Tag: wildlife photography

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.

Would you like a coffee with those hummingbirds?

It’s not often I get to enjoy a cup of coffee or a good book while photographing. Usually I’m on the trail or in the canoe swatting at mosquitoes or horseflies. But, today, rather than being in the field, I’m on the deck at the family cottage watching hummingbirds.

For some years now, our neighbour and my parents have put up hummingbird feeders for the summer. We’ve enjoyed watching their antics as they zip back and forth across the lawns, twittering away at each other. At times,it becomes violent as males defend their territories. It’s amazing how a hummingbird can fly almost silently, like a librarian humming a tune under their breath so as not to disturb their patrons. Then, they spot a rival male, and turn up the volume of their flight to sound intimidatingly ferocious. We’ve watched them swoop in on another male, straight down from above and actually make contact with him, driving him downwards. Imagine! Hummingbirds! It’s been interesting to watch the juvenile hummingbirds these last few days. They are much more tolerant of us and will come to the feeder when we are sitting too close for the adults. Ahhh, the cockiness of youth, throwing caution the wind!

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)So, as I was sitting reading the other day, enjoying the afternoon sun, I realized how perfectly lit the hummingbirds were as the visited the feeder. This got me thinking photography. Now, I’m not much of a wildlife photographer; I’m more of an opportunist. The photos I’ve made this year of “our” local heron and osprey were the result of canoeing in the evening with my wife Laurie. Rather than being a determined effort, we happened to be in the right place at the right time, stealthily approached and photographed. This is true of all of my wildlife photographs. One gets lucky over the years, and with enough years, accumulates a few good photographs.

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)I realized early on I didn’t have the patience of the professional wildlife photographers. Their determination of watching wildlife for days before choosing a location for a blind, then spending days setting up the blind so as not to spook their subject, then sitting for hours, even days, in the blind to get that perfect photograph. Nope, not for me. Robert McCaw once related his story of waiting days in a blind through all kinds of weather until he finally captured the photograph of Golden Eagles. I have a lot of respect for photographers like him.

Me, I need to have my mind occupied with something more than watching wildlife or I’d fall asleep! I can spend hours reading a book or tweaking photos or building a website, but not sitting in a blind. So, back to the deck on a summer afternoon…

With the lighting so good, I took a closer look and noticed two other important factors working in my favour:

  1.  The hummingbirds would often hover a few centimetres away from the feeder before and, sometimes after, feeding. To me, this is important because I didn’t want a photo of the hummingbird on the feeder, but rather off-feeder hovering.
  2. The cedars behind the feeder are a good 5m away and in shade, providing an ideal, soft, green background to the birds.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird II (Archilochus colubris)A few minutes later I was set up. The 300mm was on the tripod with camera attached. I added the polarizer, which did a beautiful job reducing glare on the feathers, and set the Exposure Compensation to –2 as the background, which filled all of the frame, was significantly darker than the lit hummingbird. The –2 was an estimate which proved to be correct. I decided against using spot metering as the hummingbird wouldn’t necessarily be in the centre of the frame.

I pre-focussed on the plastic “rest” where the birds would alight to feed. It seemed to be in about the same plane as the hummingbird would be as it hovered in front of the feeder. I was about 2-1/2m away, close enough to get a shot with enough pixels to keep it sharp (I would definitely need to crop – the beauty of 36mp!), but far enough not to spook the adults.

The one setting that would have helped me right away, but being an inexperienced wildlifer only thought of later, was switching the AF mode from single-point to 3D-tracking. (I should have thought of it from my sports photography, but I had stopped using it as it would sometimes pick up other players nearby, rather than the main subject.) What an improvement! Once focussed on the bird, the AF point followed it around keeping amazing focus.

After my first twenty minutes of sitting, I had a series of photos. Not using the 3D-tracking yet, meant that all were blurry except for the last two, which were bang on. Success, at least for the juvenile who has not yet developed the ruby throat of the males. The next day was less successful. Perhaps it was because as I was waiting for the hummers (they appear about every 15 to 20 minutes) I was reading a book. But really, I just couldn’t keep the focus on the bird moving in and out of such a narrow depth-of-field. That’s when I remembered the 3D focus.

My third afternoon out was much more successful. The male’s ruby throat was showing nicely and the 3D focus was great – not perfect, but definitely better than not using it. Exposure worked out to be near-perfect so only mild tweaking was needed. All tolled, I spent about three hours waiting and another hour or so importing and processing. Each frame required capping to about 3000×2000 pixels – plenty large enough for most uses. Maybe I could get into making wildlife photographs….Naaa – I still prefer landscapes and the odd wildlife photograph.