What I’ve learned recently, passing on some tips, part II
I’m going to start this post by going back to something that I said a couple of posts back, do not trust any one review of any photo equipment. I watched one comparison review of a Sigma 150-500 mm lens (affectionately known here as the Beast) and a Nikon 80-400 mm lens. The reviewer dismissed the Sigma lens as junk, not worth the money. I disagree.
However, it’s taken me a little over a year to learn how to get images like those two consistently from the Sigma lens, and all of the learning didn’t come while I was using that lens, much of it came from my trials and tribulations with the two Canon L series lenses that I own.
I will admit that both of the L series lenses are of better quality, and can produce better photos than the Sigma lens can, even on the Sigma’s best days. They should, the L series lenses are Canon’s top of the line professional grade lenses.
But, before I prattle on any longer, I should say that much of this will be specific to the equipment I’m using, the Canon 60 D bodies, the Sigma 150-500 mm lens, the Canon 70-200 mm f/4 L series, and the Canon 300 mm f/4 L series lens.
However, the larger point that I’ll be trying to make is that photography is much like putting a puzzle together, and that the more one learns, the smaller the pieces of the puzzle become, and you find that there are more of the pieces than what you thought when you started on the puzzle. Also, that unlike a puzzle, there are more than just one way to fit the pieces together. And that’s the key to what I’m going to attempt to explain, it’s how you fit the pieces together, using your equipment’s strong points to over come any weaknesses that they may have. I hope that it makes sense when I’m done.
Okay then, the major problem with the two L series lenses is that they do not auto-focus accurately, or I should say that from what I’ve learned in the past two weeks is that they don’t auto-focus accurately where I want them to focus. Here’s a photo to illustrate this section of the discussion.
Looks good, doesn’t it? Well, the sparrow is slightly out of focus, and you’d be able to see that if I had cropped that image down as I had intended to do.
I use just the center focusing point on the body that I use for birds and wildlife, and I had that focusing point directly on the sparrow. But, the 300 mm prime lens either has a much larger center focusing point than the Sigma lens has, or, it is programmed to use the center point as a suggestion, and then, look for things closer to the camera in the frame near the center point and focus on those things instead, in this case, the leaves to the left and slightly in front of the sparrow. (remember that the lenses of today have a processor of their own, and also contain the algorithms that the camera communicates with and uses to determine when things are in focus)
Okay, so I have begun doing a few things to assist getting the subject that I want in focus to be in focus. One is using the rear button auto-focus of the Canon body, it speeds up the auto-focus and is slightly more accurate as well.
I still use the hybrid auto-focus mode, where the camera will auto-focus as if it were set to one shot auto-focus, unless it detects motion, then the body switches to servo (continuous) mode. If I can get the auto-focus to switch to the servo mode, I usually get the best photos that way. If it doesn’t switch to servo, and I can see that the subject is out of focus, then I take advantage of Canon’s full-time manual focus and tweak it myself.
You may ask why I don’t just use the servo mode of auto-focusing to begin with, well, that exposes a few of the weaknesses of the 60 D body. In the full-time servo mode, the camera doesn’t alert you to when anything in the frame is in focus, and the shutter will fire whenever you press the release. That wouldn’t be so bad, but the biggest weakness that I’ve found with the 60 D is the focusing screen, I simply can not tell when the focus is dead on many times. So, when I shooting the full servo mode, I get lots of (most of them) out of focus images.
In the hybrid servo mode, the focus point flashes and the camera beeps to tell me when the camera and lens have something in focus, and the shutter won’t fire unless it does have something in focus.
It may help me to see what is or isn’t in focus if I pressed the depth of field preview button, but, my fingers can’t find that button when I’m hand holding the camera, the button is in a very poor spot.
I’ve begun using the Av exposure mode and stopping the lens down to get a greater depth of field, taking a “shotgun” approach to my images, if everything in the frame is in focus, then the subject certainly will be. That’s why that photo looks as good as it does, even tough the sparrow isn’t exactly in focus. Of course, when using long lenses, it’s almost impossible to get everything in the frame in focus, but more depth of field helps, it saved that image.
Although, that means that I’m shooting at higher ISO settings and/or some extremely slow shutter speeds to get the greater depth of field. I’ve learned that when used with quality lenses, the high ISO capabilities of the 60 D body is much better than I had been led to believe. I now have the wildlife body set to go up to ISO 3200 rather than restricting it to below 1600 as I did before. Especially with the 300 mm prime and the Tokina macro lens, the sensor noise hasn’t become a major issue for me yet.
Another equipment strength that allows me to do what I’ve been doing is the Image Stabilization (Optical Stabilization, Vibration Reduction, depending on the manufacturer) of both the 300 mm prime and Sigma lenses. I can get relatively sharp, useable photos when shooting at shutter speeds down to around 1/100 sec. That’s really pushing it when using 300 mm and up focal length lenses.
Okay, so what does any of that have to do with the improvements in the images that I shoot when using the Sigma lens. Well, I thought that the Sigma auto-focused accurately most of the time, I was wrong, or at least I was off a little.
