Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

 

Brad Hill: Blog: Q4 2008 (October to December)

Short-winded blatherings on whatever is currently occupying the part of my brain that deals with photography. Updated sorta weekly.

16 December 2008: Nikon AF-S 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 IF ED VR G Zoom to the Rescue?

A few months back I sold a "workhorse" lens - my 70-200 mm f2.8 VR zoom. I sold it because while this lens works very well on Nikon's DX camera bodies, its performance is sub-standard on FX (full-frame) bodies, which is all I'm currently shooting. When I sold it, I anticipated that Nikon would announce either an updated and improved version of this lens or, more likely, an updated version of the 80-400 mm f4.5-5.6 before Christmas. Alas and alack, they haven't. And, given recent announcements of contractor layoffs at Nikon, I'm not as sure these new lenses are imminent as I was just a month ago.

So...I had a problem to solve: a focal length coverage "hole" from 70 mm to 200 mm (if you don't count my 105 mm VR Micro). Which is the focal length range I like to have covered when I'm just "walking around"/hiking. So...I started thinking (always a dangerous thing) and checking lens reviews and talking to associates - all in search of a solution for finding my ideal "walking around" lens. And, the more I checked, the more it seemed like the new(ish) Nikon AF-S 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 IF ED VR G (what a mouthful!) just MIGHT be the answer to my problem. This lens is apparently quite sharp and it's certainly smaller and more portable than many of my fast primes. On the downside, it's slower than many of my lenses (but this is hardly a problem on the high ISO wonders the D3 and D700) and according to the reviews, has a narrower range of apertures over which the lens performs well, and lacks the build quality to which I have become accustomed. But...it's also pretty darned cheap (about $500 CDN) compared to lenses I've recently acquired. So...what the heck - yesterday I ordered one!

Will I be satisfied enough with the 70-300 mm to keep it (and USE it)? Will I be able to recommend this lens? I don't know yet. But stay tuned, my impressions of this lens will start appearing here within the next week or so...should be interesting!

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

9 December 2008: Spirit Bears and Great Bear Rainforest Photo Tour 2009

I've finalized all the details on the 2009 edition of the Spirit Bears and the Great Bear Rainforest Instructional Photo Tour and I'm now ready to accept bookings. Here are the critical details:

OVERVIEW: Don't miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime trip! The Spirit Bears and the Great Bear Rainforest Instructional Photo Tour 2009 combines a full day of professional photography instruction with 8 days of touring the Great Bear Rainforest in search of Spirit Bears, Grizzlies, several species of whales - all while travelling through some of the most photogenic scenery on Planet Earth! You will be given the tools and the opportunity to capture breath-taking, professional quality images of rare, endangered bears and absolutely stunning scenery.

DATES: September 25 to October 4, 2009.
NUMBER OF PARTICIPANTS: Limited to 6.
COST: $4950 CDN including all taxes. Currency converter available here.
REGISTRATION: Contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca to reserve your spot!

WANT MORE INFORMATION? Download this brochure (PDF: 864 KB) for trip itinerary, accommodation details, and more!

If you're even potentially interested in this trip you should contact me soon - there are very few spots and historically these Instructional Photo Tours sell out extremely fast (I'm already receiving enquiries and bookings for trips in 2010!).

8 December 2008: Touched by Wolves...

I went wolf hunting yesterday with my camera. I live in the southeast corner of British Columbia and we have several low density pockets of wolves in the area. The policy of the BC government, as demonstrated and manifested in their hunting and trapping regulations, is wolf eradication in virtually the entire province (except, of course, in National Parks). Consequently, most of the wolves in the more heavily populated southern regions of the province have been actively harassed by humans and are exceptionally wary. The probability of seeing one, let alone get close enough to photograph one, is exceptionally low. Nevertheless, early Sunday AM I decided to try to locate a nearby pack and, hopefully, get some images of them. I had heard that there was one pack around that wandered in and out of a nearby national park and was reasonably approachable. So in the early morning darkness I loaded up my truck and headed out. I had low expectations of finding wolves, but figured my chances were better if I went out than if I stayed inside our cabin...

