Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Gear Review: Comparing the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR to the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR

A question that comes up often on various Nikon oriented internet forums is which lens is more suitable, the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR, or the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR? Obviously this is a very loaded question, as it depends what the photographer is intending to use the lens for, but I will use this blog post to try and answer the question from my experience with these lenses, which is predominantly nature based. This is not intended to be a technical review, simply comments based upon my own experiences.

I have owned the 200-400/4VR for 3 or 4 years now, and earlier this year picked up the 300/2.8VR as well. I use both lenses on the D3, and have previously used the 200-400 and the 300 on the D200.

Of course, being a zoom, the 200-400 wins here. On DX, the effective focal range of 300-600mm means the 200-400mm is a very effective lens for using for general nature photography, and I used it with success on a number of field trips over the past couple of years. Perhaps the time I was most thankful for the lens was when I took it with me on a safari in Africa. One of the main 'problems' with safari photography in Africa is the amount of dust that finds its way into the camera. This is further amplified by lens changes, so the ideal solution is to have a single lens that covers all eventualities. I found the 200-400mm to be just this, and it was pretty much the only lens I needed to use when shooting out of the safari jeep:


I also took the lens with me on a trip to photograph puffins in Scotland and Northern England, and again the 200-400 on a DX body came into its own, allowing me to shoot birds all day without switching lenses.

Bird with Sand Eels, Staple Island

The flexibility that the 300/2.8 offers is slightly different. Although hand held shooting is not too much of a problem with the 200-400, the lens does tend to get heavy after a while. The 300/2.8 is a slightly smaller and more lightweight lens, and the ergonomics mean that walking around with it in the hand or on the shoulder is comfortable, and can be used for an extended period of time, such as in the shot below where I had been tracking the deer through the woods for some time.

Roe Deer Doe<

Especially since turning to full format, I have been using my telephoto lenses more and more often with teleconverters. This is an advantage of the fixed aperture pro telephotos that do allow the use of teleconverters whilst maintaining all functionality.

However it is with teleconverters that the 300/2.8 has advantages. It is a full stop faster than the 200-400, which means that the light loss caused by the tc-14e and 17e still leaves the photographer with a usable combination - either a 420/4 or a 510/4.8. This should really be compared to the 200-400 together with the 1.4, which, at the top end, becomes a 560/5.6.

With the tc-14e:

Both lenses work fine with this tc, but the focus on the 200-400 does seem to suffer slightly in terms of speed, especially in duller light. In good light the image quality on the 200-400 is fine, but in slightly worse light, the 300mm with tc leaves the 200-400 behind. The following shot was taken with the 300mm on a D200 with the tc-14e, in early morning, overcast light:

High Fives anyone?

With the tc-17e:

The 200-400 works, but has occasional AF problems, and can not be trusted in low light. The 300/2.8 works fine, and AF is still spot on. Image quality wise, the 300 beats the 200-400 here.


Both lenses offer the build quality and usability of every Nikon pro lens. Most switches (for example focus limiters AF on/off) are in the same place on each lens. One notable difference between the two is that with the 300/2.8 the VR is turned on using a ring, whereas the VR on the 200-400 is activated by a switch alongside the other switches. From experience this is a lot harder to see, and a lot easier to knock on and off without noticing.

Image quality:

Both lenses are capable of excellent quality images, both with and without teleconverters. However I have always had a bit of a love hate relationship with the 200-400. I sometimes get the feeling that it really is a good weather lens - if the light is a bit grey and dreary, the 200-400 will amplify that and I will come away with unsatisfying images. The 300/2.8 on the other hand never fails to impress me. Even in lower light, I can still get spot on focus, and sharp contrasty images, such as the following image taken from a boat.

Sea Eagle


To be honest, if I had to sell one of the two lenses, I would keep the 300/2.8, and sell the 200-400. Although the 300 isn't a zoom, what it lacks in flexibility, it makes up for in speed and image quality, and with the teleconverters it is almost as flexible. Especially when paired with the 600/4, it provides the wildlife photographer with an excellent tool set. But remember, both are pro quality lenses, and I am just picking faults. Either lens is capable of top images.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Gear Review: Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens

30 or so months ago I wrote a blog reviewing the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D prime lens. When I wrote the article I was still shooting with a DX crop body, and I summised that the 50mm on a DX body was a great portrait lens, and ideal for use at live gigs.

