Bambi And Godzilla Visit Alaska (photos)

Started Sep 8, 2007 | Discussions thread
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Ben Hattenbach
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Bambi And Godzilla Visit Alaska (photos)
Sep 8, 2007

I just returned from a week in Alaska with my D2X (referred to as “Bambi” in earlier posts) and a Hasselblad H3D-39 (a 39 megapixel medium format monster affectionately referenced as “Godzilla” in prior postings). Given the level of interest here in the differences between the Nikons and medium format digital, I thought some of you might be interested to learn more about this experience.

On my last trip to Iceland with the same cameras, landscapes were the order of the day and the D2X never came out of the bag. The Iceland photos are here: http://www.pbase.com/hattenbach/iceland

Alaska, however, at this time of year presented a more diverse set of subject matter, ranging from fall colors (the tundra near Denali was peaking last week), to the aurora, glaciers and, of course, grizzly bears. As anticipated, I used the H3D for most of the landscapes; I’ll avoid restating the obvious about image quality and dynamic range. However, the far superior autofocusing capabilities of the D2X, as well as the benefits of a cropped sensor together with serious telephoto lenses, led me to go with the D2X for most of the wildlife photography.

In particular, the H3D has only a single centrally-located focusing point. With virtually any moving subject, even a slowly walking grizzly, this makes it quite difficult to achieve both critical focus and an interesting off-center composition. A second issue is focusing speed. Focusing is far slower on the H3D than with any lens I’ve used on the D2X. The H3D also is not as adept at locking focus. At one point I was using the two cameras side-by-side while photographing bears fishing in the fog, and the D2X was able to lock focus regularly while the H3D was repeatedly unable to lock on at all. The D2X has also proven to have superior low light focusing capabilities. Finally, these issues are further compounded by the huge mirror in the H3D, which (like the sensor) is about 4 ½ times the size of the D2X mirror. When shooting handheld or on a tripod with a loose head for tracking moving subjects, vibration due to mirror slap can become an issue. Hasselblad has introduced an innovative “mirror delay” feature in firmware that allows one to select a delay of 50ms to 200ms (two tenths of a second) between the mirror raising and the shutter triggering. The feature certainly helps ameliorate the effects of mirror slap, but a cost of this feature, when photographing moving subjects, is increased difficulty in maintaining critical focus.

Consequently, in most instances where the bears were in motion, the D2X was the tool of choice. I did manage to sneak up on a few sleeping bears with the H3D and a 300mm lens, which provides roughly the equivalent field of view as a 200mm lens on the D2X, but other than that I stuck with the D2X and the remarkable 200-400VR.

For those who are interested, the full set of photos is here: http://www.pbase.com/hattenbach/alaska_2007

And here are a few samples to whet your appetite:

The aurora, captured with the H3D and 28mm (at the same time this aurora was displaying in the northern sky, a full lunar eclipse was unfolding in the southern sky):

A walking bear that could never have been captured in focus, with this composition, using an H3D:

The bear photos were taken in the Silver Salmon area of Lake Clark National Park, where one must be accompanied by a bear guide at all times. We were often surrounded by as many as eight large bears on the open beach. My guide was a former ranger who was responsible for periodically checking up on Timothy Treadwell, better known as the subject of the movie “Grizzly Man” before he and his girlfriend became dinner for a bear. He knew Treadwell well, and assured me that Treadwell was quite sane -- unlike the persona that emerged when he was on video -- and that he knew bears better than anyone. Apparently one of his tricks was to roll in the fresh feces of the largest bear around, as the scent kept the smaller bears away. Sorry, but as tempting as it was, I didn’t try it. The bear that ate Treadwell was apparently an old grizzly that, as a result of old age and tooth decay, was starving to death.

To end on a happier note, here are some of the grizzly bear cubs I ran across:

-Ben

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