Category Archives: Equipment

REVIEW: Canon 200-400/4L – One Year Ago

Kevin with Canon 200-400/4L at Bosque del Apache, NM.

Kevin with Canon 200-400/4L at Bosque del Apache, NM.

 

Unicorns are real! For years the rumors flew about this mythical creation coming from Canon. Nikon user snickered as they already had their black unicorn for many years. In fact, many Canon users went to the ‘dark side’ because of this very lens. Sharp and versatile, the Nikon 200-400/4 lens had a great reputation and following, and deservedly so.

I was tempted, too, I must admit. A Nikon D800 with a dedicated Nikon 200-400/4 sounded like a great combination. Both are excellent pieces of equipment. But I waited. And waited. And waited some more. The rumors grew. Then one day I saw some photos on the Internet. But was it real? The photos looked strange… it had an odd bump on one side. More photos surfaced, and they all had that same strange bump. Maybe it was real?

A few months after the first images surfaced, I arrived to set up my booth at the Florida Birding and Photo Festival. As I was working, I caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a white unicorn. Could it be? I waited quietly and yes, there it was, being hoisted up on its three-legged pedestal, an EOS-1D firmly affixed. I approached slowly…

The unique 'bump' on the Canon 200-400/4L houses the built-in 1.4x tele-converter.

The unique ‘bump’ on the Canon 200-400/4L houses the built-in 1.4x tele-converter.

Proof of existence! The Canon L-series plate.

Proof of existence! The Canon L-series plate.

 

 
Fast forward a few months. Production versions of the mythical beast, the Canon 200-400/4L with built-in 1.4x tele-converter was starting to ship and I received a notice from LensRentals.com that they would be available rent in time for my upcoming Galapagos Photo Adventure. It arrived on my doorstep the day before departure and I immediately rushed it to my back deck to micro-adjust each of my Canon bodies to the new lens. I was ready… let’s see if this lens could handle the rigors the traveling nature photographer and the harsh environs of sand and salt, plus a couple days in the cloud forests of the high Andean mountains.

This Large Cactus Finch on Española Island was photographed with  a Canon 7D and Canon 200-400/4L @ 400mm. Exposure settings were 1/400 sec @ f/8 & ISO 400.

This Large Cactus Finch on Española Island was photographed with a Canon 7D and Canon 200-400/4L @ 400mm. Exposure settings were 1/400 sec @ f/8 & ISO 400.

 

The versatility of this lens was as I had expected… 200-400mm is a great range to be able to frame a wild subject just right. Adding to this is the close focus range of only 2 meters… even when the 1.4x is in place for an effective 560mm. The wildlife on the Galaoagos is very cooperative, so frame-filling portraits of Blue-footed Boobies and Galapagos Hawks were made possible.

 

A light rain was falling as this stunning Chestnut-breasted Coronet bathed and preened.

A light rain was falling as this stunning Chestnut-breasted Coronet bathed and preened.

 

In the mountains, where we photographed hummingbirds, the close focus came in very handy. I even added a 25mm extension tube which helped me get close enough for frame-filling images of even the smallest hummers. The focus was quick on both my 7D body as well as my 5D Mk III. The 5D having the edge with its newer system, which was much more accurate as well.

 

These Night Monkeys peered at us through the shadows of the rainforest of the Amazon.

These Night Monkeys peered at us through the shadows of the rainforest of the Amazon.

 

A few months later I rented the lens again. Heading back to South America, this time the lens would be put to the test during our Amazon Riverboat Cruise. A very different, yet equally harsh environment, the wildlife here is less cooperative, but much more diverse. Sloths and Night Monkeys in deep shadows below the forest canopy, kingfishers of five varieties challenging the speed of focus as well as our own reflexes and skills. The Canon 200-400/4L still shined in all situations.

It is a heavy beast at about 8 pounds, but I am able to hand-hold it for short bursts. It is the same weight as the older Canon 500/4L (the new 500 shaved off a pound). Like the 500/4L, the 200-400/4L is best on a tripod, but for birds in flight, or from a boat, hand-holding is often easier and more efficient.

