They Dot The Landscape

Bison 7072 pano

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The Bison of Yellowstone have always held a special fascination with me. Any critter that can stand in water that can boil an egg with an air temp of minus -32 (the coldest I’ve seen them), and go on chewin their cud as if it were just another day (which it is for them) I find fascinating. In the past, shooting one click and having it filled with Bison wasn’t a challenge. This latest trip with the warm temps and not historically high snow levels, tons of Bison just weren’t to be seen. At the same time, they are a range animal with the main herd kinda always on the move as they graze … and they call one of the most gorgeous and special places on the planet, Yellowstone, home. How do you say that in a photograph?

I first went long, shooting with the 800mm trying to compact those that were available. That didn’t work so I then added the TC-14eIII giving me 1200mm and that didn’t cut it. So I went to Plan B, not trying to tell the story with one click but with three creating a pano. I put the 300PF on the D4s and went clickin. That took care of showing the story of the Bison, but what about Yellowstone? Shooting in the world’s largest caldera, had to say that so shooting with the camera plum to the earth was important. That shows the slope of the side of the growing caldera. Then including the stormy skies as a backdrop for the steam was required. After that, it was a three click assembly in ACR and done. Would I have loved the perfect herd in perfect light? Heck ya but that’s not what I had so I told the story with the elements at hand, they dot the landscape.

Ben Franklin Was So Right!

Bald Eagle 6534

The Bald Eagle is an amazing flier, I could watch them for hours in the air. They are a gorgeous bird, their beauty is so distinctive. And they are the laziest forager when not nesting. I had a great time just watching them on the Chilkat River a week past as they hung and waited until another eagle grabbed a “floater” and pulled it a shore. A floater is a spent salmon, one that has spawned and died. When one of these floaters hits just right and beaches itself right on the shore and it hits a eagle in the foot, they might partake in the carcass (yes, eagles at times do grab a floater before it hits the shore). But once one eagle has that piece of food, all hell breaks loose!

Bald Eagle 6760

While speaking in generalities because nothing in Mother Nature is 100% predictable, Bald Eagles love to steal from another eagle even if a fresh salmon were hitting it on the foot. We’re not talking about some gentle, uh hmmm asking for a tidbit here, oh no. They come in full force baring talons and drawing blood in many instances. Feathers fly! There are times I wish I had a scorecard to know who is who. Are the eagles for example related in any way? You can see here in this exchange the ferocity they go about stealing that scrap. And as you can see, they defend their scrap with the same ferocity. It really is an amazing site and sound as this plays out.

Bald Eagle 7982

Knowing all of this is very important in getting the shot. Knowing this biology, you can be ready for it as it unfolds. In my case, I was shooting with the D4s / 800mm for two reasons. The D4s because of its fast FPS and high ISO capabilities. Unlike normal, I was shooting at ISO800 to have the faster shutter speed to freeze the action. And the 800mm to eliminate some of the visual distractions while not being tight. Many shoot with 1200mm or more but I don’t want to be that tight on a critter that flies so magnificently as the Bald Eagle. The D4s with its greater range permitted me to shoot as well with + exp comp not only “brightening” the otherwise dark light but opening up the shadows. Lastly, with the dark, overcast light I cranked up the AWB to bring up the warmth in the photo that otherwise would have a very blue cast. Ben Franklin preferred the turkey over the Bald Eagle for our national symbol because he too had seen the Bald Eagle’s character traits. But it’s that biology that when we know it and combine it with our gear and desire to tell the story we can prove Mr Franklin right in our photos.

GearHead Wednesday 14 -19


Got a gear question you want/need answered? I want to help and answer it. Send your gear questions to me at Gear Questions and I’ll do my best every Wednesday to answer as many questions as I can. I ~really~ appreciate those who email with a basic salutation, makes me feel like the free advice is appreciated. Keep in mind the answers are just my $.02 worth and you have to take what works for you and your photography and embrace it and ignore the rest. So here’s this weeks questions ….

Hi it is Joe. I have a gear head question for you. I realize it is today but maybe for next week. I am a hobbyist. I shoot with a Df and a D3s. I have been considering a long lens…I have the 200-400 but I just cannot get a tack sharp image with the Nikon 2 x converter. The 1.7 works fine. My question for you is this (keep in mind I am a hobbyist) Would I be better off with something such as an older 600mm like this one: (Sorry link deleted). Would it be a sharp lens? or maybe get a Dx body and consider it an expensive teleconverter the 200-400 and 1.7?

200-400Ver-Hi Joe! My first thought would not to be another lens like the 600mm. Rather, it would be look at your support system for your 200-400 / 2x combo. Then I would look at your long lens technique. And finally, I would look at which 2x you’re using because if it’s not the TC-20eIII, that might be causing you the sharpness issues. Keep in mind that 99.9% of shooters when they use a 2x have sharpness issues and it all comes down to long lens technique. Your angle of view has greatly diminished so the slightest movement in the gear is greatly magnified. Keep in mind the old saying, “just one sharp image means the problem is most likely pilot error.” I shoot the 200-400 w/the TC-20eIII all the time producing great results. Have no doubt you can too!

