A Working Pro’s Transition To Mirrorless Cameras. Are You Ready To Make The Switch?

Ike shooting the stars with his A6000 from camp on the Tonto Trail in Grand Canyon National Park. I shot this at ISO3200 at 15sec. @F/4. Focusing at night is a little tricky with an electronic view finder (EVF). In low light there is a lot of noise and I used the MF mode which magnifies the image for focus assist. It helps a lot but takes getting used to. Ike is illuminated by his Sony’s LCD. My image at ISO 3200 looked amazing and moving the luminance and color noise sliders to about 45 in Lightroom resulted in a beautiful image. The smaller lenses allow more depth of field than the equivalent full frame focal length.

There is a wealth of reviews of virtually every piece of photo gear made, both on dedicated review sites as well as thousands of customer reviews on retail sites such as B&H. My review is not meant to re-hash what’s already been revealed. My goal is to offer a performance perspective from a working pro with broad outdoor photography interests. This is non-scientific review about quality and performance of this camera. Is this $1000 smallish camera body a serious professional tool capable of performing and delivering pro results?

The short answer? Yes. But it takes some getting used to. Don’t want to read much further? Then here is my Sony A6300 (with Zeiss 16-70F/4) Report Card.

  • Image quality (compared to Canon 5D Mark III with 24-70F/4 L): A+. Pound for pound, across the aperture and zoom range, I find no noticeable difference in image quality and sharpness. There are some minor differences in auto white balance performance and contrast. I still like the Canon 5D files a little better but that is very subjective. The A6300 has the best APS-C sensor I’ve used.
  • Price: A. You really get a lot of features for a $1000 body.
  • Autofocus performance: Manual and single shot: A. Continuous: A or D. Seriously, there is no in-between. When it’s on, like tracking skiers flying through trees in flat light, it is dead nuts on with a 90% keep rate. When it’s off, it’s WAY off, like not just a little soft, but like, it can’t lock onto a subject in bright backlight (in servo mode) to save its life resulting in an entire series of blur!
  • Metering accuracy: A. Maybe even slightly better than the 5D3.
  • Ergonomics: C. I can’t make my hands smaller. Please, some more thought into button layout. This is where they need the most help in my opinion.
  • Customization: like being able to change settings quickly from landscape shooting to action shooting (or visa versa): D.
  • Image Stabilization: B. No better than Canon, although it’s in the camera body not the lens. It doesn’t work with all lenses. Disappointingly, IS is not available with my new dedicated 12mm/F2.8 Touit.

 
 
Last spring I knew I had to get a different outfit for the type of hiking, canyoneering and skiing I do. I was tired of carrying heavy Canon gear long distances along with all the other gear I needed. Every pound adds up. With my plans to hike long sections of the Pacific Crest Trail getting a lighter outfit without sacrificing pro results and performance was critically important to me. I looked at a lot of options including using a lighter entry level Canon DSLR with my existing lenses. That option seemed to offer very little in weight or cost savings.

Self portrait on the PCT in Washington’s North Cascades, 4 miles from the US-Canada border. The camera is on a mini tripod with 10 second self timer. The first 10-days of my hike were wet and cold. The Sony in the f-stop’s Navin Pack mounted on my chest remained pretty resistant to the near constant wet and cold. I never had any condensation problems in the lens.

This was an agonizing decision. I looked hard at the modern crop of 1” sensor point and shoot cameras. They are fantastic, fun to use travel photography tools with great optics and zoom ranges. I just wasn’t ready to go that small and sacrifice not having files I felt were suitable for large prints and large magazine use. Going with the full frame Sony A7R only saved weight on the body. The full frame lenses are as heavy as the Canon L lenses, so no real savings with a Sony full frame system. So I settled on the mirrorless APS-C system.

After all the years of shooting pro level Canon DSLRs with L series lenses, it was hard to believe that now I was holding a camera and lens (24mp with equivalent to a 24-105F/4) literally a third of the weight, size and cost that was capable of delivering images of equal quality. Since acquiring the A6300 with 16-70F/4 last I have landed a 1.5 page spread and cover of Backpacker Magazine with this camera/lens.

