My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

How’d I do, rating myself on what’s in my bag

I’ve had my new camera and lenses long enough now to do a post about them, their strengths and weaknesses, and how I did in light of the recent post that I did on buying camera gear on a budget.

For new readers, or those who stumble across this, here’s a list of what my new equipment is.

  • Canon EOS 60 D body
  • Sigma APO 150-500mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM-Canon Mount
  • Canon EF 70-200MM F4L USM
  • Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Lens

If you’re looking for a technical review, complete with specifications and charts, sorry, you won’t find that here, as there are many other places where that information appears.

My purpose here isn’t to convince any one to run out and buy the exact same camera and lenses I have, in fact, it’s just the opposite of that.

What I am going to do here is put down my thoughts as to how well each piece performs for me as a nature photographer who does everything the wrong way. By that, I don’t set up someplace in a blind or hide, almost all of my photos are taken while I am walking in the woods. That means that I seldom have much time to make many adjustments, or to use a tripod.

I hope that in doing this post, that I can guide others through the thought process that they should follow in choosing what would work best for them.

So, here we go, I’ll start with the camera body, even though in my previous post linked above, I suggested that people start by shopping for lenses, then matching the best lenses they could afford to a body in their price range. That’s how I chose the 60 D body, looking at the many lens manufacturers line-ups, I decided that Canon had the best lenses I could afford in the range that I wanted, and the 60 D fit my needs and budget.

The 60 D is a cropped sensor body, the least expensive body in Canon’s mid-level line up of cameras. The controls are generally well laid out, the exception is the on/off switch, which is located on the left side of the camera, tucked under the mode selection dial. For shooting on the fly as I do, I find it easier to turn the camera on, and leave it on for as long as I am outside. That works very well, as the camera goes to “sleep” after one minute to conserve battery life.

Battery life seems to be excellent, I have not drained the battery yet, even though I leave the camera on for hours every day. I charge it once a week on Fridays, so the camera is ready for my weekend adventures, and that charge lasts me the entire week.

It did take me a few days to get used to the Multi-control Dial on the rear of the camera. The outer of the two dials is used to adjust the exposure compensation. At first, I fumbled a bit in trying to make adjustments, but the outer dial has ridges on it to help differentiate if from the inner dial. Now I have no problem adjusting the exposure when required.

I shoot in the program mode most of the time, since I am generally on the move. The exposure setting that the Canon comes up with are very good. The camera reads the focal length of the lenses I’m using, and comes up with exposures that work well for the lens I’m using at the time for the most part. The exposure settings that the camera comes up with aren’t perfectly spot on every time, but, they are very close. The camera tends to over-expose light subjects, and under-expose darker subjects, I suppose that’s to be expected.

The huge improvement that I see over the Nikon D 50 I used to have is that the exposure for the Canon is predictable and repeatable. I could shoot three shots with the Nikon and come up with three completely different exposures, often all three were wrong. With the Canon, I can look through the viewfinder and know which way and how much to adjust the exposure, that’s becoming automatic.

Oh, and speaking of the viewfinder, it is huge compared to the old Nikon, which was like looking through a tunnel. The info you need is displayed well in the viewfinder also.

Back to the exposure system. At times, I do shoot in other modes, primarily aperture mode, and that is easily set with a wheel on the top of the body very near the shutter release button. The same applies to shutter speed when shooting in that mode. When shooting in the program mode, that same wheel allows you to scroll through exposure settings the camera came up with to speed up the shutter, and/or change the aperture.

To be perfectly honest, I have had this camera for about a month, and I am just beginning to learn what it is capable of. My old Nikon was so finicky, that I didn’t dare adjust much of anything for fear of getting nothing but junk photos, as that was the result if I did adjust anything.

One of the features that I am falling in love with is using the AI Focus AF mode for auto-focusing. I can press the shutter release halfway down, and the camera starts off in the One-shot mode, meaning that I can tweak the focus manually if needed when using a lens that allows that, like the 70-200 mm L series lens I have. That alone has saved some shots already.

