Saturday, January 30, 2010

Canon 5D Mark II – One Year On

A year living with the EOS 5D Mark II Camera

It’s just over a  year since the arrival of my Canon 5D mark II, which for me was an upgrade from my original mark-I. Since then I’ve taken just over 12,000 frames in locations varying from a very cold minus 13 degrees Celsius in Glencoe, to a very hot and blowy 52 degrees Celsius in Death Valley, California.  I don’t intend to present a review of the camera here as there are far better qualified people than I whom have already published their findings online. I will however, tell you how I’ve got on with the Canon 5D mark-II, my thoughts and opinions and the problems and idiosyncrasies I’ve encountered.

Canon 5DMII 24mm

First and foremost, the 5D MII is a very good camera indeed and in the right hands is capable of producing top notch photographs. If you have used a Canon 5D (mark-I) you’ll feel instantly at home with the mark-II. My 5D mark-II has performed well and I have encountered no major problems over the year. It feels much better built than the mark-I and with the improved weather sealing I’ve been perhaps a little more adventurous, taking it out in some inclement weather, where perhaps I wouldn’t have risked the mark-I.



When I upgraded I must admit one of the most desirable features was the greatly increased resolution, which at 21mp is a huge step up from 12.8mp of the original 5D. Although it’s almost considered bad form to desire more pixels these days, the additional size lends much more scope to crop your pictures and still be able to generate a good size print. I regularly print A3-plus, and here the 5D MII does not disappoint.I have even had some 24 x 30-inch prints made and they absolutely stunning and tack sharp even at nose distance. The increased resolution has also allowed me to make larger wildlife prints where shots are often heavily cropped. Cropped shots that were only good enough for the computer screen with the 5D mark-I, I can now make reasonable sized prints. Compositions that were only good enough for A4 prints with a 5D,  are now good enough for A3 prints if taken with the mark-II. The step up in resolution is a huge benefit to my photography.

There has been one drawback however. I use a Canon EF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 L IS lens for my wildlife photography and had always been amazed at how sharp this lens appeared using my 5D mark-I. Shots taken with this lens on the 5D mark-II however, did not appear as sharp at 1:1 (100%) as they did on the mark-I. At first I was a bit miffed and began to think I’d got a bad camera, but my other lenses were tack sharp. I did quite a few test shots and there definitely was, a albeit very slight, an apparent loss in sharpness. I had my focusing re-calibrated but the results were the same. Then I realised why this lens never received great review from owners of 1Ds III’s or any camera with 21mp resolution or above; 21 mp is simply above the resolving power of this lens. Now I hear rumours that this lens is to be withdrawn and perhaps replaced. So if you go for a high resolution sensor, bear in mind your current lenses and their ability to perform.


Live View

I didn’t buy the camera for live-view, nor did I think i would have any use for it. Boy have I changed my mind. What a brilliant tool. Yes it does run your battery down quicker...just buy another battery. For someone like me who wears specs and not in possession of the greatest eyesight, manual focusing was always a bit of a nightmare. In fact it was so hit and miss with me that I generally never bothered and just had to rely getting a focus point on something of contrast no matter what the light or else. But sometimes not even that works. Using live view however, makes focusing so simple. You can zoom up to x10 anywhere in your frame to check for sharpness, and you can open up your aperture or adjust compensation to check even the darkest areas, and simply stop back down to take your shot. It’s great too for checking your hyper-focal focusing.



Pressing the joy-stick (Multi-Selector) button on the back of the camera brings up the Quick Control Screen. However I found that if you don’t  quite press this straight down it doesn’t work and sometimes takes a few presses. This may be my poor (and sloppy) technique but I find it irritating and wish Canon had a dedicated menu button instead. You can change the SET button in the centre of the Quick Control Dial to activate the Quick Control Screen via a Custom Control Function, but this effects other operations and so I have gone down this route.


The Quick Control Screen allows the user to adjust just about any of the cameras settings and is navigated by using the Multi-selector. Now I find I rarely use the buttons on the top of the camera next to the LCD status panel, in fact I rarely  ever look at the LCD panel now at all.

Setting bracketed exposure is so much easier now too. You just select the exposure screen from the Quick Control Screen and use the thumbwheels to set the Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) amount and Compensation.

