A change in direction

Having taken so many great images of birds and wildlife in the past two years, I felt that a sense of stagnation was setting in for my work. How many images of a heron or egret can one take until the subject matter is lacking interest? In an attempt to revitalize enthusiasm for imaging the natural world, I have thrown my efforts toward DSLR video. I will continue to take stills when the subject matter calls to me just as before but now, I will be going out on my excursions with equipment and intention to capture video.

I would have thought that this process would be simple and relatively easy to get back up to the level of performance that I had achieved in still photography but oh was I wrong! Video is a totally new challenge with a dimension of creativity unparalleled to still imagery. Specifically, one has to have some point to the video other than clips of birds foraging or preening etc. We have a standard of for video quality that comes from countless hours watching TV and YouTube and those standards set a high bar.

I learned pretty quickly that my five year old big box store PC would not handle video editing and that my lovely Nikon D750 and D500 cameras don’t capture video as adeptly as the Panasonic GH4 or even the lowly Canon T5i with the Magic Lantern firmware hack. After many many hours of research, I settled on an Alienware Aurora R5 computer which was heavily discounted on a Green Monday Sale. Finally, I can edit videos and really begin the process of acquiring the skillset for this new venture. I also discovered the fantastic Blackmagic Davinci Resolve video editing program along with the associated Fusion 8 compositing software. Both are fully featured and free! However, the camera and lens situation will have to stay with the Nikon as my budget for new gear is tapped out. Also, at my stage of development, the Nikons will suffice to give me content for some months.

So, now I have what I need to get video and process it. But what happens? We get a freakishly cold and snowy winter storm series essentially making me housebound and when I did get out to my favorite bird watching pond, it was frozen solid with no birds… Life can be so weird.  Instead, I am making practice videos using stock clips from free public domain video and sound sources.

 

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Buying a refurbished lens

I needed a better walkaround birding lens to use in wet weather. I like to have my camera and lens tucked inside my raincoat so that when a photographic opportunity presents itself, I can bring out the camera and take a decent image without getting my gear wet. After months of reviewing the options, I decided on the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR as the best solution. Specifically, this lens appealed not only for its optical quality but I found a deal on Adorama. The deal was for a factory refurbished lens and the price was a very affordable $350 USD. It included a 90 day factory warranty.

When the lens arrived it came in a plain corrugated box with a label indicating it was from Nikon as a refurbished product. The lens came with caps and case and it was in pristine condition. My next task was to determine optical quality and AF fine tuning. I was amazed that at 300mm the lens needed no AF fine tuning with my Nikon D500. And as far as sharpness and contrast, this lens at 300mm is excellent, actually on par with my Nikon 300mm D series F4 prime.

Then it came to AF performance and I was apprehensive because the reviews indicated that the lens suffered in this regard. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this lens on the D500 is far better than any of my screw drive lenses and on par with the AF-S lenses that I own. In practice, I have many more keepers of birds in flight than ever before and the sharpness is so exemplary that I can crop tighter and get superior detail. When I am out with other bird photographers, the results that I achieve give me many compliments. Some have even asked if they could get this lens. However, they are Canon shooters and out of luck.

Now, one area that this particular lens is notable in is the sharpness at the long end as it is not supposed to be so. The reviews all indicate that it is soft after 200mm and must be stopped down to f8 for any acceptable results.  This is not my experience and I believe that it may be due to the fact that my lens was factory refurbished to a tighter spec than production models. I have read that this is the case and hoped it would be for this lens when I ordered it. Having it confirmed, at least for this one lens, leads me to want to purchase more refurbished equipment even if the price is slightly higher than used equipment.

