That twitch…

WP_20140205_007A yellow field surrounded by mottled gray and bone-white trees and morning mist.  An abandoned church covered in vines, the door blocked by vines but the stained glass that crowns the entrance peeking through.  An old camper wildly painted in vivid colors and images that are slowly fading.  A bright pink diner with a Cadillac out front and a tremendous array of Elvis memorabilia on the walls.  Fields split by a rumbly river fringed with trees.  Stone bridges barely wide enough to pass on four wheels.

An unexpected trip this morning took me on twisty, back-country roads that I thoroughly enjoyed driving.  But as I wound my way to my destination, images kept catching my eyes and making me wish I’d brought my camera.

I’m sitting in the pink diner, and I’ll probably take the chance on the way home to take some of those pictures with my phone.  They won’t be the images I wanted, and mainly I’ll take them to illustrate the path I’ll return to in the near future to capture the images the way I really want to catch them.

I finished 2013 with a bullet.  Lots of travel.  Busy with work and family.  I haven’t even taken the opportunity to post my Favorites of 2013 yet (which I’ll get to shortly).  The shutter-bug in me had been dormant other than family photos recently, but it is now fully awake and pulling me to get out with my camera.  Not a bad way to start 2014…

Enthusiast Photographer 2013 in Review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this Enthusiast Photographer. I logged over 130,000 miles in the air this year, so I have to admit I didn’t get as much done here as I’d hoped but I did get to visit some amazing places and take some of my favorite photos ever. This is their summary – I’ll get one of my own up soon.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 33,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 12 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Finally got my hands on a Nikon Df…

This is as close to Nikon’s replacement of the D700 as we’re ever likely to see.   I’ll write my thoughts up over the holidays (and catch up on some other things here on Enthusiast Photographer…) but I’d love to hear if anyone has any thoughts on it….

What I’ve been shooting lately… (Part 1)

It has been an incredible run of travel this year – well over 100,000 miles in the air and over 60,000 since July.  I’ve seen a lot of the inside of a metal tube, but I’ve also had the chance to go to some amazing places.  The more I shoot, the more comfortable I am with my equipment and just as importantly what I need to work on.  So that is the lesson for this post – shoot more and think about what you need to learn to improve when you’re looking at the shots you don’t like as well as then ones you do.

I had my first try at bird-in-flight (BiF) photography.  Verdict:  HARD!  Knowing how to set up my AF was key to getting some decent shots for a first outing.  More knowledge and tuning needed.

I had my first try at bird-in-flight (BiF) photography. Verdict: HARD! Knowing how to set up my AF was key to getting some decent shots for a first outing. More knowledge and tuning needed. D300s & 70-200 f/4 @ f/4, 1/4000, ISO 320, AF-C w/ 51-point tracking

My son came out to feed the gulls. I sat down with my back against the house, and after shooting a few shots with flash I realized I was missing a much better shot without the flash...

My son came out to feed the gulls. I sat down with my back against the house, and after shooting a few shots with flash I realized I was missing a much better shot without the flash… D300s & Nikon 18-200 @ f/7.1, 1/640, ISO 200

I left for Japan the day after returning from the beach.  I took a few photos I like, but I really enjoyed a chance to get a better shot of Tokyo Tower from the Mori Tower.

I left for Japan the day after returning from the beach. I took a few photos I like, but I really enjoyed a chance to get a better shot of Tokyo Tower from the Mori Tower. The conditions were tough again – very windy, but this shot came out OK anyway and really showed the value of VR (vibration reduction). D300s & 70-200 f/4 @ f/4, 1/15, ISO 1000

One of the next places I went was Bangkok.  To say there is a lot of texture there is an understatement.  I'd love to spend a few months wandering around there - amazing, beautiful place.  These fruits were so colorful at a street-side stand, and seemed a perfect time to play nearly wide-open.  D300s & 35 f/1.8G @ f/2.2, 1/60, ISO 200

One of the next places I went was Bangkok. To say there is a lot of texture there is an understatement. I’d love to spend a few months wandering around there – amazing, beautiful place. These fruits were so colorful at a street-side stand, and seemed a perfect time to play nearly wide-open. D300s & 35 f/1.8G @ f/2.2, 1/60, ISO 200

The Chao Phraya river in Bankok offers just as much to see as the land.  A good example of the versatility of the 18-200 VRII for both the zoom range and the stabilization.  D300s & 18-200 VRII @ f/7.1, 1/250, ISO 320

The Chao Phraya river in Bankok offers just as much to see as the land. A good example of the versatility of the 18-200 VRII for both the zoom range and the stabilization. D300s & 18-200 VRII @ f/7.1, 1/250, ISO 320

Coming off the river is a combination of a dock and a shopping center, an awesome jam of people and products.  D300s & 35 f/1.8G @ f/1.9, 1/160, ISO 800

Coming off the river is a combination of a dock and a shopping center, an awesome jam of people and products. D300s & 35 f/1.8G @ f/1.8, 1/160, ISO 800

At the temple of Wat Pho is the Reclining Buddha.  Behind it are metal pots - you make a small donation and get a cup of old coins to plink in the buckets.  The sound as many folks walk up the row is really cool.  Tough to get a sharp shot as it was pretty dark and I didn't want to push the ISO.  D300s & 35 f/1.8G @ f/1.8, 1/30, ISO 800

At the temple of Wat Pho is the Reclining Buddha. Behind it are metal pots – you make a small donation and get a cup of old coins to plink in the buckets. The sound as many folks walk up the row is really cool. Tough to get a sharp shot as it was pretty dark and I didn’t want to push the ISO. D300s & 35 f/1.8G @ f/1.8, 1/30, ISO 800

An elephant statue at the Erawon Temple in downtown Bangkok.  I should have dialed the ISO down to 200 here -  it was pretty bright. D300s & 35 f/1.8G @ f/1.8, 1/1250, ISO 320

An elephant statue at the Erawon Temple in downtown Bangkok. I should have dialed the ISO down to 200 here – it was pretty bright. D300s & 35 f/1.8G @ f/1.8, 1/1250, ISO 320

The Summer kept hopping from there – I took another trip to Asia and went a few other places too. I’ll post a few more photographs from those trips soon. In the meantime, I’d love to see YOUR favorite pix from this year so far!

What to take when you travel

TTUD60v2ContentsOne of the most common posts I see on the various photography forums is a question that goes something like this “I’m going to <somewhere far away>, what should I bring with me?”

Unfortunately, there isn’t really a single answer to that question.  What photography equipment you should take with you has a lot to do with what you’re planning to shoot, what your style is, how much space you have to travel with your equipment and what you’re comfortable carrying.  If you have a story to share, please feel free to leave it in a comment!

I travel extensively for work and do a fair bit of individual/vacation travel as well.  Personally, I tend to travel heavy – I’m a pretty big guy, and I prefer to have more than less.  That won’t work for everyone, and over time I’ve figured out what I do and don’t use.  I’ll pass on what I bring, and then offer some thoughts on how you might decide what to take when you travel.

Before I talk about what I bring, I wanted to tell you how I bring it.  Since over 80% of my travel is business (especially internationally), I’m almost always sharing space with my gear for work – a laptop (and sometimes more than one), power adapters and other various gear.  Generally my strategy is to carry the key stuff – the body and lenses – and pack the rest in the suitcase with my clothes.  Unless I’m protecting it or I need it while flying I try to put it in the suitcase – batteries, L-brackets, filters, chargers, etc.  For the most part, these things are a lot easier to pack in a suitcase where they’d take up valuable space in your shoulder bag. If that only adds up to the ability to carry one more lens, you’ve still achieved a significant benefit.

