The E-Kit To The Rescue

E-Kit | Beebower Productions

For as long as I can remember it held a place of honor in the van.  It overflowed with tools, gadgets and a lot of zip ties.  That sucker easily weighed a ton.  However, we gave much honor and respect to the monstrous, gigantic, blue E-Kit.

My Dad’s emergency kit often saved the day when photographic disasters reared their ugly heads.  The calamities ranged from an unruly tree branch encroaching on a photo to an urgent need for a homemade flag. 

On our photo shoot at Madera Canyon in Arizona the sun shifted dramatically throughout the day.  We combated the pesky rays of light hitting our hummingbird set by placing multiple flags on light stands to block the light.  Eventually we ran out of flags. 

Broad-Billed Hummingbord at Mexican Cigar Bloom | Beebower Productions

The E-Kit rode to the rescue.  Within a few minutes I’d whipped up a solution to the problem by duct taping a cereal box to a light stand’s arm.  Dad got some great photos thanks to that little flag.

Dad’s photo shoots often took place in remote locations like ranches in the Rocky Mountains or the deserts of Arizona.  Stores and help were far, far away.  So Dad took everything he could imagine needing in the E-Kit.

“Sometimes a ‘fix’ from the E-Kit didn’t play a major part in a photo but we couldn’t have found the stuff on location,” Dad said.

Cherry Cobbler | Beebower Productions

The kit saved “Cherry Cobbler”.  Dad created this mouthwatering picture for his book “Legends of a Range Cook”.   To get an authentic feel to the photo he went on location and set up the campfire with the Dutch ovens and tools.  However, the wind kept blowing the tools around so Dad dug into the E-Kit and used some wire to lash them in place.

When Dad and his brother Gordon ran their commercial advertising studio, they had to deliver fantastic photos no matter what went wrong.   Both their reputation with art directors and their income rode on delivering despite what obstacles lurked around the corner.  After a short time in the business they became highly motivated to anticipate problems.  It required, however, becoming a jack-of-all-trades with a working knowledge of all sorts of tools.

Dad said, “You don’t know what’s going to go wrong and what you’ll need to fix it.  Basically you’re trying to make something be what it’s not to get the photo. But if you’ve done it right no one will be able to tell what you did either to fix the problem or put it back like you found it once you’ve got the photo.”

Stealing a Great Idea

My Uncle Gordon got the idea for the E-Kit at his first post-college job working for another professional photographer.  He observed this photographer not only used an E-Kit, he also bought bags for light stands, arms and other things in the commercial photo studio.  This made going on location a breeze because gear didn’t get tangled up in transport. 

Uncle Gordon talked to Dad and they decided to swipe both of these ideas.  As former Boy Scouts both guys loved the motto “Always Be Prepared”. 

Their first E-Kit was significantly smaller than the monstrosity I grew up knowing (and secretly hating when I had to try to pick it up). It proved to be inadequate for the amount of stuff they routinely needed on location shoots.

Meanwhile Dad observed one of the worker bees at another studio creating bags of all sorts using an industrial sewing machine and heavy-duty tarpaulin.  The material came in several thicknesses, all with bonded coating to make them waterproof.  Even better, the material wouldn’t rip.  You literally had to cut it to create a break in the fabric.

So Dad purchased an industrial sewing machine, tracked down the fabric and got started on a long career of bag making.  He designed the E-Kit bag with inner and outer pockets to make finding smaller items easier.  He left a large center well open well for items like staple guns and saber saws.  He also added heavy-duty straps for carrying the whole shebang. 

Heavy Duty Rottweiler

Problem solved.  Well, mostly.  As I mentioned the bag weighed about as much as a hearty, full grown Rottweiler.  Perhaps I exaggerated a bit.  Nope.  Now that I think of it, I’m certain it was in Rottweiler range. 

Back in the day it took two people to pick up the thing.  Dad, however, could heft it around by himself. Now Dad’s paired down the bag a bit since his commercial photography days are over, but it still weighs in at a chunky 40 pounds. 

Because the bag weighed so much, it mostly stayed in the van on location shoots.  If he needed something, Dad would send an assistant back to the vehicle to rummage through the E-Kit. 

