Review of Nikon 200mm f/4 D ED-IF AF Micro Nikkor Lens

Excellent lens, as expected

5out of 5

Pros: Easily Interchangeable, Strong Construction, Consistent Output, Rugged, Nice Bokeh, Durable
Cons: Slow Focus
Best Uses: Macro Photography, Landscape/Scenery, Wildlife Photos

Anyone looking at the reviews for this lens is most likely trying to verify what they already know: that it is a fantastic lens. My 2 cents confirm that. The lens is optically superb, and it has not been challenged by a 24 Mp DX sensor. I used it on 16 and 24 Mp DX sensor cameras, and the sharpness is flawless when images are in focus, which is a separate challenge and has nothing to do with the lens performance. The long focal length requires steady holding, so a solid tripod is a very good idea. Auto focusing, particularly if you switch from close to far away, is very slow and can be frustrating to people used to the AF-S optics with much more limited focus range. But this is not a quality one should expect from this special purpose lens with a tremendous focus distance range.
As with any close up photography, motion of the subject will cause blurring as much as does the motion of the camera and the lens. Taking close-up shots of insects on flowers even in light breeze is very hard, and this lens will not make the subject steady. However, I found that by focusing manually to the close ball park, then switching to AF-C 3D tracking helps with this problem to a large degree. Once in a while the camera will hunt away from the manually focused spot and I have to manually recover the focus but most of the time it will issue fine quick adjustments and the focus will stay on target, especially if the motion is not too drastic. I find AF useful in this case. Same applies for pictures taken at long distances, where AF can fairly quickly be re-acquired when subjects are relatively in focus. It is only when the subject is totally out of focus will it take the camera / lens combination a very long time to try and find focus.
I find that the bokeh for close-ups is less than creamy but Ok if the clutter is close behind the subject, and improves significantly for the clutter further away from the subject in focus.
Color rendition is impeccable for the focal plane. Traces of axial CA may be seen on high contrast edges close to the focal plane but disappear quickly into the bokeh if a shallow(er) DOF is maintained in close-up shots. I have not tried the most challenging duck-on-the-water-with-sun-glare shot to see if the longitudinal CA would creep into that kind of an unlikely scenario for the use of this lens.
Hand holding this lens is challenging, even for subjects far away: one has to realize that even if subjects far away appear steady, that did not make your handholding steadier and magically removed the motion that you so clearly saw when taking close-ups. You simply can’t see it quite as well. Using steady support is essential with this lens regardless of the distance to the subject.
The lens is fairly long and thin but hefty due to its extremely high build quality, and handles nicely on a D7000 or similar class body. It fits well onto a D5300 but can make it a bit front heavy. This is largely irrelevant as I would recommend limiting hand held use anyway.


Little blue penguins

If you are interested in seeing unique wildlife and scenery while you are in Christchurch, seeing blue penguins in the wild should probably be at the top of your list. There are quite a few resources on the web on where such opportunities exist, most being in Oamaru and Dunedin. On the Bushy Beach near Oamaru people can see penguins coming out on land in the evening. If you are in the Dunedin area it seems like there are quite a few options available to you, such as Pukekura and Sandfly Bay. But Oamaru is over 3 hours away from Christchurch by car, and Dunedin is 4.5 hours away. If you are in Christchurch and have only a day to see the penguins, there is Pohatu Penguins in Akaroa, which is only a 1.5 hour drive away, with relaxed driving and beautiful scenery along the way. I left at about 8:30 AM and stopped at the Blue Duck cafe for a nice breakfast of eggs Benedict and a tasty cup of coffee.

The penguin reserve is located on the Flea Bay, a short but steep drive away from Akaroa. You would have to book a tour, since uncontrolled public access to the nesting area is not allowed and the guides will want you to strictly abide by the rules so that the birds are not disturbed. The blue penguins (or, rather, the white-flippered penguins, which are the Pohatu sub-species of blue penguins) are very shy and start getting nervous when they see people approaching closer than about 50-60 m, particularly if they see people silhouetted against the sky.

I visited in the winter, in July, and it rained off and on. July is a slow season for seeing the penguins, but when I called I was told that viewing is actually fairly good, and the penguins come out of the water still in daylight. I immediately signed up, and, being the only customer, received individual treatment with a tour that started off regular hours, optimized for the evening viewing of the birds.

One word of advice: wear good footwear. Traction is of number one importance: the wet dirt trails you have to walk, especially those leading to the better viewing areas, branch out along the shore, skirting a steep slope, and there are no handrails along the trails. If you fall in some areas you will likely slide on the grassy slope for the first 50 feet and then drop straight down for the last 20, landing on the rocks or, if you are lucky, into the water. I would recommend sturdy hiking boots with aggressive tread. A monopod that could be used as a staff will not hurt either.

