a sprinkling of snow on the eucalypts on the mount at sunset

Written by admin on June 25th, 2016

On my way home from my day jaunt into central Victoria, I decided to drive over Mt Macedon in search of a bit more snow.

My 2degC earlier walk turned into a sub zero walk on the mount but was rewarded with a pretty powder coating of snow.

Here is a hand held shot in low light with my cold hands with a touch of sunset glow in top left background.

snow on gums

Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 pro lens on the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Micro Four Thirds camera at ISO 400.

and here is another in very low light of snow on a bracken fern in the forest, also with this lens:

fern

 

Coldest day for 12 months, snowing, time to get the Olympus 300mm f/4 out again for a little bird

Written by admin on June 24th, 2016

Victoria had a cold blast of air today bringing widespread snowfalls to even low altitudes, a circumstance that only happens here once or twice a year.

As I had the day off, I decided to venture to central Victoria hoping to see some snow covered kangaroos but alas I chose poorly and whilst it did snow, not enough fell to leave a coverage on the ground – or on kangaroos.

I went to one of my favorite cold places and only a little snow on the ground with some light snow falling and as I walked in the 2degC air temperature and sub zero chill factor with the 35 knot westerlies blowing, a beautiful little and lively bird kept circling me as I walked.

I went back to the car and reached for … you guess it… that awesome Olympus mZD 300mm f/4 super telephoto lens with its 6 stops image stabilisation to counter my chilled and shaking fingers, and the Olympus weathersealing and freeze-proofing that the falling snow would not be an issue.

So here are a couple of hand held shots of this little fellow both shot hand held at f/5 to get a bit more depth of field on the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Micro Four Thirds camera  (please click on images to show in large size):

uncropped bird

The above is not cropped and shows the lovely bokeh as well as across the frame, edge to edge sharpness.

cropped bird

This one has been cropped a touch, and shows the shallow depth of field at such close distances

I believe the bird is an Eastern Yellow Robin (Eopsaltria australis) which are lovely, friendly birds. They are curious and inquisitive and relatively easily photographed despite their small size of only around 19g.

And here is one of the last autumn leaves, before my fingers fell off in the cold, hand held again with the Olympus 300mm in very low light:

autumn leaf in winter

 

A field review of the Olympus mZD 300mm f/4 super telephoto lens – shooting birds and quolls

Written by admin on June 19th, 2016

Following on from my last post on the 300mm vs other super telephoto lenses, today I decided to take it for another test walk, this time for an hour walking around a bird sanctuary.

I walked without my back pack or my waist belt camera support and am pleased to report that despite the 1.8kg combined weight of the Olympus mZD 300mm f/4 OIS lens on the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Micro Four thirds camera, it was very easy to carry and much of the time I walked with it held by only my two fingers given it balances so well on that camera.

For static subjects it was a pleasure to use, although at close distances (it does focus as close as 1.4m), the depth of field is so narrow, even stopped down to its highest performing aperture of f/5.6, that great care has to be taken to focus exactly and then ensure you don’t move an inch, nor the subject before you take your shot.

When you get this right, it is indeed superbly sharp, just check out this lovely bird that was walking around about 1.4m from me taken at f/5.6 (image practically straight from camera via Lightroom RAW conversion):

bird

and now, a 100% crop to show how sharp the lens is – check out that eye!

eye

For a relatively large bird with a long beak looking at you at these distances, you definitely have to stop down to at least f/5.6 or perhaps f/8 to get the beak and eyes in focus, the depth of field is that narrow at f/4!

You can shoot birds at close range at f/4 if they are perpendicular to you like this one, as then you get eyes and beak in sharp focus:

stork

With a moving target at such close distances, it is hard to compose the image due to the very narrow field of view let alone get the correct part of the subject in focus.

Nevertheless, I was able to capture this very active tiger quoll at f/4 and nailed the focus (shot through a 1″ wire cage as these things have very sharp teeth) – click on the image to get a larger version:

tiger quoll

How is the bokeh and depth of field for shots at around 4-6m? Here is a cheeky emu hiding around a tree to show this at f/4 (although this is a bird sanctuary and there were emus, this is not a real one!):

emu bokeh

This gives you a great idea of how fantastic a head and shoulders portrait could be when you really need to compress as well as blur out a busy, distracting background.

But how well does it perform when the subject is about 30m away, and will it still give good subject isolation at that distance? Well here is a wallaby with its mate about 10-15m behind it, shot at f/4:

wallaby

But what about birds in flight I hear you say?

Just before the park closed and in low light at the end of an almost Winter solstice day, I thought I would test out shooting birds in flight, flying almost directly over my head.

Now I am NOT a birds in flight shooter and this genre requires a LOT of experience and skill as well as the correct equipment, plus good light and obliging large birds which don’t fly too fast.

This became a very frustrating exercise as most of the birds were too small and flew too fast for me to get in the image let alone allow the camera any chance of autofocus lock.

I finally found one eagle, but only had one chance to capture him in flight, and whilst I managed to do so, it was not the sharpest of images. I had decided that for this type of shot I would resort to manual exposure with a fast shutter speed and high ISO and f/4 aperture (given the large brighter sky would otherwise create a silhouette effect and under-exposing the bird which I didn’t want), burst speed to High, C-AF, all area AF, and set Release priority C to OFF in the hope I would get less shots of blank sky or out of focus birds.

The first problem which I alluded to earlier was the narrow field of view making it hard to ensure I was actually aiming precisely at the bird – this would be made so much easier by using the device Olympus made especially for this purpose – the Olympus EE-1 Dot Sight:

dot sight with bracket

Above is the EE-1 Dot Sight mounted on a Etsumi E-6672 bracket – normally one would mount the sight on the hot shoe as in this review:

After my reasonable but imperfect 1st attempt, I waited for the eagle to take another flight from its perch 20m up in the top of the eucalypt trees, I waited, and thought I would try to get a shot of it flting off its perch, but my hands soon tired from holding this combo up towards the sky for 5 minutes.

