TRIPOD SNOWSHOES

A few days from now I’ll be at Crater Lake National Park for some winter landscape work.  Crater Lake is a reasonably short drive for me, so I can easily coordinate the timing of my trip with the weather.  I want fresh snowfall and no wind.  One thing is sure: as usual for this time of year there is already a lot of snow on the ground.  A quick online check tells me that as of today there is 72 inches of snow at the headquarters building and a lot more at higher elevations.  I’ll need my snowshoes so I don’t disappear into the drifts, but what about my tripod?  How do I keep it from sinking into the snow?

While you can purchase readymade tripod snowshoes, it’s quite easy to make your own set for just a few dollars.  I did this years ago, and the first ones I made still work just fine.  Head to your local home improvement store and purchase the following:

  • Three slip-on furniture-leg tips (also known as crutch tips) in a size just large enough to slip snugly over your tripod feet.
  • Three one-inch long bolts, the nuts for them, and six flat washers that fit the bolts.
  • Three flat plastic test caps (look in the plastic pipe section).  Mine are for 4-inch pipe and cost around $1 each.

Drill a hole through the center of each leg tip, and through the middle of each plastic test cap.  Take a bolt, add a washer, and thread it through the hole in the test cap, then add a second washer and nut and tighten.  That’s all there is to it.  Make three of these, shove them over the tripod feet, and you’re good to go.  Just as you will sink a little into the snow when you’re wearing snowshoes, your tripod will also, but it won’t sink out of sight in powder snow as it would otherwise.  In deep snow start with the tripod legs less than fully spread.  As you push the tripod down into the snow, the snow itself will force the legs apart.

A well-used tripod snowshoe.

COMPARISON

I recently ran across a blog post where a photographer was complaining about how much “space” his Nikon D810 files consumed, and how “costly” this space was.  Really?  I’m not exactly sure what this photographer meant, but let me take a slightly tongue-in-cheek look at “space” and “cost” today, compared to the same in the film days.

I store my digital files on hard drives.  I just checked the B&H website and a 4TB Western Digital external AC powered USB3 drive is currently priced at $119.  A 4TB drive will hold roughly 90000 D810 RAW files.  Assuming that files are processed, I’ll cut that number in half as the drive’s capacity for final images.  So, 45000 images fit on a drive that is roughly 6.5 x 5.5 x 2 inches.

Back in the film days my slide storage solution involved standard office four drawer file cabinets.  Each drawer could hold about 5000 slides in archival 20-slide pages, groups of 10 pages dropped into a single hanging file folder.  So one cabinet = 20000 slides.  Let’s cram a few more pages into each drawer, and say that 45000 slides could fit into two file cabinets.

OK, two four drawer file cabinets:  $200 (about $100 each back then, quite a bit more today).

100+ hanging file folders per cabinet:  $40 or so.

45000 slides held in 20-slide pages means 2250 pages.  B&H still sells these, currently $7 for a pack of 25.  I’ll knock this down to $5, so $450 for pages.

Add in the cost of film and processing:  45000 slides @ 36 shots per roll = about 1250 rolls of film, and at a ballpark figure of $10 per roll total cost that’s an additional $12500.

Total expense:  somewhere around $13300.

Those two file cabinets take up a goodly space:  52 x 30 x 22 inches when placed adjoining.

So…$119 and 71.5 cubic inches versus $13300 and 34320 cubic inches.  And I’m not even going to mention the difference in weight between one external hard drive and two fully loaded file cabinets.

Nikon D500

In the comments to my previous post several persons asked how I like the D500, now that I’ve been using it for some time.  So here goes….  My quick and easy answer: it’s the best “crop” body that Nikon has produced, particularly if you’re a wildlife shooter who wants the extra “reach.”

The D500 specs are readily available so I won’t repeat them here, but in my opinion there are some standout points:

  • Very fast AF.
  • 10 fps second motor drive rate.
  • 20.9 megapixels (which is more than the D810 when the D810 is used in the equivalent DX mode).  The D500 also offers just over 12 megapixels when used in its 1.3 crop mode.  I mention this point as the result is about a 2X view compared to a “full frame” camera while the resulting file size is roughly the same as from a D3 or D300.  Times have definitely changed.
  • Expanded buffer.  The buffer size depends on the card in use, but it’s roughly 40~45 RAW frames with a fast SD card, and 200 shots with an XQD.  Anyone remember the D100?  I think its buffer was about 3 RAW shots.
  • A minor but very handy feature:  button illumination for low light conditions.  To use, pull the Power Switch to the right, to the light bulb icon.

