CANON 1DX IN THE FRENCH ALPS

One of the real highlights of my trip through France was the opportunity to visit the alpine town of Chamonix. Widely regarded as the mountaineering Mecca of France, Chamonix is a magnet and playground for mountaineers and alpinists from around the world. With its high altitude mountains, precipitous and jagged peaks, and high quality granite spires it is easy to see why.

The town itself is filled with all manner of outdoor clothing, mountaineering and adventure shops. The only other place I can recall seeing such a collection of stores and brands in such a small a geographical area was in Ushuaia at the bottom of South America from where the majority of Antarctica expeditions depart. In short, if you can’t find it in Chamonix you probably don’t need it (although the prices might leave you reeling).

With a day free in Chamonix before heading for Venice, I jumped at the opportunity to take the two cable cars up to the Aiguille Du Midi at just over 12,600 feet for some mountaineering photography.With no real mountains to speak of in Australia, I am not used to high altitude climbing and suffered from constant lack of breath, light-headedness and a severe headache after twelve hours at nearly 4000 metres. Whilst my Austrian companion seemed unaffected by the altitude I was forced to stop every few minutes to try and catch my breath as we made our way up the ridgeline. It was worth the pain, however, as the opportunity to photograph climbers returning from Mont Blanc along a very exposed ridge provided breathtaking views and photographic possibilities. We were taking a little bit of a chance with this climb as it was very windy and the pressure was dropping, with the possibility of a forecast storm. Spindrift was whipping off the peaks and, with eleven people loosing their lives on Mont Blanc in the last few weeks, I was less than thrilled at the thought of getting caught in an exposed position.  I was, however, very keen to get some photographs, because the wind was whipping clouds and fog across the mountain at a rapid rate which was creating a lovely play of light. In the end, I climbed only a relatively short distance up the ridge as the conditions were just too dangerous for my experience at that altitude.This was the first opportunity I had to use the Canon 1DX at high altitude in cold weather and it did not disappoint. At -15 degrees Celsius the Canon 1DX performed flawlessly and I was able to squeeze out nearly 600 frames without any effort, finding no need to warm the battery or swap it for another from a warm pocket. This is remarkable performance in such a hostile environment and is consistent with my experience with the 1DS MK3 and 1D MKIV cameras in Antarctica.I hope to return to Chamonix in the future and spend more time in the stunningly beautiful French Alps. Along with the Andes mountain range in South America, they rate as some of the most rugged and beautiful mountains I have seen.

For now, I have arrived in Iceland and am looking forward to heading out into the wilds tomorrow morning.

CANON 1DX AND FRANCES NOTRE DAME CATHEDRALS

Paris is, of course, well known for its magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral, the sheer scale and majesty of which is biblically awe-inspiring. Photographing the Notre Dame, however, is a challenge. By break of day the building is surrounded by thousands of tourists streaming through its grand doors and climbing its towers, and the numbers do not waiver until nightfall. There is simply no opportunity to capture the building free from visitors. Because I wanted to do more than merely walk away with the usual tourist postcard photograph, I was left searching for alternatives.

In an effort to make a better photograph I decided I would get up before sunrise and try a long exposure from one of the bridges across the river Seine in the hope of capturing the Cathedral in a more peaceful and serene environment.  This viewpoint is one I had not seen before and one in which I could utilize the river to place the Cathedral in context. Although the Cathedral is partially obscured behind the trees I like the angle for the added mystery. I used a ten stop ND filter to obtain a 4 minute exposure to soften the sky and create a sense of movement in the clouds and water.As much as I enjoyed indulging myself in Parisian café culture it now feels good to be out in the countryside and away from the hustle and bustle of the city. This has been my first visit to France and it has been as picturesque and scenic as I was led to believe. With its manicured fields and gardens the French countryside is beautiful and its many small villages quaint and adorable.

Over the last few days I have spent some time in the Champagne region (where healthy portions of fine Champagne were sampled and keenly devoured), Reims and the small town of Ambois located in the Loire valley where I have visited a number of spectacularly opulent chateaus located nearby.