My Pacific Crest Trail camera outfit. Sony Alpha6300, Sony-Zeiss 16-70F4 lens, Really Right Stuff compact tripod and mini ballhead, 55mm B+W polarizer, Singh-Ray 3-stop hard step, 100mmx150mm graduated ND, extra battery and wall charger, lens pen, 2 extra SD cards and F-Stop Navin chest holster case. The camera and lens with the Really Right Stuff camera plate with battery and SD card weighs 1.8 pounds. The whole ensemble was 3.2 pounds.

Initially purchased for a niche landscape outfit for personal backpacking trips I have since used it on ski action and backcountry adventure work for both stock projects and on assignment. More on that later. With a smaller base outfit, everything else I need is also smaller like filters, cases, tripod head and camera plate.

Prior to the A6300 I was not a big fan of cropped sensors. In fact, I sold my Canon 7D and 50D a month after purchasing it. The files were inferior to me compared to the original 5D. I don’t know what Sony did with their cropped sensors, but they are considerably better than the earlier Canon cropped sensors.

When new cameras come out, reviewers go hog wild with descriptions of all the technological advancements. No camera/lens combination gets any consideration from me unless the optical quality for big prints and pro results is there. That’s the foundation. Beyond that, I try to see through all the hoopla and remind myself that ALL cameras are still the same basic thing: a light proof box with 2 functions – exposure and focus. The ease and accuracy of the 2 basic functions determines performance. I value performance and practical function over whiz-bang bells and whistles, most of which I never use.

There are 5 functions and operations I use and change regularly when my eye is to the viewfinder. They are:

  1. Changing the aperture and shutter in manual.
  2. Applying exposure compensation in aperture or shutter priority mode.
  3. Changing focus points on the fly.
  4. Using manual focus override, or changing focus modes (servo to one shot AF).
  5. Changing ISO.

 
The ease of using the 5 functions mentioned above is why I chose Canon in the first place years ago. The layout and ergonomics just made sense to me. The A6300 has some serious performance and ergonomic design issues to improve upon. I can’t reduce the size of my hands without serious loss of blood, so I don’t know how much smaller they can make camera bodies. Sony can, however, put a little more thought into button and dial layout. For example, I operate mainly in Aperture Priority mode. I change the aperture setting by spinning a wheel with my right thumb. It is easy to accidentally change the shooting mode as that wheel is close and similar in feel when your eye is in the viewfinder concentrating on the image! The thumb wheel is too small and often jumps functions. I can’t just change focus points unless I turn the focus point selection on.

My friend Catrin shot this image of me using the A6300 with 16-70F/4 lens (24-105 full frame equivalent) on the Watchman Trail in Zion National Park Utah. She shot this with my 5D Mark III with the 24-70F2.8L. The next image shows what I shot of her while she shot this of me.

This is my friend Catrin, with my Canon 5D Mark III with Canon 24-70F/2.8 L on the Really Right Stuff tripod and head. This is what I saw while lying on my side in the previous image. The Sony A6300 has liberated me somewhat allowing enjoyable photography when I need to be light and mobile. HOWEVER, I am not ready to sell off my Canon system. On important assignments and all day shoots, the Canon still reigns supreme.

Performance as a landscape camera. The Sony A6300 has everything you need to create excellent landscape images. And you never have to lock up the mirror. My favorite mode is DMF (Direct Manual Focus) where the camera lets you set a focus point, and uses a keyed color display to tell you what is in focus and what is not. I find this very useful. I can turn the focus ring and the camera will do a 5X magnification to assist with critical focus. This has been helpful in twilight shooting. When on a tripod, Sony recommends turning IS off. On the Canon, this is a nano-second flip of a switch on the lens barrel. On the Sony, I have to press 3 buttons needing reading glasses to get to the same point. Again, they have all the right stuff. They just need to improve performance. Switching IS modes should be a one button function.

Sunrise over the Inner Gorge along the Tonto Trail, Grand Canyon. 16-70 lens at 16mm. ISO400. 1/60th sec at F16

Emily and Jordan Star gazing in the Zion backcountry near Northgate Peaks. Sony A6300 with Sony-Zeiss 16-70F4 lens at 16mm. ISO1250, 8 seconds @ F4. The DMF (Direct Manual Focus) mode was the most helpful. By pressing down the focus button while turning the manual focus ring, the camera does a 5X magnification, allowing easier focus on the tent and couple in low light.

