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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Testing the AF Zoom-NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4-5.6G


This lens is one of Nikon’s cheaper telephoto zoom lenses. There is NO VR (vibration reduction), no Extra Dispersion (ED) glass. This lens is a cheap as you can go in the Nikon line for telephoto zoom lenses. In fact at the beginning of my photo career, this lens drew me in because it was one of the cheaper lenses available. I didn’t have a spare $599.99 (Nikon’s VR 70-300mm price at the time). But as time progressed, I started to see the limitations of this lens. I’m not a gearhead and I’m not going to go into the stuff that gearheads like to talk about like glass, aspherical lens elements and other geek-stuff. What you get is a plain-talk, no-bull assessment from a photographer’s standpoint.

The construction of the lens is made up of 13 elements of glass, none of which is ED which would reduce chromatic aberration which is the bane of photographers everywhere. This lens is as cheap as they come and understandably, you can see it in the construction. The mount is plastic and prone to breakage. Here's a comparison photo of the similarly priced AF 50mm f/1.8 D You can see the difference in construction.


Though it is sharp at the close end of the lens, it gets softer and softer in terms of focus as you move out to the 300mm mark. This test was as ideal as you can get. Lens and camera mounted on tripod, stationary subject, no secondary factors, shot indoors. This may be ideal if you’re shooting portraiture on the long end at 300mm, however it’s not so good when you’re talking landscapes where you have all sorts of other factors affecting the shot.

Full size image at 70mm

70mm crop at 100%

Full size image at 135mm

135mm crop at 100%

Full size image at 300mm

300mm crop at 100%

As you can see when you hit 300mm you can see chromatic aberration in the lens. I see purple fringing around areas in the image where there is a sharp line demarcating the change in the image from one object to another. Steadying the camera with the tripod has reduced it some, but that has not eliminated it entirely.

This is a test shot shooting a distant apartment building from out the window of my house. This is a stabilized shot from a Manfrotto 190XB tripod.

This is a 100% crop of a section of that image. There is a lot of softness in this image.

Verdict: This lens is one of the cheapest lenses Nikon has made. If you don't particularly care about your shots being soft at the long end, or are just taking this lens for vacation pictures and aren't really serious about going any further in your photography, this lens is adequate. But most people who shoot photography tend to go a lot further because of the nature of this hobby. This is a lens that I personally would stay away from. Given the choice between a Nikon VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 and this lens, I'd pick the VR choice any day, especially since the VR version of this lens has a metal mount versus the plastic of this cheaper version. All I can say is "Thank goodness you can't buy this lens anymore." When I get the VR version, I'll post up a focal review of the AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED

Edit: January 1, 2012

You can get decent shots from the 70-300mm f/4-5.6 but only if you know what you're doing with the lens. Even so I still reiterate that this is not a beginner's lens: you have to know what you're doing or this lens will bite you in the ass. Stay away from used versions of this one that is NEW in box if you must get one. But I would caution any potential purchasers. You get what you pay for. If you go cheap, don't expect great glass.

Play it safe...get the AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR. It's worth every penny of it's $499.99 price tag.

Buying A New Tripod

The next purchase down the road in October 2011 is the confirmed purchase of a rock-steady Gitzo GT5541LS. This is an $850.00 ($1000.00+ CDN - I haven't been able to find it cheaper despite the strong Canadian $) US tripod. Along with that purchase I will be purchasing a Wimberley WH200 gimbal head. The gimbal head is worth about $560.00 US. I've also added the purchase of a Wimberley P20 Quick Release plate along with that purchase. This quick-release plate is roughly about $55.00 US. The Gitzo is a carbon fibre tripod which is just as strong as the aluminum it replaces. With a total load bearing weight of 55 lbs, it is designed to hold super-telephoto lenses.

