Wildlife Lesson #1 – Getting Tack Sharp Shots

Over the years, I’ve received numerous emails from amateur wildlife photographers disappointed in the sharpness of their wildlife images and wondering what my secret is. I can clearly remember how frustrated and disappointed I felt when I started shooting wildlife, so I thought this would make an excellent topic for a Monday post.

To begin with, let’s go over the basic settings I use on all my Canon DSLR cameras when photographing birds. In the past eight years I’ve used many different Canon DSLRs (and the Nikon D300 for a short time) from their “Digital Rebel” series (350D) to their “prosumer” series (40D, 50D, 60D) and their high-end series (5D, 5D Mark II, 7D and 5D Mark III) and even their professional series (1D Mark V) and the basics for shooting birds are all very similar on all Canon DSLRs.

Birds in Flight
Shutter Priority (Tv)
Shutter Speed 1/500th or faster
Center AF Point
Evaluative or Spot Metering
ISO 100 – ISO 400 to obtain a 1/500th minimum shutter speed
AI Servo Mode using Back Button Focus (allows me to switch between One Shot and AI Servo)
High Speed Burst
Image Stabilization turned ON – Mode 2 (Panning)

Birds in Water
Aperture Priority (Av)
Aperture Between f/5.6 & f/7.1
Center AF Point
Evaluative or Spot Metering
ISO 100 – ISO 400 to obtain a 1/250th minimum shutter speed
One Shot Mode / High Speed Burst
Image Stabilization turned ON – Mode 1 (Normal)

Camera and Lens Stability
Most out of focus or “soft” focus images are caused by camera shake. This is very common when shooting with telephoto zooms racked out all the way, even if the lens has an image stabilization system. It is rarely caused by subject movement unless you are shooting birds in flight. In my opinion (after shooting with telephoto lenses for the past 35 years) that it’s almost impossible to hand-hold a shot using a lens over 300mm and come away with better than one in fifty shots in perfect focus. However, a good camera/lens support system can really help. I generally use a Gitzo Monopod / RRS Monopod Solution setup when shooting birds on the water or flying below tree-top level. This simple setup allows the image stabilization system in the lens to do its “magic” and get me about 20% – 30% of my shots in perfect focus.

Image Stabilization / Vibration Reduction Lenses
Almost all telephoto zoom lenses include some form of image stabilization built in these days and this technology has become essential to achieving tack sharp wildlife images. cameratechnica published a great article about this topic entitled The Science of Image Stabilization Technology a few years ago which includes one of the best explanations and video demonstrations of this technology that I’ve ever seen. It’s well worth a quick look!

Depth of Field
The second largest cause of “soft” focused images is due to insufficient depth of field. Most folks don’t realize that the depth of field of a 500mm lens at f/5.6 (even when used with a crop-body camera like the EOS 50D or the new EOS 7D) is about 3 inches. This means that you can focus perfectly on the center of a duck’s body in the water and the eye facing you may not be tack sharp. Due to this factor, I switch to Aperture Priority (Av) mode when shooting birds on the water and place the focus point directly on the bird’s eye. I will also shoot at f/7.1 to provide more depth of field and increase my ISO setting to compensate. By the way, shooting birds is exactly the same as shooting portraits. If the eyes are in perfect focus, you’ve “technically” achieved a good shot. If the eyes are not in focus, no one will look at your image.

Two Examples
Before we go any further I want to illustrate just how difficult it can be to get a high percentage of tack sharp shots of wildlife, especially birds.

The first shot below is the same image I posted a few years ago of this solitary Teal swimming. I took this shot with a Canon 7D set on aperture priority (Av) using an EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM + EF 1.4x Extender with the lens mono-pod mounted with image stabilization set to Mode 1 (normal). The exposure was taken at 560mm, f/7.1 for 1/160th of a second at ISO 200. The first image was the third of six shots taken during a one second high-speed burst.

