Category: Photo Equipment

AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR

A long telephoto lens like the Nikon 200-500/5.6 is a significant piece of kit. It has the potential to open up areas of wildlife and landscape photography not previously encountered. But it also requires some fine and careful technique to get the most out of the lens. High magnifications mean greater potential for unsharp images, particularly in less-than-ideal lighting situations. The additional size and weight also demand a commitment to photography beyond casually walking around with a camera slung over the shoulder. So it is with trepidation that one considers such a significant addition to one’s lens collection.

For me, photography is a passion, not a vocation nor anything close to a full-time job. As my day job does not generate enough extra cash to finance this passion, I fund it through the sale of photographs, running workshops, and giving presentations. Recently, I made a fairly significant sale of photographs to Saatchi Art in the US which has provided the funds to purchase the AF-S Nikkor 200-500 f/5.6 lens. Why am I telling you this? Well, for many of us, money doesn’t grow on trees. We scrimp and save, hoping to upgrade our equipment. Some photographers work as I do: sell a bit, buy a bit, gradually building up their equipment “arsenal’. We don’t take our equipment for granted. When you’ve had to work and save, it certainly raises the appreciation and value of the equipment you are able to purchase.

I checked online for pricing and found Henry’s to be competitive with Amazon with the added bonus of being a Canadian company with bricks-and-mortar stores. To me, this makes a difference. How many people walk into a store, check out the goods and the prices then walk out and purchase the same things from different online sources such as Amazon? Me? I’d rather give my business to Canadian companies that employ the people who live around me. So, on Wednesday evening I checked the availability of the lens at my nearest Henry’s – in Kitchener. Sadly, it was out of stock, so I ordered the lens from Henry’s online, chose the free shipping option, and on Friday it arrived! Talk about quick service!

Bluebird @ 100%. Perhaps slightly ‘crunchy’; I’ll work on my Lightroom sharpening technique.

Saturday morning, Laura and I were up and out by 6:30am to her favourite local birding haunt – Ignatius Jesuit Centre just north of Guelph – to try out the new lens. While walking there over the past couple of weeks, Laura has seen all the regular birds – cardinals, robins, blue jays, various sparrows and tree swallows – but also species we don’t regularly see at the Arboretum or the Little Tract, including bluebirds, meadowlarks and bobolinks. Ignatius Jesuit Centre has a great diversity of habitats including an organic farm, community plots, unmowed fields (critical to bobolinks and meadowlarks), cedar forests, deciduous forests and wetlands, and is open for walking at all times. BTW: In winter, it’s also a great local area for Nordic skiing with trails formed by the Guelph Nordic Ski Club.

Now, there’s no getting around the fact that the 200-500mm is a big lens. It weighs in at 2.3kg (5 pounds) and has a 95mm front filter size. At 200mm, with the lens hood on, it is 34cm long (13½”). When zoomed out, add another 8cm or 3 inches. Thankfully, it comes with a sturdy tripod collar allowing me to attach it to my ages-old monopod. It’s not a lens I could hand-hold confidently for any length of time, at least not without a few trips to the gym! Although, that being said, I will try it as I want to see how well the VR works. It is reported to be excellent.

Tree Swallow @ 100% (click to open)

Despite it’s relatively low price (CAD $1600) – compared to typical Nikkor lenses of this focal length – the quality is top notch. No, it won’t compete with Nikon’s finest telephotos like the 300/2.8, 400/2.8 or the 500/4, but they are also 4 to 9 times the cost. Even the new 300/4 VR is a $1000 more. So, what the 200-500/5.6 gives up in speed, price and quality it more than makes up for in versatility. And it really hasn’t given up much despite it’s price. I was very careful to check this out in some detail before hand with some of the most honest reviewers online (Thom Hogan, Will Nicholls, and Dan Carr)

In the field, the lens did not disappoint. It focussed smoothly, quickly and quietly with just a bit of extra sound from the VR. I shot front lit, sideline and backlit shots and all had crisp contrast with fine feather detail, which is what counts. I was able to quickly raise the camera+lens, focus and shoot, although Recognize, I still need to work on my technique. Was it heavy to carry around? Yes, and no. I found carrying it by the tripod collar the easiest and well-balanced, but I did feel the extra weight. Except for the 300/4 PF lens (at CAD $1000 more expensive), there is no avoiding the weight of any significant telephoto lens.

