Monday, November 21, 2011

Impending Nikon D800 and the megapixel war....

Well, I have read for months about a possible new SLR/Pro SLR camera from Nikon called the D800 and I couldn't be happier.  I am a fan of progressive technology and applaud anyone making anything better than a previous iteration.  It is almost inevitable that something newer and better is always around the corner.  Now, there is something newer around the corner, but is it really better?  
When I first read that the new D800 (if that is indeed the name) will have 36mp, I was dumbfounded.  The reason that the D3s is so amazing is it's low-light ISO capabilities.  That low-light, high ISO comes from the size of the pixels on the camera sensor.  Unfortunately, unless you are going medium format, you are somewhat limited on the actual size of your sensor.  So, cameras started at relatively low pixel count with the onset of digital photography, but the technology was not there to meet current specs today.  As tech progressed, more and more pixels were crammed onto the same size sensor.  To do this, the size of the pixels have gotten super small.  When they are small, their sensitivity to light is diminished.  Canon and Nikon have always competed to one-up each other in megapixels, but what Nikon decided to do was pull back and make sure that the usability of those pixels was paramount, vs. the most megapixels.  
The D3 was the start of this.  It provided roughly 12mp, but with a great clean image quality, even at high ISO's.  It was a revolution of the sensor.  It had larger pixels on the sensor to allow the camera to be used at high ISO ranges while still producing a somewhat clean image.  The D3x was to try and bridge the gap between medium format and slr's, albeit with one major draw back, ISO usability.  Unless you were in the studio with additional light sources, the usability of the D3x was very limited.  When you pushed the ISO, you introduced a lot of noise, almost an unusable amount.  It is still a king of MP and quality of images.
The D3s was basically a D3 with a brand new sensor.  Nikon(Sony) created a fantastic (bench-marking) sensor that would be the basis of comparison between other pro level dslr's.  They kept the MP count still at 12, but the size of the pixels increased, allowing for amazing low-light/high ISO usability with virtually no noise.  So much so that photographers were able to get shots that they were previously unable to do, unless with long exposure and a tripod.  Now dragging the shutter at 12,800 will produce usable, amazing images.  
This is where the D800 starts to concern me (as an outsider of course). The physical size of the sensor is not really changing, which would leave me to believe, like canon, they are densely packing pixels on the sensor.  This would also lead me to believe that the high-iso abilities that are in the D3s, are not going to be present in the new D800.  Considering this is all based on information I have gathered from public sources, I have no idea if a breakthrough was had in this area of electronics to allow for even better performance from this vs. the D3s.  I suppose only time will tell to see if it is indeed 36mp.  Not sure how this number was acquired as it 3x mp jump over their current flagship cameras (D3x not included). I can't wait to find out, either way.

Friday, August 5, 2011

My visit to Katmai National Park

I recently took a trip to visit family in Homer Alaska recently and had a chance to fly out to Katmai National Park for the day to go see some bears.  I decided to enlist Dave Bachrach from AK Adventures based on a recommendation from a friend who used him a year prior to tour Katmai.  I can't praise Dave enough for his knowledge and demeanor while out with the bears.  We had many bears come to us and walk within 20 feet (one was about 10 feet).  They were actually too close as they were well beyond my minimum focus distance with the 600 VR.  Luckily I had a D300s with a 24-70 around my shoulder as well and was able to snap off a few.  More about that later, on to the experience.
It was a beautiful Monday Morning with sun and clear skies.  It was one of those mornings where you could get lost in thought feeling the heat from the glowing sun and staring at the awesome light it cast on the calm, cool lake and mountains beyond.  Even though the weather would be quite different at Katmai, it was the best way to start the day.  I got dropped off at at Emerald Air Service situated on Beluga Lake, just before the Homer Spit, at about 9am.  Once there, I checked in at the office with Sarah Elg and met Dave for the first time in person.  I had spoken with him a few times to set up this trip from Fred Miranda's website through private messages.  We chatted for a few minutes and then I headed down to the water's edge to get ready for the trip.  There I met the other 5 people that would be accompanying me on the trip.

Getting ready to to load up up and get going.