Now I've moved full format with the D3, the 85mm f/1.4D has become my weapon of choice for gig photography, and I find the 24-70mm invariable for using in the studio due to the flexibility of the zoom.

Still, I maintain that the 50mm is an ideal focal length for the above type of photography on a crop body. For a while there was a bit of a gap in the Nikon lens lineup though, as some of the newer crop bodies (like the D60 and most of the newer entry level SLRs) are unable to autofocus with the lenses that don't contain a focus motor, and require an AF-S lens for full functionality.

However, at Photokina in 2008 NIkon updated their prime lens range to also include the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G lens. Not only did this update the optical formula of the old 50mm f/1.4D lens, it also added an internal motor, making this an AF-S lens, and putting it within the reach of people starting out with the entry level SLR.

The main criticism that internet pundits had of the new 50/1.4 was the price - at around €350 at introduction (can be picked up for €300 now), it was almost three times the price of the 1.8 variety, and for only a slight improvement in light sensitivity, was thought to be a bit expensive.

It was this reason that also stopped me from picking up the 50/1.4 initially - after all, the 50/1,8 had never given me any problems, and with all the other lenses in my arsenal, I wasn't missing out on anything by not having it.

So, fast forward 12 months, with the imminent arrival of our baby, Tabatha (born October 18th 2009!), I'm thinking out my camera strategy :) The 24-70mm is a great general purpose lens on the D3, but it's big, wieldy, and pretty scary to a new born. Add to that the business travel I do, it's a lot easier to take a body and a couple of small primes (think 24mm, 50mm, and maybe either a 16mm fish or an 85mm) than a big zoom lens.

So I decide the 50mm will become my solution for quick, around the house, shooting, and to begin with, the 50/1.8 was working fine, and gave me fine results such as the following:

Tabatha Ayumi

But then, the NAS demons began playing in my head, and, on the way back from visiting hours at the hospital, I passed the camera store, and the rest, as they say, is history.......

Som how does the 50/1.4 compare to the 50/1.8? Well, to be honest, they are both very fine lenses. Both are small, light, and can be tucked away into a corner in a camera bag very easily. There are a couple of advantages of the 50/1.4 that I have noted:

- Firstly, the lens is provided with a lens hood. Although this is only a fairly lightweight plastic, it does provide protection should the lens get knocked or dropped. (of course a lens hood is also available for the 50/1.8, but this is extra cost)
- Next, it has an AF-S motor. With such a small lens, this doesn't help so much with focusing speed, but I have noticed a definite improvement over the amount of time it spends searching for the focus point in low light, compared to the 50/1.8. And of course this makes the lens compatible with some of the newer Nikon cameras
- Finally the lens has the advantage of going down to f/1.4, giving you that extra bit of flexibility when shooting in low light, as well as a nice bright viewfinder. To be honest I have probably spent most of the time shooting with this lens wide open, despite a fair number of people suggesting it is soft until it is stopped down a couple of shots (in fact all shots taken by the 50/1.4 in this blog entry were taken wide open at f/1.4, and I find results more than sharp enough)

Tabatha Ayumi

The 50/1.4 has a plastic lens body, the same as the 50/1.8, although I must say in defense of the 1.8, it does feel slightly more sturdy. It's a 58mm filter size compared to the 52mm on the 1.8, although I have not bothered mounting a filter on this lens, due to the protection the lens hood gives.

Tabatha Ayumi, 5 weeks old

This lens has been mounted on my camera pretty exclusively on the occasions when the D3 is sitting at home and I am not using it on a job. I've found it an ideal lens for (baby) snapshots, and it makes the D3 a lot less imposing than one of my larger pro lenses.

So, do I recommend this lens? That's a difficult one, as the 50/1.8 is such great value for money, so it really boils down to whether or not you need the extra lens speed, and the built in focusing motor. If you have the money, go for it! But if you already have the 50/1.8, you might want to think carefully about upgrading.....

Tabatha Ayumi

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Painting the Studio

Video showing the repainting of our studio in Amsterdam.

OK, so there is one thing that is more boring than watching paint dry - watching someone doing the painting in the first place. But I have a new video camera, so wanted to try a video blog out.

Promise to do some more interesting sessions in the future

Help me find the perfect camera messenger bag!

