K.I.S.S. in the Mountains

Function over fashion. Getting organized before an expeditions will pay dividends in the mountains.

Function over fashion. Getting organized before expeditions will pay dividends in the mountains.

I try to follow the acronym K.I.S.S when preparing for an expedition and when out in the field. I try to keep everything simple and organized. When it’s cold and ugly out, it pays to “Have all your ducks lined up.” as my Dad would say.

My gear is often laughed at by fellow photographers, it’s well-worn and covered in bright-colored tape. But I believe in function over fashion. Much of my photography happens during the dim light before sunrise and after sunset. I have lost many a cable release and lens cap during these dark hours. And though neither is a trip killer, it can be frustrating and just adds an unnecessary complication to an expedition.

It also pays to keep track of batteries and memory cards, especially in the cold when I am frequently rotating them around like musical chairs.  Batteries always fail right when the light is really good, cards also fail or magically fill up right when things start to get exciting!

These are my accessories for my upcoming trip into the Gillam Glacier, Eastern Alaska Range.

 

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Working With The Light You’ve Got: Rain

Part two of my little series on working with what you got.

Fall leaves and bear tracks, Chugach State Park, Alaska. The perfect subject for a rainy day.

Fall leaves and bear tracks, Chugach State Park, Alaska. The perfect subject for a rainy day.

To be a successful mountain – wilderness photographer, you need to learn to work in most situations, this is especially true if your on a paid assignment. The editors don’t really care how bad the weather was, they just want images.

In Alaska, your pretty lucky to get trough an entire trip without getting rained on at least once. Usually, your lucky if you get a day or two of nice weather, during a week of rain. When I look back at last summer’s trips, rainy days were the norm, over sixty percent of the days in the field it rained.

The first thing to do is get outside! Don’t sit around in your tent feeling sorry for yourself, there will be plenty of time for that at night! You spent all that money on those fancy Gore-Tex items, so put them to use.

At the Headwaters of the South Fork of Eagle river near the Flute Glacier. Another rainy Chugach scene.

At the Headwaters of the South Fork of Eagle river near the Flute Glacier. Another rainy Chugach scene.

You will quickly realize that hiking in the rain can be very pleasant. If it’s really windy or raining hard, head for the forest. Wet foliage is beautiful and the dampness can really accentuate the colors. Again, its time to focus on the details. Intimate macros and mid distance forest studies are best on  cloudy, rainy day.

This is about the only time I use a polarizer, it helps remove the glare and reflection off wet items. This is also a good time to call to duty that len’s shade you keep dragging around but never use.

beautiful, wet forest

Beautiful, wet forest. Chugach State Park, Alaska

I sometimes bring along the secret tool of backcountry guides in Alaska, an umbrella. Yep, sounds silly at first but an umbrella is a great way to boost your wet, soggy clients morale. Umbrellas are also great for keeping rain off your gear when photographing. They can also help prevent camera shake from wind and on sunny days they can create shade for close-ups and block glare from the sun! Pretty useful.

In the woods or when photographing plants, I try to use a fast shutter speed to stop any motion caused by the rain hitting the subjects. When photographing water or clouds, I will sometimes use a slow shutter speed, to emphasize movement.

Beautiful mixed light, my favorite light for landscape photography. Hayes Glacier, eastern Alaska Range.

Beautiful mixed light, my favorite light for landscape photography. Hayes Glacier, eastern Alaska Range.

Mixed light reflection, unnamed tarn, Chugach State Park, Alaska

Mixed light reflection, unnamed tarn, Chugach State Park, Alaska

Dark, gloomy days can also make for interesting landscapes. In Alaska, you frequently get “sucker holes” that let light in for a fleeting moment. The mixed light created by these holes in the clouds, are my favorite and if there is any chance of light coming through I am happy hang out in the rain.

Photographing on rainy days isn’t that hard, its more of a state of mind. When I look back at many of my favorite images over the years, many are the ones taken on  rainy days.

Sunset from Steamroller Pass, Chugach State Park, Alaska. After nearly forty days of rain in  the Chugach, this sunset was a welcome surprise.

Sunset from Steamroller Pass, Chugach State Park, Alaska. After nearly forty days of rain in the Chugach, this sunset was a welcome surprise.

End of the year Thanks!

Unloading the plane below Mount Hunter.

Unloading a K2 Aviation Otter,  below Mount Hunter.

The Alaska Range project is a major undertaking. Projects of this size can’t be done alone, it takes support of many people and organizations.

