Bristlecone Pines and the Canon 5DS-R

Last Thursday through Sunday (July 9-12) we did the annual Bristlecone Pines Photo Workshop/Tour and ascended into the rarefied air of the White Mountains in California to visit these oldest living organisms on the planet.  I love it there: the real mountains remind me of home, the air, though thin, is clean and crisp, and as usual I always hate to leave.  The incredible lodge of the White Mountain Research Station and Tim’s unbelievable cooking are really hard to leave.  The participants, based on a few samples I’ve seen on Facebook, are producing some exemplary images so I think it was a real success.  I can hardly wait for our “Show and Tell” meeting in a few weeks.

This also gave me a good chance to put the new 5DS-R through its paces and to see what worked and what didn’t, at least for me and my way/style of shooting.  All of the shots in this blog were taken with it.   Let me start with the bottom line:  I officially love this camera… but it really proved out my initial observation that it is a niche camera that is wonderful for some things and far less so for others.

That was always true of analog cameras and no one questioned it.  But today people seem to want everything to be “one-size-fits-all” and ask me to recommend gear that will essentially do everything.  There is no such camera out there, manufacturing hype notwithstanding… and there never has been.  Think about it: the commercial/pro shooters make a living from the difference between what they charge and what it costs them to do the jobs.  If they could be competitive with a single body and lens they would love it and do it to save money and take more profits home.  But they can’t.  My friend ken Rockwell has a following of amateurs who can afford to look for that do-all body and lens and rely on the hype of image stabilization to not worry about things like tripods or special heads, much less large prints and extreme resolution.  I confess there are times when I envy them.  But I spent too many years earning my keep with photography competing with some top quality shooters who knew better and so I know better as well.  Now I only compete with myself but the goal is the creation of the very best technical foundation for the images to free me to then concentrate totally on the aesthetic part.

But as with a tradesman of any stripe, the basic rule is to use “the right tool for the right job.”  So a couple of weeks ago when I was asked to help shoot one of the navy ships coming home and the families’ receptions I did NOT use the new camera but chose my stalwart 5D MkII and 1Ds MkII;  the lead photographer was using a 5D MkIII backed up by a 5D MkII.  But when going into landscape country, ah, now, this is make-or-break time for the 5DS R.  Especially since I have some participants shooting film and one shooting a beautiful Korona 7”x17” Panoramic View camera.

Participant in Bristlecone Pines workshop setting up a Korona 7 x 17 panorama camera overlooking the Sierras from the White Mountains.

Participant in Bristlecone Pines workshop setting up a Korona 7 x 17 panorama camera overlooking the Sierras from the White Mountains.

The trip’s first stop was in Randsburg, an old Califonia Gold Mining town started, along with neighboring Johannesburg, by miners from South Africa.  It is a fascinating place caught somewhere in temporal limbo between “then” and “now.” And it is rich with detail to challenge the new high-res camera.  One thing I also wanted to test was the assertion that this is not a camera to be shot hand-held due to its tiny photo diodes (4.1 microns) where any light ray movement across photo sites would diminish resolution.  That makes sense but then film resolution also is effected by camera shake and minute movements so this is not really anything new to us old-timers.  Nevertheless, could it be hand-held if all precautions could be taken, just like in the film camera days?  Yes, tripods were always preferable for the ultimate clarity but when it was not possible, what then.

So to test that I shot the façade of this old tin building (that is now an antique shop) without a tripod.  I shot it with a non-stabilized but sharp lens (Canon 85mm f1.8).  (You can, as with all images in this post, click on it to see it enlarged.)

Facade of Antiques Store, Randsburg, CA.  Canon 5DS-R w/ 85mm f2.8 lens

Facade of Antiques Store, Randsburg, CA. Canon 5DS-R w/ 85mm f1.8 lens at f11.  It seemed appropriate to present this shot as a warm-toned image. It is actually split toned with warm highlights and cool shadows.

Well at 100% and full res it could have benefited from a tripod, there is no doubt.  But for uses such as this blog, it is acceptable.  It is about what I would have expected from hand-holding my old Medium Format film cameras with a 135mm lens for about the same field of view.

After Randsburg we went to Ridgecrest for the night.  but after dinner we drove out to the bizarre Trona Pinnacles for some night and deep sky shooting.  I’ve now seen some of the participant’s shots and there are a couple of real prize winners.  The sky was clear, the Milky Way shown brightly over the Pinnacles and it was truly a magical scene.  Here is a simple shot with an 8mm  fisheye mounted on the new 5DS-R.

Milky Way from Trona Pinnacles.  Light contamination on right is from the little town of Trona.  8mm f4L fisheye; 30 seconds at f4 at ISO 6400.

Milky Way from Trona Pinnacles. Light contamination on right is from the little town of Trona. I used the Canon 8-15mm f4 fisheye and a setting of 30 seconds at f4 at ISO 6400.  So what is that streak?  This is a 180 degree fisheye view.  The streak covers too much length to be an airplane and too little to be a meteroid.  So what is it?  A satellite?

One thing I noticed is that the 5DS-R does not handle ISO noise as well as the previous model, the 5D III or even the 5DII.  Canon was clear that this model was NOT designed to replace the previous version(s) but to complement them.  There is indeed greater resolution for the stars but I think I’ll need to try to balance a longer exposure and lower ISO to see how that will work thigh generally long exposure noise from processor heat is worse than ISO noise.  It may be that for this type of shot the 5D III and II are better choices.