I’ve got a pretty nice kit of lenses these days – six total (see In My Bag for the list).  While I can get them all into my Urban Disguise bag, it is a pretty heavy carry.  Before I head out on a trip, I think about what kind of shooting I’ll have the chance to do and what my goals are – higher goals often drive more gear.  Travel photography generally boils down to scenes/candids, landscapes, creative shots and walk-around shots.  The good news is I can usually cover most of that with two or three lenses:

  • Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8:  Great for wide-open landscapes as well as capturing the most of tight interiors like churches and other historic buildings, this lens comes in awfully handy.  Since it has a fixed f/2.8 aperture, it does a nice job in those low-light interiors.  However, because it is a fairly bulky lens and little limited in overall usefulness it is the first lens I drop among my three core travel lenses.  The shot below could only be taken by my 11-16 – I would have had to stand in traffic with my next-widest lens.  It created a pretty dramatic angle, too… (click on the photos to see them larger)
La Madeleine church in Paris.

La Madeleine church in Paris.

  • Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-f/5.6 VRII:   This is the ultimate walk-around lens.  Pretty darn wide and pretty darn long, it offers a lot of flexibility.  A lot of lens-snobs turn their nose up at this lens, but it can be pretty darn sharp and has a moderate carry weight.  It does a nice job at the wide end for landscape shooting and has enough reach to allow you to bring back some texture.  As a variable-aperture zoom, it isn’t a low-light champ, but it pays you back with extensive range and versatility.
Tyn Church in Prague

Tyn Church in Prague

  • Nikon 35mm f/1.8G:  When it comes to creativity, I find it hard to beat my primes.  The ability to use shallow depth-of-field and shoot in low light gives you the ability to create a lot of mood and atmosphere in a shot.  While I’ve used my 85mm to get some good shots, my 35mm f/1.8 has yielded a big chunk of my favorite shots, including the one below (which will look familiar to return visitors), and is almost weightless.
Love locks in Prague

Love locks in Prague

Those are my three key lenses for travel.  When it is just the body, the 18-200 and the 35mm, the kit is reasonably light.  From there I’ll add lenses situationally – the 70-200 if I need reach and ultimate sharpness in low-light, the 85mm if I think I’ll do something portrait-like or a little more reach vs. my 35.

The first lens back in my bag for travel is the 28-75 though – it offers a lot of flexibility as a walk-around lens has has terrific sharpness, contrast and color along with f/2.8 creativity.  Occasionally I’ll substitute it for my 18-200 if I don’t think I’ll need the longer zoom capability.

The other thing you have to think about is whether you’ll need a tripod.  I bring my monopod on travel more than my tripod because of space and weight.  I don’t own a travel tripod (which fold down to a super-small size), and it is fairly heavy and bulky to walk around with, despite which it goes with me about half the time.  My monopod is small and fairly light, and has been really handy in dark interiors but only makes the trip about 1/3 of the time, mainly due to how much my tripod travels.

Sometimes I bring a bit more than I’ll need for a single situation and pack only the things I think I’ll need on a given day, leaving the rest in the hotel room safe.

So here are some questions to ask yourself before you travel:

  1. How much room do have to bring things with you?  You can optimize space by packing bulkier items with your clothes.  You won’t need your charger when you’re walking around anyway.
  2. What kind of shooting are you going to do?  along with “what lenses/filters/other equipment are necessary to get the shots?”  Be realistic here or you’ll wind up with almost everything you own.
  3. How much weight can you carry around for extended periods?  Generally I’ll choose to be a little more tired and sore to get the shots I want, but some don’t have that option.
  4. What else are you going to be doing?  If you’re on vacation and will do some shopping, it is  a good idea to leave some space in the bag for the things you pick up along the way.

The last thing I’ll mention is that sometimes not having the perfect lens means an opportunity to be creative.  If you’re faced with a situation where you think “I really wish I had that other lens”, the next thing should be “How do I create a shot with the equipment I do have?”

Travel photography should be fun and add to the experience.  If you’re frustrated, hurting and tired, you’ll probably remember that more than your shots and it may take you out of the creative zone.  Keep it simple, travel with reasonable comfort and plan ahead a little and you’ll find you like what you come home with more.