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The Amazing Nikon D500

As the title implies, I have a new Nikon D500. Now with upwards of 5000 images, I can report that this is a groundbreaking camera for wildlife and bird photography. I had read reviews that the D500 was incredible and took those with a grain of salt but once in my hands, I was astonished that those claims were accurate. Clearly the camera can produce exceptional images in a wide variety of conditions and it does lock onto birds in flight far better than previous cameras that I have used such as the Nikon D3300, D7100,D7o,D300 and yes, even the D750.
I can also report that the images produced have a very pleasing look to them compared to the ones from the other camera bodies. Colors are richer, contrast seems better and most importantly, shadows are definitely cleaner. I can fairly reliably take a backlight shot of a bird and in Lightroom use the exposure or shadows slider to recover clean detail from images that heretofore would be a mess.
Now, I must also say that the camera does have some misses too. I had hoped for the auto AF Fine tuning feature to work as advertised but sadly, it does not. Repeating the procedure rarely gives the same result and the results vary so much that I don’t use it. Also, while the noise levels in the high ISO images are far better than with other cameras, they aren’t so low as to make the images competitive with lower ISO. So don’t expect to take spectacular photos of wildlife deep in forest shadow. You will get a image and uncropped, it may be useable for social media but not for demanding uses. I suspect only the Nikon D5 could surpass this performance.  That said, I have taken shots at ISO 21800 that are as clean as ISO 2800 in my now dead Nikon D7100.
I do like the 10 FPS very much and it has been a bit of a challenge to let the camera do its thing as a bird takes flight because the number of shots just explodes. I notice now that in a sequence, I don’t see much variation in slow moving animals which makes many redundant. However, for birds in flight, WOW! Taking sharp images of Barn Swallows in flight is a snap even with a clunky screw drive Nikon 300mm prime.
All in all, this camera is revolutionary and with a firmware update to fix the AF Fine Tuning, I would call it darn near perfect.

 

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Importance of the diopter adjustment in DSLRs

Recently, I have been experiencing a major problem in focus for my images. Both my Nikon D750 and D300 were missing focus and even on subjects that were easy just days before. I chalked it up to hot weather or maybe it was just me being tired. Today, out at the wildlife reserve where I do my daily photo shoots of birds and wildlife, I happened to notice the the viewfinder image did not get sharp even on manual focus. Then almost out of desperation, I adjusted the diopter for the viewfinder. IT WORKED! The image was clear and I could achieve focus. So what happened?

A few days ago, I switched back to an older set of glasses which supposedly had the same prescription as my newer ones. I like the older ones for photography because of the large lenses as I get a wider view to scan for birds. I know that I had adjusted the diopter for the new lenses and assumed that nothing needed to be changed just be going back. Apparently, I was wrong. Both bodies needed the change and both immediately were far easier to focus.

This revelation points out the fact that while autofocus is fantastic, I do need verification that what I want focused on is in fact in focus before pressing the shutter button. I must have repeatedly overlooked this vital fact and assumed that the camera knew what I wanted. No more. Whew! Back to happy!

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I am a believer

I have been aware of the mantra that full frame sensor DSLRs and prime lenses produce better imagery than crop sensor DSLRs and zoom lenses for some time. However, I was skeptical that the difference would be very significant. That began to change when I purchased a AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED for a wedding photo booth shoot that I did recently. I needed a fast lens to be sure I could focus accurately in a dimly lit space. I also wanted to explore macro photography so this lens was a twofer. What shocked me was the startling improvement in sharpness and clarity over my stock 55-300mm kit lens. And the quality of the images in macro mode are simply stunning.
Then I decided that perhaps my penchant for going against the commonly held notion might not be serving me well in other areas of photography and so I looked at the Nikon D750 full frame sensor camera body. It was on sale at a very attractive price so I took the plunge and ordered one.
What I discovered was that my imagery took another leap forward in richness and clarity even with my ancient Tamron 200-500mm zoom lens. I gladly gave up the extra reach of the crop sensor D7100 in exchange for the vastly better results on the D750. It has been a revelation to see how much better the photos could be with the full frame sensor and exceptional low noise characteristics of this camera. I will continue to use the D7100 with the macro lens as it excels in that area but my workhorse camera is the D750. In sum, I have been treated to an entirely new experience in my photography and one of which I had no concept could be so amazing.

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ETTR exposure for lowest noise images

After watching another Arthur Morris video on YouTube, I finally decided to see if his Expose To The Right method will work for my imagery.  For those who are not familiar with this technique, one uses manual mode on your DSLR camera and deliberately sets the exposure so that the histogram of the image skews to the right hand side of the chart but not so far as to blow the highlights.  Morris uses Canon cameras which are not ISO invariant and as such he fixes his ISO at 400 or 800 then adjusts shutter speed while shooting at nearly wide open apertures.  Initially, I tried this exact technique and found it promising with indeed much less noise in my images and better color too. However, it was restrictive too because in low light conditions, I found that many potential shots were just not possible to get at these low ISOs.  Instead, I decided a different tack, namely using my exposure compensation to always shoot at +1 EV. In the histogram, I did see the shift in the distribution similar to the Morris ETTR. In the images displayed on the LCD in the camera, they often looked washed out and lacked contrast. However, in post, I was able to drop down the exposure and the results were very pleasing giving me the lowest noise and best color rendition that I have achieved to date.

