Trial by Fire: Testing a new Camera at the Beach

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 4000, 1/160 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

In September we set out to experience autumn in the Rockies, and spent a week exploring Colorado and New Mexico. Before we left, I decided to rent a 5D Mark IV, one of Canon’s top-end full frame cameras. For years I have been using the Canon 7D and later the 7D Mark II, which utilize crop-frame sensors that magnifies the scene 1.6 times that of a full frame. This means that to I would need to use an 800mm lens to get the same magnification on the 5D Mark IV that my 7D Mark II gets with a 500mm lens.

This was certainly a concern of mine, as approaching wildlife is always a challenge, and more magnification is almost always a plus, particularly with smaller, less approachable animals like birds. I rented the 5D for our trip as I was planning to photograph large mammals like elk in a national park where getting close was not likely to be a limiting factor. I also hoped to take advantage of the broader field of view to capture more sweeping landscapes and hoped that the 5D’s purported superior low light performance would allow me to shoot later into the evening as wildlife became more active.

I anticipated that I would alternate shooting between the 5D and my 7D, however what I found is that shot almost exclusively with the rented 5D. I was blown away by the image quality, dynamic range, and low light capabilities. It was certainly hard sending the camera back after we returned home.

Not long after our trip I was discussing the 5D Mark IV with my photographer and Canon shooter friend Skip Pudney, who informed me that he had been considering a 5D Mark IV for some time, and that he had noticed that Best Buy was running promotional financing that made pulling the trigger on a new camera very tempting. After some (brief) contemplation and discussion with Caro, I decided to place my order, and before I knew it, a brand new Canon 5D Mark IV was on its way.

I love opening the box and pulling out a brand new camera, wrapped in protective cloth. Looking at it, sparkling clean and blemish free, I knew that it wouldn’t stay that way for long – not with the way I shoot. Shortly after receiving it I took a few photos here and there, but I really needed a good outing to put it to the test. So Caro and I decided to take the opportunity to travel to the upper Texas coast last weekend. Photographing shorebirds from the beach would certainly prove a suitable test to the camera’s capabilities and durability.

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 4000, 1/320 sec, f/5.6 @ 700 mm

We arrived late Thursday evening and settled in. The next morning we were up at 5 AM, and set out to the beach before the sun rose. I wanted to try out the camera at this pre-dawn hour to put its high ISO abilities to the test. And I was more than pleased with the result. At ISO 2000, noise was barely perceptible to me on well-exposed images. At ISO 4000, noise was certainly present, but not overly distracting and I later found it easy to manage in post processing. Though this is a completely anecdotal observation, I would compare noise levels from ISO 4000 on the 5D Mark IV to 1600 on the 7D Mark II. It was very impressive.

On the 7D, I rarely push the ISO past 2000, and at that level it had to be very nearly perfectly exposed to avoid introducing extra noise in post processing. Based on my experiences with the 5D Mark IV so far, I am comfortable pushing the ISO to 4000, and find that up to ISO 6400, well exposed images are usable for most purposes. That’s gives me an extra 5 stops of light to work with beyond the 7D Mark II!

My first photographic subject of the trip was a white-phase Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) that was foraging in the shallow surf. The deep blue waters reflecting the pre-dawn sky nicely complimented the bird’s striking white plumage. At one point I captured the light of a distant barge in the background. It appeared as a white orb that to me, gave the impression that the bird was glowing in the light of a full moon.

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 3200, 1/250 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

As I was focused on the egret, a Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) cruised by over the water. I lowered my shutter speed to capture some motion in the wings.

Brown Pelican. ISO 2000, 1/250 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

After the pelican had passed, I turned my attention back to the Reddish Egret. The sky and, in turn, the water were lightening from deep midnight blue to a lighter pastel blue tinged with pink. Reddish Egrets are famous for their incredible fishing displays, where they seemingly dance across the surface of the water, running leaping erratically and spreading their wings in a wide array of positions in an attempt to frighten, corral, and capture ichthy prey.

Photographing these displays is a real challenge, especially when they’re close. Their movements are unpredictable, which makes tracking them exceedingly difficult. Sometimes, however, one gets lucky and manages to freeze a moment in time of a Reddish Egret on the hunt. Out of hundreds of frames created in an attempt to capture this, I had only a couple that I ended up liking enough to keep.

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 2000, 1/250 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

As the sun drew nearer to the horizon, the reflection of the sky did wonderful things to the shallow water and wet sand. A tiny Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri) passed directly in front of me as I was sprawled out on my belly in the sand. I was able to capture an image of it as it foraged for worms and other invertebrates in a shallow sheet of water sitting on top of the saturated beach sand.

Western Sandpiper. ISO 1600, 1/500 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

By the time the Western Sandpiper had moved on, the sun had crested the horizon. It bathed the white Reddish Egret in a most wonderful light, and the egret stretched out as if welcoming the warmth of a new day.

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 400, 1/800 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

By now I had been lying, more or less in the same spot and position for 30 minutes or so. I was quite uncomfortable, as I often am while lying prone in the sand, however it was hard to move when there was so much diversity all around me. Soon a group of Semipalmated Plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus) crossed in front of me. Even in their non-breeding plumage, they are striking little shorebirds, and the sun was illuminating them perfectly as I watch them through my viewfinder.

