Looking back on 2009

posted by on 2009.12.27, under Landscape Photography, Tanzania, Travel Photography
12.27:

In looking back on the 2009, I realize that I’ve been extremely fortunate to travel to so many different locations around the globe. This year alone I took over 6400 photos in Tanzania, Hawaii, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado. I would be thankful for an itinerary like that any year, but the economic turmoil of 2009 has given me a new level of appreciation for a stable job at a great company and the ability to get out and see the world.

Here are some images that I’ve never shown from each of the locations I’ve traveled to this year. Most of these got lost in the digital shuffle of thousands of images on my hard drives or ended up on the cutting room floor because there were better images I wanted to share. In any case, I’m glad I’ve rediscovered them as they help keep the great memories of this year fresh in my mind.

Kalalau Valley, Kauai - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Color Combo & grad ND, f/16, 1/6 sec., ISO 200

Kalalau Valley, Kaua'i - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Color Combo & grad ND, f/16, 1/6 sec., ISO 200

A Storm Approaches, Utah - Nikon D40 (converted for infrared), Nikon 18-200, f/16, 1/125 sec., ISO 720

A Storm Approaches, Utah - Nikon D40 (converted for infrared), Nikon 18-200, f/16, 1/125 sec., ISO 720

Multnomah Falls, Oregon - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, f/18, 1/6 sec., ISO 200

Multnomah Falls, Oregon - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, f/18, 1/6 sec., ISO 200

Aspens, Rocky Mountain National Park - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Color Combo, f/16, 1/10 sec., ISO 200

Aspens, Rocky Mountain National Park - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Color Combo, f/16, 1/10 sec., ISO 200

Wildebeest Fighting - Nikon D300, Nikon 200-400 f/4 VR, Nikon TC-14E, f/8, 1/500 sec., ISO 200

Wildebeest Fighting - Nikon D300, Nikon 200-400 f/4 VR, Nikon TC-14E, f/8, 1/500 sec., ISO 200

The Impossible Safari Shot

posted by on 2009.11.23, under Photography Equipment, Tanzania
11.23:
Lion Pride - Nikon D300, Nikon 200-400mm, f/14, 1/125, ISO 200

Lion Pride - Nikon D300, Nikon 200-400mm, f/14, 1/125, ISO 200

The above photo represents a depth of field challenge. This shot was taken this past January on a safari in Tanzania with my Nikon D300 and a Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR lens. Our guide got us as close as he could without disturbing the animals, but I still needed the telephoto lens to get closer. My hopes of getting all, or at least most of the lions in focus were dashed when I realized how shallow the plane of focus is on a telephoto lens like the 200-400mm.

The first thing that came to mind was to stop down to f/11, f/16, or even f/22  in order to increase my depth of field and get the lions in focus. That causes the shutter speed to slow significantly, however. A general rule of thumb for big telephoto lenses is that you want to shoot at a shutter speed at least twice that of the focal length you’re using. This helps to avoid motion blur caused by vibrations in the lens. The shot above was taken at 280mm, so that means I should’ve been shooting at least 1/560 sec. But f/14 yielded a shutter speed of 1/125 sec which is dangerously slow for a big lens, especially since I was only resting the lens on a bean bag on the roof of our Land Cruiser. I suppose I could’ve increased my ISO to get a faster shutter speed and still have a small aperture, but I’m a snob. I want the best quality I can get out of my camera and I resist raising ISO unless I absolutely have to.

100% enlargement

100% enlargement

The truth is, there was no way to get all the lions in focus even at f/22. This was one of the biggest lessons I learned about photography while in Africa. Although I wish I could’ve captured all these lions together in focus, the next time I’m fortunate to come upon a scene like this I’ll look for creative ways to work with the shallow depth of field of my telephoto lens. I’m sure you’ll agree that getting closer to my subject was not a really an option in this case!