So with a summer free of international travel, I will be spending my time capturing Ontario wildlife in ways that I’ve always wanted to: quietly, at first light and with a proper telephoto lens. I still have much to check out and learn about this lens so stay tuned.

Killarney Provincial Park in Winter

I just spent a beautiful long weekend with my friend Kerry Little up at Killarney for some winter photography. We first went up there 25 years ago and camped in a virtually empty park. It was cold (Kerry remembers it as -40C, I think it was -25C), but, despite the frozen boots each morning, it was magical. The low angle and warmth of winter light combined with later sunrises and earlier sunsets, makes winter landscape photography my favourite. And, it’s surprising how quickly your body adapts to the cold. Of course, we were 25 years younger, too, but even this year, after a day of -10C, having gloves off is bearable.

A few years later, we upgraded, staying in Kerry’s trailer on two separate occasions. Still, the park was empty. The park staff were kind enough to leave the washroom open at the park entrance for running water and a flush toilet.

Nowadays, Killarney is abuzz with people, some day users from Sudbury, a few campers and backcountry users, but most staying in the yurts. We trailered it again, staying up in the now greatly expanded car park.

Seeing the park well used in winter is encouraging, but having it all to ourselves back in the 1990s was certainly a treat. Now, there are snowmobile tracks all over George Lake, which is unfortunate from a photography perspective. The tracks did make for easier walking, though. In fact, we didn’t end up needing our snowshoes, although we used them once. As the snow had a glaze of ice on it from rain the previous week, we couldn’t use our Nordic skis either. Just as well; the winter sports weren’t our end game, but means to an end: photography.

Ontario’s Crown Jewel: Killarney

If you’re not familiar with Killarney Provincial Park, it is considered Ontario’s crown jewel park. It is Canadian Shied at its most picturesque. Although the original forests dominated by huge coniferous white pine, hemlock and fir, mixed with some deciduous beech and a few oak are long gone, they were logged sufficiently long ago to allow for a semi-respectable mixed forest to have regrown creating a forest many would think is original.

But Killarney’s most significant features are its rock and its lakes. Stretching east-west across the park are the truly ancient ridges of the La Cloche Range. These very rugged 300m hills of white quartzite are the ancients roots of mountains that were once higher than today’s Himalayas! But that was about 3.5 billion years ago, when Earth was still in its infancy, long before life as we know it existed.

About 1.2 billion years ago, along what is now known as the Grenville Orogeny, two continents collided. Today, the pink granite along Killarney’s southern Georgian Bay shore stretches northwards past the park’s first line of lakes up to the base of the white quartzite La Cloche Range. The deep, almost tropical blue of the lakes along with the rocks and trees makes for a colourful and dynamic juxtaposition of space and time. The same scenery becomes magical in winter, with the blue water being replaced by white ice and snow. Hence, our delight at the co-operative weather providing the icing of blue skies at sunrise to this multi-layered cake.

For me, all of this comes together in two places: George Lake with its iconic and monolithic cliff of pink granite and at the appropriately-named A. Y. Jackson Lake just a kilometre east. On our second morning we made a point of being out on George Lake before sunrise.

George Lake Monolith, Dawn

The day dawned with a spectacularly blue sky. Frost quickly accumulated on our tripod heads as we worked through that first hour of the sun lighting the distance ridges to the north then progressively adding its golden glow to more and more of the scene before us.

After another hour or so of detail work along shorelines, it was time to head in for breakfast. A quick trip into the village of Killarney took us to the Sportsman’s Inn for hot coffee, a warm atmosphere and a delicious plate of eggs, peameal bacon, home fries and toast – and another two or three cups of coffee. The time also allowed me to upload the morning’s images to my laptop and begin working in them.

Morning, A. Y. Jackson Lake

The next morning was a repeat, except we snowshoed down the lake to pick up the Silhouette Trail near Cranberry Bog. Part way up the significant granite headland, we ditched the shoes for scrambling and hiking. At the peak, the sun was just starting to cast its brilliant glow across the treetops of the park – a great view but one we would have to leave for another day as the scene I had envisioned was still waiting ahead. A quick trip down the other side of the headland brought us to the southern shore of A. Y. Jackson Lake. The morning sun was just kissing the La Cloche Range while the pink granite and tree-lined lake was still in shadow – perfect timing.

