Monument Valley from the Air

On my way back from Alaska, I drove through Utah and stopped at Moab for several days. I reserved an airplane from Redtail Aviation to fly me around the southeastern quadrant of the state, certainly one of the prettiest parts of the world. On the appointed morning, as I drove to the airport, heavy rain started to fall. I almost cancelled the flight, but went ahead with it. My feeling was that the weather might help tell the story of the extraordinary land forms. Monument Valley is in the Four Corners area on Navajo land. I had photographed these buttes from the ground many times before on sunny days. But somehow, those shots don’t match this one. Ironically, the overcast skies softened the heavy shadows found on sunny days. The rain also deepened the redness of the rock, creating a very saturated, vivid landscape.

Back from the Road Trip of a Lifetime

In July, August and early September, I drove from Houston, Texas, to Fairbanks, Alaska, and beyond, covering 10,582 miles. I found a lot of incredible scenery along the way and will be posting the best shots in my Landscapes section. When you drive from Houston to Calgary, you’re not even halfway to Fairbanks. Alberta, British Columbia and the Yukon Territory are immense. Frankly, the vastness of the wilderness is somewhat intimidating.

I learned that:

  • Canada and the U.S. are virtually identical in size.
  • Yet Canada’s population is 1/9th that of the U.S.
  • 75% of Canada’s population lives within a hundred miles of the U.S. border.
  • Canada’s three territories (Yukon, Northwest and Nunavut) contain 40% of its landmass and just 4% of its population.

The point: the northern parts of Canada are very sparsely populated. It gets pretty lonely up there in the Yukon. I also learned that:

  • The Yukon is bigger than California, but has only 30,000 people, 20,000 of whom live in Whitehorse, the capital.
  • You top off your gas tank EVERY time you pass a filling station; they can be several hundred miles apart.
  • You can easily drive a thousand miles without seeing a stop light.
  • Budget an extra windshield for your vehicle; they have gravel the size of golf balls in the Yukon
  • You better love trail mix and Slim Jims

I counted a grand total of three grocery stores (not counting the convenience stores attached to gas stations) in the Yukon territory! I also talked to people who drove more than 600 kilometers to buy groceries (that’s about 400 miles).

But the scenery definitely makes up for the lack of creature comforts! Your jaw will be dropping around every corner. I will be posting more images from the trip in coming days. The first is Canadian Rockies Near Canmore, Alberta.

Bird Photography with Nikon D5

Taken with the Nikon D5

Within  one minute after Nikon announced its D5 in January, I ordered one. While I loved the D4s for bird photography, the Nikon D5 takes bird photography to the next level. How?

First, the autofocus is amazingly fast. I’m told this is because the D5 has two processors, one for images and the other dedicated to autofocus. If you can get the bird in the frame, the D5’s autofocus will lock onto it … instantly.

Second, the camera also shoots much faster. You can select frame rates up to 14 fps. That often means the difference between getting a beak or tail feathers in the frame, and getting the whole bird in the middle of the frame.

Third, you can shoot at a much higher ISO without noise. This means, I can shoot at 1/8000th of a second from sun-up to sundown. That means more action stopping power.

Fourth, the camera offers higher resolution.

Fifth, the high ISO capabilities mean I can dispense with fill flash even when shooting birds in deep shadows.

The result of all these improvements is a camera superbly suited to the task of capturing fast and erratically flying birds … with breathtaking clarity. Friends who have seen the results of my first two forays to High Island so far this year have commented on how “personal” the shots seem. Because you can look right into the birds’ eyes in flight, it feels as though you are getting to know them as individuals, not just representatives of a species.

I look forward to more outings with the camera in the coming weeks and will post Nikon D5 pictures from now on. I plan to sell my D4s and buy another D5 body. The Nikon D5 is that good!




Merry Christmas, Uptown, from 40 years ago

Forty years ago, in 1974 a young, aspiring photographer with a scraggly beard got off the El train in Uptown and started taking pictures with his new Nikon F2 on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Forty years later, I’ll be “replaying” some of the memories. Beginning at midnight on the 24th, I plan to post one shot an hour from that era.  The ghosts of Christmas past will last through Christmas day.

I remember those days and the people I met on the street as if they were yesterday. Uptown in that era was a poor neighborhood filled with struggling people who had big hearts.

I remember a recovering alcoholic putting a ten dollar bill (a huge sum in those days equal to a whole day’s pay) into a Salvation Army red kettle. I asked him how he could afford that. He told me that they had saved his live on more than one occasion. He couldn’t afford not to.

I remember a young Gypsy mother holding the hand of her semi-naked infant. She couldn’t afford diapers for him. Nevertheless, she invited me into her home to take pictures.

