Knots landing (Part 2) -or why we need a 7D mark 2 as soon as possible!

Oystercatchers, Snettisham (Canon 7D, 100-400L zoom

Oystercatchers, Snettisham (Canon 7D, 100-400L zoom

In the first part of this post I described in a general sense my recent visit to Snettisham to photograph its big wader flocks. This time, without getting into too much detail, I’m going to discuss some of the technique and equipment issues I experienced.

The big difference was that I had changed camera bodies between visits. About eighteen months ago I had purchased a Canon 7D to use as my bird photography body, and I thought it would be the answer to all my prayers. How wrong I was. At first I was surprised at how difficult the 7D’s autofocus system found it to distinguish between subject and background – a bird on a branch, for example. It often seemed specifically to focus on something outside the AF point that was placed so carefully on the bird. I’m still not sure if it was a malfunction, user error, or if I was just expecting too much of it.

Probably more seriously, I was taken aback at how poor the ISO performance was. Even at ISO 400, the results I was getting were markedly inferior to those I was accustomed to from my 5D2. That is perhaps to be expected from a camera with a crop sensor, and I have managed some absolute belters. But more often than not the resulting images have been what a fellow photographer described as “mush”. Underwhelming to say the least! Again it could be down to user error: at 400mm on a 1.6x crop camera any minor inadequacy will be magnified by almost thirteen times. Most wildlife photographers will be pushing a 7D to the limits of its abilities – long, heavy lenses, high ISO’s, narrow depth of field. What could possibly go wrong?

Just about everything. Image not quite sharp for some reason? Easy – turn to your software. Underexposed? Ditto. But in both cases the noise levels quickly become almost intolerable. It may be – and probably is – a good camera in the fairly undemanding situations where a DSLR is typically used. Many people swear by them. But as far as I can see, for its intended purpose – fast-moving action at long distances – the 7D just can’t quite cut the mustard. In my opinion it boils down to this: for good results the 7D demands absolutely immaculate technique.

So following the advice of other bird photographers, it looked like it might be possible to replace both my camera bodies (a 7D and a rather elderly 5D mark2) with a 5D mark3. This became viable once the camera’s firmware was upgraded to allow the use of autofocus on an f5.6 lens with a 1.4x extender. The 5d3 could do the job of both.

My second trip to Snettisham was its first outing as a bird photography lens. There are disadvantages. To reach the same level of magnification (roughly) as the 7D (with its crop sensor) I would also need the 1.4x extender, and this adds bulk and weight to my outfit. I cannot leave the 5D3 attached to my long zoom as I did with the 7D – I also need it for other things. The burst rate is slightly slower on the 5D3 – 6fps compared to 8fps – and this may be to be a slight disadvantage. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, and I’ve been very pleased with the quality of the images so far. It is early days yet, and I’ve only just begun to dip in to the 402 page manual. But the latest images sharpen well, noise is negligible, really, compared to the 7D, and cropping down into the images gives very acceptable results.

On the first visit, dawn was bright and clear but thick fog very soon arrived. Very few of the waders on the pools were actually visible. It really was that thick! But over time the fog lifted to low cloud, leaving lighting conditions that were subdued but very even. Ideal, in fact, for photographing birds with high levels of contrast in their plumage, like oystercatchers (see above). It is difficult to expose correctly for any black and white bird in bright sunlight, so that was an unexpected bonus. Second time around, a gorgeous pink dawn was quickly replaced by powerful low sunlight, which cause some contrast problems for a while.

Photographing birds is a very different discpline to landscape. In some ways it takes me back to my early days when I tended to point, click and hope! But one refines one’s techniques over the years and I expect my hit rate will improve. As it is I’m spending a lot of time deleting images. But I’m sure even the most experienced pro’s will be looking for that one image from a motor-driven burst that catches the action perfectly. A far cry from parsimonious picture-taking of the landscape specialist.

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About Jeremy Moore

Recently described as "Wales' leading environmental photographer"; based near Aberystwyth, and specialising in Welsh landscape and wildlife. He has published the Wild Wales / Cymru Wyllt range of postcards since 1987. His most recent book was "Wales at Waters Edge" (with Jon Gower) published in May 2012. The National Library of Wales has a large number of his prints in its Collection. His exhibition "Bird/land" was shown at Aberystwyth Arts Centre from June until August 2016. It originally received support from the Arts Council of Wales. He is also working on a new book about Wales with the author Jon Gower, due for publication in autumn 2018.
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