Posted on November 22, 2019
I started my career as a Canon shooter, and moved to Nikon in 2009 when I got to try the D3 and the D3x. From then onwards I have been very happy with my Nikon gear and I was even lucky to represent the brand as an ambassador for 7 years. However, I have seen a change over time that made me start rethinking my choice of gear. In November 2019 I moved over to Sony and after using my new tools in Antarctica for 2 weeks, hosting a expedition with WildPhoto Travel, I have some thoughts I want to share.
Firstly I want to say that I am a true believer that the camera gear is not the most important tool to become a good photographer. Some people can create stunning images with a mobile phone. However I do believe that a good photographer, that knows how to utilize the tools available can improve his or her images by choosing the best available technology.
I also want to make it clear that I am not sponsored by Sony in any way, nor do I have any working relationship with the brand. I am however sponsored by Stavanger Foto that also sponsored my Nikon gear ever since I was relieved from my ambassador contract with Nikon Norway. Please check them out at www.stavangerfoto.no.
So why change? To sum it up – innovation! Nikon has an amazing history of professional cameras and lenses that have been producing stunning images over decades. However, every time they have tried to take a leap into the mirrorless future they have failed, lately with the Z7 and Z6 that was released long before it was ready for the marked in my opinion. Amazing files, but completely useless autofocus from a camera manufacturer that is know to have one of the best focus systems in the world. And lets not even talk about the V1 series…
The only thing holding me back before has been the lack of Sony prime telephoto lenses, but now with a 400/2,8 and the 600/4, as well as a great selection of flexible lenses in the medium and wide range I don’t see why I shouldn’t take the leap. I already have several colleagues that have moved to mirrorless, and especially the Olympus system has been getting a lot of attention in Norway, but in my opinion it is not even close to the competition unless you are looking for a lightweight backpack. At least not for the kind of wildlife photography I am doing, and in the environment that I normally work.
My current field collection consists of a Sony A9 with a battery grip and a A7 III (while waiting for a A7r IV) with a 600/4, 70-200/2,8, 24-105/4, 16-35/4 and the brilliant 85/1,8. Weight has not really been a big issue for me, but I must admit it was a bit comforting to put my camera bag on the scale at the airport in Argentina and only get an approving nod from behind the counter. The bag weighed in at 12,5 kg, oppose to close to 20kg with my old system. Stress level reduction – check!
Then let’s jump straight into it; the focus system – wow! I have always believed that Nikon has the best focus system in the world, but I will be the first (I think) to admit I was wrong. The flexible tracking spot of the Sony A9 is completely mind-blowing. I still think that my Nikon D5 caught the subject faster while it was still small in the frame, and especially in hard backlight, but when the A9 has the subject locked it just doesn’t let go. While shooting Antarctic cormorants flying to the nest at high speed I shot 2200 backlit images in two hours with my 600mm and ALL of them where in focus. Because the birds came in very close I did cut the wings, head or tail at times, but even when just the tip of a wing was in the viewfinder it was a sharp wingtip. The Sony sensor has focus points on 100 % of the viewfinder and it really makes a difference.
During the cormorant shoot I was firing at continuous high and medium with electronic shutter, giving me roughly 14 frames per second with uncompressed RAW. I realized that the mechanical shutter was useless for this kind of shooting and I honestly don’t see why you would bother using it unless you need a long exposure. I guess that is the only reason it is even an option. I was also using a small spot to lock onto the bird while it was still small in the frame. In addition I have my camera set to medium lock-on and I noticed on a few series that even when the subject in focus was completely covered behind nesting birds, it would still be pin sharp when it emerged a couple of frames later. Very impressive!
One of the most important features concerning the focus system, in my opinion, is the flexible tracking. This makes it possible to focus on a moving subject like a flying bird and compose your picture without worrying about loosing focus. I used this feature a lot with petrels flying along tabular icebergs and over the Drake Passage. What really makes a difference though, is that this amazing autofocus also works with the live view screen (obviously as it is a digital viewfinder), making it super simple to work with moving subject with a tilted LCD screen and autofocus low to the ground or over water. The Nikon had a 3D tracking mode that had similar features, but it could not be used with live view, and it was not usable for fast moving subjects like the cormorants. From what I heard the focus is even more impressive in the A9 II with much smoother tracking, which is going to be nice as the focus is a bit overactive.
