Basic jpeg workflow. Post-processing.

If you have your camera set up to produce consistent, correctly exposed, jpegs…using all the available auto, program, and special modes for a wide variety of situations, then post-processing does not need to be either a mystery or a chore. In fact, once your camera is set up, you will find that most of your photos of any particular kind (wildlife, birds, macros…landscapes or people) will require exactly the same processing…so much so that if your chosen post-processing program or app allows you to create presets or save a set of edits, you will be able to process most images by choosing the right “one-touch” preset. 

If, that is, if you have your cameras set up correctly. See Basic camera settings for Wildlife, birds, and macro.

Basic controls: Lightroom, PhotoShop Express, Snapseed, Polarr. Touch or click to enlarge. For more control shots see below.

Why do you need to post-process at all? The reality of digital photography is that any good image can be made better with a few tweaks. I am going to cover the basic edits here, as they are done in the more modern apps and programs, both on the mobile and desk and lap-top platforms: Snapseed, Lightroom, PhotoShop Express, and Polarr on phones and tablets, and Lightroom or PhotoShop Elements on desk and lap-tops. You can make these edits in PhotoShop itself as well, but it might take a combination of settings to duplicate the effects of a simple slider in one of the more modern programs. 

Lighting: Even a correctly exposed digital image, the shadows will often be too dark, and the highlights too bright, when compared to what the human eye sees in the same situation. The eye sees further into the shadows than the camera does, and we can see detail in bright areas that the camera will render as blocks of solid white or bright color. Cameras today have some kind of compensation for this built in, generally called Dynamic Range Control, or DR Enhansement, or iContrast, or Active D Lighting, etc. Even when taking advantage of these in-camera adjustments (and you should be taking advantage of them), there is no way the sensor can see or record the full range of light that the human eye does. By adjusting the shadows and highlights in post-processing we can produce an image that has the appearance of being closer to what our eye sees in any given situation. To improve the image we need to “open” the shadows (brighten them) and “pull back” the highlights. Not a lot, or the image will look flat and uninteresting, but some. That is the first change to make. In a traditional program like PhotoShop these changes are made with the “curves” tool. In the other apps and programs it is made with the Shadows and Highlights sliders. Slide shadows to the plus side until the shadows open to suit you. Pull the highlights slider to the negative side until you see the detail you want in the bright areas of the image. Do not expect miracles. The shadows slider will not reclaim shadows that are totally black, and the highlight slider will not restore detail in totally overexposed whites or brights…but generally these adjustments will produce a more pleasing, more life-like image. And don’t overdo either. You want the image to still have enough contrast between the darks and lights to be three-dimensional and interesting.

Detail: Because of the structure of digital image sensors, all digital images need some sharpening. Most cameras, when you shoot in jpeg, apply sharpening in camera. I set my cameras to apply the least possible sharpening in-camera, since it is better done in post-processing. In-camera sharpening can produce extra noise in the background of the image, and unnaturally sharp edges. The sharpening tool in most modern apps and programs applies a combination of traditional edge sharpening and unsharp masking to produce a natural looking result, with a simple slide of the sharpness slider until it looks right. PhotoShop is the exception again, where you still have separate sharpen and unsharp mask tools. Do not oversharpen! It will produce the same negative effects on image quality as in-camera sharpening often does. If an image, or parts of an image are out of focus or motion blurred, they will not be improved by oversharpening. Quite the opposite. Apply just enough sharpening to render the details in the image as they would look to the human eye, if you were at approximately the right distance to make the subject the same size as it is in the image. 

The second aspect of sharpening is most often called clarity (it is called structure in Snapseed). Clarity increases the local-area-contrast of the image to bring out fine detail in hair, fur, feathers, or the fine textures of flower petals (or human skin). Think of it as controlling the “inner detail” of the image. In PhotoShop we produce this effect by using unconventional settings of the unsharp mask tool. Most modern apps and programs will have a clairity (or “structure“) slider. Again, just slide the clarity slider to the positive side until it produces the effect you want. (If you slide it to the negative side it will become really obvious what the tool is doing.) Hint: you do not want to overdo the clarity, especially in images with people’s faces in them. In fact one of the legitimate uses of negative clarity is in portraits, where you might not want to see the “inner detail” of every skin blemish ūüôā Hint 2: Increaseing the clarity will sometimes have the effect of making the whole image look a little darker. You can offset this with the Exposure or Brightness sliders.

Color: The auto color temperature controls in today’s cameras are very good. They can adjust the jpeg processing to produce natural looking colors in almost any light. They are almost as good at this as the human eye. Amost. What can be improved in most digital images is the “pop” or “impact” of the colors…especially if you have already adjusted the shadows and highlights. Modern apps and programs have a control called vibrance (sometimes grouped with clarity and sometimes grouped with color temperature and saturation…and, as always, called something else in Snapseed:  “ambiance“). Vibrance looks at the image and determines which colors might be undersaturated (not rich or vivid enough). Generally these are the blues and greens, and sometimes reds. Sliding the vibrance slider will increase the saturation and brightness of only those colors that the program or app thinks need it. It will generally make the sky a darker blue, and the green trees brighter green. Or it might pick up the similar hues in a bird’s plumage or a flower’s petals. Slide the vibrance (or ambiance) slider to the positive side until you produce a pleasing effect. (And again, sliding it to the negative side will give you a better idea of what you are actually changing.) Once more, do no overdue it. If the control is adjusting reds, or purples, especially, it is easy to get the reds and purples so saturated that you no longer see fine detail in those areas of the image. And it is also easy to get the sky unnaturally blue. Exercise restraint. Again, PhotoShop (the last time I looked) did not have a vibrance slider or control. You would have to adjust the individual color channels using the curves control. Not easy to do. It is worth mentioning that Snapseed’s ambiance control has more effect on the brightness and color temperature of the image (by color temperature we mean the balance between warm tones and cold ones, red and yellow and orange being warm…just think the color of fire, and blues and blue-greens being cold), than the vibrance control in the other apps and programs. It produces almost a warm glow…which is pleasing in some images, but not in others.

Before and after. Original and basic edits applied. I also used the brush in Polarr to bring up detail in the chin patch ūüôā

To summarize, these are the adjustments all most all digital images will need, or benefit from. The amounts will depend on your camera and your taste.

  1. open the shadows
  2. pull back the highlights
  3. sharpen the image
  4. increase the clarity of the image
  5. increase the vibrance of the image
  6. exercise restraint…work for the natural look not the spectacular. ūüôā

Lightroom controls, lots of presets, but none of them user custom, local controls limited to gradient and radial
Snapseed. Main controls. Tune Image where most of what we want is. Details. Local Controls: brush and radial.
Polarr. General controls. Light opened and you can see the others, Local controls, Custom filters
 

Wildlife, birds, and macro images will benefit from more sharpening and clarity than landscapes, and will not need as much shadow, highlight, and vibrance control. Landscapes will generally need more shadow, highlight, and vibrance control, and less clarity and sharpness. People shots will not like much sharpening or clarity at all (at all), and can stand only a touch of vibrance. Shadow and highlights can be effective but you need to be careful not to produce a cartoony look. 

In programs that allow me too, I will set up three presets, or saved looks, or custom filter (all names for the same thing…a set of edits that are saved and can be applied with a single touch or click to the nickname). I love the way Snapseed works, and it is the one app that will run on any mobile platform (not matter how underpowered), but it does not yet have the ability to save a set of edits and apply them to a different image. Lightroom on the desk and lap-top has this ability and is excellent…but Lightroom for mobile platforms does not. PhotoShop Elements and Polarr both save sets of edits (My Looks in PSE, and Custom Fliters in Polarr). For exactly that reason, my go-to post-processing program on the desk and lap-top is Lightroom, and my go-to apps on my tablet are PSE and Polarr. (PSE for landscapes, because the shadow tool is more effective, and Polarr for everything else, since it is faster, and has a deeper feature set than PSE.) 

An in-camera HDR (high dynamic range, three shots blended for exposure) image processed in PhotoShop Express. More shadow and highlight control to really open shadows, retrieve detail in clouds, and bring up the green in the foliage.

Honestly, if you have your camera set up right for quality jpegs, you will rarely have to go beyond these basic edits…and most often will be able to apply one of your saved presets or custom filters. If you need to to more, they you really need to ask yourself if the image is worth saving. Most of the time, even with more powerful tools and more sophisticated techniques, you will not be able to produce the image you had in mind when you pressed the shutter. Sorry. That is just the way it is with digital. 

One exception is the dehaze or defog control that is available in Lightroom (both mobile and -top) and in PhotoShop Elements and Polarr on mobile. The dehaze tool, like the others covered, takes care not to overdo it, but it can be effective in restoring contrast to an image that is washed out due to an over abundance of blue refracted light…as in fog or haze, or the effects of shooting into the sun. It selectively removes diffuse blue spectrum light from the image. It will also darken the image overall, so some compensation with the exposure or brightness control is generally needed, but it can improve some shots dramatically. It is never part of my basic presets, looks, or custom filters, as I only use it rarely, but it is really useful on occasion. 

Another exception is what we call local adjustments. In PhotoShop to make local adjustments you have to use the selective brushes and masking. In Lightroom, Snapseed, and Polarr, you can apply them quickly and easily using specialized controls. Lightroom on the desktop has the best implementation. You can apply gradient or radial filters, or you can brush on adjustments to just a specific portion of the image. In Lightroom on the mobile platform you only have the gradient and radial options. Snapseed has radial filters and a brush, but the brush is not very fine. Polarr, on the mobile platform has the set that is closest to Lightroom desk and lap-top: gradient, radial, and and finely controllable brush. I have not found much use for a radial filter (basically round and graduated from the center) in any app or program, but I use the gradient filters on occasion to darken the sky and lighten the foreground in a particularly difficult landscape shot. You just drag a gradient over the image, top to bottom or bottom to top, and then adjust things like exposure, brightness, clarity, vibrance, etc. The effects are applied as a gradient…most intense at one edge of the image and then gradually fading to nothing at the other edge. You can actually apply two gradients (I call them dueling gradients), one from the top and one from the bottom to, as I mentioned, darken the sky at the same time you lighten the foreground. 

The other local control that I do use is the brush, especially in Lightroom (-top) and Polarr (mobile). The brush allows me to decrease the brightness of, say the white patch on the chin of a otherwise correctly exposed Great Blue Heron, to retrieve detail in the feathers there. I simply select the brush control and paint over the area to be changed, then apply negative exposure. I can do the same thing with the clarity control to make the eye in an image pop. Just paint over the eye, and increase clarity. Again, I do this kind of extra editing to maybe one in 300 images. 

Finally, there is one app available on iPads and Window’s tablets which does what no other will do…on those very rare occasions when the there is something in the image that just has to go…whether is an out of focus branch in an otherwise perfect composition of a bird, or beer can on an otherwise pristine beach. TouchRetouch does a better job of removing and filling than any other app I have used. You simply paint out, or lasso, the offending object, press go, and the app removes the object and seamlessly fills in the hole by very intelligently extrapolating from the surround. When it works it is magic. It does not always work. Sometimes the background is just to complex or the objectionable thing is too close to your subject, etc. But is is always worth a try when you have an image that requires, or could benefit from its magic TouchRetouch. 

TouchRetouch used to remove distracting out of focus branch.

In my opinion, for general editing and post-processing there is no match for Lightroom on the desk or lap-top, though it does require you to import every image you want to process into its catalog. On the mobile platform there is no reason not to use PhotoShop Express (especially as it is free…though to unlock all its features you have to have a Adobe subscription). It works very much like Lightroom on the desk or lap-top, and allows you to save your editing settings as a custom My Look. Polarr is becoming my go-to image processor on my iPad Pro, because of its speed and deep feature set, and the ease with which you can save and apply our editing settings as custom filers. To unlock all features it cost $20, but that also gives you access to Polarr on any platform you might use…desk or -laptop, Andriod phone or tablet, iPad or iPhone, and even Chromebooks. It is available for them all. 

So again, get your camera set up for consistently well exposed jpeg images, and apply a few basic edits in the program or app of your choice, and you will have consistently satisfying images. 

P&S Nature Photographer in Cuba

A wider view of the Vinales Valley

I had the opportunity to visit Cuba for 14 days in October of 2016. What a trip! The birds were greatl, especially the endemics, of which we saw over 20 out a possible 26. Then too, the landscape was often unique and beautiful, the food was great, and the people were open and friendly. It is a great place to visit, and a great place for photography.

4 Cuban endemics: Bare-legged Owl, Cuban Pygmy Owl, Cuban Trogon, Cuban Tody

 We visited the mountains west of Havana on our first night (I was there for 2 trips, so we stayed in two different hotels). I don’t recommend hotels in Cuba. You are much better off staying in Casa Paticulars, private homes licsenced by the government to host visitors. They are common in most of the touristy areas, and are less expensive, cleaner, and often more modern than the hotels. Private tiled baths with shower, air conditioners in each room, generally a refrigerator (sometimes shared between rooms), filtered water used for cooking, bottled water and beverages available, etc. are standard (and, it was my impression, required by law.) Plus you can arrange to have your meals at the Casa Paticular and if the ones we stayed at are a good sample, the food is abundant and excellent!

Dinner our first night on the mountain, Cuban Green Woodpecker, West Indian Woodpecker, Giant Lizard Cuckoo, Cuban Trogon, Red-legged Thrush, Giant Kingbird, Orchid, Orchid, Cuban Emerald

Near our first hotel there was a small botanical garden…or Orchid Garden. Besides beautiful plants and stunning landscaping…in a series of terraces up the side of a steep limestone hill…the birding was excellent. Here we saw our first endemic: the Cuban Trogon. We also had good views of one of the most common, and most spectacular birds of the Cuban forest, the Red-legged Thrush. The Great Lizard Cuckoo lived up to its name. Cuban Emeralds worked the flowers on the terraces. We also saw Cuban Green and West Indian Woodpeckers, and the rare and unexpected Giant Kingbird.

Dawn in Vinales from the roof of our Casa Paticular

In Vinales (a must-visit city in one of the most unique landscapes in the world, and the center of the cigar industry in Cuba) there are whole neighborhoods that are pretty much exclusively Casa Paticulars. They have catered for a decade to German and French tourists, and are eager to host Americans. The hosts have limited English. I don’t recommend going to Cuba without hiring a local guide to set up your trip for you, but once at your Casa Paticular, even the most basic Spanish (and I am limited to a very few words), combined with the host’s basic English, will generally get you what you need. In one case, where the host needed to communicate a maintenance issue, he was able to flag down a passing neighbor with more English and we got the job done. As I said before, the people I met in Cuba were among the most friendly and accomodating I have met anywhere in my travels.

