- 1. Canon EOS 50D
- 2. Up-close and personal with the 50D
- 3. First impressions
- 4. Not shaken or stirred: Image Stabilized
- 5. In to the darkness
- 6. Dreams of flight photography
- 7. Low light and lower ceilings
- 8. End of the road
- 9. Back home; final thoughts
Canon EOS 50D
I'd been looking for an excuse to get my hands on the Canon EOS 50D ever since its launch, when I only got a limited amount of time to play with it. Emily and I were planning a couple of days camping in the Peak District, which seemed the perfect opportunity to stretch the 50Ds legs, so when a delivery of 50Ds arrived the day before we went, the plan came together. The delivery included some of the 18-200mm lens kits and as this lens was launched at the same time as the 50D, it seemed to make sense to give it a run for its money too. A couple of 4GB WexPro Compact Flash cards were liberated from the showroom for storage purposes and the bundle was ready to go.
One of the aspects of the 50D I was desperate to try was its improved low light/high ISO performance. Aside from the fact that the British weather in autumn was bound to be gloomy at best, the area of the Peak District we were heading for is littered with low-light photography opportunities; the hills around Castleton in the Hope Valley are riddled with caves and caverns. Emily and I are cave connoisseurs and reasonably proficient with a camera (well, I am; Emily's learning) so we couldn't wait to put the 50D through its paces in a subterranean environment.
Up-close and personal with the 50D
As with all cameras I intend to use, I sat down and examined the box contents and the settings of the camera; the first to make sure I've got everything I should have and the second to make sure that the camera will do everything it should do. The instruction manual is to be consulted only as a last resort.
I intended to shoot in RAW with an accompanying large jpeg. This meant that each 4GB memory card would hold approximately 130 images; I would need to be economic with the space, but I wanted to get the best from the 50D so RAW would be essential. The menus on the 50D are nothing to write home about, but that is a good thing. I don't want menus to dazzle me with their brilliance, I want them to be simple, intuitive and follow a standard layout. The Canon 50D ticks all these boxes as far as I'm concerned.
It's worth pointing out at this stage that I am not a Canon user as such. Indeed, it would be inaccurate to describe myself as any particular brand user. I simply use what I can, when I can, because I can. Anybody who regularly drives two different cars with the indicator and windscreen-wiper stalks on opposite sides in each will appreciate the difficulties in becoming familiar with one set of controls, only to have them turned on their head in a different model. In camera terms, I have often turned the wipers on when I really wanted to indicate left. However, so far the Canon 50D wasn't throwing up any surprises. The menu functions were where I expected them to be, with the exact options dependent on which mode the camera was set to.
One important factor to note is the ISO options. Set to Auto, the camera will select an ISO between 100 and 1600 depending on the light levels, shutter-speed and aperture settings. Manually selecting an ISO gives you a slightly greater range, from 100 to 3200. However, to utilise the 50D's higher ISO options of 6400 or 12800, you must select the H1 or H2 sensitivity settings respectively. I opted to let the camera do the majority of the thinking by setting the ISO to Auto, but made a mental note of the other options as I knew I would need them in the bowels of the Peak District caverns.
The Canon EF-S 18-200mm f3.5-5.6 IS lens (snappy name) is a new venture from Canon and plugs a gap in their lens range that was previously only filled by independent manufacturers. The lens feels solid and weighty enough that you get the impression of a quality lens when handling it, and when fitted on the EOS 50D the balance is spot on. The lens of course also features one of Canon's Superb Image Stabilisation systems. I say "one of" because Canon have around 20 different IS lenses, and at the launch of this lens, Canon were keen to point out that each Image Stabiliser is specifically designed for the lens it is housed in. This way, the stabilising effect is matched to the size, weight and range of the lens, giving it the advantage over in-camera based stabilising systems.
The 18-200mm Canon lens has just the two Image Stabiliser options; 'On' or 'Off'. As everything I intended to do with the lens/camera combination would be hand held, I switched it 'On'. With the camera set up and the controls, menus and options familiarised, I packed the 50D with 18-200mm IS lens attached and WexPro 4GB CF card loaded into my trusty Lowepro Reporter 100AW, along with the additional memory card.
