Vignettes: Wildlife of the Galapagos

Last month I had the privilege of spending 8 days in the beautiful Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. These islands are often referred to as “A Living Museum” and it doesn’t take long to understand why. It’s a paradise for any wildlife lover or photographer.

Most of the images here were created with my new Canon 7D Mark II and the incomparable Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM. An ideal combination for wildlife shooting.

In January of 2016, I will be leading a Photography Tour of the Galapagos aboard the luxury yacht, Beluga. Send me an email of you are interested or have questions about this trip. Enjoy the images!

Galapagos Flycatcher, Galapagos, Ecuador. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM @ 400mm, 1/800 second @ f/5.6, ISO 2000

Diving brown pelican, early morning with warm backlighting, Galapagos, Ecuador. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM @ 381mm, 1/1600 second @ f/4, ISO 400

Galapagos giant tortoise, Galapagos, Ecuador. Canon EOS 7D Mark II Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM @ 200mm, 1/640 second @ f/4, ISO 1000

Sea lion diving, Galapagos, Ecuador. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 24mm, 1/400 second @ f/8, ISO 800

Marine Iguana, Galapagos, Ecuador. Canon EOS 7D Mark II Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM @ 400mm, 1/800 second @ f/4, ISO 800

Blue-footed booby, Galapagos, Ecuador. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM @ 560mm, 1/1600 second @ f/6.3, ISO 320

Sea turtle surfacing, Galapagos, Ecuador. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 32mm, 1/320 second @ f/10, ISO 1000

Sally Lightfoot crabs in the surf, Galapagos, Ecuador. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 55mm, 0.6 second @ f/18, ISO 100

Adolescent brown pelican, Galapagos, Ecuador. Canon EOS 7D Mark II Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM @ 519mm, 1/1250 second @ f/5.6, ISO 1000

Greater Flamingo, Galapagos National Park, Ecuador. Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM @ 560mm, 1/800 second @ f/5.6, ISO 200

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A Bear is Eating My Camera

No marshmallow filling?

It was a brilliant Indian summer afternoon in Elk Lakes Provincial Park in Canada’s eastern British Columbia. Blue skies reigned over pale grey granite mountains and the mercury reached an unseasonable eighty degrees Fahrenheit. There were no deciduous trees in sight to offer any clues that it was, in fact, mid September yet the subtle yellow, orange, and red hues in the meadow grasses and huckleberry bushes betrayed the undeniable and irresistible approach of autumn. Bull moose wading the far shores of the marsh ponds had long disposed of their antler velvet and a fresh dusting of snow from the last passing front adorned the serrated peaks of the Continental Divide, the conspicuous border separating the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta.

Elkford’s Chamber of Commerce might have billed this afternoon as “idyllic” but the bright sunlight and robin-egg blue skies reduced this photographer to just another tourist, squinting through the windshield to admire the stunning scenery while stopping every so often to unfold and refold the map before driving yet again with no particular destination in mind. Everyone plays the clueless tourist at some point in their life whether any of us wants to admit it or not.

I didn’t really mind that I was unlikely to do any meaningful photography on this day. I was too busy processing a flood of pleasant memories from a previous trip fourteen years ago when I visited here first time with just a film camera and fly rod. Through the middle of the park flows the Elk River that just happens to host the prettiest, most naive cutthroat trout whose acquaintance I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Toward no dry fly did these fish seem to pass any judgment or discrimination. Rising through milky, glacier-fed currents from the river bottom’s cobbles they would inhale a dry fly from the surface with such dumb innocence, it would almost break your heart.

It’s during the same trip that I also saw my first honest to goodness wild grizzly bear. It was at a safe enough distance, at least 100 yards, and we were separated by a particularly deep and broad section of the Elk River. It stalked the meadow’s edge with the purposeful gait and confidence that only an apex predator of the wild could get away with. When its head spun around on those massive shoulders and our eyes met, the coldest shiver ran down my spine and my toes tingled. I was flying.

