Flashback: A Day in the Life, December 12, 2012

"Midnight's Children" Trollaskagi Peninsula, Iceland. Canon EOS 5D MarkIII, Canon 24-105mm f/4 @ 24mm, 30 seconds @ f/4, ISO 1250

“Midnight’s Children” Trollaskagi Peninsula, Iceland. Canon EOS 5D MarkIII, Canon 24-105mm f/4 @ 24mm, 30 seconds @ f/4, ISO 1250

Ed. Note: Portions of the post were published in December 2012 on the Earth and Light Blog

Often I’m asked what a typical day is like for a professional nature photographer.  I do my best to explain that it’s nearly impossible for me to answer since each day is unlike any that preceded it. In other words, there are no typical days. If I’m in the right mood, I might attempt to outline what I do and how my time is actually spent, which is usually met with disappointment and disillusionment by the questioner. It’s shocking to know what percentage of my time is spent actually creating images, in addition to how spectacularly unglamorous this whole business really is.

So here is a glimpse into my world, if for only a day (and it’s one of the better ones) and which also happens to be exactly one year ago today. The place?  Cold, snowy, dark, northern Iceland in mid winter.

December 12, 2012. Akureyri, Iceland  

9:10 am:  Just waking up and getting out of bed. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know 9 am is embarrassingly late for a nature photographer but please consider the circumstances. First, my body and circadian rhythms are still attuned to Eastern Standard Time. So if you subtract the 5-hour time difference, I’m really getting up at a much more respectable 4:10. Does that make you feel better? Besides it’s still dark outside so I’m not exactly missing out on much.

10:00 am:   After a shower and a few returned emails, I am out the door and looking for a quick lunch in town. There’s an intense red glow on the southeast horizon but the sun still has quite a way to go before it makes a proper appearance. I scarf down soup and salad at the Greifinn and drive toward Vatnsskarth Pass for some photos ops. It’s uncharacteristically cloud free. No clouds? This is new.

12:17 pm:  I can now finally see visible sunlight as the snowy mountaintops are bathed in a beautiful pink glow. But without any clouds in the sky, I’m just not jazzed about anything. I take a few obligatory images and shrug. Well I am here so what the hell?

12:50 pm:  I slip on my snow boots and a down jacket to hike and scout some locations for the evening. I find some rare open water for possible aurora reflections but I’m not entirely crazy about the composition. Yet at night with the aurora overhead, it might not be terrible. I make a mental note of some nearby landmarks so I can find the place later in the dark.

The Long Silence, Vatnsskarth Pass, Iceland

The Long Silence, Vatnsskarth Pass, Iceland

3:05 pm:  Back at the car and I’m changing back into my regular shoes after nearly backing the car into a deep ditch. The huge, clunky snow boots I was wearing wouldn’t allow me to step on the gas pedal without also catching the brake. And when I try to depress the brake, I also get the gas pedal or clutch. That almost cost me a hefty towing bill. It’s already nearly dark.

3:44 pm:  At the apartment again and it’s time for a nap. What is it about these short days that make me want to sleep so much?

6:25 pm:  Sitting on the sofa in my underwear looking over my images from Godafoss yesterday. They don’t suck too bad so I’m somewhat pleased. Next I check the weather and aurora forecast for tonight. Promising. The world news? Wish I hadn’t even looked. I’m bored. I’m hungry.

7:40 pm:  Dinner at a downtown Akureyri restaurant. Worst lasagna ever. Not surprisingly, Icelanders don’t do Italian food very well.

8:55 pm:  I slip into a nearby bar (Sorry I didn’t remember or write it down) for some local color and a cold Viking brew. The bartender tells me that over half the people here on the island believe in elves. This is my fourth trip to Iceland and it’s not the first time I’ve heard this. I nod knowingly.

9:31 pm:  After belting out an inspired rendition of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun on karaoke, I bask in the polite applause of the two German tourists in a dark corner. I’m so outta here.

