More ISO Settings Misinformation

More ISO Settings Misinformation

This WAS going to be a post about exposure…….!

But, this morning I was on the Facebook page of friend where I came across a link he’d shared to this page which makes a feature of this:

%name More ISO Settings Misinformation

Please Note: I’m “hot linking” this image so’s not to be accused of theft!

This style of schematic for the Exposure Triangle is years old and so is nothing new.

When using FILM the ISO value IS a measure of sensitivity to light – that of the film, in other words its SPEED.  Higher ISO film is more sensitive to light than lower ISO film, and the increased sensitivity brings about larger ‘grain’ in the image.

When we talk ‘digital photography’ however the ISO value HAS NOTHING TO WITH SENSITIVITY TO LIGHT – of anything inside your camera, including the damn sensor.

ISO in digital cameras is APPLIED GAIN. Applied ‘after the exposure has been made’..after the fact…after Elvis has left the freaking building!

Your sensors sensitivity to light is FIXED and dictated by the size of the photosites that make up the sensor – that is, the sensor pixel pitch.

People who persist in leading you guys into thinking that ISO controls sensor sensitivity should be shot, or better still strapped over the muzzle of an artillery piece……..

The article then goes on to advise the following pile of horse crap:

Recommended ISO settings:

  • ISO 100 or 200 for sunny and bright daylight 
  • ISO 400 ISO for cloudy days, or indoors 
  • ISO 800 for indoors (without a flash) 
  • ISO 1600+ for very low light situations 

WTF??? What year are we in – 2007??

And this pile of new 2017 junk is on a website dedicated to a certain camera manufacturer who’s cameras have produced superb images at ISO settings way higher than the parameters stated above for ages.

Take this shot from a Canon 1DX Mk1 – old tech/off-sensor ADCs etc:

FW1Q4333 600x400 More ISO Settings Misinformation

Canon 1DX Mark 1 ISO 10,000 1/8000th @ f7.1 – click for the full size image.

ISO settings are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to good action photography – the overriding importance at all times is SHUTTER SPEED and AF performance.

I don’t care about ‘ISO noise’ anywhere near as much as I care about focus and freezing the action, and neither should you guys.

What have the above and below shots got in common – apart from the wildlife category?

 D4R3440 More ISO Settings Misinformation

Nikon D4 – a meagre ISO 3200 1/8000th @ f7.1 – click for full size image.

1/8000th shutter speed and an aperture of 7.1 – aperture for DoF and shutter speed to freeze the action – stuff the ‘noise’.

And speaking of ‘noise’ – there isn’t anywhere near enough to screw the shot up for stock sale even at full size, and I’ll tell you again, noise hardly prints at all!

Here’s another ‘old tech’ Canon 1DX Mk1 shot:

GX2R4727 More ISO Settings Misinformation

And here’s where the rubber really meets the road – low light 4000ISO  1/200th @ f6.3 – click for full size image.

I don’t really want to wheel the same shots out over and over but don’t forget the Canon 5D Mk4 Great Tit at 10,000ISO or 1DX Mk2 Musk Ox at 16,000ISO either!

Don’t get me wrong, when I want maximum Dynamic Range I shoot at base ISO, but generally you’ll never find me shooting at any fixed ISO other than base; other than when shooting astro landscapes.  Everything else is Auto ISO.

So a fan website, in 2017, is basically telling you not to use the ISO speeds that I use all the damn time – and they are justifying that with bad information.

Please people, 90% plus of what you see on the web is total garbage, please don’t take it as gospel truth until you check with someone who actually knows what they are talking about.

Do I know what I’m talking about, well, only you can judge that one.  But everything I do tell you can be justified with full resolution images – not meaningless little jpegs on a web site.

Anyway, that’s it – rant over!

As ever, if you like the info in this post hit the subscribe button. Hop over to my YouTube channel and subscribe there too and if you are feeling generous then a couple of bucks donation via PayPal to would be gratefully appreciated!

Thanks Folks!

Wildlife in Pixels – Website News

Wildlife in Pixels – main website updated & other news.

So I’ve just spent the last 4 days slaving away over an old version of Dreamweaver (CS4 no less) updating the rather tired and untidy looking main website.

With a not insignificant amount of valuable input from my learned friend Steve Kaluski, and the (new to this old fart) discovery of in-line css rules, I’ve managed to come up with what I think is a cracking new look for the website that’s far less cluttered and messy!

site 900x740 Wildlife in Pixels   Website News

The new site landing page.

That’ll do for the rest of this year at least, and I think it looks epic – what say you guys?

I’ve updated the image gallery using Juicebox – whether I leave the “share” and image page display options live I’ll decide over the next few days.  But the gallery is a lot less “clunky” than it used to be, and looks pretty good on an iPhone too.

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The new website gallery.

Important News about Norway Workshops for 2016.

I booked two trips over in Norway for 2016 about 4 weeks ago – one in February 2016, which is my usual winter haunt of Flatanger.

Winter 900x586 Wildlife in Pixels   Website News

Norway Winter Eagles Tour February 2016. Click to view website page for this tour.

And the second trip, scheduled for September 2016 is over to Dovrefjell for the Musk Ox and Arctic Fox, followed by 3 days of Eagle photography from the boat.

Dovrefjell 900x742 Wildlife in Pixels   Website News

Norway Tour September 2016. Click to view website page for this tour.

In the very short space of time these trips have been publicised, the uptake has been awesome – the February trip is provisionally full and; again provisional, there are only two places left on the September trip.

At the bottom of new Norwegian Workshops page – HERE – you’ll see that I’m running a ‘standby’ email link.  If you are interested in going on this list just drop me an email via the link.  I’ve never had a cancellation for any reason as yet – but just in case it does happen then I can let you know.  Meanwhile, visit the workshop pages themselves and get a flavour of what they are about.

Anyway, thanks for reading this short missive and if you have a chance hop along to the main website and give it the “once over” as your opinion matters!


Autofocus Drill-down

Long Lens Autofocus Considerations.

If you read my previous post about the 1Dx sensor you will have seen that I mentioned my, as yet unfinished, tome about long lens autofocus for wildlife photography.  It’s a frustrating project because I keep having to change various bits to make them simpler, re-order certain paragraphs etc.

But I thought I’d blog-post something here that I expand on in the project, and it’s something an awful lot of people NEVER take into consideration.

As a Nikon user I’m used to the vagaries of the Nikon AF system and I manage to work with it just fine – I have to!

But photographers who don’t shoot wildlife, and don’t use 400mm or 500mm lumps of glass as their “standard lens” might not find the vagaries I bitch about quite so apparent; indeed some might not come across them at all.

As a wildlife photographer I shoot in crappy light, I shoot with slow lenses (both in terms of f-number and focus speed), I shoot low contrast subjects on equally low contrast backgrounds, I’m constantly shooting brown-on-brown, grey on grey etc, I shoot stupidly small subjects….the list goes on!

For years, good wildlife photography has been done by pushing camera/lens capabilities beyond their performance design parameters; and this particularly applies to our “expectations” of our latest and greatest AF system – be it Canon or Nikon.

I find so many people who come to my workshops etc. are not even aware of this one simple fact – sharp focus requires more work AND increased speed of work by the lens AF motor the closer a subject is to the camera.

Just try looking at the delineations on the focusing ring of a lens:

D3C6337 900x599 Autofocus Drill down

Canon 200-400 focused at 20 meters. (Lens porn WARNING: This lens will cause movements in the front-of-trouser department).

Look at the scale and note the distance between 20m and 50m marks – that distance is indicative of the amount of work required of the autofocus controller and motor to move from 20m to 50m or vice versa.

Now look where the 10m mark is – it requires FAR MORE work from the focus controller and motor to move from 20m to 10m, than it did to move the 30 meters from 50m to 20m.

On top of that extra work, if we are tracking a subject moving at 10 meters per second the lens takes 3 seconds to move from 50m to 20m, but then has to move a lot FASTER as well to cover the extra workload moving from 20m to 10m in just 1 second.

Then you wonder why your Nikon D40 + Sigma 50-500mm is crap at doing “birds in flight”; you never realise that your autofocus system is bag of spanners and powered by a hamster on a wheel…….it’s just not fast enough kids

Autofocus accuracy is nothing without speed if you are wanting to do productive wildlife photography.

As I alluded to before, as a photographer of the old wildlife I, and YOU will always encounter problems that users in other photographic disciplines may not, or if they do then the problem has a lot less impact than it does for us.

Think of it this way – a sports photographer will use a 500mm f4 to photograph a 6 foot tall overpaid git who’s 25m to 70m away, on a sunny Saturday afternoon or under a squillion watts of flood lighting; and he’s looking for a 6×12 for the back page of the Sunday Sport.  I’ll use the same lens to photograph a cute Red Squirrel at 5m to 7m in a gloomy wood in the middle of winter and I’m looking for a full size, full resolution image for stock.

SquidgerPor 900x620 Autofocus Drill down

Red Squirrel – this is basically the FURTHEST DISTANCE you could shoot at with a 500mm lens and still get a meaningful composition. Click for larger view.

Note the distance – 631/100 – that means 6.31 meters. Aperture is f8, so DoF is around 7 centimeters.

The image is UNCROPPED as are all the other images in this post

We don’t really want to be any further away because “his cuteness” will be too small in the frame:

The factors effecting subject distance choice are:

  1.  lens resolving power – small, fine details need to be as close as possible.*
  2.  sensor resolving power – we need as many pixels as possible covering the subject.*
  3.  auto focus point placement accuracy – if the subject is too small in the frame, point placement is inaccurate.
  4. general “in camera” composition

*These two are inextricably intertwined

I’ve indicated the active focus point on the above image too  because here’s a depth of field “point of note” – autofocus wastes DoF.  Where is the plane of focus? Just between the eyes of the squirrel.

Assuming the accepted modern norm of DoF distribution – 50/50 – that’s 3.5 centimeters in front of the plane of focus, or indicted AF point, that will be sharp.  Only problem there is that the squirrel’s nose is only around 1 centimeter closer to the camera than the AF point, so the remaining 2 .5 centimeters of DoF is wasted on a sharp rendition of the fresh air between its nose and the camera!!

Now let’s change camera orientation and go a bit closer to get the very TIGHTEST shot composition:

SquidgerLs 900x370 Autofocus Drill down

Red Squirrel – this is basically the CLOSEST DISTANCE you could shoot at with a 500mm lens and still get a meaningful composition. Click for larger view

The subject distance is 5.62 meters. Aperture is f6.3 so DoF is around 4.4 centimeters.

Now let’s change photographic hats and imagine we are a sports photographer and we are spending a Saturday afternoon photographing a bunch of over-paid 6 foot tall gits chasing a ball around a field, using the very same camera and lens:

HUPor 900x608 Autofocus Drill down

He’s not over-paid or chasing a ball, but this is the CLOSEST distance we can shoot at with this orientation and still get a “not too tight” composition of a 6 foot git! “Shep’s” not a git really – well, not much! Click to enlarge

The distance for this shot is 29.9 meters. Aperture is f6.3 so DoF is around 1.34 meters.

HULs 900x602 Autofocus Drill down

And here we are at the CLOSEST distance for this horizontal camera orientation – still not too tight. Click to enlarge.

