Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

 

Brad Hill: Blog: Photography. Nature. Gadgets. Software. Conservation. Whatever.

Not so short-winded blatherings on whatever is currently occupying the part of my brain that deals with nature photography and related concerns. Updated sorta weekly.

On this page you'll find all my 2018 blog listings (immediately below). And, further down this page you'll also find some key (and very popular) gear-related blog entries from 2017 (jump to that section now).

And, finally, if you're looking for a directory to ALL my blog listings EVER - just follow this link.


I. 2018 Blog Entries...

8 November 2018: So Brad...Z7 or D850?

Given how many emails I'm currently receiving from people asking me if they should get a D850 or Z7 I am guessing there are just huge numbers of photographers wondering the same thing. So...in an effort to stem the flow of emails with this question (a move that almost always backfires on me) here's some thoughts on the "D850 or Z7?" issue.

But first things first: It's absolutely impossible for me to tell someone I don't know - and don't how they shoot, what they shoot, what other gear they have, et cetera - which of these two cameras is BEST for them. The only thing I can do is tell you which camera I prefer and why. It's then up to you to decide if my reasons and use of the camera(s) parallel yours and the same decision would work for you.

Here's the most succinct-but-complete statement I can make:

For my own uses of a high resolution camera I prefer the Z7 over the D850. But if I could only have ONE camera for ALL my uses - and it had to be either a D850 or a Z7 - I would go for the D850.

How does this make any sense? Why would I take the D850 over the Z7 if I could only have one camera? Simply because - in my opinion - the D850 is slightly better for action shooting than the Z7 is. I say this because my own testing has shown that the D850 keeps up with rapidly moving subjects (especially those moving rapidly toward me) a little better than the Z7 does. Please note that my answer has NOTHING to do with subject-tracking as per dpreview's "have the track the drunk bike rider who rides from frame-edge-to-frame-edge as she approaches me" test - I don't bolt my camera to the ground and expect it to track my subject all over the viewfinder - if I'm shooting action I am invariably panning with it. When I am panning birds in flight or running mammals the Z7 does pretty darned well. But most germane to the current discussion...I DO have multiple camera bodies and one of those cameras is particularly well-suited to shooting action - the D5. In fact - and again in my opinion- the D5 is the best camera that has ever been made for shooting action - and it is leaps and bounds ahead of BOTH the D850 and Z7 when it comes to shooting action. So I simply don't CARE if the D850 is a little better for shooting action than the Z7 is.

So what do I use the D850 (and Z7 for)? I explained that in detail in a previous blog entry (entitled "Why I Ordered the Nikon Z7 (and NOT the Z6)" on September 8 - right here...) but long story short, I use the D850 (and Z7) for shooting "more static" wildlife, animalscapes, and landscapes - but only when I have sufficient light to keep the ISO down (or have the time to set up a tripod). In my view, this is the absolute "sweet spot" of the D850 and of the Z7 and what those two cameras are GREAT at. Action shooting? That's what the D5 (and to a lesser extent, the D500) is great for. Action shooting in low light? Definitely NOT the sweet spot of the D850 or the Z7 (or the D500) - and RIGHT in the D5's wheelhouse!

What features or attributes of the Z7 stand out above and beyond those on the D850 for ME? A bunch of 'em...and YES, this is a pared-down and "ranked and weighted by real world use" condensed list derived from about a zillion marketing bullet points (many of which are irrelevant to me and probably many other users).

1. Size and weight! Only one variable to consider in comparing two cameras (of course) but for me it IS a biggie. It's just so much easier to carry around or travel with (compared to the big "pro" DSLR's).

2. More ACCURATE AF. I AM finding that I get more accurate AF with the Z7 than with the D850 (unless using Live View on the D850, in which case AF was definitely very accurate). I am noticing this particularly when using "wider" angle zooms, like a 24-70mm.

3. Ability to focus closer to the frame edge. When shooting animalscapes or landscapes I often DO want to focus on something close to the edge of the frame (normally the bottom edge), and I LOVE that I can do this without going through the focus, focus-lock, and then recompose routine.

4. MUCH Better VR. So far I'm finding the VR system of the Z7 allows me to effectively hand-hold lenses (Z-mount, VR F-mounts, and of course NON-VR F-mounts) at significantly slower shutter speeds than I could with the D850 (and still get sharp shots!). And given the D850's penchant for beating up on image quality if there is camera shake and/or vibrations, this is a big feature. It ends up meaning I can either capture shots I couldn't with a D850 OR that I can shoot the same shot at a lower ISO (which is always a good thing).

5. Extra Viewfinder Info. Yep, I DO like having a histogram in view when shooting...and it's fast and convenient to display a virtual level or other info through the viewfinder.

6. Imparting VR on non-VR lenses. I have some lenses that I REALLY like but were pretty much limited to collecting dust because they pretty much needed to be used on a tripod if I shot them with the D850 (given the apertures I wanted to shoot at and the uses I wanted to put the lenses to). Two in particular are the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art and the Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art. I love the fact that if I use these lenses (and others) on the Z7 they instantly "have" VR.

7. Performance of the Z-mount 24-70mm f4S. I've done enough testing of the 24-70mm f4S against the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8E (the VR version) and the Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 OS Art to convince myself that there IS something to Nikon's claim that the new Z-mount allows them to build optically superior lenses. In the case of the 24-70's I can find virtually no difference in central sharpness (of the 3 lenses), but the edges of the Z-mount 24-70mm f4S are definitely sharper (at all apertures). Some may say "but what about the stop of "lost" light?", but I am finding the much better VR of the Z-mount 24-70mm f4s (5 axis stabilization rather than 3 with non-Z-mounts) MORE than makes up for the lost light. And...while OTHERS may like the creative options of having a 24-70mm with a f2.8 aperture, when I am shooting a 24-70mm I am usually stopping it down to f5 or smaller far more commonly than even opening it up to f4 (but that's a "different strokes for different folks" thing).

8. Charger-less Battery Charging! Hey, I travel a lot and sometimes I have really restrictive baggage restrictions (on float planes and/or helicopters, etc.). I fork out oodles of money for compact, light outdoor clothing (thanks for your help ARC'TERYX) just to save weight and bulk and the same goes for my camera gear - I love that I only have to take an "adapter" along to charge the Z7 (but I am hoping Nikon finds a way to make the AC adapter a LITTLE smaller).

Are there features of the D850 do I prefer over the Z7? Yep, a few...

1. Clarity and brightness of its optical viewfinder. This is really just "legacy preference" and has no true functionality "correlate" - just a bias!

2. Availability of a battery grip with vertical controls. While I AM finding the Z7 to be easier to use vertically than my D850 sans battery grip (probably just because the Z7 is smaller and the buttons are a little easier to get to when held vertically), I STILL prefer having vertical controls. I wouldn't want the body increased in size to accommodate the vertical controls (like a D5 is), but having the option of attaching a grip with vertical controls would be nice.

3. Hmmm...can't think of a 3rd feature preference on the D850...I personally don't care about the 2nd card slot and I haven't exhausted an EN-EL15B battery during a single field shoot with my Z7 yet...

One other interesting but possibly telling (or possibly meaningless!) observation: After shooting my Z7 for awhile and then going back to my D850 I kinda feel like I'm picking up a turn of the century cell phone (note that I have not figured out how to make a phone call or send a text with either my D850 or Z7).

I am just FINE with others preferring the D850 over the Z7 and I have no interest in convincing them otherwise. Of course I don't mind hearing about why someone prefers one camera over another, but odds are you won't convince me that a D850 is better than a Z7 for ME! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Z7_OR_D850

1 November 2018: The Nikon Z7: A Few More Tidbits

Since posting my 17 October blog entry entitled "The Nikon Z7: Three Weeks In..." a combination of several things (questions to me via email, a discussion with a technical representative from Nikon, and further scrutiny of images I've captured with the Z7) have put me in a position to add a few more tidbits to the fog bank of knowledge about the Z7! ;-)

So here goes...

1. Z7 Image Quality?

Since that last blog entry several people emailed me and asked me what I thought about the overall image quality of the Z7 images (in that previous blog entry I DID mention that I could see absolutely no difference in visible noise between the two cameras over an ISO range of ISO 64 to ISO 12,800 - they were in a dead heat). While I have absolutely no objective way to measure dynamic range beyond visible inspection of images, at this point I can SEE no differences in how dynamic range of the two cameras vary with ISO.

But what about overall image quality of the Z7 images? Well...just like D850 images - fantastic. Great colour, wonderful tonal range, and - with the right lenses - the incredible detail you'd expect out of a 45.6 MP sensor. And, just like with the D850, if you use "less than stellar" quality lenses or sloppy image capture techniques the 45.6 MP sensor can reveal lens and/or user technique flaws real quick! I have called the D850 the "Camera of Truth" in the past, and in many regards the same thing can be said of the Z7. However (and I'll expand on this a little more below in the VR section) the amazing VR performance of the Z7 camera CAN make up for some user technique sloppiness that the D850 would be more likely to reveal (in other words, you can often get away with using SLOWER shutter speeds than you could with a D850, even if you are using a lens on the D850 that has a very good VR on it).

2. Further Z7 VR Thoughts...

Two things to say on the VR of the Z7 today. First, I am still blown away with just how well the VR works on the Z7, particularly at the "crazy slow" shutter speeds in the 0.1s to 0.5s range (with the 24-70mm f4S Z-mount lens). I am still feeling that if you use a Nikkor F-mount lens with VR (or a 3rd party lens like a Sigma with its own Optical Stabilization or "OS") the VR improves compared to shooting that lens on a DSLR, but I haven't had a chance to test this yet (I will as soon as I can).

Second, I spent some time testing to see if there was ANY negative impact associated with leaving the VR on (in either VR Normal or VR Sport mode) when shooting off a firm tripod. The reason I looked at this is that the Z7 manual states...

"To avoid unintended results, select Off when the camera is mounted on a tripod unless the tripod head is unsecured or the camera is mounted on a monopod, in which case Normal, Sport, or On is recommended."

So I tested 3 different lenses that were mounted on a firm tripod (with the head fully tightened down) over a shutter speed range of 1/500s down to 0.1s and in each of 3 states: VR Off, VR Normal, VR Sport. The three lenses I tested were the Z-mount 24-70mm f4S, the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E (which has Normal, Sport, and Off as its three VR modes), and the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art (a non-stabilized lens that gets its stabilization from the Z7 body). In evaluating the results I compared image sharpness AND the quality of the out-of-focus zones for each lens (at each shutter speed and each VR mode).

The result: I could discern NO difference in image sharpness or the quality of the out-of-focus zones among each of the 3 VR states for any shutter speed on ANY of the three lenses. In other words, in the shutter speed range from 1/500s all the way down to 0.1s you can just always leave the VR on in your preferred mode (even if you are shooting from a rock-solid tripod).

This means when I'm using my Z7 for casual shooting or any form of wildlife photography (and using a telephoto lens hand-held or on a tripod) I'll simply leave the VR on. However, if I am doing some extremely slow shutter speed work (like in the 0.5s or slower range, and likely when shooting landscapes and/or scenes) and am bolted down on a tripod and using a cable release, I'll likely just play it safe and turn the VR off. Of course, in these cases I'll be using the full electronic shutter to remove one more contributor to camera shake...

3. The Autofocus Lowdown

In my previous blog entry on the Z7 I stated that if you looked at the published information on how Nikon's Hybrid AF system works it's not easy "...to figure out (or get reliable information about) how Nikon's Hybrid AF system (meaning "part phase-detect, part contrast-detect") actually works."

Since then I have had the opportunity to shoot with the Z7 even more and also (and more importantly) chat with a technical specialist at Nikon Canada about how the AF system really works. And...it's how I thought and really quite simple. Here's the lowdown:

• There is ONE mode where the camera uses full-time (i.e., dedicated) contrast-detect AF: Pinpoint AF. This mode is ONLY available when you're using Single AF (AF-S) mode. And, Nikon warns that it may be a little slower than all other modes.

• For ALL other AF area modes (in both AF-S and AF-C servo modes) the camera uses BOTH Phase Detect Autofocus (PDAF) and Contrast Detect Autofocus (CDAF). So...in any focusing trial the camera first approximates focus quickly using PDAF and then tweaks and finalizes the focus with CDAF.

There are a few repercussions of this "hybrid" (and dual) AF action:

First, and very positively, it means that AF tuning is NOT needed for any lens. During the final Contrast Detect portion of the focusing the contrast is being maximized on the image sensor itself...which means tuning issues become irrelevant.

So that leads to a related question: If AF tuning is not needed to obtain accurate focus, why is there a way (in the Set-up Menu) to input tuning values for specific lenses? That's for the those who have decided they WANT their camera to slightly front- or back-focus for their OWN reasons. So, for instance, if a photographer of wildlife decides he/she want a LITTLE front-focus so that they have a little foreground in focus (and they don't want to play the focus-lock and re-compose game) they can do so. Note that the tuning values you input for a lens over-ride the final contrast-detect "correct" focus.

Second...if you think about how this hybrid-AF system works a logical question would be this: Does the 2-part PDAF and CDAF system work slower than a simpler PDAF system of our DSLR's? Intuitively it seems logical that it might. And...one thing I have noticed when I am shooting the Z7 on a subject that is rapidly moving toward (or away) from me (when the camera's Predictive AF is working) is that the camera doesn't keep up in focusing quite as well as my fastest DSLR's (like my D5) do. So it's at least possible that this is because of the 2-step hybrid AF system. But it's important to point out that even if this observation of a slightly degraded ability to keep the focus on a rapidly moving object it's still pretty darned good (and certainly better than I had anticipated prior to getting the Z7).

Third, and again positively, the fact that CDAF makes the "final" tweaking of the focus means it may end up being overall more reliable (and accurate) than with the PDAF-only AF system of our DSLR's, especially our high-resolution DSLR's. It's been my experience since acquiring my D850 that focus on it can be "finicky", especially when using zoom lenses (and, for some reason, especially with wider angle zooms, like a 24-70mm). In fact, I had almost given up using 24-70's for landscape shooting with my D850 if I was hand-holding my camera (and not able to effectively use the contrast-detect AF mode of Live View). Months ago (long before the Z7 was shipping) I was hopeful that the Z7 would allow more accurate focus with wide angle lenses and so far I am very pleased that I am finding this to be the case.

4. The Mount Adapter FTZ

I've received a lot of email asking me how the mount adapter FTZ performs. Simple answer on this one - just fine...and it works as advertised. To date I've tried my Z7 with all my Nikkor F-mount lenses (and they're all AF-S lenses) and all have worked perfectly. And, I have tried it with most of my Sigma lenses with the same result...and so-far so-good! Not much else to say on this one...

5. Feedback I've Received on the Z7?

Finally, a lot of folks spontaneously email me about gear, and I received quite a few emails after my October 17 blog entry on the Z7. So far NONE have been negative, and several have expressed almost surprise at how well the Z7 performs. I received one email from a pro shooter from the east coast of the US that had been using a Nikon D810 as his main (and "trusty") tool of choice. His comment after a 4-day shoot (where he began shooting with the Z7 early in the shoot was that after day one the D810 "...never saw the light of day again." And, he concluded the email with a very interesting statement:

"I've read that some think the transition from DSLR to mirrorless will be gradual and take years, but for me it's all over already, and I'm an old school photographer!"

Food for thought, eh?

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Z7_Tidbits1

31 Oct 2018: Yours truly: Wildlife Photography Presentation at Banff Mountain Film Festival

Within easy striking distance of Banff, Alberta and looking for something fun to do this coming Saturday? I have a suggestion for you!

On Saturday, November 3rd I'll be narrating a slideshow entitled "The Wildlife of British Columbia's Incredible Coast" as part of the Banff Mountain Film Festival. And the gory details...

WHEN: Saturday, November 3 at 4:30 PM
WHERE: Kinnear Centre for Creativity and Innovation, Husky Great Hall of the Banff Centre
MORE INFO & REGISTRATION: Just go here on the The Camera's Store Website...

Hope to see ya on Saturday!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

24 October 2018: One Spot Opens Up on 2019 Great Bear Rainforest Photo Tour

28 October UPDATE: This spot on the Great Bear Rainforest photo tour is no longer available.

A cancellation has opened up ONE spot on the 2019 version of our incredibly popular "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" Instructional Photo Tour. This week-long foray into the Great Bear Rainforest takes place in early September of 2019.

Here's where to go for much more information (including how to sign up for this amazing trip):

Into the Great Bear Rainforest Instructional Photo Tour 2019

If visiting the Great Bear is on your bucket list I'd recommend acting quickly on this - historically these spots go away real fast!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

18 October 2018: Hey Brad - Any More Podcasts Coming?

The recent Photographing the West podcast where I discussed Nikon's latest new gear (Z7, 180-400mm f4E zoom, 500mm f5.6E PF prime) has proved to be very popular (it has set an all-time record in number of downloads!). And...I've received several emails asking me if more podcasts are planned. Simple answer - YES. I'm working with the producer now on putting together a series of topics (both on the technical AND the creative side!). Stay tuned for more details...

For those who might not have caught the October 15 edition, you can find the current podcast about the latest Nikon gear on iTunes and SoundCloud as "Photographing the West" - or just point your browser at:

www.photographingthewest.net

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

17 October 2018: The Nikon Z7: Three Weeks In...

I took delivery of my Nikon Z7 kit (including the 24-70mm f4S zoom lens and the mount adapter FTZ) almost three weeks ago. And while I vowed (to myself and those around me) to NOT do a full review of the camera, after 3 weeks (and pushing 5,000 shots) I do have a few thoughts about the camera and figured I'd share them with a few of you - hope you don't mind! ;-)

There has been an almost unprecedented amount of internet chatter about this camera over the last few months, and much of it was based solely on its specifications or by Nikon "insiders" who receive benefits for saying nice things about Nikon's products. I did post a few blogs entries about the Z7 before I took delivery of it (Sept 7: Cautious Excitement about Nikon's New Z Series System; Sept 8: Why I've Ordered the Z7 [and NOT the Z6]), but I hesitated stating anything definitive about it (or trashing its specs) until I did something unique these days - waited until I actually USED the camera in the field. So...since the arrival of my Z7 on September 27 I have poked it, prodded it, tested it, just shot with it, and spent a whole lot of time looking at images spit out of it. So what follows is a summary of my thoughts to date...

For those wanting a real short answer...here ya go: I like the Z7 - a lot. I'm almost certain that I'll soon conclude it has earned a spot in my camera kit. A likely consequence of that is that it will replace my D850 in my kit.

If anyone is shocked that THIS wildlife photographer would consider replacing a D850 with a Z7 they should look at two previous blog entries to get the context they need - my 8 Sept entry on why I ordered the Z7 (right here) and my 27 March entry about which Nikon DSLR I consider best for wildlife photography (right here). Bottom line: I use my D850 largely for landscape and animalscape shooting and it's my opinion the Z7 will meet this need equally as well as my D850 does. And, it has other features - and does many things - my D850 doesn't have or do. Like being way smaller and lighter. Like imparting VR on several of my F-mount non-VR lenses (from both Nikon and Sigma). Like providing "live histograms" for me BEFORE I shoot. Like offering User Settings (rather than Shooting Banks)...which is something I have LONG wanted Nikon to do with their pro cameras. Like...yada, yada, yada...you get the picture. Given the type of shooting I do (and where I do it), the Z7 complements my D5 very nicely and in no way competes with it. And...to a certain degree that also could be said about the Z7 and my D500. But for MY uses...the Z7 competes pretty much directly with my D850 AND it will give me additional capabilities the D850 doesn't.

But let's get back on track...and look at some specifics...

1. Setting Up the Z7

OK...unless you're one of "those people" who make those pointless and kinda weird "unboxing" videos, the FIRST thing you have to do when you get a new camera is set it up. And here's good news for existing users of Nikon DSLR's - you'll find the initial setup of the camera VERY familiar - and very "Nikon-ish". Both the menu "logic" and menu navigation is very similar to that of most Nikon DSLR's. Some of the available options may differ between your Nikon DSLR and the Z7, but you're going to find those features in pretty much the same place as always. So...if you're an experienced Nikon DSLR user it's totally safe to do the "guy thing" and toss the manual over your shoulder (at least for now).

How user-friendly is the camera's initial set-up if you're NOT familiar with setting up a Nikon? Hard for me to forget what I know about Nikon cameras and answer this, but probably not much better than some of the other "better" modern mirrorless cameras. Which means "totally confusing and incomprehensible" if you're a novice photographer and you're trying to use the User's Guide to guide you in setting the camera up!

2. Build Quality?

Shortly after I took my Z7 out of its box (sorry, no video of that) and began setting it up I was impressed with it's "high-end Nikon" build quality. Buttons and dials were nicely finished and were positive in their "movements" (dialing or pushing). The "Made in Japan" label instilled confidence. And although this is obviously subjective - the camera felt like a serious tool rather than a toy.

Durability and sealing? This is something impossible to comment on shortly after you get a camera - I'm not willing to drop my own camera on the floor or take a shower with it to test it. Nikon claims (in the Z Series brochure) that "Effective sealing, equivalent to the D850, is applied to the joints of each exterior cover, as well as the shutter release button and battery chamber cover. Sealing is also employed in the Nikkor Z lenses and Mount Adapter FTZ, to enhance total reliability as a system." Time and use will tell...but with the D850-ish apparent build quality I'll give them the benefit of the doubt until then. But...as someone who has lead a lot of photo tours in very wet conditions (and seen a LOT of good DSLR's give up the ghost) I wouldn't recommend shooting the Z7 in heavy rain or snow without a quality raincover.

3. Camera Layout & Ergonomics

Most of the most commonly used buttons on the camera are where you'd expect them - on a Nikon DSLR. So the command and sub-command dials are in the same place. And the AF-On button is right where it should be (and has always been). And there are "function" buttons on the front side of the camera beside the lens. Given the camera is smaller than Nikon's "serious" DSLR's - and given the monitor occupies MOST of the back of the camera - some buttons have been moved. As an example, all the buttons associated with image playback and menu display have shifted to the right side of the back of the camera (rather than being in a column to the left of the LCD).

There's a "macro" level difference in the Z7 (compared to Nikon's top DSLR's) that's worth mentioning now - overall the camera has fewer buttons. This means MORE of the cameras functions (including some you would want access to quite commonly) are accessible only via menus. At first this might seem almost cringe-worthy. BUT...Nikon was actually pretty smart about how they dealt with this "problem" - once you discover how the menu triggered by the i-button works you end up with quick access to even MORE functions than you ever had with a DSLR. Hit the i-button when you're in shooting mode (i.e., not in image playback mode) and you'll be presented - within the viewfinder and/or on the LCD - with a 2x6 grid of settings (called the i Menu) displayed along the bottom of the display. Any of those settings can be changed on-the-fly without taking your eye out of the viewfinder (or off the LCD). And...best of all...you can customize each of the 12 setting choices within the i Menu. Very cool...and very, very handy when you're shooting.

One quick "tip" about customizing the i Menu: The Nikon Z7 features User Settings (like the Nikon D750 and D600's) which allows the user to collect a whole array of camera settings into a single group, allowing you to switch a ton of settings at once. (Side note: Having User Settings configured to match your style can allow you to quickly change between settings. So, for instance, you could choose to have U1 (User Setting 1) set up for landscape photography. So U1 might be set up as follows: Manual Exposure Mode, Manual ISO, RAW 14-bit images, AF-S with Pinpoint area mode, et cetera. But, being a landscape photographer you're out in the wilderness (right?) and you just might come across...say...a bird-in-flight (BIF)...and you want to re-configure your whole camera to be able to nab that BIF shot in an eye blink. So...you've set up U2 (User Setting 2) for "action shooting" - so it's in Aperture Priority Mode, with Auto ISO on and with a high minimum shutter speed, AF-C with Wide Area (S) AF mode, et cetera. And...you're able to instantly switch from U1 (landscape shooting) to U2 (action shooting) with a quick rotation of the Mode dial. Cool, eh?)

Now...what about that i Menu tip? OK...even if you set up all your User Settings for different things, odds are you'll want the choices available in the i Menu to be the same throughout ALL your Mode options (M, A, P, S, and your User Settings). If not, you'll likely be as confused as hell whenever you display the i Menu! ANYWAY...if you want to save yourself a good hour or so during your initial set up, configure your i Menu BEFORE you create your User Settings! If you don't you'll end up having to go to EACH User Setting and re-do your i Menu options (and then re-save those User Settings).

Confused? Once you have your Z7 in your hands and begin to set it up this will all make sense (trust me).

BTW: I LOVE the fact that the Z7 has User Settings. I find this approach superior (for my type of shooting) to what Nikon does with its best DSLR's, i.e., giving you Shooting Banks, Extended Shooting Banks, and Custom Banks. I've long wished that Nikon's pro DSLR's offered User Settings...

4. Shooting and Camera Handling

OK...the actual experience you have shooting the Z7 is partly dependent on the camera layout and ergonomics, the menu logic, and user-dependent things like the size of your hand. I have medium-sized (but bigger than Trump's) hands (as I'm sure most males do), and I am finding the small size of the Z7 just fine in the field. Yes, my pinky finger on my right hand is kinda "off the bottom" of the camera most of the time, but button and control spacing is just fine for me. And, as an experienced Nikon shooter, my fingers instinctively know where to go for all the basic functions. So I have NO issue instantly changing my aperture (sub-command dial), easy exposure compensation (main command dial...I'm an Aperture Priority shooter mostly), toggle the focus point in the viewfinder, etc.

Is there ANYTHING I find awkward? Well...if I'm being honest (why not, eh?) I'm still struggling a little in getting my thumb down to the i button when my eye is looking through the viewfinder (remember that this button triggers the "delicious" i Menu you can see through the viewfinder) AND I am still finding it challenging to find the Display button with my thumb as well (while looking through the viewfinder). This Display button is one you DO want to be able to access quickly - if you're looking through the viewfinder it lets you toggle between a "clean" display vs. showing a Live Histogram, vs. showing a Virtual Horizon display, et cetera. I know it will only be a matter of time before my thumb can instantly "find" these buttons without any active thinking on my part.

The most important take-home lesson? Anyone familiar with a Nikon DSLR will likely master the controls and find the Z7 easy to shoot with in minutes. And, I think this is a pretty important thing. And...one reason for a Nikon DSLR user to NOT go mirrorless ("Arrgghhh...I have to go through the pain of learning a totally new camera set-up, menu logic, and more!!") has just gone away.

One other almost random comment about the Z7 "user experience": As a user of Nikon's BEST DSLR's I am used to a camera having an unnoticeable start-up lag - you turn the camera on and it's instantly ready to go. However, with the Z7 it takes many times longer before it's ready to shoot (like maybe a whole second). Not really a problem, but definitely noticeable (and it does make me tend to leave the camera on more than I do with my DSLR's).

Big picture question: How easy is it for a NON-Nikon shooting user (novice or experienced photographer) to pick up a Z7 and start shooting effectively with it? Tough for me to answer...but probably safe to say it's infinitely more challenging for the average person than figuring out how to use the "super-competitor" camera we all want to forget about - the iPhone! (Ironically...I find my iPhone infinitely harder to use and understand than my D5 OR my Z7, but I have this bizarre "I want to CONTROL my camera" attitude I can't beat into submission.)

5. The Electronic Viewfinder (EVF)

Ok...here's an admission on my part: I have never liked EVF's. I love a clear and bright optical viewfinder. Heck, I travel to some pretty amazing places with my photography and I'd prefer to see them MOSTLY as they appear (through an optical viewfinder) rather than looking at them through what is kinda like looking at them through a 20-year old TV screen (an EVF). Yes, I admit this is a personal quirk and it may be shared with no one else.

Now...that being said, here's what I think of the Z7 EVF: It's pretty darned nice! And...more importantly...when you get used to what it can offer you (after you master getting to the Display button and the i button) - things like a live (before you shoot) histogram, availability of tweaking a zillion settings with the i Menu while you are looking through the viewfinder and more - well - Z7 EVF DOES seem like the future of photography.

An example of what I mean may be helpful here: I have been using Matrix metering as my primary metering method for ages (count that in decades). When I look at a scene with my eyes OR with an optical viewfinder, I can almost always nail the amount of exposure compensation needed (if any) to get the exposure I want. But when I look at a scene with the Z7's EVF I lose my ability to judge the scene's brightness based on what I'm seeing through the viewfinder (it's always bright, regardless of of how bright the scene is). BUT...having a Live Histogram there in the viewfinder MORE than makes up for it! I was really good at getting the exposure right with my Nikon DSLR's, but I'm BETTER at it with my Z7!

Note that there is an unexpected (at least by me) positive thing associated with the "it's always bright" EVF: I've already found that it's easier to see (and follow) a dark subject in low light. So if you're photographing a black bear in the shade in a dark forest you'll probably have a better idea what its eyes are doing - and where they're looking - with this EVF than with an optical viewfinder.

Any negatives of the EVF? Yep. High contrast scenes go excessively contrasty (and look like crap). And...obviously it pulls power and reduces battery life. Which gives me a nice transition to my next topic...

6. Battery Life

Ok...I pity Nikon here. To their credit they published the exceptionally conservative CIPA rating of 330 shots per charge in their specifications. If this rating was accurate in the real world it would be have been AWFUL (yep, light camera, but my backpack FULL of EN-EL15B batteries is sure heavy). In reality I'm finding I'm averaging about 1300 shots per charge, which is just under 4 times the CIPA rating. Hey CIPA - time to re-do how that rating is determined!!

Bottom line: Battery life is NOT the problem we thought it would be (when we read the camera's specs).

7. Autofocus Performance

I am going to tackle this issue in a MUCH bigger way in a few months. It's not easy to figure out (or get reliable information about) how Nikon's Hybrid AF system (meaning "part phase-detect, part contrast-detect") actually works. As an example, it seems quite clear that the new "tiny" area mode called Pinpoint AF (available only when using Single Servo - or AF-S - mode) is fully contrast-detect. But how much of a role contrast-detect plays in the "other" AF-S modes and ALL the AF-C modes isn't clear. Many (including me) assumed that the "hybrid" AF system meant that contrast-detect was ALWAYS contributing to the AF (in any mode) and thus negated the need for any form of AF tuning on a lens. However, given that the camera allows the user to input AF tuning values for lenses makes me question that. And...I have read quotes of Nikon executives saying "Contrast-detect is always in effect when AF-S mode is used" but that assumes that the executive being interviewed actually knows what he/she is saying! Like I said, I will be digging into this fully in the coming months.

BUT...I CAN comment on several things about the AF system (based on my own use) already:

First, initial acquisition of focus on a subject seems very fast. When I pair my Z7 with a very fast focusing lens (like a 70-200mm f2.8E or my 400mm f2.8E) it snaps into focus extremely fast (so fast that it SEEMS as fast as my DSLR's, tho' this is a qualitative statement that I can't verify). I am more than slightly pleased (and pleasantly surprised) that the Z7 acquires initial focus as fast as it does.

Second, the predictive AF seems good, but NOT as good as on Nikon's best DSLR's. What's predictive AF? It's what your camera is doing when an object (like my dog, though he'll bite you if you call him an object) moves directly towards you (or away from you) and stays under the same focus point (the camera is actually calculating its exact position when the shutter exposes the sensor to light). So...when good old Poncho the Portie is running right at me I CAN get shots in focus (like this one of Poncho trotting at me and captured with the Z7 plus my 400mm f2.8E), but the hit rate (shots in tack sharp focus) doesn't appear as high as on my D5 (which is Nikon's best camera at this test). I say "doesn't appear" because I haven't had the chance to systematically test this so can't fully quantify it yet...but in time I will.

Third...on Focus Tracking: There's been a LOT of negative internet chatter about how Nikon has executed focus-tracking on the Z7 and on the fact that it doesn't have 3D-tracking (and I have also heard some complaints about how the Z7 doesn't have Group Area or as many Dynamic Area modes). As a wildlife photographer I almost NEVER use 3D-tracking for any form of action shooting - not with birds in flight, not with sparring grizzlies, not with any running mammals (or breaching humpback whales). While the 3D-tracking has improved a lot on recent DSLR's (its BEST execution is on the D5), in the brown-on-brown world of wildlife photography it isn't the "go-to" mode for MOST wildlife photographers when they are shooting action. Rather, they tend to use ONE of the Dynamic Area modes OR, if there's no chance of having foreground nab the wrong subject, Group Area AF. And, MOST wildlife photographers don't "bolt" their camera in one place and expect the AF system to track it all over their frame - rather, they PAN with the subject.

So...the Z7 DOES have 9-point Dynamic Area mode, and the area enclosed by the points is MUCH larger (i.e., a larger proportion of the frame) than on the D5. And...it works pretty darn well for panning on (and keep a moving subject) in focus. D5 good? Nope. But not too darned bad.

What about the missing Group Area AF modes? Well...they're not really missing - they've been re-named. On the Z7 there are two Wide Area modes where a MUCH bigger area than a single focus point acts as one BIG focus point (kinda like Group Area!). And, again kinda like Group Area, the AF system prioritizes on focusing on the closest object within the "box" that defines the focus area boundaries. And, the Wide Area S mode is smaller (compared to the size of the Group Area mode on a D850) and the Wide Area L mode is larger (again than the D850's Group Area AF). So...if you have to worry about keeping foreground out of the Wide Area bounding box you choose the S (small) option - if your subject is moving erratically choose the L (larger) option. Hmmm...just like Group Area, but with more size options!

Focus accuracy on the Z7? Seems very good in all modes...and incredibly good if you use the pinpoint mode, which is a very small focus point and is dedicated to contrast-detect AF. Where I have noticed the accuracy of that pinpoint mode the most has been when comparing the focus accuracy of wide angle zooms, like 24-70's (which always seemed a bit hit and miss with my D850 when I was focusing using the optical viewfinder).

Expect more to read more about the AF performance of the Z7 on this blog in the coming months...but at this point I can honestly say this: the AF system of the Z7 has exceeded my expectations. In most modes it is very fast, it's acceptable for panning, and - used correctly - it is deadly accurate.

8. ISO Performance

As a wildlife photographer who often works under low light I am primarily concerned about how two things vary with ISO - noise (both luminance and colour) and dynamic range. I have done systematic tests comparing the luminance and colour noise of the Z7 to that of the D850 from ISO 64 through to ISO 12,800. My finding was very simple: I could find NO difference between the Z7 and the D850 (in how luminance and colour noise varied with ISO).

What does this mean in practical terms? I'm going to set my own ISO limits on the Z7 the same as I set them on my D850 - in most situations I will want to set the limit at ISO 3200 and try to keep it as far below that as I can. And because the camera has a great VR system (see more on this below), it means I will probably shoot AVERAGE ISO's that are lower on the Z7 than on the D850 (i.e., I can risk hand-holding slower shutter speeds without blurring the shot through camera shake on the Z7 and consequently I won't have to bump the ISO up quite as much).

Dynamic Range? I have no way to accurately measure this, but based on my shooting results so far I have no reason to believe there is a significant difference in dynamic range between the Z7 and the D850 (or that how it changes with ISO is any different than the D850).

9. VR Performance

As I'm sure most know, Nikon has made a BIG departure on how they have executed VR on this camera - it's Nikon's first serious camera with in-camera (in the body!) VR. And, if you use Z-mount lenses it stabilizes the image in 5 planes (rather than the 3 of lens-based VR systems we're mostly familiar with). When you use a Z-mount lens you have 3 VR options: Off, VR Normal, and VR Sport. These modes work pretty much the same as they do on Nikon's lenses with the same 3 modes - VR Normal gives you the MOST stabilization but if you are shooting bursts the frame jumps around between in a herky-jerky fashion. VR Sport has slightly less stabilization capability, but the image is much more stable between frames in a burst.

Before I discuss the actual performance of the VR system I have to mention a few consequences of the in-body VR and how Nikon has made it work with F-mount lenses (if one has a mount adapter FTZ...as I assume most early Z7 buyers will):

• If you are using the Z7 with an F-mount lens with the same VR modes as the camera (Off, VR Normal, VR Sport) you control the VR FROM THE LENS (including choosing the VR mode you want)

• If you are using the Z7 with an F-mount lens with DIFFERENT VR modes than the camera (e.g., Off, VR Normal, VR Active) you end up with TWO usable VR modes - Off and Normal (you don't get Sport mode)

• If you are using the Z7 with an F-mount lens with NO VR (including 3rd partly lenses like Sigma) you control the VR from the camera AND you get all 3 of its modes - Off, VR Normal, and VR Sport. And YES - this means that a Z7 imparts VR capability on your "system" even if you are using a lens that has NO image stabilization (and I am just LOVING this and using some "normally left at home" lenses a LOT more now).

When you're in the field this implementation of the VR system makes perfect sense (nicely done Nikon).

So...how well does the VR system work? Time for a few more bullet points...

• The MOST striking thing when using Z-mount lenses is amazing performance at super-slow shutter speeds. I am able to get extremely sharp shots (and I'm an anal pixel-peeper) down to shots BELOW one tenth (0.1s) while hand-holding the 24-70mm f4s. As an example, check out this shot of a mountain stream captured hand-held with a shutter speed of one-quarter of a second (0.25s) - with no form of support whatsoever...no leaning on anything...no wedging of the camera against a rock or tree...just standing upright holding the camera in my hands. This shot was captured with the Z-mount 24-70mm f4s at 32mm. And note that I did NOT have to shoot a zillion shots of this scene (at this shutter speed) to get a single sharp shot - I shot 10 frames of this scene and 7 of them were as sharp as the image linked here.

• What about F-mount lenses with VR systems - is the VR any BETTER with the Z7 than with a DSLR of the same resolution (like a D850)? I THINK so. Late last week I was in a scenario where I was shooting raven portraits with the Z7 and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E at its longest focal length with the TC engaged (560mm). I shot around 200 frames of the raven under low-light conditions and all were shot hand-held at either 1/200s or 1/250s (this 560mm shot hand-held at 1/200s). And almost ALL of them were tack sharp. I didn't get the chance to repeat the exercise with my D850, but in the past I have found myself on thin ice getting ANY tack sharp shots if I shoot the 180-400mm at 560mm and 1/200s. This is anecdotal information at best...but my gut is telling me you DO get better VR performance out of a VR lens if it's on the Z7. I will follow up on this in future testing of the camera.

• What about F-mount lenses WITHOUT VR's? To date I've only shot TWO of them - the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art (a remarkably sharp lens with wonderful bokeh) and the Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art (another very sharp lens). The results have been very good. Check out this shot - it's a 1:1 crop from the central region of a hand-held shot captured at 0.1s using the Sigma 85mm 1.4 Art (attached to the Z7 with the mount adapter FTZ).

Bottom line: I definitely have to do more VR testing, but at this point Nikon seems to have done a remarkable job at their first real crack at in-body image stabilization. And I love the increased opportunities to capture slow shutter speed shots with the Z7 (that I couldn't capture with my D850) when on hikes or even photo tours where I might not have access to a tripod. Yes!!!!

10. Frame Rate and Burst Depth

As most anyone who can read specs knows, there are TWO "fastest" frame rates on the Z7 when shooting in continuous mode - Continuous High (5.5 fps) and Continuous High Extended (9 fps). What's the difference? Continuous High (5.5 fps) utilizes the mechanical shutter and Continuous High Extended (9 fps) utilizes the electronic shutter. You DO get AF with both modes (but AE is fixed on the first frame when in Continuous High Extended mode).

Are there consequences of which of the two Continuous High Speed modes you're in when shooting action...like...say...panning on a bird in flight? ABSOLUTELY. When shooting in Continuous High (at 5.5 fps) the appearance of the subject through the viewfinder is like a DSLR, including with blackout time. And, that blackout time IS longer than you'd get with Nikon's top DSLR's (and that blackout time appears very pronounced if you are comparing it to a D5 where blackout time is almost unnoticeable).

Shift to Continuous High Speed Extended mode and the image blackout is gone! But...something worse happens (if you are trying to pan on a moving object) - through the viewfinder you see a "herky-jerky" freeze-frame sequence that looks almost like the flickering of an ancient movie. And it makes panning on your subject very challenging (if I'm being generous).

Others may find the Continuous High Speed Extended mode just fine for panning on moving subjects, but I don't. For me the highest FUNCTIONAL frame rate for photographing the type of action I most commonly encounter when photographing wildlife is 5.5 fps (so a little slower than the 7 fps of a D850).

But that doesn't make the Z7's Continuous High Extended mode "useless". If you're in a scenario where you are shooting action and you are NOT panning (say two grizzlies going toe-to-toe sparring) it will work just fine - and capture images at a higher rate than a D850!

What about burst depth? During my own testing shooting 14-bit compressed raw files I am consistently getting around 30 frames (using Continuous High at 5.5 fps and a Sony G-Series 440 MB/s XQD card) before the camera slows down to a crawl. That number jumps up to an average of 35 frames if I shoot 12-bit compressed raw files. If I go over to Continuous High Extended mode (9 fps) the burst depth falls to 18 frames with 14-bit compressed raws and 22 frames with 12-bit compressed raws.

So this burst depth is a little lower than on a D850 and WAY lower than on the lower resolution D5 or D500 (200 frames before the camera abruptly stops, but is ready to shot another 200 virtually instantly).

11. So...How 'bout ACTION SHOOTING?

The suitability of a camera for successful action shooting is dependent on several things - AF capability, frame rate, burst depth, and now with mirrorless cameras, viewfinder "behavior". If you compare a Z7 to a D5 for action shooting (or even a D500) there is simply no comparison - the Z7 doesn't come close. But...if you compare the Z7 to a D850 (a camera with the same resolution) the comparison is fairer - and the cameras' performance is far more similar (in terms of hit rates when action shooting). Yes, the D850 is still a little better at action shooting, but the gap in performance in action shooting capability between a Z7 and a D850 is FAR smaller than the gap between a Z7 (or D850) and a D5. Yes, you will be able to capture great high-resolution shots of a bird in flight with a Z7. And, capture things like sparring grizzlies at a higher frame rate than a D850. So...for MOST action shooting you will likely experience a slightly lower success rate than on a D850 (and WAY lower than on a D5) but it's wrong to think of a Z7 as completely unsuitable for action shooting...

12. So...How 'bout for WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY?

It appears to be fashionable to declare a camera to be "not good for genre X" even before you've had that camera in your hands. I've read online comments (and seen videos) claiming how poorly the Z7 is designed for wildlife photography (and I think many of these pundits equate shooting birds-in-flight with ALL wildlife photography, which is plain wrong!). I'm going to reserve judgment a little longer and I've had a little more opportunity to use it for wildlife shooting. I'm quite confident it won't replace my D5 as my "go-to" wildlife camera. But...after carefully reviewing my favourite wildlife photos that I have captured with the Nikon D850, I haven't actually found a single one that I couldn't have captured with the Z7. I can't say the same about my favourite D5 shots. So stay tuned on more on this topic in the coming months...

13. And That Pesky SINGLE Card Slot "Issue"?

Yep, no matter how much time you spend looking for a second card slot you won't find it (I've looked EVERYWHERE). I get how those who photograph weddings or other "crucial" events - and are used to using less reliable storage media than XQD cards (like SD cards) - think NOT having a second card slot (for backup) is a deal-breaker. And, I understand how those who like to segregate format types by slot (e.g., raw in card slot 1, JPEG in card slot 2) are disappointed that the Z7 won't do this. But I have always used my 2nd card slot as an overflow (and my experience is that this is how MOST wildlife shooters work) and I have never had an XQD card fail - so I am completely unconcerned that the Z7 has only one card slot. I saw a recent interview of a Nikon executive from Europe and he called it like it was - the decision of having a second card slot came down to this: have one card slot and have a smaller camera or have two card slots and have a larger camera. Personally, I have enough big cameras - I'll go for the "one card slot and smaller camera" option.

My final "after 3 weeks" comment about the Z7? Well...it ain't perfect, but it works pretty darned well for me.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Z7_3weeks

15 October 2018: Now Appearing...Z7 Images!

Last Friday I decided to keep out of my office ALL day and go for a drive with my Z7. And...Z7 images from that drive are NOW appearing in my Gallery of Latest Additions. And more Z7 images to follow soon...

New visitors to this website may not realize that each image (in each of my many galleries) is accompanied by absolute oodles of contextual information and metadata. To access the information all you have to do is to click on the tabs BELOW the image - that's those "In the Field" and "Behind the Camera", etc. tabs!

ENJOY!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

15 October 2018: Podcast on New Nikon Products Now Available...

The Photographing the West podcast - featuring yours truly chatting about Nikon's newest products - is now available online. And, I'm quite sure you'll find my stream of consciousness yakking to be WAY MORE lucid than Kanye's! ;-)

You can find the podcast on iTunes and SoundCloud as "Photographing the West" - or just point your browser at: www.photographingthewest.net

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

09 October 2018: Guest Appearance - Photographing the West Podcast

I'm about to make a quest appearance on the "Photographing the West" podcast. This podcast is hosted by Kirby Flanagan and it will be available for your listening pleasure beginning October 15 @ 12:30 AM PDT.

The topics? Yep, you guessed it - we'll be chatting about the Nikon Z7 mirrorless camera, the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E zoom lens, and - of course - the Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF.

You can find the podcast on iTunes and SoundCloud as "Photographing the West" - or just point your browser at: www.photographingthewest.net

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

09 October 2018: Why So Quiet?

I've received quite a few emails over the last few days asking why I've been so quiet (and not posting blog entries since late September). Simple reason: I've been spending a lot of time fully sussing out my Z7 in a variety of situations and with a whole lot of lenses. I'm about 5,000 images into shooting with it.

For now all I'm going to say is I quite like the camera and I'm already quite confident it will earn itself a permanent spot in my kit.

I'll have a lot more to say about the Z7 in a few days...

And now I'm going back to shooting and testing the camera (and spending a LOT of time pouring over the results).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

26 Sept 2018: My Z7 En Route!

I received word yesterday that my Z7 kit (complete with a 24-70mm f4S lens and an FTZ Mount Adapter) will be in my hands in just a few days. As I've expressed in previous entries, I'm excited about trying out Nikon's first serious venture into the full-frame mirrorless world.

I haven't decided yet if I'm going to do a full review of the camera, but I will definitely posting a number of commentaries about my experiences with it - and as surprising as this may be, some of those will probably be fairly detailed! ;-)

What about the 500mm f5.6 PF? Man, am I ever getting a pile of email about this one - and most emails are expressing hope that I will be reviewing the lens. So...

• Yes, I am getting a 500mm f4E PF and YES I will be doing a full review of that lens. But...

• It appears that Nikon's production schedule for this lens doesn't match demand for the lens too well. In Canada the "scuttlebutt" (2nd hand and I can't vouch for its accuracy) is that only ONE 500mm f5.6E PF will be shipped into the country in 2018. IF that's true, you can probably bet that lens won't go to me - as unbelievable as that seems! ;-)

Note that Nikon Canada does have a Priority Purchase Plan for NPS members for the 500mm f5.6E PF and I AM on that list. So as soon as I can lay my hands on a 500 PF I will begin testing it. But no promises when that will be...your guess really is as good as mine!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

26 Sept 2018: Back from the Great Bear!

Well...I'm back from the Great Bear Rainforest and leading the 2018 version of the "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" Exploratory Photo Adventure. Most who have travelled to the Great Bear on British Columbia's northern coast will think "Oh, oh, you got rained out, eh?" if you say you had a "tougher" trip than normal (yeah, yeah, I know I quoted how a Canadian would say it, but you get the picture). Well...we had virtually NO rain and - to our delight - virtually no "blazing sun" days. In fact, it was probably the best overall lighting for wildlife photography I've ever seen in the Great Bear. But...virtually the whole BC coast has experienced the double whammy of an AMAZING bumper crop of berries AND a very spotty and poor pink salmon run. This means that the salmon streams haven't turned into the "bear magnets" they normally are - and while the bears are doing just fine, they're widely distributed and not concentrated along streams.

So...how did the trip turn out? Well...we had some incredible and unforgettable encounters with Humpback Whales. And, we toughed it out through some slower "bear days" early in the trip. BUT...things picked up DRAMATICALLY when we got ourselves onto ONE salmon stream that was chock-full of fish, and we were provided with some GREAT photo ops of fishing black bears (both black-coloured ones and the rare white Spirit Bear colour variant). In the end, there were a lot of smiles on the faces of all!

Images from the trip are now filtering into my Gallery of Latest Additions - check 'em out if you have a second. And here's a bit of a teaser of a "kinda cool" Spirit Bear shot I nabbed (you can read a full description about how the image was captured in that same "Latest Additions" Gallery):

The Pounce: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.62 MB)

More images from both this past trip and my Marine Mammals Exploratory Photo Adventure will be showing up in my Latest Additions Gallery in the coming days and weeks...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

11 Sept 2018: Off to Lead the Into the Great Bear Rainforest Exploratory Photo Adventure

I leave at the crack of dawn tomorrow to lead the first of two "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" Photo Tours for 2018. This one is categorized as an Exploratory Photo Adventure and we'll be having some good fun exploring inlets in the Great Bear that we've never visited before in search of Spirit Bears, coastal Gray Wolves, Grizzlies, and more! More details about the trip can be found here...

I'll be returning on or about September 23. At that time I will resume posting entries on the results of my testing of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E zoom lens. Of course, I will be taking the 180-400mm with me and should return with lots of new sample images captured during this trip. With luck I'll be returning home from this trip to a new piece of gear (the Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF ED VR) and with a shiny new Z7 following shortly thereafter.

Note that enquiries about the 2019 Kluane-Haines Explorer (a new photo tour we just opened up for registration yesterday) will be dealt with on a first-received, first-served basis when I return. More info about that photo tour right here...

In my absence - here's wishing you good light and good luck with your own photography!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

10 Sept 2018: Just ADDED: A 2019 Photo Tour With Available Spots!

In response to a complaint I hear all the time ("Your photo tours fill up WAY too far in advance and I always miss out...") I just added a new photo tour to our 2019 schedule.

The new trip? The Kluane-Haines Explorer 2019! Here's a quick description of the new addition for 2019...

OVERVIEW: This exciting Exploratory Photo Adventure begins and ends in Whitehorse - way up in Canada's Yukon Territory. We'll spend 8 full days exploring the region between Whitehorse and Haines, Alaska searching for great photo opps of northern wildlife and landscapes. We'll start (and spend 3.5 days) in the Yukon's Kluane National Park photographing the fall rut of beautiful white Dall Sheep. And, of course, we'll opportunistically photograph other northern species of wildlife that frequent the area, including Canada Lynx, Grey Wolves, Red Foxes, Elk, Golden Eagles, and more! This portion of the trip offers spectacular landscape photography opportunities as well - possibly including opportunities to photography the northern lights (the Aurora Borealis)!

We'll then travel to Haines, Alaska to photograph the spectacle presented by the world's largest congregation of Bald Eagles. We will, of course, have ample opportunity to capture striking flight shots, including "flight-action" shots as eagles compete for their prey. But this area also offers opportunities to capture majestic "eagle-scape" shots, with backdrops second to none!

This trip is the most physically demanding of all our photo tours, so make sure you check out the physical requirements for this trip (REAL world wildlife photography!). You find this info, plus ALL the other critical details, right here:

The Kluane-Haines Explorer 2019 (all the critical details!)

Want more info? Just contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

09 Sept 2018: Hey Canon - GOOD IDEA!

Lke Nikon, Canon has just announced their new full-frame entry into the mirrorless market - the EOS R. Like Nikon, Canon realized that a big part of getting immediate sales and "converts" to their system was to offer a mount adapter so Canon EF and EF-S lenses could be used on their mirrorless body. But on the mount adapter front Canon scooped Nikon by offering multiple adapters. One of their adapters is called the "Drop-in Filter Mount Adapter EF-EOS R" and I bet you'll never guess what it does. Oh...good guess - it includes drop-in filter capability for use with circular polarizing filters or variable ND filters! OK...think about that - wouldn't it be incredibly nice to have ONE circular polarizer or ONE variable ND filter that fits ALL your lenses! Good idea Canon.

Take note Nikon (please). And if there's internal resistance at head office to "copying" Canon, just think how many drop-in CPL's and drop-in variable ND's you'd be able to sell (stolen market share from B+W and others!) if you followed suit and independently came up with the cleverly named Mount Adapter FTZ with Drop-in Filter Holder! Heck, you'd even sell a whole lot more mount adapters (I'm sure a LOT of shooters would end up owning the standard mount adapter PLUS the drop-in filter mount adapter).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

08 Sept 2018: Why I've Ordered the Nikon Z7 (and NOT the Z6)

NOTE: Minor revisions to this entry were made on 09 September.

In my last blog entry I outlined why I was cautiously excited and optimistic about the new Z Series mirrorless camera system recently announced by Nikon. In this blog entry I'm going to try to explain why I have ordered the 45.7 MP Z7 rather than the considerably less expensive, lower resolution, faster, and presumably the new mirrorless with better ISO performance - the Z6. Along the way I'm going to tell it exactly as I see it - from my perspective as a nature photographer.

In understanding why I have chosen to go with the Z7 (rather than the Z6) it's probably important to note that beyond being "just" a nature photographer, I'm one who primarily specializes in wildlife photography on British Columbia's wild and dark coast. This means that a disproportionately large amount of my own shooting is in low-light conditions and often hand-held from a Zodiac inflatable boat. A large proportion of my wildlife photography is of animals in action...including animals in action in low light. The key point here is that my camera needs for MY wildlife shooting probably differ a lot from someone who shoots sleeping lions in bright African sun! Stick with me...you'll see where I'm going with this in a few more sentences! ;-)

As a final background note - I do enjoy landscape photography, but at this point I'm an opportunistic (and spontaneous) landscape shooter. Given the opportunity I will meticulously set up a landscape shot (using a firm tripod, cable release, electronic shutter, etc.), but my reality is that those opportunities are few and far between and I often have to hand-hold my landscape shots. A camera facilitating spontaneous hand-held shooting (with - hint - perhaps an excellent 5-stop VR system with ALL lenses I might use it with) just might have some value for me.

An important part of understanding my interest in the Z7 is related to how I perceive and use Nikon's other 45.7 MP camera - the D850. Very long story short, the D850 doesn't work too well for me as a wildlife camera. Why? Partly because of the region and conditions under which I do the bulk of my wildlife photography and partly because I own a different camera far better suited to my style of wildlife shooting - the Nikon D5. Don't get me wrong - I think the D850 is a great camera. But the D5 has many attributes that makes it a MUCH better wildlife camera for me than the D850 - and those would be better ISO performance, better dynamic range in the ISO region I mostly live in (above ISO 640), a faster frame rate, MUCH better burst depth, better AF performance, a superior mirror-driving mechanism (which leads to shorter blackout times and better between-frame image stability when shooting bursts) and more. Anyone interested in a much more detailed comparison of the effectiveness of Nikon's latest models as wildlife cameras should read my 27 March 2018 blog entry entitled "The BEST Nikon DSLR for Wildlife Photography?").

So...what do I use my D850 for? Mainly three things - opportunistic landscape shooting, animalscape shooting, and a lot of lens testing! The common denominator here is that I DON'T use it much at all for action shooting or "wildlife in action" shooting. My D5 is a much better tool for any form of action shooting than is my D850. Oh...and if anyone wants to know exactly what I mean by animalscape shooting there are two places you can go (on this website - and neither are located in Hades!) - either here for a written description, or to my Animalscapes Gallery for some sample animalscape shots (for the visually inclined!).

Now - the bottom line - and please read this carefully: It's my opinion that the Z7 will come closer to matching the D850 for what I use that camera for than the Z6 will come to the D5 for what I use THAT camera for. And, most importantly, I think it is likely that the Z7 will beat (or offer additional features beyond) the D850 in a few areas that are important to me. These areas include in the absolute accuracy of autofocus on stationary or near-stationary subjects (landscapes and animalscapes), the addition of VR to some key non-VR lenses I like (including the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art, the Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art, and more), improved "automated" capture of images for focus-stacking, a wider area of AF coverage, and more. Central to my argument is that I think it's completely reasonable to assume that the image QUALITY of the 45.7 MP images coming out Z7 will match the quality of the images coming out of the D850 (so in sharpness, dynamic range, ISO performance, etc.).

The clever reader (so everyone reading this) will instantly realize there are a lot of consequences and/or assumptions (and preconceptions) behind the statement immediately above. Yep, guilty as charged. And those preconceptions include:

1. That I don't think the first generation Nikon Z Series cameras will match the D5 as wildlife cameras.

Yep, no surprise there. And this first generation of Z's won't fully match the D850 or the D500 as wildlife cameras either. But this doesn't disappoint me at all. The current top Nikon DSLR's are the result of decades of development. If the version 1.0's of the Z's matched Nikon's best DSLR's in the demanding field of wildlife photography it wouldn't say much about those DSLR's! And most importantly - the new Z's will have some different and unique attributes that NO DSLR has (How good are you at guessing the DoF of a zoom lens used on your DSLR at EACH focal length it offers? Oh...you can SEE that on the EVF of a Z7? Hey, that's pretty cool!).

But what are the specific "deficiencies" that I expect to see in the Z7 that will prevent it from being my preferred camera for wildlife? Pretty much the same ones that prevent my D850 from being my go-to wildlife camera (and it's likely that with a few of them the deficiency will be greater than with my D850). Relative to my current #1 wildlife camera for wildlife photography (yep, the D5) these will - or are likely to - include reduced frame rates, reduced burst sizes, increased viewfinder black out times, decreased focus-tracking ability, and decreased ISO performance.

Based on email I've received - and a certain video I've seen online - there seem to be some who are disappointed that the first Z's can't match the world's best DSLR's as wildlife cameras. Uhhhh...what did you expect with Version 1.0? Some might argue the Sony A9 can compete with a Nikon D5 as a wildlife camera (I'd argue otherwise, but that's another story), but it seems to me that expecting the first Z's to be top-notch wildlife cameras is unrealistic. Obviously it will be POSSIBLE to grab a great bird-in-flight shot with a Nikon Z7 or Z6, but your hit rate on capturing any form of high-speed action won't be anywhere close to that of Nikon's top DSLR's.

If anyone is interested in unfettered speculation, my best guess is that discerning and demanding wildlife photographers will opt for at least one more generation of DSLR's before going to mirrorless for their "go-to" wildlife camera. I think I will be be buying a D6 as my NEXT preferred wildlife camera (just think - D5 AF and ISO performance with a 30 MP sensor!). But a D7 (if we even see it)? Maybe not...

2. That I think the Z7 will be a highly capable landscape and animalscape camera.

Yep, I definitely believe that. And, moreover, I think it will be a really good all-rounder too! I also think the Z6 will be a good "all-rounder" (and likely offer great ISO performance with pretty decent speed), but anyone thinking that it can compete with a D5 for action or wildlife shooting is bound to be disappointed.

3. That I think that at product launch the Nikon Z's will be GREAT (and highly useful) complements to Nikon DSLR's for serious enthusiast and professional shooters.

Yep. In fact, I think the Z7 will complement my D5 and D500 so well that I may be able to sell my D850 without losing a step (and I'll even gaining a step in some ways). And this is in no way a criticism of my D850 - I think it's an amazing 45.7 DSLR.

Anyway...back to the point of this entry - why I have ordered a Z7 and not a Z6. And it's simply because I think in a few ways the Z7 will be more useful for me than my D850 (i.e., has the potential to replace my D850). But, given I own both a D5 and D500, I can't begin to imagine what advantage or "edge" a Z6 would give to this wildlife photographer. And, compared to my D5 and even my D500, I'm quite confident that the Z6 would fall short in some key performance parameters that are critical to me in my wildlife work, including AF performance, realized frame rate, burst size, blackout time, yada, yada, yada! So...ME buying a Z6 would be akin to burning money and make ZERO sense...

All-in-all...it's a good and highly interesting time to be a Nikon-shooting wildlife photographer. The Z Series introduction won't instantly shake up our world, but that shake-up is coming and it's just around the corner. I'm choosing to embrace and move forward with the mirrorless revolution. Along the way I plan to enjoy learning something new with it, and just have some good ol' fun with it. I am genuinely excited about starting shooting with my Z7 and having it open up my "photographic thinking".

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#WhyZ7

07 Sept 2018: Cautious Excitement About Nikon's New Z Series System

By now most visitors to this website know that Nikon (and Canon) are about to seriously step into the mirrorless camera market. I won't get into the specs of Nikon's new Z Series cameras and lenses here - anyone wanting that information can go to dpreview.com, nikonrumors.com, or even their favourite Nikon website (like nikon.ca). I'm going to limit this blog entry to why I'm personally excited - but cautiously excited - about Nikon's new mirrorless system. A subsequent blog entry will explain my rationale and reasoning for ordering the 45.7 MP Z7 (with a 24-70mm f4S lens) rather than the 24.5 MP Z6.

CONTEXT:

Keep in mind this commentary is written by a nature photographer who primarily specializes in wildlife photography on British Columbia's wild - and often dark - coast. This means that a disproportionately large amount of my own shooting is in low-light conditions and often hand-held from a Zodiac inflatable boat (there aren't many roads leading into the Great Bear Rainforest or to the coastal islands I work and play on). I enjoy landscape photography, but at this point I'm an opportunistic (and spontaneous) landscape shooter. Given the opportunity I will meticulously set up a landscape shot (using a firm tripod, cable release, electronic shutter, etc.), but my reality is that those opportunities are few and far between and I often have to hand-hold my landscape shots.

What about my previous mirrorless experiences? Some may be surprised to find out that I've owned 5 mirrorless cameras, including offerings from Olympus, Panasonic, and Nikon 1's (both a V1 and V2). To date - and relative to my Nikon DSLR's - I have found them awkward, slow, too small for my medium-sized hands, and pretty much in the way of the image-capturing process. I have NOT owned (or extensively used) any of the more recent "high end" mirrorless from Sony (such as an A7 MkIII or an A9) - so my comments in the previous sentence don't necessarily apply to them.

Finally, I have a considerable investment in F-mount lenses and love many of them. And...not all of them have VR.

WHY I'M EXCITED

So...as long as image quality isn't compromised, who wouldn't want a smaller and lighter camera body? I think at the most basic level this is the key appeal of a mirrorless system. Of course, other features most commonly found on mirrorless systems have appeal as well - things like a silent, vibration-free electronic shutter (yep, you CAN find this on a D850 as well), exceptionally high frame rates, and more. But why should a Nikon-shooting nature photographer like me be excited about Nikon's first serious entry into the mirrorless market? Here's a few things - starting with the most important - that interest and excite me...

1. Nikon Ergonomics:

I mentioned above that I found all previous mirrorless systems I have used more or less got in the way of the image capture process. A big part of this is simply ergonomics and having a "different" layout than the Nikon DSLR's my hands know so well. By all accounts - and after discounting the hype - it appears that the size and layout of the key operating controls of the Z Series bodies largely mimics that of their DSLR's. My reality is that for the foreseeable future (3 years? 4 years?) I will still be shooting a DSLR for a large (but possibly changing) proportion of my work, and the ease of going back and forth between mirrorless and DSLR - without having to actively think about where the controls are - is an absolutely HUGE concern for me. Sure...one Sony model or another may have a feature or two I prefer over the Z7, but for me this is absolutely dwarfed in comparison to having a mirrorless camera that my fingers alone can control as well as they can control my Nikon DSLR (i.e., with almost no active involvement of my brain!).

2. The Mount Adapter FTZ:

This one is a no-brainer: I have a HUGE investment in F-mount lenses and I want to be able to use many (if not all) of them on any new camera I acquire. And with the Mount Adapter FTZ all the lenses in my own collection should work seamlessly with the Z7. In fact, I currently have a 500mm f5.6 PF on order - and if there wasn't a way to use this lens with the Z Series bodies I may not have ordered it (I have a feeling that it won't be long before you start seeing a lot of traveling wildlife photographers with a Z6 or Z7 in their hands with either a 300mm PF or a 500mm PF attached to them).

3. VR on my Non-VR Lenses!

I have a few lenses that I really like but use less than I would if they had VR on them. These lenses include my Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art (my sharpest lens, period!), my Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art, and even my Nikkor 200mm f4 Micro (Note: At this time I am assuming that Sigma F-mount lenses will be fully compatible with the Z Series cameras via the mount adapter FTZ). When you use a non-VR F-mount lens on a Z Series mirrorless camera you gain the benefit of the in-body VR and your non-VR lens instantly has up to 5-stops of 3-axis image stabilization. In my books this is really cool and really useful. And, it's something above and beyond what I can get on ANY of my Nikon DSLR's (that IS the ultimate question, isn't it - what true performance advantage do you get with a mirrorless camera that you CAN'T get with a DSLR?). Got a sharp F-mount lens that has become a paperweight largely because it doesn't have VR? Well...it just might be time to dust it off!

4. The Promise of the Z-mount?

OK...I've read and watched everything about the "potential" of the large mount diameter and short flange focal distance of the new Z-mount lenses that I can lay my hands on. And, it's all claiming that the new mount design gives optical engineers new and relaxed design contraints and will lead to more light transmission (= faster lenses) and more. But, at this point virtually all the readily-available information is from Nikon or Nikon-sponsored sources - so it's challenging to separate the marketing hype and spin from objective facts. But, the claimed benefits of the Z-mount seem logical and, interestingly, Canon is doing the exact same things - and making the same claims (is that an indication of collusion or just good industrial espionage?). But maybe...just maybe...some of the new Z-mount lenses WILL offer better optics (such as better corner sharpness?) than the F-mount lenses. And that thought IS quite exciting, especially as sensor resolution rises...

5. USB-Rechargeable Batteries!

For many the fact that you can recharge the new EN-EL15B batteries simply via a USB cable (without need for a charging station) may seem like no big deal. But for a traveling photographer (and especially one that flies under increasingly strict luggage limits) this is great news. Especially if one is looking to combine a Z Series body with one like the D5 that takes different battery types and requires a different charger. This is cool.

