Tools of Photography (Gear)

Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR (Sample Images, Part 1)

OK, a few days back I promised some sample images from the relatively new (2015) Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR telephoto lens.

It will be hard for you to tell true image quality looking at these small files on your smudgy computer screen, but I will tell you I am quite pleased with the wall-to-wall sharpness even when pixel-peeping. The lens will certainly work for my personal landscape purposes when attached to my now very-banged-up Nikon D800 (and even on whatever succeeds the “aging” D800, I’m confident).

Three things I have not yet tried are hand-held shots of beasts and birds, exposures with smaller apertures, say, f/11 through f/22, and shots using the 1.4 teleconverter (which will make it an f/8 lens). I’ll post more sample images as I continue to experiment in those areas.

So, on to the samples…Here is one photograph taken on a tripod (this big lens comes with a tripod collar, thankfully), with mirror lock-up and shutter delay (I don’t use a separate remote), at 200mm (the min), f/8, ISO 100, and 1/50th of a second:

First Light on Thimble Peak. Tucson, Arizona, 2017
First Light on Thimble Peak. Tucson, Arizona, 2017

 

And here is a second photograph as I probed deeper in to same general area on Mt. Lemmon (those towers up at 8,000′ look mighty frosty!), on the tripod with mirror lock-up and shutter delay, at 500mm (the max), f/8, ISO 100, and 1/25th of a second:

Ice Towers. Tucson, Arizona, 2017
Ice Towers. Tucson, Arizona, 2017

The Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 Five Pounder

Thimble Peak Sunset, #4. Catalina Mountains, Tucson, Arizona, 2017
Thimble Peak Sunset, #4. Catalina Mountains, Tucson, Arizona, 2017 (at 200mm focal length)

 

What a behemoth of a lens, this Nikkor 200-500mm thing…definitely for car camping, car-based photo shoots, very short hikes, and NOT for hauling up to the top of a Colorado 14er. It certainly dwarfs my itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, sub-two-pound, Nikkor 70-200mm f/4, my longest tele lens up until now (and the one I used for the above image).

Not being a bird or wildlife photographer, I have never owned any photographic equipment of such honking dimensions. I am sure the Nikon pros out there with their 300mm f/2.8 (6.4 pounds) and 500mm f/4 (8.5 pounds) lenses are chuckling away at me…probably muttering something like: “That’s not a lens. THIS is a lens!

But, I finally broke down and bought one. The reviews were excellent, the price very reasonable for what you get, and I thought it might come in handy for future projects. (Within a few days, I’ll post some sample images made from this new Nikkor brick. So far, it is living up to expectations.)

Yes, I am sure I’ll try my somewhat impatient hand at shooting a few critters here and there, but I thought it might be most useful–given my style and inclination–for landscape and urban abstracts. I have always liked the compression effect when shooting at 200mm. Well, now I have up to 500mm, and if I stick it on a DX body, or throw on a 1.4 teleconverter, I can go up to 750mm! Wow. That should give me some really extreme perspectives.

Lets see if over the long haul it really turns into a lens I use a lot.

This may also be the last time I buy any piece of photographic equipment so gangly and heavy. The other half of my photo personality has been pretty happy shooting with an iPhone or the tiny Sony RX100. As the gear gets better, smaller, and lighter (and my back gets weaker), that is surely the most likely direction I will go.

A note on the photograph above: I was obviously playing with the aforementioned compression effect which, in this case (shooting at 200mm), flattens Thimble Peak right up against Kitt Peak the latter being actually some 60+ miles farther west. One cool thing I failed to notice until I looked at the enlarged image on my computer monitor is that you can actually see the Kitt Peak observatory domes and even the inclined shaft of the solar observatory on that far ridge-top–at least I can in the full res file. (And at 36 megapixels these details are amazingly sharp!) With the above low res image, though, YMMV and it may be hard to pick out anything but the big 18-story telescope dome (which houses the Mayall 4-meter scope).

A close-up snippet of the above photo to help you out:

Observatories - Labelled, #2. Tucson, Arizona, 2017
Observatories – Labelled, #2. Tucson, Arizona, 2017

Escher Exercise

A bit of Escher inspiration combined with the handy iPhone camera…

Given the largest sized file you can get from your iPhone 6, you could make a 300dpi/ppi, 8×10-inch, print from this. Yeah, they are jpeg–not raw–files, but you can make some adjustments. (Among other things, I ran this one through Nik/Google Color Efex Pro’s Tonal Contrast filter.)

Not bad for a goofy little 8-megapixel camera that’s with you everywhere you go!