After I started shooting with the Sony I have started seeing new possibilities and I can’t wait to take it under water and also shoot low from our zodiacs and ships in the Arctic.
Other positives worth mentioning is the possibility to customize more or less every button on the camera. I especially like the option to save every exposure parameter to a custom button (I use the AEL button for this) so that I can quickly go from shooting fast shutterspeed to slow panning without rotating dials or going into the menu. Canon used to have this feature in the EOS 1D mkII but I don’t know if it still exists. I only wish I didn’t have to release the focus button for the custom settings to activate. Hopefully that can be solved with a firmware upgrade. This is also something I love about the Sony; with so few moving parts major adjustments to the camera performance can be done over regular firmware upgrades.
One of the most important features of any camera is of course the file produced. Both the cameras I have been shooting with have 24,2 megapixel sensors, and I consider this sufficient but nothing more. However, I hope to upgrade to the A9 II (same file size as A9) and also to get the A7r IV, which has an incredible 61,2 megapixel sensor! The one thing that struck me with the Sony files were the dynamic range in my images, and especially the details I got shooting backlit penguins. Shooting the birds on snow obviously helps as the light is bounced off the surroundings but even in harsh backlight I got amazing details in both shadow and highlight. I am really looking forward to seeing the files of the A7r IV when I get my hands on it.
On a couple of occasions I also got to use the insanely fast shutterspeed you can get with the A9. When shooting backlit penguins with the low sun in the frame I could shoot at 1/32000 sec, making it possible to still use a large aperture for a soft foreground and background. This is also extremely convenient when shooting with lenses like the 85/1,8 or similar.
Even I haven’t really been using it yet I am also fascinated by the eye recognition feature, which will be upgraded to also work on animal eyes. I look forward to try it on Polar bears in the Arctic.
It has to be said, the menu system is a mess! I have always praised Nikon for having a simple and intuitive menu, unlike Canon, and I will stand by that. Sonys menu is extremely confusing and seem like it has been thrown into the camera on pure chance. Many of the menu options are also very hard to understand and the descriptions given by holding the trashcan button is just as confusing. Luckily you have the option of storing your own custom menu and I am sure that over time I will learn to use my custom menu and forget about the mess behind it.
It took a while for me to get used to the digital viewfinder but once I did I didn’t really think about it. The only thing I have learnt is that it takes a while for the camera to wake up after sleep mode. I have my cameras set to 1 minute before going into sleep mode and on more than one occasion I have put the camera to my eye only to realize the viewfinder is pitch black. When triggered it also takes a while for the viewfinder to wake up and even longer before the focus starts searching. I have lost images due to this and it is something I need to work around by changing the time before the camera goes to sleep or learn to wake it up while I am putting it to my eye.
Coming from the Nikon D5 and D850 I do find the button configuration of the A9 and the A7 III a bit odd. Especially wearing gloves it is very hard to work the dials and the buttons, but I have had the A9 II and also the A7r IV in my hands and I think the problems has been solved in this generation of bodies. The first time I held the A9 II it was almost like holding a Nikon D850 again, and with the grip I am sure it will fall into my hands quite nicely. In addition you get better weather sealing than you get with the A9.
A couple of things worth mentioning at the end is the lack of lossless compressed RAW which I hope can be solved over a firmware upgrade, and the dust issues which is more a hardware problem. The Sony sensor needs a lot of attention and I found that I needed to clean dust more often then I have ever done with my Nikons. However the sensor is large and easy to access and cleaning it is not too hard.
So to sum it up, I changed to Sony because I believe in innovation, a smarter future, awesome autofocus, a great lens line-up and okay the weight reduction is a bonus too. For me moving from Nikon to Sony felt natural in a digital world where a brand like Sony is a leading force. To bring photography forward the photographer and the camera brands have to work hand in hand, and at the moment I feel Sony is the brand that listens to the professional user. Together we can improve the art of photography.