I try to keep the ISO at 1600 or lower, but I will go to 3200 knowing that the files will need some extra noise reduction help.  Of course, if there is a chance to grab a shot of Bigfoot, or if you’re only posting to the Web, then the sky’s the limit.  For my purposes, if I really need high ISOs I’ll switch to my D5.

Make sure to turn airplane mode ON in the setup menu in order to conserve battery power, otherwise the camera will continuously search for a Wi-Fi connection.

Forget about using off-brand batteries, or the older Nikon EN-EL 15 ones marked Li-on01.  In case you missed the announcement, Nikon will exchange these for new Li-io20 batteries at no cost, so long as you include a copy of your D500 sales slip.

And I’ve become a fan of using the Info button to modify settings…or perhaps the larger type on the LCD screen is simply easier for my old eyes to read.  What I really like is being able to change fill flash levels when I’m using a Better Beamer equipped flash on a RRS or Wimberley bracket.  With the flash active, touch the Info button, hold down the “minus” button the left side of the LCD, and a “flash mode/compensation” option appears, which includes indicators of which command dial to turn.  Total control from the camera, no need to reach the flash unit itself.

Am I getting rid of my D810 bodies?  No, not at all.  In my opinion, the D810 is still the best all-around camera there is.  But for action/wildlife the D500 is hard to beat.

For a longer review, I highly recommend you watch Steve Perry’s D500 YouTube video found here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ComPpr0bniM&t=5s.  For that matter, do yourself a favor and check out all of his videos.

It’s been a while…

It’s been quite a while since I wrote a blog piece.  A lot has happened this summer and fall.  Back in April I added a D5, and then a D500, to go along with my D810 cameras.  I made extended trips to Iceland, the Galapagos, Spitsbergen, Brazil, and southern Utah.  On the home front, at the beginning of summer we contracted a major house remodeling project which still isn’t quite finished.

And then there was the accident.  Several months ago, while driving home, I was slowing for a traffic light with three or four cars in front of me.  Just as I was almost stopped, the truck in back of me failed to brake and, while still going about 35mph, smashed into my vehicle.  This shoved me into the SUV directly in front of me.  My vehicle, a full-sized Chevy 4×4 pickup with a popup camper on the back, was totaled, smashed both front and rear.  The guy who hit me had been talking on his cell phone, totally distracted.  I’m all OK now, but it has been quite an experience, one which I definitely do not want to repeat.

UPDATE November 25:   I certainly appreciate all the comments and concerns.  Yes, I’ve totally recovered now, at least as good as I’m going to be at my age.  Plus I have a new truck and repaired camper.  So…if you see a white Chevy extended cab 4×4 pickup with a Four Wheel Camper popup in the back and a geezer at the wheel, stop and say “hello.” Again, my thanks to everyone.

END OF AN ERA

After a lot of procrastination, I’ve started sorting through about 25 years of old film images.  I haven’t shot one frame of film in over ten years now (I don’t even own a film camera anymore).  To be honest, it’s an extremely rare day when I have any reason to search for a film image…so a major housekeeping project has finally begun: I’m getting rid of as much of my film archive as possible.

I have seven four-drawer file cabinets crammed full of 35mm slides stored in 20-slide archival pages, ten pages to a hanging folder.  These are sorted into broad categories, such as birds, mammals, national parks, autumn color, etc.  I’ll be going through each section and pulling the shots I think worth keeping.  In the film days we all shot and kept duplicates of the exact same image, as multiple originals were needed to send out to magazines, books, calendars, and other possible publications.  Even having just started on this project, I’m amazed at what I kept way back when.  Yes, there are some good images, but there is also a lot of stuff that should have been ditched back at the time.  As I look through the files, I keep saying to myself “If this is what you kept, just how bad were the images you threw away?”

While the bulk of my film work was done with 35mm Nikons, I also used a Fuji 6x17cm panoramic camera for several years, and two 6x7cm medium format cameras, a Pentax 67 and a Horseman roll film view camera.  OK, there’s another whole file cabinet full of mounted images.

I’m hoping to get all this down to one file cabinet filled only with “keepers,” although that might take several passes through the files.  All the tossed film is going to a professional shredding place.

But I still have all the peripheral stuff: slide pages, labels, mounts, protective sleeves, and several large light tables.  Plus slide projectors and slide trays.  Anyone want this stuff?

