Fox family

Driving to one of my regular beaches to search for migrating and resident shorebirds a few days ago I suddenly glimpsed a flash of red in the sand dunes beside the road. Pulling over I was astonished to see a fox sitting in the narrow strip of dunes between the coastal road and the beach.

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), Crescent Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon Z6, Nikkor 70-200 f2.8 lens at 130mm, 1/320sec @ f8 ISO 320. Manual mode with auto ISO turned on.

Switching off the engine and lowering the car window did not seem to disturb the animal one bit, then suddenly another head popped up out of the dunes followed by another. I had inadvertently discovered an active foxes den.

Normally to shoot foxes near their den requires staying well back, using very long lenses, lots of patience, using a long slow approach. Often a blind is necessary or, at the very least, remaining in the vehicle while shooting. Remaining in the vehicle in this case was entirely impractical as there were only a couple of small pullouts to get off the road, neither in a position where I could photograph from.

Red Fox among sand dunes, Crescent Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D850, Nikkor 500mm f4 with TC14 teleconverter (700mm) 1/2500sec @ f8 ISO 800. Manual exposure with auto ISO

I was creeping out of my vehicle while trying not to disturb the foxes when I suddenly noticed a runner coming up the road, not only that but she was going to pass within a few feet of where the foxes were sitting. ‘That’s that’ I thought, expecting to see the foxes vanish in an instant, but they took no notice whatsoever. I realised that they had become completely habituated to traffic, joggers and walkers on the road side of the dunes, and beachgoers on the other.

I have now returned several times, always early in the morning when the sun angle and direction is absolutely perfect for photography. Each time I have learned more about the individual characters of each animal.

Red Fox among sand dunes, Crescent Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D850, Nikkor 500mm f4 1/2000sec @ f7.1 ISO 560. Manual exposure with auto ISO

One of the kits is completely laid back and pays no attention to any disturbance, traffic or human. The other is a little more wary, always keeping one eye on anyone nearby, but still never seems to feel threatened. In fact, the more I return the more they completely accept my presence as part of their normal life.

Red Fox among sand dunes, Crescent Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D850, Nikkor 500mm f4 1/1000sec @ f6.3 ISO 360. Manual exposure with auto ISO

Interestingly, foxes generally mate for life, and after the kits are born both parents generally attend to their needs. At this den I have only ever seen one adult, so I am not sure if one has gone missing or that is simply a coincidence. Looking carefully at my images it does seem that it is always the same adult, so I assume it is the vixen. If she is on her own she is doing a great job as both her and the kits are in fabulous condition.

Shooting Etiquette

Remember that at all times when photographing wildlife no image is worth causing distress to the animals involved. If you are changing their normal behaviour in any way you are too close.

Approach slowly, a bit at a time. Keeping a low profile often allows you to get much closer to your subjects without unduly disturbing them. Using your vehicle as a blind is a great way of getting close, animals don’t usually associate cars, which of course they see all the time, with a threat.

You can see from all the images above that these foxes are certainly concerned by my presence and are totally relaxed.

To view more fox images and a selection of my latest images please visit the main web site.

Unusual Osprey behaviour

I was out working our local Osprey nest (while sitting in my car to ensure I adhered to our social distancing rules) and photographed an Osprey behaviour I had never seen before.

The male Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) retuned to the nest with a fish that it had taken head off. While the female remains at the nest the male will bring fish to her and the young, but invariably feeds first by eating the head.

Very unusually this bird seems to be taking an extra nibble while flying. Normally Ospreys do not eat on the wing but take their prey to a perch before consuming it.

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) carrying fish, Petite Riviere, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D850, 500mm f4 lens with TC14 converter, (effective focal length 700mm), 1/2000 sec @ f6.3 (manual mode) ISO 450 (Auto ISO activated) with +0.7 exposure compensation. Shot with lens resting on bean bag on car window frame.

While the coronavirus restrictions remain in place I am doing my photography either from the car window or here in my own back yard. Fortunately there is still a few subjects worth shooting. Hopefully we will get out of this mess soon and life can begin to return to some sort of normality, although I think that normal will be very different to what it was before.

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) in fight, Broad Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada,

Nikon Z6, 500mm f4 lens with TC14 converter, (effective focal length 700mm), 1/2000 sec @ f5.6 (manual mode) ISO 50 (Auto ISO activated) with +1 exposure compensation. Shot with lens resting on bean bag on car window frame. I needed to add a full stop to the metered exposure to punch some detail into the very dark areas of the bird and show the amazing iridescent colours of the feathers

To see a selection of my latest images click here

Stay well and stay safe.