Emilio and Sol's Staircase. Barcelona, 2015
Emilio and Sol’s Staircase. Barcelona, 2015

Review: Sony RX100iv

This little, baggy-pocket-sized, 20mp, wonder machine has been reviewed in-depth elsewhere. See especially the very complete analysis at THIS dpreview LINK.

My brief experience…

–Its files don’t compare to the files I get from my Nikon D800 DSLR but, for a small camera, they aren’t that bad either!

–The files are “good enough” (or better!) for most purposes, including decent prints to at least 13″ x 19″ as long as you don’t crop away too many pixels.

–The Zeiss wide-aperture (f/1.8-2.8) lens, the superb 1″ sensor, and the image stabilization really help those indoor or late evening shots.

–The 24-70mm equivalent lens is a little lacking on both ends for my dream machine (I would love 18mm to 120mm, for example, but that would compromise the optics), but it is adequate and much more versatile than the fixed lens on my Fuji X100s (a pretty darn good street camera in its own right).

–The Electronic Viewfinder and the built-in flash are very nice bonuses.

This has become my preferred street camera and it may well accompany me on climbs, long hikes, or backpacks when weight is an issue. It is perfect for the jersey pocket when out cycling.

If it fits your budget (around $1,000), I would highly recommend it, assuming you prefer something light and pocket-able.

The following three example images were all hand-held in low light.

Some details: I set the ISO on “Auto” with the “Slower” option selected (see the manual for an explanation). Also, these were JPEGs from the camera that I worked for a maximum of about five minutes each in Lightroom and Photoshop (noise reduction, straightening, lifting shadows, pulling back highlights, contrast, slight crop, etc.). I don’t yet have the update to open these Sony raw files–with which I know they will be even more capable of shadow/highlight/noise manipulation.

Here ya go:

 

La Catedral de Barcelona. In this one, not only was the light quite low, but the highlights in the higher domed area and the shadows on the pillar really pushed the dynamic range of the sensor. Even with a JPEG image, though, I was able to pull some detail out of the column shadows after mainly exposing for the dome highlights…

Catedral, #1. Barcelona, 2015
La Catedral, #1. Barcelona, 2015

 

Yes, the Moon is blown out, but that is hard to avoid with even a massive camera, unless you combine images. There is a lot of dynamic range in this one, too, that was handled fairly well by the small sensor…

Night Concert. Barcelona, 2015
Night Concert. Barcelona, 2015

 

I probably could have taken this one with my iPhone as I wanted the silhouettes black anyway–I wasn’t concerned about shadow detail. I just liked the photograph, so included it here as a bonus. What the heck…

It's All About the Image. Barcelona, 2015
It’s All About the Image. Barcelona, 2015

Is the cell phone camera “good enough”?

Yep. For the vast majority of folks, it sure is. I think we have finally arrived at “good enough” for 80% of the picture snappers out there.

Why? Well, most people just post to the web or show their friends their snaps, pics, and selfies directly from the tiny screen of their mobile phone. Huge image files not required. Even some photographic artists are plenty happy with the combination of flexibility and image quality they get–and they sometimes even print large! I’d guess that the days of the low-end point-and-shoot are numbered. (“Ain’t room ‘nuf in this here town fer the two of us, stranger.”)

We just upgraded our iPhones, skipping something like four generations, so we now have eight megapixels available as well as much better image quality–this, compared with the supposedly antiquated five megapixel beasts we had. (Note to self: Need to do a blog entry on consumerism and planned obsolescence.)

This iPhone 6 (which is going to have to last a long while) will likely be my go-to machine for intimate and candid street photography. Here, I am thinking of my Barcelona subway project specifically…I can appear to be texting or surfing and capture moments that would be impossible to get with a normal camera raised to the all-seeing eyeball. If you have big hands and pockets to hold and carry it–and a purse wadded with extra Franklins–consider the iPhone 6 Plus since it has a bigger screen and comes with the very helpful image stabilization feature.

Also, I always have my phone with me when I am cycling, so no more missed images along the road and trails! I feel like I can actually get a reasonable print size out of the deal, too. An example from yesterday’s ride, sized to print at 18×12, after a few fun tweaks in Photoshop and the Google-Nik suite:

Vote, Cement Plant. Boulder, Colorado, 2014
Vote, Cement Plant. Boulder, Colorado, 2014

And you gotta love the pano capability! Here was the first fun demo image off of my phone (Courtesy of photographer, climber, entrepreneur, and Apple guru: Wes Cables):

Apple Store Pano. Boulder, Colorado, 2014 (Photo by: Wes Cables)
Apple Store Panorama. Boulder, Colorado, 2014 (Photo by: Wes Cables)

And another from yesterday’s bike ride as the cold, cold, cold front sent its advance guard of lenticular clouds into Colorado:

Front Range Panorama. Boulder County, Colorado, 2014
Front Range Panorama. Boulder County, Colorado, 2014

The simplicity of these devices makes photography simple and fun. All one has to do, of course, is work on developing the creative vision–which is always the hardest part.