Like other photographers, I have plenty of camera bags, including the following great bags:

- LowePro Super Trekker AWII
- LowePro Photo Trekker AWII
- LowePro Slingshot 200 AW
- Lowepro Stealth Reporter D550 AW
- ThinkTank Airport International
- Billingham 206

However what I really miss, especially when travelling to and from my studio in Amsterdam, is a shoulder or messenger type bag that is big enough to take the following:

- Nikon D3
- Nikon 24-70 f/2.8
- Nikon 85mm f/1.4 (optional)
- Sony HDR-TG7 handycam (optional)
- Spare batteries, memory cards etc

Ideally it shouldn't look like a camera bag, and it should be soft, durable, padded and comfortable to carry. At the moment I am using a bag around 30x20cm (12x8") and probably 8cm deep. I typically carry the camera without the lens attached.

So far my studies have found the Tenba Messenger (maybe a bit too big), or the Domke F-803 Waxwear (probably a bit too small)

So if you have any suggestions, please let me know!

Monday, 10 August 2009

Trip Report: Feldberger Seenlandschaft, East Germany

This blog is long overdue, but back in May I made a trip to Feldberger Seenlandschaft in East Germany with Patrick and Tom. We had found out about a Ranger living in former East Germany near the Polish border who has built a network of hides in various fields around Feldberger, and offers these out to photographers in the hope that they might go away with some satisfying images.

The plan was fairly simple, we would make the 8+ hour drive on the Wednesday, spend Thursday to Sunday in hides, and then drive back again on the Monday. Fred Bollmann would look after us during our stay, and be at our call to take us to and from various hides. We would stay at the Mecklenburger Hof, a small and basic hotel with friendly service and good prices, and they would feed us three meals a day, including packed lunch and breakfast.

On the evening of arrival Fred was very keen to explain all the possibilities he could offer. He told us that various hides would not be worth visiting at that time of the year, but in addition to the hides he could also offer us the possibility to go out on his boat and attempt to photograph a local Sea Eagle.

Of course, as with all nature photography, it is always the luck of the draw as to what you will see when you sit in a hide for any length of time, and I can attest to that, after spending 12 hours in a hide on two occassions, from 7 in the morning to 7 in the evening, without seeing a single bird!

The hides themselves are well constructed, and have all the facilities you need in a modern hide (basically a window, a chair, and a bucket to relieve yourself in). Some of the hides are large enough for three people (which is an advantage when you have to sit there for 12 hours) whereas others are made for two people or even just one.


So in fact, out of three hide sessions we only had luck on one occassion, in a small hide where we witnessed a pair of buzzards eating a dead deer (Fred is well known in the community and receives all the local roadkill for his freezer). The buzzards landed fairly close to eat from the strategically placed deer, and in spite of our presence wearily pecked away at the corpse. The photos here were taken with the 600mm f/4G VR Nikkor on the Nikon D3


The highlight of the trip though was witnessing the Sea Eagle swooping in and picking up various fish from the lake near our boat. In the interests of full disclosure, the fish that were caught were thrown into the water by Fred, so we knew approximately where the eagle would be coming to, but nevertheless it was an impressive spectacle to see. The birds really do have 'eagle eyes', as he was able to see the fish landing in the water from a good 500 meters away, and slowly swooped and circled before catching his prey.

Sea Eagle

Sea Eagle

Sea Eagle

Sea Eagle

Sea Eagle

Sea Eagle

I took the above shots using the D3, with the 300mm f/2.8G VR lens attached. I used aperture priority to fix the aperture to f/5.6, and used the auto-iso feature to ensure the shutter speed stayed above 1/500s so to freeze the motion. Of course the lens was in the continuous AF mode. The high shutter rate of the D3 paid for itself here, capturing all of the above images in less than a second.

So although we didn't see all the birds that we had intended, it was still a successful trip - it's not every day you get to see a sea eagle capturing fish from the water. However in hindsight we were there at the wrong time of the year - in the spring there is plenty of prey for birds of prey to capture, and Fred's hides are much more densely visited when food is in short supply, for example in the winter months when there is snow on the ground.

Definitely a location I would recommend to other photographers looking for birds of prey images!

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Off to Germany

Buzzard in a tree
Buzzard in a tree
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan
Today I am leaving for East Germany, near the Polish border. The plan is to return home with pictures of sea eagles, and other birds of prey.

I'll update the blog once I return!