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The crushing disappointment of Halo 5 and the Xbox One.

343 Studios released the much anticipated next installment in the Halo video game series this past fall to an astonished audience of die hard Halo fans. Not only is there no split screen Cooperative play but the campaign is simply interesting and downright infuriating.  I was waiting to invest in the XBox One based on this title because of the favorable impression that I got from the Halo Master Chief collection. Specifically, the games were remastered not only to have better graphics but scoring in all of the games which made couch co-op really fun. We play Halo 3, ODST, Reach again and again in this mode as they have very nice scoring but the other standalone 360 Halo titles do not so the collection held lots of interest for us to play the other titles. Recently, however, the upgraded Reach for the Xbox one seems to be nearly unplayable according to some reports.

So with these critical shortcomings I made the difficult decision to not buy an Xbox One and get a Sony Playstation PS4 instead.  We got the Star Wars Battlefront bundle and while it also does not have a campaign the couch co-op is very nice. There is also scoring of a sort. One can say that the graphics are first rate so that is a big plus.  I also have moved on to Fallout 4 and King’s Quest on the console. Both very different but very entertaining games. Based on the clear superiority of the PS4 and the now confirmed disaster of Halo on the XBox One, I have made my decision to leave Halo behind and have moved on. So far, that decision seems to be a good one. Sorry Microsoft.

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Using a monopod and ball head for bird photography

There is little to no information on the net about how to use a monopod and ball head for bird photography. The scant references to it say that it is not a good idea and instead recommend a pan tilt head.  However, you will often see monopods with ball heads being used by photographers in the field. In talking to one, I noticed his configuration was to have the ball head in the gimbal position with the camera lens collar mount on the side. This works only for larger lenses with lens collars. Initially, I thought the setup was a clear misuse of the equipment and almost mentioned it to him.  However, I got so tired of horsing my lens on the monopod ball lens in friction mode that I decided to try his method.  I can say that it is dramatically better. Holding the grip on the monopod with one hand and the other on the camera is much more stable than the old way. This means that not only are images sharper due to less camera shake but the autofocus has an easier time to lock on to the target. The result is that bird in flight photography is much better and those long deeply cropped “miracle” shots are much sharper. It can mean the difference between getting an ID for a bird or discarding the image.
If there is a downside to the setup, it is in the friction for elevation angle changes. That means I usually push up the head slightly to relieve the stress. There is a ball head on the market with a bearing for exactly this mode but it is too rich for my budget. http://www.acratech.net/categories/ballheads.html In the meantime,  I’ll make do with the lower cost alternative.

 

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Nikon D7100 for bird photography

In my last post, I described the Nikon D3300 and while I was pleased with the camera and kit lenses, I found that the 200mm lens just did not have the reach and sharpness that I needed for bird photography. As a consequence, I upgraded to the D7100 kit from Costco. The company allows returns for any reason so I got full credit for the D3300 kit towards the new kit. So what was so great about the new kit? It featured an AF-S DX NIKKOR 55-300MM F/4-5.6G ED VR ZOOM Lens which is frankly very sharp and focused faster than the 55-200mm lens in the other kit.  I have read that it is not a fast focusing lens compared to the supposedly superior NIKKOR 70-300 mm but in my hands, I was able using back button focus, to get some spectacular bird in flight shots.

MKB_4587

 

This is a Great Blue Heron in flight at the Tualatin Wildlife Refuge.

Now, this new camera also has the feature of being able to crop in on the center of the frame by a factor of 1.3x which then allows the camera to shoot 7 fps. Given that birds in flight rarely fill the frame, this feature makes the shots really come fast and they are still 16 mp. How great is that!

I can go on and on about the benefits and features of the Nikon D7100 but the upshot is that it is spectacular. So much so that I can buy used D series lenses that use an In Camera focusing motor. They are typically great lenses and are available for low cost used. In this vein, I bought a Tamron SP AF200-500MM F/5-6.3 Di LD (IF) lens and here is an example of this magnificent lens:

MKB_5744

This shot is a Red Tailed Hawk at about 200 feet above me.  Now, it must be said that this lense requires a ball head mount on a monopod for most shots as it doesn’t have vibration reduction. However, at 1/2000th of a second, the issue is moot. Again, the D7100 has a feature that allows the ISO to float with a fixed aperture and shutter speed so this makes my images mostly come out properly exposed. And in addition, even at ISO 6400 the images are typically superb with noise reduction in Lightroom or if necessary Topaz Denoise.