When he was shooting “Evening Stage” he did send an assistant back to the van to get wire.  Dad needed to fasten flour sacks filled with Fuller’s earth to the backside of the stagecoach.   Each time a wheel made a rotation, it hit the bags releasing some of the stuffing and creating dust that made the sun’s rays really stand out. 

Evening Stage | Beebower Productions

Dad came up with this special effect on the fly.  Thanks to the E-Kit and a friend who had the flour sacks, everything came together to make one very believable piece of Old West art.

In making Western pictures like the stagecoach, Dad often sketched out his ideas before heading out to shoot.  One time he envisioned a winter photo in the corral at his friends’ ranch, but he knew he’d need extra lighting.  While still at the studio, he built a light with a strobe head inside to illuminate the model.  Then he headed to Colorado for the frigid photo session. 

Winter Pack Trip | Beebower Productions

Once on site, Dad secured the light to the fence with a drill.   Since this was a regular item in the E-Kit, Dad didn’t give the drill a second thought.  The photo turned out great and the ranch returned to normal by the end of the day.  Everyone was happy.

So a well-designed E-Kit can make or break a photo shoot.  It even helped Dad be a more creative artist as well as a problem solver.  He crafted “Buckboard Cowboy” by combining multiple photographs to make one Old West photo.  After shooting the cowboy driving the buckboard, Dad realized he’d need to add more dust coming up from the horses’ hooves to make it believable. 

Buckboard Cowboy B&W | Beebower Productions

While on location, Dad took a 2×4 from the E-Kit, wrapped it in blue screen fabric and stapled the fabric to the wood.  Then my mother hit the sand repeatedly while he shot the resulting “dust”.  The blue screen fabric allowed him to seamlessly cut out the dust in Photoshop and add it to the big picture composite.  It may have been a small part of the overall photo but that attention to detail combined with the other elements made a realistic photo for the viewers.

Blue Bag O’ Tricks

So you might be wondering what Dad keeps in that magic blue bag of tricks.  We’re going to tell you.  In fact, we’ve provided a complete list for you.  Just enter your email address and then download the list.

But first, one additional note.  Each time Dad goes on a shoot, he evaluates what he thinks he might need.  Anything not on the original list gets added to the bag.  For example, he’ll throw in a few garbage bags if the forecast looks especially wet.  He’ll add a shovel for super snowy locations.  You get the idea.  This is a list of basic supplies.  Tweak it to fit your individual situation.


Enter Your Name & Email To Download Your FREE E-Kit Check List

Extending Your Lens

Whooping Crane Taking Off | Beebower Productions

Getting Closer

If only.  If only I had a 800mm lens.  If only I could get a little closer. Who hasn’t uttered an “if only” while trying to take wildlife photos?  Photography can be frustrating when you don’t have the right equipment and your subject bolts at the drop of a hat.

We have a solution for you.  Purchase an extender (also called a teleconverter).  This piece of equipment fits between your camera and your lens, increasing the focal length of your lens. 

So, for example, if you have a 400mm lens and you use a 1.4x extender, you’ll shoot as if you had a 560mm lens.  Dad used just such a set up to capture his image of a whooping crane taking off. 

He was shooting from a boat and the captain got Dad as close to the bird as possible.  But it wasn’t close enough. Dad’s shot would have been weak without the extender because he couldn’t fill the frame without the extra focal length the extender provided.

Pretty cool, right?  Let’s take a look at the benefits of using an extender.  Please note:  We shoot with Canons so this review focuses strictly on Canon products.


    • Cost:  A Canon EF 400mm/f2.8 IS II USM lens runs about $10,500.  That’s a big hit to the bank account.  But the extender can ride to the rescue.  A Canon EF 300mm/f2.8 IS II USM lens runs $6,600.  Add the Canon Extender EF 1.4X III for $450 and you’ve got a 420mm lens for roughly $7,050.  You’ve just saved a couple thousand dollars.
    • Several Options:  Canon makes two extenders, the EF 1.4X III and the EF 2X III.  As mentioned, the 1.4X provides 1.4 times the focal length of your lens.  The 2X doubles the focal length.
    • Weight:  Compared to hauling an 8.5-pound, 800mm lens around, the Canon extenders are lightweight.
    • Quality of Image: Dad ran extensive tests with the 1.4X and 2X before going into the field.  He found both the 1.4X and 2X extenders produced clean, crisply focused images.  The quality of the image really depends upon having a super sharp lens before adding the high quality extender.