If you do enough traveling to North America’s great wilderness areas, you will eventually have to deal with bears – either real ones or the phantom bears of your all too vivid imagination. A good piece of advice to follow when walking or hiking in bear country is to make as much noise as possible, not necessarily to scare any of them away, but to at least make your presence known since startling or surprising a bear at close range would spell certain disaster. Some examples would be wearing bear bells, intermittent clapping or yelling, and talking loudly – either within a group or just to yourself.

I’ve always preferred talking to myself since I tend to do it anyway: politics, religion, the use or overuse of HDR – you know, the usual topics to avoid in polite company. In fact, hiking through bear country is one of the few occasions when talking to oneself is a perfectly sane and reasonable thing to do.

Despite the lousy photography weather (photographers hate bright sunshine and clear, blue skies, unlike your typical tourist) I decided to take an afternoon hike to a small alpine lake for sunset. It was likely to be an exercise in futility – if not merely good old fashioned exercise period – but I was in a particularly beautiful part of the Canadian Rockies on an otherwise glorious September afternoon, so what the hell, right? At the very least, I will have had an invigorating hike through some incredibly scenic country and maybe I’d even take a photo or two.

The trail started out by winding through a fragrant forest of firs, Engelmann spruce, and lodge pole pine and quickly started gaining elevation. The hot sun and thin air conspired to make the hiking slow and burdensome but I was in no particular hurry after all. At each stop I made to catch my breath, small animals and birds would emerge from the forest once I settled down and sat quiet: a few chipmunks, a pika, and one brazen blue grouse that nearly came within an arm’s length of the rock on which I was resting. I’d attempt a few photos of the critters, glance at the results on the LCD display, shrug, and start walking again.

After an hour or so on the trail, I stopped yet again for a breather and an opportunity to answer the call of nature, once I found an appropriate powder room. I set my tripod firmly on the ground, with camera and lens attached, and ducked into a dense labyrinth of scrub birch and willows for a veil of privacy, as if I really needed it. Almost immediately, I heard a loud crash, breaking branches, and a grunting and growling that seemed to be getting alarmingly close. I made a hasty, ungraceful retreat back to the meadow and was closely tailed – a bit too close – by a visibly agitated black bear. I kept a respectable distance and did my best to calm it down by talking in a soft, reassuring voice.

Eeeeasy there big fella. You’re a good bear, aren’t you? We don’t want any trouble now, do we?

That didn’t work. Maybe it was my patronizing tone of voice. Maybe I was trespassing and about to use the loo in its personal living space. Or maybe it had something to do with the undignified visage of me standing in the middle of a lovely alpine meadow with pants dangling around my hiking boots. Whatever the reason, my amateur bear psychology and I were not being taken seriously, if at all. The bear then projected its displeasure on my tripod and camera, with admirable style and flair had it been any other circumstance, by spiking it to the ground like a post-touchdown celebration.

After performing an inspection and concluding that the combination of applied force and gravity didn’t do enough damage to be satisfied, the bear took the camera in its considerable jaws and began doing its best great white shark impersonation. I watched helplessly as shards of black plastic exploded from the exquisite piece of digital technology formerly known as my Canon DSLR. It occurred to me at some point that if the bear was desperate enough to try and extract nutrition from a digital camera, who’s to say that it wouldn’t be as equally desperate to try to take a pound or two of flesh from me? Black bear attacks on humans are rare but nearly always fatal since the motivation is usually food, instead of temporarily immobilizing a perceived threat.

I’ve actually had the unnerving experience of being charged by an brown bear – a coastal variation of Ursus arctos horribilis, the grizzly – a few years ago in Alaska. The bear changed its mind in mid-charge (or felt sorry for me) and stopped a mere ten yards before hello darkness my old friend I could now only presume. Time sped up – or maybe it slowed down – I can’t really be sure since most of the details were lost to the fog of fear and surge of adrenaline. It was only a convincing bluff, but I’m proud to say I did everything right as this apparent attack was actually taking place. For one thing, I didn’t run, which is the cowardly half of the primal flight-or-fight response and an impulse that’s difficult to resist. I stood my ground with arms held over my head, avoiding any eye contact while waiting for the fatal impact. I also resisted screaming like an eight-year-old girl, which is another impulse that seemed all too appropriate at the time.

