New Gear on the Road: Canon 6D in Costa Rica

Sometimes I wonder if I could pull off my own video series. Something like the photography-related videos from Tony Northrup or DigitalREV. As I write this, I'm imagining a series where every time I go on some kind of trip, be it foreign or domestic travel, I rent some new piece of gear and make a review video about it. I would call it "New Gear on the Road."

Let's pretend this is the first episode.

One of the distinct advantages of being married to a woman who was born in Costa Rica is that we have a beautiful place to go when we feel like it's time to "go back home" after a long spell. It's been four years since we had our wedding there and we decided we had been away long enough.

Unfortunately, my Canon 70D remained in the partially-functional state it was in for the "Recreating a Dream" photo shoot. I decided it would kill me to spend two weeks in Costa Rica without a camera so I rented a Canon 6D from BorrowLenses. I had never shot on a full-frame before so the choice of lenses to bring was a bit of a challenge, as ever wondering whether I should bring the 50mm f1.4 for low light in the jungle and portraits or whether the much smaller and lighter 40mm f2.8 would be good enough for that. Camera people problems.

The 6D produced some really good-looking pictures. I'm used to fighting to keep the ISO under 800 on my 70D but on this one I was pushing ISO4000 and the photos I brought back and looked at on my computer had very little color or luminance noise. It also paired very nicely with my 70-300mm lens. I was worried that the larger sensor would leave me missing the 1.6x crop zoom on the 70D but not only did the images look sharp at 300mm but the out-of-focus areas looked much smoother and visually appealing on that larger sensor.

 300mm - f/6.3 - 1/200 - ISO4000

300mm - f/6.3 - 1/200 - ISO4000

I did most of my macro work, as per usual, with my 24-70mm f4 which was good because both the 6D and that lens are weather sealed. I never took the pair out in the daily pouring rain but Costa Rica was having a dry year (relatively speaking) and the weather was unusually hot most of the time. Hiking through the humid jungle in rubber boots with fifteen pounds of camera gear on your shoulders is the kind of situation where expectations of keeping your camera dry, clean and sweat-free go right out the window. Camera and lens were frequently covered in sweat and dirt but the weather sealing did it's job and both survived the ordeal.

Jungle fauna are decidedly more skittish than semi-domesticated urban animals (like squirrels in Cleveland or monkeys in Sri Lanka) so I wasn't able to do as much macro photography as I expected. As usual however, the dragonflies proved to be inexplicably braver than the rest of the forest creatures and I had some great up-close encounters with them.

I have to say, though, the 6D was a difficult gear change when it came to video. The camera offers the same 90Mb/s ALL-I codec as the 70D but the absence of the newer camera's articulating screen and Dual-Pixel AF system meant that shooting video was a much more complicated procedure. In Sri Lanka and Ethiopia I really took those two features for granted and I realize now that shooting solid video on the 6D really requires an external monitor and some kind of focus-pulling attachment. So in that respect, the 6D really couldn't operate "on the road" with the same flexibility as the 70D.

I thoroughly enjoyed how the full frame sensor turned the wide end of my 24-70mm into an actual wide angle lens and this was demonstrated nowhere better than while shooting panoramas. A huge part of what makes the jungle impressive is the vast scale of the trees and plants that make up the enormous canopy. The ability of the 6D to work at high ISOs allowed me to create panoramas that captured the detail of the vast shadowy space below the forest canopy.

Had I been shooting with my 70D, I probably would have been a little more protective of my camera, so it was nice that the 6D let me me spend less time guarding the camera and more time focusing on my subjects. I missed the swiveling screen though and was generally disappointed by the videos I brought home because it was often hard to get my head down to where it needed to be to see the screen well enough to pull focus. For a trip like this one, it wouldn't have been practical to bring a rig, monitor or other field equipment and so I'm realizing a few things I might have been taking for granted on my regular camera. The rapid-fire speed of the 6D is also much slower than I'm used to with the 70D. Instead of shooting bursts of photos and picking the perfect moment later, I had to really watch and anticipate my subjects knowing that I had one shot to get it right. It was a good exercise, but I miss being able to shoot seven frames per second.

One question I've considered from time to time is the potential benefits of investing in a second camera body. The advantages of dual set-ups in the field (such as one camera set up for video and a second camera set up for stills or one camera set up for telephoto and one camera set up for wide angle shots) are obvious and tempting but the question then becomes what category should that second camera come from? Would is be better overall to pick up something small and light like the SL1 or to pick up an older, used full-frame body like a 5dmk2 or a 6d? I think this experience makes a compelling argument that the 6D is that it is a fantastic camera for wide angle and portrait shots so it could be set up with something like a 17-40or 16-35 and paired with a 70D using a stabilized 24-70 or 24-105 for video. By keeping a 50mm prime and a telephoto in reserve, that would seem to give you a pretty wide range of options with a pretty manageable load-out of gear.

It's nice when a vacation can be a learning experience as well and this trip certainly qualified.

You can see the final photo album from the trip below. Cheers.