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Birds in flight photography with the Nikon D800 and D600 cameras

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Hi [NR], I am Jiayi Chong (Flickr). Outside of work, I do wildlife (mostly birds) photography as my weekend hobby/passion.

There has been much discussion about the new D600 and D800 cameras with regard to capturing birds in flight. Since I use both of these camera bodies regularly, I thought I could provide some useful insight into how these cameras perform when faced with unpredictable, moving subjects.

Before I continue on with the photos and discussion, here is the gear I shoot with:

Bodies: Nikon D600 or Nikon D800
Lens: Nikon Telephoto AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4D ED-IF Autofocus
Teleconverters: Nikon TC-17E II 1.7x and Nikon TC-14E II 1.4x

All shots are handheld, no tripod or monopod.

I use the 300mm F4 prime since it is extremely lightweight, very portable, and easily works with the handheld style of shooting. It also works great with both the 1.7x(my typical choice) and 1.4x teleconverters.

I always have one of the TCs attached to the 300mm F4 prime, since my subjects require at least 400mm reach for a reasonable shot. With the new D600 and D800 bodies that can autofocus up to F8, I typically use the 1.7x TC to get a 510mm effective reach on the full frame bodies. The 1.4x TC is used occasionally when I need a bit more light, but most of the time I shoot with the 1.7x TC. I also stop down to F7.1 or F8 if I can to get just a bit more sharpness when lighting conditions allow for the 1.7x TC. I shoot wide open at F5.6 for the 1.4x TC.

The D600 was the first full frame body I tried for birds in flight. It has 39 AF points, employing the Multi-CAM 4800 system for FX bodies. It also has a 5.5 fps burst rate. There are heated arguments on whether the AF points for the D600 are spread out well enough for various shooting conditions. For my shots it is a lot simpler: I always only use the center AF cross type point, no other points are used so the spread of the points does not really impact my shots. Burst rate is set to the maximum 5.5 fps which is sufficient for many shots.

The D600 is good enough to capture quite a few fast moving birds, including Peregrine Falcons and Merlins. All my shots are done in the wild, the tags on some of the birds are done by raptor biologists every season at Peregrine nests. Overall, I will say the D600 is a fantastic and lightweight wildlife camera with great image quality. The D600's autofocus system is fast but could be a bit faster. It works decently for horizontally moving subjects but when you have a head on shot of a bird in flight, it often gets confused and misses quite frequently. I have tried changing the spread of my AF points and toggling the different modes with worse results so I stuck with the center point as my default. The interesting thing about the AF system on the D600 for an incoming subject is that in good light, the system manages to lock on to the subject decently before the first shot is taken. I typically find the first shot from a continuous burst of 6 shots to be the sharpest. After the first shot is fired, the AF system might start hunting when faced with the erratically moving subject so it mis-focuses quite a bit.

Here are some shots taken with the D600 setup:

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Peregrine Falcon

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Golden Eagle about to strike a ground squirrel

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Newly fledged juvenile Peregrine Falcon takes off

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Incoming Oystercatcher

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Male Taiga Merlin launches for a morning hunt

I recently acquired a D800 body hoping for a better AF tracking system and higher image resolution. In theory, the 4 FPS burst rate might be too slow for wildlife, but in practice it has not been an issue for me so far. The D800 employs the Multi-CAM 3500FX system which should deliver better results than that of the D600. Just like in my D600 setup, I use the center point for targeting my subjects, but I found that I could also use the additional 9 points surrounding the center point on the D800 with decent results.

The D800 has much less of an issue tracking head-on subjects as opposed to the D600. You really feel the difference in initial target acquisition when using the D800 vs the D600. Also, the AF system has a much better hit rate from a continuous set of 4 frames for one burst compared to the D600.

