Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

 

Brad Hill: Blog: Photography. Nature. Gear. 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 2021 blog listings (immediately below). And, further down this page you'll also find some key (and very popular) gear-related blog entries from 2020 (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. 2021 Blog Entries...

08 October '21: Coming Soon: TWO Online Wildlife Photography Presentations (by yours truly!)

Here's two FREE online events that I'm giving soon - and that no wildlife photographer should miss!

1. Six Easy Steps to Capturing Great Wildlife Images

Brief Description: Today's mirrorless and DSLR cameras are technological marvels that give us the ability to capture better wildlife images than ever before. But the cameras still don't do it by all by themselves! In this presentation we'll freely move between the technical and creative concerns of wildlife image capture while presenting you with six easy-to-remember steps that will help you elevate your own wildlife captures to another level!

Bare Bones Details:

WHEN? Thu, November 4, 2021 @ 7-8:30 PM MDT
WHERE: YOUR home!
COST: $0.00 (free!)
SPONSORED AND ENABLED BY: Nikon Canada and The Camera Store
HOW TO REGISTER AND MORE INFO: Two options: Either here on Eventbrite OR here on The Camera Store website

2. Getting the MOST Out of Your Raw Wildlife Images!

Brief Description: Creating outstanding wildlife images begins with capturing great raw format images, but it ends with effectively using the best processing tools possible to tease out every bit of detail and quality in those raw images. In this presentation, we'll provide an overview of some of the most important considerations in processing raw wildlife images using Capture One, including why it is used by many top professional wildlife photographers from around the globe.

Bare Bones Details:

WHEN? Thu, November 18, 2021 @ 7-8:30 PM MST
WHERE: YOUR home!
COST: $0.00 (free!)
SPONSORED AND ENABLED BY: Capture One and The Camera Store
HOW TO REGISTER AND MORE INFO: Two options: Either here on Eventbrite OR here on The Camera Store website

Each of the presentations will conclude with a Q&A session that will be sure to enlighten and entertain! ;-)

My thanks are extended to Nikon Canada, Capture One, and The Camera Store for supplying the financial and logistic resources needed to make these events possible!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

08 Oct '21: Off to the Queen Charlotte Strait!

I leave at the crack of dawn on Monday, October 11 to lead our FIRST PHOTO TOUR SINCE 2019! This particular photo tour takes place in the Queen Charlotte Strait, which is located between the northern end of Vancouver Island and the BC mainland. This photo tour features a wide array of marine mammals (Killer, Humpback, Gray, and Minke Whales, Sea Otters, Steller Sea Lions, and lots more) plus a wide array of migratory birds.

Following the photo tour (which ends on October 19) I'll be doing a quick side trip to check out a lodge in Bamfield (on Vancouver Island's west coast) as a new venue for future workshops and photo tours. Then, I'll be headed over to Gibson's BC to have my first look at the Afterglow, which is the NEW boat of Ocean Light II Adventures that we'll be using for all sorts of photo tours in the years to come (like our Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen and Into the Great Bear Rainforest photo tours). For those that don't know, the sailboat we used for these photo tours in the past tragically burned in a fire last November.

I'll be back home on or around October 25th. And I should have a ton of new images - and insights into the performance of a whole lot of new* Nikon gear - to share with all.

Cheers...

Brad

* In this case "new Nikon gear" refers to a range of gear I have acquired during the pandemic but that has not yet been exposed to the rigors of a boat-based coastal photo tour. In this case it includes the D6, Z 6II and Z 7II bodies, and the F-mount 120-300mm f2.8E lens plus several Z-mount lenses (e.g., the 70-200mm f2.8S, the 50mm f1.2S, etc.). And...NO, I will not be testing a Z 9 during this photo tour! ;-)

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

27 Sept 2021: The Coming Z 9 Announcement: A D5/D500 Surprise Reprise?

My motivation in writing this blog entry comes from two sources: the relatively large number of emails I've received lately all posing the same question, and Canon's recent official announcement of their new mirrorless sports/action flagship camera - the R3.

I'll start with the emails. A question I have been seeing with some regularity lately is if I think Nikon is about to deliver a surprise similar to when they introduced the D5/D500 "combination" of cameras. To those who may not remember what happened with that "surprise" here's a super-brief explanation: Way back in late 2015 and early 2016 EVERYONE in the camera industry knew Nikon was about to announce their new flagship DSLR - the D5. Come January 5 of 2016 Nikon DID announce the D5. But, at the exact same time they announced a camera NO ONE was expecting - the long-awaited replacement for the venerable D300 (the D500). The two cameras shared identical sensor resolutions, with the D500's DX sensor in a "semi-pro" body and the D5's FX sensor in a full-fledged pro flagship body. The two cameras complemented one another extremely well on paper (SO many wildlife photographers purchased one of each) and they both sold very well.

Fast forward to today and we have Nikon poised to announce their first flagship level mirrorless body - the Z 9. And, based on emails I have been receiving lately, there are a lot of people who are hoping Nikon dishes out another surprise in introducing two new high-end mirrorless bodies at once (with the second body being a total surprise). Now, although most people who have emailed me about this (asking if I thought it was likely) haven't really specified what they thought the second "surprise" mirrorless body would be, I am assuming they mean a DX-format mirrorless semi-pro mirrorless body but presumably with less resolution than most are expecting the Z 9 to have (which is 45 MP). So a DX-format semi-pro mirrorless body with a resolution of about 24 MP. To keep with the D5/D500 comparison alive, I'll arbitrarily call this theoretical "surprise" body the Z 900 (I know it's highly unlikely it would be called this).

SO...do I think we are about to be treated with a Z 9/Z 900 surprise announcement? Short answer: I don't know. Longer answer: Given the current trends in the high-end camera industry (declining market) and supply-chain issues associated with COVID-19, Nikon has been functionally consolidating their offerings. So I really, really doubt we're going to see a Z 900 announced when the Z 9 is finally officially announced. And, to be honest, I personally wouldn't be too interested in one. Why? Read on...

Before I go any further it's important to point out that the entire thesis that follows is based on the assumption of the Z 9 having a resolution of 45 MP. At this point this is nothing but speculation. There's a LOT of people making that same speculation...but it's still speculation. All Nikon has directly told the world about the Z 9 is that it will have a "high resolution stacked CMOS sensor." And, of course, "high resolution" means different things to different people. I do think it is likely that all the speculation about the Z 9's sensor being a 45 MP one is true...so the rest of this blog entry will go with that assumption.

OK...back to why I wouldn't be too interested in a DX-format Z 900. Back in August of 2020 I offered up "My Z 9 Wishlist" on this blog (read it here). The Z 9 I dreamed for had a 24-30 MP sensor and, to be honest, specs that largely matched that of the recently announced Canon R3! No, I didn't wish for eye-detect AF control (largely because I simply didn't think of it), but the more I look at the Canon R3 the more impressed I am (including the eye-detect AF!). I'll even go so far as to say that at this point in time (and given currently available technology) that R3 is close to what I would consider the absolutely ideal sports and wildlife camera. Heck, if it had the Nikon Z-mount, two XQD/CFexpress card slots, and Nikon's ergonomics it WOULD be the ideal sports and wildlife camera! ;-)

Over the years - and especially since shooting extensively with the Z 6II and the Z 7II - I have become increasingly enamored by Nikon's FX sensors. I have owned and shot with a D500 (and several other DX bodies), but for a variety of reasons that aren't worth getting into here, I am not really interested in owning any more DX bodies. As a related side note, one of the things I sunk my teeth into during the pandemic was a massive clean-up and culling of my wildlife image catalog. While doing the clean-up project I scrutinized several hundred thousand images (and chucked out close to 100k images) and paid particular note of the lenses and camera bodies that worked well for me (damn I wish I hadn't sold that 200mm f2 VR!). And let's just say that during my culling/clean-up project my love for FX image sensors dramatically increased and my appreciation for DX sensors declined! And so even if we get a wonderfully spec'd DX-format Z 900 at the same time we get the Z 9, I won't be going for it.

In my perfect world, if Nikon IS about to treat us with a "surprise" camera when they announce the Z 9, I'd LOVE IT if Nikon gave us a 24 MP "medium resolution" FX-format mirrorless flagship body (the Z 9M) to go with the "high resolution" FX-format 45 MP Z 9 (or Z 9H). I would very likely opt to buy the medium resolution Z 9M first, largely owing to my own need/preference for a body with superior high ISO performance. Is the market large enough for Nikon to justify the production of TWO high-end flagship bodies? I don't know, but by calling their new flagship the R3 (and NOT the R1) it appears likely Canon thinks there's room for two flagship bodies in the market (with an R1 likely to be announced in 2022).

For the record, I won't be counting on my "perfect world" scenario becoming reality. I'm planning on Nikon announcing ONLY the 45 MP Z 9 and I'm designing my wildlife kit around that probable reality. But I will be jumping for joy if all the speculation about the Z 9 is wrong and we find out it is coming with a 24-30 MP sensor! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#anchor_z9_z900

1 Sept '21: Transitioning to Mirrorless - The Nikkor 400mm f2.8S

WARNING: This post contains speculation and opinions. They are my completely my own and are based solely on publicly-available information and my own long history of shooting with and watching the development of Nikon products. Nothing in this blog post relies on "inside" information. And I could be totally wrong and out to lunch! ;-)

This blog post is primarily about my experiences - and some thoughts - regarding my own attempt to find and navigate the most efficient pathway from a Nikon DSLR wildlife kit to a Nikon mirrorless wildlife kit. This particular entry focuses on the issues I'm thinking about as I transition from current array of F-MOUNT LENSES to Z-MOUNT LENSES for wildlife photography. Of course, at this point - and aside from the excellent 70-200mm f2.8S used with or without Z-mount teleconverters - we have NO super-telephoto prime or zoom Z-mount lenses to agonize over! In the short term this isn't really a problem - adapted F-mount lenses work just fine with both the Z 6II and the Z 7II. In fact, it's my experience that in at least some respects (e.g., when combined with teleconverters) F-mount super-telephotos work BETTER on the Z-bodies than on any Nikon DSLR.

But, of course, we don't want to be using adapted F-mount lenses forever. And, it seems likely that Nikon isn't far away from announcing their first "flagship" mirrorless body - the Z 9. It seems almost a foregone conclusion that Nikon will want to announce at least ONE professional level "companion" super-telephoto lens when they announce the Z 9. Nikonrumors.com is convinced that the lens to be announced with the Z 9 is going to be the Nikkor 400mm f2.8S (see this post on nikonrumors.com) and I see no reason whatsoever to disagree with them. Other Z-mount lenses on the official roadmap from Nikon that would be of interest to wildlife shooters (and obviously some sports shooters) include both the 100-400mm and the 200-600mm S-Line zoom lenses and the 600mm S-line prime lens. Note that Nikon has NOT disclosed the maximum aperture of ANY of these lenses, but most are assuming that the 100-400mm lens will be a variable aperture zoom (likely a f4.5 to 5.6). In my opinion the other zoom lens (the 200-600) could be a fixed f5.6 (like the current 200-500mm f5.6E). And I'm not fully convinced the 600mm will be an f4 lens (more on this below).

OK...I said this blog entry was about MY transition path to mirrorless, so it's important to reveal exactly what F-mount lenses I'm transitioning from. Currently I am shooting wildlife with 3 professional-level F-mount lenses:

• Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E
• Nikkor 180-400mm f4E
• Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF

All three of these lenses work superbly when shot on the Z 6II and Z 7II (via the Mount Adapter FTZ). Note also that I have owned and shot extensively with a LOT of other Nikon super-telephoto primes and zooms, including the 300mm f2.8G, the 200-400mm f4G, the 400mm f2.8 (both the G and E versions), the 500mm f4E, and the 600mm f4 (both the G and E versions). So I have a pretty good feel for what each of these lenses offers to a wildlife photographer.

Completing my current kit description...I currently shoot with 3 Nikon bodies: a Z 6II, a Z 7II, and a D6. I will be adding a Z 9 to my kit as soon as it is available to me.

SO...what wildlife lenses on the current roadmap am I currently considering moving to (and what lenses will I "give up" to acquire them)? Let's look at each in turn...(and note that the order does not necessarily correlate with the order Nikon will release them).

1. Z-Mount Nikkor 400mm f2.8S:

According to Nikon Rumors this lens will have a built-in 1.4x TC (just like the 180-400mm f4E), meaning that you will have two lenses in one - a 400mm f2.8 and a 560mm f4. For ME (and if Nikon Rumors is right) this addition of a built-in TC makes ALL the difference in the world. Between my experience with the six Z-mount lenses I own (i.e., great sharpness from center-to-edge, even when shot wide open), how well TC's perform on Z-bodies, and how great the F-mount 400mm f2.8's were, the coming 400mm f2.8S looks like it will be nothing short of a dream lens (for wildlife OR sports shooters). Just the other day I was cursing Nikon for producing a lens I wouldn't be able to say "no" to! The ONLY wildcard on this lens will be its weight. The trend in super-telephotos of all the leading brands has been to go lighter and lighter (the latest Canon 400mm f2.8 is almost feather light!)...and I have no doubt Nikon will attempt to make this lens as light as possible. But the integrated TC WILL add some weight. My hope is that the lens comes in at 2800 gm (just under 7 lb) or less.

So...to be clear...I WILL be ordering this lens as soon as possible. Of course, I will be testing it head-to-head against the 180-400mm f4E (and possibly the F-mount 400mm f2.8E if I can lay my hands on one). And when I find the 400mm f2.8S outperforms the incredibly strong 180-400 at both 400mm and 560mm I will very likely sell the 180-400mm (sorry, despite how good the 180-400 is, I will be shocked if the Z-mount 400mm f2.8S isn't noticeably better). Note that I feel I can do this largely because I also own the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E, which happens to work exceptionally well with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) TC. So owning that 120-300 means that even in giving up the 180-400mm I actually lose little of the focal length flexibility that it offers. Note also that the apparent fact (strong speculation?) that the Z 9 is going to be a high-resolution camera (most are thinking it will be 45.7 MP just like the Z 7's) and will very likely trail the D6 and even Z 6II in ISO performance means that the extra stop of the 400mm f2.8S at both 400mm and 560mm will be important to me.

2. Z-Mount Nikkor 100-400mm:

Like many, I am guessing this will be a variable-aperture zoom (likely f4.5 - 5.6) that will be well-priced and a "staple" lens for a lot of wildlife shooters. But it won't be for me. Why? As a frequent low-light shooter the lens just won't be fast enough for my needs. And, after owning a zillion variable-aperture zooms, I am quite sure the critical sharpness:bokeh ratio of the lens won't meet my standards. Please note that I am NOT saying the lens won't be sharp - I'm sure it will be. But to me lens sharpness must be matched with "dreamy" bokeh...and to date I haven't found a variable aperture zoom that has the "right" sharpness:bokeh ratio. So I'll be passing on this lens.

3. Z-Mount Nikkor 200-600mm:

For now I'm going to sit on the fence with this lens. IF it's a lower-priced (value-oriented) variable aperture zoom I will pass on it. However, if it's a fixed aperture (presumably f5.6) zoom lens with a more professional build quality (including environmental sealing) than the current 200-500mm f5.6E I may consider getting this lens. Other factors that will impact on my decision will include whether or not it's a telescoping zoom (i.e., longer when zoomed to 600mm), weight, and (of course) price.

4. Z-Mount Nikkor 600mm:

Most photographers I talk to seem convinced this will be a "standard" 600mm f4 lens. The evidence they quote is the silhouette of this lens as seen in the lens road map ("Just look at how big that sucker it is"). They may be right. But, I see two other possibilities. First is that it might be a 600mm f4 with a built-in 1.4x TC. Second is that it MIGHT be a 600mm f5.6S PF. To be clear, I have NO clue which of these three possibilities is likely to prove to be true. But I do know which one appeals most to me! Given I will own the 400mm f2.8S (with that built-in TC turning it into a 560mm f4...right?) I have zero interest in a standard 600mm f4. And, to be honest, with my past experience with 600mm f4's when used with TC's (I simply didn't use the 600mm plus 1.4x combo much) I have little interest in the 600mm with built-in TC. BUT...a 600mm f5.6S PF that is light, easy to transport and super easy to hand-hold...now THAT appeals to me. And, most importantly, I'd use it differently than I'd use the 400mm f2.8S (if I have to hike 10 km to a shooting location guess which of the two I'd have in my pack!). So, if the 600mm is a PF I'll go for it. If it isn't, I'll pass.

So...to conclude...here's my current thinking of how my wildlife kit will look by spring of 2022. And will stay that way for...maybe 18 months beyond that? ;-)

Camera bodies: Nikon Z 6II, Nikon Z 7II, Nikon Z 9, Nikon D6

Camera Lenses (only primary wildlife lenses are listed):

• Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E (F-mount)
• Nikkor 400mm f2.8S (Z-mount)
• Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF (F-mount)
• Nikkor 600mm f5.6E PF (Z-mount, if this lens exists!)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#anchor_Mirrorless_400mmf2.8

25 August '21: Late Cancellation Opens One Spot on October Photo Tour

SEPT 16 UPDATE: The available spot on this trip that is described below is now gone. However, given the current challenging (and changing) logistics associated with international travel, there is a definite possibility that a spot or two could open up again on this trip. Contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca if you would like to be placed on a waiting list for this trip.

A late cancellation has opened up a single spot on my mid-October "Autumn in the Queen Charlotte Strait" Exploratory Photo Adventure. This photo tour takes place in the region of northern Vancouver Island and features a wide array of marine mammals and both resident seabirds and migratory birds of all shapes and sizes!

Here's an overview of the trip:

This Photo Op Photo Tour offers you 7 days of fabulous marine mammal and migratory bird viewing and photography in the Queen Charlotte Strait region of northern Vancouver Island aboard the Passing Cloud - a classic and very comfortable 70' schooner. We will be assisted by a professional marine ecology guide during our time cruising the picturesque waters between the northern tip of Vancouver Island and the BC mainland coast. The route of this trip overlaps that of our August Marine Mammals trip but we intend to do more exploring of the many islands and islets of the mainland coast. We anticipate superb opportunities to photograph Humpback Whales, Killer Whales (or Orcas), Gray Whales, Steller Sea Lions, Pacific White-sided Dolphins, Sea Otters, Harbor Seals, and more. Our autumn dates ensure we'll have more migratory birds traveling through the region (and a reduction in marine traffic in the area).

Bare bones details? Here you go:

PHOTO TOUR TYPE: Exploratory Photo Adventure

PHOTO TOUR LEADER: Brad Hill

DURATION: 7 NIGHTS/8 DAYS (including arrival and departure days) with 6 nights/7 days aboard the Passing Cloud sailboat (a 70-foot wooden schooner).

DATES: October 12-19, 2021, including arrival and departure days. October 13-19, 2021 aboard the Passing Cloud.

NUMBER OF PARTICIPANTS: Limited to 6.

CURRENT NUMBER OF AVAILABLE SPOTS: 1.

COST: Trip with single accommodation room (in Port Hardy, BC): $5599 Canadian plus 5% GST. Subtract $75 CAD for shared accommodation in Port Hardy. Currency converter available here.

More details? Just go here on my Photo Tours page.

The MOST details? Just download THIS BROCHURE (PDF: 3.5 MB).

Contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca if you need further info or to reserve your spot!

Please note that all guests (and crew) on this trip must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

10 August '21: Capture One 21.3 - The VERY SWEET Magic Brush!

Almost 3 weeks ago Capture One released a "dot" upgrade from version 21.2 to 21.3. This free upgrade (for existing license holders) offered the usual bug fixes, support for some new cameras and some new support for selected Fujifilm, Sony, and Sigma lenses. BUT, they also offered some new features and feature improvements that are worth calling out.

First - and in the "improved existing feature" category - is "Show Images in Subfolders (Catalogs)".

In the past Capture One catalogs did not automatically show images that were found in SUBFOLDERS of folders that were in a user's catalog. Which could be a pain, especially if you're the type of shooter that likes to create dated folders every time you import images into your catalog. But now Capture One sees all images in a folder, even if those images are "nested" in subfolders. This is a good (and long overdue) improvement.

Second, there is a newly re-designed image Exporter, complete with an integrated Proofing Viewer.

In adding the re-designed and very handy Exporter Capture One removed the Output Tab from their UI. While most users of Capture One will probably like the new image export mechanism very much, some professional users (especially those in a production workflow) aren't very happy about the removal of the Output Tab. To fully explain why some of these pro users aren't happy with the new exporter and removal of the Output Tab I'd have to really dive into the weeds...so I'll avoid doing it here. Suffice to say that "the powers that be" at Capture One have got the message and we can expect another update soon (with a return of some or all of the features found in the Output Tab). I suspect when the dust settles on this one virtually Capture One users will be pleased as punch! ;-)

Third - and in the "super cool new feature that I'm stoked about" category - is the Magic Brush.

So...what does it do? The Magic Brush automatically creates masks (for selective editing purposes) based on the RGB values of the pixels "under" any stroke you make with it. There are multiple controls for the Magic Brush, including Size (of the brush), Opacity, Tolerance, and Refine Edge. Long story short, it only takes minutes to master the brush controls, and then you can create very precise and complex image masks in JUST SECONDS. If you are into selective editing of images with Capture One it is almost impossible to overstate how much time this new feature can save.

SO...can I give a graphic example of how using the Magic Brush can save a ton of time during mask building? Yep. As part of my pandemic "catch up with image culling and processing" project I am doing a whole lot of image processing right now. I recently ran across an unprocessed animalscape image from 2013 and in it there's a Bald Eagle perched in a stunningly massive and lichen-laced tree. The problem with the image is that the color and tones of the tree aren't very different from the background, and to separate out tree and background (for selective editing) would require a LOT of time using most masking tools (even if one is good with creating masks from Capture One's Color Editor). HOWEVER (and long story short), I was blown away when I tried the Magic Brush on this image and in 3 brushstrokes I had a PERFECT mask of the background (note that with the Magic Brush tool sequential brushstokes are "additive", i.e., the 2nd brushstroke adds to the mask created with the first brushstroke, etc.). So rather than a 15-20 minute mask-building job I completed it in under 30 seconds with the Magic Brush. And that is both very cool and very valuable.

View this composite and annotated image to appreciate just how complex and nuanced of a mask I am talking about here:

Big Eagle, Massive Tree: Download annotated image (JPEG: 4.9 MB)

And, for those who might be interested in seeing the Magic Brush in action, here's a short video: Introduction to Magic Brush

I've been happily using Capture One as my primary raw workflow tool since 2004. I started offering in-person instruction on raw processing with Capture One about a decade ago. And, once the COVID pandemic hit I switched to offering custom (personalized) online tutoring on Capture One. Between commitments to existing tutoring clients and some upcoming photo tours my hands are currently full, but I have some tutoring slots open in the November 2021 through March 2022.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

27 July '21: Announcing...a 2021 Photo Tour that is actually RUNNING!

AUGUST 11 UPDATE: The two available spots on this trip that are described below are now gone. However, given the current challenging (and changing) logistics associated with international travel, there is a definite possibility that a spot or two could open up again on this trip. Contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca if you would like to be placed on a waiting list for this trip.

Need some major frustration in your life? If so, I can highly recommend creating and running wilderness photo tours attended primarily by international clients during a global pandemic! ;-)

BUT...after re-scheduling 20 or so photo tours over the last 16 months I can finally announce a 2021 photo tour that is actually RUNNING! The photo tour? It's the Autumn in the Queen Charlotte Strait Exploratory Photo Adventure!

And, the answer to the $64 million dollar question? YES, international clients CAN attend this photo tour - the Canadian border is opening to fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents on August 9 and to all other countries on September 7.

So...what's this photo tour about? Marine mammals...and plenty of them. Humpback Whales, Killer Whales, Gray Whales, Steller Sea Lions, Sea Otters, and more! And it's also about a whole lot of spectacular land- and seascapes.

Bare bones details? Here you go:

PHOTO TOUR TYPE: Exploratory Photo Adventure

PHOTO TOUR LEADER: Brad Hill

DURATION: 7 NIGHTS/8 DAYS (including arrival and departure days) with 6 nights/7 days aboard the Passing Cloud sailboat (a 70-foot wooden schooner).

DATES: October 12-19, 2021, including arrival and departure days. October 13-19, 2021 aboard the Passing Cloud.

NUMBER OF PARTICIPANTS: Limited to 6.

CURRENT NUMBER OF AVAILABLE SPOTS: 2.

COST: Trip with single accommodation room (in Port Hardy, BC): $5599 Canadian plus 5% GST. Subtract $75 CAD for shared accommodation in Port Hardy. Currency converter available here.

More details? Just go here on my Photo Tours page.

The MOST details? Just download THIS BROCHURE (PDF: 3.5 MB).

Contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca if you need further info or to reserve your spot!

Cheers...

Brad

PS to those emailing me wondering if I had perished in the early July BC "heat dome" and/or the subsequent forest fires: I am still very alive. I have been less active online for several reasons - partly because of the crazy heat (my loft office becomes uninhabitable by mid-afternoon), partly because I have been doing a lot of online tutoring, and also partly because of the need to spend a lot of time on the logistics associated with re-scheduling and re-starting photo tours. Updates to this blog and website should go back to a more normal frequency now (I hope!). ;-)

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

8 June '21: BirdNET - Just a GREAT Smartphone App!

I recently downloaded and installed BirdNET on my iPhone...and it may be my most useful app (at least during the spring and summer) that I have. What is it? Many folks will know the Shazam app - the one where you use your smartphone to record a segment of a song and it spits back the song name, artist, et cetera. Well...BirdNET is pretty much Shazam for the bird world - with it you can point your smartphone at a singing or vocalizing bird, record the song, analyze it and "POOF!" it identifies it! Uber cool!

How well does it work? Well...just great! A couple careers back I worked on avian vocalizations for a few years and during that time I became reasonably proficient at identifying birds by their songs or calls. So I can identify a few hundred different bird species by their sounds...which is a quirky but fun (and useful for a wildlife photographer) skill to have. Having that quirky skill means I have been able to check on the reliability and accuracy of the app - and it's just great. To date I have recorded and analyzed about 50 different species...and it's only got one wrong. And the one it got wrong is tricky one even for the experts - it was a slightly aberrant song of a Chipping Sparrow and it ID'ed it as a Dark-eyed Junco. As it turns out, it's pretty darned easy to mistake Chipping Sparrow and Junco songs any day of the week, and when you "feed" the app an aberrant song it's no surprise it made a mistake.

Anyway...the BirdNET app is free and links to get to the download sites for both the iOS and the Android version of the app can be found here:

https://birdnet.cornell.edu

At this point the app features 984 of the most common species of North American and European birds. And, more species (and more regions) will be added over time.

One last comment about this great app: This app is a just a wonderful example of a win-win scenario: The good folks at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany who put the app together are providing it FREE for the public to use. In return they are getting oodles of samples of bird songs and calls, each WITH their geographic location. Bird songs and calls DO vary (at times dramatically) geographically and understanding the reason for the variation has a lot of implications and has on-going interest to researchers. So when we use and benefit from this app in turn the creators are receiving a treasure trove of really good data that is both time-consuming and expensive to collect. Citizen science at its best! Win-win!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

8 June '21: More Images Appearing in...

While I've been kinda quiet on this blog since May 18, I have been adding new images to my Gallery of Latest Additions and to both my Z 6II Collection and my Z 7II Collection. Check 'em out!

More coming soon...stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

18 May '21: So...Does the FTZ Mount Adapter Slow Down Autofocus Speed?

Based on questions filling my email inbin it would appear there are folks out there (somewhere "on the internet") that are claiming that the FTZ mount adapter (that allows you to mount Nikkor F-mount lenses on Nikon Z-series cameras) slows down the autofocus of those F-mount lenses. I can completely understand why Nikon DSLR users with a large investment in F-mount lenses would be concerned about this possible issue. Given the price of super-telephoto prime and zoom lenses - and given that Nikon is putting priority on filling out their offerings of shorter focal length lenses before super-telephotos - I can especially appreciate why wildlife and sports shooters might be concerned about whether or not the FTZ mount adapter negatively impacts on AF speed.

So...DOES the FTZ mount adapter slow down the AF speed of F-mount lenses? Well...there may be engineers at Nikon that know the answer to this question, but if they're not talking then here is the reality:

We have ABSOLUTELY NO WAY TO KNOW if the FTZ adapter has ANY impact on focus speed - it is IMPOSSIBLE to test.

Why? Stop and think about it for a minute. How can it be tested? Because Nikon does not (and probably never will) offer a lens that can be shot on a Z-series camera both with and without an FTZ adapter, we have absolutely no objective way to assess the impact of the FTZ adapter on AF speed.

Yes, I have heard people say things like "If I time how long it takes for my 500 PF lens to go from its closest focus to focusing on a distant subject with my D5 and then do the same thing with that same lens plus FTZ adapter on my Z 6II it takes longer on the Z 6II. So that's proof the FTZ adapter is slowing down AF." Uhhh...notice the logic gap in that argument? It assumes that the D5 and Z 6II have AF systems with identical performance (with respect to speed), which I think is highly unlikely. In any test scenario you can imagine there is no way to separate out the effect of camera model (and here we're comparing a DSLR against a mirrorless camera with very different AF systems) from any effect of the FTZ adapter.

