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

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.

Sandhill crane in flight

Sandhill crane in flight

Female northern cardinal

Female northern cardinal

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.

Song sparrow

Song sparrow

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.

Song sparrow

Song sparrow

Cottontail rabbit

Cottontail rabbit

Cottontail rabbit

Cottontail rabbit

Cottontail rabbit

Cottontail rabbit

Chipping sparrow

Chipping sparrow

Eastern kingbird

Eastern kingbird

Not too shabby for a lens that’s supposed to be junk and not worth the money. πŸ˜‰

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.

Teasel flowers

Teasel flowers

Teasel flowers

Teasel flowers

Dragonfly

Dragonfly

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.

Dragonfly

Dragonfly

Wasp

Wasp

Wasp

Wasp

Wasp

Wasp

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.

Clear-winged hummingbird moth

Clear-winged hummingbird moth

Clear-winged hummingbird moth

Clear-winged hummingbird moth

But, a few days later, I spotted another of the moths when I had the Sigma lens on the camera.

Clear-winged hummingbird moth

Clear-winged hummingbird moth

Clear-winged hummingbird moth

Clear-winged hummingbird moth

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.

Water strider

Water strider

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.

Sandhill cranes in flight, not cropped

Sandhill cranes in flight, not cropped

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.

Eastern kingbird attacking a red-tailed hawk

Eastern kingbird attacking a red-tailed hawk

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?

Juvenile red-tailed hawk in flight

Juvenile red-tailed hawk in flight

Juvenile red-tailed hawk in flight

Juvenile red-tailed hawk in flight

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.

Unknown

Unknown

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.

Sweet pea

Sweet pea

Rabbit's foot clover

Rabbit’s foot clover

Butterfly weed

Butterfly weed

Bee balm

Bee balm

Hawkweed family?

Hawkweed family?

Assorted flowers

Assorted flowers

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.

Michigan lily

Michigan lily

Michigan lily

Michigan lily

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?

Michigan lily

Michigan lily

Michigan lily

Michigan lily

Michigan lily

Michigan lily

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?

Michigan lily

Michigan lily

Nope, I’d better shoot butterflies for now, and try again the next day.

Male eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly

Male eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly

Orange spotted purple butterfly

Orange spotted purple butterfly

Orange spotted purple butterfly

Orange spotted purple butterfly

Well, back to the Michigan lily, this time with the 15-85 mm lens to see how it does.

Michigan lily

Michigan lily

Michigan lily

Michigan lily

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!

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33 responses

  1. Well said, and some wonderful photographs!

    July 25, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    • Thanks Victor!

      July 25, 2014 at 3:17 pm

  2. Goodness, you take good pictures but the cottontail rabbit was my favourite.

    July 25, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    • Thanks Susan, the bunny was too cute to leave out.

      July 25, 2014 at 3:17 pm

  3. Interesting and informative post, Jerry. I did notice, and I hope you don’t mind me making the comment, but in your sparrow photo, the surounding leaves that are maybe on a slightly closer plane look to be very sharp. It leads me to think that perhaps your center focus point may have wavered a bit off. You don’t use live view all the time, to you. I ask that because I feel a person can get a much more stable platform when handholding, by using the viewfinder. Enjoyed this post anyway. I like discussing the ‘nuts and bolts’ side of photography.

    P.S. For what it’s worth, I still think that is a lovely photo of the sparrow. A little sharpening in post proscessing will make the bird pop.

    July 25, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    • Thank you very much, Bob! I have the same focusing problem with both of the L series lenses I have, neither of them focus on the center point, but look for closer objects close to the center. The Sigma lens always focuses on the center point, which makes it my favorite birding lens. I can’t imagine trying to hold even the 300 mm prime lens up to use live view handheld, and the Sigma is out of the question, I always use the viewfinder for both. I know that post processing would help many of my photos, one of these days, but until then, I’m going to continue to try to get the very best out of my camera and lenses first.

      July 25, 2014 at 3:22 pm

  4. Hmm, your post and all the comments are very interesting. The one thing I take away is “it pays to play” or to experiment.

    July 25, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    • Thank you, I’m glad you liked it!

      July 26, 2014 at 3:18 am

  5. I must be learning something because I actually did notice the slight difference in focus point in the sparrow photo! But, it’s still a great photo, IMO. I really love the cardinal pic, something about the richness of the green appeals to my eye. And of course, I think the dragonfly photo is awesome!

    I had to smile about the Michigan lily, only because I have them in my front yard and the other day I decided to try and photograph them just for fun. Turned out much more difficult that I had anticipated! My photos didn’t turn out anywhere near as well as yours. I deleted them all. πŸ™‚

    July 25, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    • Thank you Amy! The reason that I included so many images of the lily was to show people that I tried four lenses and multiple angles before I got the shot closest to what I wanted. You know, I should have included a comparison to the way a fashion photographer works. They set-up and shoot hundreds, sometimes thousands of shots to get one image for an ad, but we try to shoot nature in as few photos as we can.

      July 26, 2014 at 3:23 am

  6. Some very nice shots. Hope to get a chance to try my Sigma 150-500 on a hummingbird moth. Saw one a few days back but all I had was my G11. The results were less than inspiring but posted some of the pics anyway just because I was so excited about the moth.

    July 25, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    • Thanks Bob! If I remember correctly, I only got the Sigma zoomed to about 400 mm or so, I wasn’t quick enough to stay on the moth at 500 mm.