Posted on April 24, 2018
Over the years as a Nikon ambassador I have been able to test a lot of new gear that has come out and some of it I have reported on, like the 200-500mm f/5,6 (https://roymangersnes.wordpress.com/2015/09/25/field-test-nikkor-200-500mm-f56e-ed/) and the 500mm f/4 (https://roymangersnes.wordpress.com/2015/07/28/field-test-nikon-500mm-f4e-fl-ed-vr/). After my contract with Nikon was terminated they still trusted me with new gear to test in collaboration with my partner Stavanger Foto (www.stavangerfoto.no), like the D850 (https://roymangersnes.wordpress.com/2017/09/26/field-test-nikon-d850-gone-wrong/). After the latest mishap with brand new equipment I wasn’t expecting to be testing anything for a while, but there I was hosting a 8 day winter expedition to the Norwegian Arctic archipelago Svalbard with my company WildPhoto Travel, testing a spanking new AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR.
As before I don’t do technical analysis or in depth tests of all features. My main concern is – does it work for me in the field? After hosting over 20 boat expeditions for WildPhoto Travel (www.wildphoto.com) to Svalbard, and the last three years some in winter conditions, I knew that this was the perfect place to take this new lens to the test. During these trips we work on a moving ship in relatively low light, with temperatures sometimes dropping below minus 20 degrees Celsius. I normally bring a tripod, but on this tour I shot everything hand held. For reference I tried the lens with the Nikon D5, D850 and D500, with the D5 being my preferred body. During this expedition we had temperatures ranging from minus 5 to minus 20 degrees Celsius, with severe wind chill on some occasions. I left my photo equipment outside in the cold throughout the trip to prevent condensation issues. On the coldest days I did experience slowing down of the LCD screens but all other features of my cameras seemed to be working just perfectly, so it shouldn’t affect the performance of the lens.
My first impression is that this is a solid built lens in the same category as my favourite 400mm f/2,8 and other prime Nikon lenses. Nikon say that the 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 is built to replace the 200-400mm f/4. The way I see it this is something completely new! I never really liked the 200-400mm, but this lens is going in my bag.
The 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 is relatively heavy (3,5kg), but there is a lot of good glass in this package. The lens features 1 fluorite and 8 extra-low-dispersion elements (ED glass) plus fluorine, Nano Crystal coatings. It is well balanced and feels really good with the D5, but even with the light D500 it is stable and comfortable in the hand. One thing that was bothering me with the 200-500mm was that you would have to turn the zoom ring very far to move from shortest to longest. This causes a lot of problems when shooting hand held because you will have to adjust your grip, but this is much better on the 180-400mm, and I believe it is well within what is acceptable. The new lens obviously also has an internal focus like the 200-400mm. In the future I would however love to see a servo on the lens, perhaps one you can turn on and off, that enables you to go from 180mm to 400mm with just a small adjustment of the zoom ring. At least the way I was using the lens; I rarely did fine adjustments to the focal length, but rather took if from 200mm to 350mm in one go. In such a case a servo would have been perfect. Anyway, that’s for the future.
When it comes to use in the field there where several things I was curious to test. Sharpness obviously being one feature, but also focus speed, backlight, vibration stabilization and just how it handles was of importance. I was also curious to see how the built in extender performed and I must say I got used to it very quickly and it’s positioning seem to be good for my grip and hands. I can easily take it on and off while still shooting. It also seems the lens keeps focusing while you add the extender and also while adjusting the zoom. (Keep in mind that Nikon has a disclaimer saying you should not use the extender while focusing. I did this all the time, and didn’t have any issues.) There was an early problem with the 200-500mm where it stopped focusing when the zoom was used, but it does not seem to be an issue here. The problem mentioned was quickly solved with a firmware upgrade after it was pointed out by the first users.
To get the full potential of this lens, and your other lenses, make sure to have the latest firmware in your camera, including the Lens Distortion firmware.
The first point I want to make is about the flexibility that this lens gives me. On this expedition I brought the three bodies mentioned above, but limited my lenses to the 14-24mm f/2,8, 24-70mm f/2,8, 70-200mm f/2,8 and the 180-400mm f/4 TC14. My normal prime lens is the 400mm f/2,8 and I have also been using the 800mm f/5,6 on these expeditions previously.
For me photography is about telling stories and with this lens I can easily go from shooting close portraits and interaction to including the surrounding landscapes to add a sense of place and scale like I like to do, without having to bring another body and shorter lens. My 70-200mm f/2,8 was hardly used on this trip.
I also want to make a point about the close focus range, which is 2 meters (6.5′) at any focal length. This will make this lens a perfect lens for close up photography of critters like reptiles and butterflies, and also a very good portrait lens.
