Wednesday, May 30, 2012

More samples from my Canon 400mm f/5.6

A blue Heron diving for food.

So I've been really digging this Canon 400mm f/5.6 that I recently purchased. I have also purchased a carbon fiber monopod to basically use with it. The 400mm has a neat tripod collar that I use to attach it to the monopod. I've gone out to use it a couple of times to shoot birds in our local nature center, and usually I go home really happy. As I've said in my review, the 400mm f/5.6 has excellent focusing abilities. I activated the additional focus points on my Canon 5D MK2 to compliment the ai servo mode to capture birds in flight, and still works excellent with an aftermarket teleconverter attached.

A cormorant flapping its wings.

Robins are excellent to take pictures of. They are everywhere plus they are not so scared of people.

I caught this one with a fish in the birds mouth

The excellent focusing on the 400mm allows you to shoot birds in flight, slow or fast.

Most of these shots are cropped. Even when the images are cropped, the subjects still look pretty decent. The superb optics of the 400mm give you the ability to sharpen or crop your images with minimal image quality loss, even when paired with a teleconverter.

I think I'll use it more often this summer. I've never had this much birds shots since I started photography.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My first hummingbird shots

Fall of last year we went to our favorite botanic garden in Glencoe Illinois to take photos of the last blooms of the season. The weather was getting chilly and the flowers were on their last blooms. Also wildlife is starting to get rare, with a couple of birds and bees and animals going around gathering food to get ready for the cold winter. My friend from work told me a week earlier that hummingbirds are now frequenting some of the spots in the garden. I have never photographed a hummingbird in my life...this will be my first attempt. 

As soon as we got to the garden, we saw a bunch of photographers waiting for the birds. All brandishing their cameras of choice, from medium formats to point and shoots. My camera of choice was my 5D MK2 equipped with my favorite 70-200 IS USM f/2.8 with my Kenko 1.4x DGX 4 attached to it for the extra reach. The telephoto 200mm range will now become a 280mm...I think that'll be enough for what I'm gonna use it for. Of course my f2.8 lens with the teleconverter attached is now an f4 lens. Still not bad for the maximum aperture. We had plenty of sun that day which translates into faster shutter speeds for me. Excellent when capturing hummingbirds.

As soon as we get to one spot, 2 hummingbirds were already flying around. With hummingbirds you really have to have a very keen sense of hearing and sight. These birds aren't big enough to be noticed and they also fly really fast! The busy landscape of bushes and flowers doesn't help too as it helps to hide these little birds. 

I set my camera to aperture priority to let me set it to the maximum aperture that I can so I can have the maximum speed that my camera will allow me to have with the lighting conditions. I know I should've set it to shutter priority so I can specify my speed but it was getting darker in the late afternoon that I am not taking any chances with underexposed photos. I was thinking, it's better to get a blurred hummingbird picture than to get a very dark image of it. Next time I'll remember to bring a flash.

I handheld my camera waiting for the hummingbirds and managed to take some shots while they flew in front of me. 

This hummingbird just froze in front of me for about 4 seconds. Enough time for me to snap this. 

I was lucky with this one. The sun was shining directly into the bird that my camera allowed to have a 2000/sec shutter speed to freeze it in motion.

This season I have my longer 400mm ready for any birds that might come along. I'll be ready to take it with soon when I hear the hummingbirds are back in the gardens!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM

The Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM. One of the best lenses for birding.

It isn't sexy but it sure will find a way into your gear bag for birding.

One of the most popular starter super telephoto lens in the Canon lineup for birding is the Canon 400mm f/5.6 L USM. The reason is that this lens is somewhat on the cheap side which makes it great when you just start taking pictures of birds. It is way cheaper than the 70-200 2.8 IS USM L but it also has double the focal length...the downside is that the 5.6 aperture is pretty slow in some situations. Of course you can step up to the 400mm f/4 DO IS USM for around $5000-$6000. It's one stop faster and it also has image stabilization, though a lot of photographers who are just starting out in birding won't spend that much for a lens. In my opinion for $5000 more I'd get something longer than a 400mm, but of course, I don't have that amount of money right now and if I did I'd buy a car instead.
Having an f/5.6 maximum aperture and no image stabilization doesn't mean this lens is a slouch though.  This is actually one of the sharpest lenses I own. It comes from Canons L line which means it contains elements that minimize aberrations and other problems. L lenses also have excellent build quality...well most of them at least. This particular lens has excellent build quality. Similar to the 70-200 L but without the weight.

The 400mm compared to the 70-200 IS USM f/2.8 without the hood attached.
Notice the difference in the barrel diameters.

I ordered mine online, got it within 4 days. I was so excited when I opened the box and found this long lens inside it. In my hand it felt really skinny. I got so used to holding my 70-200 IS that this lens felt like half of the diameter of the 70-200. Looking at it made me realize that this lens isn't sexy at all. I decided to attach it to my 5D. 

