Guatemala

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A couple days after Tropical Storm Agatha swept across Guatemala on Saturday, a few images of the destruction have started to appear.  Mostly the news is focusing on dramatic photos of the giant sinkhole that appeared in Guatemala City, and on the eruption of the volcano Pacaya that preceded the storm.  But the destruction is far more widespread than a large sinkhole and a blanket of ash delaying tourists’ flights at the airport.  Residents across almost the entire country are affected, as well as people in El Salvador and Honduras.  Sadly, the media doesn’t seem to cover the tens of thousands of people who have been impacted, evacuated, or made homeless.  Agatha dumped 3 feet of rain across Guatemala, and the resulting flooding and landslides have caused over 120 deaths and left 35,000 people homeless.  (edit 6/3/2010: The Boston Globe’s Big Picture now has a great collection of images showing the impact of the destruction of the residents of Guatemala.)

Kids and Dog, San Miguel Duenas, Guatemala
San Miguel Dueñas before Tropical Storm Agatha – Nov. 2009

Last November I traveled to Antigua to document an NGO Open Windows and their after-school learning center in San Miguel Dueñas (see the Open Windows and Guatemala galleries on my website.)  The director of the program has reported that Dueñas is badly affected by Agatha, as well as numerous other small towns around Antigua, including Ciudad Vieja, San Miguelito, San Pedro Las Huertas, Alotenango and Santiago Zamora.  At this point it is only possible to get to some of these places with a four-wheel drive vehicle, so she had yet to see the damage in Dueñas herself, but had received reports that several of the homes have been badly damaged or nearly destroyed, and for some of the residents, their meager possessions have been ruined, buried, or washed away by the rains and mud.  As the Open Windows staff in Dueñas reported, “they have nothing to wear, they lost everything.”  As with the recent earthquake in Haiti and the flooding in Peru, it is again the most vulnerable and impoverished populations that are most badly affected by these natural disasters.

(For related posts, check out other entries in the Humanitarian Photography category.)

As one grows up in the first world, they learn to see the developing world as exotic lands of vibrant color and fantastic ceremonies.  I recall that for a grade school project I made a large cut-out of the African continent, and populated it with carefully detailed stand up paper people, all dressed in their traditional local costumes, as copied from the encyclopedia.  I marveled at the variations in dress, and how each country had its own unique outfit.

This viewpoint continues on well into adulthood, encouraged by travel brochures showing smiling local people in their indigenous dress, and every traveler with a camera aims to capture those same shots on their journey (see previous post for a couple of my examples).  But after spending just a little bit of time in a developing country, one learns that these types of images are far from the “truth.”  The ones who still wear the colorful traditional outfits are almost always the poorest and most politically ignored segment of a country’s population.  Though they often smile and laugh, their lives are far from exotic and joyful.  They are often difficult, full of pain, and short.  During my recent brief trip to Guatemala, I repeatedly came face to face with these realities of life in a developing country, even more so than I ever did during my many months in Peru.  And in my photos I found I still battle with the contradictions of exotic vs. reality.


San Miguel Dueñas, Guatelmala

I was visiting a compound of several families’ concrete block houses surrounding a paved courtyard containing the shared sink and stoves.  These girls returned home in the late afternoon, and I immediately got caught up in taking photos of them.  Lost in my concentration, my traveling companion gently reprimanded me, “That’s enough, let them put it down.  It’s heavy.”  “Right, right, OK” I said and immediately stopped, embarrassed that I hadn’t realized this myself.  Although one cannot deny the momentary smile on these girls’ faces is genuine, the reality is that they are child laborers.  They had spent the day working in a coffee field, and then as they walked home they gathered and carried the wood, slung on their heads, as they do each day.  I imagine that the attention being paid to them by Elizabeth and I is a big part of the smile you see on their faces and in their eyes.


Concepcion (second from left), Kevin (second from right) and family – 11/16/2009

On another day we visited two boys and their families in order to interview and photograph them to write an article about them that will hopefully find them sponsors.  The two boys are about to enter high school, and each has lost one or both parents.  Without the help of a sponsor to pay for school, books, and supplies, they will have to leave school and begin working.  Elizabeth has written more about their stories here.  One of the boys, Kevin, is losing his mother Concepcion to cancer of the uterus, and his father died just a month earlier.  After interviewing Kevin, it occurred to us that his family probably doesn’t have a single photo of themselves or their mother, which would obviously be a nice memento now and after her passing.  We returned the next day to take a portrait.  They gently lifted their mother on her bed, where she has lied for endless weeks lacking the strength to get up, and supported her as I quickly took a couple shots, praying that they would be properly focused and exposed in the near complete darkness of the dusty, dirt-floored room.