In all situations I was never disappointed with the versatility, speed of focus and especially the image quality!

–Kevin Loughlin/Owner, Wildside Nature Tours

REVIEW: Nikon 1 AW1

Nikon1 AW1

The Nikon 1 AW1 wearing its waterproof 11-27.5mm zoom lens.

 

Back in the mid-1980’s, after getting SCUBA certified right out of college, I purchased a Nikon Nikonos system with strobe set-up. I carried a Nikons IV and later a Nikons V body with their 35mm and 80mm lenses. I could not afford to buy any added equipment beyond that back then.

Of course, there were major limitations with the Nikonos systems… mainly we could only shoot 36 images before having to surface and re-load as they were film cameras. We did not have zoom lenses that were waterproof. There was no motor drive… single shot, lever advance only.

I don’t do a lot of underwater photography anymore… mainly when I am on one of our tours, like the Galapagos Islands where we do a fair amount of snorkeling. So to save money, I have been using compact digitals in waterproof housings (very bulky) and later compact, waterproof models like the Olympus Touch and Panasonic Lumix waterproof models.

One major issue with the pocket-sized models was not having the RAW image format available, so when I saw the new Nikon 1 series announce the waterproof mirrorless AW1, I had to check it out!

When it arrived on my doorstep, I quickly opened the box and looked over the parts and yes, even read how to properly assemble the camera using the included o-ring grease. Once I knew exactly how to assemble the lens to the body properly for underwater use, it was done and the lens not removed. (This is important to know for what happened during use in the Galapagos.)

One of my clients joining me in the Galapagos purchased an AW1 for this trip as well, which made for an interesting comparison of experiences. We had the same lens as well… the Nikon 11-27.5 waterproof zoom. Nikon has a waterproof 10mm lens, too, but I wanted the versatility of the zoom for multiple purposes.

 

Wildside tour participant snorkeling at Santiago.

Wildside tour participant snorkeling at Santiago.

 

Our first snorkel adventure on this trip would be on the first morning while at Genovesa Island. This island, far to the northeast of the other islands, has the warmest water in the Galapagos. Not necessarily warm, but warmer than other islands due to the Panamic Current coming from the northeast.

We walked into the water from the beach, with some trepidation in the chilly surf. I finally went under and swam along the rocks where more fish were hanging out. Within seconds, my lens had fogged up behind the protective front element of the zoom. Everything was a misty blur. How disappointing! I continued to swim and enjoy the wildlife with my clients, checking the lens from time to time. Eventually, after about 10 minutes, the fog dissipated and I was able to take some photos and movies.

 

Blue-striped Grunts

Blue-striped Grunts

Galapagos Sea Lions are quite playful at times. This image was taken by our local guide, Pedro, using my Nikon 1 AW1.

Galapagos Sea Lions are quite playful at times. This image was taken by our local guide, Pedro, using my Nikon 1 AW1.

This first snorkel allowed me to play with settings and learn some functions of the camera to determine the ease of use while underwater. I was impressed. The controls were easy to understand and navigate on the large screen… as long as I was in the right light. When the sun peeked through the clouds, the screen became unusable.

My next snorkel would be the following morning at one of my favorite locations, Leon Dormido (Sleeping Lion), aka Kicker Rock, of the coast of San Cristobal Island. This huge volcanic remnant rises high above the ocean surface and offers beautiful snorkeling opportunities full of Sea Lions, Pacific Green Turtles, Spotted Eagle Rays, White-tipped Reef Sharks and many colorful fish and sea stars.

As the Humboldt Current (from Antarctica) flows around San Cristobal, the water is a bit cooler. So when I jumped in with the Nikon 1 AW1, it immediately fogged up, useless for about 10 minutes again. Now remember, I mounted the lens onto the body immediately after opening the box, and never took it off. There should be no moisture inside. My client, who had dome the same, had no issues with fogging to this point, so it was only my camera.

