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. 🙂

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. 🙂

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. 🙂 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. 🙂

Goosefair Bay, in-camera HDR. Sony RX10iii

 

 

 

 

Basic settings for Wildlife, Birds, and Macro

Baltimore Oriole with the Nikon P900

When teaching my Point and Shoot Nature Photography workshops I spend a few hours on the basic set-up of a camera for wildlife, bird, and macro shots, running through the menus on several different cameras, depending on what the participants have. I have had many requests to condense this information into an article here. The problem is, of course, that different cameras have different settings, and even if they have the same feature, it might well be called something different…and it will certainly be found in some other section of the menu, functions, or controls. The best I can do is to run down through the Nikon P series menu, with hints on where to find the feature or function on other makes where and when I know. 🙂

  1. Set the control dial to P (Programmed Auto)
    Program works exactly the same way as Auto, selecting the balance of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO for correct exposure. It does, however, allow you a bit more control over things like where the scene is metered for exposure, where the camera is going to focus, and light values when the scene is not well balanced in itself. (To be fair, modern Auto Programs do an excellent job with a wide range of scenes, but almost all of them use “wide area” or “multi-spot” focus…the camera decides what you might be thinking of focusing on…and that is death for wildlife photography. Reason enough to use Program.)
  2. Open the menu system (generally with a Menu button. On Canon cameras, some of these features are in the Function Menu, not the main menu, and on Nikon and Sony cameras they may be more easily accessed through the Function button than in the main menu.)
    1. Set Image Quality to Fine (or whatever the highest setting is). This will improve your image quality, but at the cost of writing larger files to the SD card. It is still a good trade. (For Canon cameras, this is in the Function menu, not the main menu. Press the center button of the control wheel on the back, and scroll down to Image Quality. )
    2. Set Image size to “full size” or “large” (also in the Function Menu on Canons)
    3. Nikon has several Picture Control programs which determine how your jpeg is processed in the camera. Set Picture Control to “Standard”. Sony calls this feature “Creative Style” (Again, a similar setting in the Function menu on Canons).
    4. Leave White balance on Auto (Function menu on Canons)
    5. Exposure area/mode (might be called Metering). On Nikons it is in center by default in Program, and you can not change it. On Canons, it is in function menu, and you want “center”. This biases the exposure for you subject, which for wildlife is generally near the center of the frame. Even when it is not, shift your aim and half press the shutter release to lock both focus and exposure on your subject, then while still holding the shutter release half way down, move the subject to where you want it in the frame.
    6. Continuous (or Continuous Shooting). I find that for birds and other active wildlife you do not need more than 2-6 frames per second. Set it to Low Speed Continuous. (again in the Function Menu on Canons).
    7. ISO. Leave it on auto. That will ensure that you get the highest shutter speed and the widest aperture at the lowest ISO possible for each shot.
    8. Auto-focus Area (or something similar). This is where you set the area on which the camera will focus. Choose the smallest, or next to smallest area in the center of the frame. Smallest will give you the most control, but next to smallest will focus faster in most situations. (Main menu on Canons. It is set to Flexispot by default, which is a small movable square in the center of the frame. Once selected, you can make the square smaller by hitting the Focus button (upper right corner of the back of the camera with 4 arrows pointing to the four corners of the button on it) This will wake up the movable spot. While it is showing, press the Display button to change the square to its smaller size).
    9. Autofocus mode. You can generally choose either single shot, or full time. Full time uses more battery, but ensures that the camera will begin to focus as it comes up to your eye and will find focus faster. For wildlife it is well worth the extra battery drain (buy spares and keep them charged in your day bag).
    10. Noise Reduction Filter. Nikon gives you three choices. You will get the most detail if you set it to Low.  Canon and Sony only allow you to control High ISO Noise Reduction, but again, to preserve detail, set it to Low.
    11. Active Dynamic Lighting (or Dynamic Range Optimization on the Sonys). This is function that analyzes the image before you take it to determine if the shadows are going to go black or if you are going to lose detail in the whites and brights. It automatically tones down the brights, and pumps up the shadows as the image in is processed in the camera, and removes almost all need for you to worry about exposure. Set to at least the Normal setting (or mid, or Auto, depending on the brand). On some Canon cameras this is called iContrast or Contrast Control, and it is found, again, in the function menu. On the newest Canon P&Ss it is split into Highlight Control and Shadow Control. Set both to Auto.
    12. If I have not mentioned a setting that you see in your menu, leave it on the default setting, as it came from the factory.
  3. Set your EV Exposure Compensation (generally accessed by one of the wheel sides on the Multi-function control wheel on the back of the camera…it has a +/- in a square box, black on white and white on black) to -.3 or negative 1/3. This will tone down the highlights in every image, saving detail in bright areas.
  4. On some cameras there is a separate setting for macro shots or macro focus. It might be in the scene modes, or it might be accessed through a button on the camera, or by pressing one edge of the multi-function control wheel on the back. The button or control will generally have a flower on it. Once pressed you should have to option of Auto Focus, Infinity Focus (a mountain symbol) or Macro (the flower). The Sonys feature continuous macro focus. Do not leave your focus set to macro. On some cameras this will limit the distance you can be from your subject, and on others it will just make the focus motor work harder. Again, on the Sonys it does not matter as there is on separate macro setting. 