But, if I continue to hold the shutter release halfway down without taking a photo, and the camera detects motion, it automatically switches to the AI Servo AF mode to track subjects in motion. That works very well when I’m trying to keep up with quick little birds, or even flowers moving in the wind. In fact, I need to use that feature even more often, it works, and works well!

It’s so nice to have a camera that actually functions well again.

I haven’t said anything about the images I’m getting yet, that’s because the lenses are more responsible for image quality than the camera itself, for the most part. I will say that the 60 D is turning out some fantastic photos for me already, and I’m just getting started.

Sigma APO 150-500mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM-Canon Mount

Before I start raving about how great this lens is, I’ll start with the only real negative thing that I have found so far, the thing is a beast to carry, and use.

But, I shoot hand-held 99% of the time, I walk three miles everyday during the week, and try to go at least five miles per day on the weekends. By the time I’m finished for the day, I am literally finished, so arm weary that I sometimes think twice about hoisting it up to my eye for a so-so shot. At times when I am following a small bird in the brush, or waiting for a plant to stop moving in the wind, I have to lower the camera and this lens to let my arms rest before trying again.

This lens would be at its best on a tripod, but it would have to be a substantial tripod to hold that much weight steady.

Is it as sharp at 500 mm as it is at 150 mm? No, I can see a drop off in sharpness as I increase the focal length.

Is it as sharp at its maximum aperture as it is when stopped down to say f/8? No, it isn’t, but those same things could be said of every zoom lens on the market, there’s no such thing as a perfect lens.

I look at it this way, the Sigma is sharp at 500 mm and f/6.3, and gets even sharper at shorter focal lengths and/or stopping down the aperture. When you can not only see individual feathers on a bird, but also get a feel for the textures of the bird’s feathers, that’s sharp enough for me!

Male yellow warbler

Male yellow warbler

One other note of caution I should include before I forget to, it takes a fairly good camera body to make good use of this lens. I was toying with the idea of purchasing this lens for use on my Nikon D 50, I’m glad that I didn’t, as the sensor in the D 50 couldn’t have handled this lens. The sticking point would have been sensor noise at the higher ISO settings that the Sigma often requires to maintain a relatively fast shutter speed to prevent camera shake at 500 mm, even with the lens’ built in Optical Stabilization.

So, match the Sigma lens to a newer body with the better noise reduction of today’s cameras, and I would say that this lens is a winner!

The auto-focus is fast, quiet, and accurate until you get to extreme conditions. I’ll get to those in a second, but first, if you’ve seen some of my recent posts, you’ll have seen that I’ve been having great fun picking small birds out of the brush that the birds are trying to hide in. If you have reasonable expectations of what the auto-focus of the Sigma lens can do, you won’t be disappointed.

However, if you think that the lens should be able to focus on anything, under any lighting conditions, you will be disappointed. For example, if you’re trying to focus on a brownish grey bird partially hidden in greyish brown branches on a dark, overcast day, chances are that the lens will fail. The only other time that the auto-focus doesn’t perform extremely well is when I’m trying to focus on subjects very near the close focusing limit of the lens. There are times when the auto-focus will miss by an inch or so, but with the very short depth of field, that’s enough to ruin the photo.

Shooting using a tripod and manual focus would work in that case.

As it happens, I was able to test my 60 D and the Sigma 150-500 mm lens against a Canon 7 D body, a 300 mm L series prime telephoto lens, and a 1.4X converter on my recent birding trip to Muskegon.

I met another birder using the 7 D body and lens setup just listed, and we began chatting. An American Redstart landed in a tree close to us, I pointed it out to the other birder, then we both started shooting. We were standing only a couple of feet from one another, I could hear his camera beep when it got a focus lock, and had to pay attention to that, so that I didn’t mistake his beeps for mine. At one point, the redstart perched in a spot that for some reason, I couldn’t get a focus lock on it. I heard the fellow birder mumbling to himself, wondering why he wasn’t able to get a focus lock either.