The people who endure the most are not myself or my expedition partners but the family that is left behind. The hardest part about spending weeks and months in remote wilderness is being away from my family. They must make do without me, make special arrangements, call upon friends for favors, it’s not easy.

So my first thanks must go to my wife Pam and son Walker and to all of our friends and family that have supported my wandering lifestyle.

As I enter the last two years of my project I will rely more and more on planes and the pilots that fly them. last year I flew in numerous small planes piloted by some amazing pilots.

I flew into the central Alaska Range twice with K2 Aviation out of Talkeetna, Alaska. I have been flying with K2 for years, they flew us into the Ruth Glacier for my wedding and winter attempt of Mount Dickey, ten years ago. I flew into the eastern Alaska Range with Golden Eagle Outfitters. No one knows the Hayes Range and the Delta Mountains better. The legendary Alsworths of Lake Clark Air delivered and picked us up safely from Neacola Mountains. For aerial photography I relied on my friend and photographer Dan Bailey. We did two aerial photography flights, one to the Neacolas and one to the Kichatnas. Looking forward to more.

Lots of great organizations have helped out, donating resources and sharing the love. The Northern Environmental Center, Alaska Center for the Environment and the Mountaineering Club of Alaska have been great supporters of the project. A special thanks to Doug Tosa at ACE and to Steve Gruhn, whose knowledge of Alaska peaks is unrivaled. Alaska Alpine Adventures have made huge contributions to the project and have greatly increased its chances of success. Working with the Adventurers and Scientist for Conservation has added even more value to the project and has connected me with many great scientists and adventurers.

The majority of outdoor equipment isn’t made for extensive, wilderness use. I have been using Patagonia clothing exclusively for this project and so far, its been bomber. The majority of my technical gear comes from Black Diamond, though I will also be using their tents and other equipment for the next two years. I have been working with Naneu Bags for over seven years and they continue to keep my cameras safe.

A final thanks to all the print and online publications that have helped spread the word about the project along with the individuals connected with myself and the project through social media.

The next two years are going to be big years with twelve expeditions planned. I am always looking for more sponsors to help share the burden of this massive project. I am in special need of private pilots interested in helping me with aerial photography!

Thanks again to everyone and looking forward to many more trips into the Alaska Range!

Working With The Light You’ve Got: Bright Sun

Even though modern cameras seem to able to see in the dark, we still need some type of light to create an image, whether it be light provided by us or by the moon, we need light. There are generally two ways to approach light in landscape photography, find the subject and wait for the light or wait for the light and find a subject that is illuminated beautifully by it.

Moss Campion

Moss Campion and the Raven Glacier. The light was high and bright, but the unique combination of colors, the low angle, use of a polarizer and the direction of the camera made it a successful image.

For me it usually is a combination of both. It’s pretty rare that light perfectly illuminates my pre-composed scene, I often need to recompose when the light  I am waiting for finally arrives. Other times, I have to completely change location, with heart pumping and emotions high.

The late Galen Rowell was a believer of the second approach. To him, photography was all about light, subject came second. He was famous for literally running, often long distances, to match a subject with the developing light.

I believe in the power of subject. I usually wait for a subject to reveal itself to me and then decide if the light matches. Of course, light itself,  can often be the subject.  Light can also be a guide and frequently all you can do is follow it as it travels across the landscape, photographing whatever it reveals.

There is no correct way to approach light and subject. Having strong knowledge of weather and its many phenomenon is good, however, the best thing we can do is practice our awareness of our surroundings, step out of our own mind and live in the moment.  If we can abandoned any preconceived ideas and quiet our thoughts about our day-to-day life, we will be able to adjust with what is developing around us, we will be able to create images quickly and with great impact.

The beautiful north face of Avalanche Spire, central Alaska Range

The beautiful north face of Avalanche Spire, central Alaska Range. Taken around noon.

Direct Sun

” If there is light, one can photograph.” Alfred Steglitz

Like an elusive animal, the majority of landscape photographers only appear before and after sunset and sunrise. Their prey is that mysterious “Magic Light”, that for a brief moment, paints the landscape. But when traveling through remote wilderness, wilderness that chances are, you will never see again, it is important to learn to create images with the light you’ve got. It’s a valuable tool if you ever plan to do assignment work or travel in places that you will only see once.

Inside a crevasse, Matanuska Glacier.

The direct, overhead light illuminated this crevasse perfectly.

The hardest light to work with is summer, mid day, direct sun.  There are plenty of photographers on-line that like to preach that “Trying to create meaningful images in anything besides the magic hour is pointless.” These “all-knowing”  landscape photographers love to drive into their herd’s minds that not a single good image can be taken during the middle of the day. Sure, it is not easy and it’s not always possible, but it can be done.