 

sampling the product: Vinales tobacco farm and cigar hand rolling facility
Street market in Vinales
Western Spindales, in the mountains east of Vinales, Green Malicite Butterfly, Cuban Kestrels (dark variety)
Out the bus window…the unique landscape around Vinales. Tobacco fields and Mogotes (the mountains)
Cuban Solitaire, Cuban Pewee, Olive-capped Warbler, Roseate Skimmer dragonfly

 From Vinales we traveled back toward Havana and then south to the Zapata Swamp area. Our accommodations were again in Casa Paticulars, this time in the resort town of Ponto Larga at the head of The Bay of Pigs. This is another unique landscape, somewhat reminiscent of the Everglades in south Florida. A porous limestone base mixes fresh and salt water well inland, creating extensive marshes and wet plains. There is a fault running up the middle of the Bay, so the east side is low, with sandy beaches, and the west side is some 20-30 feet higher, with a rim of low limestone cliffs, and many sinkholes back from the shore. This is the only place in Cuba for three of the most sought after endemics…the Zapata Sparrow, the Zapata Wren, and the Zapata Rail. The existence of the rail is currently in some doubt, as there have been no reliable records for several years now. This spring, when the marsh is dryer, local ornithologists and biologists are mounting a last-ditch effort to find the rail and document its status. 

The Zapata area is also a good place to find a two of the other Cuban endemics: the Cuban Bee Hummingbird (the worlds smallest bird), and the Blue-headed Quail Dove.

Zapata Wren, Zapata Sparrow, Cuban Bee Hummingbird, Blue-headed Quail Dove

The Blue-headed Quail Dove used to be very hard to find. Recently a small flock has taken up residence around restaurant at a sink-hole park just across the road from the Bay. They come in to corn spread by the staff at the restaurant, and draw the tourists with them. ūüôā The Wren and the Sparrow, however, required a 5 mile round trip hike into the swamp on raised dike roads, in the heat of a hot October. Fortunately there were other birds along the way to keep our spirits up. On the first of the two trips I hosted, the Bee Hummingbird was easy as well. There is a backyard in a small village just north of the Bay where they are regular visitors, so much so that the owners have a small business showing them off. On the second trip the Cuban Emeralds (not endemic despite its name) were so numerous and so aggressive that the Bees were scarce. We did find them elsewhere, but did not get close views.

Cuban Tody (again), Giant Green Anole, Butterfly

The most elusive of the endemics of the Zapata region (not counting the rail), turned out to be the Fernandino’s Flicker, which should have been a lot easier in the wet plains back from the Bay. On our first trip we had only a questionable sighting. On the second trip we tried an unlikely spot in the mountains west of Havana where our guide had seen them once before, and had great views. Of course, on that trip, we also found them on the Zapata Plains.
Our Fernandino search did turn up other interesting birds. We had our first sighting of the Cuban Pygmy Owl here, and great looks at yet another Cuban Tody.

Fernandino’s Flicker, Cuban Pygmy Owl, Cuban Tody

Meals in Playa Larga tended to center around seafood. Excellent shrimp, lobster fixed several different ways, and Deviled Crab with peppers and green olives. And of course fish, like this giant Dog-fish that capped a seafood meal at one of our Casa Paticulars.

The shrimp, lobster, crab, beans and rice, salad plates, fried plantains, and fruit were only the appetizers for the main course.

South of Playa Larga are the extensive salt-water marshes of the La Salina Refuge. This area is very like a cross between the Everglades and Merritt Island in Florida. The winter birds were just coming in, but La Salina is home to part of the Caribbean flock of American Flamingos, as well as the Cuban variety of the Osprey and many of the other wading birds you would expect to see in South Florida.

American Flamingos, La Salina, Cuba

Though the Zapata area lacks the mountains, it has the marshes and the Bay of Pigs, both spectacular in their own way.

La Salina, dawn at Playa Larga, La Salina, Bay of Pigs, Zapata Marsh

We finished our trip, both times, with an afternoon in Havana. We stayed in Old Havana, an area which is rapidly being gentrified…with lots of trendy restaurants, brick streets, art galleries, mucic venues…surrounding the museums, historical sites, and famous Squares already in the area. Casa Particulars in Old Havana can be a bit basic…but comfortable. And the sights of the Old City are not to be missed…from the monuments and squares and the classic architecture, to the abundance of well maintained 50’s convertible taxis (from Fords to Cadillacs), the host of pedicabs, and the occasional horse-drawn carriage or cart. Street life is vibrant.

Car culture Havana
Old Havana streets
Old Square (newest actually), our guide, Cathedral Square, Old Fort

And I will finish with out hosts/guides on this amazing adventure. Ernesto and Tanya are two of the most wonderful people I have ever met…committed to the birds of Cuba and the future of Cuba. If you are interested in touring Cuba and birding with them, the easiest way is probably to contact Joni at Optics for the Tropics.

Cuba is an experience. It is getting easier. It is only an hour from Miami. You really have no excuse. Grab your camera and go!

P&SNP does Africa!

Giraffe in sunrise, Balule Game Reserve, South Africa.
How African classic is that? Giraffe in the sunrise. Balule Game Reserve

I think every¬†nature/wildlife photographer dreams of a photo safari to Africa, and that certainly includes Point and Shoot Nature Photographers. Lions, elephants, giraffes, rhino, hippopotamus, cheetah…and a host of bright African birds: sunbirds, rollers, and bee-eaters…not to mention the big birds, Ostriches and Bustards, Vultures, and Eagles. And just being there, in the presence of so much great wildlife…the Africa of all our dreams.

However, if you have priced an African photo safari lately, you know that it can be a very expensive destination. The safaris themselves are pricey compared to other eco or adventure travel, or even photo tours, and the cost of getting there is high. Airfare is expensive, and it can take as much as 38 hours with layovers on the least expensive flights.

Bush Bomba, Balule Game Reserve, Greater Kruger NP, South Africa
Bush Bomba, our first night in Africa

Of course that does not keep me from dreaming or taking a look on-line at the safari booking sites. Recently I found a company, Viva Safaris, in the Greater Kruger National Park area of South Africa (perhaps the most accessible of the African nations), offering what appeared to be real bargains in Kruger Wildlife Safaris. I also found a direct flight from JFK to Johannesburg (South African Air), that got me from Portland Maine to Africa in less than 24 hours for just over $1000. The trip total was around $2500 for 11 days (two back to back safari packages at different lodges owned by Viva). That included 2 bushwalks with an armed Ranger, one night Game Drive and several sunrise and sunset Game Drives on Private Reserves in the Greater Kruger Area, and 4 full day Game Drives in Kruger itself.

I did have some doubts. The Lodges and Camps I stayed at are not in Kruger. They are in Private Game Reserves adjacent to Kruger. Balule Game Reserve very large and is unfenced on the Kruger side, so it is, for all practical purposes, part of Kruger National Park. Motlala Game Reserve is smaller, but is also open to the surrounding reserves. However, Balule is about an hour from the nearest Kruger gate and Motlala is only a bit closer, so you do not get early mornings in Kruger itself. Early bushwalks and drives are on the Private Reserves.

Then too, the safari packages they offer are not Photo Safaris per say…they are general wildlife safaris. If you have ever been out with a group of non-photographers when you are trying to photograph, you know there can be some strain there…and the potential for cross purposes is high. Most dedicated Photo Safaris to Africa guarantee you a window or outside seat in the high Game Viewers used in the African Bush (converted transport buses or Land Cruiser type vehicles with high seats and large sliding windows, or no windows at all), which automatically means a small number of people per vehicle. No such guarantee here. Viva offers its low prices based on the simple premise of keeping their rooms and their Game Viewers (the Land Cruiser, open sided type) full at all times. Also the pace of a photo safari can be quite different than the pace of a general wildlife safari. On Wildlife Safari, the goal is to show the customer as many animals as possible. That can mean the quantity of views will generally¬†trump the quality. On a Photo Safari, the goal is to get you good shots of as many animals as possible..but that may mean you see less animals total, and miss some altogether…and that is perfectly fine with most photographers. Quality over quantity.

Vervet Monkey, Balule Game Reserve, Greater Kruger NP, South Africa
Vervet Monkeys were everywhere around both lodges.

Finally the Lodges themselves were an unknown. They got generally excellent reviews on Tripadvisor, but, as there always are, there were a few outstanding negative reviews too.

I will reassure you on that point first. The Lodges were fine. Tremisana Lodge on the Balule Game Reserve is comfortable, with nice rooms and a family style atmosphere…including family style meals. Marc’s Treehouse Lodge is more rustic, with a more genuine “bush” feel and reed cabins perched in trees or on stilts high above a flowing river, and is¬†much more like a “camp”…including camp style¬†meals. Perhaps because of that, Marc’s attracts a lot more young people than Tremisana, and that just adds to the camp atmosphere. I enjoyed the experience of both, and the contrast between the two. I have no hesitation in recommending Tremisana to any potential traveler. I would recommend Marc’s Treehouse to those with a desire for a more authentic bush experience, and a good sense of adventure ūüôā

Tremisana Lodge, Balule Game Reserve, Greater Kruger NP, South Africa
Tremisana Lodge
Marc's Treehouse Lodge, South Africa
Marc’s Treehouse Lodge

As far as my other doubts went, the quality of the night, early and late walks and drives in Balule Game Reserve and the neighboring Tshakudu Reserve, both in the numbers of animals seen, and in the skill of the driver/rangers Viva and Tshakudu employ, more than made up for any lack of mornings in Kruger. At Balule we were able to spotlight elephants, giraffe, and honeybadgers on the night drive, and at Tshakudu we were able to drive up, just after sunset, within 40 feet of a pride of lions at a kill. (Other groups at Balule also saw a lion kill, but I missed it.) The rangers at Tremisana went out of their way (literally) on several occasions to show me birds I might not otherwise have seen or been able to photograph.

And the Viva driver/rangers who take the Game Viewers into Kruger daily did a wonderful job of finding and getting us views of as many animals as possible each trip. Every ranger I road with, and I road with four different ones, was knowledgeable and keen eyed, and I was especially impressed that, even though they are in Kruger every day, driving the same roads, chasing the same animals, they all still obviously enjoyed showing the African Wildlife to their customers. That makes a huge difference in the quality of the experience.

So, no it was not a dedicated photo safari…but I am not sure it made a difference, especially for a first experience of Africa. Perhaps because I was one of the few people each day in the Game Viewer with serious looking camera gear, I generally was voted into an outside seat. On the occasions when I did have a middle seat, it turned out not to be much of a problem. The vehicles are very high, with seats raised considerably above even the normal bed of the Land Cruiser, and I could generally shoot over or around my fellow passengers…and again, since I was obviously serious about my photography, the others generally made a special effort to make sure I got my picture. Several asked if I would send them copies of things that were just beyond the cameras in the cell phones and tablets that most of them were carrying. (I was totally amazed at how many of my fellow safariers came out with only a cell phone for a camera.)

Lion, Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Lions, Kruger National Park. We swung around and went back for this view. Because I asked ūüôā

Again, though it was not a photo safari, the driver/rangers are very experienced in positioning their vehicles so that everyone can see the animals…and on the few occasions where my view was blocked or where I saw the potential for a better shot, the driver made every effort to reposition the vehicle so I could get the shot I wanted. I would love to be able to afford a dedicated photo safari, but I am not convinced I would come back with any more keepers than I did from my Viva Wildlife Safari.

I took three cameras with me. The Sony RX10iii, with its 1 inch sensor and 24-600mm zoom, which I intended to use most of the time, the Nikon P900 for when I needed more reach (out to 2000mm equivalent, especially for birds), and the Sony HX90V (a tiny P&S with a 24-720mm equivalent zoom) as a fail-safe backup in case both other cameras broke ūüôĀ As it turned out, it was just too much trouble to handle¬†more than one camera in the field in Africa, especially in the Game Viewers, so the Nikon and HX90V stayed in my pack most of the time. Except for distant birds, I did not miss the reach of the P900, and even for distant birds, with the shimmer in the heated African air, I am not sure I would have gotten better shots with the 2000mm zoom. I did use the Clear Image Zoom out to 2x on the Sony more than I thought I would. Distant prides of lions, or a Cheetah in the shade of a distant tree just demanded more reach than 600mm, though I could have cropped and gotten the same image scale. Overall I was pleased with the results even for those stretched shots. I also found the Sony’s Anti-motion Blur Mode useful on several occasions when the light levels were low. I got better shots of hyena and the pride of lions at the kill after sunset because that mode was available…and impossible shots of Honeybadger after full dark in the light of only the Game Viewer’s spotlight. Finally, for the landscapes¬†I took, the in-camera HDR on the Sony is just the best!

Today’s modern Point and Shoot superzooms are ideal cameras for Africa, offering you the wide open vistas at 24mm, frame filling shots of larger wildlife at mid-telephoto range (250mm), and the reach to shoot a close-up of an elephants eye or a distant lion or small bird. And you well not find yourself overburdened with gear, or changing lenses in the field.

I took 5000 exposures over 11 days. I have 851 keepers. Lots of lions, more elephants that I really need, a hundred giraffes, most of the antelope species, zebra, wildebeest, rhino, hippo, leopard, cheetah, honeybadger, mongoose, etc.

White-fronted Bee-eater, Balule Game Reserve, South Africa.
White-fronted Bee-eater, Balule Game Reserve

And though it was not a birding trip, I got to photograph my “most wanted”: two sunbird species, both African rollers, and two bee-eaters…as well as many of the larger birds of the African bush…including a total surprise in a pair of Kori Bustards (the largest flighted bird) that we found walking one morning just after we got to Kruger.

Kori Bustard, Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Kori Bustard, Kruger National Park

This is a slideshow of 132 of the best or most interesting shots from my keeper set. You can also view the full take, organized by day, (and subject as time allows) on WideEyedInWonder.

I am considering, if there is enough interest, negotiating a bit more photo-centric trip with Viva or one of the other Kruger Safari companies next September. I think, if we could fill a Game Viewer (9 or 10 participants), we might get some special treatment (though not a cost savings as Viva is already about as inexpensive as anyone can be). Let me know via email, if you would be interested.

 

P&SNP at Traquilo Bay, Panama

In August of 2016 I had the privilege of being the official ZEISS host for a ZEISS/Eagle Optics trip to Tranquilo Bay Lodge in Bocas del Toro, Panama. While it was a birding trip, not a photography trip (and there is a difference), I took along my Sony RX10iii (and two back-up cameras) for those inevitable (at least for me) photo opportunities.

Headed out to Tranquilo Bay
Headed out from the dock at Bocas Town on our way to Tranquilo Bay Lodge

I have said here before that in my opinion, Tranquilo Bay Lodge and the surrounding area in the islands of Bocas del Toro, and the lowlands, foothills, and mountains of the ajoining mainland, are one of the best spots in Central American for bird and wildlife photography, especially during migration season. Our August trip proved that it is also excellent even at slower times of the year.

I am posting several slide shows of images. All were taken with the Sony RX10iii in Program Mode, In-camera HDR, or my customized Birds-in-flight mode (based on the built in Sports Mode, see here) and processed in Lightroom.

This firsts set is from Day One. You have to overnight in Panama City to get to Bocas del Toro at any reasonable time on your first day. The Lodge books the¬†dawn flight from the domestic airport in Panama City, so you are in Bocas early enough for a full day of exploring or birding. The Lodge picks you up at the airport and transports you to their boats at a dock in Bocas Town, and you motor out to Bastimento Island were Tranquilo Bay Lodge is located. We were met, half way up the boardwalk between the dock and the foot of the stairs leading up to the Lodge by what appeared to be the official Tranquilo Bay greeter for the day…a Three-toed Sloth in the canopy above us. That set the tone for the whole trip. After check in and island breakfast with your hosts at the Lodge, you head out to explore the trails around the island before lunch. After a siesta, which gives you a chance to unpack and even shower, you are off again on new trails, ending your exploration on the Canopy Tower on the hill above the cabins, watching flights of parrots returning to their roosts for the night.

