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Festival of the Cranes: Photographing Birds with the EOS R

December 19, 2018

By: George Lepp

From November through January, thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese gather at the beautiful Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near the town of Socorro in New Mexico’s Rio Grande River Valley. Participating in this annual great migration are hundreds of nature photographers, pursuing their passion as the birds dance, preen, squabble, rise, and settle among the resting ponds and fields of grain and grasses that give them sustenance. Especially at dawn and dusk, photographers and their tripod-mounted super-telephotos line the ponds, ready to capture each movement of the birds, at rest or in flight.

I have been a part of this annual celebration of wildlife and photography for many years, and I’ve just returned from the 2018 Festival of the Cranes, where I worked with Canon USA to lead workshops and provide instruction to photographers in the field.

This year I came to Bosque prepared to photograph with the new Canon EOS R mirrorless camera, along with my trusty Canon EF 100-400mm f/5.6L MK II and the extra-sharp EF 500mm f/4L MK II telephoto lenses. To extend their reach, I also brought the EF 1.4x III and EF 2x III tele-extenders. For scenic views, I added the new EOS R-dedicated RF 24-105mm F4 L lens to the bag. With everything covered, from 24 to 1400mm, I was ready to put the EOS R through its paces with whatever subjects and conditions each day would bring!

The sights and sounds of a typical early winter morning at one of Bosque’s ponds, where sandhill cranes and snow geese rest and spend the night safe from predators, then rise en masse to greet the day. Canon EOS R w/RF 24-105mm, HD Video.


High ISOs, Long Lenses, and Projected Flash in the Pre-Dawn Hours

At Bosque, it’s standard procedure to reach the preserve well before sunrise and to set up for photography at one of the area ponds where you know the birds have spent the night. It’s dark, so how do you know they’re out there? They talk a lot, and the noise levels gradually increase with the light. In anticipation, the alert photographer assesses the photographic situation and prepares for the first image captures. Conditions are prime as the sun appears at the horizon, first back-lighting and then bathing the scene in warm light. Gradually, the birds embrace the day. The snow geese take off in a flapping, honking mass; flocks of geese from other areas may land in their places before rising again; and then the sandhill cranes depart in smaller, noisy groups until the pond is empty and silent in the morning sun.

The EOS R showed some real advantages in this early morning photo session, beginning with the excellent high-ISO capabilities of its 30-megapixel sensor. A Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite flash fitted with a projected flash accessory to concentrate the light allowed me to photograph individuals and groups of birds in the pre-dawn darkness. While the projected flash brings out some eye-shine, resembling little headlights, I like the effect. The EOS R’s electronic viewfinder has very high resolution at 3.69 million dots, provides great viewing even in pre-dawn darkness, and the autofocus continues to work all the way down to incredibly low light levels. These features allowed me to see and focus on the geese and cranes in much less light than I would have needed for a DSLR. I could fire the camera/flash and obtain images of activity, even flight, in near darkness, using a slower shutter speed to record some of the beauty of the early sky. I used the EF 100-400mm for hand-held action and the EF 500mm f/4L on a tripod to reach out for close-ups; both lenses worked seamlessly with the EF-EOS R Mount Adapters, and the autofocus in low light was exceptionally good. It was as if I had night vision!

Cranes and snow geese on the water before dawn

Just before dawn, hundreds of cranes and snow geese wait for first light. The bright electronic viewfinder allowed me to see and focus the composition, while a projected 600EX-RT flash selectively lit the scene. EF 100-400mm MK II @ 200mm, .5 sec. @ f/8, ISO 1600.

Snow geese in flight

A group of snow geese are captured in flight with the hand-held EOS R and the projected 600EX-RT flash. The flash is reflected in the birds’ eyes as the slower shutter speed and high ISO allow the color of the dark morning sky to record. EF 100-400mm MK II @ 371mm, 1/125 sec. @ f/9.5, ISO 800.


Shooting into the Morning Sun Through the Electronic Viewfinder

After the chaos of the initial lift-offs, I encountered birds in small ponds throughout the reserve. As the sun peeked over the distant hills, smaller groups of cranes and geese glided before it, their graceful forms silhouetted in the warm orange light of a giant sun. I wanted that picture!