The main issue is the harsh, contrasty, over-head, light of the middle of the day. Yes, for most subjects, it doesn’t work. What we need to do is see if we can find a subject that benefits from such contrast. Steep mountains always have a side that looks great during the middle of the day. Another approach is to shoot into the light, using things like trees,  rocks or even a person to block the sun itself.

Birch Bark Detail#1

Birch Bark. Using my body to shade the bark from the direct sun created nice diffused light.

Sometimes it pays to get close, really close. Macro photography can be done during the middle of the day. Simply use your body or some other object to shade the subject, creating even, diffused light. You can also search for transparent subjects like ice or leaves. I like to explore narrow canyons and cliffs during the middle of the day, looking for subjects in the shade. A polarizing filter can help remove harsh glare off subjects and can help enhance colors.Sometimes I will use a really strong ND filter to emphasize movement, which we rarely see in images on bright sunny days.

Melt water stream on the Backside Glacier. It was abright and sunny day so I had to use a ten-stop ND filter too slow down the exposure, central Alaska Range.

Melt water stream on the Backside Glacier. It was a bright and sunny day so I used a ten-stop ND filter to slow down the exposure.

On rare occasions I will use a portable strobe. Using a flash to fill in harsh shadows can make an image. People and macro photography can be very successful in direct, mid-day sun when a fill flash is used.

With all those ideas, sometimes we need to just let go of a scene or subject. If possible, we can return during better light, but if you’re travelling through a landscape, then maybe sitting back, with feet up and enjoying the glorious sun is a much more rewarding of an experience than trying to capture a photograph.

In the next post I will talk about working in terrible weather.

Where is The Alaska Range?

High resolution map of the Alaska Range. Does not include the Tordrillo Mountains and only the northern Neacolas.

I have been getting requests to see a map of the Alaska Range and the area I am photographing. So I teamed up with the Alaska Center for the Environment and their GIS wizard Doug Tosa, to create a map. We figured we could just whip this thing out in no time, we were wrong.

The issue was that the Alaska Range is hard to define. The main area of confusion is the south, south-western sections of the Alaska Range. This is where two mountain ranges, the Alaska Range and the Aleutian Range, come crashing together, making it difficult, if not impossible, to decide exactly which mountains are part of which range.

Alaskan’s are very opinionated bunch and mountaineers, geologists, geographers, volcanologists and geothermorphologists, all disagree on what constitutes southern end of the Alaska Range. The mountains that generally can’t be agreed upon are the Neacola and Todrillo Mountains.

Often, the Neacola Mountains get grouped together with the Chigmit Mountains, which include the beautiful volcanoes Mount Redoubt and Mount Illiamna. Having been in every section of the Alaska Range, I find that the Neacola Mountains, with their steep, foreboding granite walls, have the same feel and look as the Kichanta and Revelation Mountains and not like the volcanic Aleutian Range. I know, that has no scientific value, but sometimes you need to just go with your feelings!

The Tordrillos are a unique, isolated group of beautiful mountains that sit on a high plateau. Mount Spurr, is the last, large volcano of the Aleutian Range and acts as a huge anchor at the south end of the Tordrillo Mountains. In the book Todrillo: Pioneer Climbs and Flights in the Tordrillo Mountains of Alaska, the authors consider the Tordrillo Mountains to be part of the Alaska Range and the Neacola Mountains as part of the Aleutians.

Up to this point, I have not put any focus on the Todrillo Mountains.  Because of their volcanic nature, I have grouped them with the Aleutian Range. Don’t get me wrong, they are beautiful and I would be more than happy to explore them in-depth, I just don’t know if they fit into the Alaska Range or not.

Another opinion of the Alaska Range is that it doesn’t include the Neacolas or the Tordrillo Mountains! When you look at a geographical map, that makes sense.

Some the of the named mountains on this map are “local” names that have developed over time.

Let me know what you think about which mountains should or shouldn’t be included in the project.

UPDATE:  Please see Steve Gruhn’s comment below. Here is a version without either of the “disputed” areas.

North side of the Hayes Range: Part One

Last light on Mount Shand

Last light on Mount Shand, Eastern Alaska Range

“I feel like we are on a different trip” Barry said, as we cowered under our tiny cook shelter, the rain pouring relentlessly outside the thin nylon. He was referring to the first two days of the trip.

