The cheap telephoto that started it all for me: Sigma 70-300mm DG f4-5.6

Inexpensive telephoto zooms are a good way to dip your toe into wildlife photography but chances are you'll notice their shortcomings very quickly and the yearning for better tools will likely start to be persistent if you continue to have opportunities to photograph wildlife. The advantages of these lens are clear: they are inexpensive, but also lightweight and their quality can be quite acceptable, particularly if you are using a sub 20 megapixel DSLR. You may have noticed that I'm on a bit of a roll for telephoto posts, and this for me is going back to the very beginning of my ambitions to photograph nature. The adage of buy cheap, buy twice has been true for me in this regard: I started with the very inexpensive Sigma 70-300mm DG Macro and it lasted two trips before I outgrew it. The below shots I captured with this lens are some of my favourites and the 6mp sensor of the Nikon D40 I paired it with was pretty forgiving of the optical limitations.

HummingbirdPeru, 2010
FlamingosBolivia, 2010
VicuñaBolivia, 2010

Focus with this lens is slow and clunky. IQ is good enough for what is today a primitive 6mp sensor but I'm sure pales on a modern DSLR. The limitations of the D40 and Sigma 70-300mm lens were clear to me such as in the photo below (shot at ISO 1600 and at 300mm f5.6). It was after this trip in Peru that I realised I enjoyed photography enough to invest in some better gear although its nice to look back on these images and remember this lens was not rubbish. It did the job at the time and got me some images I cherish. The quest for a better telephoto and more opportunities to photograph wildlife began.

Cock of the rockPeru, 2010

Adventures with the Nikon 300mm f4 AF-D

This is a post I started wrote early 2018 and never ended up publishing. I thought after my previous post with my initial experiences with the 300mm Ai-S IF-ED manual focus lens this would be interesting to put out there.

A little earlier this week I sold this lens and I thought I'd review some of the shots from its use in the last 3 and a half years of ownership. Originally purchased to accompany me on a trip to capture the bears, wolves and bison of Yellowstone I intended to pair it with either a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter to get more reach than my existing 70-300mm G lens could get me. I knew there would be significant trade offs there in image quality but this lens and converter cost me around $650 in total which was all I could afford so I figured I'd give it a go.

Shot with the Kenko 1.4x Tele 300 ProAs you can see the shot is slightly out of focus. This turned out to be a recurring issue.
Shot with the Kenko 1.4x TC 300 ProThese cute pups were so small that this lens and TC were no where near the optimal tool for the job. I'd guess the guy stood next to me with a 600mm f4 + 1.7x TC did better.
Shot with the Kenko 2x TCThis photo looks OK when its small, but when you zoom in and you can see how the 2x teleconverter turned the detail here to mush. My regret was not realising quite how bad this TC was until I got home and so I left it on far too often. There's no such thing as a free lunch and in hindsight its of surprise this effective 600mm f/8 didn't perform.
Shot with the Kenko 1.4x Tele 300 ProThis was a shot I had to move quickly for as the bear soon moved back into the trees as I photographed from the road.
Shot with no TCThis image is soft but it was shot at 1/250 and wide open at f4. The jungle is a challenging place to shoot! No surprise the image has come out relatively soft.
Shot with the Kenko 1.4x Tele 300 ProI found the lens to perform better at subjects nearer than further away. This was shot at ISO 1600 and shows how that extra stop of light on a 2.8 lens would really have been beneficial.
Shot with the Kenko 1.4x Tele 300 ProWith lots of available light this lens does perform much better. This shot is wide open at f4 (effective f5.6) with the TC and the quality doesn't seem so impacted.
Shot with no TCThis Yellow Eyed Penguin shot is one where I feel like I've got a glimmer of the true potential of this lens. Even at ISO 1250 there is plenty of detail here when pixel peeping. Perhaps assisted by being stopped down to f8.
Shot with no TCThis was an incredibly lucky shot to see a leopard after the safari jeeps in front had driven right by it. This is wide open f4 at ISO 1600 and the focus again could be alot better. I'm still very happy with the image but it made me realise this was not the lens I had hoped it was.