Attached to my 5D MK2 with the hood unextended.
With the hood extended you can see the size difference.

On my 5D the lens looked really long and skinny. Although you can really tell how well built this lens is. It also does not weigh a ton. That is a plus when you are carrying this on a monopod or in your backpack on a birding tour...yes it fits on my regular Lowepro Flipside 300 bag. What's also awesome about it is the built in retractable lens hood. Now I don't have to worry about carrying that with the lens and taking a quick shot without putting the lens hood first, it saves you a lot of time for those emergency quick shots. The tripod collar that comes with it is one of those quick release ones that you can take off without taking off the lens from the body. Physically here are what I noticed about this lens:

Well built. 
Long and skinny.
Built in lens hood is perfect.
Quick release tripod collar is another plus.
No weather sealing gasket in the mount.

Yes...there is no weather sealing in the mount like other L lenses do. This is basically to keep off dust and moisture from entering the camera body through the mount. I'm not really worried about that as I'm not taking this to the amazon jungle to take shots, it's nice to have though but it really does not bother me. It also has a focus limiter on the side which allows you to set the focus to a particular distance. This prevents the lens from hunting in situations where it travels a lot from near to far trying to focus on a subject. This is a plus when you take photos of birds in flight or subjects where you are going to need all the speed that you have.

The AF and the MF switch on the side plus the focus limiter.

So I attached the lens to my monopod and off I went to take bird shots. The first birds I saw where ducks flying around everywhere. So I sat in one spot and waited for one to come across my field of view. For starters I set my focus mode to ai focus just to try out the lens accuracy in locking the focus to a particular subject. I set my camera to shutter priority at 1/800 sec. And of course 3 minutes later I have a duck flying across from where I was sitting down.

One of my first shots with the 400mm f/5.6.

Capturing birds in flight with this lens is pretty awesome. The USM really does its job in tracking fast moving subjects. for a 400mm lens, the focusing speed is actually faster than some of my lenses, and it's effortless, no whining or hunting at all. You have to consider the lighting situations when you shoot this lens. The more light you have, the better chances you have of nailing those shots. I didn't even have to limit my focus on most of my shots. With the USM motor, instant manual focus override is possible without switching to mf.

  Cormorants in flight. I was hiding under a tree when I snapped this.

 This egret knew of my presence and started to take off as soon as I approached it.

 Blue Heron hunting for food. 

 This bird didn't really mind me getting that close. It was hopping from one branch to another.

That's a bird house where this bird was standing. It didn't really bothered this bird that I got a bit close.

After a couple of days using this lens I found the lens strongest points. The USM focus mechanism is fast when tracking birds in flight...faster when the subjects are stationary. 400mm seems to be the perfect range in framing birds in flight...a bit short for small birds but otherwise perfect for medium and bigger sized birds. I was trying to find faults with the focusing system by adding an aftermarket Kenko 1.4 teleconverter to the lens but the lens still focused perfectly...and still fast. I did that with the 70-200 and I felt the significant slowness of the focusing, not with this lens though. The teleconverter slowed down the maximum aperture to f8, it is slow but when you have enough light f8 still can get you a fast shutter speed for birds in flight. I heard that the Canon teleconverters don't allow you to use autofocus with this lens with the 2x teleconverter, the 1.4 will only allow af with a 1D series camera on center point af. With an aftermarket 1.4 teleconverter the af still works...on all points, although I haven't tried it still with an aftermarket 2x teleconverter.

After a while of using it I have to admit I really love this glass!

A lot of people are afraid of buying a long prime lens basically because of the fixed focal length. It all goes down to how you are planning to use the lens. I didn't have a second doubt about buying a fixed 400mm because I am pretty sure myself that I am using this for birding. Being a prime lens has it's advantages like faster focusing and better image quality with the use of teleconverters compared to long zooms. I carry this in the field on a monopod and rarely regret not having a shorter zoom attached to my body. With birding, no lens is long enough...the longer lens you can afford, the better.

The The Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM is not a perfect lens. It has its shortcomings like the slow maximum aperture and the aesthetics. If you're planning to buy this lens make sure you try out other options like the Canon 100-400 L IS USM. I went the prime way because I already have the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS USM and it's pretty much pointless for me to get another zoom within an almost similar range. Before buying make sure you understand the lens shortcomings. Attaching this to a monopod pretty much solved the non IS issue for me. That's a $50 monopod versus spending five grand on the IS version that's one stop faster. The L lens build quality makes this lens last for years basically retaining it's value till you are ready to upgrade to a longer lens.  Other than that this lens will be a great birding companion for years to come! 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Family portrait session

Over the weekend I had a family portrait session. It was a quick session where I had to put a person in front of a backdrop take shots and it's all good to go. It was supposed to be fun and quick...which is what it was. 

