2016-10-30 The Salton Sea & My New Nikon D5

Limosa fedoa
It is quite common to find Willets and Marbled Godwits in each others company when not on their breeding grounds.

2016-10-31 Monday (apologies for the semi-technical nature of this post)

Yesterday I drove to the Salton Sea to test out my new camera. I know a place along the southeastern shore at the terminus of Young road reliable to find gulls in flight at close range. The Nikon D5 is a camera built for action photography. I’ve owned the D1x, the D2x, and the D3x. Each camera elevated and expanded the possibilities of its predecessor to capture more challenging subjects. All these cameras were preceded by a non-”X” version that captured fewer pixels, but would shoot more frames-per-second than the subsequent “X” version. I felt higher resolution was more important for my pursuits than more frames per second.

When Nikon introduced the D4 early in 2012, there were 30% fewer pixels than my D3x. Many of us who’ve seen the evolution of its predecessors, waited patiently for the D4x to arrive. It never did. As technology moved forward, improvements to the camera sensors and focusing technology rendered my beloved D3x as a lagger.

Earlier this year (January 2016) Nikon brought out the newest flagship camera, the D5. When I looked at the features this camera provided, I was disappointed that the sensor offered a mere 20.8 megapixels, when lesser cameras were built with 24 and 36 megapixels. Still, experience has taught me that good results can be had with 12 MP or even less. What 24 or 36 megapixels offers is the ability to crop a subject from the frame and still have sufficient data to produce a good quality result. In the D5 is a better processor and a better sensor, which adds up to better performance and more capabilities.

The sensor is rated to ISO 102,400 (over a thousand times faster than the old 100 ISO film) and can be pushed even higher. Higher ISO historically causes graininess in images, and while this is still true, it does not degrade as much as one might expect. The faster processor allows for a better focusing system. As many as 153 points in the frame are used to decide about what point to concentrate its decisions on. These points can be assigned to specific areas within the frame. With such capabilities, I was eager to experiment. What better to test than to try it out on birds flying hither and yon.

When I arrived at my destination, there was a strong wind blowing out of the west, gusting to about 40 mph. Holding 800mm of glass (400mm f2.8, TC20e doubler) steady was a challenge. While this slowed the forward progress of the westbound birds, their lateral and vertical shifts were more rapid. My experiments while reading up on the camera’s ISO performance showed me that ISO-3200 yielded excellent results, so that’s how I set the camera for this shoot (later, I found this to be a minor mistake). I found a setting in the menu that put the focusing system in automatic and tried it out. The instructions showed that the 153 points in the middle ¾ of the viewfinder would find the subject for me when I lightly pressed the shutter release button. I set the camera for high-speed continuous shooting (12 frames a second). Just to learn as much as I could, I set the camera to bracket the exposure in 7 shot sets, changing the f-stop in ⅓ increments from 1 stop underexposed to one stop overexposed. This would be a very different approach to this photo-shoot than any I’d done in the past.

From about 2:30pm to 5:30pm I burned through more than 2500 exposures. Ninety percent of the gulls that flew past me were Ring-Billed Gulls. I shot birds that were too far away for good images, to see how the camera would behave. I was amazed at the ability to follow birds from 2-300 feet away until they flew past, all the while maintaining good focus on the subject. In the brightest light (partial clouds) I saw the camera was at exposing at 1/8000th of a second. That should have been a clue for me to change the settings I later learned, but the review in the viewfinder looked close enough that I left the settings without adjusting (I was here to learn as much as capture images). At 12 frames a second it didn’t take long for me to realize I needed to slow down. I began looking for multiple birds in the frame, birds that filled the frame and eventually for non-Ring-Billed subjects. California and Herring Gulls were present, so I tried to pick them out as they flew by. Rafts of pelicans moved past me (mostly Brown, but a few American Whites). Double-Crested Cormorants, American Avocets, Willets and Marbled Godwits came by and I worked to capture their images. Eared and Western Grebes along with Ruddy Ducks floated on the wind-chopped waters in front of me. Without changing settings, I exposed some ones-and-zeros on these. When the light faded behind the stormy clouds and mountains to my west, I put away my camera and examined my results.

In reviewing the overwhelming number of images, I noticed that the early (brightest light) shots all looked the same… slightly over exposed. That’s when I realized I’d set the ISO too high and the camera could not shoot faster shutter speeds than 1/8000th of a second which prevented proper exposure. No worry! This was a learning experience. When the daylight diminished later in the afternoon, the bracketed sequences taught me that all shots over the native exposure (+-”0”) blew out the highlights, while those under exposures (0, -.3, -.7, -1.0) looked better. This result was expected, as I have found it to be true with every Nikon dSLR I’ve ever owned. No worry! This was a learning experience. After reviewing those images of birds shot at distance to see if the focus was good (it was), I did a lot of wholesale deleting. No worry! This was a learning experience. The focusing system rarely failed. After weeding out all the obvious culls, I’d reduced the image count down to 430, still too many to keep, but enough to set up the second round of culling at home. At home I reduced the count to 125 images.

Post Note: I’ve since learned that a setting on the camera for ‘Automatic ISO’ allows the camera to adjust for the over exposures I encountered by changing the ISO (similar to film speed) when proper exposure exceeds the maximum the shutter speed. I also learned that a ‘zero’ exposure compensation while satisfactory, is not as pleasing to my eye as a -0.3 setting. Blown out highlights are a tougher problem in my experience than are blocked up shadows.

Images from this outing below:

Click map markers to reveal further information