Nov 262012
 
Canon EOS 1D X

Well, today I picked up my new Canon EOS 1D X – my first full-frame DSLR! To be honest, this was a big leap in faith. I had been satisfied with my 7D, but I often found myself in low-light situations wishing to capture high-speed action. I thought the 300/2.8L IS II USM would give me more flexibility, and although it did, I kept finding myself in situations where I needed to be able to shoot at higher ISO’s in order to maintain an action-stopping shutter speed. Unfortunately, the 7D (for me, at least) is only usable to ISO 1600 or 2000; ISO 3200 was only acceptable for a full-frame subject and even then only in certain conditions. So I was intrigued by reports that the new 1D X was usable up to ISO 20,000 (and beyond?) – too good to be true, I thought. But after reading several reviews, perhaps most importantly the one by Andy Rouse (an internationally respected wildlife photographer and (now former?) Nikon shooter), I began to believe the hype. So I took the plunge and ordered the camera about a month ago.

Canon EOS 1D X

Canon EOS 1D X

Today’s weather was terrible – the kind of weather that I would not even think about using the 7D to take action in. So, armed with my new camera and the 300/2.8 + 1.4x TC combo, I bravely ventured into the dim, rainy day to test it out. Firstly I wanted to see, of course, if the camera really could perform at high ISO’s. So I set it to Tv with a 1/2000 sec shutter speed, aimed the camera the nearest cooperative full frame subject (a somewhat startled Grey Heron!) and fired a couple of shots. The resulting image was captured at 1/2000 sec; f/4; ISO 16,000 – that’s right – sixteen thousand!!!

Grey Heron

Grey Heron

Although there is noise in the background, it is not that unpleasant and the above image has not been sharpened AT ALL, nor had any NR applied AT ALL. There is no visible noise in the detailed areas of the subject – not even in the dark areas such as the eyes or legs. The noise seems restricted to the background and OOF areas – amazing!

Now that I was confident that the camera could deliver, I headed out to a real-world shooting scenario – the wetlands at Azuma. I was also interested in the performance of the 2x TC with the 1D X, so I swapped the 1.4x TC for the 2x TC for an effective 600/5.6. The first thing I noticed was much improved AF performance over the same combination on the 7D. The combination delivered very acceptable results even wide open, so I was very happy as this means I get back the focal distance I lost by changing from an APS-C sensor body to a full-frame body. Personally I found the 300/2.8 + 2x TC combination on the 7D, although ok in a pinch, was a bit too much of a compromise in terms of AF ability and IQ. However the results from this combination on the 1D X are impressive, as you can see below.

Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk

Eastern Marsh Harrier

Eastern Marsh Harrier

Eastern Spot-billed Duck

Eastern Spot-billed Duck

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Other first impressions about the camera….. I didn’t feel much difference at all in weight and size from the 7D with its vertical grip – the new camera felt very comfortable and had great balance. The whole package is very solid and incredibly responsive. The buttons are all laid out ergonomically and logically, and since this was my first 1D body, I didn’t have the problem of having to “un-learn” any button positions. The absence of a mode dial was also no problem at all to adapt to. The viewfinder is incredibly bright and captures a lot of detail – much more than the 7D. Likewise, the rear screen is much better for reviewing images, although the new zoom controls take a bit of getting used to. But when you press that shutter button – WOW! 12 fps is FAST! But not only that, the shutter is so crisp and there is basically no vibration at all from the mirror – it is an incredible feeling and an amazing piece of engineering. Anyway, this first test was with the camera settings tweaked just a little bit for my kind of photography – it will take a fair bit of playing around with the AF settings and metering settings to work out the best for the shooting situations I usually find myself in. So I hope to post some updates regularly as I go through the learning process.

Oct 032012
 
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM - fantastic lens!

After several outings with the 300/2.8, I’ve come to realise what an improvement this new version of the lens is over the Mk I. I’ve also identified the strengths and weaknesses of using both the 1.4x TC Mk III and 2x TC Mk III. Firstly, the lens used at its native focal length has no weaknesses – it performs superbly in all departments. AF speed and accuracy is phenomenal, as is sharpness. But the most impressive thing is its ability to resolve the tiniest details – the resolution is just fantastic. Bokeh is also amazing at f/2.8!

