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Capturing the Spirit of Baltimore's Inner Harbor Capturing the Spirit of Baltimore's Inner Harbor
 

The historic Inner Harbor seaport is a showcase of the city of Baltimore, Maryland. While I was looking for interesting and creative photos in general on a day trip to this location, my ultimate goal for was to come away with a picture that captured the spirit of Inner Harbor in a single frame. Since I had only the latter part of the day to shoot, I was targeting sunset and the blue hour for that photo.
 
My afternoon scouting showed that the west side of the harbor offered my favorite view, one that included the most photogenic landmark buildings including the National Aquarium and Baltimore's World Trade Center. From the selected vantage point, the Hard Rock Cafe and Phillips signs also stood out and all of the colorful lights reflected in the water.
 
Not all waterfront is harbor, so the Lightship Chesapeake and the USS Torsk submarine docked in the background helped depict this waterfront properly as such. Of course, what finishes off the capture of the spirit of Baltimore's Inner Harbor better than a boat aptly named Inner Harbor Spirit docked in the foreground?
 
After selecting the specific location I wanted for my key photo, I captured a variety of photos using various lenses and focal lengths (there was no getting closer happening here). The scene shown in this sample picture was my favorite and I have it captured at various times during sunset including some with nicely pink clouds in the sky. The image shown here was captured just before total darkness. At that time, a 30 second exposure allowed a smooth motion blur of the very calm harbor, an f/16 aperture caused the lights to show a starburst effect without imparting a too-severe amount of softening of the image (due to diffraction) and the combination of 30 seconds and f/16 allowed a deep blue sky color to be retained.
 
The Canon EF 24-105mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Lens is a nice lens and the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is of course an awesome camera. This photo is basically as-shot. Based on the Standard Picture Style (in DPP), I cloned out a few paint tiny imperfections on the ship and reduced the brightness of the Hard Rock Cafe sign, Phillips sign and the side of the aquarium using an HDR technique that utilized a darker exposure showing through the primary exposure at those positions in the frame.


 
24mm  f/16.0  30s  ISO 100
Canvasback Duck, Chesapeake Bay, Maryland Canvasback Duck, Chesapeake Bay, Maryland
 

The Canon EOS-1D X Mark III arrived mid-afternoon and immediately the battery went on the charger. Setting up the camera came next (didn't wait for a full battery charge) and shooting the noise test followed. Late-night packing ensued and the road trip started the next morning.

The goal of this trip was to give the 1D X III a workout and the Chesapeake Bay ducks seemed a good choice.

One of the challenges I frequently encounter when photographing ducks is selecting the correct focus point(s) in time to get an image before the duck changes direction again. Those webbed feet can make 180° turns very fast but the 1D X III's new Smart Controller is a game-changer in DSLR focus point selection. Simply slide a thumb (even with a glove on) across the AF-ON button's Smart Controller feature and the AF point moves in the same direction. Keeping up with the ducks is now considerably easier thanks to the Smart Controller — this feature is awesome. I'm now less-satisfied with my other DSLRs.

When photographing ducks, I seldom appreciate a downward camera angle. This means getting the camera down to the level of the duck which becomes complicated when the duck is swimming. Sitting in the low-40-something-degree-F water just upriver from the Chesapeake Bay wearing chest waders (with a heavy layer of fleece insulation under them) was the option selected. Obviously, the camera cannot go right on the water level, especially with saltwater sometimes having splashing waves, but getting into the water helps reduce elevation.

Another aid to a flatter camera angle is using a long focal length lens. The longer the focal length used, the farther away the subject needs to be for proper framing and to frame a farther-away subject requires the camera angle to be raised, creating a closer-to-level shooting angle.

Prior to leaving for this short trip, I had a number of accessories sent to me for testing.

Holding the camera and lens in the river was a Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head. The Wimberley Tripod Head II (full gimbal head including the cradle) is an awesome choice for holding a big lens. This head is very solid but the Sidemount version is even more rigid, weighs less, consumes less space, and provides a better handle (such as for lifting the tripod out of the river). The only downside to this side-mount head is that some lenses, primarily very large lenses with high-profile tripod feet, may not be perfectly centered over the head. This slight offset didn't seem to matter in my use with a 600mm f4L lens. My cradle will not likely see any future use.

Mostly submerged and holding the Wimberley Sidemount tripod head was a Robus RC-8860 Vantage Series 5 Carbon Fiber Tripod. This solid, heavy-duty tripod was a superb solution for anchoring (literally in this case) a 600mm f/4 lens on a pro body. I continue to be impressed by the quality of the Robus products, especially for the price. They are great values.