By about 10 AM I had thoroughly checked the area in the vicinity where I had heard the wolves were last seen. We had received about a foot of fresh snow overnight and any tracks would have been very visible - but I saw nary a sign. I decided to drive on for a few more kilometers before turning back. I rounded a sharp corner and suddenly I had 3 wolves standing on the road surface directly in front of me (at a distance of about 100 metres). The three wolves were standing over a dark lump, which I first thought must be a kill. I had another car on my tail and it wasn't safe to pull over where I was - so I slowed right down and slowly approached the wolves. As I got closer I realized the dark lump was simply a 4th wolf that was sitting down scratching itself like a dog. I crept forward and stopped at the first place that had room for my car. By now I was only 5 meters from the closest wolf (and maybe 8 meters from the furtherest one). They showed absolutely no fear of my vehicle. After a minute or two 3 of the wolves hopped off the road (over a small snowbank) and leisurely strolled to the edge of the thick forest adjacent to the road. The fourth wolf simply sat down in front of my car and stared at me. The car that was behind me slowly passed me and then passed by within 2 meters of the wolf, but the wolf never took its pale yellow eyes off me. Eventually the wolf broke its stare and leisurely strolled over to its packmates at the edge of the road. I sat (in my vehicle) until the wolves made their way into the forest. They were stunning in appearance - all 4 had similar coats that were streaked with gray, black, and brown. And all had gorgeous pale yellow eyes. Absolutely mesmerizing.

What to do next? I didn't want to harass the wolves, so I decided it was best to give them time to vamoose. I knew the forest that they disappeared into well - years of fire suppression have left it exceptionally thick and overgrown and filled with deadfall - it's a tangled mess that's extremely difficult to get through. But I knew there was a large clearing in the forest about 200 meters from the road and thought there was a small chance I could work my way to the clearing and get some photos of the wolves from a distance (I had a 600 mm lens with me). So, I gave the wolves a 15 minute lead, shouldered my big lens and tripod and followed their trail into the woods. After about 5 minutes of tracking them I had made MAYBE 50 meters and pretty much given up any hope of getting to the clearing with the wolves still around. So, I brushed the snow off a fallen tree and sat down to contemplate what had happened (and to revel in the experience I had already had). I had been sitting for only about a minute when I saw movement ahead of me. Then more movement. I sat astonished as I eventually picked out all 4 wolves making their way back to me! I sat motionless as they worked their way closer and closer - it was almost eerie: I'd see a leg here and a tail there as I caught glimpses of them through the snarl of snow-covered bushes and trees. They eventually stopped when they were about 7 meters from me (tho' still almost invisible through the thick forest). They had formed a small semi-circle around me. In a minute or two all 4 had sat down and just stared at me. Each wolf moved their heads around - almost as tho' they were trying to get a better look at me (but obviously didn't want to come closer). So we sat. And stared. I talked softly to them and at least a couple of them cocked their ears at me. So we sat. And stared. And, at least I pondered what the heck was going on (and perhaps they did too). I had no perception of threat, or fear, from the wolves. If anything, they simply seemed curious.

After about 10 minutes of sharing time and space with the wolves I decided someone had to bring this encounter to an end. I slowly stood up, shouldered my camera and gradually turned and began to move away at an angle to the wolves that let me keep an eye on them. All four wolves stood up, but at first none of them moved away. They simply kept staring at me as I moved off. Then, they slowly turned and disappeared into the forest without making a sound. Like ghosts. When I returned to my truck I had tears in my eyes. I don't know why...guilt for what my species has done to nature in general (and wolves in particular)? Joy over the special and emotional early Christmas gift the wolves had bestowed upon me? I don't know. And, I don't even mind that this time I came away with just a memory...

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

1 December 2008: "Orca Art" is CNP's Image of the Month!

One of my Orca images ("Orca Art") has been selected by the Creative Nature Photographers (or CNP) online community as their image of the month for November. View the image on the front page of the CNP website - just click on the image to see what CNP members are saying about it. And, if you're still looking for a great Christmas gift for the whale-lover in your family, Orca Art is available as a Limited Edition Print (and there's still time to ship to you before the holidays!).

For those of you who don't know, CNP is an online community of nature photographers who strive to maximize the creativity of their images. Their website is a great place to see stunning images of nature, and if you're interested in expanding the creativity of YOUR images of nature, you should consider joining them!

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

1 December 2008: Nikon Product Announcement: D3x Yes; New Lenses No

Long Story Short: Late last night Nikon announced their much-anticipated new high-resolution dSLR flagship, the 24.5 MP D3x. Despite much speculation to the contrary, no new or updated lenses were announced.

