Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

 

Stuff I Use - Part I: Cameras

I'm constantly being asked what type of gear I use. And why. So here's a ridiculously long accounting of stuff that I ACTUALLY use (or did use, before I replaced it with something I like better!). I don't comment on products I haven't actually tried in the field - so don't expect statements like "Well, I don't really have one of those, but I know how it will perform anyway so here's what I think...". It's important to note that I receive no product sponsorship (which actually can be a good thing), so I'm free to select the equipment that best meets my needs. And, it leaves me in a position to say what I really think, as opposed to what I should say!

For organizational purposes, I've split the stuff I use into the following categories which cover three web pages.

1. Part I: Cameras that I use or have used.
2. Part II: Nikon Lenses and Teleconverters that I use (or have used).
3. Part III: All the other stuff I regularly take into the field, including tripods, camera bags, backpacks, accessories and gadgets, and outdoor wear.

Stuff I Currently Use: Cameras

(Updated 13 December 2012)

While I use a mirror-less Nikon Series 1 camera as a "walkaround" camera, the vast majority of my "serious" shooting is done with DSLR cameras. Why? SLR cameras currently best meet my photographics needs. The primary reasons are: overall image quality; array of readily available high quality lenses; and relative portability. Like most old codgers I was formerly a film shooter, but I now shoot digitally 100% of the time.

I currently shoot with Nikon cameras only. Why Nikon? Because the majority of their lenses are great (and some are absolutely incomparable) and because their professional cameras have NEVER let me down in the field, despite some pretty good abuse. And I really like their latest flash systems. Like other loyal Nikon shooters, I paid a pretty big price for sticking with them a couple years back when Canon was kicking their butts in the development and production of new digital technologies. But Nikon is back on top and their professional digital camera bodies are nothing less than state-of-the-art.

I. Full-frame (FX) Nikon Bodies:

I'm currently using four of Nikon's FX cameras - two D4's, a D800e, and a D600. Whenever I'm on an important shoot I actively use two bodies. The two I have with me vary, depending on the shooting situation. If it's a "serious" wildlife shoot (e.g., shooting grizzlies from a Zodiac) I will be actively using both of my D4's (each with different lenses attached and ready to go). If I'm out with "...the intent to shoot wildlife - if I can find it - but might encounter some interesting landscapes" I will switch out one of my D4's with my D600. If I'm primarily going out to shoot landscapes I'll normally take along my D600 and D800. At this point my D4's account for at least 65% of my shooting, my D600 about 30% of my shooting, and my D800 about 5% of my shooting.

1. Nikon D4. The Nikon D4 is an absolutely stellar DSLR for wildlife and action photography. In my view it represents evolutionary improvement over the excellent D3s, not revolutionary improvement. In day-to-day field use the biggest improvement - and the one thing that contributes most to me capturing images that were missed before - is in autofocus performance. Ergonomic changes rank a close second, particularly the effective mirroring of key controls in horizontal and vertical camera orientation. While noise differences at high ISO settings are virtually unchanged from the D3s, improvement to overall image quality at high ISO's (including more realistic colour and better retention of dark-on-dark and light-on-light tonal range) leave me more comfortable at shooting at ISO's above about ISO 3200 (compared to the D3s). While some feel that the increase in resolution over the D3s (about 4 MP) is inconsequential, for me it has been welcomed and I definitely notice it! Overall? For this wildlife photographer, there is no choice in the matter - the D4 is the top camera you can take into the field.

Read a whole lot more about my thoughts on the D4 here: Field Tests - The Nikon D4 - The Best Gets Better?

2. Nikon D800/800e. In short, I believe the D800/800e is a niche camera and not a good choice as an "all-rounder" camera for the nature photographer. The best way to summarize my feelings about it is simply to reproduce my "Executive Summary" about the camera from my D800 Field Test:

