Lens Test and Veterans Day

This past weekend, an old friend, Bruce Nied from Colorado (and now Houston) and his wife came to San Diego for a visit.  On Saturday, his wife, Cathy, had wanted to see the San Diego Zoo so off we went for a visit.  San Diego, if you do not know, has one of the best zoos in the world so if you like them and are coming here, do not miss a chance to see it but plan on LOTS of walking up and down hills.

I brought the new Sigma 50mm – 500mm lens figuring that despite my skepticism about image stabilization, this would be a good chance to try it out in a practical trial.  I even left my tripods and monopod in the car to force the issue.  What I DID reinforce almost instantly was how heavy this lens is.  I also decided to mount it on the 1DsMkII body which added even more to the weight of the whole rig.  Note to self… Do not do that again!!!

I tried a few different subjects with it including some semi-macro flora shots and some details of animals.  All of these examples were hand-held with the focal length at 500mm and the image stabilization turned on. (You can click on the shots to see them enlarged.) Following the normal rule of thumb for hand holding a shot, without IS the slowest workable speed would be 1/500 second.  Sigma claims a 4-stop gain so that means it ought to be OK at 1/30 second.  Well, let’s see…  The first was a shot of a Flamingo:

Flamingo, handheld at 500 mm with 1/50 second shutter.

Flamingo, handheld at 500 mm with 1/50 second shutter.

This bright colored specimen was shot at 1/50 second at f8.  I confess that though it is not “tack sharp” it is sure a lot sharper than I expected.  So then I aimed at a sleeping Koala.

Handheld 500mm at 1/30 second.

Handheld 500mm at 1/30 second.

In this case I had to hold the camera out to aim higher and from under a canopy.  This was 1/30 second at f6.3.  It is obviously exhibiting a lot more camera shake than the flamingo shot.  It may look, at first, like it is out of focus but all too often focus error is blamed for what is actually camera shake.

Then it seemed reasonable to “go for the gold” and aim at a carnivorous pitcher plant.

Handheld 500 mm at 1/6 second!

Handheld 500 mm at 1/6 second!

This shot was aimed down so was easier to hold, arms braced against my body.  And I really tried to control my breathing. The area was getting dark so the ISO was boosted to 400 and the shutter speed was 1/6 second at f6.3.  Definitely it is not truly sharp but still, it is astonishing when you consider it is a very heavy 500mm lens handheld at 1/6 second.  For magazine or newspaper reproduction this would be acceptable

The results are illustrative of two variables at play: the shutter speed, of course, but also the method of holding the camera/lens.  As you may recall I have always been skeptical of image stabilization so what do I think now?  Well, I still believe that it is NOT a substitute for a tripod if real sharpness is needed.  But if the situation is such that, say for journalism and documentary, maybe even sports, where tack sharpness is not mandatory, it can certainly save a shot that would otherwise simply dissolve into visual mush.

We were at the Zoo for almost 5 hours.  Second note to self…re-read Note 1.  I was whipped when we finally climbed up out of the canyons and headed across the parking lot.  A long soak in a hot tub would have been wonderful.  But we had other plans for the evening.

The reason for Bruce’s visit was to attend the reunion of the 192 Attack Helicopter Squadron being held this year in San Diego.  He was a medic with the 101st Airborne but ended his tour assigned to the 192 AHS.  He invited me to attend this reunion’s closing ceremonial dinner.  This group was one of the incredible squadrons that flew insertions, extractions, and various other combat missions.  But it was the extractions that, in my mind, were the most noteworthy.  Their pilots and crews redefined bravery often coming in under heavy fire to retrieve soldiers from the battlefield.  They risked their lives over and over to save comrades when they simply could have stood off.

I served only TDY (temporary Duty) missions in ‘Nam and only a few of those.  But I can tell you when I and my LRRP Team “guides” were hot footing it to the LZ with bad guys on our sixes I for one have rarely heard sounds so beautiful as the “Whup whup whup whup” of the Huey’s rotor as they came in for us.  Often a gun ship (or sometimes more) would circle the area laying down surpressing fire and flying guard for the slicks (unarmed transport helicopters) sent in to get us.  If it was just me and a small team sometimes only a couple of gun ships would come and we would dive in beside the door gunner and hope not to get shot in the butt as the tail came up and we took of as fast as possible.

These young pilots were beyond amazing in terms of skill, courage, and outlandish hutzpah.  Sometimes settling down through brush using their rotors to clear the way, often while receiving incoming fire, they would hold a hover just barely off the ground as troops ran for them.  In my opinion every one of them deserved recognition as a hero.  I do not know if I was ever picked up by this particular squadron or its members, but as examplars of their type I still felt a rush of gratitude to them for being there for me when I needed it most.  Good grief, bullets were going through the sheet metal, the M60s in the swinging door mounts were chattering away and I just was keeping my head down and hoping not to get shot up in some embarrassing portion of my anatomy.  Yet now, these guys, these brave men, were coming up to me, shaking my hand, welcoming me to their reunion, and thanking ME for my service… it was almost embarrassing.

Sitting there as they read their honor roll of squadron members killed in action, when each name was called those who had served with them would answer for them.  Hearing sometimes ten or more voices answering “Here” to the call meant these guys knew and were friends with their fallen comrades.  Often they saw it happen.  When their country called them, though many did not want to, they answered the call.  They did not hide out and head north.  They stood up to the call.  When, following the roll call, “Taps” was played, every veteran was on their feet, their back went straight and their right arm snapped into a crisp salute and never wavered until the last note of that mournful call.

These were not immature kids whose idea of life-ending trauma was not having Daddy give them that new BMW, nor were they entitled self-proclaimed victims blaming all their woes on poor potty training or the horror of constrained bank accounts.  They had seen real deprivation, real poverty, real desperation, and, all too often for kids of their age, real horror.  Though in civilian dress you could still tell the officers from enlisted by their salutes, they all were equals here and now.  They truly had all “been there, done that” and were proud of their efforts.  We all should be proud too that we live in a country and a culture that can produce such people.

As I looked around the room during the prolonged salute it became obvious to me: their hair was grey and thinner than back then, their belt size might be a tad larger, but these were still warriors.  They had offered their all when their country called… and they would do it again tomorrow if the call came again.  Patriotism is not about giving speeches, not about waving the flag, not about anything so vulgar in its public display… it is about being willing to answer the call at risk of your life whenever it might come.  These men were real patriots.

I was honored to be in their presence.  Thank you Bruce for the opportunity to be there.

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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