THE BEST LENS OR CAMERA?


Black-winged Damselfly

The answer is always the same. It’s the one you may have with you when the light is right and a subject of interest is present. I like the walks in the evening with our dog Cooper and try to go to different places every time. Today we went down into the valley below our bluffs. There is an abandoned gravel road, perfect for a quite walk, nature observations, or just to calm down after a busy day. I don’t have to take the dog on the leash since there is no traffic, and Cooper waits patiently if I stop and fiddle away with the camera.

The Nikon Nikkor 70-200, f/4 was not the perfect match for a shot of this Black-winged Damselfly but it was the lens I took with me for our walk. A real macro lens, like my SIGMA 150, f/2.8, works much better, not just because of its true 1:1 magnification, but also because of its shorter minimum focal distance (MFD). Well, not exact macro quality, but I like the light, the shadow of the insect, and overall a damselfly is just a beautiful insect...

GEAR TALK: UPDATED GEAR LIST


I have quietly updated my gear list here on the website during the last few days.

WHAT’S IN THE CAMERA BAG?

I didn’t buy a lot of new gear lately but added some items that were previously missing. I do not like to rave about a new tool in the camera bag or write a negative statement until I have used a piece of photography gear for some time and can voice my opinion with facts that evolved from time spent behind the camera or from actively using the equipment. My gear list is here to help other photographers to find the right tools for their own photography and is not influenced and sponsored by any of the brands I mention. Feel free to check it out!

GEAR TALK: MINDSHIFT MOOSE PETERSON BACKPACK SERIES / MP-3 V.2


I haven’t done a “Gear Talk” since a while and today I like to give you some thoughts about a piece of equipment that is in my possession since August 2016 and has been tested and used in many situations and all kinds of weather. The Moose Peterson backpack MP-3 V.2 is made by MindShift Gear ® and I want to tell you upfront, there is nothing about this great backpack what I dislike. This water resistant pack is well made and is mainly designed for wildlife and outdoor photographers. After 18 months of using it I can tell that MindShift’s partnership with renowned wildlife photographer Moose Peterson has led to a product that provides excellent protection for the gear from water, snow, dust, sand, and physical impact. Here are the features that I really like:

  • 3 compartments with easy and quick access. The big one holds the Sigma 150-600 with camera attached. All the gear you see in the photo above will fit into the MP-3 V.2 backpack.
  • Auto-close compartment flaps (“Moose Ears”) protect the interior from water, dust, and snow even if the zippers are not closed.
  • Handles on top and on the side.
  • Harness system that can be tucked-away, very practical while traveling by airplane or car.
  • Removable waist belt for shoulder relief during a longer hiking tour.
  • Rain cover included.
  • Large, robust zippers that can be opened and closed with gloves on.
  • Interior divider system allows for many configurations and that can fit a lot of different workflow styles.
  • Top pocket with zipper for easy access to memory cards, business cards, etc.
  • Stretchable pocket for water bottle on the side.
  • Mounting system for tripod.

Moose Peterson MP-3 V.2 fits in the overhead compartment of a regional jet

The Moose Peterson backpack MP-3 V.2 is sized for carry-on luggage and as you can see it fits even in the overhead compartment of a small regional jet, like the Embraer ERJ-145. The fabric and material is very robust and takes a lot of abuse. After using mine during the last year and a half it still looks like new, although it has been in contact with rain, mud, dust, and snow many times. Nevertheless, cleaning is mandatory after a “dirty shoot”, at least for me.

There are two other versions of this backpack available from MindShift Gear ®. The slightly longer MP-1 V.2 holds the camera with an 800 mm lens attached in the big compartment. The shorter MP-7 V.2 is long enough for a camera body with a big 200 mm lens.

Padded shoulder straps that can be tucked-away (great when going through security at the airport)

Verdict:

After going through two different cheaper packs over the years I found finally a backpack that I really love and that hasn’t disappointed a single time during heavy use in all kinds of weather. I can recommend the MP-3 V.2 for everybody who moves around in the great outdoors and wants quick access to camera gear and accessories and for everybody who needs to travel by airplane or car and wants upmost protection for their gear in extreme weather situations and harsh environments.

If my little article has triggered your interest you can find more technical details and pricing HERE.