Over the past few months, I’ve been using the 300 mm prime almost all of the time for my long lens, and the things that I do to get that lens to focus correctly have become second nature. So, when I started using the Sigma lens again, I continued to do the same things that I do with the 300 mm lens, and those things are what have improved the quality of the images shot with the Sigma.
Not too shabby for a lens that’s supposed to be junk and not worth the money. 😉
I’ve also found that the same focusing techniques that I learned to use to get good photos with the 300 mm lens works well with the Tokina macro lens.
None of those from the Tokina have been cropped at all! I was using the Tamron 1.4 X tele-converter behind the Tokina lens for those. I’m thinking of having that last one blown up to an 11 X 17 inch print just to see how it looks.
Probably the most surprising thing to me is how much better the images from the Sigma lens are when I shoot close to the close limits of its focusing abilities. The Sigma has always done well on birds and wildlife, but I was never impressed by its close focusing abilities. Using the same techniques as I stated above, I was able to shoot these, starting with the same dragonfly as above.
The 300 mm lens is at it’s best close up, so I was quite pleased that I had it on the camera when I saw this clear-winged hummingbird moth.
But, a few days later, I spotted another of the moths when I had the Sigma lens on the camera.
A few posts ago, I said that one of these days I needed to post a good image of a water strider, to my complete surprise, my best so far came from the Sigma lens.
Again, not bad for a junk lens!
So, by not settling for the soft images that I often got from the 300 mm lens because of the way that the auto-focus functions, I learned to use various camera settings to overcome that, and it has improved the photos that I’m getting from some of my other lenses as well.
I started this post out with the image of a sandhill crane in flight, I used the Sigma lens to shoot that photo. A year ago, shortly after I had purchased that lens, I was of the opinion that the Sigma lens couldn’t handle birds in flight well. I was wrong again. I had to learn when to use the action mode of the Optical Stabilization, and when to turn it off completely.
When birds are flying past me close to the horizon, I can use the action mode of the OS for shots like that last one. But, when birds are flying almost directly overhead, I have to turn the OS off completely for shots like these.
By the way, there’s no banding on the hawk’s tail, which means it’s a juvenile, I wonder if it is one of Bertha and Bruiser’s young?
Because I wasn’t willing to settle for poor images, I tried different combinations of setting until I found the ones that work for birds in flight. But, I think that I have hammered that point enough, time to move on.
Another thing that I have started doing is that when I first see a species of flower blooming for the first time this year, I shoot one or two quick photos of it as I did with this one.
Then, I look at the quickies that I shot and analyze the images to figure out the best angles and lighting that will net me better images later. One problem with that is that the flowers can disappear before I get back to them, either they get picked by some one, or they get mowed down. That’s what happened to this flower, the next time I went back to look for it, it was gone, but, it’s a risk that I take.
I have exceptional depth perception, and I think that it’s harder for me to visualize how some flowers will look in a two-dimensional photo. To paraphrase my youngest brother, photography is the art of making the three-dimensional world look good in two dimensions. So, by looking at photos even if I know that I’ll never post those photos, it helps me to see the best angles to shoot at later.
Taking the quickies also lets me check what exposure I need to shoot at. It seems that every species of flower, no matter what color, reflects light differently, and since our images are formed from reflected light, how the flowers reflect light determines what the correct exposure should be. The sensors in our cameras also record different colors differently.
Some flowers have somewhat porous surfaces that don’t reflect as much light as flowers that have a smooth, waxy surface. That’s what I look at first when I see a species of flower that I’m going to photograph for the first time, the surface of the flowers to see how much light they are going to reflect, the more reflected light, the more I adjust the exposure compensation down. And, it doesn’t matter if the flower is in full sun or shade, that same rule seems to apply. But, I’m far from being an expert, so I’ll just throw a few of my flower photos in for now.
The main flower in that last image is a Michigan lily, and it brings up the last point that I’d like to make, which lens to use.
Where the lily was growing, I couldn’t get the entire flower in the frame using the 300 mm prime lens. The same applied to the Tokina 100 mm lens.
Aha! I have a brand new 10-18 mm lens that focuses down to less than 9 inches, maybe that would be the correct lens?
Close, but no cigar.
But wait, I have the lens stopped down as if I still had the Tokina lens on the camera, maybe if I open up the aperture I’ll get what I want?
Nope, I’d better shoot butterflies for now, and try again the next day.
Well, back to the Michigan lily, this time with the 15-85 mm lens to see how it does.
I think we have a winner! That last one was shot at approximately 50 mm with me holding the camera directly under the flower and using live view in the LCD display to see what I was shooting. Using live view with the screen rotated sure beat lying down on my back with the bugs crawling on me in the jungle where the lily grows!
Okay, to wrap this up, the most important thing I have to say is that it pays to play! Different camera and lens settings, different lenses, different angles, and different lighting. There are lots of “rules” when it comes to photography, but the only hard and fast rule that I know of that always applies is try it, it may not work, but if you don’t try it, you’ll never know what could have been.
That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!