Sebastião Salgado: The silent drama of photography

My good friend and photographer Martyn Lucas recently sent me a link to a short fifteen minute talk by one of my favourite photographers Sebastião Salgado. Those of you familiar with Sebastião’s photography will already know that he specialises in humanitarian documentary photojournalism. You may not be aware however that he has been incredibly active in conservation in Brazil and that he has been responsible for the replantation of millions of trees and the reconstruction of an entire ecosystem. Perhaps his most well known book ‘Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age‘ should be required reading for every photographer.  This short video in which Sebastião discusses his career and his photography is well worth fifteen minutes of your time. It is a remarkable insight into a a truly remarkable photographer. Watch the video here: VIDEO

Footnote: Having just returned from three weeks photography in the remote North West of China (currently in Beijing) I will have more to say about the rampant destruction of our environment in future posts.

Canon 200-400mm F4L IS Pre-Production Sample Lens Review

Late in 2012 I wrote a short op ed. blog piece about the pending release of Canon’s new 200-400mm F4L IS lens with inbuilt 1.4 teleconverter. At the time of my post there were only a few prototypes of this lens in existence and they were all at the London Olympics (I was somewhere between Paris and Chamonix at the time) for testing by a lucky few sports photographers. Initial feedback on the grapevine from those fortunate few was that this lens (even in prototype form) was an oustanding performer and lived up to Canon’s claims of Unsurpassed combination of versatility, first-class optical performance and an enhanced weather-proof construction.

Fast forward to today and I recently finished (in February this year) three days shooting with the new Canon 200-400mm F4L IS lens (in prototype form). To my knowledge this is the first online pre-production review of this lens anywhere in the world. During the test I was fortunate to also have on hand the Nikon 200-400 equivalent and a D800E for comparison and this may also be the first time these lenses have been used side by side. In terms of size the two lenses are almost identical although the Canon is wider in girth and does feel lighter than the Nikon. Once a 1.4 teleconverter is added the Nikon does become a longer lens than the Canon.The Nikon design is now more than a decade old and does not include an inbuilt 1.4 teleconverter although it has had some optical and vibration reduction upgrades over the years. For those looking for a direct comparison of these lenses in terms of image quality I am sorry but you are going to have to look elsewhere. It is just too hard to account for differences in lenses when they are shot on different mega pixel cameras. What I can say is that after shooting side by side with the Canon and Nikon for three days is that both are excellent lenses and that the end result has as much to do with the camera and photographer as the lens itself. Shooting dressage with the 1DX and Canon 200-400 I was able to capture images that the D800E simply could not because its frame rate is literally half that of the 1DX. Twelve frames a second makes a difference when you are photographing a charging horse or wildlife on the move. In terms of autofocus it is again to hard to account for any differences between the lenses as so much depends on the camera and the photographer so we confined ourselves to simply comparing the physical attributes of the lenses. What was universally agreed however is that having an inbuilt 1.4 teleconverter is a significant advantage. The teleconverter can be activated in less than a second in the Canon where as it takes at least ten seconds to take the lens off the Nikon and install a converter. This difference is huge and is not to be underestimated when it comes to wildlife and sports photography. The Canon can continue shooting and tracking the subject whilst the converter is slide into place. The Nikon requires taking the camera away from the eye to fit the converter and then reframing the subject and reacquiring focus. This time delay can be the difference between getting the shot and missing the shot. Included below is a short video with my thoughts and impressions on this new and very impressive lens from Canon.I know the Canon lens looks quite a lot bigger than the Nikon in this photograph however that is a function of the lens and camera used to take this photograph. The Canon is also closer to the camera and thus appears larger in the frame.

Teleconverter Functionality

The Canon 200-400mm F4L IS is only the second lens from Canon to ever employ an inbuilt 1.4 teleconverter that could be optionally switched on or off with the flick of a switch. The first lens to do so was the extremely rare Canon FD 1200mm f/5.6 L Lens (picture on I have personally never seen one of these lenses in the flesh although I have briefly shot with its replacement, the discontinued and ultra expensive EF 1200mm f/5.6 L USM Lens; which did not have an inbuilt teleconverter.

