Exploring South Florida with a 300mm f/2.8

Juvenile White Ibis
Juvenile White Ibis at Anhinga Trail, Everglades National Park, Florida. | Canon 7D and 300mm f/2.8 L IS II with 1.4x TC | Exposed 1/125 sec. @ f/4, ISO 500

Last month we spent a few days in the Florida Keys and worked our way northward into the Everglades before embarking on a two-day road trip home to North Carolina.  I had borrowed a 300mm f/2.8L IS II lens from Canon Professional Services and was field testing it as a potential replacement for the 400mm DO IS lens.  This was also the final trial for my Canon 7D before making a decision to keep or sell the body.

I will admit that I was impressed by the new 300mm, but while it is wickedly sharp and the Image Stabilization system is incredibly good, the lens does begin to “feel” heavy in hand rather quickly.  This is especially true when in an awkward position to begin with, as in the image above, where I was crawling through the grass in the parking lot to Anhinga Trail (hence the blurred/hazy green effect on the lower part of the Ibis’ body) and keeping the front element of the lens propped up on fingertips became trying after a few minutes.  This lens weighs a full pound more than the 400mm DO, although it is a full stop faster.  That same Image Stabilizer is the reason that on a tripod this lens can do some amazing things.

Waiting.  American Alligator
Waiting. American Alligator, Shark Valley, Everglades National Park, Florida. | Canon 7D and 300mm f/2.8L IS II lens and 2x TC | Exposed 1/15 sec. @ f/8, ISO 800

The exposure information in the image above is accurate: I shot this at 1/15 second on a tripod, at f/8, for an effective 960mm (with the 7D’s 1.6x factor.)  And the results are sharp, to boot!  So, while I’m not actually convinced that optically the 300mm f/2.8 is any sharper than the 400mm DO in real world testing, the Image Stabilizer runs circles around the sibling that is ten years its senior.

Tern silhouette, Jekyll Island, Georgia | Canon 7D and 300mm f/2.8L IS II lens | Exposed 1/800 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 200

For birds in flight the 300mm seems to be a great combination with the 7D.  Even in lower light and backlit situations, like this silhouette at sunset, the two in combination yielded several “keepers.”  That said, while I came away impressed with the 300mm f/2.8 and the 7D, I have decided not to keep the latter (and at the moment I simply cannot afford the former.)

The 7D is a very capable and versatile camera, but I simply do not use it enough to justify holding on to it.  It’s a camera that I think would have been more frequently in my bag had it been equipped with a smaller (and less noisy) sensor.  It’s my hope that its next owner will find more use for it than I have.

Summer in the Keys
Summer in the Keys | Canon 5D Mark II and 50mm f/1.2L | Exposed 1/2500 sec. @ f/1.2, ISO 100

What has become a go-to favorite, for me, is my 5D Mark II and the 50mm f/1.2L that my partner encouraged me to acquire after field testing one from Canon back in May.  Everything it produces has a special “look.”

More to come.

Field of Gold or Victoria Crowned Crane?

Victoria Crowned Crane head feathers, Sylvan Heights Bird Park, Scotland Neck, North Carolina. | Canon 7D with 70-200mm f/4L IS and 1.4x TC | Exposed 1/125 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 100

Sylvan Heights Bird Park in Scotland Neck, North Carolina is an impressive facility situated near Rocky Mount, about an hour and a half from Raleigh.  All the birds are captive and so their behavior is relatively tame (or exceedingly so with some birds) but the opportunities for photography can be hit or miss.  It’s certainly a place I would like to revisit, especially to learn more about their breeding program, but photographically it would be best on a cloudy day: the regular hours are 9 to 5, so early morning light isn’t an option, and the “golden hour” in the evening comes long after the park closes!

An Assassin Bug in our lettuce

An Assassin Bug perches on a leaf of lettuce harvested from our garden.
An Assassin Bug perches on a leaf of lettuce harvested from our garden. It made its appearance as we were soaking the lettuce prior to rinsing. | Canon 7D and 100mm f/2.8 macro lens | Exposed 1/60 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 800 | Canon 580EX II triggered wirelessly, bounced off ceiling camera left.