WHY MY EXCITEMENT IS CAUTIOUS

I mentioned above that I'm cautiously excited about the Z Series System. Why the caution? Simple - because of my previous quite negative experiences with mirrorless systems. Here are my primary concerns with the Z Series cameras - and they're things that Nikon may or may not have "fixed" to my satisfaction.

1. The Electronic Viewfinder (EVF)

OK...upfront admission of a bias that may lack logic - but to date I absolutely hate the EVF's I have used (but please note that I have NOT tried the latest Sony EVF's which are reportedly very good). I like a bright optical viewfinder. I go to some amazing places, and to view them through what looks like a decades old TV screen is beyond unappealing to me. I fully understand the advantages of an EVF (including showing you exactly what the sensor "sees" - like your DoF - and all sorts of additional handy info), but having a crappy view of the scene overrides these advantages for me. I have already heard very good things about the Z Series EVF's - and I know developing an EVF that would please picky DSLR owners was a design priority for Nikon's mirrorless cameras. I truly hope Nikon has taken EVF's to a new level and I like what I see through the viewfinder. But I'm still concerned about this...

2. Autofocus Performance

I have an honestly developed bias here - I'm used to the stunning autofocus performance of the Nikon D5. So anything less - which for me includes the AF performance of the D500 and D850 - feels somehow "inferior". But if I do two things - think about my own experiences with mirrorless autofocus systems AND listen to the feedback of others - I hear three recurring themes about other mirrorless AF systems: very good accuracy, relatively slow initial acquisition of focus, and relatively poor tracking ability. But, if any camera company "gets" autofocus (and knows how to make it work almost seamlessly), it's Nikon.

So what's my expectation (educated guess?) about the autofocus performance of the first Z Series cameras? LIKELY the best in the mirrorless world (sorry Sony, but just telling it like I think it will be!). LIKELY good enough for an awful lot of uses and/or users. How about in comparison to DSLR's? LIKELY better than many - and possibly "almost as good" as some of the better ones (like the D500 and D850). But I would be shocked if it was even close to the performance of the D5. And for a wildlife photographer that pushes a D5 to the limit, the Z6 or Z7 AF system may just not quite cut it.

At this point I find it hard to make too many definitive statements about the feature set of the Z Series cameras based solely on the "spotty" specs we have. For example, a quick perusal of the Z Series camera specs shows that there is no "Group Area" AF mode - instead we see Wide-area AF (S and L, which is presumably Small and Large) with no detailed information (at least that I have been able to find) in terms of how those modes actually work. Are the Wide-area AF modes simply "re-named" Group Area modes? And, it appears there is only ONE Dynamic-area AF - which of the many Dynamic-area AF modes found on the newest Nikon DSLR's do they most directly compare to? We simply don't know yet.

And here's a point I will go into in more detail in my coming post on why I chose the Z7 over the Z6 - I DO expect to see excellent AF accuracy on the Z Series cameras. In fact, it would not surprise me to see (and I am actually counting on) the AF accuracy of the 45.7 MP Z7 exceeding that of the phase detect AF system of the 45.7 MP D850 (but not necessarily of the contrast detect AF system of the D850 when you shoot it in Live View mode).

Last but not least - and this is speculative until I can find more technical information on the Z Series hybrid AF system - I think it is likely that the Z Series cameras will mark the end of the need to perform AF tuning. I truly hope this is the case (I view AF tuning as an almost painful task I would LOVE to be able to forget about).

3. Battery Life?

While I am getting mixed signals on this one (I see a rating of 330 shots per charge on Nikon's website and videos online showing between 1000-2000 shots per charge), it's likely that the per-charge battery life of the Z Series cameras will allow for far fewer shots than on the EN-EL18's I use on my D5, D500, and D850 (the latter two via use of a battery grip). If Nikon's published rating of 330 shots per charge is close to accurate it would be a big negative for me. If the "rating" on the video I saw online (by good 'ol @nikonricci) suggesting a battery life of about 1000-2000 shots (depending on camera settings) battery life could be a total non-issue. This one will have to wait until I get a Z7 in my hands and start shooting with it.

4. Burst Depth?

And...this is another one I'll just have to wait to test before saying too much about. But, at least for my wildlife shooting, burst depth does matter to me - any camera with less than about 40 frames per burst (at the highest frame rate) more or less disqualifies itself from being my primary wildlife camera.

For obvious reasons (different file sizes and data flow rate limitations) I'm sure the burst depth of the Z6 will exceed that of the Z7. I have no a priori reason to believe that they will differ greatly from Nikon's DSLR's of comparable resolution (so I expect the Z7 will be similar to the D850). But we'll see...

All in all? I'm just really looking forward to getting my Z7 and trying it out. Who knows - I may even keep it! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Z7_cautiousexcitement

05 Sept 2018: Marine Mammals Exploratory Photo Adventure - A Postscript!

Our first ever Marine Mammals Exploratory Photo Adventure (AKA our "Slimy Mammals" Photo Tour!) is now in the rear-view mirror. And I have to say it was a great success and a good time was had by all (including me!). On the "standard" version of our Marine Mammals photo tour we focus on the many species of marine mammals found in the northern Vancouver Island region, which means Humpback Whales, Killer Whales, Steller Sea Lions, Sea Otters, Harbour Seals, and a whole lot more ("more" can include coastal gray wolves, Pacific White-sided Dolphins, both Minke and Fin Whales, oodles of seabirds, and the list goes on...).

On this special exploratory version of this trip we started (and spent four days) in the northern Vancouver region and then headed north to explore some very remote outer coast islands before ending the small First Nations community of Bella Bella, BC. We ended up being extremely fortunate and had reasonably calm seas, which permitted us to get to and spend time exploring (and doing extensive Zodiac excursions and some great beach-combing) of the beautiful - but almost always inaccessible - Goose Group of Islands. This is one of the few areas on BC's mainland coast where sea otters are thriving and where coastal gray wolves live with little human interference in their lives...

All of our photo tours visit places best described as WAY off the beaten path and with animals that are completely free to roam where they choose. So on ANY given trip we don't know ahead of time which of the wildlife actors will steal the show. This is particularly true on our Marine Mammals Photo Tours - the reality is that almost all the species we work with on these trips have tails (or flippers!) and a REALLY big ocean to disappear into. During this year's Marine Mammals photo tour the numbers and sightings of (and photo ops for) Humpbacks and Killer Whales were lower than in some previous trips. BUT, Steller Sea Lion and Sea Otter numbers seemed to have skyrocketed (as did our photo ops of them, including witnessing the rare and elusive "Surfing Sea Lions"). But if I had to pick a single "show stealer" it would definitely be the Pacific White-side Dolphins! Not only did we watch (and photograph) them harassing Orcas and Humpbacks, but a super pod of them decided to mob our sailboat and we were treated to lengthy bouts of bow-riding and the spectacle of multiple "layers" of them cruising in the clear waters along the side of our boat. So cool.

"So...Brad...any comments on how the various camera gear bits "panned out" on this trip?"

Yep. For context, this trip ended with a mandatory flight on a small jet with strict limits on luggage. So...I took the smallest "complete" wildlife photography kit that I thought would do the job. That meant I took my D5, D850, and D500 bodies and only three lenses (all zoom lenses) - the Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 DG Art, the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E VR, and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E VR. Key accessories that accompanied me included AquaTech RRSC Sport Shield Rain Covers (a size medium for any body with the 70-200mm mounted and a size large for any body with the 180-400mm mounted) and the appropriate circular polarizing filters (CPL's) for each lens. I'm happy to report that almost all the gear I took on the trip returned with me - the exception is one CPL filter that is now residing at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean (the exact location of which is known only to a few sea lions, and they're not talking).

As an aside (and before anyone asks) - yes, this means I left my Nikkor 400mm f2.8E at home. Which means that I have left that lens at home for two consecutive photo tours (this Marine Mammals photo tour and my May/June Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen photo tours). That may mean something...

On this trip I relied VERY heavily on two combinations of gear - my D5 paired with the 180-400mm f4E and my D850 paired with the Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 DG Art. This isn't to say I didn't use the 70-200mm f2.8E (when needed it performed extremely well with all 3 bodies), just that this trip was very much a "bimodal" trip - there was great wildlife shooting and some great landscape shooting...but without a lot "in-between" (like animalscapes). Here's a few comments on how those two heavily used gear combinations performed:

1. The D5/180-400mm f4E Combination: What more can I say? I continue to be blown away by how well this gear combination performs on the kind of wildlife photography I enjoy the most (hand-held shooting of spontaneously encountered subjects in difficult conditions). No matter what the subject matter was (from "whack-a-mole" rapidly-disappearing sea otters to unexpected eagles in flight and sea lions shot from a bucking bronco Zodiac) this combination delivered. Crazy fast and accurate autofocus, stunningly sharp shots, and a hit ratio (of sharp shots under the toughest shooting conditions imaginable) that's just off the charts. And, like I found when reviewing the images I shot in the Khutzeymateen with this great combination back in May and June, the quality of images shot with this combination - even when the teleconverter is engaged at maximum focal length - is just mind-boggling. There is now no doubt in my mind that this is my favourite - and most versatile - camera/lens combination I have ever used for wildlife photography. I WILL be keeping my copy of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E - just don't ask me quite yet exactly what I will be selling to "make room" for it.

One final comment about this gear combination: This Marine Mammals trip puts tremendous "pressure" on the autofocus performance of your gear - the orcas, humpbacks, sea lions, sea otters, eagles and more often give you only tenths of a second to acquire focus before they disappear - and you're commonly shooting from a Zodiac in rolling waters (where it can be incredibly hard to "hold" your focus on a specific subject without picking up foreground waves, etc.). I've shot virtually ever Nikon camera and telephoto lens available during this trip over the last decade and NONE performed better than the D5/180-400mm combination (and most can't hold a candle to this combination). On this trip last year I primarily shot the D5 with the Nikkor 400mm f4E and I was extremely happy with their combined performance - but I'm equally as impressed with the AF performance of the D5/180-400mm f4E combo - and it's a whole lot more versatile! If anyone is left hesitating on "pulling the trigger" on the pricey 180-400mm f4E I'll say this: Don't hold off for fear of substandard AF performance (compared to even the best primes).

2. The D850/Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 DG Combination: We had some absolutely spectacular seascapes (and beachscapes!) on this trip - and I was just tickled pink with the results I obtained shooting those with this camera/lens combination. We all know the D850 has great dynamic range and is capable of stunningly detailed images if paired with the right lens and shot with the "right" (and disciplined) technique. I have to say the lighter weight and considerably smaller size of the Sigma 24-70 (compared to the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8E VR) - along with its sharpness and effective stabilization system - really won me over as a great D850 "partner" on this trip. As I mentioned in a previous blog entry - I do have the Nikon Z7 and Nikkor 24-70mm f4S coming my way soon. It will be fascinating to see how these two 46 MP combinations (D850 plus Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 DG Art vs. Z7 plus Nikkor 24-70mm f4S) stack up against one another under demanding field conditions (yep, the smell of another comparative field test is in the air!). And I just so happen to ALSO have the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8E VR in my lens collection so the makings of a meaningful and full comparative test are certainly in place.

Images captured during this Marine Mammals Exploratory Photo Adventure are now beginning to cycle through my Gallery of Latest Additions - check 'em out when you get a chance (and don't forget a lot of contextual info is provided with each image). Anyone curious about our photo tours can check them out RIGHT HERE...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

31 August 2018: Some Really Steller Images...

I've just posted a few new steller images in my Gallery of Latest Additions. And before anyone emails me about my spelling and/or typos - they ARE STELLER images! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

29 August 2018: Back in the Saddle - For Just A Bit!

I'm back from leading my "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions & More" Marine Mammals Exploratory Photo Adventure and just getting back into the swing of things (currently trying to teach myself how to type again). The Marine Mammals trip was absolutely superb, and images from that trip should begin appearing in my Gallery of Latest Additions tomorrow or Friday. Check 'em out when you have a second...

I'm only back here for a few weeks - then I'm off to lead my "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" Exploratory Photo Adventure (info about that trip available here...).

I see that since I left back on the 14th just a few things have happened in Nikonland! Expect a few comments on the new Z Series system and on the 500mm PF in the coming days. In fact, before I leave for the Great Bear on the 12th of September I hope to have the following blog entries up:

Marine Mammals Photo Tour Postscript (including how the 180-400mm performed on this challenging trip).
The Nikon Z Series System - Some Early Thoughts (and YES I do have a Z7, 24-70mm zoom, and a FTZ Mount Adapter coming my way)
The AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR - Thoughts and Expectations (yep, one of these coming my way too...)
The Nikkor 180-400mm f4E...the Review Continues!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

14 August 2018: Off to Lead Marine Mammals Photo Tour

I leave at the crack of dawn tomorrow to lead the 2nd of our two "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions & More" Marine Mammals Photo Tours for 2018. This one is categorized as an Exploratory Photo Adventure and we'll be travelling from the northern tip of Vancouver Island over to the southern portion of the Great Bear Rainforest, with the trip terminating in Bella Bella, BC. Along the way we'll be focused on photographing the best subject matter the central Pacific Coast can conjure up, including both Humpback and Killer Whales, Steller Sea Lions, Pacific White-sided Dolphins, Sea Otters, various porpoise species, a myriad of sea birds, and lots more! More details about the trip can be found here...

I'll be returning on or about August 28. At that time I will resume posting entries on the results of my testing of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E zoom lens. Of course, I will be taking the 180-400mm with me and should return with oodles of new sample images captured during this trip.

In the interim - here's wishing you good light and good luck with your own photography!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca



Nikon 180-400mm Field Test: Optical Performance at 560mm

02 August 2018: Nikkor 180-400mm f4E Field Test IIIF: Optical Performance at 560mm

This is the ninth installment in an on-going series describing my experiences field-testing the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Previous entries covered:

• 21 May 2018: First Impressions
• 18 June 2018: Shooting the 180-400mm in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary (including 27 sample images)
• 29 June 2018: Optical Performance at 500mm
• 02 July 2018: Optical Performance at 400mm
• 05 July 2018: Commentary 1 - What's AIS?
• 09 July 2018: Optical Performance - MORE at 400mm
• 09 July 2018: Optical Performance at 200mm
• 09 July 2018: Optical Performance at 300mm

In this entry I describe my results from systematic and comparative optical field-testing of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E lens at a 560mm focal length against 3 other 560mm "options". Here's the list of lenses in this comparison:

• Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (at 400mm with built-in TC engaged)
• Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus Nikkor TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter
• Nikkor 200-400mm f4G plus TC-14EIII
• Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 @ 560mm

This is my FINAL detailed entry on optical performance of the 180-400mm at any particular focal length (thank gawd!). I am planning on two more entries that touch on optical performance in a general sense, i.e., entries on the vignetting exhibited by the Nikkor 180-400mm and on the performance of its integrated TC (including comparisons of it against the TC-14EIII). I don't anticipate these entries will be as exhaustive (or exhausting for me!) as the previous ones on optical performance at the various focal lengths.

As with all previous optical performance tests the lenses were tested over an aperture range from maximum aperture (wide open) through to f11. And, all lenses were tested at 3 distances. In this 560mm comparison the distances were 9.5 meters, 30 meters, and 1500 meters (i.e., a distant scene). The close and mid-range distances were selected to produce final images with subjects occupying very close to the same proportion of the viewfinder and/or final image as they did in all previous optical performance tests.

For both the close (9.5 meters) and mid-range (30 meters) working distances the images were examined for central region sharpness and the "quality" of the Out-of-Focus (OoF) zones (i.e., bokeh quality). The images of the distant scene (1500 meters) were captured and evaluated for both central and edge-to-edge sharpness (but not for bokeh).

Anyone wishing to skip the remaining background material and description of my methodology can jump directly to The Executive Summary of my results by following this link...

I. Critical Background!

Why the test at 180-400mm f4E at 560mm? That's easy to answer. First, it's the absolute LONGEST focal length offered by the 180-400mm f4E (if shot on an FX body) - you get there by taking the lens to its maximum native focal length (400mm) and then engaging the built-in 1.4 teleconverter (or in the reverse order!). Historically Nikon zoom lenses have tended to be at their weakest optically (= least sharp) at their longest focal length (and please note that I did NOT just say they were BAD at their longest focal length - they're just not quite as GOOD at their longest focal length). And...most serious shooters accept that ALL teleconverters degrade image quality at least SOME. So...if you take a newly-designed zoom lens to its longest focal length and THEN add an image-degrading teleconverter to it can you expect to get professional-level image quality out of it? Tons of folks want to know the answer to this question (and obviously I wanted to know too!).

Second, in my opinion the absolute GOLD STANDARD of Nikon teleconverter performance just happens to be at this focal length. I'm referring to the stellar combination of the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus the Nikkor TC-14EIII teleconverter. I have shot this combination for years (and know many, many other wildlife photographers who have too) and have found it to be absolutely excellent (both in image sharpness and in bokeh). In fact, I made the decision to sell my Nikkor 600mm f4G VR solely because of how well the 400mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII performed (at only 40mm less). IF the 180-400mm f4E at 560mm can rival the 400mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII in optical performance THAT will be something (and potentially impact the purchase decision and the "what to sell to pay for the 180-400mm" decision for me AND a lot of other people!).

In a related sense, IF the 180-400mm f4E performs well at 560mm (we already know it performs exceptionally well at virtually all focal lengths up to 500mm) then this new lens becomes even MORE versatile and - in a sense - valuable to the wildlife photographer. But, if we discover the "reverse" (i.e., if it sucks at 560mm), then I know a lot of wildlife photographers (including this one) who would likely decide to pass on buying the 180-400mm and park all that money in OTHER gear!

Many people like to read multiple reviews before buying a lens, especially an expensive lens like this one (which makes a lot of sense). Unfortunately, if you read multiple reviews about the performance of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E at 560mm you'll see some very different "stories" - including everything from "Way better than the Canon 200-400mm f4 with its teleconverter" through to "Perfectly sharp and as good as any prime" (from those completely unrestrained by objectivity - Nikon-sponsored photographers!) and "Weak, use only as a last resort" (from, no doubt, someone who paid more attention to MTF curves than what they could capture in the field!). The bottom line - I was both very skeptical of everything I had read on both sides of the "performance at 560mm" debate and I could really find no instances of a systematic and comparative approach to unravelling the mystery of how the 180-560mm performed at 560mm in the field. Thus this test...

One final introductory note: WAY back in late May and early June I took the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E into British Columbia's Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary and shot with it over 9 days. During that time I shot a LOT of images at 560mm. So...besides the "comparison shots" below, here's some additional "real world" samples of images captured at 560mm that some may find interesting or helpful:

• Grizzly Swimming with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.27 MB)
• Grizzlies Sparring with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.95 MB)
• Grizzly Portrait with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.88 MB)
• Grizzly Portrait with D500: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.21 MB)
• Grizzly Portrait with D850: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.02 MB)
• Crow with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.21 MB)
• Distant Eagle with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.91 MB)
• Seal with D850: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.44 MB)
• Mew Gull in Flight with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.56 MB)

You'll also currently find a few more images shot with the 180-400mm at 560mm in my Gallery of Latest Additions.

II. Field-Testing Methods

With the exception of slightly different sdistances for the close and mid-distant subjects (as discussed above) both the field-testing methods and the assessment of the final images were made using the exact same methodology as described in my 02 July 2018 blog entry on the optical performance at 400mm (open the methodology section of that entry in a new tab/window using this link).

The goal of the optical testing is to get a good handle on what I refer to as the Maximum Attainable Field Sharpness (or MAFS) for each lens. This means that I try to control as many variables as possible - the images are captured from a firm tripod and gimbal head, Live View focus is used (to remove any bias associated with AF tuning issues), a cable release is used, a FULL electronic shutter is used, optical stabilization systems are all turned OFF, et cetera. And, to reveal as many lens flaws as possible, all tests are performed using the highest resolution DSLR currently available from Nikon - the D850.

For those seeking a "visual" of the subjects I used (and the "scenes") at each of the three test distances in this test, here ya go AGAIN...(each image is full-frame, but reduced in resolution from 8256 x 5504 pixels to 2400 x 1600 pixels):

• Close Subject (9.5 meters): The Stump (JPEG: 1.0 MB)
• Mid-distance Subject (30 meters): My Amazingly Cooperative Eagle (JPEG: 1.25 MB)
• Distant Subject (1500 meters): Distant Treeline at Sunrise (JPEG: 1.6 MB)

III. The RESULTS!

As always, I'll give you a quick and dirty Executive Summary followed by a few more nitty-gritty details of the results.

1. The Executive Summary:

Overall the 4 lenses in this group quickly sorted themselves into two groups from a sharpness perspective. The first group consisted of the 400mm f2.8E plus 1.4x TC and the 180-400mm f4E with built-in TC engaged. These two lenses were much sharper at all distances and at almost all apertures than the lenses in the other group (i..e, the Sigma Sport 150-600mm at 560mm and the Nikkor 200-400mm plus 1.4x TC). And, they exhibited VERY similar (and almost indistinguishable) sharpness to one another.

At the working distances where bokeh (and the ability to separate subjects from a background) were important the wider aperture of the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus 1.4x TC (i.e., f4 vs. f5.6) did make an appreciable difference. At both 9.5 meters and 30 meters the Out-of-Focus (OoF) zones of the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC could be made less detailed and smoother (and a subject could be made to stand out from its background better) than with the other lenses in this test.

What about at long subject distances at 560mm? In both the central region and on the edges it was pretty much a tie for the sharpness "title" between two of the four lenses - the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with built-in TC engaged. With enough stopping down (f9 and smaller) both the Sigma Sport 150-600mm plus the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G plus TC could pretty much match the two others in sharpness of the central region, but the edges were never as sharp (at any aperture).

At 560mm only one lens exhibited Aperture Independent Sharpness (AIS) at all distances - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (read more about AIS HERE). This means it was as sharp wide open as when stopped down (including on the edges with the long distant subject). The Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC needed very little stopping down before approaching maximum sharpness (details below) which means that the widest "usable" apertures were available on this lens/TC combination.

The overall top performer at 560mm? If we JUST look at image sharpness it's almost a dead-heat between the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with TC engaged. In bokeh it's clearly the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC. So...overall...the nod for first place does go to the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC, but the Nikkor 180-400mm is nipping very closely at its heels!

2. The Nitty Gritty Details:

A. Optical Performance at 9.5 meters (560mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: At close distance (9.5 meters) - and at all overlapping apertures - the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus 1.4x TC is very (as in "very, very") slightly sharper than Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with its built-in TC engaged. The difference is almost "statistical" and certainly within the range where careful sharpening in post-processing would remove any visible difference (and even without sharpening it would be next to impossible to see on a high-resolution display...like a Retina). At this close distance both the Sigma Sport 150-600mm and the Nikkor 200-400mm plus TC were very noticeably softer (less sharp) and had to be stopped WAY down (in the f8 to f10 range) before approaching the sharpness of the other two lenses (and still never fully matched them).

How large of a difference is there in sharpness between these lenses at various apertures? See for yourself - here's a few comparisons of the central portions of the test images (at 100% magnification in viewer window of Capture One Pro). As always, these comparisons are best viewed at 100% magnification (on YOUR computer) and the sharpness differences will be harder to see on higher resolution (e.g., Retina) displays:

• All 4 lenses shot WIDE OPEN @ 9.5 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2.5 MB)
• All 4 lenses shot @ f6.3 @ 9.5 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2.5 MB)
• All 4 lenses shot @ f8 @ 9.5 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2.7 MB)

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: None, meaning the lens is at maximum sharpness when shot wide open (@ f4). This is a consistent with all previous optical performance test, and this was the ONLY lens exhibiting AIS (HUH? What's AIS?) at this distance. When you consider that a TC is involved, and that I have NEVER seen a lens/TC combination before that didn't benefit at least a LITTLE via stopping down, this is quite amazing!
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII: 0.3 stops (to f4.5) before approximating maximum sharpness. Darned good!
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G plus TC-14EIII: 1 stop (to f8), but note that this lens was NEVER quite as sharp as the Nikkor 400 or the Nikkor 180-400 at this distance.
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: 0.67 stops (to f8), but note that this lens was NEVER quite as sharp as the Nikkor 400 or the Nikkor 180-400 at this distance.

• OoF Zones (Bokeh): OK...this is where the wide aperture (and great optics) of the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E (plus TC) shows its stuff. When all lenses are shot wide open you DEFINITELY get less detailed and smoother OoF zones - period. But even when all four lenses are stopped down to f8 the OoF zones of the 400mm f2.8E are STILL nicer than the other lenses (see examples below). Note that both the Nikkor 180-400 AND the Nikkor 200-400 (each with a TC) did fairly well in this regard too. The Sigma Sport exhibits enough focus-breathing at this distance that it shows considerably more detail (and is less smooth) in its OoF zones.

How noticeable are the bokeh differences? Check out these composite images and decide for yourself:

• Comparative Bokeh When Shot Wide Open @ 560mm: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 1.6 MB)
• Comparative Bokeh When Shot at f8 @ 560mm: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: When this close to a subject pretty much all the lenses can do a decent job of isolating the subject from the background. But because in this case two lenses (the 400mm f2.8E and the 180-400mm f4e) are appreciably sharper at wide apertures than the other lenses - and because the 400mm f2.8E has noticeably better bokeh than the 180-400mm f4E - I have to give the nod to the 400mm f2.8E plus TC as "the best" in subject isolation ability at this distance.

OVERALL CONCLUSION: Here the "overall conclusion" parallels what I just said re: the difference in subject isolation ability - you have to acknowledge that at this distance the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC has a slight edge over the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E plus built-in TC. But they are REALLY close and both are considerably better than the other two options.

B. Optical Performance at 30 meters (560mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: The pattern at the mid-range working distance (30 meters) was very similar to that at 9.5 meters. If your primary concern is image sharpness then once again you have two great options - the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with built-in TC engaged. Interestingly, at this distance if you shoot both of these lenses wide open the 180-400mm is slightly sharper. And, no matter how much you stop down, neither the Sigma Sport 150-600mm or the Nikkor 200-400mm plus TC can match their sharpness.

Just how significant is the difference in sharpness between the lenses at this distance? Here's two examples - the first with all lenses wide open and the second with all lenses at f8:

• All 4 lenses shot WIDE OPEN @ 30 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2.3 MB)
• All 4 lenses shot @ f8 @ 30 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2.5 MB)

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: Once more...NONE. And, once more, this is the ONLY lens in the test exhibiting AIS.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII: 0.3 stops (to f4.5), but note that the lens still sharpens up very slightly more (incrementally) up to f5.6.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G plus TC-14EIII: 0.67 stops (to f7.1), but note that the lens/TC combination isn't very sharp at this distant at ANY aperture.
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: 0.3 stops (to f7.1), but note that this lens very slowly sharpens up all the way to f10.

• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): Like at 9.5 meters, the larger aperture of the 400mm f2.8E plus TC (f4 vs f5.6 or f6.3) DOES make a difference here. So you WILL see the smoothest and least detailed OoF zones with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC in the aperture range of f4 to f5 (simply because the other options can't get to these apertures). But once you're at f5.6 and smaller there is functionally no difference between the Nikkor 400mm f2.8 plus TC, the Nikkor 180-400mm with built-in TC engaged, and the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G plus TC (the Sigma Sport STILL shows focus-breathing at this distance and consequently its background is less smooth and more detailed).

• All 4 lenses shot WIDE OPEN @ 30 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 1.7 MB)
• All 4 lenses shot @ f8 @ 30 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 1.65 MB)

• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: Unless you shoot at the wide apertures ONLY available on the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC (f4 through f5) you won't find much real difference in the ability to separate your subject (i.e., "make it pop") between these lenses. And the fact that the Nikkor 180-400mm f4e is SHARPER when it is shot wide open than the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC is when it is shot wide open (and because the ability to make a subject pop is based on the sharpness differential between the in-focus and the out-of-focus zones) further complicates declaring a clear-cut "winner" in this regard!

OVERALL CONCLUSION: In purely optical terms the very slight advantage must go to the Nikkor f2.8E plus TC-14EIII over the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with built-in TC engaged. And that's simply because of its wider aperture and the slight advantage that can give in separating or isolating a subject from its background. In practical terms, the smaller size, lighter weight, and ability to zoom the focal length of the 180-400mm f4E would all bias me towards choosing this lens over the 400mm f2.8E plus TC combination in a field setting where I needed to get to a 560mm focal length (i.e., to me these variables outweigh the tiny difference in optical performance). Oh...and if you like sharp images, at this distance the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G plus TC-14EIII isn't for you! ;-)

C. Optical Performance with Distant (1500 meters) Subject (560mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: The trend with a distant subject was very clear - in both the central region and on the edges it was pretty much a tie for the sharpness "title" between two of the four lenses - the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with built-in TC engaged. With enough stopping down (f9 and smaller) both the Sigma Sport 150-600mm plus the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G plus TC came very close to matching the two others in sharpness of the central region, but the edge sharpness of both the Sigma Sport 150-600mm and the Nikkor 200-400 plus TC was quite poor (i.e., soft edges) at all apertures.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: Center AND Edges: None, even with distant subjects there's no sharpness-related reason to stop down this lens at 560mm and with a distant subject.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII: Center: 0.3 stops (to f4.5); Edges: 0.67 stops (to f5).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G plus TC-14EIII: Center and Edges: 1.0 to 1.3 stops (to f8-f9), but note that the "maximum sharpness of the edges" wasn't very maximum (meaning the edges were soft at all apertures).
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: Center and Edges: 0.67 stops (f8), but like with the Nikkor 200-400mm plus TC even the "maximum sharpness" of the edges simply wasn't very sharp.

• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): N/A (at this distance).
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: N/A (at this distance).

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At long distance you have two excellent options giving you very good edge-to-edge sharpness - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with built-in TC engaged and the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII. With long distance subjects you CAN get decent central sharpness with both Nikkor 200-400mm f4G plus the TC-14EIII or the Sigma Sport 150-600mm if you stop down enough, but edges are soft at all apertures. So if you like to shoot distant landscapes OR animalscapes at 560mm and that require edge-to-edge sharpness you're best served with either the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC or the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with its built-in TC engaged.

V. Final Discussion and Comments

If we start with the "biggest picture" findings about the optical performance of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E at 560mm it's simple to produce a succinct summary: it performs very, very well. In sharpness it is functionally equal to the previous "gold standard" for both teleconverter and 560mm performance - the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus the TC-14EIII teleconverter. And, the quality of its OoF zones (bokeh) and its ability to separate a subject from a busy background at normal working distances are both very good, but can't quite match the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC in these regards. The final big picture comment about this lens is becoming so boring to write about it's darned easy to forget it's very remarkable: At each distance in this test only ONE lens exhibited complete aperture independent sharpness (i.e., required NO stopping down to get to maximum sharpness in the central regions OR on the edges) - and it WASN'T the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E. Yep, it was the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E.

In the "other" optical performance test I previously performed with the TC engaged (that at 500mm - details here) I obtained a similar result - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E compares very favorably with the "best of the best" primes even when its TC is engaged.

If I combine both of these sets of test results (i.e., at 500mm and at 560mm) with the photographic results I obtained when I shot thousands of images with the 180-400mm with its TC engaged over 9 days in the Khutzeymateen I find myself left with absolutely NO reason to be reluctant to engage the built-in TC and use the "extended" portion of the focal range of this lens. For me, using this lens with the TC engaged is definitely NOT - as at least one other reviewer has reported - a last resort!

How do the other lenses in this test stack up against the two front-runners? In previous segments of this series I have found the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G surprisingly strong at native (without a TC) focal lengths. But...the Nikon 200-400mm f4G does not like (or do well with) teleconverters! Keep this lens away from TC's and you will be very happy with it - and it's certainly a lens capable of producing professional-level output (as long as you keep it away from teleconverters!).

The optical performance of the Sigma 150-600mm at 560mm is a bit more complex. At short and mid-range working distances it definitely will produce sharp images (with just a little stopping down), but at these same distances its focus-breathing does negatively impact on the quality of its OoF zones (bokeh) and its ability to isolate a subject from a busy background. At very long distances it can produce good central sharpness, but - at least on the high resolution D850 - it doesn't do well in edge sharpness. But its always important to remember that this lens costs a fraction of what the others in this lens cost. I STILL think this lens represents EXCELLENT value and there's a darned good reason you see so many of them out in the field.

Where am I going next with my testing of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E? Good question! Before I have all the information I need to decide on where the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E "fits" in my own camera kit (and what that kit will look like moving forward in the near future) I still have to evaluate the VR performance/hand-holdability of the lens, learn more about its autofocus capabilities, quantify the degree of its vignetting "issue", and...as much for curiosity as anything...determine even MORE about it's TC performance (and surely I can't be the only one out there wondering how this lens will perform with the TC-20EIII...with its built-in TC UN-engaged).

A while ago someone asked me about what I thought the "sweet spot" of the 180-400mm f4E was (presumably he was asking both what focal lengths it performed best at AND what apertures were its strongest). The best focal length? That would be 180-560mm. The best aperture? That would be f4 through to f11 or beyond. I have NEVER seen a lens (prime or zoom) as solid optically as this one.

Stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#180-400_Optic560mm

31 July 2018: ONE Spot Available on 2018 Great Bear Rainforest Photo Tour!

13 August Update: The one vacancy on the 2018 Great Bear Rainforest Photo Tour (as described immediately below) has now been claimed and is no longer available. The trip is back to being fully sold out.

An unexpected issue has left one of the participants who signed up for the October 2018 "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" Instructional Photo Tour willing to relinquish his spot on this fantastic trip.

This is my highest demand photo tour. The 2019 version is fully sold out and I already have a full slate of participants signed up on the Priority Booking List for the 2020 version of the trip. So if getting into (or back to!) the Great Bear Rainforest is on YOUR bucket list, this is a great opportunity to do so.

Here's two sources for additional info:

1. For the Critical Details (on my photo tour page): 2018 Into the Great Bear Rainforest Instructional Photo Tour

2. For MORE info (including trip itinerary and more): Download PDF Brochure (5.3 MB)

For even MORE info - or to book the spot - contact me at: seminars@naturalart.ca

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

30 July 2018: So Brad...What About the 180-400mm's Vignetting??

Over the last few weeks I've received a fair amount of email asking me about the vignetting "issue" of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Yes, the 180-400mm vignettes and it DOES exhibit MORE vignetting than many other lenses. I am planning to produce a fairly extensive and thorough discussion on the vignetting shown by the 180-400mm f4E (including how it varies with aperture, focal length, and distance) in the not-so-distant future. That discussion will appear first here on my blog and later in my final review of the 180-400mm f4E (which will permanently reside in the Field Tests section of this website.)

For those wanting a LITTLE more information on the vignetting NOW...I just posted an image (titled "Summer Sunrise - East Kootenays") in my Gallery of Latest Additions that shows an example of the vignetting on a shot captured with the 180-400mm f4E at 400mm and f4. The comparison images (vignetting removed vs. vignetting untouched) AND the discussion about the vignetting are revealed BELOW that image when you click on the "In the Field" tab (which is immediately below the main image window).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca



Nikon 180-400mm Field Test: Optical Performance at 300mm

25 July 2018: Nikkor 180-400mm f4E Field Test IIIE: Optical Performance at 300mm

This is the eight installment in an on-going series describing my experiences field-testing the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Previous entries covered:

• 21 May 2018: First Impressions
• 18 June 2018: Shooting the 180-400mm in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary (including 27 sample images)
• 29 June 2018: Optical Performance at 500mm
• 02 July 2018: Optical Performance at 400mm
• 05 July 2018: Commentary 1 - What's AIS?
• 09 July 2018: Optical Performance - MORE at 400mm
• 09 July 2018: Optical Performance at 200mm

In this entry I describe my results from systematic and comparative optical field-testing of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E lens at a 300mm focal length against 5 other 300mm "options". Here's the list of lenses in this comparison:

• Nikkor 180-400mm f4E
• Nikkor 200-400mm f4G
• Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII
• Nikkor 300mm f4 PF
• Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8
• Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3

As with all previous optical performance tests the lenses were tested over an aperture range from maximum aperture (wide open) through to f11. And, all lenses were tested at 3 distances. In this 300mm comparison the distances were 4.5 meters, 18 meters, and 1500 meters (i.e., a distant scene). The close and mid-range distances were selected to produce final images with subjects occupying very close to the same proportion of the viewfinder and/or final image as they did in all previous optical performance tests.

For both the close (4.5 meters) and mid-range (18 meters) distances to the subject the images were examined for central region sharpness and the "quality" of the Out-of-Focus (OoF) zones (i.e., bokeh quality). The images of the distant scene (1500 meters) were captured and evaluated for both central and edge-to-edge sharpness (but not for bokeh).

Anyone wishing to skip the remaining background material and description of my methodology can jump directly to The Executive Summary of my results by following this link...

I. Critical Background!

Why the test at 300mm? I think the most significant reason is that many wildlife photographers will already own at least one other "option" for getting to 300mm - and many of those shooters are probably quite interested in knowing how their "current" 300mm option stacks up against the new 180-400mm f4E at 300mm. I chose lenses for this comparison that most Nikon-shooting wildlife photographers are likely to be familiar with - all but two come from my own collection of lenses. Many thanks are extended to Nikon Canada for loaning me the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII and Mike Wieser for loaning me the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G - without these two lenses this comparison would have been far less interesting or useful.

Personally, I'm happy my acquisition of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4G gave me the justification and motivation to allocate (sacrifice?) the time needed to perform all these optical tests at this time (at this and all other focal lengths). It's been a few years since I owned a copy of the 300mm f2.8G VRII or a copy of the 200-400mm f4G and I have wondered how those lenses truly stack up against some of the "newer" lenses in my collection. I've had the perception (= gut feeling) that the newer lenses (and in particular the newest lenses, like the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E) are simply better optically, and that this is likely because lens-makers have been forced to "up the ante" on their optical standards (and quality control) to meet the demands of the higher resolution sensors in use today. And, of course, you'd have to be living in a cave to miss the fact that the 3rd-party lens makers (such as Sigma) have REALLY upped their game in recent years (and perhaps they're forcing Nikon to up their game in response). In a related fashion, since the development of the D800-series cameras (especially the 46 MP D850) I've been wondering how those "older" lenses - and that were developed in a lower resolution world - would perform when paired up with demanding D850 that just LOVES to show lens flaws! So that leads to questions like "Is the venerable Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII competent enough to excel on the D850 or will it start to show its age" (like the 200mm f4D Micro did in the 200mm test).

So while the main goal of this test is to see how the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E at 300mm compares against the other lenses, this test will have lots of other interesting match-ups. Like how the 300mm f2.8G VRII and 300mm f4 PF stack up against each other when mounted on the D850 - as well as against Sigma's highly capable 120-300mm f2.8 Sport.

II. Field-Testing Methods

With the exception of using shorter distances for the close and mid-distant subjects (as discussed above) both the field-testing methods and the assessment of the final images were made using the exact same methodology as described in my 02 July 2018 blog entry on the optical performance at 400mm (open the methodology section of that entry in a new tab/window using this link).

The goal of the optical testing is to get a good handle on what I refer to as the Maximum Attainable Field Sharpness (or MAFS) for each lens. This means that I try to control as many variables as possible - the images are captured from a firm tripod and gimbal head, Live View focus is used (to remove any bias associated with AF tuning issues), a cable release is used, a FULL electronic shutter is used, optical stabilization systems are all turned OFF, et cetera. And, to reveal as many lens flaws as possible, all tests are performed using the highest resolution DSLR currently available from Nikon - the D850.

For those seeking a "visual" of the subjects I used (and the "scenes") at each of the three test distances in this test, here ya go AGAIN...(each image is full-frame, but reduced in resolution from 8256 x 5504 pixels to 2400 x 1600 pixels):

• Close Subject (4.5 meters): The Stump (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
• Mid-distance Subject (18 meters): My Amazingly Cooperative Eagle (JPEG: 1.4 MB)
• Distant Subject (1500 meters): Distant Treeline at Sunrise (JPEG: 1.6 MB)

III. The RESULTS!

As always, I'll give you a quick and dirty Executive Summary followed by a few more nitty-gritty details of the results.

1. The Executive Summary:

Overall the differences in central sharpness between most of the lenses at 300mm (at all distances) varied quite dramatically with aperture, especially at close and mid-range working distances. At close distance (4.5 meters) the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E was the sharpest lens from wide open up to f5. With further stopping down most of the other lenses eventually produced images of equal sharpness (details in "Nitty Gritty Details" below), but none exceeded the sharpness of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E - at any aperture.

What about bokeh at 4.5 meters? This is the "wheelhouse" of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII! It clearly had the best bokeh at all apertures, though at apertures from f5 and smaller the 180-400mm f4E drew very close to the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 in bokeh quality.

The pattern at the mid-range distance (18 meters) was very similar to that at 4.5 meters. If your primary concern is image sharpness - no lens matched the Nikkor 180-400mm in sharpness from wide open up to f5.6. If your primary concern is bokeh - no lens fully matched the bokeh of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII at any aperture.

What about at long subject distances? In the central region it was pretty much a tie for the sharpness "title" between two of the six lenses - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 were slightly but noticeably sharper than all the other lenses (at all apertures). Interestingly, when it came to EDGE sharpness, the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII drew even with the 180-400mm f4E and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm.

At 300mm only one lens exhibited Aperture Independent Sharpness (AIS) at all distances - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (read more about AIS HERE). This means it was as sharp wide open as when stopped down (including on the edges with the long distant subject). Interestingly, the lens that needed to be stopped down the MOST to attain maximum sharpness was the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII (details below).

The overall top performer at 300mm? This is a tough call - if we JUST look at image sharpness it's clearly the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. In bokeh it's clearly the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII. But...because the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E was nipping at the heels of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII in bokeh at moderate to small apertures (and clearly in 2nd place at the widest apertures), I'd give the overall nod to the 180-400mm f4E once more.

2. The Nitty Gritty Details:

A. Optical Performance at 4.5 meters (300mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: At close distance (4.5 meters) and apertures up to and including f5 the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E clearly produced the sharpest images. At f5.6 both the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 drew even with the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E, and both the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G and the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G produced images equally sharp to the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E at f6.3 and beyond. The Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 was slightly but noticeably softer than the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E at all overlapping apertures.

How large of a difference is there in sharpness between these lenses at the wider apertures? It's definitely significant - here's a few comparisons of the central portions of the test image (at 100% magnification in viewer window of Capture One Pro). As always, these comparisons are best viewed at 100% magnification (on YOUR computer) and the sharpness differences will be harder to see on higher resolution (e.g., Retina) displays:

• Nikkor 300mm f2.8 vs. "The Nikkor Zooms" @ 4.5 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2.4 MB)
• Nikkor 300mm f2.8 vs. Nikkor 300mm f4 PF @ 4.5 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2.4 MB)
• Nikkor 300mm f2.8 vs. Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 @ 4.5 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2.3 MB)

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: None, meaning the lens is at maximum sharpness when shot wide open (@ f4). This is a consistent with previous tests at 200mm, 400mm and 500mm - this was the ONLY lens exhibiting AIS (HUH? What's AIS?) at this distance.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII: 1.3 stops - required stopping down to f4.5 before approximating maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 300mm f4 PF: 0.67 stops - required stopping down to f5 before approximating maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G: 0.3 stops - required stopping down to f4.5 before approximating maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8: 0.67 stops - required stopping down to f3.5 before approximating maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: Just less than 0.3 stops - required stopping down to f6.3 (from f6) before approximating maximum sharpness (but note that this lens was NEVER as sharp as its competitors at 300mm - at any aperture).

• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): At this distance 3 lenses fell out of the running owing to focus-breathing - the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8, the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3, and (to a lesser extent) the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF all had enough focal length shortening (focus-breathing) that their OoF zones contained much more detail and far less pleasing bokeh. Three lenses showed no noticeable focus-breathing - the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII, the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E, and the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G. And at ALL apertures this is where the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VR REALLY showed its stuff - at all apertures it had the smoothest and most visually appealing bokeh. At f5 and smaller apertures the 180-400mm f4E drew very close to the 300mm f2.8 in bokeh quality, but never quite matched it. And, at f8 and smaller apertures the bokeh of the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G was ALMOST identical to that of the Nikkor 180-400mm (and thus very close to the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G as well).

How noticeable are the bokeh differences? Check out this composite image and decide for yourself:

• A Few Bokeh vs. Aperture Comparisons at 4.5 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 1.65 MB)

• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: When this close to a subject pretty much all the lenses can do a decent job of isolating the subject from the background. The trick in declaring an absolute "winner" in this category is that ONE lens (the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E) was noticeably sharper at wide apertures and a different lens (the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII) had the best bokeh at wide apertures. In my view "subject isolation ability" is about the "visual differential" between the sharp areas and the OoF zones in an image. If I was forced to grab for one lens or the other to isolate a subject I'd probably opt for the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E, largely owing for my own predilection for liking VERY sharp in-focus zones. But it is a personal and subjective decision - there isn't much between them!

OVERALL CONCLUSION: In a sense this "conclusion" parallels what I just said re: the difference in subject isolation ability. If you're into crazy sharpness the 180-400mm f4E is the clear winner. If you're into absolutely dreamy OoF zones then you'd probably argue for being the best overall lens at this distance. Me? I'll take the 180-400mm f4E! ;-)

B. Optical Performance at 18 meters (300mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: The pattern at the mid-range distance (18 meters) was very similar to that at 4.5 meters. If your primary concern is image sharpness - no lens matched the Nikkor 180-400mm in sharpness from wide open up to f5.6. And, by f7.1, all lenses in the test EXCEPT the Sigma Sport 150-600mm produced images of comparable central region sharpness (like at 4.5 meters the Sigma Sport 150-600mm was slightly softer than the other lenses at all apertures). One result that may interest some readers - while the sharpest lens at this distance was the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E, if you compare ONLY the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII against the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 when BOTH are shot wide open (f2.8), the Sigma Sport is MUCH sharper!

Just how significant is the difference in sharpness between the lenses at this distance? As always, it depends a lot on how you're going to use the images, but this composite image should give you a bit of a feel for the magnitude of the sharpness differences:

• Nikkor 300mm f2.8 vs. "The Nikkor Zooms" @ 18 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2.7 MB)

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: None, meaning the lens is at maximum sharpness when shot wide open (@ f4). This is a consistent with previous tests at 200mm, 400mm and 500mm - this was the ONLY lens exhibiting AIS.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII: Two full stops - required stopping down to f5.6 before approximating maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 300mm f4 PF: 0.67 stops - required stopping down to f5 before approximating maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G: 0.3 stops (at most) - required stopping down to f4.5 before approximating maximum sharpness (but was very sharp at f4).
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8: 0.67 stops - required stopping down to f3.5 before approximating maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: Just less than 0.3 stops - required stopping down to f6.3 (from f6) before approximating maximum sharpness (but note that this lens was NEVER as sharp as its competitors at 300mm - at any aperture).

• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): If your primary concern is bokeh - no lens fully matched the bokeh of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII at any aperture (though at f5.6 the bokeh of both the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF were nipping at its heels). Note that focus-breathing of the two Sigma Sport lenses was still significant enough to reduce the quality of their OoF zones. Of course, at this distance the differences you'll see in the bokeh and OoF zones is more subtle and nuanced (lost on someone like Donald Trump)...as this example shows...

• A Few Bokeh vs. Aperture Comparisons @ 18 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 1.52 MB)

• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: Just like at 4.5 meters this is darned close to a toss-up between the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII and the 180-400mm f4E. AND, if the focus-breathing of the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 WASN'T impacted as much as it is by bokeh-damaging focus-breathing, it would be in the running (simply because it's considerably sharper than the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G at f2.8). Tough call to declare a "winner" here...can't really go too wrong with any of the 3 lenses. Here's a visual comparing all 3 of these lenses and "showing" the various issues:

• Subject Isolation Ability @ 18 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2/0 MB)

OVERALL CONCLUSION: Same story as at 4.5 meters - you want maximum image sharpness you want the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. You want the absolute SOFTEST OoF zones then you want the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII. You want a darned good compromise with high sharpness when shot at wide apertures (and you can live with some focus-breathing) at a whole lot less money - then you want the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8!

C. Optical Performance with Distant (1500 meters) Subject (300mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: In the central region it was pretty much a tie for the sharpness "title" between two of the six lenses - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 were slightly but noticeably sharper than all the other lenses (at all apertures). Both the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII and the Nikkor 200-400mm came in just behind the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Sigma Sport 120-300 at virtually all apertures. Next in central sharpness came the Sigma Sport 150-600mm and, a bit surprisingly, the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF brought up the rear!

Interestingly, when it came to EDGE sharpness, the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII drew even with the 180-400mm f4E and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm. In a bit of a shock to me, the Nikkor 200-400 came in next in edge sharpness - at most apertures it had decent (and acceptable) edge sharpness and wasn't far behind the top 3! Both the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 and the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF faired poorer - their edges were quite comparable to one another (both had quite soft edges).

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: None, even with distant subjects there's no sharpness-related reason to stop down this lens. This is a consistent with previous tests at 200mm, 400mm and 500mm - still incredible! And it's AIS at long subject distance for this lens ONLY.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII: Center AND Edges - 0.3 stop ONLY (to f3.2) to approach maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 300mm f4 PF: Center AND Edges - 0.67 stop (to f5) to approach maximum sharpness (but note that neither center or edges were particularly sharp at any aperture).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G: Center AND Edges - 0.67 stop (to f5) to approach maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8: Center AND Edges - 0.67 stop (to f3.5) to approach maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: Center AND Edges - less than 0.3 stop (from f6 to f6.3) to approach maximum sharpness.

• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): N/A (at this distance).
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: N/A (at this distance).

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At long distance you have two excellent options giving you very good edge-to-edge sharpness - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8. Both the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII and the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G do very well too. But if long-distance scenes captured at 300mm are your thing (especially on a high-res camera like the D850) you probably want to avoid using the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm!

V. Final Discussion and Comments

Several things stood out for me in the testing at 300mm. The first is obvious - at all distances the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E was very strong optically. As in mind-boggling good. It was overall the sharpest of the lot, and at "normal" working distances (4.5 meters and 18 meters) it had really good bokeh. And, at 300mm (and at all distances to the subject) it once more exhibited Aperture Independent Sharpness - just tack sharp at any aperture at any distance! Incredible.

The second was the optical performance of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII. As most everyone who has shot with this lens would expect, it has GREAT bokeh! But...it really wasn't very sharp at wide apertures - at the distances one would commonly use this lens for (the short and mid-range working distances in this test) you had to stop down a LOT before getting to maximum sharpness. My own suspicion is that this observation on the need to stop the lens down to get to excellent sharpness is more obvious when pixel-peeping D850 images than it would be with images captured using lower resolution cameras. So, when I get emails from irritated owners of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII who tell me something like "...hey you idiot...I get GREAT images with my 300mm f2.8G VRII when I shoot it wide open on my D3s" my response will be "Yep, I believe you..." But, like I found with the 200mm f4 Micro...I think this lens was designed to work best with DSLR's of a few generations back and is need of an update.

The third was the continuing solid performance of the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G - this time at 300mm. At short and medium working distances this lens is really quite sharp, even shot wide open. And, it gets to maximum sharpness fast - usually by f4.5. And, contrary to that "interweb" thing, it's still solid at long distance at 300mm. In my view this lens can still - even with the Nikon D850 - produce incredible images. Those who already own it and have been thinking they should let it go might want to think again! And, those looking for a real high quality wildlife lens at a decent price should definitely see if they can find a used 200-400mm f4G.

How did the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF stack up against Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII? At short and mid-range working distances there really wasn't much difference in central region sharpness, and the 300mm f4 PF required less stopping down to get to maximum sharpness. But the bokeh of the 300mm f2.8G VRII was definitely better at the shortest distance (and this difference was exacerbated by the focus-breathing of the 300mm f4 PF) and even at 18 meters you could definitely see a difference in bokeh quality between the 300mm f4 PF and the 300mm f2.8G VRII (with the f2.8G producing smoother bokeh and an enhanced ability to isolate the subject from a busy background). However, with a distant subject the 300mm f2.8G VRII produced noticeably sharper images (from edge-to-edge) than the 300mm f4 PF. A few years back I decided to sell my Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII in favor of the 300mm f4 PF. On balance - and factoring in the very small size and low weight of the 300mm f4 PF - I'm not regretting that decision at all.

And, how did the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 and the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII compare? Well...the Sigma Sport definitely held its own (and then some). At short and mid-range working distances the Sigma Sport was as sharp (or sharper) than the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII at the widest apertures, AND you had to stop down much less to get to maximum sharpness. And at long distance the Sigma Sport was slightly sharper than the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 in the central regions (with the edges being virtually identical). In a sense, the ONLY negative thing about the Sigma Sport was its focus-breathing at short and mid-range working distances. This focus-breathing meant that you lost some bokeh quality and its ability to isolate a subject from its background was slightly impaired (relative to the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII). I continue to be impressed with the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 (and let's not forget - it's a zoom!).

What about the the Sigma Sport 150-600mm? Like with the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF, the D850 kinda beats it up at long subject distances. But when you go back to "normal wildlife working distances" - it really is still quite sharp. Focus breathing and the small maximum apertures DOES limit your ability to isolate a subject with this lens, but for the money it offers a lot.

Finally, which lens do I consider the overall BEST lens in the test at 300mm and at all distances (and factoring in both sharpness AND the quality of the bokeh)? Well...it's getting repetitive...but it was clearly the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E.

Up next? Comparative optical performance at 560mm. Stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#180-400_Optic300mm

18 July 2018: Now Appearing: MORE Nikkor 180-400mm f4E Images!

I have been continuing to add more images captured with the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E to my Gallery of Latest Additions.

New visitors to this website may not realize that each image (in each of my many galleries) is accompanied by absolute oodles of contextual information and metadata. To access the information all you have to do is to click on the tabs BELOW the image - that's those "In the Field" and "Behind the Camera", etc. tabs!

Cheers...and ENJOY!

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca



Nikon 180-400mm Field Test: Optical Performance at 200mm

16 July 2018: Nikkor 180-400mm f4E Field Test IIID: Optical Performance at 200mm

This is the seventth installment in an on-going series describing my experiences field-testing the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Previous entries covered:

• 21 May 2018: First Impressions
• 18 June 2018: Shooting the 180-400mm in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary (including 27 sample images)
• 29 June 2018: Optical Performance at 500mm
• 02 July 2018: Optical Performance at 400mm
• 05 July 2018: Commentary 1 - What's AIS?
• 09 July 2018: Optical Performance - MORE at 400mm

In this entry I describe my results from systematic and comparative optical field-testing of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E lens at a 200mm focal length against 6 other 200mm "options". Here's the list of lenses in this comparison:

• Nikkor 180-400mm f4E
• Nikkor 200-400mm f4G
• Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3
• Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8
• Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E
• Nikkor 70-200mm f4G
• Nikkor 200mm f4D Micro

As with the previous comparative tests at 400mm and 500mm the lenses were tested over an aperture range from maximum aperture (wide open) through to f11. And, as with previous tests, they were tested at 3 distances. In this 200mm comparison the distances were 3 meters, 11 meters, and 1500 meters (i.e., a distant scene). The close and mid-range distances were closer than in previous tests and produced subjects that occupied very close to the same proportion of the viewfinder and/or final image as they did in the 400mm and 500mm tests.

For both the close (3 meters) and medium (11 meters) distances to the subject the images were examined for central region sharpness and the "quality" of the Out-of-Focus (OoF) zones (i.e., bokeh quality). The images of the distant scene (1500 meters) were captured and evaluated for both central and edge-to-edge sharpness (but, for obvious reasons, not bokeh).

For those wondering where the 300mm comparison went - hey, who said I had to do them in order? Actually, I had to wait for delivery of a Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII before performing the 300mm comparison tests. I should have that lens today or tomorrow and I'll begin that testing as soon as conditions (mostly weather) permits. And thanks are extended to Nikon Canada for supplying me with the 300mm f2.8 VRII for testing purposes.

Anyone wishing to skip the remaining background material and description of my methodology can jump directly to The Executive Summary of my results at 200mm by following this link...

I. Critical Background!

Why the test at 200mm? First, it's my view that if you're buying a zoom lens you are likely at least planning to use it over it over its full focal range. And if that's the case, there's value in knowing exactly how it performs over that full focal range (including if there are any anomalies you have to take into consideration at any focal length...such as stopping down to sharpen up the edges, etc.). Obviously the very same information (i.e., how the lens performs over its full focal range) is useful in making a purchase decision - especially when consdering a lens as expensive as the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E.

Second, it's likely that many who will get the 180-400mm will use it (and take it on outings or trips) in combination with other lenses. Based on my OWN needs, and certainly on what I'm hearing from other wildlife photographers, the 180-400mm will commonly be used in combination with a 70-200mm zoom...such as the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E or perhaps the Nikkor 70-200mm f4G. So, it likely won't be uncommon at all that a wildlife photographer runs into a "200mm scene" and has to decide between using their 180-400mm and the 70-200mm they have with them. So knowing the idiosyncrasies of their relative optical performance (e.g., which is better at separating a close subject from its background or which has sharper edges on distance scenes) can be pretty darned useful information.

So...I figure it's worth it to do this testing! ;-)

II. Field-Testing Methods

With the exception of using shorter distances for the close and mid-distant subjects (as discussed above) both the field-testing methods and the assessment of the final images were made using the exact same methodology as described in my 02 July 2018 blog entry (open the methodology section of that entry in a new tab/window using this link).

For those who haven't read or reviewed previous blog entries in this field-testing series, the goal of the optical testing is to get a good handle on what I refer to as the Maximum Attainable Field Sharpness (or MAFS) for each lens. This means that I try to control as many variables as possible - the images are captured from a firm tripod and gimbal head, Live View focus is used (to remove any bias associated with AF tuning issues), a cable release is used, a FULL electronic shutter is used, et cetera. And, to reveal as many lens flaws as possible, all tests are performed using the highest resolution DSLR currently available from Nikon - the D850.

Of course, in many field situations we aren't able to use techniques quite this disciplined - we may have to hand-hold lenses, we are likely using the faster but possibly less accurate (and possibly out-of-tune) phase-detection-through-the-optical-viewfinder AF system, et cetera. So...we often don't (or can't) achieve MAFS. Moreover, the quality and performance of the VR systems and the AF systems varies between lenses - and that variation can impact on how close one can get to MAFS in a REAL field situation. So, I combine my optical performance testing with both VR ("hand-holdabiity") and AF testing as well as many sessions of just plain old shooting during full lens testing regime. Only after all that do I really have a handle on the nebulous thing that most would think of as the true "usability" (or, in Pirsig's world, the "quality") of a lens.

For those seeking a "visual" of the subjects I used (and the "scenes") at each of the three test distances, here ya go...(each image is full-frame, but reduced in resolution from 8256 x 5504 pixels to 2400 x 1600 pixels):

• Close Subject (3 meters): The Stump (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
• Mid-distance Subject (11 meters): My Amazingly Cooperative Eagle (JPEG: 1.5 MB)
• Distant Subject (1500 meters): The Distant Treeline (JPEG: 1.43 MB)

III. The RESULTS!

As before, I'll give you a quick and dirty Executive Summary followed by a few more nitty-gritty details of the results.

1. The Executive Summary:

Overall the differences in central sharpness between most of the lenses at 200mm (at all distances) were very small. At close distance (3 meters) and wide apertures the Nikkor 180-400mm, Nikkor 200-400mm, and the Sigma 120-300mm separated themselves out from the other lenses by being both slightly sharper (central region) and in the quality of their OoF zones. Similarly, at mid-distance to subject (11 meters) the same three lenses (Nikkor 180-400mm, Nikkor 200-400mm and the Sigma 120-300mm) were both slightly sharper than the competing lenses and - at wide apertures - produced slightly smoother and less detailed OoF zones (it is important to note that at this distance the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E trailed by only VERY little in sharpness and bokeh).

What about at long subject distances? In the central region it was pretty much a toss-up in sharpness (at all overlapping apertures) for six of the seven lenses - only the Nikkor 200mm f4 Micro faltered and was noticeably softer (less sharp) in the central region. But on the edges it was a far different story - the ONLY lens sharp on the edges at ALL apertures was the Nikkor 180-400mm. Interestingly, the second best lens in edge sharpness at wide apertures was the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G. From f5.6 on (i.e., and smaller apertures) the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E also exhibited excellent edge sharpness. The edges of the remaining lenses (the two Sigma zooms, the Nikkor 70-200mm f4 and the Nikkor 200mm f4 Micro) were considerably softer (less sharp) at all apertures.

At 200mm only one lens exhibited Aperture Independent Sharpness (AIS) at all distances - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (read more about AIS HERE). This means it was as sharp wide open as when stopped down (including on the edges with the long distant subject). The Nikkor 200-400mm f4G exhibited AIS at the closest distance but not with mid-distance or distant subjects.

The overall top performer at 200mm? Factoring in both sharpness (central region and edges) and the quality of the bokeh - definitely the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E.

2. The Nitty Gritty Details:

In interpreting these results it's important to remember that the two closer distances (3 meters and 11 meters) were included to assess two things only: Central sharpness and the quality of the OoF zones (or bokeh). The longest distance-to-subject (1500 meters) test was included to assess both central region sharpness AND edge sharpness (but not bokeh).

A. Optical Performance at 3 meters (200mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: While the majority of lenses tested needed to be stopped down a little to achieve maximum sharpness (see below for details), once each lens was at maximum sharpness the sharpness differences BETWEEN lenses was almost non-existent. The only exception to this was the Nikkor 200mm f4 Micro - it was noticeably softer (less sharp) than all the other lenses at equivalent apertures.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: None, meaning the lens is at maximum sharpness when shot wide open (@ f4). This is a consistent with previous tests at 400mm and 500mm - and it's still very noteworthy. AIS in action! (HUH? What's AIS?).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G: NONE! At this distance the Nikkor 200-400mm is very sharp at all apertures. This is the ONLY case in the entire comparison test where a lens other than the Nikkor 180-400mm exhibits AIS.
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: Less than 0.3 stops (from f5.3 to f5.6).
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8: Approx. 0.67 stops - so down to f3.5. But note this lens was still VERY sharp at f2.8 (sharper than the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E at f2.8).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8Emm: 1 stop (to f4).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 70-200mm f4G: 0.67 stops (to f5)
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200mm f4D Micro: 0.3 stops (to f4.5)

• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): Now THIS is interesting! While one would likely expect the f2.8 lenses (the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 and the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E) to show the softest and most pleasingly blurred backgrounds, both of these lenses exhibited some focus-breathing (shortening of focal length) at this close distance. Consequently, even shot wide open their OoF zones aren't as soft as two other lenses shot at f4 - the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Nikkor 200-400mm. So the first-place honours here are shared between the "old" 200-400 and the "new" 180-400mm. Confused? Check out this composite image comparing the OoF zones of the Nikkor 180-400mm vs. the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E - it might help:

• A Few Bokeh vs. Aperture Comparisons: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: When this close to a subject pretty much all the lenses can do a decent job of isolating the subject from the background. But, because two lenses in this test have equal sharpness (to all the others) AND they exhibit the softest and most-pleasing OoF zones of the batch, I'd argue that the two BEST lenses in this test (at this distance) for isolating a subject from the background are the Nikkor 180-400mnm f4E and the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G.

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At 200mm and a subject distance of 3 meters almost all the lenses in this test exhibit top-notch central sharpness - it's definitely an exercise in pixel-peeping and hair-splitting to see differences between them. You get a small but noticeable advantage in bokeh with both the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Nikkor 200-400mm and in my view that puts them at the top of the heap at this distance. Interestingly the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 very slightly outperformed the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E in both sharpness and bokeh so I'd rank them as third and fourth respectively. Fifth place (and really still quite similar to all the others) would be a two-way tie between the Sigma Sport 150-600mm and the Nikkor 70-200mm f4. The Nikkor 200mm f4D Micro lagged behind all the others in sharpness at this distance.

B. Optical Performance at 11 meters (200mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: Like at 3 meters, at a distance of 11 meters there's darned little difference in central region sharpness between most of these lenses (once they are stopped down enough to hit their maximum sharpness). The only two lenses that were noticeably softer (less sharp) than the others were the Nikkor 70-200mm f4G and the Nikkor 200mm f4 Micro (but even they weren't too darned bad!).

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: Once more - None! This result is almost getting predictable (and boring) - but it's still amazing. Another case of AIS. (HUH? What's AIS?).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G: 0.3 stops (to f4.5).
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: Less than 0.3 stops (from f5.3 to f5.6).
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8: Approx. 0.67 stops - so down to f3.5. But again this lens was still VERY sharp at f2.8 (sharper than the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E at f2.8 through to f4).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8Emm: 1 stop (to f4).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 70-200mm f4G: 0.3 stops (to f4.5).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200mm f4D Micro: 0.67 stops (to f5).

• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): Again an interesting situation here! At f4 and f4.5 the "new" Nikkor 180-400mm and the "old" Nikkor 200-400mm have the smoothest OoF zones of ALL the others lenses shot at the same apertures (but note that at f2.8 the OoF zones of the Sigma 120-300 are definitely softer again). But at f5 and smaller the BEST OoF zones are produced by the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8.

• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: Here the first-place award goes to the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8. It's awfully darned sharp at f2.8, and maximally sharp at f3.2 (it handily beats the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E in sharpness at these apertures). And, at these apertures it DEFINITELY has the smoothest OoF zones (yep, smoother than the 70-200mm f2.8E).

