Category Archives: Gear Beat

Worth every penny…

Oh yeah, it’s time to give the Gear Beat some love. Hmmm, I’ve had the Canon 1D Mark IV for 2 ½ years. Think it’s time for a review? Uh, yeah. For years I had lusted for the image quality and high frame rates of the 1D Mark III. But, I didn’t care for just 10mp on a 1.3x crop sensor. So, I decided if a 1D Mark IV was released with at least 15mp and maintained 10 fps and 1.3x crop sensor, I’d buy it. Well, in October of 2009, the announcement was made and my preorder went in minutes later. Here are the specs:

SENSOR:  16.1 mp, 1.3x crop

FRAME RATE:  10 fps, up to 28 RAW images in a burst


ISO:  100-12,800 (standard), 25,600 (H1), 51,200 (H2), 102,400 (H3)

AUTO FOCUS:  45-point TTL CMOS sensor, 39 cross-type for F/2.8 or faster lenses

MOVIE MODE:  1920×1080 at 30, 25 or 24 fps, 1280×720 at 60 or 50 fps, 640×480 at 60 or 50 fps

LCD MONITOR:  3.0 inch TFT LCD, 920,000 pixels, 7 brightness levels


STORAGE:  Compact Flash slot (UDMA support), SD card slot (SDHC support)

DIMENSIONS:  6.1 x 6.2 x 3.1 in.

WEIGHT:  With no battery:  2.6 lb, With battery:  3.1 lb

OK, for those of  you coming from smaller cameras, this one is big and heavy. It is built like a tank and could literally be used as a weapon against an assailant. It is sealed 10 ways from Sunday, and 1D series Canons have been known to be dunked completely in water and come out unscathed (don’t try this at home). Some people have been known to spray the mud off of them with a hose. I first started using this camera when I began taking sunrise pictures for The Day That. We needed to be there for the shot, rain or shine every day. So eventually, I simply began relying on the camera’s own sealing and dispensed with the rain cover. I even went out into driving rain storms with no cover to take shots. Of course, I needed to use a weather sealed lens. I have total and utter confidence in this camera’s weather sealing and construction quality.

Now, what have I been shooting with it?  Everything.  Weddings, portraits, landscapes, concerts, sports, cityscapes, and most especially… wildlife and nature. You can see some of my shots on this blog and on 500px. After the sunrise job dissolved, I started concentrating on wildlife. I discovered my favorite bird is the Red-Tailed Hawk. And Eagles are also a joy to see and photograph. This camera can shoot like a machine gun 10 fps and it does a good job of maintaining focus at those speeds. This camera is ideal for shooting anything moving in low light. Concerts are a great example. It is dark, and the lights are always changing color and position on the band. And the band members are always moving. So, high frame rates at high ISO yield some great keepers that slower and noisier cameras would miss.

Special mention goes to ISO performance. This camera is so good at high ISO, low light photography, that it literally extends my day. Animals tend to be active late in the day just before nightfall. Now, birds in flight photography requires around 1/1000 sec shutter speed (give or take). In low light, that means the ISO has to be cranked up. With my 50D, I’d be done at ISO 3200. With the 1D Mark IV, I don’t even bat an eye at ISO 12,800. And with a decent exposure, I can get a decently noise-recoverable shot at ISO 25,600. The versatility this gives in terms of lens choice, aperture choice, shutter speed, and how late or early you can shoot, is so comforting!

Image quality has to be given center stage as well. With 16mp on a 1.3x crop sensor, it has a decent pixel density (equivalent to 26.5mp on a full frame sensor). So, I can crop into a shot and retain detail better than probably any full frame camera that has fewer than 26.5mp (assuming equal focal length and distance to subject). And the 1.3x crop sensor creates a field of view for my lenses that simulates 30% more reach than the same lenses would have on a full frame sensor. So, a 400mm lens appears to have the same reach as a 520mm lens would on a full frame sensor. So, less cropping is necessary. But, if cropping is necessary (which it always is with prime lenses) there are pixels to crop into. And there is just something about the images coming out of this camera. There’s a depth and accuracy that’s hard to put into words. Of course, lens choice is paramount. But, even with the same lenses, in difficult lighting situations, color and contrast accuracy is far better retained with this camera than with any other that I’ve used. I’m spoiled by this camera.