And then the park ranger came along and escorted me off the premises as I had failed to realise the park had closed – oops, my bad! Oh well, another time perhaps!

I think in experienced hands in good light with a large bird like an eagle, this combo could do some very decent birds in flight shots, but it will take some practice and the correct settings to optimise the camera.

More details on shooting birds in flight here.

Disclaimer: I do not work for, nor am I paid in any way, by any photography company, including Olympus and Panasonic, and any gear I test, I have bought from a retail store without any privileged discounts. My links on this blog will not send you to online sellers and I don’t get paid by these. I offer this from my free time to help others make choices as photography gear can burn a hole in the pocket!

 

Which super telephoto lens for Micro Four Thirds? The Olympus 300mm f/4 vs Panasonic 100-400mm

Written by admin on June 18th, 2016

Now that a few lens testing websites have had time to review the new super telephoto lenses for Micro Four Thirds, I thought it might be an opportune time to give some pros and cons of each.

The average consumer would be tempted to buy the least expensive zooms which cover the most range, such as the 10x 14-140mm zooms and the 4x super zooms such as the 75-300mm consumer lenses.

There is nothing wrong with doing this but one must be aware that there is no free lunch in photography – something has got to give, and in these lenses, it is image quality at the telephoto end, and the low aperture resulting in poorer capability for low light conditions, need for higher ISO, slower AF.

Panasonic has just introduced a high level 4x super telephoto zoom lens, the Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3 ASPH which is a great lens given it is so small to reach 800mm field of view in full frame terms, while the 4x zoom is very versatile.

The lens is well built, weathersealed, has optical image stabilisation compatible with Panasonic’s Dual IS, 9 rounded aperture blades,  close focus to 1.3m is superb, high speed silent AF motors compatible with 240fps CDAF, focus limiter, zoom lock, sliding lens hood, and all this coming in at just under 1kg.

With the Olympus mZD 300mm f/4, Olympus decided to take a different approach and went for a very high end, optically superb (the sharpest lens they have ever made and that is saying something as Olympus make great lenses!), weatherproof lens but instead of going for a zoom lens, went for optical quality of a fixed focal length 300mm f/4 OIS lens, compatible with their 1.4x teleconverter.

Remember that 300mm on Olympus OM-D cameras or Panasonic cameras gives the same field of view as a 600mm lens on a full frame camera.

What do I want from a super telephoto lens?

  1. excellent optical image quality at the super telephoto focal length
  2. wide aperture to allow faster AF, shallower depth of field, better subject isolation, and lower ISO
  3. fast, accurate autofocus with focus limiters
  4. weatherproofing because these lenses are likely to be used outdoors in all conditions
  5. if it can be compact enough for comfortable hand held use, then an effective image stabiliser
  6. removable tripod mount (no need to carry extra weight if not planning on using a tripod)

So how did these lenses compare optically at 300mm focal length?

For this I found one website which has compared them all, so these charts are courtesy of ePhotozine which is an great lens testing site, worth a visit.

Resolutions at 300mm:

Olympus 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 II
Panasonic 100-300mm f/4.0-5.6: results are better than the Olympus 75-300mm II and you get 0.5 extra stop aperture, but still not excellent sharpness at 300mm
Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4.0-f/6.3
Olympus mZD 300mm f/4.0

Chromatic aberration at 300mm:

Olympus 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 II
Panasonic 100-300mm f/4.0-5.6: results are better than the Olympus 75-300mm II especially towards the edges
Panasonic 100-400mm f/4.0-f/6.3
Olympus 300mm f/4.0: superb results, especially at f/5.6 where it is incredibly sharp and with low CA!
Olympus 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 II Panasonic 100-300mm f/4.0-5.6 Panasonic 100-400mm f/4.0-f/6.3 Olympus 300mm f/4.0
Price $US499 $US549 $US1799 $US2499
Weight 430g 520g 985g 1270g
Size 116mm 126mm 83 x 172mm 93 x 227mm
Filter size 58mm 67mm 72mm 77mm
distortion at 300mm 0.25% pincushion 0.8% pincushion almost zero 0.2% barrel
close focus 0.9m at 75mm 1.5m 1.3m 1.4m
optical image stabilisation no OIS 3-4EV OIS ?5EV OIS with Panasonic 6EV OIS with Olympus

Conclusion:

You get what you pay for!

The budget 4x super zooms are great as light, compact, travel lenses but performance at 300mm is only fair, while the slow aperture will limit low light use. Of the two, the Panasonic 100-300mm gives sharper images and wider aperture at 300mm with only a little more weight and size.

The Panasonic 100-400mm is much more expensive and more than 50% bigger and heavier than these but you get more reach and better image quality and better image stabilisation and autofocus speed, making it a great, versatile lens.

The superb, but very expensive Olympus mZD 300m f/4.0 is just an amazing lens in every aspect, easily beating the above on image quality and image stabilisation as well as weatherproofing, and although it is not as versatile as the zoom lenses in terms of zoom, the f/4.0 aperture really makes a BIG difference in low light capability, subject separation, ability to use lower ISO for sports, and will probably allow faster AF. It is a much sharper lens and with faster AF than the Canon EF 300mmf/4L IS lens which only has 2EV image stabilisation and does not give the same reach even if used on a Canon 7D dSLR.

In addition, it is compatible with the Olympus 1.4x teleconverter to give the equivalent field of view of a 840mm lens on a full frame camera whilst allowing this to be hand held and used at f/5.6 (although it would probably be even sharper at f/8).

The Olympus lens is so good I just had to have a play with one, so here are some samples:

bokeh test

Above – a handheld bokeh test and to show how narrow the depth of field is at f/4 – this is a walking path and focus point is around 4m.

moon

Above – hand held shot of the moon through thin cloud – focus was very fast, IS awesome, resolution superb, no purple fringing anywhere – fantastic indeed!

crop moon

Above is a crop of the moon shot showing all the craters.

sports

Above is a hand held shot of sports under lights at f/4.0, ISO 2000, RAW file with post-processing to crop by about 1/3rd, add vignetting, and a edgy tonal structure. Unfortunately a 300mm lens is too long to be allowed into most commercial sports stadiums for commercial image licensing reasons, but as you can see, if you don’t have these issues, it can give awesome results indeed.

