Thursday, January 8, 2015

The New Canon 7D Mark II and Bird Photography

I recently added the new Canon 7D Mark II (7D2) camera to my photography equipment. This is not a technical review of the 7D2 but rather just first impressions based on what I have learned about the camera so far. I’m not including comparison photos at this time, just general comments on the new camera and its relationship with bird photography. I’ve been using the Canon 7D for about 4 years now and decided to add the 7D2 basically to have a second Canon body and enjoy the new features of the 7D2 especially with respect to bird photography.

I started out in bird photography about 7 years ago with an Olympus E-1 body, one of the first digital DSLRs. I added the 50-200 Zuiko lens which is excellent and the 70-300 Olympus lens which suffers greatly in IQ (image quality) at longer reaches. Because the 50-200 was on the low end for reach in bird photography, I splurged and added the Zuiko 300 f2.8 lens to my collection. I consider this one of the finest lenses available and would match it up favorably to the longer Canon lenses, the 500 f4 and 600 f4 lens family. Since my specialty and goals are birds in flight (BIF) the big weighty lenses just mentioned are a challenge to quickly move for BIF, and I found frequent use and arm exercises greatly enhance one’s ability to swing such weight quickly? The Olympus DSLR family includes the E3 which I have and the latest E5 which I did not buy. In the DSLR world Olympus is a notch below Canon and Nikon. Olympus appears to have lost interest in the DSLR world and has jumped whole heartily into the mirrorless realm. If I had known this when I first bought the Olympus, I would have probably opted for the Canon line. However at that time I was not into bird photography that grew shortly after.

Hand Held Extreme

I've been posting my photos on Flickr since about 2008 and in that time I've gotten to know and be familiar with many bird photographers. There is a friendly competition among bird photographers and I’ve been inspired and challenged by other photographers work to constantly improve my own! . When checking photos on Flickr, the EXIF information is generally available and is a good tool to see what other parameters people use such as ASA, shutter speed and exposure compensation to name a few. I started to notice some of the really good BIF photos were being shot on the Canon 7D with the 400 f5.6 and the 100-400 L IS lenses. I started to look carefully at the 400 f5.6 photos and was impressed by the IQ. So when Olympus introduced the E5 a light bulb came on. I could invest about $1500 in the E5 to basically replace the E3 or I could spend about the same for the 7D and add the 400 f5.6 lens for about $1400 more. So to me the choice was simple, I could spend just $1400 more and have a brand new rig to play with or just update to the E5 with only a new questionably better body. I bought the 7D and the 400 f5.6 lens and have no regrets. With the new light 400 lens and the excellent tracking and focusing of the 7D I saw a large improvement in keepers due to the better focusing and the ability to get on a bird faster.

I have recently added the new Canon 7D Mark II to my equipment and have had only a short time to play with it. Although similar to the 7D it’s more sophisticated and complicated and has incorporated the focusing and tracking systems of the Canon 1DX. I’ve only touched the surface on understanding the new camera but it’s almost flawless out of the box in that without understanding the features or operation of the camera, its focus and exposure is spot on most of the time! I’d like to spend some time talking about why I think the 7D2 is an excellent choice for BIF and why some criticisms of the camera for noise and not being a full frame camera are not that important in BIF photography.

Let’s talk about BIF photography and how to get enjoyable results. I want to make a distinction between two types of bird photography, birds in flight photography and stationary or perched bird photography. Most bird photographers engage in both types but some may emphasize one more than the other. The techniques for the types are different and often times the equipment as well. In a nut shell BIF photography requires quick action with little or no time for adjustments. Birds only give you a split second to get your shot; you won’t have time for any kind of quick adjustments, so you need to be as ready as possible when the opportunity presents itself. Your camera should be pre-adjusted for shutter speed, aperture, ISO and exposure compensation. If possible try to pre-focus and position yourself in favorable light. Some BIF photographers will use a tripod or monopod, but I've found those devices restrict your maneuverability and tend to just get in the way and hinder you. One exception is finding perched birds with the intent of getting flight take off photos. In this case a monopod or tripod would be an aid as it’s very hard to hand hold a heavy camera in anticipation of a perched bird taking off. In contrast shooting stationary or perched birds changes the game significantly. A tripod or monopod is very beneficial in your set up since the bird is stationary. You have time to optimize parameters such as shutter speed, exposure compensation and composition. You can even take photos check them and make adjustments. In this respect it’s more like portrait or landscape photography. Most of my discussion on this subject will be from the BIF photographers view point.

 Obviously equipment is important so let’s discuss that now. Birds in flight are fast and therefore to stop the motion of a flying bird to get maximum detail a fast shutter speed is critical. Generally I aim to get all motion stopped including the wings. This is fairly easy with a large slow flying bird such as gulls or pelicans. In some cases wing movement adds some drama to a photo but detail is lost in the moving wings. A humming bird for example has a wing speed of about 1/9000 to 1/20000 of a second. Consider the fastest shutter speed on most cameras is about 1/8000 of a second. So to stop the hummer’s wings most serious people incorporate a flash system for stop motion. This technique is beyond this discussion but shows an extreme range of speeds. Most other birds are within the range of our cameras shutter speed to stop all motion. I recommend a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second or more. I have actually not done a study to see how low a shutter speed can be to stop a particular bird, for example a comparison between a cormorant and a swallow. This would be an interesting study as shutter speed, aperture and ISO are all interconnected and the more you know about them the more you can optimize these parameters. Low shutter speed causes blurring in moving objects, large apertures reduce Depth of Field (DOF) and high ISO generates digital noise.
Using Monopod for Stationary Subject 