Nikon TC-14

In 1999 I prepared for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney by replacing much of my equipment with the latest and greatest available at the time. The latest buzz word was ‘digital imaging’, Nikon having just released its first professional digital camera, the Nikon D1. It was greeted, to a great extent, with a huge amount of scepticism, ranging from ‘it’s just a novelty’, ‘the images will never be as good as film’, to, ‘I will never be seen dead with one of these new fangled cameras’. I remember a similar reaction when the first autofocus lenses appeared a few years earlier.

I took a somewhat different view so, along with my first 600mm f4, and replacing many of my shorter lenses I decided that maybe, there was more to this digital thing than others thought. I invested over $6,500 Canadian dollars on a D1 body and a couple of spare batteries. Added to this were two IBM Microdrive memory cards with the massive storage capacity of 170mb – yep mb not gb! These ran to about another $600 each. Microdrives were actually a miniature hard disk with spinning media in a compact flash size. Only problem with this is that if you dropped one it was toast, much like dropping a hard drive onto the floor today would give the same result.

Off I went to the Olympics, where I shot around 50% film and 50% on the D1. Well one thing was true from the naysayers, the quality was not as good as my film cameras. The D1 sensor was a mere 2.7 megapixel, and had a top speed of 4.5 frames per second. Plus, you certainly didn’t want to go above ISo 44 before the images became virtually unusable. Not exactly mind blowing by today’s standards. 

The Sydney Olympics were the first Games where transmission of images directly to clients was a real prospect for anyone other than the big agencies. Each evening I would download my images from the D1, caption and keyword using an early version of Photomechanic, and make some rudimentary corrections in Photoshop 5.0. I dare not crop anything , the images were too small to start with. Then it was off to the Main Press centre to collect my processed films from Kodak, scribble captions on the slide mounts, and use a film scanner for those I wanted to send that evening. (By external modem attached to my laptop). Then a selection would be made and sent by Fedex overnight out to clients. In the early hours of the morning I would get back to my hotel for a few hours sleep before doing it all again the next day. Who say’s being a sports photographer was fun?

Olympic Games, Sydney, September 2000, John Whitaker (GBR) riding Calvaro

Nikon D1, Nikon 600mm f4 lens, 1/1000 sec at f4, ISO 200, manual exposure

Returning to Canada at the end of the Games I reviewed all the images that had been used by my clients. Imagine my surprise to find that the majority had come from that 2.7mp D1 even with it’s crap quality. A little investigation soon shed light on the mystery. The images were used because they arrived with the clients first, and once an image was put on the page editors are reluctant to redo their work and change it. This was a revelation and while many of my colleagues continued to stick with film I suddenly realized that they were blind to the future of photography and I immediately dumped all my film cameras and went 100% digital, one of the first independent photographers to do so.

Within a year Nikon had progressed to the D1X which upped the sensor to 5mp, although this dropped the shooting speed to a mere 3 fps with a buffer of 9 frames, but only if you were shooting jpegs! But, the quality was a little better so another $6000+ was dropped and so it all began.

Incidentally , that original Nikon D1 was sold on to Isobel Springett who was right at the start of her photographic career. She is now an amazing wildlife and nature photographer and it’s well worth taking a look at her web site and viewing her work at www.isobelspriingett.com

Since then I have used every Nikon flagship camera up to the Nikon D4. I missed out on the D5 as my shooting interests were slowly switching away from sports and concentrating more on nature and wildlife so decided the Nikon D850 was a better fit, with it’s huge 45.7 mp sensor and 9fps shooting speed. Wouldn’t I have liked to have had this in my bag in Sydney?

Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias bringing a stick to nesting mate Arthur R Marshall National Wildlife Reserve Loxahatchee Florida

Nikon D2x, Nikon 600mm f4 lens, 1/3200 sec at f4, ISO 200, aperture priority automatic exposure set to -0/7 With the D2x, launched in 2004, we are up to 12.4 mp and 5fps and much better image quality, although ISO 800 is still pushing the boundaries.

Now, I wonder just how much longer I will even be using a DSLR as mirrorless takes over the scene.

So, you may be wondering why the title of this blog is Nikon TC-14? Well, a few days ago I picked up the D850 with my 500mm f4 and attached TC-14 teleconverter and went to remove it from the lens. Wouldn’t budge. It was jammed solid, and I couldn’t even retract the  release pin. Now here was a problem, as I wasn’t sure if Nikon Servicing was even operating with the coronavirus situation, and I needed the 500mm urgently. So it was out with my miniature screwdriver set and I began to dismantle the teleconverter that was still attached to the lens. I eventually succeeded in getting it off, the release pin had sheared off and there was evidence of further internal damage.

