Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Canon EOS 7D In-use Update

In October, I wrote a mini-review of the Canon EOS 7D. At the time, due to the poor weather, I had limited time using it. I have now had it for three months and have generated alot more testing time with it, with some good results.
In recent weeks, the UK has been thrown into its own mini ice age, with freezing temperatures and the accompanying snow and ice. In December I was able to test it in the cold conditions, photographing a number of different subjects, although mostly landscapes. It produced warm rich tones in the late afternoon evening sun and was able to get some shots of the cold frosty mornings.
It was last week though, when I was able to put it through its paces, photographing what it was intended for, action and in cold weather too (I think the camera coped better than I did at times). For the wildlife shots, I was using the Canon 300mm f/2.8 IS, with a 1.4x extender attached. On the Monday, I was able to get a couple of quick grab shots of a kingfisher before it flew off, despite being a very brief view, it focused quickly and accurately. This was followed by a series of shots of some cattle egrets delving in the dredged up material from the main drain at Shapwick Heath in Somerset. Not exactly challenging for the autofocus, but it was good results nonetheless. The next day, I got caught in an unexpected snow storm ahead of the main snow that was forecast for that night. I decided to try photographing a moorhen walking across the ice in the heavy snow, but the very large snowflakes, almost 2 inches across played havoc with the autofocus and the focusing was slightly out. Conditions were so bad though, that manual focus would have been impossible and as a reference point, we had almost an inch of snowfall in half an hour. Next it was back to landscapes in the snow and again, it coped without any problems, althoug following my usual practice of spot metering, I didn't test out its ability to meter correctly in the snow. At one point, a little egret flew over and landed, so I quickly switched to the 100-400. Unfortunately the focusing was off quite badly, it could have been due to the white bird against the white background of the snow, but I'm having continuing problems with this lens lately, so I can't draw any conclusions.
Finally, during a fit of insanity, I decided to travel back to Shapwick Heath on Thursday. Conditions were treacherous to say the least, with the road near the reserve being covered in compacted snow and the reserve itself being under about six inches. For a long period, nothing happened, but then a great bittern flew over in the distance, so for something to do, I tried photographing it. Obviously being so far away, the images aren't of any use, but the focus couldn't have been sharper. Then a marsh harrier flew closer, so I tracked it moving towards me, until it suddenly hovered and dropped into the reeds. As it was totally unexpected, I lost it in the viewfinder momentarily, but the camera regained focus quickly enough for me to get some shots of the initial drop and then a stoop, osprey-like. Unfortunately, the focus was on the wingtips and not the head, but I was impressed by the camera's ability to focus against a difficult background. A little later, I started to realise, that a shape in front of the reeds looked a little odd, so I took a closer look. It turned out it was a great bittern, standing in front of the reeds, almost perfectly camouflaged. That would be a good test of the autofocus. Again, it didn't fail.

A few days earlier, I'd heard that water rails were running about in one location. Normally, they are very difficult to see, let alone photograph, so I decided to see if they were around. I crept down the path and looked into the frozen wet woodland and there they were. I crouched down and took a number of shots, increasing the ISO to 1600. This was into high noise territory on the 40D, so I was rather reluctant to push it so high, even though intial tests showed the 7D to be at least a stop better at controlling noise. I needn't have worried, as the images were very clean, despite the high ISO. In fact, there was so little noise, that I was able to add some luminance smoothing in Lightroom to remove the slight speckles, without noticeable loss of detail.

I then laid down in the snow, to see if I could entice them to come out into the open a bit more. It was mainly the lens that was in contact with the snow, but even so, I would have been very wary of using the 40D in those conditions and I had a little more confidence after seeing a test video by Ole Jørgen Liodden. The hope for them coming out into the open wasn't entirely successful, but I did get some action shots a little further away of one water rail running towards the camera, which is a good test of the autofocus.

In summary, the 7D performed as well as I could have hoped. The autofocus was fast, assured and most importantly accurate. The results at ISO 1600 were extremely good with very low levels of noise, even more impressive when you consider the fact it is 18 MP. I can only imagine how the 1D Mk IV will perform. It also coped with the very cold weather conditions, some days as low as -4 degrees Celsius. All in all, definitely a good performer for action shots and not too shabby for landscapes either, provided you keep to f/8 or f/11 and not go narrower. The only marring factor is the result with the 100-400, which is more likely to be a problem with the lens than the camera.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Stealth Gear Extreme Photographers Suit

In the past couple of months I have found it very cold sitting in hides, despite wearing multiple layers and thermally lined trousers. Recently, I read a review of some new outdoor clothing by Laurie Campbell in Outdoor Photography Magazine, in which he viewed it favourably. The clothing in question was the Extreme Photographers Suit by Stealth Gear. As I know Laurie, I know how importantly he views the right equipment, so I decided to get one for myself.
The suit consists of trousers, a fleece jacket, photographers vest and an overjacket. The vest wasn't something that seemed that useful for me and I am yet to try it, but there wasn't much difference in price between getting the other items individually and the suit as a whole. In addition, the fleece could be zipped into the overjacket. All of the items are made from microsuede and are both windproof and waterproof. It only comes in one colour - olive green, which is actually ideal for a bit of camouflage. The sizings are a little eccentric, so I went for the small.
The suit didn't arrive too soon, as I had been freezing my proverbials off the previous couple of days and we had heavy snow the night after it arrived. The first test was walking through the town through four inches of snow, followed by an outing just outside of Bridgwater to photograph some snowy landscapes. It was actually still snowing, but I remained dry. Even though I'd got the smallest size possible, it was on the large side, but it did give planty of room for all the layers I was wearing. However, as it turned out, I probably didn't need quite so many layers, as I actually overheated. The next test was sitting a few hours in the hide. Again, walking to the hide resulted in overheating, despite having thinner layers than I was used to wearing and being even colder than it had been previously. Once in the hide, I was able to easily keep warm, well except for my hands and feet anyway.
It then had the ultimate test, crouching and lying in the snow, while trying to photograph water rails on the ice. Crouching wasn't too much of a problem, as it wasn't really in much contact with the snow, but even after lying in the snow for abouit half an hour, I didn't have any effect from the cold snow and I was completely dry. At one point a water rail came from behind me and walked across the pathway, but it was only when it got close, that it realised I was a person and flew into the woodland, even then though, it didn't alarm like it would normally, so I was able to continue photographing those in front of me.

While it isn't perfect, it is a very good piece of clothing that does the job it's supposed to, keeping you warm and dry in the most extreme of weather the UK can throw at you. The biggest problem is the sizing, while I'm not large, I'm not small either, yet the smallest size is large on me. This is something that Laurie Campbell also noted and I believe they are addresing this. There a a few stockists across the country, but I ordered mine online from Extreme Nature Gear and although their communication could be improved, I received it in a week, with New Year in between, so not bad delivery really. Full details of the features (which I haven't even begun to list, there are so many) can be found at both companies websites.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Winter Around Bridgwater

Like most of the UK and much of Europe, we have been having some pretty cold weather over the past few weeks. Last night, the Southwest of England had a rare dousing of heavy snow, giving the opportunity of photographs not normally possible. I have now uploaded a number of snow landscapes from near Bridgwater, to go with the earlier frosty dawn shots from December and some other snow scenes from last February.

Somerset Rural and Town Life Photographs - Images by Richard Winn