Rick Sammon on the Canon 5D Mark IV, Iceland's Mysterious Beauty and Life in the Travel Lane

By Jeff Wignall   Thursday September 29, 2016

Canon 5D Mark IV
Format: Full frame
Sensor: 30.4 megapixel CMOS
Low Pass Filter:
Installed in front of the image sensor, non-detachable
Lens Mount:
Canon EF Mount
LCD:  3.2-inch (Screen aspect ratio of 3:2)
Weight: Approx. 31.39 oz. / 890g (Including battery, CF card and SD memory card
Complete specs: Here

Rick Sammon

Rick Sammon has the kind of career that most armchair photographers (not to mention a lot of working pros) would love to emulate. His professional life is enviable partly because he seems to travel relentlessly to some of the most fun, interesting and beautiful places on the planet—Africa, China, Antarctica, Alaska, Cuba—throw a dart at a world map and it’s likely that he’s been there. But his professional life is also enviable because of the simple and yet obvious fact that he has a serious love affair with making great images. I have been a longtime admirer of Sammon’s work, his excellent how-to books books have always been a source of both solid information and great inspiration. It’s tough to flip through one of his books and not feel the pangs of wanderlust rising up.

Interestingly, Sammon doesn’t see himself as falling into a particular specialty in photography. “My specialty is not specializing,” he says. “I do people, cultural, wildlife, landscapes and scenics.”  He started his professional photography career as an underwater photographer and trip leader (he’s published six books on underwater shooting) and as a terrestrial photographer has traveled to more than 100 countries. His photos are regularly published in magazines around the world and have been featured in more than 36 books and used in his 13 online classes for KelbyOne. He also has more than 700,000 Google+ followers and his Global Explorer page on Facebook has 8,500 likes (and you thought you had a lot of online friends keeping tabs on you). Asked if he thinks the digital era is a fun time to be a photographer, he replies: "I tell people all the time that it’s never been more exciting to be a photographer."

Much of Sammon’s time these days is spent sharing his lifetime knowledge and experience through workshops that he teaches around the world (more about them in the interview below), something that he loves passionately, but admits isn’t easy. “There’s a reason why they call them workshops, because the pros that are leading them work their butts off,” he says. “Really, it is a lot of work because you want to make sure that everyone gets good pictures and we always try to work in the best light.” The days can get mighty long, too. During one Mono Lake workshop he says that they had to get up at 2:45 a.m. to be in the field on time to catch the sunrise.

Of course, getting to all of those places, teaching workshops and shooting all of those images takes a bit of devotion—and a lot of travel. “When my son was home before he went to college I think I was gone about 100 days a year, which still put me home 265 days which was great. But now that he’s in college it might be about 150 days a year,” he says. “I’m 66 and I think when I’m 76 I’m not going to be spending that much time on the road, so we’re trying to get in as much travel as possible.” 

In addition to his many other accomplishments, Sammon is also a Canon Explorer of Light. I recently chatted with him about the new Canon 5D Mark IV, his recent trip to Iceland and his thoughts on making great travel photos. Read on, you’ll be glad you did.

PPD: Iceland seems to be very popular among photographers all of a sudden, have you noticed that?

RS: It is popular all of a sudden, it’s beyond crowded and the crowds take some of the romance out of it. Big tour buses are there now so if you want to get to the good spots you have to get there really early and stay really late. Iceland offers breathtaking scenery. I photograph all around the country and all around the world, but it’s the ice and the glacial lagoons in Iceland that I love. If I could just go for one day to photograph in the glacial lagoons, I think I’d do it, that’s the spot, but the waterfalls are spectacular, too.

PPD: What is the best time of year to visit Iceland?

RS: It depends. If you want the northern lights it’s toward the end of the year and if you want the ice caves it’s at the beginning of the year. But we go in the summer and September and it’s nice. You don’t get the northern lights in the summer but it’s not freezing cold and it’s still beautiful.

PPD: Was the Iceland trip your first trip with the Canon 5D Mark IV?

RS: Yes, it was. I've been there five times but this was the first time with the Mark IV.

PPD: What was your first impression of the camera?

RS:  One thing I noticed with this camera is that I’m shooting a lot less HDR because the dynamic range of the sensor seems to be much better. In my shots from Iceland that have scenes where the white water is really bright and the shadows are really dark, I can’t believe that the highlights aren’t blown out and that I can open up the shadows so much without using HDR. So while I was shooting in Iceland I was doing a lot less HDR which is great because I don’t want to spend as many days in the digital darkroom as I do traveling. I like to try to get it right in camera.