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM - fantastic lens!

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM – fantastic lens!

Attach the 1.4x and you basically don’t lose anything accept the one stop of light – you can shoot wide open with confidence. However, with the 7D at least, AF in Ai Servo mode is sometimes slow to pick up a small, fast moving subject. Once it locks on the subject, however, the AF keeps lock very well. As I shoot a lot of birds in flight, this problem can be annoying but can generally be fixed by using spot AF point selection and pumping the AF button.

Canon 1.4x TC MkIII

Canon 1.4x TC MkIII

With the 2x TC, the lens can still perform well but you need to be careful of some limitations. Firstly, the AF problem described above gets worse and sometimes frustratingly so when you are lined up with a subject closing in but the lens won’t lock focus on it. Also, with the 7D you are effectively trying to find a small bird in fight with a 960/5.6, meaning that sometimes by the time you’ve got the bird in the viewfinder, the moment is lost. Additionally, IQ degrades noticeably at f/5.6, but by f/8 it is quite acceptable – very, very much improved on the old 300/2.8 version 1 plus 2x TC MkII combination that I personally found unusable. So this is my preferred combination for taking close-ups of relatively stationary wildlife or when wide, unobstructed views of larger birds in flight can be had. I also find that with the 7D, it is best to use this combination on a tripod or other support rather than handheld.

Canon 2x TC MkIII

Canon 2x TC MkIII

It is important to note that many users of this new 300/2.8 have reported similar AF “problems” but users that have the new bodies (5D MkIII and 1Dx) have reported improved AF in these situations. So perhaps the problem lies with the firmware/processors in older bodies rather than with the lens and TCs themselves. When I get my new FF body next year, I will compare AF performance between bodies and see if there is a difference.

I always use Mode 3 IS, as it allows me to quickly switch from photographing stationary subjects to something moving quickly. I am very impressed by this new image stabilisation mode and already it has resulted in great images that may not have been possible using Mode 1 or Mode 2. Now that I have gotten back used to handholding a supertelephoto lens, I find that I have no difficulty keeping the lens stable enough for properly composing images and I think using this Mode improves your lens holding technique.

Other general improvements include the redesigned lens hood, which seems to a lot easier to place on and take off than before. Although the lens cap is an improvement on the old one, it still cannot be placed on the lens one-handed and actually leaves a bit of a gap around the lens hood knob. So I am sticking to my LensCoat Hoodie. The new TCs also seem a lot tighter with no play anymore – a result of the extra weatherproofing that they got, I assume. The front lens element is a lot easier to keep clean, although you’ve lost the protection of extra element that the old version had.

Anyway, tomorrow it’s off to Mt Hiyamizu for raptor migration and the chance to test the lens some more on birds in flight!

Sep 282012
 
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM

Today I received my new Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens together with Canon 2x TC MkIII and Canon 52mm C-PL Drop-in Filter. At the beginning of the year, I was interested in the new Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM, but trips to Australia in June, July and August convinced me that I needed f/2.8 for low light shooting. And seeing as the new Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM weighs only a bit more than the 500, I felt it was better to save and buy that lens at a later date and get the new 300 instead of the 500. Another big consideration was the feedback from wildlife photographers who had used the new 300 with the new 2x TC MkIII – they all said the IQ was excellent especially when stopped down a little to f/6.3 or f/7.1. So having a relatively light, compact, effective 480/2.8; 672/4 (I already own the 1.4x TC MkIII) and 960/5.6 focal length choice was very appealing. Additionally, when I get my FF body (probably the 1Dx), I will have a choice of 6 different focal lengths (300, 420 & 600 with the 1Dx; 480, 672 & 960 with the 7D) – all with excellent image quality! I am also secretly hoping that Canon puts out a EF 800mm f/5.6L IS II USM, although with the latest pro FF bodies not AF-ing at f/8, the new 600 would still a better choice for maximum reach and versatility. Anyway, the 300/2.8 plus 600/4 combination is what I decided on for my wildlife photography going forward.