Each of us immediately set about negotiating strong foreground elements for this grand scene before us. What a fitting tribute to one of Canada’s pre-eminent landscape artists. As one of the Group of Seven, A. Y. Jackson painted frequently in the Killarney area some 80 years previously. Even without the semi-mature forest of today, Jackson’s paintings of Killarney are iconic with the white La Cloche Range, pink granite and blue lakes.

We worked for about an hour, but much of it was spent waiting and waiting. I was particularly interested in capturing the shadows of the coniferous trees projected on the white canvas foreground of the snow-covered lake with its rim of forest and granite in the mid-ground and the La Cloche tucked in behind. The wait was worth it, but cold.

Astrophotography…

…is not my passion in photography, but it’s something I do when circumstances arise. Given the gazillion stars above on a clear and cold winter night, I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. Bundled up, I walked down to George Lake. i knew exactly where I wanted to shoot this, but it was on the other side of the lake. Imagine my trepidation, walking on the lake at 10:30pm, (almost) no one around, and hearing the moaning of the ice as it adjusted to the dropping temperatures of the day. Creepy is really the only word that truly describes it. All I needed was a wolf howl, but none were about that night.

Staying warm

Despite the felt lining of my Sorels, alpaca boot liners and thick Icelandic wool socks, my feet were becoming blocks of ice, mostly due to inactivity. The rest of me was toasty. I wore a Merino wool base layer followed by a cotton turtleneck. Fleece pants and a fleece pullover were covered with Gore-Tex pants and anorak. (On the coldest days, I switch out the fleece pullover for an Icelandic wool sweater – nothing beats it for warmth while still being light in weight.) While travelling and standing around, my fleece gloves were covered with Gore-Tex over-mitts; on my head, I wore my favourite fleece-lined knitted hat and, when the wind blew, the hood of my anorak. While the layers may sound complicated and bulky, they are neither. Some of the gear, like my Sorels, fleece and Gore-Tex pants are over 20 years old.

The two keys to staying warm are insulation and blocking the wind; my preference has always been to make these separate layers rather than one thick parka-style coat, a combination that has worked for me for over three decades. In fact, the newest piece of my cold weather dress has been the Merino wool base-layer which replaced my favourite silk long underwear which has been in poor repair for a few years now. I tried polypropylene, but was never satisfied with its additional bulk and plasticky feel.

Photos

So here are the 15 photos I have selected from the trip. You will notice some repeats, as I have included photos from each of the three cameras I was using: Nikon D800E, Sony RX-10iii and iPhone 8 Plus (using raw capture from Lightroom Mobile). All were shot using raw capture and processed in Lightroom. I encourage you to flip through the gallery, ask questions, add comments and, by all means, share this post with others who might appreciate the winter beauty of Killarney.

 

iPhone 8 Plus Initial Test Shots

Three years ago, I shot everything on full frame. Since moving to digital from 35mm and 4×5, it had been my “quest” to reach the same level of image quality as my 4×5. With the Nikon D800E, image quality was finally there and well surpassed that of 4×5, although I did not have access to the tilts and swings of the larger format, bellows camera.

Two years ago, after hefting my full frame D800E and lenses around the Galápagos Islands with 23 students, I decided a change was needed. That’s when I began exploring 1″ sensor “bridge” cameras: first the Panasonic Lumix FZ1000, followed by the Sony RX-10iii, which I have happily settled on. I’ve now travelled with it to Iceland twice and to England, not to mention numerous day hikes here in southern Ontario. I am very pleased with the IQ and can easily make fine photographic prints up to 13″ and 17″.

iPhone 8 Plus

Last week I (finally) entered the mobile phone era with an iPhone 8 Plus. (BTW – Check out Freedom Mobile: over the two year contract, I will only be charged $600 for my $1095 iPhone 8 Plus! Use the link here and you and I will earn a $10 credit!)

A small gallery of photos from Christmas Eve Day, down by the Speed River, Guelph.

Why the iPhone 8 Plus? Why, its camera, of course! It has a two-lens camera system: one is a nice wideangle (for smartphones) f/1.8 28mm lens; the other, a f/2.8 56mm lens. It’s portrait mode creates beautiful photographs, artificially blurring the background, and, with the right app (in my case, I’m using the ProCamera app) I can save the photo in RAW format, using Adobe’s DNG format. Imagine, raw from a phone. Is it any good, though? I’ll let you be the judge. You can learn more about the camera in this article in Popular Science.

