I am presently writing a full review of RawWorkflow’s LensAlign Pro–a product I briefly worked with in June–so I’ve been busy adjusting the autofocus performance of my cameras with several of my lenses. While it’s nice to look at a test photo of a focus alignment ruler and see your depth-of-field falling exactly where it should, there’s no substitute for confirming that the changes are for the better than to go out and make some images!
Note that both images in this post were created at f/8, but for different reasons. In the image of the feather and debris on the beach, I wanted to make sure that the feather, which was almost flat against the beach, as well as the taller matter, would all be rendered in sharp focus. However, for the photograph of the Ring-billed Gull below, I was using a Canon 1.4x II teleconverter, and I always try to stop down either 2/3 or a full stop from wide open in order to eliminate the vignetting introduced by the teleconverter, and to counteract any loss of sharpness.
Last weekend I was at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge and experienced some focus problems with my Canon 7D heretofore non-existent, or so I thought. Upon reviewing photographs from the 7D from the past several months, I noticed that none of them were actually as sharp as they could have been. I attributed the softness to the lack of acutance in the files, and while I continue to believe that is an inherent property of cramming 18 megapixels into an APS-C format sensor, there was a real problem in play.
I didn’t want to believe that it could be a question of the camera “back-focusing” (or front-focusing) because I’ve grown to distrust people’s claims that their camera, and not their own inabilities, are to blame for their out-of-focus photographs. I don’t remember these claims from the film days. Perhaps I was just oblivious to the complaints, but I tend to believe that the instant feedback of the digital camera is partly to blame for the knee-jerk reaction that anything wrong with the pictures must be camera, not operator, error.
I will not mince words: ever since the Canon 10D and the Nikon D70, there’s been a lot of bitching and moaning in online forums about back-focused images, and I did not believe them. At all. Until now.
Now, I will argue that there is definitely operator error to blame in most many cases of complaints about back-focusing. Last weekend I was convinced that I must have chosen the wrong focus point or didn’t have the AF locked by holding in the rear button–some prefer AF to only be activated by using the back button, I prefer AF to only be turned off if I hold in the back–and allowed AI Servo (Continuous AF for Nikonians) to screw up the focus. To confirm my assumption, the next day I took test photographs in the garden around my parents house in Racine, Wis. and was shocked to discover that none of them were sharp. Sure, the wind was to blame in a couple cases, but even when conditions were perfectly still the results were poor, so I rented a LensAlign from Lensrentals.com to investigate whether front or back-focus was to blame.
And what did I find after I unpacked and set up the LensAlign? The 7D and the 5D Mark II both back-focused with the 400mm DO IS lens. Well, there goes the neighborhood. And a lot of preconceived ideas, with it.
On a Sunday outing to Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, I ran into some of my first real frustrations with the Canon 7D. While I’ve used it with the 400mm DO lens in the past, I was having tremendous difficulty getting photographs that I thought were in crisp focus.
Now, in all fairness, I’ve never thought that the images from the 7D were as crisp as they could be, even if they were still in sharp focus. That is that the image acutance, or the contrast between individual pixels, is just not as high as other semi-pro or professional camera bodies, such like the 5D Mark II or 1D Mark III. I believe this to be a function of Canon’s misguided decision to cram 18 megapixels into an APS-C sensor. I would have been happy with 10-12 megapixels for a camera like this. But I digress.
The problem I encountered was not a question of not enough acutance–which would be corrected by sharpening in Lightroom or Photoshop–but many of the photographs were simply not in focus. Before sending the camera to Canon for a fix, I compared its performance to my 5D Mark II as well as another 7D body from my dad. The difference? Night and day.
Tweaking the camera’s autofocus microadjustment panel seems to be the obvious answer. Today, in an attempt to correct the problem, I tinkered with the 7D’s microadjustment with the 400mm lens and it would seem that the solution likely lies in that menu, but I am ill-equipped to calibrate the lens focus. Enter LensRentals.com and the Lens Align. While the professional LensAlign is $180, it’s available from LensRentals for an entire week for only $15. It should get here Wednesday, and I will have an article reviewing this product and explaining its use after I get my 7D back in order.
I have owned the Canon EOS 7D for a few months now; I purchased one in November 2009. One of the concerns I had with the 7D, at least initially, was that the files simply did not seem sharp “enough” at higher ISO’s because of the noise degrading the image quality. And I do believe that, in the case of basketball arenas and other dark situations where, frankly, “exposing to the right” to get a good histogram (and a good exposure) means cranking up the ISO to 4000, the quality certainly does go down. However, that’s true even of the oft-touted Nikon D3. And I don’t necessarily give the camera its fairest chance in those situations, because I prefer to use f/4 telephotos. Why? They’re smaller, they’re lighter, and they cost less. They cost less now, and they will cost me less in the future because I won’t need an artificial shoulder or knees like some of my colleagues when we all grow older.