The distance here is 50.1 meters. Aperture is f6.3 so DoF is around 3.79 meters.

So with this new “sports shooter” hat on, have we got an easier job than the cold, wet squirrel photographer?

You bet your sweet life we have!

The “Shepster” can basically jump around and move about like an idiot on acid and stay in sharp focus because:

  1. the depth of field at those distances is large.
  2. more importantly, the autofocus has VERY little work to do along the lens axis, because 1 or 2 meters of subject movement closer to the camera requires very small movements of the lens focus mechanicals.

But the poor wildlife photographer with his cute squirrel has so much more of a hard time getting good sharp shots because:

  1. he/she has got little or no depth of field
  2. small subject movements along the lens axis require very large and very fast        movement of the lens focus mechanicals.

So the next time you watch a video by Canon or Nikon demonstrating the effectiveness of their new AF system on some new camera body or other; or you go trawling the internet looking for what AF settings the pros use, just bear in mind that “one mans fruit may be another mans poison” just because he/she photographs bigger subjects at longer average distances”.

Equipment choice and its manner of deployment and use is just not a level playing field is it…but it’s something a lot of folk don’t realise or think about.

And how many folk would ever consider that a desired “in camera” image composition has such a massive set of implications for autofocus performance – not many – but if you put your brain in gear it’s blindingly obvious.

Please consider supporting this blog.

This blog really does need your support. All the information I put on these pages I do freely, but it does involve costs in both time and money.

If you find this post useful and informative please could you help by making a small donation – it would really help me out a lot – whatever you can afford would be gratefully received.

Your donation will help offset the costs of running this blog and so help me to bring you lots more useful and informative content.

Many thanks in advance.


Canon 1Dx Sensor Noise

What seems an age ago now I did a two-day workshop for Calumet at Drummond Street in London, and a chap turned up there armed with a Canon 1Dx PLUS a 200-400 f4.  The lens had only just been launched, and he’d been out and spent a truck-load of cash on both lens and body.

Yours truly was all over him like a severe rash, and I ripped it from his poor old fingers, stuck it in Case 2 and dived outside and started ripping through frames of vehicles passing the store!

I was smitten from that very moment – but it was weird all the same.  I was joyous at how the lens and camera performed; pissed off that I didn’t own it; and seething at Nikon AF and the poor distance performance of their own 200-400.

Not that Nikon is crap – far from it; it’s fantastic – but this was just SO much better, and child that I am, THIS was what I should be using and all else was just pants.

Begrudgingly I handed the old chap his camera back, satisfied my dour mood with a cursory “not bad….” and carried on with the workshop.

Later in the day I stuck the images I’d shot with the Canon 1Dx into Lightroom on the 27″ iMac I use for workshop presentations – and was immediately a little happier – they looked “iffy” to say the least!

The Nikon 200-400s’ distance resolution problem has always hacked me off – 10m or less it’s epic, but 75m and further I hate it, and in between well, sometimes I like it and sometimes I don’t. And it’s bad with teleconverters, it really is…

Scanning through all the Canon 1Dx shots I was still amazed by the lens – it was delivering tack sharp high-resolution images at all focal lengths and distances, with and without  teleconverter; basically it was kicking the Nikon into the last century simply by NOT displaying ANY of the same faults.

But I was having to look past – in comparison to Nikon – a thin veil of sensor noise, and I was also aware of a reduction in sensor Dynamic Range when I looked at the shots and noted the popped highlights that experience told me my Nikon wouldn’t produce.

Since then I’ve had a few more occasional chances to use the lens and body, and my results have continued to generate the same response – great lens, shame about the sensor IQ; but I’ve always been using other folks cameras and you don’t like to mess about with them too much, so I have always assumed that things “could be made a bit better” with some fiddling about.

Last year, hand on heart, I can honestly say that I was responsible, in whole or part, for at least 6 sales of Canon 200-400’s to existing 1Dx owners, and the lens-envy has always been there when they’ve been and bought it.

Since the first day I handled the lens I’ve been of the mind that it would be the ultimate lens for my Eagle workshops in Norway.  I was thinking of trying to take one, plus the required 1Dx, over there in June last year; but seeing as the my clients were all Nikon I thought I’d best not!

But I have a “mixed bag” of clients booked for my Winter trip in a couple of weeks time, so seeing as I was of the mind that a few folk owed me a few favours…..

Upshot is that for the last two weeks, thanks to Reece Piper at Calumet, I’ve had a Canon 1Dx sat in my office; and many thanks to my favourite Geordie lass June Lown, a 200-400 f4 to go with it.

When I picked up the 1Dx from Calumet I swiped a 100mm f2.8 macro while I was at it, as I had been tasked with a high speed action shot featuring makeup brushes and I thought we’d go nuts and do the shot whilst exploring the 1Dx in a bit more depth.

GX2R6630NTM 800x900 Canon 1Dx Sensor Noise

Canon 1Dx + 100mm f2.8 macro. Nikon SB800 flash & Calumet ProSeries wireless.

Prior to picking up the Canon 1Dx I’d done a few test shots on my own Nikon gear just to get the lighting and flash timing sorted out, but I’d been using some different brushes:

D4D0013 599x900 Canon 1Dx Sensor Noise

Okay, so here is the base .CR2 raw file for the finished image:

GX2R6638 600x900 Canon 1Dx Sensor Noise

Base .CR2 raw file

Now, I’m going to get to the point of this post topic!

As a standard retouching procedure on this type of shot I always overlay a custom Curves Adjustment layer with a sine-wave curve – it helps show up all those little imperfections you can’t see when you view the image without it:

Screen Shot 2015 01 30 at 15.09.38 Canon 1Dx Sensor Noise

Custom Curve for retouching

The main purpose in this particular case is to check for dark imperfections in that black background – yep, proper retouching is all about the minutia if you want perfection.

I’m trying to put together a video course on retouching that’ll be available in my store a little later this year – email me for details

Because the powder velocity is so damned high as it leaves the brush bristles I needed 1/32nd output power on the SB800s in order to freeze absolutely every grain of powder, so the shots(both Nikon and Canon) were at 400 iso just to give me a working aperture of f14.

When checking the test shots they looked like this with the customised Curve Layer:

D4D0013 Edit 599x900 Canon 1Dx Sensor Noise

Nikon D4 400 ISO 1/250th @ f14 test shot with custom curves layer.

Check out how clean the black background is.

So now all we do is swap the brushes, and change from Nikon D4 to the Canon 1Dx – I make no changes to either the lights or the background, and the exposure settings are exactly the same – 1/250th, 400 ISO, f14 – and I’m expecting gold…

But throw the CR2 file into Photoshop and stick the custom curve over it to see the comparrison:

GX2R6638 Edit 600x900 Canon 1Dx Sensor Noise

Canon 1Dx 400 ISO 1/250th @ f14

Sweet Jesus………….!

Now don’t run away with the idea that it’s the “normal” noise you think of – luminance noise.  In fact from that point of view it’s no better or worse than the Nikon D4 sensor.

But what you can see here is PATTERN NOISE/READ NOISE – see my Sensor Noise post from a while ago HERE

Don’t get me wrong, you can barely see it at 100% magnification, and a lot of folk won’t notice it AT ALL:

fullREZ 900x614 Canon 1Dx Sensor Noise

Canon 1Dx/Nikon D4 comparison at 100% magnification viewed normally. CLICK to view larger

But if you want BIG prints, or you sell your images for stock, then you need to check them a lot more thoroughly at higher magnifications:

400x 900x614 Canon 1Dx Sensor Noise

Comparison at 400% magnification CLICK to view larger

At 400% the noise is just about visible – because it’s a dark error/fault on a basically slightly darker background.  But keep it at 100% and put the custom curve over it and:

fullREZ2 900x615 Canon 1Dx Sensor Noise

Custom Curve layer at 100% – now that pattern noise on the Canon sensor is obvious.

…now you can see what you have got to take care off in retouching.

Got a 1Dx?  Then this pattern noise is in YOUR images – FACT.

But if the image has a more “normal” tonality to it then it certainly won’t be obvious to you – but it’s there nevertheless.  Just try looking in your shadow areas.

Why the 1Dx sensor should be so much noisier than the D4/D4S is beyond me to be honest. Yes I know it’s an older mark, but the then current Nikon D3 and D3S were far better than this; in fact they were, and still are, only marginally worse than today’s Nikons for pattern noise.

In reality the images are of course eminently usable – as the millions of 1Dx images used daily world-wide testifies; but they do need a teeny bit more effort when processing than files from a top-end Nikon camera, if the final images are to have the same degree of quality in terms of “clean-ness of file”.

There is also the question of a clipped Dynamic Range, but that’s an easy walk-around in most cases – neither Highlight Tone Priority or Safety Shift are the answer though IMO; the former just under-exposes the shot, and the latter drives me nuts, though it’s a damnably good idea in principle.

So this noise thing truly is my ONE AND ONLY gripe about this camera – up until this last week I had a few others based solely on my usage of other folks cameras, but those are now well and truly GONE.

On the “pros & cons” side of things, noise and clipped dynamic range are my only cons, and there are many pros that cancel them out – the real big one for my is the autofocus system which, at least when used with the new(ish) 200-400 and the latest firmware, is truly EPIC and seriously kicks Nikon into a cocked hat in terms of tractability, speed, accuracy and user control.

I’m working on a large pdf document all about autofocus with both Nikon D4/D4S and Canon 1Dx bodies that has wildlife photography and long lenses as the main bias, but it will give a lot of valuable information and knowledge to non-wildlife photographers and 5DMk3 owners as well. Again, email me for details – BUT IT WON’T BE FREE!

If I had the dough I’d buy a 1Dx and a 200-400 f4 tomorrow – perhaps I’d even dump Nikon all together for long lens action/wildlife photography.

But I haven’t, so unless a miracle happens and Canon suddenly feel like sponsoring someone who actually “knows about stuff” then there’ll be tears when this rig has to go back I can tell you…:(

Would I dump Nikon for all my photography where speed and autofocus are not required, like macro or landscape – not on your bloody life!

Many thanks to Reece Piper & Calumet UK, June Lown, and Chuck Westfall of Canon USA


Please consider supporting this blog.

This blog really does need your support. All the information I put on these pages I do freely, but it does involve costs in both time and money.

If you find this post useful and informative please could you help by making a small donation – it would really help me out a lot – whatever you can afford would be gratefully received.

Your donation will help offset the costs of running this blog and so help me to bring you lots more useful and informative content.

Many thanks in advance.


Auto Focus Work Out

Auto Focus Work Out

My recent summer trip to Flatanger in Norway, and to the famous “Eagle Man of Norway” Ole Martin Dahle, proved, as ever, a severe test of the auto focus capabilities of the gear!

We had 4 guys on the trip, 3 Nikon and 1 Canon, and White-tailed Eagles doing more than 40mph and turning on a dime is one of the hardest tests for auto focus tracking and lock on that you can imagine – especially when it’s all done hand held from a boat that’s rolling around in the sea swell.

The Guys 752x900 Auto Focus Work Out

The Guys – yours truly, Malcolm Clayton and Paul Atkins; and Mohamed El Ashkar (all the way from Cairo!) and our Cambridge “Don” – all trips should have one – Jamie Gundry. Photo by Ole Martin Dahle.

