WACOM Cintiq Companion Hybrid: A review

About ten years ago I stopped using computer mice. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I have never touched them since then; there is still always a mouse when I have to use someone else’s computer, but no mice are connected to any of my own computers. Instead I prefer to use trackballs and pens. The mouse was a great invention in the history of information technology that determined the development of human-machine interface over many decades when users were operating the computers through manipulation of visual metaphors – “windows”, “handles”, “buttons”, etc. Meanwhile the technology made huge steps forward. Operating computers with metaphors proved as efficient and is remaining, but the manipulation devices have evolved. Mice are still popular and adequate for the majority of use cases when typical operation system functions and applications, such as office software, have to be controlled. But now more sophisticated devices exist that better satisfy the needs of visual artists and photographers. Graphic tablets have belonged to them for over a decade. Pen displays are the next generation of such devices that is becoming increasingly popular. This review deals with one of them that I now constantly use in my digital graphics and image processing work.

Currently Wacom is worldwide “the pen tablet manufacturer”. In Japan this company delivers over 95% of pen tablets. Wacom’s market share worldwide is over 70%. After the patent for the electromagnetic resonance technology used in Wacom pens expired, some Chinese competitors emerged who are now offering much cheaper alternatives to Wacom tablets. Since I haven’t tried any of them, I don’t want to criticise anything here. One thing is sure, anyway: While such companies may be already offering quite useable tablets, they have no display products similar to Cintiq line of Wacom in functionality and quality. Of course, I would also expect from Wacom products better quality and compatibility with operating systems and software products of Adobe, Corel, Autodesk and others. Having used Intuos tablets for many years I still consider their relatively high cost justified. A price tag of 200-400€ may appear quite high but should be still affordable, considering the supreme quality of the professional product.

I got my first pen tablet long time ago – in the mid 1990s. It was made by Genius – a popular manufacturer of computer mice. The pen was attached to it via a cable and was almost useless, because natural feeling of working with a real pen wasn’t provided. Many years later, after I had used more advanced pens and tablets, I realised what was the reason: The Genius pen was neither pressure nor tilt sensitive. Pens and pen tablets have been so and available already for two decades. Modern graphic tablets of Wacom detect up to 2048 levels of pressure and 60 levels of tilt. My first professional grade tablet which was Wacom Intuos 2 back in 2003 was capable to recognise 1024 pressure levels. The next two tablets I owned – of the type Intuos 3 – had the same capabilities. It may appear a lot, and I was thinking so too, but after that the pressure sensitiveness has doubled, and with Cintiq I got a device that has it, I realised the huge improvement. Higher pressure and tilt sensitivity and other improved features were my reasons for an upgrade of the Intuos 3 that was using till recently. First I was thinking more about replacing it with a newer version of Intuos. The new Wacom Intuos tablets offer not only better pressure and tilt sensitivity but also are touch sensitive and can act as touch pads, thus allowing scrolling, zooming and panning of the image you are working on in a graphic editor. A Cintiq was also an option I was considering, but a better 24 inch HD version was just very expensive while I was regarding smaller versions with lower resolution as not adequate for my long-term needs. Then Cintiq Companion appeared and made me reconsider my plans. When I got a chance to try it out at this year’s Photokina in Cologne, I changed my mind in favour of Cintiq.

Cintiq Companian Hybrid (official image from Wacom Europe)

Cintiq Companion Hybrid – official product image by Wacom Europe.

Touch screen displays were another advancement of pen tablet technology. Cintiq is the premium product line of Wacom intended for digital art professionals that currently has no competitors worldwide. It is priced also accordingly, i.e. much higher than of other Wacom products and probably out of reach for many non-professional users. Modern Cintiq devices are high resolution displays with capability of touch screens that are also drawing surfaces for a pen. The 24 inch top model costs over 2000€ while the smallest, 13 inch model is priced at around 850€, i.e. is more affordable but, considering the small size, has still a very high cost per square inch compared with high-end monitors.

This year Wacom has released a new type of Cintiq devices, called “Companion”, with two models – “Companion” and “Companion Hybrid”. It was company’s response to the growing demand for portable pen displays. Since Cintiq Companion, to fulfill its tasks, has to combine an input device with a computer, Wacom has entered the computer market with this product. Certainly, this is a step that may be regarded with a grain of skepticism, but, for technical reasons, it was unavoidable. So far it also looks promising because Wacom managed to bring to quite unique products to this now highly competed market of portable computers and tablets. Of course, the Companion devices are probably the most high priced tablets – more expensive than even the newest Apple iPad models. Wacom explains this by higher production cost due to specialisation of Cintiq devices for graphic professionals. If so, i.e. if the Cintiq Companion would remain a specialised device and not intended for mass consumers, then the higher price level is, of course, justified.

So what Cintiq Companion actually does and what was my reason to choose it, more precisely the “Hybrid” version? As the name “Cintiq” suggests, it belongs to pen display product line of Wacom and follows the same concept as the desktop models. In fact, it looks and functions very similarly to the 13 inch Cintiq that has existed already for awhile. The main difference is the portability: While other Cintiq devices, just like any computer displays, have to be always connected to a computer, the Companion can be used as a standalone computer. Actually, the non-hybrid is not a display anymore, but only a portable computer with a touchscreen driven by Microsoft Windows operating system. Ironically it is much more expensive than the “Companion Hybrid” which combines both functions – of a display and of a mobile computer. Since I rarely need portability and since all my computers are Macs, the non-hybrid version wasn’t an option for me at all. When Cintiq Companion Hybrid is connected to a Mac, it acts as a screen for it, and you can use all Mac OS features and software normally. When it is disconnected, it functions just like any tablet computer with Android OS, but has an extended pen support, so you can draw on it. Of course, the graphic software for Android isn’t as powerful as for Windows or Mac OS. Therefore, it can’t be used for serious work, but more for sketching and notes on the way, or for presentations. The non-hybrid version of Cintiq Companion is, of course, a full-featured Windows system where you can have all your normal creative workflow. This may appear as advantage to someone at first, but a closer look reveals big deficits. Windows was always known for its high demand for processor speed and system memory. This applies to graphic software of Adobe even more. Since all this needs much more computing power than the hybrid counterpart, Cintiq Companion is much more expensive but at the same time not so flexible. Even for someone who doesn’t need to run Mac OS on it, the biggest problem remains: It is hardware that becomes outdated every couple of years due to rapid progress in personal computer systems and development of even more “resource-hungry” software. Every computer user knows that urge of modernisation. In desktop systems the problem can be solved to a certain extent through upgrade of components. In portable computers this is somewhat compensated by currently very low prices that allow you to replace the whole computer by a new one as soon as it becomes too slow. Both doesn’t work with Cintiq Companion where you pay 2000 euros for a portable computer that will be outdated in two or three years, and that you won’t be able to upgrade. So, even if you don’t need a Macintosh system, this is a strong reason to choose Cintiq Companion Hybrid.

Cintiq Companion Hybrid when it is used as pen display with a desktop computer can be compared with non-mobile 13″ HD Cintiq. Indeed, it looks almost identical, and the 30% price difference is a good reason for thoughts in favour of non-mobile version. However, there is another advantage of Companion Hybrid that may justify the choice of it: Its screen is touch sensitive. Ability to move the image just with your free hand while you are drawing or retouching, to zoom in and out by a simple gesture is nice to have because it makes your work easier and quicker.

Cintiq Companion Hybrid on my desk in front of an Apple Cinema HD 23

Cintiq Companion Hybrid on my desk in front of an Apple Cinema HD 23″ display.

As you see in the picture above, the Cintiq Companion Hybrid occupies very little space and fits nicely in front of the main screen of my computer so that I can comfortably use both. Of course, not enough space for the keyboard remains, and I had to remove the full-sized keyboard that I was using previously and replace it with a much smaller bluetooth keyboard that has no numeric block.

