Monday, August 31, 2009

UK Wolf Conservation Trust

Today is a bank holiday in UK, and I was very fortunate that I had a bunch of acquaintances visiting the UK Wolf Conservation Trust (as it is very difficult to get there by public transport. Well, not difficult, expensive :)), which is also having its open day on the bank holiday.

There are 3 large enclosures for the wolves, and these are spacious enclosures indeed.

The morning light was very overcast, and I had no choice but to shoot at ISO1600. This is because, I actually brought out the 70-300VR for my long tele lens for the day! I though this would be just a fun outing to see the wolves, but my friends were toting Canon 100-400s and 70-200s :P OH. MY. GOD. I feel so under-equipped ;-)

After about 1pm, the sun broke through the clouds and I didn't bothered to shoot after that as the sun was very harsh, and coming from *behind* the wolves. Gah. Maybe if I had 4 sb800s, I would attempt to shoot.

There was a very nice viewing platform, however one point I try to do my best is to shoot from eye level. So I stayed below, and fought through not one, but two fences.

This would have been a really good time to use the 300/4, but oh well it was nice and safe at home.

The D300 + 70-300 combo actually works very very well so long as the light is good. It does not have the characteristics of the 70-200 I like, but it is very versatile and goes up to 300mm. The main thing that annoys me when shooting through fences is the zooming mechanism which extends, gets annoying :)

There were also falconers at the park, difficult to get a clean shot of the birds - and I have enough good keepers from my Bird Of Prey Center anyways, so I decided to go for a more falconer/bird shot.

The 70-300VR does pretty well, truly.

No qualms here!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Santago Rare Leopards Project

Santago Rare Leopards Project is closing down soon - and I was lucky to get a chance to visit the furballs before they are sent to their new homes. It's a sad tale why this happened but I'm a little heart wrenched right now so I'll just keep my spirits up by blabbering about the d300.

Ocelot with lots of spots!

Yesterday's trip was totally awesome, however the weather wasn't very good. Now, I don't mind rain at all - my gear has been through worse than a little british rain - but harsh sunlight filtering through dense shade is the killer. You'll get areas of darkness and a few spots of detail where the camera tries its best not to blow the highlights. I did keep those raws though, just as memories even though they aren't processed.

Snow Leopard

Got lots of snow leopard shots today - many were taken in to iso 1600, and I was very surprised at how much detail was kept. Granted, it does feel a tad soft, but if that's the price to pay it's fine. High iso performance seriously beats the d200 down real bad.

Black Panther

From the crop, you can see that the detail is still bloody preserved, even in the dark areas. And this was shot at ISO1250.... the furball was moving so I opened up my aperture to 2.8 (I usually leave it at F4) in order to get a little more shutter speed. The flash also helped to bring out the yellow of its eyes.

Now I do have a rain cover, but the rain came down unexpectedly and suddenly, and I was prone in front of the Snow Leopard enclosure.... furball was in a good pose so I continued shooting in the rain. Mainly worried about the flash, but yeah, new camera on its first day out with a baptism of rain.

The exposure metering was the only thing that threw me off from the D200 - the D300's evaluative metering seems to be very aggressive at pushing the histogram to the right when used with flash. Setting a -1/3 ev for ambient metering seemed to do the trick - left it there the whole day and it did perfect. I'd say it actually outdoes the d200. But it's the first day out with it so I'll see how it performs down the road.

The AF module on the camera is stunning. I always thought it was damned annoying of nikon to put all the 15 cross hairs in the center of the frame. That works very well for most focus and recompose people (everyone around was going beep-beep beep-beep...). I started the day with the camera accidently set to Dynamic AF, 9 points, 11 positions. When I realized that, I put it back to Single Point AF - what I usually use - and was quite surprised when the camera started to hunt in low light... on a fast 2.8 lens. I switched back to the 9 point dynamic AF, and it only hunted once, maybe twice on a long day of shooting. Now most of the time I use the off center af points, which are supposedly the non-cross type. So perhaps multiple single axis af points working as a group kicks ass.... can I say I love this AF module? My only quibble is that the af point's locations do not seem to match those on the D200, which I prefer. I'll see how it goes down the road.

The only quibble I have is the lack of ISO100... there are low iso modes on the d300 but I kinda forgot to test them :( In any case, ISO 200 is crippling for the flash in bright sunlight - there were times my shutter speed was in excess of 4 digits with very bright light. GAH!