Gitzo GT5541LS carbon fibre tripod

Wimberley WH-200 gimbal head

Wimberley P20 Arca-Type Quick Release Plate

Moose Peterson has often mentioned that he laughs when he hears of people buying $10,000 lenses (super-telephoto lenses (400/2.8, 500/4 and 600/4 mm lenses) and placing them on $200.00 tripods then wondering why their images aren't sharp figuring that it is a lens problem. Well. I'm placing a 70-200mm f/2.8 on a tripod designed to support a 600mm f/4 lens. I believe in the motto of "Always buy a tripod that is stronger than what you need.". That's due to the fact that as you get more experienced in photography, your "equipment support" needs change. Just keep in mind that the more you do photography, the larger your camera and your lenses become. This hobby tends to go from being a "weekend" shooter to being bitten by the "photography bug" and you tend to accumulate lenses that grow longer and heavier.

For the past 2 and a half years, I used my Nikon D50 and more recently, my D300s on the Manfrotto 190XB tripod which is weight-wise designed to only support the weight of a DSLR and a basic 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5 kit lens or at the most a Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR lens. I had a choice between going with a Manfrotto 055XPROB to upgrade from my previous tripod or just outright deciding on going for the top of the line Gitzo. Since my ultimate goal in the business is to get a Nikon 600mm f/4, I figured I don't want to waste $299.00 on a Manfrotto 055XPROB and not be able to support the larger lens when I acquire it.

Manfrotto 190XB with 486RC2 head (my current tripod)

Manfrotto 055XPROB

These are my tips for buying a tripod:

1. Make out a wishlist of the lenses you plan on acquiring. Be realistic though. (Since I do wildlife photography, the 600mm f/4 is a realistic option)
2. Tailor your tripod requirement to the largest lens that you want to acquire.
3. Combine the weight of your camera (add the battery grip weight if you have it) plus the added weight of the largest lens you plan to acquire. Figure out the total weight.
4. Add 10 lbs load bearing weight. (Why? Because the more weight the tripod is able to bear, the stronger and steadier the tripod becomes...) You may even have to hang a 5 lb beanbag off the bottom of the tripod main column to steady it on uneven surfaces. You don't want the tripod to collapse when you put the beanbag on.

I've been a faithful Manfrotto user. I have a 190XB tripod and a 680B monopod. But what I have found is that Manfrotto is more tailored in their larger load-bearing tripods to be a studio tripod. I don't see the flexibility that is required in a outdoor, nature photography tripod in any of Manfrotto's tripods. Even the #359 has horizontal stiffeners that will get in the way of putting your tripod in an uneven surface full of boulders and it seems as though Manfrotto is not going to design a tripod in the vein of Gitzo's GT5541LS. So thus, I am changing my loyalties. At least the 680B will support the 600mm f/4 if I ever need to use it on a monopod.

Manfrotto 680B monopod (my current monopod)

The support that you use on your lenses is perhaps the most important camera purchase that you will ever make. Your lenses may come and go, but your tripod if you buy it with careful forethought, will be the one piece of equipment that will be a constant for the entirety of your photography hobby or career.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tack Sharp Photos? How to achieve them.

Photographers always talk about “tack-sharp” images. Most beginning photographers don’t realize that if one hand-holds a camera, it is practically impossible, unless you have extremely steady hands, to get a sharp image. Even then, the slap of the shutter opening and closing over the sensor will impart some degree of vibration to the image that will impart some blur to your photo, thus causing the photo to not be as sharp as you would like. Other environmental aspects such as wind can cause blur in your image…if you use an inadequate tripod by shaking the camera. This shake is imperceptible to the human eye however will show up in your image.

The most common way to steady your camera in order to take “tack-sharp” images is to use a tripod. A tripod has three legs, which steadies the camera enough that vibration is dampened to the point where it is not transferred to the image while the shutter is open.

