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Monday, August 6, 2018

Review: The Canon EF 300mm f4 L IS USM

Within the Canon umbrella of luxury(L) lenses, there is a lens which sleeps quietly among a handful of fairly affordable telephotos.  It is a lens which can be used for modest action photography and even as a close focusing butterfly lens.  It has been used by greats such as Arthur Morris and regular Joes across the world.  That lens is the Canon EF 300mm f4 L IS USM.

Canon EF 300mm f4 IS USM

For those that do not know, Canon L lenses are steeped in the tradition of being the best that Canon has to offer.  The telephoto luxury line, in particular, are often easily spotted due to their white or cream colored lens barrel.  Photographers tend to buy these amazing lenses for two reasons.  First, there are those who covet the idea of being in the "L" lens club.  These are the folks that will stop at nothing to own the best lenses Canon has to offer.  I find this, mentality, a parallel to the car collector who accumulates stunning vehicles and parks them in the garage.  These folks don't care about image quality, but just want drooling looks from fellow photographers.  Secondly, serious photographers who want no excuses and want the best of the best in Canon engineering and image quality, collect these lenses regardless of stress on their bank accounts.  These photographers are often pros or semi-pros who can recoup the cost of the lenses by selling and showing their images.

This article, part of a series of articles on Canon L glass, will pick apart these lenses with  real world shooting conditions.  I will start with micro-adjusting the lenses to my Canon 7D Mark II body and end with actual shots taken from the field.  Having shot many lenses over the years, it is my sincere desire to  look at this with an open mind and without the "Canon fan boy" bias.  You can count on this article to be the whole truth and nothing but the truth.



Canon EF 300mm f4 IS
A view of the Canon EF 300mm F4.  The lens comes with a strange looking but functional lens case.

Overall Specifications of the Lens

  • Weight - 2.6 Pounds (1.2 Kg)
  • Length - 8.7 inches
  • Image Stabilized - Mode 1 Stabilizes X and Y axis.  Mode 2 Stabilizes during horizontal and vertical panning. Provides roughly 2 stops of image stabilization.
  • Lens Construction -15 Elements in 11 Groups 
  • Focal Length - 300mm (prime) 
  • Image Magnification - 1:4 
  • Closest Focusing - 4.9 feet (1.5 m)
  • Filter Size - 77mm
  • Built in Lens Hood
  • Removable Tripod Collar
  • Aperture - f4 to f32
  • Street Price - $1,349.00
  • Used Price - $619 to $800

Micro-Adjusting to the Canon 7D Mark II
I think a big mistake some reviewers make is not micro-adjusting the lens to the camera.  How can you sincerely test the lens in the field without making sure the auto-focus of the camera is calibrated to the lens?  With this lens I performed the calibration and it was spot on. So right out of the gate, I know that if the lens isn't sharp, it is not a calibration issue.  Below is the actual calibration shot.


Micro-adjustment/Lens Calibration was not necessary with the Canon EF 300mm F4.  The focus was perfect. 

Build, Fit and Finish
Canon began manufacturing of the 300 in 1997, and it was officially released in December of that year.  In reality it was an upgrade to it's sister lens the Canon EF 300 f4 L (non-is).  Interestingly enough both of these lenses remain in production as of the writing of this article in August 2018.  That's a whopping 21 year run!

Let me say I expected this lens to be built well.  I mean, you have to expect a luxury lens to feel luxurious, right?  Well, yes and this lens did not disappoint me.  First, the aluminum construction of the lens barrel just feels more rugged than lenses like my Sigma 150-600.  I feel that if I dropped this lens it might just recover.  Of course, I would not recommend dropping any lens!  

The 300 has several switches on the side used for turning on image stabilization, setting stabilization modes and setting the focus limits.  They, as expected, felt solid. On the top of the lens near the rear is, in my opinion, a ridiculously large metal plate displaying the name of the lens and who manufactured it.  Some find this an interesting design.  I find it to be one more thing to reflect light and frighten my subject.   Moving toward the front of the lens, I found a feature which I think should be on all prime lenses.  This lens has a build in lens hood.  No need to worry about it falling off or the possibility of it falling out of my back pack.

