After The Switch

Handheld.  Nikon D810/ISO 6400/200-500VR/f6.3/500mm/1-800sec.

I’ve used many different cameras and lenses over the years. My theory was “the right tool for the job”, meaning I really wasn’t interested in the brand I was using but more interested in how well that gear performed for the type of work I was doing.

The first “real camera” I ever purchased was the Canon AE-1 in the late 70’s.  The AE-1 is the camera that convinced me about the brand. It was the first mainstream 35mm SLR that had a microprocessor. It was solid and a reliable body with technical innovation and I never forgot my experience using it. Alas, it vanished in 1981 during my discharge from the Navy while having my household goods shipped back to the states from Cuba. I never replaced it.

In the 90’s, I had a Nikon F100 film body and it was a good camera but I knew at the time Canon made nice cameras. I never considered other brands. I sold the F100 and purchased a Canon EOS-3 and that was my personal hobby camera for several years. Being a still somewhat young engineer, the technical aspects of the EOS-3 intrigued me. The eye control focus was a point of major interest to my technical mind.

As I approached my retirement from The Wall Street Journal, I decided that digital photography was the future and I had better get up to speed on things before I jumped in up to my neck. I went through a series of DSLR’s over a period of a few years, just to understand where the market was and where the state of the art was.

My first DSLR was a Canon EOS 350-D/Rebel XT, a consumer grade camera with an 8 megapixel crop sensor and I was quite pleased with how well it worked. I did realize though that the 350D was not going to cut it for professional work, it was too basic and too limiting.

When I retired from The Wall Street Journal in early 2007, I started my own photography business and decided that the best gear for me at the time was Canon. I invested heavily in what I believed to be the “best tools for the job.” The job then, was primarily wedding and event photography along with some corporate portrait work.

In the day I was eventually shooting with the Canon EOS 1Ds MKII and a Canon EOS 5D. I had also added a Canon EOS 30D to the kit as a replacement to the 350D and later a 50D. Along with the Canon bodies, I used a Canon 24-105mm L, 70-200mm L and the 100-400mm L, along side a 20mm, 50mm and 85mm primes. I also had the kit lenses from the day, the 18-55mm and the 28-90mm from the film days with the EOS-3.

I still wanted to know more about Nikon and when the Nikon D300 hit the market, I purchased a kit that included the 18-200 VR along with a few prime lenses. I quickly fell in love with the camera and used it for several years as my main hobby, travel and home camera.  The predominant issue at the time was that I was more invested in Canon lenses, so I knew that I’d never be a full blown Nikon shooter at the professional level. I loved the Nikon D300 and kept it for several years but had invested far more money in Canon equipment by decision time. Still, I used the Nikon from time to time in my business but mostly it was relegated to a role as a personal hobby camera.

Life was good.

Fast forward a few years, sometime around 2010, I dumped the Nikon D300 and the Canon 30D and I relied on the 1Ds MK II as my primary business tool. A very sturdy and reliable camera it was. At 16.7 megapixels on a full frame sensor, it was the pinnacle of the DSLR technology at the time but was getting long in the tooth as well. The 1Ds MK III was released but I couldn’t see spending another $7,000 on a camera that was marginally better than what I had. By this time, I was beginning to explore nature and wildlife photography and was using my Canon EOS 5D as my primary camera for landscape work.

Fast forward a few years to around 2014 and I had a working kit consisting of the Canon EOS 7D for wildlife, a Canon EOS 6D for landscapes and studio work and was still hanging on to the now ancient EOS 1Ds MKII. By this time the market realities had shifted. Nikon was now in peak form with their camera bodies after releasing the D800, D810 and the D750 and my Canon gear was beginning to fall behind the curve technically speaking. Add to the equation the heavy use I had inflicted on my gear, the realization that my gear needed to be updated slowly filtered in to my brain.  Having a strong foundation in technical performance, I was now itching to update my Canon gear. Business finances being what they are, I’ve never been one to run out and buy something because it is new. I had been shooting with the 1 body and the 7D for many years and most of my business income was derived from those Canon cameras. My Canon lenses were beginning to show their age as well. I had to repair the 24-105 L at one point and my 100-400mm L had been sent in for repairs twice over the years, for the same exact problem. Gear malfunctions were occurring on the job. The repair costs were approaching the original purchase price of the lenses. The release of the new versions  of all my main lenses made me realize that I was going to have to sell off some gear and get new stuff.