But, even if we can't test it, does it make SENSE that FTZ adapter slows down AF speed? I see no a priori reason it should - it's functionally just a spacer. If someone tells me "...but the electron flow is longer with that spacer there"...well...you know how much sense that makes. Yes, AF speed does take a noticeable hit if you add a TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter to a super-telephoto lens and it's not that different in size compared to an FTZ adapter...but that 2x TC has a whole lot of glass elements in it (7 elements in 5 groups) and you lose 2 full stops of light with a 2x TC. And the loss of light and the presence of the optical elements are FAR more likely to be impacting AF speed than the "spacing" associated with the teleconverter is.

Over the last 5 months I have been shooting adapted a number of different adapted F-mount super-telephotos and super-telephoto zooms (Nikkor 180-400mm f4E, Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E, Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF, etc.) on my Z 7II and Z 6II a LOT. My gut feel about FTZ impact on AF performance? Well...if there is a speed reduction, I haven't noticed it (i.e., it is so negligible as to be irrelevant to me). But I HAVE noticed that the AF accuracy of those F-mount lenses is better when shot on a Z-Series camera (with FTZ adapter) than when shot on my D5 or D6.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

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

12 May '21: Major Re-work of the Collections Gallery

I recently decided to revamp my Collections Gallery by adding a few gear-based collections and cleaning out several old collections that I really never found time to complete or update. A large part of my motivation for doing so came from the positive feedback I was getting from my Z 6II and Z 7II image posts in my Gallery of Latest Additions. At the same time a few folks were asking me where the image posts go AFTER they have cycled through the Latest Additions. So...I decided that it made sense to give the Z 6II and Z 7II image posts a more permanent home. Some may find the Nikon Z 6II Collection and the Nikon Z 7II Collection to be useful resources.

My Collections Gallery was designed to "hold" thematic collections rather than images of a single subject (e.g., my Bears Gallery). Expect the specific "rooms" in the Collections Gallery to change and evolve over time and I will continue to add new images to each of the collections.

Here's the current state of the Union of the revamped Collections Gallery complete with critical links to enter the various rooms:

1. Collections Gallery Front Door: An overview of the concept behind the gallery complete with doors to each collection.

2. The Nikon Z 6II Collection: Shockingly, this collection consists of images captured with the Z 6II! Unlike my Latest Additions Gallery, new images will be added at END of this gallery (this makes sense if you read the commentaries associated with each image).

3. The Nikon Z 7II Collection: Yep, you guessed it - this collection consists of images captured with the Z 7II.

4. The Nikon Z 9 Collection: Nope, I'm not surreptitiously sneaking around shooting with a pre-production Z 9. For now this collection is empty...but I AM looking forward to the time when I can be shooting images destined for this collection.

5. The Great Bear Collection: Empty for now, but I'm currently selecting the images and writing the content for this collection. Of course, the theme of this collection are the fantastic scenes and spectacular wildlife of that magical part of the British Columbia coast known as the Great Bear Rainforest.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

6 May '21: More Z 6II Images; Observations on Z 6II/Z 7II for Wildlife Shooting

Just a quick reminder that I'm continuing to add wildlife images captured with my Z 6II to my Gallery of Latest Additions.

I am shooting wildlife with either my Z 6II or Z 7II almost daily and have to say these two new(ish) mirrorless bodies are really growing on me. Now when I pick up my D6 I'm finding myself thinking "How does this thing work again?". Fortunately after a second or two my fingers recall exactly how to operate it! ;-)

In the near future I'll be posting a fairly detailed summary of my thoughts of how well the Z 6II and Z 7II function for me as wildlife cameras. But I don't mind sharing a few thoughts right now about the things that have stood out for me in my day-to-day shooting of wildlife with the two 2nd generations Zed's.

1. Autofocus Accuracy

Probably the biggest single thing I am noticing in the field about the Z 6II and the Z 7II is the extreme accuracy of the AF system. Close subject, distant subject, using native Z-mount lenses or adapted F-mount lenses, with or without teleconverters (including combinations like the 500mm f5.6E PF with a 2x TC), super-low light...whatever - these two cameras have just deadly accurate AF systems. Most importantly, the net result is a higher hit rate of super sharp shots (over a very wide range of use cases) than I have ever experienced before.

2. Instant EVF Exposure Feedback

When shooting wildlife I primarily use matrix metering, aperture priority exposure mode, and with "Easy Exposure Compensation" (custom setting b2 on both the Z 6II and Z 7II) set to "On (Auto reset)". This combo of settings allows me to instantly make exposure compensations just by spinning the command dial with my thumb. When shooting with DSLR's I had always prided myself in being able to look at a scene and know when (and how much) exposure compensation was needed. But, the instant feedback you get in the EVF of the Z 6II and Z 7II when making quick exposure adjustments (simply via the brightness of the scene in the EVF) is just WONDERFUL! Yes, it took me some time to "calibrate" my eye to the EVF (and knowing how the scene brightness in the EVF translated into the exposure of the final image), but now I rarely even have to glance at the histogram in the EVF. I didn't use to miss many exposures with my DSLRs, but now I miss even fewer. Love it!

3. IBIS Performance

If you shoot long lenses in low light a lot, the IBIS system of the Z 6II and Z 7II is a godsend. Yes, it works BETTER if you're shooting native Z-mount lenses, but I am definitely finding it does have a "synergistic" effect when shooting adapted F-mount lenses with VR capabilities. As an example, I have been shooting the Nikkor 500mm f5.6E with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter (so a 1000mm combination) on my Z 6II a lot lately, and have been successfully hand-holding it (and getting tack-sharp results) down to 1/50s. To be fair, I can't compare this result to how slow of a shutter speed I can hold the 500mm PF plus 2x TC on my D6 (because no Nikon DSLR can focus with AF with this lens/TC combo, which is ONE MORE benefit of shooting with the Zed's!). Note that I have performed image stabilization tests on other VR F-mount lenses (such as the 70-200mm f2.8E) on Z-series bodies vs. various DSLR's and have found there is at least a 1/2 advantage (if not more) in image stabilization when shooting adapted F-mount lenses on a Z-series body compared to a DSLR.

4. Teleconverter Performance

Anyone paying attention to the commentaries in my Gallery of Latest Additions will know how pumped I am about the enhanced performance of the TC-14EII (1.4x) and TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverters when shot with a Z 6II or Z 7II (compared to when shot on any Nikon DSLR). While this is speculation on my part, I THINK the enhanced performance is attributable to the inherent difference in how the AF system of a mirrorless camera works (i.e., judges focus on the actual image sensor) vs. how the AF system of a DSLR works (i.e., judges focus on a secondary low-res "proxy" sensor that receives MUCH LESS light than the image sensor). But regardless of why teleconverters work better with Nikon's mirrorless cameras...the fact that they DO work so much better is wonderful thing (especially for a wildlife shooter!). On my near-daily sunrise "camera walks" on and around our property I take my Z 6II (with battery grip) paired with a 500mm f5.6E PF and with 1.4x and 2x teleconverters on small pouches on a belt on my waist. So I am carrying around a super-lightweight kit with 500mm, 700mm, and 1000mm capabilities - and that kit can produce top-shelf quality at EACH of those focal lengths. This is - without a doubt - the most portable and BEST walk-around wildlife kit I have ever owned. Geez...only two or three years ago I would have needed a team of sherpas to carry a kit that could produce top-quality images at 500mm, 700mm and 1000mm focal lengths. Wildlife photographer nirvana!

As you'll see when you read my coming summary of the two new Zed's for wildlife shooting I am in no way saying the Z 6II or Z 7II are absolutely perfect cameras (for wildlife shooting or any other type of shooting). There is still room for improvement in their AF systems and I personally would like to see a lot more customization features on these cameras. And the EVF behaviour during high-speed bursts could definitely be improved. But Nikon got a whole lot more RIGHT with these cameras than they got wrong. And for the bulk of my day-to-day wildlife shooting they are beating out EVERYTHING I have shot before. Really.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#anchor_zeds_4_wildlife

16 April '21: Nikon D6 Firmware Upgrade: Two Thumbs Up!

While mirrorless cameras are getting almost all the "press coverage" these days, Nikon quietly keeps making their flagship DSLR better and better. Yesterday Nikon provided a firmware update to the D6 (to version 1.20) that makes the D6 an even better performer in the field. Here's an annotated (and opinionated) list of the most significant changes in the firmware upgrade. I've ranked the list in order of importance to...ME! ;-)

1. Recall shooting functions (hold)

The "Recall Shooting Functions" customization option was vastly improved with the introduction of the D6. In the simplest terms, this function allows you to change a whole group of camera settings (including your AF area mode) by simply pushing and holding one (or more) of your camera's customizable buttons. The minute you release the button assigned to this function the camera returns to the settings that were in use BEFORE the button was pushed. In my case I use the Recall Shooting Function button to store a group of settings best used for capturing action (like a bird-in-flight). In 2020 I discussed the use of this button in two places on this blog - in my 26 Oct entry entitled "Nikon D6 Pro Tip: Creating and Using Multiple "Recall Shooting Functions" Settings" (view that entry here) and in my 26 May entry called "The Nikon D6: My Earliest Impressions and Observations..." (view that entry here).

So what's different with "Recall Shooting Functions" now? Nikon added a new and second version of it to the custom controls (accessed custom setting C3, i.e., the Custom controls). The new version is called "Recall shooting functions (hold)". With this new version you simply push the assigned button to go to your stored settings without the need to hold the button down (only Nikon could add the term "hold" to a function that removes the need to "hold the button"!). To return your camera to its settings that were in use before pushing the "Recall Shooting Functions (hold)" button you just push the button again. So you toggle between having the function activated or not activated by pushing the button.

This is a very welcomed change - depending on the button you use for this function it can be really hard to hold the button down while shooting (e.g., try holding the preview button down while shooting - it's really quite challenging). In fact, I practically begged Nikon to make this change in a previous blog entry. So thank you Nikon. Now...could you now do the same thing for custom buttons assigned to change AF-area mode (so that we don't have to "push and hold" the buttons to go to different AF-area modes). Pretty please???

2. Focus point selection speed

With the new firmware you can now adjust how fast the focus point moves when you use the sub-selector or the multi-selector to move it around in the viewfinder. To do so just go to Custom Setting A17 (i.e., Focus point options). You can now choose between Normal (which is the default and the speed the focus point originally moved at before the firmware update), High, and Extra High.

Why is this change significant? Well...if you haven't yet discovered that you can actually move your focus points around your viewfinder it won't be (don't laugh, I have run into D6 shooters who don't know the focus point(s) can be moved). But, if you're like me and are forever toggling your focus points around the viewfinder, this change is a godsend. And it's for the obvious reason - you can move the focus point around a whole lot quicker. After playing with this feature a bit I can say my preferred setting for the speed is "High" - it's much faster than Normal but, at least for me, not too fast. Nice!

For me these first two changes in the firmware update make a big difference in my day-to-day shooting with the D6. I think a lot of other shooters will feel the same way.

3. Dynamic-area AF Improvement

Nikon is also claiming that with the firmware update "The camera can now more reliably focus on poorly-lit low-contrast subjects when dynamic-area AF is selected for AF-area mode." If I am being honest, I hadn't noticed a problem with dynamic-area focusing on "poorly-lit low-contrast subjects" - but if it's even better now with the firmware update...good! ;-)

4. Prefer sub-selector center (new option - Custom Setting f13)

This one took me a few minutes to decipher. The sub-selector is the "toggle" switch (with the textured surface) that most shooters use to toggle the focus points around (you use it like a joystick). And, you can assign a host of functions to the button when you press it straight down (which Nikon calls "sub-selector center"), including to change the AF-area mode. On my D6 I use this button to switch my camera from its default AF-area mode (which for me is 9-point Dynamic-area) to 5x5 Group Area. What the new function does is control the behaviour of the sub-selector when you push it down AND toggle the focus points at the same time. With "Prefer sub-selector center" set to OFF, I can simultaneously push the sub-selector to change AF-area modes AND toggle the position of the focus point(s) simultaneously. If "Prefer sub-selector center" is set to ON you can still push the button to change AF-area modes, but when you try to simultaneously toggle the point around you're out of luck. But note that how this control will work for you will be dependent on the option you choose to have the sub-selector center preform when it is pressed.

My thoughts on the utility of this new custom setting? For me...it's low. But there are a zillion ways to set up a D6 and some users may indeed find this to be a valuable function.

And that's it! In my view this is a very good firmware update that will directly have a positive impact my day-to-day shooting. Well done Nikon. And don't forget my request above - PLEASE duplicate what you did to "Recall Shooting Functions" to the customization options for switching AF-area modes! Pretty please?? ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

7 April '21: More Z 6II Images in my Gallery of Latest Additions...

I'm continuing to add wildlife images captured with my Z 6II to my Gallery of Latest Additions. I used the most recent addition (look for the elk "portrait") as an opportunity to discuss and compare focus point size, total number of focus points, and the speed one can "toggle" the focus point around on the Z 6II and the Z 7II. While these three interrelated aspects of AF performance don't get a lot of press coverage, they're critical to my own wildlife photography. I think some readers may find the information interesting...and may be somewhat shocked by these final four sentences in my "In the Field" commentary on the elk shot:

"The more I shoot wildlife with my Z 6II and my Z 7II (over a variety of lighting conditions, over a huge range of distances-to-subject, with both 1.4x and 2x teleconverters, etc.) the MORE I am blown away by the AF accuracy and overall AF capabilities of these cameras. Yes, if I am shooting extreme action I want my D6 in my hands. But for virtually ALL the rest of my wildlife photography (which means about 95% of my shooting) - I'll opt for the AF capabilities and performance of the Z 6II and Z 7II over that of the D6. Really."

With what I am already experiencing in AF performance of the generation 2 Zed's (Zee's for the shooters on the south side of the Canada-US border)...and given that the Z 9 will be using a stacked CMOS sensor that should take AF performance up by a big notch...man...I can't wait to get a Z 9 in my hands!

More coming soon...stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

31 Mar '21: Looking for a GREAT Photo Adventure in 2021?

It's no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic hammered the worldwide tourism and travel industry in 2020, and so far it is continuing to knock the stuffing out it in 2021. Our photo tours have not been exempted from the beating, and with it looking increasingly likely that we're in the beginning of the final stages of the pandemic we're in a bit of an odd spot.

How so? Well...it's well-known that the bulk of our photo tours book up WAY ahead of time. With our entire 2020 season - and the first half of our 2021 season - wiped out we have re-scheduled a lot of our photo tour bookings into the 2022 and 2023 seasons. The net result is that it is going to be next-to-impossible for someone new to join in on almost any of our photo tours in 2022 or 2023 - we're just jammed right up! Which isn't particularly surprising...our "hard to get on" photo tours have become "almost impossible to get on photo tours" for 2022 and 2023.

BUT...we're quite confident we'll be back running our photo tours by THIS August. And, because a lot of our international guests for our summer and autumn 2021 trips have opted to re-schedule into 2022 or 2023, we now have quite a few available spots for ALL our remaining 2021 photo tours. So this means we have spots on ALL 3 of our Great Bear Rainforest photo tours, and on both of our marine mammals photo tours that take place in the northern Vancouver Island region.

So...the pandemic has created a situation where it is EASY to get a spot on our remaining 2021 photo tours, and next-to-impossible for anyone to get a spot in 2022 or 2023! Kind of a feast now 'cuz there IS going to be a famine situation!

How are we handling the openings for the 2021 photo tours? Given the fluidity of the situation (e.g., we don't know yet if non-Canadians will be able to join us) we are taking names and adding folks to a "First Right of Refusal" List for EACH 2021 trip. So...as soon as we know for sure that a specific trip is a "go", we'll contact the folks on the list and they can register for the trip. We will NOT be expecting ANYONE to give us a deposit (we won't even accept deposits!) on a trip until we are sure the trip is a go and the specific guest can attend. So there is ZERO risk for anyone adding their name to the "First Right of Refusal" List for 2021 trips.

To be clear - we will accept individuals from ANY country on our "First Right of Refusal" List for all remaining 2021 trips, but it is possible that it will turn out that only Canadians will be able to participate. Only time will tell.

How do you sign up? Simple as pie - just email me at (seminars@naturalart.ca) if you would like to be placed on "First Right of Refusal" List. Just include your name, contact information and trip you're interested in and we'll go from there!

Here's some key links to the 2021 photo tours I am referring to. The individual trip listings show the number of currently available spots:

Info on ALL 2021 Photo Tours.
Marine Mammals of the Central Pacific Coast (August 2021).
Summer in the Southern Great Bear (late August/early September 2021).
Into the Great Bear Rainforest Instructional Photo Tour (late September 2021).
Into the Great Bear Rainforest Exploratory Photo Adventure (late Sept/early Oct 2021).
Autumn in the Queen Charlotte Strait (mid October 2021).

See you in 2021?

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

30 Mar '21: Z 6II Images Now Appearing in my Gallery of Latest Additions...

I've begun adding wildlife images captured with the Nikon Z 6II to my Gallery of Latest Additions. The first couple of images (look for the chipmunk and the woodpecker with the red crest) were taken with different F-mount lenses combined with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter, and the commentaries under the "In the Field" tab focus on how darned well the Z-cameras work with teleconverters, largely owing (at least IMHO) to the excellent autofocus accuracy of the mirrorless Zeds!

While I am not producing a formal review of either the Z 6II or the Z 7II, I am evaluating - and will report on - how well they perform as wildlife cameras for me. And, the approach I am taking is to put both cameras through a very wide array of "use cases", covering as many of the situations I commonly encounter during my own wildlife photography as possible. So, things like...over a wide array of lighting situations (including very low light shooting), with a wide variety of focal lengths (including using native Z-mount lenses and adapted F-mount lenses), with a wide range of distances to subject, with static vs. moving subjects (including fast moving perching birds and small mammals, with both 1.4x and 2x TC's, et cetera! At the end of this process I want to have a very balanced and overall view of how effectively the Z 6II and Z 7II perform for me as wildlife cameras.

As has become my habit, I'll be incrementally adding images and commentaries on this topic in my Gallery of Latest Additions and I'll also be producing blog posts on the same topic ("The New Zed's As Wildlife Cameras") along the way. In time I'll summarize it all in a single permanent home in my Field Tests section of this website.

Stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

24 Mar '21: More Z 7II Images...And My Thoughts on "Animal Eye Detect" AF Systems...

I've just added some new images - including ones captured with my Z 7II - to my Gallery of Latest Additions.

In my latest Z 7II image addition I focused the commentary on how important animal eye detection is to me (if you're thinking close to zero you'd be about right). If you're curious why animal eye detection technology would be about the last thing I would look for in a camera used for wildlife photography check out the commentary associated with the image called "White-tailed Doe With Snow" (as of March 24, 2021 the image is the lead image in my Gallery of Latest Additions but will cycle further into the gallery when I add new images). Just look for the thumbnail of a deer with a snowy face.

If you can't locate the commentary associated with the image just click on the tab labelled "In the Field" immediately below the main image window and you'll see it.

I will be adding images captured with (and commentaries about) the Nikon Z 6II in the near future.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

22 March 2021: ISO Performance of the Nikon Z 6II...and the Nikon Z 9!

In this blog entry I report my findings from systematic field tests of the ISO performance of the Nikon Z 6II versus 2 other cameras - the Nikon Z 7II and the Nikon D6. Ultimately this testing (and the subsequent analysis of the original raw images plus downsampled images) was done to answer two primary questions:

1. How do full resolution Z 6II raw files captured over an ISO range of ISO 100 to ISO 51200 compare in visible noise to those of the Nikon D6 (when viewed at 100% magnification on a high quality display)?

2. And, how do Z 6II files captured over an ISO range of ISO 100 to ISO 51200 - and then downsampled to the resolution of the Nikon D6 - compare to D6 image files (again, in visible noise)?

During this testing it was convenient to include the higher resolution Z 7II in the analysis. In doing so I could confirm the results of a previous test comparing the Z 7II and D6 ISO performance (which were reported in my blog entry immediately below this entry) and see firsthand how the Z 6II and Z 7II compared in visible noise over various ISO's.

In terms of justification of the time invested in doing this testing, and with the recent development announcement of the "high resolution" Z 9 flagship in mind, what I have learned from this testing may further impact on my own transition plan to mirrorless. I'll discuss and clarify this vague statement in the final section of this blog entry...

WHAT I DID:

Basically, using the 3 cameras listed above I shot a bunch of shots at the same time under the same lighting where I systematically varied only the ISO. I then compared the images on a "moderate" resolution high-end display at 100% magnification. Here are a few more details about what I did:

• All images were captured in an outdoor field setting before the sun rose over the horizon - so under true low light conditions.

• All images were captured using a Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E lens supported on a Jobu Algonquin tripod and a Jobu HD Mk IV gimbal head. All shots were captured at a focal length of 300mm. The VR on the lens was set to "OFF" in all images and a cable release was used to trigger the shutter (which was set to electronic front curtain on all cameras).

• Images were captured from their lowest numerical ISO value (i.e., ISO 64 on the Z 7II and ISO 100 on the Z 6II and the D6) up to their highest numerical ISO (so ISO 25600 on the Z 7II, ISO 51200 on the Z 6II, and ISO 102400 on the D6). From ISO 100 to ISO 3200 I captured images at 1-stop intervals. From ISO 3200 to the camera's highest numerical ISO I captured images at 1/3 stop intervals.

• The subject I chose had finely textured in-focus zones (assisting in any loss in image detail) and both "partially" out-of-focus zones and completely out-of-focus zones (where noise is most easily seen).

• Images were viewed using Capture One 21.1.0 with ALL noise reduction off. An Eizo CG279X (with a pixel density of 109 ppi) was used in the viewing of all images.

• For downsampled image noise comparisons I exported the images as 16-bit TIFF files in Prophoto color space and then viewed the results in Capture One. Note that before deciding to use Capture One for the downsampling I compared samples downsampled with Capture One to those downsampled using various algorithms in Adobe Photoshop. Because the between-application differences in the visible noise of the images were trivial (and always in parallel to each other over various ISO ranges) I settled on simply using Capture One for all downsampling.

• Downsampled comparisons were made between the Nikon Z 6II and Nikon D6 where the Z 6II files (at all ISO's) were downsampled to the exact resolution of the Nikon D6 (which is 5568 pixels on the long axis). Additionally I downsampled (and then compared) Z 7II files to the resolution of Z 6II files (which is 6048 pixels on the long axis). Note that I downsampled Z 7II files to the size of D6 files and compared their noise in my previous blog entry (immediately below).

WHAT I FOUND:

As with my previous testing...I learned quite a bit! Here's what I think most will find to be the most significant results:

1. Visible noise differences between the 3 cameras are trivial (and irrelevant) from their base ISO up to about ISO 800.

By "trivial and irrelevant" I mean that any differences in noise are tough to see without a lot of pixel-peeping and, more importantly, can be completely negated with simple (non-selective) noise reduction - either when processing the raw files or by in-camera noise reduction if shooting JPEG's.

Although I am kind of spilling the beans on the next point here, I found that as ISO climbs, between-camera differences in visible noise becomes much more evident (but only to about ISO 6400). By ISO 3200 the D6 beats the Z 7II by about a stop (meaning an ISO 3200 shot with a D6 has about the same visible noise as an ISO 1600 shot with a Z 7II) and it beats the Z 6II by about 1/3 of a stop. By ISO 6400 the D6 has pulled away further from the Z 7II (it's now better by around 1.67 stops) and the Z 6II (by about 0.67 of a stop). At higher ISO's I saw no further increase in the difference in ISO performance - the "D6 beats the Z 7II by 1.67 stops and the Z 6II 0.67 stop" rule held up to each camera's highest numerical ISO.

2. There is a real and significant difference between the ISO performance of the Nikon Z 6II and the D6.

As most readers will know, there's a strong negative correlation between pixel pitch (i.e., the size of the image sensor's photo-sites) and image noise - as pixel pitch (size) goes down, image noise goes up. However, given the very small difference in resolution (and thus pixel pitch) between the Nikon Z 6II and the Nikon D6, and given that the Z 6II uses a more recently developed BSI-CMOS sensor than the "standard" CMOS sensor of the D6, I thought it was possible that the two cameras would be close to identical in image noise over a range of ISO's. Turns out I was wrong. As mentioned immediately above, by the time you get to ISO 6400 (and beyond) the D6 produces images with less visible noise than the Z 6II - and that difference is about 0.67 stops. So this means that an ISO 12800 shot taken with a D6 has about the same amount of visible noise as a ISO 8000 image captured with the Z 6II.

Some readers may find it interesting that a few years back I compared the ISO performance (i.e., judged by visible noise) of the "just over 24 MP" D750 to the D5 (which has the same image sensor at the D6). I found the same 0.67 stop advantage of the D5 over the D750. I think it's quite likely that if someone compared the visible noise of the Z 6II to that of the D750 you'd find them very, very similar.

3. Downsampling Z 6II images does NOT completely close the noise gap with D6 images!

So...does downsampling a Z 6II file to the resolution of a D6 file negate the noise advantage of the D6? No - you gain less than 0.3 stop in ISO performance and still have very close to a 0.67 stop differential in ISO performance between the two cameras. Which is hardly surprising given how similar the two cameras are in resolution (on the long axis a full res Z 6II file is 6048 pixels vs. 5568 pixels for the D6 - so there isn't a whole lot of downsampling involved).

4. What about the if you use "the best" noise reduction software available - can you MAKE high ISO shots taken with the Z 6II "equivalent" to D6 shots?

Over the last year or so a few companies have used AI (Artificial Intelligence) in their "denoising" engines. Topaz's DeNoise AI and PhotoLab 4's DeepPRIME feature are examples of this. In all fairness, they seem to do an amazing job of removing noise (I can only personally attest to how well DeNoise works - I haven't tried DeepPRIME) - in some cases better than someone highly competent with raw-processing programs like Lightroom or Capture One can do with selective noise reduction and HI (Human Intelligence).

The answer? Yes - with either DeNoise AI or using selective noise reduction and my own HI with Capture One I was able to make ISO 12800 images taken with a Z 6II virtually indistinguishable from those taken with a D6. A couple of caveats here - I can't comment on whether the images can be made "indistinguishable" using Photo Lab 4's DeepPRIME denoising engine (I don't currently have copy of Photo Lab 4)...and I am a very experienced Capture One user (providing instruction in Capture One constitutes the majority of my customized online tutoring services). So it's not exactly fair to say "everyone" has this option of coaxing and massaging Z 6II images to equivalence in high ISO noise characteristics with a D6. On a hopeful note for the majority of Lightroom and Capture One users - I would be very surprised if both Lightroom and Capture One don't react soon and up their own game on noise reduction routines that match the results and ease-of-use of DeNoise and DeepPRIME. I can't promise this (of course), but neither Adobe or Phase One (Capture One) seem to like getting their butt kicked, and right now their butts are being kicked when it comes to noise reduction!

5. Downsampling Z 7II images almost closes the noise gap with Z 6II images!

OK...this point strays a bit from the flow of this blog entry, but if I don't answer it I know I will be pummeled with the question! So...what happens when you take the high resolution files of the ISO Z 7II and downsample them to the size of Z 6II images? Well...I did this with both ISO 6400 and ISO 12800 images...and I found that the downsampled Z 7II images were only slightly noisier than full res Z 6II images. How much is "slightly noisier"? About 1/3 of a stop.

6. What about in-camera JPEG images?

For now I'm going to reserve comment on how high ISO in-camera JPEG images shot from the three cameras compare in image quality (both in visible noise and in their loss of detail after being hit with the variable strength "wax hammer" options we have available to us on Nikon cameras). Why? I'm going to do a deep dive into this topic in the coming weeks and I need to do some more testing before I open my mouth! ;-)

WHAT'S THE RELEVANCE OF ALL THIS?

OK...let's get back to relevance of why I bothered making these comparisons. Believe it or not, it is another part of plotting my own transition strategy to mirrorless. As most know by now, Nikon has announced that they are in the process of developing a mirrorless flagship camera - the Z 9. We have been told it is a "high resolution" camera. At this point we know little more than that, but most pundits and those in the camera industry that I interact with think it will be in the same resolution range of the Z 7II - in the 45-50 MP range (I personally think it will be based on the 50 MP sensor of the Sony A1, tho' I really wish it was a 30 MP camera!).

Anyway...if the Z 9 IS a 50 or so MP camera, it is almost a foregone conclusion that its ISO performance will trail behind that of the D5 or D6 (hey, physics is physics!). And, it's likely its ISO performance will be very similar to that of a Nikon Z 7 or Z 7II. Now if I had to subjectively the ISO performance of a Z 7 II I would say it's "quite good". And, it's probably good enough for a lot of users. However, since my last blog post I have received a lot of email from folks who basically said "Yikes...I'm a low light shooter and I commonly shoot raw images up to ISO 10,000 on my D5 - what am I going to do?". To be honest, I'm kind of in that boat myself - a lot of my shooting takes place on BC's central and northern coast and it's not too unusual for me to be shooting in the ISO 6400 to 12800 zone, and once in a while I go higher than that. So...IF the Z 9 is a 50 MP camera and IF its ISO performance is similar to that of a Z 7II will it fully meet my needs? Nope.

So what are the options?

1. Keep your D5 or D6? Some may think this is their best option. And until there are a nice selection of super-telephoto primes and zooms available in the Z-mount it may be the best option for some sports and wildlife photographers.