How skinny do you travel?  Anything you’ve found hard to live without when on the road?  Please feel free to share any travel stories below.  Thanks!

Key Lenses

LensfamilyI own six lenses now, and a post by Richard Harrington on Photofocus made me think about lenses I’d choose I was starting over or starting out.

My first lens was my Nikon 18-200 VRII.  For some reason, this is a really controversial lens.  You’ll see lots of people on photography forums malign it, say it isn’t sharp, talk about distortion (which is an automatic two-second fix in Lightroom) and generally look down their nose at it.  Luckily, I listened to Scott Kelby, Trey Ratcliff who recommend it heartily.  Heck – even Ken Rockwell likes it!  It is really versatile, reasonably light and I’ve gotten very sharp shots from it.  As a travel and walkaround lens, it is hard to beat.  Lately prices for used copies of this lens have dropped close to $500, which is a steal.  The older “VRI” model sells for even less, which is crazy – the only difference is that the “VRII” has a switch that locks the lens so it won’t extend while you’re walking around (which is called “lens creep).  If you see a good deal on one, grab it and get this $5 solution for lens creep from B&H.  For most of us Enthusiast Photographers, this takes care of most of our zoom needs.

This brings me back to Richard’s advice – the next lens should be a prime.  Primes give you the ability to shoot in really low light, are usually sharper than zooms and give you more ability to generate “bokeh” – that pleasing blurred background that is so useful for portraits and creative photography.  Here’s the big news – they are really affordable too!  For only a few bucks more than the list price of the 18-200, you can buy the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G and 85mm f/1.8G!  Even better, the 35mm f/1.8 sells brand new for less than $200. On Nikon DX cameras and other “crop sensors” (which include pretty much all both the most expensive DSLRs out there), this gives you the “nifty fifty” field of view – a “normal” view of the world that is pretty much as your eye sees it – not zoomed out or in.  If you’re on a full-frame camera, you’ll want a 50mm lens (hence “nifty fifty) to achieve the same thing.

I started with my 35mm 1.8G and it is the lens I reach for when I want to get creative.  It is also really, really light and really sharp.  Later I added the 85mm, which is just plain outstanding for portraits.

If you’re wondering whether to invest in the more expensive, wider-aperture primes (like the f/1.4 lenses), my advice is generally “No” – there isn’t that much difference in light and they are usually significantly more expensive – from more than twice the money to as much as 8 times as much!! (from the $200 Nikon 35mm f/1.8G to the over-$1600 f/1.4G). The exception to that might be the 50mm if you’re shooting FX or full-frame Canon, etc.- you’ve already spent some serious money and the $500 f/1.4G is outstanding as are the Canon equivalents (and are less expensive than their Nikon cousins…).  If you need to save the $300, you won’t be unhappy with the f/1.8G model, either.  For 85mm lenses, the Nikon f/1.8G is actually sharper than the f/1.4G and far less expensive.

To net it out, get a flexible zoom and a 35mm or 50mm 1.8 prime to start and build from there.  The more you shoot, your needs beyond that will begin to become more obvious to you and you won’t regret having those two lenses in your bag.  (here’s my obligatory “What’s in my Bag?” post)

What lenses do you own?  Any you especially like or dislike?

More D400 Rumors

D400An article on Nasim Mansurov’s blog has freshened hopes for a D400 to replace the aging D300s.  Most interestingly, it is the first time I’ve seen something that aligns with my thoughts on why Nikon hasn’t announced it yet.  Net: It was disrupted by all the events in Asia (the tsunami in Japan and especially the floods in Thailand where the is a big DX focus for Nikon).  Plans for a release were allegedly pulled a second time to update the design – once the delay got beyond a certain point, the design was too rooted in the past.  As a guy who has worked in the tech industry in product management, these things ring true to me – time will tell.