The teleconverter in the Canon 200-400mm F4 L IS lens offers a magnification factor of 1.4x the lens focal length. This turns the Canon 200-400mm lens into a 280mm – 560mm lens with the flick of a switch. The switch can be locked to prevent accidental operation. After three days of shooting with the lens I never felt the need to use the lock switch as the teleconverter switch does require a fairly dedicated press to move into position.

Image Quality

I need to put a caveat on my comments about image quality as the lens I tested from Canon was a prototype and not a finished production model. Whilst I do not expect there to be any significant optical differences between the unit I tested and finished samples it is important to clarify that my comments relate strictly to the prototype and not finished production units (which are currently unavailable).

Getting right down to brass tacks the image quality of Canon’s new 200-400mm F4L IS lens is superb. My own testing shows it to be fully the equal of Canon’s mighty 300mm F2.8L IS lens both in the centre and in the corners. This is phenomenal performance in a zoom lens and goes to show how much development and engineering work has gone into the design of this new optic. During the three days I was able to shoot with the lens I shot over a thousand frames at a local open range zoo not far from my house and at a dressage training event. I also spent a good deal of time shooting test charts so that I could make direct comparisons against the 300mm F2.8L IS. I tested the lens at varying focal lengths both with and without the 1.4 teleconverter in place and have found it to offer superb image quality regardless of focal length. It is necessary to go 300% magnification in Adobe Lightroom to see any difference between a file shot with the 300mm F2.8L IS and the 200-400 F4L IS. The most noticeable difference at 300% is the significant lack of chromatic aberration in the 200-400 lens. Any resolution differences are a quibble and it could be argued that the 200-400mm lens actually has better contrast. This confirms what I have heard from other photographers who tested this lens at both the London Olympics and the Australian Open tennis early this year and have claimed it is as good as Canon’s 400mm F2.8L IS lens.

Image Quality with Teleconverter

The addition of an inbuilt teleconverter makes a good deal of optical sense since it can be specifically designed and tuned to the lens in which it is being employed. Traditional teleconverters are a compromise because they are designed to work with multiple lenses across a range of focal lengths. They are not tuned to a specific set of optics and employ more elements than they may otherwise need to in order to ensure operability between lenses. For this reason an inbuilt converter will always outperform and out-resolve a stand alone converter. In my own testing I found the in built converter in the 200-400 to offer improved image quality over the stand alone Mark III 1.4 Teleconverter.

To clear up the internet scuttlebutt I can clarify that it is possible to use a 2X teleconverter with the 200-400mm lens; which turns it into a 400-800mm F8 lens that will autofocus on the 1DX camera. Image quality with the 2X teleconverter in place is at least equal in quality to what you would expect to see using the converter on a prime telephoto lens.  It is also possible to flick the 1.4 teleconverter into place and go to 1120mm although autofocus is lost and image quality takes a nose dive as you would expect with stacked converters.


The prototype 200-400mm lens I tested on the Canon 1DX camera has the best autofocus I have ever experienced with any camera – period.  It is blisteringly fast and deadly accurate. This lens and camera combination never miss focused during the nearly 700 frames shot on high speed 12 frames per second AI servo at the dressage training event I was invited to photograph. The camera and lens were able to successfully track the rapidly moving dark horses irrespective of erratic and unpredictable movement. All of the files are sharp and well within what I would deem critical focus.

Image Stabilisation

The new 200-400mm lens employs 4 stop image stabilisation that is virtually completely silent. Whilst I can hear the IS in my 300mm F2.8L IS when shooting with the lens in this mode I could not hear it at all on the 200-400mm lens. My tests show that the IS in the 200-400 is significantly better than that in the original 300mm F2.8L IS lens and I would have no hesitation in hand holding this lens in poor light and shooting at shutter speeds that would normally require a tripod for these focal lengths. The lens has three different modes for either hand held shooting, panning or utilisation on a tripod.Who is it for?