2. Get a Z 6II and use it in situations where the uber-high ISO's are needed? Nope, a Z 6II is not quite a D5 or D6 in ISO performance, but it's not that far off. And the images CAN be made pretty much equivalent (in visible noise) if one is in a raw workflow and they have the tools or skills necessary to effectively massage the Z 6II files.

3. Wait for a high ISO "specialist" mirrorless camera from Nikon? This one might seem a bit far-fetched, but just 8 months ago Sony introduced the 12 megapixel A7s III and while it is mostly focused on the video market, it is also there for those who need crazy good high ISO performance. It's not impossible Nikon will do something similar. Or perhaps the Z 6III will fill this niche in the future?

At this point I am kind of waffling between option 1 and 2. I'm currently planning on keeping my D6 as a "complementary" camera to my Z 9 (in those situations where I need maximum high ISO performance). Heck, in a year it won't have much resale value anyway! ;-)

But at times it won't be practical for me to carry two big (massive?) flagship cameras - and in those instances I will probably use my recently acquired Z 6II to complement the Z 9. And...BTW...so far I am really liking my Z 6II (more on this soon).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#anchor_Z6II_ISO

10 March 2021: ISO Performance of the Nikon Z 7II...and the Nikon Z 9!

In this blog entry I report my findings from systematic field tests of the ISO performance of the Nikon Z 7II versus 3 other cameras (two of which are commonly used by wildlife photographers) - the Nikon Z7, the Nikon D500, and the Nikon D6. Ultimately this testing (and the subsequent analysis of the original raw images plus downsampled images) was done to answer two primary questions:

1. How do full resolution Z 7II raw files captured over an ISO range of ISO 800 to ISO 12800 viewed at 100% magnification compare in visible noise to those of the Nikon D6?

2. And, how do Z 7II files captured over an ISO range of ISO 800 to ISO 12800 and then downsampled to the resolution of the Nikon D6 compare to D6 image files (again, in visible noise).

During the testing it was convenient to include two other cameras (the D500 and the original Z7) that helped answer a few more questions I had in my mind - things like "How does the ISO performance of the D500 compare to that of the Z 7II" and "Is there any difference in the ISO performance of the Nikon Z7 and Nikon Z 7II"?

In terms of justification of the time invested in doing this testing, and with the development announcement this morning of the Z 9 in mind, what I have learned from this testing will definitely influence my own transition plan to mirrorless. More about this in the final section of this blog entry...

WHAT I DID:

Basically, I shot a bunch of shots at the same time and under the same lighting where I systematically varied only the ISO. I then compared the images on a "moderate" resolution high-end display at 100% magnification. I captured all images as 14-bit compressed raw files and as JPEG Fine* with all cameras set to High ISO NR set to "Normal". Here are a few more details about what I did:

• All images were captured in an outdoor field setting before the sun rose over the horizon - so under true low light conditions.

• All images were captured using a Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E lens supported on a Jobu Algonquin tripod and a Jobu HD Mk IV gimbal head. Shots with the full-frame sensors (the two Z7's and the D6) were captured at 300mm and the shots with the DX-crop camera (the D500) were captured at 200mm (to make the field of view and "magnification" of the images identical). The VR on the lens was set to "OFF" in all images and a cable release was used to trigger the shutter (which was set to electronic front curtain on all cameras).

• Images were captured from ISO 800 to ISO 3200 in 1-stop increments; images from ISO 3200 to ISO 12800 were captured in 1/3 stop increments.

• The subject I chose had finely textured in-focus zones (assisting in any loss in image detail) and both "partially" out-of-focus zones and completely out-of-focus zones (where noise is most easily seen).

• Images were viewed using Capture One 21.0.2 with ALL noise reduction off. An Eizo CG279X (with a pixel density of 109 ppi) was used in the viewing of all images.

• For downsampled image noise comparisons I exported the images as 16-bit TIFF files in Prophoto color space and then viewed the results in Capture One. Note that before deciding to use Capture One for the downsampling I compared samples downsampled with Capture One to those downsampled using various algorithms in Adobe Photoshop. Because the between-application differences in the visible noise of the images were trivial (and always in parallel to each other over various ISO ranges) I settled on simply using Capture One for all downsampling.

• Downsampled comparisons were made between the Nikon Z 7II and Nikon D6 where the Z 7II files (at all ISO's) were downsampled to the exact resolution of the Nikon D6 (which is 5568 pixels on the long axis). Additionally I downsampled Z 7II, D6, and D500 files at all ISO's down to 4800 pixels (long axis) and 2400 pixels (long axis) and compared visible noise on all resulting images.

WHAT I FOUND:

Well, to be honest, a ton! But here's what I think most will find to be the most significant results:

1. There is NO difference between the ISO performance of the Nikon Z7 and the Z 7II.

Given the two cameras use the same BSI-CMOS sensor, this is hardly surprising. The entire reason I bothered examining this is that in the three months I have been shooting the Z 7II I had the anecdotal "feeling" that I was getting better ISO performance out of the Z 7II relative to the Z7. That left me wondering that IF it was true it may have indicated that Nikon's dual Expeed processors (on the Z 7II) were "massaging" the raw (or JPEG) images a little and producing "cleaner" files. But I was wrong - the raw and the in-camera JPEG files of the Z7 and Z 7II files were indistinguishable from one another at all ISO's.

2. The D6 is almost impossible to match in ISO performance!

No matter how you slice and dice the images (and whether you are examining raw or in-camera JPEG's) - the D6 has the LEAST amount of visible noise at ALL ISO's examined (from ISO 800 to ISO 12800). How much better is it? A lot. As an example, if you compare full resolution ISO 12800 images captured with the D6 to those captured with the Z 7II the D6 beats the Z 7II by about 1.67 stops - which means the ISO 12800 D6 images look like ISO 4000 Z 7II images. That's a lot of difference.

Now, I hear ALL the time that files from a Z7 (or a D850) match D5 or D6 files in the amount of visible noise at any ISO if you simply downsample the Z7 (or D850) files to the resolution of the D6. Is this true? Nope - it isn't. You still see a difference of about 0.67 stops. So a ISO 12800 shot captured with a D6 looks like an ISO 8000 shot captured with a Z7 (or Z 7II). This IS better, and it is pretty amazing that a 46 MP camera has ISO performance that good.

But what if you downsample ALL the files even more - down to 4800 pixels or even down to 2400 pixels (on the long axis) - do the differences in ISO performance between the Z 7II and the D6 "disappear"? Nope. And it appeared to me (after a lot of pixel peeping and squinting) that the 0.67 stop advantage of the D6 (at both ISO 6400 and ISO 12800) persisted.

Is there ANY way to monkey with the ISO 12800 (or ISO 6400) Z 7II raw files to make them match the D6 files in visible noise? None that I could find if you compared full resolution files. However, I did find that if you downsampled the ISO 12800 Z 7II files down to D6 files and THEN used Topaz DeNoise on both the Z 7II and D6 files you could make them virtually indistinguishable in luminosity noise (but there was a LITTLE more color noise in the Z 7II files, but that could be dealt with with additional careful post-processing). Whether this type of convoluted workflow is something others want to do to squeeze "D6 ISO performance" out of a Z 7II (or maybe...hint...a Z 9?) is up to them.

3. What about the D500?

Good question. Turns out that if you compare full resolution D500 raw images (shot at any ISO tested) to full resolution Z 7II shots they have almost identical visible noise. Like amazingly close (read that to mean indistinguishable by me). Which, when you compare their pixel pitches, is hardly surprising.

But what if you downsample Z 7II images to D500 size (5568 pixels on the long axis, which is identical to the D6)? Good question. And NOW downsampling makes a critical difference - I found that after downsampling those Z 7II images they beat the D500 in ISO performance (as measured here by visible noise) by about 2/3 of a stop.

4. What about JPEG images?

Well...there's a few things worth mentioning. First, the trends observed with the raw images were still present, but with High ISO NR set to normal the difference isn't so much of a difference in the amount of visible noise, but the removal of detail by the "data smoothing" associated with the in-camera noise reduction. In other words, the D6 images are still nicely detailed at ISO 12800 whereas the images from ALL the other cameras appear almost like wax figurine replicas of the images! ;-)

Of course, High ISO NR can be turned down lower (and I did play with this), but no matter which way you slice and dice the resulting images you can't negate the ISO performance differences between the cameras. And the ability to perform effective downsampling on already manipulated JPEG images (to offset noise differences) is very limited on JPEG images.

WHAT'S THE RELEVANCE OF ALL THIS?

OK...why did I spend a lot of my last weekend sussing all this out. Well...it's complicated. But here goes...

Like so many, I am trying to plot the best DSLR-to-mirrorless transition plan. Because I do a lot of my wildlife shooting on the dark and cloudy BC coast, I probably have a bit stronger need for high ISO performance than "Joe Average" wildlife photographer. For quite some time we have been hearing rumours that Nikon's flagship mirrorless camera (which as of this morning we know will be called a Z 9) will have a much higher resolution sensor. This was more-or-less confirmed in a recent interview of Keiji Oishi (Department manager of Nikon's Imaging Business Unit) by dpreview.com where he stated that the coming mirrorless flagship would have a "high-resolution stacked CMOS sensor". Of course, he did NOT define "high-resolution", but in this day and age few would describe a 24-30 MP sensor as "high resolution". I think it's fair to say that the consensus of online chatter (including some pretty reputable sources) is that the Z 9 will come in at about 50 MP.

Now seeing what a Sony A1 can do with high-resolution stacked CMOS sensor we know "pipeline" speed is likely NOT going to be a limiting factor on the coming Z 9 - odds are it will be a real fast camera. And, given the speed that AF and exposure data can come off the sensor, we can expect that the Z 9 will have very good to awesome AF performance (assuming Nikon's engineers can effectively "harness" the data, which I think is likely).

But what about ISO performance? There is no a priori reason that a stacked CMOS sensor will outperform a "standard" BSI CMOS sensor in ISO performance...so it seems to me that a decent current "proxy" of the ISO performance of the Z 9 is the ISO performance of the Z 7II. In other words, I am expecting that about the only place the Z 9 WON'T out-perform a D6 is in "extreme" ISO performance (let's call that anything from ISO 6400 and up). And, at the risk of being redundant, I expect the ISO performance of the Z 9 to be about - or only slightly better - than that of the Z 7II.

So...what does this mean to my own transition plan in going mirrorless? Well, if the key rumoured specs of the Z 9 are accurate (50 MP, 20 fps, better dynamic range, exceptional AF) it should be an EXCELLENT camera for my the vast majority of my wildlife needs and an absolutely EXCELLENT all-rounder. In those instances I need more extreme ISO performance the options I have include the D6 (which I already own) or perhaps even the Z 6II. I am hearing some arguing that Nikon will follow-up the Z 9 with a lower-resolution flagship (with better ISO performance) built around the same body. If better ISO performance (and arguably how fast pro sports shooters can wirelessly transmit their files) is the only remaining advantage to a low resolution second flagship...well...I just can't see it happening.

So...after the testing reported in this entry and what we know today about the Z 9, I am moving forward in my own transition with the thought of the next goal-line being shooting a Z 9 paired with a Z 6II. And to that end I have ordered a Z 6II! And I'll be field testing its ISO performance against the D6 in the near future. I'm also thinking that somewhere along this path I'll be shedding some other cameras, like the D500 (almost immediately) and my Z 7II (about when the Z 9 begins shipping). Sheesh...it never ends!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#anchor_Z7II_ISO

9 March '21: Camera Stuff for Sale!

As part of my on-going balancing act to stay current with my gear and yet not have a whole warehouse full of camera bits, I am in the process of adding items (including camera bodies and lenses) to my "Gear 4 Sale page". As always, I price things to go away fast. So if you're looking for good deals on great used gear you should act fast.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

18 Feb '21: More Z 7II Images and Comments...

I am continuing to post images and commentaries about the Nikon Z 7II in my Gallery of Latest Additions. In yesterday's addition (look for the tongue) I discussed one aspect of the AF of the Z 7II.

If you visit that gallery (or any gallery on my website) and can't find the commentaries associated with the images, just click on the tab labelled "In the Field" immediately below the image to reveal "the words".

More comments about (and images shot with) the Z 7II coming soon.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

2 Feb '21: Hello...Afterglow!

Back in late November I reported some bad news about the fate of the Ocean Light II sailboat - a beautiful 71' sailboat that had hosted yours truly and oodles of our photo tour participants on the BC coast for decades. In short, a freak fire burned the Ocean Light II beyond repair while it was in dry dock for some annual maintenance. Interested parties can read more about the tragic fire and the boat in my 22 November 2020 blog entry...

Well...now I have some very good news - the operators of Ocean Light II Adventures have found and purchased a NEW boat - and are already busy upgrading and re-fitting it as a premium vessel for hosting our 2021 (and beyond) photo tours (as well as some of their own adventures!). The new boat has been christened the Afterglow, and it's a 60' Gulf Commander custom designed for eco-adventures on BC's wonderful coast. In terms of layout - the galley, wheelhouse, and large salon are located on the main deck of the Afterglow. There are 5 staterooms below deck, giving it a capacity of 8 guests with 2 crew...just about perfect for a photo tour! ;-)

How will it stack up compared to the Ocean Light II? Well...most would probably argue that it isn't quite as "pretty" as the Ocean Light II. However, after chatting with Chris and Jenn of Ocean Light II Adventures (and seeing a lot of photos of the new boat), I think it will prove to be even a BETTER vessel for wildlife viewing and coastal wildlife photography. A big reason for this is that the large main deck salon has lots of windows...which means even in inclement weather we'll be able to scan the coastline for wildlife. And, while enjoying a great meal aboard the Afterglow while we are anchored (for example) in the incomparable Khutzeymateen Inlet we'll be able to keep an eye out for grizzlies and wolves (which we would have otherwise missed while eating below deck in the Ocean Light II). What could be better?

While I'm still saddened about what happened to the Ocean Light II, I am SO looking forward to leading great photo tours on the BC coast aboard the Afterglow! It's time to start building some new memories! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

2 Feb '21: 2021 & 2022 Photo Tours Update...

Yesterday I updated my Photo Tours page with the latest status on how COVID-19 has impacted our 2021 & 2022 photo tour schedule to date (after demolishing ALL our 2020 photo tours). Long story short...

1. Our first 6 photo tours of 2021 (from late March through to early June) have been re-scheduled to 2022.

2. Because we have a backlog of folks from our 2020 and first 6 photo tours of 2021 to re-schedule and accommodate on our 2022 photo tours (and possibly on some photo tours in the 2nd half of 2021), we have suspended accepting new bookings for any future photo tours until AT LEAST late autumn of this year. The simple truth is that it makes no sense to accept new bookings until we have a better idea of when we'll be running photo tours again and when we'll have available space on trips!

BUT...for those who may be interested in joining in on any of our amazing photo tours on the BC coast it isn't all bad news...there may actually be new opportunities to join in on some photo tours that you normally have to wait years to participate in. Huh? How is this possible? Well...when it is much closer to the commencement dates of some of our 2021 photo tours (including some of the ones that have already been re-scheduled) we may find that it will be possible to run some of them. The catch is that we may not know we can run the photo tours until shortly before (such as 3-4 weeks before) the trip is scheduled. We fully realize this makes it tough for many to plan for - or participate - in the trips. However, it may also mean that we will end up with openings on photo tours that are traditionally very tough to find a spot on (e.g., virtually any of our Khutzeymateen or Great Bear Rainforest photo tours). SO...we are creating a "Yes I can come on short notice" notification list where folks who can jump in at the last minute will be contacted if it turns out we CAN run a photo tour that we had previously re-scheduled.

So...how would this work for those who signed up? Well...take our super-popular 2021 Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Instructional Photo Tour that takes place in late May of 2021 (and that we have already re-scheduled to 2022). If we find out in late April or early May that we CAN run the trip, we'll contact those on the Notification List and say "hey...the trip is on...you wanna come?" And, if they can come, they come! Of course, we won't accept ANY payments for these last-minute trips until we know for sure we can run them (and the folks on the list can GET to the trip start point).

SO...If YOU would like to be on the NOTIFICATION LIST to possibly participate in on one or more of these "scheduled at the last moment" photo tours just contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca. Please include the following information in your email:

• Your FULL NAME plus FULL CONTACT INFORMATION (including preferred email, best phone number, and mailing address)
• Which last minute Photo Tour (e.g., "any 2021 Khutzeymateen Grizzlies" photo tour) you'd like to be on the notification list for (a list of all 2021 photo tours can be found here).
• Approximately how much lead time you think you'd need to participate in the photo tour.

Simple as pie, eh? Sheesh...is ANYTHING simple anymore? ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

2 Feb '21: Crawling Out Of My Hole!

First off...Happy Groundhog Day! Given the festivities associated with this landmark day, I decided it would be a good day for ME to crawl out of my hole and re-surface - and get back to updating this blog. ;-)

Second...to those who have emailed me wondering if I was OK...yep...doing just fine! Just been busy as heck!

Third...what have I been so busy with? Several things. I've had my hands pretty full with my online tutoring and consulting services (with LOTS of Capture One tutoring!). I've also been shooting and testing my Z 7II a LOT. On that note...I decided that I wanted to get a really good feeling and understanding of how the Z 7II performed for me before saying anything about it publicly (I know...an odd and unusual approach these days, eh?). Testing of a new Z-mount lens also ate a good chunk of my time. Add in re-scheduling our first 6 photo tours of 2021 (along with all the client communication and general gyrations associated with that)...and I think you might have a bit of a feel for why I went "silent" for a little over a month!

Anyway...things have settled down enough for me so that I will be able to get back to my "sorta" regular updates of this blog and website. Oh...and I wasn't totally silent during the last month or so - I have been adding images and image commentaries to my Gallery of Latest Additions, including images captured with (and commentaries about) the Nikon Z 7II. And more images and commentaries will be regularly added over the coming weeks and months...

So...stay tuned...more interesting bits and pieces will be coming your way soon!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca


II. Selected and Popular 2020 Gear-related Blog Entries

7 Dec '20: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review: Final Two Sections Completed!

I have just updated my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E field test and review by adding its final two sections: my Musings from Just Shootin' and the Final Wrap-up.

Here's where to go for the review and/or to check out the new information:

Start at the beginning of the review
Jump directly to the Musings from Just Shootin
Jump directly to the Final Wrap-up

And for those wanting "just the facts", here's the FINAL SUMMARY of my Final Wrap-up section:

There are three negatives of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E that are apparent after even a cursory reading of its specifications - it's quite big, it's quite heavy, and it's VERY expensive.

However, after extensively testing and shooting with the 120-300mm f2.8E the list of its superlatives far outweighs those obvious and real negatives for me. Those superlatives include:

Optically the 120-300mm f2.8E is virtually flawless. It offers exceptional edge-to-edge sharpness at all focal lengths and all apertures, including when shot wide open. And, the quality of the out-of-focus zones (or bokeh) is simply fantastic. Critically (especially for wildlife photographers), the optical performance with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter is exceptional, and qualifies at least as "very good" with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter.

• The Vibration Reduction system of the 120-300mm f2.8E also performs exceptionally well - it was best in class of all the lenses that compete with it most directly. The VR performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E allowed me to fully eliminate camera shake and successfully hand-hold shots down to shutter speeds (in the 1/40s range) where subject movement (especially when shooting wildlife) becomes the biggest concern in capturing a sharp image.

• The Autofocus Performance of the 120-300mm f2.8E shot native (without teleconverters) was simply unmatched in capturing sharp shots of extreme action by any other lens in this field-test. With the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter the autofocus of the 120-300mm f2.8E outperformed the autofocus system of the Nikkor 180-400mm (shot without a teleconverter). And, with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter the autofocus of the 120-300mm matched that of the Nikkor 180-400mm shot with its built-in teleconverter engaged.

When one moves away from testing situations and just starts shooting with the 120-300mm f2.8E in a field setting the most obvious observation is the exceptionally high "hit ratio" of in-focus shots it produces. Paired with a high-end DSLR (or adapted to shoot with a Z-series body) it is almost hard to miss a shot with the 120-300mm f2.8E!

Each of Nikon's last three professional-level telephoto or super-telephoto F-mount zoom introductions have set the performance bar progressively higher. The Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E brought prime-level sharpness and autofocus performance to the popular 70-200mm focal length range. At the time I thought it would be impossible for Nikon (or anyone else) to produce a better zoom lens. But then the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E was introduced, and it similarly produced prime-like image sharpness. Plus, the 180-400 offered this sharpness even when shot fully wide-open. Then came the 120-300mm f2.8E, and it matched (or exceeded!) the optical quality of its two predecessors, and added even better autofocus performance. Critically to wildlife shooters, both the optical performance and the autofocus performance of the 120-300mm extended to situations where teleconverters were used. With the rapid transition to mirrorless technology, I honestly don't know if Nikon will ever introduce another F-mount telephoto or super-telephoto zoom. But even if they don't, they've left F-mount shooters - and those Z-mount shooters willing to use "adapted lenses" - in good shape for years to come. Which is a good thing, especially given that it may be years before we see Z-mount versions of the 120-300mm f2.8E or the 180-400mm f4E.

While comparing the quality of zoom lenses of different focal lengths is fraught with challenges, if I was put on the spot and asked which lens is Nikon's BEST telephoto or super-telephoto zoom lens EVER, I'd cast my vote for the 120-300mm f2.8E.

And the timing of the wrap-up of this lengthy review couldn't be better...later this week my Z 7II (plus MB-N11 battery grip) should arrive! It never ends...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

30 Nov '20: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review: Autofocus Performance

I have just updated my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E field test and review by adding a new section on Autofocus Performance.

Here's where to go for the review and/or to check out the new information:

Start at the beginning of the review
Jump directly to the Autofocus section

For those wanting just the barebones info, here's the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY of the Autofocus section:

If you are looking for a telephoto lens with a blazing fast autofocus system that produces extremely high proportions of sharp shots and keepers of high-speed action sequences you can do no better than the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E. Simply put, the AF system of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E is astonishingly good for capturing action and produced the highest proportion of sharp actions shots of ALL the lenses it was tested against. Note that definitions of "sharp shots" and "keepers" can be found in the section on AF testing methods.

At 300mm the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E had the highest capture rate of sharp shots by a wide margin, and its overall keeper rate was also higher than any other lens in the test. When combined with the TC-14EIII and shot at 400mm the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E produced a much higher rate of sharp shots than the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (shot without its built-in TC engaged). At 400mm the 120-300mm plus TC-14EIII also beat the 180-400mm (sans TC) in overall keeper rate.

When tested at 560mm the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E (plus 2x TC) and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (with built-in TC engaged) produced virtually identical numbers of sharp shots and keepers.

Coming next...my observations from months of "Just Shooting" the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E. Stay tuned...

Cheers...

Brad

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02 Nov 2020: Follow-up on: "My Transition to Mirrorless..."

This entry is a follow-up to two recent blog entries: (1) my 29 October entry where I described the state of my own transition from Nikon DSLR to Nikon mirrorless cameras and where I posed 5 questions to Nikon that would ease the pain and uncertainty of the remainder of my mirrorless transition and (2) my 31 October entry where I presented Thom Hogan's attempt to answer (or provide his "best guesses" for) those same 5 questions.

What follows are my OWN best guesses to those same questions. My guesses are based on publicly available information, a plethora of rumours, email feedback I have received from many since the original 29 October blog entry, and my decades of experience watching Nikon's product development "strategy". My guess are not based on ANY inside information...because I don't HAVE any!

1. When is the pro-level sports/action/wildlife mirrorless body (Z 9?) forecasted to be announced and available (I won't even ask for specs for now!)?

I think we'll have a specification-free "pre-announcement" from Nikon stating simply that they are developing a "flagship" mirrorless pro-level sports/action/wildlife camera - and this pre-announcement will come out a few months BEFORE next summer's Olympics (but only if we have Olympics next summer). And, several Nikon-shooting sports photographers will be using pre-production models of this camera during the Olympics. My guess is that the camera will be in the 24-30 MP range with a BSI sensor and will be capable of about 20 fps using a mechanical shutter. Further, I think the camera will have still photography "performance" as its main design goal with video performance being somewhat "down-played" (similar to the situation with the current and still quite new D6). And, I think it will be a large (relative to a Z 7II) and robust/durable body with built-in vertical controls. I think the public won't be able to lay their hands on the camera for a good period of time AFTER the Olympics (like maybe 6 months)?

Two further comments: First, I'm well aware of the rumors out there of Nikon coming out with a 45 or so MP pro-level sports/action camera that will shoot endlessly at 20 fps or faster. I don't buy it. Sports/action (and wildlife) photographers don't NEED 45 MP for most of their uses, and that much resolution would impact negatively on ISO/low-light performance and the rapid transmission of files. And, reversing the logic a bit here, if Nikon IS capable of producing that kind of "Holy Grail" camera (with D6-level ISO performance at 45 MP and faster than a D6) I'll be darned pissed about spending money on a Z 7II not too long before that "can do everything perfectly" Z 9 is introduced! ;-)

Second, this doesn't mean Nikon won't come out with ANOTHER high-end camera in the same time frame - and I think THAT one might well be a high resolution camera (likely 60 MP) in a pro-style body. This could well be the camera that Thom described below when he said "I think this is going to be more like a Z 7II in a better body, with the pro features rather than the consumer/prosumer ones (e.g. no Mode dial, Banks)."

2. Is there a mirrorless equivalent to the D500 (i.e., an enthusiasts/semi-pro DX mirrorless body) coming in the near future (or ever)?

My guess is NO. While I think a "mirrorless D500" would sell well, an increasing number of photographers are realizing that you can just take a higher resolution FX body (like a D850 or a Z 7II) and crop the files to get the equivalent of a higher-end DX camera. And I think Nikon is well aware of this. Of course that assumes you can produce a hight resolution mirrorless body that matches both the "snappiness" and the autofocus performance (especially speed and tracking) of a D500.

3. Are either of the two "long" lenses on the current lens road map (the 100-400 S-Line and the 200-600) going to be pro-level lenses (which pretty much equates to "fixed aperture") or are they going to be consumer-to-enthusiast level variable-aperture zooms?

My guess is that these two zooms will be variable aperture zooms that aren't cheap, but much more affordable (and thus having a WAY bigger market) than the pro-level fixed aperture zooms in F-mount of the last few years (like the 120-300mm f2.8E and the 180-400mm f4E). I think these lenses will be used by Nikon to further demonstrate how how the Z-mount allows their optical engineers to produce very "optically solid" lenses (think "biting sharp even when shot wide open" and "edge-to-edge sharpness"). Unfortunately for low-light wildlife shooters (like me) these lenses will simply have too small of a maximum aperture (i.e., will be "too slow") for their most common type of shooting. And, like with the F-mount 80-400mm, with their larger maximum apertures they simply won't allow their users to isolate their subject against creamy smooth backgrounds as effectively as the bigger and faster fixed aperture F-mount zooms do. But zillions of shooters won't care! ;-)

OK...I'm going to guess the answer the next two questions at once...here are the questions:

4. Are we going to see ANY super-telephoto primes in the next 2-3 years?

5. Are we going to see ANY super-telephoto PF lenses? When?

OK...I personally think it would be a brilliant move for Nikon to go with two PF prime super-telephoto lenses in the Z-mount - a 400mm and a 600mm. If I had a dollar for every time a Canon (or Sony) users have looked at my 500 PF with envy...well you know the old saying. AND, they'd come in WAY cheaper - and thus have way larger markets - than non-PF counterparts would. If Nikon did this (and assuming they had a pro-level sports-action body to go with them) I can even see diehard "DSLR holdouts" going mirrorless just because of these two lenses! In my perfect world they'd be a 400mm f4S and a 600mm f5.6S - and I have to say I'd be tempted to buy both! If the 400mm PF was an f5.6 lens I would likely pass on it. And I'll go out on my limb with my guess - I think these two lenses WILL both be PF lenses (and boy do I hope I'm right!). When available? Not until after the 2021 Olympics.

Anyway...there you go. Now we just have to sit back and wait. And wait, and wait...arrgh!

To all my readers in the USA - good luck tomorrow and stay safe, eh? May rationality prevail without violence.

Cheers...

Brad

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31 Oct 2020: Feedback on: "My Transition to Mirrorless..."

In my blog entry of October 29 (immediately below) I described the state of my transition to mirrorless. Basically I consider myself "halfway there" with a strong mirrorless kit up to 200mm in focal length, but with the bulk of my gear used for "serious" wildlife shooting still being DSLR-based. I ended that blog entry with 5 questions - directed more or less at Nikon - about what new mirrorless gear is coming our way over the next few years (though I do not expect an answer from them). The answers to those 5 questions would be invaluable in assisting me (and a LOT of others) in planning and budgeting for the transition of the remainder of my wildlife kit to mirrorless.

That blog entry has attracted a lot of eyeballs and produced a lot of feedback. One attempt to answer my 5 questions came from a well-known writer/photographer and Nikon "pundit" that many Nikon-o-philes will be familiar with - Thom Hogan. I thought many readers would be interested in Thom's stab at answering the questions, so I am presenting them here (with permission). Please note that these answers aren't necessarily fact - they are Thom's best guesses based upon publicly available and some private information.

1. When is the pro-level sports/action/wildlife mirrorless body (Z 9?) forecasted to be announced and available (I won't even ask for specs for now!)?

"We'll see a pro-level body probably tested at the Tokyo Olympics, probably announced late in 2021. But note I didn't say sports/action/wildlife. I think this is going to be more like a Z 7II in a better body, with the pro features rather than the consumer/prosumer ones (e.g. no Mode dial, Banks)."