Friday, 1 May 2009

Trip Report: Texel, April 2009

Last weekend I joined a group of photographers for a bird photography workshop on the Dutch island of Texel, hosted by Jeroen Stel. The trip was scheduled for three days, starting on the Friday morning, and we were blessed with good weather for the whole weekend. It was a good opportunity to do nothing but take photos for three days!

At this time of year there are plenty of birds to see on Texel, since a number of bird sorts congregate there to breed. So there was a lot of activity to see, albeit it often a little bit too far away to photograph easily. Although I took a pretty large arsenal of lenses along with me, I used the 600mm on the D3 most of the time, occasionally attaching the tc-14e teleconverter when I needed a little extra reach.

I have been to Texel a couple of times in the past, and have always ended up shooting at the Wagejot. I had hoped to find some alternative locations this trip, and although we shot in a lot of different places, it seems like Wagejot is still my prefered location; in fact all of the shots in this post, apart from the last one, were taken there.

Wagejot is a good location to find Avocet (kluut), Little Ringed Plover (kleine plevier), Curlew (wulp), Black and Bar Tailed Godwit (grutto/rose grutto) and Common Tern (visdiefje). We were most successful early in the morning as the light was appearing, as this is one of the most active periods of the day for the above birds.

Whilst shooting early in the morning the D3 again paid his way by delivering outstanding performance at high isos, necessary in order to maintain the high shutter speeds needed to freeze the bird activity.

You can view a selection of around 30 shots from this trip on my website by clicking here - it may take a couple of minutes for all images to load.....

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Deer at the Amsterdamse Waterleiding Duinen

Fallow Deer Buck
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan

On Saturday I decided to 'discover' a new area and try and take some photos.

Amsterdamse Waterleiding Duinen (AWD) is one of the Netherland's largest dune areas, at around 3500 hectares (including 530 hectares of forest). The national park is located in between Zandvoort, Bloemendaal, and Noordwijk, and is mostly used as a water catchment area for the Amsterdam region. The area hosts a large variety of landscape, from fairly open to dense forest, and rich flora and fauna.

Although I have been to AWD once or twice in the past, I have always been with other people, and never come away with any pleasing results. This time I decided to go on my own, and see what I could find. It was also an opportunity for me to try out my new 300mm f/2.8G VR lens, so I decided to see if I could find some deer, since this would be a good target for a 300mm lens.

I arrived at AWD around 0930, which was already a bit too late for the good light, but after a hectic week I didn't feel like getting up too early. On arrival at the park I was disappointed to discover multiple groups of senior runners had descended on the park (I assume as part of some organised event, since they seemed to be split into groups of 20, all following their leader's instructions), so it was a bit hectic and not particularly 'quiet' inside. I felt this wasn't going to help my chances of finding deer, but nevertheless decided to persevere.

Roe Deer Doe
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan

I had entered the park at the Oase entrance, and knew from my previous visits that there was a lot of dense woodland to the left of the main path. I started walking, and after about 25 minutes saw my first doe, just off the path. I carefully moved into the woodland area, taking care not to disturb any of the animals, and patiently waited behind a tree. Luckily I remained unnoticed by the deer, and was able to get a number of shots of the does, including the one in this post.

I stood and watched a small group of female deer from my position behind the tree for around 30 minutes until they were scared by a group of runners. They also managed to scare the remainder of the herd (around 50-70 animals, including some bucks) who had been grazing further into the forest, who ran past me, pausing every now and then, and I was able to get the buck shot at the start of this post.

For the remainder of the morning I wandered around the park, but didn't shoot too much, since the light by now was fairly harsh (and the runners were patrolling the park in packs) but I fully intend to go back and explore some more soon.

I was happy with my first experiences with the 300mm - it's a nice size to work with, and a lot more portable than dragging the 600mm around. The first shot in this post was taken together with the tc-14e teleconverter (Nikon D3, 420mm, f/4, 1/500s, iso400) and the second shot was bare (Nikon D3, 300mm, f/4, 1/500s, iso800). Both shots were taken using a monopod for support. I'll provide a full review of the 300VR once I have had some more experience using it.....

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Gear review: Nikon 600mm f/4G VR lens

Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan

I've been the proud owner of the new Nikon 600mm f/4G VR telephoto lens now for over six months, so I thought it was about time I wrote about it on my blog. I've already posted a number of images taken with the lens, so if you look further down in my blog you will find some additional shots I have made.

