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Nikon TC-14E III

The Nikon TC-14E III teleconverter increases a lens' effective focal length by 40 percent. (Bill Ferris)

The Nikon TC-14E III teleconverter increases a lens’ effective focal length by 40 percent. (Bill Ferris)

Teleconverters have a long and complex history in photography. In 1833 – six years before Louis Daguerre invented the daguerreotype process that launched a worldwide fascination with a new artistic medium, photography – Peter Barlow invented a negative lens that, when fitted to a telescopic eyepiece, extended the effective focal length of the telescope in which Mr. Barlow’s lens was used. In so doing, the magnification of the lens and the image scale of the subject were also increased. Known simply as the Barlow lens, this optical accessory is widely used by amateur astronomers. Commonly available in 2x and 3x versions, the modern Barlow is especially popular with lunar and planetary observers.

Nearly sixty years later in 1891, Thomas Dallmeyer and Adophe Miethe simultaneously developed nearly identical optical designs for photographic telephoto lenses. Both designs featured a front achromat doublet lens system and a rear achromat triplet grouping. The rear lens grouping acted much as Barlow’s negative lens, increasing the effective focal length of the front imaging elements. Dallmeyer and Miethe had independently invented the first photographic teleconverters.

Today’s modern teleconverters are also quite popular though not without their critics. No optical lens system is perfect and the teleconverter is certainly no exception. In addition to magnifying the subject of a photograph, a teleconverter also magnifies optical aberrations, making them more readily apparent. Commonly found in 1.4x, 1.7x and 2.0x versions, teleconverters typically magnify by as little as 40% (1.4x) and as much as 200% (2x). The biggest cost of this increased magnification is a loss of image brightness. By increasing the effective focal length of the lens while keeping the lens’ physical aperture constant, the maximum focal ratio of the lens increases by an amount proportional to the increase in effective focal length. For example, a 1.4x teleconverter increases focal length and focal ratio by 40%. A 200mm f/4 lens becomes a 280mm, f/5.6 lens. The teleconverter results in a loss of one stop of light.

A teleconverter attaches to both the lens and the camera as an intermediary lens within a photographic optical system. The TC-14E III is an f-mount design that is compatible with all Nikon film cameras and DSLR cameras. Nikon teleconverters are generally compatible with longer focal length telephoto and telephoto zoom lenses. (Bill Ferris)

A teleconverter attaches to both the lens and the camera as an intermediary lens within a photographic optical system. The TC-14E III is an f-mount design that is compatible with all Nikon film cameras and DSLR cameras. Nikon teleconverters are generally compatible with longer focal length telephoto and telephoto zoom lenses. (Bill Ferris)

This increase in focal ratio has a couple of potentially significant drawbacks. Compared to an f/4 lens, an f/5.6 lens will require an exposure twice as long to render a properly exposed image. Another option would be to increase the ISO (in-camera exposure brightening) or increase the brightness of the exposure during post-processing. Either approach will introduce some additional noise into the final image.

Another potential issue that results from an increase in focal ratio, is that of compromised autofocus performance. The brighter the image falling on the sensor, the faster and more accurate the camera’s autofocus system tends to be. As the f-stop used to make an image increases and image brightness on the sensor decreases, the camera eventually will not have enough light for reliable autofocus performance.

Because the function of a teleconverter (TC) is to extend the reach of a lens, to bring a photographer nearer the subject without having to physically move closer to the subject, it is a popular accessory for wildlife and bird photographers. With my growing interest in this type of photography and the recent purchase of a Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E VR telephoto zoom lens, I decided to give the Nikon TC-14E III 1.4x teleconverter a try. Attached to the new lens, the TC-14E III would have the effect of extending its zoom range to 280-700mm. The TC-14E III also facilitates communicates between the lens and camera, including effective focal length, f/-stop, shutter speed, AF mode, burst mode…the full suite of functionality one would expect of a Nikkor lens mounted to a Nikon camera body,

The main price to be paid for the extended reach achieved with a TC is an increase of the lens’s maximum f-stop. In the case of the 200-500mm f/5.6E, the focal ratio increases from f/5.6 to f/8. At f/8, the zoom would be operating at the very threshold of my Nikon D610’s ability to autofocus. This raised two issues of concern: would the lens be sharp at 700mm and would the f/8 maximum focal ratio allow for adequate autofocus performance?

A juvenile bald eagle soars over Lake Mary on a mid-winter northern Arizona day. (Nikon D610 w/ Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E and TC-14E III at 700mm, f/11, ISO 2500, 1/2000-second)

A juvenile bald eagle soars over Lake Mary on a mid-winter northern Arizona day. (Nikon D610 w/ Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E and TC-14E III at 700mm, f/11, ISO 2500, 1/2000-second)

One of the biggest technical challenges of bird and wildlife photography is capturing birds in flight. It is this aspect that makes bird photography so appealing to me, the challenge of mastering my equipment and expanding my knowledge of the animals to make good photographs. Bird photography also gives me an excuse to get out in nature and to be near these magnificent creatures. When the TC-14E III arrived, I couldn’t wait to run it through its paces by photographing the eagles, hawks and other birds found during winter in northern Arizona.

The above photograph of a juvenile bald eagle in flight illustrates the challenges I’ve been working to overcome. As you can see, the photo was made on a bright, sunny day. I used a shutter speed of 1/2000-second to freeze the action. The 200-500mm is at full zoom, which produces an effective focal length of 700mm with the 1.4x teleconverter attached. The maximum f-stop is f/8 but I chose to work at f/11 to produce an image with greater sharpness. In the photo’s caption, you’ll notice an ISO of 2500 for this exposure. That’s very high for a bright, sunny day. Now, if the above were a full 6,000 by 4,000 pixel image, the level of noise at that ISO would be quite acceptable. However, even at 700mm focal length, the raptor only covers about 1/5 the surface area of the D610’s sensor. The above image represents roughly a 2500 by 1700 pixel crop, which makes the noise more noticeable. In fact, I would judge the level of noise to be at the very threshold of what I consider, acceptable.

Canada geese cruise the northern Arizona sky near Mormon Lake on a mid-winter's day. (Nikon D610 w/ Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E and TC-14E III at 700mm, f/9, ISO 720, 1/2000-second)

Canada geese cruise the northern Arizona sky near Mormon Lake on a mid-winter’s day. (Nikon D610 w/ Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E and TC-14E III at 700mm, f/9, ISO 720, 1/2000-second)

The above photo of Canada geese flying through northern Arizona’s winter sky is a roughly 1500 by 1500 square aspect crop. Notice the shutter speed is the same 1/2000-second exposure as used to make the previous image of a bird in flight. Also, please note the f-stop and ISO. The f-stop is f/9 or 2/3-stop brighter than the first image. As a result, the ISO is much lower. This was another bright, sunny day in northern Arizona so, lower the f-stop (increasing the aperture) allowed me to make an image with much less post-exposure brightening. At ISO 720, I was able to do an even more significant crop but without the noise penalty of the first image.

ISO, is the central issue when using a teleconverter with a moderately fast lens. Pro telephoto lenses offer maximum f-stops in the f/2.8 to f/4 range. The large apertures of these long lenses collect and deliver a lot of light to the sensor. As a result, even with a 1.4x TC in the mix, they still operate at f/4 or f/5.6, delivering enough light to the sensor to allow a camera’s AF system to be snappy and accurate. Using the TC-14E III with a lens such as the 200-500mm f/5.6E, a modestly slow zoom, immediately puts you right at the brink of acceptable performance.

The 200-500’s maximum f-stop (with the TC) is f/8. At f/8, the optical system captures images with noticeable softness and chromatic aberration. Closing down the aperture just by 1/3-stop to f/9 largely compensates for these aberrations and allows the lens to deliver crisp, true color images to the sensor. At f/9, the lens is operating outside Nikon’s official boundary for full AF performance. At f/9, you’ll no longer be able to work in AF-C, 3D mode. That option isn’t even available in the D610’s menu at f/9. However, I’ve been able to get good AF performance in AF-C, 9-point mode, my preferred autofocus setting for dynamic bird and wildlife situations.

A western bluebird sits perched atop a common mullein near the windswept waters of lower Lake Mary in northern Arizona. (Nikon D610 w/ Nikkor200-500mm f/5.6E at 700mm, f/8, ISO 1600, 1/2000-second)

A western bluebird sits perched atop a common mullein near the windswept waters of lower Lake Mary in northern Arizona. (Nikon D610 w/ Nikkor200-500mm f/5.6E and TC-14E III at 700mm, f/8, ISO 1600, 1/2000-second)

The above photo illustrates the price one pays when losing focus even for a moment while doing photography with an f/5.6 (or slower) telephoto and a teleconverter. Again, this photo was made on a bright and sunny afternoon. I shot with the 200-500 and 1.4x TC combo wide open at f/8. Why? It was late in the afternoon. The sun was about an hour from setting, low on the western horizon and not quite as bright as during a midday exposure. Notice the shutter speed of 1/2000-second. That’s for a photo of a perched bird. OK, the bluebirds were flitting from plant-to-plant and not spending more than a few seconds on any one perch. However, when they’re perched, the birds aren’t moving…at least, not nearly as much as when in flight. By shooting at 1/2000-second in late day light, the ISO was jacked up to 1600. I probably could have used a shutter speed of 1/800-to-1/1000-second, which would have cut the ISO to 800 or less.

What saved this exposure was the fact that I’d noticed the western bluebirds flitting about from stalk to stalk and had pre-focused on this stalk, ahead of time. It’s still a cropped final image but at approximately 3350 by 2240 pixels, there’s enough real estate on the camera sensor to mitigate the noise. If this was shot with a 500mm f/4 telephoto and the Nikon 1.4x TC, I could have shot at f/5.6 and kept every other setting the same with the camera selecting and ISO of 800 or lower. Being a professional quality optic, the 500mm f/4 would probably be very sharp even wide open with a TC. With a consumer, telephoto zoom such as the 200-500, the margin for error is much more narrow. You’ve got to pay attention to the details and look for every opportunity to balance that f-stop/shutter speed/ISO triangle in your favor.