Bottom line for the d300:
- Superb high iso performance. I will not hesitate to use 1600 at all.
- Superb AF performance. dynamic af works very well.
- Superb build. Actually lighter than the D200.
- Superb battery life - just used one EN-EL3, and I shot at least 1k shots, and I was doing lots of reviews when it was raining, or checking the histogram.

Downsides of a d300:
- no one uses nikon (ok, jokes aside, I was the only nikon user there, everyone else was Canon and Pentax)

Friday, August 28, 2009


I am utterly blown away... ISO1600 on a D300 is basically equal to iso 320 (thereabouts) in my D200.... and I haven't yet started to do tricks with sharpening and noise reduction yet.....

Sunday, August 23, 2009

British Wildlife Center - once again

Back in May, one of the first conservation places I visited was the British Wildlife Center. I thought I'd visit again, months later to see how the little fox vixen, Luna was doing grown up, but didn't catch her yesterday :( In any case, I spent my time focusing on stuff that I'd not get many shots of the last time, such as the Red Squirrels (there seem to be many, many more this yesterday, with little baby squirrels) and Wildcats.

Don't think I have any adult red squirrel shots from yesterday. No keepers anyways. The 300/4 + 1.4x was the ticket as they are very tiny (compared to elephants), or quite big (compared to harvest mice). 420mm + 1.5x dslr + 1.45m close focus yield very nice close ups, though I do wish I could stop down for more dof.

Scottish Wild Cats are housed in big enclosures covered in a sort of netting. The enclosure itself is sunk into the ground, so you'll have to shoot downwards. There are gates for entry into the enclosure (for the keepers, not the public) where you can get a low angle shot. I've not shot from there so no idea...

Here's one of the European otters cosplaying a crocodile. Notice the two sets of whiskers....

I'd my share of shots so I moved away to let people have a better view. Decided to take a kind of environmentish type of shot - the center has a talk every half an hour for most of the animals, this is the best time to shoot as they will be very active then (OM NOM NOM NOM). Great way to learn about the critters themselves too!

The badgers have a lovely indoor sett where you can walk in to view them behind glass windows. I'd love to show you pictures, but no tripod = no pics :P Badgers have one feeding time late in the afternoon, it's quite tough to capture all the detail :( Damned white and black.

The foxes can be seen early in the morning, late in the afternoon and at feeding times, when you'll probably see them with the most antics.

70-200 is great for the wider environment shots, and the 300 + TC for getting in close.

Cute, but no dingo.

Hedgehogs are also part of the fauna that kids learn about at the BWC. After the talk, we're allowed to stroke the little critter's spines.

Can you see the water vole? No, I doubt it...

Here's the 16-85 at 85mm....

Red turning tail ;-)

Friday, August 21, 2009

St James's Park - evening critter hunt

Having brought my camera gear to test the D300 earlier today, I regretted not bringing my full walkaround kit out for shoot - I really, really miss my flash :(

Anyways, I had visited St James's earlier in my random walks around London, and wanted to come back equipped for a shoot. So why not, I won't miss my 300/4 as the light was getting low anyways.

Took the hood off, braced it against the railings and managed this peaceful shot. Went as low as I could without obstructing traffic. There is actually another duck smack dab in the middle of the frame, but it's been bokeh'ed to oblivion :P To be honest, I'm not really happy with the bokeh of this particular shot, I'm already experimenting with using Gimp and its Focus blur plugin to smooth out the out of focus areas. Been reasonably sucessful, however alot of time has to be spent cleaning up. I'll see how that goes. And yes, this particular water fowl does not have red eyes... it's my on board flash... :P

I'd taken a fair bit of water fowl shots - none of the moorhens as they tend to annoyingly shy away from lenses - but that was the only shot I liked of the day. The rest of the time I was chasing squirrels.... the above shot, again I have a love hate relationship with this sort of bokeh. I wish I could stop down to get more of the background in focus - smooth bokeh is nice, but having it all as a blob of nothingness is not what I like - but I was fighting light, or the lack of, light.

The reds here were really chasing people for food. I had several run around *on my shoes* hoping I would feed them.

100% crop. 2.8/160, ISO800 isn't too shabby.

But with proper conditions...

ISO 200, F4/500, the D200 and 70-200 can produce excellent results for all the pixel peepers in us - nb: this is with Bibble Pro's default sharpening. If I used Sean's Sharpie Pro for Bibble, I'd be able to pull out more detail. I'll definitely do that before I send for a large print.