While soaking some lettuce harvested from our garden (it makes the dirt come off more easily when rinsing), Elizabeth called me into the kitchen because an Assassin Bug had evaded her inadvertent attempt to drown it, and was perching on a leaf of lettuce.  It may not be a very good attempt at macro photography with insects–see my dad’s Web site for an idea of what good macro photography can look like–but it was entertaining while it lasted.

Another perspective on the Assassin Bug.
Another perspective on the Assassin Bug. | Canon 7D and 100mm f/2.8 macro lens | Exposed 1/60 sec. @ f/4, ISO 800 | Canon 580EX II triggered wirelessly, bounced from the ceiling on camera left.

Ultimately, we set our friend free on the back porch so it could continue on its quest to rid our garden of more pernicious six-legged creatures.

Craters on the surface


Craters on the surface
Craters on the surface: light wheat bread recipe from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice featured on Smitten Kitchen | Canon 7D and 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens | Exposed 1/60 sec. @ f/8, ISO 200 | 580 EX II Speedlite fired in the DIY Beauty Dish on camera left.

Over the past month Elizabeth and I have been working on a new project I’ll be unveiling soon.  Part of it is a new-found interest of mine: baking bread.  I’ve never considered myself a good candidate for the Atkins diet because I simply cannot get enough bread in my life.  Elizabeth has a bread machine that she purchased from a second hand store, and while neither one of us particularly likes the loaves it makes, I’ve found that it’s a fantastic dough-making machine–plus it takes care of the first rise.  Pictured here is the top crust of a very basic, but very functional sandwich bread: Light Wheat Bread from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice and featured on the Smitten Kitchen.

My best experience with CPS yet

Hulett House - April 2009
Hulett House – April 2009 | Canon 5D Mk. II and 70-200mm f/4L IS lens @ 144mm | Exposed 1/100 sec. @ f/6.3, ISO 800.

A brief history of CPS

While I believe that customer service should be important to all businesses great and small, it’s clear that it isn’t always the case.  So when a company does something for one of its customers that is above and beyond all expectations, it’s a good feeling.  It’s also something that should be recognized by the end customer and held up as an example of loyalty-earning service.  There was a lot of complaining two years ago, when Canon Professional Services transitioned into a fee-based, tiered program.

I recall a few people asking why they should have to pay for “better service,” and I scratched my head.  The airlines have had a tiered fee structure for years: pay the base rate and sit in coach, but pay them several dollars more, sit in business class, and get better service.  Pay even larger sums, and sit in first class with an even greater level of service.  I had only been a member of CPS for a year when they changed up the program, but I have to say that I’ve seen only improvements in the past two years.  Sure, Nikon Professional Services doesn’t charge (yet), but that’s in part because they’ve cut costs by firing some of their beloved NPS representatives, such as Carol Fisher, who used to represent Nikon at photojournalism programs such as the University of Missouri.

So, for the past two years I’ve paid $100 per year and received a discount of 30% on repairs plus several equipment loans for evaluation.

The problem

So what is this all about?  Last week I sent in my 550 EX Speedlite that I damaged in a shoot for my Advanced Techniques class in my second semester at MU.  It’s sat on a shelf for close to two years after I melted its diffuser from an hour of firing at 1:1 on manual.  Before asking, the answer is that I wasn’t thinking at the time.  One of the last photographs that the flash helped me to make is at the top of this post.  Both of my 550 EX flashes were mounted on light stands and firing against the white walls of the mixed martial-arts gym, Hulett House.  Of course an hour of shooting at full power will do bad things.  But how bad?

550EX test before CPS repair
550EX test before CPS repair: damaged flash is labeled “B”. Note that the identical units are zoomed to 35mm and firing at 1/16 power. Canon 7D and 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens @ 27mm | Exposed 1/100 sec. @ f/4, ISO 100

While behaving normally under E-TTL II mode, my 550EX that I had labeled “B” (for grouping purposes in wireless flash with the Canon ST-E2 transmitter) would only fire on full power in manual mode.  The photo above shows just how badly the Speedlite had been damaged: both are supposed to be firing at 1/16 power, but the only one doing that is the flash on the left.  So, after two years of my 550EX “B” Speedlite working only as a paperweight, I decided to send it in to CPS to be repaired and then sell it to recoup the cost of the repair.