Sound Great?  Here are a few things to consider

    • Compatibility:  Not all lenses and cameras work with all extenders.  You should check the fine print for compatibility before purchasing.  We actually recommend you purchase the same brand as your lens for the simple reason the manufacturer designed the two pieces to work together.  You’ll get a better quality photo.
    • Loss of Light:  You do lose some light coming into the lens when you use an extender.   As a result, you drop approximately one f-stop for the 1.4x extender and two f-stops for the 2X extender. 
    • For example, if you use a 300mm/f.28 lens with the 2X, your f-stop is reduced to f/5.6.  This can be a challenging factor when shooting a moving subject in low light.  That doesn’t mean you have to stop shooting.  Just have a “Plan B” in case the extender prevents optimal shooting.
  • Auto Focus: With older gear, you may loose the autofocus element of the lens if the maximum f-stop drops below f/5.6.  Newer and higher end cameras and lenses don’t have this problem. You can always manually focus if your lens goes on strike.

The extender also may slow the focusing speed of the lens.  Dad noticed a slightly slower speed of tracking with the 2X compared to a regular Canon 400mm/f2.8 lens.  However he was able to capture a great shot of moving sandhill cranes using the 2X and auto focus without any problem.

If you decide to purchase an extender, definitely buy the highest quality you can afford.  That goes for the lenses too.  If you skimp on the gear, you will, as Dad likes to say, pay dearly in the field.  You certainly won’t be happy with the results when you get home and download your photos.  The cheaper optics have issues with focusing speed and image quality.

Dad’s had a great deal of success using the 1.4X combined with his 400mm.  During his shoot at the Martin Refuge, he nailed a number of bird photos including this one of a green jay eating breakfast.

The key to success with extenders is thoroughly testing your equipment before you leave home.  Understanding how the extenders work, their limitations and possible solutions will save you a lot of grief in the field.

“Put it together and don’t wait until you’re in the boondocks with rattlesnakes.  Test it in your nice, cool air conditioned house, “ Dad says.  “It doesn’t matter if it costs $600 or $6,000.  If you don’t know how to use it, it doesn’t do you any good.”

So learn all about this handy tool and leave the “if onlys” at home.  You can start making images you love with the help of extenders.  You might just be too close to your subject this time.

Pack a One-Two Punch

Black-chinned Hummingbird and Autumn Sage bloom

Shooting Wildlife

When you’re shooting wildlife, you need all the help you can get.  You’re dealing with a moving subject that’s leery of humans, creatively composing your shot in your head and making sure all of the technical stuff like f-stop is right.  In addition to all of that, you need to pump some light into your subject to open up the dark areas around the face.  That means using a flash.


Visual Echoes Better Beamer Flash Extender | Beebower Productions

Most often when you’re shooting wildlife, you’re using a long lens between 300mm-600mm.  The light from your average flash isn’t going to travel that distance on it’s own.  As a result your picture often lacks any fill flash at all.  That can turn a potentially great shot into a terrible shot.  But the Visual Echoes Better Beamer Flash Extender pared with Canon’s Speedlite 580EX II packs a whopping one-two punch in getting light on your subject no matter the distance.

The Better Beamer gets the light to travel further by concentrating it through a fresnel lens held in place by two long black arms that are secured to the flash by Velcro.  The light travels right down the barrel of the lens and to the subject.  

Dad likes to attach his Speedlite to the Wimberley flash bracket that in turn is attached to his Wimberley head plus side kick on a Gitzo tripod.  He uses an off-camera flash cord to connect the flash and camera.

This has been a winning combination on Dad’s hummingbird shoots.  He can give the birds some room at the feeders or flowers, but still highlight the amazing colors of their feathers with his flash from a distance.  Of course he also uses multiple flashes at different angles on each side of the bird, but the Better Beamer is crucial to lighting up the front of the birds.

