A Steal of a Deal

Canon EOS-ID Mark IV camera, Canon 400mm/f5.6 lens, f8 at 1/5000 second, ISO 2000

The Camera Gear Catch 22

For most professional photographers, equipment can make or break you, literally.  Cameras and lenses aren’t cheap.  When you’re shooting wildlife you really need those long lenses in the 400mm-800mm range that start at $10,000 minimum.  Yet, photography doesn’t make you rich.  But to make any money you need those long lenses.  It’s like a dog chasing its tail.  Round and round you go.  And then you find yourself in debt.

Every once in a while you find a superb gear work-around.  Dad just tested his new Canon EF 400mm/f5.6L USM lens while shooting at the Martin Refuge in south Texas.  He raved about this lens.  Best of all his photos prove his gigantic claims.  And I, for one, can’t wait to shoot with it during his upcoming visit.


Canon EOS-ID Mark IV camera, Canon 400mm/f5.6 lens

Let’s start with a mini photo lesson. 

We’ll try to keep this short and sweet so your eyes don’t glaze over.   But it’s important.  The f-stop or aperture of a lens determines how much light enters the lens and thus the camera.  A smaller number like f2.8 means a great deal of light enters the lens.  A higher number like f16 means less light enters the lens.

F-stop also determines the depth of field.  What does that mean?  The shallower the depth of field, the softer the background becomes.  A shallow depth of field makes a bird stand out from the background nicely because the background looks blurry compared to the bird.  Ideally f5.6 –f8 would produce a nice image on a sunny day.

The f-stop and shutter speed work together to make a digital exposure.  The shutter speed determines how long the camera’s shutter stays open.  This plays a big factor in stopping a moving subject so it’s still in focus.  A good exposure for a moving bird on a sunny day is f8 at 1/5000 second (shutter speed).  We’ll get to ISO, another factor with this lens, in a while.

So the 400mm/f5.6 lens that Dad tested only goes down to f5.6, but it has a couple of super features that make up for the loss in f-stop.  The more expensive and heavier 400mm/f2.8 lens that he already owns gives you more f-stop options but weighs a lot and costs mucho dinero.


So why switch?

Let me start by saying Dad is very particular about his gear.  By no means is he ditching the 400mm/f2.8 lens.  But he’s certainly open to new lenses that give him an edge in certain situations.  However, that lens must be razorblade sharp, fast and able to deal with a wide range of lighting conditions.  He has little patience for poor performers even if they are super lightweight, a rarity for long lenses.

His new 400mm/f5.6 weighs a mere 2.75 pounds compared to the Canon 400mm/f2.8 that weighs in at a whopping 8.5 pounds.  It doesn’t sound like much of a difference when you’re comfortably sitting at home.  However, rambling up hill through sagebrush while carrying your camera, a sundry of lenses and a weighty tripod sure adds up fast.

In his case, Dad was shooting birds from a photo blind at a private ranch.  He had two cameras set up.  He placed his old trusty Canon EOS-1D Mark III camera, Canon 400mm /f2.8 lens plus Canon EF 1.4X III extender on a Gitzo tripod with a Wimberley Gimbal head.  Then Dad had the lightweight combo of a Canon EOS-ID Mark IV camera with the Canon 400mm/f5.6 lens.  He was able to handhold the second camera and lens combo.  In both instances he shot available light on a bright sunny day.

Throughout the day Dad found himself reaching for the Canon 400mm/f5.6 because of the flexibility it provided.  Handholding the camera allowed him to follow the Crested Caracara action much faster than before when using the tripod.

The Wimberley Gimbal combo basically uses a specialized frame that holds large lenses on a tripod.  The combo allows you to smoothly move the lens around its center of gravity.  Without this setup, you would have affixed your camera and lens to the tripod and used jerky movements to turn the camera if the subject moved.  Instead, the camera smoothly glides to the subject helping to eliminate camera shake.

Canon EOS-ID Mark IV camera, Canon 400mm/f5.6 lens, f8 at 1/5000 second, ISO 2000

Tripod Trials and Triumphs

The Wimberley setup does have a drawback, though.  You’re still attached to a tripod.  When shooting the Greater Roadrunner (this month’s Photo of the Month), quick action is required.  This guy is fast.  Really fast.  At Martin, the roadrunner was on a mission and he wasn’t waiting for the photographer.

The 400mm/f5.6 really stepped up to the plate in this situation.  Dad quickly grabbed this rig and follow-focused on the roadrunner as he zipped up and down tree limbs, over the ground, up on a rock and back to the tree limb.  In other words, Dad focused on the roadrunner and never lost him.  He didn’t need to reposition the tripod.  He just moved the camera (and his upper body) in the direction of the bird movements.  Dad’s lightweight, sexy new lens saved the day.

