Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Vote for My Canadian Geographic Cover!

Hi everyone!  Just a quick post today to ask you to please go vote for the next Canadian Geographic Cover, which includes one (or two or three) of my images as a cover choice.  I'm not going to tell you which ones are mine (though you may recognize one...or two...or even three), so may the best image win!

Any guesses as to which images are mine in the vote for the next Canadian Geographic magazine cover?

Happy shooting!

John


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Friday, October 21, 2011

Photo of the Day - Spy-Hopping Orca

For years now, I've had two goals in mind when heading out to Johnstone Strait to photograph orcas and other marine wildlife.  One has been to get whales in settings that portray the beauty of the Canadian West Coast -- whales and mountains, whales in fog, whales in little coves, etc.  And two has been to get killer whales displaying some of their playful behaviour, whether it be tail-slapping, spy-hopping, or (yes, please!) breaching.

Of course, having goals is all fine and dandy, but achieving them is often far more difficult. In two full weeks photographing in the strait, we saw 20-30 orca breaches, 50-60 spy-hops, and 100+ tail slaps.  And in two full weeks photographing in the strait, we saw 0 orca breaches, 0 spy-hops, and 0 tail slaps that we had any warning of and that were within a kilometer of us.

So you can imagine how easy it is to photograph a breach of a whale when you have no clue that it's going to happen.  It's almost impossible.  Which direction should you be looking?  What settings should you have your camera on?  Is the moon aligned with the sun?  In fact, if you're going to attempt a shot of a breaching whale by just winging it and hoping, then you might as well go buy a lottery ticket.

But wait a second, you say, didn't I just post a lovely shot of a breaching humpback whale a few weeks ago that was taken on this same trip?  Absolutely, but you'll note in the story accompanying the photo that the whale breached repeatedly for a solid twenty minutes, so there was plenty of fair warning and time to get prepared and watch for the behemoth to come sailing out of the saltwater.

Anyways, this all brings me back to one of my greatest triumphs as a wildlife photographer.  My first and only great orca spy-hop, taken on the fly like a papparazzi snapshot on my final day in the strait, with no warning or inclination that it was about to happen -- just the extreme good fortune to have my camera and big lens (500mm) in my hands and my settings correct 'just in case', and the luck to lift, fire, aim, and compose all in one split second of glory.

An orca spy-hops beside our boat in Johnstone Strait - handheld 500mm, 1/3200th, f9, ISO 800

Hope you enjoy it even one-one hundredth as much as I enjoyed the moment right after this shot when I realized that "I got it!"

Happy shooting!

John

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Lens Review

[Note: you won't find a bunch of technical jargon in this review, and you won't find a bunch of useless close-up zooms of some box or sign or whatever to show just how 'great' or 'terrible' this lens is.  No charts, no side reviews from the Dalai Lama, no pics of the lens in 62 different shades of light, nada.  In fact, all you're going to get is my opinion on whether the lens is sharp and whether it works well for me.  That's it, that's all!]

Since it was first announced almost a year ago, I've been eagerly awaiting the release of the new Sigma 120-300MM F2.8 APO EX DG HSM OS lens in the hopes that it will let me finally close the gap a bit between my primary wildlife lens, my Canon 500mm f4, and my secondary lens, which has been a Canon 70-200 f2.8.

The difference between the focal lengths of these two lenses has always annoyed me, so much so that I've long considered switching to Nikon to get at the sexy-looking and performing 200-400 f4 telephoto zoom (if only it wasn't so expensive).  I've lost track of how many times the difference between my 500 on my Canon 1D Mk IV camera body, with its 1.3x crop, and the 70-200 on my Canon 5D Mk II, which is full frame, has ticked me off.  It means I drop from 650mm (13x zoom) with my primary lens to 200mm (4x zoom) with my secondary lens, and that has often left me less than enthused.

