Review: Canon 100-400mm II lens

I am extremely impressed with this lens. There is plenty of sharpness, and the IS and lightweight to make it a formidable handholding tool.  I started using it more and more over the last few weeks, mainly in response to getting the new 1DX2. As I acquainted myself with the new body, I wanted to use something reasonably sized.  Otherwise, I would look like a major creep walking around Mountain View parks while toting my big 600mm. I’m sure I still look like a creep either way.
Assuming 400mm is adequate for your needs, you cannot go wrong with it. As is true for many others, the first edition of this lens was my gateway into the super tele world. It was a workhorse that yielded  stunning results. Only when I began my “affair” with the 600mm II, did the honeymoon with the 100-400 end.
Over the last couple years I have been holding down a 3 body kit for wildlife: super tele; mid range zoom; ultra wide. I’d stick the 600mm on the 1DX, constantly swapping 1.4x TCs. The 70-200mm on the 1D4, occasionally with 1.4x TC. And my sidearm was 14mm/11-24mm on the 6D.  This had me covered well for most of the situations I put myself in, and there wasn’t any real demand for anything in that 350-500mm range. That all began to change after getting the 7D2.  This body immediately replaced the 1D4 in my kit for use with the midrange zoom. With the crop, a 70-200 became 320mm equivalent, and I was reminded of how useful those focal lengths were.
The 100-400II with 7D2 is a natural pairing, sacrificing the wide end, its 640mm equivalent reach was great. I found it too prohibitive with a 1.4x extender, locked to the center AF points at f/8. This is where the 1DX2 comes into the picture, as it has 61 AF pts at f/8.
As for how the 100-400 compares, I would argue it is quite similar to 70-200 in sharpness. Sometimes I think 100-400 is better, other times I am back to the 70-200. The IS is about the same as 70-200.  When using extenders on the 100-400, I have found that on the 1DX and 1DX2, I can easily use the 1.4x TC with minimal degradation. I do not use extenders with the 7D; I think the pixel density is to high.
As long as there is sufficient light, I am comfortable using the 1.4x on 100-400 at f/8.  In fact, it performs much better than I ever expected. To be honest, I didn’t have much faith it would, and it wasn’t the reason I bought. However, had I known it was this good, I would have bought the lens much sooner, and now I have to figure out how I wrangle it away from Jenna 😉

Arctic Blast

Day 2 of the 7 day Photo Challenge
Arctic Blast
Churchill, Manitoba, Canada
A red fox braces against the wind during a Manitoba blizzard. The high winds kicked up a lot of snow and decreased the visibility. To make this photo, I stopped down the lens to increase the depth of field, in case an errantsnowflake threw the autofocus off and waited for a lull in the gusts for a clear shot. The intensity of the winds can be observed by the horizontal streaks cutting across the frame. The fox’s bushy tail behaved more like a sail, and would catch the wind, altering its trajectory, making it move kind of sideways across the tundra. Note the beautiful lichens growing on the exposed part of the rock.
Canon EOS 1DX, Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM, handheld
1/200s; f/10; 600mm; ISO1600



On my second day I nominate Meril Darees ofMnmwow – Wildlife Photography. Meril is a world class wildlife photographer and one of my closest friends. I have spent thousands of hours shooting with him in the field: Churchill, Yellowstone, Canadian Rockies, California, Svalbard, and 5+ trips to Alaska. Over all these trips I have learned a lot from him, and significantly improved as a photographer. Please check out his work and give his page a like!

I was nominated by Barrett Hedges of BearHead Photography
Day 1- Jack Cunningham http://www.jackcunninghamphoto.com/
#challengeonnaturephotography

Polar Hide and Polar Seek


7 Day Nature Photo Challenge: Day 1
My friend Barrett of BearHead Photography nominated me for the Nature Photo Challenge. Barrett is an incredible photographer, and intimately in tune with nature. His beautiful work reflects this perfectly. Thanks for the nomination! Let’s see if I am able to keep up with this….the goal is to post one photo for the next seven days, all while nominating a new person each day.