The old and the new

It was then that I realized that this was the last piece of equipment that was still in my bag and in regular use from that re-equipping back in 1999. I wonder how many images have been shot over the last 20 years with this converter attached. A real testament to the superior build of Nikon equipment.

Thanks to The Camera Store in Calgary for shipping a new Nikon TC-14 III to replace the old one and Canada Post for getting it here in just a few days, despite the challenges that Coronavirus is creating.

I wonder if the new one will still be going in 2040? Actually, I wonder if I will still be going in 2040!

PS Many of those original Nikon D1 are still being used today after re-processing in Capture One and Photoshop so they couldn’t have been that bad!

See more images by visiting the photo galleries and my Instagram feed 

Winter surfing

The recent storms that have hit the coast of Nova Scotia have brought the winter surfers out in force. Even with temperatures well below freezing this does not stop these hardy souls getting out on the water to ride the huge incoming waves.

Inevitably, to get good surfing images, you need to either get in the water with the surfers with a waterproof camera or use a long lens. I certainly choose the second option, preferring to stay on dry land, well protected in my down jacket.

Fortunately a short distance from my home there is a great spot to shoot from, where I can stand on a concrete outflow pipe and the surfers end up almost 90 degrees to my position at the end of their rides. This makes for some great images, especially late afternoon with the sun behind me.

Winter surfers riding waves Cherry Hill, Arties Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Nikon D850, 500mm f4 lens + TC14 converter (700mm), manual exposure, 1/2000 s, f7.1 ISO 800, auto white balance. Gitzo GT5540LS tripod with Flexshooter Pro head

Shooting surfers requires a very high shutter speed, to freeze not only the athlete but also the rapidly moving water. Due to the large contrast range between the whites of the cresting waves and the blacks of the wetsuits I used manual exposure settings. A shutter speed of 1/2000th sec and an aperture of f7.1  produced a well exposed raw file from my Nikon D850. These were then processed in Capture One 20. Each file required a little work to display the full dynamic range by pulling the highlight slider down to put detail back into the brightest areas of the waves and the shadow slider up a little to render detail into the blacks of the wetsuits. I am able to preserve much more detail in wide dynamic range images using these sliders in Capture One than I was ever able to do in Adobe Lightroom. You can try a 30 day, full working copy of Capture One by clicking here.

Winter surfers riding waves Cherry Hill, Arties Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Nikon D850, 500mm f4 lens, manual exposure, 1/2000 s, f7.1 ISO 800, auto white balance. Gitzo GT5540LS tripod with Flexshooter Pro head

Equipment

All images were shot using the 45.7mp Nikon D850 with the Nikon 500mm f4 lens both with and without the TC14 converter. When shooting action such as surfing there is always a tendency to just put the longest lens you have on the camera and fill the frame with the action. However, here much of the action is also the movement of the waves so I ensured I had a range of images placing the surfer in different parts of the frame. Often the most powerful images concentrated on the form of the wave with the surfer placed quite small in the frame. You can view a full selection of surfing images by clicking here  

Winter surfers riding waves Cherry Hill, Arties Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Nikon D850, 500mm f4 lens + TC14 converter (700mm), manual exposure, 1/2000 s, f5.6 ISO 800, auto white balance. Gitzo GT5540LS tripod with Flexshooter Pro head

Which tripod head

I often come across other photographers while shooting and regularly see them using inadequate tripods and, more particularly, bad tripod heads.

The tripod often has tiny thin lens with 5 or more sections. Great for folding the tripod down to a small size for carrying but rendering the tripod completely unstable when the bottom sections are opened up. They are just too thin to provide stable support for any sort of telephoto lens, especially if there is a it of a breeze blowing.

Similarly, poorly built tripod heads, actually hinder rather than help photographers. Often the head was bought as an integral part of the tripod and suffers from poor design, does not lock in one place when tightened up. (i.e. the camera and lens move from the desired position as you tighten the controls). Frustrating to say the least.

With tripods costing from $100 to well over $1000 and heads ranging from those included with a cheap tripod to also well over $1000 how do you choose what is best for you?

Tripods

Choose a tripod that suits both your shooting style and budget. Carbon fibre should be your material of choice for the legs both for it’s low weight and inherent stiffness. Pay particular attention to the lowest (i.e. smallest diameter) section. This is the most prone to weakness. If too small it will transmit the smallest vibrations, even from a gust of wind, up through the legs. Make sure it extends to a suitable height, I like at least my eye level so that when a head is attached you are still OK if the ground in front of you is slightly lower than where you are standing.

