Final Post of the Year: Photographic Safety

At the end of each year I try to leave my readers with a little something extra, to entice them to return in the new year to share my passion for nature photography. This year I want to discuss about a topic that has become more and more important to nature photographers that visit our southern border; Photographic Safety! To start off, I’d like to relate an incident from last year that reaffirmed my commitment to broach this sensitive but vital topic with my friends, readers and fellow photographers.

Rugged Landscape

Rugged Landscape – Big Bend National Park, Texas
Copyright © 2011 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 25mm, f/14 for 1/80th of a second at ISO 100 with a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.
Click on the image above for a larger version.

As many of you know I love to travel the back-country roads of Texas looking for the best locations and light for landscape, nature and wildlife photography. Some of my favorite spots are several hundred of miles from Houston, scattered through the thousands of miles of Texas’ back-country roads and some, like Brazos Bend State Park are just a few miles from my home in Sugar Land. On a late afternoon hike last December I was approached by a group of wildlife enthusiasts, each carrying several thousand dollars worth of photographic gear, just as I was that afternoon. We stopped and chatted for a few minutes before each of us went our separate ways to capture a few last shots before the sun set in the southwest. Just a normal encounter between fellow photographers in one of the region’s finest state parks for photographing birds (cool) and alligators (yuck).

Threat Assessment
As we all began to walk off I noticed another group of four young men with P&S cameras standing alongside one of the trails and speaking with each other in muted tones. I honestly didn’t give it a second thought until they broke into two pairs and began to follow myself and the other photographers as we headed back to our vehicles. Two of the young men approached me and quietly asked how much a camera & lens like the one I was holding would cost. Since it was now fairly dark, I just kept on walking toward my vehicle and laid the camera & telephoto lens in the front seat while standing there with my rather large mono-pod looking very much like a club. I quietly reached up to the two-way radio attached to my pack and “chirped” the mic button a few times to gauge their reaction. As I had hoped, they heard the “chirp” and assumed I was a Park Ranger, TPWD officer or off-duty cop and quickly turned and walked off without waiting for me to answer.

I started my vehicle, put my lights and fog lamps on high-beam and drove over to the other photographers’ cars in time to see the four men now standing off to the side of the parking lot, light up like four deer in the headlights. They quickly turned and fled to their own car parked at the other end of the lake. I sat there with my lights illuminating the scene while the other photographers put their gear and long lenses away safely. Once the situation seemed secure I explained to them that it was my belief that the four young men were looking to steal my gear and theirs as well. The other photographers seemed a bit skeptical until I explained how the four men had split up and followed us separately back to our vehicles. I also explained that walking around with $20,000 – $30,000 of brand new cameras and shiny white lenses could attract the wrong kind of attention, even in a relatively safe place like a state park.

Concealment and Preparedness
I’ve blogged before about Packing for Landscape Photography but I want to emphasize that this post is about your personal safety and protection and I’ll be quite frank with everyone, the only person that can guaranty your safety is you!

As a husband and father of four daughters I sincerely wish this wasn’t the case, but we live in a world where some folks have decided (for whatever reason) that it’s acceptable behavior to steal someone else’s possessions and even assault them in the process. I’ve hiked, camped, snowshoed and canoed in North America all my adult life and have never run into an animal in the wild that wasn’t more afraid of me than I was of it, including bears, wolves, coyotes, elk, hogs and even a moose. The only animal that consistently preys on its own kind is “man”.

So, I have a few hard & fast “safety” rules when I’m out photographing nature into the evening hours.

  • I never (ever) open the back of my SUV and put together my shooting outfit (camera, lens, tripod, etc.) in the field. Nothing attracts the wrong kind of attention more than letting the whole world see all your shiny and expensive photo gear while you rummage through it for 20 minutes before beginning your hike. I generally put together my kit for the day before leaving my home and rarely put it away before returning home at night. Having your gear ready in advance offers you opportunities to shoot that you might miss otherwise and allows you to quickly and quietly exit your vehicle without attracting unwanted attention.