For me the Nikon D800 is an engimatic camera filled with contradictions. Its unmatched resolution and dynamic range combine to make it undoubtedly the best DSLR currently available for landscape photography. But, its penchant for "beating up" on all but the best of the Nikkor lenses, plus its sharpness-limiting diffraction effects at small apertures, combine to complicate and challenge its effectiveness when actually shooting those landscapes! The D800 also offers surprisingly good ISO performance for a 36 MP DSLR. And a darned good autofocus system. Combine this ISO performance, AF performance, and a decent frame rate (especially when shot in DX-mode with the MB-D12 battery grip with a EN-EL18 battery is used) and you have a 36 MP DSLR that is reasonably versatile. Because of this versatility the D800 is attracting what I think is an undue amount of attention from those who focus on other "non-landscape" aspects of nature photography, such as wildlife photography. But it does seem to me that purchasing a 36 MP camera and "crippling" it by shooting in DX mode is somewhat akin to buying a Ferrari for urban commuting. Why do it? I think it's only because Nikon doesn't currently offer a quality pro or semi-pro level DX camera in the 18 MP range. And, in my opinion, it was a very good move by Nikon to introduce the D800 BEFORE the D600...otherwise FAR fewer D800's would have been sold.

So what is the D800 best used for? After shooting it for months and scrutinizing thousands of files produced by it (and comparing those files to ones shot with other cameras, including the Nikon D4) I'm exactly back to where I was in my thinking about the D800 when it was first announced: first and foremost this is a landscape/studio camera that exhibits its full potential only when used with medium-format like discipline and care. It was cleverly designed to be versatile enough to function reasonably well in other photographic specialties, such as wildlife photography. But it isn't the best choice in a DSLR for anything but landscape/studio photography requiring high-resolution output.

Find out more about my experiences with the D800 here: Field Tests - The Nikon D800 - Nikon's Second Game Changer?

D800 vs. D800e? I originally purchased a D800 and tested it extensively. Then, I picked up a D800e and owned both versions of the camera for a period of time, which allowed me to do enough head-to-head testing to determine my own preference and which of the two would move forward with. The result of my head-to-head testing demonstrated to me that they were - overall - very, very similar. In fact, the only time I could really see a subtle difference in sharpness between the cameras was when I was using top-notch lenses under extremely controlled conditions - in these situations the D800e did have a slight sharpness edge. And, I found when shooting landscapes and wildlife that there was no significant difference between the two cameras in moire or false colour (including when doing extreme closeups of wildlife and birds - both exhibited SOME moire in the details of feathers, but it was about the same for both cameras). In the end, I kept the D800e and pull it out ONLY when conditions are just right (and I use it with extreme discipline). And when I do use it this way, I am exceptionally happy with its output. Not a forgiving camera at ALL, but an amazing camera when everything is just right!

3. Nikon D600. This short description comes at a time when I'm in the midst of field testing the D600. But I've used it for several months now and shot thousands of images with it. And I can already say Nikon REALLY hit the sweet spot with this one. The D600 isn't perfect - but it has definitely exceeded my expectations - by a ton (or more). In my opinion it's an exceptionally versatile camera - probably the most versatile DSLR in Nikon's line-up and really well-suited for nature photographers of all levels. Overall fantastic image quality. Great ISO performance. Excellent dynamic range. Very capable AF system. As a landscape camera it definitely nips at the heels of the D800/800e. More than adequate for wildlife and action photography (but - being fair - it doesn't challenge the D4 in these pursuits...but it's only one third the price of a D4). Unless I'm specifically going after wildlife, the D600 is the first camera I throw in my backpack and it's getting dramatically more use day-to-day than my D800. For D4- or D3s-owning pros it makes an incredibly solid back-up camera and one that you won't hesitate to turn to. For most serious/enthusiast amateur nature photographers - you can't go wrong in selecting this camera as your primary tool.

Once complete, you will be able to access my D600 Field Test here: Real World Field Tests

II. DX Format Nikon Bodies:

At this point Nikon offers no DX-format camera bodies that meet my needs as a primary working camera, able-bodied backup camera, or as a walkaround camera.

III. Mirror-less (CX Format) Nikon Bodies:

Nikon V1. In late 2011 I acquired the Nikon V1 to use simply as a walkaround camera - more-or-less (I thought) as a point-and-shoot. Its overall capabilities (and image quality) really surprised me. And I was pretty shocked to find out that when paired with Nikon's "real" F-mount Nikkor lenses (using the FT-1 mount adapter) it even made a pretty darned competent camera for wildlife photography! No, it doesn't replace a DSLR for serious nature photography. But it's a darned good accessory!

Read a whole lot more about my thoughts on the V1 here: Field Tests - The Nikon V1 - Fun with the V1!