A red-tailed hawk launches from atop a Ponderosa Pine along Lake Mary Rd near Flagstaff, Arizona. (Nikon D610 w/ Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 700mm, f/9, ISO 720, 1/1600-second)

A red-tailed hawk launches from atop a Ponderosa Pine along Lake Mary Rd near Flagstaff, Arizona. (Nikon D610 w/ Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E and TC-14E III at 700mm, f/9, ISO 720, 1/1600-second)

Here’s an image that’s a product of a collection of lessons learned during my first few weeks of ownership of the TC-14E III 1.4x teleconverter. It’s a photo that was made in good light on a  clear day. The red-tailed hawk was perched atop a Ponderosa pine scanning the nearby shallow water lake. Anticipating the bird would launch within a few minutes (at most) of my arrival, I had selected a shutter speed of 1/1600-second…fast enough to mostly freeze the action of wings flapping but slow enough to catch a bit of motion and convey a hint of the dynamic action. I chose an f-stop of f/9 to noticeably sharpen the resulting image while still putting a bright image on sensor. The combination of these choices resulted in an exposure where the D610 chose an ISO of 720. In my experience, keeping ISO at or below 1000 is essential to producing noise-free images in exposures that will likely be significantly cropped.

After shooting with the TC-14E III on the Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E VR zoom lens for several weeks, I’ve learned the following:

  • The TC-14E III is sharp. Comparing exposures made with the bare 200-500 and exposures made with the combo of the 200-500 and TC at equivalent focal lengths, any differences in image quality are subtle, at most, and only discernible at the pixel level.
  • When shooting at 700mm, I prefer to stop down the combo to f/9. Even the 1/3-stop closure is enough to noticeably improve image quality. Beyond that, IQ does improve up to about f/11. However, the gain is so marginal as to be not worth (in my opinion) the associated loss of quality that comes from using a higher ISO or (for BIF) a slower shutter speed.
  • For best image quality when photographing BIF (a scenario where significant cropping of the resulting image is likely), I target a shutter speed of 1/2000-second but will slow the shutter shutter speed to 1/1000 in low light and will slow the shutter speed to 1/500 for perched birds.
  • I need to continue experimenting with shutter speed. At 1/1000-to-1/1600, the wing motion blur helps convey the dynamic action of flight. It’s not unlike prop blur in photographs of piston engine planes in flight. The prop blur conveys the power of the plane. Wing blur with a sharply focused face communicates the dynamic nature of the bird.
A juvenile bald eagle gazes intently in search of a distant opportunity for a meal or an approaching threat. (Nikon D610 w/ Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E and TC-14E III at 700mm, f/11, ISO 450, 1/800-second)

A juvenile bald eagle gazes intently in search of a distant opportunity for a meal or an approaching threat. (Nikon D610 w/ Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E and TC-14E III at 700mm, f/11, ISO 450, 1/800-second)

I’ll leave you with one last sample image. The 200-500/teleconverter combo is great for perched birds. In good light, I can close the aperture to ensure tack sharp detail, make exposures at relatively slow shutter speeds (under 1/1000-second), and still keep ISO under 1000. These settings deliver excellent detail in a properly focused image.

With all that potential awaiting you, there’s no excuse. Get out and shoot.

Bill Ferris | March 2016

It Moves

Tripod-mounted exposure of the full Moon at mid-eclipse on September 27, 2015. Image made with Nikon D610, Nikkor 200-500 f/5.6E at 500mm, f/5.6, ISO 3200, 1-second

Tripod-mounted exposure of a full Moon at mid-eclipse on September 27, 2015. Image made with Nikon D610, Nikkor 200-500 f/5.6E at 500mm, f/5.6, ISO 3200, 1-second (Bill Ferris)

On the night of September 27-28, 2015, the Moon passed through the densest, darkest portion of Earth’s shadow, an event known as a lunar eclipse. Normally, I wouldn’t publish or share a photo like this. It’s just a tad soft, not rich in fine detail. I tried to make a sharp, detailed photo at mid-eclipse but the forces of nature intervened.

How is it that we’re able to see the Moon? Well most of the time, the Moon is exposed to the Sun. Despite being a relatively dark object, enough sunlight reflects off the lunar surface to make Earth’s largest natural satellite the brightest object in the night sky…when it’s up and when the side of the Moon that faces Earth also happens to be facing the Sun.

When photographing the Moon, you can use a normal daylight white balance setting (reflected sunlight) a reasonably large aperture (f/5.6), a not-too-high ISO (400) and make a proper exposure at about 1/500-second. That’s when the Moon is near its fully-illuminated best.

During a lunar eclipse, the Moon is not directly exposed to the Sun. It’s hiding in the Earth’s shadow…but not totally dark. You see, Earth’s atmosphere acts like a lens. It scatters and refracts sunlight. Short wavelengths (blue light) are scattered in all directions by the atmosphere. Longer wavelengths (red light) are refracted so that this light passes through the atmosphere, travels through space and falls on the Moon.

This is why the Moon looks red during an eclipse. Only the red light which passes through Earth’s atmosphere falls on and illuminates la Luna. If you saw the September 2015 eclipse, you probably noticed how dark the Moon looked. Earth was blocking most of the sunlight that normally paints the lunar surface. The rest was mostly scattered. What little passed through Earth’s atmosphere to fall on Luna’s surface was the long wavelength red stuff. As a result, the Moon looked dark or blood red.

So, what does this have to do with slightly unsharp photos of the Moon taken during mid-eclipse? Well, with less light to work with, your camera needs to do one of three things to make a proper exposure:

  • Use a larger aperture to collect more light
  • Use a higher ISO to be more sensitive to faint light
  • Use a longer exposure to collect more light

Two of those three options have nasty consequences for your photos.

Handheld exposure of a waxing gibbous Moon on September 24, 2015. Image made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500 f/5.6E at 500mm, f/5.6, ISO 400, 1/800-second.

Handheld exposure of a waxing gibbous Moon on September 24, 2015. Image made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500 f/5.6E at 500mm, f/5.6, ISO 400, 1/800-second. (Bill Ferris)

A few days before the eclipse, I shared the above Moon photo taken at 500mm, f/5.6, ISO 400 and 1/800-second. The Moon is a moving object. It orbits Earth, moving west-to-east about 13 degrees (1/2-degree per hour) through the sky, each day. Much of its motion through the sky is the result of the fact that Earth rotates about an axis. Due to that rotation, the Moon moves east-to-west covering about 15-degrees per hour.

If you take a picture of the Moon using an exposure of 1/500-second, your photo will record the Moon and its motion over a distance of about 0.03 arcsecond. The full Moon is about 30 arcminutes in size. There are 60 seconds of arc in each arcminute so, that gives the Moon an angular diameter of 1,800 arcseconds. Divided by 0.03, that 1/500-second exposure records motion spanning 1/60,000th the diameter of the Moon. Yes, that is incredibly tiny and is imperceptible to the eye.

If you take a picture of the Moon during mid-eclipse using a the same focal length and aperture, and an ISO of 3200, you’ll need about a 1-second exposure to make a proper image. That’s 500-times longer than an exposure when the Moon is illuminated directly by the Sun. Your exposure will record the Moon and its motion across a distance of 15 arcseconds.

Now, 15 arcseconds is also a small distance. But it is large enough that the exposure you make will look slightly soft. If your goal is to achieve critical focus on the Moon shooting at 500mm, you’ll need to open the aperture or increase the ISO to use an exposure of 1/2-second or faster. Modern digital cameras are certainly capable of working at ISO 6400 and higher. But unless you’re using a really long lens, you’ll end up cropping the resulting image significantly just to make the Moon fill the frame. This not only makes the Moon look bigger but also emphasizes the digital noise in the photo. The resulting image will look grainy and, as a result, even more soft.

The one sure way to make a sharp photo of the Moon during an eclipse such as the one we enjoyed in September 2015, is to attach your camera to an astronomical mount. The mount will need a motor drive that rotates one axis to effectively move the camera opposite Earth’s rotation during the exposure. This rotation cancels the east-west motion of the Moon through the sky so, in essence, you’re photographing a static object. Among the many benefits will be that you can use longer exposures (2-3 seconds) at lower ISO’s (under 1000) to make properly exposed images that are sharp and detailed.

That’s not what I used during the September 2015 lunar eclipse. I set up my camera on a tripod, zoomed in to 500mm, opened the aperture as wide as it can be, jacked up the ISO to 3200 and started making exposures. Unfortunately, without the right equipment, all my photos from mid-eclipse – when the Moon looked its most devilish and eerie –  look just a tad soft. The photos are soft because, as Galileo Galilei would have observed, “It moves.”

Now, get out and shoot.

Bill Ferris | September 2015

Camera Settings – Landscape Photography

It is April and spring has arrived at Monument Valley along the Arizona/Utah border. The pastel glow of twilight dyes the valley a cool hue while warm light from a setting Sun catches the wispy overhead clouds. (Bill Ferris)

It is April and spring has arrived at Monument Valley along the Arizona/Utah border. The pastel glow of twilight dyes the valley a cool hue while warm light from a setting Sun catches the wispy overhead clouds. (Bill Ferris)

There have been more than a few days when I’ve wondered if I travel to do photography or if the camera is just an excuse to get outside amidst inspiring landscapes. Actually, there is no wondering about it. It’s the latter. I have a deep, soulful connection to nature. Truth be told, if faced with the choice of spending my remaining years alone in a magnificent wilderness or amongst the beehive of activity in a major city, I might choose the wild.

It should come as no surprise, then, that landscape imaging is my first love in photographry. Since a move from the Midwest to northern Arizona nearly 20 years ago, I’ve been blessed to have ready access to some of the most dramatic and iconic landscapes of the American West. Grand Canyon, Monument Valley,  Arches, Canyonlands – these are nature’s cathedrals. These are the places where I hone my craft and renew a spiritual connection with the world.

This blog continues the series in which I share the camera settings I use for specific genres of photography. Today’s genre is landscapes and these are the settings:

  • Mode: Aperture Priority
  • Aperture:  f/13 to f/22
  • ISO: 100 to 200
  • Image Format: RAW
  • Focus: Back Button or Live View
  • Shutter Release: Timed with a 5-second delay
  • Essential Gear: Tripod
Late day light paints Zoroaster Temple in Grand Canyon a deep amber hue as seen from a campsite along Clear Creek Trail. (Bill Ferris)

Late day light paints Zoroaster Temple in Grand Canyon a deep amber hue as seen from a campsite along Clear Creek Trail. (Bill Ferris)

Great light is the first element of a great landscape. While it is absolutely possible to make a fantastic landscape exposure in midday light, the golden hour times of sunrise and sunset are the most prized. The soft earthy glow adds a dramatic feel and reveals the inner beauty of a place. Weather, is the second key element. Clouds, rain and lightning put passion on display. Snow reveals the essence of a place and hints at possibilities to come.