Although she is dying of cancer, there is nothing she can do about it because the family lacks money for both doctors and trips to Guatemala City for the treatment.  And at this point, it would be physically impossible for her to get on and ride a chicken bus the 1 hour into town.  She does not have doctor’s visits, she does not even have appropriate medication for the pain.  She is dying a slow and very painful death.  Sadly, I later learned, many types of uterine cancer are preventable or successfully treatable if detected early with regular doctor visits.  In fact, conditions leading to cervical cancer can often have a 10 year window for detection and treatment.  But Concepcion has probably rarely seen a doctor in her life, and certainly did not have annual examinations.  We had learned the previous day that the other boy, Luis, had also lost his mother to uterine cancer and a very similar death.

Immediately after we left, the head of the NGO I was working with (who had dropped off food and supplies to deal with the bleeding) called a contact and got hold of some appropriately strong pain medication that they, like many of us often do, had left over in their medicine cabinet.  I went into Antigua and had an 8×10 print made, and found a simple but nice wood frame.  We returned to Kevin’s house, and presented it to Concepcion.  She sat up in bed and a huge smile washed across her face.  The pain medication had already begun to work wonders, and for the first time in weeks, maybe months, she was not in constant, unbearable pain.

See more related posts in the Humanitarian Photography category.

My recent trip to Guatemala to photograph for an NGO gave me an opportunity to field test a bunch of new gear under real working conditions – jumping on and off chicken buses, crammed into the seat of a van for hours with all of it on my lap, roaming around the streets of Antigua trying to be discreet as possible carrying a 70-200mm lens and a backpack full of equipment, and photographing for long hours at a time. I had done a bunch of Internet research to choose the best and the most appropriate gear, made a couple trips to B+H to look at it all, and it all worked out as good, or often better than expected. I’m not sponsored or compensated by any of these companies (but wouldn’t be opposed to it if they happen to be reading…), but I do recommend all of this gear without reservation. (Update: I’ve now been using all of this equipment constantly for the past 11 months, and still recommend it all!) I discuss the camera I used on the trip, the Canon 7D, in this previous post.

Most all of this equipment will be equally essential for day-to-day photography, culture and travel photography, humanitarian photography, and photojournalism. And the equipment will be useful with any dSLR, Canon or Nikon.

If you plan to purchase any of this equipment, I encourage you to do so through the links I’ve created below which will take you directly to Amazon.com. Your price will be the same as always, and I will get a small referral fee. Or you can go directly to Amazon.com here. I appreciate your support! If you are in the UK, or wish to purchase from B+H Photo, see the end of this post for information on those links.


Antigua, Guatemala

Camera Backpack: I use the Lowepro Compu Trekker AW as both my carry-on and my working bag during the day. The current version of this is the Lowepro Pro Runner 350 AW. The size works perfectly for both needs. It easily fits the airline carry-on size, including smaller international requirements in some regions, yet fits more that it would first appear. With careful configuration of the interior dividers, I can fit 2 Canon bodies (a Rebel XT and a Canon 7D or 50D), a 70-200mm f/4L IS, a 16-35mm f/2.8L II wide angle zoom, a 28-105mm standard zoom (an older lens, here is a link to the better 24-105mm f/4L), all lenses stored with their hoods turned backwards, a 580EX II flash, its diffuser, 2 external hard drives in cases, a couple memory card cases, and some filters. In the outside pocket, I have a couple battery chargers, extra batteries, medium Rocket Blower, miscellaneous cords, caps, and accessories. In the rear pocket designed for a laptop, I easily fit a 32″ 5 in 1 reflector. Once I am in the field, I play around with the dividers until I have a set-up that best fits my flexible daily needs, and allows quick preparations or lens changes. The pack is extremely comfortable, has tons of padding on the straps and the back so that its weight never bothers me and I don’t feel the reflector in my back. I often wear it for hours a day while working, and it is never a problem. In fact, on my final night in Guatemala when I went out to dinner in Antigua without it on my back for the first time in 2 weeks, I commented that I felt a bit naked. The top handle is strong enough to grab and carry with, as is often necessary while jumping in and out of cars or putting it down and picking it up. There is also a waist belt that I use when I have it fully loaded, like going to the airport, to relieve my shoulders of some of the weight. And it comes with a built in rain cover that stows away at the base of the bag that has done its job on a couple occasions. The Compu Trekker Plus (now the Pro Runner 450 AW) might be a better carry on size so that you could carry more gear on the plane with you (if it fits the airline’s requirements) but it would be too big for daily use. There are also rolling versions of these, with an “x” in the name, thought the retractable handles and wheels add weight and size to the bags. The Compu Trekker has a tripod strap system that I don’t use, and another outside pocket that is, conveniently, exactly the size of a Lonely Planet guidebook. Here are some photos of the backpack in action at the Chichicastenango Market, taken by my travel companion Elizabeth Jimenez:

If you just need a holster style bag to carry one body and one lens, I highly recommend the M Rock Holster Bags.  I used the Yellowstone model for months while traveling in South America, and I love its durability, pockets, and built-in rain cover, plus it comes with extra back-up straps.  Make sure you get the right bag for your body/ lens combination – you will need a longer bag for a telephoto zoom lens.  As far as a satchel bag to carry a body or two plus two or three lenses and/ or a flash as you set out for the day but don’t want a backpack type bag, have a look at the Think Tank Retrospective line (there are a few sizes, the 10, 20 and 30, etc.) or the Crumpler Million Dollar Homes. Again, there are several sizes to choose from, called the 5 Million, 6 Million, etc. The 7 Million Dollar Home is my satchel of choice for carrying my gear about town while working.  It holds a large dSLR (5D line, 6D, 60D, etc.) with a mid-range telephoto attached (24-105mm), plus a 70-200mm, and another lens or a flash, all in the inside compartments. There is then some extra space and a couple front/ flap pockets to hold chargers, memory cards, batteries, etc. To keep moisture from accumulating in your equipment and bag, throw in a durable desiccant pack like this one.  Just be sure that it isn’t loose in your bag and scratching against your equipment.

