On the Way Home, Valuable Flight Photography Gear and ISO Lessons, and a 100-400II/7D II Disadvantage… « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

On the Way Home, Valuable Flight Photography Gear and ISO Lessons, and a 100-400II/7D II Disadvantage...

What’s Up?

I am in my hotel room in Guayaquil, Ecuador after experiencing a truly memorable voyage and group. When I got up last night to make a pit stop, the hotel room was rocking gently….

We finished off the 2015 Galapagos Photo Cruise yesterday with a spectacular morning at North Seymour Island. Our session lasted from 6:00am till 9:30am; we were blessed with spectacular early morning light and then again by thickening cloud cover. Just what the doctor ordered. We spent a magical morning photographing fluffy white frigatebird chicks, adults with inflated red pouches both perched and in flight, and displaying Blue-footed Boobies. Best of all was a bright yellow Land Iguana basking in golden early morning light.

We bid a fond farewell to our ship, our great guide, and our great crew. Most folks wound up tipping several crew members above and beyond the required generous tip schedule. I began working on this blog post several day ago, worked on it on the flight to Guayaquil on Tuesday, and put the finishing touches on it this morning after arising at 1:56am. My wake-up call was at 3am, my flights home begin at 5:58am. Jim will be picking up Chris Billman and me a bit after 2pm at MCO.

The 2017 BIRDS AS ART/A Creative Adventure Galapagos Photo Cruise

I would assume that after viewing the variety and quality of the images in this and in coming blog post that most passionate nature photographers would wish to join us on the next Galapagos photo adventure during the first two weeks of August, 2017. If that includes you, please shoot me an e-mail with the words “Galapagos August 2017 Photo-Cruise” cut and pasted into the Subject Line. Details will be announced shortly after I get back. The best news is that there will be two great leaders, yours truly and Denise Ippolito.

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This image was created at Darwin Bay, Genovesa (Tower Island) at 6:18am on Day 13 of the 2015 Galapagos Photo Cruise with the hand held Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM lens and the Canon EOS-1D X. ISO 1600. Evaluative metering +2 stops off the grey sky: 1/800 sec. at f/4 in Manual mode in cloudy dark conditions was a slight underexposure. AWB.

Center AF point/AI Servo Expand/Shutter Button AF was active at the moment of exposure. Though the selected AF point was on the bird’s upper back the image was exceptionally sharp on the booby’s eye. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Image #1: White morph Red-footed Booby landing to collect nesting material

The Very Challenging Situation…

It was early. It was cloudy dark. Dozens of Red-footed Boobies were coming in to land on the beach right in front of us to gather some vegetation that they would use to line their nests. About 5% of the Galapagos birds are the striking white morphs. About 90% are the intermediate morphs with their light tan heads. And the remaining 5% are the all-brown dark morphs.

There were many challenges:

1-Getting enough shutter speed for flight photography. Here, the big advantage went to the folks with faster lenses. I scrapped my 100-400 II (at f/5.6) in favor of my 400 DO II with its one stop wider aperture of f/4. This saved me one full stop of ISO.

2-As I knew that I would be needing a high ISO, I ditched the 7D II for the heavier 1D X and its better high ISO performance.

3-Lack of contrast. As the light was soft there was barely any contrast for the AF system to work with. AF acquired and locked on a bit faster with the white morph birds but even then acquiring focus and creating sharp images was no gimme. And when you had the intermediate morphs again backgrounds of gray cliff or green vegetation acquiring focus was nearly impossible.

4-Backgrounds other than sky. As pretty much all flight photographers know, photographing birds in flight against sky backgrounds is relative child’s play as compared to–as hinted at above–photographing them against backgrounds other than sky. Even with my Custom Case settings the camera will begin to hunt in low contrast, low light, background other than sky situations.

My Solution

I went with the 400 DO II/1D X combination. At times I was wishing that I had brought the 70-200 f/2.8 IS II to shore but in retrospect the wider angle of view would not have allowed for the lovely background in the image above. The extra stop of speed, however, would have been a big plus. I used center point AI Servo Expand. I set the ISO to 1600 and the aperture to f/4. Reading 2 1/3 stops off the sky yielded a shutter speed of 1/500 sec. for the brown birds (even though I knew that this would be a significant underexposure). I went two clicks fast to 1/800 sec. at f/4 for the white morphs. I wound up keep about 50 images from the flight session, 40 of those of intermediate morph birds.


This image was also created at Darwin Bay, Genovesa (Tower Island), this one at 6:31am of Day 13. Again I used the hand held Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM lens and the Canon EOS-1D X. ISO 1600: 1/800 sec. at f/4 in Manual mode in cloudy dark conditions. As I was mistakenly set up for a white morph bird this one was about 2/3 stop underexposed. . AWB.

Center AF point/AI Servo Expand/Shutter Button AF was active at the moment of exposure. Though the selected AF point was squarely on the bird’s face, a rarity for me…. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Image #2: Intermediate morph Red-footed Booby taking flight with nesting material

The 100-400 II/7D II Disadvantage…

The many participants with the above combination were in dire straits; their f/5.6 apertures had them at ISO 3200. Note that 1/500 sec at f/4 at ISO 1600 is 1/500 sec at f/5.6 at ISO 3200; there is no getting around the f-stop math. Simply put, working at ISO 3200 is not advised for the 7D II. Note however that if you wanted to try to create a sharp image in the extremely difficult situation that we were faced with you had no choice but to work with ISO 3200.