A common theme connecting the above, is the relatively low light levels one encounters when shooting under such conditions. Unlike other genres (e.g. sports, wildlife and portraiture), short exposures and shallow depths of field are not necessarily desirable when shooting landscapes. More typically, you want great depth of field. Also, since your subject is mostly static, exposure times can be longer without compromising image sharpness.

An f/13 to f/22 aperture will deliver an in-focus, sharp image through the fore-, mid- and backgrounds. (APS-C bodies can achieve the same at f/9 to f/16.) With depth of field being so critical to achieving the desired result, I usually shoot in Aperture Priority mode and dial in an aperture – more accurately, a focal ratio – of f/13. Depending on the lighting and composition, I’ll go as large (in focal ratio) as f/22 or more.

Of course, I always shoot in RAW to allow as much latitude as possible during processing.

White House ruin in Canyon de Chelly National Monument (Chinle, Arizona) (Bill Ferris)

White House ruin in Canyon de Chelly National Monument (Chinle, Arizona) (Bill Ferris)

To maximize image quality and minimize noise, I typically use the base ISO of the camera body. In the case of the Nikon D610, the base ISO is 100. This combination of low light, small aperture and low ISO forces the camera to use relatively slow shutter speeds to make a properly exposed image. When shooting just before sunrise or shortly after sunset, an exposure of 1-second or longer may be needed.

Long exposures demand a solid, stable platform to ensure good sharpness in the resulting image. This makes a tripod essential gear for the landscape photographer. I use a Benro model tripod. It is designed to be lightweight and portable, while still providing good stability. It is not as rock solid as other beefier designs, which means I’m always in need of a sheltered location when doing photography in a strong wind.

A technique I use to minimize vibration, is setting a 5-second delay on the shutter release. This allows any vibration introduced when I push the shutter release to dampen before the exposure begins. I also use either back button focus or contrast detection focus in Live View to help ensure best focus. Contrast detection, while slower, is sometimes a bit more accurate than phase detection. Moving focus control off the shutter release button minimizes the risk of a last second focus change when an exposure is made.

Using these settings, allows me to take full advantage of the spectacular landscapes populating the Desert  Southwest. If you are a landscape enthusiast, I hope you find they help your results, as well.

So, get out there and shoot.

Bill Ferris | April 2015

Camera Settings – Wildlife Photography

An American White Ibis preens in the late afternoon light at Disney World Epcot theme park. (Bill Ferris)

An American White Ibis preens in the late afternoon light at Disney World Epcot theme park. (Bill Ferris)

This post continues a series on camera settings for specific genres of photography. As I mentioned in the first installment, I am not suggesting these settings will be best for every photographer. I am sharing them because they work for me and may be of some help to you.

As the above image indicates, this post will focus on settings for bird and wildlife photography. Let’s begin with my goals when shooting animals in a natural setting:

  • Communicate the wild
  • Convey the personality of the animal
  • Bring the viewer close

There is something about an animal in a wilderness setting that captures the imagination. This is particularly true in cultures that feel a strong connection to a past when people lived, struggled, thrived and died in wilderness places. They competed not only with the land and weather but also with animals. Some animals were hunted as sources of food and clothing. Others were hunted as competitors for scarce food resources or as threats to people.

A photograph of an animal in a wilderness setting has the potential to reconnect us with that pioneer heritage. It can make the pulse quicken and loose a surge of adrenalin in the blood. Communicating the wild is as much about setting as the animal, itself. Framing the shot with a rugged terrain or severe weather conveys a sense of wilderness. The personality of the animal comes to life through action. Interesting – even aggressive – behavior does the trick. Sometimes, the suggestion of a behavior that is about to happen can be even more compelling. Capturing the instant before the animal becomes aggressive hints at wildness and allows the audience’s imagination to fill in the rest.

The Kilimanjaro Safaris tour at Disney World Animal Kingdom exposes visitors to a host of animals native to Africa, including the giraffe. (Bill Ferris)

The Kilimanjaro Safaris tour at Disney World Animal Kingdom exposes visitors to a host of animals native to Africa, including the giraffe. (Bill Ferris)

A long telephoto lens can bring the viewer close enough to feel the breath of the animal. Stealth and patience, when skillfully employed, can have the same effect. Every guideline has its exceptions and this one is no different. A wide angle lens capturing the interesting behavior of a collection of animals in the wild can be just as inspiring.

Bird and wildlife photography is a relatively new interest for me. I’m still searching for that heart-stopping image of an apex predator in the wild, or an iconic creature persevering against nature’s maelstrom. However, the technique of capturing such moments is fairly well ingrained. I’ll be ready when the moment arrives. Here, are my settings:

  • Aperture: f/2.8 to f/5.6
  • ISO: ISO-auto with 1/500 to 1/1000-second as minimum shutter speed and 6400 as maximum ISO
  • Back Button Focus: AE-L/AF-L button assigned to autofocus control
  • Burst Rate: Low (3 fps) to Continuous High (6 fps)
  • Image Quality: RAW
  • Exposure Compensation:  +2/3 to 0 to -2/3 stop

I use a large aperture to blur the background and isolate the subject. A wide open aperture also allows for the use of more reasonable ISO’s when shooting early in the day. Now, an aperture closed one stop from wide open will do a better job of capturing pin sharp detail in the animal. So, if the light level will allow it and if there is significant distance between your subject and the background, consider closing down the lens a bit.

Back button focus is a great technique for just about any type of photography. It gives you more control over focus point and framing. If the animal is moving slowly, a shutter speed of 1/500-second will do an excellent job of freezing action. However, birds in flight and other more aggressive actions demand a faster shutter speed. A low burst rate works fine for an animal slowly grazing for food. A faster burst rate is called for when shooting birds in flight and other more dynamic action.

A bull Elk eyes a gathering crowd of tourists on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. (Bill Ferris)

A bull elk eyes a gathering crowd of tourists on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. (Bill Ferris)

Finally, you’ll want to pay attention to the coloration of an animal. Animals with dark fur may require an exposure compensation of +2/3 stop to preserve detail. By contrast, compensation of -2/3 stop will preserve feather detail when photographing a bright white bird.

These are the settings I use when photographing birds and animals. If you give them a try, I think you’ll find the results rewarding. At the very least, you’ll gain a better understanding of the settings that work best for you.

Now, get out there and shoot!

Bill Ferris | April 2015

Camera Settings – Sports Photography

NAU's Eddie Horn grabs a handful of facemask to prevent Eastern Washington's Quincy Forte from reaching the end zone

NAU’s Eddie Horn grabs a handful of facemask to prevent Eastern Washington’s Quincy Forte from reaching the end zone (Bill Ferris)

With this post, I’m launching a series in which I will share the settings I use for specific genres of photography. Each article will focus on one kind of photographry: landscape, wildlife, event, portraiture and, in this entry, sports.

Right off the top, I want to be clear about something. The settings I use are not necessarily best for everyone. In fact, I suspect the opposite may be closer to the truth. Many professional and experienced amateur photographers prefer to shoot in full manual mode. I don’t.

In any given situation, there are some settings I absolutely want to control and others I’m perfectly comfortable allowing the camera to control. It’s been my experience that modern digital cameras are reliably competent at choosing settings like shutter speed and ISO. Even if the setting the camera chooses is off by 1/3 to 1/2 a stop, shooting in RAW allows me to correct for that in post with just a few clicks of the mouse.

In short, the settings I use work for me and my workflow. My intent in sharing them in this series is that they may help you to make better photos and get more satisfaction from photography.

So, let’s get to it. Here, are the  settings I typically use with my Nikon D610 when shooting sports:

  • Mode: Aperture Priority
  • Aperture: f/2.8
  • ISO: ISO-auto with 1/1000-second as minimum shutter speed and 6400 as maximum ISO
  • Autofocus: Continuous with a 9-point cluster at the center
  • Back Button Focus: AE-L/AF-L button assigned to autofocus control
  • Burst Rate: Continuous High (6 fps)
  • Image Quality: RAW

Why? Let’s start at the beginning. Before I start shooting, I give some thought to what I want to accomplish with the photograph. Here are my goals for sports photography:

  • Capture the decisive moment
  • Communicate the emotion of that moment
  • Put the audience in the middle of the action

The above settings allow me to accomplish all three.

A goalkeeper prepares to send the ball out of her zone.

A goalkeeper prepares to send the ball out of her zone. (Bill Ferris)

The first decision I make when setting up the camera is selecting a mode to use. I never shoot in full Auto. In that mode, the camera makes all the decisions and I’ve yet to find a camera having an aesthetic identical to mine. I rarely shoot in Manual. In that mode, I make all the decisions and, frankly, that’s just a lot of work.

Aperture Priority allows me to lock in a focal ratio. Normally, I’ll set the lens to f/2.8. Since I’ll be using a fast shutter speed to freeze action, I need to deliver big heaping gobs of light to the sensor to produce a properly exposed image. Shooting at f/2.8 maximizes the light collected by the lens and delivered to the sensor, at any given moment.

A large aperture also produces an image with a shallow depth of field. That is a huge plus when shooting sports. Often, the shot is focused on one player, coach or person. But how to draw attention to someone who is surrounded by a melee of athletes, officials and fans? A shallow depth of field serves to isolate the subject by putting everything and everyone else out of focus.

With a wide aperture selected and locked in, the next choice is which shutter speed to use. For basketball, soccer and football, I have found a shutter speed of 1/1000-second does a great job of freezing the action. Now, I could do this by putting the camera in manual mode, selecting the aperture (f/2.8), shutter speed (1/1000-second) and ISO. But I’m lazy. I don’t want to be responsible for all three variables. I want the camera to do some of the work. I’ll choose the aperture and shutter speed, and let the camera choose the ISO.

This is why I use Nikon’s Auto-ISO setting. In this setting, you choose a minimum shutter speed and a maximum ISO. For sports, I select 1/1000-second and a maximum ISO of 6400. Shooting with the D610, I’ve been very pleased with the quality of images taken at ISO 6400

At this point, I’m almost ready to start shooting.

This photograph was taken with a Tamron 70-200mm at 135mm, f/2.8, ISO 3600, 1/640-second

This photograph was taken with a Tamron 70-200mm at 135mm, f/2.8, ISO 3600, 1/640-second (Bill Ferris)

Next, i check the image quality setting to confirm it’s still in RAW. Shooting in RAW serves several purposes. First, it is the format that captures and preserves the most information about each image. The more information there is at my disposal, the greater the flexibility I have in post. RAW allows for adjustments to be easily made in Lightroom, not just in exposure, but also in white balance, contrast and a host of other key settings. As such, shooting in RAW gives me the greatest latitude when processing an exposure. And since I’m trusting my camera to choose the ISO, RAW acts as my insurance policy against a setting that is off by as much as a full stop. Typically, however, the Nikon D610 is within 1/3-stop in the ISO it chooses.