Supporting a camera versus sharpness of image is directly inverse-related to the type of support you use. Here is a list: (from sharpest image producing support to least)

1. Tripod
2. Monopod
3. Beanbag
4. Propping against a fence or other support
5. Handheld

When you are selecting a tripod, select one based on the largest lens you plan to use with the camera. You will be spending between $200-300 to support a DSLR at minimum. This isn’t a place to skimp. Make sure that it will hold the weight of the lens plus the camera and make an allowance of at least 5-10 lbs on top of that. I use a Manfrotto 190XB which was perfectly fine with a Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G lens but not at all adequate with my 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII. Since my objective is to purchase a Nikon 600mm f/4 down the road, I plan to get a Gitzo GT5541LS which has a load-bearing weight of 55 pounds, more than adequate for carrying a 600mm f/4, a D300s w/MB-D10 battery grip. In order to weight it down, you need to have a beanbag. There is a hook to hang it off the middle section of the tripod.

To give you an idea of the stability that is imparted by the tripod, here are several images along with a section blown up at 100% These were shot with an Nikon 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5


100% magnification



Notice that the one shot with the tripod looks sharper than the one that preceded it? It is a subtle difference but it’s crucial in getting your images to be the best that they can be. Happy Shooting.

Monday, March 14, 2011

This Just Makes Me SICK!!!


A lot of people talk about nature and the environment. Even photographers tend to talk about "do no harm" or "take out what you take in" when they talk about going into nature to shoot photography. Photographers will wax eloquent on what to do when you go into the forest to photograph animals. We strive to keep away from juvenile birds in nests to keep from agitating them. We watch for aggravation signs that we are annoying bears or wolves because we don't want to end up as their next meal. We use blinds so that we can blend in with their environment so that we don't cause animals to get scared and thus prevent us from getting the shot "of a lifetime".

Yet how many of us stop to consider how much nature is in our back yard? Creatures that we share our neighbourhoods with also have to contend with our biased viewpoints of them. We set out traps for "pest animals" like raccoons, foxes, mice and rats. Some of us even use poison to keep away coyotes. And the wild animals also have to put up with the garbage that we so-called "caring, nature-loving" human beings produce.

I walk my kids to school every morning and I see mounds of garbage piled up by the side of the road. Paper cups, diapers, broken toys, candy wrappers, used prophylactics. Animals who have to live around us can get sick and quite possibly die from ingesting these bits of garbage while trying to forage for food. It shows that we as a species don't give a damn about other species that we share this planet with.

I have raccoons living in my back yard under the storage shed. I see their tracks every time it snows. I don't consider them as pests, but am grateful that they keep away other animals that could potentially harm my children. Occasionally they offer a photographic opportunity. I relish seeing the crows and robins that frequent the rooftop of my homes. I even enjoy seeing the seagulls which tend to crowd around the area looking for garbage. They may be more commonplace than the bald eagles or the blue herons but that doesn't mean that they aren't any less special or inspiring to see. What makes me marvel is that they have no fear; that they will practically walk up to you. That's the most astounding thing about the animals that share our neighbourhood.

So I challenge anybody who packs a camera who thinks of nature in such polarized views as "the wild animals" such as what you would find in the forest and "pests" such as the "wildlife" that you find in the neighbourhoods that you live open your eyes, see the beauty of nature for what it really is...and cherish the animals who share your life in more ways than just the pets. See the "annoying" crow for what he really is, a fine specimen of avian who enjoys human interaction. See the neighbourhood raccoon, not as the pest who dumps over the garbage can because we stupid humans can't put the lid on the garbage can properly but as a truly magnificent forager who has uniquely adapted to his new environment. Enjoy every interaction that you have with any animals, because if we didn't have these animals, the world would be a much worse off place than it is.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Yes.,..a longtime member of Photography Corner Forums Hits 1,000 (bows)

Yep, it took me quite a while to hit the 1,000 post mark. I wish I could say that it was as a result of my having to go out and take so many photos, but wasn't. Oh well...

Here's trying to make certain that I shoot a way lot more over the next 7 years and hopefully I'll hit 2K with some haste.