I was not aware that there is in fact a second Notre Dame cathedral located in Reims and was fortunate to stumble across it whilst driving though the town. The choice of how to photograph this gothic Cathedral struck me as I stood below its imposing form and leering gargoyles. I wanted to make this Cathedral appear to be both rooted to the earth and soaring toward the heavens in order to do justice to its gothic architecture and imposing stature. I accomplished this using Canon’s 17mm wide angle lens and pointing the camera up toward the towers to create an exaggerated perspective. This photograph was handheld since the use of tripods, even on the external grounds, is strongly discouraged. The key to making this work was a combination of the wide angle lens, camera angle and symmetry to create the desired effect. I was also fortunate to have some dramatic clouds and lighting which add to the atmosphere and enhance the Cathedral’s foreboding presence.This trip has been a wonderful opportunity to shoot with the new 1DX camera which is continuing to surpass my expectations. It has the best metering and autofocus of any camera I have used. Tomorrow I will be heading for Dijon where I look forward to more photography with this remarkable new camera and of course some more “boudoir the grape.”

CANON 1DX – MAKING THE IMPOSSIBLE POSSIBLE

Paris has been the first opportunity I have had to shoot with Canon’s new 1DX multi-media powerhouse camera. I had only limited opportunity to test the camera before I departed for Europe because the camera arrived only a couple of days before my flight departed. With all the delays since its announcement in September last year I was having serious doubts whether Canon were going to deliver. I managed some initial tests to ensure there was no immediate problem with the camera and these proved very promising, with excellent results.

After two days in Paris and around 500 frames I can now report that the Canon 1DX has exceeded my expectations for low light and autofocus performance in every respect. One of the real highlights in Paris for anyone interested in history and architecture is its incredibly impressive cathedrals and churches. The sheer scale, grandeur, and majesty of Notre Dame, and others, make them wonderfully impressive subjects for photography. They can be hard to capture in their entirety as there is a fine balance between placing the structure in context and the creation of a mere postcard. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the challenge and I could happily spend many days prowling the streets and cobblestone alleys for new and different angles.

As impressive as the Cathedrals are externally, they are equally awe-inspiring on the inside. Unfortunately, all of them are extremely dark inside and tripod photography is forbidden (as is the use of flash – although, this last ‘law’ seems very poorly enforced) necessitating the use of high ISO photography to ensure sufficient shutter speeds and depth of field. It is not uncommon to have to push the ISO as high as 10,000 or even 25,600 in some cases to obtain 1/40th of a second at F4 in the darker areas.

This photograph was taken inside the Eglise Saint Eustache cathedral with the Canon 1DX and 17mm F4L TSE, handheld at ISO 6,400, 1/60thof a second, F 4.5. I want to emphasize that it was extremely dark inside the cathedral and that the light streaming through the stain glass windows was extremely hot. The dynamic range far exceeds the capabilities of any camera to record; yet the 1DX has managed to produce an excellent exposure without intervention from me. This photograph simply would not have been possible with such low noise with any previous camera I have owned or tested. The image has had only minimal post processing and noise reduction in Adobe Lightroom 4.1. There is virtually no appreciable noise of consequence in the RAW file, at least nothing that is not easily corrected with a small amount of noise reduction (a modest setting of 25 in Lightroom was used in this example to reduce the luminance noise grain – no color noise reduction was required). The results are simply astonishing and I am very much looking forward to the new opportunities created by the amazing capabilities of the 1DX. Although in this example I utilized the 17mm F4L TSE which is a manual focus lens I also shot several frames with the 24mm f1.4L MKII and 35mm F1.4L lenses, and in all cases the 1DX was able to immediately nail focus in near total darkness, center of frame. The era of shooting in the dark has truly arrived.Although street and city photography is not my preferred landscape, I have very much enjoyed my time in the city of romance and rate it as one of the most beautiful and charming cities I have visited.  There is a wavelength and ambience in Paris that I can immediately harmonize with. Its cobblestone streets are steeped in history and charm and this, combined with my love of the café culture, make it a city I could easily call home. I am looking forward to wandering its streets over the next few days before I head for Venice.

Au revoir for now…

Paris, Venice, Iceland and an Arctic Fox…

In a few days from now I am heading to Iceland for my 2012 Summer expedition. It has been well over a year since I was last in Iceland and I am very much looking forward to returning to its amazingly varied and ever changing landscape. Before I make my way to Iceland however, I am going to be spending some ‘quality time’ travelling through France and Italy with my better half. We will be spending a week in Paris, where I will be dragged kicking and screaming from landmark to landmark before we make our way (by car) through the French provincial countryside visiting some of the more famous wine regions on our way to the canals of Venice.