Once down there, we all got hip boot waders to try on and get the perfect fit.  Once we all were situated, Dave sat us down and told us what would be going on.  I was quite excited and couldn't wait to get in to the plane.  After a few minutes of talking, we loaded up our gear, well, my gear as I was the only one that decided to bring an arsenal of photo gear.  They either had no camera, point and shoots or small dslr's with a kit zoom.  There is nothing wrong with that, it just made me stand out even more.  First thing I got: "Are you a professional"?  My response: " No, just an expensive hobby..."  This is unfortunately the truth, but maybe someday I can turn this into a profession.  

I must have had 35-40lbs of gear with me, all packed in a Moose Peterson MP-1 bag.  A short side note: I would love to add a link to this, but it is just not the right bag for something like this.  Yes, it holds a ton of gear, but the backpack straps are not made to support the kind of load that it can hold.  It was ok when I was there as I had most of the gear out of the bag and carried it that way, but to, inside and from the airport, man, was it not fun.  I will add another blog post showing what I brought and what I brought it in, so stayed tuned for that.  Back to the trip.  

We got all packed in (it is a small plane) and took off from the dock.  We did a few circles on the lake to allow the engines to warm up.  Once ready, we radioed in and we were off.  It was going to be a little over an hour flight to Hallo Bay, where we were going to be for the day.  The salmon were not running yet in the rivers, so Hallo Bay was where the bears were at.  The flight was smooth and with the low cloud ceiling, relatively uneventful.  Once we started to get close, the wildlife started appearing.  We must have seen 500+ otters in groups of 15-20 scattered all about.  They even saw a whale close to shore, but it was on the opposite side of the plane, so I missed out.

We did a flyby to see where we could land as there was already a plane parked on the beach.  We circled back and touchdown, a smooth landing.  I love landing on water as you do not even know you have landed until you see the water splashing up.  Our pilot Craig Elg guided the plane to the shore and we all got ready to get out.  Once there, the weather was drastically different from what we left, but I was more than ok with it.  The skies were completely overcast and a slight drizzle of rain was coming down.  Luckily I have all professional Nikon gear and was not worried one bit.  I actually brought ThinkTank Hydrophobia covers for the 600mm and the 70-200mm, but never brought them out. 

Everyone getting off the plane at Hallo Bay in vastly different weather from what we left.

Once I got out, I immediately started to get ready.  I pulled out my D3s that was already attached to my 600 VR.  I slapped it on the Wimberley head and unlocked the legs.  I already had the D300s and 24-70mm on a BlackRapid strap that I took on the plane.  I threw the 3 teleconverters (1.4, 1.7 and 2.0 III) extra battery and extra flash cards in my pockets and I was ready to go.  I already had a Sandisk Extreme Pro 16gb in the D300s and a Lexar 600x 32gb and Sandisk Extreme Pro 16gb in the D3s.  Turns out, I still had room to take more pics on the D3s even after shooting over 1100 pics in Raw format. 

We walked up the bank and immediately ran into a bear feeding about 100 yards away.  So we walked the trail a bit and slowly made our approach. This was the first time I was in the presence of a wild Alaskan Brown Bear and on top of that, not in a controlled environment.  It was an amazing experience and I actually forgot to start taking pictures and I just stared in amazement.  These animals are huge and they get every ounce of respect they deserve from me.  The one thing that amazed me is how quiet they are.  I will talk more about this later, but if this was thicker brush, you really would not know that there was an 800lb brown bear 50 feet away slowly grazing on grass.  

Here we are slowly making our way closer to the bear. Dave is second from the right.

We are getting closer and closer - D300s w/ 24-70mm
 We got pretty close to this bear and little did we know, we would run into him again a little later, unexpectedly of course.  We watched him graze for a bit, probably 10-15 minutes.  In that time, here are some pics that I got:

We then decided to trek on, as we were only 100 yards from the plane and there were definitely more bears to see.  We followed the bear trails, which are very narrow in relation to their size.  It is as if we walked foot in front of foot, instead of how we normally walk.  In the distance you could see many more bears ahead, it was like a something you would see on the discovery channel or a movie where you see bears scattered about everywhere, it was absolutely amazing.