Performance as an action camera. All new camera systems seem cumbersome at first. Thankfully, I stuck to the golden rule of never using an unfamiliar camera on an assignment. I am also glad I waited until I’ve used this camera for 10 months before writing about its capability as an action camera. I wanted to rule out the bias of newness and learning how the camera functions. Although I’ve used the A6300 on a ski action assignment and a backpack assignment with success, I still believe the A6300 really needs help as a performance action camera.

This is from my first winter stock shoot with the Sony. We had single digit temperatures and the Sony battery, NP-FW50, drained fast. But, the AF-C focus mode did will tracking this skier in the trees in flat light. 16-70 Zeiss lens, 1/400th second @F5.6, 400 ISO

I did a few stock shoots with the Sony before even considering using it on a paid assignment. This camera has trouble locking focus in strong backlight in continuous (AF-C) mode. With grainless images at ISO 400 and with lots of bright light I was able to zone focus this image using the DMF (direct manual focus) mode with the viewfinder indicating what was focused and what was not, using a keyed color display, at 1/1000 second at F/11 at 16mm (24mm full frame equivalent)

These were shot on assignment where I finally had some confidence in the AF-C focus mode. We had a very advanced skier flying downhill with trees between him and the camera. I shoot in conditions like this frequently and have developed the motor skills to keep up with my subject. The sensor stayed locked on the skier on this sequence even though trees were moving rapidly in front of the selected focus point.

They boast about their fast frame rate (11fps, almost double the 5D3) and speed and accuracy of their hybrid phase and contrast detection focus systems. You have more of the sensor available to you for focus points allowing more flexibility in image composition with moving subjects. The focus tracking accuracy (AF-C) in backlight is dismal. In most other situations, it is great. With phase detection, the camera doesn’t “search.” It knows it needs to focus closer or further and it locks on very fast. Like any other system, focus performance accuracy varies from lens to lens. The 16-70/F4 Sony-Zeiss is much better than the 12/F2.8 Zeiss Touit.

The small Zeiss 12mmF2.8 Touit is great in narrow slot canyons. This is one of our canyoneers near Zion in mid-May. As a prime lens I am surprised at how much flare I get. But it is sharp. Touit 12mmF2.8 ISO800, 1/20th second, hand held, @F16.

I had to learn to turn off the auto review feature so I can track my subject live as I’m shooting an action sequence. They don’t make it obvious or easy to do this and at first I couldn’t track a subject because all I saw in the electronic viewfinder was a review of the first shot I took. The Sony does everything you need to do for action work. It is just more clunky than using pro level 1 or 5 series Canons.

I’ve witnessed 2 major camera technology revolutions in my career as a photographer. The first was autofocus lenses in the early 1990’s. First seen as gimmicky and a crutch for hobbyists, predictive autofocus with multiple focus point selection changed action photography standards forever. The next tectonic shift was, of course, the transition from film to digital SLR cameras. No elaboration needed. In a practical sense, mainly for commercial work, film is long gone. I think we are on the verge of a third major shift. I believe mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses along with the evolution of smartphone cameras will make the digital SLR near obsolete.

Over time, Sony will hopefully improve the current ergonomic and performance shortcomings and mirrorless image making bodies will out perform the top pro bodies we know today. This is just a prediction and I don’t know when this will happen. It’s not going to be in the next 12 months but probably within 10 years. Glad I jumped in on the upward emergence of mirrorless cameras as serious professional image making tools.

This is a screen grab from Lightroom showing how an image looks with my default develop preset I made for this camera. In normal daylight, the focus tracking, or zone focus, worked great with a distant action shot of Lauri hiking the High Sierra last fall.

THE GOOD:

  • Compact weight.
  • Excellent optical quality in smaller package.
  • Lower price point than comparable DSLR’s.
  • More focus point options.
  • Fast motor drive.
  • Image stabilization built into camera.
  • Depth of field verification system in Manual and Direct Manual focus modes.
  • No mirror lock up needed!

 
THE BAD:

  • Poor instruction manual from Sony. (I recommend David Busch’s Sony Alpha/ILCE-6300 Guide to Digital Photography.)
  • Lack of smaller, fast aperture telephotos specifically designed for the APS-C format. How about a 45-135F2.8 (70-200 full frame) smaller than a Canon 70-200F/4?
  • Very slow start up time to the point where you will miss shots.
  • Buttons and dials with competing functions too close together.
  • Reconfiguring the camera for different shooting styles (landscape/macro to action) is clunky at best.
  • No quick AF to MF on the lens.
  • No full time MF override in ANY focus mode like Canon.

