Nikon D4s and Nikkor 800mm f/5.6 for Bird Photography

My D7000, Nikkor 500mm and I have had some wonderful times together – the shots of a Peregrine chick jumping off the ledge for the first time, the yoga-stretching Osprey that made Audubon’s Top 100, and who can forget the Night Heron flying past with a baby alligator in it’s mouth. But like all relationships, it seemed the initial pizazz was fading. I began to notice how she had trouble staying focused and got noisy when I pushed an issue. Furthermore, with 190,000 clicks under her belt, well, let’s just say her shutter curtains were starting to droop a bit. It was time to move on, but don’t get me wrong, we’ll always be friends. Now I hate to admit it, but I’d been having an online affair with the new Nikkor 800mm for almost a year – I’d link over to her B&H page and run my finger gently around her buy now button. Oh how we teased each other… Then one day we went all the way.

Next week she was there in front of me, the ten pound, one ounce Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR OMG BFF. However, when I unpacked my new lens, it was obviously lacking a proper rear lens cap. How inconsiderate of Nikon not to include a D4s to keep the rear element clean. Nothing a few years of crippling debt couldn’t solve. I dusted off my backup credit card and a few days later the D4$ showed up. So without further ado, my first 29 hours testing the 800mm/D4$ combo for reach, handholding, buffer, burst rate, high ISO ability and general BIFiness.

Reaching Out

Let’s start at the end of the day and half of testing – 800mm of reach allowed me to maintain a non-threatening distance from this Common Black-hawk posing in front of the moon sneaking through the clouds. 1/1250, f/6.3, ISO 2500, 800mm, D4s. I cut loose with some artistic experimentation with this – embrace the post-processing noise – it’s pretty much the last you’ll see in the article:

Black Hawk Moon Page Springs

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Please welcome Robert Andersen!

This week is crazy here at PL, because we are bringing in more and more talent from all over the world for our readers to learn and get inspiration from. Today, we are expanding our team of writers with a talented wildlife photographer, Robert Andersen! I am sure you have been enjoying Robert’s detailed articles on Raptor Photography and getting answers to some of the most complex questions related to camera autofocus, handling, hand-holding and much more! Without a doubt, Robert will be an amazing resource as a permanent team member for our readers, so please give him a warm welcome!

Robert Andersen

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Raptor Photography Tips Part Two

I got a lot of feedback and questions from my last two posts and it seems like there is some interest in my articles, so I am yet again inspired to give this writing thing another shot. I just want to re-iterate that what I suggest or talk about here is what I do and what works for me – you will have to find your own way to your photography success.

1) Focus Point

I am going to start with focus point and where it should be, and that would be on the eye of the subject. There are many things that can be forgiven in photography, but a blurry eye is not one of them. All the power is in the eyes and your own eye will always be drawn there without you thinking about it. I am shooting with a Nikon D4 so this is Nikon terminology, I use Single Point AF Mode, because I am a control freak and don’t let the camera make the decisions for me. There is Dynamic Area AF Mode you might want to consider trying and see if it works for you, but don’t try it on a once-in-a-lifetime shot.

The insert in this photo will show you what I mean about ideal focus point location. The longer the focal length of your lens is and the shorter the distance to the subject, it becomes that much more important to precisely place your focus point on the eye. In a multiple subject shot, your focal point should be on the animal that is the closest to you.

Bald Eagle Catching Fish

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Raptor Photography Tips

I recently wrote an article on hand-holding large and heavy lenses, which attracted quite a bit of attention and some nice comments and questions from PL readers. I am not really a writer, but a few people asked me about my technique for getting those shots. Let me start by saying that I am not an expert and there are many ways to skin a cat. So this is the way I get my shots and you will have to find your own way to achieving what you want. Let’s start with a “money shot”: what I would say is the shot of the day, the shot that made it all worth it.

Snowy Owl Launching from Rock

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Nikon D600 for Sports and Wildlife Photography

As I have pointed out in my D600 Review, I am quite pleased with the autofocus performance of the D600. It acquires focus quickly and accurately in most situations and in my opinion works more reliably than the AF system on the Nikon D7000. This past weekend I had a chance to do a much more demanding test on the D600, photographing Colorado wildlife. I wanted to see if the Nikon D600 would be suitable for photographing sports and wildlife, since many of our readers have asked me to do that in my review.