Once the fogging went away, I played with the camera controls again and found settings to adjust my screen and easily, even while underwater, brightened my view so I could more easily see my subjects. This made a huge difference in my composition and I now had fun photographing turtles and fish around Leon Dormido.

My standard default for nature photography is to use aperture priority for my exposure (with manual being a close second in usage). I set the AW1 to aperture priority and found it very easy to raise and lower the f-stop as desired for more depth or changing shutter speed. I still had full, easy use of the exposure compensation (+/-) as well.

I also found that underwater I liked using the 5-shot burst mode as my default as currents, wave action and subject movements made it difficult to compose. Using a burst of five shots I was able to get at least one shot in five composed well with each burst.

Over the next few days, I tried to reduce the moisture in the camera and lens by placing them in a zip-lock bag of rice (with caps on of course). This helped and the fogging issue was lessened. Another trick was to tie the camera to a rope and drop it overboard for 10-15 minutes before we went snorkeling. The combo worked great and I was able to maximize my photo taking while snorkeling.

My client still had no issues with fogging, until the very last snorkeling opportunity. Another favorite location at Santiago Island where we often get to swim with Green Turtles and Galapagos Penguins! At this snorkel, his Nikon 1 AW1 fogged up after being in the water for about 15 minutes… about the time the first penguin showed up!

 

This was a very cooperative Porcupine Boxfish.

This was a very cooperative Porcupine Boxfish.

This Galapagos Penguin swan through, around and between our legs as it caught and ate sardines!

This Galapagos Penguin swan through, around and between our legs as it caught and ate sardines!

 

During this snorkel I had fantastic opportunities with the Galapagos Penguin, including the image above. The camera’s focus speed was amazing when using the 5-shot burst, with the image above being the last of five as the penguin swam toward me!

Image quality was very good, though noise became an issue above 800 ISO and there were times I needed 1600 ISO in order to get a higher shutter speed when snorkeling on cloudy days. However, the images are sharp with good color quality, and since I was able to shoot in RAW (Nikon NEF) I had much more control in post processing to get the image I had imagined.

My overall impression? I love the Nikon 1 AW1 for my purposes… a bunch of snorkel trips during a tour, like the Galapagos Islands. For SCUBA it won’t be a popular as its maximum depth is only 49 feet (15 meters). The controls are easy to use, once you have practiced with them. Get used to the settings and buttons you use most and you will probably enjoy using the Nikon 1 AW1 as much as I do.

 

Article by Kevin Loughlin

Think Small for Travel and Nature Photography

Photo by Rob Knight

Photo by Rob Knight

 

I’m sure you’ve heard the tern “mirrorless” camera by now. A mirrorless camera is a digital camera that uses interchangeable lenses like a conventional DSLR, but it uses the LCD on the back of the camera or an electronic viewfinder (or EVF) to frame a photo instead of a traditional optical viewfinder. Without the optical viewfinder there is no need for a complex prism and mirror box, hence the term “mirrorless” camera.

Over the last three years I have gone from playing around with mirrorless cameras to ditching my DSLR kit and shooting mirrorless full-time. I shoot Panasonic LUMIX Micro Four Thirds cameras because of their amazing image quality, small form factor and the extensive selection of Micro Four-Thirds lenses.

The Micro Four-Thirds system Includes cameras and lenses made by both LUMIX and Olympus, as well as several third party lens manufacturers. Micro Four-Thirds was the original mirrorless system and I think it offers considerable advantages to those of us who have to carry all of our gear on our backs. Here are a few of the reasons I use LUMIX cameras and why you might want to think about a smaller kit for your next photo workshop.

 

Red-eyed Tree Frog by Rob Knight

Red-eyed Tree Frog by Rob Knight

 

1. First and foremost, they make beautiful images. When I began shooting mirrorless cameras my regular gear was a full-frame Nikon kit. I was sure that the images from the smaller cameras couldn’t compete with my professional gear. In reality I discovered that my mirrorless cameras produced beautiful images that I could easily print or sell as stock photography. That was two sensor generations ago, and the current generation is even better. The LUMIX GH4 and GX7 produce professional quality images that easily stack up against bigger DSLR’s.

