Thursday, April 29, 2010

Canon 1D Mark IV: An Update

Given that I've been posting shots from the Mk IV for a while now, I thought I'd therefore take a break here and provide an update on impressions so far.

Just to be clear at the outset, this is not a technical review; frankly, it's nothing other than a set of subjective notes based upon my own personal experiences with the camera, set against the sorts of things I like to shoot and how I like to shoot them. So there. And now, on with the show.

Handling: compared to the 20D it is of course heavier but actually not that much, and really once you stick a decent sized bit of glass on the front then the difference is much smaller than you first think. Compared to the Mk III the physical feel is all but identical, though that's not all to the good as will be covered later.

Reliability: no issues so far in that department. I've run a couple of thousand shots through it so far without suffering any physical hiccups. Along similar lines, one of my reasons for going to a 1 series body was to get away from the curse of dust always collecting on the sensor, and so far that goal, too, has largely been satisfied. I did get a few specs show up while in Death Valley but having cleaned those off then things seem to have stayed spot-free since.

Image Quality: With the caveat that I've done very little at ISOs higher than 800 then I've been very happy indeed with with results. Firstly, straight out of the camera images have better colour, clarity and presence, and hence require less processing in order to get close to what you want the final result to be. Secondly, the extra pixels mean that you have more leeway when cropping before image quality degrades. Thirdly, files take sharpening very well - at least for screen viewing - but I've yet to print many Mk IV shots so I'll reserve judgement a little on what works vs. what doesn't in that area until I have some more experience. Lastly, image noise is very well controlled. At the per-pixel level, it's comparable or better than a Mk 3 and up to a stop better than a 20D, but the extra pixels add about another half stop to the first comparison point and a full stop to the second. In short, forget about it. Noise isn't an issue: this sensor is better than film and perfectly usable up to 1600 without you having to give it much of a thought.

Features: There are a slew of new capabilities added to the Mk IV but here I'll concentrate on the things I've found useful. Starting at the top, I am now a devoted fan of live view. Before trying it then I was sceptical to say the least that it was worth all the attention it has drawn. I have other cameras that are mirror-less that of course use the same basic approach and frankly always missed the viewfinder option. However, when doing landscape shots or for night shooting then I now default to live view and rely almost solely on the screen on the back of the camera. For landscape work you can place the camera in hard-to-get-at locations, very close to the ground for example, and yet are still able to compose, meter, focus and shoot without having to contort yourself to find a place where you can look through the viewfinder. For night shooting you can use the 10x magnification capability on live view in order to focus, a revelation to me and something that on its own makes this technology all worthwhile. Bliss. Live view is now a regular part of my shooting and I'd very much miss it if I had to give it back. And along with live view we of course also get HD movie recoding. I will get round to testing this at some point, I promise, but not yet. Try me again after ALMS at Laguna later in May! Other stuff? Auto bracketing can now be set for up to 7 shots and exposure compensation is available for +/- 3 stops, both of which are worthwhile improvements. And yes, auto focus is much better than on the 20D and, subectively at least, feels better than on the Mark 3.

Features Missing: For a start, most of the electronic toys first seen on the 7D, such as an electronic level, for example; dedicated movie switch (going between live for for stills and movie mode requires going back into the depths of the menu tree and you are best served using the FEL button - itself too tiny - for movie recording); still no way of using what the camera knows about itself to calculate DOF and display the result; no way to set narrow focus with the centre point unless you have a lens with available "stop" button; no built-in auto-shot timing al la the TC803 remote; no built-in WiFi or GPS. Seriously, $5k and now with a body and features that are largely 5 years old? Come on Canon, this is not good enough. The simplest of these - leaving off adding a dedicated switch between movies and stills - just feels like Canon was too cheap to change the body of the Mark III in any way at all.

Summary: All-in-all, I'm very satisfied with the main items, image quality and robustness, and am enjoying using it. Sure, there are niggles and things that I think Canon have fallen short on, especially on the level of features appropriate for a camera launched in 2010, but there you have it. If what you shoot matches the well-covered strengths of this camera, and you have the necessary wedge to spend, then go for it. I did, and have no regrets.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Alcatraz #5

At one end of the main cell block complex sits the mess hall and associated kitchen. Although the food preparation area is behind a metal grill, it's possible to shoot through the bars quite easily and to anyway get a feel for how this would all have worked. The kitchen is another of the staged areas, in Alcatraz and one of the items displayed is a knife cupboard complete with outlines, painted black, presumably to make it plain when any particular item was missing. Not a bad idea, especially when your dining patrons include the likes of Al Capone!