OVERALL CONCLUSION: OK...at this distance if I was forced to choose between all the lenses I'd grab for the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 first. My second choice? Well, in optical terms only it would be a tie between the 180-400mm f4E and the 200-400mm f4G. The Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E would be nipping incredibly closely at their heels. Fifth choice would be a dead-heat between the Sigma Sport 150-600mm and the Nikkor 70-200mm f4G. And note that the difference between the fifth choices and the first choice are at the pixel-peeping level. The only lens I would actually AVOID would be the last place finisher - the 200mm f4D Micro.

C. Optical Performance with Distant (1500 meters) Subject (200mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: If ALL you care about is central sharpness you CAN get there with all 5 of 6 lenses (with, in some cases, a little stopping down). Only the Nikkor 200mm f4D Micro DOESN'T compare favorably with the others in central sharpness. How 'bout the edges? NOW we see BIG differences between the lenses - only the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E produces very sharp edges (and for BOTH edges) at all apertures - it easily beats the other lenses in this test. Second best - definitely the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E, but to get those sharp edges you have to stop down to f5.6 or smaller. After that? You won't get REALLY sharp edges (on both sides of the frame) out of any of the other lenses at any aperture (both Sigma's will give you ONE sharp edge, but not two!).

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: None! At f4 this lens is maximally sharp in BOTH the center and edges. Just crazy. And still exhibiting AIS! (HUH? What's AIS?).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G: Center: 1/3 stop only (to f4.5). Edges: Left edge 0.3 stops (to f4.5); right edge 1.3 stops (to f6.3).
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: Center: Less than 0.3 stops (from f5.3 to f5.6). Edges: Left edge <0.3 stop (to f5.6, but never as sharp as center); right edge 1.3 stops (to f9, but still quite soft).
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8: Center: Barely 0.3 stops (to f3.2). Edges: Left edge 2.3 stops (to f6.3); right edge never sharpens up.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8Emm: Center: 0.3 stops (to f3.2); BOTH Edges: 0.3 stops (to f3.2) - this is DEFINITELY the second best result in this test (the 180-400mm not only sharpens up with no stopping down, but it invariably is slightly sharper than the 70-200mm f2.8E in center and edges in this test). Note that to get EXTREMELY sharp edges you do have to stop down to f5.6.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 70-200mm f4G: Center: 0.3 stops (to f4.5); BOTH Edges: 1 stop (to f5.6).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200mm f4D Micro: 0.67 stops (to f5); BOTH Edges: 1 stop (to f5.6) but here "maximum sharpness" isn't very darn sharp!

• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): N/A (at this distance).
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: N/A (at this distance).

OVERALL CONCLUSION: Without boring you with dozens of images it's hard to describe how much better the 180-400mm f4E is on a distant subject at 200mm than all the others. If you shoot a lot of distant landscapes or animalscapes at 200mm you'll LOVE the 180-400mm f4E (especially if you're using a high-resolution camera like the D850). The Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E does fairly well too, but you have to stop it down to f5.6 (or smaller) to sharpen up the edges and even then it's simply not as sharp as the 180-400mm (in either the center or edges).

V. Final Discussion and Comments

Historically Nikon telephoto zooms lenses are their optical best at or near the short end of their focal range (and weakest optically at their longest focal lengths). So, in a sense, it's not surprising that both the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Nikkor 200-400mm outperformed both of the Nikkor 70-200's at short and medium distances to the subject. Of course, for many users other practicalities (such as handling ease or even affordability) may take precedence over optical performance and it's good for them to know that with the exception of the Nikkor 200mm f4 Micro virtually all the lenses produce darned good results at the shorter distances to the subject.

Most wildlife photographers are probably most interested in optical performance at those shorter distances to the subject (11 meters or less) as they probably shoot at those distances much more than they shoot distant scenes. At those distances - and if you factor in both image sharpness AND the quality of the out-of-focus zones - three lenses really stood out for me...the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E, the Nikkor 200-400mm f4, and the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8. Realistically any 3 of these lenses will MORE than do the trick. And, the excellent Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E may not quite as dreamy backgrounds on very close subjects, but it's still a pretty amazing lens.

The overall BEST lens in the test at 200mm and at all distances (and factoring in both sharpness AND the quality of the bokeh)? I almost hate to say it, but it's clearly the 180-400mm f4E. Anyone looking to NOT buy it (or, in my case, not keep it) sure can't use "poor performance at 200mm" as a reason! ;-)

At this point I feel compelled to say a few things about two of the "supporting cast" lenses in this test. First, as is so often the case these days with so many things (largely thanks to the internet and "herd" mentality), it's become almost fashionable to outright dump on the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G. I see this all the time - people who have never even shot with it condemn it because of something they read online. At this point in my optical testing (with ONLY the 300mm focal length left), the 200-400 is testing out pretty darned well. No, it's NOT fully keeping up with the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E, but it's much older and half the price (or far less bought second hand). It's definitely still capable of professional quality output on ANY Nikon DSLR.

Finally...one clear result from this test almost saddened me. I've owned the Nikkor 200mm f4D Micro for years and with lower resolution bodies (including even the D800e) it always tested out very well at all distances. And it's a lens I have really liked for its long macro "working distance" and great output. But it's an old design and it appears as though the demanding 46 MP D850 sensor is now kicking the old dog around a little (OK...a lot). Bummer...

Up next? Comparative optical performance at 300mm. Featuring the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII, the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF, the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G, the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8, and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3. Oh right, and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#180-400_Optic200mm



Nikon 180-400mm Field Test: MORE at 400mm

09 July 2018: Nikkor 180-400mm Field Test IIIC: MORE at 400mm

This is the sixth installment in an on-going series describing my experiences field-testing the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Previous entries covered:

• 21 May 2018: First Impressions
• 18 June 2018: Shooting the 180-400mm in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary (including 27 sample images)
• 29 June 2018: Optical Performance at 500mm
• 02 July 2018: Optical Performance at 400mm
• 05 July 2018: Commentary 1 - What's AIS?

In today's entry I describe my results from additional optical performance testing of two more 400mm (or thereabouts!) options vs. the Nikkor 180-400mm @ 400mm. The additional two lenses I am bringing into the mix are the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF combined with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter (AKA "TC") and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus its 1.4x TC (the Sigma TC-1401). The full testing protocol (including the three distances chosen) and the image assessment procedure is exactly the same as in the previous optical performance testing at 400mm. Those procedures can be reviewed in the 02 July 2018 blog entry below (open in new browser tab with this link). My previous (02 July 2018) blog entry on optical performance at 400mm compared the following lenses at 3 distances: Nikkor 400mm f2.8E, Nikkor 180-400mm f4E; Nikkor 200-400 f4G; and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm. That comparison can be viewed right here...

Anyone wishing to skip the remaining background material and description of my methodology can jump directly to The Executive Summary of my results by following this link...

I. Critical Background!

Why am I testing these two lens-TC combinations against the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E? To begin with, it's partly due to popular demand - I received multiple requests for these tests against the 180-400mm for each lens. Moreover, I know absolutely that I will be quizzed on how these lenses stacked up against the 180-400mm many times in the future - both from followers of this website and blog AND from clients participating in my photo tours and seeking equipment advice about what gear to bring on the tours.

The Nikkor 300mm f4 PF has developed a strong following among wildlife photographers. The lens is comparatively affordable (VERY affordable compared to the Nikkor 180-400mm), extremely small and light (= very portable) and very solid optically. Moreover, it has a reputation (that I agree with) of performing quite well with Nikon's 1.4x teleconverter (the TC-14EIII). It's natural that many would want to know how this really handy 420mm combination compares optically against the 180-400mm f4E at 400mm. After all, it is likely that many who eventually end up with the 180-400mm will also own the 300mm f4 PF and undoubtedly some will face situations where a certain "shoot" will force them into deciding which option (to get to 400mm or thereabouts) they should bring with them (and to make that decision knowing the compromises associated with going with the 300mm f4 PF plus TC-14EIII option).

The Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 is a completely different kettle of fish. It isn't light (it's a little over 3600 gm - or pushing 8 lb) and isn't "inexpensive" (unless one compares it to the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E or any of the other Nikkor FL super-telephotos). But, when shot native (without a TC), it is VERY strong optically - both in terms of sharpness and bokeh. And, when Sigma's 1.4x TC is added to the equation it performs better than many "zoom-plus-TC" combinations (and it's still a comparatively fast f4 lens with TC in place). So...when you combine the full focal range this lens can cover (including shot native as well as with a TC) it overlaps a LOT of the focal range of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Factor in that price differential (a factor of 3 give-or-take) and it's no wonder many are wondering if this is a decent alternative to spending their kids' inheritance on a 180-400mm f4E.

Two final quick introductory comments. First, does it make any sense to compare a 400mm lens against two other lenses that are supposed to be produce a focal length of 420mm? Yep, not only would that be a pretty minor difference if all of the lenses produced "true" focal lengths, but it's important to remember that almost all lenses exhibit SOME degree of "focus-breathing" (where the focal length functionally "shortens" when used on close subjects). As it turns out, I've noticed that the Nikkor 180-400mm exhibits VERY little focus breathing (if any at all) - with short and mid-distance subjects it produces images virtually IDENTICAL in "size" relative to the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E. Conversely, the Sigma Sport 120-300mm exhibits significant focus-breathing (with or without the TC in place) - so much so that the at close and mid-distances its 420mm focal lengths produces "smaller" images (= shorter REAL focal length) than the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E at 400mm. The 300mm f4 PF plus TC-14EIII? It exhibits just a little focus-breathing...such that images captured at close and mid-distances with the 180-400mm @ 400mm or the 300mm f4 PF plus TC0-14EIII appear to be shot with virtually identical focal lengths. Which makes the whole "hey...don't compare images shot with different focal lengths" argument academic (or pretty much moot).

Finally, and for the record, I have always been a VERY selective TC user. I totally understand the appeal of TC's, but over the years I have found almost no lenses where TC's can be used without more compromises than I am prepared to make in my own shooting. Those compromises come in several forms - you lose one stop of light (with a 1.4x TC), you always give up at least some optical quality (both in sharpness and the bokeh), and with most lenses you have to stop down quite a bit to "squeeze" maximum sharpness out of them. I have also found that they rarely perform well optically with zoom lenses (not "never", just "rarely"). Finally, I have found them to perform best (and be most useful) on lenses with a maximum aperture of f2.8. At the end of the day the ONLY lens I historically added a TC to with no hesitation was the Nikkor 400mm f2.8 (both the G and E versions).

The cold, hard truth is that when it comes to telephoto lenses the nearly-trite saying "You get what you pay for" is, quite sadly, almost always true. And, what you're invariably paying for is fewer and fewer compromises (as price rises). My testing of the 180-400mm f4E - at least to date and including today's results - has made this abundantly clear (costs FAR more than any other zoom, but FAR fewer compromises than any other zoom).

II. Field-Testing Methods

Both the field-testing methods and the assessment of the final images were made using the exact same methodology as described in my 02 July 2018 blog entry (open the methodology section of that entry in a new tab/window using this link).

For those seeking a "visual" of the subjects I used (and the "scenes") at each of the three test distances, here ya go...(each image is full-frame, but reduced in resolution from 8256 x 5504 pixels to 2400 x 1600 pixels):

• Close Subject (7 meters): The Stump (JPEG: 1.14 MB)
• Mid-distance Subject (25 meters): My Amazingly Cooperative Eagle (JPEG: 1.29 MB)
• Distant Subject (1500 meters): The Distant Treeline at Sunrise (JPEG: 1.32 MB)

III. The RESULTS!

As in past entries, I'll give you a quick and dirty Executive Summary followed by a few more nitty-gritty details of the results.

1. The Executive Summary:

With only a few very limited exceptions (at very small apertures), the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E @ 400mm easily optically outperformed both the Nikkor 300mm plus TC-14EIII and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm plus TC-1401. At short distances (7 meters) the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus TC-1401 had to be stopped down to f9 before approximating the sharpness of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E when shot wide open. And, the 300mm plus TC-14EIII did not produce images as sharp as the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (shot wide open) at ANY aperture tested. At mid-distances to the subject (25 meters) neither the Sigma 120-300 plus TC nor the 300mm PF f4E matched the sharpness of the 180-400mm f4E when shot wide open. What about bokeh? A bit different story - at close distances the Sigma Sport 120-300 (plus TC) matched the Nikkor 180-400mm at most equivalent apertures. And, at 25 meters the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF (plus TC) produced the best bokeh - its OoF zones were noticeably smoother than both the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm (plus TC) at all overlapping apertures (and the Nikkor 180-400 and the Sigma Sport 120-300 were in a virtual dead heat).

At long distance the difference between the optics of the 3 lenses was even more pronounced, especially on the edges. The central region of the 180-400mm (even at f4) was sharper than the central region of the other lenses until f10 (for the Sigma Sport plus TC) and f11 (for the 300mm PF plus TC). Edges? Neither the Sigma Sport 120-300 plus TC nor the 300mm f4 PF approximated the sharpness of the edges of the Nikkor 180-400mm (even when this lens was shot wide open) at ANY aperture. In other words, the edges of the Sigma Sport 120-300 and the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF never fully sharpened up. If you like shooting distant scenes (including animalscapes) with good edge-to-edge sharpness with the Nikon D850 only the Nikkor 180-400mm is up to the task. And, remarkably, it is up to the task at any aperture (including shot wide open).

2. The Nitty Gritty Details:

In interpreting these results it's important to remember that the two closer distances (7 meters and 25 meters) were included to assess two things only: Central sharpness and the quality of the OoF zones (or bokeh). The longest distance-to-subject (1500 meters) test was included to assess both central region sharpness AND edge sharpness (but not bokeh).

A. Optical Performance at 7 meters (400mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: At all apertures the Nikkor 180-400mm @ 400m placed "first" in sharpness in the central region of the image. The Sigma Sport 120-300 plus TC placed 2nd in sharpness at all apertures until f9, at which point (and at f10 and f11) it drew even with the Nikkor 180-400mm in a tie for first place. The Nikkor 300mm f4 PF plus TC never matched either of the other two lenses in central region sharpness.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 180-400mm: Virtually none, meaning the lens is virtually at maximum sharpness when shot wide open (@ f4). This is a consistent with previous tests at 400mm - and it's still a remarkable result. Good old AIS in action! (HUH? What's AIS?).
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus TC-1401: Requires stopping down about 1.3 stops from wide open (to f6.3) before approaching maximum sharpness, and still slowly sharpens up more until f9. Approximates sharpness of 180-400mm f4E (shot at any aperture) from f9 to f11.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 300mm f4 PF plus TC-14EIII: Requires stopping down about 1 stop (to f8) to get to maximum sharpness. But note that it never gets to the sharpness of the Nikon 180-400mm (at any aperture) or the Sigma Sport 120-300 plus TC shot at f9.
• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): Best (and smoothest) OoF zones in the test were VERY similar between the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus TC. The Nikkor 300mm f4 PF plus TC invariably showed more detail (in the OoF zones) and appeared "less pleasing" than the other two lenses.
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: With subjects this close all lenses can easily separate the subject from background. However, between producing the sharpest images at all apertures (especially at the widest apertures) AND being in a tie with the Sigma Sport 120-300 plus TC in bokeh...the clear BEST CHOICE in subject-isolation ability (with maximum quality images) is the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E.

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At 7 meters the difference in image quality between the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and both the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus TC and the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF is quite stark. And, the most striking "feeling" you get when shooting all 3 lenses is the difference in the number of compromises you have to make when shooting the different lenses: with the Nikkor 180-400mm there are virtually NO compromises (you have freedom to choose any aperture you want) while you have to stop down a TON with the other two lenses to get acceptable images.

So...for context...just how signficant are the differences in sharpness discussed above? Is this just advanced pixel-peeping? Or...are the sharpness differences just "statistically" (but not visibly) different? Nope...not at ALL...check out this sample to see for yourself (100% previews of a small section of the scene):

• Wide Open vs. Wide Open vs. Wide Open: Download Sample Image (JPEG: 1.72 MB)

B. Optical Performance at 25 meters (400mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: At 25 meters the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E claims the top stop on the sharpness podium (and without having to share the top spot with any other of the test lenses at any aperture). The Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus TC is alone in 2nd spot until f8, at which point it's in a dead-heat (for SECOND place) with the Nikkor 300mm PF plus TC.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 180-400mm: Virtually none, meaning the lens is virtually at maximum sharpness when shot wide open (@ f4). A consistent - but in no way unremarkable - result. More AIS! (HUH? What's AIS?).
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus TC-1401: Requires stopping down about 1 to 1.3 stops from wide open (to f6.3) before approaching maximum sharpness, and again still slowly sharpens up more until f9.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 300mm f4 PF plus TC-14EIII: Identical to result at 7 meters, i.e., requires stopping down about 1 stop (to f8) to get to maximum sharpness.
• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): Interestingly, now the best (smoothest and with least detail) shifts over to the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF plus TC. Both the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm are close at all apertures (and virtually identical to one another).
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: Actually - close to a saw-off. But it's still important to note that in the field I'd definitely select the Nikkor 180-400mm at this distance (and at 400mm) if my goal was to effectively separate a subject from a busy background. Why? Well...BOTH the 180-400 and the Sigma Sport 120-300 will let me shoot at a background-blurring f4, but at f4 the Nikkor 180-400 is a LOT sharper than the Sigma 120-300 plus TC. And...while the 300mm f4 PF plus TC will produce a very nice background at f5.6 (but with a little more detail than the 180-400mm at f4), unfortunately the subject is soft too! ;-)

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At 25 meters you simply have superior optical performance - and fewer optical compromises (as in almost NONE) - with the 180-400mm f4E than either of the other two 400mm options. The compromise to the condition of your wallet for the 180-400mm f4E is a different (non-optical) issue.

C. Optical Performance with Distant (1500 meters) Subject (400mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: Well...if ALL you care about is central sharpness you CAN get there with all 3 lenses. With the Nikkor 180-400mm you can get it from f4 to f11. With the Sigma Sport 120-300 plus TC you can get it from f10 through to f11. With the Nikkor 300 f4 PF plus TC you can get it at f11 (only). Sharp edges? Available from f4 to f11 with the Nikkor 180-400mm. Not available with the other two lenses.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 180-400mm: None! At f4 this lens is maximally sharp in both the center and edges. Still mind-boggling. And still exhibiting AIS! (HUH? What's AIS?).
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 120-300mm plus TC-1401: Requires stopping down 2/3 of a stop from wide open (to f5) before approaching maximum sharpness in the central region, and one full stop (to f5.6) before approaching maximum sharpness on the edges.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 300mm f4 PF plus TC-14EIII: Requires stopping down one stop (to f8) to get to close to maximum sharpness in the central region. Edges remain very soft at all apertures.
• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): N/A (at this distance).
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: N/A (at this distance).

OVERALL CONCLUSION: Very good center and edge sharpness together is only available with the Nikkor 180-400mm - and it's available at all apertures. You CAN get decent central sharpness if you stop down (a lot) with both the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 plus TC and the 300mm f4 PF plus TC. Some MAY find the edge sharpness of the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 at f5.6 and smaller apertures, but I doubt anyone would be happy with the edges of the 300mm f4 PF at long distances (regardless of aperture). Again...the big difference in the lenses comes down to the number of compromises you are willing to make...

V. Final Discussion and Comments

Not too surprisingly the Nikkor 180-400mm - shot native at 400mm - outperformed its "TC-endowed" competitors in this test. There were only a few instances - and they occurred ONLY when the lenses paired up with their respective TC's were stopped WAY down - where you could approximate the optical performance of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with either the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 (plus TC) or the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF (plus TC). For me the test confirmed my long-held belief that teleconverters CAN produce good results, but it takes a lot of compromises to get those results. For some shooters - especially those who shoot a lot in bright light - those compromises may well be acceptable. As one who shoots a lot in low light - AND who likes to shoot a lot of scenes at longer distances (and almost always want edge-to-edge sharpness in those distant scenes or animalscapes) - the compromises don't work for me.

One final "Let's put this in context" note: This test was performed using a very demanding DSLR (especially when it comes to edge-sharpness) - the D850. The differentials I experienced in image quality - especially differences in edge sharpness - may not be nearly so evident if you are shooting with lower resolution cameras than the D850.

Up next? Comparative optical performance at 200mm - a 7 lens shootout! Stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#180-400_OpticalMORE_400



Nikon 180-400mm Field Test: Commentary 1 - Aperture-Independent Sharpness?

05 July 2018: Nikkor 180-400mm Field Test: Commentary 1 - What's AIS?

After a few highly detailed posts on the optical performance of the Nikkor 180-400mm at 400mm and 500mm I think it's high time for a bit of a "Let's look at the forest, not just the trees" commentary.

Yesterday and early this morning I - while I was going cross-eyed reviewing images captured comparing the optical characteristics of the Nikkor 180-400mm vs. two other 400mm "solutions" (specifically the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus its 1.4x TC and the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF plus its 1.4x TC) - I saw a VERY similar pattern emerge once again. That pattern can be summed up in a few words and nicely encapsulates what I have learned to date about the optical performance of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. And it's primarily three things:

1. Exceptional Overall Sharpness - Central Region:

After systematic testing at 400mm and 500mm Nikon has appeared to achieve what many thought was unattainable - producing a zoom lens that can go head-to-head in overall sharpness in the central region of an image with the best primes (at least at 400mm and 500mm). This includes when the built-in teleconverter is engaged and the lens is compared to primes at over 400mm (specifically at 500mm). Of course many of us hoped this would be the case, but I doubt many thought it WOULD be the case. Kudos to Nikon on this.

2. Exceptional Consistency in Sharpness ACROSS the Frame:

It's not only the central region of the images shot with the 180-400mm that are sharp - that sharpness extends completely across the frame (from edge-to-edge), even on the demanding D850 46 MP sensor (which beats up the edges of many a good lens). Again, this is a place where the best-of-the-best primes often (but not always) shined and it was, in a sense, a place no super-telephoto zoom had gone before. Despite conventional wisdom, I have found that you CAN get great central region sharpness out of the "old" Nikkor 200-400mm f4 lens - with a little stopping down. But the sharpness of the edges on that lens never matches the sharpness of the central region (even at f11). And...once again...kudos to Nikon on this achievement.

So...in overall sharpness and edge sharpness Nikon has managed to make the 180-400mm perform like a prime lens. That's simply amazing. BUT...in one other regard...and one that is also REALLY significant...Nikon has actually done something that SURPASSES all the prime lenses (and all the zooms) I have ever used or tested. That performance characteristic is...

3. Aperture Independent Sharpness:

Over the years I have tested (and used) oodles of lenses. And, until now, I have never found a lens that was at its maximum sharpness when shot absolutely wide open. Of course, every bit of marketing propaganda for any lens (made by any manufacturer) made in the last two decades claims they're "sharp even at wide apertures". But the reality is that those claims are just typical marketing BS (with the appropriate and intentionally misleading weasel-words cleverly inserted). Yep, they may be "sharp" when wide open, but they aren't their "sharpest" when shot wide open (which is, of course, what they WANT you to believe).

Take the amazing Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and shoot it at f2.8 and what do you see? A very sharp image. But stop it down to f3.2 or - even better - f3.5 and what do you see? An even sharper image. Same thing with the best 70-200mm f2.8 ever made - the 70-200mm f2.8E: Shoot it at f2.8 and it's sharp, but it doesn't get really (as in "really really") close to its maximum sharpness until f3.5.

The 180-400mm? So far - at least when the TC is not engaged (and even MOST of the time with the TC engaged) - the 180-400mm hits about 99% of maximum sharpness when shot absolutely wide open (in most cases I have been completely unable to detect ANY difference in sharpness when the lens is shot wide open vs. at f4.5, or f5, or f8, etc.). And that doesn't mean just central sharpness - it includes full edge-to-edge sharpness! Major, major kudos to Nikon on this breakthrough!

Why is this significant? Well...some of the best lenses (like the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E) require only a little stopping down (1/3 to 1/2 stop) before you get to maximum sharpness. Some shooters adjust their shooting to accommodate this, as I did in this shot where I wanted to get the cub super sharp but I wanted the foreground and background as soft as possible. So, I faced an "optimization" problem and had to think about how to balance sharpness against the subject isolation associated with shooting with a wide aperture (that shot was shot at f3.2, and I kinda wished I shot it at f3.5). But with the 180-400mm (at least at the focal lengths I've tested so far) in almost all cases you can just forget about the relationship between aperture choice and sharpness and think ONLY about the impact of aperture on depth-of-field (DoF).

And don't forget that with MOST lenses (and certainly most zooms) you have to stop down WAY more to get anywhere near the sharpness of the 180-400mm. As an example, when I was comparing the 180-400mm to the Nikkor 200-400mm f4 at 400mm with a subject 25 meters away I had to stop the 200-400mm down to f10 to approach the sharpness of the 180-400mm when shot wide open (at f4). SO...if I wanted as sharp a subject with the 200-400mm as I could get with the 180-400mm I had absolutely no aperture "latitude" to play with, and had NO control over DoF (or the ability to isolate the subject from its surroundings). With the 180-400mm I could choose f4, f4.5, f5, f5.6, f6.3, f7.1, f8, f9, f10, and f11 (that's 10 different aperture settings) - and with the 200-400 I could choose only f10 or f11 (after f11 - with both lenses - the image starts to soften up noticeably due to diffraction issues).

Anyway...to my way of thinking (and shooting) this characteristic of Aperture Independent Sharpness (or AIS...yippee...yet another acronym is born) of the 180-400mm is INCREDIBLY liberating in a field setting. It's already affecting my shooting (and my thinking while I'm shooting) - now I don't have to think about how much I have to stop down to maximize the sharpness of my subject and concentrate solely on how I can best use my aperture from a creative perspective. Of course, you still have to think about how much light you have (and how that might limit how much you can stop down or how much you must open up based on shutter speed concerns).

Very cool. And you can bet I'll be watching to see if AIS continues to be exhibited as I test the optical performance of the 180-400mm at 200mm and 300mm.

More coming on the Nikkor 180-400 soon...stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#180-400_comment1_AIS

03 July 2018: Now Appearing: NEW IMAGES (finally!)

Images from my early season photo tours are NOW appearing in my Gallery of Latest Additions. I just posted a few new Khutzeymateen Grizzlies images, and in the coming days and weeks there will be LOTS more images appearing in there, including images shot with the new Nikkor 180-400mm f4E that have NOT been publicly displayed (anywhere) before!

New visitors to this website may not realize that each image (in each of my many galleries) is accompanied by absolute oodles of contextual information and metadata. To access the information all you have to do is to click on the tabs BELOW the image - that's those "In the Field" and "Behind the Camera", etc. tabs!

ENJOY!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca



Nikon 180-400mm Field Test: Optical Performance at 400mm

02 July 2018: Nikkor 180-400mm f4E TC1.4 VR Field Test IIIB: Optical Performance at 400mm

This is the fourth installment in an on-going series describing my experiences field-testing the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Here's what was covered in previous entries in this series:

• 21 May 2018: First Impressions
• 18 June 2018: Shooting the 180-400mm in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary (including 27 sample images)
• 29 June 2018: Optical Performance at 500mm

In this entry I describe my results from systematic and comparative optical field-testing of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E lens at 400mm - its longest "native" focal length. I compared the 180-400mm against three other lens (all, of course, at 400mm) - the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E, the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G, and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3. Just like my previous entry on optical performance at 500mm, in this entry sharpness of the three lenses was compared with images captured at 3 different distances to the subject. In this comparative 400mm test I slightly shortened the "close distance" test to 7 meters (rather than 8 meters as in the 500mm test) and the "mid-distance" test to 25 meters (rather than 27 meters). This was done to reflect the normal field practice of using shorter focal lengths as the distance to the subject decreases. The "long distance" test was done at the exact same distance - about 1500 meters to the subject (just under a mile). Both central region sharpness and the quality of the Out-of-Focus (or "OoF"...AKA the "bokeh") were examined in the tests performed at the two shortest distances-to-subject (7 meters and 25 meters). Edge-to-edge sharpness (only) was examined in the long camera-to-subject (1500 meters) test. My reasons for choosing these distances - and for NOT examining the quality of the OoF zone at 1500 meters - are parallel to those for the 500mm optical test. Anyone interested can read those reasons in the 29 June blog entry (jump directly to those reasons with this link).

Anyone wishing to skip the remaining background material and description of my methodology can jump directly to The Executive Summary of my results by following this link...

I. Critical Background!

There are a number of different reasons why this test at 400mm will be of interest to a lot of shooters. First, I'm pitting the new 180-400mm zoom lens against what many wildlife (and sports) photographers consider Nikon's sharpest super-telephoto prime lens - the almost venerable Nikkor 400mm f2.8E. If Nikon has found a way to make this new zoom lens as sharp (or as close to as sharp) as the 400mm f2.8E not only will it be a more than a bit mind-boggling, but it will likely make many (including me) think of the 180-400mm as a true game-changer. And, it will likely make many think that the sky-high price of the 180-400mm isn't as unreasonable as it first appeared (or at least no more unreasonable than the price of the "other" Nikkor super-telephoto lenses with fluorine elements!).

Second, many (if not most...or even all) of Nikon's previous super-telephoto zooms are at their weakest optically at their longest focal length. This doesn't mean they aren't still good at their longest focal length, simply that they're usually not quite AS GOOD at maximum focal length as they are at shorter focal lengths. So if the Nikkor 180-400 is strong at 400mm it will make the lens very appealing to a lot of shooters (and suggest that at even shorter focal lengths the lens will be amazing!). It's my observation a lot of wildlife shooters use super-telephoto zooms at their maximum focal length a LOT, so performance at maximum focal length is critical to a LOT of wildlife photographers.

Third, if one wants to use the 180-400mm at 400mm there is no need to engage the built-in teleconverter (of course, you COULD zoom the lens to about 286mm and engage the 1.4x TC to get to 400mm...but this way of using the lens should only be done by those looking to unnecessarily shoot themselves in the foot!). In my previous test at 500mm I found the Nikkor 180-400mm amazingly sharp at short and mid-distances to a subject (pretty much on par with the highly-regarded Sigma Sport 500mm f4) but its performance on a long-distance subject was slightly weaker (I had to stop the Nikkor 180-400mm down to f8 before it approximated the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 in sharpness). So the question became "Is this an indication that the 180-400mm doesn't perform well at long distances at any focal length or was the slightly weaker performance at distance owing largely to having the TC engaged?".

Fourth, I am including the "old" Nikon 200-400mm f4G in this test...and many have long-thought that this lens was great EXCEPT for how it performed at long distances to the subject. To be honest, I have always wondered if this was one of those "internet things" where someone says it online (possibly without rigorous testing) and then it gets repeated often enough that it becomes dogma. So in including this lens in the test I can verify for myself if the 200-400mm is weak at long distances and IF this perceived problem IS real, whether or not Nikon has "remedied it" on the 180-400mm.

So in this test the gloves - and the teleconverters - come off (or are disengaged)! Based on the email I have received about the 180-400mm the burning issue for a LOT of wildlife photographers was how the 180-400mm performed at 400mm. And I know lots are wondering how it compares to the amazing 400mm f2.8E! It's crunch time!!

One final comment: My optical testing at 500mm revealed a few things about the 180-400mm that were quite astounding. The first was amazing edge-to-edge sharpness (as in "prime lens sharpness") on the 180-400 at all distances (with the only minor exception was in the f5.6 to f7.1 range with a distant subject). The other was the fact that the lens is pretty much as sharp as a tack (edge-to-edge) when shot completely wide open, i.e., there was no need to stop down at all to get the central or edge regions to sharpen up. My results when I was shooting in the Khutzeymateen in late May and early June were absolutely consistent with these test results. If these same trends continue at 400mm and shorter focal lengths then Nikon may have done something I once thought was impossible: producing a zoom lens with almost no optical compromises...

II. Field-Testing Methods

With the exception of using slightly different distances, the methods I used for capturing the images and assessing the images are identical for those used in my 500mm optical testing. You can check out all those gory details right here...

In short, I captured all the images using a Nikon D850 in a field-setting using a highly-disciplined approach and systematic approach (stable tripod, Live View, cable release, etc.) designed to minimize confounding variables. My goal in these tests is to get to what I refer to as "Maximum Attainable Field Sharpness" (or MAFS) for a given lens. It's likely there is a correlation between these results and MTF curves, but I have not tested this assumption. Of course, in most of our REAL field-shooting we'll never fully attain MAFS but I believe the "best-of-the-best" lenses have other performance-related characteristics (like AF performance, VR performance, lens weight and balance, etc.) that let us approach the MAFS quite closely (while with "lesser" lenses we may NEVER get close to their MAFS). And that's the whole reason my full field-testing regime involves the disciplined and systematic optical testing PLUS AF testing, VR testing, AND a whole lot of time doing real world "just shooting". This field test is a bit unique in that I have done a lot of my "just shooting" already (as reported - including with sample images - in my June 21 "Shooting the Khutzeymateen" blog entry).

For those seeking a "visual" of the subjects I used (and the "scenes") at each of the three test distances, here ya go...(each image is full-frame, but reduced in resolution from 8256 x 5504 pixels to 2400 x 1600 pixels):

• Close Subject (7 meters): The Stump (JPEG: 1.14 MB)
• Mid-distance Subject (25 meters): My Amazingly Cooperative Eagle (JPEG: 1.29 MB)
• Distant Subject (1500 meters): The Distant Treeline at Sunrise (JPEG: 1.32 MB)

III. The RESULTS!

As usual, here's a quick and dirty Executive Summary followed by a few more nitty-gritty details (for those who really want to understand the nuances of the 180-400mm).

1. The Executive Summary:

At 400mm the Nikkor 180-400mm exhibited mind-boggling (and I dare say game-changing) edge-to-edge sharpness and exceptional bokeh (along with great contrast!). Shockingly, with one or two very minor exceptions that are described in the Nitty Gritty Details section below, there was virtually no observable difference in image sharpness between the 180-400mm f4E and the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E at all overlapping apertures. This was true at all test distances - with subjects at a close distance (7 meters), mid-distance (25 meters), and long distance (1500 meters). Even more surprisingly, images captured wide open with the 180-400mm f4E (so at f4) were sharper at all distances than images captured wide open with the 400mm f2.8E (so at f2.8). Both the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E outperformed the Sigma Sport 150-600mm and the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G by a significant margin (at all distances) until all lenses were stopped down to the f8/f9 range. At both close and mid-distances the Sigma Sport 150-600mm and the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G were quite comparable in sharpness to one another, but the Sigma 150-600 had to be stopped down less (from its smaller largest aperture!) than the Nikkor 200-400 to get to maximum sharpness. Interestingly, the Nikkor 200-400 f4G did NOT exhibit the expected "soft-at-long-subject-distance" characteristic it has a reputation for - like with other distances it needed to be stopped down to f5 to get to maximum sharpness, but once this was done it was as sharp as the Nikkor 180-400 AND the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E in the central region (but slightly softer on the edges). Like at 500mm, the Sigma Sport 150-600mm showed good central region sharpness with a distant subject once stopped down (in this case to f7.1) but its edges remained soft on the distant subject at all apertures tested.

2. The Nitty Gritty Details:

In interpreting these results it's important to remember that the two closer distances (7 meters and 25 meters) were included to assess two things only: Central sharpness and the quality of the OoF zones (or bokeh). The longest distance-to-subject (1500 meters) test was included to assess both central region sharpness AND edge sharpness (but not bokeh).

A. Optical Performance at 7 meters (400mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: Parity in sharpness between Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and Nikkor 400mm f2.8E at all equivalent apertures (from f4.5 to f11) EXCEPT at f4 where the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E was very slightly sharper. Nikkor 200-400mm f4G very soft at f4 through f5 and only equivalent to the Nikkor 180-400 and the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E at f11. Sigma Sport slightly sharper than the Nikkor 200-400 at all overlapping apertures and approached sharpness of Nikkor 180-400 and Nikkor 400mm f2.8E at f10 and smaller apertures.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 400mm f2.8E: Requires stopping down 2/3 of a stop from wide open (to f3.5) before approaching maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 180-400mm: Virtually none, meaning the lens is virtually at maximum sharpness when shot wide open (@ f4). This is a remarkable result.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G: Requires stopping down 2/3 of a stop from wide open (to f5) before approaching maximum sharpness, and only approaches sharpness of Nikkor 180-400mm and Nikkor 400mm f2.8E when stopped all the way down to f11.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3: Requires stopping down only 1/3 of a stop or less (from f6 to f6.3) to get to maximum sharpness. Only approaches sharpness of Nikkor 180-400mm and Nikkor 400mm f2.8E when stopped down to f10.
• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): Best (and smoothest) OoF zones in the test were shown by the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E from f4 through f5, with both the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Nikkor 200-400 showing virtual identical OoF zones to the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E from f5.6 to f11. The Sigma Sport 150-600 showed more "nervous" (slightly less smooth and slightly more "jittery") bokeh than the other 3 lenses at all overlapping apertures.
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: With subjects this close all lenses can easily separate the subject from background. However, the 400mm f2.8E produces the absolute smoothest and least detailed OoF zones (pure beauty) when shot wide open - none of the other lenses could produce comparable bokeh. At this point the 400mm f2.8E offers the BEST subject isolation from a background. However, shooting the 400mm f2.8E at f2.8 comes with a penalty - the in-focus regions soften up somewhat and the lens must be stopped down to f3.5 before it hits maximum sharpness, and at this point the ability to separate the subject from the background isn't much different than that of the Nikkor 180-400mm! Two sample images will help you get a handle on these trade-offs...

Wide Open (Nikkor 400mm f2.8E) vs. Wide Open (Nikkor 180-400mm f4E) Version 1: Aperture's effect on background and subject isolation (JPEG: 2.29 MB)
Wide Open (Nikkor 400mm f2.8E) vs. Wide Open (Nikkor 180-400mm f4E) Version 1: Comparative Subject Sharpness (100% magnification crop) (JPEG: 2.07 MB)

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At 7 meters the difference in image sharpness and bokeh between the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E is reduced to hair-splitting (and extreme pixel-peeping!). My own feeling is that the difference is image quality between these two lenses is so insignificant at this distance that photographer technique/abilities and/or post-processing skills would both be more important in final image quality than lens choice. The Nikkor 200-400mm f4G and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 performed well, but showed the typical compromises we have historically come to expect from zoom lenses - they either required significantly more stopping down to get to maximum sharpness (in the case of the Nikkor 200-400mm) or produced poorer quality bokeh at all overlapping apertures (in the case of the Sigma Sport 150-600).

B. Optical Performance at 25 meters (400mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: After an extended period of pixel-peeping I was finally able to convince myself there was a real (but extremely slight) difference in sharpness between images shot with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E between f4 and f5. At apertures of f5.6 and smaller I could discern NO difference whatsoever in sharpness between images shot with those two lenses. At this distance the Nikkor 200-400mm was very weak when shot wide open, but by f5.6 it sharpened up enough to be called "decent", but it was still much less sharp than the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and Nikkor 180-400 f4E until f9 (and it more or less drew even at f10). To get a feeling for the sharpness "gaps" I am talking about, check out this composite image showing 100% magnification previews of a tiny portion of the scene with the 3 Nikkors at f4 (and note that this is the WORST result for the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E of ALL the 400mm tests). (If you DO view that composite shot, look beyond the end of the broken beak [which is arguably a function of micro-focus differences] and examine several of the other areas on the image, including the carved feathers on the neck - you'll see the two images are STILL very similar). The Sigma Sport didn't fare quite as well at this distance - it was last in sharpness up to f7.1, drew even with the Nikkor 200-400 at f8, and then was arguably as sharp as the other 3 lenses at f10.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 400mm f2.8E: Requires stopping down 1/3 of a stop from wide open (to f3.2) before approaching maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 180-400mm: Requires stopping down 1/3 of a stop from wide open (to f4.5) before approaching maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G: Requires stopping down 2/3 of a stop from wide open (to f5) before approaching maximum sharpness, and only approaches sharpness of Nikkor 180-400mm and Nikkor 400mm f2.8E when stopped down to f10.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3: Requires stopping down about 2/3 of a stop or less (from f6 to f7.1) to get to maximum sharpness. Only approaches sharpness of Nikkor 180-400mm and Nikkor 400mm f2.8E when stopped down to f10.
• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): At apertures from wide open to f4.5 the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E places first (smoothest and "most buttery" bokeh). But beyond f4.5 you pretty much couldn't see any difference in the quality of the OoF zones of the three Nikkors (the 400mm f2.8E, the 180-400mm, or the 200-400mm). The Sigma Sport 150-600 faltered here a little - up until f9 its OoF zones were noticeably less smooth and less eye-pleasing than the 3 Nikkors.
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: Now the situation between the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E is even murkier. There's no doubt you can separate the subject from the background better at this distance if you shoot both the 400mm and the 180-400mm wide open (check out this composite sample). But the difference in the ability to render the background "soft" is less pronounced between the two lenses than it was at 7 meters. And, once more the 180-400mm is sharper when it is shot wide open than the 400mm f2.8E is when it is shot wide open. In fact, you have to stop down the 400mm f2.8E down to f3.5 before it is as sharp as the 180-400mm is at f4. So...once more...if you care about maximizing the sharpness of your subject you have very little difference between the lenses in the ability to separate a subject from a busy background! Does your head hurt as much as mine does? ;-)

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At 25 meters the priciest lenses in this comparison (the 400mm f2.8 and the 180-400mm) continue to be separated optically by only an infinitesimally small amount. And, I think most importantly, any sharpness differences between the lenses falls within the range that can be negated by careful post-processing. The two "other" zooms lenses in the comparison (the Nikkor 200-400 and the Sigma 150-600) continue to perform quite similarly overall. In a sense you have two lenses battling it out for first place with a tiny gap between them, and you have two lenses battling it out for the 3rd and 4th spot with a tiny gap between them. BUT, the gap between the top two and the bottom two is MUCH larger (i.e., relatively huge) in comparison!

C. Optical Performance with Distant (1500 meters) Subject (400mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: Yup, Nikon fixed the perceived problem of "soft-at-long-distances" when they produced the 180-400mm. In what I consider an AMAZING result, there was NO VISIBLE DIFFERENCE IN EITHER CENTRAL OR EDGE SHARPNESS between the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 180-400mm at any overlapping aperture (from f4 to f11). NO DIFFERENCE. BUT...if you compare the results of shooting the 400mm f2.8 wide open vs. shooting the 180-400mm f4 wide open you'll find the 180-400mm sharper (in both the center and the edge). Another intriguing result is that after you stop the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G down to f5 (it's gawd-awful at this distance wide open!) it is as sharp in the central region as the other two Nikkors! It never gets as sharp on the edges as the other two Nikkors (it's not bad in edge sharpness at f5.6 and smaller apertures, but definitely softer than the two pricier Nikkors). The Sigma Sport 150-600 is excellent in the central region at f7.1 and smaller apertures (as good as the other 3 lenses), but is the worst on the edges (and never sharpens up much, even at f11).

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 400mm f2.8E: Requires stopping down 1/3 of a stop from wide open (to f3.2) before approaching maximum sharpness (in both center and edges).
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 180-400mm: None! At f4 this lens is maximally sharp in both the center and edges - insert one "amazing" right here!
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G: Requires stopping down 2/3 of a stop from wide open (to f5) before approaching maximum sharpness in the central region, and one full stop (to f5.6) before approaching maximum sharpness on the edges.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3: equires stopping down just over one third of a stop or less (from f6 to f7.1) to get to maximum sharpness in the central regions, and just over 1.67 stops (from f6 to f10) for the edges (and they're still not too sharp!).
• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): N/A (at this distance).
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: N/A (at this distance).

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At 1500 meters there is simply no visible difference whatsoever in the optical performance of the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. If you're into long-distance scenes with great edge-to-edge sharpness (including animalscapes) shot at 400mm either of these high-end lenses will make you very happy. And, there's nothing you can do (including stopping WAY down) to make the Nikkor 200-400 OR the Sigma Sport 150-600mm match them in edge-to-edge sharpness.

V. Final Discussion and Comments

Well...somehow Nikon has managed to produce a zoom lens that can go toe-to-toe with the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 at 500mm and the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E at 400mm - and come away without a black eye (or even a bruise). For all intents and purposes there was no significant difference in my tests in sharpness between images captured with the 400mm f2.8E and the 180-400mm f4E (at any distance). Simply mind-boggling. Hell, even if your zoom on the 180-400mm f4E broke and the lens was frozen at 400mm you'd be left with a damn good 400mm f4 lens that could produce images that - in most cases - would be completely comparable to those captured with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E! Like I said...just mind-boggling.

Many - including me - will be encouraged and excited by the strong results of the 180-400mm on a distant subject at 400mm. While I have always thought that the "problem" of the 200-400 being "soft" when shooting distances was overblown (and I think this even more after the results reported here today), I LOVE shooting distant scenes, including reasonably distant animalscapes. For ME, the ability to capture these distant scenes with a zoom lens offering great edge-to-edge sharpness (just like you can do with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E) is a HUGE bonus!

And now we have - for the very first time - a totally new question for wildlife shooters to deal with: "Are there really ANY valid arguments left to justify owning one of the big primes?" There is still the one extra stop you get with a 500mm f4 (over the Nikkor 180-400mm with the TC engaged) and a 400mm f2.8 (over the Nikkor 180-400mm shot native). But what does this extra stop really mean in the field? I can't speak for others, but with today's "good to a zillion ISO" Nikon DSLR's I almost never shoot a f2.8 lens at f2.8 for "light-gathering" reasons any more. I DO shoot lenses with wide apertures wide open (or close to it) for creative reasons (such as isolating my subject from a busy background or getting the smoothest OoF zones possible). But...because the 180-400mm is so darned sharp when shot wide open (as in "sharper than the big primes when shot wide open")...some may choose to stop their big primes down a little (and lose what little advantage they have in subject-isolation ability).

A final comment: I have received a ton of email about the 180-400mm lens - and many said they were waiting for THIS blog entry (on performance at 400mm) before making their own purchase decision. I am confident that if anyone else replicated what I did in these systematic tests they would get similar or identical results. BUT...I can only report on my OWN experiences, especially when we move away from controlled tests and start "just shooting". A number of variables that can (and usually DO) vary between users (including user technique and skill, camera paired with the lens, differing shooting conditions, AF tuning, possible variation in quality control and sample quality and a whole bunch more) may influence others' experiences with a given lens. Given what I have already learned with my systematic testing AND what I found when shooting the 180-400mm for 9-days in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly sanctuary, I am now convinced that the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E is the single best wildlife lens on the market - for ME. Is it worth the HUGE price? I'm still deciding and I'll address this fully after I have completed ALL aspects of my testing. But at the end of the day it is still a tool - and what any given user can produce with it is MORE dependent on the hands (and eyes) of the craftsman than it is on the tool...

What's left in my 180-400mm testing? Lots. Optical performance at 200mm and 300mm. AF testing. VR testing. TC testing. So stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#180-400_Optical400


Nikon 180-400mm Field Test: Optical Performance at 500mm

29 June 2018: Nikkor 180-400mm f4E TC1.4 VR Field Test IIIA: Optical Performance at 500mm

This is the third installment of several describing my experiences field-testing the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Previous installments in this 180-400mm series included an overview of my First Impressions and a detailed description of my experiences shooting the 180-400mm for 9 straight days in British Columbia's Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary.

In today's entry I describe my results from systematic and comparative optical field-testing of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E lens at 500mm (TC-engaged) against two other lenses - the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 prime lens and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 zoom lens (at 500mm). Sharpness of the three lenses were compared with images captured at 3 different distances to the subject - at close distance (8 meters or 26 feet), at a "mid-distance" (27 meters or 89 feet), and at long-distance (approx. 1500 meters or ABOUT a mile). The quality of the Out-of-Focus (OoF) zones (AKA "bokeh") of the three lenses were compared at the closest two distances (8 meters and 27 meters) - at 1500 meters the question of quality of the OoF zones becomes pretty much nonsensical as the appearance of any objects in front of or behind the subject are either likely to be in focus as well or - if they are very far away from the subject - not vary in appearance appreciably. My rationale for choosing these distances is described below in the "Field-Testing Methods" section.

The reason I'm presenting my results of optical testing at 500mm first is twofold. First, using the 180-400mm f4E at 500mm means the built-in teleconverter must be engaged and one of the obvious key questions about the 180-400mm is "...how does it perform with the TC engaged"? Second, at 500mm I can compare the optical performance of the 180-400mm against both a top-notch prime lens and one of the leading "ultra-zoom" lenses.

While I am only comparing the 180-400mm against two other lenses in these tests, note that key previous field-tests suggest it's probably safe to extrapolate the results to at least a few other lenses. In my "500mm Wars" field test I compared the Sigma 500mm f4 prime lens against Nikon's latest 500mm lens (the Nikkor 500mm f4E) and found them to be virtually identical in optical performance. So I am pretty comfortable saying that the optical comparison of the Nikkor 180-400 to the Sigma Sport 500mm would be virtually identical to the comparison of the Nikkor 180-400 to the Nikkor 500mm f4E. On the zoom side, way back in December of 2015 (that blog entry right here I compared the optical performance of the Sigma Sport 150-600mm against the ONLY OTHER current Nikkor offering a 500mm focal point (the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 zoom), including at 500mm. In that test I found the Sigma Sport 150-600mm to be slightly sharper than the Nikkor 200-500mm @ 500mm (and with extremely similar OoF zones).

Those who are impatient and don't care about context or reading about my field-testing methods, you can skip to The Executive Summary of my results by following this link...

I. Critical Background...And Qualifiers!

Historically the general feeling among serious wildlife photographers was that prime (fixed focal length) super-telephoto lenses offered the ultimate in image quality, with super-telephoto zooms falling behind at least a little in image quality, especially at their longest focal lengths (and, in some cases, at long camera-to-subject distances). However, zooms offered the photographer a wide range of focal lengths and all that go with that, including the ability to compose shots exactly as the photographer wanted (while the saying that with primes you have to "....zoom with your feet" is cute, it often isn't possible) and thus end up with shots that need little or no cropping. Another historical trend was that the super-telephoto primes cost a whole lot more than even the "best-of-the-best" super-telephoto primes.

When Nikon recently introduced the 180-400mm f4E zoom lens the price differential between their best prime lenses and the 180-400mm pretty much evaporated! Consequently, I (along with probably thousands of other photographers) began wondering if Nikon had managed to develop a lens with optical performance approaching that of the prime lenses with the focal lengths it overlapped. If that had done that, then perhaps the stratospheric price of the 180-400mm just might be justified (considering the number of lenses it could functionally replace). Of course, the 180-400 is a full stop slower than the top prime lenses it overlaps with in focal length, so a secondary consideration becomes "But can it isolate a subject as effectively as the big primes?".

So...that's where I'm coming from on this field test - not only do I care about the image quality at the longer focal lengths being "good enough" for me, but if I am going to keep my copy of the 180-400 I pretty much want it to perform as well as Nikon's (and Sigma's) big primes do.

Those who have followed my past field tests know I don't place much faith in how closely MTF curves predict lens performance in the field - in my view those MTF curves are produced under conditions just too far away from what we do in the field that they pretty much "fall apart" in usefulness. For example, if a lens has an autofocus system that is so bad (or non-existent like in many Zeiss lenses) that you never manage to get a sharp shot in the field...well...those wonderful Zeiss MTF curves don't mean much! Similarly, if you are regularly hand-holding a "big" lens then the quality of the image stabilization system may have more to do with how sharp your image is than does the MTF curve.

My optical field testing could be criticized for similar reasons. I conduct them using methods (see "Field-Testing Methods" below) that we rarely use in the field. I do this to minimize "confounding" variables and I come up with what I think of as "Maximum Attainable Field Sharpness" (all right...the birth of yet another acronym: MAFS!). How close one can get to this MAFS will vary between users AND with how other lens characteristics (that vary between lenses, such as AF performance, VR performance, weight, balance, etc.) permit. And that's the whole reason I combine my optical field tests with a lot of "just shooting" (like my 9-day stint shooting the Khutzeymateen Grizzlies - see blog entry below).

II. Field-Testing Methods

Okey dokey - here's what I did, followed by a quick rationale for why I did it the way I did...

At each of the three test distances - and for each lens - I shot aperture "runs" from wide open through to f11 in 1/3 stop increments. For each aperture I shot two images and "de-focused" the lens after each shot (and re-focused for the next shot). All images were captured with a Nikon D850 using Live View, a cable release, full electronic shutter, VR or OS OFF, and the lens/camera combination was supported on a firm tripod (Jobu Algonquin) and gimbal head (Jobu Heavy Duty Mk IV). Between EACH shot I waited a minimum of 10 seconds (and I have the mosquito bites to prove it) for all vibrations to dissipate (my "de-focusing" of the lens required me touching it, which could have produced minor vibrations). All images were captured using Manual exposure mode and a fixed ISO (so aperture and shutter speed varied between each 2-shot sequence). Now...that rationale...

• Three Test Distances: I shot test images at 8 meters, 27 meters and about 1500 meters. This was done because some lenses are known to vary in optical quality at different distances. I chose 8 meters because this is the type of distance I often shoot small mammals (e.g., squirrels and chipmunks) and/or medium-size perching birds (from Juncos to Clark's Nutcrackers and Robins and Bluebirds) at. My subject was my nearly-famous stump (and here it is!) - it allows me to carefully assess sharpness AND both close OoF zones (opposite side of the stump) and more distant OoF zones. Note that at this distance (and using this subject) I did NOT examine edge sharpness (i.e., I was interested primarily in central region sharpness). I'm comfortable with this because at this type of distance we're rarely shooting absolutely flat surfaces (hey...this is PORTRAIT distance) and more often than not the edges are of little concern (and often in OoF zones).

I chose 27 meters because I often work at this distance when shooting larger mammals (coyotes through to bears and many ungulates). My subject was a highly cooperative and patient eagle (see it here) with a garden rake positioned 1.5 meters behind it as well as trees behind it at about 8 meters and 40 meters respectively (to help assess the quality of the OoF zones). This setup let me examine image sharpness in the region I was focusing as well as getting a really good handle on how the OoF objects (at different distances) appeared.

I chose 1500 meters as my distant subject because this is a distant I often shoot scenes at with long telephoto lenses (including some animalscape shots) and in these shots I almost always care about edge-to-edge sharpness. The scene I chose is a distant treeline that runs perpendicular to the position I shot the images from and the treelike runs completely across the frame (which allows easy edge-to-edge assessment). Here's the scene...

• Nikon D850: This 46 MP DSLR is highly demanding and shows lens flaws (such as edge softness) more readily than Nikon's lower res DSLR's do. As a general rule, if a lens tests well with the Nikon D850 it will perform GREAT on Nikon's lower-resolution DSLR's. All images were captured as maximum resolution 14-bit compressed raw files.

• Live View (and Live View Autofocus): Live View is "immune" to AF tuning issues/biases and highly accurate. Using it (rather than the phase detect AF system of the optical viewfinder) removes a confounding variable. Note that for each aperture (for each lens at each distance) I shot two shots - and I "de-focused" and then "re-focused" the lens between shots. As it turns out, this "de-focus and re-focus" step was largely unnecessary - in over 95% of the test "sequences" there was no difference between the two shots (in focus or sharpness).

• Cable Release and Electronic Shutter: Both used to minimize camera movement/shake...thus assuring the sharpest possible image.

• VR/OS OFF: The performance of different VR/OS systems when shot from a firm tripod varies between lenses, and some even make the image "drift" over time (and this image drifting can even blur the image at slow shutter speeds). Simplest way to control for this variable is simply to turn the VR/OS system off (hey...I was shooting from a rock-solid tripod and had cut out other sources of vibration...and my subjects were static!).

III. Image Quality Assessment

I assessed images shot at 8 and 27 meters for central region sharpness AND the quality of the OoF zones. Images shot at 1500 meters were assessed for edge-to-edge (including central region) sharpness but not for quality of OoF zones. Image quality was assessed by viewing raw previews constructed by Capture One Pro V11.1.1 (ALL settings affecting preview quality absolutely identical for all images) on a Apple 30" Cinema HD display (101 ppi). Sharpness was assessed at 100% magnification - OoF zone quality was assessed at both lower magnifications AND 100% magnification. The image assessment method could best be described as VERY SLOW AND METHODICAL (AND REPETITIVE) PIXEL-PEEPING! ;-)

IV. The RESULTS!

Here's a quick and dirty executive summary PLUS a few more nitty-gritty details for those who appreciate precision and nuance...

1. The Executive Summary:

At both close and moderate camera-to-subject distances (8 meters and 27 meters) the Nikkor 180-400mm (at a 500mm focal length - with TC engaged) and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 were virtually identical optically. At those same distances the Sigma Sport 150-600mm (@ 500mm) was noticeably softer (less sharp) at wider apertures but was closely nipping at the heels of the other two lenses at f9 through f11. When the subject was much more distant (1500 meters) the Sigma Sport was noticeably sharper (in both the central regions and edges) than the Nikkor 180-400mm, but only at "wider" apertures (f5.6 through f7.1). From f8 through f11 there was little difference in sharpness between the Nikkor 180-400 and the Sigma 500. The Sigma Sport 150-600mm faltered more at the long distance - central region sharpness was decent at f8 and smaller apertures but the edges did not sharpen up even at f11.

2. The Nitty Gritty Details:

A. Optical Performance at 8 meters (500mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: Parity in sharpness between Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and Sigma Sport 500mm f4 at all equivalent apertures (from f5.6 to f11). Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 noticeably softer up to (and including) f8 but approaches (but does not fully match) sharpness of the other two lenses from f9 to f11.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 180-400mm: Virtually none, meaning the lens is virtually at maximum sharpness when shot wide open (@ 5.6). This is absolutely remarkable, especially given that at this focal length the built-in TC is engaged (not only have I never seen ANY lens at maximum sharpness when shot wide before, but normally even MORE stopping down is required to get to maximum sharpness if a TC is added to the equation).
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 500mm f4: Requires stopping down 2/3 of a stop from wide open (to f5) before approaching maximal sharpness, and must be stopped down to f5.6 to match the sharpness of the Nikkor 180-400mm shot wide open (@ f5.6).
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3: Requires stopping one full stop from wide open (to f9) before approaching maximum sharpness.
• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): Parity in the smoothness and aesthetic appeal of the OoF zones of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and the Sigma Sport f5.6 at all equivalent apertures. OoF zones of Sigma Sport 150-600mm slightly less smooth (more "jittery" or "nervous") than the other two lenses at equivalent apertures.
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: With subjects this close all 3 lenses can easily separate the subject from background. Given that the quality of the OoF zones of the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Sigma Sport 500mm are virtually identical, and given that the Sigma Sport 500mm must be stopped down to f5.6 to match the sharpness of the Nikkor 180-400mm when shot wide open (which is f5.6 with the TC engaged), I can find no net difference in the ability of the Nikkor 180-400 and the Sigma 500 to isolate a close subject.

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At 8 meters I could find no image quality compromises associated with using the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E zoom compared to the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 prime lens. And overall both lenses outperformed the Sigma Sport 150-600mm.

B. Optical Performance at 27 meters (500mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: Again, a virtual dead-heat in sharpness between the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 at all equivalent apertures (from f5.6 to f11). I was able to detect an extremely small difference in sharpness between the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Sigma Sport 500mm at TWO apertures (f7.1 and f9). At both of these apertures the Nikkor 180-400 was very slightly sharper, but seeing the difference required extreme pixel-peeping on a 101 ppi monitor and would have been invisible on a higher resolution monitor and was within the range that could have been easily negated with sharpening during post-processing. Again, the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 was noticeably softer up to (and including) f8 but approaches (but does not fully match) sharpness of the other two lenses from f9 to f11.

Here's an image shot that shows a sample result (this one at f6.3) comparing the three images (note that this is a small crop from the central region as seen when viewed at 100% magnification: Download image (JPEG: 1.87 MB)

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 180-400mm: As at 8 meters...virtually no stopping down needed to get to maximum sharpness. And again, I feel compelled to point out that this is absolutely remarkable!
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 500mm f4: Requires stopping down 2/3 of a stop from wide open (to f5) before approaching maximum sharpness, and (like at 8 meters) the Sigma 500mm f4 must be stopped down to f5.6 to match sharpness of Nikkor 180-400mm shot wide open (@ f5.6).
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3: Requires stopping down one full stop from wide open (to f9) before approaching maximum sharpness.
• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): This is interesting...I found the OoF zones of the Nikkor 180-400mm to be noticeably smoother and more aesthetically pleasing compared to both the Sigma Sport 500 and the Sigma Sport 150-600 when images shot at the same aperture were compared. This means there was less "ghosting" around fine OoF lines (like branches) and the various OoF objects (regardless of distance behind the subject) always appeared "smoother" on the images shot with the Nikkor 180-400mm. Interestingly, the OoF zones of the Sigma 500 and the Sigma 150-600 were virtually identical at all equivalent apertures.
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: Hmmm...this is a bit complicated and the result kind of depends on how you look at it. If you compare images shot wide open with the Sigma 500 (so at f4) and wide open with the Nikkor 180-400 (so at f5.6) you CAN see a difference in the ability of the "faster" Sigma 500 to separate the subject from the background (see THIS sample comparative image). BUT...if you were to pixel-peep full resolution versions of these images you'd notice that the Nikkor 180-400 shot is considerably sharper. If you want to compare the quality of the OoF zones of the shots where the subjects are equivalently sharp (which occurs at f5.6), then you'd notice the OoF zone of the image shot with the Nikkor 180-400 has better (smoother and "more buttery") OoF zones (see THIS Sample Comparative Image).

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At 27 meters there is arguably a small advantage to the optical performance of the Nikkor 180-400mm over the Sigma Sport 500 - their sharpness is virtually identical at all equivalent apertures BUT the OoF zones of the 180-400mm are slightly smoother and "more buttery". BUT...if you're OK with a slightly less sharp subject, the f4 aperture of the Sigma Sport 500mm does allow you to separate your subject from a busy background a little better. Which lens would I choose when shooting a subject at this distance? I'd probably grab the Nikon 180-400mm. Why? Given the near optical equivalence I'd give up the slightly better ability of the Sigma 500mm f4 to isolate the subject from the background for the ability to tweak the framing and composition via zooming a little. But it's pretty much a coin toss!

C. Optical Performance with Distant (1500 meters) Subject (500mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: Now the Sigma Sport 500mm prime lens pulls away from both of the zooms. Between f5.6 and f7.1 the Sigma 500mm f4 was noticeably sharper than the Nikkor 180-400mm in both the center and edges of the frame. Once stopped down to f8 (and through to f11) the differential in sharpness between the Sigma 500mm and the Nikkor 180-400mm fell dramatically and it took pixel-peeping at 100% magnification to see that the Sigma 500mm was still a little sharper (i.e., once stopped down to f8 the 180-400mm and the Sigma 500 were EXTREMELY similar in sharpness).180-400_500_methods How did the Sigma 150-600mm fare? Soft on the edges at all apertures but not bad central sharpness (close to the same as the Nikkor 180-400) when stopped down to f8 and beyond.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 180-400mm: Now the 180-400mm becomes mortal! Maximum sharpness (center and edges) not attained until stopped down one full stop (to f8)
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 500mm f4: Requires stopping down a full stop from wide open (to f5.6) before approaching maximum sharpness in center and edges.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3: Never sharpens on edges at any aperture; requires stopping 2/3 of a stop from wide open (to f8) before approaching maximum sharpness in central region.
• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): N/A (at this distance).
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: N/A (at this distance).

OVERALL CONCLUSION: This is the only distance where the Sigma 500mm showed a clear optical advantage over the Nikkor 180-400mm. If one is going to use the Nikkor 180-400mm at these types of distances they should stop down to f8 (or smaller apertures). At this point it is impossible to determine if the diminished performance of the 180-400 with distant subjects (compared to its performance at shorter distances) means that the lens will generally perform poorer at long distances (at all focal lengths) or if this result is a function of the TC being in use. This makes further testing at "native" focal lengths (TC NOT engaged) essential (and quite interesting!).

V. Final Discussion and Comments

I find the result that the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E @ 500mm matches the optical performance of the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 at most "normal" wildlife working distances to be absolutely amazing. It's important to remember that this result was obtained with the teleconverter ENGAGED and it makes me wonder how the Nikkor 180-400 will compare against the venerable Nikkor 400mm f2.8E when both are shot without teleconverters involved! In my mind one other result is really significant - the fact that at most normal working distances (for wildlife) the Nikkor 180-400 can be shot absolutely wide open (even with the TC engaged) without any optical penalty. For those worried that you'd have to stop the lens down to get maximum sharpness - and in doing so lose the critical ability to separate a subject from the background - well...scratch that concern off your list!

Next up? Optical performance at 400mm. This means a 4-way comparison between the Nikkor 180-400mm vs. the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E vs. the Nikkor 200-400mm f4 vs. the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3. Stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Optical500

19 June 2018: Calgary Seminar: The CREATIVE Side of Wildlife Photography!

Here's something that may be of interest to wildlife photographers in and around Calgary, Alberta...

In exactly ONE week (that would be Tuesday, June 26!) I'm giving an evening seminar in Calgary on the CREATIVE side of wildlife photography. The seminar is being hosted/organized by The Camera Store and should be great fun! ;-)

Here are the critical details...

When: Tuesday, June 26th, 2018 6:30 PM - 9:00 PM
Where: Unit 210, 3060 9th Street SE Calgary, AB
Event Description:

It's time to crank your wildlife photography up a notch or two! Spend an entertaining evening being both inspired and encouraged to think about advanced creative concepts that will elevate your own wildlife photography to a higher level. There's so much more to creating memorable wildlife shots than simply following the rule of thirds, using leading lines, remembering to shoot the occasional vertical composition, and getting the eye sharp!

Creating great wildlife photos starts with training yourself to see how your camera sees, learning how to recognize powerful instances of visual contrast, and instinctively knowing when "closer" isn't better. If you're anywhere between being an aspiring wildlife photographer through to a seasoned professional, you do not want to miss this evening!