Clark's Nutracker

I started out photographing birds first. Small birds can be tough to photograph, since they move constantly and they fly fast. My primary subjects were Clark’s Nutracker and Steller’s Jay – both were very active, so they were perfect for testing the speed, responsiveness and the reliability of the AF system of the D600. I started out in AF-C mode, Ch release, Dynamic 39 points and Focus Tracking with Lock-On set to 3 (Normal). Focusing on perched birds was very reliable and I got a lot of keepers. I even used other focus points in the extreme corners while composing my shots and the images came out in perfect focus. However, the moment a bird would take off, I had a hard time tracking it in flight with my Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR (hand-held), since they were too fast. Very often they were too close and too fast, which made it harder to get anything in the frame and in focus. Gladly, I was not the only person having this problem – Tom was standing right next to me with his Nikon D4 and Nikon 500mm f/4 VR and he was having similar issues. So I knew it was not the camera at fault.

Nutrackers Fighting

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Nature Photography Tips

One of the most exciting things about running a photography site is getting to know people from all over the world. Holger Wagner, a nature photographer from Germany, contact me about two years ago on photographing birds in Florida. After reading my articles on how to photograph birds and my post on Florida birding near Orlando, he contacted me for suggestions and my favorite spots.

After he came back from his trip, he sent me some stunning pictures that he captured in Florida. While browsing through his website, I checked out some of his other work and within minutes, I realized that I am looking at the work of a very talented photographer. I immediately emailed him again and asked to write a guest post, because I felt that his photography had to be shared with the photography community. Unfortunately, he got extremely busy with traveling and photography, so he did not have a chance to do it then. During the last two years, he kept on sending me his beautiful pictures. So a couple of weeks ago I sent another request and I was finally able to persuade him to write a guest post, along with some of his beautiful pictures. Enjoy!


Dear photography friends and readers of the Photography Life blog,

This is my first guest post ever and it’s an honor for me to write here. English isn’t my first language, so I apologize for any grammar mistakes in advance.

My name is Holger Wagner and I live in Aachen, Germany. I am a professional photographer that enjoys nature and loves photographing landscapes and wildlife. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to visit some of the most beautiful photography places in the world throughout my career. The US Southwest, with its breathtaking landscapes, Florida – a birders paradise, Iceland and Norway in Northern Europe are some of my most favorite places to shoot.

My online research on how to capture birds led me to this informative site. Nasim not only shared some very useful tips in his birding articles, but when I contacted him, he was even kind enough to share his special and favorite destinations in Florida. This helped me so much in preparing my trips carefully and to come home with more “keepers” than I ever expected.

What photography means to me is always to capture the beauty that surrounds me. It is the light, the colors, the composition and the mood in every particular situation. With my Nikon DSLR, I always shoot in RAW in 14-bit to get the best out of every single image. With that said, I post process all my images carefully. Subtle, yet significant, is my goal with each image. I always follow my own quote “Releasing the shutter button is just the beginning of a great photograph”. As photographers, we are all artists as well, whether we create stunning portraits, commercial, wildlife or landscape images. We live in this beautiful digital age that gives us all the tools we can try and find out what works and what doesn’t. It is all bound to our own taste and style, our own appreciation and interpretation of beauty.

I’d like to show you a couple of my images here with some information and if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch with me. I would love to get some feedback.

When I got started with landscape photography, I went to the beautiful Southwest region of the United States. The amazing sandstone formations in Utah and Arizona are so unique, that I immediately fell in love with them. Until today, it is one of my favorite places for shooting landscapes.

