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Wildlife photography: from Coolpix 4200 to Nikon D3s and every camera in between

An excellent guest post by Des Ong (website | Facebook | Instagram) on wildlife photography from Coolpix 4200 to D3s and every camera in between:

Hi, I’m Des Ong and I’m a full-time wildlife photographer based in the UK. I’ll come clean – I’ve not always been a Nikon photographer. The first three cameras I owned were in fact from the ‘lighter side’. The first being an old manual SLR camera my college tutor insisted we use.

Over the last decade, I’ve had the opportunity to use a number of Nikon cameras and I thought it would be interesting to share some of my experiences with you, and what I think of them.

Nikon Coolpix 4200

When digital cameras became more readily available, I traded what I had at the time for my first very first Nikon – a compact Coolpix 4200. This 4MP camera was a real game changer. Free from the constraints of film development costs and seduced by the newfound instant gratification of the digital medium, this was my most prolific period. Nothing escaped me. It was used to capture anything and everything from my newborn daughter to bugs and aquatic creatures. The image files were not clean and the video pretty shocking, but the contents were important to me, and I can capture images anytime, anywhere, and share my experiences easily. My wife still uses one, although this was bought used a few years ago after the original was damaged beyond repair.

The images below were made some years ago with my trusty Coolpix 4200:

E4200-01

E4200-02

Nikon D50

While I was working for a growing company as a Product Manager, I bought the D50 for our new, in-house photo studio. Together with a set of studio flash, we shot literally thousands of images for product development and marketing purposes. I was so impressed with the quality of the images that I went out and bought one for my personal use. This was no easy decision. At that time, there was only a small handful of DSLR available, and they were very expensive. Although I rarely use it now, it still puts a smile on my face when I see how beautifully clean the files are at ISO1600, which is its highest ISO setting. The metal casing still feels as solid as the day I bought it.

Tamron used the following two of my images for their ads promoting the 90mm macro, which was the only lens I owned at the time with this body. This was of course the previous version without the VC. For such an affordable price it was a very sharp lens.

D50-01

D50-02

Nikon D300

The D300 was a replacement camera for my D80, which I only had for a short period before it was accidentally dropped in the pond while trying to photograph a damselfly emerging.

I loved the handling of this body. It was robust and fast for the things I like to photograph, when the light was good. By this time, I was submitting my images to stock agencies and magazines, and I had become more critical of my own work. The one situation where I struggled was shooting in low light. I found it difficult to lock focus, and the files were noisy above ISO800 in these situations.

For fast-action and/or low-light work like the ones below, I found the D300 difficult to get good results consistently.

D300-01

D300-02

Nikon D700

I traded the D300 for my first full-frame sensor body, the D700, specifically to be able to work in low lighting conditions. At the time, it was woodland European Badgers.

The D700 has enabled me to work in situations I couldn’t previously have imagined possible. I changed from limiting myself to using ISO setting of no higher than 800 with the D300, to shooting no less than ISO400 and only stopping at 3200. It was a revelation, and opened up a whole new world of possibilities for my wildlife images. The viewfinder was bright and I could concentrate on the contents again without worrying too much about what the files would look like at high ISOs.

D700-01

D700-02

Nikon D3s

This is my workhorse. It is my go to, come rain or shine, in the snow or in a tropical rainforest, body. Compared to the D700, it gave me a couple more stops in the ISO department, and better AF. There are other smaller improvements but the aforementioned are what’s important to me as a wildlife photographer. I also like the small manageable file size. I know it’s modest compared to many of the current DSLR but the files are beautiful and I’ve had no complaints from clients whatever size they wish to print at. It is head and shoulders beyond anything else I’ve used, including some newer models I mention below.

D3s-01

D3s-02

Nikon D800e

This was a loaner from Nikon UK, for a project I was working on in Spain. I thought I would really love this camera and possibly acquire one as a back-up body but in truth I didn’t get on with it. I felt that it was unnecessarily pixel-heavy and operationally just didn’t feel right. I was also expecting the files to be ultra beautiful after reading the many glowing reviews, but I still found the D3s files to be sharper and more, for much of a better word, ‘alive’. It’s something that I struggle to describe as my observations were non-scientifically measured. I wasn’t even shooting the same scene side-by-side. But when I got home and looked at the images from both cameras, I much prefer the D3s files. A fellow photographer recently wrote an article that mirrored much of my findings/feelings at Photography Life, although he was comparing it to the D4s.