On day two, we were up early to travel to the mainland for a day in the lowlands, foothills, and mountains. You can drive from the dock, right up to and over the continental divide, on good paved roads. The first section is lowland grass and swamp, then the foothills with rainforest, and eventually the mountains right up to the edge of cloudforest. Spectacular birding and photography all the way. We got rained out on our first approach to the divide, and went back down to the Ranger Station where we had lunch under their thatched shelter. By the end of lunch it has stopped raining and we went back to the divide to bird, then retuned to the foothills to end the day. There were many interesting dragonflies along the road were we birded on the way back.

Day three took us the Green Acres Chocolate Farm for morning birding, adn then back to Tranquilo Bay for the afternoon. The Chocolate Farm is near the mainland and has different species than Bastimento…including a totally different species of Poison Dart Frog.

On day four we traveled to the mainland again to explore the lowlands and ridges of the Changuinola region on the north edge of Bocas del Toro. Besides interesting birds, we encountered a number of butterflies, most of which I can not identify yet.

Day five was our day to visit Isle de Popo, a close neighbor of Bastimento and Tranquilo Bay. There are two major attractions at Popo. One is a population of Snowy Contingas, and the other is the unique phenomenon of a mix of color variations of Poison Dart Frog in a single location. Generally Poison Dart Frog variations are restricted to small ranges on individual islands or individual drainages.  On Popo, in an area the size of a heavily forested football field you can find at least 5 different color variations of Poison Dart Frogs, plus two separate species. Though I was with some hard-core birders, I persuaded them to visit the frog spot, and most seemed to really enjoy chasing the elusive critters around the forest floor, trying to find new color variations. We had just about given up on finding the rarer second species and were actually headed back before Ramone, our guide, found one. One of the birders jokingly asked for a Tourquoise frog. We found her one of those too. We did not, however, find the Snowy Cotinga, though we came back to Popo after our afternoon rest period, and again on our last morning at Tranquilo Bay. Not for want of trying.

Between trips to Popo on Day five, we had some free time. Some went on another hike around the lodge in search of the Three-wattled Bell Bird. I elected to hike back to the Golden-collared Manakin lecks to see if I could photograph these elusive but brilliant birds. Tranquilo Bay Lodge has to be one of the best places for Golden-collared Manakin. After a long hot wait in the humidity and mosquitoes, I was rewarded with two male Manakins coming into the lecks. August is late for any lecking activity so I felt particularly privileged. They did not actually get down and display, probably because there were no females in the area, but I got some keepers of the males.

Day 6 was our day for the Snyder Canal and Swan Island. The Snyder Canal was built at the turn of the century by the United Fruit Company to transport bananas from the plantations to the ships in a deep channel in northern Bocas del Toro, near the mouth of the Changuinola River. It was only in active service for about five years before the railway put it out of business, but it is still there, winding its way parallel to the coast through some prime swamp and lowlands. It provides easy access to some of the best birding in Bocas del Toro.

Swan Island is a volcanic plug about 40 minutes off-shore out in the Caribbean. It is home to a nesting colonies of Red-billed Tropicbirds, Brown Boobies, and Frigatebirds…and is one of unique attractions of Tranquilo Bay and Bocas del Toro.

After finishing in the Snyder Canal and Chinguinola River, we headed to Swan Island. All images here are taken in my custom birds-in-flight mode.

On our last day, the day we traveled back to Panama City to spend another night before our flights home, we made, as I mentioned, one last try for the Snowy Cotinga, without success. Just before we left for Panama City, I took some time to shoot fish off the dock, and then we were back in the boats and on our way to Bocas Town and the airport.

So, my conclusion. Tranquilo Bay is still one of the¬†best places in Central America for bird and wildlife photography…no matter the season. I can’t wait to go back again. (And maybe you will join me. Keep an eye on the Workshops and Tours page.)

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Motoring away from Tranquilo Bay

 

P&S Nature Photography Adventure in Honduras 2016

Barbara, Carol, Greg, Steve, Sally, and Ev waiting for breakfast on the porch of the restaurant on our last day in Honduras

Well it actually happened! The first Point and Shoot Nature Photography adventure in the tropics…at the Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras, was, imho, a solid¬†success. ¬†My wife, Carol, came along, as well as my oldest daughter Sally¬†(as my assistant), and we had three participating adventurers: Ev, Barbara, and Greg.

It was a Point and Shoot trip, and between us we had a Nikon P610, a Nikon P900, a Canon SX60HS, and a Canon SX50HS. I brought both the Nikon P900 and my new(er) Sony RX10iii, but I shot most of the time with the Sony.

The goal was to provide as many photo ops as possible over 5 full days. The Lodge at Pico Bonito is somewhat unique in providing first class accommodations and gourmet food, excellent guides, and a totally new adventure each day.

We only got to spend one full morning in and around the actual grounds of the Lodge, which is beautifully landscaped with native plants and surrounded on one side by an overgrown coco plantation, and on the other by untouched rainforest. We also had a few afternoon hours (when some of us processed pics and others explored) and we did a night hike in the coco plantation and the edge of the rainforest for nocturnal birds, reptiles, and frogs,

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Greg’s image of the Crowned Wood Nympth at the Lodge at Pico Bonito, right off the porch. Canon SX50HS.

We could easily have never left the grounds and trails of the Lodge and still have had plenty to photograph. You can sit and watch and photograph several species of hummingbirds coming to the feeders all along the edge of the roof over the open porch, or veranda, of the Lodge and restaurant, and perching in the trees and bushes within a few feet. We saw mostly White-necked Jacobins, but there were also Crowned Wood Nymph, Brown Violet-ear, Violet Saberwing, and a few Long-billed Hermits and White-breasted Emeralds. There was a family of Black-cheeked Woodpeckers raising

Black-cheeked Wood Pecker chick, The Lodge at Pico Bonito. Ev’s image with the Nikon P900.

young in a dead palm only a dozed feet from the deck between the Lodge and Conference Center, and under bushes near the base of the palm an Agouti was raising young. On the trails around the lodge we had good views of Blue-crowned Motmot and Black-headed Trogon, and glimpses and quick photo ops of Red-legged Honeycreeper and Masked Tytira. Some of us had good photo ops with Collared Aracari. (Between our seeing it and writing this, the AOU has split Blue-crowned Motmot into several species. I am not sure which of the new splits the ones we saw fall under.)

Blue-crowned Motmot. The Lodge at Pico Binito. Sally. Nikon P610.
Blue-crowned Motmot, the Lodge at Pico Bonito. Barbara with the Canon SX60HS.

Elmer (Elmer Escoto our expert guide) lead us off the trail to find a mother Great Pooto with a well grown chick sitting out in plain view. Perhaps the highlight of our day on the grounds was when Elmer tempted a Little Tinamou out into the open where we could all see it, and at least a few of us got shots. The Lodge maintains a butterfly garden and butterfly house, and between them we saw a dozen species of tropical butterflies: including the amazing Red Cracker (a blue butterfly despite its name…with a wing pattern that reminds me of a dutch dinner plate). There were at least 5 different Heliconians (Long-wings), and, in the butterfly house, several of the giant Blue Morphos that are pretty much the butterfly emblem of the tropics.

Little Tinamou, The Lodge at Pico Bonito, Steve with the Sony RX10iii
Red Cracker, The Lodge at Pico Bonito, Steve with the Sony RX10iii
Amazon Kingfisher, Rio Cangrejal, Honduras. Ev with the Nikon P900 at full reach.

I asked Elmer to find us a waterfall we could photograph and he suggested a run out to the Cangrejal river where they take adventuresome guests for white-water rafting. Though it was not on our schedule, we made time for it, and the lodge provided a van, on the afternoon of our day around the grounds. The waterfall turned out to be somewhat distant and shrouded in mist from intermittent rain, but the scenery going up the river and then across a

The suspension bridge over the Rio C . Greg with the Canon SX50HS
The suspension bridge over the Rio Cangrejal . Greg with the Canon SX50HS

suspension foot bridge high over rushing water and house-sized boulders, was spectacular. Along the way we had great views of Amazon Kingfisher…though at the limits for photography, and on the other side of the river we encountered the Helicopter Damselfly…the largest damselfly in the world, with a wingspan larger than even the largest dragonfly. We tracked it into the deep shade of the rainforest where we were able to get some decent flash shots. We got to see some unscheduled landscape, and a part of Pico Bonito National Park that most who go to the Lodge for birding and photography do not see.

Helicopter Damselfly, Rio Cangrejal, Steve with the Sony RX10iii and flash
The Banana train to Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge, Ev with the Nikon P900.

The next morning was our first real day in the field.  We visited the mangrove channels of the Cuero y Salado estuary, riding a century old banana train into the refuge at the mouth of the rivers, and then taking a small motor boat up the channels into the mangroves as far as we could go.

on the Banana train on the way to Cuero y Salado. Steve, Sony RX10iii. Elmer, Sally, Greg and Ev.

My hopes for the boat adventure are always Pygmy Kingfisher (since I really like Kingfishers), Bare-throated Tiger-heron, Boat-billed Heron, and monkeys…both Howler and White-faced Capuchin. There is always a remote hope for Agami Heron and Sungrebe. On our day on the rivers, we had good looks at all but the last two, plus Long-nosed Bats, many Northern Jacana, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Black-headed Trogon, and more Green Herons than I could count. And I mean really good looks at everything but the Boat-billed Heron, which flew off before everyone could get pics, and the monkeys, which played hard to get in the dense foliage.

This is a gallery of images from the group of the same very cooperative Pygmy Kingfisher. We had some trouble finding it in the first place and had actually given up and were headed back out of the channel where it is known to nest, when Elmer’s sharp eye caught it. We were able to drift close in with the boat, but these¬†are still¬†shots are taken from a moving boat of a very small bird. Great results for everyone.

Deep in the mangroves on a channel off the Cuero.

We had a similar opportunity with the Bare-throated Tiger-heron. Sally spotted it as we motored down the open river toward another channel (earning her supper that day), and we were able to drift in within a dozen feet of it before it flew up to perch practically right over our heads.

Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Steve, Sony RX10iii
Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Steve, Sony RX10iii
Greg. Canon SX50HS
Greg. Canon SX50HS

As I mentioned, the monkeys were elusive, and especially hard to photograph from a moving boat. I managed a quick shot of the Howler we spotted, and even more distant shots of the White-faced Capuchins. The Capuchins came just close enough to keep an eye on what we were doing…but not really close enough for photography.

Looking up the river back towards Pico Bonito. Sally rocking her Comics Workbook tee shirt and framing the view.
Clash of cultures. Motorbike and hand crafted dough-out canoes.

Once back at the boat dock near the Visitor Center for Cuero y Salado, we enjoyed some chilled fruit and cookies, courtesy of the Lodge, and then hiked about 300 yards out to the beach at the mouth of the rivers. It was typical June Honduran day on the Caribbean coast…sunny with towering clouds over the mountains and a storm coming in off the sea.

Looking east from the mouth of the Cuero y Salado rivers.
The group on the beach at Cuero y Salado. Ev, Sally, Carol, Barbara, Elmer, and Greg.

When we got back to the lodge, after lunch on the veranda, some went exploring around the grounds, while others rested until we met again at 3 pm to go to the first Tower in search of the signature bird of the Lodge at Pico Bonito…the Lovely Cotinga (and whatever else we could find). The Cotingas put in an appearance, though beyond the range of practical photography, but we had good views of a White Hawk out across the valley, some Keel-billed Toucans feeding on fruit, and our third primate of the day: Spider Monkeys (way¬†over on the far side of the valley).

At the limits of what is practical, even with 1335mm reach. White Hawk. Barbara. Canon SX60HS
Spider Monkey. Too far! Steve Sony RX10iii
Kinkajou, flash shot, Steve Sony RX10iii

On our night hike, we went in search of Vermiculated Screech Owl in the Coco plantation. Though we were within a few feet of and heard it calling right above us, we never could find it in the dense overstory foliage. As compensation Elmer found us a Kinkajou within flash range, and the Great Pooto (which was hand-raised at the Lodge a few years ago before release) put in an appearance on its favorite corner of the first tower. The Red-eyed Tree Frogs were calling around the Frog Ponds beyond the tower, and Elmer found us two to photograph. Along the way we picked up both Rainforest and Marine Toads (Marine Toads have to be seen to be believed…they are huge!) and various Anoles and bugs. It was such a rewarding hike that a few of us headed out for an encore¬†the next night.

Red-eyed Tree Frog. Steve, Sony RX10iii

We were up early the next morning for breakfast again, and on the bus for Rio Santiago Nature Resort, a justly famous destination for Honduran Hummingbirds. As a close neighbor to the Lodge at Pico Bonito, Rio Santiago is a favorite day trip. The lodge and brand new cabins are, it

Rio Santiago valley. Steve. Sony RX10iii

seems, half way up the slopes of the mountains surrounding Pico Bonito, at the end of a rough and sometimes steep, but passable, dirt track. (The elevation is actually only about 600 feet above sea-level.)

Along the road on the way up we got out and walked, exploring the fields on either side. We found Boat-billed Kingbirds, Blue-black Grassquits, Rose-breasted Bicards, Passerini’s and Blue-grey Tanager, Scrub Euphonia, Starry Cracker Butterfly, and a nesting Green-breasted Mango Hummingbird.

Rio Santiago Nature Resort maintains about 200 hand-crafted tube hummingbird feeders year round, which, along with the richly landscaped grounds, regularly attract over a dozen species of hummingbirds. And the hummers are close. You can sit on either of two covered verandas and have hummingbirds literally buzzing around your head. You can stand on the lawn and watch constant activity as the various species compete for space at the feeders less than 8 feet away. It is an experience not to be missed.

On the day we visited the Brown Violet-ear Hummingbirds were dominating the feeders in such numbers that it kept many of the regular visitors away, but it was still a great experience.

Hummingbirds are not the only attraction at Rio Santiago. It is also one of the most reliable places to see the Keel-billed Motmot. Gartered Trogons are regular there. They have snakes and lizards, dragonflies along the streams, interesting butterflies, a resident pair of Specticaled Owls, and, this year, an abandoned Margey kitten that they are attempting to raise for release. And if you enjoy scenery they have one of the most attractive small waterfalls in the foothills of Pico Bonito National Park, right there on the grounds.

Elmer worked hard to find us a Keel-billed Motmot, and it was there, calling above the waterfall, but it stayed high in the canopy. We got the shots we could under very difficult conditions.

Waterfall at Rio Santiago. In-camera HDR. Sony RX10iii

The Specticaled Owls were also playing hard to get during our visit, but several of us managed decent shots.

Looking back from the boat toward Sambo Creek and the coastal mountains of Honduras.

