Saturday, February 28, 2015

Zion Flash Flood

In the fall I made a trip out to Zion National Park.  I was too early for the fall colors but still hoped to enjoy the canyon and see what might be possible.  Late summer and early fall is the monsoon season in the desert when the tropical storms send rain showers across the southwest.  We flew into Las Vegas and started the drive up to Springdale in rain.  We arrived in Zion to find it in flash flood conditions.  The river was up and roiling.  The park even closed for a couple of hours.

After they reopened we went in to see what the river looked like.  It was roaring, running fast and deep.  It was something I had never seen there and it was a treat in a way.  I made my way to the famous view off the bridge toward the watchman and photographed the river.

We took the shuttle up to the lodge and went to see the river there and the roar was load by the edge of the water.

One of the hikes I was looking forward to doing on this trip was the Zion Narrows but with the flood conditions, I knew that might not now be possible.  

I walked along the river and took in some of the well flowing waterfalls that had formed along the canyons edge.

Water is a powerful force and the rain here was was showing what it could do.  It was impressive and it also allowed me to get a different image from the canyon than I had in past trips.

Just a few hours here and I already had some interesting things in the bag. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Upper Mississippi River Bluff Country

Late summer found me in Minnesota and Wisconsin along the bluff country of the Upper Mississippi River.  Here old man river has carved 500' tall bluffs through the Driftless area the ice age missed.  It is quite scenic and one I have enjoyed visiting for the last ten years.

I have seen it from spring blooms, to fall color to the frozen depths of winter.  It is a location that changes with the season and I have enjoyed them all.  In late summer it is warm and humid.  The trees are very green.  One has to be careful to avoid the skeeters and poison ivy.

The long days of summer mean there is plenty of light after supper giving me plenty of time to get in a short walk and make a few images.

It was overcast and looked like we could get rain.  I took a trail heading up the bluff and got a nice view looking down on the river.  I remember seeing this scene after a fresh snow in January and this warm summer day is a long way from that.  The wildflowers, lush green trees, and clear flowing river make it a nice view.

I made my way back down the bluff as the clouds begin to thicken and the scent of rain was in the air.  I grab a few images along the marsh as I make my way back toward the car.

Later as it heads toward dark the rain arrives via thunder storms.  I set up the camera to capture some of the last last light along the river as thunder rumbled in the sky.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8 for Nightscape Photography

February has brought back the galactic core of the Milky Way into the sky.  It is now rising in the east just before sunrise.  Each week it will rise a little bit earlier in the night.  I have a trip planned for this spring and have been thinking about some of the shots I want to do.  One of them is one where I think a lens longer than the 24mm might be useful to really bring some mountains and the Milky Way together.

I have been looking at possible lens options I might use just for this one shot.  35mm f/1.4 lenses are popular but I was concerned that it might not be long enough, especially since I already have the 24mm).  I have seen that Samyang makes a very good and inexpensive 85mm f/1.4 lens but I was thinking that might be too long.  That takes us to 50mm.  Might be a Goldilocks focal length and be just right.

A buddy of mine has the Canon 50 f/1.8 and I have used it in the field, but knew it was difficult to focus manually and had coma.  The reviews of other 50mm lenses made it seem they all suffer coma.  I was not necessarily keen on buying a lens I might only use a few times.  In regular landscape photography I never really have a use for a 50mm.  Give me my 17-40 as my only lens and I am happy as it is very rare I use a focal length over 40mm.  

When it comes to nightscape photography I have found Samyang lenses to be fantastic lenses and also incredibly reasonable in price.  For example their awesome 14mm can be had under $300!  I had seen they were prodicing a 50mm f/1.4 but it was priced at $400, which is also the price of the Canon 50mm f/1.4. I was sure both lenses would be pretty good for my needs but both were more than I wanted to spend for a lens I do not have a great deal of use for.  So when I saw that Yongnuo was making a 50mm f/1.8 lens in a Canon EF mount and it was going to be under $100 I became interested.  

I read a few initial reviews of the lens that seemed very positive for sharpness.  Then I saw that Amazon was stocking and selling it for $56 and I decided to give it a try (renting a lens like the Canon 50mm f/1.4 would have cost that much for a week).  The lens came in last week and I put it to use in the field over the weekend.

This is a few days before the new moon, meaning that the quarter moon was in the east and really right in the Milky Way.  Not the best conditions for Milky Way photography but it turned out to be pretty good testing conditions.

I drove down south of Fort Worth to the Brazos River.  At about an hour away from the city you can see the Milky Way, but by no means is it the dark sky of west Texas.