When Canon announced that they had their own version of the 200-400 on its way, I rejoiced.  Then I saw the price tag.  Just like Nikon's version, I couldn't get over the fact that I'd have to drop $7500 for this lens when I already have a 500mm that's worth it's weight in gold.  As if that wasn't enough, Canon still doesn't have a timeline for when the new 200-400 may hit the shelves.

Enter the Sigma 120-300mm lens.  When the Sigma Canada rep first told me about it and offered me a chance to shoot with it (I'm sponsored by Sigma Canada), I was excited.  I'd heard good things about the older, lighter version that did not offer OS (optical stabilization), so I was cautiously optimistic that the new lens would fit the bill and give me exactly what I'm looking for in my secondary wildlife lens: a lens that is versatile (i.e. offers up a zoom rather than a fixed focal length), closes the gap closer to my 500 (300 accomplishes that), is very sharp, has good stabilization, and can focus fairly quickly and accurately.

Now I mentioned that I'm sponsored by Sigma Canada, so let me start this review with an interesting disclaimer:  I have tried a number of Sigma lenses to date, but this is the first one I'm reviewing because it's the first one that has truly offered me something different and desirable that I have wanted as a wildlife photographer.  I do really like the Sigma 12-24 f4.5-5.6 lens for its incredibly wide viewing angle, but I find I just don't use it that much for any wildlife applications.  And I gave the Sigma 300mm f2.8 fixed telephoto a whirl, but I'd rather have a telephoto zoom as my secondary lens for the versatility it provides.  

So when I finally got the box from Sigma three weeks ago, the day before I was about to leave for my grizzly bear photo tours in the Chilcotin in BC, I ripped it open and ooh-ed and aah-ed at the beautiful black beast inside.  It was bigger and heavier than I had thought it would be, but it felt extremely solid, like a good quality product.  And it didn't feel as heavy as advertised (it's listed at 10 lbs) when I put it on my 5D II and moved it about.  Certainly far less wieldy than my 500 on the 1D IV, though of course heavier than the 70-200 on the 5D II.

That was about it in terms of available time I had for testing (and no, holding the lens up and pointing it at something in my house doesn't count as testing), so I loaded up the car and zipped off to do my grizzly trip.  Since my grizzly tours are fairly intensive, I still didn't get a chance to test out the new lens during the first week to make sure it was sharp, so I let it lay on the floor of my room for the week, taunting me with its' good looks and promise.

And then, my first 'break'.  A plane delay on Day 7 opened up my afternoon, so I hauled out the 120-300 and hit the river in a kayak (you can read about my mis-adventures in said kayak on my Dear John Lowman post from a few days ago).  There was no way I was going to attempt to lug the 500 and 1D IV along in the kayak, so instead I grabbed my new 'trial' secondary system, the Sigma 120-300 f2.8 on my Canon 5D II body, stuffed them inside my rain jacket, and took off.

Fortunately for me, I found an accommodating grizzly bear fairly quickly and was able to stay with it for almost an hour as I snapped off shot after shot after shot with the new camera-lens combo.  It felt easy to use, the autofocus seemed to lock on quickly, and the camera didn't weigh me down as I flitted about on the water in the kayak.  I was particularly impressed with the optical stabilization, which seemed even better than on my Canon lenses.  Anyways, 495 shots later, it got too dark to photograph, so I kayaked a kilometer back to the lodge.

That night I took my first look at the new lens' files.  My first reaction?  "Wow!"  Sharp, sharp, sharp, and sharp.  Lovely colours and great bokeh (if you have no idea what that is, keep it that way!) --  I was thrilled, to say the least.

From that first day onwards, the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 slowly took over from my Canon 70-200mm f2.8 to the point where I didn't even take the 70-200 out on the final two days of the tours.  The Sigma was sharp at f2.8, 3.2, and beyond, and ridiculously accurate even in low light (which was a minor miracle in itself, as the Canon 5D II does not feature a particularly strong autofocus system).