Short Story Long: Late last night Nikon announced their much-anticipated new high-resolution dSLR flagship, the 24.5 MP D3x. Despite much speculation to the contrary, no new or updated lenses were announced. Some details about the D3x:

1. What is it? Simply a high-resolution version of the extremely successful D3. Twice the resolution as a matter of fact. More resolution but with the expected decrease in high ISO performance.

2. Critical Specs? 24.5 MP; 5 fps at full-resolution, 7 fps with DX crop (10 MP); ISO range of 100 to 1600 with "boosts" extending range to ISO 50 through ISO 6400. Detailed specs available almost everywhere on the web...

3. Price? MSRP of $9449.95 CDN in Canada (dealers WILL sell for less if they hope to sell any); Estimated US Street Price of $7999.95 USD. Yes, you read those prices right.

In summary...the D3x announcement was expected and they offered up exactly the camera everyone was expecting (including me). I was disappointed that certain key new (or updated) lenses weren't announced, specifically the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR zoom and the 70-200mm f2.8 VR zoom.

Will I buy a D3x? I am definitely looking for the right high-resolution solution for wildlife, landscape, and "animalscape" work. I think I WILL end up with a Nikon solution, but I still want to find out more about what potential advantages the recently announced (but not yet shipping) Leica S2 will provide. However, it is my assumption that the S2 will be priced beyond what makes business sense for me to consider (especially given my current investment in Nikon lenses). I'm confident that the larger format Leica S2 will, in most situations, produce marginally higher quality images than the D3x, but it's unlikely the quality difference will justify the Leica price.

So...it is likely I'll end up with a high-res Nikon - but it may not be the D3x. At least right now. Look at that price. Sorry...it's too high, especially given the competitive regime and the new economy (or lack thereof). I completely expect that price will tumble, and sooner rather than later. And, given how Nikon followed the D3 with the D700 (i.e., the "almost D3"), and given how Nikon seems to like to have multiple camera bodies using the same sensor, I think it's highly likely that we'll see a high-res 24.5 MP D800 or D900 in just months. This time, I can wait.

And, finally, maybe it's remotely possible that Nikon will provide the option of upgrading the sensor, primary digital board, and firmware on the current D3's to D3x specs. I'd send them my D3 and a $2500.00 cheque if they sent back the same camera to me with the D3x sensor and other new innards in it!

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

26 November 2008: December 1st Nikon Announcement? D3X?

This entry for Nikon-o-philes everywhere.

The websites dedicated to rumour-monging about all things Nikon have been in overdrive lately. They're convinced that Nikon is going to make a major announcement of new products on December 1st. It may be true. What products? Supposedly both camera bodies and lenses. Here's what's most commonly being bandied about:

1. New High-res dSLR. No one knows what it will be called - D3x or D4 are the most common suggestions. Spec? 24-28 MP on an FX sensor; 5 fps; ISO performance better than D300 but not as good as D3; D3 styling and look and feel.

My two cents worth: Yep, this is likely to be announced.

2. D400: Higher res DX dSLR. A replacement for the D300. 16-17 MP on a DX sensor. Nothing else really being speculated about.

My two cents worth: Nope - not yet. This body was predicted by Thom Hogan a while back, but he didn't suggest it was coming this fast. I think Nikon might introduce this product, but not until somewhere around the end of Q1 2009.

3. Medium Format Digital Rangefinder. There's been persistent rumours that Nikon wants to wade into the medium format space with a digital rangefinder. Most sources put the camera in the 30-40 MP range with a new series of "MX" lenses (for the new MX sensor). Supposedly both DX and FX Nikkor lenses would work with this camera as well, albeit at a lower resolution crop (due to image circle coverage issues).

My two cents worth: Sorry - absolutely no idea. It would seem to me that it would be strange to introduce the D3X AND a medium format camera at the same time - kind of like introducing your flagship and its competitor at the same time...

4. Updated 70-200 f2.8 VR Zoom. Needed to replace the current 70-200 which works extremely well on DX cameras but not nearly as well on FX cameras.

My two cents worth: Not yet. Definitely needed, definitely interesting, but I think it's a little too soon for Nikon to have this almost ready to go.

5. Updated 80-400 f4.5-5.6 VR Zoom. Existing one is too soft and lacks AFS focusing (way too slow on the focusing!).

My two cents worth: Yes, I think it's likely this will be announced. And, it will be a big hit.

6. New Prime Lenses: 35 mm AFS f1.8 and 135 mm f1.8 AFS. I guess many argue these are past due and needed.

My two cents worth: No clue - these lenses (new or old versions) are so far off my radar that I couldn't even venture an opinion.

