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Nikon Technology

Nikon D500: ‘A Boon to Wildlife Photographers’

I am an ardent Nikon fan and have been using Nikon equipment for the past seven years. My love for Nikon started with the D90, which I used to learn the ropes, I was photographing anything and everything then. I moved then to the D700 and in the year 2012 I started photographing wildlife, which I found was to my liking more than the other genres. From then I have purchased and used all their professional bodies and lenses.

When it comes to wildlife it pays to stay far from the animal, for yours and your subject’s safety. Plus when you photograph from far you give the animal its space and therefore you get images in which the subject is shown at its natural best. Most of the times wildlife photography is done from vehicles or structures which are taller than the subject and hence if you photograph from close you are photographing from a higher angle with your subject below you, and believe me no animal looks good from this angle. Therefore photographing from afar using a long lens is the best way. When you photograph from afar, even if you are photographing from a higher plane, the animal appears to be at the camera level due to the distance between you and the subject. That is the reason why people see wildlife photographers carry long lenses around. Believe me, it’s not for bragging.

Crop frame cameras are advantageous in the sense that they multiply the focal length of the lens which is attached. Nikon’s crop frame (DX-format) DSLR cameras come with a 1.5 times factor which means if you attach a 100mm lens then it miraculously becomes 150mm. Now my kit for African safaris has come down to just 3 DSLR cameras and 4 lenses. D5 with a 600mm mounted, D500 with 200-400mm, D4 with 70-200 mm, and the 16-35 mm which jumps in to any of these cameras when I want to do wide angle shooting.

I had tried a few of these crop frame DSLR cameras, the D90, D300 and later the D7000. I was not very happy with them photographing wildlife since they all shoot fewer frames per second in continuous shooting mode, buffer memory was not adequate, they have fewer focus points etc. which was not right for the kind of photography I do, which is mainly ‘Wildlife in action’.

Then came the Nikon D500 which addressed all these woes and now it does not leave my side when I am in the wild. This amazing creation by Nikon engineers can shoot up to 10 frames a second with enough buffer to hold up to 200 images when shooting at 14-bit RAW lossless compressed mode. The count may go lower when shooting at 14-bit RAW uncompressed format or with RAW+JPEG combination. This is more than enough to photograph the full throttle chase of a cheetah behind its hapless prey as it gets to its kill, and even continue till the prey is floored. There is nothing more I can ask for.

Apart from this the camera boasts of a 20.9-MP image sensor, Matrix, Spot, Centre weighted, Highlight weighted metering systems, a top shutter speed of 1/8000 sec etc.; all these features make this a pro-level equipment.

The D500 is almost as good as its big brothers D5 and the D4 during daylight; I don’t miss my D5 from 8 AM in the morning to 4 PM in the afternoon when light is plenty and I don’t need the low light / high ISO capabilities of the big brothers D5 and the D4.

This camera is loaded with many features and options but I will discuss here the options I found most useful in the wild when this camera accompanied me for over six weeks. I would just like to add that this camera is entirely customizable. All of its buttons, except the shutter release, can be programmed to do some other function as needed by the photographer.

153 Focus points
The focus points cover end to end of the focusing screen which enables this camera to obtain focus in some very trying circumstances.

Photographers tend to be a very superstitious lot. When they get a good image it is always due to the lucky dress they wore on that day, the breakfast they ate, their presence of mind to take the blessing of their mothers before starting the trip, the fight they had with their girlfriend, their back pain, etc. and this list is alarmingly long. But most of them have not realised that it all boils to how quick their camera responded in a given situation, obtained and kept the focus locked as they broke their index finger while punching away on the shutter-release. I also have one kink too; I never use my left index finger to click.

I have found the speed of acquiring focus and locking on the D500 to be as good as the D5.

Furthermore, the focus points stretching end to end in the viewfinder gives you amazing compositional opportunities. You can place your favourite subject at the extreme corners of the frame. You can show the subject as well its grand habitat; you can capture a chase where the predator and the prey occupy different corners of the frame. And again, both the D500 and D5 they are extremely good in obtaining swift focus even in low contrast, misty and dusty scenes.

Blazing Quick Autofocus
This little beast borrows the same focusing mechanism as its peer the D5 and it is trustworthy. I can trust a life time chance of photographing a cow jumping over the moon and this camera will grab all the action without me filling up the trash folder of my Mac.

During last year’s migration at Masai Mara, I had the opportunity to photograph with a South African filming crew. With the company of armed rangers I went to the Mara River shore to photograph the Wildebeests jumping into the water. Unfortunately they were hidden from view by a steep bank and I could see them just before they leaped into the water. Lying on the river bank on my stomach with a ranger behind me to look out for crocodiles who may think I am a part of their breakfast it was a bit difficult to view the grand event and take some shots. My camera had to obtain focus on the Wildebeests in a fraction of a second after they appeared from behind the steep bank and just before they jumped in to the water. For them, we were an additional threat apart from the swift river water with its crocodile inhabitants and they were in no mood to pause and wait for me to get my focus point locked on to their low contrast bodies as they jumped.