Here are some shots taken with my D800 setup:

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Red-Tail Hawk takes off

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Common Merganser hunting fish

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Incoming White-Bellied Sea Eagle

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Grey-Headed Fish Eagle hunt

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Grey-Headed Fish Eagle with prey

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Grey-Headed Fish Eagle moments before impact

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White-Bellied Sea Eagle strike

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White-Bellied Sea Eagle striking fish

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Stork-Billed Kingfisher rising from waters of a mangrove forest

Overall, I am pretty happy with both cameras. I use the D600 if I want something a bit lighter, but the D800 is now my body of choice for more demanding situations. For both cameras, I use the auto ISO mode with a minimum shutter speed of 1/1600s. The maximum ISO is clamped at 6400. I shoot in aperture priority mode. Feel free to contact me on Flickr if you have any further questions regarding the shots and thank you for reading the post.

If you have an interesting idea for a guest postyou can contact me here.

This entry was posted in Nikon D600, Nikon D800 and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • anjan

    Amen… d800 rocks! in still and fast movement.
    High Mpixel whine is irrelevant these days of cheap memory.

    • annie

      Yes, D800 rocks!
      whiners… blame thy skill.

      • Jeremy Michael Lelea

        Are people seriously whining about the D800?

        • Hung Leica Horse

          Indirectly. Some people are waiting for the mythical D700 replacement and the mythical D400.

        • Sundra Tanakoh

          I think they whine about the amount of computer power and memory they DON”T have and blame their outdated computer on the D800. I firmly believe that you MUST keep up with technology on the post processing & hardware side if you are going to continue your ventures into today’s digital realm. If you pony up and upgrade to a D800 you simply have to do the same with your computer …. we are the darkroom yes?

          • peterw

            well, I fear most computers on the present market are outdated if you have to work with D800 raw-files. I have a two year old i7 with 8 GB RAM and a 1GB videocard. It takes ages. It’s worth it, thought.

            • tmula

              Add more RAM and fast hard drives! I have mid 2010 iMac i7 16GB and 2012 Retina MBP 8GB, both are doing great work with D800 RAW files in Aperture. No problem whatsoever, and no its not taking ages :)

            • nobody cares

              If Peter’s using Lightroom, then you probably need to use LR on your mac. I have a 2010 I7 (though I’m sure the 860 was out in 2009) and LR is pretty slow at rendering 1:1. It’s not intolerable, but it’s not fast. Then again, IMO, LR has never been that fast, even in the LR3 days with a D90 I found it got slower as the Database got larger. Probably should switch software, since I always store all my files hierarchically.

            • Sundra Tanakoh

              What’s a few extra seconds in the long run….I mean if you are under such a tight schedule that a few seconds per frame is going to kill you, then get some time management skills and learn how to forecast you time per job better. Or don’t frigging spray and prey so much.

            • peterw

              Someone getting killed here?

              Not me. My wife is very happy me doing the dishes, vacuum the floor, fould the laundry while a 50 photo Capture NX2 white balance batch is running on on this two year old i7 8GB RAM

              She loves it, and it helps her appreciate the pictures ;).
              (Yes, a tiny bit of ‘exageration’ was applied in this reply)

            • CNX2

              Your disc is a piece of… Try SSD!

            • CSIROC

              Not all i7′s are created equal. Check out the passmark bench test at cpubenchmark.net. In grad school I did a lot of CFD modeling and found their relative placements were pretty darn accurate (i.e. if it said one i7 was twice as fast as another, the simulations would finish in half the time).

              But beyond that, you still have different speeds within the various RAM and video card options that will also impact your overall system speed as well as hard drive read and write speeds (usually if these are halfway decent, they aren’t the bottleneck, but it does happen).

              And finally, people thought 12 MP was too much unless you were printing really large images. People thought 12 bit RAW files were the absolute best of the best until 14 bit showed up. Time marches on. I think the issue here is that Nikon jumped from 12 straight to 36 instead of taking some intermediary steps, but nevertheless 36 won’t be the ceiling, guaranteed. I’d venture a guess that 14 bit RAW files will eventually be surpassed as well. I’d bet most, if not all, of us can remember the days of MB worth of RAM and some of us probably even MB worth of hard drive space. So yes, get used to it…file sizes are going to grow. It should be a part of your budget OR you should get used to sticking with old “outdated” equipment (outdated being a relative term).