Being completely honest, I did find several disappointing build issues with this lens. First, the lens barrel is completely smooth.  When I had the lens and body resting on my bean bag, the lens constantly slipped around.  Several times this slipping flushed the birds I was photographing.  Next, I found the white lens to also be distracting to my subject.  When moving my lens, the bright white reflection drew the attention of my subjects to the lens.  This also contributed to flushing the birds.  Next, I did not like that the focusing ring moved so freely.  Because of this design, when resting it on a bean bag, the focus constantly moved as I moved the lens around on the bag. Buying a lens coat for this lens should solve most of the problems with the lens slipping.

Finally, and the biggest concern I had with this lens happened when  mounting it on my tripod.  On my Bogen 3030 head, the clearance between my camera body and the plate was not far enough.  I had to actually remove the battery grip to get it to sit flush in the plate.  Actually, I found this odd since the lens was built in the late 1990s.  This was also when Bogen made the 3030 head and it was very popular.  I suspect as newer Canon bodies were released with battery grips, many people ran into this problem.  This is also a problem with mounting it on a 1 Series body. The tripod foot is simply to far toward the rear of the lens.

Sharpness and Optical Quality
What you are not going to find in this review is a sharpness test pointing at some lens chart.  There are plenty of those available on the web.  What you are going to see is how this lens performs against real subjects.  My working genre in the photography world is wildlife and I specialize in bird photography.  So that is where I will concentrate my tests.  Always stick with what you know when testing a lens.  Since this is a 300mm lens, I think it would be somewhat unfair to test it with birds in flight, so these tests will be on static birds.  Make no mistake though, static birds are still very fast and unpredictable.

The sharpness of the lens was certainly on par with my Sigma 150-600 when shooting at 300mm.  I think this lens may have a slight advantage in sharpness, but it is so close as to not even be something to worry about.  If you are buying this lens strictly for having a sharp lens, then there are more economical solutions out there.

The lens is quite sharp at f4 and I would have no reservations at shooting at f4, but with most lenses, it is a tad sharper at f5.6 and even more so at f8.  This is the nature of almost every lens ever made.  I am sure there is some kind of physics at work here, but that is for another article.



Canon EF 300mm 100% crop
100% Crop of a Common Grackle
Being a lens design of the late 1990s I expected to see more chromatic aberration.  In the shot above, you can see the aberrations around the bird's bill.  This was easily removed in LightRoom and frankly chromatic aberation is of little concern with modern post processing software. Comparing this with my Sigma 150-600, the Sigma has almost no chromatic aberration.


Common Grackle Canon EF 300mm f4 IS USM
Image of the Common Grackle with the Canon EF 300mm f4 L
f5.6, 1/500th of a second, ISO 800

Auto-focus
Although not the fastest auto-focusing lens in Canon's lineup, the 300 can hold its own.  This is especially true when coupled with the Canon 7D Mark II or a 1 Series camera.  The focus was right on in most cases.  Perhaps when compared with the 300 2.8 the auto-focus is slower, but for most people I think it is more than adequate.  I did find, however, it did tend to hunt a bit too much and liked to grab the background.  This can be remedied by using the second auto-focus case on the 7D Mark II or 1DX Mark II.

There are two modes which can be used to help achieve faster auto-focus.  There is a focus limiter switch on the side which can be switched from 1.5 meters to infinity or 3 meters to infinity.  See the image below to view the switches. Essentially, you would use the 3 meters to infinity when shooting birds in flight or animals at a greater distance.  This will keep the lens from hunting as much.  In my case, I was shooting quite close, so I kept it at 1.5 meters to infinity. 

One very strange problem I had occurred when holding down the auto-focus button (I use rear button auto-focus) on AI-Servo and firing in burst mode.  I noticed that the burst rate on my Canon 7D Mark II actually slowed down to what seemed like 6 fps or there about. I never did remedy this problem.  This problem does not exist when my Sigma 150-600 is mounted.  I am probably going to check with Canon on this and see what they say.


