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Considering a Partial Camera Upgrade - D500 w/ 200-500mm lens (1 Viewer)

wary_cassowary

Artist and Amateur Avian Aficionado
United States
Hello! I’m a novice bird photographer, and I’m trying to improve my skills. I’ve spent a lot of money on my camera set up, and it’s been wonderful for the past few years; however, I’m often disappointed with my image quality.

Here’s the specs and shooting style I’m working with:

Body: Nikon D500

Lens: Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200mm-500mm F/5.6 ED VR

Photographer: Still mastering manual settings, so definitely not the best model ;) I shoot handheld, since I prefer to hike instead of camping in one spot. So I can’t carry anything heavier than my current setup.

I’m mostly struggling with excessive noise and grain, and it seems that nearly all my photos have unacceptable noise levels on overcast days (I live in Oregon, so that’s a lot of days). With only 500mm of zoom, I often need to crop to fill the frame, but the noise makes cropped photos unprintable. I shoot at f5.6 almost always to get as much light as possible, use auto iso with a max sensitivity of 2500, and shutter speeds around 800-2000th of a second to try and freeze wings, which usually leads to under exposure and blurry wings anyway. I’ll post some images as examples (with specs below). Am I imagining that this is way more grain than other wildlife photographers are getting in their images?

The problem is, I don’t have the money to fully upgrade my system. It seems the best quality upgrade would be to sell all my current setup and replace go fully mirrorless, but I can’t afford it. So here’s my question for the experts: is there a way I could replace only one or two pieces of gear and come away with improved image quality, or should I just wait till I can afford a whole new system? If you can give me some advice of possible setups I could research, I can figure out what I can afford from there.
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Possible upgrade ideas that I know of:

1- Keep the lens, upgrade to a mirror less Nikon body and buy a lens adapter (and possibly struggle with autofocus issues)

2- Keep the D500 body, upgrade the lens (not sure what options I’d have here). I really like the ability to zoom with the 200-500mm, but could possibly consider a prime. Or I guess a shorter lens plus a teleconverter, then battle distortion problems?

3- My husband (he’s a wedding photographer) has an extra body I could use, a A73 Sony (mirrorless). Maybe I could buy a converter and stick my Nikon 200-500mm lens on that body? He’s not sure how much the quality would increase.

4- Save my money and focus on mastering my skills to improve my image quality with the gear I’ve got, and maybe play around with software like Topaz sharpening to reduce noise in post processing. And learn to be grateful for the setup I've got!

Please let me know what you think, and thank you in advance for any advice! Happy birding!

P.S. Specs for the attached images, if anyone wants to know:

I'iwi: 1/1600, f/5.6, ISO 720
Pipit: 1/1250, f/5.6, ISO 720
Cardinal: 1/350, f/5.6 ISO 1400. This one's a great example of overcast conditions being too dark for flight shots with my current set up. Maybe I could have gotten a usable image with different settings, but wanted to include this one cause it's so common for me: in overcast (but still pretty bright) light, flight shots seem impossible.
 

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I think question no 1 will be about your processing. What do you use and should you upgrade there instead? Do you need to learn to master this area better before thinking about camera upgrades?

Secondly, I am not certain this will help you because I shoot a different camera brand, but my experience is that noise is worse when having an underexposed image than it is with a correctly exposed image at higher iso.
Niels
 
Your in flight shots should be in shutter priority, in low light the camera will automatically go full aperture and sufficient ISO. Here's a shot 1/2500s , the camera chose f/8(Canon 40D & Canon 400L f/5.6 lens). The Cardinal shot at 1/350s TOO SLOW shutter speed. You need at least 1/1000s! I currently shoot still birds on aperture priority (f/4 @ 300mm and f/5.6 @ 420mm) and birds in flight on shutter priority. (DSLR) A mirrorless camera won't fix improper technique. 15.jpg
 
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Both shots on sunny days, to shoot birds in flight on dark days you may have to go to a faster lens or leave your ISO to the camera. Also a full frame camera with that fine lens may be an option? If it were me I would stay with that lens and move to a full frame sensor. My current DSLR is a used Canon 5D mark III at about 3,000.00 saving over new. I would look for a low shutter count Nikon.