We had a conglomeration of D4’s, D800E’s and 200-400 f4’s, with a smattering of 300mm and 400mm f2.8’s – and then there was Mohamed with his solitary 1Dx and 300 f2.8.

And our target:

D4D7980 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

Say “Hello” to “Brutus” – an eagle who lives up to his name for sure – a total brute, especially to a boat full of daft photographers! CLICK for larger view.

Just to set the scene with regard to the technical side of things; birds fly into the wind given the choice, and the sun is wherever it decides to be! So the boat driver – Ole – always needs to position the boat so that “wind and sunlight” are coming from pretty much the same direction, otherwise the birds are not front-lit and cast their own shadows across themselves. In other words the images look like crap!

Some birds come towards the boat, take the fish and then turn away; some will do their approach parallel to the boat; and gits like Brutus will fly low and fast straight at you, pick the fish and then turn straight for the boat and climb.

But no matter how they choose to approach the camera boat all the birds pick the fish and go back to where they’ve come from.

Ole has intimate knowledge of these birds as individuals, and so has a damn good idea of what they will do as they come to the boat.  This enables him to manoeuvre the boat for the best shots, and this skill is what you pay for.

Perhaps by now you’ve got the general feel for the situation – a boat that’s subject to wave motion and which might suddenly go backwards 10 yards through its own wake – not the steadiest of camera platforms!

Couple that with trying to make the auto focus lock on and track the bird, and maintain a modicum of composition – it’s just damned hard work.

Photographing anything that’s moving is hard work; moving erratically is even harder; and hand holding on an oscillating camera platform makes the job beyond hard.  This style of shooting will NEVER yield vast rafts of sharp sequential images – anyone who tells you different is an outright liar. Christ, even licensed FIA F1 ‘togs are on “easy street” by comparison.

Auto focus cannot be set up perfectly for this sort of situation, but understanding it is a MUST if you want to maximise the opportunity.

Auto Focus Choices

There are 3 main things that control the effectiveness of auto focus and AF tracking:

AF Area Mode

AF Tracking Lock-on interval

Frame Rate

(Bare in mind I’m talking Nikon here, but sorting Mohameds’ 1Dx out showed my that Canon AF is pretty much the same).

Now I dealt with the latter in a previous post HERE and so we need to concentrate here on AF area modes in the main.

Let’s look at what we have to work with on a Nikon body – in this case a D4:

Firstly, the AF sensor layout.

All 51 focus sensors, and there approximate layout in relation to the image frame:

All51AFpoints 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

All 51 of the Nikon Multi Cam 3500 FX focus sensors – both cross and linear sensors depicted.

Just the Cross-type Sensors:

CrossType 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

The 15 Cross type focus sensors on the Nikon Multi-Cam 3500 FX unit.

The Linear-type Sensors:

LinearType 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

The 36 Linear type focus sensors on the Nikon Multi-Cam 3500 FX unit.

Single Area AF

AF Single 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

Single Area, or single point AF.

9 Point Dynamic Area AF:

AF 9pointD 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

9 Point Dynamic Area AF

AF 9pointDVF 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

9 Point DA AF as displayed in the viewfinder (drop shadows added in Photoshop behind the dots to aid visibility in this article).

21 Point Dynamic Area AF:

AF 21pointD 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

21 Point Dynamic Area AF

AF 21pointDVF 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

21 Point DA AF as displayed in the viewfinder (drop shadows added in Photoshop behind the dots to aid visibility in this article).

51 Point Dynamic Area AF:

All51AFpointsVF 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

51 Point DA AF as displayed in the viewfinder (drop shadows added in Photoshop behind the dots to aid visibility in this article).

As a stills photographer you are using what’s called Phase Detection auto focus (that’ll be another blog post topic!) but it still relies on a mix of contrast,luminosity and colour to work out what it should be concentrating on in the frame.

Consider the following 2 images, A & B:

D4D8114 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

A. Dark Subject and Light Background.
Subject itself is low contrast, background water is higher contrast. Subject is at 15 meters, Focal Length is 240mm

D4D7971 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

B. Light Subject against a Dark Background.
Subject now has a slightly higher contrast, and background is lower contrast. Subject 29 meters, Focal length 360mm

Auto focus is dumb; just plain stupid, left to its own devices.  It, like me (yep, me dumb too!) favours lighter things with a higher degree of contrast.  The lighter something is then the brighter and more saturated it colour is, and this in turn gives it higher localised contrast.

Auto focus will be happier locking on to and tracking Eagle B than Eagle A.

In A, the AF will want to switch to the lighter, more contrasty water behind the bird – unless of course you “hobble it” and stop it from doing so…

And you stop it by BLINDING IT – in other words use LESS active auto focus points!

“If it ain’t got ’em it can’t switch to ’em!”

If all the AF points in use are on the important part of the subject (the EYE in this case) then there’s little or no chance of the auto focus switching to somewhere you don’t want it to go to.

In a perfect world we’d all be using Single Area AF on a tripod and panning away quite happily keeping that single sensor on the targets eye……………oh I wish!!!!!!

51 point AF is out for this sort of work – with what I’ve just written you should now easily understand why.

So we are down to either the 9 point or 21 point Dynamic Areas.

It all comes down to two things:

  • How steady you can keep the camera.
  • How big in the frame the birds are – in other words, subject distance.

But accuracy of auto focus will always be improved by using the least number of sensors you can get away with.


Image A. is at 240mm and a subject distance of 15 meters, and Image B. is at 360mm and a subject distance of 29 meters.  Both images were shot using 21 point Dynamic Area AF, 1/2000th @ f7 and 1600ISO.

AF 21pointDVFclose1 900x900 Auto Focus Work Out

21 point AF, 15 meters and 240mm focal length.

AF 21pointDVFclose21 900x900 Auto Focus Work Out

21 point AF, 29 meters and 360mm focal length.

On the upper detail image there’s one, perhaps two of the 21 sensors that are NOT on the subject.

On the second image there are at least 9 sensors out of the 21 in the group that are NOT on the bird.

If the bird in image A. had been 29 meters away I’ll guarantee it would have been out of focus – why?

  • Lack of good directional light.
  • Poor subject contrast and illumination.
  • Brighter, higher contrast background.
  • More sensors “Off Target”.

And the auto focus hasn’t wanted to wander to the background on image B. because there’s nothing there for it to favour over the main subject.

How Dynamic Area AF Works

9 point DA auto focus uses the single AF point that you select, but activates the 8 points surrounding it.  If you, or the subject, or both, move so that the single point you selected comes “off target” then one of those 8 surrounding points will “cover” the error and maintain focus lock and tracking until you get back on target.

In 9 point DA, auto focus ALL the sensors activated are “cross type” sensors, assuming you use a sensor on the vertical center line of the AF grid.

In 21 point DA, auto focus is still centered on the single sensor you select, but now the surrounding 20 are activated. But at least 6 of these sensors will be linear, not cross type sensors.

Auto Focus Senor Types – Cross and Linear (line).

This is going to be immensely paraphrased!

AF sensors need to see edge detail in order to work. A linear sensor can work more effectively when the edge it’s looking at is perpendicular to it.

The more an edge is parallel to said line sensor then the harder time it has in discerning when said edge is sharp or not.

But if we add 2 line sensors together at right angles to each other, then an edge that is parallel to one line is perpendicular to the other – so edge detection is greatly enhanced.

In an ideal scenario 9 point Dynamic Area AF, centered in the middle of the view finder and kept on the eagles head would be the ideal way to go, but with the other circumstances of:

  • Moving camera platform
  • Potential closeness of subject (sub 15 meters possible)

then 9 point DA might be a wee bit tight on both counts, and 21 point makes more sense from a tracking and shooting perspective.

But it leads to an initial problem with the auto focus acquiring the target in the first place.  You have to pick these eagles up quite a way out, and if one is coming low to the water then there is possibly too much in the frame to act as a distraction to the auto focus unit itself; though this isn’t quite such an issue if the bird is high in the sky.

So my recommendation for any form of bird-in-flight photography is to start out at 9 point DA and see how you get on!

There is always the AF Tracking Lock On feature that you can deploy in order to “hobble” the AF unit from switching  to subjects closer to or further away, but if I’m honest I find this the most sticky and difficult aspect of the Nikon system to get a precise handle on.  It does exactly “what it says on the tin” but it’s the “when” and “how much by” bits that have me slightly guessing.

Sometimes I put it on long and it basically waits for perhaps 4 or 5 seconds before it tries to switch focus, while at other times it does so in less than half the time.  Sometimes I feel it actually diminishes the effectiveness of the “predictive” side of the auto focus tracking unit.

But if I turn it off when hand holding the camera for flight shots then everything turns to crap – so I turn it back on again!

Again, my base recommendations for this are SHORT to NORMAL and see how things go.

One thing that can have a considerable impact on the way you perceive your auto focus effectiveness is how you have your AF release priority set up (CS a1).

There are 4 options:

  • Release
  • Focus+Release
  • Release+Focus
  • Focus

By default this is set to FOCUS.  With the default setting, it’s theoretically impossible to take a soft shot.  But in practice that’s not so simple, and I’ve taken many a soft shot when the D4 “thinks” things are sharp; though in the main, that seems to have been cured the minute we got trap focus back with the latest firmware upgrade.

Release means the camera will take shots irrespective of focus being acquired or not.  I NEVER use this option.

Focus+Release means that the first frame will only be taken once focus is acquired, and subsequent frames will be taken irrespective of focus.  This is one of my preferred options when everything is unstable – that first frame hopefully sets up the auto focus and AF tracking and so everything SHOULD keep the subsequent frames sharp – please note the use of the word “should”!

Both the above release priority modes do NOT slow the frame rate.

Release+Focus – works the opposite way to Focus+Release – it does slow the frame rate down giving the mirror more down-time and so the auto focus system has more time to work.  This is my other preferred option, the one I use when the “action” may not be as repeatable.

Focus – This is the option I deploy when shooting from a tripod or when the action is not quite so fast-paced.  Again, this option slows the frame rate.

The Back Button Auto Focus Option

I always use the back button for auto focus activation.  There are plenty of arguments for doing this, but I just feel it’s darn right more efficient than having AF activation on the shutter button.  Just don’t forget to turn AF/Shutter ON to OFF in the menu, otherwise you are just wasting time and effort!


A lot of folk feel that their auto focus is flawed; but more often it is they and their setup choices which are flawed.

There is no blanket panacea or magic bullet setting for your AF system – as with everything else you have to constantly evaluate the light around you, anticipate the shot and make the necessary changes to setup – otherwise it’s going to be a sad day.

But knowing how your gear works and how it reacts under different scenarios is the “meat and two veg” of good photography.  Couple that with shot anticipation and the proper corrective measures and it’s off home for tea and medals!

But above all, remember to have a laugh – you’re a long time dead……..

D4D5661 Edit 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out


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Flash Output Power

Flash output power raises a lot of questions when you are trying to decide how to spend your money.

A lot of people writing on the internet decry the versatility of portable speedlights and their use as studio-type lighting – something which is entirely wrong in my opinion; as there is nothing that can’t be done with them, as long as you have enough of them!