House Finch taken with the Canon EF 300mm f4 lens.
f5.6, 1/320th, ISO 800

Image Stabilization (IS)
Image stabilization is provided on this lens, but it is an early version of IS.  Because of this, expect to only get about 2 stops better low light performance.  Because it is an early version, you can also expect louder mechanical sounds coming from the lens when it is engaged.  Because my testing was done resting the lens on a bean bag, I couldn't fully test this feature, but it performed well for me at 1/250.  I suspect you should be able to get down to 1/60th or 1/125th of a second without issue.  Remember though that it only stabilizes your hand holding.  Subject movement can still produce blur in your images.

As with all Canon IS, there are two modes of operation.  Mode 1 stabilizes both the vertical and horizontal axes while mode 2 only stabilizes vertical movement of the lens.  All my tests were performed with mode 1 engaged.  If you want to pan with a bird in flight, then you would selected mode 2.


The Canon EF 300mm F4 IS USM has two modes of image stabilization(IS). Mode 1 was used for all of my testing.

Uses for this Lens
One of the most obvious uses for this lens is wildlife photography.  What makes a good wildlife lens is sharpness, great auto-focus and focal length.  This lens is sharp and has good auto-focus, but may not be the ticket if you are a bird photographer.  For static bird photography, I believe it will be fine, but for those who spend a great deal capturing birds in flight, it will, in many cases be too short.  Now, I am not saying you can't photograph birds in flight with a 300mm, because you can. I used a 300 for several years before upgrading to a 600mm.  It is just not an ideal solution for flight photography. 

Although I did not test its close focusing capability, this lens is known for it's ability to do so.  It focuses so closely in fact, that it is used by butterfly photographers to get more distance from the subject.  For that capability, I can recommend it as an insect lens with the one exception that it is not a full macro 1:1 lens.

Next, I think the lens would be fine as a general purpose medium telephoto.  It would be a good lens for your children's sporting events, for example.  The focusing is fine for fast moving subjects, although most likely not as fast as say the 600 f4. I could even see this lens being used for picking out a distant landscape feature.  


Final Verdict
Let me start by saying that you really can't go wrong here.  This lens, although long in the tooth, does what it is advertised to do.  It is a great all purpose lens that is well suited for most subject matter requiring a medium telephoto.  But that might also be its greatest weakness.  As with other primes, you must buy more primes in order to fill in the gaps.  You could easily spend 8 or 10 thousand on a set of primes that (for all practical purposes) could be handled by one zoom lens.

However, those big zooms like the Sigma 150-600 are not fast glass.  This lens, at an f4 aperture, could still be used to supplement in low light conditions or flight shots with a triggering device.  For that reason, I might consider a lens like this in my future kit, but let me reiterate that I would not use this as my primary birding lens.  I hope that Canon soon comes out with a version II of this lens to address some of the optical and IS concerns.

Let me take a bit more time to write about using this as a birding lens.  Remember, you only working with a 300mm focal length.  On my 7D Mark II that equates to a 480mm effectively (due to the 1.6x crop factor).  Even at 480, I had to get quite close to the birds and sometimes that can flush the more skittish species such as woodpeckers.

Where I think this lens really shines (no pun indented) is taking advantage of the f4 aperture and shooting birds in flight with an IR trigger.  This would allow higher shutter speeds up up to 1/5000th of a second.  To capture songbirds in flight, you must use a high shutter speed or use a very short flash duration.


Quick Summary
  • Great build quality
  • Image stabilized
  • f4 aperture makes shooting in lower light easier
  • Sharpness is fine
  • Adequate to above adequate auto-focus, but could be better.
  • Decent price considering it is an f4 L lens
  • Built in lens hood
  • White color could draw unwanted attention from your subject
  • Focusing ring was great when hand holding, but slips when on a bean bag
  • Smooth finish was slippery on a bean bag mount.
  • Slower burst rate in AI-Servo?  Was this the lens or the camera?

