Trail Photography Equipment
Canon EF 70-200 F/2.8L ---Focal Length: 123mm Aperture: f/2.8 Shutter Speed: 1/500---
I'm quite often asked about what equipment I use for taking photos on the trail. Photography is one of my loves, not too far behind Land Cruisers. I'm not really a very artsy guy but I love the technical side of photography. The exposure triangle, and how aperture, ISO, and shutter speed interact is fascinating to me. I also really appreciate nice well-made lenses. They are a lot like Land Cruisers in how they are overbuilt, and so well made, plus they stand the test of time.
I happen to be a Canon guy so this blog will mostly be talking about Canon equipment, although most everything I talk about will also apply to other brands. The main reason I use Canon is because of their L-Series lenses. L-Series lenses are super high quality with great builds and exceptional optics. They are made for hard use and abuse while providing the sharpest images possible. If you've ever noticed photographers on the sidelines of sporting events with the huge white or grey lenses, those are Canon L-series lenses. The best of the best. No compromises. Canon L-Series lenses also hold their value very well. If you purchase a nice used lens and sell it a few years later, you will likely get back what you paid for it. I buy all of my lenses used.
Canon RF 50 f/1.2L L-Series lens compared to an EF 50 f/1.8
First let's talk about camera bodies. I highly recommend using a full frame body. Full frame cameras use an image sensor that is the same size as 35mm film. Cameras that are not full frame, like Canons APS-C line, use a sensor that is smaller than 35mm film. These bodies are known as "crop" bodies. A crop body uses an image sensor that is quite a bit smaller than full frame. In the case of Canons APS-C, the sensor is only 63% the size of a full frame sensor. So why does this matter? Well, full frame sensors generally have better performance in low light, higher dynamic range, a shallower depth of field, and also enable the true focal length of the lenses that you use. Plus, full frame lenses never really become obsolete.
Full Frame and Crop Size Comparison (Photo from Tokinusa.com)
When it comes to bodies, I use a Canon EOS 6D. The 6D was introduced in 2012 but is still very relevant today. Prices on the used market are great. The 6D is a full frame "prosumer' body. While not a full blown professional body like the $6500 Canon EOS-1D the 6D still has a lot of the features found on a professional body. The body has a rugged alloy frame and a decent level of weather sealing (I would not recommend submergeing the body or shooting in the driving rain). The ergonomics and controls are great too. The button and dial placement are the same as the professional 1D and the full frame 5D. Its very easy to change shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. No need to dig through a menu to change settings like you would have to do with a lesser Canon Rebel or other consumer grade crop bodies. This is important when shooting on the fly in changing conditions. I highly recommend the original 6D or the newer 6D Mark II to anyone that wants to get into photography. It's a body that ages very well.
My Canon EOS 6D Body
Now let's talk lenses. This is where the fun is at. So many people get caught up in thinking they need the newest camera body when really its the lens that matters, not the camera. So, earlier I mentioned that Canon L-series lenses are what I use, and there is a reason for that. L lenses offer the highest level of build quality around, they are very robust and durable, and their optics are superb, L-lenses are also very "fast" for their focal length.
When someone says "fast" or "slow" when talking about a lens, they're not talking about focus speed, they're talking about the light gathering capability of the lens. A fast lens allows shooting at a higher shutter speed than a slower lens at the same exposure. This is because faster lenses have larger apertures allowing them to let more light into the image sensor. Apertures are represented by the F stop number of the lens. Most of your better consumer lens have a maximum aperture of F4, while L-Series lenses go down to F1.2. Why does this matter? Well first off, for every full stop you increase aperture, you double the amount of light the sensor sees. The smaller the F number, the larger the aperture. The full stop apertures are f/1, f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22 and f/32. Every time you go up a full stop, you cut your light in half, and every time you go down a full stop, you double your light. This is very important when shooting in low light conditions, especially if shooting a moving vehicle.
