Category Archives: Gear


In a recent discussion with three other photographers, I commented that I’m constantly changing how my cameras function, depending on my subject matter at any one particular moment.  I was rather surprised when the others responded that they never did this.  All three said the only change their ever made was to the ISO in use.

To be honest, I was rather shocked.  Was I really the odd man out here?

So what changes do I make?  (Some of my answers are specific to my Nikons.)

ISO.  I certainly do change the ISO, especially when I need a faster shutter speed.  At times I turn on Auto-ISO, where the camera sets whatever ISO is needed to maintain my selected shutter speed/aperture combination.

MOTOR DRIVE RATE.  I use the fastest frame rate for critter work, single frame advance for everything else.

MIRROR LOCKUP.  “No” for moving subjects, “yes” for everything else.

METERING PATTERN.  Matrix (evaluative) most of the time, Spot for precise areas.

LCD BRIGHTNESS.  In bright sunlight, viewing the LCD is difficult.  I set the brightness as high as possible in that condition (which makes the LCD much easier to view) and lower the brightness when I’m not in bright sunlight.

THE IN-CAMERA TIME AND DATE.  I rename my files when I download, using YYMMDD at the beginning of the file name, which automatically organizes my files chronologically.  I change date and time as I travel, so that all the files match my itinerary.

EXPOSURE DELAY.  I use a remote release whenever possible, but often use the 3-second delay mode for totally static subjects (where I’m not trying to time lulls in the wind or other movement).

EXPOSURE MODE.  While most of the time I use Aperture Priority, I change to Manual exposure when I want to maintain a given exposure value.  For example, consider a dark bison in winter snow.  If the light is not changing, there is one correct exposure value.  But a fairly wide shot would be mostly white snow, while a tight shot would be mostly dark bison.  Any autoexposure mode would change the exposure depending on how much of the frame was light-toned or dark-toned, but manual exposure would be consistent.

CROP MODE ON MY D800E.  Full frame most of the time; 1.2X crop when I know I will be cropping a bit in post-processing (the smaller file size also gives a slightly faster frame rate, while making the buffer clear a tad quicker).

AF MODE.  I use single point AF for landscapes and static subjects (although generally I’ll also manually tweak focus).  For moving subjects, I almost always use 3D focus tracking, which automatically shifts the primary focus point to follow the movement of the subject.  This is my favorite action AF mode, as I can concentrate on composition and don’t have to keep an AF point centered on the subject.  If I switch from 3D AF, it’s to 21 point AF.  In this mode I have to select the primary AF point, which works best when I know exactly which way the subject will be moving across the frame.  I can’t imagine myself using the same AF mode for all my work.

So what do you do?

The Edge of Light

We photographers like to work early and late in the day.  For many people, getting up early – really early – is difficult (to say the least!).  Luckily, I’m pretty much a morning type person.  As far as I’m concerned, 9:00 PM is almost the middle of the night.

Here are three frames, taken a week ago, at about 5:00 AM.  These are from a small lake I’ve been working.  All three frames were shot from the same location, with my Nikon D4 handheld at ISO 1600, and the new Nikon 80-400mm lens.  Just in passing, I’m very impressed with this lens, to the point that I’m thinking about selling my Nikon 200-400mm f/4 if anyone’s interested.





Four Wheel Campers

A problem facing landscape photographers in the western US is the vastness of the region.  It’s often a very long distance from a good location to the nearest lodging.  Consequently, most of the nature photographers I know who live here have some sort of self-contained vehicle, so that they can stay on-site.

I just got back from southern Utah, where a group of photography friends got together to spend a week in the remote back country.  This was really just a social gathering, but with some very serious photography tossed into the mix.  What set this gathering apart, though, was another connection.  All of us have four-wheel drive pickup trucks (from Toyota Tacoma to full-sized GMC) with a popup camper mounted in the truck bed.  More specifically, we’ve all bought camper models manufactured by a California company:  Four Wheel Campers.  Yes, this is a plug for their products.  I’ve owned a Four Wheel Camper for a number of years now – and am planning to upgrade to a new model this coming spring – and have nothing but good to say about both the campers themselves, and the company.  The company definitely understands photographers as Tom Hanagan, the owner of Four Wheel Campers, is a Nikon shooter himself.

The truck camper is my base-camp, my home on the road, my office in the wilderness – with all the creature comforts of stove, refrigerator, furnace, 85-watt solar panel, queen bed, and lots of storage room.  The weather can be awful, but I remain dry and warm, able to work on my laptop, cook a meal or make coffee, or read with a glass of wine at hand.  And I can set up camp – or break camp and be on the road – in just a few minutes at most.