Note: I never preset my ISO
 
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Here's a shot with a 400mm f/5.6 1/1000s @ f/11. 537kb cropped down from 3.43 mb. (shutter priority)53.jpg
 
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I generally try to keep my shutter speed equal to or greater than the focal length of the lens. So in your case where you have your zoom at 500mm, I would set my shutter speed to at least 1/500 and as a previous poster noted, for birds in flight you need your speed set to at least 1/1000 with an f-stop of at least f8 if not higher. For your setup with photos taken at 500mm - f5.6 during overcast conditions, your results will be hit or miss because you're at the limits of the lens. Before upgrading your camera, have you consider getting a good carbon monopod and head for a little extra support?
 
It seems that Mikbul and mjlarsen have illuminated serious opportunities for getting your setup to perform better.
The camera/lens combo in question is excellent, what is missing is a good manual or course for helping to optimize the settings.
Your frustration is widely shared, sadly no one in the camera industry produces good user manuals.
 
I think you're expecting too much. You're photos, other than the Cardinal, look fine considering the conditions you describe. Birds in flight start at 2000 for me, usually more like 2500-3200. It looks like you could have been down around 800-1000 for the pipit & Iwi, that's where I start hand held. These birds were not close either so results are about what I would expect without better light. There's only so much you can do in poor light. I also shoot with a D500, hand-held, but I use a Tamron 150-600 G2 which by all comparisons is very similar to your lens. I live in Washington so I also deal with similar weather. I have recently purchased a Z8 and am slowly learning to use it, still shoot a lot with the D500. I am beginning to get some good results with the Z8 but it's not a miracle worker. Poor light, deep in foliage, moving targets, pose insurmountable conditions at times. Ime you can go quite a bit higher than 2500 iso with the D500. I shoot manual, auto iso also but usually start at f8. I doubt that a new mirrorless system would solve all of your problems. You might consider something like the 500 pf, which should be a step up in sharpness and takes a 1.4 tc well by all accounts. There are quite a few available second hand as people are selling off f mount lenses to buy Z lenses. Post processing can work wonders these days so delving further into that will probably get you a better final product. I don't do much so I can't advise. I only touch up in NX Studio. I recommend watching all of Steve Perry's youtube videos and consider purchasing his guides. I've gained a lot from him. Good luck & have fun!
 
you have a decent set up, the d500 handles noise vey well, learn to shoot in manual start off with auto iso , then find the upper limit of iso your Happy with. for birds in flight you want to start with 1/2000 of a second and then go up or down according to the speed of the bird. add plus 1 to 2 stops of exposure comp for birds in flight, keep,the apeture wide open if your light is low , try not to under expose. as this can add noise. perched birds start at 1/800 of a second.
have a look at topaz denoise. it is very good for managing noise you can down;oad a free trial.

the sony a73. is exellent at low noise i had one for a while and it is a very good camera. i dont think youll will be able to adapt your nikon lens but i may be wrong.
you could sell your kit and buy either a sony 200-600m to use on the a73 the sigma 150-600 contempory canon fit works well with the mc11 adaptor and the Sony
 
My shot of the peregrine falcon above (fastest bird in the world) was shot at 1/2500s shutter priority and f/8 on a sunny day, so a cloudy day I would choose 1/2000s wide open aperture on MANUAL instead of shutter priority.
 
Mikbul is right about your camera settings.

I also agree with Oldnintheway. I think part of your issues are a combination of poor lighting conditions and a slower lens. I am shooting with a D5300 and a Sigma 150-600 C F5-6.3 (similar lens to yours). In dark or overcast conditions you don't get good photos. Once the sun comes out you can get good ones though. You just have to figure out when the best lighting conditions are for your camera and lens and get yourself in the right position. I try not to shoot my lens wide open either. It's sharper stopped down a bit, so I need some sunlight to make it work.