Stuff I HAVE Used (But Don't Anymore): Cameras

(Updated 13 December 2012)

Nikon D3s. I loved my D3s. Why? Simple - it was everything my D3 was and more. And, I loved my D3 - my long list of my likes of the D3 can be found below on this page (right here). Many have claimed that the D3s surpasses the D3 by at least one full stop in high ISO performance. It's my opinion that this is true at moderate ISO's (ISO 1600 to 3200) but at ISO's beyond this the D3s surpasses the D3 by significantly MORE than one stop. For instance, I have images captured by my D3s at ISO 12,800 that look as good (or better) than images captured on my D3 at ISO 3200 - that's TWO stops better. The D3s simply rocks.

Nikon D7000. I used a D7000 for about one year. I found that at low to moderate ISO's (up to about ISO 2000) and with lenses no longer than about a 70-200mm f2.8 VRII zoom, it was capable of producing excellent quality images. However, my copy really struggled with any "longer" lenses, including the 300mm f2.8 VR, 200-400mm f4 VR, 400mm f2.8 VR, 500mmm f4 VR, and the 600mm f4 VR. The problem? Well, there were two of them. Focus accuracy in all AF modes (and I couldn't rectify the situation with AF tuning). And, when using focus-tracking (using any AF mode, and especially when using Dynamic Area mode) the camera could only attain focus if the subject was almost in focus initially (otherwise it would simply hunt, and hunt, and hunt...and never find ANYTHING to focus on). Because of this inability to handle my major telephoto lenses I sold my D7000.

Read more about my thoughts about the D7000 here: Field Tests - The Nikon D7000 - Very First Impressions.

Nikon D3. I sold my beloved D3 in January of 2010. Why? To purchase a D3s. And, it made little sense to me to keep both a D3 and D3s. But I had virtually no complaints about my D3 - it was a fantastic camera. Here's my thoughts about the D3:

The hype and expectations surrounding the D3's announcement and shipment were unprecedented. The camera delivers exactly as promised. Rather than regurgitating the new specs of the camera which can be found in about a million places on the web, I will refer readers to one intelligent review (as always, Bjorn Rorslett's D3 review is both balanced and well thought out) and point out what, in my opinion, are the camera's three main advances: unprecedented HIGH ISO performance; greatly improved autofocus; and a dramatic improvement in JPEG output (i.e., the image quality gap between JPEGs and RAW images is shrinking!). In terms of high ISO performance, I've found that the D3 offers me a two to three stop advantage over the D2Xs. With the D2X I was always happy with the image quality at ISO 200 but found that I was rarely happy with image quality at ISO 400 or above. With the D3 I'm always pleased with the image quality at ISO 800 and almost always satisfied with my results at ISO 1600. On occasion, and under the right lighting conditions, I will push the ISO up to 3200 or more (and can still get image quality that meets my standards).

Here's a few more of my comments about the D3:

1. High ISO Performance = APERTURE CONTROL. The D3 has been marketed as a "sports and action" camera, largely because of its HIGH ISO performance. I've no doubt that sports photographers love its low-light performance. However, for my uses the high ISO performance translates directly into increased control over my aperture - because I can now regularly shoot at ISO 800 (and even ISO 1600) and get nearly noise-free images, I have dramatically more control over my aperture and the resulting depth of field. This fact is probably the biggest single reason I love my D3.

2. High ISO Performance = INCREASED ABILITY TO HANDHOLD LENSES. That same high ISO performance has made it possible for me to get a much higher proportion of sharp images when hand-holding lenses that I formerly used almost exclusively while on a tripod. A perfect example is my 300 mm f2.8 VR - I occasionally hand-held this lens before (and less occasionally obtained sharp results), but now regularly get tack-sharp images when using this lens sans tripod. Nice freedom!

3. High ISO Performance = TELECONVERTER FRIENDLINESS. YEP, going to a camera with a full-frame sensor has meant a loss of effective magnification and has a consequence for wildlife photographers. But, the good news is that the high ISO performance of the D3 has made it easier to stop-down my aperture when using teleconverters and thus I've able to squeeze more performance out of my teleconverters using my D3. For more on this, see the teleconverter section (in "Stuff I Use - Part II: Lenses & Teleconverters").