First the reasoning behind my acquisition of the lens. I have owned the 200-400mm f/4G VR lens for a couple of years, and have always had a love-hate relationship with it. The reach was very nice on the DX format (equivalent to 600mm on full frame) but when I switched to the D3, I found myself missing the reach of 600mm. Of course I could use the 200-400 with the tc-14e to give 560mm, but the loss of a stop meant that I often didn't have enough light (especially in the Netherlands), and I wasn't impressed with the results.

I had also set myself the target of photographing a kingfisher in 2008, and shortening my effective range by going full frame wasn't helping me achieve that goal. So in February I decided to place an order for the 600mm, shortly after it was released. I placed my order with Nivo Schweitzer in Amsterdam. They're a really friendly, knowledgeable shop, and I wish I could make more of my purchases there, but alas their prices are normally too high when compared to the ever competitive internet retailers, so I don't. But this time they were prepared to give me a good price on the lens, so I gave them my custom.

It wasn't until June that Nikon was able to deliver the lens to Nivo Schweitzer, due to the worldwide lens shortage that was caused by the Olympics, but when I finally received it I was amongst the first people in the Netherlands to get hold of it (if not the first, excluding the press). The first thing that struck me about the lens was the size. I was used to Nikon Super Teles, with my 200-400mm experiences, but the new 600 was in a class of it's own. As you can see by the attached photo, the dual lens hoods make this into a monster. (photo credit Patrick de Paepe)

Even with the lens hoods turned around in their storage position, the 600 is a big item to transport, and Nikon deliver it in a hard case. I have already discussed my choices for a new camera bag in a previous blog post. In terms of handling, though, the 600 also brings its own challenges. It's not really hand holdable. Anyone that tells you it is, is either a) Iron man, or b) lying ;) Of course it is possible to take the occasional shot from the hand, as the lens does have VR, and I can hold it for a couple of minutes before it gets tiring, but for real stability, the lens needs to be resting on something. For the 200-400 I was satisfied with a Gitzo Series 3 with Markins M20 ballhead and a Wimberley Sidekick, but for the 600 I wasn't sure that this would be stable enough, so went for the Gitzo 5540LS, together with a Manfrotto 519 fluid video head. This gives me more than enough stability, and is flexible enough for panning when needed.

It is worth noting that the standard lens foot that Nikon provides with the 600 is very 'tall', and in my opinion not really stable enough for a lens of such a size. Although I have not done any scientific testing, to me it looks like it would be a lot more prone to flex than some lower alternatives, so one of the first things I did was replace the Nikon foot with a Kirk LP-46, available from Nikonians PhotoProShop - not only is this a lot lower profile, but it also includes an integrated arca swiss plate, so it can be mounted on a full size Wimberley for example without any additional lens plate. I would recommend anyone considering the 600 to switch to this lens foot as soon as possible.

However I have found that often I am in situations where using a tripod is not practical, and then it is possible to get enough support by resting the lens on a bean bag - the shots of the kingfisher (shot from a hide) and the buzzard (shot from a car) in this blog are testament to this. (Note: often when shooting with the bean bag I tend to leave the second of the two lens hoods unmounted, simply to make the lens a little more easy to handle)

Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan

Since this is a big, heavy, and not to mention expensive, lens, I decided that I would protect the lens from day one, and bought the LensCoat neoprene lens covering, to avoid any scratches to the lens and to help maintain the resale value (not that I ever intend to part with this lens). The LensCoat covers also provide me with basic camouflaging, should I wish to remain incognito when tracking a subject.

Although I was expecting a bit of a learning curve with this lens, I was pleasantly surprised that I was quickly able to adapt my long lens technique to use the lens, and was able to get good shots from day one. I am still continually impressed with the quality, sharpness, and contrast of the images that I am able to shoot with this lens. It's one of the sharpest I own, and is up there with the 200mm f/2G VR, which is a lens known for superior sharpness. Providing the shutter speed is kept to a reasonably high value, it is possible to get great shots, even when used in combination with the tc-14e teleconverter (I have even had good shots with the tc-17e). The following shot is such an example, taken with the D3, 600mm F/4VR with TC-14e, 1/800s, f/5.6, 400iso.

Deer Stag
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan

Based upon my usage of the tc-14e with the 200-400, where I had not been so impressed, I was very surprised with only a minor (hardly noticeable) loss of quality when the teleconverter was used together with the 600mm, and I find myself using this combination more and more often.

