Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Velvet Is Shed As Pennsylvania Elk Rut Approaches

August is a month of change for the Pennsylvania elk herd.  The antlers complete their development in July and the velvet dries out and cracks in early to mid-August with many bulls starting the shedding process during the second week of August.  I was in Pennsylvania Elk Country from August 15th through the 19th, looking to document this process and  found what would prove to be the largest bull of the trip lying in a meadow beside Winslow Hill Road on Monday evening.

9x8 Bull Elk Starting To Shed Velvet
It is difficult to see with the size of the photo on the blog, but count forward three points from the back of the left beam and then look just below the two points that are clustered together and you can see the first bloody, partially bare patch on his antlers.  Eventually he got up, dislodged some apples from a nearby tree with his antlers, and rubbed the velvet against the limbs.  At this point one could also see some blood and partially bare areas on the other antler as well.

I found him in the same spot at dawn on Tuesday morning and the shedding was much more advanced, but he still had a long way to go.

Bare Spots Are Larger Next Morning With Strips Of Velvet Hanging Loose
I was at this meadow at dawn on Thursday morning , but he was not there so I went on the Hick's Run viewing area where I saw a lot of whitetail deer, but sometime after I left  well known elk watcher and photographer Lamie Wheler saw him crossing the meadow and took a series of photos of  him as he violently rubbed an autumn olive bush less than twenty yards from the road.  This was exactly what I wanted to film with the video camera, but alas I was in the wrong place.  Later in the morning I encountered him at the edge of some woodlands and only a few strips of velvet remained.

Shedding Almost Complete On Thursday Morning
I checked the meadow again that evening as dusk was falling and he was moving across it in such a manner that  it was obvious that he was not going to linger long enough to take still photographs so I mounted the Canon XL-H1 camcorder and got a a few video clips before he vanished from sight.  As best as I could tell the antlers were completely bare by this point.  All of the above photos were taken with the Canon 500mmF4 IS.  The first two are with the Canon 7D and the third with the T3i.

I hope to post more photographs from the trip over the next few days, but the trip was not only about photography, but  elk management issues as well. With the annual  drawing for elk licenses being held in September and elk season being held from October 31--November 5th and the extended season from November 7th through the 12th--there is is quite a bit of talk about the events of the past season and the decision to issue 10 of the 18 bull tags for Zone 2, 8, and 10 this year.  These are the zones that most directly impact the areas where most visitors look for elk.  If one includes the special conservation tag, this means a total of 11 of the bulls that frequent the center of elk related tourism could be killed.  With hunter success rate running between approximately 90-100% on bulls this effectively means that there is a high possibility that at least 10 of the bulls that you see on Winslow Hill this September will be dead by mid-November.

As disturbing as this is, it was eclipsed by an eyewitness account of the killing of a bull during the past season.  I hope to share at least portions of this story in the next post.

Originally posted at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Canon T3i: A Powerful Tool For Long Range Video

In early2011 Canon introduced a new top of the line entry level DSLR, which is known in most of the world as the 600D, but is called the T3i here in the United States.  It features an 18 MP sensor as does the 7D and the 60D.  They camera is available as a body only, or in kit form with the 18mm-55mm f3.5-5.6 IS II.  This post is not intended to be an in-depth review of the camera, but will rather dwell on what factors influenced me to purchase it over other models that at first glance may appear more desirable.

Canon T3i with 18mm-55mm f3.5-5.6 IS II Lens, Rode Videomic Pro, Manfrotto 516 Video Head
Lets face it, I am primarily a video shooter with a strong interest in still photography and even call this blog Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer, but when push comes to shove I will turn to the video over the still.  Even at this point I think still photography is better suited for blogging as in many cases a video will not play back smoothly or quickly online and readers do not want to take the time to deal with it. Suffice it to say that my still photography has often suffered due to taking second place to video.  A prime example is that while I almost always use a tripod to shoot video, I have taken a lot of Pennsylvania elk stills handheld or without some of my best lenses, because I used  the tripod for the camcorder and shot the still camera hand-held--often resting it over the top of the camcorder to obtain an extra measure of steadiness.  HD camcorders can take still photos, which are usable on the internet, but not suitable for enlargement purposes.

When the Canon 7D became available I had high hopes that it would enable me to take both high quality stills and video  and thus alleviate or eliminate the need for two separate systems, but while it did improve things it still did not allow serious wildlife film makers to move away from cameras such as the Canon XL-H1.  The Canon XL series uses (or should I say used--as they are now discontinued?)  an EF adapter to enable one to attach Canon mount still lenses.  Since the video cameras have 1/3' sensors, this makes a given focal length effectively 7.2X more powerful than it is on a 35mm camera.  In practical purposes this means that a 500mm lens becomes a 3,600mm 35 equivalent on an XL-H1.  One can often crop a photo quite a bit during post processing in still photography, but even high definition video is currently only about 2MP and one must be very restrained at cropping in post production so one either gets acceptable image size by getting close or by using a very powerful lens and these adapters enable one to use the powerful lenses.  The downside is that the cameras are/were very expensive with the XL-H1 coming on the market at nearly $10,000 in 2005 and dropping to the $8,000 range until it was replaced by the XL-H1s which sold for about the same price range.

