Downsizing (including……the trouble with Canon.)

Left : Canon 6d (with L-plate and 24 – 105 mm zoom); Right : Olympus EM1 Mk 2 with 12 – 100 zoom lens.

 

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m not big on the technical aspects of photography. I’ve always felt that cameras were tools like any other and you learned to work with what you have. The number of equipment posts I’ve written could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand with several fingers missing. So this is an exception. 

You might be surprised to hear that I’ve been receiving my state pension for over a year now, and furthermore I’ve come to the realisation that my days as a  professional photographer are drawing to an end. Despite this I bought a Canon 5dmk4 last October and shortly afterwards sold my mk3. I’ve been a Canon user since going digital in 2006 and have dutifully upgraded my main body every few years. In recent years however it has become apparent how conservative new Canon models have become. That’s not to say that Canon make bad cameras; but there have been rumblings that Canon deliberately “cripple” new models to make sure the latest features only appear on their most expensive bodies. Even the 5d4 seemed to suffer this fate. Reviews suggested that even on introduction it lacked some features that its competitors already had. This was the complete opposite to Nikon, for example, who threw just about every piece of technical wizardry they could find into the d850, and I lusted after one of these for quite a while.

But back to the 5d4. It sat in my camera bag most of the time for the first six months of its life. When I did pick it up the battery was invariable completely flat, which I thought was a bit strange. Come the spring it became clear that the battery drained very rapidly, even when the camera was switched off. It went back for repairs under guarantee, but when it came back it was just as bad. At this point I contacted the technical people at Canon.

For the nth time I was told to make sure the Wifi was switched off. Of course it was. I confirmed that the battery charge drained from 100% to zero in ten days or less. This was getting frustrating. A Canon technician told me that the problem was definitely my batteries so I bought a new one. No change. Then the same guy told me that if I read the manual I would see that the battery should be removed from the camera if it was not likely to be used for an extended period.

Ten days! This was (originally) a £3000+ camera body and he was treating me like an idiot. I was furious. I decided to pull rank (not before time……) and contacted Canon Professional Services, of which I was a Gold member. They agreed to examine the camera for me, but could not repair it themselves because I had bought it from a grey importer ………. so the saga continued. Canon agreed that it was faulty so it came back to me and then back to the original engineers for repairs. It came back a few days later with the same fault. The retailer agreed at this point to send me a replacement.

And this is where down-sizing starts.

I had of course read about the new breed of mirrorless cameras, In fact I had owned a series of them – a Canon g10, Panasonic gx1 and gx7, and still have a Canon m5. Most were little used and I still find the DSLR experience far superior. But I couldn’t help reading the reviews – rave reviews at that – that some models were getting. An award-winning wildlife photographer – Petr Bambousek – is an Olympus em1 mk2 user, and I noted the stunning quality of his images. Another well-known bird photographer – David Tipling – uses Olympus om-d equipment. While on the Isle of Eigg in 2017 I met Dimitri Vasileiou, editor of the online “Landscape Photography” magazine who told me he was using an Olympus em5; in fact he had three of them in his bag, each with a different lens attached!

The Olympus “om-d” range of mirrorless cameras uses a micro 4/3rds sensor, approximately one quarter the size of the full-frame sensors I’m used to. The big advantage is that the cameras themselves and the lenses are much smaller. The disadvantage is that the pixels on the sensor are also much smaller and low light performance is limited. Battery life will be a problem, in comparison to my Canons (most of them, anyway). But bearing in mind that I am no longer fully dependent on my equipment for a living, I became very tempted to downsize. And I suddenly had a brand new, unused, and very saleable Canon 5d mk4 on my hands. So off it went, together with a couple of lenses, and in came an em1 mk2 and the Olympus Pro 12 -100 mm f4 zoom lens. In full frame terms that lens is the equivalent of two of my Canon lenses, the 24 – 105 mm and 70 – 200 mm zoom. If I get back into bird photography, the Panasonic 100 – 400 zoom will on my shopping list.

The photograph above gives some impression of the size difference between my remaining Canon kit (a 6D with 24-105 zoom), and the new Olympus combo. But bear in mind two things –

(a) the size difference is also apparent in the vertical dimension and

(b) for an accurate comparison I would have to include an 8 inch long 70-200 zoom lens (weighing about 800 grams) on the Canon side of the equation.

So there we have it. I took the em1.2 out for a trial on Sunday for the first time. Olympus is renowned for the complexity of its menu system and I spent about half an hour trying to work out how to switch the camera to auto-focus, without success. As a I scrolled and pressed and scrolled again a smiley face frequently appeared, apparently taunting me for my stupidity (but actually denoting a face recognition feature). On returning home and consulting the internet I discovered the autofocus control was a ring around the lens barrel. So I have a steep learning curve ahead of me. Wish me luck……..

 

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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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