Mountain Ridge Sunset

I'll admit that my luck with spectacular sunsets seems to have run dry after my memorable sunset at Horseshoe Bend in December 2016. I have gone out in search of more sunsets than I care to remember since that incredible day, but nothing has come close to the wondrous pink and orange sky I saw that night.

A few weeks ago, we went to West Virginia, and again I searched for a sunset, though I didn't expect to rival the Horseshoe Bend experience. I have just been in such a long sunset drought that I was willing to take nearly anything! We hiked out to a rocky cliff that overlooks the mountain ridge and setup for the (hopeful) show. 

The sunset that night didn't come close to threatening the supremacy of Horseshoe Bend, but it had a characteristic that I found I loved. Instead of vibrant and exhilarating colors, this sunset was a soft glow that created a warm blue light throughout the mountain ridge. It was inviting...the sort of sunset that I could imagine watching from a rocking chair on the front porch of a country home. Looking out over this West Virginia landscape, I found myself humming the lyrics to the famous song "take me home, country roads, to the place, I call home....West Virginia."

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Black & White Flower Silhouettes

Macro flower photography is one of my favorite disciplines to practice during the winter; cold temperatures, dreary weather, and naked trees make the landscapes less palatable for my normal ventures. With macro photography, I can often work indoors and with bright and vibrant flowers that make the frigid days feel a little brighter.

Longwood Gardens is one of the best places on the East Coast for enjoying flowers and plants, and their annual orchid festival is probably my favorite event of the year. It has been several years since I spent a day focused solely on macro flower photography, so I was excited to spend some time there recently.

Using my Nikon D850, a 200mm macro lens, external flash and diffuser, I created the following images. I purposefully used the flash to remove the background because I knew the final image would be printed in black and white. I wanted the prints to be borderline harsh, with strong contrast; I thought there would be some romance to having delicate and soft flowers reproduced with such strong effect.

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A Handful of Bridges in Prince William Forest

Winter can be cruel to photographers, so I'm spending the last days of fall capturing the remaining warmth and bright colors before the grey gloom of winter arrives.

Prince William Forest Park is one of the many national parks within a short drive of Washington, DC, but it is one often overshadowed by parks like Shenandoah, Great Falls, and Assateague. It has been a number of years since I've been to the park, so I grabbed my Nikon D850 and set out to see what sort of hidden gems I could find to mark the end of the fall season.

Prince William Forest has a number of small streams that snake through a lightly hilly forest. On this particular day, the park was relatively empty, and I came upon a few bridges that I thought were ideal for photography subjects.

I used my Nikon D850 and Nikon 24-70mm / 14-24mm lenses to capture these images. I am still getting used to this new camera, but find myself getting more comfortable with it by the day.

This tree next to the bridge was not that golden when I started walking around the bridge, but a beam of sunlight came through the forest canopy, lighting this tree up in a beautiful golden light

Over the river and through the woods

This single tree really stood out against the yellow leaves in the background

The wires on this suspension bridge create a nice composition element

I stood in the water (with good boots) to get a long exposure of the creek running under the bridge

Another bridge at the edge of the Prince William Forest scenic drive

Getting Sharp: The Importance of Calibration

You have spent hundreds (thousands) of dollars on camera gear, but are you really getting the best image possible with that lens and camera combination? Do you read reviews about sharp lenses, only to find your photographs never look as impressive as the ones you see online? If you have never calibrated your lenses, then there is a good chance that you are loosing the opportunity to get sharp images.

For instance, see the following photo of a bee pollinating this flower (click to enlarge):

A bee on a flower in an indoor garden in Pennsylvania. Shot with a Nikon D850 + Nikon 200mm f/4 micro lens that was calibrated with the camera.

What is Calibration? Do I Need to Calibrate?

If you have a dSLR camera with autofocus lenses, then you need to calibrate. It does not matter if your camera is only a day old - calibration is not a factor of camera age. Very simply, because your camera and lenses were not manufactured together, there is a slight error that almost certainly exists as the camera and lens communicate in the autofocus mechanism. This error varies lens-to-lens, but exists in virtually every single lens.