Oh, the tiger? Not in St. James's park ok? :)

Testing a D300

So, today I went down to Fixation UK to test out a nice used D300 and almost bought it - except that I had misread the print and only realized that the price on offer was without VAT - the UK version of GST if you will, at 15%....


Anyways, many who I've spoken to will probably know that I am waiting for the price of the D300 to drop to about 1k SGD before I buy it - I bought my D200, plus grip, for AUD 850 after all. 17k shutter count (it's about 90k now, at the very least - 1k shots a week? I shot about 14gbs of raws last weekend over two days ;-) ). The reason I'm looking for a D300 now is two fold. First, I really like the 300/4 AF-S (in general - I hate the bokeh it delivers at times) - it has one of the best close focusing telephotos I have - 1.45 metres from the focal plane. This is similar to the 70-300VR, except that the image quality of the 300/4 just surpasses it totally. If only Nikon would make a 300/4 VR version, I would be in wolf heaven. As much as I would love to tote around a 300/2.8VR, er... that lens alone can probably buy up my entire setup. But the 300/4 is relatively slow at F4 compared to er... say the canon 50mm F1.0 (ok so that is a lame comparison) - so I'm hoping the 1 stop plus ISO boost will help get more shots in the evenings and dark enclosures.

Secondly, I will be visiting the Highland Wildlife Park soon for a two day photographic shoot - wolves and all sort of highland critters - hopefully in the snow. This is a really rare opportunity (for me anyways. If I worked for say, Axis Animation up in Glasglow I'll probably be there shooting wolves every weekend, like Cleland Wildlife Park when I was with RSP ;-) ) - so I want to make the best use of it to pull as much IQ as possible.

So I did some test shots with the camera, and played around with it for a little bit. The controls are almost exactly the same as the D200, so stepping up to it was damned easy. Even the custom functions were very straight forward - first thing I did was to disable the half shutter AF - I use af-on technique for shooting - and it was exactly where it is in the menu ;-)

The shutter on the D300 is manly. Damn it sounds good. Tried the 51 point 3d tracking autofocusing again. (my second time playing with a d300 btw) and I am still impressed how it can put a correct AF point on an object. I think in real life use this feature isn't that awesome (so I read), but still I think this is just too cool. The on demand grid lines are still there - so damned convenient.

The screen is amazing. Just amazing. One day, I'm sure they'll be able to put in a 1080P screen and we can all watch Up on blu ray on the D999ZHD2BLR. (Up rocks btw, I really liked the rainbow colored chocobo. Yes, it's a large flightless bird - ergo. Chocobo.)

So here's some tests of the camera at 1600 ISO. Generally, on my D200 maximum image quality with minimum objectionable noise, is iso 250. From 320 to 800, so long as I can expose the image properly, the annoying noise is thankfully in the shadows. 800-1600 is iffy, but if I need to take the shot I take it. Fur resolves very badly then. Depending on the critter, even iso 250 can't resolve it properly. Anyways....

Above is the shot in question, a lovely shot of a tripod of sorts I guess. 70-200VR was the lens of choice - this is the lens I pull out when shooting in lowish light conditions. And it was indoors, iso 1600, 2.8... 1/60 kind of situation...

Let's crop on the worst areas where noise occurs... shadows... this is straight from bibble pro 4.10 with no noise reduction. I think this looks like iso 400 on my d200....

After NR - this is the authorized noise ninja built into bibble - set to remove mainly Chroma noise, leaving the luma noise generally alone. I think this really rocks. Notice that the light areas look AMAZING. And in post I usually try to push the darks, and hence the noise, down, so... wow....

What's more interesting is the tone of the image. At 800 ISO, the tones of the image with a D200 start to get a little crunchy, this D300 seems to be very smooth. CMOS technology?

Another test shot, this one was pretty much ensured that I would get a d300....

The clarity of the highlight areas in a D300 is simply. Wow.

After NR, not only does noise ninja kill the chroma noise (film grain here we come!) - it also applies usm, so the image does indeed get a tad sharper.

I'm hoping I can find a nice used d300 - ebay here I come!


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Wildlife Heritage Foundation

Let's start with probably my best shot of the day, got a very lucky shot of a Mountain Lion/Cougar/Puma taking a jump across a pool in order to get to some meat. I have no idea how the head managed to be in focus... this I attribute to photographer's luck.