Muskrat, Nikon P900

Your camera will remember these Program settings, even if you turn the camera off, or switch the control dial to some other setting than Program. As soon as you come back to Program, these settings will be in effect until you change them in the Menu or Function Menu.

Many cameras, however, have a User Memory, or Custom Setting. It is the U on the Nikon Control Dial, or C1 or C2 on Canon, or MR on Sony. For wildlife shooting, I set all the settings above, then zoom my zoom to full zoom (telephoto), open the Menu once more and find Save User Settings (or something similar…Sony calls it Memory, Canon Custom Settings). On Nikons you have only one user memory. Choosing Save User Settings will store all your current settings, plus zoom position, so that when you are in another mode and want to quickly reset for camera for wildlife, all you have to do is rotate the Control Dial to U. When saving settings in Canon or Sony, you have 2 memories in Canon, and 3 in Sony. You get to choose where you save the settings above, and then you can access them…on Canons, by choosing C1 or C2 on the Control Dial, in Sonys, by choosing MR on the Control Dial, and then selecting the correct memory in the screen that comes up. On Sonys you can also get to the Memory settings, when the Control Dial is in MR, through the Function button.

So that’s it. Quick settings for wildlife, birds, and macro.

Enjoy.

DIY Lightroom Presets

I have been a faithful (mostly) Lightroom user since the program was in public beta. It was the first image processing, or post-processing, software that I really liked…not the first I used…but definitely the first I can honestly say I enjoyed. I had used PhotoShop (since it was a Mac only program), GIMP, PhotoShop Elements, Corel, PaintShop, Freestone…to mention a few, but once I discovered Lightroom, I never really looked back. (There was one year in there when I only carried a high end Android tablet and did all my processing in Snapseed and Photo Editor, but eventually the allure of Lightroom was just too powerful and I had to return to the fold and buy a Windows Surface Pro tablet so I could have the best of both worlds.)

To me, Lightroom is simply intuitive…it works in a way that matches the way I think about images…so post processing is about as natural as it can get. I like the cataloging features, which help me keep track of where my images are, and easily keep my home files in sync with my social media and cloud-based archival sites. And I especially like the ability to develop and easily apply presets…saved processing settings across the whole spectrum of possible edits…to a single image, or to a whole set. Then too, Lightroom has at least semi-embraced the world of tablet computing. The Edit module has a tablet interface that makes excellent use of the Surface Pro touch-screen to further ease the processing chores. Finally, the edits in Lightroom are the smoothest and least destructive of any program I have used…and that is saying a lot, since I shoot only jpeg, and do all my processing on jpegs.

All in all I can’t see myself giving up Lightroom any time soon. I even bought into the Adobe subscription model, much as it pained me, so that I can continue to use the latest features of the program.

In this piece, I am going to walk you through the creation of a preset. The first thing I do when I get a new camera is create a small set of presets for different processing needs. Generally I do one for 1) “standard images”…images that just require a bit of sharpening and enhancement to realize the full potential of the file. 2) HDR images…images which are produced by the camera’s built in HDR mode, or in some cases by the camera’s Landscape mode. I use the camera’s HDR or Landscape modes for…well, as you might expect…landscapes…especially dramatic landscapes with lots of light and shadow and interesting cloud effects. These images generally require a bit more lift to reach full potential. And then maybe 3) an HDR preset with a bit of added umph, and some extra brightness, for those cases were the scene was really beyond the ability of the camera to catch it. I might also develop a preset specifically for macro shots for some cameras, if one of the others does not already cover those images.

So, lets look at a “standard image” and its preset.

original unedited jpeg from the Nikon P900

This image, like most well exposed digital images, only requires some added pop and sharpening to go from a good image to a really satisfying one. I begin my opening the image in the Develop module in Lightroom. Near the top of the editing controls are some basic settings.

basic

I intentionally underexpose my digital images by 1/3 EV by setting the exposure compensation to -1/3 on the camera. This maintains more of the highlight information in the original file. Therefore most of my images need a little boost in the brightness of the shadows. If you are doing this at home, just grab the Shadows slider and slide it to the right until you get the effect you want. Watch the image. Note what the slider does as you move it. Move it just enough to the right to achieve the degree of shadow lightening that you like.

Images from the Nikon Point and Shoot superzooms that I use are just a bit flat out of the camera. They lack pop. I could add pop by adjusting the contrast, but that would also whiten the whites and lights in the image and burn out whatever detail is there. Instead, I use the Blacks slider to make the blacks (and very dark colors) blacker. Slide the Blacks slider to the left until you get the effect you want.

Clarity is something like “local contrast”…it effects the way colors grade into one another when they are next to each other. Move the Clarity slider to the right to add Clarity until you get the effect you want. This also adds pop to the image.

Vibrance controls the saturation of the weakest colors in your image…and only the weakest. Moving it to the right adds vividness to the image. Be careful. Too much added Vibrance will make the bright colors “block up”…or lose detail and produce an unnatural, poster-like effect. Add just a bit of Vibrance.