 The major criticism I’ve heard about the 7D2 is noise as compared to the 1DX, 5DIII, or the Sony Alfa 7S. The DPreview web site has a feature where you can compare all new cameras on the same subject but at different ISO settings. At high ISO, the 1DX was superior to the 5DIII and the 7D2, and the Sony Alfa 7S was best of all! The 7D2 was improved over the 7D. On my 7D I can safely shoot (little noise) at 800 ISO. On the 7D2 I can raise that to 1600 ISO. I did some test shoots at 3200 ISO and found the noise unacceptable! The ability to shoot at high ISO no doubt allows one to tweak shutter speed and aperture in a positive way. High ISO is critical in low light situations, indoors, landscapes, weddings, concerts, dark areas and more. BIF is not a low light situation, and it’s foolish to try and photograph birds in flight in low light and most birds don’t fly at night! So in general high ISO performance is not a major concern for BIF and I see no drawbacks with the 7D2 in that respect.

Full Frame Vs APS-C crop sensors: Another bone of contention is sensor size, full frame verses crop sensors. Full frame people will tell you a crop sensor APS-C has reduced IQ and is not necessary at all. The full frame sensor captures all the information of a crop sensor and more. Cropping the full frame down to the crop frame size gives the same image only higher IQ! So they argue any perceived advantage of a crop sensor is just an illusion and the photographer is fooling himself by thinking so. An important and tangible advantage for the bird photographer using a crop sensor system is a reduction of cost and weight of long lenses. In other words a 400 lens becomes the equivalent of 640 lens when used with a Canon 1.6 crop camera body. Here is a comparison between weight and cost using a Canon 400 f5.6 L lens (weight 2.76 pounds, @ $1400) versus the Canon 600 f4.0 L IS II (weight 8.65 pounds @ $12000). Right off the bat, there will be an argument that these two lenses cannot be compared because there is a vast difference in quality and IQ. Although these sounds like a compelling arguments on the surface how true is it? Based on price, you have an 8.5 times different in costs; is the 600 lens really 8.5 times better in IQ and sharpness? I’ve compared bird photos from the 600 lens as well as the 400 and it’s a real stretch to say there is an 8.5 times difference. There is a difference of course and the more distant the subject to the lens, the more IQ you can see in the 600. However, when the subject gets closer to the lens, that IQ difference dissipates in a hurry.

Check the MTF curves of both lenses and there is certainly not an 8.5 times difference. For BIF try wielding an 8 pound lens quickly to get on a bird, not an easy task. However the 2.6 pound 400 f5.6 L can easily and quickly be whipped around and locked on a BIF. My Zuiko 300 f2.8 lens weights about 7.5 pounds slightly less in weight than the new Canon 500 and 600 lenses. Using it everyday hand held I still did arm exercises to increase my on bird speed. Still there were frustrating times that I missed a bird just because I could not get on it quickly. Another criticism of the 400 f5.6 L lens is that it does not have IS (image stabilization) For BIF, this is not critical at all, generally shooting is at high shutter speeds where IS is not required or useful! One last point I’d like to make for anybody in the market for the 400 f5.6 L or the 100-400 f4.5-5.6 L IS lenses. This comparison does not include the new Canon 100-400 f4.5-5.6 L IS II which I’m not familiar with. There is no doubt a zoom lens gives the photographer more flexibility in the field. However, one complaint I hear by owners of the old 100-400 f4.5-5.6 is IQ at longer reaches say 300-400 is not all that good. Check the MTF charts for the 2 lenses and you will readily see the difference.

 Summary of Some EOS 7D Mark II Features 

 •20.2 Megapixel CMOS APS-C Sensor supporting next generation Dual Pixel CMOS sensor-based AF
•10.0 fps continuous shooting for up to 130 JPG/31 RAW frames
•Dual DIGIC 6 Processors
•Highly customizable AF system featuring 65 All Cross Type AF Points with f/8 center point sensitive to -3 EV extreme low-light conditions
•ISO 100-16000 with expansion to 51200
•Magnesium alloy body, shutter durability rated up to 200,000 cycles and enhanced dust and weather resistance
•EOS Scene Detection System features a new 150,000-pixel RGB+IR Metering Sensor for improved precision


I consider the 7D an excellent choice for bird photography. I was hoping Canon would up-grade the 7D with improvements in the sensor and resulting improvements in focusing and continuous shooting speeds. Canon has not disappointed the 7D2 is an improvement over the 7D in which improvements seem particularly aimed at action photographers such as sports and wildlife. So with little hands on experience with the 7D2 thus far, I'm confident that I have more tools now at my disposal to continue my bird photography passion.  In closing I would like to make a comment about photographic equipment and it's relationship to artistic expression. Although high tech sophisticated expensive equipment is nice to have, it's not critical to artistic creation. A really creative photographer can get astounding results with the simplest camera, even a pin hole camera. So if you think purchasing the latest and greatest camera equipment will make one a good photographer, think again! As Maria Mulder once exclaimed in a song long ago, "it aint the meat it's the motion" very true indeed!

1 comment:

  1. Up-date 2/19/15: The 7D2 had to be sent back to Canon for repair. The focus points do not show up in the view finder, very troubling!