Semimalmated Plover. ISO 400, 1/500 sec, f/5.6 @700mm

Finally I decided it was time to move down the beach. Among the droves of gulls and terns lining the shore, I spotted a Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus) working the shallows where the tide was lapping at the sand. I knew what my next target was, and I dropped to my knees and elbows and began to belly crawl across the beach.

The beach may be flat, but crawling across it in this manner is neither easy nor pleasant. Occasionally I would roll while elevating my camera from the ground. This was generally easier and faster, but also more likely to startle my quarry, and it left me coated in wet sand from head to toe. And though I struggled valiantly to keep my hands clean, they inevitably became coated in grains of sand, which were in turn transferred to my new, not inexpensive camera.

Though I wouldn’t have to get as close with my 7D, I felt it was worth the extra effort to practice my shorebird stalking skills to get that much closer with the 5D. I also thought that forcing me to keep the bird smaller in the frame would push me to create interesting compositions and provide more context on my subjects’ habitat.

Long-billed Curlew. ISO 250, 1/800 sec, f/6.3 @700mm

After spending some time with the curlew, I continued down the beach until I spotted an American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) working the shallows. The sun was rising ever higher into the sky, and little by little that glorious early morning light was growing harsher. Fortunately I’ve found that when shooting over shallow water, I can extend the morning’s session a bit as shallow water and wet sand reflects sunlight back onto the subject, acting like a reflector and softening harsh shadows.

Later in the morning, the water also turns a brilliant deep blue which makes for a beautiful setting for any bird or creature that might be standing in it. I hoped to capture these colors as I again started the agonizing and slow approach, army-crawling through the sticky sand toward the oystercatcher. Soon after I got into position, I watched as it stretched its wings and leapt into the air momentarily.

American Oystercatcher. ISO 200, 1/1000 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

The oystercatcher was wary of me at first, but eventually came to accept me as part of the landscape. It is always exciting watching your subject approach through the viewfinder, knowing that it’s getting closer and closer to providing that frame-filling shot that needs no cropping whatsoever. This is just what the oystercatcher did, snatching up the occasional tasty morsel on its way. This is one of those rare instances in wildlife photography where having less focal distance is better, as the bird would have been too tight in the frame if I was using the same lens configuration on my 7D.

American Oystercatcher. ISO 160, 1/1600 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm
American Oystercatcher. ISO 160, 1/1600 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

Near the oystercatcher I spotted a Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa). This species has long been a nemesis of mine. They’re fairly easy to find along the Texas coast, yet I have always had trouble capturing a godwit image that I was happy with. Fortunately this morning I had a cooperative bird that obliged for a few images.

Marbled Godwit. ISO 200, 1/1000, f/6.3 @ 700mm

By the time I was finished with the oystercatcher and the godwit, my camera was thoroughly coated with sand, and I could see a multitude of tiny grains wedged in the spaced between the body and its various buttons. So much sand had accumulated around the shutter button that it got stuck in the depressed position. I had the same thing happen with my old 7D when shooting on the beach in South Padre a couple of years ago. In that case the shutter got stuck all the way down, and every time I turned on the camera it began firing away. Fortunately, this time it was only stuck halfway down – in focus mode. This allowed me to continue shooting, though I was admittedly growing concerned about having this happen with a brand new camera.

I decided to continue shooting with what little bit of usable morning light remained. I moved away from the beach to an extensive mudflat that was quickly becoming inundated with the incoming tide. Numerous shorebirds were taking advantage of these prime foraging conditions, including another Marbled Godwit.

Shooting in this mudflat presented itself with a whole new set of challenges. Wet sand gave way to deep mud. To approach the birds, I would have to crawl through this mud that sat beneath a foot or two of water. This required very careful balancing of my heavy camera and lens as I remained low enough to approach without spooking my subjects. Fortunately it is a scenario that I have been in before, and I was able to get into position without causing further harm to my camera or myself. The water even helped to watch away the layer of sand that was coating every inch of my clothing and exposed skin.

Marbled Godwit. ISO 160, 1/1250 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

Near the godwit a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) were resting. I quickly turned my attention to the closest individual, and captured an image I quite liked with blue water at its feet and exposed sand, marsh vegetation, and sky in the background. I typically see these birds foraging in shallow water, where it’s hard to get a feel for how long their legs really are. Here it was standing on top of an exposed mudflat, and the entire length of the colorful legs that lend the bird its name were in view.

Greater Yellowlegs. ISO 160, 1/1600 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

Soon the other yellowlegs joined its cohort. They say that in humans, yawning sets off a chain reaction where viewing another yawn will trigger the same reaction in oneself. Apparently the same is true for Greater Yellowlegs when it comes to scratching an itch.

Greater Yellowlegs. ISO 160, 1/1250 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

After a half hour or so of lying in the mud, I decided to finish shooting in the morning, due in part to the deteriorating lighting conditions and the level of discomfort and fatigue I had experienced from a morning of crawling through the sand and mud and balancing my heavy camera and lens over the shallow water.

