The last week in June saw me in Norway doing something a bit different from the norm – photographing eagles all week with a 500mm prime – real hard work!
But I thought the task would be made slightly easier with the Nikon D5 running with generation 2 firmware; that is v1.10
And after a solid week of shooting my verdict is – WOEFUL!
The auto focus is still as predictable and user-friendly as a sack full of weasels, but what I found truly appalling is the image quality at lower ISO values – and by lower I mean sub-3200 ISO!
Click image to view full size
Click image to view full size
Shooting in Manual Exposure/Auto ISO is the most efficient way of shooting any action, especially with long glass, but allowing the Nikon D5 to choose its ISO speed just highlights its single massive drawback – poor low ISO performance.
The shot above is at ISO 250, 1/2000th sec and f8. The crop shows the simple adjustments done to the shot inside the Lightroom Basic panel, and as you can see there is nothing untoward there.
But just look at that appalling level of noise in the underside of the wings – as I said before – WOEFUL.
In this next image, we see the same eagle shot at the same time with the D5 (left) and a D4S (fitted with a 400 f2.8, right). Both cameras are in d25 AF mode, 1/2000th sec, f8 and ISO 1100:
Click image to view full size
Both images have had a ‘zeroed’ process applied to them in Lightroom followed by a process version swap to kill the excess contrast added by Lightroom in the background.
Again there is excess noise under the wing together with detail degradation in the D5 shot on the left.
As a final comparison, here is the same moment in time caught on the D5, D4S and 1DXMk2. All 3 images have a flat, neutralised process in Lightroom with no added output sharpening:
Nikon D5, 500mm 1/2000th, f8, ISO 1600 Click to view full size.
Nikon D4S, 400mm, 1/2000th, f8, ISO 1250 Click to view full size.
Canon IDXMk2, 400mm, 1/200th, f6.3, ISO 640 Click to view full size.
You do really have to view these images at their full size.
On the whole, I have to say that the 1DXMk2 is the worst image in terms of IQ – both Nikons have it beaten to death – which I must admit surprises me considering the ideal lighting conditions.
But as for the two Nikon shots the D4S still produced the slightly better IQ, lens differences aside, there is still slightly more noise in the D5 shot.
The other error in the D5 shot is due to the sack of angry weasels – the auto focus – the shot is not sharp. But funnily enough the previous frame was:
Click to view full size.
As ever, the Nikon AF tends to bounce around a little bit. Even though the D5 has the new Multicam 20K system there is still the same problem of subtle focus bounce that I personally try and negate by shooting at f8 – hoping that the extended DoF will mitigate its visual effect.
But it doesn’t always work, and the D5 will still sometimes drop focus completely on the ‘pick shot’ when the eagle hits the water.
Over the course of the week, I tried pretty much every conceivable permutation of Blocked Shot Response/Subject Motion/AF Mode settings that made any sense – and a few that didn’t – and to be honest they were all as bad as each other. In the end, I settled on BSR/SM settings at default ‘out the box’, and Group AF mode – but that was way less than perfect.
Ole Martins eagles do represent possibly the most testing scenario for any camera auto focus system, but overall I have to say that for this particular job the D5 AF is an epic fail and a retrograde step – the D4/D4S faired much better.
And both Nikon systems get kicked into touch by the Canon system, but the IQ of the 1DXMk2 lets it down somewhat, especially in comparison to the Nikon D4/D4S.
I’m certain that better IQ can be had from the Canon system if only Canon would give its users a firmware update to record uncompressed raw; something I’ve been banging on about for years.
But this post is about the Nikon D5 image quality at lower ISOs – and in all honesty, it’s CRAP.
Further Nikon D5 AF thoughts:
Typically of Nikon, they bring out another firmware update just after I use the damn thing for a week. I’ve not tried the new firmware yet but the ‘added AF modes’ of a single row and single column closest point have a certain smack of desperation in my eyes.
I know that OEM AF calibration is done in both the horizontal and vertical planes. So to give a camera the ability to use its horizontal calculations and to ignore its vertical ones, and vice versa says to me that there is an imbalance between its x and y axis ‘workings out’. Couple this with forcing the AF to pick the closest point on the subject under that row or column is basically a case of ‘hedging your bets’ even further.
