International Travel in the Time of Covid

Two weeks ago I wrote a blog post about getting ready for an international trip in the time of Covid. My group had a wonderful time in Costa Rica so now it’s time for a recap.

Here’s what it’s like to traveling internationally in the time of Covid.

We flew out of Houston’s IAH airport on United. Everyone in the airport was masked and things moved efficiently from check-in to arriving at the gate. A few more precautions but nothing unusual that we haven’t experienced in 2020.

Photographers on the Strabo Photo Tours Collection trip to Costa Rica in March 2021. (Front left to right: Joan Wilson, Ruby Pecot, Kathy Adams Clark, Ed Barrios. Rear left to right: Will Hamilton and Barbara Hamilton.

On the plane, United personnel greeted us and gave us a nice, big alcohol wipe. The United wipes are the best I’ve seen! They are huge and wet enough to clean the entire area around your seat.

United personnel no long open your drink for you and pour into a small cup. That’s a “touch point” that’s been eliminated. We get the entire can of soft drink! Love it!

Once we landed in Costa Rica, we had to follow all local Covid protocols. Masks in pubic and hand washing before entering any public building.

This last one was different for us as Americans. There’s a handwashing station outside every public building — every store, shop, lobby entrance, restaurant, etc. Each handwashing station has a foot operated water dispenser, soap, paper towels, and trash can. We never found one of these handwashing stations that wasn’t working and fully equipped.

Restaurant menus were emailed to our Costa Rican guide or we accessed it through a QR code.

QR codes were used several times. There was a QR code we had to present to the agent in Houston to prove we had Costa Rican travel insurance that would cover us in the event of Covid. We even had a QR code to access our Covid test at departure.

The US requires a negative Covid test within three days of departure for all people flying into the United States. That meant we had to be tested while we were in Costa Rica. Our tour company arranged for lab technicians to arrive at our lodge at an appointed time and administer the tests. The major hotels are offering this service now since all departing tourists need the test.

After our tests, we had to wait 24 hours for the results. Results were emailed to each person. Those results had to be uploaded to the United app for verification.

A person has to have a smartphone to travel today. This is my biggest takeaway from traveling in the time of Covid. QR code at departure, QR code to get a menu, ability to receive an email with an attachment, ability to upload that attachment to an app, ability to have an app on your phone, etc. All this sounds easy in the US but international travel complicates things. It’s interesting how many travelers can’t get emails away from home on their phone or can’t download an app away from home. Traveling with a flip phone is out!

Everyone in my group had been vaccinated. That meant we could take off our masks when it was just us. Around waiters, hotel staff, our guide, or driver we did wear our masks. It became pretty routine.

In conclusion, travel in the time of Covid is pretty easy. The usual complications are still there but only a few minor things added here and there to keep people safe. We followed the established rules and had a great time.

One of the Joys of Going on a Photo Tour . . .

One of the joys of going on a photo tour is you’re with photographers all the time. There’s no one saying it’s time to go — except when the bus is leaving — no one to ask how many times you’re going to photograph the same thing.

During our recent photo tour to Costa Rica, the group noticed a nesting pair of s great kiskadees in the parking area. The birds built their nest in a palm tree right in the main parking area of the lodge. We walked below the nest to meals and returning from meals.

Great kiskadee nesting in a palm tree near the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano in northern Costa Rica.

The nesting kiskadee pair was just part of our day. The pair carried grass and fibers into the nest throughout the day. One bird could spend four or five minutes inside the nest packing the grass in just the right spot. Then that bird would fly out and the other member of the pair would fly in with a beak-full of fibers. That bird would pack their fibers in place, round and round inside the nest, then rest in the opening for a bit, and fly out.

Great kiskadee with a beak-full of nesting material.

Over and over again we watched this pair of birds perfect their messy nest.

Great kiskadee with another load of nesting material.

Finally when the light was lovely on the nest, I suggested we stop and photograph the kiskadees building their nest.

For the next hour, we stood together and photographed the kiskadees.

We compared shutter speeds to see if we stopped the wings of the bird as it left the nest that time. Slight blurring — raise the ISO, get a faster shutter speed and give it a try next time.

Someone got the crown pattern on the top of the kiskadee’s head. It looks like a bulls-eye if you’ve never seen it. “Wow! I need to get that next time!” someone in the group said. And off we’d go again. Waiting for the bird to fly out of the nest and show us its head pattern.

Over and over and over we photographed two birds as they built their nest. Those birds gave us such joy. We learned so much about our cameras and photography thanks to them.

