I just returned from a fabulous month long trip to the exotic South American country of Ecuador. My journey started in the wonderful city of Quito then 8 days of wandering through the Andes staying at eco lodges and viewing wildlife. This was all followed by a fantastic trip to the Galapagos Islands and then some time down in the Amazon basin. As you can imagine the photography opportunities were amazing but I really didn’t perceive the difficulties I would run into during my pursuit of great photographs. This explains why I shot 19,475 photos which is about twice the number of images that I generally would have shot.
In over 30 years of doing photography I have never had so many equipment issues (and mental photography mistakes) thrown into such a short period of time. The journey started innocently enough with a few days between returning from my trip to Jasper and my flights down to South America. Time to rethink what equipment I want to take and pack my bags. I ended up taking about 12kg of equipment, travelling as light as I dared considering how I would have liked to take many more lenses on what would be an amazing trip. I went with 2 bodies, my Nikon D800 and my old Nikon D300 as a backup, a 15mm Sigma fisheye, my trusty and most used Nikon 24-70, my Nikon 80-200 and my Sigma 150mm macro. At the last minute I threw in my old Nikon 300mm f4 lens that turned out to be a very smart move. Video equipment came along as well, microphones, a GoPro Hero 3 and lots of other goodies I hoped to use.
You may recall my issues with focusing from my previous post about Jasper. I had put this down to working at night in freezing temperatures and being home for only a few days didn’t look closely at my Jasper Dark Sky images on a big monitor. What a mistake!
My first inkling that something was terribly wrong came a few days after arriving in Ecuador. We were staying at Tandayapa Bird Lodge, high up on the west side of the Andes and a birders paradise. Thirty one species of hummingbirds have been sited here so hummingbird photography seemed like a good way to start the trip. This turned out to be a lot more difficult than I anticipated with very marginal success in the focusing department. My Nikon 70-200 lens just wouldn’t focus. While photographing birds in more stationary poses focusing was still an issue. I really couldn’t pinpoint what was happening other than things just didn’t feel right.
A side note to this is as is usual while travelling I had my small notebook computer with me but after a day in the Andes the screen went very colourful and the computer decided to die. Even a fellow at the lodge that used to work for Dell couldn’t bring it back to life. This meant no way to take a look at photographs easily and no method of taking notes (I’ve given up on writing with pencils on trips!). I thought it might be smart to buy a cheap computer when I got back to Quito but as the Dell fellow reminded me, it would have a Spanish keyboard although I don’t think it’s that different. That sure could make life interesting however!
My plan of attack at this point was to shoot lots of photos as my focus success rate was very low but I also could tell that some of the images were sharp. At least with digital this is affordable. I also was thinking that you really need at least a 400mm lens to shoot birds and while I knew this before I left I’ve never been in the financial position to buy one of the long lenses. Anyone have a spare?
The first week was spent primarily photographing birds and doing some landscape and macro work. The 70-200mm lens continued to give me problems but all seemed OK with the Nikon 24-70 and the Sigma 150mm macro that I was carrying. For some strange reason my computer came back to life about 4 days later and this gave me the opportunity to look through photographs. Ugh, I have never been so disappointed. Here I am in Ecuador and a huge percentage of my images were out of focus, looked strange and generally just weren’t the quality that I generally produce. This appeared to be primarily a Nikon 70-200 issue so I changed my shooting style and started using my other lenses most of the time.
Arriving in the Galapagos Islands was amazing. Within minutes we had viewed Blue footed boobies, Sally lightfoot crabs and a whitetip reef shark. Within minutes as well I was beginning to feel uneasy using even my wide angle lenses. I should have gone with my instinct at this point and switched over to my backup camera. At 12mp it would have been a step backwards but…. I would find a solution?
I was still pretty much convinced that it was the 70-200mm lens and spent some of the first day on our boat doing focusing tests. What was very apparent is the the Nikon 70-200 f2.8 had started to back focus badly while the other lenses seemed to still focus OK. I managed to fine tune the lens so the focus was more accurate using a compensation of -20 which is the limit of the camera. This is extreme but seemed to increase my focusing accuracy greatly. One of the weird things about this is that the image was now out of focus in the viewfinder and I had to trust the camera with focusing decisions. Photographs viewed on my notebook computer looked good and when needed, I would manually focus a lens to get the accuracy required. I still continued to shoot more images than I normally would have but at least felt that everything was under control. Equipment problems continued to haunt my wife and I at this point with Cherie’s camera dying due to a fall and my binoculars falling apart.
Ten thousand photographs later we left the Galapagos Islands and headed over the Andes into the Amazon basin. More strange issues began to affect my camera. While using the 70-200mm I had to shoot at apertures of f8 or less. If I went to f11 the images would overexpose by a few stops constantly. Once again I viewed this as a minor inconvenience as I rarely shoot even at f8, preferring larger apertures and less depth of field for most of my telephoto photographs. I continued to manually focus when needed and looked forward to getting home and dealing with the problems.
Back home and excited to see what I’d shot I attempted to load all 19,475 photographs onto my desktop computer. More problems as my desktop computer didn’t want to start. A new main hard drive and a few days work reinstalling software and doing other maintenance and everything was up and running again. On my large high resolution monitors it was very apparent that the Nikon 70-200mm lens was having serious focus issues. The focus compensation of -20 had worked well with photographs of wildlife seemingly sharp in the right places. What I didn’t expect were the results of the other lenses, especially the Nikon 24-70mm. In most of these images the left side of the image was sharp while the right side started to get quite soft. Some of the photos just looked odd, hard to explain but something wasn’t right. The bottom line is that most of my images shot at close distances looked fine as the background was out of focus anyway but most of my scenery and architectural shots are just not sharp in some areas. Fortunately when viewed at magazine page size this likely wouldn’t be very noticeable but these photographs certainly wouldn’t stand up for large prints.
Checking these lenses on my other camera it was very clear that the camera was to blame, not the lenses. A trip to Nikon service showed what seems to be a possible weakness with D800 cameras, due to supposed impact damage the magnesium frame had cracked in half. Unfortunately there are other reports of this type of damage floating around the internet. I don’t recall ever hitting the camera at all and having being shooting for 40 years would likely know if I had. We will see what happens. In the meantime I have picked up another Nikon D800 and my old D800 has become an expensive paperweight. Certainly a learning experience.
Looking back through my shooting the past few months it’s clear that my Jasper photographs were shot after the camera had cracked. This definitely explains my focusing issues there. Now if only I had looked at those photographs a little closer before leaving for Ecuador.
As for the photographs of Ecuador, I have a large number of images that will be very marketable and are up to my standards. There are some however that just don’t work because of focus issues, these being primarily architectural and street images in Quito. Some of the landscape images look downright strange but I’m thinking this might start a new fad. I guess I’ll just have to go back and do it again!