Comings and Goings

Two Harris's antelope squirrels look out from their rocky perch along the Vaquero Trail in the Brown's Ranch section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I first learned of the Harris’s antelope squirrel from a sign on the Bajada Nature Trail a couple of weeks after we moved here, and funnily enough got my first brief look at one just a few minutes later. After seeing one of the little ground squirrels up close on the Vaquero Trail I did a little research to learn if their home range was small (it is) and if they liked to look out from higher vantage points like the one I had observed (they do).

Knowing that, I decided to hike the Vaquero Trail again and kept my eyes peeled when I approached the area of my previous sighting. And there it was up on the rocks! Up on a small hill it had a complete view of its surroundings and would have seen me before I saw it. Unfortunately I had forgotten my 100-400mm lens at home but I returned the next morning and there it was again! I had settled on using my Canon 100-400mm lens with a 1.4X teleconverter as my wildlife hiking setup, which presented a problem, as on my Canon body I could only use the center focus point, and the autofocus wasn’t that reliable in low light. Attached to my Sony body the autofocus was sometimes quick but not reliably, but I could also use it for video and for manual focus.

I shot the squirrel with both setups, starting with the Canon before switching to the Sony. Fortunately the AF was working well when a second squirrel popped up behind the first! The experience cinched a decision I had been mulling for a while now and that afternoon my wife and I went down to Tempe Camera and purchased the Sony 100-400mm lens and Sony 1.4X teleconverter. The new lens proved its mettle as soon as I arrived at the preserve the next morning, and on multiple hikes since, but those are stories for another day.

Not Weather Sealed

The broken flash housing on my Canon EOS 20D digital SLR

I had been using the Canon EOS 20D steadily for a couple of years when a sudden gust of wind on a ridge sent my tripod tumbling and introduced the camera and lens to the rocks of the Cascades. The lens was smashed to bits but fortunately the only severe damage the camera sustained was to the flash housing. I didn’t use the on-board flash so I didn’t mind its loss but the gaping hole at the top of the camera made things difficult for someone who loves to shoot in the rain, the camera wasn’t weather-sealed even in the best of times. My solution when using it in the rain was to hold a thick plastic bag on top, durable holdovers from the campus bookstore when I was in school. I still have a couple of the bags although I tend to use Tom Bihn stuff sacks to protect my equipment these days. I have a full-on camera cover but they aren’t so convenient.

My low-tech solution worked, I used the camera heavily for several more years until the shutter packed it in while I was hiking with friends on Mount Rainier. I’ve hung onto the broken camera for sentimental reasons over the years, but it’s time to say goodbye as there’s no reason to take it to Arizona with us. I took it out for a quick photo session before we say goodbye.

Chaos at the Edge of Change

Our cat Boo sits among cameras and lenses

Back in March, shortly after the new Sony camera arrived, I looked up to see Boo standing amidst cameras and lenses stacked on my desk, some rather close to the edge. On the left was an old, well-used and well-loved Canon lens (the original 24-105mm) that I was trading in as part of a special to get the lens on the right, the Sony Zeiss 55mm 1.8 prime. Back behind him was the Canon mirrorless camera that was also being replaced with the Sony. I didn’t open the new lens until I was sure the old one had been received and evaluated, but I drew my breath in at the thought if Trixie jumped up and startled him the new lens might go tumbling before ever being used. Rather than risk startling him myself I did the next logical thing, took his picture with the new camera, and he soon hopped down without incident and I moved the lenses back from the edge.

So I Bought a New Camera …

Sony Alpha A6500

… and some lenses, and some accessories. I had been looking for a mirrorless camera to replace both my Canon EOS M and to replace my non-wildlife shooting for my Canon 7D Mark II. I had actually pre-ordered the full-frame Sony A7R II a year and a half ago but chickened out before it shipped, as it was going to be quite expensive and there weren’t any thorough reviews. In hindsight I still don’t know if it was the right decision or not, as while Sony has continued to bring out some excellent full frame lenses, they don’t have a small walk-around zoom that I like, which was one of the primary lenses I was looking for. Amazing sensor in that camera, though.

I started looking in earnest again this fall when a handful of contenders came out and eventually settled on two, the Olympus E-M1 II and the Sony A6500. I set a decision deadline of late February or early March, as I knew it would take me a while to learn either camera well enough before some hiking trips I want to take in the spring, and push came to shove on Saturday as Sony had some sales that were ending.