How To Register? Just go here: Register for Wildlife Photography Seminar

Hope to see you there...cheers...

Brad

PS: Yep, there WILL be a Q&A session at the end, and you CAN ask me technical questions...including about the new 180-400mm f4E lens! ;-)

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca


Nikon 180-400mm Field Test: Shooting the Khutzeymateen Grizzlies

18 June 2018: Nikkor 180-400mm f4E TC1.4 VR Field Test II: Shooting the Khutzeymateen...

This is the second installment of several describing my experiences field-testing the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. In this entry I describe my experiences and impressions of the 180-400mm after a focused 9-day stint of shooting the "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" under very real-world conditions in late May and early June. I took possession of my copy of the 180-400mm about a week before heading into the Khutzeymateen which gave me some time do some preliminary testing of the lens. The prefatory results of this early testing were reported in my 21 May blog entry and they suggested that the 180-400mm exhibited very good edge-to-edge sharpness at several "native" focal lengths (i.e., without the built-in teleconverter engaged). They also suggested that the autofocus (AF) system was very good at native focal lengths but in at least some tests (that may or may not be highly correlated with most real-world shooting situations) some aspects of AF performance MAY be degraded when the TC was engaged. And...during that 1-week pre-Khutzeymateen period I had the impression (without hard evidence) that the Vibration Reduction (VR) system was very effective. And that's pretty much all I knew about the performance of the 180-400mm when I packed it up and took it into the Khutzeymateen.

I. Critical Background...And Qualifiers!

For those who don't know, the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary is one of the world's premiere locations to photograph grizzly bears (AKA Coastal Brown Bears). It is located on British Columbia's northern coast and is closely regulated (which means there's a long lineup to get in there!). The "hottest" spot in the Khutzeymateen for photographing bears is invariably the estuary at the top of the inlet. The estuary can only be accessed at moderately high tides and via smallish inflatable boats (typically Zodiacs). Why am I mentioning this? Because it has a huge consequence on how you must do your photography in there - you can't use a tripod in a smallish Zodiac and consequently ALL shots are captured hand-held in the Khutzeymateen.

I have been leading photo tours in the Khutzeymateen for 12 years now (info on the 2018 photo tours that lead to this blog entry are described here on my Photo Tours page). In all my years of going into the Khutzeymateen I can honestly say the 2018 "edition" of my photo tours were the wettest and coldest ever! We awoke several mornings to fresh snow on the mountains around us (fortunately not on us). Why am I mentioning this? Well...during the vast majority of my time in the Khutzeymateen this year it was heavily overcast and/or raining. So think low-light. And...as mentioned just above...all shooting in the Khutzeymateen is done hand-held. Which means higher ISO shooting, which means (you guessed it!) I did the VAST majority of my Khutzeymateen shooting in 2018 using my D5. Overall 70% of the 17,107 shots I took over my 9 days in the Khutzeymateen were with my D5. I used my D850 for 28% of the shots and my D500 for only 2% of my shots. Of all the shots I took with the 180-400 there was even a slightly stronger bias towards D5 use - a full 75% of the shots taken using the 180-400 were when it was paired with my D5. Consequently...it's worth keeping this D5 bias in mind when reading the rest of this blog entry - if I say something like "The autofocus of the 180-400mm was phenomenal" it should probably be read as "The autofocus of the 180-400mm was phenomenal when paired with the D5". While I have no a priori reason to argue that my observations of the performance of the 180-400mm wouldn't also apply to other Nikon DSLR's, my results in the Khutzeymateen indicating stellar performance of the 180-400mm (oops...getting ahead of myself there) are based almost exclusively on pairing it with Nikon's flagship DSLR (and its number 1 action camera by a wide margin). Just sayin'...

Oh...and BTW...all the rain we received in the Khutzeymateen gave me a great chance to evaluate how a new rain cover I purchased for the 180-400mm performed under tough conditions. And, on that note, if someone is looking for a GREAT rain cover for the 180-400mm I can highly recommend the AquaTech SSRC Large Sport Shield Rain Cover (info on this rain cover right here).

Some Interesting Khutzeymateen Shooting Stats:

Here's a few shooting stats from my Khutzeymateen trip that some may find interesting (including a few that lead to interesting conclusions):

• Total number of raw images captured over 9 days: 17,107
• Total number of raw images captured with the 180-400mm: 15,729 (92% of all images captured)
• Total number of raw images captured using 180-400mm WITHOUT the TC engaged: 4,491
• Total number of raw images captured using 180-400mm WITH the TC engaged: 11,238

The heavy usage of the 180-400mm relative to the other lenses I took into the Khutzeymateen speaks volumes about the versatility of the lens. In past years I have taken other combinations of lenses into the Khutzeymateen and one of my favourite combinations in the Khutz has been the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR. I took this combination with me in 2018 and my initial plan was to alternate between using the 180-400mm and the Sigma Sport 120-300 plus 400mm f2.8E combination daily (one day with the 180-400mm, next day with the Sigma Sport plus the Nikkor 400). But after one day with the 180-400 (including what I learned from reviewing day #1's images on my laptop the first evening of the trip) I almost instantly dumped that plan (and used the 180-400mm each day of the trip). I can honestly say (as I mentioned in my last blog entry) that I never once find myself thinking "I wish I had my 400mm f2.8E (or my Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8) in my hands right now..."

Another "factoid" (not shown in the stats above) that further argues for the versatility (and overall usefulness) of the 180-400mm is that when reviewing the images from Khutzeymateen - I used virtually EVERY focal length between 180-560mm during my Khutzeymateen stint. I WAS biased heavily towards using the longest native focal length (400mm) and longest overall focal length (550/560mm), but a large part of this was simply because I was VERY keen on knowing how this lens performed at "maximum" focal lengths. When I was examining the focal lengths I used with the 180-400mm I noticed some things about how the cameras I used (D5, D850, D500) recorded that were partly interesting and partly quirky (and deserve documentation somewhere...why not here?!):

1. The D5, D500, and D850 all record the focal lengths used in 10mm increments from 180-500mm. So you can see focal lengths (when reviewing images on the back of your camera or on any image-editing program) of 180mm, 190mm, 230mm, et cetera. But ALL focal lengths longer than 490mm are recorded as 500mm or 550mm (or 560mm if you are shooting with a D5 with the most recent firmware update). So...according to the cameras you NEVER shoot at 510mm or 520mm or 530mm, et cetera. Weird.

2. The cameras perceive that the 180-400mm without the TC engaged is a different lens than WITH the TC engaged. For shots without the TC engaged the lens is listed as the "180.0-400.0 mm f/4.0" and with the TC engaged it is listed as the "250.0-550.0 mm f5.6" (add in an external TC WITHOUT the TC engaged and it calls the lens a 250-550 mm f5.6...without the decimal points!). So what? Well...two consequences - one trivial and one not-so-trivial. The trivial one is that if you are tallying up (or filtering) images by lens type in any image management program (e.g., Lightroom, Capture One Pro, etc.) you have to be careful or you can miss a lot of images. The not-so-trivial consequence? Because the cameras perceive that the 180-400mm (TC NOT engaged) is a different lens than the 250-550/560mm (TC engaged) it allows you to store DIFFERENT AF tuning values for them. This is good. It means that if the TC changes your AF tuning values (which often happens with TC's), you can "accommodate" that need (I will avoid going into a tirade right now about how inadequate it is to use a single AF tuning value for a zoom lens! ;-)

3. Focal length and firmware update chaos! OK...so Nikon is being really inconsistent in its firmware updates (in terms of the maximum focal lengths this lens actually has). If you have a D5 and HAVEN'T done the firmware update that came out on or about May 24, 2018 then the maximum focal of the lens with the TC engaged is 550mm. If you HAVE done the firmware update then the longest focal length is 560mm. What about the D500 and D850's? Well...if you have OR haven't done the June 7, 2018 firmware update (and note that date) the maximum focal length of the lens always 550mm. Makes total sense - right? Yep, but only in random world. I had no idea that Donald Trump had taken over the Department of Firmware and Metadata Logic at Nikon.

Back to the Khutzeymateen shooting stats. Why such a high percentage of shots WITH the TC engaged (almost two thirds of all shots captured with the 180-400)? This is biased upwards at least some by my interest in testing how well the lens worked with the TC engaged...and it's obviously influenced by the average shooting distance to the subjects. But it's also a reflection of how rapidly my confidence grew in the quality of the shots captured with the TC engaged (I was reviewing each day's shots in the evenings...and there was more than one "holy crap...these 560mm shots are great" statements uttered on night 1!).

And HERE's the biggest qualifier that should be kept in mind while reading this blog entry: I did NO comparative and/or systematic testing in the Khutzeymateen - I was "just shooting". Consequently, everything that follows is subjective and in no way scientific. Some findings ARE a little beyond "anecdotal" (if all of the 15,729 shots captured showed vignetting there's a darned good chance the lens vignettes!), but I can't make absolute or comparative statements with any degree of confidence. I CAN say that the lens appeared very sharp but I CAN'T say the lens is the sharpest lens I ever shot OR that the lens was "slightly less sharp than the 400mm f2.8E". When hand-holding ANY lens in a floating Zodiac and shooting wildlife under rapidly changing conditions there are a plethora of uncontrolled variables. But...I HAVE been going into the Khutzeymateen for over a decade now and my "gut feelings" probably have some merit! ;-)

II. My Primary Observations, Findings and Thoughts?

So...qualifiers in mind...what were my "big picture" observations, findings and thoughts after shooting the 180-400mm f4E for 9 days in the Khutzeymateen? Because there are so few of them, I'll start with the negatives...

1. Vignetting: The vignetting I reported on in my First Impressions blog entry was persistent and affected ALL the images I captured. Repeat after me - "The Nikkor 180-400mm f4E vignettes". As anticipated, the vignetting is less obvious on most wildlife shots than on landscape shots (especially if the wildlife subject is in dark surroundings), but it's always there. How much? It varies with focal length and aperture, but in most cases it's cleaned up "enough" if I apply a correction of 0.67 stops using Capture One Pro's "Circular On Crop" vignetting correction factor.

2. Weight: While I had no problem at all hand-holding the 180-400mm for extended periods of time in the Khutzeymateen, it is still a 3700+ gm (8+ lb) lens. And those who feel that the Nikkor 80-400mm (1570 gm or 3.5 lb), Nikkor 200-500 (2300 gm or 5.1 lb) or the Sigma Sport 150-600mm (2860 gm or 6.3 lb) are on the heavy side may find the 180-400mm just too heavy for them. The current reality (at least until Nikon introduces its 400, 500, and 600mm PF lenses) is that if you want a top-notch super-telephoto lens (prime or zoom) you will be adding about 8 lbs to your kit.

3. Price: No matter how great the 180-400mm turns out to be (or how blown away I was by its performance in the Khutzeymateen) I still consider its price to be "off the charts". And, sadly, it puts it out of reach of countless wildlife photographers of all levels (from novices through to seasoned pros). In my view the lens is somewhere between $4000 and $5000 CAD over-priced. But I doubt Nikon will drop the price on it much (if any) anytime soon. Sigh.

The positives? Where do I begin? In the field - when doing what you're supposed to be doing with it - well...in my never-humble opinion this is simply a STELLAR lens. Here's what stood out the MOST for me:

1. Astounding "Hit Rate: When I began scrolling through my images after the first day in the Khutzeymateen the first thing that struck me was just how few shots I missed with the 180-400mm. Almost all my shots captured with the 180-400mm and the D5 were tack sharp. And this includes shots of static subjects, rapidly moving subjects, subjects shot in absolute downpours, flying subjects, subjects shot in great light, subjects shot in terrible light...all of which were shot hand-held from a floating inflatable boat! In my view the observation of a noticeably higher "hit rate" in the field means that all performance-related lens characteristics (optical quality, autofocus, vibration reduction, etc.) are interacting (co-mingling?) to produce a lens that is somehow more than the sum of its parts (yeah, I know it sounds almost "sucky", but it's true). For me, this exceptionally high hit ratio was the single most mind-boggling aspect of the performance of the 180-400mm in the Khutzeymateen.

2. Excellent Image Quality - Native Focal Range (180-400mm): As my preliminary testing had suggested the image quality of the 180-400mm was simply excellent. This means several things - great edge-to-edge sharpness, exceptionally pleasing out-of-focus zones (AKA "bokeh"), and fantastic contrast (including in back-lit scenarios). What continues to surprise me is that the sharpness of the 180-400mm isn't just found when you stop down - at virtually ALL apertures (including when shot wide open) - this lens is SHARP. It's also darned sharp at its maximum focal length (400mm). And, very importantly, this image quality was consistent over all distances to subject - from portraits of cooperative bears through to distant scenes. In the sample images below I intentionally picked subjects over a variety of distances-to-subject - keep that in the back of your mind when examining the sample shots.

3. Very Good to Excellent Image Quality - "Extended" Focal Range (with TC engaged: 250-550/560mm): While my shooting in the Khutzeymateen doesn't permit me to say that engaging the built-in 1.4x teleconverter had no negative consequences on image quality, I got results in the 401-550/560mm focal range that pleased me very much. Sharpness, bokeh, and contrast were all extremely good (if not excellent). I think it's very notable that I obtained excellent results with the TC engaged and the lens shot at MAXIMUM focal length even when shooting wide open (f5.6). And I think it's worth mentioning that after the first day any "reluctance" I had to engage the TC (for fear of diminishing the image quality lower than I would deem acceptable) completely evaporated.

4. Exceptional Versatility: I shot 17,107 images over the 9 days - and 15,729 (92%) of these were with the 180-400mm. I never once took (or felt the need to take) my 400mm f2.8E or Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 into the field during the 9 days. What does this tell you? Yep...this is an incredibly versatile lens. The allure of taking only this lens - plus a 70-200mm and 24-70mm - and NO OTHER LENSES on any trips involving weight restrictions or air travel (and making virtually no compromises in image quality) is very strong.

5. Excellent Autofocus (all focal lengths): Seemed great, even when the TC was engaged. My shooting included lots of action shots - including sparring grizzlies and birds in flight - and listening to me when I was reviewing shots in the evening would have been very boring (and probably very irritating): "Sharp...sharp...sharp again...another sharp one...sharp...that one's sharp..sharp...sharp..." But note that I find it extremely challenging to determine anything "quantitative" or definitive about AF when shooting in the field. For this reason I will be doing a lot more AF testing (under controlled conditions) in the coming weeks...

6. Rock Solid Vibration Reduction: Again...it seemed great, but like with AF I find this hard to assess when "just shooting" (but the high "hit ratio" above does argue for the VR system being at least adequate...and I THINK it's WAY beyond this, but I haven't done systematic testing on it yet). I will be doing a lot more VR testing in the coming weeks (so stay tuned on this). One "not-so-surprising" observation is worth mentioning: like with other Nikkors that offer the VR Sport or VR Normal options I found that the biggest difference between these two modes is the "good old HJ factor", where HJ = Herky Jerky, and it refers to how much the image jumps around BETWEEN frames shot in a burst. In Sport Mode the image is rock solid in position from the first frame in a burst through to the last frame. In Normal Mode (where presumably you get a LITTLE more VR performance) the image jumps around like crazy between shots in a burst (you do NOT want to be shooting action - be it sparring bears or a bird in flight - using VR normal).

7. Smart Ergonomics: Nikon is almost always very good at ergonomics, and they did TWO things on this lens that I REALLY like. The first is position of the lever that toggles the TC on and off. During my first day in the Khutzeymateen I found myself toggling the TC on and off almost subconsciously and without ever taking my eye away the viewfinder. Full marks to Nikon on positioning of this lever. The second thing I really like is "reversing" the zoom and AF rings (relative to the 200-400 and "older" generation Nikon zooms). On the 180-400mm the zoom ring is now the distal ring (closest to the far end of the lens) and, at least for me, it falls right where it needs to so that I can zoom the lens when I am "naturally" holding the lens. The end-result of this is that I DID end up zooming the lens far more than I did when I owned the 200-400. Good move Nikon.

III. ANNOTATED Sample Images

In my mind this is the heart of this blog entry - the darned images! Note that each image is annotated with tech specs, processing notes, and MOST IMPORTANTLY comments about the lens. If you take the time to look at the image AND read the comments you will learn a LOT more about my observations, findings, and thoughts about the lens than simply by reading the information above. Because there seems to be a tremendous amount of interest about how this lens performs with the TC engaged I'm ordering the sample images below based on focal length starting with the LONGEST focal length sample images. Of course, all these sample images were captured in full compliance with the Wildlife FIRST! Principles of Photographer Conduct.

Oh...and a final warning: It was raining a LOT during our trip - you WILL see a lot of raindrops in these shots. And...despite their "fierce" reputation, 95% of what grizzlies eat is vegetative matter, including a whole lot of grass! ;-)

1. At 550/560mm

• Grizzly Swimming with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.27 MB)
• Grizzlies Sparring with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.95 MB)
• Grizzly Portrait with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.88 MB)
• Grizzly Portrait with D500: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.21 MB)
• Grizzly Portrait with D850: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.02 MB)
• Crow with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.21 MB)
• Distant Eagle with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.91 MB)
• Seal with D850: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.44 MB)
• Mew Gull in Flight with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.56 MB)

2. At 500mm (or somewhere between 500mm and 550/560mm!)

• Grizzly Portrait with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.32 MB)
• Grizzly "Enviroscape" with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.72 MB)

3. At 490mm

• Big Male Griz with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.2 MB)

4. At 460mm

• Griz Wet Both Sides with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.54 MB)

5. At 450mm

• Griz Looking Back with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.69 MB)

6. At 440mm

• The Big Dude with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.27 MB)

7. At 420mm

• Female Griz Profile with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.82 MB)

8. At 400mm (TC NOT engaged)

• Muddy Clammer with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.12 MB)
• Griz Animalscape with D850: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.88 MB)
• Drive by Shooting with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.64 MB)

9. At 380mm

• Prime Time with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.65 MB)

10. At 320mm

• Reflections on Zooming with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.54 MB)

11. At 300mm

• Khutz Life with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.86 MB)

12. At 260mm

• Shake it Off with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.24 MB)

13. At 240mm

• Edge-to-Edge with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 3.53 MB)

14. At 210mm

• Where's Waldo Animalscape with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.15 MB)
• Chilled Out with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.72 MB)

15. At 200mm

• Running Water with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 3.96 MB)

IV. Conclusion...and Up Next?

Yep, I like the 180-400mm f4E - a LOT. In my view Nikon has set a new standard in super-telephoto zoom lens performance with this one. But...believe it or not...I still haven't fully decided if I'm going to keep mine. Or what else I will sell if I do choose to keep it. If the lens was priced where it should be I wouldn't feel nearly as conflicted - I'd just keep the 180-400mm AND my other "key" wildlife lenses. Only time - and more detailed testing of the 180-400mm - will tell.

Anyway...what's left to do in my 180-400mm f4E testing - and what's up next? It's back to systematic field testing of...

• Optical quality, including direct systematic comparisons with several other lenses at key focal lengths and multiple camera-to-subject distances
• Detailed TC evaluation, including comparison of 180-400mm with TC engaged vs. other key super-telephoto primes and zooms plus evaluation of the built-in TC vs. using an "external" TC-14EIII, et cetera
• Further Autofocus testing
• Detailed VR (and comparative "hand-holdability") testing
• And a whole lot more sessions of "just shooting"...

By the time this is all over we'll all know WAY more about the 180-400mm than we ever wanted to! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#180-400_ShootKhutz

06 June 2018: Khutzeymateen Grizzlies Postscript

I'm back from leading back-to-back "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tours. As always, the grizzlies delivered in spades and a very good time was had by all. I returned with an all-time record in numbers of shots taken, but this total was biased upwards because I was field-testing the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E zoom lens (and shot a lot of things - like bursts of virtually every bird-in-flight that came our way - simply to test the lens). Here's a quick "de-briefing" of each of the two photo tours...

Photo Tour 1: The Instructional Version. On this trip we spent 5 full days in the Khutzeymateen...and they were probably the coldest and wettest 5 days I've ever seen in the Khutzeymateen! Yep, fresh snow up on the surrounding mountains most mornings (and not as high above us as I would have liked)! But...LOTS of great shooting. Highlights included:

• We found (and photographed) a MINIMUM of 16 different grizzlies, including all age and sex classes (from cubs and sub-adults through to mature males and females). As always, the majority of the action - and the best photo ops - were in the estuary (not the inlet).
• We observed (and photographed) sub-adults sparring, courtship, mating, male-male "competitions" for females, and a lot more (including a whole LOT of foraging).
• I shot 7127 images over the 5 days...and owing to the wet - and dark - conditions...the VAST majority were shot with my D5.

Photo Tour 2: The Photo Op Version. On this trip we spent 4 full days in the Khutzeymateen. Again, wetter and chillier than in most years, but on this tour things did warm up (and dry up) a little, and a few times we even had that evil yellow object casting strong shadows on our subjects! Highlights of this tour included:

• We found (and photographed) a MINIMUM of 19 different grizzlies, including all age and sex classes (from cubs and sub-adults through to mature males and females). Interestingly, several of the bears we saw on the first photo tour were nowhere to be seen and few more adult (and fiesty) males and females showed up. Again the majority of the action - and the best photo ops by far - were in the estuary (and not "out" in the inlet).
• We observed (and photographed) sub-adults and CUBS sparring, more courtship, more mating, and definitely more male-male "competitions" for females. Again we saw a whole lot of grizzlies playing cow (and munching on grass!).
• I ended up shooting 9980 images over the 4 days...and again the greatest proportion of these were taken with my D5.

Photos captured during the trip will begin appearing in my Gallery of Latest Additions by early next week (or possibly over the weekend).

And the "Almost 64-thousand dollar" question: How did my shiny new 180-400mm f4 fare in the Khutzeymateen? THAT is the topic of my next blog post. For now all I'll say is this: while capturing 15,729 shots with the 180-400mm f4 I never ONCE found myself thinking "I wish I had my 400mm f2.8E (or my Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8) in my hands right now...".

Stay tuned...and cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

23 May 2018: Off to the Khutzeymateen!

Early Friday morning I'll be boarding a float plane and making the short jaunt from Prince Rupert into BC's best grizzly bear photography location - the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary. Then, over the next 9 days I'll be leading back-to-back "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tours. And...during that time I'll have ample opportunity to put the new Nikkor 180-400mm f4E to the test (heck...it's hard to think of a BETTER field test for the lens!). Good times!

During my time in the Khutzeymateen I'll be without internet access - so I won't be posting any new info on this website until June 5 or 6th.

Of course, I'll be posting images shot on the trip soon after I return in my Gallery of Latest Additions. And, I'll also be posting my thoughts on how the 180-400mm f4e performed in the Khutzeymateen right here around the same time.

Information on my "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tours (and all my other 2018 and 2019 photo tours) can be found right here...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca


Nikon 180-400mm Field Test: First Impressions

21 May 2018: Nikkor 180-400mm f4E TC1.4 VR Field Test I: First Impressions...

This is the first installment of many that will describe my experiences field-testing the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (the full name of the lens is actually the "AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR", but this is WAY too much of a mouthful - and WAY too many odd keystrokes - to type repeatedly...so expect me to refer to it as either "the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E" or just "the 180-400mm"!). Over the next 1-2 months I will be extensively field-testing testing Nikon's latest high-end super-telephoto zoom. My goal is to thoroughly test the new lens' optical quality, autofocus (AF) performance, vibration-reduction (VR) performance - and more - against a wide variety of other high-end lenses that could be competing for the contents of the wallet of serious wildlife and "action" shooters (including, of course, sports photographers). By the end of the testing period I want to have (and share) a thorough understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of this highly promising (and highly expensive) photographic tool.

Those with a love for specifications will already know that Nikon has pulled out ALL the stops on the design of this new lens - it features a VERY convenient "native" focal range of 180-400mm, an integrated 1.4x teleconverter (which extends the focal range to 550mm), a fixed f4 aperture over the native focal range (which shifts to f5.6 with the teleconverter engaged), a totally new lens formula that includes a 8 ED and one fluorite lens, Nikon's latest AF technology, a "next-generation" vibration-reduction system, and "advanced" weather sealing. Those wishing to examine the specs in detail can check them out right here on dpreview.com's website...

The only other "specification" I will mention at this point is the price - in Canada the MSRP is $15,549.95 CAD and on the Nikon USA website it is listed as going for $12,399.95 USD (at the time of this writing). And, as of today it is listed at $12,396.95 on the B&H website. I mention the price here for one reason only: with a price like this comes the expectation that the lens MUST break new ground in super-telephoto zoom lens performance. For me, this means that the lens MUST offer "near-prime" performance in all regards - optical quality, AF and VR performance, handling, and more! For this reason my field testing period will pit the 180-400 against both competing zoom lenses AND "state-of-the-art" primes that overlap it in focal length.

My copy of the 180-400mm f4E arrived a few weeks ago but because I was away leading a photo tour I was only able to pick it up last Tuesday. I am leaving to lead back-to-back "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tours tomorrow (where I will, of course, be shooting the 180-400 extensively). Since I picked up the lens I have been actively shooting AND doing selective "preliminary" testing on it (with a focus on some aspects of its performance that I wanted to have "nailed down" before heading into the Khutzeymateen).

So...today's entry focuses on two things: my simple first impressions of the 180-400mm plus what my earliest testing has clearly indicated or, at the very least, strongly suggested.

For those who want a single sentence summary of the nuances the performance of what is a very complex tool...well...after only 5 days of shooting I am quite comfortable saying this:

In MOST respects the performance of the 180-400mm f4E is absolutely remarkable, but it comes with a FEW compromises and even some shortcomings.

OK...let's get to it:

1. First Impressions - Build Quality.

Just superb! This Japanese-made lens simply exudes quality. Zoom and focus rings couldn't rotate more smoothly (nor could their "friction" or resistance to turning be dialed in any better). I'm not sure what else can really be said about the build quality at this point beyond the fact that the lens "projects" the feeling that it will hold up to heavy field use for years. Excellent quality hood (unlike the Nikkor 200-500), "positive-clicking" and snappy toggle switches...and just good old-fashioned quality. Absolutely the best of bling!

2. First Impressions - Physical Characteristics: Length and Weight.

The lens is virtually identical in length to the 200-400 f4 VR zoom it is functionally replacing. Nikon claims the weight to be 3500 grams (7.7 lb). My copy came to EXACTLY this weight - once I removed the "caps" from both ends AND took the hood off. If you're interested in what I consider "shooting weight" (with the hood on) - the lens comes in at 3735 gm (8.25 lb) both with the stock tripod foot (no lens plate installed) and with my preferred Arca-swiss compatible replacement foot (more on this below). So...this makes it a "little" heavier than the "old" 200-400mm and a little heavier than both the Nikkor 500mm f4E and Sigma Sport 500mm f4. It also comes in at about 100 grams (about 4 oz) heavier than the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8. If you own a copy of the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR you can take heart in the fact that YOUR lens is around 1200 grams (a little under 3 lbs) lighter than the new 180-400. For those who shoot the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E - well...THAT lens is very close to 450 grams (about a pound) HEAVIER than the 180-400.

The bottom line: The 180-400mm is smack-dab in the middle of the weights of most contemporary super-telephoto lenses - you aren't buying this one because it's real light!

3. First Impressions - Physical Characteristics: Balance.

Ahhh...THIS is what Nikon got right - especially if you're shooting a D5 (or one of its D-single-digit precursors) or a "semi-pro" Nikon DSLR with a battery grip attached. I find the balance - and consequently the ease of hand-holding the lens - to be just excellent. Note that when you zoom the lens (from shortest to longest focal length or vice-versa) the balance is completely unaffected (the balance point on a smoothly rotating and "loose" gimbal head doesn't change at all when you zoom the lens). Some shooting the lens with a lighter Nikon DSLR (without a battery grip attached) MAY find the lens a bit front-heavy, though when I took the battery grip off my D850 and mounted the 180-400mm on it the unit still felt quite nicely balanced to me. In my view (and up to a certain point), balance can be as critical as weight in determining the ease of "hand-holdability" of a lens.

4. First Impressions - Physical Characteristics: Tripod Foot.

Well...Nikon has finally realized that virtually no one has hands the size of the Hulk...and they've reduced the "drop" down to the tripod foot considerably. But...sigh...they haven't realized that virtually anyone using the tripod foot on a tripod (or monopod) on a lens like this would benefit from having that foot being Arca-swiss compatible! So...most users will want/need to replace the stock foot with one from a third party. And there's good news here - Nikon DIDN'T change the bolt (screw) pattern - it's STILL the same as the "old" 200-400 and virtually all current Nikon super-telephotos. So...I had several "workable" tripod feet in my collection. The one I have settled on that gives a nice amount of space between foot and lens barrel (important when using the tripod foot as a handle for carrying the lens) AND long enough to balance the lens with a wide variety of DSLR bodies (including those WITHOUT battery grips installed) is the Jobu LF-N504LP (info on that one right here).

5. First Impressions - Ergonomics.

Like with other recently introduced "new" zooms, Nikon has moved the zoom ring to the distal end of the lens. Unlike some other recent zoom lens introductions (e.g., the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E) the zoom ring IS still accessible when the lens hood is in the "carrying" (i.e., reversed position). And, this positioning of the zoom ring puts it exactly where someone with the same length of arms as me would want it - right where the left hand naturally "falls" under the lens (when hand-holding it). Consequently, I find it remarkably easy to zoom the lens (using only my left thumb) over its entire focal range (which requires only one-quarter of a full turn) with a single "swipe" of my thumb. Very, very convenient. Well done Nikon.

Similarly, Nikon did some thinking in where they positioned the lens activation buttons - they too naturally fall right where they should (when shooting the lens horizontally or vertically) - right under my thumb. In fact, I have already learned that if I always place my thumb over one of the four lens-activation buttons when I grab the lens then my thumb is always perfectly positioned to hit the button OR zoom the lens.

What about the lever to engage (or disengage) the integrated 1.4x TC? Well...another feather in the cap of the design team: that lever can be accessed (and easily toggled) with one's right hand when holding the camera. In practice, it's a little easier to flip the lever when the lens is supported on a tripod than when hand-holding it. But, that being said, with a little practice you can quite easily flip the TC on or off when hand-holding the lens (without having to take your eyes from the viewfinder). What works best for me is to flip the lever down (from the 1x position TO the 1.4x position using my middle finger (i.e., the "flip the bird finger") and up (from the 1.4x to the 1x position) using my fourth ("ring") finger.

So...summing up...both the build quality and the ergonomics of the 180-400mm get absolute full marks from me. And the ONLY negative I really have is Nikon's on-going refusal to make their stock tripod feet Arca-Swiss Compatible. But how does the lens actually perform? Read on...

6. Preliminary Testing - Optical Quality

OK...at this point I have shot about 2000 images with the 180-400mm with a Nikon D5 and Nikon D850. Of these, about 1000 were shot during systematic (but preliminary) testing and the remaining 1000 while "just shooting". So far ALL my systematic testing has been WITHOUT the TC engaged, i.e., in the 180-400mm focal range. But, I have done a lot of my "just shooting" sessions with the TC engaged (and thus over the 400-550mm focal range). To be really clear...while I am completely confident of the results I have obtained during my systematic comparisons (these were ALL shot using a D850 and with a tripod, VR off, Live View (using electronic shutter), cable release, yada, yada, yada), I still have a LOT more systematic testing left to do. MOST of my systematic comparisons to this point have been with distant scenes (a tree line against a bright sky almost 2 km away) but I have done a LITTLE with very close subjects (about 6 meters to subject).

So...what have I found with the preliminary systematic testing done to date? Two things have already jumped out:

• The 180-400mm has absolutely amazing edge-to-edge sharpness at all focal lengths when shooting distant subjects, even on the D850. Like...top-notch prime lens quality.

• I have NEVER seen a lens where the difference in sharpness (both in the center AND on the edges) between images shot with the aperture wide open vs. those shot after stopping down by 2/3 to a full stop is so trivial. In other words, this lens is very, very close to its maximum sharpness when shot absolutely wide open (and at ALL focal lengths). To some this may not sound like a big deal, but for someone like me (who shoots a lot in low light and is comparing the lens against top-notch primes like the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E) this is just HUGE.

Some example results from the systematic comparisons I have already done (and please note I will be providing a lot more detail, including sample images, about my testing protocols and detailed results in future blog entries focused specifically on optical quality of the lens):

A. Versus the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E at 180mm and 200mm focal lengths: A dead heat (tie) in central sharpness at all apertures from f4 through f11 (and don't forget that with the 70-200mm f2.8E you are already a stop down from wide open at f4). Edges? Very slightly sharper on the 180-400 at f4 and f4.5, then virtually identical at all smaller apertures.

B. Versus the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF (on distant scenes): 180-400mm f4E sharper in the central region from f4 to f5, with the 300mm f4 PF drawing even in sharpness at f5.6. At f4 the 180-400mm was dramatically sharper (in the central region). Edges? Same trend - the edges of the 180-400 were much sharper than the 300mm f4 PF at f4 and the 300mm PF didn't match the 180-400 until f5.6.

C. Versus 3 other lenses (Nikkor 400mm f2.8E, Nikkor 200-400 f4 VR, Sigma Sport 150-600) at 400mm focal length and, again, on distant scenes: Are you sitting down? From f4 to f5.6 two of these 4 lenses were in a dead heat in center AND edge sharpness. Those lenses were the 180-400mm f4E and the amazing 400mm f2.8E. The 200-400 Nikkor lagged far behind in BOTH centre and edge sharpness in that aperture range (note that at 400mm the Sigma Sport has a maximum aperture of f6, so it couldn't be tested in the f4 to ff5.6 range). By f6.3 all four lenses were in a dead-heat in sharpness in the central region, but neither the Nikkor 200-400 nor the Sigma Sport 150-600mm matched the other two lenses in edge sharpness - at any aperture.

Until now I have never found another lens that can match the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E (or the 2.8G) in centre AND edge sharpness on distant scenes. That the 180-400mm can do it at 400mm (its LONGEST focal length without the TC engaged, which is where most Nikon zooms are traditionally their weakest) is nothing short of mind-boggling.

While I have MUCH more systematic testing to do (including bringing more lenses into the mix AND testing at different distances), the results obtained to date are very suggestive of the 180-400 being a superb performer optically under real-world field conditions.

What have I found when "Just Shooting" (mostly hand-held) the 180-400? Lots of "suggestions" (all of which I will follow up on in subsequent testing). Here's some examples...

A. That in the 180-400mm focal range the lens is just crazy sharp.

B. That when the TC is engaged the lens is still quite sharp...but there is SOME image degradation. How much? Still to be fully sussed out...stay tuned.

C. That the 180-400mm has fantastic contrast. While this is obviously something that can be adjusted in post-processing, it's always nice to START with an image with great contrast.

D. That the AF system seems to be top-notch and grabs initial focus stunningly fast, at least in the 180-400mm range. One way I test the speed of AF systems (and, in particular, the ability of a lens to maintain sharp focus on a subject moving directly at me) is to shoot extended bursts of shots (usually 100 consecutive frames) of my Portuguese Water Dog running directly at me. I have used this test for years and have found lenses differ dramatically in their "hit ratio" (percentage of acceptably sharp shots to be deemed as "keepers") with this test (and a single lens and camera combination will produce very similar results when the test is run over and over again). Anyway...at this point I have run two trials of this test with the 180-400 (both using my D5 shooting at a rate of 12 fps). Here's what I found:

• At 400mm I obtained an absolutely stunning "hit ratio": 95%. No lens, including my 400mm f2.8E, has ever produced a higher hit ratio.
• At 550mm (400mm with the TC engaged) the hit ratio dropped - a lot. It fell to 39%.

At this point (partly because of the small sample size - one trial) I am considering these results preliminary and suggestive, but not definitive - I will be doing a LOT more AF testing of the 180-400mm in June. In those tests I will be particularly interested in seeing what kind of hit ratios I obtain over the full range of focal lengths accessible with the TC engaged (so 401mm through to 550mm).

E. That, at least anecdotally, the VR system seems very good. What makes me think this is that I have shot a LOT of hand-held images at a shutter speed of 1/focal length of the lens (using Auto ISO with Auto shutter speed). It's not particularly surprising that images shot at 400mm (and thus 1/400s) should be sharp, but it's my experience that when shooting a "big" zoom that images shot at 1/focal length at shorter focal lengths (e.g., 180mm focal length at 1/200s) are often a bit soft. But so far I've found virtually all images shot at 1/focal length (even on the demanding D850, a camera that I've found to be harder to effectively hand-hold at slower shutter speeds) have been tack sharp. And...yep...you've guessed it...I will be testing this aspect of lens performance MUCH more thoroughly in the near future.

F. That the ability of this lens to focus very close is wonderful - I LOVE how closely this lens focuses, especially at 550mm! The minimum focus of this lens is 2 meters (about 6'6"), even with the TC engaged. You can FILL the frame with flowers, insects, etc. And...the lens seems incredibly sharp (even at 550mm) at "near its closest focus" distances.

H. That the lens exhibits very noticeable vignetting. There's no way to candy coat this: the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E vignettes (produces images with darker corners and edges) very noticeably at all focal lengths and all apertures up to AT LEAST f9. I noticed this instantly on my very first series of test images (mostly because those shots had a white sky covering 50% of the frame). Does this vignetting have anything to do with the lens hood? Nope...I did several test series with and without the hood - and got the exact same amount of vignetting. Does the vignetting have anything to do with focus distance? Nope. Tested for that too. Here's what I found during my vignette testing (and the values listed below are the adjustments needed to remove the vignetting - measured in f-stops - using the vignette-removal tool in Phase One's Capture One Pro):

• At 180mm: 1.3 stops at f4, just under 0.3 stops at f8. Vignetting virtually unnoticeable at f9 and smaller apertures.

• At 200mm, 250mm, and 300mm: Same as at 180mm.

• At 400mm: 0.8 stops at f4, down to just under 0.3 stops at f8 and almost unnoticeable by f9 and smaller apertures.

• Beyond 400mm (with TC engaged): Not yet tested.

A few other factoids about the vignetting: It occurs on both raw files and in-camera JPEG's - but is automatically "cleaned up" if you view or process your raw files using Nikon's Capture NX-D.

Of course, vignetting can be easily removed during post-processing with most popular raw converters. It will be most noticeable on images of scenes that contain lighter tones in the corners and sides. During a lot of wildlife photography (subjects in non-white or "non-light" scenes) many users would likely not notice the effect (unless of course, they are shooting with a snowy background)...unless the user happened to bump the vignette slider on their raw converter!

How serious of a "flaw" is this vignetting? I'm sure opinions will vary dramatically - some will (no doubt) consider it a fatal flaw while others will consider it trivial. If I'm being honest I am already finding it annoying, but I am way more impressed with all the positives of the 180-400mm than I am "turned off" by this negative issue.

Anyway...like I said above...in MOST respects the performance of the 180-400mm f4E is absolutely remarkable, but it comes with a FEW compromises and even some shortcomings.

Tomorrow I am off to the Khutzeymateen and without internet access. Expect to see more blog entries on my on-going field-testing (plus a whole lot of images) in early June.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#180-400_FirstImpressions

19 May 2018: Postscript: Spring in the Southern Great Bear Photo Tour

Our inaugural reconnaissance ("Let's go suss it out") version of our new "Spring in the Southern Great Bear" Photo Tour ended exactly one week ago today. Since then I've been ruminating over how to best describe the wonderful wilderness adventure that 7 of us (and three great crew members of The Passing Cloud schooner) just shared. Well...here goes with my best shot at it. ;-)

This new photo tour for 2019 focuses on a part of the Great Bear Rainforest that historically I've spent little time in - it's a good hundred kilometers south of the region where the rare Spirit Bear is most commonly encountered. BUT...that doesn't mean that we were even CLOSE to being deprived of amazing subject matter. In fact, I can't recall a single Great Bear Rainforest trip where we had as much diversity of subject matter as we had on this trip! It was, in many regards, the quintessential sampler of the visual riches and biological diversity of the world's largest intact coastal temperate rainforest. Which means we had days and days of spectacular scenery, including both stunning outer coast vistas early in the trip and steep-walled narrow inlets and fjords during the second half of our adventure. And we saw and/or photographed just a great cross-section of wildlife! You know, just "boring stuff" like Sea Otters, Steller Sea Lions, Pacific White-Sided Dolphins, Humpback Whales, Harbour Seals, Rhinoceros Auklets, Harlequin Ducks, Bald Eagles...and more! And these were all encountered on the first two days of the trip when we played on the outer coast region (in and around the Goose Group of Islands for those wanting to break out the digital atlas). Once we wandered into the deeper and protected inlets of the southern Great Bear Rainforest we encountered the "other" species many most commonly associate with the Great Bear - including Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, coastal Gray Wolves, River Otters, and just a cornucopia of bird life! It was - quite literally - an absolute alphabet soup of wildlife species!

What sticks out the MOST for me about the photo tour? Three things. First would be the absolute isolation and nearly complete absence of other humans. Over our 7 days we saw (and only in the distance!) less than a handful (less than 5) of other boats. We never shared an anchorage the entire trip! On every shore excursion we were absolutely alone (and...best of all...we had one of the BC's coast's best natural hot springs to ourselves!). During our September and October trips into the more northerly reaches of the Great Bear we spend a lot of time alone too...but never this ALONE! It was simply wonderful to spend a week "sans humans" (besides those in our wonderful group) in such isolated and pristine wilderness. If you like doing your wildlife photography far from the madding crowds (and having the subject matter ALL to yourselves) THIS is the trip for you!

Second - the quiet, calm mornings. And, for a few of us who were up early one day, the "best of the best" mornings was one spent in a small bay watching several River Otters fish around our boat (all while listening to the deep hooting of male Sooty Grouse). Those moments seemed pretty much unbeatable. At least until one of the otters climbed up on a rock to dine on its sushi breakfast and a Bald Eagle silently glided in on a "sneak attack" - and tried to steal the otter's fish (at the last moment the otter saw the eagle and scrambled into the bay with its fish). So amazing...and - at least for me - THAT made it the best morning of the trip!

Third - an encounter that was worthy of being a "BBC Planet Earth" segment! On the 5th day of the adventure we were cruising up a largish channel (Burke Channel on the south and east side of King Island) when we encountered a massive floating raft of Surf Scoters (these are dark coastal ducks with black plumage and striking multi-colored heads). The teeming mass had a minimum of 5,000 scoters in it, and possibly a whole lot more. The raft was amazingly dynamic with birds entering it and leaving it continually (yep, we got a whole lot of practice shooting flight shots and playing with our AF settings!). Almost bizarrely the raft of birds seemed to have a defined edge and it was almost like a solid mass. But it was a mass that changed shape continuously...it reminded me of a massive amoeba. We had been watching the "mass" for about ten minutes when suddenly (and as the raft slowly drifted toward the rocky shoreline) a long finger - almost like a tendril - extended from the raft. That finger moved quickly toward the rock wall of the shoreline and as the ducks in the finger approached the wall they dove under the water (presumably to feed on the continuous band of mussels just below the rocky shoreline). Conjure up a lake (the raft of scoters) flowing into a narrow stream (the tendril of scoters approaching shore) and then going over a waterfall (at the point where they dived below the surface) and you get the picture. Just an amazing sight! But one of those "can't do it justice with still photography" (or "This is the ONE time where a drone might be handy") situations!

So...where are the photos from the trip? Well...the delivery of a certain new lens last Tuesday - along with the absolute need to begin testing it before heading off to lead back-to-back "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tour on Tuesday, May 22 - forced the culling and processing of images from this wonderful Spring Great Bear trip to temporarily go on the back-burner! Expect to start seeing images from my Spring Great Bear photo tour AND my two Khutzeymateen photo tours to start showing up in my Gallery of Latest Additions by the end of the first week of June. Among those images will be many shot with the new Nikkor 180-400mm f4E TC1.4 VR zoom.

And...just in case you're curious...go here for information about the 2019 version of the Spring in the Southern Great Bear Instructional Photo Tour.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

02 May 2018: My AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR On Its Way!

In an amazing coincidence, just one day after I was belly-aching about Nikon being lax on distributing information on the expected delivery dates of back-ordered 180-400mm 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR lenses some REAL information has rolled in! And, it would appear that virtually all Canadians who ordered their 180-400's through Canadian retailers and who are still waiting for their shiny new lenses won't have to wait much longer - within the next two weeks it appears that all pre-ordered (or back-ordered) lenses will arrive! And, that should include my lens!

In practical terms this means that I WON'T have my 180-400mm zoom for the "Spring in the Southern Great Bear" photo tour that I'll be leading starting tomorrow, but I should have it upon my return (on or about May 14th). And it means I'll have a little time to do initial testing of the lens before I leave on May 22nd to lead my two "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tours. And, of course, it means that I'll be able to shoot and extensively test the lens in the Khutzeymateen (which should prove to be just an EXCELLENT test of the lens!).

If all goes According to Hoyle (hey, the lens isn't in my hands until its in my hands!) I should be able to begin blog entries on my field test of the 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR by no later than the first week of June (and possibly earlier).

Thanks are extended to Nikon Canada for providing the delivery information...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

01 May 2018: UPDATE: My AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR Field Test

In answer to the most common question I'm getting via email these days: NOPE, my AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR has not arrived yet. Which means, of course, I haven't begun my field-testing of it yet! And, it means it WON'T be accompanying me on the "Spring in the Southern Great Bear" photo tour I'll be leaving for (and leading) in a few days. It will be wonderful if I have it on time for my "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tour (which I leave for on May 21...got that Nikon?).

In fairness to Nikon, I didn't "instantly" order this lens when it was announced back on 8 January - so other NPS members in Canada may be ahead of me in line for delivery. I get (and accept) that. But the part that I have a harder time understanding is why Nikon seems totally incapable of (or unwilling to bother) giving any kind of time-frame whatsoever on when the lens might show up. This is 2018 - a time where one key to staying in business is carefully managing product production, inventory, and client expectations. So I simply don't believe Nikon doesn't KNOW what they're producing - and that they CAN'T communicate with their distribution channel to manage the expectations of those wanting to buy their products. Why they choose to NOT share that information is beyond me...

Rest assured that the moment I have firm information as to when the lens will arrive (i.e., something more accurate than between tomorrow and 2020) I will share that information right here! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

01 May 2018: Off to the Southern Great Bear!

VERY early on the morning of Thursday, May 3 I'll be leaving to lead our inaugural "Spring in the Southern Great Bear" Instructional Photo Tour. Like with almost all our photo tours, I'll be off "the grid" (including being without cell and internet access) for the vast majority of the trip. I'll be back behind my desk (and back to updating this website) on May 14.

I'll be joined by 6 other intrepid wildlife photographers as we explore some new (to us!) turf in the Great Bear Rainforest on the central British Columbia coast. How does this trip differ from the "other" Great Bear Rainforest photo tours we've been offered for years? Good question...here's a quick list of the most significant differences:

1. TIMING! This "Spring in the Southern Great Bear" photo tour takes place in the spring (rather than the autumn like our "other" Great Bear trips). So no salmon running, but wildflowers in bloom and bears feeling...well...amorous (hopefully only towards other bears). And, of course, all the other things that go with spring - like waterfowl (like Harlequin Ducks) in bright breeding plumage, bright green grass in all the coastal estuaries, and more.

2. REGION OF EXPLORATION! As the name of this trip suggests, the trip hits more southerly locations than our autumn Great Bear trips. Similar overall (and spectacular) terrain, but with a little different probability of encountering specific species of wildlife (see immediately below)

3. SPECIES ASSEMBLAGE? While the overall assemblage of marine and terrestrial mammals will be very similar to what we experience in the northern Great Bear, the probability of encountering specific species differs on this southern Great Bear trip. On this southern trip we'll have a lower probability of seeing and photographing Spirit Bears. BUT, we'll have a much greater chance of seeing and photographing Sea Otters, Coastal Gray Wolves, Fin Whales, and Killer Whales. The "givens" on both Great Bear trips include Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, Humpback Whales, Bald Eagles, and a wide array of seabirds.

Anyone interested in finding out more about the "Spring in the Southern Great Bear" Photo Tour (for the 2019 season and beyond) can go here on my photo tours page...

Of course, I'll be posting images shot on the trip soon after I return in my Gallery of Latest Additions.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

19 April 2018: Capture One Version 11.1 Released Today

Phase One released the latest iteration of their professional-level raw workflow software today - Capture One version 11.1. This update includes support for some newly released cameras (e.g., for raw files of the Sony A7 MkIII and an "extension" of the support for Nikon's D5, D500, and D850 bodies) as well a new "Normalize" tool and the ability to create "styles layers" directly from the styles tool (if this seems like Greek don't worry about it...in Capture One Pro styles are "canned effects" where a group of edits is saved as a group and can be applied to any other image). It also includes a professionally created styles "pack" (aptly named "Spring"), presumably to whet the appetite of users and thus encourage them to buy some of their other Styles Packs! ;-)

Find out more about the latest release of Capture One here: Capture One Software

My Experiences with Capture One Pro...

WAY back on January 3rd of this year I made reference to shifting my workflow AWAY from Lightroom and increasing my emphasis on Capture One Pro (see that blog entry here...). This is as good a time as any to provide a bit of an update on that (and it IS what has been taking up a lot of my time).

I've been using Capture One Pro as my primary raw converter since 2005. When I first began using Capture One Pro it was simply a raw converter and offered no image (or media) management tools - so it had absolutely no catalog/cataloging (or "library") functionality. And, like other raw converters of that era, it offered no true selective editing capabilities (i.e., you were limited to making global edits on any single "version" or "variant" of your raw file). Consequently, to use Capture One in a full raw workflow you had to combine it with other tools, such as Adobe Bridge for file management/image cataloging and Adobe Photoshop for its ability to selectively blend and merge multiple image variants produced by Capture One (each with global adjustments made to it) into a single file. So...because of my love of Capture One Pro as a raw converter I ended up in a workflow best described as a "cobbled together" group of "best available" tools. By late 2017 my full workflow (for "processing" any given image) involved using Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Bridge, Capture One Pro, and Adobe Photoshop. Hmmm...

What did all this mean in time I spent in each software application for any given image? Well...a small percentage of time was spent in Lightroom (and Aperture before Lightroom) with that image (when culling, searching for it, etc.). And some time was spent in Adobe Bridge (during keywording and other metadata modifications). But in the time-consuming portion going from raw file to final output there was about a 50:50 split between time spent in Capture One Pro and time spent in Photoshop.

Now...over the years Phase One slowly added and improved both database (i.e., image management and cataloging) functionality and selective editing capabilities (via a layer-and-masking approach similar to Photoshop) to Capture One Pro. Because my own cobbled together workflow worked fine for me I stuck with it. And I sat back for several years as Capture One Pro's cataloging and selective editing capabilities matured. Of course, I was subject to the same "Do I want to waste time learning and mastering yet ANOTHER set of tools when my existing ones work?" malaise as everyone else. ;-)

But...last November I decided to take the plunge and force myself to use ALL that Capture One Pro offers - its image importing, its image management/cataloging functionality, its raw conversion capabilities (which I had been using forever), AND its selective editing capabilities. So that meant going away from using Lightroom as my cataloging tool and stop using Photoshop to do the selective edits on output from Capture One Pro. Being a glutton for punishment, I also decided to make some organizational changes to how I had my image library set up (i.e., a new cataloging strategy), which in the short term slowed things up a lot (largely because I couldn't just "convert" my Lightroom catalogs to Capture One catalogs). But...long story short...in "committing" to a more complete Capture One Pro workflow I had to learn TWO major things: Capture One Pro's cataloging tools and Capture One Pro's approach to selective editing.

On the image importing and cataloging ends I can say confidently now that my workflow is now much more efficient in Capture One Pro than it ever was in Lightroom. Image importing (and the production of preview images) takes ABOUT the same amount of time in both programs. If you use Lightroom to build minimal previews or use embedded previews it is slightly faster than if Capture One Pro is building fairly large (2560 pixels on long axis) previews. But, if you choose to build Standard, Smart, or 1:1 previews in Lightroom then Capture One Pro takes less time from the start of image import through to when the image previews are built.

Once your images are imported and you are working in the Library Module (Lightroom) or the Library Tab (Capture One Pro) and performing your daily tasks (such as image searches, image filtering via metadata, image rating, etc.) are extremely similar - if you can do it in Lightroom you can likely do it in Capture One Pro (and vice versa).

So why can I say that the "image management" portion of my workflow is more efficient in Capture One Pro than in Lightroom? Well, the absolute biggest bottleneck in my raw workflow (by a WIDE margin) is in the initial culling of my images. You know, getting rid of the garbage and then choosing between x "similars" (i.e., "almost the same" shot that may differ only slightly in sharpness, etc.). And, I am finding my culling in Capture One Pro WAY FASTER than in Lightroom. Why? Two main reasons. Once your initial previews are built in Capture One Pro they are virtually instantly available at 100% (i.e., no lag in waiting for them to be built) when culling your images. That "display at 1:1 delay" in Lightroom ate SO MUCH of my time. And, if you want to compare a GROUP of similar captures (and not just 2) at 1:1 you can view them (and scroll them) ALL at once in Capture One Pro. So, for example, if I have a burst of 8 shots of a grizzly looking at me and I want to compare them to see which of them has the sharpest eye AND nose pad...well...I can see them ALL at once at 1:1 and quickly pick (and flag or instantly delete) the ones I don't want in an eyeblink. Now the culling and cleaning up of my various collections is SO MUCH FASTER than before...just loving it. And please note that all the comparisons I am talking about (in building/retrieving those 1:1 previews, culling images, etc.) are based on using the same professional-level Mac desktop system (and the same-sized catalogs, et cetera) for both Lightroom and Capture One Pro. I was comparing apples to apples.

What about Capture One Pro's approach to selective editing? Well...anyone who has used adjustment layers and masks in Photoshop will find it a snap to learn. The "metaphor" is virtually identical to using adjustment layers in Photoshop - you add one or more layers on top of a background image and make one or more adjustments on each layer - and then decide where on the image you want the adjustment to "show" (via masking...and painting the mask in - or out - with a brush or adding it via a gradient tool, etc.). Simple as pie! Capture One Pro's "auto masking" (edge detection) works extremely well too, and that helps make your masking both accurate AND quick! And, unlike Photoshop's adjustment layers, almost anything you can adjust in Capture One Pro can be adjusted selectively (as a layer). For example, you won't find an adjustment layer in Photoshop for sharpening, but you can do it selectively on a layer in Capture One Pro (note that you CAN selectively sharpen in Photoshop if you duplicate the background layer, sharpen on the duplicated layer, than "mask out" the areas you don't want sharpened on the duplicated layer...but it is a bit of a convoluted process).

Anyway...after using Capture One Pro's selective editing capabilities since last November I can safely say that in probably 95% of my images I have no need to use Photoshop in producing my "master" final image (the "endpoint" of my workflow - and the image I will use to derive output for any other use - is a full-res, uncropped,16-bit TIFF or PSD file in Prophoto colour space). What images (that pesky remaining 5%) CAN'T I produce in Capture One Pro? Those that involve the use of selective editing with luminosity masks...that's something that Capture One Pro doesn't do (yet!).

So where am I in my raw workflow NOW? Well...Lightroom is totally gone - period. And, for any given image, I now spend 95% of my total effort in Capture One Pro and only about 5% of my time in Photoshop rather than in a near 50:50 split between Capture One Pro and Photoshop. And...most importantly for me, my total time from viewing the first preview of a raw file to final image output in 16-bit form is about half of what it was just a few months back. While I very much enjoy the time spent in my "digital darkroom" if I can make it more efficient I am a happy camper. Which is what I am now! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

12 April 2018: Cancellation Opens ONE Spot on October Great Bear Rainforest Photo Tour

27 April 2018 Update: The spot described immediately below has been scooped up and is no longer available. So the trip is back to being fully sold out.

An unfortunate medical issue - and resulting photo tour cancellation - has opened up ONE spot on this October's "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" Instructional Photo Tour. The spot will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

Two sources for additional info on this "bucket list" trip:

1. For the Critical Details (on my photo tour page): 2018 Into the Great Bear Rainforest Instructional Photo Tour

2. For MORE info (including trip itinerary and more): Download PDF Brochure (5.3 MB)

This trip ventures into one of North America's wildest areas and the home of rare white-phased black bears known as Spirit Bears. It is, quite simply, an amazing photographic adventure!

For even MORE info about the trip - or to book the spot - contact me at: seminars@naturalart.ca

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

09 April 2018: My Next Major Field Test: AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR

In my 9 January blog entry regarding my first thoughts about the AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR I stated it was "unlikely" I would be field-testing it (that blog entry here). After a lot of thought I have re-considered my position. I WILL be doing a major field test on the AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm F4E.

What's behind my reversal on doing the field test? First - pure and simple curiosity. I have dozens of my own questions about the lens and I don't think I'll ever get the answers unless I obtain a copy of the lens and test it for myself (against a whole lot of other lenses and over a wide variety of conditions). Of course, I could simply look at MTF values or read (or watch) the reviews of others, but I rarely find those "done in a lab" or "done over a few days" reviews answer the majority of my own questions. Specs alone never tell the whole story and often it is how the various performance parameters interact that determines how well a lens works as a tool to capture wildlife photos for me. You could produce the world's sharpest 300mm lens but if the autofocus system is inadequate (or the image stabilization system is inadequate), then I (or others) would never be able to get to the sharpness in a field setting. An example of a lens where the "whole" is better than the sum of the parts is Nikon's latest iteration of the 70-200mm f2.8 zoom (the 2.8E version): its specs ARE strong, but the big thing is that when you're in the field all the lens (and those specs) simply "get out of the way" and you come home with a whole lot of incredibly solid shots. This is what I want to find out about the 180-400mm F4E - is it one of those rare (and highly valuable) "just can't miss in virtually any field setting" lenses?

Second, I am being inundated with questions about this new zoom and, to be honest, I can't say anything more about it than I already have (in my January and February blog posts on it) until I spend some serious time both shooting with and comparing it in head-to-head tests against several other top-notch lenses. I always scratch my head when others try to tell me how certain gear they have never used performs - or how valuable it is in a field setting - and I'd prefer not to be one of those "others"! You'd be amazed by how many people have told me - since my 27 March blog entry (called "The BEST Nikon DSLR for Wildlife Photography?") - that the D850 is a better camera for shooting wildlife than a D5, despite the fact they've never shot with a D5! Whatever... ;-)

Third, IF this lens meets the lofty expectations that Nikon has set by both the standard of its latest other professional zoom "upgrade" (the 70-200mm f2.8E) and the insane price they have attached to this new lens, THEN it will be an incredibly desirable lens to add to a serious wildlife photographer's kit. What wildlife photographer (especially a traveling wildlife photographer!) wouldn't want to be able to cover from 180-560mm in a single "not as massive as a big prime" lens? The only real way I'll know if this lens matches its expectations is to thoroughly test it.

Here's a few more comments to let you know what will be coming with this lens review:

1. Major vs. Minor Field Test? When I say I will be doing a major field test of the Nikkor 180-400mm F4E lens I mean one on the "order of magnitude" of my "500mm Wars" field test (where I compared the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport against the Nikkor 500mm f4e). I am almost continuously doing "minor" tests of one bit of gear vs. another (e.g., right now I am testing and comparing the top B+W circular polarizer against the latest Sigma circular polarizer) but I only occasionally sink my teeth into a major field test. During this test I will be comparing the optical quality (including nuances of how the built-in teleconverter performs), autofocus performance, VR performance and "hand-holdability", and more against several other zoom lenses AND several prime lenses. Lenses that will be included in the comparisons will include:

• Nikkor AF-S 200-400mm f4G
• Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3
• Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 (at overlapping focal lengths)
• Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E (at overlapping focal lengths)
• Nikkor 400mm f2.8E (with and without the 1.4x TC-14EIII)
• Sigma Sport 500mm f4
• Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VR and Nikkor 300mm f4 PF

2. Lens Source (and objectivity of my review): Perhaps I'm a little thick, but I can't thoroughly field test a lens in a weekend - or even a month. I need a lens for AT LEAST two months to give it a good working over and feel confident I know how it performs and have found most of its strengths and weaknesses. This means that the only viable way to obtain a test lens for this period of time (especially a newly released one where copies are rare) is to buy one. So that's what I am doing - buying it. And, the fact that I am buying it means that I owe no one any favors in reviewing it - I can call it exactly as I see it. Which is absolutely critical to me.

3. When? I have ordered the lens and as a Canadian NPS (Nikon Professional Services) member I get priority access to the lens over non-NPS members from Canada who may have ordered it. However, at this point I have no idea how many in Canada are in line ahead of me. My first trip into the Great Bear Rainforest (an excellent testing ground for the lens) comes in early May and it would be GREAT to have the 180-400mm before that trip, but I think that's kind of a "when pigs fly" situation.

4. Lens Price - And Am I Going to Keep It? As already alluded to, I consider the price of this lens to be pretty much insane. In my case (and as stated in previous blog entries on the 180-400mm f4E) this lens has to REALLY perform before it will be able to convince me that buying and keeping it is a good business decision. This means the lens will have to convince me it can replace one (or more likely two) of my existing favourite wildlife lenses without compromising image quality before I'll consider keeping it. So...at this point I don't KNOW if I'll keep it or not. But when (at the end of the field test) I decide I'll definitely let you know!

A final word on pricing: In testing the lens I am going to try to forget what it costs and simply evaluate it on its merits alone. So...moving forward...I will try to avoid saying things like "Well...at the price it should double as a jet-pack" or "...the lens is clearly made of equal parts Unobtainium and ground-up unicorn horns". Yes, the lens costs a small fortune - end of story.

5. Test Duration: Once the lens arrives the test period will likely be about 2-3 months. As with my 500mm Wars series, I will be posting incremental updates on how the lens is performing here on my blog as I test the lens. A final discrete review (with a permanent URL) will end up residing in the Field Tests section of this website.

6. Test "Protocol": Similar to my 500mm Wars series - I will be mixing some very systematic field tests with bouts of "just shooting" under a wide variety of field conditions. As always I will strive to keep the testing as relevant to wildlife photography as possible.

Should be fun...along the way hopefully we'll all learn something. Let the waiting game begin! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

01 April 2018: TOO Hard on the Nikon D850?

Not surprisingly, my last blog entry entitled "The BEST Nikon DSLR for Wildlife Photography?" generated a lot of feedback. Most of the email I received was positive, and only a few who sent email strongly disagreed with me. Some appeared to think I was a little too hard on the D850, and more than one said things like "But the D850 can do so much so well".

I FULLY agree that the Nikon D850 can do a lot of things very well. BUT...that last blog entry was evaluating it (against the D5 and the D500) as a camera for wildlife photography (not for landscape use, not for studio use, etc.).

So...to be fully clear, I think the D850 is a WONDERFUL camera. And I think it's amazing that Nikon put together a 46 MP camera versatile enough for us to even debate its merits for wildlife photography against Nikon's flagship - the D5.

In late February I put out my latest edition of my very sporadic newsletter (info about my newsletter can be found here...). Here's what I said about the D850 in that newsletter...

THE NIKON D850 - THE CAMERA OF TRUTH?

It's been a long time since we've seen as much excitement about a camera as the 46MP Nikon D850 has generated. I've been testing and shooting with the D850 since early August and have definitely formed some opinions about it. It's hard to sum up the performance and utility of a camera in just a few words (and still retain any value to the statement), but here goes..."

In my view the title of "most versatile DSLR" has now been passed from the Nikon D750 to the D850. The dynamic range and resolution (along with several other features such as the fully electronic shutter) make the D850 a SUPERB landscape camera. And, its top-notch autofocus system, frame rate and burst size make it "very good" at several other things as well, including wildlife and sports photography. I don't believe the D850 supplants the D5 as Nikon's premiere action camera OR low-light performer (and my OWN number one choice for wildlife shooting is still the D5), but it just does so darned much so well!

But (always the "but", eh?), I would be remiss not to mention the "downside" of shooting with a camera of such high resolution. While capable of superb detail, the D850 has so much resolution (and such small pixel pitch) that it can quickly reveal flaws in lenses OR flaws in photographer technique. It performs best at low ISO's - crank the ISO up and noise quickly increases and dynamic range quickly falls. Use the D850 with high-quality lenses and with medium-format like discipline and it CAN provide images of stunning quality. But...use it like a point-and-shoot and/or with consumer-level lenses and it can really beat you up!

I can't think of a better single phrase to describe the D850 than "The Nikon D850 - the Camera of Truth"!

Too hard on the Nikon D850? Nah, just realistic! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

27 March 2018: The BEST Nikon DSLR for Wildlife Photography?

I field an absolute ton of questions about camera gear. But over the last 6 months or so the one I have received most is this:

Which is the best of Nikon's current DSLRs for wildlife photography?

Sometimes the question comes with a lot of valuable "qualifying" information that helps me point the curious enquirer in the right direction, sometimes it doesn't. Based on how often I get this question I assume there are thousands (or perhaps tens of thousands) of others out there with the same question. And that's the main reason for this blog entry. There's also a selfish motivation - after doing up this entry I'll have a place to send all those in the future who ask the question (at least until Nikon comes out with the D5s, or the D550, or the D860...).

I. Overview - And Some Qualifiers:

1. Scope: I'm going to limit this discussion to the current (and recent) Nikon DSLR's, specifically the Nikon D5, D500, and D850. These are the three Nikon DSLR's I get asked about the most (as "tools" for wildlife photography). A few other Nikon DSLR's are still commonly used for wildlife photography (e.g., Nikon D4s or D750) but the rapid pace of change in the digital photography world means that most who are considering their "next" (or perhaps first) DSLR purchase for wildlife photography are trying to decide between a D5, D500, or D850.