An aside:

I have an odd hang up about broken gear: ultimately, I’d rather fix it and sell it to someone to recoup the repair costs than to let it rot on the shelf indefinitely.  This is what I did a few years ago when I bought an Olympus 21mm lens off of eBay that turned out to be woefully scratched.  I sent it into a man out in Colorado who gave it a new lens coating and then sold it, barely making up for the cost of the lens plus its repair.


Refurbished Canon 580 EX Mk. II Speedlite
Refurbished Canon 580 EX Mk. II Speedlite from CPS

Last Thursday I packed up the 550 EX and shipped it FedEx to Canon’s Newport News, Virginia factory service center.  One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about living in North Carolina is that FedEx Ground will get a package to Canon overnight.  On Friday I approved the repair that was estimated to cost far less than I had mentally prepared for: only $77.

On Monday morning I received an e-mail that the factory was out of parts to repair the (discontinued) 550 EX, so they would be replacing it…with a 580 EX Mk. II Speedlite!  I am completely convinced this would not have happened had I not been a member of Canon Professional Services.

Today, my Canon-refurbished 580 EX Mk. II arrived…and it doesn’t have a scratch on it.  Sure, am I excited that I received a flash that retails for more than $450 by paying $77 and trading in my old unit?  Absolutely.  But it would have been far easier for Canon to tell me that they don’t have parts any more and simply ship my old flash back to me in its damaged state.  This is the kind of thing that makes me think twice about ever switching brands–my loyalty has been earned with time, but it was renewed once more this afternoon when the package arrived.

Well done, Canon.  Kudos on raising the bar for CPS!

A good change, but is it worth the price?

Mode dial lock
Mode dial lock modification - image from usa.canon.com


Canon is now offering to modify 5D Mark II and 7D camera bodies with a mode dial that locks in place to prevent the dial from moving accidentally.  Unfortunately, it’s not free of charge: $100 per camera body.


You know the frustration: you’ve set your camera to “aperture priority” and then you sling it over your shoulder.  You pick it back up to make a quick image and suddenly the viewfinder blacks out far longer than you expected.  A second-long exposure in bright daylight?  “Oh, ” you realize, “it slipped over to shutter priority which was set for making blurs.”  But the decisive moment?  It’s long since gone on account of a technical problem.

I’m going to make a broad-spectrum criticism here: the mode dials on pretty much every camera suck because most of them do not lock in any way, shape, or form.  Nikon locks the “sub-dial” beneath the mode dial on many of their bodies, but even they are not blameless.

Time to celebrate?

Maybe.  I own both bodies, and I’m not really thrilled at the thought of contributing $200 into Canon’s coffers for something that is really a fix, not a “modification.”  And I’m disappointed that there’s no suggestion that a locking mode dial will be a standard feature of future camera bodies.  Finally, a mod for the 5D Mk. II really gives me pause: this camera was announced over two years ago, so shouldn’t owners be looking for its replacement, not pouring more money into the existing body?

I think this one is worthy of discussion, so what do you think?

Horicon after LensAlign and Focus Tweaks

Black Tern in flight
Black Tern in flight alongside Hwy. 49, Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, Mayville, Wis. | Canon 7D and 400mm f/4 DO IS lens | Exposed 1/1600 sec. @ f/4, ISO 400 (neutral EV)

A Brief History of “Back-focus”

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.

Post continues after the jump! Continue reading “Horicon after LensAlign and Focus Tweaks”

You got a problem or somethin’?

Canada Goose on Dike Road

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.

LensAlign Pro
LensAlign Pro

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.

Chimping a Wedding Portrait

Bride and Groom at the Lakefront
Bride and groom and a chimp at the Lakefront, Shoop Park, Racine, Wis. | Canon 7D and 400mm f/4 DO IS lens | Exposed 1/1600 sec. @ f/4, ISO 200.

A Sequence

My dad and I went down to Shoop Park in Racine, Wis. late this afternoon in hopes of getting some photographs of birds in flight.  Indeed, there were some Common Terns and Caspian Terns in addition to the usual mix of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls.

But the most interesting discovery was a couple having their post-wedding portrait taking on an old pier parallel to the one we were standing on.  I made a few pictures of them, and was amused by the interaction between the bride and groom, as well as their photographer who went from paying attention to them to chimping!