As I said, the plan was to camp; the thought of me and Emily snuggled up in a two-person tent seemed quite romantic. Emily, however, is not a natural camper. On the morning of departure it was grey, damp and raining, and Emily made her views on the prospect of camping clear. It quickly became apparent that it would be far from a romantic break and more like an endurance test. Time for Plan B which, less than an hour from our destination, we still didn't have. A quick call to a Wex Photographic colleague and a frantic search of the internet later, Emily received a text with a list of four B&B's in the Castleton area. What did we do before modern technology? Miraculously, all four had an available room, so, after much deliberation, we chose the cheapest. Boy, did we get lucky. With Ye Olde Nags Head Inn in Castleton we discovered an absolute gem. A 17th century coaching inn awash with character, with the added bonus of real ale on tap. The room was gorgeous and the view... wow. But why do I need to tell you this? I had the Canon EOS 50D with me so I can SHOW you.
At this point, the 50D was set to Program mode with Auto ISO. Put simply, the camera was deciding which shutter-speed, aperture and ISO to use depending on the light. To be fair, it did a pretty good job. A higher f/stop in the first image would have made the distant parts of the scene appear sharper, and a slightly lower ISO in the second would have given marginally less noise, but any automatic exposure mode usually involves an element of compromise. That said the noise levels in the interior photograph are by no means excessive, backing up Canon's claim to have made dramatic improvements in this area.
Not shaken or stirred: Image Stabilised
As well as being ideal fodder for the widest end of the 18-200mm IS lens, the view from our room also presented an excellent opportunity to test the 200mm telephoto end and the Image Stabiliser. Situated high on a hill overlooking the village of Castleton, and therefore Ye Olde Nags Head Inn and our room, is Peveril Castle. Flicking the lens all the way round to 200mm and making sure the Image Stabiliser was 'On', I leant on the door frame for support and focused on the castle keep. I had set the ISO to 100 and as a result the slightly gloomy lighting required a slower shutter-speed than I might otherwise have desired. However, Canon advise that the Image Stabiliser in the 18-200mm lens offers approximately two f/stops compensation, and the results seem to back this up. The Image Stabilising advantage became even more apparent when compared to the same shot with IS turned off. The blur caused by camera shake is evident.
200mm, ISO 100, 1/40 second, f/5.6
200mm, ISO 100, 1/40 second, f/5.6
That afternoon, Emily and I made the journey up the hill to Peveril Castle. The site is maintained by English Heritage and on the steep climb there are signs advising you to "Keep to the Path". Whilst this is sound advice, the sign itself is unnecessary as to do anything but "Keep to the Path" would be virtually suicidal. The slopes on which Peveril Castle was built kept hardened soldiers in the peak of physical fitness at bay. A slightly overweight photographer who drives a desk all week and his handbag laden girlfriend were never likely to pose much of a threat. As it was, by the time we reached the summit we were both exhausted and the benches situated at various points offered more than just a pleasant view.
As we sat on a bench overlooking Castleton, catching our breath and eating our lunch, we tried to find our bedroom window amongst the sprawling buildings. I took a photograph with the lens at 18mm, more or less encompassing the whole village. We then reviewed the image on the 50D's 3" LCD screen, zoomed in and hunted for the church with Ye Olde Nags Head Inn just behind it. Sure enough, there was our balcony.
Once we'd got our bearings, I flipped the lens round to 200mm, located our room again and fired the shutter. The clarity of the result surprised me; a combination of the quality optics in the 18-200mm lens and the sensor in the 50D. By reviewing and enlarging this telephoto image on the screen of the Canon it was just about possible to make out the bedside table in our room!
ISO 100, 1/100 second, f/6.3
ISO 200, 1/250 second, f/5.6
On the way back down the hill I spied a bi-plane over Mam Tor in the distance. However, even at full zoom, the plane was just a speck in the viewfinder. Nonetheless, I fired off a couple of photographs as the central auto-focus point tracked the plane across the sky. Later whilst reviewing the images I'd taken, I found the little aeroplane against the grey sky and wondered how much detail had actually been captured. Enlarging the image on the screen revealed a surprising amount. Bearing in mind the overcast sky and hazy lighting, combined with the distance of the plane and the lens being at maximum zoom, the recorded image was pretty darn detailed.