The Quick Control Panel is a huge leap forward in usability but I still find it a tad clumsy to use. It’s good, but I still feel this could be refined. I’m not sure how, but scrolling around the page could be improved I’m sure. I’m also not a fan of digital controls and still would like to see more analogue style controls on the camera. We have thumbwheels to adjust the aperture and shutter speed, so why can’t we have another for ISO? These are so much easier and quicker to use.


No Mirror Lock-up Button

There’s still no dedicated Mirror Lock-up button, despite the zillion and one requests on the internet. None has appeared on any other Canon camera that has appeared since the release of Canon 5D Mark-II, so it seems canon will never pay attention to the general public no matter how vociferous the strength of opinion. You can however, add this function to a user menu, so at least it’s not so hidden as before, but it still makes it a pain to set and unset.


No Tactile Buttons

One of my major gripes with the original Canon 5D was that the buttons are all the same. Sure this makes for smart ergonomics and neat looks but when you are fumbling around in the night or low light it would be great if they felt different, making then easily distinguishable from one another and not all identical. I guess the Quick Control Screen goes somewhat  to overcoming the problem. but I’d still like to see (or should that be feel?) buttons that are different.


Expanded and Auto ISO

The expanded ISO range is great, but to put it simply, ISO 800 is the same as ISO 400 in the original 5D. You have about one stop extra. Photographs at ISO 800 are perfectly usable, beyond that it depends on the light and the subject matter.

Canon have also implemented an Auto-ISO mode, which allows the camera to adjust the ISO speed if necessary. A great idea you may think, but this a very poor implementation of this function by Canon, and in effect making it practicably unusable. You can select Auto-ISO in Automatic, Program, Aperture priority or Shutter priority mode, but the camera then sets ISO values ranging from 100 up to 3200 ISO. Canon may think 1600 or 3200 ISO are fine but I can guarantee most decent photographers won’t go there. Canon need to take a leaf out of the Pentax book where on their cameras the user can specify the upper and lower ISO range, say 100-800 ISO, which would be usable. I’m sure this could be implement by a simple firmware fix, so this has to go down as a blunder by Canon. A case of lets get the function in, but with little thought of how the user would want it implemented. 


Camera User Settings

Listed in the pre-release press for the 5D Mark-II, one the new functions that really appealed to me was the ability to have 3 Camera User Settings. These can be selected by choosing either C1, C2 or C3 on the Mode Dial. Great I thought, I can one have with all the settings for my wildlife photography, one for landscapes and one for portraits. Err..nope, I found out that they are totally useless. I can not understand Canon’s implementation of these buttons and how they work, it’s completely backwards.  Canon-5D-Mode-DialThese only work if you take every photograph on exactly the same settings and I don’t think there is a photographer in the world who does that?

Let me explain, say I set C3 to my wildlife settings. I use my 100-400mm, so I’ll have my aperture set to f/5.6, ISO to 200, spot metering, and only the centre focus point selected and the camera in aperture priority mode. When I’m ready to shoot some wildlife, I simply rotate the Mode Selector dial to C3 and I’m ready to shoot.  I take several frames but then find some animals in the shade and I need to bump up the ISO to 800, I adjust the ISO take a few frames then move on to another subject. I raise my camera to shoot, thinking it’s still at ISO 800, shoot and my picture is strangely underexposed, but wait, my ISO has been set back to ISO 200! Every time your camera auto-powers off (remember the Canon default is after 1 minute) your settings are re-set back to their starting point. This is absolutely infuriating and can not be avoided unless you disable the auto power off feature and that of course will run your batteries down super quick.

Canon have really got this one backwards. The user settings should be your starting point and should never reset when the camera powers down, but only when you the user chooses to do so. The way Camera User Settings operate should be set using a custom function. Come on Canon this ones a no-brainer surely!


Battery Compartment

Still plastic, still not weather sealed and rather flimsy and cheap compared to the rest of the camera. Again, frequently mentioned on the web and still never altered by Canon.



