Walking down by the Avon this morning there was a lot of commotion. A steady “prrrp-prrrp” sound followed by a flash of bright colour. Scanning the trees I found what I was looking for in the branches of a big old dead gum tree. A male rainbow bee eater bashing a large insect on the branch till it was dead so it could take it to its young brood. On further inspection I noticed that there was a holding pattern going on with mum and dad taking it in turns to take food to their ever demanding young.
A further shufti and I find the burrow and settle myself in to watch the parents fly in the food supplies. It was non stop, no let up at all. First off we see dad make a trip.
As soon as he is clear it’s mum turn.
All pictures taken with a Panasonic Lumix G85 with Panasonic Leica Vario Elmar 100-400mm f4-6.3 lens.
Below is a short video clip containing footage of the birds and some more stills.
The last few mornings dog walks have been spiced up by some very territorial brown goshawks. As we walk along the river and then down onto the river bed we can hear them calling and chattering. It then goes quiet for a second or so and then there is a loud whoosh as you are buzzed from behind. As the bird passes overhead you can feel the air current generated by its wings. At first I thought the birds were objecting to the dog but I and this pattern persisted for about a week. But then something happened that disabused me of that notion – my hat suddenly became the victim of a bird of prey. The last time it happened they managed to knock it off my head. I’m beginning to think my bicycle helmet may be more appropriate headwear.
The video is the short version of this article with a slide show of the best of this year’s orchids at the end.
It’s not for nothing that Western Australia is referred to as the “Wildflower State”. There are over 13,000 species of plant to be found, with new discoveries added every year. If we narrow it down to my particular area of interest – orchids – there are 394 species of terrestrial orchids in the South West Corner of the state. Some of these species are so specialised that are confined to very small areas and found nowhere else. Some species will not bloom unless there has been a bush fire the summer before, others if the winter rains are delayed or are insufficient will not put a show on either. This means that no two years are the same. An example of this is my favourite spot near where I live is prolific with the number of orchid species found there. When I first went I was simply amazed by the number of fringed mantis and white spider orchids that were flowering. Over the ensuing ten years I’ve seen such a display of those species since. This year there was a carpet of purple and pink enamels like I’ve never seen before. So this not knowing quite what you are going to find adds to the whole experience. On a few occasions I may be lucky enough to be able to access the flowers by car and a short walk, but most of the time I end up walking through the bush for anything up to four hours.
I approach photographing orchids as I would shooting a person’s portrait – using off camera flash and reflectors to fill shadows, separate from the background, bring out the shape and textures. Too many botanic studies show indistinct photos where the subject does not fill the frame and the background is intrusive. To that end I use a macro lens of around 100 -120mm (35mm equivalent). It’s not because I’m necessarily shooting at a 1:1 ratio, it’s just because I’ve found there are very few zoom lens that focus close enough and have a fast aperture to allow control of depth of field.I used to use a Canon DSLR with a Canon EF 100mm f2.8 IS L lens and carry around a Manfrotto 143 Magic Arm Kit to support the lights. I made a video about using that setup some 7 years ago and that can be seen just below. Since making that video I added a full frame 6d, the Canon macro lens, and extra light and a set of TTL wireless flash triggers and consequently found myself schlepping 10-12Kg of kit into the bush on longer and longer forays. Something had to give – and my back did! So fast forward 7 years and I’m now using an Olympus OMD EM1 mk ii with Olympus 60mm f2.8 macro lens. I’ve not given anything up in terms of image quality with this change because I’m generally working at a base ISO of 200 with lighting which means all the usual objections to m4/3 about excessive noise and poor dynamic range have been taken out of the equation. The Olympus 60mm f2.8 is easily the optical equal of Canon’s EF 100mm f2.8 IS macro L lens at less than 1/2 the price and about 1/3 of the weight. The Manfrotto Magic Arm got binned as it was very heavy at 2.7 Kg and replaced with a Manfrotto Table Top Tripod Kit 209, 492 Long which weighs 454g. As far as lighting goes I’m using a Metz 64AF – 1 and an Olympus FL-600R flash with small soft box, snoot and honeycomb grid. The only thing that I have given up is radio TTL triggers for the flash, I’m using a TTL flash sync cable at the moment. I prefer to use the Metz unit when doing a lot of high speed sync work as it is the more powerful of the two. This may change in the New Year, it may not.
Other things in the bag include an 80cm 5 in 1 reflector – I only use the white reflector as the silver is too strong, the gold too garish. Some times I use the diffuser over a plant to cut down on ambient light levels. A Vittorinox CyberTool L is there. It has a good selection of small screwdriver bits that can most screws on a camera body, a set of pliers, wood saw, metal saw and file and a host of other doodads. I once re-assembled my Voigtländer 35mm f2.5 Color-Skopar with it while in on holiday in Beijing. Water – this can be in a 1L bottle for shorter expeditions or a 3L water bladder for longer ones. Extra clothing if needed, sunscreen and insect repellent to avoid nasty encounters. Batteries for camera and flash. Wallet of memory cards. That’s it. The whole process is very simple.
