Adding Full-Frame to the Toolkit

Aglais io, the European peacock/neitoperhonen (an EOS R5 test).

With my focus on nature and bird photography, I have long preferred APS-C format cameras, due to the better “reach” (narrower field-of-view, with the same optics) that is important for photographing shy, far-away birds and animals particularly. Said that, several producers, Canon included, have put most of their research and development efforts into the full frame camera systems. I discussed the Canon EOS R System earlier in this blog (in February 2020), and while at that point I was committed with the EOS M line of APS-C cameras and lenses, I was also growing frustrated at the bad ergonomics and other limitations of EOS M cameras. However, there were also several downsides as well as possible long-term benefits in the more “professional” full frame EOS R System that left me hesitant at what to do in the long run. This summer, after rather lengthy consideration and research, I finally made the leap into the new, “full-frame era”. Or, more appropriately (as will explained below), I just decided to add one more tool into my toolkit.

EOS R5, with Sigma 150-600 mm C (shot late at night, with my EOS M50 and the old Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM).

When EOS R5 camera was introduced in summer 2020, much of the attention was focused on its amazing 8K video capabilities. However, as I am not a cinematographer, my interest was at the side of still image photography. The main “sales points” of R5 in this area include a 45 megapixel, full-frame sensor, up to 20 fps speed in continuous shooting (electronic shutter, and up to 12 fps mechanical), a built-in image stabiliser (up to 8 stops, with some selected modern lenses), and – perhaps most importantly for me – a really good autofocus system trained with machine-learning to pick up the shapes and even the eyes of animals and humans alike. There are additional benefits when moving from smaller, APS-C cameras, such as a really nice, deep grip to hold on (with M50 only two or three of my fingers, in addition to thumb, can touch the small body while carrying it), the full set of three rotary dials (enough for setting dedicated controls for both ISO, aperture and shutter speed, each with a dedicated physical control), longer-working batteries, better weatherproofing, dual card slots, less noise in low light, etc., etc. It is also worth noting that R5 uses the same processor (DIGIC X) as the more expensive, professional flagship DSLR camera EOS-1D X Mark II.

Muscicapa striata, the spotted flycatcher/harmaasieppo (testing R5 in a low light, fast situation inside a forest).

There are also significant downsides in a full-frame camera system, when compared to APS-C ones. The financial one is the most obvious: this is a much more expensive camera than any I have owned before. It is also worth noticing the camera body is just the first part of the investment, as the new, R system lenses are also generally expensive. They are robust, of high optical and physical quality, large and heavy. Going to a casual camera walk or run around a new city while on tourist mode, I will definitely rather prefer carrying the compact EOS M50 (387 g), coupled with e.g. the small and light EF-M 55-200 mm (260 g), rather than R5 (738 g) and RF 70-200 mm F2.8L IS (1070 g); there is also several thousands of euros/dollars price difference. Not to discuss the price and weight of any full-frame glass which reaches into the 400-600 mm area, which is where the true bird and wildlife photography generally tends to start. Thus, to sum up, I will not give up my EOS M camera and lenses anytime soon. There are uses and needs for both the large and the compact system. A serious R Series camera and lens setup is something that you would particularly take out when you are working for some particular, photographic goal or project. (This is why some people are actually paid to use these things. That is what “professional” means, after all.) The small system is good for those long walks.

Delichon urbicum, the house martin/räystäspääsky (a collage of shots testing the animal AF tracking of R5 with a very fast moving, flying bird).