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM

So late this morning I picked up my new lens and headed for the Isahaya Reclaimed Land Areas for some shooting! As I was excited to see what the 300 could do with the 2x TC attached, that was the combination I used today. I will experiment with the other two focal length options later. Looking over the lens, it was pretty much the same as the version 1 IS that I was very familiar with. But even though the new version is only slightly lighter, the difference is noticeable. I like the way the switches are positioned in this new version, and immediately I set the IS Mode to 3 and the focus limiter to 6m – infinity. The new Mode 3 is one reason I wanted this lens, but it felt really weird initially! No IS at all in the viewfinder even when the shutter is half-pressed and an effective 960mm focal length handheld means a bit of hand shake, and when you fully depress the shutter it seems like nothing has happened! But, checking the shot in the rear display showed that the IS did indeed activate and work – amazing! I think if the majority of shots are of stationary subjects, then Mode 1 is probably better for handheld shooting, but if there is a possibility of having to quickly shoot a moving subject, then Mode 3 is definitely the way to go. Of course, you should also probably use a tripod if using the 7D/300/2xTC combination!

Sand Martin

Sand Martin

I was worried about the AF speed with the 2xTC attached. Having been using the 70-300/4-5.6L IS for several months now, I was in a good position to compare the AF speed of different lenses at f/5.6. I have to say that generally the 600/5.6 focused faster and more accurately than the 300/5.6, but only a little bit better. The Ai Servo mode was much faster to pick up and track subjects with the 600/5.6, especially against the sky. I can’t wait to see how good the AF is with the lens at its native focal length!

Eurasian Cuckoo (female)

Eurasian Cuckoo (female)

So all I needed now was the co-operation of a few feathered friends. Being the start of passerine migration, I was expecting to find a few interesting subjects and pretty quickly I spotted a couple of Sand Martin in among Barn Swallows at Chuo Reclaimed Land Area. A fairly easy first up test of the lens – I just pointed out of the window of the car at one of the martins resting on a power line and took a couple of shots.┬áNext I went into to Moriyama Reclaimed Land Area and spotted something hiding in a tree – a cuckoo! This was a real test of AF ability, as the target was behind lots of branches. However more than half the shots were focused properly on the subject, so I was satisfied. Soon afterwards I observed a pair of redshanks in a flooded but unused rice paddy. This was very easy for the lens, as the redshanks contrasted nicely against the water.

Spotted Redshank (juvenile)

Spotted Redshank (juvenile)

And then the resident Northern Goshawk showed up! A great chance to test the AF on a fast moving subject, although as usual the raptor was fairly shy. I followed it around the Moriyama area, and got some good shots of it perched, but each time it flew, it flew away from my position even when it was flushed by farmers on the opposite side of the bird than I was! I was also experimenting with different AF point settings, so at times the AF wouldn’t focus on the bird in flight initially if it was against a cluttered, fairly close background. But once the subject was picked up by the AF, it tracked it well. Anyway, I will continue to use various AF point settings to get a feel of which one works better than another in a given situation (previously I always used the spot AF point setting for everything, but I have been reading that some of the other setting have a better hit ratio).

Northern Goshawk (adult)

Northern Goshawk (adult)

Soon afterwards it began to get cloudy and although I could have tested the lens at native focal length or with the 1.4x TC I decided to call it a day. I will have many opportunities over the next week to try out the lens in a variety of shooting environments and conditions!

Jan 312012
 

It has been a while between posts, as I was very busy at the end of the year and also I decided to sell my beloved 300/2.8 in order to help fund the purchase of the new Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM. However, Canon has delayed its release until April, so I was “lensless” with respect to wildlife photography. So I decided to buy the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM to use firstly as a substitute for the 300/2.8 and later as a back-up lens on a separate body (perhaps this 7D if a 7D MkII becomes available later in 2012!).

EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM

EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM

I thought long and hard about which lens to buy for this purpose. I was basically only considering the 100-400/4.5-5.6L IS or the 70-200/2.8L IS II initially, as it never really entered my mind that a 70-300mm could meet my IQ expectations. However I started hearing good reviews about this lens, so I dug a bit further. By and large, the majority of users rated this lens highly – almost on a par with the 70-200/2.8 but with an extra 100mm of reach. Although the 70-200/2.8 will perform well with a 1.4x TC and get you out to 280mm, I wanted a long native focal length as I didn’t want to have to buy two 1.4x TCs (1 for the main lens and 1 for the back-up). Although the 70-300 is f/5.6 at 300mm, this only concerned me as to the speed and accuracy of the AF rather than the loss of potentially 2 stops. I normally shoot at f/5.6 or f/8 (or f/7.1) anyway, no matter if I have the capability of opening up to f/4 or f/2.8. This is because, for birds and wildlife, f/5.6 is what is needed to get enough DOF to get enough of the subject in focus to make it interesting and recognisable. An additional point in favour of the 70-300 was its price – about 50% cheaper than the 70-200/2.8! However, there were a couple of reviews from respected photographers that gave the lens a poor rating, so I when I finally got my hands on the lens last Sunday I was a little unsure exactly what to expect!

