From Snowy Mountains to Tropical Rainforest (part 2)

From Snowy Mountains to Tropical Rainforest (part 2)

by Des Ong (website | Facebook | Instagram) - see also his previous [NR] articles

Portrait of a dominant male Orang-utan. D810, 200-500mm at 500mm.

Portrait of a dominant male Orang-utan. D810, 200-500mm at 500mm.

It is hard to believe that it’s been a year since Part 1 of this article was published. My traveling schedule is usually back-to-back between destinations during winter and early spring. It wasn’t that long ago that I had completed another month long tour in the tropics, so picking up where I left off made perfect sense.

Before I dive in to the challenges of shooting in the warmer climes, I just wanted to mention that I have been using the 200-500mm f5.6 for nearly 6 months so I will first share what I think about this lens.

Sea-eagle diving for a fish at sunset. D810, 200-500mm at 380mm.

Sea-eagle diving for a fish at sunset. D810, 200-500mm at 380mm.

The versatility of the 200-500mm really excels when you are unable to move around, such as when you are in a hide/blind. This was taken at 200mm.

The versatility of the 200-500mm really excels when you are unable to move around, such as when you are in a hide/blind. This was taken at 200mm.

The first serious outing was in Norway, but instead of working on the Musk Ox, I was photographing the White-tailed Sea Eagle. I was not only shooting action, I was also at times working in very low lighting conditions. Here are some of my thoughts (spoiler – no surprises):-

  1. the auto-focus is very slow by comparison to my 500mm f4, and more importantly, when you lose the subject during tracking, re-acquiring focus can be very difficult, especially in low light;
  2. sharpness is acceptably good, as is the out of focus background blur;
  3. lightweight enough to handhold for very long periods;
  4. very versatile zoom range although the turn from the shortest to the longest focal length cannot be achieved easily in one single turn while shooting;
  5. for the cost it’s a no-brainer, especially if you travel a lot.

It has to be said that I had been looking to a 500mm f4 replacement for some time now. Which was the main reason for me to try the 200-500mm f5.6.

A typical freshwater stream in the Borneo rainforest where many amphibians can be found. D750, Tamron 28-75mm at 28mm.

A typical freshwater stream in the Borneo rainforest where many amphibians can be found. D750, Tamron 28-75mm at 28mm.

A tender moment between a mother Proboscis Monkey and her infant. D810, Nikon 500mm f4 AF-S II.

A tender moment between a mother Proboscis Monkey and her infant. D810, Nikon 500mm f4 AF-S II.

For me, there isn’t a perfect lens/equipment out there. It’s all about which aspect of it that you’re willing to compromise. After some initial trial, I was reasonably confident to take it with me to the tropics. I thought this would put it through another set of tests. So 3 days after my return from snow-covered Norway, I found myself flying east to a substantially warmer region of Southeast Asia.

My destinations were the north, west and southern part of the Borneo rainforest, followed by northern Sulawesi and finally the ‘Jurassic’ Komodo islands. Packing for the tropics was a lot easier. For a start, there’s no bulky, waterproof or thick insulating clothing to consider. Since there is very little crossover between the two, I was able to have another case prepared ready to go.

An Oriental Whipsnake taken with a macro ringflash and the Sigma 150mm.

An Oriental Whipsnake taken with a macro ringflash and the Sigma 150mm.

This Malayan Hornfrog has eluded me for a few years and through the help of the local Iban tribe, I was finally able to see one. D750, Sigma 150mm.

This Malayan Hornfrog has eluded me for a few years and through the help of the local Iban tribe, I was finally able to see one. D750, Sigma 150mm.

Lens wise I had the Nikkon 200-500mm f5.6, my trusty Sigma 150mm macro, and very light but very old Tamron 28-75mm f2.8. I have travelled with the latter two for many years and I found that with a suitable telephoto, previously the 500mm f4 AF-S II, they pretty much cover 90% of my needs. It’s worth mentioning that I do also bring tele-converters and extension tubes to attain greater flexibility. This year I took two bodies with me – the D810 and the D750. The latter I purchased a couple of days before departure, which proved to be a bad idea. More on that later!

Heat and humidity are the two major factors that can potentially cause a problem to man and machine in this environment. The high temperature will induce sweat, which normally aids cooling. However, with high moisture content in the air, the perspiration is not able to evaporate effectively to give the cooling effect, which in turns makes your body sweat even more in an attempt to exaggerate this outcome. So lots of fluids and vital minerals are lost through this process. It is therefore vital that you drink plenty of water throughout the day to replenish this loss.

Like many of the wildlife in Borneo, this Pygmy Elephant is endemic and endangered. It’s feeding on some Water Hyacinth. D810, 200-500mm at 210mm.

