A Four-Day Wildlife and Landscape Shoot
In Southern New Mexico With the Canon EOS 1Ds
This report is part of my ongoing evaluation of the remarkable Canon EOS 1Ds digital SLR, that company's first full-frame digital camera, with an 11MP CMOS imaging sensor. I was the first person in the world to publish a hands-on review of the 1Ds. It appears on this site as a five part report and also in Issue #6 of The Video Journal. A more formal version of this review is also published in the Jan / Feb 2003 issue of Photo Techniques Magazine. You will also find the first part of my testing of a full production camera in an article titled Working Field Notes.
This page is a continuation of that report based on a 4 day wildlife and landscape workshop which I conducted in early December, 2002 — just a week or so after receiving my production 1Ds. Testing is one thing. Shooting 17 Gigabytes worth of files in the real world over a long weekend is another.
Here then is a report on my experiences and impressions using the 1Ds as well as images and notes related to the shooting situation.
Canon 1Ds with 16-35mm f/2.8L @ 35mm. ISO 160
The workshop had nine members, and with Chris Sanderson and Steve Kossack who assisted me, we totaled 12 people in three vehicles. The venue was one of the world's greatest locations for photographing migratory birds — Bosque del Apache, and also the unique landscape of White Sands National Monument, both located in southern New Mexico. The workshop lasted from Thursday evening though mid-day Monday, and from before sunrise till after sunset on each day. We were all exhausted by the end, but each came away with some terrific photographs. Work done by workshop members will appear on this site in the weeks ahead.
17 Gigabytes & Counting
When shooing in RAW mode the Canon 1Ds produces roughly 11MB per frame. When converted to a TIFF file using a RAW converter one ends up with either a 32MB 8 bit file or a 64MB 16 bit file.
With a 1GB Microdrive installed the camera displays that there are roughly 83 frames available to be shot on the card. This is a rough estimate because the exact number will depend on the ISO setting and the subject matter. The Canon RAW format features lossless compression, so this explains the variability. I found that typically 100 frames can be recorded on each 1GB card.
To someone that isn't in the habit of photographing wildlife 1,700 frames in less than 4 days of shooting might seem excessive. But particularly when photographing birds, high speed bursts are necessary to try and be sure of capturing a suitable composition, especially when there are many birds in motion. And, as good as Canon's focus tracking is, birds in flight can be a real challenge, so firing multi-frame bursts is a must here as well. The 1Ds can shoot 10 frames in rapid succession at 3FPS.
Also, when doing landscapes I frequently use split neutral density filters. Not any more. I now shoot bracketed frames and create blended composites in Photoshop. This means exposing more frames, but digital frames are essentially free so the benefits are manifold.
Canon 1Ds with 300mm f/2.8L & 1.4X at ISO 320
This frame is typical of a burst of 8 or 10 frames of which this was the one where the five cranes had the most appealing wing positions and the focus was also dead on. The frame below is a 100% enlargement of one of the birds. I decided to boost the ISO and accept a bit of "grain" in exchange for being able to shoot at 1/1600 sec.
This is one of the few areas where the 1Ds has shortcomings, and the faster 1D is preferable. Three frames per second may seem like a lot, but it's far too slow for fast action sports and some wildlife work. The 8-10 FPS of a Canon 1V for up to 36 frames, or the 8 FPS of a 1D are much to be preferred. I can live with the slower burst rate of the 1Ds though given the camera's other sterling qualities, but as soon as a higher frame rate camera with equal image quality is available from Canon they'll have a customer.
Snow Geese & Sun — December, 2002
Canon 1Ds with 500mm f/4L IS lens & 1.4X at ISO 250
In The Bag
People are often curious as to what gear to bring on a shoot like this, and how to travel with it all. Here then is an inventory of what I carried with me on this particular trip.
- Canon 1Ds body, with a Canon D60 as backup. Four 1GB Microdrives
- Wide to Normal: 15mm Rectangular Fisheye \ 16-35mm f/2.8L \ 24mm f/3.5 T/S \ 28-70mm f/2.8L
- Telephoto: 70-200mm f/2.8L IS \ 300mm f/2.8L IS \ 500mm f/4L IS
- Canon 1.4X and 2X extenders and various extension tubes. Polarizers for all lenses
- Canon 550 EX flash. Better Beamer flash extender. Lightning Trigger.
- Gitzo 1349 CF tripod with leveling base and Arca B1 head. Wimberly Sidekick gimbal mount.
- Extra batteries and chargers for both cameras as well as an AC inverter and Digitalcamerabattery.