The eyecup is a little like the battery compartment door, it’s plastic, rather cheap and flimsy and seems out of place on camera of this quality. However they are  pretty much the same design and quality on all Canon cameras and are very much in need of a serious redesign. These are probably fine if you never have to remove them and leave the original one on your camera for all it’s life. However if you use the Angle Finder eyepiece and even just occasionally swap between that and the standard Eb eyecup, you soon find the original one becomes loose and won’t stay on very well, and sooner or later you find it’s gone! I’ve gone through 3 or 4 of these. They gradually become so loose that just taking them out of your camera bag can cause them to come off and it’s generally too late when you notice it’s gone.


Minor Improvements and Changes

You can now see the ISO speed in the readout in your view finder; something I really missed in the original 5D.  The rear 3-inch screen is a lot better, and displays more detail, but I still find I need to see pictures on a monitor before I can tell whether they are any good or not. It’s still hard to see in bright sun light but they are all like that. The screen zoom still functions oddly and there is still no way of telling when you are at 100%. It would be nice to have a percentage zoom readout on the display at least, but what we really need is a 100% zoom button. I’d also like to have a way of overlaying the histogram (in RGB too) on top of the picture rather than by it’s side, where the picture is so small it’s of no use. An old Minolta bridge camera I once possessed could do this and I found it very useful.



I don’t want to appear too negative here although reading some of my comments you’d think I don’t like the camera. You’re wrong, I do. It is a very capable camera, it’s just that I think Canon missed the boat a little with some of the features and have failed to address the wishes of a large part of their customer base. It could have been so much better and still be improved with some simple firmware updates.

I’ve not mentioned the movie capability. I didn’t buy it for that and I haven’t really used the movie feature that much. It’s obviously very capable at producing high quality video footage, but I doubt whether 1 in 10,000 have bought the camera for that feature alone. It’s nice to have but hardly a vote winner. At the end of the day the Canon 5D mark-II is a fine full-frame camera but still has the same old Canon quirks that they may never address no matter what is said. That aside I can easily live with it. I probably couldn’t live without it.


Full Reviews & More Details

If you are in need of a full technical review of the Canon EOS 5D Mark-II or more information then try these links below:

DP Review: In-depth Review of 5D Mark II, February 2009
The Digital Picture: EOS 5D Mark II Review
Luminous Landscape: Canon 5D MKII Field Review
Imaging Resource: Canon 5D Mark II Overview
Northlight Images: The EOS 5D Mark II

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Shooting the Antelope

Photographic Location

Despite the title this article has nothing to do with wildlife; quite the contrary in fact for this is about my visit to Upper Antelope Canyon, the beautiful, atmospheric and most famous slot canyon, situated near Page in Northern Arizona.
Antelope Canyon (Upper Antelope Canyon especially) is one of those classic photographic locations that has become extremely popular over the last 15 to 20 years or so, and to some almost a bit of a photo cliché, but there’s no denying that it produces some wonderful photographic opportunities. It’s also one of those rare locations for photographers where the best light is around the middle of the day and it doesn’t require a pre-dawn wake up call or a anxious wait for sunset. It’s perhaps most famous for the ghostly beams of sun light shining down on the canyon floor produced as the sun passes overhead around midday.
For those of you who don’t know, a slot canyon is rather like a meandering cave, with flat sandy base, and tapering walls that narrow upwards and reach the surface as a thin slot. They are formed by rapid erosion during flash floods, where water and sand rush through cracks in the rock and gradually, through time, excavate a sub-surface canyon. From the surface these may appear just as a narrow winding slot, but below often lies something truly amazing. What makes this region unique is that the slot canyons are formed in Navajo Sandstone, a distinctive pinkish to reddish, Aeolian (wind formed) sandstone, formed when this region was part of a huge sandy desert. Upper Antelope Canyon (Jul 2009) 0047 The distinctive reddish colour comes from a coating of iron oxide on the sand grains which formed slowly after the sand had been deposited. The sandstone is also known for it’s visible cross-bedding which appear as banding and ripples within the sandstone, formed as the dunes moved with the wind. The darker the band, the higher the iron content and the harder the rock, which result in some quite amazing erosional patterns. Erosion still takes place today, especially during the summer monsoon season where flash floods are common. They can happen very quickly at immense pace and be be quite catastrophic. In August 1997 a party of 12 trekkers were photographing Lower Antelope Canyon when they were caught by a flash flood. Only one survived and Antelope Canyon suddenly became world news. Serious flooding still occurs often closing the canyon for several months.