Now, I am normally not in the slightest bit interested in cities. I find them generally polluted, overcrowded and unpleasant places to be. I much prefer to be out in nature’s wilderness. However, I need to earn  a few brownie points and spend some time engaged in activities that my significant other finds appealing before I can escape to the wilds of Iceland. C’est la vie. Secretly, I am looking forward to some photography in the French countryside and around the canals of Venice (but don’t tell my wife!).

On arrival in Iceland I am going to spend a couple of days in Reyjkavic where I will meet up with my good friends Daniel, Martyn and Bruce before we make for the Snaefellsnes peninsula; which is an area of Iceland I have not yet visited. After spending a few days in the Snaefellsnes region we had been planning to head to Hornstrandir Nature reserve to photograph arctic foxes in the extreme northwestern part of Iceland (weather permitting). This is true expedition territory as no one lives there permanently  and it is quite easy to end up stranded there for days if the weather turns bad. At this stage the plan is to wait and see what the weather forecast is and to decide at the time if it is worth the risk. Since the region is so remote it is strictly camping only and all supplies must be carried with us. There is a ferry that travels to the area from Isafjordur and again weather permitting we were thinking of spending a day or two out at Latrabjarg which is one of the best places in Iceland to photograph Puffins. At this time of year the parents should be bringing the chicks fish in their beaks which would make for some excellent wildlife opportunities.In terms of equipment I am planning to take almost my entire line-up of cameras and lenses on this trip. With my wife in toe for the first part of the trip I can easily offload some of my gear into her carry on luggage if required. My compliment of cameras and lenses is going to include:

  • Canon EOS 1DX w/ Really Right Stuff mounting plate from a Canon 70-200mm F4L lens (the L bracket is not yet released for this camera)
  • Canon EOS 1DS MK3 w/ Really Right Stuff L Bracket
  • Canon 17mm F4L TSE Lens
  • Canon 24mm F1.4L MKII Lens
  • Canon 35mm F1.4L Lens
  • Canon 50mm F1.2L Lens
  • Canon 85mm F1.2L Lens
  • Canon 90mm F2.8 TSE Lens
  • Canon 70-200mm F2.8L IS Lens w/ Really Right Stuff Mounting Plate
  • Canon 300mm F2.8L IS Lens w/ Really Right Stuff Mounting Plate
  • Canon 1.4 Tele-Converter MKII
  • Gitzo GT350 LSV 6X Carbon Fibre Tripod w/ Really Right BH55 Ball Head
  • MacBook Pro 15″ w/ 8 Gig RAM and 256 Gig SSD running Lightroom 4.1 and Photoshop CS6
  • Sufficient CF and SD Cards, Card Readers, Back-Up Hard Drives (2x IOMEGA dual Firewire 800 1TB Hard Drives), My LEE ND grad filter kit, Camera Batteries, Chargers, Lens cleaning equipment etc…
All of the above (excluding the tripod) will be stored in my Gura Gear Kiboko and Gura Gear Chobe camera bags and carried onto planes. I will check my tripod inside my Helly Hanson duffle roller bag. A year or so ago I would also likely have packed my pocket Canon S90 both as a back-up and for snapshots. However, the camera in my iPhone now serves this purpose and saves me a few grams of weight; whilst adding oodles of convenience.

This trip will be the maiden voyage for my new Canon 1DX camera; which Canon promised me on a handshake I would have before I left. Since it literally only arrived yesterday I was getting very nervous that they were actually going to deliver (especially after all the delays). Ideally, it would have been beneficial if the camera was delivered a week or so earlier so that I had an opportunity to at least put a few hundred frames on it under test. As it is I have not had time to do much more than shoot a few frames in the backyard and local park to ensure the camera is operating properly. My initial impressions are very positive (the new autofocus system and high ISO performance are truly phenomenal) and I have high hopes for the Canon 1DX. It has been a long time since it was announced back in September last year and I am now very keen to get out into the field to put it through its paces.

I plan to update my blog as regularly as possible throughout the trip and both Bruce and I will also be writing a blog for Moab paper of our experiences in Iceland. Bruce will be travelling with both Canon and Nikon equipment including a Canon 5DMKII and Nikon D800E with lenses for both, as well as a Leica M9 and a large selection of their very finest glass (including some rare and ‘little’ LEE ND graduated filters made specifically for Leica lenses). It is going to be very interesting to see how the little Leica performs in Iceland’s elements. My friend Martyn is bringing a 5D MK3, a 1DS MK3 and his Sony Nex all of which should add to the melting pot of brands and models on hand to compare and contrast. It should be a lot of fun.

