Thinking your way through upgrading your camera gear

We’ve seen a lot of new gear aimed at those of us who love the high magnification and large telephoto lens side of photography — critter and bird photographers especially. this has had me mulling over how to update my recommendations on what gear to consider and what to avoid.

Also, given my go-to birding body, a Canon 7D, is aging and it’s replacement in the Canon product line is now available, I’ve also been thinking through whether to start planning upgrading my gear and if so, how?

I plan on upgrading my gear guide soon, but here are some working notes for those of you trying to understand what makes sense for those of us who spend our free time shooting pictures of very small, far away things that run or fly away if you try to get too close….

New Lenses:

Canon has (finally) released the new 100-400 lens, replacing the stalwart (but aging) older design. the previous 100-400 was the primary lens many of us used for Bird Photography on the Canon platform. The new 100-400 is about $500 more but seems well worth it. At the time I write this, it’s not shipping, but my strong recommendation is that anyone considering buying a 100-400 wait for the new version to ship and pay the extra money for it. It should be more than work it. I plan on doing some testing and will update this recommendation once I do.

Tamron announced it’s 150-600 lens about a year ago and got critter photographers drooling. Then Tamron evidently had serious manufacturing problems and it was at least six months after the promised release date before units started hitting the market. The results have frankly been mixed; I’ve seen many reports complaining about slow autofocus, especially in poorer light. I’ve heard too many stories of people with problems with the lenses requiring warranty repair, sometimes repeated trips. Overall, this lens seems to be a disappointment, so I can’t recommend it, which is too bad. I was hoping it would live up to potential, but it clearly hasn’t.

Sigma responded with its own 150-600, which is almost double the price of the Tamron. it’s also not shipping yet, but it’s one I plan on testing when I can get my hands on, but at it’s price ($2000) it’s not a cheap option but might be a cheaper option than buying a Canon 500mm or 600mm lens if it lives up to its potential. Right now, it’s too early to tell, and it’s definitely not a lens beginners should be considering at that price.

New Bodies:

Canon has released the 7D Mark II, the follow on to the 7D, which was a very good, prosumer-quality APS sensor camera. It had many features you’d require from a pro-quality body in a more affordable APS format. We could have the fun (not really) argument about APC vs. full frame, but what really mattered about the 7D was that it was an affordable body that turned out really good images at an affordable price.

The 7DmII has been trashed by some, especially the pixel peepers. the DXOmark review was brutal. On the other hand, the in-field reviews and the images I’ve seen have been pretty good. My belief is that the pixel-peepers are trashing it because the 7DmII is an evolutionary upgrade and not a revolutionary one. I think if you look at the 7DmII for what it is, as opposed to what your fantasy wish-list wanted it to be, it’s a pretty good camera and 7D users who want to upgrade or anyone who uses Canon gear who feels they need a more capable body can move to the 7DmII and will be really happy with it. That said, I haven’t tested it yet myself, but I’m looking forward to it.

Before you pull the trigger on a 7DmII, though, I think Canon users should look long and hard at the Canon 70D and perhaps rent one for a test drive before making a decision. It’s a good body with good capabilities, and it’s a lot less money and I believe most critter and bird photographers would rarely hit a situation where the 70D wouldn’t do the job for them — the one exception is how badly your field work could use the truly impressive weathersealing of the 7DmII.

If I were going to buy a replacement body for the 7D today, I’d have a hard time justifying the extra cost of the 7DmII, as much as I like the body. I’d buy the 70D, and I’d recommend it to most of you as well.

What I’m planning to do

What are my plans? For the time being, nothing. I love my current lens setup and the 7D is doing yeoman work and I don’t think I’m going to have an overriding need to upgrade it over the next year, barring theft or some catastrophic failure. It all works really well.

I’m also waiting to see how life over in the Fuji mirrorless universe matures. Fuji has announced a super telephoto for 2015 and the rumor is that it’s a 150-400 (and the Fuji has a 1.5x magnification factor, similar to a Canon APS sensor @ 1.6x). A 400mm lens with a 1.5x factor gives you the 35mm equivalent of 600mm, which would make it a perfect bird/critter lens, if it works well and the Fuji bodies can handle the field aspects of dealing with shooting these things. My feeling is that the XT-1 isn’t quite up to the task, but Dan Bailey has gotten really nice results with Fuji in his adventure photography work. The mirrors bodies are getting close to being able to handle anything we throw at them, and having already shifted my wide angle work to Fuji, I’d love to shift it all, if only to save weight and my back.