Check out the video companion to this article:


Announcements:
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I need your help to keep producing content! Consider becoming a patron to my work. Funds received from your help, will go toward keeping the infrastructure in place to keep providing free content. As you know, web site hosting, microphones and recording gear are very costly. To find out more about being a patron and how this can benefit you, head out to my Patreon site : https://www.patreon.com/mattcuda 
Individual training, and honest and useful portfolio critiques available. Email me at matt.cuda@mattcuda.com

______________________________________________________________________


My Website: http://www.mattcuda.com


Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/mattcuda


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To purchase any of my prints please use the following link:

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You may also contact me directly to purchase prints: matt.cuda@mattcuda.com







Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: Canon EF 100mm F2.8 USM

Macro photography has always been an interest for me, but being primarily a wildlife photographer specializing in birds, all my lenses are long telephotos.  When I did need to utilize a macro setup, I used by nifty 50 with extension tubes.

Recently, however, I felt like a needed something which out of the box could shoot at a 1:1 (life size) without the use of extension tubes getting the way all the time.  It was time for me to add a real macro lens to my line up. This led me to the Canon EF 100mm f2.8 USM lens.

Build Quality
Manufacturing on the 100mm, began in 2000 and it is still being manufactured today.  It has a solid feel with a rubberized focusing ring.  In many ways it is like any other prime lens manufactured with the USM branding.  It is decorated with a USM gold logo and a golden "pin stripe" around the end of the lens.  The optics, manufactured in 8 groups and 12 elements, are solidly affixed to the housing.  The font element neatly recessed to keep contrast up and scratching of the element unlikely.  A lens hood (ET-67) is available to purchase separately. Third party ET-67s are also available.
Canon EF 100mm f2.8 USM

One of the features I really like about this lens is the 58mm filter diameter.  This means you can shoot with less expensive filters and not be stuck with the much larger 77mm filter we so often see.

Shooting
This lens is highly versatile with f-stops available from f2.8 to f32, although I found f2.8 to be a bit soft when compared to f5.6.  This might be a turn off for those looking for a good 2.8 lens.  Macro lenses are designed to be used for manual focus situations where you could potentially be shooting a 2:1 image size.  Because of that this lens has a large, smooth focusing ring, which I found to be very effective.  I felt like the dampening could have been a bit smoother, but that would really be splitting hairs.

In one of my tests, I photographed a Canada goose feather at 1:33:1 magnification. During this test, I had to zoom in with live view for critical focusing.  Again, the dampening and smoothness could have been slightly better here.  


Canda Goose Feather - 1.33:1 Image Size (used extension tube)

Sharpness
This lens is incredibly sharp and don't just take my word for it.  The internet is littered with praise over the optical quality of this lens.  I don't know if I would buy this if I was only going to be using it at the f2.8 aperture, but if your goal is macro work in the f4 to f22 range, you will be very happy indeed.  Below is an enlarged crop at close to 100 percent showing sharpness and resolution with standard sharpening.


Cropped Image Showing Sharpness


Practical Uses
Without a doubt this lens is made for macro, and as such would be a prime candidate for close up product, insect and flower photography.  However, I also think this lens could be highly useful as a landscape lens to pull out details in distant landscapes and used to frame tighter in intimate landscapes.

It should also come as no surprise that this lens has been favored by human portrait photographers. Because it is in the short telephoto range, it flattens the image slightly giving the person a more flattering appearance.  The sharpness of the lens can pull out crisp details in the eyes and shooting at 2.8 could give the model a softer look which often is desirable in portraiture. 

Conclusion
In conclusion, I recommend this lens with little to no reservations.  I feel like you are getting some amazing glass for $599 MSRP.  On the used market you can find them as low as $300.   

Quick Points to Consider
  • Amazingly Sharp
  • Versatile f2.8 to f32
  • Good Build Quality
  • Small Diameter Filter (58mm)
  • True 1:1 Macro


Announcements:
Check out the latest podcast episodes 
I need your help to keep producing content! Consider becoming a patron to my work. Funds received from your help, will go toward keeping the infrastructure in place to keep providing free content. As you know, web site hosting, microphones and recording gear are very costly. To find out more about being a patron and how this can benefit you, head out to my Patreon site : https://www.patreon.com/mattcuda 
Individual training, and honest and useful portfolio critiques available. Email me at matt.cuda@mattcuda.com




My Website: http://www.mattcuda.com

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/mattcuda

Stock Images: https://www.artvisions.com/cuda/

Newsletter
http://www.mattcuda.com/Home/Newsletter

To purchase any of my prints please use the following link:
https://www.artvisions.com/cuda/

You may also contact me directly to purchase prints: matt.cuda@mattcuda.com



Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Zoo Photography



FORSYTH COUNTY, NC - For many people, a trip to an exotic location to photograph animals is just not economically feasible. For those in this category, I can greatly sympathize with you. But do not dismay, there are some very nice zoos and rehab centers throughout the United States to help you in your quest to photograph exotic animals.