But no amount of screaming, pleading, or outright begging was going dissuade this clearly psychotic black bear from performing a crude camera lobotomy right before my eyes. For obvious reasons, no part of this episode was captured on camera since, short of whipping out my smartphone and snapping the most epic of selfies (which only occurred to me in hindsight), all I could do was stand empty-handed feeling dumb and helpless, which is probably how I looked as well. The humiliation only added insult to the injury.

When the bear finally discovered that my camera did not contain any marshmallow filling, it casually ambled back into the thickets, presumably to find some real food. While my zoom lens and tripod survived the encounter pretty much unscathed, the same couldn’t be said of the camera body. While taking inventory of the damage, I found that I wasn’t angry or upset. I didn’t harbor any feelings of vengeance or retribution. Violence, real or imagined, never even crossed my mind. Instead, I was dumbstruck. It was bizarre. It was surreal. It might have actually been funny had it been someone else’s camera.

And I did try to laugh about it, I really did. But like most attempted humor involving real bears, I just couldn’t find anything funny about it. Bear jokes told by those not accustomed to spending time in bear country usually fail with those of us who do since it either contains too little truth or too much. Punch lines involving bells in bear scat might provoke some nervous laughter from the fervent backpacker or hiker because of the implied irony, but it still overreaches and ultimately misses the mark.

Then there’s the one about not needing to actually outrun the bear, just the luckless partner of the joke’s narrator. Despite the ridiculous notion of running from a bear to begin with, I thought it was funny enough the first time, yet had quickly begun to pall after subsequent recitations. At Brooks Lodge in Alaska during a recent visit to this bear sanctuary, five or six of us guys were talking and loitering in the dining hall after supper one evening when one of the older sports needed to regale us with this particularly stale one-liner. The response, not surprisingly, was almost no response at all, save for the feeblest of laughs I feigned out of face-saving politeness. The gesture apparently went unnoticed since he insisted on repeating it all over again – this time even louder and with more enthusiasm, in case we all missed the point the first time. I excused myself from the table to get another beer.

The remaining daylight soon evaporated and the meadow fell into deep shadow. A cold wind barreled down the valley from the high mountains as a stern reminder that summer really was over after all. I threw on a light jacket I had kept stowed in my pack, gathered my broken gear, and started down the winding trail to the car, talking to myself once again.

*          *          *          *          *          *

The preceding essay is part of an upcoming book, A Bear is Eating My Camera: Misadventures of a Travel Photographer, which will be released later in 2015. In the meantime, my collection of essays from the Great Smoky Mountains, The Great Smoky Mountains: Behind the Lens, is now available for download.

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The Great Smoky Mountains: Behind the Lens, Second Edition

I’ve just finished writing and assembling my newest ebook project, a second edition of my Great Smoky Mountains: Behind the Lens. So how is this version different from the first?

– More content (80 pages versus 42)

– Optimized for mobile devices and retina screens (hi-res, horizontal format, sized to fit the iPad)

– New locations, new essays, and more images

– Map of the Great Smoky Mountains with marked locations

– Same low price of $7.95. Wait, that’s not different.

For more information and how to buy your own, follow this link.

Just like the first edition, this ebook chronicles many of my favorite images from the Great Smoky Mountains. With each image there is a personal essay that gives some insight with regard to the photographic process I used, my personal experience when the image was created, or information and history about the location. You’ll learn more about landscape and wildlife photography, you’ll have a better understanding of the Smoky Mountains, you might cry, you might laugh, you might accidentally spit coffee all over keyboard.

Below is a sample of the book’s 80 pages. It’s really really hard to read so you might want to buy and download a full-sized copy for yourself. Enjoy!

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Canon 7D Mark II Camera Review

Highlights

– 20.2 Megapixels on an APS-C CMOS sensor

– Dual DIGIC 6 Image Processors

– 10 frames per second drive speed

– 65-Point All Cross-type Autofocus

Canon began shipping the EOS 7D Mark II in early November 2014 and I was one of the first on the waiting list. I wanted to replace my EOS 7D with another lightweight body that would be my go-to camera for wildlife shooting. I always thought the EOS 1DX was too big and heavy  – not to mention expensive.