Beyond the obvious benefit of shedding light in dark areas, the Speedlite and Better Beamer combo have other advantages.  Because the light is concentrated, the flash uses less power than it would minus the Better Beamer.  This is a major plus when in the field shooting.  The flash refreshes faster between shots and requires fewer battery changes.  That means Dad has a better chance of nailing a great picture.  

Side Note:  Even though the flash is using less power, Dad doesn’t want to run out of juice in the field especially if he’s in a photo rich environment.  He uses a Canon battery pack with each flash.  It gives him more shooting time between battery changes.

Green Jay with Worm | Beebower Productions

The Beamer also allows you to get more f-stop and/or shutter speed than before because the light is concentrated on your subject.  This can be critical in capturing details like feather patterns on a bird or freezing a running elk.  Dad was able to capture feather and worm details on a green jay and its breakfast thanks to the extra f-stop from the Speedlite with the Better Beamer.  The light also filled in the facial details of the bird.

Another benefit with the Beamer is that the entire unit can be assembled in mere minutes.  Whip out the flash, attach the arms with Velcro and slide the lens in place.  You’re done.  Each component pulls apart and can be stored easily in a Ziploc bag.  

The entire Better Beamer weighs next to nothing.  Literally.  The flash weighs a lot more than the Better Beamer.  If you’re hiking a good distance to photograph rare birds, you’ll really appreciate this feature.  Really what photographer wouldn’t want less weight in his camera bag?

You may be wondering how the wildlife reacts to the intense light coming from the Better Beamer.  Dad’s been using the Beamer for about 8 years and he’s never had a problem with birds or other animals running away from the flash.  In fact, he says it’s almost as if nothing happened.  

How does he know?  Dad’s seen “repeat birds” after shooting in one location for a while.  If the bird has a distinct personality or unusual physical marking, he recognizes them.   He figures the duration of the flash is so short it must not upset them.  The camouflage ghillie suit he wears and the Lenscoat camera camouflage might play into that too.  After all, it’s what they don’t see that’s just as important as what they do see.  Nonetheless, the Speedlite/Beamer combo is great for the photographer and the wildlife.

The Details

Have we sold you yet on this extender and flash combo?  Then you’re really gonna love the price!  The Better Beamer sells for about $40 at places like and B&H Photo.  That’s a bargain considering how many options it gives you when shooting long distances.

The flash, on the other hand, will set you back about $550.  But the old saying “you get what you pay for” holds true here.  To capture stellar wildlife photos, you need stellar gear.

If you do decide to purchase the Better Beamer Dad recommends running tests at home before heading into the field.  Use a door or a wall as your subject.  Shoot pictures using the flash extender with different lenses.  Study how the circle of illumination on the door changes with the different lenses and distances from the wall.  This will give you a good idea of what to expect when shooting real subjects.

Dad also suggests taking lots of batteries and a back up flash plus another extender.  You never know when a bear might dig through your camera gear looking for the granola bar you stashed inside.  The gear might not survive.  Of course, you might drop the flash and have similar results.  Dad’s motto:  Always be prepared so you don’t miss the perfect photo opportunity.

So to sum it all up:  You can’t go wrong with the Visual Echoes Better Beamer and Canon Speedlite 580 EX II combo.  They pack a hefty one-two punch that will have you singing their praises for a long time to come.

From Capture to Canvas | Our Top 3 Post-Production Tools

Buckboard Cowboy | Beebower Productions


Adobe Photoshop first hit the markets in the early 1990s.  At the time, Dad was shooting film and paying a retoucher to correct any problems in his photos.  (See my earlier blog post about Photoshop here)   His advertising clients were happy, but Dad saw the writing on the wall.  He knew he needed to learn how to use Photoshop A.S.A.P.  

The photo industry was changing quickly. After exhausting my short supply of Photoshop knowledge Dad signed up for an actual Photoshop class where he learned more than the basics of retouching.  

Photoshop did have a steep learning curve, though.  There were and are so many tools and tricks that Dad spent hours practicing on photos. He also had to buy better computers that could handle the enormous RAM requirements from Photoshop.  But it was worth it.  His newfound knowledge and tools kept the clients coming back for more shots and gave him a competitive edge. 