Two days earlier we drove the six hours from Anchorage to Delta Junction under blue bird skies, all the elusive mountains were out: Marcus Baker, Sergeant Robinson, Drum, Sanford, White Princess, Moffit and Hayes. It was a glorious drive that kept spirits high.

Our goal was to fly that afternoon, into a remote “strip” next to the Trident Glacier. I had been waiting and waiting to go to this area. I knew it had the potential for great imagery, especially if I could nail the fall colors. I also knew it would be expensive and the weather could easily be crap. It was a risky trip to take.

But this year had been rough and I hadn’t gotten as many images as I had hoped, so I decided to go for it, one last-ditch effort to get some solid images for the project.

I left Delta Junction around 4:30, riding behind pilot Jim Cummings in his Super Cub. It was a great flight, clear as could be. I fired question after question about the area at Jim, who knows the Deltas and the Debora-Hayes mountains better than anyone.

We approached our “strip” about 40 minutes later. When I say strip, I mean a dried up river bed that doesn’t have too many large wash outs or large rocks that could flip the plane. When the plane came to a stop, I knew something was wrong.

“Were not in the right spot’ I said.

“Where did you want to go?” Jim questioned.

“The strip next to the glacier”.

“Oh, that spot got washed out this year.” Jim replied while unloading the gear. I was disappointed. But we were at least close, about three miles from where I wanted to land and four miles  from the spot I wanted to camp at.

Jim roared off and an hour and a half later he returned with Barry. I had started to get impatient, anxious to get moving, we had four miles to cover and I wanted to get there while the light was still good. We dumped a cache quickly near the drop off spot and headed up a great route along the lateral moraine of the Trident Glacier.

The lack of water was starting to worry us as we trudged up the glacier’s edge. There didn’t seem to be any decent camping spots with potential for good images either. When we finally reached a good spot, next to a nice clear stream, we found another tent with two sheep hunters hanging out. We pushed past their spot into the fading light.

At the end of the moraine we came across two small alpine lakes.

“Perfect” I thought, good water and some possible reflection images. The lake I was looking for,  which I scouted on Google Earth, was farther down along the glacier’s edge, but is was just a silty hole, with little potential for good images, water or camping.

Setting up the tent as the last light fades on Mount Moffit

Setting up the tent as the last light fades on Mount Moffit

We set up the tent as the last light faded on Mount Moffit. I hate arriving to camps late. I didn’t have a chance to make solid photographs or scout a location for the morning light. We cooked dinner in the clear, cold darkness, under amazing stars.

The next morning I woke up at 5:30.  My goal was to get up and find a foreground for Mount Moffit. The small lakes near our tent were filled with floating cotton from the Cottongrass and the reflection wasn’t really working. The puddles had a thin sheet of ice, a testament to the cold overnight temps. I ran around the area trying to find a good foreground. I cursed as the mountain turned pink with the morning light. Finally after pacing around tundra  like a mad man I cam across two more lakes with perfect reflections of the mountains. The light was no longer pink but the foreground was just coming into the sun. It was windy so I had to boost the camera’s ISO up in order to stop motion.

Mount Moffit Reflection, Eastern Alaska Range.

Mount Moffit Reflection, Eastern Alaska Range.

Detail of Moffit's western North Ridge, Mount Hayes in the background

Detail of Moffit’s North Ridge, Mount Shand in the background

And another view of Mount Moffit.

And another view of Mount Moffit.

One of the problems when chasing light and when you have such a dominant subject like the towering Mount Moffit, is that you have trouble composing images without the main attraction. After an hour of photographing a variety of views of Moffit, I realized I needed to try to focus on other subjects.

One trick I learned years ago was to turn around from your “main” subject and look the other way. The light is similar and usually many great images are missed and over-looked.

The lower foothills of the north side of the Eastern Alaska Range.

The lower foothills of the north side of the Eastern Alaska Range.

On the drive up I noticed right away the lack of fall colors. Usually by the last week of August, the tundra flora is getting red and orange, but I had to really search out colors, everything seemed a week late.

Around noon, we decided, with hesitation, to leave the awesome spot under the glorious Mount Moffit. I felt confident that I had enough solid images of Moffit and the surrounding area. I knew the weather wasn’t supposed to hold and I felt the urge to begin our migration to towards Mount Hayes.

After a failed short cut over the wrong pass we ended at our cache around 4:00pm. Clouds had already moved in. We found a nice clear stream next to the bank and a really nice spot to camp. I wanted to keep moving but we both decided that we didn’t want to get stuck at night searching for a good water source and camp spot, so we decided to stay put and committed to getting up early to continue our trip.