So, in this very unscientific, but very enlightening test, I would say that the two setups are just about equal. There were times when he got a focus lock first, other times that I got a lock first, and both of our setups failed under the exact same conditions.

The Sigma has two modes of Optical Stabilization, Sigma’s equivalent to Canon’s Image Stabilization. Mode 1 is for stationary subjects, Mode 2 is for subjects moving in the horizontal plane.

Sigma claims that the OS will provide up to four stops of shake correction, I’ve never counted the stops, but the OS does do its job on stationary subjects! I have shot a few photos under very low light for a lens of the Sigma’s focal length, and have been amazed at how well the OS performed.

However, I have tried Mode 2 on some shots of birds in flight, and the OS isn’t as impressive then. If the bird is moving horizontally, the OS does work well, but most of the time, birds don’t fly in straight horizontal lines.

If the bird is moving diagonally, as they often are, then the OS fails, as far as getting a sharp photo. I find that when shooting birds in flight, I am better off switching the OS off completely, boosting the ISO, and shooting at faster shutter speeds. The problem is, birds seldom give me the time to make those adjustments. So if you’re thinking of buying this lens for action photography, there are probably better choices out there.

My rating of this lens

For my use, I would give myself a grade of B for purchasing this lens. I had checked it out in the store, and rejected it for my use because of its size and weight. But, when my Nikon died, I was forced to re-evaluate what lenses I was going to purchase. The only reason I give the lens a B is because of its weight, it does leave me arm weary by the end of the day, and it isn’t as good for bird in flight photos as I would like.

If I were a more traditional birder, shooting from a stationary position, and using a tripod more often, then, I would give it an A, it is an excellent lens!

Let’s look at the competition. There’s the Canon 100-400 mm zoom, or either a 400 mm or 500 mm prime telephoto.

The 100-400 mm Canon is close to the same size and weight as the Sigma, and trying one out in the store, I did not like the push-pull zoom mechanism of the Canon. In addition, it was 50% more expensive than the Sigma.

I don’t have figures for the 400 mm primes that Canon offers, but I do know that the 500 mm prime is nearly 10 times as expensive as the Sigma. I’m sure that the 500 mm is sharper, and faster, but I seriously doubt if it is ten times better than the Sigma. That doesn’t matter, I couldn’t afford the Canon 500 mm anyway.

I do know this, I love the reach of the Sigma, and I am extremely happy with its performance! It will get a lot of use, even if I do eventually purchase a more suitable lens to carry while hiking.

Canon EF 70-200MM F4L USM

If I made a mistake in my purchases, this was it, sorry all you Canon L series fans. 😉

Actually, buying this lens wasn’t a mistake, I just tried to convince myself for several weeks that I had goofed. I had this lens on my list of lenses to purchase for several reasons, one was to fill in between the 15-85 mm I knew I was going to buy and the Sigma 150-500 mm, primarily for landscapes.

After I purchased the 60 D body and the Sigma lens, we had 14 days in a row of off and on rain, mostly on. Because the Sigma isn’t weather sealed, and is hard to carry and protect under those conditions, I tried to make the 70-200 mm take the place of the Sigma, it doesn’t work for that.

It’s an OK lens, and I’m sure that I will put it to good use for the purposes for which I had added it to my list in the first place. The Auto-focus isn’t as fast as the Sigma, and it’s a lot noisier as well. I can barely hear the Sigma’s auto-focus, the 70-200 mm has a very mechanical sound to it when the auto-focus is in action.

It doesn’t have Image Stabilization, I knew that when I bought it. In addition, the 60 D body tends to set the shutter speed a little low for this lens without IS, that I can remedy easily enough by shooting in shutter priority, or dialing up a faster shutter speed in program mode.

