Evolution and devolution!

I’ve been a keen amateur photographer for many years. It all started when I was given a second-hand Nikon EM body (that’s a budget 35mm film DSLR), by my dear late mum around 1980. And so with Nikon I’ve stuck for around 36 years! I then moved up to a second-hand Nikon FG body (again DSLR film); everything was manual in those days, even winding on the film for the next shot! I also got a Sigma 400/5.6 (manual focus) telephoto lens and so bird photography started. I later progressed to a Nikon F-301 camera body in 1991, which actually had a motor to wind the film on, state of the art then mate!!

Armed with said tools the Ms and I would go off some where exotic, like watching raptor migration at Tariffa (in the good old days of pesetas I may add). Before setting off on one of these jaunts, I’d purchase 15 or so slide films, usually Fujichrome 200/400 or Kodachrome 200 (expensive at the time with processing included) and snap away while on holiday. Then on arrival back home I'd post off the films in their pre-paid processing envelopes bound for the Fujifilm or Kodak labs, then usually they’d come back one by one after a week or so - never all on the same day mind, just to heighten that anticipation of that plop and rattle of another package landing on the doormat!  Then would come the fun bit - armed with a slide viewer and most importantly a bin, I’d go through them chucking away all the rubbish.... and rubbish there was a fair bit of. In fact it was a very wasteful process and how you just love digital these days, where there’s no need to worry about waste. Around this time I also stupidly exchanged my fine Sigma telephoto for a Tokina 80-400 telephoto zoom (because it was smaller!), which may explain why even more slides were going in the bin.

An example of the good old days of film - probably the best bird I’ve ever seen, a record shot of a Harpy Eagle (in Venezuela's rain forest). Just look at those feet! Also a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (so flight shots were possible with manual focus). Both taken with the Tokina not such a good lens - but two slides that escaped the bin!
Harpy Eagle, Venezuela. Nikon F301 & Tokina 80-400
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Venezuela. Nikon F301 & Tokina 80-400
In 2006 I finally made the jump and went digital, buying a Nikon D50 (6 mega pixels (MP)). The first thing It showed me was how c***p my Tokina lens was when viewing an image at pixel level. So off I went to a camera dealer and bought a second-hand Nikon 300/f4 AF for £200 and p/ex of the Tokina. What a brilliant lens the Nikon was, built like a tank in Japan and optically very sharp. Out in the field recently I noticed a birding colleague still had one of these greats in his procession – hang on to it Tim, even if you buy another as an upgrade. Sadly my 300/f4 AF had a much worn mount (it was over 10 years old after all even when I bought it), so it wouldn’t always focus due to the contacts sometimes being out of line, so I took it back and p/ex for a second-hand Nikon 300/f4 AF-S. Again a well built lens made in Japan, while not optically superior, much faster focusing, but lacking the image stabilisation of modern lenses. A history of these 300 Nikon lenses is shown here http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/comparisons/300mm-f4.htm. That D50 300/f4 AF-S combination worked well for me, as these Poms off North Uist and a Buller's (perhaps the best) Shearwater off New Zealand show.

Pomarine Skuas, North Uist with the D50 & 300f4/AFS combo
Buller's Shearwater with the D50 & 300f4/AFS combo
In the meantime a Nikon D80 digital camera was purchased as an upgrade to the D50. The D80 was used for just one day, I didn’t like it, but what a day! It took those Yelkouan Shearwater photos off Berry Head - the D50 would have done a better job and if only a D7000 or D7200 was around then. 
Yelkouan Shearwater with the D80 300f4/AFS combo
So back went the D80 and I stuck with my D50 until purchasing a Nikon D300 camera (as a 50th birthday present to myself) in 2009. The D300 & 300f4/AFS combination has taken so many good photos; many used in bird reports, articles, bird atlases, even identification books. The D300 became my trusty companion when I started working on a fishing boat - but going to sea all that time took its toll, as despite keeping it well wrapped up, sadly the salty atmosphere was not agreeable to its circuit boards and finally continuous autofocus mode (the one you need for flying seabirds) packed up. Its replacement was Nikon's D7000, actually superior in picture quality to the D300 and a bump up in pixels from 12 to 16MP, though not of a semi-pro type build quality so not as robust. Still a great camera (much lighter) and I still have it and it still functions despite a lot of at sea work!
Sooty Shearwater with the D300 300f4/AFS combo

Great Shearwater with the D7000 300f4/AFS combo
So once good quality consumer gear came from Nikon - notice I say consumer gear I can't afford or justify the pro-stuff and have taken good shots without it. All these Nikon camera and lenses were well made by Nikon mostly in Japan though some in Thailand, lasting even if second-hand and 10+ years old. They lasted well beyond their warranty period, even under extreme conditions (e.g. D300 and 300/f4 AF-S combination). My ability to be able take good photos has been greatly enhanced by huge steps in technology, autofocus and digital images (so you keep firing) negating the need for waste compared to those film days.