We have at present three bob tailed lizards (Tiliqua rugosa) living in the back garden. There’s Big Bob – he’s big male who must be very old judging from the size of him. He’s been here the longest and when he got sick with bobtail lizard flu one winter a couple of years ago we had him inside the house to help him get over it and then tucked him up under a pile of leaves for the remainder of the winter. Just a couple of weeks ago I heard this thrashing about under the sofa on our back patio and when I went and looked it was Big Bob mating with a smaller sleeker female who I called Mrs Bob (hey I can’t be stunningly original all the time!). They are unlike other lizards monogamous and give birth to live young so we’re looking forward to the new arrivals. Little Bob made an appearance on the patio this morning, he’s significantly smaller than the other two so I guess he’s not very old. They are omnivores and very partial to fruit – strawberries being a favourite – so I sliced up a cherry tomato and he/she scoffed the lot very quickly. As they also eat snails and insects I’m hoping that having three of them will mean that they keep the garden pests down. There’s also a bit of an old wives tale that says if you have one in your garden it’ll keep snakes away. I dunno if it’s actually true or not, but having three has got to be good.
The Australian bush is a dangerous place for the intrepid orchid hunter. Poisonous snakes and spiders are the least of your worry. Nope the thing to worry about is the Kangaroo tick. Size is not an indication of dangerousness. At 4mm in length one of these horrid little beasties can cause a lot of pain and suffering. A lot! When we were away on our little jaunt to Nannup the other week unknowingly I picked up a couple of hitchhikers. Shortly after getting home they began to make their presence felt – quite literally. I woke up to find that my love spuds felt like they had been trapped in a vice and then set on fire. Very quickly it felt like I was walking around with a space hopper stuffed in me jocks.
Not for nothing are ticks referred to as “the dirty needles of the bush“. Each tick is like a little syringe loaded with all sorts of nasty toxic bacteria and unfortunately the process of removing them can inject even more of that horribleness into your bloodstream. Now after a few days of antibiotics and ibuprofen things are starting to improve. So if you are an orchid hunter let this be a salutary warning and please take precautions.
Funnily the word orchid comes from the Ancient Greek ὄρχις (órkhis), literally meaning “testicle”, because of the shape of the twin tubers in some species of Orchis. In England between the 11th and 15th century orchids were called bollockwort with bollock meaning testicle and wort meaning plant. In medical lingo inflammation of the testicles is orchitis.
Here are some recent pics from the suffering artist.
* Today’s song reference seemed very appropriate. It is of course Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire”
Tomorrow here in Western Australia is the first day of spring. I don’t think Mother Nature got the memo as the bush around York sprung into life a couple of weeks ago. Flowers are bursting into bloom and the birds are in a frenzy of nest building and dancing around trying to attract mates. This means that I have also sprung into action trying to document as much of thais activity as possible. The cameras are working over time.
This could have been titled Hyden – the return. Hyden is a small town in the middle of the Wheatbelt in Western Australia some 292Km east of Perth. Regular readers will remember that we’ve been before and maybe somewhat perplexed as to why we’d bother to visit again. Well Hyden’s claim to fame is Wave Rock which is a large granite rock face that has been eroded in the shape of a perfect breaking wave. More than 100,000 tourists make their way there very year. Most just stay about an hour before zooming off to another destination to get the perfect instagram shot without taking any time to see what else is there. A great shame really as there is so much more to offer. When I wrote about our previous visit I concentrated more on other sites and the Aboriginal heritage of the area. This time I’ll look at what Hyden has to offer in terms of the natural world.
We decided to make a three day trip and on our way we’d stop off in Corrigin whose main claim to fame is the being the holder of the world record for the number of dogs in a ute and being the home to a dog cemetery. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Corrigin is a bit obsessed with dogs. Anyway it was a nice spot to break the journey, stretch the legs, make the bladder gladder etc. Corrigin does have a pretty impressive wildflower drive which begins just opposite the dog cemetery just on the outskirts of town. Most people just pull up in their car, jump out and walk a couple of metres. They then declare that there’s nothing to see and rush off in a cloud of red dust. Just take your time and have a poke about and you’d be amazed at what you can find. Here are a few examples.
When we got to Hyden we drove out to the Wave Rock Resort on the shore of Magic Lake which is where we were staying. The lake is quite startling. It’s not very big but is comprised of crystal clear salt water with a gypsum base. That pale coloured lake bed combined with the water makes a giant reflector that takes on the colours of the sky so as the day progresses the lake changes colour. To add to it’s other worldly qualities is that it lies in the middle of a salt plain which is fairly uniform in colour and is covered in mainly scrubby bush and a smattering of trees. It all made me want to get the tripod and graduated neutral density filters out.
