Gear and settings for the Khutzeymateen

Published: 08/14/2019

I recently had an amazing trip into the Khutzeymateen (blog post here and you can see more images in this album). The Khutzeymateen is a wildlife preserve located in Northern British Columbia and is really one of the premiere grizzly bear photography spots in North America.

Being in BC you get the associated highly variable weather -- from rain to sun to fog, etc. From a photography point of view this is a challenge in many ways. First the variable lighting presents exposure challenges, not just getting the correct exposure on a bear but more importantly, getting enough light to freeze motion.

In the months leading up to my trip I weighed various gear options a lot. In particular, I studied a lot of Brad Hill's images and thoughts which I found really helpful.

Finally I decided on a kit with two bodies and three lenses:

1) (rented) Nikon D5 -- this is flagship body for Nikon currently and excels in autofocus and lowlight.

2) Nikon D500 -- basically the D5's very capable little brother, but not quite as good in low light (crop body vs full frame).

3) Nikon 500mm f/4 -- a fast super telephoto lens, sharp, great with a teleconverter, kinda straight forward...

4) Nikon 70-200mm f/4 -- a sharp mid ranged zoom with a constant aperture, much smaller than the f/2.8 versions. Since I don't really use a 70-200 for anything besides trips, the f/2.8 version isn't really worth it for me.

5) Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 -- a sharp telephoto zoom with a constant, but kinda slow, aperture, pretty hefty but really a good range for wildlife. This lens can take you between portraits and full body environmental shots pretty easily.

I brought along a 1.4 TC which I never used actually. Go figure. I also brought rain covers which proved useful and were, IMO, key.

I took about ~8,500 shots on the trip (still culling...) and here is the breakdown by lens-body combo.

Two combos really dominated -- the D5 + 200-500mm f/5.6 combo and the D500 + 500mm f/4 combo. For the most part, this makes a lot of sense -- the 200-500 is a great lens for this type of shooting, but the f/5.6 aperture will lead to higher ISOs in dark conditions -- therefore pairing it with a really good low-light body makes a lot of sense. In the same way, using a D500 + 500mm f/4 combo makes sense too. Plus pairing those two together gives really good coverage between full body shots and tight portraits.

This type of breakdown is interesting, but kinda straightforward. What I view as really actually useful is to break down what camera settings I used for different pairings. This allows me to objectively look at camera gear and decide if it's going to be a good use of money for me. This is shown below.

Each color indicates what combination the settings were made at. Of course, all of these are related given that a focal length will have an associated ISO, aperture, and shutter speed with it, but still useful.

The top panel is breakdown by focal length. The majority of my images were taken at 500mm, and even more so, with the D500 + 500mm f/4 combination. This makes sense that this really dominated given 1) I like tight portraits and 2) at an effective 750mm (in 35mm) you just need more shots to nail focus, get it sharp, etc.

After that, theres a good peak at 200mm, especially with the D5 + 200-500mm combination. That also makes a lot of sense to me as I'd often try some tighter shots either with the 500mm f/4 or the 200-500 and then more to scenic or full body shots. There is a good amount of images taken between 200mm and 500mm which is good and validates my decision to bring along the 200-500mm.

Next, looking at ISO you can see the bulk of my images were taken at ISO 1,600 and above. There is a preference to use my D500 in 'nicer' light before switching the D5 in darker conditions which makes a lot of sense and is what I was aiming for with that rental. 

Looking at aperture is a similar story -- most of the sub f/5.6 images were taken a D500 to make up for the 'lesser' low-light performance, and most over were with a D5. 

So what to make of this? 

Capturing images in low-light is important to me and my shooting style. Overall, I would say I did pretty well with my pairings and kit choices. However, looking these diagnostics I can draw some conclusions and suggestions for myself.

A) Pairing the D5 with the 70-200 f/4 more often than 1.5% could have been a good call actually as a lot of D5 images were taken at 200mm, but limited to f/5.6. Being able to open that up to f/4 or even f/5 can help marginally. 

B) I would have liked to pair the D5 with the 500mm f/4 a bit more in hindsight. I think a D5 + 500mm f/4 combo with a D500 + 70-200mm f/4 is a strong pairing, and although you miss the 300-500 reach, that wasn't actually where the bulk of my images were taken, so maybe that is okay then. 

C) Painful conclusion #1 -- getting a D5 or used D4s would not be a bad idea looking at these ISO values. The D500 is good, but does have fundamental limits, and a big percent of my shots were taken > 3,200 ISO.

D) Painful conclusion #2 -- given a good amount of use at 200mm paired with the lowlight preferences observed, a 70-200mm f/2.8 may not be a bad idea either. However, since I don't use it that much it's not a big priority compared to general improved low-light shooting like what a D5 might bring.

Hopefully this is some good food for thought (at least for myself!). But at the end of the day, it's all about 'the images' not about the techs, so let's see some with these various kits and settings.

D500 + 500mm f/4: 1/640 f/4 ISO 3,200

D5 + 200-500mm: 200mm at 1/800 f/7.1 ISO 4,000

D5 + 200-500mm: 500mm at 1/800 f/7.1 ISO 4,000

D5 + 500mm f/4: 1/1000 f/4.5 ISO 3,200

D5 + 200-500mm: 420mm at 1/400 f/5.6 ISO 3,600

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D5 + 70-200mm: 105mm at 1/2000 f/5 ISO 1,600

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