Monthly Archives: December 2010

Support: A genuinely gnarly subject

I am in the midst of trying to figure out what in the world I really need in terms of a support upgrade for my camera. A while ago, I purchased a lovely 300mm AF-S f/4 Nikkor lens, and, although the lens isn’t heavy or long enough to mandate tripod/monopod use in all circumstances, I am definitely running into some common situations where it would be helpful. One in particular is shooting out the passenger side window of the car, when I’m in the driver’s seat. Doing that hand-held quickly proved to be totally impossible at any shutter speed, due to the need to cross my left arm all the way across my body, to the point where that shoulder has virtually no leverage at all, and that’s the hand that supports the lens, in Nikon’s decidedly non-ambidextrous design. My left arm just shakes too much in that position. If I twist in the other direction, though, to shoot out the driver’s window, that works fine because now the left arm has plenty of leverage, and I can even brace my elbow on the armrest on the door. Unfortunately, there are about ten times as many good shots out the passenger side as out the driver’s side. (And if I lived in the UK, Australia, or some other country where people drive on the left, then this would not be an issue at all, because the passenger window would be on the left, not the right!)

For lack of a better immediate solution, I’ve been using an old tripod as a makeshift support, in order to alleviate the problem. It’s not stable enough to qualify as a “real” tripod support, because it’s not sturdy enough for that, but it can function as a substitute “arm”, meaning I still need to keep shutter speeds above 1/500, as I would for hand-held shots. It’s better than nothing, but I am still having problems. I am unsure of the source of the problems, but I suspect engine vibrations being magnified through the car seat, and further through the flimsy, wobbly legs of the tripod. These vibrations then cause problems for getting the lens focused correctly in some circumstances, due to the image moving enough that the focusing sensor is unable to get a perfectly accurate reading. At least, that is my theory.

I’m not sure what to do about it, because I need to be able to shoot that way, and it’s also very useful to be able to creep along in the car without having to start and stop the engine multiple times. I question whether any amount of money spent on a tripod setup would solve the problem. It might, if I was able to set it up so that one leg wasn’t braced on the passenger seat. If the springs in the passenger seat really are acting as an amplifier for the engine vibrations, then yes, a different tripod, one with more configurable and sturdy legs might actually help, so I can brace all three of them on a solid part of the car. Such a tripod would be useful for other things as well. If it doesn’t do the trick in the car, though, then I don’t think any rigid solution would work. I would need something that would directly compensate for those vibrations, such as some kind of steady-cam gimbal setup, or other type of shock-absorbing device. Maybe a great big pillow would be the thing. :) I actually did see one person using something like that with a big-assed telephoto (looked like a 400mm f/2.8) several weeks ago, while shooting from his car. I’d have to prop the pillow on top of something. Hmm. Come to think of it, what I was initially doing was using the tripod as a brace for my elbow, rather than setting it up all the way. I’d extend one leg to rest on the floor or some solid surface, then angle the top end of the tripod so I could brace my left elbow against it, thus providing the support that I couldn’t get from overextended shoulder muscles. Maybe I should just go back to doing that! However, the problem was that it was extremely clumsy, and I would often spend so much time messing around with it that whatever bird I was seeing was long gone by the time I got the tripod/elbow combination situated correctly.

I probably need a more workable solution, so I have been thinking of acquiring some kind of fairly normal tripod that would be suitable for bird shots with the 300mm f/4. It’s not a huge lens, probably comparable in size and weight to a standard 70-200 f/2.8, meaning it’s actually somewhat small compared to the big telephotos. I may add a 1.5x or 1.7x teleconverter someday, for shooting either from inside the car or out. I’m also going to want to use it for closeup shots next spring, although not from the car. I am unsure at this point if a monopod would be better for use when I’m outside of the car. Luckily, from research I’ve done so far, the main expense appears to be the head, clamp and plates, which can be interchanged between a monopod and a tripod.