At his point Canon has not yet offered a replacement for the XL cameras and while it is assumed that one is coming it will almost certainly be a different lens mount and the price will likely be very steep.  With that in mind, I am always hoping that a more economical way develops to take long rang video footage.

I got the 7D in October of 2009 and have been shooting it and a 40D since then, while still pressing a 30D into service at times, but this spring I was thinking that with my strong video interest that I needed to have both DSLRS to have video capability and this really came to a head one morning in late spring when I was taking stills with the 7D and 300mm 2.8 and the 40D with 70-200mm f2.8.  I was checking images on the LCDs to evaluate what I had taken and even though I had been aware of this all along at this point it really came home to me how good it was to have an LCD that was sharp enough to evaluate the sharpness of a photo.  At this point I decided that the 40D had to be retired.  I had almost decided to order a Canon 60D, which has HD video, an articulating LCD, and manual audio control.  The last two features make the 60D superior to the 7D for video.  In my research I noted that the 60D also had a "crop mode" which gave an added telephoto effect, but that this feature was in standard definition only.  A bit more reading and I found that the new Rebel, the T3i, actually had a 3X crop factor that was HD quality.  It is beyond the scope of this post to explain this completely, but bearing in mind that HD video is only 2MP, camera manufacturers reduce the resolution of an 18mp sensor to 2MP when recording video.  In short they are able to take a 3x crop from the T3i sensor and get the 2MP needed for HD without actually cropping pixels and destroying fine detail as is the case with using what is usually known as "digital zoom".  While Canon says the camera has a 3x-10X digital zoom--the 3X does not degrade quality (in fact some claim it is superior as it does not show some of the artifacts caused by scaling an 18mp image to a 2mp), while the 5X and 10X does as it does begin enlarging pixels beyond 3X.

Now with most of the technical talk behind us, what does this mean in terms of practical application to wildlife filming?  Today we will deal with this camera and the 500mm F4 Canon lens with 1.4 extender attached.  First the T3i along with the 7D and 60D has an aps-c sensor which has a 1.6 crop factor in Canon cameras compared to 35mm.  This alone makes the 500mm the 35mm equivalent of of an 800mm lens.  When one adds the 1.4 extender, it becomes  the 35mm equivalent of 1,120mm.

Canon T3i with 500mm F4 IS Lens and 1.4x Extender
While some would consider this to be an unwieldy rig, it is actually much easier to control than an XL-H1 with the same lens and I think it is easier to carry than the XL with even smaller lenses such as the 100-400mm Canon L.  First lets look at some whitetails feeding at  a tremendous distance and at this point we will just look at a photograph of the LCD.  The first photo is the 500mm F4 and 1.4 extender without the 3x crop engaged.

Canon T3i with 500mm F4 IS Lens and 1.4x Extender 1,120mm  35mm equivalent
Now lets look at deer at the same distance with the 3X crop engaged--the composition has changed somewhat, but this is still the same distance.  (I am not sure of the distance, but it has to be over 400 yards and may be well over it as I did check the distance on some clips that I took of deer that were much closer and they were over 300 yards).  At this setting the lens becomes a mind-boggling 3,360 35mm equivalent.

Canon T3i with 500mm F4 IS Lens, 1.4x Extender with 3x crop engaged: 3,360mm 35mm equivalent
Camera In Position: Red Cross Marks Where Deer Are Feeding
At this point you may be asking, why not just get closer?  Well, this is not always an option, especially with wild whitetail deer such as these ,which are in hunting country, or in the case of other birds and animals which are very small or shy..  This much power can also be useful around restricted areas where one may not enter.  In this particular circumstance, these deer are utilizing a group of backcountry fields that area spread over a large area, yet by standing in one central portion a person can see everything of importance, yet it they try to hide in a particular spot to get closeups with a normal video camera or even a big still rig, it is very hard to find a spot that gives one a good vantage point and then it is likely that the center of activity will be in another spot, As an example I recorded more bucks at this spot in just a few days , than I was able to in an entire summer using ordinary camcorders and got excellent results while doing so.

I hope to continue this discussion at some point and give more tips about long range filming, but for now I will close with two clips taken  at slightly over 300 yards distance. The first is of a whitetail buck taken in early morning with the 500mm F4 and 3X crop for an effective focal length of 2,400mm at ISO 400.

The second is of this buck interacting with a smaller yet impressive buck and is taken at about the same distance and at ISO 400 with the 500mm F4 with the 1.4 extender and 3X crop mode for an effective focal length of 3,360mm.

Originally posted at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill