Nikon D500 and a D7100 go to the misty Terai forests near the Himalayan foothills

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Hello! My name is Nilanjan Ray (500px page | Instagram page | website galleries page), and I am an amateur wildlife and nature photographer. Last month I spent a few days in Dudhwa National Park, contiguous to Royal Bardia National Park in Nepal. Dudhwa is located in the Terai region of Northern India, near the Nepal border and the close to the Himalayan foothills. It is famous for its rich and diverse Terai ecosystem, with the terrain mostly comprising grasslands, swamps and tall sal trees.

Choice of kit

Dudhwa had been on my ‘to visit’ list for a while. While I kept my hopes in check regarding mammal sightings (wrong time of the year), I was looking forward to the mist, dew and soft November light that I could expect to encounter. I carried two bodies, a D500 attached to the 200-500mm f/5.6, and a D7100 for wider angle shots. I deliberated long and hard before deciding on the D500 over the D810 (I had used both cameras in the field, so knew what to expect). In hindsight, perhaps it was not the ideal decision (given what I eventually shot), but this is how my original thinking went:

  1. Dudhwa is full of elephant grass, sometimes 10-12 feet high. And there would be a lot of undergrowth after the monsoons. So better AF would be helpful.
  2. I would be visiting the park just after it opens, after a 4.5 months monsoon break. Animals take a few weeks to get used to human movement again, so during the initial days they prefer to maintain a distance. So reach would be important.
  3. Low light performance was comparable between the D500 and D810. D810 was a little better, but the FPS and buffer of the D500 made up for that delta difference in high ISO performance.
  4. The 20MP of the D500 would deliver better quality IQ than the 16 MP DX crop of the D810, if we were talking about similar reach.

For a change, I flew this time instead of driving. The airline had a 7 kg carry-on baggage limit, so I had to be careful about what to carry.

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Days and nights in Dudhwa

I spent the first few days at a tourist complex right beside the forest entry gate, and then stayed at a forest rest house, 13 km inside the core area. The mornings and nights were misty and cold, while the afternoons were warm and dusty. The evenings were spent going through photos and drinking rum under the starry sky. I didn’t see any big cats, but another safari vehicle encountered a big male tiger in the evening when they were coming back from their afternoon safari. I did hear leopards calling close by, when I was staying at the forest rest house. And narrowly (and luckily) missed an encounter with a wild male tusker, when going back to the FRH in the night. We could see its fresh footprints on the narrow track (flanked by 12 feet tall elephant grass on both sides), so had to drive slowly and carefully through the mist, especially at every blind curve.

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Setting up the cameras, how the D500 performed

Throughout the trip, I was using auto-ISO, usually capped at ISO 6400, and manual mode. I use back button focus, so I configured the AF-ON button for AF-C D21, and set up the Pv button for AF-ON + Group AF. I didn’t bother setting up the joystick/selector button, since it was too easy to shift the focus point when pressing it. I didn’t get much chance to shoot action, so blocked shot AF response and subject motion settings were kept at default settings. To maximize battery life, airplane mode was on all the time (the battery drains too fast otherwise), and mobile synch was off.

The metering of the D500 is very good, reminds me of D810’s metering. While matrix metering was sufficient for most situations, I used centre-weighted metering for a few focus + meter + recompose shots.

Not much to write about the D500’s AF, it is fantastic (a few shots of feeding swallows, taken during a previous trip: photo 1 | photo 2, this last one is an ISO 10000 shot). And perhaps a little better than the 7D Mk2 (a friend was carrying the 7D Mk2 + the new 100-400mm IS2). But I do find that it has quirks when one shoots mammals, especially one walking towards the shooter, with undergrowth close to the face of the animal. When using AF-C D21, sometimes a nearby blade of grass or branch catches the attention of the AF, even when the AF point was squarely on the eyes of the animal (I felt that AF-C D9 of the older Nikons was a little more consistent and predictable than this new D21, for keeping focus on the eyes of an approaching animal; anyway, sometimes I ended up using single point AF). And Group is not that effective if there are other distractions close to the shooter than the subject e.g. when an animal is emerging through undergrowth or grass. Another funny thing with Group AF (only to be expected, given that it gives priority to closer objects) – if the animal has a long or high contrast snout, sometimes the focus will be on the snout than on the eyes.

D500 weather sealing seemed to be rather good (for a non-flagship body), I didn’t face any issues in the dust or when there was heavy condensation. High ISO performance is excellent for a DX, and totally adequate for my kind of trips. That forest road shot – the one with the bridge – is an ISO 5600 shot, it was often dark under the canopy.

The D7100 was kept to 14 bit RAW, f/8, aperture priority mode and ISO 100 or 200. I only used it for a few landscape shots. The 200mm starting focal length of the 200-500mm is rather limiting at times, and the 80-400mm (which I have used earlier) is much better for impromptu forest scapes, if one wants to carry just one body and lens on a safari. The D500 with the 200-500mm, and the D810 with a 70-200mm f/2.8 (for animal escapes and close encounters), along with a wide angle, would be the ideal safari kit. But then again, ‘ideal’ kit depends on the park, the season, expected behavior of wildlife (including distance maintained) and mode of transport.