The AF technique I used for the sports shot was S-AF, central group of 9 AF points active, Release Priority OFF, burst mode on High, then just fired away (no half-press shutter as is usual to lock AF as in these scenarios just a straight shutter press usually gives better results as S-AF is so fast as long as contrast and light is reasonable).

The lens balances nicely on an Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera, such that carrying it in the hand for 1-1.5hrs was not a problem as total weight with camera but without the tripod mount comes to 1.8kg – easily passes for carry on cabin luggage in an airplane.

When reviewing images on the LCD screen, I was amazed by how sharp they were, even magnifying to 14x did not show the softness I usually see in many other lenses.

Hand held shots at 1/25th sec are very sharp as long as you hold it steady – quite amazing for 600mm field of view!

For commercial sports venues, I would really love Olympus to give us a great 200mm f/2.8 weathersealed lens which we can take into the venue – perhaps this will be their next fixed focal length telephoto! Here’s hoping.

Start saving up!!!

Disclaimer: I do not work for, nor am I paid in any way, by any photography company, including Olympus and Panasonic, and any gear I test, I have bought from a retail store without any privileged discounts.

 

Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 vs Canon EF 135mm f/2.0L lens for portraiture

Written by admin on April 25th, 2016

At one of my photography workshops using available light, no hair stylist and no MUA,  I had the opportunity to test the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM lens mounted on my Olympus OM-D E-M5 using face detection closest eye AF (a little unreliable but this shot worked) against the Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens mounted on an Olympus OM-D E-M1 at 135mm f/2.8 again with face detection AF for closest eye but with this combination, AF was much faster and more reliable.

I was brought up to respect women for who they are and not how much makeup they wore, what adornments they had nor what fancy clothes they wore, so my preferred portraiture is a very natural look with minimal post-processing of natural skin textures largely restricted to removal of blemishes. I certainly don’t go for the over-processed glamour looks nor the plasticized Instagram looks which are commonly used on iPhone selfies these days.

Photographing women in such a manner to achieve an intimate imagery with beautiful aesthetics is a rare privilege for me, so hope you like the results .. and spoiler … I don’t think the extra f/2.0 aperture advantage of the Canon lens makes up for the better depth of field at this distance, the faster AF and the more subject detail and pop that the Olympus lens provides.

If you do really want smoother bokeh, then look at the Olympus mZD 75mm f/1.8 lens – it is my favourite of all lenses for outdoor portraiture assuming you don’t mind working at that focal length.

I have tried to post-process them from RAW in an identical manner.

Olympus lens

Above, the Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens at 135mm f/2.8.


Canon lens

Above, the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM lens at 135mm f/2.0.

See my last post as to how one can attach the Canon lens to the Micro Four Thirds cameras and gain full aperture control, EXIF data and some AF capabilities.

 

 

Hands on review of Metabones Canon EF lens to Micro Four Thirds Olympus OM-D “T Smart Adapter” with the Canon EF 135mm f/2L lens

Written by admin on April 24th, 2016

Readers will be well aware that not only do I love my Micro Four Thirds gear but I also own quite a few expensive Canon pro lenses so it made some sense for me to buy the Metabones “T Smart Adapter” (MB_EF-m43-BT2) when one came up second hand on Ebay recently.

adapter

I have actually been wanting to buy the Metabones Speed Booster adapter which also has internal optics giving a focal reducer effect of 0.72x (and 1 stop aperture), but in Australia, these are ridiculously expensive at around $A1200 if you can find a store with one in stock – at that price you would be better off buying a Canon mirrorless camera with sensor-based IS and fast AF – except Canon don’t make any such camera.

A bit of background on adapting Canon EF lenses to Micro Four Thirds

One has always been able to buy cheap Chinese adapters to mount Canon EF lenses BUT these do not allow aperture control (Canon EF lenses do not have an aperture ring to manually change the aperture), do not support OIS, nor AF and do not send EXIF data to the camera.

This means that when using these adapters, one must manually dial in to Olympus OM-D cameras the actual focal length so the camera’s IS system is optimised, and if one wants to use a different aperture, one needs to dismount the lens, attach to a Canon camera, set the desired aperture, press the DOF preview button whilst dismounting lens, then re-mount on the Olympus camera – not a wonderful idea but it does work.

Recently, adapters have been produced with electronic communication between the camera and lens which provides aperture control, OIS support, EXIF data (camera automatically detects focal length for IS), and variable capabilities of AF.

One such lens is the Metabones T Smart Adapter, and this lovely adapter is firmware upgradeable via its built-in USB port, and Metabones have recently updated the firmware to add phase detect AF compatibility with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 for specified Canon EF lenses (BUT NOT the Canon EF 135mm f/2.0L lens!) as well as improved CDAF autofocus on other Micro Four Thirds cameras. This adapter also has a tripod mount for use when using larger lenses.

Optical image stabilisation in the lens is functional on Olympus cameras if the OIS switch on the lens is ON and the camera IS is OFF – although you probably would not want to do this as the Olympus IS is going to be much better than Canon’s OIS, and as yet, support for DUAL IS is not available.

Autofocus is best used in single AF point mode (indeed multi-point AF modes are not supported), and in S-AF (C-AF and C-AF Tracking modes are not supported as yet even on the E-M1), in addition, you may wish to use the Vivid Picture mode as this improves contrast detection AF.

I upgraded the Metabones adapter’s firmware to the latest version which is V2.2 released on April 2016.

First, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 AF quirk:

The Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera is different to all other Olympus mirrorless cameras in that it is the only one with a sensor that has on-sensor phase detect AF sites which makes this camera far better at autofocus on faster moving subjects and on lenses which are not optimised for CDAF such as most Four Thirds lenses.