What Zoo is Best
There are approximately 500 zoos in the United States, but be careful. Not all these zoos are created equal. It is important to check these zoos out on the internet before you step foot in one of them. I like zoos which are good to their animals by offering them good medical care, food and plenty of places to roam. In North Carolina, the best zoo would be the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, NC. If you are looking for a zoo for comparison purposes, this as a gold standard.

Next, make sure the zoo is photographer friendly. Some zoos, like the Atlanta Zoo have stipulations about not using photographs made of "their" animals for commercial purposes. I refuse to give these zoos my money.

Camera Gear
Zoos can offer a unique challenge to the photographer from an equipment perspective. Some zoos, for example, do not allow the use of tripods and so you can only use mono-pods. This is not a deal breaker, but could make some shots nearly impossible. Below is the gear I recommend and how to use each piece. There are links scattered throughout to show examples.

  • DSLR or comparable mirrorless camera - The important consideration here is that the camera has interchangeable lenses and has a megapixel count over 10mp. If you only have a 300mm lens, I recommend the APS-C sensor size. An example is the Canon EOS 7D Mark II or on the mirrorless side the Sony A6500.
  • Medium Telephoto Lens (200 - 300mm range) - it is crucial to at least have this much glass in order to frame the subject in creative ways. In some cases you will be able to fill the frame, but with subjects greater than 20 feet away, you will need to step up. The Tamron 70-300 SP VC is a good, inexpensive lens in this category.
  • Super Telephoto Lens (400 - 800mm) - For zoos and just about any wildlife, I like versatile glass and for me that is the Sigma 150-600 C or Sports version. This covers just about every scenario during a zoo visit. I can shoot shots of small songbirds in the aviary all the way up to tight portraits of a black bear.
  • Macro Lens (100mm to 180mm) - although not a must, having a macro lens will allow you to capture shots of small frogs and reptiles. Furthermore, you can get close shots of the flowers which often decorate the entrances and pathways to the zoo exhibits.
  • Sturdy Tripod - When you find yourself inside a building trying to shoot through terrarium glass, having a tripod is a must. Even with modern image stabilization, there are times you simply cannot get a good, stable shot without one. It really depends on the zoo and how much of the exhibits are indoors. I recommend Manfrotto as a good, inexpensive tripod.
  • Black Rapid Strap or Similar - carrying a 600mm lens through miles of zoo can be tough on the old shoulders and back. This strap will make it much easier to shift the burden a bit from your shoulders. It also allows the photographer to easily put the camera up to his eye because the camera slides along the strap.
  • Comfortable Pack - find a pack that does not cause your shoulders to hurt too quickly after putting it on. You should be able to walk a good hour without having pain. Check out the Moose Peterson MP-3!
  • Good SD, CF Cards - buy good CF cards! I use SanDisk Extreme 32 Gig cards. They are fast enough for video and are very reliable.
Shot List
Below is a list of shots I have taken or shots I look for on a typical zoo visit. Hopefully they will help you pick shots that you want to take next time.

The Close Portrait - the zoo is the perfect place to get close shots with some real feeling and energy. Some of these shots just do not happen often in the field. Below is a shot of a black bear. In this shot, you feel like you can actually see into his soul. This is the shot that presents itself the most.



Environmental Shot - this can only happen at large zoos where the animals have plenty of place to roam. Look for places where there are no bars or fences in the background. Below is a shot of a Rocky Mountain elk bugling. Honestly, I wouldn't know this was in a zoo, if I hadn't taken it. It has an ear tag, but they do this in wild at times as well.



Animals Interacting - this one is tough, but not impossible at the zoo. Look for animals which are social and interact in large groups. A typical animal with this behavior is the baboon. Below, a mother baboon is keeping a young one in check.