For Yellowstone I accompanied this lens with a 2x and 1.4x Kenko teleconverters. I knew the IQ would be affected but I questioned how much and if I'd care. This was deluded. The loss in quality was severe and it turns out I did care. The results with and without the 1.4x converter were nearer the same level but I felt both showed issues with nailing the focus. Regardless I decided to take the lens with me to Glacier National Park to test it out the field further however the first time I came to use the lens though the focus mechanism had ceased. Upon my return I debated whether to sell the lens as faulty or pay for a repair with an authorised Nikon service center. I chose the latter, which fixed it, for around $400.

Now repaired I chose the lens to accompany me to New Zealand, via Borneo on the way there and Sri Lanka on the way back. It was an important tool for helping me capture the Orangutan, Elephant and Leopard shown above. But even though I really enjoy these photos it became apparent to me that this lens really isn't the best tool for what I required. The release of the new Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 AFS lens got me thinking that this would probably be a better suiting to my needs and so on eBay this lens went. Perhaps this lens was better suited to a pro level DSLR with a stronger screw-drive motor than the D7100. Or maybe I could've tweaked the fine-AF feature to get better results? Who knows, but the best lens is the one you have, and these shots are proof of that.

Update April 2019

Its fair to say I don't really miss this lens. The manual focus Ai 300mm f4.5 lens I have now I think plugs the gap pretty well and I have also just acquired a manual focus 600mm f5.6 for the extra reach needed for much wildlife photography. Some people may think I'm crazy for wanting to use manual focus in 2019 to capture wildlife shots. The cost savings are obvious and to be honest I think I'm pretty good at manual focus and fortunately have good eyesight to assist. Sure there might be significant challenges with fast moving subject but to date most of my wildlife and bird photography has involved slower moving creatures so I'm optimistic on my future photography prospects with these tools.

Foxes in London with the 300mm f4.5 Ai

Wildlife photography has been a pipedream of mine for many years now and I have had some success getting some shots I'm reasonably proud of. The telephoto lens situation though has always been a challenge - even if I could afford a 600mm f4 behemoth it would be a bit of a waste given the high cost and low frequency of the possibility of my travel to places where wild animals hang out.

The first lens many Nikon shooters would reach for is the 70-300mm zoom that is very reasonably priced, works on a full frame camera and frankly delivers pretty good results for the money. With AF-S and VR its a great tool to wet the appetite of a beginner. What I soon found though is that 300mm is rarely enough reach to get shots of wild animals or birds, and so when the opportunity to visit Yellowstone national park arose, I figured I had to find a way to get a longer lens. The answer I came up with was the 300mm f4 AF-D prime lens with a Kenko 1.4x and 2x TC although this was before the 200-500mm f5.6 Nikon lens came out, so I guess I would have chosen this instead if it were available. The results were good enough but I felt the AF kept letting me down with backfocus leading to images that I felt were always slightly out of focus. I persevered, trying to tweak the AF fine tune and lugging this lens with me to Sri Lanka and New Zealand, but ultimately it had to go.

Last Christmas I got a bargain on a Nikon 300mm f4.5 ED Ai lens and the initial results on film were great. To call the focus movement on this fully manual lens buttery would be an understatement - the quality of workmanship on this lens is incredible. I've had this suspicion that I'm now a competent enough photographer that using more manual methods would actually help me become a better photographer. I worry automation makes me lazy and not think enough before pressing the shutter. There is also no ambiguity who is at fault with fully manual operation. If its out of focus or badly exposed, that's my fault.

There is a plethora of city foxes in London now, living off the scraps from human waste. Personally I think its a shame as although they thrive in number, their fur often dilapidated and mangy, due to the garbage they consume. That being said one will have far more ease in photographing a city fox that its country bumpkin brethren, largely down the the sheer density and tameness of the city slickers. The 18+ years I lived in Shropshire I rarely saw a fox, but in London its a weekly if not daily experience.