When using CDAF-compatible lenses the E-M1 uses a hybrid of both phase detect AF and CDAF algorithms to provide ultra fast AF.

When using lenses the E-M1 does not detect as being CDAF compatible, CDAF is apparently disabled and the camera relies solely upon phase detect AF which raises a paradox for this Metabones adapter – phase detect AF will be the default mode on the E-M1 BUT, if Metabones has not optimised the adapter for a specific lens (eg. the Canon EF 135mm f/2.0L lens), AF performance will be terrible on the E-M1 and MUCH, MUCH worse than on the other Olympus cameras which will at least use CDAF mode!

Please Olympus, add a setting where the advanced user can select CDAF mode only – this also creates a difference in the way the E-M1 handles the Panasonic Leica-D 25mm f/1.4 lens which is CDAF compatible but not recognised by the E-M1 as being so.

Some quick AF tests:

When using Canon lenses listed by Metabones as compatible (eg. Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS and 50mm f/1.8), AF on the E-M1 is quite good and snappy, although not as fast as using Micro Four Thirds lenses but perhaps around the speed of using Four Thirds lenses on these cameras.

When using Canon lenses including the 135mm f/2.0L lens on Olympus OM-D E-M5 which does not have phase detect AF, AF is relatively fast IF the subject is contrasty, in good light and almost in focus, otherwise it will hunt quite a bit, much like when using Four Thirds lenses.

When using face detect closest eye CDAF with the 135mm lens on the E-M5 for close portraits at 2m, the camera appeared to select the face and focus but some of my images were not in focus on the eye suggesting this may not actually be working all the time – I will need to test this further to make sure it wasn’t just shallow DOF and subject-photographer movement causing the issue.

Why bother using Canon lenses on Micro Four Thirds?

Now this is an excellent question given that Olympus and Panasonic have an excellent range of dedicated lenses with silent, fast AF and which are much smaller and lighter, and often with better optics than the Canon lenses.

However, if you have some niche lenses like I have (the Canon TS-E 17mm f/4, 45mm f/2.8 and 90mm f/2.8 tilt-shift lenses) then aperture control is very handy indeed. Note that you don’t really need tilt-shift lenses for the Olympus cameras as you can buy adapters which convert full frame legacy lenses into tilt-shift lenses, nevertheless, if you already own these nice canon lenses then you may as well use them.

I would not have need for the Canon 50mm f/1.8 as the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 is better and has fast AF.

I would not have need for the Canon 85mm f/1.8 as the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 is better and has fast AF.

I would not have need for the Canon 24-105mm f/4 IS as the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 is wider aperture and gives more telephoto reach and has fast AF.

But what about the Canon EF 135mm f/2.0L lens?

I used to love the shallow DOF and lovely bokeh of the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM lens on my Canon 1D Mark III camera, but when I discovered I could achieve almost the same imagery but with far more accurate focus and microcontrast using the Olympus OM-D with a Olympus mZD 75mm f/1.8 or Rokinon/Samyang 85mm f/1.4 lens, my Canon lens has remained idle in my cupboard along with my big, heavy, pro expensive Canon 1D dSLR.

I have the Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens which is far more versatile, much faster focusing, with much less internal flare and better micro contrast than the Canon EF 135mm f/2 lens for much the same size and weight, but the Canon has one significant advantage which may be valuable to those who want even smoother bokeh and shallower depth of field than what the Olympus zoom lens can provide.

Of course, Olympus users could buy the superb Olympus ZD 150mm f/2.0 Super pro lens to get even shallower DOF and smoother bokeh but this costs thousands of dollars and is big and heavy, and like the Canon lens is not CDAF optimised.

Using the Canon EF 135mm f/2L lens on the Olympus OM-D at ISO 200 almost gives the equivalent field of view, depth of field, exposures and image quality as when using a Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS lens on a full frame Canon dSLR body but at much less weight and size, and with better manual focus support, but AF for moving subjects will not be possible with the current firmware.

I have used the Canon 135mm lens to great benefit in shooting comets with the Olympus camera attached to a guided equatorial telescope, and for this purpose a cheap Chinese adapter is all that is needed:

comet

To demonstrate the differences in how the Olympus zoom lens paints images at 135mm compared to the Canon EF 135mm f/2.0, I shot some comparison images at the same position and roughly similar settings and compositions. The Canon lens was shot on the E-M5 while the Olympus lens was shot using the E-M1. No polarising or other filter was used. Picture mode was vivid on each and all were processed to web size from RAW files via Olympus Viewer software without any post-processing otherwise.

Olympus 40-150mm

Above, the Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 at f/2.8 with lens hood into the afternoon sun

Canon 135mm

Above, the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM at f/2.0 with lens hood showing more internal flare, less microcontrast, but thanks to the f/2.0 aperture, larger out of focus highlights and shallower depth of field.

and … a closer subject with out of focus foreground in bottom left:

Olympus 40-150mm

Above, the Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 at f/2.8 with lens hood into the afternoon sun

Canon 135mm

Above, the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM at f/2.0 with lens hood again showing more internal flare, less microcontrast, but thanks to the f/2.0 aperture, larger, smoother out of focus highlights and shallower depth of field.

Canon 135mm

Above, the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM at f/2.8 to show that at equivalent apertures degree of out of focus blurring is similar but with the Canon you now see the shape of the diaphragm blades while in the Olympus image the out of focus highlights at the edges are oval due to vignetting.

 Conclusion:

If you have Canon lenses then the Metabones T Smart adapter or the Speed Booster adapter may be reasonable to give you more photographic options, just don’t expect miracles with AF speed just yet although even with the 135mm lens on the E-M5 AF is usable if you have a static subject and are patient.

For most people, the Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens will give adequate DOF and be far more versatile and with faster AF that they will not bother using the Canon 135mm f/2 lens, but some of us do like to have access to the effects of using a f/2.0 lens even if the result is relatively subtle and probably only photographers who are aware of bokeh will notice the difference.

