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Gear review: Photographing Baffin Island with a Nikon D4S

See photos that will inspire you to put Baffin Island on your list of summer getaways, and read a review of the camera equipment (provided by Vistek and Nikon Canada) used to capture them

  • Published Apr 26, 2017
  • Updated Oct 14, 2022
  • 945 words
  • 4 minutes
  • By Nick Walker
  • Photography by Nick Walker
Icebergs in Pond Inlet, near Bylot Island Expand Image

In late August 2016, Canadian Geographic’s managing editor Nick Walker hitched a ride on a 10-seater prop plane hopping between Baffin Island’s far-flung hamlets.

For the trip, Vistek and Nikon Canada equipped him with the Nikon D4S camera body and a versatile pair of lenses: the AF-S Nikkor f/3.5-4.5G 24-85mm and AF-S Nikkor f/5.6E 200-500mm. Read on to learn more about this powerhouse pro camera and lens kit, as well as photos from the corners of the Baffin region.

Nikon D4S

Sides of the D4S. (Photos: Nikon Canada Inc.)
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If ever there were a place to carry a workhorse, full-frame SLR, it’s the Arctic Islands, whether on expedition, a polar cruise or assignment hunting the perfect polar bear shots. The D4S has earned its reputation for split-second, on-the-move accurate autofocus — perhaps the best option on the market for wildlife and action photographers. This particular trip across Baffin was more about collecting Arctic landscapes, communities and people (all still well within the camera’s wheelhouse), but the D4S’s agility and responsiveness became evident when shooting icebergs, landforms and communities from, for example, bouncing motorboats in Pond Inlet and truck beds on Igloolik Island.

This is not a compact, lightweight kit — nor should it be. The camera body’s heft (1.36 kilograms!) is easily justified by its extreme ruggedness and build quality, a long-lasting battery and both horizontal and vertical grips. Nobody packs light for the Arctic, anyway.

Professional photographers will no doubt tap into the supreme flexibility and customizability of the D4S’s external controls and settings (such as the staggering 20-plus autofocus settings). Luckily for magazine editors and any other intermediate-to-advanced amateur photographers out there, the virtually unlimited opportunities for personalization don’t interfere with the camera’s intuitive controls and menus — or, most importantly, with quick-and-dirty use in the field.

The D4S is loaded with a powerful processor (the “EXPEED 4”), the aforementioned wealth of autofocus settings, a huge native sensitivity range from ISO 100 to 25,600, and the ability to shoot at a blistering 11 frames per second.

Small gripes: gratuitous modern luxuries, perhaps, but as neither Wi-Fi nor GPS are built into the D4S, enabling these functions requires purchasing and connecting a transmitter and GPS unit. Meanwhile, some wildlife photographers will prefer a sensor resolution of more than 16.2 megapixels (such as the 36.3 megapixels packed into the Nikon D810A) to allow for more aggressive zooming and cropping in post-production. Even so, the D4S’s superb lack of noise (including at ISO settings of 6,400 and 12,800) can make up for this, as noise tends to become more evident the closer you crop.

AF-S NIKKOR 24-85mm
f/3.5-4.5G ED VR FX-format lens

Photo: Nikon Canada Inc.
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This is a carry-everywhere, sturdy lens that mercifully doesn’t add a ton of weight to an already bulky camera. Landscapes and portraits produced by the Nikon 24-85mm VR are high-contrast and popping with colour, and sharpness is excellent throughout the range (with some loss toward the corners of the frame and a tendency to vignette at the full 24 mm, but then some photographers are into that). In low- and failing-light scenarios, the upgraded vibration reduction system (“VR II”) was tremendously effective — crucial when maximum aperture is f/3.5 (trust us … we’ve used lenses with variations of anti-vibration technology that have not been so effective). This is an all-around handy lens, dead-sharp in the middle and a bargain for the image quality it can produce.

AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm
f/5.6E ED VR FX-format lens

Photo: Nikon Canada Inc.
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Like its smaller compatriot (above) the Nikon 200-500mm VR was built for photography enthusiasts rather than pros, but by feel alone you can tell it was built to last. Nikon’s “Silent Wave Motor” means autofocus is practically silent, and again shooting benefits from excellent vibration reduction — even more crucial in a lens with this kind of reach. Not only is the zooming action smooth and the zoom ring large and easy to find and twist on a beat, the constant aperture of f/5.6 through the entire 200-500mm range isn’t just impressive, it’s brighter than that of any the lens’s direct competitors.

At 2.3 kilograms, the lens is a bit of a beast, but such is the price of all that glass. Nevertheless, it feels balanced in the hand when, for instance, swinging around after peregrine falcons in flight (see below). A monopod or tripod is recommended for extended periods, especially when used in tandem with the Nikon D4S or other substantial camera bodies. Although autofocus was occasionally not perfectly accurate when tracking birds and other fast-moving objects, the Nikon 200-500mm VR is extremely sharp through its range, attractively blurs out-of-focus foreground and background areas (bokeh) and produces vibrant colours.

Photos of Baffin

Arctic char drying in Pond Inlet. 24 mm, f/5.6, 1/1,000 s, ISO 400
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An Arctic char is filleted on the Pond Inlet beach. 30 mm, f/5.6, 1/320 s, ISO 400.
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Mount Herodier rises behind Pond Inlet, a hamlet of 1,700 on northern Baffin Island. 280 mm, f/7.1, 1/400 s, ISO 400.
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A huge iceberg drifts between northern Baffin Island and Bylot Island. 400 mm, f/8, 1/1,600 s, ISO 400.
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A peregrine falcon swoops overhead near nesting grounds on the coast of Pond Inlet, Nunavut. 500 mm, f/6.3, 1/3,200 s, ISO 400.
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A tanker resupplies the hamlet of Pond Inlet with diesel. 400 mm, f/10, 1/1,250 s, ISO 400.
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Pangnirtung, on southeast Baffin Island, in August. 24 mm, f/8, 1/250 s, ISO 100.
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Pangnirtung Fisheries, a processing plant for Arctic char and turbot, is a major employer in the hamlet. 24 mm, f/4.5, 1/400 s, ISO 9,000.
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Inside the renowned Pangnirtung tapestry weaving studio. 55 mm, f/4, 1/200 s, ISO 1,000.
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The skull of a bowhead whale propped up like a shrine on the shores of Igloolik Island. 80 mm, f/6.3, 1/1,000 s, ISO 400.
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Joshua Qaunaq of Igloolik checks a net for Arctic char near the summer home he built on the island's coast. 380 mm, f/8, 1/1,600 s, ISO 200.
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St. Jude's Cathedral in Iqaluit, the territorial capital's famous igloo-shaped Anglican church. 50 mm, f/9, 1/1,600 s, ISO 400.
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This story is from the Canadian Geographic Travel: Summer 2017 Issue

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