Nikon should have done exactly what Canon did, and simply refine their existing AF system instead of adding a shed-load of these tracking sensors – there are just TOO MANY points resulting in too much information, and any errors between vertical and horizontal are just being amplified.
I cannot find any visual representation of the two new modes, called group-area AF (VL) with 5 points, and group-area AF (HL) with 11 points. But if they are as described then they will be ignoring the fixed tracking points. If that is indeed the case, and these modes actually give a marked improvement, then the whole system is a waste of time and effort because it is the plethora of fixed tracking points that form the main distinction between the Multicam 3500 FX and 20K systems.
But hey, that’s just my opinion and I’m not really in possession of all the facts yet.
For a while now I’ve been toying with the idea of running landscape workshops in Iceland.
Now you know by now I NEVER try and sell anything I haven’t ‘done’ myself first, so the last Monday of February saw myself and Richard boarding an Easyjet Airbus at Manchester bound for Keflavik airport for something of a recce.
We had teamed up with the ‘oh-so-nice’ Malcolm Stott, a super guy who’s been traveling to Iceland as a naturalist and tour guide for nearly 50 years – what he doesn’t know about Iceland isn’t worth knowing!
Poor man – he had absolutely NO DAMNED IDEA what he’d let himself in for agreeing to take me and mini-me on a whistle-stop tour of the land of fire and ice.
Poor Malcolm – look at him, taken on the last full day we were there – he’s definitely suffering from PTSD!
With all my experience in Norway I thought I’d got a pretty good idea what to expect – how freaking wrong can one be!
We piled into Keflavik while it was still daylight, got picked up by Malcom in our hired Toyota 4×4 and headed straight for the Northern Light Inn where we’d be staying for one night before heading up to the North east region and Myvatn.
Cracking hotel – and just 2 hours after Easyjets rubber hit the Icelandic tarmac we were out taking pictures of the Aurora:
A lone photographer (it’s Malcolm really!) stands beneath the Northern Lights just south of Keflavik in Iceland.
Aurora Pano over a snow-covered lava field. The light pollution on the right is the town Keflavik, and the horizon is still lit by the afterglow of sunset.
It was while at this location that Richard and I got our first taste of the scourge of serious photography in Iceland – bloody tourists!
They walk in front of you waving torches and camera-phones without so much as an excuse me – inconsiderate bastards – I could have got a lot of satisfaction had I thought of adding a Glock 19 to the kit !
So, lesson learned for the future – keep away from the tourist traps; or so we thought.
We moved on to a much more secluded location and a small frozen lake:
The Aurora Borealis lights up the night sky above a frozen lake in Iceland, with the moon reflected in the ice.
We got back to the hotel around midnight, Malcolm retired to his bed, but Rich and myself were doing it pro-style, downloading and backing up images and pinging a post up on Facebook. Coupled with a thirst for tea we didn’t see sleep until around 3am, which was far from ideal as we had a mammoth drive up to Myvatn the following morning.
I could do the drive myself in about 4 hours – but I’d lose my license and be bankrupted by speeding fines in under 2 hours – driving speed limits in Iceland are bloody awful if you are a UK driver!
The drive up to Myvatn was intense and non-stop, and we decided to stop at the iconic falls of Godafoss – big mistake – tourist alarm!
A panoramic winter view of the iconic waterfall of Godafoss in North Eastern Iceland.
The wind was off the falls so we had problems with spray on lenses, so close work with a wide angle was impractical to say the least – so a further PoV and a pano approach with a longer lens was called for.
Once the vista view was done we waited for the sun to get low enough for the God Rays to start showing in the huge curtain of spray that we were ‘blessed with’ – the results certainly had the throng of Chinese tourists totally engrossed:
Landscape photography is all about analyzing what you can see, and when you struggle to make the standard view work for you you MUST find something in the detail – and detail can be shot no matter how much of an ‘epic fail’ the scene appears to be. Yes, the two shots above might not be your ‘cup of tea’, but I know someone will like them and make a purchase! And we’ve got dozens of them – so it’s not a fail!
KNOW THY MARKET PLACE KIDS!
And NEVER go out on a landscape session without a short to medium telephoto – EVER!
