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Long Lens & D2X technique learnings (very long!)

Discussion in 'Birds' started by andreasb, Aug 13, 2005.

  1. My Long Lens technique learning’s, (in progress)
    Frank (Flew) and a few others have asked me to do a write up of my learning’s of long lens technique. First of all I want to emphasize that I don’t think I know this subject well at all and I hope that, the real pro’s will be so kind and let me and everyone else know what is not correct and even better ways and tips of getting sharper pictures. And I want to give credit to the pro’s (and really nice) people who helped me get back on track; Rory Hill (lives an hour away from me), Paul Frye and Ron Reznick.

    I have spent a lot of time since end of February trying to figure out why my shots with the long lenses and the D2X have not been sharp, after all the shots with the D2H and the Sigma 800, after only a day of practice, came out so nice. I had bought heavy (used Gitzo) tripod gear for the D2H, and a full Wimberley mount, and I was doing pretty well with it. In hindsight I realize that I had some motion blur already with the pictures I took with the D2H and long lenses but the pixels are so large with the D2H it takes a lot more motion blur to see it with the 4 MP camera. I had read several articles on long lens technique, most well known is the one by Moose Pederson ( http://www.moosepeterson.com/techtips/longlens.html )

    So I thought I was doing all the right things, and getting a reasonable hang on how to do it, and then one day the D2X came and suddenly I couldn’t get a single picture sharp with the D2X and the Sigma 800. I had sold the D2H and had nothing to compare to anymore. I went out on shoots and came back with hundred of un-sharp pictures, and I was frustrated, and wasn’t having fun anymore taking pictures. I sent in the Sigma and it came back from very kind people at Sigma in Canada as being in fine order already no need for adjustments. In the meantime the whole discussion about poor AF performance with the D2X surfaced and I was convinced it was the camera, it had to be, and I was doing all the right things wasn’t I? To confuse the issue I was not getting many sharp shots from my Nikon 300mm F2.8 AF (the first version of AF) either. I quickly concluded that the 300 and the 800 can’t quite resolve enough for the D2X, so I set out to get better lenses. Note that they BOTH worked really well with the D2H, and probably also the D70, D100 etc, the D2X seems to be very demanding.

    The right lenses
    The 300mm was going to wait until next year but then I saw a great deal on Ebay for a new one and LLD reared its ugly head and I bought it. On the way home from picking it up on the ferry out to Vancouver Island, I took this shot, the ferry was moving at 15 knots or so and rocking, it speaks for itself I think. Handheld with VR on F3.2, 1/3200 or so, sharp as you know what…
    Subscribe to see EXIF info for this image (if available)

    In hindsight this shot was giving more then one clue of the real problems I was having but at the moment I wasn’t tuned in so I didn’t get it. After consulting with the three gentlemen (Ron, Rory and Paul) it was decided that a Nikon 500mm AF-S with an optional TC14EII (I already had one) was the ticket to success.

    I want to share Ron’s emails to me about what the right lens is for a birder is because it has lot of wisdom in it:
    Answer from Ron: “The 600mm has excellent reach and is a superb lens, but it's very heavy and large. Everyone I know who has one turns into a sedentary photographer with it... they drive up to a site, walk in maybe 100 yards or less, and set up in a fixed position, not moving much if at all. It requires a very sturdy tripod and a full Wimberley head. The total rig, just body, tripod and head, and 600 + TC(s), with no other gear, will weigh over 30 pounds assuming a carbon fiber tripod.

    Most folks who are going to be moving around prefer working with a 500mm and the LowePro 600AW backpack. It works very well with the TC14e, even wide open, and the TC17e can get you to 850mm (stop down to f/8 for clean results). I carry the 300mm on one body, and the 500mm on another body, when working in the field for long stuff. With the LowePro 600AW, I can carry the 300mm while the 500mm is in the pack with the hood reversed, or take the 500 out and mount it on the tripod (with Sidekick) and put the 300mm in the pack with the hood in shooting position (or just slide the camera/lens combo on the strap around on my back for easy access if I'm going to need to shoot the 300mm in tandem with the 500mm). It's a great kit, Andreas.”

    I set out to find a 500mm AF-S F4 and after a month or so I managed to buy one from a gentleman in Kentucky, who had reportedly only used it for 5 rolls of film but was now going over to the white side… The lens finally came and with “trembling hands” I put it on my Gitzo 415 tripod with center column and my Wimberley and went out to shot and got a memory card full of pictures like this one:
    Subscribe to see EXIF info for this image (if available)

    As you can understand I was frustrated by now and started to blame the camera, after all I was doing everything right?