Capturing the scene through the viewfinder of a DSLR would seriously endanger the eyes, and photographing moving subjects with Live View on a DSLR’s rear LCD is difficult, especially when hand-holding the camera. But the mirrorless capabilities of the EOS R gave me the opportunity to accomplish the vision. In the electronic viewfinder of a mirrorless camera, we’re seeing a recorded image as it would appear in the actual capture, rather than looking directly at the composition and, in this case, the sun. With the EOS R, I worked this two ways. For a big sun, I employed the EF 500mm lens with both the EF 2x and EF 1.4x tele-extenders (joined by a Canon Extension Tube EF 12 II placed between them), giving me 1400mm in total focal length. A 12mm extension tube in the lens path means that focus cannot be achieved at infinity—but close to it! With a small aperture to expand the depth of field and the birds nearby, it works. The EF 100-400mm caught a wider perspective, with a smaller sun, more birds in view, and mist rising from the water in the mysterious light.

birds flying in front of an enlarged sun

The rising sun is rendered large by adding both 2x and 1.4x III tele-extenders to the EF 500mm lens for a 1400mm capture. While viewing this scene and composing the image through the optical viewfinder of a DSLR camera is very dangerous to one’s eyes, the EOS R mirrorless camera displays a recorded image in the electronic viewfinder, allowing safe photography directly into the sun. 1/8000 sec. @ f/19, ISO 800.

Round sun in the background giving backlight to the mist coming off the water and around the flying birds at Refuge pond

A round sun gives beautiful backlight to rising mist and flying birds on a Refuge pond. The EOS R’s mirrorless design allowed safe viewing and composition directly through the electronic viewfinder. EOS R w/100-400mm MK II @ 164mm, 1/8000 sec. @ f/16, ISO 800.


Midday Action: Autofocus is Key

Wandering through Bosque’s 30,000 wilderness acres, photographers can find relative solitude as they seek subjects such as ruminants, raptors, and coyotes on the hunt. Large concentrations of geese mass in the fields, intermittently startled by predators into the sky in great, noisy, circling swarms. Smaller groups of cranes interact, seeming to dance together as they feed, then rise in flight to move from one location to the next.

Snow geese rising from a field

Snow geese rise from a field in a sudden explosion of flapping wings and calls. EOS R w/100-400mm MK II and EF 1.4x III tele-extender @ 420mm, 1/2000 sec. @ f/13, ISO 800.

In this variety of hand-held photographic situations, the EOS R’s expanded autofocus system functioned well when set to Servo AF and “Large Zone AF: Horizontal.” The position of the closer birds determined the AF, and a smaller f-stop added depth of field. I switched lenses easily between the EF 100-400mm MK II for more distance, and the RF 24-105mm for large groups at close range. When photographing a small group of birds or an individual subject, I switched the autofocus mode to “Expand AF area: Around” (one primary AF point, with eight surrounding focus points) to focus more precisely on the subject.

When we encountered a roadrunner observing us from alongside the road, I connected the EOS R to the EF 500mm MK II. The curious bird stayed in place for a number of frames, so I eased the vehicle a bit closer, added the EF 2x III tele-extender to the lens mix (1000mm), and captured more frames. To get a closer shot without disturbing the bird, I then added the EF 1.4x III with a 12mm II Canon extension tube between the two extenders, giving me 1400mm. At the system’s closest focus I was able to accomplish a series of head and shoulder images of a very tolerant subject. The EOS R was an essential advantage, because, while this lens/tele-extender combination allows a maximum lens aperture of only f/11, the EOS R, unlike my DSLRs, will still autofocus at f/11! The sharpness is surprisingly good due to the lack of mirror vibration; but also, critical focus is possible because with the EOS R it’s determined directly off the sensor. And there is no need to micro-adjust the autofocus on long lenses, as is the case with my DSLRs.

Upclose portrait image of a greater roadrunner

A greater roadrunner sat roadside for its portrait, while, from a vehicle, I photographed with the EOS R and a 500mm lens with both 2x and 1.4x III tele-extenders attached. The distance to the bird was nearly at the lens’ closest focus of about 12 feet. The tolerant subject allowed many frames before it headed off, sounding a cheery “BeepBeep!” Photographed at f/13, @ 1/750 sec., ISO 800.