Of course, with the Speed Booster adapter, the 135mm f/2 lens becomes 100mm f/1.4 which gives similar field of view and depth of field of a 200mm f/2.8 lens on a full frame camera, and this does make it attractive although the Speed Booster is almost twice the price of the T Smart Adapter.

 

Uluru and Kata Tjuta revisited – Australia’s iconic Ayers Rock monolith

Written by admin on March 27th, 2016

I went to Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) last August in the Australian Winter – the blog posts are here.

This week I took the opportunity to visit them again, but this time during the full moon which coincided with the autumnal equinox when both the sun and the full moon appear to be at the celestial equator and thus both rise in due East and both set in due West, although when one is setting, the other is rising.

This makes for the rise and set to be better in line with these two popular tourist attractions, and thus I had planned to get a super telephoto view of the full moon rising above Uluru from Kata Tjuta some 50km to its west while the sun set and then next morning, a sunrise helicopter flight to photograph the full moon setting behind both Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

A potential bonus was a penumbral eclipse of the moon which was to start only a few minutes after moon rise – although these events are not really photographcally interesting unless they are full lunar eclipses.

I thus arranged my holiday to fly into Uluru from Melbourne, then pick up a hire car at the airport and drive the 3.5hrs bitumen highway to my initial 2 night destination at Kings Canyon which I had missed out on seeing last visit, and which is one of the best day walks in the world – my blog post of this can be seen here.

I then had booked 3 nights at Ayers rock Resort in Yulara, the modern village tourist resort for Uluru to coincide with the full moon.

Many people go to the Australian outback to witness the amazing Winter Milky Way skies filled with millions of stars well away from urban light pollution. But this is best in Winter when the Milky Way is best seen and the skies are more likely to be clear – and very cold (temperatures can drop below zero Celsius), and when the moon is NOT in the sky to cause its own light pollution.

Obviously having timed this with the full moon I was not interested in Milky Way astroscapes this time and the weather forecast was an ominous central Low pressure system sitting over the area causing overcast conditions and possible afternoon storms – this was to adversely impact my first goal of capturing the full moon rising over Uluru but in return it gave me some very nice images of quite rare rain showers over Kata Tjuta exactly at sunset which was indeed awesome.

Walpa Gorge walk

Before sunset I quickly did the thankfully short 1hr return Walpa Gorge walk at Kata Tjuta in 36degC heat, flies and full late afternoon sun. Above is the start of the walk and below is the towards the end of the walk as storm clouds gathered.

Walpa Gorge walk

Then I went to the Kata Tjuta sunset viewing platform (thankfully I was fully prepared for the mass of bush flies constantly harassing my face by wearing a mosquito net over my head – nevertheless, the flies did create issues in timing of my shots as they kept flying in front of my lens!), and on arrival a rain shower was passing over the very spot where I had just completed the Walpa Gorge walk and the setting sun was showing it off beautifully:

sunset shower

sunset shower

Unfortunately the view east over Uluru was not one that filled me with optimism of capturing the full moon rising rising but still provided a nice dramatic backdrop to Uluru:

uluru

moon over uluru

Eventually the full moon partly appeared over Uluru, but far too late (the above shot is only included to show that you need a 260mm lens in full frame terms to frame Uluru in portrait from that location), so I turned back to another shot of Kata Tjuta in the dusk light showing the lovely contrast of the red sand which gives the region its alias The Red Centre:

Kata Tjuta dusk

Earlier in the day I partook of a AAT Kings sunrise bus tour of Uluru highlighting cultural aspects which was again well worth doing although it did mean a 5.15am bus departure time to get to the 6.45am sunrise and then explore the waterhole on the south side of Uluru and then a chance to watch the film at the Cultural Centre which again is well worth viewing as it demonstrates vividly the adverse impacts upon the indigenous population with the arrival of white men and tourism.

sunrise

Sunrise on Kata Tjuta from Uluru sunrise viewing platform – no tripod.

waterhole

Uluru waterhole just after sunrise – just love the wonderful colours of the Uluru sandstone.

rock art

Indigenous rock drawings in a cave on Uluru – colours have been enhanced in post-processing.

goanna

Goanna lizard on Uluru at sunrise

Fortunately most of the clouds cleared for my pre-booked helicopter flight next morning (the 6.15am pick up time was a welcome improvement on the previous day’s 5.15am pick up time!) which was another fantastic experience which I would highly recommend:

Yulara

Yulara and Ayers Rock Resort from helicopter at sunrise.

Uluru sunrise

Above, the image I had planned – Uluru with Kata Tjuta in the background with the full moon setting at sunrise. The indigenous village is in the foreground – whites are not permitted there without invitation.

Kata Tjuta

Kata Tjuta with the full moon setting at sunrise taken with the Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens.

Kata Tjuta sunrise

Closer to Kata Tjuta with the full moon setting at sunrise taken with the Olympus mZD 12-40mm f/2.8 lens.

Petermann ranges

In the background are the Petermann Ranges with part of Kata Tjuta in the foreground. Kata Tjuta and Uluru are massive sedimentary deposits formed before life began on earth from erosion of the Petersen Ranges which were then as high as the current Himalayas!

sand dunes

Ancient fixed sand dunes stabilised by spinifex grasses – these are the oldest fixed sand dunes in the world.

That afternoon I did the short Mala walk at sunset and it was a beautiful ambience in the balmy warm breeze with no one around and very few flies – those that were there diminished greatly in number soon after sunset.

rock formation

Rock formation from erosion within a cave at sunset.

shadow

Shadow of a tree at sunset in a large cave.

Gorge

The gorge on the Mala Walk at sunset – there is a waterhole at the end of this lovely short walk.

I hope this has shown that the Red Centre of Australia is a photographer’s wonderland and even Uluru itself with its many dimensions to explore – photographic, cultural and geological is indeed an amazing destination – just respect the indigenous peoples and the environment – no rubbish, no wastes, and definitely no graffiti.