2. Best for WILDLIFE Photography: This blog entry is about which Nikon DSLR is best suited to WILDLIFE photography. So...not landscape photography, not sports photography, not portrait photography, not best "all-rounder", etc.

3. Price is IRRELEVANT: Well, at least for this blog entry. While there is some correlation between camera price and camera performance, the impact of the price on your selection of a camera is a personal choice. But, despite what many seem to think, that choice has no impact on how well the camera performs.

4. Keeping it Concise and Cogent: This is the type of blog entry where if I explained or gave background to every statement or opinion that I made it would quickly turn into a book. I very much like long-form and nuanced discussions (my personal backlash against Twitter!), but for the sake of brevity I am going to do my best to keep this one as "to the point" as possible.

So what follows is a summary of my views of how the Nikon D5, D500, and D850 stack up against one another as wildlife cameras. It is based on literally thousands of test shots - AND thousands of shots captured under real-world field conditions - over 7 months of overlapping and simultaneous use of the three cameras. And, of course, it's based on a ridiculous amount of time behind my computer carefully scrutinizing just a pile images! ;-)

What Characteristics Make for a Great Wildlife Camera?

Modern DSLR's have a mind-numbing number (about a billion) features. But once you get in the field and actually use a DSLR for wildlife photography you quickly realize that just a handful of characteristics have a tremendous and oversized importance in how well a particular camera delivers (and, in comparison, the several hundred million other features of a DSLR are almost trivial in importance). In my biased view the most critical characteristics are ISO performance, autofocus performance, frame rate and burst depth, resolution, and build quality. It could be argued that a few other characteristics merit honourable mention as well - and those would be dynamic range, camera layout and ergonomics, and possibly even image blackout time (during high frame-rate bursts).

SO...I am going to focus primarily on how the Nikon D5, D500, and D850 differ in the primary characteristics associated with being a great wildlife camera. And I'm going to add one more thing to the list: FX vs. DX format.

II. A CRITICAL Tangent - Evaluating ISO Performance

WARNING: I am going to say some things about ISO performance that those who prefer quoting dxomark.com or dpreview.com over going into the field and shooting images (and closely evaluating those images) will disagree with. Most photographers equate ISO performance with image noise. In reality, there is a whole lot more to it than that. The amount of luminosity noise and colour noise in an image DOES vary with ISO. But so do other critical variables, including dynamic range, tonal range, color depth, color fidelity, and more. But even if we limit our discussion to JUST image noise, there are two VERY different ways to assess it:

1. Compare FULL Resolution Images at 100% Magnification: In my view, this is the way MOST photographers (or at least most wildlife photographers) relate to image noise in their own photos - they examine an image on a computer screen and zoom in to 100% (or 1:1 magnification) and say "Oh...that's pretty clean" or "Wow...is that ever noisy". Depending on a particular photographer's experience in post-processing they may be able to judge just how noisy an image can be and still be made to "look good" for whatever they want to do with it (whether it's reducing it in resolution and/or cropping it for web use, re-sizing it for printing, etc.). Of course, many of these photographers will know that the more you reduce the resolution of an image (i.e., downsample it on their computer) the less you notice the noise in that image. BUT...the key point is that those photographers who examine their own images for noise on a computer screen (at full resolution and 100% magnification) usually quickly come up with their OWN decision-rules on how high of an ISO they will shoot a specific camera at. So...you'll hear them say things like "I will only shoot my D500 up to ISO 2000" or "ISO 4000 shots on my D850 almost always suck".

2. Compare Noise AFTER Reducing the Resolution of Images to an Arbitrary "Standard". Some argue that the only way to compare the ISO performance of cameras of different resolution (and more often than not they are referring to image noise only) is to reduce the resolution of an image to a "fixed" standard and then see how the resolution-reduced images compare in noise. As an example, dxomark.com has decided that images from ANY camera must be reduced to the size needed to make a print of 8"x12" @ 300ppi (so 8 MP) before they can be compared for noise. So...if you are comparing the ISO performance of a D5 (20.9 MP or 5588 x 3712 pixels) to that of a D850 (45.9 MP or 8256 x 5504 pixels) you end up reducing the resolution of the D850 DRAMATICALLY MORE than that of the D5 BEFORE you compare the noise characteristics of the image. Note that this method is perfectly valid if your end goal is to always make 8" x 12" prints. But it tells you NOTHING (and is often incredibly misleading) about how images from those two cameras look if you compare them at full resolution and 1:1 magnification. In defense of dxomark.com - if you dig deeper and look at more of what they present on their website - they DO let you look at both how cameras compare in various characteristics (in noise and more) at full resolution on-screen (at 100% magnification) AND using their "Reduced to 8x12" Print Size" method. NOT in defense of dxomark.com - their single reported value for "Sports (Low-Light ISO)" performance (which many online pundits love to quote) seems to be based solely on their "Reduce Resolution BEFORE Comparing (Print)" methodology and ignores how the images look at full-resolution.

For the record, my following comments (and the supplied test images) on ISO performance of the D5, D500, and D850 will be based on the first method above, i.e., how they appear on-screen at full-resolution and 100% magnification (which is equivalent to the graphs for "Screen" on dxomark.com). It's my view that this characteristic (the appearance of the raw image at full resolution and 100% magnification) ultimately determines what the image can be used for, including things like how large it can be printed, how much it can be cropped and still be made "presentable", et cetera. At the end of the day, anything you do with your image is simply a derivative of the quality of the full res raw image.

III. Comparing the D5, D500, and D850 In...

1. ISO Performance - Visible Image Noise

This one is incredibly easy - at high ISO's the D5 kicks the butt of both the D500 and the D850 in the amount of visible noise in an image. Up to about ISO 800 all 3 cameras shoot "very clean" images. By about ISO 1600 images shot with the D5 show less noise than those shot with the D500 and D850. By ISO 3200 the difference in the amount of noise visible in the images shot with the different cameras is quite pronounced and the gap between the D5 and the others only gets more noticeable as the ISO climbs.

What about the D500 vs. the D850? Fairly close (as you'd expect based on their pixel pitch). In my own tests (a few examples below) I noticed about a 1/3 stop advantage to the D500 over the D850 in visible image noise.

What does this mean in the field? Well...like most photographers I have my own "limits" as to what I'll take each camera to. And please note these are my OWN subjective ISO boundaries - yours may be very different. In all cases how high you can go in ISO depends somewhat on the nature of the scene (including the required dynamic range to capture the scene - see immediately below). But based MOSTLY on image noise, for most uses I "throttle" my D5 (in the Auto ISO menu) to ISO 12,800. YES, I CAN get highly usable images up to ISO 12,800 (and sometimes higher). And I can almost always get really good results up to ISO 8000.

For most scenes and shot types I throttle BOTH my D850 and my D500 to never exceed ISO 3200. Of course, with both cameras I can occasionally get good results up to ISO 4000 to 5000 (but almost never at ISO 6400). And...interestingly I seem to end up with more "unacceptable" shots with the D500 at ISO 3200 than I do with the D850. I think this is due to better tonal range (with increasing ISO) on the D850...but have to admit that is speculation on my part.

Can I back these statements up? Sure...here's a few test shot comparisons from 3 cameras in question plus one more (I've also included shots from the D800e). They were captured under controlled conditions (firm tripod, cable release, live view, etc.) in the field and under genuine low-light conditions. How much difference you notice between the images will depend partly on the resolution (pixels per inch) of the display device you are using, with lower resolution devices showing greater differences between the images. I'd recommend examining the shots at 100% magnification (or 1:1). Note that I also have literally thousands of wildlife images shot with each camera under "true" field conditions...and what you see in the test shots below is absolutely consistent with what I have found when "just shooting" in the field.

i. ISO 3200 Comparison:

• Luminosity Noise ONLY: Download Image Comparison (JPEG: 2.5 MB)
• Luminosity AND Colour Noise: Download Image Comparison (JPEG: 3.1 MB)

ii. ISO 6400 Comparison:

• Luminosity Noise ONLY: Download Image Comparison (JPEG: 2.74 MB)
• Luminosity AND Colour Noise: Download Image Comparison (JPEG: 3.2 MB)

CONTEXT (for your friendly neighborhood wildlife photographer)? Ok...this is critical: While there is no doubt to me that the D5 greatly outperforms both the D500 and D850 in visible noise at ISO 1600 and above, whether or not this is important to YOU as a wildlife photographer will depend a LOT on the conditions under which you shoot. If you shoot mostly in bright light then it may not be that important to you. But if you shoot a LOT in low light (as I think many wildlife photographers do, especially those who shoot species that are most active at dawn and dusk) the relationship between visible noise and ISO MAY be critical to you (and make a D5 a very attractive tool). ME? I shoot a ton in the low light environment of the Great Bear Rainforest - so for ME ISO performance is the single most important characteristic of a camera for wildlife photography.

2. ISO Performance - Dynamic Range

Most wildlife photographers (including me) put MORE emphasis on how image noise varies with ISO than how dynamic range varies with ISO. But there is a point I HAVE to mention here (because I heard it from SO MANY photographers in 2017): Yes, it IS true that the D5 has significantly lower dynamic range than either the D500 and D850 at ISO 100 (dpreview.com made a HUGE deal about how the D5 was unique in this regard and how awful its dynamic range was, even though they had never tested the two precursors to the D5 - the D4 and D4s - and they "suffered" from the very same imagined problem). BUT...like image noise, dynamic range varies with ISO (decreases with increasing ISO) and, most importantly, at ISO 800 and above the the D5 has more dynamic range than either the D500 or the D850.

And, the D5 happens to have a higher tonal range (at ALL ISO's) than either the D500 and the D850.

CONTEXT for the wildlife photographer? If you're a wildlife photographer who shoots in low light the D5 is the clear "best choice" - from all perspectives, including image noise, dynamic range, and tonal range . And the D500 and the D850 are in a neck-and-neck battle for next best (but neither are nipping at the D5's heels).

3. Autofocus Performance

Overall the autofocus "feature sets" of the Nikon D5, D500 and D850 are quite similar. The only really "specification" differences are in the number of AF Area Modes offered by the various cameras. The D5 and D850 are identical in area modes EXCEPT that the D5 has two "extra" Group Area Modes, specifically two "new" ones that were added in a firmware update in 2017 - Group HL (horizontal line) and Group VL (vertical line). To avoid going down an endless rabbit hole explaining the nuances of how the Group HL and Group VL work, all I'll say about them is that I have yet to even conceive of a scenario in nature photography where they would be your BEST autofocus Group Area choice. So, for all intents and purposes, the D5 and D850 have identical autofocus feature sets.

What about the D500? Well...it also lacks the Group HL and Group VL area modes (so no loss there). BUT, it also lacks the 9-point Dynamic Area Mode, which is the Dynamic Area mode featuring the tightest "cluster" of focus points. Since this area mode was introduced as a firmware update to the D5 it quickly replace Single Point Area Mode as my favourite area mode for all my shooting. Yes, under specific situations I switch to other area modes, but in general I find 9-point Dynamic Area to be just excellent - in my opinion it's a near perfect balance of focus point size vs. the ability of the focus point to "stick" to a subject that may be moving (or, if you're hand-holding a big lens, it helps prevent the focus point from "slipping off" the subject if you're a little wobbly in holding the lens). Note that with its later introduction date, the D850 came equipped with the 9-point Dynamic Area mode from the outset.

Are there any other differences between the operation of the AF systems of the cameras that are of function of...say...camera design? Good question. And the answer is YES. On all 3 cameras the AF points occupy the same amount on area on the image sensor. BUT, because the D500 is a cropped sensor camera (i.e., a DX sensor) the focus points occupy a larger portion of the image sensor (and viewfinder), with the points extending ALMOST to the lateral edges of the sensor and/or viewfinder (and a LITTLE closer to the top and bottom) whereas the focus points don't come very close to the lateral edges of the D5 or D850 (assuming you're shooting in FX mode...they DO come just as close to the edge of the sensor if you're shooting the cameras in DX mode).

There's ONE MORE consequence of using identically-sized focus point arrays on DX vs. FX cameras: On the D500 (DX) each of the 55 selectable focus points appear MUCH larger through the viewfinder than on the two FX (D5 and D850) cameras. The net result in the field is that the relatively smaller (as seen through the viewfinder) focus points of the D5 and D850 allow for more precise positioning of the focus points on your subject. Might sound like a trivial issue, but when you're trying to focus on a grizzly in an area with grasses or twigs overlapping the subject it's way easier to screw up with a D500 than a D5 or D850 (shot in FX mode), as THIS SHOT SHOWS (JPEG: 1.95 MB).

What about performance in the field? Thought you'd NEVER ask! Since its introduction the D5 has been widely recognized as having the industry's leading AF system - it's simply amazing (in speed, accuracy, focus-tracking, predictive AF, etc.). The D850 has a functionally identical feature set and it's amazing too. BUT my experience is that they don't perform identically: When shooting eagles in flight in Alaska (under snowy and overcast conditions) in November of 2017 I noticed one consistent difference between the AF of the D5 and the D850 - for some reason the D850 struggled with initial focus acquisition (compared to the D5) under very low contrast conditions. Once I noticed this I tested it several times both on the same subject (using the same lens, same area mode, same focus point, etc.) and other subjects in low contrast light. And, the result was always the same - the D5 could focus successfully under the very low contrast light I was dealing with whereas the D850 simply could not. And please note I am talking VERY low contrast scenes - eagle in the distance with snow coming down between me and the subject and with a gray sky background.

What about the D500? It has a damn good AF system - if it weren't for the D5 and D850 it would likely be considered the best in the business. BUT...I haven't found it to be as accurate (possibly owing to those "large" AF points) or as good at focus-tracking as either the D5 or D850. And, after getting used to the 9-point Dynamic Area mode (which is now the default area mode on both my D5 and D850) I find I REALLY miss it on the D500.

The bottom line on AF performance: The D5 places first again, but this time the D850 is nipping REALLY closely at its heels (and in most scenarios you likely couldn't separate their performance in the field). The D500 places third here in accuracy and focus-tracking and (at least for me) in NOT having the 9-point Dynamic Area mode. Some may like how close the D500 will allow you to the lateral edges of the viewfinder, but for me the negative consequences of the relatively larger focus points of the D500 more than offsets the increased viewfinder coverage.

CONTEXT for the wildlife photographer? Under MOST conditions the AF systems of all 3 cameras will deliver very good results. If you are the type of wildlife photographer who really likes to push the limits (including shooting fast action) nothing fully matches the D5 (but the D850 isn't far behind). My own experience is that I always get the highest proportion of sharp shots (which is obviously correlated with autofocus performance) if I'm using my D5 - and this is true whether I'm shooting static subjects or those that are moving. While there are probably some wildlife photographers who don't place too much importance on the ISO performance of a camera, I have a hard time imagining any wildlife photographer who wouldn't place high value on the AF performance of a camera. So with Nikon's DSLRs we have the options of good (D500), better (D850), and best (D5) in autofocus performance...and it's up to you how high up the food chain you have to go! ;-)

4. Camera Speed - Frame Rate and Burst Depth

Camera speed differences - expressed in terms of both frame rate and burst depth (how many consecutive images that can be shot at the highest frame rate before the camera slows down or stops) - are reasonably easy to sort out. If we compare the maximum possible frame rates where the cameras retain full functionality (full autofocus) AND we use the same EN-EL18 battery (which requires battery grips in the D500 and D850 but not the D5), the D5 is the fastest at 12 frame per second (fps), the D500 comes in second at 10 fps, and the D850 third at 9 fps (or 7 fps if you DON'T use the battery grip and EN-EL18 battery).

Burst Depth is slightly trickier to compare - with both the D5 and D500 it's 200 frames when shooting the highest quality RAW files (14-bit compressed raws) and using a reasonably fast XQD card. But even when using the fastest XQD card the burst depth of the D850 varies with two more factors - the bit-depth you select and the maximum frame rate you use (7 fps with NO battery grip, 8 fps with battery grip, or 9 fps with battery grip). My blog entry of 15 October 2017 gave burst depths for all the various permutations and combinations (view it here). But if you want to compare apples-to-apples as closely as possible, if you shoot each of the cameras at its highest possible frame rate and capture the highest quality raw images you get a burst depth of 200 frames with both the D5 and D500 and 25 frames with the D850. You CAN get longer bursts out of the D850 if you slow down the frame rate and/or shoot 12-bit raw images (again, all the permutations and combinations are right here...).

So...the D5 is Nikon's overall king of speed, with the D500 not far behind. The D850 is incredibly fast for a 46 MP camera (hats off to Nikon for pulling that off!), but it does lag quite a ways behind both the D5 and D500 in frame rate, and even more so in burst depth.

CONTEXT for the wildlife photographer? If you like shooting wildlife in action (including birds in flight), the D5 is clearly Nikon's "fastest" DSLR. The D500 lags only a little in frame rate and has a buffer depth to match. The D850 lags behind in both frame rate and burst depth. But does it matter? That will vary between photographers. Some could probably care less. But I know I have run into a number of scenarios (including when shooting pairs of eagles "battling" while in flight and when shooting bubble-netting humpback whales) where I absolutely NEEDED burst depths of over 75 frames to capture the full duration of the action (and I wanted the fastest frame rate possible). And I have "buffered out" the D850 (after only 25 frames) on several occasions and, when it has happened, I have missed out on capturing a lot of shots at the end of the action sequence.

So...it's another good, better, best scenario with Nikon's top DSLRs, but this time good is the D850, better is the D500, and best is the D5.

5. Resolution and the DX-FX "Thing"

To this day I commonly see massive confusion among photographers about how a camera's resolution, sensor size, and "magnification" are interrelated (and in determining when you DO actually have a true magnification "increase" with a DX sensor). The most critical thing to remember when you're going down this rabbit hole is that what you can do with an image is always determined by the number of pixels dedicated to the subject. Repeat after me: the thing that REALLY matters is the number of pixels dedicated to the subject.

Let's quickly look at each camera's resolution in terms of pixels:

• D5: 5568 pixels x 3712 pixels
• D500: 5568 x 3712 pixels (identical to D5!)
• D850: 8256 x 5504 pixels in FX mode; 5408 x 3600 pixels in DX crop mode.

The observant reader will notice that the FX-format D5 has the same total number of pixels as the DX-format D500. That observant reader already knows that the sensor of the D5 is larger than the D500 - in fact they know that the D5 sensor is about 36mm wide by 24mm high whereas the D500 sensor is about 24mm wide x 16mm high. Because they have the same total number of pixels those pixels MUST be jammed in tighter (or are "smaller") in the D500 than in the D5 (and that smaller pixel pitch is what is most "linked" to their different ISO performance, but that's another rabbit hole we're going to avoid for now).

Now, because the D5 and D500 have exactly the same number of pixels but in DIFFERENT sized sensors, if you set your camera up on a tripod and shoot the same scene (say of a deer 25 feet away) with the same lens with both cameras, you end up with MORE pixels dedicated to the subject (that deer) with the D500. SO...if you view images shot with the D5 and D500 on a computer monitor at 100% magnification (where 1 image pixel = 1 display device pixel) you magically have what appears to be a 50% increase in magnification on the D500. And, if you shot the images with a 300mm lens, the D500 will appear (in size of subject and field of view) just like a D5 image if that D5 image was shot with a 450mmm lens.

The critical take-home point: If you're comparing a D5 to a D500 you will see a "true" increase in the number of pixels dedicated to the subject with the D500 and you can safely say that it has a relative increase in "reach" compared to the D5 (it's just like using a lens with a focal length 50% longer). But this is ONLY because the cameras have the same total resolution (20.9 MP...or 5568 pixels x 3712 pixels).

But what happens if you compare a D500 to a D850? Do you still have the same DX "reach advantage" on the D500. Nope. Don't forget that the D850 has WAY more resolution - it's a 46 MP camera (8256 x 5504 pixels). Heck, if you shoot a D850 in crop mode it will have almost exactly the same number of pixels as the same shot (shot, of course, from the same place with the same lens) as a D500 (in truth the D500 will have about 6% more pixels dedicated to the subject). So what WAS a 50% crop factor (or increase in "effective focal length") when you compared a D5 and D500 is now only a 3% crop factor (when you compare a D500 to a D850).

RELEVANCE: If you're thinking "I want to increase the effective focal length of my lenses to get closer shots of wildlife by buying a D500" that argument applies ONLY to the D5, not the D850. You WILL have more pixels dedicated to the subject if you are comparing a D500 to a D5, but you will have almost no increase in pixels dedicated to subject if you are comparing a D500 to a D850.

The most germane thing for ANY photographer to be thinking about? t's this: "Given what I actually DO with my photos, how much resolution to I really need?" If your main goal is to produce images for any form of digital (electronic) display (posting on the web, emailing to friends, doing the Instagram thing, whatever) ALL 3 of these cameras are OVERKILL (i.e., have way more pixels than you need). If you want to make massive prints (90 cm - or 3' - or longer on the long axis)...yep...the D850 is going to be the best choice.

And...what about CROPPING? Yep, the D850 has the most resolution of the batch and allows for the most cropping (and I know some wildlife photographers who have gravitated to the D850 for exactly this reason). But...if you ARE a cropper (and there's nothing wrong with that...it's self-limiting anyways) keep in mind that with more cropping you reduce the amount of resolution reduction (down-sampling) left available to you...which means you have impaired your ability to "hide" noise via downsampling. So croppers are probably better off judging ISO performance via viewing the images at 100% on a computer display rather then relying on dxomark.com's "Print" scores! After you have re-read this paragraph about 5 times (and thought about the consequences) you'll come to the realization that at the end of the day there is no free lunch.

CONTEXT for the wildlife photographer? The decision on the amount of resolution any individual wildlife photographer needs - and whether or not they'd benefit from a "crop" factor - will vary between photographers. There's no simple "one size fits all" answer. You have to know how much resolution you actually NEED for your own uses of your images to decide if you "need" the increased resolution of a D850 over either a D5 or D500. If you're comparing a D500 to a D5 and trying to decide if you NEED the crop factor you should consider the type of images you like (e.g., animalscape vs. portrait), how close you can work with your preferred subject matter, the focal length of the lenses in YOUR kit (and thus if you NEED an increase in "reach"), and more.

Me? For MOST of my wildlife shooting 20.9 MP is more than enough resolution and in most cases (with my preferred subject matter and the lenses I own) I rarely "need" the DX crop factor (and I'm NOT a member of the "closer is better" club of wildlife photography). If I run into a situation where I run into a scene that will make a great animalscape...well...THAT'S exactly when the value of the resolution of the D850 kicks in.

6. Build Quality and Camera Reliability

This is one of those features you READ about before you buy your shiny new wildlife camera and then forget about UNTIL your camera stops working. Which can be devastating if you're in a remote region and without easy access to a "replacement" camera.

There is some correlation between country of origin and the price of a camera and its build quality and durability. ALL cameras can break down and quit working. Nikon's "D single-digit" flagships - including the D5 - have always been built in Japan and have always been built like tanks. In contrast, both the D500 and the D850 are built in Thailand and - on the surface - appear to be built quite well. But they aren't built to withstand the heavy use that the D5 is. On the photo tours I lead I have already seen a higher proportion of D500's experience breakdowns (of one form or another) than any of the "D-single digit" Nikon flagships (so far I haven't seen enough D850's in use under tough field conditions to make any judgement about them at all). This is obviously anecdotal information and only Nikon would have the hard numbers on breakdown rates.

Of course, there is a negative side to the tank-like build quality of the D5 relative to both the D500 and D850: weight! Yep, the D5 is darned heavy! I find if I'm going hiking (and not going out to photograph wildlife in a specific place) I preferentially grab my D500 or D850 over my D5 based on camera size and camera weight. And in those situations (which I'd describe as "general use nature photography", not wildlife photography), I do like that I can strip off the battery grip and make the camera both lighter and more compact.

CONTEXT for the wildlife photographer? While ALL wildlife photographers work (by definition) in the "field", there's HUGE variation in the conditions they shoot in (or are willing to shoot in!) and how well they look after their gear. I shoot in all conditions - from torrential downpours down to -30C temperatures (about the only conditions I don't end up shooting under are warm, sunny conditions!). I tend to be careful with my gear, but no matter how careful I am my cameras get wet, muddy, and frozen! But I so know of other wildlife photographers (including some pretty serious ones) that shoot primarily under more "benign" conditions. My point is simple - how much emphasis should be placed on build quality and average camera durability does vary dramatically between users. But for me - it's a critical feature in a wildlife camera.

7. And Some "Honourable Mention" Characteristics To Consider

When talking to other wildlife photographers about what they like (or dislike) about a particular camera you sometimes hear things that NEVER crossed your mind about a camera (or thought of it as an issue). One example of this is how a camera "fits my hand" (something that I have almost never given a second of thought to). I hear as much about a camera being too small (obviously from big-handed shooters!) as I hear about a camera being too large. In my case, it would be easy to think I like "big and heavy" camera bodies (whenever I do "serious" wildlife photography you'll see that I have either a big "D-single digit" camera in my hands or another body with a battery grip attached). I do this for a few reasons. First, I like the vertical controls that battery grips offer. Second, I like that the extra weight associated with the battery grip helps balance the camera with a big lens installed (whether or not I'm shooting on a tripod or hand-held). Third, using a battery grip allows me (with the D500 and D850) use the same battery as my D5 uses. Not only does this give me more shots per battery (compared to those piddly little EN-EL15's), but it allows me to carry a single charger (and single type of spare battery) when traveling. While this information doesn't "separate out" the appeal of any of the 3 cameras I'm discussing, it may help someone choose a complimentary camera to purchase next if they already have one of the 3 cameras.

Getting back to the point, there are two other characteristics that differ BETWEEN these cameras that bias me a little more toward the D5 for wildlife photography. When Nikon introduced the D5 and D500 (and thankfully they carried this over to the D850) they FINALLY gave us the ability to switch between AF area modes using any of a number of programmable buttons on the camera body. I LOVE this feature and use it ALL the time (pressing the AF-On button on any of my cameras now instantly takes me to Group Area AF, and pressing the sub-selector switches me instantly to 72-point Dynamic Area AF). And, this ability to switch AF area modes with programmable buttons dramatically increases the value of the programmable buttons. And, the more of 'em the better, especially if they're within easy reach of your fingers during normal camera operation. And the D5 has one extra programmable button along the front side of the body that can be reached with fingers on the right hand (with the D5 you have Pv, Fn1, and F2 there, not just Pv and Fn1). Little thing on paper. Big thing in the field!

And...here's an even MORE obscure thing that almost no one ever talks about (and where the D5 has the edge). When Nikon came out with the D5 they updated the mirror-driving mechanism. This had two real world effects. It dramatically reduced blackout time on the camera. If you're shooting static subjects this is close to irrelevant. BUT, if you're doing a high-speed burst of a moving subject (think BIF or a running anything!) this reduced blackout time makes it WAY easier to follow the moving subject while you're firing off shots. Note that Nikon also revamped the mirror-driving mechanism on the D500 (I'm still scratching my head over just what they revamped it from on this camera!) and the D850 as well, but they didn't do as good as job with it as they did on the D5. The blackout time on the D5 is definitely reduced compared to both the D500 and D850.

The second real-world consequence of the updated mirror-driving mechanism on the performance of the D5 is just how darned stable the image in the viewfinder is between frames in a high-speed burst. This is true regardless of the lens in use or the VR mode you select on that lens (you'll also see much more between-frame stability in the image if you are using the "Sport" VR mode on lens than if you use "Normal' VR mode, assuming that the lens in use has the "Sport" option). Again, done pretty well on the D500 and D850, but done the best on the D5.

IV. And the BEST Nikon DSLR for Wildlife Photography IS...

Sorry - BAD news: There isn't ONE best Nikon DSLR for wildlife photography. Selecting the most appropriate Nikon DSLR for YOUR wildlife photography needs will require some thought. Damn...don't you just HATE when that happens? But only YOU know what your favourite subject matter is, what conditions you most often shoot under, what lenses you have in your collection, how important action shots are, what your budget is, blah, blah, blah! ;-)

BUT...there's GOOD news too: You're shooting Nikon - and right now Nikon has the BEST DSLR trio out there for shooting wildlife! Pick the RIGHT Nikon DSLR (or, better yet, the best two DSLR's for you!) you'll be able to handle virtually any conditions (and subject matter) that the natural world can throw at you. And that's pretty cool...

My DSLR choice for shooting wildlife? Well...I predominantly shoot large mammals that can be approached quite closely AND I have an extensive collection of lenses up to 600mm in focal length. And I LOVE shooting "wide" animalscapes when I run into them. All this means I likely have LESS need for a DX crop factor than many. I also tend to work in dark, coastal rainforests and from a Zodiac inflatable boat where I have to hand-hold my lenses, including super-telephotos. This means I place a HUGE value on ISO performance. I also like to shoot a lot of action (birds in flight, sparring bears, breaching or bubble-netting Humpback Whales, running wolves, etc.). This means that BOTH autofocus performance and camera speed (including large burst depths) are critical to me. And, I often work in gawd-awful conditions, putting a big premium on build quality and reliability.

So what SINGLE camera is absolutely BEST for me for wildlife photography? Hands down it's the D5. And, believe it or not, if a D5 didn't exist then my SECOND choice for me for my go-to DSLR for wildlife photography would be the D4s. And my third choice, probably a D4! ;-)

What two-camera combination is absolutely BEST for me for wildlife photography? Hands down it's the D5 paired with the D850. Best of all worlds - for the bulk of my shooting I have the D5. But if there's gobs of light, little chance of prolonged action breaking out, OR a great animalscape unfolding before me...well...it's wonderful to have a D850 within reach!

What about the D500? For many it would meet all (or most) of their needs in a wildlife camera. But, in my case, owning both the D5 and the D850 largely makes the D500 redundant. But I HAVE kept mine...it's just one helluva backup body! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#BEST_Wildlife_Nikon

15 March 2018: ANOTHER UPDATE...Spots on 2018 Great Bear Rainforest Photo Tour!

Just a quick (and likely final!) update on the situation regarding the September 2018 "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" Exploratory Photo Adventure: I'm back to being full (sold out) on this excellent adventure!

Note that I still may see SOME cancellations on 2018 photo tours and there ARE some spaces still available on selected 2019 photo tours (including some trips into the Great Bear Rainforest). As always...details about ANY of the trips can be found right here:

2018-2019 Photo Tours by Natural Art Images

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

07 March 2018: UPDATE ON...TWO Spots on 2018 Great Bear Rainforest Photo Tour!

Just a quick update on this photo tour opportunity: I'm now down to just ONE of the two spots that opened up via a cancellation on this autumn's "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" Exploratory Photo Adventure.

Here's two sources for additional info about this amazing photo tour:

1. For the Critical Details (on my photo tour page): 2018 Into the Great Bear Rainforest Exploratory Photo Adventure

2. For MORE info (including trip itinerary and more): Download PDF Brochure (5.0 MB)

For even MORE info - or to book the one remaining spot - contact me at: seminars@naturalart.ca

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

05 March 2018: Cancellation Opens TWO Spots on 2018 Great Bear Rainforest Photo Tour!

Over this weekend I received a cancellation from a couple attending THIS September's "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" Exploratory Photo Adventure. So two spots are now up for grabs on a first-come, first-served basis.

This is my highest demand photo tour. The 2019 version is fully sold out and I already have a full slate of participants signed up on the Priority Booking List for the 2020 version of the trip. So if getting into (or back to!) the Great Bear Rainforest is on YOUR bucket list, this is a great opportunity to do so.

Here's two sources for additional info:

1. For the Critical Details (on my photo tour page): 2018 Into the Great Bear Rainforest Exploratory Photo Adventure

2. For MORE info (including trip itinerary and more): Download PDF Brochure (5.0 MB)

For even MORE info - or to book one or both spots - contact me at: seminars@naturalart.ca

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

26 Feb 2018: 2019 Photo Tours Up for Grabs!

I have now posted the schedule of - and details for - our 2019 Photo Tours on my Photo Tours page. The really big news is that we've added FOUR great new coastal British Columbia tours to the schedule for the 2019 season! And, of course, we're now accepting bookings on all the tours on a first-come, first-served basis.

Here's some key links to get the info you want fast:

1. For Detailed Info on ALL 2019 Tours: Go HERE!

2. New Trips for 2019? Here's a quick listing:

The Pacific Rim Explorer (April 2019)
Spring in the Southern Great Bear (May 2019)
The Gwaii Haanas Explorer (July 2019)
Summer in the Southern Great Bear (August 2019)

3. Trips into the Great Bear Rainforest? The following 6 trips all go into various locations into what is considered "The Great Bear Rainforest":

Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour (May 2019)
Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Photo Op Photo Tour(May-June 2019)
Spring in the Southern Great Bear (May 2019)
Summer in the Southern Great Bear (August 2019)
Into the Great Bear Rainforest Exploratory Photo Adventure (September 2019)
Into the Great Bear Rainforest Instructional Photo Tour (October 2019)

Dealing with the inevitable question! Ok...if I have have just posted these photo tours now how come so many spots are gone already (with some trips being fully sold out)? Good question with a simple answer. Many people signed themselves up for the 2019 Priority Booking List (which gave them first right of refusal on the photo tour of their choice). And many of those people snagged spots on the photo tour of their choice (some did opt to go for spots on the new trips as well). And, mid-way through last week those who have signed themselves up for my newsletter got a sneak peak at the 2019 photo tours.

Dealing with NEXT inevitable questions!

1. How do you get your name on the 2020 Priority Booking List? Just go here: 2020 Photo Tours - Priority Booking List

2. How you get your name on my Newsletter distribution list? Just go here: Newsletter Sign Up

If past history holds true, it is likely that most remaining 2019 spots will disappear fast. So if you ARE interested in an outstanding photography adventure it's probably a good idea to contact me pronto! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

24 Feb 2018: Cancellation Opens ONE Spot on 2018 Marine Mammals Photo Tour

1 March 2018 Update: This spot has been scooped up and is no longer available.

A cancellation has opened up ONE spot on this August's "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More: Marine Mammals of the Central Pacific Coast" (phew, that's a mouthful!) Instructional Photo Tour. The spot will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

Two sources for additional info:

1. For the Critical Details (on my photo tour page): 2018 Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More Photo Tour

2. For MORE info (including trip itinerary and more): Download PDF Brochure (5.3 MB)

For even MORE info - or to book the spot - contact me at: seminars@naturalart.ca

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

23 Feb 2018: Tweaks to The Wildlife FIRST! Principles of Photographer Conduct

I made a few very minor tweaks to the wording of the The Wildlife FIRST! Principles of Photographer Conduct earlier today. Just little things - like you won't find the word "rules" in there anymore (it's been replaced by "principles"). So those individuals and groups who have linked to the Wildlife FIRST! Protocol may want to check the page out to see if they still agree to it (but I doubt many would even notice the changes - they're extremely subtle!).

I never intended this "protocol" to be an exhaustive set of ethical rules that could be blindly applied to every situation, subject, or geographic location. Producing THAT would be an impossible task. Rather, the intent was simply to describe the ethical principles that I use to guide my own actions and drive the ethical decisions I (and those participating on any of my photo tours) make when I am in the field. I do hope others find them useful in guiding their own behaviour in the field. Good food for thought! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

20 Feb 2018: Wildlife Photography Ethics: Feedback On The Wildlife FIRST! Protocol

When I posted my previous blog entry describing my stance on wildlife photography ethics I expected a lot of feedback and possibly some pushback. Since then over 3000 sets of eyeballs (presumably mostly those of wildlife photographers) have viewed my page dedicated to describing my Wildlife FIRST! Rules of Photographer Conduct (view that page right here). And I've received 27 emails giving me feedback on that commentary. The comments have come from around the globe, including 4 from Canada, 3 from the US, 2 from the UK, 2 from France, 1 from Spain, 1 from Italy, and 1 from Brazil (I couldn't easily identify where the remaining 13 emails came from - damned Gmail addresses!). While this is a very small sampling, there's been some common trends or viewpoints that have become quite apparent.

1. There's a LOT of DISGUSTED Wildlife Photographers Out There!

NONE of the 27 emails I received took any issue with my thoughts on wildlife photography ethics (though a few did wish I went further). I received several emails recounting the senders' disgust with some of the things they have seen OTHER wildlife photographers doing. I suppose this strong bias in the emails I received makes sense - it's kinda unlikely someone would email me saying "I have NO respect for my subjects and MY photos do so much good that the wildlife I harm taking them represent necessary sacrifices" (believe it or not, I HAVE encountered this "mindset" several times in the field amongst both professional wildlife photographers and conservation proponents - kind of an arrogant version of the "do as I say, not as I do" adage).

Two practices that particularly bothered those sending me feedback came up 3 or more times. And those practices are the use of flash on wildlife subjects and the use of live bait to assist in capturing owl flight shots. Here's some thoughts on both of those subjects...

2. On the Use of Flash or Flash-Fill on Wildlife

Four separate emails brought this subject up (all of which argued AGAINST the use of flash on wildlife), and two thought I had erred by omitting this in my list of Wildlife FIRST! rules. Here's some thoughts to ponder (including why I intentionally excluded the use of flash in my set of rules):

• My goal in presenting the Wildlife FIRST! rules of photographer conduct was to encourage individual photographers to THINK about what they do in the field and decide for themselves where to draw the line (following a few simple principles). If an act clearly (or even likely) has a negative impact on the subject it should be abandoned - full stop. But - in my view - trying to come up with an exhaustive list of practices that should ALWAYS be prohibited in ALL situations (and ALL geographic locations) is doomed to failure (and/or be completely ignored by those who would benefit from following it!).

• I completely AGREE that the use of flash has the potential to be harmful to your subjects. Situations such as working at a songbird's nest where the adults are actively feeding the nestlings and the use of flash retards one or more of the adults in their feeding efforts should obviously be condemned (and NOT done). While it seems intuitive that flash can bother or stress wildlife subjects, I honestly can't say I have found a single study indicating that it does (which may mean only that no one has studied it and says nothing about whether or not it causes harm).

• HISTORICALLY I HAVE used flash-fill when photographing songbirds and rodents. The rule I imposed on myself was that if the subject showed any reaction to the flash on the SECOND time the flash was used, I abandoned the flash (my own experience was that the subject often seemed startled by the first flash, but by the second they often ignored it). BUT...about 5 years ago I ceased using flash on ANY wildlife subjects? Why? Proceed to next bullet point.

• As digital cameras have improved over the years (specifically in dynamic range, tonal range, and in their raw files' "malleability" to extraction of shadow detail without introducing noise) AND as my OWN post-processing skills (including balancing the light in exposures) have improved over the years, I have seen less and less NEED to use any form of flash or supplemental lighting on wildlife subjects.

• I have actively decided that between the real possibility of some harm to subject through the use of flash AND the fact that I can generally mitigate against the effects of harsh or uneven light in post-processing anyway, to cease using flash-fill on any wildlife subjects. If I can just as easily add a catch-light in the eye of a bird in post-processing as I could by using a flash-fill in the field, why bother with the flash? Similarly, if I can reduce the extreme contrast of a back-lit bird via light balancing in post-processing why should I run the risk of disturbing the bird with flash-fill? In the end it comes down to a choice of manipulating the scene during image capture (using flash) or manipulating the scene during post-processing. And my choice is to do it in post-processing (with full-disclosure, of course!).

• For the record, the use of flash on wildlife subjects on my photo tours (where the subjects are often large terrestrial carnivores like bears or wolves) is completely banned. This is done for the safety of the bear (or wolf, or...). Huh? Anyone who has worked extensively with carnivores knows that each individual is different from the next. Some bears (for example) would completely ignore a flash. Others...depending on how their day (or week, or whatever) is going might get royally ticked off if someone shot a flash in their face (and I wouldn't blame them). And if that ticked off bear decided to take steps to teach the "flasher" a lesson (permanently or otherwise)...well...sadly the bear would likely be destroyed. And that would be very sad. And stupid.

So...summing up: I do think the use of flash has the potential to have a negative impact on wildlife. I no longer use flash-fill on any wildlife subjects and I see little need for it. If one is determined to use flash on wildlife subjects I would ask them to ask the following questions to themselves: Am I doing everything I can to minimize the impact on my subject? Is the subject reacting in any way to the flash? Do I really need to add light at image capture or could I add that same light (and exposure balancing) during post-processing? And I think you know what answers would point towards putting your flash away. But I won't add a statement like "Never Use Flash On Wildlife" to my Wildlife FIRST! Rules of Photographer Conduct.

3. On the Use of Live Bait to Assist in Capturing Owl Flight Shots

Based on the email feedback I received it would appear that the use of live bait to capture dramatic shots of owls (or some pretty ordinary ones...see the quote below) really riles up a lot of wildlife photographers. And it's a very divisive issue. Here's a quote (used with permission) from one email that describes a camera club "situation" that deeply disturbed one photographer. It's reflective of the feelings that were expressed to me in two additional emails.

"The conversation amongst the group, of which a large part seemed to know each other well, was about locating and taking photos of migrating owls in the area. I learned they are box trapping mice in a farmer's barn, buying them at a pet store, and using them to attract the birds, tracking the movement of these owls and relaying that information via radio and cell phones. They are chasing them about in mass with reckless abandon. And just about everyone else in the room who were previously not involved, wanted to get involved."

"The sad part, not one of these people saw anything wrong with what they are doing - nor did they care to hear anything otherwise. They are intoxicated by the pursuit to get a photo...and from what I saw, there was not one natural snap worth having."

Probably the biggest single (and most widespread) harmful effect associated with the baiting of owls and other carnivorous animals is the rapid association they form between the food and humans. Examples of the harmful affects of those associations between owls and humans? I have personally seen Great Gray Owls recognize and approach cars that have been used by individuals to bait owls (and I had previously seen the photographers releasing the mice right beside their car). I have also twice seen baited Great Grays get "smoked" by other cars as they approached (in a low flight) the cars that they had learned were a source of food. One of these owls died on impact, the other spent the rest of its life in captivity in a rehabilitation facility when it couldn't recover enough from a broken wing to fly.

Other negative impacts associated with baiting and/or supplemental feeding of wildlife include the harm associated with introducing foreign food sources (just what were those lab mice used to bait owls fed?) and the impact on the natural spacing (and level of aggression) BETWEEN baited animals. Adding food to an area occupied by territorial animals (female Snowy Owls will form winter areas of exclusive use, i.e., territories) can cause the territories to decrease in size or disappear altogether. In turn, this can lead to an increased amount of aggression and strife between (in this case) the owls from adjacent territories.

I could go on (and on) about the negative impacts of baiting and/or feeding wildlife, but suffice to say I totally agree with those who emailed me complaining about the "current state of owl photography". In my eyes, if you engage in baiting for the purpose of photography you are simply saying "my photos are MORE important than the welfare of the subject". Sorry...but the welfare of the wildlife comes FIRST!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#WildlifeFIRST2

15 Feb 2018: Wildlife Photography Ethics: The Wildlife FIRST! Protocol

It's been a while since I stirred the pot on anything...so...

A basic reality of wildlife photography that we all must accept is that photographers DO have an impact on their subjects, even if the impact isn't always obvious. It's my belief that all wildlife photographers - be they amateurs or professionals - should think about and consider their actions and what impact they have, or could potentially have, on their subjects. And then they should take the next step and actively find ways to reduce and minimize their impact.

Over the past few decades I've given a TON of thought to the impact that wildlife photography has on my subjects. Obviously "pixelating" a bear has a lot less impact on it than putting a slug through its heart, but that doesn't mean we as photographers don't negatively affect it. Some may know that I wear several hats - I'm a biologist (specifically a Behavioural Ecologist) and an active participant in many carnivore conservation campaigns and initiatives within British Columbia. I've also been involved with setting up ethical guidelines of some major online wildlife photography forums (specifically the Wildlife Gallery of the Nature Photographers Network). So I definitely have some thoughts on this topic, and it is a "file" I've been active on.

Anyway...late in 2017 I thought it was high time to commit the wildlife photography ethics that I believe in and practice (and that we practice on ALL our photo tours) into print on this website. So I quietly added them to my photo tours page of this website. And, just today I created a new discrete and permanent home for my own ethical "statement". Check it out here...

The Wildlife FIRST! Principles of Photographer Conduct

Let the screaming (and heated emails) begin! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#WildlifeFIRST1

13 Feb 2018: If NOT the Nikkor 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR, Then What?

My two previous blog entries on the recently announced Nikkor 180-400mm f4E VR zoom lens resulted in a lot of email flowing into my inbin. Many who emailed me were wondering if I could recommend some other (and less astronomically priced) lens options they could consider in lieu of the 180-400mm. To be honest, I strongly dislike recommending specific lenses to photographers I haven't spent a lot of time shooting with. What works great for me may not work as well for them (and vice versa). Photographers differ in many ways...they may have different creative vision and photographic goals, different past experiences, different physical skills and abilities, different camera bodies to "host" a lens with, and much more. So about the best I can do is describe my approach to wildlife photography, the constraints I face, and what lenses work well for me (and why) and hopefully the reader can decide if that lens might work well for them.

So...here's MY answer to the question: "Which single lens makes you feel you can pass on the new Nikkor 180-400mm f4E VR without handicapping your ability to capture top-notch wildlife images?" You might be a little surprised by the answer...

I. Background and Context

OK...a little background is essential to making sense of my answer. So...here's a few critical contextual comments that strongly influence my first choice among the various options to the 180-400mm f4E VR:

1. Zooms vs. Primes?

OK...I'm going to limit my answer and discussion to zoom lenses (and exclude discussion of prime lenses as alternatives to the 180-400). I buy zoom lenses for convenience in covering a focal range I may need in a particular - and often unforeseen - situation, ease of travel (i.e., it's usually a LOT easier to pack and transport one zoom compared to up to 3 or so prime lenses!), and easy of carrying in the field (such as when hiking). I buy primes for ultimate image quality which, to me, means maximum sharpness (across the full frame) plus smooth and almost buttery out-of-focus zones. I also tend to buy FAST (wide aperture) primes because they offer an enhanced ability to better separate a subject from the background (i.e., the wider apertures allow you to shoot with thinner DoF's).

So...budgetary issues aside...I don't think in terms of buying either zoom X or prime Y - even if their focal lengths overlap I don't necessarily see "redundancy" in owning both of them. I own the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E VR lens - which is, in my opinion, arguably the best short telephoto zoom lens ever made. But I also own Sigma's 85mm f1.4 Art prime lens, which absolutely kicks the butt of the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E VR at 85mm. If I KNOW I'm going to encounter a scene where 85mm is the "right" focal length, there's no doubt you'll find the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art in my pack. But...if I'm NOT sure that I'm about to encounter a 85mm scene...well...odds are I'll be carrying the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E VR.

Similarly - and more relevant to this entry - owning the excellent Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR doesn't impact at ALL on my decision to buy (or not buy) the 180-400mm f4E VR zoom. I'd own them for different reasons.

2. The Longer the Better?

OK...more context...I'm NOT a member of the "more focal length is better" school of wildlife photography. Similarly, I don't think "closer is always better" when it comes to framing up wildlife images. I tend to LIKE "wider" wildlife shots that include more surrounding habitat or capture the essence of the environment the animal is typically found in. Check out my Animalscapes Gallery if you want to see what I mean...

And...anyone who has shot with me (or sat in on a workshop I have given on the creative side of wildlife photography) knows that I am anal about how out-of-focus zones are used in a photo. Which is another reason I'm not a proponent of the "longer is better" way of thinking about focal length - the reality in the field is that as lens focal length increases your ability to control your distribution of DoF (especially in the critical foreground) decreases.

Finally...I don't do a LOT of shooting of small birds (many of the bird photographers I know tend to favor LONG focal lengths). I gravitate more towards shooting large carnivores and marine mammals...and my preference when photographing those is to stay in the 300-500mm focal range. So my NEED for focal lengths over 500mm (in full-frame terms) is pretty low.

3. I LIVE in Low Light!

I do a LOT of shooting in rainy (and cloudy) coastal environments, including in dark temperate coastal rainforests. Which is another reason I like the light-gathering ability of large aperture lenses. So...when I am choosing a lens for wildlife work - be it a zoom or prime lens - I'll almost always opt for the one with the wider aperture. This doesn't mean ALL my lenses are uber-fast wide aperture lenses - I DO own the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 zoom and my lightweight "commando" kit (for use when I need to go REALLY light) includes Nikon's 300mm f4 PF VR. But the lenses I tend to rely on for most of my "serious" shooting tend to have large maximum apertures.

4. Lens Weight?

Within reason, I put less emphasis on lens weight than lens quality (and lens speed). I have had years of experience with (and practice at) hand-holding lenses in the 3500+ gm (8 lb) - and even more - weight range. Of course, all else being equal, I would prefer a lighter lens, but usually not all else is equal. I KNOW many feel differently on this point - and that's OK. But it may mean that a lens that works well for me may not work well for someone else who places more importance on lens weight. Different strokes...

II. MY Alternate Choice to the Nikon 180-400mm f4E VR?

SO...which single lens in my personal collection makes me feel like I can easily pass on the new Nikkor 180-400mm f4E VR without negatively impacting on my ability to capture top-notch wildlife shots?

Are you sitting down? It's...the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 (AKA - in full Sigma Speak - The Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | S)

Why? Here are my 5 top reasons:

1. It's GREAT Optically.

In my own controlled field tests using a D800e (tripod mounted, Live View, cable release, full aperture runs, etc.) it compared incredibly well to the "best" Nikkors. As an example, at 200mm it was actually sharper from edge-to-edge than the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E VR (with both close and distant subjects). And, at 300mm I tested it against the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII...and the results were almost indistinguishable at most apertures (the Nikkor prime WAS slightly sharper on the edges from f2.8 through f4, but by f5 the Sigma was actually sharper). And, the out-of-focus zones (the bokeh) of the 120-300mm are superb.

In the past I have made the point that lens "tests" often don't tell the whole story about lens "usefulness" - and that other factors (such as optical stabilization and autofocus and even lens balance) combine with optical quality to determine the quality of images you can capture in a field setting (using your own techniques, etc.). I can happily report that the solid field tests I have done with the 120-300mm f2.8 Sport have translated into EXCELLENT results when doing what this wildlife photographer does - capturing images in the field. See the Sample Images section below for 10 examples of shots captured with the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 in 2017 (using a variety of Nikon bodies).

2. Excellent Build Quality.

Like with all the Sigma Sport (and Art) lenses, the build quality of the 120-300mm f2.8 is just excellent. It's environmentally sealed (highly resistant to moisture and dust) and built like a tank. Over the last few years I have exposed this and other Sigma Sport lenses to some pretty horrendous conditions and they've never let me down. This is extremely important to me.

3. It's Teleconverter "Friendly" - Giving it a Great TOTAL Focal Range.

It's my experience that few zooms do very well with teleconverters (compared to how selected primes work with teleconverters). One notable exception to this in the lineup of Nikon zooms is the new 70-200mm f2.8E - it performs very well with the 1.4x TC-14EIII. Another notable exception - the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 with the Sigma 1.4x TC-1401 teleconverter. Add the Sigma TC-1401 TC to the Sigma Sport 120-300 f2.8 on a FX body and you have a 168-420mm f4 zoom. Do the same on a DX body and you have the equivalent of about a 250-630mm f4 zoom. Of course, putting the 120-300mm on a DX body without a TC and it's equivalent to a 180-450mm f2.8 zoom (in light gathering ability) and a 180-450mm f4 zoom (in DoF).

Hmmm...it's obvious that the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 is still shorter at the long end of the focal range than the new Nikkor 180-400mm f4E VR zoom. How much that matters will vary tremendously between users. But overall, and if one has DX and FX bodies AND the Sigma teleconverter, well...the 120-300mm f2.8 covers a very critical focal range for the type of wildlife photography THIS wildlife photographer practices.

4. Adequate Autofocus.

You CAN find some Nikkor lenses AND some Sigma lenses that autofocus faster than the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8. On the Nikon side that would include lenses like the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII and the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR. And, on the Sigma side, the new AF motor found in the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 makes it focus a little faster than 120-300mm f2.8. To be very clear and fair, I HAVE been able to create test situations where the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 (at 300mm) lagged behind the Nikkor 300mm f2.8E VRII in autofocus performance (in tracking moving subjects). But I can honestly say that I have only VERY rarely run into field situations in the real world where the autofocus system of the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 didn't produce great results.

5. Highly Competent Optical Stabilization (OS) System - and "Hand-holdability".

My chosen subject matter and shooting locations (often from an inflatable boat) pretty much guarantee I end up hand-holding my equipment more than the "average" wildlife photographer. Add in the fact that I shoot in low light a lot and having a quality optical stabilization system becomes very critical to me. Does the OS on the 120-300 stack up well against the competition? To this point I haven't performed a systematic test of the OS system of the 120-300 against other lenses, but in the field I have found that the OS system of the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 allows me to shoot hand-held within the same range of shutter speeds (when shooting as the same focal lengths) as the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E VR and the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII. So I'm very comfortable saying that the OS system on the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 simply does its job.

Of course, the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 isn't perfect (what lens is?). If I were asked what should change on the NEXT version of the lens here's what I'd say:

• Shave Some Weight Off! I can live with the 3390 gm (7.5 lb) weight of the 120-300mm, but its heft may be a problem for some. I'd like to see close to 500 gm (slightly more than a pound) shaved off it...and re-designing the tripod collar and foot ALONE (see below) could go a long way toward accomplishing this.

• Improve the Tripod Collar and Foot. On the current version of the lens the tripod collar and foot are decidedly over-built. If Sigma replaced the current system with the same collar and foot used on the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 they'd save weight. And...while they're at it, why not make the tripod foot Arca-Swiss compatible (so the end-user doesn't have to add MORE weight by adding an Area-Swiss lens plate to it)?

• Improve the AF System. When Sigma introduced the 500mm f4 Sport lens they used a newer "Hyper Sonic Motor" to drive the AF system that provided 1.3x more torque (and sped up the AF system). It would be great if the NEXT version of the 120-300 used the same new AF motor.

• Lengthen the Lens Hood. The Sigma Sport 150-600mm and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 share the same lens hood. And they both have the same problem - they're slightly too short. Why is this a problem? If you're shooting in the rain (even if it's coming STRAIGHT down) and a water drop strikes the distal END of the lens hood the resulting splashing droplets makes it ALL the way back to the front element of the lens. And, if it's raining hard this happens a LOT, with the net result that you end up spending WAY too much time wiping water droplets off the front of the lens (and way more than with virtually any other lens I regularly use for wildlife shooting). For those that don't shoot (or don't shoot regularly) in the rain this will be a non-issue. As one who shoots in the rain a LOT, this is a constant irritant for me.

• Add AF Activation Buttons to the Lens Barrel. Many users of Nikon's latest DSLR bodies love the fact that you can switch AF Area modes using a lot of different buttons on the camera bodies AND by using the AF Activation buttons on selected lenses. Sigma has these buttons on the 500mm f4 Sport lens (Sigma calls these buttons "AF Function Buttons") and you CAN switch AF Area modes using them. Given Sigma clearly knows about the buttons (and how to make 'em) why not add them to the next version of the 120-300?

III. But What About...

I anticipate getting a lot of email asking me why I didn't list one of several other "super-zooms" as the reason for not feeling like I NEED the new Nikkor 180-400mm f4 VR. Included in this list would be the Sigma and Tamron 150-600mm zooms, the Nikkor 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR, et cetera.

Long story short, I consider the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 to be the best of the more economical super zooms. After testing it against virtually all of its primary competitors I kept it and sold all the others. I DO use the Sigma Sport 150-600mm but its f6.3 aperture at focal lengths of about 420mm (and longer) has two consequences that limits its use for me. First, on even Nikon's latest DSLR's the f6.3 maximum aperture makes several focus points unusable. Most of the affected points are on the "periphery" of the array of focus points, but it can be inconvenient nonetheless. Second - and more importantly - as someone who shoots a lot in low light a f5.6 or f6.3 maximum aperture is quite limiting. I have absolutely NO doubt that I would get MORE use out of the new Nikkor 180-400mm f4E VR zoom than ANY of the super-zooms simply owing to its larger maximum aperture. So, just like with my prime lenses, owning any (or ALL!) of the lower-priced super-zooms has absolutely no impact on my decision to buy (or not buy) the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E VR.

This leads to a short tangent that's slightly off-topic (but I know if I don't address it I will get asked about it many times). Why did I elect to keep the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 super zoom and reject the others? Clever readers (so everyone reading this) will know this answer will also contain little tidbits about why I don't consider these other lenses to be serious "options" to the new 180-400mm f4. And I'm limiting myself to TWO sentences in describing why these lenses didn't beat out the Sigma Sport 150-600mm in joining my kit:

• Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | C (Contemporary model): Great value and surprisingly good build quality, but I found it to be noticeably softer (less sharp) than the Sigma Sport at focal lengths of 400mm or longer.

• Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD (G1 version): Aside from image stabilization (where this lens was very good), this Tamron zoom fell short of the Sigma Sport 150-600 in almost all categories - so in build quality, optical quality, autofocus performance (much less effective than the Sigma), and more. To be blunt, I just couldn't squeeze the image quality out of this lens that pleased me.

• Tamron SP 150-600mm F5-6.3 Di VC USD G2: Based on how the G1 version of this lens performed I couldn't justify spending the time needed to fully test the G2 version (sorry Tamron, but I couldn't believe it was SO improved it could challenge the Sigma Sport or Nikkor competitors). So no comment.

• Nikkor AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR: Lots to like, including decent image sharpness, relatively compact size, good VR system and more. But the single factor that turned me against this lens was the extremely poor quality of the out-of-focus zones (compared to ALL the other lenses in this list)...just downright ugly bokeh!

• Nikkor AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm F5.6E ED VR: Surprisingly good optically (as sharp as the Sigma Sport 150-600mm at most overlapping focal lengths and with very slightly better bokeh) plus quite light and easy to hand-hold. But, the general build quality, total lack of environmental sealing, and extreme wimpiness of the hood (dislodged even by a soft and light rain cover!) collectively conspired to bias me strongly against adding this lens to my kit.

IV. Sample Images - Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8

Here's 10 images I captured in 2017 using the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 zoom lens. I chose a mix that included images captured with the 3 latest Nikon DSLR's used by serious wildlife photographers (D5, D500, D850), at a variety of focal lengths, and several different apertures. I also included two shots captured with the 1.4x Sigma TC-1401 teleconverter. All 10 images can be downloaded and viewed as 2400-pixel (on long axis) JPEG's. Seven of the 10 images can be found in various image galleries on this website (along with a LOT more contextual information about the shot) - for those 7 images I included links to them in their respective galleries...

1. A September Great Bear Morning. Nikon D5; 155mm; f4

Download 2400 pixel image
More info (Animalscapes Gallery)

2. The Exit Ramp. Nikon D500; 195mm; f5

Download 2400 pixel image
More info (Bears Gallery)

3. Of Two Minds. Nikon D500; 270mm; f5

Download 2400 pixel image
More info (Bears Gallery)

4. The Spin Cycle. Nikon D5; 300mm; f3.5

Download 2400 pixel image
More info (Bears Gallery)

5. Khutzeymateen Cruising. Nikon D500; 300mm; f4

Download 2400 pixel image
More info (Bears Gallery)

6. Salmon Fishing. Nikon D850; 300mm; f3.2

Download 2400 pixel image
More info (Bears Gallery)

7. Great Blue Heron - Keep on Truckin'. Nikon D5; 300mm; f4.5

Download 2400 pixel image

8. The Sea Wolf. Nikon D500; 300mm; f4

Download 2400 pixel image
More info (Wolves & Kin Gallery)

9. Shoreline She-Wolf. Nikon D5; 300mm plus 1.4x TC (420mm); f5.6

Download 2400 pixel image

10. When Urges Diverge. Nikon D500; 260mm plus 1.4x TC (365mm); f8

Download 2400 pixel image

Could the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 tame YOUR desire (or need) to own the Nikkor 180-400mm f2E VR zoom? Possibly. Good food for thought...

Cheers...

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Nikon180-400_alternatives

26 Jan 2018: 2019 Photo Tours?

Over the last few weeks I've been getting a lot of email asking me when I will be posting details about my 2019 Photo Tours. There seems to be especially strong interest in my 2019 Great Bear Rainforest photo tours.

This one is easy to answer - I'll be posting the details on my Photo Tour page in about 2-3 weeks (in mid-February). I have all the details together now, but I'm currently working through the list of folks who signed up for "first right of refusal" on the trips via adding their names to the Priority Booking List. If you're wondering "What the heck is the Priority Booking List?" you can find all the details here on my Photo Tour page.

I'll post details about the 2020 Photo Tour Priority Booking List at the same time I provide information on the 2019 photo tours.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

25 Jan 2018: More on the New AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR

Since my 9 January blog entry on the recently announced Nikkor 180-400mm f4E VR I've received a lot of email feedback (both on what many are thinking about the lens and my comments on it). Interestingly, I don't think I've ever had so much feedback after posting a blog entry on a new lens (which I take to mean there is a LOT of interest in this lens). So...based on that feedback - and some more thinking about the lens - here's a few more comments and thoughts.

1. Universal Sticker Shock!

Unsurprisingly, the only common thread in all the feedback I've received on the lens is major "sticker shock" (i.e., shock at the price of the new zoom). I've had comments like "Hmmm...looks like I have to choose between this lens and that new car I've been wanting". Many have said that regardless of the quality of the lens, the price alone will make them hesitate or wait to make the purchase (for some until they've tried it or read objective reviews). And several have said it will completely prevent them from making the purchase. Several of my points below are related to the high price of the lens in some way.

One possible consequence (which means this is speculation) of Nikon's pricing strategy on this lens is that it may keep it out of the hands of a significant part of its target market, i.e., the working sports or wildlife photographer who is NOT sponsored by Nikon and largely considers a lens purchase as a business decision (and who already likely has a decent collection of "glass"). My next point below expands on this point...

2. A Business Decision OR a "Can I Hide This From My Spouse?" Decision?

In a sense there are two extreme ends of a continuum in how those in the target market for this lens are looking at this purchase decision. At one end are those who are looking at it purely as a business decision - they're asking "Will buying this lens increase my revenue and year-end profit enough to justify the purchase?" Many pro wildlife photographers (or sports photographers) who are still in business fit into this group.

In my case my photography revenue comes not only from image sales, but also from photo tours and private tutoring (and, to some degree, public speaking engagements). For ME a lens purchase CAN be partly a marketing expense - if owning that lens (and testing it, and reporting the results on this website) drives web traffic it can lead to an increase in my revenue (as people who are driven to the website book trips, engage me for private tutoring, etc.). But because I already have a strong lens collection I really can't convince myself that owning this uber-expensive new zoom will likely lead to a significant bump up in image sales. And...while web traffic is great, when virtually all of my other revenue streams (photo tours, teaching, speaking engagements, etc.) are at close to capacity (until I clone myself) there's pretty much no economic gain that I can realize via the "marketing leads to increased sales" argument for me buying this lens (to report on it here and drive web traffic, etc.). So...for me...buying the new AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR can't be justified on economic terms.

I am only ONE professional wildlife photographer and I acknowledge that other pros may have different priorities (and different existing lens collections!). And perhaps for some it DOES make business sense to buy this lens. But based on the feedback I have been receiving (and based on some conversations I have with people in the business of selling camera gear) it does not appear that many working and "non-sponsored" pros are lining up to give Nikon money for this new zoom.

The OTHER end of the continuum of the market for this lens is the serious amateur photographer with a large amount of disposable income (or accumulated financial resources) who could care less if buying the lens makes business or economic sense. They simply WANT it, can afford it (and many HAVE said to me that their biggest concern is finding a way to get it by their "better half").

Of course, these are only the extreme ends of the continuum of how those in the market for this lens will view the decision - many potential buyers are probably somewhere in the middle between the extremes. Heck, even the most pragmatic pro gets a little excited about new gear! ;-)

But...and here's my main point...my best guess (yep, more speculation) is that the VAST majority of those who do buy this new zoom will be closer to the "Can I Hide This From My Spouse" end of the market spectrum (and few looking at the lens from a "Does it make business sense?" point of view will fork out for it). Interestingly, I've received feedback from several people who are in the "Can I Hide This Purchase" category of buyers and even many of them seem to be really having to work hard to talk themselves into the need for this lens.

3. Hand-holdability?

In my last blog entry I said:

"Based on my own experience of watching hundreds and hundreds of pretty serious enthusiast wildlife photographers attempt to hand-hold big lenses (from over a decade of leading photo tours), I would suggest that MANY of the photographers in Nikon's most lucrative target market for this lens won't be able to effectively hand-hold it."

Given the amount of feedback I received on this statement it's apparent that this point needs a bit more clarification. So...

• Lens weight is only ONE variable determining how easy it is for a given user to hand-hold a lens. Other variables include lens balance (which is partly impacted by how heavy of a body is used with the lens), VR performance, user technique, user strength, and more. BUT...my experience in leading photo tours for over a decade (and MOST on those tours are definitely in the target market for this lens) is that a lens in the 8 lb weight range is really on the "cusp" of hand-holdabilty for most users. Yep, some can hand-hold a well-balanced 3500 gm (8 lb) lens all day - others can't even dream of it.

• The importance of "hand-holdability" varies TREMENDOUSLY between users. For some (including me) it's critical. For others - it's irrelevant. But if hand-holdability of a lens IS important to you and you've never shot with a lens in the 3500 gm (8 lb) range...well...I'd recommend finding a way to TRY OUT a lens in this weight range and see how it "feels" and if you CAN hand-hold it (ideally it would be best to try the Nikkor 180-400 itself, but this will be a little tricky to do for awhile).