Polar Hide and Polar Seek
Svalbard
Spotting wildlife is never guaranteed. In fact, at times it feels like Mother Nature is actively advising her creatures to hide from me. But every now and then, she surprises you with a scene that goes beyond your wildest dreams. This was the case for these courting polar bears in the high arctic.

On the final full day of my 11 day Svalbard expedition, we sailed to a location not typically known for hosting polar bears. I was sad that, in all likelihood, I had already seen the trip’s last polar bear. But it had been a good trip for bears; with 20 or so sightings around the archipelago, and the weather on this day was great. The low angle polar sun provided perfect photographic conditions. Lots of light, blue sky, and puffy clouds. We manned the zodiacs with the goal of bird photography. I observed these two bears and the agenda quickly shifted….

In this scene, a large adult male bear is following an adult female. The sexual dimorphism between them is striking. But despite his substantial size advantage, the male behaved like a nervous teenager that lacks the courage to ask for a date. The female played it cool. Mostly ignoring him as she sniffed the beach, occasionally giving him a playful glance back. This ballet went on for over 2 hours. These bears had each other’s full attention; my zodiac and I weren’t given a passing glance. At one point the female slipped behind this lichen covered rock, as if to hide from her suitor. With the line of sight on his target temporarily obstructed, he froze in his tracks, and waited for her to reappear. I was able to capture this moment, complete with his reaction.

The famous polar bear warning signs posted in Svalbard have the Norwegian words: “Gjelder hele Svalbard” and the image of a polar bear. Which means “Polar Bears to be found all over Svalbard”. The sweetest words in the Norwegian language!

I was nominated by Barrett Hedges of BearHead, and will nominate my friend and fellow polar bear photographer Jack Cunningham. Jack and I met shooting brown bears in Alaska and have traveled to Churchill for polar bears. Check out his website herehttp://www.jackcunninghamphoto.com/
#challengeonnaturephotography

Svalbard: Alkefjellet

A zodiac explores Alkefjellet in Svalbard. Look how small the human component is in the scheme of things.

Some of the most influential forces experienced by planet Earth are contained within the borders of this photo. To list a few: glacial ice, volcanic basalt, Carboniferous limestone, and human existence can all be observed in the scene. Each component has contributed significantly to day-to-day operations of our planet. Whether we are aware of it or not.

Volcanoes erupt rock and create new landscapes, and glaciers polish these new landscapes away. The cliff’s white limestone base indicates one of the more prolific periods in the geologic record; the Carboniferous. This is the period of when forests dominated the landscape, and extraordinary amounts of carbon were sequestered in limestone and coal fields. As such, the Carboniferous period also is responsible for much of the coal and fossil fuels used by industrial man. It is the release of this sequestered carbon that contributes to acceleration of climate change, and increasing the rate of retreat for the glacier depicted here.
Aug 21, 2015
#svalbard #glacier #zodiac #volcano

A zodiac is swallowed by the massive cliff off the northern coast of Spitsbergen.
A zodiac is swallowed by the massive cliff off the northern coast of Spitsbergen.

Eye to Eye: American Marten

I am proud to announce that I received Highly Honored in the Wildlife category of the 2015 Windland Smith Rice International Awards Photo Contest by Nature’s Best Photography. This photo of an American Marten is one that I am particularly proud of capturing; and to receive this distinction makes the experience even more special to me. On top of that, getting this news is a great way to celebrate my 32nd birthday!
Please read the description below for more details behind how this photo was created:
——
Eye to Eye: American Marten
Eye to Eye: American Marten
American Marten
Martes americana
Yellowstone National Park, USA

By Tim Auer
Mountain View, California, USA
www.4b.io

The story:
Look closely into this marten’s eyes. If you look carefully, you can see the reflection of the forest scene before it.

A curious and playful species, the american marten is not an easy animal to photograph. It is small and fast with an ability to vanish as quickly as it appeared, and certainly won’t wait for you to switch to your telephoto lens. If a wildlife photographer wishes to capture this species in its natural habitat, s/he needs to be prepared upon encounter..