(200mm, ISO 100, 1/400 second, f/7.1)
The combination of the Canon 50D and 18-200mm IS lens was doing everything I wanted it to do, and doing it well. I have to confess, I was a little cynical about the 18-200mm lens at first, being of the opinion that one lens doing the job of two will be a compromise, with the compromise being greater portability for less image quality. So far, the 18-200mm was refuting this myth.
Into the darkness
There are four caverns in Castleton alone, but we had limited time so a discounted ticket for The Devil's Arse and Speedwell Cavern combined with the fact that they were within walking distance meant that we opted for those two. The Devil's Arse (known more politely as Peak Cavern) is so called due to the sounds it emits when, during times of flood, the subterranean river far below ground rushes up through the cave system and forces air out via the caverns narrow passages.
The entrance to the cavern is the largest natural cave entrance in the British Isles and is almost directly underneath Peveril Castle. As such, the first part of the cave system is reasonably well illuminated. Bright enough that this area was used by rope makers for 400 years, the damp atmosphere being ideal for rope-making. Even so, the EOS 50D selected a relatively high ISO 1600 in Auto mode.
Well, no complaints at this ISO, and the Image Stabilising certainly helped with a shutter speed of 1/25th second. But as our guide explained, it would be getting darker further in.
He was right. It did get darker, a lot darker. What he failed to mention however, was that it also got significantly lower. Hardhats were not provided, but would have been greatly appreciated, and anyone with back-problems would most likely have found themselves wedged halfway along. Indeed, this may have actually occurred in the past as a particularly low part of the cavern is known as Lumbago Walk.
The next stop was a small underground pond, home to some tiny, blind, shrimp-like creatures. Some of the tour members claimed to see them, while others, myself included, strained our eyes but saw only water and rocks. Hardly surprising really; although gently illuminated by tungsten lamps, it was still very dark. I had by this point switched the camera from Auto ISO to the H2 setting, an equivalent of ISO 12800, and I needed all of this to get the shot.
I will briefly tell you about our guide as he was clearly nuts. Whether always like this or whether endless days of wandering about in a cavern led to it, I do not know. He told us about rock formations, famous visitors, a band of outlaws that lived in the cave, and the fun he had rolling polystyrene boulders at tourists as they came up out of the cave.
"I was told t' stop it because I was giving 'em 'eart attacks, an' one or two o' them I prob'ly did."
The polystyrene boulders were left there by the crew filming scenes for The Chronicles of Narnia, who had decided that the inside of the cave didn't look enough like the inside of a cave, so brought their own rocks.
"I don't know what they were expectin'. 'Tis a bloody cave!"
He also told us how the Most Haunted team had been in ghost hunting.
"This fella were goin' 'I can feel a presence, I can feel a presence!' I said 'It's me y' fool!" Bunch of prats."
To be fair, he was very, very entertaining and I would recommend this tour to anyone visiting the area, but I got the impression that were the entire tour group to turn round and leave, our guide would carry on his journey and oratory regardless, and probably does so every hour, on the hour, whether there are visitors to hear him or not.
Recently there had been a concert playing in one of the larger caverns which had been entirely illuminated by candlelight. I rattled off a couple of shots to see just how dark a scene the 50D could handle. I say "rattled off", but even at ISO 12800 it required a shutter speed of 1/3rd second at f/3.5, and the resulting images weren't great. It was just too dark!
However, in most places the caves are illuminated a little more brightly and in these areas the 50D did much better. The deepest part of the tour ended up, rather bizarrely, at the top of a slide. It was put there for Tom Baker to slide down while filming The Silver Chair for the BBC, but now is out of bounds to all apart from the occasional caver heading for the river Styx deep underground.
Once again, the light was virtually non existent, but this time the small amount of light being thrown out by a single halogen lamp was enough for the 50D to create an image. Sure, there's some noise in the shadows, but hey, this is ISO 12800 and you can actually see more in this photograph than you could with the naked eye! Although the camera was resting on a the wooden barrier there is a little blur from camera shake, but the Image Stabilisation has done a respectable job.
