I have just returned from hosting the last of our Mana Pools photographic safaris for 2014, and boy does this place never cease to provide a raw, authentic, mind-blowing African wilderness experience…plus you can get some lovely photos (but to me that is actually just a cherry on top of the delicious Mana cake). More on the trip and our sightings later, though. I thought I’d kick my Mana postings off with a bit of a field review. I was fortunate to be able to use the relatively new and decidedly retro Nikon Df and the updated Nikkor 80-400mm lens for my trip to Mana, thanks to the folks at Nikon South Africa.
The main reason for choosing this combo: light weight for walking safaris (we spent probably 95% of our photographic time in Mana out of the vehicle in various postures – walking, sitting, crawling, lying down).
Another reason for choosing this lens: versatility – a focal length range that covers much of what I expect to be able to photograph in Mana.
Another reason for choosing this camera: the Nikon Df just looks so funky, like a throwback to the days of film.
This will by no means be a major technical review: I will merely reflect on my experience with this combo as it pertains to the use I put it to in the field and the resulting image quality of the files I came back with.
1. The Camera
I’ve just always wanted to try this camera out since its release. Many people don’t like the retro look, but I love it. I was hoping to use a silver one, because awesome, but got a black one instead.
Initially when holding the camera it felt a bit foreign to my hands and fingers, and the mechanical buttons were something to get used to for this “digital-only” photographer (I decided to skip out on the whole film thing for some reason). However after playing around with it before we left for Mana Pools, I felt more comfortable with making quick changes to settings as and when needed. I don’t read manuals. Ever. Unless I break stuff. Then I read the table of contents and perhaps the troubleshooting section, haha. 😉
The thing that I enjoyed about this camera is that it made me think more. It made me anticipate more. Let me explain…
The dials being mechanical and linked to old-school film values for ISO and Shutter Speed, meant that I really had to weigh my exposure options up for every available situation of light – and the light was quite variable. I don’t mind being totally on cue with my familiar gear and instinctively dialing in values and shooting as things happen, but this was a refreshing change of approach to me. I also had to anticipate the shot since the framerate is even slower than my D800, clocking a whopping 3 frames per second in the Continuous-High mode. It only takes SD cards, so perhaps card speed is an issue at play here as well…but overall this camera made photography fun, it made it challenging, and made me more aware of my choices in the moment. I think making photography more fun was one of the main aims of this camera when it was dreamed up in the corridors of Nikon HQ in Japan…Did I mention that it looks cool?
2. The Lens
It’s no secret that the older version of the Nikkor 80-400mm lens was slow (as in parked, stationary, dreadful) compared to other modern superzoom lenses. Sharpness was also touch-and-go. This replacement lens forces you to forget about the old model forever. It also forces you to forget what price you could get the old model for! It’s not cheap, but I believe that this lens which costs just under half of what the Nikkor 200-400mm f4 VR-II will set you back, is about 70-80% as good as the latter (both in terms of autofocus speed and image sharpness/contrast). So it really is a viable option if you really cannot fork out the cost of a prime end telephoto. Plus, this lens is quite light compared to the 200-400mm, which makes it a great choice for a walking safari. The range of 80-400mm also gave me plenty of variety in terms of composition. Having used this lens in Mana last year as well, I decided to more often than not shoot it stopped down to around f7.1 or f8 this year, just for better clarity, DOF and sharpness. Most of these lenses (think the Canon 100-400mm as well) do a tad better if you stop it down somewhat. That doesn’t mean that you can’t get sharp images at the wide open aperture setting – I’ve got a quite a few. It’s just a personal choice given the images I reviewed from using it last year. Reviewing my images this year confirms that my choice was good. I made up for the loss of light by pushing the Df ISO (which it can handle).
These two images are from the same sighting, minutes apart. The first image was taken at 135mm, and the second at 400mm.
This image was captured using a slow shutter speed (0.5 seconds) and zooming the lens out while the shutter is being tripped.
When we were walking around in Mana Pools I was carrying the Nikon Df paired with the Nikkor 80-400mm and my Nikon D800 paired with my Nikkor 24-70mm, and this gave me most of the focal range I needed. Now I just need a Blackrapid strap and a huge Stetson hat to look like a wildlife photographic cowboy!
In summary – if you were thinking about a Df because the retro look and camera operations appeal to you – try one out! I found it a fun camera and it sort of made me enjoy my photography more, in a weird way. Plus the image quality rocks…likewise the 80-400mm lens is GREAT value for money if you want a portable high quality lens for wildlife photography that gives results that lean more toward high end primes and superzooms than toward midrange zoom lenses of the same sort of focal range. I will certainly be trying to use the 80-400mm every time I go to Mana Pools (if my wife is reading, I want one for Christmas!).
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