Your guide will pick you up in Akaroa and drive over to the Flea Bay. The single track road was winding and narrow, covered with shale gravel. Following a series of switchbacks we reached the rim of the Akaroa crater, where we stopped to look around and take some pictures. The crater is large and very old, severely eroded and leveled over the last 9 million years, and from the 700 m height of the rim you can see all the inner bays and peninsulas.

One the South side of the rim the road winds down a series of switchbacks, with cows and sheep grazing everywhere on the slopes by the side of the road. A variety of birds can be seen, with large hawks and seabirds particularly striking. Stunning views of Flea Bay will open before you, with the dark sandy beach deep in the bay and ragged rocky shores all along its sides. If you pause and look closely you can see groups of penguins floating on the water in the middle of the bay, but from this far away they look like specks on the glimmering turquoise bay waters.

After you don a camo cloak upon arrival at the Pohatu Lodge your guide and the owner Shireen will take you for a walk on the Eastern side of the bay. Along the way there are a number of small nesting sites, which look like tiny doghouses. These are penguin nests. We lifted the roof on one of them, to see two 30-cm long blue penguins hiding in there, looking incredulously at us as if asking, what is going on? how come all of a sudden our roof is gone? We closed it after a brief glance and quietly moved on.

A few hundred meters along the trail you rise up over the shoreline and look at it from about 50 m height. Down on the rocks there were two seals sunning and dozing, although the smaller female caught the sight of us and tracked us in the unusual seal way, bending her neck back to look at us over her back with nose up in the air. We had to have looked upside down to her but she must be used to that.

There were several groups of penguins on the water, 200-300 m from shore. They float there after feeding in the ocean all day, resting, and come to shore later when the sun begins to set. We moved on and walked along the precarious wet trails, with Shireen and Kevin, the guide, moving effortlessly and me lumbering behind, minding my footing in my city slicker shoes. I knew that falling is only a matter of time, and tried not to fall at least in particularly steep sections.

We have reached a turn in the shoreline when Shireen stopped and pointed out to a rock outcropping ahead and below us, where a single blue penguin hunched over, shaking periodically like a wet cat from all the spray that fell on him from the white foamy breaking waves below. The bird was only a few feet from the water, but instead of moving a few more feet he just sat there, getting doused every time a wave hit. A few other penguins appeared to be interested in coming ashore in the same area, so we stayed and watched them battle the surf to come out on a slanted ragged rock and scurry away from the waves slamming into them. It takes the penguins several attempts to line up on the approach but eventually they do. Once they gain solid footing they seem to relax and think they are safe. This is when the next wave pours over them, and I saw one of the birds being washed back into the ocean like that. Displeased, the penguin paddled back to shore and climbed back onto the rock, and again sat in the same spot he was washed off of a second ago. Eventually he moved off a little deeper onto the rocks, where only the spray would reach him.

We spent over an hour watching the little blue penguins, with about 7 of them eventually landing on the same outcropping where the first one originally was sitting. It was getting darker, and we decided to start walking back towards the area where yellow-eyed penguins were known to rest at night. As we walked we heard a call that Kevin recognized ad the yellow-eyed penguin, and it came from close by. We hurried to the hide (a blind), from where that area of the shore was visible, and that was where I lost my guard and finally fell. Fortunately it was not on the slope and I was able to catch the camera, preventing most of the damage.

The yellow-eyed penguin was already high up on the shore, and he walked within 40 feet of our blind. He stood there in the fading light of the day, wings spread, looked around and occasionally made the call that we had heard earlier. Eventually, two more penguins came ashore below us and started their grooming ritual, spreading the oil from their tail glands over their bodies, straightening the feathers and overall making sure they look properly dignified. It was getting dark quickly now but I still was photographing away, hoping that a few pictures would come out.

In near darkness we returned to the van. Sore from my fall but happy and full of amazing memories, I thanked Shireen and Kevin and we departed the Flea Bay. It started raining, changing to snow at the higher elevation, but we reached Akaroa without problems. I limped to a restaurant, the only one open in the evening off tourist season, and after a nice meal unhurriedly drove back to Christchurch, re-living all of my memories of the day as I watched kilometers go by. Thank you, Akaroa, thank you Pohatu Penguins, and thank you, the little blue ones. It was unforgettable.

Back to New Zealand

A lucky project brings us back to New Zealand this year. It is winter here, in July. The weather is wonderful, especially when you come from the sunny summer in Colorado: the temperature is -2 to +10C, it is sunny most of the time, a little rain, and a few clouds. So much better than the scorching 95F.