And you don’t have to take my word for it – just go and watch the worlds best exponent of the art, in my opinion anyway – Joe McNally. – then tell me if I’m wrong!

But with a top-of-the-line Nikon SB910 running at £340 and Canons new 600EXRT a cool £400 plus here in the UK, purchasing 10 to 15 of these puppies is a wallet-emptying proposition; though given the cash or sponsorship it’s the way I’d go all day long.

A lot of folk come to me with the same quandary – studio flash heads are a lot more cost-effective; notwithstanding their big limiting factor – lack of portability.

Leaving aside the other problems of many studio-style flash heads, namely lack of TTL and HSS/FP facility (though this can be walked-around on certain models with Pocket Wizards and the dark art of Hypersynch) they do give one big advantage – more photons for your buck.

But just how does one compare the flash output power of one unit/type with another – after all, this is what we want to know:

  • Can I get more light from flash A than I can from flash B
  • How many speedlights do I NOT have to buy if I get studio-style flash head C which costs 1.5x the price of one of my speedlights.

The problem is that manufacturers don’t make it easy to do direct comparisons of flash output power between brands and formats, and they tend to try and confuse the buyer with meaningless numbers and endless amounts of jargon.

Back in the days of manual-everything, we used to use flash in a very simple way using the units Guide Number.

The guide number is usually quoted as being at 100 ISO and at two values, one for metres and one for feet, and we use it with the following equation:

GUIDE No: = Distance x Aperture

So we might see a flash unit has a  guide number quoted as 40/131 at 100 ISO.  This means for example, that at 100 ISO and a flash to subject distance of 2.5 metres or 8.2 feet the correct aperture to use would be:

Guide No: divided by distance – in this case 40/2.5m or 131/8.2ft.

Either way the answer is 16, so we would set the shutter speed to the flash synch speed and the aperture to F16.


Where things used to go a bit pear-shaped was when we introduced any form of output modifier such as a bounce board or diffuser because these spread and smooth the light and so reduce the number of photons falling on the subject by one or two stops.

But TTL flash metering soon put paid to all that grief.

Camera OEM Speedlights

Let’s compare a Nikon SB800 & SB910 – these have 100 ISO guide numbers of 38/125 & 34/112 respectively (published) – that’s right folks, the new one is weaker than the old one.

But by how much?

Well the old SB800 has a guide number that is 11.7% higher than the newer SB910, but what does this mean in terms of exposure value?

At a flash-to-subject distance of 3.4 metres, doing the maths says that our correct aperture would be 38/3.4 and 34/3.4 respectively. So the SB800 would put us at f11 (11.18 to be precise) while the SB910 would give us f10 – that’s an increase of over 1/3rd of a stop using the older unit.

When working with long lenses and wide apertures this extra 1/3rd of a stop gives me just that little bit more depth of field – and folk wonder why I don’t change mine!

Complications & Caveats

Nikon quote the two units above with guide numbers based on the head “zoom feature” being set to 35mm, which gives a fairly wide angle of lighting.  Someone said to me the other day that the new Canon 600EX was twice the power of the Nikon units I’ve already mentioned, simply because Canon quote the guide number for that device as a massive whopping 60!

The world is full of fools………..

Canon, in their infinite wisdom, quote that 60 value at a zoom head setting of 200mm.  The reality is that the guide number of this Canon unit varies between 26 with the zoom head at 20mm and 60 at 200mm – so in other words, give or take a bit, it’s pretty much in the same ball park as the Nikon units previously mentioned.

Canon speedlight naming policy tells you the units MAXIMUM guide number:

  • 600EX = 60 (metres)
  • 580EX = 58 (metres)
  • 550EX = 55 (metres)

The 550 specs also give you zoom length variations:

  • 105mm = 55 (metres)
  • 50mm = 42 (metres)
  • 17mm = 15 (metres)

Canon 600EX vs Nikon SB800 zoom lengths:

  • 105mm = 58 vs 56 (metres)
  • 50mm  = 42 vs 44 (metres)
  • 14mm = 15 vs 17 (metres)

Light leaves a flash unit in a cone of sorts, and the zoom heads on speedlight style units gather this cone of light so it basically matches the angle of view of the lens you are using and results in an efficient distribution of light across the image area – that’s the theory anyway.

Making the cone “tighter” forces the photons released by the flash into a more concentrated area, thus increasing the number falling on the subject and so increasing the overall exposure value.

So when we use guide numbers to compare various flash units we must ensure that we are comparing the units on a level playing field – in other words, the values we use are for the same “cone or reflector angle”.  And if the manufacturers use different reflector angles when assessing their flash guide numbers for promotion to the public, then you guys ‘n gals run the risk of being hood-winked into buying something that ain’t strictly what you thought it was when you ordered it.

So how do speed light style flash units stack up against studio type units?

Notwithstanding the lack of FP/HSS and any TTL metering problems, studio-type flash heads have guide numbers that are usually quoted as being “with standard reflector”.  This standard reflector is something which gathers those photons and shovels them out in a 50-55 degree spread; think “standard lens” on the image diagonal.

Current top end Nikon speed lights (and Canon) have guide numbers of sub 40 at 35mm reflector angles, and those equate to roughly 64 degrees diagonal coverage.  So if we were to “tighten them up” to 50 or 55 degrees we could, as a rough guide, round the guide numbers up to 42m or 44m.

Now we are on a more even playing field.

A Bowens Gemini 500R is quoted by Bowens as having a guide number of 85 with a standard reflector, so let’s be a bit cavalier with the numbers and say that it’s double the guide number of SB800/910 or 580EX etc.

So roughly how many speed lights is this puppy going to be equivalent to in terms of real flash output power ?

Hands up those who think two………….wrong!

This is where everything you thought you knew about exposure turns to shit in front of your very eyes (but not really!), and it’s called the Inverse Square Law.

Inverse Square Law

Now listen folks, this is as simple or as complicated as you care to make it!

When we capture a scene we capture a 2 dimensional plane filled with photons travelling towards us.

When we shine any light on an object we are actually throwing a flat sheet of light at it. This sheet is expanding outwards as it travels towards the subject because the photons in that sheet of light are all diverging.

So, let’s look at something tangible as an analogy – metric paper sizes!

How many sheets of A3 paper fit on a sheet of A2 paper?

That’s right, TWO – we’ve effectively doubled the surface area of the paper.

Now exposure works in stops – and making a 1 stop change in exposure effectively doubles or halves the exposure value depending on which way we’ve made the adjustment.

So moving from A3 to A2 is like making a 1 stop change in exposure; we’ve doubled the surface area of the paper.  BUT – we’ve not doubled the papers physical dimensions.

What paper size is twice the width AND twice the height of A3 – yep, that’s right, A1.

And how many sheets of A3 fit on a sheet of A1 – right again, 4.

So we have quadrupled the papers surface area – in exposure terms that would equate to 2 stops.

Now imagine a projector throwing an image onto a big screen and the screen to projector distance is 4 metres.  We go to the screen and measure the size of the projected image and it’s 1.5 metres by 2 metres.

How big will the image be if we move the projector to 8 metres from the screen?

Answer – 3 metres x 4 metres. (and the brightness of the image will have gone down by 2 stops).

And if we move the projector to 2 metres from the screen the image will be 0.75 metres x 1 metre. (and the brightness of the image will have increased by 2 stops!).

Inverse Square Law, Lights & Distances

Let’s say we have a theoretical flash with a metres guide number of 80.

If the subject is 10 metres from the light we need an aperture of f8 because 80/10 = 8.

If we now move the light to 5 metres from the subject our aperture decrease to 80/5 = f16

Halving the light-to-subject distance means we increase the overall intensity of the light (its effective flash output power) by 2 stops, so we have to reduce our overall exposure by two stops to compensate; otherwise we’ll just end up with 2 stops of over exposure.

And of course if we move the light away to 20 metres from the subject the inverse applies and we effectively reduce the flash output power by two stops and we’ll have to open the aperture up by two stops to avoid under exposure.

But what do we have to do in order to use f16 at 10 metres AND get correct exposure?

Use a flash with a guide number of 160 is what we’d need to do – it really is that simple.


So, how many guide number 45 speed lights would we need to equal one guide number 90 studio flash head in terms of effective flash output power?

Well it isn’t two – oh that we should be so lucky!

If we have two speed lights mounted together their cumulative guide number is equal to the square root of the sum of the squares of their individual guide numbers!

Sounds scary, but the answer is 63 or thereabouts.

But here’s the thing about photo-maths – it usually ends up as something really simple and this is no exception.

If you want to double the guide number you always need 4 identical units.

Do not forget what I’ve said above about published guide numbers – you have to ensure that the values were obtained using equal criteria, and manufacturers sometimes don’t always like to furnish you with the information you need in order to do easy comparisons.

Have they got something to hide – you may think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment!

What really does piss me off the meaningless crap they do furnish you with – watt-second, w/s, watt/sec or if you like Joules values.

The only thing these values do is inform you of the “potential energy” available at the capacitor; it’s no measure of how efficiently the flash tube converts that power into photons – and the photons is ALL we’re really interested in.

Other things such as tube temperature can have dramatic effects on both light output and the colour of that light.


This post has been a bit of a ramble but I’ve tried as best I can to give you a rough guide on how to compare one flash source with another.

Different photographers require different things – if all you want to do is shoot portraits and still life then shutter speeds above 1/250th synch are of little importance in general terms, so access to HSS/AutoFP via speed lights isn’t needed, and normal studio lights would be a far more economical proposition.

But on the other hand 8 speed lights in one bank, and two more banks of 4 speed lights each – all HSS/AutoFP compliant – crikey, the photographic possibilities are endless, and readily achievable – if your bank balance is endless too!

Please consider supporting this blog.

This blog really does need your support. All the information I put on these pages I do freely, but it does involve costs in both time and money.

If you find this post useful and informative please could you help by making a small donation – it would really help me out a lot – whatever you can afford would be gratefully received.

Your donation will help offset the costs of running this blog and so help me to bring you lots more useful and informative content.

Many thanks in advance.


What Shutter Speed?

Shutter speed, and the choices we make over it, can have a profound effect on the outcome of the final image.

Now everyone has a grasp of shutter speed and how it relates to subject movement – at least I hope they do!

We can either use a fast shutter speed to freeze constant action, or we can use a slow shutter speed to:

  • Allow us to capture movement of the subject for creative purposes
  • Allow us to use a lower ISO/smaller aperture when shooting a subject with little or no movement.


Fast Shutter Speed – I need MORE LIGHT Barry!

D4R6049 Edit 600x400 What Shutter Speed?

1/8000th sec @ f8, Nikon D4 and 500mm f4

Good strongish sunlight directly behind the camera floods this Red Kite with light when it rolls over into a dive.  I’m daft enough to be doing this session with a 500mm f4 that has very little in the way of natural depth-of-field so I opt to shoot at f8.  Normally I’d expect to be shooting the D4 at 2000iso for action like this but my top end shutter speed is 1/8000th and this shutter speed at f8 was slightly too hot on the exposure front, so I knocked the ISO down to 1600 just to protect the highlights a little more.

Creative Slow Shutter Speed – getting rid of light.

DSC2896 EditS 600x354 What Shutter Speed?