To ensure that my photographs are properly focused, I use Nikon’s AF-C or continuous autofocus mode. In this mode, the camera continuously adjusts focus to keep the subject sharp, For most events, I’ll use a cluster of nine autofocus points – sometimes, a single point – to allow the camera to focus on the subject while ignoring distracting objects within the frame. The autofocus points at the center of the frame are most accurate. Hence my preference for a central grouping.

Now, to give myself more control over when and where focus is set, I also engage back button focus. This is a technique where you assign focus control to a button on the back of the camera body. I assign focus control to the AE-L/AF-L button on my Nikon D610. With back button focus engaged, I am able to push the AE-L/AF-L button when I want to set focus. If I’m shooting a stationary subject, I can set focus then remove my finger from the button and recompose. If the subject is moving, I’ll continue pressing the button and allow the camera to follow focus while I’m keeping the subject framed.

With 12-seconds left in regulation, NAU's Dan Galindo hauls in a Jordan Perry pass to score the game-winning touchdown

With 12-seconds left in regulation, NAU’s Dan Galindo hauls in a Jordan Perry pass to score the game-winning touchdown. (Bill Ferris)

Almost by definition, athletes are quick and fast-moving subjects. As such, I use my camera’s highest burst rate to rip 6-10 exposures in a 1-2 second burst. This gives me the best chance of capturing the decisive moment. The only thing that’s missing from the above photo, is the official’s arms in the air signaling a touchdown. But that didn’t happen until long after the receiver made the catch.

While we’re on the subject of moments, let’s address a setting that, all too often, is ignored. Moments are fleeting. As soon as you recognize one as being of significance, it is already gone. One of the keys to successful sports photography is anticipating a decisive moment, recognizing that it is about to happen. This has more to do with you, as a student of the game, than with your camera settings. Know the sport. Decide ahead of time the kind of moment you want (a score, a collision, the joy of victory, dignity in defeat), watch for that moment, recognize when it is about to happen and press the shutter release.

Now, get out there and shoot.

Bill Ferris | January 2015


NAU quarterback Chase Cartwright releases a pass toward receiver Ify Umodu

NAU quarterback Chase Cartwright releases a pass toward receiver Ify Umodu. Photograph made with Nikon D610, Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 VC at 200mm f/2.8, ISO 4500, 1/1000-second. (Bill Ferris)

Sports photography is one of those disciplines where there is just no getting around the fact that the gear you need to consistently make great photos is expensive. Scan the sidelines at an NFL game and you’ll find twenty or more photographers. Each brings at least two camera bodies and numerous lenses to the game. Many will be shooting either the Canon 1DX or a Nikon D4s. The two most common lenses are long, fast telephotos: 300mm f/2.8 and 400mm f/2.8. If some conniving super thief were to devise a scheme to steal all that gear, they’d easily walk away with over $1 million in kit.

Why is sports photography so expensive? It all boils down to one thing: speed. The sports photographer needs a fast camera and fast lenses. The top Canon and Nikon professional camera bodies have burst rates in excess of 10 frames per second. In a profession where the job is to capture the defining moment and where the players have world-class size, strength and speed, the difference a tenth of a second can make is astounding. In that brief instant, a player can go from diving for the goal line to fumbling the football. The sports photographer needs a camera capable of capturing that moment.

Because of the speed at which the game is played, a sports photographer needs to use very short exposures to freeze the action. Yes, there are situations where a slow shutter speed can allow you to make an image that perfectly captures the astounding pace of the action. But in most circumstances, the objective is to freeze action. Exposures of 1/1000-second or faster are commonplace. To shoot at 1/1000-second, you need lenses that collect available light in big, slurping gulps.

A 400mm f/2.8 lens drinks light with gusto. It focuses in a blink and follows focus even as the player with the ball is doing everything possible to elude both you and the other team. It also delivers images having a very shallow depth of field. The subject is sharply focused but the background has a pleasing, soft creaminess. This creates separation between the subject and background, making for a better photo.

To shoot at 1/1000-second in an indoor stadium or at night, you need a camera body that makes great images with a minimum of light. To accomplish this demanding task, your camera sensor needs to make clean images at ISO’s of 4000 or higher. While the lighting at professional venues is typically pretty good, the light level at a collegiate venue is often much lower. The light levels at high school football stadiums makes you wonder how the players can find the end zone without using a flashlight. There is no escape from this. If you use longer exposures to allow the sensor time to collect more light at a lower ISO, the athletes will be blurred and the detail lost. Even indoors or at night, the sports photographer needs speed.

This level of performance is unavoidable and it’s not cheap. Are you familiar with the old phrase, “Cheap, fast and good; pick any two.” In sports photography, there is no such thing as cheap…not if you want to make great images.

Having the right equipment is only the start. The most critical tool available to the sports photographer is something that cannot be bought. That critical tool is knowledge and there is no substitute. If you know the game, you have the ability to anticipate where the next play is going. If you can anticipate where the next play is going, you have the opportunity to position yourself, to focus on the right athlete or place on the field and to be there ahead of all the other photographers to capture the decisive moment in the contest.

NAU running back Casey Jahn looks to turn a run north-south

NAU running back Casey Jahn looks to turn a run north-south. Photograph made with Nikon D610, Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 VC at 200mm, f/2.8, ISO 3600, 1/1000-second. (Bill Ferris)

I recently had the opportunity to photograph my first NCAA football game. I’ve been a sports fan – particularly football – most of my life and have been working professionally in televised sports coverage for 25 years. In other words, I know the sport and I know what makes for a great sports image.

My photographic equipment can be accurately described as pro-sumer. I shoot with a Nikon D610 digital SLR camera body. Nikon classifies this as an Enthusiast level camera. The 24 megapixel full-frame sensor is among the best available in any digital camera. I’ve shot with it at ISO 6400 and been very pleased with the quality of the images. The 39-point auto focus system is good – not great, just good – and the burst rate is a respectable 6 frames per second. The buffer allows me to shoot at continuous high burst for 2-3 seconds before the camera will start choking on new image files.

Like most of you, I’m on a budget. So, when I made the move to full-frame, I went with third party lenses to maximize both performance and value. The Tamron line of f/2.8 Di VC USD lenses deliver both. I am primarily a landscape photographer who does occasional portraiture. The Tamron glass gives me a range of focal lengths and apertures that meet the needs of both disciplines. Best of all, they deliver excellent image quality at a fraction of the cost of the equivalent Nikon lenses.

I used the Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 Di VC USD zoom with my Nikon D610 body to shoot the football game. The D610 was set to aperture priority and I shot at f/2.8 throughout the game. I also used the D610’s auto-ISO feature to configure the camera to use a 1/1000-second  shutter speed and choose the ISO that would allow for the proper exposure. Auto focus was set to AF-C (continuous servo), with 9 central auto focus points selected. I did experiment a bit with offsetting the auto focus points to the left or right (top or bottom when shooting in portrait aspect) but invariably came back to the central auto focus point. I also experimented with the D610’s continuous focus lock setting, ultimately choosing a setting that is slightly more responsive to motion than the default configuration.

The first decision I had to make was where to position myself for the opening kickoff and first offensive series of the game. Now, I am an NAU employee and support my Lumberjack sports teams. That said, Eastern Washington entered the game as the 2nd-ranked team in FCS football. They were 7-1 on the season with their only loss being a 52-59 decision against the Washington Huskies. To be perfectly candid, I expected the Eagles to put up a lot of points against NAU so, I set up at the end of the field where they would be scoring. This decision paid off as Eastern Washington’s first touchdown of the game was scored at that end. Unfortunately, while reviewing the shots I’d made of the play, I realized a corridor labelled, RESTROOMS, was the prominent background element in the images. Note to self: always be aware of your background.

As the 1st quarter progressed, it was clear that NAU had come to play. They weren’t intimidated by Eastern Washington and were gradually building momentum. So when the end of the quarter arrived, I decided to stay at the south end of the field to be in position to capture a Lumberjack touchdown. That proved to be the right decision as, early in the 2nd quarter, NAU quarterback Chase Cartwright hit receiver Beau Gardner in the end zone for the Jacks’ first touchdown of the day. For that score, I was positioned to photograph the celebration with NAU cheerleaders and fans in the background.

Eastern Washington's Cooper Kupp skies over NAU defender Marcus Alford to score a touchdown

Eastern Washington’s Cooper Kupp skies over NAU defender Marcus Alford to score a touchdown. Photograph made with Nikon D610, Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 VC at 90mm, f/2.8, ISO 4500, 1/1000-second. (Bill Ferris)

The Eagles blocked the extra point attempt and the two teams battled to a standstill for the next 8:00 as Eastern Washington held a narrow, 7-6, lead. Sensing that the Eagles were slowly reclaiming the momentum, I hustled to the north end zone to position myself for a possible Eastern Washington score. My instincts paid off as Cooper Kupp found the land of milk and honey on a 14-yard pass from Jordan West. I was positioned at the back corner of the end zone and had a great view of Kupp leaping over the pylon for the score. NAU battled back, scoring two field goals in the final 5:00 of the 2nd quarter to cut the EWU lead to, 14-12. Recognizing the shift in momentum, I moved to the south end of the field and made some nice photographs of Northern Arizona’s final drive of the half.

During halftime, I weighed the question of which team would come out of the locker room having made the correct adjustments. I gambled on NAU and set up at the north end zone. Almost immediately, I was questioning the decision as Eastern Washington marched right down the field. But the Jacks held them to a field goal and, on their next possession, Northern Arizona quarterback Chase Cartwright led the team on a drive that culminated on a 1st & goal from the 3-yard line. Seeing receiver Ify Umodu breaking out to my side of the field, I rolled the dice again, isolating on Umodu on the next play.

As a result, I completely missed a touchdown pass to NAU’s Alex Holmes. In hindsight, I should have continued employing the technique that had been working throughout the day of focusing on the quarterback, reading his body language after the snap and breaking for the receiver on the throw. I also decided I had been over thinking the game since the start of the half. So, I returned to a mode of trusting my gut instinct on where to go for the next series and then being smart about following the development of the play.