I increasingly looked at Nikon as being the better choice for the future. Canon seemed to stop progressing somewhere around 2014. Their new bodies were minor upgrades to existing equipment and the technical performance wasn’t keeping up with Nikon by this time.

The precipitating event that convinced me to switch brands came when I was out working one day and took a spill, falling down into some serious rocks with my camera and lens in my hand to break the fall. Well, break things it did. I destroyed the 24-105mm L. I also destroyed my wrist and seriously bruised my ribs. I was laid up for a few months and had to stare at my broken arm and broken lens while I contemplated my future as a photographer.

Contemplate I did and I made the decision to not replace the busted lens, instead making the decision to jump to Nikon.  I sold off all my Canon gear and used the money from those sales to finance a new kit of Nikon bodies and lenses. I started with the Nikon D750 and picked up a used D800 along with a fresh set of lenses to meet my business needs.

Fast forward to 2018. I’ve since added a Nikon D810 and D7200 to my kit. I’ve settled on a 24-120mm VR, 70-200mm VR and the 200-500mm VR as my main lens kit, along with a 20mm and 50mm prime and a 18-140mm DX lens for the D7200. I probably didn’t lose a lot of money on the switch, I was able to replicate what I had with Canon for only a couple thousand dollars additional expenditure.

Making the switch to Nikon was a good choice though. My business photography focus (no pun intended) had shifted away from weddings and events and more towards Nature and Wildlife photography, so a lot of the lighting equipment I had accumulated for the Canon kit was no longer needed. Selling that studio stuff helped me reduce the financial impact of the switch.

Today my primary kit is based on the D810, D750 and D7200. I won’t upgrade to the D500 or the D850 any time soon. At least not until something breaks and I can pick either body up used for a bargain. There’s just no need.

The D810 is probably the best camera I’ve ever used. The D750 is probably the 2nd best body I’ve ever used. The D7200 still has the best crop sensor of any camera in its class and though it is obsolete now, it has a low shutter count and has a technical performance that matches the Canon EOS 5D Mk III.

So how is it working out? Nikon vs Canon?

What I’ve discerned is that the Nikon bodies outperform any Canon body I’ve ever used. The image quality is a cut above, even on the now long toothed D750, which Nikon still sells like hot-cakes. The auto-focus on the Canon bodies was always one of the problem points I had with Canon. The 7D had an advanced auto-focus system, but low light performance was weak. It needed good light to get consistent, reliable focus. The 6D produced very nice images, but at 20 megapixels and a crippled auto-focus system, it was simply stuck in 2014. Nikon’s 2014 bodies smoked them in just about every regard.

I like the Canon interface more than the Nikon bodies. Canon’s operational controls are intuitive and their layouts don’t seem to change a lot from camera to camera. Very easy to maintain operational continuity with Canon. But, in comparison to the Nikon bodies, I have seen a lot better results. The Nikons are giving me higher resolution, more detail, less noise, better photographic dynamic range and much fewer missed focus images. Reliability as been 100% The Canon bodies focused very fast but were all over the place. The Nikon bodies with 3D tracking were exactly what I needed for wildlife. I don’t miss shots with the Nikons. With Nikon, the focus is either dead on 99% of the time or completely lost. With Canon bodies, I’d see a lot of variation in critical sharpness using AI continuous tracking and would lose a lot more potentially critically sharp photos. The Nikon hit rate is far better.

