gut-feelings about the D6:

1. It's Mostly About the Autofocus!

While a LOT of things on the D6 differ from the D5, it's my view that by far the biggest story of the D6 is the new autofocus (AF) system, not its ISO performance. Most shooters who've owned one of many of Nikon's previous generations of DSLR's (e.g., the D750, any D800-series camera, the D500, the D5) will recognize the core AF features (AF-S vs. AF-C; multiple AF area modes like single point, group area, various dynamic area modes, etc.), but there are a large number of new twists or new customizations available within the AF system. Think of the D6 as building upon - and refining - the already excellent AF system of the D5 and you'd be on the right track. So besides having a higher number of selectable focus points, we now have more AF area modes, more focus points that employ cross-type sensors, better low light performance (all focus points operable to -4 EV; central focus point operable to -4.5 EV), and more usable focus points when teleconverters are in use.

2. But It's Also About Customization Improvements.

In my view the second biggest story about the D6 is the improvement in how much you can customize the camera, including offering some tweaks to customization options and some new options that we've not seen before. As one example only you can customize one of many buttons to activate "Recall Shooting Functions" when pressed, AND (most importantly), the shooting functions that can be saved and instantly recalled includes a LOT more things than on the D5, including the autofocus area mode that you want to recall. I'll say more about this new function (and explain it better!) below...but suffice to say for now that it's become a feature that's definitely worth using.

3. Sports Shooters Will Benefit the MOST from the Upgrade.

Between the improvements to the quality of the in-camera JPEG's - and the D6 JPEG's ARE really, really good, even when using the default setting - and those associated with a JPEG workflow (such as improved features associated with wireless transmission of your JPEG images) I suspect that pro sports shooters will find more to like about the D6 than will most wildlife shooters (the vast majority of which shoot RAW images only and use a RAW workflow). And, unless the wildlife photographer in question REALLY pushes the limits of the AF system of a D5 (such as shooting swallows in flight in very low light and with a teleconverter on their camera), I suspect the improvements in AF performance of the D6 will tend to be beyond what the "average" wildlife photographer (if such a thing exists!) will appreciate and/or need. That doesn't mean that some of the improvements in the D6 won't be appreciated by many wildlife photographers (the ability to focus in extremely low light at sunrise or sunset instantly come to mind) - I simply mean that sports photographers have a longer list of things to like about the D6 than wildlife photographers do.

Second...here's an unranked top 11 laundry list of observations and tidbits I have noticed - or already learned - about the D6:

1. It's Heavier than the D5.

The bare-bones D6 (no battery, no memory cards, no caps) comes in very slightly heavier than the bare-bones D5. How much? About 32 grams, which is slightly more than an ounce. On my scales the D5 comes in at 1235 gm (2 lb, 11.6 oz) and the D6 at 1267 gm (2 lb, 12.7 oz). It's not much, but I suspect most were hoping for lighter rather than heavier! ;-)

2. Maximum Frame Rate:

The maximum frame-rate of the D6 when shooting through the optical viewfinder and with full AE and AF is 14 fps, while that of the D5 is 12 fps. And it is noticeable in the field. And...there are three important and related "correlates" to his (next three points below).

3. Image Black-out Time:

The D5 had an amazingly short black-out time when shooting at high frame rates - the black-out time of the D6 is noticeably BETTER (shorter). It's great and now you see your subject even better in a high-speed burst.

4. Reduced Viewfinder Vibration/or "Jerkiness":

The D5 introduced a new mirror-driving mechanism that meant that the image in the viewfinder during burst shooting was remarkably smooth (compared to a D4s and older flagships). And, with the D6, Nikon has re-designed the mirror-driving mechanism again and the vibration of the image in the viewfinder is reduced further again, making the image even MORE stable during burst shooting than with the D5. This increase in image stability IS noticeable in the field, particularly if you are shooting with a lens with VR Sport mode. Shoot a 93-shot burst of a moose's snout and the focus point of the last shot is in the EXACT same place as the first shot! Why anyone would want to shot 93 frames of a moose's snout is a different question (are you reading this Joan?). I know this sounds like a little thing, but it's something I really liked about the D5 and I like even more about the D6.

5. Reduced Burst Depths:

Here's something that surprised to me (and I haven't sussed out why yet), but the burst depth (= number of shots that can be captured at the camera's highest frame rate BEFORE slowing down) of the D6 is somewhat lower than that of the D5 when shooting RAW images. And, this is despite me using a much faster memory card (CFexpress vs. XQD) on my D6 than on my D5. Note that this difference in burst depth exists regardless of the bit depth of your RAWs AND the frame rate you shoot at (i.e., turn the maximum frame rate of the D6 down to 12 frames per second and the burst depth improves SOME, but the D5 burst depth is still higher). Here's a few examples:

• D5 at 12 fps: 14-bit RAW files with 440 MB/s XQD card = 200 frames per burst
• D6 at 14 fps: 14-bit RAW files with 1700 MB/s CFexpress card = 126 frames per burst
• D6 at 14 fps: 14-bit RAW files with 440 MB/s XQD card = 93 frames per burst

• D6 at 12 fps: 14-bit RAW files with 1700 MB/s CFexpress card = 172 frames per burst
• D6 at 12 fps: 14-bit RAW files with 440 MB/s XQD card = 146 frames per burst

• D5 at 12 fps: 12-bit RAW files with 440 MB/s XQD card = 200 frames per burst
• D6 at 14 fps: 12-bit RAW files with 1700 MB/s CFexpress card = 154 frames per burst

Of course, the germane question here is obvious: Do you care? Like how often do you shoot a single burst of even 50 shots, let alone over 100? If you absolutely MUST shoot bursts of 200 RAW files at a frame rate of at least 12 fps then you should keep your D5. ;-)

6. ISO Performance (visible noise ONLY):

While many image parameters vary with your camera's ISO setting - such as dynamic range, colour depth, tonal range, and more - AND these variables all interact to determine the overall perception of image quality, most shooters reduce a camera's ISO performance to a single variable and question: "How much visible noise (both luminosity and color noise) does an image have at a specific ISO?" This is the FIRST thing I tested with the D6 and I am going to let the cat out of the bag right now: There is no improvement in ISO performance of the D6 (based solely on the amount of visible noise present in RAW images at various ISO settings) compared to the D5. To be clear - when it comes to the appearance of visible noise in your RAW images and when compared to the Nikon D5 - it's status quo on ISO performance.

I will have LOTS more to say about ISO performance of the D6 in my final review of the camera (including how I test and evaluate ISO performance), but I know the critical issue for most users is answered above.

7. A FEW AF Tidbits:

There are TONS of things to talk about regarding the changes and and improvements of the AF system of the D6 over the D5 and most considering purchasing a D6 probably already know the basic information included in Nikon's marketing info, including that the number of selectable focus points has gone from 55 points to 105 points and that we now have a way to customize the Group Area AF mode that gives us 17 new combinations of "geometries" of the Group Area AF mode. So here I'll discuss only a few "macro-level" observations and/or things not discussed in Nikon's marketing literature:

The Big Picture: When shooting with a D5 and a professional-level lens most shooters noticed that they had an amazing hit rate of "in-focus" shots, including when shooting extreme action. Simply put, the D5 has an amazing AF system - definitely the best AF system of any DSLR on the market (until now). I have already found the D6 has a BETTER hit rate and it's AF system is even MORE amazing than that of the D5.

• The individual focus points of the D6 - in terms of how much of the viewfinder they occupy - are LARGER than those of the D5, by about 33% or so. But they are still smaller than those of the D500 (which I personally find to be too big for my liking). Focus point size can be important when focusing past obstructions in front of your subject (like grass strands in front of a grizzly bear's face).

• The standard Group Area area mode (the diamond shaped cluster of points) is SMALLER on the D6 than on the D5. This has pros and cons. On the positive side it can mean that you are less likely to pick up (and focus on) foreground and render your subject out-of-focus, but it can also mean that if you are using Group Area mode for a moving subject (e.g., a bird in flight) you are more likely to have the group "fall off" the subject. Note that the standard Group Area mode can NOT be customized - it is always diamond-shaped and can't be changed in size. So far I have found I really like the new smaller standard Group Area AF area mode on the D6.

• The 9-point Dynamic Area AF area mode (which is my own default focus area mode) is slightly larger on the D6 than the D5. So far I haven't found it less precise than that of the D5, but the jury is still out on this for me.

• There are TWO new Group Area modes - labelled C1 (for custom 1) and C2. Each of these two modes can be easily modified by adding more focusing points horizontally or vertically. So, for instance, if you find the standard diamond-shaped Group Area mode of the D6 too small, just go to one of the custom Group Area modes and create a 3x3 square focus point group. Or a 5x5 square focus point group. And, of course, the core functionality and critical feature of the Group Area mode - that the group always prioritizes focusing on the closest object enclosed within the focus points - remains the same regardless of the geometry of the group you create.

Of course, I'll have a ton more to say about the AF system of the D6 in my final review...but this hits a few of the highlights.

8. A FEW Customization Tidbits:

There's so many ways to customize a D6 that it's almost hard to wrap your head around all the consequences of it (in terms of the many ways YOU can choose to customize your D6 and make it work best for you). At this point a few new or evolved customization features have really stood out for me, and they add welcome new functionality to the D6. So for now I'll just point out a few things that I think are likely to please a lot of users:

Good News for Back-button Focus Lovers: If you are a fan of using back-button focus (I'm not, but that's another long story), your thumb just got some good news. Historically back-button focus users (who most often used the AF-ON button to focus) who liked to compose their images first and then toggle the focus point to their subject required have a thumb that was good at dancing between the AF-ON button to activate focus and the sub-selector button (which is the "knurled" toggle stick) to move their focus point around. Now, you can customize the sub-selector so that if you push it in it activates focus! So, the sub-selector button can be used to move the focus point around AND activate focus. Of course, Nikon being Nikon, this works great for the sub-selector and when you're holding the camera horizontally...but you can't mirror this function for vertical shooting! For reasons beyond me, the vertical knurled focus point toggler is NOT considered a vertical sub-selector - it's considered the vertical multi-selector and, most importantly, Nikon does not allow you to customize it to work like the horizontal sub-selector - you can only customize it to work like the multi-selector. Arghh!

• An Open Note to Nikon: Back button focus users will love you if you allow the vertical multi-selector to mimic the functionality of the multi-selector (which it already can do) OR mirror the functionality of the sub-selector (so the vertical multi-selector can be used to toggle and focus just the way the sub-selector can). Trust me on this. ;-)

"Recall Shooting Functions" Option Is VASTLY Improved: Finally, we have a way on a pro Nikon DSLR to switch an entire GROUP of shooting settings (including the AF area mode) with the push of a single button! Yippee!! Why is this important? Consider this situation that HAS happened to me about one zillion times: You are intently shooting a static subject in good light and have chosen your camera settings to maximize image quality for the conditions - so you have picked a shutter speed and aperture setting that keeps your ISO down fairly low and an AF area mode setting to precisely let you focus on your subject...so single point AF area mode or maybe 9-point Dynamic Area mode. Suddenly right behind you action breaks out (like a wolverine chasing a grizzly, or an eagle in flight). To capture the action you need to change your exposure settings (likely going to a higher shutter speed) AND change your AF area mode from single point to one of the better AF area modes for capturing action (perhaps one of the many Group Area modes). How do you do it? In the past, you couldn't. But NOW you can simply push one of the many buttons on your camera that can be programmed to "Recall Shooting Functions" and a bunch of settings change at once, including your AF Area Mode. What shooting functions does the "Recall Shooting Functions" feature allow you to store? Here's the list:

• Exposure mode (Manual vs. Aperture Priority, etc.)
• Shutter speed (if applicable depending on exposure mode selected)
• Aperture (if applicable depending on exposure mode selected)
• Exposure compensation
• ISO sensitivity (base ISO plus whether or not Auto ISO is on)
• Metering method
• White balance
• AF-area mode
• Focus-tracking with Lock-on (Quick vs. Delay and Erratic vs. Steady)
• AF-ON

You can choose to have a custom set of ANY or ALL of these variables stored by your camera for quick recall. Note that you can manually input all your desired selections for the variables above and save them (by hitting the OK button) - or you can simply adjust your camera the way you want and click on "Save current settings." There are a few idiosyncrasies that those who want to use this great new function should know about. First, even if you choose to have Auto ISO turned on the values it uses (for things like maximum permissible ISO you want or shutter speed you want the camera NOT to fall below) are inherited from the shooting bank you are in when you push the button that activates "Recall Shooting Functions". Same goes for the image quality - if you are in a shooting bank where you are shooting 14-bit lossless compressed RAW images that's what you're still shooting when you hit the "Recall Shooting Functions" button.

OK...so how do you use this function? So in my case I have decided that I want to assign the Fn1 button to activate "Recall Shooting Functions" when I push it. Further, I have decided that I want to use that Fn1 button in situations where action rapidly breaks out and I want to shoot with the goals of freezing the action AND have my chances of it being in focus as high as possible. So here's what I have chosen to save for my own "Recall Shooting Functions":

• Exposure mode = Manual
• Shutter speed = 1/2000s
• Aperture = f4
• Exposure compensation = -0.3
• ISO sensitivity = 100 ISO, Auto ISO on (and note that this turns Auto ISO on even if the shooting bank you are in when you push the button has it turned off)
• Metering method = Matrix
• White Balance = Auto0
• AF-area mode = Group Area C1 (which I have set up as a 5x5 square pattern)
• Focus-tracking with Lock-on (Quick vs. Delay = 3, Erratic)
• AF-ON toggled on (so the camera focus when I hit the Fn1 button)

So I could be crawling on the ground shooting macro (in aperture priority mode at an f11 aperture with a fixed ISO of 100 and with single point AF using spot metering) and suddenly hear a Red-tailed Hawk overhead and just rollover, push the Fn1 button, and all the exposure and AF settings listed above are instantly selected. And I end up with a great shot of the Red-tailed Hawk rather than just watching it fly by (because I know it's pointless to try to change a zillion settings in the two seconds I have to capture the image). Cool, very cool! Thanks Nikon.

9. New "TC" Viewfinder Icon/Display:

Now here's something new that's useful, interesting, and that leads me along a path of wild speculation! If you are an owner of ONE Nikon lens - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with built-in TC - you'll see this new icon/display, but no one else will. If you are using the 180-400 and have the built-in 1.4x teleconverter engaged you will see a TC "icon" in the lower right corner of the image (not on the black border where most other viewfinder displays are seen). Disengage the TC and the icon disappears. So all it does is tell users of the 180-400 if they have the built-in TC engaged or not. And...as one who owns the 180-400 and HAS forgotten the TC is engaged in the "heat of action" - and left it engaged when it was no longer necessary - I think this is a cool and welcomed feature. Note that if you have a standard TC mounted on your camera you do NOT see the TC icon - it appears ONLY with the 180-400mm f4E with the built-in TC.

Now the wild speculation: Does it seem odd to anyone other than me that Nikon would add a unique viewfinder display for ONE lens that is uber-expensive and is owned by (in relative terms) only a handful of folks? Is it possible that Nikon is looking ahead and adding a display that will work with NEW ( = not yet in existence) super-telephoto primes or zooms that have built-in TC's? Interesting to ponder...

10. Revamped iMenu:

Nikon re-worked the iMenu on the D6 to mimic the functionality (and appearance) of that of the Z-series cameras. Like with the Z-cameras it's fully customizable. When you push the i-button (which can't be customized or changed to any other function) the i-Menu is displayed on the rear LCD display. I am already finding the i-Menu highly useful and like it a lot.

11. A Usable Virtual Horizon (in viewfinder):

Finally! For years the Nikon flagships have had a weird virtual horizon function (when using the optical viewfinder) - turn it on and it hijacked your focus points (rather than showing up on the bottom and side of the image area in the viewfinder than as on the D850 and D500). I always took the D5's weird virtual horizon feature as proof that the product groups at Nikon did not talk to one another (and that those on the flagship team had no idea what the D500 and D850 people did with their virtual horizon feature!). But I digress...the key point is now on the D6 you can have BOTH a virtual horizon display and focus points displayed - and the viewfinder-based Virtual Horizon feature has become a lot more usable.

And that's it for now (hey...I've only had a D6 for 3 days...what do you expect?). More is coming on the D6 (including images) in the near future. You can also expect to see a lot more on the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E very soon (including more sample images). So stay tuned.

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog_2020_all.html#D6_EarlyImpressions

21 May 2020: The D6 Has Landed...

I just got the word that the Nikon D6 I will be field testing (AKA MY D6!) arrived at my dealer today. Owing to logistics imposed by my remote location and the coronavirus, the D6 won't be in my hands until mid-day Saturday. I've recently cleared a lot of things off my plate and thus freed up time so I can immerse myself in shooting and testing the D6. Expect my first preliminary comments on it right here in the Monday-Tuesday of next week timeframe.

Anyone emailing me asking about its performance between now and end-of-day Sunday will be politely referred to this blog entry! ;-)

Expect considerably more info on the performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E very soon (ALL my field-testing is done, as is most of the necessary pixel-peeping of the thousands of test images I captured during the testing of the lens and a host of competing lenses).

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

18 May 2020: Capture One for Nikon? Yep...

This morning Capture One came out with a strong one-two punch that is likely to pull more photographers away from using Adobe Lightroom as their primary workflow tool (and probably some Photoshop users as well).

The first punch was a "dot-release" update (from version 20.04 to 20.1) that was a more substantive than most free updates - along with some cosmetic changes (like a new desktop icon and new splash screen) they added major updates to their cloning and healing tools PLUS a very cool new "before-after" view that more easily lets you view the overall impact that your image adjustments have had on your RAW file. As a Capture One beta tester I have been using the new tools for about 3 weeks and can say that the new cloning and healing tools are MAJOR improvements once you get the "hang" of them...and they will mean that you have to go from Capture One to Photoshop to make cloning/healing touch-ups on your shots much less commonly (if ever!).

The second punch was the unveiling of Capture One for Nikon - a version of the product that is fully dedicated to Nikon shooters! In real terms this means that if you shoot Nikon cameras exclusively (and don't need the camera and RAW file support of a zillion other camera brands and models) you can opt for the lower-priced Nikon only version (the subscription cost is HALF the price of the full version of Capture One Pro, and you CAN buy a "perpetual license" - i.e., a "non-subscription" version). If you check the list of Nikon cameras supported by the Nikon-only version of Capture One you see virtually all Nikon DSLR and mirrorless cameras listed (including the D6)...so you have no reason to have the "...but will my camera be supported" worry!

For the record - and with the exception of about a 4 month stint about 5 years ago where I tried in vain to switch to Lightroom - I have been a dedicated Capture One Pro user since 2004. In the simplest terms I find Capture One lets me get more out of my images (and do get me to my final master image faster) than any other post-processing software.

For more info - or to download a trial version of Capture One Pro or Capture One for Nikon - go to Capture One.

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

8 May 2020: Hey Brad - Got Your D6 Yet?

If I had a dollar for every time this week I've been asked if I have my D6 yet (and what I think of it) I'd be a less poor man! Turns out that despite previous information I was given about the delivery date of the Nikon D6 in Canada they won't be arriving until later in May (including for NPS members). My assumption at this point - based on what appears to be happening in the US (as stated on nikonrumors.com) - is that D6's will start being "handed out" in Canada on May 21.

On the positive side, by May 21 I will have fully wrapped up all my field testing on the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E (at this point I'm already 95% done with just a few loose ends to tie up) so I'll be able to dig into evaluating the D6 the moment I have it.

And...as a quick update on when I'll have more info about the results of my 120-300mm f2.8E testing posted here...I hope to have the first few sections of my review posted by the end of next week (I still have a LOT of images to pixel-peep!).

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

4 May 2020: More Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Images...

Just a quick heads-up to let you know I have added a few more Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E images to my Gallery of Latest Additions. As in ALL my image galleries, each image is accompanied by a lot of additional contextual information. To access it for any given photo, simply click on the links immediately below the image (they're labelled as "In the Field", "Behind the Camera", etc.). Note that there IS a larger version (2400 pixels on long axis) for each of the images - you'll find the link to those larger images in the text under the "In the Field" tab.

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

1 May 2020: Status Update: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Field Testing and Review

I've had enough emails show up in my inbin asking me where I was at in my field testing and review of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E lens that I thought a quick update here was merited. So here ya go...

My testing of this - and all other lenses - consists of 4 distinct phases:

1. Just Shooting: As the name would suggest, this phase consists of going out in the field and simply using the lens in a field setting. During this phase of testing I get a real good feel for things like "How easy is the lens to use?", "How well do the AF systems and VR systems seem to perform?", "What's the keeper rate like?", etc. While this stage of the testing is subjective and the results are, at best, anecdotal, it does give me a good feel for general performance and lens "usability - and it often helps me identify other areas to examine when my testing gets more formalized. I've been doing this "Just Shooting" since the day I got my 120-300mm and I've now taken around 8,000 shots with it while "Just Shooting." I'll keep this phase going until I have completed all my other more systematic (and comparative) testing of the lens. So far my "Just Shooting" phase of testing on this lens has told me that the 120-300mm lens is an absolutely top-notch lens and that I like it a LOT! I have been posting some of my results of this phase of my testing - and will be posting more of them in the coming days - in my Gallery of Latest Additions - check 'em out if you have the time...

2. Optical Performance: In this phase of my testing I get way more methodical and systematic - and it takes the most time and effort (by far). During this phase I do head-to-head controlled field tests of the lens in question against several other lenses. VERY long story short, this phase shooting a zillion comparison shots at various distances (4.25m, 12m, 24, 1500m), focal lengths (120mm, 200mm, 300mm, plus 300mm plus 1.4x TC or 420mm), and apertures (from wide open with each lens up to f16). ALL the gory details about how I went about performing the test shots will be described in my final review. Given the focal length range of the 120-300mm I ended up comparing the Nikkor 120-300mm with a LOT of different lenses. Here's the list of the lenses compared at each focal length:

A. At 120mm the lenses compared were:

• Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E
• Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8
• Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E
• Nikkor 70-200mm f4G

B. At 200mm the lenses compared were:

• Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E
• Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8
• Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E
• Nikkor 70-200mm f4G
• Nikkor 180-400mm f4E
• Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3

C. At 300mm the lenses compared were:

• Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E
• Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8
• Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VR
• Nikkor 300mm f4D
• Nikkor 180-400mm f4E
• Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3

D. At 420mm the lenses compared were:

• Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII (1.4x) TC
• Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus TC-1401 (1.4x) TC
• Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VR plus TC-14EIII (1.4x) TC
• Nikkor 300mm f4D plus TC-14EII (1.4x) TC
• Nikkor 180-400mm f4E plus built-in 1.4x TC
• Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 shot native

The good news is that I have completed the field work (the capturing of images) for this phase of my testing. Now all I have to do is scrutinize and summarize ALL the results (yes, this will make me go cross-eyed!). I HOPE to have the results on this phase of my testing summarized and written up in about two weeks.

3. Autofocus Performance: During this phase of the testing I will comparing the AF performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E against selected key lenses. These tests will be done at only two focal lengths - 300mm and 420mm (with 1.4x TC). This phase of my testing doesn't take NEARLY as long as my optical performance testing, but it is important in understanding how the optical performance tests translate into "keepers" when shooting dynamic subjects. I anticipate shooting the images for this portion of my test within the next week or so (assuming I get acceptable weather conditions.

4. "Hand-holdabilty" and VR/OS Performance: And, finally, during this phase of the testing I compare how slow of a shutter speed each lens can be hand-held at. Here I'll be testing only at one focal length - 300mm. Like with the AF testing, these "hand-holdability" tests aer important in understanding how the optical performance tests translate into "keepers" when shooting in less than optimal conditions in the field (i.e., when you are forced to hand-hold each of the lenses). This phase of the testing only takes a few hours of shooting - and if the conditions are right I'll have captured the images during the next week.

So stay tuned...I am making good headway on this lengthy examination of the performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E!