I remember a young woman who I encountered at Sheridan and Wilson. She had walked miles through the cold to do some last minute shopping for her friends and family on Christmas Eve at the resale shops that lined Wilson and Broadway.

I remember a baker, just before closing that same day. He was feeding pigeons with day old bread and handing out cookies that he hadn’t sold to people walking by. He didn’t want them to go to waste.

I remember an addict trying to stay drug free for a day. With the little money she had, she was looking for gifts for her mother and father on Wilson. It was a peace offering to her family. A desperate cry. Part of that yearning we all feel to love and be loved. She was trying to work her way back into their hearts.

I remember a little girl, playing on her apartment’s stoop in the ice and snow on Christmas day. She had no coat, only a white dress. She was shivering, but her smile warmed all those who passed by.

I remember a demolition crew taking down a store that had brought Christmas cheer to the community for decades. The irony of what they were doing on Christmas eve was not lost on them. They let me warm my freezing hands around a fire they had built in a barrel as they told stories about the glory days of the store.

I remember a Black Panther, a one-legged Jehovah’s Witness and other community activists trying to raise funds for people even poorer than they were.

The people of Uptown in that era may not have had much, but they had each other. I’m an old man now. But the memories of that poor neighborhood are some of the richest of my life.

If you know what happened to any of the people in the pictures, please email me so that I can update the captions.  Merry Christmas to all!


Uptown Portfolio Receives 7 Millionth Hit Today

During the last week in July, 2013, I posted several photos that I took in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood 40 years ago. Through word-of-mouth, email, Facebook and Twitter, news of the portfolio quickly spread. Last night, the series received its 7 millionth hit. To put that in perspective, that’s about twice the population of Chicago. I am both honored and humbled. Many of you, my loyal readers, have also become regular contributors, volunteering thoughts, details, memories and anecdotes that helped bring the story of Uptown in the 1970s to life. Thank you for all of your help. And a special thank you to all of the people who allowed me to photograph them 40 years ago.

About 20 of these photos will be on exhibition at Wilson Abbey in May. I hope you get a chance to see them. The photographic world has long since gone digital. But the graininess of the film that I hand-developed 40 years ago (Kodak Tri-X), gives these images a gritty feeling that perfectly matches Uptown during the 1970s.

Roseate Spoonbill in Flight

A roseate spoonbill in flight looks much like a swimmer doing the butterfly. Taken with the Nikon D4, 800mm f5.6 Nikkor and 1.4x teleconverter from about 30 yards away. See more photos taken with the new Nikkor 800mm in Bob Rehak’s Birds in Action Portfolio.

Uptown Book Wins Five Awards So Far

As many loyal followers know, I’ve made my living in the advertising/marketing communications business for more than 40 years. I began working at Leo Burnett right out of graduate school at Northwestern – one year before beginning my photo project in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. After Burnett, I worked at three other major agencies in Chicago, Dallas and Houston before starting my own shop twenty years ago this week.

Last August, this blog went viral. This month, it should surpass 7 million hits since then. Back in November, interest in the Uptown photos turned into a book called Uptown: Portrait of a Chicago Neighborhood in the Mid-1970s. Web site analytics show that the Uptown photos clearly drive the most traffic to this site.

I originally posted the images because I thought they might help us win some commercial photography work from companies looking for gritty portraiture. So after the book was published I mailed several copies out to clients and prospects as a self promotion. The mailing brought in several photography jobs and another book publishing job for a major Fortune 500 company.

Somewhere along the way, I entered the book in the Houston Ad Federation’s annual award contest in three categories: agency self-promotion, book design and black and white photography. It won Gold awards in all three categories. By virtue of that, it automatically advanced to the American Advertising Federations regional award ceremony in all three categories. There, it won two more gold awards (I’m still trying to figure out which categories it won.)

This region covers Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana – the entire south/central portion of the United States.

Next, the book advances to the AAF national competition in New York.

It’s hard to talk of the images in the Uptown book and “advertising” in the same sentence. It almost seems disrepectful to the trials and tribulations that some many Uptown residents suffered through in the mid-1970s after the OPEC oil embargo. But at least you know the back story.

These awards are quite an honor in our industry. The American Advertising Federation contest draws more entries each year at its various levels (local, regional, national) than any other awards competition. Typically, the contest draws more than a hundred thousand entries. To win so many awards in so many tough categories against such stiff competition is a tribute to the power of the Uptown images and the fine people who allowed me to create them.

Thank you all for helping a lifelong dream come true. Stay tuned to see how the book does at the national level.