Generally you do not want to, or need to, touch the other controls in this section. Remember you are creating a preset that will be applied to many images as you process. You can go back to the develop module after applying the preset and tweak other settings as needed…but you just want this preset of do the basic work.

sharp

Next, for most images I use the existing Sharpen Scenic preset built into Lightroom. You can find it in the develop module in the left hand panel. When I apply it, it sets the sharpening controls as you see them here. You can achieve the same thing by sliding the controls to these positions yourself. All digital images require some sharpening. I actually turn down in-camera sharpening when I can, because generally sharpening in post does less damage to other parts of the image than the camera does. I do not recommend much more aggressive sharpening settings than you see here. You will not like the effects on overall image quality.

chroma

Just as all digital images can benefit from some sharpening, most digital images will benefit from Lightroom’s “Chromatic Aberration” filter. Chromatic Aberration is the little (or not so little) lines of green or pink (or blue and yellow) light that appear at the edges of things in your image, especially near the outer edges of the image, especially when the edge is against a white, light, or black background. It is a lens fault. Many cameras will already process it out when they create the jpeg…but turning on Lightroom’s filter can only help.

dehaze

Finally, the latest version of Lightroom has a new filter called Dehaze. It works something like the Clarity filter above, but with the emphasis on the blue end of the spectrum. Blue light is the most likely to get scattered over the surface of the image, both from atmospheric haze, and from light scatter inside the lens of the camera. Therefore a filter that looks for the scattered blue light and removes it from the image improves both the clarity and the vividness of the image. Be careful here, as too much Dehaze will darken your whole image, and turn the blues toward black.

Here is a comparison of the edited (right) and unedited images.

Unedited on left, edited on right
Unedited on left, edited on right

The difference is not dramatic, but it is enough to turn an okay image into one that is more satisfying.

Here is the edited image at a larger size. Compare to the unedited image above.

DSCN9619.jpg

Edit several images from your camera in this way…if your camera exposure system is working right, and you are using it right, you should notice that you are making just about the same edits on each photo. (A word about using the camera’s exposure system correctly. Use it! Do not mess with manual controls. Let the camera do the exposure. Today’s camera exposure systems are so accurate and so flexible that they will get the exposure correct about 95% of the time if you let them. That is one reason you can create presets in Lightroom. The files you will be working with will be consistently exposed.)

To create your first preset, open the best of the files you just edited in the Develop module. Look for the Presets section on the left hand develop panel. Click the little plus sign next to the Presets title. This will open a window displaying all your current settings, and providing a field at the top to name the preset. Name it “Standard” or give it the name of the camera or whatever.

preset

The settings you have changed, and the settings that are necessary for every image, will already be checked in the list of settings. Just name your preset and click “Create”. It will be saved to your “user presets” folder, where Lightroom can find it when needed.

presetdiaNow that you have a preset created, you can apply it easily to either single files or multiple files.

You don’t even have to open the Develop Module. In the Library Module, in the right hand panel, you will find a section near the top called “Quick Develop” and within that section a drop-down menu called “Saved Preset”. When you click the menu you should see your newly created preset in the list, under User Presets, in a sub-menu at the bottom. Select the image (or images) you want to apply the preset to, and then just select the preset from the menu. In seconds you will see your thumbnails update to the edited form of the image…or, if you only have one image open in Library, that image will update to show the finished edits. One click…that is all most of your images will need for processing, once you have your presets created. 🙂

apply

The following illustrations show the difference in settings between my “standard” Nikon preset, and my Sony HDR preset. The Sony in-camera HDR files can handle some extra pop and some extra sharpening. I have applied a sharpening mask to keep the HDR artifacts from showing up in open sky.

hdrbasic

hdrsharpChromatic Aberration and Dehaze settings are the same as for my basic Nikon preset.

Here is a comparison shot of the unedited HDR file and the file with the Sony HDR preset applied.

hdrcomp

Note that the difference here is not so subtle. The Camera produced a file using the HDR technique that has enough information in it so that it can be processed into a very satisfying extended range image.

DSC05739.jpg

And the image was processed with a single click in Lightroom!

Again, you don’t need a lot of presets. 2-3 per camera you use. Once a preset is applied, if you still think you can improve the image using other editing controls in Lightroom, you can always open the Develop Module and make whatever changes you like. The great thing about Lightroom is that any changes you make will be added to the changes, or override the changes, you originally made with the preset…and any changes you make with either can undone instantly. The program does not actually make the changes you see on the monitor until you save or share the image. Your file is always preserved as the digital negative and you can start over with your edits any time you want.

The major complaint I hear about Lightroom is that it is too hard. It is actually the easiest program for image editing I have every used. I hope this article gives you the courage to dig out your copy, and to give it another try…or at least encourages you to create your first presets to release the power of Lightroom.

 

BIF: The Nikon Version

Sandhill Cranes at Bosque del Apache NWR. Shutter preferred. 1/640 @ 1200mm @ ISO 100 @ f7.1
Sandhill Cranes at Bosque del Apache NWR. Nikon P900. Shutter preferred. 1/640 @ 1200mm @ ISO 100 @ f7.1

A while back I posted my original BIF (Birds in Flight) article, which pretty much covered BIF with the Canon SX50/60 (and hopefully 70) models and the Sony HX400V. (See here.)

This post expands BIF coverage to embrace the Nikon P series…the P610 and P900 in particular.

Focus against a blue sky is one thing. Focus against a landscape background is much more difficult.
Focus against a blue sky is one thing. Focus against a landscape background is much more difficult.

With the Canons and the Sony, the built in Sports Mode did and excellent job with BIF. On the Nikons…not so much. The default (and unchangeable) focus mode for Sports is the medium spot focus square…which makes getting on a BIF very difficult. And should you get the bird in focus when you press the shutter release, the camera does NOT follow focus. Focus is established by the first lock, and does not change as the bird moves…so, even if you pan with the bird as the camera takes its burst of 10 high speed continuous shots (also default and unchangeable) chances are pretty good that only the first shot will be in focus (if any are). Worse yet, even though this is Sports Mode and supposedly designed for action, Nikon did not bias the exposure system for high shutter speeds, so most often you will have motion blur as well as focus issues. Nikon does not seem to understand what a Sports Mode is supposed to do…but then Nikon’s control software has a lot of short-comings. Sports Mode is a particularly bad example.

I have gotten some great BIF with the Nikon Sports Mode, and it is worth a try in really good light, with cooperative birds.

Nikon Sports Mode BIF
Nikon Sports Mode BIF. 1/500th @ ISO 100 @ f5.6. 

I recently spent a week at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in Socorro New Mexico. As noted in the previous BIF post, the Bosque is certainly one of the best places in North America to practice BIF. In my week there I took hundreds of BIF exposures and developed a technique that works pretty well…almost as well as Sony’s Sports Mode.

What you need for BIF is an auto focus mode that will quickly and reliably lock on to birds in motion against a blue sky…or against a landscape background. And, you need high enough shutter speeds to freeze motion.

Snow Geese. Custom BIF mode. Nikon P900
Snow Geese. Custom BIF mode. Nikon P900

On the Nikons, setting the control dial to “S” for shutter preferred allows you to control the shutter speed. Leave everything else on Auto (ISO, etc.). I find that in good light, 1/640th is enough to freeze the wing motion of most BIF, while still giving you a reasonably low ISO for fine detail. In low light…dawn or dusk…1/250th does a good job with all but the wing-tips. Your ISO will be 400-800 (or even higher) but you will get some decent shots.

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache NWR. Custom BIF mode. 1/640th @ ISO 100 @ f7.1. 1200mm equivalent.
Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache NWR. Custom BIF mode. 1/640th @ ISO 100 @ f7.1. 1200mm equivalent.

For the most efficient focus, set the camera to Target finding auto focus. Target finding auto focus is the default in Auto and Program modes, and is your traditional wide angle focus where the camera decides what your might be trying to focus on. I do not generally recommend letting the camera make that decision, but for BIF on the Nikons, Target finding auto focus proved to be fast and accurate more often than any other mode. I was getting 70% or better quick accurate focus on BIF against a blue or clouded sky, and better than 50% against a landscape background.  That is actually very good performance.

Focus against a background. Custom BIF mode. Nikon P610. 1440mm equivalent. 1/640th @ ISO 100 @ f7.1
Focus against a background. Custom BIF mode. Nikon P610. 1440mm equivalent. 1/640th @ ISO 100 @ f7.1

I found that in following fast moving birds, high speed continuous was easier than low speed…since the black out between images is long enough on low speed so that I would loose my pan and the bird would go out of frame.

Another focus against a background example. Snow Geese.
Another focus against a background example. Snow Geese.

General BIF advice: 1) don’t try to shoot at the long end of the zoom, especially as you are developing your technique. Finding focus and keeping the bird in frame are both easier at 600-1000mm equivalent fields of view, than they are at 1200-2000mm. Remember, the DSLR/long lens crowd are shooting at 400-600mm and cropping. 2) Pan with the birds before pressing the shutter for focus. Pick the birds up as soon as possible, and pan with them until they are close enough for a satisfying image. Then half press the shutter for focus. If you get focus lock, then shoot off a burst.

Northern Harrier. Focus on birds coming head on is the most difficult of all.
Northern Harrier. Focus on birds coming head on is the most difficult of all.

As always, take a lot of exposures! Try, try, and try again. And don’t worry about the misses. Celebrate the hits!

Classic flight shot. Sandhill Crane. Bosque del Apache NWR.
Classic flight shot. Sandhill Crane. Bosque del Apache NWR.

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 🙂

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.

Point and Shoot for Warblers

No matter what camera and lens you use, it simply does not get any better than this Chestnut-sided Warbler with the Nikon P900 Point and Shoot Superzoom!

At the recent Biggest Week in Birding on the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio, I had the opportunity to teach two sessions of Point and Shoot for Warblers. Most photographers would agree that there are no more difficult birds to shoot than our wood warblers. They are fast. They are active. And they feed, during migration, deep in the spring foliage, from eye-level to canopy top. If they were not so bright and beautiful they might no be worth the effort. But they are…bright and beautiful, and though they might present a challenge…definitely worth the effort.