Just a start: a wastebasket full of mounted 6x17cm panoramic images.

NIKON D5 AUTOMATIC AF FINE-TUNE

Yes, I bought a D5 to use as my action/fast AF/high ISO camera.  My D810 bodies will continue as my landscape/lower ISO cameras.  I’ve had the new D5 all of two days now, but I’m already getting emails about one feature: how to use the automatic AF fine-tune.  OK, so here goes…and to make it work you need to follow these steps precisely.

  • You need a flat target with distinct high contrast printing.
  • Mount your camera on a sturdy tripod, on a hard surface floor, with the target parallel to the camera back.  Have the camera/target distance about 25 times the focal length of the lens you’re using.
  • Turn off VR.
  • Set the AF mode on the camera to AF-S.
  • Have the Movie Record button set to None (in Custom Settings f1)
  • In Custom Settings f2, set the multi-selector center button > shooting mode > reset > select center focus point.
  • Turn on AF fine-tune in the Setup menu, with the default value at 0.  Leave AF fine-tune turned on from now on.
  • Turn on Live View (make sure the Live View selector switch is set to camera, not video), and select the center focus point by pressing the multi-selector center button.
  • Autofocus on the target using either the shutter button or AF-ON button, and make sure the focus box in Live View turns green, indicating that focus has been achieved.
  • Hold down the AF-mode selector and movie-record button simultaneously, and keep them pressed until a message appears on the LCD (this should appear in about two seconds).  Make sure YES is highlighted, then press the OK button.
  • When a second dialog message appears, press OK again.

That’s it.  Easy.  It took more time to write this out than to do the actual process.

And I now have two D4 camera bodies for sale.  Both in great shape, will all the goodies from Nikon.  Make me a reasonable offer for either (or both!).

NEW LAPTOP

A couple of months ago I realized that it was time for a new laptop computer. I don’t use a laptop when I’m in my office, where I have a serious desktop machine with attached NAS and JBOD boxes. My use of a laptop is almost exclusively when I’m on the road for photography purposes, and all too often this involves air travel. What I wanted in a new laptop was:

  • fast i7 chip
  • 1 TB SSD
  • discrete video card
  • minimum 16 GB RAM
  • three USB3 ports
  • backlit keyboard
  • best laptop screen possible
  • 15 inch display
  • HDMI connection
  • as small and light weight as possible
  • I’m a long-time Windows user, so not a Mac

I wanted to be able to run Lightroom and Photoshop at the same time, along with a basic Office setup (Word, PowerPoint, and Excel) and a few other programs (ViceVersaPro, FileZilla, and SnagIt).

I looked at various laptop websites, and finally placed an order for the new Dell XPS 15 (model # 9550) which, thanks to its “infinity edge” display, has a 15 inch screen in a 14 inch sized laptop. Ah, relatively small and light weight. Here’s a link to Dell’s website page: http://www.dell.com/us/p/xps-15-9550-laptop/pd. Dell offers the laptop with a choice of a 4K 3840 x 2160 pixels touchscreen or a non-touch 1920 x 1080 one. I ordered the high-res 4K touchscreen as it is one of the few laptop screens to cover the entire Adobe RGB space. I will admit that as soon as I received the laptop I immediately turned off the “touch” option. I don’t want fingerprints all over the screen, and I much prefer using a mouse (and I hate using a trackpad for anything). I might mention that I found the same laptop but with a lower price tag at Best Buy, and Dell honored the lower number through their Price Match offer.

I’ve been vary pleased so far, with no problems at all. It’s a Windows 10 machine, which was a new OS for me as I’ve been running Windows 7, and will continue to do so on my desktop computer as I see to reason to change something that’s performing perfectly. Adapting to Windows 10 was very easy, no big deal at all. I did download Dell’s Feature Enhancement Pack in order to keep the keyboard backlighting from timing out as quickly as it did. I calibrated the screen using an i1 Display Pro, and for you nerds out there the DeltaE was .6 which is impressively accurate.

The major concern I had was how software would appear on that 4K screen. Pixel dimensions of 3840 x 2160 means a lot of very tiny pixels in a pretty small area. Think about it: an image that is 1000 pixels on the long dimension is still going to be 1000 pixels long on a 4K display, but because the pixels themselves are smaller, the image is going to appear physically smaller on-screen.  On an old 1024 x 768 screen of the same physical size as that of my new Dell those 1000 pixels are almost all the way across the screen. On this 4K one, it’s a lot less. Web and Office pages are easy to scale; hold down Ctrl and use the scroll wheel on your mouse. There’s no problem at all with Lightroom and Photoshop if you use the CC versions, which I do, as both of these automatically scale up the user interface.