And while I have yet to test it with a teleconverter and I didn't give it a hard run through the paces on action stuff, the fact remains that this is now going to be my new go-to secondary lens, replacing the 70-200 f2.8.  At $3,150, it's less than half the price of the upcoming 200-400 f4, and it offers a full extra stop of light to play with.   Plus, I found the autofocus to be fairly fast (though not as fast as the Canon 70-200 f2.8) and the stabilization to be a step above that of the Canon 70-200 f2.8 (even though the 70-200 is smaller and lighter).

Take a look at the images and let me know what you think:

Grizzly bear - handheld Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 300mm, ISO 1250, 1/800th, f4, -2/3rds exp comp.

Grizzly bear - handheld Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 206mm, ISO 1600, 1/500th, f2.8, +2/3rds exp comp.

Grizzly family - handheld Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 300mm, ISO 1250, 1/400th, f2.8

Grizzly bear - handheld Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 300mm, ISO 1000, 1/500th, f5, -2/3rds exp comp.

Grizzly bear - handheld Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 300mm, ISO 1250, 1/320th, f4.5, -2/3rds exp comp.

Black bear - handheld Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 235mm, ISO 1600, 1/1000th, f2.8, -1 exp comp.

Unedited 100% view of black bear file (21 MP) from Lightroom 3 w/ default sharpening, no noise reduction

All in all, I was extremely impressed with Sigma's latest offering.  I would highly recommend this lens to anyone looking for a good, sharp lens that offers a telephoto range from 120-300mm, particularly given that it's sharp wide open at f2.8.

Happy shooting!

John

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Photo of the Day - Spirit Bear

Today's 'Photo of the Day' is from my trip in early September in search of kermode (spirit) bears in the Great Bear Rainforest off the coast of British Columbia.

A curious spirit bear in the Great Bear Rainforest (500mm at f4, 1/320th, ISO 1600)

This male bear cruised down the creek right in front of us after popping out of the bush across from where I was standing.

Happy shooting!

John

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Monday, October 17, 2011

CMH Heli-Hiking Gallery

I spent August 5th-8th this past summer cruising about at high altitudes in the Bugaboo Mountains of BC (the 'Rockies West' as some people call them) in a helicopter with 7 other eager nature photographers on what is easily one of my most enjoyable photography weekends of the year, the Canadian Mountain Holidays Bugaboo Photography Workshop. How exactly does one NOT rave about cheating all that hard sweat and back-breaking effort to catch sunrise from the top of a glorious ridge or peak by simply pointing at said ridge or peak and then jumping aboard a chopper and flitting up there?

The Howser Towers and Vowell Glacier in the Bugaboos at twilight during my 2011 Nature Photography Workshop

In fact, why let my images do the talking?  If you want to see just how glorious it really is up there in the Bugaboos on this workshop, take a look at this year's winning images from the 2011 Workshop (each year we do a contest to determine the workshop's best overall images and offer up a bunch of prizes, including some of my books and some great hiking clothing and gear)!

And if you really want a taste for the full breadth of images to be had on this amazing workshop, check out the full gallery of images (three pages worth!) on CMH's online photo gallery.  Many thanks to Jennifer Rutledge, Shanna Baker, Joann Kennedy, Paul Gil, and Phil Vecqueray for submitting their wonderful images!

I actually had some serious reservations about continuing my heli-hiking photo workshops with Canadian Mountain Holidays this year because of the helicopters, but after reviewing their corporate sustainability vision last winter and seeing their environmental push for myself, I couldn't help but be impressed at the lengths they've gone to to ensure that their operations are sustainable and very, very green (particularly considering the obvious hole they start in when you factor in the fuel and carbon footprint of those helicopters).

So with the green report and the success of the 2010 and 2011 workshops in mind, I am happy to announce that we're going to do the Bugaboos Nature Photography Workshop in 2012, too!  Check out all the details on CMH's website and be sure to sign up soon, as we do expect the 2012 workshop to sell out.