In the actual bird photography, comparing ASP-C and R5/full-frame in the field, there are similarly plusses and minuses. The main strength (and one of the key reasons why I made this investment in the first place) of R5 is that the large, 45-megapixel sensor coupled with the image stabilisation and powerful AF system allows taking more, and more sharply focused images to start with. With very fast-moving objects like flying and bush-jumping birds, only a small fraction of photos is generally usable. A fast-shooting, fast-focusing camera-and-lens system makes a great difference in an actual wildlife photography situation. There is a “crop mode” in R5, which will narrow down the field of view into the same as the APS-C camera (applying Canon’s 1.6x crop factor, in-camera). But the full-frame image of R5, when cropped so that it would represent the same field of view as my old M50 APS-C camera is “only” 17.3 megapixels (my much cheaper M50 has 24.1 with that same field of view). However, the experience of shooting birds and wildlife with R5 is indeed better than M50: it is much easier to keep e.g. a flying falcon or swallow within the large image frame of R5, and the powerful AF system does a really good job in keeping the bird sharp in the image – as long as the photographer is capable of taking care of the targeting and composition at somewhat decent level.

Asio otus, the northern long-eared owl/sarvipöllö (it was almost completely dark, at midnight, at this point – testing the animal AF tracking of EOS R5 at the ultimate ISO 51200, f/6.3, 600 mm focal length, exposure 1/2000 s.).

In the 45-megapixel images there is room for cropping in many different ways. The optical quality does not magically change, of course, with the upgrade of camera body if one is still using same lenses as before; though, the reduction of noise and better low-light capabilities mean that it is possible to shoot birds with even pretty “slow” lenses (like my Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 C DG OS HSM), while going rather high ISO sensitivity values, and still come up with frames that can be used, particularly if software tools like Topaz DeNoise AI and Sharpen AI are applied in the postproduction. The main benefits of this upgrade from a crop-camera to a full-frame one in the end come from multiple areas, mostly ones related to the art and craft of composing and creating images, while it needs to be emphasised that the baseline optical image quality remains at the domain of lenses used.

A far-away osprey (Pandion haliaetus, kalasääski) fishing – EOS R5 does excellent work in tracking in harsh light, yet my zoom lens is also showing its limitations here, at this distance and with a lot of cropping applied.

There is apparently an interesting learning curve that comes with the transition from Canon’s entry-level into a full-frame/professional cameras. After couple of weeks, my automated procedures and reactions are still largely coming from the APS-C world, and, for example, I even still occasionally try to find the power switch from the old location (at top right; in R5 the switch is at top left). There are no pre-programmed “easy” photography modes such as the sports, macro, or portrait modes in the EOS R5 (there is the fully automatic, “smart” A+ mode, however). The idea seems to be that a photographer who wants to use a “pro” camera must understand the underlying logic of photography technique enough, and be able to set up different aperture, exposure etc. priorities according to the subject matter, scene, and desired effects.

It is nice to have a fast-focusing camera when e.g. a flock of Eurasian oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus, meriharakka) suddenly appear overhead.

The full user’s manual for R5 is 921 pages, and I have the feeling I have only just scratched the surface of what this camera can do, and how it should be set up. But I have at least started personalising the main settings, such as customising three back buttons for quick access into my three key wildlife focusing modes: animal-eye autofocus, spot AF, and single-point AF. The logic here is that when I can see the animal/bird relatively clearly (or, e.g., when I try to photograph a flying bird), I use back-button AF technique first with the AF-ON button set for “Eye Detection AF”. Secondly my asterisk (AE lock) button is now set for spot AF mode, and the last (AF point selection) button for single-point AF. These two are normally used when the focused subject is half-hidden, hiding among branches as is often the case; after the initial AF lock, the system usually is able to follow by tracking, so the focus stays locked, when the target has initially been pointed and identified. For this initial selection, there is both a joystick and a large LCD touchscreen that can be used for moving the focus point around. Currently, I find myself using the touchscreen more.

Falco tinnunculus (the common kestrel, tuulihaukka) – again, it was great to experience how effortlessly EOS R5 was able to keep the focus on the far-away falcon, while it was hunting.

There is more learning to be done, and I expect the possibilities opened up by the new system to challenge me for several years to come, in search for both better – or just more interesting – pictures and more improved photographic techniques and new ways of photographic thinking. However, my old cameras and lenses still remain in my toolkit, and they also have their times, places, and uses.