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

24 April 2020: NikonTV: Now Available on YouTube...

If you missed today's NikonTV segment, which streamed at 1 PM Eastern time, it's now up on YouTube. Those with an interest in the new Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E will likely find the episode particularly interesting. View it here:

NikonTV - Choosing the Right Telephoto Lens

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

24 April 2020: NikonTV: Streaming at 1 PM Eastern Time

Just a reminder that the NikonTV segment where I'm appearing as a guest speaker will be streaming today at 1 PM Eastern time on Nikon's Facebook page. My understanding is that Chris (the host) will be asking me primarily about my experiences with the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E, but who knows where else we'll go! ;-)

For those unable to catch it at 1 PM (and who may be interested)...the video will be available on YouTube in the near future. As soon as it has a home there I'll provide the link to it.

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

21 April 2020: Coming This Friday on NikonTV...

So...what does your friendly neighbourhood wildlife photographer DO during the era of social distancing and travel restrictions? Well...I can't speak for any other photographers but myself, but ONE thing I'll be doing is appearing on a NikonTV segment this coming Friday. What? You didn't know there even WAS something called NikonTV? Shame on you! ;-)

During the segment I'll be discussing, among other things, my impressions of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E zoom lens. The segment will air at 1 PM EDT Friday on Nikon's Facebook page and then on YouTube within another week or so. I'll provide updated coordinates (links) once I have them...

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

21 April 2020: Nikon D6 To Ship In Canada In Early May

Earlier today I received "the call" - that is, the phone call informing me that the Nikon D6 (including mine) will be shipping out in Canada in the first week of May. And that's May 2020, not 2021! ;-)

As previously reported on this blog, the D6 will be one of the four Nikon products that I will be doing a detailed field test and review of in 2020. I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on a D6 - in some ways we know very little about the actual implementation of some of the new features (e.g., compared to the D5 just how much better is the autofocus system...and how much better IS the ISO performance...and...how well are the "advanced customization" features executed and how much will they help me in the field?), but I do think - and hope - some of the many "tweaks" to the camera work well for me...

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

8 April 2020: The Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E: More Thoughts, More Images...

I've now completed just over a week of my initial testing of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E zoom lens. I'm still in the phase I refer to as my "Just Shooting" phase where I simply USE the lens as I would normally use any lens. The purpose of this phase of my testing is to get an overall "gut feel" for how the lens performs and see what really stands out in terms of how it performs. Often during this "Just Shooting" phase I identify things that merit a closer look when I start my more rigorous systematic and comparative phase of testing. While all my results at this stage of my testing are both subjective and anecdotal, after many years of testing and using some of the best lenses Nikon has ever made I do learn a lot of valid things during this phase of my testing.

Over the last week I spent a lot of time shooting the 120-300mm f2.8E with all 3 of my current Nikon bodies, which includes a D5, D500, and Z7. And, I have focused (pardon the pun) on close subjects (5-10 meter camera-to-subject distance). I also shot a lot of images with the 120-300mm f2.8E paired up with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter.

So...what I have learned (or had reinforced) over the last week of shooting?

1. That the 120-300mm f2.8E is extremely sharp when shooting close subjects (and at all focal lengths). I'll be able to better quantify HOW sharp before long (relative to other high-end lenses), but I would be extremely surprised if it is not noticeably sharper than Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII or the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 at virtually all focal lengths. This is NOT a criticism of either of those two lenses, but rather a statement of how sharp images shot with the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E are looking to me,

2. That the out-of-focus (OOF) zones of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E are buttery smooth and just beautiful,

3. That the critical combination of sharpness and smooth OOF zones (which goes a long ways towards defining the signature look of a particular lens) is fantastic. The overall "look" of the images shot with the 120-300mm f2.8E reminds me of those shot with two of my favourite Nikkors - the 200mm f2G VR and the 400mm f2.8E VR - and THAT is one exclusive club,

4. That, at least with close subjects, the sharpness of the 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII combination is amazing (at least in the 200mm to 300mm focal length range). This includes shots captured with the aperture absolutely wide open,

5. That, at least with close subjects, the OOF zones of the 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII combination is virtually as good as when the lens is shot native (i.e., with no teleconverter attached). One of the less commonly known negative attributes of using a teleconverter is that with some lenses they impact negatively on the quality of the OOF zones...often rendering them more "jittery" (for lack of a better term)...a characteristic I often refer to as "nervous bokeh". To be clear, the 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII combination does NOT exhibit nervous bokeh at all!

6. That despite being early in my testing, and despite the weight and size of the lens, I'm already thinking the 120-300 f2.8E may become one of my favourite and most important lenses in my wildlife photography kit.

So...what about IMAGES shot with the 120-300? Yep, have some to show you, but I have to make a few qualifying comments first...

Like most Canadians, I am currently complying with COVID-19 related restrictions that limit my freedom to travel. So that means the right now I am NOT out on the coast leading a photo tour and getting dramatic shots of Humpback Whales, Killer Whales, Sea Lions and more. However, I am fortunate in that I live on an acreage in the forest that is surrounded by public land...and even on our property we have a lot of wildlife. This includes a variety of birds (which is getting wider by the day as migrants return), the usual cast of ungulates (both White-tailed and Mule Deer and Elk), small mammals including Red Squirrels, chipmunks and ground squirrels, and a nice array of carnivores (coyotes, wolves, cougars, grizzly and black bears, badgers, and more). So, even during this "lockdown" period I have a few subjects to work with...

Today's batch of images includes MOSTLY small birds and small mammals and a LOT of them shot with the 120-300 plus TC-14EIII. Over the coming days and weeks I will be adding more images with additional subject matter.

Last but not least, those who have NOT visited my image galleries should be aware that each image is accompanied by a lot of contextual information. To access it for any given photo, simply click on the links immediately below the image (they're labelled as "In the Field", "Behind the Camera", etc.). Note that there IS a larger version (2400 pixels on long axis) for each of the images - you'll find the link to those larger images in the text under the "In the Field" tab.

OK...Where are the images? Just go to my Gallery of Latest Additions and there they are! ;-)

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. And please follow the advice of YOUR local health care officials (which may or may not be the same advice you get from your political officials, depending on your country of residence).

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog_2020_all.html#120-300_ThoughtsImages

1 April 2020: The Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E: My First FEW Words!

I took delivery of my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E this past Saturday - and my thanks are extended to The Camera Store in Calgary for setting up a curbside delivery service that permitted this to happen.

Since picking it up - and for most of the remainder of this week - I am in what I call my "Just Shooting" phase of testing it. During this time I'm doing NO systematic testing or comparative testing (against competing lenses that overlap in focal length with it) - I am simply getting a feel for the lens and how it performs when doing what you really do with a lens - using it! So my comments today are both anecdotal and subjective. Which means I'm comfortable saying things like "...this lens is really sharp". But I won't say at this point that this lens is "...sharper at 300mm and at f2.8 than the Nikkor AF-S 300mm f2.8 G VRII is". Keep in mind when reading these comments that I have extensive experience with virtually ALL of the last several generations of Nikon's super-telephoto prime and zooms lenses (so I'm not making these comments with an experience base that includes only a single kit lens!).

OK...to date I have shot about 2,000 images with the 120-300mm f2.8E. ALL of these were shot with it paired with a D5 (but don't worry, I will be shooting it with both the Z7 and D500 during subsequent testing). And, the bulk of the shots have been biased towards using wide apertures - probably 90% have been shot at f2.8. And, I have shot it paired up with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter (about 25% of my shots taken so far have been with the TC attached).

What are the first few things I can say about it (in my view it's even to early to call them first impressions!)? Well...it is performing and handling EXACTLY as I expected (and in the optical quality department, as I HOPED). Which means...

1. It is darned heavy...

2. It is darned big...

So...for those familiar with some of other of Nikon's "big guns" - in terms of handling it feels like a "...slightly smaller and slightly lighter 180-400". If you imagine it being "...sort of half way between the size and weight of a 300mm f2.8G VRII and the 180-400mm" you have it about right. Which means for almost all normal humans it is not in any way a "walkaround" lens - it's a destination lens (i.e., one you transport to a specific location for a specific purpose and then take it back home again). Note that I will be following up next week with a slew of comparison measured weights and sizes (comparing how the Nikkor 120-300mm compares in size and weight to a lot of other "similar" lenses).

3. Optically? It is just MAGICAL! It has that wonderful combination of biting sharpness and buttery-smooth out-of-focus zones that proud owners of lenses like the Nikkor 200mm f2 VR and the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E know so well. Add in phenomenal contrast (even with backlit subjects), stunningly good colour and lightning quick autofocus and...well...just WOW! Here's just one "snapshot" of backlit subjects (my partner Patti and our pup Poncho) that nicely illustrates the great contrast of the lens under sub-optimal conditions...and note that there was no shadow or highlight recovery (or virtually any other post-processing "magic") performed on this shot:

Backlit in Spring Sleet Shower: Download Image (JPEG: 1.3 MB)

And, as I thought and hoped might be the case, it seems to work extremely well with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter (a bit to early to say this with full certainty, but I suspected it would work as well with the TC-14EIII as the 180-400 works with its built-in TC - and it appears that is the case). The image immediately below - captured with my D5 and the 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII - speaks both to the image quality and the autofocus capabilities of the 120-300mm plus TC combination:

Poncho Going for Broke: Download Image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

More images shot with the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E - and with a variety of subjects - will begin appearing in my Gallery of Latest Additions soon and certainly by week's end.

Finally, I've been contacted by a number of photographers indicating that they are waiting for my review and assessment of this lens before making their purchase decision. My recommendation is to wait a little longer until I've had the time to do both systematic and comparison testing on the lens. While I already know this is a top-notch lens, detailed testing can and will reveal a lot more additional information (both positive and negative) and give you a better feel if this lens is for you or not.

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. And please follow the advice of YOUR local health care officials (which may or may not be the same advice you get from your political officials, depending on your country of residence).

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog_2020_all.html#120-300_FirstWords

27 March 2020: UPDATE: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Shipping Status

I received word early this AM that the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E I will be testing has arrived at my dealer in Calgary. And...the dealer is still open for business (i.e., not yet shut down by COVID-19-related health orders). We have already made a plan to safely (and while respecting every public health order and social/physical distancing protocols) get it into my hands tomorrow.

SO...I should be able to spend some time doing a limited amount of shooting with the 120-300 over the weekend and throughout next week with serious testing to begin in ABOUT a week (but note that the first reports on its comparative performance won't show up for probably another week after that). I WILL begin posting some sample shots in my Gallery of Latest Additions as soon as they are available (as early as Monday or Tuesday of next week). And, of course, I will be making quite a few "preliminary" comments with those shots.

Stay tuned!

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. And please follow the advice of YOUR local health care officials (which may or may not be the same advice you get from your political officials, depending on your country of residence).

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

26 March 2020: Capture One Adds "Limited" Support for Nikon D6

A few hours ago Phase One's Capture One Pro was updated to version 20.0.4. It was a very minor update, mainly with support for the RAW files of a few key new cameras, including the Canon 1Dx MkIII and the Nikon D6. It's important to note that the support for the D6 is described as "limited" support. What's the limitation? Here's what's in the release notes:

"Uncompressed 14-bit and Lossless Compressed above ISO 409,600 (Hi 2) not supported."

Well...I guess THIS update is hardly worth downloading! ;-)

So FINALLY I can use my favourite RAW conversion tool for my D6 files! Oops...one small problem there... ;-)

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. And please follow the advice of YOUR local health care officials.

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

24 March 2020: "My" Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E - Locked in the Supply Chain?

Yesterday morning I got word that the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E I will be testing had arrived in Canada with my name on it. Which tells us at least one thing - they are shipping! Don't ask me how many are shipping or if it's just to selected countries or anything about its general availability. And perhaps the one with my name on it became available only because for the foreseeable future the sports shooters have no need for one ("Well...the sports guys can't use it...might as well ship this one to this guy who lives in the woods and maybe he can put it to some use..."). I'm kidding (sort of).

But, of course, Murphy's Law is kicking in now...even though the lens has been shipped from eastern Canada to the dealer I work with in Calgary, there's a good chance that by the time it arrives the dealer may be forced to shutdown as it is not an essential business. So I may be sitting here with "found" time on my hands (where I could be testing the lens) but with the lens behind locked doors in Calgary...for up to multiple weeks! Of course...compared to all the inconveniences and true hardships being faced by countless others right now, this is a completely trivial "non-problem".

So you may - or may not - be seeing reports about the performance of (and images taken with) the new Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E here in the near future.

But at least we know they're shipping. ;-)

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. And please follow the advice of YOUR local health care officials.

Brad

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21 March 2020: Social Distancing Order Shuts Down Spring Photo Tours!

WOW! Who in North America would have thought two months ago that we'd be where we are now? While I watched the progression of the spread of COVID-19 with the almost "academic" interest (and slowly escalating concern) of anyone with a few advanced degrees in biology would, I did not think even a month ago that virtually everyone's life in North America would be rocked to the degree it has been. And it was JUST over a week ago that we sent out letters to everyone participating in our spring photo tours (i..e, those 5 photo tours running from early April through late May) that we were willing and able to - and had taken all the steps necessary to ensure that we could safely offer - our full slate of early season photo tours.

But in just over a week a cascading series of events conspired to shut down our ability to take keen photographers to The Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, into the southern portion of the Great Bear Rainforest, and to view and photograph the amazing Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen. I won't get into all the barriers thrown across our pathway, but the key ones included the travel restrictions and eventual border closure of the Canadian border to all international travelers that meant our international guests had no way to GET to our photo tours and the request by public health officials that Canadians not travel that meant our Canadian guests themselves were actively discouraged from attending our tours. But the kicker came when the Public Health Officer of BC ordered that businesses could not operate if they weren't able to adhere to well-defined social distancing protocols and standards for their clients and staff (which is pretty darned impossible on the 70' sailboats we use on ALL our spring photo tours). It's also looking possible (or even likely) that all non-essential businesses in British Columbia may be shut down in the coming days (before our first photo tour was set to begin). I do want to state unequivocally that I agree with and support ALL the requests and public health orders that shut down our spring photo tour season - we are facing something far bigger right now than the inconvenience of loss of our spring photo tour season. And, from an ethical perspective, even if we were permitted to continue on with our photo tours the possibility of our groups dragging along the Coronavirus and infecting some of the remote First Nations communities we visit (which have very limited health care facilities and some pretty overcrowded housing) was simply unthinkable.

I have no intention of making this blog just one more place to hear about Coronavirus and COVID-19 (I don't want to do that and I am sure those that follow this blog definitely don't want that) - so after today's entry I will return my focus to the things this blog has always been about: Photography. Nature. Gear. Software. Conservation. Whatever (and specifically excluding COVID-19 and Coronavirus). But, before I do that, I'll say just a few random things that come to mind about our current crisis.

• To Politicians EVERYWHERE and of ALL STRIPES: OK...this is NOT the time to be playing infantile partisan games. Play games now and you WILL pay the price at the polls. Work together and get something bloody-well done. We need you to do what you're paid to do - take leadership roles and make decisions based on the best available science, not what some narcissistic imbecile saw on TV the previous night. LISTEN TO THE EXPERTS!

• As a biologist I am struck by how the current situation has illustrated how fragile of a society we have created. Even in the absolute worst case scenario we are looking at a "cull" of probably less than 0.00064% (that's 6/10,000ths of one percent) of the human population (5 million people out of a population of 7.8 billion). Yet even the possibility of that scenario has wreaked havoc on our social and economic systems and, most relevantly, may crumble the health care systems of even the most prepared countries. Hell, our wildlife managers think we can cull around 3% of natural wildlife populations of selected animals with hunting every year without an adverse effect on their sustainability, but cull and 0.00064% of the human population and it's chaos. Talk about absolute fragility. And ZERO resiliency. Every country REALLY needs to re-think their priorities and build more robust and sustainable systems, starting with how well we fund our health care systems.

• As a possible silver lining to this black, black cloud - maybe...just maybe...this catastrophe will shift our thinking about our "dominance" over nature. Dudes...mother nature just sent us to our rooms for a major time out. LISTEN TO HER...including about other coming catastrophes we already know about (but our spineless leaders refuse to take action on). Does that little climate change thing come to anyone's mind??

• As ANOTHER possible silver lining - maybe...just maybe...this catastrophe will put science and scientific evidence back into the forefront of the development of public policy. Like for how long have we known a global pandemic was an increasingly possible event?

OK...rant over. I'll be back to photography by next blog entry. And, in the interim...

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Strong. We ALL need to be. And follow the advice of YOUR local health care officials.

Brad

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09 March 2020: Just Posted: Our 2021 Photo Tour Program!

Just minutes ago I posted an updated version of our Photo Tours page that includes our 2021 Photo Tour Program. Here's a direct link to the beginning of the 2021 Photo Tours:

2021 Photo Tours

And, I have very good news, exciting news, and "interesting" news for those who are keen to join us on one or more of our exceptionally popular photo tours in 2021.

THE VERY GOOD NEWS: Even after registering all those folks who had asked for priority access to the 2021 photo tours (by either signing up on our Priority Booking List or signing up for our sporadic newsletter), we have still have spots available on many of our 2021 trips, including a few spots on our Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen photo tours and a few spots on selected Great Bear Rainforest photo tours. But they likely won't last long now...so if you're interested, you better act fast!

THE EXCITING NEWS: We've added two BRAND NEW photo tours for the 2021 schedule. Here's where to check them out:

The Khutzeymateen Explorer (mid June 2021)
Autumn in the Queen Charlotte Strait (mid October 2021)

THE INTERESTING NEWS: Before folks book spots on our photo tours I often get asked "What's the actual photography like on your photo tours?" (which includes things like where we shoot from, the "style" and even "philosophy" of the photography on our photo tours, recommended photo gear, etc.). It's a good question. So...to help answer this very big question, we decided to take the detailed photography information we give to our clients before each photo tour and place it in a single guide - AND make that guide publicly available. So...if YOU'RE thinking you might like to do a photo tour with us, you might find this PDF document quite interesting and useful:

Photography on the BC Coast - A Wildlife Photographer's Guide (PDF: 4.9 MB)

Cheers...

Brad

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03 March 2020: 2020 Nikon Gear Field Tests And Reviews: A Quick Update

Back on the first of January I listed four new bits of Nikon gear that I would be field-testing and reviewing in 2020. Those "bits" of gear included:

the Nikon D6
the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E (F mount)
• the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S (Z mount), and
• the Nikkor 85mm f1.8S (Z mount), with this test being in the form of a "85mm wars" series with the Z mount pitted against multiple 85mm F mount options.

I still plan to do all these field tests and report on the results here, but at this point I can say very little about when these field tests will be posted here. Why? There's different reasons for each product, but here's a quick summary:

1. 85mm Wars: I'm starting with the good news first. I HAVE the 85mm f1.8S (Z mount) as well as the other F mount lenses I am testing it against, which include the Nikkor 85mm f1.4G, the Nikkor 85mm f1.8G, the Sigma Art 85mm f1.4, as well as two 70-200mm zooms shot at 85mm (i.e., Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR). And, I HAVE begun doing the optical testing portion of my field test (I'm about 2/3 the way through it). So you should see those results appearing here in the next month to 6 weeks. I already have a really good gut feel for how these 6 lenses compare but I want to scrutinize (and summarize) the results more closely before saying too much. But I don't mind saying now that the Z mount 85mm f1.8S is DEFINITELY living up to the promises made by Nikon about the optical quality improvements made possible by the new Z mount and the optical performance of the 85mm f1.8S is stacking up REALLY well (and in all regards) compared to its F mount competitors.

2. Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E (F mount) Field Test: Despite Nikon Rumors reporting on Feb 21 that the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E woud start shipping on February 29, there is no sign this is happening (at least in Canada). I can't say that Nikon has NOT shipped a handful of them (somewhere!), but at this point (and for whatever reason) Nikon Canada appears unable to provide any information whatsoever about when this lens will ship. Which means I have NO CLUE at all when I will get mine and when I can begin testing it.

3. Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S (Z mount) Field Test: Same as immediately above - using my normal information "channels" I have been able to find out zero about when this lens will actually ship. So...once again...I have no clue when this lens will be in my hands for testing purposes.

4. Nikon D6 Field Test: Well...at this point I have NOT heard (from a reliable source) that the previously announced ship date (described by Nikon as "in April") has slipped. So it's POSSIBLE I could see mine in April but, if I'm being honest, I'm not holding my breath that I will see it then. Why? Well...in the simplest terms...recent past history of Nikon shipping even key products in a timely fashion hasn't been overly encouraging!

I think most anyone can understand that delays CAN occur in the delivery of new products, and with the possible interruption of supply chains in SE Asia owing to Covid-19 (and especially in China and Japan) a shipping delay is even MORE understandable. But what I personally find frustrating (and I can only imagine the frustration levels of those who make their living by SELLING these products!) is Nikon's complete lack of communication about when we can realistically expect to see these products. It is like they are intentionally using the "Black Hole Communication Strategy". Why is it in their best interest to go completely mute on delivery schedules? From what I can see all it does is piss people off. And I have to say I am beginning to wonder if I should re-schedule my own purchases and re-allocate the money I budgeted for new camera gear to that new computer system I was going to pick up next autumn...

Cheers...

Brad

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19 Feb 2020: The Nikon D6 - More Info, More Thoughts...

When Nikon announced the D6 last week we got the usual media blitz, including Nikon-controlled information and press releases appearing on nikonrumors.com, dpreview.com, and (of course) on Nikon's own websites. Those information sources did give us the high-level spec changes and updates, but they did lack a lot of the meat you need to assess how significant of an upgrade the D6 really is. As an example, we were told it now has 17 different Group Area AF patterns available (rather than the 3 found in the D5), but they didn't show us what those different patterns were. And, they talked about the new "triple-sensor" AF points on the D6 (as opposed to the "double-sensor" AF points on the D5) but gave us no indication what this meant. And while we knew that the D6 jumped up to having 105 selectable AF points from 55 on the D5, we were told nothing about the Dynamic Area patterns of the D6 (beyond the fact that the camera still had Dynamic Area focusing).

Fortunately, a few days after the D6 launch the D6 brochure was quietly made available (you can download it from the D6 product page on nikonusa.com). And now we have considerably more information about the D6 (even though that information still has a marketing-ese accent to it). So, along with all the "high level" bullet points we all heard about, I now know...

• that despite almost doubling the number of focus points that are selectable, the arrangement offers no net increase in viewfinder coverage (bummer)...just an increase in focus point density,

• that ALL 105 AF points are compatible with lenses having maximum apertures of f5.6 and faster (or larger) and 15 of the central points are compatible with lenses having maximum apertures of f8 (cf. 9 on the D5),

exactly what the 17 Group Area patterns look like (and I have a gut feel I will regularly use maybe a half dozen of them),

• precisely how a triple-sensor arrangement on the D6 differs from a double-sensor arrangement of the D5 (just don't ask me yet how this translates into better performance in the field),

• that there are four Dynamic Area AF modes: 9-point (thank gawd!), 25-point, 49-point, 105-point,

• that you can now input AF fine-tuning values for both the shortest and longest focal lengths of a zoom lens (a step in the right direction, but still a little less than optimal),

• a LITTLE more about the "Advanced customization functions" (though it's still vague how the new "Recall Shooting Functions" really works, but we do know that AF-area mode is among the recallable shooting functions...which is a very promising sign),

• that the bigger, better, faster, stronger EXPEED 6 image processor is supposed to give us an improved auto white balance and even cleaner (less noisy) high ISO images than the D5 (how much cleaner the D6 RAW images are than D5 RAW images remains to be seen),

• that the VERY smooth and stable image bursts of the D5 (during high-speed bursts, and especially when used with a lens with a VR with a Sport mode) should be even smoother with the D6...which is fantastic news for those who like to shoot things like birds in flight or sparring or fishing bears - all thanks to ANOTHER new mirror-driving mechanism (the new mirror-driving mechanism on the D5 was one of those most overlooked features of the D5...and I just loved it).,

• that the D6 offers a LOT of improvements that should speed up the workflow of JPEG-shooting sports photographers considerably, including more control of in-camera JPEG's, the ability to select specific images for transmission, faster wireless transmission, etc (all of which, of course, are irrelevant to this RAW-shooting wildlife photographer),

• and a zillion other little things...(the D6 spec list in that brochure is incredibly detailed).