Animals in Action or Showing Gesture - in this scenario, we have a single animal that is doing something unusual. Perhaps it is an elephant running or in the case below, a king eider showing off for the female eiders.




In conclusion, I think you will agree that the zoo can be a great place to enjoy animals, test your gear and learn how to make better images without spending 4,000 dollars on a trip. The beauty is that after all this practice in zoos and rehab centers, you will be ready when you do go on one of those once in a life time trips!


Now get out there and enjoy nature (even at a zoo) !

God Bless,

Matt Cuda


Announcements:
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I need your help to keep producing content! Consider becoming a patron to my work. Funds received from your help, will go toward keeping the infrastructure in place to keep providing free content. As you know, web site hosting, microphones and recording gear are very costly. To find out more about being a patron and how this can benefit you, head out to my Patreon site : https://www.patreon.com/mattcuda
Individual training, and honest and useful portfolio critiques available. Email me at matt.cuda@mattcuda.com

______________________________________________________________________

My Website: http://www.mattcuda.com

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/mattcuda

Stock Images: https://www.artvisions.com/cuda/

Newsletter
http://www.mattcuda.com/Home/Newsletter

To purchase any of my prints please use the following link:
https://www.artvisions.com/cuda/

You may also contact me directly to purchase prints: matt.cuda@mattcuda.com

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Mekingstudio/Selens Camera Lens Cover Review

As many of you are aware, it is extremely easy to damage a long lens by bumping it while walking or just from banging around in your back pack. I think it only took about a month before I saw my first scratch on my Sigma 150-600 C lens.

I have been at locations where I was forced to shoot through a cut open fence. I have rested my lens on car windows and had them roll down steps, but what options are out there to protect your lens?

There are two main companies out there that are producing neoprene covers for your lens. The first, is LensCoat. LensCoat is a great company, and I actually own their blind. But, I felt like, perhaps the LensCoat was a bit pricey at 100 bucks for a 1,000 dollar lens. That led me on a search on Amazon to find a more inexpensive alternative. After searching for a bit, I came across a neoprene cover made by Mekingstudio. Yes, it is Chinese made, but honestly, for something like this I wasn't convinced that I needed a quality piece of "foam."


Click to view a larger image of the Mekingstudio Lens Cover


The order arrived at my workplace without issue.  Each of the pieces were numbered and are placed on the lens from the lens hood back.  The pieces went on pretty easy once I got the numbers in the right order.  It might take you a bit to figure it all out, but it's not a monumental task or anything.  

I have been using this product on my lens for about 6 months now and it works absolutely fine.  Now, I can rest my lens on a fence or car and not feel like I am scratching the lens.  The padding it provides is minimal, but it is enough to help cushion small blows and keep the lens from sliding around too much when using a bean bag support.  The only real complaint I have is it is hard to find the manual focus ring.  It was hard enough without the cover, but now it is much worse.  I suspect this would be the same no matter what cover I bought.  Perhaps they could add something to the outside of the ring to help find it.  Or, maybe you could even put a piece of Velcro there.


The other problem I found with the cover, is the plastic covering over the lens switches. Because it is so tight to the lens, it makes it a little bit more challenging to switch on image stabilization, for example.  Some may find this useful and not a con. It does protect the switches from water which is also nice.


In conclusion, It is my opinion, that you can't really go wrong with this product.  For only 39 dollars US it is a steal.  Click on the link above and order one today!  


PROS

  • Offers nice rubberized protection (neoprene)
  • Has not slid or fallen off
  • Offers a more comfortable grip when hand holding
  • Lens doesn't slide when using a bean bag support
  • Offers some water protection
CONS
  • Hard to find the manual focus ring (can't blame them totally for this)
  • Camo pattern is not a name brand like RealTree.  If they did that it would cost more, however. 
  • Plastic cover over the switches makes flipping the switches a bit more difficult
I recommend this product. Click here to order yours today!


Thursday, June 21, 2018

Are you Putting your Best Foot Forward?