The result is that the camera and lens think they have achieved focus, but the resulting images will be out of focus when you look at it later. This is a byproduct of how light is bent around the mirror and prism in the dSLR body, with a different piece of light routed to a focusing element.

Unfortunately, this error probably exists in every lens you own.... even if you have one lens that is perfect, another could be off by a huge factor. So you need to calibrate each lens with each camera individually.

Examples of Calibrated vs Non-calibrated Lens

To help illustrate this, lets look at two photographs I took in a nearby forest. These aren't the best photographs ever in terms of composition, but they do a fine job illustrating the importance of calibration. These photos were taken with the Nikon D850 and Sigma 85mm f/1.4 art lens. The Sigma 85mm lens is considered the sharpest lens ever tested by DxO Labs, so the photos taken with it should blow my mind, right?

The following images shot at f/1.4 with the focus on the scar on the tree bark:

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Notice a difference between the image on the left vs right? The one on the left hardly seems sharp.... especially since it supposedly came from the sharpest lens ever tested?! I took several shots and can confirm they all looked like this - clearly out of focus on the area where I was aiming.

Now let's look at the rightimage, with the lens calibration programed into the camera. For this particular lens, the calibration factor was +20. The result here is clearly better. The bark is nice and sharp, with lots of detail. This looks more like the performance from the sharpest lens ever tested....

Here is one more view, side by side, of the two images cropped in on the focus area.

The non-calibrated image

The non-calibrated image

With lens calibration activated

With lens calibration activated

Bottom line: As you can see from the above images, calibration has a huge impact on the sharpness of your photos. And if you are shelling out the big bucks for camera and lenses, then you should be prepared to spend another $100(ish) to calibrate them.

Lens Align & Focus Tune

The Lens Align target. It is best arranged with a neutral background. I used a cheap $8 tripod to hold the Lens Align.

Without question, the top product on the market for calibrating your own lenses is the Lens Align Focus Calibration System and Focus Tune Software. Designed by Michael Tapes, it's easiest and recommended to buy both products together as you will get the best results by using both.

Lens Align

The Lens Align Focus Calibration System is a set of precision manufactured targets that you use to measure optimal sharpness and identify front/back focus alignment issues. The target includes a vertical front panel of calibration targets and a horizontal "ruler" with geometric designs that the Focus Tune software can read. While it's possible to buy and use the Lens Align without Focus Tune, it really doesn't make much sense.

Focus Tune

The Focus Tune software accompanies the Lens Align, and you really can't use the software without the target. The software will help evaluate the sharpness of each image and will measure the front/back focus, helping you identify the best focus adjustment for the lens.

Basic Calibration How-To

For starters, you need to have the Lens Align target, a good tripod for your camera, a cheap tripod for your Lens Align target, and - ideally - the Focus Tune software. You also need to make sure your camera will permit lens calibration / lens alignment adjustments. 

A comprehensive set of instructions is found in this YouTube video - the below directions are designed to give a basic overview of using the system.

The Focus Tune software with all of the images imported and the neon green target set.

  1. Setup your camera, lens to be adjusted, and Lens Align. Use a tripod for the camera and Lens Align. A cheap tripod works best for the target, while you need a sturdy tripod for the camera.

  2. Align the camera and target according to the specifications of the lens (see instructions).

  3. Set the camera to JPEG fine, low ISO (400 or below), and the maximum aperture of the lens (f/1.4, f/2,8, etc)

  4. Shoot a series of five images at the following focus tune adjustments: -20, -15, -10, -5, 0, 5, 10, 15, 20. Defocus the lens between each shot so that the camera has to refocus.

  5. Use Focus Tune to find the cluster of images that is sharpest, then shoot another set of images to refine the setting. For instance, if the sharpest images appeared around 10-15, shoot another series of fives images at adjustment value 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15.

  6. Use Focus Tune to find the sharpest images and identify the value for that particular lens.

  7. Although the camera should remember each setting for the lens in the internal memory, it's a good idea to write them down

  8. Rinse and repeat with each lens!

Sounds easy enough - and it really is! Taking 30 minutes to watch the video instructions will equip you with all the details for the process, but it is really straight forward. Once I knew what I was doing, it took no more than 20 minutes per lens to complete.

