Tag Archives: Wildlife

The Gentle Giants

Earlier this month, I traveled to Crystal River, Florida to capture the West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatees) with underwater photo gear – essentially a underwater housing for my Canon 5D Mark III.  Following are a few of the photographic results from the trip plus some interesting manatee facts. Enjoy!

Canon EOS 5D Mark III in AquaTech underwater housing, Canon 14mm f/2.8, 1/125 second @ f/8, ISO 800

Manatee Fact #1: Sailors once believed these animals to be sirens from the deep, mythical mermaids coming to call. This certainly says less about the manatee’s obvious sex appeal (they are pretty cute, aren’t they?) and more about – well, how do I put this politely –  the sailors’ loneliness and desperation for companionship after being at sea too long.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III in AquaTech underwater housing, Canon 14mm f/2.8, 1/320 second @ f/8, ISO 800

Manatee Fact #2: Manatees cannot survive for long in water colder than 60 degrees F (15C). For this reason, they seek out warm water springs in to seek refuge from the frigid Gulf of Mexico during the winter months.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III in AquaTech underwater housing, Canon 14mm f/2.8, 1/30 second @ f/11, ISO 800

Manatee Fact #3: The manatee’s closest living relative is the elephant. By their appearance alone, I thought this to be a somewhat obvious fact but apparently it has something to do with the number of fingernails both species possess.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III in AquaTech underwater housing, Canon 14mm f/2.8, 1/125 second @ f/11 ISO 800

Manatee Fact #4: Manatees have no natural predators. The biggest hazard they encounter are the props from motor boats which has lead to them being included on the endangered species list.

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2013 in Retrospect #1

Oryx on the Pan, Deadvlei, Namibia. May 23, 2013

Sometime around January 1 of each year, I would post my top 10 or 11 or 12 images from the previous twelve months here on the Earth and Light Blog. For 2012, for example, I posted a 12 for ’12: The Year’s Best. For this past year, however, I decided to do something a bit different.  Instead of just listing my favorite images, I instead wanted to share some insights into how some of these were made – not necessarily my favorites – and what was going on at the time. Some short stories, in other words.

Oryx on the Pan

After a 20-minute hike over loose, unstable sand, Ian Plant and I crested the last dune and looked down upon the bright clay pan known as Deadvlei, home to surreal landscapes of barren earth, red dunes, and dead camelthorn trees. This is one of the most iconic photo locations in Namibia and a must stop during our two-week scouting tour in this country. When we descended to the pan, I spied a lone oryx – also known locally as a gemsbok – slowly walking across the hard clay surface. I thought there might be the possibility for a compelling shot here. What animal is crazy enough to live and survive in this harsh environment? It seemed wildly odd yet captivating. But by the time I retrieved the camera from the pack and mounted the telephoto lens, the oryx took off running. This is not a shock. It’s a well known but little understood natural law to which photographers are frequent victims.

Leaving my pack and tripod behind, I shadowed the oryx while running at full speed, with the hope of getting a chance. I wasn’t chasing, but rather moving parallel with it’s direction from 80 yards out, hoping for more than just a photo of it’s rear end. I could see the composition coming together as I ran- strong sidelight on the oryx and pan, diagonal shadow on the dunes, screaming color – all I needed was for this little guy to stop for 5 seconds – FIVE LOUSY SECONDS!

And of course (you guessed right) it did – for about five seconds – just a few meters before it would have been lost to the deep shadows on the right side of the image frame. I managed not to screw up the fleeting opportunity and I was pleased with the 3 frames I recorded, one of which you see above. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 100-400mm @ 400mm, 1/800 second @ f8, ISO 320.

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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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Image Round Up From Namibia

I am perpetually behind when it comes to editing images and at the moment, I may be setting a personal record. I still don’t have everything completed from Namibia, no images from my trip Roan Mountain in North Carolina and Tennessee, and I am currently in California. Who knows when I’ll have the time to get around to these.

But here are some of the Namibia highlights. It already seems like so long ago so it was nice to revisit some of these special moments. Enjoy!

By the way, our Wild Namibia photography workshop and tour on May 25 – June 6, 2014 has been filling up very quickly and we are getting close to having it filled. For more information click here.

Sparring Red Hartebeests, Etosha National Park

Quiver Tree Forest at Sunset

Wild Desert Horses at Aus

Zebra clan in warm morning sunshine, Etosha National Park

Cape Fur Seals, Cape Cross

Elephants at Dusk, Etosha National Park

Deadvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park

Flamingos, Dorob National Park

Sossusvlei Blues, Namib-Naukluft National Park

Zebras at water hole, Etosha National Park

Large male lion, Etosha National Park

Quiver tree forest at twilight

Sand Art, Namib-Naukluft National Park

Spooky tree at Deadvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park

Elephants at sunset, Etosha National Park

Oryx crossing the pan at Deadvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park

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Five Unconventional Pro Wildlife Photography Tips

A significant portion of the work I did during my recent trip to Namibia was wildlife photography, a favorite genre of mine. While doing some research on the wildlife of Africa, and Namibia in particular, I was struck by how boring most of images really were – apathetic, dumb-looking animal staring blankly into the camera, bird on a stick, etc.  As a result, I strived to come up with unique interpretations of these species we’ve all seen so many times and know so well. I came up with five unconventional tips – some less conventional than others but still concepts to keep my images from being boring like the others. Now I’m sharing them with you.

The examples here are not all African wildlife, obviously. I’m still trying to wrap up some writing and administrative duties before I can really begin processing most of the images from that trip. In the meantime, enjoy.

Coastal Brown Bear, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

1. Use Back and Side lighting

Most wildlife shooters and photography instructors opt for front lighting when encountering wildlife. “Point your shadow at the subject” is their mantra since they can be sure that in this way, the bird or animal will be evenly illuminated. In other words, it’s easy. I’m not saying that shooting with the sun at your back is a bad thing; I do it all the time. But limiting yourself to only this option certainly is a bad habit.

Side lighting can reveal texture and add depth to an image while backlighting is incredibly dramatic, if not conventional.

Snow Geese, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina, USA

2. Long Exposures

Animals on the move and birds in flight present great opportunities for slow shutter speeds and camera panning. Freezing action shots with fast shutter speeds has its place, but sometimes its better to just go with the flow! Start with 1/15 second and experiment from there.

Elephants in Etosha National Park, Namibia

3. Go wide. Show the environment

When shooting wildlife, the photographer’s initial impulse is to use the longest lens in the bag and go in as tight on the subject as possible. Resist this urge and try a wider perspective instead. Show some of the animal’s environment and surroundings, which helps tell more of a story about the place and species you’re photographing.

Coastal Brown Bear and Sockeye Salmon, Katmai National Park, Alaska, USA

4. Show behavior and interaction

Too many wildlife images show a static image of an animal or bird looking directly into the camera. Boring, boring, boring. Showing how these animals interact with one another, play, mate, or hunt for food is much more interesting. That instant is akin to Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment. Don’t be content with a boring wildlife portrait. Wait for something special to happen and then be ready!

Zebras in Etosha National Park, Namibia

5. Use elements of visual design

Employ the same compositional tools for wildlife as you do for other genres of photography. Wildlife photography is sometimes fast-paced and you don’t have time to think things through completely but still try to think abstractly about shapes, lines, balance, and flow and let go of the literal. Your wildlife images will have a much greater visual impact as a result.

Next week I’ll begin sharing many other images from Namibia so stay tuned.

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