Category Archives: Gear

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.

TWO LONG EXPOSURE TIPS

Just a couple of quick tips relating to long exposures….

When using an ND filter, paired with a low ISO value, it’s often difficult to get a meter reading.  A standard solution is to crank up the ISO, take a meter reading, and then count stops back to the desired ISO.  For example, suppose you want to shoot at ISO 100.  Change the ISO temporarily to 6400:  1 second @ ISO 6400 = 2 seconds @ ISO 3200 = 4 seconds @ ISO 1600 = 8 seconds @ ISO 800 = 16 seconds @ ISO 400 = 1/2 minute @ ISO 200 = 1 minute @ ISO 100.

A shortcut I’ve used for a long time is to think of this in a slightly different way.  The time in seconds at ISO 6400 is the same numerical value in minutes at ISO 100.  1 second @ ISO 6400 = 1 minute @ ISO 100.  10 seconds @ ISO 6400 = 10 minutes @ ISO 100.  1/4 second @ ISO 6400 = 1/4 minute @ ISO 100.

Most cameras offer 30 seconds as the longest timed shutter speed.  After that you have to use an intervalometer shutter release such as the Nikon MC-36.  These things have long cords, so how do you keep one from blowing around in any breeze while it’s dangling from your camera running a long timed exposure?  For that matter, what’s a good way to control that cord in a camera bag?  My solution is this:  http://www.thinktankphoto.com/products/redwhips.aspx, basically a thin bungee cord and a cord lock.  You can easily make these yourself, but I admit being partial to ThinkTank’s red ones (easier to find when dropped).  Here’s a composited illustration, showing the MC-36 ready to pack, and attached to a tripod leg.

Two uses for ThinkTank’s cable ties.

 

D810 + T/S

Well, I did it.  I bought a Nikon D810 several weeks ago, and I’m extremely impressed with the camera.  I won’t go into all the details about the D810, as there are many, many reviews on the Web.  However, I will note one feature that has not been talked about much, and that is the split screen live view mode.  This is incredibly useful for landscape photography using Nikon’s tilt/shift lenses.  Activate Live View, tap the i button, and select split screen.  The live view image is divided in two, across the short dimension of the frame.  The “plus” and “minus” buttons allows zooming in for a magnified view.

Here’s where this comes into play with a T/S lens.  If you’re making a tilt while the camera is in a vertical orientation, the split live view allows you to zoom into separate points on both foreground and background, on both near and far, and consequently to accurately position the tilted plane of focus.  Being able to view near and far points simultaneously makes using a T/S a lot easier.  I do wish Nikon had allowed repositioning the split across the long dimension of the frame also, for when the camera is used in a horizontal orientation.  But, hey, I’m really happy with what we got.  Really happy.

Hummers

I couldn’t resist.  Earlier this year, while on my way to the Galapagos, I stayed over in mainland Ecuador for a few days to photograph hummingbirds.  Hummers have been worked a lot, but they are magnificent little birds, and, since I was in a location with many species, why not spend a few days photographing?  As I said, I couldn’t resist.  Here’s a short slideshow.

Buff-tailed coronet hummingbirds.Booted racket-tail hummingbirdPurple-throated woodstar hummingbird.Fawn-breasted brilliant hummingbird.Green violetear hummingbird.Rufous-tailed hummingbird.Violet-tailed sylph hummingbird.Buff-tailed coronet hummingbird.Rufous-tailed hummingbird.Rufous-tailed hummingbird.Buff-tailed coronet hummingbird.

For hummingbirds on perches:  Nikon D800E in 1.2 crop mode, 500mm lens with an extension tube (for closer minimum focus), plus a bracket-mounted flash with Better Beamer flash extender attached, flash output between -1 and -2 fill.  Matrix metering, aperture priority (so shutter speeds were between 1/60 and 1/250 sec.), ISO 1000 (low light where I was photographing), f/11.

For hummingbirds in flight:  Nikon D4 with 80-400mm lens, manual exposure, ISO 400, 1/250 sec. at f/11.  In order to freeze the wing movement, I needed to light the entire scene (no fill flash here) using very short flash durations.  This is actually easy to get: set a regular flash on manual output at about 1/16 power and position the flash relatively close to the subject.  I used four flashes: one on-camera (set at an even lower power output), two on light stands aimed from either side toward where the birds would fly into a feeder, and one on another light stand and aimed at an artificial background (a print of out-of-focus vegetation).  To determine flash position, and consequently the f/stop to use, take a shot and take a look at the camera’s LCD.  The on-camera flash triggered all the other flash units; in other words, the flashes were simple slave units.  Since I was the only person working the area my flashes did not interfere with any other setup, otherwise I might have needed radio flash triggers which I don’t own.