If you haven’t yet purchased the book, we still have about a thousand copies left from the first printing. You can buy an autographed copy through this web site, or plain copies through Amazon or Please tell your friends about it.

Best Lenses for Bird Photography: Part III

Getting up close and personal with birds often requires long lenses. But long lenses can often weigh so much that they become difficult to carry in the field. They also require a tripod to stabilize.

Apart for the usability characteristics discussed in the two previous posts, what are the best lenses for bird photography from the point of view of their optical characteristics?

As a consequence, many bird photographers use shorter lenses with teleconverters. But how much do you compromise when you do this? I shot a series of tests in my studio with four different lenses and three different teleconverters. The lenses were the Nikkor 200-400mm f4 zoom, the 400mm f2.8, the 600mm f4 and the 800mm f5.6. The teleconverters were the Nikon 1.2x (for the 800 only), the 1.4x and the 2x.

To compare them, I set up a CD on a light table 20 feet away (just beyond the minimum focusing distance of the longest lens). I chose a CD because it is a universal reference that approximates the size of many small birds (which are the toughest birds to shoot).

I the shot the CD with a Nikon D4 on a tripod and every possible combination of the four lenses and three teleconverters. Vibration reduction was turned on on all the lenses and I used a shutter release cable to further minimize vibration. I took three shots with each lens and chose the sharpest shot in each sequence to further minimize the possibility of accidental vibration. Here’s how the CD looks with each lens and teleconverter.


Since cropping and enlargement are strategies that many bird photographers use, I also cropped one word from each image and enlarged it to the same size (to facilitate comparison). Here’s what happens.


You probably want the longest lens you can carry. That means you probably also want to invest in a good back brace.

In general, the less you have to crop and enlarge, the more sharp detail you will capture. No surprise there.

The surprise was that the teleconverters did NOT work equally well with each lens as the second series of shots shows. Some teleconverters work better with some lenses than others. And some teleconverter/lens combinations produce better enlargements than the lens by itself (presumably because of the smaller degree of enlargement required).

Some teleconverter/lens combinations do not work well.  I would put the 200-400mm/2x and the 800mm/2x in that category. The 800mm/2x should not be surprising. Because you’re shooting at an effective aperture of f11, the viewfinder is very dark and autofocus does not work. Therefore, the possibility exists that I simply did not focus the lens properly.  If focusing properly in the studio is a problem, imagine how difficult it will be in the field.

Two big surprises: the Nikkor 800mm/1.2x combination seems as sharp as the prime lens all by itself. Also the Nikkor 600mm/2x combination seems just as sharp.

Best Lenses for Bird Photography: Part II

In the last post, I talked about some of the inherent contradictions in bird photography. Like the need for long, heavy lenses which are difficult to carry into the woods. Like the need for tripods which make it more difficult to track fast moving subjects. Often it seems, bird photographers are fighting their equipment as much as they are fighting shadows, foliage and elusive, flitty creatures.

Obviously, there is no single “best” lens for bird photography. The lens you use should be the one that gets the shot you want. That will depend on several factors: distance, size of bird, how fast the bird is moving, location of the bird, and available light.

I’ve been photographing (or trying to photograph) birds for 25 years. During that time, I’ve taken tens of thousands of shots that failed. The three biggest, most consistent reasons for the failures:

  • Busy backgrounds – Birds seek cover in dense foliage that often makes selective focus difficult, even at maximum aperture.
  • Subjects too small in the frame – Birds that felt immense in the viewfinder appear tiny in the frame.
  • Subject moving too fast – Couldn’t lock focus fast enough; autofocus got confused; or the bird flew out of the frame as I was depressing the shutter.

When you fail as often as I have, you develop some definite prejudices about…

The Best Lenses for Bird Photography

In order to stack the odds in my favor, I prefer the longest, fastest lenses I can carry. And I want them on a camera  body with fastest autofocus, the highest ISO, the highest frame rate, the longest burst capacity, most pixels, etc.

It’s not that I haven’t taken great bird shots with a 200 mm lens; I have. It’s just that the percentage of good shots goes up with much longer lenses.

Ninety-five percent of the shots I like to show off have been taken with these four Nikon lenses.

  • 200-400mm f4 zoom
  • 400 mm f2.8
  • 600mm f4
  • 800mm f5.6

While available teleconverters create a considerable degree of overlap between these focal lengths, I find that each has its own use.

