Nikon D500 - First Thoughts

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Nikon D500 - First Thoughts

The New DX King

Nikon have finally replaced the much revered D300, better late than never I guess, my D7100 which was originally meant to be just an interim body has done a superb job since I purchased it in 2014. For a camera body that is classed as an“enthusiast-level DSLR” it’s performed flawlessly, however after two years of solid use it’s now starting to show signs of wear and tear after being used and abused in all kinds of testing environments. So naturally the D500 is the only sensible replacement, apart from perhaps the D810 but I’m still putting off going down the FX route.

First Thoughts

 Just a couple of things that struck me when taking it out of the box…

It’s easy to see that this is most definitely a pro DSLR, the rugged build and fully weather sealed body combined with the visible size difference when compared to my D7100, the 100% field of view optical viewfinder is an absolute dream, no pop up flash which I think has irritated some but I can’t ever recall using mine so that is no big loss, dedicated buttons for image quality, WB, metering, mode etc – similar to the D300 I guess (after shooting with the D7100 this is so good to have back), the tilted touch screen is worth mentioning although I do think it’s a little bit of a gimmick, however I imagine it would come in fairly useful when you’re restricted with movements during a flight and finally the little joystick on the back that controls the focus points. 

Think of it as a D5 but in DX form and you aren't far off, after-all it shares the same processor, focusing system and has the same number of pixels. 

I’m going to try and keep away from the nitty gritty details as there are more than enough blogs out there detailing all the specs - Google is your friend!

Two AS332B Super Pumas from BHELMA VI perform an aerial ballet during a return flight to Lanzarote. 

Unfortunately I left it a little late when ordering the body, which meant it didn’t arrive in time for my trip to Sweden, which was disappointing, luckily my D7100 still has some life in it! I had cancelled my order with WEX and ordered one of the last bodies off Amazon before leaving for Sweden, in the hope it would be delivered before I set off for the FAMARA exercise in Lanzarote. Which it did, halfway through the exercise I received a call from WEX asking when I wanted it delivered. So rather lucky I cancelled the order.

Anyway the FAMARA exercise with BHELMA VI was the ideal opportunity to see how the D500 would deal with the challenging shooting conditions – mainly the heat and dust.

The kind of environment the D500 had to put up with, dust everywhere as this AS332B Super Puma gets airborne with a full load out of troops.

The lack of buffer is the first real noticeable aspect of the cameras performance, especially coming from the D7100, which has a fairly atrocious buffer. I didn’t even come close to hitting the buffer once, even when shooting at the full 10 frames per second, which personally I found a bit much. I stopped it down to 6 FPS after the first sortie, I’ve always found the AF struggles to keep a track if you’re constantly rattling off the max FPS – although when quality sorting my shots there were very few images that were out of focus, the AF is just mesmerizing and so bloody quick. I don’t think I can even recall it ‘hunting’, not even in low light conditions or brownout landings, that’s fairly impressive.

As I mentioned at the start the viewfinder really is a dream, it provides 100% vertical and 100% horizontal coverage, which probably doesn’t sound like a standout feature but it allows for the most precise framing. Going from my D7100 to the D500 it’s even more noticeable; it provides such a clear and bright view.

The D500 handles the dynamic range very well, the highlights from the aircrafts lights were easily recoverable in photoshop. A very had scene to expose for.  

The rugged build and full weather sealing seemed to do the job in Lanzarote, having endured brownouts landing both in (doors open) and outside hardly any dust has managed to break through to the sensor, I think the dust on the sensor probably came about when changing lenses out in the open landing zones which were particularly dusty. But it took everything that was thrown at it and just shrugged it off.

How do the files look when compared to the D7100? Well this is where it becomes tricky, honestly I think the difference in image quality is negligible but then that isn’t really what the camera body is about. It is first and foremost a sports body, therefor tailored towards the users need for high FPS, lightning quick AF and an insane buffer. I’m not saying the image quality is disappointing, if you were jumping straight from a D300 for example I imagine you would see a world of difference, but image quality is where the D7100 really excelled itself so I think it’s only natural to find the increase in image quality isn’t all that noticeable. What is noticeable though is the difference in ISO handling, as you'd expect though I guess. But even at ISO 200 the difference is quite impressive, it's probably easier to see when post processing as the D7100 files need another 25% extra when compared with the files from the D500. I haven't had chance to test the high ISO performance but I'm mightily impressed with the lack of grain visible at ISO 200-400.