Canyon Location

Antelope Canyon comprises two canyons, the more popular Upper Antelope Canyon (for the light beams) and Lower Antelope Canyon. The parking lots can be found either side of highway 98 just over 4 miles from downtown Page. To get there head out on highway 98 toward Kaibeto where you find the Upper Antelope Canyon turnout. For Lower Antelope Canyon travel another 1/4 mile, then turn left on Navajo Route N22B (Antelope Point Road) for about 1/4 mile where the entrance sign is on the left. Both canyons are on Navajo land and are only accessible by permit. Four families have concessions to provide organised tours and this is the most popular way to visit. You can however, just turn up at the parking lots and purchase permits and guided tours there, but this may be hit or miss during the peak tourist season. Lower Antelope Canyon is much closer to the highway, and the entrance just a short walk from the parking lot, but is narrower, deeper and longer, and does have some steep ladders and so is a more strenuous tour. Upper Antelope Canyon is the more popular and tours can get quite busy, so booking ahead is advised. It’s also farther from the main parking lot just off the highway, so the tours drive a further 3 miles down a sandy flood plain in huge 4x4’s to reach the canyon entrance.

View Upper Antelope Canyon in a larger map

Photographic Tours

If like me, your only opportunity to visit a location like this is restricted to school summer holidays, then you are going to be arriving in peak tourist season. Antelope Canyon is now a huge attraction and gets very busy during this period. The good news is that July and August are best for the light beams as the sun is directly overhead. The Navajo tour companies offer hour long scenic trips throughout the day and also offer specialist, longer trips for photographers. I had read mixed reports on the tours but after a little research decided to try Chief Tosie Photo Tours. I called about a week before hand and booked a place on the 10:30 am tour. All the tours commence from in-town locations so the advertised length includes travel time there and back. The pickup location was not far from our hotel, so easily reached, and easily identified by the huge 4x4’s parked outside. These have jacked-up suspension and large wheels necessary to negotiate the sandy flood plane should conditions get wet.  The photo tours are generally restricted to 12 photographers so I was surprised to see quite a mixed bunch on my tour, even more surprised to find only 2 others had brought along tripods, and that many possessed only point & shoot cameras. Having a tripod proved to be a distinct advantage. Our guide was a young Navajo chap named Mylo, who turned out to be just perfect. I’d heard some photo-guides weren’t too knowledgeable but Mylo proved quite the contrary and not only a master at  having you in the right place at precisely the right moment , but a wizard at seemingly everyone's camera, no matter of make and type. He was also a large-format camera enthusiast and an acquaintance of the renowned landscape photographer Michael Fatali.
The tour was quite chaotic in parts as there were many other tours visiting at the same time. In fact judging from the number of vehicles parked outside there were probably in excess of 300 people in the canyon. Upper Antelope Canyon (Jul 2009) 0048However Mylo’s intimate knowledge of where and when the light beams occur, his great skill at organising our party, and keeping other tour members out of our frames, more than made up for the $50 tour fee. The more serious photographers, typically those with in possession of a tripod, were generally placed in the forefront of each location and thus gained the best opportunity to take the best shots. However, what impressed me about Mylo was that he made a point of coming around each member and taking a look at their composition suggesting how to get a better shot or a more interesting variation, plus for those only with point & shoot cameras he advised and in many cases set up their cameras with the correct settings to get the best exposures. In this respect I was most impressed and there shouldn’t have been anyone from our particular party who didn’t leave without some good shots on their memory cards.
From taking my very first frame till my last was just over 1 hour 40 minutes and it seemed to go pretty quick, but was thoroughly enjoyable. I left feeling I’d bagged some good shots and later viewing them on my laptop I was not disappointed. Mylo really made the trip however, and apart from being a really pleasant guy his expert knowledge proved invaluable. I’d certainly recommend asking for him if you book.