See you in Paris.

THE IMPORTANCE OF PATIENCE AND CONDITIONING IN WILDERNESS PHOTOGRAPHY

It occurred to me about a week or so ago (when I was forced to drop down into an ‘Everest gear’ to grind out one of the big hills on the mountain bike trail that I ride near my house) just how out of condition I am after my time in Antarctica (over-indulgence in good food during the Christmas New Year period has not helped either). During my time in Antarctica, on board ship, I never really did any exercise; yet I regularly stowed away three square meals a day (large three-course meals at that). Since I didn’t suffer from sea sickness, I was able to keep all those meals down (thankfully). My cardiovascular fitness has really deteriorated and it feels like I am missing a lung as I drag myself up the hills on the bike. After 20 kilometers on the trails, my body feels quite battered and broken. Overall, my time off the bike over the Christmas-New Year period has left me feeling quite unfit and out of condition. Subsequently I have actually managed to crack my bike frame and am undergoing a forced hiatus while I wait for my bike to be rebuilt.

The connection to photography may not be apparent at first. But physical fitness plays a major role in successful wilderness photography.  A good level of physical fitness enables you to hike faster, further and arrive at your destination ready to shoot, in better condition. It can be the difference between arriving at the top of the hill and getting the shot before the best light is gone and arriving on location exhausted and disappointed. It can even mean your not making it to the top at all. This is not to say the best shot is always at the end of an uphill hike. However, you will never know if you don’t make it up there to see for yourself. You don’t have to be an elite athlete to be a wilderness photographer, but I find a good level of physical fitness certainly helps.

Whilst I was puffing my way up the hill on my mountain bike, I also got to thinking that mountain biking is like photography in that to get good at it you have to do a lot of it. To stay in peak condition you have to be persistent. I have observed this many times when I am out on my photography excursions. My shots continue to improve as the days roll past and my ‘conditioning’ improves. It takes time to get into the ‘groove’ —the right frame of mind that enables me to recognize the good images from the bad. Antarctica was like that: it took me time to assimilate. After extensive international travel, the few days I had in Buenos Aires and Ushuaia gave me the opportunity to wind down, leave the stress of daily life behind, and start to focus on photography. This time was crucial because I had the chance to relax, which is just as important as being fit for the task. Buenos Aries itself didn’t turn me on photographically. It is a crowded and polluted city, quite unlike my expectations of Antarctica. But, at least, I was in the right frame of mind—relaxed—when we eventually left for Antarctica.

Before I arrive this July for my 2012 workshop in Iceland I am going to be spending a couple of weeks travelling through France and Italy (specifically, driving down from France to Venice) photographing the countryside as a precursor to the workshop. I am hoping to use this time to get my eye in, as it were, and ensure my state of mind is at or near its peak when I arrive in Iceland.

Landscape and Nature photography requires a serious commitment. You must be prepared to spend countless hours outdoors, frequently in inclement weather or harsh environments. It also requires hours of patience to get the best possible light. I have spent many hundreds of hours in the wilderness waiting for the right conditions. Nature and landscape photographers who are truly committed are a rare breed; we have to put up with a lot—fitness, patience, vigilance, and an eye for the main chance. It takes a certain mindset and dedication to stand around in freezing conditions and rain for hours, waiting for the right light when what beckons is a nice dinner and a glass of wine in a warm hotel somewhere.  You need commitment and dedication to get the shot.One thing I have learned through experience is that it is always worth sticking it out to the bitter end when waiting for the best light, no matter the prevailing weather conditions. Generally, brief moments of special light don’t fill the bill; you have to see it out to the end. All too often, the light changes in the last few moments and in these instances the light is often at its most spectacular. I recall a very poignant example of this, which I have blogged about before in Iceland in 2010 when I arrived at the top of one of the highest mountains in Landmannalaugar in Iceland, more than three hours before sunset. They skies were dull and grey and we were exposed to the full force of the Arctic winds. My friend Dmitry and I decided to hunker down and wait out the 3+ hours before sunset. I just wanted to hike back to the 4-wheel drive to warm up with a hot cup of coffee and a piece of cake, but the wait proved worthwhile.  The shoot provided some of the most spectacular light I have ever experienced anywhere. We had distant rain showers, rainbows and light that can only be described as sensational. Lesson learned – Never Give In. Above all, patience!