Truth be known, I was never quite happy with the performance of the 7D, particularly with how it handled low-light conditions. In order to get the quality I wanted and expected, I couldn’t push the ISO above 800 with any confidence. So of all the improvements the upgrade was bringing to the table, I was most interested in how this camera would perform at higher ISO settings. A photo trip to the rain forest of Costa Rica – and later Ecuador and the Galapagos – would give me some answers.

This is a real world review from actual results in the field and is not comprehensive. I’m only covering the features that are important to me. For example, I don’t even discuss video. For a full list of the features and specifications of the EOS 7D Mark II, visit the Canon USA website.

Noise and ISO Performance

This was the most important test in how I would come to evaluate this camera.

First, Canon is guilty of a little exaggeration here. It claims to make high quality images up to 16,000 ISO (give me a break) and it uses several image examples at 16,000 ISO on their website. Second, it’s still not an ideal camera for making “excellent low-light photography” as Canon boasts. No APS-C camera is, for that matter, but it is an improvement over the 7D. Here is my very subjective evaluation:

White-faced capuchin, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM @ 334mm, 1/250 second @ f/4, ISO 2000

Crop with no noise reduction or sharpening applied at ISO 2000 – the upper limit of the ISO range with which I was comfortable.

After pouring over results from the three-week trip, I can say that I am comfortable with results up to 2000 ISO under most conditions. ISO 2500 – 3200 is passable if I expose properly (don’t underexpose, expose to the right) and use minimal noise reduction in post processing. Anything above 4000 is nearly unusable, at least with regard to my standards.

Autofocus

This was a pleasant surprise. Canon advertised the upgraded autofocus system to be just as good as the EOS 1DX. Since I’ve not used the 1DX over any long stretches of time, I couldn’t really compare the two. I will say, however, that the autofocus in the 7D Mark II is a vast improvement over the 7D which was pretty good already. During my trip to Costa Rica, I know I nailed some shots that I would not have gotten with either the 7D or the 5D Mark III.

Mantled howler or golden-mantled howling monkey and infant in tree, Osa Penensula, Costa Rica. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM @ 280mm, 1/640 second @ f/5.6, ISO 640

The image above represents one of those instances: fast action and strong backlighting, a situation where autofocus often has trouble locking onto a subject. In fact, I’ve come to almost expect AF problems in these conditions. With the 7D Mark II, I never missed a single shot during the entire trip because of backlighting. I was duly impressed!

By the way, if you use a lot of tele-extenders, the 7D Mark II can autofocus at f/8 with the center cross-type AF point.

Another upgrade to the 7D Mark II is the AF Area Selection Lever which is built around the Multi-Controller joystick. Now you can easily and quickly change the AF Area Selection mode, such as Single Point, AF Point Expansion, or Zone AF. I find this really handy.

Frames Per Second

10 frames per second! What else is there to say? That is one sexy sound as the camera purrs through dozens of images in just a couple of seconds.

Collared Inca in flight, Eastern slope of the Andes, Napo Provence, Ecuador. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM @ 270mm, 1/250 second @ f/4.5, ISO 400, with flash

With this rapid frame rate, I could capture several different hummingbird poses and choose the version with the precise wing position I wanted. This is an increase from 8 fps on the original 7D. Now if you think there is only a marginal difference between 8 fps and 10 fps, you are mistaken. This feature is a very nice upgrade.

The buffer has also been expanded with 31 continuous shots in RAW mode and over 1090 in JPEG, another improvement over the 7D classic.

Ruggedness

I am infamously hard on my equipment. The 7D Mark II is advertised as being better sealed for moisture and the environment and more robust all the way around. That’s good news for me. In the three weeks in Costa Rica and Ecuador, my camera and I were perpetually wet from both rain and humidity and I never experienced any problems.

Conclusion

It’s not the perfect camera (which one is?) and it’s not even ideal, particularly for low-light conditions. I’ll still defer to full-frame sensors for true low-light photography. But this is a serious upgrade from the original 7D in terms of ISO performance, auto focus capabilities, shooting frame rate, and ruggedness. These upgrades are all important to me so short of buying the 1DX, this is the best Canon DSLR for wildlife photography that has been manufactured to date.

