My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Who am I trying to please?

I think that I’m beginning to understand why so many photographers are shooting their photos with the aperture of their lens close to wide open, and only parts of the subject in sharp focus, it’s a snob thing.

Grand Rapids has a large camera club, reputed to be the oldest in the United States, so I decided to check out their website to see if it would be possible for me to attend their meetings in order to get some feedback as to how my photos stack up as far as quality. Well, they feature a photo of the month, and what did this month’s photo just happen to be? A male cardinal. Cool, there’s some nature photographers in this group was my first thought, but then I read why the person who picks the photo of the month picked that particular photo.

The judge chose that photo because in their words, “the photographer did a good job of focusing on the bird’s head and used a shallow depth of field to blur the background”.

I guess that it doesn’t matter that the majority of the subject, the cardinal, is blurred as well.

Then I read the blurb from the photographer who shot the photo, and it turns out that they have a spot outside their garage set-up with a bird feeder to attract the birds and a fake branch attached as a place for the birds to perch on their way to or from the feeder, and the photographer shoots their photos through an open window of the garage.

Okay, I guess that the fact that the situation is controlled by the photographer is okay with me, but that’s not how I photograph birds.

I figure that I have about three seconds (if I’m lucky) from the time a small bird perches somewhere to when they move to another location as they look for food. During that three seconds, the birds do not sit still, they are twisting and turning as they look for food, and/or possible predators. If I move too quickly getting the camera pointed at them, the birds will spook and fly off, so that leaves me little time left to get the bird in focus and the exposure set, and no time to be fooling with the aperture to get the perfect depth of field.

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

Sometimes, I luck out.

Female northern cardinal

Female northern cardinal

By the way, these were shot using the Canon 7D Mk II, 300 mm L series lens, with the 2X tele-converter behind the lens, and the images have not been cropped. Any one who says that you can’t get a sharp photo with the 2X extender behind a good sharp lens hasn’t learned how to use one properly, as you can see. These are as sharp as a tack.

Anyway, I began to wonder when and how bokeh (the out of focus background in a photo) became more important than the subject of the photo. More importantly, I began to wonder who decided that, and why.

I think that I have at least part of the answer.

In one of the how to become a better photographer videos that I watched recently, the presenter began one of the segments with the admonition to quit photographing everything as if you’re using a point and shoot camera.

That may require a little explanation for some readers. Because of the physics of light, camera lenses, and sensors, the compact digital point and shoot cameras have a much larger depth of field at any aperture than does a digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR). The same holds true with the cameras in cell phones, it’s almost impossible to get something out of focus while using one.

So, back to the presenter in the video. At the time I watched it, it didn’t dawn on me, but he went on to say that we’ve spent a lot of money on a DSLR and lenses with wide apertures, which are more expensive than lenses with smaller maximum apertures, so we should use those wider apertures to throw the background out of focus and to get great bokeh. Now I get it, why the bokeh in a photo has become so important, it’s a snob thing.

You want the perfect bokeh in a photo not because that’s what most of the general public prefer, it’s to let your fellow photographers know that you’re using a DSLR with an expensive lens attached to it! That’s why it’s become what the judges in a photo contest look for, so that they know that you’re a “real” photographer, using “real” equipment, and not a point and shoot, or horrors of horrors, a cell phone.

I may be wrong about that, but I don’t think so. Wildlife photography videos with presenters who actually make their living photographing wildlife in the wild, and not in animal parks or baited animals, present another side to great photos. They say that you don’t always have to fill the frame with your subject, that there are times when you should include some of the animal’s surroundings to let people who see your photos know what types of habitat that particular animal prefers. They say that it’s even better if you catch the animal engaging in activities, so I suppose that these would count towards that.

Adult male northern cardinal feeding it's young

Adult male northern cardinal feeding its young

 

Adult male northern cardinal feeding it's young

Adult male northern cardinal feeding its young

 

Adult male northern cardinal feeding it's young

Adult male northern cardinal feeding its young

 

Adult male northern cardinal feeding it's young

Adult male northern cardinal feeding its young

 

Adult male northern cardinal feeding it's young

Adult male northern cardinal feeding its young

Maybe these photos, of a warbling vireo singing, aren’t so bad after all.