This lens is the least expensive of the five 70-200 mm zoom lenses that Canon produces, at $709 US.

For a few weeks there, I was telling myself that I should have purchased the version with IS and a maximum aperture of f/2.8, then added a 1.4 converter behind it. That would have totaled just under $3,000 US, over four times as much as what I paid for the version that I did buy.

That setup would have been lighter and easier to carry than the Sigma lens, but without the converter, any lens in this range will be the lens I use the least of any lenses I have.

So, I told myself to quit kicking myself, learn to use what I have purchased, then think of the best solution to the problem of the weight of the Sigma lens. That’s what I have done.

This lens does perform well enough, but I don’t shoot that many photos where this length of lens will be used that often. It will be mostly for landscapes, where I can use my tripod, so IS isn’t that important. Also, for close-ups of things like flowers that are out of the range of the 15-85 mm lens. That’s why I bought this lens, and trying to make it do things other than what I originally intended it to do was silly on my part.

My rating of this lens

Funny as it may sound, I’m giving this one an A grade. It does very well at what I bought it for, it’s very sharp, well made, weather sealed, and fills the small niche I intended it to. I would recommend that any one thinking of a lens of this length consider one of the versions with IS over this one, unless you do use a tripod most of the time.

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Lens

If I didn’t photograph birds most the time, this lens would be on my camera almost all of the time. I would say that of the three lenses I have, that this is the best of them! It is very sharp, color, contrast, color rendition, and color saturation are all extremely good with this lens. Now, I am going to have to start putting it to use!

The auto-focus is fast, quiet, and accurate, right down to the close focusing capabilities of the lens.

It has Canon’s Mode 2 IS, a sensor in the lens detects when you are panning with a subject in motion, and corrects camera shake automatically based on that, and it works. I have shot a few flying birds, and the Mode 2 IS is a huge improvement over the OS of the Sigma lens, but that’s comparing apples to oranges, not a knock on the Sigma.

All the photos that I shot of the flood in downtown Grand Rapids, and most of the flower photos I took in Aman Park were shot with this lens, and I love the results!

If you are considering a lens in this focal length, I recommend it with one caveat, the maximum aperture is a little slow if you’re planning to use it without a flash in low light situations. That wasn’t a concern for me, I bought this lens for landscapes and close-ups, and it excels in that role.

I should note that this is an EF S lens, meaning it is designed to be used on crop sensor cameras. It isn’t compatible with full size sensor cameras.

My rating of this lens

I give myself and this lens an A+! For the purposes I intend to use this lens, it can’t be beaten. It was around half the price of a comparable L series lens from Canon, based mostly on the maximum aperture, but for landscapes, that isn’t an issue. So I have a high quality lens that works exactly as I planned on, at a reasonable price.

What I’ve learned, and where I go from here.

The first thing that I learned is that even a 500 mm lens isn’t long enough for many situations. But, for every situation where 500 mm isn’t long enough, there are situations when it is too long. Following small birds flitting in the brush for example. Yes, the 500 mm lets me get good close-ups, if I can get and keep the bird in the viewfinder long enough to get the shot. Many times, I find myself shooting at around 300 mm so that I can get any shot at all.

The second thing that I learned is that you can’t make a lens do things it wasn’t really intended to be used for. That applies to both the 70-200 mm lens, and the 150-500 mm lens.

The third thing that I learned is that IS, or OS, depending on the manufacturer, is better, and more important than what I had thought before using lenses with it. But, other than that, what I had recommended in my earlier post on buying camera equipment on a budget held true, pick quality lenses and match them to the body that you can afford.

The next thing that I learned is that a man’s got to know his limitations. Carrying the Sigma lens by itself for a three-mile walk everyday isn’t bad, but trying to go much farther than that, while wearing a pack and carrying the rest of my camera gears is a bit much, even for me.