I set up overlooking the river and put the Yongnuo to test on my full frame Canon 5D Mark II.  I started with ISO 6400 and shot only wide open at f/1.8 (like I always do at night).  The shutter speed was usually about 8 seconds.  I use 450-Rule with my night images so by that you should be able to do 9 seconds before star trails with a 50mm (That is 450/50=9.  I rounded down)I had my buddies Canon 50mm f/1.8 to test against it.  

So what was it like?

First off you notice the design and build of the Yongnuo is very similar to the Canon.  Both are plastic with a similar design.  One could easily mistake one for the other.  

Plastic mount, but it fits on the camera well.  If you use the auto focus it has a similar whine to the Canon.  If you manual focus you will find that it has a very short range of movement.  In other words it takes so little to go from close focus to infinity that it is very difficult to use manual focus, especially at night.  It does not have the full time manual focus, so you have to turn off AF and then the focus is very loose.

My normal night focus tactic is to use a big flashlight to light up a distant tree and then use live view.  With a lens like Samyang 24mm f/1.4 it is easy.  It has a long, smooth focus.  With the Yongnuo it is very tough as even a slight movement drastically changes focus.  It was a slow and exacting time to focus.  Then be careful not to bump the camera or lens (as it is loose in MF mode.  I thought I did ok, but I still found there was a good 25% of the time my focus seemed slightly off when reviewing images.  Of course, the Canon 50mm f/1.8 is no different there.  That difficulty of manual focus was the biggest issue to me.

I framed up various images, such as the river and Milky Way, the Big Dipper, the Milky Way by itself, and even the moon.

It was the moon that found the other big flaw with this lens-flare.  Putting the moon off center made for some wild flare.  It did not happen when centered or in the corner but off center it was a big ring.  See the square of four images and see how the Canon compared.  It has a little flare but nothing like this.  I can just presume Canon uses better coatings and all on their lenses.  

Now my normal nightscape images avoid the moon even being in the sky so how does it do without the moon?  Without the moon, pretty similar to the Canon.  One thing I do notice is the Yongnuo seems like it is slightly wider of a view than the Canon.  Presuming the Canon is a true 50mm this seems like it might really be a 48mm.  That does not really make a difference to me, but was something I noticed when doing some image comparison.

It also has coma (stars with wings in the corner of an image).  Overall about the same as the Canon although it varied from image to image.  See the image of the stars with wings.  This is a crop of just the very corner of an image so you can get an idea about what it is. 

There were times the Canon seemed a bight brighter and more stars in the image, yet others the Yongnuo did-even with the same settings.  So overall both score pretty similar there.

After just one night out in the field with it I can say it will work.  It was will be a little difficult to focus and watch out for the flare with the moon.  Take the moon out of the equation and it will be very similar experience and images to using a Canon 50mm f/1.8.  Moving up to the $400 range would get you the Canon or Samyang 50mm f/1.4.  Both will be easier to focus.  Both seem to have coma from other reviews say.  Take a look at these samples for ideas on what you can do with a 50mm and what you would get from this or the Canon.

So if you are interested in a 50mm lens for night photography should you get the Yongnuo? As a possible best possible option?  Probably not.  It can work but the difficulty of manually focusing with it makes it tough to use.  Of course the Canon 50mm f/1.8 has similar difficulties.  For real ease of use and for slightly more speed the Canon 50mm f/1.4 is probably the better bet.  However at just $56 the Yongnuo is a pretty good deal and since that is less than 1/5 the price of a new Canon 50mm f/1.4 can it work?  Yes.  It has some limitations in manual focusing and flare (and coma), but if you can live with them it will get you into a 50mm pretty cheap.

My other thought is for most nightscape photography wider is going to be better.  A 24mm or 14mm is going to pick up so much more of the Milky Way that I think they are better lenses for nightscapes (see the second image up top for an example). However,if you think you can use this focal length, it is a very inexpensive way to try it.  

So for me, I plan on taking it with me for the shot I envision.  I will put it to use and see how it does.  For this somewhat of a one shot use, I think it will work.  If it looks like the right focal length but I find the image lacking I will look at getting the Canon or Samyang 50mm before going back there in the spring of 2016 and trying again.  But I think this just might do the trick, just need to make sure to really work on the focus.

Note- you can click on all the images here to get a larger view.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Travel Photography Kit

As a photographer I have found that I have used a number of different cameras over the years.  As my cameras and technology changed so has my travel photography kit.  By this I mean what I take when I am traveling for work or with my wife on a non-photography trip.  If we are heading to the Grand Canyon I have a backpack with my gear.  But for those other trips I want to take a camera then too.  Even if I will only get out one or two times to see a sunset I want to have a camera.  