2. Is there a mirrorless equivalent to the D500 (i.e., an enthusiasts/semi-pro DX mirrorless body) coming in the near future (or ever)?

"Not that I know of. Canon will hit this space with an RF body, but I haven't heard a peep on the Nikon side that indicates they'll go that route. We will get an update to the Z50, I believe, and that will add features/performance, but that is still down in the D7xxx type of camera."

3. Are either of the two "long" lenses on the current lens road map (the 100-400 S-Line and the 200-600) going to be pro-level lenses (which pretty much equates to "fixed aperture") or are they going to be consumer-to-enthusiast level variable-aperture zooms?

"No, both will be variable aperture, I'm pretty sure. But S-line is a bit like the old Canon L designation: it means that the lens is designed for optical and field excellence. I expect the 100-400mm to be quite good. It needs to be good."

4. Are we going to see ANY super-telephoto primes in the next 2-3 years?

"Yes, 400mm and 600mm. Demonstrated in July 2021, not sure when they'll be available."

5. Are we going to see ANY super-telephoto PF lenses? When?

"It's possible that for the above two lenses, one or both of them are PF. But don't know enough about that yet."

What are MY best guesses to the answers to those 5 questions? I'm going to ruminate about them for a few more days (and collect more feedback from readers) before I answer. November 3rd should be a good day to post those answers - I'm sure nothing else newsworthy will be happening on THAT day! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

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29 Oct 2020: My Transition to Mirrorless - Happy @ Halfway...But Stalled?

Like many still photographers I'm trying to find the least painful and most efficient way to transition from a DSLR-based kit over to a mirrorless-based kit. And, again like everyone else (regardless of camera brand), I'm doing it in an almost complete absence of information about when key future products will be available to me. So, as a nature and wildlife photographer I have no idea when key tools like a pro-level sports/action/wildlife mirrorless Nikon body or Z-mount pro-level super-telephoto primes or zooms will be introduced (and actually shipping!). While managing my own mirrorless transition I am also trying to ensure that at any one point in time I have the best possible kit (meaning the one that will deliver the highest quality images under the conditions I normally shoot) in my possession.

I think it's important to point out I'm not making the mirrorless transition "for the fun of it" or simply because change is exciting (to some). First off, it's my opinion that the handwriting is on the wall regarding the long-term future of the DSLR (and, in the shorter term, how much more development of cutting edge DSLR products we'll see). And, more importantly, after using a Nikon Z7 since September of 2018 I am convinced that Nikon's Z-series cameras already work better for me than Nikon DSLR's for selected uses - and have the potential to work better for me than Nikon DSLR's for ALL uses. To explain exactly what I mean by this statement I have to give you a little background on my style of photography and the conditions under which I most commonly do my "serious" shooting...

I am a dedicated (and full-time professional) "outdoor photographer" focused primarily on photographing wildlife. Most of my wildlife photography takes place on British Columbia's s spectacular coast - a place that is often wet and overcast and is generally a low-light environment. Much of my shooting on the coast takes place from within small boats that force me hand-hold lenses (of all sizes) the vast majority of the time. If I have a "specialty" and/or a preference, it's to capture wider-view images of wildlife or "animalscapes" (feel free to check out my Animalscapes Gallery here). But, given the breath-taking vistas that are common (often very ephemeral) in the locations I shoot, I am also a keen "opportunistic" landscape shooter. At this point I am almost exclusively a shooter of stills - and even three months ago I would have described myself as a "vidiot". But...my own personal "COVID-pivot" in my business model shifted me from offering in-person private tutoring to offering customized remote (online) tutoring, and along the way I was forced to spend some time learning the basics of video shooting. And, I'm now not ruling out shooting some video in the field. But, that being said, I am still much more concerned about how a camera (mirrorless or DSLR) performs for shooting stills than I am about its advanced features for shooting video.

OK...flash back to September of 2018. When I took possession of my Z7 plus 24-70mm f4S lens (plus the mount adapter FTZ) I also owned a Nikon D850 DSLR. Most know that these two cameras have identical resolution (45.7 MP) and, at least for me, they have the same primary purpose - shooting animalscapes and/or landscapes. Neither are my primary wildlife cameras - for that I then owned a Nikon D5 (now replaced by a Nikon D6) and a D500 along with a very strong lineup of telephoto and super-telephoto zoom and prime lenses. Based on my previous experience with mirrorless cameras (including a number of Olympus cameras and both a Nikon V1 and V2) I had no illusion that the generation 1 Z-series cameras would be in the same class as the highly-evolved D5 or D500 in overall "snappiness" or autofocus speed.

However, in very short order I realized that for MY uses the Z7 kicked the butt of the D850. First, (and much to my surprise) I loved the EVF and, in particular, the information displayed in it AND the instant feedback on exposure it offered. And, as one who has always been a little disappointed with the optical quality of Nikon's wide-angle zoom lenses, I instantly was impressed with the optical quality of the 24-70mm f4s lens (in my real-world testing it kicked the tar out of the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8E and, because of the IBIS system of the Z7, I could hand-hold it at lower shutter speeds). Other bonuses I instantly appreciated with the Z-system were the ability to focus almost ANYWHERE in the scene as seen through the viewfinder (I often like extreme placement of my subject in animalscape shooting), the improved accuracy of focusing (again, especially when the subject is WAY out of the central region of the frame), and the plugging up of the AF-tuning rabbit hole (I HATE AF-tuning lenses!!).

Fast forward to today. I currently own a Z7 and five Z-series lenses. I have a Z 7II and one more Z-series lens (the 50mm f1.2S) on order. Given the updates on the Z 7II cover almost all the critical items on my "hope list" (see my October 6 blog entry entitled "Some Musings on the Z 7II" for my complete "hope list") I am optimistic that I will be able to use the Z 7II for MORE of my wildlife shooting in 2021 and beyond, but I have no illusion that I'll be able to leave my D6 and D500 at home on serious wildlife shooting sessions.

So at this point I have what I consider "full focal-length coverage" up to 200mm with my mirrorless Nikon gear. I have opted for a mix of zoom and fairly fast prime Z-mount lenses to cover my needs and I have to say that in each case the Z-mount lens has outperformed the F-mount lens it replaced. The common thread I'm observing with the Z-mount lenses is simple (and actually what Nikon promised the Z-mount would allow them to do with lenses) - they're sharper throughout the frame (and pretty much at maximum sharpness) when shot wide open and definitely sharper on the edges at virtually ALL apertures when shot on a high-res body like the Z7. Here's some additional comments about each of my Z-mount lenses:

Nikkor 14-30mm f4S: Not a lens I use a lot, but in my collection for those "opportunistic" landscapes and animalscapes. Purchased to replace my Nikkor 16-35mm f4G VR and I instantly found the Z-mount 14-30mm produced sharper shots, including at much lower shutter speeds when hand-held (i.e., the VR system was much better). Note that in my case lenses in this focal range are "take it along if I'm not over the weight limit for traveling" lenses and thus small size and lower weight takes precedence over the larger aperture of "faster" lenses like the 14-24mm f2.8S.

Nikkor 24-70mm f4S: Similar use for me to that of the 14-30mm f4S...so another "f8 and be there" lens (tho' I consider this lens more "mandatory" to be in my kit when I head to the BC coast than my 14-30). In this case I already owned two F-mounts in this same focal range - the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8E and the Sigma Art 24-70mm f2.8 DG OS. Bottom line in this case is real simple for me - the Z-mount 24-70mm f4S is WAY smaller and lighter than the two F-mount 24-70's and offers equal or better optical performance (especially on the edges). And, like in the case with the 14-30, better VR performance. As an aside, I know several shooters who own the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8S and all are absolutely raving about its optical performance...and I have no reason to doubt them. But for me the faster 2.8 aperture and possibly slightly better optical performance aren't worth the size/weight penalty of the f2.8S version (remember, for me this is an "f8 and be there" lens!).

Nikkor 35mm f1.8S: I bought this one almost solely for video use and it has delivered exactly what I wanted from it - silent autofocus and thin DoF (I'm using it with my current Z7 as a high quality web cam for my online tutoring). Note that I also own the highly regarded Sigma Art 35mm f1.4 but functionally replaced it with the Z-mount 35mm for two aspects of its performance when used for video - the incessant audible chattering of the AF system when used for video and its almost dizzying focus pull speeds. At this point I have not tested/compared the two lenses for their optical performance when shooting stills (I MAY do this in the future, but it's not super high on my priority list).

Nikkor 50mm f1.2S (on order): I ordered this lens for use in shooting both stills and video and largely for the same reason - the expectation of biting sharp in-focus zones and dreamy smooth out-of-focus zones (yes, I am a lover of good lens bokeh). I have high hopes for this lens for shooting animalscape shots with the Z 7II.

Nikkor 85mm f1.8S: OK...this lens is simply spectacular. I love shooting with an 85mm lens and I have a whole slew of F-mount versions to compare the Z-mount against, including the Nikkor 85mm f1.4G, the Nikkor 85mm f1.8G, and the "used to be incomparable" Sigma Art 85mm f1.4. Compared to the Nikkor F-mounts the Z-mount is sharper shot wide open, sharper on the edges at all apertures, and has virtually NO chromatic aberration (both of the F-mount are really bad on CA with close subjects). How does the Nikkor 85mm f1.8S compare against the Sigma Art 85mm f1.4? For those who don't know, the Sigma Art 85mm is still ranked by dxomark.com as the optically best lens they have ever tested, including against...well...EVERYTHING! Optically the Sigma Art 85mm IS simply incredible! I haven't had a chance to fully field test the two lenses head-to-head yet, but under my preliminary testing the gap in optical performance between the two lenses seems exceptionally small (we're talking major pixel-peeping to see ANY difference). As in - without intense scrutiny there's very little difference in the images they produce. And, the Nikkor Z-mount 85mm is shorter, narrower, and under half the weight.

Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S: If you thought a 70-200mm lens couldn't be better than the F-mount 70-200mm f2.8E, well...you were wrong! The Z-mount 70-200mm f2.8S is better - in pretty much every meaningful way. But to be clear, the differences aren't huge...the Z-mount version is slightly sharper when shot wider open and through to about f3.5, it has slightly sharper edges at virtually all apertures, and the VR on the Z-system DOES allow you to successfully hand-hold the 70-200mm f2.8S down to slightly slower shutter speeds than the 70-200mm f2.8E (when both are shot on a Z7). Autofocus speed? Can't say yet as the limiting factor in AF performance in the equation is the Z7 body, not either lens (this may change with the Z 7II). Bokeh? I can't separate them...both have excellent out-of-focus zones. Oh...and both lenses are about the same size and weight.

So, at this point I am absolutely convinced that my transition to the Nikon mirrorless Z-system has left me with gear that better meets my needs (and produces better images!) when shooting landscapes and animalscapes at 200mm or less than any Nikon DSLR (and F-mount lenses!). Heck, forget the inherent advantages of a mirrorless body compared to a DSLR - the higher quality of the Z-mount lenses alone has made my mirrorless transition at the 200mm and less focal length range worthwhile!

What about the future...do I see the need for any additional lenses or camera bodies in the Z-system for shooting subjects in the 200mm or less focal length range? Well, to be honest, I have no urgent needs. Of course, if/when Nikon introduces a higher resolution option in a mirrorless body (e.g., 60 MP) I will certainly consider it. And, if they happen to introduce a micro/macro Z-mount lens in the 135mm to 150mm range with an f2.8 aperture I would snap it up in a minute. But, aside from that, I'm pretty much set.

What about the other "half" of my shooting - my serious wildlife work - how do I see that transition to mirrorless playing out? Good question! At this point Nikon doesn't have any mirrorless hardware announced - or even on a their published lens road map - that appear poised to challenge the quality or performance of what already exists in my longer focal range DSLR wildlife kit. For the record, the core part of that kit consists of two DSLR's (Nikon D6, D500) and three critical lenses (Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E, Nikkor 180-400mm f4E, Nikkor 500mm f5.6 PF). So...until we see a pro-level action/sports/wildlife mirrorless body and some pro-level telephoto and/or super-telephoto lenses it's likely that my mirrorless gear purchases are pretty much frozen!

In planning (and budgeting) for the transition of my wildlife kit there's certainly some questions I would LOVE to know the answer to. Specifically...

1. When is the pro-level sports/action/wildlife mirrorless body (Z 9?) forecasted to be announced and available (I won't even ask for specs for now!)?

2. Is there a mirrorless equivalent to the D500 (i.e., an enthusiasts/semi-pro DX mirrorless body) coming in the near future (or ever)?

3. Are either of the two "long" lenses on the current lens road map (the 100-400 S-Line and the 200-600) going to be pro-level lenses (which pretty much equates to "fixed aperture") or are they going to be consumer-to-enthusiast level variable-aperture zooms?

4. Are we going to see ANY super-telephoto primes in the next 2-3 years?

5. Are we going to see ANY super-telephoto PF lenses? When?

Come on Nikon...I think it would help your loyal shooters a ton (and not hurt YOU one bit) to break from the status quo and give us a better idea what's in the product pipeline! Or would you prefer we switch to Sony (or...perish the thought...Canon!)?

For some reason I think I'm going to be living with my current "short focal length mirrorless" and "longer focal length DSLR" twin/mixed (Jekyll and Hyde?) nature and wildlife photography kit for quite some time! And during that we'll all continue to be treated like mushrooms (kept in the dark and fed a lot of...)!

Cheers...

Brad

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Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#mirrorless_transition_1

26 Oct 2020: Nikon D6 Pro Tip: Creating and Using Multiple "Recall Shooting Functions" Settings

Despite being hampered in traveling by constraints imposed by COVID-19 I've been able to find time and subject matter near my home to continue to shoot and test my Nikon D6. As many Nikon shooters know the upgrades and improvements made to the Nikon D6 aren't huge headline-grabbing and radically new features. Instead there are a whole lot of small changes. And now - 20,000 images or so into the life of my D6 - I am finding that collectively these changes are very much to much liking. I am finding I am getting great results out of the "biggest" change to the D6 - its re-tooled AF system. And I'm judging that by a noticeable increase in my hit rate of in-focus shoots, especially during action shooting (which is no small accomplishment given how well the D5 already handled action shooting).

And there's another "small" change to the D6 that I really, really like - the tweaking of one of the optional functions that can be assigned to the buttons on the camera - the "Recall shooting functions" option. What does this option do - and what did Nikon change in this button option? The "Recall shooting functions" option allows the user to quickly switch a large group of camera settings simply by pressing (and holding) one (or more) of the D6's customizable buttons. The settings that can be switched with a push of the button include:

Exposure mode
Shutter speed
Aperture
Exposure compensation
ISO sensitivity setting (including if Auto ISO is engaged)
Metering
White Balance
AF-area mode
Focus tracking with lock-on
AF-ON

Moving along...in my case I choose to use "Recall shooting functions" to store a group of settings "optimized" for shooting action (based on the fact that with wildlife shooting action often breaks out unexpectedly and you have to react to it FAST...or miss it altogether). So...if I am shooting an animalscape shot where I'm trying to keep my ISO low (and consequently my shutter speed low) and I'm using either Single-point or 9-point Dynamic-area AF area modes and then some totally unexpected action breaks out I can switch a whack of settings fast and successfully capture the action simply by pushing a button and activating "Recall shooting functions". So here's how - at least for now - I have my "Recall shooting functions" option set up:

Exposure mode = M
Shutter speed = 1/2000s
Aperture = f4
Exposure compensation = 0.0
ISO sensitivity setting = 100 ISO, but with Auto ISO on and with a "ceiling" of ISO 12,800
Metering = Matrix
White Balance = Auto0
AF-area mode = Group C2 (which I have set to 7x7)
Focus tracking with lock-on = Quick vs. Delay at 3, Subject motion = Erratic
AF-ON = toggled to "On"

Now, I personally consider the "Recall shooting functions" to be a high priority option and, as such, I want to be able to access it when shooting either horizontally or vertically and via a button that I can actually HOLD while activating the shutter (i.e., while shooting). Others may have more manual dexterity than me, but of the three programmable buttons on the front side of the D6 (i.e., Preview, Fn1, Fn2) the only one I can quickly get to and HOLD while shooting is the Fn1 button (I reserve the Preview and Fn2 buttons to features that function with a quick push and then "stick" - like "Framing grid display" and "Viewfinder virtual horizon"). So I have chosen the Fn1 button to use to "Recall shooting functions". Any drawback to this? Yep, try getting to the Fn1 button (and holding it) while shooting vertically using the vertical shutter release - it's pretty much impossible. SO...to solve this problem I have programmed a second button to the same "Recall shooting functions" option. What button? The L-Fn (Lens Function) button...which is on pretty much all the lenses I shoot with my D6 and which can be easily accessed when shooting vertically or horizontally (given that there are 4 of them located around the lens barrel on all the lenses I shoot with the D6).

OK...after shooting with the "Recall shooting functions" option on the Fn1 and L-Fn button for a while I found myself wanting something more - I wanted to have several "banks" of "Recall shooting functions" available to me. This became glaringly obvious to me when I was testing different AF-area modes during an early autumn snowfall and all my Group Area AF modes were picking up falling snowflakes between myself and my subject (rendering my subject out-of-focus) while other AF-area modes suitable for shooting action (including 49-point Dynamic-area mode and 3D-tracking area mode) were distracted a lot less by the falling snow. So that left me thinking "Damn...I wish I could set up multiple sets of shooting functions and there appears to be no way to do that." Well...that's the way it SEEMS at first glance...but then it slowly dawned on me (I can be amazingly non-bright) that because the "Recall shooting functions" were accessed (and stored) within a Custom settings bank - and because you have four different Custom settings banks (A through D) - you CAN set up different sets of shooting functions in a D6. Problem solved.

Next problem...how do you switch quickly BETWEEN your custom settings banks (so you can quickly change your stored shooting functions). A quick perusal of the options available for each button on the D6 will show that several of them can be set to switch (or toggle) through the Shooting banks, but none can be set to switch (toggle) through the 4 Custom banks. Damn!

But wait...there's ANOTHER way to switch between functions on the D6 - using the re-designed (and now useful) i-Menu. AND, Custom banks ARE one of the camera functions you can have available in the i-Menu! Best of all, the i-Menu is a touch-sensitive menu on the rear LCD of the camera, which makes it fast to use. So...to switch between one Custom bank and another you just have to hit the i-Menu button, touch the Custom banks icon, and then double tap on the Custom bank of your choice...and presto...you're in a different Custom bank! Takes me two seconds or less to do this in the field. Cool!

Note that to have your D6 set up to toggle between Custom banks with different shooting functions stored in them (and without confusing the heck out of yourself) you have to have EVERY setting in the various Custom banks set up identically EXCEPT the controls for your buttons that you have assigned for "Recall shooting functions". In my case the ONLY thing that varies between my four Custom banks is the AF-area mode set within the "Recall shooting functions". And here - and for now while I'm experimenting with shooting action with different AF-area modes - are how I have my AF-area modes set up in each Custom bank:

Custom bank A: Group Area 7x7 area mode
Custom bank B: Group Area 5x5 area mode (for more distant subjects when "grabbing foreground" might be a problem with 7x7 Group area mode)
Custom bank C: 49-point Dynamic area mode (for reasonably close subjects that are moving steadily and where I want a distinct part of the subject in focus)
Custom bank D: 3D-tracking area mode (as above but where subject may be moving more erratically, thus making it hard to keep within the area defined by the 49-point mode).

And...a final "real world" note on these settings and the concept behind it. The vast majority of wildlife photographers that I know that use Nikon cameras that have Shooting banks and Custom banks (e.g., D500, D850, D5, D6,) only rarely set up their Shooting banks and almost never utilize anything but the default Custom bank. This is largely because it IS very possible to get VERY "lost in your camera" if you do set these banks up AND if you don't use these functions/banks frequently enough for them to become second nature. So if you are a D6 owner but shoot it only sporadically (i.e., you're a binge shooter like so many others)...this method of "extending" the "Recall shooting functions" option may be more trouble than it's worth for you. But I love it! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

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Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#anchor_D6_MultipleRecalls

14 Oct 2020: Some Thoughts on the Evolved Nikon Z 7II

Late last night Nikon announced the details about their new generation of Z mirrorless cameras - the Nikon Z 6II and the Nikon Z 7II. You can view all the nitty gritty details and specifications about the cameras in several places online, including your chosen official Nikon website or places like dpreview.com or nikonrumors.com. After watching Nikon's flashy announcement video and looking at the specs of both cameras I think it's fair to say that the two cameras pretty much evolved in parallel (i.e., similar overall changes to both cameras) and that the changes are - at least at this point - more evolutionary than revolutionary in nature.

SOME IMPORTANT CAVEATS: Because I own and have shot a lot with the Nikon Z7 (and I don't own a Z6), I'm going to limit my comments to the changes/evolution of the Z 7II. Obviously with the cameras evolving in parallel much of what I'm about to say probably applies to the Z 6II as well. And...my comments are biased by the type of shooter I am - I'm a wildlife/nature photography who primarily shoots still images. I also happen to own a Nikon D500 and a Nikon D6, which allows me to limit my uses of my Z7 (and soon my Z 7II) to the areas that it excels rather than trying to "make it do everything for me". Said another way, I'm NOT expecting a Z7 or Z 7II to be top-notch sports-action camera or my primary wildlife camera (the latter of which is what the D500/D6 combination does superbly). I use my Z7 for landscape shooting and, when the scene justifies it, wider-view wildlife shots (i.e., animalscapes).

Back on October 6 I posted a blog entry entitled "Some Musings on the Nikon Z 7 II" (see it immediately below this entry) where I outlined what I HOPED to see in a Z 7II. I divided my list into two parts - Critical Improvements and Less Critical Improvements. The bottom line is that of the 6 items in my Critical Improvements list Nikon has appeared to have fully or partially addressed at least 5 of them. So, in that regard I'm happy! But the real kicker is that until we have the cameras in-hand and have shot with them we won't know how well Nikon has addressed some of the "issues". For instance, the FIRST item on my list (i.e., the most important thing to me for Nikon to address) was "Autofocus Performance Improvements" - and based on the specs of the Z 7II (including the addition of a 2nd Expeed processor) - and what Nikon has already said about it - it appears that AF performance of the Z 7II WILL be better than that of the Z7. But until I can shoot with the Z 7II I won't know if the AF improvements are sufficient to please me.

Autofocus performance enhancements aside, other improvements in the Z 7II that I am already sure will please me include its faster frame rate, larger burst size, and the addition of vertical controls via the new MB-N11 battery grip (which has EXACTLY the vertical controls I was hoping for, including the addition of a vertical FN button). With these changes alone I'm quite confident (but won't know for sure until I start shooting with it) that I'll be able to do significantly MORE of my wildlife shooting with the Z 7II than I could with my Z7. How much more remains to be seen.

I'll make two speculative guesses about the Z 7II right now...

1. When the dust settles (including after some of the expected firmware updates over time) I suspect that the Z 7II will end up being simply an EXCELLENT "all-rounder" of a camera. And, despite the pounding that I think the camera will get in online forums, I think that that those who buy it with an open mind will grow to just LOVE it.

2. As already noted by dpreview.com, it does seem like the "power" added to the new Z's through the addition of a 2nd Expeed processor is a bit under-utilized. But...I'm guessing that this added processing power will allow Nikon to really "hop-up" the performance of the new Z's via firmware updates over the next year or two. In buying a Z 7II I am not counting on this to be the case (I'm buying it for what it is, not what it might become)...but I am hopeful that the evolution of the new Z's (via firmware updates) will be significant for at least a few years...

That's it for now - I'll have a whole lot more to say about the Z 7II when it's appropriate - meaning when I've actually USED the camera! And I am really looking forward to using it! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

6 Oct 2020: Some Musings on the Nikon Z 7II

Around a week ago Nikon "pre-announced" that updates to their Z6 and Z7 mirrorless cameras were coming soon. These new cameras are called the Z 7II and the Z 6II, which is a bit of a departure from Nikon's normal practice of tacking "s" on the end of the name of a new model update. So instead of a Z6s and a a Z7s we have the II's. Although I'm sure some out there are convinced this new naming protocol is significant and has deep meaning (perhaps a code intended to communicate evil messages to some cult of camera cannibals, presumably all ex-Canon shooters), I'm not even going to speculate on what this new naming convention might mean.

At this point Nikon has not released specifications, prices, or shipping dates of the updated Z Series cameras - we won't get that information until October 14. There have been rumoured specifications published on, quite logically, nikonrumors.com - you can check those out right here. I expect that the rumoured specs are reasonably accurate and I certainly don't have any inside information that allows me to refute or add to any part of the rumoured specification list.

For the record I quite like my Z7 and, in general, it has surpassed my expectations for the uses I put it to. And, for those uses (which primarily are shooting landscapes and animalscapes) I prefer it over its DSLR counterpart - the D850. However, there are a number of improvements that I hope to see on the Z 7II that would, collectively, turn it into a much more versatile camera for me and expand its range of uses (for at least me!). I won't comment here on the Z6 or Z 6II as I don't own a Z6 and have shot with it very little. And, it's likely I won't acquire a Z 6II. Any...here's a list of things I HOPE to see on the Z 7II.

I. CRITICAL IMPROVEMENTS:

1. Autofocus Performance Improvements:

To be honest, I have never thought the AF system of the Z7 was that bad. On the positive side, I have found the AF accuracy of it to be BETTER than the Nikon DSLR that competes most directly with it - the D850. Initial acquisition of focus on a Z7 is not bad either. And, I very much like that you could focus almost anywhere on the viewfinder (and not just the "central" region like in all of Nikon's DSLR's). Moreover, with my own photography style I didn't find the focus-tracking on y Z7 to be limiting. Really. And that's because when I am shooting action I am almost always panning with the subject - and if I'm using a D5 or D6 I opt for either a group area AF area mode or a Dynamic Area AF area mode (i.e., I almost never rely on a "tracking mode" per se). So, if I'm shooting action with my Z7 I use either Wide-area AF (S) and Wide-area AF (L), or Dynamic-area AF area modes. I find they work quite well if the subject is moving laterally across the frame.

However, there is one area of AF that is important to me where my Z7 is absolutely deficient relative to my DSLR's (which right now are a D500 and a D6). This is when shooting a moving object where a large component of its motion is either towards me or away from me. In these cases the Z7 simply does not refocus quickly enough to keep the leading edge of the subject in focus. So if a bird in flight is flying AT me (or a bear is running toward me) a large proportion of the shots of the head of the animal invariably end up out of focus (and with the shoulder regions of the animal sharp as a tack!). So...if Nikon gets the Predictive Autofocus capabilities and/or the "re-focusing speed" of the Z 7II up to how well the D500 (or D850) work and I'll be quite happy. If Nikon gets those capabilities up to the level of a D6 and I'll be ecstatic!

One of the rumoured specification upgrades to the generation 2 Z's is that it will have a "dual EXPEED processor" - and many are thinking this is what is needed to improve the AF performance of the Z's. Whatever it takes - just improve it! ;-)

2. Autofocus Feature Improvements:

I'd like to see the actual feature sets of the generation 2 Z's to more closely mimic those of Nikon's DSLR's. So instead of providing us with Wide-area AF (S) and Wide-area AF (L) area modes please give us Group Area modes (Wide-area modes on the Z work very much like the Group area AF modes anyway). And, give us some choice on the size of the Dynamic-area "watch zone" - so instead of ONE Dynamic-area mode please give us something like what you get on a D500, D850, or D500 - perhaps a 9-point Dynamic-area mode, a 49-point Dynamic-area mode, etc. Going hand-in-hand with these changes would be custom options more similar to those of Nikon's DSLR's...so please give us more control over how the focus lock-on works, more options the AF-C priority selection, etc.

What about things like animal eye detection, et cetera? Well...go ahead and call me old-fashioned, but I care much less about those type of "flashy" features than I do rock solid performance of basic features (see my comments above about improving the Predictive Autofocus capabilities of the Z's). I KNOW having features like animal eye detection helps on the sales floor (be it brick and mortar or virtual), but in the real world when I'm shooting a portrait of a grizzly I DON'T want to lock onto the eye anyway (I won't digress into a discussion of how to keep a grizzly's eye AND nose pad simultaneously in focus here, but suffice to say you don't do it by locking onto the eye).

3. Vertical Controls:

Yep, I really miss the lack of vertical controls on the Z7. In my opinion it's a huge ergonomic omission - and NOT having it limits my use of the Z7 significantly. Unlike what I wrote in my Z 9 Wishlist (blog entry of 4 August), I am completely fine with the vertical controls on a Z 7II being supplied via adding a battery grip. So...what I am hoping for is a vertical shutter release, vertical command dial, vertical sub-command dial, vertical AF-on button (that can be customized for use with alternate functions), vertical "joystick" enabling "toggling" of the AF points, and possibly even one vertical Fn button.

4. Camera Speed Improvements:

When I say "camera speed" I am referring to two things: a higher maximum frame rate AND a quicker "wake-up" when the camera is turned on OR the camera is raised to your eye. First the frame rate - I'd like to see a maximum mechanical shutter frame rate of 10-12 fps, but I could live with 8 fps. And, I'd like to see an electronic shutter frame rate of about 20 fps. On the lag time when you turn the camera on or raise it to your eye...cut that AT LEAST in half. I have missed a lot of shots with my Z7 while I waited for it to wake up.