Which of these products would I be interested in and order right away? D3X/D4? Nope. Given Nikon's recent past shenanigans with the D3/D700 products (following the D3 introduction with the D700 a few months later) I'm going to wait to see if a high-res D900 is in the works. Or, wait for the price of the D3x/D4 to drop. I definitely want a high-res body (an animalscape dream machine!), but I'm going to wait this one out.

D400? If this camera is announced, and if it's built in Japan and of the build quality of the D700, I would seriously consider ordering it. But...I think it will be made in Thailand and be in-line with the D200 and D300 in build quality - so it is likely to be a no-go for me.

MX Rangerfinder? Don't know - need more info first. But unlikely I'd be interested in it.

Lenses? If all those listed above were introduced I would pre-order the new 80-400 in an eyeblink. Given decent optical quality (which, I think, is becoming a given with the new Nikkor lenses) this would be a great "walkaround" lens for a wildlife photographer to own. I would also acquire the new 70-200 in time, but wouldn't be in quite as much of a hurry...

December 1st is coming soon - stay tuned...

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

24 November 2008: Canon Powershot G10 (DDW) Images Now Appearing...

Images I've captured using my new point-and-shoot Canon G10 (my DDW - or Digital Dog Walking - camera) are now starting to appear in my "Galleries of Latest Images". More coming soon...

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

19 November 2008: Canon Powershot G10: Ultimate DMD or Ultimate DDW? Or Both?

I just took delivery of a Canon Powershot G10 "pocket camera". This camera is being heralded by many as the first true "photographer's compact", although some happy owners of the Panasonic Lumix LX-3 may have something to say about this. Being a careful consumer (especially when considering the purchase of a product made by - egads! - Canon) I read as many reviews of the G10 and "shootouts" comparing the G10 with its closest rivals as I could lay my hands on (e.g., Thom Hogan's "Compact Shootout" and dpreview's comparison of the LX-3 and the G10). But I found the Canon G10 Review on the Online Photographer website most enlightening. In this and a related article the authors describe the excitement around the search for a Decisive Moment Digital (or DMD) camera. A DMD is a small, carry around camera that is both responsive and has image quality near that of current dSLR's (in the DMD article the authors have MANY more detailed requirements than this, but small, responsive, and with good image quality pretty much sums it up). In summary, they conclude that if the G10 isn't a DMD, it's very close.

How does this apply to me? Well, when I thought about it, a DMD was close to what I was looking for. Except I had my some of my own unique requirements and knew what I was really looking for was the ultimate DDW (Digital Dog Walking) camera. Bear in mind that I live in the woods and when I walk my dogs it's possible I could encounter wildflowers (seasonally), spectacular scenery (always), deer (white-tail or mule), elk, coyotes, cougars, lynx, bears (black or grizzly) and even possibly wolves. Oh yeah, and I occasionally encounter poachers and/or other evil-doers and have a bad memory for license plates. So...my DMD subspecies (aka DDW) must have:

CMPCT & LW: Compact and Lightweight. My dogs are well-behaved, but sometimes I still have to run after them so I can't have an anchor with me. If I can't have CMPCT & LW then I'd need to have two LSH's (leashes, which my dogs aren't fond of).
GIQ: Great Image Quality. Or at least Good Image Quality. Same acronym anyway.
LP: Lotsa Pixels. I know that this equals noise on the teeny sensor, but I'll live with base ISO shooting (ISO 80) to have those pixels (hey...I already have BOTH a D3 and D700 - if I want low noise I know where to go).
RFC: RAW Format Capabilities. Then all I'd need would be a decent converter that supports the format...
MF: Macro Focus. For those wildflowers.
MC: Manual Control. Yep, I want to decide things like shutter speed, aperture, etc.
AP: Aperture Priority. Almost all I ever use (assuming adjustable exposure compensation or AEC).
ZTL: Zoomable Telephoto Lens. Zoom Zoom. Who doesn't love it? For those furry critters.
LPRF: License Plate Recognition Focus. For the bad guy's trucks.

So... the critical question: Is the G10 a true DDW with CMPCT LW GIQ LP RFC MF MC AP ZTL and LPFR? So far I've found buttons or dials for everything on the list (along with 15 or so scene modes I'll never use) except LPFR (but I'm sure it's there somewhere). Now I just have to find the shutter button. Will it never end? I'm beginning to think the marketing of crap we don't need (or want) is the REAL reason we're in the current economic mess we find ourselves in!

