Luray Caverns

I decided to take my new Nikon 24-120 f/4 VR lens for a real test run today. So I put it on my Nikon D3S and headed out. I was hoping to get up to Skyline Drive and the Shenandoah National Park, but it was closed due to some snow and ice along the drive the sign said at the entrance station. So I decided to head somewhere I have been meaning to get to for a few years, Luray Caverns. It has been close to 21 years since my last time there and I have passed it numerous times on my drives out to Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park. 

I decided that Luray Caverns would actually provide a better testing ground for this lens than shooting outdoors, so happily off I went. Once I got to Luray Caverns I paid my $24 entrance fee and was soon headed down the staircase on one of the group tours. The tour is a guided tour of the largest caverns on the east coast. Luray Caverns covers roughly 64 acres and the tour walk is about a mile which takes around 1 hour. The tour guide reminded me not to lag behind as the lights will automatically go off shortly after the group leaves a certain area. I can attest to this fact as I got caught once lagging and all but a few walkway lights remained on. I was sure to keep up after that. 

I had brought along my Benro Travel Angel tripod hoping to shoot a few bracketed series for a few HDR’s. But once I realized that the guided tour was going to be at a relatively quick pace tour, like me trying to keep up with my family at Disney *LOL*, I just kept it folded up and bumped up my ISO to 2000 and handheld all of my shots. I believe a monopod would be a great alternative to a tripod here. 

Once I took a shot or two, I quickly realized that I would need to set me camera to manual versus aperture priority that I usually like to use and that I would need to use spot metering due to the wicked lighting that is there to get accurate readings. They use spotlights ALL over the place and due to the spaciousness of the caverns and placement of the lights you will get varying light so it was very important for me to be totally conscious of the highlights in each scene and meter them correctly. Also if I had shot on ‘matrix’ metering instead of spot I would have lost the nice rich blacks and shadows which gives an image depth due to the meter trying to average out all of the scenes.

 As the tour progressed the 24-120 on my D3S felt very comfortable and didn’t weigh me down, and I was glad I had that zoom range in one lens due to the over 50% humidity that is present in the caverns. I would have hated to have had to change lenses constantly in those conditions.  It was also refreshing to only have a fanny pack on with an extra battery, memory cards, and lens cloth.  I was so enjoying traveling light without a real camera bag of extra lenses. It also made it nice to be able to walk through the people on the tour too and not be worried about feeling like I may hit them with a heavy camera bag.

 As I had said, I bumped my ISO up to 2000 and was handholding all of the shots, so this was a great test for the VR capabilities of this lens. Well I am happy to report that it came through with flying colors. And speaking of colors, this lens renders some amazing color clarity. That must be due to the Nano coating on the lens. The colors are rich and accurate and the images also have a wonderful contrast to them too. But the biggest challenge was going to be the lens sharpness. That too is amazing. While it shows a little softness in the corners, I can easily live with that. Even though this lens is only an f/4 at its widest, shooting with it on a full frame camera with iso capabilities like my D700 and D3S offer more than make up for the lens speed.

 So to sum it up, I really am enjoying this lens for a nice walk around lens and one that I won’t hesitate to use in most shooting situations. It will pair nicely alongside my 16-35 and 70-200. And if you are ever in the Shenandoah Valley area I would encourage you to visit Luray Caverns too. It really is a sight to behold.

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