Otterfest 2016

It was time to take a few days off, so I packed the car and drove down for a few days in Morro Bay to unplug and rewind. It’s that time of year in California where not much is happening for Bird and Nature photographers: the skies are either grey with fog and marine layer or some featureless shade of blue, the light is very bright leading to harsh shadows, migration is done and so the bird diversity is limited to common summer residents. For me, summer is the least favorite time of year to photograph and I’m generally already looking forward and planning for fall.

But it’s a good time to experiment, to test out and learn how to use your gear and get comfortable with operating and shooting with it — and I have this new Fuji 100-400 lens I’ve been trying to get comfortable with; and since this lens is moving a big chunk of my photography over to the Fuji side that has a much different working style than my landscape work, it means I have to figure out camera settings and buttons and all of the logistics and start learning how to leverage that camera’s capabilities. That takes practice, time and lots of fuzzy and ugly pictures, and this trip was the first chance I’d had to really do that.

The good news was that the sea otters that live in the harbor were mostly hanging out in the kelp near the rock, which made them accessible and obvious subjects. Even better news was that a couple of them (two, possibly three) were moms who were hauling around pups — fairly large ones.

Otters — instant cute. Otters with pups: mega cute. So I spent parts of two days down on the harbor area with the otters, mostly watching them sleep, because that’s what otters mostly do. And taking pictures. My first shoot was with the Canon 7DmkII and the Sigma 150-600 on the tripod. I came back a couple of days later and hauled out the Fuji X-T1 with the 100-400 and the 1.4x teleconverter, so the canon let me shoot 150-600while the fuji with it’s 1.4X TC also was shooting at 150-600mm. The 7DmkII has the APS 1.6X sensor crop factor while the Fuji’s crop factor is 1.5X, so they’re more or less equivalent.

The only real difference is that when I was shooting Canon it was later in the day when the sun was more behind me, while my shooting with the Fuji was earlier in the day when it was more behind the otters, leading to nasty backlit or at best sidelight conditions.

Here are two images. Can you tell which one is Canon and which is Fuji?

Sea Otters Roughhousing

Sea Otter

The first image is Canon, ISO 400 at 570mm, 1/640 at F/8. The second image is the Fuji, ISO 800 at 560mm, 1/900 at F/8. Other than my inability to nail focus reliably due to lack of practice, both cameras performed quite nicely.

What this means: Mirrorless cameras can now do any job for you.

With the addition of the new Fuji 100-400 lens, the Fuji mirrorless cameras now have the capabilities to do effectively every job you need it to do, and that means that mirrorless cameras have finally matured into a complete imagery platform. Prior to this, mirrorless cameras more or less stalled out at 200mm, and if you needed bigger/stronger lenses, you had to stick with a traditional DLSR from Canon or Nikon. For wide angle, landscape, and street work, I’ve used the Fuji exclusively for a few years, but now that camera can handle everything.

Even more interesting: Fuji has just released it’s 2x teleconverter, which works with the 100-400. I’ve got one on order and will test it soon, and if it works as well as the 1.4x, this means the Fuji can cover a bigger range of magnification than Canon can unless you move into the super-telephoto specialty lenses.

Not inconsequential here: weight. The Canon 7DmkII body and the Sigma 150-600 weigh about 130 ounces — that’s over 8 pounds. The Fuji setup is just over half that: 4.25 pounds. You can, if you’re careful with technical and brace yourself properly, handhold that Sigma, but good luck trying to track a bird in flight with it hand held. And good luck carrying it through the field all day. 3 plus pounds of extra gear is a non-trivial thing at the end of a long day in the field.

Time to update my gear kit postings

This means I’m almost done as a Canon shooter. I’ve been shooting Canon over a decade, having bought a Rebel XT back in 2005. Along the way I’ve used the T3i, T5i, 30d, 7d and now the 7DmkII. But in 2013 I started experimenting with the Fuji and it quickly took over my landscape and wide angle work. I sold off my 24-105 a while back and now Fuji has the lens I need to retire my venerable 70-200 and 2X teleconverter setup that I’ve used for bird work.

So I guess it’s time to update my gear kits.

For now, I’m going to hang on to the Canon gear, but the only time I expect to use it is when I’m in the field and want a camera on a tripod; that’ll let me work the big lens while also having a handhold setup for flight situations. I’ll monitor how much I actually use it, and decide after this winter’s refuge trips whether this makes sense or whether I should sell it off. But for day to day work, I no longer carry any Canon gear — and in fact, the Canon/Sigma setup now lives in its own bag (a Think Tank Glass Taxi) separate from my main bag.

The differences between Canon and Fuji

To be honest, it’s harder and harder to describe when I think Canon gear is the better choice over Fuji. One big difference is cost; Fuji is more expensive, especially when you’re starting out and can use one of the entry level bodies like the T6i. That gap is narrowing when you get away from kit lenses and look at the newer, more expensive generation of lenses like the new Canon 100-400 II, which is about double the cost of the older version.

Overall I think the autofocus on the new bodies like the 7dMKii is superior to Fuji’s AF (but Fuji’s AF is better than the older Canon 7D). The Canon side has a wider range of lenses and better options if you need to get into more exotic lens choices like super-telephoto, tilt/shift and super wide angle.

But for so many aspects of photography, it’s hard to say Canon is the better choice. If you’re a landscape photographer I’ve long felt that Fuji (or Sony) was a better option. Now Fuji has lenses that cover all but the most extreme usage needs, and the X-T1 body has the focus and exposure systems to keep up with almost any action wildlife or nature activity. I find the Fuji sensor gives me truer colors (the Canon sensors run warm with more yellow than I prefer), and Fuji’s images give me a lot better ability to pull detail out of shadows without noise, although the 7DmkII noise profiles are a lot better than older bodies. I prefer Fuji for higher-ISO situations.

So if you’re looking for a camera platform to invest in — and realize you’re basically making an investment you will live with for a decade or more — it’s hard to recommend Canon over Fuji, and as someone who’s been strongly in the Canon camp for over a decade, I’m now 95% a Fuji shooter. If you’re just starting out? Maybe a basic DLSR, but honestly, I’d suggest looking at one of the better point and shoots instead like the Nikon Coolpix P610, which is a great introductory camera — even for bird photography — for half the price of a low end Canon.

To me, the DLSR market has been heavily squeezed by technology advances, whether it’s the iPhone and cameras on smartphones at the low end or the emergence of the mirrorless platforms. Nature/Sports/Action photography was basically that last area where you had to have a DLSR because the mirrorless platforms didn’t have the lenses or capability to keep up with the action. And now with the Fuji 100-400 lens, they’ve closed that gap, and it’s hard to see where the DLSR carries advantages worth buying one instead of a mirrorless option.

And I’ve put my money where my mouth is, and I’m now a Fuji guy, not a Canon guy. And I like it, and I’m not looking back.

And.. otters!

Sea Otter Mom with Pup

Sleeping Sea Otters in a Raft

Great Blue Heron in Flight

Brown Pelican in flight

Double-crested Cormorant

Sea Otter Spin-Dry

Sea Otter Mom with Pup

Sea Otters Roughhousing

Sea Otter

Brown Pelican in flight

Song Sparrow