All in all, this gear is what I need for serious bird photography.  As a confirmation, I have since learned that some professionals use this exact configuration for bird in flight photography.

 

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Nikon D3300

I have been fortunate to be able to purchase the Nikon D3300 DSLR kit from Costco. It contains the camera body, an 18-55MM F/3.5-5.6G VR II and a 55-200MM F/4-5.6G VR II Lens along with a 32GB SD Card, Rugged Nylon Bag, WU-1A Adaptor, and a  Nikon School Instructional DVD. Having read extensively about entry level DSLR kits, I was very cautious about spending $600 ( even though it was discounted by $400 ) . The reasons were primarily that I didn’t feel that I was an entry level photographer. I have owned three Minolta SLR, three Nikon SLRs and a host of lenses and have been a photographer since 1965 including formulating my own developers back in the day.  Another reason that I was leery was the reputed lackluster performance of the kit lenses in these kits.  However, after nearly six months of intense research in DSLR technology, I had reached a stage where I needed to be realistic about what could be purchased with my limited budget.

The D3300 is in my estimation a sleeper value in the marketplace because it contains two critical features common to the more expensive Nikon DSLRs, namely, the 24 mp APS-C sensor with no anti aliasing filter and the EXPEED 4 image processor. In image quality tests, the body is side by side the more expensive siblings and far above the Canon rebel series. Well, that was true at least until the new Canon Rebel T6i and T6s came out. However, those cameras are actually not as good for IQ or low light performance as the D3300 because they contain sensors with the anti aliasing filter.

So, I dove in and bought the kit on sale and three weeks later, I can say that I am completely sold on the camera and the lenses.  The images that I have taken with this kit have taken a giant step up in detail and color richness as well as overall IQ. I have been able to take shots of wildlife, mainly waterfowl, resolving detail in feathers and eyes that are stunning. Portraits with the long lens are the best I have ever taken. Chromatic aberration is nearly absent from the images.

Now, there are some delicate areas that do require care to assure a good shot that are not so important with our Canon G15/16 point and shoot cameras.  The lenses are not as fast, being two stops slower which limits the range for ISO 100 shots. However, I can bump the ISO up to 400 and the image noise is still modest and easily removed in post processing. Yes, some of the very very fine detail does get lost but considering the other features such as reach and color rendition, the tradeoffs are acceptable.  Also, the VR, vibration reduction, does sometimes produce slight double images but that can be overcome by taking continuous shots and allowing the VR processor to catch up to the movements. Also, when the shutter speed is over the reciprocal rule of the 35mm focal length equivalent, VR isn’t needed.  Thankfully, the camera does burst shooting at 5 fps for a second or so which is perfect for this.

One major drawback has been in the features of the camera. Mainly, there is no exposure or focus bracketing. However, using the WiFi adapter and an old decommissioned Galaxy Nexus smartphone running qDSLRDashboard, both of these features are available and work spectacularly. Using an OTG cable between the two will work even better as the WiFi adapter and usage does drain the battery in both devices fairly fast. Nikon also has an app that allows for live view and remote taking shots but the app is simplistic and does not allow the features of the other beforementioned one.

On the subject of battery, the battery in the D3300 is amazing. It can take 700 to 2000 shots before needing to recharge. That is a result of being larger capacity than normal as well as the lower power requirements of the Expeed processor.

These kit lenses are said to be moderately sharp to poor but that is the last generation of the kit lenses and the new ones have the locking mechanism for compactness and I suspect when they are tested, the results will be better than the 9 mp sharpness reported for the older gen.  I have done front/back focusing testing and found that only the 18 mm setting on full aperture has front focusing by ~1/4″ at a distance of three feet. However, the shorter lens will focus down to 11 inches making it almost a macro lens.  My only gripe is that the kit does not include lens hoods which are necessary. My long shot images taken into the sun show considerable loss in contrast but no flare.

The upshot of the review is that this kit is fantastic and once the full features of the camera are properly applied, images it produces are spectacular. With the addition of the smartphone control, HDR and stacking along with remote control this kit is a superb class leading offering.

 

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