Security: A couple great additions to the bag are Eagle Creek combo locks and Eagle Creek Pack It Sacs in the small size to hold batteries, memory cards in cases, LensPen, camera and lens body caps, and various wires and cables. The medium size Pack It Sacs are great for medicines bottles and other loose stuff in your luggage. The backpack’s zippers are rugged enough to handle constant abuse from the combo locks, which although they are weighty, are far better than keyed locks in the field so that you don’t need to go digging for the key when you are in a hurry. You just have to be a little careful when opening and closing the bag – the locks dangle and flip around, and could easily bang into something fragile in the backpack. With the Pack It Sacs, I clipped some rubber bands to the key clip within the outside pocket of the backpack and then attached them to the clips on the Sacs, so that way the Sacs won’t accidentally fall out if I flip the bag open and close while the outer pocket is open. There’s enough play to access them and then shove them back into the bag.

Another great accessory for this backpack is the PacSafe 55 wire mesh security system. It fits perfectly around this size bag, and secures your bag and your gear in a hotel room or wherever. It has a long cable that you loop around something secure and lock in place. It also comes with a small, compact storage case for when not in use.


Chichicastenango, Guatemala

SanDisk Extreme 16GB CF Memory Cards – I talked about these in the previous post. Once again, no particular reason why I use these rather than Lexar or Delkin…maybe a sponsorship would help seal my loyalties… :). Be sure to get the Sandisk Extreme 16 GB SD version if you are using the 60D or Rebel T2i. I use a Sandisk card reader to upload the images to my laptop, rather than from the camera directly, in order to save the camera batteries. This Sandisk Card Reader is for the CF cards, and the 5 in 1 reads SD cards.

Spare Batteries – I always have 3 batteries for each camera body. The Canon 60D, 7D and 5D use the Canon LP-E6 Battery. Stick with the Canon brand batteries rather than the unpredictable third-party brands.

BlackRapid RS-4 Camera Strap – The R-Strap is wonderful, and I highly recommend it. I was hesitant and suspicious at first, but I quickly adored it and will always use it. I had even emailed BlackRapid before purchasing to ask about shortcomings of earlier models, and they addressed my concerns thoroughly and completely. I was very impressed with the time and personal attention they paid to my questions. The strap is comfortable, easy to use, quick, strong, and rugged. I often use it in conjunction with wearing the backpack, and although the straps fight for space against each other on my shoulder, it still works fine. I’m a bit envious of the RS-7 that just came out, since it has a curved, ergonomic shoulder pad that will work better by itself on your shoulder and next to a backpack strap. There is also now a version designed for women, the RS-W1. Watch some of the videos out there as to how to use it, and be sure to moisten the rubber gasket before attaching it to your camera – this will make a firm seal that will never budge. The big pain is that the part attached to your camera body is best left in place, yet that makes it less easy to place the camera down on a table or in your bag, and will have to be removed to use a tripod. Also, the textured tightening screw part of the connector may rub up against your camera body in various situations, so I put some black duct tape on the bottom edges of the camera to protect it.

B+W brand UV Filters – clear, protective filters for the lenses, slim for the wide angle. The slim is probably not needed with a crop sensor camera, but is recommended for a full frame camera. The slim comes with a lens cap that does not stay on well after a little bit of use, as there are no front threads for the Canon cap to fit on. If I had to do it over, I would probably get the regular filter so that I could use the Canon lens cap.

B+W brand Circular Polarizer Filter – a polarizer serves to darken skies, boost contrast, cut through haze and reflections in water and glass, and block out a stop or two of light in bright situations. I keep it on my lens much of the time when doing outside work. Polarizing filters work to their maximum degree when the sun is to your right or left, but not when it is directly in front or behind you. Be sure to turn the moving part of the filter to dial in the degree of polarizing that you desire. They are typically not used on wide angle lenses because the darkening effect would vary across a wide swath of sky, and usually look strange.

Sto-Fen Omni Bounce Diffuser – works great on the Canon 580EX II flash, although very snug and is always difficult to get on and off in a hurry. Squeeze it and stretch it first to help it go on easier. Please don’t use the diffuser outside! Even if you see “pros” doing it. It doesn’t do anything outside but make your flash work harder. You can’t bounce light off the clouds.