Of course, at this point no one knows EXACTLY how these new features and upgrades will translate into noticeable performance differences in a field setting. If you look at the "big picture" you'll see a flagship DSLR that will has the same look and feel (and ergonomics and handling) as its excellent predecessor the D5 (so just like a D5, only better!). And I see a rugged workhorse designed primarily for still photography that builds on and extends the success of the D5. And...BTW...and in partial response to the online negativity about the D6...there's another "big picture" observation that should be kept in mind - the observant photographer will notice about the same number of (or arguably a few more) improvements in the D6 as its two main competitors - the Canon 1DX MkII and the Sony A9 II - had in their recent "flagship" updates. And, when I compare the "magnitude" of the upgrade between the D5 and the D6 with past model upgrades (e.g., D3 to D4, D4 to D5) it looks like the D6 fits Nikon's typical model upgrade strategy to a T.

My educated guess in how the D6 will differ from the D5 in field use under trying field conditions? Well, it will vary with the shooter - a pro sports photographer may get excited and benefit from workflow-related advances that a pro wildlife photographer will never use. But here's what I'm expecting...

1. An autofocus system that lets me focus in lower light and with even higher overall reliability and speed than the D5. For THIS wildlife photographer this is very welcomed.

2. ISO performance that slightly bumps up (perhaps by 0.5 stops?) the maximum ISO I'll be willing to shoot at.

3. Customization features that allow me to switch entire GROUPS of settings faster than the D5.

4. Because of a combination of points 1, 2, and 3 I expect to return from expeditions with a higher "hit rate" of sharp images, including even those taken under more extreme conditions than I was able to capture with my D5.

Will that be enough of an improvement over the D5 to please me and justify the expense of a D6? Yep, I'm pretty sure it will be! And unless I get a mountain of email about the D6 I plan to say very little else about it until I actually start shooting with it! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

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Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog_2020_all.html#D6MOREThoughts

18 Feb 2020: Prelim Report: Z7 Animal Eye Detection AF

Early today Nikon posted a firmware update for their Z6 and Z7 mirrorless cameras. Among the new features is an "Animal detection" autofocus mode that, when using Auto Area AF mode, is supposed to recognize and focus on the faces AND eyes of dogs and cats (and the menu description specifically states it's for dogs and cats!).

As a wildlife photographer the FIRST thing that came to my mind was the obvious - how far beyond dogs and cats in the animal world will the face and eye detection extend? Will it recognize bear faces and eyes? How about the ungulates - like deer, elk, moose, et cetera?

During my lunch break today I decided to do some very preliminary testing (= playing) with my Z7 and my dog Poncho...and whatever else happened to be around my cabin at lunch hour.

Anecdotal Finding #1: Mixed Canine Results

The Face Detection system seems to work great on Poncho, my Portuguese Water Dog. Unfortunately, no matter the lighting, angle, proximity (how much Poncho fills the viewfinder) it can NOT detect his eyes at all (and yes, he's had a haircut recently and his eyes are clearly visible). Not that Poncho's face is predominantly dark (with some white on his forehead) and his eyes are dark. In about 50 attempts I could not get the camera to shift even ONCE to eye-detection mode.

Anecdotal Finding #2: Excellent White-tailed Deer Results

On a MUCH more positive note (especially for a wildlife photographer), both the face and eye detection systems worked GREAT on White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus). When the deer were hanging their heads low while foraging it grabbed the heads with almost 100% reliability, and when the deer looked up it instantly recognized their eyes and locked onto one of them (or the other if you toggle). And, much to my surprise, it worked well (and locked onto the eyes) even when the deer covered only a small portion of the viewfinder.

For those who don't know their deer well, White-tails have white (or light) fur around their very dark eyes - so their is a high degree contrast in their face and their eyes really "pop out" based on pelage colouration.

While these anecdotal observations are very preliminary, it may be worth it for Nikon to consider ANOTHER firmware update where they change the wording in the menu to indicate that the Animal Detection autofocus mode is for cats and deer! But perhaps they should wait until I find a cougar to try it out on one of them! ;-)

Stay tuned for further updates and reports!

Cheers...

Brad

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12 Feb 2020: The Nikon D6 - Some VERY Preliminary Thoughts...

Most Nikon-o-philes are probably aware that late last night Nikon announced their latest flagship DSLR - the D6. The same info and specs describing the camera can be found in all the usual places - on nikonrumors.com, dpreview.com, and on any official Nikon imaging website. Because of their toxicity and incivility I almost never poke my nose into any photography forums, but I am guessing that right now a lot of negative things are being said about Nikon and the D6 in those forums. Granted, and at first glance, the specs of the D6 don't contain many exciting or revolutionary new features. But I suspect among working photographers who need a reliable workhorse that just delivers and delivers the D6 will be well-received.

One possible exception to the lack of excitement-inducing specs is the vastly re-vamped autofocus system which was already incredibly good on the D5 (and far better than any of the other Nikons that appeared to have "similar" systems, such as the D850 or D500). Headline spec changes on the AF system of the D6 include an increase of selectable AF points from 55 to 105, a wider area of coverage, and a big increase in number of Group Area AF modes (from 3 to 17 patterns). There are other AF improvements as well - now ALL 105 selectable focus points employ cross-type sensors and ALL AF points are designed to perform better in low light (now ALL points can achieve focus at -4 EV rather than at -3 EV like on the D5 and the central focus point can focus down to -4.5 EV versus -4 EV with the D5). Just how well the AF system performs in the field remains to be seen, but I suspect it will really turn heads.

There are certainly other spec changes that will please some shooters - Nikon emphasizes that they have done a lot to improve workflow (things like "instant access to presets" and "advanced customizations") but until we have the camera in hand it will be hard to assess how valuable these improvements will be. I have to say that ONE improvement has me on the edge of my seat and wanting to know more, and it's that "instant access to presets" feature. Here's how Nikon describes this new feature:

"With recallable shooting functions, sports photographers can effortlessly switch between preset camera settings - great for events like track and field where dynamic-area AF may work best for some events while auto-area AF may be better for others."

If this means shooting banks (or some other customizable banks) can store AF modes AS WELL AS all the other settings in the Shooting Menu (including Auto ISO), then THAT will be an excellent thing! Users of cameras with User Settings - like the D750 (and the Z6 and Z7) - know how handy that can be. I have wondered for YEARS why Nikon didn't let us store AF modes along with other shooting menu items on the D-single digit flagships. And gosh, I hope that wildlife photographers can effortlessly do this too! ;-)

Am I disappointed in the specs of the D6? Well, I have to say several of the most important items to me on my D6 Wishlist weren't granted by Santa Nikon - it's only 145 gm (5.1 oz) lighter than the D5, has NOT gone up in resolution, does not have IBIS, et cetera. BUT, with status quo on the resolution there is a distinct possibility we'll have even better low-light performance (and what wildlife shooter wouldn't like that?) and with the improved AF we may even be able to focus on the subjects in that low light!

I won't be able to back this up until I get my D6 and start shooting with it, but I suspect the it might end up being one of those "sleeper" cameras (like the D3s was relative to the D3) where the performance bump in the field far surpasses the spec bump we see on paper. If I get a higher hit rate on my shots over a wide variety of conditions - plus more usable high ISO shots - then I won't be complaining one bit. For at least this wildlife photographer those are the most important camera characteristics to improve anyway.

With each new (and parallel) flagship introduction by Canon and Nikon the more it looks to me like there is direct communication between those companies on product strategies. Funny how BOTH companies decided to sit on 20 MP this go 'round and focus on (pardon the pun) AF performance, ISO performance, and workflow-related features. Some may reply with "Well...what ELSE can they do with a DSLR now?" but over the last two flagship introductions by each of them the spec changes have been just too similar to ignore (like it was dead obvious that the 1DX MkII and the D5 were both in dire need of a new mirror-driving mechanism...who would have thunk?).

Finally, I look forward to taking delivery of my D6 - hopefully in April. After all, it may well be the last DSLR I ever buy!

Cheers...

Brad

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Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog_2020_all.html#D6PrelimThoughts

11 Feb 2020: More Thoughts on the AF-S NIKKOR 120-300mm f/2.8E

Since I wrote about my excitement about the coming AF-S NIKKOR 120-300mm f/2.8E FL ED SR VR zoom lens (which I'll now just call the 120-300mm f2.8E) in a recent blog entry, I've received quite a bit of email questioning my sanity. A lot of the negativity in those emails was associated with the astronomical price of the 120-300mm f2.8E (which has a street price in Canada of about $12,399.00 CAD). Quite a few of the emails also mentioned the "brick-like" weight. And one even suggested that I check out Nikon.ca or Nikonusa.com to see what the lens was for (which was a polite way of saying "...that lens is for shooting sports you idiot - Nikon doesn't mention a WORD about shooting wildlife with it").

So...let me comment on those 3 points first:

1. The Price.

Yep, I know the lens is priced ridiculously high. Just like the 180-400 f4E is (and which I screamed about too). But a funny thing happened with the 180-400 - after using it for a few months I sold BOTH my 400mm f2.8E and my Sigma Sport 500mm f4...and instantly was at a "no cash out of my pocket" point. And I have a MUCH better all-round tool for shooting wildlife than I had with the 400mm f2.8E and 500mm f4.

Can I reasonably expect the 120-300mm f2.8E to be as strong a lens optically as the 180-400mm f4E is? I think so. Nikon's last two super-telephoto introductions (the 180-400mm f4E and the 500mm f5.6E PF) far exceeded expectations and Nikon KNOWS they have to meet a super high standard with this lens. And, by pricing the lens as they have, Nikon put tremendous pressure on themselves to produce a winner. I actually EXPECT the 120-300mm f2.8E to be sharper than the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII when the lens is shot wide open.

2. The Weight.

Yep, the weight of the 120-300mm f2.8E (3250 gm or 7.16 lb) is very disappointing - and for most users it will undoubtedly be a "destination lens" that you take to specific location to shoot a specific subject (as opposed to a walk-around lens you have with you just in case you run into something interesting to shoot with it). I've accepted I will have to live with this limitation - I'm not a casual street shooter anyway...and going to a specific location to shoot a specific subject is what I do! ;-)

3. My Idiocy.

As to being too stupid to realize that I'm not supposed to shoot wildlife with this lens...well...I've never been too good at following the rules. Just wait to see the wildlife images I produce with the 120-300mm f2.8E over the next year (I kinda think I'm going to prove the naysayers wrong!).

Now don't get me wrong - I don't think the 120-300mm f2.8E will work for most wildlife shooters. Heck, I might be the ONLY wildlife shooter in North America who likes and uses a 120-300mm (why does that NOT bother me?). And I don't think Nikon will sell too many of them. But I think it will work well for me. Here's why:

1. Big Subjects at Close Distances!

I shoot a LOT on BC's west coast, which means a lot of my subject matter is BIG (bears, wolves, whales, etc.). And, a LOT of the time I am working in close proximity to these animals. Most of the time I'm NOT shooting songbirds at 25 meters! So, based on decades of experience I KNOW the focal length range will work for me (and likely better than it would for a LOT of wildlife photographers).

2. I LIKE "The Wider View!"

I'm a fan of animalscape shots where the subject is small in the frame. Heck, I even have a whole gallery dedicated to animalscapes - check it out here. And, I don't tend to shoot my animalscapes with a 24-70mm...I often shoot my animalscapes at longer distances and often in the 120 to 400mm focal length range. So with the 120-300mm f2.8E AND the 180-400mm f4E at my disposal I will be well equipped to nab my favourite style of wildlife images.

3. I Own the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport - AND LIKE IT!

I already own the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport lens, which is a surprisingly good lens. And, I HAVE found this lens to be very useful for me. If, as I expect, the Nikon 120-300mm f2.8E is a little sharper (especially when shot wide open), has a slightly faster and better AF system, and has a better image stabilization system, I am sure I am going to love it.

4. The POTENTIAL for Optical Magic?

During this winter I have been culling through THOUSANDS of brown bear images - I began with about 80,000 brown bear shots and I'm now down to a little under 40,000 images. During this process I have been struck by a how much images shot with ONE lens have stood out from all the others and produced images with an almost "magical" quality to them. This lens is the Nikon 200mm f2 VR (which I no longer own). Many of the bear images I shot with this lens are simply magical - and the bulk of the MOST magical shots were shot at f2.5 or f2.8 (NOT f2).

My hope with the 120-300mm f2.8E? That it will be uber-sharp when shot in the focal lengths of 200mm to 300mm - including at f2.8. And, that it just might approach the magical quality of the 200mm f2.

I acknowledge that I may end up being disappointed with the 120-300mm f2.8E. If I am I'll just turn around and sell the lens. But I am pretty sure you won't be seeing the 120-300mm f2.8E on my Gear For Sale page in the near future!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

21 Jan 2020: Musings Part 4 - AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

This is the fourth part of a short series of entries conveying some musings about the relatively rapid evolution on my Nikon-based wildlife photography kit over the last year or so. The first entry set the stage for the series, the second covered my "gut feelings" about how well the Z7 fit into my wildlife kit, and the third covered my thoughts about the performance and value of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E zoom lens. Those entries can be found here:

Musings Part 1 - On My Evolving Nikon Wildlife Kit.
Musings Part 2 - The Nikon Z7
Musings Part 3 - AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR

Today's entry covers my impressions and opinions on the AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR (hereafter simply known as "the 500 PF") after testing it extensively and shooting with it for about 12 months. This entry isn't intended as a full review of the 500 PF, but rather as an attempt to describe the "impact" this lens has had on my wildlife photography and how I rate its "value" to me. I have done extensive optical testing on the 500 PF against several other high-end lenses that overlap it in focal length - the most recent field test blog post on the 500 PF (and links to my previous posts on the lens) can be found right here: Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF Field Test II: Comparative Optical Performance.

OVERVIEW

Many wildlife shooters consider a professional prime (i.e., fixed focal length) super-telephoto lens to be the ultimate "tool" in plying their trade. Of the super-telephoto primes from Nikon (or, for that matter, Canon) you'll find shooters who prefer one of the "big 3" over the others for very valid reasons. The AF-S 400mm f2.8 (G or E versions) tends to be preferred by those who wanted the "sharpest of the sharp" super-telephotos, want the ultimate in subject isolation, and tend to work with somewhat more approachable subjects and/or larger subjects than songbirds! The AF-S 500mm f4 (again either the G or E versions) has a lot of things going for it too - a little more reach, lighter weight, lower price, and is often thought of as (at least by me) as a good all-rounder super-telephoto with few big compromises. The AF-S 600mm f4 (yep, both G or E versions) gives you more reach again, but it is the largest and the heaviest of the batch - but often those who work with hard-to-approach subjects (or, of course, songbirds!) are partial to the 600mm f4's. I do acknowledge that the AF-S 800mm f5.6E does exist, but because of its rarity (largely owing to its astronomical price tag) I won't bother discussing it here.

But common to all 3 of Nikon's (and Canon's) "traditional" super-telephoto lenses is the fact that they are bloody big and heavy - so much so that they are largely "destination lenses" (meaning, you're taking them to a specific destination to shoot a specific subject...and you DON'T tend to hang them around your neck and go for a walk in the woods "just in case" you might see something worth shooting). And, because we had no lighter or smaller viable options to get the reach and subject isolation we craved, we grew to completely accept ALL the limitations inherent in using a 3600 gm (8 lb) to 5400 gm behemoth for wildlife shooting, including buying special cases to transport them by plane, investing in large and sturdy tripods and gimbal heads to support them in the field, debate hiring a sherpa to carry them in the field (OK, OK, I know...that might be a LITTLE extreme, but it would be nice, right?), et cetera.

So...when Nikon announced the very small and very light (think "not much bigger and heavier than a 70-200mm f2.8") 500mm f5.6E PF I was both intrigued and excited. But as an owner of the FIRST Nikon PF lens (the 300mm f4 PF) I did have some reservations...and that was simply because while I LOVED the size and weight of the 300mm PF, I wasn't in love with how it performed optically. Now, don't get me wrong or misquote me by saying I think the 300mm PF is a "bad" lens optically - I don't think that. I think the 300mm PF is decent optically, just not GREAT optically. If someone has NOT owned a 300mm f2.8 VR or any of Nikon's "big 3" super-telephotos then they would likely LOVE the optical quality of the 300mm PF.

And, of course, another incredibly appealing aspect of the 500mm PF - and especially compared to ANY of Nikon's (or Canon's) "big 3" super-telephotos - is its price. At the time of this writing the 500mm PF retails for $4,699 in Canada while the 500mm f4E retails for $12,899.

Anyway...I ordered a 500mm PF the first day I could, and while I waited a while to get it, I was one of the lucky ones to get it in a quasi-reasonable time frame. And, I ordered it with the attitude that if I was going to keep it, there were a few critical things it had to exhibit, including...

• It had to have excellent sharpness - in all ways comparable to the Nikkor 500mm f4E OR the Sigma Sport 500mm f4

• That sharpness had to extend from edge-to-edge, even on a high-res sensor like that of a D850 or Z7

• Given its smaller maximum aperture of f5.6 (compared to the f4 version), it had to be tack sharp when shot wide open. Note that as one who LOVES the subject isolation you can obtain with any of Nikon's "big 3" super-telephotos, this "must be tack sharp when shot wide open" attribute was incredibly important to me.

To my way of thinking, if the 500mm PF does exhibit these optical characteristics, and if it scores well on two other "usability" factors that I consider of high importance (VR/hand-holdability and AF performance), then for me (and, I suspect, many wildlife shooters) it WOULD be a true breakthrough product. And, it would change the way I work in the field pretty dramatically!

I. Optical Performance

As soon as I received my 500mm PF I tested and compared its optical performance against several other 500mm "options", including the Sigma Sport 500mm f4, the Nikkor AF-S 180-400mm f4E (at 500mm, so with its teleconverter engaged), and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm. It's important to note that I previously tested the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 against the Nikkor 500mm f4E and found the two lenses to be optically "equivalent" (that field test can be viewed here: 500mm Wars - Sigma vs. Nikon ). So I am quite comfortable "extrapolating" my 500mm PF test results to include how the 500mm PF would compare against the Nikkor AF-S 500mm f4E.

I have reported my results of the optical performance of the 500mm PF in a previous detailed blog entry (view it here: Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF Field Test II: Comparative Optical Performance) so here I'll just present the shortest summary of my results and then comment on a few other observations I've made since posting that 500mm PF optical performance blog entry.

The Four Sentence Executive Summary:

The Nikkor 500mm PF is a very sharp super-telephoto prime lens over its entire aperture range - and at all distances. It also exhibits excellent contrast and bokeh on par with the "best of the best" super-telephoto lenses. And because the 500mm PF is razor sharp when shot wide open, it provides a stronger ability to separate a subject from the background than you might expect from a lens with a maximum aperture of f5.6. In my view the 500mm PF is completely on par optically with the absolute best super-telephotos money can buy.

And now...some further comments on:

1. Edge-to-edge sharpness: Not long after getting my 500mm PF I ran into a near perfect scenario to check out the edge-to-edge sharpness of the 500mm PF in a field setting. This image is a full-frame, full-resolution shot captured with the 500mm PF mounted on a Z7, and handheld @ 1/500s and f5.6 (wide open). Best to view the image at 100% magnification:

Columbia Wetlands from 600 meters: Download Image (JPEG: 15.3 MB)

2. Backlighting and Image Quality: One situation the separates high quality lenses from the pretenders is when shooting backlit subjects, including shooting almost directly into the sun or other strong point source of light. The "best of the best" lenses resist flare and retain decent contrast when shooting backlit subjects. While I haven't had a huge number of opportunities to shoot backlit wildlife since getting my 500mm PF, in those few cases I have (or have used my wildlife "proxy" to test this) I have found that the 500mm PF handles backlit situation very well. And, I have received feedback from a considerable number of other 500mm PF users saying the same thing, i.e., that it works GREAT with backlighting. Here's just one sample image to show what I mean:

Poncho - Backlit on Snow: Download Image (JPEG: 1.3 MB)

3. The BIGGEST Elephant in the Room - SUBJECT ISOLATION: One of the biggest concerns I had about the 500mm PF when it was first announced was whether or not the maximum aperture of f5.6 would be wide enough (and produce a shallow enough DoF) to effectively isolate a subject from its background. And I have heard this concern from many wildlife shooters, with some of them even insisting the f5.6 maximum aperture wouldn't work for them - even though they had never even SEEN the lens (of course, when I asked them how often they shot their 500mm f4's at f4 I usually heard two answers - "Very rarely" or "Never"!). After testing and shooting the 500mm PF I have a different take on this subject, and here's my argument:

• The biggest single contributor to getting dreamy soft backgrounds with "tack sharp" subjects that "pop" isn't the aperture you choose - it's the relative distance between you and the subject and the subject to its background. Simply put, you have to be closer to your subject than your subject is to the background. Yes, having a larger maximum aperture WILL give you a thinner DoF, but only if you can use that aperture and still get sharp shots.

• The Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF exhibits what I call Aperture Independent Sharpness (or AIS) - it is as sharp shot wide open as it is at virtually any aperture. The Nikkor 500mm f4E does NOT exhibit AIS - to get maximally sharp images with the 500mm f4E you have to stop the lens down by approximately 2/3 of a stop - which is f5. And that difference in image sharpness between f4 and f5 IS noticeable without extreme pixel-peeping.

• SO...while I will never argue that the 500mm f5.6E PF is JUST as good at separating subject from the background as the 500mm f4E is, it is really, really close - especially if you want your subject as sharp as possible (and thus stop down the 500mm f4 a little). There MAY be situations where ensuring the camera-to-subject-to-background distances necessary to get "dreamy soft" backgrounds are tougher to "create" with the 500 PF than with the 500mm f4, those situations are darned rare!

And here are some sample shots to show what I mean. Many of them are shot with the 500 PF wide open, but in some cases (with close subjects and inherently shallow DoF's) I stopped all the way down to f9 and still obtained "dreamy soft" backgrounds. Note that the camera used and exposure info for each shot is shown in the border on the top left corner of each image:

Female Common Merganser - Just Cruisin': Download Image (JPEG: 0.9 MB)
Simply a Seal: Download Image (JPEG: 0.7 MB)
Red-breasted Nuthatch: Download Image (JPEG: 0.9 MB)
Mountain Chickadee: Download Image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)
White-tailed Doe in Forest: Download Image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
Poncho Going Low: Download Image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
The Poser - Red Squirrel on Stump: Download Image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
Cedar Waxwing in Pre-dawn Light: Download Image (JPEG: 0.9 MB)
White-tailed Doe - and Daughter: Download Image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

4. Optical Performance with TC-14EIII (1.4x) Teleconverter: When I evaluate how a teleconverter works with a specific lens I consider two things - the optical performance of the lens/TC combination - and if the combo is realistically usable in the field. And, the 500mm PF with the Nikkor TC-14E-III (1.4x) teleconverter is very good optically. In fact, it exceeded my expectations by quite a large margin. Here's one example:

Red-breasted Nuthatch: Download Image (JPEG: 0.8 MB)

However, the perception of the "usability" of this combination will vary dramatically between users (and definitely between cameras the lens/TC combination is used with). Why? Largely because of the maximum aperture of f8. Not only does this limit the usefulness of the lens/TC combo in low light, but (and more importantly) it has an impact on the AF performance of all Nikon DSLR's. I have shot the 500mm PF plus TC-14EIII with the Nikon D5 and on the Nikon Z7. If you check the AF "specs" of the D5 only 15 of its 153 focus points are supposed to work with lenses with a maximum aperture of f8 (and only 9 of those are selectable by the user). In the field I found a much higher number of focus points did work with the 500mm PF plus TC-14EIII combination, but the performance of many of the "outer" focus points was very "iffy" (at best). Keep in mind that the AF of the D5 is the BEST (by a large margin) of all Nikon's DSLR's and users of other Nikon DSLR's may find the AF performance of the 500mm PF plus TC-14EIII unusable and unacceptable. In my case I probably WILL use the 500mm PF with the TC-14EIII on very selected occasions in those few instances where everything is "just right" (lots of light, a subject where close approach is impossible or inappropriate, etc.).

Here's one "moderate action" shot captured with my D5 with the 500mm PF plus TC-14EIII combination:

Poncho in Fast Trot: Download Image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

Not surprisingly, I found I had decent AF performance with ALL 493 of the focus points of the Z7 (chock one up for using mirrorless cameras to photograph wildlife!).

What about the performance of the 500mm PF with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter? I don't know. That combination has a maximum aperture of f11 - and I KNOW that in a field setting I would never end up using a lens with a maximum aperture of f11 (based on "usability" grounds alone).