Photographic TECHNIQUE

It’s not difficult to photograph the canyon, but you don’t get that much time to photograph the light beams, as they move across the canyon floor over several minutes and the guides have to repeatedly throw up large scoops of sand which fall through the sun light and generate the ghostly beams on the images. Plus you’re going to have several other tours walking back and forth in between frames. I used a full frame Canon 5D Mark II, a 16-35mm wide angle lens, a sturdy tripod and remote cable. I took most photographs at ISO 100, using exposures of 20-30 seconds at apertures generally ranging from F22 to F16, the majority at F18. I found most of my shots were between 22mm to 35mm focal length, so for cameras with smaller size sensors something like a 10-20mm is going to be your best bet. I shot, as I nearly always do, in aperture priority mode and I found the camera auto exposure was just about right most of the time. There is a huge contrast difference however, between the light beam and dark canyon walls, so it’s best to keep an eye on your histogram for over exposure. Where the light beam hits the canyon floor will burn out for sure, you simply can’t avoid that, and if you did try to compensate everything else would be far to dark if not black. The canyon walls will be underexposed but that produces the lovely familiar deep red or orange glow, and the really dark areas can often take on a purple hue.
Things to watch out for are the width of the beam and how soon you take your picture after the sand is first thrown up. The wider the beam, the more brighter it’s going to appear, the greater the contrast and the greater the chance of over exposing and burning out part of the beam in your image. In a few cases I compensated by –1ev. Also the beams are brightest when they catch the most sand, which is right after the initial throw when all the heavy larger sand particles fall, after that the glow grows fainter as the finer solids fall slower. I initially preferred the latter effect, which seemed to look good on the LCD at the time, producing a more streaky, flowing appearance, but when I saw them on my laptop it didn’t appear quite as effective as I thought. With the long exposures you’re probably only going to get one shot per sand throw, so you haven’t that much chance to experiment. I also found several of my early images (ones taken immediately after the sand throw) to be burnt out too much out at the top of the beam. Unfortunately I didn’t notice this at the time;  an extra minus 1ev compensation (-2ev in total) would have probably been enough to reduce this and save the frame. Perhaps my best shots were taken a fraction after the initial sand throw.
Conversely some parts of the canyon are very dark and the beams very narrow and I found I needed to increase the exposure by around +1ev; this I had to do in Lightroom later as I found focusing very difficult in these dark regions. Shooting in RAW is a must.
Most areas of the canyon I found light enough to use autofocus. I simply selected a focus point on a near canyon wall and let the camera do it’s work. In some places I used live view and manually focussed making sure my hyperfocal depth of field was sufficient to get front to back sharpness.  However there are a few really dark areas in the canyon where I struggled a little and unfortunately ended up with a few soft images.

Post Processing

As I mentioned above I shot entirely in RAW. Jpegs just wouldn’t provide a hope of any worth while post capture processing. Most images didn’t required significant processing other than than minor exposure tweaks and standard sharpening. However, lightning some of the shadows in the canyon walls and adjusting the recovery slider to pull back the highlights in the beams significantly improved the images in my opinion.


I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Upper Antelope Canyon and despite the commercialism and crowds found in it a very rewarding photographic experience. I took the family back there later that afternoon, when it was far less crowded and they found it absolutely amazing too. It’s not cheap when you have a family of four, but it’s a very unique natural wonder which you don’t see anywhere else and still in my book a far more interesting prospect than any attraction in Las Vegas! I also ended up with some of what I considered to be my best photographs, one in particular which I now have enlarged to 24x30 inches, framed and have on the wall at home. If you ask me if I’d go again, the answer would be a resounding yes, anytime I can.


Antelope Canyon Tours by Chief Tosie (ask for Mylo)
Antelope Canyon Tours by Roger Ekis
Antelope Canyon Photo Tours – Carol Bigthumb
Overland Canyon Tours
Navajo Parks & Recreation Service
Reservation Services for Canyon Tours

Nearby Photographic Locations

Don’t forget to visit Horseshoe Bend just south of Page and a short distance from highway 89. Here you can photograph the Colorado from an overlook some 1500 feet above the river where it makes a complete 180 degree bend. It’s a breathtaking view. Alstrom Point is a location that’s not easy to find as it requires almost 30 miles of dirt road to get there, however the overlook of Padre Bay on Lake Powell is a popular sunset shoot.  The Wave at Coyote Buttes (a permit is required in advance). This involves a 6 mile hike. There’s also another slot canyon called Canyon-X, only accessible via Overland Canyon Tours and 16 miles from Page, reputed to be much less crowded and limited to only 6 photographers per day.
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