Tack Sharp Teal

Image #1: Looks Sharp and Is Sharp

The second image was the fourth of six shots in the same sequence, taken less than 1/6th of a second later and it too “looks” sharp but in fact, the Teal’s eye and head are blurred slightly.

Not So Sharp Teal

Image #2: Looks Sharp But Really Isn’t

Here are the 100% crops from both images and as you can see the first image really is tack sharp while the second image, taken less than 1/6th of a second later isn’t.

Tack Sharp EyeNot So Sharp Eye and Head

Even with the best technique and the latest cameras, most wildlife photographers only get a 20% – 30% hit rate for perfectly focused shots of birds. Birds are perhaps the most difficult subject to photograph and it takes hours and hours of practice to perfect your techniques. A simple method to get more bird shots in focus is to take more bird shots. Use your camera’s high-speed burst mode when photographing birds. The more shots you take, the better the odds are that you’ll come away with a few really nice images.

Resources
Arthur Morris (BirdsAsArt.com) is probably the best bird photographer in the world today using Canon gear and his web site, books and blog are full of great information on photographing birds. Moose Peterson, a Nikon shooter, is also well known for his wildlife photography and his blog and books are exceptional resources for any wildlife photographer.

Final Thoughts
When reading any blog about photography, remember that most authors generally post their best images. You don’t get to see the hundreds or thousands of shots they culled though to find the really nice shots they finally posted. So don’t be discouraged when you return home from an outing to find that 90% of your shots aren’t great. Neither are 90% of ours!

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Workshop Preparation Post #2: Flying Straight & Level

In landscape photography its the little things that count. One of the most important aspects of creating a well composed landscape image is knowing where “level” is. This is especially true when your background is hilly or mountainous. We use our sense of “level” so much every day that a person will look at an image on the web or in print and instinctively know if it’s not perfectly level.

Nikon's Virtual HorizonFinding the perfect “level” has always been fairly easy for Nikon shooters since inclusion of a Virtual Horizon in the D3, D300 and D700 firmware and now owners of Canon’s EOS 7D or 5D Mark III have the same thing.

Before you run out and buy a new camera, there is a simple answer that works for all of us. The folks at Adorama sell a great little Hot Shoe Bubble Level 337 made by Manfrotto that takes all the guesswork out of finding a perfect “level” in our landscape images. For $34.00 it’s an inexpensive tool that every landscape photographer should carry with them in the field and it’s a required accessory during the Texas Landscape Safari. (Note: Adorama now sells their own Hot Shoe Bubble Level for only $5.95. Hard to Beat That)

Hot Shoe Bubble Level

Hot Shoe Bubble Level
Copyright © 2008 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shots taken with a Canon Powershot G9 hand-held at 30mm, f/4.0 for 1/320th of a second at ISO 200 on SanDisk digital film. All post capture processing was done in Lightroom 2.

Using the Canon GP-E2 GPS Receiver

Canon 5D Mark III with GP-E2

I HATE READING THE MANUAL SO HERE IS THE CONDENSED VERSION

Geotagging Images and Adding the Shooting Direction
The GPS Receiver GP-E2 can geotag your shots and record the route you travel. Using the provided software Map Utility, you can view shooting locations and the route traveled. The receiver can also set the camera time via GPS.

Compatibility According to Canon
Automatic geotagging when shooting is supported by EOS-1D X and later cameras such as the EOS 5D Mark III and EOS 7D. Manual geotagging after shooting (from logging information) is supported by all EOS digital cameras.

Compatibility According to Me
EOS 1Dx and EOS 5D Mark III — Fully Compatible
EOS 7D — Partially Compatible (requires included cable, missing some features)
All other EOS cameras — Not worth the price. There are other logging options on the market for a lot less money.

Canon GP-E2 Details

The GP-E2 Receiver is supported by all EOS cameras that display [GPS device settings] in their menu as shown below.