Autofocus was given massive attention in this model. The previous model (1D Mark III) was accused of dropping frames in the AI Servo mode. So, Canon made sure this camera would focus. It locks and stays locked on the subject with tenacity heretofore unseen in cameras (except for maybe the recently-released 1D X, which has a 100,000 pixel metering sensor that aids tracking by sensing shape and color, but that’s another story). And to seal the deal, Canon provided multiple sensitivity adjustments and first subject/second subject priority settings. So, for example, if there are tree limbs all around, you can set the tracking sensitivity low, so it won’t try to grab the tree limb when the bird flies behind them. But, if there are no obstructions around, you can set the sensitivity high so it will acquire the bird quickly and allow you to change subjects quickly.

Intangibles are abundant, but I’ll try to tangify them. This camera lets me get my whole-hand grip on it and it just feels right. The integrated battery grip is perfectly formed for both landscape and portrait shooting so you don’t have to contort your shutter finger over the top of the camera in portrait orientation. The sound of the shutter is just quality and precision. Other, lower cost camera shutters just sound cheap and clunk in comparison. The materials of everything in the camera are top grade, high performance and durable. And there’s just something special about knowing you have the right camera for any situation, rain or shine, sports or landscapes, wildlife or portraits. This camera not only does it all. It does it all with highest of standards. Anything else might fail you, but not this camera.

Are there downsides? Yep. I can always list opportunities for improvement in my gadgets.

  1. In extremely low light, it sometimes has difficulty locking focus unless there’s a clear area of contrast for it to grab.
  2. The Autofocus points are rather big, so it may be difficult at times to pinpoint a spot to focus on if there are obstacles in the way or you are shooting through a fine-mesh fence.
  3. When holding the camera in portrait mode, it’s a far reach of the thumb to the multi-controller for when you want to change your default autofocus point.
  4. 1.3x crop, an advantage for wildlife shooting, is a disadvantage when you want more width from your lenses such as when you are shooting an event inside a building etc. Also, the potential for ISO performance improves with increased sensor size. This has been borne out by the new 5D Mark III and 1D X full frame cameras Canon released this year that have higher rated standard ISO levels (5D Mark III is 1 stop better, 1D X is 2 stops better).

So, 2 ½ years after purchasing this camera, is there anything newer I’d prefer? As of now (July 2012), no. I like to shoot wildlife the most. So, the newer full frame cameras don’t give me the reach (with my prime lenses) or crop-ability I have with my 1D Mark IV. Now, if a new big-megapixel full frame pro body comes out with over 30mp, I will certainly give it a look, since it would provide even more detail for landscape shots, more crop-ability, and more width for event photography to complement my 1D Mark IV. I would like another body of the quality of my 1D Mark IV to put another lens on, so I don’t have to swap lenses in the field.  But, this baby still rocks my world.

This is a heavenly body! It should be for $5000.  And it’s worth every penny.

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Dream Lens…

Do I have a gear beat topic for you! OK, this is what I’ve dreamed of for years! So many times I’ve gone looking for wildlife. It gets dark. Wildlife comes out. Lens is either too short, max aperture is too small, or it has no IS (image stabilization). Either the wildlife gets away, or noisy and cropped images proliferate to frustrate me. The dream was to have a lens that was long, fast, sharp and with state-of-the-art IS. This is it; the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II. Simply put, it is the sharpest lens Canon has ever made. Also, this lens extends my day, literally! I can shoot earlier in the morning and later in the evening since f/2.8 and hybrid IS combine to allow more light in and damp out any motion I may have hand-holding the lens at lower shutter speeds in near darkness. Yes, even hand-held. At 8.5 lbs, it is a whopping 3.3 lbs lighter than its predecessor. And the center of gravity is now closer to your body, since much of the weight savings was taken from the front of the lens where the previous model had a large glass element (not a lens element) for added protection.

