July 19, 2007

Canon 1d Mark III Test Shoot at the San Francisco Zoo

By Stephen Oachs

After months of reading about, and then waiting for, this new camera to arrive, it's needless to say I was anxious to get out and put this new heavyweight camera through its paces. I decided to head to the San Francisco Zoo — it’s close to home and helps curb my wildlife photography habit since work and budget don’t allow me to get out into nature as much as I’d like.

The new 1d Mark III is a 10.1 mega-pixel shooter, taking a blistering 10 frames per second (in RAW too!), sounding more like a machine gun than a camera. I shot with a 4gig Sandisk Extreme III SD card and noticed it was a bit slow to keep up with the camera’s buffer after long rapid-fire moments. The good news is these chips get cheaper every day so I’ll certainly be upgrading shortly to be sure memory storage can keep up with the camera’s write speeds.

The weather in San Francisco was perfect — low clouds, foggy and cool...exactly the way I like it. The clouds defuse the harsh sunlight making for even lighting with no shadows. The downside is a lower level of light, but from all I’d read about the new 1D Mark III the new Digic 3 processor allows images taken at ISO 800 and higher with very minimal noise — I wasn’t disappointed. I headed for the tiger compound in the zoo, where I knew I could find animals in motion with good, non-zoo looking, backgrounds. This was a great place to test a combination of fast frame rates, high ISO’s and more. I chose to shoot with a Canon 100-400mm IS USM since the San Francisco zoo does a great job of getting you up-close and personal to these majestic, endangered cats.

This shot of the tiger in the bamboo was taken with the Canon 1d Mark III (1/250s f/5.6 at 400.0mm iso800). Using auto-focus, I was able to lock onto the tiger and follow him as he paced in and out of the bamboo and thick brush without any issues. I found this camera to perform very well in low light, allowing me to capture shots that I might have missed in the past.

This happy duck is another example. The light was pretty low, so I locked focus on his head and dropped the ISO down to 200, slowing the shutter speed, anticipated his next flutter and snapped the shot.

I have much more field testing to do before I’m completely comfortable with the new Canon 1d Mark III, but early results with in-hand usage and image results look promising. I’ll write a more in-depth review — stay tuned.

July 15, 2007

The eyes are the window to the ... Great shot!

Great news! Stephen is planning, as time allows, to contribute to this blog! I'm very excited, because now we will have much more information than news here and there. You've got to subscribe to the blog updates now, especially if you're a photographer yourself, because he's got some great tips, information and experiences to share! Here is his first blog post...

You've heard the saying, "The eyes are the window to the soul" and the eyes are also the ticket to getting good wildlife shots. If you're new to wildlife photography, or just want to improve your shots taken at your local zoo, here are a few of my top techniques for getting good wildlife pictures.

Tip 1: Miss the eyes and you've missed the shot. Getting the eyes in focus is key to capturing a photo of an animal. It's human nature to look at the eyes. It's how we determine emotion and how we connect. When I was in Homer, Alaska, I came across this moose and he was on the move. Given it was early morning and the light was low I knew getting a fast shutter speed to freeze his movement would be tough, so I quickly adjusted my camera to lock the focus on his eyes, and took the shot. If you look at the full size image (here - scroll to bottom), the majority of the picture is a bit blurry, but because the eyes are in focus, the shot was saved.

Tip 2: Use a telephoto lens. Getting closer to the action, yet staying a safe distance, is the key to photographing wildlife. By keeping your distance you allow the animal to be in their comfort zone and are more likely to get natural behavior. Safety is also a factor when photographing in the wild. Always keep at least 100 yards distance from wildlife, for your safety and for the well being of the animals.

Another good use for a telephoto lens is a trick not many people know, which comes in very handy when photographing animals in the zoo that are behind fencing. If you move close to the fence (keep a safe distance) and use at least 100mm of your telephoto lens, focusing beyond the fence, with a wide aperture, you can "focus out" the fencing and take a photo of the subject with no wires! Now, there are some exceptions, such as, if the fencing is black you’ll have a much better chance of pulling this off. Regular chain link fence is gray and semi-reflective, which in the sunlight can cause a glare and is often too bright to focus out. I’ve also had some successes at trying different angles, so experiment for your best results.

I often shoot with a Canon 100-400mm IS USM and a Canon 28-300mm IS USM. If you're new to telephoto lenses, on a budget and not sure what to get, I suggest the Tamron 28-300mm or a Sigma 70-300mm. I've also had great results with the Sigma 50-500 which, as of this writing, I consider to be the best bang for the buck. These lenses all work with teleconverters of 1.4x and 2.0x so you can easily extend your reach even further, often while keeping auto-focus (with Canon L lenses, a minimum aperture of 4.0 or less will support auto-focus. Above that a manual focus is your only option.)

