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What settings/technique do you use for wildlife photography?

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I wonder whether it would be appropriate to use this thread as a means of seeking further photographic advice. (Both @@xelas and @@Gregor, among others, were very helpful to me when I asked about high ISO photography as a possible solution for my almost pathologically shaking hands.) I have just returned from the Falkland Islands and am baffled by my photographic results.

 

I took my Nikon D3200 plus 70-300 zoom lens. In addition, I took a Panasonic DMC-FZ200 (second hand and bought recently on ebay for £170). To my consternation, I was getting better (less blurred) pix at maximum focal lengths with the superrzoom bridge camera than with the DSLR - as well as greater magnification with optical zoom.

 

My Nikon was absolutely fine up to about 220 focal length. However, of 30 shots taken at 300 (450 at 35mm equiv), I would class only 5 as sharp, 7 as almost sharp and 18 as disappointing. I used this camera in manual mode, setting shutter speed somewhere between 1/1000th and 3/1000th sec with aperture generally at F5.6, but, rarely, venturing up to F16 Auto ISO generally gave variation between 100 and 1600 with occasional shots at 3200. (I, personally, have no problems with noise with this lens, even up to ISO 6400.) I used the front button to focus and shoot - my previous move to back button focusing was abandoned as I found it cumbersome, possibly because I didn't persevere and possibly because I'm left handed. I was set at single point AF-C.

 

Of the 15 shots taken with the Panasonic at 600 at 35mm equiv, 12 were sharp and 3 nearly sharp. I was using the camera in iA mode. When looking at "properties" with Picasa software, I was informed that the programme was never designated as

Auto, but, instead, stated either "programme" or "aperture priority" and sometimes "landscape" at low focal lengths. The camera selected most pix to be taken at F4 with shutter speeds generally faster than 1/500th sec. In the 20% of cases where shutter speeds were slower (1/200th to 1/400th), focal lengths were generally low. About 24% of shots taken at so-called aperture priority, the F number showed 8. ISO ranged from 100 to 400.

 

I have two questions

:

1) I don't understand how the Panasonic is making its decisions. Anyway, as total amateur, I'm currently impressed with them. My fear is that I may have tweaked the menu in some arbitrary way such that I have somehow constrained the iA mode to work in my favour. My previous test attempts with the camera were not as satisfactory when I was setting it at Aperture Priority mode. I am currently very reluctant to change anything and worry that I may do so accidentally. My past limited camera experience suggests that Auto modes are useless for my shaky hands because they select slow shutter speeds and low ISO settings. Any ideas from anyone?

 

2) If most of my pix are blurred at long focal lengths with the D3200, why aren't they all? My very fast shutter speeds should sort this out if my shaky hands are to blame. I'm beginning to think that acquisition of focus is the problem. Is it possible that the camera has somehow deteriorated in its focusing ability (accuracy or speed)? If so, would a service help and would it be financially worthwhile? The sharpness of my pix seems to have been suboptimal for a couple of years. In the past, I have blamed deteriorating shakes. (I hand hold and am rarely in a position to use a bean bag.) As a supplementary, why are the photos taken with this camera at 35mm equivalent focal lengths of <330 generally satisfactory?

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Sorry, I wrongly stated that my shutter speeds with the DSLR were between 1/1000th and 3/1000th sec. I should have written that they were between 1/1000th and 1/3000th.

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Posted (edited)

@@surfmom - I am primarily a bird/wildlife photographer specializing in action shots. In this pursuit, I try and avoid shooting with a wide-open aperture whenever possible. This is because at f/4 f/2.8 etc only a small part of the subject is in focus and the more so the closer you are to the subject. But at f/8 most or all of the subject will be in focus if you have the subject's face or eyes in focus. This often means cranking up the ISO but so be it...

 

I think this is especially important with moving targets - with a wider "in focus" area, you have a little more wiggle room in terms of needing to be dead on-target.

Edited by offshorebirder
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@@douglaswise

 

Pix can be unsharp either to motion blurr or they are out of focus or the lens is just not sharp.