GEAR TALK: FIRMWARE UPDATE AND LENS OPTIMIZATION


White-breasted Nuthatch, Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM S ———

I made an overdue update of the firmware for the SIGMA 150-600 Sports lens today. Thanks to the USB dock and optimization software from SIGMA I can customize the lens to my shooting preferences and create two presets for autofocus and optical stabilization (aka vibration reduction), or even correct the focal point if necessary (although I never had to correct the focal point yet). This sounds complicated but is very easy to do. After the presets are created on your computer screen and transmitted to the lens you can choose either customized setting by just flipping a switch on the lens barrel or you can leave it off. For example, I can switch from a more dynamic autofocus and optical lens stabilization that I use quite often during bird photography, where fast movements of the subject are most likely, to a smoother focus and stabilization behavior with slightly better accuracy.

In order to test my new presets I just stepped outside and looked for a bird. The White-breasted Nuthatches are permanent residents here all year long, they are just fun to watch, and seem to be the perfect subject for such a test. It looks like the nuthatch was sitting on this branch forever but this was just a couple seconds that the bird remained in this pose. Their movements are usually fast and erratic, and it is a challenge to get them in focus while handholding the camera with the relatively heavy SIGMA 150-600 Sports lens attached. I liked the focus behavior of the lens before, but after reviewing the first few images, made with new firmware and refined custom settings, I could already tell that the focus speed and accuracy, as well as image stabilization were even better. Don’t take me wrong, I still believe that proper hand holding and constant practice with such a heavy lens are the basics for a sharp image, but it is nice to have confidence about the technical side of the gear. If my photos are out of focus I can only blame the pilot…

SOME STILL LOOK GOOD


We had a mild and lovely evening today and I was glad to have the camera with me during a walk with the dog down on the Heritage Trail in the Little Maquoketa River Valley. Most wildflowers have passed their prime around here as we are approaching fall but some still look good for a picture if the light hits them just right.

I’m testing a new polarizing filter (see info below) in anticipation of our vacation in October, which will hopefully lead to some good autumn photos. The B+W replaces an older 77mm Promaster filter that I never embraced 100% in regards of image quality and design. I have good experience with the 58mm B+W that I use since many years on the Carl Zeiss Distagon T*, 35mm / f2 ZF lens and I hope the 77 mm delivers the same good results.

Nikon D750, Nikkor 16-35mm / f4, B+W F-PRO Kaesemann High Transmission Circular Polarizer MRC filter,  @ 22mm, 1/250s, f/4, ISO100

GEAR TALK: MAGMOD MAGBEAM WILDLIFE KIT


MAGMOD MagBeam Fresnel flash extender -------

Well, I haven’t done any gear talk in a long time and after over ten weeks of testing I’m ready to write a little blog post about a new piece that made it into my photo bag. The MAGMOD MagBeam Wildlife Kit is a fresnel flash extender that has replaced the good old ‘Better Beamer’. Technically it works the same way, a fresnel lens collimates the light from the speedlight and extends the capabilities of the flash light by 2-3 extra stops. This is a big deal for my wildlife photography and I use the MagBeam usually with the long lens, the Sigma 150-600. There are two reasons to use the flash extender. First it allows to increase the depth of field, especially under low light conditions, but more important for me is to improve the quality of light for bird photography. Flash fill makes a big difference for the colors.

Now retired: Better Beamer flash extender

So why did I give up the old Better Beamer for the new MagBeam? Mounting the Better Beamer to the SB 800 speedlight has been always an awkward procedure, especially if someone is in a hurry. The flimsy plastic parts are held together with velcro and if you don’t secure the Better Beamer with gaffers tape, there is always a chance that the whole unit falls off while moving around. The MagBeam has a rubber part that fits tightly over the speedlight, called the MagGrip. It has a couple strong permanent magnets embedded that hold the actual flash modifier with the fresnel lens. When you need the MagBeam in the field, you just snap the modifier onto the MagGrip and start shooting. This is a big plus in my books and one of the main reasons why I like the MAGMOD MagBeam a lot. The modifier is made out of rubber and is collapsable for smaller packing.

Mourning Dove, photo made with MAGMOD MagBeam flash extender

In direct comparison of both flash extenders I would say the MagBeam delivers a slightly softer light, and this is a good thing. This may have to do with its oval shape, but I’m not sure. The only downside I can see so far is the little heavier weight of the new tool over the old Better Beamer. This is not a problem for me. The faster mounting time and softer flash fill outweigh the extra weight and the MAGMOD MagBeam will definitely stay in my photo bag.

SIGMA 150-600MM SP, MORE THOUGHTS AFTER THREE MONTHS OF FIELD TESTING


Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports Lens

Coming back from two weekend trips with filled memory cards in the camera and trying to make up the mind what photos to show is probably a good problem to have. This happens always in spring, when wildlife is migrating back north or getting ready to raise their offspring here in eastern Iowa. This pair of Trumpeter Swans rested together with some Canada Geese at a small puddle near the village of Green Island, Iowa. It was still there when I left the wetlands, hours later in the afternoon, and in much better light than during the late morning.