Like many of the wildlife in Borneo, this Pygmy Elephant is endemic and endangered. It’s feeding on some Water Hyacinth. D810, 200-500mm at 210mm.

One of the more impressive Hornbills in northern Borneo, the Rhinoceros, feeding on similarly coloured figs.

One of the more impressive Hornbills in northern Borneo, the Rhinoceros, feeding on similarly coloured figs.

We have been very fortunate to come across this endemic Western Tarsier during one of our night safaris. D750, 150mm macro, torch lit.

We have been very fortunate to come across this endemic Western Tarsier during one of our night safaris. D750, 150mm macro, torch lit.

Some people are concerned about fungal growth working in such an environment. In my experience, unless you’re there continuously for a very long time, visiting for a week or two is usually not a problem. For photographers that live and work in this area, it is common to have a dry-cabinet. This is essentially a humidity-free, fridge like container. Even though I have worked in this region on a number of occasions, often several weeks at a time, I have yet to find this a necessity.

Tropical downpours are normally much heavier than those we experience in northern Europe. It can be easily overcome however, either with dedicated rain covers, or a bin/refuse bag. The latter is light, cheap, compact and very easy to apply in a sudden deluge, albeit less elegantly.

One of the many coral islands we flew over en-route to Komodo. D750, 28-75mm at 62mm.

One of the many coral islands we flew over en-route to Komodo. D750, 28-75mm at 62mm.

A formidable adult Komodo Dragon at sunrise. D810, 500mm f4 AF-SII.

A formidable adult Komodo Dragon at sunrise. D810, 500mm f4 AF-SII.

Unlike in colder regions of the world, where we often work with a handful of species per destination (often only one or two), the diversity in a tropical rainforest is tremendous. However, locating them is not as easy as it may first appear. Then getting close to photograph the subjects successfully and in a pleasing manner requires both patience and experience.

On my trip last year, I discovered very quickly that my D750 would not work with the 500mm f4. At first I thought it wasn’t mounted properly or dirty contacts. But after careful cleaning and several re-mounts, it was clear that it had compatibility issue with this very fine, but old, lens. This came as a real surprise considering that this lens works with the D810 and in fact all other full frame bodies that I have ever tried.

The yawning Dragon actually looked quite far away at 50mm through the viewfinder! D750, Tamron 28-75mm.

The yawning Dragon actually looked quite far away at 50mm through the viewfinder! D750, Tamron 28-75mm.

I have since sent it back to Nikon for examination. They recommended that I replace the bayonet mount on the lens, as it looked a little worn, thinking that it could be to do with poor contact, but to no avail. It was never fixed. No explanation was given. It was a little disappointing since this is not only a fantastic lens, it was the lightest AF-S 500mm f4 that Nikon has produced until the latest E/FL version was introduced. In fact, if you are using a compatible body, I’d still have no qualms about recommending this superb optic.

A False Gharial glide silently next to our boat by the river bank. D810, 500mm f4 AF-S II.

A False Gharial glide silently next to our boat by the river bank. D810, 500mm f4 AF-S II.

The dominant Crested Macaque being groomed by a female. D750, Tamron 28-75mm.

The dominant Crested Macaque being groomed by a female. D750, Tamron 28-75mm.

The replacement for this year’s visit was the 200-500mm f5.6. Granted, the AF speed was not as fast but I was able to adapt to this shortcoming by changing my techniques. I concur with many that comparing an f4 supertele to a con/pro-sumer telephoto-zoom is like comparing an orange to an apple, but for me, and indeed many that are looking for a 500mm, invariably they would be looking at both categories. My opinion is that both sets of lens are fantastic, it is the individual features that will help determine which of the two is most suited to the user.

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  • Mikycoud

    Wow! Looks like you’ve been busy! Lots of good pictures there, obviously the result of many years worth of experience and many early morning rises! I’ve been in the market to replace my 500 f4p (manual) lens for a while and I’ll take your 500 afs recommandations into account. Off to ebay now to have look actually ! Eheh. Thanx for sharing your inspiring pictures.

  • Aldo

    Wow didnt know there were photographers in NR. Amazing

  • MattfromNikon

    Nice and well written article.
    Much more pleasant to read this article than some of those Internet bloggers who also publish lens test results with pictures from a visit to the zoo / local nature park and then they put direct links to Adorama and Amazon for the readers to click and buy the lens.
    Usually the cheaper lens performs slightly better (no surprise there) so that more buyers will get fooled and click happily on the cheaper alternative (the blogger get a small percentage for every order).
    Sad about your failing D750 but that body isn’t up to serious wild life shooting anyway because of a limited and crippled buffer and also the crippled buttons & controls layout. Plus a number of other issues.
    I totally agree that the AF on the 200-500 is very slow by comparison to the 500mm f4, and more importantly, when you lose the subject during tracking, re-acquiring focus can be very difficult, especially in low light.
    This was also the reason why I returned my 200-500 because I saw no real need to keep it over my 80-400 G version. After shooting with both lenses for about 8 months I noticed the 80-400 has a slightly faster AF and also it tracks slightly better (maybe the hint here should be that the 80-400 is about a 1000 bucks more expensive and it’s listed on the NPS list for pro lenses).
    The 200-500 is for sure a nice lens as well and if you really need the extra 100mm then it’s a no-brainer for that price but if you alreay own the 80-400 G then it’s another matter.
    However, nothing beats prime tele lenses for wildlife.
    Anyway fantastic shots and looking forward to more stuff!