In the evening, after checking in to the Hotel Sel at Myvatn and getting over the shock of the smell of the water coming from the taps in our bathroom (oh my God it was bad!) we were treated to another display of Aurora that must have peaked at Kp7 around midnight:
The Aurora will just sit there in the sky looking awesome.
Then suddenly it will split the sky at lightning speed, break apart and dance around all over the place.
Then it’ll slow down and start to fade, perhaps coming back later – or perhaps not!.
Big Kp number displays are incredible to witness and in truth stills cannot do it justice – you have to stop taking pictures and just look up in awe – and I guarantee it’ll make you painfully aware of your own insignificance……it makes you feel like what you really are, less than a blip on the screen.
We had the opportunity the photograph the Aurora on 5 of the 7 nights we were in Iceland – we certainly filled our boots with it I can tell you.
One of Rich’s many Aurora shots done with the D4 and the super-sweet Nikon 18-35mm – actually a far more forgiving combo than the 14-24mm+D800E combo I was using.
The daylight opportunities in and around the Myvatn area where far too numerous for us to really do them justice in the time we had available, but we did our best:
The Hell-Hole of Námafjall Hverir
Not the best time of year to photograph this area – covered in snow, the vivid colours of the ground are hidden for the most part. But it still feels like the gateway to Hell, and the over-powering sulphur-laden atmosphere leaves a lasting impression – especially when combined with the tap water back at the hotel.
But if you want to be in an extreme volcanic area you have to take it all in your stride.
A panoramic view of a collapsed steam vent or fumerole at Namafjall in Iceland.
The Namafjall fumeroles make a constant deafening roar as they pump tonnes of high pressure sulfurous steam into the atmosphere.
Now here’s the thing; sulfur, air and water go together to make sulfuric acid, especially when we take into account the additions of extreme heat and pressure – nice!
Tourists again find this spot a big draw – having a good time standing warming their dumb asses against the fumeroles and trying to hover their bloody DJI Phantoms in the acidic gas clouds!
Really, to get great images here you need to pitch up in the autumn, late in an evening when they’ve all buggered off in their coaches back to their hotels.
And before anyone says ‘they’ve as much right to be there as you Andy’ – NO they haven’t, not when they show such disrespect to the landscape and environment – you should see the litter they drop for starters…..bastards….grrrrrrr.
I was stood talking to a Norwegian geologist while at Namafjall, who told me in a very matter-of-fact manner that the magma was rising and was only around 800 meters below my feet……’great’ says I, ‘do all these Muppets know this?’
‘The tour leader on the coach tells them, but they either don’t listen or are too stupid to comprehend it’ says he.
I can’t blame the Icelandic people for letting them in – get their money before they get burnt to a crisp here, or drowned at Vik!
Within this close up of a geothermal pool in Iceland there is sulfur, sulfur-eating bacteria, boiling mud and ice. Getting this shot made me go light-headed through lack of breathable air!
Major Geological Landmarks
The Mid Atlantic Tectonic Plate Boundary – it’s Hand of God time!
Just over a mile up the road from Namafjall is this rather innocuous looking feature:
The mid Atlantic ridge tectonic boundary at its highest elevation above the sea bed in Iceland. The European tectonic plate is on the right of the image and the North American tectonic plate is on the left.
But innocuous and insignificant it certainly is not!
Coachloads of tourists drive straight past it never giving it a second thought. I’d love to photograph this from the other side with the sun setting in the gap – another shot for autumn.
The Tephra and Pseudo Craters of Myvatn
Hverfjall Tephra Crater
The geological processes which formed these two landmarks boggle the mind – both features result from a meeting of copious amounts of ground water and boggy ground and even more copious amounts of hot moving lava flow. Put simply – you just wouldn’t want to be there at the time, believe me!
I’d been looking at the Hverfjall Crater for two days trying to find somewhere to plonk the tripod to get the shot I had in my head. And towards the end of Thursday I found it, quite by accident, down a track leading to a stuffed bird museum (don’t ask!).
Stunning winter light and a pancake flat snow field, kill the saturation in post – yes sir thanks muchly. Out comes to 70-200 f2.8 and just wait for the sunlight to pop from behind the cloud.
Looking towards the huge Hverfjall Crater tephra cone across a snow covered Lake Myvatn in Iceland. The houses on the far side of the lake give some scale.
