Below are Susan Richardson’s favorite images she made while on the Spring Tour in the Canadian Rockies. We had a wonderful group and it was a fitting end to highlight my last spring tour (I am still doing, fall and winter tours). For anyone wanting to go on a Spring Tour in the future, I highly recommend Royce Howland’s offering (contact him now to reserve your spot for 2012) also based out the Aurum Lodge.
Archive for macro photography
Note: To see all future reviews please note this blog is no longer active, please visit me over at oopoomoo.com
Recently Sigma Canada lent me a copy of their new 50-500mm f4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM lens to try out on my Spring Photo Tour in the Canadian Rockies. I used the lens for six days in a variety of conditions and took hundreds of photos. Here is what I thought of the big lens with the 10x zoom! Note: all sample images were made with a Canon EOS-1ds Mark III full frame camera.
Listed below are the ‘features’ of the lens that might entice someone to consider this piece of glass:
- crazy all-in-one 10x zoom range; 50-500mm on a full frame camera or 75-750mm lens on an APS-sized camera!
- optical stabilization feature for a 2-4 stop shutter speed advantage for hand-held photography.
- HSM (hyper-sonic motor) for silent auto-focus.
- low dispersion glass elements for best lens performance.
- ‘reasonable’ price for a lens with these capabilities (approx. $1800 CAN, street price).
OK, so what’s not to like about a lens that goes from the normal point-of-view of the human eye to pinpoint telephoto images? How much zoom is 10x in the real world? The two images of the below highlight the incredible zoom range in action and show the same subject photographed from the same position (in my car) only seconds apart.
During my spring photo tour I mostly used two lens; my trusty Canon 24mm TS-E (tilt-shift lens) for big wide-angle scenes and the Sigma 50-500mm lens for everything else. I loved the flexibility of the zoom range of the big Sigma lens from normal for generic landscape photography to telephoto for skittish wildlife and distant scenes. The more I used the lens, the more I liked rarely having to change lenses and the better prepared I felt for any photo opportunity! I could frame and zoom on the fly and get things I would have missed if I had to change lenses.
Besides loving the zoom range and the flexibility of the lens I also really liked the build quality and the operation of the zoom and focus rings. Best of all the lens was snappy and fast to focus and auto-focus was accurate on my 1ds Mark III. The OS (optical stabilization) worked well down for me down to about 1/60th of a second hand-held even at 500mm. I was able to walk around and photograph wildlife without a tripod and the lens seemed to grab focus the majority of the times (except in very low contrast light).
I also liked the ability of the lens to focus close at all focal lengths. I could make images of flowers and hummingbirds and other small subjects from a distance and nearly fill the frame. I cropped the image slightly to make a more squarish presentation but even at this distance I was not a minimum focus.
All in all the lens was a joy to use because of its crazy zoom capabilities and responsive auto-focus. I felt like I could photograph anything I could see and I certianly got images that I would not get with a kit full of prime lenses or regular zooms because the opportunity would be lost when changing lenses.
Ok, so the zoom range is fantastic… but what about sharpness?
Sharpness is subjective. In the end, is the sharpness of the lens going to suit your purposes? Are you selling professionally, do you make mega-big prints or will you never make anything over 12×18 inch prints? What is sharp for one person is crap for another….
When I test lenses for myself, I have a simple subjective scale for lens sharpness:
- Excellent (the rating for sharpest lenses I have tried e.g. macro lenses or prime short telephoto lenses like an 85mm or 135mm lens). Does the tested lens match up to these levels of sharpness?
- Very Good (good zoom lenses like a 70-200mm lens, or a prime 50mm lens would fall into this category).
- Good (decent zooms producing professional or nearly professional quality).