The D500 did that for me. It actually focused on them mid-air just before they vanished in to a huge splash of water.

Another situation when this camera saved me from biting the dust was when I was following a Serval Cat which decided to duck in to tall grass just before it pounced on a mouse which we both could not see but the cat could hear. For a moment I lost sight of the cat and as I was searching for it through my viewfinder she leaped high into the air. It was sheer luck my index finger was still on the trigger and I managed to get the shot.

The auto focus capability of this camera is amazing even in low contrast scenes. Some examples below.

Now combine this with a 10 frames per second advance and you have a series of images which land in to the hard drive of your PC instead of visiting the Trash folder.

In addition to various autofocus modes in the arsenal this camera offers a mode called Group-Area Auto Focus. In this mode, 5 focus points (when the central focus point is selected) form a group and act like a single large focus point. In a situation where you have a fast moving subject with some trees or shrubs as background it is easier for your focus to lock on to a background object as you pan the camera along with your subject. The more number of focus points you use, the easier it is for the camera to forget your subject and lock focus on a background object. If you use a single focus point you may again lose the subject since its moving much faster. But your subject has no escape when you use Group-Area Auto Focus. You just need to get any point of your subject inside the group of focus points and unless you drop the camera from the top of your vehicle to the hard ground below the D500 will not lose focus on your subject.

However you have to be careful about two issues. The camera will focus and hold on to the nearest point of your subject to the focusing plane. If there is a cluster of shrubs between you and your subject then the focus might jump to the cluster of shrubs. Or when a bird comes flying towards you, and you try to focus on its eyes, but instead the group-area auto focus will tend to focus on the tip of the bird’s beak since this is point which is closest to the camera. For action scenes, this is ‘THE MODE’ to use and the results are amazing.

Dynamic Range
In many scenes where the brightest part of the image is many stops different from the darkest part of the image, (example subject against a bright sky) normal cameras tend to put up their hands in despair and activate light monsters called ‘Blinkies’ which decorate your image review LCD screen, which means the highlights have been sacrificed and rendered pure white without any details. When this happens unlucky folk who do not have a D500 tend to adjust the exposure to reduce the light entering their camera's image sensor and alas, they get a beautiful sky, however their subject and the foreground have been reduced to shades of grey and black.

The D500 has an amazing dynamic range where in it is able to record the bright sky as well as your subject in all its natural glory without you having to accept a silhouette or go back home to process the image in Photoshop or any other software to bring a balance to the overall image. If you are shooting in RAW,  the image information is recorded in the image sensor as it is. Hence you will be able to recover a lot of highlight information in your RAW conversion software. I have some lovely images saved from a great disaster due to the high dynamic range.

Highlight Weighted Metering
Imagine a lovely scene where your favourite subject walks across a dense back ground of trees and shrubs, and you are following its every move and photographing a number of keepers which you plan to print and decorate your living room wall with. Then the subject moves in to an area which is not so dense and you anticipate an amazing shot where you will show your audience a grand play of light and shadow, as the overhead shaft of light nicely illuminates the face of your subject. Well your dreams may hit the floor of harsh reality when you review the image taken on the camera's LCD monitor. Gosh, the face of your favourite subject has been overexposed to the extent that you just cannot see its furry head with yellow eyes and white whiskers. The whole area looks like it’s been lit by a hundred flashlights while the rest of the image looks cool. You can’t hang an image on the wall where your subject’s head has no details. Your dreams are floored and you may have to a buy a painting or some other art work for your wall.

What really happened? Since the camera saw all the surrounding area dark it tried to help you get a winner by overexposing the whole scene. It did not realise your favourite subject’s head was lit by a stray shaft of light. Since the image was given additional exposure globally it resulted on your subject’s head to overexpose while the rest of the image was recorded perfectly.

Nikon D500 handled this issue by providing a very useful metering system which actually preserves the highlights when such incidences happen by globally underexposing the whole scene. You must be aware that recovering shadow details using your favourite processing software is easier than recovering the highlights. The underexposed shadow areas can be brought out by using any editing software so that your wall can still have your favourite wildlife image to decorate it.

Flip Up (Tilting) LCD Monitor
I love shooting wide angle images of wildlife. This kind of imaging brings closeness to the subject from the audience's point of view and most of the images I photograph are from the eye-level of the subject. I usually mount the camera on the foot step of the vehicle and trip the trigger by using a remote. But I have to position my vehicle in such a way that I get the subject in the frame as well as to obtain focus. The flip up type LCD monitor feels robust with millions of pixels packed close to give me a good rendition of the actual scene in front of the camera even when viewed from a meter or more above the camera. Previous cameras I used did not have such a sturdy flip up mechanism, thus I was not very confident of using them outside the vehicle, where it may be subject to occasional brushing on the bushes or small branches and twigs.

If I have to write about all the features available in the D500, I would probably need a lot more space, and hence I will stick with these most vital features which I found extremely useful. I hope that you would try out these features and enjoy the full benefits this camera has to offer.

Good luck and happy clicking.