NAU's Eddie Horn grabs a handful of facemask to prevent Eastern Washington's Quincy Forte from reaching the end zone

NAU’s Eddie Horn grabs a handful of facemask to prevent Eastern Washington’s Quincy Forte from reaching the end zone. Photograph made with Nikon D610, Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 VC at 112mm, f/2.8, ISO 5600, 1/1000-second. (Bill Ferris)

This strategy paid off on EWU’s next possession. I had gone back to the other end of the field, setting up on the Eastern Washington side. Running back Quincy Forte powered his way to the 1-yard line before being tackled by the face mask. I had a perfect angle on and view of the face mask tackle. On the very next play, Forte forced his way into the end zone right in front of me.

Eastern Washington had a 24-19 lead and the teams battled back-and-forth, trading field goals over the next 15-minutes. It was during the 2nd half that I identified the spot where I wanted to be when the game ended. The location offered two great options for backgrounds. One, was the NAU bench on the opposite side of the field. The other option was the NAU cheerleading squad along the back of the south end zone. Either would make a perfect background, if the Jacks were able to score a late touchdown to win the game.

When the Eagles took possession of the ball with 4:37 on the clock, I sensed a game-clinching score coming and worked my way through the EWU bench to the north end of the field. Facing a 4th & 4 at the Northern Arizona 23 yard line, Eastern Washington burned two timeouts in succession before going for it.  A conversion would have allowed the Eagles to run out the clock but Jordan West’s pass to Cooper Kupp fell incomplete.

The final seconds were setting up exactly as I’d hoped: Northern Arizona had the ball on their own 23 with no timeouts and :47 left on the clock. They needed a touchdown and would have to be aggressive in their play-calling. So, I hustled back to my spot at the south end zone and waited for the magic to happen.

With 12-seconds left in regulation, NAU's Dan Galindo hauls in a Jordan Perry pass to score the game-winning touchdown

With 12-seconds left in regulation, NAU’s Dan Galindo hauls in a Jordan Perry pass to score the game-winning touchdown. Photograph made with Nikon D610, Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 VC at 70mm, f/2.8, ISO 8063 (Hi 0.3), 1/1000-second. (Bill Ferris)

On NAU’s second play, backup quarterback Jordan Perry completed a toss to Alex Holmes who sprinted 54 yards before going out of bounds at the Eastern Washington 20 yard line. On the next play, Perry took the snap and immediately looked to his left and my side of the end zone. As he cocked his arm and released the ball, I instinctively panned to pick up true freshman Dan Galindo breaking open across the goal line. Galindo was right in front of me as he cradled the ball, rolled across the turf and sprang up in celebration. With :12 left in the game, Galindo had just scored the go-ahead touchdown.

A huge celebration ensued as Galindo was surrounded by teammates. Team mascot, Louie the Lumberjack, even joined in. Cheerleaders and fans were frantic with joy. The Skydome was filled with the roar of fans who knew they were witness to something very special. Northern Arizona was about to defeat the number two team in the country. But there was more work to be done. NAU went for a 2-point conversion and failed. They squib kicked on the kickoff and Eastern Washington’s offense took the field with just :07 remaining. Their final desperation play ended when NAU defensive back Darius Lewis intercepted a backwards lateral and ran with the ball until time expired.

I immediately ran onto the field to capture the bedlam and ecstasy of the win. After making a few exposures with the 70-200, I ran over to my camera bag to exchange the telephoto zoom for the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 VR. I used this wide angle zoom to document the post-game celebration.

Jerome Souers, acknowledges the crowd after the comeback win versus Eastern Washington

Jerome Souers, acknowledges the crowd after the comeback win versus Eastern Washington. Photograph made with Nikon D610, Nikon 16-35mm f/4 VR at 30mm, f/4, ISO 5000, 1/1000-second. (Bill Ferris)

In hindsight, there are two lessons I took from this experience. The first is the importance of knowing the sport you’re shooting. Understanding the game and having the ability to anticipate what will happen next are critical to getting great photos. This is particularly true if you are limited to shooting with a relatively short focal length. (200mm is pretty short for football and other outdoor sports.) The second lesson is the value of choosing a location that allows you the opportunity to make a great photograph. Envision the scenario you would like to capture, go to the best spot for capturing that moment and allow the game to come to you. Of course, there is no guarantee things will play out as you want. That’s where your talent as a photographer comes into play. You’re there to document the event as it happens so, do your best with the cards you’re dealt.

Whatever your sport, whatever your photographic passion, today is a new day. It’s time to get out and shoot.

Bill Ferris | October 2014

Nikon D750 – Let the Stoning Begin

The Nikon D750 (image used courtesy of Nikon USA)

In photography as in life, it sometimes seems no good piece of kit goes unpunished. In 2012 as the world imaging community prepared to descend upon Cologne, Germany for the biennial imaging fair known as Photokina, the two leading manufacturers of consumer and professional digital cameras introduced major new products. About a week before the fair Nikon introduced the D600. Days later, Canon introduced the EOS 6D. Marketed as entry level full-frame CMOS sensor bodies, the D600 and 6D were intended to attract enthusiasts and crop-frame camera users to make the move into full-frame. The D600 joined Nikon’s flagship D4 and professional D800 and D800e in the FX category of full-frame DSLR bodies. Canon’s flagship 1DX and professional 5DMkIII welcomed the EOS 6D in completing that full-frame lineup.

Fast forward to the present day and, as the 2014 edition of Photokina opens, Canon has not introduced a new full-frame body since 2012. By contrast, Nikon has introduced four new FX (full-frame) DSLR cameras, including the just announced D750. The D750 features an impressive spec sheet:

  • An all-new 24.3 MP CMOS sensor
  • Nikon’s most advanced 51-point auto focus system (incl. group area AF)
  • Nikon’s flagship Expeed 4 image processor
  • Native ISO range of 100 to 12,800 (expandable to ISO 50 and 51,200)
  • Full 1080p/60 HD video (incl. auto aperture/auto ISO smooth adjust)
  • Light but strong carbon fiber and magnesium alloy frame
  • Nikon’s first FX body to feature built-in WiFi
  • The first full-frame DSLR by any manufacturer to sport an articulating rear LCD screen
The Nikon D750 features an articulating rear LCD screen (image used courtesy of Nikon USA)

The Nikon D750 features an articulating rear LCD screen (image used courtesy of Nikon USA)

The response to the D750 on the InterWeb has been immediate and impassioned. Much of the response has been intensely negative. Peruse the popular rumor and fan boy sites, and you will likely see comments such as – Another toy camera from Nikon…It’s disappointing…This is an instant fail IMO…This sucks.

So, why all the venom directed toward a camera that, on paper, makes a strong case for being the best all-around DSLR on the planet? To understand, we need to go back in time to another Photokina summer. In July 2008, Nikon introduced the D700, a professional full-frame DSLR body. It was just the second FX body developed and released by Nikon and was packaged with many of the performance specs of the flagship D3. The D700 featured the same sensor as the D3, a rugged frame, similar controls and layout as the top line pro body and a burst rate that, when paired with Nikon’s battery grip, topped out at an impressive eight frames per second. D3 shooters bought the D700 as their backup body and many pros bought the D700 as their primary body. Adding the rugged crop sensor (DX format) D300 to the mix gave Nikon a trio of professional bodies to meet the needs of dedicated still photographers,

In digital photography, the lifespan of a flagship body generally runs between two and four years. Canon unveiled the EOS 1DX in October 2011. This body replaced the EOS 1DsMkIII (2007) and was a shot across the bow of the long-in-the-tooth Nikon D3. Thus, it was not at all surprising when Nikon announced the all-new 16 MP D4 in January 2012. The D4 replaced the D3 and immediately established itself as a worthy adversary to the 1DX. With the D4’s release, D700 and D300/D300s shooters waited for the next shoe to drop. Which would it be, a replacement for the D700 or the D300?

One month later in February 2012, Nikon announced the D800 and D800e. Previously, Nikon had built a reputation of developing low megapixel (relative to Canon) pro bodies that excelled in low light. With the 36 MP D800 and D800e, Nikon more than doubled the resolution of the Flagship D4. These bodies quickly became favorites of landscape and portrait photographers. However, loyal D700 shooters were left wanting more. While the D700 could make images at an impressive 8 FPS, the D800/D800e barely made 4 FPS. What they wanted was the D4’s sensor, Expeed 3 processor and auto focus system in a D800 body.

An overhead view of the Nikon D750 (image used courtesy of Nikon USA)

By mid-2012, the Web was abuzz with talk of a D700 replacement being announced at the next Photokina. When the D600 emerged as Nikon’s major announcement in Cologne, D700 fans were not pleased. Despite its 24 MP (two-times the D700’s resolution) CMOS sensor, superior low light performance and 1080p video recording capability, the D600 was missing several key features in the eyes of D700 loyalists.

  • No professional build quality. The D600 offered weather resistance but didn’t have the D800’s rugged full magnesium alloy frame.
  • No 51-point auto focus system. The D600 inherited the D7000’s 39-point AF system.
  • Not a pro layout. The controls and menus were designed to be familiar to D90 and D7000 shooters.
  • No 1/8000-second shutter speed. The D600 peaked at 1/4000-second.
  • No 1/250-second flash sync speed. The D600 peaked at 1/200-second.
  • No 8 frame per second burst rate. the D600 peaked at 6 frames per second.

What D700 owners had asked for was a D4 imaging system in a D800 body. What the D600 offered was basically an FX version of the consumer D7000. What was Nikon thinking? Well, they may have been focused on costs and customer retention. In business, one of the keys to maximizing profit is to reduce operational costs. The rugged, pro-build quality of the D4 and D800 bodies were more expensive to produce than the consumer quality D7000. While a hypothetical D700 replacement would need to be manufactured in Japan at greater expense and narrower margin, the D600 could be manufactured in Thailand at lower cost and a higher profit margin.

Another factor Nikon must have considered was the migration of point & shoot photographers to smart phones. The rise of the smart phone had given the general public a take everywhere camera with immediate access to Facebook and Twitter where they could share photos with family and friends. Point & shoot camera sales were in free fall in 2012 and Nikon must have been concerned this trend would eventually hit the crop sensor market. Rather than invest in a format they considered to have a questionable future, Nikon chose to entice enthusiast and crop sensor photographers to upgrade to full frame. The D600 was priced at 1/2 to 1/3 the cost of Nikon’s professional FX bodies yet delivered comparable image quality. Yes, the D4 was better in low light and, yes, the D800 delivered higher resolution, but the D600 was no slouch. It offered comparable performance at a consumer price…or so it seemed.