- Fujitsu subnotebook with 30GB drive. Walkie Talkies and GPS.
All of the camera gear (except the 500mm lens) was carried in a Lowepro Roadrunner AW bag. This is a great bag, and though it is legal carryon size when fully loaded it is too heavy for carryon status on many airlines. Therefore I check it, and have had no problems on several trips. The thick backpack fitting on top acts as padding, the sides are rigid and the base is solid as well.
The tripod goes in my clothing duffle bag and the B1 head is removed and wrapped in a sweater. The big problem is the 500mm f/4 lens. It can go in the Roadrunner, but not with the 300mm f/2.8 as well. So, I carried it onboard the plane in LowePro LensTrecker AW bag fitted with a backpack harness. The subnotebook computer goes in a small shoulder bag with my wallet, documents, books, etc.
Looking back, I never used the flash, the 24mm T/S, the Better Beamer, the Lightning Trigger, the Digitalcamerabattery or the extension tubes. All of the other lenses and gear was used extensively. Security is a belt and suspenders.
Red Tail Hawk — December, 2002
Canon 1Ds with 300mm f/2.8L & 1.4X. ISO 400
This raptor (an immature Krider Red Tailed Hawk) was sitting in the grass by the side of the road in Bosque. It was clearly either exhausted or sick, because it allowed a group of photographers to gather as close as 10 feet away to photograph him. No one moved suddenly or any closer, and he tolerated our presence. After shooting 20 odd frames we drove off and the Reserve's wildlife naturalist, who was there at the time, and who we ran into again afterward, told us that shortly after we left the hawk flew off — so it fortunately couldn't have been in too bad shape. The opportunity of photographing a raptor in the wild, at this close range, was a real treat. (This frame is about a 50% crop from full-frame!).
I'm still not able to give a definitive answer to the question of battery life. It was quite cold in New Mexico in early December, and each morning we were shooting in temperatures that ranged from a bit below freezing to slightly above. During the day it would warm up to the low 50's (low teens in Celsius). This made judging typical battery life difficult. In any event, I found that the low battery indicator would come on after about 200 frames while working in the sub-zero cold. But, it would then stay in that position for at least another 100 frames. At that point it still didn't show a flashing state (which means that it's about to give up), but I'd swap it out for a fresh battery just to be safe.
In February I'll be shooting for 10 days in Costa Rica so that will give me a warm weather comparison. Bottom line — expect the 1Ds to give between 250 and 500 frames on a charge, depending on the ambient temperature. Not bad.
Canon 1Ds with 16-35mm f/2.7L @ 16mm. ISO 160
The rule of thumb is that a polarizer shouldn't be used with an ultrawide angle lens because its effect is uneven with such wide coverage. Usually true, but here with a vertical composition it helped bring drama and differentiation to the sky.
In Art Morris' book The Art of Bird Photography he mentions that he has photographed at Bosque at dawn on some 90 occasions, but has only seen fog there twice. Well, we got lucky, because on our second morning there was a dense fog and it created unique photographic conditions.
Canon EOS 1Ds with 500mm f/4L IS lens at ISO 100
Shooting in fog can be difficult because the effect is opposite to what most people are used to. Tonal range is compressed and there's a great deal of subtlety to the light. In some cases, as this one, the fog lifts and then thickens, sometimes within seconds, and getting the foreground and background just right can be challenging. Here I waited for the tree to become visible to help balance the composition.
In some 2 years of working with the Canon D30 and D60 dust was seldom a problem. I think that during that time between the two cameras I had to use a blower to remove dust less than a half dozen times. In two weeks of using the 1Ds though I have had to remove dust at least every other day.
I was surprised at this since I was under the impression that CMOS-based chips were less prone to dust than CCDs. This may not be the case, and another factor (or factors) may be at work. Fortunately, and unlike with the D30 and D60, one doesn't need to use AC power while cleaning the chip. Simply set the camera to cleaning mode and press the shutter release. A few squirts with a blower bulb and they're gone. One of the members of the workshop though who was also using a 1Ds ended up with one dust blob that refused to come off and he was going to have to wait till he got back home to use a swab to remove it.
Flock — December, 2002
Canon EOS 1Ds with 300mm f/2.8L IS lens at ISO 200
Of greater interest is what I've seen in reviewing the 1,700 odd files. Some show a lot of dust while others seem to be dust free. And this is without cleaning between these frames! I have the impression that the chip becomes charged under some circumstances and attracts dust, and then when conditions change the dust drops off — something like the attraction of static electricity. On the other hand this could be due to the frequent use of high-speed mode when shooting birds. The mirror flying up and down in rapid succession may be causing dust to fly around inside the mirror box, and then it settles down afterwards. I'll be looking into this in the days ahead and will report on what I discover.