Shutter Speed Flight Considerations

While many advise using a minimum shutter speed of 1/1600 second or even 1/2000 second for flight photography, I have aways been comfortable working at 1/500 sec. when I am hard pressed to keep the ISO down. Yes, on occasion, the wingtips will be somewhat blurred at 1/500 but I often like that look. And I have seen blurred wingtips at 1/3200 and sharp ones at 1/500. Try it and let me know how you do. Do you have a preferred minimum shutter speed for flight photography?


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11 comments to On the Way Home, Valuable Flight Photography Gear and ISO Lessons, and a 100-400II/7D II Disadvantage…

  • avatar Nick Sharp

    Hi Artie,
    The new 100-400mm IS II we just ordered is on the way. We also purchased a 7DII a few months back via your web link. No, I haven’t used ISO 1600 on the 7DII yet. The max. that I have used was ISO 1250. I try to stay at ISO 800 with the 7DII. We are in the U.S. Your UK Puffin IPT is very attractive. It is on our trip list. Thanks for the great information you share in your blog.

  • avatar Nick Sharp

    Great Shots as always. I totally agree with you that 1DX is the top choice for low light situation although the 7D2 is very capable. By the way, my wife just ordered a Canon 100-400mm IS II via your link. Can’t wait to try out the lens.

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Many thanks. Do you ever use the 7D II at ISO 1600?

      Many thanks for the link purchase? Are you guys in the UK?

      IAC, you should both join us in August 2017. My good friend Indranil Sircar did the whole trip with the 100-400 II/7D II combo and made tons of great images while traveling very light. He has graciously agreed to share some of those with us here in a guest blog post.


      ps: do shoot me an e-mail if you would like to receive early notice as we already have lots of interest.

  • avatar David Policansky

    Hi, Artie. Wonderful images and it sounds like a wonderful trip. Of course I want to go, but it’s a money thing that I have to figure out. I like image 1 even better than image 2, for the bird’s face and its feet. Not normally my favorite wing action but it works perfectly in this case. I don’t normally have a particular preferred shutter speed except as fast as possible, but I like to stay at ISO 640 or less, to 1600 only if I really have to with my 7D2. For sandhill cranes I can get by with a lower shutter speed than for least terns. I get that the 100-400 is a stop slower than the DO 400 and that the 1DX does higher ISOs better than the 7D2–so does my 6D, by a lot–but every combo has limitations. Knowing I can’t do everything with mine, I still have far more good photo opportunities than I can take full advantage of, even with the limitations.

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      You have two years so start saving 🙂 We will be asking for the $5,000 non-refundable deposits soon.

      In difficult situations like this I always ask, “When you croak, do you think that you will have 12,499 in the bank?”

      My philosophy is that we only get one ride on the merry go round. I hope that you can work it out. a

  • avatar Charles Thompson

    Welcome Home!

    Sounds like a great adventure!

    Images 1 and 2 strike me as favorites among so much of your work.

    RE Sharpness in 2 looks right to me in light of the background; any sharper and I think the edges would take on that ‘fake studio prop’ look.

    Looking forward to images and details of your trip.

  • avatar Jean-Louis

    Great images. Would your 300L F 2.8 series ll been the lens of choice, had it been handy?

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Yes. One stop faster with a narrower angle of view than the 70-200 f/2.8L IS. My 300 II was at home 🙂 a

  • avatar Geoff

    Glad to hear the trip went well. I have a strong itch to go back to the Galapagos as when I went in 2011 I was just beginning to get into photography and birds. I shot with my 7D and 100-400 back then and would love to return with my newer gear and 4 years of skill improvement in photographing birds. Maybe I will consider the 2017 but need to wait a bit to make a final decision.

    Personally I usually trend towards 1/1000 and 1/1250 for BIF just out of habit and that is often for large relatively slow bald eagles. I trend towards 1/2000 up to 1/3200 for Arctic terns. Other than that I don’t get the opportunity for many other BIF. I think I will challenge myself next time with my eagles to drop the SS a bit like you mention.

    I would assume that the ideal lens to have had in the red-booby situation would have been the 300 f/2.8 IS II. Were you wishing you had it with you instead of the 400 f/4 IS DO II? Did you miss the 200-400 on the trip? My current gear is 300II, 200-400, 600II, 100-400II and 70-200f/2.8II. I think if I went to Galapagos I would either go with 200-400 and 70-200 OR 300II and 100-400II. TCs of course with either setup.

    Great images, I prefer the first one, I found the 2nd to look a little soft when viewed larger…that is the first time I can ever recall seeing an image on here that didn’t present as tack sharp?? Are my eyes going bad or do you agree it isn’t as sharp as the usual?

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Hi Geoff, You should plan on joining us in August of 2017. Simply put, my Galapagos Photo-Cruises are without equal. No others even come close. Details soon

      Good plan on trying 1/500 sec. when you are ISO challenged.

      At times I missed the 200-400 but with cloudy bright conditions most of the time the 100-400II performed perfectly and save me a shade under 4 1/2 pounds….

      On that morning only I wished in retrospect that I had had the 300 f/2.8L IS II. But on the whole, I was glad that I brought the 400DO II for the extra reach. And I made some killer images with the 400 DO and the 2X III TC, even with the 7D II. Images to follow.

      The 2nd image is sharp enough but surely not as sharp as the first. Why? Lack of contrast.

      Shoot me an e-mail if you would like advance notice of the AUG 2017 trip. To be frank, folks who choose to go to the Galapagos on a trip other than a BAA Photo Cruise are missing tons…. a