But what about zoom lenses? Personally, I calibrated a zoom lens at the focal lengths that will get the most use. For instance, I calibrated my 24-70mm lens at 50mm. A quick test showed that the setting identified for 50mm was also good for other focal lengths. Likewise, if you are using a teleconverter, you should calibrate the lens with and without the teleconverter as you may get different values for each. 

Refining Focus with Focus Tune

A screenshot of the output from the Focus Tune software. The graphic depicts that most of the shots have a front focus issue, but that the last cluster of images are very close to accurate on the sharpness. After additional refinement, it was determined an adjustment of +20 was best for this particular lens.

A screenshot of the output from the Focus Tune software. The graphic depicts that most of the shots have a front focus issue, but that the last cluster of images are very close to accurate on the sharpness. After additional refinement, it was determined an adjustment of +20 was best for this particular lens.

The Focus Tune software really is pretty incredible, and a good buy for anyone calibrating their lenses. In a matter of a few clicks, the software will read each image, evaluate it for sharpness and front/back focus, then will generate a chart and table with focus values. The ideal is to get focus values close to 0. Negative numbers denote front focus, while positive numbers are back focus. 

Looking at the graph on the right, we can see that I had the Nikon D850 setup with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 lens. The clusters I imaged were all front focused, and badly so (as you noticed from the earlier tree bark photos). 

Only the last cluster of images (shot with a focus adjustment of +20 in camera), were remotely close to in focus. 

It takes a little trial and error with testing different values, but Focus Tune does a great job of helping you jump directly to the best results so that you can find the optimum value for each lens. 

Don't be intimidated if you aren't a math major - Michael Tapes makes some great how-to videos to orient you to the whole process.

Focus Tune will show you the sharpest images and overlays a red mask on the calibration ruler, allowing you to see where the precise focus area lies.

Focus Tune will show you the sharpest images and overlays a red mask on the calibration ruler, allowing you to see where the precise focus area lies.

Finalizing the Calibration

Once you have completed the whole process, you will have values ranging between -20 and +20 that represent the lens calibration that needs to be dialed into your particular camera. I would also recommend writing these values down, because they could drift over time, and it is good to know where you started.

Applying the calibrated lens values for my Nikon 70-200mm lens in my D850.

Applying the calibrated lens values for my Nikon 70-200mm lens in my D850.

For reference, these are the values that each of my lenses needed. What you'll see is that every lens required some adjustment - which is why calibration is so important.

  • Nikon 14-24mm: +1

  • Nikon 24-70mm: +14

  • Nikon 70-200mm: +12

  • Nikon 70-200mm w/1.4 Tele: +8

  • Nikon 300mm: +6

  • Nikon 300mm w/1.4 Tele: +6

  • Sigma 85mm Art: +20

In closing, I hope this blog has helped you understand what lens calibration is, why it is so important, and provided a brief introduction into the process. 

The super detail - eyes, pollen, and little hairs - are only possible from an accurately calibrated lens.

The super detail - eyes, pollen, and little hairs - are only possible from an accurately calibrated lens.

At the Corner of Color and History

With a weekend of beautiful weather, fall color, and a new Nikon D850, I set out to capture some of the wonderful sights in the area. One of my favorite go-to's for a great shot is Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. This small city, which is also part of the National Park System, sits at the intersection of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Harper's Ferry is incredibly picturesque, but my favorite spot is on top of the Maryland Heights overlook. It has been several years since I've hiked the 2.5 mile trail to the overlook of the town, so we set out with the dog for a hike and a view.

The trail to the overlook has the following profile: uphill, followed by extreme uphill, then a stretch of straight uphill with a tease as though it will go back downhill before going uphill..... In other words, by the time I reached the top, I was more focused on my jello legs than I was on the photography.

Thankfully the view brought me back to the task at hand quickly, and I took the following images before the knee-breaking downhill journey. 

This was also my first serious outing with the new Nikon D850, and a chance for me to see how it held up in real-world landscape shooting. So far so good! There are certainly some notable differences between the D850 and Leica SL, but I'm leaning to embrace my new camera.

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Why I am Divorcing the Leica SL... It Was a Fun Fling!

