Welcome Spring

I can't believe we're a week away from flipping the calendar to May, and here I am finally posting about spring. The fickle weather in Washington, DC has limited my photographic opportunities, but with two nice days in a row, I grabbed the camera and headed out to see the first signs of spring.

My destination this week was an old favorite - a site I haven't visited in years - Huntley Meadows. Located in the middle of the bustling suburbs outside Washington, DC, this is an unlikely location to find some of the best wetlands.... but unlikely can be good!

I started my day shooting 4x5 large format film (more to come on that in a future post). In other words, I was carrying the one camera that is basically useless for all types of wildlife photography! My goal was to focus on black and white abstracts, and every bird and mammal in the sanctuary must have gotten the memo. Never have there been so many wonderful photographic opportunities... clearly the wildlife knew I was without the right camera for the job. 

Frustrated that the wildlife was practically posing in mockery of my camera predicament, I went back and got my Nikon D850 and Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens (modified to Nikon mount) and returned to see if I could get the last laugh. Indeed, I found many of the same subjects remained very cooperative. 

I may have taken 200 photographs of this blue heron through the course of the morning. He was incredibly friendly and got close enough that I had to start backing up!

I may have taken 200 photographs of this blue heron through the course of the morning. He was incredibly friendly and got close enough that I had to start backing up!

The natural camouflage is very well done; a number of folks walked past and never noticed the bird hiding in the bushes. Of course it helps to spot these guys when you have a 400mm lens....

The natural camouflage is very well done; a number of folks walked past and never noticed the bird hiding in the bushes. Of course it helps to spot these guys when you have a 400mm lens....

These guys have this funny jerky movement, so I had to shoot fast to get lucky and catch them mid-movement.

These guys have this funny jerky movement, so I had to shoot fast to get lucky and catch them mid-movement.

So focused. So attentive.

So focused. So attentive.

One of these sticks is not a stick.

One of these sticks is not a stick.

I wasn't the only one who looked outside and noticed spring had finally arrived.

I wasn't the only one who looked outside and noticed spring had finally arrived.

Long Lens Shooting with the Leica SL

The Leica SL was clearly designed with outdoor, nature, landscape and travel photographers in mind; the abundant weather sealing, GPS. and high-speed shooting were not put into the camera for studio photographers. 

As a landscape photographer, I routinely have use for a telephoto lens. So today I'll discuss the long lens setup I use with the Leica SL.

Using the vehicle as a blind while shooting in Grand Teton

Using the vehicle as a blind while shooting in Grand Teton

For starters, I do not own the Leica 90-280mm lens made for the SL system, much as I would like to. The reason for this is multi-fold:

  1. The Leica 90-280mm, while well made, is overpriced at $6,400. Every other camera manufacturer has a similar telephoto lens offering (normally in the 70-200mm range), and those lenses generally retail for $3,000 or less, with plenty of used options coming in around $1,500.
  2. Competitor lenses, which are already less than half the price, also are faster. The Leica lens only musters f/4 at full zoom, while the Nikon and Canon counterparts are f/2.8 through the entire focal length of the lens. 
  3. In Canon-land, you could buy a 400mm f/4 lens for the same price as the 90-280mm from Leica. In Nikon-land, that same money would buy you a 600mm f/4 lens and still have $2k leftover to spend on a trip! The reality is that for the money they are charging, this lens needs to either be as fast (or faster) as the competition, or it needs to have more range.
  4. The 280mm focal length is just at the short end of what most wildlife photographers would consider a reasonable starting point for their lenses. Most wildlife shooters will carry a 400mm or longer lens.
Bull elk in Yellowstone. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 with 2x teleconverter. 

Bull elk in Yellowstone. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 with 2x teleconverter. 

As it stands currently (October 2017), I am pretty miffed with the rate at which Leica has released lenses for the SL system. Three lens offerings in the two years since the camera was released is weak. Nothing wider than 24mm is weak.

Instead of making a 50mm prime for the SL, Leica should have expedited the production of the 16-35mm lens. There a number of 50mm lenses available on the market for Leica M mount is incredible, so there wasn't a dire need to release that lens first....but that's beyond our discussion here.

Frustrated that I have been left to jerry-rig a long lens solution together, I turned to a manufacturer who knows a lot about how to make great long glass....Canon. For decades, Canon has been a leader in the long lens market, and there are thousands of used lenses to select from. 

IMG_2263.JPG

I happened to find myself a very old 400mm f/2.8 bazooka of a lens, and had it modified to accept a Leica R mount. I call this lens a bazooka because it has to weigh upwards of 25lbs! There is no autofocus or image stabilization - it's just a big, old, and solid piece of glass. Because it lacks some of the more modern touches, the Canon 400mm f/2.8 bazooka was pretty affordable - I paid around $800 for the lens with conversion. 

Unfortunately, because it is a bazooka, it's not terribly portable, and I need to have a hefty tripod solution to use it. But that is okay - with the sack of cash saved by opting for this lens, I was able to afford a nice Wimberly head for my tripod to resolve that issue.

You lookin' at me? Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8

You lookin' at me? Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8

L1020348.jpg

The nice thing is that this lens is extremely sharp, and the EVF of the Leica SL makes it easy to manually focus and track a moving subject. I have now used this lens in Yellowstone for a number of wildlife images, and also used it to shoot the 2017 solar eclipse. In both applications, the lens has done a wonderful job resolving details. And when 400mm isn't enough, I also have a Leica R mount 2x teleconverter that makes the lens an 800mm f/4 lens. Not too shabby!