The next day we decided to combine the Wave Rock Walk Circuit with the Hippo’s Yawn Loop and the Breakers Trail to create a loop that would take us from the resort up to the Hippo’s Yawn then along the bottom of the rock out to the Breakers picnic area and then back to our accommodation at the resort. The best part of it was that we could take the dog as it is all very pet friendly. Along the way we hoped to see more orchids and birds as we passed through the salt plain and into the bush at the base of the rock.
When we got to the base of the rock the vegetation changed from the scrub of the salt plain to thick bush fed by the water run off from the rock. We both enjoyed pocking around in the undergrowth looking for flowers, taking photos of each other and trying to dissuade Frida, our dog, from trying to climb up the rock face in search of interesting holes. It was amazing to see so many orchids – the blue beards were like a carpet in places. It was absolutely wonderful to see.
All in all we had a great time. There is so much to see and do that we’re already talking about going again. If you are planning a trip to Wave Rock there is a whole lot more to it than posing for a selfie for Facebook on the rock.
Not so long ago I looked at the the Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400 f4-6.3 ASPH Power OIS lens for micro four thirds, well today I’m looking at an alternative lens for APS and full frame cameras – the Sigma 150-600mm f5-6.3 DG OS Contemporary lens. Now confusingly Sigma make two versions of the 150-600 and they are labelled the Sport and Contemporary. The-Digital-Picture.com has put up a good article explaining the difference between the two. The main ones are price and weight with the Contemporary being a 1Kg lighter and $1200 AUD cheaper. This is quite a significant difference and I for one prefer a lighter lens and a heavier wallet. The Contemporary is part of Sigma’s Global Vision line of lenses and is thus compatible with the Sigma TC-1401 1.4x Teleconverter which allows auto focus to work to a maximum of f8 while wide open if your camera supports this feature. This is an interesting option as it allows a reach of 860mm on full frame and a humongous 1376mm on an APSC sensor which is impressive reach for a lens and converter costing less than $2000 AUD. I didn’t happen to look at this option because none of my Canon DSLRs allow f8 auto focusing. shuttermuse.com has an article on f8 focusing with extenders or teleconverters and a list of compatible Canon DSLRs. This does not apply to the mirrorless R and RP which have f11 auto focusing.
Lens mounts available
Angle of view
4.1° – 16.4°
f5/6.3 to f22/27
Minimum focusing distance
Silent HSM with internal focusing and manual override
20 elements in 14 groups with 1 FLD and 3 SLD elements
Yes – 3 stops equivalent
1.93Kg without lens hood and tripod collar.
Physically this is a large lens, it stands head and shoulders above my Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS L lens which in itself quite a large lens. The 150-600 is also 500g heavier. At 2.1 Kg with lens hood and tripod collar attached it definitely has heft to it. Interestingly Sigma refer to it as a lightweight lens, I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective as the Panasonic Leica 100-400 is 0.985 Kg so the Sigma feels gargantuan compared to it while the Canon EF 600 mm f4L IS is over 3Kg so the Sigma then seems svelte and compact. The lens body is made out of what Sigma calls a Thermally Stable Composite (TSC) which is substantially stronger than conventional polycarbonates while having similar thermal expansion properties to aluminium. The lens mount is made of chromium plated brass which should ensure a long life. All in all it feels a well made and rugged lens, it may feel like plastic but the TSC body feels substantial and gives the impression of being very durable with no creaking or flexing. The Sigma 150-600 is advertised as being dust and splash proof but on closer reading of Sigma’s spec sheet there is only one seal and that is at the lens mount. If you want better then you’ll have to spring for the Sports version.
When looking at the lens from the front there is a large ribbed rubber zoom ring that has a long throw of about 160º. The action is smooth and feels not too tight nor too loose. As you rotate the zoom ring the lens barrel extends by 8cm. The extension feels secure with no slop or wobble. Just behind the zoom ring on the lefthand side is a zoom lock switch which can lock the zoom ring at the 150mm focal length to prevent zoom creep while carrying the lens. The focusing ring is narrow ribbed rubber and allows you to manually adjust focus while the lens is in the autofocus mode. There are no hard stops which might concern you if you were to use the lens for video. Behind the focusing ring is a panel of four switches and they are:
An AF switch allowing to choose between AF, MF and MO (Manual Override)
A focus limiter switch allowing a choice of full range, 10m to ∞, and 2.8 to 10m.
An optical stabilisation switch that gives a choice of off, on and a panning mode.