The positioning and handling of the extender switch was a bit awkward in the beginning, probably also due to the fact I was working with thick gloves, but after a little while I was turning the extender on and off like a champion. It is very easy to use the ring finger on you right hand to operate the switch, and you can easily do this while your index and thumb is busy shooting (note the disclaimer mentioned above), and without taking your eye of the viewfinder. The switch feels stable and falls into place in a comfortable and natural way. I think the positioning of the switch is much more logic than the one found on the Canons equivalent lens, especially when hand holding.
Like many wildlife photographers I am obsessed with lens sharpness, especially for my fine art work. I also have stock agencies that demand a certain level of technical quality in the files I submit. Now this is one of the reasons I never liked the 200-400mm f/4. I heard other people that where happy with it, so maybe I got a “Monday-lens”, but I honestly never felt it delivered the crisp files I was looking for. Therefore the 200-400mm spent most of its time at home when I was travelling.
On this tour I was mainly using the D5, but I also tested the lens on the D500, which is a slightly forgiving camera that also gives me another 1,5x reach, and also the not so forgiving D850. I was very pleased with the result even on the high resolution files produced by the latter.
The 180-400mm with its fluorite front element delivers high quality result, as you would expect from a camera giant like Nikon. Like the 200-500mm this new lens is sharp at both the extremes all the way to the corners. I did experience some vignetting on my shoot, but I did also shoot on a D5 with firmware version LD 2.015. When I updated the firmware to LD 2.017 the vignetting more or less disappeared. With the built in extender in use there is no vignetting visible anymore, and the sharpness is still very good.
I must admit I was sceptical to a built in extender as it adds another element of glass, that’s even moving, but when it came to the field I found myself using it all the time. The optical quality of the lens with the extender in use is not as good as when its not use, as expected, but it is definitely good enough for my taste.
During my Svalbard expedition in the beginning of April it was still early for most birds, but the Northern Fulmars where constantly following the ship. These are not the fastest of fliers but they toss and turn on the wind, close to the water surface below. When in addition the light was low and the ocean surface where covered by pancake ice it made for a challenging subject. Again the flexibility of this lens came into play as the birds come in towards the ship at changing distances, depending on the wind direction and wind speed. If there was a lot of wind they would come really close and I would fill the frame at 180mm, but sometimes I wanted to frame the bird against a beautiful background in the distance and needed the extra reach. With a small finger movement I would be able to switch the 1,4 extender on and shoot at the lens full reach to get my shot.
I tried different focus settings, like the Single point, Auto and my favourite Group Mode. I must say that the accuracy of the Auto settings keep surprising me, but with the contrasty ice on the ocean I found the Group Mode setting to be the best one. After shooting from the back deck for a while I found my groove and just like with my preferred 400mm f/2,8 lens I didn’t even bother checking my files as I was shooting – I just knew they where sharp!
Many people are afraid to shoot backlight, and always try to shoot with the light in an angle from behind to get “perfectly lit” subjects. With the dynamic range of the modern cameras you really shouldn’t worry. The backlight will give you a much more atmospheric image and you will still keep details in the subject. One of the challenges for many lenses when it comes to backlight is ghosting or flares. Nikon has developed lenses that has Nano Crystal coating that takes away most of this flare, but not all lenses has this. The new 180-400mm does. Therefore shooting backlight is no problem and the resulting images have close to no flare or ghosting.
Over the years the Nikon Vibration Reduction technology has become better and better. According to some the new lens VR technology reduces camera shake equivalent to 4 stops. This is difficult to test in the field, especially as all my work was hand held from a more or less moving ship. All I can say is that it works for me in the conditions I was facing. My VR was constantly on during this shoot. On a couple of occasions I found myself shooting landscapes and Polar bears in late evening light at speeds down to 1/320sec, handheld with the 1,4 extender on. The ship was not moving at the time, but still… I also spent some time panning Fulmars flying next to the ship with speeds down to 1/30sec. I was using both Normal and Active mode on the lens VR, and in my experience Normal gives the best result in these panning situations, as recommended by Nikon support.
With the AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR, Nikon hasn’t only got the lens with the longest name I have ever seen, but they have also brought out an extremely flexible tool that will produce superior images in a variety of situations. A client on my tour asked me what lens I would bring to future Svalbard expeditions with WildPhoto Travel if I could only choose one – my answer is the 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4.
