We learn from our mistakes

American alligator, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville Florida
American alligator, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville Florida | Canon 1D Mark III and 300mm f/4 lens with 1.4x TC | Exposed 1/320 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 500

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve explored the Atlantic coast of Florida as we consider a move to the sunshine state.  A visit to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge treated us to an amazing sunset and a young American alligator in brilliant blue water the following morning.

American alligator image in Lightroom with all of the clone stamp indicators highlighted
American alligator image in Lightroom with all of the clone stamp indicators highlighted

Unfortunately, I made a pretty serious tactical error the evening before: I mounted the 300mm lens I would use to make the image above while the car’s air conditioning was still running, and did not check and clean the sensor back at the motel that evening.  The result?  The above image, upon scrutiny, revealed a field of dust bunnies scattered along the lower third of the frame (top 1/3 of the sensor, since the image is reversed.)  While image cleanup has become easier with each new version of Photoshop and Lightroom, I still prefer not to have to do very much in the first place.  Lesson?  Better to take the 10 minutes to clean the sensor than to spend an hour and a half in front of the computer to rescue a photograph!

Slider in the road!

Slider in the road
Slider in the road, Louisburg, North Carolina | Canon 5D Mark II and 100mm f/2.8 Macro | Exposed 1/5000 sec. @ f/4, ISO 400

On our way home from Medoc Mountain State Park, Summer exclaimed “Pull over!”  This happened just as we were passing an abandoned church in Louisburg, and I dodged into the old dirt driveway.  Before the car was off, she had already bolted out the passenger door and was running up the road where a turtle had been attempting to cross.  Before setting him down safely on the side of the road he was trying to reach (and in the general direction he was pointed before our intervention) I made a quick portrait with his distinct red patch.  Hopefully he found where he was trying to get to.

More to come.

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.

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.

7D Sharpness at Higher ISO’s?

American Robin
American Robin, Peace Park, Columbia, Mo. | Canon 7D and 300mm f/4L lens; exposed 1/200 sec. @ f/4, ISO 1600

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:

100% Detail
100% Pixel Detail. No noise reduction or sharpening applied.

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.

Final American Robin Sequence

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.

I do feel that it is more successful than my first attempt at a series on urban wildlife, although it probably still needs something “more.”  At the very least, the visual impact is more dramatic, and the light is much improved!

Fun with Sequences

Yawnin’ in the Rain

In my picture story & photographic essay class at the Missouri School of Journalism, we have been asked to find some examples of what can make for an effective sequence of images.  While I ultimately will be required to produce one that is more about people than wildlife, I did think this sequence of images of a Galapagos Giant Tortoise from this summer was an entertaining and appropriate.

Utah Trip Report: Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Brigham City, Utah.  Canon 5D Mark II and 70-200mm f/4 L IS lens; exposed 1/100 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 1600.
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Brigham City, Utah. Canon 5D Mark II and 70-200mm f/4 L IS lens; exposed 1/100 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 1600.

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.

American Avocet, Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Brigham City, Utah.  Canon 1D IIN and 400mm f/4 DO IS lens; exposed 1/160 sec. @ f/4, ISO 800.
American Avocet, Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Brigham City, Utah. Canon 1D IIN and 400mm f/4 DO IS lens; exposed 1/160 sec. @ f/4, ISO 800.

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.

Wetlands and mountains, Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Brigham City, Utah.  Canon 5D Mark II and 70-200mm f/4 L IS lens; exposed 1/40 sec. @ f/8, ISO 1250.
Wetlands and mountains, Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Brigham City, Utah. Canon 5D Mark II and 70-200mm f/4 L IS lens; exposed 1/40 sec. @ f/8, ISO 1250.

More of this post after the jump!
Continue reading “Utah Trip Report: Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge”

Galapagos Photographs Online!

As promised, I have finally edited my photos from the Galapagos and uploaded them online at my ZenFolio gallery. I have also placed a slideshow of the best photographs below. (More wildlife, landscapes, and other details of the trip are at the Zenfolio site.)  These would have been up sooner, but I was camping in the Uinta Mountains in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest in Utah for a week with my girlfriend, which culminated in a visit to Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Brigham City. Images from that trip should also be up shortly.