The small footprint has also its drawbacks. The screen is only 29 x 17 cm in size but has a resolution of 5080 lpi and 10:9 ratio, i.e. 1920 x 1080 pixel. All controls in the software that you are using – scrollbars, buttons, icons, menus, etc. – look tiny on it and therefore often hard to use. A 24″ Cintiq would be better in that sense but unfortunately much more bulky. To operate the system and the programs I still use trackball that provides a normal mouse-like cursor that is more precise than a finger but at the same time not so fine and better visible as the pen.

For use on a desk, Cintiq Companion Hybrid is supplied with a separate foot, or holder. It attaches to the rear side of the tablet and holds it very firmly. The angle of tilt is adjustable in three positions. I have chosen the middle one, and find it very comfortable. When the tablet is standing like this, it feels rock solid.

Overall Cintiq Companion Hybrid has a very solid construction. Unlike in Intuos tablets I previously owned, its enclosure appears to be made mainly of metal. Compared to any of now popular tablets, it is large and heavy. A fan of iPad of Samsung Galaxy would certainly dislike that. But don’t forget: We have a specialised professional device here – not an all-purpose entertainment gadget. Of course, large size and heavy weight are reasons why I wouldn’t use it for mobile work without strong need.

Also unlike in majority of modern consumer devices, the screen of Companion Hybrid has matt finishing that has two roles: It provides friction needed for drawing with the pen and reduces reflection of the ambient light. Again, users of iPads and Android tablets may criticise the reduction of contrast and of colour brilliance caused by this. Indeed everything looks less crisp and the colours aren’t as intensive as on screens of commonly used mobile tablets. However, for graphic work non-reflecting screens are simply a must.

The screen of Cintiq Companion Hybrid is very good. It has contrast ratio 700:1, lightness of 210 cd/m2 and covers 75% of Adobe RGB gamut. It can be calibrated also not as easy and reliably as a normal desktop display. Also separate controls of brightness and contrast create a problem when lightness needs to be set to a certain value required for calibration. When I was calibrating my Cintiq Companion Hybrid with Spyder 4 PRO, I set brightness to 65 and contrast to 75 – the values that appeared to me reasonable. I calibrated it with 6500K temperature and 2.1 gamma, and it looks okay.

To be used as pen display Cintiq Companion Hybrid has to be connected with a cable to a Mac or PC. Unfortunately, the computer has to provide a HDMI port, that no Macintosh computer except the newest Mac Pro has. Obviously, to use Cintiq as second display you need either a dedicated HDMI port or second display port in your computer. Since my Mac Pro was built in 2009, it has no HDMI. Fortunately there is a quick and easy solution for this problem – a HDMI-to-DVI adapter that I got in a nearby electronics shop. Portable Macs, nowadays have only mini display ports – one, like in my Macbook Air, or two – like in Macbook Pro. To use Cintiq Companion Hybrid with them, you need also an adapter that is also very easy to purchase.

Like almost always with newly released hardware, there are issues with drivers and support by already existing software. Adobe CC programmes – Photoshop and Illustrator – work generally well with Cintiq Companion Hybrid. The only issue that I experience and that I haven’t yet found a solution for is recognition of one-finger touch that in Photoshop and Illustrator activates the tool that is currently selected. If, for instance, it is brush, a simple touch of the screen will leave a line or spot in the image you have currently opened thus spoiling your work. If eraser was active, something will be erased, and so on. Sometimes this drives me mad! I want to block one finger gestures, but can find a way for it neither in current Wacom driver nor in the programmes. Fortunately it is possible in Corel Painter, the programme that I use with Cintiq Companion Hybrid the most. Corel has made own support of Wacom pens in this programme. When it is active, one-finger touches on the drawing surface aren’t recognised. This is a very good news, but unfortunately there is also a bad one: The support of two-finger gestures needed for zooming and panning in Corel Painter appears to be still extremely buggy.

LensCoat 4Xpandable: A Review

This is an excerpt of a review published at Nature-Images.eu. See the full text here: LensCoat 4Xpandable.

I am sure there is no nature photographer on Earth who wouldn’t know LensCoat — a US company that makes neoprene protective and camouflage covers for very many DSLR lenses. I the last couple of years LensCoat was constantly extending not only the number of lens models they were making covers for but also the offer of other products, such as — pouches, rain protection covers, etc. Finally, this year the company debuted in the photo bag market segment with a new series of large lens bags called Xpandable.


The Xpandable long lens bag series currently consists of 2 models — 3Xpandable and4Xpandable. The first is with 70cm of maximum height a little smaller and therefore more suitable for lenses up to 400mm f/2.8 of Canon and Nikon, or 500 mm of Sony and Sigma. Larger lenses can be put into it either without a camera attached or with hood reversed. In that case, also the high tripod foot may be an obstacle that will need to be removed or replace with a shorter third-party foot.

The 4Xpandable is 73cm high which makes a big difference because it can accommodate a 800mm or even 600mm Canon or Nikon lens mounted on a camera, with hood in shooting position and even with a 1.4x or 1.7x (Nikon) teleconverter.

It looks like 4Xpandable is currently the only bag on the market that comes close to satisfying my requirements for a long lens bag, namely:

  1. to accommodate my wildlife photography equipment completely assembled: a 600mm lens with the hood on, a teleconverter (up to 2x Canon Extender III) and a camera attached;
  2. when empty, to be packed in a compact way for transportation in other baggage separately from photographic equipment.

Therefore, I ordered a 4Xpandable bag soon after it was released.


Improvement Suggestions

Here are some improvement suggestions for the case if someone from LensCoat team would read this review:

  • Increase the minimum height by 3-5cm. This will allow to keep a 2x teleconverter attached in both positions — when the bag is cuffed and when it is expanded to full size.
  • Provide means for fixation of the lens and camera when they are inside. That can be a padded collar, pads or similar.
  • Make the walls of Xpandable more stiff. First, this will additionally reduce the side movements of the equipment in the bag. Second, a more stable shape of the bag will also be better for tripod attachement. Third, the attachment of harnesses and waist belts will be improved this way.
  • Provide M.O.L.L.E. attachment points at the sides of Xpandable bags in addition or instead of those that are now on the front.
  • Provide an optional complete harness system, like in trekking backpacks — with padded waist belt included.


This bag could be great as a pouch for a ready-to-use long lens and camera combo when you need to transport it in a car or on a cart, such as on Eckla Beach Rolly (see a reviewEckla Beach Rolly). Travel photographers who go to African or Indian national parks may find Xpandable particularly nice to use in safari cars — when the equipment has to be ready for use but at the same time to be protected from dust and hits when the car is moving. Being a wildlife photographer, I need this bag for use at locations where I arrive for shooting with all my baggage, but then have short walks to search for a particular subjet while the rest of equipment remains in a base camp or in a car.

Overall, I do not recommend Xpandable for situations when it needs to be carried over long distances. If you are looking for a backpack for hiking or trekking with your largest telephoto prime lens always ready for shooting, LensCoat Xpandable isn’t for you. Unfortunately for this area of use there is still no perfect solution for 600mm-800mm lenses. Photographers with such demands have to choose from 3 compromises — 1) to get one of the bags mentioned in this review, i.e. made by KinesisLoweproTenbaKönig, and carry the lens with hood reversed; 2) to use a normal trekking backpack with some kind of padded insert; 3) to go for LensCoat 4Xpandable. I did the last, and 4Xpandable became a nice addition to my two other bags — F-Stop Gear Satori EXP that serves me as trekking backpack (see a review F-Stop Gear Satori EXP), and Lowepro Flipside 300 that I use during short excursions with little equipment. I don’t plan to hike with 4Xpandable on my back a lot.