After dinner it began to rain lightly and with the rain came a dinner guest, a large bull caribou. I followed him around the willows, trying to get a clear shot. He didn’t seem too concerned by me, which was a little disheartening, knowing that there were hunters in the area.

I played cat and mouse in the willows with this fantastic bull.

I played cat and mouse in the willows with this fantastic bull.

I have always considered seeing caribou in the wild as a good omen and went to sleep confident that the rest of the trip was going to be a good one.

New Article in Landscape Photography Magazine

Landscape Photography Magazine has just published  a new article I wrote on photographing glaciers.This was my first time working with Landscape Photography Magazine. They are a high quality online European magazine that is worth checking out.

New article in the latest issue of Landscape Photography Magazine

New article in the latest issue of Landscape Photography Magazine

Here is the Link: http://landscapephotographymagazine.com/2013/a-guide-to-photographing-glaciers/

Nikon 70-200 F4 Review

Most people think mountain photography is all about wide-angle lenses. But over half of my mountain images are taken with a telephoto. My go to lens is my Nikon 24-70, which is great when you’re in tight with the mountains. However, when I know I am going to be a far distance from the mountains, or think there will be plenty of tight detail shots of glaciers, I prefer to bring a telephoto. My new go-to telephoto is the Nikon 70-200 F4.

Last light on Mount Hunter and Denali.

Last light on Mount Hunter and Denali. Nikon 70-200 F4 @200mm F8

When I began using digital in 2006, I went with Canon and purchased their 70-200 F4 right off the bat. When I switched to Nikon for this project (after a few years using Sony) I was bummed that Nikon didn’t have a light, high quality zoom. Luckily for me, they came out with one right when I began investing in the their system.

Is it sharp?

Really, that is all I care about. Telephoto zooms aren’t known for their stellar performance for landscapes. The edges tend to get really soft. But before we talk edges, I just want to say that the center sharpness of this lens is wicked sharp, just fantastic with tons of resolving power to match the D800e. Its performance at middle distances is off the chart, and pretty good at infinity, which is what most mountain shots are at.

It may be sunny, but its still cold! Sy's icy beard.

Sy’s  beard. Nikon 70-200 f4, 145mm @ f5, tripod

100% crop, 145mm f5

100% crop, 145mm @ f5, wicked sharp, you don’t want to photograph your teenage daughter with this lens!

The light is at the right angle to reveal the mountain's fractured surface and to reveal the warm color of the rock.

Thunder Mountain, Nikon 70-200 F4, 200mm @ f8, tripod

North Face of Thunder Mountain

100% crop, not as sharp has the one of Sy’s beard, but pretty nice. There is some color noise in the shadows, mainly from the jpeg conversion, noise can’t be seen  in any size prints.

Okay, the edges. It does pretty good job up to about 120 or so, then the edges tend to get pretty soft, not unusable, but noticeable, especially when making big prints. Kind of a bummer, because I shoot a lot at 200mm. Obviously, stopping down to f8-f11 helps a lot, making the images very usable. One of the problems is that the center is so good that the edges just stand out.

Unnamed Peak, Denali National Park. Nikon 70-200 f4, 200mm f4

Unnamed Peak, Denali National Park. Nikon 70-200 f4, 200mm f4, hand held with VR on.

Upper Left corner, 100% crop, still soft even at f8, but doesn't look too bad in a print as long as you don't go huge on it. Fine for a full page book image.

Upper Left corner, 100% crop, still soft even at f8, but doesn’t look too bad in a print as long as you don’t go huge on it. Fine for a double page book image.

Vibration Reduction

Not something I thought I would use much, being a tripod type of guy. But during my latest Alaska Range trip it was so cold that it wasn’t fair to my climbing partners to constantly stop and set up a tripod every time I wanted to take a shot. Then I went on a flight with my friend Dan Bailey and used it for the entire flight. I really didn’t think any of the shots would be sharp, especially ones at 200mm, but I was wrong, the VR worked great!

Cathedral Peaks and Kichatna Spire. Taken hand held from a plane going 80 miles an hour, VR on and did aa awesome job.

Cathedral Peaks and Kichatna Spire. Taken hand held from a plane going 80 miles an hour, VR on and it did an awesome job.

Other Things

Its bulky, kind of heavy, focuses fast with my D800e…

At this moment, the 70-200 F4 is the best Nikon option for telephoto mountain images. If you shoot portraits or back country sports, you will be blown away by its center sharpness.

If you are interested in buying this lens (or anything from B&H), consider using the link through the banner below.

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!

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!