4. Optical Quality?

OK...repeat after me: "An MTF curve does NOT determine how sharp of a shot YOU will get from a specific lens in a field setting!" I have been testing lenses for years, and the most basic general truth I have learned is that there CAN be a big difference between the maximum theoretical optical quality (usually judged by image sharpness) that a lens can deliver under controlled conditions and what a given user will experience using their OWN shooting techniques in the field. I have seen lenses that test GREAT (and have wonderful MTF curves or score well on some other lab-based metric) but are awful for MOST users in the field. And, I have seen lenses that "test out" only OK (or have "iffy" MTF curves) but perform amazingly well in the field. If I had a dollar for every buyer of the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR who has said to me "How can a lens that dxomark.com calls "soft" be so bloody sharp?" I'd be a rich man.

My point? The photographic results YOU get in the field are not determined solely by the MTF curve (or any other single optical "measure") of a lens. They're impacted by everything from autofocus performance, VR performance (especially if you hand-hold the lens), lens balance, user technique, distance-to-subject, the camera the lens is used with, and more. Some lenses (in some user's hands) DO allow you to get close to their maximum theoretical performance. Lenses that really deliver for me while shooting wildlife in the field (i.e., lenses that allow me to squeeze close to their maximum sharpness out of them when using MY techniques in a field setting) include the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR (my number one choice for wildlife photography), the Sigma Sport 500mm f4, the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8, and the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E VR. Note that I am NOT saying these lenses will work great for ALL users - I am simply saying they work great for ME.

5. Opportunity to Try Before You Buy?

Quick point here: Of those who have told me they have pre-ordered the lens also told me they did it ONLY because the online retailer they ordered it from would take it back if they didn't like it. I don't know how many brick-and-mortar retailers offer this "money-back-guaranteed" service, but I know of several who do not. My guess (more speculation) is that for at least this lens you'll see a higher proportion than normal seeking out sellers who have "user-friendly" return policies.

6. "I Just KNOW It's Going to be GREAT!"

Remember how I said above that I've received email from folks who seem to be trying to talk themselves into buying this lens? Of those, many are using the excellent optical performance of another "newish" Nikon zoom (the 70-200mm f2.8E VR) to convince themselves that the 180mm-400mm f4E VR will be in the same optical quality category. I'm not sure I'm convinced by this argument. Designing a 70-200mm is very different from designing a 180-400mm (with a built-in teleconverter). Just because Nikon did a very good job on the optics of the 70-200mm f2.8E VR (which is another "very expensive for what it is" lens) doesn't mean it will necessarily happen again on the 180-400mm f4E.

In a similar vein, SOME photographers (not all) were never in love with the optical quality of what many consider the precursor to the 180-400mm - the 200-400mm f4 VRII. And, because of that, are skeptical about the how good the new 180-400mm f4 will be optically. My thinking is that from an optical perspective it's best to consider this a totally new lens (Edition or Version 1!) and wait and assess it on it's own merits (with no preconceived expectations). Of course, I can't disagree with those who have emailed me saying "Well...at that astronomical price it BETTER be great"!

I truly hope the new AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR is a GREAT lens and meets the needs of a great number of wildlife shooters. But it will be quite some time before we know for sure.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Nikon180-400More

09 Jan 2018: A Few Thoughts on the New AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR

Yesterday Nikon announced a new full-frame super-telephoto zoom lens targeted at serious sports and wildlife photographers - the AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR. This lens has been expected for quite some time - partly to replace the dated AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm f4 VRII and partly because of the initial sales success of Canon's 200-400mm zoom. Like the Canon zoom, the new Nikkor features a built-in 1.4x teleconverter which, when engaged, converts the lens to an f5.6 252-560mm zoom.

The new zoom features all of the "latest" features seen on other recent Nikkor lens revamps, including a fluorite front lens element, a dust-and-gunk shedding fluorine coating, an electronic diaphragm, 4-stop VR (with Normal and Sport Modes), AF activation buttons on the lens, and more. At 3500 gm (7.72 lb) the lens comes in at about 120 gm (or about .25 lb) lighter than its Canon counterpart. The lens is expected to ship in March (read "after the Olympics"). In Canada first dibs is being given to NPS members through a Priority Purchase program (my notice arrived via email yesterday). Those looking for a FULL spec spew can find one right here on dpreview.com's website.

Did I miss anything? Oh right, the price. Are you sitting down? It's absolutely stratospheric, with a MSRP of $12,399 USD ($15,549.95 CAD). I am guessing the street price will be a "mere" $11,999 in the US and $14,999 in Canada. Apparently Nikon is looking to return to profitability if they sell even one copy of this lens (and we know they'll sell a whole lot more than one of them!).

Here are a few candid thoughts and opinions about the new lens, as well as some answers to questions I will likely see in the next few days...

1. Jack - or Master - of All Trades? It could easily be argued that if a serious wildlife photographer could have only ONE lens then this would be the lens to have. Great focal range (especially when the teleconverter is factored in) and with all the latest "skookum" features. But whether this lens is a MASTER Of All Trades or a JACK Of All Trades (and Master of NONE!) will come down to a few things, including optical quality (over all focal lengths including at the long end with teleconverter engaged and over all distances-to-subject), how well the VR works on this lens (anyone recall the 300mm f4 PF vibration reduction fiasco?), how well the lens is balanced, et cetera. At 3500 gm (7.72 lb) the lens isn't svelte, and VR performance and balance may well be critical in determining if the majority of shooters can effectively hand-hold this lens. Based on my own experience of watching hundreds and hundreds of pretty serious enthusiast wildlife photographers attempt to hand-hold big lenses (from over a decade of leading photo tours), I would suggest that MANY of the photographers in Nikon's most lucrative target market for this lens won't be able to effectively hand-hold it. If past experience is any indication, it would not surprise me if this lens will initially sell well into the market that "travels the world to photograph wildlife" but once a lot of these shooters find the lens is just too heavy for them to effectively hand-hold it there will a lot of them available on the used lens market (starting about 18 months after the lens begins to get into the hands of users).

One final comment on this point: Anyone who has shot Nikon's latest 70-200mm f2.8E VR knows that it is possible to build a zoom lens with ALMOST the optical quality of a number of pro-level prime lenses (that the zoom range overlaps). If Nikon can pull off this trick again with the 180-400mm f4E (and at the price of this lens they sure the heck better do it) it COULD become a coveted lens. But note that at the price of this lens you could buy a whole collection of pro-level prime lenses (along with some darned good zooms!).

2. About the Built-in Teleconverter: The concept of building in a teleconverter is interesting. There's obviously some value in "speed of engaging" the teleconverter on this lens versus one where you have to manually place the teleconverter between lens and camera (and in some situations this CAN make the difference between capturing the shot and missing it). And, according at least to Nikon, they've designed this new lens (and positioned the switch) to allow you to engage the teleconverter while looking through the viewfinder which, if true, is great. But...my own experience is that teleconverters almost always perform better on prime lenses than on zoom lenses (and perform the best only on a FEW "best of the best" primes, like the 400mm f2.8E VR). So...I am more than a little curious how strong this lens will be in edge-to-edge sharpness at 400mm with the teleconverter engaged (so at 560mm). If you have to stop down to f8 or f9 to get acceptable sharp shots at 560mm...well...this feature (and the lens) would be of questionable use for me.

3. About the Price and Product Positioning: So...now Nikon has a 200-500mm f5.6 VR lens that sells for $1399 USD (or $1799 CAD) that is built in China and NOT environmentally sealed AND a 180-400mm f4 VR lens that sells for almost 9 times as much (but is built in Japan and is environmentally sealed). Do you think that just MAYBE there's room somewhere in the middle for a high-quality f4 super-telephoto zoom? Note to Sigma and Tamron - I think I see a gaping and unserviced hole in the middle of the market for you to jump into (and perhaps some photographers should consider waiting a bit to see if Sigma or Tamron makes the move into this market space?).

4. Am I Going to Buy One? Nope. Why? Three main reasons. First, I have a great collection of lenses that collectively cover the entire focal range that the new Nikkor zoom covers (and one of them - the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5.6-6.3 covers MORE than the entire range by itself). And several of these lenses are speciality lenses that offer unique attributes not found on the new Nikkor 180-400mm (e.g., the extreme portability of the 300mm f4 PF, the dreamy saftness of the out-of-focus zones when shot with the 400mm f2.8E VR at f2.8, etc.).

Second, when I owned the Nikkor 200-400mm f4 VR I found that a huge majority of the time (if I recall it was around 90% of the time) I shot it at between 380mm and 400mm. I already own a 400mm f2.8E VR - and I dare say the 180-400mm @ 400mm just won't match that lens in image quality.

Third...sorry Nikon...but the price is just ludicrous. At up to about $9499 CAD I might have considered this lens for those situations where I CAN only take one lens with me and I may need a wide focal range. But at $14,999 CAD - not a hope! While we all know that wildlife photography is an amazingly lucrative profession (tongue in cheek!), for me forking out $15K has to make business sense...and buying this lens would make ZERO business sense for me.

5. Am I Going To Test One? Likely not (but never say never, right Oprah?). To do an in-depth test I would need a copy for longer than Nikon would be likely be willing to loan one to me. Based on past experience I don't get the feeling that Nikon is as keen as some other lens makers to have me (or someone like me!) do an objective in-depth field-based test on their lenses (clever readers should read this to mean "be VERY leery about what the early "testers" - particularly those that Nikon uses in their promotional literature - say about this lens"). But don't get me wrong - I would LOVE to field test this lens. Anyone wishing to buy one and loan it to me for a few months is encouraged to contact me at their earliest convenience! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Nikon180-400Thoughts

08 January 2018: Just Posted - a NEW Photo Tour for Autumn 2018!

I just posted a new photo tour (of the "Exploratory Photo Adventure" variety) on my Photo Tours page. And...as of right now...there's currently even room on the trip for new participants! As always, spots will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

The trip is a modification of the "Kluane-Haines Explorer" trip I ran this past November. The headline acts include rutting Dall Sheep (in the Kluane portion of the trip) and the spectacle of world's largest Bald Eagle congregation (in the Haines portion of the trip). It will take place in late November. For 2018 (and based on feedback from the participants on the 2017 version of the tour) we've added two extra days in the Yukon's wildly beautiful Kluane National Park. And, in 2018 we'll be staying right on the shores of Kluane Lake for the Kluane portion of the trip.

For all the gory details just go here: Kluane-Haines Explorer 2018

Anyone considering participating in this trip should be aware that this is the most physically demanding of any of the photo tours I offer. In particular, during the Kluane portion of the trip we will be pursuing photographic opportunities of Dall Sheep on a snow-covered mountain and we may well have to hike up some pretty steep terrain to access our "prey". So the experience can be on the raw (and very exhilarating!) side and it does require a moderate-to-good fitness levels and a good measure of "sure-footedness". The trip does NOT require any technical alpine or climbing skills. This is the kind of trip I just LOVE (it's definitely right in my wheelhouse!).

Currently the first 6 images in my Gallery of Latest Additions were captured in 2017 in the locations we'll visit during this photo tour - check 'em out!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

03 January 2018: HNY, 2019 Photo Tours, and a Revised Digital Workflow

First off, I'd like to extend New Year's best wishes to all visitors of this website and blog. While many seem to be viewing 2017 as a bit of a train wreck, the introduction of the D850 in 2017 gave Nikon shooters a real good reason to celebrate. And, British Columbians (and all past and future visitors to the Great Bear Rainforest) were given a HUGE reason to celebrate when the government of BC banned the hunting of grizzly bears province-wide (YIPPEE!) on December 18. So 2017 wasn't ALL bad! ;-)

Following my late November/early December Kluane-Haines Explorer Photo Tour (which was thoroughly enjoyed by all, including yours truly), I went into a self-imposed "quiet mode". Why? To focus on two key projects:

1. 2019 Photo Tours

As anyone who has tried to get on ANY of my photo tours in recent years knows, I have WAY more demand for my tours than I have supply. SO...a problem with a simple solution - just "add" more top-notch trip inventory, right? Oh...if it were only so easy! But I do have very good news - when I "reveal" my 2019 Photo Tour schedule in late January (or very early February) we will be offering a total of FOUR totally new (and exciting, of course) photo tours! All these tours will feature great wildlife photography opportunities on BC's spectacular Pacific Coast (YES, more Great Bear Rainforest trips!). At this time I'm still finalizing some key details and logistics (otherwise I would just list the tours now)...so keep your eye on this page for the announcement of the 2019 schedule as soon as it's ready.

2. An Evolution of MY Digital Workflow

Digital photography has a characteristic feature that is both exciting and frustrating at the same time - it's STILL rapidly evolving. This applies both to our image-capture devices AND our digital workflow tools. I don't say too much about digital workflow on this blog (you'll see more in the commentaries in my image galleries), but many know that I use a "best of breed" digital workflow. Which is fancy way of saying I use a collection of "the best" tools for each phase of my workflow (while managing and processing my own images). So Lightroom for image culling and image and image catalog management, a combination of Capture One Pro and Photoshop for raw conversion and selective image-editing, blah, blah, blah!

I won't go into all the reasons right now, but over the last few years I have become increasingly dissatisfied with Lightroom for image management (and I've ALWAYS preferred the raw conversion capabilities of Capture One Pro over those of Lightroom). And, slowly but surely (over those same last few years!) Capture One Pro has been adding database capabilities (so think "...improving image cataloging and management capabilities") - and they have been adding more powerful selective editing capabilities (use a layers-based metaphor) with each application update.

SO...the question that had been constantly going through my head (when I should have been sleeping) was this: Had Capture One Pro evolved to the point where I could discard Lightroom entirely for image/catalog management AND, at the same time, do MUCH MORE of my selective image-editing within Capture One Pro (rather than relying on a tongue-tying "make Capture One Pro variants with global adjustments and then selectively blend the output files from Capture One Pro in Photoshop using layers and masks" approach)?

SO...when I returned from last photo tour of 2017 in early December I decided I needed to take the plunge and at least TRY OUT a new digital workflow using Capture One Pro for cataloging/image management and raw conversion (including the bulk of my selective image-editing). So that meant creating new image catalogs in Capture One Pro (and learning all the idiosyncrasies of its image filtering, image searching, creation of alternate workspaces for various tasks, etc.). And it meant learning the "Capture One Pro way" of creating layers and masks for selective image-editing. Note that this plunge WASN'T motivated by any "anti-Adobe" feelings - I have nothing at all against Adobe (hell, I use 7 of their apps on a near-daily basis). The plunge was undertaken to steamline and increase the efficiency of my own workflow.

Where am I after one month of immersion in my new (and improved?) workflow? Still a little slower in getting to the final output than I was with my old "hybrid workflow" (I had that flow down COLD!). And...still not quite at the point where I can totally forget about "mechanical" issues and techniques (and keyboard shortcuts) and just focus purely on creativity and getting the most out of my images (it takes awhile before the "fingers" just know intuitively where to go!). But I'm already CLOSE to where I was in efficiency (time from beginning-to-end of raw conversion and selective image-editing) and I am definitely very happy with the image output I am seeing. And, most importantly, I have convinced myself that my workflow modification will be worthwhile. So I will continue on with my new "more reliance on Capture One Pro" workflow.

Over the coming months I will make intermittent references here on my blog to how my workflow evolution is working out. And, many of the coming posts in my Latest Additions Gallery will include comments on how the transition is going and what I am liking and disliking about doing selective editing in Capture One Pro.

That's it for now. Over the next year you'll also see a TON of gear-related entries here on this blog (yes, including more on the D850 - and more on a whole bunch of different lenses!). The backlog of test results (from the D850 and way too many lenses) I'm sitting on right now is almost scary! I have a strange feeling that 2018 is going to be a whole lot better than 2017 was - at least for the visitors to this blog and website! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#C1Pro_workflow



II. Selected and Popular 2017 Gear-related Blog Entries

15 October 2017: Nikon D850 Burst Depth II - STRETCHING It Out!

In my last blog entry I discussed how frame rate impacts on the burst depth of the Nikon D850. In that entry I focused solely on examining variables that could potentially influence the burst depth of full-frame, 14-bit lossless compressed RAW files. And, it turned out that the single factor that impacted the most on burst depth was frame rate: as you increase the frame rate (at least in the 7-9 frames per second range) the burst depth decreases.

So...a logical question to ask next is this: "Is there any way to extend or stretch out those burst depths so that the D850 will function more effectively in capturing sustained action?"

Good question! Well...it turns out there are DEFINITELY some ways to convince the D850 to shoot longer bursts. And, like in the previous entry, I want it to be clear what I am talking about when say "burst depth"...so here's the working definition I'm using...

"Burst Depth = the number of consecutive frames that the camera can capture at its highest frame rate before pausing or noticeably slowing down."

Here's what I did: I examined burst depths of the Nikon D850 while varying only THREE parameters - Image Area (FX vs. DX), Bit Depth (12-bit vs. 14-bit lossless compressed RAW files), and Frame Rate (7 vs. 8 vs. 9 fps).

So this meant I tested burst depth under 12 different combinations of parameters. For each combination I shot TWO bursts and took the average of the two (note that in the test reported on 14 October I shot three bursts for each combination of variables, but the extreme consistency in the number of shots in bursts for any given set of variables made shooting the extra burst this time pretty much pointless). Because in the tests reported on 14 October showed virtually no variation in burst depth with changing scene complexity I performed all trials reported today using only ONE scene. This scene was the same scene I shot on October 14 and described to be of "moderate complexity" (i.e., a scene with 50% of frame blue sky and 50% of frame forested mountains). I used a 64 GB Lexar Professional 2933 (labelled as 440 Mb/s) XQD card for all trials.

Here are my results:

1. At 7 fps (Continuous High without MB-D18 Battery Grip attached)

14-bit lossless compressed NEF in FX (full-frame) Format: Burst depth = 40 frames
12-bit lossless compressed NEF in FX (full-frame) Format: Burst depth = 93 frames

14-bit lossless compressed NEF in DX (cropped) Format: Burst Depth = 200 frames
12-bit lossless compressed NEF in DX (cropped) Format: Burst Depth = 200 frames


2. At 8 fps (Highest frame rate on Continuous Low with MB-D18 Battery Grip attached)

14-bit lossless compressed NEF in FX (full-frame) Format: Burst depth = 30 frames
12-bit lossless compressed NEF in FX (full-frame) Format: Burst depth = 62 frames

14-bit lossless compressed NEF in DX (cropped) Format: Burst Depth = 67 frames
12-bit lossless compressed NEF in DX (cropped) Format: Burst Depth = 200 frames


3. At 9 fps (Continuous High with MB-D18 Battery Grip attached)

14-bit lossless compressed NEF in FX (full-frame) Format: Burst depth = 25 frames
12-bit lossless compressed NEF in FX (full-frame) Format: Burst depth = 45 frames

14-bit lossless compressed NEF in DX (cropped) Format: Burst Depth = 41 frames
12-bit lossless compressed NEF in DX (cropped) Format: Burst Depth = 82 frames


The take-home lesson? If you are willing to slow down the frame rate, reduce the bit-depth of your raw captures, or shoot in DX format (or any combination thereof) you can increase the burst depth of the D850 significantly, including right up to 200 consecutive frames (like in the D5 or D500). Interestingly - and almost inexplicably - if you shoot 14-bit lossless compressed RAW images at 9 fps in DX mode on the D850 you are shooting close to the same image (and at an only "slightly slower" frame rate) you can shoot with a D500, both in terms of total number of pixels and bit depth...yet you can only shoot 41 frames this way with the D850 compared to 200 frames with the D500. Sometimes - when I'm feeling cynical - I end up wondering if these kind of almost inexplicable between-camera differences in performance are intentionally built into Nikon cameras to prevent one model from completely making another completely redundant! ;-)

As mentioned in my previous blog entry, these kind of burst rates are quite amazing for a 46 MP DSLR. If you are willing to give up some frames per second, pixels (via shooting in DX mode), or bit depth you can almost approach the performance of the D500 and D5 in burst depth. But not quite! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#NikonD850_BurstDepth2

14 October 2017: Nikon D850 Burst Depth - It's ALL About Frame Rate!

One of the most game-changing features of the Nikon D850 is that it's the first high-resolution DSLR that is FAST! Not only can it shoot at a high frame rate (7 fps without battery grip, 9 fps with battery grip), but it can do that in reasonably long bursts. In real-world terms this means it's the first high-resolution camera that can be used, at least in some situations, as an "action camera" for shooting sports or birds-in-flight, et cetera. So...with the D850 you have a camera that's potentially capable of producing outstanding landscape shots and/or studio shots PLUS the capability of shooting action. Even the most cynical photography pundits (and even Canon shooters!) have to admit this makes the D850 a pretty darned versatile image-capturing machine! ;-)

This blog entry focuses solely on the burst depth of the D850 and what factors influence that burst depth. To be clear, I am defining burst depth as follows:

"The number of consecutive frames that the camera can capture at its highest frame rate before pausing or noticeably slowing down."

It's my feeling that this definition (or "characteristic of camera performance") captures "the essence" of what most photographers shooting action are concerned about. Certainly, it's what Nikon markets as a key feature when promoting their best cameras (in both DX and FX formats) for shooting action, i.e., the D500 and D5...both of which have burst depths (when using the fastest XQD cards) approaching 200 frames at 10 and 12 frames per second (or fps), respectively.

It's important to note that Nikon's promotional literature for the D850 (e.g., the D850 brochure) doesn't define burst depth quite as precisely as I have - they exclude the concept of "at the highest frame rate" (and the issue of the camera pausing or noticeably slowing down). So when Nikon says (on page 38 of the D850 brochure) that:

"...the camera is capable of continuous shooting for up to 51 frames (body alone) even in 14-bit lossless compressed RAW (up to 170 frames in 12-bit lossless compressed RAW)"

it doesn't mean they are exaggerating (or...uhhh..."misspeaking") even when the burst depths I am reporting here are FAR lower than what they state.

Anyway...long story short...here's what I did: I examined burst depths of the Nikon D850 while varying several parameters. For each set of parameters described below I repeated the test 3 times (i.e., shot 3 bursts until the camera paused or noticeably slowed down). There was almost NO variation between the 3 repetitions, i.e., in most cases I got the exact same burst depth 3 times in a row. In all trials I captured full-frame (FX format) 14-bit lossless compressed RAW files. The parameters I varied between trials were:

1. Scene Complexity: I tested 3 scene types - a simple scene (cloudless blue sky); a moderately complex scene (50% of frame blue sky; 50% of frame forested mountains) and a complex scene (100% frame of a forested countryside, with various colour trees, some open areas, etc.). This test was included because scene complexity can slightly affect the size of the raw file which, in turn, affects the amount of data flowing from camera (buffer) to memory card and thus has the potential to impact on burst depth.

2. Auto ISO vs. Fixed ISO: In this case I chose an ISO that resulted in shutter speeds (on all scene types) that were high enough to NOT impact on frame rate. In this case it was ISO 400. This test was included because some online reports have suggested that having Auto ISO turned on resulted in lower burst depths.

3. ISO Value: I tested each scene type at four different ISO's - ISO 100, 400, 1600 and 3200. This test was included for the same reason, i.e., some online reports have suggested that burst depths decreased as ISO increased.

4. Frame rate: Here I tested 3 frame rates: 7 fps, 8 fps, and 9 fps. These are the maximum frame rates for the D850 under the following conditions: No battery grip on in Continuous High mode (7 fps); battery grip (MB-D18) on with frame rate at maximum for Continuous Low mode (8 fps); battery grip on in Continuous High Mode (9 fps). Note that the 8 fps rate (maximum frame rate in Continuous Low mode with battery grip on) is only available (and visible in the D850's menu) if you have the MB-D18 battery grip installed.

5. XQD Card Type: I compared burst depths (for all 3 scene types) for two different very high speed 64 GB XQD cards - a Sony G-Series (labelled as 400 Mb/s) and a Lexar Professional 2933x (labelled as 440 Mb/s).

6. Secondary Card Slot (SD card) Status (filled vs. empty): On first thought this variable may seem almost nonsensical, but it has been reported online that whether or not the SD card is present or absent can affect burst depth. My best guess is that the test producing this result was when the camera was set to use the secondary slot as "Backup" OR to "RAW Primary-JPEG Secondary" AND the SD slot was occupied by a slower card than in the XQD slot. In my tests I have the camera set to use the secondary slot as "Overflow" AND it was occupied by a high-speed 64 GB Lexar Professional 2000x (300 Mb/s) SD card.

If you do the math this means I shot 144 individual bursts (48 different sets of conditions, each repeated 3 times). Yes, it took awhile! ;-)

What did I find? The results are VERY simple to explain - 4 of 6 variables I tested had absolutely NO affect on burst depth. The 4 variables having NO AFFECT on burst depth were:

• Auto ISO vs. Fixed ISO
• ISO Value
• XQD Card Type (but both cards tested were high-speed XQD cards - expect a reduction in burst depth with slower XQD cards)
• Secondary Card Slot status

Which two variables had any effect on burst depth? Scene complexity had a measurable - but almost trivial - effect: bursts of the simple scene (blue sky) were - on average - 1 frame longer than those of the moderately complex and complex scenes.

HOWEVER, Frame Rate had a MAJOR impact on burst depth. Here are my results:

At 7 fps (Continuous High with NO battery grip): Burst depth = 40 frames
At 8 fps (Continuous Low highest rate with Battery Grip ON): Burst depth = 30 frames
At 9 fps (Continuous High with Battery Grip): Burst depth = 25 frames

So...at least over the range of 7-9 fps, the higher the frame rate the lower the burst depth.

How do these burst depth numbers compare to other current high-end Nikons, i.e., the D500 and D5? Using the same XQD cards as described above, I have found that the Nikon D500 will chug along at 10 fps for "close to" 200 frames. I say "close to" because in a few trials I had a brief slowdown in frame rate for a frame or two after about 180 frames. The D5? It stops dead at 200 frames, but you'll get to those 200 frames at a smooth and consistent 12 fps. And, if you take your finger off the shutter for a second or two you can shoot a SECOND 200 frame burst with the D5!

So...adding a little context...with a D5 you could begin shooting Usain Bolt in the blocks and then ALL THE WAY THROUGH a 100m race at 12 fps and still keep shooting for over 6 seconds after he crossed the finish line. And you could do pretty much the same with the D500 (at 10 fps). But with the D850 you'd be able to capture him at 9 fps for about the first 25 meters of the race and then have to be happy with chugging along at about 3-4 fps (with some longer pauses) for the remainder of the race!

So...I think you get the picture: The D850 is AMAZINGLY fast for a 46 MP camera, but when it comes to shooting sustained action, it doesn't match the D5 or D500. And, It is likely that for MOST situations for MOST wildlife photographers the D850 will have a sufficient burst depth. But there MAY be situations when shooting at 9 fps - such as shooting birds in flight or...as per my own experience...photographing bubble-netting humpback whales...you end up hitting the burst depth "wall"!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#NikonD850_BurstDepth

11 Sept 2017: Nikon D850 - Very First Impressions...

I'm "rushing" this blog entry out after shooting with the Nikon D850 for only 3 days and primarily to stem the email avalanche I'm getting about the camera! During these 3 days I've shot a little over 2,000 raw images. I've done a mix of methodical testing (mostly ISO performance testing) and "just shooting" in scenarios that put several aspects of the camera's capabilities (such as AF performance) to informal tests. You know, things like shooting a running Portuguese Water Dog, et cetera! Most everything I touch on below will be discussed in much more detail (and often with example images) in future blog entries. My NEXT blog entry will go into WAY MORE detail on one aspect of ISO performance, specifically documenting how visible noise changes with increasing ISO (and it will include comparisons to the D500, D800e, and D5).

Note that my D850 arrived without the MB-D18 Battery Grip (they aren't shipping in Canada yet) so SOME of my D850 testing will be delayed until the grip arrives. This includes things like examining the lowest shutter speeds that long telephotos can be hand-held at (compared to other lower-resolution cameras such as the D5) where use of the battery grips makes for more of an "apples-to-apples" comparison.

So...with no further ado:

OVERALL ONE-SENTENCE SUMMARY: The Nikon D850 is an EXCEPTIONAL high-resolution, low-ISO DSLR.

Some specifics:

1. Exceptional tonal range and "drop dead" fantastic overall image quality at low ISO's (ISO 64 to about ISO 250). After just over 2,000 shots over a range of conditions (and ISO values) there is no doubt in my mind that this is a superb landscape camera that exceeds the image quality of the D800e and/or D810 by a significant margin. I haven't tested (or have any way to test) dynamic range directly, but it seems exceptional at low ISO's (it seems almost impossible to blow out a highlight!). But note that this is a fully SUBJECTIVE statement based only on my experience (and years of looking critically at images). Based on what I am seeing I suspect low ISO dynamic range will prove to be very high on the D850 (as will tonal range and colour depth at low ISO's).

2. Autofocus: Exactly as advertised - D5 quality (so a step above D500 quality in almost all ways EXCEPT in viewfinder coverage). I am a huge fan of the 9-point Dynamic Area mode that is found on the D5 (but NOT on the D500) and it works just as well on the D850 as it does on the D5. Exceptionally high "hit rates" on moving subjects (similar to what you'd get with the D5). At this point the more demanding sensor of the D850 (compared to the D5) does not seem to be causing the AF system to even hiccup (this was a concern I had but had not previously discussed online).

3. Mirror blackout - and between-frame image stability (within bursts). These are both functions of the mirror driving system and the D5 beats the D500 noticeably here (and both the D5 and D500 had "new" mirror-drive systems when they were introduced). The D850? Seems as good - or very close to as good - as the D5 (I think it's possible they used the same new mirror driving system as the D5). Not many folks comment on this feature, but it does make a pretty big real-world difference when shooting action. Despite the slower frame rate, the D850 "feels" like the D5 (and better than the D500) when shooting action.

4. Burst Rate: NOT exactly as advertised. All Nikon literature has really said is: "Despite the heavy load, the camera is capable of continuous shooting for up to 51 frames (body alone) even in a 14-bit lossless compressed RAW" (presumably at fastest frame rate?). What have I found when shooting full-size 14-bit compressed raw files? When using a Lexar Professional XQD 2933x card (440 MB/s) I get approx 40 shots at 7 fps before the camera slows to about 3 fps. But it then chugs along at that rate almost indefinitely. BUT...when using a Lexar Professional 2000x SD card (UHS-II and 300 MB/s) I get about 24 shots at 7 fps before slowdown to 3 fps (and then it chugs along for as many frames as you want). So...I'm getting MORE than 51 raw images per burst, but NOT at the maximum frame rate during the entire burst (even when using the fastest XQD card currently available). Hmmm...

What about 20 frame bursts - how many of those (with about a 1 second gap between them) can you do? This tends to be how I (and I think a lot of photographers) shoot action - repeated bursts separated by a second or two. Here's what I'm getting:

A. With XQD card (same card as described above): I get two 20-frame bursts at 7 fps and THEN it slows down (to about 3 fps) just a few frames into the 3rd burst.

B. With fast UHS-II SD card (same card as described above): Just ONE 20-frame burst @ 7 fps and then it slows right down (to about 3 fps) a few frames into 2nd burst.

So...burst rate is probably adequate for most uses and most users...but some sports shooters and bird-in-flight types might not be too happy with it. And...those concerned about burst depth and shooting repeated bursts should get and use a fast XQD card.

5. ISO performance? BELOW my expectations (which were conservative).

IMPORTANT NOTE: Expanding on this topic - including giving comparative samples of the images upon which the following statements are made - is the entire focus of my next D850 blog entry. In that entry I will disclose all the gory details of my testing. And note that these comments are based upon viewing RAW images, not in-camera JPEG's.

OK...In judging ONLY visible noise (not dynamic range or colour depth) in raw files, the D850 does not match the D800e, D500, or (of course) the D5 in noise characteristics at moderate to high ISO's. Note that at this point I have tested the ISO on all 4 cameras on two very different scene types but got identical results.

How did the D850 actually stack up against the other cameras? Consider a D850 raw image file captured at ISO 3200. At what ISO in the "other" cameras do you see comparable noise?

A. With D500? ISO 3200 to ISO 4000 (so just very slightly better than the D850 - in the 1/3 stop range at most).
B. With D800e? D800e: ISO 4000 and in some shots ISO 5000 (so noticeably better than the D850). Note that the D800e and D810 are virtually identical in this regard.
C. With D5? ISO 8000 to 10,000 (in a class of its own...which isn't at all surprising when you compare the pixel pitch of the cameras being tested).

Another observation was very obvious when I was going cross-eyed looking at all these images - the D850 seems particularly high in luminosity noise.

Another way of looking at ISO performance is examining the ISO where one first can see colour noise or luminosity noise (when viewing raw files at 100% magnification on a 110 ppi monitor). So...

A. When does colour noise first become visible on the various cameras (i.e., at what ISO do you need to begin suppressing colour noise during raw processing if you care about producing noise-free full-resolution images when viewed at 100% magnification)?

With D850: At ISO 400
With D500: At ISO 640
With D800e: At ISO 400
With D5: At ISO 1000

B. When does luminosity nose first become visible and require suppression?

With D850: At ISO 400
With D500: At ISO 640
With D800e: At ISO 640-800
With D5: At ISO 1600

Note that SUBJECTIVELY I have noticed already that ISO 3200 shots taken with the D850 when "just shooting" appear quite flat (i.e., with a narrow tonal range) - in a sense quite similar to D500 ISO 3200 shots (and not nearly as appealing tonally as 3200 ISO images taken with a D5).

For me (as a wildlife photographer) the biggest take-home lesson is that the D850 and D500 are exceptionally close in the amount of noise they exhibit at various ISO's (with the D500 having only a VERY small edge over the D850...in the "1/3 stop at most" range). While this may disappoint some (and doesn't come close to matching some of the early and unrealistic marketing "hype" about the D850), I personally think that in an absolute sense the D850 has outstanding ISO performance for a 45.7 MP DSLR.

6. And two other "little" things: Incredibly bright viewfinder (best I've ever seen). AND...battery life (using EN-EL15A) seems great - got over 1800 shots on first battery and was doing a lot of menu stuff, image review, and Live View shooting. You should be able to shoot forever with the EN-EL18b battery in the battery grip!

Stay tuned...my next D850 blog entry will get into the nitty-gritty! And you'll start reading comments about what the ISO performance of the D850 really MEANS in terms of how suitable of a camera the D850 is for wildlife photography (HINT: Don't expect me to proclaim the D850 as the "Best Wildlife Camera Ever!"). ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#NikonD850_FirstImpressions

27 July 2017: Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 DG OS HSM Art - Very Early Impressions

The Canadian distributor of Sigma products (Gentec International) was kind enough to loan me a "just arrived in the country" copy of the hotly anticipated (and now image-stabilized) Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 DG OS HSM Art wide angle zoom for a short test drive. I've had it for almost a week now and have shot with it enough (including in head-to-head shooting sessions with the highly-regarded AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8E VR) to have formed some early impressions of the lens. I was thinking that a lot of folks might like to hear my very early findings and thoughts about it...so...here ya go!

1. Build Quality: OK...I was absolutely blown away by the build quality of the new(ish) Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art when I borrowed a copy of it a few months back. The new Sigma 24-70 is of exactly the same level of quality - just a top-notch and fully professional build. Meticulous finish, zoom and focus rings that rotate uber-smoothly, firm and "positive-clicking" buttons (and only 2 of them!), lightweight but solid hood (that FIRMLY looks into position). Made in Japan. Don't know what else to say - Zeiss-like? Bling for photographers? ;-)

2. Physical Characteristics: As a one-line description I'd say this: Short, chunky, and with high "density". Here are a few more specifics (and how they "size up" against the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8E):

Carrying Length - shortest - with end caps and hood reversed (@ shortest zoom length): 12.9 cm (cf. Nikkor 24-70mm @ 18 cm).
Carrying Length - longest - with end caps and hood reversed (@ LONGEST zoom length): 15.8 cm (Nikkor 24-70mm = 20.1 cm).
Carrying Length - SUMMARY: The Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 Art is about 5 cm (or 2") shorter than the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8E. This 5 cm difference in length IS significant - I have always found the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8E to be a bit of a hassle to travel with or pack around - simply because it's a little too long to stand "upright" in a backpack-style camera bag. In contrast, you can easily put the Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 in almost any pack in an upright position. Little thing, but it saves critical room in bags having a very finite amount of space.

Lens Width (widest part of barrel): - 8.5 cm (cf. Nikkor 24-70mm @ 8.0 cm)
Lens Width - SUMMARY: The Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 Art is very slightly (about 0.5 cm or around .25") WIDER than the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8E

Carrying Weight - with end caps and hood: 1058 gm or 2.33 lb (cf. Nikkor 24-70mm @ 1164 gm or 2.57 lb)
Carrying Weight - SUMMARY: The Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 Art is 106 gm (just under 4 oz) lighter than the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8E.

Any beefs about the build or physical characteristics? One small one, but I'm not sure I can suggest anything to do about it. When the lens hood is in its reversed position it almost completely covers the zoom ring. This means you can't effectively zoom the lens without taking the time to take the hood off completely or take it off and put it in its forward "working" position. But...the only "obvious" solution to this is to reverse the positions of the zoom and focus rings, and I have to admit that I prefer the zoom ring to be exactly where Sigma put it - closer to the distal end of the lens. And, many other lenses have this exact design (and problem), including two other lenses I'm testing right now - the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E and the Tamron 70-200mm f2.8 SP G2. I guess I just have to learn to live with "the issue"!

3. Optical Performance: Please consider these comments and results as TENTATIVE - between the various focal lengths and possible differences in performance over different distances to subject, it takes a lot of testing to fully "suss out" optical performance differences between two high-end lenses. But...I have shot several hundred test shots comparing the Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 Art to the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8E - and I did shoot this images using quite high "discipline" (tripod-mounted, cable release, Live View, Mirror-up, etc.). And I have tested the lenses at 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 70mm (over apertures from f2.8 to f16).

My overall impression? That BOTH of these lenses are extremely sharp, and you have to do some pretty extreme pixel-peeping to start seeing small differences in their optical performance. But, so far - and based on a little over 500 images shot on my D800e - here's what I've observed:

CENTRE SHARPNESS AT WIDE APERTURES? A POSSIBLE slight edge in image sharpness for the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8E in the central portions of the images in the f2.8 to f4 range on distant scenes (and over all focal lengths). After f4 I couldn't see differences in image sharpness in the central portion of images with even the most extreme pixel-peeping.

EDGE SHARPNESS? Here the edge (pardon the pun) goes to the Sigma - at virtually all apertures, all focal lengths, and all subject distances I have found that about the outer 30% (or so) of the images shot with the Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 Art are noticeably sharper than with images shot with the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8E. Note that this is based on images shot with a FX (full-frame) format D800e, a camera which can beat up lenses pretty bad. With DX bodies and/or lower resolution FX bodies the edge sharpness difference may be subtle enough to be inconsequential to many.

COLOUR AND CONTRAST? Shockingly similar between the two lenses - both in direct sunlight and in shaded/overcast conditions. Note that some have found that colour and/or white balance differs between comparable Nikkor and Sigma lenses in overcast conditions, but to date I haven't been able to find virtually any difference in how these two lenses render colour or contrast.

4. Vibration Reduction/Optical Stabilization: I haven't had a chance to examine this yet - at this point all I can say is that the VR of the Nikkor (in both Normal and Active Modes) seems to show more stability - as seen through the viewfinder - than the OS of the Sigma lens. Please note that the viewfinder stability of the image doesn't necessarily correlate with amount of camera shake compensated for at the time of image capture. In fact, with some image stabilization systems (e.g., that on the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport or the Tamron 70-200mm f2.8 G2) you have settings to choose BETWEEN either maximum stabilization of the viewfinder image OR maximum stabilization of the image capture. This is an aspect of lens performance that I will examine in much more detail once my own copy of the Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 Art arrives.

5. Autofocus Performance: As immediately above - too early for definitive conclusions. At this point all I can say is that both systems seem to exhibit "very snappy and very smooth" AF performance during initial image acquisition. I have no information yet on how the lenses compare in image tracking or other "dynamic" aspects of AF performance (and, to be honest, I don't think true AF tracking is something that is as critical to the performance of a short focal length zoom as it is to longer focal length lenses...does anyone shoot bird-in-flight shots with a 24-70??). Expect more comments on AF performance in my full comparative review of these two 24-70's.

6. Sample Images? Yep, but only a few so far. And keep in mind that bandwidth limitations prevent me from posting full-resolution images online (which, in this case would be 7360 pixel x 4912 pixel D800e shots), and this means that some of the differences in optical quality are next-to-impossible to see in the following 2400 pixel images. For instance, it will be hard to see edge sharpness differences on the two "distant scene" shots below (with careful examination you CAN see them on the "closer" scene).

CAPTURE NOTES: All images captured on a D800e Nikon camera supported on a firm trip and using a cable release, Live View, Mirror-up, and with VR/OS off. Thus AF tuning differences between the lenses is removed as a variable. All images captured as raw (.nef) files.

POST-PROCESSING NOTES: All raw files converted to full-resolution 16-bit TIFF files in Prophoto colour space using Phase One's Capture One Pro version 10. Subsequent resolution-reduction, output sharpening, and conversion to sRGB colour mode performed using Adobe Photoshop (version CC 2017). All adjustments in Capture One Pro AND Photoshop were identical within each image pair below.

A. Distant Scene - Findlay Sunrise

• Findlay Sunrise - Sigma 24-70mm f2.8: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.49 MB)
• Findlay Sunrise - Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.56 MB)

Editorial Comment: Note that both images were captured only minutes apart at sunrise, but slight differences exist in the areas of the images that are in sunlight vs. the shade.

B. Close Distance to Subject - Findlay Creek

• Findlay Creek - Sigma 24-70mm f2.8: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.99 MB)
• Findlay Creek - Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.15 MB)

Editorial Comment: The careful observer will notice slight differences in apparent magnfication (focal length?) even though both images were captured at 52mm. And, distortion effects differ between the shots, but with this type of scene it is virtually impossible to determine which image is exhibiting more or less distortion (barrel vs. pin-cushion, etc.). For most nature photographers these are almost "academic" concerns - architectural photographers undoubtedly feel differently. I hope to tease distortion effects out in future testing.

So...those are my earliest observations and thoughts on the Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 Art - and how it is stacking up so far against the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8E VR. Without trying to be politically correct or diplomatic I can honestly say that both of these lenses are absolutely excellent optically. At this point the Sigma seems at least equal to the Nikkor optically, and possibly even slightly better. I already own and am happy with the Nikkor 24-70mm and, even though I haven't had a chance to fully evaluate the nuances of the autofocus or image stabilization systems on the Sigma 24-70, I'm so impressed with its quality that I have ordered my own copy of it (partly to allow a much more detailed examination of it so I can produce a detailed comparative field test). Like with my 500mm Wars comparative field test I will likely end up keeping only ONE of the two test lenses. Stay tuned to find out which one it is!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#sigma24-70_EarlyImpressions

07 July 2017: Any Further Thoughts on the Sigma Sport 500mm f4/TC-1401 Combo?

When I posted my impressions on the performance of Sigma's 120-300mm f2.8 Sport combined with Sigma's TC-1401 (1.4x) teleconverter yesterday I thought to myself "I bet within a few hours I'll start getting emails from folks wondering how I'm making out now with the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport and TC-1401". And...sure enough...by mid-afternoon those emails began rolling in! ;-)

So...necessary background info: I included a full section on the performance of the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 with Sigma's TC-1401 (1.4x) teleconverter in my extended field test comparing the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport to the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR. That comparative field test can be found right here, and here's a link directly to the section on teleconverter performance. Long story short - I found that the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 worked as well with its teleconverter as the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR worked with the TC-14EIII teleconverter. Stop down about 2/3 of a stop...or even a little more...from wide open (so in the f7.1 to f8 range) and use careful image capture technique and you can get very good results (with either the Sigma or the Nikkor 500 f4's).

Do I have any further thoughts after shooting the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 (including with the TC-1401) for a few more months? Yes. Here's a few specifics:

1. Stop down to f8! I've shot several thousand more images with the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 with the TC-1401 since posting my "500mm Wars" series and I've noticed that while you can occasionally get good results at f6.3 or f7.1, you definitely get a higher proportion of sharp shots (and SHARPER shots) if you're able to stop down to f8.

2. Hand-holding the 500 plus TC is Challenging! I regularly hand-hold my Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII (550mm equivalent) and get a very high percentage of sharp shots and keepers. However, even if I bump the shutter speed up accordingly to accommodate the longer focal length, I find that I get a much lower percentage of sharp shots and keepers when I hand-hold the Sigma 500 f4 plus the Sigma TC. Obviously part of this is explained with the 750mm (vs. 550mm) focal length.

3. Discipline is the KEY! In the past few weeks I've had the opportunity to shoot the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport plus TC-1401 with the Nikon D500 under highly controlled conditions while shooting Tree Swallows feeding nestlings. So...I was able to shoot off a firm tripod using Live View (with mirror-up and electronic front shutter curtain enabled) and a cable release. And...I got some absolutely EXCELLENT results (see samples below).

Recent Sample Shots? Sure...here's a few (along with key tech notes):

1. Just ZONKED (adult female grizzly): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.98 MB)
(Tech Notes: D5, Sigma 500 f4 Sport with TC-1401 (750mm); 1/800s @ f8; ISO 2800; hand-held from floating Zodiac)

2. Male Tree Swallow: Awaiting Sunrise: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.34 MB)
(Tech Notes: D500, Sigma 500 f4 Sport with TC-1401 (EFL of 1050mm); 1/250s @ f8; ISO 1800; tripod mounted, cable release, Live View, mirror-up, electronic front shutter curtain)

3. Female Tree Swallow: Subtle Beauty: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.22 MB)
(Tech Notes: D500, Sigma 500 f4 Sport with TC-1401 (EFL of 1050mm); 1/250s @ f8; ISO 2500; tripod mounted, cable release, Live View, mirror-up, electronic front shutter curtain)

So...the lesson I'm going to "take home" is this: If I'm in a situation where I need to use a 1.4x TC with the Sigma 500 to get the shot I want I will try to use a tripod (and every form of "control" I can!) if at all possible. If tripod use is impossible (as it often is when I'm doing coastal wildlife work), I'll bump the shutter speed as high as the lighting conditions allow AND shoot a lot of bursts! But, at least for me, the money paid for the Sigma TC-1401 is money well-spent.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#sigma500withTC

06 July 2017: So Brad...How's the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport with a Teleconverter??

Over the past month I've received a lot of questions asking me what I thought about the the performance of the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport under the "real world" shooting conditions of the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary (where I spent two weeks shooting in late May and early June). Many seem particularly interested in how the Sigma zoom performed with the D500 - it would appear that I am not the only wildlife photographer thinking that...at least on paper...the combination of the fast (and fixed) f2.8 aperture of this lens plus the crop factor of the D500 (effectively making this lens a 180-450mm f2.8 zoom) is very compelling. And, many of those who are mulling over whether or not they should add this lens to their kit seem also to be wondering how the lens pairs up with its 1.4x teleconverter (the Sigma TC-1401). And that's a darned good - and relevant - question for a wildlife photographer to ask!

I. Background and Context

Before I go any further I have to make clear I have NOT systematically TESTED the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens with the Sigma TC-1401 (1.4x) teleconverter - I simply SHOT with it (when the need arose) during the time I was in the Khutzeymateen. And I did so on both a Nikon D500 and a Nikon D5. So at this point I can't comment on things like exactly how much one has to stop down (from wide open) to attain maximum sharpness, et cetera. So think of this as an "impressions with sample shots" blog entry.

And...the last thing worth discussing before I get to how the 120-300 and 1.4x TC paired up are a few of the most consistent "take-home lessons" I've learned over the years when shooting Nikon teleconverters on Nikon lenses (and, I am fully convinced these same lessons apply when shooting Sigma teleconverters on Sigma lenses).

1. There's Always SOME Image Degradation When Teleconverters Are Used.

I firmly believe that when you add a teleconverter to a lens there is always SOME image degradation. With SOME lenses and with excellent shooting technique (especially when adding teleconverters to super-telephoto lenses that already have long focal lengths) the amount of image degradation can be minimized and professional-quality output is possible. Note that when I say "image degradation" I am not referring ONLY to image sharpness - I am also referring to the quality of the out-of-focus (OOF) zones. And in some cases (i.e., with some lenses) the quality of the OOF zones suffers more with teleconverters than sharpness does.

2. Prime Lenses TEND to Work Better With Teleconverters.

About a decade ago it was almost heresy to add a teleconverter to a zoom lens. But...over the past decade zooms have improved a lot, and so has their performance with teleconverters. But...prime lenses have ALSO improved during that same time period. To this day I am convinced (from both a lot of testing and a lot of field shooting) that you'll still get better overall optical quality when you pair a teleconverter with a prime lens than with a zoom lens. Please note that the only popular Nikon zoom that I have not tested Nikon's TC-14EIII (or the TC-20EIII) with is the new AF-S 70-200mm f2.8E VR. I have heard favorable reports of how well it pairs up with the TC-14EIII but I cannot confirm or verify this myself.

3. Don't Shoot 'Em Wide Open!

Virtually everyone knows that when you add a 1.4x teleconverter to a lens you lose a full stop - so a f2.8 lens with a 1.4x teleconverter suddenly has a maximum aperture of f4, and an f4 lens has a maximum aperture of f5.6, et cetera. Many photographers never (or only very rarely) shoot a lens completely wide open - they find that they have to stop down 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop to get to close to the maximum sharpness of that lens. The same is true when you add a teleconverter - you normally have to stop down 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop from wide open to get the most out of them - but now you're even FURTHER away from the widest aperture of the lens (if it had no TC on it). So...add a teleconverter to an f4 lens and it suddenly has a maximum aperture of f5.6. Stop it down 2/3 of a stop (or sometimes a full stop) and suddenly your f4 lens (plus TC) has to be shot in the f7.1 to f8 range to produce acceptably sharp images. If you're in a low-light environment this can become a bit problematic.

What if you have a lens with an f5.6 maximum aperture (like, for instance, the newish Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 lens). Well...the first limitation is that you'll be shooting that lens at f10 or so to get sharp shots - and that can be REALLY problematic in the low-light world that many wildlife photographers find themselves operating in. And, with f5.6 lenses you run into another (and possibly even more troublesome) limitation when you add a teleconverter - autofocus performance. Even with Nikon's absolute latest and best AF systems (like that on the D5 and D500) you will lose a lot of autofocus performance (many AF points won't work with a maximum aperture of f8) and with some bodies you'll have very poor-to-nonexistent AF performance.

4. f2.8 Lenses Really Like Teleconverters!

In a field situation a wildlife photographer will almost always get more (and better) use out of a teleconverter when it is paired with a f2.8 lens than a f4 lens. With a f2.8 lens you can lose a stop of light, stop down 2/3 of a stop for sharpness, and still be in the f5 range. Even in the dusk-and-dawn world of many wildlife photographers an f5 aperture is quite workable! Adding a TC lens to a variable aperture zoom lens with a maximum aperture of f5.6 or even smaller tends to be quite impractical in most field situations (remember that you generally only add a TC for use on the longer focal lengths of a zoom, and it's the longer focal lengths that have the smallest aperture on a variable aperture zoom).

5. The Role of AF Tuning!

I'm not an AF Tuning "junkie" by any means, but over the years I've noticed that the place you're most likely to notice AF tuning issues is if you add a teleconverter to the equation. I'm not sure if the teleconverters have the capacity to "knock the AF tuning out" themselves (even "just a little") or if the extra magnification simply makes existing tuning problems a little more obvious, but if you're going to regularly shoot with teleconverters you should consider tuning the lens-camera system with the teleconverter in place (but note that some types of AF tuning - such as that you'd do with Sigma's Optimization Pro software - don't allow you to store tuning values both with and without the teleconverter in place).

What does all this mean? Well...the real world consequence is that most wildlife photographers will get great performance (and image quality) out of only a few lens-teleconverter combinations. And, even with the best lens-teleconverter combinations you usually see a decrease in your "hit ratio" (percentage of sharp shots and/or percentage of keepers). In my view and experience the two Nikon lenses that do the BEST with teleconverters are the 300mm f2.8 VR (either version) and the 400mm f2.8 VR (either the G or E version) - both of these lenses perform EXCEPTIONALLY well with the Nikon 1.4x TC (the TC-14EIII) and even VERY well (with careful use!) with the Nikon 2x TC (the TC-20EIII). There are also some other lenses that work "pretty darned well" with the 1.4x TC, such as the 300mm f4 PF VR.

II. SO...How About the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport and the TC-1401??

OK...I have to admit I had mixed but generally low expectations about this lens would work with the Sigma 1.4x TC. This is primarily because this is a ZOOM lens and, as explained above, in general I'm not a fan of mixing zooms with TC's. But...it IS an f2.8 lens...and that's definitely a positive when you're adding a TC. So there were reasons for pessimism AND optimism!

What did I find? I can honestly say that in the Khutzeymateen I was VERY pleasantly surprised with the results I came away with when shooting the 120-300mm f2.8 Sport with the TC-1401 (and when shot with both the D5 and D500). Note that all shooting in the Khutzeymateen is hand-held (we're shooting from a Zodiac) and quite spontaneous (calling it "cowboy shooting" wouldn't be too inaccurate!). So applying "best possible" shooting techniques simply isn't possible. Yet I still came away with many "...you'd never tell a teleconverter was used" shots.

A few specifics:

Drop-off of "Keepers": As is almost always the case when teleconverters are used, my percentage of sharp shots did drop somewhat when I added the TC-1401 to the mix. And it dropped more with the D500 than with the D5 (remember...all hand-held and usually of moving bears and wolves). How much did the hit ratio drop? Almost impossible to quantify as this was pure field shooting and there were so many other confounding variables. Best guess - about a 20% drop with the D5 and probably by 30% with the D500.

How much stopping down required? Virtually all the shooting I did with the 120-300 plus 1.4x TC combination was in the f5.6 to f8 range. I shot in this range purely for depth-of-field (DoF) reasons - it was not driven by sharpness concerns. And, I was unable to see any sharpness difference between the shots captured at f5.6 vs. those shot at f8. In hindsight it would have been nice to have an assortment of images shot at f5 as well (or possibly even more wide open at f4.5), but the shooting situation didn't lend itself to systematic testing.

Any Noticeable or Obvious AF "impairment"? With some lenses the moment you put a teleconverter in place you notice either a slowdown in focusing or, in some cases, more "hunting" for focus (or both). I noticed neither of these AF impairments - the AF system still seemed snappy and accurate. Please note that I am not saying that there was NO impairment in AF performance - simply that when "just shooting" it wasn't noticeable. More systematic testing could reveal AF impairment that I didn't notice in the field.

Some Sample Shots...

As always, best to view the downloadable images below at 100% magnification (1:1).

1. With Nikon D500:

• When Urges Diverge (Grizzly Cub): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.73 MB)
(Tech Notes: D500, Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport @ 258mm with TC-1401 (EFL of 540mm); 1/640s @ f8; ISO 1000)

• Sleeping Like a Rock (Adult Grizzly Sleeping): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.26 MB)
(Tech Notes: D500, Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport @ 300mm with TC-1401 (EFL of 630mm); 1/640s @ f8; ISO 900)

2. With Nikon D5:

• Shoreline She-Wolf: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.47 MB)
(Tech Notes: D5, Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport @ 300mm with TC-1401 (EFL of 420mm); 1/1250s @ f5.6; ISO 1100)

• Stalking the Shoreline: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.52 MB)
(Tech Notes: D5, Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport @ 300mm with TC-1401 (EFL of 420mm); 1/1250s @ f5.6; ISO 1000)

So...you be the judge in deciding if the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport plus TC-1401 combination produces results that would please you. Me? Well...I think you'll see me carrying a TC-1401 whenever I have the 120-300mm f2.8 Sport along!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#sigma120-300_1.4xTC

21 May 2017: Some New Thoughts on the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport...

I'm just about to leave to lead back-to-back editions of my 2017 Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen photo tour (info about this most excellent trip here). In preparation for the tours I spent as much time as possible in the last week shooting with the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport zoom lens that Sigma representatives have loaned to me for the trip. As I mentioned in previous blog entries, based on previous experience I have had with this lens I think it may pair up EXCEPTIONALLY well with the D500 in the conditions we normally experience in the Khutzeymateen (which includes subjects that normally allow close approach, light that is on the low-to-very low side, and logistics that mean all shooting must be done hand-held from a Zodiac inflatable boat).

Anyway...over the past week or so I've shot several thousand shots with the lens, and here's a few thoughts on it...

1. Prime lens image quality: When I spent a few weeks with this lens back in 2013 I loved the image quality (and did shoot it head-to-head against the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII prime lens). This is one of those very rare zoom lenses where you can get razor sharp in-focus areas AND buttery-soft out-of-focus zones (in a single image) at the type of distances you shoot wildlife at. Yes, you CAN get this sort of imagery out of a quality 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens, but in MOST cases you don't have quite enough focal length for wildlife work (that extra 100mm IS critical).

2. The 120-300 and the D500 DO play well together! As I had hoped, the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport gets along real well with the D500. Back when I was testing the lens back in 2013 Nikon didn't have a pro level DX body...and I felt the focal range was a bit short for wildlife (though - as mentioned above - better than a 70-200). BUT...put this lens on a D500 and you have a 180mm to 450mm f2.8 lens. And I AM loving that.

3. Lens AF tuning? I have to be honest...the copy of the 120-300mm f2.8 Sport I received for this trip was back-focusing with BOTH my D5 and D500. I dedicated the time needed to AF tune it at 16 points (4 different distances, each at four focal lengths) using the Sigma Optimization Pro software and the Sigma USB dock. This tuning method tunes the lens for a specific camera body. But, being an anal kind of guy, I went through the entire tuning process twice - once with my D500 and once with my D5. While the absolute tuning values for any specific focal length and subject distance differed some between the two cameras, there were invariably in the same direction (either -ve or +ve) and was able to come up with good "compromise" tuning values for the lens that perform well on BOTH cameras (and better for both cameras than if the lens was not tuned). For instance, at 120mm and 5 meters to the target the tuning value for the D500 was -8 and the tuning value for the D5 was -5. Because I anticipate that I will be using this lens MORE on the D500 than the D5 I gave more weight to the D500 tuning value. So I inputted a value of -7 (for that focal length and distance) into the Sigma Pro Optimization software. After doing this for all 16 values (do NOT ask how much time I spent doing this...please) I am finding that I am getting excellent results (focus-wise) at all focal lengths and distances to subject with BOTH my D500 and D5. And I will be discussing this whole can of worms (AF tuning, including Sigma's "tune the lens to ONE specific camera, but at several distances" approach versus the more traditional "tune the lens and store the tuning value IN THE CAMERA, but only at one distance" approach of Nikon and Canon) in more detail AFTER I get back from the Khutzeymateen! ;-)

4. Autofocus? I mentioned previously that I expected to get BETTER autofocus performance out of this lens than I did when I tested it back in 2013. Why? Two reasons. First, I'm using it with two cameras (D5 and D500) that have better AF systems than anything on the market in 2013. Second, I now have the USB Dock and Sigma Optimization Pro software which, collectively, give me the ability to tweak the AF settings of the lens.

What have I been finding over the last week? Yep, the AF system IS performing better than in 2013. And, most importantly, it SEEMS to be close to Nikkor prime AF standards now. I will be watching and evaluating AF performance especially closely during my time shooting the lens in the Khutzeymateen (so expect to hear more about this after my return in early June).

5. The weight of the lens (AKA...the elephant in the room)? Since my testing of the lens in 2013 I had a memory of this being a pretty hefty lens. I was right. Simply put, this is a "destination" lens - not a "hang it around your neck and walk around" lens. At around 8 pounds (depending on whether or not you leave the way-too-heavy tripod collar on) this IS a heavy lens. There are times when I would leave this lens at home and opt for a lighter way to get to 300mm (like with the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF lens). But...if I'm in a vehicle (car, Zodiac inflatable boat, sailboat, whatever) or walking only a short distance, the prime-lens like image quality I get out of this lens (combined with the flexibility of the focal range) would prompt me to grab the 120-300mm f2.8. And, I have NO PROBLEM hand-holding this lens (but then again, I'm probably as strong as that "very, very strong guy...probably the strongest there is, trust me...yours truly...Donald Trump").

6. A few sample shots? Sure...but at this point they're only of dogs (hey, they're great wildlife surrogates)! Expect a LOT of samples of slightly wilder (to say the least) subjects upon my return from my Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen trip!

• Pure Joy (@ 270mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.0 MB)
• Queen Kong (@ 300mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.19 MB)
• The Race (@ 300mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.31 MB)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#sigma120-300_NewThoughts

19 April 2017: Lens Musings - Two Weeks With the Sigma 85mm f1.4 DG HSM Art

Recently the Canadian distributor of Sigma products (Gentec International) was kind enough to loan me a copy of the recently released 85mm f1.4 DG HSM Art prime lens and let me "play" with it for a couple of weeks. My curiosity about the lens had been piqued by rave reviews of it by everyone I knew who had used it as well as by some published "corporate" reviews (like that of dxomark.com) that sang similar positive praises about it. It just so happens that I own a copy of the excellent AF-S Nikkor 85mm f1.4G prime - so I had a perfect "test-partner" to use to compare the Sigma 85mm lens against and to use to effectively "calibrate" my thoughts about it.

FULL STOP - I am NOT going to produce a detailed "85mm Wars" blog series and exhaustive review comparing the two lenses (heck, I only had the Sigma in my possession for two weeks, and I had a LOT of other work to get done). But I think some may find what I learned about the Sigma lens interesting...

I. CAVEATS, QUALIFIERS and BACKGROUND:

Before I go any further a little background info and context is needed...

1. What do I know about - and why do I use - an 85mm f1.4 lens?

OK - I'm primarily a wildlife photographer...why should I have anything interesting or valid to say about a lens that MOST think of as a portrait lens? Good question. My two-part answer is this: First, at times I DO shoot wildlife portraits. This doesn't happen too commonly, but when it DOES happen I'm usually in a situation where I have little-to-no control over the background (hey...wild bears and wolves don't usually volunteer to step in front of clean 'drops) and having a wide f1.4 aperture can really help me isolate my subject from its background.

Second - and far more importantly - I'm a wildlife photographer who likes to shoot a lot of animalscapes and, by the nature of where I go to shoot wildlife, it's not uncommon I'm presented with an AWESOME landscape scene just begging to be shot. For whatever reason (perhaps years of shooting with longer focal lengths?) I don't tend to "automatically" see (or easily visualize) what a wide angle lens sees - instead I see and react to fields of view that more closely resemble what my eyes see (so in the 50-85mm range). An 85mm field of view (on a full frame camera) is the view I see when I raise my arms straight out in front of me (at slightly narrower than shoulder width) and seems to be the "natural" way I see things. And...when I DO see these "natural" (for me) animalscape or landscape scenes I want to capture them (often with a D800e or whatever is coming next in the hi-res D800 series) as sharply as possible (or sharper!). I suppose another way of saying this is "I don't do well with wide angle lenses", but I prefer the more positive spin above! ;-)

2. Just how do I shoot with an 85mm lens?

Those who followed my "500mm Wars" blog series (or read the final field test) know that I put a fairly high degree of importance on how well those big lenses performed when hand-held. So it may surprise them to find out that when I do my most "serious" animalscape or landscape shooting with shorter prime lenses I tend to be pretty anal about technique...invariably I use a tripod, Live View, cable release, Mirror-Up and, if using a camera with the capability, with the electronic front shutter curtain enabled. Note that if I'm in a situation where I am forced to do a "quick grab" of a fleeting animalscape or landscape (and must hand-hold the lens) I invariably select an optically stabilized lens such as the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8E VR or 70-200mm f4G VR that's more suited to the task. In my mind there's NO reason to pull out (or even own) an 85mm f1.4 lens for landscape/animalscape shooting and not use solid image capture techniques with it.

3. What was I looking for?

As always, all my testing (or "playing with") these lenses was performed in the field and I used only natural targets. As mentioned immediately above, I shot the two 85mm lenses as closely to the way I would when "just using" them in my day-to-day shooting. Many reviews and reports on camera gear focus on variables that don't necessarily matter - or express themselves - in a field setting. The primary question I was trying to answer for myself when comparing these two 85mm f1.4 lenses was this:

Could I find any consistent differences in these two lenses that would translate into a noticeable difference in the quality of images that I capture in a field setting (using the lenses the way I normally use them)?

II. WHAT I DID:

Simple: I hauled the two 85mm lenses into the field (multiple times), set up my tripod, paired the two lenses up with a D800e, and captured "aperture runs" with each lens (of the identical scene). I began at f1.4 and jumped up in 1/3 stop increments through to f4, then jumped in one stop increments through to f16. I selected 3 distances to test the lenses agains one another - 1 meter (close to minimum focus distance), 4 meters, and a distant scene. For all comparison shots I used Live View (to remove any lens AF tuning influences), Mirror-Up, and a cable release).

I also took the 85mm f1.4 Sigma lens with me on a recent quick "reconnaissance" trip up to Canada's Yukon Territory and did find a few opportunities to shoot some landscape shots with it.

III. WHAT I FOUND:

My observations and results are pretty easy to provide an overall summary for:

On the D800e the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art consistently outperformed the Nikkor in the f1.4 to f3.5 aperture range. At apertures of f4 and smaller the images I captured in a field setting were virtually indistinguishable - and both were INCREDIBLY sharp (from centre to edge) in that f4 to f8 range. And please note that in other aperture ranges the images are only "soft" compared to the shots taken in the f4 to f8 range with the same lenses (in other words, they'd still blow away shots taken with something like the best 70-200 zoom in the 85mm focal length!).

Here's a few more details for those who might be interested:

1. Image Sharpness:

A. Between f1.4 and f3.5 the Sigma 85mm f1.4 was noticeably sharper than the Nikkor 85mm f1.4 in all regions of the image (centre through to edges). This was true (and consistent) at all 3 distances I tested the lenses at. By f4 the two lenses were almost identical in sharpness, and by f5.6 I could not distinguish between the lenses based on image sharpness.