Day four found us headed for a totally different experience. We took the van early to Sambo Creek east of La Ceiba on the coast, where we donned life preservers and boarded a twin engined, 14 foot powerboat to visit Cayo Cochino, islands 17 miles off-shore. Cayo Cochino encompasses 2 volcanic and coral islands and 13 small sand cays clustered in the clear waters of the Caribbean. White sand beaches, palm trees, water ranging in color from transparent aqua to translucent

One of the sand cays of Cayo Cochino over the shoulder of our boatman.

turquoise: The Caribbean at its best. Parts of Cayo Cochino are protected habitat, and our first stop was the Visitor Center on Cayo Cochino Minor, operated by the Smithsonian Institute. Around the Visitor Center we found Yucatan Vireos, Allison’s Anole, and lots of Spiny-tailed Iguanas (the native Iguana of Honduras). The Yucatan Vireos on¬†the islands of Cayo Cochino are the only ones you will find in Honduras.

Coming into Cayo Cochino minor. Fuji XP85 waterproof camera
Yucatan Viero. Elmer with Ev’s Nikon P900
Again, with the Sony RX10iii
Spiny-tailed Iguana. Sally. Nikon P610
Spiny-tailed Iguana. Sally. Nikon P610
 Coming into Cayo Cochino minor. Fuji XP85 waterproof camera
Cayo Cochino major, Steve

From Cayo Cochino Minor (or Turtle Island as the locals call it), we crossed the straight to Cayo Cochino Major, where we landed on a private beach to explore inland for the Rosey (or Island Hog-nosed) Boa. These snakes are sometimes abundant, draped in trees, back a few hundred yards from the beach. Though it was a hot day and the snakes were mostly higher in the canopy, Elmer located one for us, curled up on a branch just above eye-level. We eventually found our way back to the beach for morning snacks, water, and wading (this beach is near the spot were we would have gone snorkeling if any of us had wanted to.) The beach sloped gently out into Turtle Bay, and it was a real treat to wade out into the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean.

 Coming into Cayo Cochino minor. Fuji XP85 waterproof camera
Carol and Sally in Turtle Bay
 Coming into Cayo Cochino minor. Fuji XP85 waterproof camera
Cayo Chachahaute #2

We were back in the boat again then, for a short run to Cayo Chachahaute #2 (or Twin Island #2 if you translate from the native dialect). The two Chachahaute Islands are only separated by a shallow straight and sand bar…often exposed in the winter months. Both islands are home to a population of Caribbean fishermen, and Cayo Chacahhaute #2 specializes in serving a daily lunch and dinner of fresh caught, wood grilled Yellow-

 Coming into Cayo Cochino minor. Fuji XP85 waterproof camera
Lunch, Fuji XP85

tailed Snapper, rice and beans, and fried plantains. That is the whole menu, and all meals are served on paper plates right on the beach under a thatched shelter at rough picnic style tables, but it just might be the best fish you will ever eat. While you eat you can watch the Frigatebirds and Pelicans soaring in the updraft at the head of the island. Except for the open beach on one side, the whole island, which is maybe the size of half a football field, is covered with the shanty homes of the fishermen. Their meals are so famous that boats come daily at noon and in late afternoon and early evening from the mainland and from the bay islands 25 miles away. (And of course fire-wood, rice, beans, plantains, and ice…lots of ice…have to be brought out to the island in dugout canoes daily.) After lunch, we spent about 45 minutes, mostly trying flight shots of the soaring Frigatebirds and Pelicans. There are only a few places I can think of that are this good for practicing flight shots.

Shooting the Back and White Owl

On the way back through La Ceiba on our way to the Lodge, we stopped at a small park where Black and White Owls are known to nest and roost. Again, Elmer managed the impossible and located one of the young B&W Owls on branch high in the canopy of one of the huge Mangostein trees. While we were photographing the young owl, Elmer’s friend, who used to work at the park, located one of the adults, and we moved the group over. Both owls were in the deep shade of the foliage, high in the trees, and, though they were in plain sight, they were not easy photographic targets. We were looking almost straight up at the them in the shadows. The situation was really at the limits of what any camera can do…the light was not good, and focus was difficult…and we were at¬†the limits of what our bodies could do as well, as we tried for awkward vertical shots at slower than optimum shutter speeds. The situation called for a tripod, but for the kind of 8 foot tall tripod no one would ever carry into the field anyway. Still, everyone in the group came away with at least one satisfying shot of the Black and White Owls.

Our last full day in Honduras found us on the bus early again for the drive to Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, the turn of the century Botanical Research Station founded by the United Fruit Company to experiment with tropical hardwoods and fruit trees for growing in their Honduran holdings. Lancetilla has the longest bird list of any single location in Honduras. It is also a great place for butterflies and dragonflies, and the occasional mammal.

A day at Lancetilla begins with a walk along the entrance road and one side road in search of mostly understory birds. We had not progressed far long the road when Greg spotted a Mexican Hairy Dwarf Porcupine on the branch of a tree just at the edge of the rainforest. (Also, apparently, known as a Prehensile-tailed Porcupine or Tree Porcupine.) Like most Porcupines its body is covered in spines, but in the Hairy Dwarf, its fur is long enough to completely cover the spines on much of its body, leaving spines exposed mostly on the face, lower legs, and spine. We had as much time with it as we wanted…since it was not at all disturbed by our presence on the road. Our pictures are remarkably similar as it did not move much beyond an occasional scratch for fleas.

Early on we¬†also encountered Groove-billed Ani, Blue-black Grassquit, Thick-billed Seed-finch,¬†Olivacious Piculet (the smallest woodpecker of the tropics), Passerini’s Tanager, many dragonflies and few butterflies.

Olivatious Piculette. Ev. Nikon P900

The second stop on the way in is a giant hardwood tree that hosts upwards of 100 active Montazuma’s Oropendola nests. The Oropendolas are the largest of the oriole family, and construct huge hanging woven basket nests.

Steve. Sony RX10iii

Just beyond the Oropendola tree there is a trail down to the river, which is always worth checking for Jacamars and Ruddy Crake. Neither turned up, but I photographed some interesting butterflies, the first of many that day, while we were waiting. Several of these are from later in the day, around the Visitor Center, which was our next stop.

Though Elmer set up and played his recording for the Ruddy Crake we heard calling in the tall reeds along the trail, it did not make an appearance. Ruddy Crake is not uncommon, especially at Lancetilla, but it is very difficult to see.

At the Visitor Center we spent some time with the natural history displays on the second floor, and then retired to the deep shade of the bamboo grove. Many different varieties of bamboo from around the tropics grow along a little stream that runs through a hollow. There is an amphitheater with a small stage there for presentations, but the main attraction is still the massive clusters of the largest grass in the world. I generally get the group together in the grove for a photo.

Greg, Ev, Sally, Barbara, Carol, and Elmer

While in the bamboo grove we came across a toad, and the whole group gathered to try toad shots.

shooting the toad

Before getting on the bus to head to Tela, a beach resort town near the gardens, for lunch, we made one last try of the Ruddy Crake. There are a series of small lily ponds along one side of the Visitor Center, and a Crake responded to Elmer’s recording almost at once. The rest of the group went around to the far side of the ponds where the Crakes were calling (there were at least two) but I got distracted by some shade and butterflies along the other side and headed that way. Consequently I was in exactly the right spot to see both Crakes cross a small open patch in the dense growth covering the pond. Most of the group got glimpses of the Crakes, but I got photos!

Of course I could not resist the dragonflies around the ponds either. I do not know enough about Central American Odonata to id these.

After the Crakes and Odonata we were back in the van for the short drive to Tela, where had a delicious lunch at a sea-side hotel. Tela was the resort town back in the days of the United Fruit Company, and still maintains its charm for Honduras today.

That left only the morning of our departure at the Lodge. Just as we finished eating breakfast a Keel-billed Toucan flew in over the Conference Center. Greg had the persistence to wait it out until it posed on an open branch.

Greg. Canon SX50HS
Greg. Canon SX50HS

It was an amazing satisfying trip. We had time (mostly in the van on the way to shooting sites) for some discussion and photographic instruction. We had abundant opportunities for tropical photography. We had great times around¬†the tables at the restaurant on the veranda at the Lodge (not to mention great food). And we had great weather. Though it rained every day, it never rained on us in the field. For the most part we had sunny skies and good photographic light when it mattered. The tropics are always a challenge for any photographer, but our group proved that today’s advanced superzoom Point and Shoot cameras are up to the task.

I am already planning another trip to the Lodge at Pico Bonito for next June (the 16th to the 22nd) …and I have a trip to Tranquilo Bay, Panama (another great destination) in the works for 2017. I am thinking of South Africa for 2018. Watch the tours and workshops page on this¬†site for details.

Sony RX10iii. Yes, but is it really a P&S superzoom?

Sony RX10iii. Wild flowers. 600mm macro at f4.

Those of you who follow my daily photo posts on Pic for Today, Facebook, or Google+ will have noticed that I have a new camera. Sony recently announced and released the RX10iii (or RX10M3, or RX10 Mk 3…it has been called all three. Even Sony is confused about the name. It is the RX10iii on the front plate of the camera itself and on the box, but it is the RX10M3 in the exif data recorded with jpegs??)

The big features on this new offering¬†in the RX line are the sensor: the newest 20mp, 1 inch sensor with the digital signal processor right on the back of the chip…and the zoom: a 24-600mm, f2.4-f4, ZEISS VarioSonnar design.

Farmington Falls in Farmington Maine. In-camera HDR. 6 stop difference. -1.3 EV. Program shift for slow shutter speed. Processed in Lightroom.

The sensor gives the camera better image quality (by far) than any P&S sensor camera to date, fast and sophisticated jpeg processing, and exceptional video features, including well implemented 4K  and ultra slow-motion recording. The increased IQ is not surprising considering that the sensor area is 4 times that of the Nikon P900 and its like, and the individual light receptors (all 20mp of them) are also 4 times bigger. And it is absolutely the latest technology from the undisputed leader in sensor design (many DSLRs (not to mention P&S and phones) have Sony sensors inside, no matter what the brand name on the outside), which means that Sony is able to nurse near APS-C image quality out a sensor 1/3 the size.

(Any of the images here can be viewed at any size up to original by clicking the image, which will take you to my WideEyedInWonder site. Size controls are at the bottom right.)

The lens, in theory, provides the reach to put this camera in the super-zoom category…though it is pitifully short by today’s Point and Shoot super-zoom standards where 1200mm is the norm, 1440mm is becoming common, and the Nikon P900 reaches 2000mm. Still 600mm on a DSLR is considered a super-long lens, and it is the most common lens used in bird and wildlife photography. And the ZEISS lens¬†is an f2.4 to f4: a fast lens by any standard, and super fast for a super-telephoto zoom.

Northern Perula, Magee Marsh, OH. 600mm at f4. Cropped slightly and processed in Lightroom.

The only other camera with a 1 inch sensor and a zoom that reaches 600mm equivalent is the Canon G3X, which requires an add-on Eye Level Viewfinder (EVF) for practical bird and wildlife use. Performance of the Canon lens is generally rated somewhat mediocre, and its jpeg processing features (in-camera HDR, sweep panorama, etc.) are very weak when compared with the Sony.

The third 1 inch sensor “super-zoom” offering is the Panasonic Lumix FZ1000 (or Leica Typ 114 which is practically identical). The FZ1000 has a Leica designed 25-400mm zoom, which is generally rated above the Canon zoom for performance, but is considered somewhat soft at both ends of its zoom range…and it lacks, imho, the reach to really be in the super-zoom class.

(Nikon has announced, but not delivered, a DL 24-500 1 inch sensor camera. Originally intended for June of this year, it is now delayed until at least November…and may, honestly, never see the light of day.)

I like Sony cameras. I carry the Sony HX90V as my landscape, occasional macro, and people shots camera along-side the Nikon P900, since it does both in-camera HDR, and tel-macro, better, and is less obtrusive at parties. And it is small enough to fit in a pocket. Prior to my Nikon P900 my superzoom was the Sony HX400V. Landscapes, especially HDR landscapes, have become a large part of my work over the past two years, and, while I like the HX90V for its images and size, I know that that the P&S sensor is limiting the detail that can be rendered in those big expansive views. And, while the HX90V is better at tel-macro than the P900 (close focus 7.5 feet vs. 16.5 feet) it is still not the ideal butterfly and dragonfly shooter. So, when the RX10iii was announced, and when I read that it also has excellent macro focus at 600mm (28 inches), I was very interested.

Aurora Damselfly, freshly emerged. Emmons Preserve, Maine. 600mm macro. 2x Smart Digital Tel-converter for a 5mp image at 1200mm equivalent from about 3 feet. Focus fine tuned using Direct Manual Focus (DMF). Great for macros.

In the time between announcement and delivery of the Sony RX10iii I had an opportunity to play with, and shoot with, both the Canon and Leica 1 inch zoom offerings for long enough to know that the Canon was out of the running, and that I could certainly learn to love the Leica/Lumix, despite its short zoom.

As it happened I also had a chance to field test the Sony RX10iii before making the decision. I called in a favor from the excellent folks at Hunts Camera and they brought me one to try at Magee Marsh two days after the camera’s release, during the Biggest Week in American Birding where they have a booth in the Optics Alley tent (TBWIAB is also colloquially¬†known as warblersock, and there is no place better to put a new camera through it paces…though I had to keep reminding myself that I would not be buying camera for birds…landscape and macro…remember!) After a day of using the RX10iii I got out my credit card, took a deep breath, and bought it. ūüôā

The deep breath was necessary because the camera is expensive: at $1500 almost twice as expensive as the Lumix or Canon, and three times the cost of even an expensive P&S super-zoom. And it is big: considerably bigger than the Canon 3GX, the same size but heavier than the Lumix FZ1000, and both slightly bigger and quite a bit heaver than my Nikon P900…the biggest P&S super-zoom to date.

Still…once I had handled the RX10iii, run through the menus and explored the features, and especially once I had processed a few of the images, my fate was sealed!

Handling, controls, etc.

As I mentioned, I like Sony cameras, mainly because of the range of control provided over features like Dynamic Range Optimization, in-camera HDR, Creative Styles (jpeg processing profiles that can be fine tuned for saturation, contrast, and sharpness), and special features like Anti-motion blur for party shooting. Sony provides enough control over the jpeg processing so that I feel no need of RAW. (The RX10iii does record RAW and RAW plus jpeg, but I prefer to use the features built into the jpeg process…DRO, HDR, Anti-motion blur, etc….I am a Point and Shoot photographer at heart, and it fits my workflow in post processing better.) The RX10iii has all the Sony features, and since they are essentially in the same place in the main menu and function menu as they are in the HX line, I quickly felt right at home.