Warbling vireo singing

Warbling vireo singing

 

Warbling vireo singing

Warbling vireo singing

 

Warbling vireo singing

Warbling vireo singing

So what if I didn’t get the aperture perfect to completely blur the background. I’m showing that this species likes to stay under the leaf canopy, and sing their little hearts out, even in the middle of September.

By the way, those were also shot with the 7D Mk II, 300 mm lens with 2X tele-converter at ISO 6400, and not cropped at all.

Other than a lower ISO, so was this one,  which according to all types of experts, should be the perfect photo. I got the bird so that it more than fills the frame, and it’s engaged in an activity, eating, plus, the background is completely out of focus.

Male northern cardinal

Male northern cardinal

Wait, that can’t be a perfect photo, I didn’t have time to change the focus points, so the subject is centered in the frame, and besides, it was shot in the middle of the day in full sun, and one is never supposed to photograph anything in during the middle of the day in full sun, even if there are no harsh shadows in the photo. You have to shoot in diffused light.

White-breasted nuthatch

White-breasted nuthatch

Maybe the light is too diffused in that photo, but it’s still better than the dappled sun in these photos.

White-breasted nuthatch

White-breasted nuthatch

White-breasted nuthatch

White-breasted nuthatch

But, at least the background is out of focus in all three of those. 😉

It looks as if I’m going to have to do a better job of training the birds that I photograph so that they pick better places to perch as I shoot them.

Magnolia warbler

Magnolia warbler

Now I’m being silly, but there are times that I have to be silly to make a point to myself, and the point is, who am I trying to please with my photos? Is it the photo critics who use one set of criteria to judge photos, or is it lovers of nature that prefer images that display what nature means to them as they see it?

I really see no reason that I can’t shoot both types of photos, as I’ve been able to put in this post. I’ll continue to shoot the same style of photos that I have been, and when the opportunities arise, shoot images with the birds isolated completely from a blurred background.

Whether the background is blurred or not, I really like getting a chickadee to fill the frame, so that when I switch Lightroom to display the image full screen on my 27 inch iMac, the image of the chickadee is the size of a crow, and you can count every fiber of every feather.

I did have a chickadee get even closer to me, so close that if I had pressed the shutter release, you probably wouldn’t have been able to tell what the object inside the lens hood was. That’s right, I had a chickadee land inside the hood of the 300 mm lens, as I was holding it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the time came when I was able to shoot at least a few birds close-up while using the 100 mm macro lens. That’s the real secret to great photos, getting close, no matter what length of lens you have, the closer the better.

To get that close, all that I did was to sit in one spot for a while under the shelter at the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve so that I was in the shade, and move as little as possible. It wasn’t long before the birds featured here, and several other species, were coming and going as if I wasn’t there. The 2X tele-converter does allow me to shoot great portraits, when the birds pause long enough for the camera and lens to focus. I missed quite a few opportunities because of the slow auto-focus, but by sitting still and partially hidden, I had more than ample opportunities that day. But, as I am so prone to do, I’m going off on a tangent here, time to get back to the point that I was making about the standards used to judge photographs these days.

Photography is supposed to be an art form where the photography is free to express themselves through their photos, but the way that I see it, if you’re going to gain any critical acclaim, you have to shoot photos that fit the current fad of the time, and right now, that means an isolated subject with a creamy smooth bokeh in the background. The critics will reject any other style of photo, the only room for artistic expression at the current time is what a photographer does to the images in post-processing. For the most part, that means how far the photographer is willing to push the bounds of believability as they post-process their images.

I’ll have more thoughts on getting closer to wildlife, and post-processing in future posts, for right now, I’m going to go on with the train of thought that I had about shooting both styles of photos, my own style, and occasionally shooting photos in the style that may please some of the critics, if they were to ever see any of my photos.