At 1/3000 sec motion blurr is pretty much out of the discussion. If the photo was out of focus, you should post some examples. Also 70-300 is known to be soft at 300 mm; I have kept the focal length below 250 mm.

 

However if you are happy with Panny just use it! If afraid you have changed some setting and don't know which ones, there s surely a way to get back to factory settings.

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@@amybatt, back button is the way to go.

 

@@surfmom, you may find that a lens that is pin-sharp wide open is no longer so with converter attached. Do some testing with your own.

 

Also, as @@offshorebirder has mentioned, more DOF gives you more room for error and ensures more of the subject is in focus. But you may lose out on a creamy background.

 

I think each photo deserves it's own decision based on your objective for the photo and the prevailing conditions. Your own preferences also come into play here.

 

@@douglaswise, i find it interesting that cameras are not available in left and right configurations. But back-button focusing is worth the effort as far as i am concerned.

 

As Alex has mentioned, many consumer zoom lenses are known to be soft at maximum focal length, and even more so if wide open.

 

Remember that with that lens at 200mmm, f5.6 is not wide open, but at 270 it will be. Thus your softer photos under these conditions are to be expected.

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post-48867-0-53324000-1483352569_thumb.jpgpost-48867-0-41148700-1483353131_thumb.jpgpost-48867-0-81735600-1483353578_thumb.jpgpost-48867-0-73942700-1483354389_thumb.jpgpost-48867-0-28826500-1483354800_thumb.jpgpost-48867-0-49844800-1483355047_thumb.jpg@@xelas and @@Peter Connan:

 

Thank you for your replies. You both suggest that my 70-300 Nikon lens is likely to give poor results if I extend it to its maximum - a bit disappointing in that it suggests that my pix won't improve much unless I spend a lot more money. However, I remain curious that, maybe, 20% of my pix taken at 300mm are sharp. I have now looked back at the properties of these in the hope of finding that these were the ones where I was shooting with a smaller aperture. Unfortunately, such was not the case. Finally, can lenses deteriorate with age or abuse? I will attempt to post examples, as suggested by @@xelas, of what I'm talking about below:

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Sorry. Made a bit of a hash of the previous post, but hope it'll be self-explanatory.

 

The first 5 pix are, even by my standards, disappointing or worse. The last is, for me, good to satisfactory. All were taken at 300mm(max) focal length. All were JPEG (fine/large).

 

The properties are as follows:

 

1) meadowlark: 1/2500, F 5.6, ISO 250.

2) thrush: 1/800, F10.0, ISO 6400.

3) oystercatcher: 1/2000,F10.0, ISO 2200.

4) grebe: 1/4000. F5.6, ISO 1800.

5) house: 1/1000, F5.6, ISO 1600.

6) cormorant: 1/3200, F5.6, ISO 1250.

 

All critical comments would be much appreciated, however scathing!

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Posted (edited)

@@douglaswise, I never realized that you were shooting in JPEG format. From this new knowledge, I assume these are all un-cropped, processed only by the camera's own processes? Going on that assumption:

 

What setting is your in-camera noise-reduction set to?

 

Nos. 1, 2 and 4 are indeed very un-sharp.

 

But I am pretty sure that in no.2 what we are seeing is lack of detail caused by noise reduction due to high ISO and/or the noise reduction used to suppress that. The D3200 with the noise un-altered would be very noisy at ISO6400. In this picture the eyelid detail is visible, thus the problem is not "normal" un-sharpness.

 

I believe the same argument holds true for no. 3, coupled with a small focus error (the focus point was not on the eye, but on the closest part of the bird).

 

Number five is about what I would expect of what appears to be a long-distance shot in mid-day light. I believe this is mostly atmospheric disturbance.

 

One and 4 I honestly can't explain in the light of no. 6, which is beautiful.

 

Lenses can deteriorate with age and abuse. Lens elements can become loose and slip, producing weird focus effects if allowed to go to extremes. Fungal growth can be real killer for sharpness.