1/5th sec @ f22

I wanted to capture the movement in a flock of seagulls taking off from the water, so now I have to think the opposite way to the Kite shot above.

Firstly I need to think carefully about the length of shutter speed I choose: too short and I won’t capture enough movement; and too long will bring a vertical movement component into the image from me not being able to hold the camera still – so I opt for 1/5th sec.

Next to consider is aperture.  Diffraction on a deliberate motion blur has little impact, but believe it or not focus and depth of field DO – go figure!

So I can run the lens at f16/20/22 without much of a worry, and 100 ISO gets me the 1/5th sec shutter speed I need at f22.


Slow Shutter  Rear Curtain Synch Flash

We can use a combination of both techniques in one SINGLE exposure with the employment of flash, rear curtain synch and a relatively slow shutter speed:

D300267 600x398 What Shutter Speed?

6/10th sec @ f3.5 -1Ev rear curtain synch flash

A technique the “Man Cub” uses to great effect in his nightclub photography, here he’s rotated the camera whilst the shutter is open, thus capturing the glowing LEDs and other highlights as circular trails.  As the shutter begins to close, the scene is lit by the 1/10,000th sec burst of light from the reduced power, rear curtain synched SB800 flash unit.

But things are not always quite so cut-and-dried – are they ever?

Assuming the lens you use is tack sharp and the subject is perfectly focused there are two factors that have a direct influence upon how sharp the shot will be:

  • System Vibration – caused by internal vibrations, most notably from the mirror being activated.
  • Camera Shake – caused by external forces like wind, ground vibration or you not holding the camera properly.

Shutter Speed and System Vibration

There was a time when we operated on the old adage that the slowest shutter speed you needed for general hand held shooting was equal to 1/focal length.

So if you were using a 200mm lens you shot with a minimum shutter speed of 1/200th sec, and, for the most part, that rule served us all rather well with 35mm film; assuming of course that 1/200th sec was sufficient to freeze the action!

Now this is a somewhat optimistic rule and assumes that you are hand holding the camera using a good average technique.  But put the camera on a tripod and trigger it with a cable or remote release, and it’s a whole new story.

Why?  Because sticking the camera on a tripod and not touching it during the exposure means that we have taken away the “grounding effect” of our mass from the camera and lens; thus leaving the door open to for system vibration to ruin our image.


How Does System Vibration Effect an Image?

Nowadays we live in a digital world with very high resolution sensors instead of film. and the very nature of a sensor – its pixel structure (to use a common parlance) has a direct influence on minimum shutter speed.

So many camera owners today have the misguided notion that using a tripod is the answer to all their prayers in terms of getting sharp images – sadly this ain’t necessarily so.

They also have the other misguided notion that “more megapixels” makes life easier – well, that definitely isn’t true!

The smallest detail that can be recorded by a sensor is a point of light in the projected image that has the same dimensions a one photosite/pixel on that sensor. So, even if a point is SMALLER than the photosite it strikes, its intensity or luminance will effect the whole photosite.

detail 561x400 What Shutter Speed?

A point of light smaller than 1 photosite (left) has an effect on the whole photosite (right).

If the lens is capable of resolving this tiny detail, our sensor – in this case (right) – isn’t, and so the lens out-resolves the sensor.

But let’s now consider this tiny point detail and how it effects a sensor of higher resolution; in other words, a sensor with smaller photosites:

detail2 561x400 What Shutter Speed?

The same detail projected onto a higher resolution sensor (right). Though not shown, the entire photosite will be effected, but its surface area represents a much small percentage of the whole sensor area – the sensor now matches the lens resolution.

Now this might seem like a good thing; after all, we can resolve smaller details.  But, there’s a catch when it comes to vibration:

mirrorvibration 561x400 What Shutter Speed?

A certain level of vibration causes the small point of light to vibrate. The extremes of this vibration are represented by the the outline circles.

The degree of movement/vibration/oscillation is identical on both sensors; but the resulting effect on the exposure is totally different:

mirrorvibrationB 561x400 What Shutter Speed?

The same level of vibration has more effect on the higher resolution sensor.

If you read the earlier post on sensor resolution and diffraction HERE you’ll soon identify the same concept.

The upshot of it all is that “X” level of internal system vibration has a greater effect on a higher resolution sensor than it does on a lower resolution sensor.

Now what’s all this got to with shutter speed I hear you ask.  Well, whereas 1/focal length used to work pretty well back in the day, we need to advance the theory a little.

Let’s look at four shots from a Nikon D3, shot with a 300mm f2.8, mounted on a tripod and activated by a remote (so no finger-jabbing on the shutter button to effect the images).

Also please note that the lens is MANUALLY FOCUSED just once, so is sharply on the same place for all 4 shots.

These images are full resolution crops, I strongly recommend that you click on all four images to open them in new tabs and view them sequentially.

D3C8527 900x900 What Shutter Speed?

Shutter = 1/1x (1/320th) Focal Length. No VR, No MLU (Mirror Lock Up). Camera on Tripod+remote release.

D3C8528 What Shutter Speed?

Shutter = 1/2x (1/640th) Focal length. No VR. No MLU. Camera on Tripod+remote release.

D3C8529 What Shutter Speed?

Shutter = 1/2x Focal length + VR. No MLU. Camera on Tripod+remote release.

D3C8534 What Shutter Speed?

Shutter = 1/2x Focal length. Camera on Tripod+remote release + MLU – NO VR + Sandbag.

Now the thing is, the first shot at 1/320th looks crap because it’s riddled with system vibration – mainly a result of what’s termed ‘mirror slap’.  These vibrations travel up the lens barrel and are then reflected back by the front of the lens.  You basically end up with a packet of vibrations running up and down the lens barrel until they eventually die out.

These vibrations in effect make the sensor and the image being projected onto it ‘buzz, shimmy and shake’ – thus we get a fuzzy image; and all the fuzziness is down to internal system vibration.

We would actually have got a sharper shot hand holding the lens – the act of hand holding kills the vibrations!

As you can see in shot 2 we get a big jump in vibration reduction just by cranking the shutter speed up to 2x focal length (actually 1/640th).

The shot would be even sharper at 3x or 4x, because the vibrations are of a set frequency and thus speed of travel, and the faster the shutter speed we use the sooner we can get the exposure over and done with before the vibrations have any effect on the image.

We can employ ‘mirror up shooting’ as a technique to combat these vibrations; by lifting the mirror and then pausing to give the vibrations time to decay; and we could engage the lens VR too, as with the 3rd shot.  Collectively there has been another significant jump in overall sharpness of shot 3; though frankly the VR contribution is minimal.

I’m not a very big fan of VR !

In shot 4 you might get some idea why I’m no fan of VR.  Everything is the same as shot 3 except that the VR is OFF, and we’ve added a 3lb sandbag on top of the lens.  This does the same job as hand holding the lens – it kills the vibrations stone dead.

When you are shooting landscapes with much longer exposures/shutter speeds THE ONLY way to work is tripod plus mirror up shooting AND if you can stand to carry the weight, a good heavy sand bag!

Shot 4 would have been just as sharp if the shutter had been open for 20 seconds, just as long as there was no movement at all in the subject AND there was no ground vibration from a passing heavy goods train (there’s a rail track between the camera and the subject!).

For general tripod shooting of fairly static subjects I was always confident of sharp shots on the D3 (12Mb) at 2x focal length.

But since moving to a 16Mp D4 I’ve now found that sometimes this let’s me down, and that 2.5x focal length is a safer minimum to use.

But that’s nothing compared to what some medium format shooters have told me; where they can still detect the effects of vibration on super high resolution backs such as the IQ180 etc at as much as 5x focal length – and that’s with wide angle landscape style lenses!

So, overall my advice is to ALWAYS push for the highest shutter speed you can possibly obtain from the lighting conditions available.

Where this isn’t possible you really do need to perfect the skill of hand holding – once mastered you’ll be amazed at just how slow a shutter speed you can use WITHOUT employing the VR system (VR/IS often causes far more problems than it would apparently solve).

For long lens shooters the technique of killing vibration at low shutter speeds when the gear is mounted on a tripod is CRITICAL, because without it, the images will suffer just because of the tripod!

The remedy is simple – it’s what your left arm is for.

So, to recap:

  • If you shot without a tripod, the physical act of hand holding – properly – has a tendency to negate internal system vibrations caused by mirror slap etc just because your physical mass is in direct contact with the camera and lens, and so “damps” the vibrations.
  • If you shoot without a tripod you need to ensure that you are using a shutter speed fast enough to negate camera shake.
  • If you shoot without a tripod you need to ensure that you are using a shutter speed fast enough to FREEZE the action/movement of your subject.


Camera Shake and STUPID VR!

Now I’m going to have to say at the outset that this is only my opinion, and that this is pointed at Nikons VR system, and I don’t strictly know if Canons IS system works on the same math.

And this is not relevant to sensor-based stabilization, only the ‘in the lens’ type of VR.

The mechanics of how it works are somewhat irrelevant, but what is important is its working methodology.

Nikon VR works at a frequency of 1000Hz.

What is a “hertz”?  Well 1Hz = 1 full frequency cycle per second.  So 1000Hz = 1000 cycles per second, and each cycle is 1/1000th sec in duration.

VRcycle 900x675 What Shutter Speed?

Full cycle sine wave showing 1,0.5 & 0.25 cycles.

Now then, here’s the thing.  The VR unit is measuring the angular momentum of the lens movement at a rate of 1000 times per second. So in other words it is “sampling” movement every 1/1000th of a second and attempting to compensate for that movement.

But Nyquist-Shannon sampling theory – if you’re up for some mind-warping click HERE – says that effective sampling can only be achieved at half the working frequency – 500 cycles per second.

What is the time duration of one cycle at a frequency of 500Hz?  That’s right – 1/500th sec.

So basically, for normal photography, VR ceases to be of any real use at any shutter speed faster than 1/500th.

Remember shot 3 with the 300mm f2.8 earlier – I said the VR contribution at 1/640th was minimal?  Now you know why I said it!

Looking again at the frequency diagram above, we may get a fairly useful sample at 1/4 working frequency – 1/250th sec; but other than that my personal feelings about VR is that it’s junk – under normal circumstances it should be turned OFF.

What circumstances do I class as abnormal? Sitting on the floor of a heli doing ariel shots out of the open door springs to mind.

If you are working in an environment where something is vibrating YOU while you hand hold the camera then VR comes into its own.

But if it’s YOU doing the vibrating/shaking then it’s not going to help you very much in reality.

Yes, it looks good when you try it in the shop, and the sales twat tells you it’ll buy you three extra stops in shutter speed so now you can get shake-free shots at 1/10th of a second.

But unless you are photographing an anaesthetized Sloth or a statue, that 1/10th sec shutter speed is about as much use to you as a hole in the head. VR/IS only stabilizes the lens image – it doesn’t freeze time and stop a bird from flapping its wings, or indeed a brides veil from billowing in the breeze.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying VR/IS is a total waste of time in ALL circumstances.  But I am saying that it’s a tool that should only be deployed when you need it, and YOU need to understand WHEN that time is; AND you need to be aware that it can cause major image problems if you use it in the wrong situation.


In Conclusion

DSC6460 600x400 What Shutter Speed?