The head would have to be a fairly nice ball head. I’m considering the Wimberly Sidekick to go with the head, although for the time being I’ve decided to wait and see how well a regular ball head works. The main reason for this is that I found a demo video of the Sidekick, and the thing is larger than I expected, making me think it might be overkill for my lens. Another option would be a panning ball head as opposed to a simple ball head. The panning ball head allows panning on the top part of the head, right by the clamp, which means that the tripod legs don’t have to be level in order to pan horizontally. That seems like it would be extremely convenient, however a panning head is substantially more expensive. Also, I am unsure whether that feature would be necessary if I got the Sidekick, which means I need to go watch that video again. ;) I’d also need to get a lens plate and an L-plate for the camera, both for mounting onto the ball head (or the Sidekick). I’m only considering ball heads that feature an Arca-Swiss style clamp.

For the tripod itself, I am a bit torn. I was looking hard at the Manfrotto 055XPROB, which is definitely within my price range and seems to be a pretty nice piece of equipment. I do have some reservations about the sideways capability of the center post, though. Supposedly, this can create stability issues, and there’s also the question of whether I would even need that sideways leaning feature. Manfrotto has a similar tripod with just a traditional up-and-down center post, the 055XB, but, unfortunately, the retailer I was planning on using doesn’t carry that model! That would be a minor quibble, except there’s enough variation in prices between retailers that having to go elsewhere would (apparently) cost me an additional $20, even with the simpler design! I may also need a shorter center column. Those can be had for about $30, if I remember right.

For the ball head, I’m looking at the Really Right Stuff BH-40, either with the panning clamp, or with the substantially cheaper, but less convenient full-sized screw-knob clamp.

So, what’s that boil down to in terms of cost?

For the legs, if I manage to find the Manfrotto 055XB carried by someone who’s asking a good price, it should come to roughly $155. That’s about $20 cheaper than some places are asking. Then the ball head would be either $356 with the standard clamp or $515 (!) with the panning clamp. The plates could also be obtained from Really Right Stuff. An L-plate for the camera would come to $125, and a plate for the lens would be $55. If I wanted to skimp a bit, I could initially skip the L-plate and just get the one for the lens….actually, since I’m thinking about upgrading camera bodies, I could save some money and just wait to get the L-plate for the new body. In fact, I could skip all of this plate stuff for now and just get a ball head with a platform (no clamp), then add the panning clamp later. That’s one nice feature of the Really Right Stuff heads–the clamps and platforms are interchangeable.

However, assuming I go with the regular style clamp ball head, I’m looking at $566, including the tripod and a plate for the lens.

That’s pretty steep, considering just a few hours ago I blew more than that on car repairs. :(

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The “ByThom” D7000 review is out

Thom Hogan’s much awaited review of the Nikon D7000 body was posted on his website last week. If I was only going to read one review of the D7000, that would be the one (although in reality, it’s smart to read a variety of reviews, no matter how good you think one of them is). Overall, it’s a very positive review, but more importantly, I think it helps to cut through some of the hype and rumors surrounding this camera body. Given the advertised feature set, and the low number of people who were able to initially obtain one, talk about it basically ran wild, with everything from people suggesting they were going to “upgrade” their D300s bodies to the D7000 (truth: that would not be an upgrade, although it’s true that the D7000 does exceed the D300s in a few respects), to people panning it due to “overexposure” or “hot pixels”, neither of which represent actual, real-world problems with it. As far as the exposure issue goes, the D7000 does seem to carry on in the footsteps of the D80 and D90, namely, when matrix metering is being used, additional “weight” is assigned to the active focus point, although not to the degree found in the D80 (and whether it occurs also depends on what settings you are using), but aside from that, the overall metering performance of the D7000 seems to be a big step up from the previous mid-range Nikons. The hot pixels issue seems to appear only in extreme circumstances, and, on the other side of the coin, there are some areas in which the D300 and D300s both substantially surpass the D7000, the most notable being the buffer.

I could go on for quite a bit, but what would be the point when someone else, specifically an expert who actually has access to a D7000, has done it already, and more thoroughly than I would anyway? Just go ahead and read the review.

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A new D7000 review

Shutterfinger blog has posted an excellent, brief, two-part review of the Nikon D7000:

Part 1, Part 2

There are some particularly interesting tidbits of information in Part 1. For these, he’s talking about changes he’s made compared to the default camera settings:

Moving focus activation from the shutter button to the AE-L/AF-L button on the back of the camera.