5. Improved Burst Depth:

Here I am referring to the number of frames that can be shot at maximum frame rate BEFORE the frame rate begins to slow down. This isn't solely dependent on buffer size - it's also dependent on how fast the data is written to the memory card. Anyway...give us 50 frames and I'll be happy (but note I'd want more than this on Nikon's mirrorless flagship sports/action camera).

6. Improved Viewfinder Behavior During High Frame Rate Bursts:

So...here I'm looking for a reduction in black out time AND complete avoidance of "projecting" static frames in the viewfinder during a high frame rate bursts. When shooting a Z7 in Continuous High mode the black out time is significant and distracting (making it hard to shoot a moving subject) and when shooting a Z7 in Continuous High Extended mode the viewfinder behavior is just weird (talk about a "herky-jerky" look...holy smokes!).

II. LESS CRITICAL IMPROVEMENTS:

7. Dual CFexpress/XQD Card Slots:

I know having dual card slots is a "must feature" for a lot of shooters (and I can appreciate why), but for me it's not a very big deal. But, if Nikon DOES give us two slots I'd prefer them to be of the same type - and I'd like BOTH of them to be CFexpress/XQD compatible, even if that means the camera has to be slightly larger. For ME, if you offer a camera with ONE CFexpress/XQD slot and ONE SD slot...well...it might as well just have one slot.

8. Custom Button Options:

In an ideal world I'd like to see at least one more customizable button on the camera - and preferably on the right side of the lens mount (where the "Preview" button is found on Nikon's DSLR's). And, more importantly, I'd like to see the custom button options (i.e., in the Custom Controls menu item) allow you to program one or more buttons (including the Lens-function - or L-Fn - buttons) to switch between AF area modes. And, if Nikon does this, I think it should be a "push to toggle" (between AF area modes) rather than a "push and hold" button.

And, while I'm at it, another option I'd LOVE to see on the various programmable buttons is a "Recall Shooting Functions" option as found on the Nikon D6. I simply LOVE this function.

9. DoF Viewfinder Display?

The current first generation of Z's can display an almost dizzying array of info on their EVF's. So I feel almost like a glutton asking for one extra bit of info available...but I'll do it anyway: I'd love to be able to get a readout of my current depth of field (DoF) when I am looking at my subject through the viewfinder. Preferably it would be a readout of the DoF both in front of and behind the subject (in any units you want), but I could live with a total DoF value. The camera has all the info it needs to calculate the DoF...so why not do it? While I'm pretty good at guessing my DoF, I'm still guessing!

10. New Sensor with Increased Resolution?

While I would not turn down more resolution (where IS that 60 MP sensor we've been hearing about??), realistically I'm fine with Nikon using the Z7 sensor in the Z 7II. And if adding a 60 MP sensor would either slow down the camera (i.e., slower frame rate, smaller burst depth, or both) or negatively impact on the Z 7II's ISO performance...then I'm fine with "just" 46 MP! ;-)

11. New Video Features?

This vague specification improvement is on nikonrumor's list, but even though I am now shooting some video with my Z7, at this point improved video performance would be lost on me. I wouldn't complain about new video features that I may come to use in the future, but it won't impact at ALL on whether or not I purchase a Z 7II.

And that's pretty much all I am hoping for - and in some cases expecting - in a Z 7II. If Nikon does deliver the bulk of my critical improvements above I'll be a happy camper and there's no doubt that I'll be using the Z 7II for a larger proportion of my total shooting than I use my Z7 for. And I would certainly use it for MORE of my wildlife shooting.

Well...we'll soon know - we'll have the specs in one short week. I'm looking forward to seeing them. ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Musings_Z7II

17 Sept 2020: The NIKKOR 180-400mm f4E Field Test & Review


The NIKKOR 180-400mm f4E Field Test & Review

I've JUST posted my long overdue AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR Field Test and Review. And...this one is in a bit different format. It's probably best thought of as "resource summary" of pretty much everything I have written on the AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR. So what I'm giving you is a shorter commentary entitled "Musings on the Performance of The AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR" (that includes a whole lot of images shot with with the 180-400) AND links to key blog entries that provide a WHOLE LOT more detail about individual aspects of the 180-400's performance. Realistically I think most readers will find JUST the "Musings" section adequate to answer the vast majority of their questions.

So...with no further ado...here it is: The NIKKOR 180-400mm f4E Field Test & Review.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

31 Aug '20: The Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S (Z-mount) - First Impressions

What follows are my earliest impressions of the new Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S (Z-Mount) after two days of shooting it with my Z7. These comments should be considered anecdotal only, and - at best - an educated "gut feel". At this point I have not performed any head-to-head comparative testing of the new Z-mount 70-200mm against other lenses (including the two Nikkor 70-200's I'll be field testing the 70-200mm f2.8S against - the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 70-200mm f4G). So I can now say things like "Edge-to-edge sharpness seems very good", I can't (and won't say) things yet like "The edge-to-edge sharpness is better than that seen on the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E". Expect much more detail and more objective comparisons against other lenses in my coming Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S field test and review.

So, with no further ado, here are my thoughts:

1. Physical Characteristics: Size and Weight.

The 70-200mm f2.8S (Z-mount) is slightly longer than its F-mount counterpart (by about 17mm, or 2/3 of an inch) but about 70 gm (a little under 4 oz) lighter. When you stand the two lenses up side-by-side the added length comes from adding the Control Ring (which is a customizable rotating ring on the lens located quite close to the camera body). While you CAN feel the difference in weight if you juggle them back and forth between your hands, in real world use the F-mount and the Z-mount 70-200's are very similar in size and "heft". Of course, if you're shooting the lenses on a Z body the length of the Z-mount version is shorter overall in that the Mount Adapter FTZ adds significantly more length to the F-mount lens does the control ring on the Z-mount lens. The key point tho', is that you AREN'T buying the Z-mount version because it's significantly smaller than the F-mount 70-200mm f2.8.

2. Physical Characteristics: Build Quality.

Unlike the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E (F-mount), the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S (Z-mount) is made in Thailand (instead of Japan). In so much as you can judge build quality by just handling a lens (which tells you diddly-squat about durability, quality of dust/moisture seals, etc.) the build quality of the Z-mount 70-200 seems good. The tripod collar rotates particularly smoothly (even smoother than that of the F-mount 70-200's). Similarly, the zoom and focus rings rotate very smoothly. So no complaints (or excessive kudos) on the build quality at this point.

3. Physical Characteristics: Controls, Ergonomics and Aesthetics.

At the macro level, there is little difference between the Z- and F-mount 70-200's in the positioning and/or ease-of-access of the main controls (the zoom ring and the focusing ring). The first major difference is between the lenses is that the Z-mount version has a 2nd Lens Function button on it, giving the user easy access to more custom functions (or even "shortcuts") with the hand that is supporting the lens. Unfortunately (and probably only temporarily...that is, until we have new mirrorless bodies), the range of custom options you can use with the two function buttons is rather limited compared to Nikon's DSLR's. So, for instance, you can NOT use the buttons to switch to a different AF area mode like you can on Nikon's top DSLR's. And...surprisingly to me, you can't even use some of the custom functions that you use with other custom buttons on the camera body. As an example, on the Z7 you can use the FN2 button in conjunction with a dial to quickly change your AF area mode settings. So the camera CAN do it. But...for some reason, Nikon left this function off the options that you can assign to the two lens function buttons (sigh).

The second major difference in the controls and ergonomics is the now "typical of a Z-mount lens" inclusion of a control ring located near the lens body. This ring can be assigned to control several different functions, including controlling aperture, exposure compensation, or your ISO. Like with all my Z-mount lenses, I like this ring (tho' I do find it a bit tough to access on the 70-200 when shooting in the field compared to how easy it is to access the ring on "shorter" lenses).

The third major difference in the controls is best described as a "control cleanup". The Z-mount 70-200 has replaced the A/M, M/A, M toggle switch with a simple A, M toggle switch. And, the VR switch is gone, as is the AF-L, OFF, AF-ON toggle switch. The bulk of these functions are now simply built into the controls of the body, tho' the A/M vs M/A function (which helped the user specify the sensitivity - and the consequences of accidentally bumping the focus ring) is now just GONE.

On the purely subjective (= personal preference) side are the design aesthetics. To my eye the aesthetics of the Z-mount lenses (and the 70-200 is no exception to this) are almost like Sigma Art lenses - kind of on the Soviet-era "functionalism" or "utilitarianism" side. Between that and the slightly more "plasticky" feel of the Z-mount lenses (compared to their F-mount counterparts) I have to say - that on purely aesthetic considerations - I prefer the F-mount lenses. I wouldn't be surprised if the aesthetic look of the Z-mount lenses is driven more by manufacturing efficiencies (and cost savings) than any thought of "look and feel (but I don't know this for a fact).

Any real functional NITS on the physical characteristics of the Z-mount 70-200? Yep, two - and both are related to the tripod foot. The first is my perpetual Nikon tripod foot nit - it's NOT Arca-Swiss compatible (so to use the lens on an Arca-Swiss ballhead or gimbal head you need to either add a lens plate or a new replacement foot). As with all of Nikon's previous lenses with tripod feet - this is still stupid. Second, Nikon chose to change the mount width of the removable tripod foot - so if you DID invest in a 3rd party foot for your F-mount 70-200 (like, for example Really Right Stuff's LCF 10B or LCF 11) they won't fit on the Z-mount 70-200. Argh!

4. Lens Performance: Vibration Reduction (VR).

While I have yet to perform any systematic testing on the VR performance on either of the VR modes of the lens (which are VR Sport and VR Normal) I can already say that the VR system seems to work extremely well. Nikon claims 5.5 stops of improvement in image stabilization (they claim 4 stops for the F-mount 70-200mm f2.8E) and the Z-mount 70-200's stabilization works on 5-axes vs. 3 on the the F-mount 70-200. At this point I have hand-held shots at 200mm down to 1/10s (using VR Normal) and obtained sharp, sharp results...and I suspect I could have gone even slower. Note that both the lens and body (assuming you're using a Z5, Z6 or Z7) provide image stabilization and somehow (which I'm sure Nikon will never tell us!) the two interact. Anyway...the view through the viewfinder is just rock solid when in VR Normal mode and I look forward to testing this VR system against that of the 70-200mm f2.8E. But I already KNOW that the VR system on the 70-200mm on a Z-series body with IBIS works exceptionally well.

5. Lens Performance: Optics.

On paper the specs of the Z-mount 70-200 optical system look good - everything found on the 70-200mm f2.8E plus more! And the more is an ARNEO lens element coating (which is designed to remove incidental light from vertical directions and thus reduce flare and contrast reduction when shooting into the sun) and a new SR element (= short wavelength refractive) that contributes to the reduction of chromatic abberation.

What can I say about optical performance after my first thousand or so images shot with the 70-200m f2.8S? Not too much yet...but the promise of strong edge-to-edge sharpness and very smooth out-of-focus zones (as per Nikon's promotional literature) SEEMS valid. See the 4 sample images below to see what I mean. Oh yeah, and the lens DOES vignette noticeably when shot at f2.8 and 200mm. How much and how bad relative to the 70-200mm f2.8E (F-mount) lens? Too early to say (but you can bet I will suss this out fully!).

6. Lens Performance: Autofocus.

Because autofocus performance is dependent on BOTH the AF performance of the camera lens AND the camera body in use, and because at this point in time the AF speed and responsiveness of Nikon's Z-series cameras lags considerably behind their top DSLR's, I strongly suspect that we won't be able to fully judge the AF performance of this lens until we have a faster focusing mirrorless body from Nikon. In fact, the final sentence of the introductory paragraph of the "Overview" section of web page dedicated to the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S (at least currently and on both the Nikon Canada and Nikon USA websites) states:

"The NIKKOR Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S sets an impressive new standard for fast telephoto zoom lenses optimized for the next generation of Nikon's advanced mirrorless cameras"

So...while Nikon doesn't state WHICH aspects of the lens's performance is "optimized for the next generation" of Z-cameras...I think you can bet that AF perfomance is at least ONE of them! And that leads to a quick BTW: Nikon...I have purchased the 70-200mm f2.8S...so I am ready, primed, and eagerly waiting for the next generation of advanced mirrorless cameras...please hurry up, eh? ;-)

7. A FEW Sample Images.

Between COVID-19 and an Area Restriction owing to a large wildfire burning near my home, I an currently REALLY limited in my ability to easily access to good local shooting locations. However...here's a few images I grabbed on my property over the weekend.

A. Shot WIDE OPEN at 200mm - Subject Sharpness and Bokeh Quality: OK...here's two shots hinting at how sharp the 70-200mm f2.8S is when shot wide open AND how sweet its out-of-focus zones are. My suspicion at this point is that you'll have NO reason to stop this lens down to get maximum sharpness out of this lens!

Hot August Dog: Download 2400 pixel Image
It's All About How You Hold Your Tongue: Download 2400 pixel Image

B. Edge-to-Edge Sharpness on Distant Scenes? Well...one good thing about having a massive wildfire burning near your home is you can get pretty interesting lighting and colour at sunrise! Two 4800 pixel wide images that strongly suggest edge-to-edge sharpness won't be a problem with this lens!

Findlay Sunrise (82mm): Download 4800 pixel Image
Findlay South (130mm): Download 4800 pixel Image

So...summing up my first impressions of the 70-200m f2.8S? It looks pretty impressive...and I suspect it WILL take the already stellar performance of the its F-mount predecessor to an even higher level. Based on what I have seen so far I think it will likely beat the 70-200mm f2.8E F-mount in at least a few areas, including in edge-to-edge sharpness, absolute sharpness at f2.8 (including in the central region), and VR performance. Relative AF performance will be an unknown until we see the "...next generation of Nikon's advanced mirrorless cameras."

Summaries of my 70-200mm f2.8S field test and review will begin appearing here shortly after I complete writing up my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E review/field test (which should happen in the next two weeks or so). In the interim I will be posting images captured with the 70-200mm f2.8S (Z-mount) in my Gallery of Latest Additions.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#70-200_Z-mount_FirstImpressions

23 Aug '20: Feedback RE: My Nikon Z 9 Wishlist Blog Entry

My 4 August blog entry outlining my personal "wishlist" for Nikon's anticipated flagship-level sports/action mirrorless camera generated a lot of feedback (just scroll down or follow this link to read the entry). It seems as tho' it was picked up (and debated upon) by a number of online photography forums as well.

The vast majority of the feedback I received directly was positive and largely (or in some cases, completely) in agreement with the thoughts I expressed in the wishlist. Two areas where I had more than one person expressing an alternate thought (not to be confused with an "alternate fact") were:

1. RE: "VERTICAL CONTROLS: BUILT-IN OR "TACKED ON"? My position here is that I wanted the vertical controls built-in (or fully integrated) rather than added via a removable battery grip. I wanted it built in for both ergonomic AND durability reasons. Two folks emailed me stating their preference would be to have the vertical controls added via a battery grip. In both cases the rationale was to retain the option to carry a smaller camera (than you would have if the vertical controls were integrated).

2. RE: "Make it ROBUST & NEAR BOMBPROOF!"? Within this section on placing durability near the top of design priorities I stated "...if this means the LCD must be fixed (non-tilting or rotating), or the camera has to be built with more expensive materials to keep the camera bombproof - so be it". Three different people emailed me to indicate that having an extending/tilting LCD was critical to them.

My response to both of these items is pretty much the same: If Nikon fulfills your "alternate wishes" and the Z 9 comes without integrated vertical controls and/or with a tilting LCD, and if MY Z 9 breaks down in the field because of durability "frailties" associated with either of these features, I will hold you personally responsible and hunt you down!! Kidding! ;-)

Thanks to all those who took the time to send me thoughtful feedback on their priorities on the Z 9. Always good to hear the viewpoint of others...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

4 Aug '20: My Nikon Z 9 Wishlist

6 August Update: I added a few comments to the "ERGONOMICS and CONTROLS" section below (about Z 9 Customizability)

In 2019 Sony began selling its 2nd generation pro-level sports/action mirrorless camera - the A9 II. And, just last week Canon started delivery of its first flagship level mirrorless camera designed for a wide variety of professional uses (including sports/action) - the R5. While these two pro-level mirrorless cameras differ quite significantly in specifications (most notably in resolution with the A9 at 24 MP and the R5 at 45 MP), both models are clear statements that their makers KNOW that the future is mirrorless for all categories of users - from novices through to professionals.

So now it's Nikon turn to reveal what they have in mind for a flagship-level mirrorless sports/action camera, which I'll arbitrarily call the Z 9 (and I have absolutely no clue if Nikon will use this name for the camera). But, to be clear, what I'm referring to is a D6-level camera designed for photographing sports/action, and wildlife.

Another point I want to be perfectly clear on - other than a small group of insiders at Nikon and possibly a few others sworn to secrecy, no one knows when the Z 9 is coming. Some pundits have suggested we won't see it until 2024. I didn't agree with this timeline when I first heard it a few months back, and now that Canon has started delivering the R5 to the public I'll go even further - Nikon CAN'T wait until 2024 to release the Z 9. If they do they'll be left in the dust.

Anyway...it seems to me that now is the right time to go out with my Z 9 wishlist. Keep in mind this wishlist is coming from - and biased by - the head and typing fingers of a wildlife still photographer. So here's my list of the features most important for me in the coming(?) Nikon Z 9:

1. Z 9 Design Philosophy & Priorities

For me the most important thing in determining how the Z 9 will turn out will be the head-space of those in charge of designing it. If I could control their minds I'd want them to keep a clear goal post in mind - design it to be the best possible still photography camera ever made for shooting sports, action and wildlife. Yep, video is real and hugely important to some (heck, I've been quietly immersing myself in it over the last month or so), but please keep the design priority of the Z 9 on still photography. And by this I mean when it comes to thinking about general ergonomics, button placement, camera size, etc., think about what a still photographer wants FIRST! Here's a novel idea - maybe look at the D6 as a template to emulate (rather than re-inventiing the wheel)...when it comes to shooting stills of action and wildlife there's currently nothing better. Don't squander the years and years of thoughtful evolution behind the D6 by forgetting about it the first time someone from the marketing departments says "Hey...here's a thought...let's make it pocketable". ;-)

There are a LOT of ramifications of keeping this design philosophy in mind. Here's a few of them:

Make it ROBUST & NEAR BOMBPROOF! Durability and reliability have been the hallmarks of Nikon's flagships over multiple decades. Nikon...PLEASE don't forget this when designing the Z 9. Most users of it will want it as robust as the D6. So if anyone tries to convince you it has to be as light as an iPhone - ignore 'em! And if this means the LCD must be fixed (non-tilting or rotating), or the camera has to be built with more expensive materials to keep the camera bombproof - so be it.

SIZE - NOT TOO SMALL: One of the great things about the D6 (and the cameras that led to it) is all the configurable and customizable buttons...AND how they are spaced apart so you don't mix them up when things get hot and heavy on the shooting front. Personally I'd rather have the Z 9 closer to size to the D6 than to the Z6 or Z7. I don't have particularly big hands (yes, of course bigger than HIS hands) but good design includes intelligent spacing of the controls and the ability of use ALL your fingers to support the camera (and get to buttons).

WEIGHT: Almost the same comment as above...of course nobody wants an unnecessarily heavy camera, but make it as heavy as needed to give it the robustness a pro-level camera designed for outdoor use needs. And, don't forget that a LOT of users of the Z 9 will have a collection of heavy lenses to shoot with it...and making it too light means the camera/lens system won't balance effectively when hand-holding the system with super-telephoto lenses.

ERGONOMICS and CONTROLS: Look again at the D6...both in terms of what buttons we want/need (in terms of number of Fn buttons, etc.) and how they are distributed. And, of course, keeping the ergonomics of the camera similar to that of the D6 means pro shooters will transition over to it smoothly (or shoot both without any "which camera is in my hands now?" issues). There really is no such thing as muscle-memory, but the concept is valid...don't make me THINK about control and button placement when I put down my D6 and pick up my Z 9.

6 August Update: Besides providing us with the same number of customizable buttons as on the Z 9, I do (of course) want the Z 9 to be just as customizable as the D6. At one point I was considering adding "Please switch to User Settings from Shooting Banks" to my wish list. But after more use of my D6 I've got a different suggestion - just make a tweak to the D6's excellent "Recall Shooting Functions" button option. And the tweak I'd like to see is to allow more than one group/bank of Shooting Functions to be saved and recalled. SO...the intent would be that pressing one button on the camera (of the shooters choice) you'd call up ONE set of stored Shooting Functions - and a SECOND button could be customized to call up a SECOND set of stored shooting functions. In this way all those shooters who use Shooting Banks would have them left intact - and those liking the User Settings (of a ton of Nikon cameras, including the Z6 and Z7) would functionally have the same thing available to them with the multiple "banks" of stored shooting functions. So you'd have close to the equivalent of User Settings BUT they'd be in a more accessible (and FASTER to access) location.

VERTICAL CONTROLS: BUILT-IN OR "TACKED ON"? After owning and shooting every flagship since the F4 (yep, that's an F, not a D) and virtually every DX or FX semi-pro camera (like the D200, D300, D500, D850, etc.) I prefer vertical controls that are built into the body rather than tacked on via a battery grip. The ergonomics of built-in vertical controls are invariably a little better - and the camera has higher structural integrity if the "battery grip" and vertical controls are built in (one less point of failure). So my wish is definitely for built-in vertical controls that completely mirror the horizontal ones, including having a second "joystick" (vertical multi selector) and vertical command and sub-command dials, plus at least one vertical Fn button. In my view it makes sense to have the vertical controls added via a battery grip on the Z6s and Z7s, but not on the Z 9.

CARD SLOTS/TYPES: This topic almost doesn't need discussion - it pretty much HAS to be CFexpress to get the burst sizes and frame rates that a sports/action camera needs. And, to avoid blowing up the heads of photography forum dwellers, it pretty much has to have two card slots. Kidding aside, while I really don't care if a camera has one or two slots, I appreciate that having two slots IS legitimately important to some other genres of photography (wedding photography, event photography, etc.) and having two slots doesn't bother me at all (and based on the comments I made above about camera size there should be no problem with having room for two of them on my dreamed-up version of the Z 9). A final point on card slots: If Nikon does make the Z 9 with two slots, please make them the SAME (so both being CFexpress).

BATTERY TYPE: I'm slotting this into this section largely because battery type can impact design. And my preference is for Nikon to keep using the LARGE style EN-EL18 battery type that's found on their DSLR flagships - along with their great capacity and their GREAT cold weather performance - on the Z 9. Clearly you could ONLY use these batteries if the Z 9 is quite large, and it WILL add to the camera's weight. But between the excellent performance of these batteries AND the convenience of the having your D6 (or D5, or D4s) using the same batteries as your Z 9 (especially important when traveling) I will be VERY happy if the Z 9 takes EN-EL18's. Unfortunately I don't think Nikon will do this - I expect a NEW battery type in the Z 9...

2. Z 9 Performance Attributes

So what are my expectations/wishes for how the Z 9 will perform? Well...pretty much like a D6 BUT with the advantages bestowed on the camera by having no mirror, an EVF, and some inherent (but yet unexploited by Nikon) AF potential.

EVF Performance: In terms of the quality of the view though the Electronic ViewFinder (EVF) I have to admit I am happy with that of the Z7. Additionally, the exposure feedback you get through the existing Nikon Z's (in terms of EVF brightness mirroring scene brightness and helping to guide exposure decisions) is wonderful. However, Nikon has a lot of work to do on the behavior of its EVF when shooting high-speed bursts. Currently with the Z7 (or Z6) when you choose Continuous H (extended) and with the mechanical shutter enabled the view during the EVF during bursts is almost bizarre...like a jerky slow-frame rate video (and completely unacceptable for shooting fast-moving subjects, especially if you are panning with them). Go to Continuous H mode (using either the electronic or mechanical shutter) and you have significant black-out time that impacts on your ability to shoot fast-moving subjects. The duration of each "blackout" simply must be shortened. Note that I am not suggesting that Nikon must completely remove image blackout on the Z 9 (when shooting with its electronic shutter) - after all, even though it is minimal, there is image black out on the D6 (and it's not even remotely problematic to shoot action with that camera). Some (including me) actually LIKE to have a feel for the "frames" being captured via the feedback associated with minor image blackout (as seen on the D6) - I find it somewhat unsettling to shoot in Continuous H (extended) mode with the electronic shutter enabled on the Z7 and have NO image blackout (I find myself wondering the whole time if ANYTHING is being captured). But, the image blackout time on the Z 9 must be much better (= shorter and much less noticeable) than on the Z7 or Z6.

EVF/LCD Display Options: In general I would be quite happy to have the same display options on the EVF as on the Z 9. Two improvements that I'd like to see would be a Depth of Field (DoF) readout (either total DoF or, better yet, DoF both in front of and behind the subject) AND an indicator that a TC is in use. The D6 does have a "TC-in-use" display visible through its optical viewfinder, but it works ONLY with the built-in TC of the Nikkor 180-400mm (you see a small TC in the lower right corner of the image if the built-in TC is engaged). I'd like to see that TC display on my Z 9 whenever a TC is in use.

AUTOFOCUS Performance and Features: While there are some things the AF system of the Z6 and Z7 does better than any of Nikon's DSLR's (AF accuracy; ability to focus and focus-track virtually ANYWHERE in the viewfinder; removal of need for any AF tuning) and in general it is a very good AF system, it's lacking when it comes to shooting moderate-to-extreme action. I've already mentioned some deficiencies in the EVF behavior when shooting action, but even if you are able to keep the subject positioned where you want it with a Z6 or Z7 the camera is simply not able to keep up with a subject quickly moving directly at (or away) from you. In general, initial focusing and re-focusing speed has to be MUCH better in the Z 9 than it is on the Z6 or Z7. If focus speed doesn't match that of the D6 then the camera will likely not be successful.

AF features? In the simplest terms I'd like to see the AF area modes of the Z 9 match those of the D6 as closely as possible. So in AF-C mode we'd have single point area mode, several Dynamic Area modes (hopefully including one that is tightly clustered like the 9-point Dynamic Area mode of the D5 and D6), a standard Group Area mode, a host of customizable Group Area configurations (as on the D6), and a tracking mode that is as good or better than the 3D-tracking of the D6 but works over the entire viewfinder. So I'm not asking much! ;-)

Face and Eye Detection? While they are not important features for me, of course users will expect to see face and eye detection for humans and animals (and animals beyond cats and dogs please). On this note I am also asked why, as a wildlife photographer, I don't want animal eye detection. The answer is simple - when I am shooting any wildlife portraits (from bears to birds) - I almost never focus on the eye. Rather, because I want the tip of the nose to just behind the eye in focus (and because MOST wildlife have much longer "snouts" than humans), I invariably focus about 1/2 the way between the eye and the tip of the nose and rely on my experience to pick the right aperture and DoF to ensure both eye and nose are in focus. And I don't want to be fighting with an AF system that always goes to the eye.

Number, Spacing and Size of Focus Points? For me getting the number, spacing, and size of focus points right is more important than the "sexier" specs of eye and face detection. I've long said that I like focus points to be relatively small - and with small "jumps" between successive focus points. I personally find the focus points on the D500 - and the jumps between successive points - too large. The D5 - and the Z7 - have focus points that are almost identical in size (as seen through the viewfinder). And, one "toggle" of the point moves it a distance equivalent to the size of the point (so toggle it to the left and what was the left side of the point is now the right side of the adjacent point). What does this all mean? Well..for the Z 9 I'd be fine with the Z7 standard in number of focus points (493) as well as the size of and spacing between focus points!

RESOLUTION? In my D6 wish list of 30 October 2019 (see it here) I argued that I wanted the D6 to have between 24 and 30 MP. Nikon didn't deliver that - instead they came back with the SAME resolution as on the D5. Their official rational for this wasn't so they could re-use the same image sensor as the D5, but rather that it was the "optimal compromise" between camera speed (including burst depths) and image/file size (with the implication that 20 MP is enough for sports/action/wildlife shooters). You know, with the 45 MP Canon R5 delivering up to 200 shots per burst at its highest mechanical speed (12 fps) while using the same CFexpress cards as the Nikon D6 (and presumably the Z 9) I simply don't buy Nikon's public rationale for sticking with 20 MP on the D6. And, I WANT the Z 9 to be in the 24-30 MP range (preferably closer to 30 MP). And, based on what we have seen with the Nikon Z6, it should be able to do this with comparable ISO performance to that of the D6.

ISO PERFORMANCE? Just match the D6 (and thus the D5) and I would be happy. Even if the Z 9 jumps to 30 MP this should be possible given the technology advances since the D5 was introduced.

IBIS (In Body Image Stabilization)? Of course. We got 5-axis and 5 stops (when using Z-mount lenses) with the Z7 and the Canon R5 just upped the ante by going to 8 stops of image stabilization. So the Z 9 should be at 8 stops with Z lenses. And it would be GREAT if we had 4-5 stops of image stabilization on F-mount lenses, especially given it will be years before the professional level super-telephoto lenses will be available in the Z-mount.

FRAME RATE and BURST DEPTH? This one is easy - 12-14 fps in mechanical shutter mode, 20 fps in electronic shutter mode. My experience is that at higher rates you can spend too many winters doing nothing but image culling! Burst Depth? Anything over 100 frames works for me (and I almost NEVER need 100 frames per burst beyond when I am testing AF systems).