Now I’m not saying one camera is better than the other, but the D3s remains my favorite. I know other photographers that love the D800e and continue to produce great work using this camera.

D800e-01

Nikon D7100

This was another camera that Nikon UK kindly lent me for review. I used it on my recent trip to Norway, working on the Nordic icon - the Musk Ox.

I was surprised at how much I liked this camera. It was light and compact, and the key functions were easy to get to.  The files looked nice despite the high pixel counts. Combined with the 80-400mm (latest model), it enabled me to make a great variety of shots in this harsh environment.

There was only one aspect of this body that I didn’t like – the buffer/write speed. Once filled, it takes forever to recover. When working with wildlife in action (and I’d imagine in sports too), you never know when the magic moment is going to present itself, and having only a one second burst is crippling. Still, a surprisingly good camera and a really good price.

D7100-01

Nikon D5200

I bought this camera when my D3s gave up, halfway during one of my tours to Borneo. It was a while since I last used an entry-level body, and I was pleasantly surprised at how capable this little camera performed.

The features were not so easy to access and most were menu driven, and I’m not so sure that it will withstand more than a couple of weeks of use in the wet and humid rainforest. But for the price, I really couldn’t have asked for more. I especially liked the articulated screen, which enabled me to photograph this minute, endemic, jungle-crab at ground level, something that my D3s couldn’t do with its bulky handgrip.

D5200-01

You can see more of my work on my website here. I’m a social media Luddite. Although I joined Facebook back in 2012, I have only begun posting regularly since last September. If you enjoy viewing images of wildlife, do stop by and say hello. And as of a few days ago, I’m now on Instagram (whoop, whoop). Whatever next!

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

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  • Intrepid Dave

    Oh man. I love my D50. Doesn’t get out as much as it used to, but if it had a more robust body ….

    • delayedflight

      It obviously didn’t stop the poster from getting some great photos…

      • logicalidiot

        It’s all in the lens. All DSLR sensors are somewhat equal in the right light…somewhat.

        • delayedflight

          The guy I responded to was talking about how he wished his camera *BODY* was more robust. No mention of lenses.

          • logicalidiot

            I wasn’t disagreeing with you on your point. There was no mention of lenses… so I mentioned it =)

            • JjJjj

              Did somebody say pizza!

  • Intrepid Dave

    Oh man. I love my D50. Doesn’t get out as much as it used to, but if it had a more robust body ….

  • Aldo

    breathtaking photographs.

  • Eric Calabros

    The last photo proves again that we need smaller pro bodies

    • Adam

      Like the Nikon df?

      • Kynikos

        He said “pro”.

        • Spy Black

          So the D5200 is more a pro camera than the Df?

          • Kynikos

            All I’m saying is that Df is not a pro body.
            Unless you’re a professional hipster.

            • Karen

              I use Nikon FM2 for several years for journal photography during film era. It’s a full manual control. By your definition, was it a pro body?

            • Kynikos

              A pro can make top-quality images with a point and shoot. That’s what makes them a pro tog. Not their gear.

              That said, the Df is not a pro body because it lags far behind other bodies with better features. Like a second card slot, best AF available (or at least better than the D610), proper weather sealing, and so forth. The ergonomic design is quaint but not efficient. If somebody else wants to mutter about no-video, go ahead (I don’t care).

              Confidential to Karen: let’s go shooting, you with a coolpix and me with my D800E. Your images may well kick the crap out of mine. But that’s confounding two issues and it doesn’t make the Df a pro body.

            • We

              “Because it lags behind”

              Hahahaha!

              I guess you are not a professional human then

            • Hnercks

              @Kynikos. Every camera can be considered as a pro. It depends on how you use it and how well you can control it. A camera is just a tool. I used several cameras inferior to DF for my full-time job and never had any problems with these cameras.

            • Spy Black

              Only someone who’s not a professional can’t use a Df professionally.

            • Fly Moon

              @spy_black:disqus Agree with you

            • Q

              Professional cliche’er telling tired “jokes” above

              If a camera makes a person a “hipster” then I hate to see what else you judge people about.

        • Raj

          You know I am tired of people saying, oh you don’t need this or that to shoot a great photograph. Funny thing is, you don’t see these people shooting a wedding with a coolpix or doing portrait work with a D60. For the last time, mostly like not, having a great eye for seeing the shot can never be replaced by the best body. However, your chances of getting a great shot are greatly enhanced by the tool you have in your hand. I would much rather have my D800 and the 24-70 lens in my hand if I see this amazing sunset behind a foreground of a building or structure.
          That is a simple point, the tool counts..a lot!…talent for seeing the shot being equal.