First impressions upon opening the box were that this lens is built very well – no problems there. I got the Canon 67mm protector filter, which aside from protecting the front element also completely weather-seals the lens. So after checking that everything was as it should be, I headed to Isahaya for some test shooting! Using the lens in the field soon confirmed what most people had said – the focus ring position is not where you would expect or want it, as it is right where you would normally hold the lens. If the lens had its tripod collar on, you could hold onto that instead but it comes at an substantial extra cost. However, because I use the 7D with the vertical grip, I can arrange the fingers and palm of my left hand so that I clear the focus ring and still get a comfortable, sturdy grip – with a bit of practice this way of gripping the lens should become habit. Other than that, no complaints about the lens ergonomics.

So, on to operation. One of my concerns was AF speed and accuracy – could f/5.6 at 300mm really be fast and not hunt when shooting birds in flight? No worries! The AF is very fast and quiet, and was a delight to use. Indeed, it autofocused almost as well as my 300/2.8 + 1.4x TC, so I was very satisfied. I followed a Northern Goshawk as it swooped low through thick reeds and along a small creek and the AF kept lock on it very well – no hunting around. The 4-stop IS also works very well, although I usually shoot at high shutter speeds to stop birds in flight so IS is not as much an issue with me as it might be for other photographers. But in any case, it works as advertised.

So what about the IQ? Excellent, from what I can see. Although it is not in the same class as the 300/2.8, nevertheless the lens is very sharp even wide open, and has negligible CA. Contrast and resolution are excellent. Anyway, you can judge for yourselves from the images below! Needless to say, the two respected photographers who gave negative reviews about this lens either had bad copies or need to get out of the lens review game…for the money, this lens delivers.

Northern Goshawk (juvenile)

Northern Goshawk (juvenile)

Northern Goshawk (juvenile)

Northern Goshawk (juvenile)

Black-eared Kite

Black-eared Kite

Black-eared Kite

Black-eared Kite

Black-eared Kite

Black-eared Kite

Eurasian Kestrel (female)

Eurasian Kestrel (female)

Great White Egret

Great White Egret

Hen Harrier (female)

Hen Harrier (female)

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

Saunder's Gull (1st Winter)

Saunder's Gull (1st Winter)

Jul 102011
 

Recently I purchased a remote IR camera triggering system called the PhotoTrap. Made by Bill Forbes of Arizona, USA, the PhotoTrap is a very flexible system and very easy to set up in the field. The system comes with everything you need to get running, as long as you have a flash unit or two. Anyway, I got my first real chance to test it out last night, when a break in the annual “rainy season” finally occurred.

As this was my first effort, and the fact that I was going after medium-sized, slow moving mammals, I set up the PhotoTrap in the traditional “break beam” mode, whereby the emitter and detector are set up facing each other over a distance of a metre or so. I then set up the flash units, did a couple of test firings, and finally laid some bait in the centre of the area covered by the IR beam. I then left the gear unattended for about 3 hours.

When I returned I found that a Japanese Wild Boar had approached the site shortly after “complete darkness” and had promptly knocked over (or tried to eat!) the emitter! Unfortunately, the trap only got off one shot before the boar knocked the emitter out of alignment, so that was the end of the evening’s experiment.

One lesson learned was that I need to calculate the manual flash power output more carefully. Also, the 430EX II always goes into “SE” or “Save Energy” mode after about an hour, which means it won’t fire on the first shot thereafter. It needs to be “woken up” first then allowed to charge… The 580EX has no such issues.

Anyway, I am encouraged by the evening’s result and will try again either tonight or tomorrow night. This time I will use the PhotoTrap in the “reflect without reflector” mode….I may also revert to Av mode and ETTL.