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Favorite Images of 2014

Yes, it’s that time of year again. This is when I catch my breath during the holiday season, sit down at the computer with a strong drink and look back on my work over this past year: the boneheaded mistakes, missed opportunities, and several hundred things I would do differently if I had the opportunity to replay 2014 all over again. Oh well, there’s always 2015 to make amends.

These ten images are my personal favorites, not necessarily the most popular or successful. Each is a favorite for a different reason but mostly because I didn’t do one of the above while something fantastic was happening in front of my lens. Following each image is a brief stream-of-consciousness commentary. Enjoy – and Happy New Year to you all!

 

Radiance: Arches National Park, Utah, USA (April 27, 2014). Lucky shot in a lame location. Not a whole lot of skill or vision was necessary to capture this scene. Still, I can’t help but laugh each time I see this image because of the humerous circumstances surrounding the shoot with some of my workshop students. Let’s just say you just had to be there…

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 50mm, 1/60 second @ f/7.1, ISO 400

 

Phantom’s Gaze, Mountain Lion, Height of the Rockies Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada (September 8, 2014). A haunting image of a once-in-a-lifetime encounter in the wild. A moment I’ll certainly never forget.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT @ 560mm, 1/500 second @ f/5.6, ISO 1000

 

Namib Riddle: Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia (May 29, 2014). I’ve been asked more than a few times about the title of this image. “What’s the riddle?” people would inquire, looking for a profound, hidden meaning. “And what’s the answer?” There is no answer and there is no riddle. It just looks like a giant question mark to me.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT @ 560mm, 1/80 second @ f/11, ISO 320

 

Hide and Seek, Ibra Market, Sultanate of Oman (April 2, 2014). This one just makes me smile. The people of Oman were so fun and friendly. More images of Oman here.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 105mm, 1/80 second @ f/8, ISO 200

 

Light Flight – Flying Zebra: Serengeti National Park, Tanzania (June 24, 2014). This image represents the biggest commercial success of any other in 2014. It’s been either licenced to or published in over a half dozen magazines all over the world (not too shabby considering it was captured in June) and some of these magazines you might have even heard of.

Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM @ 400mm, 1/640 second @ f/8, ISO 640

 

Mantled Howlers: Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica (December 1, 2014). Strong backlighting, edge-of-your-seat drama, and the cuteness (awwww) factor in an exotic place. It’s a tough combination to beat.

Canon EOS 7D Mark II, EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM @ 280mm, 1/640 second @ f/5.6, ISO 640

 

Into the Light: Fez, Morocco (February 5, 2014). The man lurking in the shadows looks like a hooded medieval executioner about to exercise his duties on some poor soul. It gives me the creeps yet I can’t look away.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM @ 22mm, 3.2 seconds @ f/5.6, ISO 500

 

The Grand Strand, Etosha National Park, Namibia (June 3, 2014). Another fantastic moment in the wild but I had to make some decisions on how it was going to be presented, i.e. processed. Try as I might to preserve details in the shadowed middle ground, I eventually opted for the version above. It tells the same story while infusing just a touch of mystery too.

Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF70-200mm f/4L USM @ 78mm, 1/250 second @ f/7.1, ISO 200

 

Cordillera Light: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile (March 17, 2014). Here was a set of circumstances where I thought everything would come together perfectly: a composition I really liked and approaching light at sunrise. The light, however, never really happened. This was taken moments before the light should have erupted over the scene, a faint blush of alpenglow on the upper peaks and clouds, but quickly faded to grey.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM @ 25mm, 2 seconds @ f/16, ISO 100

 

Essential: Deadvlei, Namibia (June 15, 2014). It’s no coincidence that three of my top ten favorites in 2014 come from Namibia. This country is a photographer’s paradise. Can you believe we still have a few spots open for my Wild Namibia photography tours in 2015?

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF70-200mm f/4L USM @ 94mm, 1/15 second @ f/13, ISO 100

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