Gateway to the Texas Panhandle

Folks traveling to Texas from the Western and Northwestern states often stop by Palo Duro Canyon State Park to rest a bit before continuing their long journey through the remaining 1000 miles of Texas. The canyons in the Texas panhandle may not be as steep as the Grand Canyon nor as picturesque as Brice or Zion but what they lack in definition, they more than make up for in scale.

Thousands of tourists drive through Palo Duro Canyon State Park each year but few ever hike the hundreds of square miles of trails, paths and dry creek-beds just begging to be explored. That’s a darn shame because it’s in the far reaches of these magnificent canyons that they begin to yield up their secret locations, hidden spaces and picturesque spots. I know folks that have spent 2 – 3 weeks there every year for the past twenty years and they tell me they’ve yet to run out of virgin territory to explore.

So the next time you’re passing through the area, stop by Palo Duro Canyon State Park and spend a few hours or a few days exploring the gateway to the Texas panhandle. I promise you, it’s some of the most beautiful country this side of the heaven.

Gateway

Gateway to the Texas Panhandle – Palo Duro Canyon State Park, 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 17mm, f/16 for 1/20th of a second at ISO 100 using a Singh-Ray warming polarizer and 2-Stop (Soft) ND-Grad filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

Canon EOS 7D AutoFocus Modes Explained

Capturing images of birds in flight is perhaps the most difficult task a camera (and photographer) can tackle. Even the most experienced wildlife professionals are always looking for a more robust AF system in their cameras to improve the “hit rate” of tack sharp shots they take in the field. No photographer wants to spend hours, days or weeks shooting graceful takeoffs and landings of birds in flight and return home to find their images soft, blurred and worthless to their clients. So whenever a camera manufacturer develops a brand new autofocus system for their mid-level cameras like Canon recently did with the EOS 7D, a lot of photographers will sit up and take notice.

Having a camera like Canon’s EOS 7D with a brand new AF system doesn’t guarantee sharp images however, unless you take the time to learn to use it properly. Unfortunately, learning the “ins & outs” of a camera’s AF system can be a difficult and time consuming process, even for the most seasoned of professionals. With that in mind, here’s a few things about the 7D’s new 19-point AF system that you should know before heading out to the field.

Flight Risk

Flight Risk – 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 mono-pod mounted. The exposure was taken at 560mm, f/6.3 for 1/250th of a second at ISO 200. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

New AF Sensor
The EOS 7D has a brand new designed Autofocus sensor. Autofocus sensors work by detecting lines of contrast. They are normally sensitive to vertical lines or horizontal lines but not both. In the real world, these type of sensors (with only one type of line sensitivity) are not generally very effective and Canon has (finally) made all 19 sensors in the 7D “cross-type” so that they are sensitive to both horizontal and vertical lines. To go one step further, Canon has also made the center AF point use a diagonal, cross-type sensor for lenses with apertures of f/2.8 or larger. This is a HUGE advantage over the AF systems found in Canon’s other consumer (XXXD series), prosumer (XXD series) and professional (5D Mark II) cameras. Until recently, nothing like this new AF system existed outside the high-end “1D” series cameras.

Autofocus Point Selection
Here’s where things get a bit complicated so bear with me as I attempt to explain. The new EOS 7D’s Autofocus system is highly customizable just like those found in the 1D series cameras. Five different methods can be chosen to make use of the 19 AF points.

  • Manual Selection: Single Point AF – Any of the 19 AF points can be selected when shooting in Program (P), Shutter Priority (Tv), Aperture Priority (Av) or Manual (M) modes.
  • Manual Selection: Spot AF – Normally, the actual AF sensor for each AF point is larger than what is shown in the viewfinder. Spot AF uses a much smaller sensor “area” for situations where you want to be very precise in where you focus upon such as a birds eye.
  • Manual Selection: AF Point Expansion – Focus is achieved with the selected single AF point with help from the surrounding AF points. This is very useful when tracking birds in flight.
  • Manual selection: Zone AF – This mode works just like “Automatic Selection” but only the AF points in the selected zone are used to focus. There are five zones available (left, top, bottom, centre and right). This mode also makes it easier to track birds in flight, especially if they are off center in the scene.
  • Auto Selection: 19 Point AF – This is the “standard” mode. When shooting in “One Shot” mode, the closest subject to the camera is used to focus. Once focus is locked, the AF point (or points) which were used to focus will turn red in the viewfinder. In “AI Servo” mode, the AF point that starts the focus tracking can be selected. On all previous Canon cameras, only the center point could be used as the primary AF point. By being able to select the AF point to start tracking, you have a much greater flexibility in how to compose your images.