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

18 November 2008: New Role: Nature Photographers Network Staff Member

I'm now a staff member over at the Nature Photographers Online Magazine. My role is to moderate one of their online image critiquing galleries - the fauna gallery. I'm looking forward to the new role - should be lots of fun!

What's the Nature Photographers Network (and online magazine) all about? NPN is a large and very active online community of nature photographers. Its members come from all corners of the globe and include photographers of all levels - from the complete novice through to top-notch professionals. The two common threads of the members are a love of nature and a love of photography. On the NPN website you'll find articles on nature photography, very active forums covering a huge array of topics, a photo portfolio service for members, and, of course, the highly popular image critiquing galleries. If you have an interest in nature photography and would like to improve your skills, you owe it to yourself to check out NPN! You won't regret it.

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

15 November 2008: Camera Gear Section Now Updated

I have finally got around to updating the Camera Gear page on this website - it now accurately describes the gear I'm currently using (and some gear I've recently abandoned, like my Nikon D300 and AFS-Nikkor 70-200 mm f/2.8 G ED-IF VR zoom lens). The section now includes my impressions of the Nikon D700 and the AFS-Nikkor 600 mm f/4 G ED VR super-telephoto lens. Next on my list - breaking the single and excessively long Camera Gear page into a few shorter and more easily digested pages...

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

10 November 2008: Replacing My Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VR Zoom...

I recently sold my Nikkor 70-200mm VR zoom lens. Why? The 70-200 has the reputation of being a reliable workhouse lens and many describe it as a "...legendary Nikkor". It certainly is a popular lens. But...the Nikon camera bodies I'm currently shooting with (and will likely continue to be shooting with) have full-frame (or FX) sensors and, unfortunately, the 70-200 performs much more poorly on the FX bodies than it does on the DX bodies (see either Bjorn Rorslett's comments or the recent review on dpreview's website). Being a little fanatical about the quality of the products I use (and the quality of my images), I decided to sell my 70-200 fast - before its rumoured replacement came out and the re-sale value of my "old" lens dropped like a stone.

So...now I have a focal length gap between 70 and 200 mm with my existing lenses (excepting my 105 VR Micro). So...what should I replace this lens with? When I did a quick examination of all the photos I've shot over the last two years using the 70-200 VR (ya gotta love those metadata filters in Adobe Bridge CS4) I confirmed what I suspected - I pretty much used my 70-200 as a "walkaround" lens for casual shooting. And, the vast majority of the time I used it at or close to its maximum focal range which, given that most of its use was on a DX camera, was equivalent to 300 mm on a full-frame camera. Hmmm. Bear also in mind that we live in a very rural area and that I have two dogs - thus during much of my "casual, walkaround" shooting I'm walking my dogs and I have the distinct possibility of encountering bears, cougars, wolves, coyotes, elk, deer, and a dizzying variety of birds. Which explains why I tend to live in the 200 mm end of the focal range.

So...here's my wishlist for the characteristics of the lens to replace my 70-200: It must be:

1. Relatively small and light. It MUST fit into my LowePro Slingshot 300 AW (my preferred "walkaround" pack) with a pro body mounted on it, along with my 105 VR and my 24-70 f2.8.

2. A VR! I'm not carrying a tripod when I'm walking my dogs - period!

3. AT LEAST 200 mm "long". But...300 mm (or longer) would be better.

4. Optically very good. Simple - it's got to be as good as my 70-200 was on a DX body (i.e., very good but not necessarily excellent). Otherwise I know I won't use it!

Next step - examine Nikon's lens lineup and simply pick a lens that matches this list. Oops...it doesn't exist. So...it's time to wait and guess what Nikon has in the works. Which gives me the option of dreaming about my "ideal" walkaround lens. Here are my top 4 choices:

1. The UPDATED 70-200mm f2.8 VR. Almost everyone has been predicting that Nikon has an updated version of the 70-200 VR in the works. Only ONE significant player hasn't said so yet - Nikon. But if they do produce it, and if it's as good as their other AMAZING new FX zooms (like the 14-24 and the 24-70) it may be incredibly hard to turn down. Definitely a possibility...

2. The SURPRISING and NEW 70-300mm f4 VR. Hmmm...with the remarkable high ISO performance of the FX cameras maybe an f4 would be fine...right? It could be smaller and lighter (in the same size range as the 70-200 f2.8) and give us the reach we've become accustomed to. Keep the optical quality up, and I would line-up to buy one of these! But this would mean that someone at Nikon would have to be thinking a little bit "outside-of-the-box". Fat chance.