The next morning we went up to the Waterfall and Creek at the Whitney Portal trailhead and picnic grounds.  A storm was coming in over the Sierras as I took this shot looking up the canyon toward the portal.

Storm drops over Mt. Whitney and down the Whitney Portal Canyon in the Sierras of California near alabama Hills and Lone Pine

Storm drops over Mt. Whitney and down the Whitney Portal Canyon in the Sierras of California near alabama Hills and Lone Pine.  Canon 5DS-R with Canon 70-200 f4L

I had shot the waterfall at the trailhead to Mt. Whitney many times on previous trips so concentrated instead on the smaller, quieter action of the creek flowing from the bottom of the falls.  This used the Rhinocam rig and a Hasselblad-Zeiss 180mm lens.

Tangle of underbrush along creek at the base of the waterfall at Whitney Portal.  Shot with Rhinocam and 180mm Hasselblad-Zeiss f3.5

Tangle of underbrush along creek at the base of the waterfall at Whitney Portal. Shot with the 5DS-R mounted on the Rhinocam and using a 180mm Hasselblad-Zeiss f3.5.  This results in a 6-frame mosaic and about the field of view equivalent to a 100 – 135mm lens on full frame DSLR

We photographed for an hour or so, had lunch there, and then headed north and UP to the Crooked Creek High Altitude Research Station in the White Mountains.  I had cautioned everyone about dealing with the altitude and most of them listened to me…  Unfortunately a storm system was moving through the area and the night skies were seriously overcast.

The next day we were up and out after the wily images we just knew were lurking around the place so off we headed up to just shy of 12,000 feet and the Patriarch Grove of Ancient Bristlecone Pines.  I love this spot high on the mountain side in the high altitude tundra and these ancient watchers of the universe who have lived through the ages of empires from faraway lands.  Perhaps they listened in awe to the stories of the winds telling them of powerful kings and beautiful queens from places they could only imagine.  Perhaps they dreamt of them during their long winter naps, waiting anxiously to wake up and hear the latest news from winds that had caressed a lovers cheek in Babylon or cooled a traveler in the Gobi Desert.  Were they afraid when the two-leggeds came close and stripped some of the hillsides of their kin to build their temporary little boxes in the valley?  Or, with a lifespan of thousands of years would we even be discernable to them?  Think of a camera exposure of a thousand years — much less 3 or 4 thousand years) and what would NOT even be recorded on it…

So I love this place and these trees.  The winds and blowing snow and ice crystals have polished them smooth like some fine-grit sandpaper. Yet they still reach out to the winds and heavens.  They still declare, “We are here!” after scores of centuries on duty.  They watch the storms approach and, having heard the story first hand from the winds, thumb their noses at the dark clouds and say, with Leonidas the Spartan to the Persian Xerxes when he demanded they surrender their weapons and position blocking his path, “Molon Labe!”  “Come and get them…”   I love these trees.

Here are a couple of them and some of the details of their polished bodies. (Remember you can click on the shots to see them enlarged.)

Bleaching in the warm summer sun, one of the old guard stands watch.  Canon 5DS-R

Bleaching in the warm summer sun, one of the old guard stands watch. Canon 5DS-R.  Click and click again to see it full screen.

Bristlecone Pines have a unique fiber and grain.  Photographers have long concentrated as much on this detail patterning as on the trees themselves.  Here are three shots of the wood patterns.  You can click on them and click again to see them full screen.

Bristlecone Detail 001 for blog

Bristlecone detail 02 for blog

All of these grain details are shot with the Canon 5DS-R in the Rhinocam using a Hasselbrlad-Zeiss 180mm lens.

All of these grain details are shot with the Canon 5DS-R in the Rhinocam using a Hasselbrlad-Zeiss 180mm lens.

So many of the shots we see of this area are in Black and White so it seems appropriate to so some.

Taken at the Patriarch’s Grove, Ancient Bristlecone Pines Forest, White Mtns, CA.  B&W version of the “Bones of the Patriarch”  shot several years earlier.  Rhinocam mosaic using Hasselblad-Zeiss 180mm f4

Taken at the Patriarch’s Grove, Ancient Bristlecone Pines Forest, White Mtns, CA. B&W version of the “Bones of the Patriarch”
shot several years earlier. Rhinocam mosaic using Hasselblad-Zeiss 180mm f4

And looking down there are all manner of small tasty details to capture.

Each of these little flowers are smaller than a dime.  Shot with the Canon 5DS-R and Tamron 180mm f3.5 Macro lens.

Each of these little flowers are half the size of a dime.  Shot with the Canon 5DS-R and a Tamron 180mm f3.5 Macro lens.

Old root system in shale deposit; White Mountain Range, California near Bristlecone Pine Forest.

Old root system in shale deposit; White Mountain Range, California near Bristlecone Pine Forest.

But just looking up revealed the opposite: some expansive views of the clouds over the Sierras across the valley.

An overview looking out over the valley to the Sierras on the horizon.

An overview looking out over the valley to the Sierras on the horizon.  Bishop, CA is hidden from site but is at the base of the mountain where I am standing.

But Bristlecone sentries also stood watch along this ridge.

Bristlecone Pine along white mountains ridgeline. composite from Rhinocam with Hasselblad-Zeiss 180mm

Bristlecone Pine along white mountains ridgeline. composite from Rhinocam with Hasselblad-Zeiss 180mm

And then, way, way too soon, the time was up.  Sunday morning arrived far to quickly and we had to return to a more uncivilized place called, ironically, civilization.

I always hate this part…

About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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