On the other hand, there is no better place to practice warbler photography than the boardwalk at Magee Marsh, in the Crane Creek Recreation Area along the Erie shore. The boardwalk provides easy access to many acres of wet forest and marsh, ideal habitat for migrating warblers as they feed up before crossing Lake Erie on the way north. The warblers so busy feeding that they are relatively oblivious to the humans on the boardwalk, even humans with tripods and long lenses. Then too, since there are literally thousands of pairs of birder’s eyes on the boardwalk each day, it seems unlikely that any warbler gets through Magee without being seen, and pointed out to others. That makes the photographer’s job easier. You just have to point your camera where everyone else is looking. 🙂

Lots of eyes on the boardwalk at Magee Marsh in OH

For those of us who have chosen Point and Shoot superzooms, the challenge might seem greater due to the supposed “limitations” of our cameras. However, I suspect, based on my own and others’ experiences, that a proficient Point and Shooter, using a light weight, portable, flexible superzoom, can bring back as many satisfying images of warblers as anyone, if not more. And the best Point and Shoot warbler shots are every bit as good as the best shots from a full-sized DSLR and long lens. Every bit!

I had two sessions to refine the set of points, based on my own experience at Magee Marsh over the past 6 years, that might help the Point and Shooter to catch warblers. This is the distillation:

1) Finding the Bird. Use your eye-level electronic viewfinder, not the LCD on the back of the camera. This gives you a better chance of finding and keeping the bird in view as it moves thorough the foliage, and, since the camera is braced on your face, and a natural extension of your head, it gives you a steadier shot when you do shoot. While EVFs on Superzooms still are not great, the most recent Superzooms (Nikon P series and Canon SX60HS) have the best EVFs, and getting pretty good…I was generally able to easily find and track a warbler with the EVF on the Nikon P900, even in dense foliage…something that was not true a superzoom generation ago.

2) Holding the camera.  Hold the camera with your left hand under, and loosely cradling, the barrel around the zoom. Your left elbow should be directly under the camera. Raise your right arm high enough to reach the grip on the right side of the camera. Wrap your fingers loosely around the grip…do not pinch it between fingers…really wrap it with four fingers of your right hand…with your shutter finger extended up over the shutter button and resting lightly on it. Now turn one third, left shoulder forward, toward the bird, with your left elbow tucked in to your body. You are not facing the bird head on, you are turned so your left shoulder is pointed almost at the bird, and that elbow is supported by your body. (It is the same stance a rifle shooter users.) Your eye is at the EVF, ideally with the camera contacting both your brow and your nose. Your left arm supports the camera. Your right arm and hand simply steady the camera, and operate controls. Everything should be relaxed. Note how the hat brim shades the EVF in the photos above. I highly recommend a broad-brimmed hat for warbler or any other kind of shooting that involves the EVD (Do not rest your hand or fingers on the part of the zoom that moves. Eventually the zoom will retract unexpectedly when the “power down” limit is reached, and you will get the flesh of your fingers caught between the zoom barrel and its housing. Not good for fingers or the motor that powers your zoom!)

3) Focus and shooting. When you find the bird, you will half press the shutter to establish focus and exposure. Yes you will! You will not jam the shutter button down and hope for the best…you will half press the shutter. And then, if the bird allows, you will wait for the moment of stillness between breaths to shoot. Yes I know, we are talking about warblers, and wait is not a word warblers understand…but believe me, your keeper rate will improve if you can learn to only press the shutter when the camera is already focused and the bird is in sight. You can jam the shutter down 1000 times and get 1000 blurry images of departing warbler butts, or you can develop your skill and patience, wait for the camera to focus, and only take an image when everything is right…and you will still take 400 images…and 50-100 of them will be sharp and satisfying.

4) Steadying the shot. Remember you are not a tripod! You will never keep the camera perfectly still. You are an extension of the cameras image stabilization system. The best you can do is to develop a sense for the still spot, when everything is lined up, and it is time to shoot.

5) Focus your EVF. Even after sharing that with both groups at the beginning of our field sessions, I caught many folks in the workshops still using the LCD…holding the cameras out away from their face and body. When I quizzed them, they admitted that they found the EVF difficult to impossible to use. It soon became apparent that most of them had never adjusted the diopter setting on the EVF. Somewhere, on or near the housing for the EVF, there will be a little wheel or slider that allows you to focus the EVF for your eyes. This is critical for those who wear glasses, and important for those who do not. With your eye to the EVF, turn the wheel or slide the slider until the letters and numbers and lines in the EVF are as sharp as you can get them. Pay no attention to the scene itself. Just to the display features. Once the display is in sharp focus, half press the shutter so the camera auto-focuses, and now your scene should be sharp. You should only have to see the focus wheel once, then just let the camera do the focusing. And you should now find the EVF much more fun to use. 🙂

6) Focus Area. When Superzooms come from the maker they are preset to use “wide area” or “multi-spot” focus. Some are set for “target finding focus.” That means that the camera tries to determine what is important in the scene and focus on that. Most superzooms are programmed to look for, in order of preference, a) a face, b) the closest high contrast object or subject, and c) the closest bright/colorful high contrast object or subject. In all superzooms this is the default focus setting in Auto Mode. And it works pretty well, getting focus right about 70% of the time.

However, we are shooting birds and wildlife…or warblers in this case…and, without resorting to manual focus, we want more control over what the camera chooses to focus on.

