My gear : cameras, lenses and teleconverters (part 1)

So why Nikon?

There’s a frequently used and rather pertinent quote about camera manufacturers and professional level equipment, along the lines of "you don’t automatically become an accomplished wildlife photographer by purchasing a Nikon DSLR and an expensive long lens - you just become another Nikon owner”. It’s a very true statement and one that could just as easily be applied to Canon, or indeed related to a number of similar situations, such as a top-of-the-range car not making you a good driver or a great cook not needing a state-of-the-art oven. The message can be read both ways and whilst a good quality camera and lens is important, it’s what you do with it that’s more important.

I use Nikon equipment solely because my first DSLR was the D300 and, when I upgraded, it made sense to stick with the same manufacturer so that I only needed to change the camera body, and not the three lenses that I’d acquired over the previous couple of years. I could just as easily have gone the Canon route and, I'm pretty sure that if I had, the same philosophy would still have applied. I think it's inevitable that you get 'locked-in’ to a brand, and the more equipment you buy from that manufacturer the harder it is to switch allegiance. It would cost a wildlife photographer a small fortune to change his or her kit from Nikon to Canon, or vice-versa.

But, notwithstanding the cost to upgrade a camera or lens, you still need the right tools for the job, so it’s quite natural to keep an eye on any new technology or advancements that are being made. At times you may think that you made a mistake and should be using the other brand, particularly if that manufacturer brings a new product to the market that offers some feature you’ve been wanting. However, over time you realise that when one brand seems to be leading the way with a particular camera, the other has a better long lens. And, then the first will catch up, but with new technology that makes their lenses lighter - and so the situation goes on. I’m aware that I’m talking here primarily about Nikon v Canon and that there are other manufacturers but, generally speaking at present, wildlife photographers will go with one of these two big names.

Personally I think I made the right choice and I sincerely hope that anybody that’s reading this will think the same, whether they’re using Nikon or Canon gear. I’m certainly not saying that Nikon are perfect, because they’re certainly not. There have been various issues and problems with some recent cameras and, if you’ve experienced one of those problems you’ll know what I mean. I won’t go into details, but I’ve had a couple of particularly frustrating situations where I’ve had to send new equipment back to Nikon for one reason or another, and on both occasions I was less than happy with their response. But, in the main I’m pretty satisfied and, although there will always be something on the ‘wish list’, I’m quite content with the gear I currently possess.

A brief camera history …..

Summer 2007 saw the launch of Nikon’s second generation DSLR cameras with the D300 succeeding the D200 that was launched a couple of years before towards the end of 2005. At that time the D200 had a groundbreaking 10MP CCD DX (crop-frame) sensor and could shoot at 5fps. The D300 had a slightly bigger 12MP CMOS DX sensor and an increased frame rate of 6-8 fps. But, the D300 promised and delivered a lot more, particularly in respect of image quality and AF performance with its 51-point autofocus system.

The D300 was launched at the same time as Nikon’s flagship ‘professional level’ D3 FX (full-frame) camera and shared much of its big brother’s technology, including the new EXPEED processor. But, at virtually three times the price of the D300, the D3 was something that I wasn’t in the position to consider, even if I'd wanted to, when I finally upgraded from my old Coolpix 8800 8MP digital zoom to a proper DSLR in 2008.

A few months later, however, Nikon launched the D700, which was another 12MP FX model similar to the D3, but at around half the price. It was a ‘prosumer level’ camera the same as the D300 and was very similar in both design and layout, which made the two models a nicely matched pair if you wanted an FX (full-frame) and DX (crop-frame) camera.

I was heavily committed with my business during that period and didn’t have that much time for photography other than when we were on holiday, so I had no immediate desire to upgrade my D300 that I was quite happy with. Consequently, it wasn’t until early 2012 that I finally decided to give full-frame a try. Annoyingly though, just after taking the plunge and buying the D700, Nikon announced the revolutionary 36MP D800. I used the D700 for a few months, including on a safari, and was very happy with both the image quality and handling, and surprisingly didn’t really notice the effective loss of reach by moving to full-frame.

During that time the D800 was getting some good press, including a number of favourable reviews from wildlife photographers who were selling the camera’s virtues on image quality and the fact that you had far more flexibility for cropping in post processing. It was the results that were being talked about rather than problems with handling. This was good to hear, because when the camera was first launched there were a lot of negative comments regarding using it handheld as many reviewers who hadn’t used it in the field were saying that it could only be used on a tripod. Fortunately they were wrong, and although there’s a bit of a 'learning curve' involved as you often get with any new equipment, you quickly adapt. In saying that though, I have to confess that I was initially disappointed as the initial shots I was taking, after purchasing it in November 2012, were not as sharp as I was expecting. But I stuck with it and gradually, over a few weeks, found that the image quality had noticeably improved. I can only surmise that during that time I was subconsciously adapting and changing my technique.

For just over a year, throughout 2013, I owned all three cameras, the D300, D700 and D800.

Then in early 2014 Nikon bring out the D4s, which was a 16MP, 11fps, upgrade of the D4 that was launched in early 2012 as a successor of the D3s, the mid-product enhancement of the D3. All of this had happened during the time I had owned the D300, so with the new camera representing a very significant step up the ladder I decided to trade-in both the D700 and the old D300 so that I would have two complementary 'professional level' FX bodies in the D800 and the D4s.

But, no sooner having made the commitment, Nikon announce the D810, with improved AF and many other refinements over the D800. I was now in a quandary, as ideally I wanted the D810 and the D4s. That wasn’t going to happen, so I quickly made the decision to exchange the newly purchased D4s for the D810 without any cost penalty (thank you WEX). So, that exchange gave me a D810 and a D800. In many respects the D810 was simply an improved D800, but in use it felt like a completely different camera. The D810 instantly became my camera of choice with the D800 only being used when I needed a second camera and lens readily to hand. Often this isn’t practical but, particularly if you're on a safari vehicle or boat, a second camera fitted with a shorter lens is obviously a far better option than just having one body and needing to change lenses.

I was now looking ahead to my pending retirement and thinking that, if I could afford to part-exchange the D800 for the D4s, I would have the perfect combination that I would be happy with for many years to come. But, things didn't go quite to plan for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there were strong rumours that the D4s was going to be replaced and that its successor, expected to be called the D5, would have a larger 20MP sensor, the next generation of processor, and an even more sophisticated AF system. I wasn’t going to fall into the same trap again, so decided to hold fire and, despite my concern about the likely cost, wait and see what would happen.

So I retired in October 2014 still owning the D810 and the D800 and carried on using both bodies through 2015. But then, in January 2016 the second thing happened, as I had a fall and broke the D810! The episode is reported here under ‘other events and news’, so I won’t repeat it in this résumé, but the upshot was that I ended up with a second D810. There was no point then in having the D800 as well, so that was part-exchanged with some other equipment for a new lens.

So, at the time of writing, late 2016, I’m still the happy owner of two D810’s. The future’s another matter!

Subsequent related comments :-
D5/D500 : 2016 quarterly diaries - Q1 & Q2 (final paragraphs)
D810 proved very sluggish in Finland - see travel section write-up footnote.

But, the camera is only half the equation …..
(click here if you wish to continue to part 2 to read about my experiences with Nikon lenses and teleconverters)