I hadn’t reached this point in my thinking when I made a decision to begin shooting more landscape photos, even if there were buildings and other man-made objects in the scene. I made that decision because I need the practice shooting landscapes. If I wait for the perfect scene, then I wouldn’t have the skill required to capture it when I had the chance, so I’ve begun shooting scenes like this.

Dawn at the Muskegon County wastewater facility

Dawn at the Muskegon County wastewater facility

Or this one, and this one has the added feature of letting the readers of my blog become more familiar with the one of the places I go to photograph birds.

Misty morning at the grassy cells

Misty morning at the grassy cells

I don’t want to get into every detail of how wastewater is treated there at the Muskegon County wastewater facility, but the grassy cells are flooded in a rotating manner, at which point they become small man-made marshes which filter contaminants out of the water. When the grassy cells aren’t flooded, they are like a wild grassland, complete with wildflowers.

Tansy flowers

Tansy flowers

And, the flowers attract insects.

Viceroy butterfly

Viceroy butterfly

I threw that last photo in here as it was going to lead to a discussion on lenses, but I’ll also save that for other posts. For right now, I’m going to just post a few more photos.

Dawn spilling into a starry night

Dawn spilling into a starry night

That’s an image that I wish that I could display in a larger format. I just love the color blue that the sky takes on at dawn when there are few clouds to catch the color of the rising sun, throw in a few twinkling stars in the sky, and the sun’s first rays starting to bring out the green of the vegetation, and that’s one of my favorite sunrise photos so far, even though there’s not much red, orange, or pink in the sky or clouds.

Also, by shooting with my wide-angle lenses more often, I’m learning that just a few millimeters of focal length changes the scene dramatically.

Cloudscape at 10 mm

Cloudscape at 10 mm

 

Cloudscape at 20 mm

Cloudscape at 20 mm

 

Cloudscape at 15 mm

Cloudscape at 15 mm

I’ve also been playing with silhouettes of flying birds against the colors of the sunrise.

Duck at dawn

Duck at dawn

 

Duck at dawn 2

Duck at dawn 2

Heck, I’ve been trying all different types of photos at dawn.

Dawn at the lagoon 1

Dawn at the lagoon 1

 

Dawn at the lagoon 2

Dawn at the lagoon 2

 

Dawn at the lagoon 3

Dawn at the lagoon 3

I wasn’t sure whether I should shoot this next series as silhouettes, or go for the best exposure of the duck(s) as I could get.

Dawn duck 1

Dawn duck 1

 

Dawn duck 2

Dawn duck 2

 

Dawn duck

Dawn duck

 

Dawn duck 3

Dawn duck 3

 

Dawn duck 4

Dawn duck 4

 

Dawn duck 5

Dawn duck 5

It wasn’t until the duck got airborne that it finally quacked for me.

Dawn duck 6

Dawn duck 6

I waffled a bit on these, as I was shooting them, I thought that I was shooting the best photos of my life in some respects.

Dawn duck 7

Dawn duck 7

But after looking at them for a while, I began to think that they were over the top, too much of a good thing.

Dawn duck 8

Dawn duck 8

Now, I’m back to thinking that these are great again.

Dawn duck 9

Dawn duck 9

Although, I still think that this next one is too much of a good thing.

Dawn duck 10

Dawn duck 10

No matter which direction you shoot at dawn, there’s great light to be found, so I tried this wildlife and landscape combination.

Assorted birds at dawn

Assorted birds at dawn

One thing is for sure, these are the most artistic collection of photos that I’ve ever put in one post before, maybe I should have spread them out more? I hope to continue working on more artistic photos, without giving up on the way that I have been photographing things, until I figure out how to strike the right balance.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

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27 responses

  1. Your photographs are great. I am not a fan of photo clubs that are rule driven rather fun driven. But I will say that what ever camera you use you want to make sure your subject is fully apparent, one way to do that is a wide aperture. Great work and obvious effort shows in your post.

    September 18, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    • Thank you very much Victor! Your input is appreciated.