Soon after D600 bodies started shipping. Reports surfaced on the web of oil and dust particle build up on the camera’s CMOS sensor. One D600 owner produced a time lapse video showing an accumulation of debris and oil that would choke a horse. Nikon had a problem. Their gift offering to enthusiast photographers was turning out to be a Trojan horse. However, Nikon refused to acknowledge what the reports and evidence clearly indicated – the D600 shutter mechanism had a problem. Nikon’s failure to immediately address the problem would allow it to grow into a major public relations disaster that deeply tarnished the company’s reputation as a manufacturer of quality imaging products.

In February 2013, Nikon finally issued a service advisory on the D600. The advisory offered guidance on the correct procedure to use when removing the natural accumulation of dust from a sensor. In essence, Nikon was dismissing the reports as normal dust accumulation. Meanwhile, D600 owners continued to report problems with their cameras and the impact on sales was immediate. When the camera was first introduced in September 2012, a launch price of $2,097 had been set. By November, Nikon was offering instant $100 rebates on their new body. By Christmas, customers were offered a free 24-85mm lens with the purchase of a D600. In January 2013, grey market distributors were pricing the D600 at $1,686. In May, a factory refurbished D600 was priced at $1,560. The camera’s value was in rapid decline and its reputation as a product that had been rushed to market too soon was forever sealed.

In October 2013 – only a year after the first D600 bodies shipped – Nikon introduced the D610. It was announced as a minor upgrade to the D600 but everyone knew it was an attempt to bring and end to the dust and oil disaster. The move backfired. If anything, Nikon’s decision to reissue the D600 with a new shutter mechanism was seen as tacit admission that the dust and oil problems were real. In February 2014, Nikon issued a service advisory to D600 owners offering a free inspection, cleaning and shutter assembly replacement, regardless of the warranty status of their cameras. In March, China ordered Nikon to stop selling the D600. This was followed soon after by a third service advisory that mentioned the option of, on a case-by-case basis, replacing defective D600s with D610s. In August, Nikon reached a settlement in a class action lawsuit with D600 owners. As part of the settlement, litigants were offered new D610s in exchange for their D600s.

To date, Nikon has yet to publicly acknowledge and take responsibility for delivering a camera with a poorly designed shutter mechanism that allows the accumulation of dust, debris and oil on the sensor.

A view of the Nikon D750 interior reflex mirror system (image used courtesy of Nikon USA)

To fully appreciate the damage the D600 dust and oil debacle has done to Nikon’s reputation, consider that DxO Mark tested the D600 soon after its initial release and ranked it as the third-best digital camera sensor on the market. This should have been a time of celebration, with Nikon reaping the rewards of having delivered an outstanding entry level full-frame DSLR camera. Instead, they spent a year in denial and are still in damage control. Even the D610, which by all accounts does not suffer from the dust and oil issue of the D600, has not been able to distance itself from that long, dark shadow.

Which brings us back to the just-announced Nikon D750. In early August when Nikon Rumors announced Nikon’s plan to introduce a new full-frame body at Photokina, the early reports described it as an action camera. Then, came the rumor that the new DSLR would be called the D750. This generated an immediate buzz as people made the obvious connection to the dream of a long-awaited successor to the D700. The online comments quickly focused on the wants of D700 owners: professional build quality, fast and accurate auto focus and a lightning quick burst rate. A D4s sensor in a D810 body is what D700 owners had come to expect.

That is not the D750.

Nikon markets their DSLR cameras in three categories: Entry-level, Enthusiast and Professional. The D750 is Nikon’s top Enthusiast level DSLR camera. Nikon does not market the D750 as a professional camera body. It is not the D4s sensor in a D810 body. Neither is it, as the many critics have claimed, a souped up D610 sensor in a D610 body. And this, friends, is where the D750 story gets interesting. One could fairly describe this camera as a cross over. It borrows features from all digital camera categories.

The D750’s outward appearance is almost identical to the D610. Beneath that enthusiast level surface, lies a completely new animal. The frame is a magnesium alloy, carbon fiber blend resulting in a rugged, weather resistant and relatively lightweight body. The layout of the interior components is completely new for Nikon. This internal redesign created space for fully-integrated WiFi while substantially reducing the size and weight of the camera body. WiFi is pretty standard stuff in consumer bodies. Small size and low weight are definitive qualities of mirrorless cameras. Rugged build and weather resistance are qualities that define professional DSLR bodies.

A side view of the Nikon D750 showing the articulating rear LCD screen (image used courtesy of Nikon USA)

The Expeed 4 processor and 51-point AF system are taken straight from Nikon’s flagship D4s and professional D810. Other features borrowed from Nikon’s professional lineup include full 1080p/60 HD video, auto aperture and auto ISO during video recording, and an industry-leading focus detection range of -3 to +19 EV. The articulated rear LCD is another feature taken from their consumer line of camera bodies. Performance characteristics shared with the enthusiast level D610 include a 1/4000-second maximum shutter speed and a 1/200-second flash sync speed.

In the D750, Nikon has delivered a camera designed and intended to appeal to a broad audience. In so doing, they’ve made a camera that – while incorporating features from several genres – is impossible to peg into any one category. The 24 MP sensor is among the best available…but it’s not the D810’s 36 MP sensor. The 6.5 frame per second burst rate is among the fastest in the market…but it’s not as fast as the 1DX or the D4s. (or the D700) The 1080p/60 HD video recording capability is very good…but it’s not 4K. The build quality is rugged and weather resistant…but it’s not weather proof. It’s impressive feature set is packed into a small, lightweight body…but it’s not mirrorless small.

In a nutshell, the D750 seems to be a Jack of all trades and a master of none. There is, perhaps, one exception. Could the D750 be the master do-it-all camera?

If you enjoy shooting sports, the AF system and burst rate will more than get the job done. In the professional full-frame DSLR category, only the Canon 1DX and Nikon D4/D4s have faster burst rates. If you enjoy portraiture and landscapes, the 24 MP sensor will deliver gorgeous, detailed images. Only Nikon’s D8XX lineup offers higher resolution. On paper, no DSLR does a better job of achieving focus in low light and the high ISO performance of the D750 is among the best in the market. If you enjoy shooting video, the D750 allows production in full HD with stereo audio. The dedicated video professional may be better served by the Panasonic Lumix GH4 or the Sony A7s. However, the D750 offers video functionality that is more than adequate for the enthusiast.

In short, the Nikon D750 looks for all the world like one of the best – arguably the best – choice as the camera that can do it all. If you are a professional photographer looking for a second body, wouldn’t it be nice to replace your current backup with something that is a little smaller and lighter? Something with outstanding resolution and low light performance? A camera with industry-leading auto focus? A camera you can use to capture quality video and sound? A backup body that does all this at a price point below $2,500? If you are an aspiring professional looking for one body that can take on any assignment (or an enthusiast seeking the same) does the D750 look like the perfect all-around performer? This is a camera body that, on paper, appears capable of shooting anything: editorial, sports, wedding, landscape, portraiture, wildlife, street, video…you name it.

Is the new Nikon D750 the best all-around DSLR camera in the world?

Bill Ferris | September 2014

Sports Photography

Wide angle zooms reach infinity focus within 2 to 3 meters, allowing you to freeze motion and achieve good depth of field even at the widest aperture. This image was shot at 16mm, f/4, ISO 4000, 1/500-second

Wide angle zooms reach infinity focus within 2 to 3 meters, allowing you to freeze motion and achieve good depth of field even at the widest aperture. This image was shot with a Nikon D600 full-frame DSLR using a Nikon 16-35mm wide angle zoom lens at 16mm, f/4, ISO 4000, 1/500-second. (Bill Ferris)

Sports and wildlife photography are extremely demanding of you, as a photographer, and your equipment. You are often shooting in low light, farther from your subject than you’d like–when it comes to wildlife, sometimes too close for comfort–and trying to capture a moving target. These are situations where your photographic technique and your equipment’s ability to make good images are pushed to the limit. In this blog entry, I’m going to focus on sports photography, offering some tips on how to capture compelling, dynamic images under challenging circumstances.

Battling for position beneath the basket. This image was captured at 70mm, f/2.8, ISO 2500, 1/800-second

Battling for position beneath the basket. This image was captured with a Nikon D600 and Tamron 70-200mm zoom lens at 70mm, f/2.8, ISO 2500, 1/800-second. (Bill Ferris)

Basketball is a sport which allows photographers to be relatively close access to the action. This doesn’t make the sport easy to shoot but it does make basketball easier to photograph than other sports. I used a Nikon D600 to capture all the images in this article. Sports photography is one area where a full-frame sensor, such as that in the D600, can give you an advantage over a digital camera with a smaller crop-sensor. The pixels on a full-frame sensor are larger than those on a crop-sensor DSLR body offering similar resolution. Larger pixels are more efficient. In other words, they do a better job of capturing light than smaller pixels. As a general rule, A full-frame DSLR will deliver at least a full stop of improved high ISO performance in comparison with a similar resolution crop-sensor body.

Why is this important for sports photography? If your objective is to capture a moment, your objective is often to freeze motion. (Please, note that freezing motion is not required for good sports photography. It is, however, a common practice.) To freeze motion, you need to take really short exposures, typically using shutter speeds between 1/500 and 1/1000 second. To make a good quality image at such fast shutter speeds, you’ll need two things: a fast lens and a camera with good high ISO performance. (Since flash photography is prohibited on the field or court, you’ll need to rely on your lenses and sensor to make the most of the available light.) Most sports photographers shoot with lenses offering fixed apertures of f/2.8 or faster. ISO settings are typically in the 1600 to 6400 range…sometimes faster.

In the above image, I was shooting at 70mm, f/2.8 using an ISO of 2500 and a 1/800-second exposure. If you zoom in to 100% on the full-size version of the image, you’ll see a slight touch of blur on NAU player’s right eye. Also, the reflected lights on his cornea are slightly elongated. Even shooting at 1/800-second, the image does not completely freeze the motion.

This image was taken with a Tamron 70-200mm zoom at 200mm, f/2.8, ISO 6400, 1/800-second

This image was taken with a Nikon D600 and Tamron 70-200mm zoom at 200mm, f/2.8, ISO 6400, 1/800-second. (Bill Ferris)

Another advantage of a full-frame sensor is its comparatively shallow depth of field. This advantage is due to the fact that crop-frame sensors effectively extend the focal length of a lens. Nikon’s DX format sensors have a 1.5X crop factor. In other words, any lens used on a DX format body will have an effective focal length 50% longer than it will on a full-frame or FX format Nikon body. The lens I used to take the above image was set to 70mm on my full-frame Nikon D600. On my crop-sensor D90, that same lens would have an effective focal length of 105mm and a correspondingly greater depth of field. The pleasing bokeh in the above image would not be as dramatic in images made with the D90. Objects in the distance would be more in focus, reducing the separation between the subject and the background.