Those of you who are existing users of Nikon VR telephotos will be familiar with many of the functions on the lens - it has a focus limiter, which restricts the focusing range between 10m - infinity, instead of the normal minimum focus distance which is around 5m. It provides buttons that can be used to program a focus lock, can be used in M, A/M, and M/A focus override modes, and supports touch focusing for any last minute changes and to override the AF. It uses the familiar ring VR ON/OFF control, which seems to be the Nikon standard for fixed focal length VR lenses, as opposed to the slide switch on the 200-400.

In fact the only major change in controls over the earlier VR lenses is the VR mode switch - there is now a choice between 'Normal' and 'Tripod' mode - previously this was either 'Normal' or 'Active'. I guess Nikon engineers that a lens the size of the 600 is less likely to be used in situations that the Active mode was designed for, and instead decided to optimize the lens to work well when mounted on a tripod. In any case, this mode seems to work very well.

Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan

So in summary, I am very, very pleased with the 600mm lens. Whilst it is an expensive acquisition and I accept it is not for everybody, if you can afford to buy it and are into wildlife shooting, this is the ideal lens to use for bird and animal photography. One thing to note, even at 600mm smaller birds will not fill the frame unless you are fairly close, but this can be helped by using a teleconverter. The sharpness, colors, and contrast of this lens make it a pleasure to work with, with the traditionally excellent Nikon build quality, I hope this is a lens that I will be able to continue to enjoy for many years to come.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

First steps into HDR

Clipper Nelly
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan
According to wikipedia, HDR is "a set of techniques that allows a greater dynamic range of luminances between light and dark areas of a scene than normal digital imaging techniques. The intention of HDR is to accurately represent the wide range of intensity levels found in real scenes ranging from direct sunlight to shadows."

Digital has made the creation of HDR images a lot easier, since many cameras now include an auto bracketing mode, which allows the photographer to make many images of the scene using different exposures. It is not uncommon for an HDR photographer to blend together 3 or even 5 images to create an image that is able to give good representation of both the light and dark areas of the image.

I've always been a bit of an opponent to HDR photography, for no other reason that I believe(d) that it should be possible to get an aesthetically pleasing shot without the need for excessive post processing in digital imaging software afterwards. Additionally, many of the early users of HDR techniques maybe didn't understand what they were doing, so ended up creating unrealistic, over the top representations of a scene, giving the whole HDR scene a bad name (at least in my opinion).

However, a friend of mine, Philip, who goes by the name of milliped on Flickr, has been a long time user of HDR, and the results he comes out with aren't that bad (in fact, they're mostly very impressive!). Recently we were out together on a recent photo trip around Rotterdam harbour. It was a pretty grey day, and 'normal' photos were coming out a bit dull, so I decided to give HDR a go.....

Quack Quack

As mentioned above, modern cameras make HDR photography (or at least the image capture part) very easy, and all I really needed to do was set my Nikon D3 to 5 shot bracketing, and expose 5 shots, each at a different exposure either side of the original exposure reading. With earlier versions of HDR software it has always been necessary to use a tripod to ensure that the images actually line up once they are combined in the digital darkroom, but whilst discussing the latest version of Photomatix Pro with Philip in the car on the way to Rotterdam, he informed me that it was now able to automatically able to realign slight deviations in image alignment, so, combined with the high frames per second speeds of the D3, I figured I could get away without using a tripod.

I chose to use Aperture Priority Mode on the camera (which I typically do for most daytime photography) and exposed at -2, -1, 0, 1, and 2EV deviation on the base exposure reading. This left me with 5 shots of each scene, and when I reached home, all I would need to do would be to combine the images in Photomatix, and I would be able to create my HDR image.

I have been a long time follower of Trey Ratcliffe's Stuck in Customs blog, and I knew he had an excellent tutorial on how to get started, so I downloaded a copy of Photomatix, paid my license fee, and read the tutorial. (Incidentally you can get a discount on the purchase of Photomatix if you visit Trey's website and use the discount code he has there)

Railway and Fence

It turns out creating the HDR image is a lot easier than I had thought. Once you open Photomatix, you choose 'Generate HDR image' from the menu, and Photomatix allows you to choose the images you want to combine. Clicking OK takes you to an options screen - normal usage seems to be to leave everything unchecked, although I enabled the 'Align Source Images' option, and chose Adobe RGB as my colorspace.