Full Stop Aperture Chart (Chart from shuttermuse.com)
Let's say I want to shoot a Cruiser doing a hill climb in a shaded forest on an overcast day. To get a correct exposure with a consumer f/5.6 zoom lens, I notice my shutter speed has to be 1/60 of a second. This is just too slow for a moving subject. Even if you nail focus, the image will be blurred because the truck is moving too fast for that shutter speed. This is where fast lenses come into play. An f/2.8 lens is two full stops faster than the f/5.6 lens. This means the sensor is seeing 4 times the amount of light at f/2.8 than it does at f/5.6. So if I need to shoot at 1/60 of a second shutter speed at f/5.6 to have proper exposure, I would be shooting at 1/25o of a second to get the same exposure with the f/2.8 lens. So in the real world this means the difference between a blurred image and a sharp image. 1/250 may not be enough to freeze a fast-moving wheel and tire but it will freeze the truck itself, and this is good because the slight blur of the wheel will emphasize that the truck is moving while doing the hill climb. So in review, having a lens capable of a larger aperture (smaller F-stop number) is always better for capturing a fast-moving subject.
Full Stop Shutter Speeds (Chart from photopills.com)
Depth of Field
The next way that aperture affects an image is depth of field. If you really want your subject to "pop" and be isolated from the background, you will want a shallow depth of field. A shallow depth of field is created by using a large aperture and longer focal lengths. The larger the aperture (lower F-stop number), the more out of focus the background will be. The same goes for focal length. When shooting at 200mm, the background will be more blurred than the same shot at 100mm, and the 100mm shot will have more blur than the same shot at 50mm. Distance to the subject can also increase or decrease depth of field. Moving closer to your subject at any given focal length and aperture will create more background blur, and moving away will create less background blur and separation.
Canon RF 85 ----85mm F/1.2 1/250----Superb Background Blur at F/1.2
The Lenses I Use
Canon EF 24-70 F/2.8L
Because of all of the factors mentioned above, my main lens is the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L zoom lens. It's fast at f/2.8 and also has a nice zoom range for tight trails. 24MM allows you to get right up close with a truck and 70mm gives a decent reach for trail duty. The fast f/2.8 maximum aperture means I can use a fast enough shutter speed as to not have to worry about motion blur. The large f/2.8 aperture also means I get great background blur and subject isolation as well.
Canon EF 24-70 f/2.8L ---70mm f/2.8 1/160---
Canon EF 70-200 F/2.8L
When the trails allow, another lens that I use is the amazing Canon 70-200 f/2.8L zoom. You will need a little more room to use it, but the reward is great. The ability to couple f/2.8 with 200mm gives great range and utterly jaw dropping background blur. It's probably my favorite Canon lens but it's not always practical on tight trails.
Canon 70-200 F/2.8L ---200mm f/2.8 1/800---Fast enough to freeze the water droplets plus great background blur
Canon EF 50 F/1.8
Another lens that I carry and recommend everyone keep in their bag is the Canon 50mm f/1.8 . The "Nifty Fifty" is not an L-series lens, but at ~$150, it is probably the best lens value out there. It has a 50mm fixed focal length but at f/1.8 it's nearly 3 stops faster than a f/4 lens. It's a great lens to have for when its really dark or you have to have major background blur and subject separation. Also it makes a great portrait lens for shooting people.
Canon EF 50 F/1.8 ---50mm f/1.8 1/250---
Photography is fun and can be very rewarding. I really enjoy sharing stunning photos of my trips and my cruisers. Sometimes when you can't be there, it's awesome to be able to see the sights through a great photo, One of the best things I ever did was take a short 6- lesson course on photography at my local college. The course gave me the knowledge and courage to take my camera off "auto" mode and move it to "manual" mode. I highly recommend a beginner photography course if one is offered in your area. Most times it's not about having the best camera body or fastest lens, it's just about knowing how to use what you have in your hands.
Canon RF 50 F/1.2L ---50mm f/1.2 1/800---