Nikon MB-D18

So what’s an MB-D18?  To use Nikon nomenclature, it’s the “multi-power battery pack” for the D850 camera.  It’s the add-on grip that lets the D850 hit 9 frames/second (versus the 7 fps the camera alone tops out at).  Well, 9 fps if you also add a battery from a D4 or D5 camera and the special BL-5 battery chamber cover needed to mount that battery into the MB-D18.  Of course you’ll also need a charger for that battery.  Wowza — this adds about $1000 out of pocket to get two more frames per second.  So is it worth the expense?

The answer is simple and is the same exact answer I give to all photographic questions:  it all depends.

Let me stop right here and make one statement:  if I could only have one camera right now to photograph landscapes and wildlife and everything else, my choice would be a D850.  Is it a great landscape camera?  The best I’ve ever used.  Is it a great wildlife camera?  While it’s a good wildlife camera, I do think the D5 is a better choice for someone who is a wildlife specialist.  But like I said, if I could only have one camera, then give me a D850.

So back to the MB-D18.  Adding it does make shooting vertical compositions a lot easier, but at the same time it bulks up the size of the camera quite a bit.  Plus the total weight of the camera increases a lot depending on which “multi-power” source you use.  Two battery trays come standard with the MB-D18, one for an additional EN-EL 15 battery (the same as used in the camera body itself), and one for eight AAs.  Neither of these change the frame rate; the camera still tops out at the default 7 fps.  You’re simple adding additional power time to the camera.  In my opinion you can just leave that AA tray in the box.  But you should have an extra EN-EL 15 battery no matter what, and adding the second one in the grip really extends shooting time.

Landscape photographers certainly don’t need a faster frame rate, but having an additional battery in place, along with the one in the camera body, might help occasionally.  I can think of several scenarios:  extended time lapse shooting, hours of star trail photography, and severe cold weather work.  I was in Jasper National Park in February when it was minus 30° F.  It was difficult enough at that temperature to change a lens let alone a camera battery.  As a side note, the D850 worked perfectly at 30 below, no problems.  My own ability to function, or even semi-function, was the problem.

It’s that 9 fps option that really adds expense, so the nitty gritty question is whether you really need 9 fps or not.  When photographing wildlife every frame counts, so the answer might be “yes” if wildlife plays an important part in your photographic plans.  So, yes, I did purchase an MB-D18 along with a BL-5 battery cover.  But then I already have a D5, an extra EN-EL 18a battery for the D5, and the D5 charger, so the additional expense was not as much as it might have been.  Here’s a little money saving story:  I like having a second charger to leave in the camper I have on my truck, but the $370 for another MH-26a (the charger that comes with the D5) put me off.  A couple of quick phone calls to dealers and I found a used MH-26 (the charger that originally came with the D4 bodies) for a whopping $44.  Now that’s more like it.

So, do you really need 9 fps?  If so, go for it.  If not, take that $1000 you saved and spend it on a photo trip.

Some thoughts on the D850

So, is the Nikon D850 the only camera you need?

In my opinion the answer to this question is the same as the answer to most photographic questions:  it all depends.  I do think the D850 is a great camera.  And if I could only own one current camera, it would be my choice.  But should it be your choice?  In my opinion your decision should take in hand these questions:

  • What do you do with your photographs?  By far, most images taken are either shown on a smart phone or tablet, or posted on the Web.  At these image sizes any camera works great, witness the fact that the vast majority of all images shot today were taken with a phone.
  • Do you really need all those megapixels?  Do you make large prints?  Really?  Do you make prints at all?  Do you own the computer power to process large files (and a D850 file with a few layers in Photoshop quickly swells to over a GB).
  • Are you primarily a bird and wildlife photographer?  The D5 definitely yields better high ISO performance at ISO 6400 and up, while both the D5 and D500 offer faster frame rates.  Sure, at roughly $950 you can soup up the D850 to 9 fps, but you end up with a camera that is slightly larger, and slightly heavier, than the D5.  Are weight and size considerations for you?
  • Do you see the D850 offering you more cropping possibilities?  The D500 is basically the same pixel density as the D850 at a considerably lower price.  If you’re thinking about the D850 in order to crop heavily, perhaps the D500 makes more sense, especially when you could put the difference in price toward additional lenses, or a better tripod, or a photo trip.
  • Can you give some specific reasons why getting a D850 will improve your photography?  What will it allow you to do that you cannot do with your present equipment?
  • And of course, can you afford the purchase price of the D850, along with new cards or computer drives or other additional expenses?