The 200-400mm f4 zoom is the best of the four for taking hand-held shots of birds on the wing. On the widest setting, I can find fast moving birds in the viewfinder. Then I can zoom in on them as they move toward me. With a 2x teleconverter, the lens turns into 400-800 zoom at f8. The Nikon D4 supports autofocus at f8, meaning this lens can fill the frame with small birds at close to medium distances, and larger birds at longer distances. It’s light enough to carry without fatigue and handhold. And it has a minimum focusing distance of just 6.6 feet. That’s one third of the minimum focusing distance of the 800mm f5.6. All in all, it’s a great all-purpose lens for birding.

The 400mm f2.8 has the widest aperture of the bunch. That means it does the best job of isolating birds from busy backgrounds. It also has a minimum focusing distance of 9.5 feet; that gives it a maximum reproduction ratio of 0.16x (compared to 0.14x for the 600mm f4 and 0.15x for 800mm f5.6). If you’re able to get close enough, there’s no reason to pop for one of the longer, more expensive lenses. (But getting close without scaring off the birds is tough!)

The 600mm f4 is perhaps the most versatile all around lens for birding, especially when paired with Nikon’s 1.4, 1.7 or 2x teleconverters and a gimbal head on your tripod. The lens is a little too heavy for me to hand hold, but it has enough focal length to get me close to most all action, especially with a teleconverter. A warning though. Not all camera bodies support autofocus with this lens when used with the longer teleconverters. Most camera bodies require at least f5.6 to autofocus reliably. The 2x teleconverter will turn this lens into f8. Only the D4, D4S, D800/D800E, D600, D610 and D7100 support autofocus at f8.  If you have one of those bodies, you’re good, but watch out for low light; autofocus may become erratic.

The 800mm f5.6 is Nikon’s longest focal length. It comes with its own 1.2x teleconverter which takes it out to a 1000mm at f7.1. It’s a pound lighter than the 600 and a lot thinner, making it easier to handhold. The f7.1 also means that autofocus will work faster and more reliably than the 600/2x combo in marginal light. The only problem I have had with this lens: sometimes it gets me too close. I actually had to back up from several birds on my first outing with this lens in order to fit them in the frame or to get beyond the minimum focusing distance. All things considered, though, that’s a nice problem to have. The extra working distance that this lens gives you tends to make birds more comfortable. I didn’t have as many flying away from me as I usually do when I try to creep up on them with the 600.

I did not discuss the 500mm f4 here. I don’t own it. Why? I wanted the extra “reach” that the 600 gives me. Had the 800 been available when I bought the 600, I probably would have skipped the 600, too. But I sure like the ability to reach out to 1200mm with the 600/2x teleconverter combo.

None of these lenses is cheap. And none is easy to handle. The last thing you want to do is spend thousands of dollars on a lens that’s too big to carry into the field without an assistant. I’m a big guy, so they don’t bother me too much. But my wife would have a hard time carrying most of these. Beg, borrow or rent one to test in the field before you buy.

Similarities and Differences

All of these lenses come with Nikon’s fast-focusing silent wave motors, ED-glass, multi-coating, and vibration reduction. They differ primarily in their size, weight, focal length, angle of view, aperture, minimum focusing distance, reproduction ratio and (let’s not forget) cost.

I’ve included comparative specs below to help you determine which is best for the birds and situations you encounter.

Minimum Focusing Distance

 200-400 f4       6.6 ft.

400 f2.8              9.5 ft.

600 f4                15.7 ft.

800 f5.6          19.36 ft.

 Angle of View

 200-400 f4    12°20 to 6°10′

400 f2.8          6°10′

600 f4             4°10′

800 f5.6          3°10′

Maximum Reproduction Ratio

 200-400 f4     0.27x

400 f2.8           0.16x

600 f4              0.14x

800 f5.6           0.15x


 200-400 f4       118.5 oz./7.41 pounds

400 f2.8             163 oz./10.12 pounds

600 f4                178.5 oz./11.12 pounds

800 f5.6            161.6 oz./10.1 pounds


200-400 f4      14.4 in.

400 f2.8            14.5 in.

600 f4               17.5 in.

800 f5.6           18.2 in.


200-400 f4     4.9 in.

400 f2.8           6.3 in.

600 f4               6.5 in.

800 f5.6           6.3 in.


Nikon Teleconverter Compatibility

                                 TC-14EII        TC-17E II       TC-20EIII     TC80-12SE

200-400 f4                yes                  yes*                yes*                no

400 f2.8                     yes                  yes                  yes                  no

600 f4                         yes                  yes*                yes*                no

800 f5.6                     yes                  yes*                yes*                yes

Additional weight     7.1 oz.            8.8 oz.            11.1 oz.          4.8 oz.

*Most Nikon cameras will not autofocus with an aperture smaller than f5.6. Autofocus is available only with cameras that offer f/8 support. These include the D4, D4S, D800/D800E, D600, D610 and D7100.