      July 26, 2014 at 3:25 am

  7. I loved all the insect shots – such detail! That last lily photo is really good.

    July 25, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    • Thanks Clare!

      July 26, 2014 at 3:25 am

  8. Following your learning process is most informative but I am even more impressed by your abilty to find interesting things to photograph while you are learning.

    July 25, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    • Thanks Tom! That makes us even, I find the things you find to photograph interesting. It’s because we’re used to what we see around home, forgetting that others have never seen those things.

      July 26, 2014 at 3:27 am

  9. Very interesting post today. I’ve noticed many of the things you are discussing about the Sigma. Although in bright lighting with distant birds, it works wonders. And the more I use it and play with it, as you say, the better pics I’m getting. Today I played with some flowers and butterflies, and yesterday with a juvenile Red-Headed Woodpecker who posed ever so nicely. I actually like the first Michigan Lilly photos you posted that were bigger than the photo. I think the photos that show a distinctive feature of an object or being are very interesting.

    July 25, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    • Thanks Judy! The Sigma is a fine lens despite what so self-proclaimed experts say. It just takes some time to get used to it.

      July 26, 2014 at 3:28 am

  10. Really remarkable photos. Congrats.
    And the dragonfly – I’ve never seen one quite that close-up. It looks almost humanoid in one of them. Or, a human’s idea of what an alien looks like!

    July 25, 2014 at 6:30 pm

    • Thanks Cynthia! I’m fascinated by dragonflies, so you may see more here shortly. πŸ˜‰

      July 26, 2014 at 3:29 am

  11. Whatever lens you’re using, just love those action shots!!! (esp the cranes!)

    July 26, 2014 at 8:44 am

    • Thanks Lori!

      July 26, 2014 at 8:46 am

  12. I read this this morning but never left myself time to comment! I’m glad you were able to get to the Michigan lilies. They’re beautiful flowers and I like every shot you posted.
    I’m not sure what that tall spike of flowers is. I wonder if it could be lead plant, which we don’t have here.
    That macro lens is doing its job well-I like the dragonfly close up! I also like the flying cranes. I can’t imagine that being an easy shot to get.
    I like the shots of the butterflies too. They haven’t given me any good photo ops this year but dragonflies were landing in the path at my feet today, which I’ve never seen them do.
    Great shot of the water strider!

    July 26, 2014 at 6:17 pm

    • Thanks Allen! We’ll never know what the spiked flower was, it was gone the next day. I’ve looked for it or others several times since then, no luck. Glad that you liked the Michigan lilies, they’re one of my favorites, and I shot so many photos to make sure that I got one that did them justice.

      I have one more photo of the dragonfly from even closer, but that was getting to the point of ridiculous, so I don’t know if I’ll post it. I had the one that I did post printed out to 11 X 14, so now I have a photo of a giant dragonfly πŸ˜‰

      The shots of the crane were some of the easiest I’ve ever gotten of flying birds. They started out going away from me all the way across the marsh, then turned around and announced that they were headed my way. They flew slow and steady, at just the right altitude, giving me plenty of time to get set-up for them, and flew close enough that I didn’t have to crop that photo. If only other birds would cooperate like they did!

      If you ever decide to go to a DSLR, that Tokina macro lens would be the perfect lens for you. It’s the second cheapest lens that I bought because everything about it is outdated, except the optics. It still has the old screw drive auto-focus, and doesn’t have image stabilization, but you don’t need it when it’s on a tripod.

      And, of all my lenses, the Sigma is the one that I would never have believed would produce my best image of a water strider. I guess that it does pay to try things even if I don’t think that I’ll like the results. I think that one day soon, I’ll lay on my belly and see if the Tokina can match it.

      July 26, 2014 at 7:23 pm

  13. As always, reading your posts encourages me to take a walk with my eyes wide open. I’m always amazed at what you see. Thanks, Jerry.

    July 27, 2014 at 9:19 am

    • Thanks Judy! I’m always amazed by what I don’t see. πŸ˜‰

      July 27, 2014 at 7:23 pm

  14. Bunnies and butterflies ! What’s not to love ! I appreciate you sharing your journey with your technical experience with these different lenses. I can’t wait until you upgrade from the 60D and see what happens then. True magic in your hands I think.

    You truly have had a marvelous summer this year enjoying the great outdoors and your camera. Now don’t get any ticks!!

    July 28, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    • Thanks Emily, you’re too kind! I won’t be upgrading any time soon, I think that I’m just catching my stride with the 60 D, and until one of them quits working, I’ll stick with them. Maybe by then, Canon will have done a full update of the 7 D.

      July 29, 2014 at 3:02 am

  15. Love the bunny photos, especially the one that shows the ears so vividly, plus, of course, your RTH photos. Thanks for the interesting gear analysis!

    July 30, 2014 at 2:18 pm

    • Thank you very much! I put the analysis of the gear in there in case any one wanted to nap. πŸ˜‰

      July 30, 2014 at 3:07 pm

      • No napping here! Thanks again.

        July 30, 2014 at 3:20 pm

  16. Outstanding post ,each picture is unique,specially the Hawk’s picture.l had a good time reading the article.Best regards.

    August 1, 2014 at 11:34 pm

    • Thank you very much! Just a typical week around here.

      August 2, 2014 at 10:51 am