When one of his commercial advertising clients wanted to shoot a patterned couch for an ad, Dad solved the nasty moray pattern problem with Photoshop.  Prior to Photoshop there wasn’t much you could do to eliminate moray patterns that were caused by a combination of the lens and film issues.   With Photoshop, you could add a slight blur that left the product still in focus, but eliminated the moray.  Problem solved.  Everyone was happy.

Photoshop saved photographers time and money because they didn’t have to reshoot or pay retouchers.  But Photoshop also opened other doors for Dad in his Western shooting.    

Dad had lots of old West photo ideas floating around in his head.  Many of them required intense cowboy action in scenic locations.  Sometimes the two parts didn’t work together due to photo restrictions at the scenic location or just the expense of transporting cowboys and animals to the location.

Photoshop changed everything.  It gave Dad freedom he hadn’t experienced before.  He could shoot pieces of a photo and then blend those pieces together in Photoshop to create one image.  Dad was no longer was limited to the traditional one-shot photo.

Take, for example, his photo Buckboard Cowboy.  Dad photographed the sand dunes in Utah, the tumbleweed in Tucson, the sky and the mountains in various Arizona locations.  Then he shot Red Wolverton and his buckboard at the Wolverton Mountain Movie Ranch in southern Arizona.  

Red was actually driving down a sandy hill he created at his ranch. Dad merged all of the pieces to create a dramatic buckboard ride.  The image floating around in Dad’s head now came to life in a way not possible before.

You can see that Photoshop had a major impact on Dad’s photography.  Coming from the commercial advertising background, if Dad could “dream” up a photo he could create it in Photoshop.

So what are the down sides to Photoshop?  As I mentioned it does require a significant time commitment to learn Photoshop.  But it allows artists to create amazing images, control color, sharpen a photo and do a myriad of other things.

Another negative is really more of a caution.  You can over do Photoshop.  There are so many whiz-bang things Photoshop can do, it’s easy to go overboard.  You know what I mean.  Some photos just look fake because the artist used over-the-top color or didn’t blend the layers leaving a halo around the subject.  

Dad tries never to loose sight of the point of the photo.  In his Buckboard Cowboy image the point was to convey an intense ride in a precarious situation.  Adding more flying sand around the buckboard might be cool, but adding too much of a good thing can be a distraction from the focus of the photo.

A final down side to Photoshop is the cost.  Until recently, you purchased the software outright for about $600-700.  Adobe now sells Photoshop as a monthly subscription.  It can range anywhere from $10-$70 a month depending on the package you pick.  Some photographers aren’t too happy about this.  Dad and I still use our older versions of Photoshop because they still work.  

For the pro or semi serious photographer, Adobe makes Photoshop Lightroom.  This program contains many of the tools that the regular version of Photoshop offers, but not the full package.  A lot of professional photographers use Lightroom to manage large quantities of images and do basic editing on location.  Lightroom runs anywhere from $76-135.

For the beginning or hobby photographer another option is Adobe Elements.  Elements allows you to do a nice range of photo corrections: manage color, correct red eye, stitch photos together and move objects within the photo.  It runs about $60.

Neither Dad nor I have used Lightroom or Elements; however, the reviews we’ve read suggest both programs are a pretty good investment.  We’ve never regretted the money spent on Photoshop.  To get the skinny on all three programs visit

Longhorn Roundup | Beebower Productions

Ultimatte KnockOut

Dad loves Ultimatte KnockOut.  It cuts objects out of photos like greased lightening and it leaves no clues behind.  It even takes the shadows behind the objects into the new composite.  Dad first learned of Ultimatte in the late 1990s.  Like many of Dad’s tools, Ultimatte harkens back to the movie industry.

According to the Ulimatte website, “Petro Vlahos is a Hollywood special effects pioneer who developed the color-difference blue screen process for the Motion Picture Research Council…today Ultimatte users are able to create completely seamless composites which preserve fine details such as hair, smoke, mist, motion blur and shadows…The total realism achieved allows for the creation of scenes that would otherwise be too dangerous, impossible and impractical.”