Which lenses to take to Africa

posted by on 2009.10.25, under Photography Equipment, Tanzania, Travel Photography
10.25:
Young Male Lion - Nikon D300, Nikon 200-400mm, f/8, 1/800, ISO 200

Young Male Lion - Nikon D300, Nikon 200-400mm, f/8, 1/800, ISO 200

Ever since I returned from Africa earlier this year, I’ve been wanting to analyze the EXIF data of my photos and figure out which lenses I shot most. I’m interested in seeing if it was really necessary to haul the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 lens on the safari. The 200-400 is truly an excellent lens, but it’s a pig and I grew tired of carrying it. It’s also a little unnerving traveling with a $5500 piece of glass (I rented!). There’s no question that I needed the reach of 400mm, but did I need the constant f/4 aperture? Would a smaller, lighter lens like the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 work just as well? Below is a chart of how many shots I took with each lens I brought on the trip and which apertures I used. I didn’t bother breaking out f-stops below f/5.6 since that’s usually the maximum for most variable aperture lenses like the 80-400mm.

  Total number of shots   f/2 – f/2.8   f/2.8 – f/4   f/4 – f/5.6 Less than f/5.6  
Nikon 35mm f/2D 20 19 0 0 1  
Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G 710 N/A 15 29 666  
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G 575 N/A 80 39 456  
Nikon 200-400mm f/4G 2342 N/A N/A 245 2097  

 

I am really not surprised that the overwhelming majority of my photos were shot at smaller apertures than f/5.6. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. First, we really weren’t in that many low light situations. Tanzania’s National Parks typically close around 6 or 7 PM and you must be out by then, or you risk being fined. Secondly, the focus plane of big telephoto lenses is extremely shallow. If you’re taking a picture of a lion at f/4 with a 400mm lens, you’re likely to get his nose in sharp focus, but the rest of his face out of focus. This becomes even more of an issue when there are multiple animals. One afternoon we came upon a pride of 13 lions all sitting together. It was totally impossible to get them all in focus even at the smallest apertures and highest ISOs.

So could a smaller, variable aperture lens like the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 replace the big 200-400mm on a safari? If I was going on an African safari tomorrow (I wish!) I would still take the 200-400. The 80-400′s biggest drawback is that it doesn’t have the internal focusing motor that Nikon’s more modern lenses have. This makes it slow to focus. In Africa, you typically need very fast autofocus to track moving animals. The 200-400mm focuses very quickly because it has the AF-S motor. But there are rumors that Nikon may soon update the 80-400 to include fast autofocus. The current word on the street is that the 80-400 may be replaced with a lens in the 100-500mm range (I have no insider info). If that lens is real and has the excellent optics of the 80-400, I could definitely see it going on my next safari in place of the 200-400. For the time being, though, the best safari lens combo (for Nikon) is the 70-200 and the 200-400.

Nik Software Complete Collection

posted by on 2009.04.05, under Photography Equipment, Photography Software, Tanzania
04.05:

Early on in processing my Africa photos, I stumbled upon the Nik Software suite of plug-ins for Photoshop and Aperture. I had heard good things about Silver Efex Pro for converting color photos to black and white, but I was also in need of a output sharpening solution. So I decided to give their whole set of plugins a test drive. I immediately saw how powerful they were and bought the Complete Collection which includes Viveza (dodging and burning on steroids), Color Efex Pro (tons of useful color processing filters), Silver Efex Pro (black and white tools), Define (noise reduction), and Sharpener Pro (creative and output sharpening).

I have used at least one of these plugins on almost every single photo I have processed from my recent trip to Tanzania. The thing I love most about these plugins, is that they work as Smart Filters in Photoshop so I can work completely non-destructively. This has been a huge workflow victory because I generally create two versions of each photo…a screen version for display on the web and then a print version which is tweaked to look good printed with pigment inks on my favorite paper, Museo Silver Rag. I can easily go back to any stage of my editing process and change settings so that the image looks good for the output medium. 

The feature that makes these plugins so powerful in the U point technology which lets you chose areas of the photo that you want to be affected by the plugin. It creates very accurate masks of whatever you’ve clicked on which greatly reduces the need to create complex layer masks to isolate certain areas of a photo. I just wish there was a way to export the masks that it creates so that I could use them with other Photoshop tasks. 

I also use Capture NX 2 from Nik Software to initially process most of my RAW photos. Although Capture NX 2 is powerful, it does lack the nice intuitive user interface that the plugins have. In fact, Capture NX is so clunky, I sometimes find it hard to believe that it came out of the same company as the plugins. The reason I use it instead of Adobe Camera Raw or Aperture is that it is specially designed to process Nikon NEF RAW files and gives me access to some of the in-camera processing features on the Nikon cameras. In side by side comparisons, it also yields the sharpest RAW conversion between ACR and Aperture…although Aperture is a close second. Strangely, ACR is in distant last place in my quality tests of RAW conversion.

