Friday, March 27, 2015

My visit to Strasbourg, France - Beautiful landscapes and night shots

I have photographed numerous WRC (World Rally Championships) events over the last couple of years, and enjoyed visiting the cool locations where they hold these car races. The rally in Sardinia, Italy was nice but really hot and dusty. This time I was in France to shoot the rally, and I was lucky enough to have a little free time to photograph the surrounding area.

I was taken to this great little town of Riquewihr, with picturesque buildings and rolling hills of vineyards. As soon as we pulled up to the town I knew that this location would be great for photos. As it turned out, the shooting location for the rally was on top of one of the nearby hills. So, after having a nice lunch in town, I made the climb up the hill towards my shooting position. After I photographed the cars shooting by on the dirt roads, I headed back down the hillside and turned my attention to the beautiful landscape.

I walked down to the start of the vineyards to have them prominently in the foreground of my photo. For all of you budding photographers, remember that a good photo often has a strong foreground, middle ground and background. Here I have vineyard in the foreground, the town in the middle ground and the rain clouds in the background.

As I was shooting my landscape photos (using the Canon 5D Mark III with the Canon 16-35mm lens), I saw the clouds part and these Crepuscular rays (more commonly known as God's rays) coming through the clouds. I quickly lowered the exposure compensation of the camera to accentuate these rays.

I also reframed to show the rays in my shot, but also include the church to the far left of the frame.

If you read my blog regularly, you know that I like to find unique perspectives when I shoot photos. For this shot, I walked down one of the rows of wine grapes and found this opportune location. I ducked down so that the church steeple was just above the line of the grape vines. (Photographer's tip: When shooting photos like this, with a dark subject (vines) covering half the frame and a bright sky in the upper half of the frame, it is important to think about your exposure. I kept my exposure compensation down to protect the sky from "blowing out" (which is being so bright that is is pure white with no detail). I shot this and then brightened the lower part of the photo in Photoshop.)

The next night I had some more free time and took a friend out to teach her some night photography. This time I was using the Canon 5D Mark III with the Canon 24-105mm lens. And as always, I carry my Gitzo tripod with me for just these times. I set that up in the center of town and shot this photo.

This photo was taken very close to where I was standing for the first night shot, but shows how moving a little bit and pointing the camera a different direction yields a totally different look.

Just for the fun of it, I decided to move and point the camera straight down the middle of the fountain. (Photographer's tip: In order to get the water to have this smooth milky look, you should change your shutter speed to somewhere between 1/2 sec and 2 seconds. I would recommend that you experiment with different shutter speeds and see what you get.)

Before the pretty blue night sky turned to black, I quickly made my way to a nearby bridge and shot this photo.

For this photo, I made my way across the bridge and turned the camera back towards the pretty buildings on the other side of the water. I used the angle of the bridge to my advantage, acting as a leading line to draw the viewer from the right side of the photo to the left.

This last shot was taken just before the night sky went to black. I took this photo because I wanted to show this "typical French restaurant". I shot numerous frames, sometimes including the light trails from passing cars, but liked this clean shot the best.

I hope you enjoyed our day and evening stroll in France together. :)

If you are interested in purchasing any camera equipment, please click here to go to B&H Photo, as I get a referral from them if you enter this way. I would really appreciate that.

And also, remember that you and your friends can enter your email address at the top right of this blog to get an email any time I write a new blog post.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

My real world review of the new Canon 100-400mm II lens

I know, I know...many of you have been waiting for me to review the new Canon 100-400mm II lens for quite awhile. I have had the lens for more than 2 months and have not written a review until now. Why have I waited so long? Because I wanted to put this lens to the test in numerous real world scenarios before coming to any conclusions. Unlike other sites where they do all types of scientific tests of lenses and show graphs and charts, I wanted to try it out to see how it feels and how it performs in the real world!

Let me start by saying that the older 100-400mm lens from Canon is a good lens, and one that I relied quite often. Since I use this focal range so often and consider it vital to my business when shooting events (generally from the back of a temple or church), there was no doubt that I would purchase a new and improved version.

The original lens (which is one of the oldest L series lenses in Canon's lineup without an update) was a "push-pull zoom lens" which had its advantages and disadvantages. It was really easy to zoom from 100mm to 400mm or vice versa with a quick push or pull of the lens. But this same design created a vacuum effect, drawing air into the camera's sensor area. Some people referred to this lens design as the "dust pump". The other drawback of this design is that the focus would change slightly when you zoomed in and out. If you focused on a subject at 400mm and then pulled out to 150mm, there was a chance that your focus would drift off.