    • Des Ong

      Cheers, Matt. Actually I found the D750 to be very capable. The only thing that I found slightly bothersome, it’s the shutter noise – not really wildlife friendly at all!

  • Rolf

    thanks for sharing amazing photos and the 200-500mm lens review! I’m considering that lens for wildlife. Have u used it with 1.4TC n if so how did that perform?

    • Des Ong

      Thanks, Rolf. I have used the 1.4 with this lens. Although I understand that it’s compatible, I’m not so sure that it’ll be useful at such a slow f-number for wildlife work. As well, I think the AF might be even worse. I have just ordered a D500, and I think this will really make the lens super useful for wildlife application.

      • sltim

        Yes, 200-500mm f/5.6 lens on D500 was really good when I rented this combo for my week-long Costa Rica trip. It was especially great for night walks (it serves as an effective macro setup too). I did not do much birds in flight, but it tracked larger birds at daylight really well. Autofocus was fast enough, but I can’t compare to 500mm prime lens. I got Very sharp pictures with this setup, and 10 fps is fantastic. I subsequently tried this lens on a D750, and tracking birds in flight was difficult.

    • Joe Donbaker

      Hi. Just wondering about any bokeh if you bump the lens up further than what it is at present with a tc 1.4

  • AYWY

    First, great post!

    Second, very disappointing that Nikon could not fix compatibility between your D750 and 500mm. Ultimately a brand is the sum of its parts – body, lenses, flash, support, software, etc. I may acquire an additional lens in the next 12 mths, so your example certainly give me pause to continue investing in the Nikon ecosystem.

    • TheInfinityPoint

      That’s not the only lens that doesn’t work with the D750. I have the older AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8D lens which works fine on my D800 but only works on my D750 ~20% of the time, usually after twisting the lens a bit after it is mounted.

  • YMN

    Great articles and absolutely beautiful photos. Thanks for sharing.

  • TJLaMont

    Really interesting article, and wonderful photos. Thank you so much for what is truly a real field-test. I was in northern Borneo last year, shooting mostly macro, but had an older 300mm with me as well and often wished for more reach. This year I’m heading to the Peruvian Amazon for a similar trip. In addition to my D800-macro rig, I’m thinking of renting the new 300 PF and the 1.4 TC, along with a D500. I’ve been debating bringing the 200-500 instead. I’d be curious what you think.

    • Paul Digney

      I have had the D500 and 300PF with a 1.4 TC for a couple of months now. The 300 on the D500 is very, very fast focusing (though I haven’t used one of the big teles so I don’t know how it compares). It lives on the D500 most of the time with the TC on as well. The autofocus is, I find, still fast enough for some birds in flight but it is slowed down by the TC appreciably. It is marvelously light but isn’t going to be as flexible as the zoom

      • TJLaMont

        Thanks, good to know. I think “marvelously light” may win the day, given all the other gear I will be hauling through the jungle!

    • Des Ong

      I’ve not used the 300PF, TJ, so cannot give you meaningful feedback. Having said that, others that have seemed to love this combo. Ultimately I think it will depend on your style of photography, the subjects, and the reach you seek.

      • TJLaMont

        Thanks for replying. I am leaning toward the 300 TC combo in trying to balance “gear weight vs. sweat.” And again, wonderful photos. I hope to get back to Borneo one day.

        • JAKnight

          I have had the D500 and 300PF with a 1.4 TC for a couple of months and concur. It is an excellent combination hand-held or on a support. It gives you a responsive 630mm (or a fast 450 without TC), and you can easily carry it around all day.
          Thank you for posting your article

  • Eno

    Gorgeous work!

  • JXVo

    Thanks Des for sharing your wonderful images with us. I particularly enjoyed your emphasis on rare and endemic species.

  • saywhatuwill

    I look at these photos and see a lot of PATIENCE and persistence. Great job and thanks for sharing.

  • Reilly Diefenbach

    Excellent shots!

  • ben

    The issue is with your lenses dc/dc converter, it needs to be upgraded to be compatible with the d750. Been there, done that. in fact the d750 has this issue with all of the older af-s teles, 300 f4, 300 2.8, 500, 600, 800. contact nikon or aps and they can fix it.

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