So we were walking for about 5-10 minutes and came upon another bear laying around.  The bear was taking a nap and not really photogenic so we were just about to move on deeper into the bay when we look behind us (you always need to be aware of who and what is around you) and here comes another bear we did not know was there coming straight towards us.  When I mean straight towards us, I mean:

He was coming right up behind us.  Luckily, he did not care about us, he was more concerned with the other bears and eating.  It was quite amazing to feel almost invisible to them.  This bear just came closer and closer till he was about 10 feet away and then made a left turn and continued on around us, paying no attention to us, but watching another bear close by.  He got too close for me to focus with the 600, even manual focus, so I slowly grabbed my D300s and 24-70 and tried to get a few.

The funny thing was, during this entire time, I did not once, feel scared or that my life was in danger.  It was an amazing feeling to be so close to these majestic animals that I really did not even care if I got a picture, it was that great.  After this encounter, we saw 2 bears in the distance that appeared to be fighting.  We tried to head on over as quickly as we could to watch.  We got intercepted along the way by one of the Katmai Rangers who was patrolling the bay.  He just wanted to see how we were doing, wanted to know why we were not going to see the bears fighting and if we had seen any wolves.  He was a nice fellow and once he left, we were on our way again.  

Luckily, we were able to catch up to the bears and witness some play fighting between 2 juvenile bears.  I was using the Nikon D3s with the Nikon 600mm VR and the Nikon TC-20e III teleconverter.  Unfortunately, I did not have the right shutter speed to sharply capture what I was witnessing.  I got a few good keepers, but they were a bit soft due to the slow shutter speed.  I was shooting in manual mode as for some reason my apeture priority was blowing out the highlights regardless of what I was metering on.  I could not recreate it later on, so I have no idea what went wrong.  

They played like this off and on for at least 10-15 minutes.  It was quite awesome to watch as you really see how quickly these guys can move and what force is behind them.  Hair was coming out of their mouths and claws so even though it was play fighting, they were still going at it pretty hard.  After this session died down, we were off again to get close to more bears and boy did we.  We arrived at Katmai about 10:30am and kept stopping to watch and photograph bears.  We had probably walked about 2 miles by 1pm and Dave decided that it is time to take a break and have some lunch.  We were making our way to a nice place to have lunch complete with a felled log for use as a bench when this behemoth of a bear decided it wanted us to watch him for a bit.  He put on a show for us too, which was quite nice.  I think he just wanted some attention.

After he was done rolling around and playing, he decided to walk right up to us and past us.  He again was too close to focus on the 600 VR, so out came the D300s and 24-70mm again.  He sure can put on a sinister look.

He just kept walking and grazing along the way.  We were then able to continue on to our lunch spot and take a few minutes to talk about our journey thus far and get some food in us.  I ate just because I should have as I was so taken over by what I have been and am currently experiencing that I was not interested in eating at all.  I scarfed down my food that I picked up at the Safeway in Homer earlier that morning.  I also decided to change out the 24-70 on the D300s to the 70-200mm VR II.  The focal length did not change much of anything as I did not use it that much after we ate lunch.  

After everyone had filled up Dave decided to start heading back towards the plane, but it would take a bit as we were easily 2-3 miles out.  Dave kept in contact with our pilot via radio, pushing back our ETA back to the plane.  This was a nice, as it was clear it wasn't a trip to get you here and get out.  We got our monies worth and then some.  The plane that was there when we got there, had already left before we even ate lunch and we were the only ones left in the bay, Priceless.

Shortly after our walk back after lunch, it started to rain quite hard and the wind picked up.  I thought about trying to get out the thinktank covers for the cameras, but decided, if I had made it this far, it wasn't an issue.  Turns out, they were fine.  Even in the brief downpour, the Nikon bodies and lenses had no issues at all.  That is a testament about the robustness of the pro and semi-pro bodies by Nikon (Thank you Nikon).  After the rain stopped, we cam to a small tidal river where another bear also decided to make its way towards us (We could not have scripted any better behavior from these bears).  I got some really great tight headshots from this bear.

He then proceeded to be too close again and I just decided to watch and not take pictures.  He seemed to be more worried about what we might do then what he could do to us.  He just kept on his way, stopping every now and again to take huge bites of grass, on to a large open area not too far from us.  Once he was a safe distance away from us, we decided to keep on trekking.  Again, Dave radioed that we were going to be a little later now.