A completely new, faster and more capable autofocus system caught my eye in the article.  Of course the camera (if announced) would also have pro-handling features like AF-ON, 10-pin connector and a deep buffer.

Announcement was rumored for September, which might or might not be true.  I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see Nikon wait for 2014 CES to announce it along with the D4s also mentioned in the article (which is also just a rumor).

In the meantime, I’ve really been enjoying my D300s.  The announcement of the D7100 caused me to think about whether that camera would be worth it.  I personally love the handling of the D300s, and have no desire to go the other direction.  Presumably the D400 will closely follow the D800 handling, which prioritized some video features over still photography features in the handling.  I’ve heard mixed reviews, and ultimately I’ll have to see for myself.  I really like how the D300s handles, and I don’t use DSLR video at all.  Handling is personal – what is fine for one person isn’t fine for another, and I’m especially finicky.

I’m looking forward to seeing what gets announced!  In the meantime, I’m out shooting with the terrific camera I already have!

Really Right Stuff LC-A12 Collar Review (Nikon 70-200 f/4)

rrsf4collar-2One of my few complaints about Nikon’s new 70-200 f/4 was the lack of an integrated foot for mounting on a tripod. A lens of this length and weight is going to have best stability when mounted on a foot, and while Nikon is probably assuming most of these lenses will be in walk-around mode mounted to a D600 or D800, I really wanted a collar.

There are three main options: Nikon RT-1 ($170), Kirk ($160) and the Really Right Stuff LC-A12 ($195).  I rejected the Nikon collar because it doesn’t have the Arca-Swiss dovetail on the base.  Kirk does, of course, but the foot has to be removed with screws and has less flexibility than the RRS.  It has a lens support on the end I feel is unnecessary.  So I ordered the RRS LC-A12 package.

After a bit of a wait, I finally got it.  After having a chance to play with it a bit, here are my thoughts:     (you can also see my video review here on YouTube):

Features

  • Removable Foot Design:  Excellent for minimizing space consumed in your bag
  • Rotation Markings:  On the top and both sides (though Nikon doesn’t make good use of them – detailed below)
  • Dual-Dovetail:  The foot allows use of the very slick (but pricey) flash bracket (better explained in the video)
  • Hole in Collar Mount:  Allows mounting to a tripod or strap if you don’t have the foot
  • Slip-stop:  Helps ensure your lens doesn’t slide off your ball head when you loosen the clamp.  Handy.

Handling

Handling is very good, as you’d expect from RRS though surprisingly I did have a couple of concerns.

The Good

  • Removable foot:  Allows you to save space and weight in your bag when you don’t need the foot.  I toss the foot in a side pocket if I think I’ll need it.  Otherwise, the collar stays attached without the foot.
  • Dual Dove-tail:  Enables you to use RRS’s very cool (if pricey) line of flash brackets.  If you don’t have an RRS foot, you’ll have to attach a heavy bar on the bottom of your L-bracket, which is heavy and complicates switching between tripod and hand-held.  The spacing on the ring to the lens is less optimal, too…
  • Easy to remove:  True of both the foot and the collar itself.

The Not-so-good

  • Knob:  The big silver knob used to adjust tension is…well, big.  I really wish it could be smaller.   Mine also squeaks a bit when tightened (I’ll be calling RRS about that as their manual specifically says not to lubricate the parts)
  • Rotation:  Not as smooth as my 80-200 f/2.8 (which had an integrated, non-removable  collar).  It feels a little dry.  I’m not sure if that is the lens or the collar.
  • 90° Markings:  The RRS collar has great markings.  Unfortunately the Nikon lens only has one, so when you go to portrait mode you have to look a the side of the lens.  My 80-200 had markings that allowed me to look at the top of the lens to match up.

Build

What do you expect of RRS?  The thing is extremely solid and has all the hallmarks or RRS design. Entirely made in the USA, it matches colors of the lens perfectly.  Other than the squeaky knob, I’ve got no complaints or worries here at all.