As often as not, I go slingin’ (hand-carrying) with this lens on my Black Rapid strap. It is a bit heavy, but manageable. It takes the new Mark III versions of the extenders well, too. I got the 1.4x III and 2.0x III extenders when I bought the lens. So, it’s like three lenses in one (400 f/2.8, 560 f/4, and 800 f/5.6). The new Mark III extenders include a processor that aids autofocusing accuracy when used with the new Mark II supertelephoto lenses (300 f/2.8 II, 400 f/2.8 II, 500 f/4 II and 600 f/4 II).

Last year, I thought I wanted a 600 f/4 II. But over time, I realized there were situations where I wanted to get closer, or the animals were bigger or I really needed f/2.8 in low light. So, the 400 f/2.8 II was the choice. I’m so loving it! More nature and less frustration. I can’t wait to get back to Cades Cove and have another shot at those bears!

A surprise bonus is that it is fantastic with any photography (not just sports and wildlife). The transmittance of  image contrast through this lens is as close to perfect as any lens Canon has ever made. If I can fit the subject into my frame, I choose this lens over any other, even indoors! It really spoils me.

Yes, there are times when a longer lens (bare glass) could be preferable over this lens, such as shooting small birds at a distance or hawks at a huge distance away. But, while I can add extenders to this lens, I couldn’t reduce focal length or increase aperture on the 600 f/4. At Photoshop World this month, Moose Peterson may talk me into getting a 600 down the road anyway. We’ll see. Meanwhile, this lens is the epitome of lens perfection; top notch build quality, weather sealing, speed, accuracy, durability, and optics–with a price to match: $11,500. Whooaa. Yes, I’m crazy about photography! 🙂  One downside, though. I now have no excuse. 🙂

Oh, almost forgot.. why is the watch hanging on the lens in the picture? Life is short. Once those moments are gone, they’re gone. Grab your dreams. 🙂

Feelin’ the pod…

My friend, Sherry Boylan of, had a terrific idea for me to post gear reviews. So, I created a new category–Gear Beat. Sherry’s been known to say, “I’m not feelin’ the pod” when she’d rather hand-hold the camera. It fits here for my first beat.

Travel to new places and don’t want to lug a heavy tripod around? I got a tip (thanks, Sherry) on the availability of a super new travel tripod from Oben… the CT-3510. Research showed that this carbon fiber tripod matched the features and capacities of the Gitzo Traveler GT-1541T. On my recent trip to New York City, I sauntered into B&H Photo (yeah, the actual store!) and checked out the most popular travel pods thoroughly. Honestly, I couldn’t find a more desirable travel pod than the Oben—at any price. It’s extremely light (3.2 lb with ball head attached), compact (15.5” folded up with ball head attached), and nearly 17 lb load capacity. Further, it is just beautiful. All the twist locks and knobs on the legs and ball head are rubberized for a nice grippy feel and tactile feedback that lends confidence that it’s locked down firmly. It also has nice touches like foot spikes you can install, and a removable leg that can be attached to the removable center post for a really cool monopod. I checked out the height with the legs fully extended and the center post down. It’s actually pretty tall for a travel pod. My back is thankful. It only takes a quarter-turn to unlock and lock the twist locks. And the legs can individually lock in two different angles, which helps in sloped or rocky terrain.

Negatives? The internal joint components aren’t as high quality as the Gitzos, and parts may not be as easily replaced as those in Gitzos. For heavy duty work using a super-telephoto lens, I’d probably go with the Gitzo GT3541LS and a Wimberley gimbal head, but that’s a different use case.

The Oben’s price…$399.95 including ball head. That’s a cool $600 cheaper than the Gitzo (w/head) combo. I liked the Oben best, and I’m not gonna hold it against them if they want to sell it cheaper. Heck, I thought, why not give them a chance? So  far, I’m thrilled. Not a single complaint. We’ll see how it holds up over time and travels, though. Note that my September 19, 2011 pic “Bright spot in dark times…” was taken at Clingmans Dome with my camera atop the Oben. Now, when I leave the hotel or cabin, I’m feelin’ the pod. Check out the links below for more info.

photoframd – Bargain Compact Carbon Fiber Tripod You Will Want To Carry

B&H – Oben CT-3510 5-Section Carbon Fiber Folding Tripod w/ BB-0T Ball Head