Photographically, Uluru is a wonderful challenge in any weather and light condition with its many varied shapes, and its wonderful colours and textures – a great place to experiment with composition, lens choice, graphic design and more.

All the above photos were taken with Olympus OM-D Micro Four Thirds cameras such as the E-M5 and E-M1.

No tripod was used for any shots apart from the attempted full moon rise over Uluru, and apparently there was no utility in using one in the helicopter.

 

Kings Canyon rim walk – one of the best day walks in the world

Written by admin on March 27th, 2016

Kings Canyon is a very remote semi-arid canyon in Watarrka National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia and the pinnacle of the experience is the outer rim walk.

 

Kings Canyon from the south east section

Kings Canyon from the south east section soon after sunrise, note the hikers on the peak of the far side – click on image for a larger view.

The area is so remote that there is no mobile phone coverage and no internet (although some WiFi is apparently possible at the resort).

Bird lovers will love the range of pretty birds – particularly at the resort and in the valley of the canyon, while raptors rule the upper areas of the canyon – although on my walk I did not see an eagle.

There are several species of lizards that you are likely to see – both at the canyon rim and in the resort “rim walk” areas.

lizard

A lizard – Olympus OM-D E-M1 Micro Four Thirds camera with with Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens with EC14 1.4x teleconverter.

large grasshopper

The outer rim canyon walk

Unlike many other canyon experiences such as the Grand canyon, you don’t have to be superman to climb from the valley floor to walk around the outer rim walk and then descend back down to your car in under 4 hours,

The moderate grade 6km walk usually takes around 3.5hrs for most people even if they are taking photos, although for your fitness capability, you do need to be capable of walking up 10 flights of stairs and back down again and even younger children could do this walk (although I would keep them on a short leash to ensure they don’t fall off the cliff), and most reasonably capable 60yr olds could do it.

Despite it being remote, its popularity means that you are unlikely to be doing the walk alone (lots of international tourists) unless you are silly enough to start the walk late in the morning when the sun becomes very hot and unrelenting. The rangers close this walk around 11am if the forecast is for over 36degC temperatures. There are several radios located so you can call for help if you do happen to break an ankle or get heat exhaustion.

The best time to start the walk is before sunrise, leave the resort about 45-50 minutes before sunrise after having breakfast in the restaurant (it opens about 1.5hrs before sunrise to allow this). The last half of the walk is very exposed in full sun without shade and exposed to the wind, although on days of light winds the breeze makes the walk more enjoyable.

What you need to take:

You will need a sun hat, shorts, sturdy runners or walk boots, light shirt, 2 x 600mL water bottles, sunscreen, a snack, and of course your cameras (no tripod needed, but you should have a wide angle zoom, preferably also an ultrawide to 14mm field of view – I took my Olympus mZD 7-14mm f/2.8, Olympus mZD 12-40mm f/2.8 and Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 with EC14 teleconverter attached with 2 OM-D cameras – the E-M5 and E-M1 both attached to a waist belt, although the design of this waist belt resulted in its mechanism self-unscrewing and the E-M1 with 7-14mm lens falling 1m onto rocks but thankfully only its lens hood suffered minor damage – message to self – add Locktite glue to these screw points!). I also took a trekking pole although this was not really needed on the generally hard rock, although it did provide some assistance and extra stability.

selfie

Worried about my advice to the French tourists following who may have misunderstood my photographic hints and directions and gone too close to the edge.

The walk:

The walk takes you from the valley up some 500 steps made by rocks (should take about 10 minutes or so) to a plateau around the rim of the gorge where there is initially some greenery interspersed with the occasional white ghost gum tree amidst orange-red sandstone very picturesque landscapes.

ghost gum

Ghost gum on the plateau near the start of the walk around the rim.

walk

walk

sea bed ripples

Ancient remnant sea bed ripples in the sandstone (some areas also show trilobite fossil remnants).

Very soon you find yourself near the edge of the sheer cliffs (hopefully just after sunrise) although after the very unfortunate recent accident where a young tourist fell to her death trying to get a shot of herself on a ledge at the top of the cliff edge and slipping, the rangers who patrol the walk keep reminding everyone to stay at least 2m from the edge for their own safety – thankfully the edge is not fenced.

canyon at sunrise

One then descends down wooden stairways to cross a wooden bridge which leads to an optional but well worthwhile side walk to the “Garden of Eden” valley with a semi-permanent waterhole (not for swimming) where one can have a brief stop for a snack (remember though to take all rubbish back with you).


descent into the valley

Descent into the valley of the Garden of Eden soon after sunrise

Garden of Eden waterhole

Garden of Eden waterhole.

From here you retrace your steps back to the wooden stairs and ascend back to the top of the rim marking close to the half way mark and the start of the very exposed section so it is a good time to apply sunscreen if you haven’t already done so.

the Garden of Eden valley from the south-east rim


Garden of Eden valley

The Garden of Eden valley from the south-east rim showing the cycads which are said to be 400 years old and where we spotted a kangaroo from a distance.

The walk now takes you around the rim of the canyon to the south rim with its very sheer cliff faces before walking further southwards away from the canyon to return to the car park where there is shelter, toilets and drinking water (although you should have taken at least 2 x 600mL bottles of water per person for the hike).

waterhole at the eastern part of the rim

A waterhole at the eastern part of the rim.

The walk is well marked but it is possible to miss the arrows when distracted by the scenery and lose the track but any sensible person would then retrace their steps back to the marked tracks so a map or GPS is not needed.

How to get to Kings Canyon

Although one can drive there from the capital cities by car or bus, most people would fly to Alice Springs or Uluru airports then hire a car or take a tourist bus.

The road trip from Uluru’s resort village of Yulara is 305km taking some 3-3.5hrs on good bitumen highway all the way.

