How You See It

Binoculars, blue skies and winter projects

Binoculars: Finding The Subject

For more than 20 years, I’ve had a constant companion: a pair of Canon image-stabilized (IS) binoculars. They have accompanied me on every photographic excursion, from Alaska to Patagonia, Hawaii to the African continent. When I’m driving, they rest on the floor of my truck, right behind the driver’s seat, always ready for duty. At home, they have a place near the “picture” windows, standing by to help us check out a new critter running through the yard, identify a bird or to watch wildlife behavior up close and personal. I got my binoculars, Canon’s 15x45 IS model, immediately after Canon introduced the IS binocular concept in the mid-1990s. They’ve got a lot of miles on them, but they still work as if new, as long as the two AA batteries that run the IS are replaced occasionally.

Kathy has a pair of her own Canon image-stabilized binoculars, the 12x36 IS model that’s a bit smaller and easier to handle. She got them 21 years ago, and they were a real boon to her late husband, Bobby Vincent, who had essential tremor. Bobby loved the outdoors and nature photography, and the stabilization technology incorporated into both the binoculars and his Canon camera lenses made it possible for him to see, and to continue to photograph, in ways that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. Many sets of AA batteries later, the binoculars and their IS still work great.

Recently, Canon introduced three new models of binoculars that boast a number of improvements: the Canon 10x32 IS, 12x32 IS and the 14x32 IS. I was curious to see how they compared to our old faithful units, so Canon sent us all three to test out. We really like them. They’re lighter, more compact, sharper and focus to 6.6 feet. The stabilization is improved, with Standard IS for moving subjects and the new Power IS for use on stationary subjects and in particularly unsteady or high-vibration conditions, such as when viewing from a powerboat. All three models are about the same size and are powered by two AA batteries. The prices range from $1,349 for the 10x32 IS to $1,499 for the 14x32 IS. I want the 14x, of course, and I’m really impressed by the 6.6-foot close focus.

There are other image-stabilized binoculars out there, from the monster 20x60 Zeiss unit at around $8,000 to Nikon with its smartly named StabilEyes, and Fujinon that has several magnifications available. Canon has an assortment of IS models in addition to the new units mentioned above, from a robust 18x50 All Weather to a smaller, lighter and less-expensive 8x25 IS.

When it comes to choosing a pair of binoculars, it helps to know what all those numbers really mean. The first number in the designation found on them (10, 12, 14) identifies the power or magnification of the lenses. It tells you how many times closer the subject will appear when viewed through the binoculars than with the unaided eye. The highest magnification most people can steadily hold is 10x; as with long camera lenses, vibration and motion are exacerbated at high magnification. That’s why image stabilization is such an important feature in binoculars; it allows a person to see great detail at 18x.

The second number in the designation of the binoculars, as in a 10x40, is the diameter of the front element, sometimes referred to as the lens aperture. The larger the front element, the better the light-gathering capability of the binoculars. (Larger front elements are also bigger, heavier and more costly.)

Another specification to explore is the field of view, the angle or width in feet of the image seen through the binoculars. A larger field of view is useful, as it will make it easier to find the subject. The close focus capability of the binoculars is also an important consideration. My older 15x45 unit focuses to 17.5 feet, while other 10x units will focus as close as 10 to 12 feet, but usually farther. That makes the 6.6-foot close focus of the new Canon 14x32 a deciding factor.

Finally, size and weight matter. Many birders will opt for a lighter 10x unit to carry around all day. As a photographer, you already have a lot of gear to haul. Although they are slightly heavier, I prefer the higher magnifications, because when photographing wildlife I want to get closer without disturbing the subject. So I’ll find the subject and study it with the high-mag binoculars, and then photograph with long, heavy, image-stabilized lenses such as 500mm or 600mm. Fine optics are the answer, from start to finish.

White Balance, Blue Sky

I read somewhere that setting white balance to “daylight” mode served mainly to knock down the blue from the sky. Where I photograph, clouds low on the Eastern horizon often obscure the sunrise while the rest of the sky is clear and open. What should my white balance setting be? 