One of the benefits of the big body on the RX10iii is the range of physical controls provided. You have 3 Custom Buttons, a big button on the lens, two control rings on the lens, a control thumb-wheel upper right on the back, a dedicated Exposure Compensation wheel far right top, and a four¬†position switch for focus modes. This is in addition to the normal Auto/PSAM etc. control dial on the top left, and the 4 way rocker switch surrounding the multi-function button on the back. And it is all totally customizable. Do you prefer the wider lens ring for focus (as I do)? Or you prefer right to left for close and far focus? Just set it so. Do you want easy access to the metering or focus area settings? Assign them to Custom Buttons. Are you used to having ISO on the right rocker switch (it is there on a lot of cameras). Assign it! You find yourself using the built in Smart Digital Tel-converter a lot? Put it on the lens button. Don’t like the arrangement of the functions in the function menu? Change it. It takes some time, and some experience with the camera, but you can set the Sony RX10iii up to match exactly your shooting style and needs.

And the camera, in your hands, just feels solid and serious. Heavy, yes, but well balanced (and light compared to any other rig with a 600mm f4 attached). Sony says the body is dust and moisture resistant, and I can believe it. This feels like a finely crafted machine. Picking up my P900 or P610 after…well, I love them, but they feel like toys. It is just that the RX10iii is so clearly a cut above them in build quality. It would have to be, of course, at least in part, to justify the price!

Image Quality

And that brings us to image quality. Again, there are two contributing factors: the sensor/image processing engine (since I shoot jpeg), and the lens.

The image quality is simply outstanding. Compared to my Nikon P900, the images feature smooth, artifact free, backgrounds at almost any ISO; vivid, but not oversaturated colors; great dynamic range; and very fine detail. P900 images, while they render amazing feather detail at 2000mm and capture accurate (for the most part) color, look flat and 2 dimensional, with much less subtly¬†in the color rendition, when compared to the images from the RX10iii. The images from the Nikon P900 are wonderful, technically amazing. The images from the RX10iii are beautiful. They have an eye appeal that is just not there in the images from any P&S super-zoom I have used to date. (The Sony HX400V comes closest…but the almost total lack of artifacts…and the finer¬†detail¬†of the RX10iii put its images in another class from even its close sibling.)

The follow two pics show both the P900 and RX10iii at their best…at least for wildlife. The P900 fills the frame with a warbler at 20 feet, and shows exceptional feather detail. The RX10iii captures the beauty of the bird and its surroundings in a natural, attractive image.

Then the lens…and the RX10iii is really all about the lens. This is, quite simply, as good a wide angle lens as I have ever used (and that includes the ZEISS Touit 12mm for the Sony Alpha APS-C series) and a totally amazing lens at 600mm and f4. Totally amazing! The resolution and sharpness are¬†wonderful. The brightness and contrast are¬†totally realistic. In in-camera processed jpegs, there is NO color fringing. The image stabilization (like that of the Nikon P series) is totally up to the task. You can hand-hold at 600mm…even 1200mm with digital enhancement or in-camera cropping (more on that later). ZEISS and Sony have really stepped it up on this design, and, imho, set a new standard for lens quality, certainly in the super-zoom class, and, I think, quite possibly in zoom lenses in general. Well done ZEISS and Sony!

Combine this lens with this sensor and image processing engine, and, as DP Review perhaps somewhat over enthusiastically said, it simply destroys the competition. ūüôā

Cedar Waxwing. 1200mm equivalent (in-camera crop).

But I come back to the beauty of the images…that indefinable something that makes them a pleasure to look at. It is addictive, and the more I shoot with the camera, the better I like it.

Of course, being me, I have run some actual side by side tests with the HX90V for landscapes, and with the P610 and P900 for birds and wildlife (though finding a bird that would sit for me while I switched cameras proved to be a bit tricky…and I have not found one in and ideal situation yet.) I also tested the RX10iii using both Clear Image Zoom (digitally enhanced to reach 1200mm), and the Smart Digital Tel-converter function (in-camera cropping to achieve the same 1200mm field of view and image scale¬†but in a 5mp image) to see if it could come close to…or even, maybe, equal…the resolution of the P610 at 1440mm and the P900 at 2000mm. Well I had to try, didn’t I?

Macro

I have been missing a great macro camera since I moved on from the Canon SX50HS a few years ago. I like to shoot flowers, plant detail, and bugs…mostly dragonflies and butterflies, and the Canon, which focused to 4 feet at 1200mm equivalent, was the ideal tool. Then too the Canon had a digital tel-converter that you could kick in at any focal length…which made wide angle macro practical, since you could get the macro focus of the 24mm position, and the image scale and working distance of a 48mm equivalent. The RX10iii focuses to 28 inches at 600mm, and therefor offers almost the same image scale as the Canon at its closest. The Smart Digital Tel-converter will give you 5mp close-ups at twice that scale. Or, especially for macros where most of the image is taken up by the subject, you can use Clear Image Zoom for 20mp images, though with some added artifacts, at that same scale. (If you need 20mp, you can also use a program or plug-in in post-processing, like On1’s Resize 10, to enlarge the 5mp image back to 20mp, with very good results.) By the way, macro is a good place to use Direct Manual Focus (see below for more). If you look back at the shot of the Aurora Damselfly above, you will see that the focus is precise on the head of the bug…sharp because I used DMF to focus exactly there.

Whitetail Dragonfly (Frosted likely). 1.4x Smart Digital Tel-converter. DMF for fine focus.
Teneral Chalk-fronted Corporal (dragonfly). 2x SDTC. (1200mm equivalent at 5mp.) From about 3 feet.

HDR Landscapes

Sony has the best implementation of in-camera HDR in the business. You can use Auto HDR, or you can choose 1 to 6 EV differences between the 3 images used to create the final HDR file. You can also set Creative Styles to suit you, and use Exposure Compensation to shift the mid-point of your three exposures. Look back at the waterfall shot above and note the caption. Then too,¬†the in-camera program that aligns images is nothing short of amazing. In most cases it will be able to sort out some movement in the image…like reeds blowing in the wind, or water moving along the shoreline…without any “ghosting”. (Ghosting is what happens when the same object appears in the finished image twice, but slightly out of alignment, because it moved between exposures.) The three exposures have been¬†taken fast enough for several Sony camera generations so that you do not need a tripod…but with the new sensor with the digital signal processor built in…the RX10iii is super fast. The HDR files from the RX10iii look good right out of the camera…and, with a bit of adjustment of levels in Lightroom (or similar) can be made to look completely natural…as close to the naked eye view as you are going to get with a digital camera.

A good stiff breeze was moving the cattails in the foreground, but Sony HDR managed to sort it out.

I tested the HDR capability of the RX10iii against the HX90V. In every shot, the RX10iii shows finer detail and detail better rendered. (Previous tests showed that the HX90V did way better at HDR than the Nikon P610 and P900…which have only one level (auto) of HDR. Previous testing also showed that the HX90V was very close in image quality for HDRs to the Sony Nex 5t, with its APS-C sensor and its 16-50mm kit zoom. Too close to call. The combination of the new sensor in the RX10iii and the exceptional ZEISS VarioSonnar zoom yield HDR landscapes that are noticeably better than the Nex 5t. I don’t have a more recent Sony APS-C body to test against, but my feeling is that the RX10iii is producing in-camera HDRs that are about as good as you are going to get from any camera.)

Here is a comparison crop from the HX90V and the RX10iii. Two in-camera HDRs taken seconds apart.

HX90V on the left, RX10iii on the right. Processed with the same Lightroom preset.
HX90V on the left, RX10iii on the right. Processed with the same Lightroom preset.

Telephoto: Wildlife and Birds

My original thinking was that the RX10iii would not have to compete with the Nikon P610 and P900 for birds and wildlife. It was replacing my HX90V…and perhaps my P610 for butterflies and dragonflies…but not my P900 for birds and wildlife.

That, of course, was before I discovered how much fun the RX10iii is to shoot with…and how good the images look.

Fun: The EVF on the RX10iii makes the EVF on the Nikon Ps look, well, dingy…and the EVF on the Ps is among the best of any P&S superzoom currently on the market. The Sony EVF is not like using and EVF at all. It is very close, in my opinion, to using an optical view finder. The image is so crisp and detailed, so bright¬†and contrasty, that it is easy to find birds, even in a confusing background…way easier that in either Nikon P model. That means you are on birds faster and enjoy looking at them more. Fun.

The RX10iii is also fast…13 frames per second…and the buffer clears within a second. High speed on the Nikons is 10 fps, and it takes 7 to 8 seconds for the buffer to clear. That is so annoying that I only use Low Speed Continuous on the Nikons, 2 fps. I had learned to live with it…but the Sony is just more fun.

Sony’s implementation of Direct Manual Focus and the placement of the focus ring on the lens barrel is simply brilliant. (Not perfect, focus by wire using the electronic focus ring is not the same as mechanical¬†focus, but brilliant all the same.) Setting the camera to DMF means that you still have auto focus, but you can override it at any time by just turning the focus ring. This means that, if the camera can’t find focus quickly, you can get it in the right ball-park using DMF, and then let Auto finish (in which case Auto will lock on almost instantly), or you can let Auto get you close, and then fine tune focus with the ring. In that case, when you have the shutter button half-pressed for focus, turning the focus ring also magnifies the image by an amount which you specify so you can really see what you are doing. (See the caption up above under Macro for how much help this is in shooting Macros.) Again, DMF adds to the fun factor.

macro, with DMF aided focus. 1200mm from a 5mp in-camera crop (Smart Digital Tel-converter).
Cedar Waxwing in Apple Blossoms. DMF to the rescue!

Images: I have enthused before already about the beauty of the RX10iii images when compared to the Nikon P series. Maybe it is just my eye…but I really, really like the why this Sony renders an image.

That said, I have been experimenting with the RX10iii for birds and wildlife. DMF is great, and the focus on the Sony is faster than the Nikon P900, but the P900 has a kind of magic built in that allows it to focus on the bird, even when the bird is mostly hidden by foreground foliage and twigs. In a similar case with the Sony, you have to resort of DMF. The time difference is not significant, since it often takes the Nikon P several tries, several shutter button half presses, to do its magic and you can get there with a twist of the focus ring and a single press on the Sony…but it is different. It is not magic!

And of course there is a significant difference in the reach between any current P&S superzoom and the RX10iii’s paltry 600mm. There is nothing like reaching out with the P900 at 2000mm equivalent and absolutely filling the frame with a warbler at 20 feet! And the feather detail that the Nikon captures is simply amazing. (Or fur detail if not shooting birds.) The background of the photo might not look very appealing…it might be full of noise and sharpening artifacts, but who is going to notice that when the bird takes up most of the frame?

To come even close to the P900’s reach, you have to resort to either Clear Image Zoom or to the Smart Digital Tel-converter on the Sony. Clear Image Zoom is similar to Perfect Image Zoom on the Nikons. It applies special processing to a crop from the center of the senor to provide the appearance of a longer focal length, and a full size image. On the Nikons it can push the zoom out to 2880mm on the P610, and 4000mm on the P900, with decent results. On the Sony CIZ pushes the zoom out to 1200mm, again, with quite good results. The Sony, however, will also just save that cropped portion of the sensor as a file…that is what Smart Digital Tel-converter does. You get a 5mp image, with no added digital artifacts, at 1200mm equivalent.

1200mm equivalent, optical zoom, Nikon P610
1200mm. 600mm optical zoom, plus 2x Clear Image Zoom. Sony RX10iii

I have experimented with both on the RX10iii to determine how close I can come to the detail offered by the P610 or P900. And the answer is, pretty close. ūüôā Due to the bigger sensor, and perhaps the better jpeg processing engine, CIZ at 1200mm comes very close to the level of detail that you get with the P610 at and optical zoom of 1440mm, and pretty much matches it a 1200mm, when you use the P610 (or P900 for that matter) at that optical focal lengh. At 600mm equivalent, full zoom on the Sony, or set to 600mm on the Nikons, the Sony wins hands down.

At 2000mm the Nikon P900 offers considerably more image scale than the Sony, even stretched to 1200mm (fills more of the frame with your subject), and pretty amazing feather and fur detail. However, using the Smart Digital Tel-converter for a cropped 5mp image on the Sony, while it does not equal the scale, yields very similar feather and fur detail. It also produces a much cleaner image…with far fewer digital artifacts, especially in the background of the image. And there is the beauty factor.

2000mm optical zoom. Nikon P900.
1200mm. Smart Digtial Tel-converter (in-camera crop to a 5mp image). Sony RX10iii
1200mm. The image above, upscaled to 20mp using On1’s Resize 10 plug-in.

Finally I experimented with upscaling the 5mp image back to 20mp using On1’s Resize 10 plug-in for Lightroom, which I downloaded as a trial. Upscaling¬†is essentially what the camera does when using CIZ, but the scaling in Resize 10 uses “true fractal technology” and is just more sophisticated than in-camera scaling, and the results are very impressive. (see the image immediately above)

The following¬†gallery shows the results of comparison shots of the only really cooperative bird I could find…at ISO 100. Clicking the image will open the attachment page where there is a link to the full sized image at the bottom of the page (next to the magnifying glass). Left click the link¬†to choose Open in a new tab, to compare two images by flipping back and forth between them.

The next gallery shows the results of comparison shots of the same species…in subdued light…at ISOs of 400 and 500. The RX10iii 1200mm, 20mp shot is the 5mp shot upscaled in On1 Resize 10. The final shot is the RX10iii at 1200mm, but I moved closer to the bird by 4 feet, to achieve the same image scale as the P900 from it’s minimum focus distance of 16.5 feet.

My conclusion is that the P900, overall, still does the best job for wildlife and birds, but considering everything I shoot, and everything else the RX10iii does so well, I could easily get away with just carrying the RX10iii. I can live with the 5mp cropped 1200mm equivalent, given the beauty of the images, and the fact that most of my images are posted to the web at 3mp anyway. And the On1 Resize 10 plug-in (which is so good that I actually purchased it) will, in fact, produce a full-sized, 20mp image, if and when I need it.

5mp image from above, upscaled to 20mp in On1’s Resize 10. Compare at full size by clicking for my WIEW site and using the size controls in the lower right hand corner of the page.

I have been carrying two cameras for a while now…both the Nikon P900 and the Sony HX90V…to cover the range of my nature photography interests…from macros, to HDR lanscapes, to sweep panoramas, to tight shots of wildlife and birds. The RX10iii comes as close as any camera can to a one-camera-does-it-all solution for my needs. For macro and landscape it is simply wonderful…providing as much detail in beautiful, appealing images as I will ever need, and stretching out to 1200mm equivalent with excellent detail, and that same beauty of image, for wildlife and birds.

All well and good, the Sony RX10iii may be a great camera, but, harkening back to the title of this review, is it really a Point and Shoot Superzoom?

I always say Point and Shoot is an attitude not a class of equipment…and the way I will use the RX10iii is the same way I use any Point and Shoot superzoom. I will let the camera do as much as it reasonably can, using all the automation and all the jpeg processing features that Sony engineers have built in, and I will concentrate on finding the images worth capturing, and capturing them. Let the camera do all it can do, see, point, shoot, share. That is the Point and Shoot nature photographer’s mantra.

And that leaves us with the question of whether a $1500 camera can be classed as a Point and Shoot? I could buy 3 Nikon P610s for that and have money left over for extra batteries, a charger, and as many SD cards as I might want. Part of my attraction to Point and Shoot is that it makes quality nature photography available to almost anyone who wants to give it a serious try. The $1500 price tag on the RX10iii puts it out of consideration for many beginning nature photographers, and many who are well beyond beginner.