The road trip from Alice Springs has 3 main routes – the 474km longer but quicker all bitumen Lasseter Highway route, or 2 more interesting unsealed routes (these unsealed routes you may not be able to do by hire car or tourist bus). One option is the 200km unsealed Mereenie Loop Road which starts after you leave historic village of Hermannsburg, the other option is the unsealed Ernest Giles Road which takes you past some meteor craters.

When to go

Peak season is the Australian Winter months although starts in April and ends in October. These times are usually characterised by more pleasantly warm days, clear skies, no rain but cold nights often to sub-zero temperatures in the middle of winter due to the cloudless nights which are amazing to observe on a night without the moon so the Winter Milky Way can be observed in all its glory away from light pollution.

An advantage of the summer months for the photographer are less people, cheaper accommodation rates, more unpredictable weather with possible dramatic clouds and storms and lovely balmy warm nights of 21degC minimums and longer days BUT the days are much hotter with maximums usually around 36degC and may be well above 40degC although unlike the tropical north humidity is generally still low at around 30% as long as there is not the rare heavy rains from the tail of a tropical cyclone.

Flies can be problematic all year round from sunrise to sunset, more in some areas than others though.

Mosquitoes are only an issue around waterholes, and even then not a great problem.

Accommodation

As the best time to start the walk is before sunrise, you will need to sleep the night before nearby.

The main resort is Kings Canyon Resort which is ~7km from the carpark but has excellent accommodation facilities ranging from camp ground, to lodges, to standard rooms and even deluxe rooms with spa baths, offering 24×7 reception as well as excellent restaurant food with friendly staff, a nice swimming pool, petrol station and general store.

Kings Canyon Resort deluxe room spa with view

Kings Canyon Resort air conditioned deluxe room spa with a view.

Resort sunset viewing area

Resort sunset viewing area where one can grab a drink and relax as the sun sets on the ranges – here a tourist couple just happened to share a kiss under the tree as I took this image.


Alternatives are:

Kings Canyon Wilderness Lodge

Kings Creek Station
– a large camel breeding station with petrol available and lodgings.

Other walks:

The Kings Canyon valley walk is a short flat 1hr return walk alongside the creek bed to a seated area near a waterhole from which you can observe the birds as well as see the hikers as they pass the 1hr mark on the north cliff face, and the hikers as they walk atop the southern cliff face.

canyon

View of walkers atop south wall from the valley using a telephoto lens.

The Kings Canyon southern rim walk is a shorter version of the rim walk but does not give you access to the east or northern parts of the rim.

The Giles walking track is a 2 night 22km walk from Kings Canyon to Kathleen Springs.

Kathleen Springs is some 20km south of Kings Canyon by car and offers a 1hr return flat walk through a shallow valley which was once a cattle station and thus one passes remnants of the cattle yard fencing and finishes at a waterhole before returning to the car – this can be a hot walk in the sun with annoying flies.

brumbies

Wild brumbies alongside the road near Kings Creek Station.

Mt Conner

Mt Conner from the highway lookout en route to Uluru – a typical mesa formation which is near Curtain Springs Station.

salt pan

Salt pan from the Mt Conner lookout – these are what prevents a more direct highway route from Uluru to Kings Canyon.

More information and links on my wiki page here.

 

Camping with brumbies, dingoes and roos on Long Plain, Snowy Mountains and limestone gorge walk

Written by admin on March 19th, 2016

Following on from my explorations of Yangobilly caves I headed up the remote, desolate, gravel Long Plain Road which winds its way north across Long Plain to take you to the wilderness areas including Bimberi Wilderness and Blue Waterholes where I had planned to camp for the night.

Long Plain is a plateau at 1200m elevation but is relatively treeless as it is a frost hollow landscape with cold air subsiding into it from the surrounding elevated areas creating a Cold Air Drainage grassland with an inverted tree line. This plateau is the start of various rivers such as the Murrumbidgee River and is dominated by mobs of wild brumbies roaming freely. Huts can be found on the peripheries of the plateau, mostly facing the north-east to catch the morning sun. Some of these huts are now locations of camping grounds although as is the case in most alpine areas, the huts are not for sleeping in except in emergency conditions.

The first hut and camp ground is on the left, Long Plain Hut, a former homestead, is in great condition and the camp ground appears to have some nice flat areas amongst trees.

The next hut is on the right, Cooinda Hut and also has a nice campground.

But my destination was to take the Blue Waterholes Road, which takes you past Cooliman Homestead where you cannot camp and then onto Magpie Flats Camp Ground and then to Blue Waterholes camp ground. The road is steep in places and after rains even 4WD vehicles will have difficulty getting back out on the slippery steep track. It is not suitable for caravans.

After exploring Cooliman Homestead I parked at Blue Waterholes in late afternoon to embark on my 1.5-2hr 5km return  through Clarkes Gorge and hopefully to the Caves Creek waterfall which was said to be “when you think you have got to the end, keep walking a little bit further” – sounds a lot like some Irish directions and which proved to be not that helpful as I got deeper and deeper into long grass with minimal tracks and the ever present risk of a fatal snake bite.

There are 3 main species of snakes in this region – the generally docile Copperhead, the dangerous Eastern Brown and a local species the White-lipped snake of which I know not a lot but it is a small, rarely seen, elapid snake of south-eastern Australia and Australia’s most cold-tolerant snake and which grows to only 16 inches long and feeds almost exclusively on skinks of which I saw many. The first two species can give a fatal bite if you cannot get to medical help with antivenom in a timely manner – and out here, even if one called for help via the radio beacon, it could take many hours before help arrived and delivered you to a hospital – so the key is DON’T GET BITTEN! Hence enclosed shoes and gaiters and the use of my trekking pole to further alert any snake to my presence – the main risk for being bitten is accidentally stepping on a sleeping snake. Most snakes on detecting your presence will slither away to safety. Some people get bitten by being stupid and trying to harass , capture or kill them. That is not me, and killing snakes is against the law as they are protected species.