AI Servo II Mode
The new Canon EOS 7D also includes a brand new “AI Servo” mode which boasts several significant improvements to the predictive tracking algorithm. It’s also possible to register a set of “AI Servo” settings that can be recalled using either the Depth of Field Preview button or the Lens AF Stop button. The EOS 7D includes a new “AF Wizard” which guides you through the four autofocus custom functions to register the AF Area Selection mode, the AI Servo Tracking Sensitivity, the AF Priority for 1st & 2nd Shots and the AF Tracking Method. The wizard makes it a bit easier to understand the various AF settings and gives you the option to set them in a logical order (or so they say).

First Impressions
I’ve been shooting birds with the EOS 7D for several months now and I’m very impressed with the accuracy and speed of the new Autofocus system. After shooting with many different Canon DSLR cameras, it’s nice to finally have a decent AF system in a camera costing less than $5000. The AF system in the new EOS 7D puts the AF system in my (much more expensive) 5D Mark II to shame. As you can see in the image above (shot 3 of 7 in a high-speed burst), tracking birds in flight is now almost second nature for this camera.

Exploring and testing all the Autofocus system settings is going to take some time however. Luckily, there are quite a few good articles posted on blogs around the globe pertaining to this subject. In fact, photographer Gary Luhm has posted an excellent tutorial with all his settings for capturing birds in flight. He’s also published a link to a Canon document covering the new 1D Mark IV’s AF settings which are very similar to the 7D’s settings. Both contain great detail about each setting selected and why each was chosen.

My Birds in Flight AF Settings
AI Servo Mode (Of Course)
Manual Selection: AF Point Expansion (Center Point + Surrounding Points)
C.Fn III-1 AI Servo Tracking Sensitivity – Set to 2 or 3 (Medium or Medium-Slow)
C.Fn III-2 AI Servo 1st/2nd Image Priority – Set to 0 (AF Priority / Tracking Priority)
C.Fn III-3 AI Servo AF Tracking Method – Set to 0 (Main Focus Point Priority)
C.Fn III-4 Lens Drive When AF Impossible – Set to 1 (Focus Search Off)
C.Fn III-5 AF Micro-Adjustment – Set to 2 (Adjust by Lens)
C.Fn III-6 Select AF Area Selection Mode – Set to Enable all Choices
C.Fn III-7 Manual AF Point Selection Pattern – Set to 1 (Continuous)

Some Final Thoughts
Getting comfortable with your camera’s custom settings can made a big difference in your bird photography. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try out new settings while in the field. Take notes in the field and keep track of what you change so that you can see what worked and what didn’t when you return home to review your shots. Learn as much as you can about your camera on the Internet. There are thousands of photographers across the globe using the same camera and lenses that you use. I think you’ll be surprised about just how easy it is to connect with others and learn from their experience.

Of course, you are always welcome to post a question comment or remark on any topic. If you’re “blog shy” just drop me an email via the “Contact Me” page here on this blog.

Top of the World

No, you can’t drive your car to get this shot!

You’ve got to hike, climb, hike some more, climb even more, hike even further and then climb down and hike back (6 or 7 hours) just to get this one shot. However, standing on top of the world in the Texas panhandle on a beautiful fall evening makes it all worth while!

Enjoy (and don’t forget to click on the image below for a larger version).