My thoughts go out to that pair of determined birds in Guanacaste Costa Rica. I hope they are sitting on a clutch of heathy eggs that will mature into a nestful of great kiskadees.

My photographer friends at the great kiskadee nest in Costa Rica.

International Travel in the Time of Covid

“My bags are packed and I’m ready to go . . . ” that old song is rolling through my head. My bags are packed and I’m ready to go. Yet, this time is different.

Like many of you, this is my first airline trip since the Covid lockdown. A year ago, my husband and I were leading a photo/birding tour through Costa Rica. When we left the United States there were only one or two cases in our city. The cases increased and big events started to be cancelled. On March 15, 2020 when we flew back to the US, grocery store shelves were empty and people were scared.

A year later we are masked, used to social distancing, and many of us vaccinated. Costa Rica, Mexico, and a few other countries are opening to travelers.

What does it take to travel in March 2021?

Covid testing to re-enter the United States — the rule at this time is that travelers to the US have to show negative on a Covid administered “no more than three days” from the return flight. That means Strabo Tours, the company coordinating all my international trips, had to arrange to have a laboratory technician meet us at our hotel. Many hotels now offer this as a service to their guests.

Negative Covid test to check-in for return flight — The results of our Covid test will be emailed to us. Those emailed test results are entered into the United Airlines app. Yes, there’s now a place for that on the app. People without a smart phone or the United app will show the results to the airline agents.

Certification on the United check-in app that I have no symptoms — The United Airlines app has a place where I have to certify I’m symptom free. That information goes into my travel records. No smart phone? You’d have to verbally do this at the check-in desk.

Acknowledgment of the federal mask mandate — This is also on the United Airlines app. The questions include acknowledging that my mask isn’t a bandana or gater, that my mask doesn’t have any gaps, and that I’ll wear it all the time. I am allowed to lower or raise the mask while sipping liquid or taking a bit of food.

All our paperwork has to be shown to the agent at check-in. That means we can’t get our boarding passes in advance.

Getting Into The Host Country?

My trip is to Costa Rica so that’s the only experience I have right now.

Costa Rica Trip Insurance — Each person has to buy trip insurance from an approved Costa Rican company. We bought the trip insurance months ago. The questions and request for documents were quick and easy. Price was $216 for two people for 10 days. It’s a bit more for seniors and there are family packages.

The insurance provides us with 10-days in a hotel if we test positive for Covid while in the country. The insurance company takes care of getting us to a hotel, etc. Two negative Covid tests in 10-days are needed to get out of quarantine and back on a flight home.

We have to show that insurance certificate when we enter Costa Rica.

Costa Rican Health Pass — 48 hours before departure we have to log-on to a Costa Rican Health Department site and complete a questionnaire. That included the basic questions we are used to — coughing, fever, contact with anyone with Covid, vaccinated, etc. Then we have to add our trip insurance ID number. That gives us a health pass that we present when we leave the US and when we enter Costa Rica.

Is that song rolling through your head?

Did my opening line get that song stuck in your head. “Leaving on a Jet Plane” was written by John Denver. Click the link to hear his version.

Peter, Paul, and Mary sang a lovely version. Click this link to hear their rendition.

I’ll post more as the trip progresses to keep you up-to-date on traveling in the time of Covid.

Star Trail with Canon R5 and R6

I finally got a chance to create a star trail with my Canon R5. The star trails — and night photography in general — I’ve done with mirrorless cameras in the past have been disappointing. Not so with the Canon R5 and R6. The results are just as good as anything I created with my Canon 5D Mark IV.

Star trail, or the light left behind as the Earth rotates, Texas Hill Country on a winter night.

Star trails, like the image above, are fairly easy to do.  You’ll need some equipment to capture the images and Photoshop to blend the images.  You’ll also need a dark sky with an unobstructed view.  The view above is pointing directly north at Polaris.

Equipment: Camera with a bulb setting, sturdy tripod, programmable shutter release like the Vello Shutterboss II, fully charged battery, storage card. The photo above is made up of 20 photos. More time, more photos, better spiral.

Set the programmable shutter release to take 99 or 399 photos at a 4 minute exposure with a 1 second interval. Attach the programmable shutter release to the camera.  (Suggestion: Do this inside in the light because it’s darn hard to read the instruction book in the dark when you’re trying to shoot.)

Before walking outside, set your camera’s focus to infinity. This varies by lens manufacturer so here are some tips.

Outside under a dark sky, put the camera on the tripod and point it at the North Star for a star spiral.  Compose the photo to include some foreground or an interesting subject in the foreground. 