For Photographers who need a super-telephoto zoom in the 200mm – 560mm range with superb optics this lens is likely to be worth every cent. After spending time shooting from the deck of ships I have come to the realisation that there is no substitute for a high quality super telephoto zoom lens. For shooting wildlife such as penguins, seals, polar bears, walrus and birds from the deck of a ship where the required focal length is always different I expect this lens will likely prove the ultimate no compromise choice for ‘getting the shot’. It is the lens I have decided to take with me on the expeditions I am running to the Arctic and Antarctic in August and November this year.

With a focal length of 200mm – 400mm or 280mm – 560mm with the 1.4 TC in place this lens will also be very popular with sports photographers simply because of the extreme versatility it will provide. It is not quite as fast as a 300mm or 400mm F2.8 but I expect this small sacrifice in speed will be a small price to pay for the added flexibility this lens will bring to many sports shooters. I expect this lens to be in hot demand with sports and wildlife photographers when it is released in June this year; even with its high price tag. Despite the long lead time from initial announcement of its development to working field prototypes this lens remains likely the most hotly anticipated lens for sports and wildlife photographers in recent memory.

China – Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region

Late last year I posted on my blog that after months of research I was going to head to the remote and sparsely populated  Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China for a recognisance expedition. Xinjiang is located in the extreme north west of China and borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and covers an area over 1.6 million square kilometres. This trip is in essence an investigation expedition that I am hoping will lead to a future workshop into this very remote and rarely visited  (and even less rarely photographed) part of North Western China.

I had been researching a possible trip to this remote region of China for well over a year and had hit quite a lot of snags (not the least of which was the language barrier) and more than a few roadblocks that had almost forced me to give up. Local infrastructure is very light in this remote province and the logistics are incredibly difficult to arrange to ensure the best photographic opportunities. Information about these areas from a photographer’s perspective is very thin and in many cases simply unavailable. After much discussion and planning my friend and co-photograher Antony Watson and I have been able to put together a thirteen day / twelve night itinerary that takes us into some of the most remote and spectacular parts of provincial China; many of which have rarely if ever been photographed by a dedicated photography expedition. Indeed, some of the areas we will visit in the Gobi desert have likely never been photographed.

We will be leaving for Shanghai at crack of dawn tomorrow morning where we will catch a connecting flight to Ürümqi; which is the capital city of Xinjiang. Ürümqi whose name means beautiful pasture in the Mongolian language is the largest city in the western most region of China and is the starting point for this investigative expedition.

Just some of the places we will be visiting during this thirteen-day trip include the Tian Shan mountain ranges; which span some 2,800 kilometers and offer amazing snow capped mountain vistas with much of the lower mountains covered with green pines and cypress. Crystal clear lakes reflect the mountains early in the morning and should make for outstanding photography. We will visit the Wuerhe Ghost City where centuries of howling winds have eroded and weathered the multi-faceted rock formations into eerie and unusual shapes that are known for creating ghostly light at sunset. There are thousands of gorges and crisscross gullies winding through the multitude of colored rock formations. This scarcely visited area provides a unique opportunity to photograph the amazing rock formations and we plan to shoot here at both sunrise and sunset when the light will be at its best. We will also head into and photograph the mighty Gobi desert. The Gobi desert spans half a million square miles and is the fifth largest desert in the world. It is most notable for being part of the Mongol Empire and the Silk Road. Primarily consisting of exposed bare rock formations (rather than sand like most deserts) the Gobi desert should provide literally limitless opportunities for landscape and wilderness photography. We will travel to Hemu and photograph the birch tree forests, the Hemu river and the Hemu grasslands. Special access has been arranged for us to visit a small remote village populated by scattered wooden framed houses built by the Tuva Mongols; believed to be descendants of the troops of Genghis Khan. Whilst in the grasslands we hope to encounter the rare red deer as well as other wildlife.