If we set the camera to Program Mode instead of Auto, we can change the setting for the “focus area”, and force the camera to focus where we want it to. (By the way, Program Mode does all the auto settings that Auto does, but gives you the option of setting some of them yourself, while the camera still takes care of the rest…it is the mode you should be using for birds and wildlife.) Go to your menu and find “focus area” (or something similar). Generally there are several choices for focus area. It might be as simple as “face priority” vs. “standard” or there might be additional choices like Manual (spot), Manual (normal), Manual (wide), Subject Tracking, Target Finding, etc. In general, for warblers, you are looking for the smallest area setting. When the camera is not in multi or face priority, it is generally possible to move the focus area you set around the screen with the “up, down, right, left” push areas on the control wheel on the back of the camera. You will be keeping it in the center of the field, but making it small enough to put it on the bird and no where else. On Canon and Sony cameras there is a second setting to change the size of the focus area, once you choose the movable area option. Consult your manual. On Nikon cameras you make the size choice right in the “focus area” menu. (Note: you may find that the next to smallest focus area works better than “spot” focus for birds. Sometimes the smallest area does not contain enough information at high zoom settings to establish reliable focus.)

The following shots demonstrate the all but miraculous ability of today’s superzooms to auto focus in super difficult situations.

7) Focus technique. Once you focus area setting is set to small, you will attempt to put the little square on the bird, not on some element of the foreground or background. It does not matter much which part of the bird, as long as you include some portion of the body. In my experience, there is still a lot of intelligence built into the auto focus of a superzoom, even when you have it set to a small area. The camera will focus through low contrast foreground foliage and even twigs, if the bird is bright or high contrast enough, and takes up enough of the frame. This is especially true if an eye is showing. The auto focus of Point and Shoot cameras is keyed very tightly to the presence of an eye in the frame. The hardest thing to focus on is a low contrast, or totally backlit bird…like a Grey Catbird sitting against the sky, for instance.

Never give up on your focus after a single half-press. If it does not catch focus, or focuses on something other than the bird, release the shutter button and half press again. And again. And again. Eventually it might catch. Then too, with low contrast birds, it might be necessary to give the camera a hint as to the distance, so it does not have to hunt through its whole focus range. Swing the camera and find a high contrast object at about the same distance as the bird. Half press to establish focus. Release and swing back to the bird. The next half press should lock focus. 🙂

8) Exposure. Just as you can change the focus area in Program Mode, you can also change the area the camera uses to establish the exposure. The default is Multi-Area Metering, where the camera takes exposure readings from many areas of the scene and then computes the best exposure it can. With birds and wildlife, we often do not care about the background or foreground as long as the critter is correctly exposed. Therefore, open your menu and find the setting for Exposure Mode. For feeding warblers in foliage, either “center” or “spot” generally works best. Spot will be more accurate on the bird itself, but center may give you the best overall exposure.

Let the camera determine exposure. As I have often pointed out, the exposure systems in these modern Point and Shoot Superzooms are amazingly accurate, and generally keep exposures within the bounds set by the camera’s abilities. Use Auto ISO, Auto White Balance, etc, and let the camera set both shutter speed and aperture. The only exception is if your camera consistently gives you lower shutter speeds than the image stabilization can handle…resulting in a lot of blurry images due to camera motion. In that case you may have to switch to shutter preferred and set the minimum shutter speed you are comfortable hand holding. You will still let the camera set everything else 🙂

9) Finding the bird, part 2. The problem with warblers, as mentioned above, is that they move and they bury themselves in foliage. That makes it very difficult to find them at the high magnifications available with today’s superzooms. There are two solutions.

a) especially on your first attempts, you may have more success if you do not use the long end of the zoom. 🙂 Keep to 600-1000mm or so, and the warblers will be much easier to find and keep in view. You may have to crop the images after to get the scale you want, but that is better than not getting the images at all. With feeding warbles, especially in places like Magee Marsh, 1000mm is often plenty anyway, as the birds are feeding within 20 feet of your face.

b) if you camera has it, use the “framing assist” button or function. This is generally a button on the zoom barrel that, when pressed, auto zooms to zoom out to a wider view, while indicating in the finder what area your zoomed in view will cover. Releasing the button automatically returns your zoom to the longer setting. “Frame assist”, find the bird, get it in the indicated smaller area, release button, shoot.

Framing Assist button on the Canon SX50HS
Framing Assist button on the Canon SX50HS

Even if your camera does not have a framing assist function (sometimes called the “zoom back” button), you can accomplish much the same thing by manually zooming back to find the bird, centering it, and then zooming in for the shot.

Finally, when the bird moves out of the frame…do not try to find it by swinging the camera around at high zoom. Take the camera away from your eye. Locate the bird. Then reframe, using framing assist again if necessary.

10) Continuous Shooting. You will have much more success with warblers, or any other active subject, if you take bursts of 3-5 images rather than single shots. Bursts simply improve the odds of getting a sharp image…and they give the bird a chance to rearrange itself into a more attractive pose. You would be surprised how often that happens as you shoot your burst. Most Superzooms have at least two continuous shooting modes: high speed burst, and standard or low speed continuous. High Speed burst is the one they advertise, as it takes 7 to 10 images at 10 frames per second or more with a single press of the shutter button. Impressive! And practically useless for the bird or wildlife photographer. What you end up with is too often 7 to 10 identical images. There is not enough time for the subject to do anything between shots. Then too, the camera takes all the shots and stores them to a “buffer” (special memory location). It then stops everything else and processes and writers those images to the card before you can continue to shoot. Awkward. It can take from 30 seconds to 7 seconds to write to card…and that is 7 to 30 seconds when your camera is essentially a brick.