Filson Sportsman's Bag (Open)

  • I never store my camera, lenses, filters, etc. in an easily recognizable camera bag while I’m out in the field. Yes, I love the “Think Tank Rollers” for commercial work but nothing says ROB ME more than a large camera bag or backpack. In fact my current “camera bag” of choice is the Filson Sportsman’s Bag shown here. It is only slightly larger than my old Domke F2 canvas bag but it holds a whole lot more gear in its main compartment and two full-size, front & back pockets as you can see in this image.

Motorola MR350R Two-Way Radio

  • I never hike without a Motorola MR350R two-way radio strapped to my belt or backpack, especially when alone. I have one with me at all times and another on the dashboard of my vehicle on top of a note that says quite simply “If I’m not back by 10:00PM, call me on this channel because I’m hurt and need help”. In most state parks here in Texas, the Park Ranger or Superintendent will drive the park before shutting the gate to all but folks camping in the park for the night. Most parks close at 10:00PM so my note tells the park official two things when he comes across my vehicle during his nightly “sweep”; I’m not camping in the park and I may need assistance. The radio allows the park official to contact me to determine my condition and location should a rescue be needed. A set of two radios costs less than $50 (USD) and is the cheapest insurance you can find when trouble occurs.

Garmin GPSMAP 62S

  • Another piece of technology I never leave home without is my trusty GPS with a fully-charged, high-capacity, lithium battery. In fact, my good friend and trusty guide Jack, has come up with a way to use an overcharged and partially discharged (non-standard) battery in his Garmin GPS to get over 10 hrs of continuous use. Today I use the Garmin GPSMAP 62S model since it has almost 2 GB of memory to hold my custom TOPO maps and previous routes. I’ve used the less-expensive Garmin Dakota and Oregon units in the past but found their range, reliability and battery life to be a potentially life-threatening issue. When you’re hiking in the Texas outback the last thing you need is a GPS that can’t find enough satellites for a proper fix. The high-end Garmin units have served Jack and I without fail during our recent expeditions and in one case, probably saved us from a 750 foot climb in the dark.

Kimber 1911

  • The final piece of gear that I carry is a Kimber 1911 semi-automatic pistol, that I pray, never (ever) has to be used to defend my life. I’m quite sure some of you reading this will stop right here in shock, thinking something like “how on Earth could a good Christian like Jeff carry a gun?” and “could he really take another life to save his own?”.

Like all major choices in life, the decision to train with, carry and potentially use a firearm is a very personal and difficult decision to make. Only a small percentage of our country’s population owns a firearm (the percentage is much higher in states like Texas & Montana) and an even smaller percentage of firearm owners decide to apply for a “concealed handgun license” and carry a firearm when they feel it’s necessary.

I grew up shooting pistols, rifles and shotguns and have owned a handgun on and off for the past 25 years. Although I’m comfortable around handguns my decision to properly train with and carry a firearm in the field was the result of my age and circumstances as well as where I live and photograph. A friend and fellow nature photographer that pens the blog Montana Outdoors, once posted a picture of his S&W .357 magnum pistol next to a huge paw print from a wolf walking on the same trail. While he carries for a different reason, we both understand that in the field, you are “responsible” for your own safety and protection and I doubt he hikes without his firearm.

Texas is a big place and many of the best locations for nature photography are in areas bordering Mexico. Now I’ve traveled along the Mexican border and into Mexican border towns for twenty years without feeling the least bit uncomfortable but the drug violence of the past few years has turned much of the country’s southern border into a “no mans land” reminiscent of the 1870′s. I’m not making any statements here about cause & effect or about border security policy. I’m just saying it’s a fact that there’s just too much land for the “authorities” to cover and any nature photographer venturing into the border area had better be aware of the risks.