I promised you in December 2015 to write a little more about my experience with the Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports Lens, after I had some more field testing done. So, here are a few thoughts. The lens does a wonderful job delivering sharp images even with wide open aperture (f/6.3 at 600 mm). This was not necessarily the case with the old Sigma 50-500, which had to be set to f/8 at 500 mm for best results. I shot the Trumpeter Swans with f/6.3 and f/8 and like the sharpness equally. This is very important to know because it allows to shoot faster shutter speeds in many situations. The background is much better blurred at f/6.3, which helps to make the subject of the picture stand out from its surroundings. The corn field behind the swans is actually a pretty busy background, but smoothing it as much as possible improves the quality of the image, at least in my books… If the critter is moving and I need to pan with the lens, I usually shoot with f/8. The small increase in depth of field may help to get a sharp shot at all and the background is usually blurred anyway. Sure, a lens with f/4 or f/2.8 may deliver a better background but for most amateur photographers, like me, this is cost prohibitive…😉

TWO NEW THINGS


A few days ago I told you I was working on a new piece of photography gear and that I was in the process of testing it. So here it is, a flash bracket that mounts to the food of a long lens and elevates the speed light above the lens barrel. It allows to turn the camera quickly by 90 degree with the flash still remaining above the lens. Yes, there are tons of flash brackets out there. Some are very flimsy and some of the better ones are very expensive. I enjoy building stuff out of wood or metal and designing and building this piece of gear was a fun little “winter project”.

There is another addition I like to introduce today and you can find it right here on my website. Since a long time I wanted to add a gear page to this website and if you click on the link in the side bar of this blog, it will direct you right to it. Please feel free to check it out!

SIGMA 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM SPORTS LENS, FIRST IMPRESSIONS


Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports Lens, tripod, gimbal head, SB 800 speed light

The Weihnachtsmann was very nice this year and placed a new lens under the Christmas tree. The Sigma 150-600 mm / f5-6.3 DG HSM OS Sports lens will replace my “workhorse”, the Sigma 50-500 mm / f4-6.3 APO DG HSM. It has served me very well during the last six years and it was a perfect match for the Nikon D200, and later the Nikon D300s cameras. Its optics are very good and if focus can be obtained, it always delivered sharp images.

Nikon D750, Sigma 150-600mm / f5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports Lens, tripod, gimbal head, SB 800 speed light

So what were the reasons to buy the new lens? The additional 100 mm focal length are a big one. On the D300s the 500 mm maximum focal length delivered the angle of view of a 750 mm lens. After changing to a full frame FX sensor, with the Nikon D750 camera, well, 500 mm are just 500 mm. This can make a big difference in wildlife photography. In a critical situation, when it might be impossible to get closer to the subject, changing the camera settings to “quick crop mode” will provide the equivalent of a 900 mm lens. This can make the difference between coming home with “the shot” or nothing.

You have not seen many of my photos here in the blog when I wasn’t able to obtain focus because of shutter speed was too slow, but there were more than you may think. Optical stabilization (OS) will hopefully help me to have more keepers on the memory card after a shooting session. This was another big reason for getting the new Sigma lens.

The old lens isn’t splash and dust proof and as you know, it isn’t always easy to keep water and dirt away in the field. The new one has a weatherproof construction. Big deal for me.

The snow storm that just came through here didn’t leave me much time to do a lot of testing with the new lens yet, but I show you a couple photos and here are my first impressions.

  1. The Sigma 150-600 Sports lens is very well built and has a really nice design. Nothing looks and feels cheap and the lens gives you a professional feeling with its ergonomic features (more about this probably in a later blog post).
  2. It is able to deliver sharp, very sharp images!
  3. I love the bokeh. OMG, much better than with the old lens.
  4. The darn thing is heavy, and I mean heavy. The old 50-500 was called the “Bigma” because of its weight but the 150-600 Sports lens brings 900 grams (2 lb.) more to the scale. I read a lot of reviews about this lens before I asked Santa Claus to bring it this Christmas. Some of the reviewers talked about sharpness by just handholding the lens. Sure, this is possible, and I will for sure handhold the lens, but posting a verdict about sharpness doesn’t seem to be the right way of making an evaluation. Bottom line, this lens needs good support (tripod) whenever possible!
  5. Price. I thought it was a little overpriced in the past. I had this lens on my wish list since it came out over a year ago, but when Sigma lowered the price by $200 and B&H threw in the USB dock for adjusting the lens via computer ($60), I felt the time was right to pull the trigger... 😊. 