 
THE UGLY:

  • Battery life sucks big time! I change batteries for every 16gb card in temperate weather. I don’t chimp much. I have auto review and wifi turned off. And they are expensive ($78 when this blog was written.)
  • They put the media card slot in the battery compartment so you have to turn the camera upside to change cards. The media card should have its own easy to reach compartment when the camera is upright with a one-touch formatting function.

 

The smaller Sony has made it much nicer to shoot in tight spaces with low light such as in slot canyons near Zion. A lighter load with smaller camera pack makes rappelling and down climbing in narrow walls easier. 16-70 lens at 43mm. ISO800, 1/100th second @F4.5

Gear Review: Branded Flash Drives by USB Memory Direct

I want to write more often about equipment I use and why but there are plenty of reviews on just about anything cameras and lenses that I struggle with offering something different that would have value. Before I write about any product or service though, I want to say that currently I am not sponsored or endorsed by anyone thus having no influence on my reviews.

During February, I spent nearly 100 hours putting together 2 days worth of Keynotes for my Santa Fe Photo Workshops class and 2 other Keynotes for presentations at NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association) and FCCC (Florida Camera Club Council) events in Florida. Of course I always back up my work regularly for piece of mind. Well, I found out recently that getting my own personalized flash drives that I can carry on my keychain were a really great idea and affordable.

I am always looking for new, innovative and practical ways to brand myself without making everything a hard sell. Recently, I have been using flash drives from USB Memory Direct. My “DeYoung Photo Workshops” logo in my favorite shade of blue is very sharply and nicely inscribed to the shaft of the drive.

USB Direct has a very nice selection of drives that you can place your business logo, web site, or any branding message. I have the Clover model with a nice chrome finish, shaped like a key which, coincidentally, fits nicely on a key ring or small caribiner made for keys. The company was easy to work with and had a very fast turnaround time. I really like having a marketing piece that is also very practical and useful.

I’m using my branded drives in two specific and beneficial ways. First, when I give an instructional-based photography workshop, I place PDF versions of my Keynote presentations on these flash drives and pass them out to workshop participants at the completion of the workshop. Speaking of Keynotes, I now back up my presentations on these drives and have one with me at all times as they are so easy to carry on a keychain or lanyard. After spending countless hours preparing a presentation, having a back up that is always with me gives me great peace of mind should disaster strike with my laptop the day I am giving a presentation.

When I have a portfolio review with an art director or an advertising agency, I always have a presentation ready on my laptop. However, I always bring a back up my digital portfolio on a flash drive. Most of the time, a conference room will have a projector and big screen already set up and ready to just pop in my flash drive, making it easier than setting up my laptop. At the end of the review I give them a drive as another leave behind piece and something else to remember me by.

I have not gone through my first 50 yet but that is likely before the year ends and I will be ordering more.

Ski Action Photography With a Fisheye Lens

skier-jump-highline-taos-1

Ryan taking some air off HIghline Ridge at Taos Ski Valley. Shot with a Canon 1D Mark IV and Sigma 15mm/f2.8 fisheye at 1/1000 second at f8 at 200 ISO.

Until recently, I’ve never been a big fan of fisheye lenses.  They look cool for an occasional shot where the distortion really adds to the visual interest of the image.  My first test with Sigma’s 15mm f2.8 fisheye for Canon was on a ski shoot at Taos Ski Valley close to home in northern New Mexico. The lens is solidly made and has a nice feel to it.  It is easy to focus and has a decent hyperfocal scale on the focus ring.  I’m not too concerned about its focus speed  because with a super wide lens I use hyperfocal manual focus anyway.  I used this lens on my Canon 1D, Mark IV.  With a 1.3x  sensor the 15mm fisheye became just short of a 20mm on this camera and it didn’t produce the full fisheye distortion.