II. Other "Usability" Characteristics...

1. Ease of Transport, Freedom of Movement: It's almost impossible to overstate just how much the incredibly small size and low weight of the 500mm PF (compared to a "traditional" 500mm) impacts on just how easy it easy to transport or travel with the lens - and how much "freedom of movement" you have when using it. As mentioned above, I know of few people who regularly grab their 500mm f4's, hang it around their neck and go for a walk in the woods "just in case" they happen to run into a scene or subject suited to a 500mm focal length. But, this is something I do ALL the time with my 500 PF - and I just love it (now keep in mind I LIVE in the woods and could run into a lot of interesting subjects - including grizzlies, wolves, coyotes, deer, elk and more - just while walking around our cabin). And there are just a ton of little things associated with handling of the lens that you can do with the 500mm PF that you just couldn't (or wouldn't) do with a 500mm f4...such as dropping to your knees (or right down flat on the ground) with it in your hands, whipping it around in another direction to grab a quick shot, running or trotting with it in your hands (I've done this several times now to catch a "soon to be gone" shot), etc. And, even if I'm going on a long hike (like 10+ km) and I think there's even a remote chance I'll bump into something suited to the 500mm focal length then I'll throw the 500mm PF in a small daypack "just in case" (and I would never dream of doing this with a 500mm f4). In a way you don't realize how many limitations you have (and how many compromises you have to make) with a 500mm f4 until you get a 500mm PF!

2. VR Performance - and "Hand-holdability": The slowest shutter speed that anyone can effectively hand-hold a super-telephoto lens at (and still get sharp shots) varies with a ton of factors, including lens balance, lens weight, user technique, user strength, VR performance of the lens (or lens and camera stabilization in the case of the Z-Series cameras), and more. I have done some comparative tests of the shutter speeds that I can hand-hold the 500mm PF and some other 500mm "options" at (and still get sharp shots) AND I have shot the 500mm PF hand-held extensively over the last year. I'll be reporting the results in detail in a coming blog entry, but here are the three biggest take-home lenses (and I think the first one will REALLY surprise a lot of folks):

USE THE VR! Almost shockingly, and if the VR or OS systems are turned OFF, I can successfully hand-hold BOTH the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (at 500mm with TC engaged) and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 at slower shutter speeds that I can with the 500mm PF. Huh? Why? I can't be sure, but I noticed the exact same thing with the 300mm f4 PF - that without the VR turned on I was AWFUL at hand-holding it (and worse than with the 300m f2.8 VRII). I THINK it's because the PF's are simply too light (for their magnification factor) and you simply don't have the mass to work against (and stabilize the "system"). Think in terms of trying to hold you hand completely still with a piece of styrofoam in it versus with about a 450 gm (one pound) weight in it...I think you'd find it easier to hold the one pound weight steady than the styrofoam!

Hand-holdabiity with VR ON: Okay...now EVERYTHING changes (and returns to what most would expect). Turn on the VR of the 500mm PF (in either Normal or Sport mode) and instantly I can hand-hold the 500mm PF at far slower shutter speeds than I can with the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (at 500mm with TC engaged) and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4. With the VR/OS turned on with both the 180-400mm and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 I can regularly and predictably (= all shots in a burst of 3) get sharp hand-held shots down to about 1/400s and get "some" (1 or 2 in a burst of 3) down to about 1/200s. With the 500 PF I regularly and predictably get sharp hand-held shots down to about 1/250s and "some" (i.e., 1 or 2 in a burst of 3) sharp shots down to about 1/60s.

Hand-hold it ALL DAY long! It's one thing to be able to hand-hold a super-telephoto shot for one or two quick shots. But to do it for minutes on end (while you wait for that wolf to turn its head back to you) is a very different thing. And, if you're in a situation where you have to hand-hold your lens for minutes on end over a whole day...well...unless you're Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime...you aren't going to do it with a 500mm f4. But...it's pretty easy to do with the 500mm PF!

I'll have a lot more to say about hand-holdability of the 500mm PF soon in a coming blog entry - suffice to say for now that if you use the VR the hand-holdability of the 500 PF kicks the butt of any other 500mm lens currently on the market...

3. Autofocus Performance? I'm going to keep this one short (and yes, I will say more about this in a future blog entry in the next month or two) but both my testing and experience in the field tell me the same thing: in terms of speed of focus acquisition and focus tracking the 500mm PF is as good or better than any other 500mm prime or zoom lens I have tested it against. This includes the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (at 500mm with TC engaged), the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 (which matched the Nikkor 500mm f4E in previous tests - see 500mm Wars - Sigma vs. Nikon for verification) and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm. Of course, if I DON'T give at least one sample image I know I'll be asked for it, so here ya go:

Cho on the Go: Download Image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

III. A Quick Summary:

OK...the shortest summary of the performance of the 500 PF is this: What's NOT to like? In my view Nikon hit an absolute grand slam homerun with the 500 PF. It's great optically - tack sharp at all apertures and from edge-to-edge (and it just BEGS to be shot wide open). It can be used to isolate a subject from its background ALMOST as well as any 500mm f4. Its light weight and small size makes it easy to transport and even easier to use and hand-hold (with the VR on!). It's autofocus system is blazing fast and accurate. And, it comes in at almost 1/3 of the price of the Nikkor 500mm f4E (and only 60% of the price of the highly regarded Sigma Sport 500mm f4).

I emphatically repeat: What's NOT to like? ;-)

IV. Is the 500mm PF a True Breakthrough Product?

I have NO PROBLEM answering this question - absolutely YES. And, unlike with the 180-400mm f4E, this lens isn't priced in the stratosphere so it's accessible to MANY more shooters. And now (finally) you can actually GET one! ;-)

Another way to look at this issue of whether or not the 500 PF is a breakthrough product is to ask the question "Is there any real reason left to buy a 500mm f4?". Other than a glib response like "A 500mm f4 has a higher testosterone factor"...I honestly can't think of one. When I completed my 500mm Wars field test I decided to sell my Nikkor 500mm f4E and keep the Sigma Sport 500 f4 (and never regretted it). Now, after testing and using the 500mm PF for a year I have sold my Sigma Sport 500mm f4. I do think the 500 PF will absolutely crater the sales of NEW Nikkor 500mm f4E's and that it will depress the street price of used 500mm f4's. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing will depend if you're a buyer or a seller.

Is there anything that would make me sell and replace my 500mm PF? While I already consider it one of my most valuable and useful lenses, I'd replace it in an eye blink if/when Nikon comes out with either a 600mm f5.6 PF or 800mm f5.6 PF. And I'd do so simply for pragmatic reasons - as an owner of the 180-400mm f4E I DO have almost complete redundancy at the 500mm focal length and it makes little sense for me to take both my 180-400mm AND my 500mm PF on expeditions (and I think I'd love taking a 600mm f5.6 PF on walks and hikes almost as much as I do with my 500mm PF!).

Up next in this series...Musings Part 5 - to cover...well...I'm not quite sure yet! But very likely something along the lines of "Where We're At - and Where We're Headed - as Nikon-shooting Wildlife Photographers". Let me think about it. And stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog_2020_all.html#Musing4

14 Jan 2020: State of the Union: 2021 Photo Tours

Behind the scenes I have been working hard to finalize the critical details (including dates and prices) for our 2021 photo tour schedule. Things are falling into place nicely and here's what I can say right now:

• I should begin contacting those who asked for "first right of refusal" (via signing up on one or more 2021 Priority Booking Lists) on all 2021 photo tours in about 10 days. Those folks will get first crack at the available spots on the 2021 photo tours.

• I will be accepting NEW sign-ups on the 2021 Priority Booking List until at least 24 January 2020. As mentioned above, this is simply a "first right of refusal" list for the spots on each of the trips - to find out more about the priority booking list just go here: 2021 Priority Booking List.

• I will be posting details (and accepting registrations from all on a first-come, first-served basis) beginning ABOUT 10 February 2020.

• We WILL have a minimum of one NEW trip for the 2021 season - and at this point no one is on the Priority Booking List for the new trip(s). If you would like information on these exciting new trips as soon as its available (and to have first crack at them), just email me using this link: 2021 New Trips Info Request.

• In 2021 there WILL be some exciting new twists for our core program of trips!

Geez...2020 has just begun and I'm ALREADY excited about the 2021 photo tour season!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

08 Jan 2020: Preliminary Thoughts: Selected New Nikon Products

My email inbin was swamped yesterday and earlier today by folks wondering what I thought of several of the new products Nikon announced on January 6. I can't make any comments yet about the performance of the new products (for the most obvious reason - I haven't tried them yet) and I won't bother re-hashing all the nitty-gritty details of each and every spec, but here's a few of my preliminary "high-level" thoughts...

1. The Nikon D780.

This is the replacement model for the highly popular D750 - which was Nikon's "entry level" full-frame DSLR. It looks like the KEY upgrades on the camera are an improved image sensor (now a BSI sensor), much improved AF system (still 51 points, but with the algorithm "borrowed" from the D5), greatly improved Live View performance (including a 12 fps frame rate when in Live View mode), and a big leap in video performance. I have three main thoughts about the camera...

First, I always considered the D750 as Nikon's best all-rounder DSLR (yes, better than the D850 for the majority of users). The D780 looks like a solid upgrade and, at least in my opinion, STILL Nikon's best all-rounder DSLR. If you want a DSLR and want one that can do almost everything very well, this is the camera for you!

Second, and by all accounts, the D780 is pretty much a Z6 in DSLR form. So...which way should you go - for the mirrorless or DSLR form? This can be argued a multitude of ways, but for me it comes down to two big differences that are (at least currently) inherent in the Nikon DSLR vs. mirrorless "battle" - the positives of the power and control of the EVF of the mirrorless Z6 vs. the better AF of the D780 for shooting action (I would counter that the Z6 has a more ACCURATE AF, but many seem to want the slightly faster initial acquisition of focus and tracking of Nikon's DSLR's). For those with a large collection of f-mount lenses who don't want to shoot them with an FTZ adapter on a Z6 the D780 may be just the ticket.

Third, while I think the D780 will quickly become the best-selling Nikon full-frame DSLR, I don't think it will sell nearly as well as the D750 did. I think a lot of potential buyers will be thinking of waiting for generation 2 of the mirrorless Z's. Bottom line: Shrinking market compounded by the problem of the the increasing migration to (and increasing hype around) mirrorless cameras.

Unknowns and "Wild Cards"? While the frame rate of the D780 jumped slightly when using the optical viewfinder (from 6.5 fps to 7 fps) and more when using Live View (to 12 fps), what we don't know is if the pathetic burst size of the D750 (somewhere around 17-20 frames before chugging down to a crawl) has been improved. This was the Achilles heel of the D750 for action shooting and at this point we don't know how much improvement has been made burst depth. And, we currently know little about the image sensor yet and, more importantly, the resultant characteristics of image quality that most are interested in (like dynamic range and ISO performance). It IS very likely this will be just an awesome all-rounder that would be work well for a lot of users...Nikon just has to make them believe that! ;-)

Finally, will I be getting one? Nope. I'm into "speciality" cameras (e.g., D5/D6 and (at least for now) D500 for much of my wildlife work, Z7 for landscapes and animalscapes) and am not looking for a "jack of all trades, master of none" camera right now (and if I was it would likely be a mirrorless!).

2. The AF-S NIKKOR 120-300mm f/2.8E FL ED SR VR Zoom Lens.

As a fan of the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 zoom I am excited about ALMOST everything about the new Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E. I LIKE the focal range for much of my work (GREAT for a lot of marine mammals, great for a lot of work in the Great Bear Rainforest). And, of course, after using the Sigma 120-300 I know I like an f2.8 aperture (and its subject isolating capabilities) on a lens of this focal range (if it was a f4 I wouldn't be interested in it). But, at least from my perspective, there are two big drawbacks to this lens...

First, the price! HOLY SMOKES! While I'm actually not surprised by the price, I had hoped Nikon would price this one by going UP from the 70-200mm f2.8E and not DOWN from the uber-expensive 180-400mm f4E. They chose the latter route. At a street retail price of $12,399 in Canada this lens will simply be out of reach of a lot of users. While I REALLY wanted this lens after it was announced, the price made me think WAY more than twice if I wanted to lay out the cash for it. At the same time, the price tells me that Nikon knows they absolutely HAVE to produce a nearly flawless lens in the 120-300. Between the expectations created by the high price and Nikon's excellent recent track record on putting how crazy high quality pro F-mount lenses (e.g., the 500mm f4E PF, the 180-400mm f4E) I am expecting that the Nikkor 120-300mm will...

• Be tack sharp (as sharp as the best primes) at all focal ranges and all apertures, including at f2.8 at 300mm (and you can bet that will be one of the first things I will be testing against the Sigma and the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII)
• Exhibit superb colour and contrast
• Exhibit absolute top-notch bokeh
• Have an AWESOME AF system (especially super fast initial focus acquisition) - and this is also something I look forward to testing against both the Sigma Sport 120-300 and the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII
• Have a great VR system (yep, something else I'll be testing)

Second, the weight! The Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E is listed at 3250 gm (7.16 lb), which is only about 140 gm (.31 lb) than the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8. Frankly, I was hoping for it to be at LEAST a full pound lighter than the Sigma. And from past experience using the Sigma (and in talking to others who also own it) the weight of that lens DOES turn off a lot of users. Note that the weights I am using for this discussion are based off of the tech specs that the respective companies publish - I will check them on my own scale the minute I have the Nikkor 120-300 in my hands (which may be as early as January 23rd). But I am quite disappointed in the weight of this lens...

In my blog entry of 01 January (below) I listed out some of the main features coming during 2020 on this blog. That entry listed a detailed review of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E where I planned to compare the performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E against that of the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8. In that blog entry I put in a big caveat when I said "...if the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E comes in at over $10K CAD I may re-think my strategy to purchase (and test) one." After I saw the $12,399 CAD retail price of the Nikkor 120-300 I gave a lot of consideration to cancelling my order, but in the end I decided to proceed with the purchase and the field test. But I will be approaching it with a "...if the Nikkor isn't a LOT better I'm not keeping it" attitude. Oh...and as noted above, I WILL be including the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII in the test (as well as selected other lenses where appropriate, such as the 70-200mm f2.8E (and 2.8S) at focal lengths of 200mm and below).

3. The NIKKOR Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S Zoom Lens.

OK...here's a new product that I have nothing but excitement about. Yes, it's close in size and weight to the F-mount version (based on published specs it looks a little longer but a little lighter), but my own interest in mirrorless isn't motivated primarily by camera or lens size/weight...it's about increased control during image capture and image quality. Interestingly - and at least in published "suggested retail" price lists, the new Z-mount 70-200mm comes in at about $100 CAD below that of the 70-200mm f2.8E (still expensive for a 70-200, but at least not MORE expensive than we've become numbed to!). For me the most interesting or compelling features of the Z-mount 70-200mm f2.8S are:

• The expectation of improved sharpness in the central region when shot wide open (at all focal lengths) and better edge-to-edge sharpness (and, yes, this will be one of the first things I'll be examining in my field test of this lens). I do expect that the new lens will exhibit Aperture Independent Sharpness (AIS)...meaning that even when shot wide open it will be just as sharp as when stopped down by 2/3 to a full stop. While the F-mount 70-200mm f2.8E is a GREAT lens, you do need to stop it down just a little (about 2/3 of a stop) before the central region hits maximum sharpness.
• The 5-stop VR! Based on how the IBIS system works on my Z7 with all my other Z-mount lenses I am expecting we WILL get a true 5-stop stabilization increase with this lens. As one who hand-holds lenses almost all the time, this is probably the single biggest "selling point" of this lens to me.
• The two Ln-Fn buttons on the barrel of the lens (and getting a feel for the full range of features they can control).
• The ability to focus to as close as 0.5m (at 70mm). Not a huge thing day-to-day...but on occasion very handy!

I have to admit I had ONE hesitation in ordering this lens and that's the fact that it represents a "pure commitment" to the Z-system in a focal range I use a lot in the field (I can use my 70-200mm f2.8E on both my mirrorless and DSLR's, but the 70-200mm f2.8S will be usable ONLY on mirrorless). This is perhaps a bigger issue or concern for me because on a lot of my trips and photo tours I won't be able to bring BOTH 70-200's along (especially with over 7 pounds now being given up to the 120-300mm f2.8E!!).

I will be doing a detailed field test of this lens (against the 70-200mm f2.8E AND the 70-200mm f4) in 2020. At this point all I know about ship date of this lens is "in February 2020" and I can't say what kind of quantities (or possible delivery delays) we'll experience with this lens.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog_2020_all.html#Jan2020_NewStuff

06 Jan 2020: State of the Union: 2020 Photo Tours

Is a top-notch photo tour into the fabulous Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia, Canada on your bucket list? Or you're dying to get great shots of Killer Whales, Humpbacks, Steller Sea Lions, and Sea Otters with stunning natural backdrops? If your answer to either of these questions is "yes", I can definitely help you out!

We have a very limited number (as in THREE) spots available on 2020 photo tours. Here are the details:

1. Spring in the Southern Great Bear

We have ONE spot available on each of our TWO Spring in the Southern Great Bear photo tours. Both of these trips feature seven full days in the southern portion of the Great Bear Rainforest aboard the beautiful Passing Cloud schooner. One of the trips is an INSTRUCTIONAL photo tour (with a full day of wildlife photography instruction at the beginning of the trip) and the other is a PHOTO OP photo tour (no formal instruction on the trip). Both trips are carbon-neutral expeditions!

A. Spring in the Southern Great Bear Instructional Photo Tour

8 January 2020 UPDATE: The spot on the Spring in the Southern Great Bear Instructional Photo Tour is now gone and the trip is SOLD OUT.

DATES: May 12-21, 2020, including arrival and departure days. May 14-21, 2020 aboard the Passing Cloud.
SPACES AVAILABLE: ONE!
ALL THE DETAILS: Download THIS BROCHURE (PDF: 4.7 MB) or contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca
TO REGISTER: Email me at seminars@naturalart.ca to nab this last spot!

B. Spring in the Southern Great Bear Photo Op Photo Tour

DATES: May 29-June 6, 2020, including arrival and departure days. May 30-June 6, 2020 aboard the Passing Cloud.
SPACES AVAILABLE: ONE!
ALL THE DETAILS: Download THIS BROCHURE (PDF: 4.0 MB) or contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca
TO REGISTER: Email me at seminars@naturalart.ca to sign up!

2. Marine Mammals of the Central Pacific Coast

We have ONE spot available on our ever-popular "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More: Marine Mammals of the Central Pacific Coast" Instructional Photo Tour. This trip features seven full days on the Ocean Light II sailboat in an absolute hot spot for viewing and photographing a vast array of marine mammals (and birds!).

DATES: August 12-21, 2020 including arrival and departure days. August 14-21 aboard the Ocean Light II sailboat.
SPACES AVAILABLE: ONE!
ALL THE DETAILS: Download THIS BROCHURE (PDF: 3.7 MB) or contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca
TO REGISTER: Email me at seminars@naturalart.ca to sign up!

Hope to see you on one of these great trips in 2020!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

03 Jan 2020: My New Editing Monitor: An Eizo ColorEdge CG279X

Like many photographers these days, I spend more time behind my computer than out in the field, especially over the winter season. I like using a dual monitor system while working with images and am currently using an iMac 5K (with a High Density (HD) or "Retina" display) and, for over the last decade, I have used a 30" Apple Cinema Display as my "second" monitor. In my day-to-day work I perform all my critical image-editing tasks on the relatively low resolution (101 ppi) Apple Cinema Display.

But, long story short, and after almost 15 years of use, my 30" Cinema Display was beginning to show significant signs of wear (lots of coloured "dancing pixels" visible during startup or whenever editing images that contain a lot of blacks). So I decided it was time to bite the bullet and invest in a new editing monitor. And...for context...I don't like editing images using a HD display of any form. Why? While images do look great on HD displays (such as a Retina), they tend to hide noise and make everything look so darned sharp at 100% magnification that performing sharpening on an image is tough to do (especially if you're sharpening for online viewing and you want the image to look good on a NON-HD display).

Anyway...I went in search of a high-quality low(er) resolution monitor with good (and hopefully built-in) colour management capabilities. Of course, I wanted it to be capable of displaying a wide array of colour gamuts (including wide colour gamuts) including P3 (or DCI), Adobe RGB, sRGB, and more.

It didn't take me long to whittle the list of possible choices down to one monitor - an Eizo ColorEdge CG279X 27" monitor with its own proprietary colour management software AND built-in hardware sensor for colour calibration (info about this monitor right here...). Here's a few of its key specs:

Size: 27"
Native Resolution: 2560 x 1440 pixels (in a 16:9 ratio)
Pixel Density: 109 ppi (perfect!)
Display Colours: 1.07 billion from a palette of 278 trillion
Colour Gamut (Typical): Adobe RGB: 99%, DCI-P3: 98%
Contrast Ratio (Typical): 1300:1

I took delivery of the new display in late November so I have been using it now for a little over a month. My impressions and thoughts? Love it! Super easy to calibrate, great colours, viewable from almost any angle (without a brightness or colour penalty) and more. Note that I will NOT make the claim that images viewed on this monitor look as "pretty" as on a high-end HD monitor (such as the new Apple Pro Display XDR), but I will say that the Eizo ColorEdge CG279X is just an EXCELLENT monitor for image-editing and other production-related tasks (you know...for actually WORKING on!).

Anyway...if you're as nit-picky about image-editing and the appearance of your images as I am - and if you're in need of a new monitor - I'd suggest taking a good long look at the Eizo ColorEdge CG279X. Yep, you can definitely find cheaper monitors (including cheaper monitors with a HD pixel density), but I doubt you'll find a better monitor for professional level image editing!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca


01 Jan 2010: HNY! And...What's Coming in 2020!

First off...I wish all visitors to this blog and website a very Happy New Year - along with both good subject matter and great light!

As a Nikon-shooting wildlife photographer I'm exited about what's coming down the pipe in 2020. On the DSLR side we know we have a D6 coming soon, and I'm personally very excited about the Nikkor AF-S 120-300mm f2.8E (which we're led to believe will be announced next week). On the mirrorless front the highly anticipated 70-200mm f2.8S should be in our hands very soon and I am still hoping we'll see a pro-level Z-Series action camera in 2020.

What's coming in 2020 on this blog and website? Well...I'm sure the evolution of the material on this site will take a turn or two that will surprise even me. But that being said, I do have at least SOME concrete plans about the gear-related entries you'll see in 2020, including:

Nikon D6 Field Test & Review.

Yep, I'm going to field test Nikon's new flagship and compare its performance to that of the D5. You can assume that the field test and review will NOT include an unboxing video, I will actually USE the D6 before reviewing it, and I will be assessing the camera with the following question in mind: Does the D6 give me tangible real-world improvements (over the D5) that translate into better wildlife photos (or photos in situations I could not capture them before)?

85mm WARS!

For reasons I won't get into right now, I'm a fan of 85mm lenses (which, as a wildlife photographer might seem odd to some). I now own FOUR 85mm lenses - including both the f1.8 and f1.4 Nikkor F-mount G's, the Sigma Art 85mm f1.4, and now the Nikkor Z-mount 85mm f1.8S. So I'm well-equipped to do a detailed 85mm "shootout" comparative field test of these four lenses. In fact, I've already begun testing these lenses head-to-head. So expect to see a multi-part "85mm Wars" field test right here!

As a very brief aside, there was a recent "duel" of the F-mount Nikkor AF-S 85mm f1.8G vs. the Z-mount Nikkor 85mm f1.8S reported on Nikon Rumors (see it here) where the tester gives "...preference to the version G". While I have only just begun my actual testing of the 4 85mm lenses, I can already say I have a VERY different opinion! ;-)

Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Field Test & Review.

As a happy owner of the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 zoom, I am REALLY excited about the coming Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E. The Sigma 120-300 is REALLY strong optically and since Sigma sent me a copy of this lens for testing (which caused me to fork out the cash to buy one!), I have been sold on the utility of this focal range for my own needs. And I am HOPING the Nikkor version will meet or exceed the optical quality of the Sigma, offer slightly better AF performance, and come in a whole lot lighter (if the Sigma has a flaw that impacts its usefulness, it's its weight!). And, of course, the only way for me to REALLY find out if the Nikkor is better is to do a head-to-head field test against the Sigma! And, given I am going to do this anyway...why not share my results via producing a detailed review?