3. The UPDATED 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR. The current iteration of this lens wouldn't work for me - too soft and with less-than-optimal contrast. But, now that we're dreaming, if Nikon updated this pup and improved the optics the way they've been doing with many other lenses I'd have another great option.

4. The NEW 300mm f4 VR. Another non-existent lens that might work for me. Design it so that it works well with tele-converters and this might be a great lens for me to walkaround with. Note that if Nikon produced this lens instead of a replacement 70-200 (or 70-300) there would be a LOT of unhappy folks. But it might just work for me...

So...I have to wait. And, I'm totally at the mercy of Nikon's lens introduction schedule. I'm guessing that this means my next lens purchase will be the updated 70-200 f2.8 VR. Sigh.

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

04 November 2008: Calling All Creative Nature Photographers

Are you getting a little bored with those technically correct but uninspiring front-lit "bird-on-a-stick" images? Are you interested in truly creative nature photography? If so, you owe it to yourself to check out the Creative Nature Photography website. This recently developed online community was the brainchild of a small cadre of highly talented photographers based out of India and has a truly international flavour. The community places much more emphasis on creativity and aesthetic impression than it does on technical perfection. The images are inspirational and the commentaries and critiques encourage you to "...think outside the box" in your nature photography. I highly rcommend this exciting new addition to the family of online nature photography communities.

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

04 November 2008: Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen Photo Tour - Sold Out!

The 2009 "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" Instructional Photo Tour is now officially sold out (and has been for a while!). I will likely be offering this unforgettable experience again in 2010 and I expect it will sell out again in very short order. If you think you might be interested in the 2010 trip, feel free to download this brochure (PDF: 370 KB) for the trip itinerary, accommodation details, and more! Please note that this is the 2009 brochure and exact dates and prices will likely vary slightly in 2010.

If you're looking for an instructional photo safari this coming year (in 2009) I will be providing all the details and taking reservations for the September 2009 "Spirit Bears and the Great Bear Rainforest" Instructional Photo Tour on or before November 15. There are only 5 remaining spaces available for this trip, so if you'd like more information (or you'd like to reserve a spot) contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca.

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

28 October 2008: Photoshop CS4 - Bigger, Better, Faster, Stronger?

About a week ago my copy of Photoshop CS4 arrived and I immediately installed it (on my desktop system ONLY - turns out it's imcompatible with my PowerBook G4 laptop...bummer). Since then I've used it to "play with" several hundred images. And...I've formed a few opinions about it (surprise. surprise). Here are a few of my thoughts...

Caveats and Qualifiers. What follows is in no way a review - it is simply the impressions of ONE nature photographer and how Photoshop CS4 is working for him (i.e., ME). It is based on use on an archaic Mac (a PowerMac G5) and ONLY for image-editing in the way THIS photographer uses Photoshop (not for RAW conversions and not as a graphic designer would use it, etc.).

1. Bigger, Better? Well...bigger is kinda irrelevant. But Better? If this means "helps me produce better image files" then the answer is definitely NO. The interface HAS been tweaked, and many "new" features have been added or existing features enhanced - the top new or enhanced features can be viewed here. But...in my humble opinion, there are almost no new features that I really needed. One feature I DO like...how it opens multiple files in a single tabbed window - small feature but works well for my workflow.

2. Faster, Stronger? Faster? On my system - DEFINITELY! Everything runs snappier on my machine - from opening files to applying filters to large image files (e.g., smart sharpen), etc. This is a pure guess, but it seems to me CS4 runs at least 20% faster on my machine than CS3 did. This is a very good thing. Stronger? Well...I'm not sure how this would apply to software, but if it means "less prone to crash or hang-up"...well Photoshop has been solid for about the last 4 or 5 versions. Nothing to improve here.

Was the upgrade worth the money? In my case and with how I use Photoshop, this means "...was the speed bump worth it?". Maybe. But wait - there's something more on the DVD...

3. Bridge CS4. Bridge is the file management/organizing tool that comes with (I believe) all the new CS applications. I've used Bridge for aspects of my workflow (primarily keywording) for a number of years. In the past (and on my system) Bridge produced such poor quality RAW image file previews (and did so very slowly) that it was pretty much impossible to effectively cull/organize/sort large quantities of files. Not any longer - Bridge CS4 is great. Better and MUCH faster image previews. Improved file filtering, vastly improved interface elements and navigational aids, and lots more. I LOVE Bridge CS4. As a matter of fact, the ONLY reason I've been using Apple's Aperture in my workflow has been for the initial culling and sorting of image files. It's entirely possible that I'll no longer have ANY reason to use Aperture (other than to produce the occasional book). Bridge is THAT good.