As I explained in this review, the 4Xpandable model is too wide even for the largest prime lens, which is currently 600mm f/4. For owners of 800mm f/5.6 lenses who don’t use teleconverters very often and have replaced the tripod mount foot with a shorter one I would recommend to take a look at 3Xpandable. Its diameter is 19cm, and it should fit the lens better. However, this bag is 3cm shorter than 4Xpandable — too short even for a 1.4x teleconverter. Owners of a 600mm f/4 lens, like me, would probably use teleconverters more often. Then 3Xpandable may be only an option if you’d agree not to carry the lens with a TC attached or to carry it with the hood reversed.

If you don’t need your large lens bag to be foldable, i.e. if you don’t transport your equipment to shooting location in other bags and cases, take a look at Kinesis PolyCore L622 bags instead. These bags are more advanced and better for long carrying.

For the reasons that I have explained in this review, I mean that Xpandable bags aren’t worth to be purchased outside the US by anyone who doesn’t absolutely need their unique capabilities — at least as long as trade treaty between US and EU isn’t signed, and custom duty and import VAT apply.

Read the rest of this text here: http://www.nature-images.eu/contents/reviews/xpandable/index.html

Cleaning the Background

Usually I don’t like wildlife images with a subject on an absolutely “creamy” background unless this effect was obtained in a natural way — with a lens and not through postprocessing. When the background isn’t detracting from the subject, I rather prefer that the objects in it, such as vegetation, soil, or rocks, are blurred but still a little recognisable than when it is looking just like a homogenous colour backdrop. In certain cases, however, I agree that the background has to be tweaked after the shot. More often it is necessary in the images of small subjects created with use of a macro lens. Since narrow aperture and consequently greater depth-of-field are typically required in macro photography, the not very distant objects in the background may appear in the image not blurred enough. Such photographs are then criticised as having a disturbing, “busy”, background — when the separation of the main subject isn’t sufficiently provided.

Macro photographers often use artificial backdrops — prints or colour paper — that they put behind the subject before making the shot. Obviously, this is possible only with static or slow-moving and not shy subjects, such as flowers or caterpillars. In most other situations the background can’t be controlled that well, and the photographer is confronted with a dilemma — to leave it as is, or to improve it in a graphic editing software. Sometimes the background looks so “dirty” that there is no other choice than to work on it in Photoshop. In my photography practice this need usually arises when I have photographed and underwater subject with a macro lens.

I use a small water tank that I built extra for this purpose from acrylic glass. Since I currently have only one such tank, it is quite wide, so that I can put also larger fishes and amphibians in it. For small animals, there is too much space, and this causes two problems. First, it is difficult to compose an image because the animal has too much freedom to move along the front glass and quickly leaves the view field of the lens. Second, the subject tends to swim away from the front glass thus leaving the area in focus. To solve these problems, I use dividers which are also made of acrylic glass. One of them limits the distance from the front glass and is made non-reflective — to absorb flash bursts.

When I photograph water animals in this tank, I fill it with clear water. Nonetheless, swimming dust and dirt particles can’t be avoided completely: Even when the water was absolutely clean they emerge as soon as the animal and the decoration objects are there. These particles appear in the photographs due to magnification by the macro lens. Air bulbs are a much worse problem: When the water was fresh and cold, they remain there for hours and appear in the photographs. When they are out of focus, it is even worse because they look like snow flakes. All this you can see in the picture below.

Of course, as in so many images captured with macro lenses, the background in this one looks very homogenous, and the foreground appears as if sticked on it. However, there is nothing wrong because the same effect can be observed in macro photographs that didn’t undergo the post-processing described in this article, i.e. that remained as shot.  Also, with this photograph of the newt, if we compare the original with the result, we would recognise that in the original the foreground was also looking “sticked”. The only difference was that the background was extremely messy. In the process described in this article I solved this issue, and, as you see below, the result was worth the efforts.


Read the complete article Cleaning the Background.

Photographing the Gallotia lizards – Part 5: Gallotia caesaris gomerae

Boettger’s Lizards (Gallotia caesaris) are for La Gomera the same as Western Canaries Lizards (Gallotia galloti for Tenerife — the most common and widespread reptile species. The population on this island is of subspecies G. c. gomerae. Someone who doesn’t want to go to La Gomera but wants to see or to photograph them can do it on Tenerife where G. c. gomerae occur in the town of Los Cristianos because they are being brought there by ferries. In turn, G. galloti already occur on La Gomera, for the same reason.

Boettger’s Lizards are really omnipresent on this island. You can find them on the coast as well as in the middle. Since La Gomera is small and there are no high mountains, there are no barriers that would isolatе populations, causing evolution of subspecies. You can drive around the island in less than a day and would see everywhere G. caesaris looking the same.

The adult individuals of G. caesaris are much smaller than of G. galloti. Males look a little larger than medium-sized European lacertids — such as sand lizards (Lacerta agilis) — and aren’t as colourful as the males of G. galloti.

As usually with young lizards, they allow a closer distance than the adults. However, this isn’t a big help when you are trying to photograph them with a wide-angle lens: The distance is still too large because the lizards are small. This image shows young G. caesaris gomerae shot with a 25mm lens in their habitat at Playa del Inglés.

Feeding gallotias was for me not only a method for getting closer but an act of help the animals to survive in this hot season, particularly after their natural food sources were distroyed by fire.

Overall, G. caesaris on La Gomera appeared to me not as shy as G. galloti on Tenerife. The minimal distance they were allowing was 2-3 meters. Of course, it was too far for photographing with wide-angle lenses, but close enough for good shots at focal length of 150 – 300 mm. For close-up photographs, the lizards needed to be caught. Just like with G. galloti there were no chance to do it with hands, but the method with fishing rod worked with large males very well.

Like other Gallotia species, the adult Boettger’s Lizards feed on fruits and green plants. Therefore, they could be attracted by pieces of banana or other sweet fruit put in a place suitable for photography. In hot sommer months there is not only enough food for them but also water. Therefore juicy fruits may be especially attractive also as a source of drinking water. In fact, I was very surprised to see so many G. caesaris active in areas without any obviously eatable vegetation and without water. Different than on Tenerife, there aren’t so many prickly pears plants, or maybe no at all, because I haven’t seen any. On Tenerife theirs fruits were the only significant source of food for gallotias in this season. Such food was much less available or absent on La Gomera.

It is hard to show in photographs a real scale of the disaster that stroke La Gomera in 2012. More than a quarter of natural sites turned to ash as a result of the most severe fire in the history of the island. The neighbour island — La Palma — is visible here in the background.

The summer 2012 will certainly remain in the history of La Gomera because of the most severe forest fire catastrophe this island had ever seen. As a result, more than a quarter of the endemic laurel forest was destroyed. In huge areas of La Gomera nothing remained but ash. I was glad to notice that large numbers of gallotias survived the fire, but at the same time it was heartbreaking to see them desperately searching for food in what was only ash. When I was in such places and had fruit I was giving them and some water to gallotias, but, of course, I wasn’t able to feed all of them who suffered the fire.

For photographing G. caesaris gomerae I recommend to bring a lens with focal length of 150-300 mm. This can be a macro or a telephoto lens. If it would be a 150-180mm macro lens, you would need to use it with a teleconverter now and then. For telephoto lenses you may occasionally need macro extension rings — to make the work distance shorter. I also recommend to have a tripod and a lot of patience — to be able to sit and wait till the lizards appear from their sleeping places in stone heaps.

Boettger’s Lizards can be found absolutely everywhere on the island where there are places for them to bask. In the central areas that are covered by forest, they live at road sides, near stone heaps, or at rocks. I was photographing them in such locations and in the shrubs that grow near Playa del Inglés at the foot of Risco de La Mérica — the distribution area of Gallotia bravoana.

In the summer the sunshine is very bright. Since G. caesaris have dark colouring, and the males are almost black, they need to be photographed only in the early morning hours when the shadows aren’t too deep. The best approach is to notice where a colony of G. caesaris lives and to come the next morning to this place before the lizards appear, to set up the camera on a tripod and to wait. In later hours a flash may help to lighten up the shadows.