OK, I guess there is one more point than comes into play, which certainly did for me when I ordered the camera.  I rationalized that at my age I deserved a treat.  I’m not so young anymore (in all honesty, I’m in the “duffer” or “geezer” or “old guy” category), I’m not a car fanatic (although I love my truck and camper), nor am I a druggie or drunkard (although I do like a single malt in the evening).  So I figured I could indulge myself.  Yep, a rationalization for sure.  But I definitely like the D850!

Nikon D850 Focus Shift

I’ve been using the Nikon D850 since October and can say I’m very impressed with the camera, particularly for my landscape work.  Two features in particular stand out:

  1. The “silent shutter” mode in Live View.  I should mention that I use Live View a lot when I’m photographing static subjects, and it’s a given that I’m working from a sturdy tripod.  In “silent shutter” the shutter is fully electronic — hence no shutter curtain movement at all — and of course when in Live View the mirror is up.  Eliminating the mechanical shutter and eliminating any mirror movement means eliminating two sources of possible vibration.  Turn on “silent live view photography” in the Photo Shooting menu, and select Mode 1 which gives a full-resolution, non-cropped image.
  2. The “focus shift shooting” option, also found in the Photo Shooting menu.  Here the camera takes a series of shots, slightly changing the focus point for each frame.  The resulting images can be “stacked” as a composite, thus increasing the in-focus area of the final photo.  This “stacking” must be accomplished with software in post-production; it’s not done by the camera.  The individual photos can be taken at a lens’s sharpest aperture, around f/5.6 or f/8, eliminating diffraction problems while yielding greater depth of field.

Turning on “focus shift shooting” gives you a number of choices:

  • The number of shots (up to 300)
  • The focus step width (1 through 10, undefined what these actually mean)
  • The interval until the next shot (between 0 and 30 seconds)
  • Exposure smoothing
  • Silent photography
  • Starting storage folder

Here are my choices, for landscape work:

  • Number of shots:  Set this to around 50, as the number really doesn’t matter.  The camera will stop with the lens focusing ring hits the end of its travel.  I have my camera set at 50 and most of the time the actual number of usable frames is between 5 and 10.  FYI, you will often find some extra frames where the camera has gone before the far point in your composition, so nothing is in sharp focus.  No big deal, just delete these frames when you see them later on your computer.
  • Focus step width:  I have mine set at 2, as I want to work at those prime apertures on my lenses, so I want to make sure each frame’s depth of field overlaps with that of the preceding or following frame.
  • The interval until the next shot:  I have this at 0.  And VR is “off” on the lens in use.
  • Exposure smoothing:  Off, as I do all my focus stacks in manual exposure so that all the frames already match in total exposure.
  • Silent photography:  On.
  • Starting storage folder:  I don’t use this.

So here is the easiest way I know to work.  Leave “silent shutter in Live View” turned on.  Add “focus shift shooting” to My Menu, and position it as the top most listing.  In the Custom Settings menu, Custom Control Assignment (choice number F1 in Custom Settings), set the Fn2 button on the camera rear to “access the top item in My Menu.”

In the field, turn on Live View, compose your image, set the exposure, and focus on the nearest past of the frame.  Press Fn2, select Start, and the camera begins shooting in silent mode.  When you’ve done this once, if you don’t need to change any options, the next time you can just press Fn2 and then OK twice.

Just to cover yourself, shoot several stacks of any one composition.  How to tell where each stack beings?  Wave your fingers in front of the lens and shoot one frame in Live View before you push Fn2.  Important reminder (and I speak from experience here):  remember to refocus on the closest point for each stack.

OK, now to the actual stacking.   I’m assuming you’re shooting RAW files, and you are, right?  You could use Photoshop.  If so, you need to first process the individual images and then open them as layers in Photoshop.  Select all the layers and do Edit > Auto align followed by Edit > Auto blend.  This method works OK, but there are two problems:  the final file is no longer a RAW file, and with complex subjects you will probably discover a number of stacking artifacts (blurry areas, that is).

In my opinion, a better choice is to use a separate stacking program and I would recommend Helicon Focus.  Google for a discount code to knock the price down about 20%.  Helicon works directly from Lightroom, and if you install Adobe’s free DNG Converter, Helicon has a mode called Raw In – DNG Out.  You export the selected images from Lightroom to Helicon in their original RAW state.  I’ve found that almost all the time running Helicon at its default settings works fine.  Most of the time Helicon’s rendering intent mode B is my choice.  If it leaves artifacts I try mode C.  When Helicon finishes, the resulting file can be saved right back into Lightroom as a DNG, and processed to taste as you would any RAW file.