The big thing that got me was the light quality, which is something you can only get at high latitudes – it’s a landscapers dream.
About two hours later I found the location to shoot the next image, a group of pseudo craters around Lake Myvatn – the sunlight gave some cracking top lighting to this landmark feature.
Winter snow and stunning light over pseudo craters or rootless cones in the north eastern region of Iceland. They were created by a huge steam explosion through an advancing lava flow as it moved across wetland bog around 2500 years ago.
And we have to have a colourful one of the lake don’t we:
Lake Myvatn at daybreak.
Friday morning saw us making the next big move down to Skaftafell, and because the highland road was closed because of the snow, we had to do the N1 eastern coastal route. Eleven hours driving, but a stunning drive it was – the light over the highland plain and the immense vistas of the Eastern Coast blew me away.
The daybreak light over the North East Highland Plain was breath-taking. Shot with the D500 and 18-35mm combo.
View across the mouth of the Faskrudsfjordur fjord and Skrudur island.
Looking south towards the mountain range at the mouth of Stodvarfjordur on the eastern coast of Iceland.
Looking south east from the inner end of Berufjord, again on Icelands unvisited eastern coast.
Two things struck myself and Rich on this mammoth coastal drive.
You can’t help but ‘pano everything’ because the vistas are just too epic.
Why is there no one here?
Skaftafell, Jokulsarlon & Vik
Checked into the Skaftafell Hotel and YAY – no sulfur in the water!
No way was I paying the price to eat in the evening here – so it’s over the road to the N1 services for the best meal I’ve had in ages – all you can eat buffet of breaded pork medallions, spring rolls, potatoes gratin and pepper sauce – under £30 for me and Rich – we were stuffed!
Aurora photography on this Friday night and small hours of Saturday morning came in two parts.
The hotel lies at the foot of two huge glaciers coming down from the huge Vatnajokull ice cap. There’s something of a penalty to pay for being near the foot of a glacier, and that penalty is a katabatic wind.
Holy Crap! They come from nowhere, are so cold you can’t believe it, go so fast they’ll rip the clothes from you back, and then disappear as fast as they arrive.
Here’s one caught by Rich, on its way down the glacier to give us a battering:
You can see the katabatic ‘cell’ approaching the foot of the glacier – it’s the gray ‘cloud’ full of fine ice particles which wasn’t there 30 seconds before!
Another katabatic cell rushes down the glacier but we are too far away to feel it’s effects – thank God!
We gave up after 30 minutes and half a dozen batterings, and went back to the hotel – and waited….
And sure enough things calmed down and the skies cleared around 1am on Saturday morning, and we were off out again. A different look to the lights this time around – very active but diffused:
Three shot panorama – D800E+14-24 f2.8 @ 14mm
Above is a pano of the Fjallajokull Glacier, which creeps its way down from the main Vatnajokull ice cap.
This is 19 vertical frames stitched together for 49000 pixels – and there’s another three rows to go on this top and bottom, but it keeps making my Mac fall over when I try to put it together!!
Spot the lunatic tourist bottom right – he’s good for scaling. We were taking bets on whether he’d fall in or not, and how long he’d survive if he did – what a prick.
To ND or not ND – that is the question? Answer – do both! A large chunk of blue glacial ice being battered in the surf on the western black sand beach at Jokulsarlon.
A macro panoramic view of the intricate surface texture of glacial ice washed ashore on the beach at Jokulsarlon in Iceland.
Looking up towards the immense icy peaks of the western end of Vatnajokull. This was shot with the camera and me jammed in the gap of the open rear door of our 4×4 – trying to keep the camera steady during a massive katabatic blast.
I also got the opportunity to take one of those super-minimalist abstract landscapes:
Bad weather from the North Atlantic approaching the coast of Southern Iceland, viewed over a perfectly flat sheet of snow-covered ice. This is a genuine image not a composite.
Eat your heart out Rhine 2 – hey, a bloke can dream can’t he?
Later the Aurora paid us another visit:
One from Rich on the D4 + 18-35mm combo.
Sunday was a strange day. Lack of sleep was getting to both of us and Malcolm too, but we headed for the East Beach at Vik for the iconic sea stacks:
A panoramic view of the iconic landmark and popular tourist destination of the Sea Stacks at Vik on Iceland. The shot is taken from the quieter and less visited Eastern Black Sand Beach nest to the village of Vik.