 

However, a lens that has been damaged in this way, would not recover on it's own.

 

If I were in your shoes, I would set the camera and lens up on two sand-bags, aimed at some object with lots of contrast. Brick walls, although boring, work well for this. Shoot it at a variety of settings apertures, and also possibly ISO values if you want to go that far, but get an understanding of what the combination is capable of, so that, when you get less satisfactory results, you will at least be able to remove those variables from your trouble-finding. Use mirror-up mode and a cable release if possible, or if not, at least self-timer mode.

Edited by Peter Connan
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Nothing much to add to above detailed explanation by Peter. I have had my fair share of soft photos when using D90 in JPEG mode. Moving up the quality ladder to 300f/4 and recently to 200-500f/5.6 the situation reversed. So yes, good lens come with a price (1000 / 1500 USD) but it also brings results.

In- camera noise reduction is very unselective. Shooting RAW I can see that in-camera noise reduction was actually correct to apply in only about 15% o all shots (based on last photos from Kruger). For 85% of photos noise reduction was not needed.

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@@PeterConnan and @@xelas:

 

Many thanks for your helpful advice. I have checked my camera and discovered that the noise reduction was switched on in the menu. I have now turned it off. However, when I constantly relied on high ISOs in the past to overcome the shakes, I didn't see much evidence of unacceptable noise, even at 6400. Perhaps, I'm becoming more discriminating! (In my high ISO days, I cannot recall whether the noise reduction was on or off.)

 

I'm afraid that I may have misled you. The pix I posted had mainly been cropped - I used Picasa to crop and to sharpen. I have now got rid of the un-processed originals from the memory card. It occurred to me that, if I gave pixel numbers and file sizes for each, it ought to be possible to get some idea of extent of cropping. In gathering this extra information (posted below), I was curious to discover that, though file size seems to be correlated with pixels used, the actual file size was invariably less than the multiple of the horizontal and vertical pixels. Is the size of the difference, perhaps, a measure of degree of noise reduction?

 

Photo 1: lark, 2123x2209 pixels, 2.7MB file size

Photo 2: thrush, 3799x3592 pixels, 10.6MB file size

Photo 3: oystercatcher, 6016x4000 pixels, 15.7MB file size

Photo 4: grebe, 2801x2485 pixels, 4.4MB file size.

#

Photo 6: cormorant, 3682x3523 pixels, 8.4MB file size

 

I'm assuming that the oystercatcher had little or no cropping while the lark had most.

 

If possible, I would like to ask @@Peter Connan for some clarification. You suggested that lenses can deteriorate with age or abuse with lens elements becoming loose and slipping. You went on to state that a lens that has been damaged in this way would not recover on its own. Was I correct in the implication that I could draw from this. Namely, that, if I can get a satisfactory photo (eg Photo 6) from the lens/camera combo, the other poor pix can't be blamed on the lens. Given the much better results achieved at shorter focal lengths, I'm inclined to think this interpretation correct. However, it could be that the loose lens elements haven't slipped that much (still OK at shorter focal lengths) and that, sometimes, because of looseness, they occasionally and fortuitously slip back into correct alignment.

 

I'm sorry to labour these points, but your replies have made me genuinely curious. I have a lot to learn and I will certainly test the camera/lens in the manner suggested in the reasonably near future. @@xelas' suggestion to spend more money on a new lens is certainly tempting, but I'm too much of a miser to do so quite yet and, if I leave things much longer, I will have probably crashed from the perch!

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@@douglaswise your "worst" photos are the ones with the most cropping, which implies that the subjects were far away in the first place and therefore required cropping. I find the best results with my 100-400 lens are when I use them to bring out details on subjects which are close, such as your beautiful cormorant, rather than zooming in on subjects that are in the distance. By cropping, you are enlarging each pixel and therefore also enhancing problems (e.g. high ISO grain, environmental factors (like heat haze) and focus issues due to tremor) as well as making the subject larger.