For ski action work at close range to my subject, I set the focus to a little beyond 4 feet and everything from about 3 feet to infinity is in focus at f8.   This lens produces a beautiful diffraction star when shooting into the sun.  In fact it is better than my Canon EF 20/f2.8.  Shooting at 1/1000 second at f8 produced very sharp and contrasty images.  There is noticeable chromatic aberration but it was easy to correct with a simple checkbox in Lightroom 4.  In most instances, I actually preferred the distortion.  This lens has a profile built in to Lightroom 4 and correcting for distortion is as easy as checking a box.  The 2 images below show the uncorrected image on top and the same image corrected for distortion beneath it. The corrected one chops too much off the corners but it makes the skier look taller and Lauri likes that!

Lauri skiing across a rare flat section at Taos Ski Valley off of Highline Ridge.  Shot with a Sigma 15mm/f2.8 fisheye.   This shot shows some fisheye distortion.  The shot below was corrected for lens distortion in the built in profiles in Lightroom 4.

Lauri skiing across a rare flat section at Taos Ski Valley off of Highline Ridge. Shot with a Sigma 15mm/f2.8 fisheye. This shot shows some fisheye distortion. The shot below was corrected for lens distortion in the built in profiles in Lightroom 4.

Lauri skiing across a rare flat section at Taos Ski Valley off of Highline Ridge.  Shot with a Sigma 15mm/f2.8 fisheye.  Distortion correction was applied in RAW processing in Lightroom 4.

Lauri skiing across a rare flat section at Taos Ski Valley off of Highline Ridge. Shot with a Sigma 15mm/f2.8 fisheye. Distortion correction was applied in RAW processing in Lightroom 4.

 

All in all this is a great lens especially for shooting into the sun with lots of depth of field, contrast and sharpness.  I know fisheyes are popular for landscape photography but I can see using this lens just as much for unique sports action shooting too.  Definitely a worthwhile pro lens.

taos-chair-2-sun

Lauri and I riding up chair 2 at Taos Ski Valley with the morning sun cresting the ridge. Shot with Canon 1D Mark IV with Sigma 15mm/f2.8 fisheye.

Winter Solstice Alaska Assignment: Wireless Speedlites in Extreme Cold

Winter scenic near Anchorage, Alaska

Sun at solar noon, shot at Otter Lake near Anchorage, Alaska near winter solstice

Only 3 days from the winter solstice I was on assignment shooting environmental portraits of 2012 Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey near his kennels near Willow. With the sun reaching only 5 degrees above the horizon at mid-day I was lucky to be nearby a lake where the trees were far enough away to give us some beautiful open sunlight. This time of year that meant about 3 hours of unobstructed sun. This far north, clear skies in the dead of winter mean only one thing: cold. This was a short trip (only 4 full days) and luckily the weather held for another day giving me a chance to spend an afternoon shooting winter landscapes around Anchorage. It was good to get re-acquainted with the Alaska winter landscape.

Winter scenic near Anchorage Alaska

Mid day sun on Otter Lake and Chugach Mountains near Anchorage, Alaska

My main concern was the cold. It was -22F (-30C) in Willow that morning and this time of year the daily temperature range is usually 10 degrees or less.  We started shooting about 12:30 and it had warmed very little.  Being on a lake, a low spot where cold air pools, it was -15F (-25C) max.

Canon Wireless Speedlights: This shoot was the first time I would use the Canon 600EX-RT speedlights fired wirelessly with the new ST-E3 transmitter in extreme temperatures. Knowing that alkaline and my rechargeable nickel metal hydride batteries would die quickly in this cold, the speedlights, the external power packs, and the transmitter were all outfitted with lithium AA batteries which have the best cold weather performance.

On assignment in Willow, Alaska in sub-zero weather. Lynn Wegener and Karen Combs with Canon 600EX-RT speedlights equiped with Spinlight 360 light modifiers with Michael DeYoung shooting environmental portaits of 2012 Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey.

Photographer Michael DeYoung on assignment doing environmental portraits of 2012 Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey near Willow, Alaska in sub-zero temperatures.

The lighting plan was simple. Use the beautiful sub-arctic sun as sidelight and backlight, and fill the shadows with the speedlights. The RT wireless system worked flawlessly in the bright light and cold for about two hours when the recycle time started getting over 20 seconds. I love being able to control the ratio and mode (Manual or ETTL) from the transmitter though I still had to take my hands out of my gloves to make the changes. In these temperatures, I got about 150 shots before the recycle time became intolerable. Luckily the shoot was winding down.

