I had to secure some new photography gear for my trip to Africa.  My Nikon D1, which I took with me to South Africa in 2001, simply wouldn’t cut it this time around (My phone has a better sensor).  It’s also the last DSLR I purchased because I moved over to using rangefinder cameras with the introduction of the Epson R-D1.  I was in trouble.  Rangefinders don’t work with long lenses, which are required for most decent wildlife shots.  Even worse, last September I sold my Leica M8 and ordered a Leica M9.  Here it was eight months later and I had no idea when my M9 would arrive.  My solution was to buy a Nikon D-90.  It works with all the existing Nikon lenses I have and the 1.5 crop factor is a real advantage when you need long telephoto.  Also, it’s not a terribly expensive camera, which suits me well since I’ve gotten by for so long without a DSLR and would likely shelve the camera once I returned.

I turned out to be quite lucky:  the M9 arrived exactly two weeks before our trip.  I decided it would be a perfect “wide angle” camera and would keep me from having to swap lenses all the time with the Nikon’s telephoto.  Also, a quick bit of usage showed some real promise in the images it creates.

Final inventory for my photography gear:

  • Nikon D90
  • Nikkor 80-400 VR Zoom
  • Leica M9
  • Leica Elmarit 28mm F2.8
  • Leica Summilux 25mm F1.4
  • Leica Nocilux 50mm F1.0
  • A very compact Gitzo monopod
  • Two Nikon batteries and Nikon charger
  • Two Leica batteries and Leica charger
  • Extension tubes for close-ups
  • 54GB of SD cards

I got all of this in a medium-sized Domke reporter’s bag along with my Kindle and a few other carry on items.  Total weight: 17lbs.

Public Service Announcement

There are bugs in Africa.  Sometimes, lots of bugs, and you protect yourself with some rather nasty bug spray.  This is usually DEET, which in my experience is as good an industrial solvent as it is a bug repellent.  DEET dissolves paint and some plastic.  I was worried that my shiny new M9, with its painted exterior, would be a sticky mess because of the DEET.  I tried to combat this by never putting DEET on my hands or face.  I’m happy to report that the M9 came through just fine – no chemical paint removal.  The long Nikkor lens had some of the texture melted off the lens hood, but that just adds character.

Nikon D90 Usage

Since I was mostly photographing animals from medium distances, the long glass on the Nikon made it my primary camera.  I coupled this with the Gitzo monopod, which I extended so it was planted firmly on my seat.  I have to say that the battery life of the Nikon D90 is nothing short of astounding.  I never ran the batteries completely down, but even after 500 exposures I still had about 30% of a battery left.  That’s unbelievable considering the camera battery was also driving a VR lens.

The meter on the Nikon was also quite good.  It almost always nailed subject exposure, even for backlit scenes.  I may have found that a pain if I used this camera for any wide angle landscapes, since it would tend to blow out the sky.  But, since I used the Leica for those shots and the Nikon for animals, proper exposure of the subject was nearly always what I wanted.

I did have quite a few issues with the Nikon, however.  Frankly, the problems I had are largely my fault for not really exercising this camera before I went on the trip.  Its default focusing mode is some fancy automatic mode that basically tries to pick the closest thing to the camera that’s roughly in the center of the viewfinder.  But at 600mm (400 x 1.5 crop) the depth of field is fairly narrow.  I generally wanted focus to be on the animal’s eyes, but if you look at most animals you’ll realize that the “closest, roughly center” model tends to focus on trunk, snout, body but seldom eyes. 

Nikon D90

Nikon D90

It took me about four days to recognize that I had a focusing problem.  I could have really used a laptop to check file quality in the evenings, but I didn’t bring one.  My initial solution was to switch to manual focusing mode, but this turned out to be very difficult because the default focusing screens on virtually all DSLRs today are total crap.  I just couldn’t “see” if things were properly focused.  Finally I switched the camera over to a focusing mode where I can control the focus point specifically with the d-pad on the back of the camera.  With this, I finally found success.

Another default mode I had to change on the Nikon was exposure lock.  I’m a “push the button halfway down to lock and then recompose” kind of guy.  The idea that I have to press a dedicated AE lock button awkwardly placed just out of my thumb’s reach just seems silly to me.  Luckily, deep in the camera’s menu options I found out how to remap AE lock to a half shutter press. 

A third feature that came back to bite me was the ISO setting.  I had configured the camera for auto ISO but not looked too closely at it.  I made two large mistakes.  First, I didn’t realize that the ISO speed setting still effects the ISO even when auto ISO is selected.  With auto ISO turned on, the ISO setting serves to set the lower bound of the auto ISO range.  I didn’t know this until I shot fifty or so images in broad daylight at ISO 1000.  Second, I didn’t jack up the minimum shutter speed in the auto ISO settings.  At 600mm, a minimum shutter of 1/60s is way way way too slow.

So far, my ignorance of the camera has been my undoing.  But, there is one final issue I had with the D90 that is not due to my naivety. The mode dial on the camera is way too easy to turn.  It would get accidentally rotated far too often.  I took probably thirty exposures on shutter priority at 1/1000 a second one day, forcing the ISO to skyrocket.  At another time the camera was in full manual mode with some very wrong exposure settings.  To my surprise, even after I realized how easy the dial was to accidentally turn and I started being much more careful, the dial still was on the wrong value a surprising number of times.

Leica M9 Usage

The image quality coming out of the M9 was just astounding.  I could point that camera at a pile of elephant crap and get great results.  I was actually quite surprised that my favorite lens was the 28mm Elmarit.  On the full frame M9 28mm has a lot of creative potential.  And, because it has such a wide depth of field I was able to zone focus and use the camera from angles where it would have been impossible to look through the viewfinder.  Contrasts and color saturation were great too.

The meter on the M9 is a simple light cell that reads the light from a shutter blade that is painted a slightly lighter color of grey.  It’s nothing like the complex matrix meter in the Nikon.  The M9 did nothing to compensate for backlit situations.  The M9’s meter may not be terribly smart, but it is very consistent so it is pretty easy to modify the exposure for the situation.

Leica M9

Leica M9

The only problem I really had with the M9 was with my Noctilux.  That’s the only lens I have that isn’t coded.  On my M8, I got away without the lens being coded because there wasn’t much of a vignetting problem on the cropped sensor.  On the M9, you really see light fall off if you don’t have the Nocti selected.  Yay to Leica for allowing us to select lens parameters in the menu, but I kept forgetting to set the mode back when I switched lenses.  It was enough of an issue that I think I will send the Noctilux in for coding. 

Side by Side Usage

Using the two cameras side by side worked out well, but I did have some trouble switching between them.  I struggled to keep the two vastly different metering systems separate in my head.  Battery life of the Leica is nothing like battery life of the Nikon.  At dusk, when I had to put the Nikon down because I had run out of light, I was able to pick up the Leica with the Noctilux mounted and keep going.

I have a select group of "favorites” – both for the Nikon as well as the Leica – below.  You can see all the images I decided to keep on Flickr.