So move on to this year. Though I loved my 300/f4 AF-S lens, it was quite heavy, so one was always presented with dilemma, do I lug around the camera, lens, teleconverter, binoculars, telescope, tripod, packed lunch, flask, brolly (essentials for seawatching), or do I leave some bits behind? Well the bit often left behind was the camera lens combination. At times much to my cost! Having an adult Bridled Tern fly past at Pendeen at a range a photo would have greatly helped the rarity submission process (as in aberrant plumage) has long bugged me -  why did I leave the camera at home? But what if Nikon made a 300/f4 lens, which was half the size of the 300/f4 AF-S lens and half the weight and had image stabilisation? In 2015 Nikon starting producing such a beast or should I say mini-beast. I watched the reviews - mostly good, and waited for the price to come down as it always does. Bill, a friend who was just getting back into photography after a couple of false starts (gear wise), asked what I would recommend. So I thought this new lens combined with a Nikon D7200 camera body, could be good. If we go back to my first digital camera, the D50, it was a mere 6MP, well the D7200 has a staggering 24MP. Although that’s a 4x hike in pixels, in reality in terms of resolution it’s actually 2x. This is because it’s twice as much across the frame (or bottom to top) 6000x4000 pixels versus 3000x2000. Never-the-less that’s like having a 2x teleconverter on my old D50! So Bill came around one day with his new toys, we played with them and the results looked very good - glad to say he was not disappointed and I had to get one!
Just to show the jump in resolution from even 16MP to 24Mp, here's a shot of the moon using both my modern cameras. The D7200 is like having a 1.25x teleconverter on compared to the D7000, quite noticeable!
D7000 with 300/f4/PF VR
D7200 with 300/f4/PF VR
But its not all good news. So I bought the new Nikon 300/f4 PF VR lens - there's a few things of worry. It has a lot of plastic, to keep the weight down (so I'm very careful with it), oh and it’s made in China! Initial results looked good though and it certainly was much easier to carry round. Then with a falling pound after the 'Brexit' decision, I decided to get a D7200 before the prices hiked, as they did! So after years of very few problems with Nikon I encountered one straight away. The D7200 I purchased instantly had problems with the focus screen's embedded circuitry, showing blobs that shouldn’t be there! Luckily I’d bought it from London Camera Exchange who changed it straight away (a great shop and much better service than a certain shop in Brixham). All the same that camera should have never got through Nikon’s quality control if there is one? But the replacement was fine and just cost me a return journey to Plymouth. Now a few months on and 300/f4 PF VR lens has started squealing and sounding very rough, affecting focus. As its under warranty its gone back to Nikon. In fact it went back to Nikon three times which in all took 50 days. In the end London Camera Exhange Plymouth gave me a replacement. 10/10 to them 0/10 to Nikon. Even the replacement has front focusing issues, more bad QC.
Are Nikon evolving or devolving?
When the D7200 with 300/f4/PF VR work, they work well! Blimey that's a big Spar :)


  1. Hi Mark, interesting to have your views on the various Nikon 300mm's. Dropped my old ED-AF a couple of times, now a bit dented but reckon you could hammer the proverbial nails with it. I won't be upgrading any time soon but if I do, I'll definitely go for the AF-S - no plastic crap, thanks. And I'll keep the old lens - probably not worth selling anyway. Cheers, Tim

  2. Yes Tim, that ED-AF is bullet proof and such quality in build. Wish I'd got a new mount fitted on the one I had and kept it as a backup as it would outlast anything else. The AFS is pretty robust too and has that nice slide out lens hood. The new Nikon 300mm f/4E PF ED VR (what a mouthful) has a plastic lens hood you have to attach. If and When I get mine back its never going to last like that old gem!

  3. Hi Mark - have hugely enjoyed your photos over the years. The seabird shots turn me green with envy. Not sure how you do it!Really enjoying your blog and look forward to future posts. All the best. Matt

  4. Thanks Matt. Of course many of those seabird shots were taken while working on an angling boat, skippered by a great guy who was really interested in what was pulled in by the chum he would help make. He sold up and retired, which is why I wrote up piece in Devon Birds 68(1)April 2015 - as it had come to and end. My biggest failure was never pulling a Wilson's into the boat off Devon! Anyway there are a fair few pictures worth revisiting with a few tales to tell now I've got this blog going. Next post will be "Let’s talk knee tremblers and 'wing runners'!", in which you feature!

  5. Look forward to that! Indeed a shame you didn't get Wilsons but I'm sure you'll get one on a sea-watch in the not too distant future. I remember you had a very probable one past Berry Head a few years ago. Just need some decent summer conditions which is something we've lacked of late! All the best. Matt