This photograph was taken with a Tamron 70-200mm at 135mm, f/2.8, ISO 3600, 1/640-second

This photograph was taken with the Nikon D600 and a Tamron 70-200mm at 135mm, f/2.8, ISO 3600, 1/640-second. (Bill Ferris)

Here’s an image that does a nice job of freezing the action. If you zoom in to view the image at 100%, you’ll see the NAU player’s eyes are in focus. This is the number one rule of good photography: focus on your subject. When shooting basketball or another sport where the athlete’s face is in view, you should focus on the eyes. How do you know if you’ve succeeded? Look at a 100% view of the the eyes in the original image. If light reflected off the cornea is sharp and well-defined, the image is in focus. If the eye is soft or fuzzy, the image belongs in the recycle bin.

A technique I use to achieve good focus is called, Back Button Focus. Back Button Focus (BBF) moves the auto focus function of your DSLR from the shutter release button to the Auto Exposure Lock/Auto Focus Lock (AE-L/AF-L) button, typically found on the back of a DSLR body. Why do this? Most DSLR shutter release buttons allow you to activate auto focus with a half-depression of the shutter release button. To take a picture, depress this button fully to actuate the shutter. When shooting sports, there is an advantage to separating auto focus from shutter release.

Taken at 200mm, f/2.8, ISO 6400, 1/800-second

Taken at 200mm, f/2.8, ISO 6400, 1/800-second. (Bill Ferris)

In the above photo of NAU men’s basketball head coach, Jack Murphy, he was squatting while speaking to his team. The distance from him to my camera wasn’t changing. In that situation, I used the AE-L/AF-L button to set focus on his eyes, then waited for him to turn and face me before taking the exposure. If the Shutter release button also triggered the camera’s auto focus function, taking the picture may have reset focus on another person in the frame, ruining the picture.

Another advantage of moving auto focus to the AE-L/AF-L button is the potential to extend the battery life of your camera. If you shoot with vibration reduction (VR or VC) lenses, that half-depression of the shutter release button will activate the vibration reduction motors. The VR motors draw additional power from your camera’s battery. Using the AE-L/AF-L button for auto focus allows you to wait longer before engaging VR, which will extend your battery life.

200mm, f/2.8, ISO 5600, 1/800-second

D600 with Tamron 70-200 at 200mm, f/2.8, ISO 5600, 1/800-second. (Bill Ferris)

So, how do I set up my camera for a sports photo shoot? First, I put the camera in full Manual mode. Why? Well, I know there are two factors over which I want total control. The first, is aperture. I want to use my lens’s widest aperture. This maximizes the amount of light falling on the sensor, which allows me to make a good image using short, fast exposures. A wide open aperture also delivers images with beautiful bokeh, creating clear separation between the subject and surrounding environment. The second factor I want to control, is shutter speed. If I’m trying to freeze the action, I’ll choose an exposure of 1/500-second or faster. You’ll notice many of the images in this article were taken with exposures of 1/800-second.

Having selected the aperture and shutter speed, I will then engage a setting I rarely use: Auto ISO.  When doing landscape and portrait photography, I generally select a low native ISO setting of 100 or 200 to reduce noise in the resulting photograph and maximize image quality. Sports photography is one of those scenarios where you need to use–and trust–the camera’s high ISO capability. Selecting Auto ISO allows you to concentrate on framing, focus and when to push the shutter release button. You can choose to manually control ISO and, to be honest, many photographers are able to make ISO changes on the fly without missing a shot. Personally, I prefer to keep things simple and Auto ISO reduces the number of critical variables I have to monitor. Of course, this technique is only as good as your DSLR’s ability to meter and select a proper ISO.

D600 with Tamron 70-200mm at 200mm, f/2.8, ISO 5000, 1/800-second

D600 with Tamron 70-200mm at 200mm, f/2.8, ISO 5000, 1/800-second. (Bill Ferris)

With the manual settings in place, I’ll then double-check my camera’s auto focus setting. For landscapes and portraits, I use Nikon’s Auto Focus Single-Servo (AF-S) mode and choose a single auto focus point. In a nutshell, the AF-S mode tells the camera to set focus just once and lock that in place until the shutter is actuated. Landscapes don’t move and, in many portraiture settings, your subject is not moving. So, AF-S is a mode that allows you to precisely set and hold focus. Choosing one auto focus cross-point gives you further control over these critical factors.

Sports photography is a different animal, altogether. Since your subjects are moving, it’s generally better to select Auto Focus Continuous-Servo (AF-C) and a cluster of cross points where your subject is most likely to be within the frame. With AF-C selected, my D600 offers options of 9, 21 or 39 cross point clusters to predictively track and follow focus. This illustrates another advantage of assigning auto focus to the AE-L/AF-L button. With my right fore finger resting atop the shutter release button, my right thumb is able to depress and hold the AE-L/AF-L button to engage continuous auto focus. When I’m ready to take an exposure, I press the shutter release button.

D600 with Nikon 16-35mm at 16mm, f/4, ISO 5600, 1/640-second

D600 with Nikon 16-35mm at 16mm, f/4, ISO 5600, 1/640-second. (Bill Ferris)

Burst rate is another setting I’ll adjust prior to the game. Again contrasting sports photography with landscapes and portraiture, shooting constantly moving subjects is a scenario where your camera’s high speed burst rate is a real asset. Over the course of one or two seconds, a basketball player can go from the top of the key to leaping and finishing with a layup kissed off the glass or a monster dunk. My D600 has a maximum continuous burst rate of 5.5 frames per second. That’s one frame about every 0.2-second. If you have any doubt about how much can happen in two-tenths of a second, review a short burst sequence. In that collection of 5 to 10 images, there may be one where the player’s face is visible, the ball is visible, focus is pin sharp and framing is perfect. The other images may be soft in focus, poorly framed or have some object obscuring the subject’s face. I don’t recommend holding down the shutter release for seconds on end. But a well-timed, one-to-two second burst at your DSLR’s fastest rate can go a long way towards ensuring you get the shot.

Nikon D600 with Tamron 70-200mm at 200mm, f/2.8, ISO 6400, 1/800-second

Nikon D600 with Tamron 70-200mm at 200mm, f/2.8, ISO 6400, 1/800-second. (Bill Ferris)

Let’s talk about subject matter for a moment. Certainly, the primary objective of your photography will be to capture the critical moments and plays in the game. But sports are about more than just the action on the field or court. It’s also about what’s happening on the benches, in the stands and on the sidelines. The above image has nothing to do with the final score. But it captures a genuinely personal moment among the players on the Northern Arizona bench. If you didn’t attend the game, you probably don’t know what the final score was. However, seeing this image, may give you a clue. NAU dominated. They led by twenty or more points throughout the second half and won by that same margin. Hence, the players on that bench felt comfortable sharing a light moment–a bit of humor–before the final buzzer sounded.

200mm, f/2.8, ISO 4000, 1/800-second

200mm, f/2.8, ISO 4000, 1/800-second. (Bill Ferris)

Finally, I’ll share a few thoughts on lens selection. I brought three lenses to this shoot: Nikon 16-35mm, f/4; Tamron 24-70mm, f/2.8 and Tamron 70-200mm, f/2.8. All are zoom lenses with vibration reduction. The two Tamron lenses are fast, with fixed f/2.8 apertures throughout their zoom ranges. The Nikon 16-35mm is one stop slower at f/4, which would normally be a significant limitation in this setting. However, the excellent high ISO performance of the Nikon D600 body allowed me to freeze the action with this ultra-wide angle zoom.

Of the three, if I had to choose just one to bring to a basketball game, it would be the 24-70mm, f/2.8. It’s wide enough to frame players, head-to-toe, beneath the basket and long enough at the 70mm end to isolate a player from the waist up. The 70-200mm, f/2.8 would be next in my bag. The reach of this lens allows me to get up close and personal, filling the frame with the face of a coach or player. It also allows me to follow action on the far end of the court. In fact, if I were limited to just one lens for all sports shooting, it would be the 70-200, Sports like football, baseball and soccer are played on larger fields that demand a longer zoom range to bring the action closer to you, the photographer.

This photo was taken with a Nikon D600 and Tamron 70-200mm combo at 200mm, f/2.8, ISO 4500, 1/800-second

This photo was taken with a Nikon D600 and Tamron 70-200mm combo at 200mm, f/2.8, ISO 4500, 1/800-second. (Bill Ferris)

In summary, the key to successful sports photography is freezing the action. The tools that allow you to do this are a camera body with very good high ISO performance (advantage: full-frame sensor), fast lenses (f/2.8 or faster), and an auto focus system that accurately tracks and predicts focus on moving subjects. Shooting in manual allows you to control at least two critical settings: aperture and shutter speed. Using the camera’s Auto ISO feature can simplify things for you. Using your camera’s continuous auto focus setting and moving control over auto focus to the AE-L/AF-L button are an asset to achieving accurate focus. Focus on the eyes of your subject. If the eyes aren’t in focus, the image belongs in the recycle bin. When you’re ready to shoot, a well-timed short burst will help to ensure you get the shot. And finally, capture images that tell the full story of the event, including action around the court.

Now, get out and shoot!

Bill Ferris | November 2013


Hit the Street

It's a busy Friday night at "The Sweet Shoppe" in historic downtown Flagstaff, Arizona. (Nikon D600, Tamron 24-70 at 70mm, f/2.8, ISO 6400, 1/250 sec.)

It’s a busy Friday night at “The Sweet Shoppe” in historic downtown Flagstaff, Arizona. (Nikon D600, Tamron 24-70 at 70mm, f/2.8, ISO 6400, 1/250 sec.) (Bill Ferris)

Street photography is all the rage. Candid images of unsuspecting people capture the personality of a community. On a recent Friday night, I roamed the streets of Flagstaff looking for scenes of real life to photograph. The above image of a friendly exchange between a customer and employee in a downtown Flagstaff business, captures a touch of the good feeling that filled the streets on this particular evening. It was the first Friday of the month. People were out and about having dinner, buying a dessert to share with a friend and enjoying out the diverse collection of art and artists on display. It was wonderful to be out and in the midst of such a positive vibe.