4. Improved Autofocus. While I didn't think the autofocus capability of the D2X/D2Xs was too bad (after you finally figured it out), I really like the new autofocus system of the D3. I use the 51-point option (including when using Dynamic AF) almost exclusively and, not surprisingly, find it much easier to find a focus bracket "in the right place" than I did with the 11-point system of the D2X(s). Additionally I have found that the autofocus system has fairly dramatically upped the number of sharp images I've captured of moving subjects (my shooting conditions have NOT been conducive to using the 51-point dynamic AF with 3D [colour] tracking).

5. Wonderful LCD. I love the large, hi-resolution LCD found on the LCD. And I love the fact that the monitor itself is made of tempered glass and is almost scratch-proof. I absolutely hated those rattle-trap plastic LCD covers on earlier models.

6. Excessively LOUD shutter. I suspect that someone in Nikon's marketing department decided that the D3 needed a shutter that sounded aggressive and drew attention to itself. Well, they succeeded! This shutter is way too loud and can be a real detriment to wildlife photographers. This camera could really use the "Continuous-silent" shutter release mode found in the F6 and a few earlier models.

7. Big and Heavy! I'm not in love with lightweight SLR's (largely because of their lack of balance with large lenses), but the D3 is definitely big and heavy! I love the durability associated with the mass, but it is really big and heavy!

Nikon D700. I retired (sold) my D700 in September of 2010. This was simply a strategic decision that balanced maximizing resale value and creating "room" in my camera bag for coming camera body releases from Nikon. It did NOT reflect ANY satisfactoin I had with the camera (it was an excellent tool). Shortly after I sold my D700 I purchased a D7000 - this should NOT imply that I considered the D7000 in any way equivalent to the D700 (I just wanted a higher res DX body and the D7000 looked interesting).

Just go back and re-read what I said about the D3 - about 95% of it applies to the D700. I can honestly say that if the cameras came out simultaneously I could have been completely satisfied with the D700. It's that good. 95% of a D3 at WAY LESS than 95% of the price. A few specific comments about the D700:

1. I LOVE the optional MB-D10 Battery Pack. I want to be clear here - what I actually love is the fact that the MB-D10 battery pack is optional, and you can use the camera with or without it. In practical terms I use it about 90% of the time (both for battery compatibility reasons and for the vertical controls it supplies), but if I'm going hiking I like that I can make the body smaller and lighter by removing it.

2. I HATE the LCD Cover. There's nothing "more-wrong" with this cover than any other LCD cover that Nikon has made, but not only do they scratch way too easily (and become difficult to see through), but it always falls off when least convenient yet seems to be a pain to take off when I want it off (how the heck do they manage to design it to do this??). I'm tempted to just throw the damned thing away and live with the scratches that my LCD screen acquires...

3. I LOVE the automated sensor cleaning mechanism. It's my experience that full-frame sensors seem to attract more dust than cropped sensors - I've had to clean the sensor on my D3 dramatically more than I ever did on my D2X or D2Xs. But with my D700 I only rarely have to clean its sensor (the sensor cleaner is good, but not perfect). This alone makes me grab my D700 BEFORE grabbing my D3, especially if I know I'm going into a situation where I may be switching lenses alot.

4. I HATE menu-item differences between the D3 and D700! This isn't a D700 thing - it's a baffling Nikon thing. There are many functions that are contained within the menus of the two cameras that are identical, yet their use or implementation differs between the D3 and D700. An example to show what I mean: I've found I quite like the Virtual Horizon function that is offered on both cameras - its surprisingly handy. So on my D700 I have assigned my function button (using custom function f5) to turn on the Virtual Horizon. When you assign Virtual Horizon to the function button you lose the ability to program the function button plus dial to do anything - they're mutually exclusive (on both cameras). When I checked the list of options available for function button plus dial on the D700 I saw there was nothing there that I cared about, so losing it was no problem. But on the D3 there's an option for function button plus dial that I absolutely need - the ability to quickly change shooting banks (the option of using the function button plus dial to change shooting banks doesn't exist on the D700). So...I end up having to live with the different consequences for pushing the function button on the two cameras. Small thing? yes. But not the kind of thing I like to have to think about when I'm trying to photograph a charging grizzly. Dumb.