I don’t like tripods with a built-in extending column. Why have a nice sturdy three legs and then top it with a single legged support, making a monopod on a tripod? I also prefer no more than three extensions on the legs.

My recomendations

Since the beginning of my career I have used Gitzo tripods. Currently my choice is the GT5540LS (now superceded  by the GT5543LS). A bit heavy if you are planning a trek up a mountain but the steadiest support I have ever owned.

My choice is probably overkill for most but there are great carbon fibre tripods available from Gitzo, Really Right Stuff, Induro, Benro and Oben to name a few. 

Lastly when choosing a tripod, check the leg locking mechanism. There is nothing worse than getting all set up and about to take that award winning shot when one leg starts to slowly collapse, unbalancing the whole rig with great potential for disaster. 

Tripod heads

A lot depends on your shooting style and the subjects you are aiming for. 

Ball heads

Arca Swiss ball head on Overxposed ground plate as used for low level remote photography

If you are primarily a landscape photographer a good ball head will do nicely. Make sure that when you tighten the locking screw that the head remains exactly where you want it with no ‘creep’ especially if there is a front heavy telephoto attached. My recommendations for ball heads are the original Arca Swiss Monoball ($US387) or the Really Right Stuff BH-55 ($US489). I know some photographers who use these heads with supertelephoto lenses but they are really only sutable for static subjects – I find it’s almost impossible to shoot anything that is moving. There are other makes that give equally good results but I base the above on my personal experience of using these.

I now use my Arca Swiss head only for mounting on a plate when shooting remote images. Unfortunately the Overxposed ground plates and risers are no longer in production.

Gimbal heads

If you are shooting sports or wildlife from a tripod then many consider a gimbal head an absolute necessity. Properly set up a gimbal head supports your large telephotos in a weightless fashion and allows a smooth range of movement for following your subject.

The original gimbal head, the Wimberley, ($595) continues to be popular and is still a great choice. I used a Wimberley head for many years with my Nikon 600mm f4, 500mm f4 and 200-400 f4 lenses. I had less success using Wimberley’s Sidekick head that turns an Arca Swiss head into a Gimbal – well sort of!  

Roberto, my guide for Pantanal tours checks out the close focussing capabilities of my Nikon 600mm on a Wimbeley Head

I also used the Really Right Stuff PG02 ($US 891) for a while, great head but heavy 5.43lbs

But, beware, not all gimbals are made equal. There are a number of less expensive gimbal heads around that are made with poor materials, less precise tolerances, and are anything but smooth in their operation. Make sure you try before you buy.

The downside of gimbal heads is that they are difficult to impossible to use with a shorter lens. There’s no easy way to mount a camera body onto the head. This meant when travelling it was necessary to have two heads, one for telephotos and one for shorter lenses.

So what is my recommendation? Actually none of the above!

In May 2020 I took delivery of a head that is the answer to everything.

The Flexshooter Pro

The Flexshooter Pro head

  I had read all the hype about the Flexshooter Pro ($US599) and frankly was a little concerned that I was going to be disappointed. How could one head perform both functions without compromise? The Flexshooter Pro  is a ballhead that acts like a gimbal head.

The answer is a unique ball in ball design. A large outer silver ball allows you to level your rig using the built-in bubble level. A smaller inner black ball that uses a system of springs (I don’t know how, nor want to it just works) to apply tension to the lens and camera.

Topping the head is a unique two-way Arca Swiss clamp. This allows you to insert your telephoto lenses in one orientation and your directly mounted camera body in the other. Voila, only one head needed! Of course you need an Arca Swiss type foot or camera plate attached but that’s true of every head mentioned. The Arca Swiss clamping system has become the de-facto method for most tripod head manufacturers. Replacement feet and plates are available from a number of manufacturers including Really Right Stuff, Kirk, Wimberley and others.

Flexshooter with D850 and 16mm lens

Above all the greatest asset of this head is that when you tighten the knobs the head stays exactly where it was put. No creep or sag at all. I only really tighten the head any amount for landscape or other short lens work. For my big telephotos I work with the black ball set quite loose. As I swing my lens around with the rig properly balanced, I can let go and the lens will stay exactly where it was pointing.

Flexshooter with 200-400mm f4 lens mounted

I have used this head exclusively since taking delivery and sold my gimbal heads. I consider it to be second best purchase of 2019, only ranking behind my Nikon D850 body.

Incidentally, Flexshooter also make  a larger Extreme Ballhead with a carrying capacity of  132lbs as opposed to the 100lbs of the Pro version. Personally I have never found the Pro version wanting in any regard.

If you wish to purchase any item mentioned above I would appreciate you using my affiliate link below