FORSYTH COUNTY, NC -  This is a topic which has the potential to make some of you angry and others take action.  It is a topic that gets to the very core of why we do what we do as nature photographers.  Simply put, "are you putting your best foot forward?"  Are you, as a photographer, showing the world your best work or are you so excited that you got a shot, and posting it as quickly as possible on social media?

I think to answer this question, you have to ask yourself what motivates you.  Here are some possible motivations I have identified:

1.  You want to show others where you have been, and what I have been doing.
2.  You want to attract buyers to buy your photographs.
3.  You want to impress your peers with your stunning photography.
4.  You want a private documentary gallery of images so you can document your travels.


If you answered anything other than #4, you might want to pay particular attention to what I am going to tell you in this article. 

As a more seasoned photographer, I have seen thousands upon thousands of photographs over the years.  I have seen beautiful images by some of the best photographers, and I have seen poor images generated from the very beginner.  I myself have made many many bad images right along side the good ones, but you will never see the failures posted on social media or sent to a potential client.  These images, except for the few I keep for demonstration purposes, are sent to the trash.

I do not care if I got a great action shot of an anhinga spearing a fish or a bald eagle fighting in mid air.  If it doesn't meet my standard guidelines for quality it goes into the trash.  So here are my standard guidelines for culling my images.

1.  Is the photograph sharp (essential)?   
2.  Is the photograph properly exposed (essential)?
3.  Is the lighting in the photograph better than acceptable (mostly essential)?
4.  Does the photograph tell a story or does it have gesture (mostly essential)?
5.  Is this my best work, given the situation?

If I can answer yes to all five of the preceding questions then the photograph is not only a keeper, but is marketable or worthy of posting online.  Now I want to address each of these five questions.

Is the Photograph Sharp?
Sharpness is not subjective.  It can be defined and it is repeatable and is absolutely a must  A sharp photograph is the culmination of focusing the lens and also making sure the shutter speed is set high enough to avoid camera shake (blur).  You should be able to zoom into 100% on your editing software and see a sharp, detailed image.  The only exception to this is when you are using creative blur (advanced technique).

The above image is not sharp at 100% magnification.  It will be rejected by photo editors and stock agencies.


The above image is sharp at 100%.  It has been accepted by publishers and agencies.



Is the Photograph Properly Exposed?
This is mostly subjective, but also takes some work to determine if your image is properly exposed.  In short, the whites should be white, the blacks should be black and the highlights should not be blown out.  You should be able to see detail in both the highlights and the shadows.  Obviously, this is a much larger discussion than a simply blog post can provide, but make sure you have the exposure right!


The above image is underexposed by a full stop. Notice the muddy and lifeless appearance.

Is the Lighting in the Photograph better than Acceptable?
Taking photographs of nature when the sun is directly overhead does not normally flatter a subject.  On animals it produces harsh shadows, making the eyes black holes. It basically increases the contrast to the point that it is hard to see details in the highlights and shadows.  A general rule in wildlife photography is to have the sun at your back.  Another way to look at this, is to point your shadow at the subject.  To do this, shoot between sunrise and plus three hours.  In the afternoon, shoot three hours before sunset to sunset.  This will give you that golden look with flattering highlights in the eyes of animals.   Not only wildlife, but landscapes also take on this beautiful golden glow.


The photo above has beautiful morning light being applied from right over my shoulder.

Does the Photograph Tell a Story or Have Gesture?
There are many times that I take a photograph which has neither gesture nor storytelling attributes and it is true that these kinds of images can sell and gather likes online.  However, I am always looking for images that tell a story or have peak action.  This can mean the difference between a boring portrait and an engaging and exciting photograph.  You don't have to start here, but strive to make this happen.  Strive to find the engaging shot.  Perhaps it is a coyote pouncing on a mouse or a bird fighting with another bird.  Maybe it's look deep into the eyes of a massive black bear that stops us in our tracks.

The above photo has action and gesture.  The bird is running from a crashing wave which helps draw the user into the photograph and tell a story about this birds life.

Is this my Best Work Given the Situation?
This is a question we must all ask ourselves.  If the answer is no, it doesn't necessarily mean the image is no good.  It might just mean that you have to try harder next time.  Look for better angles such as going low or going higher.  Maybe you needed a longer lens to compress and blur the background. Maybe you need to gather inspiration from other photographers. Check out other photographers books, magazines and videos.  This can all help inspire you to making better images.

