Tuesday, September 23, 2008


I try not to post a whole lot about the technical side of the camera world. I think there are plenty of sites that do it much better than I'm ever interested in doing and also there isn't enough out there about the less tangible aspects of this hobby/art/obsession.

Same goes for the photographic books out there, page upon page of technical information, very little on the thought processes and approaches being taken. Freeman Patterson is one of the best at talking about the 'inner game' of photography. Galen Rowell ventured into it on occasion too. It's a short list, compared to the technical authors, talking aperture, shutter, Photoshop buttons and widgets. John Paul Caponigro does well at breaking down the 'why' for editing, rather than the 'how' but again, most of the other authors focus on how to do things, not when or why you should or should not.

I think the main reason is it is easy to talk about the technical aspects. There are hard and fast answers to what an aperture is and how to open and close it. Doesn't require a lot of introspection to explain how to use the clone tool.

That said, I'm really excited about the Canon 5D mkII from what I've seen. I want to get a full frame camera. My 1dII is a 1.3x crop and I feel constrained on the wide end when shooting landscapes with a 17-40 F4L. When I first got this wide-angle lens, I was really frustrated with it. Even on a Canon D60 (a 1.6x crop sensor) I could never use all that visual space. I had a hard time composing anything that would be compelling. I loved using a 70-200 telephoto and a 100mm macro at the time, could crop and compose tightly and create interesting images. But the wide-angle end of the range really frustrated me. Everything would be too small, too disconnected.

That was, until I did a workshop with Craig Tanner, who taught me about his rhythm method of landscape composition. I learned to realise that I wouldn't just stumble upon a good wide angle composition - mainly because your eye just doesn't see that way. You can see telephoto compositions more readily, because you are just cropping out parts of what you can actually see, but not so with wide angle. You have to look through the lens to see what you'll see then. I learned the idea of constructing a scene, finding some key element in the landscape for the composition, then finding other parts to rhyme with it and build the composition, piece by piece. It might be the shape of a cloud and some bush, a crack in mud and the slope of a mountain, anything that can tie pieces of the scene subtly together, making your eye move around the composition. You can do this with a wide angle lens much more readily, because small changes for the camera cause dramatic shifts in the scene. Elements can be quite easily shifted in and out and across the frame, particularly in the foreground.

After a few days of practice, this approach started making my wide angle shots work. I began to find myself frustrated that I couldn't go wider, rather than struggling to make an effective 27mm frame cohesive. The 1.3x crop Canon 1D MkII helped a bit, but still I want more. 22mm is getting there but I want full frame. The other aspect I've found using a 1DII for landscapes is that it is a heavy, solid camera. The new 5DII is about a pound lighter so I'm hoping it'll be better for hiking. There have been trips I decided to forego the 1DII in favour of a small point and shoot, just to keep down the weight. A two day hike up to the rim in the Chisos mountains in Big Bend is one opportunity that stands out in my mind. We had to carry all our water up the mountain side and I didn't feel up to lugging a 1-series body and lens with me. On the rim we were treated to some of the most spectacular sunrises and sunsets I've ever seen. Maybe next time I'll have a more portable camera!

Also in the last couple of years I've moved more towards portrait photography and I think the 5DII is going to be fantastic for that. The frame rate is good enough but in particular the higher ISO modes are exciting, particularly for low light street portraiture. I've had a lot of fun shooting portraits at night in Austin, with a fast lens. I can get away with ISO 1600 on the 1DII for grainy black and whites and from the samples I've seen the 5DII looks to have great low light, with a usable ISO6400 and the option of heading to ISO256000 which is ridiculous. The smaller camera might be less intimidating to strangers when I approach too - not sure if that'll be good or bad.

Full frame, lower weight, great low light and a much bigger sensor than my current 1 series body. Almost everything I could want. I'm going to keep the big tank for sports shooting, 8.5fps is quite addictive after a while - I've even occasionally shot movies with that, in a jerky flick book way.

The final feature of the 5DII is the movie mode. 1080p resolution video up to 12 minutes long. I've dabbled with creating the semblance of movies with my cameras, trying to mix in audio, stills and video. So I'm excited to get to try this feature out. There is an amazing video shot with the 5DII on Canon's site, showing off some of the features of the camera. Mostly amazing because it was put together in a 3 days. The story maybe could with work but it looks lovely.


Paul said...

First, I really like the picture that accompanies this post. Nice!

Sounds like you've given lots of thought to why you are going to get the camera.

I had a similar experience with wide-angle and it was resolved in the same way with Craig's workshop. Now, it's one of my favorite lenses and I look for opportunities to use it.

As for the full frame, I've not given it a lot of thought, other than I could get the full frame instead of the 1.5 crop version. However, that would be a switch, as I've been used to being 'cropped' for so many years. I have a Tamron 11-88, which gives me about 17 mm at the low end, which is not bad at all! The widest that I could get, other than going fisheye would be 14mm and that is a pricey lens! In fact, that lens costs almost as much as my D300!!!

I'm sitting back and waiting on this one. I'm looking forward to hearing about your experiences with the 5D!

TJ Avery said...

I say go for it! :-) I sold my 1dII over a year ago and bought a used 5D. The weight and size of the 1dII was somewhat of an issue for me, especially when hiking. The 5D and its small batteries (one in camera + one spare) were so much easier to haul around, and it fit into my camera bags a little better. The 5D combined with the 17-40mm f/4L is a very nice combo (and light too!) that's well suited for wide-angle landscapes.

Quality-wise, the 5D is very nice. Comparing large prints of the same size made with either camera, the 5D is slightly better. I'm sure the new 5D mark II will be even better.

Finally being able to shoot in the 17-22mm range (after years of using 1.6x and then 1.3x crop DSLRs) was very interesting. At first, I over-used it and swallowed up way too much in my photos. Now, I seem to use it sparingly for just the right compositions - usually simple scenes in portrait (vertical) orientation. My horizontal wide-angle work averages to about 24mm now that I've become more conscious and critical of the composition and deciding what NOT to include. But that "sweet spot" in focal lengths is really up to you and your style.

The 5D II looks like a very nice camera. The new video capability is quite interesting and I'm curious to see how well it's received by consumers. One issue that I've already seen pop up is how to handle and edit the video (e.g. what programs are required). I'm disappointed to see that it's a MOV format instead of AVI or MPG (but I guess that's required b/c of the high quality? I dunno much about video.)

If you get one, please update your blog with some user reviews!

Marti said...

Hi Gordon --

I've got my old 5D ready to sell as soon as the 5D Mark II is available!! Been waiting for this one for a while. I want the higher ISO for shooting musicians in low light in bars and I love the idea of a more weather resistant body on an non 1-series camera. Of course, I'm keeping my 1Ds Mark II -- the work horse. But, I'm looking forward to getting my hands on this new one for all the new features you mentioned.

And, I really like the image you posted today, too.

Gordon said...

I've pretty much decided to wait until Spring next year then pick up a 5DII. No rush and I'll get to see what the early adopters learn along the way.

The 'cover' image of El Cap was from our trip to Yosemite a year ago, when I spent the whole time making portraits with Amanda. I'm looking forward to getting back out of the house and into the wilds again soon.

These pictures bring a lot of the fun of that trip back to me, more so than if they were just landscapes.