Often, street photographers seek out subjects that challenge our senses or sensibilities. There is nothing wrong with taking that approach unless it crosses a line and becomes exploitation. Homelessness is a real problem in America. At the very heart of this problem is a healthcare system that leaves far too many people without access to needed professional medical treatment for mental illness or addiction. Mental illness and addiction make it incredibly difficult for a person to function in society. As a result, far too many people suffering from these illnesses are out on the streets–homeless.

Homelessness is tragic. It is all around us and easily recognized. I suppose this explains, in part, why the anonymous homeless person is a favorite subject for some street photographers. What the photographer sees, is the person’s circumstance: homelessness. What is missed, is the person’s condition: illness. Personally, if I never see another black & white photograph of an elderly person in tattered clothes, blankly staring and oblivious to the passing world, it will be too soon. There is a good chance the person in that photograph is suffering some form of illness. And that, in my opinion, makes the act of photographing the person a form of exploitation.

It seems to me there is a misguided notion that photographing the homeless carries on a tradition begun during the Great Depression. What most people don’t understand is the fundamental quality that made homelessness during the Depression so different from today’s version. During the Depression, the underlying condition or cause of homelessness was not a physical or mental illness. The underlying condition was a global economic collapse that had destroyed the very foundation of society.

The catastrophic economic disaster which produced the Great Depression sent tens of millions of Americans out of their homes and onto the streets. By and large, these were not folks struggling with mental illness or addiction. They had been fully-functioning members of society–working, raising a family and being neighbors. But the physical institutions that served as the foundation for American society had been hit by an economic tidal wave. With entire industries destroyed, there literally was no societal framework within which a person could function. There was only chaos, a maelstrom engulfing millions who lost their jobs, their homes…everything.

The families and individuals featured in the most iconic of Depression-era photographs were just like you and me with one significant exception: They were homeless. An economic collapse was sweeping across the nation like a plague. Jobs had not been lost as casualties of a dreadful addiction or a debilitating mental disorder. The jobs had simply gone away. Not given to another person. Just…gone.

You could see the despair in people’s eyes in those photos. You could also see the determination and the dignity. These were people who had all the potential and ability in the world. In any other circumstance, they would have been the neighbors we met at the local super market, joined in worship on Sunday or socialized with at the next school open house. What made the Depression-era homeless so admirable, was that look in their eyes. They had been stripped of every physical element of dignity. But that circumstance did not touch their inner sense of dignity. They were survivors and they were determined to regain what they had lost.

In the 1930’s, homelessness was a random act of cruelty. Today, homelessness is more preventable and treatable. This makes the act of photographing a homeless person different. Depression-era photos are evidence that a person can lose every worldly good, and still retain their resolve and dignity. Photographing the mentally ill and addicted exposes people at their weakest, at a time when dignity and resolve are rare commodities. It is a means of objectifying a person in need of medical attention. It is exploitative. We may not be able to rescue every homeless person from the addiction or illness that has sent them to the curb. But we can, at the very least, treat that person as more than a compositional element in a photograph.

A patron sits lost in thought at a downtown Flagstaff cocktail lounge.

A patron sits lost in thought at a downtown Flagstaff cocktail lounge.in a different circumstance altogether. (Bill Ferris)

So, while out walking the streets of downtown Flagstaff the other night, I wasn’t looking for homeless people to photograph. Instead, I looked for every day people. People like you and me. People who share the same dreams, struggle with similar worries and who, on a Friday night, were seeking a brief respite from their work-a-day lives. I looked at the man in the above photograph and wondered, “What is he thinking?” I suppose he could have been contemplating some great world problem. Or maybe, he was thinking what I would have been thinking in that situation, “Should I go home or have another beer?”

When I got home that night, I did enjoy a cold beer. But I didn’t head home, right away. I had my camera, a fast lens and a downtown full of interesting people to photograph. People like you. People like me. Good street photography reveals the qualities that make a town a community. It celebrates the people, their dignity, their compassion for others and their ability to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Like a bag of chocolates or a cold beer.

Get out and shoot!

Bill Ferris | November 2013

M, Is for Manual

This single exposure was shot at sunset from a vantage point below Desert View Watchtower on Grand Canyon's South Rim. Angels Gate, an iconic formation in the canyon, stands in silhouette toward the upper right corner. One of the reasons I like scenes such as this is they remind me of childhood school projects...cutting random shapes from different colored sheets of paper and layering them into some interesting pattern. (Bill Ferris)

This single exposure was shot at sunset from a vantage point below Desert View Watchtower on Grand Canyon’s South Rim. Angels Gate, an iconic formation in the canyon, stands in silhouette toward the upper right corner. (Bill Ferris)

If you’re up for having some fun with your new camera, rotate the program dial to the M setting. M, stands for Manual. In this setting, you get to choose the ISO, the aperture and the length of the exposure. I realize the thought of taking responsibility for these critical settings can be intimidating. But don’t let that stop you. Sometimes, it’s fun to be a little afraid or intimidated. And you know what, it’s actually pretty easy to take good photos in manual.

We’ll start by keeping the camera in Auto, framing a shot and taking an exposure. Next, review the image and note the three critical settings: ISO, aperture and length of exposure. Write down the numbers. As we’ve discussed, ISO is the sensitivity of the camera sensor to light. ISO settings typically range from a low end of 200 to a high end of 3200 or more. Pro camera bodies often have the ability to select an ISO as low as 100 and go to 25,000 or higher. Generally speaking, the lower the ISO, the more pleasing the final image will be. As ISO sensitivity increases, noise becomes more evident in the image. At very high ISO settings, the amount of noise or grain visible in the image is substantial.

Aperture is the diameter of the lens opening allowing light into the camera body and onto the sensor. In aperture mode, rather than selecting the size of this opening, you actually select the ratio of the focal length of the lens to the aperture. This is referred to as the focal ratio or f/ratio. If you are shooting with a 50 mm lens or with a zoom lens set to 50 mm, and if the aperture is set to f/9, you know the lens focal length is nine-times the diameter of the lens opening or aperture. If you do the math, the aperture should be about 5.6 mm. Suppose you select an aperture setting of f/4.5, the lens focal length would be four-and-a-half times the aperture. That works out to roughly 11 mm. So, as the focal ratio gets smaller, the aperture or lens opening gets larger.

Finally, the length of the exposure is the amount of time the shutter is left open allowing light to hit the exposed sensor. This is also referred to as shutter speed. If your goal is to freeze a moment in time, you’ll want a short exposure or fast shutter speed. With a fast shutter speed, moving people or objects will appear stationary–frozen in time–but as the shutter speed slows, moving objects and people look more blurry. Keep in mind that there are situations where you will want to use a long exposure to capture blurred movement. Flowing water is one such situation. We’ll talk more about that a little later.

Now that you’ve taken an exposure in Auto and noted the settings, turn the mode dial to manual (M). Use the camera controls to set ISO, aperture (f/stop) and shutter speed to the settings you noted. Frame the same shot you just took and take another exposure. Then, compare this with the first frame. They should look very similar, if not identical. If you’re shooting outside in natural sunlight, any differences between the two images will most likely be attributed to a change in lighting conditions.

Let’s talk about the adjustments you might make to improve the overall look of the shot. If the shot you’ve been taking is a general wide shot of the room you’re in, you probably want to capture a good depth of field. In other words, you’ll want the lamp in the foreground and the chair next to that far wall both to be in focus. For good depth of field, you’ll want to select an f/stop in the f/8 to f/10 or f/11 range. The relatively small aperture will ensure objects both near and far will be in focus.

Suppose you really like that lamp in the foreground and you’d like to isolate it in a portrait. One way to isolate a subject in a portrait is to use a fast f/stop to create a shallow depth of field. Rather than shooting at f/9, you’re going to rotate the command dial to select an f/stop as small (fast) as your lens is capable of producing. Hopefully, you can dial in at least an f/4.5 or f/4 setting. If you can go as fast as f/2.8 or smaller, do it.

So, in which direction did you rotate the command dial and how many clicks did it take to settle on your desired f/stop? If you increased the f/stop (closed the aperture) then you’ll need to compensate by adjusting either the ISO or shutter speed. Increasing ISO will compensate for a large (slow)  f/stop by making the sensor more sensitive. A slower shutter speed will lengthen the exposure, allowing more light to pass through the restricted aperture to hit the sensor. if you adjust one or both of these settings in the proper direction by the same total number of clicks, you should be very close to compensating for the aperture change and creating a photograph that matches your expectations.

Which adjustment should you make? If you’re holding the camera by hand, you’ll want to use a shutter speed short enough to prevent any unsteadiness from creeping into the exposure. You can apply the reciprocal rule, in this scenario. The shutter speed should be no shorter than the reciprocal of the lens focal length. If you’re using a 100 mm focal length, you’ll want to shoot with a 1/100-second or faster shutter speed. The shorter the lens focal length, the longer your exposure can be when shooting handheld and still produce a sharp image.

The balance of the compensation can be made through changes to the ISO setting. Be aware that a significant increase in ISO to a setting of 1600 or higher stands a good chance of introducing unwanted noise or pixelation into the image. Of course, this is a situation where a tripod can be a godsend. If you’re able to mount the camera on a stable tripod, you can use shutter speed, alone, to compensate for a larger f/stop (smaller aperture) and still get very sharp images.

A silky water flow over Taliesin Dam at the Frank Lloyd Wright home in Taliesin, Wisconsin. (Bill Ferris)

A silky water flow over Taliesin Dam at the Frank Lloyd Wright home in Taliesin, Wisconsin. (Bill Ferris)

As mentioned, there are times when you’ll want to give priority to the shutter speed over the aperture. For example, a slow shutter speed (long exposure time) can enhance a photograph of a waterfall by giving the water a silky smooth texture. In this scenario, you’ll want an exposure of several seconds or longer. You can compensate for this by selecting a slow f/stop (aperture setting) of f/9 or f/11. Also, choose the lowest ISO setting available on your camera. And you’ll definitely need a tripod to produce a steady, sharp image with such a long exposure. If the resulting image still looks overexposed, try adding a polarizing filter to the front of the lens to further cut down the amount of light entering the camera. If the image is still overexposed, come back during that golden hour just before sunset to capture the scene at a time when the light level is reduced.

These are just a couple of ways you can begin to experiment with shooting in manual to give yourself more complete control over the photographs you make. It may not be something that immediately produces great results for you. But with time, patience and experimentation, you’ll gain a better understanding of how changes to the primary camera settings affect the final image. Ultimately, this is a path to having more creative freedom with your camera, taking better pictures and having more fun.

So, get out and shoot!

Bill Ferris | August 2013