When we have finished in Hemu we will travel to Kanasi whose name means ‘rich and mysterious beauty’ in Mongolian. This area promises to be one of the most alluring parts of Northern Xinjiang. We will visit the Kanasi Nature Reserve, which is home to Kanas Lake.  The lake fills from the Kanasi river which originates from the Kanasi glacier in the Altay Mountains. Kanasi lake is 4500 feet above sea level and covers an area of 28 square miles so the opportunities for photography should be limitless. The lake is perhaps best known for its amazing turquoise color in spring and autumn. We will spend a couple of days in this area before we head to Burqin along the Ergsi River and then Karamay. We hope to see and photograph wild horses along the way as well as the spectacular natural landscape.

Finally we will photograph The Devil City which encompasses hills and valleys and is perhaps best known for its yardang landscape.  The term “yardangs” comes from the Uygur language, meaning “steep hill”, and now it refers to a landform of wind-eroded hollows, mounds and unusual formations. The name ‘The Devil City’ comes from the eerie and strange sound the wind makes in spring and autumn as it whistles through the rock formations. From here we will head back to Ürümqi and catch a flight to Beijing before returning home.

If all goes well the trip and itinerary we are taking will form the basis for a future workshop to this remote provincial region of China. In the meantime, this exploratory trip promises to be quite the adventure and will prove a nice counter point to the time I just spent in Iceland in winter . Internet access is more or less unknown in many of the areas where we will be photographing; but we do hope to post some dispatches from the field whenever possible.

I have packed lighter (See Footnote) than usual for this trip and my equipment includes:

Gura Gear Bataflae 32L Camera Bag – containing:

  • Canon EOS1 DX Camera
  • Canon EOS 1DS MK3 Camera (back-Up)
  • Canon 17mm F4L TSE
  • Canon 24mm F3.5L TSE
  • Canon 24-70mm F2.8L MK II
  • Canon 70-200mm F2.8L IS
  • Canon 1.4 TC
  • Canon 2.0TC
  • Canon Macro Extension Tube
  • 2 x Spare Camera Batteries
  • Really Right Stuff TVC24L Carbon Fibre Tripod with RRS BH-55 Ball-Head
  • An Assortment of LEE Filters for the above lenses including Graduated ND filters and the LEE 10 Stop ND Filter

I decided after much agonising to leave my Canon 300mm F2.8L IS lens at home. Although I dearly love this lens for both wildlife and landscape it is a heavy beast to travel with and as this trip is almost entirely about the landscape I have decided to save my back and leave it at home. I recently had my 70-200mm F2.8L IS calibrated and am very happy with its performance with the new Mark 3 Teleconverters should I need the extra reach.

-Footnote: I recently tested and purchased Canon’s new 24-70 F2.8L MK2 and found its image quality to be superior to the 24mm F1.4L MK2, 35mm F1.4L and 50mm F1.2L at every single F-Stop. The new 24-70mm F2.8L is simply sharper and resolves better in the corners than any of these prime lenses from Canon. This is truly phenomenal performance and fully justifies the cost of this lens. Although the 24-70mm F2.8L MK2 does have more distortion than the prime equivalents at a given focal length it is so easily corrected in post production and the increased resolution so noticeable that it is well worth the expense. The bonus of this lens is that I can now carry just one lens instead of three and get superior resolution.  If you have not tried the new 24-70 F2.8L Mk2 you and you shoot in this focal range then you owe it to yourself to try one. It will be my main lens for shooting in not only China, but also on both my Arctic and Antarctic expeditions later this year.

P.S – If you are wondering why there isn’t a Phase One IQ180 on the above list. The camera, digital back and lenses I was hoping to take with me just hasn’t arrived in time. Such is life.

Photo of the Month – May : Godafoss in Winter

The photo of the month for May 2014 is also from Godafoss waterfall in the North of Iceland. This photograph was taken from the edge of the top of the falls with the Canon 17mm F4L Tilt and Shift Lens on the Canon 1DX Camera. I used a custom made adapter to hold a 3-Stop LEE graduated ND filter and the LEE Big Stopper 10 Stop ND filter. Exposure time was eight seconds at F5.6. In hindsight, I think I actually prefer this photograph from the top of the falls to the other one I posted last month. This photograph has a more dramatic feeling with the snow and ice in the foreground and I feel better emphasises the horseshoe shape of the falls.