Posted on September 26, 2017
First of all I want to give a shout out to the best photography store in the world. The service found at my local pro store Stavanger Foto cannot be matched by anyone, and the knowledgeable people working there will always make you feel like their most important client. Check out www.stavangerfoto.no and give them a try, they deserve it!
OK, so now on to my Nikon D850 field test. I was very excited when I first read about the new Nikon D850 and I knew that this camera would be exactly what I had been waiting for. The larger file size is welcomed from a fine art perspective and in combination with a highly improved focus system, fast processors and better ISO capabilities I could easily see myself using this camera also for wildlife. Unfortunately Nikon have not been able to ship as many cameras as expected in the first batch and I was not able to get my hands on one before departing on a WildPhoto Travel photo tour to Alaska. That is when my local pro store, Stavanger Foto, stepped up and asked me if I would like to take their one and only demo camera with me to test in the field. Obviously they didn’t have to ask twice and arrangements where made so they would have it back in Norway as soon as I returned from Alaska, as I was travelling on to another assignment in Mexico and they needed the camera in store.
The Alaskan wild is a rewarding place for a wildlife photographer, but it is an unforgiving environment for fine technology, so this would be a perfect place to test the new camera. Like I have mentioned in previous field tests I prefer to try my cameras and lenses in the environment where I actually do most of my work rather then testing it in a lab or on a random location. For this field test I stayed 7 nights in a tented camp with only a portable solar panel for charging. For the first three solid days it was raining constantly before the weather cleared on the forth day. During those rainy days I used the Nikon D850 mainly as my short lens alternative, shooting with a 24-70mm/2,8E ED VR.
Some of the features I very quickly recognized and enjoyed was the possible diagonal tilting of the LCD screen. This feature is very handy when shooting low to the ground, composing my images without the use of an angle viewfinder. I also noticed that the built in flash was removed, which I completely understand as it was a weak point in the previous models. During my 7 years as a Nikon ambassador (which I am not any more) I have been asking for the possibility to set the fn2 button to change between the different shooting bank menus without having to go into the menu system. Previously the response has been that the D800 and the D810 were not pro bodies and should not have the same features as the D4/D5. Finally it seems Nikon has acknowledged that the D800 series is the only professional option after the D3X was discontinued.
During my test I did shoot with ISO way above what I would normally shoot with the D810, and closer to what I use on my D5, and the converted DNG files look amazing. The lack of noise and also the colour dynamics at high ISO is several levels above the previous models, and can easily be compared with the D5 if corrected for the larger file size. I also enjoyed the new focus system, also found in the D5. I am especially impressed with the Group focus, which I use a lot while tracking fast moving subjects, but recently I have also learnt to love the Auto AF mode. It is super fast and very intelligent. The frame rate is also impressive, considering the size of the sensor, with 7 fps, and a possible increase to 9 fps with the added MB-D18 battery grip.
As my preferred editing tool Adobe Lightroom has still not released an update for viewing and editing the D850 files I have not been able to review them properly, but from what I see so far the converted DNG files seem to have amazing dynamic range.
One feature I was really looking forward to test was how well this camera performs during night photography. The first night we had a clear sky I set up the camera on my tripod at the high water mark, and fitted it with the new Nikon 8-15mm lens. Being so far from civilization the entire Milky Way was visible and this night there was no moon so it was perfect for a test. I made use of the interval shooting option in the menu and found my frame to the west where the Milky Way would be most visible. I set my camera to take a picture every 15 minutes for five and a half hours starting at 23:00. My settings where 25 sec, f/4,5 at ISO3200. When all was ready I went to bed.
Next morning I came down to find wet grass on my camera thinking a bear came by to taste it. We did have bears around our tent regularly. The battery seemed to be empty, which was a surprise, but when I opened the chamber to change it reality hit my like a fist in the guts. During the night we had a record high, 13,7 feet tide and the entire camera setup had drowned!!! I just killed one of the very few Nikon D850 that was delivered in Norway and possibly the only one found in Alaska…
There where so many more features that I was looking forward to test, but now it seems I will not get the opportunity. Based on what I did see, and also the few files that I have converted to DNG using Adobes converter, I am extremely impressed with this camera and I am sure I need one in my bag!
PS! Just to make it clear the Nikon D850 does come with a fully weather sealed construction, but it is not a underwater camera…