    So I started measurebating and taking shots of charts to figure out what was really going on and as is often the case you need help from other to see thing not so obvious to you, and Paul and Rory came to the rescue after my plea for help.
    View attachment 13739

    I had setup my tripod and camera against a railing to make sure there where no vibrations but Paul and Rory didn’t think this was enough and told me they could see motion blur, so I sent them a picture of the setup:
    Subscribe to see EXIF info for this image (if available)

    And both came back and said you can’t have the column up like that you have to really lock everything down to kill the vibrations. I answered back and said it had worked so well with the D2H and I was locked against the railing and shouldn’t that be enough? The answer was that I didn’t count on the fact that the pixel density is so much higher on the D2X that even the slightest vibration can cause blur, compared to a 6 or 4 MP camera.

    Paul came back with one of several very methodical emails amounting to that we had to eliminate the possible causes of these vibrations from the equation so that we could come to an educated conclusion if it was me, my setup, the lens, the camera’s or a combination of some or all of them that was causing the problems, and he told me to do the following:
    1. Lock down the tripod legs as much as you can, take off the Wimberley and put on the ball head (I have a Graf Studio-ball), as low as the column will go, screw it really tight and use proper lens dampening technique with the left hand holding on the top of the lens (see Moose’s article).
    a. To clarify: I have since put the Wimberley back on the tripod. It is not the main source of vibrations, there is nothing wrong with a Wimberley it is a great setup. But many think it is to heavy and use a Wimberley Sidekick instead for the 500mm www.tripodhead.com
    2. Get the shutter speed up, increase the ISO to say 800, forget about noise for now, try to shoot over 1/1000th all the time, then work down to ISO 400, then 200 to compare the results.
    3. Use Mirror Lockup (MLU) and a cable release. At the time I didn’t have one, so I used a 10 sec camera timer delay, Paul told me to increase it to 20 seconds to be sure the vibrations died down completely before the shot was taken.
    4. The very first test shots at the chart I took where taken so I could fill the frame 30 ft or so away, Paul told me to move it to at least 50ft, because the depth of field at the short distance of 30ft is only about an inch or so at F5.6. It is not a fair test really. So he told me to shut down the lens to at least F8 to eliminate that cause as well.
    5. Practise!
    6. To these I added a couple of things myself:
    a. I looked over the Arca swiss mounts and realized that on the 800mm there was only one screw holding the Arca Swiss mount to the tripod foot, a trip to the local hardware store and now I have plenty of extra screws and I screwed all the mounts very tightly to their respective tripod feet.
    b. I said to myself that if the column on the Gitzo G1415 tripod was causing vibrations it had to go as well so I bought a flat plate and put it on tight instead (note very few dealers stock them, and that includes the Canadian distributor for Gitzo (!), I got a plate at B&H www.bhvideo.com )
    c. When I did the test I locked down the tripod really hard and then I also leaned the lens against a railing and also against a post on the left side so I could be sure there could be no vibrations for the test shots.
    d. I put a weight in the box with the chart on it so it wouldn’t move at all if there was a wind blowing, and made sure it was really perpendicular to the shooting path.

    After a couple of rounds of trying the results where much, much better and Paul told me that he would have been happy with those results on his rig. And in a nice way indicated that I should start enjoying the lens and take pictures of real objects instead of measurbating. Here is one of a test chart that looked much better:
    View attachment 13741
    So most of my problems where vibrations caused by poor and careless technique, but also by the fact that the small pixel size of the D2X makes it an unforgiving camera, is it the last 1.5 crop factor camera we will see from Nikon (my speculation)?

    In the middle of these last tests I went up to see Rory one night to compare his camera on my lens and rig and vice versa (He has a 500mm AF-I) and after the test he came with a kind comment that he could not se any difference between mine and his results when taken at real targets, not the charts (= stop measurebating, enjoy taking pictures and shoot real subjects instead of charts).

    Rory also used one way of dampening the lens that I have found very useful: he takes his left hand and grips the tripod foot at the vertical part and squeezes it gently so that his hand acts like a dampener between the horizontal part of the lens foot and the lens barrel.
    Subscribe to see EXIF info for this image (if available)

    This ultimately also tells what a poor design the tripod foot is on the Nikon 500mm AF-S, it is so prone to vibrations it is scary. You can see it if you look through the viewfinder of the camera and just touch the lens, you can see it vibrate. I assume that is why www.reallyrightsuff.com , www.kirkphoto.com and Wimberley (www.tripodhead.com ) and I’m sure others as well have replacement feet for this and many other lenses. I will probably get one from RRS since it also seems that the same model fits the Nikon 300mm VR and the 200-400mm VR as well. Read what Bjørn Rørlsett has to say about it (http://www.naturfotograf.com/index2.html )

    So went home assured that it is not the camera, mostly the setup and my poor technique causing these problems. And have since taken reasonably good shots, Cedar waxwings, Quails and such that I have posted. I can still see I have vibration problems if one goes to a 100% one can see them, and I have to figure out how to get minimize them.