Longhorn Roundup Blue Screen | Beebower Productions

Sounds like a program after Dad’s own heart!  Ultimatte combined with Photoshop allowed Dad to create some amazing photos like Longhorn Roundup.  Dad shot the cowboy action sequence in this composite photo at a ranch in Colorado.  He shot inside a corral, but 16’ blue screen panels surrounded the entire corral. The blue screen makes it easy for Ultimatte, functioning as a plug-in to Photoshop, to cut out the cowboy and cattle seamlessly.  Dad then placed these characters in an image he shot at Big Bend National Park in Texas.

Ultimatte really shines when you need to cut out a subject with intricate details like a hummingbird wing.  It quickly and accurately creates a selection in half the time it would take Dad in Photoshop.

Broad-Billed Hummingbird at Mexican Cigar Bloom | Beebower Productions

Dad shot a black-chinned hummingbird against a green screen background.  Ultimatte cut the bird and flowers out quickly.  Then Dad dropped a more pleasing background into the image using layers and blending tools in Photoshop.  This would have been tedious project without Ultimatte.

When Dad first started using Ultimatte about 15 years ago, the software out shone Photoshop’s selection capabilities.  But in the last couple of years, Photoshop caught up to Ultimatte.  There’s no need to buy two programs unless you own an older version of Photoshop. 

The down side to Ultimatte is two-fold.  You must have a computer with an enormous amount of RAM to run both Photoshop and Ultimatte.  When he bought the program years ago Dad added an additional 10 gigs to his Macintosh.  So that’s an added cost.

Second, Ultimatte isn’t cheap.  The plug-in runs about $700.  That’s an additional $700 beyond Photoshop.  Dad, however, has easily made back that investment with the images he’s sold over the years.  For the beginning to semi-serious photographer we’d recommend just purchasing the latest version of Photoshop for one whopping payout of about $120-$700 depending on the options you choose.

To learn more about Ultimatte Knockout visit their website at

Perfect Resize

As with many of his tools, Dad discovered Perfect Resize when one of his commercial advertising clients need a small photo blown up large for an ad campaign.

Photoshop is a great tool, but if you take a small file and try to enlarge it, a couple of things happen.  You loose sharpness and you gain noise (strange graininess created by the software “guessing” what should be in the extra spaces).  This isn’t Photoshop’s fault.  It’s just a natural result of taking something small and making it large.

Nonetheless your photo looks less than stellar.  Enter Perfect Resize.  Dad decided to give it a try because he had nothing to loose in his situation.  It was nothing short of amazing.  Dad was happy.  The client was happy.  The enlarged image looked just as sharp and crisp as the original photo.  Dad had a new tool in his arsenal.

So how does it work?  According to the folks at On One Software, it contains fractal-based interpolation algorithms that create the enlargement data.  What that mumbo jumbo really means is you can blow it up really big without loosing sharpness or detail.

As Dad said, “I don’t know what tricks they have in their bag, but it really works!”

The program functions as a plug-in to Photoshop.  You simply open the image in Photoshop, choose “File” and “Automate” and then “Perfect Resize”.  The program then takes you to the Perfect Resize screen where you select the width and height you’d like.  Hit apply and you’re done.

Broad-Billed Hummingbird at Mexican Cigar Bloom | Beebower Productions

We use Perfect Resize to make photos for our clients everyday.  A great example is The Great Horse Chase.  It was shot on 35mm film and the Photoshop file is a mere 10”x18”.  However, we offer the image as a whopping 30”x40” canvas wrap.  The details are crisp and sharp despite the giant jump in size.  That’s all thanks to Perfect Resize.

There is one thing to keep in mind if you buy the software.  Perfect Resize won’t make your images sharper than you shot them.  It just prevents fuzziness from creeping in as the image is enlarged.  So you still need to shoot for technical excellence in the field.

Perfect Resize is much kinder to your pocket book than Photoshop.  You can buy the latest version for a mere $150.  It also works with Photoshop Lightroom and Elements.

You can get the details at

So there you have it, three of Dad’s favorite pieces of postproduction magic. 

What tools have you found that help process your photos?

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

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