We’ve had less trouble here in Texas than our neighbors in New Mexico and Arizona but the days of pitching a tent along a deserted stretch of the Rio Grande and waiting for a beautiful sunrise to photograph are probably over for time being. Today the watchwords for nature photographers are “situational awareness”, “threat assessment” and “evasion” just as much as they are “camera”, “lens” and “tripod”. These days it’s a good idea to plan your hikes to return before dark, be mindful of exactly where you are in relation to the border and be prepared with an emergency egress (route) should the worst occur. If possible, never hike alone and always leave an itinerary with someone at your base camp or hotel.

More than anything else, don’t take your personal safety in the field for granted. We still live in a world where the wolves will eat the unwary rabbit. Be aware, be careful and be safe and bring back some great photographs to share with us all.

Happy New Year!

Heaven’s Foothills

If there’s one place in Texas that can best be described as “stunning”, it’s the view south from Grapevine Hills in Big Bend National Park. This is a spot in far west Texas I like to call “Heaven’s Foothills” and I sure hope the rest of Heaven looks this beautiful.

Heaven's Foothills

Heaven’s Foothills – Big Bend National Park, Texas
Copyright © 2011 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 24-105 f/4L IS USM lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 28mm, f/14 for 1/30th of a second at ISO 100 using a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.
Click on the image above for a larger version.

Canon’s Not So Secret Weapons for Wildlife Photography

In July 2010 I wrote a couple of short articles about Canon’s two “Secret Weapons” (1, 2) for landscape photography; the EF 17-40mm f/4L USM ultra-wide angle lens and the EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM medium telephoto lens. Since these two articles got a lot of page views I thought I’d finish 2011 with an article about two of Canon’s secret weapons for wildlife photography; the EOS 7D camera and EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens.

The EOS 7D

Canon EOS 7DThere have been hundreds of articles written (including my own) about Canon’s groundbreaking (APS-C sensor) DSLR camera the EOS 7D, so I won’t bore you with yet another review here. However, I do want to point out a few key features of this camera as they relate to a favorite topic of mine; (relatively) “affordable wildlife photography”.

I have to qualify the term “affordable wildlife photography” since many will find spending anything close to $10K to photograph wildlife as completely absurd. For those of you that fall into this category, please stop reading. For the rest of you crazies out there, press on.

The Good News: A New AF System
One of the most fascinating new features found in the EOS 7D is the camera’s brand-new 19-point autofocus system that is currently the best AF system Canon has released to date! No other APS-C camera released by Canon has anything approaching this new AF system. In fact, it puts the AF system on my 5D Mark II to shame both in terms of speed and accuracy. It also gives the AF system on the new 1D Mark IV a run for its money at less than half the cost.

The completely re-designed system includes a new “multi-axis, cross-type, 19-point Auto Focus grid” which are clearly displayed through the new “Intelligent Viewfinder”. All 19 AF points are both horizontal and vertical cross-type (f/5.6) with the center point also including a diagonal cross-type sensor for f/2.8 and larger aperture lenses. The 19 AF points are arrayed in five user selectable “zones” similar to how the AF system on the Canon 1D series works.  Another cool new feature is “Spot AF” mode which reduces the size of a single AF point making it easier to select the precise part of the subject to focus on – such as the eye of a bird for example.

The new system also includes an “AF Point Expansion” mode which uses a set of AF points adjacent to the selected AF point to assist focusing on moving subjects such as birds in flight. My own results shooting birds in flight using the “AI Servo” mode with the “AF Point Expansion” mode enabled were astounding compared to results from previous APS-C models like the 40D and 50D. Focus tracking birds in flight is tough for any camera’s AF sensor but the new 7D seemed to master this task with ease. I was quite honestly amazed and astounded by how many sharp images I could achieve shooting a high-speed burst of a white heron in flight.