GPS Device Settings

  • Shots taken while the receiver is attached to the camera are geotagged, adding location information (latitude, longitude, elevation, and shooting time) to images.
  • Shooting locations of geotagged images can be viewed in Adobe Lightroom 4 or on Google Earth.
  • Images can also be tagged with the shooting direction using the receiver’s digital compass except for the EOS 7D.
  • For other EOS cameras, only the logging function is available. Using this information, you can geotag images later using the Map Utility.

Turning the Receiver On

GP-E2 GPS Receiver

<ON> Position

  • The receiver functions in this position only with EOS DIGITAL cameras that display [GPS device settings] in the menu.
  • Shots taken while the receiver is attached to the camera are geotagged, adding location information (latitude, longitude, elevation, and shooting time) to images.
  • Images can also be tagged with the shooting direction, using the receiver’s digital compass.

<LOG> Position

  • With the switch in this position, the receiver keeps a record of location information along the route traveled.
  • The route can be viewed on a virtual map. Logs can also be used to geotag images at a later time.
  • The images that can be geotagged after shooting with logging information are JPEG and RAW images (file extension: CR2) shot with EOS DIGITAL cameras.
  • Movie files can also be geotagged this way at a later time, when using cameras that display [GPS device settings] in the menu (except with the EOS 7D).
  • When the receiver is attached or connected to a camera that displays the [GPS device settings] menu item, the receiver will geotag images as you shoot, and periodically log location information. Images can also be tagged with the shooting direction.

* EOS 7D does not support tagging of the shooting direction.

GPS Information Display

GPS Device Settings Menu

GPS Details

GPS Information Display

Battery Life Expectations

GPS Battery Life

Here’s What the Map Looks Like in Adobe Lightroom 4

Adobe Lightroom Map

Now, wasn’t that a lot simpler than reading the manual?

The Results

The Big Valley

The Big Valley – Vanderpool, Texas
Copyright © 2012 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 60mm, f/14 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 4.
Click on the image above for a larger version.

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Canon’s GPS Unit – It’s About Time!

The old saying goes something like this; “good things come to those that wait”. In the case of Canon shooters, this old saying should say “good things come to those that wait and wait and wait and wait some more”.

Canon quietly launched their first foray into the geotagging market earlier this year with the introduction of the GP-E2 hotshoe-mounted GPS unit. This unit gives “some” Canon shooters the ability to geo-tag their images with latitude and longitude data in the EXIF fields, a feature that Nikon shooters have had for several years now. For now, the GP-E2 unit adds this much-requested feature to the EOS-1D X, the EOS 5D Mark III and the EOS 7D cameras only, but Canon promises compatibility with future models as well.

Canon 5D Mark III with GP-E2

Features
For simple and accurate recording of time and location information, this compact GPS receiver is the perfect complement to the EOS 5D Mark III for landscape and wildlife photographers. The GP-E2 records location information such as longitude, latitude, elevation, direction and Universal Coordinated Time (UTC) as EXIF data, while also serving as an electronic compass on camera or off. Connectivity options include hot shoe connections with the EOS 5D Mark III and the EOS-1D X but USB connection only with the EOS 7D. The smart design and rugged construction ensures reliability plus the ability to be used as a standalone GPS logger.

Build Quality
To be able to endure a photographer’s travels, Canon designed the GP-E2 with much the same rugged and durable exterior construction as the EOS 5D Mark III DSLR body while still remaining compact and lightweight. Able to withstand harsh weather conditions, the GP-E2 is a great addition to the EOS 5D Mark III for those who take their EOS system out into even the most remote environments. It offers the same level of dust- and weather- resistance as the EOS 5D Mark III when connected to the camera’s hot shoe, but weather-resistance decreases somewhat when connected via the USB cable.

Canon's GP-E2 GPS Unit

Geo-Logging
Additionally, the GP-E2 can be used as a standalone GPS logger. It can be carried in its included case or users can wear it comfortably on their waist. The location information is automatically stored on the GP-E2 at specific intervals and logged information can be added to the EXIF information at a later time using the supplied Map Utility.