These were shot over the last couple of days while we’ve had beautiful, but cold, wintry days here in southern Ontario. The stark lighting is a real test for any camera system as the dynamic range is extreme. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well the iPhone handled the contrast. From what I understand, the camera now always does exposure blending by taking three exposures almost simultaneously then automatically combining them into a single photograph, commonly called HDR.

The photo below was made along one of the many backroads we took driving down to Burlington on Christmas Day. The late afternoon sun was made hazy by the falling snow – a scene that was begging to be photographed. I took a number of different shots and settled on this one, slightly cropped from the full photograph. I saved it as a raw file, to ensure maximum latitude while processing. That being said, Apple’s new HEIF file format (PhoneArena review), which iOS 11 now uses instead of JPEGS ticks many of the boxes for advantages: up to 16-bit colour (jpeg is 8-bit) including animation and transparency, yet a smaller file size (about ½ compared to jpeg) and far superior compression with fewer artefacts.

Web version with border and white framing from Lightroom and LR/Mogrify
This is the initial raw file, cropped, but not processed. It appears dark as the emphasis was on retaining the highlights. The full-size image is linked for you to view pixel-level quality.
Here is the full-resolution (linked) processed version of the same file.
Lightroom Before/After comparison with processing values to the right.
Portrait mode, no flash

So far, I’m pleased with the results. Even the Portrait mode is well worth the additional cost of the “Plus” version of the iPhone 8. And the Slow-Synch flash, which doubles as a flashlight/torch, is a bonus which provides very pleasing fill light. Why not an iPhone 10? The additional cost pushed it over my budget. Besides, the iPhone 8 Plus is built on tried and tested technology.

I’ll be shooting more with it over the next few days, so if you have any questions or comments, fire away.

Will it replace my other photo gear? For walking around, yes, but for serious photography, not yet. Who knows, though, the iPhone 8 Plus might still have a few tricks up its sleeve.

It’s Fungus Time in Southern Ontario

Beware – there’s fungus among us! The mushrooms are out in the forests of southern Ontario! Get out your tripod and your knee pads and get down in the leaf litter from some great close-up photography. But don’t forget your bug repellent, because the mosquitoes are still out there!

The last two weekends, my wife Laura and I have been out along the Bruce Trail. If you’re not familiar with the Bruce Trail, it is Canada’s oldest and longest marked footpath travelling from Niagara Falls in the south along the Niagara Escarpment some 890km to Tobermory in the north. There are dozens of places along the trail to park and hike for a day, often associated with the various conservation areas and provincial parks along the Escarpment, but also along roadsides and at car parks built expressly for Trail users. I would encourage you to make good use of the Bruce Trail for access to some of the most photogenic sites in southern Ontario. But, being a volunteer-maintained trail, consider also becoming a member of the Bruce Trail Conservancy, purchasing the Reference Guide book or Trail app (iOS and Android) or making a contribution to the Conservancy so they can continue their good work keeping the trail up and acquiring more parcels of land to protect the optimum route of the trail.

Our first hike was the Speyside section (east of Guelph, north of Milton, just east of former Hey 25), where we saw the first few mushrooms. Between Bruce Trial hikes, we’ve also been to the Arboretum at the University of Guelph where there are a few different types of fungus. I hesitate to call them all mushrooms as some of what you’ll see are cup fungus, coral fungus, puffballs and slime moulds. Don’t they sound delightful? Beyond that, I’m not at all familiar with the various types of fungus and know very little about the names except for the ones I have looked up.

Saturday was a fungus bonanza, though. We were northeast of Shelburne along a stretch of the Bruce Trail between Boyne River Provincial Park and the Mulmur Hills. The summer has been on the cool and wet side which seems ideal for fungus as well as various species of moss and lichen. There were over a dozen different kinds of fungus and, as our intent was to hike, I only stopped to photograph a few.

So if you have a couple of hours to spare and don’t mind getting your knees dirty, head out to a local woodlot or forest and try your hand (and your patience) with photographing fungus. The nice thing is, they don’t move, so the long exposure times needed for the dark forest floor are not a problem as long as you are using a tripod and cable release or self-timer. Take your time, though, as the set-up and precise focussing can sap your patience.