SpinLight360: This was also the first shoot that I’ve used the new SpinLight 360 Extreme light mod system in these temperatures. I was concerned with the plastic becoming brittle and breaking during my typical hard use of my strobes. This system is mainly targeted for wedding and event shooters but I have really taken a liking to this system. Once the base unit spin ring was attached to the flash with Velcro ,which is very secure, the modifiers (dome, snoot, grid, bounce cards) were easy to attach in the cold with gloves on; a big plus in extreme conditions. I used a the diffuser dome, the grid and snoot and I am really impressed with the quality of light from these mods as well as their light weight and ease in attaching and removing various mods.

Photographers with Canon Speedlites and Spinlight 360 light modifiers near Willow, Alaska

On assignment in Willow, Alaska in sub-zero weather. Lynn Wegener and Karen Combs with Canon 600EX-RT speedlights equiped with Spinlight 360 light modifiers with Michael DeYoung shooting environmental portaits of 2012 Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey.

Near sunset, with the temp dropping I wanted to get a shot with Dallas and two of his dogs hooked up in front of his sled. I set up my 2 speedlights with snoots with the group B:A ratio of about 3:1. Group B, operated by my assistant Lynn, lit Dallas’s face. Since this was a wide angle shot Lynn had to maintain a fair distance and thus the snoot worked better than a grid by not reducing the light output as much. I aimed group A on a separate stand at Hero and Porter, also champion athletes in the foreground. The snoots did a very good job at focusing the light on the dogs and keeping unwanted light off the snow.

Dog musher at sunset near Willow, Alaska

012 Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey with sled dogs Hero and Porter at sunset near Willow, Alaska.

I also got to spend an afternoon shooting landscapes around Anchorage where I had a mix of sun and fog. The image of Otter Lake shows the mid day sun at how low it stays in the sky. From the same vantage point is a side-lit shot of the Chugach. An hour later near sunset I found this scene –  the frozen birch forest and peaks behind Ship Creek and Arctic Valley – diffused by the lingering freezing fog and stratus.

Frozen landscape close to winter solstice near Anchorage, Alaska

Winter landscape close to sunset, frozen birch-boreal forest looking up Ship Creek Valley and Chugach Mountains near Anchorage, Alaska

This short trip reminded me of just how nice winter landscape photography can be in mainland Alaska. Here is the shot I missed: Mt. McKinley, Hunter and Foraker glowing in warm light with beautifully lit snow-covered forest near Willow in the Susitna Valley. I didn’t stop because we were running a little late for our shoot and the client was more important than a landscape. But it was probably near the best I’ve seen of a winter view of the south side of McKinley and the Alaska Range.

Gear Review: Nice New Adventure Pack from MindShift Gear

Canyoneer on rappel in Zion National Park, Utah

Photo backpacks are not really designed for serious backcountry use. Lauri about to rappel 180 feet in a remote Zion canyon. She is carrying our trusty backcountry Gitzo mini tripod.

Never been a big fan of photo backpacks.   On hike-in shoots I will carry the photo gear I need for the trip in a performance pack designed for real trail use.  Photo backpacks are best suited for schlepping your gear from the parking lot to the overhead bin on the plane and fall short of being serious trail packs.

There are several reasons for this.  To satisfy marketing needs, most photo backpacks meet airline carry-on regulations which means the suspension system is too short for taller people.   Most have too much padding making them too stiff and heavy for a performance pack.  This means the pack doesn’t flex and contour your body well on uneven and difficult terrain.  Camera gear is heavy enough without the pack itself feeling like lead too.   I wish some manufacturer would abandon the airline carry on size limit and make a taller narrower pack that has a more versatile suspension system.  After all, I wear a pack more often on the trail than going to and from the airport.

Other limitations of a photo backpack are that you have to take the pack off to get access to your camera and most don’t have a really good external tripod carrying system.

I got a first glance at a great new pack for adventure shooters from MindShift Gear at Photo Plus Expo 2012 in NYC.  (MindShift Gear is founded by the creators of Think Tank Photo and conservation photographer Daniel Beltra.) The pack is due out in the spring of 2013.