Batteries
The GPS Receiver GP-E2′s uses readily available AA batteries, so users can easily power up the receiver without worrying about recharging. Given that AA batteries are perhaps the most widely available power source anywhere around the world, I think Canon has made a good move here. Because the GP-E2 has its own power source, photographers can still get hours of continuous use with the camera because the GP-E2 will never drain the camera’s battery.

Canon's GP-E2 Top

Compatibility
Automatic geotagging when shooting is supported by EOS-1D X and later cameras such as the EOS 5D Mark III and EOS 7D. Manual geotagging after shooting (from logging information) supported by all EOS digital cameras.

Conclusions
Canon shooters have waited impatiently for GPS capabilities while watching their Nikon friends enjoy the benefits of a hot-shoe mounted GPS unit for several years now. With the introduction of the Canon GP-E2 and now the new EOS 6D, it seems like Canon shooters are finally on par with their Nikon brothers and sisters. All I can say in conclusion is “it’s about damn time!”

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

Understanding the Differences Between Canon’s EF and EF-S Lenses

It’s been a while since I posted this article the first time so I thought it time to clear up a little misinformation I’ve seen floating around the web lately.

What is this Field of View Crop Factor (1.6x FOVCF) everyone keeps talking about and how does this affect my lens choices for the Canon DSLR cameras?

As you know the sensor in the new Rebels, EOS 60D and EOS 7D are much smaller than the full frame sensor found in Canon’s high-end DSLRs like the EOS 5D Mark II and 1D Mark IV. The physical focal length is a optical measurement of a lens and does not change just because you mount it on a 1.6x FOVCF camera like the 60D or 7D, but the field of view the lens exhibits certainly does.

For example, if you are looking for a field of view that a 50mm lens provides on a full-frame DSLR body like the 5D Mark II, you’ll probably want a 35mm lens on your 60D since 1.6 x 35mm = 56mm. The lens is still a 35mm lens, but the final image captured by your 60D will only include a crop of the lens’ complete image.

Wildlife photographers really love the benefit of using high crop factor (1.6x) DSLRs like the 60D or 7D since they can achieve tight subject framing from a greater distance or from the same distance with a shorter, less expensive lens. Using an EF 500mm f/4 L IS USM telephoto lens on a 60D yields the same field of view as an 800mm f/4 IS USM lens would on a 5D Mark II.

So where does the EF-S lens fit in this?

Canon developed the EF-S series lenses (the “S” stands for short back focus) with the rear element of the lens closer to the image sensor than on the EF series lenses. They also matched the image circle of these lenses to the APS-C sensor size. This design enables EF-S lenses to be made smaller, lighter and less expensive. A perfect match for their consumer and prosumer grade DSLR cameras.

Comparing Canon's EF and EF-S Lenses

Canon EF-S lenses are designed specifically for the 1.6x FOVCF DSLR bodies but still require the same 1.6x crop factor to be applied as the standard Canon EF Lenses to get the equivalent field of view comparison. Again, this is because the physical focal length of the lens is the same, regardless of which camera it’s mounted on.

The Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM is a great example of a well designed EF-S series lens. It provides a field of view similar to what Canon’s popular EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II USM and EF 17-40mm f/4.0 L USM do on a full frame camera like the 5D Mark II.

Landscape Photography Lens Selection Guide

Many folks wonder which lens or lenses to bring to a landscape workshop like the Texas Landscape Safari. Given how many fine lenses are available on the market today, answering this question is not quite as simple as it seems. While I can’t give each of you specific recommendations (since I have no idea your camera type or your budget), here’s a list of the lenses I’ve used for landscape photography over the past few years along with a few reasons why each makes a good nature or landscape lens.

One important thing to keep in mind, since most landscape shots are taken with the camera mounted on a tripod, image stabilized lenses become much less important. You can save yourself hundreds of dollars on landscape lenses by looking at non “IS” or “VR” lenses only.

