V1: On Safari

Out of Africa…

… for the 4th time in 5 years. Before I first visited in 2008, someone told me, “You should realize that Africa gets in your blood and you’ll continually try to figure out how to return.” At the time this sounded like fortune telling and I dismissed it. Yet here I am four trips later, thinking about the next time.

“If you want great photos of a place, visit it more than once.”

As familiarity with wildlife and locales increase year to year the number of images I create decreases but the caliber of the photographs and quality of experience increase. It’s as though once past the rush of, “OMG, there’s a lion standing 10 feet away!”, you’re able to relax and look with more sensitive eyes for moments that get lost in the excitement early on.

This year I visited Tanzania for the first time, finishing in the familiar territory of the Masai Mara in Kenya. Even though much of the wildlife is common to both, the environments and how the animals adapt to the local conditions are different and influence how you find and photograph them.

Another thing different about this trip was the equipment I chose to use. Previously I outfitted myself with flagship DSLRs. This time I decided to experiment with a newcomer to the Nikon line, the Nikon 1 system V1. For those of you unfamiliar with this model, refer to recent blog posts in which I discuss a design which lives somewhere between the Coolpix line and DSLRs. Why would I shoot the V1 in Africa instead of a DSLR?

Despite the opportunity to get REALLY close to wildlife (close as in I had to literally stop a client from reaching out the vehicle window to feel the male lion’s mane as it brushed along the length of the Land Rover!), the majority of safari images are made with long focal lengths. I’ve used Nikon’s 600mm f/4 and 500mm f/4 during the last two years. They are physical challenges to transport and use, but of course yield the perspective you seek: close. The Nikon 1 system introduces a new CX sensor and lens adapter which dramatically extrapolates lens focal length (use of sensors smaller than full frame 35mm film size crop the image delivered into the camera). In short, any lens you use behaves like a longer lens. For many DSLRs the conversion factor is about 1.5x, so a 200mm lens “sees” what a 300mm lens would see. The Nikon 1 CX sensor, however, is smaller than the sensors used in DSLRs and therefore has a larger conversion factor: 2.7x. The 200mm lens “sees” the angle of view that a 540mm lens would produce. The implications here become significant quickly if you allow your mind to wander down the path…

Typical photo safari focal lengths are in the 200-500mm range. Professionals will often endure the hardships associated with a 600mm lens for the additional reach it provides. While use of a teleconverter (a magnifying lens element adapter that attaches between camera body and lens) can increase focal length even more, it does so at a cost: diminished sharpness and loss of usable light. Here is where the V1 CX sensor provides an opportunity. When used with a lens it provides an increase in effective focal length like a teleconverter but without any decrease in sharpness or loss of light. Yes, the smaller size of the CX sensor does have resolution limitations exceeded by the larger DSLR sensors, but as you will see this is not a crippling handicap as some might believe. In fact the pixel density of the CX sensor is remarkable (if the CX technology were used to manufacture a full frame sensor, the result would be a 73MP capture) and capable of producing stunning imagery. The key is the glass you place in front of the V1. Use exceptional lenses and the results can be exceptional.

With this in mind, I decided to shoot with the finest Nikon super-telephoto and see what the combination produced. Among the exotic super-telephoto lenses, the 400mm f/2.8 lens is legendary. As is often the case with examples of rarified greatness, it is a mix of unexpected characteristics. While shorter than the 500mm and 600mm lenses in both focal length and physical size, it weighs more. This is due to the enormous diameter of the front lens elements which grant it the light collecting capability to be an f/2.8 lens. It’s really huge up front, dwarfing anything you’ve ever used. But the quality of the design and glass are magical. When placed on the V1 (using the FT-1 adapter), the 2.7x conversion meant I would be shooting a 1080mm f/2.8 lens with the reputation of being one of the finest lenses in the world. Needless to say I found the prospect pretty exciting.

The quandary was shoot with the V1 or one of two D7000 DSLR bodies available? I didn’t know what the answer would be even as we drove into the field on day one. It was only as I began to see the images unfold, taken with a longer telephoto perspective than ever before, that I found myself repeatedly reaching for the V1 leaving the DSLR bodies unused.

Less you think that I shot the entire trip with the 400 mm f/2.8, I did not. I wanted more flexibility than a single focal length would provide. When wildlife moves close (or is itself huge) you must have shorter focal lengths available. I also had a Nikon 300mm f/2.8 and the workhorse Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8. These lenses rendered 810mm and 190-540mm focal lengths, respectively. When I wanted wider I would reach for the kit Nikon 1 system lenses, the 10-30mm (27-81mm equivalent) and 30-110mm (81-297mm equivalent). I only wish that my arsenal had included multiple V1 bodies so each lens could have had its own. It’s funny that I’ve written as though the lens is the dominant hardware, but that’s no accident. When you shoot these combinations it is very much a David and Goliath scenario with the lens overwhelming the camera in size and weight.

Here are a few favorite selects that underscore what the V1 can do…

Sunrise is one of the most potentially dramatic moments of the day. Potentially because the weather can make or break you and change in minutes. This day, toward the end of our trip, we were very lucky. A herd of elephants was grazing on the ridge line. This is the 400mm f/2.8 lens with the TC-14 tele convertor for a effective focal length of about 1500mm. That’s how you get a big sun! You have to work fast because the show is over in about a minute, with the sun becoming too bright to shoot very shortly after it clears the horizon.

 

This is just a few minutes later, shooting now with the  sun now at our backs, bathing the elephants in beautiful golden light. When you get this light in the morning you’re fortunate if you’ve already found a great subject and can take advantage of it’s amazing quality.

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The lilac breasted roller is probably the most photographed bird in East Africa and for obvious reasons. Adorned with 17 colors, it is gorgeous just sitting still and a masterpiece of nature’s brushstrokes when it spreads it’s wings and flies. Typically a very shy bird which flies away as you approach, this roller was too  busy “shouting” at a nearby bush full of starling to notice us. Our good fortune.

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Another day, another sunrise, another chance for something special. We had made a point of searching  out this lone tree to use against the sun, but the clouds had other ideas. Then as we were about to call it quits, a seam opened to let the light spill through and give us a teasing glimpse . Not what we thought we wanted that morning  but still beautiful.

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Sometimes the animals are literally right on top you. This vervet monkey was in a tall thicket by the side of the road. Curious, as were we, it sat there and posed for minutes as the sun worked it’s way through the branches. The 400 f/2.8 was way too much lens for this working distance so I switched to my Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VR which becomes a 190-540mm on the V1. The close focusing distance was just what I needed for a subject only a couple of yards away. Love the directional light and how it works with his gaze.

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Last, but not least, The King. Looking regal, this guy was cooperating big time. The light was good, working distance was optimal and after shooting the first pose he turned into the light for the another great shot. When you  get to work with a subject this magnificent, shooting in the wild with conditions you’d be hard pressed to duplicate in a studio, you pinch yourself afterwards to make sure it’s not a dream.

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Mark Alberhasky is a Nikon Mentor for the Mentor Series Worldwide Photo Treks.

Join him as he travels and share his enthusiasm for photography and learning.

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