Another thing that I liked about the Canon 5D Mark IV body is that it has a new AF Area Selector Button on the back of the camera, a feature that has not gotten much press. I always tell people when I teach that just because you have an autofocus camera it doesn’t mean it knows where you want to focus. Jeff you and I started with that one focus point in the middle of the viewfinder and I still use that a lot repositioning the focus point for creative and accurate focus.This new AF Area Selection Button lets you change your focus area very quickly and I think that’s one of the best features of the camera. It’s very useful if you’re photographing an off-center subject or a moving subject or even if you’re shooting a landscape where you want to get the maximum depth of field. The switch lets you move the point of focus very quickly.

PPD: The Mark IV has a touchscreen, are you a touchscreen fan?

RS: I wasn’t previously but now I am. I was always a live-view fan. When live-view first came out I really didn’t think it was that great a feature, but for landscape photography I think live view is great because it slows you down and gives you more time to concentrate on creative composition. Another advantage of Live View is that when you’re photographing sunrises and sunsets you’re not looking through the viewfinder so you’re not going to damage your eyes by looking right into the sun through a lens. My father had macular degeneration because, for one reason, he hung out in the sun a lot. Also, having a touchscreen means that just by touching the screen you’re able to slide the focus point anywhere in the frame. I think that’s pretty cool. The touchscreen also makes it easy to change things like the white balance and some of the other settings very quickly.

PPD: Are there any other new features that you’re using?

RS: The built-in GPS is another other really great feature. Let’s say that you’re cruising around Iceland or somewhere and you’re working for a magazine that wants to know exactly where you were when took a particular photo, the GPS will tell you in the meta data. It's also nice just to be able to pinpoint exactly where you were.

PPD: The Mark IV has a 30.4 megapixel sensor and it seems like pixel counts just keep escalating, does the ever-increasing size of pixel counts have advantages for your work?

RS:  Well, I also have the Canon 5DS. I was shooting with it in Africa and I photographed these cute leopard cubs and they fill about 10-percent of the frame and I made a 20x24-inch print out of that image. You can see the picture on my 2016 Safari gallery on my web site. I did use On1 Resize 10 software to enlarge the image.

PPD: So you are OK with cropping images to make them stronger?

RS: Oh, I’m a big cropper. I am actually the king of cropping. I have OCD- obsessive cropping disorder. I haven’t made any really big prints from the 5D Mark IV yet, but I’m so big on cropping that every single picture that you’re looking at from Iceland, like the horses, and the waterfall shots cropped in the pano format, were cropped. I always tell people that you have to crop sometimes if you want to think like a painter. A painter is not going to fill up the whole frame with things that he or she doesn’t want, right? I think for wildlife photography in particular the more pixels the better because you can’t always get close, especially if you go to a camp where you can’t drive off the road.

PPD:  The ISO speeds on the Mark IV go up to 32,000. I noticed a shot of a cowboy on your blog that you shot at ISO 4000, are you concerned with noise issues?

RS: As you know the lower the light the more noise and noise shows up in out-of-focus and dark areas, so if I’m going to get some noise I don’t really worry about it too much because I use Topaz DeNoise which I found works the best and what that lets you do is to control and reduce the noise in the shadow areas and in the highlight areas kind of independently. And that’s good because if you take out the noise in the highlights the image might get a little soft. By just taking out noise in the shadow areas you get a cleaner image. Therefore De Noise is the noise reduction software I recommend.

PPD: The Mark IV is capable of shooting both CompactFlash and SD cards, which do you use?

RS: That’s a good question because when I was in Botswana shooting that leopard cub picture I was shooting with two cards in my camera, a CF card and a SD card. The day before I was photographing with only one CF card as I have done for years and we returned to the camp around 9 or 10 in the morning because most of the animals are tired and hot by then. So I popped my CF card into my reader and it doesn’t recognize it. I said, Oh my God, that was one of the greatest lion encounters I’ve seen in a long while and the reader can't see my card. So I put it back in the camera and the camera can’t see it. The card was corrupted because of user error. I didn’t turn off the camera and right before I took the card out I accidentally pressed the shutter-release button so the camera was starting up when I popped the card out. I sent it to Lexar and they recovered the images. Ever since my user error I’m always shooting with two cards, the SD card and the CF card—always. And I always tell my workshop students, you have to do that, you have to shoot with two cards because you just never know.

