Before electronic first-curtain shutter (EFCS), long-lens (which I’ll define as 300mm and over on a full-frame 35mm camera) photography was usually about wildlife and sports. For those activities ultimate sharpness wasn’t the prime concern. Those who attempted SLR landscape photos were usually frustrated by camera motion, even with the mirror locked up. With mirrorless cameras without EFCS, problems came in two flavors. Those that allowed live view to be turned off, like the Leica M240, suffered the same kind of camera vibration as those who used SLRs with the mirror up. The mirrorless cameras that didn’t allow live view to be turned off, like the Sony alpha 7R (a7R), had the considerable additional vibration of winding the shutter just before it was fired.
What to do?
You could use medium format cameras with leaf-shutter lenses, but there weren’t many of those over 450mm. I did make a successful series of images using film, a Hasselblad 501CM, and the 500mm f/8 Zeiss Tele-Apotessar CF, but only one. I also did architectural work with a 4×5 film camera and a convertible Nikon lens set to 450mm, but that’s only about 150mm in 35mm terms.
You could try to tame focal plane shutter motion with heavier and heavier tripods, weights, and sandbags. That helped, but the setup usually got to be less than portable before the image was crystal clear.
You could use nosebleed shutter speeds. However, not all landscape photography is done when the sun is high. In fact, you could argue that that’s one of the worst times for landscape photography.
Then along came electronic first-curtain shutter (EFCS). When you use it, the mechanical first curtain is open when the exposure begins, and the exposure is ended by the mechanical second curtain. It doesn’t eliminate all shutter vibration, since, for, say, the 1/320 to 1/125 second at the end of the exposure the camera is disturbed by the acceleration of the second curtain (the second curtain deceleration doesn’t matter, since the shutter is closed by then). However, it eliminates the bulk of the vibration; I’d guess 95% of it at most shutter speeds.
There are other things that can cause camera motion. Wind is the usual culprit. You want to be upwind of your camera when the shutter goes off, but that won’t fix things entirely. In urban environments — and some wild ones — ground motion shakes the camera.
There are other things that can cause blur. Atmospheric disturbances deviled me during some of my lens testing in the last few posts.
But EFCS is a game-changer. You can get sharp results that were just not obtainable before. My first experience with it was on the Sony alpha 7 (a7), and later the alpha 7 mark II (a7II). Those were 24 mega-pixel cameras. Then the Nikon 36MP D810 came out, with one of the big changes from the D800/D800E being the addition of EFCS. I’ve been using it with telephoto lenses recently.
Here are a few things that I’ve discovered.
You have to use live view for accurate focusing. Autofocus just won’t cut it at the sharpest apertures of the two lenses that I’ve been using on the D810, the 400/2.8 and the 200-400/4.
The Nikon AF-S 200-400 mm 1:4G isn’t quite parfocal. It’s close. Probably close enough for other than landscape application. If you focus at one focal length and zoom in or out the little green dot will stay lit, but he image won’t be critically sharp at f/5.6 and f/8.
Vibration Reduction (VR, in Nikonese) really helps focusing. Without VR, when you magnify live view to the max at long focal lengths and put your hand on the focusing ring to tweak the focus, the image jiggles so much that it’s hard to be accurate. Turning on VR helps immensely.
You need to turn off VR before you make the exposure. You don’t need to do test shots to prove this to yourself. With VR on, set live view to maximum magnification, focus, and take your hand off the camera. You’ll see the image moving.
You can’t turn VR on and off when the camera is rotated counterclockwise into portrait orientation. This may not be true for all lenses, but for the ones I’ve got. When you mount the lens using the rotating collar and rotate the camera counterclockwise into portrait orientation, the VR switch is now down, and you can’t reach it because of the mounting foot. The solution is to rotate the camera clockwise so the switch is up, but that seems weird to me, and makes releasing the shutter awkward.
A 3 second shutter delay is just about perfect with a 400. You can prove this to yourself by setting live view to maximum magnification, taking your hand off the camera, counting “one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi” and watch the image settle down. With a longer lens than 400mm, it might not be enough, and that would be too bad, because that’s the longest shutter delay offered on the D810.
The optical viewfinder is mostly superfluous. For this kind of photography, I almost never use it.