10:10 pm:  Driving out of town and scanning the sky for any sign of the aurora when I am startled by the brightest, most brilliant shooting star that falls slowly toward the northern horizon. It’s so bright and brilliant, in fact, that I reflexively duck my head. This is only one of several dozen I would see tonight as I am to find out later that the Geminid meteor shower is just starting.

10:46 pm Back at Vatnsskarth Pass and it’s really cold and really dark. There’s no moon and the aurora is looking spectacular –  intertwined ribbons of light stretching across the sky from east to west, horizon to horizon. Sometimes the large ribbons morph into smaller strands that slowly dance side to side, intensify, fade, before returning again stronger than ever. It’s easily the best display I’ve seen since arriving here in Iceland last week. The problem, however, is that the aurora has moved further south than the previous nights and the composition I scouted earlier in the day just won’t work. Back to square one.

11:40 pm:  Driving north along the Eyjafjordur toward the coastal town of Olafsfjordur when the aurora forces me to pull the car over. I turn off all the lights and begin taking a series of continuous 30-second exposures with the pale, eerie green lights over the mountains. Its not the type of image I had envisioned, but this is the big aurora display I had come here for. I spend the next two hours talking and shouting to myself (I tend to do that when I’m out alone). “Holy #%&@! This is #^&@ insane! I can’t feel my #%&@# fingers!” You know, that sort of stuff.

I mentioned earlier how little of our time as nature photographers is actually spent behind the camera creating images, as a percentage of our time as a whole. But for all the long silences – the travel, sitting around airports, driving, scouting, hiking, waiting out bad weather, just waiting in general, getting skunked, cold, wet, stuck or lost – the punctuated moments of pure magic like these are what we live for. Literally.

3:25 am:  Back at the apartment. I drop everything in the middle of the floor and stagger toward the bedroom, zombified. I’m sleeping in, damn it.

If you’re interested in seeing and photographing Iceland in more favorable conditions (think summer), I’m taking a group of lucky photographers there in July and there’s still a few spots left. Epic Iceland with Richard Bernabe

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Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X Lens Review

Before I tell you all about this amazing piece of photographic equipment, let me start by putting your mind at ease. I will not even try convincing you into dropping $12,000 on a lens, especially a $12,000 lens that doesn’t even carry itself, or compose, capture, and process images for you. For the money they’re asking, you would expect at least that and perhaps a few more features to boot.

So you can take a deep breath, relax, and read on without any undue anxiety or pressure. I can’t promise that I won’t make you like the lens, but I do promise not to say you need it. With apologies to Robert Hunter, my job here is only to shed light, not to master.

Canon first announced this lens to the public in February of 2011 and after 2 agonizing years of delays and technical setbacks, it finally came to market earlier this spring. It was well worth the wait. This was Canon’s answer to Nikon’s comparable zoom lens, except Canon not only matched their 200-400mm with constant f/4 maximum aperture, they upped the ante by incorporating an internal 1.4x extender too.

Last month, I brought the new Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Reserve in New Mexico. Here is my mostly subjective, non-technical review and initial thoughts.

Sandhill Cranes in Flight, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X @ 560mm

TALE OF THE TAPE

The lens is 14.4 inches (36.6 centimeters) long without the hood and weighs in just a hair under 8 pounds (3.6 kilograms) – twice as long and 5 pounds heavier than the Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 USM, in case you thinking about upgrading within that similar focal range. If you are one of these people, you might also want to consider a sturdier tripod and a gimbal head as well. In terms of physical size alone, it compares best to the Canon 500mm f/4L IS II, with the 200-400mm being a pound heavier but an inch shorter.

Since getting my hands on this lens, the question I been asked most often, surprisingly, is whether it is “handholdable.” I suppose it is, but what lens isn’t – if only for extremely short durations of time? For a quick, spontaneous grab shot of Sasquatch, I guess I could say yes. For serious, critically sharp wildlife and sports imagery, I would recommend a good tripod or monopod.

