Super Bikes Championship, Assen

in Shooting reports, Sport, Travel by on May 3rd, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I was given the opportunity to visit the Super Bikes Championship at the Assen TT Circuit in Holland, as part of a corporate sponsorship package we had purchased. Of course I was more than happy to go along, as long as I was able to take my gear with me 🙂

Although I pleaded with the organisers to get me a place in the press pit, it appears our Gold Club sponsorship didn’t quite give us that many privileges, so I ended up shooting from one of the tribunes. I was lucky to be able to get a seat on the second row just near the final bend, so, although I was a bit higher than I would have liked, I was able to capture the action as the riders were leaning over to take the bend.

I decided to travel to the venue fairly ‘lightly’ so ended up just taking my D3 along with 300mm f/2.8G VR, TC-14e, a 24-70mm f/2.8G for general shots, and my Gitzo monopod. As it turned out, I needed to use the teleconverter with the 300mm, but then it was just the right focal length to get frame filling bikes, after a slight crop in post processing. (I find with this sort of photography it is always best to be slightly wider, and crop later, rather than fill the frame in camera and risk chopping the nose or the tail of the bike).

The weather was great on the day of the race, but unfortunately this meant I was left shooting at relatively high shutter speeds, since I wanted to keep my aperture fairly wide. This meant that I wasn’t able to blur the movement of the wheels to introduce the sensation of speed, and I had to avoid taking too many shots where the bike just looked stationary on the track. Luckily from my vantage point I was able to get shots of the riders leaning into (and out of) the curve, so at least the spokes of the wheels weren’t visible.

Panning the action was not so easy from the height I was sitting in the stand, so I was glad I could use the monopod for some support, and I finished the day with a number of shots I was happy with. Getting press credentials for these sort of events is next to impossible unless you are representing a media publication, but at least I now have some images that I may be able to use to blag my way in next time….

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Gear Review: Comparing the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR to the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR

in Lens Review by on December 29th, 2009

A question that comes up often on various Nikon oriented internet forums is which lens is more suitable, the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR, or the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR? Obviously this is a very loaded question, as it depends what the photographer is intending to use the lens for, but I will use this blog post to try and answer the question from my experience with these lenses, which is predominantly nature based. This is not intended to be a technical review, simply comments based upon my own experiences.

I have owned the 200-400/4VR for 3 or 4 years now, and earlier this year picked up the 300/2.8VR as well. I use both lenses on the D3, and have previously used the 200-400 and the 300 on the D200.

Of course, being a zoom, the 200-400 wins here. On DX, the effective focal range of 300-600mm means the 200-400mm is a very effective lens for using for general nature photography, and I used it with success on a number of field trips over the past couple of years. Perhaps the time I was most thankful for the lens was when I took it with me on a safari in Africa. One of the main ‘problems’ with safari photography in Africa is the amount of dust that finds its way into the camera. This is further amplified by lens changes, so the ideal solution is to have a single lens that covers all eventualities. I found the 200-400mm to be just this, and it was pretty much the only lens I needed to use when shooting out of the safari jeep:

Cobra

I also took the lens with me on a trip to photograph puffins in Scotland and Northern England, and again the 200-400 on a DX body came into its own, allowing me to shoot birds all day without switching lenses.

Bird with Sand Eels, Staple Island

The flexibility that the 300/2.8 offers is slightly different. Although hand held shooting is not too much of a problem with the 200-400, the lens does tend to get heavy after a while. The 300/2.8 is a slightly smaller and more lightweight lens, and the ergonomics mean that walking around with it in the hand or on the shoulder is comfortable, and can be used for an extended period of time, such as in the shot below where I had been tracking the deer through the woods for some time.

Roe Deer Doe<

Especially since turning to full format, I have been using my telephoto lenses more and more often with teleconverters. This is an advantage of the fixed aperture pro telephotos that do allow the use of teleconverters whilst maintaining all functionality.

However it is with teleconverters that the 300/2.8 has advantages. It is a full stop faster than the 200-400, which means that the light loss caused by the tc-14e and 17e still leaves the photographer with a usable combination – either a 420/4 or a 510/4.8. This should really be compared to the 200-400 together with the 1.4, which, at the top end, becomes a 560/5.6.

With the tc-14e:

Both lenses work fine with this tc, but the focus on the 200-400 does seem to suffer slightly in terms of speed, especially in duller light. In good light the image quality on the 200-400 is fine, but in slightly worse light, the 300mm with tc leaves the 200-400 behind. The following shot was taken with the 300mm on a D200 with the tc-14e, in early morning, overcast light:

High Fives anyone?