Honl Color Correction Filters and Speed Strap – These are essential for using with flash to balance the white balance of the scene – to make the color of the flash the same as the color of the ambient light. This way when you correct the WB of your subject your backgrounds won’t be vivid orange (incandescent ambient lighting) or sickly green (fluorescent). You can’t use them in conjunction with the diffuser – the Omni-Bounce can’t fit over the Speed Strap, but that had not occurred to me when I bought them – so I’m going to have to figure out a solution to that. And I’m going to continue experimenting with the full or 1/2 CTO to add warmth to outside fill flash, as recommended by Nevada Wier (actually she uses a Kodak Wratten 81A gel, but I think they are similar). The kit is very slim and fits perfectly in one of the inside pockets of the backpack.


Antigua, Guatemala

Giottos Medium Rocket Blower – I initially used the small size in order to save a bit of space, but it didn’t have the power I wanted, so I sprung for the medium. Always have it handy for getting dust off lenses in a hurry, because blowing on them – no matter how careful – leads to spittle on the lenses 5% of the time when it doesn’t matter and 95% of the time when you are in the most critical situations. The large size may be a good choice as well.

Pearstone LP-1 Lens Pen – Works great for cleaning off mysterious spots, smudges, and fingerprints that always appear on the lens (this is why I always use UV filters) as well as that a-fore-mentioned spittle. There is a retractable brush on one end and a cleaning head on the other end. Twist the cap to load the cleaning tip with the carbon based cleaning material, then remove the cap and use. Please read the instructions and visit the LensPen website to fully learn how to use it properly.

32″ 5 in 1 Reflector – This size is perfect for travel and fits in the backpack, however I never actually used it during the trip so I don’t know if the size is useful in the field. It is best suited for set-up situations and portraits, which I didn’t have the opportunity to do on this assignment. I could have used it once to block some stray sunlight falling into a very dark room and potentially messing up the exposure, but I didn’t think about it until later. I did, however, carry it around a lot and never noticed because it is lightweight and very durable.

External Hard Drives – I use a Iomega Ego 500GB and a Lacie Rugged USB 500GB when traveling. I’ve used the Iomega on extended trips before, and love it. I’ve never had any problems with it, and it is solid and sturdy. I also decided to try out the Lacie Rugged USB for this trip. It is lighter than the Iomega, and doesn’t feel as solid and sturdy, but it worked just fine. They both fit perfectly in the Case Logic Portable Hard Drive Case made for these types of drives, which I recommend getting in different colors so you can quickly differentiate your different drives. I leave them in the cases at all times, but you have to pull the Ego slightly out to plug in the cord, and place the Lacie upside down in the case for the cord to fit without removing the drive each time. For storage at home, I use the Western Digital My Book 1TB External Hard Drives.

Hakuba Digital Media Storage Wallet – These are great, soft sided, thin memory card cases that hold 6 CF memory cards each. I picked up this recommendation from Karl Grobl’s website. There are a lot of bulky, hard-sided cases out there, which make you feel like your memory cards need excessive protection. I’m sure there has been a situation where an elephant stepped on a memory card case and all photos were miraculously saved by a hard sided case, but as far as my needs, the soft ones work just fine. Get into the habit of inserting blank cards face up and used cards face down into the cases’ pockets. Since this is the size for CF cards, have a look at this one if you use SD cards.

‘da Products Screen Protector – (product no longer available) – This is the second camera I have used this product with, and I am once again very happy with it. It is a very inexpensive yet high quality screen protector for your LCD, made with acrylic. Get ‘da40D Protector for the 7D – it is the perfect size. It is a slow, careful, time consuming process to attach the adhesive strips, get it clean, dust and fingerprint free, and perfectly centered, but once it’s on, its there to stay (unless you want to remove it – in that case, to remove the ‘da screen protector use dental floss to break the seal at the bottom corners, then slowly peel off.) I know that today’s LCD screens are durable, but I feel more comfortable and carefree about constantly wiping off my protector with my fingers or shirt than I would directly on the built in screen. This is also why I use B+W UV filters on the lenses.  However, if you have a camera with a rotating screen such as a 60D, T3i, or D5100, this type of screen protector won’t work.  You will need to use a thin adhesive film protector like this one.

Calumet micro fiber lens cloth – Stores perfectly in another slim inside pocket of the backpack, and always handy to have.


Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Insurance – Although I am a member of NPPA – National Press Photographers Association, I also joined NANPA – North American Nature Photography Association, in order to get their equipment insurance, which is much cheaper and has a much lower deductible than NPPA’s, even including the extra $100 to join NANPA. The insurance is primarily for the equipment only, so you are not paying for liability coverage geared toward a business as you are with every other photo equipment insurance plan I researched. Please note that the NANPA membership fee covers you from June to June or something like that – they don’t pro-rate, so you will not get a full year if you join at any other time. The insurance covers photo and computer equipment at home and while traveling. (If you happen to join NANPA to get their insurance, be sure to mention my name as a referrer, and I get $20 NANPA Bucks and save on my next renewal!)

