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Canon Explorer David Noton was the first landscape photographer in the world to get the opportunity to work with the 50.6 Megapixel EOS 5DS DSLR and he promptly jumped on a plane to South Africa to photograph the stunning western Cape region and discover exactly what the camera was capable of. In an exclusive CPN interview and film he reveals his first impressions of working with a camera that combines easy portability and intuitive handling with high-resolution image quality never before seen in a DSLR...
Having been given the privilege of trying out the ultra high-resolution camera, David admits: “I was intrigued and I had an open mind. For three years I’ve been using the 5DS’s stablemate, the 5D Mark III, and I’ve become very familiar with the capabilities of that camera. Now there was an opportunity to see what this huge sensor – not in physical size, but in terms of pixel count – was capable of. Out ‘in-the-field’ in South Africa, on the clifftops and in the mountains, there was very little difference to how I work with the 5D Mark III, compared to the 5DS. There was real continuity [in handling] there, which was quite reassuring.”
David chose to shoot in South Africa because of its epic landscapes, superb natural light and the need to avoid jetlag on an extremely tight shooting schedule. He explains: “I went with my full armoury of lenses: from a super-wide-angle 14mm through to my two Canon tilt-shift lenses (the 17mm and 24mm), the 24-70mm mid-range zoom, the 70-200mm and the new 100-400mm IS Mark II lens; I used all of them. I particularly like using tilt and shift lenses. I can use the perspective control to keep strong verticals in the frame, absolutely parallel with the side of the frame, and I use the tilt function to get optimum depth-of-field. That really is a useful asset to be working with, in tandem with the new camera, because to extract the maximum [image] quality, the technique has to be absolutely spot-on. And the lens needs to be performing at its optimum. These two tilt and shift lenses, particularly, are incredibly sharp.”
The first shoot of the trip was on Bloubergstrand to shoot the iconic ‘across-the-bay’ shot of Table Mountain with the city of Cape Town below (you can see one of the shoot’s results in the image shown on the left). David reveals: “This was one location I knew of, from a previous visit, so it seemed a good one to start with. It’s using the motion from the water and the lovely rocks in the foreground. I like the way that the shape of these rocks mirrors the shape of Table Mountain beyond and the cloud in the sky is all part of the drama there. I’m leaning heavily on the dynamic range of the camera here, exposing the image to make sure that I’m recording everything. I’m retaining some kind of detail here, in the darkness of the rocks. They look black but there is detail there – when you zoom in, you can tell – and yet it still hangs on to the brightest tones in the sky. I think the dynamic range of the EOS 5DS is similar to the 5D Mark III.”
Like all photographers David has his own ways of working – he shoots RAW, usually with neutral Picture Styles, and adds: “I’m a great fan of Aperture-priority metering, and I’ll use Evaluative metering, which I find virtually failsafe, in terms of enabling me to achieve the perfect exposure. Using plus or minus exposure compensation to optimise exposure, in tandem with looking at the image’s histogram display – brightness histogram and the highlights alert – enables me to ensure, with every frame, that I’m recording the optimum amount of tonal and colour information.”
David began using the EOS System in 2005 and of the 5DS he says: “I think it’s an evolution. If I look back on the very first EOS DSLR that I started using – the 1Ds Mark II; if you compare this camera to that, you can see this ‘step-by-step’ progress, which has ended up with a camera, in terms of controls and display, that is far, far superior. I have to say that the monitor on the back of this camera is beautiful; it’s big, [and] gives this really luscious bright image of what I’m shooting. That is sort of instant gratification that every photographer, if they’re honest, enjoys. It enhances the moment of being there at the time, seeing that glowing image on the back of the camera. That’s really quite rewarding to see. I think that’s something Canon really has over its rivals – the quality of the display on the monitor.”
He adds: “On top of that, we’ve also got all other information you need in various other displays, particularly the brightness histogram, the RGB histogram, the highlight alert – all of those things are aids to help us obtain the optimum exposure. And, of course, we can zoom in on Live View to just check our focus point and our depth-of-field. That’s really crucial with this camera because, to really extract the optimum quality, we need to be so, so careful about these considerations – depth-of-field and focus, in particular.”
David is also keen on the EOS 5DS’s 100% viewfinder: “It’s a little thing, but it really makes a difference to me… I like the fact that when I look in the eyepiece [viewfinder] of the camera, I’m seeing 100% of the image area. What you see is what you get. Sometimes I’ll use the eyepiece; sometimes I’ll use Live View to compose my pictures. Most of the time I use both, because I think using the eyepiece you can really look in to every nook and cranny of the shot and see it within the whole. Then looking at the same composition, with Live View, you’re seeing a two dimensional representation, which is often very beneficial, when you’re piecing together compositions… to stand back and look with an analytical eye at the Live View display and make decisions about how all the shapes within the frame inter-relate.”
Aside from the obvious benefits of shooting high-resolution images, one of the big advantages of the EOS 5DS is its ease-of-use… as David recalls: “In the past, all we photographers have had to make an informed decision about ultimate quality versus the portability of our systems. Landscape photographers have to be able to move over the landscape – the more flexible and the more mobile I am, the better the pictures will be. I’ve always made my decisions based around the fact that it’s the picture that matters – that’s the only thing. I’ve shied away from using large format cameras, purely because they are so inflexible… so bulky, so slow and so inflexible. I’ve used medium format. But now, the quality that this 5DS is producing is comparable to what I would associate not with medium format, but with large format photography. That [quality], allied with the full range of Canon EF lenses, gives a photographer incredible flexibility… and we’re talking about a camera here that is a DSLR. On its own, the body is relatively portable and small, and I can walk over the hills and far away with it on my back, easily, carrying as many lenses, within limits of course, as I like. So that flexibility is a real liberation.”