When I first landed in Christchurch this time it struck me – how much I forgot, and turns out, liked the smell of New Zealand in the winter. A fresh aroma was spilled in the air – a little bit of frosty grass, a little bit of mountain snow, a little bit of wood stove smoke – all mixed together in one of those places smells that you remember on some subconscious level and once you feel it again, it instantly flashes the full image of the location in your mind. I rolled down the car windows and let the cold, New Zealand-smelling air roll into the car. It felt wonderful.

Driving on the left side of the road started coming back like a second nature. When you switch sides of the road the first thing you have to do is turn on your windshield wipers at the very first turn you make. Once you do that you can check it off and start driving like you know what you are doing. You need to accelerate through the roundabouts with lorries and cars without cutting anyone off, and merge like a zipper, without trying to squeeze out the person in the lane next to you. It is just a normal civilized driving, imagine that you have nobody to kill and nowhere to be in the next 10 minutes… why is it so rarely seen in the States? Why are all the drivers so angry there? Everyone is in a rush, everyone is talking on cell phones and texting, and all the rush isn’t to save a child from a burning house but just to get home to your favorite TV. Amazing.

The days are short this time of the year. The sun is up around 8 am, and is down by 6 pm. The fact that we are supposed to work through the nights is not helping the matters, and there is very little time left for us to go about and see things. In fact our first shift of people complained that they hardly went anywhere with our unfortunate schedule.

However, where there is a will, there is a way and serendipitously, the Willowbank wildlife reserve just happened to be about a kilometer away from the Peppers Resort where we are staying. Naturally, that was the first place I stopped by when I had the first 10 free minutes. The same quaint atmosphere that I remembered and cherished from my past visits, with a few moms walking with their little kids through the park; ducks splashing in the creek; fat eels waiting for food; herons, looking like stooped suspicious bandits waiting for a hapless victim to lose guard; wallabies in the meadow and kiwis in the darkness of their habitat – everything was the same, as you can’t really improve on perfection. A little bit of construction looking like habitat improvement, where the ostrich used to be but other than that – beautiful, calm and peaceful retreat.

Funny, but I just read a Google review from someone who visited the Maori show at Willowbank and was so thoroughly displeased that they wrote half a page describing their agonizing experience. I am so glad they wrote it! Anyone similar to that reviewer who had seen a multitude of ethnic shows in many countries and is entitled to be treated to a princely performance by synchronously dancing professionals, please stay the hell away from Willowbank! This will not be your pot of tea. Sorry, you don’t drink tea, I mean your jasmine frappu-chai. It just reminds me how many different people walk this Earth every day. And that not all of them I would necessarily want to meet.

Almost immediately I developed a habit of having breakfast at Willowbank. The log cabin-style interior of the Willowbank main building, with its massive wood burning fireplace, is such an inviting spot on a cold July morning that I just wish I never had to leave. Sitting by the huge bay windows with a hot cup of coffee, a fire warming your back, and watching deer and guinea fowl go about their business outside is about as close to heavens on earth as it gets, at least for me. And after that you could just go through the winding paths where a momma-duck with her two half grown ducklings would stop you from walking by standing across the way, expecting a crumb or two, and the lemurs sit like yogis, arms spread, sunning their bellies – all of this takes your mind off of the daily hassles and helps you heal and get ready to live again.

Review of Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED IF AF-S DX VR II Lens

Originally submitted at Adorama

Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED IF AF-S DX VR II

Very good universal lens

Pros: Easily Interchangeable, Consistent Output, Fast / accurate auto-focus
Best Uses: Weddings/Events, Landscape/Scenery, Wildlife Photos

This lens is controversial, and has either glowing or scalding reviews. People reading the reviews, just like I was, should think about their use for the lens, and it will hopefully make it easier to decide to buy it or not. To sum up my opinion, it is a very handy lens that we use for a lot of general shots, and take off only when we are spending some time working on a particular subject that can benefit from another lens.
I used a borrowed 18-200 for a while on occasion, and loved how easy it was to use, and particularly the character of the images I got from it. I liked it enough to buy it to supplement the “Nikkor magnificent trio” of 2.8 pro zooms and some more specialized optics that I already have.
The lens definitely has distortion in most of the zoom settings. So what? Most software, and many bodies, now correct for it automatically. The lens is smaller and lighter than the newer superzooms, and is very handy on a small body.
IMO, the lens delivers pleasant and clear images, with great color, and the chromatic aberration is well controlled, even on a D40. The zoom range makes it easy to frame for a lazy photographer, but even more challenging subjects, like a bee hovering over a flower, can be caught if you are paying attention. The slow aperture, coincidentally, plays in your favor here, as you get good depth of field for casual shots, something that a fast lens can get you with sometimes if you are careless. Clearly you will have limitations in poor light, but if the body you use is anywhere near modern, the ISO increase will offset this in the majority of cases.
The lens extends a lot when zooming but you have to live with that. My original borrowed sample was also drooping a little when extended, which I found disconcerting at first; however, after pixel-peeping at the images taken in the “drooped” mode, I found absolutely no issues and that made me feel even better: if it works great as an old and loose sample, it means to me that the optical design is robust enough to work well in general.
It will not be a very robust lens. If you drop it extended, lens down, with a D3 body attached, it will not work after that I am sure. But I wouldn’t hold it against a moderately priced plastic lens. It will absorb the impact and protect your camera though.
Overall, I recommend it. It is very handy, large enough for quality images and small enough to be practical, and picture quality is excellent.