Here is a tip I would like to share with you that can help when you feel overwhelmed with beautiful landscapes. As photography enthusiasts, we are so passionate, that we see all this great scenery and just want to capture it all at once in its grand beauty. Sometimes it works great, but I mostly try to simplify and narrow the focus. This is a composition rule that always works as I found out. Here I photographed the Vermillion Cliffs in Arizona as a single scene with a wide-angle lens:

Vermilion Cliffs Wide

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Nikon D800 for Sports and Wildlife Photography

While the Nikon D4 is the proper tool for sports and wildlife photography due to its faster speed and extreme ISO capabilities, many photographers are also looking at the Nikon D800 for action photography. First, the high-resolution sensor could give some “reach” opportunities with plenty of options to crop in-camera (DX mode) or in post (I highly recommend to do it in post instead of in-camera). Second, the AF system on the D800 is identical to the one on the D4 (Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX). And lastly, noise characteristics of the D800 are very similar to the D4 when images are down-sampled to 16 MP (down-sampling can also result in increased sharpness). The biggest disadvantage is the slow 4 FPS speed of the D800.

Since many sports and wildlife photographers have been asking me about the D800 AF performance, I decided to share some information on it that I have collected so far. First of all, the f/8 focusing capability is not a myth – it definitely works. I tried the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR with the TC-20E III and focusing worked, even in low-light conditions (although not as accurate as in daylight conditions). Granted the image quality was pretty bad (the 200-400mm just doesn’t couple well with anything but the TC-14E II), AF worked just fine. This means that the Nikon 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4 lenses will also autofocus with the TC-20E III teleconverter and you are not just limited to very bright shooting conditions. I will have to do some more in-depth digging with the TC-20E III and other long lenses, but so far I am impressed by the updated AF system.

What about the TC-17E II that I have been avoiding when shooting with f/4 lenses? Surprisingly, the D800 made my TC-17E II usable again. Take a look at this image, shot with the Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S and TC-17E II:

American Kestrel

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Best of 2011 – Wildlife

While looking through the 2011 photographs, I realized that I shot very few wildlife images last year. Part of it has to do with the fact that I was too busy testing equipment, but I also realized that I just did not get out locally as much as I used to in order to photograph birds and other wildlife of Colorado. A large number of great wildlife shots from Yellowstone and Glacier NP were lost during my two week trip across North-Western US as well, due to my own fault. All in all, 2011 was just not a good wildlife year for me. Hopefully I will do better in 2012. Enjoy!

Tricolored Heron

1) Tricolored Heron 1920×1200 Widescreen Wallpaper

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Case Study: Bird Photography

I have finally been able to more or less clean up my mailbox and sort through most of the emails that keep pouring in from our readers. The case studies that our readers are sending have been piling up in my mailbox and my to-do list, so I will try to do a better job in posting these on the blog from now on. Let’s start with a case study from our reader Gaurav Rajaram, a bird lover and photographer from Bangalore, India. Here is what he sent me:

I use a Nikon 300mm f/4 paired with a Nikon D200 for my bird photography. While shooting, I notice that I do not get a clean background, which I would expect from a prime lens. I have got such a background in one image of mine, however, the subject is a little too soft for my liking (the picture is attached). Is there any way to get a clean background so as to help the viewers’ focus remain on the subject (the bird in this case)? Could you share a tutorial with us? I’m attaching sample images for this case study in JPEG format with full EXIF info.

And here are the two images Gaurav attached:

Bird with clean BG but too soft

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Yellowstone and Glacier Trip Photos

Here are some photos that I decided to share with you from Yellowstone NP and Glacier NP from my trip across the Western USA. I have not done much processing on these yet, which I am hoping to do during the next few weeks. The images from Yellowstone NP are from the Nikon D5100 that I was testing – all images from my Nikon D3s were on the card that I unfortunately lost somewhere in Yosemite NP. All landscape images of Yellowstone are lost, so I only have some wildlife + wildflower shots to show.

While in Yellowstone, there was not a day when I did not see black bears. First day I was super excited about seeing a bear cub walk alone and eat flowers, so I took several hundred pictures of him eating, resting and playing. My favorite picture was with the cub sitting in between many wildflowers. Of course those pictures are all gone, so it is only a memory. During the next bear encounters, I only photographed when the bears were close. For the first couple of shots, I would use the Nikon D5100 and then switch to my D3s, due to better and more accurate autofocus. Here are some images of bears from the Nikon D5100 + Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR combo.

This is a black bear that some call “Cinnamon” bear:

Yellowstone NP #1

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