IMG_2706.jpg

As you can see from the snapshot of images included, the Canon 400mm f/2.8 renders beautifully and is incredibly sharp. When supported properly, I am very impressed by the sharpness that can be achieved at f/2.8. I have used the lens for a few landscape images as well, and am very pleased with the results - I don't know if it's good as the 90-280mm lens, but at the price, the results are spectacular. Remember, this isn't a cheap $800 lens -- this lens used to cost $10k, but since it is a few generations old, the lens price has dropped significantly while the quality remains unchanged.

Pronghorn in the snow. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens

Pronghorn in the snow. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens

Two young deer graze in Grand Teton National Park.

Two young deer graze in Grand Teton National Park.

Have you adopted another long lens for your Leica SL? Or did you purchase the Leica 90-280mm lens? Leave me a comment and let me know how you solved this problem!

Quick Shot: Frozen Geese

I'd been hiking my favorite local spot, Mason Neck State Park, when creativity struck and I found myself looking at one of my least photographed subjects..... Canadian Geese! I rarely photograph Canadian Geese - they're such a common subject and have never excited my creativity - until yesterday.

I'd been out looking for eagles and other raptors, but towards the end of the hike I walked up to the edge of the Occoquan Bay to watch sunset. I was watching some water fowl fishing amongst the ice floating in the bay as the sun dipped behind a cloud. As that happened, the scene went from a washed out "meh" to being absolutely spectacularly bright yellow. I have rarely seen the sun make the water so brilliantly bright! I decided the best way to capture the scene was to get two silhouettes of the geese feeding amongst the ice chunks.

Of course, that's easier said than done - I had to wait for both birds to offer a profile view because they just looked like dark blobs on the water when they were facing me! It was a challenge to juggle the brilliant light with birds that weren't exactly cooperating, but I was patient. When the bird on the right turned for just a second I fired away and got this shot..... and good thing too! Just a minute later, the sun had emerged back out and the bright colors were gone. 

Photography is often a waiting game to get the perfect lighting or scene and when the moment is just right, we've got to be ready to take advantage of it! As photographers, we refer to that moment in time when everything is perfect as the decisive moment - I think I got it this time!

Shot with my Nikon 80-400mm on the Nikon D800. Minor edits done in Adobe Photoshop CC. If you like this photograph, you can purchase a copy as a limited edition on my website.

DSC7371_WEB.jpg

Best of 2013 Rewind: Alaskan Wildlife

I'm continuing my "Best of 2013 Rewind" with some Alaskan wildlife - specifically the marine animals that I spent almost two weeks photographing during a coastal Alaska trip in May 2013. 

Alaska has incredibly rich marine biology and it was a real treat to spend that much time watching whales, seals, eagles, goats, and birds. You really can't appreciate these animals through your television - the personal encounters in Alaska were really a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

You could argue that this photo of a pile of stellar sea lions isn't my best wildlife shot, but it's certainly amongst my favorites. For starters, if I hadn't told you these were sea lions, you could tell just by how high they crawl up this rock - seals have short front fins, which means they can't climb nearly as well as their sea lion cousins. If this was a video, you could also tell the difference as these sea lions are noisy!

These are wild stellar sea lions - to get this photo we chartered a boat to take us into Resurrection Bay outside Seward, Alaska. We had to be very quiet while we stalked the sea lions - any loud sounds could send them plunging into the water. We also had to be careful not to frighten them unnecessarily - a jump into the water to avoid a boat could unintentionally send them into the waiting mouths of their predators! The approach was long and slow, but we finally got into a position where we could really appreciate the beauty and size of these amazing animals. 

The trip through Alaska was a real treat and I'd highly recommend it to anyone else looking to immerse themselves in LOTS of wildlife! Certainly on my 2013 highlight reel!

I took TONS of wildlife photos while I was in Alaska, and posted them to a video on YouTube. If you want to see the rest of the collection, check out the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvOddp6EYgo

_DSC9097-copy.jpg

The Best of 2013: Assateague Horses

In July, I headed out to Assateague Island National Seashore, which is a barrier island on the coast of Maryland and Virginia. The island is most famous for it's wild horses that roam the island, but the marshlands were certainly a high point for bird photography.

I assumed that getting good photographs of the horses would be a bit tricky-- I presumed that a wild horse wasn't going to waltz over to me and pose. So I knew that every time I saw a horse, I had to try and take some photos to maximize my chances of getting a great shot.

Turns out, it was very easy to photograph these horses. They were all over the island!

The first night we were there was spent exploring the island to scope out our best places for photography the next morning. We'd found a nice marshland to setup for bird photography and were starting to head back to mainland for dinner. As we approached the exit to the park, I saw a herd of horses on the top of the sand dune, walking down to the beach.

Change of plans! We parked the car and ran to the beach where a group of horses were walking along the waterfront. Even better.... the sun was starting to set, casting a nice soft light against the horses. 

This photograph was probably my favorite from that evening. The lighting across her hair was perfect and I love the look in her eye. Turned out that this would not only become one of my easiest photo shoots this year, it would also produce some of my best work of the year.

_DSC3368 copy.jpg

I also made a video titled "The Residents of Assateague Island" which can be seen on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-8v1K-0-D4

Video: The Residents of Assateague Island

Join Kristen from Scenic Traverse Photography as she takes you to the Maryland side of the Assateague Island National Seashore and introduces you to the wild ponies and birds that call the island home. 

Assateague Island is a coastal island spanning Maryland and Virginia. Although most famous for the wild ponies and horses, this island is also home to a wide variety of aquatic birds. 

Be sure to visit ScenicTraverse.com to see and purchase the photos seen in this video. You can also "Like" Scenic Traverse on Facebook!