4. I'm LESS-THAN-THRILLED with the card slot cover (on the D700). This isn't a big thing - it's a niggler. The card slot cover is located on the side of the D700 and you just slide it to the back of the camera to open it. What's the problem? Well...it's really easy to accidentally open the slot cover when you've grabbed the camera to remove it from a pack (like the Lowepro Slingshot 300 AW). Which, if you don't notice it, leaves the cover in a position where it could be easily broken off. Not good.

Nikon D300. I sold my D300 in September of 2008. I did it immediately after its autofocus system completely failed right when I REALLY needed the camera. The comments below about the D300 were written prior to the malfunctioning of the autofocus system.

The D300 was announced at the same time as the D3 (August of 2007) and was almost instantly regarded as a "hit" (even before anyone actually used it). Just days after the D300 began shipping Popular Photography declared it the 2007 Camera of the Year. In March 2008 dpreview.com published their very thorough review (available here) and similarly loved the camera. Perhaps I'm jaded a little because I had been using my D3 for over 3 months before I acquired my D300, but I'm not nearly as positive about the D300. Yes, it has many of the features of the D3. Its ISO performance IS better than the that of the D2Xs and the D200 but, in my opinion, only about one stop better. Regarding the features it shares with the D3 - of course I like the same features I like on the D3. This includes the autofocus system and the LCD (except the lack of tempered glass on the monitor and the accursed LCD cover). It's hard to find anything to dislike on the D3, but a little easier to nitpick the D300 - here's a few of my comments about the camera after using it for about a month:

1. Ergonomics, Responsiveness, and Build Quality. Starting with some positives about the D300...I really like the ergonomics and handling of the D300, especially when the MB-D10 Multi Power Battery Pack (with its vertical shutter release and other vertically-mounted control buttons and dials) is installed. The camera is comfortable and the controls are logically arranged and - at least for my hands - ergonomically correct. The camera is very responsive with nearly instantaneous start-up. Build quality? It's a quantum leap up from any of Nikon's consumer models. But, unlike some others, I won't claim its build quality is comparable to the D3. It isn't. But it's a third the price (so it better not be!).

2. Slow 14-bit RAW files. It's great that the D300 allows you to capture 14-bit NEF (RAW) files (a capability the D2X lacks). But...when capturing 14-bit images the camera's frame-rate slows right down to 2.5 fps, even with the extra battery pack and EN-EL4 batteries. The D3 shoots 14-bit files with no noticeable drop in speed.

3. Different Shutter Release Pressure. The D3 needs only a feather-light touch to trip its shutter. It was a little hard to get used to, but I now really like it. Unfortunately, when I switch over to my D300 and give the camera the same light touch nothing happens. Well, almost nothing - the camera does focus, but the shutter doesn't trip. I suppose this isn't a negative feature of the D300, but the fact that the touch required to trip the shutter differs significantly between the cameras is a problem (for those who use both of these cameras).

4. Slightly Different Switches and Configurables. This is another little thing that isn't really a problem with the D300 (or the D3), but the fact that they differ between the cameras can be irksome to those who use BOTH cameras. Some examples...toggle between focus modes: with the D3 the order of the positions of the switches is this: Continuous = top, Single = middle, Manual = bottom. With the D300? Yep, you guessed it - the exact opposite. A little thing - but a trivial point I have to keep in mind (and one that prevents "instinctive" switching between focus modes). Another example? I like to program the "AF-ON'' button that lies right beside my thumb to function as a "focus-lock" button. No problem with the D3. But try to do this with the D300 (you can program the AF-ON button on the vertical grip to act as "focus-lock" but not the AF-ON button on the main body). Another small thing, but not something I want to be thinking about when photographing a 1,000 lb male grizzly...

5. No Viewfinder Curtain. Another little thing - I like and use my shutter curtain on my D3 quite commonly. With the D300 you get a very loseable plastic slip-on cover.

6. Dimmer Viewfinder. This is another "compared to the D3" complaint. There's nothing wrong with the brightness of the D300 viewfinder, until you compare it to that of the D3.

7. White Balance Issues. Several reviewers have commented on the D300's imperfect auto white balance when shooting under artificial light. I've noticed some "finickiness" even when shooting under natural light - it seems the auto white balance is almost always ever so slightly off (which is most noticeable in shadows and often manifests itself as excessive magenta or green colour tints and noise in those shadow areas). I shoot RAW images almost exclusively, so tweaking the white balance post-exposure is not a big deal (but it is another step that consumes time).