One closing thought on the topic of sensor dust. Many newcomers to photography see this as a bigger problem than it really is. In the traditional darkroom "spotting" was (is) a fact of life. Printers would spend hours spotting prints to remove dust and scratches. Those who scan film are well aware that no matter how fastidious one is, dust is an ever-present problem, and one has to become proficient with the cloning tool in Photoshop pretty quickly. The problem of dust on the sensor of a digital SLR is, if anything, much less of a problem than either of these, and with some attention in the field can be minimized.
Using the Canon 1Ds brought to light one of my pet peeves with Canon's system design. It bugged me when I worked with the film-based 1V, but wasn't an issue with the D30 and D60 because of their atrocious autofocus. Now with the 1Ds it's back as a major annoyance. Here's what it's about.
Whether one is a nature or a sports photographer, it is very common to need to switch quickly from One Shot to AI Servo focusing mode. Doing this on a Canon 1 series camera means pressing a button with the finger of the left hand while turning a wheel with the right hand. And, if you're using an Image Stabilized lens, which most Canon photographers using long lenses will be, then one also has to switch stabilization from Mode 1 to Mode 2 while panning. This must be done with the left hand using a switch that is on the lens. All of this means that it takes several seconds to make the switch and the photographer's eye must be taken away from the viewfinder.
Canon 1Ds with 70-200mm f/2.8L @ 105mm. ISO 500.
This is simply not acceptable user interface design. Every photographer that I've ever talked to about this complains that this is a real impediment to working quickly with IS lenses. It certainly makes me wonder if any of the designers at Canon are photographers themselves, or even the extent to which Canon tests out its user interface design with real-world photographers.
In fairness, I should point out that if one is using one of Canon's super-telephoto lenses that has AF buttons at the front then by setting Custom Function #19 to Mode 4 one can switch back and forth between focusing modes by simply pressing the lens button. Good for Canon. But, this doesn't solve the problem of what to do with lenses that don't have this button, and also the need to manually change IS modes. How hard would it be to make the FEL or the Assist button switch both of these through a Custom Function setting? It's just firmware, and I for one would applaud loudly if Canon were to implement this on a future camera, or better yet, a downloadable firmware update for the 1D and 1Ds.
It appears that if you set a Canon IS lens to Mode 2, and the camera is not panning, it will function as if it's in Mode 1. Then, if you start to pan the lens will switch to Mode 2 operation. This addresses at least part of my complaint above.
Now the question is, why hasn't Canon made this invaluable information available to its users?
There's also a partial solution to the problem of needing to shift from One Shot to AI Servo mode with lenses that don't have a control button. Set Custom Function #4 to Mode 3. You can now turn autofocus on and off in AI Servo mode by holding down the * button. Not an ideal solution, but it does the job.
The End of Compromise
All photography is about compromise. We'd want 4X5" view camera quality from a Minox if we could get it. But we can't. So we are forced to use the most appropriate tools for the job at hand. For me this has meant that I use 35mm for wildlife and nature and medium format for landscape. Versatility vs. image quality.
But now with the Canon 1Ds I am in what can only be described as a state of bliss. I have the versatility of 35mm equipment and lenses along with image quality that previously was only available from medium format. No, I can't make 36 X 48" poster sized prints the way I can from 6X7cm scans. But I can make stunning prints up to 20X24", and that's just fine for my needs most of the time.
Combine this remarkable image quality with the great prints that can be made with an Epson 2200 printer, and at long last the digital promise has been met. So, while I look forward to advances in all areas of imaging technology, for the first time in my 35 year career as a professional as well as fine art photographer I can honestly say that my equipment is producing images that not only meet, but actually exceed my exacting demands. What a thrill!
Because I've been asked the question several times recently, let me answer it straightforwardly here. I am moving away from medium format and film in general, and expect that I will be doing 90% of my photography with the Canon 1Ds and D60 from now on. I have recently sold my Pentax 645 equipment and while I'm hanging on to the Pentax 67 outfit, I really am not sure when I'll use it next. It too might get sold soon. My XPan and Leica M equipment stays in the mix because they both offer unique capabilities, but frankly, working digitally has become like a drug; image quality is so superior to film and workflow so much more convenient that it's hard to look back. Film? Oh ya, I remember film.