Anyway, I just thought I’d share my experience with the Nik Software plugins. If you’re curious, download the trial, but be prepared to fall in love and thus have to spend money :) 

How to plan an African Safari

posted by on 2009.03.01, under Photo of the Day, Tanzania
03.01:
Silly Zebras - Nikon D300, 200-400mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO 200

Silly Zebras - Nikon D300, 200-400mm + 1.4x TC, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO 200

I promise, one of these days I’ll stop writing about Africa :)

So you’ve got the bug…you want to go to Africa. Where to start. If you’ve done even the smallest amount of research, you’ve probably realized that there are a TON of decisions to be made. You want to make the right decisions because this trip will likely cost a good sum of money and it might be a once in a lifetime experience. Having been through the dizzying experience of planing a safari, I wanted to put together a quick executive summery of things you should consider. Obviously this isn’t the end-all guide to safari planning, but maybe somethings here will correlate to other things you read on the net and help you plan an amazing trip to Africa. So here it goes.

  1. It won’t be a PERFECT trip. This is international travel to the third world. Something might not go as planned. Having an easy going, flexible attitude will help you to have a whole lot more fun.
  2. Make sure you research the time of year you are traveling and see which areas are best. You may want to shift your travel dates to avoid rainy seasons or the hottest months. Extreme weather is no fun.
  3. When searching for guide companies, make sure they are approved by the tour operator’s association of the country you are traveling to. This will ensure that you’re going with a legit company. For Tanzania it is here: http://www.tatotz.org/
  4. Do yourself the favor of going on a private safari with a guide just for your party. Do you really want to be crammed into a vehicle with other random tourists who may have different agendas than you?
  5. Use Trip Advisor to research other people’s experiences. Find out from the message boards who the established guide companies are and if people had good experiences with them. When you’ve narrowed down a list of companies you’re considering, google the heck out of them to make sure there are no bad vibes out there.
  6. Buy trip insurance!
  7. Have a Dr. prescribe a powerful antibiotic like Cipro and start taking it the instant…and I mean the instant you start having diarrhea on your trip. Throw in some Immodium too. (Of course, don’t drink the water or eat salads in the first place).
  8. Carefully consider what kind of accommodations you like. The cheaper places tend to be big hotel-like lodges with hundreds of tourists. The more expensive places tend to be smaller, isolated and high on ambiance…but you may give up some creature comforts. Think of those places like ‘luxury camping.’
  9. If you don’t like dust, bugs or bumpy roads, Africa may not be for you.
  10. Meet other tourists on your trip. It’s fun to get to know people from other places and compare experiences. Some lodges have evening hikes and other group activities. Take advantage of them!

Photo of the Day

posted by on 2009.02.25, under Photo of the Day, Tanzania
02.25:
Lioness Hunting, Ngoro Ngoro Crater - Nikon D300, 200-400mm + 1.4X TC, f/11, 1/250

Lioness Hunting, Ngoro Ngoro Crater - Nikon D300, 200-400mm + 1.4X TC, f/11, 1/250, ISO 200

Tanzania: Reviews Part 2

02.12:
Maasai Woman - Nikon D300, 18-200mm, f/9, 1/250, ISO 200

Maasai Woman - Nikon D300, 18-200mm, f/9, 1/250, ISO 200

Continued from my previous post, here are some more equipment reviews from Africa.

Kirk Window Mount & Wimberley Sidekick (or other gimbal head mounts) – ?
I’m reviewing this even though I never got the setup for my trip. Before I left, I seriously considered, putting together a window mount + ballhead + gimbal head rig that would have allowed me to attach my camera to the safari vehicle roof rails or side windows and have fluid motion around the camera/lens center of gravity. I researched all the parts and pieces and it would’ve been close to $1000 to purchase. Ouch. Good thing I decided to just use bean bags to support my cameras because that’s all we needed. We took our own bean bags but never used them because our excellent guide had bean bags already for us to use. I’m sure the gimbal head rig is very cool, but think about this…how will you switch from one side of the vehicle to the other? The animals are always moving and you certainly don’t want to reposition a complicated window mount rig when a lion crosses from one side of the road to the other. It was enough work moving bean bags with a big camera/lens in one hand. Forget the gimbal head for Tanzania (unless you get two for each side). Other African countries like Botswana will be a different story since they use open safari vehicles.

