Ever since getting and reviewing the D800, I’ve been subtly persuaded by the Nikon marketing machine that the D800 is the studio camera whereas the D4 is the “action” camera. While this may be true, I have been excited to have the opportunity to try the D800 in more “journalistic” conditions. Big and fast animal action in the UK is limited primarily to two animals, the basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) and two species of seal, the common or harbor seal (Phoca Vitulina) and grey seal (Halichoerus grypus). The mixed weather and other commitments kept me away from baskers this year, and my planned outings to visit the seals at the Farne Islands, Northumberland, kept getting thwarted by storms.
Last weekend, it all came good. Good weather, and a fine forecast found us at Beadnell, launching Farne Discovery out over the beach in search of seals.
Day one produced some patchy visibility with plenty of seal action:
The seals come in and start by tugging at your fins and then, as they get bolder, start mouthing and biting cameras, strobes, arms and people!
Day two involved considerably poorer visibility and me being forced to shoot without strobes (due to user error). To make up for this, the seals put on a tour de force, with us being engulfed by multiple animals, playing with us and each other continuously for over an hour.
The D800 AF worked flawlessly in a very dynamic environment. I have just moved the focus control from the shutter release to the AF-on button, and unexpectedly, find that it is a better solution. I still have to break the instinct of expecting the camera to focus when I half press though.
The camera’s dynamic range and high ISO performance helped significantly. The limited visibility forced all images to be captured at shallow depths, and hence the tonal range that the camera was attempting to capture was great. Despite careful framing, it was certainly possible to under or over expose significantly. Whilst the shadow detail can be recovered with software, as Wetpixel Associate Editor Alex Mustard has pointed out, it is not possible to regain lost color information. Despite this, I was able to get images usable images in conditions which I would certainly not have been able to with older cameras. I was also able to push the ISO significantly, with minimal noise.
One of the key differences between the D800 and the D4 is their continuous shooting speeds (4 frames per second versus 11 frames per second). I tend not to use cameras in continuos high mode underwater, and even in fast moving scenes like those experienced with the seals, did not miss any shots due to capture speed or the buffer filling.
Using the D800 in a fast moving environment has given me further respect for its abilities. I think its is somewhat unfair to pigeonhole it solely as a studio camera. I have not used a D4 underwater but have no doubt that it is a very good camera in these situations too, but I am pleased to report that the D800 is no slouch either.
About the diving: The Farne Islands lie off the UK’s North East coast, close to the Scottish border. They are home to some amazing bird life, including puffins, but for divers and underwater photographers, the rookery of harbor (Phoca vitulina) and grey (Halichoerus grypus) seals are likely to be the reason for a visit. The seals are at their most interactive best late in the year, with September and October being good months. Unfortunately, the UK’s fickle weather can preclude good conditions, or even diving at all.
Anytime a wild animal chooses to interact with you is a special moment, and the seals here do so despite never having been fed by visiting divers. They seem to genuinely enjoy “playing”with clumsy divers.
We dived with Farne Islands Divers and many thanks to owner/skipper Paul Walker for his skill and expertise in getting us very up-close and personal with the seals.