(And yes, the blur, achieved by moving the camera while dragging the shutter, was deliberate!)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Alcatraz #4

I really don't know why, but somehow Alcatraz seemed more humane than I was expecting. Now, that's not to say that I'd fancy doing a 20 stretch in solitary there - or frankly getting banged-up for a stay at the Her Majesty's pleasure (or whatever the equivalent is here in the USA) in any federal, err, facility - but given when this place was built then it seemed, well, reasonable, I suppose. A bit short on privacy, perhaps, but just think of the location! The views would be fantastic ... if only you could see them.

Given all that, how then to capture the essence of a place built for incarceration of the most notorious criminals the US has to offer - and let's face it, the development of extreme and hardened villains has become a world-beating industry here over the years so there were plenty of candidates to chose from - locked up for decades at a time in the same cell?

My shot at answering that particular question is shown above!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Alcatraz #3

Something a bit different this time. Walking around the cell block, you'll find that a few of them have been staged in one way or another and the one above caught my eye because it had been set up to show some inmate drawings. I'm not 100% sure the cross-processing effect I used here really works so will likely take another stab at it in black-and-white at some point. Still, it does serve to highlight the drawing above the sink (as well as the headshot above it), which was why I went that road in the first place, it's just that the coloration of the cell door doesn't really seem to work so well. Still, I do like the arrangement of objects in the cell, and in particular the way they are delineated by the bars of the cell door.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Alcatraz #2

Following on from the picture yesterday, here's a classic example of making sure you always turn round and look at what's happening behind you! I did this one in HDR, partly because of the extremely high dynamic range, covering as it does strong and direct sunlight though to deep shade, and partly to get detail into the staircase. Kind of worked, but ultimately this shot went a different way than I was expecting!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Alcatraz #1

Rain. Lots of it. It was pouring, and yet we were booked to go to Alcatraz on the first ferry of the day. Therefore, we went!

Although people were getting soaked waiting in line for the ferry at Pier 33, and then were destined to get wet again walking from the dock on Alcatraz up to the main building, nevertheless the boat seemed full. In addition, it's clearly a popular spot for photographers on a Sunday morning because we weren't the only ones toting backpacks and tripods.

Upon landing, our photo group headed straight to the main cell block to begin shooting in the prison showers, which is basically the place where the tours start from. Given that it was wet then the normal course of events - tourists collect right on the dock where the boat lands to hear an introductory docent talk - wasn't really followed and it was clear that there would very soon be a lot of people milling around the buildings. Therefore, I headed off to photograph the main cell block before there were too many visitors a'visitin'. I found the above spiral staircase at the end of the block and spent quite some time shooting it from all angles, but liked the one above (and maybe one other I'll post too), even though it's a very functional, square-on sort of shot. To me, it's interesting because of its basic symmetry, offset by the mirror reflecting the prison cells in the adjacent corridor. Note, too, the difference between areas worn dark by the passage of countless footfalls in and those bits of floor, under the staircase, for example, where the stone looks much more pristine.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Baker Pier

Back to night shooting, this time of the Golden Gate from the end of the pier at Fort Baker. Alas, not much in the way of success to report here. The wind had really strengthened by this time and in reviewing the shots I took afterwards then far to many of them were blurred. It was also difficult, I found, to find unique views that would make an interesting shot. There is a large rock under the bridge that can provide some foreground interest but I just couldn't get something that really worked and the above was about the best of the bunch.

Oh well - tomorrow we are set for a trip to Alcatraz! Never been there before so I have to say I was very much looking forward to it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Battery Spencer

After a quick pit-stop back to the hotel, we caught up with the rest of the group at Battery Spencer, the next stop after Point Benito lighthouse. From a strategic standpoint, when it came to protecting the Golden Gate bridge then Battery Spencer won the top prize. The location, high on the headlands and right in front of the bridge, meant that it had the perfect field of fire in order to protect the approaches to the Golden Gate from the Pacific. And that also means that today, anyone visiting, will also have an incredible view of both the bridge and the city beyond.