 

I also notice that mostly you are using f5.6, largely I assume to try and maximise the light and minimise the ISO needed, but this will exacerbate any focus issues, especially in the distance, as it is such a narrow depth of field. I don't know about your lens - one of the NIkon experts could tell you, but for my Canon 100-400, the sweet spot is between f7.1-8. Try and find out what yours is and use it.

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@@douglaswise, I agree with what Tracy has said above.

 

If the lens has deteriorated due to physical issues as mentioned above, I would not expect it to deliver sharp photos one day and poor ones the next. What we don't know at this stage is whether your sharp photos are older or newer than the other ones.

 

It is possible that a physical deterioiration may only occur at longer focal lengths (or at shorter focal lengths). A zoom lens consists of a number of "lens groups", typically between 8 and 16 elements, arranged in a number of groups. When you zoom, these groups move seperately, driven by cams and other mechanisms. Again, I would not expect such a lens to improve with time.

 

As for file sizes, JPEG compression works by grouping pixels together that the program used thinks are of the same colour. Thus, as far as I know there is no simple way to determine noise reduction from file size and pixel dimensions.

 

Cropping is one of the quickest ways of losing image quality. While it is unavoidable in bird photography, it should be avoided where possible.

The second most harmful effect to image sharpness with telephoto lenses is probably atmospheric effects, such as haze and mirage. These are somehow very difficult to see through the viewfinder.

 

The attached photo is an example. It was taken with a Nikon D7000 and a Nikkor 500mm f4 lens (thus top quality lens). The same lens with which I take virtually all my photos. I know it is pin-sharp. It is also relatively un-cropped.

post-24763-0-11935400-1483465585_thumb.jpg

 

A long lens is not a telescope.

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Posted (edited)

@douglaswise other consideration and perhaps the solution is if your Nikon 70-300 lens is the latest model or an older one that doesn't have VR ( inbuilt stabilisation ). The VR can make a huge difference to steadying your shaking hands. I have a feeling that possibly you have the older one but your more recent Panasonic certainly does have it inbuilt in the body, hence the better results.

Look closely at your photos and look for the sharpest part of the image and it may well not be where you intended it to be. Too late to tell with the Lark and the Grebe shot although perhaps your expectations are too high from a cropped shot.

I'm surprised that you deleted the originals as they might have looked pretty good as record shots.

Incidentally if you really want to work on your photography, shoot in RAW ( NEF for Nikon) and get in to post processing, it's amazing what can be recovered although a shot not in focus is never going to get any better.

Hope you solve your problems... and I'm very envious of your Falkland's trip !

 

PS I recently tried a pair of Canon binoculars that have electronic stabilisation and I was amazed at the effect. You just press a button and everything stays incredibly still ! A bit pricey but extremely effective.

Edited by Dave Williams

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@@surfmom Using a 7D ii with 70-200mm f.2.8 + 1.4 TC I would shoot mostly wide open (that will be f/4) for any initial images I capture of any subject. Then once I have insurance shots I might experiment by stopping down.

 

By shooting wide open;

 

1 for any given ISO and ambient lighting scenario you will attain the fast possible shutter speed for correct exposure. With fast subjects, never sit still birds, birds inflight etc it greatly increases your chances of obtaining sharp images.

 

2. With your setup for birds in flight (say the subject is 15 metres away) shooting at f/4 and max zoom (448mm) the depth of field would still be over half as metre, that is ample to get satisfactory depth of field for all but the bigger birds. And for bigger birds you could zoom out.

 

3. For larger creatures you might want to consider stopping down to obtain more DOF to get all the animal sharp but for your setup this would only be elephants or lions when they are very close to the vehicle.

 

When you hear of wildlife photographers shooting at apertures in the range of f/8 it is because they are using large telephoto lens and often with a converter attached. So for me with my home setup of 600mm + 1.4 TC shooting wide open is f/5.6 and the depth of field is miniscule. So by stopping down you get a tiny bit more DOF. It is also considered that some sharpness is lost wide open so you stop down one stop or so. Many consider f/8 the sweet spot for sharpness though I have rarely noticed any loss of sharpness when I have shot wide open.