I also found that I had my camera with me more often because it was smaller and lighter. That meant I was getting shots I would have missed before because I simply didn’t want to bother with my big camera kit. That is really important when you’re traveling. If you bring equipment that is difficult to carry you might be tempted to leave it behind and miss out on photo opportunities.

2. There’s more to the size of a mirrorless camera system than the sensor. There is a lot of buzz lately about full-frame mirrorless cameras. They have the same size image sensor as a Nikon D810 or Canon 5D Mark III. The rub for me is that with a larger sensor comes larger lenses. A small camera is fine, but for me smaller lenses are better.

The Micro Four-Thirds sensor is smaller than full-frame, so the lenses are much smaller than their full-frame counterparts. LUMIX lenses like the 12-35mm f2.8 and 35-100mm f2.8 offer the same field of view as the standard 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses on a full-frame camera at around one-third the size and weight. For wildlife shooters the LUMIX 100-300mm f4-f5.6 offers a 600mm equivalent lens that is around 6” long!

 

Photo by Rob Knight

Photo by Rob Knight

 

3. A smaller sensor generally offers greater depth of field. Some portrait photographers claim that this is a shortcoming of the Micro Four Thirds system, but for nature photographers it can be an asset. More depth of field means that I can shoot with a wide aperture and get more of the image in focus. Shooting with a wide aperture (low f-stop) allows you to use faster shutter speeds to freeze action and lower ISO settings for less digital noise. That is a combination that spells more keepers when it comes to shooting wildlife.

For landscapes the greater depth of field means it’s easier to get your foreground, middle ground and background in sharp focus. The smaller sensor with the excellent wide angle Micro Four-Thirds lenses makes for a great landscape photograph combination.

4. I didn’t start shooting video with my still camera until I got a LUMIX camera. I had DSLR’s with video recording capability, but it was pretty complicated and I never really used it. Mirrorless cameras (especially the LUMIX line) make it easy to capture fantastic HD video, and in some cases even super high-res 4k video.

I don’t have to switch my camera into video mode to record a motion picture. I simply press the shutter release for a still picture, or the red movie record button to record broadcast-quality video.

This allows me to shoot video the same way I shoot my still photography: I look for an interesting subject in appropriate light and create an interesting composition. If the subject makes a good still photo I hit the shutter. If the subject is better captured in moving pictures than I record a few seconds of video. For me the process is about telling a story whether it means still photographs or moving pictures. My LUMIX cameras get out of the way and allow me to capture whichever medium is appropriate for the subject I’m shooting.

There are other ways to get your images moving besides HD video. The cameras I use also capture slow motion video and time-lapse image sequences right in the camera. Just like regular video clips, these tools allow me to respond to my subjects and easily create whatever I envision.

I find many of my clients and workshop guests either shooting with mirrorless cameras or extremely curious about what mirrorless cameras have to offer. The combination of high image quality and portability offered by the Micro Four-Thirds system is perfect for a lot of photographers who like to shoot while they travel. My LUMIX gear allows me to carry all of the lenses I need along with one or two camera bodies without ever having to worry about weight restrictions or size limitations. Maybe you’l find a mirrorless camera kit to be the right fit for your next photo adventure.

Article by LUMIX PRO Rob Knight
If you have any questions about small camera systems, please feel free to contact me at rob@robknightphotography.com or visit my website at robknightphotography.com. You can see what LUMIX cameras are capable of first hand if you join me on one of my workshops like the Ecuador Photo Safari with Wildside Nature Tours.