The bottom line: I could easily live without Photoshop CS4. But...Bridge CS4 works great for me and DEFINITELY justifies the cost of the upgrade.

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

22 October 2008: PRIME Time in the Great Bear Rainforest

I recently returned from a photo expedition up to the northern coast of British Columbia - an area known as the Great Bear Rainforest. The area is known for its rich and diverse array of wildlife, including brown (or grizzly) bears, black bears (both "normal" and the rare white-phased Spirit Bear), wolves, several whale species and other aquatic mammals and birds galore. This was the fourth consecutive autumn that I've gone up to this area and I did something that was a bit different (at least for me) - I decided to put away my zoom lenses and "force" myself to shoot with only two prime lenses - a Nikon 200 mm f2 VR and a Nikon 600 mm f4 VR (plus a 1.4x teleconverter for the 200 f2). It could be argued that the overall single best lens to use in this region is Nikon's excellent 200-400 f4 VR zoom (and I would definitely support this point of view). I took my 200-400 VR with me, but given there were two other photographers with me that were using the 200-400 VR as their "primary" lens I figured I might as well try to get some different images (than those of the other guys) and also REALLY put the 600 VR through its paces and use it in situations where I wouldn't normally consider pulling it out (and, in some cases, in almost ludicrous situations for using a 600 mm lens). During this trip I also tried to use my D3 and D700 virtually interchangeably - while I've been using my D700 for a few months I haven't put it to the test under the type of conditions I knew I would encounter in the Great Bear Rainforest (rain, snow, long lenses, short lenses, banding stuff around, etc.).

The results? If you'd prefer to SEE the results, visit my "Galleries of Latest Images" - images from the trip are already showing up there and many more will follow over the coming weeks. For those of you looking for a written summary...

1. Did I Miss Many Shots? Well...in putting away my loyal and trusty 200-400 VR I probably missed a few shots. There were a few occasions where I was a little too close to use my 600 and too far away to use my 200 (even with the 1.4x TC) effectively. But overall I think my two lens, two camera (D3 and D700) approach worked just fine...

2. How Good is the New 600 VR. As I hoped when I shelled out the big bucks for the 600 VR, it REALLY, REALLY performed! When shooting in the Great Bear Rainforest you're often fighting low light situations and forced to shoot hand-held (or using creative improvised "props" to help support the lens) from small inflatable boats. Between the high ISO capabilities of the D3 and D700 and the effectiveness of the VR function on the new 600 I came away with a dramatically higher proportion of sharp images than I expected, including several sharp images shot at speeds as low as 1/60s while hand-holding the 600 in a floating (and bobbing) zodiac. Recently I've run into a report of one shooter who has obtained poor results when using the VR function on the 600 when shot from a tripod (with the VR on). I haven't experienced this problem - I captured hundreds of tack sharp images shot with the 600 using a large Gitzo tripod and Wimberley head during this trip (with the VR set to "Tripod" mode). I will add images shot with the 600 mounted on a tripod to my "Galleries of Latest Images" soon...

3. And the D700? I've been quite vocal about my negative experiences with my D300 (which I've sold). So...in fairness I should be equally vocal about how much I absolutely love the D700. Simply stated, the D700 is an absolutely amazing camera. During this trip it got wet, cold/frozen, was banged around in the front of the zodiac, shot with huge lenses on it, and more. And all it did was perform and perform. There are still one or two little things I prefer about my D3, but if a year ago I knew how good the D700 was going to be, I would have waited and bought TWO D700's rather than a D3 and D300 (which I eventually replace with a D700 anyway!). For the record, except when hiking I always use the D700 with the MB-D10 battery pack attached, which makes it pretty much as fast (and as heavy and bulky) as the D3.

More commentary on the expedition in the days and weeks to come...stay tuned!

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

20 October 2008: Phase One Releases Pro Version of Raw Conversion Software

Mid-way through last week Phase One released the long-anticipated (and long-promised) professional version of their raw conversion software, i.e., Capture One Pro version 4.5.

Some of the new features include:

1. Support for new camera models: The RAW files for both the Nikon D700 and D90 are now supported.

2. New lens tools: Phase One had added new tools to minimize chromatic aberration, purple fringing, distortion, and other lens flaws. To be honest, I haven't tried these new features yet (hey, I use GOOD lenses that rarely need digital correction!).