Skooba Satchel 2.0 Laptop Bag – This is typically my second carry on, in which I carry my laptop, some books, misc. charging cords, some toiletries. This is a wonderful laptop bag, and you won’t believe how much will fit in it! As they say themselves, it is deceptively slim looking and incredibly light. It has these great little air squares for cushion everywhere – like bubble wrap made from durable rubber, and has an extremely comfortable and ergonomic strap.

Lowa Tempest Lo Hiking Shoes – I’ve worn these shoes, this same pair, nearly everyday, for almost 4 years straight now, and they still have a little life left in them. I wore them every single day for a total of 7 months in Peru, walking the cobbled streets of Cusco, and traveling the country. And I wore them nearly every day for 3 years walking the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan, and now Cambridge. (I don’t have a car, so I actually walk, a lot.) They are so comfortable I never notice them. They are light, durable, and somewhat waterproof if treated regularly. I recently bought a backup pair for the inevitable day that I have to give them up. After 3.5 years one one them developed a tear at the front-side where they crease when crouching to take photos, but they are still fine except in the rain.

Post-Production – Once you get back you are going to need to organize, edit, and work on all your photos. And for that, of course you are going to need
Adobe Photoshop CS4 and/ or Adobe Lightroom 3. You can start off with the trial versions that you can download from the Adobe site, but sooner or later you are going to have to get the real versions. Use that student discount while you still can!

Purchasing: If you plan to purchase any of this equipment, accessories, or anything else from Amazon.com I encourage you to do so through the links I set up throughout this post. Just click on the equipment above and you will be taken directly to that Amazon page. Your purchasing price will be the same, and they will give me a little something for referring you, which will help support my blog. Thanks! Or click on the Amazon.com logo below to enter Amazon and start shopping. I appreciate your support!

If you are in the UK or Canada, please use these Amazon links:

UK: my Amazon.co.uk link

Canada: my Amazon.ca link

For those interested in purchasing through B&H Photo I have set up affiliate links with them as well – find it on the left side of this page.

I recently returned from a trip to Guatemala, where I was taking photos for an NGO that works with children, literacy, and education. It gave me the perfect opportunity to try out a bunch of new equipment and really put it to the test in the field.


San Miguel Duenas, Guatemala – Canon 7D, 70-200mm f/4L IS lens at 78mm, 1600 ISO, 1/100, f/5.6

Jump to the Custom Function section

First and foremost, it was the first time I really had the opportunity to use the Canon 7D body (I discuss the additional gear in this related post). The camera performed wonderfully in many ways, however, I did have autofocus related problems – namely a serious front focus issue. With both wide angle and telephoto L-series lenses, the camera was consistently focusing several inches or more in front of the subjects. I played around briefly with the AF Microadjustments, with the intention of taking a closer look at the situation when I returned home.  (Body was later exchanged for another that focuses properly.)

I had another, odd and unexpected complaint in the field, and that is with the high speed shooting modes. One has the choice of 3fps or 8fps, yet I needed something more like 5fps! I’ve included some images throughout the post that are straight from the camera (I merely converted from RAW to JPEG). Anyway, on to the review and instructions for many of the camera’s settings, and how and when to use them in real world situations. And at the end there is some info about video tutorials available for downloading and watching.

If any of the digital photography terms you come across in this post are unfamiliar, be sure to refer to this great glossary for assistance.

Design – The camera is extremely comfortable to hold and use, especially due to the size, shape, and material of the grip, and it felt to be designed perfectly for my hands. It is nicely weighted with both a 16-35 f/2.8L II and a 70-200 f/4, and carries well with an R-Strap attached to the camera body (the 70-200 f/4 doesn’t come with a collar). Due to its similar design and button placement as previous Canon models, it was easy to get used to changing various settings on the fly – everything from ISO right up on top to Flash Control in the menus. There are a few settings that I quickly fell into, but that I would like to experiment with a little more with before I settle permanently into. Here are a few notes, in no particular order of importance:

Av Mode – I set the camera to Av mode for 99% of the time, as that is how I typically work (because I always want to control the depth of field). About the only time I took it out was when I was experimenting in an HDR type situation where I was in Manual and bracketing, trying to properly expose both a dark colonnade I was under and the cathedral in bright sunlight beyond. I haven’t yet worked on combining the exposures, but here is a nice shot that came from that situation:


Antigua, Guatemala – Canon 7D, 16-35 f/2.8L lens at 16mm, 1600 ISO, 1/500, f/16

(edit – I added the camera and lens information to these images.  Please note that the camera settings used for these various images may not necessarily be the “best” or “ideal” settings to use in the specific situations, but camera settings are always the result of changing situations and lighting, coming from another scene, going back and forth between action and still subjects, adapting, experimenting, and sometime just plain not paying attention!)