For this session I had to work with individual shots and then a group. I needed a lens that will allow me to shoot a group without giving me the unwanted distortion that wide angle lenses give you in close range. I also needed a multiple light setup for the group, but will need minimal lights for the individual shots.

I then decided to go for my Canon 50mm 1.8 lens. This lens attached to a full frame body will give you a normal view, something really close to what the human eye will see in real life with minimal distortion. The 50mm will also give me the flexibility to move back a bit for group shots to capture everybody in the frame. Me having a small studio space, I need all the room to back up in case I don't have enough frame space to capture everybody. My camera had to be set to full manual mode so I have total control of all settings. I used an f8 aperture with a 125/sec shutter speed. F8 will give me enough depth of field for the group plus it is a bit optimal for the lens I was using. All of the photos were shot using ISO 100.

For the individual shots, it was a pretty simple setup. I used one strobe on my right side equipped with a 
shoot through umbrella to give the subject a wide soft light. Opposite the light, I used a collapsible reflector to soften the shadows a bit. This prevents me from using multiple lights and it also gives the shot a bit of depth. I used the white cloth reflector instead of the silver one to avoid the harsh light bounce on the subjects face. 

The 18th birthday shot. I forgot to tell him to straighten the glasses. 

The angle of his face was perfect not to get glare in his glasses. 

 A happy subject is always a pleasure to take photos of.

 For a one light setup, I had to use a reflector opposite the light to soften the shadows.

Photographing a group is different. Since the reflector I was using can't bounce that much light into multiple subjects, I had to use a secondary strobe opposite to the one I already had. The secondary strobe will light the opposite side of the subjects faces with a softer, less amount of light compared to my main light. 

 Goofing around. I was running out of room to back up but it still came out ok.

Happy subjects always look natural when they are photographed.

It is always tricky doing a multiple person shot. All of them should be positioned perfectly so the faces don't overshadow the others. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Bird shots using my 70-200mm IS USM

Over the weekend I had promised myself that I will do a photo shoot of the birds outside our house. We recently purchased a bird feeders and put them in front of our house, knowing that I would be able to shoot birds closeup using this method. I had been birding for the past couple of days, this though will give me real closeups of the birds outside.

For this shoot I chose to use my Canon 50d for the frames per second speed. It's faster than my 5d mk2 which makes it an excellent body for birding. I equipped it with my Canon 70-200 IS USM lens. For this setup, a long range of 200mm is enough as the birds will not see me behind the camera. I will be watching them from the inside so the 200mm reach is enough compared to using the 200mm on a real outdoor birding trip, that is why a lot of birders wear camouflage jackets. Birds do not come close when they see you a couple of feet away from them so staying indoors and watching them through my glass door is a smart idea. Having said that, I would have to trigger my camera with a wireless shutter release so I installed my yong nuo rf-602 to the body. I then attached the tripod collar of my lens to my ballhead attached to my tripod. I then pointed the camera to the bird feeder where I anticipate the birds to feed from.

My simple setup. My fiancee took this with her phone while I took a short break. She even caught a bird flying down on the right side of the feeder.

There are a couple of different approaches when it comes to this kind of setup. For this particular one, I set my focus point to where I think the birds will be. I then set the bird feeder to the center of my frame. Then I used the one of side focus points of my camera to be where my autofocus will's where it all differs. Usually you can set your lens to manual focus for this kind of setup so you can shoot the camera even if the focus isn't locked on...a very good idea if you are really sure where the birds are going to land and stay a few seconds. A very good idea to capture birds in motion that fly by really fast.  Also you can set your focus mode to ai servo...which doesn't restrict you to shoot even if the focus isn't locked on. Either way it's really up to you what you think will work. For these shots I used auto focus, with my focus point on the left side with AI focus mode so I still have the focus lock to let me know when the focus is dead on. I made sure that my camera is perfectly perpendicular to both sides of the bird feeder for the focus to perfectly work...this helps out a lot if I set my focus to manual.

That day was overcast...but the light kept changing. I set my camera to shutter priority and set my speed to 320/sec. Good enough as I 'm not taking shots of birds in flight. ISO was set to 400. First few shots were ok, I then decided to attach a speedlite to my camera, setup the speedlite to HSS, ettl mode. The speedlite gave my shots a lot of color compared to the shots that didn't have it, so the speedlite worked out pretty good.

After a couple of shots I decided to upload my photos and these are the best 2 that I got:

The birds have excellent hearing. They can hear the lens motor focus and they fly away. Some of them get used to it even with the flash and eat while you take a couple of shots. 

I was waiting for a hummingbird to stop over the other feeder but none came. Although when it comes I will be ready. Hopefully before winter I have a couple of shots of them.

So this is how I spent my weekend :)