What's in the Bag
If your like me you are always curious what others are using to capture images. First and foremost it begins with the person behind the viewfinder and shutter release. I fully believe you can hand a Pro like John Shaw or the late Galen Rowell a pinhole camera and they will still get better images than most with the latest and greatest equipment. There maybe an exception to this however. I'm referring to fast action capture such as sports, birds or breaking journalistic events. Currently I am using a Nikon D3 with its full frame sensor and 8 FPS (frames per second) high speed drive. I use the D300 with its 8 FPS as a backup or additional camera if I'm using two at a time. I know I have captured fast occurring images with the D3 and D300 that I would never have been able to capture on a consistent basis with the 3 FPS D1X. Camera bodies and lenses should be looked at as tools to get a job done. Can you get by with less? of course, but you will be compromised in a lot of situations. Telephoto's and wide angle lenses come to mind. If the subject is too far away for a standard lens and you cannot move physically forward, then you need a telephoto lens or be satisfied with a very small subject in your frame. I have come to the point in my life where now I don't compromise on equipment. There was a time when like most everyone else, I tried to save money by buying less expensive gear and in the end spent more and eventually ending up with what I should have bought in the first place. Tripods and lenses are a prime example. I have owned Vivitar and Tokina lenses and some consumer Nikon lenses and now faster "Pro" Nikon glass. I have owned Bogen, Vivitar and Slick Tripods, and now I have a Gitzo 1548 which I bought after I sold my Gitzo 1228. My advice is to save and buy the best quality gear in the first place. You will save money in the long run because quality gear will usually last longer and have a better resale value. Also you will feel better not having to compromise or rationalize.
There are lots of equipment reviews on the Internet so I will not review any of my equipment but I will however give you my opinion of what I think. Lets start with Camera Bodies.
Nikon D3 Camera Body
This is Nikon's first full frame (FX Sensor) digital camera body. Full frame means the same 35mm format as with film. That means a 14mm wide angle lens is still 14mm instead of 21mm when used on a smaller DX sensor which was used on all the preceeding digital bodies. Nikon has a 1.5 magnification factor with the smaller DX sensor. For comparison, Cannon is 1.3 X. When used with a telephoto lens the smaller sensor gives you the 1.5 crop factor. A 300mm lens becomes a 450mm, a 500 becomes a 750mm. Where the DX sensor becomes handicapped is at the wide angle end. The D3 is also a 12 megapixel body, however the larger sensor means the pixels will be larger and resolution "better" than the smaller 12 megapixel sensor. With the D3 you get 8 FPS without having to go to a crop mode as in the D2X. The D3 will recognize when a DX lens is on the body and will compensate. A new feature on the D3 is the built in level which allows you to get the horizon straight. Another new feature is "live view" which I have not yet explored. The battery has been improved even more than the D2X. The focusing system on the D3 is the fastest and most responsive of them all. The ergonomics are perfect. The D3 has slots for 2 compact flash cards so the chances of filling the card at the peak of the action and having to swap cards is initially negated until you fill both cards. You can remove and replace the filled card anytime. I had the buffer upgraded by Nikon and this breathed new life into the camera . Before the upgrade the buffer would fill up very fast when shooting Raw and if you were shooting any type of action you could miss out while the buffer was clearing.
Nikon D300 Camera Body
The D300 is also a 12 megapixel body with much of the same innards as the D3. I have the optional battery pack with the D3 battery which gives me 8 FPS. The D300 uses the smaller DX sensor which has a self cleaning feature which is worth its weight so to speak. Rarely do you see "dust bunnies" with D300 files. The D3 on the other hand is a "magnet" for dust. The optional battery grip makes the D300 feel like its big brothers.