Check your focus to make sure the lens is set to infinity. Take a couple of test shots make sure the stars are in focus.  (Suggestion: take these images at a really high ISO so the exposure is quicker.  Enlarge these photos on the LCD panel to check focus. Delete them when ready to start shooting.)

Set the camera to Bulb, f/3.5 or f/4.0, ISO 800, IS or VR off, MF.  If your lens has 2.8 then ISO 400 might be okay. A lens with 3.5 as the lowest f/stop might mean you’ll need to use ISO 800. Take some test shots to determine what works for your camera.

Make sure the camera is locked down on the tripod.  Press the “Start” button on the Vello Shutterboss II.  Monitor the first couple of shots to make sure the shutter stays open for 4 minutes, closes, and then reopens.  Let the camera keep shooting for at least 30 minutes but hours are better.

To process the images, follow these instructions precisely to create a layer blend in Photoshop. (1) Download the images into Photoshop Bridge or Lightroom. (2) Highlight all the images.(3) Click Tools>Photoshop>Load Files into Photoshop Layers. Photoshop should open with the images in a layer palette. Lightroom users click Photo>Edit>Edit in Photoshop Layers (4) All the photos will open into a layer palette in Photoshop. (5) Highlight all of the photos in the stack and change the blend mode to Lighten.  (6) Viola!! (7) Flatten the image and save.

Make any necessary exposure, contrast or other corrections in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom.

Canon R5 Failing to Focus

I ordered my Canon R5 when it was announced in February 2020. The camera finally arrived in July 2020 and I was totally excited about the new experience of using this much anticipated camera.

Life was good — but the camera wouldn’t focus. The R5 was amazing 95% of the time. Yet, 5% of the time it just wouldn’t focus. It failed to acquire focus.

I shot some video footage so I could share my experience with others. I played with settings. I figured out workarounds. But, by November 2020 I felt like I was beating my head against the wall. Why wouldn’t this camera acquire focus.

Then, my R6 arrived. The R6 never refused to focus. It might hesitate here and there like the Canon 7D or Canon Rebel but it never refused to focus.

That’s when I realized something was wrong with my Canon R5. I contacted Canon Professional Services. They offered some suggestions to my settings — but nothing I hadn’t already tried.

Finally it was time to send the R5 to the shop. I shared my videos with Canon and talked with the technicians.

Here are changes to my settings recommended by Canon Professional Services:

  • AF Menu –Tab 4 – Lens electronic MF ; this is currently set to OFF.  If you set it to One-Shot-Enabled the lens will manual focus by the focus ring if shutter is half depressed. This will make it behave like a long telephoto on a EOS 1D-X body
  • AF Menu- Tab 5 – Initial Servo AF Point for Tracking;  Suggest second selection Tracking will start with the selected AF point
  • AF Menu – Tab 3  – Case 3 or 4 might work better for birds  in flight or moving objects than Case 1
  • AF Menu – Tab 4  – Switching tracked subjects – might want to try “Initial Priority”

So far, so good! I’ve used the R5 for a week and it’s worked as expected. I’ll keep you posted.

Canon R5 Compared with R6

I’ve been on a selling and buying frenzy over most of 2020 and now find myself with a Canon R5 and R6. Considering the wait time to get each camera I feel pretty lucky. So what’s the difference?

Shooting wise I don’t see any difference. Let’s get that out of the way first. Both cameras feel, focus, and shoot the same in the field.

The Canon R5 is on the top and the R6 is on the bottom. The obvious difference is the R5 has a LCD panel on the top. This is a nice feature that we’ve had since the early days of the 10D and through to the 7D, 5D, and IDX. The R6 has the mode dial typically seen on Canon Rebels. Buttons and dials are in familiar places for Canon users.
Canon R5 on the right and R6 on the left. Both have rotating swivel LCD panels on the back. Buttons and controls in the same locations. All icons familiar to Canon users. The R5 has more video features so you’ll notice the microphone icon next to the Rate button.
R5 on the left and R6 on the right. Note the same size. The R5 weighs 1.63 lbs and the R6 weighs 1.5 lbs.
R5 on the left and R6 on the right. Familiar back and top view for Canon users.

The big difference between these two cameras is the file size.  (Video features are not mentioned in this post.). The R5 on the left has a 45 mega-pixel sensor. The R6 has a sensor half the size at 20.1 mega-pixels. For comparison, the 5D Mark IV has 30.4, the 7D Mark II 20.2, and the 6D Mark II has 26.2. So the R6 and 7D Mark II have the same file size.