B. Both lenses were incredibly sharp (on the D800e) in the f4 to f8 range, and then both softened up (presumably owing to diffraction) noticeably by f11 and more so by f16. By f16 the central regions of the images were as soft as images shot at f1.4. Realistically there is absolutely no reason associated with sharpness ever to stop EITHER of these two lenses down beyond about f5 (stopping down further for reasons of DoF is a separate issue and obviously scene dependent). Again, this result was consistent at all 3 distances I tested the lenses at.

C. The Sigma Sport sharpened up when stopping down from wide open FASTER than did the Nikkor. With the Sigma the lens is extremely close to maximally sharp by f2 or f2.2. With the Nikkor you approach maximum sharpness in the f3.5 to f4 range. And...once again...this result didn't vary with distance to the subject.

2. Chromatic Aberration:

Chromatic aberration (in the form of purple/red and/or green fringing) was a complete non-issue on both lenses - and at all apertures - when I was shooting at 3 meters and when I was shooting distant scenes. However, at 1 meter (which is close to minimum focus distance for both lenses) chromatic aberration was a MAJOR problem with the Nikkor in the f1.4 to f4 range (beyond f4 it was virtually gone). How bad was it? In the f1.4 to f2.5 range the CA was so extreme that it could not be removed during post-processing using the CA and defringing tools in Capture One Pro. Note that this CA issue with the Nikkor 85mm virtually disappeared by the time the distance to the subject increased to about 3 meters.

What about the Sigma 85mm f1.4? The only CA I observed was extremely minor purple fringing when shooting at 1 meter and in the f1.4 to f1.6 aperture range. I was easily able to remove this CA using the purple defringing tool in Capture One Pro.

3. Out-of-Focus Zones?

This one is simple - both of these lenses produce absolutely dreamy out-of-focus zones and you simply wouldn't be able to separate them from one another on this basis. 'Nuff said.

4. Any Other Notable Differences Between These Two Ferraris?

How about build quality? Nope...both have stellar build quality. For some reason the Sigma Art felt almost like a gem in my hand, but that's a totally subjective feeling and it's darned near impossible to fault the Nikkor on build quality. And, of course, both are made in Japan.

How about size and weight? Yes...there is a BIG difference here. The Sigma lens is 3.9 cm (1.6") longer than the Nikkor and about 6 mm (.24") wider in diameter. The shooting weight (no lens caps but with hoods on) differs a LOT between the lenses - the Sigma 85mm came in at 1172 gm (2.6 lb) and the Nikkor 85mm was 636 gm (1.4 lb).

So...MY final thoughts on the two 85's? Well...it's REALLY hard to argue with those claiming the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art is the new king of 85's. It's incredible - sharp as a tack from edge-to-edge, even at huge apertures! If you're buying an 85mm f1.4 for landscape or animalscape shooting, BOTH the Nikkor and the Sigma will produce amazing results in the critical f4 to f8 range (and the Nikkor will do it at close to half the weight). If you won't settle for anything but "the best"...well...the Sigma is simply the 85mm to go with.

Me? Well...I already own the Nikkor AF-S 85mm f1.4G. So I am going to try to do my best to hold out and resist the temptation to splurge on the Sigma 85mm - any bets on how long I'll be able to hold out? After all...I like to shoot with the absolute best gear possible! ;-)

Sample Images? Well...it's incredibly hard to effectively show the detail and sharpness of these lenses online (especially those shot with a D800e). But here's a "typical" example (full-frame, full resolution) of the kind of results I was getting with the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art (this one with my "trusty" Nikon D5). And best to view a tiny portion of this image at 100% magnification (1:1) to get a feel for what the lens can do...

• April in the Yukon - Nikon D5 with Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art: Download Full-Res Image (JPEG: 6.8 MB)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#sigma_85

09 April 2017: Yukon Musings - Shedding Gear Grams and Pounds, Not Image Quality!

I mentioned in my 5 April blog entry that I spent last weekend in pursuit of photos of Dall Sheep up in Canada's Yukon Territory. Like Bighorn Sheep, Dall Sheep have a strong preference for staying near "escape terrain", which means they're almost always found on steep, mountainous slopes with cliffs and crags very close by (and where they can escape from predators who simply can't move as fast as the sheep over steep, rocky terrain). So...if your goal is to photograph wild Dall Sheep in their natural habitat you have to be prepared to hike on non-horizontal terrain (i.e., prepare to CLIMB!). Case in point - on our first of two days with the sheep (April 1) we spotted a good-sized group of Dall ewes and lambs high above us and while we only ended up hiking 5 km or so to get to them, we ended up climbing over 3,000 feet that day.

I've worked with Bighorn Sheep on many occasions and in preparing for the weekend of play with the Dall Sheep I started with the same basic assumption I always use with Bighorns - that we'd have no choice but to walk a lot and climb a lot. So, by default, that put a big premium on looking for weight-savings wherever possible when I was selecting my gear for the trip. With a good chunk of my kit I had no lightweight options - this "base" kit included my D5 and D500 bodies, my Sigma 500mm f4 Sport lens, and my Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8mm VR lens. Note that even here I was able to save 570 gm (or 1.26 lb) in opting to take my Sigma 500mm f4 Sport rather than my Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR.

In the remainder of my kit I was able to select gear that saved me a LOT of weight (and it made that climbing a little less painful!). Here's a quick overview of the lightweight bits and pieces I selected and the kind of weight savings they afforded me (complete with a few comments on how they worked out for me).

1. Really Right Stuff (RRS) TVC-24 Tripod

In my day-to-day shooting (i.e., whenever I don't have to hike too far) I use a full-size Jobu Algonquin carbon fiber tripod. This is a simple but well-built tripod (and reasonably lightweight for its size). But for this trip I opted to bring my smaller RRS TVC-24 carbon fiber tripod. The weight advantage of the RRS tripod? Not huge - 190 gm (0.42 lb) - but significant. The down side to the RRS? Well...given it's made by RRS there's the obvious - it ain't cheap! And, if you're tall and want to stand upright with this tripod it's definitely on the short side.

And then there's the critical question: How well did the RRS TVC-24 tripod work on this outing? EXCELLENT. On this trip we were working on steep slopes and we were dealing with very high winds (up to 100 kmh). So hand-holding the big glass (in this case the Sigma 500mm Sport) was WAY more challenging than normal - those winds buffeted around anything they could get their "grips" on (like lens hoods!). Getting low (sitting or even laying on the ground) had huge value and so did and using a tripod. The small RRS TVC-24 tripod was easy to carry (fit easily on the side of my pack) and its short size was perfect when I was hunkered down low.

2. Acratech Long Lens Head

Like most wildlife shooters who use super-telephoto lenses, I like to use gimbal heads. Over the past year or so I've migrated from Wimberley gimbals to Jobu gimbals. I've made this move primarily to save weight but have been completely happy with the performance of the Jobu gimbals. Day-to-day I use Jobu's Heavy Duty MkIV gimbal head (info here) with my biggest lenses (and it works great). If I'm hiking further or need to save weight when flying I opt for Jobu's smaller (and lighter) Jr. 3 Deluxe (info here). The Jr. 3 Deluxe works very well with the big glass as well (though it isn't QUITE as smooth with the big lenses as the Heavy Duty IV is).

But...on this trip I wanted to go even LIGHTER. So...I took along Arcatech's unique "Long Lens Head" - which is really just a simplified "ballhead without the ball" and designed to support and move freely with even the really "big glass", including 600mm f4 lenses (info on the Long Lens Head right here...). In choosing the Long Lens Head I saved 276 gm (0.61 lb) over the Jobu Jr. 3 Deluxe gimbal and 580 gm (1.28 lb) over the Jobu Heavy Duty IV gimbal. And, that Long Lens Head comes in at over 2.2 lbs LIGHTER than a Wimberley II.

So...how did the Acratech Long Lens Head perform during this little expedition? Really well. While you'll never get me to say that the Long Lens Head outperforms (or even fully matches the performance of) a good gimbal, it did do exactly what I wanted on this trip - it gave me a very lightweight option that held my Sigma 500mm f4 firmly and reliably. The trick to getting the most out of the Long Lens Head is getting its tension (or "drag") set correctly. This involves some experimentation (hopefully BEFORE you get into the field). If you're going to spend the day in need of smooth panning and movement to shoot birds-in-flight...nothing beats a good gimbal. But if you're shooting more static subjects and want a MUCH smaller and MUCH lighter tripod head capable of holding your biggest lenses, the Acratech Long Lens Head is an interesting and very viable option.

3. Nikkor AF-S 300mm f4 PF VR

I got my hands on a Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR lens immediately after it was released. While the initial rollout of this lens wasn't Nikon's best (many users experienced dodgy VR performance in the shutter speed range where you'd REALLY want VR!), my copy has always worked exceptionally well. Day-to-day (when walking in the woods around my cabin) I use this lens a LOT, especially since Nikon came out with the D500 - pairing the 300mm f4 PF up with the D500 gives you a high quality 450mm f4 that is incredibly compact and light. If I'm shooting wildlife in a more serious fashion (including on my own photo tours) this lens often seems to be the "odd man out" and stays at home.

How did the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF perform on this trip? Incredibly well - on both my D5 and my D500. Owing to weight concerns I opted to leave my Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom at home and wanted to cover the intermediate focal lengths somehow. The 300mm f4 PF gave me that coverage and...owing to its diminutive size and low weight...it was the perfect choice for this trip. This lens is a full 2145 gm (almost 4.75 lb) lighter than the 300mm f2.8 VRII and isn't too far off of it optically. Simply put, I was thrilled with how this lens performed on this trip. Here's a few samples with the Nikon D5 and D500 to demonstrate what I mean:

• With Nikon D5: The REAL Reason Rams Butt Heads (JPEG: 1.6 MB)
• With Nikon D500: Light On White (JPEG: 0.7 MB)

Anyone looking for a very small, very light, and high quality "walk-around super-telephoto prime" lens that's also great for traveling should really give this lens a long look. And...now that Nikon shooters have a high-quality cropped sensor DSLR body (the D500) this lens should have even MORE appeal to wildlife shooters.

4. Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f4 VR

I've always thought of this lens as one of my "secret" weapons and it's a lens I really like. I personally prefer this lens to the AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8G VRII...and it is both smaller and LOT lighter (like 690 gm or 1.5 lb lighter). And...I have found it sharper on the edges than the f2.8G version. So as I was packing my gear for this trip I thought "I absolutely HAVE to take this lens along." And I'm REALLY glad I did.

How did the 70-200mm f4 VR perform on this trip? Just great. Of course its light weight was VERY appreciated as I was climbing up and after the Dall sheep. And, it came through with flying colors when I was in the right situation to use it...both with my D5 and D500. Here's a few examples...

• With Nikon D5: Welcoming the Spring Melt (JPEG: 0.9 MB)
• With Nikon D500: Ewe Curious? (JPEG: 1.0 MB)

In my view this lens has tended to be a little under-appreciated among Nikon shooters. But for those who travel or who just want the lightest and most portable DSLR kit possible (that still delivers professional quality images)...well...like the 300mm f4 PF, this lens deserves a good look!

For those wanting more info about the images posted in this blog entry (tech specs, etc.) should keep an eye on my Gallery of Latest Additions - all of these shots (plus more from my short Yukon adventure) will be appearing there over the next while.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#saving_grams

22 March 2017: 500mm Wars Series Gets a FINAL HOME!

Trying to decide which Nikon-mount 500mm lens is right for you? Got a free week to do nothing but read? Have I got a comparative field test for you! I just finished compiling all my "500mm Wars" series of blog entries into a single field test (with a permanent web address!). The result is an EXHAUSTIVE field test comparing the two lenses under real-world field use.

Here's where to go to learn EVERYTHING you ever wanted to know about the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR super-telephotos:

500mm Wars - Sigma vs. Nikon: The Field Test!

And...here's the actual URL: http://www.naturalart.ca/artist/fieldtests/500mmwars_sigma_nikon.html

Why such a blinking long field test? Well...for a LOT of folks (including me) spending $7000 to $11000 or so on a lens isn't a flippant exercise. So I decided to go a bit crazy and REALLY evaluate these lenses thoroughly. Producing the series of "500m Wars" blog entries helped me tremendously with my own "Which 500 should I buy?" decision and, based on a lot of email I've received, the series (and now the single and "more cohesive" field test) helped a lot of others too. Read as little or as much of the review as you like...

Finally...you CAN expect to see more gear entries and field-tests in this blog (and website) in 2017. Just don't expect them to be quite as extensive as this one was! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca


500mm Wars: Sigma vs. Nikon

15 March 2017: 500mm Wars 9 - Nikon vs. Sigma: Final Wrap-up and My Lens Choice

My primary goal in doing this extensive field test comparing the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR and the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport was to determine which of the two lenses I would select for my own wildlife kit. Ultimately this means I am seeking the answer to the following question: "Which of the two lenses will offer the best possible combination of performance and usability in the type of field situations I am likely to put it to?"

My secondary goal in doing this test was to answer an important question I have about the best combination of lenses for my work, specifically this: "Given I already own Nikon's superb 400mm f2.8E VR super-telephoto, do I really need ANY 500mm lens in my wildlife kit?". Those shooters who do own the 400mm f2.8E and are considering adding a 500mm to their stable of lenses should pay particular attention to the short section below on optical performance.

My own bias - and emphasis - in all my field testing is to focus on features and performance in the field (as I will use the lens). In the case of 500mm super-telephoto lenses this means I put extra emphasis on things like realizable image quality (where "realizable" = what I can obtain in the field), hand-holdability (which automatically factors in numerous variables, including lens weight, lens balance, optical stabilization, and more), and autofocus performance. In my field testing and reviews I am likely to ignore - and not mention - things like statements on dxomark.com telling me that the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 performs best on a 46 MP Nikon D820 camera (when I KNOW my copy of this lens will be used primarily on a Nikon D5 and Nikon D500). It should be clear - given there has been no announcement by Nikon of a 46 MP D820 - that this is just a theoretical example...but you get the point! I fully acknowledge that other wildlife photographers and, more likely, photographers from other genres of photography may choose to weigh the various lens performance variables differently than I do.

Finally, I did NOT factor in lens price or "dollar value" in my comparison of these two lenses. Price is something that is incredibly important to the "average" purchasers of camera gear but, even so, still varies significantly in importance between users (and for some buyers factors like brand loyalty over-ride it). And, of course, the amount of money one is prepared to spend on a camera lens is a personal decision.

I. THE FINAL SUMMARY

What follows are the absolute most significant findings of my 3+ months of testing and comparing the Nikkor 500mm f4e and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 super-telephoto lenses. You'll see a few references to comparisons with other lenses (such as the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E) but the major focus is on the two 500's. I'll provide key links for more info for each section...

1. Physical Characteristics

While there are cosmetic differences between the Nikkor and Sigma 500, both of these Japanese-made lenses have excellent build quality. Both are environmentally sealed. The Sigma 500 is very slightly shorter than the Nikkor (both with hood off/reversed and slightly more so with the hood mounted) and this difference MIGHT make a difference for a small number of users (where the Sigma might fit more easily into their chosen carrying pack).

BUT...the most significant physical difference between these two 500's is in overall weight. In fact, it's probably the biggest single difference between the two lenses overall! BOTH are light lenses for super-telephotos, but the Nikkor IS a full 324 gm (or 0.71 lb) lighter. But it's important to have context here - the Nikkor 500 is one of the lightest super-telephotos ever made. The Sigma 500 is still slightly over a pound (454 gm) lighter than the OLD Nikkor 500 (i.e., the Nikkor 500mm f4G) and 1.25 lb (570 gm) lighter than the NEW 400mm f2.8E VR.

How important is the weight difference? For some - absolutely critical. For others - minimally important. There WILL be some users out there who can hand-hold the Nikkor 500 but not the Sigma 500. If someone falls into that category they would DEFINITELY be better off with the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR. In my case, I notice the difference in weight between the two lenses if I rapidly switch back and forth between them, but if I take just one of them into the field at a time I couldn't tell you which lens is in my hand (as I am carrying but the tripod foot) by weight alone. And...as you'll see below...for me the weight difference doesn't translate into how slow of a shutter speed I can hand-hold one lens at versus the other.

There ARE some other physical differences between the lenses - see my blog entry of 20 Dec 2016 for a more detailed list (including some small personal preferences for little things on the Sigma, like how they positioned the AF Activation Buttons).

2. Optical Performance

I tested the comparative optical performance of the two 500's using both rigidly controlled systematic field-based tests and extensive periods of "just shooting". I expressed the simple net result in a two sentence summary in my 11 January 2017 blog entry that is worth repeating here:

I have NEVER tested any two competing lenses that are so absolutely similar in image quality (at all distances, apertures, and with or without teleconverters) than the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR. Image sharpness, quality of the out-of-focus zones, and the progression in increasing sharpness from wide open through to about f5 (where both lenses approach maximum sharpness) is virtually identical between my copies of these two lenses.

I also compared the image quality of images shot with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E AND the Sigma Sport 150-600mm (@ 500mm) to the shots captured with the two 500's. I found that the quality of images shot with the 400mm f2.8E and then UPSIZED (digitally increased the resolution of) did NOT match the quality of the images shot with either of the two 500's. I found that quality of the images shot with the 400mm f2.8E PLUS TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter and then DOWNSIZED (or down-sampled) to 500mm "size" was very similar to the quality of the images shot with the two 500's (i.e., no significant or noticeable differences between the image quality) at wide apertures but when stopped down the two 500's did produce sharper images. And...while the Sigma Sport 150-600mm (@ 500mm) did produce shots with good image quality, the images shot with the two 500's WERE sharper and with smoother out-of-focus zones.

You can read a LOT more about the procedures I used and the results I obtained in my 11 January 2017 entry on Optical Performance.

3. Optical Stabilization and "Hand-holdability"

We all know were SUPPOSED to put super-telephotos on a tripod - right?. But...in the real world there are times when we are simply forced to hand-hold them (like on all my Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Photo tours!). I tested the "hand-holdability" of the Sigma 500 and the Nikkor 500 extensively...and, once again, I'm just going to repeat my the three sentence summary found in my detailed blog entry of 29 January 2017:

There was extreme similarity in the shutter speeds at which I could hand-hold the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and Nikkor 500mm f4E VR at and still obtain both very sharp shots and slightly less sharp "keepers" when shooting bursts of 3 shots. When I shot several longer (10 frame) bursts of shots using the various stabilization settings on the two lenses I did find some differences between the effectiveness of the settings and the lenses. I obtained a slightly higher number of sharp shots and overall number of keepers with the VR settings on the Nikkor 500 compared to the OS settings available to a Sigma 500 user without access to a USB dock and Sigma Optimization Pro software (i.e., when using the default OS "view" settings on the Sigma lens), but this difference disappeared when I used the Sigma lens with one of its OS customization settings (OS Moderate View).

Viewers interested in a TON more detail about how the VR/OS systems of these two lenses operate (and what my testing revealed) are strongly encouraged to spend some time with the VERY long blog entry of 29 January 2017 entitled "Stabilization and Hand-holdability".

4. Autofocus Performance

So...what about AF performance? Can a third party lens maker FINALLY match one of the "big guns" in the Holy Grail of AF performance? The short answer is yes. The slightly longer answer was summarized in my 11 March 2017 blog entry on autofocus performance...here it is again:

The differences in AF performance of the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR are so subtle that they are unlikely to be noticed under normal day-to-day shooting; both lenses show a very snappy initial focus acquisition, both shift from closest focus to distant focus very fast, and both re-focus quickly and smoothly enough that they rarely miss focus on even fast moving subjects. Repeated trials of continuous high-frame rate shooting on a rapidly moving subject showed "keeper rates" of almost 90% for both lenses, but with the Sigma Sport having a slightly higher rate of sharp shots. Both lenses exhibited high focus accuracy on all 55 selectable focus points of a Nikon D5, but the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 showed a higher degree of focus accuracy on several of the outermost focus points on a Nikon D500.

The longest (but most thorough) answer? Check out my 11 March 2017 blog entry on Autofocus Performance.

5. Sigma Lens Customization and Optimization

I mentioned the ability of a user to modify (customize) the performance of the Sigma lens via using their USB dock and free Sigma Pro Optimization software several times in my series of 500mm Wars blog entries. But, because it was a "Sigma-only" feature - and because it is only available to users who purchase the optional USB dock - I didn't dedicate an entire blog entry to it in this comparative review.

Here's a bare bones explanation of how Sigma's customization/optimization system for their lenses works: Those who purchase the optional USB dock and install Sigma's free Optimization Pro software can modify their 500mm f4 lens in several ways - they can upgrade its firmware themselves, they can input multiple AF fine-tuning values for different subject distances (for a SINGLE camera), they can set-up how much focus-ring rotation is needed to shift the lens to manual focus mode, and they can set up two different custom setting banks that can the user can toggle between using a switch on the lens. Within EACH custom setting you can tweak the AF Speed setting (Fast AF Priority vs. Standard AF vs. Smooth AF Priority), set the Focus Limiter Setting (i.e., limit the distant range the lens can focus to), and tweak the Optical Stabilization Setting (Dynamic View Mode vs. Standard vs. Moderate View Mode).

I am going to delve into many aspects and nuances of the customization capabilities of the Sigma "system" in a future blog entry, but for now there's a few things relevant to this review that need saying:

I REALLY like the entire concept - all aspects of it make sense to me...from the user-updatable firmware capabilities to the tweaking of the customization settings. I don't think ALL aspects of it are "perfect" yet (e.g., owners of Sigma lenses who have multiple cameras may not like the fact that their AF tuning is tied to a single camera), but the concept makes sense to me.

• Users who want to buy a lens, take it out of the box, and "just use it" (and not spend a bunch of time monkeying around with a bunch of settings that they may struggle to tell the difference between) might hate it (or choose not to buy into the system...which could leave them with a lens that does NOT match the competition...see immediately below).

• I was surprised to find that tweaking of the customization settings can make a BIG difference to the performance of the lens. In fact, parity with the Nikkor 500 in AF and "hand-holdability" was only experienced after I tweaked AF speed and OS custom settings. In my view (= opinion!) anyone buying the Sigma 500 should buy the USB dock. Actually...in my view the USB Dock is so essential that it should be included with the lens (even if the lens has to go up by $50 or so in price).

• It's my opinion that IF the target market for this lens is primarily wildlife and sports photographers, then the default custom settings aren't the best. Because I KNOW I will get the question, I am finding that my preferred custom settings (my new "defaults") for the Sigma 500 are

For AF Speed Setting: Fast Priority AF
For OS Setting: Moderate View Mode


I. MY 500mm LENS DECISIONS

I had two decisions to make when I started this test. First, would my wildlife kit benefit from having a 500mm lens in it (given I own Nikon's 400mm f2.8E VR)? The answer to that question is yes.

The second question - which lens? I have decided to keep the Sigma Sport 500mm f4.

So...why do I need BOTH a 400 f2.8 AND a 500mm f4? The biggest reason is the fact that the lens is smaller (especially in front element diameter) and lighter for travel AND for carrying in the field in my backpack. In the course of my work I occasionally travel via commercial flights, float planes, and even helicopters. Invariably I am up against the limit in luggage size or weight allowances, so saving over a pound does make a difference. Of course, at times the extra reach of a 500mm (over a 400mm) without having to add in a teleconverter will prove useful, especially given that at most apertures I found both 500's to be slightly better optically than the 400mm f2.8E VR with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) attached to it.

So...why the Sigma over the Nikkor? First, I feel compelled to say that a purchaser wanting a high-quality super-telephoto lens can't go wrong with either of these two lenses. And, for me BOTH earned enough of that nebulous factor I call "gear confidence" (which boils down to NEVER feeling hesitant to use a particular piece of equipment) that I would be VERY happy with either of them. And, of course, in my mind they are in a dead heat in optical quality, AF performance and "hand-holdability" (which together end up making the two lenses absolutely equal in "usability"). But here are my main reasons for selecting the Sigma Sport 500mm:

1. Slight "Nebulous" Edge in Build Quality: OK...this reason IS subjective. And don't ask me to explain it further - but to me the Sigma just FEELS more robust and durable. Ironically it might be the increased lens weight relative to the Nikkor. Or, I might be biased a bit by the fact that I have found the Sigma Sport 150-600 zoom to be absolutely bomb-proof and NEVER fail in the toughest conditions imaginable. Maybe I'm being fooled by the "Soviet-era" inspired cosmetics on the Sigma. And, I really like that all rings on the lens are just so super smooth in movement (with the most significant example being on the action of the lens collar...just SO smooth on the Sigma).

2. A Few Minor Differences in Physical Features: Sigma has done a few little things better than Nikon, including offsetting the AF Activation buttons on the lens and adding in "detents" (that you can turn on or off) on the rotating lens collar. Just real nice LITTLE touches.

3. Lens Customization: I think this is a GREAT feature. It may be more important to me because I live in a remote location - when I hear that the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 zoom needs a firmware upgrade AND I have to send it to Nikon to get the upgrade, I'm looking at being without the lens for two weeks (or, more likely, just accepting that I won't bother and will have to learn to live without the benefits of the firmware update). With the Sigma 500 it's a 5 minute fix I can do myself. Sweet. And, as explained above, I have found the customization features useful as well. I prefer the idea of buying into an upgradable and evolving (and improving) product over buying what amounts to a static product.

4. Service and Corporate Responsiveness: OK...since I began this test I have come up with TWO issues on the Sigma lens that required contact with Sigma. The first pertained to the customization feature. Initially the Sigma Optimization Pro software simply didn't "see" the 500mm lens when it was attached to the USB dock. I immediately reported this problem to Sigma - and it was just a few days before Christmas. They instantly (as in same day) got back to me and said they would check it out and attempt to find a solution as fast as possible. Of course, getting ANY kind of special service between Christmas and New Years from ANYONE is normally next-to-impossible. Nonetheless, by January 3 they got back to me and had fixed the problem. Next time I connected the USB Dock and started the Sigma Optimization Pro everything worked perfectly. What? Good service from a Japanese camera and lens company? Mind-boggling.

The second issue pertained to the focus-shift issue (between frames in a high-speed burst on a static subject) I reported in my AF Performance blog entry. When I contacted Sigma with this problem they quickly got back to me and let me know they were able to replicate the problem (based on the details I gave them) AND that they were working on the issue. At the time of this writing they haven't solved the problem yet, but I am confident they are trying. WOW. No denials. No brick walls. How refreshing!!

5. BUT, BUT, BUT...What About Lens Weight? Yep, I wish this lens was as light (or lighter) than the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR. But I'm not tiny and have lived through owning and hand-holding the VERY HEAVY G versions of the Nikkor 400mm f2.8 VR and 600mm f4 VR. I can live with the 324 gm (0.71 lb) penalty of the Sigma Sport 500mm f4.

And...that's a wrap. I'm now grabbing my D5, Sigma Sport 500mm f4, and going shooting. Have a good day!

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#500mm_wars_9

14 March 2017: BUT...Should I Get a 400mm or a 500mm (or even a 600mm)?

I've publicly stated many times that my personal favourite super-telephoto lens is the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR (and, before that, the Nikkor 400mm f2.8G VR). Since beginning my "500 Wars" series of blog entries I've received a lot of emails (and a lot more since I posted my entry on AF performance this past Saturday) asking me if I has switched "allegiances" from the 400mm to the 500mm focal length.

The simple answer is NO. My preferred super-telephoto is still the 400mm f2.8E VR. However, this doesn't mean that it's the BEST super-telephoto - simply that for what I do, where I shoot, and the subject matter I work with, it's my preference. I strongly believe that they are also some shooters who are best served by 500mm lenses, and some who are best served by 600mm lenses.

Way back in July of 2015 I wrote a blog entry entitled "Which Nikkor Super-telephoto Is Best For You - 400mm, 500mm, or 600mm?". I just reread it...and I think everything I wrote then still applies today (though some users might want to add the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport into their own decision matrix now!). Here's a direct link to that blog entry...

Which Nikkor Super-telephoto Is Best For You - 400mm, 500mm, or 600mm?

I am planning to post a final "wrap-up" to my "500mm Wars" series in a day or two. In it I'll summarize my own findings about the performance and usability differences between the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4. And I'll announce which of the two lenses earned its way into my wildlife kit...and the rationale for that decision. Stay tuned...

Cheers...

Brad


500mm Wars: Sigma vs. Nikon

11 March 2017: 500mm Wars 8 - Nikon vs. Sigma: Autofocus Performance

I. INTRODUCTION

In this blog entry I describe the results of head-to-head field-testing of the autofocus (or AF) performance of the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR prime lenses. I compared the AF performance of the two lenses in three ways. The first way is purely subjective: Did I notice any functional difference in AF performance between the lenses while "just shooting" the two lenses. So things like "Did one lens seem snappier in acquiring initial focus?" or "Was one of the lenses noticeably faster in moving from closest focus to distant focus?" or "Did I notice one lens struggling more than the other to focus on certain types of subjects, such as those in low-light or heavy shade?". This type of autofocus comparison isn't at all quantitative but most experienced photographers know that what they notice while "just shooting" DOES matter to them (and, if it's a valid observation, often shows up in more rigorous testing).

The second thing I looked at was a comparison of both "keeper rates" and the proportion of very sharp shots (vs. slightly softer shots vs. out-of-focus shots) when I repeatedly shot high-frame rate sequences of a rapidly moving subject. This test (explained in more detail below) combines aspects of a lens' AF speed and both the predictive AF capabilities AND the tracking abilities of the lens/camera system in use. In this test I use a "proxy" of wildlife (namely, my Portuguese Water Dog Poncho) that is far more cooperative than any truly wild animal and allows me to replicate the same test many times (limited only by the amount of treats my pocket can hold!).

The final thing I looked at was the accuracy of the phase detect (i.e., through the optical viewfinder) AF system over the entire array of selectable focus points on both the Nikon D5 and D500. In this test I compared the sharpness of my subject that was focused on using Live View (contrast detect) focusing vs. its sharpness when focused on using the "traditional" viewfinder-based (phase detect) focusing. In essence, all I was really trying to answer with this question was this: Are both lenses capable of focusing accurately on all focus points in the focusing array, including the outermost focus points (that come close to touching the edge of the frame) on the Nikon D500?


II. BACKGROUND

Autofocus performance is one of the most critical components of lens performance for most users of super-telephoto lenses. Both sports and wildlife photographers regularly use these lenses to capture moving subjects - in the case of wildlife photographers it's often those good ol' BIF (Bird In Flight) shots or even shots of running mammals (things like this shot of a grizzly running in water).

A fairly prevalent belief among many wildlife shooters (and one I've heard many times when chatting with other wildlife photographers) is that while some third party lenses may challenge or even match the "best of the best" lenses from Nikon and Canon from an optical perspective, they almost always fall behind the lenses from Nikon and Canon in AF performance (at least a little). One of the most commonly cited reasons for this is that because 3rd party lens makers like Sigma or Tamron are competing with Nikon and Canon for photographers' lens-buying dollars the camera makers aren't likely to share detailed proprietary information on the engineering and technologies of the AF systems of their own lenses and bodies. Thus, third party lens makers are forced to "reverse engineer" the AF systems of Nikon and Canon and, logically, they tend to lag a bit behind Nikon and Canon in AF technology. I admit that until I field-tested and compared the AF performance of the Sigma Sport 150-600mm against its closest competing zoom lenses from Nikon (the AF-S 80-400mm and the AF-S 200-500mm) in 2015 I had the same bias (i.e., the belief that the AF performance of the third party lenses would not match that of Nikon's own lenses). That testing showed that the AF performance of the Sigma Sport 150-600mm was actually slightly better than that of the 80-400 and the 200-500 (but not as good as Nikon's best primes). Those tests are reported in my 2015 blog (see blog entries of 25 March 2015 and 03 April 2015 for comparisons of AF performance of the Nikkor 80-400 vs. the Sigma Sport 150-600, and blog entry of 03 Nov 2015 for comparison of AF performance of both the Nikkor 80-400 and the Nikkor 200-500 vs. the Sigma Sport 150-600).

It's important to note that the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 lens features a brand new AF motor (i.e., a new Hyper Sonic Motor) that Sigma claims has 1.3x the torque of previous models which, according to Sigma, translates into "...fast and snappy focusing." How much faster and how much snappier is unclear.

So the main question I'm left with (and have been wondering about ever since I decided to do this field-test) is one that a LOT of shooters probably have: With Sigma's recent commitment to producing world class lenses, and with that new AF motor on the Sigma 500mm, have we finally reached the point where Sigma and other third party lens makers can rival the "big guns" in AF performance?

An Important Note to Canon Users: While many of the findings of this "500mm Wars" series probably have a high degree of applicability to the Canon version of the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 (e.g., there is no real reason to expect that the Canon version will differ from the Nikon version in sharpness or OS performance) I would not assume that the Nikon and Canon versions of the Sigma 500 are identical in AF performance. It is possible that if you mounted a Sigma 500 on a Nikon D5 and on a Canon 1DxII they would exhibit very similar AF performance, but that absolutely can NOT be concluded from my findings - I used Nikon bodies only. And AF performance is a joint effort between camera body and lens.


III. The KEY THREE SENTENCE SUMMARY

The differences in AF performance of the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR are so subtle that they are unlikely to be noticed under normal day-to-day shooting; both lenses show a very snappy initial focus acquisition, both shift from closest focus to distant focus very fast, and both re-focus quickly and smoothly enough that they rarely miss focus on even fast moving subjects. Repeated trials of continuous high-frame rate shooting on a rapidly moving subject showed "keeper rates" of almost 90% for both lenses, but with the Sigma Sport having a slightly higher rate of sharp shots. Both lenses exhibited high focus accuracy on all 55 selectable focus points of a Nikon D5, but the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 showed a higher degree of focus accuracy on several of the outermost focus points on a Nikon D500.


IV. The FULL EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

In day-to-day field use and when "just shooting" it is extremely difficult to detect any real-world difference in the AF performance of the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR. Both are very fast at acquiring initial focus. Both can quickly refocus on subjects at very different distance (e.g., from only meters away to kilometers away). Both are very good at acquiring and holding focus on moving subjects. In short, both have excellent AF systems.

After running repeated trials where I shot continuous high-frame rate sequences of a rapidly moving subject designed to mimic a running wild animal I was able to detect only very small differences in keeper rates and the proportion of sharp shots that either lens could obtain. When these trials were performed using 72-point dynamic area focusing on a D5 the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 produced an overall "keeper" rate of 90.2% of the shots, with a full 50.5% of the shots being judged as very sharp. When using 72-point dynamic area focusing on the D5 with the Nikkor 500mm f4E I obtained a keeper rate of 87.1%, with 41.8% of the shots being very sharp. When I switched to 9-point dynamic area focusing I found the same overall trend, with the Sigma 500 very slightly out-performing the Nikkor 500 in both keeper rates and percentage of sharp shots. In these 9-point trials the Sigma 500 produced a keeper rate of 88.7% with 49.3% of the shots being very sharp. In 9-point dynamic area mode the Nikkor 500 produced keeper rates of 84.9% with 36.0% of the shots categorized as very sharp.

An examination of focus accuracy of the viewfinder-based AF system (i.e., the phase detect system) across the array of focus points also showed only small differences between the two lenses, again with a slight advantage going to the Sigma 500. When using a full-frame sensor D5 camera both 500mm lenses performed excellent and equally - I could find no difference in focus accuracy between Live View (contrast detect) and viewfinder-based (phase detect) focusing on any of the 55 selectable focus points. However, when I did the same comparison using a DX (cropped) sensor D500 (where the outermost selectable focus points reach closer to the edge of the viewfinder) there was a difference in focus accuracy between the two lenses: With the Sigma 500 there was no difference in focus accuracy (between the Live View and viewfinder-based) in any of the 55 selectable focus points, whereas with the Nikkor 500 there was no difference in focus accuracy of 51 of 55 of the selectable focus points. The four points that the viewfinder-based AF system could not accurately focus on when the Nikkor 500 was in use were the extreme corners (left-most top point, left-most bottom point, right-most top point, right-most lower point).


V. MORE DETAILS:

This section gets into some of the nitty-gritty details of what I did and what I found. It does contain some observations that go beyond what is described above in the Executive Summary...but those with little time to spare can probably quit reading now! ;-)

First, a few technical notes that apply to virtually all of my AF testing...

• Prior to doing any AF testing on these two lens I fine-tuned their AF systems as described in my 29 Dec 2016 blog entry.

• The majority of the AF performance assessments were made with using the lenses paired with a Nikon D5 camera. Selected tests were also performed using a Nikon D500 camera.

• Shortly after acquiring my Sigma Sport 500mm f4 lens I used the USB Dock and Sigma Optimization Pro software to customize the AF Speed Setting for "Fast AF Priority" (so all AF testing reported here was performed using Fast AF Priority). This setting is designed to "Prioritize autofocus speed to reach the focus point as quickly as possible" (this is the verbatim description in the dialog box of the Sigma Optimization Pro software). The opposite "extreme" in the AF Speed Setting is "Smooth Priority AF" which offers "...a slightly slower but very smooth autofocus, ideal for use with video." And, the default setting for the lens (i.e., the setting you would have to live with if you did not use the USB dock and Sigma software to customize the lens) is Standard AF which is functionally a mid-point between the other two settings and "...achieves both smooth operation and fast AF speed." As an editorial comment...this is another case where I think MOST users of this lens would want it focusing as fast as possible, and thus the default setting for the lens should be Fast AF Priority (rather than Standard AF).

A. Comparative AF Performance Observations When "Just Shooting"

1. What I Did:

I have been shooting with both of these lenses now for almost 3 months and have been watching for noticeable differences in AF performance in the field (and while scrutinizing the resultant images). The subjects shot during this time have included an array of stationary subjects (everything from distant scenes to people to my dogs and to bighorn sheep and other species of wildlife) as well as moving subjects. I've also spent time quickly swapping between lenses on a tripod and seeing if I can get at least a subjective answer to the following types of questions:

• Is there any noticeable difference in AF speed when shifting from a close to distant subject?
• Is there any noticeable difference in initial focus acquisition over different distances?
• Does one lens hunt for focus more than the other (including when focusing on low-contrast subjects against non-contrasting backgrounds)

2. What I Found:

This type of comparison (I won't even call it "testing") generally reveals only very large and obvious differences in the AF performance of two lenses - so "macro" differences only. But occasionally it does point out areas worth investigating further (which is EXACTLY what it did in my case...see the "Noticeable Idiosyncrasy" below).

The most germane finding is that I could detect virtually no difference in almost all aspects of AF performance when "just shooting" in the field - both lenses focus VERY fast on a subject, neither hunts for focus until one is trying to shoot in near dark conditions (of course, this is partly a function of the camera body the lens is paired with, but the key thing is that I could find no BETWEEN-LENS differences), both lenses can re-focus very fast when moving from closest focus point to a distant focus point, etc.

BUT...One Noticeable Idiosyncrasy! Part way through the test period I had occasion to shoot some close-up shots of squirrels with both lenses mounted on a D500 (both with and without their respective teleconverters). Think "full-frame shots" and think SHALLOW depth-of-fields (or DoF's). During this time I was shooting in short, high-speed (10 fps on D500; 12 fps on D5) bursts. And, when scrutinizing the shots, I noticed that with the shots taken with the Sigma 500 there was some inconsistency in focus between images captured within a single high-speed burst (when the subject is absolutely static and the camera is not moving). That lead me to shoot several sets of test shots to see what I could learn about this "focus shifting" between frames in a high-speed burst. Here's what I found out:

• The focus shift is normally only noticeable on static subjects
• The focus shift seems to only occur on high frame-rate bursts (greater than 5 fps or so)
• The focus shift is subtle and thus most noticeable on shots with very thin DoF's (e.g., close subjects)
• The focus shift pattern is often as follows: first shot sharp; second shot soft (under the focus point); third shot sharp, etc.
• The focus shift is independent of the OS and AF settings (both those that are adjustable on the lens OR through customization) - it occurs in all AF or OS modes.
• The focus shift occurred on both D5 and D500 bodies.
• The focus shift did NOT occur when I was using the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR

Example shots? Yep. Compare these two shots out of a 10 fps burst of a squirrel that had JUST paused. These are the FIRST and SECOND shots in the burst. Tech specs are on the shots, but for reference both shots with Nikon D500 and Sigma Sport 500mm f4 with TC-1401 teleconverter in place (so an EFL of 1050mm). While I was stopped down to f9 in these shots, the DoF is still VERY thin. In both shots the focus point was positioned half-way between the eye and the nose of the squirrel.

Sample 1 (Sharp in facial region): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.3 MB)
Sample 2 (Softer in facial region):
Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.3 MB)

After discovering this idiosyncrasy I contacted Sigma to report it. As I have found before, the Canadian distributor was very responsive and forwarded the information on to Sigma in Japan. They quickly got back to me with more questions about the conditions under which I noticed the focus shift. Shortly thereafter (days later) they got back to me again to report that they were able to replicate the issue (and that they had found it on some Nikon lenses as well, but did not indicate which lenses). While Sigma did not have an immediate "fix" for the issue, they assured me they were working on it.

How serious is this issue? For ME, not too serious at all. In most of my "normal" daily shooting situations it simply doesn't occur (or isn't noticeable). In situations where it has occurred (so far shooting small stationary mammals that are near the close-focus point of the lens) I have come away with the shots that I wanted (i.e., no critical shots were lost to the problem). I habitually use short bursts whenever I'm photographing wildlife, and I will try to remember to perhaps extend those bursts a LITTLE more if I'm in really tight (and/or just have thin DoF's) with my subjects. And, based on past experience, I am realistically (I think) and reasonably confident that Sigma will come up with a fix for the issue. And if they do, any owner of the Sigma 500 will be able to use their USB dock to upload the fix! ;-)

B. AF Testing on a Rapidly Moving Subject

Like so many wildlife photographers I love shooting moving wildlife. You know...birds in flight (BIFs) and running mammals. And, for me (and probably most wildlife shooters), if a super-telephoto can't maintain focus on a rapidly moving subject, I don't want it. Period.

So...in deciding between which of these two super-telephotos I wanted to keep I had to know if they could "make the grade" in keeping moving subjects in focus. Or, in other words, they had to excel in three distinct aspects of AF performance - autofocus speed, predictive AF capabilities, AND focus-tracking. Predictive autofocus capabilities (which most modern DSLR's have whenever one is in continuous servo mode) are important in keeping a subject that is moving away or towards the camera, even if it stays in position under a single AF focus point. Focus tracking is important if the subject is moving erratically and it's likely that you CAN'T keep the subject under a single focus point (or zone). In these cases the camera/lens combination has to be able to "hand" the focus off when it moves from one point to another (without losing focus on the subject in the process). And, of course, focusing speed is critical simply to "keep up" with the movement of the subject (especially if the subject is moving towards or away from the photographer).

I tested these three AF characteristics collectively by shooting continuous high-speed bursts of a "sort of" trained dog who very much likes to run directly at me at breakneck speed, followed by examining the number and percentage of sharp shots, keepers, and out-of-focus shots (all defined below) in each sequence of shots. I very much like this test because it places high demand on the AF system and it can be repeated time and time again. When a dog is running directly at you it is (of course) forcing the lens to continuously refocus as the distance to the subject decreases. And, because the dog's head is continuously bobbing up and down, it is virtually impossible to keep the dog's head under a single focus bracket and thus requires that the AF system "passes" the focus between focus points (i.e., focus tracking). I have been performing this test on various lenses for years and I have discovered that this test is much more demanding on the AF system than MOST BIF shots (unless, of course, one is trying to photograph full-frame shots of swallows hawking insects while on the wing).

1. What I Did:

Here are the technical details of the testing procedure:

IMAGE CAPTURE:

• I used a hand-held Nikon D5 body at its highest frame rate (12 fps)
• I independently tested (did separate trials) using 72-point dynamic area AF mode and 9-point dynamic area AF mode. I ran four separate trials with EACH of the two lenses for each area mode. So 4 trials with the Nikkor 500mm f4E using 72-point dynamic area mode, then 4 trials with the 500mm f4E using 9-point dynamic area mode and then the same all over again but using the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 lens. Given the distance covered by the trial (approximately 100 meters) each trial produced roughly 110 shots (I began shooting just before calling Poncho the Portie and ended them when he was more than filling the entire frame). In the end I ended up with a little over 1650 images to assess.
• All images were captured at f5.6 and 1/2000s (to keep the DoF fairly narrow AND to ensure the action was frozen to limit image softness to focus misses - rather than to motion blur). Auto ISO was used and the ISO varied slightly over the shots (both within and between trials)
• All images were captured as 14-bit compressed raw (.nef) files

IMAGE/SHARPNESS ASSESSMENT:

• All images were painstakingly (trust me, this got VERY boring!!) assessed for sharpness at 100% magnification in Lightroom and on a 30" Apple Cinema Display with a native resolution of 100 pixels per inch (ppi)
• Each image was placed into one of three categories - Sharp, Slightly Soft, and Unacceptable
Sharp images were those where the leading edge of the subject (Poncho's nose) was absolutely sharp with all "nose wrinkles" visible
Slightly Soft images show only VERY slight softening of the image and that softening is such that it can be overcome with careful sharpening (to be made indistinguishable from the Sharp images at full resolution)
Unacceptable images are "all the rest" (which corresponds to the ones you'd trash during normal image culling)
Keepers? This is all those that are NOT UNACCEPTABLE (Sharp Images + Slightly Soft Images = Keepers).

For reference, here are two shots (one shot with the Sigma Sport 500, one with the Nikkor 500) that are KEEPERS (and both were initially categorized as "Sharp"). In these shots you will see what I mean by "nose wrinkles":

Poncho with Sigma Sport 500: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.0 MB)
Poncho with Nikkor 500:
Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.3 MB)

2. What I Found (RESULTS):

An accurate overall description is simple: Both lenses performed superbly and produced extremely high keeper rates and very good rates of sharp images. And, the Sigma did just a little better than the Nikkor.

The numbers? Here you go. Note that because there was no significant difference between any of the 4 trials for a given set of conditions (i.e., for the same lens and same focus area mode) I lumped the trials together to increase the sample sizes):

i. For 72-point Dynamic Area AF Mode:

Sigma Sport 500 (N=426): Sharp = 215 shots (50.5%); Slightly Soft = 169 (39.7%); Unacceptable = 42 (9.8%). So...Keepers = 384 (90.2%)

Nikkor 500 (N=433): Sharp = 181 shots (41.8%); Slightly Soft = 196 (45.3%); Unacceptable = 56 (12.9%). So...Keepers = 377 (87.1%)

ii. For 9-point Dynamic Area AF Mode:

Sigma Sport 500 (N=408): Sharp = 201 shots (49.3%); Slightly Soft = 161 (39.4%); Unacceptable = 46 (11.3%). So...Keepers = 362 (88.7%)

Nikkor 500 (N=417): Sharp = 150 shots (36.0%); Slightly Soft = 204 (48.9%); Unacceptable = 63 (15.1%). So...Keepers = 354 (84.9%)

I found these results extremely interesting. While the Sigma Sport did slightly better than the Nikkor in holding focus on this rapidly moving subject (seems odd to call Poncho a "rapidly moving subject"!), to me the take home lesson is still one more of AF parity than AF difference. Nikkor super-telephoto lenses are known to have extremely effective AF systems, and any test results that show that a 3rd party lens has matched a Nikkor in real-world AF performance (and in this case slightly exceeded the Nikkor) is quite the accomplishment. Simply put, I did NOT expect that the Sigma 500 was going to be this good in keeping fast-moving subjects in focus.

C. Focus Accuracy Across the Array of Focus Points

Some lenses (including some 3rd party lenses) struggle to attain focus on some of the more extreme (non-central) focus points of modern DSLR's. This is especially true with some of the latest DSLR's, such as the D500 where the outermost focus points almost touch the edge of the viewfinder. In this test I evaluated the focus accuracy of all 55 selectable focus points of the D5 and the D500.

1. What I Did:

In this test I simply shot two images of a target (one using Live View [or contrast detect] AF and the second using viewfinder-based [phase detect] AF) and compared the sharpness of the two images. I then repeated the test for all 55 selectable focus points. In this test the shots captured using Live View serve as a control to compare against the shots captured using viewfinder-based AF.

Here are the key technical details of the testing procedure:

• All images shot from a Jobu Algonquin tripod and Jobu Heavy Duty MkIV gimbal tripod head. Shutter release on all Live View shots via a MC-20 cable release.
• All images shot with VR/OS systems OFF
• All images captured at 1/500s and f5 (with Auto ISO on and ISO floating between 100 and 280)
• Each test (for both cameras and both lenses and all 55 selectable focus points) were repeated twice
• The central "zero" point on a LensAlign long ruler (oriented at 45º to the plane of the image sensor) was used as the target for each focus point. At 7m the "red square" (see images below) surrounding the zero point corresponded closely to the size of the focus point on the D5 (and was slightly smaller than the focus points on the D500).
• All images were assessed for sharpness at 100% magnification in Lightroom and on a 30" Apple Cinema Display with a native resolution of 100 pixels per inch (ppi)

These two uncropped (but resolution-reduced) images should make the setup and the procedure used in this test clear:

Sample Test Shot 1 (focused on LEFT-most focus point on centre row of D500): Download Image
Sample Test Shot 2 (focused on RIGHT-most focus point on centre row of D500): Download Image

2. What I Found (RESULTS):

Like with the AF test of moving subjects, an overall description of the results is quite simple: Focus accuracy of the two lenses was very similar, with a slight advantage to the Sigma lens only when the test was done using a Nikon D500.

Here's some additional detail...

AF Performance Using Live View: As expected, ALL images captured with Live View (with both lenses, both cameras) were tack sharp.

AF Performance Using Phase Detect AF on Nikon D5: Focus accuracy was perfect (on ALL 55 selectable focus points) when using phase detect AF (viewfinder-based) AF with BOTH 500mm lens when mounted to a Nikon D5. This means that for every selectable focus point for BOTH the Nikkor 500 and the Sigma 500 the image was just as sharp when using the viewfinder-based focusing as it was when the same place on the subject was focused on with Live View focusing.

AF Performance Using Phase Detect AF on Nikon D500: When the Sigma 500 was mounted on a Nikon D500 it showed highly accurate (as in "perfect") focus on all 55 selectable focus points when using phase detect (viewfinder-based) AF. However, when the Nikkor 500 was mounted on a D500 it focused accurately on 51 of 55 focus points. The four points the Nikkor 500/D500 combination misfocused on were the FOUR extreme corners (see this graphic for details).

So...how much did the Nikkor 500/D500 combination misfocus on those 4 corner points? This image (shot with target square under upper right corner focus point) is representative of how out-of-focus all four misfocuses. It's best to view this image at 100% magnification to evaluate the sharpness difference between the control (Live View) and test (viewfinder-based) images:

Sample - Nikkor 500mm/Nikon D500 Misfocus: (focused on LEFT-most focus point on centre row of D500): Download Image

In a sense I found this result even MORE surprising than the results from the testing of the lenses with a moving subject. My preconceived expectation was that if there was any difference at all between the lenses in focus accuracy between the two lenses the advantage would have gone to the Nikkor lens. I was wrong.

It's tempting to jump on results like these and be left with this simple thought: "Hah...the Sigma 500 BEAT the Nikkor 500!" But the reality is that there was NO difference in focus accuracy between the lenses when they were mounted on a D5. And, there was NO difference in focus accuracy in 51 of 55 focus points when the two lenses were mounted on a D500. Those 4 four points where the Nikkor 500/D500 combination missed focus are in some pretty extreme positions, and I suspect if I did not do this kind of almost anal testing I would NEVER have noticed the focus accuracy difference in the field (be honest - how often do you use those 4 extreme corner focus points when focusing a super-telephoto lens on a subject?). At longer distances to the subject (and smaller apertures) odds are one would NEVER notice that those 4 corner points don't focus quite as accurately as the remaining 51 on a D500!


VI. CONTEXT...AND A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS

OK...where does this leave us with respect to autofocus performance of these two great lenses? In summary, I found that the Sigma 500 has ONE autofocus idiosyncrasy (that slight focus shift between frames that's noticeable in SOME high-speed bursts) that may bother some. But, the Sigma 500 very slightly outperformed the Nikkor 500 when it came to holding focus on a rapidly moving subject and was very slightly better in focus accuracy on 4 of 55 selectable focus points on a Nikon D500 (but NOT on a Nikon D5). In my mind - and collectively - these are incredibly trivial differences that would almost never have a significant (or noticeable) impact in a field setting. Before I began this test I fully expected that the Nikkor would edge out the Sigma in AF performance. Now, I'm of the feeling that they are virtual autofocus "clones" of on another - and I really wouldn't "gravitate" towards one lens or the other based on the trivial differences I found in AF performance. It is possible that with continued use I (or someone else) will discover some other difference in AF performance between these two lenses. But I doubt it will be a major or significant difference.

What's next in this 500mm Wars series? Just a wrap-up, and my final decision and detailed rationale for which of these two lenses has earned its way into my wildlife kit.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#500mm_wars_8

23 Feb 2017: Arca-Swiss Replacement Foot for Sigma 500mm f4 Sport

It's funny how inbound emails come in "topic-specific" bursts - and they're often about things I haven't mentioned here in awhile. Just yesterday I received four separate emails on the same topic - where to get an Arca-Swiss compatible replacement foot for the new Sigma Sport 500mm f4 lens (or which lens plate to use).

At present I am using an Arca-Swiss compatible foot from Jobu Design that was made for the Sigma 150-600mm Sport. The bolt pattern is perfect, as is the amount of "drop" on the foot (there's no interference when the hood is reversed and there's plenty of room for your fingers - even with "thickish" gloves on - if when you are using the foot as a carrying handle). The only down side is that foot is longer than it needs to be, thus a bit heavier than it needs to be. This is because Jobu intentionally made it LONG so that you could find a balance point with the 150-600 regardless of the body OR focal length you are using. You can see (and even order) that foot right here:

Replacement Foot For Sigma 150-600mm Sport

But is anyone going to produce a replacement foot specifically designed for the Sigma 500? Yes, and it's Jobu Design again (and it looks like none of the other common sources of bling like this - meaning RRS or Kirk - will be doing a foot for the Sigma 500). I communicated with Jobu yesterday and the Arca-Swiss compatible foot for the Sigma 500 should be available in less than a month. And...here's where you get the info about it:

Replacement Foot For Sigma 500mm f4 Sport

Cheers...

Brad


500mm Wars: Sigma vs. Nikon

22 Feb 2017: 500mm Wars 7 - Nikon vs. Sigma: 1.4x Teleconverter Performance

Within my 11 January 2017 blog entry (here) I made reference to the optical performance of the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport and the Nikkor 500mm f4E when each was paired with their respective current teleconverters (the Sigma TC-1401 and the Nikkor TC-14EIII). Based on email and comments I've received I think there's a need for me to call out, clarify, and expand a little on what I said. Please note that these comments are limited to the two 500mm lenses with their 1.4x teleconverters and do not apply to their 2.0x teleconverters - I have not and will not be testing those. It's my view that at this point in time (and with the autofocus systems currently available to us) 2x teleconverters have very limited usefulness in a field-setting on f4 lenses. I have found that 2x teleconverters can produce excellent results on f2 and f2.8 lenses (and they have full autofocus capabilities with those lenses) - so in the case of Nikon the 200mm f2 VR (any version), the 300mm f2.8 VR (any version), and the 400mm f2.8 VR (both E and G versions) can produce excellent results when paired with the TC-20EIII.

I. CLARIFICATION OF PREVIOUS COMMENTS

OK, way back on 11 January I said a few things about the optical quality of the two 500's when paired with their TC's, including:

"When the most current 1.4x teleconverters (the Sigma TC-1401 and the Nikkor TC-14EIII) were added to the lenses the remarkable optical similarity [between the two 500's] continued - I could detect no consistent differences in quality (again both in sharpness and the quality of the out-of-focus zones) between the lenses paired up with their TC's. Both lens and TC combinations were quite soft when shot wide open (i.e., at f5.6) but sharpened up somewhat by f6.3 and more by f7.1. Both were maximally sharp by f8 (stopped down a full stop from wide open when teleconverter attached). Personally I would not shoot either of these lenses wide open with their teleconverters attached. Speaking subjectively (and after looking at thousands of images shot with the 500's and with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR with their teleconverters) it is my opinion that both the Sigma and Nikon 500mm lenses experience MORE image degradation when paired with their respective 1.4x TC's than the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR does."

Clarification: I stand by this comment, but want to make it clear that this comment was NOT intended to convey anything negative about the image quality of either of the two 500's with their 1.4x teleconverters. In my view that performance (of either 500 plus TC) doesn't match that of the 400mm f2.8E VR with the TC-14EIII, but the 400 plus TC should be considered the "reference standard" for teleconverter performance - I feel that it's the absolute BEST quality you could ever expect out of any teleconverter/lens combo - it works phenomenally well! You can get VERY good results out of the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR plus the TC-14EIII AND the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport plus the TC-1401. If anyone's experience with teleconverters is limited to using them with zoom lenses it is likely they would to be BLOWN AWAY by the image quality they can obtain with either of these two 500mm primes plus their TC.

Here's a few sample images to illustrate what I mean - both were shot with the Sigma 500 plus TC-1401:

Red Squirrel - Nikon D5, Sigma 500, TC-1401: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG; 1.17 MB)
Red Squirrel - Nikon D500, Sigma 500, TC-1401: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG; 1.3 MB)

And, on 11 January I also said (in reference to the TC performance with BOTH 500's):

"Again, the same "stop down 2/3 of a stop to get sharpest results" trend was obvious, but in this case that meant 2/3 of a stop from f5.6 - which means you want to shoot this lens plus teleconverter at f7.1 or smaller apertures to get sharpest results. And, at all apertures there was a very slight softening of the image with the teleconverter on. So, if you stack up the slight image softness when shot at the largest apertures AND the slight image softness associated with the presence of the teleconverter itself, I am left feeling that I would only rarely shoot the Sigma 500mm f4 with the TC-1401 teleconverter [or the Nikkor 500 with the TC-14EIII] at apertures larger than f7.1."

Current Comment: No need for further clarification (but the info was probably worth calling out!).

II. SOME ADDITIONAL COMMENTS ON 1.4X TELECONVERTER PERFORMANCE

OK...since January 11 I have done quite a bit more testing (and good ol' "just shooting") with both 500's and their respective TC's. Here are some further thoughts:

1. Comparative Image Quality? I'm STILL finding that the two 500mm lenses shot in combination with their respective 1.4x TC's are virtually identical optically!

2. Autofocus? Subjectively, both 500's slow down slightly in initial image acquisition when their 1.4x TC is used. The slowdown isn't dramatic, but rather than almost instantly "snapping" into focus when shot native (which both lenses do very well), they sort of smoothly "slide" into focus! I have no real way to measure the slowdown in focus acquisition, but I'd estimate it at about 30% slower (than if the TC isn't in place). Both lenses still focus FAST. While I haven't had the opportunity to test focus-tracking on fast moving subjects with either lens plus TC in a field setting yet, based on what I've been seeing with slowly moving subjects (e.g., walking dogs), I'd be surprised if either combination struggled much with most bird-in-flight shots (probably not good to use them for full-frame shots of swallows in flight, but I doubt you'd have ANY problem with gulls, ravens, hawks, eagles, et cetera).

Note that I HAVE compared the initial focus acquisition using all 55 selectable focus points on both the D500 and D5 and my comments immediately above about the slight slowdown in initial acquisition of focus applies equally to ALL focus points (i.e., I saw no difference in the slight slowdown between any of the focus points on the AF array). Please note that here I am referring ONLY to speed of focus acquisition here - NOT accuracy of focus (I will discuss that in my Autofocus segment of this 500mm wars series, which is coming within the next week).

3. Are the TC's Worth The Money? Well...this is the type of question that is hard to give a "universal" answer to, but I sure think they're worth the money. And, I will be keeping and using (likely on a fairly frequent basis!) the TC with the 500 lens that ultimately earns its way into my "kit".

Up next? Comparative Autofocus Performance of the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR. Prepare for some surprises...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#500mm_wars_7

20 Feb 2017: SHHH! Schedule of 2018 Photo Tours Now Online!

About a week ago I quietly posted my 2018 Photo Tours schedule online and officially began taking bookings for trips. My entire 2017 and 2018 offering of Photo Tours can be viewed right here on my Photo Tours page. You can jump directly to the 2018 listings using this link...

The astute reader (so everyone who EVER visits this blog and website!) may be wondering two things. First, why the quiet "launch" of the 2018 photo tour program? And, if I was so quiet about the 2018 program rollout, why the heck are so many trips already sold out? Well, both questions have a similar answer. Of course, the trips are in very high demand (and I have a very finite number of spots available). BUT, more importantly, in 2016 I implemented something I called the "Priority Booking List" where anyone who wanted first crack at the 2018 photo tours could go on a list and, in doing, so got first right of refusal on the 2018 trips when I had all the critical details about them (which is almost always in mid-to-late January of the calendar year BEFORE the trip). Based on the number of folks who signed up on the 2018 version of the Priority Booking List - and then booked trips for the 2018 seasons - it was pretty successful!

But...on the positive side for those who weren't on that Priority Booking list, there are STILL a few spots left on some great trips in 2018, specifically on the 2018 Fishing Grizzlies of the Taku Photo Op Photo Tour (info here) and the 2018 Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More Marine Mammals Instructional Photo Tour (info here).

Finally...for those who like to plan ahead...I HAVE posted information on how to get on the Priority Booking List for 2019 - just go here: 2019 Photo Tours Priority Booking List.

Cheers...

Brad


500mm Wars: Sigma vs. Nikon

14 Feb 2017: 500mm Wars 6 - Nikon vs. Sigma: Musings From Just Shootin'

My apologies for a delay in continuing this series...dealing with the repercussions of a not-so-minor and once-in-a-generation snow event (AKA a Snowmageddon) consumed most of my waking hours last week (and I don't sleep a lot).

I've mentioned several times in this series that when I test a lens I combine fairly rigid and systematic field-based tests with sessions where I just SHOOT with the lens(es) in the way I would when "at work". The time spent "just shooting" under less controlled conditions serves multiple purposes, including demonstrating to me how closely the daily use of the lens will match the "theoretical best" performance it exhibits under highly controlled conditions. This is critical to ME in that I almost never shoot under controlled conditions in the field - as a wildlife photographer who works only with free-ranging, non-constrained, and fully wild subjects I end up doing a whole of "cowboy shooting"! Additionally, the time spent "just shooting" gives me a feel for how several different and independent parameters of lens performance interact in the field. For instance, when hand-holding a big super-telephoto lens in the field at least 3 factors can impact on the quality of the resulting images - the lens weight and balance, the optical stabilization system, and the autofocus system. At times we test or evaluate these factors independently, but the reality in the field is that they interact in producing that final image that we either keep or throw away.

So...here's some musings about things I've noticed about how the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR have performed in the field...


I. PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS - IN THE FIELD

As noted in my blog entry on this topic (view it here), there are far more physical similarities between these two lenses than there are differences. In my view only three of the differences between them are likely to have any significance to most users.

1. Lens Weight:

While both of these lenses are significantly lighter than Nikon's "old" 500mm f4G super-telephoto, the Nikkor 500mm f4E is 324 gm (or 0.71 lb) lighter than the Sigma Sport 500mm f4.

The sixty-four thousand dollar question: Is this difference noticeable in the field? Sort of. What I mean by this is that during times when I was doing either formal lens testing or when "just shooting" (involving hand-holding of the two lenses) where I rapidly swapped between the lenses I DID notice the weight difference. But, if I was throwing one of the lenses in a backpack OR walking around in the field with one of the two lenses in my hand (using the tripod foot as a handle), I couldn't have told you by weight alone which lens I was carrying. And, more importantly for me, even with the optical stabilization systems turned off, I found there was virtually no difference in the shutter speeds at which I could effectively hand-hold the two lenses at (I've long thought that balance of the lens-camera system is more important in "hand-holdability" than absolute weight is).

So, for me, the difference in these two lenses in weight is quite inconsequential. However, I would not say this will be the case for everyone. I have no doubt there will be some shooters out there that find they can carry or hand-hold the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR more easily than the Sigma Sport 500mm f4. And, of course, there will be some shooters who struggle to hand-hold both of these lenses, and some who could easily carry or hand-hold the lenses if they were twice the weight!

2. AF Function (AF Activation) Buttons:

This might be a small thing to a lot of users, but it isn't for me. In recent years all Nikkor super-telephoto lenses have come with four buttons arranged in a ring around the distal end of the lens. The concept is that the buttons could be used to control one of several aspects of the lens function (e.g., AF-On or AF-lock) with your left hand (that is positioned near the end of the lens) while you were shooting. Cool idea. The Sigma Sport ALSO has these 4 buttons. But rather than having them on the exact top, bottom, and either side of the lens (the "cardinal" positions - so positioned at 90º, 180º, 270º, and 360º) the buttons are slightly rotated (to the left) and offset from the cardinal positions. In my own case this means the buttons on the Sigma 500 fall in a much better "natural" positions for my thumb (as in, directly below my thumb), especially when I'm hand-holding the lens.

When I'm shooting in the field I use the lens AF Function/Activation buttons to switch between autofocus area modes (this feature is NOT available on all Nikon DSLR's). For example, my preferred "default" AF area mode on the D5 is 9-point Dynamic Area mode, but when using the Nikkor 500 or the Sigma 500 I can switch to a different area mode by pressing and holding the AF Function/Activation button on the lens (I normally use Group Area as my alternate AF area mode, but sometimes I change this in the field).