I keep harping on the weight of the Sigma lens, yet I love it, and have a hard time switching to one of the other lenses, because I never know when some bird is going to show up that I’ll want to photograph. But, as good as it is, it is not a walking around lens. However, I can, and will make it work for me that way for a while.

My original list of lenses that I was going to buy was a Canon L series 400 mm prime, the 70-200 mm, and the 15-85 mm lenses, now, I’m not sure that a 400 mm prime is a good idea, after having used the Sigma for a month. That’s the problem with buying lenses, other than renting one, you can’t take one out for a “test drive” to see how well they will work for you. I also had a macro lens on the list to be purchased in the future.

I really liked the setup that the other birder that I mentioned earlier had, a 300 mm L series prime, with a 1.4X converter. That works out to being 420 mm, which may still be too much in the brush. No problem, take the 1.4 X converter off, and I’ll have a 300 mm lens to work with. I’m used to that, as that’s what I had with the old Nikon, but thought that I wanted a longer lens.

I still would, but now I have one, the Sigma, for those times when I don’t have to carry it for miles. The 300 mm and converter is much lighter than the Sigma, I think it will make a nice walking around package in the future. The 1.4 X converter will also work with the 70-200 mm lens, but I see no reason that I would ever use it that way, but you never know.

The 300 mm f/4 L series prime lens also has Mode 2 IS, which works very well for me on my 15-85 mm lens. I’ll be able to get some good actions shots again someday with that package. But, that will be a while.

The surprising thing is, the 300 mm prime, a 1.4X converter, and the 70-200 mm that I have already purchased total less than the top of the line 70-200 mm L series and the converter by several hundred dollars, and will actually work better for me.

The 15-85 mm isn’t a true macro lens, but with cropping, I can make it work as one for the time being. I’m thinking that I can try an extension tube with the 15-85 mm for macro work, saving myself a lot of money there, rather than buying a dedicated macro lens. I know that extension tubes are old school, but then, so am I.

So, overall, I would give myself either a B+ or an A- overall. You know, I should change that, to an A. I was knocking my grade down because the Sigma isn’t a very good walking around lens, but hey, I’m buying on a budget, so I shouldn’t expert perfect. The Sigma may not be a good walking around lens, but it excels during my birding trips to Muskegon, and when I sit out in the woods someplace, something that I will be doing more often, especially as I get older.

Also on my wish list was a 500 mm prime for those reasons, but that was just a wish that would probably never come to pass as expensive as the 500 mm prime is. The Sigma may not equal the 500 mm prime’s performance, but it’s close enough for me, I see no reason to shell out over ten grand for a lens that is only a little bit better than what I already have.

The 15-85 performs so well that I am crossing a macro lens off from my wish list as well.

That means that I have dropped one very expensive, and one moderately expensive lens off my wish list, and replaced them with one moderately priced lens, and a few relatively inexpensive accessories.

So, all told, after rebates and the trade in I got from Sigma on the dead Nikon, I spent $2,000 US for the 60 D body, the Sigma lens, and the needed accessories.

I spent $750 US for the 70-200 mm Canon lens.

I spent $800 US for the 15-85 mm lens and lens hood (Yes, I shelled out 50 bucks for the almost nothing lens hood, proving that I’m not a total tightwad, but I see it as not so cheap added insurance to help protect the front element of the lens).

That comes to $3,550 US to cover everything from 15 mm to 500 mm with a solid performing camera body, not bad in my not so humble opinion. That includes everything, UV filters, SD cards, and the lens hood for the 15-85 mm lens.

After using this new equipment long enough to have a very good handle on what I would like to add in the future, the list has changed as I have noted above, and has become much shorter.

I would like something better suited to carrying in inclement weather, something lighter than the Sigma. Having given much thought to it, I am leaning heavily towards the Canon 300 mm L series prime and a 1.4X converter. Once my bank account recovers, I could pick up the converter and use it behind the 70-200 mm I have, it won’t be ideal, but it will work in nasty weather for the time being. Next spring, I’ll use my tax refund to purchase the 300 mm prime lens, and be good to go.