1/2000th sec is sufficient to pretty much freeze the forward motion of this eagle, but not the downward motion of the primary feathers.

This rather crappy shot of a White-tailed eagle might give you food for thought, especially if compared with the Red Kite at the start of the post.

The primary feathers are soft because we’ve run out of depth of field.  But, notice the motion blur on them too?  Even though 1/2000th sec in conjunction with a good panning technique is ample to freeze the forward motion of the bird, that same 1/2000th sec is NOT fast enough to freeze the speed of the descending primary feathers on the end of that 4 foot lever called a wing.

Even though your subject as a whole might be still for 1/60th sec or longer, unless it’s dead, some small part of it will move.  The larger the subject is in the frame then more apparent that movement will be.

Getting good sharp shots without motion blur in part of the subject, or camera shake and system vibration screwing up the entire image is easy; as long as you understand the basics – and your best tool to help you on your way is SHUTTER SPEED.

A tack sharp shot without blur but full of high iso noise is vastly superior to a noiseless shot full of blur and vibration artefacting.

Unless it’s done deliberately of course – “H-arty Farty” as my mate Ole Martin Dahle calls it!

Please consider supporting this blog.

This blog really does need your support. All the information I put on these pages I do freely, but it does involve costs in both time and money.

If you find this post useful and informative please could you help by making a small donation – it would really help me out a lot – whatever you can afford would be gratefully received.

Your donation will help offset the costs of running this blog and so help me to bring you lots more useful and informative content.

Many thanks in advance.


Nikon D4S

The new Nikon D4S announced today


D4S D4 Nikon D4S

Nikon D4S left & D4 right

Well, that’s about right, my sexy Nikon D4 is officially out of date, and thanks to the Nikon D4S I’ve just lost a grand off the resale value of my camera – cheers chaps…..

Is Uncle Andy stressed at all about being kitted out with yesterdays gear?

Nope, not really.

So what’s new on the Nikon D4S ?

  • Well there’s been a few ergonomic tweaks which basically mean nothing for starters.
  • Seemingly dispelled are the rumours that it would have a higher Mp count – apparently this stays the same at 16.2Mp.
  • I was expecting some major change in AF but no, they’ve kept the venerable Multi-Cam 3500FX system.
  • New sensor design.
  • BUT – they’ve changed the image processor to Expeed 4 from Expeed 3.
  • AND – they’ve changed the battery from EN-EL18 to an EN-EL18a.

Bare in mind all I’m going on is the web – perish the thought that Nikon would ever think my opinion worthy of note and ACTUALLY SEND ME ONE.

Other changes:

  • A new Group Area AF mode – which from my own photography PoV is fairly meaningless, seeing as we already have 9 point dynamic AF – I can’t see it’ll make much difference. Plus, the Group AF mode always focusses on the nearest point – something you rarely want the camera to do!
  • 6 possible white balance presets as opposed to 3 on the D4 – I jam all my cameras into Cloudy B1 custom WB and leave them there – so this improvement isn’t worth jumping up and down about either.
  • Fairly gimmicky S Raw
  • Spot White Balance

On the storage front most reports say that the D4S carries over the D4 crazy arrangement of 1x CF plus 1x XQD.

My Basic Thoughts:

New Sensor – well the benefits can’t been seen by yours truly until I see a few RAW files from it – preferably taken by myself.

I’m glad they’ve kept it to 16.2Mp – if you crunch the numbers this is the optimum Mp count for an FX sensor – as Canon worked out aeons ago with the 1DsMk2; but then joined the stupid Mp race.

Image Processor changes – well, it’s reportedly 30% faster than the Expeed 3, which basically means that the D4S fires off images to storage 30% faster.

Now I can go out with the D4 and shoot getting on for 100 uncompressed 14bit RAW files in one continuous burst at 8 or 9 fps – do I want to chew through my storage any faster?  NO!

The Expeed 4 gives better high ISO performance?

Well perhaps it does, but I look at it this way.  If light is so damn low that you need to shoot at crackpot ISO numbers then you can say one thing – the light is crap.

If the light is crap then the image will look like crap – it’s just that with the Expeed 4 it’ll be slightly less noisy crap.

If I can pull 1/8000th sec at f7 or f8 at 3200ISO in half descent looking light using a D4 – which I do regularly – then why do I need a higher ISO capability?

The Red Squidger images you’ve seen in the previous blog articles are all 2000ISO and there is ZERO noise degradation – so again, why do I need more ISO capability.

Now if I was a ‘jobbing’ photo-jounalist, or I was embedded with the troops in Afghanistan or something of that ilk then I’d perhaps have a much different attitude.

But I’m not, and from my own perspective of wildlife & natural history photography these changes are of little interest to me – especially when they have a £5k price tag.

Battery Changes

There was always a persistent gripe about the battery life of the D4 EN-EL18 power cell – well, I’ve got two of them and have had no problems AT ALL with batteries running low.

I was REALLY annoyed that they switched from EN-EL4A D2/D3 style batteries – I’d got a handful of those already, and now when I go to Norway in June I’ve got to take 2 bloody chargers with me: yes the venerable D3 will be getting a summer holiday this year as second camera.

So, for me at least, the increased battery life of the new Nikon D4S 18a batteries is somewhat inconsequential – why do I want a battery that lasts longer than ‘for ever’ ??

Other Changes/Additions

I can’t see anything that excites me:  spot white balance?  Go and buy a Colour Checker Passport and do the job right – and that doesn’t cost £5k either (though they are a bit pricey).

Group Area AF – do me a favour (see above).

6 White Balance presets – what’s the point?

All of the above could be given away by Nikon as a firmware update for the D4 if they fancied being generous!

What I Would Have Got Excited About.

Twin UDMA 7 CF card slots and an XQD slot for dedicated video recording.

An improved AF module.

The ability to select ‘matched pairs’ of sensors – Canon offered this years ago and it was brilliant.

Internally recorded FX video of EXACTLY the same quality as that of a Canon 5D3, or at least the same quality as internal 1080p CROP.

AF mode selector back WHERE IT SHOULD BE!

Me being put in charge at Nikon!

In Conclusion

Do I want to buy one (even if I had the dough) – NO!

Do I wish I could afford one – NO!

Would I swap my D4 for a D4s – well of course I would.

Seriously though, I can just see an awful lot of people getting “hot under the collar” and stressing over this latest incarnation of this pro body from Nikon; but seriously, if you are then you need to just take a quiet step back and think about things calmly.

There is nothing – IMHO of course – on the D4S that warrants upgrading from the D4 – unless you have a penchant for spending your money that is.

But if you are still on a D3 or something older, and were thinking about buying a D4 – then hold off a while until the D4S in available; it’s makes better fiscal sense.


Please consider supporting this blog.

This blog really does need your support. All the information I put on these pages I do freely, but it does involve costs in both time and money.

If you find this post useful and informative please could you help by making a small donation – it would really help me out a lot – whatever you can afford would be gratefully received.

Your donation will help offset the costs of running this blog and so help me to bring you lots more useful and informative content.

Many thanks in advance.


Flash Photography

Flash Photography


D4R4090 266x400 Flash Photography

Really Cute Red Squirrel


On Sunday myself and my buddy Mark Davies made a short foray up to the Lake District and our small Red Squirrel site.  The weather was horrible, sleet, sun. rain, cloudy, sunny then rain again – in other words just not conducive to a half-descent session on the D4.

The one Achilles Heal with this site is the fact that it’s hard to get a descent background for your shots – it’s in the middle of a small wooded valley and you just can’t get away from tree trunks in the background.

This is further complicated by the fact that the “Squidgers” have a propensity for keeping in the ‘not so sunny’ bits, so frequently you end up with a scenario where backgrounds are brighter than foregrounds – which just won’t DO!

So what’s needed is some way to switch the lighting balance around to give a brighter foreground/subject AND a darker background.

Now that sounds all very well BUT; how do we achieve it?

Reflectors perhaps?  They’d do the trick but have one big problem; they rely on AMBIENT light  – and in the conditions we were shooting in the other day the value of the ambient light was up and down like a Yo-Yo.

Wouldn’t it be cool if we could have a consistent level of subject/foreground illumination AND at the same time have some degree of control over the exposure of the background?

Well with flash we can do just that!

Let’s look at a shot without flash:


D4R4109 600x400 Flash Photography

No FLASH, AMBIENT light only – 1/320th @ f7.1


I don’t suppose this shot is too bad because the background isn’t strongly lit by the sun (it’s gone behind a cloud again!) but the foreground and background are pretty much the same exposure-wise.  For me there is not enough tonal separation between the two areas of the image, and the lighting is a bit flat.

If we could knock a stop or so out of the background; under expose it, then the image would have more tonal separation between foreground and background, and would look a lot better, but of course if we’re just working with ambient light then our adjusted exposure would under expose the foreground as well, so we’d be no better off.

Now look at the next image – we’ve got a background that’s under exposed by around  -1.5Ev, but the subject and foreground are lit pretty much to the same degree as before, and we’ve got a little more shape and form to the squirrel itself – it’s not quite so flat-looking.


D4R4230 600x400 Flash Photography

With FLASH added – 1/800th @ f7.1


The image also has the slight sense that it’s been shot in more sunny conditions – which I can promise you it wasn’t !

And both images are basically straight off the camera, just with my neutral camera profile applied to them on import.


The Set Up

setup 400x400 Flash Photography

The Setup – shocking iPhone 3 quality!


The first secret to good looking flash photography OF ANY KIND is to get the damn flash OFF the camera.

If we were in a totally dark studio with the sexiest looking model on the planet we’d NOT be lighting her with one light from the camera position now would we?

So we use basic studio lighting layouts where ever we can.

There are two other things to consider too:

  •   It’s broad daylight, so our exposure will contain both FLASH and an element of AMBIENT light – so we are working along the premise of ADDING to what’s already there.
  •   If we put the flash closer to the subject (off camera) then the output energy has less distance to travel in order to do its job – so it doesn’t have to have as much power behind it as it would have if emanating from the camera position.


You can see in the horrible iPhone 3 shot I took of the setup that I’m using two flash guns with white Lambency diffusers on them; one on a stand to the left and slightly in front of the log where the squirrels will sit, and one placed on the set base (Mr. Davies old knackered Black & Decker Workmate!) slightly behind the log and about the same distance away from where I anticipate a squirrel will sit on the log as the left flash.

The thing to note here is that I’m using the SIDE output of these Lambency diffuser domes and NOT the front – that’s why they are pointed up at the sky. The side output of these diffusers is very soft – just what the flash photography doctor ordered in terms of ‘keeping it real’.

The left light is going to be my MAIN light, the right is my FILL light.

The sun, when & if it decides to pop its head out, will be behind me and to my left so I place my MAIN light in a position where it will ‘simulate’ said ball in the sky.

The FILL light basically exists to ‘counter balance’ the ‘directionality’ of the MAIN light, and to weaken any shadows thrown by the MAIN light.

Does this flash bother a subject? For the most part NOT SO YOU’D NOTICE!

Take a look at the shot below – the caption will be relevant shortly.

D4R4225 600x400 Flash Photography

This SB800 has just fired in “front curtain synch” and the balance of the exposure is from the ambient light. Does the squirrel look bothered?

Settings & The Black Art!