Nikon D2X Camera Body
The ergonomics are perfect, just like the D2H. The 12 Megapixel files produce beautiful clean images. At 12 megapixel's the D2X is still capable of a 5 Frames per second burst rate. If you need more speed you can get 8 Frames per second using the HSC (High speed crop) mode with 6 mexapixel images. The HSC gives you the equivalent of a 2X magnification factor. A 200 becomes a 400mm equivalent using HSC. The HSC borders are etched in the focusing screen as a reminder. It takes some getting useful to remember to keep your subject contained within this cropped area. The 12 megapixel's comes with with both a financial price and storage price. It didn't take long to fill a 2 GB card using the Raw + Fine JPEG mode. It seemed I could shoot all day with the D2H and not fill the card. Battery life is outstanding, just like the D2H. The D2X is not a very unforgiving camera and will magnify errors when when it comes to sloppy technique. Also the quality of the lens makes itself known more with this body than any other Nikon digital body. That's what you get with 12 megapixels.
Nikon D2H Camera Body
I have subsequently sold this body but I have left the review for anyone interested. When shooting film I had the F5 which IMHO was the best film camera ever. The D2H with its 8 Frames per second and ergonomic feel reminds me so much of the F5. I love the sound and feel of the shutter..rock solid..all business. Some say its only 4 megapixels Pixels. My response is yes but its a quality 4 megapixels. I have prints that have been enlarged to 13 X 19 and are stunning. One caveat however with 4 megapixels, its best to try and get full frame images if possible. If you have to crop a lot you loose magapixels and if you want to do an enalrgement the quality may suffer.
NIKON D200 CAMERA BODY
I have subsequently sold this body but I have left the review for anyone interested. I bought this camera for a backup for the D2X on trips. Its 10 megapixels and small size and reasonable price are what sold me. It doesn't have a vertical shutter release which I found confining. I bought the MB D200 vertical grip which has the vertical shutter and also adds a little size bringing the feel closer to the D2X. If you want to reduce the size back to the original it takes only seconds. The image quality is superb. The built in flash works reasonably well in a pinch although not a substitute for the SB 800.
Nikon D1X Camera Body
I have subsequently sold this body but I have left the review for anyone interested.This is an excellent camera and a workhorse for many Pro's. Its built like a tank and takes excellent images. I had the buffer upgraded by Nikon and this breathed new life into the camera . Before the upgrade the buffer would fill up very fast when shooting Raw and if you were shooting any type of action you would miss out while the buffer was clearing. For action however the D2H spoiled me. I will have the D1X on a Tripod with a 500mm lens and the D2H hand held with a 300mm lens shooting bird flight shots. Going back and forth between the two you really notice the difference between 8 and 3 Frames per second. Since I bought the D2X, the D1X hasn't been used at all. Battery life is a big issue with the D1X. The NI-MH (Nickel Metal Hydride) batteries are prone to the "memory effect" and do not last nearly as long as the Lithium-Ion batteries in the D2X, D2h and D70. Dust on the CCD can be a problem if your not very carefull.
Nikon D70 Camera Body
I bought this camera body for my wife because the D series bodies were too heavy for her to carry around all day. I have to say its a great little 6 megapixel camera body. It can be operated as a point & Shoot (fully automatic everything) to a sophisticated you control everything like the D series bodies. This body plus a 24-120 mm VR lens is all you need to take with you if you were restricted to taking only one camera body and lens. The things I do not like are the small buffer for RAW and a frame rate of only 3 frames per second. Also there is no vertical shutter release. What disappointed me was Nikon did not offer an optional vertical grip for this camera. They did for the 90s and F100 which I owned and they also offered it for the D100 but not the D70.
Nikon 500mm AFS F4 lens
This is a very sweet lens. Very fast focusing and very sharp. I use a TC 1.4 E teleconvertor quite a lot on this lens and the speed and quality are superb. The lens hood seems as long as the body of the lens, but it does work in keeping out stray light. This lens should be shot at F4 wide open. No need to stop down.
Nikon 80-400mm AF VR F4-5.6 lens
Most people I know who have or have owned this lens have a love hate relationship with it. The love part first. VR (vibration reduction) really works well on this lens. Also I find the optics to be sharp although others do not. The hate part is the slow focusing of the lens. Nikon should have made this lens with a silent wave motor inside to help move the glass instead of using the camera body to do it. Also wide open at F 5.6 doesn't help focus in less than ideal light. I have found that you can help the performance of this lens by using the limit switch and pre focusing. This lens is my choice for shooting air craft at Air Shows. To see an example of this lens go to the Air Craft Gallery. Most of the images in the Air Craft Gallery were shot using this lens.