    To summarize: this is the technique I would like to use now:
    1. Set the camera and rig up for success depending on the conditions
    a. Set the tripod to a good height and lock the legs hard
    b. Move the lens forward or backwards until it is in balance on the Wimberley, then lock the Arca Swiss Style mount hard to the Wimberley mount.
    c. Set the camera up, start with ISO 400 (depending on light conditions), A mode, F8, Cable/Radio remote on ready to go, Check the shutter speed on test objects to determine optimal conditions that day the compromise of fast shutter, lower ISO and DOF, evaluate luminosity to get the right exposure and WB, Raw or JPG or both? Etc.
    2. When I shot the quail shots posted on the café I had time to lock the tripod down and shoot many shots, so I used the correct left-hand dampening technique, push my eye against the eyecup on the camera to get even more support and I do the same as people who shoot target rifles as well breathe all the way in then let go and stop at 3/4 breath and hold it while I gently squeeze the trigger release on the cable release button or the cameras shutter release (don't forget to breathe afterwards :) ).
    3. When I don’t have time, let the Wimberley loose (if it is balanced it almost floats) try to dampen the lens as much as possible with the left hand and eye against the cup and take the outmost care when squeezing the shutter release softly.
    4. I never set the camera to rapid fire. The second shot and subsequent are never as good as the first one for me at least
    5. Zoom in to the pictures taken once in a while to see if it worked or if I need to change my setting on the fly.

    Observations, Speculations and Recommendations:
    1. Tripod. There is no way around it, you to have a great tripod, I suggest reading Thom Hogans article (http://www.bythom.com/support.htm ) My take on it is to have at least a Gitzo G1325 Carbon Fiber or best a G1548. I have an aluminum Gitzo G415 and Rory has a 3 series. They both seem to work ok, but to lessen vibrations a G1548 might be one of the next steps. Bjørn Rørslett recommends Sachtler tripods (http://www.sachtler.de/ ). If you can afford them I’m sure they are the best… Avoid columns and other vibration inducing objects, Flat plate is the way to go.
    2. Ball Heads, there are plenty of good ones, and lots of bad ones. Many say the RRS BH-55 is the best http://www.reallyrightstuff.com/ballheads/index.html it is a low profile head, and has a great machining quality to it, I have seen it on Ron Reznicks Gitzo G1325 (yes he has a flat plate) looks great, cost a bundle for sure.
    3. Cable releases: lots of vibrations come from the shutter being pressed down. One has to squeeze it gently, see Moose’s article. The other way is to get a Nikon MC-30 single release or a Nikon MC-20 cable release with a timer to it. Many seem to like the MC-20. I just bought a Chinese made combination release that can be a cable-release or a radio-release up to 30 meter (90 or so feet) It looks really good: SPY REMOTE CONTROL FOR NIKON CAMERA ( bought it on Ebay at this store http://stores.ebay.com/LANDLOOP_W0QQssPageNameZl4QQtZkm ) quite reasonable

    My Conclusions
    I never imagined one had to be SO careful when shooting with the D2X and long lenses. Should it really have to be this hard? I have found during the last two weeks as you get the hang of it, you can slowly start lowering the ISO, Shutter speed etc and still get decent results. Technique, and good gear is key! But I’m wondering if we are not at the end of the road for the 1.5 crop factor for use with long lenses, I can’t see that Nikon can up the MP much more, it will just be so hard to hold it still that it could be unworkable. I for sure don’t need more Mega-pixels, my computers are sagging as is. (I have 2GB RAM in both of them should be enough don’t you think?) I could use more Dynamic range but that is another subject. There is only one hope as I can see. It is apparent that the 300mm VR takes fabulous shots with the D2X, handheld with VR on, it is sharp as a razor. Can it be that one of the things we need is the dampening of the VR to help lessen vibrations with the small pixel size of the D2X? So consequently if this is correct what we would need from Nikon is a 500mm F4 AF-S VR that works on a tripod (the 300mm gets worse shots on a tripod with VR on then off, Bjørn Rørslett says so too…( http://www.naturfotograf.com/index2.html ) go to the 300mm VR test)

    Once again my thanks to Paul Rory and Ron for all their patient help.