The new version of the Canon 100-400mm lens uses the more common twist method to zoom in and out. And, as it turns out, this too has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of the rotating zoom is that the lens holds focus through most of the focal range. If you are zoomed to 400mm and lock focus, then zoom back to 100mm, the sharpness stays. This design also makes the lens less likely to extend to its longest length when carrying it around. With the older model, unless I locked the lens down with some force, it would slide out when I walked around. This was a bit of a pain. The one drawback of the new design is that it takes slightly longer to zoom from 100mm to 400mm. Instead of a quick push or pull, I now have to turn the zoom ring a long way. Many times, this involves 2 twisting motions to get the lens zoomed all the way in or out. Is this critical? Not in most situations. But there are times when that split second can be the difference between getting the shot or not.

Before we get into the sample images, let me tell you why I love the 100-400mm focal range. The fact is, I like zoom lenses! They allow me to shoot wider or tighter without having to change my position, and in many cases allow me to get in close to a subject which might otherwise be impossible.

OK, let's take a look at some images that I took with the newer 100-400mm lens.

I received the new lens one day before leaving for our family vacation in Mammoth Lakes, CA. So I used this trip to test out the lens for the very first time.

These first two images are a great example of why I like the 100-400mm zoom.

This first image was taken at 100mm. If you look closely, you can see the bird at the top of the rocks.

This second image was taken at 400mm (zoomed all the way in) and you can now see the bird much better.  I did not move my shooting position at all, but the subject is totally different in these two shots.

It was late in the day when I was taking these images. I looked up and saw the sun setting behind the nearby rocks and quickly changed the aperture of the camera to f/18 to test the sunburst effect from the new lens. I was very happy with the results.

These first three images were taken with the lens attached to the Canon 7D Mark II, effectively extending the range of the lens due to the smaller crop sensor. This brings up another point. This lens does work well with either a crop sensor or full frame camera.

Since we were in the snow (what little we have had in California this year), and I was anxious to test out this lens, I decided to shoot images of our dog Cooper. For this shot, I wanted to test the clarity of the lens. This photo was taken with the Canon 1DX and the lens at 340mm, and the sharpness was excellent.

This is a tight crop from the image above. The detail in the pinecone is excellent, even with the lens zoomed close to it's full range.

And then...with my dog in full action, it was time to test the focusing speed of the new 100-400 lens. Once again, the lens performed well.

Not having any scientific data, but looking at the images captured, I would say that this newer lens focuses at least 20% better than the original version.

Back home in the Bay Area, the weather conditions were a little different and it was time to try the lens for sports.

Firstly, I should say that I really like the compact size of this lens. Some people would look at this lens and think that it is really big, but for a sports photographer who is used to carrying around a 400mm f/2.8 or a 500mm f/4 lens at all the Olympics, this lens seems compact and easy to carry around.

I was asked to photograph my daughter's high school swim meet, so I popped the new lens on the Canon 7D Mark II to test both together in this environment. This first photo was taken with the lens zoomed all the way out to 400mm, and the lens worked perfectly.

You can see the level of detail in this swimmer's face. For those people who say that zoom lenses do not give you acceptable clarity, I would disagree.

Here are another couple of examples. The camera was in AI Servo focus mode and tracked with no problems, from the side...

...and with the swimmer coming right at me.

Just for the fun of it, I slowed the shutter speed down to 1/80 sec and panned with this swimmer to see how the lens felt with motion panning. Once again, I was happy with the results. Canon says that the image stabilization is substantially better in this newer version and I have no reason to doubt them. I did not spend much time testing this feature to see how it worked when purposely moving the camera, but it was turned on to mode 1 for all of these photos (even on this shot at a slow shutter speed) and the images speak for themselves.

But the real test for me was not with sports and family photos, it was putting the lens to test at an event. Remember, this is where the lens has to work well. I was waiting to photograph a wedding or Bar Mitzvah inside, with much less light, before making any final judgement. In the last couple of weeks I photographed a couple of Bar Mitzvahs with the lens and had a chance to see how it stacked up against the older model in this tougher environment.

This photo was taken in a rather large temple, where photographers are required to stand in the back. Of course, no flash is allowed during the service, so I am typically cranking up my ISO between 2000 and 3200 in order to achieve a relatively fast shutter speed. Whenever I shoot with the lens mounted on a tripod, I turn off the IS, so that is not a factor here. I also use back button focusing to lock in the focus and sometimes use Live View to zoom in and fine tune the focusing. Taken at 400mm, this lens lets me get up close and personal with my subjects while staying far away and inconspicuous.

For this shot, I pulled back to 330mm to make sure I had mom, dad and son in the frame.

This shot was taken a week later at another temple, which is slightly smaller. This photo was taken at 220mm. If you have followed my work for awhile, you know that I like trying to find unique photos from every event that I shoot. Here I pulled back to include some of the crowd and focused on the family watching the bar mitzvah boy. I shot this at f/5 to make sure that the focus was off on the boy and tack sharp on the family, thus drawing the viewer's eye to the family.