Nikon 300mm AFS F4 lens
I have subsequently sold this lens but I have left the review for anyone interested. This is a much better lens than the older AF version which was slow and hunted for focus most of the time. This AFS version of this lens with the motor inside as you would expect focuses much faster. With the 1.4 TC-E attached makes for a very good flight lens. The optics on this lens are excellent.
Nikon 300mm 2.8 G AFS VR Lens
This will be a Nikon Legend. One of the fastest focusing lenses on the market. Super sharp glass and with vibration reduction. No speed or image quality loss with the 1.4 TCE. It is heavy but VR makes it hand holdable. Only downside is its pricey.
Nikon 200mm 2.0 G AFS VR Lens
This lens also will become a Nikon Legend. This is without a doubt the fastest focusing Nikon lenses on the market. Super sharp glass with vibration reduction. No speed or image quality loss with the 1.4 TCE. It is heavy but hand holdable. Only downside is its pricey.
Nikon 70-200mm AFS VR F-2.8 lens
I have subsequently sold this lens but I have left the review for anyone interested. Nikon's 80-200 lenses have always been outstanding. I have owned two of the four variations of them. I used to call it the "beast" because it was so big and heavy for a lens in this focal range. The 70-200 has a smaller tube diameter and feels much better to handhold with the added bonus of VR. The lens hood is a scalloped affair and I have had it fall off on more than one occasion. The images of the Beijing opera in the Travel Gallery-Beijing, were taken with this lens during the actual performance. VR saved the day as it did with the Terra Cotta Soldiers in Xian. On the full frame sensor of the D3 it will vignette. This can be corrected in post processing.
Nikon 70-200mm AFS VR II F-2.8 lens
This is the newer replacement lens designed for the full frame sensor of the D3. It does not vignette, works superb, fast, sharp and the lens hood stays on.
NIKON 180mm AF 2.8 LENS
This lens is another one of Nikon's legends. Its razor sharp, fast and very compact. For taking candids its not as intrusive as a 70-200. I would love to see this lens in VR and AFS.
NIKON 105MM f2.8 AFS VR MICRO -NIKKOR
This is a macro photography lens that allows you to take photographs at a 1:1 reproduction ratio, which means a 24 by 36 mm subject will fill the entire frame. The lens can also be used as a general purpose short telephoto and as a portrait lens. The lens does allow you to capture extremely fine detail so be forewarned if you use this as a portrait lens with females..it will show every pore. With film the 105 working distance may have been to short for some subjects, however on a DX digital body the 105 becomes a 152.5 mm which should give you more working distance. Auto focus is very fast with the AFS motor. Works very well with the 1.4 TC E.
NIKON 85MM f1.4 AFS LENS
This lens is the King of Bokeh (Blurred out background). You have to be very cognizant where you place the focus point at 1.4 because the depth of field is almost non existent. Stopped down its razor sharp corner to corner. Its very heavy. My major complaint is it doesn't have VR, so you need fast shutter speeds if you can't handhold steadily.
Nikon 24-120mm 3.5-5.6 AFS VR lens
If you were restricted to only having one lens to take on holiday, this would be the one to take. Although this lens is not very fast, VR makes up for the lack of speed. The zoom ring is in the front and takes some getting used to. The lens balances very well on a D1X or D2H, but is a little top heavy on the D-70. The best way to carry it on the D70 is pointing straight down where it feels much better. I bought another one of these lenses for my wife for Christmas so we wouldn't have to face the decision of who gets the lens when we want to travel light with one body and lens each. Nikon has come out with a new fixed F4 version
Nikon 12-24mm AF lens F4
I have subsequently sold this lens but I have left the review for anyone interested. With Nikon Digital camera's you get a 1.5 multiplier effect. This means your 500 becomes a 750mm lens. Great for telephoto but you pay the price on wide angle lenses. A 20mm now becomes a 30mm. The 12-24 helps solve this problem. The 12 becomes an 18mm which is sufficient for the most part to cover most wide angle shots. As with any wide angle lens you have to try and keep it level or you will get distortion if you tip it up or down.