3. Simplified Interface and more customizability: Phase One has cleaned up the user interface and added a lot more customizability to the interface (such as creating custom menu tabs, adding or removing palettes, etc.).

So...how does the new software work? At the most essential level, in my opinion it still produces the best raw conversions of all current raw converters. I especially like its ability to extract and present amazing white-on-white detail (think of the feather detail on a mature Bald Eagle's head or the scratch marks created by skates on a hockey rink and you'll know what I mean!). I have become used to the workflow presented by the Phase One software and quite like it, but this is truly a matter of preference. The software is free to previous registered owners of Capture One Pro (download the update here).

IMPORTANT NOTE TO MAC USERS: Phase One lists the minimum system requirements as being a "...Intel-based Mac" but state in the user's manual that "Capture One 4 may run on older computers...". I have been running the software on a G5 Mac without problems for almost a week now and have not run into any problems (other than reduced speed).

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

1 October 2008: Gone Grizzly Shooting...(sans bullets, of course)

I'm off at sunrise tomorrow for 2 weeks of shooting up in the Great Bear Rainforest (on the northern BC coast). Our primary target will be grizzlies in a remote and un-named inlet, but we often also encounter a variety of marine mammals (humpbacks, orcas, elephant seals, otters, etc.), coastal wolves, and even occasionally white-phased black bears (AKA "Spirit Bears") in this area. Anyway expect no updates to this site for a couple of weeks, but expect lots of new commentary and images when I return...

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.

1 October 2008: Nikon 600 mm f4 VR and Teleconverters...

I've started to receive quite a few emails recently asking me how the Nikon 600 mm VR lens performs when paired with teleconverters (or TC's). So...I spent a little time last week doing a little informal "testing" (which means, for me, shooting out in the field under normal conditions and using living subjects - not in a lab or while repeatedly shooting images of a brick wall).

It's important to note that I'm less a fan of teleconverters than many nature (and especially wildlife) photographers. I find it very difficult to generalize on how TC's perform - it's my experience that their performance varies dramatically (and often unexpectedly) with the lens you pair them with. Until very recently the ONLY lens that I would put a teleconverter on without hesitation was my Nikon 200 mm f2 VR. Well...you can add one more lens to that list - the Nikon 600 mm f4 VR! Here's some more specific comments:

1. Nikon 600 mm f4 VR and TC-14EII (1.4x TC): Very good to excellent performance, even when shot wide open. Autofocus performance of the lens is only minimally affected by the TC (if at all) and image colour, contrast, and sharpness are all excellent. Of course, using such a long lens equivalent (850 mm) means that you have to be extremely careful about depth of field issues and camera or lens vibrations (though the VR function of the lens works very well). Personally I won't hesitate to use this combination when the correct opportunity presents itself.


UPDATE - 3 November 2008: Sorry - the example image for this combination of lens and TC has been bumped out of my Gallery of Latest Images (ya snooze, ya looze).

2. Nikon 600 mm f4 VR and TC-17EII (1.7x TC): Good to very good performance when stopped down one or more stops (compared to shooting the lens with no TC). On a few occasions I even obtained acceptable (= professionally sharp) images when I shot with the 600 mm lens wide open (f6.3 with this TC). Autofocus performance of the lens is definitely affected when using the 1.7x TC - the lens "hunts" for proper focus much more than with the 1.4x TC (or with no teleconverter) and I had the perception that even when there was no "hunting" for focus the autofocus was slower. But the autofocus system DID work in all lighting conditions I shot under. Additionally, I noticed that colour, contrast, and image sharpness all "took a hit" when the lens was paired with the 1.7x TC. But, all in all, image quality was still quite good. Of course, using such a long lens equivalent (1000 mm) means that you have to be extremely careful about depth of field issues and camera or lens vibrations (though the VR function of the lens works very well). Will I use this lens/TC combination without hesitation? No, but I'm sure there will be some times I will turn to this "solution" to capture some specific images.
UPDATE - 28 October 2008: Sorry - the example image for this combination of lens and TC has been bumped out of my Gallery of Latest Images.

3. Nikon 600 mm f4 VR and TC-20EII (2x TC): Sorry, I haven't tested this combination yet. I'm definitely not a fan of Nikon's 2x TC and have never been happy with its performance. I will try to test this combination in the near future and provide an update to this information.

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca.



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

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