Photographing the Gallotia lizards – Part 4: Gallotia galloti

The Western Canaries Lizards (Gallotia galloti galloti) on mountain Guaza are extremely shy — particularly the adults. Although I was noticing them moving in the dry vegetation, I could rarely see the animals themselves. It appeared to me that the population density in this place was not that great than of G. g. eisentrauti that I observed in the north of the island. Young G. g. galloti have different pattern than young G. g. eisentrauti. To me it appeared similar to the pattern of young Gallotia intermedia that I had seen on photographs. Therefore I thought first that I was seeing G. intermedia. When I saw the adult gallotias which were definitely G. g. galloti, I recognised my mistake.

According to my observations, the lizards were feeding mainly on fruits of Opuntia in this extremely dry season. Here you see a juvenile G. g. galloti doing it.

There are three subspecies of Gallotia galloti on Tenerife. Two — G. g. galloti andG. g. eisentrauti — live on the main island where they are very common. The distribution area of the first covers the south and the far west of Tenerife, while the second lives in the north and the east. The mountains in the middle of the island appear to serve as a barrier between them. The western border is very easy to recognise because the transition from galloti to eisentrauti is very sharp: When you are coming by car from Buenavista del Norte towards Punto de Teno after you passed the tunnel you’ll find only lizards of the nominate subspecies. At Buenavista and all the way to the tunnel there are still lizards of the subspecies eisentrauti. The eastern border between subspecies should be caused by Anaga mountains. I personally didn’t observe the point where it happens.

A population of the third subspecies — G. g. insulanagae — exist only on a small rock near the coast of the Anaga Peninsula at the eastern end of Tenerife — Roque Fuera de Anaga. I have seen only one image of a male of this subspecies. Therefore I am eager to photograph these lizards myself. Unfortunately it is difficult to organise. The place is very easy to find. You have to come by car to the village Garachico and then to hike to the lighthouse. After you reached the lighthouse you’ll see a triangle rock standing in water less than a kilometer away from the coast. That’s the Roque Fuera de Anaga.

A real problem is to reach the rock. Although it is a protected area, no special permission is required to visit it as far as I know — but you need a boat. I hadn’t any and didn’t even try to organise one because local people in this area speak only Spanish, and with my poor command of this language I wasn’t able to find a fisherman and to negotiate with him. When I went to this place, I didn’t know that the rock is so close, I was only planning to photograph the landscapes of the Anaga Mountains. Now I know that Roque de Fuera is very close to the coast of Tenerife and can be reached by a normal fisherman boat — worth an attempt if would visit this place again.

Baiting with small banana pieces works well with all adult gallotias.

To me Gallotia galloti is the most beautiful species of this gender and eisentrautiis the most beautiful subspecies of it. Males are large and particularly colourful. Also females of G. g. eisentrauti have more clear body pattern and more bright colour than of G. g. galloti. Many males of the nominate subspecies have larger blue areas on their sides but the striped pattern isn’t so well recognisable. Adults of both subspecies feed on plants and like sweet fruits, such as banana, peach, strawberries, that can be used as bait, to attract them to a place where you can better photograph them. Of course, even then they remain shy and can be easily scared by sudden movement. However, even when they have run away they return very soon to the fruits.

With much more shy G. g. galloti a more crude method is effective — capturing. Gallotias are very quick and see very well. In the hot season, when I was there, adult G. g. galloti weren’t allowing to approach them closer than 6-8 meters. G. g. eisentrauti appeared to me generally less shy. In towns, for instance in Puerto de la Cruz, the lizards were allowing a distance of just 2 meters or even less because they were accustomed to the presence of people who often even fed them. Nonetheless, in most populations that I visited the only way to a macro or a close-up shot of a Gallotia galloti was to catch it. Since the lizards escape in thick thorny vegetation or in rocks before you approach them, you can’t do it with hands. I was using a fishing rod with a snare. It worked fine on adult animals.

When gallotias are active their bodies are very warm. Anyway they felt warmer than for instance of sand lizards I often had a chance to hold in hands. The body even of a large adult lizard feels soft — probably due to small scales that cover it. When caught, first it attempts to bite but very quickly stops any resistance and remains motionless as long as your hand is closed. As soon as you loosen the grip just a little the lizard will immediately attempt to escape, and usually will succeed. So you have to be very careful and quick when photographing. It is not like with many other lacertids that would usually stay in place for awhile after you have removed the hand: A gallotia will disappear even before you have noticed it. Therefore, when you are handling a gallotia be prepared for only one shot that you will need to release in a fraction of a second. If you have a quick reaction and if there are no escapes in immediate proximity, you may be able to catch the lizard again with a free hand and return it in position in front of the lens. Even then sooner or later it will run away.

When caught and put in position for a close-up photograph G. galloti look depressed for the first second when you are photographing them. However, it doesn’t make sense to wait longer: As soon as the animal takes a more natural pose, it escapes. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to obtain a decent wide-angle or macro image of G. galloti. I am not really satisfied with those that I managed to get during this trip and will repeat the attempts as soon as I have another opportunity.

Adult gallotias are strictly territorial — both, males and femals. Neigbours who attempt to trespass will be fought and chased by the owner of the territory. During such quarrels the animals usually are squeking loudly. Along with strictly vegetarian diet of adult animals, the ability to vocalisations is probably the most amazing in this lacertid gender.

The easiest approach, although not always resulting in artistic images, is shooting with a telephoto lens. At some locations I was using a 150mm macro lens — sometimes with a 2x teleconverter — with quite good results. It proved to be particularly useful for photographs of younger animals of both subspecies and of adult G. g. eisentrauti. For adult G. g. galloti I needed a 300 mm f/2.8 super telephoto lens. Quite often, I had to shoot through vegetation; then the large aperture of this lens was particularly helpful. However, carrying both lenses along with other equipment is difficult and doesn’t make much sense. A 2.8/150mm or 2.8/180 mm macro lens in combination with a teleconverter lens is more lightweight and more flexible alternative that I would recommend in this case.

View from Acantilados de Los Gigantes at Teno Cape — habitat of Gallotia galloti galloti. The neighbour island, La Gomera is visible at the horizon.

The best locations for photographing Western Canaries Lizards in natural habitat I have been to during this trip were Teno Cape (Punto de Teno) and Guaza Mountain (Montaña de Guaza) — for G. g. galloti, and Anaga Peninsula — for G. g. eisentrauti. Of course, the lizards are very numerous and easier to approach in towns and villages, and thus are easier to photograph, but the urban surroundings may be visible in your pictures, particularly if you’ll be using wide-angle lenses.

To be continued in Part 5: Gallotia caesaris gomerae.

Photographing the Gallotia lizards – Part 3: Gallotia intermedia

The Tenerife Speckled Lizard (Gallotia intermedia) is the fourth largest extant species in this genus. It was also discovered quite recently — in late 90-s. The terra typica is the rocks Acantilados de Los Gigantes (Cliffs of the Giants) at the south-western coast of Tenerife. With estimated number of 1500-2000, the total population of G. intermedia is much more numerous than of G. bravoana. This species is currently known from two localities — the coastal rocks between Punto de Teno and the town of Los Gigantes, and from the Montaña de Guaza (Guaza Mountain) at the eastern end of Los Cristianos. Since the distribution area of Tenerife Speckled Lizard is quite extended, this species doesn’t appear to be in acute danger although it may suffer from predation by stray cats.

The ecology of G. intermedia appears to be similar to that of G. bravoana: It inhabits dry rocky places with scarse vegetation, at the southern or south-western coast. Unlike G. bravoana that has been found so far only on a very steep slope of a rock, G. intermedia also occurs in a more plain areas — on the Guaza Mountain and at nearby locations.

View at Acantilados de Los Gigantes (Cliffs of the Giants) — the terra typica of Tenerife Speckled Lizard (Gallotia intermedia).