I might note that most Nikon flashes can be set in an SU-4 mode, which allows them to act as basic optical slaves with any brand of camera.  Slave flashes certainly don’t need to be current models.  I have a Nikon SB-80DX (discontinued 10 years ago) which I picked up brand new in the box about a year ago for $25.

More or Less

How much of a subject should be included in the image?  That’s always a compositional question: exactly where should you position the edge of the frame?  When shooting with a fixed focal length lens, you really don’t have a choice unless you can physically change your location.  If you’re using a zoom lens, you have an almost unlimited choice.  Of course, no matter the lens you could always crop the image afterwards, but all cropping is lossy and personally I hate to throw away data.

So just how much, or how little, needs to be included?  Consider these two images.  Your thoughts?  Is the roller too small in the frame, the elephant too tight?  What do you think?

 

Lilac-breasted roller.

Elephant.

 

T/S Stitch

I like photographing with my Tilt/Shift lenses.  Besides using them for single image photos, I’ll often use them to make stitched images.  I keep the tilt and shift functions in different axis, so that I can tilt to reposition the plane of focus, and still be able to shift left and right.  If my camera is mounted in a horizontal position, the resulting image when stitched in Photoshop is in a panoramic format.  But if I mount the camera vertically, and then shift left and right, the final image is just slightly squarer than 4 x 5 proportions.  Why do this?  Easy answer: file size.  With my D800E, the final 16-bit file is roughly 400 MB.

Autumn maple leaves.In the Bald Hills, Redwoods National Park.Sandstone wall, Nevada.Torres del Paine, Chile.Columbia Gorge, Oregon.White Sands National Monument, New Mexico.Valley of Fire, Nevada.Columbia Gorge, Oregon.Snow in the Sonoran desert, Arizona.Abraham Lake, Alberta.

D800 + ND = Magenta cast

Images taken with heavy ND filters will occasionally show a strong magenta cast.  Almost all ND filters transmit some infrared wavelengths, and this IR light is one of the primary causes of the magenta cast.  At the same time, some digital camera sensors are more sensitive to IR than others, and in my experience the Nikon D800/D800E twins fall into this group.  However, for most situations there is a simple solution.

My favorite ND filter is the 7-stop Tiffen IRND 2.1 (which I think is an excellent bargain in terms of ND filters).  But even this filter, with has some IR control as part of its design, can result in magenta contamination.  Here’s a frame taken at the edge of a waterfall using this filter and my D800E, with the lens pointing almost straight down.  The resulting image is a worst case example.

 

The solution I’ve found:  close the camera’s eyepiece shutter.  No matter if mirror lockup is used, or the timer delay, or whatever…close the eyepiece shutter.  Under any circumstance, the D800/D800E cameras are very sensitive to light coming through the eyepiece, so closing the eyepiece whenever shooting from a tripod is a good idea.  In the above example, the eyepiece is open and positioned toward the sky.  Here’s another shot, same situation as the previous image, but with the eyepiece shutter closed.  Big difference.

 

Oldies

I’ve got an external hard drive I rarely access.  On that drive are files from years ago, some film scans dating back to the days of Photoshop 3, and images taken with a number of my earliest digital cameras.  A couple of days ago I was searching for an old photo, and ended up looking at those files.  I thought you might like to see some “ancient history,” a couple of images taken in 2004.

 

Wheat fields and elevator, Whitman County, Washington.
Nikon D100, Nikon 500mm lens.

Arctic tundra and frost, Denali National Park, Alaska.
Kodak SLR/n camera.

The Kodak SLR/n was a “high-megapixel” camera (13.5 megapixels) based on a modified Nikon N80 film camera body.  Not a very user friendly camera, it took Nikon lenses and was produced for only 15 months, from February 2004 until the end of May 2005.  Focal length metadata was not recorded by the camera, so I can only guess that this was shot with a Nikon 105mm macro.  Kodak also offered a version with a Canon lens mount, the SLR/c, although the body was based on a Sigma design.

Nikon D800 Action

I read this question time after time on Web forums:  “Can the Nikon D800 be used for wildlife photography?”  Well, why not?  Here are two full frame images taken last week during a short stop I made at Bosque del Apache.  Both images: D800E, Nikon 600mm, ISO400, early morning light.   FYI, I don’t have the extra battery pack for the camera so the motor drive rate is 4 frames/second.   Anyone else remember when 4 frames/second would have been considered pretty amazing?  Remember winding film with your thumb?

 

 

 

 

Frost

Here at my house we had great hoarfrost overnight.   I went out to photograph — I found these along a rural fenceline — but after about one hour it started to rain.  So much for the frost…but I made good use of that one hour.  Nikon D800E and 200mm Micro – a killer closeup combo.