This is exciting news to me!  I suffer from a neck/back problem that limits how much weight I can carry on a photo expedition.  I found the weight limitations frustrating because I never had the right lens for the wildlife I was trying to capture.  Eventually my poor husband had to carry everything for me on our treks.  Now I’m thinking this lens might be the solution to my problem.  Hopefully Dad won’t notice the lens is missing during his visit.


Some Other Things

So what about those other pesky points Dad looks for in his lenses?  Two big ones are Sharpness and Speed.  Well, the 400mm/f5.6 appears to be razorblade sharp.  He photographed a wide variety of wildlife and then blew the images up in Photoshop.  Without fail the photos are sharp as a tack.

And the focusing speed?  Dad described it as greased lightening.  One of his more challenging subjects during this trip was the roadrunner.  Not only does the camera’s shutter need speed (10 frames a second), the lens must focus at breakneck speed too.  The duo worked so smoothly and quickly that Dad captured a mealworm suspended between the roadrunner’s beak.  It happened so quickly that he didn’t even realize he’d captured the moment until he looked at his images on the computer.

Dad only found two down sides to this lens. The 400mm/f5.6 is compatible with the Canon EF1.4xII and EF2.0xII extenders (to make your lens even longer), but you loose a little bit of speed when focusing.  He concluded if you have a stationary or slow-moving subject, that’s not really an issue.  But in the roadrunner situation it could have been fatal.  So getting closer to your subject would become more important if you weren’t able to use extenders effectively.

The second issue could arise if you were shooting in a low-light situation.  Dad had bright early morning sun and warm evening light during this shoot, so choosing f5.6–f9 was fine with a very high shutter speed of 1/5000.  That shutter speed stopped the action and contributed to the picture’s sharpness.  The f-stop was such that the depth-of-field gave nice separation between the bird and background.

But on an overcast day you would have to choose a higher ISO and that, in turn, would force you to choose a lower shutter speed.  What is ISO, you wonder?  ISO stands for International Standards Organization, and it is a standardized industry scale for measuring sensitivity to light.

Without getting too technical, the camera controls both the shutter speed and the ISO.  Back in the days of film ISO described how sensitive the film was to light.  The lower the number, such as ISO 100, the film was less sensitive to light and produced less grain.  The higher the number, like ISO 1600, the more sensitive the film was to light and it looked grainy when printed.

On a bright sunny day you’d want ISO 100. At a night football game you’d want ISO 1600.  In today’s digital age, technology has miraculously allowed us to shoot at higher ISOs with minimal grain.  That’s why even though Dad’s images were shot at ISO 2000 they still look great grain-free.

So on an overcast day you would have to choose a higher ISO and that, in turn, would force you to choose a lower shutter speed.  If you’re trying to shoot moving objects, that might result in blur or slightly fuzzy images.  At that point, you might be longing for the 400mm/f2.8 to give you a bit of an edge. (Remember f-stop, shutter speed and ISO work together to determine exposure and sharpness of an image.)

These “bad” points, however, aren’t so terrible when you look at the big picture: lightweight, sharp, fast focus and cheap.  You just need to know your equipment well and shoot within its limitations.  Oh, and bring a plan “B” for those overcast situations.

That said, the 400mm/f5.6 is a great lens!  And it’s cheap.  Yes, cheap.  The lens costs about $1,339.00 compared to the Canon 400mm/f2.8 at $11,499!  Game over.  Sign me up for the f5.6.  At that rate, my dog wouldn’t have to chase his tail and I could buy a new camera body too.  Just don’t tell my husband.

Canon EOS-ID Mark IV camera, Canon 400mm/f5.6 lens; exposure: f8 at 1/5000 second, ISO 2000

Breakfast On The Run

Roadrunner Breakfast | Beebower Productions

Rounding Up Wildlife Photography

If you build it, they will come.   With that thought, professional wildlife photography blinds began popping up at John and Audrey Martin’s ranch in South Texas.  Soon a watering hole made an appearance.  Then photographers, like my Dad, traveled great distances to capture the treasures of Martin Refuge with their cameras.

You might be surprised to learn that my Dad wasn’t visiting the ranch to shoot cowboy images since that’s one of his passions.  Rather he was after the marvelous array of birds and mammals that live on the land.