Would you believe that even as late as 2008 I would take my 4x5 when I travel.  Yes, a backpack with my Arca-Swiss Discovery-a metal rail camera no less.  Oh, and I carried it on a plane (checked the clothes).  That backpack was right up at the airline limit for size.  My personal item was then a computer bag with my laptop and as many boxes of Velvia Quickloads as I could stuff in it (sometimes 4).  

After finally getting a DSLR I made that my travel camera for a while.  My kit was much smaller than before.  Then it became my little Panasonic LX3.  Even smaller, although the trade off in size was a small sensor (although I found it to produce images better than anything I ever got on 35mm film).

I got a full frame camera in 2012.  That left me with three choices:  Canon 5D2, Canon 50D, or Panasonic LX3.  What I found was there was no size advantage to taking the 50D over the 5D2.  The LX3 was pretty small but I had become a bit more spoiled by the full frame camera.  However, technology was moving fast and I began to look a a mirrorless camera as an option.  I checked out a few Micro 4/3 models, the Canon GX1 and the Sony NEX6.  

I got the NEX 6 and it has been my travel camera of choice over the last two years.  It is a small camera, practically almost as small as the little LX3 but an APS-C sized sensor that was way better than the 50D.  The camera was so good that neither the LX3 nor the 50D saw much use and gathered a lot of dust and I sold them.

The NEX 6 has been my go to travel camera.  Great sensor, small size, and a neat Powerzoom lens (24-75eq) that makes it a very tiny package.  I added a Samyang 8mm f/2.8 fisheye and have a super little kit.  

To complement the small size of the camera I picked up a Sirui 025X carbon fiber tripod.  This collapses to less than a foot long.  Will go to about 36" when set up.  It came with a center column that would take it up to about 48" but I took it off as it made the tripod more sturdy without it.  I often use a small Osprey Daylight pack which takes up no room in my luggage and gives me the ability to put a rain jacket, water bottle, camera and tripod in it.

Put it all together ans I have a very capable travel kit.  For work travel I can put the entire kit into my computer bag without noticing it.  I can now bring all my luggage on board-no more checking-less time waiting at airports.

When the chances for a sunset happen I have a great camera and a tripod.  The results I get are great!

Are there times I wish I had my DSLR?  Some.  But most situations are easily covered by my kit. The kit lens range covers most situations.  The fisheye is amazingly sharp, gives a great look, and is awesome for Milky Way images.

It might be a trade off, but all things are.  What I find is it is a great small kit.  Easy to take.  Great results.  Also compliments the full frame 5D2 nicely and makes a great backup.  All in all a perfect kit.

Riding my bike-it is the right size to bring.  Walking the dog-easy to carry.  Work travel-tiny addition.  Hiking all day-wear it around my neck and do not even notice it. When I am out with the 5D2 kit it is easy to add the NEX6 kit and the Sirui tripod for a two camera combo with almost no increase in weight carried.

Did I mention it is a great camera setup for the Milky Way?  It is!  A fisheye view of the Milky Way is amazing.  You do not realize how huge the Milky Way is in the sky until you look at it with a fisheye.  A 24mm or even a 14 only capture a fraction of it.  The fisheye really truly captures it.

So in sum NEX 6 has become my very capable travel kit of choice.

Of course technology is not standing still and I must say I find myself wondering when I might consider jumping to one of the full frame Sony A7 models.  I have rented the A7S and found it to be a fantastic camera for night.  I could easily see my entire kit evolving to an A7R and A7S combo with just two or three small lenses.  That would actually almost become a full circle as my 35mm camera kit used to be equally small Olympus OM4Ti, OM4 and a lens kit of 21, 28, 50, and 100mm primes.  I think Sony and Samyang just need to get a few small lenses out there and I might become very tempted.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Grapevine Hills Night Sky

A very neat area of Big Bend is Grapevine Hills.  Of course I say that about a lot of places around Big Bend-the whole park is just downright fantastic.   The Grapevine Hills are pretty unique even in the park.  They are an igneous intrusion, geologically speaking, and are a neat area of jagged pinnacles and interesting boulders.

I had great success last spring here for Nightscapes and wanted a chance to see the fall views of the Milky Way here.

It was another clear sky day with basically zero chance for any interesting images in the day time.  Of course, that means a very good chance to do night images.  I hiked up into the valley in the center of the hills and waited until dark.

The Milky Way appeared in the southwestern sky and I framed up a few possible images.  I was hoping for great views of the galactic core but the angle and hills blocked most of it.  The view here is really better for the spring months when the Milky Way is more in the eastern half of the sky.

I slowly worked my back down the valley making images, light painting, and taking in the view of the sky I had.

While playing with the fisheye I notices I could frame the Milky Way in such a way to see both sides of the rocky valley I was in and got this image here with the ground on either end.  I love that fisheye view and being able to see so much of the night sky.  It was another neat shot and it made my night.