Landscape Lens Selection

Ultra-Wide Angle Zooms
Many of the scenes you’ll encounter during a landscape photography workshop will require a wide angle lens and in Texas, the wider the better. If you shoot a camera with an APS-C size sensor like the Canon Rebel Series or the new 7D or 60D, then the Canon EF-S 10mm f/3.5-4.5 USM is your best bet for a tack-sharp wide-angle zoom.

If you shoot with a full frame camera like the Canon 5D Mark II, then you have a few more choices such as the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM or the more expensive Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II USM lens.

Wide-Angle Primes
Many landscape photographers prefer to “zoom with their feet” and carry wide-angle prime (single focal length) lenses instead of zooms. Before the days of computer controlled lens grinding, prime lenses were substantially sharper than zoom lenses but today most high-end zooms compete very well with prime lenses in terms of sharpness. I understand from my friends (on the dark side) that Nikon has released a very sharp wide-angle prime for their APS-C cameras but unfortunately for Canon shooters, there are no EF-S series prime lenses so finding a wide-angle lens for a Canon Rebel is tough.

Wide-to-Medium Telephoto Zooms
This type of lens is probably the most widely used for amateur landscape photographers due to the broad focal range coverage and competitive pricing among manufacturers.

For APS-C cameras, Canon offers many lenses that fit into this category such as the brand new Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM, the older Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM as well as the Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens. All three are great choices for owners of a Digital Rebel, EOS 7D or EOS 60D.

For those of us that shoot with full-frame cameras like the Canon 5D2 there are also many great choices like the tack-sharp Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L USM or my favorite, the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM which is one of Canon’s best selling lenses of all time.

Medium Telephoto Zooms
Although not strictly landscape lenses, a good medium telephoto zoom can be a real asset when shooting Texas landscapes from a distance. I highly recommend any of these Canon lenses and their Nikon equivalents. The Canon EF 70-200mm f/4.0 L USM lens is without a doubt, the best “value” offered today by any lens manufacturer. Thirty years ago a lens like this would have cost thousands and today this little baby can be yours for less than $700. Yes, you can spend more on the image stabilized version or on the much larger and faster f/2.8 version but for landscape photography this is one sweet deal.

Macro Lenses
Many landscape photographers prefer “going wide” but never forget the beauty of getting real close. Both Canon & Nikon make excellent macro lenses such as the Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM or the new Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 L IS USM (the first macro with image stabilization). Don’t forget that today, many medium telephoto lenses allow close-focus macro photography and with Canon’s 500D Close-Up “filter” almost any lens can become a macro lens.

Conclusions & A Fresh Thought
Your lens choices for landscape photography are almost limitless and every lens manufacturer has dozens of models to choose from in every price range imaginable. But before you rush out and spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on new lenses keep one thought in mind (stolen shamelessly from David duChemin), “Gear is Good, but Vision is Better”.

A new lens will not make you a better photographer and some of the most spectacular landscape images I’ve ever seen were taken with a 50mm plastic lens costing less than $100. So to answer your original question on “which lens to bring?”, bring them all but more importantly, bring your imagination and creativity.

Giant

Giant – 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 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 40mm, f/11 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.

Wet & Dry

It’s hard to believe but the drought here in Texas continues to get worse and worse. Almost every single county is under a “burn ban” and most are under severe water restrictions. Out daily temperatures have exceeded 100F for several weeks and our normal afternoon thunderstorms have yet to appear. The lakes are down to their lowest levels in years and the creeks and bayous are fast running dry. Even the ducks seem a little “parched” this year.

Dry

Dry – Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Copyright © 2011 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 hand-held. The exposure was taken at 560mm, f/7.1 for 1/200th of a second at ISO 100. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

Wet

Wet – Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Copyright © 2011 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 hand-held. The exposure was taken at 560mm, f/7.1 for 1/200th of a second at ISO 100. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.