Tip 3: Use a wide aperture. Learning the effects of adjusting your camera's aperture will go a long way toward improving your photographs, especially in portrait style shooting. In this photo of a grazing elk, shot in Yellowstone (see full size here - scroll down on page), I chose a very wide aperture to blur out a potentially busy background and bring attention to the subject instead. As you learn to control your camera you'll also find that adjusting your aperture will have a direct effect on your shutter speed. This will prove especially helpful when shooting in the early mornings and late evenings, when animals are typically most active and the light is warm and muted.

Tip 4: Adjust your shutter speed to stop/show the action. When animals are on the move you need to decide quickly on the type of shot you want to take. If you want to freeze the action, you'll need to shoot at 1/500 or faster and depending on light, that can be tricky. One option, if you're shooting digital, is to adjust up your ISO, which will make your sensor more sensitive to light and give you that needed boost in shutter speed. Now, if you want to give a sense of motion to your image, try shooting with a shutter speed of 1/4 to 1/8 and pan your camera with the animal. Pan steady and remember, keep the eye in focus if you can! For best results, pick backgrounds that are uncluttered and simple, as this will make the subject standout in the image.

Tip 5: Use a flash to fill in shadows. It may sound odd, but using a flash outside on a bright sunny day actually makes a lot of sense. In this situation, you're not using the flash to illuminate the subject, as you would in a dark setting, but rather to fill in the shadows and provide detail where harsh shadows would otherwise be heavy and dark. It's important to use flash wisely and here are a couple of other suggestions:

1) Be conscious of the animal and whether flash will scare them and

2) There are times where your only shoot is through glass -- using a flash
behind glass will ruin your shot. The glass will reflect the light back at
the camera and you shouldn't be surprised if all you get is a big white

Tip 6: Plan for the best light. There's nothing like a cloudy day to provide soft, even light for wildlife photography. Clouds act like a giant diffuser to the sun, spreading the light out evenly and taking away harsh shadows that are created by a bright, sunny day. Of course, a cloudy day has its challenges as well, such as lower light, which will force you to adjust ISO and shutter speed settings for stopping action and getting sharp, in focus images.

Tip 7: Composition - Framing your shots. Some simple framing advise can go a long way toward improving an image, and for those who are computer savvy, a little trick called cropping (software technique to cut a photo) can help improve composition that wasn't quite right at the time the photo was taken.

The best way to think about composition is to picture a tic-tac-toe grid in the view finder of your camera (I've seen some new cameras that come with this as a feature you can turn on!) and use that grid to organize your shots. There is no hard rule, but the general theory behind good composition is that your subject lies in one of the crosshairs of the grid. Setting up your shot to lead the eye is also a good example of composition.

This shot of Lamar Valley, taken in Yellowstone, is a good example of how the composition of the image leads the eye. The road starts in the lower right corner and stretches off into the distance, leading you along toward the spectacular landscape in the distance. Well, at least that's how I saw it! Again, there's no right or wrong, it's about what's appealing to you.

Tip 8: Shoot with two eyes. This is a tip I'm sharing here, but often have a hard time remembering myself. I can't tell you how many shots I've missed because I didn't see the action coming. By keeping both eyes open you'll see the subject in the viewfinder and you'll also see what's going to happen next.

Tip 9: Anticipate behavior. This tip goes well with Tip 7, shoot with both eyes, because anticipating behavior is often key to capturing a rare moment, action and unique situations. Panning the camera to follow an animal can be a tiring process, so often I'll study the animal's behaviors watching for a pattern and then use some anticipatory shooting, and a little luck, to hopefully capture that perfect moment.

Tip 10: Shoot. Shoot. Shoot. This tip is a no-brainer for those of us who shoot digital. Shooting digital is cheap -- technology is advancing so quickly that, as of this writing, a 4 gigabyte memory card is selling for less than $100 and you can get A LOT of photos on a 4 gig memory card. The bottom line of this tip is take photos....a lot of photos. Don't be shy. I often take multiple photos of the same scene or subject and then later choose the best from the group. This is also a great way to learn; by adjusting your camera between shots you can experiment and see the results of different settings of your camera. And, don't sweat the details of trying to remember which photo had which settings...another great thing about shooting digital is something called EXIF (Exchangeable Image File Format). EXIF data is written to every photo so that later, upon review, you can see every setting your camera used to take that image.

Tip 11: Use a tripod. Using a tripod is one of the best things you can do to improve your photography, and wildlife is no different. By mounting your camera to a tripod you reduce camera shake, which is usually the cause of blurry photos. To take this a step further, I use a shutter release cable, which eliminates the need to touch the camera while snapping shots and thus removes almost all potential for camera shake.

July 13, 2007

Q & A with Stephen Oachs

I asked Stephen if he would mind answering a few questions for this blog, and he generously agreed. So, here is the transcript of our e-mail interview...

Stephen, thank you for taking the time for this interview. It's great to be able to post a little "inside" information about you on the blog. Without further preamble, here we go.