- Acceptable (good enough to make a nice 12×18 prints with a post-production sharpening)
- Crap (Coke bottles are better than this)
Most lenses I have ever tried are normally in the good (consumer lenses like a 70-300mm f5.6) to Very Good range (pro level lenses like a 24-70mm f2.8 lens). Some lenses have sweet spots. Some lens are sharp in the center but crappy on the edges. Some zooms are better at some focal lengths than others. Some lenses are optimized for sharpness wide open while others need to be stopped down a bit for good performance. You can spend a lot of time testing every possible permutation and other sites offer this information on the web by running the lens through bench tests in the lab. But for me, I just want to know what I can get in the field with a lens and if the results give me what I need (publishable sharpness). I am lens interested in optical bench tests.
Based on my field tests making actual images in the field I would rate the sharpness of the Sigma 50-500mm lens as follows:
- 50mm – Acceptable
- 100mm – Good-
- 135mm – Good
- 200mm – Very Good
- 300mm – Very Good
- 400mm – Good +
- 500mm – Good -
The lens seems to have a sweet spot for sharpness in the 200-300mm range. I found the 400mm images from the Sigma 50-500mm lens to be sharper than the 40omm images taken with a Sigma 120-400mm lens or the Canon 100-400mm lens so I would say this is a great lens to use in the 200-400mm range. I think 50-150mm is the weakest performing range of this lens.
At 500mm the Sigma is decent but of course it’s nothing like a 500mm prime (I have tried the Canon 500mm f4L and would rate it as Very Good). I got publication quality photos with the Sigma 50-500mm lens at 500mm and even though it does not perform to the levels of a 500mm prime, it still gives decent results. Everything is a compromise, even if you could afford a 500mm prime ($6000-$9000 CAN) would you constantly carry the giant beast in your camera bag (over 8lbs)? With the 50-500mm it was small and light enough that I actually had the lens with me all the time and got shots at 500mm that I would have missed if I owned a 500mm prime (because I would have left the lens in the car). Sharpness is the be-all for some photographers, but having a great shot that is a little softer but useable is better than having no shot at all!
No lens is perfect and the 50-500mm lens has some flaws that may make or break it for you:
- 95mm front lens element means the lens is hard to filter. I managed to use a polarizer and ND filters by using a Cokin Z-Pro Holder and a Cokin Z-Pro 95mm adapter ring but using filters on this lens will cost you big bucks to buy Z-Pro or Lee sized filters. This is not an easy lens to filter.
- if you use 1.4, 1.7 or 2x extenders you will not be able to auto-focus your lens (manual focus only). I would not recommend extenders for this lens as sharpness suffers to non-acceptable levels. Plus who needs an extender when you got this much zoom range?
- the lens is less contrasty than Canon or Nikon lenses and sometimes the colours seem a bit flat (but for me that was an easy fix in JPEG camera settings or in RAW conversions).
- when I use live view and manual focus I love it when the lens stays sharply focused no matter what focal length I zoom to (like my Sigma 120-400mm lens does) – the 50-500mm lens needs to be refocused every time you change the zoom setting (frustrating for the way I shoot). But when auto-focus is used, the lens is zippy and so refocusing is less of a chore.
- the weight and bulk turns some people off but it is only a tad bigger than the Canon 100-400mm lens and for what you get I think the lens is actually surprisingly small.
- like all big lenses, to get optical sharpness requires precision in technique – this lens requires a super robust and sturdy tripod for any shots less than 1/60th or 1/125th of a second. People might complain that this lens is not sharp but chances are good it’s an inadequate tripod problem and not a problem with the lens! For longer shutter speeds, 1/30th of a second or longer, mirror lock-up and a remote release are a must! It is difficult to get a sharp shot with this lens at slow shutter speeds unless you are using proper technique and have a super solid tripod and tripod head.
- this lens (and many super long lenses) doesn’t do great with distant subjects; atmospheric haze, heat shimmers and other atmospheric effects can reduce apparent sharpness in long lenses and long zoom settings; realize this is not a issue with this lens but is a a long telephoto issue in general.
- the lens vignettes (slight darkening of corners) at all focal lengths in apertures from f4.5 to about f9.0. I don’t mind this because I often purposefully add vignetting to my photos in post because I like the effect (the vignetting can easily be fixed in Camera RAW). But some people demand and need even exposures across the frame.
