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Storytelling with Canon Lenses at the Bottom of the World

January 25, 2017

Rick Sammon

Photographers are storytellers: we tell a story within the frame of a still image.

What we include in the frame depends on our mood and feeling, as well as the mood or feeling we want to convey. The technique we use to tell that story often depends on several factors, including making a color or black-and-white image (a black-and-white image perhaps looks more creative because some of the reality of the scene has been removed), using a fast or slow shutter speed to freeze or blur the action, choosing a wide or small aperture to minimize or maximize what is in focus in front of and behind the focus point – and perhaps most important: the lens we choose.

In this article I’d like to share my story about a recent trip to the bottom of the world, which included stops in the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica. To illustrate my story I’ll share with you the Canon zoom lenses I used and my camera settings on my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and EOS 5DS. My goal is to give you some ideas on how you can tell your story when traveling.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (Version I) @ 24mm, ISO 100, f/14, 1/400th sec

I took this photograph on South Georgia Island in the largest king penguin colony in the world. It’s perhaps my favorite image from this adventure, because it shows how close the animals can come to you . . . if you are patient.

I said, “because it shows how close the animals come to you” because the rule in South Georgia is that you cannot walk or crawl closer than 15 feet to an animal.

I chose the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens because I was not sure just how close the penguins would come. That lens gave me the versatility of shooting at different subject distances.

It’s the versatility of the 24-105mm IS lens that makes it my favorite all-around lens. Many of my fellow EOLs consider the 24-105mm IS lens a favorite, but some, especially those who shoot in low light, prefer the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L IS USM lens, which is faster, a bit heavier and a bit larger.

I wanted to take an environmental photograph, that is, a photograph that shows the animals in their environment. Photographing while standing up resulted in penguins getting lost in the background, so I got down on my belly and shot from ground level. That position emphasized the majesty of the kings.

For good depth-of-field, that is, to get the animals in the foreground and the back in focus, I set my lens to f/14 and focused on the penguins on the left side of the frame.

Quick composition tip: Place the main subject off center. That technique causes the viewer’s eye to roam around the frame looking for other interesting subjects. Another way to state this composition technique: Dead center is deadly.

Canon EOS 5DS, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens @ 400mm, ISO 200, f/6.3, 1/640th sec

Storytelling with photographs of wildlife involves taking close-up photographs. Canon offers several telephoto zoom lenses and fixed telephoto lenses, each suited for a different need and budget.

Hands down, my favorite wildlife lens is the new (twist zoom as opposed to the older push-pull zoom) EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens. That’s the lens I used for this photograph I took of two rockhopper penguins on the Falkland Islands.

To blur the background, I set the lens at f/6.3, which provided shallow depth-of-field.

After taking my photograph, I zoomed in on the image on the camera’s LCD monitor to make sure the eyes were in focus. I feel, in most cases, that if the eyes are not in sharp focus and well lit, I have missed the shot.

When I plan to photograph wildlife, I always pack my Canon 1.4X tele-extender  - just in case I need a bit of extra reach. I was so close to the animals on my bottom-of-the-world adventure that I did not need it this time.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens @ 236mm, ISO 125, f/7.1, 1/250th sec

I photographed this seal pup on South Georgia Island with my Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens. For wildlife photography, I always travel with this lens and my 100-400mm IS lens. I like the 70-300mm lens because it’s small and lighter than the 100-400mm lens. Plus it’s super sharp, too.

What’s more, it’s not impossible that I could trip and break a lens, so having two telephoto zoom lenses gives me a backup. If you are going on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, I strongly suggest packing a backup lens. If you are not a member of Canon CPS, check it out. It’s a great resource for borrowing Canon gear, and getting expert and fast repair on gear, too.

Quick tip: See eye-to-eye and shoot eye-to-eye. Doing that lets the viewer of the photograph relate more to a subject than if you shoot above the subject’s eyeline, such as when you are standing up.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens @ 35mm, ISO 100, f/14, 1/125th sec

Conveying the feeling of being in the largest king penguin colony in the world is hard to do in a two-dimensional photograph, not to mention that a photograph can’t convey the smell of penguin poop from tens of thousands of animals.

For a wide view in my landscape photographs, I use the new Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens set at a small aperture. I experimented composing the scene with the lens set at 16mm, but the penguins were too small in the frame, so zoomed in a bit so the penguins were larger in the final image.

Before moving up to that lens, which is a relatively new addition to the Canon lens line, I used my Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens, which also does an outstanding job for wide-angle shots.

To add a sense of depth to this photograph, I photographed the line of penguins in the foreground at an angle, which leads the viewer’s eye from the left side of the frame to the right.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens @ 15mm. ISO 200, f/16, 1/200th sec

Fisheye lens shots are fun shots, but they also help you tell your story. My story with this shot: I wanted to show, first, how close you can get to the king penguins on South Georgia Island, and second, how many penguins you can see at a single time.