VIDEO? I'm not in any way against video, but I don't think you can design a mirrorless camera to be the BEST at shooting stills AND the BEST at shooting video. So make the Z 9 the best camera ever for shooting stills of sports/action/wildlife - and make ANOTHER mirrorless camera (the 61 MP Z7s?) the BEST for shooting video. For the Z 9 4K video is enough...leave 8K for the Z7s. Personally I think the video features of the Z7 are good enough to "port over" to the Z 9. I have been recently spending time in a self-directed crash course on "all things video" (and I'm using my Z7 for that) and the video features of the Z7 are already pretty mind-boggling.

I know it could be argued that I am asking Nikon to produce a D6 but without a mirror and with an EVF. Yep, guilty as charged - and what's wrong with that? There are some inherent advantages of a mirrorless camera over a DSLR. The features making a mirrorless camera "better" are those associated with the real advantages of the EVF and (at least for now) the potential superiority of a mirrorless AF system. Being "smaller and lighter" isn't necessarily something that will make a sports/action/wildlife mirrorless perform better in the field, especially if ergonomics, customizability, and durability all take a hit. At this point in time - and with existing mirrorless models - Nikon has taken good advantage of what an EVF can offer a shooter, but they haven't leveraged the potential AF capabilities a mirrorless camera CAN HAVE. Yes, we can focus anywhere on the viewfinder, we have amazing focus accuracy, we have no need to focus tune lenses. But we we can't focus (or focus track) with the SPEED of a high-end DSLR. As soon as Nikon can bring DSLR focusing speed to the table - as they SHOULD on the Z 9 - well I'd stand in line for that camera!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Z 9_WishList

29 July '20: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review: Optical Stabilization and "Hand-holdability"

I have just updated my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E field test and review by adding a new section on Optical Stabilization and "Hand-holdability".

Here's where to go for the review and/or to check out the new information:

Start at the beginning of the review
Jump directly to the Optical Stabilization and "Hand-holdability" section

Here's the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: of the optical stabilization and "Hand-holdability" section:

The two lenses that allowed me to consistently obtain sharp hand-held shots (with ALL shots in the burst sharp) at extremely slow shutter speeds were the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. With these two lenses the VR Normal mode DEFINITELY permitted the use of slower shutter speeds than the VR Sport mode. While VR Sport mode didn't allow me to use the extremely slow shutter speeds that VR Normal did, it was the best mode to use when shooting bursts that required "stability" of images shot in a high-speed burst (as viewed through the viewfinder OR in the final image).

The Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 - when shot in OS1 mode - also provided very good overall performance. While the consistency of getting sharp shots in a burst at extremely slow shutter speeds didn't quite match the two Nikkor zooms, if we relaxed the standards to "at least ONE shot sharp in a burst" or "at least ONE keeper in a burst" (and not all 3 shots in the burst), then the Sigma Sport performed very well. And, in OS1 mode it also produced a high degree of stability in subject position in the viewfinder (and on the image sensor), i.e., it had a low HJ Factor in OS1 mode.

The smallest and lightest lens in the test was the Nikkor 300mm f4D - and it has NO VR/OS system at all. And, I needed to shoot hand-held shots at much higher shutter speeds with this lens (than the bigger/heavier lenses with VR/OS systems) to consistently get sharp shots. Additionally, I had to use quite high shutter speeds to get only 1 sharp shot per burst...or even to just capture keepers. The performance of this lens in this portion of my testing clearly illustrates that VR systems WORK and can MORE than offset lens weight when it comes to the "hand-holdability" of a lens.

Coming next...autofocus performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E (compared to several rival lenses). Stay tuned...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

22 July '20: A Few Thoughts on Nikon's Latest Z Series Product Introductions...

Yesterday Nikon introduced a few new key products to their growing mirrorless Z Series - a new entry level full-frame mirrorless body called the Z5, a new 24-50mm f4-6.3 kit lens, and two new Z-mount teleconverters - the Z Teleconverter TC-2.0x and the Z Teleconverter TC-1.4x. I won't regurgitate all the detailed specs of the new products (check out places like nikonrumors.com, dpreview.com, or any of Nikon's websites for those), but I will offer a few thoughts about the new camera and teleconverters (and I'll skip the new kit lens!).

1. The Nikon Z5

The Z5 features a 24.3 MP full frame sensor and at a quick glance (at the camera or at the specs) it seems very similar to the Z6. In Canada the body comes in about $700 CAD lower in price than the Z6. I suspect it will be well-received and sell quite well.

How do the Z5 and Z6 differ? Here are a few of the most significant differences:

Frame Rate: Z6 = 12 fps, Z5 = 4.5 fps

Card Type: Z6 = ONE CFexpress or XQD card; Z5 = two SD cards

Image Sensors: Z6 = 24.5 MP BSI sensor; Z5 = 24.3 MP CMOS sensor

Autofocus: Same feature set (including dog, cat, human eye-detection), but Z6 detection range from -3.5 to +19 EV vs. Z5 range of -2 to +19 EV (both ranges are WITHOUT invoking low-light AF feature)

Video: Definitely more professional level features are available on the Z6.

From my perspective the Z6 specs out as a somewhat better wildlife camera - and this is largely owing to its higher frame rate, better low-light AF performance, and likely somewhat better low-light ISO performance (owing to its BSI sensor). Which means if one is looking for a mirrorless Nikon wildlife camera I'd recommend taking the extra $700 CAD hit and go for the Z6. For many other photography genres the Z5 would likely do a steller job.

Will I be buying and testing a Z5? No. At this point I am sticking with DSLR's in the sub-30 MP resolution range. I'm prepared to wait until Nikon has a pro-level action/wildlife mirrorless camera (with D5/D6 AF capabilities) before going mirrorless in the "moderate" (30 MP or less) resolution range. But that doesn't mean that in the high-resolution zone (i.e., 45+ MP) I won't leap on a "new and improved" Z7 (Z7s? Z8?) if/when Nikon introduces one.

2. The Z Teleconverters

Based on how well the Z-mount lenses perform, I am expecting that the Z Teleconverters will offer excellent performance. Of course, in the short-term their usefulness will be limited by the number of compatible lenses with which they can be used (and unless I am missing something, the current number of available compatible lenses is zero). According to Nikon's 21 July press release the Z Teleconverters will begin shipping in late August...so one has to assume it is LIKELY that the only Z-mount lens that is listed as compatible with these new teleconverters (i.e., the 70-200mm f2.8S) will begin shipping around the same time.

Will I be buying and testing a Z Teleconverter? Yes, I have already put my order in for a Z Teleconverter TC-1.4x and will be testing its performance on the 70-200mm f2.8S (vs. the TC-14EIII on the 70-200mm f2.8E). I think unbiased information how these two competing lens/TC's combinations perform will be of value to many users. Based on what I learn through testing the Z Teleconverter TC-1.4x I may later purchase the 2x version.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

22 July '20: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review: Performance with the TC-20EIII (2x) Teleconverter

I have just updated my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E field test and review by adding two new sections - Optical Performance with the TC-20EIII (2x) Teleconverter and a section called "Discussion: Using teleconverters with the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E" (this is a more general discussion of how the 120-300's TC performance increases the lenses versatility as a wildlife lens).

Here's where to go for the review and/or to check out the new bits:

Start at the beginning of the review
Jump directly to the Optical Performance with the TC-20EIII (2x) Teleconverter section
Jump directly to "Discussion: Using teleconverters with the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E"

Here's the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: of the optical performance of the 120-300mm plus TC-20EIII combination:

At 500mm the optical performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-20EIII varied with the distance to subject. At the closest distance (8.6m) the 120-300 plus 2x TC was not too sharp - in fact it placed last in sharpness of all the lenses tested. It did place first in bokeh quality. However, at 30m (the mid-distance to subject) trailed the sharpness of the Nikkor 180-400mm (with its TC-engaged) by only an extremely small amount (so small that the difference could easily be negated by sharpening during post-processing). At 30m the 120-300 plus 2x TC was sharper and had better bokeh than the Sigma Sport 150-600mm.

At 560mm the optical performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-20EIII was considerably stronger optically and it did NOT vary with distance to subject. The Nikkor 180-400mm was very slightly sharper (only noticeable when engaged in extreme pixel-peeping) at only f5.6 and f6.3 - at smaller apertures the two lens/TC combinations were indistinguishable in sharpness (and both were considerably sharper than the Sigma Sport 150-600mm). The 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-20EIII had the best bokeh at 560mm.

At 600mm the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-20EIII was considerably sharper and had better bokeh than the Sigma Sport 150-600mm (at all overlapping apertures). In absolute terms the test images of the Nikkor 120-300mm plus TC-20EIII shot at 600mm were extremely sharp.

And, for those debating the purchase of this high-priced, high-performance lens, here's the most critical paragraph from the discussion on using teleconverters with the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E:

"In my view the superlative performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E when paired with TC's dramatically increases the value of this lens for wildlife photography. For me it has shifted the lens from a "speciality" lens for low light and/or animalscape shooting to what I currently think of as my most versatile wildlife lens (even more versatile than the excellent 180-400mm f4E)."

Coming next...optical stabilization and "hand-holdability" of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E (compared to several rival lenses). Stay tuned...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

20 July '20: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review: Performance with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) Teleconverter

I have just updated my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E field test and review by adding the fourth major section on its optical performance - Optical Performance with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) Teleconverter.

Here's where to go:

Start at the beginning of the review
Jump directly to the Optical Performance with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) Teleconverter section

And for those seeking "just the facts"...here's the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:

At 420mm the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII combination performed superbly - over all 4 test distances and all apertures (and when factoring in central region sharpness, edge sharpness, and bokeh) it wracked up more first-place rankings than another other 420mm "solution" - and by a wide margin. As an example, at the closest test distance NO OTHER lens (or lens/TC combination) matched it in central region sharpness until all lenses were stopped down to f8. The single lens that came closest to matching it overall at 420mm was the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII. Here's how the lenses stacked up in 1st place rankings (or tied for first place) in the critical f4 to f8 range:

• 40 first/tied for first rankings: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII
• 6 first/tied for first rankings: Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus Sigma TC-1401
• 31 first/tied for first rankings: Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII plus TC-14EIII
• 12 first/tied for first rankings: Nikkor 300mm f4D plus TC-14EII
• 16 first/tied for first rankings: Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with built-in 1.4x TC engaged
• 3 first/tied for first rankings: Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 shot native.

At 400mm the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII combination and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E shot without its built-in TC engaged battled to what was essentially a draw. There were TWO instances (over all distances and apertures tested) where the Nikkor 180-400mm was very slightly sharper (only noticeable when engaged in extreme pixel-peeping) - and that was at the closest test distance and f4 and f4.5 only. But there a total of 10 instances where the bokeh of the 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII was slightly (but noticeably) better than that of the 180-400mm f4E. In practical, real world terms you can shoot either of these lenses at 400mm at any aperture or distance and get results that are stellar (and virtually indistinguishable).

I can not overstate how well the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E performs when combined with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) TC - its ability to match Nikon's best primes extends to cases where you are using it combined with the 1.4x TC. This increases the versatility of the lens for wildlife photographers immensely.

Coming next...optical performance with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverters. Featuring the Nikkor 120-300mm plus the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter against some worthy competitors! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

30 June 2020: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review Update: Optical Performance @ 120mm

I have just updated my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E field test and review by adding the third major section on its optical performance - Optical Performance @ 120mm. I also added a short section following the performance at 120mm entitled "DISCUSSION: OPTICAL PERFORMANCE FROM 120mm to 300mm" that sums up the results of all my optical testing from 120-300mm.

Here's where to go:

Start at the beginning of the review
Jump directly to the Optical Performance at 120mm section
Jump directly to the DISCUSSION: OPTICAL PERFORMANCE FROM 120mm to 300mm section

And for those just wanting the "bare bones" info...here's the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:

At 120mm - and when considering center sharpness, edge sharpness, and bokeh over a variety of distances and a range of apertures - TWO lenses tested out very strongly: the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E and the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8. Both of these lenses produced exceptionally high quality images at 120mm. The highly regarded Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E also tested out very well in terms of image sharpness (both central and on the edges) but - and to my surprise - competed poorly against the two 120-300mm f2.8 lenses in bokeh quality.

Is there ONE lens of the group that you could select in virtually any photographic situation at 120mm - from portraits to landscapes - and know that you are making no compromises in image quality? Yes...the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E. The only very minor "weakness" of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E that I could find at 120mm is that from f2.8 to f3.5 at mid-distances (12m and 24m) it placed JUST behind the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E in central region sharpness. At all other test distance and aperture combinations it placed first or tied for first in both central and edge sharpness.

Coming next...optical performance with teleconverters. Featuring the Nikkor 120-300mm plus TC-14EIII (1.4x) and the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverters against some worthy competitors! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

23 June 2020: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review Update: Optical Performance @ 200mm

I have just updated my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E field test and review by adding the second major section on its optical performance - Optical Performance @ 200mm. Here's where to go:

Start at the beginning of the review
Jump directly to the Optical Performance at 200mm section

And for those just wanting the "bare bones" facts...here's the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:

At 200mm - and when considering center sharpness, edge sharpness, and bokeh over a variety of distances and a range of apertures - FOUR lenses tested out quite strongly: the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E, the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8, the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E, and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. All produced professional quality output at all test distances and without careful scrutiny it was tough to separate out the performance of these four lenses.

However, when the images from the tests were examined closely, two lenses stood out above the others in the consistency of their performance. They were close to flawless and showed only the most trivial of weaknesses - these lenses were the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Both exhibited full Aperture Independent Sharpness (maximum sharpness in the central region from wide open through to f8) at all distances. At all distances and for every aperture tested these two lenses were ranked (and were tied) for first in sharpness (but note that at a few distance/aperture combinations other lenses joined them in the tie for first in sharpness). The only "weakness" of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E was in the quality of its bokeh at close distance in the f4.5 through to f8 range - here the Nikkor 180-400 f4E slightly beat it out (but note that the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E still beat all the other lenses in bokeh at this distance). The only "weakness" of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E was in edge sharpness at long distance in the aperture range of f4.5 to f5.6 - here it placed second to the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E (but it still beat all other lenses in the test in these instances).

Is it possible to declare a "winner" at 200mm? Probably not. But my own preference is for the Nikkor 120-300mm over the 180-400mm simply because it has the larger aperture of f2.8 and at a 200mm having the f2.8 aperture is important to me. Note that of the 3 lenses in this test with an f2.8 aperture (the Nikkor 120-300, the Sigma 120-300, and the Nikkor 70-200) the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E consistently had the best center AND edge sharpness and the best bokeh in the f2.8 to f3.5 range.

Coming next...optical performance at 120mm. Featuring the Nikkor 120-300mm against these 3 lenses...

• Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8
• Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E
• Nikkor 70-200mm f4G

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

22 June 2020: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review REVISION: Optical Performance @ 300mm

I have just REVISED the section of my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review that covers optical performance at 300mm. What did I change? I ADDED a section to the results where I discuss the relative performance of EACH lens tested at 300mm - this section is called "3. SOME LENS-SPECIFIC OPTICAL PERFORMANCE COMMENTS". I think it's a good addition in that it gives context and relevance to the merits of each lens tested at 300mm. I will keep this section in for the upcoming sections on optical performance at 200mm and at 120mm.

Here's the key links to get you to the review or directly to the section on optical performance (where you'll find the new section described above):

Start at the beginning of the review
Jump directly to the Optical Performance section

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

19 June 2020: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review Update: Optical Performance @ 300mm

I have just updated my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E field test and review by adding the first major section on its optical performance - Optical Performance @ 300mm. Here's where to go:

Start at the beginning of the review
Jump directly to the Optical Performance section

And for those just wanting the skinny on the optical performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E at 300mm against 5 other very credible challengers...here's the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:

At a 300mm focal length - and over all test distances - the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E showed the strongest overall optical performance of all six lenses tested. At close and mid-distances (4.25m, 12m, 24m) the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E consistently ranked first in sharpness. The Nikkor 300mm f2.8G did tie it in sharpness in a number of instances, but never in the f2.8 to f3.5 aperture range. The Nikkor 180-400mm f4E also tied the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E in sharpness at overlapping apertures, but never beat it. At long distance 3 Nikkor lenses were in a virtual dead-heat for both center and edge sharpness - those lenses were the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E, the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G, and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. At long distance the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 did very well in central region sharpness (tying the other 3 lenses), but edges were softer than the other 3 lenses at all apertures.

In terms of the quality of the OOF zones (i.e., the bokeh) two lenses were clearly superior to all others and were tied with each other - those lenses were the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G. The Nikkor 180-400mm f4E exhibited the next best bokeh, followed by the Nikkor 300mm f4D. Both Sigma lenses exhibited significant focus breathing, especially at the closest test distance. This focus breathing had a very negative impact on the bokeh of the two Sigma lenses at the closest test distance (4.25m) and a significantly negative impact on the bokeh at the mid-distance tests (i.e., at 12 and 24m).

So...when all apertures were considered, the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E clearly ranked first in sharpness (central region), was in a dead-heat with the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G in bokeh, and tied the other two top Nikkors in edge-sharpness. Ergo...when it comes to optical performance at 300mm the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E wins. Period.

Coming next...optical performance at 200mm. Featuring the Nikkor 120-300mm against these 5 lenses...

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

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

11 June 2020: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Review: Now Open!

I have just posted the few first sections of my official Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Field Test & Review. I am writing the review incrementally - new sections will appear regularly over the next weeks until the review is done. I will be post alerts right here on my blog whenever new or revised content is added to the review.

At this point the review includes its Introduction and a section on Physical Characteristics.

Next up is the critical section on Optical Performance (when shot native, i.e., without teleconverters) where I compare the optical performance of the 120-300mm f2.8E to a slew of other lenses (at multiple focal lengths and distances). First up in that section will be optical performance at 300mm. At 300mm I compare the Nikkor 300mm f2.8E f2.8E against the following lenses:

Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8
Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII
Nikkor 300mm f4D
Nikkor 180-400mm f2.8E (at 300mm of course)
Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 (again at 300mm)

My goal is to have the Optical Performance @ 300mm section posted by this time next week (baring a pandemic or anything crazy like that).

Here's the permanent location for the review: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Field Test & Review

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

8 June 2020: A Few High ISO D6 Images...

In my May 26th blog post (immediately below) I stated that there "...is no improvement in ISO performance of the D6 (based solely on the amount of visible noise present in RAW images at various ISO settings) compared to the D5". That statement was based on some controlled field tests and I am sticking by the statement. However, based on some email I have been getting it would appear that some are thinking that my comments mean that the D6 is a bit of "slouch" when it comes to high ISO shooting. Nothing could be further from the truth...the D5 was already an amazing high ISO camera and the D6 carries that performance forward.

Because several factors influence the visual impact of noise an image (including how much resolution-reduction you perform on the image, the scene type, etc.) - AND because everyone has a different standard as to the amount of noise acceptable in an image - I won't even try to answer the question of "how high of an ISO can the D6 actually be shot at and still produce acceptable images?". I WILL say that if a photographer has good post-processing skills, including knowing how to use selective noise reduction techniques, they should be able to get better results if they shoot RAW images than if they shoot JPEG's. And...RAW shooters should know that not all noise reduction software is created equal!

So here's a few images of some of my neighbours to illustrate these points (I'm under travel restrictions myself, so going with the local critters). Note that the images are FULL FRAME images but have been reduced to 2400 pixels (from the 5568 pixel native resolution on the D6) on the long axis. This reduction in resolution will have made SOME of the noise in the image less visible - if the were shown at full resolution you would see more noise...if they were reduced even more in resolution you would see less noise. And, don't worry...you will see full-resolution samples in my coming D6 review.

1. D6 @ ISO 12,800 (Dusky Grouse Hooting Before Sunrise). Note that this image was captured as a RAW file and I "played with" 3 different methodologies for noise reduction (NR) on these shots: A) Using ONLY selective NR in Capture One Pro 20.1; B) using the DEFAULT NR in Capture One Pro (applied non-selectively) PLUS Topaz DeNoise (Vers. 2.2.2); C) using no NR in Capture One Pro and relying fully on the NR in Topaz DeNoise:

Sample 1: Selective NR using ONLY Capture One Pro - Download 2400 pixel image
Sample 2: DEFAULT NR in Capture One Pro PLUS Topaz DeNoise - Download 2400 pixel image
Sample 3: Processed with Capture One Pro but all NR using Topaz DeNoise - Download 2400 pixel image

2. D6 @ ISO 25,600 (Momma Griz @ Dawn). Note that this image was simultaneously captured both as a RAW file and a JPEG Fine* file. With the exception of the resolution reduction, the JPEG is exactly as it came out of the camera (with the following settings: Auto Picture Control, High ISO NR set to Low [I hate the detail-free waxy look!], and white balance set to "Natural Light Auto"). The RAW file was adjusted/processed in Capture One Pro 20.1 but ALL NR was performed using Topaz DeNoise.

Sample 1: Processed with Capture One Pro but all NR using Topaz DeNoise - Download 2400 pixel image
Sample 2: In-camera D6 JPEG - Download 2400 pixel image

I am already developing my own post-processing "rules of thumb" for D6 raw file processing and I am finding when it comes to noise reduction my rules are pretty much the same as they were with my D5. When it comes to noise reduction, my own preference is to use selective noise reduction (using Capture One Pro's tools) in the ISO 6400 to ABOUT ISO 10,000 range, use a combination of selective noise reduction PLUS DeNoise for images shot at or just above ISO 12,800, and Topaz DeNoise ONLY on images shot at ISO 25,600 and above (and it's not like I shoot many shots at ISO 12,800, let alone at ISO 25,600 and above). Note that these are just guidelines developed from my OWN post-processing and they may not suit the taste of others.

But there is a take-home lesson here. Even if you're quite anal about image quality and image noise, RAW shooters who are comfortable using some of the latest noise reduction software and post-processing techniques can get away with shooting at some pretty crazy ISO's with the Nikon D6 (or, for that matter, the D5) and still get some pretty great results.

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

26 May 2020: The Nikon D6: My Earliest Impressions and Observations...

Ok...as mentioned in my last blog entry I took delivery of my D6 on Saturday (the 23rd) and have been jamming in as much shooting, evaluation of images captured with it, and "playing" with it as possible since it landed in my hands. I will be thoroughly field-testing the D6 (against the D5 and a few other Nikon cameras) and be producing a detailed review on it. Today's entry represents only my very earliest impressions and some "factual" observations about the D6 that are mostly devoid of opinion or value judgments. It's based on about 3,000 images I have captured with the D6, both while just shooting with it and while comparing it head-to-head against the Nikon D5.

First...my earliest impressions and gut-feelings about the D6:

1. It's Mostly About the Autofocus!

While a LOT of things on the D6 differ from the D5, it's my view that by far the biggest story of the D6 is the new autofocus (AF) system, not its ISO performance. Most shooters who've owned one of many of Nikon's previous generations of DSLR's (e.g., the D750, any D800-series camera, the D500, the D5) will recognize the core AF features (AF-S vs. AF-C; multiple AF area modes like single point, group area, various dynamic area modes, etc.), but there are a large number of new twists or new customizations available within the AF system. Think of the D6 as building upon - and refining - the already excellent AF system of the D5 and you'd be on the right track. So besides having a higher number of selectable focus points, we now have more AF area modes, more focus points that employ cross-type sensors, better low light performance (all focus points operable to -4 EV; central focus point operable to -4.5 EV), and more usable focus points when teleconverters are in use.

2. But It's Also About Customization Improvements.

In my view the second biggest story about the D6 is the improvement in how much you can customize the camera, including offering some tweaks to customization options and some new options that we've not seen before. As one example only you can customize one of many buttons to activate "Recall Shooting Functions" when pressed, AND (most importantly), the shooting functions that can be saved and instantly recalled includes a LOT more things than on the D5, including the autofocus area mode that you want to recall. I'll say more about this new function (and explain it better!) below...but suffice to say for now that it's become a feature that's definitely worth using.

3. Sports Shooters Will Benefit the MOST from the Upgrade.

Between the improvements to the quality of the in-camera JPEG's - and the D6 JPEG's ARE really, really good, even when using the default setting - and those associated with a JPEG workflow (such as improved features associated with wireless transmission of your JPEG images) I suspect that pro sports shooters will find more to like about the D6 than will most wildlife shooters (the vast majority of which shoot RAW images only and use a RAW workflow). And, unless the wildlife photographer in question REALLY pushes the limits of the AF system of a D5 (such as shooting swallows in flight in very low light and with a teleconverter on their camera), I suspect the improvements in AF performance of the D6 will tend to be beyond what the "average" wildlife photographer (if such a thing exists!) will appreciate and/or need. That doesn't mean that some of the improvements in the D6 won't be appreciated by many wildlife photographers (the ability to focus in extremely low light at sunrise or sunset instantly come to mind) - I simply mean that sports photographers have a longer list of things to like about the D6 than wildlife photographers do.

Second...here's an unranked top 11 laundry list of observations and tidbits I have noticed - or already learned - about the D6:

1. It's Heavier than the D5.

The bare-bones D6 (no battery, no memory cards, no caps) comes in very slightly heavier than the bare-bones D5. How much? About 32 grams, which is slightly more than an ounce. On my scales the D5 comes in at 1235 gm (2 lb, 11.6 oz) and the D6 at 1267 gm (2 lb, 12.7 oz). It's not much, but I suspect most were hoping for lighter rather than heavier! ;-)

2. Maximum Frame Rate:

The maximum frame-rate of the D6 when shooting through the optical viewfinder and with full AE and AF is 14 fps, while that of the D5 is 12 fps. And it is noticeable in the field. And...there are three important and related "correlates" to his (next three points below).

3. Image Black-out Time:

The D5 had an amazingly short black-out time when shooting at high frame rates - the black-out time of the D6 is noticeably BETTER (shorter). It's great and now you see your subject even better in a high-speed burst.

4. Reduced Viewfinder Vibration/or "Jerkiness":

The D5 introduced a new mirror-driving mechanism that meant that the image in the viewfinder during burst shooting was remarkably smooth (compared to a D4s and older flagships). And, with the D6, Nikon has re-designed the mirror-driving mechanism again and the vibration of the image in the viewfinder is reduced further again, making the image even MORE stable during burst shooting than with the D5. This increase in image stability IS noticeable in the field, particularly if you are shooting with a lens with VR Sport mode. Shoot a 93-shot burst of a moose's snout and the focus point of the last shot is in the EXACT same place as the first shot! Why anyone would want to shot 93 frames of a moose's snout is a different question (are you reading this Joan?). I know this sounds like a little thing, but it's something I really liked about the D5 and I like even more about the D6.

5. Reduced Burst Depths:

Here's something that surprised to me (and I haven't sussed out why yet), but the burst depth (= number of shots that can be captured at the camera's highest frame rate BEFORE slowing down) of the D6 is somewhat lower than that of the D5 when shooting RAW images. And, this is despite me using a much faster memory card (CFexpress vs. XQD) on my D6 than on my D5. Note that this difference in burst depth exists regardless of the bit depth of your RAWs AND the frame rate you shoot at (i.e., turn the maximum frame rate of the D6 down to 12 frames per second and the burst depth improves SOME, but the D5 burst depth is still higher). Here's a few examples:

• D5 at 12 fps: 14-bit RAW files with 440 MB/s XQD card = 200 frames per burst
• D6 at 14 fps: 14-bit RAW files with 1700 MB/s CFexpress card = 126 frames per burst
• D6 at 14 fps: 14-bit RAW files with 440 MB/s XQD card = 93 frames per burst

• D6 at 12 fps: 14-bit RAW files with 1700 MB/s CFexpress card = 172 frames per burst
• D6 at 12 fps: 14-bit RAW files with 440 MB/s XQD card = 146 frames per burst

• D5 at 12 fps: 12-bit RAW files with 440 MB/s XQD card = 200 frames per burst
• D6 at 14 fps: 12-bit RAW files with 1700 MB/s CFexpress card = 154 frames per burst

Of course, the germane question here is obvious: Do you care? Like how often do you shoot a single burst of even 50 shots, let alone over 100? If you absolutely MUST shoot bursts of 200 RAW files at a frame rate of at least 12 fps then you should keep your D5. ;-)

6. ISO Performance (visible noise ONLY):

While many image parameters vary with your camera's ISO setting - such as dynamic range, colour depth, tonal range, and more - AND these variables all interact to determine the overall perception of image quality, most shooters reduce a camera's ISO performance to a single variable and question: "How much visible noise (both luminosity and color noise) does an image have at a specific ISO?" This is the FIRST thing I tested with the D6 and I am going to let the cat out of the bag right now: There is no improvement in ISO performance of the D6 (based solely on the amount of visible noise present in RAW images at various ISO settings) compared to the D5. To be clear - when it comes to the appearance of visible noise in your RAW images and when compared to the Nikon D5 - it's status quo on ISO performance.

I will have LOTS more to say about ISO performance of the D6 in my final review of the camera (including how I test and evaluate ISO performance), but I know the critical issue for most users is answered above.

7. A FEW AF Tidbits:

There are TONS of things to talk about regarding the changes and and improvements of the AF system of the D6 over the D5 and most considering purchasing a D6 probably already know the basic information included in Nikon's marketing info, including that the number of selectable focus points has gone from 55 points to 105 points and that we now have a way to customize the Group Area AF mode that gives us 17 new combinations of "geometries" of the Group Area AF mode. So here I'll discuss only a few "macro-level" observations and/or things not discussed in Nikon's marketing literature:

The Big Picture: When shooting with a D5 and a professional-level lens most shooters noticed that they had an amazing hit rate of "in-focus" shots, including when shooting extreme action. Simply put, the D5 has an amazing AF system - definitely the best AF system of any DSLR on the market (until now). I have already found the D6 has a BETTER hit rate and it's AF system is even MORE amazing than that of the D5.