Before we talk about anything else I need to address the shutter curtain synch question.

We have two curtain synch options, FRONT & REAR.

Front Curtain (as in the shot above) – this means that the flash will fire as the front curtain starts to move, and most likely, the flash will be finished long before the rear curtain closes. If your subject reacts to the flash then some element of subject movement might be present in the shot due to the ambient light part of the exposure.

Rear Curtain Synch – my recommended ‘modus operandi’ – the ‘ambient only’ part of the exposure gets done first, then the flash fires as the rear curtain begins to close the exposure. This way, if the subject reacts to the flash the exposure will be over before it has chance to – MOSTLY!

The framing I want, and the depth of field I want dictates my camera position and aperture – in this case f7 or f8 – actually f7.1 is what I went for.


I elect to go with 2000 iso on the D4.

So now my only variable is shutter speed.

Ambient light dictates that to be 1/320th on average, and I want to UNDER EXPOSE that background by at least a stop and a bit (technical terms indeed!) so I elect to use a shutter speed of 1/800th.

So that’s it – I’m done; seeing as the light from the flashes will be constant my foreground/subject will ALWAYS be exposed correctly. In rear curtain synch I’ll negate the risk of subject movement ‘ghosting’ in the image, and at 1/800th I’ll have a far better chance of eliminating motion blur caused by a squirrel chewing food or twitching its whiskers etc.


Triggering Off-Camera Flashes


We can fire off-camera flashes in a number of ways, but distance, wet ground, occasional rain and squirrels with a propensity for chewing everything they see means CORDS ain’t one of ’em!

With the Nikon system that I obviously use we could employ another flash on-camera in MASTER/COMMANDER mode, with the flash pulse deactivated; or a dedicated commander such as the SU800; or if your camera has one, the built-in flash if it has a commander mode in the menu.

The one problem with Nikon CLS triggering system, and Canons as far as I know, is the reliance upon infra-red as the communication band. This is prone to a degree of unreliability in what we might term ‘dodgy’ conditions outdoors.

I use a Pocket Wizard MiniTT1 atop the camera and a FlexTT5 under my main light. The beauty of this system is that the comms is RADIO – far more reliable outdoors than IR.

Because a. I’m poor and can’t afford another TT5, and b. the proximity of my MAIN and FILL light, I put the SB800 FILL light in SU mode so it gets triggered by the flash from the MAIN light.

What I wouldn’t give for a dozen Nikon SB901’s and 12 TT5s – I’d kill for them!

The MAIN light itself is in TTL FP mode.

The beauty of this setup is that the MAIN light ‘thinks’ the TT5 is a camera, and the camera ‘thinks’ the miniTTL is a flash gun, so I have direct communication between camera and flash of iso and aperture information.

Also, I can turn the flash output down by up to -3Ev using the flash exposure compensation button without it having an effect on the background ambient exposure.

Don’t forget, seeing as my exposure is always going to 1/800th @ f7.1 at 2000 iso the CAMERA is in MANUAL exposure mode. So as long as the two flashes output enough light to expose the subject correctly at those settings (which they always will until the batteries die!) I basically can’t go wrong.

When shooting like this I also have a major leaning towards shooting in single servo – one shot at a time with just one AF point active.


Flash Photography – Flash Duration or Burn Time

Now here’s what you need to get your head around. As you vary the output of a flash like the SB800 the DURATION of the flash or BURN TIME of the tube changes

Below are the quoted figures for the Nikon SB800, burn time/output:

1/1050 sec. at M1/1 (full) output
1/1100 sec. at M1/2 output
1/2700 sec. at M1/4 output
1/5900 sec. at M1/8 output
1/10900 sec. at M1/16 output
1/17800 sec. at M1/32 output
1/32300 sec. at M1/64 output
1/41600 sec. at M1/128 output

On top of that there’s something else we need to take into account – and this goes for Canon shooters too; though Canon terminology is different.

Shutter Speed & The FP Option

35mm format cameras all have a falling curtain shutter with two curtains, a front one, and a rear one.

As your press the shutter button the FRONT curtain starts to fall, then the rear curtain starts to chase after it, the two meet at the bottom of the shutter plane and the exposure is over.

The LONGER or slower the shutter speed the greater head-start the front curtain has!

At speeds of 1/250th and slower the front curtain has reached the end of its travel BEFORE the rear curtain wakes up and decides to move – in other words THE SENSOR is FULLY exposed.

The fastest shutter speed that results in a FULLY EXPOSED film plane/sensor is the basic camera-to-flash synch speed; X synch as it used to be called, and when I started learning about photography this was usually 1/60th; and on some really crap cameras it was 1/30th!

But with modern technology and light weight materials these curtains can now get moving a lot faster, so basic synch now runs at 1/250th for a full frame DSLR.

If you go into your flash camera menu you’ll find an AUTO FP setting for Nikon, Canon refer to this as HSS or High Speed Synch – which makes far more sense (Nikon please take note, Canon got something right so please replicate!).

There’s something of an argument as to whether FP stands for Focal Plane or Flash Pulse; and frankly both are applicable, but it means the same as Canon’s HSS or High Speed Synch.

At speeds above/faster than 1/250th the sensor/film plane is NOT fully exposed. The gap between the front and rear curtains forms a slot or ‘letter box’ that travels downwards across the face of the sensor, so the image is, if you like, ‘scanned’ onto the imaging plane.

Obviously this is going to cause on heck of an exposure problem if the flash output is ‘dumped’ as a single pulse.

So FP/HSS mode physically pulses or strobes the flash output to the point where it behaves like a continuous light source.

If the flash was to fire with a single pulse then the ‘letterbox slot’ would receive the flash exposure, but you’d end up with bands of under exposure at the bottom or top of the image depending on the curtain synch mode – front or rear.

In FP/HSS mode the power output of each individual pulse in the sequence will drop as the shutter speed shortens, so even though you might have 1:1 power selected on the back of the flash itself (which I usually do on the MAIN light, and 1/2 on the FILL light) the pulses of light will be of lower power, but their cumulative effect gives the desired result.

By reviewing the shot on the back of the camera we can compensate for changes in ambient in the entire scene (we might want to dilute the effect of the main light somewhat if the sun suddenly breaks out on the subject as well as the background) by raising the shutter speed a little – or we might want to lighten the shot globally by lowering the shutter speed if it suddenly goes very gloomy.

We might want to change the balance between ambient and flash; this again can be done from the camera with the flash exposure compensation controls; or if needs be, by physically getting up and moving the flash units are little nearer or further away from the subject.

All in all, using flash is really easy, and always has been.

Except nowadays manufacturers tend to put far more controls and modes on things then are really necessary; the upshot of which is to frighten the uninitiated and then confuse them even further with instruction manuals that appear to be written by someone under the influence of Class A drugs!


D4R4091 266x400 Flash Photography

“Trouble Brewing..” Confrontation over the right to feed between two Red Squirrels.


The whole idea of flash is that it should do its job but leave no obvious trace to the viewer.

But its benefits to you as the photographer are invaluable – higher shutter speeds, more depth of field and better isolation of the subject from its background are the three main ones that you need to be taking advantage of right now.


If you have the gear and don’t understand how to use it then why not book a tuition day with me – then perhaps I could afford some more TT5s!

Please consider supporting this blog.

This blog really does need your support. All the information I put on these pages I do freely, but it does involve costs in both time and money.

If you find this post useful and informative please could you help by making a small donation – it would really help me out a lot – whatever you can afford would be gratefully received.

Your donation will help offset the costs of running this blog and so help me to bring you lots more useful and informative content.

Many thanks in advance.


Lens Performance

I have a friend – yes, a strange concept I know, but I do have some – we’ll call him Steve.

Steve is a very talented photographer – when he’ll give himself half a chance; but impatience can sometimes get the better of him.

He’ll have a great scene in front of him but then he’ll forget things such as any focus or exposure considerations the scene demands, and the resulting image will be crap!

Quite often, a few of Steve’s character flaws begin to emerge at this juncture.

Firstly, Steve only remembers his successes; this leads to the unassailable ‘fact’ that he couldn’t possibly have ‘screwed up’.

So now we can all guess the conclusive outcome of that scenario can’t we……..that’s right; his camera gear has fallen short in the performance department.

Clairvoyance department would actually be more accurate!

So this ‘error in his camera system’ needs to be stamped on – hard and fast!

This leads to Steve embarking on a massive information-gathering exercise from various learned sources on ‘that there inter web’ – where another of Steve’s flaws shows up; that of disjointed speed reading…..

The terrifying outcome of these situations usually concludes with Steve’s confident affirmation that some piece of his equipment has let him down; not just by becoming faulty but sometimes, more worryingly by initial design.

These conclusions are always arrived at in the same manner – the various little snippets of truth and random dis-associated facts that Steve gathers, all get forcibly hammered into some hellish, bastardized ‘factual’ jigsaw in his head.

There was a time when Steve used to ask me first, but he gave up on that because my usual answer contravened the outcome of his first mentioned character flaw!

Lately one of Steve’s biggest peeves has been the performance of one or two of his various lenses.

Ostensibly you’ll perhaps think there’s nothing wrong in that – after all, the image generated by the camera is only as good as the lens used to gather the light in the scene – isn’t it?


But there’s a potential problem, and it  lies in what evidence you base your conclusions on……………


For Steve, at present, it’s manufacturers MTF charts, and comparisons thereof, coupled with his own images as they appear in Lightroom or Photoshop ACR.

Again, this might sound like a logical methodology – but it isn’t.

It’s flawed on so many levels.


The Image Path from Lens to Sensor

We could think of the path that light travels along in order to get to our camera sensor as a sort of Grand National horse race – a steeplechase for photons!

“They’re under starters orders ladies and gentlemen………………and they’re off!”

As light enters the lens it comes across it’s first set of hurdles – the various lens elements and element groups that it has to pass through.

Then they arrive at Becher’s Brook – the aperture, where there are many fallers.

Carefully staying clear of the inside rail and being watchful of any lose photons that have unseated their riders at Becher’s we move on over Foinavon – the rear lens elements, and we then arrive at the infamous Canal Turn – the Optical Low Pass filter; also known as the Anti-alias filter.

Crashing on past the low pass filter and on over Valentines only the bravest photons are left to tackle the the last big fence on their journey – The Chair – our camera sensor itself.


Okay, I’ll behave myself now, but you get the general idea – any obstacle that lies in the path of light between the front surface of our lens and the photo-voltaic surface of our sensor is a BAD thing.

Image Path1 900x426 Lens Performance

The various obstacles to light as it passes through a camera (ASIC = Application Specific Integrated Circuit)

The problems are many, but let’s list a few:

  1. Every element reduces the level of transmitted light.
  2. Because the lens elements have curved surfaces, light is refracted or bent; the trick is to make all wavelengths of light refract to the same degree – failure results in either lateral or longitudinal chromatic aberration – or worse still, both.
  3. The aperture causes diffraction – already discussed HERE

We have already seen in that same previous post on Sensor Resolution that the number of megapixels can effect overall image quality in terms of overall perceived sharpness due to pixel-pitch, so all things considered, using photographs of any 3 dimensional scene is not always a wise method of judging lens performance.