I have the Nikon 800 mm 5.6 lens. Can you suggest a bag to put it in on a plane trip (carry on)?

Alan, I think you should check out the video I just posted. It’s the best answer I have for you right now, the Think Tank Accelerator.

Which – Nikon 800mm, 600mm or 500mm as my primary lens?? I use a Nikon D4s as main camera with a 500mm f/4 & 2x converter (f/8 at 1000mm) as primary lens often free-held or with a monopod and a Nikon D800 with sigma 50-500mm as secondary. We do wildlife photography (sorry link removed) What are the trade-offs for a Nikon 600mm f/4 with 2x or 800mm f/5.6 with 1.25x (both end up at f/8 and all three are less than lighting fast focus unless it is bright light)? Based on weight differences (8.6, 11.2 or 10.2 #s) and relative image quality, is it worth moving to a larger prime? A couple pounds make a lot of difference when slogging through the jungle or up a mountain and hand-holding seems out for the 600 and probably for the 800 (I am 150#s & 71 years)? How do these three lenses compare with the respective convertors pushed up to around 1000-1200mm? Is it worth the extra weight (lets assume the $$$s are not a factor)?

600VerTed, wish I had the answer for you. In fact, I wish the many other times I’ve answered this question here on GearHead Wed could help. The prime lens you select directly effects how you visually communicate and that’s a real personal thing. Without knowing you, your abilities or style of photography, I can’t simply buy XXX. The best I can do is to give you thoughts to ponder and the advice to rent before you decide.
Now when it comes to the 600f4VR and 800f5.6AFS, comparing these two killer lenses as prime of with the TC-20eIII or TC-.25 (can’t be purchased separately), we’re talking 1200mm / 1000mm f/8 respectively and both killer combos! As I mentioned in many posts a year ago while shooting side by side with my shooting partner Kevin, his results with the 600/2x were just as marvelous as mine with the 800/.25. There is no “advantage” in one combo or the other for sharpness or weight.

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I’ve received a lot of what I call “repeat’ questions, once asked a few times and answered a few times already here on GearHead Wed. I appreciate that the question might be new to you, but all the questions and answers have been archeived and read by clicking on this tab which is at the top of the website. So if you sent in a question in the last week but don’t see an answer here, it’s because it’s one of these repeats so I would encourage you to check out the archive as your answer is there waiting for you!

GearHead Wednesday 14-05


Got a gear question you want answered? Send your gear questions to me at Gear Questions and I’ll do my best every Wednesday to answer as many questions as I can. Keep in mind the answers are just my $.02 worth and you have to take what works for you and embrace it and ignore the rest. So here’s this weeks questions ….

DMPEQ2794I have a Nikon D700 and 14-24, 24-70, 70-200, 200-400 zooms and a 200 macro. I’ve not always been happy with the critical focus on my photographs. Do you run the ‘AF fine tune’ option in the camera menu when pairing a camera with each lens? How do you go about the testing procedure?


Rob, it would seem GearHead Wednesday opened up this debate even greater because as like you, many others emailed after the its posting. Other than the resolution chart, for the untrained eye to determine if an image is blazing sharp or just sharp is near impossible! And training the eye to “see” this level of sharpness takes time and at least for most my peers and myself, the making lots of large prints (24×36 or larger) and closely examining them. And like I mention last, I have seen only a couple of lenses that were the issue, the rest of the time it was pilot error.

Now you mention the term “critical focus” and you have the who’s who of Nikkor glass there. In the equation you present crticial focus x great glass, if you’re not seeing the results you think you should have, the weak link is the body (or photographer). Now the D700 should have no problem delivering great quality, so if it’s not with ALL those lenses, personally I would send it in to Nikon and not mess with AF Fine Tune. The odds you have all bad glass are a bit slim.

Back in the day, before the web, digital photography and mass hysteria, when a photographer thought he had a bad lens, there was a basic philosophy in determining if it is the lens or the photographer causing the issue. It was this: “If you get one sharp image, the issue is the photographer.”

So to directly answer your question (the same answer as last week), I do not AF Fine Tune, never have. My testing is simple real world shooting as I described last week. I would add one additional thing this week. If you look at all the great shots from history, the number of those great shots that are tack sharp, you can easily count. What the world needs is not more technically perfect photos. What the world needs are more photographs with passion.

_BMP4627Hi Moose,
I’ve been enjoying your sharpness series and practicing the techniques but there is one thing that always seems to get in the way. I have to have my glasses on; no ifs or buts about it. I’ve tried to wear contacts but I just couldn’t get it to work. So what I’m looking for is an alternative that you may have seen work for those of us who have to wear glasses as compared to you pushing your eyeball right up to the glass in the eyecup.
Thanks much and keep up those fine blog articles and videos.


Jim, my heart goes out to you because you have an issue I’ve been looking for an answer to for three decades. And with NO luck! I don’t wear glasses to shoot so personally don’t have that issue but have heard from many photographers like yourself who do, all asking the same question. Here’s all I have to offer you.