At the same time, $1500 is still only about 1/10 the price of a pro¬†DSLR body and a 600mm f4 image stabilized lens…and that does not count the cost of all the other lenses you would need to fill the gap down to 24mm at the wide end. Even an entry-level¬†DSLR and the least expensive¬†150-600mm zoom would set you back about the same as¬†the RX10iii…and again, you would need at least 2 more lenses to cover the 24-150mm range and macro. So, while the RX10iii is not as affordable as a standard Point and Shoot superzoom, it is still what we might call a bargain in a full service outfit for serious nature photography. (And that is not to mention the differences is size and weight!)

If your primary interest is bird photography, and occasional wildlife, you might still be better served by something like the Nikon P900. My P900 will be coming with me on any future nature photography trips. And if your budget, or your sense of thrift, will not stretch beyond $600, you can still be a successful and happy Point and Shoot nature photographer with any of several current superzoom offerings, in the $400-$600 range. Just let the camera do all it can, see, point, shoot, share, and enjoy.

Baltimore Oriole in Apple Blossoms. Sony RX10iii

If your interests are wider, with a serious interest in everything from macro, through dramatic landscapes, to wildlife and birds: if you value a kind of ineffable beauty in the images you take; and if $1500 does not seem unreasonable to you, then I can safely predict that you are going to be just as over-the-top delighted with the RX10iii as I am.

In fact, if I did not know better, I would think the engineers at ZEISS and Sony had me in mind when they designed the RX10iii. This is, in so many ways, my ideal camera.

But, honestly, is it a Point and Shoot superzoom? It is if you want it to be. ūüôā

Goosefair Bay, in-camera HDR. Sony RX10iii

 

 

 

 

Sony HX90V. Perfect (almost) second/first/travel P&S superzoom

Sony HX90V. Notice finger grip, and control ring around lens next to the body.
Sony HX90V. Notice finger grip, and control ring around lens next to the body.

I really like the Nikon P900, which I am using for the majority of my bird and wildlife photography these days, and which does a good job on nature photography of all kinds (it is hard to argue with the excellent 83x zoom and amazing image stabilization), but since I switched to it from the Sony HX400V, there are several things the Sony did well that I find myself missing. The main ones are: fully adjustable in-camera HDR and more robust Dynamic Range Optimization options, reliable macro, and Anti-motion Blur mode for inside shots. The Nikon does all these things, after a fashion, but it does not do them as well as the Sony HX or RX series.

Then too, I have now passed both the Sony HX400V and the Canon SX50HS, my previous “back up cameras”, on to others. That left me with just one camera for trips, and it is never safe to travel for more than a few days with only one camera. What if something bad happens? Imagine it: stuck in Panama for a week without a working camera. Never!

Which is why the Sony HX90V, when it was first announced, appealed to me. It has the pop-up electronic view finder from the RX 100 iii and iv; the control ring around the lens from the whole RX series (see above); the finger grip from the RX 100 iv (also in the pic above); a flip¬†up 180 degree, selfie ready, LCD like the Alpha 5000 and 6000; and the world’s smallest 30x zoom …24 to 720mm equivalent field of view (and a ZEISS Sonnar at that). Given past experience with Sony’s souped up digital Clear Image Zoom, that means possible pics out to 1440mm in a pinch.

And it is small enough to carry along with the Nikon P900 without even thinking about it.

Sony HX90V at 720mm and Nikon P900 at 2000mm.
Sony HX90V at 720mm and Nikon P900 at 2000mm.
Viewing options. Pop-up, pull out EVF, flip up LCD.
Viewing options. Pop-up, pull out EVF, flip up LCD.

It also has the truly inspired Function button and menu I had loved on the HX400V…which gives you easy access to anything you are likely to want to set…and three fully programmable memory locations for settings you use often. And, of course, the traditional Sony Creative Styles¬†options, which allow you to fine tune how the jpeg images are processed and encoded in the camera before they are written to the card. (Sony’s answer to RAW.) All in all, the level of control possible with the Sony simply puts the Nikon in the shade…it is a good thing the Nikon lens and IS are¬†so good!

Of course, no amount of control matters if the images are unsatisfying. Like all Sony cameras, especially the P&Ss, the images from the HX90V will not stand a lot of pixel peeping…they are not as clean at the pixel level as Nikon or Canon images. However, at normal viewing and printing sizes, they are simply excellent…sharp, vibrant, and lively.

Since it is a primary interest of mine, we will begin with a few in-camera HDRs: you can set in-camera HDR for anything from 1 EV differences in exposure, for a very subtle effect, to 6 EV differences, to capture deepest shade and boldest highlights. There is also an Auto setting which does an excellent job in all but the most extreme conditions. 

Then you have macro effects down to 5 cm (2 inches). I find that about 35-40mm equivalent works really well, along with DRO level 5 or Auto. You actually get an excellent macro effect.

The long end of the zoom is useful, with or without some Clear Image zoom, for close-ups of bugs, and the occasional grab shot of a cooperative bird. This (along with super-bright sunny days) is where the pop-up EVF comes into play! It is much easier to hold the camera still when it is up to your eye.

The flip up selfie mode on the LCD panel does a good job.

 

Me at Nubble Light, in Maine
Me at Nubble Light, in Maine

Panorama shots are as easy as they are with any Sony. You have your choice of “standard”, “wide”, or “360 degree.”

Wild roses along the Bridle Path
Wild Roses along the Bridle Path

 

Big Beach, Kennebunk ME. Wide format pano.
Big Beach, Kennebunk ME. Wide format pano.

Some of the Picture Effects are also interesting. I have enjoyed playing with HDR Painting, which can be adusted to one of three levels, and produces a nice “slightly over the top”, tone-mapped HDR look.

In-camera, HDR Painting Picture Effect. This is on the "low" setting.
In-camera, HDR Painting Picture Effect. This is on the “low” setting.[/caption

[caption id="attachment_856" align="alignright" width="660"]Illustration Picture Effect, Blueberries. Illustration Picture Effect, Blueberries.

Sunsets are always a good test of a Point and Shoot. I tried both the Multiple Frame Noise Reduction Mode and in-camera HDR. I like the results from HDR better. Pleasing rendition of colors, and very little noise in the image.

Sunset over Back Creek, with fisherman :)
Sunset over Back Creek, with fisherman ūüôā

I went to Strawberry Banke, a local historical district in Portsmouth NH, today, and had a chance to try out several modes for indoor use. I tried straight in-camera HDR, Anti-Motion-Blur Mode, and Multi¬†Frame Noise Reduction (with is actually an auto ISO setting). All three worked well, and provided higher ISO equivalent images in low light that showed much less noise than you would expect. Anti-Motion Blur tended to have the most noise, as it consistently selected higher ISOs suitable for moving subjects. In-camera HDR was relatively clean, and, as expected had the most extended range…usable highlights and open shadows. Multi Frame Noise Reduction ISO mode produced the cleanest looking images, amazing clean for hand-held indoor shots in very dim natural lighting, but would not be suitable for indoor action. This is a hand-held Multi Frame NR shot in a historical kitchen¬†with only window and fire light. I think it is pretty amazing.

Strawberry Banke hearth cooking demo. Portsmouth NH. Multi Frame NR
Strawberry Banke hearth cooking demo. Portsmouth NH. Multi Frame NR

So…all in all the Sony HX90V is a great second camera. It does everything I had hoped, and almost everything the Nikon P900 does not do well. It is even a great first camera. The degree of control offered, the viewing options, the excellent long zoom, the advanced multi-frame features, etc. put it right there in the top choices for a P&S superzoom for nature and creative photography…as long as you don’t need more than 720mm of reach (1440mm with Clear Image zoom).

And finally, of course, the Sony HX90V was conceived as a travel zoom…and as that I can not imagine a better choice! It does it all and it does it all well…fits in a large pocket…and is the ideal camera to carry absolutely everywhere you travel. Good job Sony!

Wood Lily landscape.
Wood Lily landscape.

Nikon P900: Breaking new superzoom ground!

P900 with my custom modified tulip shade. Big glass!
P900 with my custom modified tulip shade. Big glass!

For several months the Nikon P900 was rumored around the internet. The optimistic claimed a 83x zoom!  A Superzoom to top all superzooms! From Nikon.

A lot of digital ink went into poopooing the rumor. Something between ‚ÄúFat chance!” and “Dream on!‚ÄĚ seemed to be the consensus. I will admit, I was not a believer either‚Ķespecially not after Nikon announced the P610 for delivery in early March….a significant upgrade to the P600, with improved focus speed and reliability, improved buffer clearing times for continuous shooting, and, by all reports, at least slightly improved image quality‚Ķand that on top of IQ that was already rated ‚Äúbest in class‚ÄĚ for 16mp superzooms by many. I put one on pre-order the day it was announced!

And then, only a few weeks later, before, in fact, the P610 was readily available at retail, Nikon officially announced the P900 for delivery in late March. What? Unbelievable!

And, yes indeed, the zoom reached 83x…and the new camera¬†included all the focus and buffer improvements of the P610. As you might expect, given the huge zoom, it is a big camera‚Ķtwice the size and weight of the P610. Still, 2000mm equivalent field of view‚Ķand perhaps decent digital enhancement out to 4000mm for truly desperate¬†situations. I debated less than a day before canceling my P610 order and preordering the P900.

Before the first units were in the hands of users, eager photographers had filled two P900 threads on the Nikon Coolpix forum at dpreview. That is over 300 posts. And that was before anyone outside the industry insiders had actually seen the camera. And those were not the only threads going either. In fact, the P900 was also under discussion on the Canon Powershot forum and several others. I think it safe to say that no superzoom (with the possible exception of the Canon SX60HS, the replacement for the wildly popular SX50HS) has generated as much interest before it shipped.

And once the first units reached customers, it became apparent from early posts on the forums that, unlike the SX60HS, for most people, the P900 was not going to be a disappointment! There were a few nay-sayers, but they were mostly people who had unrealistic expectations of a Point and Shoot superzoom, and did not give the camera a fair chance, or a few who clearly got defective early production units. (Those with defective cameras were able to trade in for new units, and in every case the problem was solved.)

My P900 came direct from Nikon a few days after the first units were in the hands of eager dpreview forum members, and I was out in the yard the next morning testing it against the Canon SX50HS and the Sony HX400V. We are still experiencing the dregs of winter in Maine, with snow on the ground, and not much color showing, so I had ordered some artificial parrots (made of dyed chicken feathers) specifically for testing. Between shots of my artificial parrot tree and the brick work on the chimney, I was pretty well convinced by the end of the morning that Nikon had done the big zoom right. And as I continue to experience the camera in my daily trips afield, I have come to appreciate what a marvel it really is.

Image Quality:

For most photographers,¬†no matter how long the zoom, overall image quality comes first. We all know that the small sensors in our P&S superzooms will never equal the performance of an APS-C or full sized sensor, but we want something that comes close…close enough to produce satisfying images when viewed as large as we are likely to ever view them…and that will make the occasional print up to 13×17 or so. That means a sensor and image processor that produce images with good detail, as little noise as possible, and few if any “digital artifacts.” We want an image that looks like a real photograph, and not like a water-color painting. We expect some water-color effect…smearing of fine details and blotching of smooth color patches…when the image is viewed at 100% or greater…that comes with the tiny sensor…but it can not be obtrusive or obvious. And any defects should be invisible at normal viewing and printing sizes. Like I say…a photograph not a painting.

In my tests the image quality of the P900 did not really break¬†any¬†new ground, but it was easily as good as, and maybe slightly better than, the 12 mp Canon SX50HS…which is still, even after the introduction of the SX60HS, widely perceived¬†to provide the best image quality of any superzoom. There is a little more noise in empty backgrounds, but also slightly more detail in detailed areas of the image. The P900¬†also easily matched and slightly surpassed the image quality of the Sony HX400V, which has been my go to camera for more than a year, showing less digital artifacts, equal or better detail, and about the same level of¬†noise. And this is true throughout the ISO range, from 100-1600 where I did my testing.

Test shots are from the same distance at the same zoom setting, 1200mm…the Nikon and Sony images are resized from 16mp and 20mp scale to match the scale of the 12mp Canon. You can click on any image to open at at full size in your browser.

Canon SX50HS, Nikon P900, Sony HX400V
ISO 100: Canon SX50HS, Nikon P900, Sony HX400V

 

ISO 400. Canon SX50HS, Nikon P900, Sony HX400V
ISO 400: Canon SX50HS, Nikon P900, Sony HX400V

 

ISO 800: Canon SX50HS, Nikon P900, Sony HX400V
ISO 800: Canon SX50HS, Nikon P900, Sony HX400V

 

ISO 1600: Canon SX50HS, Nikon P900, Sony HX400V
ISO 1600: Canon SX50HS, Nikon P900, Sony HX400V

Of course Image Quality is more than the pixel level performance of the sensor and processor. You also have to consider overall color representation, balance (or fidelity), and clarity (or vividness), as well as the balance of light and dark tones (dynamic range).¬†To be honest, I have not liked the way Nikon has reproduced color and tones in the past. To me Nikon Point and Shoot images were always “flat” and “poster-like” with colors that were just a bit off. That was one of my major concerns in preordering the P900, but I was somewhat reassured by the sample images being posted by Nikon and early adopters.

I have written about the apparent aesthetic differences in the way different camera companies choose to “render” the digital image, and that is also apparent in comparing the images from the Nikon P900, Canon SX50HS, and Sony HX400V. Straight out of camera (sooc), the Nikon images look a little “thin” compared to the Canon or Sony. Partially this is due to the fact that even at the same settings in the same light the Nikon images are always lighter overall than the other two. Either, to be charitable, the Nikon sensor is simply more efficient (requires less light for an equivalent exposure), or Nikon has mis-calibrated the ISO settings on the P900. I choose to be charitable…especially since in a long zoom camera, lower ISOs and higher shutter speeds are always welcome!

Partially because of the difference in brightness, though, the colors in the sooc images from the Canon and Sony look richer, and more saturated. Even when the Nikon images are adjusted for brightness, in direct comparison some may still prefer the colors in the Canon images. However, in actual use in the field, under a wide variety of conditions, I find the Nikon colors to be relatively accurate, and quite pleasing, once the images have gone through my standard post processing work flow.

Still experimenting with the best in-camera setting for landscapes
Still experimenting with the best in-camera setting for landscapes

The difference between the Nikon and Sony is harder to pin down, since there I am convinced there are real aesthetic differences in how the two companies render images. The Sony sooc images are more impressive at screen resolution, with vivid colors, great tonal range, and lots of apparent detail…and they require less work in PP to bring them to a finished state…however, if you look at them at 100% they are much more painting-like than the Nikon images. The Nikon images can be punched up in PP to show the same vivid and full toned effect as the Sony, but maintain more “real” detail at larger sizes. They are more photo like…with “grain” instead of digital artifacts.

