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Using d90 for bird flight photography

Florian Lauffer , Aug 07, 2010; 08:58 a.m.

Hi all,
Recently I got into bird photography. I have been pretty disappointed with the sharpness of my results in flight photography. I believe my (handheld) technique is good and am aware that the TC17 + 70-200 mm combo makes the focusing slower as well as a slight sharpness decrease. Considering I get very sharp results with static objects though, I'm not going to write off the system as inappropriate just yet.
I have read books and articles, in particular Arthur Morris' stuff, but its always geared towards Canon (no idea what the equivalent of evaluative metering is as an example... close to matrix metering?). I would really appreciate some help with some questions:
1. What is the optimal autofocus flight setup for shooting bird flight on a d90? I use single point as dynamic area seems to just jump all over the place and to be honest is quite confusing (or perhaps someone has suggestions). From what i have read it is the AF-C mode that does the predicitive tracking, so I figured that Single Point + AF-C would follow THE point I had selected with my active focus point. Is this correct?
2. Is Wide or Normal (Centre Focus Point) ideal for flight shots? I had some Cormorants flying by yesterday and it seemed that the normal centre focus point seemed to give better results. It seemed the Wide Zone just seemed to be an "average" focus depth of the entire bird, making nothing in particular all that sharp. Is this correct?
3. Besides the 51 autofocus points on the d300 and d3s, do they have the same (speed) autofocus system? If so, does anyone have any thoughts on the improvement of performance of the autofocusing on these upgraded models compared to the d90?
4. Short of spending 11000 on the new 600 f4 VRII (no such thing as too much focal length), is there such a thing as Morris' Canon 400mm f5.6 which is sharp, reasonably priced, reasonably fast and most importantly reasonably light for Nikon systems? It seems on the Nikon end there is the 80-400mm (too slow), but not much else. Is there a "find" like the Canon 400mm f5.6 lens? I am OK with f5.6 as long as sharpness is not comprimised and the autofocusing can do birds in flight.
Thank you very much for your time, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


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Stephen Lewis , Aug 07, 2010; 10:35 a.m.

IMHO you're better off using the old technique of predictive focus, where you forget autofocus, determine focus at a spot you expect the birds to fly into, pan them until they reach that spot and then snap the shot. To improve sharpness, in any case, you might consider using a tripod with a gimbal mount (various ones out there, but the Wimberley Sidekick is a popular example). On the Nikon end, you might also consider using some of the older manual focus long lenses...some of them are relatively inexpensive compared to their AF cousins, and their sharpness is quite good. For years I used an old beat up (cosmetically) 300/2.8 which had been discarded by a Newsweek photographer, coupled it with a 1.4x and/or 2x teleconverter, and it worked great (but because of size/weight) always needed a tripod. These days I typically use a Leica 400/6.3 Telyt lens modified to interchangeably fit and infinity focus on all of my cameras (Nikon, Canon, Leica & Sigma) for nature work. For a fun project and hand-held work, I'm presently converting an old Spiratone 400/6.3 for use on all my cameras as well. Central area focus is fine as is contrast, but the edges start to go unsharp at large apertures.

S Ireland , Aug 07, 2010; 11:28 a.m.

The Nikon 300mm f4 and 1.4x TC is a combo that would be comparable to the Canon 400mm f5.6

Noreen Doyle , Aug 07, 2010; 01:30 p.m.

A friend of mine, a bird/wildlife photographer, has the Canon 400mm f5.6 and I am pretty sure from his exquisite results that the Nikon 300 + 1.4xTC is "comparable" only mathematically. I long for a Nikon equivalent to that lens (and at that price, too). Nikon's lack sorely tempts me, a dedicated Nikon shooter, to switch to Canon.

Shun Cheung , Aug 07, 2010; 01:55 p.m.

Florian, birds-in-flight photography is one type of photography that is very demanding on equipment. If you are sure that is what you want, be prepared to invest in equipment.

The Nikon D300 or D300S will be a huge step up in terms of AF capability compared to the D90. The 51 AF points with 15 cross type is excellent for sports and wildlife action. With their 1.5x DX sensor, I think a straight 300mm/f4 AF-S lens is fine for birds in flight. The main issue with that lens is that even though it is AF-S, AF is still on the slow side. I happend to have both of Nikon's 300mm/f4 AF-S and 300mm/f2.8 AF-S, version 1 (introduced in 1996). The f2.8 version is the one I prefer for birds in flight because of its superior AF, but it is heavy.

With a DX sensor, I don't think a 400mm/f5.6 is necessary. For still subjects, Nikon's 300mm/f4 AF-S with a TC-14E is fine optically, but the TC will make its AF even slower; IMO that is not what you want for flight shots. I would completely forget about Nikon's 80-400mm VR lens; IMO that lens has totally useless AF for action photography and is way overdue for an upgrade. I am a bit surprised that Nikon still hasn't updated it to an AF-S VR; whenever that happens, the current old model will likely lose a lot of value in the used market.

The reason I prefer a 300mm over a 400mm is that with fast-moving subjects, it is often difficult to compose precisely. I would rather have a little more room around the subject and then crop afterwards to get a better composition. With modern 12MP or more DSLRs, you can crop 1/2 or even 1/3 from your image and still have enough pixels to play with under most situations (unless you need to make huge prints). If you are photographing a bird that is standing on a tree, you probably want a longer 500mm lens.