PPD: What formats are you shooting in, do you shoot RAW and jpeg at the same time?

RS: No, I only shoot in RAW, but on that note some of my students ordered the 5D Mark IV on the day it was available, and then they write to me and said that they couldn’t open the RAW files in Lightroom or Photoshop. That was because those programs, at the time, hadn’t been updated to read the Canon 5D Mark IV RAW files. Therefore I always tell people to use the software that comes with the camera, Canon Digital Photo Professional which is an amazing piece of software. It may not be quite as fast as Photoshop or Lightroom, but it’s made by the camera manufacturer whereas Adobe has to reverse-engineer software for the Canon files. If you want the best files you really want to use that software for your RAW conversions. That said, as of this interview, both Lightroom and Photoshop open these files if you have updated those Adobe CC programs. If you use Photoshop be sure to update the Bridge too. 

PPD:  Are you using the built-in HDR?

RS: Yes if you look at the Canon 5D Mark IV gallery on my site there is a square shot that's a built-in HDR image. In the shot of the waterfall [shown above] that’s a built-in HDR image. Although this shot was shot on an overcast day and it doesn’t look like the dynamic range is that great, but the white water was very much brighter than the dark rocks. Seeing the light, I knew I had to do HDR. So I put it on EV zero, plus two and minus two. The result is that the image does not look like an HDR image.

What’s cool about the HDR feature in the Mark IV is that it has different effect modes. The one that I like most is Art Vivid. On an overcast day it’s really beautiful, it makes the scenes look more pleasing, more like a painting. I don’t use EV 0, +1, -1 because I think you can pull that much out of a RAW file, but EV 0, +2 and -2 is good. With EV 0, +3 and -3 you might miss some information.

PPD: Let’s talk about lenses. What are your favorite lens? Have you shot with the new Canon 100-400 IS?

RS: Yes, I shot a lot with the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens while I was in Botswana. Most of the photos in my 2016 Safari gallery were shot with that lens, which as you probably know is much improved over the push-pull one. For one thing it’s much sharper. But for landscape photography I use the new Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens, which is totally awesome. Yes it's big and it’s heavy and you need a special filter adapter because it’s just so wide,but the images are super sharp. By the way Lee makes an ND filter adapter for it. In Iceland I shot most of the landscapes with the 17-40mm. When the 17-40mm came out several years ago it was better than the existing 16-35mm f/2.8. Now however, Canon has a new Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L ll USM which I’m going to get ASAP.

PPD: I’ve seen you write about the Canon EF 24–105mm f/4L IS II USM being your favorite lens, is it?

RS: If you go to the galleries on my site you’ll see a gallery called 24/24-105  that I took with the 24-105mm lens. About 80-percent of my pictures are taken with that lens.

PPD: Where are you taking your workshops in 2017?

RS: We’re going to Miami, we’re going to Texas, we’re going to China and we’ll be up on the Oregon coast. We’re also going to Antarctica with luxury travel planners Abercrombie and Kent this year. The Texas workshop is a lot of fun. Not everyone can spend $8,000 going to Africa for a workshop, but there is a place in Texas called Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. It’s about 2,000 acres and they have a herd of zebras running around, a herd of giraffe, they have wildebeest running around and cheetahs. I’ve been to Africa five or six times but I still like doing the workshops in Fossil Rim because you do get great wildlife pictures and you shot from an African safari type vehicle. It’s very rewarding to be able to teach there and to share that experience with people. I did one last year there and six of the people signed up to come to Africa with us.  

PPD: Tell me about your latest book, Creative Visualization for Photographers.

RS: I don’t make a lot of promises in my workshops, but one of the first things that I ask the people is, if you could only take one shot, what would it be? I promise the people that if they ask themselves that question that they will get a higher percentage of keepers. In my Iceland photographs, that’s what I was thinking in each situation: if I could only take one picture what angle would I use, what aperture, should I use a slow shutter speed, etc. So what Creative Visualization for Photographers is about is asking yourself this question: What can I do on site to get the most creative picture? Then also keep in mind, what you can do after the shot with Lightroom or Photoshop or with plug-ins to make a picture. It takes some time to think through these things, but it’s amazing how it works, and my promise holds true, if they (and you) think about only getting one shot, there will be a much higher percentage of great shots.

PPD: And you have another book coming out next week and it’s already the number one in the color category under new photo-book releases on Amazon. What is that about?