We came across so many other bears doing their own thing, I couldn't keep track of all of them.  There was one that was scratching himself on felled and washed up logs, staring out, almost contemplating his existence and briefly what to do next:

Then there was the exasperated bear passed out on the beach.  Dave said he had heard people were saying "oh no, there is a dead bear on the beach!", to which he just laughed as he knew better.  It was still funny to see.  He looked as though he was just wiped and fell where he could not muster up the energy to move on any farther.

We just kept on trekking back to the plane, which probably took us another 20-25 minutes.  As we were walking back, you could faintly see the outline of a tent near the water in the distance.  From what Dave and the Ranger were telling us, this was the tent of a Lady that had enough of what was going on in her life and was camping at Katmai all summer.  Not only was that crazy, but she did not have an electric perimeter bear fence and she had to move 7 miles every 14 days.  Not saying she is another Tim Treadwell, but I think it takes a different kind of person to desire to do this, especially on her own.  Hope it ends well for her.

We continued on and finally got back to our plane about 3:30pm.  It was bittersweet.  I was happy to be there, but I could have stayed the rest of the day and then some.  Dave allowed me to have an amazing experience, one that I will not soon forget.  I feel as though I got some great pictures, but it was also a learning experience.  I realized a lot that I did wrong and could have improved so much better in both composition and quality of the pictures.  There was so much excitement going through my head that I made a lot of mistakes as I did not take it down a notch and focus on the task at hand.  Who knows, maybe I would not have enjoyed it as much if I did that.  Time will tell.  Until the next time I get out there, I will be thinking about all I experienced there.  Hope you enjoyed the story...

All of these pictures and a few more can be purchased if you like them.  Just go to my website.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Really Right Stuff TVC-34L - Thoughts after field use in Alaska

Well, this will be a short post as I just returned from my trip to Alaska.  I wanted to give a quick update on my use of the RRS TVC-34L tripod in the field and the things I liked and did not like (which are very few).  First, my choice of the 34L for packing reasons was a savior.  I had just enough space for the 34L that would have put me in a tight spot with the Gitzo.  I hit the 50lb mark exactly going there and coming back with the RRS in the bag.  I would have been about 2lbs over with the Gitzo should I have decided to take that instead (would have been an extra $100 in overage weight fees).  I also decided to wrap the top legs in bicycle bar tape rather than a lenscoat or foam leg wraps, worked perfectly.  

For the trip to Katmai I went with the minimal amount of gear I could (D3s, 600 VR, D300s, 24-70 and 70-200) along with the RRS TVC-34L tripod.  The first thing I found out before I left for Alaska is that I did not extend the first leg (I know, first rule of keeping debris out of the leg locks).  Reason is that I found too much flex in the tripod with the first leg extended.  I feel that the thinness of the diameter of the first leg allowed too much movement and that I only extended the top three legs and left the first one retracted.  It worked fine for me.  Slight bending over, but nothing I could not handle.  I did not more walking over the 5 hours I was there so the times I took shots, it was not for an extended period of time (which is too bad as I could have easily spent 10 hours there).  I will work more on having the first leg extended and see if it really is an issue or not.

I walked with the 34L and the 3 legs extended with the wimberley, d3s and 600 VR over my shoulder the entire time.  The compactness of the top plate and distance between the legs suited my left shoulder perfectly.  I had never walked any length of time with a setup like this on my shoulder, but I perfected it in the time I was there.  The 34L performed flawlessly while there and during the rest of my trip.  The leg locks also were second nature and never thought about them, which is a great thing.  raising or lowering the legs were simple and quicker than the Gitzo, but that is my personal opinion.  Since I was walking so much, I did not have a chance to hang a bag off the hook and my gripe over the caribiner hook change was a non-issue.  I actually received an email from Joe Johnson (President) from RRS alerting me to the change after reading my blog, assuring me that no caribiner would slip off with the new design.  I tried it after the Katmai trip and sure enough, a non-issue.  Thanks for the email Joe!

