Departing for New Zealand, The Ross Sea and Antarctica

My few days at home in Australia (where a large part of the continent is currently on fire) after my recent Canada winter workshop for Snowy Owls (Read the Trip Report) have already come and gone and in a few minutes I will be leaving for the airport again to start my thirty-day photography expedition from New Zealand to the sub Antarctic islands (MacQuarrie Island and Snares Island) and the remote Ross Sea region of Antarctica.

I have been wanting to visit the Ross Sea region of Antarctica for many years now and am really excited about what experiences we will have during our voyage. The Ross Sea region of Antarctica is an area rarely visited by people and is by any stretch extremely remote. Emperor penguins on icebergs are a real possibility in this region of Antartica and would make for fantastic photography should the opportunity arise. I am also really excited at the chance to photograph the Snares penguin on Snares Island – one of only three species of penguin the world over I have not yet photographed (I still have to chase down the Galapagos Penguin and the Humboldt).

I was hoping I would be able to lay my hands on the newly announced Canon EOS 1DX MKIII in time for this expedition, but regrettably delivery of the new camera will not be until after the conclusion of this expedition (although I have tested a pre-production sample – initial impressions online). As a result I will be packing both my 1DX MKII cameras. I did toy with the idea of taking my mirrorless EOS R but ultimately decided against it as I just find myself reaching for the 1DX MKII every time.  This may well be the last outing for my 1DX MKII bodies (assuming delivery of the 1DX MKIII is prior to my 2020 Arctic Fox expedition), which have served me reliably and without failure for the four years I have been shooting with them all over the world. I have not bothered to regurgitate the specifications of the Canon EOS 1DX MKIII here on my blog since that information can be found across countless websites. Suffice to say, I am very excited about the new auto focus enhancements and am very keen to get my hands on one and test it out in the field.

As this is a thirty-day expedition I will be packing the following equipment:

  1. 2 x Canon EOS 1DX MKII cameras with spare batteries
  2. 1 x Canon 8-15mm F4L Fish Eye Lens
  3. 1 x Canon 11-24mm F4L Lens
  4. 1 x Canon 24-70mm F4L IS Lens
  5. 1 x Canon 70-200mm f2.8L IS MKIII Lens
  6. 1 x Canon 100-400mm f3.5-5.6 L MKII Lens
  7. 1 x Canon 400mm F2.8L IS MKIII Lens
  8. 1 x Canon 600mm F4L IS MKIII Lens
  9. 1 x Sachtler Carbon Tripod and FSB-6 Fluid Head
  10. 1 x Pro Foto B10 Light

For those of you who follow my blog, I am pretty much going to be offline for most of January hereon and early February and as a result there will not be updates to my blog during this time. If you are contacting me while I am offline please be patient as it may take several weeks for me to get back to you. See you in New Zealand and Antarctica!

Canon EOS 1DX MKIII Initial Auto Focus Impressions

Today Canon announced the hotly anticipated EOS 1DX MK3 and I have spent some time this morning doing some preliminary testing of the all new auto-focus system. I wont bother to regurgitate the already released specifications of the new camera as these can easily be found across the web on just about every photography related news website already. Instead, I am going to focus on my initial impressions now that I have had a chance to play with and test the camera.

If you are familiar with the Canon EOS 1DX MKII then the 1DX MKIII is going to feel like an old friend. In the hand it feels just about identical to its predecessor, with a few small exceptions and improvements. Firstly, the weight reduction; although only approximately 100 grams on paper, the reduction is quite considerable and noticeable in the hand in actual real world use. It is not as light as a Sony A9, but if you add the vertical grip to the Sony and the extra batteries to make the Sony equivalent to the Canon in size and capability then the differences between them closes considerably. If you are in the market for one of these cameras I would not base your decision solely on any weight differences between the models. When paired with a 400mm f2.8L IS MKIII or 600mm f4L IS MKIII the entire package is easily hand holdable for extended periods and literally comes in pounds lighter than the Nikon equivalents. Secondly, the back-lit buttons are an absolute god send (not sure how we ever lived without these) and will be a real boon in low light situations.  Thirdly and the real kicker for me is the new back-focus button that allows me to move my focus point whilst continuing to focus instead of having to move my thumb off the auto focus button and onto the joystick and then back again. This is a game changer for me and will absolutely mean less moments with wildlife will be missed in the field.  The newly designed back-button focus button that enables you to slip your finger over it and move the focus points took less than a few minutes for me to get used to and I cant wait to employ this new tool in the field.

