While part 1 of these posts was a comparison of pro photo gear to consumer level, what matters most is what you have in your hand when the photo opportunity happens in front of you. Generally, this means an Android or iPhone device. Unfortunately, this also often means the difference between optical zoom and digital zoom.
For those who are not familiar with the physics of optics and sensors there's a lot to go over, but once you know, then you know.
Let's start with pro optics and then work our way back. Since most people these days shoot with Canon or Nikon, I'll detail how the optics work and honestly, they are both great. Sony mirrorless cameras are also excellent and until recently, Nikon's great results were largely because they used a Sony sensor.
Lens optics are what this is all about. It's where the money meets the road. It's also much more complicated than we expect. Though what we want is a super duper zoom lens that lets us zoom in from 1x magnification to much more than that, this is very hard to do while still preserving the image quality. If you think back to ye olden days of yore when people shot with film, the film was called 35 mm film and it was 24 mm x 36 mm in dimensions or 1/2 of the 70 mm movie film with room for the perforations used by gear teeth to advance the film. Each frame of film acted like a one use sensor and when exposed to light, that became the negative of your image. Today, only pro or higher level (medium frame) cameras use a sensor that is 35 mm (or greater). Why this matters is that the size of the sensor is the amount of real estate able to capture light. More light capturing ability = a better photo. More about this later. Though we want a lens that enables us to zoom in and out to supreme magnification, the optics required to do that are astounding. The best telephoto zoom that Nikon makes (and what I used in this photo
) uses 21
glass elements inside of it. While we would think that it really doesn't need that much, different parts of the image would be distorted at different zooms and also color artifacts (fringing) would be apparent. Though there could be computer tables for compensating for these effects, this is the way it is done today. What does the inside of that zoom lens look like? See for yourself here
But what does all that complexity get us? In pro camera terms, a 50 mm lens equates to 1x zoom, just as we see things from our eyes. This means that a 100 mm lens would = 2x, a 200 mm lens would = 4x and a 400 mm lens would = 8x.
That's it. And it's not that great.
You can try cheaper lenses, you can try teleconverters (I have) but to get the sharpness you want, those are the options you've got.
Now, there is something to consider if you've ever shot zoomed in, or even tried walking and filming - the dreaded camera shake.
If you zoom out to .5x or .25x, this becomes much less of a problem, but if you've ever seen the cameras and lenses used to shoot football games, the camera costs about $400,000 and so does the lens.
Dealing with a DSLR, when you zoom in, each 1x you zoom in increases the amount of shake or wobble by 1x. The farther away the subject, the greater the wobble. While you might not think this is a problem, realize that if you have a pulse or if you breathe, you're moving the camera. And if you are zoomed in 8x, those wobbles get 8x worse. When taking a photo, the camera or lens needs to compensate for this, BUT a good rule to help your camera compensate is to make sure your minimum shutter speed is at most 1/the distance zoomed in of a second. So, if you are shooting on a full frame camera zoomed in to 400 mm, your minimum shutter speed should be 1/400ths sec. When I was shooting lions at 72 meters in Africa, I had to shoot at 800 mm and to do that, I had to turn off the car to prevent engine vibrations, turn off the stereo to prevent speaker vibrations, rest the lens on a pillow over the rolled down window, hold my breath and take 3 photos at once. Even with top of the line equipment.
But that is optical zoom with equipment made for each other. One thing about the non pro cameras is that they have smaller sensors the same distance away from the lens as the pro cameras. Using a pro lens on a non pro body results in a 1.5x zoom for Nikon and a 1.6x zoom for Canon. Nikon's non pro DSLR sensor size is 24 x 16 mm Link
while Canon's is 22.5 x 16 Link
. Of course these are less sensitive simply because less light hits the smaller sensor, so less clarity and overall image size can be expected, but in good light conditions, that 200mm - 400mm lens becomes a 300mm - 600mm lens on a DX Nikon body and if you want to push it with a 2x teleconverter, you'll lose crispness and the focus will be slower, but that will get an effective 600mm - 1200mm lens. Performance and focus will be a challenge to put it mildly.
But wait… a 1200mm optical zoom? That's what, 24x optical zoom?
Good luck on getting it to focus fast and have fun getting enough light to get a decent image, but here it is Link
Note that the image taken with the D300 is 4288 x 2848. If I took this with the D800, the image size is almost twice that at 7360 x 4912 pixels. What does this mean? Well, if I used a newer DX Nikon like the D500, the images would be 5568 x 3712 somewhat negating the loss. But using the pro body D800, the overall image resolution is greater than the 1.5x zoom I get using the D300. When editing, even though the D300 had an additional 1.5x zoom, if I zoomed in to actual size, the D800's image has a higher resolution and this advantage offsets the 1.5x of the older non pro camera. You need to take into consideration the image size in pixels when compared to the bonus of a 1.5x zoom of a lower end camera. HOWEVER, this lets older and non pro cameras hold their own on long distance photo applications. Here we are trying to squeeze more out of what we have. In the end, what matters is what you have in your hand when you take the shot.
For moving images though, this is a nightmare. If you're not using a tripod and a remote shutter at this point, you're kidding yourself. Simply pressing the shutter to take a photo will cause the camera to move when zoomed in that far. Notice that I didn't even set the shutter speed properly and still the camera (D300) could not get more than 1/6th of a second for the shutter speed. Even though this lens is an f/4.0, using a 2x teleconverter makes it slower (and adds more glass in the process! Yay! : /) resulting in the best aperture available being an f/8.0. Remember when I said that a lower number = more light = better photo? Well, we just lost 4 whole aperture stops here. But it is
1200 mm optical zoom. Would a newer DX (APS-C) camera with a better sensor help? Most certainly.