This past Saturday, I found myself crawling around Peace Park with the 7D and the 300 in order to make this series of a Robin spitting out a berry. One of the things that pleased me greatly was that, as the light got dimmer and I resorted to higher ISO’s, the detail was held solidly from my ISO 1600 frames. How well? Below is a 100% crop of the head and bill detail:
Note that this is before processing the image with any noise reduction plugins, such as Noiseware or Noise Ninja. Neither has this sample been sharpened! Not bad. Not bad at all…
For outdoors use, the 7D should prove to be a very capable camera indeed.
American Robin regurgitating a berry in Peace Park, Columbia, Mo. | Canon 7D and 300mm f/4L lens mounted on Walt Anderson panning ground pod; multiple exposures @ ISO 500.
I decided to take one more crack at coming up with an entertaining series on an American Robin. On Saturday afternoon I went over to Peace Park in Columbia and set up my 7D and 300mm on my panning ground pod from Walt Anderson, another native of Southeastern Wisconsin, and made some pictures in the fading late-afternoon light.
Back at the end of July, I flew out to Salt Lake City, Utah to join my girlfriend on a car-camping trip along the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway that runs through the High Uinta Wilderness Area in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest. At the end of the trip, we stayed two nights in Brigham City, the gateway to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. In many ways, Bear River is the “Bosque” of Utah.
I had only two days there, and the weather on the second day was somewhat uncooperative due to some storm systems that were moving through (the high winds were still blowing the next day for our flight out of Salt Lake, which made for a turbulent take-off!), but would say that the opportunities for great bird photography are there. Artie Morris took a trip out there in 2006, so my observation comes as little surprise. When I return, which will probably be in 2011 as the refuge is planning an extensive road paving project into the middle of next year, I would definitely try to time my visit for May or September.
The real treat for me at Bear River is the great numbers of American Avocets. Unfortunately, by the time I found an ideal pond on the side of the refuge road where the sun angle was perfect, the quality of the light was great, and the birds were close, it was also getting dark. Many of my pictures were made at ISO 800 on the 1D IIN, which is what I consider the limit for acceptable noise for wildlife photography (on that camera).
An aside: I made photos with the 5D Mark II at ISO 2500 and 3200 that I would have no shame in printing large as the noise is so low, but the IIN has real issues beyond 800. For photojournalism and sports, I don’t mind going to 1600, but 3200 is absolutely horrible. The 1D III is a different story, but so is its autofocus!
One thing that I truly enjoyed about Bear River in early August is that it felt like I had the refuge to myself. I passed very few other cars, but strangely saw only one other photographer. Amazingly, the opportunities for photography are not limited to birds and wildlife. The landscape of the refuge is stunning: the mountains in the background are reflected very clearly in the “units” of the refuge that have been flooded, essentially creating a large lake, and some of the wetland grasses and sedges make interesting, layered patterns.
I returned from the Galápagos islands to Quito, Ecuador on Saturday and flew back into Milwaukee, Wis. yesterday around 9:30am CST. All luggage arrived back home safely, so I spent most of the day alternating between unpacking and laying on the couch. (I didn’t sleep on the red eye flight from Quito to Atlanta, but I did get a couple hours on the flight back to MKE).
Overall, it was a wonderful experience and the group, led by Artie Morris, was composed of many great people as well as our excellent guide to the Galápagos.
I have just begun the process of ranking and keywording my photographs from the trip. So far, I have only worked up three images–none of which have had more than Lightroom adjustments applied to them. I’m saving the cases that need some Photoshop magic for later!
I’ve been battling a cold ever since grad school got out for summer–a great way to celebrate the end of the year, but at least it didn’t strike during the week before when projects were due!–but yesterday, for the first time since getting home, I felt like making some images. The bird activity at home has been really great, although I picked a slow day to photograph (less likely to disturb the migrating species, though!). The suet feeder has been getting a lot of activity from our resident, nesting pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers and our Downy Woodpecker, but it was really the nuthatch that let me get a good look at him.
Three flash units were set up on stands, combined with the late-afternoon sun, made for a four-light setup, albeit back-lit. I was trying to get some rim-lighting, and between the sun and another strobe back and to the right, I figured I would get quite a bit. I certainly got some, but not quite what I wanted. My key light was backed up quite a bit, and I had a fill on the left, which is casting the nuthatch’s shadow that you can see on the suet feeder.
I recently returned from Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in San Antonio, New Mexico. I’ve posted a small gallery online and more images will follow.
Bosque was certainly slower this year than during my visit two years ago. The corn fields have been cut far away from the Farm Loop road, and the weed–especially Salt Cedar–have grown to the point that they block any view to be had from the road.
The mornings were the most productive, and in the afternoon Dad and I would find ourselves driving aimlessly until 4pm, when the cranes would begin to fly back to the pools on the entrance road.