For specific details, check out their website:

Here are a few photos from my trip.

Rock and cracked mudFirst lightAgave and lichened rocksIce crystals over streamLake Powell sunsetSunrise on Burr TrailRocks and cracked mudHoodoos at sunriseTemple of the Moon by moonlightSunset light on ridgeWeathered juniper in sandMorning light on hoodoos


D800 Email question

For the past four weeks I’ve been on the road, traveling in parts of the world where there has either not been any Internet connection at all, or only a dialup connection which was so slow and flaky that I could barely check for email, let alone post to this blog.  Yes, to all you digitally connected and addicted people, there really are many such locations around this planet.

Now I’m home for a short while, and in the backlog of emails I’ve discovered several (five, to be precise) almost identical messages.  Let me quote part of one:

I’m going to purchase a Nikon D800E.  What lens should I buy?  I want to purchase the best all-around lens.

Wow!  I would stongly suggest that if you have to ask that question about a lens, you should definitely first think twice about the camera purchase.  The D800/800E bodies are, in my opinion, specialized cameras for specialized applications.  They are not general purpose bodies.  Why do you need so many megapixels?  Tell me the truth, do you really make large prints?  How large and how often?  Do you always use a tripod?  Do you own a tripod?  Are you shooting RAW?  Or do you primarily post images to the Web, where a “large” image is around 800 pixels in the long dimension?  Before you purchase the camera body, you need to define exactly why that particular body, of all cameras, is the best choice for you.  What are your criteria?  Specifically, how will a D800 make you a better photographer?

Asking me what lens to buy is a pointless question.  How am I supposed to know what subjects you want to photograph, what your budget is, what lenses you already own (or if you indeed do already own any lenses)?  And I have no idea what an “all-around lens” is, let along which one is the best.  The best lens for wildlife is certainly not the best lens for architecture, while the best lens for architecture is probably not the best lens for portraiture, and the best lens for portraiture is most likely not the best lens for macro work.  Actually only one lens fits the “best all-around” bill, the mythical Nikon 15-600mm f/2.8 eight stop VR, macro focusing, levitating, voice activated, postitive AF…you know, the one with a $5 list price.  Oh, wait a moment, I just heard it was being replaced with an improved 12-800mm version which will be free.  Yeah, right.

Camera choices

I’ve gotten quite a few emails over the last several months asking about the cameras I currently use, the Nikon D4 and D800E.  One specific question was why I switched from my previous D3s and D3x bodies.

Let me start with the D4.  I do believe this is ergonomically the best camera I’ve ever handled.  It fits my hands, and, for me, all the control buttons and dials fall in the right places.  I definitely like all the little tweaks Nikon did, compared to the D3 series of bodies, such as how the AF patterns are selected, or how auto-ISO is turned on and off, plus I’m happy to get the increase in megapixels.  But to be honest, part of my decision to get the D4 was an encounter I had late last year in the sub-Antarctic with an ill-tempered male southern fur seal.  Just let me say that salt water and electronic cameras do not go well together.  The bad news from Nikon repair:  the camera was beyond resuscitation.  OK, but then what to do?  I knew the D4 was going to be available shortly, as the internet was rife with rumors.  So…purchase a replacement D3s, or wait a few months and buy a D4 and get newer technology?  The price differential was not too great (hey, after the first several thousand dollars, what’s another $500 or so?) and yes, I purchase my cameras retail just like everyone else does.  My conclusion was to go for the latest and greatest.

But why get a D4 at all?  The answer lies in the subjects I photograph and where I photograph them.  I do enough wildlife work that I want a fast motor drive, and I often work in far off locations, including under some extreme weather conditions, that I need a rugged pro camera (and, given what happened, perhaps a fur seal repulsion unit also).

As to the D800E, it offered four features that I wanted:  a self-cleaning sensor (perhaps it was just me, but my D3x sensor always seemed to be a dust magnet), better high ISO performance, more dynamic range, and, yes, more megapixels yielding a larger file size.  For me, that last point becomes important for advertising photo use, and for sales of large prints.  I also liked the smaller size and less weight of the camera, compared to the D3x; consequently I was not interested in the add-on battery grip.  And, given the price of the D800E, I could sell my good condition D3x, purchase the D800E, and still have a few dollars left over.

You might note that video capability played no role in my choices.  I don’t do video.  I’m just not interested in shooting it.

In short, my camera choices can be summed up as “D4 action camera,” and “D800E landscape camera.”  Please note that this was a business decision for me, since I make my living with my cameras.  I’m certainly not suggesting that you ought to make these purchases.