            • Eric Duminil

              IMHO it is still true that 12MP+ is only interesting when printing really large images. Most of the people saying they need 36MP view their files on 2MP display.
              I think we hit a ceiling a while ago. My computer is fast enough for everything, and I have storage for more HD movies that I’ll ever watch. I don’t see the point in using a 36MP sensor just to fill my HDs.

            • CSIROC

              Not all i7′s are created equal. Check out the passmark bench test at cpubenchmark.net. In grad school I did a lot of CFD modeling and found their relative placements were pretty darn accurate (i.e. if it said one i7 was twice as fast as another, the simulations would finish in half the time).

              But beyond that, you still have different speeds within the various RAM and video card options that will also impact your overall system speed as well as hard drive read and write speeds (usually if these are halfway decent, they aren’t the bottleneck, but it does happen).

              And finally, people thought 12 MP was too much unless you were printing really large images. People thought 12 bit RAW files were the absolute best of the best until 14 bit showed up. Time marches on. I think the issue here is that Nikon jumped from 12 straight to 36 instead of taking some intermediary steps, but nevertheless 36 won’t be the ceiling, guaranteed. I’d venture a guess that 14 bit RAW files will eventually be surpassed as well. I’d bet most, if not all, of us can remember the days of MB worth of RAM and some of us probably even MB worth of hard drive space. So yes, get used to it…file sizes are going to grow. It should be a part of your budget OR you should get used to sticking with old “outdated” equipment (outdated being a relative term).

            • Ken Elliott

              There are plenty of fast computers that can handle D800 files. My 2007 HP workstation handles them pretty well, but it was very high end when new. First, the video card RAM doesn’t mean anything by itself, and LR doesn’t use the GPU. Replace the hard drive with an SSD and you’ll see a massive improvement in performance.

            • Ken Elliott

              There are plenty of fast computers that can handle D800 files. My 2007 HP workstation handles them pretty well, but it was very high end when new. First, the video card RAM doesn’t mean anything by itself, and LR doesn’t use the GPU. Replace the hard drive with an SSD and you’ll see a massive improvement in performance.

          • Eric Duminil

            You all sound like Hummer drivers telling people to buy more gas. Some people just need a Smart.

            • mikeswitz

              By that I assume you mean a smartphone?

            • Eric Duminil

              http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Prvu4RifEQ0
              Sorry if it wasn’t clear

            • mikeswitz

              I know what you meant. My reply was a joke, albeit not a very good one.

    • Bob

      I, for one, don’t whine about the number of pixels from the D800. It just has more pixels than I need and so would slow down my pp workflow. It’s a great camera but just not for everyone’s needs or wants. If some people are whining about it, I think it’s mostly due to the psychology that seems to be pervasive on the internet. Those same people would probably be affable, face to face.

    • JosengSisiw1

      i believed most of the whiners here holds longer their mouse than their camera shutter & never got to use much of the tools their whining about. they’re mostly people who sits down in front of their computers, reading the specs, & then write what they believed is an experts’ comment.

  • Michal Zdunek

    thanks for the post here, and thank you for sharing with us ! GREAT !

  • Chris Bannon

    Hi Jiayi. Nice post. I’ve been using the D800 for bird photography for a little over a year now and love it. The crop-ability of the files outweigh the slow fps in my opinion. I rarely get too close to my subjects shooting wildlife and more often than not, have to crop more than I like. That and the excellent focus makes the D800 a great camera.

    These are D800 with the 400 f/2.8 and 1.7 TC

    • Jiayi

      Hi Chris,
      Those are nice shots! Yes I am really liking the D800 for how versatile of a camera it is. Your 400 F2.8 looks like a good match with that body!