At some parts of the service, the congregation is asked to rise. I used all 400mm of the new lens to get in between the people to show the happy young man.

Here is a tight crop from the same image. Yes, there is some noise because I was shooting at ISO 3200 on the Canon 5D Mark III (in silent mode), but the detail is definitely there.

Speaking of getting in close, I love the fact that this newer version of the 100-400mm lens lets me focus much closer to objects.  The minimum focus distance is now approximately 35 inches which is almost half of what the older lens could achieve. I could have really used this in Costa Rica! There were so many times when I was trying to photograph a critter and could not get far enough back to achieve a good focus.


I can tell you that the new Canon 100-400mm II lens is well worth the upgrade. Here is why it is better than the previous model:

* It is sharper (all the way from 100mm to 400mm)
* It focuses faster
* It holds focus better when zooming in or out
* The image stabilization is newer and better
* The minimum focus distance is half of what the older model could achieve
* Better weather sealing
* The new lens hood has a retractable door for rotating a filter

If anyone is interested in buying my older version, it is now for sale. :)


If you are interested in purchasing any camera equipment, please click here to go to B&H Photo, as I get a referral from them if you enter this way. I would really appreciate that.


And also, remember that you and your friends can enter your email address at the top right of this blog to get an email any time I write a new blog post.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

A visit to Gruyere, Switzerland for photos. Say cheese!

You have probably heard about, and hopefully tasted Gruyere cheese. I could probably live on bread and cheese alone, and this happens to be one of my favorite cheeses. I was excited to visit the small town of Gruyere, the home town of this cheese, in Switzerland.

Before leaving on our trip to Europe, my wife and I looked at a map of Switzerland and marked this as a place that we both wanted to visit. The countryside is really beautiful and we looked forward to some good food in the area. But, along with good views and food, I looked forward to capturing this picturesque town in photos.

(All of the photos taken in this blog post, except for the last one, were taken with the Canon 5D Mark III. I used a combination of the Canon 24-105mm lens and the Canon 28-300mm lens.)

Before stopping at the cheese factory, we drove around to check out the very small village. At one point, we came to the end of a small road and saw this view. Both of us hopped out of the car and took photos.

After making our short trip around town, we did indeed visit the cheese factory. We did not take the tour, but did get a chance to view the aging room, which is accessible to anyone. (Photographer's tip: When shooting through glass, it is best to find a clean spot and then put the lens right up against the glass. I removed my lens hood so that the lens was as close as possible to the viewing window. This will help you avoid reflections from behind you.)

Instead of eating at the cheese factory, we decided to walk up to Gruyere Castle and find lunch. I would recommend this, since the view is spectacular and the food is excellent. This photo was taken from the pathway up to the castle.

We sat on the outside balcony of one of the restaurants, and were treated to great cheese fondue and this view. It was a such an awesome day!

After our lunch, we walked around the upper area of the castle.

It is mostly shops and restaurants, but was still enjoyable.

While walking around the perimeter of the castle, I came across this view. Not only did I like the scene, but this is a perfect photo for teaching photography. Why? Well...most of the time, a good photo has a strong foreground, middle ground and background. Here, there were all three elements, which I found pleasing.

1. The staircase is a perfect element for leading the viewer's eye up to the castle.
2. I had a nice clean shot of the castle, which is the main subject of the shot.
3. I had the Swiss Alps in the background, setting the overall scene.

(Photographer's note: Most novice photographers and enthusiasts will take a photo of just the main subject. Just the castle, or just the mountains. But as you can see from this photo, having all 3 elements in the photo makes the photo more interesting. Next time you are taking a photo, think about your foreground, middle ground and background, and challenge yourself to include all 3 in your shot.)

After walking around the castle for a while, all I could think was "this would be a cool place to get a drone shot." My wife was less excited about this endeavor and did not want me fly the Phantom 2 Vision+ from the castle. On the drive in to the castle, I noticed a small road that went around the perimeter of the hill. So we left the parking lot and I drove along the small road until we came to a good spot to pull over. I set up the aerial camera and let her fly.

Once again, this was a perfect example why I love these aerial cameras so much. Without the Phantom 2, there was no way that I could get this type of shot!

I hope you enjoyed the photos from this location. Now you need to get yourself to Gruyere for some of that amazing fondue!

If you are interested in purchasing any camera equipment, please click here to go to B&H Photo, as I get a referral from them if you enter this way. I would really appreciate that.

And also, remember that you and your friends can enter your email address at the top right of this blog to get an email any time I write a new blog post.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

An amazing San Francisco sunset!

Recently, my wife and kids were out of town and I decided to take off on my own and shoot photos for an evening. I don't know about you, but I love taking photos strictly for the pleasure of doing so. I was not taking these for an ad campaign or another job, but strictly for the love of photography.  And wow, I picked the right evening and the right location to take photos on this particular day!