He explains: “I think if you marry up this incredible quality with the portability of a body that is similar to the 5D Mark III – a portable DSLR body – and ally that with the complete range of the lenses available in the Canon system, then we’ve got this real ‘nirvana’, where we have the ability to create quality only previously available with large format photography. And yet [you] still have this flexibility and portability – that really is something that changes everything. It will change the way that I think about my work and the way I approach it.”
David didn’t want to spend the whole shoot taking coastal images, so he went into the Hottentots Holland Mountains. He explains: “We got up there and I looked around and thought ‘Well, it’s an interesting place, but I’m not seeing anything… no one shot is jumping out at me’. But it’s often the way, just give yourself time… just settle into a shoot, settle into a location, use your eyes, let the picture come to you. As the sun started dipping down behind the mountains, I loved the way this shaft of light was sliding down the side of the mountain. We’ve got this wonderful light and shade, and the receding planes of the mountains there. So one picture, from one long journey up into the mountains, is fine by me. With all of my photography, it’s always about quality over quantity and I think this camera is made for that kind of approach.”
David did notice one consequence of shooting large image files with the 5DS: “When I shoot a picture, the read time to the memory is slower than I’ve been used to, because it’s such a huge image. We’re talking [about] an image that’s 50 Megapixels, so that’s over twice the size of the 5D Mark III [images]. That image, when it’s converted into a 16-bit tiff, ends up as something like a 250Mb image. That’s absolutely huge. If you were thinking of using this camera for sports it’s never going to have that speed that the 1D X has. But we’re talking about a camera here that’s really biased towards obtaining that optimum single image. This camera is much more a tool for putting on a tripod and going for the absolute optimum quality.”
David reveals: “The first thing you notice, as soon as you zoom in [to the pictures], is the level of detail there is absolutely incredible… absolutely phenomenal. If I enlarge one of the images I can be looking at a tiny section of that image, and yet it’s absolutely razor-sharp. The more you enlarge the picture, the more you see that level of detail. I was quite surprised because, when I printed one of these pictures out, just at a relatively modest print size of A3+, even at that size the difference in terms of the quality and clarity of the image was really quite apparent.”
He admits: “When I heard about this camera from Canon, I did question just how many pixels we need. I have to say, I was sceptical. Do we really need 50 Megapixels? At the end of the day, a camera is only as good as the glass in front of it. I thought this super high-resolution sensor was overkill. But the proof is in the pudding and when you look at these images up big there’s really no arguing with that [quality].”
The EOS 5DS kept performing throughout the shoot as David recalls: “This shot (shown left), looking down on Hout Bay, was the last shoot of the trip. It’s the late afternoon light, just sliding in here, cross-lighting the scene. You’ve got this beautiful texture and detail in the rocks, the colour here, and I’ve used the 17mm tilt and shift lens and got amazing detail. As I was making this shot, just at the decisive moment when the light was at its best, we had this bird on the rock, which came along and perched in the perfect place. This illustrates something that I say all the time – if you put yourself in the right place at the right time enough, good things will happen.”
He adds: “The tool, the camera, when you become familiar with it, becomes something in your hand that you don’t even think about using… it becomes part of you. I’m just at the start of that process with this new camera, so I’m looking forward to getting to know its strengths and its capabilities. But straightaway, right from the word go, on the shoot in South Africa, I was able to use it productively.”
With such high-resolution images being produced by the camera the key to appreciating the image quality came not out ‘in-the-field’, but later on… as David reveals: “My ‘Road to Damascus’ moment came when I was back in my office, in Dorset, processing the images. As I was shooting in South Africa I’d backed them up onto my laptop every day and had a quick look at the results. But it wasn’t really until I came to edit the pictures on my big screen, back at base, and started really looking into the RAW images that I really realised what quality was there... and that was quite an eye-opener.”
He adds: “These days, 90% of the time we’re looking at images on screens, whether it’s on computer screens, a [mobile] phone or whatever, often quite small images. But there’s something really satisfying about producing a picture, knowing that it can be enlarged up to absolute billboard size, and still retaining this incredible optimum quality.”
David concludes: “Photography is an art but a craft too. There’s such satisfaction to be gained, from producing something that is the best… that you know is the best you can possibly make. My enjoyment of the whole process – from planning the shoot, going there, standing beside the tripod waiting for the light, hour after hour, the moment when I finally press the shutter release, through to the moment when I come back and process the image, and then finally – it’s always the consummation of the whole experience – when we make that big, beautiful print. That’s really what photography is all about, for me, and I love every step in that process. Being able to look at an image now, at this kind of size, with the kind of quality produced by the EOS 5DS, will only help to enhance that whole satisfaction.”
© Ben Pipe
Born in England, David Noton is an award-winning landscape and travel photographer. After setting up his photography business, in 1985, his career developed within the landscape and travel arenas and he won awards in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in 1985, 1989 and 1990. Over the years he has travelled extensively to almost every part of the world, exploring deserts, rainforests, mountains, islands and ice caps. In 2008 his first book ‘Waiting for the Light’ was launched to critical acclaim and in 2010 his book ‘Full Frame’ was published alongside his second film ‘Photography in the RAW’. His pictures are published all over the world and he writes for a broad range of media, including photographic magazines and websites. He became a Canon Explorer in July 2012.