I might share another Canvasback photograph with you soon as I struggled to select between this one and a looser-framed shot (and many others). The warm lighting on this duck is from a setting sun and the blue water color is courtesy of a blue sky.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/1600s  ISO 250
American Widgeon, Chesapeake Bay, Maryland American Widgeon, Chesapeake Bay, Maryland
 

I'm evaluating Canon EOS-1D X Mark III images, selecting a few for inclusion in the review, and thought I'd take a moment to share an image of another amazing-looking duck, the American widgeon. The goal of this short trip to the Chesapeake Bay, in addition to testing the 1D X Mark III in the field, was to photograph canvasback ducks. Like most other wildlife photographers, I'm opportunistic and it wasn't hard to be attracted to the beautiful American widgeon. The colors, patterns, and shapes of this bird's feathers are incredible.

Again, I was sitting in very cold water just upriver from the Chesapeake Bay wearing chest waders (and a heavy layer of fleece insulation under them) to enable a low camera position. The Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head held the big lens and mostly submerged under the Wimberley was a Robus RC-8860 Vantage Series 5 Carbon Fiber Tripod.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/1600s  ISO 250
Just Reflections Just Reflections
 

Sometimes, I find images comprised of only reflections more interesting than images containing only the subjects being reflected. To capture such an image requires a reflective surface and something to be reflected in it.
 
Most locations share a similar nearby reflection source: water. When water is the reflective surface and there is at least a small amount of motion on the water surface, no two photos will be the same. You can capture 20 images from a tripod-mounted camera and still have no duplicates. Such images can sometimes work together for a low-effort collection.
 
Water in motion is ... in motion. To stop motion requires an adequately short shutter speed and to achieve stopped motion in this frame, I opted for ISO 400 (vs. the least-noisy ISO 100 option). The final image has very little noticeable noise and the small waves are not showing blur.
 
For this image, I found a brightly colored boat as the reflective subject and adjusted my position until I had what I felt was ideal framing. I especially like how the top and bottom borders of the frame are relatively uninterrupted by lines in this composition.
 
Keep in mind that reflection images often benefit from increased contrast and saturation in post processing.


 
105mm  f/10.0  1/40s  ISO 400
The Sony Alpha a1 Meets a Redhead, Field Report The Sony Alpha a1 Meets a Redhead, Field Report
 

Last week's goal was to put a significantly challenging subject in front of the Sony Alpha a1's AF system.

This project started with 350+ images of whitetail deer captured with the outstanding Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens. At f/4, this lens produces a shallow depth of field that presents an AF challenge. Initially, the deer were milling about (erratic motion), but the game was quickly upped when a large group of deer came in fast, primarily single file, leaping toward the camera position. With animal eye detection and the entire AF area selected, the a1 easily and impressively tracked these subjects' eyes and produced an extremely high in-focus rate, including when the deer were leaping at close distances.

Despite the in-focus aspect of the image, none of these pics were worth keeping as the deer were shedding their winter coats and looking shaggy. I needed pictures that would look good in a review. From a wildlife perspective, birds, primarily ducks, were the acceptable subject I had access to.

After watching the weather forecast and the migration reports for some hotspot locations within driving distance, I made a final decision. On this day, the temperature was going well above freezing, and clear skies were forecasted. Bright sunlight brings out birds' iridescent colors, and the sky color reflects in the water, which, in this case, provided a surrounding blue color in the image (deep blue late in the day). The wind speed was supposed to be light for calmer water. The temperature was going to be comfortable — sitting in the water in the wind and sub-freezing temperatures complicates duck photography.

On this morning, I drove to the closest of the four selected locations, about 2.5 hours away. Unfortunately, the perfect subjects, the wood ducks reliably found there, were not there. While Canada geese were plentiful, I was looking for something different.

Plan B was immediately implemented. The Chesapeake Bay location was 2+ hours farther away, but this location is best in the afternoon, so there was still time to make it there for the ideal lighting.

Upon arrival, I discovered that the huge winter flock of ducks was down to a small fraction of the count. I expected a reduced count, but not this reduced. Fortunately, a selection of the ideal species was there, and with fewer birds, it was easier to isolate individual subjects, making the situation was ideal.

The scenario was ideal except for some wind that made the water choppy. Ideally, swimming duck photography is done at the water level, with the camera just above the water. This low camera position provides a side view of the duck, with a more-distant background, meaning the background has a stronger blur, making the subject pop.

