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A new camera body, "The Beast" and bird photography

March 21, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

It's been a while since I posted a blog (November 2017 in fact), so I thought I might tell you what I've been doing photographically speaking.

Back in August, I shared my gear lust about the then-recently announced Nikon D850. I wanted one - but not at any price, and given the combination of little discounting due to demand for the camera and the "Australia tax" prices we Antipodeans are required to pay, I couldn't justify buying one then. Between Christmas and New Year, Camera Pro in Brisbane offered the D850 at a price I haven't seen before (or since). I stumped up the cash and waited - and waited and waited.

Finally, Camera Pro (who had kept me in the loop all through the process) sent an email: it was on the way - and the next day, the courier handed me a big package.

What to do with it? Of course, the first shot I made was one of my wife - as is now traditional with new cameras in our house. But what next? Well, last year I bought The Beast - a Nikkor 200 - 500mm f/5.6 lens with the particular intention of trying my hand at bird photography. I'd tried using my extremely good Nikkor 70 - 200, but even with the 1.7x extender, I wasn't getting close enough. A 500mm lens would do the trick! (New gear solves all your problems, doesn't it???)

Of course, every solution has its downsides. The Beast weighs 2090g, which with the body, gets the kit up to around 3kgs. Doesn't sound much does it - say, three litres of milk. But try holding that out in front of your face for a couple of minutes and see how you you go.

Then there was the question of whether to stalk birds or sit quietly and wait. I'm not a "sit quietly" type of 'tog, but more experienced bird photographers than me seemed to think it was the way.

Anyway ... by trying to photograph birds at home, in nearby parks and occasionally, travelling to bush areas around Perth, my technique improved a little. In fact, I had a couple of successes - like this image of a Nankeen Night Heron.

Nankeen Night-Heron, Lake Joondalup, Western Australia.
To be fair to the bird, in much the same way that Lee Marvin attributed half of his Academy Award to a horse, had I won a prize with this shot, at least half would be due to an unusually cooperative bird!

What's this got to do with the D850, I hear you ask? Well my point is that the heron shot was made with the long lens and my old faithful D800. As I noted last year, there's nothing wrong with a five year old body.

So why did I buy the D850? A few reasons. Firstly, it's a new sensor and while that in the D800 is brilliant, technology has moved on over five years. Not only do they have lower noise at high ISO, and greater latitude (the ability to deal with bright highlights and dark, dark shadows), but Nikon had stopped putting antialiasing filters (AA) on their SLRs. Taking away a filter which is there to fuzz up your images has to produce sharper images.

What's more, Nikon had put their top of the range 151 point focussing system into the D850, which would help - especially when photographing fast moving objects like birds - and grand children.

What was the potential downside? Well ... cost. I've never spent that amount on a camera body, although I suspect that my first digital SLR, the Nikon D70 may have cost that much in real terms. The camera sports an even bigger sensor than the 36M D800: nearly 46 megapixels. That requires a lot of storage - especially when you're trying to back up to the cloud using Australia's third world internet connections.

Finally. I've always said the D800 was a great camera - but unforgiving. When I first moved from my 12M crop frame D300 to the D800, I thought there was a problem with the camera. After analysis, I realised the problem wasn't with the camera, but with my technique. As good as the D300 was (and is), it was allowing me to get away with some sloppy technique whereas the much higher resolution of the 800 didn't. The D850 takes that a step further and with 46M and no AA filter, I could expect to need to refine my process further.

I was correct on all counts. The D850 is a great, great camera; an instant classic in fact, but it's not for everyone. It's expensive, heavy and demanding.

But if you're willing to persevere, it can produce images like this.

The Brown Honeyeater is a small, incredibly active little bird - and with the D850, I was able to nail that image. The focussing system also helps with objects moving in the sky:

Australian Pelicans in formation at Penguin island, Western Australia.Australian Pelicans in formation at Penguin island, Western Australia. However, today I saw a spider in my garden. I wondered what my ordinary, every day, non-macro Nikkor 24 - 120 lens could do on the D850 with such a small object - especially one that was moving back and forth in a strongish breeze. This is the initial image.

Full frame image of spider made with Nikon D850 and the Nikkor 24 - 120mm lens.Full frame image of spider made with Nikon D850 and the Nikkor 24 - 120mm lens.

Pretty good. Then I zoomed in - and to give you an idea of how much detail is in that image, this is the area showing just the spider. Look at that detail!

Crop in to spider on the earlier image.Crop in to spider on the earlier image.

 

I stress that this was made with a lens that has no claim to doing close-up work, but it's a good honest piece of glass. Combined with the resolution of the D850, I can do ultra-crops like this.

Does that mean I don't need my macro lens? Of course not - but it does show the incredible resolving power of this camera.

I'm very happy with my purchase and I honestly believe the D850 is helping me be a better photographer and make better images. But it's a camera that demands respect.

Happy shooting.


Shane Baker
shanebakerphotos@iinet.net.au

 


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