Photography thoughts – cropping and pixel density, triggered by the release of the Canon 7D mkii

Although this is primarily a blog with images, it is ALSO a blog with the author’s very own opinions about things of photographic relevance to bird and wildlife photographers. This blog entry belongs primarily in the latter category, although there are images in it too.

My first dedicated nature camera was an EOS 7D which I bought used on another bird photographer’s recommendation. I came from a 5D mki, and initially I loved the extra reach that the 1.6x crop factor on the 7D gave me. But after less than a year, my enthusiasm waned, and those of you who are already into surfing the Internet and reading about Canon cameras will already know why; the noise in the shadows was just too much to be acceptable. I sold the 7D again, found myself a 5D and was happy for a bit. The 5D is an OLD piece of kit in digital photography terms, but the 12.8MP sensor in that camera produces some of the sweetest images of any of them. I did run into speed issues rather soon, because the buffer in the 5D overflows very fast, but the sensor, in my view, was just about perfect.

The solution, or so I thought, was to pick up a used (all my cameras have been bought used) 1D mkiii. The sensor on this camera is 30% smaller than in the 5D (crop factor 1.3x vs. the 1.6x in the consumer-grade Canon cameras) and with around 10MP, as compared to the 12.8MP of the 5D, I thought it would be essentially the same sensor, just smaller. Alas it wasn’t, far from it.

The 1D mkiii is considered primarily a sports and action camera, and it is lightning fast. It does something like 10fps, and keeps going for longer than anything else of that vintage – on the surface a brilliant thing for birds as well. BUT the sensor just isn’t any good. At first I thought it was just me, but then I realised I could sort images on Flickr by the make and model of the camera that has produced them, and I used that function to search for bird images made with the 1D mkiii. What I found proved beyond any doubt that it wasn’t just my camera that had a problem – whenever there is out-of-focus shadows in the frame, the noise just gets completely out of hand:

Notice the black legs on this bird, captured with the 1D mkiii in Kruger NP in February 2014. The noise is just unacceptable.

Notice the black legs on this bird, captured with the 1D mkiii in Kruger NP in February 2014. The noise is just unacceptable.

This image is uncropped, straight off the sensor, just reduced in size and resolution for the Internet. The picture was taken by me, but my Flickr research found plenty of similar images from other, more competent photographers. This isn’t to say that there aren’t awesome bird photos out there from the 1D mkiii, just that I wasn’t content.

I then went back to full frame, picking up a well-used 1Ds mkiii. This was originally marketed as a studio camera and is essentially still just the second most recent full-frame model in the pro Canon lineup, since the mkiv was again a crop sensor camera. The 1Ds mkiii has been replaced by the 1Dx, but for hobby photographers that camera is just still wayyy out of reach.

The 1D mkiii that I owned had an almost uncanny ability to focus on whatever I wanted to focus on – and since the 1Ds mkiii should be more or less the same camera, albeit with a full-frame sensor, one would think that this ability would be carried over to the newer model. It may be due to my not having worked out the best settings for each situation, but I haven’t so far been able to prove that. In other words I haven’t had AS much luck with the focusing on the 1Ds as I had with the 1D.

Then I came across a 5D mkii at a bargain price, and I bought it. This camera has more or less the same sensor as the 1Ds mkiii, but is considered too slow for birds and action, with an archaic focusing system and a very low fps rate of something like 2-3fps, combined with a small buffer. In other words we should hate it – but I love it! I only ever use the centre focus point, which is fine in the 5D mkii, or all of them (for birds in flight), and I have been very impressed with the focussing and the images so far. At the time though I couldn’t very well afford to sit on two full-frame cameras, so I sold the 5D mkii again, but then the 1Ds developed a fault that meant I had to send it in for repairs, so I bought another one… Here’s a BIF shot from my first 5D mkii “proving” that is isn’t all as bad as the Internet hype will have you believe when it comes to focusing speed on that camera.

Nice sharp in-flight image. Doesn’t challenge the AF in the way a falcon might, but still…

The other day I was out roaming with no particular purpose, and I was carrying my latest 5D mkii, mounted with the 500mm and the 1.4 mkii TC. The one thing we mustn’t forget when we’re talking wild birds and full-frame cameras is, we’re always a bit short of reach. Some photographers resort to using 2x TC’s (I haven’t got one so can’t comment on image quality from first hand experience, but I have seen excellent results from others), others, like me, may be tempted to stack two TC’s when desperate enough… So anyway I came across this stonechat, and it was real skittish, so I couldn’t get as close as I wanted to:

A somewhat unusual perch for a stonechat. The image is heavily cropped...

A somewhat unusual perch for a stonechat. The image is heavily cropped…

This image is cropped quite a lot – probably even more than the smaller sensor on a 1.6x crop camera would do – and yet the quality remains acceptable up to this display size. At the end of the day I’ll still be getting a 7d mkii when it is finally available, just to get that little bit more reach, but the quality of this image, at ISO 400, is still better than what I was getting off the original 7D when I owned that camera – and when I’m in a hide, close to the birds, the image quality on the full-frame sensor is just so much better that the choice is essentially easy.

To summarise, for my style of photography, and given the choices I have TODAY, before the 7D mkii has become available, owning a full-frame camera is a given. The ability to use my EF 17-40mm f4 L lens the way it is intended to be used is just another bonus, and if I must crop then I will crop, knowing that I can get away with more than one would think.

Some thoughts about the new 7D mkii

About one month ago Canon finally announced the new 7D mkii camera. At this stage the super-keen can pre-order it for delivery in November, but so far very few people have actually seen, let alone shot with, one. Nonetheless there are already plenty of people dissing the camera because it doesn’t have more megapixels (it is announced as a 20MP sensor camera). In my view, the people saying this haven’t understood the first thing about digital image quality (and neither have the mobile phone makers who introduce 40MP mobile phone cameras – but they have a fine understanding for marketing!). High MP count may be remotely relevant for massive prints which are intended to be viewed at close range (oxymoron-alert!), and for cropping – if you can keep the noise in check. But the closer you space the individual photo sensors on the camera sensor, the “noisier” it gets. This was what killed the original 7D for me, and I am overjoyed that Canon HASN’T fallen into the hype trap that cramming more megapixels into the new 7D mkii sensor would have been. As it is I for one think the new camera looks very, very interesting, and if the first real-life tests confirm the initial hype regarding the noise control then this is a game changer in many ways. For one thing, imagine NOT having to spend 3-5000EUR on a used 500mm Big White – on the 7Dmkii, the <1000EUR 300mm f4 lens equals 480mm, and with the 1.4tc becomes a 672mm f5.6 – plenty enough for most birding/wildlife situations. Heck I’m even thinking I might sell the big lens and get a 300mm f2.8 instead, that’d essentially finance the new body AND save me a couple of kilograms when walking with my kit.

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