The previous evening, I was driving and saw a really pretty sunset, and I wondered if it would be as pretty the following day. After meeting with clients and editing some images, I decided to take a chance, and drive an hour north to San Francisco to see if I could grab some nice night shots of the city.

As I drove up to the city, I saw clouds moving in, and wondered if they would enhance the sunset or obscure it. Only time would tell...

I arrived in San Francisco around 4:30pm and drove up to Twin Peaks to checkout the view and check the visibility.

(Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm lens at 100mm, ISO 320, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec)
This is the view of San Francisco from Twin Peaks. And as you can tell, visibility was excellent! I took some photos with the Canon 5D Mark III using the Canon 28-300mm lens. I really like this lens since it provides me with a great range of focal distance. This photo was taken at 100mm, but I did shoot wider and tighter photos.

As I was taking photos up at Twin Peaks, I was careful to watch the time. I use an app called "Sunset" on my iPhone and knew that I had limited time before the sun was going to set. I had a 20+ minute drive to Treasure Island and did not want to miss the best shooting time.

I drove across the Bay Bridge and immediately after taking the Treasure Island exit, I saw a turnout. I parked the car there and decided to fly the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ for a shot of the bridge and the city.

Taken with the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ aerial camera (with built-in camera)
I flew the aerial camera up over the tree line and just caught the setting sun dropping down behind San Francisco. The setting sun was casting a perfect golden light on the Bay Bridge. I took a handful of photos and videos before realizing that I might be missing a good sunset. I quickly packed up the drone and drove down the hill to see this...

(Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm lens at 85mm, ISO 320, f/8, 1/250 sec)
It was only a two minute drive down the hill, but I saw this sky and hauled butt to park the car, grab my gear and start shooting. You see, I have been to this area numerous times before but NEVER seen a sunset like this over San Francisco. For those of you who live in the area or have visited, you know that this is a rare occurrence I had my 5D Mark III, the same 28-300 lens, my Gitzo tripod and Acratech ball head. I was ready to go! The photo above was the first photo I captured. And when I looked at the LCD of the camera, I was blown away! The clouds were so perfectly placed over the Golden Gate Bridge, reflecting the sunlight and still showing some of the blue sky.

(Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm lens at 65mm, ISO 100, f/8, 1/25 sec)
And it just kept getting better! The people there must have thought I was a crazy man. I was standing there, shooting one photo after another, all while smiling and saying "holy crap - this is amazing!"

(Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm lens at 28mm, ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/13 sec)
Normally I would not shoot a photo showing so much sky or water, but I zoomed out to 28mm to capture the entire scene. I really wanted the Golden Gate Bridge, the sunset and the San Francisco skyline all in one shot. I knew that I could always crop this later if need be.

(Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm lens at 28mm, ISO 160, f/10, 10 sec, -0.7 exposure comp)
After shooting in the direction of the sunset for 25 minutes (and loving every second of it) , I turned the camera to capture the Bay Bridge and city in the last bit of evening light. So pretty! (Photographer's note: On this photo, you will notice that I did crop some of the water and sky out of the photo. I want to show the deep blue sky and the reflections in the water, but once the water or sky go too dark, they did not add to the photo. I cropped the water to just below the bridge reflection and the sky to where the deep blue ended and the black took over.)

(Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm lens at 28mm, ISO 160, f/13, 10 sec, -1.0 exposure comp)
In the last remaining light of the sunset (now 6:30pm), I grabbed this shot of Coit Tower. The challenge of getting this shot was metering the camera as to not blow out Coit Tower, but make sure that the sky and water were still exposed correctly. This involved a little bit of tweaking in Adobe Photoshop to darken the tower and brighten the rest of the shot.

(Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm lens at 28mm, ISO 160, f/16, 8 sec, -1.7 exposure comp)
At 6:45pm, the last of the deep blue sky was gone and the night sky had taken over. But not wanting to stop this incredible shooting experience, I walked over to the other side of the island and shot this photo of the Eastern side of the Bay Bridge. This is the new span which was opened less than a year ago.

(Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300mm lens at 28mm, ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/13 sec for main image)

This final shot is one of my favorites, and one that I have already had made into a large metal print (which I may make available to purchase. Email me if you are interested in one.) It is hanging behind me as I write this blog. This is a composite of numerous photos which you saw above. It is the wide sunset shot, now cropped to show less of the sky and water. I have taken the lit buildings from the other photos (taken when it was darker) and dropped them into place, one at a time) so that I no longer have a silhouetted city. The colors and composition of this photo just make me smile, not to mention the memory of that great evening of shooting!


If you are interested in purchasing any camera equipment, please click here to go to B&H Photo, as I get a referral from them if you enter this way. I would really appreciate that.

And also, remember that you and your friends can enter your email address at the top right of this blog to get an email any time I write a new blog post.