2018

In my last blog I stated that I was debating about continuing writing here.  After a lot of though I’ve decided to do so.  I still remain depressed and fearful as to the current political situation here in the US.  My feelings are not just as a citizen but also as a nature photographer.  This past week two National Monuments were opened for “development,” although I’m not quite sure that “development” is the correct way to say “mining” and “resource extraction.”  Being a nature/wildlife photographer is only possible when there is actual nature and wildlife to photograph.  Shrinking the size of natural areas, privatizing parks and recreation areas for profit, selling off public lands, and repealing clean air and clean water regulations directly effect all of us who photograph the natural world, no matter our personal political views.  I strongly urge readers to get involved in both local and national conservation efforts.

2017

You have probably noticed that I have not written anything for quite a long time.  Right now I’m not sure whether I will or will not continue this blog.  For me, this year has been simultaneously very good and very bad. You might remember the “best of times, worst of times” opening line from Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities.  The actual full sentence reads:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Photographically this has been a great year for me.  I think I’ve taken some of the very best photos of my life this year.  And I’ve recently started working with the new Nikon D850, which I consider to be by far the best Nikon camera I’ve ever used (and I almost hate to admit just how long I’ve been a Nikon shooter, going all the way back to my very first Nikon camera, a Nikon F Photomic that I bought in my sophomore year of college).

I’ve continued to travel widely.  I’ve made a few of what I call my “last-time trips,” repeat trips to the exact same locations at the exact same time of year, journeys that I do not plan on repeating one more time.  These destinations include Japan in winter (snow monkeys, Steller’s sea eagles, red-crowned cranes, winter landscapes), Iceland in winter (frozen waterfalls, glaciers, icebergs on black sand), and, starting a week from now, the sub-Antarctic islands and the Antarctic Peninsula.  I’ve done each of this trips multiple times, and simply want the opportunity to photograph other locations during the same time frames.

Yes, the best of times has been very good indeed.  I’m in pretty good health, still mentally functional (although that’s always debatable), still an avid and compulsive book reader, and just as curious about the world as I’ve always been.

So what’s this “worst of times” bit?

First a bit of background info.  I came of age in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.  Yep, that just gave you a hint about my age.  I was involved in the Vietnam era, and the Nixon debacle.  But over all these years I believed America would become a better country, a better people.  I felt truly blessed to be an American.  I love this country.

And then 2017 happened…and I started needing to apologize for America during my travels abroad.  Environmental regulations rescinded, climate change denied, immigrants demeaned and threatened, civil rights ignored, white supremacy in the open and applauded, politics by 140 characters, and facts called fiction with no objective truth allowed.  I’ve become extremely pessimistic during this year about the future of our country, and, for that matter, pessimistic about the continuation of human life on this planet.  Nuclear war is not a casual option to be dismissed in the same cavalier manner in which you would a sports rivalry.

So an enormous split in my life has developed: on one hand, I’ve never been more pleased with my photography and have never felt closer to my friends and loved ones.  On the other hand, I’ve never been more frustrated with, and mortified by, the social and political scene.

Yesterday Robert Mueller revealed charges against three former Trump campaign officials.  Is there a glimpse of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel?

NIK

In case you missed this, it’s now official.  The Nik suite of plug-ins will not be developed in the future.  From the banner at the top of the Nik website:

“We have no plans to update the Collection of add new features over time.”

The collection is still free to download and use, but the real question is about compatibility in the future, with either Photoshop/Lightroom upgrades or changes in Windows and Mac core OS versions.

Tilt

A regular lens on a DSLR can be focused near or far, but the axis of the lens is always at a right angle to the sensor.  The plane of focus (the slice of space that is in sharp focus) is always parallel to the sensor in the camera.  No matter what, there is only one plane that is in absolute sharp focus, but apparent sharpness can be increased by using a small aperture to increase depth of field.  With a regular lens, if you need more of the image in a single frame to appear in focus your only choice is to shoot at the smaller apertures.  This has two major drawbacks: (1) smaller apertures mean slower shutter speeds.  Try to photograph a field of flowers where you need f/22 for enough depth of field, but f/22 in turn means a shutter speed of 1/15 second, and that’s not fast enough to stop wind movement.  Upping the ISO means the probability of increased noise.  And (2) while you gain depth of field, small apertures introduce diffraction problems, reducing sharpness.  Current high megapixel cameras, with their ability of record small detail, will all too readily show diffraction.