In three years since I’ve been on Nikon bodies, I’ve probably taken over 100,000 photos. Nothing has broken, nothing has gone wrong and when I pick up a Nikon camera I’m confident that what ever I aim my camera at, I’ll get a sharp and clean image that will post process much easier than anything I ever saw with a Canon body.

So, despite the constant advice you’ll hear on the internet photography forums, switching brands is not necessarily a bad thing. The investment in glass is of course a big concern but when your lenses are failing and the bodies aren’t keeping up with the state-of-the-art, one has to make decisions that move you into the future and not just “good enough.”

I expect to use this Nikon kit as a my core for several more years. I know there are newer cameras on the market now and the lure of mirrorless is wiggling away in that watery golden sunlight, but nothing I’ve seen tells me that I’m going to do any better at what I do with anything different. Canon and Sony and Pentax and Fuji all make fine cameras, but they aren’t going to give me a better result.

The lesson I suppose is; don’t be afraid to make the switch. I did and I’m in a better place now as a result.

Your mileage may vary.

Photographing the Buffalo

Photograph of a buffalo
Buffalo at RMA National Wildlife Refuge Near Denver

I have a love/hate relationship with RMA National Wildlife Refuge.

I love the wildlife photography available there; however, I hate the fact that it’s a miserable drive to get there for me. Being on the exact opposite side of the Denver-Metro area from my home and considering the best photographic time to be there being sunrise and sunset, that means I have to drive across the congested city during rush hours. Yuck.

Once there, all is well.

The “Arsenal” has quite a bit of good quality wildlife to photograph. Mule deer, white-tail deer, coyote, prairie dogs, foxes, bunny rabbits, white pelicans, ducks, geese, great horned owls, burrowing owls, hawks, eagles, great mountain backdrops, lakes, ponds, woods. Who could ask for more in the way of a one stop nature photography location?

It’s easy to get into a photographic rut at the Arsenal though. A common refrain is “who needs more photos of deer and sticks?”

My approach has morphed over the years. I tend to concentrate on getting good stock photos there, based on what sells well. One of my more popular wildlife subjects on the stock agencies are the buffalo. I still call them buffalo too, because that’s what they were called by the people who were here before us.

Buffalo are not as easy to photograph as you might imagine. Yeah, they are large and often times fairly close to you, but they aren’t the most dynamic animal and their behavior isn’t always that exciting. But, they are an American Icon and like bald eagles, they represent our heritage, so you can bet on a good buffalo shot making a little cash.

The biggest challenge I’ve faced getting good, sharp images of these critters is due to the fact that buffalo fur plays havoc with the camera’s auto-focus system. That thick, wiry, low contrast fuzziness of buffalo fur drives a camera’s auto-focus crazy and my hit rate for critically sharp images of buffalo is measurablly lower than it is for other large ungulates as a result.

Here’s an animal that I can honestly say I do better with using Nikon cameras than I ever did with Canon bodies. Canon’s auto-focus tends to be a little more unreliable in this situation.

When I switched to Nikon from Canon a few years ago, I immediately tried using the same focus techniques on the Nikon bodies that I had used on the Canon bodies. Single or small group spot focusing, focus and recompose. I wasn’t really seeing any improvement at first but then I discovered the 3D tracking mode on the Nikon cameras and it opened up a whole new range of improvement in my results.

I’ve always been aware of 3D tracking, but my experience with it was nil at first, so I shied away from using it thinking it was a gimmick or something. My habits were stuck in Canon mode.

In a nutshell, he’s how it works for me.

Those high precision cross-sensors in the camera are what you want to be using. The 3D tracking on the Nikon bodies allows you to point that high precision point at the part of the animal you want to be critically sharp and it will track that point with good reliability. With wildlife, that would be the eyes of the animal in most cases. Using 3D tracking, I can put that little focus square on the eyes of the buffalo and then follow the critter as it moves using continuous focus mode and simultaneously frame the image for a suitable composition without having to do much more than keep an eye on what that sensor square is doing in the viewfinder. The focus point I set tracks the point on the animal as the composition changes. So long as that point is tracking in the viewfinder, and this is what you have to pay attention to, I have a critically sharp image based on that focus point. That tracking point can wiggle a little, and sometimes it drops off to something else. The trick is to watch for it losing the spot and quickly re-establishing that focus point. If the focus point moves off into the fur, you can bet that there’s a better likelihood of that image not being critically sharp. Canon doesn’t give you this, it’s much more operator intensive. Yeah, the precision is there, but it’s much easier to lose that critical sharpness because Canon bodies don’t track that well in 3 dimensions while the camera and subject are moving.