I can not be more happy with the 34L and glad I was able to get one for my trip, actually saved me some money having it!  Not sure many people could say that about a tripod.  The 34L took everything I threw at it in the wet fields and waters at Katmai and the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska.  I will have this tripod for some time and will be selling my Gitzo shortly.  :)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Really Right Stuff TVC-34L Review & Comparison To Gitzo GT5541LS

Well, I did not have enough time to write this up before I left for a quick 4th of July vacation up in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.  Now that I have a bit of time before my trip to Alaska, I thought I would do a write up of the Really Right Stuff TVC-34L and a comparison of it to my previously main tripod, the Gitzo GT5541LS.  I was so excited to finally receive the 34L as I placed my order well over a month prior to receiving it.  It was double boxed and in perfect condition when I received it. 

First thought after getting it in my hands is how light it is and the finish on the carbon fiber legs.  It is something of a smooth matte clear lacquer on each leg.  Feels really slick and smooth, I like it.  Second thing that I noticed was the diameter of the first leg.  It was quite a bit smaller in diameter than the Gitzo.  It actually felt more like a 3 series from Gitzo than a 5 series.  I actually kind of prefer the thickness of the 5 series Gitzo over the RRS.

One of the next things I noticed and was very happy to see was the diameter of the top plate (apex).  The TVC-34L has a super small plate vs. the very large diameter plate for the GT5541LS.  This means 2 things to me: less weight and smaller packing dimensions.  This plate diameter is one of the first things that drew me to the RRS tripod.  The second was the overall weight.  At almost 2lbs less (6.3lbs vs. 4.7lbs) that adds up when packing a lot of gear, especially if you are close to the 50lb limit on checked luggage.  I plan on packing the tripod in a checked bag and the less room it took up, the more room I had for other things, like clothes. Another great feature is the locking ring on the top apex plate.  Gitzo's have been known or prone to having the top plate come loose and lose whatever it is you have mounted to the top.  Having $15k worth of gear fall off because of bad design is a no-no in my book.  Knowing that I do not have to spend another $100 for a locking plate to secure on the gitzo and the piece of mind knowing that I will not lose the gear I have attached made the RRS tripod that much more appealing.

The next great feature of the RRS tripod is the ratcheting and smaller leg connections.  It takes the same amount of effort to change the leg angle as the Gitzo, but reverting back to full height is so much quicker and easier as the leg ratchets itself back to the original position without having to close the stop.  A great feature to me that I know I will appreciate when using.  

Now the length of the closed tripod is another factor I look for when traveling.  The RRS TVC-34L is actually slightly longer than the GT5541LS, about 3/4 of an inch.  The TVC-34L comes in at slightly over 24" and the GT5541LS comes in slightly over 23".  I do not believe that this will be a hindrance in anyway to me in any way.  If it come down to it, I can screw off the rubber feet and have it smaller in a snap. 

Having the RRS tripod being almost the same length closed as the Gitzo but be almost a foot taller was a definite plus in the RRS column.  The TVC-34L goes to 70" (5'-10) where as the Gitzo only goes to 60" (5'-0").  That extra 10" can come in handy on uneven terrain to get the tripod level or up to shooting height so you are not bending over so much.  I use a wimberly version II head and even with the height adjustability of the Wimberley, I have come into many situations where I had to bend over to make shots.  When you are out taking pictures of birds for a good length of time, your back gets tired.  When you get tired physically, you are not thinking about the shot or what you want, you are thinking about your back and wishing you could stand up, missing shots.  

Some of the features that I was looking forward to that are not evident until you start using it was the bag hook below the apex base and the no-twist leg locks.  I am not sure if Really Right Stuff changed their design, but I thought that there was a different hook below that had a hole that allowed a caribiner to be placed in with no chance of it slipping off.  On top of not having the hole, it also does not swivel like the one shown in the RRS TVC-33 video you can see on You Tube.  I am a bit dissapointed by this and thought this would be a great and well-used feature by me.  

The no-spin leg locks (like Gitzo's G-Lock) are made so that you can loosen a leg section and not have the leg twist while doing so.  Having had older Gitzo and non-Gitzo tripods in the past, this is a welcomed feature and should be standard on any tripod.  First impression of the locks is that they are a good size to fit in my hand and having the curved cylinder rather than a straight cylinder shape like the Gitzo, made it easier to lock and un-lock.  One gripe is that 2 of the locks on the first leg section were a bit 'crunchy' in that they threading of the 2 pieces was not very smooth or something was obstructing the thread.  Since this was never used, I would have hoped that would have been tested before being boxed and shipped.  I might have to remove the lock to inspect the threads to make sure there is nothing blocking them.  The curved rubber feet should prove to keep a lot of stuff off of the first leg section when going really low and give a better angle of friction as well.