It’s so easy to crop into the R5 files when the bird is small. 

Sure, we can crop the R6 files as well just like we’ve done with the 7D Mark II. Happy with your results with the 7D? Maybe the R6 is for you.

The R5 files are huge so they eat a lot of computer space.  People with an older computer might find processing drags.  (Oh, no! New camera = new computer)

How about frames per second? The R5 and the R6 both shoot 12 frames per second. The 7D Mark II shoots 10 fps. My 5D Mark IV shot 7 fps. My D1X Mark III shot 16fps.

Then there’s the money.  $3,899 for the R5 and $2499 for the R6.  That’s $1400 that some people might want to put into  RF lenses. (Future blog post because you need the RF lenses.)

Conclusions: The R6 is not a “baby” camera. It’s equally robust when compared with the R5. The R5 excels in file size and video capabilities.

Canon R6 and a Small Bird

Snowy plovers are only 6.25 inches tall. They are not a large bird and are easy to overlook as they blend into the beach.

I found this one yesterday on the Texas City Dike in Texas City, Texas. (Is that enough Texas’ for you?). I was walking along the shore and carrying the Canon R6 with the 100-500mm RF lens and 1.4x extender.

The bird let me get fairly close and even let me crouch down a few times.

The camera kept focus no matter how quickly the bird scurried along the beach.

All were shot with Aperture Priority, f10, shutter speed 2000, ISO 800, wide zone auto focus.

Canon R6 — Very Impressive

My Canon R6 arrive last week and today was the first time I had a chance to take it out for a test shoot.

I am impressed!!

My outing today was mainly to test the auto focus on the R6 compared with the more expensive R5. Conclusion: I can’t see any difference.

The Canon R6 reminds me of my Canon 5D Mark IV and I was not disappointed with the R6.

My first bird this morning was a ring-billed gull. It was just standing on the beach so not much of a challenge. Canon R6, 100-500mm lens with a 1.4x extender. Auto focus 1, Servo, one focus point.
Sanderling running on the beach. Same setting as above but using wide area auto focus. The camera stayed in focus. My job was to keep the camera on the bird.
Sanderling with the same settings as above. Remember, these birds seem to never stand still.
Royal tern in flight. Wide area auto focus. There were 10 or 12 shots in this series as the bird flew by. All were in focus.
Brown pelican going into a plunge dive. With the R6 on rapid release, I captured 10 or more shots as the pelicans did their dive. Each was in focus..

Notice that I compared the Canon R6 to the Canon 5D Mark IV when comparing auto focus capabilities. My Canon 5D Mark IV always beat my 7D Mark II in the auto focus arena. The 7D Mark II would miss a shot here and there in a series. The 5D Mark IV got all the shots in a series in focus. That’s the same thing I saw in my test today with the Canon R6. It held auto focus throughout the series without missing a single shot!

Not once today did I notice the Canon R6 hunting for the subject. I pointed the camera at the bird, the camera locked on the focus, and I clicked the shutter button. We were working as a team — the camera and me.

I’ll post a more thorough comparison of the Canon R5 and Canon R6 in the next few days. This is just the beginning.

Sequence of brown pelican diving.

Firmware Update for Mirrorless Cameras

I have to admit that historically I didn’t worry about updating the firmware in my digital SLR cameras. The cameras worked and they always worked. So why update the firmware?!

Mirrorless cameras, on the other hand, have a lot more electronics and keeping the firmware up-to-date is a good idea.

There have been three firmware updates for my Canon R5 since it was introduced. One in August, another in September, and another in November 2020. Canon wouldn’t issue these updates if they weren’t necessary. These updates fix a “bug” or tweak a setting.

Get the firmware updates from the Canon site. Sony, Olympus, and Fuji users will find the firmware updates on their camera manufacturer’s site.

Download the firmware to your computer. Then double-click to open the folder. You’ll find instructions and an EOSR5110.FIR file. The name might change with the update but the file extension remains the same.

Copy or move the EOSR5110.FIR file to an SD card. (I do this with a card reader.) Plug the card reader into your computer. Open the card reader on your computer, open the firmware update in another window, then click and drag the xxxxxx.FIR file to the SD card.

Put the SD card in the Canon R5. Turn the camera on and go to the wrench menu 5. Scroll down to Firmware Update. If you’ve done everything right, the camera will find the file and show the screen blow.

Click the OK button and you’ll see the screen below.

It’s a pretty simple process and worth doing to keep your camera in tip-top shape.

Hope this helps!