It is official. The paperwork has been filed. As of last week, I became the owner of a Nikon D850, and my divorce with the Leica SL is complete.

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By my estimation, I shot roughly 20,000 images with the Leica SL during our relationship - so it was certainly a serious relationship, but one that cannot continue. 

There were three major driving reasons behind my decision to ditch Leica and return to Nikon:

Issues Surrounding Durability and Reliability

As I have previously chronicled, I have had several service and reliability issues with my Leica cameras. The most recent one, which caused my Leica SL 24-90mm lens to suffer a fatal failure during a trip to Yellowstone National Park soured me permanently.

I understand no camera is immune from breakages, but the failure rate I encountered with my Leica gear far surpassed any issues from any other company. As a professional, I cannot tolerate that level of performance.

Compounding the service issue is the length of time needed for service to be performed. In the case of my SL and lens - they left for the factory in Germany nearly 6 weeks ago, but by Leica's estimation, I probably won't get them back from repair until early 2018. I cannot be without a camera for 4 months - particularly not one that costs as much as the SL.

Lack of New Leica SL Lenses

I was an early adopter of the SL, which carries some risks. One of those risks was that Leica would not release additional lenses for the system with the frequency needed to support the development of the SL line. 

By my analysis, that risk became reality. Leica is woefully behind the curve on the SL lens releases.

I recently met a gentleman who had been part of a Leica SL focus group sponsored by Leica. He signed a non-disclosure agreement with Leica, so he couldn't share the details of his conversation, but the gist was that Leica was trying to find their way with the future of the SL line. It was also suggested that some of the invitees Leica brought to this focus group were people who didn't use this camera all that often. In other words, Leica is seeking advice on how to sustain the system from people who aren't frequent users - that isn't a recipe for success.

The Market Beat the Leica SL

Leica has a long production schedule, but they didn't move fast enough to stay ahead of the industry, and they are being usurped. Nikon is probably releasing a full frame mirrorless camera with a high resolution (~50 megapixel) sensor in the next year...and they just released a D850 that has received mind-blowing reviews.

Using companies like DXOmark, which conducts laboratory testing of sensors, I evaluated my Leica SL to the Nikon D850. In these results, it is clear that the D850 totally surpasses the Leica SL, offering several stops more dynamic range, better ISO performance, and more lens options at a fraction of the price.

Sensor testing by DXO Labs shows the superior dynamics range of the Nikon D850

Sensor testing by DXO Labs shows the superior dynamics range of the Nikon D850

For a small company like Leica to have been successful with the SL, they needed to stay very engaged with their customers and needed to continue to produce lenses and upgrades to keep me interested. They squandered that opportunity. Instead, Leica has focused on their M line, which is probably a better business decision for them.

Now what?

Photography is about so much more than the gear and equipment. But the gear and equipment play an important role in photography.

For instance, I love macro photography, but had not shot any macro work since becoming an SL owner. Why? Because the equipment needed to shoot macro photographs was either unavailable, too expensive, or a combination thereof. I don't want a camera to dictate the types of images I can or cannot make - I want to explore my creative whims! A system that is more mature and offers more flexibility is better for the type of images I want to create.

With the release of the D850, I have decided to return to Nikon. Those people who visit my website and admire my work probably won't notice the change; good photographers can make a great image with any camera. 

Five Things To Know Before Buying the D850

The internet is ablaze with excitement over the Nikon D850; dealers cannot keep them in stock and incredible reviews are fueling a buying craze that has the camera industry in a whirl.

But before you pull out your credit card, there are five things you should know before buying a D850….

1.       A great sensor is only as good as the glass in front of it

I see this on the internet all the time - a photographer attributes too much value to the camera and disproportionately invests in cameras vs lenses. For instance, I recently met a photographer at a trade show who had a D850 and was looking to purchase an 18-400mm all-in-one zoom lens for his camera. The lenses he was looking at were sub-par quality, slow, and not of the same caliber as the D850. Yet he was confused why his photos were not as sharp as others on the internet.

I would recommend having twice as much money invested in lenses as you have in a camera body; the lenses will outlast your camera and a poor lens will only degrade the quality of the image. 