The generation of the HDR image can take a while, especially on a slower computer, and once it has been generated won't look that impressive. The next step however is to click on 'Tone Mapping' in the main menu, which will start the main work to get the HDR looking good.

The options available here are numerous, and Trey's tutorial provides a lot more detail on how to use them than I will write here, but suffice to say, you can have a lot of fun playing around. So far I have not needed to do much more than up the strength to between 80 and 100, increase saturation a bit to maybe ±70, and adjust my white and black points to improve exposure. Sometimes I will play with luminosity, or adjust smoothing to High or Very High, and from time to time the other settings may be changed also, but there is no real right or wrong way of going about it - just play until you find a mix that works for you!

Once the image looks good in the preview window, all that is left to do is click on process, and choose to save the image. This can then be further improved in Photoshop or Lightroom, although typically I find that not much more needs to be done.

In order to show the improvement HDR can make to an image, I have posted two images. The first one shows the train signal with the standard Nikon matrix metering exposure choice. As you can see, it was a pretty grey, uninteresting day weather wise. The second shot shows the same train signal, but after having gone through the tone mapping procedure in Photomatix. Of course, everyone has their own opinion as to which is the better image, however I think the HDR treatment in this case has created a much more dynamic, more intriguing to look at image.

Train signal
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan

So after making a couple of shots and converting them back home on the computer, my impression of HDR imaging has changed. Although I won't be using it for every shot I make from now on, I can definitely see uses for it, and will be keeping it in my toolbox as one more tool to use to improve the results I am able to get out of my camera.

(As a side note, all shots in this blog entry, with the exception of the first shot of the Clipper Nelly, were taken using the Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D Fisheye lens. One of the lenses I thought I would miss most when moving over from DX format was the 10.5mm fisheye, but it seems the 16mm is able to offer the same excellent images as his younger DX brother. This was my first major outing with the lens, and I think I will be using it a lot more in the future.)

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Gear Review: Lowepro Super Trekker AWII

When I got back into (nature) photography a couple of years ago, I realised that the correct camera bag was going to play a pretty important role in whether or not I was going to be able to carry my gear around comfortably. Previously I had owned various camera bags, and all had been pretty useful for the task they were bought for. But when I purchased the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR, I accepted that having a shoulder bag was no longer feasible, primarily because the lens wouldn't fit inside. So I acquired the Lowepro Photo Trekker AWII on the recommendation of fellow photographers, and was very happy with the bag. The Photo Trekker is a large size camera rucksack, and offers enough capacity and customisation to be able to be loaded with a couple of bodies, the 200-400, 70-200, and a few other additional lenses as required. The integrated harness meant that it could be adjusted to fit the photographer's back to give a comfortable fit, and the SlipLock connectors on the side meant I could expand the bag by adding Lowepro lens cases for my smaller lenses.

However, when I purchased the Nikon 600mm f/4G VR I had a problem. The lens is delivered in an aluminum case, which, whilst giving good protection to the lens, is not practical to carry for long distances, and does not offer any additional space for the camera body, let alone any additional lenses. And with the word 'Nikon' emblazoned on the front, draws attention to what you have inside. So I evaluated my options......

First thing I did was try to get the 600mm inside the Photo Trekker. Admittedly it did work, as you can see from the accompanying photograph, however this required the removal of most of the internal dividers. In addition to the 600mm I could also carry the pro body, a couple of teleconverters, a wide angle zoom, and a small size beanbag. But the biggest disadvantage was that I was unable to carry the lens with the body mounted, and this meant I would lose time in the field getting it set up, and introduce the possibility of dust into the camera sensor chamber. So with Christmas around the corner, I asked Father Christmas what my options were. She looked at the Lowepro website and told me there were two ways of solving the problem.

So a couple of weeks ago I went along with Father Christmas to Kamera Express in Capelle an der Ijssel with the intention of buying the Lens Trekker 600 AWII. This is a revised bag that Lowepro recently announced at Photokina 2008, and has been specifically designed for use by photographers who wish to carry the 600mm with a body attached. I looked at it, and was impressed with the usual Lowepro quality of manufacture, but quickly realised it didn't really solve the problem. Sure it enabled me to comfortably carry the 600mm with the body attached, but there was limited room for anything else. It didn't really win me anything in addition to the Photo Trekker that I was already using.