Slow speed continuous, on the other hand, on most cameras, takes between 2 and 3 frames per second, and stores many more images in the buffer before it has to dump to card. The slower speed gives the bird (or bear) time to rearrange itself, so you get unique shots, and you can generally shoot off several bursts of 3-5 images before the camera takes a processing and writing break. Most of the time you will not be aware of the pause since it happens when you are not shooting anyway.

The Canon SX60HS is an exception. It shoots 6 fps, continuously, without pausing for writing to the the card…though it does slow down significantly if you overwork the shutter button.

You can generally find the Continuous shooting settings in the regular camera menu…though High Speed Burst is sometimes hidden in the Scene Modes.

A panel of continuous shots of a Yellow Warbler bathing.
A panel of continuous shots of a Yellow Warbler bathing.

11) Keep trying. (And yes, it does go to 11 🙂 It always takes me several days at Magee Marsh to get my warbler eye in, and retrain my body for the challenge. Do not give up the first day you attempt warblers. Keep at it. Shoot a lot. If you keep 300 out of 3000 warbler shots, you will be doing very well indeed. Do not worry about the shots you missed…even of the best birds. The missed shots are gone. Just keep shooting and be really, really happy with the shots you do get. The more you shoot, the better you will get at it and the more keepers you will take home. Remember, having worked with all kinds of photographers, and having seen the work of many others, I can honestly tell you that your best Point and Shoot Superzoom warblers and their best long-lens warblers will be very similar…in most cases, not distinguishable at all…and you are likely, due to the compact size, portability, and flexibility of the the superzoom, to come back with way more satisfying images than the long lens crowd.

Be happy! Be a happy Point and Shooter. Be warbler happy!

Bay-brested Warbler, Magee Marsh, Nikon P900
Magnolia Warbler, Magee Marsh OH, Nikon P900

The P&S Tropical Challenge: Tranquilo Bay Panama

The Nikon P900 at Tranquilo Bay Lodge, Panama

Masked Tityra, from the deck at Tranquilo Bay Lodge. Nikon P900

Honestly, I have never been anywhere as photographically engaging as Tranquilo Bay Lodge on Bastimentos Island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago on the Caribbean side of northern Panama. The lodge itself, situated 35 minutes by boat from the the Bocas Town airport on Colon Island, is surrounded by Caribbean rain-forest with all the usual suspects: Boat-billed Flycatchers, bright Blue Dacnis, Manakins, Tityras, Honeycreepers, Sloths, Bird-eating Tree Snakes and White-faced Capuchin Monkeys to name a few…and there are a host of unique habitats, from rocky islands with colonies of nesting sea-birds (Frigate Birds, Boobies, and Red-billed Tropicbirds), to tiny red and blue and yellow and black Poison Dart frog infested lowland jungle, to Coco plantations with Trogons and Toucans and Howler Monkeys, bigger green and black Poison Dart Frogs and Yellow-headed Geckos (and Purple-throated Fruit Crows!), to the mainland with abandoned banana canals threading though forest where Blue Morpho butterflies float, and high mountain passes with cloud forest: orchids, Motmots, White Hawks, a host of Plumbeous Kites, Squirrel Cuckoos, Lineated Woodpeckers, and more Toucans and sloths. There can not be many places in the world to equal the easy accessible tropical variety of Tranquilo Bay Lodge.

I was there for an atypically rainy week in April, and, despite the rain, it was one of the best weeks of photography I have ever experienced.

As noted before (P&S in the Tropics) the tropics might just be the ultimate test for any P&S camera and many P&S photographers. I had a new camera for Tranquilo Bay, the Nikon P900 I reviewed here, and I am happy to say that it was more than up to the challenge. I packed my Canon SX50HS for back-up, but it never left my suitcase. Based on my previous experience in the tropics of Honduras, I also packed my super-light-weight MeFoto Roadmate carbon fiber travel tripod…and that too never made it out of the suitcase. I shot, and got satisfying images of everything from flash aided macros of Poison Dart frogs, to Canopy Tower panoramas, to dark under-canopy lecking Manakins, to frame filling Blue Dacnis and Shiny Honeycreepers from the Lodge deck, to distant Toucans and Snowy Cotingas from moving boats…all of it hand held with the P900. As far as I am concerned, no camera could have done a better job in the tropics than the P900 did, and few could even have come close. Impressive.

I used Sports Mode a lot in Panama. In the low light under the canopy and on rainy days it seemed to lock on focus more quickly and more accurately than standard modes. The downside is that it is fixed to High Speed Continuous shooting and I sometimes did not want to shoot 7 frames and wait for the buffer to clear before I could take another burst. For those situations I used my custom bird and wildlife mode: manual focus square set to normal (it seems faster than small at higher magnifications where there might not be much in the smaller square), Low Speed Continuous, Low Noise Reduction, Standard Picture Control, -1/3 EV exposure compensation, Auto ISO and Color Balance.