This common sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos, rantasipi) was captured late night while at lake with SUP / paddle boarding – this time again with my lighter EOS M50 camera.

Have a happy photographic summer!

Birds: 99/100

Naturephotography, and bird photography in particular has been an invaluable part of my life during these stressful pandemic times. The constantly changing and surprising nature has been there, at all times, challenging and providing gradually more and more also sense of achievement, as my understanding of both birds and their behaviours as well as of techniques of nature photography have evolved.

Soon after the start of this year I began tracking the species I have photographed more systematically. There is a challenge (supported by BirdLife Finland and other organisations) of trying to observe 100 different bird species during one year. I have followed a version where I also need to take a photo of such new bird species.

If my calculations are correct, I am today at 99 different bird species photographed, out of those 100. Exiting times. I will add below some collages of those 99 bird photos – there are probably some duplicates, as well as some species missing, as I did not make this in very systematic and careful manner. But there were a lot of important moments and happy memories packed in these photos, so it was a delight to go through and revisit them.

Update: I got photo of the species number 100 on the following day
after writing this – Osprey! Photo added as the last one, below!

My bird species number 100, on year 2021! Osprey (Pandion haliaetus).

Life in winter forests

This year, we had a full week of “hiihtoloma” (Winter Vacation) – a very welcome break into the busy schedules. I took the opportunity and challenged myself to go out into the nature and look a bit closer at the nature this week.

Firstly, it was interesting to notice that even the “common birds” can provide new experiences and look indeed very different, depending the time of day, weather conditions and particularly light affecting the composition in different manners. Endless opportunities for improvement and experimentation there.

Secondly, during this week I learned to appreciate the winter feeding of birds better. There are people who dedicate countless hours every winter (and indeed considerable sums of money – which some of them have very little) into e.g. forest feeding of wild birds. For many birds this is the only way they can make it through the hardest, coldest parts of the winter alive.

In winter feeding spots it is possible to take photographs of even some rather rare and elusive bird species, if you are patient, stay still and quiet for long periods of time (sometimes in freezing temperatures) and respect the disturbance-free, peaceful environment that such birds require for getting their daily nourishment. Unfortunately it seems that as nature photography is getting increasinly popular, some rare winter birds (such as herons and kingfishers in Finnish winter) attract so many photographers that the huge interest can even endanger the survival of some of these birds. There are only few hours of light and milder cold time every winter day, and the birds need all that time to find the food they need to make it through the next, very cold night. Note though, that no doubt the majority of experienced nature photographers behave responsibly, respect the safe distances, and keep the well-being of the birds as their top priority.

I did not personally visit any sites of such “super rarities” this winter. There was a lot of interesting things to photograph, even without risking the rare ones.

There are many places in Finland, such as our national parks and many hiking areas that have paths that are accessible also in winter time. And when the crust of snow is hard (“hankikeli” is Finnish), one can rather easily walk over marshland or at lake shores, sometimes spotting interesting bird species, but primarily to enjoy the nature and beatiful winter weather. I also visited e.g. Siuronkoski rapids, where white-throated dipper (Cinclus cinclus; koskikara) lives – there is a popular walking path going just next to the rapids, and the birds are so accustomed to humans moving in the area that it is possible to photograph them without disturbing their feeding.

One delightful theme that appeared this week was encountering woodpeckers. There are nine woodpecker species that one can theoretically see in Finland – though some of them are super rare (like Picus viridis). Visiting local forest paths and some winter feeding spots, I managed to photograph four woodpecker species this week, which really delighted me: Dendrocopos major (Käpytikka), Dendrocopos minor (Pikkutikka), Picus canus (Harmaapäätikka) and Dryocopus martius (Palokärki). Previously I had only met the great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major), so this was three new species for me – in just one week. This proves the value of getting our of one’s common paths and trying exploring some new, also less-visited areas every now and then.