So...how important is the positioning of the AF Function/Activation buttons? Well...I LOVE the "offset" of the Sigma buttons (relative to the Nikkor buttons) and find them MUCH more usable. Consequently I am using the AF Function button on the Sigma Sport 500 much more often than I have ever used the AF Activation buttons on any of the Nikkor super-telephotos I have owned.

So - for ME - consider this to be "...a BIG little thing". Advantage Sigma.

For other users? I'm sure there are some users of Nikkor super-telephotos that never use these buttons. That MIGHT be due to their arrangement/position. Or, it might be that the user just couldn't be bothered. And, I am sure that there will be some users who love the Nikkor AF Activation buttons and some of those may react exactly as I have to Sigma's re-positioning of these buttons. So the importance of this between-lens difference in positioning of the AF Function/Activation buttons will likely vary tremendously from one shooter to the next.

3. Sigma's USB Dock and Lens Software Configurability:

This is a tough topic to pigeonhole - you normally don't customize your lens while still in the field, but it directly IMPACTS on how the lens performs in the field. In terms of background - most recent lenses from Sigma are customizable, but only if you purchase their USB dock and download and install their free Sigma Optimization Pro software. In the case of the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 lens aspects of both autofocus and optical stabilization can be customized to those with the USB dock and software. And, of course, the software and firmware of the lens can be upgraded by the end-user (as Sigma makes updates available).

One major value of Sigma's system really hit home for me when Nikon announced the need to fix the firmware on their 200-500mm f5.6 VR zoom. A free fix, of course, but you had to box up and ship your lens to Nikon to have them fix the bug. I live in a relatively remote location where couriers won't even come close to my home (it's a 50 km drive to get to the closest FedEx or Purolator depot)...and mail service is slow. So for me the "free" fix from Nikon on their 200-500 would have meant being without the lens for a minimum of one week, and realistically closer to two weeks. Same problem with the Sigma would take me about 5 minutes to "fix" using their USB dock and their Sigma Optimization Pro software.

Ok...but what about the "customizability" of the AF and OS functions? Does choosing different settings really make much difference in the field? Yes, a lot. I will go so far as to say that WITHOUT customization (i.e., using the default lens AF and OS settings the lens comes with and that users who DON'T get the dock will be forced to live with) - and for MY USES of the competing lenses - the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR outperforms the Sigma Sport 500 f4. And, more importantly, I would select the Nikkor 500mm f4E OVER the Sigma Sport 500 f4, even given the huge price difference. Said another way, with a little effort and time (and if you buy the USB dock and Sigma Optimization Pro software), you can fully nullify the performance differences between the lenses by "tweaking" the AF and OS settings on the Sigma lens. In my books, that's HUGE (or is it YUGE?).

And...that leaves with me a few thoughts...

• I think the customizability of the Sigma 500 is so essential to its performance that the USB dock should come WITH the lens (i.e., included with the lens purchase), even if it means the price of the lens has to go up by $50 or so.

• After extensive testing of both the OS system of this lens and the AF performance of this lens (still to be reported in detail), and after considering the target market for this lens (sports and wildlife/nature photographers) I think Sigma has selected the wrong default values for the customizable functions on the lens. Given the USB dock is an optional accessory (that many may choose NOT to buy), this may lead to a large number of owners to be less happy with the lens than they could be. And it may even lead to some lens reviews that might turn out to be less positive than they could be.

It's also worth noting that a lot of folks looking at buying this lens (or any lens) just want to put the lens on their camera and USE IT. They don't want to fine-tune the focusing, and they don't want to take and examine thousands of test images to separate out the nuances of the different custom settings. So "giving them" default custom settings that are a little more carefully chosen (to match the intended user) is kind of important.


II. OPTICAL PERFORMANCE - IN THE FIELD

The outcome of my "controlled" testing of the optical performance of the Sigma and Nikkor 500's was almost astonishing to me - while I didn't expect to find major differences in optical performance, I honestly did NOT expect the two lenses to be virtual clones of one another optically (described in more detail in this blog entry). But what happens to that optical performance when you wander into the field and lose a lot of your control of the shooting situation?

OK...one caveat here: I'm not too into "roadside" wildlife photography and I often hike significant distances to locate my "prey". Which can make doing head-to-head field comparisons of wildlife images shot with "dueling 500's" pretty challenging (carrying ONE 500mm lens into the woods is often challenging in itself...carrying two is a complete pain in the butt!). But, nonetheless, I have found ways to work with the two lenses with wildlife (and my not-so-wild Portuguese Water Dog Poncho) and can say this: When shooting under real world field conditions the optical parity of these two lenses IS retained. This is huge.

So...here's a FEW sample image pairs to look at. I do have many more images to come in my final review. And it's important to note that all image pairs below share absolutely identical camera settings. All were captured as RAW files and processed IDENTICALLY using Phase One's Capture One Pro combined with Adobe Photoshop CC 2017. All Nikkor 500mm f4E shots were captured using VR Sport mode. All Sigma Sport 500mm f4 shots were captured using OS1 optical stabilization mode (customized to Moderate View mode).

1. Bighorn Ram on Ridge:

Image notes: Nikon D5. 1/500s @ f6.3 and ISO 250. Supported on Really Right Stuff TVC-24 tripod with Jobu Jr. 3 Deluxe gimbal head (left loose).

Download Sigma 500mm f4 Image (2400 pixels; JPEG: 1.42 MB)
Download Nikkor 500mm f4E Image (2400 pixels; JPEG: 1.42 MB)

2. Bighorn Lamb and Rabbitbush:

Image notes: Image notes: Nikon D5. 1/500s @ f6.3 and ISO 1250. Supported on Really Right Stuff TVC-24 tripod with Jobu Jr. 3 Deluxe gimbal head (left loose).

Download Sigma 500mm f4 Image (2400 pixels; JPEG: 1.7 MB)
Download Nikkor 500mm f4E Image (2400 pixels; JPEG: 1.7 MB)

3. The Sprint - Poncho the Portie:

Image notes: Nikon D5. 1/2000s @ f5.6 and ISO 320. +0.67 stop compensation from matrix-metered exposure setting. Hand-held.

Download Sigma 500mm f4 Image (2400 pixels; JPEG: 1.0 MB)
Download Nikkor 500mm f4E Image (2400 pixels; JPEG: 1.0 MB)


III. OPTICAL STABILIZATION AND HAND-HOLDABILITY - IN THE FIELD

The conclusion of my "controlled" testing of the hand-holdability of the two 500's showed that I could hand-hold the two lenses down to the same range of shutter speeds when shooting in bursts (details can be found in this blog entry).

But when I'm shooting in the field I generally notice - and place importance on - three aspects of optical stabilization.

1. Slowest "Hand-holdable" Shutter Speed

Like all wildlife shooters I am continually looking for the most suitable balance of shutter speed, aperture and ISO. I often work in low light environments and, over the years, have developed a tendency to try to keep to shutter speeds no slower than 1/focal length of the lens when hand-holding super-telephoto lenses (so 1/500s with a 500mm lens). I try to stick to this, but if that pushes the ISO over the "threshold" of the camera in use, then I will let shutter speeds drop further...sometimes to 1/200s or even slower.

What am I finding with the Sigma 500 and the Nikkor 500 in the field? Pretty much what I found in controlled tested - that "in the right mode" both lenses let me shoot freely at 1/500s and get an incredibly high rate of tack sharp hand-held shots (almost 100%). And, both lenses let me go down to 1/250s and still get a very high keeper rate (way over 50%). If I go to crazy slow shutter speeds (where you start risking having a shot ruined by SUBJECT movement) like 1/80s I'm still likely to get some sharp shots and several keepers in a short-to-moderate length burst. So the optical stabilization systems on BOTH lenses deliver well in the field.

What am I considering the "right mode" to use for the two lenses (i.e., what works best for me in terms of cancelling out camera shake)? With the Nikkor lens it can be EITHER of their two modes - Sport or Normal - right down to the "crazy slow" shutter speeds (like 1/80s). With the Sigma you virtually always use OS1 mode unless panning, but still have 3 custom view modes to choose between (assuming you have access to a USB Dock and Sigma Optimization Pro software) - Standard View (the default setting of the lens), Dynamic View, and Moderate View. If I have enough light to be hand-holding the lens in the 1/400s to 1/500s range I found that any of the 3 view modes can be used. Once shutter speeds start dropping down I invariably get the best results using Moderate View mode.

This hand-held shot of young Bighorn Sheep Ram taken with the Sigma 500 (at 1/500s and f7.1) typifies the type of results I am getting with Sigma Sport AND the Nikkor lenses in the field:

Download Bighorn Ram Image (2400 pixels; JPEG: 1.5 MB)

2. Image Stability Through the Viewfinder (BEFORE Shooting)

Another thing that I notice in the field and DOES matter to me is how stable the image appears through the viewfinder BEFORE I start shooting using the various VR or OS modes. Why does this matter? For at least two reasons. First, it can impact on how well you can compose the scene while looking through the viewfinder, especially if hand-holding the lens. If you turn the VR/OS system of a super-telephoto off and try to careful compose a scene while hand-holding the lens you'll know what I mean. Second, if you need precise positioning of your focus bracket to get the shot you want it is MUCH easier if the image you are looking at is stable! It should also be noted that the stability of an image through the viewfinder does have a bit of a psychological component as well - if it APPEARS stable through the viewfinder then the user KNOWS the optical stabilization system is working and tends to be more confident in it (even if this confidence is misplaced...more about this below).

Note that I'm not alone in liking a stable image as seen through the viewfinder - I have received emails from people who have told me outright that they have purchased - and then subsequently sold - lenses that have stabilizations systems that didn't produce "stable enough" views through the viewfinder.

Anyway...what have I been finding in the field re: viewfinder stability of the two 500's in their various modes? The Nikkor is simple - BOTH VR modes (Normal and Sport) produce VERY stable images through the viewfinder. The Normal mode does produce a slightly more stable image through the viewfinder, but the difference between that and the Sport mode is almost negligible (luckily for Nikon...you'll see what I mean by the end of this section).

With the Sigma lens the three custom view modes are VERY different in viewfinder stability - and it's REALLY noticeable in the field. The Standard View (the default view mode on the lens, and the ONLY view mode available to the user if they don't have the USB Dock and customization software) provides very little stabilization of the image as you're looking through the viewfinder. When using this mode when hand-holding the Sigma 500 I actually checked several times to see if the OS system was still on (and I hadn't accidentally turned it off). The Dynamic View mode is at the other end of the "stability through the viewfinder" extreme - it produces the MOST stable image through the viewfinder. It's VERY equivalent to the Nikon Sport Mode in viewfinder stability. And the Moderate View? About halfway between the two other custom view modes - with "decent" stability of the image through the viewfinder (and in most cases it is stable enough to allow pinpoint placement of your focus bracket on a small portion of the subject).

One point I have to make here: One might expect that the stability of the image through the viewfinder is directly correlated with how slow of a shutter speed you can hand-hold the lens at (i.e., both characteristics are demonstrating the same thing - the degree of image stabilization). But, that doesn't appear to be true. I found that the Dynamic View of the Sigma lens (the view mode that provides the most image stability through the viewfinder) didn't allow me to hand-hold the Sigma 500 at as slow of shutter speeds as either the Standard or Moderate Views did!

3. Between-Frame Image Stability During Bursts of Shots

Last - but certainly not least - is something I discovered with my Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and also shows up on the Nikkor 500mm f4E: There can be a dramatic difference in how stable an image is BETWEEN frames in a burst depending on the VR mode you choose. Nikon has simultaneously achieved a new high AND a new low in performance here! Use your Nikon D5 with the 500mm f4E lens in Sport Mode when shooting a high speed burst and you'll be stunned how stable the image is throughout the entire burst (the camera body DOES make a difference here...the image is still quite stable when doing a high speed burst with a D500, but NOT as stable as when using a D5). Examine the images after the fact and you'll notice that EVERY shot in the burst is framed virtually identically - there is simply NO between-frame jumping in Sport Mode.

What happens when you switch to VR Normal mode? Well...just don't shoot a high speed burst in Normal mode if you're prone to motion sickness. You'll puke. It's that bad. And, if you look at the resulting images afterwards you'll learn that it's NOT just viewfinder behavior - the image WAS jumping around that much. In my view, if you shoot in bursts (and what wildlife photographer doesn't?) you really have only one usable VR mode on the Nikkor 500 - VR Sport.

What about the Sigma 500? Well, interestingly...there's almost no difference between the 3 custom view modes in between-frame image stability when shooting bursts. And, all three are very good and approach the between-frame stability of the Nikkor 500 in Sport Mode.

What are the take home lessons on the two 500's optical stabilization systems? Well...if you're the kind of wildlife photographer who wants to pick up a lens at the store and just put it on your camera and NEVER think about its VR settings again - get the Nikkor and put it in VR Sport Mode. If you're the type of user who is willing to experiment with your lens (including modifying customization settings) you can opt for the Sigma Sport and adjust it to perform almost identically to the Nikkor 500 in Sport Mode.

My "default" optical stabilization settings when I'm hand-holding the two lenses? For the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR it's VR Sport Mode. For the Sigma Sport 500 it's OS1 mode with Moderate View custom setting. And after a TON of testing and shooting I think Moderate View mode should be the default mode of the Sigma 500 as it comes out of the factory.


IV. AUTOFOCUS PERFORMANCE - IN THE FIELD

I haven't reported my findings from my controlled, systematic testing of the AF system of these two lenses yet. It's coming soon. But I don't mind saying that at this point (about 2/3 the way through the testing) that I have found no major differences between the lenses (which has surprised me in that I felt before I started testing the lenses that this would be the most likely place where the Nikkor would outperform the Sigma). Please note that it is possible that I could still find something that separates the lens in autofocus performance...so stay tuned for that. Whether or not the difference (if it exists) would make any difference in day-to-day shooting is a separate issue.

But what about when "just shooting" in the field, including with some rapidly moving subjects? I can honestly say that at this point - and for the uses I see myself putting these lenses to - Sigma has finally and completely closed the gap in autofocus performance between their lenses and the best Nikkor lenses. When testing lenses - and often just for fun between lens testing sessions - I shoot thousands of shots of my dogs running, including running directly at me until they fill the frame. This "test" is a tough one for a lens and camera system - it taxes both the Predictive Autofocus capabilities of the lens AND the tracking ability (in that the subject is bobbing up and down and thus continually moving between focus brackets, no matter how hard you try to keep it on a single AF bracket). And, in my mind this "test" is far more demanding on an autofocus system than virtually all bird-in-flight shots (unless, perhaps, you're trying to get full-frame shots of swallows in flight). Here's two samples of what I mean - and both are 95% or more of full-frame:

• Sprong! Download Sigma Sport 500mm f4 Image (2400 pixels; JPEG: 0.9 MB)
Image Notes: Nikon D5 with Sigma Sport 500mm f4 @ 1/2000s & f5.6. 72-point Dynamic Area AF mode.

• Poncho On The Go! Download Sigma Sport 500mm f4 Image (2400 pixels; JPEG: 1.0 MB)
Image Notes: Nikon D5 with Sigma Sport 500mm f4 @ 1/2000s & f5.6. 9-point Dynamic Area mode.

And...the end of my testing of these two GREAT lenses is approaching. I still have a little more testing to do on the AF systems of the two lenses and a few thousand images to scrutinize. And then I'll make my own final decision as to which of the two lenses I'll be keeping. But I think most could guess by now which of them I am leaning very strongly towards. ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#500mm_wars_6


500mm Wars: Sigma vs. Nikon

29 Jan 2017: 500mm Wars 5 - Nikon vs. Sigma: Stabilization and "Hand-holdability"

I. INTRODUCTION

In this blog entry I describe the results of head-to-head field-testing of the optical stabilization systems (and "hand-holdability") of the "new" Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR prime lenses. The goal of my testing was to discover how low of a shutter speed I could hand-hold each lens at and still get very sharp shots (and "keepers") using each of both lens's stabilization and/or customization settings designed for use on static subjects (including with the stabilization systems off). My preliminary testing was done while shooting 3-frame bursts on a Nikon D5. Follow-up - and more extensive - testing was done using multiple repetitions of longer 10-frame bursts more characteristic of how many wildlife photographers work in the field.


II. The THREE SENTENCE SUMMARY

There was extreme similarity in the shutter speeds at which I could hand-hold the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and Nikkor 500mm f4E VR at and still obtain both very sharp shots and slightly less sharp "keepers" when shooting bursts of 3 shots. When I shot several longer (10 frame) bursts of shots using the various stabilization settings on the two lenses I did find some differences between the effectiveness of the settings and the lenses. I obtained a slightly higher number of sharp shots and overall number of keepers with the VR settings on the Nikkor 500 compared to the OS settings available to a Sigma 500 user without access to a USB dock and Sigma Optimization Pro software (i.e., when using the default OS "view" settings on the Sigma lens), but this difference disappeared when I used the Sigma lens with one of its OS customization settings (OS Moderate View).


III. The FULL EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

When it comes to the comparative effectiveness of the optical stabilization systems of the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR vs. the Sigma Sport f4 prime lenses in assisting a photographer when hand-holding the lenses the most accurate summary is this: Just the same, only different. Which means you can pretty much get to the same place (in terms of how slow a shutter speed you can hand-hold the two lenses at), but you have to take different pathways...and each of those pathways is quite different from the others. If you compare the two lenses as they come out of the factory you are likely to find that the Nikkor will allow hand-holding at slightly slower shutter speeds. And you'll find that the image appears much more stable as you look at it through the viewfinder. But both the appearance of the image through the viewfinder and the effectiveness of Sigma's OS system can be modified (and, most importantly, brought into virtual parity with the Nikkor lens) with customization of the OS settings using the optional USB Dock and Sigma Pro Optimization software. One additional result should draw the attention of anyone who likes to shoot in bursts (which includes most wildlife and sports photographers...so most users of these lenses!) - there is ONE VR setting on the Nikkor lens (VR NORMAL) where the image jumps around so significantly BETWEEN frames in a high-speed burst that many would consider it close to unusable in the field (especially compared to the uber-smooth VR Sport mode and all of Sigma's view modes).


IV. RELEVANT BACKGROUND INFO

A lens's ability to counteract camera shake through image stabilization - along with the correlated characteristic of how slow of a shutter speed you can hand-hold a lens at - can have a huge impact on its overall "usability". The importance of effective image stabilization varies considerably between users. For many wildlife photographers a lens that must ALWAYS be shot from a tripod will have a LOT less utility (and it will be used a lot less than if it could be successfully hand-held). But for other wildlife shooters image stabilization is a trivial feature - they may be roadside shooters that always have a tripod available or use such high shutter speeds that the quality of a lens's image stabilization is almost academic. For ME image stabilization is absolutely critical and can be even more important than absolute lens sharpness. Why? A number of reasons. First, while all serious wildlife shooters work in low light on at least a quasi-regular basis, I am in low light environments (like the Great Bear Rainforest) very regularly. Second, I am commonly shooting in places where a tripod can not be used - such as from a smallish Zodiac inflatable boat. Finally, I often am hiking significant distances to get to shooting locations and often don't want the weight of a tripod added to my load (or, alternately, I bring such a small tripod that an optical stabilization system is STILL needed to get sharp shots). For me (and I think a lot of other wildlife shooters) the quality of a lens's image stabilization system will largely dictate how close I can get to that lens's "theoretical" maximum image sharpness (i.e., how much of the theoretical sharpness is "realized" in a field setting). I can easily imagine scenarios where I would choose a slightly less sharp lens if it had a better optical stabilization system over a slightly sharper lens with an inferior optical stabilization system (because MORE of the sharpness would be realized with the lens with the better stabilization).

The point of this preamble? I can't tell any other shooter how important optical stabilization should be for them - that's something they can only decide for themselves. So it's up to you to decide the value of this part of my field-testing (and this blog entry) to you. Could be critical...could be irrelevant.

Before going any further there are two other topics I have to go into a little detail about. First...what matters to me (and I think most shooters) isn't the absolute "measurement" of a lens's optical stabilization system (which, more often than not, is reported as the number of stops of camera shake and vibration that is "cancelled out" by the system). What matters to ME is the shutter speed that I can hand-hold the lens at and still get both tack sharp shots and "keepers". While this is correlated with the quality of the image stabilization system, other variables can be important. These other variables include lens/camera balance (very critical) and lens weight (sometimes critical...but its importance varies DRAMATICALLY between users). The results and findings reported here are primarily about lens "hand-holdability". And, in recognition of how we REALLY shoot in the field (in variable length BURSTS of shots)...the results you'll see below are largely expressed as proportion of sharp shots and keepers in BURSTS of shots.

Note that today's results are about the shutter speeds that I can hand-hold these two lenses at. You may be able to do far better (or a little worse) than me. So the absolute results are probably of little value to anyone. But there should be some value and generalizability in the comparative results - the shutter speeds I can hand-hold the Nikkor lens at VERSUS the shutter speeds I can hand-hold the Sigma lens at (i.e., which can I hand-hold at slower shutter speeds at?).

Second...for this entry to make any sense (and have any value) I have to go into some detail about the different modes and settings (and, for the Sigma lens, the customization available to the stabilization system) of the two lenses. There is definitely some apples-to-oranges things to consider. So...

1. Nikkor 500mm f4E Stabilization System

Nikon uses the term Vibration Reduction (or VR) to describe their system. It has 3 modes that can be selected via a toggle switch on the lens: VR OFF, VR NORMAL, VR SPORT. It is important to note the BOTH of the VR settings (Normal and Sport):

• Support panning AND stationary subjects, and
• both can be used while on a tripod. But just to confuse things Nikon...in their way...states the following their 500mm lens owner's manual:

"NORMAL and SPORT vibration reduction can reduce blur when the camera is mounted on a tripod. OFF may however produce better results in some cases depending on the type of tripod and on shooting conditions" (and, of course, the manual says NOTHING about WHAT shooting conditions they mean).

What's MY experience with the Nikkor 500 f4E VR system and tripods? Identical to what I have found on the 400mm f2.8E VR - if you are leaving the head loose so you can pivot the lens around (like most wildlife shooters do with gimbal heads)...just leave the VR on at most shutter speeds (I have YET to find any negative consequences on image quality of leaving the VR on at shutter speeds beyond which it is helping much, i.e., at 1/750s or faster the VR system is very likely adding little if anything to image sharpness, but isn't harming the shot). If you are tightening down the tripod head and shooting at very slow shutter speeds (like 1/60s or slower) - turn the VR off and do whatever you can to reduce vibration...including using a cable release, Live View, and Mirror Up settings.

OK...so what's the difference between VR NORMAL and VR SPORT settings? If you go to the manual and read their descriptions the gist is this: you get the MOST image stabilization with the VR NORMAL setting (they call it "enhanced" vibration reduction) and VR SPORT setting is best for photographing "athletes" and subjects that are moving rapidly and unpredictably.

What's MY experience with the different settings? I can't disagree with the comments in the manual, but they're kind of obtuse and quite lacking. In the real world here's what I've found: Yes, the VR NORMAL mode does give slightly better vibration reduction at REALLY low shutter speeds (see results below) and the VR SPORT mode is better for "action". But what's lacking is a basic difference between the modes that makes a HUGE difference if you're shooting ANYTHING in bursts (including static subjects): In VR NORMAL mode there is a huge amount of image movement (jumping) in the viewfinder BETWEEN frames in a high-speed burst while in SPORT mode the image is remarkably stable (like rock solid) between frames. This is especially noticeable when using a D5 (where the reduced image blackout time and new mirror-driving mechanism combines with the SPORT VR mode superbly). I've referred to the "image jumping between frames" characteristic before (when discussing the performance of the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR) as the "Herky-Jerky" (or HJ) factor. Note that the difference in this HJ factor between the two modes is so extreme that I simply will NOT shoot bursts with Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR or the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR in VR NORMAL mode. And when a wildlife photographer says they won't use a particular feature when shooting bursts it pretty much means they refuse to use it at all.

2. Sigma Sport 500mm f4 Stabilization System

Sigma uses the term Optical Stabilization (or OS) to describe their system. Like the Nikkor 500 system it has 3 modes that can be selected via a toggle switch on the lens: OS OFF, OS1, OS2. And that's where the similarities end.

OS1 Mode cancels both vertical and horizontal movement/vibrations. This is the mode you use when hand-holding the lens with stationary or slowly moving objects. Basically...you use this mode for everything EXCEPT panning.

OS2 Mode cancels vertical vibration only...this is the mode you use if panning (it doesn't try to cancel out horizontal motion).

Tripod use? Sigma's lens manual says to NOT use either OS mode if your camera is mounted on a tripod. My own experience says you use the OS on a tripod just like you use Nikon's VR system on a tripod - if the tripod head is loose leave the OS system on and it will still provide image stabliization benefits. At slow shutter speeds (about 1/60s and longer) DEFINITELY turn it off - you can watch the image "drift" across the frame (a little) when the VR is on.

Customization of OS Settings? OK...now the plot gets thicker. If you own Sigma's USB dock and have Sigma Optimization Pro software you can modify the OS settings. There are three "view" settings that can be applied to either of the OS modes: Standard View (the default the lens is set with and the ONLY setting you have if you don't have the USB dock and Sigma software), Dynamic View, and Moderate View. Here's what each is supposed to do (and I am quoting the dialog boxes in the software):

Standard View: "The OS effect is well-balanced and suitable for various scenes."

Dynamic View: "This mode offers a recognizable OS effect to the image in the viewfinder. This helps to ensure the composition of images quickly."

Moderate View: "This mode offers an excellent compensation of camera shake and achieves very smooth transition of the image in the viewfinder. The composition of the image remains natural even when the angle of view keeps changing."

Now if you can read these descriptions and figure out when you should use each setting you are a far better person than I am. And...if you can read these descriptions and conclusively decide between two possible interpretations - that the different "view" modes change the full operation of the OS (including the AMOUNT of stabilization) or they only change the view through the viewfinder - then you are ALSO a better person than I am! So...you guessed it...I took it upon myself to suss this out in my testing. One thing I CAN say about the descriptions - with the Dynamic View (and before shooting) you definitely see a more highly stabilized image through the viewfinder (much more like the stable view you get with the VR NORMAL view of the Nikon system). But...as you'll see...stable through the viewfinder doesn't necessarily mean "hand-holdable at slower shutter speeds".

One point I can't stress enough: If you do NOT have access to Sigma's USB Dock and their Sigma Optimization Pro software you have only ONE OS setting for each of the two modes (i.e., for OS1 and OS2 modes) - Standard View. With the USB Dock and the software you have two additional "customization" modes to choose from for OS1 and OS2 - Dynamic View and Moderate View.


V. WHAT I DID

Basically I shot a ton of hand-held shots with the two lenses mounted on my D5 in two different tests, both of which recognized the reality of how wildlife shooters actually shoot - in bursts. In the first test I shot 3-frame hand-held bursts of a large road sign at 40 meters. The sign was large enough to more than fill the viewfinder and image sensor. The sign has sharp edges on the lettering, multiple cracks varying in width, and a textured surface - all of which assist in making sharpness differences between images extremely easy to see. I shot 3-frame bursts at shutter speeds from 1/1600s down to 1/30s in 1/3 stop increments. Because BOTH VR modes on the Nikon lens tries to cancel both horizontal and vertical camera and lens shake - and thus are suitable for shooting static or very slowly moving subjects - I tested the Nikkor 500 f4E using all 3 VR modes (VR OFF, VR SPORT, and VR NORMAL). With the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 only the OS1 mode attempts to cancel both horizontal and vertical movement (and the OS2 mode cancels only vertical movement and is designed for panning), so I tested using OS1 mode only. However, if one has access to Sigma's USB Dock and Optimization Pro Software the OS1 setting can be set to three different custom "view modes" - Standard View (the lens default), Dynamic View, and Moderate View. Consequently I tested the Sigma lens using the following 4 modes: OS OFF, OS1 Standard View, OS1 Dynamic View, OS1 Moderate View.

The goal of this first round of testing? Nothing more than a coarse reconnaissance of the problem, to get a feel for how the systems performed, and to get a feel for the range of shutter speeds I had to examine in more detail to "tease apart" the differences in how the various VR and OS modes of the two lenses performed.

In the second round of testing I shot longer 10-frame bursts (which I believe are more representative of how a lot of wildlife and action shooters work in the field) of a yard torch at a distance of 10 meters. Like with the road sign there was a combination of sharp edges, textures, and surface cracking that made assessing sharpness differences between shots simple. For each VR or OS setting (as described above) I shot 10-frame bursts at shutter speeds from 1/500s to 1/30s in 1/3 stop increments using my D5. Between each "shutter speed run" (for a single OS or VR setting) I switched lenses (to mitigate against any form of bias associated with differential fatigue of my arms). I repeated the entire procedure (meaning the testing of all shutter speeds on all settings) four times.

The goal of this second round of testing? To reveal more subtle differences in the performance of the various VR/OS settings (and to let ME know what shutter speeds I could use at specific shutter speeds and what settings I preferred).

Scrutinizing the images: I assessed image sharpness via examining previews of the raw images using both Lightroom CC and Capture One Pro 10. Images were viewed at 100% magnification (1:1) on a 30" Apple Cinema Display with a native resolution of 100 pixels per inch (ppi). I chose this monitor for all image comparisons because small differences in sharpness are often "masked" when images are viewed at 100% on some newer high resolution displays (e.g., almost ANY image looks sharp on my 218 ppi iMac 5K Retina Display). Yes, like with my testing on optical performance I was basically pixel-peeping!

I categorized all images into one of 6 sharpness categories (as per my 20 Nov 2015 assessment of images shot when comparing 3 "user-zooms" - see that entry right here...). The categories were:

Sharp: All detail on central portion of target object absolutely sharp (good 'ol "tack sharp")
Slightly Soft: Shows any softening of detail in central portion of sign, but careful sharpening in Photoshop would make these shots indistinguishable from those categorized as "Sharp". Still a "Keeper".
Softer: Noticeable softening of image detail; sharpness loss NOT fully recoverable by digital sharpening. NOT a "Keeper".
Soft: Unacceptable image sharpness
Very Soft: Close to garbage!
Very, Very Soft: Pure garbage, AKA a bloody and blurry mess!

While subjective, in practice I had NO problem quickly assigning an image to one of these 6 categories. Only images in the first and second categories (Sharp and Slightly Soft) are images I considered (and later classified) as "Keepers".


VI. RESULTS

A. 3 Frame Burst Shot Testing:

OK - here I looked for two things. First, how slow of a shutter speed could I shoot at and still get "Consistently Sharp Shots"? I defined Consistently Sharp Shots as two of three shots in the burst had been categorized as Sharp (as per the categories above). Second, what shutter speed could I go down to and still get ANY "Keepers" (so at least ONE of three shots in the burst either Sharp or only Slightly Soft). Here are my results:

1. Shutter Speeds Necessary For Consistently Sharp Shots:

NIKKOR 500mm f4E VR

• VR OFF: 1/500s
• VR SPORT: 1/160s
• VR NORMAL: 1/125s

Sigma Sport 500mm f4

• OS OFF: 1/400s
• OS1 Standard View: 1/125s
• OS1 Dynamic View: 1/200s
• OS1 Moderate View: 1/125s

2. Shutter Speeds Needed For AT LEAST One Keeper Per 3-shot Burst:

NIKKOR 500mm f4E VR

• VR OFF: 1/160s
• VR SPORT: 1/80s
• VR NORMAL: 1/100s

Sigma Sport 500mm f4

• OS OFF: 1/125s
• OS1 Standard View: 1/80s
• OS1 Dynamic View: 1/160s
• OS1 Moderate View: 1/80s

3. Stability of Image Through Viewfinder (BEFORE shooting):

What I am referring to here is simply how stable the image appears through your viewfinder BEFORE you actually shoot. This isn't necessarily related to how sharp the final image may end up, but can be important in image composition. It may also help you keep your focus point on the EXACT spot you want it. And, a high degree of stability in the image through the viewfinder certainly reminds you the system is on and working, and may influence your perception of how effective the optical stabilization of a lens is (correctly or otherwise!). Admittedly I have no objective measure of this - it is purely subjective but - at the same time - was extremely obvious.

With the VR/OS systems OFF I had a devil of a time with both lenses in keeping the image through the viewfinder stable and the focus point on a particular same spot on the subject. It was only slightly better with the Sigma lens when using OS1 Standard View (the lens's default setting) and a little better again using OS1 Moderate View. With OS1 Standard View mode some might think the OS system wasn't really operating (it was, it just didn't really LOOK like it was!). Most shooters should notice improvement of the stability of the iimage through the viewfinder when using OS1 Moderate View mode. The three remaining modes - Nikon VR SPORT, Nikon VR NORMAL, and Sigma OS1 Dynamic View - were characterized by having high (and very similar) image stability through the viewfinder - you definitely knew the stabilization mode was working! As you'll see below (and partly by looking at the results above) the stability of the image as seen through the viewfinder is only poorly correlated with how effective the optical stabilization system really is.

4. Stability of Images BETWEEN Frames within a Burst:

Even with short 3-frame bursts it was obvious ONE mode (Nikon VR NORMAL) was different than all the others, including when the stabilization systems were off. Simply put, the image jumped all over the place between frames when using Nikon's VR NORMAL, and much more so than even when the VR (or OS systems) were turned off. This was obvious both while looking through the viewfinder and when scrutinizing images after the fact. If one was shooting only single shots this major between-frame bouncing would be irrelevant (it actually wouldn't exist), but when shooting bursts it's a MAJOR issue for me.

Please note that this between-frame "herky-jerkiness" is most obvious when using a Nikon D5. This is because it has the shortest mirror black-out time and its new mirror-driving mechanism is incredibly smooth - so when one is using VR SPORT mode on a lens with a D5 body the image stability is amazing. Even with the D500 (which also has a new mirror-driving mechanism, but it's less effective than that of the D5) the difference in between-frame shifting of the image between the two VR modes of the Nikon 500 is slightly less noticeable.

B. 10 Frame Burst Shot Testing:

This is one of those "Where do I begin?" sections! First off, there was extreme consistency between the 4 repetitions of this test (which helped convince me the trends were real). Consequently, I lumped the test results together before calculating the percentages in each category you'll see below. This part of my testing produced just under 2800 images to compare and scrutinize and I have a huge number of results. For the sake of simplicity I will present and discuss only the 5 areas that I think most shooters would find most relevant.

1. Lowest Shutter Speed Needed To Obtain 50% or More SHARP Shots Per Burst

NIKKOR 500mm f4E VR

• VR OFF: 1/500s
• VR SPORT: 1/125s
• VR NORMAL: 1/125s

Sigma Sport 500mm f4

• OS OFF: 1/500s
• OS1 Standard View: 1/160s
• OS1 Dynamic View: 1/200s
• OS1 Moderate View: 1/125s

2. Lowest Shutter Speed Needed To Obtain a 100% Rate of KEEPERS (SHARP and SLIGHTLY SOFT shots) Per Burst

NIKKOR 500mm f4E VR

• VR OFF: None of the tested shutter speeds - so a shutter speed FASTER than 1/500s
• VR SPORT: 1/125s
• VR NORMAL: 1/100s

Sigma Sport 500mm f4

• OS OFF: 1/500s
• OS1 Standard View: 1/200s
• OS1 Dynamic View: 1/250s
• OS1 Moderate View: 1/125s

3. Lowest Shutter Speed Needed To Obtain a 50% Rate of KEEPERS (SHARP and SLIGHTLY SOFT shots) Per Burst

NIKKOR 500mm f4E VR

• VR OFF: 1/400s
• VR SPORT: 1/60s
• VR NORMAL: 1/40s

Sigma Sport 500mm f4

• OS OFF: 1/400s
• OS1 Standard View: 1/160s
• OS1 Dynamic View: 1/125s
• OS1 Moderate View: 1/60s

4. Stability of Image Through Viewfinder (BEFORE shooting):

Exactly as reported for the testing with 3-frame bursts: Both VR modes on the Nikon 500mm f4E VR stabilizes the image you see through the viewfinder significantly, whereas with the Sigma Sport 500 the ONLY setting that produces highly stable images as seen through the viewfinder is OS1 Dynamic View.

5. Stability of Images BETWEEN Frames within a Burst:

Again, exactly as reported for the testing with 3-frame bursts (but even MORE pronounced): All the OS1 view modes of the stabilization system of the Sigma lens are very smooth between frames within a high-speed burst, and the VR SPORT mode is absolutely silky smooth between frames in a burst (as in "rock solid" in the viewfinder with the D5). In contrast, the VR NORMAL mode exhibits very noticeable between-frame jumping of images in a high speed burst (to call it very "herky-jerky is an understatement).


VII. DISCUSSION AND CONTEXT

Here's some of my own thoughts about what my testing of the optical stabilization system of these two high-end super-telephotos really mean. First, there's simply no doubt the systems work and allow the user to shoot hand-held shots at lower shutter speeds than possible without the stabilization. No matter how I slice and dice the results I really can't find a 4-stop improvement in the shutter speeds I can hand-hold either lens at (as Nikon claims in their marketing literature), but it is important to note that I am only indirectly testing the stabilization systems (my results are all about "hand-held" shutter speeds and those shutter speeds depend on variables beyond JUST the stabilization system) and the metric Nikon uses to come to that 4-stop claim may be valid in the test they use. But it didn't translate into a 4-stop advantage at shutter speeds I could use for hand-holding their 500mm lens.

Second, if you compare completely "stock" versions of the two lenses (before customizing the Sigma lens) you'll likely get slightly better image stabilization performance out of the Nikon lens (compare the shutter speeds above with both VR SPORT and VR NORMAL modes of the Nikon lens to the DEFAULT OS1 mode of the Sigma lens - i.e., to OS1 Standard View). If you purchase the optional USB Dock and use the Sigma Optimization Pro software to customize the OS1 mode of the Sigma lens you can get virtually identical stabilization results with the Sigma lens as you can with the Nikon lens (compare the OS1 Moderate View results above with the VR NORMAL and VR SPORT results). So...those who aren't into the "technical end" of things - and just want to pick up their lenses at the dealer and just want to shoot with them without taking the time to customize and set them up would probably be better off with the Nikkor 500.

Third, if having a stable image when looking through viewfinder is an important part of a stabilization system to you then you should either select the Nikon lens OR be prepared to customize the Sigma lens (in this case to OS1 Dynamic View). The stability of the view through the viewfinder is VERY similar with Sigma's OS1 Dynamic View and Nikon's VR SPORT and VR NORMAL mode.

Fourth, if you want stable images through the viewfinder DURING a high-speed burst then use ANY mode you want to other than the VR NORMAL mode on the Nikkor 500mm lens!

My favourite modes on each of the lenses? On the Nikkor 500 - it's absolutely the VR SPORT mode (and this is the mode my Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR is always set to). On the Sigma Sport 500? It depends. I LIKE the stability in the viewfinder of the OS1 Dynamic View mode, but it doesn't offer quite as much stabilization as the OS1 Moderate View mode. SO...if I'm in situations where I'm hand-holding the lens at shutter speeds no slower than about 1/400s I prefer using the OS1 mode with Dynamic View. BUT...if the light drops and I need to use slower shutter speeds I prefer using OS1 Mode with Moderate View. And, I have set the lens up so that the C1 setting on the customization switch puts me in Dynamic View mode and C2 puts me in Moderate View mode - so it's EZ-PZ (and fast) to shift between the view modes in the field.

My OWN take home lesson when hand-holding these two lenses in the field? I can be quite confident that I will obtain a high rate of sharp shots and a very high rate of keepers if I shoot either lens at 1/250s or faster. At slower shutter speeds my rate of sharp shots and keepers will begin to fall, and it would be prudent to shoot either slightly longer bursts, more bursts, or both!

See...when it come to the optical stabilization of these two lenses they're just the same, only different! ;-)

Next? Yep, it's time to wade into the comparative autofocus performance. Stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#500mm_wars_5


500mm Wars: Sigma vs. Nikon

11 Jan 2017: 500mm Wars 4 - Nikon vs. Sigma: Optical Performance

I. INTRODUCTION

One of the most critical variables influencing any lens purchasing decision is the optical performance of the lens. Optical performance becomes particularly critical when deciding on which super-telephoto prime lens to buy - not only are thousands of dollars at stake, but the whole rationale for considering a super-telephoto lens (over a zoom lens covering the same focal range) is the belief that image quality will be of the highest quality.

In this blog entry I describe the results of head-to-head field-testing of the optical quality of the "new" Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR prime lenses. I compared the lenses over a wide range of apertures when shot native (sans teleconverters), when shot with their respective 1.4x teleconverters, as well as against two other lenses - the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR (with and without the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom @ 500mm. I tested the lenses at 3 different distances - with close subjects (7 meters or about 23'), with mid-distance subjects (30 meters or about 100 feet), and distant scenes (1.95 km or about 1.2 miles to subject). I chose these distances as they represent the sort of distances I work with when shooting small mammals like squirrels or mid-sized birds (the 7 meter distance), larger mammals like bears (the 30 meter distance), and what I often refer to as "animal in landscape" (or animalscape) distances. I may add one more distance (100 meters to subject) to the mix, but - based on the results you'll soon hear about - I don't think there's much point!

Note that I approach sussing out lens optical/image quality a couple of ways. The first is examining the "theoretical maximum quality you could EVER get in the field". For this comparison I capture images using a high degree of control (much higher than I would use for about 99% of my wildlife photography). In this case that "higher degree of control" meant that I captured the images discussed today using:

• A firm tripod (Jobu Algonguin - info HERE),
• a firmly tightened down gimbal tripod head (Jobu Heavy Duty MkIV - info HERE),
• Live View, mirror-up, and electronic front shutter curtain,
• a MC-20 Cable release (to focus and to trigger the shutter),
• and with the VR or OS system OFF for all lenses.

A few other image capture notes: For the short camera-to-subject distances (7 & 10.5 meters) I used both a Nikon D5 and D500. For the 30 meter distance I used only a Nikon D5. For the 1.95 km distance I used both a D5 and D500 AND I also added in images shot with a D800e (primarily to examine edge sharpness on distant scenes). I captured images from wide open (f4 for the 500m lenses) up to f16. I used 1/3 stop increments from wide open to f8, then single stop increments to f11 and f16. At each aperture I captured two images separated by an interval of about 10 seconds (to allow any vibration associated with shutter movement to dissipate) and re-focused between successive frames (and this step WAS necessary...there were instances where one of the two shots for a particular lens/aperture/distance combination slightly missed focus and consequently was slightly sharper).

The second way I look at lens image/optical quality (and overall usefulness of a lens) is how find out how much of the "theoretical" image quality can actually be realized in a field setting (where one is commonly hand-holding lenses, or shooting moving subjects, etc.). This realized image quality is influenced by other lens characteristics, including lens weight, balance, effectiveness of the stabilization (OS or VR) system and, of course, the effectiveness of the autofocus system. To get a better handle on this realized image quality in the coming days and weeks I will be testing the VR/OS effectiveness, the AF system, and spending time "just shooting" the lenses as I would during normal would when working with wildlife.

Note that today's comments on image quality are based primarily on the "theoretical maximum image quality" that is possible to extract with each of the lenses. Comments on what I have been actually "realizing" when "just shooting" will come later.

Finally, please be aware I am comparing only ONE copy of each lens and there can be some variation between copies of the same model of lens (I have always believed that between-sample quality variation is lower on high-end prime lenses than lower-priced consumer or "enthusiast" lenses...but that does NOT mean that there can not be some variation between samples in super-telephoto lenses).

While my primary focus in this testing was to compare the two 500mm lenses, ultimately I was trying to answer 5 questions:

1. How does the image quality of the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 compare to that of the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR over a wide range of aperture settings and at several distances?

2. How does the image quality of the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 compare to that of the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR over a wide range of aperture settings and several distances when each is paired with their 1.4x teleconverter (the TC-1401 and TC-14EIII, respectively)?

3. How does the image quality of both of the 500mm f4 lenses compare to images captured from the same position using the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR lens and then UPSIZED (or UPSAMPLED) in Photoshop to match the subject dimensions of the images shot with the 500mm lenses?

4. How does the image quality of both of the 500mm f4 lenses compare to images captured from the same position using the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR lens PLUS the TC-14EIII (550mm) and then DOWNSIZED (or DOWNSAMPLED) in Photoshop to match the subject dimensions of the images shot with the 500mm lenses?

5. How does the image quality of both 500mm lenses (AND the upsized and downsized 400mm shots) compare to images captured from the same position using the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 zoom lens shot at 500mm?


II. The KEY TWO SENTENCE SUMMARY: Just The Sigma Sport 500mm f4 vs. The Nikkor 500mm f4E VR

I have NEVER tested any two competing lenses that are so absolutely similar in image quality (at all distances, apertures, and with or without teleconverters) than the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR. Image sharpness, quality of the out-of-focus zones, and the progression in increasing sharpness from wide open through to about f5 (where both lenses approach maximum sharpness) is virtually identical between my copies of these two lenses.


III. The FULL EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

I compared image quality of four lenses plus various lens/teleconverter combinations over a wide range of apertures and at 3 different distances to subject: 7 meters, 30 meters, and 1.95 km. Surprisingly, I could find absolutely NO consistent differences in image/optical quality (in either sharpness or the quality of the out-of-focus zones) between the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR. This was true at all apertures and camera-to-subject distances tested and with all cameras tested (D5, D500 and D800e). Both 500mm lenses showed slight image softness (across the entire frame) when shot wide open (@f4), but both increased in sharpness at f4.5, and by f5 both were approaching maximum sharpness. Both lenses showed very good edge sharpness (and again it was virtually identical between the lenses). The optical similarity of these two lenses when shot "native" (without a teleconverter) was absolutely stunning - if I had not carefully keyworded the images (signifying which image was shot with which lens) it would have been impossible for me to determine which image was shot with which lens.

When the most current 1.4x teleconverters (the Sigma TC-1401 and the Nikkor TC-14EIII) were added to the lenses the remarkable optical similarity continued - I could detect no consistent differences in quality (again both in sharpness and the quality of the out-of-focus zones) between the lenses paired up with their TC's. Both lens and TC combinations were quite soft when shot wide open (i.e., at f5.6) but sharpened up somewhat by f6.3 and more by f7.1. Both were maximally sharp by f8 (stopped down a full stop from wide open when teleconverter attached). Personally I would not shoot either of these lenses wide open with their teleconverters attached. Speaking subjectively (and after looking at thousands of images shot with the 500's and with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR with their teleconverters) it is my opinion that both the Sigma and Nikon 500mm lenses experience MORE image degradation when paired with their respective 1.4x TC's than the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR does.

How do images shot with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR and then upsized in Photoshop (using the Preserve Details algorithm) to match the Sigma and Nikkor 500mm images in magnification compare in image quality to the Sigma and Nikon 500mm images? Not well. The upsized 400mm images were softer (when viewed at 100% magnification) than the images captured with either 500mm lens (at any aperture, including f4 on the 500's). Additionally the upsized 400mm shots showed excessive contrast (and thus appeared "harsher" than the 500mm images).

How do images shot with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR plus TC-14EIII (550mm) and then downsized in Photoshop (using the Bicubic algorithm) to match the Sigma and Nikkor 500mm images in magnification compare in image quality to the Sigma and Nikon 500mm images? Quite well. At all distances images shot with the 400mm plus TC-14EIII (and then downsampled) were very comparable in sharpness AND in the quality of the out-of-focus zones to images captured with both 500mm lenses at apertures of f4 through f5. However, by f5.6 (and thereafter) the images captured using both 500mm lenses were slightly but noticeably sharper than images than the downsampled 400mm plus TC images.

How do images shot with the Sigma Sport 150-600mm (@500mm) compare in quality to the Sigma and Nikkor 500mm images and to the "digitally altered" 400mm f2.8E VR images? Pretty well for a zoom, but it ain't no prime! In other words, at ALL overlapping apertures the 500mm lenses were invariably sharper and with very easily seen "smoother and more buttery" out-of-focus zones (this was true at all distances and all apertures) than the Sigma Sport 150-600mm (@500mm). The Sigma Sport 150-600mm (@500mm) images WERE noticeably sharper than images shot with the 400mm f2.8E VR images that were upsized in Photoshop. However, images shot with the 400mm f2.8E VR combined with the TC-14EIII (550mm) and then down-sized to the magnification of a 500mm lens were sharper than any of the Sigma Sport 150-600mm shots at all apertures (though admittedly at f8 the images were quite comparable).


IV. MORE DETAILS:

Boring Alert! This section may bore some readers to tears, so feel free to ignore it. There are a number of small gems contained within, but the primary conclusions have already been mentioned in the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY. If you're detailed oriented...well...read on!

A. Testing at 7 Meters (D5) and 10.5 Meters (D500)

I chose these distances because they represents the working distance I (and presumably many other nature photographers) use with small mammals such as squirrels and chipmunks and medium-to-large songbirds, such as American Robins, various jay species, et cetera. The target I chose was a stump located in my yard that has good wood-grain detail on it (making it easy to see differences in sharpness) as well as having exhibiting a mix of slightly out-of-focus (or OOF), more OOF, and completely OOF zones (thus providing an opportunity to assess the quality of the OOF zones for each lens at each aperture). Here's a full-frame shot of the subject (with resolution reduced to 2400 pixels in Photoshop CC 2017):

The Subject Stump (with D5 & Sigma Sport 500mm lens @ f8): Download 2400-pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

Please note that in this portion of the test it was impossible to assess edge sharpness (edges on this test subject are far in the distance and thus completely OOF). I'm not bothered by this because when I am working at close distances to my subject I am thinking MORE in terms of the centre sharpness with the background (commonly on the edges) soft. Think "portraiture".

At this distance I tested the Sigma Sport 500mm against 3 other lenses - the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR, the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR, and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom (@500mm). The prime lenses were tested using both Nikon D5 and D500 and both when the prime lenses were shot native and with their respective teleconverters in place. Images were captured at 1/3 stop increments from wide open (f4 for the two 500's, f2.8 for the 400mm prime, and f6.3 for the Sigma Sport zoom) through to f8, and then at 1-stop increments through to f11. Images were captured in a highly controlled fashion (more controlled than during most wildlife shooting sessions) as described in the Introduction section (above)...using Live View, mirror-up, firm tripod, electronic front shutter curtains, et cetera. Note that for each aperture for each lens/camera combination I captured TWO images separated by about 10 seconds (and re-focused the camera between shots). This last step was taken because regardless of how careful one is, at times focus can be "missed" be enough to influence the results (and during my image assessment phase I compared the two images shot at each aperture and selected the sharper of the two...though in most - but not all - cases they were equally sharp).

Note that the test images using the D5 were captured at 7 meters to the subject and those using the D500 were captured at 10.5 meters to the subject (which is 1.5x times larger - the same as the crop factor of the D500).

I assessed image quality via examining previews of the shots using both Lightroom CC and Capture One Pro 10. Images were viewed at 100% magnification (1:1) on a 30" Apple Cinema Display with a native resolution of 100 pixels per inch (ppi). I chose this monitor for all image comparisons because small differences in sharpness are often "masked" when images are viewed at 100% on some newer high resolution displays (e.g., almost ANY image looks sharp on my 218 ppi iMac 5K Retina Display). In simple terms, I was pixel-peeping!

RESULTS AND OBSERVATIONS (@ 7m)

As expected, the D5 and D500 camera bodies produced virtually identical results and trends. For simplicity's sake I am reporting and discussing only the results of the D5 and various lenses shot at 7 meters.

1. Sigma Sport 500mm f4 (native): This lens exhibited the "typical" high-end super-telephoto trend of being slightly less sharp when shot wide open (f4), but sharper as you stop down just a little. In this case at f4.5 the images were slightly (but noticeably) sharper and then slightly sharper again at f5. However, stopping down further produced almost no noticeable increase in sharpness. Interestingly, even on the images shot with the full-frame D5 in diffraction at small apertures (including f16) wasn't much of an issue - the f16 shots were slightly softer than the f11 (or f8) shots, but quite close to the f5.6 images in sharpness. Similarly, there seemed to be virtually no observable chromatic aberration issues (and there were white edges against darker backgrounds...where any color-fringing most commonly shows). OOF zones were smooth and "buttery" looking...and of the high quality you'd expect of a high-end super-telephoto.

2. Sigma Sport 500mm f4 plus Sigma TC-1401 (1.4x) Teleconverter (700mm focal length): Again, the same "stop down 2/3 of a stop to get sharpest results" trend was obvious, but in this case that meant 2/3 of a stop from f5.6 - which means you want to shoot this lens plus teleconverter at f7.1 or smaller apertures to get sharpest results. And, at all apertures there was a very slight softening of the image with the teleconverter on. So, if you stack up the slight image softness when shot at the largest apertures AND the slight image softness associated with the presence of the teleconverter itself, I am left feeling that I would only rarely shoot the Sigma 500mm f4 with the TC-1401 teleconverter at apertures larger than f7.1.

3. Nikkor 500mm f4E (native): IDENTICAL comments to that of the Sigma Sport 500mm shot native (re-read if necessary).

4. Nikkor 500mm f4E plus Nikon TC-14EIII (1.4x) Teleconverter (700mm focal length): Again, IDENTICAL comments to that of the Sigma Sport 500mm shot native (re-read if necessary).

5. Sigma Sport 500mm f4 VERSUS the Nikon 500mm f4E VR: These two lenses could easily exhibit the exact same trends in optical performance (shot native or with teleconverters) but still differ in absolute sharpness. But if they DO, I was unable to find ANY differences in sharpness (at any aperture) OR in the quality of the OOF zones. To be clear, the lenses performed virtually identically (optically) under the controlled conditions the images were captured under. Optically my two copies of the lenses (at this distance) were like clones.

6. NO Sigma-Nikon Differences at ALL? Well...I found one small one. When I captured these shots the sky was overcast, and very early on I noticed that the images shot with the Nikkor 500 were always slightly cooler than those shot with the Sigma 500 (and please note that I was using Auto WB on the D5 and D500). During subsequent formal and informal shooting sessions I observed the same trend. Note that these WB differences (Nikkor cooler; Sigma warmer) were very small and were not apparent when I shot the lenses in full sunlight (and, of course, if one is a raw shooter this capture difference in WB can easily be "adjusted away" during raw processing). I am not sure of the source of the WB difference, but my best guess is that it reflects different coatings of the lens elements used by Nikon and Sigma. The degree of difference can be seen in the sample image below.

What about focus breathing (where some lenses shorten in focal length when focused at close distances) - was there any Nikon-Sigma difference? Nothing significant (my images showed under a 1% difference in the number of pixels dedicated to the subject width, which could easily be explained by minute differences in positions of the lenses on the gimbal head). Please note that I am NOT saying these two 500's exhibit no focus breathing - simply that if you compare the size of the subject within the frame of an image captured at 7 meters there is no obvious DIFFERENCE in the focus breathing of the two lenses (they BOTH could be breathing, it just so happens that it's by the same amount).

7. Sample Images? Stump images are real boring, but here's a (shot at f6.3) that shows the LARGEST difference I could find in image quality. Best to view the image at 100% magnification on a standard resolution (i.e., non-Retina or non-HD) display to search for differences in sharpness):

Sigma Sport 500mm vs. Nikkor 500mm f4E VR @ 7 Meters: Download Comparison Image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)

8. The TWO 500's vs. the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR? I've often wondered if there is really any net benefit of owning BOTH a 400mm f2.8E VR and a quality 500mm f4 lens, especially given how well the Nikon 400 pairs up with the TC-14EIII (550mm focal length) and the TC-20EIII (800mm focal length). So I decided to take the opportunity during this test to also collect sample images shot with the 400mm f2.8E VR and with the 400mm f2.8E VR PLUS the TC-14EIII teleconverter (500mm focal length) and then digitally resize BOTH sets of images to match a 500mm focal length. In the case of the images shot at 400mm I processed the raw images as normal (using Capture One Pro) and then upsized the images in Photoshop CC 2017 using the "Preserve Details" image sizing algorithm to match the subject dimensions (in pixels) of the images captured with the 500mm lenses. With the images shot at 550mm (i.e., with the TC-14EIII teleconverter) I processed the raw images as normal and then downsized the images in Photoshop CC 2017 using the simple "Bicubic" (not Bicubic Sharper, not Bicubic Smoother) algorithm to match the subject dimensions (in pixels) of the images captured with the 500mm lenses.

What did I find? First, that the images shot at 400mm and then UPSIZED (UPSAMPLED) in Photoshop didn't fully match the sharpness of the images of the Sigma 500 or the Nikon 500. And, they had increased (and, in my view, excessive) contrast. This was true at all overlapping apertures, with the images that were most comparable in overall quality (especially sharpness) being the ones where the 500mm lenses were at their weakest, i.e., shot wide open at f4. So...at this point in time a great 400mm lens and image upsizing doesn't quite give you 500mm lens quality (at least at close distances).

Second, that the images shot with the 400mm f2.8 lens PLUS the 1.4x TC and then downsized in Photoshop stacked up quite well against the images shot with both 500mm lenses. In fact, if you looked ONLY at image sharpness, the images shot at f4 with the 400 plus TC (then downsized) were slightly better than those shot with both the Nikkor and Sigma 500's. However, by f5 and beyond the images shot with the 500's were sharper than the 400 plus TC (downsized). And, at ALL apertures the OOF zones of both 500mm lenses were smoother (and, at least for me, more pleasing) than the OOF zones of the 400mm plus TC (I have noted this before in my teleconverter reviews, i.e., that sometimes the greatest image degradation with a TC isn't in the image sharpness, but rather the negative impact on the OOF zones...with OOF zones of images shot with TC's being more "jagged" and "nervous" than the OOF zones of primes shot native).

9. How Did The Sigma Sport 150-600 (@ 500mm) Stack Up? Not too bad, although at a subject-to-camera distance of 7 meters the Sigma Sport 150-600mm exhibited enough focus-breathing that it made an absolute sharpness comparison challenging (at 7 meters the width of the subject stump had 7% fewer pixels, making it more akin to a 470mm lens). That being said, it was still obvious that the images shot with the two 500's were considerably sharper up to and including f7.1. At f8 and beyond the images shot with the Sigma Sport 150-600 were quite close in sharpness to those shot with the two 500's. However (and possibly owing at least partially to the focus-breathing issue of the 150-600), the OOF zones of ALL the Sigma Sport 150-600 were very noticeably less smooth than those shot with either of the two 500's (and at this distance this difference in the bokeh was easily noticeable at all apertures).

B. Testing at 30 Meters.

I chose this distance as my "next" testing distance as it is quite representative of the distance I often work at with larger subjects, including many species of mammals (bears, wolves) and larger birds (such as owls and eagles), and often even including birds-in-flight. For me (and I suspect many wildlife photographers) the optical performance in the 20-50 meter range is extremely important. The target I chose at this distance WAS a Bald Eagle, albeit a life-sized one carved out of wood! As with the 7 meter distance, I chose an angle that included background objects at several different distances, which facilitated comparing the quality of partial and fully OOF zones.

Here are full-frame shots of the subject (with resolution reduced to 2400 pixels in Photoshop CC 2017) captured taken with the Sigma Sport 500 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR (both images shot at f7.1; ISO 400; 1/320s). It is acknowledged this is a butt-ugly scene with uninspiring light...but it was useful for testing purposes! ;-)

Sigma Sport 500mm @ 30 meters (f7.1 on D5): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.25 MB)
Nikkor 500mm f4E VR @ 30 meters (f7.1 on D5): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.25 MB)

As per the 7 meter test my concern at this distance was sharpness of the subject, not edge-to-edge sharpness (and again this scene did not lend itself to assessment of edge sharpness).

Image capture protocol as per at 7 meter distance (Live View, etc.). Image assessment and processing as per 7 meter distance.

Note that at this distance I tested the lenses ONLY on the Nikon D5 (and I have no reason to believe the results and/or trends would be any different on different Nikon bodies).

RESULTS AND OBSERVATIONS (@ 30m)

1. Same Old, Same Old! The overall trends observed at 7 meters were repeated at 30 meters. Essentially there was optical parity between the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR (both extremely sharp with very similar bokeh, and with the same trend with the softest images being at f4, but both lenses approaching maximum sharpness by f5). And, the images from both 500's were superior in sharpness than those captured with the 400mm f2.8E VR and then upsized to the same magnification as those shot with the 500's.

2. Any Change in Results at ALL? There were a few small differences in the results at 7 meters vs. 30 meters. First, while the images shot with the 400mm f2.8E VR PLUS the TC-14EIII (and then downsized to match the magnification of the 500mm lenses) were STILL better than the images shot with the 400mm f2.8E and then digitally upsized (to 500mm), there was a bigger quality gap between the images captured with both 500mm lenses and the downsampled 400mm f2.8E VR plus TC-14EIII images. In short, the images captured with both 500mm lenses were sharper at all apertures than those shot with the 400mm f2.8E VR plus the TC-14EIII and then downsampled to 500mm - including at f4.

Second, the Sigma Sport 150-600mm (shot @ 500mm) fared less well at this distance - the difference in sharpness between both 500mm lenses and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm (@500mm) was much more noticeable.

Focus breathing at 30 meters (with any of the lenses)? Pretty much a non-issue at this distance. The subject height (in pixels) when I compared the two 500's was virtually identical. And, the higher degree of focus breathing on the Sigma Sport 150-600mm disappeared. In fact (and quite surprisingly to me), the subject size (in pixels) on the Sigma Sport 150-600mm was slightly larger than with both 500's (not a lot...only about 1.5% larger). At this distance the Sigma Sport 150-600 (set and "clicked into place" @ 500mm) seemed to slightly lengthen! I found this result so surprising that I questioned its accuracy - so I reconstructed the setup again and took a few shots with each 500 and the Sigma Sport 150-600 (@ 500mm) and got the same result again. Compared to the two 500's the Sigma Sport 150-600mm lengthened slightly at 30 meters. Go figure!

C. Testing with Distant Scenes (1.95 km)

I then jumped up to shooting distant scenes - in this case a rocky ridge 1.95 km west of my home. I often shoot "animalscapes" where the subject animal is a small part of the overall scene, and these are often with quite distant subjects (often in the 500 meters to 2 km range). Because at THIS type of distance I am normally concerned with showing an animal in a complete scene, I normally want the entire scene quite sharp, including the edges. Consequently I chose to shoot this scene with each of the cameras I might select - the D5, D500 and the D800e (the latter of which is quite demanding and tends to show any lens flaws).

Here are full-frame shots of the subject (with resolution reduced to 2400 pixels in Photoshop CC 2017) captured taken with the Sigma Sport 500 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR (both images shot at f5.6; ISO 100; 1/640s).

Sigma Sport 500mm @ 1.95 kilometers (f5.6 on D5): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)
Nikkor 500mm f4E VR @ 1.95 kilometers (f5.6 on D5): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)

Image capture protocol as per at 7 meter distance (Live View, etc.). Image assessment and processing as per 7 meter distance.

RESULTS AND OBSERVATIONS (@ 1.95 km)

1. Groundhog Day - All Over Again! The overall trends observed at 7 meters and at 30 meters were repeated with the subject at 1.95 km. That means almost stunning optical parity between the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR (both extremely sharp, and with the same trend with the softest images being at f4, but both lenses approaching maximum sharpness by f5). And, the images from both 500's were superior in sharpness than those captured with the 400mm f2.8E VR and then upsized to the same magnification as those shot with the 500's. And, the images shot with the 400mm f2.8E VR plus the TC-14EIII (550mm) and then DOWNSAMPLED in Photoshop were still strong - not quite as sharp as the images captured with either 500mm, but darn close.

2. Any Change in Results at ALL? Only one worth mentioning. At this subject distance the Sigma Sport 150-600mm "bounced back" some - while the Sigma Sport 150-600mm shots (@ 500mm) were soft at f6.3 and f7.1, by f8 (and beyond) they were almost as sharp as the images shot with the two 500mm lenses. Based on my experience with many other "super telephoto" zooms over the years (many of which tend to "falter" at very long camera-to-subject distances) this is a strong result.

Any obvious focus breathing on the lenses at this distance? Nope...not an issue.

3. Edge Sharpness Differences? Here I visually evaluated the edge sharpness on images shot with BOTH 500's and the D5, D500, and D800e. It's my experience that if ANY of these three cameras are going to reveal differences in the optical quality of the Nikon 500mm and the Sigma 500mm it will be the D800e. And that camera showed the same thing as both the D5 and D500 did, i.e., that both 500mm primes showed excellent edge-to-edge sharpness. Note that while some other super-telephoto primes (such as the 400mm f2.8E VR which is incredibly sharp across the frame with distant subjects) show good edge-to-edge sharpness, not all do. For instance, my copy of the Nikkor 600mm f4G prime lens was fabulous at short and medium distances, but had very soft edges if you pointed it at distant subjects.


V. CONTEXT...AND A FEW FINAL COMMENTS

For me there is one almost remarkable result coming through (repeatedly) in these field tests on optical performance: That when shot under conditions where you can extract close to the maximum optical performance of each of these two lenses, the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 and the Nikkor 500mm f4E VR are almost "optical clones" of one another. I have never field-tested two competing lenses that were so similar optically.

From my perspective the next HUGE question is this: "How much of this optical performance can you expect to fully realize when shooting the lenses under less controlled conditions, i.e., when shooting them more like you would when shooting wildlife?" It's my view that both autofocus performance and optical stabilization performance and "hand-holdability" play a huge role in how much of the "theoretical" optical performance you can actually realize in a real field setting. To get at this realized performance I'm going to do three things: test the AF systems, test the optical stabilizations systems, and JUST SHOOT with both of them in the field. Of course, I've already started the "Just shooting" phase of the exercise...and so far both lenses are looking pretty darn good...check out this action shot captured with the Sigma Sport 500 f4:

The Joy of Running (Sigma Sport 500mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 0.8 MB)

More soon!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#500mm_wars_4



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