In conclusion, I ask you to work hard, and get the best images you can. Do not be afraid to throw your image away.  In a few months you will forget about it.  Strive only for the best images and post those.  I promise it will be much more rewarding both from a personal perspective and if you would like, from a business perspective.




I hope you enjoyed this months newsletter.  There is much on the horizon at Matt Cuda Nature Photography.  To be specific, the time has come for the continuation of the Hummingbird Project and the Bluebird projects.  These two projects generally keep me busy from May through June, so expect to see some of those images in next months article.

Now get out there and enjoy nature!


God Bless,

Matt Cuda


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Monday, May 21, 2018

Plans are Fraught with Peril

Photography, in general, takes a lot of planning.  Sometimes it is planning that big trip to Yellowstone and sometimes it is just planning to photograph some of the local flora and fauna in your own backyard.  Whatever you choose to photograph,  I think we can all agree that we need a plan to be successful.

About two months ago, I started preparing and planning for a particular shot to be added to my "Bluebird Project."  I invested both time and equipment to try to get everything figured out beforehand.  In particular, I was using a new IR triggering system to capture songbirds in flight.  I had practiced on several occasions and I got fair enough results to apply them to actual project. I determined to use my newly acquired experience to capture flight shots of the bluebird as they traveled to and from their nest box.

I carefully monitored and waited for the bluebird eggs to hatch, as they always do.  One day, while performing a normal check, I found that the nest had been raided.  The eggs had been removed, thrown to the ground and mostly eaten.  I determined it was not the normal suspects such as the raccoon or opossum since the nest was still fully intact, and the pole I use would not support the weight.  At one point, I even blamed the neighborhood black snake.  I believe, after quite a bit of examination, it was most likely done by a competing bird species.

The whole situation was completely out of my control, but none the less, my plans were ruined.  There would be no flight shots.  It was is at this point, that we all have a choice.  We can "throw ourselves" and have a pity party.  This might involve moping around, questioning why it happened , and what could have been done differently.  I could beat myself up for weeks with the question "why?", but the results would have been the same.  I would not have photographed any birds and not changed the situation at all.

Instead, mostly based on experience, I picked myself up and immediately started the next wave of plans. I knew that I could not get the flight shot I wanted, but I could improve the situation by starting back to feeding the birds.  Generally I stop feeding birds once nesting starts as it upsets the bluebirds and could interfere with nesting.


Forsyth County, NC - Taken soon after the nest failure.  Move on to the next plan!

So, I began feeding the birds and also setup my hummingbird feeder for the next project.  This will start the creative energy and anticipation flowing again.  There will be another time for the flight shots, but that can't stop you from shooting and planning. Sure, it is a big disappointment when plans don't come together and sometimes it can be really tough when several big plans fail in sequence.  The latter, of course, being the reason many people quit.

The bottom line is that I many never convince you with mere words to hang in there and never quit. In the end, it is a matter of personal ambition that drives you to the next level.  I see it in myself and others all the time.  It is what sets all of us apart from the average quitter.  Don't fall into the trap of expecting all of your plans to succeed, because they never will.  Instead, focus on making the next plan successful.

Your photographic career will be filled with other quitters.  They are the people who don't get what you are doing and try everything to make you unsuccessful.  They could be your girlfriend, wife or even someone you thought was your best friend.  You cannot listen to them, because they will drag you down and keep you from completing your plans.  This goes for any area of your life.  Quitters always hang out with other quitters!  Don't let yourself be sucked into that world.

I will leave you with these steps to becoming successful in life as they were told to me many years ago by a wise man...


  • Never make a major decision in the midst of a personal crisis.
  • Never seclude yourself from friends/family when going through a storm.
  • Never listen to your fears. Dread distorts your view of reality.
  • Never give in to self-pity.
  • Don’t dwell on “if only” and “what could have been."
  • Don’t overlook the good things that happen to you everyday.
  • Don’t become absorbed with yourself (focus on the needs of others).
  • Don’t quit living while going through your storm.
  • Never forget that God Almighty is sovereign.

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