The cave system floods on a regular basis and water filters through the roof of the cavern, so the floor of the cave is awash with pattern and texture. As we headed back towards the cavern entrance, the light levels increased enough to reduce the ISO to a more reasonable, yet still fast, 1600. A combination of this and the supremely effective IS on the lens meant I was able to handhold the camera and photograph these patterns in the dull light.
Dreams of flight photography
Soon we were back out into the sunlight, rubbing our eyes and loosening our coats. We weren't the only ones getting the benefit of the warmth; circling in the thermals above the hills around Castleton were several paragliders and a lone hang glider. While the ravens of Peveril Castle looked on with marked disinterest, I pointed the 18-200mm lens toward the distant gliders and zoomed in.
As we walked from Castleton towards Wynnets Pass and the entrance to Speedwell Cavern, I made regular stops to photograph these men defying nature high above us. The entrance was more or less directly under the aerial activity, so before once more descending into the darkened depths of Derbyshire I turned the EOS 50D skywards and tracked the gliders through the air.
The auto-focus was set to AI Servo and tracked the high-flyers with no difficulty whatsoever and the level of detail captured is impressive. Granted, "Bird In Flight" photography it is not, but I firmly believe the combination of the Canon EOS 50D camera and 18-200mm IS lens would have coped equally well had the luminous green hang glider been a soaring buzzard.
Low light and lower ceilings
The descent to the man made tunnels of the Speedwell Cavern system involves 105 steep and ever-so-slightly slippery steps. The steps are also just a little bit narrower than is comfortable. Combine that with having to stoop most of the way down due to the low ceiling and 105 steps feels like a lot more. On the plus side, once you reach the bottom you do get to sit down for a bit as the journey 200m under the surface involves a boat ride through the narrowest of tunnels.
There was really very little in the tunnel to take photos of, but I took a few shots with the 50D just to see how it fared. Once again I was amazed by its ability to record details that couldn't be picked out with the naked eye. The images do suffer from noise, but this is hardly surprising. It's difficult to show just how dark it was as the camera picks up so much, but I would never have achieved these pictures with any camera I had used previously.
Working for Wex Photographic, it's easy to become complacent towards the performance of new cameras. We've recently seen a few new models that have drastically improved their low light/high ISO performance and perhaps we're already starting to take this for granted. However, many people are unaware of the rapid progression of technology until they come across it in action and realise that it is now possible to do something they didn't think could be done.
At the end of the tunnel you disembark from the boat and enter the cavern itself, a cathedral-like limestone cave with a towering roof above and a bottomless pit below, an underground lake of enormous depths. High above in the sloping roof were a small group of stalactites. Despite bearing a close resemblance to a cow's udders, they are the result of thousands of years of calcium deposits left by water filtering through the limestone roof of the cave. Like many people before me had done, I pointed the camera and lens towards the ancient formation and started taking pictures. Some were better than others as the roof area wasn't brightly illuminated and I was hand holding the camera at relatively slow shutter speeds, so I persevered, quietly taking shots while Paul the guide told the group about the cavern we were in.
The bottomless pit is actually an extremely deep and flooded vertical shaft. The original depth of the shaft has been estimated to be around 150m, but is now only about 35m deep due to the huge volume of rock dumped in it by miners excavating the shafts, and at the end of the last millennium a link was discovered between this cavern and Titan, which is the largest natural cave in the UK and I've just seen one of the best pictures of those stalactites ever taken.
Click. Click. Click.
"Ben!" Emily nudged me. "Paul's trying to look at those pictures you're taking."
"Oh. Sorry. There you go." I turned the camera round to show Paul one of the photographs of the stalactites I'd just taken.
"That is definitely one of best photos of those I've seen. They're usually so dark and blurred."
Now, I'm not pretending to be a great photographer, or that this is a great photograph, but on the Saturday I was in this cavern, the Canon 50D had only arrived at Wex Photographic the day before. Given how new this camera was at the time and that there are so few other cameras capable of this kind of performance, the odds of one having appeared in this cavern previously are very, very low. As a result, the first time that Paul would have seen a Speedwell Cavern visitor enter the main chamber, point their camera towards the gloomy heights of the cavern roof, press the shutter to take a photograph, and instantly have a clear, bright, sharp, detailed image of the small group of stalactites appear on a 3" screen on the back of the camera would've been when I was there on that Saturday.