Anyways, back to the story. This photo was taken at the Wildlife Heritage Foundation in Kent. This place serves as a conservation area for endangered large cat species. It is not a public facility, and entry is usually only by joining a photography tour as mine (I went along with Photographers On Safari)

Getting to the location is about an hour on the trains to Headcorn, after which a quick 5 minute transfer on a taxi gets oneself to the location. Bring a good map - as the place can be tough to find if driving!

Main lenses I used were the 300/4 AF-S Nikkor and the 70-200VR Nikkor. Both were at times attached to the TC14EII teleconverter. The 300/4 + TC served very well for head shots, giving me a 420mm /5.6 with little loss in resolution, so long as I can get a decent shutter speed.

What I'd experimented with today was attaching a 1/4 CTO (Color Temperature Orange) gel to my SB600. I was hoping to warm up the cooler shadows, and in this it did not disappoint. However, the images in good light do actually come in a little too warm. Perhaps I can fix it in Bibble, perhaps not. So far I'm reasonably happy with the results, I'll continue to use it and see how it goes.

After an instructional session on how camera settings and composition, we headed out to the Lion's enclosure to shoot them getting fed.

I may have been a little over-handed with the saturation. Anyways... I was prone on the ground for this shot in order to get to eye level. It was an icky proposition, as just a few minutes ago, we saw a live demonstration of a lion "spraying" one of my fellow attendees.... by turning around, and releasing a high pressure jet of lion waste fluid through the fence. If it were a chimera it'd probably have hit the dude, but it's aim, with no eyes on the back was not very good ;-)

Om nom nom nom.

After devouring the meat, they took up positions on the wooden structure which gave us lovely opportunities for head shots.

And when they got too close to the fence, a chance for a little lion abstract ;-)

Sumatran Tigers were up next, tough critters to shoot as they were pacing around lots. The difficulty was in tracking them through a fence with the fellow paparazzi - little movement room, and the ensure that the lens was sticking through the barely-large-fence-holes.

The 70-200 was indispensable for the "wider" shots. Stopped down one stop, it gives great detail, and the background separation is fantastic.

Not to bore everyone to death with endless tiger headshots, I'll move on to the Cheetahs now. The little fellow was in the shade when we arrive, and I was equipped with the 300/4 and TC14EII from the previous tiger session. The Cheetah itself was a little too close (The nose basically was able to fill about half the frame... er...) so I turned to taking some abstract cheetah dots :)

The keeper was trying her best to lay the meat so that the cheetah would move on to the area with lots of high grass, however the cheetah was being a cat, and refused to do anything with it.

As always, the 300/4 + TC14EII combo comes through. So long as there is good light, and there was good light today :)

Moving on, we went to visit the Amur Leopards.

The female was tending to two cubs, and it is understandable if she was pissy when a hoard of paparazzi shows up :)

Still, I managed to snatch a nice portrait once she was fed and chummy. The 70-200 here was equipped with the TC14EII (I think....) - my experience today was that it performs _adequately_ at F4 with the TC, but stopping down to 5.6 releases the full fury of the lens :) The beautiful bokeh is not too badly affected.

The male on the other hand was enjoying the shade and did not want to leave the coolness. A few meat goodies enticed it to come play in the sun though :)

It was rather harsh during that particular time of day, but the fill flash manages to control the contrast, though not the deep dark shadows.

The Snow Leopard was up next. It was a challenge to shoot as it was in deep shade, and again being a cat, just didn't want to move. Got a fairly nice portrait shot.

Next to the Snow Leopard enclosure were the Pallas Cats. Once again, difficult light situations were abundant, and for the head shot, the 300/4 performed admirably.

I'd switched to the 70-200 in order to get more "space" around the furball. The 2.8 helped immensely with shutter speeds, but I was wishing I had a D300 and could push the iso higher....

Finally we went over to the Mountain Lion's playpen. Those cats can jump ;-)

Again, no idea how the AF locked on to the head. Is this a sentient af system?

Next up was the servals, but we saw the lions having an afternoon siesta, so we made a detour to shoot the lions prior to catching the servals.

Very tough furballs to catch as they are quite wary of humans.

Pretty awesome day, not sure about the CTO gel used on the lens though, will probably need to re-visit the photos another day when I'm not so worn out.