Dirt Cheap Tripod Idea

Underpass Abstract, #3. Boulder, Colorado, 2014
Underpass Abstract, #3. Boulder, Colorado, 2014

The trail for most photographers to their final, ultimate, personal best tripod–as is often said by those who have gone before–is littered with the corroding carcasses of a half-dozen cheaper to progressively more expensive models starting with the incredible $9.75 WalMart special . This is known as constantly “throwing good money after bad”.

The best advice is usually this: The purchase of a tripod is in the same league as purchasing a new camera body or high-quality lens–don’t hold back spending the big bucks; get the best you can possibly afford.

This is all true. And, the tripod can indeed contribute as much to improving your image quality as a good lens or camera. So, the old craniums have it right.

However, what if you are a college student living off of a work-study salary and have trouble scraping up the funds for a Domino’s Pizza once a month? What then, Buckwheat?

Well, here is a real alternative: the 3-pound, aluminum, Vista Voyager Tripod with BHQ8 Ball Head, now available for around $50.00 at B&H or Adorama. We just bought one for use inside the house with a smallish point-and-shoot, the Sony RX100ii, and it does the job just fine–almost overkill, in fact, for such a compact camera.

For the price, I am actually surprised at how close they came to building a “normal” tripod. It has a very functional and easy-to-use ball head, it comes with a camera attachment plate (1/4″ screw) and a carry bag, folds to 21″, has a max height of 63″ and a max load rating of 8 pounds (oh, the optimism!). The kit even includes an Allen wrench (in the hidden pocket in the bag) to tighten the tripod legs when required. Finally, there is also a ten-year workpersonship warranty.

It is not of particularly high build quality, so you won’t want to knock it around much in the trunk of your car, or overload it with Ansel’s 8×10 view camera. Despite the eight-pound rating, I think a DSLR with a big lens up to that weight would be very marginal and a wobbly in any fluttering breeze at all. A compact DSLR with a prime lens, or a mirrorless machine, would be fine as a frog’s hair.

So, this tripod is definitely a consideration for that someone on a boa constrictor budget.

Cell Phone to the Rescue!

The Genius Bar. Boulder, Colorado, 2014
The Genius Bar. Boulder, Colorado, 2014

I can’t remember if I have posted this image before or not. No matter. It is still worth another glance and friendly chuckle.

The above was made at the local Apple store with my iPhone 4–proving once again that the absolute best camera is the one you happen to have with you at the time.

It looks like our local cell provider is ready to upgrade us, for free, to the iPhone 5, probably because those now-ancient “5” models are gumming up the warehouse supply shelves with the recent release of the iPhone 6. I am looking forward to this upgrade as the camera in the “5” is much better than the one I currently have in the Paleolithic “4”. I’ll be going from 5MP to 8MP plus some other nice tweaks. (For an interesting comparison of all the iPhone cameras by generation, try this revealing article by Lisa Bettany.)

This upgrade will make my subway street photography project in Barcelona a whole lot easier. Even the Fuji X100s is too obvious in the close quarters of a subway compartment. With a cell phone, you can pretend to be surfing the web or texting, and be snapping away the whole time. This may become my “go-to” street machine for those occasions when extreme discretion is advised–“R-rated” street photography!

Here are a few first attempts from the Barcelona subway project (these, with the Fuji). Dozens of other, better and much more intimate, images escaped me because even the small, range-finder camera was too big and obvious to use without attracting unwanted attention.

BCN Metro #1. Barcelona, 2014
BCN Metro #1. Barcelona, 2014
BCN Metro #3. Barcelona, 2014
BCN Metro #3. Barcelona, 2014
BCN Metro #6. Barcelona, 2014
BCN Metro #6. Barcelona, 2014

Fuji X100s, Low Light Examples

Just as an example for those who might care, the following two images were hand held (likely supported on a bench or railing, if I remember right) inside your standard, low light, Gothic cathedral.

I used ISO 3200 and f/2.8, letting the shutter speed fall where it may. In Camera Raw, I needed to sharpen, reduce noise, then pull down the highlights (windows) and pull up the shadows a bit. Once in Photoshop, I did some cloning cleanup and slight cropping, then ran the images through a custom filter I made up in Nik/Google Color Efex Pro to bring out the contrast and detail.