It would heave been fascinating to see the battery fully staffed, armed and ready for action, but it seems that it only flourished (if that's the right word) for some 45 years after construction was finished in 1897. However, you can get a good idea of what it was like here and from the image below which is of one of the three, 12 inch guns that formed the main defensive artillery (image found here as part of another detailed article on the battery.)

After spending an hour or so it was time to take a break, get some food and head off to Baker Pier for some night shots.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


As augured, the weather progressively got worse as we headed out of Muir Woods, so much so that by the time we reached Point Benito it was blowing hard and starting to rain.

For those of you who have never been there, access to the lighthouse is via a tunnel that can be closed, followed by a wooden suspension bridge of such age that no more than two people are allowed on it at any one time (NB: it's due for replacement in the next 12 months but that means access is likely to go away for a while during construction).

Fortunately, there weren't too many visitors when we were there, although having said that it had become much more crowded by the time we left in the early afternoon.

I still find photographing these kinds of landscapey things to be tough going, especially when the light is nothing special. This means you are forced back to find different takes to take, other ways of doing something unique. The other thing I find is that now I've been there once then next time around I'd have a much better idea of what I wanted to shoot. Alas, I cant' quite yet figure out how to make that happen while I am there!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Standing Stone

Saturday morning dawned, so we headed off early to Muir Woods to begin the photo-workshop. I've not been there before so was interested to see what was in store for us.
Getting there early when the park opened (8 am) turned out to be a good move. The place was absolutely packed by the time we left a few hours later with cars parked all along the access roads into the woods. Not sure if this is usual or down to some sort of event but regardless the message is clear: get there early on the weekend!

We spent close to four hours working our way around the paths and trying different views. The above was taken on the first bridge overlooking a small stream. Yeah, it's a little overdone, and I'll take another go at it at some point, but at least it gives you an idea of the whole slow exposure/moving water thing (an effect that's overused these days, usually to try and add something of interest to an otherwise uninteresting scene.) Overall, though, it was a diverse mix of old and new growth forest, was easy to walk around (boardwalks or paths the whole way) and interesting enough to offer-up many different photographic challenges, not the least of which was avoiding the "too wide/too busy" view of trees and shrubs!

Lunch was a sandwich at the visitor's center (really quite reasonable) and then off to the next stop: Point Bonita lighthouse. Alas, the grey morning had by now developed in to a grey, rainy morning with evidence of a stiffening breeze. Far from promising, in short, especially given where we were heading.

San Francisco Skyline

On the way back from dinner in Sausalito, we stopped off to try some night time photography. S knew of a location that offered the opportunity to get some foreground interest into the frame by including old pilings into the view, so that's where we went.

Getting things sharp is always one of the challenges with long exposures - the one above was 25 seconds long - but with views like this you also have to deal with other hazards like planes and, as shown here, boats! Looking at the original file then it's sharp ... ish, but could be better. We were on decking out in front of an office building (that's presently unoccupied) and it wasn't 100% vibration free, especially if anyone moved at all during the exposure. Next time I will try using mirror lock up as well as being more religious about using a remote for firing the shutter to see if that gets the final image to be that little bit crisper. However, not much I can do about passing container ships other than be a bit more patient!

On the plus side, at least the seagull stayed fairly still!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Cavallo Point, Marin

Having barely got back from Death Valley (and I will return to posting some more shots from there shortly) it was very soon time to head off to Marin and San Francisco for a photo workshop.

In addition to the workshop, we were looking forward to spending a couple of nights at the Cavallo Point hotel, set in the National Park Service's Fort Baker. (I actually spent some time photographing here at the other San Francisco workshop I did back last September with Chris Honeysett.)

The weather on Friday was glorious. Thanks to some nifty booking work by S, we were granted early check-in and so arrived around 1 pm. And really, I have no idea why hotels do do this more often because we immediately headed to the restaurant where, thanks to a lunch bill of around a hundred bucks, the hotel was immediately in-the-black on the whole deal. (In fact, the restaurant bills we saw were all around that level or higher, except for breakfast which was included in the room rate on the package that we had.)