If the journey down the stairs had felt like hard work, coming back was a feat worthy of sponsorship. Half way up, with the summit still a long way ahead, I turned around to see how far we had come. I discovered that I was obviously the slowest member of the tour group as there was nobody else behind me. On the plus side, it made for yet another underground photo opportunity.
You may recall that at the very beginning of this review I made brief mention of the fact that I would be shooting in RAW. The photo I took looking back down the stairs towards Speedwell Cavern is an excellent example of why this was a good idea. The illumination in the stairway was all high-powered tungsten lighting and as a result the whole area was bathed in an unnatural looking orange glow. Captured on the 50D and viewed back on the screen, this colour-cast seemed even more exaggerated. However, after putting the image through Canon's Digital Photo Professional software that comes with the EOS 50D, the image was converted to a much more accurate and natural looking tone.
(200mm, ISO 100, 1/400 second, f/7.1)
By the time we reached the top and emerged back in to the daylight Emily and I were absolutely cream-crackered. I was looking around for the lady with a Mars bar, energy drink and foil blanket, but the woman behind the gift shop counter didn't appear to offer such a service and Emily said it would be rude to ask.
End of the road
Before long it was time to leave Castleton, but not before we made a short detour via Wynnets Pass to the foot of Mam Tor to see where the A625 lost its battle against the combined forces of The Shivering Mountain and gravity.
18mm, ISO 100, 1/125 second, f/7.1
18mm, ISO 100, 1/160 second, f/8
One of the final photographs I took before leaving really emphasised the improved low light performance of this new breed of digital SLRs. We spied a small shop that reminded me of Auntie Wainwright's Emporium in Last of the Summer Wine. The small shop was crammed, quite literally to the rafters, with all sorts of what can only be described as "stuff".
This was shot at ISO 1600, an ability we now take for granted in digital SLR cameras. But I grew up on film and cut my photographic teeth shooting live music events on ISO 1600 film. What I wouldn't have given back then for these kinds of results! The grain that would have been all too obvious on film is virtually non existent on the 50D. Even in the darker, shadow areas of the image there's virtually no noise. If you have any old images tucked away that were shot on ISO 1600 film, get them out and remind yourself just what we used to put up with and how far things have come.
Back home; final thoughts
My family hate me going away on these trips because they know they'll be forced to watch a slide show of the images I've taken. The HDMI output of the Canon EOS 50D gave me the perfect excuse to use Ma and Pa's new HDTV to playback my images in all their digital glory.
The only people who seem to look forward to these presentations are my kids, particularly Niamh who, at seven years old, is taking a real interest in taking pictures and, being seven years old, asks a lot of questions. Reuben on the other hand is only four and just liked the fact that the Canon EOS 50D sounded like a machine gun with the high speed continuous drive turned on. Niamh, however, wanted to know what all that rattling actually did, so we went outside, Niamh climbed on to her swing and I let the 50D do its thing.
It's a difficult subject, moving directly towards and away from the camera at a varying speed, and in hindsight I should have used a faster shutter speed and a higher ISO, but there are enough 'spot on' images in this sequence to convince me that the 50D combined with 18-200mm lens would be up to the job of photographing most fast moving subjects.
So, all in all, what do I make of this particular package? Put quite simply, I'd buy it tomorrow. As it happens, I can borrow it whenever I want so don't need to, but if I didn't have that luxury, I would be saving my pennies or writing to Santa.
The 50D is not alone in its low light/high ISO performance, but it is Canon's first SLR to offer it all at this level. As always, 30D and 40D users will be wondering if it's worth upgrading, and in my opinion the performance of the 50D would certainly justify it. However, we live in a digital world where upgrades and improvements are always just around the corner, so the decision to part with hard earned cash is always a big one, particularly in these times. But if you are in the market for a digital SLR at around this budget, I have no issues recommending this camera, and if the same budget only allows you one lens, if at all possible make the 18-200mm IS lens your choice. It's cracking. But if that isn't enough and you still need convincing, give Wex Photographic a call, ask to speak to me, and I'll happily sing the Canon EOS 50D's praises down the phone to you.
X Factor, here I come.