Steve Wagner , Aug 07, 2010; 04:12 p.m.

I have shot a lot of birds in flight, albeit on Canon, and can give you this advice.

1. Center point af for sure. No zone.

2. AI servo 95% of the time. If you have big herons gliding right in front of you you might get by with single shot. I would have to disagree with the predictive focus idea. Following the bird in AI servo is definitely more effective IMO.

3. The Canon 400m f5.6 is the king of birds in flight lenses, and is phenomenal as such. Alternatives for Nikon without going up to 400 and above primes, and other than the 80-400, might include the AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4D ED-IF and Sigma 100-300 f4. Why do you consider the 80-400 too slow? 80% of the thousands of birds in flight I've shot have been at 100iso at f5.6 with the 400mm. Remember you're shooting up into the sky. The 80-400 is f56 at 400. In any case teleconverters are bad news for birds in flight. Soft when you're already stressed to resolve detail, and they affect the AF.

If you were going to spend $1,479 on the 80-400 you could get a new t2i and used 400 f5.6 for about the same price, maybe a couple hundred more. They're a very good matchup, fast af (the camera is very good and the lens outstanding in terms of af), 18mp and strong IQ from the camera (very low noise at the low ISOs you'd be using), 640mm effective focal length with no converters, and outstanding optical quality and suitability to task from the 400 prime. Not a Canon vs. Nikon thing but if I were focused on birds in flight and willing to spend $1,500 that's what I'd do. With eh 80-400 you get a lens only, and one not ideally suited to the task. The other way you get a camera too, and the best lens possible, for about the same price.

The 400 is also a phenomenal all purpose lens, for general nature, landscapes, flowers (with tubes), portraits, architecture, etc. You can use it all day at 5.6 and never have any doubt that you'll get outstanding quality.

Steve Wagner , Aug 07, 2010; 04:24 p.m.

400 5.6 output. On the Canon side, this lens 400mm f5.6 at 5.6 blows the Canon 100-400 out of the water, and the same is true if compared to the 80-400 at 400mm at 5.6 - See a side by side comparison here - LINK. They're not in the same ballpark at 5.6 - better by f8 but the corners are still miles apart.

Wouter Willemse , Aug 07, 2010; 05:05 p.m.

The Nikon 300 f/4 to me would be the ticket, with a TC14 (but not routinely, see Shun's reply). I've used the combination for fairly fast-moving things, and it delivers. To me, the TC14 has fairly little impact on the IQ; the AF speed, once focus is acquired, also not too much.
That said, I used it on a D80 (same AF as the D90), and nowadays on a D300. The difference in AF speed is remarkable, especially in tracking. Ive also used a 1.7X TC with the 300 f/4, on the D80 it will hardly AF, on the D300 in good light it works (no tracking, though). Still, with pre-focussing on not too fast moving items, a (relatively) cheap decent quality 500mm setup. But to answer one of your questions: yes, it's not just 40 AF points more, it's a whole different beast, and for what you want, the D300 is a sensible upgrade, IMHO.
Anyway, I think within the Nikon system, first the AF-S 300 f/4, and next a D300 would make quite a difference.

Steve Wagner , Aug 07, 2010; 05:19 p.m.

Not to be contentious but optical quality on the 300+1.4x is very poor compared to the 400mm f5.6 - LINK - I only mention it since the OPs concern seemed to be about optical quality.

The-digital-picture has rigorous testing methodology - LINK

Shun Cheung , Aug 07, 2010; 05:38 p.m.

I should point out that back in 1999, I attended a 3-day short trip to Bosque del Apache (in New Mexico) with Arthur Morris. Back then he was already using the 400mm/f5.6 Canon lens for hand held birds in flight; however, we were all shooting 35mm film at the time.

Today, with Nikon 1.5x (DX) or Canon 1.6x type DSLRs, your 300mm lens is already like a 450mm lens or longer for 35mm film (FX). In other words, a 300mm/f4 on the D90 or D300 is already longer than what Arthur Morris was using back then, and you gain an important stop at f4.

For hand held birds in flight, actually you can have too much focal length. Even though you can see the subject easily with your nakes eyes, when your lens is too long, it will be difficult to locate your subject in the air through the viewfinder. It is very much possible that you will be pointing your long lens towards the sky fishing for your subject without any success; that has happened to me many times. Again, if your bird is standing on a tree, you have time to locate it. When it is birds in flight, that means missing shots.

Finally, AF speed and accuracy is important. The Nikon D300/D300S uses exactly the same AF system as the top-of-the-line D3 family that is widely used by sports photographers. Since Nikon introduced the D300 in 2007, for 2 years Canon had no equivalent until last year when they finally introduced the excellent 7D, which has 19 cross-type AF points. If you want similar AF capability from Canon, I would at least get a 7D; it is still not the same AF system as those on the 1D/1DS series, but it is excellent as far as I know. For this type of fast-pace animal action, a tiny bit of focusing error will completely negate the capability of good optics.

Below is a humming bird image I captured with the Nikon D300 and 300mm/f2.8 AF-S earlier this year.

And this is how sharp it is at the pixel level @ f8, 1/640 second. I stopped down the lens to gain depth of field.

100% Crop, Pixel-Level Details

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