One other thing I would truly love to have is another body, mine is getting old and tired. 😉

Seriously, I have always wanted two camera bodies, one left set-up and at the ready for wildlife photography, and a second one for everything else. But, that’s a long way off in the future, and I have no way of foreseeing what the manufacturers will have on the market in two or three years, so anything I add here would be pure speculation, very much subject to change.

If and when I do make that purchase, it will be another crop sensor body, the equivalent to the current Canon 7 D.

So there you have it, I stand by the original proposition that I made in my earlier post, select the lenses that work the best for you in your price range, then match them to the best body that you can afford. I won’t be “trading up”, that is, selling (at a loss) any of the lenses or the camera that I have purchased so far, unless I were to win the lottery or something. I can see no reason to, from the photos that this equipment is turning out. Two examples, full size, not cropped, unedited, and the quality has not been reduced at all, you can click on them to see them full size.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

Tulip

Tulip

I think that the quality of those shots speak for themselves, so there’s nothing more for me to add.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

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13 responses

  1. Two camera bodies would be useful. I have thought of getting a second one.

    May 10, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    • Thanks, I am envious of those people I see with two, but I’ve seen people with three or four, I think that’s a little much.

      May 11, 2013 at 1:27 am

  2. There’s no arguing with those photos. I don’t think doing things your way is necessarily wrong. If something pleases you and you enjoy doing it your way who can say whether it’s right or wrong?

    May 10, 2013 at 8:34 pm

    • Thanks. I did the original post and this one because I see so much of what I think is bad advice from magazines and blogs that are sucking up to the manufacturers to generate ad revenue. Not every one has $35,000 that they can drop on a new setup, nor does it make sense to buy your way up to the top in small steps, taking a huge hit in the wallet with each step, at least not to me.

      May 11, 2013 at 1:31 am

  3. Thanks so much for these reviews you do. As you advise, I may not necessarily buy the same lenses because I use my camera differently, but your explanations of why you choose as you do are very informative. Thanks again!

    May 10, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    • Thank you! Your comment made all the time and thought that I put into that post worthwhile!

      May 11, 2013 at 1:35 am

  4. I really enjoyed your photos and this post. I have been going through a similar process of making up my mind about bodies and lenses. I have a 7d and the 100-400 canon prime. I like it a lot but I am saving for the 300 f/2.8. It is compatable with both the 1X and 2x canon teleconvertors and will still AF. It is rumored that Canon will be releasing and upgrade to the 7d soon. Maybe this fall or early next year. For a wildlife photographer the crop sensor camera increases your focal length and I have loved my current model.

    May 10, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    • Thank you! In doing my research for myself, I think that you will love the 300 mm f/2.8. According to what I’m learning, that lens and the 1.4X converter performs better than the 100-400 that you’re using now. Quality does drop off a little with the 2X though.

      May 11, 2013 at 1:38 am

  5. Seems like each different camera we use has both strengths and weaknesses. I enjoyed reading your post and pondering the different possibilities.

    May 11, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    • Thanks Kathy. That was my point, and that pondering the possibilities is something every one should do before they go out and purchase a camera.

      May 11, 2013 at 4:27 pm

  6. This is a fabulous post with real thoughts from the field on how your camera kit works. I think you have a great set up and super to hear that the canon L lens is working better for you now. Love the Palm Warbler shot. Fantastic!

    May 11, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    • Thanks! That’s the weirdest thing, suddenly the auto-focus has sped up and gotten quieter, and now the sharpness is equal to the other two lenses. Oh, and BTW, the palm warbler was shot with the Sigma. 😉

      May 11, 2013 at 7:55 pm

      • Sweet ! On both accounts. 🙂

        May 11, 2013 at 7:55 pm