    all shots are at http://www.pbase.com/andreasb/d2x_sharpness_tests if you want to see them fullsize

    I hope someone finds this useful. Please report my errors and omissions to me so I can learn and correct the text to furthers benefit others if possible
  2. Steve S

    Steve S

    Feb 1, 2005
    SE Florida
    GOod stuff, gotta question

    unless I glossed over it, I didn't see what the "right-hand dampening technique" is, only the pictured left-hand dampening, by resting it on the lens foot. That's new to me, and I will try it. Also, I usually try to use a release so I don't even touch the shutter button. I can also see vibration when I press my eyeglasses up against the viewfinder. I do like my morning coffee, and I like it strong! I wonder if my Gitzo leveling head on my 1325, if it's good bad, or not a factor in me getting good steady shots? Thanks for writing this up, and bringing it out into the open.
  3. Re: GOod stuff, gotta question

    OOPS sorry for the misunderstanding I meant right hand dampening technique as in the correct (not the right hand per se) dampening technique
    I have changed the original text to reflect hope it less confusing now.

  4. Steve S

    Steve S

    Feb 1, 2005
    SE Florida
    You said turn left, right? :-/

    ok, ok, I gotcha now, thanks for clearing that up. I thought I read the whole article carefully, but with 2 dogs vying for my attention, I thought I might've missed something. Now, what about some opinions on the Gitzo Leveling head for a 500mm lens + a Tc 1.4 totaling 700mm. I wonder if it's recommended for that focal length or more with the TC 1.7?
  5. Re: You said turn left, right? :-/

    I'm curious about that as well, I have never seen a leveling base, but it sounds really handy, as for the TC17E Ron said that you have to stop to F8 then it would look good. However since I have a hard time holding my Sigma 800 still enough for sharp shots how hard would it be to hold the equivalent of 850mm still enough to get a sharp shot and that at F8? Unless I get a G1548 I dont think I will try it, but I would be very interested to hear if someone has done so with the D2X as the camera body

  6. Steve S

    Steve S

    Feb 1, 2005
    SE Florida
    A duck test pic using these techniques

    Tried a couple new things testing out these suggested techniques. I locked down the tripod, used the cable release, MLU, with an 8 sec delay, and held my left hand at the base of the lens foot, but didn't put my eye back to the viewfinder.

    While this is anything but an award-winning shot, it does show promise for these techniques. As for the time of day, it was just 18 mins before sunset, had just finished raining cats & dogs, and was very dark outside. The shutter speed (@700mm focal length) was an incredible 1/20th! Ducks were 400 ft away. Not bad, I'd say. What do you all think?
    Subscribe to see EXIF info for this image (if available)

    EXIF from N. View:
    Nikon D2X
    Focal Length: 700mm
    Optimize Image:
    Color Mode: Mode I (sRGB)
    Long Exposure NR: Off
    High ISO NR: Off
    2005/08/13 19:24:18.1
    Exposure Mode: Aperture Priority
    White Balance: Auto
    Tone Comp.: Normal
    Compressed RAW (12-bit)
    Metering Mode: Center-Weighted
    AF Mode: AF-C
    Hue Adjustment: +3°
    Image Size: Large (3216 x 2136)
    1/20 sec - F/8
    Flash Sync Mode: Not Attached
    Saturation: Normal
    Exposure Comp.: +0.3 EV (increased .33 more in NC4)
    Sharpening: Normal
    Lens: 500mm F/4 D
    Sensitivity: ISO 400
  7. Pretty Good? No this is awesome! it is really hard to make a shot at this low speed! Congratulations!
  8. Flew


    Jan 25, 2005
    Excellent post Andreas. Looks like you went through the same process as many of us do when upgrading to higher precision gear. It just takes a more precise technique to get the best results, but in the end, it is worth it.

    Thanks for taking the time to document your experiences. It will help us all, but I'll bet that newcomers to this area of photography will really appreciate the in-depth information. I'm sure that I'm not the only one to say 'oh, yeah, I had that problem too' while reading your post. :wink:

  9. Steve S

    Steve S

    Feb 1, 2005
    SE Florida
    Gee, thanks Andreas!