A custom switch that allows you to select two custom modes that can be programmed using the Sigma FD-11 USB Dock
Above the switches is a window showing the focusing scale and then behind that is the lens collar. The lens collar allows you to turn the camera from horizontal to vertical while mounted on a tripod, but, unfortunately there are no detents to allow you to do this while looking through the viewfinder of the camera, you have to align the marks on the collar with those on the lens body. The tripod collar can be detached and thoughtfully Sigma provide a cosmetic rubber ring to slide over the lugs that hold the collar in place. The lens comes with a large plastic lens hood the size of a flower pot, it seems sturdy enough and bayonets into place and a nice touch is that is ribbed internally to prevent reflections. The 150-600 has a 95mm filter thread which means filters will be expensive and potentially hard to get. In terms of accessories Sigma provide a nice well padded lens case, a shoulder strap for it and a Sigma branded camera strap. Like all Sigma lenses you get a lot for the money you spend. Nice one Sigma!
I tested the lens on a Canon EOS 6d and an EOS 550d to see how it would perform on both crop and full frame cameras. In terms of AF performance as neither of those cameras have what can be considered state of the art AF systems, in fact it is over twelve years old, the lens did very well. The single point AF using the centre point was fast and precise and well capable of fixing on small birds amongst foliage. In terms of continuous AF on the EOS 550d the camera was the limitation being only able to shoot 6 frame bursts in RAW, but out of my six shots when tracking my dog trotting five of the six would be in focus. The 6d is able to shoot 4.5 frames per second for 15 frames and on the trotting bull terrier test it managed 12 frames in focus.
When it came to BIF (birds in flight not fisticuffs) the AF was more than capable of focusing on and tracking medium to large birds. It really struggled with small birds especially swallows. Put it on a better camera and I’m sure you’d get better results.
My primary use for a lens like this is handheld bird photography, and as such I didn’t really give the image stabilisation a workout as I seldom use a shutter speed below 1/500 sec. But messing around at home in the house and garden I figured it was good for three stops. Mind you I do have steady hands so your experience may differ from mine.
The optical construction of the lens is twenty elements in fourteen groups with 1 FLD and 3 SLD elements. The FLD (“F” Low Dispersion) glass element, which offers performance equivalent to fluorite. Canon and other manufacturers have used synthetically grown crystals of calcium fluoride components in lenses to aid apochromatic design, and to reduce light dispersion so lenses made from it exhibit less chromatic aberration. What Sigma has done is use newer glasses and computer-aided design to render the use of fluorite crystals unnecessary. Sigma claim that the FLD element is “highly transparent, its refractive index and dispersion are extremely low as compared to conventional types of glass. It offers characteristics very similar to those of fluorite, which is valued for its anomalous dispersion. These characteristics minimize residual chromatic aberration (secondary spectrum), which cannot be corrected by ordinary optical glass, while helping to produce sharp, high-contrast images.” (https://sigmaphoto.com.au). The three SLD (Special Low Dispersion) glass elements also help to minimize chromatic aberration. To help achieve attractive out of focus transitions there are nine rounded aperture blades which should help achieve nice round bokeh balls when shooting specular highlights.
In terms of optical performance well I’ll deal with full frame and crop separately. First up using the lens on the crop framed 550d. At 150mm the centre of the lens wide open was sharp and contrasty and stayed A as such until f22 when it softened due to the effects of diffraction. At the edges the peak performance was attained at f11 and remained until f22 when it softened again. At 600mm the centre wide open was a little soft and lacking in contrast. This improved by f8 and then deteriorated at f22. The edges weren’t so good – wide open they were soft and lacking contrast and remained so until f22 when they got worse. As for vignetting well at the short end wide open it was apparent, about 1/2 to 1 stop and this disappeared by f8. It was the same story at the long end. Throughout the focal range there is slight pin cushion distortion and some chromatic aberration can also be seen. Open the files up in Lightroom and apply the lens profile and things improve nicely. On the full frame 6d the story is the same except for the vignetting which is naturally worse at around 1-1 1/2 stops which is totally understandable as you are using the whole frame rather than just the central part of the lens coverage.
What’s all this mean in real life. Well if we look at the image for the New Holland Honeyeater which I took at a distance of around 3.5 to 4 metres and then enlarge the section around the head you can see that there is nice feather detail and that the eye is sharper than a very sharp thing. To get much better you’d have to spend an awful lot of money and if we look at the Canon 600mm f4 lens I mentioned earlier that has an eye watering price of $18,500 AUD which is over 11 times the cost of the Sigma. Personally I know that if I plonked $18 K down on a lens I’d be heading for the divorce court which would make the Canon a doubly expensive lens. So for what it costs the Sigma is amazing value.
Below are some examples of bird photography shot with the lens on both a Canon EOS 6d and 550d.
So would I recommend the lens? Yes without hesitation. It performs very well and is sold at a very good price and you can’t argue with that.