As is typical of special wildlife photos, this image is the result of preparation, and a bit of luck. While snowmobiling through Yellowstone, I stopped for a break near the Swan Lake Flat. Fortunately, my camera setup was optimal for such an encounter: 600mm F/4 +1.4x Extender, giving 840mm focal length. I had driven the snowmobile with this camera+lens on my lap all day, which, given the size of this kit, is no easy task to do while handling a snowmobile. But having it immediately available during the few brief seconds the marten was in sight made this shot possible. The marten bounded with ease on top of the 4 ft/1.5m deep powder snow, and appeared to play peek­a­boo from behind trees, while I post­holed clumsily behind it, keeping the lens barrel above my head to keep snow out. It was not easy to get into shooting position with such deep snow, in fact it was exhausting. But as I crouched deep in the snow, at eye level with the marten while flakes of powder snow fell softly, I clicked this sharp result.

The American Marten is classified as a furbearer by most of the state wildlife agencies in its distribution, but fortunately, several of the states it calls home do not have a trapping season for it. Still its presence is an important indicator of the overall health of its forest ecosystem. It requires a rather large home range for a mammal of its size, and its home range has been shown to vary as a function of prey abundance (Thompson and Colgan 1987) and habitat type (Soutiere 1979). In clearcut areas it requires 63% more area than it does in uncut or sustainably harvested forest land.

Outside of those in the fur trade, not many people are familiar with this member of the weasel family. In fact, many people, when they see this photo, have confused it with a baby fox. I hope by showing this snow-moustached portrait of the American Marten in gentle natural lighting, people will begin to recognize the species in a new light.

Soutiere, E.C. 1979. Effects of timber harvesting on marten in Maine. J. Wildl. Manage. 43:850-860.

Thompson, I.D. and P.W. Colgan. 1987. Numerical responses of martens to a food shortage in northcentral Ontario. J. Wildl. Manage. 51:824-835.

GEAR:
Canon EOS 1D Mark IV, Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM, Canon Extender EF1.4× III

1/160s; f/5.6; 840mm; ISO200
Post Processing done using Lightroom 5.7.1
Feb. 8 2014

Svalbard: Lilliehook Glacier

The first morning out….August 20, 2015, Svalbard.

After a rough night sailing through stormy arctic seas (motion sickness medicine was a lifesaver).  The ship, Sea Spirit, made its way through the Krossfjord and King’s Bay, finally entering Lilliehöökfjorden. We dropped anchor and manned the zodiacs to explore the Lilliehöök Glacier. We faced a horseshoe shaped wall of ice. 7 km across, 80m tall, and stretching to the horizon with jagged peaks poking through the ice and clouds.  

Arctic, beluga, birds, glacier, ice, icebergs, Krossfjord, lilliehook, Spitsbergen, svalbard, whales, wildlife
Lilliehook Fjord, massive glacier bay with mountains poking into the clouds, and ice stretching as far as the eye can see.

The only place ice didn’t meet the sea was where a mountain stood instead. In-between these mountains, glaciers spilled out into the fjord.  At least 14 glaciers!  This was the biggest glacier bay I had ever been in.  Of course, this “accomplishment” would soon be “defeated” by other, more massive fjords of Svalbard, it doesn’t detract from the impression this fjord made on me.

The green-blue water was silky smooth and looked thick with glacial silt.  The underwater housing was working, but the  “thickness” of the glacial water limited visibility. Nonetheless, I practiced using this new piece of equipment.  Afterall, this was my first time doing underwater photography in the field!  A bearded seal swam lazily around the smooth water, coming close to a zodiac that I was not in.  Shortly after spotting the seal, a pod of beluga whales surfaced for a few minutes, before diving deep and moving on. 

In terms of photography, the stop in Lilliehöök provided a gentle warm up session to get into that “photo-mindset”. Not all the zodiac expeditions would be nearly as smooth and easy.  In fact, many times the arctic sea conditions were not conducive to producing interesting photography, that is, unless the photographer was adequately prepared and exercised sound judgement in the field….For me the learning process never ends. and the conditions I experienced in Svalbard forced me to re-evaluate and adjust some of my preparations.