      - Jiayi

    • Jiayi Chong

      Hi Chris,
      Those are some nice shots of the Bald Eagle! Yes I agree with you and am liking the D800 quite a bit due to its versatility. How are you liking the 400 F2.8? Does it work well with the 1.7x and 2.0x TCs?

      - Jiayi

      • Chris Bannon

        The 400 2.8 works very well with the 1.7x. I’ve only tried the 2.0x a few times and really can’t say for sure. A good copy of the TC would likely do well but the ones I used were too soft for my taste.

        Your shots are excellent.

  • Maji

    Great images. Goes to show proper technique and the eyes behind the lens matter more than fps :)

  • Rich

    Beautiful photos. Have you tried the D800 in the DX mode to take advantage of the higher burst rate?

    • Jiayi Chong

      Hi Rich,
      Thanks for your kind words! No I prefer to stay full frame all the time since I get more versatility if I need to crop.

  • JXVo

    Thanks for this article and the beautiful pics. Much appreciated. Another endorsement for the 300 f4, backed up by excellent results.

  • Jer

    Awesome shots Jiayi. I believe the most impressive attributes you show are how sharp your shots are shooting handheld and not utilizing a VR telephoto lens. Again very impressive!

  • Maxime Riendeau

    I love my D600 for the birds and action shots

    • Jiayi Chong

      Great snow bunting picture!

    • Spy Black

      Great shots Maxime, but easy on that sharpening. Ouch!.

  • mikeswitz

    great post –great pictures!

  • http://inthemistphoto.com/ InTheMist

    Great series of photos.

    And thanks, Admin for keeping the “artistic” series coming!

  • sreekrishna

    Excellent review Jiyai Chong! Very nice pictures. Thanks for the review. I am also a bird enthusiast. I recently bought a D7100 and clubbed it with my existing 300mm f4 + 1.4x TC. I am still practicing taking pics with it. I am now following you on flickr :)

  • Sundra Tanakoh

    Great stuff! Thanks for posting, it is much appreciated !!

  • Richard Bedford

    Hi,

    great series of images…well done.

    There is more to the D800 than people would have you understand.

    I think with care and a good understanding of the camera you can get such action images.

    I would however never take the ISO above 1600 and even then do not feel comfortable. ISO 6400 is not realistic, for agency submissions anyway.

    Be careful about using telecons also…it does have an impact on image quality.

    Richard.

    http://www.richardbedfordbirdphotography.co.uk

    • Matt

      Great photos on your website. May I ask what your typical setup is please? Also can you get away with shooting much slower than 1/1600s?

      • KnightPhoto

        Not Richard but IMO 1/1600 is needed and above e.g. 1/2500 if you want to maximize your keeper rate. I do not want to spend all weekend, or week, chasing down the subjects like the above excellent examples, and then lose the shot due to motion blur. Keeper rate becomes problematically low if you start going lower.

        Sitting, slowly walking, slowly swimming subjects yes you can get away with 1/800.

        Why are you asking, you aren’t trying to maintain base ISO are you? Because too low of an ISO is an all too common mistake. I normally shoot ISO 1000-2500 range for my wildlife photography to get the kinds of shutter speeds we are talking about.

  • Morris

    nice article and shots, thanks NR and mr Jiayi

  • peterw

    I admire your pictures, largely I envy the great opportunities you got/created yourself.
    You could try the D600 on 4 bps (CL instead of CH). You might get better AF-opperation due to the shorter black-out time when the mirror is up and your AF is blind. I never shoot 8 bps on flying birds with D300.

  • Pat Mann

    Beautiful shots! Thanks for sharing.

  • AlphaTed

    Just my two cents (and personal preference), some shots are better a frame or two early or late.
    Great images. Thanks for sharing.

  • neversink

    So glad that these images have been posted. it breaks the myth of the D800 as a landscape camera. Great post. Hope the whiners and complainers and naysayers all hide their heads in the sand. Good work!!!!

    • Spy Black

      Breaks the myth of D600 AF points too.

  • deep6

    Enjoyed this topic and presentation. Exactly what I was wondering. Thank you.