Oh...but one caveat on this planned review: At this point the pricing and detailed specs of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E are unknown. I am confident the specs of the Nikon (including weight) will make it a desireable lens (at least for me). But the pricing is a real wild card - will Nikon choose to price this lens "down" from the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (and make it ridiculously expensive) or price it "up" from the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E (and make it at least justifiable)? We should know soon, but if the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E comes in at over $10K CAD I may re-think my strategy to purchase (and test) one.

Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S Field Test & Review.

Owners of the F-mount Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E know just how good this lens is. I'm included in that group and I wonder just how much better the Z-mount version (the 70-200mm f2.8S) can be. My best guess is that it will be slightly sharper when shot wide open, likely a bit sharper on the edges on the high-res Z7 (as compared to the f-mount version when used with the FTZ adapter and Z7), and very likely with a noticeably better VR system. And, like with the 120-300mm f2.8E, the only way I am going to fully convince myself that one of these two lenses is better than the other is to test them myself! So...expect a comparative field test between the 70-200mm f2.8E and the 70-200mm f2.8S in 2020! ;-)

Is that it? Hard to say...so stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog_2020_all.html#anchor_2020_WhatsComing


II. Selected and Popular 2019 Gear-related Blog Entries

14 Nov 2019: Musings Part 3 - The AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR

This is the third part of a short series of entries conveying some of my thoughts about the relatively rapid evolution on my Nikon-based wildlife photography kit over the last year or so. The first entry set the stage for the series and the second covered my "gut feelings" about how well the Z7 fit into my wildlife kit. Those entries can be found here:

Musings On My Evolving Nikon Wildlife Kit - Part 1.
Musings Part 2 - The Nikon Z7

Today's entry covers my impressions and opinions on the AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR (hereafter simply known as "the 180-400") after testing it extensively and shooting with it for about 18 months. This entry isn't intended as a full review of the 180-400, but rather as an attempt to describe the "impact" this lens has had on my wildlife photography AND on the other lenses that I have (or had) in my wildlife kit at the time I acquired the 180-400. I have done extensive optical testing on the 180-400 against a plethora of other high-end lenses that overlap it in focal length - the most recent field test blog post on the 180-400 (and links to my previous posts on the lens) can be found right here: Nikkor 180-400mm f4E Field Test IIIF: Optical Performance at 560mm

OVERVIEW

To most wildlife shooters the choice of purchasing and using a super-telephoto zoom lens versus a super-telephoto prime lens comes down to where they stand on a just a few key variables. By its very nature a zoom lens offers focal length versatility which, among other things, can make it easier to compose images in the field, especially when using your feet to "zoom" your prime lens isn't an option! Historically, most super-telephoto zoom lenses were somewhat slower (i.e., had smaller maximum apertures) than super-telephoto prime lenses and that fact has the potential to affect at least two things - the photographer's ability to isolate a subject from the background and how little light they can work in. And, there are at least two more variables that most shooters consider when choosing between a zoom and prime lens. First (and again historically), even the best zoom lenses never were quite as sharp as best prime lenses. Second, even the best telephoto zoom lenses tended to be less expensive than the best prime lenses.

When the 180-400mm f4E lens was first introduced it turned a few heads, and not just for "positive" reasons. First, it absolutely blew the "zooms are cheaper" paradigm out of the water - it came in with an astronomical price tag (not far off TWICE the price that most shooters thought it was replacing - the 200-400mm f4G). Second, with the built-in teleconverter it DID offer an incredibly appealing total focal length range for the wildlife photographer - 180mm to 560mm. So it offered at least the possibility of replacing several prime lenses in a wildlife photographer's kit. And - as it turns out - while not small or light in an absolute sense, the 180-400mm is a little smaller and lighter than the lenses it replaces in a wildlife photographer's kit (notably the 400mm f2.8E, the 500mm f4E, and the 600mm f4E).

So at the end of the day, and especially given the astronomical price of the 180-400, the question really came down to this: Can the 180-400mm REALLY perform at top-notch prime lens performance levels?

THE GOOD

When it comes to the good things about the 180-400mm the list is long. Its optical performance is superb. Its AF system works as well as any of Nikon's best telephoto primes. Its VR performance matches the best super-telephotos too. Probably the best way to show the strengths of the 180-400 - and how it answers questions about its performance - is through viewing a series of images I've shot with it since getting mine. Note that ALL of these images are shot under real-world field conditions using a variety of different cameras. All are hand-held shots, and many were shot from a floating Zodiac. Note that critical tech specs are included on the top left corner of all the shots...

1. Optical Performance: I can honestly say that from an optical perspective the 180-400 is one of the most "solid" lenses I have ever owned - at every aperture, every focal length (including those accessed only by engaging the built-in 1.4x teleconverter), and at all camera-to-subject distances, this lens delivers stunning edge-to-edge sharpness. And note that when I say that optically it is "...one of the most "solid" lenses I have ever owned" I AM including Nikon's best super-telephoto prime lenses. For instance, BEFORE the 180-400 my favourite super-telephoto was the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E. But even as a "proud" owner of the 400mm f2.8E I had to admit that the lens didn't reach its maximum sharpness until you stopped it down to f3.5 or - in some cases - even f4. But the 180-400mm is as sharp wide open as it is stopped down to f5.6 (or f8, or whatever). And, it is SHARPER when it is shot wide open than the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E is when it is shot wide open. And...this is the case at all focal lengths. On to the performance questions and supporting images...

A. Does it perform well optically at ALL camera-to-subject distances? The precursor to the 180-400 was the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G - and the general feeling with that lens was that it was "...strong optically with close subjects, but fell off in performance as the distance to the subject increased". Not so with the 180-400 - not only does it focus very close, but even when shot at wide open at maximum focal length it performs GREAT at all distances. Check out these "shot at wide open at f5.6 from extremely close to extremely far away" 560mm shots:

Immature Old World Swallowtail (Caterpillar) (JPEG: 0.8 MB)
The Lonely Sentinel (JPEG: 0.8 MB)
Ocean, shoreline, rainforest, WOLF (JPEG: 3.1 MB)

B. How well does it perform when shot wide open at focal lengths at up to 400mm (so at f4)? Well...you can't find a focal length where the lens is weak when shot wide open without the TC-engaged. Of course - and as you would expect - because the lens has "only" a maximum aperture of f4 your ability to separate the subject from its background at its shorter focal lengths is compromised a little (compared to f2.8 lenses). Some examples:

• 180mm: The Triple Gulp - Humpbacks Bubble-netting (JPEG: 1.8 MB)
• 220mm: Playing the Hunger Game (Spirit Bear) (JPEG: 1.3 MB)
• 390mm: Spirit Bear Fishing (JPEG: 1.3 MB)
• 400mm: Poncho Attack! (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

C. How well does it perform when shot wide open at focal lengths OVER 400mm (so with the TC engaged and at f5.6)? Over the years I've found that the minute a teleconverter was added you pretty much had to stop down (often a full stop) from wide open before getting decent sharpness. But...as it turns out...it's not so with the 180-400 - you can get GREAT shots with the TC-engaged when shot wide open at f5.6. Some examples:

• 450mm: Hey...Who's Back There? (JPEG: 1.2 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Northern River Otter (JPEG: 2.2 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Kids Will Be Kids (JPEG: 1.5 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Only in Smoke Season! (JPEG: 1.3 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Diving Deep (JPEG: 1.9 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Surveilling the Shoreline (JPEG: 3.1 MB)

D. Can you really use ALL the focal lengths and get "prime-like" results? Yep. And...at all focal lengths you can shoot at ANY aperture and get sharp results...there is absolutely NO NEED WHATSOEVER to stop down from wide open to get that extra "biting" sharpness we all want in an image. Here's a "focal length tour" of some representative images...

• 180mm: I am SO Outta Here... (JPEG: 1.5 MB)
• 190mm: Prime Real Estate (JPEG: 1.9 MB)
• 200mm: After the Downpour - Khutzeymateen Waterfall (JPEG: 3.2 MB)
• 210mm: Bedded Down in the Khutzeymateen (JPEG: 1.2 MB)
• 270mm: Just Another Day in the Life Of... (JPEG: 1.9 MB)
• 310mm: The Wild Life (JPEG: 1.5 MB)
• 330mm: Non-verbal Communication! (JPEG: 1.5 MB)
• 380mm: Grabbing a Soggy Snack... (JPEG: 1.2 MB)
• 400mm: Pop Goes the Bear! (JPEG: 0.7 MB)
• 400mm: Ever Feel Like Everyone Is Talking About You? (JPEG: 1.3 MB)
• 400mm: The Khutzeymateen Estuary (JPEG: 1.3 MB)
• 450mm (TC engaged): Harbour Seals - High and Half Dry! (JPEG: 1.8 MB)
• 460mm (TC engaged): Soaked Top & Bottom (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
• 490mm (TC engaged): Pure Intimidation (JPEG: 1.9 MB)
• 490mm (TC engaged): Hanging Out at the Haul-Out (JPEG: 2.0 MB)
• 500mm (TC engaged): C'mon Mom...Just Grab the Next Fish and Let's Go! (JPEG: 1.7 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Attentive But Calm (JPEG: 1.3 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Eagle on Sitka (JPEG: 2.3 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Relaxed But Attentive (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

E. OK...what happens when you screw up and use the 180-400mm's built-in TC for focal lengths UNDER 400mm - is there a big hit on image quality? Hey...this happens! And the good news is, when it DOES happen there is no obvious decline in image quality. Here's a few samples of some of most memorable "oops...should have disengaged the TC but didn't" screw-ups:

• 280mm (TC engaged - OOPS!): Chaos, Conflict, & Cuddles (JPEG: 1.7 MB)
• 290mm (TC engaged - OOPS!): Classically Coastal (JPEG: 1.9 MB)
• 320mm (TC engaged - OOPS!): Humpback Lunging in the Great Bear (JPEG: 2.0 MB)

F. What about high contrast shooting situations, like when shooting backlit subjects? Many telephoto zoom lenses aren't as effective at shooting high-contrast scenes as super-telephoto primes are - the resulting images often show flare or are simply lacking in contrast. Not so with the 180-400mm - it exhibits great contrast in ALL situations, including in those high-contrast situations. Here's a couple of backlit images (both shot wide open at 560mm, so with the TC engaged) to demonstrate what I mean:

• 560mm (TC engaged): Steamy Sunrise in the Great Bear (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Sunrise Sentries - Coastal Gray Wolves (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

2. Autofocus Performance: For a wildlife photographer - and especially one who likes to shoot action (like birds in flight) - autofocus performance can make or break their perception of the usefulness of a lens. Historically Nikon's big primes have offered exceptional autofocus performance, especially when paired with their flagship DSLR's. My own experience is that Nikon's previous super-telephoto zoom lenses (including the Nikkor 200-400 f4G, the Nikkor 80-400 f4.5-5.6G, and the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E) and premium 3rd party super-telephoto zoom lenses (e.g, the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 and Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3) - all of which I have owned, tested extensively, and shot with - have good autofocus systems, but fall short of that of Nikon's best super-telephoto primes. The 180-400? Absolute measures of autofocus performance are notoriously hard to obtain, but in my own preliminary testing of the autofocus performance of the 180-400mm against the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and against both the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport and the Nikkor 500mm f4E I have been able to discern no clear difference in autofocus performance (i.e., the 180-400 seems as good the best available primes). Note that I have not yet written up or posted these results on this website.

What about field results of the autofocus performance of the 180-400? Thought you'd never ask! While anecdotal, I can say I have been just thrilled by the results. Here's some examples (all these images were captured with the 180-400mm paired up with a D5):

• 400mm: An Absolutely Steller Ride... (JPEG: 1.3 MB)
• 410mm (TC engaged): Steller Sea Lions - Chaos & Energy (JPEG: 2.1 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Herring Gull - Deploying Landing Gear (JPEG: 0.9 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): The Pounce (JPEG: 1.6 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Canada Goose...Into the Setting Sun (JPEG: 0.7 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Tufted Puffin (JPEG: 1.0 MB)

3. Vibration Reduction (VR) Performance: VR is one area where I have not seen a major difference in performance between prime and zoom lenses. And, its contribution to image quality can vary dramatically between photographers (i.e., those wildlife photographers that religiously shoot from tripods may not consider it as important as those who frequently shoot hand-held). In my OWN case - and as one who hand-holds super-telephotos the majority of the time - having good VR performance is absolutely critical in obtaining high quality images. I HAVE done extensive testing of the VR performance of the 180-400mm against a slew of lenses with overlapping focal lengths and have found there to be no significant difference in VR performance between the Nikon super-telephoto prime lenses and the 180-400 (I haven't published these results on this website yet). What have I found about the VR performance of the 180-400 in the field when shooting the lens? Two things...

First, that I CAN obtain very sharp shots with the 180-400mm at very slow shutter speeds. As an example, the following shot was captured hand-held at 1/15s:

• 220mm: Poised & Patient - Awaiting Dinner! (JPEG: 1.9 MB)

Note that I am NOT claiming that you will get sharp shots on EVERY exposure in this shutter speed range (and along with this sharp shot, I DID get a number of soft shots).

Second, with the 180-400 I can regularly count on getting sharp shots (with VR engaged) at shutter speeds of about one half of 1/focal length of focal length the lens is zoomed to. So, at 200mm I can regularly get sharp hand-held shots at 1/100s, at 400mm I can regularly get sharp hand-held shots at 1/200s, etc. This is completely on par with my own experience when shooting Nikon's best super-telephoto lenses.

THE BAD

Are there any weaknesses or downsides to the 180-400mm? I have found - or can think of - only three possible weaknesses:

1. Vignetting: Yes, the 180-400mm does exhibit strong vignetting (darkening of edges and corners of the image). The amount of vignetting is almost identical to that of the 200-400mm f4G. It is worse when shot wide open (at times up to 1.3 stops) and gradually tapers off as you stop down (but it is often still visible even at f8). Vignetting can be easily cleaned up in post-processing (if shooting RAW files) or in-camera (to some degree) if shooting JPEG files. Whether it is considered a problem (or even a deal-breaker) will vary between photographers. I consider it a PITA (Pain-In-the-A..), but not even a true "problem". The following image gives a feeling for the amount of vignetting you can expect without he 180-400 (the first is uncorrected for vignetting in post-processing, the second shows the same image with correction in post-processing). The image was captured at 400mm and at f4:

Summer Sunrise - East Kootenays, BC (vignette NOT removed) (JPEG: 0.5 MB)
Summer Sunrise - East Kootenays, BC (vignette removed) (JPEG: 0.5 MB)

2. Weight: The 180-400 tips the scales at 3500 gm (7.7 lb), which is slightly less than that of the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E (3800 gm or 8.4 lb) and slightly MORE than the Nikkor 500mm f4E (3090 gm or 6.8 lb). So it is pretty much "super-telephoto" weight. Which means it will be easily "hand-holdable" for some, and simply too heavy for others to hand-hold. So this could be a deal-breaker for some, and "just a fact of life" for others.

3. Subject Isolation? I've asked several other wildlife photographers who own prime super-telephoto lenses but NOT the 180-400 if they would ever consider swapping their primes for the 180-400. Many would (and have), but one common reason I have run into for why they wouldn't is because they want the extra stop when shot wide open (at f2.8 with a 400mm f2.8 or at f4 with a 500mm f4) because they feel they need it to "isolate" their subject from the background (i.e., keep the subject sharp and blur the background). I understand this logic, but I don't think it's a very valid concern. Why? To begin with, separating a subject from the background (and producing those "dreamy" out-of-focus backgrounds) is more a function of the ratio of distances from the camera to the subject AND the subject to the background than it is having one extra stop available to "open up". Simply put, if you are closer to your subject than your subject is to its background, you can successfully isolate that subject from the background (without shooting wide open). Take a look at the following images to see what I mean. All are shot wide open but the distance to the background varies (and you'll see the impact of "distance from subject to background" in action):

• 560mm (TC engaged): Arrow-leaved Balsamroot (JPEG: 1.0 MB)
• 400mm (Variable distance to background): Focus (JPEG: 1.2 MB)
• 400mm (Distant background): Poncho on West Ridge (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

Another thing to keep in mind is that unlike Nikon's super-telephoto prime lenses (all of which must be stopped down 2/3 of a stop to one full stop to achieve maximum sharpness) you can shoot the 180-400mm absolutely wide open at all focal lengths and get absolutely tack-sharp images. This fact also partially negates the "one stop advantage" (as it pertains to subject isolation) of Nikon's super-telephoto primes.

To be fair, I have noticed that I have to be a LITTLE more conscious of my relative distances (to the subject and from subject to the background) with my 180-400 than with my 400mm f2.8 if my goal is to produce a sharp subject and dreamy soft background. But this performance difference between the 180-400 and the super-telephoto primes is pretty much negligible to me.

THE UGLY!

The absolute ugliest aspect of the 180-400 is its price. Right now in Canada it is retailing for $14,999 CAD. This is MORE than the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 500mm f4E and only slightly less than the Nikkor 600mm f4E. Which puts it out of reach for a whole bunch of photographers. If you compare the price of the 180-400 to the lens it more-or-less replaced (i.e., the 200-400mm f4G) then it seems ridiculously expensive. But if you compare its price to the super-telephoto prime lens (or lenses) it can replace, then it doesn't appear quite so out of whack!

A QUICK SUMMARY

In combination, the great focal length range, exceptional optical performance over its entire focal range, "prime-like" autofocus performance, and absolutely capable VR performance make the 180-400mm an incredible lens. In my experience it is the only super-telephoto zoom lens I have ever shot that can go toe-to-toe with the best super-telephoto primes and - at times - even outperform them (it alone is as sharp when shot wide open as when shot stopped down). To call it "versatile" is an understatement - for many it would be the ONLY wildlife lens they would ever need. It is versatility DEFINED.

IS THE 180-400 A TRUE BREAKTHROUGH PRODUCT?

I have a hard time answering this for anyone but myself - for many folks I know this lens is close to photo gear equivalent of nirvana. But I am sure there are some out there (that I will likely hear from) who think it is "just another over-priced and over-hyped" run-of-the-mill zoom. There is absolutely NO doubt in my mind that is huge evolutionary jump in super-telephoto zooms. It simply annihilates the performance of all other super-telephoto zooms by a huge margin. It was the first lens I ever tested that is as sharp when shot wide open as when stopped down (by any amount) - none of Nikon's super-telephoto primes have this characteristic.

I think the most telling thing about this lens is how much of an impact it had on the OTHER gear in my kit. Keep in mind that my wildlife photography career means I must travel a lot by plane, and often in smaller planes with strict carry-on limits. So for ME having a lens that's easier to carry (which means either lighter OR less bulky OR both) or that takes the place of several other lenses has a HUGE value. Here are a few consequences of me acquiring the 180-400:

• I have sold my Nikkor 400mm f2.8E
• I am about to sell my Sigma Sport 500mm f4 (but note that ownership of my Nikkor 500mm PF has also impacted on this decision)
• I am about to sell my Nikkor 300mm f4 PF
• I WOULD sell my Sigma Sport 150-600mm (but I am keeping it only as a standard to test other lenses against)

That's a pretty huge impact for just ONE lens!

Up next in this series...Musings Part 4 - The Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF. Stay tuned.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog_2020_all.html#Musing3

04 Nov 2019: Musings Part 2 - The Nikon Z7

This is the second part of a short series of entries on my thoughts about the significance of the relatively rapid evolution of my Nikon-based wildlife photography kit over the past year or so. The first entry was entitled "Musings on my Evolving Nikon Wildlife Kit" and set the stage for this series - you can read it here. This entry covers my impressions and opinions on the Nikon Z7 after testing it and shooting with it for about one year. This entry isn't intended as a review of the Z7 but rather as an attempt to describe the key factors behind why I disproportionately "gravitate" to some items in my wildlife photography kit more than others (and - to be clear - I DO gravitate to the Z7 for a lot of my shooting - including a lot of my wildlife shooting). And, it's an attempt to answer the question of whether or not I consider the Z7 a "breakthrough" product - and whether or not it was a worthwhile purchase.

Critical Context

When I took delivery of the Nikon Z7 I had three DSLR's in my wildlife photography "kit" - a D5, a D500, and a D850. I use my D5 for shooting extreme action and whenever light levels make it challenging to shoot my D500 and D850 (which for me is a LOT of the time). I turn to my D500 primarily when I want more "reach" relative to my D5 (the sensors of these cameras contain the exact same number of pixels, but the cropped sensor of the D500 means that those pixels are more dense on the D500, thus if all else is equal you do have MORE pixels dedicated to your subject than you would with a D5) and when there is sufficient light to shoot it. I use my 45.7 MP D850 to shoot those "opportunistic" landscape shots that you so commonly encounter when spending hours in the field photographing wildlife. And, I also use my D850 for shooting "animalscape" shots - which are basically landscape shots with an animal in the frame that "anchors" the image. Of course, I also use my D850 for "tighter" shots of wildlife when conditions (especially available light) allow.

Another important consideration to keep in mind when reading my thoughts on the Z7 is that - owing to logistics - I shoot the vast majority of my wildlife shots (including animalscapes) and my landscape shots hand-held. I would estimate that 90% or more of the shots I capture on an annual basis are hand-held.

When I purchased my Z7 I intended to use it for the same things I used my D850 for - landscapes, animalscapes, and occasional "tighter" wildlife shots. And, because I owned both a D5 and D500 I never intended to use either my D850 or Z7 for either extreme action shooting or for low light (and high ISO) shooting.

Here are some examples of the types of subject matter I use a D850 or Z7 for (note these - and all other shots in this entry - are hand-held Z7 shots):

Rocky Mountain Autumn (JPEG: 1.9 MB)
The Golden Hour on the Pacific Rim (JPEG: 0.6 MB)
Eagle in Rainforest (JPEG: 7.0 MB)
Common Raven, Uncommon Beauty (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
The Poser: Nikon Z7 with 500mm f5.6E PF (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

So, at least in my case, I knew that the stage was set for me to be continuously comparing the Z7 to the D850. The obvious question I wanted answered was simply this: Which of the two cameras worked better for me in capturing opportunistic landscape shots, animalscapes, and occasional "tighter" wildlife shots?

As a final nod to context, I have to admit that after previously owning 5 other mirrorless cameras (two Nikon V's, and three from Olympus) I still carried a bit of a negative bias against mirrorless cameras. Why? Mainly due to awful ergonomics and handling (compared to my Nikon DSLR's) and substandard electronic viewfinders (EVF). Simply put, my previous mirrorless cameras got in the way of capturing images (rather than they way my DSLR's "worked with me" in the field).

Four Game-changing Characteristics of the Z7

At the risk of short-circuiting the "Z7 vs. D850 Wars" narrative I have to reveal it took me less than one week of shooting the Z7 head-to-head against the D850 to fully convince me that the Z7 was the far better 45.7 MP camera for me. There were four characteristics of the Z7 that REALLY separated it from the D850 for me (and over the next year of shooting those four "characteristics" quickly evolved to being four "very strong advantages"). Collectively they allowed me to capture much higher quality images (and miss fewer images) with the Z7.

1. The In-Body-Image-Stabilization (IBIS) System

I love how well the IBIS system works on the Z7 (when using Z-mount lenses). When shooting Nikon DSLR's (even with pro-level VR lenses) I never even let myself dream I could shoot tack-sharp, hand-held 45.7 MP images down to shutter speeds in the 0.25s to 0.5s range. Of course, the shutter speed than any particular lens can be hand-held at will vary with lens focal length and between users, but the 5-stop, 5-axis stabilization of the Z7 works amazingly well. The first day of field shooting with my Z7 I captured this hand-held shot at 0.25s (and I was just blown away):

Headwaters - Kootenay River (JPEG: 1.3 MB)

How is the IBIS when you are shooting F-mount VR lenses on the Z7 (using the mount adapter FTZ)? At least as effective as on Nikon's DSLR's, and I have the perception that I gain about another 0.5 stops of image stabilization when using F-mount lenses on the Z7 (compared to a D850). Note that I have captured the necessary images to test this perception, but just haven't had the time to fully scrutinize them. So at this point take this "0.5 stop stabilization advantage" comment with a grain of salt.