So my plan is to wait for the release of that Fuji lens, and see if fuji updates the XT-1. I think a Fuji body with similar capabilities to the 70D and a lens that rolls out to 600mm would be an incredibly nice combination, so I don’t want to invest further in Canon gear until I have the ability to evaluate whether I’m ready to make the jump to 100% Fuji gear. that will happen — sometime — in 2015.

But if I were going to upgrade the Canon gear, the only upgrade I’d consider would be upgrading the 7D to the 70D. If someone were to offer me a really nice discount on a 7DmII, I wouldn’t turn it down, though, but I just don’t think most non-working-pro photographers NEED a 7DmII when the 70D covers what we need so well.

Someone out there want to convince me the difference between a 70D and a 7DmII is worth the extra money?

Posted in Photography

Three Dot Lounge for November 16, 2014

Three dot lounge is a mostly-weekly collection of things that deserve more than a retweet. Stay tuned for fascinating opinions and pithy commentary. Also keep an eye on my Twitter feed for more interesting stuff.

Probe finds San Francisco Zoo gorilla pen unsafe

Probe finds San Francisco Zoo gorilla pen unsafe

Laurie and I were donors of fairly large donations to the SF Zoo for a number of years. We finally moved our donation money elsewhere for a a number of reasons, some of which included it being far enough away that we simply didn’t get up there very often, and when we went to member functions like night tours, they were so crowded they weren’t worth it.

But the big reason we pulled our funding was how poorly the facility was handling the upkeep and upgrading of its facilities (to be fair, at that time, the zoo was under the control of the City, which did an incredibly bad job of funding and a worse job of allowing the zoo to work around the city’s poor funding — since resolved by spinning the zoo out of City control). The zoo seemed to always have great plans to upgrade the facilities and poor ability to actually implement them.

The San Francisco Zoo is infamous for the Siberian Tiger escape that killed one person, but there have been cases of handlers injured during feeding, and now this tragic death of a gorilla.

Baby Lowland Gorilla

This was shot at that facility on my last trip in 2010. There’s a common theme among all three of the problems I mention: the two Tiger attacks both happened in WPA-era facilities that were planned for upgrades but never were; the Gorilla facility was built around 1980 and is 30 years old; the cause of death of the baby gorilla seems to be a combination of some operator inattention and a door without basic safety equipment (no beam alarm like every garage on every house has had for 25 years) and poorly designed and operating door mechanics.

I felt the facility the gorillas live in looked shabby on my last visit; state of the art clearly has moved on and the Zoo hasn’t updated the facility to match that. This lack of investment in facilities now has led to the death of their gorilla.

And unfortunately, given the people who have led the zoo over the years and the board that backs them, none of this surprises me. Which explains why they don’t get any of our money any more, and why my last visit there was four years ago…

this is an incredibly sad event, should have been 100% preventable, but wasn’t, and that just reinforces my belief that this zoo needs a complete reinvention starting with their executive and leadership teams. I don’t blame the handlers and the people on the ground, it’s not their fault the facilities at this zoo are so far behind state of the art.


Posted in Three Dot Lounge

Sandhill Cranes in Flight, Merced NWR

So hey, until I have time to actually get my Photo of the Day series going properly again, here’s one from my visit to Merced NWR to whet your appetite. Mostly unprocessed but worth a look…

Sandhill Cranes in Flight
Posted in Photo of the Day

Still here, life intervenes

More apologies for the radio silence, life continues to intervene. I had to head down to SoCal to visit mom and deal with some things for her, which, having finally gotten on top of everything at work, put me back a few days which I’ve been pushing to catch back up on. We’re still going crazy trying to get Cisco Live Milan ready (hint; you’re going to want to be there) as well.

I’m spending some time this weekend trying to push some of the writing forward; I literally have about eight pieces half written, and sooner or later they’ll actually show up here. There have been a lot of changes in the camera landscape (ba-dump) as well that will impact bird photographers, and so I need to update my recommendation pages for that (quick notes: Really like the new Canon 100-400; I keep hearing of problems with the Tamron 150-600 — when it works, it seems to be a nice lens if slow AF, but I’m hearing way too many reports of problems with it requiring repairs, so it’s not on my recommended list; and finally, the new Canon 7D Mark II looks to be a nice follow on to the 7D — it’s getting criticism in some corners, but that seems mostly because it’s an evolutionary upgrade, not a revolutionary one. More on all this ‘soon’).

I haven’t had a chance to write the final update in the “not dead yet” sequence. It’s next. But the quick note is that (a) still not dead yet, (b) putting together an exercise program is hard, and (c) the latest number is 386, which is the lowest I’ve weighed since 2007 and is putting me close to what I weighed when I left Apple, which is a symbolic landmark in my life I now call “when I decided I had to get my life together again”.