I often shoot in the range of f/8 - f/9 depending on distance to subject and size of the subject.

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I also notice that mostly you are using f5.6, largely I assume to try and maximise the light and minimise the ISO needed, but this will exacerbate any focus issues, especially in the distance, as it is such a narrow depth of field.

 

@@Tdgraves Actually it is the other way around ~ focus issues will be exacerbated with subjects that are closer to you. The further your subject distance the greater your DOF for any given aperture.

 

Also @@Peter Connan @@xelas when assessing Douglas's images you might want to consider the size of those files. They seem tiny, most of them are between 50-80 kb when I hover my mouse over them. Maybe the ST site compresses images further when downloading to the site. Any ideas there?

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Good point @@Geoff. It definately does, as the example I posted above has gone from 400kb to 100kb...

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Thanks, everybody. My lens is designated VR. The new bino technology sounds good - I don't get much benefit from conventional binos because I can't keep them still enough. The focus-destroying effects of atmospheric haze are clearly much more significant than I had previously thought - I thought it was only a concern for for those attempting to take professional-quality photos. I accept all that is said about RAW vs JPEG. However, it may be too late for an old dog to learn new tricks, particularly one with so few computer skills. Typically, I put a selection of my pix in a personal photobook as an aide memoire of my trip and a similar semi-post processed version on the computer. Ex camera originals are deleted on returning home. I also delete as I go while in the field because I only use one memory card/camera. @:Tdgraves - I obviously agree about cropping. However, with my limited focal length, it is seldom possible to get shots of small birds without. Thus, as a box ticker rather than an artistic photographer, I'm somewhat irked that I feel compelled to include my rubbish picture of the white-fronted grebe in the photobook because it's the best of a bad bunch. I note that we are probably near neighbours in the UK. If you feel that it might be worthwhile to meet, my number is in the Cambridge book - I live in Shingay cum Wendy.

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Posted (edited)

Thanks, everybody. My lens is designated VR. The new bino technology sounds good - I don't get much benefit from conventional binos because I can't keep them still enough. The focus-destroying effects of atmospheric haze are clearly much more significant than I had previously thought - I thought it was only a concern for for those attempting to take professional-quality photos. I accept all that is said about RAW vs JPEG. However, it may be too late for an old dog to learn new tricks, particularly one with so few computer skills. Typically, I put a selection of my pix in a personal photobook as an aide memoire of my trip and a similar semi-post processed version on the computer. Ex camera originals are deleted on returning home. I also delete as I go while in the field because I only use one memory card/camera. @:Tdgraves - I obviously agree about cropping. However, with my limited focal length, it is seldom possible to get shots of small birds without. Thus, as a box ticker rather than an artistic photographer, I'm somewhat irked that I feel compelled to include my rubbish picture of the white-fronted grebe in the photobook because it's the best of a bad bunch. I note that we are probably near neighbours in the UK. If you feel that it might be worthwhile to meet, my number is in the Cambridge book - I live in Shingay cum Wendy.

 

There goes my theory about VR being the missing ingredient. That's a shame it would have been good to solve the problem.

Incidentally this old dog is prepared to learn new tricks but I hear what you are saying. Depends how much you want to. I still haven't mastered the washing machine, far too complicated so I have to leave it to my lovely wife.

Edited by Dave Williams
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Posted (edited)

 

Incidentally this old dog is prepared to learn new tricks but I hear what you are saying. Depends how much you want to. I still haven't mastered the washing machine, far too complicated so I have to leave it to my lovely wife.

 

@@Dave Williams that doesn't sound like the ability to learn, but the will to want to.... ;)

Edited by Tdgraves
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Related to images being downsized, yes, any image that is larger then 1000 pix and uploaded to Safaritalk is both downsized and compressed. Yet the impact on IQ is much less evident than expected.

 

The final IQ is a combination of so many factors; some can be solved and others not. Just keep taking photos and enjoy, and learn during the process.