In general any doubts I might have had about Nikon color have put the rest but actual use in the field. I would rate it the equal of the Canon SX50HS or Sony HX400V…different but equal. ūüôā

Lens Quality

Clearly the stand out feature of the P900 is the huge zoom…83x…a leap and bound beyond its closest rival, the Canon SX60HS with 65x (though the Canon only reaches 1365mm since it starts at 21mm.) The next longest zooms, including the Nikon P610, are 60x, 24mm – 1440mm equivalent field of view. The P900 stretches from 24mm to 2000mm. That is a significant advance.

Relative size from the same position at 1200, 1400, and 2000mm equivalents
Relative size from the same position at 1200, 1400, and 2000mm equivalents

Well and good, but more zoom is only useful if the lens is sharp, with sufficient contrast, and relatively free of distortions…and that is a tall order for such an extreme zoom range. Yet, the lens and software designers at Nikon have managed it to perfection. The lens is sharp throughout its range, from 24mm to 2000mm, and produces images with excellent contrast. I am certain if we could see the RAW files, that¬†there is a lot of distortion and some serious chromatic aberration (color fringing) in a lens this long and this complex, but by the time the software finishes with the jpeg, all distortions and almost all color fringing has been removed. Impressive indeed.

Maximum aperture at wide angle is f2.8, quite bright by superzoom standards, and it manages to hold to f6.5 at the long end. Though f6.5 might not sound impressive, this is actually, all things being relative, one of the brightest zooms on any superzoom…and certainly the brightest long range zoom ever made. Not bad at all.

This is not just a long zoom, it is an excellent long zoom, an excellent lens period…one of the best lenses I have ever used. Amazing!

These two image serve as demonstrations of lens quality, VR effectiveness, and image quality.
These two image serve as demonstrations of lens quality, VR effectiveness, and image quality.

 

Both are hand held at 2000mm equivalent field of view.
Both are hand held at 2000mm equivalent field of view.

Image Stabilization.

Superzoom cameras would not be nearly so popular (or so much fun) if they did not have image stabilized lenses. Being able to work a long telephoto shot without a tripod is essential, in my opinion, to the superzoom experience. Nikon calls Image Stabilization, “Vibration Reduction” and with the P610 and P900 claims a new system that provides a 5 stop advantage. You don’t have to understand camera stops to understand that 5 stops is a lot…and in practice, the VR on the Nikon P900 is simply the best I have ever used. It is completely possible…indeed, it is easy…to hand hold shots at 2000mm and 1/500th of a second. (see images above). I have gotten good results down to 1/125. That is simply amazing. Of course, I have had a lot of practice hand holding superzooms…but, honestly, the Nikon P900’s VR performs above and beyond expectations.

And, for reasons I can not quite fathom, the view on the LCD and in the EVF during framing is among the most stable I have ever seen, even at 2000mm equivalent. There is none of the distracting (not to say debilitating) jitter you see at high power in the viewfinders of the Canon SX50HS for instance. This extra stability and ease of framing makes an excellent lens a joy to use!

One difficulty I had in testing was that the Nikon, as mentioned above, consistently used higher shutter speeds at any given ISO than the Canon or Sony (and even so the Nikon images were the lightest of the three). That meant that the Canon and Sony image stabilization was more severely challenged than the VR on the Nikon. I had to shoot a lot more frames to get a critically sharp image with the Canon than the Sony, and more frames with the Sony than the Nikon. In fact the Nikon gave me a sharp image the first time, every time. Since I am able to easily hand hold the Nikon at 2000mm equivalent, and even 4000mm equivalent with digital enhancement (what Nikon calls Dynamic Fine Zoom) I am convinced¬†that Nikon’s claimed 5 stop Vibration Reduction system actually works.

2000mm not enough? How about 4000mm with digital enhancement?
2000mm not enough? How about 4000mm with digital enhancement?

Focus speed and reliability.

One of the often mentioned weaknesses of the Nikon P600 was its slow and unreliable focus. Even in good light the P600 often had to “hunt” for correct focus, and in poor light it sometimes¬†could not find it. Not so the P900. The P900 has, hands down, the fastest and most¬†reliable focus of any superzoom I have used to date. It is as fast and more reliable than the focus on my Olympus 4/3s mirrorless camera. Where the Canon SX50HS and Sony HX400V were hunting and sometimes failing to find focus, the P900 snapped to focus all but instantly on the first press every time. Again, this is an impressive achievement on the part of Nikon.

Eastern Bluebird. A difficult focus problem for many cameras.
Eastern Bluebird. A difficult focus problem for many cameras.

And, again for reasons I can only guess at, the auto focus is very discriminating. You can control the focus area, from 9 area Target Finding Auto Focus(where the cam era tries to locate the most likely subject in the frame), down to a very small square that you can move around the frame manually with the control wheel on the back. I have been using the “normal” manual focus square, and time and again it has found focus on birds mostly hidden in small branches, and even hidden behind foreground twigs. Perhaps some of the “Target finding” magic is at work even in manual square auto mode, but whatever is going on, it is magic! It is sometimes necessary to let the camera know the approximate distance to your subject by focusing on something in clear view (a branch, a leaf, etc.) at the same distance…but once you do, the camera will find the bird deep in the bush and focus on it, and not the branches around or in front of it. Did I say it was magic? I will say that it is so much fun…and that I am getting shots I could only dream of without resorting to manual focus in the past. And the P900 does have manual focus and focus peaking (a white outline on in-focus objects), controlled by the thumb wheel on the back of the camera, or the zoom lever on the lens, for those times when you really do need it…it is just that with the precision and apparent intelligence of the auto focus, I am not sure most folks will ever need it.

Magic! This is auto focus, hand held at 2000mm equivalent.
Magic! This is auto focus, hand held at 2000mm equivalent.

Continuous shooting

I am into birds and wildlife, and I suspect most people who are interested in the P900 will be as well. The long zoom is the attraction. However, when shooting moving (which is to say, living ūüôā birds and wildlife, a good continuous mode is essential for catching live action and for insuring at least one sharp shot out of the sequence.

The second most common complaint about the P600 was how slow the buffer cleared after a continuous burst. The 7 frames per second for 7 frames, or 2 frames per second for 60 frames, continuous rates were fine, but it took up to 30 seconds for the buffer to clear after a burst of 7 shots. That is 30 seconds when the camera is locked up…you could not even frame your next shot. This alone was enough for me to drop the P600 from consideration as a serious P&S nature camera, despite its other fine features and reported excellent image quality.

Buffer clearing is also one of my only disappointments in the Sony HX400V. It too is locked up for many seconds after a burst.

With the P900, Nikon has at leased addressed the problem, if not solved it. The P900 has the same 7 fps and 2 fps, High and Low speed, continuous modes, but on High the buffer clears in about 7-9 seconds (depending on the amount of processing you have set the camera to do on each image) after a 7 shot burst. In Low speed continuous, it can take¬†about one second per shot to clear the buffer, but you can begin to frame your next shot before the buffer is cleared, since instead of blacking out the view finder, as it does in High speed mode, all you have is a little animated swirl of dots to indicate “clearing in progress” in the center of the frame…and you can start your next sequence before the current one is completely cleared. In fact, with 90mbs UC-1 Class 10 SD card (IQ at Fine, Noise Reduction at Low, Picture Control at Standard, and Active D Lighting to Low) there is no buffer clearing delay at all in Low speed continuous. In both modes, during the actual burst the view stays live. In High¬†speed, the display flickers. In Low speed, there is a very brief blackout between frames but the view comes live again to show you where you are.

I generally use the Low Speed Continuous for the faster clearing, and because 7 fps often gives me 7 identical images…2 fps is fast enough for most bird and wildlife action.

There are several other, lower resolution continuous modes for capturing really high speed action, and there is a Best Shot Sequence mode which shoots up to 10 frames and only saves the sharpest. I am still experimenting with that to see if it might be useful for birds…but with the exceptionally fine VR, I am not sure it is of much use.

(I might note here, that if continuous shooting is your thing, either the Canon SX50HS or, even better, the SX60HS, will have better continuous performance. And, second note, in my experience the P900 will benefit from the fastest SD card you want to throw at it ūüôā

EVF and LCD

One of the new features of the P610 and P900 is the higher resolution Electronic View Finder. At 908k it is tied for top resolution with the SX60HS, and far superior to either the previous P600, the SX50HS, or the Sony HX400V. Like the SX60HS, it is relatively small for all its detail, so the Sony might impress as better at first glance since it is both bigger and brighter. However the higher resolution comes in handy in the field, in making it easier to pick your subject out of a confusing background. After a few days of using it on factory default, I found the menu entry to turn the brightness up (Settings:Monitor:EVF options) and that helped a lot! It is, all said and done, the easiest EVF to use that I have seen on a P&S superzoom.

The monitor itself is fully articulated, from folded in against the back either facing the camera (for protection) or facing out for viewing…to off to the side and angled for ground level or over the head shooting. It even faces forward for selfies. It too is relatively high resolution at the same 908k dot pitch. I found it easy to use in just about any light, and I really enjoy the full articulation. It is, by the way, if you are keeping score, only equaled by the Canon SX60HS (the SX50HS has the same articulation but much lower resolution),¬†and clearly superior to the single axis articulation on the Sony.

Size and weight

Nikon P900, Olympus OM-D E10 with 75-300 zoom, Canon SX50HS
Nikon P900, Olympus OM-D E10 with 75-300 zoom, Canon SX50HS

Okay, this is really the elephant in the room. ūüôā The P900 is big, and it is relatively, by superzoom standards, heavy. It is over twice the size and weight of the SX50HS, and a third again as big and heavy as the already large Sony HX400V. It is a size larger than my Olympus 4/3s body and the 70-300mm zoom. In fact I have to use the same size case for the P900 and the Oly and zoom, and the P900 is a tighter fit. It is not a compact camera. But then, it could not be. A zoom reaching 2000mm equivalent at f6.5 is going to be big. Think of it in terms of a larger sensor. This is really a 4.3 to 357mm zoom. Look at any f6.5 300-400mm zoom lens for any camera. How big is it? Yes…it is about the same size. That is just physics. The zoom on my P900 is just slightly larger than the 70-300mm f6.7 zoom for my Oly. And with a zoom that large, it makes sense to make the body larger too. Nikon could have fit the P900 body¬†into the same space as the P610 body, but it would have looked really funny behind that big lens, and the handling would, in my opinion, have been seriously compromised. As it is, the camera over all is very well balanced and feels great in my average male hands. Even with the zoom fully extended, it still feels “right”. Nikon has provided an excellent grip around front, a raised and angled thumb pad, and textured griping areas near the end of the zoom housing on the body…all perfectly placed for my hands with the camera in shooting position. Already, after only a week of using the camera, the SX50HS, and even the Sony HX400V feel “dainty” and slightly “fussy” by comparison. This is real camera, built to feel like a real camera…and it does.

It is a handful...but a comfortable handful.
It is a handful…but a comfortable handful.

(Most of the weight of the camera is undoubtedly glass. The lens elements are so heavy that you can feel the inertia when you zoom, like hanging on to a gyroscope, especially when everything is in motion in turning the camera on or off. For a second there, the camera seems to have a mind of its own.)

I find that I can carry the P900 easily all day, without much more fatigue than a more compact solution…and, given the advantages of the long zoom, that is all I need.

P900 nestled in an Amazon Basics DSLR holster. Including the tulip shade.
P900 nestled in an Amazon Basics DSLR holster. Including the tulip shade.

Controls and layout

The Sony HX400V has the best set of controls and best layout of any camera I have used, except for my Oly Micro 4/3s. Fortunately, the P900 is a close second. It lacks some of the control features of the Sony…it only has one User Settings memory instead of two, there are less options to control what Sony calls Creative¬†Styles and Nikon calls Picture Controls, the HDR settings options are sparse by comparison, as are the Dynamic Range extension options, etc. And the Sony Function button brings up a full selection of the things you might want to set…at your fingertips, while the Nikon function button only really provides easy access to one function at a time (the others are available but they are hidden behind a separate Function icon…another layer deep). The Sony thumbwheel is better integrated with the control system and easier to use. (On the other hand, the Canons have no thumbwheel at all). Zoom control on the Nikon zoom housing is handy, and it can be switched to manual focus when your are using manual focus, but there is nothing as intuitive as Sony’s fly by wire lens ring for either zooming or focus. And why, Nikon, can you not set the zoom control to override auto focus in the auto modes (as you can the ring on the Sony)?

But all that is really just quibbles. If I had never seen the Sony, I would be completely satisfied with the controls and layout of the Nikon. The thumbwheel is there and works. The menu layout is rational and easy to access. The function button, if slower than the Sony, does give you pretty quick access to commonly changed functions. The only thing clearly lacking is an ISO button or the ability to set one of the other controls to ISO.

The Snap-back-zoom button (also available on the Canons…a button on the zoom housing that increases the field of view when at high zoom with a single press, so you can find your subject, and then returns the zoom to full extension when released) is a great feature, but with the high resolution and exceptionally stable EVF, I find that I am not using it as much as I might.

All in all Nikon as provided the P900 with a usable set of controls and an intelligent layout. What more could you ask?

Scene modes.

I carry a superzoom because of the extreme versatility it provides.¬†For me it has to be a “does it all” camera. I retired the SX50HS for the Sony HX400V in order to get two features that I had come to value in a Samsung pocket compact that I got in between: in-camera HDR, and sweep panorama…both of which I enjoy.

In-camera HDR takes three exposures at different settings, and then combines the three into one full range composite showing a higher dynamic range than any single exposure could manage. When done right it makes for extra dramatic, though still realistic, landscapes (especially with clouds), and a sense of heightened reality in shots of buildings etc. The Sony HX400V is hard act to follow here. It has the best, most flexible, HDR modes of any camera I have ever used. You have fine control over how the final image will be composited, and it does it so well and so smoothly that there is really no reason not to use it for every landscape and much street photography. The detail recorded is a rich and as beautiful as any standard shot…only more-so. And you never needed a tripod. Hand held HDR was totally possible with the Sony.

One of my greatest disappointments in the SX60HS was just how poorly the in-camera HDR had been implemented. It was there, but, short of using a tripod, I never got it to produce acceptable results. The fine detail in the images it produced was always completely smeared, and the colors were always off. Not pretty.

The Nikon is somewhere between the two. In-camera HDR is buried in the Scene Modes under Backlighting, where it is one of two options (the other is using fill flash.) You have no control over how the composite is produced, and there is (again, short of using a tripod and turning VR off) always, to my eye, a slight decrease in fine detail due to the way the three images are stacked. On the other hand, it makes really nice skies with clouds! They require some extra processing due to the added noise introduced in combining the three images (something Sony evidently processed out before writing the image to card), but the cloud effects can be very impressive. So, in-camera HDR: not great but usable.

Usable in-camera HDR with nice cloud effects.
Usable in-camera HDR with nice cloud effects.

Sweep Panorama, on the other hand, in the few I have had a chance to try, seems to work quite well. Sweep panorama is when you press the shutter release and sweep the camera around in an arc in front of you, 120 degrees,180, 360, etc. while the camera records the scene one sliver at a time and writes the whole sweep to the card as a single image. It is much soother and organic than the kind of panorama where you take overlapping images and try to assemble them in software afterward. On the other hand, it does not produce as high resolution images. Still, for use on the web, or casual printing of the wide and wonderful sweep of the landscape, they are fine: 4800 x 960 for 180 degrees, or 9600 x 960 for 360 degrees.