Svalbard: Cliff of New Life and Brutal Death 8/20

The cliff of new life and brutal death:

The cycle? of life and death here was finer than anywhere else I have seen it. 

It would have been worthwhile to linger by this cliff for more time than  I did on August 20, 2015. It would have been even more worthwhile to return after a few days…

In terms of species, there were no photography “firsts” at the cliff.  I have experienced bird cliffs before in Alaska and Norway where I spent many hours  photographing the species that called this cliff home. Animals such as kittiwake gulls, glaucous gulls, arctic fox, and reindeer. However, the collective interactions I observed between these “cliff animals” paint a completely different picture from when each species is observed individually.  Whether it was direct or indirect, intentional or accidental; all the wildlife living on the cliff were  interconnected.

The bird cliff of new life and brutal death was in the Kongsfjord on the western coast of Svalbard.  As we entered the fjord, we were greeted by a groggy polar bear with a bloody-brown snout, napping on a cliff.  What had this bear been eating?  A walrus carcass at the bottom of this cliff left no doubt as to the source of  the blood. Sailing deeper into the fjord, a part of Ossian Sars Nature Reserve, we reached our ultimate destination, the ~70-100m tall bird cliffs. 

Map location of Bird Cliff

My immediate goal for this location was to spot the prowling cliff predator: the arctic fox. Setting forth in the zodiacs, the conditions were mildly choppy, increasing the difficulty in handholding my 600mm lens.  Expecting both bird and fox to be far and possibly high on the cliff, I used the 600mm with Jenna’s 7DII to give me 960mm equivalent.  For much of the time, this focal length was perfect. However, there were times that the foxes were too close with that much reach! 

Upon arrival to the cliff, we spotted some reindeer, a species that must be in the running for best camouflage, and another master of camouflage: the arctic fox. The foxes, with coats transitioning into its winter white, were prowling the cliff that was home to a kittiwake colony and its thousands of fledging kittiwakes. 

With the steep cliff serving as the stage, we were moments away from a brutal demonstration of what life is like in the high arctic.  In this performance, the interconnectivity of the terrestrial food web was clear, and each performer had a leading role.

First, a fledging kittiwake failed to clear the cliff’s sharp rocks and was injured in its leap.  This attracted the attention of a glaucous gull, which viciously attacked the young bird, repeatedly grabbing it with its sharp bill and dropping it.  This commotion alerted one of the foxes, which bounded down the cliff and made the grab.   The fox ran back up the steep slope carrying the flailing bird back to its den. Which turned out to hold an arctic fox family including cubs.  The family was playing and wrestling with each other, they were active. Then as the fox family retreated to their den to eat, or stash, the kittiwake, out of the corner of my eye I saw the most shocking thing of the day…

I heard this noise of crunching and wet thuds and looked up to see a large bull reindeer fall off the cliff we were watching. Its body got ripped apart as it bounced off the jagged rocks and fell all the way to the rocky beach (see photo below to see this cliff). It was absolutely shocking. I was able to catch it (with my eye) falling for most of the way down the cliff, and I could see how the rocks were shredding the skin on the poor animal’s body, snapping the antler and bones, and smearing blood over all of the rocks it made contact with on the path of its fall. As it was happening, I didn’t even think to grab my 70-200, which would have been the appropriate gear set-up to use for such a fast moving target, and instead let out a noise of disbelief at what was happening. After a few more seconds of shock, my mom, also in disbelief, asked me half-seriously “do you think it is dead?”. There was no doubt that it was dead. It was definitely a sad way for a big reindeer to die, but the positive is that the arctic fox family should benefit tremendously from such a bounty. And I am sure some polar bears will eventually find the carcass too. Nothing goes to waste in the arctic. (photo below shows the aftermath)

On my flight back to Oslo, while talking with another photographer that was on a different ship I learned that the fox family did indeed benefit from the fallen reindeer. Within 5 or 6 days after its fall, the reindeer was almost entire consumed, reduced to fur and bone. 

