Photo Journal, Issue 16, June 2014

The End of an Era

I have to admit carrying my first film SLR camera into the field back in 1970 and then my first digital SLR into the field in 2002. At first, I was a generalist, and I would shoot wildflowers, scenery, or whatever popped up into my vision. As time passed by, I found myself attracted to many of the challenges of wildlife photography. However, as any wildlife shooter will tell you, you can almost never have a long enough lens. Upon returning from an Alaskan brown bear trip one time, I commented, “You know when you have a long enough lens when you look through it and all you see is fur.”

So, over the last ten years or so, I have lusted after longer and longer lenses, and it gave me pause when I discovered how heavy these lenses were becoming. Therefore, the weight was going to limit my walking range considerably. Couple that with the fact that most of us are not getting any younger, so our walking range is getting limited day by day.

After the recent acquisition of another long lens, I stopped to reflect on this. Although the “big rigs” had great optics and image quality, maybe it was time to consider a small solution for the next long-distance backpacking trip. You see, my backpacker friends consider me to be a photographer, and my photographer friends consider me to be a backpacker. As a result, I purchased a new lightweight superzoom camera with a small sensor. It would beat the camera gear weight problem that I had been struggling with, and maybe it would be adequate for wildlife. Unlike previous lightweight point&shoot cameras that I had dealt with, I selected one with a RAW file capability. The super zoom range was astonishing, since it goes out to an equivalent of 1200mm. Actually, the reported focal length is about one fifth of that, but that is due to the sensor dimensions.

In my first week with the new superzoom, I wasn’t sure if I liked all of the fancy new “intelligent” features and automation. Now, having used the Canon SX50HS for a couple of months, it is growing on me. The user must learn a little in advance, just to know when and how to activate these fancy features. Maybe it will become more instinctive to me, but I am just too used to a standard DSLR and its buttons and dials.

As with most new cameras, there is good and bad. Good is the lower weight. I have the new camera in a small bump-proof case with a tripod, extra batteries, and similar accessories, and still the total weight stops short of three pounds. With my DSLR rig and similar add-ons, I would have been hovering around ten pounds, or twenty-five pounds if I grab the monster lens. If you are standing around in a studio, it doesn’t matter, but if you are out in the high peaks, it surely does matter. With such a small sensor, I can’t control my depth of field so accurately, but for wildlife shooting, I can deal with that. I’m used to a DSLR rig that uses phase detection autofocus, and this new camera does contrast detection autofocus. That is not as fast or as accurate, but it seems OK within the bounds of normal lighting.

Just ten days ago, I was traveling up a well-known mountain trail and breathing pretty heavily in the thin air. I heard a loud squeak in front of me. As my hearing started to lock in on the sound location, my hands were rapidly removing the camera from its case. My vision searched the general area and then the second squeak allowed me to spot the animal. It was a tiny tan and gray American Pika, squeaking its little lungs out, probably calling for a mate. It was facing ninety degrees to my left, but still I did not want to approach very closely for fear of chasing it off. My hands had hit the right camera controls to prepare for shooting, and a three-shot burst got it perfectly. The focus was good, the exposure was good, the color was good, and there was no motion blur. Excellent.

All of a sudden, I am thinking more of these small cameras.

Maybe I should first go publish the American Pika photo to my online gallery.

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