One final - and definitely not insignificant - aspect of the IBIS that I really appreciate is how it imparts image stabilization onto non-stabilized lenses. As an example, I own a copy of the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art lens which is amazingly good optically (it has the highest optical rating of any lens ever tested by DXOmark.com). This excellent lens has no VR (or OS) built into it - but when you shoot it on a Z7 the IBIS kicks in and turns this non-OS lens into a OS lens! So that makes the amazing Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art into an even MORE amazing (and user-friendly) lens to use.

Keep in mind that - as an "only occasional" user of tripods - I probably put more emphasis on how important IBIS is to the Z7 "experience" than other shooters might. If someone does the vast majority of their shooting off a tripod then it may be "no big deal". But for me the IBIS advantage of the Z7 is huge.

2. The Electronic Viewfinder (EVF)

Before I used my Z7 I had a well-earned negative bias against EVF's. This was based on the quality of EVF's on my previous 5 mirrorless cameras. After using my Z7 just a couple of times I was sold on its EVF. Not only did the image look WAY BETTER through the Z7 EVF than my older mirrorless cameras, but in particular I loved two features of the Z7 EVF that I knew I'd never get on a DSLR. The first is the ability to display a small histogram in the lower right corner of the viewfinder. When I'm working in tricky lighting I find having this histogram instantly accessible (before the exposure) incredibly useful.

The second feature I just LOVE about the Z7 EVF is the instant exposure setting feedback you get through the viewfinder simply owing to the brightness of the displayed scene (i.e., you have WYSIWYG-like exposure feedback simply by looking at the scene through the EVF). Granted, what you see through the viewfinder isn't a perfect representation of your exposure, but once you have "calibrated" the brightness of the viewfinder it's a darned good exposure approximation. When shooting wildlife you commonly run into instances where you are forced to make tricky exposure decisions in an eye blink and, of course, you DON'T get a "do-over" if you screw up! For instance, think of the how quickly you have to react when you've been shooting a white Spirit Bear in dark shadows and it decides to walk into blinding sunlight (with a dark, dark forest behind it). Hey, it happens. Here's a few examples where the brightness level of the Z7 EVF guided some really quick exposure decisions on my part...

Out of the Shadows (JPEG: 1.2 MB)
The Icon of the Great Bear Rainforest (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

When I go from shooting my Z7 back to shooting any of my DSLR's it feels to me like I'm going "back" from using a smartphone to a flip phone - and I think the biggest single contributor to this feeling is having the info and feedback that an EVF gives me.

3. The Autofocus (AF) System

This section is probably going to surprise some folks, but I MUCH prefer the Z7 AF system (and how it performs) OVER that of the D850. Keep in mind when you're reading this that I rarely use my Z7 (or in the past my D850) for shooting extreme action...that's what I use a D5 - and to a lesser extent - a D500 for.

What do I like about the Z7 AF system? Several things. First, I simply find it more accurate than that of the D850, especially when dealing with off-centre subjects (e.g., focused on the foreground when shooting a wide-angle landscape shot). Because Nikon refuses to let us know the relative contribution of phase detect autofocus (PDAF) and contrast detect autofocus (CDAF) in each of the focusing area modes, it's impossible for me to guess WHY the AF system of the Z7 seems that much more accurate than that of the D850. But, it's just something I have noticed time and time again in the field. Like in this Harbour Seal shot taken with my Z7 and the Nikon 500mm f5.6E PF where having the eye-region tack-sharp (and the DoF distributed correctly) was so important:

Layin' Low... (JPEG: 1.0 MB)

Second, as one who often likes their subjects positioned in extreme positions (especially when shooting animalscapes) I love that the you can toggle the AF point over ALMOST the entire viewfinder (rather than only over a smaller subset of the viewfinder as in the D850) AND focus on your subject with the knowledge that it WILL hit the focus effectively. I am aware that you CAN use "focus-and-recompose" techniques to use extreme subject positions with a D850, but my experience is that the focus-and-recompose technique results in pretty low hit-rates when you do it hand-held. Here's an example of a shot captured with my Z7 (hand-held from a floating Zodiac) where I was able to focus on a subject with a fairly "extreme" position without using focus-and-recompose...

The Vantage Point (JPEG: 5.9 MB)

Third, it is REALLY nice to completely forget about AF tuning! It's my experience that the "best of the best" pro Nikkor lenses are often very well-tuned for Nikon pro DSLR bodies right out of the box, but there ARE instances where AF tuning is needed. And, because tuning values vary with subject distance and focal length, it's almost impossible to do it effectively on Nikon zoom lenses. Moreover, it's also my experience that even very high end 3rd party lenses (e.g., Sigma's Sport and Art lenses) require AF tuning not infrequently when used with a Nikon DSLR. So just get a Z7 and forget about it! ;-)

I'm well aware that many reviews of the Nikon Z7 have criticized its AF capabilities for shooting moving subjects (and, in particular, its focus tracking capabilities). It's my view these reviews have been too harsh and while I would NOT recommend (or use) a Z7 for shooting extreme action, for the vast majority of my wildlife shooting the AF of the Z7 works just fine. I don't use the focus tracking of the Z7 (just like I don't use 3D-Tracking on any of my DSLR's) for shooting action - I much prefer the Dynamic Area modes for shooting action. However, when Nikon does produce a mirrorless camera dedicated to action shooting they will DEFINITELY have to improve its focus tracking, offer more Dynamic Area models, AND improve the viewfinder behavior of the Z7 when shooting fast-moving subjects.

Can you use the Z7 for shooting ANY moving subjects? Of course...here's three shots of moving subjects captured with my Z7 (all using 9-point Dynamic Area mode):

Female Common Merganser - Just Cruisin' (JPEG: 0.9 MB)
The Charge - Fishing Black Bear (JPEG: 1.8 MB)
The Aging Fisherwoman (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

I've also seen references to how the Z7 doesn't focus that well in low light. I agree it's no D5, but I have to say I've had very good luck having it lock on targets in low light, such as this Spirit Bear trying to hide in the shade under a tree while it consumes a salmon:

A Shadowy Spirit (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

And...I've used my Z7 to shoot quite a few of those really quick small perching birds with good success...

Red-breasted Nuthatch (JPEG: 0.8 MB)

My primary point on the Z7 AF system? I'll never claim that it's "awesome" for shooting extreme action. But, for the uses I put my Z7 (and in the past my D850) to, I prefer the autofocus system of the Z7 to that of the D850.

4. The Lenses!

When Nikon introduced the Z-system and the Z-mount they touted that its increased mount diameter and reduced flange distance (from the back element of the lens to the image sensor) released them from some of the constraints of the F-mount that had hobbled their lens designs. Sounded reasonable, but it was hard for most photographers to assess the validity of the claim (i.e., was it true or just marketing hype and tripe?). At this point I own three Z-mount lenses - the 24-70mm f4S, the 14-30mm f4S, and the 85mm f1.8S. I haven't shot the 14-30mm enough to offer a credible assessment of it (but my limited shooting and limited tests have been extremely encouraging), but I have tested the 24-70mm extensively (including against its F-mount equivalents) and am part way through a detailed field test of the 85mm f1.8S (against a veritable slew of competing F-mount lenses) and I can say I'm completely convinced that the Z-mount lenses are...well...better! And by "better" I mean that they are absolutely sharper (including in central regions) when shot wide open, have better edge-to-edge sharpness at all apertures, and - at least in the case of the 85mm f1.8S - have MUCH LESS chromatic aberration at close distance and wide apertures than the F-mount 85mm's (I have both the 85mm f1.4G and the 85mm f1.8G Nikkor).

Here's just a few sample images from the 24-70mm f4S and the 85mm f1.8S lenses (all captured hand-held, of course):

24-70mm f4S: Spring Sunset in Barkley Sound (JPEG: 0.8 MB)
24-70mm f4S: Anchored... (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
85mm f1.8S (the obligate portrait!): Patrick - Great Bear 2019 (JPEG: 3.6 MB)
85mm f1.8S (wide open at f1.8): A Contemplative Pause (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

And a Few More Comments on the Z7...

What about ISO performance? Here's a place where I could find virtually NO difference between the Z7 and the D850 (either in systematic testing or in the field). So...amazingly good for 45.7 MB cameras. My own "rules" on how far I can push the ISO of the Z7 (and D850)? Well...the lower ISO the better! But, depending on the scene (including differences in scene detail and dynamic range) and the use the image is to be put to, you can predictably get "decent" results up to ISO 1600, "almost always" usable results to ISO 3200, and occasionally acceptable results at up to ISO 4000. Here's a few examples of images captured in the ISO 1600 to 4000 range...

ISO 1600: Any Fish Down There? (JPEG: 1.2 MB)
ISO 2800: BACK OFF - MY Fish! (JPEG: 1.4 MB)
ISO 4000: Non-verbal Communication (JPEG: 1.5 MB)
ISO 4000: Spirit Bear on Creekside (JPEG: 2.0 MB)

There are other things I prefer on the Z7 over the D850, such as it having User Settings over Shooting Banks and Custom Banks. And how having an EVF means that your DoF preview button actually shows your DoF! But most of these other "pros" associated with the Z7 are dwarfed by the importance of the 4 game-changing features above.

What about the cons or downsides of the Z7? Yep, there are a few for sure. I really miss having vertical controls (and definitely want this on the Z7 high res "successor" as well as on the coming(?) mirrorless action camera). I'd like a shorter start-up lag. I'd like the ability to program some of its buttons to switch AF area modes (like on the D5, D850, and D500). And, of course, I want more lenses NOW! ;-)

What about the complaints you read about the most online? Well...I'm fine with one card slot only (but I can appreciate why other photographers might want this). Battery life is acceptable to me - I normally get between 1000 to 1300 images per charge. I am yet to even SEE the "banding" issue that Dpreview likes to talk about.

Is the Z7 a True Breakthrough Product?

For me - unequivocally YES. Given my style of shooting and what I use it for, the Z7 allows me to capture images in conditions I could not with my D850 (think lower shutter speeds), sharper images (think IBIS and better lenses), and with a higher hit rate (think better pre-capture exposure information via the EVF). It ain't perfect, but for me it's a whole lot better - and more valuable to me - than my D850 was. The addition of a Z7 made my ever-evolving wildlife kit much stronger.

Up next in this series...Musings Part 3 - The Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Stay tuned.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog_2020_all.html#Musing2

30 Oct 2019: My Nikon D6 Wish List

Most Nikon shooters are probably aware that Nikon has made their D6 announcement announcement, meaning that they have announced that they will announce the release of D6 sometime in the future. Of course, the announcement announcement was chock full of details - we are absolutely sure the camera will be a DSLR and that, in all likelihood, it will be black in colour. And, of course, we are reasonably sure it will be designed for action shooting and appeal to sports and wildlife shooters.

All kidding aside, I've criticized this newish "announcement announcement" strategy in the past, but this go 'round it was valuable for one reason - it reassured Nikon shooters that they ARE going to produce another DSLR flagship for action shooting and NOT completely abandon DSLR's in favour of mirrorless cameras. Of course, I expect we WILL see a high-performance action-oriented Z-camera (a Z9?) within a year following the D6 introduction. A cynic would say that Nikon is staggering these introductions so that idiots like me will buy BOTH of them (we'd likely be forced into an "either-or" decision if they were simultaneously introduced). I'll take a less skeptical approach and state that I believe Nikon just doesn't have the Z9 ready for introduction quite yet (and I'm saying this while budgeting to buy both a D6 and a Z9 - see...their staggered product introduction strategy just worked).

Anyway...as a "forever" user of Nikon's flagship cameras (since the F4 I've owned every flagship Nikon - except the D3x - they've built) I have a few opinions on what I'd like to see on the D6. And note that I'm a full-time professional wildlife photographer who still shoots stills (not video) - so my wish list excludes features related to wireless transmission of photos that may be needed by sports shooters and it excludes anything related to video.

So here ya go...my pie-in-the-sky Nikon D6 Wish List:

Update Note: A few hours after I posted this entry I was contacted by someone who reminded me how much I prefer User Settings over Shooting Banks and that point should be on this list! It was on my original list and somehow got missed when I typed up the final list. So it now appears below (point #12). Thanks are extended to Mac from Montana for pointing out my mistake!

1. Weight: A reduction!

I'd like to see the 1415 gm (3.12 lb) D5 trimmed down by about 250 gm (about 0.5 lb) to make it about 1165 gm (2.57 lb).

WHY? Hey...almost all lenses are getting lighter, why shouldn't the D6 get lighter? And we ALL are getting older (will ANY young people buy a D6?). Of course, I wouldn't want a weight reduction if it impacted negatively on camera durability, but I don't think it would have to. And, I do know a significant number of serious wildlife photographers who have passed on buying a D5 owing to its weight.

What I expect: No weight reduction. Damn!

2. Resolution: 30 MP.

Given technological advances it SHOULD be possible for Nikon to produce a 30 MP flagship without compromising ISO performance, frame rate, or burst depth.

WHY? Even though I preferentially shoot animalscapes and landscapes with my Z7, there are times when I want to do it with what's in my hands (which is often a D5/D6) and in these cases I would like more resolution. And, while I TRY to shoot compositions that work full-frame, going to 30 MP will allow more "cropability" than a lower resolution will.

What I expect: 24 MP.

3. ISO Performance: Status Quo (no change).

WHY? In this case the question should be "Why not BETTER ISO Performance?" And the answer is this: IF Nikon jumps to 30 MP with the D6 then I don't think it's possible to improve the noise characteristics OR dynamic range of the D5. In fact, if they DO go to 30 MP I think they'd have their hands just maintaining status quo on ISO Performance.

What I expect: Status quo on ISO performance.

4. IBIS (In-Body-Image-Stabilization).

I'd love to see 5-axis image stabilization of up to 5 Stops (with compatible lenses).

WHY? Because after using it for many months with the Z7 I absolutely love it and I am spoiled by it. Part of it is the increased absolute amount of image stabilization and part of it is the increased number of axes of stabilization. And, I LOVE that it imparts VR on non-VR lenses (like the amazing Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art). In my case, logistics often force me to shoot my D5 (and soon my D6) hand-held with super-telephoto lenses in low light...and adding a 5-stop IBIS would REALLY help me. Don't forget - this is MY wish list! ;-)

What I expect: 5-axis, 5-stop IBIS, but only with compatible lenses. And the FIRST compatible lens will be the new Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E super-telephoto. Of course, users of recently introduced lenses like the 180-400mm f4E will scream for a firmware update for full IBIS compatibility, but Nikon will say it is impossible.

5. Autofocus: Number of Focus Points.

I DEFINITELY want to see the number of focus points INCREASED - and with more overall viewfinder coverage.

WHY? Like with IBIS, my Z7 has spoiled me. I LOVE that with my Z7 I can focus accurately on a subject with a more "extreme" (i.e., non-centred) positions without relying on focusing using AF-S (with recomposition) or AF-C plus focus-lock (with recomposition). And note that I DON'T want this accomplished simply by making the focus points larger - I like the D5's small (than D500) focus points.

What I expect: Status quo (sigh...).

6. Autofocus: Improved 3D-Tracking.

WHY? Good already, but make it better to keep the D6 as far ahead of its pack of competitors as the D5 was. And note that ONE way to improve it would be to increase the area of coverage (like you could with more focus points as described above).

What I expect: Improved 3D-Tracking.

7. Autofocus: Improved VIEWFINDER Behaviour With 3D-Tracking.

Currently 3D-Tracking works really quite well, but the behavior of the focus point during 3D-Tracking is so erratic that using this focusing area mode is very unsettling ("What the heck is my camera focusing on???").

WHY? Because it's currently so unsettling to use that I hesitate to trust 3D-Tracking!

What I expect: Status quo (sigh...).

8. Autofocus: Option for a SMALLER Single Point AF Area Mode.

Canon has had this for several years with their Single Point Spot AF mode.

WHY? Because at times you need a REALLY small focus point to focus on something like the eye of a wolf when it's laying down in grass. And because Canon has it! ;-)

What I expect: Status quo (sigh...) - and Nikon almost never does something "because Canon has it" (even if it is a good idea).

9. Frame Rate: SLIGHT Bump with FULL autofocus performance - up to 14 or 16 fps.

WHY? To keep up with Canon (of course). And because when shooting extreme action the more frames the better.

What I expect: Bump up to 14 fps (from 12 fps).

10. Burst Size: Status Quo or Worse!

WHY? Currently you get 200 frames per burst with even a reasonably fast XQD card. With upping the resolution to 30 MP (I wish) I am fine with 200 frames in single burst. Hell, I'd be happy with half that - the longest single burst I have ever shot is 78 frames at 12 fps when photographing Humpback Whales bubble-netting (it can go on and on). With the slightly higher frame rate I'm wishing for that would bump that to around a 100 frame burst.

What I expect: Status quo of 200 frames (hey, the cards WILL be faster).

11. Storage Media: Dual XQD or CFexpress Card Support.

WHY? Because we are about to get a firmware upgrade on the D5 allowing CFexpress compatibility I am assuming it will be a no-brainer that Nikon can give us two slots with compatibility for BOTH XQD cards and CFexpress. Personally, if they choose to make XQD cards obsolete by not supporting them I would be REALLY ticked (hey, SD cards ARE cheap and almost disposable, but my collection of XQD cards represents an INVESTMENT!).

What I expect: Dual XQD or CFexpress Card Support.

12. Grouping of Camera Settings: User Settings, Please!

For some reason Nikon has decided that their PRO cameras should have two means of grouping settings together (Shooting Banks and Custom Banks) that collectively don't allow you to store as many settings as the User Settings convention found on their "semi-pro"(and Z-Series) cameras. Canon, in contrast, puts Custom Settings (which are functionally equivalent to User Settings) on BOTH their pro and semi-pro cameras. I would love to see User Settings on a D6. If that was implemented I could completely live without Shooting Banks and Custom Banks, but if Nikon thinks enough users like those then just keep them and ADD User Settings!

WHY? Because User Settings allow you to store MORE of a camera's settings into a single group, including AF settings (which CANNOT be stored in Shooting Banks or Custom Settings). Canon has this one right!

What I expect: Status quo - no User Settings!

13. Viewfinder Displays: A RADICAL new Grid with Rule of Thirds Lines!

WHY? The current grid display has a bunch of lines in it (and if you look at every 2nd line it is already "kinda" rule of thirds). Just clean it up, make the lines continuous across the viewfinder, and put them in a rule of thirds configuration. Just makes sense.

What I expect: Status quo.

14. Viewfinder Displays: A Virtual Horizon that DOESN'T Hijack My AF Points.

WHY? The Nikon D850 and D500 has a virtual horizon mode that adds an additional display on the bottom of the viewfinder and it works pretty well. I have absolutely NO idea why Nikon chose to do it differently with the D5 and instead of using an additional display the virtual horizon feature hijacks the AF points and functionally kills your AF. Dumb.

What I expect: Status quo.

15. Viewfinder Displays: Depth of Field Display.

WHY? The camera has all the data it needs to calculate the Depth of Field (DoF) dynamically - why not do so and have it as an optional display visible through the viewfinder? It could even be TOTAL DoF (and leave it to the user to estimate how much of it is front of vs. behind the subject).

What I expect: Nope, not this.

16. Fn3 Button: Some USEFUL Options!

WHY? Currently the Fn3 buttons can be used for only three things: Voice Memo, Rating, and Connect to Network. I'm OK with leaving these options in place, but please give us some OTHER options for that button! For many (most?) users this button is pretty much wasted.

What I expect: A reduction to TWO options instead of three! Kidding. No guess on this one...

17. ALL Buttons Programmable to Switch AF Area Mode: Fix 'em!

And the fix is simple - make 'em "push to toggle" buttons, not "push and hold" buttons.

WHY? Currently there are a number of buttons on the D5 that will allow you to switch from your default focusing area mode to a second mode (e.g., from Single Point to Group Area), but at present you have to push those buttons down AND hold them (thus tying up the finger or thumb you are using). Why not make those "push to toggle" buttons where all you have to do to go to the "alternate" focusing mode is push them once and let go? To return to the original (default) focusing area mode you simply push the same button again. Literally every photographer I have talked to about this has said "Yes...it IS kind of a pain to have to hold those buttons in...

What I expect: Status quo (one more sigh...).

18. Design Changes: Add Phone, Email and Texting Capabilities.

WHY? Why? Apple and other smartphone makers added a camera to a phone and kicked the crap out of the camera industry. Time for payback by producing a smartcamera. I'm sure within a year Apple and Samsung would be on their knees pleading for mercy. And, best of all, just imagine how cool it would be when you go out for coffee or dinner and others put their wimpy smartphones on the table to watch for notifications YOU plunk down your 2.57 lb (or heavier) D6 smartphone. What a dominance statement that would be. Heck, you could even plunk it down on TOP of their smartphones and crush them!

What I expect: Nikon will read this, not realize I'm kidding, decide it's a great idea, delay production of the D6 to add the media features, and EVERYONE waiting for an upgrade to their D5 will want to kill me...

That's it - that's all I want to see in a D6. If YOU have some additional ideas, don't hesitate to hit the "feedback" email link below and let me know what else you'd like to see on a D6. If I get enough ideas I'll post a summary of them here!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog_2020_all.html#D6_Wishlist

26 October 2019: Musings on my Evolving Nikon Wildlife Kit - Part 1

This is the first part of a short series of commentaries on my thoughts and feelings about the relatively rapid evolution of my Nikon-based wildlife photography kit over the last year or so. This series isn't intended as a product review or a summary of "test-results", even though my fairly extensive testing of each of the products did shape my view of them. Rather, it's a more subjective discharge of my overall impression of a product after using it in the field for a relatively extended period of time. As such it involves a whole lot more than simple "performance" (whether that's optical quality of a lens or ISO performance of a sensor, etc.) - other factors like "portability", ease-of-use, complementarity with "other" bits of gear in my kit, and more all play a role in how often I grab a particular item for use in the field.

In both my day-to-day wildlife shooting around my home in the woods of SE British Columbia and when I am away leading photo tours (that often have weight restrictions in traveling to them) I find myself "gravitating" to a small subset of the lenses and cameras I own. So this series is an attempt to describe WHY I gravitate to some of Nikon's more recent product additions, along with how those additions have impacted on other parts of my camera kit. So don't expect boring, clinical test results in this series! The three products this series will cover are one camera and two lenses: the Nikon Z7, the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E, and the Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF.

Another important bit of "context" for this series is that I received a thought-provoking email from a regular follower of this website (who I refer to simply as Richard) way back in January of 2019. I have thought about his comments on and off ever since. The author of the email is, like me, a long-time Nikon user, including from the pre-digital (i.e., the film era). The gist of his email was quite simple and he was functionally asking "Is it really worth regularly updating our gear or would the money involved in that upgrading be better spent financing (in one form or another) field outings?"

Here's a few other excerpts from that email from Richard (reproduced here with permission) that are relevant and "set the stage" for this series quite well...

• When reviewing the images within the galleries of this website Richard noted it was..."Something I always enjoy and always leaves me thinking "Dam, what beautiful images". But I've also noticed before that many of them are now quite old images now going back 10 years or so. A long time in digital photography years. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, they aren't lesser compositions for being old but what is remarkable is that the underlying image quality (ok small on screen) look every bit as good as the recent ones taken with the latest greatest kit."

• And...when comparing the massive jump in image quality between the film and digital era with the bump up in image quality between successive digital Richard notes "Well, I got back into wildlife photography in about 2008/9 partly because it had dawned on me that this 'new' digital gear might just let me do stuff that I couldn't achieve with film. It did and does and, as a result, it also gives me an even better excuse for sitting quietly on riverbanks for a day! But looking at the contrast, it occurs that all these fantastic new lenses and bodies are just small incremental gains made at considerable cost when measured against those dramatic steps that probably concluded about 10 years ago with the D3 era of digital."

• And finally..."In all frankness, I've always known that spending 100% more time in the field waiting for the action is going to get me more interesting images than spending 300% more on my gear. But I remain relatively time poor so compensate for that. I really don't need that 500 PF ;-)"

So the two questions in my mind - and that will permeate through this series - are this: Are some of Nikon's most unique and newest bits of gear true "breakthrough" products for THIS wildlife photographer? Or should I have just saved my money and invested more of my time (which usually translates into money) in being out in the field at home and abroad?

Of course these are questions with answers that will vary between photographers...but I suspect many may be interested in my answers.