Am I happy with the newer cameras?  Absolutely.  Any problems with either of them?  None whatsoever.  Anything I would like to change?  Sure, I wish they both took the same model battery so I didn’t have to carry two chargers.  Any advice for readers of this blog?  Be careful of southern fur seals, especially one really mean male who apparently doesn’t like photographers.

K25 Film

While going through some old slides — yes, slides…you remember those little film snippets? — I came across this 1982 Kodachrome 25 image of American elms, taken on a winter twilight.  For all you youngsters out there this was an ISO 25 film, and was recognized as one of the sharpest, finest grained films around.  This piece of film, or one of the duplicate frames I shot on location, was professionally scanned when I first stared using Photoshop in early 1994.

American elms at winter twilight, K25.

American elms at winter twilight, K25.

But today when I inspect the scanned image at 100%…well, it is a sharp film but look at the grain.

Kodachrome 25, 100% crop.

Kodachrome 25, 100% crop.

Times have certainly changed.  With my current cameras I routinely use ISOs five or six stops higher, and see less noise than the grain showing in this K25 image.  Of course, back when I started, high-speed Ektachrome was all of ISO 160, with special push processing available to get to 400.  I have to say it, I don’t miss using film.

My Menu

One of the features of the newer cameras that I really like is the option to set up a personal menu list of the functions I might want to change during a shoot.  The “My Menu” feature offers the equivalent of bookmarks in a browser, yielding a quick shortcut rather than a longer search.

So what items do I have in “my” menu?  I have the same choices selected in both my Nikon D4 and my D800E, in the same order:

  • Virtual horizon
  • Exposure delay mode
  • Monitor brightness
  • AF activation
  • Multiple exposure mode
  • Long exposure NR
  • AF fine tune
  • Lock mirror up for cleaning

The Virtual horizon choice is for the LCD on the back of the camera.  I have the function button on both cameras set to display the virtual horizon in the viewfinder.

Exposure delay mode locks the mirror up, and allows me to choose a 3 second delay before the shutter trips.

I use monitor brightness to increase the LCD brightness when I’m working in direct sunlight, making it easier to view the LCD.  I much prefer this over using the default “auto brightness” setting.

AF-activation.  While I normally use the back AF-ON button, there are a few times I want to have AF activation on the shutter button.

Multiple exposure mode and Long exposure NR are self-explanatory.

AF fine tune and Lock mirror up for cleaning are rarely used, but it’s more convenient for me to have them listed here.

I haven’t used the image crop mode feature on my D4, and don’t see myself ever doing so.  The D800E is another story.  For landscape work I want the full sensor available, but for wildlife work cropping in-camera (especially the 1.2 crop more) yields plenty of pixels, while reducing file size slightly (which clears the buffer a bit faster).  I could have added image area to my menu choices, but there is an easier way.  I have custom function F6 set so that the AF-L/AE-L  button, when used with the command dial, cycles through the image crop modes.  I can change image area without looking away from the viewfinder.  In fact, this custom setting allows me to choose which crop modes to include and since I don’t care about the 5:4 crop I have it excluded.  Just in passing I also have custom function A5 (AF point illumination) set to “off,” which masks the viewfinder when a crop mode is used.  If A5 is “on,” crop lines are added to the finder image, which gets a bit confusing as I have custom function A6 set to show the viewfinder grid display.  I do wish the camera allowed me to use both the mask overlay and the AF point illumination.

And one “don’t need a menu at all”  feature deserves a special compliment:  being able to activate Auto ISO by holding down the ISO button and turning the command dial.  Bravo!

Menu Please

During photo workshops and tours I often hear this comment from a client:  “My camera doesn’t have that feature.”  When I take their camera and work through the menu choices, nine times out of ten the statement turns out to be not true.  If you want to get the most from your camera, I strongly suggest that you sit down and carefully go through each and every menu offering, including all sub-menus, and tailor the camera to your exact preferences.  If a menu item is not clear, look it up in the camera manual.  You do carry that with you, right?  I have manuals for my current Nikons with me at all times, as I have PDF copies (free to download from Nikon’s web site) on both my smartphone and my Kindle.  Since I’ve used Nikons my entire professional career (and that’s more than 40 years now!), I can usually solve problems without looking for answers, but as the cameras have become more sophisticated the manuals are now an absolute necessity.  Of course, sometimes camera manuals are not so easy to understand.  Then it’s Google to the rescue.  Type in your camera problem, and most likely you’ll find a solution.