- the lens does suffer from fringing at the edges of the frame with full-frame cameras when the lens is in the 50-150mm range and shot in contrasty light (this can easily be corrected in Camera RAW in Photoshop or Lightroom). If you plan to shoot JPEGS and do not want to spend time correcting fringing, then this lens might be problematic for you.
- edge sharpness on full frame cameras is about one quality factor from center sharpness (but this is common with most lenses). On APS-sized sensors both edge vignetting and edge sharpness concerns disappear because of the crop factor of the camera.
Below is an image shot at 50mm with the Sigma 50-500mm lens and the image that follows shows the fringing at the edge of the frame in contrasty light.
I was super skeptical about this lens. Any lens with a 10X zoom range I am ready to write off as crappy in terms of image quality. I told Sigma I would test it but that they should be prepared for a completely honest review. I was prepared to pan this lens. But I was wrong.
Sure the lens is not as sharp as a 300 or 500mm prime lens, but who would expect it to be? I was surprised by how good this lens actually was especially in the 200-400mm range. It was decent at 500mm and yields publication quality images (with a little help from post-production sharpening). The weak spot in the lens is the 50-150mm range where sharpness and fringing are problems that need to be fixed in post-processing. Also this lens needs to be used with proper techniques to yield optimal results.
The one thing that caught me off guard is how much I loved the zoom range and how I felt I was ready to capture any subject from intimate details, to landscapes both grand and extractive, to wildlife all with one lens. I got addicted to having one do it all (and more) lens on my camera. How liberating! And surprisingly I found that long lens settings in the 400-500mm range made up the vast majority of my landscape work with this lens.
If I was going on a trip that was a combination of generic nature photography where I might expect grand landscapes, wildlife and intimate details, then I would be tempted to take just two lenses; a 24-70mm f2.8 and the 50-500mm lens. Two lens and I am covered for every possibility! In fact next year I am going to Iceland and these two lenses might be my perfect travel companions.
Sigma lenses are made to fit Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony, and Sigma cameras so if you have one of these camera systems, then you might consider the Sigma 50-500mm lens. The problem is Sigma makes a few long range telephotos to choose from and so your choices become a bit difficult:
Sigma 50-500 f4.5-6.3 – reviewed above ($1800 CAN)
Sigma 150-500mm lens f5-6.3 – (street price $1200 CAN)
Which one to buy?? It all depends on what you own already, your needs, your photographic subjects etc. I bought the 120-400mm lens after I reviewed it because I liked it better than Canon’s 100-400mm lens and I liked that I could filter the lens easily (77mm filters which I already own). Plus I already have a 70-200mm lens. That choice made sense for me. Look at the specs of each of these lenses and check out several reviews to decide if any of these lenses shoot your shooting style and budget.
For an all round nature shooting I would be happy with either the 50-500 or the 120-400mm lenses. I have not used the 150-500mm lens. If I planned to be a wildlife specialist, I would save up my coin for a fast prime lens (300mm f2.8, 500mm f4 or a 200-400mm f4 or Sigma’s new 120-300 f2.8) but all of these these lenses are very expensive and very heavy. There is no perfect lens but with a little research you can find one that is a good match for you. Good luck!
Full disclosure: I am sponsored by Sigma Canada. I give fully honest reviews of what I think but for some people the issue of ‘sponsorship’ might colour their view of this review. I only accept sponsorship from companies where I am allowed to say whatever I think, Sigma Canada allows this. If you buy from B+H Photo I will get a small percent of the sale that helps support this website.
If you want to buy the 50-500mm lens in the USA I recommend B+H Photo (good service and prices and they support this website) and for Canadian customers please support The Camera Store – the best place to buy any camera stuff in Canada (a biased but honest opinion!).
I hope this field review has been useful. Feel free to comment but keep things polite and reasoned and offer useful input that will help others make informed decisions. Name-calling, thoughtless comments or personal attacks on anyone will not be tolerated and those comments will be removed. Play nice!