      September 19, 2015 at 7:23 pm

  2. Your photographs are certainly pleasing me. I particularly enjoyed the two cloudscape pictures.

    September 18, 2015 at 5:16 pm

    • Thank you very much Susan!

      September 19, 2015 at 7:24 pm

  3. Critical acclaim means nothing to me. I say, as I’ve said before, if you take photos of things you love and that move you, others will sense that and find the same things in the shot that made you shoot it in the first place.
    I also rarely worry about what the background looks like unless I’m shooting something so small that it gets lost in the background, like some orchids. Nature encompasses a big world and all of it is welcome in my photos, though I do crop a lot of it out so readers can see the subject better.
    I think you’ll find that if you just do what pleases you, the rest of us will follow along.
    The shots of the ducks at dawn are fantastic! Rarely do I see anything like those colors in nature, so it’s great to see. They tell me that seeing beautiful sunrises like those is possible, and that I should get out there earlier!

    September 18, 2015 at 5:32 pm

    • Thank you very much Allen! I probably used the wrong phrase when I used critical acclaim, what I really need is some critical guidance, so I know what I have to work on yet.

      I put too many of the images of the ducks at dawn, but they were so good, how could I stop myself?

      September 19, 2015 at 7:34 pm

  4. Perhaps it’s become the fashion to blur the background in bird photos in GR, so the photographer can hide the fact that they were shot at a backyard bird feeder. You have your own style (and standards). Submit your stuff to the photo club for comment, and let it fly. Your sequences are informative, and remarkable in the way you have captured. As the say, “Don’t go changin….”

    Loved Dawn at the wastewater facility, and Dawn at the lagoon #3 the most.

    September 18, 2015 at 6:33 pm

    • Thank you Judy! Blurring the background is universal, it isn’t just GR. But you’re right, part of the reason is to hide what the photographer doesn’t want you to see.

      I won’t be changing my style, just adding to it. 😉

      September 19, 2015 at 7:43 pm

      • Yay!p

        September 19, 2015 at 8:13 pm

  5. Photo clubs are for people who like digital images rather than the thing that they photograph. My view is that I put up on my blog things that I’ve seen and I try to make them as interesting to other people as possible both visually and as a subject. But as you know, this means that I puts up lots of technically pretty poor pictures as the light doesn’t always oblige and the subjects don’t always sit still. All the same, as I potter about, I sometimes see something and think. “That might make a competition photo” and then I try to take a bit more care but even then my images are only suitable for small country show competitions and would never do well in an enthusiasts’ club. I haven’t got the time or patience or skill for anything better. You could easily create competition images as you have the patience, the equipment and the skill. The only questions are… is this a good use of your time and efforts? and …can you hack it if people think that yours is not the best picture?

    Keep taking wonderful pictures and enjoying them for their own sake.

    September 18, 2015 at 7:22 pm

    • Thank you very much Tom! I know that my photos aren’t the best, far from it. I still have a lot to learn about digital photography, and one reason that I’d like to get an expert or two to look at my photos, then I may get a better idea of what I need to work on yet.

      September 19, 2015 at 7:45 pm

      • Your photos look very good to me and some of them are superlative. I am just trying to say taking pictures of lots of interesting things and competition photography are two quite different skill sets.

        September 20, 2015 at 4:13 pm

      • Thanks again Tom! That’s what I’m learning, but I see no reason that I can’t learn both of those skill sets.

        September 21, 2015 at 5:54 am

      • I am perfectly certain that you can (and will).

        September 21, 2015 at 4:42 pm

  6. I very much enjoy bird shots that show the environment they live in. I thought the collection in this post was excellent. I love the variety you’ve shared here. I struggle understanding how to properly use my camera but I enjoy what I do anyway. Do what satisfies you, Jerry. I always appreciate the shots you share and hope that they give you pleasure. My favourites were the cloudscapes and the dawn shots. Beautiful. Thank you.

    September 19, 2015 at 4:56 am

    • Thank you very much Jane! I will keep shooting the way that I have been, but I’d also like to branch out more, and to work on other styles of photography.