Neither mode gave me shutter speeds in the dim light that I was comfortable with…but…and this is huge!…the 5 Stop Vibration Reduction image stabilization in the Nikon enabled me to shoot satisfying images down to 1/125 on a regular basis…and I even got some excellent results at 1/30 of a second when the ISO went up to 1600. Once I saw those on my Surface Pro screen in my daily review of images, I gave up worrying about shutter speed and just let the camera do its thing! The alternative would have been going to Shutter Preferred, but that would have driven the ISO up even higher, or resulted in underexposed images like the ones I brought back from Honduras. All in all I am more than pleased with the P900’s performance in auto modes. I am convinced I could not have gotten the images I did with any other camera (especially without one of those projection fill flashes the pros use).

I will post a few galleries of images from various locations, or you can see the whole set at my WideEyedInWonder site. Here.

These shots are all from the deck surrounding the community/dining room at the Lodge.

We hiked out, one afternoon, to see a Bird-eating Tree Snake the workers had found on the edge of the cleared ground at the Lodge. While we were out, and already wet, we hiked on into the rain-forest to see Golden-collared Manakins on the leck under deep canopy (in the rain). The Manakins are miraculous shots, considering the conditions. Hand held. And great birds. The males clear a lecking pad about 2.5 feet square, removing all vegetation. There they put on their wing-popping display to try to attract females.

Frogs and lizards (spiders too) from Popo Island. Also some Keel-billed and Black-mandibled Toucans and a Snowy Cotinga photographed from the boat on the way.

We got to the Green Acres Chocolate Farm late, due to rain in the morning, so many of the birds had already moved in deeper and up higher for the day. Still it was a great location. I am certain it is spectacular on a nice clear morning.

One of the best things about Tranquilo Bay is that the islands are off-shore from the highest point in the mountains that make up the backbone of Central America…and there is a good road right up and over a 4000 foot pass, which takes you well into the Cloud Forest, and then on down the Pacific Slope. It is a 40 minute boat ride to the mainland dock, and then you can be in Cloud Forest via van in less than an hour…or you could be if you could resist stopping to bird along the way 🙂 But then you would miss the spot where the Boat-billed Herons nest behind the gas station, or the nesting Plumbeous Kites, the Sloths and Toucans. We got rained out on the Caribbean side of the pass, but on a normal day, we could have birded both slopes of the mountains for a wide variety of species. As it was we found a number of high altitude species, as well as some North American Warbler passing through.

Our final trip out from the Lodge was to the old Synder Canal…a banana canal built by the United Fruit Company to open a new area to banana cultivation in late 1800/early 1900s. It only operated for 4 or 5 years, before an expanding rail system made it obsolete and it was abandoned. Today, it is kept open (mostly open) by the local people who use it to reach dwellings along its shore, and by a few tour operators who take folks through for the unique views of wildlife and forest. It runs though a Biological Reserve for much of its length. This will always be a memorable trip for me, since I saw, and photographed, my first perched Blue Morpho Butterfly with its wings open. They are common enough in the tropics, starting in Mexico and running south into South America. They float down forest trails and water courses at eye-level, their intense blue color and lazy flight making them unmistakable. They never perch with open wings! But one did along the Snyder Canal the day we visited.

Blue Morpho, Snyder Canal, Changuinola Panama
Blue Morpho, Snyder Canal, Changuinola Panama

Off-shore from either end of the canal there are two islands, collectively know as Bird Island, where Magnificent Frigate Birds, Brown Bobbies, and Red-billed Tropicbirds roost and nest. Though the sea was much rougher than normal the day we visited, it is a place I would love to try again. When I got back from this trip, I realized that though I had been shooting from a moving boat all day, I had never switched to Active VR on the camera. Another reason to return. 🙂

On my final morning at Tranquilo Bay I decided, rather than getting muddy on the trails, I would spend some time on the Canopy Observation Tower up by the cabins. This tower was fashioned from obsolete cell phone towers, purchased in the US and shipped to the Bocas del Toro. It reaches well above the canopy, topping the tallest trees by many feet. The view is unique. I was hoping to be up there early enough for roosting parrots and White-faced Capuchin Monkeys. I got both.

This is a 180 dregree panorama from the top of the tower. There is 360 degree pano in the gallery.

Tranquilo Bay Lodge, Panama 180 on the tower
Tranquilo Bay Lodge, Panama 180 on the tower

All in all, the performance of the Nikon P900 under tropical conditions was pretty near awesome!

If you are not convinced by now, I can only say again that Tranquilo Bay and the surrounding area in Bocas del Toro Panama is one of the best places for bird and wildlife photography that I can imagine…and I was not there on a good week. I am planning, if I can round up a group of six eager Point and Shoot Nature Photographers who want to join me, to return to Tranquilo Bay in mid-October (Columbus Day week). The weather is promised to be more cooperative, the North American migrants are moving through on their way south keeping things stirred up. Seas should be calm. And Tranquilo Bay should be at its best. Want to come. Contact me at lightshedder@gmail.com.

Even if you don’t join me…Tranquilo Bay should be on any photographer’s bucket list!

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 “Fat chance!” and “Dream on!” seemed to be the consensus. I will admit, I was not a believer either…especially 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…and that on top of IQ that was already rated “best in class” 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…twice the size and weight of the P610. Still, 2000mm equivalent field of view…and 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. 🙂

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 🙂 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 🙂

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. 🙂 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.  🙂

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. 🙂

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. 🙂

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. 🙂

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!