• The individual focus points of the D6 - in terms of how much of the viewfinder they occupy - are LARGER than those of the D5, by about 33% or so. But they are still smaller than those of the D500 (which I personally find to be too big for my liking). Focus point size can be important when focusing past obstructions in front of your subject (like grass strands in front of a grizzly bear's face).

• The standard Group Area area mode (the diamond shaped cluster of points) is SMALLER on the D6 than on the D5. This has pros and cons. On the positive side it can mean that you are less likely to pick up (and focus on) foreground and render your subject out-of-focus, but it can also mean that if you are using Group Area mode for a moving subject (e.g., a bird in flight) you are more likely to have the group "fall off" the subject. Note that the standard Group Area mode can NOT be customized - it is always diamond-shaped and can't be changed in size. So far I have found I really like the new smaller standard Group Area AF area mode on the D6.

• The 9-point Dynamic Area AF area mode (which is my own default focus area mode) is slightly larger on the D6 than the D5. So far I haven't found it less precise than that of the D5, but the jury is still out on this for me.

• There are TWO new Group Area modes - labelled C1 (for custom 1) and C2. Each of these two modes can be easily modified by adding more focusing points horizontally or vertically. So, for instance, if you find the standard diamond-shaped Group Area mode of the D6 too small, just go to one of the custom Group Area modes and create a 3x3 square focus point group. Or a 5x5 square focus point group. And, of course, the core functionality and critical feature of the Group Area mode - that the group always prioritizes focusing on the closest object enclosed within the focus points - remains the same regardless of the geometry of the group you create.

Of course, I'll have a ton more to say about the AF system of the D6 in my final review...but this hits a few of the highlights.

8. A FEW Customization Tidbits:

There's so many ways to customize a D6 that it's almost hard to wrap your head around all the consequences of it (in terms of the many ways YOU can choose to customize your D6 and make it work best for you). At this point a few new or evolved customization features have really stood out for me, and they add welcome new functionality to the D6. So for now I'll just point out a few things that I think are likely to please a lot of users:

Good News for Back-button Focus Lovers: If you are a fan of using back-button focus (I'm not, but that's another long story), your thumb just got some good news. Historically back-button focus users (who most often used the AF-ON button to focus) who liked to compose their images first and then toggle the focus point to their subject required have a thumb that was good at dancing between the AF-ON button to activate focus and the sub-selector button (which is the "knurled" toggle stick) to move their focus point around. Now, you can customize the sub-selector so that if you push it in it activates focus! So, the sub-selector button can be used to move the focus point around AND activate focus. Of course, Nikon being Nikon, this works great for the sub-selector and when you're holding the camera horizontally...but you can't mirror this function for vertical shooting! For reasons beyond me, the vertical knurled focus point toggler is NOT considered a vertical sub-selector - it's considered the vertical multi-selector and, most importantly, Nikon does not allow you to customize it to work like the horizontal sub-selector - you can only customize it to work like the multi-selector. Arghh!

• An Open Note to Nikon: Back button focus users will love you if you allow the vertical multi-selector to mimic the functionality of the multi-selector (which it already can do) OR mirror the functionality of the sub-selector (so the vertical multi-selector can be used to toggle and focus just the way the sub-selector can). Trust me on this. ;-)

"Recall Shooting Functions" Option Is VASTLY Improved: Finally, we have a way on a pro Nikon DSLR to switch an entire GROUP of shooting settings (including the AF area mode) with the push of a single button! Yippee!! Why is this important? Consider this situation that HAS happened to me about one zillion times: You are intently shooting a static subject in good light and have chosen your camera settings to maximize image quality for the conditions - so you have picked a shutter speed and aperture setting that keeps your ISO down fairly low and an AF area mode setting to precisely let you focus on your subject...so single point AF area mode or maybe 9-point Dynamic Area mode. Suddenly right behind you action breaks out (like a wolverine chasing a grizzly, or an eagle in flight). To capture the action you need to change your exposure settings (likely going to a higher shutter speed) AND change your AF area mode from single point to one of the better AF area modes for capturing action (perhaps one of the many Group Area modes). How do you do it? In the past, you couldn't. But NOW you can simply push one of the many buttons on your camera that can be programmed to "Recall Shooting Functions" and a bunch of settings change at once, including your AF Area Mode. What shooting functions does the "Recall Shooting Functions" feature allow you to store? Here's the list:

• Exposure mode (Manual vs. Aperture Priority, etc.)
• Shutter speed (if applicable depending on exposure mode selected)
• Aperture (if applicable depending on exposure mode selected)
• Exposure compensation
• ISO sensitivity (base ISO plus whether or not Auto ISO is on)
• Metering method
• White balance
• AF-area mode
• Focus-tracking with Lock-on (Quick vs. Delay and Erratic vs. Steady)
• AF-ON

You can choose to have a custom set of ANY or ALL of these variables stored by your camera for quick recall. Note that you can manually input all your desired selections for the variables above and save them (by hitting the OK button) - or you can simply adjust your camera the way you want and click on "Save current settings." There are a few idiosyncrasies that those who want to use this great new function should know about. First, even if you choose to have Auto ISO turned on the values it uses (for things like maximum permissible ISO you want or shutter speed you want the camera NOT to fall below) are inherited from the shooting bank you are in when you push the button that activates "Recall Shooting Functions". Same goes for the image quality - if you are in a shooting bank where you are shooting 14-bit lossless compressed RAW images that's what you're still shooting when you hit the "Recall Shooting Functions" button.

OK...so how do you use this function? So in my case I have decided that I want to assign the Fn1 button to activate "Recall Shooting Functions" when I push it. Further, I have decided that I want to use that Fn1 button in situations where action rapidly breaks out and I want to shoot with the goals of freezing the action AND have my chances of it being in focus as high as possible. So here's what I have chosen to save for my own "Recall Shooting Functions":

• Exposure mode = Manual
• Shutter speed = 1/2000s
• Aperture = f4
• Exposure compensation = -0.3
• ISO sensitivity = 100 ISO, Auto ISO on (and note that this turns Auto ISO on even if the shooting bank you are in when you push the button has it turned off)
• Metering method = Matrix
• White Balance = Auto0
• AF-area mode = Group Area C1 (which I have set up as a 5x5 square pattern)
• Focus-tracking with Lock-on (Quick vs. Delay = 3, Erratic)
• AF-ON toggled on (so the camera focus when I hit the Fn1 button)

So I could be crawling on the ground shooting macro (in aperture priority mode at an f11 aperture with a fixed ISO of 100 and with single point AF using spot metering) and suddenly hear a Red-tailed Hawk overhead and just rollover, push the Fn1 button, and all the exposure and AF settings listed above are instantly selected. And I end up with a great shot of the Red-tailed Hawk rather than just watching it fly by (because I know it's pointless to try to change a zillion settings in the two seconds I have to capture the image). Cool, very cool! Thanks Nikon.

9. New "TC" Viewfinder Icon/Display:

Now here's something new that's useful, interesting, and that leads me along a path of wild speculation! If you are an owner of ONE Nikon lens - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with built-in TC - you'll see this new icon/display, but no one else will. If you are using the 180-400 and have the built-in 1.4x teleconverter engaged you will see a TC "icon" in the lower right corner of the image (not on the black border where most other viewfinder displays are seen). Disengage the TC and the icon disappears. So all it does is tell users of the 180-400 if they have the built-in TC engaged or not. And...as one who owns the 180-400 and HAS forgotten the TC is engaged in the "heat of action" - and left it engaged when it was no longer necessary - I think this is a cool and welcomed feature. Note that if you have a standard TC mounted on your camera you do NOT see the TC icon - it appears ONLY with the 180-400mm f4E with the built-in TC.

Now the wild speculation: Does it seem odd to anyone other than me that Nikon would add a unique viewfinder display for ONE lens that is uber-expensive and is owned by (in relative terms) only a handful of folks? Is it possible that Nikon is looking ahead and adding a display that will work with NEW ( = not yet in existence) super-telephoto primes or zooms that have built-in TC's? Interesting to ponder...

10. Revamped iMenu:

Nikon re-worked the iMenu on the D6 to mimic the functionality (and appearance) of that of the Z-series cameras. Like with the Z-cameras it's fully customizable. When you push the i-button (which can't be customized or changed to any other function) the i-Menu is displayed on the rear LCD display. I am already finding the i-Menu highly useful and like it a lot.

11. A Usable Virtual Horizon (in viewfinder):

Finally! For years the Nikon flagships have had a weird virtual horizon function (when using the optical viewfinder) - turn it on and it hijacked your focus points (rather than showing up on the bottom and side of the image area in the viewfinder than as on the D850 and D500). I always took the D5's weird virtual horizon feature as proof that the product groups at Nikon did not talk to one another (and that those on the flagship team had no idea what the D500 and D850 people did with their virtual horizon feature!). But I digress...the key point is now on the D6 you can have BOTH a virtual horizon display and focus points displayed - and the viewfinder-based Virtual Horizon feature has become a lot more usable.

And that's it for now (hey...I've only had a D6 for 3 days...what do you expect?). More is coming on the D6 (including images) in the near future. You can also expect to see a lot more on the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E very soon (including more sample images). So stay tuned.

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#D6_EarlyImpressions

1 May 2020: Status Update: Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Field Testing and Review

I've had enough emails show up in my inbin asking me where I was at in my field testing and review of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E lens that I thought a quick update here was merited. So here ya go...

My testing of this - and all other lenses - consists of 4 distinct phases:

1. Just Shooting: As the name would suggest, this phase consists of going out in the field and simply using the lens in a field setting. During this phase of testing I get a real good feel for things like "How easy is the lens to use?", "How well do the AF systems and VR systems seem to perform?", "What's the keeper rate like?", etc. While this stage of the testing is subjective and the results are, at best, anecdotal, it does give me a good feel for general performance and lens "usability - and it often helps me identify other areas to examine when my testing gets more formalized. I've been doing this "Just Shooting" since the day I got my 120-300mm and I've now taken around 8,000 shots with it while "Just Shooting." I'll keep this phase going until I have completed all my other more systematic (and comparative) testing of the lens. So far my "Just Shooting" phase of testing on this lens has told me that the 120-300mm lens is an absolutely top-notch lens and that I like it a LOT! I have been posting some of my results of this phase of my testing - and will be posting more of them in the coming days - in my Gallery of Latest Additions - check 'em out if you have the time...

2. Optical Performance: In this phase of my testing I get way more methodical and systematic - and it takes the most time and effort (by far). During this phase I do head-to-head controlled field tests of the lens in question against several other lenses. VERY long story short, this phase shooting a zillion comparison shots at various distances (4.25m, 12m, 24, 1500m), focal lengths (120mm, 200mm, 300mm, plus 300mm plus 1.4x TC or 420mm), and apertures (from wide open with each lens up to f16). ALL the gory details about how I went about performing the test shots will be described in my final review. Given the focal length range of the 120-300mm I ended up comparing the Nikkor 120-300mm with a LOT of different lenses. Here's the list of the lenses compared at each focal length:

A. At 120mm the lenses compared were:

• Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E
• Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8
• Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E
• Nikkor 70-200mm f4G

B. At 200mm the lenses compared were:

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

C. At 300mm the lenses compared were:

• Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E
• Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8
• Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VR
• Nikkor 300mm f4D
• Nikkor 180-400mm f4E
• Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3

D. At 420mm the lenses compared were:

• Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII (1.4x) TC
• Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus TC-1401 (1.4x) TC
• Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VR plus TC-14EIII (1.4x) TC
• Nikkor 300mm f4D plus TC-14EII (1.4x) TC
• Nikkor 180-400mm f4E plus built-in 1.4x TC
• Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 shot native

The good news is that I have completed the field work (the capturing of images) for this phase of my testing. Now all I have to do is scrutinize and summarize ALL the results (yes, this will make me go cross-eyed!). I HOPE to have the results on this phase of my testing summarized and written up in about two weeks.

3. Autofocus Performance: During this phase of the testing I will comparing the AF performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E against selected key lenses. These tests will be done at only two focal lengths - 300mm and 420mm (with 1.4x TC). This phase of my testing doesn't take NEARLY as long as my optical performance testing, but it is important in understanding how the optical performance tests translate into "keepers" when shooting dynamic subjects. I anticipate shooting the images for this portion of my test within the next week or so (assuming I get acceptable weather conditions.

4. "Hand-holdabilty" and VR/OS Performance: And, finally, during this phase of the testing I compare how slow of a shutter speed each lens can be hand-held at. Here I'll be testing only at one focal length - 300mm. Like with the AF testing, these "hand-holdability" tests aer important in understanding how the optical performance tests translate into "keepers" when shooting in less than optimal conditions in the field (i.e., when you are forced to hand-hold each of the lenses). This phase of the testing only takes a few hours of shooting - and if the conditions are right I'll have captured the images during the next week.

So stay tuned...I am making good headway on this lengthy examination of the performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E!

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

8 April 2020: The Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E: More Thoughts, More Images...

I've now completed just over a week of my initial testing of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E zoom lens. I'm still in the phase I refer to as my "Just Shooting" phase where I simply USE the lens as I would normally use any lens. The purpose of this phase of my testing is to get an overall "gut feel" for how the lens performs and see what really stands out in terms of how it performs. Often during this "Just Shooting" phase I identify things that merit a closer look when I start my more rigorous systematic and comparative phase of testing. While all my results at this stage of my testing are both subjective and anecdotal, after many years of testing and using some of the best lenses Nikon has ever made I do learn a lot of valid things during this phase of my testing.

Over the last week I spent a lot of time shooting the 120-300mm f2.8E with all 3 of my current Nikon bodies, which includes a D5, D500, and Z7. And, I have focused (pardon the pun) on close subjects (5-10 meter camera-to-subject distance). I also shot a lot of images with the 120-300mm f2.8E paired up with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter.

So...what I have learned (or had reinforced) over the last week of shooting?

1. That the 120-300mm f2.8E is extremely sharp when shooting close subjects (and at all focal lengths). I'll be able to better quantify HOW sharp before long (relative to other high-end lenses), but I would be extremely surprised if it is not noticeably sharper than Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII or the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 at virtually all focal lengths. This is NOT a criticism of either of those two lenses, but rather a statement of how sharp images shot with the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E are looking to me,

2. That the out-of-focus (OOF) zones of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E are buttery smooth and just beautiful,

3. That the critical combination of sharpness and smooth OOF zones (which goes a long ways towards defining the signature look of a particular lens) is fantastic. The overall "look" of the images shot with the 120-300mm f2.8E reminds me of those shot with two of my favourite Nikkors - the 200mm f2G VR and the 400mm f2.8E VR - and THAT is one exclusive club,

4. That, at least with close subjects, the sharpness of the 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII combination is amazing (at least in the 200mm to 300mm focal length range). This includes shots captured with the aperture absolutely wide open,

5. That, at least with close subjects, the OOF zones of the 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII combination is virtually as good as when the lens is shot native (i.e., with no teleconverter attached). One of the less commonly known negative attributes of using a teleconverter is that with some lenses they impact negatively on the quality of the OOF zones...often rendering them more "jittery" (for lack of a better term)...a characteristic I often refer to as "nervous bokeh". To be clear, the 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII combination does NOT exhibit nervous bokeh at all!

6. That despite being early in my testing, and despite the weight and size of the lens, I'm already thinking the 120-300 f2.8E may become one of my favourite and most important lenses in my wildlife photography kit.

So...what about IMAGES shot with the 120-300? Yep, have some to show you, but I have to make a few qualifying comments first...

Like most Canadians, I am currently complying with COVID-19 related restrictions that limit my freedom to travel. So that means the right now I am NOT out on the coast leading a photo tour and getting dramatic shots of Humpback Whales, Killer Whales, Sea Lions and more. However, I am fortunate in that I live on an acreage in the forest that is surrounded by public land...and even on our property we have a lot of wildlife. This includes a variety of birds (which is getting wider by the day as migrants return), the usual cast of ungulates (both White-tailed and Mule Deer and Elk), small mammals including Red Squirrels, chipmunks and ground squirrels, and a nice array of carnivores (coyotes, wolves, cougars, grizzly and black bears, badgers, and more). So, even during this "lockdown" period I have a few subjects to work with...

Today's batch of images includes MOSTLY small birds and small mammals and a LOT of them shot with the 120-300 plus TC-14EIII. Over the coming days and weeks I will be adding more images with additional subject matter.

Last but not least, those who have NOT visited my image galleries should be aware that each image is accompanied by a lot of contextual information. To access it for any given photo, simply click on the links immediately below the image (they're labelled as "In the Field", "Behind the Camera", etc.). Note that there IS a larger version (2400 pixels on long axis) for each of the images - you'll find the link to those larger images in the text under the "In the Field" tab.

OK...Where are the images? Just go to my Gallery of Latest Additions and there they are! ;-)

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. And please follow the advice of YOUR local health care officials (which may or may not be the same advice you get from your political officials, depending on your country of residence).

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#120-300_ThoughtsImages

1 April 2020: The Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E: My First FEW Words!

I took delivery of my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E this past Saturday - and my thanks are extended to The Camera Store in Calgary for setting up a curbside delivery service that permitted this to happen.

Since picking it up - and for most of the remainder of this week - I am in what I call my "Just Shooting" phase of testing it. During this time I'm doing NO systematic testing or comparative testing (against competing lenses that overlap in focal length with it) - I am simply getting a feel for the lens and how it performs when doing what you really do with a lens - using it! So my comments today are both anecdotal and subjective. Which means I'm comfortable saying things like "...this lens is really sharp". But I won't say at this point that this lens is "...sharper at 300mm and at f2.8 than the Nikkor AF-S 300mm f2.8 G VRII is". Keep in mind when reading these comments that I have extensive experience with virtually ALL of the last several generations of Nikon's super-telephoto prime and zooms lenses (so I'm not making these comments with an experience base that includes only a single kit lens!).

OK...to date I have shot about 2,000 images with the 120-300mm f2.8E. ALL of these were shot with it paired with a D5 (but don't worry, I will be shooting it with both the Z7 and D500 during subsequent testing). And, the bulk of the shots have been biased towards using wide apertures - probably 90% have been shot at f2.8. And, I have shot it paired up with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter (about 25% of my shots taken so far have been with the TC attached).

What are the first few things I can say about it (in my view it's even to early to call them first impressions!)? Well...it is performing and handling EXACTLY as I expected (and in the optical quality department, as I HOPED). Which means...

1. It is darned heavy...

2. It is darned big...

So...for those familiar with some of other of Nikon's "big guns" - in terms of handling it feels like a "...slightly smaller and slightly lighter 180-400". If you imagine it being "...sort of half way between the size and weight of a 300mm f2.8G VRII and the 180-400mm" you have it about right. Which means for almost all normal humans it is not in any way a "walkaround" lens - it's a destination lens (i.e., one you transport to a specific location for a specific purpose and then take it back home again). Note that I will be following up next week with a slew of comparison measured weights and sizes (comparing how the Nikkor 120-300mm compares in size and weight to a lot of other "similar" lenses).

3. Optically? It is just MAGICAL! It has that wonderful combination of biting sharpness and buttery-smooth out-of-focus zones that proud owners of lenses like the Nikkor 200mm f2 VR and the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E know so well. Add in phenomenal contrast (even with backlit subjects), stunningly good colour and lightning quick autofocus and...well...just WOW! Here's just one "snapshot" of backlit subjects (my partner Patti and our pup Poncho) that nicely illustrates the great contrast of the lens under sub-optimal conditions...and note that there was no shadow or highlight recovery (or virtually any other post-processing "magic") performed on this shot:

Backlit in Spring Sleet Shower: Download Image (JPEG: 1.3 MB)

And, as I thought and hoped might be the case, it seems to work extremely well with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter (a bit to early to say this with full certainty, but I suspected it would work as well with the TC-14EIII as the 180-400 works with its built-in TC - and it appears that is the case). The image immediately below - captured with my D5 and the 120-300mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII - speaks both to the image quality and the autofocus capabilities of the 120-300mm plus TC combination:

Poncho Going for Broke: Download Image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

More images shot with the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E - and with a variety of subjects - will begin appearing in my Gallery of Latest Additions soon and certainly by week's end.

Finally, I've been contacted by a number of photographers indicating that they are waiting for my review and assessment of this lens before making their purchase decision. My recommendation is to wait a little longer until I've had the time to do both systematic and comparison testing on the lens. While I already know this is a top-notch lens, detailed testing can and will reveal a lot more additional information (both positive and negative) and give you a better feel if this lens is for you or not.

Be Safe. Be Disciplined. Be Vigilant. And please follow the advice of YOUR local health care officials (which may or may not be the same advice you get from your political officials, depending on your country of residence).

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#120-300_FirstWords

19 Feb 2020: The Nikon D6 - More Info, More Thoughts...

When Nikon announced the D6 last week we got the usual media blitz, including Nikon-controlled information and press releases appearing on nikonrumors.com, dpreview.com, and (of course) on Nikon's own websites. Those information sources did give us the high-level spec changes and updates, but they did lack a lot of the meat you need to assess how significant of an upgrade the D6 really is. As an example, we were told it now has 17 different Group Area AF patterns available (rather than the 3 found in the D5), but they didn't show us what those different patterns were. And, they talked about the new "triple-sensor" AF points on the D6 (as opposed to the "double-sensor" AF points on the D5) but gave us no indication what this meant. And while we knew that the D6 jumped up to having 105 selectable AF points from 55 on the D5, we were told nothing about the Dynamic Area patterns of the D6 (beyond the fact that the camera still had Dynamic Area focusing).

Fortunately, a few days after the D6 launch the D6 brochure was quietly made available (you can download it from the D6 product page on nikonusa.com). And now we have considerably more information about the D6 (even though that information still has a marketing-ese accent to it). So, along with all the "high level" bullet points we all heard about, I now know...

• that despite almost doubling the number of focus points that are selectable, the arrangement offers no net increase in viewfinder coverage (bummer)...just an increase in focus point density,

• that ALL 105 AF points are compatible with lenses having maximum apertures of f5.6 and faster (or larger) and 15 of the central points are compatible with lenses having maximum apertures of f8 (cf. 9 on the D5),

exactly what the 17 Group Area patterns look like (and I have a gut feel I will regularly use maybe a half dozen of them),

• precisely how a triple-sensor arrangement on the D6 differs from a double-sensor arrangement of the D5 (just don't ask me yet how this translates into better performance in the field),

• that there are four Dynamic Area AF modes: 9-point (thank gawd!), 25-point, 49-point, 105-point,

• that you can now input AF fine-tuning values for both the shortest and longest focal lengths of a zoom lens (a step in the right direction, but still a little less than optimal),

• a LITTLE more about the "Advanced customization functions" (though it's still vague how the new "Recall Shooting Functions" really works, but we do know that AF-area mode is among the recallable shooting functions...which is a very promising sign),

• that the bigger, better, faster, stronger EXPEED 6 image processor is supposed to give us an improved auto white balance and even cleaner (less noisy) high ISO images than the D5 (how much cleaner the D6 RAW images are than D5 RAW images remains to be seen),

• that the VERY smooth and stable image bursts of the D5 (during high-speed bursts, and especially when used with a lens with a VR with a Sport mode) should be even smoother with the D6...which is fantastic news for those who like to shoot things like birds in flight or sparring or fishing bears - all thanks to ANOTHER new mirror-driving mechanism (the new mirror-driving mechanism on the D5 was one of those most overlooked features of the D5...and I just loved it).,

• that the D6 offers a LOT of improvements that should speed up the workflow of JPEG-shooting sports photographers considerably, including more control of in-camera JPEG's, the ability to select specific images for transmission, faster wireless transmission, etc (all of which, of course, are irrelevant to this RAW-shooting wildlife photographer),

• and a zillion other little things...(the D6 spec list in that brochure is incredibly detailed).

Of course, at this point no one knows EXACTLY how these new features and upgrades will translate into noticeable performance differences in a field setting. If you look at the "big picture" you'll see a flagship DSLR that will has the same look and feel (and ergonomics and handling) as its excellent predecessor the D5 (so just like a D5, only better!). And I see a rugged workhorse designed primarily for still photography that builds on and extends the success of the D5. And...BTW...and in partial response to the online negativity about the D6...there's another "big picture" observation that should be kept in mind - the observant photographer will notice about the same number of (or arguably a few more) improvements in the D6 as its two main competitors - the Canon 1DX MkII and the Sony A9 II - had in their recent "flagship" updates. And, when I compare the "magnitude" of the upgrade between the D5 and the D6 with past model upgrades (e.g., D3 to D4, D4 to D5) it looks like the D6 fits Nikon's typical model upgrade strategy to a T.

My educated guess in how the D6 will differ from the D5 in field use under trying field conditions? Well, it will vary with the shooter - a pro sports photographer may get excited and benefit from workflow-related advances that a pro wildlife photographer will never use. But here's what I'm expecting...

1. An autofocus system that lets me focus in lower light and with even higher overall reliability and speed than the D5. For THIS wildlife photographer this is very welcomed.

2. ISO performance that slightly bumps up (perhaps by 0.5 stops?) the maximum ISO I'll be willing to shoot at.

3. Customization features that allow me to switch entire GROUPS of settings faster than the D5.

4. Because of a combination of points 1, 2, and 3 I expect to return from expeditions with a higher "hit rate" of sharp images, including even those taken under more extreme conditions than I was able to capture with my D5.

Will that be enough of an improvement over the D5 to please me and justify the expense of a D6? Yep, I'm pretty sure it will be! And unless I get a mountain of email about the D6 I plan to say very little else about it until I actually start shooting with it! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#D6MOREThoughts

18 Feb 2020: Prelim Report: Z7 Animal Eye Detection AF

Early today Nikon posted a firmware update for their Z6 and Z7 mirrorless cameras. Among the new features is an "Animal detection" autofocus mode that, when using Auto Area AF mode, is supposed to recognize and focus on the faces AND eyes of dogs and cats (and the menu description specifically states it's for dogs and cats!).

As a wildlife photographer the FIRST thing that came to my mind was the obvious - how far beyond dogs and cats in the animal world will the face and eye detection extend? Will it recognize bear faces and eyes? How about the ungulates - like deer, elk, moose, et cetera?

During my lunch break today I decided to do some very preliminary testing (= playing) with my Z7 and my dog Poncho...and whatever else happened to be around my cabin at lunch hour.

Anecdotal Finding #1: Mixed Canine Results

The Face Detection system seems to work great on Poncho, my Portuguese Water Dog. Unfortunately, no matter the lighting, angle, proximity (how much Poncho fills the viewfinder) it can NOT detect his eyes at all (and yes, he's had a haircut recently and his eyes are clearly visible). Not that Poncho's face is predominantly dark (with some white on his forehead) and his eyes are dark. In about 50 attempts I could not get the camera to shift even ONCE to eye-detection mode.

Anecdotal Finding #2: Excellent White-tailed Deer Results

On a MUCH more positive note (especially for a wildlife photographer), both the face and eye detection systems worked GREAT on White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus). When the deer were hanging their heads low while foraging it grabbed the heads with almost 100% reliability, and when the deer looked up it instantly recognized their eyes and locked onto one of them (or the other if you toggle). And, much to my surprise, it worked well (and locked onto the eyes) even when the deer covered only a small portion of the viewfinder.

For those who don't know their deer well, White-tails have white (or light) fur around their very dark eyes - so their is a high degree contrast in their face and their eyes really "pop out" based on pelage colouration.

While these anecdotal observations are very preliminary, it may be worth it for Nikon to consider ANOTHER firmware update where they change the wording in the menu to indicate that the Animal Detection autofocus mode is for cats and deer! But perhaps they should wait until I find a cougar to try it out on one of them! ;-)

Stay tuned for further updates and reports!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

12 Feb 2020: The Nikon D6 - Some VERY Preliminary Thoughts...

Most Nikon-o-philes are probably aware that late last night Nikon announced their latest flagship DSLR - the D6. The same info and specs describing the camera can be found in all the usual places - on nikonrumors.com, dpreview.com, and on any official Nikon imaging website. Because of their toxicity and incivility I almost never poke my nose into any photography forums, but I am guessing that right now a lot of negative things are being said about Nikon and the D6 in those forums. Granted, and at first glance, the specs of the D6 don't contain many exciting or revolutionary new features. But I suspect among working photographers who need a reliable workhorse that just delivers and delivers the D6 will be well-received.

One possible exception to the lack of excitement-inducing specs is the vastly re-vamped autofocus system which was already incredibly good on the D5 (and far better than any of the other Nikons that appeared to have "similar" systems, such as the D850 or D500). Headline spec changes on the AF system of the D6 include an increase of selectable AF points from 55 to 105, a wider area of coverage, and a big increase in number of Group Area AF modes (from 3 to 17 patterns). There are other AF improvements as well - now ALL 105 selectable focus points employ cross-type sensors and ALL AF points are designed to perform better in low light (now ALL points can achieve focus at -4 EV rather than at -3 EV like on the D5 and the central focus point can focus down to -4.5 EV versus -4 EV with the D5). Just how well the AF system performs in the field remains to be seen, but I suspect it will really turn heads.