I’m sure I will give those of you, who like to read more about this lens, some more thoughts as soon I can do some real field testing beyond my first backyard experience.

As always, equipment plays an important role but it is the person behind the camera that makes the photo. I still believe that…

P.S.: I have added more thoughts about this lens on April 4, 2016. Feel free to click HERE for this new post.

PRACTICE WITH PAINTED TURTLES


Nikon D750, Sigma 50-500mm / f4.5-6.3 APO DG HSM, tripod, gimbal head, DX-crop mode

A Painted Turtle is a great subject to practice wildlife shooting or to test new equipment, like I do right now with the new Nikon D750. If the turtles move, they move slowly (with one exception I will talk about in a minute), or they don’t move at all. The yellow lines on its head provide good contrast to lock on focus, which is important for a sharp image. And as a bonus, the turtles are always good for a unique gesture. The first one was not my sharpest shot of this critter but the gesture with the open mouth makes all the difference for me. It looks like the turtle is yawning, but what you don’t see in the first photo is a second turtle, just climbing up the log on the other end. Well, the meet and and greet on the log went well and after some butt sniffing (yes they do that like dogs!) both finally ended up taking a sun bath together.

You may think taking these shot is much easier than photograph a bird at the same distance, but this is not true. If the Painted Turtle senses danger, because you walk right up to them, they will drop into the water as fast as a bird will take off. The good thing is, most of the time, especially when the sun is shining, they will climb back up on the log again after a few minutes. The short break while they are in the water allows to establish a good shooting position near the log. If you are carefully and make your own moves as slow as a turtle  ;-) , they may accept your presence and you get a second chance to make the click.

Nikon D750, Sigma 50-500mm / f4.5-6.3 APO DG HSM, tripod, gimbal head, FX-mode

I switched back and forth between FX and DX crop mode on the D750 while shooting the action as just described. Full frame (FX mode) served very well to make the images with both turtles on the log. For isolating the turtle on the left, like in the first image, I used the DX crop mode. Back in the days of shooting slides on film, rule #1 for having a keeper was ‘Get it right in camera’. I enjoy photography as a form of art and as a craft. Get it right in camera is part of the craft.

WILDLIFE AND A LARGER SENSOR


Nikon D750, Sigma 50-500mm / f4.5-6.3 APO DG HSM, tripod, gimbal head

A filled travel schedule and business meetings in between prevented me from doing serious shooting during the last couple days again. Feels like torture when you have a new camera and no time to work with it… ;-)

This shot of the Great Horned Owl juvenile is from last Friday and pretty much straight out of camera, except for the usual sharpening process. By using the full size of the 24 MP sensor in FX-mode on the NIKON D750 a 500 mm focal length is just what it is, 500 mm, like in the days of film photography. However, the camera can be used in two different crop modes and the DX-mode with a crop factor of 1.5 provides the same angle of view for a particular lens as it is on my NIKON 300s DX camera. With other words you have, kind of, the equivalent of 750 mm focal length. And here lies the big challenge that comes with the change to a full frame camera. You have to get physically closer to your subject in order to use the full potential of the sensor. As mentioned before this is not always possible, like with the owl high up in the nest, but for shooting many other critters I just have to get better. That means to learn more about their biology and behavior and invest more patience and time so that finally the wildlife comes to you. Long way to go… :-)

GOING FULL FRAME


I haven’t talked about photography gear in quite some time but today I’m just excited to tell you that a new camera was added to the gear bag. Nikon finally dropped the price of its FX-format camera D750 and my order went out immediately. I had planned to add a full frame DSLR to my bag of tools since a while, with the clear goal in mind to bring my photography to the next level. I don’t buy photography equipment for just the sake of being ”up to date” and I still love my DX-format NIKON D300s. I know that I have pushed its limits, for instance in low light situations. It has produced some results over the years that I’m very happy with, and it will still remain in the shooting bag as a second body that I can quickly use with a different lens.

Although I had a busy travel schedule during the weekend and today (I’m writing this post in a hotel room in Minneapolis) but I had some time last Friday and Sunday to do quite a bit of testing, studying the manual, and just having fun learning everything about the D750.

Today I won’t babble much about what I found so far. After the first six hundred shots on the meter I just think it is an amazing camera and it may take a little time to unleash its full potential. 

Part of my regular job is teaching people how to use new machines and software that comes with them. And therefor it’s no wonder that I’m a strong believer that actually reading and studying the manual is essential to understand the equipment and get the most out of it. Well I have more than 400 pages left… ;-)

All images: NIKON D750