I was in luck. Looking out of my window yesterday morning I was started to see what I thought was a "bloody big cat" only to realise a split second later it was a fox, sunning itself in the garden. I grabbed my Nikon D610 and F3 (with Tri-X pushed to 800), attached my 300mm Ai to see what results I could get. I also got some shots with the 70-300mm to benchmark the performance. The 300mm f4.5 was used with a monopod attached to its tripod collar. Below are some 1:1 crops for a rough comparison of sharpness.

Nikon 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR @ 300mm f8

Nikon 300mm f4.5 Ai ED @ f8

Nikon 300mm f4.5 Ai ED + Kenko 1.4x Teleplus Pro 300 @ f5.6

Conclusion

The three examples above are all pretty good although the subject was static and the lighting was good so it wasn't too challenging achieve this. Manual focusing worked surprisingly well with most of my shots being in focus and unsurprisingly this was easier with the D610 than the D7100 due to the bigger viewfinder. I was also surprised that the TC worked well with this lens, as previously I hadn't been too impressed with it paired with my old 300mm f4 AF-D lens - although that could have been due to it challenging the autofocus system or perhaps accentuating the back focus issues I seemed to have with that lens. So overall I had alot of fun with this manual focus telephoto and I can't wait to get some more use out of it!


National Theatre

The architecture of the National Theatre and Southbank Centre make for stark backdrops for street photography. Despite my loathing of visiting central London on a weekend I ventured in one fresh sunny Saturday in February but as usual ended up taking images that cut out the people and focused on the structure in isolation. I arrived late afternoon to use the stark shadows for high contrast images and this trip was a concerted effort to get through a roll of film that had languished in my F5 since Autumn the year prior. I need to force myself to get out shooting more in London as its right on my doorstep for now; too often I have an excuse like the crowds, the weather, or simply not feeling inspired by the urban environment. Whilst I mainly enjoy photographing Nature I do have one of the great world cities on my doorstep and I should probably try more photography there. To counter my lack of inspiration in the city I've recently been expanding my photobook collection to give me some influence to expand my thought process in photographing the city where I reside.

All shots taken with a Nikon F5 + expired Ilford Delta 100.

On shooting film

Its 2019, some 15 years since sales of film peaked at just shy of 1 billion rolls / year (for comparison 1.5 billion smartphones were sold in 2018 and highlights how this technological shift has accelerated the democratisation of photography), this photographic medium is still alive and kicking. In fact, despite the contraction of the industry to a niche sliver of its former mass-market appeal, growth is now being recorded suggesting a minor rebound. Contrary to the headline "The last Kodak moment" in the Economist in 2012 the company announced a relaunch of the Ektachrome film stock 5 years later. It surprises some, often attracting comments deriding that hipster fetishisation of archaic technologies is driving a resurgence fueled by style over substance.

I'm optimistic about the future of analogue photography and I think its appeal will continue to grow over time. Our society is becoming ever more digital, in almost every respect, which I think will lead to a natural tendency for some to seek out enjoyment not tethered to a touch screen. Shooting with an old manual film camera forces one to slow down and think more before pressing the shutter. The natural delay in seeing your images with film can be a welcome pause from the instant gratification, and also the space between taking an observing the image does enable a more objective review of the image. Looking at a screen the instant after an image is captured invites a snap judgement and a quick emotional response which I find more often to be negative than positive. Sure this can mean that sometimes you think you've captured a good shot only to find later when the roll is developed that it was a dud. But the limited exposures on a roll of film force you to be decisive at the source of taking the image. In my experience this is much better than the ability to take hundreds of shots of varying angles and exposures which at best just delays the decision making process until later on and at worst wastes time and causes anxiety through overwhelming choice. This is also true on making the choice of shooting B&W or colour. Sure you can just convert your digital images later which retains maximum flexibility but I believe this to be a fallacy. The key to a great photos in colour or monochrome are typically very different and its my opinion that you should generally be conscious of before pressing the shutter. I think many people are fatigued by the megapixel war and I certainly have come to appreciate the imperfections of an image such as grain, motion blur or being slightly out of focus can sometimes enhance the creative impact of an image rather than to always be diminishing. It only takes a quick look through some of the most iconic photographs (e.g. flick through a few pages of The Decisive Moment) taken before digital cameras existed to see evidence of this.