Nikon 20mm AF 2.8
This lens is a hold over from my film days. Its very compact and light as well as being relatively fast. It has a close up correction feature that allows you to focus very close.
Nikon 14-24mm AF lens F2.8
This lens was made for the D3 with its full frame sensor. The 14mm is a true 14mm. Image quality is suberb and 2,8 is fast and great for low light situations. The front element is very large and the lens hood is fixed permanently. One of the drawbacks of this lens is no traditional filter can be placed on the front and secondly this lens is prone to flare if pointed anywhere near the sun. The lens is so wide at 14mm that it will catch the sun at almost a 90 degree angle.
SB 800 Flash Unit
Nikon flash has always been regarded as the best, and this unit is no exception. Works great on all Nikon Digital bodies. When shooting action I also use Nikon's SD-8A power pack for faster recycling of the flash.
Gitzo 1548 Carbon Fiber Tripod with Leveling base
This is Gitzo's biggest tripod and supports the Wimberley head with the D2H and 500mm lens. Very stable and secure and no compromise here. The leveling base, while adding weight, helps in leveling the tripod quickly without having to adjust the legs. The 1548 weighs 6.8 pounds and the level 1.5 pounds. The Wimberley head weighs 4.1 lbs. I have taped foam pipe insulation tubes around the top legs to help soften the contact with my shoulder while carrying the tripod with the 8.1 pound 500 mm lens. This combo weighs 20.5 pounds and is manageable.
This tripod head allows me to use the 500mm lens with little or no effort. This is especially important if you are trying to follow fast moving subjects. Although it is relatively heavy and pricey, its worth it.
RRS Ball Head
I had an Arca Swiss Ball Head but when RRS came out with their Ball Head I switched. The RRS head has a lower profile and its ergonomic design is better handling. Its very elegant.
I like the quality of Lowepro bags over all others. I currently have three including the waterproof Dry Zone bag which will float with all your gear inside. I have not nor do I anticipate testing that feature. I bought the Dry Zone bag with the Galapagos Islands in mind with their wet landings. The Dry Zone is also great for sea kayaking or any other photography from boats. When traveling by air and need my 500mm lens, I use the Photo Trekker all weather back pack. My 500mm lens fits inside the Photo Trekker which will fit in the overhead compartment of most air craft.
Kinesis belt system
Kinesis makes quality pouches that attach to their belts for carrying both camera and Lens attached and lenses alone. I recommend getting their suspenders as well to help keep the belt from slipping down when weighted down with equipment.
Compact Flash Cards
With the D3 I now use Lexar 16 GB UDMA cards which help clear the buffer faster than ever.
Computer Processing Software
For initial viewing of the images I use Digital Pro because I shoot Raw + JPEG and digital Pro combines both in the viewer. This is very handy when deleting images because both are deleted at the same time. Also when viewing, the JPEG's cycle faster than Raw alone saving you much time. For Editing I use Nikon Capture NX2 and processing I use Photoshop CS5 . Nik's and Topaz Filters are also used in post processing.
On The Road
While traveling I take my Toshiba laptop which has an 300 GB hard drive and CD burner. I also have a Buffalo mobile 2.5 inch 500 GB hard drive to backup my images. At the end of the day I download the images using a Lexar UDMA card reader. Some photographers don't take a laptop preferring storage devices like the Digital Fortress or the Epson 2000. I like reviewing the images full screen which helps me determine if I have what I was after and as a learning tool. I used to reformat my cards in the camera for use the next day, but now I have enough cards that I keep the images on the cards as an additional storage device and insurance until I get home and download to my desktop.
Epson stylus photo printers with Epson photo papers can't be beat. I started out with the 1200 followed by the 1280 which produced 13 X 19 prints. When that wore out I replaced it with the R1800. Wanting larger prints I now have an Epson 3880 which produces 17 X 22 prints. I highly recommend using Epson photo papers and the ICC paper profiles from Epson to obtain optimum results.