Where action’s involved, it’s always good to have a camera with a fast frame-capture rate. The EOS R maxes out at 5 frames per second (fps) when using Servo AF; 8 fps is possible if the Servo AF is disabled, but that is not an option for me in wildlife photography—I need fast capture and autofocus. I love the 14 fps offered by my EOS-1D X Mark II, but that’s at a price point nearly three times the EOS R. Realistically, at 5 fps I was still able to capture most of the action. A tip for photographing a moving subject with the EOS R is to turn off the “Image Review” function so that the live-action in the viewfinder is not interrupted by the display of each image following its capture.

When the action becomes frenetic, it’s important to be able to quickly reconfigure certain camera settings, such as autofocus points and ISO. The EOS R offers a number of ways to accomplish these changes. As an example, I would be photographing groups of flying birds with the “Large Zone AF: Horizontal” setting, and then a bird would land, requiring a smaller focus point, and I’d need to quickly switch to the “Expanded AF area: Around” (9 points). I could quickly accomplish these changes by setting the Multi-function bar at the back of the camera to move between different focus point settings. Sometimes I needed to change ISOs from a sensitive 1600 for action to a lower 400 or 800 ISO when aiming for higher image quality. In this case I set the Control Ring to change ISOs. RF (EOS R-dedicated) lenses have this feature built-in, and one of the three lens adapters for EF lenses has a similar feature. (All of my EF lenses work perfectly with all three of the EOS R lens adapters.) In addition, many of the camera’s functions can be assigned to different buttons on the camera body, and it’s up to the photographer to customize how the camera works for different scenarios and to become proficient with its controls. This is especially important when working with unpredictable wildlife subjects.

Two sandhill cranes interacting in the water

The EOS-R’s Expanded AF area (eight points surrounding a primary AF point) captured the action as two sandhill cranes interact, one seeming to dance as the other critiques. EF 500 f/4L II with EF 2x III tele-extender (1000mm), 1/2000 sec. @ f/13, ISO 800.

Autofocus speed is good on the EOS R. This is the first Canon camera to have a sensor that is configured completely with Dual Pixel AF technology for both stills and video. The advantages are fast and critical focus, even in low light—benefits that showed up time and again in the Bosque shoot.

Two sandhill cranes flying in synchronized formation

A pair of sandhill cranes fly in synchronized formation. The focus point area in the EOS R is set to “Large Zone AF: Horizontal” for quick acquisition of the flying subjects. EF 100-400mm MK II and EF 1.4x tele-extender (560mm) @ 560mm, 1/3000 sec. @ f/11, ISO 1600.


The Evening Fly-In: Last Chance for Action Shots

As the sun meets the horizon, we hope for a colorful sunset. Birds and photographers return to the resting ponds where the geese and cranes will spend the night. I choose my position based on previous experiences, and the birds predictively return in groups to land in the water before me. All the techniques from the morning come into play: fast shutter speeds and framing of flying birds with different AF point areas, “Large Zone AF: Horizontal” for larger groups, and “Expanded AF area: Around” (9 total points) for individuals and more precise focus. Disabling “Image Review” keeps the viewfinder free for active shooting.

Darkness falls as the sun disappears behind the hills to the west, and the photographers gather their equipment and head to the warmth of their vehicles. Amid the sounds of soft farewells and igniting engines, the red streak of taillights begins to move through the reserve as photographers leave for the day.

But not this photographer. Thanks to the bright electronic viewfinder of the EOS R and projected flash, I’m still there, capturing the last fly-ins, their eye-headlights twinkling against the fading colors of the sky.

Three sandhill cranes flying in for the night

After sunset, the EOS R with a projected 600EX-RT flash captures three sandhill cranes as they fly in for the night. High ISO enables a shutter speed and aperture that render the sky with color as the flash lights and stops the birds’ movement. This technique allows the photographer to continue capturing long after others have given up. 100-400mm MK II and EF 1.4x II tele-extender (560mm) @ 560mm, 1/180 sec. @ f/13, ISO 1600.

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