If you are into trying new techniques, mushrooms are also a good subject to practice the technique of focus-stacking (excellent tutorial here). The files are not something you can process in Photos or Lightroom – you’ll need Affinity Photo (video tutorial) or Photoshop to finish the job. I’ve been experimenting with the technique and may start to use it more, but, for now, I’m still making the majority of my close-up shots the regular way by choosing a small aperture (ƒ22 for full frame; ƒ5.6 to 8 for 1″ sensor) and making a single shot.

Setting up low to the ground and with a tripod is not easy. Before going out, work with your tripod to learn what it’s capable of, and what it cannot do. Some tripods allow the legs to spread out completely, but then you are limited by the centre post. The Manfrotto 055 tripod I recently purchased has a centre post that can be set at a 90° angle – ideal for shooting close-ups near to the ground – and it really works well!

When I’m out hiking, as I was yesterday, rather than bringing the whole kit with D800E, lenses and 055 tripod, I often bring my Sony RX10iii with the monopod portion of my MeFoto RoadTrip tripod. This is a good set-up, but not ideal as I end up having to use ISO 400 and some pretty slow shutter speeds along with the excellent stabilization, to shoot close-up. The Chanterelle above was shot at ƒ5.6 @ 1/13, ISO 400 with a polarizer on the RX10iii on the monopod. It took a few shots to ensure everything was sharp, but I sure wish I had my tripod for this. I think next time I’ll at least have the full MeFoto tripod with me for just a situation like this.

If you can’t get down lower than the shortest leg setting, then think about using a telephoto lens and shooting from further away. As it is, the best close-up/macro lenses for this kind of work are in the 90mm to 150mm range. If you can focus closely enough, a 200mm focal length lens makes an ideal working distance for close-up photography. Again, set this up at home – try practicing on some flowers or even chess pieces. When out in the field, be aware of branches and leaves that may be between the lens and the mushroom that may not be visible in the viewfinder.

Once you’ve found the ideal mushroom in the forest – before you set up the tripod – hand-hold your camera and spend some time finding just the right angle and view. Composition is best done off the tripod; once you’ve found that perfect angle, set up the tripod “under” that point and attach your camera. Adding a polarizing filter will help reduce the glare off wet foliage or smooth bark and leaves.

One cautionary note: Do not pick and eat any of the mushrooms. As delectable as they may look – and they may even look exactly like a mushroom you remember eating – don’t take the chance. There are too many “look-alikes” that might just send you to Emergency!

If you have any questions or comments, please add them below. And I invite you to share this post with others. Thanks for reading!

Gallery
Click on any image and use the > < arrows (or your cursor keys) to navigate through.

Another Spectacular Autumn

We have had our share of beautiful weather this autumn here in southern Ontario although lately, it has “normalized”.  At the same time, Laura and I have been out hiking almost every weekend rain, shine or, in the case of last weekend, snow. I’m really working hard at capturing at least one truly worthwhile photograph from each outing. So far, so good, but I also know that won’t always be the case.

Here is a gallery of the best from the last two months. All are made with the Sony RX-10iii which has become my go-to camera as of late, particularly because of its ease of use while hiking. On the last few outings, I’ve taken with me the monopod leg of the MeFOTO tripod. This has been a fantastic addition, allowing me to make photos that would be otherwise impossible late in the afternoon. Yes, I could be hefting a tripod and my D800E kit, but really, these photos will stand up to the needs of cards, photo books and fine art prints. I’m loving this change. Anyone interested in a used D800E and lenses?  🙂

Okay – so I have been trying for an hour to load photos into a gallery as I’ve done countless times before, but I keep getting a WordPress HTTP error – very frustrating!! So I will direct you to my Flickr Photostream to see the most recent photos. Enjoy!

Lumix FZ1000 in print

I am thrilled to be shooting with the Panasonic LUMIX FZ1000 camera. Its features are quite remarkable:

  • 25-400mm (equivalent) Leica ƒ2.8-4 lens
  • 20mp 1″ sensor
  • Hull HD and 4K video
  • lots of customization for shooting both raw and jpegs

Winter SquallI’m impressed, too – impressed enough to have purchased one for travel photography. Lately, I’ve been putting it through its paces, really trying to push it to the limits. Of course, the limits I’m comparing it with are those of my full-frame D800E and associated optics.