I searched for my photography subjects in both populations but again had bad luck. In the western population I tried to find the lizards at two sites — near the town of Los Gigantes and at Punto de Teno. Both locations are in the same chain of Los Gigantes rocks, but at the both ends of it. There are no doubts that I was searching in the right places, but like with the Gomera Giant Lizards, I suppose that all living beings were hiding from the heat during this extremely hot summer. Anyway I didn’t see adult lizards of any species at all. A couple of young that I finally found and photographed in Baranco Seca — a gorge of a dried river — and that I initially thought were juvenile G. intermedia later turned out to be G. galloti.

I found this memorial plate dedicated to the discovery of Gallotia intermedia on a rock at the beginning of the paths along the Los Gigantes cliffs.

The habitat of Tenerife Speckled Lizards at Los Gigantes is very easy to find: It is on the huge cliffs — Acantilados de Los Gigantes — that you see from any point in the town. All I needed to get there was to find a street leading to the cliffs. It was Calle Tabaiba that ends with a small parking lot. A path along the cliffs starts right at it. The entrance to the path was closed with a portable fence, a warning sign was informing that the path shouldn’t be used. I supposed that this warning was intended for the inhabitants of the villas nearby — people from Germany and other countries who own holiday apartments there and may want to go to the cliffs for a walk. Indeed, I saw people searching for a way to the cliffs, and also a woman who lived in a villa told that the official recreation path was higher — near the top of the rocks.

I took that lower that was closed. First it was quite broad, and walking was absolutely no problem. At about 200m from its beginning I saw a bronze plate on a rock telling that “Lagarto Canario Moteado” — i.e. Gallotia intermedia — had been first discovered in this place. This was a sign for me that I had determined the location correctly.

This slope was still in shadow, and I didn’t hurry. A couple of times I sat down not only to rest but also to wait for the sun. Finally the sun appeared, and its light was quickly getting brighter and hotter. Against my expectation no lizards were appearing: the slope was looking lifeless. Very soon it got very hot. I continued walking and looking for any lizards. Sometimes I left the path and searched in a wider area on both sides: No lizards were around.

Till noon, when the sunshine got really strong and the entire slope was standing in it, I went only a few kilometers in one direction, and there was no sense to go further. The slopes were extremely dry. There was no water and almost no green plants. When I reach a dried river bed I saw a few young gallotias. Since there were no adult individuals of G. galloti around, I thought that they were juvenile G. intermedia, particularly because they were looking not like the juveniles of G.g. eisentrauti that I had seen on the northern coast. I photographed one of those young lizards and went back to the parking lot. On the way the accident happened that I described in the grey box above.

The second known population of the Tenerife Speckled Lizard is in the area around Guaza Mountain (Montaña de Guaza). It is in immediate proximity of Los Cristianos — one of the most popular beach holiday destinations in Tenerife. Los Cristianos itself is probably the least attractive town on the island. It consists almost entirely of giant hotels and international tourist ressorts, and is a typical sun-and-fun holiday place. Therefore, I didn’t want to stay long there and reserved only a couple of days at the end of the trip for a search for G. intermedia.

A many kilometers long path going along Acantilados de Los Gigantes — to and through the habitat of G. intermedia. Such paths are the only ways there from Los Gigantes town.

The Guaza Mountain itself and the land around it is officially protected as a nature reserve – Paraje Natural Montaña de Guaza. Nevertheless, the access to it is neither restricted nor regulated. Everyone can just drive closer to it, leave the car somewhere and walk to the mountain.

It is less than 400 m high, looks more like a hill, and is very easy to climb. The slopes aren’t steep. It surprised me that the habitat on Guaza Mountain was very different from what I had seen at Los Gigantes. However, just like there, the Tenerife Speckled Lizard was also here sympatric with the Western Canaries Lizard (Gallotia g. galloti). The latter were very common but hard even to see because they were very shy. Of G. intermedia I have seen no signs at all.

A view at Montaña de Guaza (Guaza Mountain) from the balcony of my apartment in Los Cristianos. The second known population of Tenerife Speckled Lizard (Gallotia intermedia) that lives on this mountain was the reason for me to chose this hotel.

The weather was again very hot, and there were almost no green plants around except prickly pears (Opuntia). I am sure that heat was the reason why almost no living beings were active.

There is a hill adjacent to Guaza Mountain whose western slope ends in the ocean. According to the information that I had gathered, the Tenerife Speckled Lizards are found closer to the coast, i.e. on this hill which can be regarded as belonging to Guaza Mountain in a broad sense. The next day I searched on this hill too but found it empty: There weren’t even G. galloti around.

Since Monataña de Guaza is so close to the south airport of Tenerife “Aeropuerto Reina Sofia” where many flights from Europe land and since the harbor of Los Cristianos is connected by ferries with other islands, I am certainly planning to repeat the search in this place during my future travels to Canary Islands.

To be continued in Part 4: Gallotia galloti.

F-stop Gear Satori EXP: A Review

This is an excerpt of a review I published at www.nature-images.eu. Read the full text on this page: F-stop Gear Satori EXP.

The Satori EXP like two smaller backpacks of the Mountain series — Tilopa BC and Loca — combines the traits of a mountaineering backpack with photo backpack. Basically, it is a very well made, with use of best materials, mountaineering backpack that has an opening on the back side through which the entire content of it can be accessed. Protection and the ability to hold photographic gear is provided through so-called “ICU” (Internal Camera Units) — padded soft-shell boxes of various sizes. One or more of them can be inserted inSatori EXP. The remaining space can be filled with anything that doesn’t need to be carried in a protected container.

Without ICU Satori EXP is just a small rucksack suitable for short trekking for a couple of days, but too small to be used as main baggage for long ventures far from home.  According to manufacturer’s measurements, the backpack has the volume of 62l and the maximum dimensions 29.2cm x 35.6cm x 66cm. The result of multiplying these numbers will be 68.6cm3. Apparently the indicated volume of 62l can be reached when all compression belts are loosened, and Satori EXP has its maximum size. In reality, the usable volume for carrying photographic equipment is much smaller. The largest available ICU has the internal dimensions 16.5cm x 26.7cm x 45.7cm, hence only about 20l volume. When this so-called “XL Pro ICU” is inserted, very little space remains for the rest.

A 45cm long Canon EF 600mm 1:4L IS II USM without hood (or with hood reversed) may fit into it, but EF 800mm f:5.6L IS USM that is 1cm longer probably wouldn’t. The same applies to the largest Nikon lenses: AF-S NIKKOR 800 mm 1:5.6E FL ED VR with its 46 cm lens may be too long while the 1.5 cm shorter AF-S NIKKOR 600 mm 1:4G ED VR should go.Satori EXP is then perfect for carrying such lenses in hand luggage on airplanes but not for use in the field because the lenses will be carried not in ready-for-shooting state.

The currently largest ICU “Pro XL” with 20l volume can accommodate about the same amount of equipment as the largest photo backpacks of other manufacturers, for exampleLowepro Vertex 300 AW or Gura Gear Bataflae 32L. Interestingly, the total volume of such backpacks is indicated by the manufacturers as 30-35l — not 62l, as F-Stop Gear claims forSatori EXP.

The next picture shows an example of what I can put in the Pro XL ICU of my Satori EXP: 2 camera bodies, 1 medium sized telephoto lens (such as 2.8/300mm without hood), 1 smaller telephoto lens (such as 2.8/150mm macro), 1 small telephoto lens (such as 1.4/85mm), 1 medium wide-angle (1.4/35mm) or a standard lens, 1 small wide-angle lens (such as 3.5/25mm), 1 ultra wide-angle lens (such as 3.5/18mm), 1 fisheye lens (2.8/15mm), 2 teleconverters (1.4x and 2.0x), 2 flashes, angle viewfinder. Maybe I could also find place for macro extension tubes — 12mm and 25mm.

Here is an example of what can fit into Pro XL ICU.