In the end, I didn’t see much wildlife, but had a lovely time chasing the light and experiencing the forest with all my senses. Not that it stopped me from cribbing when the scene was lovely and the light was perfect, but there was no animal subject :). In a way that was good, because it forced me to look out for non-wildlife subjects, and think of how to best use the focal lengths I was stuck with. Disclaimer: when I encounter tigers, the world stops moving, and I am oblivious to anything else, so I am sure I wouldn’t have clicked some of the shots I did, if I were stalking big cats instead of stalking the light. The few action shots that I did take – in harsh light - ended up being snapshots, and since I am not a birder, I wasn’t too enamored with them.

I hope to be back in Dudhwa next year, when the grass has dried up, and when there is a higher chance of encountering the huge Dudhwa tigers. Thanks for reading.

Connect with me: 500px | Instagram | Twitter.

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  • Tony from Oz

    Did you use only the 200-500mm f/5.6 on the D500?
    Nice images, the light-shade very well done (the lo-quality format for web doesn’t enable much assessment of large images but the visual perception of sharpness is very good).

    • Nilanjan Ray

      Yes, I kept the 200-500mm permanently attached to the D500. Because of dust and condensation, I didn’t want to change lenses in the middle of a safari. Many of the nature shots were taken with the D500, utilizing the reach of the 200-500mm. EXIF should be there in the photos.

      • outkasted

        What did you carry your gear in while on Safari. Assuming the bodies stayed attached to the cameras to prevent dust..

        • Nilanjan Ray

          When light was very interesting, I was carrying the D7100 in my hands for landcape shots, while keeping the D500 + 200-500mm on the seat beside me. Rest of the time, I carried the D500 and the D7100 was kept in a small bag that also had sunglasses, sunscreen, lens caps etc. I usually carry a non-bright coloured cotton laundry bag to cover the lens front when the vehicle is moving.

  • Aldo

    Seems like the photographer literally tunnel visioned… but some of the shots are awesome. I like the ones where the blacks are left alone or mildly pulled… why is everyone pulling shadows in every photo now days? Some of these shots I dont even know what Im looking at… that said I found these pictures more interesting than the previous post. Thanks for sharing

    • Nilanjan Ray

      Yeah, I guess I could name the article ‘The tunnels of Dudhwa’ 🙂

    • TheInfinityPoint

      Hey at least he didn’t go trigger happy on vignetting lol!

  • Photobug

    Nice work…but more shadows.

    • Spy Black

      It’s called shadow detail, you’re just not used to it.

  • Spy Black

    Nice work Nilanjan. I love those forest canopies. Interesting locatoin.

    • Nilanjan Ray

      Thanks. The Terai forests are beautiful.

  • Wilson

    Love the shot of the monkey pissing, I don’t know that I would be showing that as a portfolio image but these types of shots always crack me up, whether its an eagle blasting shit before takeoff or an antelope in some weird crouch its always funny to spot these when scrolling through beautiful nature shots

    • Christian Todhunter

      Ditto

    • Nilanjan Ray

      Ha. I shared that #animal_behaviour photo because the encounter was really funny. He was a big male, and when he saw our vehicle, he slowly walked across to a tree, and started urinating to show his dominance and contempt. Loads of attitude 🙂

      • Wilson

        Ha thats great, Really awesome images buddy, keep it up

  • Proto

    Daroon!

    The canopy of trees with seeping sunlight looks like cinematic renditions used by Pixar. Beautiful compositions~

    • Nilanjan Ray

      Thanks

  • saywhatuwill

    I like the 3rd photo with the red road.

    • Nilanjan Ray

      That is an ISO 5600 shot with the 200-500mm.

  • ZoetMB

    Wonderful work.

    • Nilanjan Ray

      Thanks

  • Wonderful, dreamlike images. An amazing placed to be sure. Like the shadow detail…just right. Thanks for sharing.

    • Nilanjan Ray

      Thank you, Pete

  • Michiel953

    Really beautiful images! Dark, moody and brooding, some of them. I’m curious as to the post processing, colour treatment in particular. Some more info would be appreciated.

    • Nilanjan Ray

      Thank you. I used Capture NX-D as the RAW converter.

  • TwoStrayCats

    Nilanjan, you captured some very enchanting shots in this set. The little white-pillared bridge on the forest tunneled path really got my attention!

    • Nilanjan Ray

      Thanks 🙂

  • pedantic_brit

    Great work! Very evocative. Love those misty sunrises and mysterious forest tracks. It is nearly forty years since I travelled in India and Nepal and these transported me right back. Thank you!

    • Nilanjan Ray

      Thanks. Perhaps time to visit again? 🙂

      • pedantic_brit

        Yes! Long overdue in fact. My sister anther family were in Delhi in the spring visiting old friends, then on to Rajasthan and Kerala.

  • Eno

    Spectacular work!

    • Nilanjan Ray

      Thank you

  • Interesting images Nilanjan, makes me want to get back to india to take images again.

    • Nilanjan Ray

      Light is very nice in North India during the winter. But wildlife sightings are better during summer. Something to keep in mind.

  • I quite like many of these! Nice set.

    • Nilanjan Ray

      Thanks

  • Max

    Awesome photos.

    • Nilanjan Ray

      Thanks

  • beautiful !!!

    • Nilanjan Ray

      Thanks

  • vousplaisentezouquoi

    Great mastery of light, all my compliments!

    • Nilanjan Ray

      Thanks

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