BHELMA VI AB212 flying over Lanzarote at sunset. 

With the technology gap closing between camera releases there is only so much of a jump that can be expected with regards to IQ, really the focus is on how Nikon has finally produced another flagship pro-spec DSLR that far surpasses anything I’ve used before in terms of usability, ruggedness and performance. I honestly can’t express just how good the AF system is.  It’s quicker than Usain Bolt over 100m!

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The Well Rounded Story

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The Well Rounded Story

The Well Rounded Story

I think it’s safe to say that as photographers we often have the image we want in our head before we press the shutter, a degree of planning, knowledge and previous experience all combine to create that all important shot list. In aviation it’s essential that you have a photo brief prior to flying, it enables the crew to bring up any possible problems with it, avoids the ‘hold my beer’ kind of moments and means that all parties can work to the same schedule and timings, the latter being incredibly important in the military flying world. 

There is however a limit to what you can plan, certainly when that comes to portraits of aircrew, techs and ground crew. Pre-planned/posed portraits tend to be incredibly rigid and un-natural, understandably so as I can attest to how much I hate having my photo taken and even more so when I know it’s happening.
So what’s the best way around this? Un-posed and natural portraits, I will still mention in the briefing that throughout the flight I’ll be taking photos of crewmembers, after-all there are crews who perform specific mission roles and as such are not comfortable with having their photos out in the public domain. 

These images are commonly referred to as the ‘human element’ showing the crewmembers who operate the aircraft, technicians and maintenance personnel who look after the aircraft and the groundcrew who dispatch and refuel the aircraft. In my opinion the most dramatic images come from the aircrew, as the interior of helicopters tend to be so confined it means you can get up close and really use the shallow depth of field to make them pop, using the light that streams in through the windows or open doors, a sort of spotlighting I guess. It’s such an easy way to tell the story you want to convey to your viewer, using reflections in the helmet visor to show the surroundings without actually including them in the bigger picture (if that makes sense?), showing the confined and cramped conditions the crew work in and the slightly wider shots showing the guys in the back with the door open and some of the outside environment included. All have their place and all tell a different story, the images that really tend to stand out however are the close-up and tight crops of crews, using the spotlighting to highlight their features or show the reflection in the visor. 

As I said it’s hard to plan these images so you have to be ready to capture them when they arise. It’s easy to get hung up and focused on just capturing images of the aircraft, after all they tend to be some of the most popular on social media, image websites and occasionally magazines, however the latter seem to realize the importance of showing people at work, that most important human aspect and the people that operate these machines. 

I approach each shot differently but something I tried to avoid is using flash, it has it’s place of course, either when using a wide lens or fisheye and shooting in the cockpit or half out of the door as it’s more or less impossible to balance the exposure due to the light difference inside and outside the aircraft. For the close-up shots of crews I find using flash makes the images look artificial and a little bit, and I hate to use this word, but amateur. It’s much better to use the available light and use the shadow of the interior to make the subject stand out more and bring some detail out in the highlights when editing – a vignette works well in post production if the background isn’t quite dark enough. Lens choice varies and often depends what equipment you have at that precise moment, if it’s the slightly smaller cabs such as the AW139 I find something like a 17-55mm F2.8 works well, stopping the lens down to F3.5 or F4 to still get that shallow depth of field but retaining the lenses sharpness, something I find it loses when using it a 2.8. 
If it’s something a little bigger like the AW101 Merlin (which is massive!) then a 70-200mm F2.8 works really well, especially if the crewman is on the rear ramp when it’s open, the compression of the telephoto can work fantastically if you can get some of the interior of the aircraft in as well – similar to those F1 portraits you see from Darren Heath that have the most amazing bokeh. 

Hopefully not telling you to suck eggs too much! 

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