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Canon 90D – Does it fit in your wildlife kit?

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A stiched panorama using a Canon 90D and Canon 18-55mm kit lens
What is the use of a cropped sensor body for a wildlife photographer? Let us look into it from 2 aspects.
 
Are you an amateur photographer looking for a camera body with good features in the budget segment? There is a whole range of Canon APSC (cropped sensor) cameras across different price segments you can opt for. It all started with the Canon bodies like the Canon 50D and the Canon 7D which were perfect for wildlife photography because of the built and high frames per second. The low light performance of these cameras was a cause of concern and then came to Canon 7D Mark II with some more advanced features.
 
Once you migrate to higher end camera bodies and enter the 5D and 1D segments do you still need for a cropped sensor body? In my opinion you do. Here is my take on this on the basis of my experience with various Canon bodies in the past 12-13 years.
 
From the 40D, 50D and the 7D I used all the Canon cropped censor bodies and as an amateur photographer I was happily making use of these semi professional cameras with the old version of the Canon 100-400mm IS1 which was my staple kit for years. High ISO performance was a pain point but I got used to living with it and experimented with photographic techniques like use of slow shutter speeds to tackle such scenarios. 
 
My next step was a migration to the Canon 1D Mark IV which again was the top end flagship model but a cropped sensor body again (1.3x cropped). I had started using prime lenses and started loving the combination. For the next 4-5 years I was married to the 1DM4 and then migrated further to the Canon 5D Mark III and later on to the Canon 1Dx and the Canon 1Dx Mark II. Though Canon kept on coming out with more and more technological marvels in the form of these full frames but there was one camera body which was a permanent fixture in my kit – the Canon 1D Mark IV. Do you wonder why?
 
Being an excellent cropped sensor body for me the 1DM4 was my tool to get better reach whenever it was needed. It acted as an additional tele converter which I used time and again was shooting close portraits or getting that perfect composition which needed that extra bit of focal length. The 10 fps and the decent low light performance was an added bonus.
 
However with the every evolving technology I was constantly looking for a 1DM4 replacement in the past few years. In 2014 Canon upgraded the 7D with the 7D Mark II. I was still not confident of letting go of my 1DM4 as I wasnt confident if the 7DM2 would fit into that shoe. Hence I continued my journey with various full frames as and when they were launched and the 1DM4 still occupied that same old slot in my camera bag.
 
Recently I had the opportunity to use the Canon EOS 90D. A cropped sensor body again which was built on two key features – focus and speed. I straight away put the camera into a rigid field test in hazy weather conditions in Manas National Park in Assam. The light was poor and the opportunity was perfect for me to answer some of my questions pertaining to this new cropped sensor body by Canon. Here are some of my observations: 
 
  • 45 cross type focus points – The moment I looked through the view finder of the Canon 90D the huge gamut of 45 cross type focus points which occupied a substantial area of the view finder caught my immediate attention. Composition and focusing becomes fun with this wide spread of focus points and I had a great time composing my subjects in various parts of the frame
  • 32.5 megapixels – I am not a fan of cropping images and strongly believe in in-camera compositions. A camera packed with megapixels means that you get better details and that was the pick of the features for me. Even if you have to crop up 15-20% of the image you have enough data in the image to make a completely useable image.
  • ISO performance – All cameras perform well in good light conditions. The challenge is when the light is tricky. In Manas I got the opportunity to test out this camera in two different light situations. A backlit capped langur and the results were satisfactory. I then encountered a herd of elephants and in hazy conditions I photographed this herd at various ISOs ranging from ISO 800 to ISO 1600. The noise at ISO 1250 and ISO 1600 was perfectly manageable. 
  • The Flip Screen – While shooting from a vehicle I usually struggle to take a low angle shot. A lot of times I am seen hanging out from the window at times with the camera attached to a monopod and a remote trigger to take wide perspectives of subjects close to the vehicle. I do get the results but its purely a hit and trial technique and the composition does go for a toss. With a flip screen life becomes easier as you do get to see the composition and frame when your eye is off the view finder and this feature was very handy.
  • Focusing & Speed – I refer back to the capped langur troop that was moving in thickets with the sun hitting their backs. The limited openings in the tree meant that the camera needed to be fast in catching the focus and the burst firing at 10 fps was adequate enough for catching the fine moments on the tree. 
So would the Canon 90D find an entry into my camera kit and would I be finally bidding farewell to my trusted partner – 1DM4? I guess I will have to do it with a heavy heart. I feel the Canon 90D is a body which would perfect for terrains and projects where one needs reach and the cropped sensor stacked with heavy duty prime lenses can make that fine difference. The perfect examples are snow leopard expeditions or a birding expedition. The 4K videos with slow motion features also makes it an ideal filming cameras for documenting wildlife.
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Asian Elephants in Manas National Park. Canon 90D and Canon 100-400mm IS2. ISO 800, f5.6, 1/400
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Asian Elephants in Manas National Park. Canon 90D and Canon 100-400mm IS2. ISO 1250, f5.6, 1/400
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Asian Elephants in Manas National Park. Canon 90D and Canon 100-400mm IS2. ISO 2500, f5.6, 1/500
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A capped langur in Manas National Park. Shot on Canon 90D and Canon 100-400mm IS2. ISO 400, f5.6, 1/640

Maximize your field productivity

Every day as I accompany photographers on the field, the sight of a tiger makes cameras go ballistic as triggers are pressed with sheer madness. Sitting in the hotel room when I see the days work of people the hard disks are full of similar looking images and then the ‘I wish’ list begins… I wish I had shot like this… I wish I had done this better…

I always wonder that when you as a photographer pick your camera to shoot say a spotted deer a lot of thought goes behind that image. You take the pain to place the deer properly in the frame, you experiment with compositions. Why does that happen? It is just because you consider the deer as a subject. Yes subjects like tigers are rare to find but the moment you get a control on your mind and start treating them as subjects you will end up maximizing your field productivity and make best use of the opportunities that nature presents in front of you.