While shooting at Bosque, my new lens and I were somewhat marginalized by the insufferable birder crowd and their phalanx of mammoth 600mm and 800mm super telephotos. I paid them little mind and quietly went about my business as each of the photographers tried their best to steal a furtive glance my way in order to get a better look at this new species of Canon glass. Soon enough, one of the sports walked over and asked if he could check it out, which he dutifully did. After which, in a rather condescending tone, he declared to everyone within earshot that it was “a nice little lens.” I do have to give him some credit for withholding the patronizing pat on my head while uttering it.

My initial impression when I first lifted in from its case? Heavy, solid, stout, like a little fire hydrant.

Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X in hardshell case (included) with Really Right Stuff LCF-53 replacement tripod foot

HIGHLIGHTS

Internal 1.4x Extender

This new feature is what separates this particular lens from all the others, including the comparable model used by my Nikon brothers and sisters. The built-in 1.4x optical extender expands the focal range as far out as 560mm with a simple flip of a lever. You can almost think of it as two lenses in one: a 200-400mm f/4 and a 280-560mm f/5.6 with an impressive total focal range of 200-560mm without a single lens change (That’s an eye-popping 320-896mm on a Canon APS-C sensor camera!).

The extender lever is substantial and not at all flimsy like I feared it might be. There’s an audible “clunk” when the extender is engaged that is solid and reassuring, unlike most clunking sounds that emanate from expensive, high tech toys. It operates beautifully.

With the simple flip of a lever on the lens barrel, the 1.4x optical extender is engaged.

 Amazing Autofocus

The 200-400mm f/4L offers lightening-quick, smooth, and incredibly accurate autofocus capabilities for Canon EOS cameras. The lens focuses so fast and so effortlessly, that you literally cannot see it happening in the viewfinder. For bird-in-flight shots, I often didn’t know if the results would be in focus or not since the camera and lens locked on and fired simultaneously as well as instantaneously. Not until I reviewed the images shortly afterward was I able to confirm that they all were, in fact, tack sharp. There was no waiting for focus to be confirmed. It just happened without me knowing it!

My test run at Bosque was shot with a Canon 5D MarkIII and Canon 7D. I can only imagine the focusing speed with the venerable 1DX.

Snow goose in flight, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, USA. Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X@ 400mm

Improved IS

Canon claims there are four stops of shake correction incorporated in the Image Stabilization (IS) system of this lens. I can only take them at their word on this since I wouldn’t know how to accurately verify the claim anyway. At any rate, it’s useful to know that this lens has three IS modes: Standard, Panning and Exposure Only.

Standard mode (Mode 1) mitigates vibrations in every direction and is most effective when shooting subjects that aren’t moving very much. Panning mode (Mode 2) corrects vertical or horizontal shake depending on the direction of the panning. For example, when panning horizontally with a moving subject, this lens stabilizes movement vertically and vice versa. Exposure Only mode (Mode 3) corrects camera shake only at the precise moment of exposure so focus tracking is easier. This would be most useful when tracking a very fast or erratically moving subject.

Of course you can choose not to use IS at all and it can be easily disabled at anytime.

Morning on the Marsh, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X @ 200mm

Beautiful Bokeh

This lens uses a 9-blade circular aperture design, which creates soft, dreamy, out-of-focus backgrounds when using large apertures. This effect makes your primary subject seem to jump right off the page – or computer screen, an illusion many wildlife and sport shooters try hard to emulate. This particular claim I can see and verify with my own eyes. It’s downright dreamy.

Sharpness

Aside from the questions about its size and hand holding ability, the next concern on everyone’s mind is lens sharpness. Folks who are super obsessed with sharpness tend to gravitate toward primes anyway so their questions about this telephoto zoom are overtly loaded with suspicion. Now I like sharpness as much as the next guy but I’m not one of those people who toss and turn at night worrying about micro resolution, lines per inch and circles of confusion and the like. Maybe I should, but I don’t.