With the tc-17e:

The 200-400 works, but has occasional AF problems, and can not be trusted in low light. The 300/2.8 works fine, and AF is still spot on. Image quality wise, the 300 beats the 200-400 here.

Handling:

Both lenses offer the build quality and usability of every Nikon pro lens. Most switches (for example focus limiters AF on/off) are in the same place on each lens. One notable difference between the two is that with the 300/2.8 the VR is turned on using a ring, whereas the VR on the 200-400 is activated by a switch alongside the other switches. From experience this is a lot harder to see, and a lot easier to knock on and off without noticing.

Image quality:

Both lenses are capable of excellent quality images, both with and without teleconverters. However I have always had a bit of a love hate relationship with the 200-400. I sometimes get the feeling that it really is a good weather lens – if the light is a bit grey and dreary, the 200-400 will amplify that and I will come away with unsatisfying images. The 300/2.8 on the other hand never fails to impress me. Even in lower light, I can still get spot on focus, and sharp contrasty images, such as the following image taken from a boat.

Sea Eagle

Conclusion:

To be honest, if I had to sell one of the two lenses, I would keep the 300/2.8, and sell the 200-400. Although the 300 isn’t a zoom, what it lacks in flexibility, it makes up for in speed and image quality, and with the teleconverters it is almost as flexible. Especially when paired with the 600/4, it provides the wildlife photographer with an excellent tool set. But remember, both are pro quality lenses, and I am just picking faults. Either lens is capable of top images.

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Trip Report: Feldberger Seenlandschaft, East Germany

in Wildlife Trip Reports by on August 10th, 2009

This blog is long overdue, but back in May I made a trip to Feldberger Seenlandschaft in East Germany with Patrick and Tom. We had found out about a Ranger living in former East Germany near the Polish border who has built a network of hides in various fields around Feldberger, and offers these out to photographers in the hope that they might go away with some satisfying images.

The plan was fairly simple, we would make the 8+ hour drive on the Wednesday, spend Thursday to Sunday in hides, and then drive back again on the Monday. Fred Bollmann would look after us during our stay, and be at our call to take us to and from various hides. We would stay at the Mecklenburger Hof, a small and basic hotel with friendly service and good prices, and they would feed us three meals a day, including packed lunch and breakfast.

On the evening of arrival Fred was very keen to explain all the possibilities he could offer. He told us that various hides would not be worth visiting at that time of the year, but in addition to the hides he could also offer us the possibility to go out on his boat and attempt to photograph a local Sea Eagle.

Of course, as with all nature photography, it is always the luck of the draw as to what you will see when you sit in a hide for any length of time, and I can attest to that, after spending 12 hours in a hide on two occassions, from 7 in the morning to 7 in the evening, without seeing a single bird!

The hides themselves are well constructed, and have all the facilities you need in a modern hide (basically a window, a chair, and a bucket to relieve yourself in). Some of the hides are large enough for three people (which is an advantage when you have to sit there for 12 hours) whereas others are made for two people or even just one.

Buzzard

So in fact, out of three hide sessions we only had luck on one occassion, in a small hide where we witnessed a pair of buzzards eating a dead deer (Fred is well known in the community and receives all the local roadkill for his freezer). The buzzards landed fairly close to eat from the strategically placed deer, and in spite of our presence wearily pecked away at the corpse. The photos here were taken with the 600mm f/4G VR Nikkor on the Nikon D3

Buzzard

The highlight of the trip though was witnessing the Sea Eagle swooping in and picking up various fish from the lake near our boat. In the interests of full disclosure, the fish that were caught were thrown into the water by Fred, so we knew approximately where the eagle would be coming to, but nevertheless it was an impressive spectacle to see. The birds really do have ‘eagle eyes’, as he was able to see the fish landing in the water from a good 500 meters away, and slowly swooped and circled before catching his prey.

Sea Eagle

Sea Eagle

Sea Eagle

Sea Eagle

Sea Eagle

Sea Eagle

I took the above shots using the D3, with the 300mm f/2.8G VR lens attached. I used aperture priority to fix the aperture to f/5.6, and used the auto-iso feature to ensure the shutter speed stayed above 1/500s so to freeze the motion. Of course the lens was in the continuous AF mode. The high shutter rate of the D3 paid for itself here, capturing all of the above images in less than a second.

So although we didn’t see all the birds that we had intended, it was still a successful trip – it’s not every day you get to see a sea eagle capturing fish from the water. However in hindsight we were there at the wrong time of the year – in the spring there is plenty of prey for birds of prey to capture, and Fred’s hides are much more densely visited when food is in short supply, for example in the winter months when there is snow on the ground.

Definitely a location I would recommend to other photographers looking for birds of prey images!

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