 Pros and Cons of Teleconverters:

Teleconverters (sometimes called tele-extenders) allow you increase the focal length of your lens by up to 2x – WITHOUT increasing the minimum focusing distance. Thus, a 2x teleconverter on the 600mm f4 effectively turns the lens into a 1200mm macro lens with a decent working distance – something very useful for shooting small birds, chicks hatching out of eggs, mothers feeding babies, etc.

However, teleconverters also reduce your effective aperture. The 1.4x reduces the light by one stop; the 1.7 by a stop and a half; the 2x by 2 stops.

This means they won’t work with all camera body and lens combinations. Check the manufacturer’s compatibility specs carefully before you buy to avoid expensive disappointments. Some teleconverters can actually scratch the rear elements of some older lenses!

Best Lenses for Bird Photography

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What are the best lenses for bird photography?

As my interest in bird photography grew, so did my collection of super-telephoto lenses. Starting with a 300mm f4, I added 500 mm and 1000 mm catadioptric lenses. The cats brought me closer to the action, but in truth, they weren’t all that sharp. I eventually discarded them and invested in traditional lenses.

Next came Nikon’s 600 mm f4 and the 400 mm 2.8 – with Nikon’s 1.4X and 2X tele-extenders. Both lenses are razor sharp and the tele-extenders produce no discernible degradation. They take the 400 out to 560 f4 and 800 f5.6. They take the 600 out to 850 f5.6 and 1200 f8.

I also purchased the 200-400 mm f4 zoom lens. Both tele-extenders work with it also. They give the photographer the ability go from about 300 at f5.6 to 800 mm at f8.

With all these options in hand, why would a bird photographer want Nikon’s new 800 mm f5.6?

For one thing, it comes packaged with a 1.2X tele-extender that gives you the ability to go out to 1000 mm at f7.1. None of the other lens/tele-extender combinations do that. But does it really make that much of a difference?

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Hawk from 200 feet away. Taken handheld with Nikon’s 800mm f5.6 with 1.2x teleconverter (effective 1000mm at f.7.1).

I test drove the 800 today and was very impressed with it. As we near the start of the spring birding season along the Gulf Coast, I intend to put it through its paces. The nesting season started this week. Birds are pairing up, collecting sticks, weaving them into nests. In a couple weeks, they’ll be laying eggs. And within a couple weeks after that, the chicks will begin hatching out.

Bird photography is difficult because of the conflicts between the demands of the job and the realities of the equipment:

  • You want to travel light but long lenses are heavy.
  • You want narrow depth of field to blur confusing backgrounds, but long lenses have smaller f-stops unless they have huge front elements (making them heavy again).
  • You want a lens that will get you “close” to skittish creatures, but the longer the lens, the harder it is to find fast flying birds in the viewfinder.
  • You want to make the bird big in the frame, but long lenses have long minimum focusing distances.

So my intent is to examine all these trade-offs and see how they conspire in the real world. What do the trade offs between weight, size, maximum aperture, focal length, portability, maneuverability and minimum focusing distance mean when you’re slogging through a mosquito infested swamp?

I found one huge difference already today. It has to do with “f8 support.” Many cameras do not support autofocus on f8. There just isn’t enough light to do it reliably. As a result, the camera searches and searches while the bird flies right through the frame.  Shot missed.

The Nikon D4 does support autofocus at f8. But I find that it works well only about 80 percent of the time. The other 20 percent is frustrating. I have lost many great shots because the bird was moving too fast against a dark or busy background. But I didn’t have that problem with the 800 mm + 1.2X combination at f7.1. Out of approximately 600 shots I took today, only five had focus problems. That’s less than 1 percent. Huge improvement. I like.

The other thing I like about the 800 f5.6 is that it’s about two pounds lighter than the 600 f4. For me, that made the difference between getting a good handheld shot and not getting one.

The front of the barrel is also a lot thinner. This makes it easier to maneuver and carry. Stay tuned. Check back in the coming weeks as I systematically compare what these various lenses and tele-extender combinations do and don’t do.

In the meantime, I’ve included several shots in this post that I took this morning with the Nikkor 800 mm + 1.2X tele-extender combo at f 7.1 using the Nikon D4. The long-billed curlew was taken at the Bolivar Flats on the Bolivar Peninsula near the Audubon Sanctuary (southeast side of Galveston Bay). All other shots were taken handheld (but on a beanbag resting against my car) at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge in early morning under dark, heavy skies. The curlew and egret were taken near the minimum focusing distance. The hawk was taken from about 200 feet away and is an enlarged detail.

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