Overall, I think that the RRS is a great tripod and certainly trumps the Gitzo in many categories.  I think the overall height, size and weight are clearly a win over the Gitzo.  I am not sure if the beefiness of the Gitzo legs are a help or a hindrance as the RRS legs are much smaller in diameter.  I could actually get a good amount of flex in the RRS tripod when jostling a leg vs. the Gitzo.  I will have to test in wind to see if it makes a difference in the vibration dampening of the carbon fiber legs.  The overall fit and finish is also a win over the Gitzo.  Machined parts always hold a special place in my heart having worded for a few machinists when I was younger.  The leg locks I think are a toss-up as they both work great, but having some glitches in mine was a definite minus.  The under side hook was a let down not being the same as the previous tvc-33.  Gitzo's well, not the best choice of materials used for it.  

I plan to do a bit more testing before my trip to Alaska to make sure that the RRS has a place in my bag, my guess is that it will, but if it can not be as solid as the Gitzo (a clear benchmark in solid tripods) then it is just a pretty paper-weight in my opinion.  Blurry pictures are worthless.  Stay tuned....

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Finally! - Really Right Stuff TVC-34L is on it's way to me.

This is a short, quick post. Well, it only took a little over a month, but I recently got word (email) from Really Right Stuff that a brand spankin-new RRS TVC-34L tripod was on its way to me.  I have to give some thanks to Casey over at RRS as he was one of the best CS reps I have had the pleasure of dealing with.  He even forwarded my requests to the Higher Ups to try to get me my tripod in time for my trip to Alaska.  Not sure if it helped, but it definitely made me feel good knowing that they are looking out for people wanting their products.  I will be getting the RRS TVC-34L tomorrow and will work on a comparison between it and the Gitzo GT5541LS as well as pictures showing them next to each other.  I hope to get this up tomorrow night.  Stayed tuned!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

New Nikon DSLR's - D4 & D400

Well, it is always inevitable, new technology comes out every year eclipsing the latest and greatest that just came out.  Camera bodies are no exception.  We have been riding the latest revision of the FX D3 body, the D3s, for some time now.  While it had great improvements and a completely different sensor than the D3, it is still a little behind the game in terms of Megapixels.  ISO sensitivity will be hard to beat in the new bodies, but I am sure they have figured out how to get another usable stop or more out of the new sensors.  

With the latest news of a new body (D4 and D400) rumored to be announced in August of this year, I can only imagine how Nikon is going to improve photography once more.  I can only imagine that the megapixel (MP) size of the sensor will increase.  What I do not know if the ISO sensitivity will also increase.  The issue with packing more MP's into the same size sensor is that ISO quality decreases.  This is one of the main reasons why the D3x only goes to 6400.  I think that is also why the D3s packs more of a punch than the 1D Mark IV from Canon as it is a higher MP sensor, ISO quality at high levels is left behind by Nikon.  

Because the latest and greatest always seems to come out year after year, I say put your money into quality glass as it tends to hold its value a lot more than a body as the lenses are not revised year after year.  I think quality glass is more important than what body you have.  You can get excellent results from a D80 or a D200 with a great lens, than with a D3s and a crappy kit lens.  Now, I am not a pro, nor do I make any money doing this, it is just from my experiences and results.  Can't wait till August!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Nikon Teleconverters Test with the Nikon 600mm VR II & D3s

I have always wanted and needed more reach for some of the subjects that I want to photograph.  The longest AF lens that Nikon makes is the 600mm.  I am very fortunate to have and to shoot the Nikon 600mm f/4G VR II lens. Since going full frame (FX) with the Nikon D700, then the D3 and now the D3s, you lose a lot of the telephoto reach of the crop or DX sensors from Nikon.  You gain a whole lot of wide angle (which I love) and a true (to an extent) focal length of the lenses made for FX bodies.