By the time I got back to my truck the excitement of the morning’s photo shoot was beginning to subside, and concern for a very expensive camera coated in grit began to grow. With Caro’s help, I began to clean off the camera, blowing off grains of sand and using a close-pin from my first aid kit and a coffee straw that Caro cut into a thin strip to extract sand from the space between the camera body and various buttons. Slowly but surely we were able to remove all of the sand, and I was able to coax the shutter button back to its normal position, where it remained for the rest of the trip.

After cleaning the camera and changing clothes, we went to grab a bite to eat and spent most of the afternoon enjoying the beach. Though it was early November, the air and water were warm enough that wading out into the surf was quite pleasant.

As the sun dipped lower on the horizon I set out again in pursuit of birds. No photo session for the remainder of the trip would compare with that first morning, however that is the nature of the beast. Some sessions are highly productive, others are painfully slow and fruitless. Most, however, fall somewhere in the middle.

That is not to say that the evening was without its photo ops. I enjoyed watching a Sanderling (Calidris alba) comb the beach. At one point it turned to give me a profile view as beautiful soft evening light washed over it. It lit up against the dreary gray sand.

Sanderling. ISO 1250. 1/500 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

Brown Pelicans were cruising up and down the beach. This species of pelican fishes via incredible, seemingly death-defying dives. From dizzying heights they scan the water below until they spot their prey, and then they turn on a dime and descend like a bullet toward the water’s surface. It’s long been a goal of mine to document these dives, but capturing a photo of these dives made at break-neck speed is easier said than done. That evening, however, I did get an image I liked of a pelican just after it turned into a dive set against the pastel sky of dusk.

Brown Pelican preparing to dive. ISO 1000, 1/800 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

I continued photographing for a while after the sun set but was not satisfied with any of the images captured. Caro and I sat a few minutes on the beach to watch the birds as they prepared to settle in for the evening. We then went back and had dinner in our hotel and relax after a very long, but rewarding day.

The next morning brought another 5 AM wake-up, and we were soon at the same beach where we had seen so many birds the previous day. But the natural world often proves to be unpredictable, and unreliable, and the beach was almost devoid of avian life. The tide was higher and as a result, less of the beach was exposed, reducing the foraging habitat for many species. A few pelicans passed by, and a handful of gulls bathed in the surf, but I didn’t put much effort into photographing them, and instead decided to enjoy a quiet stroll on the beach before the crowds arrived.

As I was returning to the shore I saw another white-phase Reddish Egret foraging in the mudflat, which was now inundated by high tide. The sun was getting a bit harsh for the bird’s white plumage, but I positioned myself so that the bird was in front of a dark background, and tried for some creative shots of the egret as it danced in its trademark hunting fashion.

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 200, 1/2500 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

After finishing with the egret and leaving the water I spotted a Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) in the dune vegetation. As I mentioned at the onset of this narrative, the main concern I had with using a full frame was the need to get closer to smaller subjects. I soon came to think of this as a benefit rather than a hindrance. It forced me to use all my cunning to creep up on this little shrike, and I found that with patience and stealth I was able to get plenty close. I hoped I would be able to replicate this with breeding forest songbirds in the coming spring.

Loggerhead Shrike. ISO 250, 1/1250 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

With several images of the shrike on my card, I called the morning’s photo session, and we went on to enjoy another day relaxing on the beach. In the evening we were back again, and the birds were once more few and far between. After the sun vanished behind the horizon, another white-phase Reddish Egret (likely the same bird I had been photographing) arrived and began to hunt in the shallow surf. I photographed it against the soft pink dusk sky. One of the “rules” of wildlife photography is that the subject should be facing the camera and the eye should be clearly visible. However I find that the old cliche, “rules are meant to be broken” often applies with art, and to me, photography is art. So I thought this image of an egret, wings spread as it looks to the distance, is a fine parting shot for our journey, and I hope it will be as thought provoking for its viewers as it has been for me.

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 2000, 1/640 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

The next morning the alarm range at 5 AM, but exhausted from two long days of shooting and exploring, and satisfied with a very productive trip, I turned it off and we slept in our last morning on the coast. I had put the 5D Mark IV to the test, and I was beyond pleased with the results. Though I suspect it will become my main camera, the 7D Mark II won’t be going anywhere. It will still serve as a fine backup camera and There may be some situations, such as photographing small and skittish species when available light is not a limiting factor. It has served me very well, and I continue to sing its praises as a highly versatile camera that produces excellent images.

If you stumbled across this blog looking for a practical comparison between the two cameras mentioned, I hope you found it useful. If not, I hope you enjoyed the images and the stories of how they were made, and wish everyone a prosperous holiday season, with family, photos, and natural places.

7 thoughts on “Trial by Fire: Testing a new Camera at the Beach

  1. One of the “rules” of wildlife photography is that the subject should be facing the camera and the eye should be clearly visible. However I find that the old cliche, “rules are meant to be broken” often applies with art, and to me, photography is art.

    WELL-SAID!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And that photo of the egret is my favorite.

    Liked by 1 person

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