The second option that Santa had suggested was the Lowepro Super Trekker AWII. This is basically a larger version of the Photo Trekker that I already had, but in this case size does matter, and I would have more than enough space for all I wished to carry, so I chose for this bag instead.

The first difference between the two bags is that the internal dimensions of the Super Trekker (14.6Wx6.5Dx25.6H inches/37Wx16.5Dx65H cm) are much bigger than the Photo Trekker (12Wx5.9Dx19.1H inches/30.4Wx15Dx48.5H cm). 

Visually they are both similar externally, although the Super Trekker does have additional pouches that connect to each side of the bag, using the Slip Lock system. One is padded so can be used to carry a lens, whereas the other is not, so is more useful for chargers or a water bottle. 

One of the nice features with the Lowepro range of bags is that they provide you with enough internal dividers to fulfill even the most imaginative of configurations. Some are stiffer than others and can be used as the base dividers, and others are softer and can be bent as needed. 

The first thing I did was remove all of the dividers to make sure that I would be able to fit the 600mm in as desired, which was not a problem. There was more than enough space, and I could even fit a teleconverter if needed. It was still not possible to have the lens hoods attached in the shooting position, but I accepted long ago that that would end up being a very large bag if it were possible...... 

Theoretically there would also be enough space to add a second super telephoto, such as the 200-400mm f/4G VR or the 200mm f/2G VR, but that would lend to a very heavy pack. But for reference I took a shot with the 600mm next to the 200-400, to show the possibilities, and there are certainly enough dividers to make it possible.

After playing around with the dividers for a while, I finally came up with a configuration that allowed me to pack all the gear I needed for an 'average' trip, (D3, 600mm, 70-200mm, teleconverters, 24-70mm, 17-35mm, D300 etc) with enough additional space for other lenses if they were needed. This configuration also has enough space for a bean bag to sit on top of the 600mm, and my Gitzo sits outside on the Trekker Tripod Mount. To see exactly what lens is located where, click through to the image with annotations at flickr

Overall, I am happy with the Super Trekker - it is comfortable to carry, has enough configuration options to change as my lens collection grows or shrinks, or when I want to carry less gear, and is built with the normal Lowepro quality. So far I have taken it out a couple of times, and have comfortably carried it for a couple of kilometers without feeling the weight.

Some additional features worthy of a mention:

- Adjustable waist band allows the weight to be split across the shoulders and the waist, giving a more comfortable carrying position
- Internal metal frame
- DayPack, which can be clipped to the outside of the Super Trekker, allowing for further carrying options, as well as the possibility to detach and carry as a separate bag for smaller trips
- Trekker Tripod Mount for carrying a tripod. Included compression straps allow for stability of the tripod when mounted vertically. I am able to mount my 5 series Gitzo together with Manfrotto video head without any problems
- Water resistant 600D Endura nylon and YKK zippers
- All Weather Cover hidden in the base which can be pulled out to provide even better protection against the elements when needed (although since the bag is made of Endura nylon, the bag is well enough constructed to do without this in most weathers)
- Zip cover to cover back harness, to make for easier transporting
In conclusion, this bag is all I need it to be. Although it is not as easy to take on a plane as something like a ThinkTank Airport International, it is definitely suited to the occasions when I need to get the majority of my gear on my back, and hike with it to my final destination, and is pretty much the only solution available when I need to take the 600mm.....

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Happy New Year 2009

Robin Red Breast
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan
Happy New Year to all my readers..... I hope 2009 brings you and your family all you want, both in your professional and personal life.

I seem to remember writing a resolution on my blog 365 days ago promising to write more blog posts in 2008. Well, with only 11 under the belt that didn't really happen as planned, so I'll try and improve that for 2009.

I have a couple of ideas for blog posts, and hope to be able to write blogs on the following subjects at the start of 2009:

- Gear review: Lowepro Super Trekker AWII
- Book review: Wedding Photography by Mark Cleghorn
- Book review: Annie Leibovitz at Work by Annie Leibovitz
- Gear review: Nikon 600mm f/4G VR lens
- Gear review: Nikon 200mm f/2G VR lens

So now I've written that to the web, I have to do it..... stay tuned!

For now, here's a shot of a robin I made in my parents' garden over Christmas. This was taken at iso2200 with the D3, using the 600mm. Still fairly heavily cropped, and could have really done with a bit more focal length on this one.