ISO – I had high hopes for Auto ISO, thinking I would finally be given the freedom to stop worrying where I left it set, but I quickly found that in Av, I didn’t like the slow shutter speeds that were resulting when I selected the aperture and the camera selected the ISO. So I ended up never using it. I would like to experiment with it some more, and figure out if there is something I can do to keep the shutter speeds in a better range. It is wonderful to have the versatility to change ISO on the fly, but one often gets caught up in shooting, and forgets to change it to an appropriate setting, and thus sometimes the shutter speed isn’t the most ideal. So, I just have to stay in the habit of paying attention to where all three settings are as I go from indoor to out or change lenses, etc. This is aided by these settings being visible in the 7D viewfinder.

High Speed Continuous Shooting – many people marvel at the 7D’s ability to shoot 8fps in High Speed Continuous Mode. However, for my purposes on this trip, that proved far too excessive. I often shoot a burst of photos when someone or something is in motion and I want to capture the peak of action or a flattering pose, or when a gesture or facial expression might change rapidly. Unfortunately, 8fps results in a lot of unwanted files, and as I will soon address, these files are HUGE and rapidly fill up a hard drive. But sadly, the Low Speed Continuous drive setting is only 3fps, which is too slow to capture the rapid changes in a scene. The 3fps speed was one of the main drawbacks of my previous body, and a major reason for upgrading. What I need is something in between, maybe 5fps! Perhaps Canon or someone will tweek the firmware to allow this…


San Miguel Duenas, GuatemalaCanon 7D, 16-35 f/2.8L lens at 35mm, 800 ISO, 1/500, f/3.5

Custom Functions – In order for you to get the most out of the 7D, and to set it to function best how you work, you need to dig into the Custom Functions. One of the settings I use is customizing My Menu, and then having My Menu always appear first when I hit the Menu button. (My Menu Settings / Display from My Menu=enable) I played around with different items on My Menu, but have settled for now on the ones that I use most often or that I may quickly need and want to access without digging into the menus. They are:

Flash Control
– you can quickly adjust all the settings for the built in flash, external flash, wireless flash. You can even control all the setting of the 580EX II remotely – when it is not attached to your camera. Very cool.
Exposure Compensation/ AEB – exposure compensation is easy to change at any time with the big dial, so this shortcut is for using when I want to bracket (AEB).
Review Time – I found that I was often shooting away without chimping (looking at the LCD), so I often just turn off the LCD review altogether. Other times, however, I want to review.
ISO Expansion – I haven’t used this yet, but I wanted it handy in case I want to use the high ISO. I typically have this turned off because I didn’t want the camera to default to High ISO during any situations. But considering I wasn’t using Auto ISO, this all seems unnecessary, and now that I realize this, I will have to replace this with something else on the menu! I never went above 1600 ISO, which I did have to use sometimes in very dark classroom settings along with the flash. Upon quick review of those images, the lack of noise in these files is really good.
Format – this is to format the memory card in preparation for use the next day. Always reformat the card, never simply erase them or use the Erase All option if your camera had that (the 7D does not). However, after formatting, turn the dial to select another menu item so that next time you hit Menu, Format isn’t still selected and you quickly make a grave mistake of pressing it.
Highlight Tone Priority (II-3) – this is a great setting to use in a high key situation, or with a bright subject or scene. It helps to retain detail in the highlights so they don’t get blown out, such as a white wedding dress, or a snow or beach scene. I never did use it, but I keep it in this menu to remind me it is there for the day when I do need it!


Chichicastenango, Guatemala – Canon 7D, 70-200mm f/4L IS lens at 155mm, 200 ISO, 1/80, f/4

Other important Custom Function Settings

(please note, this post was initially written to explain how I used these settings in a specific travel situation.  I go into more detail about each of the Custom Function settings, with clear explanations of what they are and when and why to use them, in my e-book Canon 7D Experience, which is discussed below.)

Safety Shift (I-6) – I sometimes enable this setting. It allows the camera to shift the shutter speed or aperture automatically, without your expressed permission, in order to get the shot. This is great for situations where the light suddenly and dramatically changes, such as at a concert.  However if you are carefully choosing your settings, or working with a flash, you will want to disable this so that the camera isn’t overriding your careful settings.

AI Servo Tracking Sensitivity (III-1) – This dictates how quickly focus tracking switches to another subject when it momentarily loses the initial subject, such as when another subject passes in front of it. You can choose to have it stay focused on the initial subject (Slow), or focus quickly on a new subject that moves in front of your initial subject (Fast). Typically I want to stay focused on my selected subject, and ignore someone or something that momentarily passes between us. If you want to quickly focus on different subjects at different distances, put it on fast.

AI Servo 1st/2nd (III-2) – Is your priority focusing on the subject, tracking the subject, firing off rapid shots? Look at the manual to see which situation works best for how you shoot.Personally I think 0 or 1, with the autofocus (AF) Priority, is best. (The camera makes sure it focuses first before taking the shot. It may cost you a microsecond of time however.) Regarding tracking vs. drive, I keep it at 0. Setting 0 continues to prioritize focusing possibly at the expense of speed, while setting 1 will prioritize the speed of subsequent shutter releases at the expense of focus.