RS: Yes, that book is called Evolution of an Image and it is about the entire story of making great pictures, it’s really a reading book. For example, I have a chapter called “The Wrath of Khan” and it’s a chapter about shooting in Mongolia, what it’s like being there, how we found this festival, how lucky we were to be there, how I found this great shooting position. Then I talk about my exact shooting process, my goals and I also go into the Lightroom processing that I used. I also show all of the outtakes from each shoot. So for one particular shot, I show the chosen shot and then the 15 shots I took to get to that shot. I want people to see what you have to go through to get a great picture, even pros shoot a lot of bad pictures. At the end of each chapter I give a closing thought, as a way to motivate photographers to make better images. Evolution of an Image is really a behind the scenes book about what it takes to make a great photograph, which i think is the goal of all serious photographers.

New Product News:

Panasonic LUMIX DMC-FZ2500.  Anyone that knows me knows I’m a big zoom-camera fan so I’m excited to hear that Panasonic has added a new zoom camera to their lineup. The Panasonic LUMIX DMC-FZ2500 features 1-inch 20.1 Megapixel sensor and an impressive 20X LEICA VARIO-ELMART F2.8-4.5 lens (equivalent to 24-480mm). The camera also has an ISO range of ISO 80-25600 and a top mechanical shutter speed of 1/4000 second (and a 1/16000 second electronic shutter) and it also has a touchscreen LCD. Other cool features include 4K Ultra HD video recording, as well as exclusive LUMIX 4K PHOTO and 4K Post Focus and internal Focus Stacking modes.

Corel Painter 2017. If taking your photographs into the illustration realm is something that appeals to you, check out the just-released Corel Painter 2017. This very powerful illustration program features tons of tools designed specifically for illustration, fine art, concept, manga and photo art workflows. An extensive collection of brushes let you apply colors and gradients as thick oils, dripping watercolors and many other texture-filled strokes. Also, a new collection of “glazing” brushes let you velvety, translucent paint transitions with pressure-sensitive control. A new "drawers" feature enables you to keep multiple menus on screen and collapse/open them just by double clicking. The software is compatible with Mac, PC and Photoshop. I just bought the program and so I’ll be reviewing it in a future posting.


  1. Tom Bishop commented on: September 30, 2016 at 3:21 a.m.
    Goodness, where to begin? Initially I was drawn in by the ducks swimming towards the ice, this I like, unfortunately every subsequent image was more disappointing than the last. Can I start with the three of equine images? This is a horse. This is another horse. This is of two horses together. There are some stunning images of horses in the landscape available online and in books, these three do not even make it past the first edit to my mind. Uninteresting, factual, flat and entirely mundane. And here-in lies your problem, these are perfectly well executed, technically competent (let’s forget the dire wide-angle shot of the gorge shall we?), factual images, there is nothing here we haven't seen countless times before, only many are far, far better executed. We appreciate the technical skill that goes into creating these images, and yet every single image, except the top one, lacks any dynamic, emotional content, they are factual, "this is a waterfall, this is a horse, this is what another waterfall looks like", and I'm sorry but that isn't good enough any more to my mind - we've moved on, we're more visually educated now. If your work is aimed purely at illustrating books on how to take factual photographs then, yes, you have succeeded. If your target audience is also on stage one or two of, “Mastering your digital SLR!”, then I agree that you have done a perfectly sound job in illustrating how to take a factual photograph of the landscape. Like many reading this article I too aspire to going out to Iceland and regardless that the weather looks quite grey and flat much of the time I have to confess that I'm disappointed with this set of images. The back catalogue of others’ working in the same landscape is so shot through with emotion and interest regardless of the technical aspects of the photography that I am left wondering if that is what you are more interested in, namely the, “how to take a picture” genre and as such you are chasing just a factual picture, "this is a horse, this is a waterfall, this is what happens with a little bit of postproduction, this is why you add the occasional filter” which sadly translates as images lacking in any dynamic, emotional content. My advice? Spend more time in galleries, study paintings in particular, the mood, the texture, the light, the composition, the brush stroke and then asses how you feel emotionally in front of good art, how it stirs your soul, what you gain from this process - this might be a good starting position for you I feel.
  1. Tom Bishop commented on: September 30, 2016 at 3:22 a.m.
    Apologies, in the original draft, there are about a dozen paragraphs to aid ones' reading - now it simply looks like a tsunami of text.
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