Q: When did you first get bit by the photography bug?

Answer: That’s a good question because I know exactly when. I had been trying to take photos of my beagle, Tucker, with a Sony pocket-type camera. I grew frustrated because he wouldn’t hold still and the camera had a terrible delay between pushing the button and the actual image capture. That's why I set out to buy a new camera. While looking, I discovered that (at the time), all compact cameras share this delay, some better than others, but I wanted instant results. After reading a ton of articles online, I realized that what I wanted was a digital SLR and set out to figure out which was the best bang for the buck.

The Canon Rebel ended up being my first DSLR camera and I never looked back. That was the fall of 2003. My first "money shot" was a photo I call “Snowy Noah,” which is a shot of my in-laws' Sheltie. (I call a "Money Shot" the best I can do, a shot I’m most proud of. If it’s so-so, I call it a Keeper. Only keepers and money shots end up in my galleries.)

Q: Why such an interest in wildlife and nature photography?

Answer: When I first got started, I really enjoyed capturing water in motion, and using a lengthy shutter delay to create a silky look. As I became more familiar with pro equipment I began seeking new subject matter, especially as my lenses got bigger and longer. A few trips to the zoo to test new equipment got me started with wildlife. I’m such a nature/animal lover as it is, to photograph life is really what I enjoy the most. Especially when I can connect to wildlife, such as my trip to Katmai, where I photographed Wild Alaskan Grizzly Bear in their natural habitat.

Q: What are some specific subjects you would love to photograph that have eluded you so far?

Answer: The list is long, but in order of priority, it would be more endangered animals — wildlife that could possibly be extinct in my lifetime if issues like global warming and war continue unchecked. At the top of that list are Bald Eagles and Polar Bear, though I am happy to see the Eagle was recently removed from the endangered species list due to some very dedicated preservationist groups, such as the San Francisco Zoo. The Polar Bear are not so lucky and I read a recent study that stated, at the current rate, the glaciers in and around Churchill, Manitoba, where many polar bears call home, are melting at such a great rate that the natural hunting grounds for these amazing creatures is quickly being lost.

Q: You are a programmer, Web developer and Web analytics technical director by trade; how do you balance your “day job” and your passion for photography?

Answer: Right now work comes first. And since photography is not a cheap hobby, keeping the day job helps keep the photography hobby going strong.

Q: You’re obviously a seasoned amateur and accomplished hobbyist; any plans to take it to a professional level?

Answer: Photography is still only a hobby and, right now, I like it that way. There are a lot of very talented photographers in the world and I don’t see National Geographic calling on me anytime soon, though it would be a dream job!

Q: Speaking of your professional skills, did you build the StephenOachs.com Website? And are your photographs displayed there exclusively?

Answer: I did build stephenoachs.com. I’ve been in digital media for over 10 years now so I have the tools and skills needed to put a site like that together. That site is primarily a place for me to showcase my travels and favorite shots from those trips. I keep an extended gallery at pbase.com (www.pbase.com/stephenoachs).

Q: Are your photos available for purchase?

Answer: They are; usually people e-mail me and I work with them one on one to get them what they are interested in. [Editor's Note: Since this interview, Stephen began arranging for a limited number of prints to be for sale on his Website. I'll post the announcement on this blog when it is available.]

Q: Do you know where your next photographic adventure is going to take you?

Answer: I have two trips I’d like to take before 2007 is over. I’d like to return to the Grand Teton National Park in the fall to photograph Moose and to capture the fall colors. The Grand Teton’s valley is dotted with Aspen. The other trip I’d like to do is Bosque Del Apache, a location where tens of thousands of birds gather each fall and stay through the winter. I’m looking forward to 2008 to see if a trip to see the Churchill Polar Bears can be worked into my busy schedule.

Q: Where would you like your photography to be, in say, three years?

Answer: I want to continue to learn and expand into more areas of photography. One area that looks interesting, but I’ve yet to explore, is macro. I’ve seen some pretty amazing work from macro photographers and it’s incredible that when you look very closely at the small things in life, there’s a whole new world there to explore. Beyond that, I hope to continue traveling and photographing wildlife in their natural setting.


July 1, 2007

Message from Stephen about his Alaska adventure

Stephen sent the following announcement out to his mailing list:

Hello all, I have safely returned from Katmai, Alaska, where I spent 5 days camping in Hallo Bay, photographing wild Alaskan Grizzly Bears in their natural habitat. Let me tell you, these bears are BIG!

I was able to get up close and personal and captured some rare moments, such as grizzly cubs climbing a tree and a sow nursing her cubs. All these photos and the story of this adventure are now on my Website at:


Stephen Oachs

If you'd like to be on his mailing list and find out when he has new postings on his Website, visit StephenOachs.com and let him know, or you can simply subscribe to this blog. I will be posting his messages here as I receive them, so either way, you'll be informed!