The Martins bought their land near Edinburg, Texas with the idea of conservation.  In 2003 John opened the ranch for wildlife photography.  He believed the income from the visiting photographers would not only allow ranchers to kept afloat financially (ranching’s a tough business), it would create a desire among the public to preserve the land and animals for future generations.  Did I mention John’s background in financial planning?  He had a great idea and soon other ranches began offering similar packages for photographers.


A Guided Adventure

Dad spent two days in March at the Refuge.  Patty Rainey, his guide for the day, met Dad at the ranch’s gate 7:30 a.m. sharp.  They immediately traveled to the morning blind where he spent half of the day photographing the antics of the Crested Caracara.

The Martins have scattered multiple wildlife photography blinds around the ranch.  Each location takes into account the sun’s location as well as the shooting backgrounds.  Some of the blinds are at ground level and others are sunken in the ground to put the photographer at eye level with his subjects.  The Martins’ attention to the key details of light and clean backgrounds make photographers happy.

Patty feeds the birds on a regular basis so they are used to the location as well as the click of cameras coming from the blinds.  She knows where to find specific birds and animals on the ranch.  If you have a wish list, she can definitely accommodate you.

Caracara Craziness | Beebower Productions

So back to Dad’s adventure.  The Crested Caracara can only be seen in South Texas, a slim part of southern Arizona and a smidgen of Florida.  Naturally Dad was hoping for a shot of these rare vulture-like birds.

As soon as Patty put out a tasty breakfast of chicken parts, the Caracaras swept in from all directions.  Dad estimates at least 20 birds converged on the meat.  He was ready with his Canon EOS-ID Mark IV camera, Canon EF 400mm/F5.6L USM lens.  With an ISO of 2000, he had enough shutter speed to handhold the camera.  His exposure was 1/5000 second at F9.  This shooting combo gave him such great success that Dad spent half of the day at the same spot.

Peeking Javelina | Beebower Productions

After a lunch break, Patty took Dad from the morning blind to the afternoon blind. Here he photographed a young javelina that wandered out of the trees looking for goodies, green jays and a pyrrhuloxia.  By this point, it was close to sunset.  He and Patty packed up their gear and agreed.  It had been a very successful day.

Great Horned Owl | Beebower Productions

The next morning a Great Horned Owl greeted the duo at the ranch’s gate promptly at 7:30 a.m.  It sat on the fence post next to the rain gage lounging in the cool morning quiet.  The big fellow slowly opened one eye to examine them.  Apparently he wasn’t too worried because Dad managed to get his Canon EOS-1D Mark III camera from the truck and snap a photo using his Canon 400mm /F2.8lens plus Canon EF 1.4X III extender all mounted on a Gitzo tripod with a Wimberley Gimbal head.  Shooting at ISO 1600 gave him an exposure of 1/5000 second at F5.

That early morning photo hinted at the blockbuster image coming a bit later.  Dad had seen several roadrunners the day before and they were definitely on his wish list.   So Patty took him to a sunken blind with major roadrunner action.  The Greater Roadrunner was zipping up and down limbs, stumps and the ground snapping up mealworms as fast as Patty could put them out.

Dad alternated between two camera rigs depending on the type of shot he wanted.  For really close up shots, he used the Canon EOS-1D Mark III camera with the Canon 400mm/F2.8 lens plus a Canon EF 1.4X III extender all mounted on a Gitzo tripod with a Wimberley Gimbal head.  For shots that required a little more breathing room, he used the Canon EOS-ID Mark IV camera with the Canon 400mm/F5.6 lens and hand-held it.  This worked really well and gave Dad more variety in his images.

Dad knew he had a good roadrunner shot, but it wasn’t until he looked at the image on his Mac that he saw the mealworm suspended in mid-air between the bird’s beak.  The speed of the camera and lightness of the Canon 400mm/F5.6 lens allowed him to follow the bird easily.

Mission Accomplished

After two days of shooting, Dad had captured some great images.  He was very pleased with the time and money spent at the ranch.  He said it was hard not to get a great image while shooting wildlife photography there.

So the next time you’re itching to get some stellar wildlife photography, head on over to the Martin Refuge.  You won’t be disappointed.   Visit the Refuge’s website at www.martinrefuge.com for prices, what to expect and other pertinent details.

Growing Up Beebower

Hugh, Gordon, and Denise Beebower | Beebower Productions

When you grow up in your family’s photo studio there are a couple of inevitabilities: You will end up in a photo. You will get into trouble. And you will learn to appreciate your family.

During my childhood my toys were backdrops, strobe lights and 2x4s left over from building a studio set. I was surrounded by cameras and two very intense photographers my Dad, Hugh Beebower, and my Uncle, Gordon Beebower. They started off in the 1970s as struggling photographers in Dallas, Texas looking to make it in the commercial advertising industry.