The MindShift has an integral fanny pack that holds a pro body with 70-200/f2.8.  The fanny pack spins around to the front for quick access to your camera without having to take your pack off.   That’s definitely a nice feature! It’s nice not having to worry about where to place your pack to avoid mud or snow just to get access to your camera. Demo’ing this on the show floor, this seems like a very well designed pack.  Some other nice features include optional padding in the top compartment that’s easily removable.  The adjustment straps on the well padded hip belt pull inward like they do on performance packs.

I also would like to see them design a chest holster similar to the Clik Elite model that easily clips on and off the pack.  (I’ve been using this chest pack for a couple of years and it is a great way to carry a camera at the ready with other packs.)  Overall this may be the best photo backpack for real trail shooting yet.

I really look forward to trying one out in the field when they come out this spring!

skier-climbing-taos

Photographer Michael DeYoung climbing Kachina Peak at Taos Ski Valley with a photo chest pack from Clik Elite. The pack is holding a Canon 1D, MK IV with a 24-70/f2.8 lens

 

skiers-climb-taos-ski-valley

Skiers and boarders climbing Kachina Peak at Taos Ski Valley in gusty ridgetop winds. Quick access to my camera made this shot possible. I also was able to get my camera sheltered quickly again before being pounded by wind driven snow.

Horsing Around With The New Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites

I got a chance to take my new Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT’s on a shoot. The location was Music Meadows Ranch near Westcliffe, Colorado. I was there to create some images to promote a new workshop I am teaching this fall. The workshop is “Western Landscape and Action” and hosted by Twin Compass (www.twincompass.com).

Backlit shot of horses running towards camera shortly after sunrise in Music Meadows Ranch in Westcliffe, Colorado

This was not lit with any artificial light. It is just a cool backlit shot of horses coming at the camera shortly after sunrise. Shot with a Canon 1Ds Mark III and Canon 400/f4 DO

I bought the last two 600EX-RT’s that Samy’s Camera had at the Palm Springs Photo Festival earlier this April. After a 10 minute lesson from a Canon rep at PSPF I found the menu buttons more intuitive than the 580EX-II’s I have been using.

I was still feeling the pain of sticker shock from this purchase a week later. These units are expensive and the system is not worth investing in unless you have at least 2 units. Even with a minimalist system of one 600EX-RT and one ST-E3 you are out $950-$1,000. The pain quickly faded when we put them to use and after two shoots they have performed very well with ease.

I have not been able to get a ST-E3 transmitter that works with the radio wireless system with these new speedlites yet. So for now I have to use one unit as a transmitter limiting my lighting options to very simple, one light, off-camera set ups.

Here’s what I really like about them: It takes less time to get operational on wireless radio mode than it does attaching Radio Poppers to the older 580 series speedlites. The Radio Poppers have been a savior for me the past few years giving me what I needed: a wireless flash system that works in any light and behind walls, trees, etc. The 600’s simplify and streamline the wireless speedlite workflow. This is a great asset under high pressure situations like some assignments and fast breaking photo ops where a speedlite is needed. No more carrying different size batteries or working with mounting brackets that often break and having to turn on two electronic units.

Upon turning the power on the two 600EX units and pushing 4 or 5 menu buttons we were up and running in wireless RT mode using the “Auto” channel mode in about 10 seconds. Being able to zoom to 200mm is long overdue. Zooming in to 200mm gives a little more “horsepower” using high speed sync, which I do often, and being better able to focus the light on a subject in a wide angle scene without needing a light robbing grid.

There are a few things I don’t like. First, they are bigger and don’t really recycle any faster than the 580-IIs. Second, the new radio system does not work with the 580-IIs with Radio Poppers attached. At over $600 each I think they are priced too high and again you really need at least two if you are going to use the wireless RT system. What is most disturbing is the manual claims these units can’t be used in wireless radio transmission mode with cameras older than 2012 models. (Nothing like Canon trying to sell new product at every turn.) However, on my Canon 1D Mark IV and 1Ds Mark III they worked fine in TTL and synched at all speeds. No need to rush out and get a 1Dx or 5D Mark III to use these new units in wireless radio transmission mode.

Horse sniffing photographer assistant's tripod

Lauri being “screened” by a horse checking out the tripod and a Canon 600EX-RT attached to a Dynalite Jackrabbit II battery pack

As usual when working with animals we first did a familiarization tour letting the “subjects” see and sniff all this fancy new stuff. They quickly ignored the lights when we began shooting for real.