The (Not So) Bad News: Digital Noise & Pixelation
Before I get started let me qualify what I’m going to say. First, the EOS 7D contains an APS-C size sensor and as such, it will never be the equal of the EOS 5D Mark II in terms of image quality and clarity. The 7D’s sensor is 60% smaller than the full-frame sensor found in the 5D Mark II and its “pixels” are 32% smaller. If you “pixel peep” (100%) a raw file from the EOS 7D and compare it to the raw file from an EOS 5D Mark II you are bound to be disappointed. The raw files created by the 5D Mark II’s sensor just look “crisper” (not a very technical term I’m afraid) and seem to exhibit much less pixelation. Now before you start flaming me, please understand that this is simple mathematics and has nothing to do with the usability of this camera for a variety of uses, including wildlife photography!

However, when viewed at a more normal resolution in Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop or even Canon’s own DPP, both images look great and both images will print up to 24″ x 36″ and look great. So here’s my advice about pixel peeping high res raw files; just say No!

The Great News: Reach
I love my 21 megapixel EOS 5D Mark II for commercial, landscape and nature photography but it stinks for wildlife photography for two major reasons; its outdated AF system couldn’t track a tortoise on a sunny afternoon in Florida and it has no “Reach”. A 400mm lens on my 5D Mark II is a 400mm lens. However, on the EOS 7D that same 400mm lens offers the same “field of view” as a 600mm lens does on my 5D Mark II due to the large size difference (but small resolution difference) between the two cameras’ sensors. This phenomenon is called “Field of View Crop Factor” and its the main reason that wildlife photographers shoot with “crop body” cameras.

Here’s a more realistic scenario to drive home my point. Take an EOS 7D camera ($1700) with an EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens ($5900) & 1.4x extender ($350) and you have an incredible 900mm wildlife setup for less than $8000. Now take an EOS 5D Mark II camera ($2700) with an EF 600mm f/4L IS USM lens ($8000) & 1.4x extender ($350) and you’ve spent $11,000 for a wildlife setup with less reach and a much less sophisticated AF system. Of course you could always get a 1D Mark IV instead of the 5D Mark II but now you’re up to almost $15K for a decent wildlife setup. Not exactly “affordable”, is it?

The EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM Lens
Canon's EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM LensFor years I shot with Canon’s EF 300mm f/4L IS USM + EF 1.4x Extender as my primary bird photography setup and rented Canon’s 500mm or 600mm lenses with a Wimberley gimbal head when I needed more “reach” which was often. Believe me, for bird photography you always need more “reach”.

Unfortunately, my lower back’s ability to carry the Canon super-telephoto lenses like the 500mm (8.5 lbs) or 600mm (11.8 lbs) is long gone so my options were to give up bird photography completely (which I did for two years) or find another solution that would fit my budget and physical condition. I honestly hadn’t even looked at Canon’s “Diffraction Optics” (DO) lenses in almost ten years after reading several initial reviews critical of the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM lenses made before 2005.

Canon’s EF 400mm f/5.6L USM wasn’t really a contender since it was designed in 1993, didn’t include image stabilization and won’t auto-focus with the 1.4x extender. The Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM was both too heavy (12 lbs) and too expensive ($7200) so I didn’t even consider this lens. I did rent Canon’s EF 100-400mm f/4-5.6L IS USM “push / pull” telephoto zoom but again it won’t auto-focus with a 1.4x extender attached unless you own a 1D series body.

In fact, nothing in Canon’s current super-telephoto lineup met my criteria of light-weight, small-size and affordability other than the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens. So I got a loaner with a date code of 2008 and gave this much maligned lens a thorough workout on an EOS 7D body, without much hope of success. Boy, was I wrong!

Close Up

Up Close – Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Copyright © 2010 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 7D set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM + EF 1.4x Extender mono-pod mounted. The exposure was taken at 560mm, f/6.3 for 1/250th of a second at ISO 200 with highlight tone priority turned on. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

The Good News: Sharpness, Contrast & Bokeh
EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM Lens MTF ChartEarly reviews of this lens complain about an apparent lack of contrast inherent in the (DO) diffraction optics’ design. All I can say is “hogwash”.