Quickly here we run up against practical limitations. But since we're pushing it, we need to go full retard, what about an even SMALLER sensor? Shittier photo yeah, but well, let's see what happens. Why not see where the point of failure is? There exists an even smaller sensor than the APS-C called a four thirds sensor (Nikon calls it a CX) and it so happens that I have a Nikon 1 V2 that uses this four thirds sensor (12.2 x 8.8 mm). This enabled me to get a 1/3 mile zoom shot with the 200 - 400 mm f/4.0 lens, the 2x teleconverter, the Nikon 1 V2 and a Gitzo tripod with a Wimberley gimball head
The resulting photo was taken at an effective 2160mm zoom which translates to 43.2x zoom. Here
is a photo across the Connecticut River into Gilette Castle in perfect daylight conditions. This is NOT a practical set up that delivers reliable results. Focus is a problem and needs manual assistance.
Note that some of you may have seen people stacking teleconverters. You can do that on Canon, but not with Nikon. I wouldn't recommend it. There are better ways.
What might those ways be?
A DSLR adaptor to a spotting scope. The term for this is "Digiscoping" and even though I do not have direct experience with the equipment, seeing just what it takes to monkey around to get to a 43x zoom when you can buy a professional scope that starts at 40x zoom makes much more sense and the results can not be denied. http://horukuru.blogspot.com/2009/05/digiscoping-with-nikon-fieldscope-ed50.html https://www.allaboutbirds.org/basics-of-digiscoping/
But what about digital zoom? Is it really that bad? Am I really asking that question? We all know Blur Squatch and his cousin Blobby very well, don't we?
Compare my zoomed in photo of a crocodile in Namibia with this dragonfly.
Crocodile - https://i.imgur.com/1N3t90A.jpg
Dragonfly - https://i.imgur.com/gOwaTwb.jpg
Now, click on each photo to zoom in. Both were taken in daylight, with the crocodile taken zoomed in on my iPhone and the dragonfly using the D800 + 200 - 400 mm pro rig. These are both stationary subjects. Though it's not bad, you can see that the image detail on the croc falls apart when zoomed in using the digital zoom of the iPhone. Moving subjects in poor light against a mottled background would show more image breakup and it's reasons like these why we see more blobsquatches than anything else.
But what about sensors, sensor size and megapixels?
We have two factors with regards to sensors that matter. One is the overall dimensions of the sensor, the real estate available to capture photons. The other is the sensitivity of the sensor itself. Just how responsive to light is it? But I probably just lied to you. There may be three factors. Considering the other 2, just how large is each pixel on that sensor? If you think about it, the lower the # of megapixels, the larger each pixel must be and assuming that the sensor would have the same sensitivity if it had larger pixels or smaller ones, larger pixels have more real estate to capture photons per pixel
. Think about it. You can have a super sensitive sensor with 100 megapixels for massively wide images or one that would have much better ability to take advantage of ambient light in the dark if that same sensor only had 10 megapixels.
For better lower light sensitivity, fewer megapixels = better.
This can be done by making two different sensors with bigger and smaller pixels or taking groups of small pixels, averaging the input signals in each and treating them as one larger sensor. If you want to be shooting photos in the dark, you don't want
more megapixels. You want fewer. You want larger pixels to capture the scarce light that exists.
Now, this is where ISO comes in. You can turn up the ISO on your camera, but this is like the gain on a CB or police scanner. The more you turn it up, the more static you get. At night, this is what creates noise in your images.
This is where experience with the tools comes in to play - how you take and post-process your image.
Set up your camera to shoot in dark or dim conditions with a high ISO so that noise appears in the image. Mount it on a tripod and using a remote shutter, take 7 photos all at once. Take the first two of them and in Photoshop, there is a feature to average the photos. Photoshop calls this "Image Stacks
". See what the result of using the first two is like. Repeat with the first 3, and compare, then the first 4 and compare, until you've tried them all. See which gives you the best results in removing all the ISO noise from your photo. Now you know how to take photos in the dark without noise!
If your camera makes a click every time it takes a photo, you'll want to turn that off of set the "mirror up" position.
If you want to take high quality photos at night and you have a stationary subject, this is how you do it
Since a lot of image recovery is being done here in post-processing, I have my suspicions on whether shooting in JPEG at 8 bits per pixel matters, or if you should shoot in RAW, and if you shoot in RAW, should you use 12 bits per pixel or 14? I don't know. I haven't spent the time yet to see which makes the most sense and where the point of diminishing returns is.
Now, since part 1 of this write-up started in comparing pro and consumer equipment, something needs to be said for the claims of the manufacturers with regards to their cameras' abilities. While I love both Nikon and Canon, it has been in discussion in the photo community that Nikon is more honest with their claims of ISO performance while Canon has been a little overly optimistic in their claims. This matters to us because if we desire to capture elusive creatures at night, then claims about ISO performance matter. Rather than taking the manufacturer at their word, renting the equipment first, testing it out and seeing if it solves your needs is prudent here. There is a Canon camera that reports to shoot in near pure dark at almost 4,000,000 ISO - Link
. It's $18,000 without the other parts it requires. Nikon's flagship body, the D5 is supposed to be able to shoot up to 3,276,800 ISO and Canon's EOS-1D X supposed to be able to shoot at up to 204,800 ISO. The Nikon is $6,496.95 and the Canon is $5299.00. Without lenses. Get 2 of each. They're cheap.
I hope this was useful to everyone and an enjoyable read. I'll end it here and keep editing to correct errors. Please point out any that you see. If I have time, I'll outline the cost of the equipment used in another post.