That being said, I need a little more reach with the FX cameras and the 600mm VR II lens.  Since going back to DX was not a desired option, I decided on the teleconverter route as so many others have.  Unfortunately with a teleconverter, you lose small amounts of light hitting your sensor.  Starting with f/4 on a bare lens, a 2x teleconverter, you are already starting at f/8.  In low-light conditions, this is not the best choice unless you bump the iso up which will then introduce a good amount of noise into your picture.  Another downside to teleconverters is that if you start past your effective f/stop for your camera, your autofocus abilities also diminish.  I believe f/5.6 if the effective f/stop for autofocus to work (Nikon) and the 1.7x and 2.0x theoretically will kill that on an f/4 lens (f/6.3 and f/8 respectively). I have had some success with AF and a 1.7x tc, but it is sluggish.  Forget AF on moving subjects with a 2x tc and an f/4 lens (even the new III version).  

Since I am planing on heading to Alaska this summer and more importantly heading out to Katmai National Park , I wanted to make sure I had all the reach I could should the need arise.  For that, I have the: Sigma 1.4x, Nikon TC-17e II, and Nikon's new Nikon TC-20e III teleconverters to use with my 600mm VR II and 70-200mm VR II lenses. I will not have time to adjust focus of the lens with each teleconverter while there, so I decided to take the time this past weekend to dial in each teleconverter with the 600mm VR II lens on my Nikon D3s camera. The results are shown below, but first pictures of teleconverters:

Sigma APO 1.4x EX DG Teleconverter

Nikon TC-17e II Teleconverter

Nikon TC-20e III Teleconverter

Now on to the photo tests.  I decided to shoot a flat object that is in the same focal plane as the sensor.  This way I could get somewhat accurate results with the AF Fine Tune in the Nikon D3s.  I won't bore you with how I went about adjusting the fine tune for each image, but basically too the same image everytime adjusting the AF Fine Tune up or down (-20 to +20) in order for each TC and looking on my computer to see which setting yielded the sharpest photo.  For my current set-up, it seems that +5 for each TC combo yielded the sharpest for me, although 0 was pretty close!  0 was used for the bare lens as it is pretty damn sharp right out of the box wide open (f/4).  Now another note about the picture tests, these are all taken wide open, f/4, f/6.3 and f/8 (note about this is the camera did not recognize the sigma 1.4x tc to change the apeture to f/5.6 on the top lcd). Yes, I could have easily stopped down to make these super sharp, but I am not a pixel peeper and the results below I think are beyond acceptable if not really great based on the criteria used.  

Enough of the rambling, here are the photos :

Nikon 600mm f/4G VR II bare lens - full field of view

Nikon 600mm f/4G VR II - Crop

 Sigma 1.4x TC - 840mm - full field of view

Sigma 1.4x TC - 840mm - Crop

Nikon TC-17e II Teleconverter - 1020mm - full field of view

Nikon TC-17e II - 1020mm - Crop

Nikon TC-20e III - 1200mm - full field of view

Nikon TC-20e III - 1200mm - Crop

Now, I think they are all pretty sharp.  Focus point for each photo was between the 2 raised dots, on the "T".  There was absolutely no processing of these images other than importing into light room, cropping the selected crop photos shown, and exporting out .jpg's to post here.  I did not adjust any sharpening, contrast, color, etc...  That being said, I feel that the Sigma 1.4x TC had the best contrast in the image, with the 1.7x coming in a close second.  The 600mm VR II bare at f/4 was the best in my opinion (as it should be!).  

I almost did not use and was ready to discount the 1.4x as it seemed cheap to me, but it actually proved me wrong and produced stellar results.  The 1.7x I have had for some time and really liked it, but wanted more reach. The TC-20e III is really why I decided to try and post this test.  I had the previous TC-20e II and man, did it suck.  The images were soft and AF was almost non-existent.  The new 2x III version is absolutely amazing in my opinion.  It is smaller in size and better in optical IQ.  Pared with the 600mm VR II lens, it produced great bokeh, great contrast and most importanly, a sharp picture wide open at f/8.  I can not be happier with the results and I look forward to posting the results when I return.  In the meantime, more equipment testing and comparisons for my trip to come.