I shoot entirely in raw and use Adobe’s LR3 as my primary raw-to-jpeg conversion tool and I found the raw files created by the 7D and EF 400mm “DO” lens to be very similar in contrast and sharpness to those created by my 50D and EF 300mm lens. In fact, the MTF chart for this lens is not that different from the older EF 400mm f/5.6L or the much more expensive EF 500mm f/4L lens.

Bokeh for this lens is good but not quite as smooth as the other Canon super-telephoto lenses. It’s very easy to isolate your subject with this lens when shooting at f/5.6 or f/6.3 and the shallow depth of field remains strong even on a crop body camera like the 7D.

The Great News: Size & Weight


Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM Lens Size Comparison

Canon’s breakthrough “diffraction optics” technology allows lens designers to dramatically shrink the overall size and weight of the lens as shown in this graphic. In fact, the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens is 25% shorter and 35% lighter than a conventional 400mm lens design. It’s roughly the same size as the EF 300mm f/2.8L lens but 1.5 lbs lighter.

For a wildlife photographer this directly equates greater usability and portability in the field. This lens is so much smaller and lighter than a 500mm lens that I can use a mono-pod in most situations rather than lug around a tripod and Wimberley gimbal head.

Conclusions
Wildlife photography is expensive and there’s just no getting around that fact. You need a high resolution DSLR with a quick and accurate autofocus system to capture the action (birds in flight) and a super-telephoto lens with enough reach to “get you there”. This is generally a very expensive setup for any photographer to afford and while I’m sure there are plenty of doctors and lawyers willing to spend $20K on their hobby, most of us just can’t justify the cost.

Fortunately, there are some alternatives worth looking into like the EOS 7D camera and the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens. Both can be purchased “refurbished by Canon” or used from my friends at Adorama. Yes, it’s still a lot of money but with some financial discipline and a bit of luck you can put together a wildlife photography rig that will won’t break the bank and will last for years and years.

Links
The Digital Picture’s Review of the EOS 7D Camera
The Digital Picture’s Review of the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM Lens
Canon Camera Museum Technical Report on the EOS 7D Camera
Canon Camera Museum Technical Report on the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM Lens

Merry Christmas to All

Since this is (probably) my last post of the week I want to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas. Celebrate the joy of our Lord and Saviour’s birth with family and friends and know that we are all blessed with His eternal Grace. And for my friends in New York & New Jersey, Chag Urim Sameach!

Caprock Canyons State Park, Texas

One of my favorite views in Caprock Canyons State Park deep in the heart of the Texas panhandle. An easy spot to photograph right next to the park road but hundreds of miles from the nearest “big city”. Caprock Canyons State Park is one of the best venues for landscape photographers in all of Texas but is getting there takes a bit of time, lots of gas and good directions!

Caprock Canyons Ridge

Caprock Canyons Ridge – Quitaque, Texas
Copyright © 2010 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 23mm, f/16 for 1/20th of a second at ISO 100 using a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.
Click on the image above for a larger version.

Desert Breeze – Big Bend National Park, Texas

Desert Breeze

Desert Breeze – Big Bend National Park, Texas
Copyright © 2011 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 24mm, f/14 for 1/30th of a second at ISO 100 using a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.
Click on the image above for a larger version.

Desert Valley – Big Bend National Park, Texas

Desert Valley

Desert Valley – Big Bend National Park, Texas
Copyright © 2011 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 23mm, f/16 for 1/40thth of a second at ISO 100 using a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.
Click on the image above for a larger version.

Santa Elena Ridge – Big Bend National Park, Texas

Santa Elena Ridge

Santa Elena Ridge – Big Bend National Park, Texas
Copyright © 2011 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 23mm, f/16 for 1/40thth of a second at ISO 100 using a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.
Click on the image above for a larger version.