This is very cool. Not only was I not aware that the D7000 had this capability, but it’s one of the key features I came up with a couple months ago when I was questioning whether a D300s body would be worth the extra few hundred dollars. Having autofocus separate from the shutter release button would come in very handy on landscapes and scenics—it means that, basically, the camera is in manual focus unless I press the button. The primary drawback of the D7000, with respect to my needs, is therefore eliminated. (I should also check and see if my D40 can do this. Who knows! Maybe I’ve been a dumbass all this time, wearing out the focus switch on the lens to accomplish the same thing!)

Changing the release priority from focus to shutter. In its default mode, the D7000 will allow the shutter to release only if something is in perfect focus.

Another little bit of trivia which may turn out to be very handy at some point.

Then, continuing on to part 2:

My experiments indicated that matrix metering tends to be overly influenced by heavy shadows, with the result that skies and clouds are overexposed.

This is unfortunate. I have the same problem with my D40. In fact, if I had to make a prioritized list of stuff I don’t like about the D40, this problem would be either #1 or #2 (with poor focusing performance being the other). However, it is possible that the D7000 does not exhibit the problem to the same degree as the D40, and the review also goes on to discuss ways to work around it. In practice, it doesn’t seem to be an insurmountable problem, but I’ll have to remember to keep an eye on other reviews to see if other people notice it as well.

One commenter also discusses the metering issue:

[T]he one thing I always hated about Nikon still remains, then: matrix-metering that doesn’t understand simple 1+2 or 1+4 sky:landscape compositions. It was for that reason I *always* shot my D200 in manual+spot mode.

I know there’ve been many Nikons passed under the bridge since then, so I’m surprised it’s still an issue.

So am I.

There’s more, of course. He’s particularly complimentary regarding the responsiveness of the camera.

It’s a good review, well worth reading for anyone interested in a D7000 body, and substantially more readable than, say, a Dpreview.com review. ;)

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Whooping Crane Migration

Some good news:

237 whooping cranes arrive at wildlife refuge; more expected

The refuge in question is Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. More details:

The return of the whooping cranes is well under way, with 237 birds back at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services whooping crane coordinator Tom Stehn said Friday that 199 adults and 38 juvenile birds, were spotted during a flyover on Wednesday.

The birds began the winter migration to the refuge in October.

Stehn and refuge biologist Brad Strobel counted the birds, finding 211 in the salt marsh habitat, 18 in the shallow open bay, five on uplands in areas rooted out by feral hogs on Matagorda Island and three on grazed pasture oak savannah uplands at Welder Flats.

The cranes are feeding heavily on blue crabs and wolf berries. Both of these food items were abundant in November, Stehn said.

I had the privilege to spot a small group of four whooping cranes during their migration in October, 2009 as they passed through Wisconsin (the bulk of the population lives west of here, so numbers here are typically not very high). It was an amazing thing, I could almost not believe my eyes.

Then, earlier this year when the big oil spill happened in the Gulf of Mexico, I became concerned due to how many of these, and other birds, spend their winters in marshes along the coast. Even with a successful cleanup (which I am highly unsure of, after all, when does the press ever tell us the truth?), there still would have been substantial damage to those ecosystems, potentially impacting food supplies for these overwintering birds. Not just whooping cranes, but herons and egrets of all types, and others I can’t even begin to list. Many species also stop in that area to rest, prior to continuing their migration across the Gulf to Central or South America. It’s really a key spot in terms of the ecology of migratory birds for a substantial part of North America, and perhaps one of the worst possible locations for a major oil spill.

But, in any case, a few hundred whooping cranes have at least arrived safely, so for those we can at least hope they manage to tough it out this winter safely.

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D7000, more

Dpreview.com has published their official review for the Nikon D7000. This is basically a must-read for anyone remotely interested in this camera body. Their reviews, while pretty oriented towards the tech side and focusing a lot on empirical data more than user experience, are nevertheless among the best available online.

I just wish there was an option to read it in “black-on-white” instead of their typical “white-on-black”, which I tend to find pretty eyestrain-inducing.

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