My preliminary (and I stress this is preliminary only at this stage) testing of the entirely new auto focus system in the 1DX MKIII is that it is incredible and on a par with the Sony A9 MKII when the mirror is locked up (I just spent a week in Canada with a clients A9MK2 and Sony 400mm f2.8 and have a good feeling for how this camera performs when shooting Snowy Owls). Focus points go right out to the edges on the EOS 1DX MKIII and the ability of the camera to lock on and track its subject at speed is extraordinarily impressive. With the mirror down in DSLR mode the focus is significantly improved over the 1DX MKII. The additional focus points are more than welcome and the ability of the camera to track in this mode is significantly improved over the 1DX MKII.  It remains to be seen, but I believe that in the field, when I am lying down on the ground (which I am doing most of the time with wildlife) photographing my subject that I am quite likely to use the 1DX MKIII camera in mirror-up mode to take advantage of the extra focus points out near the edges and the eye and face tracking capabilities that this mode facilities. Of course, when hand holding the camera I will use the optical viewfinder. In effect, what Canon have delivered with the EOS 1DXMK3 is a DSLR camera that offers all of the benefits of a mirrorless camera (except the weight saving of the optical prism) when the mirror is locked up. The only downside to locking up the mirror is that there is no EVF in the 1DX MK3 (something I am actually very pleased about – especially in the cold climates I shoot in) and thus you have to use the rear LCD screen when in this mode. Obviously, hand holding with the mirror locked up is not ideal as it forces the user to hold the camera out from their face to see the rear screen. But, when lying down and shooting this is absolutely a non-issue, allowing the user to gain all of the benefits of the extra focus points and tracking.

In addition to the improved auto focus Canon has also simplified the auto-focus case modes. Case 1, 2, 3 and 4 remain effectively identical to the Canon EOS 1DX MKII, but Case 5 is all new and employs ‘deep learning’ (Canons term for Artificial Intelligence)  to better track the subject. In layman’s terms, the camera in Case 5 effectively tries to learn from the subjects movements to automatically adjust sensitivity and tracking. I have to do further testing of this new case to see how it performs over a more significant period of time, but I am extremely impressed at the initial results. I will be leaving for the Ross Sea region of Antarctica in just a few days so will unfortunately not have more time to test this camera prior to my return.

Snowy Owl Workshop Report 2020

In late December 2019 / early January 2020 I ran a photographic workshop for Snowy Owls in Ontario, Canada in winter. I had previously scouted this part of Canada and location back in January of 2019 (Read the Trip Report) and had found the owls to be of sufficient quantity to make it viable. Importantly, It was also a location where it was possible to get sufficiently close to the owls.

Two weeks prior to our workshop things were looking really promising for fantastic snow cover as there had been a good dump of snow to cover the local farmland in a white blanket. Unfortunately, temperatures warmed in the days prior to our arrival and by the time we were on site the snow had pretty much melted. As a result our first day was spent photographing the owls mostly in flight as we had no opportunity for static shots in snow.

The weather gods heard our pleas over our welcome dinner on the first evening and we had good snow fall our first night and on our second day with enough of the white stuff to sufficiently cover the ground. It then continued to snow on occasion throughout the rest of our workshop and it wasn’t until our second last day that temperatures again started to warm.

We spent our days during the workshop photographing Snowy owls both in the morning and late afternoon when the owls are at their most active. Typically we were in the field shortly after first light and shooting until 11am and then back in the field by 2pm and shooting until we lost the light. During the midday hours the owls tend to be less active and are effectively resting. This gave us plenty of opportunity to photograph the owls.

Overcast light is generally preferred in my experience for this sort of photography. Minimalist backgrounds and white on white high key images are more evocative than messy farm land backgrounds and we made every effort to work to this mantra during our shoots. Our second and third days proved the most productive with photographs of the Snowy owls in wonderful snow and snowfall. We also had some good sightings of Hawk Owl, but it was at quite a distance and the photographic opportunities were limited.

Due to my extensive travel schedule this year (I am leaving for New Zealand and onward travel to the Ross Sea region of Antarctica in just a few days) I have not had time to process any more than the few photographs I am posting here on my blog and on social media.  If you would like to see additional photographs please be sure to check out the Canada portfolio on my website at www.jholko.com which includes photographs from my 2019 scouting trip.

Snowy Owls remain my absolute favourite bird to photograph. They are incredibly majestic, beautiful birds that are extremely photogenic with their yellow eyes and speckled white feathers. The opportunity for high key, monochromatic photographs of these stunning birds in a winter setting is fantastic in this part of Canada and I will again return in January of 2021 to lead another workshop dedicated to the photography of Snowy Owls. If you are interested in joining us there are now only three places remaining before we will be sold out. You can drop me an email to register your interest.

Photo of the Month January 2020 – The Grumpy Cat

The photograph of the month for January 2020 comes from my recent trip to Mongolia in winter (Read the trip Report) to photograph the rare and elusive Pallas Cat. Known affectionately as the ‘Grumpy Cat’; this Pallas cat did indeed seem quite moody when I took its photograph in the late afternoon winter light. It was a very deliberate creative decision to frame this photograph with angled back light as I wanted both the benefit of the golden rim light on the fur of the cat, but also to retain all of the detail in the cat and not send it to silhouette. It seems even when the light is at its most stunning the Pallas cat is still grumpy…

Happy New Year 2020!

I would like to thank all the readers and followers of my blog, those who follow my work on social media, who have purchased prints and workshop participants for your continued support throughout 2019. I wish all of you a very happy and safe New Year and all the very best for 2020. If you are travelling with me in 2020 on one or more of my workshops or expeditions I look forward to shooting together in some of the world’s most beautiful and remote locations. I hope your year is full of beautiful light, stunning locations, good health and great times.