Guam, the rainy days – 1

Global Travelers are in the Pacific again. This time, they are on Guam, and it has been three years since they last went on a trans-Pacific expedition. This time, a few things have changed.

Guam on the map
Guam on the map

People have changed. Some people have retired; some others came on board. The location is different, it is Guam this time. Guam is a fully civilized American territory, compared to a variety of other islands visited by the Gulfstream’s field crew in the past. More on Guam later. But some things carry over from the last times you have read about the Travelers’ experiences in the Pacific.

The airplane is the same, more or less. The same $100M aircraft that you, the American taxpayers, have funded is in good working order and is working for you, even if you don’t know it. The crew traveling with it is maintaining it in top-notch condition – this is important when fundamental research is conducted. If we lose flight opportunities due to aircraft issues it means that some of your money is not spent in the most efficient way. And the Travelers themselves, as taxpayers, don’t like this any more than you would.

I guess I have gone off on a tangent. But it is for a reason: in the day and age when examples of government wastefulness are all over the TV and other media, the Travelers, in whatever small niche we occupy, try to use the funds we are trusted with in the manner  that is most efficient. I recently had an interesting conversation with a stranger at the Roy’s restaurant in the Hilton Resort on Guam. In the conversation we had, she was very surprised to learn that there are actually people working for the US Government who actually will seek cheaper, but still quality, accommodations; that will try to negotiate for cheaper, but still good, services and who will try to do their job for less of taxpayers’ money if possible.

You are probably thinking, what a hypocrite. Hilton! Cost effective, right. An oxymoron. But wait, believe it or not, the Hilton was he hotel that agreed to house our 50+ people at the rates that were the cheapest and approved by the Government, while others wanted to charge us more, which is understandable since this is the season for the Chinese  New Year. So don’t judge us too harshly. We tried our best and even got somewhere, and the Hilton came through.

I am being totally honest here. I personally know people who will run NASA projects this way, as well as NOAA and NSF ones. The only reason I am saying this is because my young acquaintance was surprised to hear this, and pleased as well. Believe it or not, there are people out there who treat taxpayers money much like their own. I am privileged to know some of them personally.

Uh, sorry about this diversion. I suppose at this point a picture is really worth a bunch of words? Well, here it is, and it shows the rainy January of 2014 on Guam…

GV on wet ramp
GV on wet ramp

The meteorologists supporting the Travelers this time are telling us that this crazy rain, with 9 inches if rain in January as opposed to the average 4, is the result of the MJO, the Madden-Julian Oscillation. We think we understand the reasons, and the process. But it is still unfathomable, why in the world wouldn’t it just stop raining?! Everything is waterlogged, the rivers on Guam are forming waterfalls, the roads are small rivers, the tourists look like… well, very wet tourists.

Rain caused waterfall, Guam
Rain caused waterfall, Guam

We have to be careful to be able to return to Guam after research flights. The pilots, experts that they are, so far were able to land every time, but the last flight they came out, saying they popped out of the solid rainshaft just seconds before they would have called a missed approach. It has been raining hard, and they have very little time to make decisions when landing. They have to be careful.

The research that the scientists are carrying out is going well. They are able to see the transport of chemicals from the ocean surface in the upper levels of the atmosphere that they wanted to see, and we are happy that the science part is working out. On occasion, it has been hard to keep dry to repair instruments that developed problems, like in this picture below:

Working under dripping wing
Working under dripping wing

So, the big minds understand it, and can rationalize it. Trained professionals can even fix sensitive electronics in these conditions.

It will finally stop raining, after we had accumulated 1 inch of standing water in the subfloor space of the airplane from the rain pouring into the entry door, and from the condensation caused by the air conditioning in the cabin in such high humidity conditions. But for now we are working in the rain.