Below are two shots from last night; one of myself setting off the trap and the other of the boar.

Myself setting off the PhotoTrap

Myself setting off the PhotoTrap

Japanese Wild Boar destroying PhotoTrap Setup!

Japanese Wild Boar destroying PhotoTrap Setup!

Sep 202010
 

I recently purchased an Ameristep Doghouse Ground Blind, together with a matching Snow Tangle cover, and today I decided to try it out at the mountain pond at Azamidani. First impressions were that the blind was very easy to put up, and only slightly more difficult to put down and fold away. Today turned out to be a pretty good field test, as a storm hit the mountain mid-morning. Azamidai is pretty sheltered, so I hadn’t bothered securing the blind at all – it was just free-standing. No problems, though. Also, although it was not waterproof, no water was dripping inside, just trickling down the inside walls. I guess a few cans of scotchguard and some seam sealant would go a long way to making the blind fairly weatherproof.

So, how about photography from the blind? Fantastic! There are 3 sides with windows, plus a rear door. Each window consists of a large window which incorporates a smaller window. If you unzip the large section, there is plenty of viewing space for up to 3 people (sitting in a U), but it has no camo mesh, so you need to get some to cover it. The smaller window, however, does have camo mesh which is velcro-fastened. For photographic purposes, I only opened the small window and I removed the camo mesh screen. I positioned the lens hood end in line with the window, so I was sitting back towards the rear of the blind. The small window is like an inverted “U”, which is perfect if you want to use a camera-mounted flash unit. Today’s setup was the 7D, 300/2.8, 1.4x TC, camera-mounted 580EX Speedlite, all sitting atop a Gitzo 3531 Mountaineer tripod. I had a good field of view – just enough to cover the pond and some surrounding vegetation. I guess it would be simple to use my existing camo scrim to completely conceal everything but the camera lens, but I was so deep back in the blind that I think I was effectively invisible to the birds (I had all other windows and the rear door closed, so very dark inside). Indeed the birds didn’t notice me – but I was so close that they could hear the AF! The birds were literally just a few meters away, and they acted very freely.

In summary, if you want a fairly cheap blind that is great for photography as well as wildlife viewing, the Doghouse is a pretty good choice. The only real negatives are lack of screens for the large windows and, in particular, the rear door. Other than that, no worries! I also think that if you are photographing anything more than 6 meters away, it would have no idea you were in the blind even if the camo mesh on the smaller windows was down, meaning you could position the camera with lens protruding from the window, thus have greater field of view (for panning, for example). Conversely, if you were watching for a particular bird or animal to appear at a certain spot and did not need a wide field of view, you could position the tripod in the centre of the blind and have it and yourself completely invisible while maintaining excellent vision of the target area – you could also have the large window open!

My next few posts will feature photographs taken this morning from within the blind! ;)

Jan 222010
 

I thought I would post something about the new Canon EOS 7D, as I had a long time deciding on what to upgrade to from my trusty old 20D. At first I was going to buy a 5D MkII, but then baulked after reading reviews that listed its lag time and AF performance as negatives. I then started thinking about the new 1d MkIV. However, I really wanted a nice big piece of glass as well, as so my budget would not allow for either of the “pro” bodies if I wanted a super tele. So I took a closer look at the 7D. The thing that sold me on it (apart from the huge price savings) was its AF performance and speed. Although some initial users of the 7D reported Ai Servo focusing issues, the overall impression that the AF system was much better than that on any existing Canon body, apart from (perhaps) the 1D series. With the money saved, I could also buy the 300/2.8 I had been dreaming of!

So I went ahead and bought one. And I have to say that it is a great camera! I am very happy with it and impressed by its performance, build and responsiveness. I will post some photos that prove its Ai Servo AF ability, but take it from me that there is no issue with the AF that I can see – much better than anything Canon has offered the serious semi-pro photographer before. And 8fps is amazing and sounds like a (quiet) machine gun!

So if you are on the fence like I was, I would say go for the 7D and use the money saved to buy some decent glass. In my situation, I will probably get the 5D MkIII when it is released as my landscape & travel body (as long as Canon has addressed the current shortfalls), but for wildlife and BIF in particular, the 7D will serve me well for many years to come!