The decision went down to the wire as I think I could be happy with either system, but ultimately I went with the Sony as for the setup I wanted, it would be smaller and lighter yet with a larger sensor. And it had the 24mm f/1.8 prime I had fallen in love with years ago, to the point that I had considered getting a Sony when it was released, but it didn’t have image stabilization and neither did Sony’s crop sensor bodies (until the A6500 was announced that is).

There’s no question I’ll miss the weather sealing of the Olympus, and as someone who likes to shoot in the rain and wants to do more tide pool shooting, I’ll miss it frequently. As a big fan of image stabilization I was also strongly tempted by the Olympus because, while both the Sony and Olympus have it in their bodies, the Olympus system is remarkable, particularly when using their new 12-100 zoom. Those two things alone almost swayed me to the Olympus, but it also has a fully articulating screen, which I’d prefer to Sony’s tilting screen, and their touch screen seems more fully implemented as well. I also love how Olympus updates their firmware to add more features. And since this is their only sensor size, all of their lenses are designed for this camera.

So I Bought A Camera …

I’m nervous that Sony is putting all their effort in their full frame system and I was looking at a crop sensor system, as I’ve been frustrated with Canon doing the same for years, but from what is available now I put together a system I think I’m going to like and that will let me experiment in ways I couldn’t before. So in the end I went with the Sony A6500, I love the size and weight when combined with the 16-70 zoom, which will be my main walk-around zoom and my main hiking lens. I love the sensor, especially since I shoot in a lot of low light. I also picked up the full-frame 55mm f/1.8, a lens I’ve loved since it came out, as they had a great special on it and if I do add a full-frame camera down the road, it will work well on that as well (with a different field of view).

I also picked up a couple of inexpensive Sigma primes, a 19mm f/2.8 and a 30mm f/1.4, and am looking forward to playing with primes now that I have stabilization in the body. I expect I’ll enjoy primes when I’m at home or when I’m hiking and the weather is dry and not windy, but it’s hard to say without trying them, and I was pleased to find some quality lenses that aren’t too expensive and a good balance of performance and portability.

I also picked up a quick release strap since in general I hate straps but there are times I need them, and a microphone as I’m going to start playing around with video. I was going to get a different Rode mic but it is about to be replaced with a version I’d prefer, so I picked up this inexpensive unpowered mic that is also pretty portable and inexpensive, it will be useful while I figure out how much video I want to shoot and should do fine with louder subjects like waterfalls, and then I can add the new powered mic if I’m doing enough video to warrant it down the road.

I bought Sigma’s converter that will let me attach some of my Canon lenses even though they only officially support a subset of their own lenses (my Sigma f/2.8 zoom is sadly not one of them), but even if I only use manual focus I’m looking forward to doing macros with my old macro lens, and seeing if manual focus is doable for shooting some limited wildlife movies (especially diving ducks).

And of course I picked up that lovely Sony Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 that I had fallen in love with a few years back, sight unseen. I used it for this quick shot of Sam in our dining room, orange on orange, I still don’t know how to use the camera since it’s very different from what I’m used to, but I wanted a quick test to make sure it was working. Normally I’d stop down a bit for a shot like this so more of him would be in focus, but since I was playing around I shot it wide open.

Lots to learn, lots to learn, but I think it’s going to be fun.

Our orange tabby Sam against an orange background

A Tribute to the M

Canon EOS M

When I was in graduate school in the mid-90’s, I got an unexpected bonus from one of my internships and I bought my first SLR, a Canon Rebel, and got hooked on photography. I’ve shot with nothing but Canon ever since until today, as the Sony A6500 mirrorless camera I ordered just arrived, along with a handful of lenses and some other accessories. I’m not saying goodbye to Canon in general, I’m still going to keep my 7D Mark II for wildlife shooting with my telephoto lenses. What it is replacing, in addition to many of the 7D’s tasks, is my little EOS M, Canon’s flawed yet charming entry into the mirrorless world a handful of years ago.

I bought my M four years ago when Canon had a fire sale due to slow sales, we had just adopted Boo and he was so timid I wanted a small, quiet camera to photograph him. I used it quite a bit for the next few years and always loved its quiet nature, useful for example for this picture of Trixie when she had been with us a few weeks. She was starting to feel at home and we were letting her explore ours, but also still giving her time in isolation, partly because she seemed to appreciate the chance to relax without the other cats around, but mostly because brother Boo was still coming to terms with her arrival. The tiny kitten makes my legs seem enormous, I love that you can put mirrorless cameras wherever you want and use the screen to frame the picture, in this case with my head on the pillow I stretched out my arms to put the camera at her eye level instead of mine.