The solution is to reposition the plane of focus, to re-designate where it lies, and in order to do this you need a tilt/shift lens, which allows the front part of the lens to be moved compared to the sensor plane.  The lens plane and the sensor plane no longer have to be parallel, but can be angled or displaced relative to each other.

Now, a bit of theory.  Imagine three planes extending infinitely: the plane of the sensor, the plane of the subject (the part of the image where you want focus to fall), and the plane of the lens.  With a standard lens only two of these planes can ever have a common intersection, because the plane of focus is always parallel to the sensor.  But if you can tilt the lens all three planes can meet in a common intersection and a photographic miracle happens as now the focus plane has been repositioned.

You will often hear that using a tilt creates more depth of field.  Not true.  What a tilt movement does is reposition the plane of focus so that it no longer lies parallel to the sensor.  This in turn creates a wedge-shaped depth of field which increases further away from the camera.  By repositioning the plane of focus, by tilting the lens, part of the image closer to the camera will be in focus and part of the image further away will be in focus simultaneously.  Depth of field is always on either side of the plane of focus, with less depth of field at close focus distances and more depth of field at far focus distances, hence a wedge shape.  A really common belief is that using tilt movement will bring everything in a photo into sharp focus.  Sorry, not true; you still need to stop down.  The amount of tilt does not control depth of field, the aperture choice does that.

First you need to decide where you want to position the plane of focus.  You always tilt the lens TOWARDS this plane, no matter the orientation of the camera body or the subject.  But how do you figure our how much to tilt?  How do you actually set focus?  Setting a Nikon or Canon tilt movement is not the same as how you would work a tilt movement with a view camera due to the differences in the rotational point of the DSLR lenses.  A lot of what you read on the Web applies mostly to view camera work.

So…step by step, here is what I do.

  1. Decide on the most important plane of my subject, where I want to position the focus.
  2. Chose a near point and a far point in this plane of focus.
  3. Set the tilt on my lens to zero (no tilt at all).
  4. Focus on the near point.
  5. Without refocusing, slowly tilt toward the far point until it appears in sharpest focus, and lock the tilt movement.  The near point is now out of focus.
  6. Without changing the tilt, refocus on the near point.  The far point is now out of focus.
  7. Unlock the tilt movement, and slowly move the tilt in the opposite direction than done earlier until the far point appears in sharpest focus.  De-tilting, if you will.
  8. Repeat steps 5, 6, and 7 if necessary until both near and far appear in focus.
  9. Lock the tilt movement of the lens, and trim overall focus if needed.
  10. Select the aperture needed for depth of field.

The two biggest problems I see when people first use tilt/shift lenses are (1) working way too fast — using a tilt/shift lens should be slow and methodical — and (2) dialing in far more tilt than needed.

MY MISTAKE

Every once in awhile we all make dumb mistakes…even though we know better.  Recently I was in Iceland and was using my 24-70mm f/2.8 Nikon lens ( the “old” non-VR version).  I’ve owned this lens ever since it came out but I rarely carry it any more, as I prefer the 24-120mm f/4 for travel.  I had the f/2.8 lens with me in Iceland on the off chance I might need that faster aperture for some night photos.

I’ve known for many years that the 24-70mm has a minor flaw that only shows up when the lens is used in a unique non-typical photographic situation.  It has a light leak, through the little plastic window that shows the focusing distance.  This leak affects the image only when there is a strong light source directly hitting the window coupled with a long exposure time, a combination that most photographers do not experience.  How long have I known about this?  Well, just Google “light leak Nikon 24-70mm” and you’ll find links going back to 2010.

The solution is really simple: cover the plastic window with a small bit of gaffer’s tape, which is exactly what I did way back when.  But at some point in time, for some reason I don’t recall, I removed that tape and forgot all about the possibility of a problem.  And then in Iceland I used the lens in the exact “not typical” situation: strong sunlight hitting the window coupled with a 10-stop ND filter to slow the shutter speed to 15 seconds at f/14 and ISO 64.  Here’s the result:

Nikon 24-70mm light leak.

I use Live View a lot for landscape work, so I immediately saw the light streak across the frame.  Hello John, remember this?  I keep a few strips of gaffer’s tape stuck on the inside of my camera pack, so I ripped off a small section and covered the little window.  My first rule of life: don’t be dumb.

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.