Something else that makes a big difference is getting as close as possible to the target. Cropping is an unfortunate reality, but the more you crop the more you degrade the photo. I probably wouldn't have cropped your Pipit photo. 400-500mm is my preferred focal length. With a crop sensor camera like the D500 (or D5300) it's like having a 1.5x teleconverter. You have some reach, but you still ideally want to be point blank range.

I think the D500 is a good camera and am looking to upgrade to one since Nikon has not come out with a better crop sensor mirrorless yet. It handles noise better than my D5300 and has a faster FPS and AF. If you were going to upgrade anything in your system, I would probably upgrade the lens to something faster. Unfortunately, fast primes are expensive. I can't really justify one yet because I'm just an amateur, but I've used them before and they definitely will help in low light.

my 2 cents . . .
 
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I agree with Ozarkbirdman. I now have a Canon 5d MarkIII (non crop sensor like the 40D) and a 300 f/4 L IS lens along with a 1.4X tele-extender. Now I'm shooting at 300(f/4) and 420mm (f/5.6) instead of 640 with the 400L and crop sensor 40D. Here's a still shot with the 300L.

I just ordered a 2X tele for my 300 f/4 so I can shoot at 600 f/8.
 

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As already pointed out, shooting with high ISO requires to nail the exposure as brightening underexposed images dramatically increases noise.
Filling the frame with the subject as much as possible is the other key point as cropping will make noise and lack of details more obvious.
I may have missed it, but do you shot jpg or RAW, and what software do you use to process your images.
RAW offers additional gain when a lot of postprocessing is required, and current software can work "miracles" with its noise reduction and sharpening algorithms, even more so when AI steps in (but this requires computer hardware with a lot of horsepower).
At the end of the day we must simply accept that there are limits and that top shots we see are often the result of lots of work and patience in the field (with a good dose of luck) and expert postprocessing.
I would focus for the time being on improving fieldcraft and photography skills along with postprocessing to max out the potential of your current gear.
 
I shot with the D500 and noise was not a problem at ISO settings of 3200 or less. Even with the ISO 6400 images they were easily processed with a noise reduction program to produce excellent images.

Important not to underexpose when shooting (manual mode works best for bird photography) as increasing the EV in post will boost noise significantly.
 
I think question no 1 will be about your processing. What do you use and should you upgrade there instead? Do you need to learn to master this area better before thinking about camera upgrades?

Secondly, I am not certain this will help you because I shoot a different camera brand, but my experience is that noise is worse when having an underexposed image than it is with a correctly exposed image at higher iso.
Niels
Sorry for the super late reply!! For processing, I shoot in RAW and edit in photoshop. However, my husband introduced me to Lightroom’s built in noise reduction AI and it actually got my grainier cropped photos into a printable quality! Lightroom actually performed better than Topaz, at least on my photos Topaz produced more artifacting issues while Lightroom kept the smooth areas more smooth. I hadn’t really considered that my noise problems could be solved with better post processing; seems obvious looking back.

Thank you for the exposure tip! I think I got paranoid about letting my ISO get high because I was so frustrated with noise; it didn’t occur to me that pumping up the ISO when needed to get a correct exposure could actually reduce the noise. I’ll let my auto ISO have a higher ceiling and see if that helps.

Thank you again for the advice!!
 
Why be like a million other avian image makers in getting as close as you can? Try for more artistic shots. The best wildlife photographs are not tight mug shots of birds and animals but ones that tell a story about the subject and its surroundings.

Look at the work of Frans Lanting, Jim Brandenburg's arctic wolf work or the work of my friend Michael Nichols, it's all about light, timing and composition, not zooming in to the animal as close as you can. I have been a full time professional commercial and fine art photographer for over 35 years, I don't do wildlife photos per se but the good ones I have done were made with a 50mm lens and a lot of luck and patience...they tell an artistic story.