Nikon publishes a list of recommended lenses for the D850. Of course they only recommend Nikon brand lenses, but if you study the list closely, you'll notice they are suggesting lenses with the quality needed to take advantage of the resolving power of the D850. There are no cheap all-in-one lenses on that list for a reason.

Personally, I will be using the following lenses with my D850 in order to maximize the quality of images this camera can make:

  • Nikon Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 G ED IF AF-S
  • Nikon Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 G ED IF AF-S
  • Nikon Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 G ED VR II
  • Nikon Nikkor 300mm f/4 E PF ED VR N AF-S
  • Nikon Nikkor 200mm f/4 D Micro ED IF
  • Canon 400mm f/2.8 FD L * (Modified to Nikon mount)
  • Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art for Nikon

If your wallet can't stomach the idea of buying all of these lenses, I'd recommend looking at buying used lenses from KEH. Buy good glass - even if it's used!

The Nikon 300mm f/4 lens - this thing is an incredible travel telephoto lens

The Nikon 300mm f/4 lens - this thing is an incredible travel telephoto lens

2.       You most likely need to buy a lot of new memory cards

The XQD memory card format used in the D850 is not extremely common - and while you might have a pile of SD memory cards laying around, it might be time to invest in new memory cards. Again, this is an area where quality matters. A cheap memory card won't have the same write speeds as a quality card, which again impacts the performance of the camera. As of late October 2017, a 128GB quality card cost around $200 each, and holds approximately 1,000 RAW images. Be prepared to drop a few hundred more dollars on cards (and a card reader)!

The D850 eats memory cards for breakfast with huge 50MB RAW files! Be prepared to shell out some serious cash to feed this monster.

The D850 eats memory cards for breakfast with huge 50MB RAW files! Be prepared to shell out some serious cash to feed this monster.

3.       You probably need to calibrate your lenses

Have you ever calibrated a camera lens? Do you even know what that means?

Let's say you buy a D850 and mount your old Nikon 24-70mm lens to it. That specific combination of lens and camera were not calibrated by Nikon at the factory, so it's possible there is a minor error in the focusing. If that is the case, then the area you focus on won't be as sharp as it could be...defeating the value of the high resolution sensor.

I have been calibrating all of my lenses to the D850 and would say it is more essential with the extra resolution of the D850 than it might be with other bodies. In some cases, my lenses were seriously mis-calibrated and would have given me flat and less-sharp results. If you want to take advantage of every pixel, then you'll want each image to be as clear and sharp as possible! 

A calibration kit with software costs approximately $125.

Calibrating my lenses for optimum autofocus performance with LensAlign and FocusTune

Calibrating my lenses for optimum autofocus performance with LensAlign and FocusTune

4.       If you want a D850, order from a local dealer

The wait list with major companies is months long, but a local smaller dealer will probably be able to get a camera faster. I was able to get my D850 within 3 weeks of joining a waitlist, and had two dealers get one in stock at the same time.

In other words, if you want to see a D850 this year, order locally.

I got my D850 much faster by joining pre-order lists from several local dealers

I got my D850 much faster by joining pre-order lists from several local dealers

5.       Nikon will probably introduce a mirrorless full frame camera with the same sensor within a year

All of the rumors point to Nikon releasing a full frame mirrorless camera with the same high resolution D850 sensor within the next year. While we don't know much about this camera, if mirrorless appeals to you, then it might be worth waiting. There are no guarantees with these rumors, but I think the assessment is accurate. Before you drop $3k on a new camera, make sure you're not going to suffer buyers remorse in a few months!

A New Chapter: The Nikon D850

Those of you who follow me on Instagram (@ScenicTraversePhoto), might have noticed a day ago when I posted a picture of the Nikon D850 box....

After a visit to the Photo Plus Expo in New York on Thursday, I decided it was time to make the switch back to Nikon. I have loved the Leica experience, and I'll still use Leica's for street photography, but my needs as a landscape photographer will be better met by this new system.

In the coming week I'll share some updates to detail the decision, but for now, I'm excited to take the camera out shooting! Given the super high resolution of the D850, I have also invested in a lens calibration system so I can get the maximum detail out of the sensor, and I'll also share some updates about the calibration process. Stay tuned for new and exciting things!