Almost anyone who has been photography for awhile knows that an 85mm focal length lens is considered perfect for portraits. The lens is flattering to the human face and an 85mm lens is relatively small and unobtrusive. With a fast aperture of f1.4 you can get micro-thin slice of focus that makes your subject pop off the screen in a sea of blur. No wonder wedding photographers, journalists and fine-art photographers love a fast 85mm lens (see this review of the Sigma 85mm lens for portrait shooting).
I had planned to use my Sigma 85mm lens to do pet portraits and kid photos but have not yet set up any shoots of these subjects. This weekend for grins I went out with just the 85mm to see what I could do with nature subjects. Right away I found out that the Sigma focuses really close and at f1.4 I got a really lovely wash of blur that looked painterly (see below).
I loved the look of the shallow depth-of-field but wanted the lens to focus even closer. The easy answer of course is too add an extension tube which is simply a hollow tube that pushes the lens away from the camera and allows the lens to focus closer. To learn more about extension tubes see this link.
I grabbed my set of Kenko extension tubes and slapped the 36mm tube between the camera and the Sigma 85mm lens. Suddenly the Sigma portrait lens focused super close and I could make frame-filling photos of all sorts of wee things in nature. I loved the soft painterly look I was getting using the lens wide open at f1.4. And the best thing, at such wide apertures, is that shutter speeds were lightning fast so I could just hand hold the camera and get tiny pricks of sharp focus in a wash of blur. The Sigma 85mm f1.4 is now going with me in my nature photography photo bag as my ‘artistic ‘macro’ lens. I am looking forward to taking it with me on my upcoming spring photo tour. Watch out Monet!
This week Samantha used her Nikon FE and did some cool macro shots of plant leaves using Ilford XP-2 400 B+W film. The results are very different from what digital would give you and the sand-like grain is lovely (and would be hard to fake in Photoshop). Like any tool, this film has its own unique signature. Sure you can try and fake it but why would you? That’s like taking a digital file and running it through a Holga software plug-in. It just ain’t the same as using a Holga. When I see a live band I want a human drummer not a drum machine. Sure the drum machine has more precise rhythm but where’s the personality? I want real; fake is just too plentiful in the world already.
Check out this week’s photos on Sam’s Blog
One of the experiences I miss the most with digital is the glory of looking at a freshly processed roll of slide film on the light table. I love how the film glows on the light box and how the colours pop. Grabbing a loupe and magnifying the individual slide is like crossing over into another world — it’s magical and I never tire of the experience. I have not shot 35mm Fujichrome Velvia Slide film for a number of years and so I grabbed my Canon EOS-1n and a roll of Velvia and played with some dead roses in the ‘studio’ (read kitchen table with window light). Here is a little section of my 36-exposure roll of film. For the top photo I shone a flashlight onto the rose while making the image. Velvia has lots of contrast so I figured I better add some light to that dark red area. The bottom photo shows how the rose looks on film without the addition of the flashlight as fill.
Anyone who follows this blog knows that Veronica and Alan Barrett came on two back-to-back winter tours with me. I was impressed not only by their wonderful attitudes and great company but also by their fine eye and the resulting images each of them made. They continually inspired me with the images they pulled from every location no matter what the light or conditions. What better photographers to feature this month than this wonderfully intrepid couple who were always joy to hang out with.
Interview with Veronica and Alan Barrett
Darwin: First of all congratulations on stunning portfolios and images on both of your websites. It was a real joy exploring your fine images. I noticed that both of you have some very specific themed galleries like Veronica’s Shells and Windows and Alan’s Slate and Shaky Trees portfolios. Are these portfolios accidental or purposeful in execution? By accidental, I mean have you over the years shot shells, slate, windows, and blurred trees and then grouped these images together? Or was the work more purposeful and you shot with the portfolio in mind keeping the look and feel of the images consistant within each category?
