Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Weekend in the Highlands

Displaying Capercaillie, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.
What a beautiful country Scotland is! Before the weekend, I'd only seen the roads to and from Edinburgh on a couple of occasions and little else of the country. Once on the A9 at Perth, the scenery is nothing short of spectacular. Not quite Switzerland perhaps, but certainly a league above anything the South east of England has to offer for the sheer drama of the landscape. I must say a big thank to my friend Paul - who I've known since we were at playschool back in Addiscombe - for doing ALL of the driving! He also acted as cameraman for what we hope will be a decent video insight into the trip. My tendency to talk rubbish may well have a say here, but I'm looking forward to seeing the results!

The fact that weekend was a success was largely down to a huge slice of luck (about time!) in finding a Capercaillie defending his territory - which just happened to include the footpath we were on. True to my preference for finding my own subjects, we chose to go our own way rather than use tours or safari-type services provided by others. In hindsight, for such a short period of time in an unfamiliar terrain, I think you really need to go down that route for the best chance of getting the shots. Our second day (which only produced a couple of distant red grouse images) proved that point; the mountain hares we saw were flat on the A95, we didn't manage to find any deer or pine martens and only had a fleeting glance of a red squirrel.

The Capercaillie saved the weekend from an images-captured perspective, but I wouldn't have been too disappointed if we hadn't had that luck. The experience itself was worth the journey. We had a 2am climb up the Craigellachie reserve producing great views across Aviemore, snow/rain from a clear sky (!) and ponds brimming with amorous toads and frogs. It looked like the lack of snow this season has had an effect on businesses in the town - though from talking to locals they're still living off the last two winters!

All in all, it was a great weekend with an old friend and produced lots of images of a very special creature. I can't wait for the next trip!

You can find more Capercaillie and other shots from the weekend on flickr -

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Springs Sprung / New Nikon Gear

Spring is upon us.  The days are lengthening, grass growing and the animals are getting themselves, to quote from Bambi, "twitterpated"!  After the excitement of the Short-eared owls at Waltham over the winter months, I'm searching for subjects again. Great Crested Grebes are beginning their dramatic courtship, March hares will be mad, the garden Dunnocks are nest building and soon the Ospreys will return - albeit very temporarily around these parts! Plenty to choose from if they can be found.

My real interest over the next month comes with the hares. It's not an easy image to find, but the "boxing" that occurs most frequently at this time of year is one I'm after.  The female - in condition for just a few hours every six weeks or so - fights off over-zealous males hoping to make their genes the ones that are passed on to the next generation. Of the locations I know for hares, only one is local. It'll need early starts and a truckload of good fortune.
I also have a hastily-arranged visit to Scotland on the horizon, hopefully to find mountain hares (perhaps with winter coat still at least partially on), grouse, red deer and anything else that presents itself. It's my first visit to the Cairngorms, the shots I return with are not the priority this time - finding our way and the experience of being in a challenging environment is. I'm sure I've said it many times before, but I don't like using tours and existing hides to find my subjects. Maybe this will prove a bridge too far and I'll relent in future - but if you don't try...

Greater Spotted Woodpecker in the rain

Moving on, in the last couple of months Nikon have announced two new bodies of real interest. The D4 is a 16.2 megapixel, full frame, professional DSLR that sports and wildlife photographers will find very appealing. However, a £4700 price tag is not so appealing, and makes it hard to justify to anyone but a full-time professional or those with more cash than sense. The D800 has a whopping 36 megapixel sensor and a much kinder-to-the-wallet cost of £2400 (or £2800 for the D800e, with the anti-alias filter removed - essentially for a sharper image but at higher risk of a "moire" effect). The downside for a wildlife photographer is the puny FPS and enormous RAW files involved. Doubtless you'll also give up ISO performance to the D4, perhaps D3s as well. This brings me to "the" question. My D300 just isn't capable of the quality these monsters produce and it's getting a little long in the tooth. Maybe it can compare if shooting at ISO 200 with great light, an obliging subject and uniform colours - but the reality is you'll be lucky to get more than a few days a year like that. Shooting with a cropped sensor also increases the depth of field, useful on occasion - but unable to achieve the same creamy background blur (or "bokeh") that you get from a full fame camera. I need an updated body. To me, realistically the D4 is out of reach. I'd have to give up any hope of a long lens for the foreseeable future. So the preferred options are currently a D800 or used D3s...

The case for the D3s:

* Solid, weighty professional camera. Still the best Nikon body available today in terms of ISO performance, FPS and build quality... until the D4 starts to ship, which is unlikely to be anytime soon for mere mortals like me.
* 2nd hand prices likely to drop to around £2600 or so, but only when D4 is established and available
* CF slots - no new media needed, I have what I need here...
* Frames per Second - way above what the D800 will offer
* Smaller NEF files - Not much larger than my D300 currently churns out
* Better the devil you know - There are plenty of photographers out there producing stunning images with a D3s. That doesn't change overnight because a new, untested body or two arrives on the scene.
* Battery life - lasts longer than D4 or D800, according to the specs

The case for the D800:

* Brand new, state-of-the-art pro Nikon body. Same AF as the D4, whopping number of pixels (36mp) and likely to be capable of the best images you'll see from a Nikon DSLR for some time
* Cheaper than a 2nd Hand D3s
* Next-generation auto focus, a subject of minor complaint from some D3s owners
* Would I need a 500/600mm lens on this thing? Resolution that makes cropping from a 300mm a realistic option
* Who needs FPS if you're not a "spray'n'pray" shooter?
* Low light performance should still beat D300 hands down
* Smaller and lighter than the D3s, should be easier to handle and support
* Video capabilities should be very, very good. It's not something I do at the moment (D90 isn't really worth bothering with on this front) but likely will in the future
* Promises to be fantastic for landscapes - and portraits / weddings should I decide to go down that route
* Purchase new = warranty and perhaps Nikon loving me a bit more!

There's probably things I've missed here and a few unknowns that will emerge with the new gear as time goes on (feel free to add to the argument!). No doubt some would prefer to invest in glass and/or support, camo gear, rain proofing, new laptop... the list goes on. I'm at a stage where I feel the most pressing need to improve the results I'm getting comes from the body I'm using. I'm finding I have the camera settings at wide open, using ISO1600 at 1/200 too frequently. That in itself suggests the D3s might be the better option, but until the D800 is tested and in wider circulation the jury is out on ISO performance. It's not a decision I'm going to rush... By the time I'm ready to take the plunge I wholly expect a D400 release to complicate the choice further!