On the next picture Pro XL ICU is shown inside Satori EXP. This set of equipment is sufficient for wildlife, landscapes and macro photography. Since I rarely know what subjects to expect when I go out to a new place, I carry that much equipment with me and even more. Often I also need 1 or 2 flash diffusors, flash brackets, Pocket Wizards, filters, batteries, etc. Then I carry one camera and a lens in a small top-loader bag on my chest, so that a little more space remains in the ICU, and a couple of items more — for example, 2 Pocket Wizard receivers and a transceiver — can go inside. I leave out more items if I need to take a larger lens — 600mm. Then I may either reduce the number of flashes and lenses, or to attach external pouches with them to Satori EXP via Molle attachment points.

I put the more sturdy items — such as flash brackets — in the front pocket. Batteries, remote triggers, memory cards, etc., go into the pockets on the front and on the top lid. In the top compartment I put some food, and in the hydration bladder that is stored in special compartment under the front side I take some water. This is my maximum load that together with a tripod attached outside the backpack may reach 20kg or more.

My maximum equipment set in a XL Pro ICU inserted in Satori EXP.

The opening is optimised for the smaller Large Pro ICU but not for the XL Pro that I need to use most of the time and also not for smaller ICU. The XL Pro is higher than the opening, and the upper items will be completely or partially hidden behind the edge of the opening — as shown in the next picture. To have access to them, you will need to remove the lower items first.

The XL Pro ICU is higher than the opening. Therefore it may be difficult to access the topmost items. To do that you may need to take out the lower items first. 

If smaller ICU are used, only one can be attached because the position of the velcro strips in the second one doesn’t correspond to the position of the loops inside Satori EXP. To me this looks like a design flaw that may be corrected in future, but I have to live with it in my copy of Satori EXP. Therefore the upper ICU has to be put free on top of the first. Since the depth of Shallow ICU is smaller than of the bag, the upper one that is not attached tends to slip towards the front side of Satori EXP when it isn’t completely filled and some space at the front side is remaining. Shallow ICU have no support from the front side, and you have to fill the backpack completely to prevent them falling inside every time when you put the bag horizontally and open it.

The next picture shows Satori EXP with Medium Shallow and Small Shallow ICU inserted — that contain my equipment sets for landcape and macro photography.

Shallow Small and Shallow Medium ICU inside Satori EXP.

The Shallow Small ICU is really small. As shown in the picture below, I typically would put the lens kit — 18mm, 24mm tilt-shift, 35mm, 85mm — into it that I use for landscape photography. No place for anything else would remain after that. The camera will have to be carried somewhere else.

My usual landscape photography set of 4 lenses in a Small Shallow ICU. There is no place left for a camera body.

Alternatively these lenses can go into the Medium Shallow ICU. Then also the camera can be there. However, I use this ICU for the macro and close-up photography equipment: a camera, twin flash, angle viewfinder, lenses — 150 mm, 25mm, 15mm — and a 2x teleconverter. This set is shown in the picture below.

Here is my usual equipment for macro and close-up photography in a Medium Shallow ICU. (Click to enlarge.)

The soft pads that are inside the lids when the ICU are used separately from the bag have to be removed when the ICUs are in the bag. There should be a place for them in the bag. With current design, you just pull them out of the lid before inserting the ICU in Satori EXPand need to find a place for them inside — for instance to put them into to the notebook compartment when no notebook is there. Some kind of fixation for unused, opened lids of ICU would be nice to have, when the ICU are installed in the bag, or the lids should then be completely removable together with the pads.

The notebook compartment is huge and occupies all the empty space between the ICU and the front wall of the backpack. It would easy accommodate a 18-inch laptop computer. I can’t imagine that many outdoor photographers would make use of this capacity because such a monster alone would weigh over 3kg. This is another issue in the design of Satori EXP that surprises me. It would make more sense to integrate compartments for smaller notebooks — 11″, 13″, 15″ — into ICU of Pro series like they already did in Large L/T and Small L/T of Shallow series. Of course, such notebook compartments should be removable for those people who like me don’t carry computers during shooting in wilderness.

To position the notebook compartment at the front wall of Satori EXP was another design flaw, in my opinion, because the backpack has to be put on this side when it is being opened. More than that, the water bladder pocket is between the notebook compartment and the ICU when they are inserted. If you would have a notebook inside it, when you’ll be putting the backpack on the front side to open it, many kilos of gear and water will be lying on the notebook. It would be a miracle if your notebook would survive this without damages. Therefore, if you carry a notebook in Satori EXP, you have always to think of taking it out through the top opening before you lay the backpack and access the content of the ICU. This is why I would always seek a place for my 11″ Macbook Air at the backside or inside the ICU, so that it always remains on top.

When the water bladder is filled and Pro ICU are inserted almost no space remains for a notebook in the compartment anyway. It is always the case when my water bladder —Platypus Insulator 3l — is inside. Maybe there are narrower bladders that you can put along the side wall of Satori EXP and not to use the pocket. When I am in the field in hot regions I need much water. Therefore, a 3l bladder is just right for me although I almost never fill it with water completely.

A XL Pro ICU and a hydration bladder are in Satori EXP, and no more space is remaining – not even for a notebook. The XL ICU reaches almost to the top of the backpack, so that you can’t put much else under the top lid too.

When Satori EXP is used with XL Pro ICU, almost no space remains inside. Even if you don’t need it for a 18-inch notebook, you can put almost nothing between the hydration bladder and the ICU. (See the picture above.) Very little space also remains on top of backpack — maybe enough just for something compact, such as a snack, a binocular, or similar.

It looks much better when Shallow ICU are used. This frees a couple of litres more insideSatori EXP that you can fill with cloths and more photographic and outdoor gear. (See the next two pictures below.)

With Shallow ICU there is a little more space between the hydration compartment and the ICU but also not much.)
If you are using Shallow ICU, you can put at least something else into Satori EXP – for example, a fleece jacket.

Although the products of F-stop Gear (as actually so much else today) are being manufactured in China, their quality is very good. In my Satori EXP, when it was new, every detail was faultless, and I hope that it will remain so.

If I’d leave aside the conceptual deficits that were discussed above, I’d would acknowledge that this backpack is very beautiful and really nice to use. It has a very nice shape and fits my back better than any other backpacks I own or have owned before. Currently, F-Stop Gear offers the backpacks of Mountain series in 3 different colours (see the picture below).

The Satori EXP backpacks are currently offered in 3 colours – folliage green, black and malibu blue.

Among these colour variants the “Malibu blue” looks extraordinary and very beautiful — too pity that it cannot be used by nature photographers who for obvious reasons need more discrete colouring.

Not to make this review much longer, I would omit the description of all features of Satori EXP and of materials used because the reader can find this information at the website of F-Stop Gear.

After I ordered my copy of Satori EXP in spring 2013, I had to wait for about 10 months till I got it delivered. Today it looks like F-stop Gear has improved its production capacities and made shipment time shorter. Most of their products are now constantly available for orders via their online shop. Currently, all orders appear to be shipped from outside the EU, hence the prices are here up-to 20% higher than in the U.S. — probably because customs duty and the European VAT are included. For the time of writing, the products of F-stop Gear weren’t available in other parts of the world other than through direct orders from the U.S. If you live on other continents than North America and Europe, you may need to calculate the cost of purchasing Satori EXP and of a corresponding set of ICU carefully. Being a professional hi-tech backpack, it costs even in the U.S. and the EU more than bags of other manufacturers. The price may increase beyond making sense if you order it to be delivered elsewhere.

Why should you purchase a $12K lens?


I am sure, for the majority of people spending, or saving, thousands of dollars is a serious matter that is worth to be considered carefully. I also belong to them – not only because I am not swimming in money, but also because I always know that there will be an opportunity for me to invest the saved money into something good elsewhere. At the moment, I have again a hard time deciding if I should save several thousands of euros choosing a cheaper from several alternatives or just to pick the best one.