Alan: Both the slate and “shaky trees” were specific projects, undertaken with the hope of self-producing a book. The slate images were all made at an abandoned quarry in Wales which we stumbled upon when walking the Pembrokeshire coastline. The first images I made there were medium format capture – and a real struggle, as there was no firm footing for the tripod. When I saw the results though, I realised that the location had huge promise and I have been back there twice, photographing over six days, using a small digital camera with a flip out back. The “shaky trees” collection was inspired by an American photographer, William Neill – a couple of years ago I saw, and was captivated by, some of his images of movement in trees that he had included in one of his books. Never having had any problem taking an out-of-focus shot, I set out to photograph the woodlands of Surrey, the county in which we live, over the four seasons. In an eighteen month period I took close on 20,000 images – most, of course, were rubbish and went straight into the digital bin, but out of the morass I selected 160 shots that pleased me and which have formed the book. All that walking didn’t do me any harm either!
Veronica: The Windows portfolio grew when I decided to make it the theme for my application for an Associateship of the Royal Photographic Society. I enjoy photographing architecture and windows are particularly interesting because I’m a bit of a nosey parker and am always wondering what’s going on inside places I can’t get into! They can be very decorative, either structurally or because of personal touches, and I often see them as ‘frames’ for pictures in their own right. The Shells portfolio was accidental. I was washing my shell collection one summer and realised that the collection itself had some beautiful specimens in it that might be worth photographing and experimenting with in Photoshop during the winter. Then one of our daughters decided she would like some of them for her newly-decorated stairway, so I developed some of them into a set for her. I quite like photographing themes, though, and also have an on-going collection of fire hydrants and drains. I know they sound like odd themes, but I started both collections while in Chile because so many pipes and outlets, and fire hydrants, had been decorated. It’s a means of keeping my eyes open to photo opportunities!
Darwin: Based on your images, you seem to have travelled widely. Where are your favorite locations and why?
Alan: Since my retirement from business we have indeed been fortunate to travel widely. Without a doubt my favourite photographic region is the US, and within that country, the red rock areas of Utah and Arizona, and narrowing it down even further, the Paria Plateau. America has a diverse range of landscapes that as an overseas visitor we can never hope to do justice to photographically, but nevertheless it is almost impossible to make a trip to that country without coming back with some very rewarding images. The Coyote Buttes and White Pocket areas on the Paria Plateau boast some quite remarkable sandstone cliffs, the colours and patterns of which are almost unbelievable to someone who has not seen them for themselves.
Veronica: I love San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas and London, especially the last two which always give me a buzz. I enjoy photographing the modern architecture, especially reflections of old buildings in the glass of the new ones, in the case of San Francisco and NY in particular. London is so much fun to photograph on a Saturday, along the South Bank where there’s so much going on, and then walking along its length to the Tate Modern, and on to Tower Bridge and More Place where so many beautiful shiny office buildings are going up. I don’t get my best images from these places but just enjoy my surroundings. I also really enjoyed the two trips to India that I made, first with a friend to Rajasthan, then with Alan to Kerala. I would really like to go there again as the people are just so lovely.
Darwin: Both of you seem to be able to handle any subject matter from the grand landscape to intimate details to wildlife and more. Do you think photographers are better off shooting only one genre and mastering that specialty? Or do photographers grow more as artists being generalist shooters?
Alan: I suspect that most photographers start off with one main interest and then develop. In my case, I started photographing the “big” landscape – but as I developed my ability to “see” the image, I became aware of the smaller, intimate landscape. It was a small step to take that attribute to photographing details in cities or other manmade scenes. I think that dedicated photographers love the challenge of making an image in any situation, whether or not it is in circumstances alien to their normal environment – rising to that challenge undoubtedly enhances ones seeing ability which can only improve work in one’s core interest.
Veronica: I don’t see myself as a landscape photographer, really. I take them because I take photos wherever I am. Many people think that anybody can go out and shoot a landscape but, actually, it takes as much skill and patience as shooting nature. Light plays an enormous part in a stunning landscape, which involves being in the right place at the right time, or an awful lot of luck, and exposures and filters also have to be chosen and set correctly. I don’t have the patience for it at all, although I am trying to acquire some! I do, however, enjoy shooting the more intimate landscape where I can see the picture more easily than in big vistas. I also like to pick on subjects where I can make a close-up picture, either with a telephoto lens or my G11 set to macro mode.