So why bother with a “bridge” camera when I’m using a D800E? It all comes down to travel. I wanted something I could take with me “where ever” I go. I know I can do that with the D800E, but if I want anything beyond normal, I’m stuck carrying extra lenses with me, and full-frame zoom lenses aren’t exactly lightweight! What about prime lenses? True, they are lighter, but then I’m changing lenses more frequently than I prefer to. I want something I can pick up and head out shooting with that will give me decent quality raw photos for printing and decent-quality family snapshots for jpegs for sharing. Something I can walk around and hand-hold without compromising too much quality. I would still use my D800E for my fine art work where time allows me to slow down and use a a tripod. But it just seems to be overkill for many of the travel-type grab shots I also enjoy making – photos that will rarely see the inside of a printer, so to speak.

Winter Morning, Bark LakeNeedless to say it’s an unfair comparison, given the D800E’s state-of-the-art 36mp sensor with class-leading dynamic range, but still, I’m impressed by what the FZ1000 can do. So impressed, that it was the only camera I took with me on my annual sojourn into a Canadian winter up at Bark Lake Leadership Centre with our Grade 10s for their 6-day field course.

I made a number of jpeg images of the students skiing, building fires, augering down through the ice to collect lake water samples – those images are nothing short of fantastic. The flash did an amazing job of filling in shadows on sunny days and indoors. Actually the light from the flash is better than I get from the D800E’s pop-up flash – less contrasty and better balanced. ISOs up to 800 were perfectly fine for web and print media (e.g. 300dpi for yearbook).

FZ1000-100%Since returning, I have also taken some basketball photos at ISO3200. Not as clean and crisp as the D800E w/ ƒ2.8 70-200mm zoom, but certainly printable for web and yearbook (just). Even the team photos I took at ISO400 and 800 in the gym with the pop-up flash were plenty good enough once processed through Lightroom.

While up at Bark Lake, I made some fine art photos as well, shooting in raw at the base ISO of 125. They are terrific, indeed – quality enough for printing this past weekend as 10.5 x15″. They would even stand up well as full 13×19″ prints. And, since that’s the title of this post, here they are.

I’be also included a 100% screen capture of part of the upper pholograph. In all fairness, there is a fair amount of snow flying around that appears, in the 100% crop, to be dust, but it isn’t!

_1030085And, lastly, here is a female cardinal shot at ƒ5.6 400mm (equivalent) at ISO125. By the way, this was shot through our kitchen window. It is a 1200×1800 pixel crop from the full 5472×3648 frame. Not bad at all!

 

Autochromes: How potato starch made the first colour photographs

imagePhenomenal when you think about it. Imagine carrying around a box of glass plates lightly covered with potato starch died red, green and blue coated with an emulsion. To make a photograph, you would set up your large wooden camera on an equally large, wooden tripod then everyone and everything to “freeze” for a few moments while you expose a glass plate. Whew – photography was hard work back then.

Have a look at a news story from National Geographic – Beautiful antique photos made with potato starch about the autochrome process and the gallery of images presented there.

What an amazing transition we’ve made over the decades from glass plates to film sheets to 35mm to full frame digital, APS digital and now mirror less cameras – all managing to maintain a high level of image quality. Now, think about how much we still complain, even today, about carrying all the “stuff” we do to make great photographs!

AF-S Nikkor 24-85mm ƒ3.4-4.5 VRII Lens Test on a D800E

I love my prime lenses and I love the whole approach to using primes: choosing specific focal lengths to capture specific perspectives then moving to carefully compose the photograph to make best use of the film or sensor perspectives. The alternative is a zoom lens.

Zooms have their place too. While travelling around Africa, Europe and the UK, I found my two zooms, which covered the complete focal length range from 24mm to 400mm, ideal for quick hand-held shots in a rapidly changing environment. They were both Zuiko Digital zooms and simply the best combination out there. In fact, the only reason I moved away from them was Olympus’ reticence (or lack of R&D) in coming out with a sensor with enough pixels to emulate the detail I enjoy with 6×7 and 4×5 photography.