There are certainly other spec changes that will please some shooters - Nikon emphasizes that they have done a lot to improve workflow (things like "instant access to presets" and "advanced customizations") but until we have the camera in hand it will be hard to assess how valuable these improvements will be. I have to say that ONE improvement has me on the edge of my seat and wanting to know more, and it's that "instant access to presets" feature. Here's how Nikon describes this new feature:

"With recallable shooting functions, sports photographers can effortlessly switch between preset camera settings - great for events like track and field where dynamic-area AF may work best for some events while auto-area AF may be better for others."

If this means shooting banks (or some other customizable banks) can store AF modes AS WELL AS all the other settings in the Shooting Menu (including Auto ISO), then THAT will be an excellent thing! Users of cameras with User Settings - like the D750 (and the Z6 and Z7) - know how handy that can be. I have wondered for YEARS why Nikon didn't let us store AF modes along with other shooting menu items on the D-single digit flagships. And gosh, I hope that wildlife photographers can effortlessly do this too! ;-)

Am I disappointed in the specs of the D6? Well, I have to say several of the most important items to me on my D6 Wishlist weren't granted by Santa Nikon - it's only 145 gm (5.1 oz) lighter than the D5, has NOT gone up in resolution, does not have IBIS, et cetera. BUT, with status quo on the resolution there is a distinct possibility we'll have even better low-light performance (and what wildlife shooter wouldn't like that?) and with the improved AF we may even be able to focus on the subjects in that low light!

I won't be able to back this up until I get my D6 and start shooting with it, but I suspect the it might end up being one of those "sleeper" cameras (like the D3s was relative to the D3) where the performance bump in the field far surpasses the spec bump we see on paper. If I get a higher hit rate on my shots over a wide variety of conditions - plus more usable high ISO shots - then I won't be complaining one bit. For at least this wildlife photographer those are the most important camera characteristics to improve anyway.

With each new (and parallel) flagship introduction by Canon and Nikon the more it looks to me like there is direct communication between those companies on product strategies. Funny how BOTH companies decided to sit on 20 MP this go 'round and focus on (pardon the pun) AF performance, ISO performance, and workflow-related features. Some may reply with "Well...what ELSE can they do with a DSLR now?" but over the last two flagship introductions by each of them the spec changes have been just too similar to ignore (like it was dead obvious that the 1DX MkII and the D5 were both in dire need of a new mirror-driving mechanism...who would have thunk?).

Finally, I look forward to taking delivery of my D6 - hopefully in April. After all, it may well be the last DSLR I ever buy!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#D6PrelimThoughts

11 Feb 2020: More Thoughts on the AF-S NIKKOR 120-300mm f/2.8E

Since I wrote about my excitement about the coming AF-S NIKKOR 120-300mm f/2.8E FL ED SR VR zoom lens (which I'll now just call the 120-300mm f2.8E) in a recent blog entry, I've received quite a bit of email questioning my sanity. A lot of the negativity in those emails was associated with the astronomical price of the 120-300mm f2.8E (which has a street price in Canada of about $12,399.00 CAD). Quite a few of the emails also mentioned the "brick-like" weight. And one even suggested that I check out Nikon.ca or Nikonusa.com to see what the lens was for (which was a polite way of saying "...that lens is for shooting sports you idiot - Nikon doesn't mention a WORD about shooting wildlife with it").

So...let me comment on those 3 points first:

1. The Price.

Yep, I know the lens is priced ridiculously high. Just like the 180-400 f4E is (and which I screamed about too). But a funny thing happened with the 180-400 - after using it for a few months I sold BOTH my 400mm f2.8E and my Sigma Sport 500mm f4...and instantly was at a "no cash out of my pocket" point. And I have a MUCH better all-round tool for shooting wildlife than I had with the 400mm f2.8E and 500mm f4.

Can I reasonably expect the 120-300mm f2.8E to be as strong a lens optically as the 180-400mm f4E is? I think so. Nikon's last two super-telephoto introductions (the 180-400mm f4E and the 500mm f5.6E PF) far exceeded expectations and Nikon KNOWS they have to meet a super high standard with this lens. And, by pricing the lens as they have, Nikon put tremendous pressure on themselves to produce a winner. I actually EXPECT the 120-300mm f2.8E to be sharper than the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII when the lens is shot wide open.

2. The Weight.

Yep, the weight of the 120-300mm f2.8E (3250 gm or 7.16 lb) is very disappointing - and for most users it will undoubtedly be a "destination lens" that you take to specific location to shoot a specific subject (as opposed to a walk-around lens you have with you just in case you run into something interesting to shoot with it). I've accepted I will have to live with this limitation - I'm not a casual street shooter anyway...and going to a specific location to shoot a specific subject is what I do! ;-)

3. My Idiocy.

As to being too stupid to realize that I'm not supposed to shoot wildlife with this lens...well...I've never been too good at following the rules. Just wait to see the wildlife images I produce with the 120-300mm f2.8E over the next year (I kinda think I'm going to prove the naysayers wrong!).

Now don't get me wrong - I don't think the 120-300mm f2.8E will work for most wildlife shooters. Heck, I might be the ONLY wildlife shooter in North America who likes and uses a 120-300mm (why does that NOT bother me?). And I don't think Nikon will sell too many of them. But I think it will work well for me. Here's why:

1. Big Subjects at Close Distances!

I shoot a LOT on BC's west coast, which means a lot of my subject matter is BIG (bears, wolves, whales, etc.). And, a LOT of the time I am working in close proximity to these animals. Most of the time I'm NOT shooting songbirds at 25 meters! So, based on decades of experience I KNOW the focal length range will work for me (and likely better than it would for a LOT of wildlife photographers).

2. I LIKE "The Wider View!"

I'm a fan of animalscape shots where the subject is small in the frame. Heck, I even have a whole gallery dedicated to animalscapes - check it out here. And, I don't tend to shoot my animalscapes with a 24-70mm...I often shoot my animalscapes at longer distances and often in the 120 to 400mm focal length range. So with the 120-300mm f2.8E AND the 180-400mm f4E at my disposal I will be well equipped to nab my favourite style of wildlife images.

3. I Own the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport - AND LIKE IT!

I already own the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport lens, which is a surprisingly good lens. And, I HAVE found this lens to be very useful for me. If, as I expect, the Nikon 120-300mm f2.8E is a little sharper (especially when shot wide open), has a slightly faster and better AF system, and has a better image stabilization system, I am sure I am going to love it.

4. The POTENTIAL for Optical Magic?

During this winter I have been culling through THOUSANDS of brown bear images - I began with about 80,000 brown bear shots and I'm now down to a little under 40,000 images. During this process I have been struck by a how much images shot with ONE lens have stood out from all the others and produced images with an almost "magical" quality to them. This lens is the Nikon 200mm f2 VR (which I no longer own). Many of the bear images I shot with this lens are simply magical - and the bulk of the MOST magical shots were shot at f2.5 or f2.8 (NOT f2).

My hope with the 120-300mm f2.8E? That it will be uber-sharp when shot in the focal lengths of 200mm to 300mm - including at f2.8. And, that it just might approach the magical quality of the 200mm f2.

I acknowledge that I may end up being disappointed with the 120-300mm f2.8E. If I am I'll just turn around and sell the lens. But I am pretty sure you won't be seeing the 120-300mm f2.8E on my Gear For Sale page in the near future!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

21 Jan 2020: Musings Part 4 - AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

This is the fourth part of a short series of entries conveying some musings about the relatively rapid evolution on my Nikon-based wildlife photography kit over the last year or so. The first entry set the stage for the series, the second covered my "gut feelings" about how well the Z7 fit into my wildlife kit, and the third covered my thoughts about the performance and value of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E zoom lens. Those entries can be found here:

Musings Part 1 - On My Evolving Nikon Wildlife Kit.
Musings Part 2 - The Nikon Z7
Musings Part 3 - AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR

Today's entry covers my impressions and opinions on the AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR (hereafter simply known as "the 500 PF") after testing it extensively and shooting with it for about 12 months. This entry isn't intended as a full review of the 500 PF, but rather as an attempt to describe the "impact" this lens has had on my wildlife photography and how I rate its "value" to me. I have done extensive optical testing on the 500 PF against several other high-end lenses that overlap it in focal length - the most recent field test blog post on the 500 PF (and links to my previous posts on the lens) can be found right here: Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF Field Test II: Comparative Optical Performance.

OVERVIEW

Many wildlife shooters consider a professional prime (i.e., fixed focal length) super-telephoto lens to be the ultimate "tool" in plying their trade. Of the super-telephoto primes from Nikon (or, for that matter, Canon) you'll find shooters who prefer one of the "big 3" over the others for very valid reasons. The AF-S 400mm f2.8 (G or E versions) tends to be preferred by those who wanted the "sharpest of the sharp" super-telephotos, want the ultimate in subject isolation, and tend to work with somewhat more approachable subjects and/or larger subjects than songbirds! The AF-S 500mm f4 (again either the G or E versions) has a lot of things going for it too - a little more reach, lighter weight, lower price, and is often thought of as (at least by me) as a good all-rounder super-telephoto with few big compromises. The AF-S 600mm f4 (yep, both G or E versions) gives you more reach again, but it is the largest and the heaviest of the batch - but often those who work with hard-to-approach subjects (or, of course, songbirds!) are partial to the 600mm f4's. I do acknowledge that the AF-S 800mm f5.6E does exist, but because of its rarity (largely owing to its astronomical price tag) I won't bother discussing it here.

But common to all 3 of Nikon's (and Canon's) "traditional" super-telephoto lenses is the fact that they are bloody big and heavy - so much so that they are largely "destination lenses" (meaning, you're taking them to a specific destination to shoot a specific subject...and you DON'T tend to hang them around your neck and go for a walk in the woods "just in case" you might see something worth shooting). And, because we had no lighter or smaller viable options to get the reach and subject isolation we craved, we grew to completely accept ALL the limitations inherent in using a 3600 gm (8 lb) to 5400 gm behemoth for wildlife shooting, including buying special cases to transport them by plane, investing in large and sturdy tripods and gimbal heads to support them in the field, debate hiring a sherpa to carry them in the field (OK, OK, I know...that might be a LITTLE extreme, but it would be nice, right?), et cetera.

So...when Nikon announced the very small and very light (think "not much bigger and heavier than a 70-200mm f2.8") 500mm f5.6E PF I was both intrigued and excited. But as an owner of the FIRST Nikon PF lens (the 300mm f4 PF) I did have some reservations...and that was simply because while I LOVED the size and weight of the 300mm PF, I wasn't in love with how it performed optically. Now, don't get me wrong or misquote me by saying I think the 300mm PF is a "bad" lens optically - I don't think that. I think the 300mm PF is decent optically, just not GREAT optically. If someone has NOT owned a 300mm f2.8 VR or any of Nikon's "big 3" super-telephotos then they would likely LOVE the optical quality of the 300mm PF.

And, of course, another incredibly appealing aspect of the 500mm PF - and especially compared to ANY of Nikon's (or Canon's) "big 3" super-telephotos - is its price. At the time of this writing the 500mm PF retails for $4,699 in Canada while the 500mm f4E retails for $12,899.

Anyway...I ordered a 500mm PF the first day I could, and while I waited a while to get it, I was one of the lucky ones to get it in a quasi-reasonable time frame. And, I ordered it with the attitude that if I was going to keep it, there were a few critical things it had to exhibit, including...

• It had to have excellent sharpness - in all ways comparable to the Nikkor 500mm f4E OR the Sigma Sport 500mm f4

• That sharpness had to extend from edge-to-edge, even on a high-res sensor like that of a D850 or Z7

• Given its smaller maximum aperture of f5.6 (compared to the f4 version), it had to be tack sharp when shot wide open. Note that as one who LOVES the subject isolation you can obtain with any of Nikon's "big 3" super-telephotos, this "must be tack sharp when shot wide open" attribute was incredibly important to me.

To my way of thinking, if the 500mm PF does exhibit these optical characteristics, and if it scores well on two other "usability" factors that I consider of high importance (VR/hand-holdability and AF performance), then for me (and, I suspect, many wildlife shooters) it WOULD be a true breakthrough product. And, it would change the way I work in the field pretty dramatically!

I. Optical Performance

As soon as I received my 500mm PF I tested and compared its optical performance against several other 500mm "options", including the Sigma Sport 500mm f4, the Nikkor AF-S 180-400mm f4E (at 500mm, so with its teleconverter engaged), and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm. It's important to note that I previously tested the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 against the Nikkor 500mm f4E and found the two lenses to be optically "equivalent" (that field test can be viewed here: 500mm Wars - Sigma vs. Nikon ). So I am quite comfortable "extrapolating" my 500mm PF test results to include how the 500mm PF would compare against the Nikkor AF-S 500mm f4E.

I have reported my results of the optical performance of the 500mm PF in a previous detailed blog entry (view it here: Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF Field Test II: Comparative Optical Performance) so here I'll just present the shortest summary of my results and then comment on a few other observations I've made since posting that 500mm PF optical performance blog entry.

The Four Sentence Executive Summary:

The Nikkor 500mm PF is a very sharp super-telephoto prime lens over its entire aperture range - and at all distances. It also exhibits excellent contrast and bokeh on par with the "best of the best" super-telephoto lenses. And because the 500mm PF is razor sharp when shot wide open, it provides a stronger ability to separate a subject from the background than you might expect from a lens with a maximum aperture of f5.6. In my view the 500mm PF is completely on par optically with the absolute best super-telephotos money can buy.

And now...some further comments on:

1. Edge-to-edge sharpness: Not long after getting my 500mm PF I ran into a near perfect scenario to check out the edge-to-edge sharpness of the 500mm PF in a field setting. This image is a full-frame, full-resolution shot captured with the 500mm PF mounted on a Z7, and handheld @ 1/500s and f5.6 (wide open). Best to view the image at 100% magnification:

Columbia Wetlands from 600 meters: Download Image (JPEG: 15.3 MB)

2. Backlighting and Image Quality: One situation the separates high quality lenses from the pretenders is when shooting backlit subjects, including shooting almost directly into the sun or other strong point source of light. The "best of the best" lenses resist flare and retain decent contrast when shooting backlit subjects. While I haven't had a huge number of opportunities to shoot backlit wildlife since getting my 500mm PF, in those few cases I have (or have used my wildlife "proxy" to test this) I have found that the 500mm PF handles backlit situation very well. And, I have received feedback from a considerable number of other 500mm PF users saying the same thing, i.e., that it works GREAT with backlighting. Here's just one sample image to show what I mean:

Poncho - Backlit on Snow: Download Image (JPEG: 1.3 MB)

3. The BIGGEST Elephant in the Room - SUBJECT ISOLATION: One of the biggest concerns I had about the 500mm PF when it was first announced was whether or not the maximum aperture of f5.6 would be wide enough (and produce a shallow enough DoF) to effectively isolate a subject from its background. And I have heard this concern from many wildlife shooters, with some of them even insisting the f5.6 maximum aperture wouldn't work for them - even though they had never even SEEN the lens (of course, when I asked them how often they shot their 500mm f4's at f4 I usually heard two answers - "Very rarely" or "Never"!). After testing and shooting the 500mm PF I have a different take on this subject, and here's my argument:

• The biggest single contributor to getting dreamy soft backgrounds with "tack sharp" subjects that "pop" isn't the aperture you choose - it's the relative distance between you and the subject and the subject to its background. Simply put, you have to be closer to your subject than your subject is to the background. Yes, having a larger maximum aperture WILL give you a thinner DoF, but only if you can use that aperture and still get sharp shots.

• The Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF exhibits what I call Aperture Independent Sharpness (or AIS) - it is as sharp shot wide open as it is at virtually any aperture. The Nikkor 500mm f4E does NOT exhibit AIS - to get maximally sharp images with the 500mm f4E you have to stop the lens down by approximately 2/3 of a stop - which is f5. And that difference in image sharpness between f4 and f5 IS noticeable without extreme pixel-peeping.

• SO...while I will never argue that the 500mm f5.6E PF is JUST as good at separating subject from the background as the 500mm f4E is, it is really, really close - especially if you want your subject as sharp as possible (and thus stop down the 500mm f4 a little). There MAY be situations where ensuring the camera-to-subject-to-background distances necessary to get "dreamy soft" backgrounds are tougher to "create" with the 500 PF than with the 500mm f4, those situations are darned rare!

And here are some sample shots to show what I mean. Many of them are shot with the 500 PF wide open, but in some cases (with close subjects and inherently shallow DoF's) I stopped all the way down to f9 and still obtained "dreamy soft" backgrounds. Note that the camera used and exposure info for each shot is shown in the border on the top left corner of each image:

Female Common Merganser - Just Cruisin': Download Image (JPEG: 0.9 MB)
Simply a Seal: Download Image (JPEG: 0.7 MB)
Red-breasted Nuthatch: Download Image (JPEG: 0.9 MB)
Mountain Chickadee: Download Image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)
White-tailed Doe in Forest: Download Image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
Poncho Going Low: Download Image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
The Poser - Red Squirrel on Stump: Download Image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
Cedar Waxwing in Pre-dawn Light: Download Image (JPEG: 0.9 MB)
White-tailed Doe - and Daughter: Download Image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

4. Optical Performance with TC-14EIII (1.4x) Teleconverter: When I evaluate how a teleconverter works with a specific lens I consider two things - the optical performance of the lens/TC combination - and if the combo is realistically usable in the field. And, the 500mm PF with the Nikkor TC-14E-III (1.4x) teleconverter is very good optically. In fact, it exceeded my expectations by quite a large margin. Here's one example:

Red-breasted Nuthatch: Download Image (JPEG: 0.8 MB)

However, the perception of the "usability" of this combination will vary dramatically between users (and definitely between cameras the lens/TC combination is used with). Why? Largely because of the maximum aperture of f8. Not only does this limit the usefulness of the lens/TC combo in low light, but (and more importantly) it has an impact on the AF performance of all Nikon DSLR's. I have shot the 500mm PF plus TC-14EIII with the Nikon D5 and on the Nikon Z7. If you check the AF "specs" of the D5 only 15 of its 153 focus points are supposed to work with lenses with a maximum aperture of f8 (and only 9 of those are selectable by the user). In the field I found a much higher number of focus points did work with the 500mm PF plus TC-14EIII combination, but the performance of many of the "outer" focus points was very "iffy" (at best). Keep in mind that the AF of the D5 is the BEST (by a large margin) of all Nikon's DSLR's and users of other Nikon DSLR's may find the AF performance of the 500mm PF plus TC-14EIII unusable and unacceptable. In my case I probably WILL use the 500mm PF with the TC-14EIII on very selected occasions in those few instances where everything is "just right" (lots of light, a subject where close approach is impossible or inappropriate, etc.).

Here's one "moderate action" shot captured with my D5 with the 500mm PF plus TC-14EIII combination:

Poncho in Fast Trot: Download Image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

Not surprisingly, I found I had decent AF performance with ALL 493 of the focus points of the Z7 (chock one up for using mirrorless cameras to photograph wildlife!).

What about the performance of the 500mm PF with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter? I don't know. That combination has a maximum aperture of f11 - and I KNOW that in a field setting I would never end up using a lens with a maximum aperture of f11 (based on "usability" grounds alone).

II. Other "Usability" Characteristics...

1. Ease of Transport, Freedom of Movement: It's almost impossible to overstate just how much the incredibly small size and low weight of the 500mm PF (compared to a "traditional" 500mm) impacts on just how easy it easy to transport or travel with the lens - and how much "freedom of movement" you have when using it. As mentioned above, I know of few people who regularly grab their 500mm f4's, hang it around their neck and go for a walk in the woods "just in case" they happen to run into a scene or subject suited to a 500mm focal length. But, this is something I do ALL the time with my 500 PF - and I just love it (now keep in mind I LIVE in the woods and could run into a lot of interesting subjects - including grizzlies, wolves, coyotes, deer, elk and more - just while walking around our cabin). And there are just a ton of little things associated with handling of the lens that you can do with the 500mm PF that you just couldn't (or wouldn't) do with a 500mm f4...such as dropping to your knees (or right down flat on the ground) with it in your hands, whipping it around in another direction to grab a quick shot, running or trotting with it in your hands (I've done this several times now to catch a "soon to be gone" shot), etc. And, even if I'm going on a long hike (like 10+ km) and I think there's even a remote chance I'll bump into something suited to the 500mm focal length then I'll throw the 500mm PF in a small daypack "just in case" (and I would never dream of doing this with a 500mm f4). In a way you don't realize how many limitations you have (and how many compromises you have to make) with a 500mm f4 until you get a 500mm PF!

2. VR Performance - and "Hand-holdability": The slowest shutter speed that anyone can effectively hand-hold a super-telephoto lens at (and still get sharp shots) varies with a ton of factors, including lens balance, lens weight, user technique, user strength, VR performance of the lens (or lens and camera stabilization in the case of the Z-Series cameras), and more. I have done some comparative tests of the shutter speeds that I can hand-hold the 500mm PF and some other 500mm "options" at (and still get sharp shots) AND I have shot the 500mm PF hand-held extensively over the last year. I'll be reporting the results in detail in a coming blog entry, but here are the three biggest take-home lenses (and I think the first one will REALLY surprise a lot of folks):

USE THE VR! Almost shockingly, and if the VR or OS systems are turned OFF, I can successfully hand-hold BOTH the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (at 500mm with TC engaged) and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 at slower shutter speeds that I can with the 500mm PF. Huh? Why? I can't be sure, but I noticed the exact same thing with the 300mm f4 PF - that without the VR turned on I was AWFUL at hand-holding it (and worse than with the 300m f2.8 VRII). I THINK it's because the PF's are simply too light (for their magnification factor) and you simply don't have the mass to work against (and stabilize the "system"). Think in terms of trying to hold you hand completely still with a piece of styrofoam in it versus with about a 450 gm (one pound) weight in it...I think you'd find it easier to hold the one pound weight steady than the styrofoam!

Hand-holdabiity with VR ON: Okay...now EVERYTHING changes (and returns to what most would expect). Turn on the VR of the 500mm PF (in either Normal or Sport mode) and instantly I can hand-hold the 500mm PF at far slower shutter speeds than I can with the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (at 500mm with TC engaged) and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4. With the VR/OS turned on with both the 180-400mm and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 I can regularly and predictably (= all shots in a burst of 3) get sharp hand-held shots down to about 1/400s and get "some" (1 or 2 in a burst of 3) down to about 1/200s. With the 500 PF I regularly and predictably get sharp hand-held shots down to about 1/250s and "some" (i.e., 1 or 2 in a burst of 3) sharp shots down to about 1/60s.

Hand-hold it ALL DAY long! It's one thing to be able to hand-hold a super-telephoto shot for one or two quick shots. But to do it for minutes on end (while you wait for that wolf to turn its head back to you) is a very different thing. And, if you're in a situation where you have to hand-hold your lens for minutes on end over a whole day...well...unless you're Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime...you aren't going to do it with a 500mm f4. But...it's pretty easy to do with the 500mm PF!

I'll have a lot more to say about hand-holdability of the 500mm PF soon in a coming blog entry - suffice to say for now that if you use the VR the hand-holdability of the 500 PF kicks the butt of any other 500mm lens currently on the market...

3. Autofocus Performance? I'm going to keep this one short (and yes, I will say more about this in a future blog entry in the next month or two) but both my testing and experience in the field tell me the same thing: in terms of speed of focus acquisition and focus tracking the 500mm PF is as good or better than any other 500mm prime or zoom lens I have tested it against. This includes the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (at 500mm with TC engaged), the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 (which matched the Nikkor 500mm f4E in previous tests - see 500mm Wars - Sigma vs. Nikon for verification) and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm. Of course, if I DON'T give at least one sample image I know I'll be asked for it, so here ya go:

Cho on the Go: Download Image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

III. A Quick Summary:

OK...the shortest summary of the performance of the 500 PF is this: What's NOT to like? In my view Nikon hit an absolute grand slam homerun with the 500 PF. It's great optically - tack sharp at all apertures and from edge-to-edge (and it just BEGS to be shot wide open). It can be used to isolate a subject from its background ALMOST as well as any 500mm f4. Its light weight and small size makes it easy to transport and even easier to use and hand-hold (with the VR on!). It's autofocus system is blazing fast and accurate. And, it comes in at almost 1/3 of the price of the Nikkor 500mm f4E (and only 60% of the price of the highly regarded Sigma Sport 500mm f4).

I emphatically repeat: What's NOT to like? ;-)

IV. Is the 500mm PF a True Breakthrough Product?

I have NO PROBLEM answering this question - absolutely YES. And, unlike with the 180-400mm f4E, this lens isn't priced in the stratosphere so it's accessible to MANY more shooters. And now (finally) you can actually GET one! ;-)

Another way to look at this issue of whether or not the 500 PF is a breakthrough product is to ask the question "Is there any real reason left to buy a 500mm f4?". Other than a glib response like "A 500mm f4 has a higher testosterone factor"...I honestly can't think of one. When I completed my 500mm Wars field test I decided to sell my Nikkor 500mm f4E and keep the Sigma Sport 500 f4 (and never regretted it). Now, after testing and using the 500mm PF for a year I have sold my Sigma Sport 500mm f4. I do think the 500 PF will absolutely crater the sales of NEW Nikkor 500mm f4E's and that it will depress the street price of used 500mm f4's. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing will depend if you're a buyer or a seller.

Is there anything that would make me sell and replace my 500mm PF? While I already consider it one of my most valuable and useful lenses, I'd replace it in an eye blink if/when Nikon comes out with either a 600mm f5.6 PF or 800mm f5.6 PF. And I'd do so simply for pragmatic reasons - as an owner of the 180-400mm f4E I DO have almost complete redundancy at the 500mm focal length and it makes little sense for me to take both my 180-400mm AND my 500mm PF on expeditions (and I think I'd love taking a 600mm f5.6 PF on walks and hikes almost as much as I do with my 500mm PF!).

Up next in this series...Musings Part 5 - to cover...well...I'm not quite sure yet! But very likely something along the lines of "Where We're At - and Where We're Headed - as Nikon-shooting Wildlife Photographers". Let me think about it. And stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Musing4

03 Jan 2020: My New Editing Monitor: An Eizo ColorEdge CG279X

Like many photographers these days, I spend more time behind my computer than out in the field, especially over the winter season. I like using a dual monitor system while working with images and am currently using an iMac 5K (with a High Density (HD) or "Retina" display) and, for over the last decade, I have used a 30" Apple Cinema Display as my "second" monitor. In my day-to-day work I perform all my critical image-editing tasks on the relatively low resolution (101 ppi) Apple Cinema Display.

But, long story short, and after almost 15 years of use, my 30" Cinema Display was beginning to show significant signs of wear (lots of coloured "dancing pixels" visible during startup or whenever editing images that contain a lot of blacks). So I decided it was time to bite the bullet and invest in a new editing monitor. And...for context...I don't like editing images using a HD display of any form. Why? While images do look great on HD displays (such as a Retina), they tend to hide noise and make everything look so darned sharp at 100% magnification that performing sharpening on an image is tough to do (especially if you're sharpening for online viewing and you want the image to look good on a NON-HD display).

Anyway...I went in search of a high-quality low(er) resolution monitor with good (and hopefully built-in) colour management capabilities. Of course, I wanted it to be capable of displaying a wide array of colour gamuts (including wide colour gamuts) including P3 (or DCI), Adobe RGB, sRGB, and more.

It didn't take me long to whittle the list of possible choices down to one monitor - an Eizo ColorEdge CG279X 27" monitor with its own proprietary colour management software AND built-in hardware sensor for colour calibration (info about this monitor right here...). Here's a few of its key specs:

Size: 27"
Native Resolution: 2560 x 1440 pixels (in a 16:9 ratio)
Pixel Density: 109 ppi (perfect!)
Display Colours: 1.07 billion from a palette of 278 trillion
Colour Gamut (Typical): Adobe RGB: 99%, DCI-P3: 98%
Contrast Ratio (Typical): 1300:1

I took delivery of the new display in late November so I have been using it now for a little over a month. My impressions and thoughts? Love it! Super easy to calibrate, great colours, viewable from almost any angle (without a brightness or colour penalty) and more. Note that I will NOT make the claim that images viewed on this monitor look as "pretty" as on a high-end HD monitor (such as the new Apple Pro Display XDR), but I will say that the Eizo ColorEdge CG279X is just an EXCELLENT monitor for image-editing and other production-related tasks (you know...for actually WORKING on!).

Anyway...if you're as nit-picky about image-editing and the appearance of your images as I am - and if you're in need of a new monitor - I'd suggest taking a good long look at the Eizo ColorEdge CG279X. Yep, you can definitely find cheaper monitors (including cheaper monitors with a HD pixel density), but I doubt you'll find a better monitor for professional level image editing!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca



Blog Archive - not so fresh but still very readable and relevant...

2020 - With ALL the Meat!
2019 - ALL the Gory Details
2018 - The Whole Enchilada
2017 - The Full Meal Deal
2016 - The Whole Shebang
2015 - The Whole Shebang
2014 - The Whole Shebang
2013 - The Whole Shebang
2012 - Almost The Whole Shebang
2011 - The Whole Shebang
2009 - October to December2009 - July to September2009 - April to June
2009 - January to March 2008 - October to December 2008 - July to September
2008 - April to June 2008 - January to March 2007 - October to December
2007 - July to September 2007 - April to June 2007 - January to March