However, not all programs can be scaled up so for many photographers the non-touch screen might be a better option. Bridge is one of those programs. The print is really small. Of course you could reset the high-res screen to a lower resolution, but that defeats the purpose of getting it in the first place. Nik filters do not scale, nor do most of the Topaz ones. As a confirmed Lightroom user I almost never use Bridge, so that’s no big deal. I do occasionally use Nik Dfine (almost always at its default settings) and sometimes one particular combination of filters in Color Efex Pro (a combo of Tonal Contrast and Detail Extractor at a very low amount). I set the Nik filters to always open at my preferred choices so all I have to do it tap OK rather than try to read the tiny print. Again, if you’re a big user of Nik or Topaz, the non-touch screen might be the better choice.

I made those Nik filter settings by using the Windows Magnifier, which allows temporarily zooming around the screen image. One quick way to access the magnifier is by using  the Windows key + “+” (the Windows key along with the “plus” key). You can set the level of magnification you wish to use.  Windows key + Esc turns the Magnifier off.  Google “Windows Magnifier” for more into.

If you looked at the specs noted on the Dell page, you would have seen that the laptop has one HDMI port, two USB3 ports, and a new USB-C port which supports both USB3 and Thunderbolt 3. I carry a little HDMI to VGA adapter just in case I have to connect to an older digital projector. I also picked up a couple of USB-C to USB3 adapters.

The only weird thing I’ve discovered is that the Hoodman Steel USB3 card reader I’ve used with my previous Windows 7 laptop was not recognized when I plugged in into one of the USB3 ports. I downloaded a new driver from Hoodman, and still no luck. But when I plugged the Hoodman into the USB-C port using an adapter the card reader was immediately found. Go figure. I picked up a new Lexar card reader, and the laptop saw it immediately no matter which port I used. The laptop does have a built-in SD card reader, and in my informal test this one is very fast.

As with all new computers, I would strongly suggest looking for updates to the operating system and BIOS. As I said above, no problems so far. And yes, I think it was the right decision for what I needed.

LARRY WEST

I just got back from an extended trip to learn that Larry West died on December 15.  Larry was an exceptional photographer, a great naturalist, and a good friend.  He was an enormously helpful to me at the very start of my career, and was indeed extremely generous with information, advice, and encouragement to a whole generation of nature photographers.  In the mid-1970s he and I started offering week-long photography workshops in Michigan which, to my knowledge, were about the first field workshops anywhere in the US specializing in nature photography.  After my work took me in a different direction, he continued these workshops on his own.  He also authored a series of well-received “How to Photograph” books.   Larry’s presence will be missed by many.

AUTO ISO IN MANUAL

Many current cameras have a “hidden” autoexposure feature, an option I use quite often when working wildlife.  If your camera has ”auto ISO” buried someplace in the menus, you probable can use this feature.

Three choices control exposure:  shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.  We generally lock in two of these, and vary the third.  In aperture priority you select the f/stop and ISO, and the camera sets the shutter speed.  In shutter priority you select the shutter speed and ISO, and the camera sets the f/stop.

With most cameras it’s far easier to change shutter speed and/or aperture than it is to change ISO.  After all, with both Nikon and Canon that’s what the command dials by themselves do as default behavior.

Look in your camera’s menus to see if you have “auto ISO.”  If so, turn it on for this test.  The way auto ISO normally works is that you set a minimum shutter speed and a maximum ISO value.  So long as you’re shooting at that shutter speed or higher, the camera will vary the ISO needed for the situation.  If the light level drops below this range one of two things happens: (a) in aperture priority the shutter speed continues to slow below your preferred minimum, while the highest ISO value is maintained, or (b) in shutter priority, once the aperture is wide open the camera underexposes, usually with some sort of viewfinder warning indicator, but still using the highest ISO.

But here’s the catch for bird and mammal work: setting a minimum shutter speed for wildlife means you’re probably going to choose a fast speed in order to stop any possible action.  What if you intentionally want a slower speed?  At the same time, at any given light level you don’t want to work at any higher ISO than necessary; you always want to use the lowest ISO you can get away with, given the situation.  That fast minimum shutter speed you selected may force you to shoot at a high ISO even in good light.