McNeil River: Site Description and Preparations


And so to the Alaska Peninsula we come, seeking the limits of the known world at the ends of the Earth…A cloud-cloaked landscape, the Alaska Peninsula is accessible only by air or water. 

– John Grabowska, Katmai,  2013. Alaska Peninsula

The McNeil River portion of the trip will consist of 5 days off the grid, without running water or electricity dropped by a sea-plane in a (relatively) remote corner of Alaska that is crawling with brown bears…sounds like the perfect way to celebrate Jenna’s birthday!

Location of McNeil River
Location of McNeil River
Detail of lower McNeil River and Lagoon, McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, Alaska, USA
Detail of lower McNeil River and Lagoon, McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, Alaska, USA

McNeil River Game Sanctuary is about 210 miles southwest of Anchorage down the Alaska Peninsula, and 100 miles west of Homer (where we are coming from) across the Cook Inlet.  The Game Sanctuary portion of the McNeil River State Park consists of the McNeil River and Mikfik Creek drainages.  Near the beach where we will camp is McNeil Lagoon, which is formed by a long spit that almost entirely separates the lagoon from Kamishak Bay, an arm of the Cook Inlet.  Both McNeil River and Mikfik Creek drain into the lagoon, which is channeled mud flats at low tide and entirely submerged at high.    Due to the drastic variation in tides here, our seaplane landing/departure must coincide with the high tide (SELLERS, R.A., AND L.D. AUMILLER. 1993).

McNeil River is most famous for its high density of brown bears gathering to feed at the McNeil Falls during the peak of the Chum salmon run in July.  (PEIRCE, J., et al. 2013.)

The Chum salmon run isn’t the motivation behind our mid-June trip…but observing early season bear behavior is. This means, God willing, spring cubs and families, mating, and territorial disputes.  

Historically, bears begin to arrive each year to McNeil in late May, immediately concentrating their feeding on the protein rich sedge flats.  This food source is readily available this time of year,  and a bear goes where the food is.  A few weeks later they capitalize on an early run of red sockeye salmon in Mikfik Creek in June.  The feeding behavior shifts in late June to mid-July to coincide with the chum salmon run in McNeil River (SELLERS, R.A., AND L.D. AUMILLER. 1993).

A bear stand motionless on the top of a rushing waterfall, hold her paw up and ready to swipe a jumping salmon out of the air.  It is amazing feat of strength that this bear is able to stand so still in such a rushing torrent.
A bear stand motionless on the top of a rushing waterfall, hold her paw up and ready to swipe a jumping salmon out of the air. It is amazing feat of strength that this bear is able to stand so still in such a rushing torrent.

With regard to our trip, we have chartered a 3-seat plane out of Homer, scheduled to depart in the late evening on June 10, arriving to McNeil at the high tide.  There we will meet our guides and the 7 other visitors we will share the park with.  The biggest constraint on this trip, when compared to others, is the weight restriction of our tiny aircraft. We are permitted a payload of 775 lbs for gear and people.  Quite the challenge, considering I can easily bring upwards of 70-80 lbs of camera gear alone, not accounting for other Cub Profilenecessities, such as tents, clothing, and food. However, as this is Alaska, you are wise to must prepare for the worst and expect it. If we are lucky, the days will be spent viewing bear cubs playing in the warm sun surrounded by mosquito-free air.  While I hope a few of the days are like this, it would be unreasonable to plan on it.

Alaska Rain
Alaska Rain

 Given the current weather forecasts, we should expect a significant amount of rain during our time in the far north….we are prepared, and so are our cameras.

[The Alaska] peninsula endures a maritime climate described as “notoriously miserable”: long winters, cool summers, frequent storms . . . and sudden bursts of wind called williwaws — so fierce, bush pilots say, they can rip the numbers off a plane.”  – Grabowska, John. 2013.) 

Literature Cited:
Grabowska, John. 2013. Katmai: Ends of the Earth. Alaska Peninsula.

PEIRCE, J., et al. 2013. Interactions between brown bears and chum salmon at McNeil River, Alaska. Ursus Journal 24(1):42–53.