When photographing floating ducks, getting the camera low involves sitting in the water, with chest waders and thick insulated pants required at this time of the year. With the high-frequency wind chop, splashing salt water was an issue, requiring a slightly higher camera position (a LensCoat rain cover protected most of the camera and lens). An unexpected wind complication was that bobbing with the ducks while looking into the viewfinder contributed to a strong sense of motion sickness.

Ducks floating on water may seem a low challenge to photograph (the proverbial sitting duck), but this scenario was the completel opposite. Many near-1' (0.3m) waves rocking the already-twitchy, constantly-erratically moving ducks and me (at different frequencies) made keeping a duck in the 600mm frame (I started at 840mm with a 1.4x teleconverter) extremely challenging (especially when the duck was obscured by a wave). I monitored image sharpness until becoming confident that a 1/3200 shutter speed eliminated motion blur in most pictures.

One of the biggest wildlife (and portrait) photography challenges is to keep the proper AF point selected. A motionless subject permits a focus and recompose strategy, but moving subjects require selecting a specific AF point that produces the optimal composition while remaining on the subject's eye. Fast AF point selection is an especially big challenge for unpredictable wildlife. Tracking a twitchy, bobbing duck with a specific focus point held on the eye would have been nearly impossible. However, the 600mm, f/4, close distance combination's shallow depth of field made focusing precisely on the eye a requirement.

Eye AF eliminates this challenge for a significant percentage of subjects. With the Sony Alpha a1's eye AF enabled, bird selected as the subject, and the entire AF area chosen (most of the frame), I was left to concentrate primarily on framing the scene and timing the shutter release press. Note that, when eye AF is locking on the subject, gloves are no longer an impediment to cold-weather wildlife pursuits.

When many changes are happening simultaneously, a fast frame rate has your back. I began shooting in the 30 fps drive mode but backed off to 20 fps when I saw how fast the image count was increasing.

Twenty fps is still an exceptionally fast frame rate. Most 20 fps shot sequences captured, minimally, a properly-framed duck image, and often, many well-framed shots, despite all of the motion (ducks would sometimes bob from one frame border to another during a short burst). With 20 fps capture, I didn't feel the need to repair closed necessitating membranes as the previous or next image still had the ideal pose. The foreground and background matter, and wave and reflection nuances vary constantly. These elements can be the deciding factor for selection, and the 20 and 30 fps capture rate provides considerable options in this regard.

That the a1's viewfinder responded fast enough to keep the birds in the frame was remarkable, and the lack of viewfinder blackout was also critical. Even more remarkable was the extremely-high in-focus rate the a1 delivered. In this 3:45 shoot, 8,985 images were captured, and in almost all of them, the eye was in sharp focus – even when the eye bounced into the periphery of the frame.

When packing, four batteries seemed a lot, but 4% of the fourth battery was consumed by the time I walked out of the water. That said, capturing nearly 3,000 images per relatively-small battery is great performance.

Similarly, taking a full terabyte of memory cards seemed overkill, but the last 256GB card was half-filled when shade reached the water. As much as I want to purchase CFexpress Type A memory cards for the a1, I can't get past the current price. Let's put a Type A number on this day. As I write this, adequate 160GB Type A memory cards to contain this under-4-hour shoot would have cost $2,394.00.

In comparison, four fast Lexar 256GB Professional 1667x V60 UHS-II SDXC Memory Cards currently cost $300.00.

With these Lexar cards, the a1 was writing the buffer to the card most of the time. This writing prevents some camera features from being accessible, though image playback functions during the writing process.

Ultra-high performance AF combined with an extreme frame rate results in a problem, albeit a great problem — too many excellent images yield a long selection process. You may have foreseen this issue: reviewing nearly 9k photos is a massive project, and the phenomenal in-focus rate makes that job far more difficult. It is hard to delete excellent pictures, but the quality bar must be raised (or considerable hard drive storage space acquired). Again, the a1's extreme performance create a problem you want to have.

I didn't mention the a1's 50MP resolution in this post, but the bouncing ducks were often not ideally framed. This camera's high resolution meant that significant resolution remained even after cropping deeply.

The Robus RC-8860 Vantage Carbon Fiber Tripod (great tripod, excellent value) provided the support for this shoot. With the tripod leveled, the two-way pan and tilt of the smooth-functioning Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head ensured that every shot was level (though the wave action diminished this requirement).

The bottom line is that Sony Alpha a1, and especially its AF system, is an outstanding performer, as expected.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/3200s  ISO 400
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