And here is another reason why it’s not a good idea – the effect on image quality/perceived lens resolution of anti-alias, moire or optical low pass filter; and any other pre-filtering.

I’m not going to delve into the functional whys and wherefores of an AA filter, save to say that it’s deemed a necessary evil on most sensors, and that it can make your images take on a certain softness because it basically adds blur to every edge in the image projected by the lens onto your sensor.

The reasoning behind it is that it stops ‘moire patterning’ in areas of high frequency repeated detail.  This it does, but what about the areas in the image where its effect is not required – TOUGH!


Many photographers have paid service suppliers for AA filter removal just to squeeze the last bit of sharpness out of their sensors, and Nikon of course offer the ‘sort of AA filter-less’ D800E.

Side bar note:  I’ve always found that with Nikon cameras at least, the pro-body range seem to suffer a lot less from undesirable AA filtration softening than than their “amateur” and “semi pro” bodies – most notably the D2X compared to a D200, and the D3 compared to the D700 & D300.  Perhaps this is due to a ‘thinner’ filter, or a higher quality filter – I don’t know, and to be honest I’ve never had the desire to ‘poke Nikon with a sharp stick’ in order to find out.


Back in the days of film things were really simple – image resolution was governed by just two things; lens resolution and film resolution:

1/image resolution = 1/lens resolution + 1/film resolution

Film resolution was a variable depending on the Ag Halide distribution and structure,  dye coupler efficacy within the film emulsion, and the thickness of the emulsion or tri-pack itself.

But today things are far more complicated.

With digital photography we have all those extra hurdles to jump over that I mentioned earlier, so we end up with a situation whereby:

1/Image Resolution = 1/lens resolution + 1/AA filter resolution + 1/sensor resolution + 1/image processor/imaging ASIC resolution

Steve is chasing after lens resolution under the slightly misguided idea the resolution equates to sharpness, which is not strictly true; but he is basing his conception of lens sharpness based on the detail content and perceived detail ‘sharpness’ of his  images; which are ‘polluted’ if you like by the effects of the AA filter, sensor and imaging ASIC.

What it boils down to, in very simplified terms, is this:

You can have one particular lens that, in combination with one camera sensor produces a superb image, but in combination with another sensor produces a not-quite-so-superb image!

On top of the “fixed system” hurdles I’ve outlined above, we must not forget the potential for errors introduced by lens-to-body mount flange inaccuracies, and of course, the big elephant-in-the-room – operator error – ehh Steve.

So attempting to quantify the pure ‘optical performance’ of a lens using your ‘taken images’ is something of a pointless exercise; you cannot see the pure lens sharpness or resolution unless you put the lens on a fully equipped optical test bench – and how many of us have got access to one of those?

The truth of the matter is that the average photographer has to trust the manufacturers to supply accurately put together equipment, and he or she has to assume that all is well inside the box they’ve just purchased from their photographic supplier.

But how can we judge a lens against an assumed standard of perfection before we part with our cash?

A lot of folk, including Steve – look at MTF charts.


The MTF Chart

Firstly, MTF stands for Modulation Transfer Function – modu-what I hear your ask!

OK – let’s deal with the modulation bit.  Forget colour for a minute and consider yourself living in a black & white world.  Dark objects in a scene reflect few photons of light – ’tis why the appear dark!  Conversely, bright objects reflect loads of the little buggers, hence these objects appear bright.

Imagine now that we are in a sealed room totally impervious to the ingress of any light from outside, and that the room is painted matte white from floor to ceiling – what is the perceived colour of the room? Black is the answer you are looking for!

Now turn on that 2 million candle-power 6500k searchlight in the corner.  The split second before your retinas melted, what was the perceived colour of the room?

Note the use of the word ‘perceived’ – the actual colour never changed!

The luminosity value of every surface in the room changed from black to white/dark to bright – the luminosity values MODULATED.

Now back in reality we can say that a set of alternating black and white lines of equal width and crisp clean edges represent a high degree of contrast, and therefore tonal modulation; and the finer the lines the higher is the modulation frequency – which we measure in lines per millimeter (lpmm).

A lens takes in a scene of these alternating black and white lines and, just like it does with any other scene, projects it into an image circle; in other words it takes what it sees in front of it and ‘transfers’ the scene to the image circle behind it.

With a bit of luck and a fair wind this image circle is being projected sharply into the focal plane of the lens, and hopefully the focal plane matches up perfectly with the plane of the sensor – what used to be refereed to as the film plane.

The efficacy with which the lens carries out this ‘transfer’ in terms of maintaining both the contrast ratio of the modulated tones and the spatial separation of the lines is its transfer function.

So now you know what MTF stands for and what it means – good this isn’t it!


Let’s look at an MTF chart:

Nikon 500mmf4MTF Lens Performance

Nikon 500mm f4 MTF chart

Now what does all this mean?


Firstly, the vertical axis – this can be regarded as that ‘efficacy’ I mentioned above – the accuracy of tonal contrast and separation reproduction in the projected image; 1.0 would be perfect, and 0 would be crappier than the crappiest version of a crap thing!

The horizontal axis – this requires a bit of brain power! It is scaled in increments of 5 millimeters from the lens axis AT THE FOCAL PLANE.

The terminus value at the right hand end of the axis is unmarked, but equates to 21.63mm – half the opposing corner-to-corner dimension of a 35mm frame.

Now consider the diagram below:

ImageCircle 853x900 Lens Performance

The radial dimensions of the 35mm format.

These are the radial dimensions, in millimeters, of a 35mm format frame (solid black rectangle).

The lens axis passes through the center axis of the sensor, so the radii of the green, yellow and dashed circles correspond to values along the horizontal axis of an MTF chart.

Let’s simplify what we’ve learned about MTF axes:

Modi500mmf4MTF Lens Performance

MTF axes hopefully made simpler!

Now we come to the information data plots; firstly the meaning of Sagittal & Meridional.   From our perspective in this instance I find it easier for folk to think of them as ‘parallel to’ and ‘at right angles to’ the axis of measurement, though strictly speaking Meridional is circular and Sagittal is radial.

This axis of measurement is from the lens/film plane/sensor center to the corner of a 35mm frame – in other words, along that 21.63mm radius.

ImageCircle21 900x708 Lens Performance

The axis of MTF measurement and the relative axial orientation of Sagittal & Meridional lines. NOTE: the target lines are ONLY for illustration.

Separate measurements are taken for each modulation frequency along the entire measurement axis:

ImageCircle31 900x708 Lens Performance

Thin Meridional MTF measurement. (They should be concentric circles but I can’t draw concentric circles!).

Let’s look at that MTF curve for the 500m f4 Nikon together with a legend of ‘sharpness’ – the 300 f2.8:

MTF2 900x545 Lens Performance

Nikon MTF comparison between the 500mm f4 & 300mm f2.8

Nikon say on their website that they measure MTF at maximum aperture, that is, wide open; so the 300mm chart is for an aperture of f2.8 (though they don’t say so) and the 500mm is for an f4 aperture – which they do specify on the chart – don’t ask me why ‘cos I’ve no idea.

As we can see, the best transfer values for the two lenses (and all other lenses) is 10 lines per millimeter, and generally speaking sagittal orientation usually performs slightly better than meridional, but not always.

10 lpmm is always going to give a good transfer value because its very coarse and represents a lower frequency of detail than 30 lpmm.

Funny thing, 10 lines per millimeter is 5 line pairs per millimeter – and where have we heard that before? HERE – it’s the resolution of the human eye at 25 centimeters.


Another interesting thing to bare in mind is that, as the charts clearly show, better transfer values occur closer to the lens axis/sensor center, and that performance falls as you get closer to the frame corners.

This is simply down to the fact that your are getting closer to the inner edge of the image circle (the dotted line in the diagrams above).  If manufacturers made lenses that threw a larger image circle then corner MTF performance would increase – it can be done – that’s the basis upon which PCE/TS lenses work.

One way to take advantage of center MTF performance is to use a cropped sensor – I still use my trusty D2Xs for a lot of macro work; not only do I get the benefit of center MTF performance across the majority of the frame but I also have the ability to increase the lens to subject distance and get the composition I want, so my depth of field increases slightly for any given aperture.

Back to the matter at hand, here’s my first problem with the likes of Nikon, Canon etc:  they don’t specify the lens-to-target distance. A lens that gives a transfer value of 9o% plus on a target of 10 lpmm sagittal at 2 meters distance is one thing; one that did the same but at 25 meters would be something else again.

You might look at the MTF chart above and think that the 300mm f2.8 lens is poor on a target resolution of  30 lines per millimeter compared to the 500mm, but we need to temper that conclusion with a few facts:

  1. A 300mm lens is a lot wider in Field of View (FoV) than a 500mm so there is a lot more ‘scene width’ being pushed through the lens – detail is ‘less magnified’.
  2. How much ‘less magnified’ –  40% less than at 500mm, and yet the 30 lpmm transfer value is within 6% to 7% that of the 500mm – overall a seemingly much better lens in MTF terms.
  3. The lens is f2.8 – great for letting light in but rubbish for everything else!

Most conventional lenses have one thing in common – their best working aperture for overall image quality is around f8.

But we have to counter balance the above with the lack of aforementioned target distance information.  The minimum focus distances for the two comparison lenses are 2.3 meters and 4.0 meters respectively so obviously we know that the targets are imaged and measured at vastly different distances – but without factual knowledge of the testing distances we cannot really say that one lens is better than the other.


My next problem with most manufacturers MTF charts is that the values are supplied ‘a la white light’.

I mentioned earlier – much earlier! – that lens elements refracted light, and the importance of all wavelengths being refracted to the same degree, otherwise we end up with either lateral or longitudinal chromatic aberration – or worse still – both!

Longitudinal CA will give us different focal planes for different colours contained within white light – NOT GOOD!

Lateral CA gives us the same plane of focus but this time we get lateral shifts in the red, green and blue components of the image, as if the 3 colour channels have come out of register – again NOT GOOD!

Both CA types are most commonly seen along defined edges of colour and/or tone, and as such they both effect transferred edge definition and detail.

So why do manufacturers NOT publish this information – there is to my knowledge only one that does – Schneider (read ‘proper lens’).

They produce some very meaningful MTF data for their lenses with modulation frequencies in excess of 90 to 150 lpmm; separate R,G & B curves; spectral weighting variations for different colour temperatures of light and all sorts of other ‘geeky goodies’ – I just love it all!


SHAME ON YOU NIKON – and that goes for Canon and Sigma just as much.


So you might now be asking WHY they don’t publish the data – they must have it – are they treating us like fools that wouldn’t be able to understand it; OR – are they trying to hide something?

You guys think what you will – I’m not accusing anyone of anything here.

But if they are trying to hide something then that ‘something’ might not be what you guys are thinking.

What would you think if I told you that if you were a lens designer you could produce an MTF plot with a calculator – ‘cos you can, and they do!

So, in a nutshell, most manufacturers MTF charts as published for us to see are worse than useless.  We can’t effectively use them to compare one lens against another because of missing data; we can’t get an idea of CA performance because of missing red, green and blue MTF curves; and finally we can’t even trust that the bit of data they do impart is even bloody genuine.


Please don’t get taken in by them next time you fancy spending money on glass – take your time and ask around – better still try one; and try it on more than 1 camera body!


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