If I should buy such an expensive piece of gear, is for me out of question, however. If you are serious about what you do and want to achieve the best results, you have to use proper tools. A couple of years ago I read in a discussion on an Internet forum a remark that the price of such a lens is outrageous because it is “like of a car”. Yes indeed, you can buy a new car for a similar amount of money. So what? Then don’t buy the car if you can’t afford both. For a photographer the equipment has clear priority, therefore the choice should be obvious – the lens. (Not to mention that one can always buy a used car very cheap – so what are we discussing?)

A much more appropriate question is again: Which of several alternatives makes sense in terms of money saving or spending? This time I am choosing a super telephoto lens that should become my main wildlife photography tool for at least the next ten years. Of course, every Canon shooter (and not only) knows that EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II is not only the best super tele currently on the market but most probably the best telephoto lens this company has ever made. It is also one of the most expensive DSLR lenses, hence the reasons to purchase it and the alternatives need to be considered very carefully. To make it easier for someone who may need to do the same, I decided to share my thoughts and arguments in brief below.

600mm vs. 500mm: focal length

The closest alternatives of EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II among Canon lenses are the 500 mm f/4 and the 800 mm f/5.6. The first – EF 500mm 1:4 L IS USM II – has similar high image quality as the 600 mm but is a little lighter and a little cheaper: It weighs about 700 g less and costs about 2000$ less. It looks like a significant difference, and it is indeed. However, these advantages are being relativised by the much greater reach of the 600mm. Additional 100mm of focal lens result in increased magnification by 1.44x compared to 500mm. Therefore, the same  subject would fill 44% more of the frame produced by the 600mm lens. Since more pixels would be captured, the noise to detail ratio will be improved. As a consequence, sensor noise would be much less recognisable and would much less disturb the detail. If compared with my old 300mm lens, it will be even a 4x increase in magnification!

The difference in price between EF 300mm 1:2.8 L IS USM II and EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II is almost 100%, i.e. the 600mm costs almost double the price of 300mm. The EF 500mm 1:4 L IS USM II costs about 2000-2500$ less than 600mm. This may also look significant if you consider that you can get a full-frame camera body or a couple of lenses for that amount of money. The choice should be made according to your personal situation and requirements. Someone who urgently needs a new camera or other lenses may prefer to go for 500mm. However, normally a photographer choosing a super telephoto lens would have other equipment. For me the increase of overall image quality mentioned in the above paragraph is a reason strong enough to make me invest more in the lens and to choose the EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II.

600mm vs. 500mm: weight

The difference in weight between 600mm and 500mm is in the version II of these lenses not as significant as in the version I. The old 600mm lens was 5.4kg heavy while the 500mm was only 3.9kg and was considered by many wildlife photographers as hand holdable. In both, the image stabilizer, with 2 f-stops of shake compensation, was inferior to current one that is able to compensate for 4 steps. Therefore, both lenses were being used with tripods by most people.

Now the EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II weighs as much (or as little?) as formerly the EF 500mm 1:4 L IS USM. Both, 600mm and 500mm, lenses can be regarded in current version II as suitable for handholding although most people would probably still mean that they are heavy and prefer to use a tripod. So the weight isn’t such an important reason for choosing 500mm anymore.

600mm vs. 800mm

The EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM has been an outstanding product among Canon lenses since its announcement in 2008. It took Nikon 5 years to release its counterpart. Despite a narrower maximum aperture of f/5.6 it has some improvements over the much older EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM. It was 1kg lighter, had a higher magnification, better IS and some handling improvements. The f/5.6 aperture was still wide enough to create nice out-of-focus background blur at such large focal length. While EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM could be used with teleconverters, this didn’t make much sense with EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM whose aperture was becoming too narrow. However, it wasn’t necessary regarding such a large focal length. The image quality of this lens was at f/5.6 better than of 600mm used with a 1.4x teleconverter.  Of course, the price of EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM was proportionally higher than of EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM – 14,000$ vs. 10,000$ – but the improvements and benefits were worth it, and for someone who could afford it was the #1 choice.

Then, in 2011, Canon introduced the new generation of super telephoto lenses. This changed the situation completely: Now the EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM is outdated and inferior to EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II in every aspect. With an Extender EF 1.4x III the EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II has similar the same maximum aperture f/5.6 and even a little greater focal length (840mm) than EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM but outpurforms it in image quality, weighs less, has better image stabilisation, and is more versatile (because the focus length can be decreased to 600mm). This all for a similar price of around $12,000-13,000. Nowadays, a purchase of EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM isn’t worth a consideration anymore, and I am wondering who is buying it.

600mm Mk. II vs. Mk. I

The only reason to think about purchasing the Mk. I version is the price. With about 7.000$ for a used one, it is about 1/3 cheaper than a new Mk. II. However, we should remember that it is a cost of a used vs. new lens. The Mk I is now out of production, and you won’t find it in a shop anymore.

The EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM appeared on the market in 1999 and had some real improvements in comparison with the previous non-IS version. Canon seems to update its super telephoto lenses every decade. So it is to expect that the current EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II that replaced the previous generation in 2011 will remain up-to-date till 2021-2022. The history of these lenses has showed that the prices were remaining more or less at constant level till the lens was replaced by a new version and the old one was taken out of market. Will you really be happy for the next 10 years with a lens that has worse image quality, is much heavier and technically outdated, but priced at 7000$ – still very expensive? For me, I doubt it. The improvements of the new version are so great that I certainly would be disappointed with Mk. I and would want to sell it very soon if I would buy it now. Having bought a used lens and saved 30% now I most probably will loose more money again trying to sell it again and to buy the Mk. II version in the next couple of years.

Canon vs. Sigma

Sigma has been making 500mm and 800mm super telephoto lenses for Canon mount for awhile. Despite a much lower price, both failed to become popular wildlife lenses, however – not just because they lack image stabilization and are very heavy. The image quality they deliver is noticeably worse and doesn’t justify the price that is still quite high. Therefore, most photographers preferred to pay more for the first class lenses that Canon was offering.

In the last couple of years Sigma has greatly improved its lens technology, so that some new lenses are on par with Canon lenses or even outperform them. As a result, we can expect this company to produce a super telephoto lens some day in future that would be on par with Canon lenses. However, this is only a theoretical possibility and not yet a fact. Therefore, it doesn’t help much those of us who need a lens right now. Since we don’t know plans and road map of Sigma regarding development and production of new lenses, we can’t rely on it.

Of course, the above argumentation against 500 and 800mm also applies for Sigma lenses. To be a real alternative to EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II a Sigma lens has to have similar optical quality and technical features (IS, autofocus, weather protection, low weight…) and the same focal length and aperture. More than that: I has to be cheaper. Will it be ever possible? Who knows…

Security paranoia in airports: How far will it go?

I still remember how it was about 3 decades ago: The only concern of a photographer passing the security check when travelling by airplane was that the film doesn’t get damaged when it was x-rayed. They were letting your photo bag run through a machine, and the whole procedure took only a couple of seconds. Nothing bad was happening also to films, but the newest scanners soon got a sticker claiming that the x-raying was “film safe”. Then I wasn’t carrying so much equipment with me as these days, therefore I can’t report more details from my own experience. However, I can recall about several flights back in 80s and 90s when I had “electronic devices” in my hand luggage, such as a walkman, that the security checks were targetting only items completely prohibited for carrying on board, such as weapons, amunition, inflamable materials, etc.

Then the terror acts of 9/11 happened. Allegedly, the hijackers of the aircrafts were armed with knives. In consequence, also items that not only are but even resemble a knife – scissors, nail files, etc. – were prohibited in carry-on baggage. Once when I was flying from Nuremberg to Kiev via Paris I forgot a small Victorinox knife in a pocket of my coat. It passed the security check in Nuremberg without any problems. In Paris they found it and confiscated.

My luggage before check-in at an airport.

My luggage before check-in at an airport.