Otherwise, I can tell you by direct experience that the 200-500 using an FTZ adapter on either a Z7II or better yet the Z8 will be much better in hitting focus than a DSLR, it's just the "nature" of AF on a mirrorless camera. In order to improve upon that, you would have to either get the new 180-600 Z or an even faster lens like a 400 2.8 S with the built in converter or a 600 F4 S, serious 5 figure spending territory on those last two.
 
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The single biggest upgrade you could make to reduce noise and improve image quality is a faster lens. The 200-500 is versatile, but F5.6 is slow, way too slow for high shutter speeds to freeze wings on overcast days w/o a lot of noise.

Despite the hype, the D500 auto-focus still rivals any Nikon mirrorless except maybe the Z8/Z9, and you'd be giving up the extra reach of a crop sensor, which would likely be an issue since you're already cropping.

I have a D500 with the 500PF F5.6 which spectacular image quality-wise, but I rarely use it anymore preferring my D850 and 300 F2.8 DII set-up hands down. After using an F2.8, there's just no going back for 95% of the wildlife I shoot.

Consider upgrading to a Nikon 300 F2.8 lens for your D500, which takes you to 450mm and would reduce your ISO and noise substantially (with proper technique). You could even add a 1.4 TC taking you to 630mm at F4.

Nikon 300 F2.8's (DII, VRI, and VRII are the only versions I'd consider), are readily available at all-time low prices b/c of the rush to mirrorless.

At least for now, Nikon has no fast mirrorless glass that's under $10K, and who knows if they'll ever do a mirrorless update of the 300mm F2.8.

Another good lens is the 300PF F4, which is a full stop faster than the 200-500. My wife shots that lens almost exclusively due to its compact size, weight, and IQ.
 
Despite the hype, the D500 auto-focus still rivals any Nikon mirrorless except maybe the Z8/Z9, and you'd be giving up the extra reach of a crop sensor, which would likely be an issue since you're already cropping.
I have been using Nikon in my job as a photographer since 1987 and I can tell you from vast experience that it is by no means hype.

Furthermore, you do realize that when you kick the Z7II, Z8 and Z9 into 1.5X crop mode, it is giving you exactly the same resolution as the APSC-only sized sensor on D500? But unlike going into crop mode on a D850, when you do it on any of the Nikon Z bodies, that new cropped view fills the entire viewfinder. You give up nothing and gain a lot.

Add to that things like 1/32,000th of a second shutter speed, no blackout even at 120FPS and NO shutter or mirror noise at all on the Z8 / Z9, Z mount mirrorless is a total no-brainer for wildlife photography. Believe me, I love my optical views through my Nikon F film bodies, Leica M bodies, Hasselblad V series and of course my 4x5 and 8x10 large format cameras for when I am shooting fine art.

But what Sony and Nikon have done with their mirrorless systems have truly made the DSLR near obsolete, especially in terms of wide to normal FOV optics.
 
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I have been using Nikon in my job as a photographer since 1987 and I can tell you from vast experience that it is by no means hype.

Furthermore, you do realize that when you kick the Z7II, Z8 and Z9 into 1.5X crop mode, it is giving you exactly the same resolution as the APSC-only sized sensor on D500? But unlike going into crop mode on a D850, when you do it on any of the Nikon Z bodies, that new cropped view fills the viewfinder. You give up nothing and gain a lot.

Add to that things like 1/32,000th of a second shutter speed, no blackout even at 120FPS and NO noise at all, Z mount mirrorless is a total no-brainer for wildlife photography. Believe me, I love my optical views through my Nikon F film bodies, Leica M bodies, Hasselblad V series and of course my 4x5 and 8x10 large format cameras for when I am shooting fine art.

But what Sony and Nikon have done with their mirrorless systems have truly made the DSLR near obsolete, especially in terms of wide to normal FOV optics.
only a "no brainer/obsolete" if you can afford it,
 

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