However, since switching to the Nikon D800E and prime lenses, I have, on a few occasions, missed having the flexibility of a zoom lens, especially when shooting family snaps and shots around the school. Now, the D800E is definite overkill for snaps – quite often I have it set to capture 9MP jpegs. And, perhaps buying a zoom lens for this camera is a bit dumb as I could buy a decent point and shoot that has greater range for less than the cost of a good zoom. However, it’s also nice to have the flexibility of an excellent auto-focus, zero shutter delay and, if needed, 36mp (which, by the way, is great for cropping sports photos when the action is on the other side of the field – even when using a300mm lens!).

So what did I do? I have a wonderful family who generously assisted with my purchase of the newest Nikkor zoom, an AF-S 24-85mm ƒ3.5-4.5 VRII. The focal range is almost ideal. I would have preferred stretching it to at least 100mm as my previous zoom was a 24-120 Zuiko Digital and it was ideal. The Nikkor is also a bit slow, but when you put it in perspective, this lens covers four times the sensor size as the Zuiko 4:3s lenses, so losing half a stop and 1/3 in focal length isn’t really a big deal. If 85mm isn’t quite long enough, I can always crop with plenty of pixels “to spare”.

But how is the lens quality. I always fell that when you choose a zoom lens, it’s not for quality, but rather for convenience, so I always expect to give up some lens quality. That being said, my primes are not necessarily Nikon’s best: they are all AF-D (older designs) and cheaper builds than the newer ones. I have a 24mm ƒ2.8, a 28mm ƒ2.8, a 50mm ƒ1.8 and a 105 Micro ƒ2.8. So it was against these lenses that I would test the new zoom.

This afternoon, I set up the tripod and electronic release, set the camera to ISO 100 with Mirror Lock-up and full frame raw capture and shot a series with each lens at wide open, ƒ11 (my most-used aperture) and closed down. It was really ƒ11 that is most important to me. I know lenses are a bit mushy at larger apertures and go soft at smaller apertures due to refraction, so those are the details I will show here.

Observations

I’ll not go into a detailed account of each focal length and aperture. You can see for yourself, the differences between the primes and the 24-85mm zoom as I have included a small gallery of comparisons at each focal length at ƒ11, showing the corners only. In the gallery are comparisons at 100% of the top right corner in Lightroom’s “Compare” mode. The files have had no additional processing or sharpening. NOTE: When you look at the gallery images, be sure to click on “View Full Size” in the bottom right of the window that opens.

Needless to say, the centre of each frame is quite good and not significantly different at comparable focal lengths and apertures. What is most important to me are the corners as that is where a lens falls apart. The 24-85mm zoom didn’t disappoint, but it didn’t match the quality of the primes, either. As expected, the zoom showed more light fall-off in the corners, but quite unexpectedly, it did rather well up against the 105mm Micro-Nikkor. I also didn’t expect the 50mm ƒ1.8 to perform as well as it did – it looks great in the corners.

One unexpected difference was in colour saturation and exposure. While the primes had slightly higher contrast (as expected), the zoom has slightly richer colours which may be a result of exposures from the zoom being 1/3 to 3/4 of a stop darker. Not a big problem, but unexpected. Perhaps the stated maximum aperture of the zoom is not as wide as claimed meaning the ƒ3.5 is really a ƒ4 or 4.5. That is one real bonus of prime lenses – they are generally faster than zooms in the sae relative price range and primes are of higher quality at maximum aperture.

So, is the AF-S Nikkor 24-85mm VRII lens good enough to walk around with? Yes it is – just. I am well aware of its shortcomings – which are not too serious, really – and plan to make good use of this lens. However, I will not be using it for my dedicated landscape and nature shots. I will forego the convenience of having a range of focal lengths in one lens and will gladly switch primes when I feel the shot really deserves the kind of quality I can get from prime lenses.

The Nikon D800e and ISO

In various reviews, one of the “jaw dropping” features of the Nikon D800e that has been identified is its amazing image quality, not just at ISO200 and 400, but all the way up to ISO 3200. I thought I would put it to the test under conditions that are, for a nature and landscape photographer, somewhat “normal” to ideal. Yesterday morning was one of those perfect early summer mornings with soft lighting and no wind. It would have been nice to have a little more dew, but hey, when it comes to nature, you take what you can get and say “Thank you!”