Top of the World

Top of the World – Caprock Canyons State Park, 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 1/50th of a second at ISO 100 using a Singh-Ray warming polarizer. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

Getting Tack Sharp Wildlife Shots

I received an email this weekend from an amateur wildlife photographer disappointed in the sharpness of many of his images of birds. After responding to his email and remembering how I felt when I started shooting waterfowl and birds in flight, 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 five 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) and their high-end series (5D, 5D Mark II, 7D) and even their professional series (1D Mark IV) 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.

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.

Camera & Lens Calibration
In some rare cases your camera or your camera/lens combination may front or back focus, due to a calibration issue. Newer Canon cameras allow you to adjust this on a global or per-lens basis. You can test this using a Lens Alignment chart (Google it). You can also send your camera to one of Canon’s Factory Service Centers in the US for a calibration test and adjustment. I’m not sure what they charge for this service since I generally do this myself using the LensAlign Pro system designed by Michael Tapes.

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 last Friday 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!

Single

It’s unusual to see a duck swimming alone this time of year, when all respectable water fowl are happily married at least until spring. This male Blue-Winged Teal must have been a bit late attracting a mate this year and looks pretty sad swimming all alone.

Single

Single – 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 mono-pod mounted. The exposure was taken at 560mm, f/7.1 for 1/160th of a second at ISO 200. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

Blue-winged teals are generally the first ducks to migrate south in the fall and the last to fly north in the spring (smart birds). They migrate from the Prairie Pothole Region in central Canada to wintering areas in Florida, the Caribbean Islands, the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana, Mexico and Central and South America. These beautiful birds have the highest annual mortality rate (65% of the 6 million die each year) of any species of duck but females may lay as may as ten eggs each year so the average population remains fairly constant.

Here in Texas, Blue-Winged Teals are a favorite of many winter wildlife photographers including myself. Their distinctive coloring makes for a beautiful subject against the clear blue background of a lake or pond. Finding a male swimming alone is a rare treat!

Bifrost Bridge

In Norse mythology, Bifröst is a burning rainbow bridge that reaches between Midgard (the world) and Asgard, the realm of the gods. I’ve always thought the butte between Lighthouse Peak and Castle Peak in Palo Duro Canyon fit the description of the mythical bridge perfectly. Castle Peak certainly looks like Asgard to me and the red and orange caprocks seem to burn a fiery red in the late evening sunlight, don’t they?

Bifrost Bridge to Asgard

Bifrost Bridge in Palo Duro Canyon, 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 19mm, f/16 for 1/15th of a second at ISO 100 with a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3 and Adobe Photoshop CS5 using Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro plug-in filter.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

Early Fall in Palo Duro Canyon

I love the early fall. It’s that time of year when the scorching heat of the Texas summer is past but the cold, north winds from the plains have yet to arrive. When you can almost “touch” the quiet of a desert afternoon and “taste” the fresh, clean air as the light breeze tickles your skin.

Autumn is when the days begin to grow shorter, the nights cooler and the light becomes warm and inviting. It’s that magical time of the year “between” the seasons. For artists, painters and photographers, it’s a time to cherish the light and color before the pale, cold days of winter set in. When the “golden hours” come early in the day and stay late into the evening. When time itself seems to pause and wait for you to capture that one last shot.

What more in life could you ask for?

Early Fall

Early Fall in Palo Duro Canyon, 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 17mm, f/16 for 1/30th 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.

Quiet Pair

The weather has begun to change here in southeast Texas. Our summer and fall drought seems to be ending and the winter rains have begun again. I enjoy our warm and mild winters more and more these days as my tired, old back continues to remind me that I’m not a young man anymore.

The bitter cold of the long winters spent in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are something that my mind can no longer comprehend. Jumping into the frigid Atlantic for a photograph (any photograph) like my friend Mark does each new year chills me to the bone, just thinking about it.

Me, I’d rather wander around Brazos Bend State Park in search of a quiet pair like this on a sunny, winter evening here in Texas.

Quiet Pair

A Quiet Pair – 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 mono-pod mounted. The exposure was taken at 560mm, f/7.1 for 1/160th of a second at ISO 200. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.