    • pushittothelimit

      Tbh it doesn’t prove anything this article just proves that if you know what you’re doing gear isn’t a limitation.

  • http://www.davidiam.com/ davidiam photo

    Great shots. Though I suspect the lenses might have had more to do with it than the camera bodies.

    • Des Ong

      The lenses used were:-

      - Tamron 90mm macro (non-VC) – Dragonfly, Chameleon;
      - Sigma 500mm f4.5 – Barn Owl
      - Nikon 500mm f4 (non-VR) – Seal, Squirrel, Proboscis Monkey;
      - Sigma 150mm macro +1.4TC – Puffins, Jungle Crab;
      - Nikon 200-400mm VR1 – Kingfisher;
      - Nikon 600mm f4 VR – Stonechat;
      - Nikon 80-400mm AF-S VR – Musk Ox;

      Hope this helps.

      • Kynikos

        Thank you.
        Great glass, but it in no way diminishes your obvious skill.

    • Qq

      More, less… Blah blah blah

      We all know the benefits and disadvantages of lenses, body etc…

      You rarely hear people say “it was perfectly composed,lit, exposed” etc

      Downplaying, validating, blaming or dismissing based on gear.

      • http://www.davidiam.com/ davidiam photo

        Congratulations on missing my point entirely.

  • I’m never getting rid of my D3S.

    • bob

      same here.

      but i wont mind a D3s mark II and mark III

      • O_o

        That’s called a D4.

        • bob

          nope not a D4 or even a D4s or a D5 or a D5s

          im quite clear: 12mp D3s mark II and mark III

  • Alex

    Nice work

  • Kynikos

    Brilliant set. Thanks for taking the time to share your work. You clearly have the eye and the work ethic to get top-quality images.

    As you write, one never knows when the magic moment will present itself. Is there a camera you always have with you?

    • Des Ong

      I don’t normally carry a camera with me unless you include my iPhone. Almost all my wildlife images are made on dedicated outings/trips/sessions. They are not incidental captures. For family gatherings I still use our very old and worn Coolpix!

  • js200022

    Great job. Thanks for sharing the pictures.

  • Spy Black

    Great work.

  • markdstump

    The D50 is great, but the D800 echo is the greatest!

  • Al Richardson

    What a beautiful set of photos – just goes to show that the hackneyed truism of ‘the 6 inches behind the viewfinder’ being the most important bit of kit really is so true. Nonetheless, great to hear your comparative technical thoughts. Wonderful stuff.

  • Des Ong

    Thank you, I appreciate your kind remarks.

  • neonspark

    he he, and for the life of budah, some so called “photographers” say you cant shoot wildlife with a Nikon because XXX lens ain’t there blah blah. stop making excuses.

  • peteee363

    I found the same impression of the d800e initially, but after switching to all nano coated lenses, I find sharper images and that zip I was looking for was easier to achieve. so I sold all of my old lenses, and swapped them for the newer versions.

    • Des Ong

      The 600mm f4 lens I used had Nano coating.

  • Rameses the 2nd

    If only my D800 came with a real photographer in the box.

    • Fly Moon

      LOL

  • Captain Megaton

    Is the D3s really two stops over the D700?

    • Des Ong

      In my work/application, yes.

  • Alpha Whiskey
  • Patrick Alan

    Very impressive post. The images are first class as well as the written presentation … I detect a true photographer here … modest and practical, with the creative skill to get the shot. Proving that in the right hands, even a relatively inexpensive set up can get the job done.

    • John

      I agree with Patrick. Very inspirational and insightful Des.

  • Beso

    Beautiful images and nice post. Thanks for sharing your work and impressions.

  • Joven

    Know what’s great about this thread? It STILL won’t stop people from being mad for not refreshing the lens X, or camera body Z that’s holding back their work.

  • Guest

    Very nice story in here. Thanks very much for sharing it.

  • mikeswitz

    Des Ong,
    Such a great post. It’s not the camera that makes the photographer, its the photographer that makes the camera. Thank you for the beautiful illustrations.

  • Leif Nilsson

    Well, wont argue with u :) But have to keep in mind that you are talking about wild life photography when it comes to the D800. For wildlife or sports I would chose the D4 for one reason only, speed!, but otherwise, the D800 kicks ass and Canon cant match it. I dont find it pixel-heavy, its an advantage. That said, I admit wild life is not my focus.

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