Quick tip when using this lens: Check the bottom of the frame, especially at the 8mm setting, to make sure that your shoe tips or toes are not in the frame.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens @ 15mm, ISO 320, f/9, 1/2000th sec

Here’s one of my favorite shots from Neko Harbor, a wonderful glacier bay, in Antarctica. While laying on the bow of a zodiac (small inflatable boat), I held my fisheye lens close to the surface of the water to tell the story of the density of the ice in this tranquil bay.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens @ 16mm, ISO 200, f/10, 1/800th sec

The next two photographs were also taken in Neko Harbor. Again, I’m trying to tell the story of my experience. For this super wide-angle photograph, I set my 16-35mm lens at 16mm (but virtually the same result could have been achieved with a 17-40mm lens). I used a polarizing filter to reduce the glare on the water and ice. As always, I try to keep the horizon line or water line level. When I mess up and it’s lopsided, which has happened to me when shooting from a small boat, I make a correction in Photoshop® or Lightroom®.

Canon EOS 5DS, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens @ 100mm, ISO 400, f/14, 1/2000th sec

Continuing in my quest of trying to tell the story of Niko Harbor, I used my 100-400mm lens to zoom in on this small area of an iceberg. Here, a similar result could have been achieved with a lens such as the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM lens, which is smaller, lighter and more compact that the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens – making it well-suited for outdoor travel and wildlife photography.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens @ 27mm, ISO 100, f/13, 1/160th sec

Here’s another storytelling idea: try to tell a story of a single subject with a series of photographs. In this case, I’ll use three photographs of an iceberg, which we passed on the way from South Georgia to Antarctica.

This wide-angle photograph captures the beauty of the iceberg. To add drama to the scene, I created a black-and-white image in Nik Silver Efex Pro from my color file.

Quick tip: When making black-and-white images, contrast (usually) is king. Boost your contrast a little, and I think you will like your photograph a little better.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 105mm, ISO 100, f/13, 1/640th sec

Here I zoomed in on the bottom of the iceberg to capture the beautiful pattern created by the waves. I cropped my photograph to add impact to the image.

Canon EOS 5DS, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens @ 400mm, ISO 125, f/5.6, 1/1250th sec

Zooming in even more, I captured another beautiful pattern, which was only visible from the opposite side of the iceberg, which we circumnavigated several times.

The idea here is that you can tell a story of a single subject by simply zooming in and out.

Canon EOS 5DS, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens @ 176mm, ISO 200, f/14, 1/200th sec

I thought I’d end my storytelling article with a photograph that tells a story . . . of sorts. These two king penguins were walking side-by-side on the beach in South Georgia Island. By slightly moving my position, I created the “story” that they are holding hands, or rather wings.

Have fun telling your story with your pictures with the aid of your lenses.

The End (which is a common ending for stories).

Post Script

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens @ 16mm. ISO 160, f/7, 1/100th sec (middle exposure in HDR sequence: EV 0, EV +2 and EV -2)

I’ve tried to tell the story of the incredible beauty of the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica. There is, however, another side to the story of life at the bottom of the world: the story of the whaling industry – an industry that harvested more than one million whales before whaling was banned in Antarctica in 1965. I made this photograph (in-camera HDR) of a section of an abandoned whaling station in Antarctica. It’s an important part of the compete story. Hey, good news: the whales are coming back!

Quick tip: The closer you are to a subject, the more the person viewing the photograph feels as though he or she is in the scene. That’s why I chose to shoot close with my 16-35mm lens. I wanted you to feel as though you were standing there with me.

Rick Sammon
Rick Sammon

Rick Sammon is a tireless, prolific and inspirational image-maker.Rick divides his time between creating images, leading photo workshops, and making personal appearances. He is a man on a mission – a mission to make digital photography fun, creative, exciting and rewarding for others.

Rick Sammon

Canon Explorer of Light and award-winning photographer Rick Sammon loves his day job. A tireless, prolific and inspirational image-maker, Rick, called by some “The Godfather of Photography,” is one of the most active photographers on the planet – dividing his time between creating images, leading photo workshops, and making personal appearances. Rick’s enthusiasm for digital imaging is contagious. He is a man on a mission – a mission to make digital photography fun, creative, exciting and rewarding for others.

A natural teacher, Rick enjoys sharing his photographs and providing practical how-to advice to a wide audience of photo enthusiasts through his blog, books, how-to videos, iPhone and iPad apps, a podcast and an expanding following on social media. With nearly 800,000 Google+ followers, he has been recognized as one of the top photographers to follow on Google+. In his spare “desk time,” Rick writes the “Quick Fix” column for Digital Photo Magazine.

Rick started his professional photography career as an underwater photographer, producing six underwater books and leading scuba diving expeditions to the seven seas. He easily transitioned into travel, landscape, wildlife, cultural and nature photography. Rick’s images, from his travels to more than 100 countries, have been published in numerous newspapers and magazines, and have been featured in his 36 books, including the popular Rick Sammon’s Exploring the Light, and 11 apps, including Rick Sammon’s 24/7 Photo Buffet.

While Rick describes himself as “evolving,” he hesitates to categorize his work. “I’m an A-to-Z type of photographer. I do it all – and I enjoy the freedom of not specializing.”

With nearly 40 years of experience, this self-taught photographer has many accomplishments – and many more anticipated for the road ahead.  As Rick suggests, “When you are through changing, you are through.”

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