Sweep Panorama, or as Nikon calls it Easy Panorama
Sweep Panorama, or as Nikon calls it “Easy Panorama”

Sports mode generally makes focusing on moving subject easier and sets the camera for burst to catch action. On the Canons and Sony, it worked well, very well, for birds in flight…one of the trickiest subjects the Point and Shoot Nature Photographer can attempt. While I did not try the Canon SX50HS, the Sony also worked really well for particularly active birds…like feeding Reddish Egrets…keeping the bird in focus and facilitating a burst at the critical moment. My limited experiments with the P900 are promising. I need to get somewhere with a lot of bifs, but I think it is going to work fine.

The Close-Up scene mode seems to work well for macro. It presets the lens to macro range, and it might do some extra processing on the background for separation of subject (I am not certain yet, and Nikon is not saying). Macro, either selected by the Close Up mode, or manually using the control wheel on the back of the camera, works within a zone at the short end of the zoom, focusing from 0 cm at full wide, out to about 3 cm at 100mm equivalent. Excellent! Close up mode also gives you a second exposure option, where the camera takes three images at a fast shutter speed, and stacks them for the correct exposure…to eliminate noise.

Close up mode, about 100mm equivalent from less than an inch.
Close up mode, about 100mm equivalent from less than an inch.

 

Landscape Mode, while still technically a scene mode,¬†has a dedicated icon on the control dial, right along with Auto, Program, Scene, etc. It is a one turn set. There are two options available via the Menu button: Normal single shot, and Noise Reduction burst. Both options set exposure, Active-D Lighting, contrast, sharpening, and saturation to what the Nikon engineers deem is most pleasing for a landscape shot. Single shot is what it sounds like: press the shutter and click. NR Burst takes three images at low ISO and “sums” them to achieve the correct exposure, which should, in theory produce a resulting image with lower noise. In my testing, it appears that there is a light level threshold before NR kicks in, even when you have it set. In normal daylight you still get a single shot. In lower light, near dawn or dusk, you get the NR burst.

The good news is that the Nikon engineers and I apparently agree on what a landscape ought to look like. The rendering is rich and vibrant, with lots of detail (without being over-sharpened). It is particularly effective for landscape with clouds and the cloud rendering is almost as good as the built in HDR. In fact, once a bit of PP is applied, Landscape mode images look a lot like the images produced by the built in HDR, only they have a lot more fine detail! This is good. I like it. I will use it!

In-camera HDR, processed in Lightroom
In-camera HDR, processed in Lightroom

 

Landscape mode, processed in Lightroom. Notice the greater detail and equally as fine clouds.
Landscape mode, processed in Lightroom. Notice the greater detail and equally as fine clouds.
Great Landscape mode clouds!
Great Landscape mode clouds!

I have not yet tried most of the the other scene modes. I will get back to you at least on Hand-held Night Scene.

There is a Birdwatching Mode (clearly Nikon recognizes that one of their major customer groups are birders). Unfortunately it seems pretty much useless. In theory, it starts with a wide view to find the bird, then with a press of the OK button, zooms into 800mm equivalent and takes a burst of pics. That is were it breaks down. I can find no way of returning the zoom to the wide position without zooming it back manually. That I can do myself thank you, without any scene mode. And I am not sure why anyone would use this setting instead of the snap-back zoom button which is there all the time and gives you the option of the full 2000mm reach ????

Drawbacks and disappointments.

Biggest: close focus at the 2000mm end is only 16.5 feet, and that is far…maybe not for most birds and wildlife, but it is very far for bugs! Average working distance for dragonflies and butterflies is in the 6 foot range. That is where the SX50HS shines, focusing to 4.5 feet at 1200mm gives you amazing close-ups of dragons and butterflies in the field. I will have to experiment with readjusting my expectations and shooting from further away, but already I am missing the close focus. I may have to resort to carrying the SX50HS on bug specific outings…that or buy a P610 (6 feet at 1440mm). We shall see.

And then, as I mentioned, HDR could be better implemented. I will also miss the “Anti-Motion Blur” mode from the Sony…which I used for indoor shots quite a bit. The previously¬†mentioned lack of a dedicated ISO button is a drag, as is the missing option to reprogram any of the existing buttons. Oh, and wifi is poorly implemented…it only really works with the Nikon app on Android and iOS devices. There is, as far as I can see, no way to transfer images via wifi from the camera direct to your laptop. And, from what I hear, the Android and iOS apps are pretty basic. I mean, why bother with wifi at all if you are not going to do it right?

The tripod screw socket is way off to one side, making it unnecessarily difficult to balance the camera on the head of the tripod. Why?

Some will complain about the lack of RAW shooting, but I am not one of them. I have yet to see the advantage of RAW for the work I do. And the same goes for a hotshoe. I don’t use external flash and would not carry it the field. No loss.

And that is really about it. Not a long list at all, considering.

Conclusion.

There is very little that Nikon did not get right in this very ambitious attempt to blaze new ground in the superzoom market. Longest zoom, and a great zoom to boot. Excellent Image Quality overall from a more than averagely efficient sensor and an excellent jpeg image processing engine. The best image stabilization of any superzoom to date, making hand holding this huge lens totally possible. Fast, reliable focus (the fastest and most reliable I have experienced, with a bit of magic built in that makes focusing through foreground twigs and leaves possible). Excellent EVF and fully articulated LCD monitor. Decent continuous mode. Excellent macro mode. Usable in-camera HDR. Excellent Easy Panorama mode. And balance and handling layout that make using this admittedly big superzoom a joy in the field.

Can you tell I like it?

A week from today, I leave for a week in Panama at Tranquilo Bay Resort to scout for a Point and Shoot Nature Photography trip to be scheduled for next year, and then a week in St. Augustine FL to teach Point and Shoot Nature Photography workshops at the Florida Birding and Photo Fest. By the time I come back I will have a lot more experience with the camera under my belt and perhaps will have more to say…but for now…I think Nikon did the big zoom right!

Hairy Woodpecker a the feeder. What the P900 is all about!
Hairy Woodpecker a the feeder. Hand held at 2000mm equivalent. What the P900 is all about!

[Note! 5/12/15. Today Nikon released firmware update 1.1 for the P900 which may address some or all of the issues mentioned below. I will let you know as¬†soon as it has a fair trial. ¬†ūüôā

Be aware that a¬†significant number of P900 owners are experiencing apparently random system crashes requiring removing the battery to reboot the camera. One user (at least) has suffered complete failure after a crash. Also, as of the middle of April, there are NO P900s available for sale from reputable dealers. A few continue to appear on ebay and from Amazon partners at inflated prices, but it appears that all official channels are out of stock. Rumor has it that it might be 5 months or more before the P900 is available again. My own P900 has frozen twice…and recovered each time after removing the battery and reinserting it. I still stand my the review. It is an amazing camera, but there might be some issues in the first production run.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

P&S in the Tropics!

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Rio Santiago, Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Rio Santiago. Sony HX400V

The tropics provide one of the richest and most varied arrays¬†of photographic opportunities¬†of anyplace on earth…but they also provide definite challenges for any photographer…including, of course, Point and Shoot Nature Photographers. From the¬†dense, dark, dim (and often damp) canopy of the rain and cloud forests to the harsh light of the dry forest and uplands in the rain-shadow of the mountains, exposure is always a difficult issue. Then too, focus in the rain forest, with all the vegetation, and the dim light, can be a real problem. ¬†It is not much easier in the glare of the dry forest.

I recently enjoyed a week at the Rain-forest Lodge at Pico Bonito in Honduras, spending each day in different location in the area…from deep rain-forest on the shoulders of the mountains, to coastal mangrove lined rivers, to the Honduran Emerald Reserve in the dryer country inland.

It was not a photo expedition…we were primarily birding…but it gave me a chance to experience the joys and challenges of the tropics first hand, and to put my super-zoom point and shoot to the test. For stationary and particularly cooperative birds (and since it was a ZEISS sponsored trip and I was one of the leaders), I also carried a light-weight digiscoping rig…the compact ZEISS DiaScope 65FL spotting scope, a 30x wide-field eyepiece, a Canon S120 on the Digidapter for ZEISS, and the wonderful Roadtrip carbon fiber travel tripod from MeFoto…the whole thing weighing in at something under 6 pounds.

Most of my digiscoping rig. The camera and adapter are in a pouch on my waist. Great tripod!
Most of my digiscoping rig. The camera and adapter are in a pouch on my waist. Great tripod! You can see the two 7Ds and long lenses in the group.

In my group there were, of course, people carrying Canon 7Ds¬†and either the 400mm prime or the 100-400 zoom, so I had a chance to observe and compare how the full DSLR/Long Lens rig handled the same tropical situations. I have to say,¬†my complete outfit, super-zoom P&S, and the digiscope rig, weighed less than their body and lens…even if they were shooting off-hand. One gentleman carried a full sized tripod and a gimbal¬†head on every outing. That is real dedication. ūüôā

Blue-crowned Motmot, Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras
Blue-crowned Motmot, Lodge at Pico Bonito. Digiscoped with the ZEISS DiaScope 65FL

The first challenge in the tropics is always going to be light. My DSLR toting friends were shooting at ISO 6400 most of the time in the rain-forest, and I was pushing ISO 3200 for most shots. Even-so I had to dial the shutter speed down from my usual 1/640th of a second to 1/250th or even 1/160th to get enough light for a decent exposure. The Image Stabilization on the Sony HX400V handled the slower shutter speeds well, but detail at ISO 3200 suffered. I got the shots, but not always totally what I might have wanted. The tropics push any camera to its absolute limits.

To complicate matters, most P&S super-zooms have a maximum aperture of between f6.3 and f6.7 at the telephoto end…a far cry from a Canon 400mm f2.8 or even the 400mm f4. However, that is f6.x at 1200mm or greater equivalent. If you zoom back to 400mm the aperture will be not much different than the fixed Canon lens. It is always a trade off when it comes to cameras.

Boat-billed Heron, Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge, Sony HX400V at ISO 2500 at 1/160th second.
Boat-billed Heron, Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge, Sony HX400V at ISO 2500 at 1/160th second.

For the Point and Shoot photographer I recommend my standard wildlife settings: shutter preferred, Auto ISO (with the upper limit set as high as possible). Even so, at least in rain and cloud-forest, you will find yourself using slower shutter speeds than you are comfortable with…but the¬†Image Stabilization on most Point and Shoot super-zooms is up to the challenge. On the Sony, changing shutter speed in shutter preferred on the fly is super-easy…you simply spin the wheel under your thumb…your mileage with other brands may differ. ūüôā

I regret that I did not try the High Sensitivity modes on the Sony, which would have given me ISO 6400-12800 in a pinch. It might have made a difference. I will certainly give it a try on future trips to the tropics.

Blue-crowned Motmot. Sony HX400V. ISO 3200 @ 1/250th @ f6.3. Pushed to the limits
Blue-crowned Motmot. Sony HX400V. ISO 3200 @ 1/250th @ f6.3. Pushed to the limits.

Focus is a whole other issue. Point and Shoot cameras use Contrast Detection Auto Focus, which is slower and less precise than the Phase Detection Auto Focus on full sized DSLRs. It also requires more light to work effectively. You will certainly want your focus area set to the smallest possible square in the center of the field, so that you have a chance to focus on the bird through the dense foliage.

Even then, I found myself resorting to Dynamic Focus Assist on the Sony HX400V much more often than ever before. The Sony focus system allows you to maintain auto focus, and fine-tune it using the focus ring around the lens barrel, just as you would focus a manual focus lens. It is, without a doubt, the easiest manual override auto focus of any P&S camera on the market, and I certainly appreciated it by the end of my time in Honduras. The only thing that would have made it better would have been a higher resolution Electronic View Finder so I could have seen when the bird was in focus more easily.

Almost all P&S super-zooms today have some kind of manual override on the auto focus…or straight up manual focus…but none are as quick, easy, and intuitive as the Sony system. Still, if you are headed for the tropics, dust off your manual and find out how to manually focus your camera. ūüôā

Black-faced Grosbeak, Sony HX400V. Tricky focus requires manual override.
Black-faced Grosbeak, Sony HX400V. Tricky focus requires manual override.

For all the difficulty in focusing, however, I am pretty sure I got as many sharply focused images as my DSLR friends. Birds under the canopy will generally sit still long enough to find focus.

Of course, there are areas in the tropics that have lots of light! We visited the Cuero y Salada Wildlife Refuge at the junction of two mangrove lined rivers near the Caribbean coast. To get there we rode a “banana train”…a narrow guage, open car, toy train that was used in the early 1900s to transport bananas from the plantation near the coast, 9 km inland to the railhead. Despite the fact that there were local paying passengers on the train, we stopped often for birds along the way.

Even along the river we found some birds in good light. And, with enough light, the super-zoom P&S always performs well. These shots are satisfying, especially since they were taken hand-held from a boat.

In the dry forest, and in the inland valleys, the super-zoom gave me the reach to capture birds from the bus on the road, and from respectable distances in the forest…as well of macros of some interesting butterflies.

And of course, at the wide end the P&S super-zoom captures the grand tropical landscape.

Sports Mode, or tracking auto focus, even makes hummingbirds at feeders and perched possible.

Just for sake of interest I will share one more digiscoped image, again taken with the Canon S120 P&S through the 30x eyepiece on the ZEISS DiaScope 65FL spotting scope, using the Digidapter for ZEISS and the MeFoto Carbon Fiber Roadtrip tripod. This is a particularly difficult shot due to the low light and the foliage between me and bird.

Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, digiscoped at ISO 3200.
Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, digiscoped at ISO 3200.

So, how does the P&S super-zoom fair when compared to a full scale DSLR/Long lens rig in the tropics. My good friend Diane Porter was shooting beside me most of the trip, with her Canon 7D Mk2 and the 100-400mm Canon IS Zoom. She has kindly allowed me to borrow a few of her shots for comparison. Of course, her shots had to be heavily cropped to equal the scale of the 1200mm equivalent zoom on the Sony. It is a testimony to the quality of the Canon 7D Mk2 that the images hold up so well to heavy cropping.

You will notice that the better the light, the closer the Sony P&S comes to the full sized rig. The first comparison is not totally fair to the Sony, as I used the full 2x Clear Image zoom for the equivalent of 2400mms of reach. Digital zoom (while the Sony system is among the best), will never equal the quality of optical zoom.

I will give you one more comparison. This time it is a digiscoped Trogon, digiscoped at the short end of the digiscoping range…and again at 3200 ISO to cope with the low light levels under the rain-forest canopy.

(Just for fun, here is Diane and her rig, playing host some kind of whiptail lizard.)

Diane Porter and a visitor. This is a trick you can not do with a P&S.
Diane Porter and a visitor. This is a trick you can not do with a P&S.

Photography is about choices as much as anything. When we choose the compact ease and flexibility of a Point and Shoot super-zoom over the more conventional DSLR/long lens rig, we know that we will sacrifice some image quality. Conditions in the tropics test the limits of any camera and lens, but all in all I will still be packing my P&S super-zoom on my next tropical adventure!