My first memory of Beebower Brothers Photography was a small apartment they’d converted to a photo studio. The best thing about the place was the candy vending machine that dispensed Zero bars as frequently as I could convince my Dad to buy one.

Denise and Puppy | Beebower Productions

The modeling gigs started pretty early for me. I was about four years old when my Uncle snagged me for a photo shoot. I was captivated by the puppy I was supposed to hold, so I didn’t mind too much—at first.

Apparently after several shots, neither the puppy nor I wanted to stand still or look at the camera. The puppy peed on the set too. That didn’t go over very well. I’m not sure which one of us my Uncle wanted to strangle more, the puppy or me. At least I didn’t pee on the set.

Truthfully I don’t feel too bad about my modeling gig. I think I was paid with one of those Zero bars and a can of soda. You get what you pay for according to my Dad. Perhaps my Uncle should have upped the pay to a Barbie doll or at the least an ice cream cone.

Our family dog also got sucked into photos. Monster, who was supposed to be a giant dog and thus we thought was aptly named, often visited the studio with me. (Our vet was clearly misinformed. Monster turned out to be about 45 pounds.)

Putting two bored photographers in a studio with props and a dog produces some interesting photos. Monster didn’t seem to mind too much. At least he got a car ride out of the deal and a spot on our website (check out the kid at the mailbox with a dog).

For kids, a photography studio is loaded with trouble. On many occasions my Dad and Uncle shot food illustrations for companies like Frito Lay or Dr. Pepper. There were all kinds of exotic things like jalapenos and lemons lying around to tempt unsuspecting children. (Remember jalapenos and lemons really are exotic in a five-year-old mind.)

Hugh, Gordon, and Monster | Beebower Productions

On this occasion, I noticed mushrooms next to the peppers. I loved mushrooms, but I was curious about the jalapenos. No one should have been surprised when I licked the knife that had been used to cut the peppers just to see what the stuff tasted like.

What was surprising to the adults were the hours of wailing and gnashing of teeth that followed. None of the typical remedies worked, not honey, not milk and certainly not gallons of water. I still can’t look at a jalapeno without distrust.

Trouble wasn’t limited to the photo kitchen. The model room held a plethora of temptations. The make-up table, the lockers and all of those props were alluring. My favorite spot, for some odd reason, was the lockers.

One time I finally got permission to bring a friend to the studio to keep me company while Dad worked. We thought it would be fun to have locker races, in and out, the fastest one wins.

It happened in slow motion. I’d escaped the locker, but my friend was having a bit of trouble getting out of her locker. In her quest to escape, the whole unit began to rock back and forth the harder she pulled on the door. And then it crashed. With my friend still in it.

While she screamed, I tried to explain the situation to Dad. In front of his client. Not a happy moment. I never did have anyone over to the studio after the locker incident.

Gordon and the Plane | Beebower Productions

I learned a lot about my Dad and Uncle growing up at Beebower Brothers. Dad was a bit scary when I got into mischief. He and my Uncle were photo perfectionists. Sometimes they drove each other crazy. But they always got the job done. Oh, and they were very good photographers.

I also discovered, in the midst of all of that serious stuff, they both knew how to have fun. I loved hanging out with them while they spun crazy business promotions like my Uncle as the Red Baron delivering

images in a zippy little plane or my Dad’s Western portfolio stuffed into handmade saddlebags. How cool is that?

But most of all, I learned that both my Dad and my Uncle would do anything to help out the family. When I finally decided to pursue photojournalism, both of the guys tried to talk me out of it. I must say I appreciate that now more than I did then. It really is true that photojournalists are paid in peanuts, the cheap kind without the roasting and salt.

Once they saw I was undeterred, both Dad and Uncle Gordon made sure I not only went to the top ranked journalism school (Mizzou!), they donated camera gear to the cause. Immediately intense photo lessons began. I was locked in the darkroom until I learned how to roll film properly. We roved about town doing drive-by shootings (with a camera, yo) to practice speed focusing with my manual lens. I went to studio-lighting boot camp. And they dreamed up strange shooting locations like the city dump to sharpen my story finding skills. (Believe it or not, the dump is a photo rich environment.)

It worked. Not only did I graduate from college, I actually found a job doing what I loved. I’ve worked at a number of places over the years and now I’ve come full circle. Although Dad closed the studio a couple of years ago, I’m back to working with him on the next chapter in his journey, this website. I learned those childhood lessons well. We’ve got each other’s back. And at Beebower Productions, we really do like to keep it all in the family.

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