Pre-Trip Blues

In a few days I will be heading into the Kahiltna Glacier in hopes of getting images of Denali and the surrounding peaks and glaciers. The days before a big trip are always exciting. As a wilderness photographer, they can also be a little depressing. We have had two weeks of clear weather, however, clouds are expected to roll in on Saturday, the day we fly. Another concern is the cold, highs have been barely squeaking over zero near Denali and the lows are way below -20F.

My partners are full of excitement and can’t wait to get out there. Though they would prefer clear days, clouds are okay too. And the cold isn’t as a big concern for them either, just crawl into a warm sleeping bag and read a good book.  I can’t stop thinking about the cost of the flight, the time away from family and what if its cloudy and stormy the entire trip? In the back of my mind I keep thinking “Is this a waste of time and money?” And what if I do have nice weather, can I bring up the courage to crawl out of my bag, in the dark, to catch the morning light when its -40F or colder?

Second to wildlife photography, remote wilderness and mountain photography can be the most frustrating of the outdoor photography genres. So why do it? It’s hard to explain. But when that perfect light comes and the mountains and glaciers glow, I forget about the cold and the wind, about money and first world concerns and live in the moment. It may only last a few moments but its effects last a lot longer.

See you in a few weeks!

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Nikon D800e Review

UPDATE 4/20/2013 I have had some serious issues with this camera since I did this review, please have a look at my other post, especially the Kahiltna Trip Day. It appears that certain cards can crash the camera, the culprit for me was a Lexar Pro 64gb 800x.

Is this the best digital camera for mountain photography?

I have now owned the Nikon d800e for about five  months and I feel comfortable reviewing its abilities. I will only be discussing it as a possible wilderness-mountain photography camera and won’t be doing a general review of its features or broad appeal.

I have written before on what I look for in a digital camera, it is a short list and I will go through my requirements and discuss whether or not the D800e fits my needs.

If you are patient and practice solid techniques, the D800e delivers stellar quality.

If you are patient and practice solid techniques, the D800e delivers stellar quality.

Image Quality

The term image quality can be subjective. What  I am looking for are sharp RAW files, excellent dynamic range, low long-exposure noise and good high ISO noise.

The RAW files that come out of the D800e are the sharpest I have seen from a non-medium format digital camera. Yes, you need to either have fast shutter speeds or you need to use a tripod, mirror lock up and a remote release to get maximum sharpness (and of course, excellent glass). The web is loaded with complaints about people’s inability to get sharp images, well I hate to break to them but it isn’t the camera’s fault. Photography and photographers have gotten lazy and impatient. I would love to have heard the laughter if someone ten years ago wrote on a forum saying “I can’t get sharp images from my medium format film camera when hand holding it for landscape images”. The higher the resolution the more you need to slow down and think, pay attention and practice the solid fundamentals of photography.

The D800e asks to be pushed to its dynamic range limit.

The D800e asks to be pushed to its dynamic range limit.

Can a camera have too much dynamic range? Sometimes I think the D800e does. I find myself crushing blacks and boosting highlights just to get some contrast in my images. That is not a bad thing, it’s great, in fact, it even helps lighten up my bag, I can leave all those graduated nd filters at home. Did I just say that? Yep, I no longer carry my trusty graduated nd filters!

Are we talking HDR looking images, no and thank goodness! I really dislike the HDR look. In fact, I enjoy the graphic nature of photography and I WANT deep blacks without detail and pure paper whites.

Star trails and serac. 40 minute exposure and looks clean.

Star trails and serac. 40 minute exposure, iso 200 at 2.8. The image is clean and almost noise free.

I like long exposures and shadow noise from long exposures have always bugged me about digital photography. Guess what? The D800e has almost zero long exposure induced noise. Now let me clarify something, it is winter in Alaska and cold. The main reason noise appears during long exposures is because the sensor gets hot, well,  taking images when its 0f and colder keeps that sensor from getting hot.  So we will see this summer whether the temperature is what is helping the camera’s stellar performance.

Stars above seracs. ISO 2500, 25 seconds at f2.8. Noise cleaned up well but detail suffered.

Stars above seracs. ISO 2500, 25 seconds at f2.8. Noise cleaned up well but detail suffered.

I don’t shoot at extreme ISO’s very often. My main concern is performance between 400-800, which I use when I am hand holding the camera or trying to stop motion. At 400 the camera is great. At 800 I see some obvious loss in detail but noise is easily fixed in post. Above that the camera is good but not great. I found the loss of detail at 3200 almost unusable though noise cleaned up well.

Durability

I hate buying new cameras and I really want a camera that will last. I purchased this camera for a four year book project. I will be on at least 15 long expeditions in Alaska, so it needs to be reliable. On the surface the camera is more than tough enough, not too cheap and not over built. Seals seem tight and so far the lens fits tight and secure, which is very important for wilderness photography, that connection is a major weak spot.