There’s a damn fine looking landscape here if the tide was a bit further in and there were NO people or footprints! Rich and Malcolm working hard.
Then we moved on to Skogafoss Falls but it was rammed to bursting with idiots having a laugh falling over – I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a crowd.
I was standing in the river with a standard composition ready to go when a guy wades out in front of me, sits on my feature foreground rock and starts drinking a bottle of beer. Then his mate starts taking pictures of him. I ‘nicely’ asked them what their game was and their reply was they were doing a series of shots with ‘beer boy’ drinking a beer in the dodgiest situation they could find at various landmark sites around the world.
I just nodded and quietly left the river, packed up and went back to the car park before I ended up doing a stretch for murder…
So we drove on a few hundred yards and left the vehicle, having decided to walk up to the hidden waterfall of Kvernufoss:
The waterfall of Kvernufoss which is hidden at the end of a small narrow valley near the larger and more visited Skogafoss falls on the southern coast of Iceland.
What a stunning little hidden gem this fall is, it would be nice to go back in the autumn and get behind the fall curtain!
We left Kvernufoss for the long drive back to the Northern Light Hotel for our last night in Iceland, but we had not gone very far – Holtsos actually – when we were greeted by a view of the most magnificent sunset sky over the Westman Islands:
The sun sets behind the Vestmannaeyjar or Westman Island chain off the coast of southern Iceland.
Here’s a wider pano with a rather annoying drone operator in the bottom of the frame to add some scale, and the rocks in the lake removed:
Then another minimalist shot emerged in front of me:
As the sun sets in the west, the view south east across a partially frozen lake reveals delicate pastel shades of pink and blue in the sky and its reflection in the ice and open water of the lake.
No Aurora on Sunday night, the Valkeries obviously felt they had shown us enough, so it was a case of a few large mugs of the fabulous hot chocolate, a bit of packing, a shower, some more hot choc and BED.
Our plane wasn’t due to leave until 7.40pm Monday so we had some hours to fill, and our plan was to have a drive down to the Sea Stacks at Reykjanesta. The sky was grey and there was a bit of a ‘blow’ on the go so things looked promising.
On the way I made Rich take one for the team:
Great way to start the morning – sulfuric acid shower. He’s a good lad!
Reykjanesta is a stunning place, and also a place of great sadness – and a bucket-load of shame too. This small bit of coastline was famous as the breeding colony for the Great Auk. But their favorite breeding island vanished in a puff of volcanic action in 1830. That was on top of their slaughter by British sailors in 1808.
Those few that remained took refuge on the small basalt rock island of Eldey which lies on the horizon about 15km offshore. But on the 3rd of June 1844 four Icelandic fishermen set sail for the island to secure a specimen Auk for a collector.
What they found when they got there is unclear, but suffice to say when they left Eldey the worlds very last pair of breeding Great Auks were killed and their single egg smashed.
And folk wonder why I hate the majority of human-kind.
As a memorial there is a near 6 foot bronze Auk set into the cliff top and it gazes out in the exact line of sight to Eldey – it brings a lump to your throat for sure:
The sea was like a washing machine gone mad with 20 to 30 foot breakers smashing into the sea stacks:
It wasn’t exactly fun, but it was exciting (apologies for any language you might have heard!) and I knew we had an escape route from this cave under the cliff – but we were on the ragged edge of safety!
The pics were well worth the effort:
The Sea Stacks at Reykjanesta on the southern tip of the Reykjavik peninsula in Iceland. Large waves pound this beach constantly, making it a very dangerous place to visit if you are not careful.
The Sea Stacks at Reykjanesta.
That’s about it then, afterwards it was off back to Keflavik airport and a delayed flight back home for tea and medals thanks to a strike by French ATC.
I’m going to be organizing at least two landscape workshops to Iceland in 2018/19. I haven’t formulated them yet, but they will most likely be in September 2018 and March 2019. They will be formatted in such a way as to steer clear of the main tourist traps and concentrate more on locations that are not quite so well known.
I have had a lot of interest in these so far, but if it’s something you fancy just drop me a line.
Happy photography everyone, hope you enjoyed this post!