On the trip to SoCal, I made a quick stop at Merced NWR, and on the way home overnighted in Morro Bay where I spent some time trying to see the Bald Eagle that’s decided to hang out around Sweet Springs Nature Preserve (heard, not seen, and then the fog kicked in hard and killed my photography for the trip). Haven’t had a chance to touch any of the images, but the monitor calibration software I use just had it’s Yosemite-capable release and so I’m now calibrated again and it’s time to dig in and start processing all of my backlog. Except, of course, now I also have to calibrate the printer and papers, and….

It’s always something…

Posted in About Chuq, Birdwatching, Photography

Three Dot Lounge for November 2, 2014

Three dot lounge is a mostly-weekly (whimper) collection of things that deserve more than a retweet. Stay tuned for fascinating opinions and pithy commentary. Also keep an eye on my Twitter feed for more interesting stuff.

A Decade at the Fruit Company

A Decade at the Fruit Company

Don Melton talks about his time working for Apple at NSNorth. It’s a fascinating (and accurate) talk about building things at Apple, which in reality is a lot different than what people on the outside think it’s like. (for even more from Don and Nitin Ganatra, another ex apple development manager, check out iMore’s podcast Debug episodes 47 and 48. Fascinating stuff).

All of this matches up my experience at Mama Fruit. I spent most of my time — and all of the time after Steve returned — in IS&T where the deadline dynamics were different but just as intense. I never had to demo software for Steve, but I did watch as Steve would obsess about placement of a comma in a marketing email during a launch. He sweated that kind of detail on that many things around the company, which seems insane for a company of that size — and maybe it was — but it was one way to install that level of detail sweating into every aspect of the company, and that’s part of how he changed the company DNA to value and demand that kind of quality at all levels. That, I think, is a big reason why Apple is the company it is today.

You don’t “change corporate culture” by issuing memos. You do it by living it and embracing those changes starting at the top, and Steve knew that. It also at times requiring putting someone’s head on a stake outside corporate headquarters, and Steve wasn’t afraid to do that, too, when he ran into an organization head that wouldn’t buy in — and that was a huge problem at Apple when Steve came back and one Gil Amelios was fighting every day (and often losing).

So if you’re curious about Steve and Apple, these are much better glimpses into the insides of the company than most, because Don was there, succeeded in it, and survived to show off the scars…

Twitter’s “peace offering” to developers is meaningless

Twitter’s “peace offering” to developers is meaningless

When I was wrangling developers for Palm, one of the things I used to tell them was to be very careful about building applications around third party systems where they had no guarantees their stuff would continue to work. In many cases they were scraping/hacking sites without formal APIs (like Google Voice, which hosed people more than once — but which never had any official access, so it’s not Google’s fault), but even with these published APIs, I suggested that if there were no guarantees of continues access/compatibility, or if the API ‘agreements’ included the standard ‘we can change our mind and do anything we want any time we want without warning’ clauses, I encouraged people to think twice about programming against those APIs. For the most part developers went with their enthusiasm, and unfortunately, some of the developers got seriously screwed along the way and had their applications killed off out from under them.

And then Twitter decided the developers that built all of the clients that basically made Twitter successful were inconvenient, and screwed the entire developer community built up around them. Which is exactly the kind of worry I had when I was telling developers to be careful about working with companies that don’t partner with third parties or give them any guarantees on access into the future. It was the perfect storm of how a company should never treat those that have been committing resources to help a company succeed by building an ecosystem around it.

And now Twitter is saying “well, forget that. things are all better now. really. come back”. It would be a cold day in hell before I ever wrote a line of code interacting with Twitter, to put it bluntly. They haven’t rebuilt any trust and I would never suggest someone get involved with this new “we don’t hate you any more” system. Not unless Twitter goes a lot further into guaranteeing they can’t — in their formal agreements — do to developers again what they did last time.

And in general, when you’re considering writing an app using an API, stop and look at what the agreements are; not just what they let you as the developer do, but what the company promises in return. Because you don’t want to invest months of development time only to wake up one morning with a broken app and a “we decided to go in a different direction” from the company you used to think you were a partner with.

There’s an even longer, larger, and more profanity-filled version of this discussion having to do with my long, deep look at diving into IOS programming in my “after Palm” life, and why I decided not to, because what I’ve just written goes just as strongly for App Stores like Apple, and Apple is a place that does not treat it’s developers well at all, and you need to go in with eyes wide open when treading into writing Apps that go into one of Apple’s App Stores. Just ask the Pcalc guy.


Posted in Three Dot Lounge