Have you ever tried pondering on the following points?

  • Removing your eye from the view finder to see the subject with your naked eyes and scan for elements which can be added or removed from the frame?
  • You may be using the biggest prime lens in the world that will give you a razor sharp image. However are those sharp images needed every time? How about experimenting with varied focal lengths to create 4-5 different images of a moment as simple as a tiger sitting under a tree.
  • Reading the light and pre-visualizing images for a certain light situation. You may end up forgoing some images but you will be better prepared for that particular lighting scenario

I got hold of the new and revamped Canon 100-400mm IS2 and rested my Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS2. I used it extensively in Ranthambhore throughout last week. Here is an example from Ranthambhore where a tiger sitting under a tree was shot in 5 different ways as varied focal lengths.

Krishna (T19) female cub shot using Canon 1Dx and Canon 100-400mm IS2

Krishna (T19) female cub shot using Canon 1Dx and Canon 100-400mm IS2


Canon 5DM3 – A welcome change

Just lost a feather

I have always been in my comfort zone when it comes to my equipments. For the past few years comfort zone for me signified bodies like the Canon 1DM4 and Canon 7D and along with my Canon 500mm f4 and other variable zoom telephotos like the Canon 70-200mm f2.8 and the Canon 24-70mm f2.8 etc. I was pretty vary of moving out of this comfort zone. Since wildlife is something I breath in and out on a daily basis this for me was by far the best combination and I was super happy with the combination… And then Canon launched the 5DM3. Despite the massive hysteria around this launch I was unperturbed and continued my daily field activities with this combo. My stereotype perceptions were that I needed range and cropped censors give me that. I need speed in the form of fps and my current set of bodies give me that.

However over the last one and a half years I had been closely analyzing the results of my Canon 7D and I was not particularly happy with the details and the image quality of the body. The low light performance was good but not great specially for me since I shoot more of big cats and their activity is on the higher side in early mornings and late evenings. Even in good light the results of my 7D were no where in comparison to the 1DM4 which Canon India had been regularly giving me for use from time to time.

Play time @ Bandhavgarh

So post multiple discussions with our friends at Canon, I finally decided to take the 5DM3 plunge. Fortunately a photographer friend of mine had already started using the 5DM3 and it was a good enough push for me. In May I went to Bandhavgarh for my first shoot armed with the new 5DM3. I was using my 1DM4 on the 500mm and the 70-200mm on the 5DM3. It was a critical project and I was being cautious with the combination as I didn’t want to risk using a new body I was not familiar with on a lens which would be majorly in use for this shoot.

A few shots with the 5DM3 in this 10 day shoot and the results were good but since I didn’t use it extensively I was not in a position to test it properly. Most of the images I created were in good light. One major change which I welcomed with open arms were the 61 AF points including the 41 cross type AF points for f4 lenses and the 5 dual diagonal AF points for the 2.8 lenses. With the AF points widely spread across the viewfinder framing and composition became very easy and this feature was fun to use (infact I found the spread better than the 1DM4)

The Golden Mahaseer

Within the next 10 days I was ready for my second shoot with the 5DM3. The destinations were again 2 prime tiger parks – Tadoba and Bandhavgarh. This time I was more comfortable using the 5DM3 with the 500mm f4. It was 5:30pm in the evening in Bandhavgarh and 3 tiger cubs walked out against a lush green backdrop and played like maniacs in front of my lens. This was a true test for the 5DM3.

With the light fading every moment I started pushing the ISO up from 500 to 640 to 800 to 1000 to 1600 right up to 2000 (at 6:15pm). I had already done a bit of ISO testing for the 5DM3 in Tadoba prior to this because of which I was taking this calculated risk. The results were outstanding. Infact I don’t think I could have taken this tiger series without the 5DM3.

Home of the elephant by Shivang Mehta (shivang-photography) on 500px.com
Home of the elephant by Shivang Mehta

Here is my take on the 6fps and where it is an apt speed for shooting wildlife. Having used bodies that shoot at 8fps and 10fps I thought deeper into this. If you are going for a typical 4-5 day shoot to any forest, how many times do you actually make use of the 10 or 8 fps on the field. During my flat 20 day trip to Bandhavgarh in March/April I was armed with 1DM4. I fired the 1DM4 at full burst hardly twice. The tiger cub sequence which I had taken with my 5DM3 was full of super fast actions as the subject were continuously air borne for 45 odd minutes. I have hardly missed out on any of the action because of the 6fps.

As a matter of fact during my recent trip to Bhadra Tiger Reserve I shot fast and swift river terns gliding over the water level and electric speed for taking a sip. The 5DM3 helped me capture this moment highly effectively. (View River Tern Hysteria for details) So essentially if I am using the right set of prime lenses (500 f4, 400 f2.8 or the 300 f2.8), the 5DM3 does make a lethal combo.

And for first time full frame migratory photographers like me, just get hold of a 16-35 f2.8 lens and explore landscape photography with this latest marvel from Canon!