Masthead header

In the field with the Canon 11-24mm f/4L

11-24mm

My preference for landscape photography may suggest that acquiring the Canon 11-24mm f/4L would be an easy question for me to answer. The price tag of $3000 slowed me down a bit but I finally bought the lens and had a chance to test it when recently photographing in Utah (Zion National Park) and Arizona (Grand Canyon National Park).

ut-25021047

Checkerboard Mesa, Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

az-26017566

South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

This is not a full, technical review of the lens, others have done a great job at that (a great review of the Canon 11-24mm f/4L is at the digital picture). Instead, these are my more practical thoughts on using this lens in the field. I often find that the only way to really know if a particular lens will work for me is to simply give it a try in the context of my specific shooting style, methods and locations.

The lens

For starters, this lens stands alone as the widest rectilinear zoom lens out there. It is big and heavy, at 2.5 pounds, with a giant front element just hungry for dust, water splashes, and potential scratches. Since the human eye sees at an approximate 50mm equivalent, looking at the world via 11mm is quite a different look. There is a considerable “reinterpretation” of the landscape that takes place.

ut-25021073

Checkerboard Mesa, Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

ut-25021058

Checkerboard Mesa, Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

The lens cap

The lens cap is equally large, with a broad wrap around edge, which I no longer own because it slipped out of my coat pocket and bounced (like a spare tire) along the rocks of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, leaping through an open space in a Juniper tree for a base jump down the canyon. I tried to order a replacement, but they are not even available yet. Not being able to protect the front element with a filter, and being cautious about scratching that big hunk of glass, puts this lens in a different category from my normal “crawl around and don’t worry about the lens” shooting style. In the future, I’ll make sure the lens cap is in a secure pocket when scrambling around looking for photo perspectives. In addition, I now have a large, soft cloth as a backup cover so I can at least put it in my bag with some protection.

ut-26018689

Angel’s Landing, Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

ut-26018626

Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

Shooting at 11mm

Although I photograph ultra-wide quite often, using a focal length of 11mm is not an automatic decision. The amount of real estate apparent in the frame is immense, and composition becomes extremely critical. The basics of wide angle landscape photography become screamingly clear. A foreground is fundamental and critical. As a general rule, being within a foot a foreground object is helpful with this lens, unless you are using it to grab sky. Watch out that you don’t include your feet, shadow, or tripod in the frame!

Lens flare and sunburst

Because the lens grabs such a wide view, lens flare can be an issue on a sunny day, although it handles that quite well. Holding a hand high above the lens and out of view can curtail lens flare pretty easily. But, the camera and lens, held with one hand is pretty heavy and a tripod can help a lot for stability in these cases. The truth is however, that I am often using this lens without a tripod, so finding a secure posture that gives stability is important. The 9 blade circular aperture renders a clean and pleasing sunburst, with 18 point star shapes, unlike the 24-105mm (one of my most used lenses), which is often messy and full of flare.

Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

ut-26018907

The Narrows, Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

Panoramas

It might sound silly that one would even think of needing a panorama stitch made from this lens because it covers such a wide focal range to begin with. But, sometimes I like a larger file size, and I did generate a few panoramas from this lens. One thing worth noting is to use about an 80% overlap when taking the subsequent photos to be stitched later. This is because there is so much distortion between the beginning and ending frame, and the stitching process works much better with considerable overlap.

Conclusion

I do find it a little ironic that I purchased this lens right at the same time I’m considering getting a mirrorless camera system to save on size and weight when doing backpacking and remote hiking excursions. The truth is, lenses have their specific use. And, they can really shine when used in that appropriate situation. The “one lens to rule them all” remains as elusive as the “one camera to rule them all.” For now, my lens kit gets continually tweaked, and I load my camera bag with what is the most appropriate for the specific task at hand. While writing this, I’m packing for a hiking trip in the Brooks Range, and the 11-24 is not in bag. Instead, I switched over to the 16-35mm f/4L IS, which is pretty wide, and lighter than the f/2.8 version. All in all, I really love what the 11-24 can do, and it is a keeper for me and my shooting style.

ut-26018929

The Narrows, Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

ut-26018949

The Narrows, Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

  • Bruce Faanes - Excellent review. Think it will be a great anniversary present for my wife. If it’s to heavy for her t5i, guess I’ll keep it. Outstanding photos. You have a very unique skill set to capture the best in nature. Always enjoy your shots. Coming up to your neck of the woods (Lake Clark with Charles Glatzer, 7/1). Hope to learn & get some keepers. Thanks for the great info. Cheers!May 29, 2015 – 2:11 pmReplyCancel

25017457If you live in Alaska, or have visited this March in pursuit of photographing the northern lights, then your opportunities have been abundant. With record warm temperatures, combined with clear skies and tons of electromagnetic activity in the atmosphere, it has been a banger month for aurora photography. And for anyone who has spent time photographing the aurora in sub zero temps, I don’t need to tell how much easier the same tasks are at 20-30 degrees!