With that being said however, my 20-plus years of experience gives me a pretty good subjective yet accurate view of image quality and I can say that it’s pretty damned sharp – both with the extender and without. I didn’t test the lens at the smaller apertures (and who would care?) but from f/4 to f/11, it was super sharp from corner to corner at all focal lengths. Don’t trust me? Take a look at the mind blowing MTF charts on Canon’s webpage:

http://www.usa.canon.com/cusa/consumer/products/cameras/ef_lens_lineup/ef_200_400mm_f_4l_is_usm_extender_1_4x#Overview

Then again, maybe you should just trust me on this one.

There are four ultra-low dispersion lens elements and one fluorite element that makes chromatic aberrations with this lens almost non-existent. There’s also a fluorine coating on both the front and rear lens surfaces, which is apparently a good thing too.

Blast Off, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X @ 520mm

Weather Resistance

Like all Canon L-series lenses, the 200-400mm f/4L is impervious to almost any weather Mother Nature can throw at you. It’s moisture and dust resistant, ready for shooting in the harshest of conditions.

At Bosque, I shot in an hour-long, steady downpour one afternoon and after I wiped the lens down with a dry towel, there was no water inside the lens barrel, no condensation, and no fogging up. The same couldn’t be said of the photographer, however.

CONCLUSION

Is the lens “worth” it? Who the hell knows? It will be worth it to some photographers and certainly not worth it to others. As a professional nature and wildlife photographer, it’s the lens I’ve been waiting on for a long time. It’s the ultimate wildlife lens, period. But I already knew that two years ago before I ever got my hands on it. The only question was whether Canon delivered a clunker or hit a home run with the finished product. It appears to be the latter.

The only other worthwhile alternates to this lens are the 400, 500, and 600mm primes coupled with 1.4x and 2x extenders. But the flexibility of zooming for creative compositions and framing make the 200-400 with internal 1.4X extender a no-brainer for me. Wildlife photography is more than getting the longest focal length and tightest crop possible on an animal. Sometimes you want to fill the frame with the subject and sometimes you want to incorporate some of the environment. Sometimes the subject is too close and you miss opportunities while switching lenses, changing cameras, or adding and removing tele-extenders. This lens solves those problems.

I might be outgunned by the big boys and their 600 and 800mm lenses, but I’ll miss fewer image opportunities and I’ll have more creative compositional options with this lens, which is more than worth the tradeoff for me.

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New FREE Photography Ebook

My new FREE eBook, Creative Photography: 10 Easy Pieces is now available for download. You can get your copy HERE.

As I state in the introduction, this small book will not make you a more creative photographer overnight. Instead, it will help you use your use your camera in more creative ways, instilling habits that can eventually make you a more creative photographer. Using these tools, practicing, and making these habits is up to you. Enjoy.

 

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Vignettes from Acadia

“Under a Blood Red Sky”
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 @ 16mm, 4 seconds @ f/16, ISO 200

“Vermiculations on Duck Brook”
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon 70-200mm f/4 @ 98mm, 1/50 second @ f11, ISO 800

“Monument Cove”
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8, 30 seconds @ f11, ISO 320

“Lower Hadlock”
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon 70-200mm f/4 @ 126mm, 1/8 second @ f8, ISO 100

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CPCD #8 – Low Hanging Fruit in the Tetons, Wyoming

Too easy

If you’re unsure what a CPCD actually is, read this.

This crappy phone image isn’t from THE Schwabacher Landing in Grand Teton National Park, but it’s certainly close enough (actually, it’s better). Still, it’s easy, unoriginal, trite, unimaginative, and uber-conventional. It didn’t require working the scene very hard nor any extraordinary vision on my part. Some might argue that it required no vision at all, in fact. You could also make the assertion that I didn’t expend any hard work or energy here, that I simply reached for the low hanging fruit. Okay, fair enough. But the low hanging variety can often be just as sweet as the reward waiting at the top of the tree too.

This was captured this morning with my workshop group in the Tetons. It was fun, the light was sublime, and I was honored to share the moment with some awesome photographers with whom I’m spending this week. I really doesn’t get much better.

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