AI Servo AF Tracking Method (III-3) – This works with autofocus modes where more than one AF point is active. The names of the choices are a little confusing but what they do is Setting 0 will focus on a closer subject that enters into your view, not necessarily in front of your subject. while setting 1 will remain focused on the initial subject. I keep mine on 1, since I want to stay focused on my initial subject.


San Juan del Obisbo, GuatemalaCanon 7D, 70-200mm f/4L IS lens at 200mm, 100 ISO, 1/1000, f/4

AF Focus Mode (III-6) – I enabled all the AF modes in the Custom Functions – by default, several of them are not available to you unless you change that setting. I started out using Single Point, but sometimes changed to Spot for more precision. The cost of using Spot is that it may not focus as quickly or as well when hand held or with a moving subject, and is generally not necessary unless you are trying to focus on a very small, precise area, such as through a fence to a subject beyond.  I occasionally used AF Point Expansion when photographing rapidly moving children. I don’t know how other photographers work (according to a Canon rep who gave a 7D presentation at B+H, there are big name professionals who still just focus with the center point and recompose), but I always choose the focus point I want manually, using the Multi-Controller button. This takes a little longer, now that I am dealing with 19 focus points, but that enables me to quickly get the composition I want, makes sure the camera focuses on what I want it to, and to get subsequent shots without too much reframing. There is an important menu setting so that you can use the Multi-Controller directly to change the AF point without having to press the AF thumb button first – I believe it is on the screen where you can customize all the camera’s buttons. Oh, and I changed the custom settings so that all the focus points always show, and that they light up upon achieving focus, even in bright sunlight (which they would not do if you had this setting on Auto or Disable). That way I always know when it has focused.  And I set Custom Function III-7 to stop focus point selection when I reach the edge and not loop around to the other side. I’m also thrilled that the 7D has a grid display that you can turn on in the viewfinder, which helps me keep my horizons and compositions straight. The viewfinder looks pretty busy, filled up with AF points and the grid, but when you are shooting away and focusing on your subject, you don’t even notice they are there.

Single Point Focus vs. Spot Focus Size – This controls the size of the area being looked at for focusing purposes on the 7D.  With Single Point AF Area Mode, the camera is actually looking at a cross shape area (all focus points are cross type, center point is dual diagonal as well at certain apertures) that extends about 2x as big as the actual square you see in the viewfinder. With Spot AF Area Mode, the size of the cross is about the size of the square you see, I think perhaps slightly larger.  Now you might think that using Spot AF will be more accurate all the time and sounds like a great idea and will get you sharper pictures, but this is not necessarily the case.  Since Spot AF is so precise, and since autofocus works by looking for an area of contrast, Spot AF may not focus as well or as quickly in many general situations (because it may be looking at such a precise area that is all one color or  tone).

Spot AF is for when you need a really precise “focus beam” to pinpoint, for example a bird in a tree, and not the branches and leaves surrounding it and all around it, which may be closer to you and the camera.  Or if, say, you are shooting through a chain link fence and you want the camera to focus on the animal beyond and not on the fence.  If you were to use Spot AF all the time, you would have to continue to act in a slower and more precise manner, so that you ensure you are focusing on an area of contrast or a nice line.  For example, if you capture a shot of a person, you want to focus on the eye typically.  If you do this quickly with Single Point AF, you can aim at the general area of the eye and you will likely include it in the area being looked at by the camera.  However if you grab a quick shot with Spot AF, you may  be a little off and the camera is looking at an area of cheek to focus on, which will be difficult since there isn’t much contrast there.

Orientation Linked AF Point – This setting allows you to choose your favorite AF points, and when you are hold the camera horizontally or vertically, those points are automatically selected. However, it is very complicated to set, so much so that is would seem Canon doesn’t even understand it. The Canon rep did not fully explain it properly at the B+H presentation, the instructions in the manual do not work, and after 3 different instructions by email from Canon, I may finally have the correct way. I still have to try their latest directions. (note- nope, latest instructions still don’t work properly) **12/17/2009** AHA!! Here it is, finally explained in its entirety.

I also changed the button/ dial function settings so that in Manual mode, the big dial controls shutter speed and the top dial controls aperture. The default is the opposite. I changed this because I almost always shoot in Av mode, where the top dial controls aperture, so when I switch to Manual mode, I want that to remain the same.

Additional edit – August 2011:
I have written a popular e-book user’s guide for the Canon 7D
called Canon 7D Experience. It not only explains all of the features, functions, and controls of this powerful, sophisticated, and highly customizable camera, but also when and why to use them in your photography – including EVERY Menu item and Custom Function setting, with explanations and recommended settings for real-life use.  You can learn more about the guide, preview it, and purchase it here.

 

AF Microadjustments – This is a setting on the 7D which enables you to tweak the auto-focusing to your different lenses. A site about AF micro adjustments that look to be helpful is below:

http://www.northlight-images.co.uk/article_pages/cameras/1ds3_af_micoadjustment.html#Anchor-Canon-49575

Here is a micro-adjustment focus test chart you can use.