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Incidentally this old dog is prepared to learn new tricks but I hear what you are saying. Depends how much you want to. I still haven't mastered the washing machine, far too complicated so I have to leave it to my lovely wife.

 

@@Dave Williams that doesn't sound like the ability to learn, but the will to want to.... ;)

 

Irony,irony.....I haven't managed doing that either. :rolleyes:

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@@douglaswise Another improbable solution to your out of focus images couldn't be the simple need to clean the contacts on your lens and body could it? Give them a good rub with a clean cloth and see if it makes a difference or try another lens and see what happens.

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@@Dave Williams:

 

I'm very interested that you should make the above comment. In a past photography forum here, I complained that my red single point focus point didn't always come up on the viewfinder and that, in order to get it to appear, I would have to switch the camera off and on again. @@xelas suggested that this could be due poor contact points between the lens and the camera body and that I should give them a good rub. I did this and it appeared to have helped. However, it never occurred to me that dirty contacts might cause blurring in long focal length shots, but not in short ones. I will, however, rub the contacts again before using the camera.

 

You very kindly said in my Falklands trip report that most of my photos were OK and went on to ask which camera took which photos. At the risk of being a bore, I'll assume that you really wanted an answer and, if you can tell me what's happening with the Panasonic DMC-FZ200, I'd dearly like to know.

 

I took most of the photos with the Nikon D3200 and 70-300 lens, but found that most taken at long focal lengths were blurry. Below, I list some examples of photos taken with the Panasonic and shown in the TR in post 26. (some of which were cropped). I also show the properties of each as indicated by the Picasa programme used to edit the original JPEG images from the camera. Note that I was not conscious of ever having moved the mode dial off "intelligent auto" (though I've got big, clumsy hands so it's remotely possible that I did so unconsciously!). The focal lengths given are in 35mm equivalents, but I'm puzzled to get some up to a max of 686 when this camera shouldn't get me above 600 (25FL and 24x zoom):

 

Elephant seals

 

Photo 1. 3263 x 2672 pixels. FL 214 mm. 1/2000 sec. F4.5. ISO 400. Exp.mode Aperture priority.

Photo 2. 4000 x 3000 pixels. FL 592 mm. 1/200 sec. F8.0. ISO 200. Exp.mode Aperture priority

Photo 3 4000 x 2672 pixels. FL 456 mm. 1/640 sec. F4.0 ISO 160. Exp.mode Programme

Photo 4 3727 x 2672 pixels. FL 686 mm. 1/500 sec. F4.0. ISO 100. Exp.mode Programme

Photo 5 4000 x 2672 pixels. FL 86 mm. 1/250 sec. F4.0. ISO 100. Exp.mode Landscape

Photo 6 4000 x 2672 pixels. FL 686mm. 1/1000 sec. F4.0. ISO 100. Exp.mode Landscape

 

The Panasonic also took the rock cormorant pix plus the meadowlark, tussacbird, adult Cobb's wren and the adult heron among others in earlier posts of the TR

 

post-48867-0-36133100-1484051478_thumb.jpg

post-48867-0-72815200-1484051563_thumb.jpg

post-48867-0-35104000-1484051639_thumb.jpg

post-48867-0-36811500-1484051729_thumb.jpg

post-48867-0-52810600-1484051826_thumb.jpg

post-48867-0-15974300-1484051925_thumb.jpg

 

 

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Posted (edited)

@@douglaswise I beg to differ, I didn't say the majority of your photo's were OK, I said they were excellent which indeed they are.

 

I am no expert on camera gear particularly bridge cameras so I can't answer your question. The only observation i can comment on is that for the first two shots that were in Aperture Priority you should have chosen f8 for the first for greater depth of field and f4 for the second one where you didn't need DOF but a higher shutter speed to avoid the motion blur.

Edited by Dave Williams

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@@douglaswise I'm just following along on the thread generally and I have to say those shots are pushing me to go look at your TR from the Falklands. I generally don't read non-Africa regional trip reports for fear it will only make my bucket list longer, but your photos have swayed me. I'm impressed!

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