The release of the Nikon D200 digital single lens reflex arrived with a lot of fanfare in December 2005. Nikon was again electrifying the digital SLR format market with this feature-packed and affordable compact little brother to the flagship D2X. Soon after receiving one I booked a two week trip to Wyoming’s National Parks. This was going to be an excellent opportunity to test the capabilities of this new digital marvel as a serious tool for nature photography.
Nikon D200 DSLR
Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming is renowned for its expansive alpine vistas and exceptional annual display of spring wildflowers. Since the Teton Range sits along the west boundary of the park it is the perfect setting for those classic sunrise shots of a towering mountain range bathed in the warm glows of pink and gold of the early morning sun. Afternoon shooting sessions, on the other hand, can offer a big challenge as you invariably must shoot into the sun to capture the familiar saw tooth peaks.
Yellowstone National Park is quite different geologically and more so as a photographic subject. The major geological feature in this, the world’s first national park, is the super caldera - a forty-five mile wide remnant of a collapsed volcano that is still very much alive. With the magmatic energy of the caldera powering hundreds of active geysers and inert hot springs, few places on earth exhibit as much geothermal activity as the Yellowstone Central Plateau. This activity can pose a few risks to electronic and optical devices. The hot springs and geysers constantly spew toxic fumes in the forms of mist and tainted water vapor into the air. Repeated and prolonged exposure can be harmful to the human body as well as to lenses and camera bodies.
Ironically, Yellowstone is less known for wildlife viewing even though it contains an impressive collection of large game animals and predators. The Lamar Valley in the northeast is often compared to Africa’s Serengeti as it is home to an exceptional population of large mammals including moose, elk, bison, grizzlies, black bears, wolves, and deer and antelope. In the northern reaches of the park high ridges reveal picturesque waterfalls and deeply gouged canyons. This presents a multitude of different photographic situations to test the Nikon D200. I know of no better place in the United States to put the camera through its paces.
A Glorious Morning at the Beaver Pond
Daylight comes early in the Tetons in June. By 4:30 a.m. there is enough daylight to get around without the aid of a flashlight. In a sleep deprived daze the SUV was loaded and we began the short drive to Schwabacher Landing. This secluded area on the banks of the Snake River ranks, as photographer/writer Tim Fitzharris puts it, one of “North America’s Big Four” locations for reflection photography.
Approaching a small beaver pond the familiar scene came into view. There they were the four major Teton peaks draped by the tops of lodgepole pines and in the foreground a surreal reflection in the perfectly still pond. The sun was a good fifteen minutes from rising in the east so there was enough time to set up and take some critical meter readings. Taking the Nikon D200 in hand, the meter was set to spot mode and readings were taken of the sky just to the side of Grand Teton peak. Then a reading was taken of the dense pines in the middle ground. A final reading was taken of the reflection in the pond. As suspected there was a difference of three stops between the sky and the pine trees. But then there was the issue of the meter reading from the reflection. It showed a one stop difference from the sky and a two stop difference from the pine grove. Remembering a tip about using neutral density grad filters, it was decided to use one filter to hold back the sky and another inverted to hold back the reflection. This is a technique used to improve the “believability” of photographs of reflective pools taken with ND grad filters. Without the second filter there is the problem of balancing the exposure of the sky, the reflection, and the shadowy mid-ground, in this case the lodgepole pines.
Using a Cokin filter holder a 3-stop grad was put in place for the sky and a 2-stop grad was inverted in the filter holder to hold back the reflection. The exposure meter was set back to matrix metering, and the lens set to hyperfocal distance. Now all there was to do was to wait. And the wait was well worth it. At first the broken clouds from the previous night’s thunderstorms turned an unbelievable pink.
As the Nikon D200 fired off the first shots the histogram showed a symmetrical bell curve, and the image looked perfectly exposed in the LCD. A few minutes later the clouds turned an intense gold and the peaks glowed like beacons. The Nikon D200 recorded shots in quick succession to capture the ever changing hues. A quick review of the histogram showed perfect exposures each time.
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