The photographs were made using a Nikkor 20mm ƒ2.8 AF-D lens mounted on sturdy Manfrotto 055 legs with a heavy duty head. They were exposed using mirror lock-up and an electronic release. They were shot at ƒ22 – typical for landscape work where I want everything from the immediate foreground to the “far hills” in focus. ƒ22 does introduce diffraction issues, but more on that in my next post.

The 100% crops were all taken from the centre of each frame as I am trying to show how the camera performs, not the lens. The 20mm is a great all-around wideangle – a focal length I love for landscapes – but it does have chromatic aberration issues in the corners that need a bit of TLC to correct.

Shown below is a series for each of the ISO200, 800 and 3200 shots. The images have been processed in Lightroom 4.1, all in the same way at default sharpening. The values are shown for each photo in theLR  panel at the right of each screen capture. You will see Full image views of each photo plus a view at 100% for the pixel peepers and a view at 50% for the realists. I then applied what I would call “appropriate” sharpening to each image to bring out its best qualities and there is a 100% view of each. Yes, the sharpening is different for each, but that’s what one would expect when working to achieve highest image quality at each ISO.

So, now you can be the judge. How well does the D800e hold up at different ISOs? While you can click on an image and scroll through the gallery one at a time, once you are in the gallery, you can also right-click on an image and select “Open Image in New Window” or “Open Image in New Tab”. That way you can do direct comparisons right in your browser. Alternatively, from within the gallery, you can right-click and choose “Save Image As…” (or whatever the equivalent is in Windows).

If you’re like me, you just might be somewhat astounded at what the D800e can do at ISO3200. Under ideal conditions (“normal contrast”, properly exposed images with no excessive recovery of lost detail in shadows which generates noise) and with appropriate sharpening, it is possible to achieve truly printable images at high ISO. In this case, “truly printable” includes large format prints as ISO3200 at 50% and even 100% is pretty amazing.

Nikon D800e – OMG!

Between household chores today, I’ve managed to spend some time working with the D800e photographs I made early this morning. “The sound of jaws hitting the floor” is an understatement. The results are fabulous – more fabulous than my Nikkor 20mm lens and more fabulous than the now apparent diffraction at small apertures with the Micro Nikkor 105mm. Oooops! What they’ve said all along is absolutely correct: the D800e will show all the flaws like you’ve never seen them before.

My shooting technique involves sturdy Manfrotto 055 tripod legs with a head heavy-duty enough for my 4×5 wood field camera. I religiously use mirror lock-up and an electronic release. I also expose to the right to drive exposure up into the most valued area of the histogram (so that signal is significantly greater than noise resulting in cleaner images once processed).

This morning was designed for nature photography – beautiful soft light before sunrise and after, with not a breath of wind. I could take my time to look and compose and look again then set up for the exposure. I didn’t use LiveView for focussing this time, but instead made use of the hyperfocal distance markings on the 20mm – the markings limited (up to ƒ11), but still helpful. I should have used LiveView for focussing the milkweed flowers with the 105mm as I notice I am few millimetres out of perfect focus.

Presented below are four photographs from today I’ve spent some time working on. They were processed through Lightroom 4.1 using any and all of the tools necessary to recreate the scenes as I experienced them and wish to portray them. They are not “finished” by any means; no doubt when I re-vist these photographs a week or a month from now, I will look at them differently and make the necessary improvements, but here they are as they exist now. While I’m not the expert in LR as are others like Michael Reichman, Jeff Schewe, et. al., as an LR Instructor at Mohawk College In Hamilton, I think I have a fair command of it. I have made various and best use of adjustments in the Basic Panel (including Gard Filters, Adjustment Brushes and Spot Removal as needed), as well as sharpening in the Detail panel and Lens Corrections built in for the Nikkor 20mm AF-D lens.

Paired with each photograph is a 100% crop of the centre of the frame. This will be useful for those interested in seeing what the D800e is capable of under near ideal conditions. I’ve provided the centre crop only as this is a review of the camera, not the lenses. That being said, the flaws with the 20mm including chromatic aberration towards the corners, become readily apparent. As well, the effects of diffraction begin to appear (as you will see in the milkweed flowers at 100%), but that’s for another post. In the meantime, have a look. If you want to see the photos at maximum size, when in “gallery mode” (dark screen), right-click and choose “Open Image in New Window” or “Open Image in New Tab”.