Value

Value is subjective.  You can save $30-$40 with the Kirk or Nikon collar setups, and I have no doubts about their quality.  The extra money gets you a more flexible setup, and the removable foot in particular is a big plus for me.  Yes, you can find far, far less expensive ones on eBay, but remember the value of the lens and camera that depend on the collar to avoid a nasty fall.  A poor place to economize.  I’ve also heard reports that there is a little slop in some of those cheapie collars, which defeats the purpose.

Photos

LC-A12 Collar and LCF-10 Foot.

LC-A12 Collar and LCF-10 Foot.

rrsf4collar-9 rrsf4collar-12rrsf4collar-5rrsf4collar-3

The single alignment dot offered by the f4

The single alignment dot offered by the f4

Front View

Front View

rrsf4collar-7

LC-A12 foot with an RRS flash bracket mounted. Very cool.

rrsf4collar-8 rrsf4collar-13

rrsf4collar-1

A mounting hole is available for tripods or straps even if the foot isn’t connected.

Summary

I’m a fan of RRS.  I can’t say I find the “dry” rotation or the squeaky knob were expected, but I still think this collar/foot combination is worth having.  I wish they didn’t cost as much as they do, but for $30 more than the Nikon offering, I think RRS is an easy choice.  If I didn’t care about the removable foot, I’d still but the Kirk over the Nikon collar.

What do you think?  Anyone have the Nikon, Kirk or one of the knock-offs?  Please comment with any experiences or thoughts.  Thanks for stopping by!

Waiting…for nothing? D400 thoughts

D400The search term “D400″ still brings a lot of people to this site.  This puzzles me since I haven’t written a lot about it, especially recently.  I see a lot of (sometimes chippy) dialogue about it on the various forums – did Nikon intend to merge the prosumer (D7000) and semi-pro (D300s) with the D7100?  Is there a market for a D400?  How should it be priced?  What features would it have?  Would a D800 in DX mode be an acceptable substitute?  (as a note, I use the term “semi-pro” as a reference to the build of the camera – full magnesium frame, non-integrated grip, pro-style handling and controls and top-class autofocus.  I don’t mean it as a reference to whether it is used to earn money.  I’d call it a “pro” body, but folks in the industry seem to equate that to a body like the D3/D4 or Canon 1Dx, which have integrated grips)

The price point and features of the D7100 make me think there is still an unfilled slot in the product line, and one Canon hasn’t abandoned (though it will be interesting to see if there is a C7D MkII…).

Thom Hogan and Nasim Mansurov among many others have speculated a bit on the features (Mansurov’s poll was pretty interesting, too).  I think the core elements are:

  • Same 51-point autofocus as the D7100 (CAM 3500DX)
  • Big buffer for the sports and wildlife shooters that love the DX platform
  • 7-9 frames per second (also mainly for the sports/wildlife folks)
  • Same build/controls as the D800 (including the AF ON button so important to the crew above)
  • $1799 price

People who argue that the price is too close to the D600 (at $2099, $1999 street) are missing the point – the D600 has literally none of the features above, and isn’t a suitable camera for the core D300s/semi-pro DX shooters.  Whether there are enough of them out there for Nikon is open for debate.  There are lots of opinions on the internet, but precious little data about volumes.  The D800 is over $1000 more than than we’re talking about and still doesn’t match the 7 to 8 frames per second (FPS) shooting speed of the D300s (the D800 only shoots 5 FPS in DX mode or 6 FPS with a grip attached).

Personally, I think the D400 was impacted by the tsunami disaster in Japan – I believe Nikon had to make a choice about what they could get out the door with limited resources and chose the D800 and D4.  Re-slotting a product isn’t easy – technology development isn’t a flexible process.

So the question is whether they killed the entire product, merged it or it is still in the pipeline, presumably this year or early next.  Personally, I’d love to see Nikon take this opportunity to do something really next-generation and deliver it by or before CES 2014 (which is in January).

Time will tell, and in the meantime, Nikon isn’t saying much.  That might be the biggest clue something is coming…