Photographing Shorebirds in Cape May NJ

Growing up along the beaches of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I have always had a fascination with shorebirds. Maybe it’s the difficulty that most birders have in identifying these little guys. It could of course be the hilarious behavior of some species like the sanderling that scurries up and down the beach with the ebb and flow of each wave. The biogeek inside of me is definitely fascinated with the migration of these little birds and how that so many nest along the Arctic plain only to winter as far south as Argentina. Then of course there is the amazing biomechanics of these little guys that allows them to nearly double their body weight in a matter of a couple weeks of hard feeding, jump into the wind, and fly nearly non-stop for a few thousand miles before needing to lay over and refuel again for a couple of weeks as they hop scotch their way along the lengths of entire continents. Whatever it is that draws me to these little puff balls of feathers and pure kinetic energy, also makes this race of birds one of my favorite to photograph.

Recently Kevin, Gabriel, Adrian, and I (Jared) were up at the Cape May Autumn Birding Festival. Though we were here to work the show, like everyone else we were also looking to get out into the field as much as possible to catch the epic number of birds that can be found here this time of year. As it would turn out, much of our time was spent working one of the jetties where Lapland longspurs and purple sandpipers were held up. Along with these unique species, there were of course a number of shorebirds (other than the sandpiper) here as well such as ruddy turnstones, semipalmated plovers, and sanderlings. Naturally, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to photograph these highly habituated shorebirds while I was here!

When photographing shorebirds, the first thing you need to keep in mind is that you absolutely must get low. This is a crucial part to photographing little birds like this. Sure, the same argument can be made for photographing any species of wildlife. However, the basic concept behind this is that you want to be at least eye level with your subject. Considering how small these shorebirds are then, that means that you will create your most pleasing photographs while lying flat on your belly.

This is a huge obstacle for many people. Most folks don’t want to get sandy. Most people don’t want to just plop down in the sand or on the rocks with the face inches away from the cold ground. I’m here to tell you though that as long as you are physically able to do it, get over your inhibition right now. Its only holding you back in many ways.

Now photographing from this position with a big lens means that you need a way to support your equipment while down low. Some photographers opt for laying their tripod in the sand and resting their lens on the legs. Others, such as myself, use tripods without a center column which therefore allows you to spread your tripod legs out and drop the entire tripod right down to the ground. Others prefer to use special ground pods – both purchased and homemade.

Like I mentioned above, I use a tripod without a center column specifically so I can use it to get really low to the ground. With that said though, I also use ground pods in certain situations – especially those that I can plan for. Ground pods are great because you can literally slide the entire contraption around on the ground to stay in place with your subject.

I use a homemade ground pod that is nothing more than a Frisbee with a 2×4 cut to fit laying inside of it with a bolt for my tripod head to screw onto. You can obviously make this yourself pretty easily. Or of course you can pay $200 for one also. Regardless of what you do, these are a great tool to have in this situation. This particular morning, I just simply dropped my tripod to the ground.

Getting low like this of course does put you right at eye level with your subject. It also allows you to control the background with these little guys. Background is key in wildlife photography and is just as important as light and subject matter. Getting low like this allows you to include, exclude, completely blur out, or keep your background in focus. Its your choice when you get down low like this and that’s what its all about: CONTROL.

The other thing you want to keep in mind when working shorebirds is simply patience. Shorebirds flitter around. They will jump with a wave, fly 50 feet away, and then often come back again. They move around. They are about as frenetic of a species as there is. The key is to find an area that several different species are all working. This usually means that there is a large and diverse food source here – which of course is a good thing since all animals in the world are driven by just two things: food and sex.

Once this location is located, which with this bird was a section of the jetty that wasn’t being consistently bombarded with waves, I set up my camera, lay down, and wait. As the birds acclimate to you, they will go about their feeding seemingly oblivious to you. You will know it when you have been accepted as you might have birds just 3 feet from your lens. This happened several times while photographing on the jetty this morning. Sometimes it is of course necessary to move with the birds. But more often than not, you will find that if you chose an appropriate location, the birds will consistently come right back to you.

The image I chose to accompany this post about photographing shorebirds is of a ruddy turnstone practicing its morning yoga on the Second Avenue Jetty in Cape May, New Jeresey. You can see from this image just how effective getting low like this can be in terms of how you portray, and therefore how your audience views your subject.