You can expect some great hospitality in one of the world's premier wilderness lodges, along with three fantastic days in the field with 10-12 helicopter rides to and from some of the Bugaboos' most stunning and photographic locations.  We've even got a sunrise and sunset lined up, where we'll be landing on a ridge or peak to photograph the gorgeous vistas from high above the lodge. And if we're lucky with the weather, we'll also do a sunrise shoot from near the lodge and we may attempt some night photography.

My black-and-white version of an exposed root system high in the alpine in the Bugaboos

Anyways, that's it for my 2011 Bugaboos report, so stay tuned in the next few days for my Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens review and some more images from my recent trips to the B.C. West Coast in search of spirit bears and orcas.

Happy shooting!

John

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Dear John Lowman

[Note: John Lowman is a good friend of mine and one of the most active partakers in my Canadian Wildlife Photography Tours trips.  As such, he is occasionally subject to a bit of good-natured ribbing.  John was a participant on my first grizzly bear tour this year from September 25th to October 2nd.  As he was leaving the lodge, his final comment was, "That was an amazing trip, but I bet it'll be even better next week."]

Dear John,

You were right.  As good as the first grizzly trip was, the second trip was even better. Besides the frigid mornings, we racked up a new record for these grizzly bear photo tours with 23 individual grizzlies spotted in one day and a whopping 8 different black bears just two days after you were gone. The very next day we crushed our own record with 25 different griz!

And the third trip?  Off the charts.  Seriously.  The last day we had to back the boats up because I couldn't fit the bear's heads into my shots.

Funnily enough, though, the best encounter of the entire two and half weeks may have been way back on Day 2 of your tour, when we shot that beautiful grizzly with the bright red sockeye in the rain right across from the lodge late that evening.

A grizzly bear with a bright red sockeye salmon

Then again, our two hour photo shoot with that little griz along the rock slides wasn't too shabby, either.  In fact, it was the longest encounter of any we had on the trip.

Still, this wouldn't be much of a ribbing if I didn't at least hint a little more at what you missed. Besides the sasquatch and the wolverine fighting the wolf, I doubt I'll even tell you about how close we got to the mom with three cubs just a day or two after you were gone (hint: it was close).  Nor will I probably ever fully divulge the details of when we had the mom with three run into the mom with two, or when we had a whopping ten bears all around us on the lake.

Did I mention that on three different occasions we got down to the dock in the morning only to find a black bear waiting patiently for us in a nearby tree?  Oh wait, I think you may have actually been there for one of those, weren't you?

Anyways, it was sad to leave.  The fall colours were just peaking, the bears were becoming more and more accommodating, and my belly was reaching full capacity (damn those lodge cookies!).

Thanks again for coming along, John.  The bartenders at the lodge said they really missed your business.

Your friend,

John

[And now, a normal blog post]

For the past three weeks I've been sequestered on the edge of the wild and beautiful Chilcotin plateau, where it meets the magnificent snow-clad Coast Mountains in British Columbia, in search of grizzly bears, bald eagles, and sockeye salmon with three great groups of photographers from across Canada.

I've spent my mornings photographing ospreys, eagles, mergansers, harlequin ducks, and kingfishers, my afternoons with black bears and grizzly bears, and my evenings in a cozy, wilderness lodge with like-minded (and nice!) people that warmed the table with tall tales from around the world.  I even had a night photography session on Day 4 in an attempt to catch some northern lights in the dark Chilcotin skies.

A faint aurora lights up the horizon in BC's Chilcotin region -- 30 sec at f4, ISO 3200

The tours had highs and lows: we really did see a mother grizzly with three cubs run head on into a mother grizzly with two cubs (by accident), though the expected fireworks never materialized.  And we did definitely experience a bit of that famous west coast weather that managed to leak its way across the mountains to the lodge, hampering our efforts at finding bears on several different occasions.  Funny how a wee gale force wind can make it difficult to navigate around in small boats!