Viewfinder – The viewfinder on the 7D is big and bright and wonderful. It is nearly 100% view of the image you will capture. The aperture and shutter speed info is of course displayed below, along with the current ISO setting, which one should get in the habit of glancing at often. See the AF Focus Mode category above for more info on what you can view in the viewfinder to assist with focusing and composition.

Picture Style – I had this on Standard, since I shoot in RAW and intend to post-process, however, I would like to do a comparison of the styles to see which one best matches my visual preferences – although the Picture Styles will only affect JPEGs and, it is important to know, the image you see on your rear LCD screen when shooting RAW.


Jalapa, GuatemalaCanon 7D, 16-35 f/2.8L lens at 35mm, 800 ISO, 1/2000, f/8

File Size – I shot RAW for almost the entire trip, and quickly discovered that these files are HUGE. The files range from about 21MB to around 31MB each. I used SanDisk Extreme III 16GB cards, which worked great, and one card often lasted much of the day. I have no good reason for using SanDisk over Lexar, other than the fact that the Lexar people haven’t approached me about sponsorship… :) The Extreme III cards have been replaced by the new Extreme and Extreme Pro cards, and are thus the old ones are much cheaper at the moment, especially with current rebates. At 30MB/s, they were fast enough for the types of shooting and short bursts I was doing. However, downloading them to my computer and external HD were pretty slow using the SanDisk ImageMate CF card reader. Eventually I’m going to have to spring for a card reader that goes right into the PC slot. I used Adobe Bridge to simultaneously save the day’s files to 2 external hard drives. The 160GB Iomega Ego filled up before the trip was over, but fortunately I also had a Lacie 500GB. I am dreading the number of external hard drives I am going to have to buy for travel and for home storage, but once you go RAW, it’s hard to go back to shooting just JPEG. I’m going to have to look into the Drobo system that many rave about.

Battery Life – The battery life of the 7D is excellent. When you get new batteries, first charge them all the way. Do not recharge until they are completely drained. Do this one or two cycles. I know they say you no longer have to do this, but some claim that seasoning the batteries like this will maximize their charge life. Anyway, one battery lasted well into 2 days of shooting, maybe longer, I didn’t keep track. They just keep going, even with heavy use, chimping (LCD reviewing), frequent use of an external Speedlite flash, and use of image stabilization (IS) on the 70-200 lens. I carried 3 batteries, but probably could have gotten away with 2. The spring-loaded battery door that pops right open for quick battery changes is a nice touch.


Antigua, Guatemala – Canon 7D, 70-200mm f/4L IS lens at 78mm, 100 ISO, 1/250, f/4

Automatic Sensor Cleaning – Like most good dSLRs these days, the 7D automatically cleans the sensor at start up and shut down. Since the dust that is shaken off is collected on a tiny sticky strip at the base of the sensor, it seems to me that you should hold the camera straight as this happens. I’m not sure if this is actually true, but I think I read in the manual that it even says to place the camera flat on a table as you use this, so I have gotten in the habit of holding it straight and still as I turn it off and on. Yeah! No more having to clean the sensor manually with a Rocket Blower!

Video – I did not have a chance to even experiment with the HD video on the 7D yet…so much to learn, so little time…

The next post will review all the other gear I used on the trip – the camera backpack, R-strap, accessories, etc. – and perhaps some of the other lessons learned. Read it here.

Purchasing: If you plan to buy the Canon 7D or any other camera or equipment from Amazon.com, I would appreciate it if you use my referral link by clicking on the text or logo below. Your price will be the same, and they will give me a little something for referring you, which will help support this blog. Thanks!


See and buy the Canon 7D on Amazon

And due to popular request, if you are in the UK, here is my referral link to Amazon UK.

And for those wishing to purchase from B&H Photo, Adorama, or directly from Canon just click their logos on the left side of the page.


Jalapa, GuatemalaCanon 7D, 70-200mm f/4L IS lens at 200mm, 200 ISO, 1/1600, f/4

Again, be sure to check out my e-book user’s guide for the Canon 7D called Canon 7D Experience. It not only explains all the features, functions, and controls of this powerful, sophisticated, and highly customizable camera, but also when and why to use them in your photography. You can learn more about the guide, preview it, and purchase it here.

I’ve run across a nice set of video tutorials (link below) for using the Canon 7D. You can watch them online, or even download them to your camera for viewing. The one on AF Custom Fuctions is especially helpful at clarifying those setting. Be sure to look around on the Canon Digital Learning Center to find all kinds of other cool stuff about using your camera plus useful tips and instructions from pros who use them.

link to Canon 7D Video Tutorials

The distinctive voice you hear in the 7D tutorial videos is Canon guru Rudy Winston, and the photo samples are his images as well. If you are in NYC, you can often find him leading workshops and presentations at places like B+H and Adorama. I went to a wonderfully informative introduction to the 7D that he gave a B+H a month or 2 ago, and these videos are pretty much the same presentation.

Here is additional information from Canon Europe about custom functions of the 7D:

http://cpn.canon-europe.com/content/education/technical/custom_functions_eos_1d_mark_iv_and_eos_7d.do