Better Beamer Flash X-Tender – B+
This device attaches to your flash to extend it’s range. It’s useful for filling in dark shadows on wildlife during harsh midday light. It works…a little too well in my experience. It definitely extends the flash’s reach and greatly magnifies the intensity at close distances. You have to be careful to set your Flash compensation correctly or your subject will have a paparazzi look (I had mine at -3 stops much of the time!)  Also be careful not to leave the Better Beamer out in the sun unattended. It WILL burn a hole in whatever is in the path of it’s fresnel lens :)

Nikon TC-14EII (1.4x) Teleconverter – C-
This one confuses me. From all the reviews I’ve read, I should’ve been able to use this to extend the range of my Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR lens without very much optical degradation. I got mixed results. Some shots, mostly the ones where the subject is closer to the camera, are fine…very sharp. But other shots are hazy and blurry to the point of making the photos totally unacceptable. I can’t seem to find any factor that may have caused this. Do any of you more experienced photographers out there know what the problem might have been? Half-way through the trip I removed the teleconverter and didn’t miss it. With the D300 and 200-400mm, I still had a maximum reach of 600mm which was fine for most things.

Thank Goodness for Backups

posted by on 2009.02.12, under Photography Equipment, Tanzania
02.12:

Tonight my hard drive that I was using to store all my photos from my recent trip to Africa failed. Totally bit the dust (thanks LaCie). Fortunately, I still have all my photos backed up on my Epson P-7000 and on all the original CF cards that I shot while on the trip. Whew! Ironic that I was worried about data failure while schlepping equipment through the brutal dust and heat of the East African summer. Instead, the drive gave up the ghost in my comfortable home office. Lesson: always have a backup…and then back that up.

Tanzania: Reviews Part 1

02.07:
Cheetah Cubs

Nikon D300, Nikon 200-400mm, f/10, 1/250, ISO 720

Before my recent photo trip to Tanzania, I spent months agonizing about what equipment to bring. Not only were there decisions about which cameras and lenses to bring, but there’s a host of other considerations such as whether or not to bring a tripod, what to use to backup my images in the field and how to support my camera while shooting out of a Safari vehicle. I wanted to do some reviews of the various equipment we chose because some things worked and some things didn’t. This is part 1.

 

Epson P-7000 Multimedia Viewer – A+
This was my primary backup device. I brought enough memory cards on the trip that I wouldn’t have to delete any of them and reuse them. Then each night I would back up my cards to the Epson P-7000. Let me say that the P-7000 is fantastic. One of it’s most useful features is it’s ability to only backup new images on a card. Frequently I would shoot a CF card full, then delete many of the bad images at night and shoot on that card the next day. The Epson can backup only the images that have been added to the card since the last backup. It also has the ability to copy all your backed-up files to another USB hard drive for extra protection. I brought a hard drive to do this, but you have to have both the Epson and your hard drive plugged in to power during transfers. The power at most of the lodges and camps in Tanzania is unreliable, frequently cutting out or fluctuating. This made it impossible to transfer multiple gigabytes to the USB drive.

What makes the Epson P-7000 so nice is it’s fantastic screen. The high resolution Adobe RGB display, shows your images in bright, wonderful, color accurate clarity. Plus the controls make it relatively easy to surf through your images and zoom in instantly to 100% to check sharpness. There’s no question that the P-7000 is the Mercedes of photo backup devices…but it’s biggest disadvantage is it’s price. While it can substitute for a laptop in the feild, you’ll pay darn near low-end laptop prices for that luxury.