My nature images are as opportunistic as my landscapes – if the creatures are there, then I’ll take the picture, but you won’t find me waiting for hours to get the right shot! We’ve been lucky enough to go on safari in Tanzania twice, which was really good fun and I got some animal images from those, and also to the Pantanal, in Brazil, where the caymans are fairly tame, so easy to shoot. I had to be quick for the bird shots, but was ready and set up for them – and was lucky! I think that if you like making pictures, then you will do so wherever you happen to be…keeping to one genre would restrict my creativity.
Darwin: You both have a fine eye for abstraction. Did this ability take long to develop or was it an innate skill? Who were your influences in the visual world?
Alan: In my case it was most definitely not an innate skill. Like most beginners, I suspect, I had great difficulty “seeing” the image – if I was with someone and they set up their camera then I could immediately see what to photograph, but left on my own I could not pick out the image from the general clutter of the landscape. As part of my self-teaching I started studying photographs – I have probably the largest collection of landscape books in private ownership, over 300 – and I gradually came to recognise that the intimate landscape could be just as captivating as the big picture. The slate portfolio was my first attempt at abstract work and its success led me to persevere until it is now almost second nature to notice the smaller scene.
Veronica: It might be innate for me – I’m not sure. I used to do a lot of dressmaking in another life and particularly enjoyed drawing and cutting patterns and choosing fabric – so already had an eye for shape, colour and texture. Well before I took up photography Alan was already in full-swing and his photographic friends, all cracking photographers, often came over so that they could ‘critique’ each others’ images. I often sat in and listened, and I think perhaps my eye for a composition developed from that, as did my understanding of light and colour. I love colour, texture, lines and shapes, the more graphic the better, and that is what I look for when I am out with my camera. I get a really good feeling from a simple, uncluttered picture that has a flow about it.
Darwin: Photographers are often most excited by whatever they are currently working on. What new projects or locations or types of images have got you all fired up lately?
Alan: You’re right, you always think that your latest work is your best, so it will be no surprise to you to learn that I am currently excited by the Canadian Rockies. As you know, our trip with you in February came out of the planning I was doing for an autumn trip later this year. Despite the challenging weather in February (and despite our frostbite problems), I was captivated by the magnificent mountain scenery and cannot wait for September to come around. The Canadian Rockies do not seem to feature much in UK photographic circles, partly I suppose because if we are going to cross the Atlantic then America offers more diverse opportunities, but that is short-sighted in my view. I definitely can feel another book coming on!
Veronica: I agree with Alan – I currently think that the Canadian Rockies have pulled some of my best images out of me. But then I thought that about Boston and the leaf close-ups which I shot in other places in New England! We are shortly going off to shoot some derelict buildings somewhere not far from Berlin, and I’m looking forward to that. I want to take the opportunity to experiment with some HDR as I really enjoyed Bruce’s images of dereliction which he showed us during your last photo tour. I think that if it’s done gently and not ‘over-egged’ with the saturation slider, as so many images are, it is a very effective treatment.
Check out the great photos Dan Wotton made while on the January Winter Photo Tour. Great stuff Dan!
Ice bubbles – Abraham Lake; Canon 5D, Canon 16-35 Mark II lens, 1/5s at f8
Cline River Ice; Canon 5D, Canon 70-200mm lens, 2.0s at f11
Macro ice; Canon 5D, Canon 100mm macro, 0.5s at f8
Prayer flags; Canon 5d, Canon 70-200mm lens, 1/25 at f8
Preacher’s Point, Abraham Lake; Canon 5d, Canon 16-35mm Mark II lens, 1.6s at f22
Sundog; Canon 5D, Canon 70-200mm lens, 1/320s at f3.2