In the horse crashing through the creek scenario, our light was flat with thick clouds over the Sangre de Cristo. Employing the speedlite enabled me to punch up the colors on Elin, the rider, and Rocky, the horse, while maintaining some rich detail in the background. Lauri was about 30 feet away from me with the strobe on a tall boom to place it just under Elin’s hat brim.

Westcliffe Colorado's Music Meadows Ranch woman owner riding a horse through a creek

Elin and Rocky riding through a creek at Music Meadows Ranch in Colorado. Scene is lit with the 600EX-RT in radio slave mode with the light on a boom about 8 feet high slightly to camera left.

At sunrise the next morning with Elin and Rocky riding in a patch of spring green grass the sun was absent on them but lighting the background mountains. I had Lauri about 75 feet in front of me so I could get a telephoto perspective. The units worked fine at that distance.

Westcliffe Colorado's Music Meadows Ranch woman owner riding a horse with Sangre De Cristo range in background

Elin, owner of Music Meadows Ranch in Colorado riding Rocky as the first rays of light hit the Sangre de Cristo. The sun was not up yet where Elin is riding so she is lit with a 600EX-RT on radio slave mode. Camera to subject distance is about 200 feet and shot with a 70-200 zoom. The flash to subject distance is about 20-30 feet.

For the saddle portrait, the slave speedlite had no problem firing through the wood walls of the barn.

Westcliffe Colorado's Music Meadows Ranch woman owner carrying saddle back to barn

Canon Finally Offers New Speedlite But Few Are Talking About It

There’s been a lot of buzz on web groups about the new 5DMarkIII but almost nothing about a new speedlite – the 600EX-RT. I am far more jazzed about a new and more capable flash than another camera body. Why? Having a few more megapixels and frames per second will not improve your photography. But, an investment in more lighting capability, if used effectively, definitely will.

Wilderness canoe trip in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Lauri at camp in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska. This 3 day trip involved a boat taxi to a remote beach, then lining our canoe up a river that drains the lake we are camped on to the ocean. All my camera gear including 3 flashes with RadioPoppers had to be packed in waterproof cases and carried in the canoe with the rest of our camping gear.

 

  • Photographer: Michael DeYoung
  • Location: Kenai Fjords National Park
  • Client: stock shoot
  • Lighting: 2 Canon 580EXII’s with RadioPoppers
  • Technique: Group A light in canoe with Honl grid lighting subject’s right. Group B in tent lighting tent and providing fill to subject’s left.

This new speedlite, though shockingly expensive, could really expand your lighting options. It’s true that for $630 (and you need at least 2 to have a working system) you could get an Alien Bees mono light and a Vagabond battery (which I have) that would throw out a lot more light. So you get more watts per dollar. But try carrying 2 AB’s with Vagabond and stands 3 miles up a trail. If you are an outdoor shooter like me who frequently carries their gear on their back or has to stuff their camera gear among a pile of other gear on a 2 week raft trip then size, portability and performance are worth paying for.

Currently I use 580EX II’s with RadioPoppers and the system has performed well in many situations. I’ve been frustrated at only having 105mm zoom capability and having to set up Radio Poppers with brackets (which break easily) on each flash with the transmitter flimsily attached to the master flash or ST-E2 with velcro. I also have to carry an additional set of batteries for the Radio Poppers.

For me, the 200mm zoom capability and built in radio wave wireless system alone is worth the investment.

You can read more about the 600EX-RT on the Canon site.

The Canon speedlite guru who’s really been testing the 600EX is Syl Arena. On his blog, you get the full scoop and a lot more information about the new speedlite than you’ll get on the Canon site.

Young adult male on a glacier hiking adventure under Wrangell-St. Elias National Park's Root Glacier, Alaska

Hiking in an ice cave under the Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska. The approach to the underside of the glacier was steep with loose footing. We had to pack camera gear including 2 speedlites with RadioPoppers in our daypacks.

 

  • Photographer: Michael DeYoung
  • Location: Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
  • Client: Alaska Travel Industry Association
  • Lighting: 2 Canon 580EXII’s with RadioPoppers
  • Technique: Group A on master flash at reduced ratio for overall fill light.
  • Group B with Honl grid held by assistant on camera left using “hand gobo” to focus light on hiker and keep it off the ice.