Up next in this series...Musings Part 2 - The Nikon Z7. Stay tuned.

Oh...and there won't be long breaks or gaps between the entries in this series (photo tour season is over for 2019). ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog_2020_all.html#Musing1

18 October 2019: New Images Added to Gallery of Latest Additions...

I just added six new images from our September "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" Exploratory Photo Adventure to my Gallery of Latest Additions. Check 'em out!

Expect a detailed "postscript" blog entry about this trip (along with a whole bunch of additional images) real soon!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca


Nikon 500mm PF Field Test: Optical Quality vs. Some Direct Competitors

09 Mar 2019: Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF Field Test II: Comparative Optical Performance

This is the second installment of several describing my experiences field-testing the Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF. In my previous entry on this lens (04 Jan 2019) I described my First Impressions of the lens (jump to it here...).

In this entry I describe my results from systematic and comparative optical field-testing of the Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF against three other current lenses that compete against it - the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 prime lens, the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 zoom lens (at 500mm), and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (at 500mm, so with the built-in TC engaged). Sharpness of the four lenses were compared with images captured at 3 different distances to the subject - at close distance (7 meters or 23 feet), at a "mid-distance" (27 meters or 89 feet), and at long-distance (approx. 1500 meters or ABOUT a mile). The quality of the Out-of-Focus (OoF) zones (AKA "bokeh") of the three lenses were compared at the closest two distances (8 meters and 27 meters) - at 1500 meters the question of quality of the OoF zones becomes pretty much nonsensical as the appearance of any objects in front of or behind the subject are either likely to be in focus as well or - if they are very far away from the subject - do not vary in appearance appreciably. My rationale for choosing these distances is described below in the "Field-Testing Methods" section.

While I am only comparing the 500mm PF against three other lenses in these tests, note that key previous field-tests suggest it's probably safe to extrapolate the results to at least one other lens - the Nikkor 500mm f4E. In my "500mm Wars" field test I compared the Sigma 500mm f4 prime lens against Nikon's latest 500mm lens (the Nikkor 500mm f4E) and found them to be virtually identical in optical performance. So I am pretty comfortable saying that the optical comparison of the Nikkor 500mm PF to the Sigma Sport 500mm would be virtually identical to the comparison of the Nikkor 500mm PF to the Nikkor 500mm f4E.

Please note that because of multiple requests I will be presenting a comparison of the optical quality of the 500mm PF against the Nikkor 300mm combined with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter, but this will come in my next blog entry on this topic. I have completed that set of optical tests and can already say that the results came as no surprise to me - the 500mm PF easily beat the 300mm PF plus TC in optical quality at all test distances (yes, that's called "letting the cat out of the bag")...but I will follow-up with details and sample images for those who want to see the differences in optical quality for themselves.

I. Critical Background...And Qualifiers!!

I doubt you could find a Nikon-shooting wildlife photographer anywhere that wouldn't appreciate a 500mm lens that is under half the weight - and WAY smaller - than other high-quality 500mm "solutions" (either in the form of prime lenses or zoom lenses). The multiple advantages of the small size and low weight of the 500mm PF - from increased ease of transport (both in the field and when getting TO the field!), increased ability to hand-hold the lens (and hand-hold it for longer periods of time), and even photographer mobility when actually using the smaller and lighter lens - are simply impossible to ignore.

However, there are many wildlife photographers who are very concerned about top-notch image quality and who are willing to "pay the price" - be that price one of dollars spent or extra weight (and bulk) to carry the lens - to get top-notch quality images. These photographers are probably thinking "Sure, I want a small, light 500mm lens - but not if it means I have to sacrifice image quality".

I have the same concern, and here's the exact questions that were topmost in my mind as I began and proceeded through my 500mm PF field testing...

1. How does the 500mm PF compare in overall sharpness (both central and on the edges) to other high-end 500mm options?

2. How does the quality of the out-of-focus (or OoF) zones of the 500mm PF compare to other high-end 500mm options?

3. Given that the maximum aperture of the 500mm PF is f5.6, how sharp is it when shot wide open? (Note that my thinking here is that if it is "only" a f5.6 lens, it BETTER be sharp when shot wide open!).

4. Given that the maximum aperture of the 500mm PF is f5.6, does it really lose a lot of "subject isolating" ability compared to other and/or "faster" f4 500mm options?

AND...ON MY LENS TESTING PHILOSOPHY:

Those who have followed my past field tests know I don't place much faith in how closely MTF curves predict actual lens performance in the field - in my view those MTF curves are produced under conditions just too far away from what we do in the field and, consequently, they pretty much "fall apart" in their worth in the field. For example, if a lens has an autofocus system that is so bad (or non-existent like in many Zeiss lenses) that you never manage to get a sharp shot in the field...well...those wonderful Zeiss MTF curves don't mean much! Similarly, if you are regularly hand-holding a "big" lens then the quality of the image stabilization system may have more to do with how sharp your image is than does the MTF curve.

My optical field testing could be criticized for similar reasons. I conduct them using methods (see Field-Testing Methods immediately below) that we rarely use in the field. I do this to minimize "confounding" variables and I come up with what I think of as "Maximum Attainable Field Sharpness" (or MAFS) for a specific lens. How close one can get to this MAFS will vary between users AND with how other lens characteristics (that vary between lenses, such as AF performance, VR performance, weight, balance, etc.) permit. And that's the whole reason I combine my optical field tests with VR testing, AF testing, and a whole lot of "just shooting". One negative to this is that my field-testing DOES take quite a while for me to complete (and sometimes a lot longer to write up!) - it is simply not possible for me to answer all the questions I have about a lens from looking at the lens specs or snapping off a few shots over a weekend!

II. Field-Testing Methods

Here's what I did, followed by a quick rationale for why I did it the way I did...

At each of the three test distances, I shot aperture "runs" from wide open through to f11 in 1/3 stop increments for each lens. I then did a full-stop jump to f16 for the last shots of each run. For each aperture I shot two images and "de-focused" the lens after each shot (and re-focused for the next shot). For two of three test distances (short and middle distances) I used both a Nikon D850 and a Nikon Z7. By the time I got to the test shots of the distant subject I had already concluded there was NO difference in the results between the two cameras, so I used ONLY a Nikon Z7 for the distant-subject tests. All images were captured using Live View, a cable release, full electronic shutter, VR or OS OFF, and the lens/camera combination was supported on a firm tripod (Jobu Killarney) and gimbal head (Jobu Heavy Duty Mk IV). Between EACH shot I waited a minimum of 10 seconds for all vibrations to dissipate (my "de-focusing" of the lens required me touching it, which could have produced minor vibrations). All images were captured using Manual exposure mode and a fixed ISO (so aperture and shutter speed varied between each 2-shot sequence).

Now...that rationale for what I did...

Three Test Distances: I shot test images at 7 meters, 27 meters and about 1500 meters. This was done because some lenses are known to vary in optical performance at different camera-to-subject distances. I chose 7 meters because this is the type of distance I often shoot small mammals (e.g., squirrels and chipmunks) and/or medium-size perching birds (from Juncos to Clark's Nutcrackers and Robins and Bluebirds). My subject was a textured stump I have repeatedly used in past tests - it allows me to carefully assess sharpness AND both close OoF zones (opposite side of the stump) and more distant OoF zones. Note that at this distance I did NOT examine edge sharpness (i.e., I was interested primarily in central region sharpness). I'm comfortable with this because at this type of distance we're rarely shooting absolutely flat surfaces (hey...this is PORTRAIT distance) and more often than not the edges are of little concern (and often in OoF zones). Here's the close-distance scene... (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

I chose 27 meters because I often work at this distance when shooting larger mammals (coyotes through to bears and many ungulates). My subject was a highly cooperative and patient eagle with a garden rake positioned 1.5 meters behind it as well as trees behind it at about 8 meters and 40 meters respectively (to help assess the quality of the OoF zones). This setup let me examine image sharpness in the region I was focusing as well as getting a really good handle on how the OoF objects (at different distances) appeared. Here's the mid-distance scene... (JPEG: 1.3 MB)

I chose 1500 meters as my distant subject because this is a distant I often shoot scenes at with long telephoto lenses (including some animalscape shots) and in these shots I almost always care about edge-to-edge sharpness. The scene I chose is a distant treeline that runs perpendicular to the position I shot the images from and the treelike runs completely across the frame (which allows easy edge-to-edge assessment). Here's the long-distance scene... (JPEG: 2.1 MB)

Nikon D850 and Z7: These 46 MP cameras are highly demanding and each shows lens flaws (such as edge softness) more readily than Nikon's lower resolution cameras do. As a general rule, if a lens tests well with the Nikon D850 or Z7 it will perform GREAT on Nikon's lower-resolution bodies.

Live View (and Live View Autofocus): Live View is "immune" to AF tuning issues/biases and, if performed carefully, highly accurate. Using it (rather than the phase detect AF system of the optical viewfinder) removes a confounding variable when testing multiple lenses. Note that for each aperture (for each lens at each distance) I shot two shots - and I "de-focused" and then "re-focused" the lens between shots. As it turns out, this "de-focus and re-focus" step was largely unnecessary - in over 95% of the test "sequences" there was no difference between the two shots (in focus or sharpness). Note that all images captured with the Nikon Z7 were shot using AF-S "Pinpoint" AF area mode which employs contrast-detect autofocus only (thus removing any bias introduced by focus tuning differences between the lenses).

Cable Release and Electronic Shutter: Both used to minimize camera movement/shake...thus assuring the sharpest possible image.

VR/OS OFF: The performance of different VR/OS systems when shot from a firm tripod varies between lenses, and some even make the image "drift" over time (and this image drifting can even blur the image at slow shutter speeds). Simplest way to control for this variable is simply to turn the VR/OS system off (hey...I was shooting from a rock-solid tripod and had cut out other sources of vibration...and my subjects were static!).

III. Image Quality Assessment

I assessed images shot at 7 and 27 meters for central region sharpness AND the quality of the OoF zones. Images shot at 1500 meters were assessed for edge-to-edge (including central region) sharpness but not for quality of OoF zones. Image quality was assessed by viewing RAW previews constructed by Capture One Pro V12.0.1 and V12.0.2 (ALL settings affecting preview quality absolutely identical for all images) on an Apple 30" Cinema HD display (101 ppi). Sharpness was assessed at 100% magnification - OoF zone quality was assessed at both lower magnifications AND 100% magnification. The image assessment method could best be described as VERY SLOW AND METHODICAL (AND VERY REPETITIVE) PIXEL-PEEPING! ;-)

IV. The RESULTS!

Here's a couple of executive summaries of my findings, followed by the nitty-gritty details for those who appreciate precision and nuance. Note that unless you REALLY care about minute detail you should probably skip the Nitty Gritty Details section! ;-)

1. TWO Executive Summaries:

The Four Sentence Executive Summary: The Nikkor 500mm PF is a very sharp super-telephoto prime lens over its entire aperture range - and at all distances. It also exhibits excellent contrast and bokeh on par with the "best of the best" super-telephoto lenses. And because the 500mm PF is razor sharp when shot wide open, it provides a stronger ability to separate a subject from the background than you might expect from a lens with a maximum aperture of f5.6. In my view the 500mm PF is completely on par optically with the absolute best super-telephotos money can buy.

A Bit Longer Executive Summary:

At all camera-to-subject distances - and at equivalent apertures - three lenses were very similar optically and thus extremely difficult to separate based solely on image sharpness. Those lenses are the Nikkor 500mm PF, the Nikkor 180-400mm f4 (with built-in TC engaged and set to 500mm), and the 500mm f4 Sigma Sport. At both the short and moderate camera-to-subject distances (7 meters and 27 meters) - and when comparing images shot at equivalent apertures - the OoF zones (i.e., the bokeh) of the 500mm PF and the 180-400mm were both slightly smoother and softer than those of the Sigma Sport 500mm f4. At all distances the Sigma Sport 150-600mm (shot at 500mm) was noticeably softer (less sharp) at wider apertures than the other 3 lenses, but it closed most of the gap in sharpness at apertures of f9 through f11. At both the short and moderate camera-to-subject distances the out-of-focus zones of the Sigma Sport 150-600mm were noticeably less smooth (almost "chunkier"!) than those of the other three lenses.

When comparing the image sharpness "progression" for each lens (as you progress from wide open to f11) only TWO lenses were as sharp when shot wide open as when stopped down (and this was the case at all test distances) - the Nikkor 500mm PF and the Nikkor 180-400mm. In other words, only these two lenses exhibited Aperture Independent Sharpness (or AIS). The Sigma Sport 500mm f4 needed to be stopped down to f5.6 before attaining maximum sharpness and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm continued to "sharpen up" until stopped down to around f9.

What about the OVERALL image quality (factoring in and balancing both image sharpness AND the quality of the OoF zones) when each lens is shot wide open? This is tougher and more subjective to assess - at both 7 meters and 27 meters the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 does exhibit softer and smoother OoF background zones when shot wide open (@ f4) than the other lenses do when they are shot wide open (so at f5.6 - or at f6.3 in the case of the Sigma Sport 150-600). But, both the two Nikkors (the 500mm PF and the 180-400mm) are significantly sharper when they are shot wide open than the Sigma Sport 500 f4 is when it is shot wide open. Here's my own preference in image quality at the two distances where OoF zones plays a role and the lenses are shot wide open:

• At 7 meters I most prefer the "wide open" shots of the Nikkor 180-400mm - they combine excellent subject sharpness with beautiful OoF zones. The wide open shots of the 500mm PF would rank a close 2nd, followed by those of the Sigma Sport 500mm f4, and with the images shot with the Sigma Sport 150-600mm bringing up the rear.

• At 27 meters I can't separate the "wide open" shots of the 500mm PF from those of the 180-400mm f4E in terms of image sharpness. While both beat the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 somewhat in sharpness when all lenses are shot wide open (and beat the Sigma Sport 150-600mm by even more), the softer and smoother OoF zones of the Sigma Sport in the f4 to f5 aperture range do "help out" the Sigma Sport 500mm f4. So...when shot absolutely wide open at 27 meters I see the Nikkor 500mm PF and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E in an absolute dead-heat. Some COULD argue that if you soften up the "shot at wide open" criteria just a little and allow the inclusion of the Sigma Sport 500mm images shot at f5 then the Sigma Sport 500mm provides the best mix of image sharpness with high quality (soft and smooth) OoF zones!

What about the ability to separate a subject from the background - does the 500mm PF make the grade - and compete with the other lenses - here? Another tough call which ultimately comes down to how important subject sharpness is to you. If you are willing to "give a little" on image (subject) sharpness then there's no doubt the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 can (when shot at f4) isolate a subject at short and moderate distances better than the other lenses. However, if you are in love with the sharpest possible subjects and are willing to "give a little" on "lifting" your subject off of the background...well...then either the 500mm PF or the 180-400mm are likely to be your first choice!

2. The Nitty Gritty Details:

A. Optical Performance at 7 meters.

• Overall Sharpness: Parity in sharpness between the Nikkor 500mm PF and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E most apertures between f5.6 and f11 (at some apertures the 500mm PF was slightly sharper and at others the 180-400mm was slightly sharper). Sigma Sport 500mm f4 trailed only very slightly behind (i.e., not quite as sharp at most overlapping apertures), and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm was easily the softest (least sharp) at all overlapping apertures.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open before attaining maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 500mm PF: No need to stop down whatsoever, meaning the lens is virtually at maximum sharpness when shot wide open (@ 5.6). This is absolutely remarkable and means there is no sharpness penalty in shooting this lens wide open. I have previously described lenses with this characteristic (and the ONLY other lens I have ever tested that exhibited it was the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E) as having Aperture Independent Sharpness, or AIS. Some may find this blog entry on AIS (entitled "What's AIS?") interesting. Note that I could detect no diffraction-induced softening of the image until I stopped down to f16 (but also note that images were not captured or assessed at f13 or f14 for any of the lenses).

• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 180-400mm @ 500mm: As with the 500mm PF - none - no stopping down required to achieve maximum sharpness (full AIS). As with the 500mm PF this is quite remarkable, especially given that at this focal length the built-in TC is engaged. Again no diffraction-induced softening of the image until I stopped down to f16.

• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 500mm f4: Quite soft when shot wide open and requires stopping down 2/3 to a FULL stop (to f5.6) before approaching maximum sharpness (it should be noted that the sharpness difference between f5 and f5.6 is extremely small and for most uses there would be no need to stop down below f5). Note that at this distance (only), even when stopped down to f5.6 and beyond both the 500mm PF and 180-400 were very slightly sharper than the Sigma Sport 500mm. No diffraction-induced softening of the image until I stopped down to f16.

• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: Requires stopping one full stop from wide open (to f9) before hitting maximum sharpness (though the difference in sharpness between f8 and f9 is almost trivial). No diffraction-induced softening of the image until I stopped down to f16.

• OoF Zones (Bokeh): Softest and smoothest out-of-focus (OoF) zones exhibited by the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 at apertures between f4 and f5 (i.e., apertures not found on the other 3 lenses). However, when considering the OoF zones of overlapping apertures (f5.6 through to f16) the softest and smoothest were found on the shots captured with the Nikkor 180-400mm and with the 500mm PF nipping at its heels (and with the Sigma Sport nipping at the heels of the 500mm PF). The least smooth and soft OoF zones were DEFINITELY those of the Sigma Sport 150-600mm, but it is important to note that at this distance focus breathing shortens the focal length of the Sigma Sport 150-600 considerably (it is the ONLY lens in this test that exhibits significant focus breathing).

• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: This criteria IS a subjective "judgement call", but it is interesting. With subjects this close all 4 lenses can easily separate the subject from background (which, given how far the background is behind the subject, is easily blurred into oblivion). The lens/aperture combination that produces the softest backgrounds is DEFINITELY the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 shot at f4. However, at f4 and this distance to the subject, the Sigma Sport 500 produces quite a soft (= not sharp) subject. And, even if you stop down to f5.6 the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 is not as sharp as either the Nikkor 500mm PF or the Nikkor 180-400mm. So the user is forced to decide what they like more - a slightly blurrier and softer background or a sharp subject (with a slightly less blurry background). Some image examples will illustrate what I mean:

Full Frame images shot WIDE OPEN for each lens - to compare background softness: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 1.0 MB)
100% Magnification crops shot WIDE OPEN for each lens - to compare subject sharpness: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2.1 MB)

Finally, if you want to compare the full-resolution "shot at wide open" images for yourself, here are the full frame, full resolution shots:

The Nikkor 500mm PF @ f5.6: Download Image (JPEG: 12.5 MB)
The Sigma Sport 500mm f4 @ f4: Download Image (JPEG: 10.25 MB)
The Nikkor 180-400mm f4E @ f5.6: Download Image (JPEG: 12.9 MB)
The Sigma Sport 150-600 @ f6.3: Download Image (JPEG: 11.4 MB)

So...if I had ready access to all 4 lenses and wanted the "best quality" shot (balancing sharpness with the quality of the OoF zones and having the most visual "impact") of a squirrel on this stump which lens would I choose? I'd grab the Nikkor 180-400mm first. But, my second choice (that I'd easily switch to with virtually no regrets) would be the Nikkor 500mm PF. Next would be the Sigma Sport 500 f4, but I'd be REALLY thinking of stopping down to f5.6 or beyond while knowing this would start to impact on the quality of the background. Of course I could get a very decent shot with the Sigma Sport 150-600 too, but odds are the subject simply wouldn't "pop" out of the background the way it would with either of the two Nikkors.

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At 7 meters the strongest performing lens (from an optical perspective) was the Nikkor 180-400mm (with its TC engaged). But the 500mm PF was AMAZINGLY CLOSE behind - under normal day-to-day shooting it is unlikely anyone would notice the difference in image quality between the lenses. At this distance the 500mm PF actually outperformed the excellent Sigma Sport 500mm f4. It's worth mentioning here that in my "500mm Wars" field test I compared the Sigma Sport 500mm against the Nikkor 500mm f4E and could find no consistent optical difference between those two lenses - they were virtual optical clones of one another (but note that the 500mm wars testing DID use much lower resolution cameras than the current test did). While it's tempting to extrapolate to the conclusion that the 500mm PF would similarly outperform the Nikkor 500mm f4E in optical performance if the 500mm f4E was in the test, I'm not quite prepared to say that myself. But I am willing to say that the 500mm PF is "in the same league" as the best-of-the-best super-telephotos at this subject distance.

The Sigma Sport 150-600mm at this distance? Still very competent, still capable of producing quality images, still GREAT value...but simply not in the same league as the other 3 lenses optically.

B. Optical Performance at 27 meters.

• Overall Sharpness: Now things tighten up more - even with the most extreme pixel-peeping it was virtually impossible to separate the Nikkor 500mm PF, the Nikkor 180-400mm, and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 based on central region sharpness (when comparing at equivalent apertures). And all three of these lenses were considerably sharper than the Sigma Sport 150-600mm.

To see how similarly the three lenses performed check out this composite image comparing the four lenses (note that this is a small crop from the central region as seen when viewed at 100% magnification).

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 500mm PF: As at 7 meters...no stopping down needed to get to maximum sharpness - full AIS. And again, I feel compelled to point out that this is really remarkable! And it says that at this distance (as well as at 7 meters) there is absolutely no sharpness-related reason to NOT shoot this lens wide open. No noticeable diffraction-induced image softening until f16 (but again note that images were not captured or assessed at f13 or f14).

• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 180-400mm: As at 7 meters...no stopping down needed to get to maximum sharpness - full AIS. No noticeable diffraction-induced image softening until f16.

• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 500mm f4: Requires stopping down a full stop (to f5.6) before attaining maximum sharpness. But note that at this distance the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 was NOT as soft when shot wide open as it was when shot at the 7m distance. No noticeable diffraction-induced image softening until f16.

• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: Identical to the situation at 7m, i.e., requires stopping one full stop from wide open (to f9) before hitting maximum sharpness (though the difference in sharpness between f8 and f9 is almost trivial). No noticeable diffraction-induced image softening until f16.

• OoF Zones (Bokeh): Not surprisingly, the softest and smoothest out-of-focus (OoF) zones exhibited by the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 at apertures between f4 and f5 (i.e., apertures not found on the other 3 lenses). However, when comparing the OoF zones of shots captured at f5.6 and smaller apertures, it was virtually impossible to find any real differences between the 500mm PF, the Nikkor 180-400, and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 - they were virtually identical! And...also not surprisingly...the least smooth and soft OoF zones were still those of the Sigma Sport 150-600mm - and in this case focus breathing is quite insignificant at this subject distance and therefore not a possible cause (or excuse!).

• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: At this subject distance (27m) the situation has changed somewhat from that at 7m. The Sigma Sport 500mm f4 is somewhat sharper when shot wide open than it was at 7m and most users would likely feel less driven by the need to stop down to sharpen up the image. And, because the softest and smoothest backgrounds ARE found with the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 when shot between f4 and f5, it could be argued that the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 wins the "best at subject isolation" award. Again, some image examples will illustrate what I mean:

Full Frame images shot WIDE OPEN for each lens - to compare background softness: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
100% Magnification crops shot WIDE OPEN for each lens - to compare subject sharpness: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 1.9 MB)

Finally, if you want to compare the full-resolution "shot at wide open" images for yourself, here are the full frame, full resolution shots:

The Nikkor 500mm PF @ f5.6: Download Image (JPEG: 12.6 MB)
The Sigma Sport 500mm f4 @ f4: Download Image (JPEG12.9 MB)
The Nikkor 180-400mm f4E @ f5.6: Download Image (JPEG: 11.9 MB)
The Sigma Sport 150-600 @ f6.3: Download Image (JPEG: 11.0 MB)

So...if I had access to all 4 lenses and wanted the "best quality" shot (balancing sharpness with the quality of the OoF zones and having the most visual "impact") at this distance which lens would I choose? In this case I'd probably grab the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 FIRST (but odds are I'd opt to shoot it at f4.5 or f5, not wide open at f4). Second choice? Flip a coin between the two Nikkors (the 500mm PF and the 180-400mm). Last choice? The Sigma Sport 150-600mm - the strength of this lens is its versatility and value, not its ability to isolate a subject from the background! ;-)

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At 27 meters the Nikkor 500mm PF goes stride-for-stride in optical performance with both the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 (and very likely with the Nikkor 500mm f4E if I had included it in the test). And...like at 7 meters...the 500mm PF performs superbly optically at any aperture. Impressive! The other noteworthy observation is that while the Sigma Sport 150-600mm offers great versatility, it isn't keeping up optically with the other 3 top-notch performers.