8. Electronic Glitches and Gremlins. This is a much more significant issue. The primary reason I ditched my D200 was because I experienced a number of electronic glitches and gremlins. Things like the autofocus freezing and locking up. Or, squirrelly "dead battery" indicators coming on right after I put a new battery in. And, rapid and spontaneous cycling between metering modes while I sat bewilderedly watching. Et cetera. All my electronic glitches on my D200 occurred when I was using longer lenses - the 300 f2.8 VR and larger. I heard that the problem was related to the lens mounting ring on the camera having only 4 screws (compared to the 5 found on the D2X and D3) and the associated flex of the lens mounting ring - which translated into improper lens-camera electronic contact and the electronic glitches. Okay. My D300 has 5 screws on the lens mounting ring, but I've been experiencing exactly the same types of electronic glitches on my D300. Like with the D200, the problems often go away when I turn the camera off and on again ("rebooting" it), and like with the D200, the problems on my D300 have been showing up with telephoto lenses only (my 70-200 f2.8 VR and larger). The problem seems worst if I'm walking with my camera (with the camera strap around my neck and my left hand cupping and supporting the lens) - in these cases there's about a 50:50 chance my D300 won't work when I lift it to my eye to focus and shoot. A 50:50 chance?!? Am I kidding? I wish. It's a pretty serious issue. As someone who relies on their cameras to make a living, this is more than a little disconcerting. Holding onto my D2Xs is looking like a better move all the time...

9. Autofocus Performance. Most reviews of the D3 and D300 state that the autofocus systems of the two cameras are the same. Nikon actually doesn't make this claim - if you examine their marketing materials and spec sheets, you'll find that they use words such as "similar to" and "like" when comparing the two autofocus systems. And, they ARE named very similarly - the D3 uses the new "Multi-Cam 3500FX Auto Focus Sensor" and the D300 uses the new "Multi-Cam 3500DX Auto Focus Sensor". They have identical feature sets. But, my experience is that they don't have identical PERFORMANCE. In March and April of 2008 I spent a considerable amount of time photographing migrating Bald Eagles (see several of the images in the "Birds in Flight" Gallery). During this time, I experienced two noticeable performance differences between the autofocus systems of the D3 and the D300. First, the D300 was slower at acquiring intial focus (using the same lens). In most shooting situations this difference wouldn't have been significant, but in my case I had eagles "popping up" from beneath me (along a cliff face) and often had only a second or two to get the image. In THIS case, the slower initial focus acquisition resulted in me missing several shots (I quit using the D300 after missing a few too many potentially good shots). Second, even after initial focus was acquired, the D300 wasn't as competent as the D3 at tracking the rapidly moving eagles (especially when the birds were flying directly at me). Interestingly, the autofocus system on my "old" (there actually are NO old digital SLR's, just obsolete ones) D2Xs outperformed that of the D300 IN THIS SHOOTING SITUATION. Please keep these statements in context - the autofocus system of hte D300 is very, very good. And, there are MANY situations where it would out-perform the autofocus of the D2Xs. But the performance of the D300 autofocus system is not identical to that of the D3.

Nikon D300 and the future of the DX Format? When the D300 was first announced Nikon used it as "proof" they were committed to sticking with the DX sensor format they had been promoting since their first digital SLR was introduced. After shooting with the D3 for almost 4 months and the D300 for about a month, I have a distinctly different view. The D3 is a professional camera in every way imaginable. The D300 is a great enthusiast's and/or semi-professional camera, but it is no D3. I certainly don't see the D300 as evidence that Nikon really believes in the DX format. If they did, we'd have a D3-DX right now (and I'd be first in line to buy it).

Stuff I MAY Use: Coming Camera Purchases?

There's nothing else currently available that's on my "must have NOW" list, but...

Nikon V2: Yep, I'm curious about the Nikon V2. So...I'm going to at least give it a good field test. Will it earn a spot in my camera bag? Time will tell...

Jump to:

Stuff I Use - Part II: Nikon Lenses and Teleconverters
Stuff I Use - Part III: Everything Else I Drag Into the Field

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