      September 19, 2015 at 7:48 pm

  7. Such a wonderful, eclectic photo album…The Monarch butterfly, and the sunsets really stand out for me.

    September 20, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    • Thank you very much Charlie!

      September 21, 2015 at 5:52 am

  8. I think you got up on the wrong side of the bed. Your remarks really surprised me.

    I guess I am a snob photographer, too. I shoot wide open most of the time as I want to photograph the bird, not the background. I don’t want a cluttered background to distract from the main subject. The blurred background is just a result of that. That doesn’t make me a snob, but just a good photographer. If I want to include a sharper image of the perch or nest, I use a smaller aperture. Just because you like to take a big batch of snapshots to post, doesn’t mean you have to berate photographers that have other styles.

    I had always respected and liked your posts for the articles you write, but I think you were a little off base this time. For the record, I don’t like photo clubs, either. Some members are too snobbish, and look down on beginners.

    September 20, 2015 at 6:10 pm

    • Thank you very much for your input Bob! No matter what the quality of my photos are, when I can show an ornithologist one of my snapshots showing a male catbird using a leaf in a courtship display, something that hasn’t been noted about that species before, then I’ll continue to shoot snapshots and leave the artistry to those who are capable in that regard.

      September 21, 2015 at 5:59 am

      • Jerry, you mis-understood me. You are very good at what you are doing. I enjoy your photos and your articles. Keep that up, and as you said in your own words, “leave the artistry to those who are capable in that regard”. My complaint with you was that said that those with artistic desires as snobs. I am one of those. Our aim is to prodduce images that will sell. Your goal is to educate. So let’s respect each other’s genre, and get away from name calling. Thank you.

        September 21, 2015 at 11:05 am

      • Well Bob, there’s plenty of misunderstanding to go around. I didn’t mean to imply that photographers who choose to shoot with wide apertures and blur the backgrounds were snobs, that was meant for the powers that be who have written it in stone that it is the only style worthy of being considered artistic. That has resulted in cookie cutter clone photos, where every one’s photos look the same, when photography is supposed to be an art form where the photographer is free to express his or her artistic style. Another way to look at this entire subject, John Audubon didn’t paint birds with their heads sharp and the rest of the birds out of focus, nor isolate the birds from their surroundings. In fact, he is lauded for including the bird’s surroundings in his artwork. It’s true that he is considered to be both an excellent naturalist as well as painter, but I see no reason why a photographer who attempts to build on Audubon’s work have their work rejected out of hand because it isn’t done in the style currently in fashion with the critics of the day.

        September 22, 2015 at 9:44 am

  9. I was wondering if instead of a photographers’ club you might be able to contact someone at a college of art/photography and talk to a specialist there. There may be specialist classes on the kind of photography you are interested in. You may be able to send them examples of your work on-line or point them in the direction of this blog. The college doesn’t necessarily have to be near to you though that would be easier. Most colleges have prospectuses on-line so you would see the kind of things they do.
    I don’t think any of these shots are too much of a good thing – they *are* a good thing; period! I think any naturalist organisation would be very interested in many of your photographs and would be fascinated by your observations too. Contact them!

    September 21, 2015 at 3:43 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare! Actually, I thought about taking a photography class at the local community college, which is reputed to have a very good program, but rejected that idea. They would attempt to break me of taking the types of photos that I’m often most proud of. However, as luck would have it, I spent a considerable amount of time talking to a local ornithologist on Sunday afternoon, and that has helped to put things right for me.

      September 22, 2015 at 9:30 am

      • Excellent news!

        September 22, 2015 at 1:30 pm

  10. I like your female northern cardinal, she looks kinda scruffy. Also, I like your point of view, you’re into wildlife photo, in their context. A much different experience than out of context. Keep at it, please 🙂

    September 22, 2015 at 7:26 am

    • Thank you very much! I plan on continuing what I have been doing, with a few other styles of photos thrown in along the way for variety.

      September 22, 2015 at 9:26 am