–J. West
via the internet

The best white balance for landscape photography is probably going to be the “Daylight” setting. But a more important consideration is the file format. RAW capture will give you the most options when you edit the image in Photoshop or other post-processing software. At that time, you can adjust the white balance to match the natural look that you remember, or enhance it to create a different look. The idea is to preserve your options. Often, I see photographers change their white balance to “Cloudy,” which immediately yields a more pleasing rendition on the camera’s LCD. But they might struggle later to remove the deep overall yellow cast they’ve artificially added to the image, especially if they’ve captured the file in JPEG format. If you shoot JPEGs in the field, you will be pretty much at the mercy of the white balance that you chose at capture, because changing the color tones in post-processing will be more difficult and probably lessen the image quality.

For the purposes of this discussion, the key difference between RAW and JPEG capture is that RAW files have more information and are relatively unprocessed by the camera, giving you lots of material to work with in post-processing, while JPEG captures are processed in-camera based upon the selected settings, limiting your options for later adjustment. If you’re in a hurry or hate working on a computer, stay with JPEGs. If you want the best quality, shoot RAW.

Things To Do Inside On A Winter’s Day

Not everyone lives where the snow flies, but the technique that I’m about to describe here is really important. It’s focus stacking: a way to extend depth of field and improve sharpness by using stacking software (Photoshop, Zerene Stacker or Helicon Focus) to easily combine a set of captures taken at different focus points into one image.  This past week I’ve been getting ready to demonstrate the process at the PhotoPlus Expo in New York City, and I came up with four ways that focus stacking can be accomplished. Try them out on some macro images of flowers on the kitchen table in a warm house.

Daisy Stack. Lepp used a macro image-stacking technique to achieve super-high resolution and depth of field in this studio capture of a florist’s gerbera daisy. The resulting image can be printed at 50 inches with astonishing detail. Canon EOS 5DS R, Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM and Canon Macro Twin Lite MT-26EX-RT. Ten images at 1/200 sec., ƒ/16, ISO 200.
  1. Move the focus of the lens manually while on a tripod so as to overlap each slice of sharpness that will be composited later in stacking software. Generally, this technique works best at a magnification of less than 1x, even all the way out to landscapes.
  2. Move the subject in increments through the focus of a stationary camera/lens on a tripod or copy stand (I use an old microscope stage) or other moveable platform you might find on the internet or eBay. Finish with stacking software.
  3. Move the camera in increments so the area of focus moves through the subject. You can use a focusing rail (many online) or a fabulous tool called a StackShot (cognisys-inc.com) that enables very precise movements of the camera from 2 microns to 100mm per move. Composite in stacking software.
  4. Keep the subject centered as you move the hand-held camera in small increments toward and away from it, taking numerous images to make sure you have covered all the overlapping areas of depth of field. It takes some practice to keep the images in alignment and to make sure you cover the area. Check out the website of Don Komarechka (donkom.ca) to see how a master uses this technique on snowflakes. I’ve modified it to also work on flowers and other subjects. The stacking software will align and composite the many images.

Focus stacking is fun to work with inside in controlled situations, but I also find it useful in my work on stationary subjects out in the field. Learn the technique and keep it in the back of your mind to solve depth-of-field problems at a moment’s notice.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.

3 Comments

    WOW – nobody ever told me you could get binoculars that are image stabilised. For lack of that, I’ve never had much use for them. Thanks for letting me in on the “secret”, George. I am now left wondering why NOBODY in any of the shops where I’ve looked at them has ever mentioned this – and how they manage to stay in business?
    I love focus stacking – so much so, that I have the Cognisys StackShot. The two main software systems for stacking the images are Helicon & Zerene – I use Zerene, but there’s not a huge difference between the two, I think the choice is more a personal one (like choosing between Canon & Nikon).

    As far as changing the focus points to do stacking, even on a tripod, wouldn’t that move the camera a small increment? Or when putting the images together, will the software align them?

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