Gura Gear Kiboko camera bag from Andy Biggs – A+
My brother and I are big admirers of Andy Biggs and relied a lot on advice from his blog during the planning of our trip. We both carried all of our camera equipment in Gura Gear Kiboko bags. Since the bag is designed so well for international travel it was nice to not have to worry about camera bags during planning. We knew our gear would fit in the bag and that it conformed to airline carry-on size requirements. What was challenging was keeping our bags within KLM’s carry-on weight limit of 26lbs. Both my brother and I’s packs were over that weight limit by a few pounds, but fortunately KLM never even gave us a second look. The Kiboko bag can be made to look low profile when the straps are zipped away which might have kept us from scrutiny by the gate agents. We also shot out of the bags during game drives. I kept my D300 with 200-400mm lens in the bag when not shooting to protect it from the very dusty conditions. It was ready to go whenever I needed it. Despite the bag’s light weight and low profile, it is remarkably sturdy. If, for example, you were forced to put the camera bag in the luggage hold of a bush flight (a scenario that should be avoided by buying an extra seat), I think the Kiboko would provide enough protection for the camera gear.

iPhone for international travel – D-
Normally, I’m a big fan of the iPhone. It’s an amazing device with what seems like unlimited usefulness. I planned on sending out email updates to my family and friends while in Tanzania so I set up an international data plan on my iPhone. The problem was that the iPhone was frequently confused while overseas and had no cellular connection whatsoever for about 90% of the trip. We were in areas where I knew there was plenty of cell coverage but the iPhone would just say “no service” or would show bars but not connect to anything. AT&T also has a lame policy where you have to keep your international data plan active until the overseas phone companies decide to bill for your usage. So instead of only paying for international data for the duration of my trip, I have to keep paying for international data after I return until bills come in to AT&T from the overseas carriers. Apparently AT&T can’t look at your billing history and determine that you had an international data plan when you were overseas. Now thats customer service!

Before the trip I also rented several movies from iTunes to watch on the plane. What didn’t occur to me was that the iPhone needs to connect to iTunes during playback to make sure you’re authorized to play the movies…something that doesn’t work too well when you’re 30,000 ft. above the Atlantic Ocean. Surely I’m not not the first person to rent movies from iTunes to watch on an iPod or iPhone on a plane?

Tanzania Trip Report

01.31:
Lunch at Tarangire

Nikon D40 converted to infrared, Nikon 18-200mm, f/11, 1/250, ISO 200

I got back from my 2 week photo safari in Tanzania about a week ago and I think my body has finally adjusted to being home again. My mind, on the other hand, may still be in Africa :) My brother and I did a 12 day guided safari with the purpose of trying to take great photos of animals and landscapes. In this post I’ll share a little of our experiences in the hope that someone else out there who is planning a trip to East Africa might find the information useful.

First of all, the trip was absolutely fantastic…truly a dream come true. There is something about East Africa that is so alluring that it makes you keep wanting to go back. Our guide company in Tanzania was Sokwe. We booked through Journey to Africa here in the states. I can’t say enough great things about Sokwe and especially our guide Msangi. They knew what the needs of photographers are and worked with us every step of the way to make sure that we got the shots we wanted. If you’re going to Tanzania and you want great photos…make sure you go with Sokwe.

This was my first major experience photographing wildlife and all I can say is that it is very challenging, but also rewarding. I knew from reading various blogs that African wildlife photography is a difficult endeavor and requires some serious gear to get good photos. So my gear bag included:

3 camera bodies (2x Nikon D300 & a D40 converted to infrared)
Nikon 18-200mm
Nikon 35mm f/2
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8
Nikon 200-400mm f/4
Nikon 1.4X teleconverter
Various filters, 100GB of memory cards, hard drive backups

I don’t think I ever felt like I was under equipped during the trip, but I really couldn’t have gone without any one piece of camera equipment that I brought. The only exception being the Nikon 35mm f/2 which I only used once. I think our equipment choices were pretty well matched to the task at hand. What surprised us, though, is how few people we saw with professional camera equipment. Most folks were shooting little point and shoot cameras. I guess if you’re not concerned with photography and you want to just enjoy the experience, then that might be OK. One thing for sure is that carrying all the gear above got old really quick. Our carry-on bags weighed 30+ pounds and we were always paranoid that KLM would take issue with that, but they never did.

A definitive conclusion that both my brother and I came to in regard to equipment is the need for a super telephoto ZOOM lens (as opposed to a prime lens). Both of us had the Nikon 200-400 f/4 VR and shot with it most of the time. I could not imagine being without the ability to zoom in/out on a subject to compose the shot. I’m sure the 500mm and 600mm lenses are great, but I would’ve hated the fixed focal lengths (and the weight :)

This is just a brief update on how the trip went. Look for more here very shortly on specific equipment reviews and some discussion of the locations we visited in Tanzania…and of course more photos!