The 2nd of March was a particularly excellent day, as it was rather warm, sunny, and we made a longish trip with the entire family, exploring some Pirkanmaa and Satakunta region nature areas together. There were fields where a number of whooper swans (Cygnus cygnus; Laulujoutsen) had already arrived – a sure sign of Spring! While driving home in the evening, we had another surprise encounter: a white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla; merikotka), accompanied by an inquisitive and plain greedy crow. These eagles are are the biggest birds of prey in Finland, and also the biggest success story of our nature conservation efforts: in 1973, there was only 35 nesting couples in the entire county, and the species was facing extinction due to chemical pesticides and other factors (in the early 20th century, there was even bounty paid for killing the eagles – and negative attitudes towards birds of prey persisted for a long time). WWF Finland volunteers started winter feeding the eagles, carrying clean and safe meat into islets and rocks where birds could find them, for two decades. Today, it is estimated that there are 450 nesting couples living in Finland. One of the main remaining threats is the use of lead birdshots particularly in Åland islands, leading to lead poisoning of eagles eating carcasses. A third of young eagles continue to die of lead poisoning in Finland every year (see https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-7889294).

To sum up this week of nature experiences: there is so much to see, experience, study and learn in nature – both next door, in one’s own yard or city park, or in the surrounding nature areas. One thing that I became also aware, was that I was using our petrol-powered family car to drive into some of these, more far-away nature locations. I have now started planning of upgrading into an electric vehicle (EV) – but more about that perhaps later. Let’s enjoy and study the nature, responsibly!

Why take bird photos?

I have always enjoyed moving in the nature and taking photographs, but I have never been a particularly passionate ”birder” – someone who would eagerly participate in bird observation, or learn details about bird species and their lives. Nevertheless, for some time now I have taken bird photos in an increasingly active manner. Why – what is the fascination in bird photography?

A fieldfare (räkättirastas).

I can only talk for myself, but in my case this is like combining location-based game play of Pokémon Go with my love of photography. While living still mostly under self-quaratine style conditions of pandemic, it is important to keep moving, and taking my camera and going out is as good reason as any to get fresh air and some exercise. And birds bring the important aleatory element into this: you never know what you are going to see – or not see.

A swan (laulujoutsen).

Mostly my short walks are in the close neighbourhood, and the birds I will see are thus the most common ones: the great tit, the sparrow, the magpie, a flock of fieldfares. But then the challenge is to get a new kind of photo of them – one with a nice disposition, interesting lights, great details or posture. And sometimes there will be more rare birds moving in the area, which brings additional excitement with it: how to get close to the shy jaybird, get good details on the dark dress of blackbird, or a woodpecker.

Blue tit (sinitiainen).

There is also a very nice lake for birdwatching rather near, Iidesjärvi, which means that it is possible to go there, and try getting some beautiful pictures of swans, goldeneyes, goosanders or many other waterfowl with a rather short trip. Which is important, since I typically need to get back soon, and make kids breakfast, dinner or such. And this is also why I call myself a Sunday Photographer: I mostly take photos in weekends, when there is a bit of extra time that weekdays do not currently allow.

Blackbird’s eye (mustarastas).

This Sunday was a day of achievement, when I got my first decent photos of goldcrest – the smallest bird in Europe! It is not that rare actually, but it is so shy and so skilled in hiding itself within foliage, that I was mainly able to locate it with the faint, high-pitched sounds it makes. And even while I knew the bird was there in the trees, front of me, it took a long time, c. 200 frames of missed photos and some quiet crawling from spot to spot to finally get an unobstructed view and a sharp photo of this tiny, elusive bird.

Goldcrest (hippiäinen).

Thus, taking photos of birds combines so many different interesting, challenging and purely luck-based elements into one activity, that is just perfect diversion – something rewarding, surprising, joyful that can even have addictive holding power: a hobby that is capable of taking your thoughts completely away from everything else.

Goldcrest (hippiäinen).