Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Chicago Botanic Garden Wonderland Express

The Polar Express Train. One of the attractions at the Wonderland Express.
Christmas is here and all sorts of holiday stuff is everywhere. I was so excited to hear about the Chicago Botanic Gardens Wonderland Express as we were there last year and it was great! This year, I'm more excited as I am going to see the display and test out my newest Canon full frame body...the 6D. I just got my 6D at the beginning of the month and I'm still testing it out. This is a very good chance to test out the 6D's low light capability and the improved burst performance from the Canon 5D MK2.

The 6D's low light capability is excellent for me.
Remembering from last year, I brought my Canon 5D MK2 with my 70-200 f/2.8 IS USM lens. Knowing how dark in some parts of the venue is, I brought along my trusty 430EX II speedlite. Honestly, in situations like this I hate using a flash. I would rather shoot with natural lighting, However there are parts of the exhibition where light was almost zero. The 5D MK2 isn't that very good focusing in lowlight although the high ISO performance is pretty good because of its excellent sensor. Still, I struggled to lock on my subjects in very low light with the MK2.

One of my favorite trains in the exhibit.
This year, hearing about how excellent the 6D in lowlight is supposed to be, I packed my bag with it and my 70-200 f/2.8 IS USM lens. Just in case, I also packed a speedlite. I also included my Fotopro Carbon fiber monopod. So we went, hoping to be there as early as we can to avoid the rush of people.

The Picasso Sculpture in downtown Chicago.
So I set my 6D's autofocus drive to AI servo. This will allow me to shoot without locking on to a specific part of the frame. This is very helpful when tracking the model trains going down the train tracks. I also set the shutter to multiple burst mode. This will enable me to take a sequence of shots and pick which shot is the best. Being faster than the burst mode of the 5D MK2, the 6D's 4.5 frames a second isn't bad at all. I have shot birds in flight with the 5D MK2 and the 6D is so much faster. I set my mode to shutter priority. I varied my shutter speed from 100th/sec to around 200th/sec. The trains move, so I need a bit of speed from my shutter to avoid motion blur without the aperture being too open or the ISO being too high. I also set my ISO to automatic, so that's one less variable to worry about in this light changing place.

The Chicago Botanic Garden Bell tower model.
I just shot and shot and never worried about my settings. I actually came here to shoot and not tinker with my settings. With my monopod attached, I shot frame by frame and I loved it. The 6D's ISO varied from as low as ISO 400 to about ISO 12800. With my other bodies, when you go above ISO 2000, the photos are barely useable. I'm astonished how the 6D's 12800 ISO looked really good. When you use ISO 12800 with a wide open aperture at a reasonable shutter speed, you'll know how dark a scene is.

Yes...the ISO for this shot was 12800
 The 6D's auto ISO is the best auto ISO I have ever used on a Canon dslr body. It somehow is really responsive to how much light you need. The 50D and the 5D MK2's auto ISO features are very limited compared to the 6D. It also lets you adjust the maximum ISO you want to use...a very nice feature not found in other Canon bodies. I shot a couple of times outdoors in the dark and the auto ISO kicks in and it just knows how much you need. Shooting in Raw format helps out a lot as you can minimize the noise using Adobe Lightroom and the results are excellent. So basically the speedlite stayed in my bag.

The Chicago Botanic Garden sign.
The exhibit features models of great Chicago landmarks such as the Picasso sculpture in downtown Chicago, Wrigley field, the Art Institute, Ravinia, and many more. There are a ton of train models going around and around. You can even ask the operators to slow them down or even stop them for a shot, which was really nice of them to do. The structures are made out of twigs and other organic materials. All laid out beautifully inside one of the Botanic gardens indoor buildings.

The structures are made out of twigs and other organic materials.
The entrance of the exhibit showcases a ton of gingerbread houses. In the same exhibit, you'll find the Polar Express train. This surely brings out the holiday feeling in the exhibit. One suggestion though...when you want to go in to take pictures, avoid bringing in a tripod. Some of the train operators reminded me to be careful with my monopod...a tripod might actually get you kicked out of the exhibit.

The Ravinia arch. It's actually about a block away from the Botanic Garden.
After you see all the trains, you can have a hot cup of chocolate with marshmallows complete with cookies and other treats. What's even more entertaining is that carolers go around singing christmas carols while you eat and drink.

I caught this closeup of santa in one of the trains while it passed by.

One of the church models in the exhibit. 
So it was a really fun night. I get to see an awesome exhibit and test my new Canon 6D at the same time. The Wonderland Express only goes until January 6, 2013. I highly recommend it especially for the entire family. For more info click here.

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