  • AnotherView

    Not bad, but I hope newbee birders can see that images clearly demonstrate the limitations of the 300/4+TC17EII for birding — hardly any would be pass muster on BPN or Naturescapes. Feather detail is largely nonexistent and many are not sharp. There’s simply no substitute for premium long glass, or getting closer to the subject to compensate. Nothing wrong with the cameras though.

    • Can’t Believe It

      I have a serious question that goes to your comment…. it seems to be a common here when a member posts their photos they invariably gets comments like: these are nice, but not as nice as the photos on SiteX.

      Here’s my question: Why should Jiayi measure him or herself against shots posted on some other website? In particular, the photographers on those two sites have created their own, very rigid ideas of what a bird photograph should be. Does it make sense for Jiayi to fall in line with the groupthink on either of those sites?

      What is the benefit for Jiayi and Jiayi’s creative quest to be running to other sites and trying to live up to someone else’s idea of what a bird photo should be?

    • JXVo

      Given how much the images were downsampled for web display I hardly expect to see fine feather detail in the pics posted in this article. While not doubting that lenses costing upwards of 4 times the price of the 300 f/4 are better optically (and they should be), they are also invariably too heavy for long periods of handheld shooting. I love my long lens and gimbal head but I find that I miss a lot of shots because I can’t reposition it (or myself) fast enough. Anyway, the purpose of the article was primarily to outline differences between the 2 camera bodies for BIF. The pics demonstrate the writer’s skills well enough to give credence to the observations on camera body performance. I wish I could get BIF pics like that.

    • mikeswitz

      When you look at a BIF do you ask yourself what is the point of this picture? And when you comment do you ask yourself what is the point?

  • Jay G

    Thanks for this article. Very nice to hear from someone with real world experience with both bodies. I currently shoot D7000, but looking to go full frame sometime soon. I’m into landscape, sports, events, and portraiture. While I’ve wanted to love the D600/610, the autofocus system really makes me think i’ll be wanting/needing more out of my multi thousand dollar upgrade.

  • Yoshi

    Do not many people get the battery pack for the D800 for the extra 2 FPS? Seems like a pretty valuable addition for something like this. Or is that against the hand-held ethos?

    • Spy Black

      Think “weight”, then add “hand-held”…

    • neversink

      No extra 2fps if you are shooting FX on D800 with battery pack.

    • Josh

      Well for starters you have to be in DX mode and then you have to use AA’s or an EN-EL18 to get the 6fps. With the normal En-El15s you get 5 fps in the 1.2 and DX crop modes. So really you are only getting 1 fps more unless you use the more expensive batteries or drag at bunch of AA’s with you which makes getting the grip for more fps pointless for many people.

      Heck even 6 vs 4 fps is not the big of a difference anyway, especially if you are good at timing and not using the FPS as a crutch to cover up you lack of skill.

      So you end up with added weight and bulk to lug around for not much benefit.

  • John_Skinner

    We’re only seeing the keepers… How many got away?

    I COULD shoot birds with a D600, but why?.
    I prefer to use my D3s and get the job done. Nothing worst than being out 6 hours and waiting for that shot.. and miss it.

  • Jayson Xu

    Great article! I’m currently using D600 with Sigma 120-300 2.8 with 2x TC. Gota admit the focus speed for this combo is abit on the slow side to shoot flying birds, but it works great for stationary bird shooting. The focus speed is however, very workable without the TC, but this limits the range to 300mm, I have get to try the 1.4 TC.

  • dr-hilarius

    Beautiful photos. I’m considering buying either a D610 or D800. What are your thoughts about which is better for low light/high ISO use? I often find myself up against low light conditions and having to trade off shutter speed. Thank you for any input.

    • KnightPhoto

      Df is best for low-light / high ISO. I shoot the D4 and it is great at that.

  • Phil

    Have to say the quality of these images is pretty poor considering they come from the D800! Cropped to death and too much noise reduction applied by the looks of it. Certainly does not show what that camera and lens can really do!

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