OK, back to those three variables that control exposure.  Reread that paragraph up above, and you’ll notice that I did not mention the manual exposure mode in which what you set is what you get.  In this exposure mode you have to manually set both the shutter speed and the f/stop.  Now here’s the kicker: if your camera has auto ISO, most likely you can use auto ISO while the camera is in manual mode, and let the camera vary the ISO needed for whatever shutter speed/aperture combination you select.

However — and this is a major “however” — you must know how to work in the manual mode.  I’m always amazed at how many photographers today do not know how to do so.  If you’re not sure, read my June 2015 blog post, and your camera’s manual, and practice.

So, switch to manual exposure mode, and turn on auto ISO.  Set the highest ISO value to whatever maximum ISO you’re comfortable using with that camera.  Set the camera itself to its lowest native ISO.  For Nikon cameras, the “minimum shutter speed” choice in auto ISO does not apply when the camera is in manual mode (and I’m pretty sure this is also true for Canons, but not being a Canon user myself…).

What you have basically done is turn the manual exposure more into an autoexposure one.  You select the f/stop and shutter speed you want, the camera sets the necessary ISO.

But how can you add or subtract the amount of light (for example, in order to reposition the histogram when shooting RAW) if the camera adjusts the ISO for any given shutter speed/aperture combination?  Just as in any autoexposure mode, you use the camera’s autoexposure compensation.  This does not affect the shutter speed or aperture you’ve set; after all, in manual mode what you set is what you get.  Instead, it changes the ISO the camera selects.  Dial in a +1 autoexposure compensation, and the camera raises the ISO by one stop; dial in a -1 compensation, and it drops the ISO by one stop.  Since the camera is in manual mode, the shutter speed and aperture displayed in the viewfinder will not change, but there will be some sort of indicator that exposure compensation is in effect.  You’ll have to pay attention to what you’re doing, and remember to return the compensation back to “zero” when no compensation is needed.  If the light level drops so low that the camera maxes out ISO, your set exposure values will be too low.  Just watch the meter display, which in this case will show underexposure.

Should you use this “auto ISO with manual” mode all the time?  Heavens, no.  As with all modes on your camera, you use what is appropriate to the situation.  I personally find auto ISO in the manual mode extremely useful when I’m working wildlife.

SMALL BOAT, BIG LENS

What’s the best way to use a big lens — something like a 500mm or 600mm — when photographing from a small boat?  Here’s the sort of boat I’m talking about.

Handhold that big lens?  Sure, you can get a shot or two off, but handholding a really large lens is almost impossible to do for any length of time.  The minute you relax and lower the lens is exactly the moment you should be shooting.  Set up a tripod?  A tripod is almost impossible to use, if you are in a situation where you cannot move around.  Try this experiment:  sit with your tripod mounted big lens directly in front of you at eye level, as if you were sitting in a small boat.  Now swing the lens hard right, and without changing your body position, try to look through the viewfinder.  Bet you can’t do it.  And if your tripod doesn’t have a centerpost it’s almost impossible to raise or lower the shooting height.  You’re stuck with photographing to your left side at one camera height.  Don’t even try to aim the lens at much of an up angle, unless you want to turn your body into a pretzel.

My solution may seem a bit strange at first, but it works really great.  Use a monopod with a gimbal head mounted.  My preferred setup is the Manfrotto 681B monopod (the flip-locks make it easy to lengthen or shorten the monopod using just one hand, while you support the camera/lens with the other) plus the Jobu Jr 3 Deluxe gimbal head (the smallest and lightest gimbal, ideal for travel).

I’ve used this combination a lot from small boats, and also from open sided safari vehicles, while working with my Nikon 500mm and both the “old” Nikon 600mm G and my “new” Nikon 600mm FL lens.  Balance the lens in the head as you would whenever you use a gimbal.  Lock the gimbal’s horizontal rotation, as you can just turn the monopod from side to side.  Leave both the swing arm, and the lens’s tripod collar, unlocked.  You can now easily aim the lens in any direction, side to side or up and down, and raise or lower the shooting height.  The advantage of the gimbal head over a ”monopod head” is that with a gimbal the lens remains balanced even when the control knobs are loose.   Hold the monopod with one hand, and your lens doesn’t flop forward or backwards as it would with an unlocked “monopod head.”  With the gimbal mounted on a monopod you’re always ready to shoot.

Yes, I know this seems unconventional, but just try it to see if it works for you.  And by the way, I absolutely love the ”new” Nikon 600mm FL lens…in my estimation the sharpest long lens I’ve ever used.