I took a year sabbatical from guiding an aurora tour this year, and while it may not have been the best year to take a break, I did get out and do some shooting on my own, in a few new locations for a change–and one of those was my own cabin!

As many of you know, I’ve written and extensive book on the process of photographing the northern lights, but it still amazes me that it takes a few days to get back in the groove. The first hurdle is getting all the technical aspects in line so you can be free to be creative. One thing that comes up over and over again, when attempting to photograph the northern lights is the need to find a compelling foreground.

Composition is a ruling principle in strong landscape photography and it is doubly difficult with the aurora. This is because you basically have two compositions going on, one on the ground and one in the sky, and the latter is perpetually changing. The more scouting you can do during the daylight hours, the more confident you can feel when the action happens in the dark–this is especially true during the darker ‘new moon’ phase of the month. Scouting locations oriented towards a northern sky will be statistically more productive.

While I’m still looking for that amazing aurora landscape photo, here are a few frames from my recent excursions.

25017500
25017702 25020416 26013525-pano 26013578 26014647-2 26015856

  • jasminelilovesphotos - These images are beautiful!April 20, 2015 – 8:31 amReplyCancel

  • Anu Condon - Hi Patrick: beautiful photos!! A friend recommended your book, which I read just before going to Churchill in mid-March this year. Found it extremely helpful, everything from camera guidance to cold weather tips! I’m in Fairbanks now for a few days staying with friends, can you recommend a couple photo spots for us to try out?April 2, 2015 – 12:21 pmReplyCancel

  • Robert Woodward - Lovely combinations of foreground and Aurora Borealis Patrick.April 1, 2015 – 10:16 pmReplyCancel

  • Margaret Weber - Thanks Patrick!April 1, 2015 – 7:59 pmReplyCancel

  • Ellis Levin - very imaginativeApril 1, 2015 – 7:14 pmReplyCancel

  • jackie - Beautiful work, Patrick. I especially like the first one. What’s the name of the river or stream in that first photo?April 1, 2015 – 4:26 pmReplyCancel

  • Brian Friedmann - Great pics! Having those streams for reflections is quite a bonus. I just got back yesterday from 5 weeks in Churchill where we had some great shows, too. Enjoy all your photos!April 1, 2015 – 12:40 pmReplyCancel

  • Marcus Dinker - “WOW”, as always incredible picturesMarch 31, 2015 – 9:24 pmReplyCancel

Due to lack of snow in southcentral Alaska, the 2015 Iditarod started in Fairbanks this year for the second time in history. The last time this happened was 2003, and I remember photographing it with the real first professional model of Canon’s digital camera line-up, the 1D (4mp). Digital cameras have come a long way since then.

Dog races have evolved as well. You can now follow the Iditarod through GPS chips that team members have on their sleds. You can also get disqualified for carrying an iPod capable of two-way communication, which unfortunately, caused Brent Sass (2015 Yukon Quest Champion) a heartbreaking disqualification this year (although he never used it that way, nor did he plan to).

Picking a winner is nigh unto gambling, since the race field is so thick with former champions and viable talent. However, I’m putting my hopes into Aliy Zirkle, who has taken 2nd place the last three years. I think it just seems like it is her turn.

I took a few photos along the trail this year, some in Fairbanks, and some in Manley Hot Springs, about 150 into the 1000 mile race.

25016959 25017117 26013034-2 26013087 26013102 26013112 26013127 26013149 26013175 26013217

25017085

  • Explore 254 - Those dogs are sooo cute!! The closest we have to such in Kenya is the German Shepherd.March 25, 2015 – 11:42 amReplyCancel

  • Karen Mae Walker - Thanks for the photos Patrick. I was in Fairbanks until the morning of the 9th, the day the official race started, but I had to leave that morning. I was sick about it, but all reservations and plans were made before there was any idea of the Iditarod starting there.
    I enjoyed your photos very much, but I’m wondering, are you the fellow on the bike in one of the 1st photos. I have never thought about trailing them that way!March 14, 2015 – 5:55 amReplyCancel

  • Chuck Ashley - Great pics Patrick as always, I had to settle for the Ceremonial start in Anchorage (my profile pic is from Sat) as I have said many times I envy you your location. Oh I wanted to share with you that Alaska Magazine is publishing one of the photos I submitted to their Facebook page last month. It will appear in the May issue in their reader submitted section so look for it :) I will be posting my Iditarod pics on my flickr page soon,took 3000 last Saturday s editing/tagging can be time consuming. Always enjoy your workMarch 13, 2015 – 10:42 pmReplyCancel

  • Karen - Love the dog pictures! I live in Northwestern Lower Michigan where the cold temperatures have set new records lows this winter. I bought booties for my two dogs’ feet, but they hated them. There must be a secret for getting them on and keeping them on, as these dogs look pretty comfortable with them.March 13, 2015 – 6:22 amReplyCancel

Under the spell.