C. Optical Performance @ 1500 meters.

As a reminder I test at this distance primarily to assess central sharpness AND edge-to-edge sharpness. When I am using a 500mm focal length at this distance I am almost always shooting an animalscape shot, and for me it's important that these shots are sharp from edge-to-edge.

• Overall Sharpness: The pattern observed at 27 meters repeated itself at 1500 meters - the Nikkor 500mm PF, the Nikkor 180-400mm, and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 all exhibited strong central sharpness AND strong edge/corner sharpness. And, it was virtually impossible to separate them based on central or edge sharpness. The Sigma Sport 150-600mm didn't fair particularly well at this distance - while not soft at all apertures, even when stopped down to f9 or smaller it produced images noticeably less sharp in both the central regions and edges than the other three lenses.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 500mm PF: The same boring but remarkable result as at the shorter distances - maximum sharpness from wide open through to f11, including both central image sharpness and edge sharpness. So still full AIS. Diffraction-related softening obvious at f16.

• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 180-400mm: Just like the 500mm PF - full AIS with no obvious increase in sharpness from f5.6 through to f11 (in both central regions and edges). Diffraction-related softening obvious at f16.

• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 500mm f4: Requires stopping down a full stop from wide open (to f5.6) before approaching maximum sharpness in both the center and the edges. Diffraction-related softening apparent at f16.

• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: Never fully sharpens on edges at any aperture; requires stopping 2/3 of a stop from wide open (to f8) before approaching maximum sharpness in central region. Diffraction-related softening obvious at f16.

• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): N/A (at this distance).

• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: N/A (at this distance).

OVERALL CONCLUSION: The Nikkor 500mm continued to perform as a "big league" super-telephoto at 1500 meters - it completely matched (including in edge sharpness) the optical performance of both the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 at this distance. And, like at the previous distances, it easily out-performed the Sigma Sport 150-600mm.

V. Final Discussion and Comments

When the Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF was first announced I was only moderately excited about the lens. As a reasonably happy owner of the first of Nikon's PF lenses (the 300mm f4 PF) I was fairly confident the newer PF lens would be very light and compact, reasonably sharp, and generally "quite usable". And, I hoped that because of the inexorable march forward in technology it would be even a little better (sharper, better AF system, better VR system) than the 300mm PF. And, because it has "only" a f5.6 aperture, I WANTED it to be tack sharp when shot wide open (but I really didn't think it would be).

But WOW...was I ever wrong! The 500mm f5.6E PF is pretty much as sharp as a prime super-telephoto lens can be - both in the central region AND on the edges. And, it's that sharp at ALL "normal" apertures - from wide open until you stop down to the point of hitting the diffraction limit. It is only the second lens I have ever tested that is as sharp wide open as when stopped down (the other lens being the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E, which costs about three times as much). There is absolutely no sharpness-related reason to stop this lens down, which means you are completely free to shoot it wide open virtually all the time. Which also means it does a MUCH better job at subject isolation (you know...pulling a subject off a busy background) than I expected a f5.6 lens ever could.

Given that other 500mm prime lenses (like, for instance, the Nikkor 500mm f4E and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4) have to be stopped down 2/3 to a full stop to attain maximum sharpness (and sharpness approaching that of the 500mm PF!) one is left wondering why anyone would fork out thousands and thousands more for these much bigger and heavier lenses. I guess the short-term answer is simple: because...unlike the 500mm PF...you can actually order them and they WILL BE DELIVERED! But once the 500mm PF is readily and widely available the question of why anyone would buy another 500mm f-mount lens is much tougher to answer. I personally can't think of a single good reason why I would! The 500mm PF is just THAT flipping amazing...

Next up? Optical performance comparison of the 500mm PF vs. the 300mm PF plus TC-14EIII. Which is kinda both a David and Goliath thing and an apples and oranges thing. But lots of people want to know! ;-)

Stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog_2020_all.html#500PF_OpticalCompetitors

10 Jan 2019: Arca-Swiss Lens Plate for Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF

In my 500mm PF First Impressions blog entry (below) I mentioned that the tripod foot for the 500mm PF was identical to that of the 70-200mm f2.8E VR lens. Here's an example of a well-priced lens plate from Jobu Design that will work for BOTH lenses:

Jobu LP-N7228-E Lens Plate for 500mm f5.6E PF and 70-200mm f2.8E VR

So while you're waiting to get your 500mm PF AT LEAST you can take delivery of the bits needed to make its tripod foot Arca-Swiss compatible! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

07 Jan 2019: The 500mm f5.6E PF vs. the 300mm f4E PF plus TC-14EIII?

Since I posted my first installment of my 500mm PF review last Friday I've received bucketfuls of email. Interestingly, one thing I'm hearing loud and clear is many are interested in how the 500mm PF stacks up against another "diminutive competitor" - the 300mm f4 PF combined with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter. In the last 24 hours alone I've received 4 requests to include the 300 PF plus TC-14EIII in my comparison tests. And I suppose that this comparison does make some sense (if we forget about the 80mm difference in focal length) - both are very light and compact ways to go "over 400mm" and both are much more affordable than Nikon's non-PF super-telephoto lenses (making the potential market for the "winner" of a 500 PF vs. 300 PF plus TC shootout much bigger).

Bad news first: I have already completed the image-capture portion of my optical performance testing (I still have to scrutinize and analyse the results) and I don't have time to go back and re-do them all.

Better news next: I will add in some comparative tests of the 300mm PF plus 1.4x TC against the 500mm PF. So I will be able to show and comment on the differences between those two lenses. I won't be comparing the 300 PF plus TC against the other lenses in the review (the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport, the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E @ 500mm, or the Sigma 150-600mmm f5-6.3 Sport).

And...last but not least...an opinion based on a lot of use of the 300mm PF, including with the TC-14EIII: I very much like the 300mm PF, and I have found it to work surprising well with the TC-14EIII (at least surprising to me). I would go so far to say that the results I most commonly get with the 300mm PF plus TC-14EIII are, well..."pretty good". However, both the image quality and the autofocus performance of the 500mm PF are EXCEPTIONAL - right up there with the best super-telephoto primes. Although comparing the optical quality of images captured with a 300mm lens to that of a 500mmm lens is tricky and open to debate, I am already quite confident that if both lenses are shot "native" (meaning with no TC attached) almost everyone viewing the images would easily give the nod to the 500 PF images. And...add a TC to the 300mm PF and that image quality gap compared to the 500 PF (AND the AF performance) will only grow.

I recognize that many will want me to PROVE that the 500mm PF is better than the 300mm plus 1.4x TC, and also that they will want to end up with a decent handle on how much better the 500mm PF images are. So, for those reasons I'm going to take the time to do the needed field tests.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca


Nikon 500mm f5.6E PF Field Test: Intro & First Impressions

04 Jan 2019: Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF Field Test I: Intro & First Impressions...

This is the first installment of several that will describe my experiences field-testing the Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF (the full name of the lens is actually the "AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR", but this is WAY too much of a mouthful - and WAY too many odd keystrokes - to type repeatedly...so expect me to refer to it as "the Nikkor 500mm PF" or just "the 500PF"). I took possession of the lens (I bought it) on December 23, 2018. I took advantage of the holiday break to shoot extensively with the 500mm PF - and on a variety of current camera bodies, including the Z7, D5, D850, and D500. And, over the next month or so I will be extensively field-testing testing this new - and relatively tiny - addition to Nikon's lineup of super-telephoto lenses. My goal is to thoroughly field test the new lens' optical quality, autofocus (AF) performance, vibration-reduction (VR) performance - and more - against several other mid-to-high-end lenses that could be competing for the contents of the wallet of serious wildlife and "action" shooters (including, of course, sports photographers). By the end of the testing period I want to have (and share) a thorough understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of this exciting new (and reasonably priced!) photographic tool.

If you have a love for detailed specifications, the place to go get them is here on dpreview.com's website. The key thing in understanding this lens is that Nikon has found a way (through use of a "Phase Fresnel" - or PF - lens element) to reduce the chromatic aberration in this lens without adding a TON of elements. Which is a fancy way of saying that there were able to produce a 500mm lens that is almost tiny in comparison to other 500mm lenses on the market. So how small IS this lens? The closest lens in size in Nikon's lineup is the 70-200mm f2.8E VR - the 500mm PF is only very slightly longer and very slightly heavier than that lens (and it IS lighter than the older 70-200 f2.8's from Nikon).

The only other "specification" I will mention at this point is that this lens has a maximum aperture of f5.6. This smaller maximum aperture (compared to f4 500mm lenses) also contributes greatly to its small size (relative to 500mm f4 lenses). Of course, by going to a smaller maximum aperture there are two potentially negative consequences facing users of the 500PF: it's lack of light gathering ability (i.e., less effectiveness in low light scenarios) and possibly a noticeable reduction in the photographer's ability to isolate (or separate) a subject from a busy background. As a consequence, you will see me almost obsessively focusing during my field testing on how the 500PF performs when shot wide open (in this and future installments of this lens review).

But THE critical point to make here is that when you combine these two key specifications - the Phase Fresnel lens element and the f5.6 maximum aperture - you end up with a 500mm lens that is just diminutive compared to other 500mm lenses on the market. This exceptionally small size (and low weight) helps a wildlife photographer in many ways. It helps when traveling via plane or other means that have a weight or size restriction (something that is often limiting for the traveling wildlife photographer), it helps in day-to-day portability (carrying it around in the field) a LOT, and it helps tremendously in maintaining the mobility of the photographer - including in how fast you can re-position the lens and in how quickly and easily you can re-position yourself when shooting with the lens. When using the 500PF I've literally dove onto the ground a couple of times to get some uber low-level shots that I would have missed if I was shooting a "traditional" (bigger and heavier) 500mm lens. This final consequence of the tiny size of the 500PF (maintenance of photographer mobility when using the 500PF) was absolutely striking to me when I was shooting in the field. You simply don't realize how much you miss this mobility when using a "traditional" 500mm lens until you try the 500PF - after my first session with the 500PF I was already thinking (BEFORE seeing any the results) "How could any wildlife photographer NOT love this lens?"

Anyway...the remainder of today's entry focuses on two things: my simple first impressions of the 500PF plus a little of what my initial shooting has clearly indicated or, at the very least, strongly suggested.

For those who want a SINGLE WORD SUMMARY of the nuances of the performance of this cool little tool...well...after about 10 days of shooting I am quite comfortable saying this: WOW!

OK...let's get to it:

1. First Impressions - Build Quality.

This new lens is - like the 300mm f4 PF - manufactured in China (unlike most of Nikon's other pro lenses that are made in Japan). Over the years we have seen the quality of Chinese manufactured products go up but, to date, an experienced lens aficionado could instantly distinguish a Japanese-built lens from a Chinese-built lens. Well, they could do this up until now - if I didn't see "Made in China" stamped on this lens I would have thought it was Japanese-built. Simply put - the build quality and finishing is absolutely excellent. The focusing ring spins very, very smoothly, and even the tripod collar moves as smooth (or smoother) than all other lenses I've owned or tried. Toggle switches are positive. And, as stated on Nikon's website, the lens is extensively weather-sealed and the front element is coated in fluorine (to repel water drops and other gunk). Even the supplied hood is not too bad (and much better than the hood found on the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E zoom lens). So full marks on build quality.

2. First Impressions - Physical Characteristics: Length and Weight.

You can't compare the 500PF to other 500mm lenses and have that comparison make much sense or have any degree of "relatability" - saying that the lens is almost 3100 gm (or over 3.5 lb) lighter than the Nikkor 500mm f4E doesn't do it justice. So let's compare it to the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E. The shooting weight of the 500PF (no lens caps, no tripod foot, but with hood in place) is 1474 gm (3.25 lb). The shooting weight of the 70-200mm f2.8E is 1418 gm (3.125 lb). SO...that means the 500PF is ONLY 56 gm (one EIGHTH of a pound) heavier than the Nikkor 70-200 f2.8E.

Length? Again, the only sensible comparison is against the 70-200 f2.8E. So...the 500PF comes in at 23.8 cm (9.37") and the 70-200 f2.8E comes in at 20.4 cm (8.03") - both measured without the hood in place. So the 500PF is only about 3.4 cm (or 1.33") longer than the 70-200 f2.8E.

Like I said, this lens is - when compared to other 500mm prime lenses - absolutely TINY!

3. First Impressions - Physical Characteristics: Balance.

I find the 500PF well-balanced on any of Nikon's top-end DSLR's - kinda feels like have a 70-200 mounted on your camera! With the lighter weight Z7 the entire "rig" feels slightly front-heavy, but not so much that it's any problem or inconvenience to hold (don't forget that when using the 500PF with the Z7 you have the mount adapter FTZ in the middle, which adds about another 3 cm - just over an inch - to the total length of the setup).

4. First Impressions - Physical Characteristics: Tripod Foot.

The bad news? Just like with ALL of Nikon's super-telephoto lens (and the foot on the 70-200mm f2.8E) the OEM tripod foot is NOT Arca-Swiss compatible (why not Nikon??). The good news? Well...just so happens that the tripod foot - including the mounting mechanism - is the exact same one as on the 70-200mm f2.8E. So if you have invested in a 3rd party tripod foot with Arca-Swiss compatibility for your 70-200mm f2.8E (like the one from Jobu Designs or the LCF-11 from Really Right Stuff)...well...you ALREADY have an Arca-Swiss compatible tripod foot.

5. First Impressions - Ergonomics and Controls.

The ergonomics and button/toggle locations are similar to those on the majority of Nikon telephoto lenses. This lens DOES come equipped with a "ring" of 4 AF activation buttons and, at least for me, they are positioned exactly where my hand naturally "falls" when hand-holding the lens. Those buttons (near the distal end of the lens) can be used to focus the lens, lock the focus of the lens, or for "memory recall" of a pre-focused point that you previously stored using ANOTHER button on the lens - the Memory Set button. Of course, if you have a camera body that supports the functionality, you can use the AF activation button to switch to a different AF Area mode on the fly. And...something I just learned when playing with the 500PF on the Z7 - if you are using the "memory recall" function with a Z7 (and presumably a Z6 but I haven't tried it), when you push the AF activation button not only does the lens refocus on the previously stored position, it automatically uses focus peaking to show you what actually IS in focus. Pretty cool!

Have I identified any problems with the ergonomics of the lens? Sort of. The focusing ring is RIGHT beside the AF activation buttons and right where my hand naturally rests. This means it's easy for me to bump that focus ring (of course, always at inopportune times). I DO wish that the gap between the AF activation buttons and the focus ring was wider. My workaround is to ensure that I am always shooting in A/M mode when gives priority to autofocus over manual focus (and thus accidentally bumping that focus ring is less consequential).

6. First Impressions - Optical Quality

Systematic testing of the 500PF will be a huge part of future blog entries (and my final full lens review). In those tests I will be comparing the 500PF against 3 other lenses and at 3 distances (and from wide open through to f11). The lenses I'll be comparing against are the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport, the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (at 500mm...so with the built-in TC engaged) and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3. I'll be making the comparisons at short distance (7 meters), "moderate" distances (27 meters) and with distant scenes (over 1 km away).

BUT...I have already shot about 5000 images with the 500PF and I can say several things with at least reasonable confidence AND show you several sample images illustrating those points. So let's go there now...

A. With Close Subjects (7 meters or about 23 feet):

After spending some time shooting perching birds and small mammals (squirrels!) at close distances it's REAL hard not to just gush about the extreme sharpness AND the quality of the out-of-focus (OOF) zones of the 500PF. Check out these two 2400 pixel annotated sample shots (and it will likely be worth it to you to read the notes accompanying the images):

• Mountain Chickadee: DOWNLOAD 2400 PIXEL IMAGE (JPEG; 1.7 MB).
• Clark's Nutcracker: DOWNLOAD 2400 PIXEL IMAGE (JPEG; 1.4 MB).

B. With "Mid-distance" Subjects (10-40 meters or about 32-130 feet):

This is a distance zone that I work in a LOT with my wildlife photography. So how the lens performs here is critical to its usefulness to me. Of particular interest (at least to me) is how well the lens performs in this distance range when shot wide open (in both sharpness AND in the quality of the OOF zones or bokeh). And...while I know I'm letting the cat out of the bag a little with this next statement, the optical performance of the 500PF in this distance range has JUST BLOWN ME AWAY. It has exceeded my expectations by a huge amount! Here's a few annotated samples (and those annotations ARE worth looking at for context):

• Vigilance - White-tailed Deer: DOWNLOAD 2400 PIXEL IMAGE (JPEG; 1.49 MB).

What about the contrast and overall lens performance in a back-lit situation with a subject about 40 meters (130 feet) away? Check out this image:

• Backlit Snow Dog: DOWNLOAD 2400 PIXEL IMAGE (JPEG; 1.80 MB).

And what about those really "dreamy" and buttery soft backgrounds that users of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 and Nikkor 400mm f2.8E's know so well - can you really get those with an f5.6 lens? Well...just check out this shot of Poncho (my Portuguese Water Dog) trotting at me in the snow:

• Going Low: DOWNLOAD 2400 PIXEL IMAGE (JPEG; 1.68 MB).

Note that this is one of the shots previously mentioned where I spontaneously dove to the ground (with my 500PF in hand) to get the shot. That's not something I'd try with a 8 lb 500mm f4 in my hands.

C. With Distant Scenes (500+ meters):

This is another aspect of optical performance I am going to systematically test and examine in the near future. But on a recent hike I ran into a good scenario to do an impromptu "test" (albeit an "anecdotal" test). The following image is a full-resolution Z7 shot where the focus point (front-most grass edge where it meets the foreground snow). This is a handheld shot (using my Z7) and to full appreciate what you're seeing here you should download the image and view central portions AND edges at 100% magnification. Note that the 500PF was WIDE OPEN (at f5.6) when I shot this shot - and it's another shot that basically blew me away when I checked it out. You can check it out here:

• Columbia Wetlands from 600 meters: DOWNLOAD 8256 PIXEL IMAGE (JPEG; 15.3 MB).

Summing up my first impressions on the optical performance of the 500PF: While I still have a lot of head-to-head systematic optical testing to do on the 500PF (to determine things like "how do wide open shots of the 500PF compare to wide open shots of the Sigma Sport 500 f4?") I already know that Nikon has designed and built an optically top-shelf lens in the 500PF. In my view lens performance is not just about sharpness - it's about both the quality of the in-focus zones, the quality of the out-of-focus zones, AND how those zones interact in any given image. And the 500PF balances those characteristics beautifully!

7. First Impressions - Autofocus Performance.

Nikon makes an interesting claim about the AF performance of the 500mm PF. And it relates to the size and weight of the focusing elements of the lens. In their words "By employing a lighter focus lens group, higher AF speed is achieved, assuring superb subject-tracking performance."

User's of Nikon's latest super-telephoto primes (like the 400mm f2.8E) know how fast those lenses focus, and they have much heavier focusing elements than the 500PF. Can we actually expect an f5.6 lens at under half the price of Nikon's other super-telephotos will focus as fast (or faster) than them? I haven't done head-to-head tests YET (that will come in the near future) - but I have done some "anecdotal testing" using Poncho, my Portuguese Water Dog and well-paid assistant. In these tests (where all animal subjects are very happy and gorging themselves with treats) I have Poncho run at me at full-tilt and blast away with my D5 as he approaches me. This tests both the predictive AF capabilities of the lens and just how fast it can re-focus when shooting a fast-moving subject at a high frame rate. I have done this test for years and it REALLY separates out the fast focusing lenses from the pretenders. To date, the best lens in this test has been my 400mm f2.8E and I can count on it producing a "tack sharp hit rate" of 85-90%.

So...I took Poncho out and ran 3 test sequences of this "test", capturing a total of 305 images. How many were tack sharp? Only 297 of them! That's an absolutely astounding 97.38% of them tack sharp. And, that's mind-boggling good and off-the-charts in AF performance. Note that these trials were run with a D5 - Nikon's absolute best DSLR in terms of autofocus performance. With a D850 or D500 I'd expect a somewhat lower hit rate (probably in the 70% range) and with a Z7 more like 50%.

Sample image? Here you go...

• Cho on the Go: DOWNLOAD 2400 PIXEL IMAGE (JPEG; 1.62 MB).

Expect more systematic testing of the AF of the 500PF in coming days (including head-to-head comparisons against other lenses).

8. First Impressions - VR Performance & "Hand-holdability"

VR performance is only one of the contributing factors to one's ability to hand-hold a lens under field conditions - others include lens weight, balance, and (now) whether or not the camera body it is being used with adds supplementary stabilization (as the Z Series mirrorless bodies do). At this point I haven't had a chance to systematically compare how effectively I can hand-hold the 500PF against other 500mm lenses, but here's several anecdotal observations I've made to date...

First, the obvious (if you cut the weight of a super-telephoto by over 50% it should be easier to hand-hold and most should be able to hand-hold it for longer bouts) is true. Hand-holding the 500PF is dramatically easier than hand-holding any of the other 500mm lenses I've ever used. If you are in a situation where you are forced to hand-hold a lens (as I often am when working from a Zodiac on British Columbia's coast) the small size and low weight of this lens give it a massive advantage over "traditional" 500mm lenses. There ARE many people who simple can't effectively hand-hold a "traditional" 500mm lens - and I suspect MOST of these shooters would find that they could easily hand-hold the 500PF. This can open up huge possibilities.

What about the VR itself? Nikon claims a 4.0 stop advantage when shooting in VR Normal mode and at this point (and anecdotally) I have no reason to doubt this claim - the VR seems very effective. The 500PF also offers VR Sport mode which offers a little less image stabilization but is MUCH better if you're shooting in high frame-rate sequences (there's a whole lot less between-frame "jerkiness" in what you see through the viewfinder in Sport mode than there is in Normal mode).

I will be teasing apart the nuances of the VR and hand-holdability (and comparing the shutter speeds that I can hand-hold this lens at vs. other 500mm lenses) in the near future. But one thing that won't show up in those tests - but can have a big impact on your shooting - is how LONG you can hand-hold this lens for (in a single bout) and how many times you can do it in a single day (without coming home exhausted). I don't know how many times I've heard wildlife photographers say "Of course, I can hand-hold my 500mm...for about 30 seconds at a time". If that same user can hand-hold the 500PF for two minutes at a time, their chances of getting that "oh so special shot" just went up 4-fold!

9. First Impressions - My OVERALL Early Impression of the 500PF!

We live in an age of exaggerated - and even blatantly false - marketing claims and ever-increasing hyperbole. Products with a 1% increase in performance are labelled as "game-changing" or "revolutionary". I don't want to contribute to this myself and make claims about what this lens will do for OTHERS. So I am just going to say three things in summarizing my overall first impression of the 500PF and how it works for me:

A. WOW!

B. Expectations Exceeded! This lens has already wildly exceeded my own expectations for it. To be fair, my expectations weren't tremendously high - I KNEW the lens was going to be small, easy to transport and carry, and "convenient" to use. And I expected it would be acceptable optically. But I really felt its main selling point would be its relatively diminutive size...and for this alone we'd be willing to accept a slight degrade in image quality relative to Nikon's "best" super-telephotos. But I am completely shocked at how good this lens is in both optical and autofocus performance. It is right there (stride for stride) with Nikon's best super-telephoto lenses.

C. A Revolutionary Game-changer for ME! I won't say this lens will be a revolutionary or game-changing product for anyone else - but it IS for ME. My use of a 500mm lens will no longer be limited to areas where it can be easily transported to or easily set-up and/or used. This lens will be with me whenever I'm out in the woods and whenever I could carry a 70-200mm f2.8 lens. And I am already confident that in owning this lens I will have a distinct advantage in the field (compared to "the me without a 500PF") and it will allow me to capture images I could not have otherwise captured.

So Nikon...when is the 600mm f5.6E PF coming? Sign me up for that one too...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog_2020_all.html#500PF_FirstImpressions



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

2020 - With ALL the Meat!
2020 - With ALL the Meat!
2019 - ALL the Gory Details
2018 - The Whole Enchilada
2017 - The Full Meal Deal
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