Home

I’ve posted the picture of Emma below before but it seems fitting to repost it now, it’s one of my favorites of her and also taken with the M and the delightful little 22mm pancake lens. For all its limitations it’s staggering how much more capable it was than my first film camera, this was shot at ISO 3200 in low light, in the film days my only hope would have been to fire off a flash and risk disturbing her. I never dreamed she’d only be with us for another year and a half, I’ve thought of this picture so many times since she died that it almost feels like the M was worth it for this picture alone.

A Game of Strings

I haven’t liked what Canon did with the newer M models in the years since, which is why I’ve finally switched after thinking about it for a long time, I’m not sure they ever understood what they got so right (and so wrong) with the original M. As excited as I am by the new Sony, I wanted to take a moment to say thanks for the old, I had a lot of fun with the M and I treasure the many images I took with it.

It cost me little but its rewards were great.

Time to Retire?

My Tamrac camera bag, bought in the mid-1990's

My retirement is sadly still a couple of decades away, but it may be time to retire my Tamrac camera bag. I bought it when I first got into photography in the mid-90’s and for over twenty years it’s been with me on every hike and every trip and stores my gear in the days in between. Built so long ago it was actually made in the United States, I don’t know its model number as there is no branding except the Tamrac logo on the front. Tarmac had just upgraded this model with a clever organizer system that could be moved around to suit the user’s needs, common today but seemed new back then, so I was fortunate to buy when I did.

For a little perspective, the bag has been by my side for every single wildlife picture I’ve ever taken (and most of my pet photos). In the past few years I picked up a couple of smaller bags when I’m just taking a single camera and lens while walking Ellie, but I don’t like either of them nearly as much as this one. Thankfully I rarely fly any more, but one of its charms is that it can go in the overhead bin of even the little puddle jumpers, so I was able to take the bag with me when I went to Japan on a business trip and bring along my nicer cameras, I hard lesson I learned after taking only a pocket camera on an earlier trip to China and regretting it later (small cameras back then weren’t very good, unlike some of the marvels available today).

Long ago a prong on one of the side buckles broke, but now one in the front has broken as well, and that’s the one that really matters. The other prong still works so the bag still closes, but if it breaks it could spell trouble. There are two buckles on the side, and a zipper underneath the big flap, so there are some extra precautions I can take in the meantime. I’ve thought about getting someone to undo the straps so we can replace the buckles, but I’ve never liked the shoulder strap which is harder to replace. I’ll look around at newer bags but can’t imagine I’ll find something as well made, functional, and lightweight.

Between this and my Tom Bihn messenger bag, I’ve had good luck with bags.

Stopgap

Our cats Trixie and Sam sleeping on my legs

Eight years ago, after accidentally smashing my 24-85mm lens on a hiking trip, I narrowed its replacement down to two Canon lenses, a 17-55mm lens and a 24-105mm lens. The 17-55 was a better fit for my crop camera but making some guesses at Canon’s future plans I figured I would be moving on to full-frame within a couple of years, and so ordered the 24-105 lens.

Looking back I might have made a mistake for I’m still shooting with crop cameras. My reasons for thinking I’d be moving to full-frame weren’t far off, it’s just that it was Nikon who went down the path I thought Canon was going to take. While I like my SLR (the Canon 7D II) quite a bit, I’ve been increasingly frustrated by the limitations of my Canon M mirrorless camera (I guessed wrong on what Canon would do with that system as well), but am not quite ready to commit to a different system yet, so in the meantime I adopted a stopgap solution.

The lens I bought was a Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 lens, similar to the Canon 17-55mm I looked at all those years ago, but it was both vastly cheaper (it was on sale for the holidays) and can focus closer, important for the pet photography that will be one of the primary uses of the lens. This is our youngest cat Trixie curling up (literally) on my lap while our oldest cat Sam sleeps on my feet. The 7D II I will use it on is much larger and heavier and noisier than my M, but it has a nice Live View mode that lets me hold the camera away from my eyes, and the Sigma strikes a nice balance in being almost as fast as my prime lens on the M, but with the image stabilization of the zoom. This picture was taken at a quarter of a second in the dim lighting of my office, so a fast aperture and image stabilization let me get a picture I often couldn’t get before.

While Canon has been moving in a different direction than I’d prefer on several fronts, I’m very thankful for my cameras, it’s remarkable what we can do today compared to when I started in the mid-90’s. Sony is getting pretty close to having a camera that does most of what I want, and rumors are Canon may get serious about mirrorless next year, but in the meantime the Sigma should tide me over.