The cold had less of an effect on the D800e's batteries than expected.

The cold had less of an effect on the D800e’s batteries than expected.

Battery life is what plagues digital cameras, especially in the cold. I have a very elaborate system when it comes to keeping batteries warm and working. For the last few months I have ignored my system so I could gauge the D800’s battery ability. One test was an overnight trip where I left the battery in the camera the whole time. I also reviewed every exposure, pixel peeped, used Live View to check focus (a major battery killer) and finally made a bunch of long exposures, some as long as 60 minutes. The verdict? Excellent! I took about 180 photos, between temperatures of 20f to -10f and the battery still had one bar left. Am I going to abandon my battery saving techniques,? No, but I will probably bring fewer batteries on trips.

The true durability test will be in a few weeks when we spend ten days on the Kahiltna Glacier in the heart of the Central Alaska range.

Other Positives

Auto focus on my model has been accurate with the lenses I own. No left sided focus issues that plagued early models. I tested focus tracking on the two hardest subjects on earth, moving kids and dogs, and was pretty impressed when teamed up with my Nikon 24-70.

Keeping things simple is key to me. I was able to simplify the D800e to my style and can work quickly. None of the features I use, need to be dug up from inside of menus and folders. The viewfinder is easy to see through with glasses.

Auto focus was accurate, even under flat conditions.

Auto focus is accurate, even under flat lighting conditions.

Negatives?

Not much to say here except that the camera doesn’t need the majority of the features that are included. Photographers really want (or need) less. Nikon please, follow Fuji and Leica’s lead and make us a super simple DSLR with the image quality of the D800e, like a digital F3 High Eyepoint!

The D800e could be considered heavy and bulky for a digital DSLR, especially when compared to all the mirror less cameras popping up.  But compared to any of the film cameras from my past, its light enough and even rivals the quality of my medium format film cameras (no it doesn’t challenge my 4×5 or 8×10 images but its sure a lot lighter and smaller).

Is this review too good to be true? Hey the camera delivers, to me at least. Don’t worry, I am no fan boy of anything, if I thought something was bad, I would be the first to tell you!

Questions about the camera? Bring them on!

Knik Glacier Shake Down Trip

Three weeks till our Kahitna Glacier trip so we decided to ski to the Knik Glacier and work out some kinks in our gear and system. It had been a while since I had slept out in the winter and I definitely needed this trip, I was rusty.

We arrive to clear skies and great views.

We arrive to clear skies and great views.

We broke trail for ten miles to the glacier, mostly in a whiteout. Lots of big open water on the river near the lake. But we arrived to clearing skies and fantastic views. We quickly unloaded our gear and began exploring. I wanted to squeeze through the gorge but to our surprise, the glacier had surged and was up against the cliff, blocking our passage.

The Knik is on the move! Its forward movement was breaking the lake ice, forcing one section up onto the other, like Earth’s colliding plates. We couldn’t cross this line because there was open water at the break. The entire face of the glacier was blocked by what we called the “surge line”.

The surging glacier was busting the lake ice, forcing it onto itself.

The surging glacier was busting the lake ice, forcing it onto itself.

We set up camp below some really cool seracs. It was going to be a clear night and I wanted to have an interesting foreground in case the aurora showed. The sunset light was flat and color-less. We spent the night stomping our feet and drinking hot chocolate (forgot to bring my small foam pad for standing on) waiting for a hint of the aurora, no show. I shot some night shots, testing the D800’s high ISO and long exposure noise abilities.

Star trails and serac.

Star trails and serac.

Woke up early and tramped around the ice looking for a nice composition for the morning light, but it was also a bust. We decided to explore a section of the lake that had some smaller bergs. The light was really flat and dull but we discovered all kinds of fantastic caves and tunnels. One of the main challenges of wilderness photography is making do with the light and conditions you have at the moment, often there is no coming back to a place, its often now or never.

Ice Tunnel

Ice Tunnel

I have been exploring glaciers for over ten years and I never get tired of the things I discover.

I have been exploring glaciers for over ten years and I never get tired of the things I discover.

With sore shoulders, our ski back was long and tedious. Some people had tried to ride their fat bike in our fresh ski tracks, completely destroying them so we had to break trail most of the way back. Without a snow machine trail, riding fat bikes out to the glacier can be really tough.

Generally everything worked out with a few exceptions, mainly rookie moves, caused by the fact we hadn’t been winter camping in a while. I feel I have enough experience to finally write a solid review of the Nikon D800e and its worthiness as a wilderness-mountain photography camera and that will be my next post so keep in touch!