There are some reasons to be cautious with the optimism. Firstly some film stocks are being discontinued and prices are rising. Many labs are using old equipment to process and scan and repairs could prove prohibitively costly or difficult. Then the cameras themselves are ageing and expertise to repair them is limited. However counter to these points a smaller industry could be better for enthusiasts and its better for a smaller selection of film that can be made profitably rather than a wider selection that cannot be. Specialised companies like Ilford seem a sure bet for stability over a conglomerate who will be less tolerant of limited or slow growth. Hopefully Kodak Altaris (owned by the UK Kodak Pension Plan as a result of the Kodak bankruptcy) today is in a better place because it is a company that has a much narrower focus than Kodak had generally before, whereas Fujifilm has had success diversifying and so I think it makes sense that.  As for the labs this is a bit more complex and PetaPixel have published a good article on potential for future developments. Home development is still and option and particularly for B&W it is not very arduous to get started doing this yourself. My main challenge has been with water marks drying on the film due to the hard water in my area but this is a solvable problem. That being said home development relies on chemicals and their manufacturers like Tetanol can also go out of business.

Overall its my belief that film photography is here to stay and there will still be a draw for enthusiasts to use this medium. I think the prices of decent film equipment will continue to rise over time as supply slowly dwindles, although it must be said there are so many great cameras out there that I think people will just be forced by price to discover some of the less popular brands and models, which work well but have a less desirable brand name attached. Old lenses will likely keep their money as these are also very popular with mirrorless (or Nikon DSLR for Ai lenses) bodies and using old equipment can be a good way to stand out by doing something a bit unusual. The community for niche groups like analogue photographers has been greatly enabled by the internet (r/analog, 35mmc and emulsive) and this goes a long way to encouraging and supporting this method of photography. I think also like vinyl records it will continue to keep its cool factor, as an analogue antidote to an increasingly digital world.

N.B. You may have noticed the image at the top of this article was taken with a digital camera and has been processed with Lightroom present emulating Ilford Pan F 35mm film. Its a good example of how digital methods can be achieved to obtain a similar aesthetic to film. I don't personally see this as a contradiction to why one would choose to shoot film and similarly I don't see any problems with emulating the analogue emulsions digitally. Its all down to personal choice, something that should be cherished.

Gran Canaria

The Canary Island archipelago, off the coast of north Africa, is a place I've visited many time since I was young. Synonymous with package holiday tourism it is not a place I ever really thought of much photographically, with the exception of once seeing an entry from the island in the Plant Life category of Wildlife Photographer of the Year. I knew from my last visit that the centre of the island was picturesque - I had hiked up to Roque Nublo and saw the panoramic views of thinly tree lined canyons from the summit. I regretted not taking more of a camera then, so this time I was determined to bring my Bronica along on this beach holiday.

Maspalomas is a typical resort town, but in addition to a beach covered with sunbathers, there are extensive sand dunes that arc and fall for some distance up to the sea. I arrived early in the morning, before eating breakfast, and soon as the sun rose the heat became intense. The sand, generously peppered with footprints, provided lots of fun compositions and works really well for black and white images. Despite pushing on for thirty minutes or so the heat got the better of me and I retreated back to the car to head home for some food.

I'd never been to the west side of the island before, so I headed off exiting the port town of Mogan on to the winding mountain roads. There were clouds and fog lingering over the core of the island, and luckily I found a turn out to stop to allow me in getting some images. I was glad to have brought my 250mm f5.6 lens to isolate a composition on the rock face of the intense detail faded out in the frame by the hanging fog. The trip concluded with a nice seafood lunch in Agaete and getting very lost as night set in, with the GPS navigation opting to route me away from the motorway and inland down steep single track roads.