SELLERS, R.A., AND L.D. AUMILLER. 1993. Brown bear population characteristics at McNeil River, Alaska. International Conference on Bear Research and Management 9(1):283–293.

SCHEMPF, J.H., AND J. MEEHAN. 2008. McNeil River State Game Refuge and State Game Sanctuary management plan. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Special Publication No. 08-01, Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

McNeil River: An Overview

Introducing McNeil River
NOTE: All photos posted here were taken in Katmai NP
McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Preserve is internationally recognized as being the world’s premier brown bear viewing destination because of its uniquely high concentration of bears living within their natural environment (Sellers and Aumiller 1993).  

Created in 1967, this game sanctuary, managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, has the stated goal to “provide permanent protection for brown bears and other fish and wildlife populations and their habitats, so that these resources may be preserved for scientific, aesthetic, and educational purposes” (Schempf and Meehan 2008:3).  

In other words, in McNeil the bears come first. Period.Katmai: Green Fog Bear

This mission statement is consistent with the mission statements of other ecologically significant parks across North America (such as Yellowstone, Glacier, Canadian Rockies, and even Katmai). For example mission of Glacier NP is stated as follows:

To provide opportunities to experience, understand and enjoy the park consistent with the preservation of resources in a state of nature” – NPS.gov

A difference between parks like Yellowstone and Glacier and McNeil River is that the management responsible for McNeil River has taken drastic steps to enforce their vision.  In 1973 it was determined that human visitation to the preserve was adversely impacting the bear population.  In response, the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game established a strict permit lottery to limit human visitation (Faro and Eide 1974).  The bears have responded positively, and the lottery has become more and more competitive each summer. 

At any given time, only ten visitors are allowed in the viewing areas of McNeil River Preserve, which has an area of 6000 mi^2 and is 500 mi^2 larger than the state of Connecticut. 

10 people, dropped in the Alaskan bush by float plane, spend 5 days in tKatmai: Bear Screamhe midst of thousands of coastal brown bears.

Over the entire season the preserve will host only around 200 people.  Applicants may have less than a 4% chance of winning a permit. There is a limit of three people per application, and each group specifies their preferred date blocks, according to a schedule.  If you do win a permit, you may not enter the lottery the following year, so I cannot apply in 2016.  In January 2015, when I sent in my lottery application, I was not holding my breath that I would win.  McNeil River is a big deal in Alaska and an even bigger deal in the world of wildlife viewing.

The Peninsula of Bears

On the Alaska Peninsula, McNeil River State Game Preserve shares a border with Katmai National Park (I have made 3 trips to Katmai over the last 2 years).  Both parks boast high densities of brown bears. This is no coincidence, the two parks have been instrumental in the other’s success (Sellers, R., and Aumiller, L.).  The wildlife conservation efforts of the Alaska Dept. Fish & Game and NPS are to be commended. Katmai: Stroll along river

While I have not yet been to McNeil River; my knowledge is limited to the academic journals describing the region.  Based on my research, it is fascinating how divergent the bear behavior can be between McNeil and Katmai. I am eager to explore this new region on the Alaska Peninsula, and document the behaviors of the brown bears that call it home.

More to come in next blog post (time permitting):
 – Site Description – Food: sedges, chum, sockeye
 – Bear Behavior
 – Preparation
 – Goals
 – Post Trip Follow up

Literature Cited:

FARO, J.B., AND S.H. EIDE. 1974. Management of McNeil River State Game Sanctuary for nonconsumptive use of Alaskan brown bears. Proceedings of the Western Association of State Fish and Game Commissioners 54:113–118.

PEIRCE, J., et al. 2013. Interactions between brown bears and chum salmon at McNeil River, Alaska. Ursus Journal 24(1):42–53.

SELLERS, R.A., AND L.D. AUMILLER. 1993. Brown bear population characteristics at McNeil River, Alaska. International Conference on Bear Research and Management 9(1):283–293.

SCHEMPF, J.H., AND J. MEEHAN. 2008. McNeil River State Game Refuge and State Game Sanctuary management plan. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Special Publication No. 08-01, Anchorage, Alaska, USA.