    Glad you thought it was ok! I only needed to bring up the Gamma level in NC4 to get it this bright. I wonder if I should've used Long Exp NR for this one @1/20th? Do you think an 8 sec delay using the MLU is enough?
  10. Steve S

    Steve S

    Feb 1, 2005
    SE Florida
    You're so right, Flew, (2 more super-slow shutters, LARGE)

    The longer the focal length gets, the more your technique must be flawless. I never realised how difficult shooting @700mm or more would be until I tried it the 1st time. I was thinking wth, these aren't sharp, what's going on here? :? For moving targets, that shutter speed's gotta be kept way up there if you want to be very successful. More ogten than not, that means going to ISO 800 for me.
    Here are 2 more unremarkable examples of 700mm shots taken at super slow shutter speeds, again shot in very dark post storm conditions, just before sunset.
    From 400 ft:
    Subscribe to see EXIF info for this image (if available)

    Date/Time 13-Aug-2005 19:31:42
    Make Nikon
    Model NIKON D2X
    Flash Used No
    Focal Length 700 mm
    Exposure Time ***1/10 sec***
    Aperture f/7.1
    ISO Equivalent 800
    Exposure Bias +2/3
    White Balance (-1)
    Metering Mode center weighted (2)
    Exposure Program aperture priority
    From 100 ft:
    View attachment 13745
    Date/Time 13-Aug-2005 19:28:45
    Make Nikon
    Model NIKON D2X
    Flash Used No
    Focal Length 700 mm
    Exposure Time ***1/20 sec***
    Aperture f/8
    ISO Equivalent 800
    Exposure Bias +1/3
    White Balance (-1)
    Metering Mode center weighted (2)
    Exposure Program aperture priority
  11. MontyDog


    Jan 30, 2005
    #1064 - You have an error in your SQL syntax;
  12. Flew


    Jan 25, 2005
    Paul / Andreas,

    I just copied this entire post by Andreas into the sticky thread on the D2xtasy forum on D2X settings.

    Thanks for the suggestion. Hope you don't mind Andreas.
  13. Thanks for the excellent tutorial Andreas.
  14. jamesjoyce


    May 2, 2005

    I posted a link to your article in the Belgium Digital Forum because I think this is mandatory lecture. I hope you don't mind. Excellent posting, even for someone who hasn't a d2x or long lens!!!
  15. Andreas, thank you for taking the time to write this really great article. It is funny but before reading the article I looked at the picture of your initial set up and I said to myself, " I sure hope he isn't shooting with that center post up".

    I remember reading about using a tripod in one of John Shaw's books. He stated to buy a tripod with no center post as the post will cause vibration. He wrote that using the center post converts the tripod into a mono pod. I never really believed it could make that much difference, but when using long lenses as you have shown, every little thing can make a big difference.
  16. The whole purpose of this post was to share my experiences, if anyone else wants to read it so much the better. I get so much back from all of you all over the world, that is how I learn everyday. Paul must have written 10 longs mail to me, he shared a lot of his valuable time help me, I went up and visited Rory, we email a lot anyway being so close and Ron took time to write his answer on which lens to get which I thought was brilliant poiting out that it is not all about what lngth there is apractical aspect to it for real photgraphy.

    They deserve the credit, I'm merely reporting

    What I'm hoping for is to get more great tips from others on how to improve accuracy and reduce vibrations.

    And by the way :) , I was not shooting with the tripod in the field with the column up THAT high (Although I have been extending it a bit, and so does Rory on his too when he needs to, it was just convinient at the time for the test, to be thruthful with a cable release and MLU that would have looked ok it was quite stable against the railing, however it serves as a good example what defintively not to do :) 
  17. Re: Gee, thanks Andreas!

    Great shots! You are way better the me on this, I have a lot of practising to do, looks like 8 seconds delay works just fine for you. As for the Long exposure noise reduction, I quote the Nikon D2X manual:

    "if the shutter is open more then ½ second at any setting, "noise in the form of randomly spaced brightly-colored pixels may appear in the final photograph"

    So with more then ½ second shutter speed the Long exposure noise reduction soould be ON is the way I read this.

    BTW, just to test, I took some shots at almost 30 seconds with the Long exposure noise reduction ON just to test, a flower at dusk, looked pretty decent I think... (click on it for fill size)

    Subscribe to see EXIF info for this image (if available)

  18. Re: You said turn left, right? :-/

    Hi this is to show you that it is possible to get sharp images with the D2x & Sigma 800mm taken not far from my home.


    D2x sigma 800mm HSM 1/320 @ F8 iso100.

    turnstone-d2x 800mm @ f8 iso100

  19. Nice shots! Yes I have seen others get good shots with the Sigma 800 and ther D2X as well, however my keeper rate is to low in the 4-5 %, I'm curious what your setup is and how you go about it?
  20. drueter


    Apr 24, 2005
    Southeast Texas
    Andreas - Thank you very much for taking the time to talk us through your learning process. I'm sure you've saved me and many others a lot of time and money as we embark on a long lens and/or D2X purchase.
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