The gorge is narrow with steep tall limestone cliffs on either side and a crystal clear cold stream at its base – a stream which I ended up having to cross a dozen times and giving my runners and gaiters a thorough soaking, but my trekking pole saved me on many occasions slipping on the very slippery rocks and giving my camera gear an unexpected dunking, or worse, fracturing my ankle – of course I took along my radio beacon EPIRB as there was no way to send for help otherwise and many ways to have a misadventure.

entrance to the gorge

The many dangers and time pressures of night coming and possible storms nearby made the walk an adrenaline pumping affair.

In parts one had to cross the cliff face high above the water with only the occasional foot holes – and on this occasion, a frill necked lizard had decided he was going to block my progress and stand on the only foot hole that would allow me to pass – I had to give him some encouragement to leave his favored position – perhaps a game he plays with every hiker!

the cliff face and the lizard

Above is the section of cliff I had to negotiate and if one looks closely, one can see the lizard blocking my way.

the obstinate lizard

Frill necked lizard – this family lives at the highest elevation in Australia for such a lizard as it can escape into the limestone caves during winter snows.

Cave creek past the gorge

Cave creek past the gorge.

I continued on and when I came to this lovely cascade with no evidence of the waterfall and minimal evidence of further tracks I decided to end my trek before it became dark or storms let loose:

cascades

After safely returning back and a short drive, I set up my camp site at Magpie Flat and made some dinner with kangaroos watching on. Then as darkness fell had just boiled up a nice mug of tea which promptly spilled onto my lap when a black stallion brumby suddenly announced his entrance to my camp site. Even with my powerful LED head torch, he was hard to see at 30m in the dark – just his eyes occasionally staring back at me … after munching on some grass he was gone.

I hit the sack and quickly fell asleep after my exhausting hike and long day of activities and some 30 minutes later in deep sleep I was suddenly awoken by something breathing on my neck – it was the black stallion back, this time poking his head under my tent fly and inches from my head separated only by the tent insect mesh. When I rolled over to see who is breathing hard on my neck, the stallion was spooked and ran off thankfully not dragging my tent with him. For the next hour as I tried to return to sleep I could hear the brumby mob all around me chewing on grasses.

Finally, I was asleep… only to be awoken at midnight when the moon was setting by howls of dingoes through the night air. This did not help my sleep at all as I felt quite vulnerable in my little tent. Nevertheless with the long day’s drive ahead I forced myself to a broken sleep… broken by the descending cold on a star filled night requiring repeated layering of clothes to keep warm.

Next morning I awoke to the swooping noise of kookaburras flying over my tent, and after a much needed breakfast, again accompanied by kangaroos, I packed my thoroughly wet tent up in the cold fog and headed back up to Cooliman Homestead for some shots before the fog lifted:

Cooliman Homestead

Cooliman Homestead given the vintage sepia look.

brumbies on Long Plain

Brumbies on Long Plain.

All images shot with Olympus OM-D Micro Four Thirds cameras.

And then it was the long 7+ hours drive back to Melbourne via Tumbarumba.

More information about the snowy Mountains and helpful links on my wiki page

 

 

 

 

 

Snowy Mountains trip – day 3 – Adelong Falls Gold Mine Ruins to Yarrangobilly Caves and Thermal Springs

Written by admin on March 19th, 2016

Following from my car troubles on Day 1 and 2 in my previous post, I departed Tumbarumba early in the morning and headed north on a circuitous route to the Snowy Mountains via Adelong and Tumut.

I briefly stopped at the interesting Sugar Pine Walk at Laurel Hill where you can walk along a path between towering Sugar Pines from the west coast of USA (the tallest and largest species of pines) planted in 1928.

Then passed through the township of Batlow famed for its apples.

Batlow

View to north-east over Batlow from the lookout.

I then headed to Adelong along more lovely rolling hillsides and valleys as I wanted to check out the Adelong Falls Gold Mining Ruins which were well worth a look and explore.

Adelong Falls

ruins of homestead

Adelong Falls Gold Mining Ruins

From there to Yarrangobilly caves via the Snowy Mountains Highway was rather a boring drive although Tumut is a pretty town reminiscent of Bright in many ways, and Talbingo is the last town before ascending the mountains and so is the last stop for fuel and groceries. There are many camping grounds prior to Talbingo along the Blowering Reservoir although this area seems rather featureless to me at first sight but would make a relatively safe and warmer place to camp and are well suited to caravans.

Just prior to the caves turnoff is the old Yarrangobilly Village camp ground alongside a trickling creek and the old homestead and marks the northern end of this section of limestone geology (although there is another large limestone cave region which has not been commercialised in the north-east of Long Plain near Blue Waterholes).

Yarrangobilly village

Yarrangobilly “village” camp ground.

The descent down to the Yarangobilly Caves is on a windy steep gravel road not suited to caravans.

Access to Yarangobilly Caves requires a car permit of $4 if you have not already paid a Snowy Mountain permit pass, and there is a self-guided tour of the South Glory Cave which is a little cheaper entry fee than the guided tours of the Jillabenan and Jersey Caves to which there are only tours at specified times each day.

The South Glory Cave is what I went for given I was time challenged and it was indeed very impressive and following on from this one can walk or drive to the car park above the thermal pool which is a naturally heated water source at 27degC which has been constructed as a regular swimming pool with the overflow draining down into the nearby river where one can also swim. The walk back up to the car park is quite strenuous 700m climb on a hot day and you may be like me and decide to drive back to the caves shop and buy an ice cream or two to aid recovery. There is then a rather long exit drive up a one way gravel road back to the Snowy Mountains Highway, but the caves area is well worth a visit and it is the only place in the northern and central sections of the mountain range where you can find accommodation (appears to be nice rooms in lodges).

thermal pool

Thermal pool and steps down from the change rooms and toilets.

lodges

Yarangobilly Caves Lodges.

Next post – Long Plain brumbies and the Blue Waterholes limestone gorge.