(Santa María del Mar, to be sure, is no “standard” cathedral. It is a superb example of Catalan Gothic architecture with the flying buttresses enclosed and thus used to beautifully expand the indoor volume. The church “of the people” was completed in 55 years after starting construction in 1329–the Barcelona Cathedral, in contrast took some 500 years to finish. See the book, Cathedral of the Sea by Idelfonso Falcones for a wonderful fictional, but historical, account of the construction of Santa María del Mar.)

Santa María del Mar #1. Barcelona, 2014
Santa María del Mar #1. Barcelona, 2014
Santa María del Mar #9. Barcelona, 2014
Santa María del Mar #9. Barcelona, 2014

Postscript: Here are three more handheld Fuji X100s images, this time from the main Barcelona Cathedral. I think the post-processing is a bit better. Also, there is more light in certain areas of the Barcelona Cathedral than in Santa María del Mar, so the ISOs varied–note the metadata. (On the vertical image…for some reason vertical images don’t look as sharp as the horizontal format on this WordPress website, a problem I am looking into…)

La Catedral #1 (Behind the Altar). Barcelona, 2014. [f/2.8, 1/80, ISO 3200]
La Catedral #1 (Behind the Altar). Barcelona, 2014. [f/2.8, 1/80, ISO 3200]
La Catedral #3 (Heavenly Light). Barcelona, 2014. [f/2.8, 1/125, ISO 1250]
La Catedral #3 (Heavenly Light). Barcelona, 2014. [f/2.8, 1/125, ISO 1250]
La Catedral #6 (Column to Arches). Barcelona, 2014. [f/2.8, 1/125, ISO 2500]
La Catedral #6 (Column to Arches). Barcelona, 2014. [f/2.8, 1/125, ISO 2500]

Girona, Street Photography Series #7 (And some more Fuji X100s comments.)

The Fuji X100s is small, light, and handy, but I find myself so used to the bigger files from my Nikon that I often forget I can’t crop in as much as I’d like.

The Fuji raw (RAF) files come out at 300ppi and 4896×3264 pixels, which measures 16.32″ x 10.88″. Not bad, really. But, I generally like to size things to 12×12, 12×18 or 18×12 for printing, so this means some very slight upsizing in Photoshop. (Compare those Fuji dimensions to my D800 raw files: 7360×4912 at 300ppi, or 24.553″ x 16.373″.)

Furthermore, when shooting street, I can’t always get as close as I’d like with the fixed focal length lens, so some cropping is in order now and then. The resulting reduced file can sometimes mean some significant upsizing to get to my standard print dimensions. Most enlargments look OK on the electronic screen, but an actual, physical print will be the titallating test.

A few more Fuji comments

–I love that you can change the battery and the memory card with the entire leather case in place.

–Speaking of batteries…you will need at least one extra–two more would be even better insurance. I find that I can go through two in a full day of strolling around and shooting, say, 300 frames. It is possible that I may be using more juice than the average bear since I leave the camera on, with the “eye detection” option selected, so this may be turning the electronic viewfinder (EVF) on and off as it dangles around my neck and against my chest. (My impression, though, is that the camera “goes to sleep” as it dangles.)

–On the subject of flash…To use it, you have to press and hold the Disp/Back button for a few seconds (assuming you are in silent mode for street shooting). The flash is very good at fill on a backlit subject.  However, this also disables the silent mode, so don’t forget to reverse the process when you go back to stealth shooting. I almost never use flash on the street…but I might use it for portraits of friends or spouse.

–I tend to walk around with the outer cover of the leather case and the lens cap removed. I hold the camera (as it hangs from the neck strap) with my finger near the shutter. If I see a situation developing I touch the shutter to wake up the camera and get ready for the shot. If I can, I use the EVF up to the eye. Often, though, I find it quicker to simply frame with the LCD.

–To repeat what I said in an earlier post…I generally have the camera set to manual focus, f/8 or f/11, auto ISO up to 3200, min shutter speed of 1/125, and min focus distance set at about 5-6 feet. If necessary, a switch to autofocus is quick and easy–I just slide the switch on the lower left end of the body all the way down.

Finally, in the For What It’s Worth Department…I got into a conversation on the Metro with a DSLR-carrying Irish gentleman who thought I was wearing an old film rangefinder camera around my neck. If this photography-aware person thought that, then most other folks probably think something similar. All the better!

And another group of images from the Fuji…

Cobbled Ladder. Girona, Catalunya, 2014
Cobbled Ladder. Girona, Catalunya, 2014
Lost in the Ruins. Girona, Catalunya, 2014
Lost in the Ruins. Girona, Catalunya, 2014
Man At Work. Girona, Catalunya, 2014
Man At Work. Girona, Catalunya, 2014
Riu Ter. Girona, Catalunya, 2014
Riu Ter. Girona, Catalunya, 2014