I’ve been using 3D tracking for almost all the large animals I photograph now and it’s been giving me excellent results.

What I also discovered over the past few years teaching workshops is that most Nikon users aren’t aware of the benefit of 3D tracking. Most I’ve encountered haven’t even tried it, so I try to enlighten them on the functionality and improved results I see from using it. If you’re a wildlife photographer shooting Nikon, I strongly suggest you give 3D tracking a go. It’s not for everything though. It’s not as effective with flying birds and other smaller moving critters, but for deer, elk, bighorn, buffalo and other large moving objects such as automobiles and trains, it will improve your auto-focus hit rate.

And improving your in focus hit rate is improving your profit.

This Year’s Moose Photography Kit

Moose photography by Gary Gray
Moose in Red Feather Lakes

I spent my day assembling my camera gear for the start of moose photography season. Here’s what I’ll be shooting with this summer.

Nikon D810 Full frame DSLR

Nikon D750 Full frame DSLR

Nikon D7200 Crop body DSLR (my teleconverter)

Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 VR

Nikkor 70-200mm f/4 VR

Nikkor 24-120mm f/4 VR

Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 prime

Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 prime

External flash, spare memory chips, adapters, laptop, cleaning kits, flashlight, tools and other misc stuff to fill the pockets in the pack. The whole thing weighs less than 40 lbs.

I’ve retired the Nikon D800 this year.

This three body, five lens kit will get it done. All in one pack with room to spare. None of this gear costs a fortune and the image quality will be excellent.

I’ll probably start with the 200-500mm on the D810. I’m not inclined to upgrade it to the D850 yet and the fact that it’s still on back-order some 6 months after being released sorta sealed the deal for this year. I’ll wait a couple of years and pick one up used at a much cheaper price.

Why no D500?

Don’t need it. The image quality of the D7200 is superior and 10 frames per second isn’t needed for large ungulates. I won’t be upgrading the D7200 for a D7500 either as the D7200 has the best image quality of any crop sensor body ever made and specs out roughly identical to the full frame Canon EOS 5D Mk III.

I’ve never been someone who rushes out to buy the latest greatest camera. I shot with the Canon EOS 1Ds MK II for 8 years. My Canon 7D fired over 100,000 shots and is still to this day the camera that has made me the most money with wildlife photography. So all these latest/greatest bodies are very nice, but the truth is, you can pick up most of what’s in my kit used and save a fortune

Your mileage may vary.

 

Vintage Lenses

Landscape Photography by Gary Gray
Merrimac and Monitor Butte Near Moab, Utah

I’ve been playing with a vintage Nikon lens on the D810.

The Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8 D

An older lens built in the day for use on their film bodies, this lens can be found dirt cheap on eBay for between $200-300. 20 years ago, this was a professional grade lens and it was commonly used by photojournalists. Production ran from December 1987 through 1992.

Today, it’s been relegated to the odd collectors item.

You can read more about this lens here.

Today’s photo was taken with this lens using a Nikon D800.

The quality holds up too.

I’ve been contemplating selling it, but for what it costs I’m not sure I want to let it go.

Nikon Firmware Updates

I frequently check Thom Hogan’s web site for news about Nikon cameras. He does a pretty good job of keeping Nikon owners abreast of what’s happening.

Thom’s Article on Nikon Updates (D800, 810, D7100, D7200, others)

Nikon has firmware updates available for some of the older cameras to make them compatible with the AF-P lenses. Thom’s site explains the problems and fixes.