Under the spell.

I’ve been working away on some updates for the eBook I wrote on How to Photograph the Northern Lights. I just released the third version, which jumped from 280 to 319 pages. It is no small task keeping up to date on all the latest models and versions of cameras and lenses, and quite frankly, it is beyond the scope of my interest to test everyone of them for the specific nuances of northern lights photography. However, there have been some significant strides worth noting in camera development. Besides the continually-evolving DSLR candidates, mirrorless cameras have come on strong recently. Some of these smaller cameras sport a full frame sensor and exhibit excellent high ISO capability. In light of this, the Chapter on Camera gear has received a heavy and update. Other updates include a detailed table of contents with hot link navigation for the iPad version; 30 new pages of content; updated graphics; added photos; expanded “working in the dark” section; added aurora resource links; updated aurora apps; minor updates to other chapters; added quick reference to major charts and diagrams at the end of the book. Below are a few screen shots from the eBook.

Mirrorless cameras

Mirrorless cameras

Proper headlamp etiquette is vital when photographing in a group.

Proper headlamp etiquette is vital when photographing in a group.

A few tips for working in the dark.

A few tips for working in the dark.

If you purchased a previous version, I’m offering the upgrade to version 3 for free for the next week. You should get an email from me in a few days with a link to download the file.

If you are first time purchaser, you can get the eBook as a PDF or for your iPad at: How to Photograph the Northern Lights.

  • Didier Van Hellemont - I just came back from northern Finland; the aurora was out 7 nights out of 7 and I caught the March 17 storm. Very happy with my photos… and then I just found out about your eBook. Excellent book that will help me get even better pictures next time!March 24, 2015 – 12:41 pmReplyCancel

  • Steve DuBois - Thanks for giving the first time purchaser’s the updated version.March 11, 2015 – 7:44 pmReplyCancel

20 seconds @ f/2.8, ISO 2000

20 seconds @ f/2.8, ISO 2000

I’m often asked what the correct camera exposure is for the northern lights. And, like many answers to broad questions, the answer could be equally broad due to the many variables involved. However, there are some basic starting points, and I’m including an excerpt here from my eBook on How to Photograph the Northern Lights, which will be updated to the 3rd edition soon.

Aurora Exposure

Because aurora photography occurs in the dark, the exposures require long shutter speeds in conjunction with a wide aperture and a high or “sensitive” ISO. That is why people often say that aurora photography pushes the limits of the exposure variables. This is certainly true for ISO and aperture. Long-duration shutter speeds can be easily set, but because the aurora is often moving, and sometimes moving quickly, a shorter shutter speed is preferred because it captures the shape better. A long exposure blurs the shape of the aurora, making it less defined.

4 seconds @ f/2.8, ISO 6400

4 seconds @ f/2.8, ISO 6400

When creating an exposure for the aurora, setting your camera to an acceptable high ISO and opening your lens aperture to its widest opening is a good starting point. With those variables set, the shutter speed is most often the changing variable, and the shutter needs to stay open long enough to let in enough light. How long is long enough? Try a test shot. If your picture is too dark, increase the shutter speed, or increase the ISO if your camera can handle it. If the picture is too bright, reduce the shutter speed, or reduce the ISO. Eventually, you will find the appropriate settings for the brightness of the aurora display. This varies from night to night, based on the intensity of the aurora and other factors of ambient light, such as the moon. How to evaluate your exposure using the camera’s LCD display is a topic I discuss in a later chapter in the Book. 

For a starting point, you can use this chart to calculate an initial exposure. Then, after taking a shot, make some evaluations and adjustments based on the conditions of that specific moment.

This chart can be used as a starting point when photographing the aurora. Take a test shot and make adjustments as necessary due to variable degrees of ambient light and aurora brightness.

This chart can be used as a starting point when photographing the aurora. Take a test shot and make adjustments as necessary due to variable degrees of ambient light and aurora brightness.

  • Young Dae Kim - Absolutely amazing info. you have shared!! thanks a lotFebruary 27, 2015 – 8:21 pmReplyCancel

  • Mick Stevens - Patrick,
    Good article and chart. This am I thought I was in AK when my temperature on my deck read 21 below zero! Yikes!!I tried to copy the article with the chart but the chart won’t copy. Do you have any suggestions?February 20, 2015 – 1:18 pmReplyCancel

  • Chuck Ashley - Thanks much Patrick as I plan to get out this evening if it stays clear here in Wasilla to get some pics. My 50D only goes to 1600 ISO your chart helps me a lot in having a starting point of settings.Saw some thin green ribbons last night @2 am but my camera wasn’t ready and I was too bushed to get out but maybe tonight. Thanks againFebruary 19, 2015 – 11:32 pmReplyCancel