The tours this year were almost the complete polar opposite of last year's tours: last year the bears showed up early and often, this year they were late getting out of the gates (though even on our worst day we saw 4 grizzlies and 2 blacks).  Last year the peak fall colours were at the start of the tours, this year they hadn't even peaked by the end.  Last year we had hardly any bird life beyond eagles and mergansers, this year we were overrun by ospreys, herons, kingfishers, woodpeckers, warblers, loons, and ducks.

An osprey in full flight leaping out of a riverside tree

Last year the bears were all on the lake, this year they were all on the river.  And finally, last year we had fewer bears, but they were almost all accommodating to photographers, while this year we had way more bears, but fewer were photo-friendly.

And as usual, rather than leave the excitement of the tours to stand on their own, I had to throw in a personal crazy adventure to up the stakes, so to speak. A day before the tours were to begin, I received a brand new Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 OS lens to try out on the trip (I'm sponsored by Sigma Canada).  So while I hadn't had much of a chance to test it on the first tour, I got a few hours between tours 1 and 2 on Day 7 and decided to go out in a kayak with my Canon 5D Mk II and the Sigma beauty (it really is a beauty!).

Grizzly bear shot hand-held from a kayak -- Canon 5D Mk II and Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 300mm/f3.2

Anyways, to make a long story (the lens is amazing, I'll be reviewing it in full this weekend) shorter, I ran into a beautiful sow grizzly and filled a 16GB card with images of her shot handheld from the kayak.  So the whole 'shooting from a kayak' thing proved to be hugely successful, especially considering I'd never done it before.

However (why does there always seem to be a however in my stories?), getting out of the kayak with my camera and the Sigma lens proved to be a tad more difficult than getting in and shooting was.  Since I wasn't sure how close I could get to the bank of the river for my 'dismount', I chose to pull up alongside the lodge's dock, which is about three feet above the level of the river.

I cruised in to the dock and pilings so that the right side of the kayak was against a piling and my right shoulder was against the dock, then grabbed the dock with my left hand and proceeded to attempt to take my camera and the lens off of my neck with my right hand, intent on placing them up on the dock.  To do this, I had to push myself away from the dock a touch, and sadly, what happened next will never see the hallowed halls of Great Marriott Moves.  As I pushed away with my left hand and casually began to lift the camera over my head with my right hand to set it on the dock, the river's current grabbed the kayak and slowly began to tilt it sideways.  In other words, as my kayak and I shifted on the water, I slowly began to get swept under the dock and frantically began fighting the pull of the current to get myself back up to 'all-square'.

Unfortunately, the harder I pulled with my left hand, the more the kayak began to tip.  Meanwhile, as this was going on, my face was jammed tightly up against my camera and the new lens, which was jammed tightly up against the underside of the dock.

So to recap: there I was, halfway twisted upside down in a kayak (that is rapidly filling with water) under a dock in three and a half feet of frigid glacial water, desperately hanging on to both my camera and the dock.

Left with no choice, I did what any photographer would do -- I sacrificed body over camera.

Without letting go with either my left hand or right, I deftly extracted myself from the kayak (all the while holding on to it in the current with my right elbow) and braced my feet on the bottom, then heaved myself out from under the dock and gently placed the unharmed camera and lens (and card!) on the stupid dock.

I then traipsed over to the shore with kayak in tow, elated that a) I had escaped unharmed save for some wet clothing, and that b) no one had witnessed the debacle.

Then, like a wet dog, I sheepishly snuck into my room in the lodge without anyone noticing me, and began to think about what a funny blog post the story would make.

So that's about it for my initial report from the 2011 Grizzly Bear Photo Tours.  All in all it was an extremely successful year again thanks to the bears of the Chilcotin, the great group of photographers, and the amazing hospitality of one of the best wilderness lodges in BC.

Until we meet again!

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for full trip reports and images from the grizzly tour participants, as well as the announcement of the 2012 dates.

Happy shooting!

John

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