We stayed in one of the modern rooms, set in blocks above the main hotel buildings. The view was a fine one - smack across to the Golden Gate Bridge - and the room was very comfortable (though neither of us were fans of the sliding door on the bathroom!)

It was fun to stay in a location where there were built-in activities: walking round the harbour, going out onto the pier where people were crab fishing, climbing on the old fortifications and gun emplacements and strolling up to where work was being done on the bridge. All that is a definite plus, especially as it allows more leeway for a glass or two of wine with lunch without then having to fret about driving somewhere. Bliss.

For dinner we went into Sausalito, a ten minute drive up the coast, to eat at Sushi Ran. Once again, not cheap but still a great place to eat. Would highly recommend this place to anyone who loves sushi/sashimi/sake. They say on the menu that some items are flown-in daily having been bought that morning at the Tsukiji market in Tokyo, a claim I can well believe. Price? Easily over $100 for two - but well worth it.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Seen Better Days

No, not me, the car. I asked some Internet chums and the best they could figure out was that it's a 1948 Buick 2 dr. Sounds reasonable to me, so I'm sticking with it!

This baby sits outside the abandoned Eureka Mine out towards Aguereberry Point in Death Valley. Both the mine site and the outlook at Aguereberry are well worth the drive of 2 and 4 miles respectively along a dirt road. However, and despite what it says on various sites, the mine remains sealed off so you can't get into it. Still, the few buildings that are there are unfenced and it's always interesting to see these old claims and hence to get a feel for what it must have been like to work them (damn hard.)

No idea if the Buick was Pete's own car, but I like to think so!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Death Valley Coyote

In order to try and find more in the way of wildflower displays, we headed towards the southern end of the park, past Lake Manly and towards Ashford Mill, where reports said that things were in bloom. However, along the way we found this chap, standing by the side of the road and seemingly unconcerned by the passing traffic. Indeed, it was easy to get the sense that he (she?) had figured out humans could be an interesting source of food. Hopefully not, because that's no way for a wild animal to behave, of course, and at the very least if the park service decides he's too tame then he'll will be carted off to the back country ... or worse.

After watching him posing for a while, we decided to carry on and leave him to his quest. And just to close the loop, there were indeed more flowers down that way, and though far from being a spectacular display it was nevertheless well worth the drive.

Having said all that, it made a pleasant change to find a wild animal you could photograph easily from the comfort of the driver's seat.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


While in the same location as the shot in the previous post, I saw a walker in the far distance on top of a dune and grabbed the above shot before he moved on. Not sure I quite have the balance quite right yet on this one so will have to work on it some more, but it has promise.

As you can see, the Mesquite Dunes rise to quite a reasonable height, for sand piles at least!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Sun, Sand, No Sea

The journey to Death Valley from the Bay Area runs around 500 miles and takes something like 9 hours (with breaks). We headed off after 9 am and arrived at the hotel around 5:45 pm. As mentioned yesterday, we took route 223 eastwards from I5 in order to take in the building wildflower display in the rolling hills outside of Arvin. S got some good pictures on that road both on the way there and back, but I have to admit defeat in shooting flowers, regardless of the conditions. However, plenty of others were stopped along the roadside happily clicking away so I'm in the minority.

Upon arrival we went out and had a look at Badwater for a sunset location. Nothing spectacular, but a good scouting exercise for what/where/when to shoot over the coming days.

Next morning, I got up early and headed off to shoot the Mesquite Dunes at sunrise. It was very windy at the hotel but thankfully much calmer over at the dune site and glad to say they have now built a new car park alongside the road to Stovepipe Wells. However, there is a downside to making the location more obvious - it was quite crowded. There was a complete party of photographers already up on the dunes, as well as numerous solo shooters. Hmm, had to rethink plans to try and find some clear space to work in. Headed south round the dunes themselves (much easier way to go) and then headed inland. Had to hustle a bit as the sun was rising fast and I was already a bit late. I found a reasonable location and was rewarded with some beautiful light with which to attack the challenge of photographing big hills of sand!

Overall, a fun morning and glad I was still able to find things to shoot without having to spend ages afterwards in Photoshop deleting random bodies from the vistas. Example result shown above.