Subsequently the paranoia of security policy makers and of airport companies was only growing. In the next years, they prohibited to carry liquids on board – claiming that they may be used for mixing a bomb. Then they told that someone attempted to smuggle an explosive material through security check in shoe soles. Since then, in many airports you have to take off your shoes, so that they x-ray them while you are walking barefooted through a magnetic scanner.

Today, if you want to travel by airplane, you have to lay off your privacy and sense of shame. More sophisticated person scanners were developed and introduced in some large airports, such as Amsterdam Schiphol. First they were showing the body of the person scanned along with the objects he or she has in the pockets. After protests, this was changed, and now the security staff sees only a standardised shape of a man or woman with the suspicious areas marked. Of course, you have to take out everything from your pockets and to remove the belt from your trousers before that procedure. Nonetheless, after scanning personal search follows: You are being pawed.

Travelling by airline that was once a pleasure and a great experience has become in this century just an unpleasant procedure that one needs to go through in order to get to a certain place on the planet. Comfort and luxury remained in the past; in the 21st century, airports and flights are associated more with harassments by security staff and insane regulations. Were that terrorists, or airport companies, or security firms who have made and continue making personal rights and comfort of passengers subordinate to prevention of supposed security risks? Since regulations and procedures are different at every airport, I doubt that universal requirements and standards exist for this. It looks like airport companies or even the security firms that they hire define checking procedures according to what they believe to be adequate. I travel several times a year through the same airports and observe that the procedures change very frequently and without any obvious reasons. In the same transit airport that you passed flying somewhere the security check may be completely different when you’ll be returning in a few days. In fact, I can’t remember that the procedure was two times the same when I was travelling in the past years since 2001.

Today the airport security staff doesn’t search only for prohibited items anymore. It appears that they don’t know themselves what to search for, hence they search for everything that they consider to be dangerous. What is just a short unpleasant routine check for the majority of passengers for professional travellers carrying “non-standard” items in hand luggage is often a much more complicated and annoying procedure.

Usually a photographer would take as much equipment as possible in hand luggage on board – not only because it is fragile and costs a lot but also to reduce the weight of the main luggage that normally is limited to only 3kg in the economy class. Although the weight of the hand luggage is limited too (usually to 5-12kg), it is rarely being controlled by airlines – particularly if the size of the bag doesn’t exceed the officially allowed.

I always carry lenses and camera bodies only in hand luggage. Sometimes these are flashes and other electronic devices. Of course, if I have a laptop computer on the trip, I also bring it with me on board. I pack all this as compact as possible in order not to attract attention and because only one bag is allowed in hand luggage. Including the weight of the container (bag or case) my hand luggage usually weighs around 15kg, i.e. much more than officially allowed. However, even when they noticed that at check-in, in KLM and Lufthansa they allowed me this overweight agreeing that these items can’t be put in the main baggage. Then I was either requested to give the bag to stewards on boarding so that they keep it on appropriate place during the flight or to take out some items and put into other bag thus making the weight of each bag to fit the allowed limit. When I travel together with my wife, I take even more equipment in hand luggage in a second bag. Even then the weight of both bags usually exceeds the limit however.

Of course, my hand luggage that is full of electronics always attracts attention during airport security checks, but every time to very different extent. To reach a destination outside the EU, I always need to change the airplane in Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt. Sometimes there are even further transit airports on my way. In each of them not only the procedure but also the security regulations are different. In Africa and Asia the whole luggage is being run through scanner and after that usually inspected manually three times – when you enter the airport building, by customs, before boarding. Usually they want to see every time all that you have in your bags because photographic equipment looks suspicious on their monitors. I am sure that not only photographers but any professionals travelling with equipment are suffering these multiple controls. I am also sure that many such people go to countries like Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia or Tajikistan, but neither airport officials nor airlines seem to care about their comfort. Before you take your sit in the airplane, you have at some airports two or three times to take off your shoes, to put everything out of your pockets, to take off and on the belt, to pull the laptop of the bag… Then because the content is still looking suspicious (of course!) you have to open your bag and let the security man take out everything and control every item. This is what they usually find in my hand luggage: 8 lenses, 2 camera bodies, 2 flashes, remote flash triggers, remote camera triggers, satellite phone, mobile phone, laptop, dozens of rechargeable batteries, foldable solar panel and battery, binocular, cables, battery chargers, a couple of two-way radios, GPS… You can imagine what questions are asked by security staff and custom officers in such countries as Russia, Uzbekistan or Cuba. Even in Amsterdam when they see my luggage this makes their day: They inspect every piece of it asking what is it for.

When I was passing the Amsterdam airport this month on my way back from Central Asia they even went further – requesting me to take all items out and to put them on trays. Since my wife was with me, we had two bags. Even tripod heads were in hand luggage – not because they are fragile but because their are expensive. They requested me also to put them on a tray: At my remark that it isn’t electronic equipment the man who was checking my bag reacted that it is an item that is “looking massive”. (Hence, “massive” items in your luggage are now also under general suspicion!) As always, I also put everything that was in my pockets on a tray: iPhone, keys, wallet…; I took my watch off my hand and the belt off my trousers. Then I walked through the scanner: Only underwear, socks, shoes, trousers and shirt were on me… However, as usually in this airport, it ringed. Then, of course, a security man felt up every part of my body with his hands. I one day there’ll be a crook who would invent explosive underwear, would they make passengers to take off their pants and bras for inspection?

Indeed, what should come next: How far this paranoia and the harassments during security control in airports may go? This is what I am always thinking when I am travelling by airlines. Why there aren’t any globally valid rules and guidelines for security control? What sense do all the insane precautions in Schiphol Amsterdam have when the control of the flights that are landing there is much more slack at airports of departure? Why the same passengers with the same luggage are being controlled up to three times before they reach the aircraft? Is theoretical reducing (not completely avoiding!) of the risk of a terrorist incident really so much more important than comfort and privacy? Or are that just security firms who are making profit?

To my Russian speaking readers:

В рамках фотопроекта, начатого два года назад, я планирую очередную поездку в Эфиопию в конце декабря 2014 – начале января 2015. Общая продолжительность – 2 недели, из которых 10 дней отводится на съёмки в горах Бале на юго-востоке страны. Основным объектом съёмки является эфиопский волк (Canis simensis), находящийся под угрозой вымирания вид семейства собачьих, эндемик Эфиопии. Вся мировая популяция этого вида насчитывает менее 400 особей, из которых две трети обитают в горах Бале.

Данный сезон выбран специально, так как в это время недавно родившиеся щенки начинают выходить из логова. Это даёт возможность снимать этих пугливых животных с достаточно близкого расстояния в несколько десятков метров. В остальное время года волки не подпускают к себе ближе чем на 200-300 метров. Кроме того, в это время года в этой местности уже заканчивается дождливый сезон, но ещё не начался засушливый. Поэтому флора особенно богата, а пейзажи особенно красивы.

(Уже отснятый материал в менее благоприятный сухой сезон можно увидеть здесь: http://www.nature-images.eu/themes/jedol-fard.html)

Ориентировочные даты поездки: 25.12.2014 – 08.01.2015

С подробным описанием планируемой поездки можно ознакомиться на этой странице: http://www.forum.nature-images.com.ua/index.php?topic=339.0

Хочу особо подчеркнуть: Это не фототур, которым я руковожу. Я отправляюсь на фотосъёмки и приглашаю вас присоединиться в качестве спутника, разделив со мной расходы. Максимальное количество участников – 4 человека. Один из них – я. Поездка состоится при количестве участников от одного до четырёх.

Если вы заинтересовались или у вас появились дополнительные вопросы, со мной можно связаться в любое время одним из многих способов: через этот форум (послав личное сообщение или ответив на этот пост), по электронной почте (адрес указан на сайте на станице “Контакт” – http://www.nature-images.eu/contents/contact.html), через Фейсбук, Твиттер, Гугл+…