Many manufactures make diopter correction eyepieces. They are coming harder and harder to find but they are available. Of course, this means you own a DSLR that has a replaceable eyepiece which is also coming harder to find. While this works for some, not for most eye glass wearers. The best answer I’ve ever seen is having your optometrist make a custom eyepiece for you based on your script. Yes, you have to remove your glasses to make this work, but that permits you to use proper handholding.

One other thing I have been playing with the past couple of months comes from my new glass frames for my reading glasses. I don’t shoot with them, couldn’t see a thing if I did. But the frames are carbon fiber, incredibly light and more importantly, incredibly strong and flexible. The lens gets smudged but you can press the camera against the glasses for proper handholding technique! It works really well with these frames, but they are not inexpensive. And that’s all I’ve got to offer you, regrettably.

Lesser Sandhill Crane 0177Moose,
Taking a trip to Nebraska to photograph Sandhill Cranes. I own the Nikkor 300 F4 and the 1.4x TC and it’s a great setup. My question is do I spend money on renting a 200-400, 80-400 or 600 or alternatively buy the 1.7x or 2.0x teleconverter? I realize for the week, I’d spend more on the TC, but I get to take it home. You have said in previous GearHead Wednesdays all the TCs are great, but will 420, 510 or 600 be “enough” length? Not easy to answer since you don’t really know how close I’ll be, but I’d guess 20-40 yards. Maybe a better question Is the flexibility of the zoom (e.g. 200-400 with or without TC or 80-400) essential in blind shooting? Will I spend too much time switching TCs and not enjoying the view?


Beau, you raise a great question with some really great options and points! In one sense, you really couldn’t go wrong with any of those combos. Having photographed the cranes on the Platt many times, this is an easy question to answer. It’s all up to the cranes! I’ve gone to the blinds with just about every long lens you can imagine and since the cranes have never some in close enough even for 1200mm (600 w/2x), focal length is not always the key. If I were to be going there this April (regrettably, I won’t be), I would have the 800mm w/TC-.25 (1000mm) and 80-400VR3 and that’s all I’d want. Last year, I had the 80-400VR3 and used it the entire time with success.

Keep in mind a simple saying when it comes to bird photography. If you don’t go out with your longest lens, you’ll comeback short.

But the issue is where the cranes decide to land and roost and that depends on water levels in the Platt. Since we use blinds the majority of the time, being close physically is real simple when the birds comes close to you and that’s what has always been the issue.
So my answer to you would be, take as LONG of reach you can afford and then cross your fingers the cranes came and say hello. On a side note, the Platt and the cranes is one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the planet. Even if you don’t come back with the great images, you’ll be richly rewarded by your adventure!

Hi Moose,
I currently shoot with a Nikon D7000 and am looking to upgrade but can’t afford a D3 or D4. What would you suggest? I enjoy shooting wildlife and landscapes. Thanks for your help!

Olwen, you have a great question commonly asked. Since you’re shooting with a DX body and talking about FX bodies, I’m assuming you want to change. With that in mind, I would highly recommend either the D610 or the Df. These are both great bodies that are half the price of the D4.

_BMP3892If you’re thinking about staying in the DX format, then I would recommend the D7100. Many say it’s a year old and time for a new body to come out. To them I would point out that everything is getting older and there is always something new coming out (much different from the days of film.) And waiting means you’re possibly missing taking amazing photos. I encourage photogs to not wait for something possibly coming out that might be the miracle body. The photos are here today! Find the best body you can afford today, buy it, embrace it and make those photos and then share them!

When the Shooting Sucks

So when shooting gets slow, slow being a nice word in wildlife photography for sucks, you have two options as I see it. You go get ice cream or find some place new to shoot. When the sun is high in the sky, ice cream might seem the logical option unless you have sand or water you can shoot at. What do those two things change with the sun is high? They are natural reflectors filling in shadows and bringing the light ratio back into play. That’s what I did, I left Ding Darling and headed over to the causeway where I can always find a shorebird.

I took the top photo to show you the one thing you avoid, the mass confused shot. I was shooting out of a Mustang, not the best vehicle to be shooting wildlife from but in this case, being so close to the ground worked in my favor. I’m shooting out the window using my vest as a pad for the D3x/600 w/2x. There are times when the mass flock might make a cool pattern but more often then not, it’s just compositionally awkward. The one big issue with the mass flock is you have so much rock. It’s just not a nice background for little puff balls. So I start looking for pairs or single birds that I can focus on.

Then once I have the single Dunlin in the viewfinder, I watch for when I get the pose that is the most pleasing and squeeze off a frame. Shooting so long, 1200mm, handheld, smooth is essential for a sharp image. Shooting with both eyes open I feel is really important at times like this because so much activity is going on that you might loose a great opportunity if you’re just staring through the viewfinder the whole time. Now is this better then ice cream? That’s up for debate!

In the Bag
600f4VR AFS
TC-20e III
Gitzo 5561SGT w/ Wimberley Head

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