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

It’s been a big year!

If I were a true hardcore birder, the title of this post would refer to the number of species of birds that I’ve seen this year, and I suppose that I could go back and by looking at my photos for the year, I could come up with an approximation of what that number would be. I’ve done well this year as far as adding more species to My Life List. However, that’s not really what this post is about.

I went to the Muskegon area again on Saturday, no surprise there. The day began under a layer of fog which didn’t burn off until early in the afternoon, so the first half of my day was a bust more or less, since I had started out birding, and it’s hard to get good bird photos in heavy fog. It didn’t really matter that much, I wasn’t seeing anything special as far as birds anyway. So, I decided to head to Duck Lake, which is where I probably should have gone to begin with, and work on my landscape photography.

I spent some time wandering around the small area where Duck Lake empties into Lake Michigan working on my composition skills and this is one of the images that I came up with.

Duck Lake Dune

Duck Lake late afternoon

That’s a HDR image from three images shot at different three different exposure settings, then blended in Photomatix Pro and tweaked in Lightroom, shot with the 60D body and 15-85 mm lens with a polarizing filter on it. However, that’s a far cry from what the camera came up with straight out of it.

Dull and flat

Dull and flat

To be fair to the camera, that’s a tough scene to expose correctly, with the white sands of the beach, partially cloudy sky, and water. The first image is what I saw with my eyes, and what prompted me to shoot that scene, and the second image is what I would have settled for last year, dull, flat, and lifeless, despite the late afternoon sun bathing the scene with some fantastic light. Well, that’s not quite totally true, last year I had the camera set to add more “zing” to the images it produced, whereas now it is set to record the scene  in what Canon calls the Standard Mode, with no additional color, contrast or other enhancements from what the sensor “sees”.

It’s hard to believe that two years ago, I was one of these idiots who thought that doing any post-processing of an image was cheating, and that if you had a good camera and lens, you didn’t need to do any post-processing at all. Yes, I was wrong, and I fully admit it. A year and a half ago, I was finally convinced that even the best camera sensors couldn’t handle the dynamic range of light that many scenes in nature present to us as photographers.

Most of you know the story from there, early this year I purchased a new iMac computer with a 4 Tb external hard drive to store my images on, which I now shoot in RAW, rather than Jpeg. I had already purchased Photomatix Pro, the software that creates HDR images, but it didn’t work that well on Jpeg images. I also learned that while you can use RAW images in Photomatix, it doesn’t do the RAW conversion very well. That chore is much better handled by Adobe Lightroom, which I installed on the new iMac as soon as I had it up and running.

I think that I’ve shown a lot of restraint while using Lightroom, I will admit that I’ve pushed some images beyond what I saw when I shot them, just playing around learning what the different tools in Lightroom do. My goal is still to produce images that look exactly the way that my eyes saw the scene when I snapped the shutter.

Waiting for sunset

Waiting for sunset

Several months ago, I said that I’d do a post about how I use Lightroom, and how I edit my photos. I have it set so that when I import the images from the camera, Lightroom automatically removes any chromatic aberrations and corrects any lens distortion as well. Doing those two things helps Photomatix align images to be blended into a HDR image if I do make HDR images, and improve the look of the images overall as well. In reality, the only two lenses that I have that really need the distortion correction are the two EF S wide-angle lenses. I see very little changes made to the images shot with any of the L series lenses I own, and surprisingly, very little changes to images shot with the Beast (Sigma 150-500 mm lens). But, every little bit helps.

Once I have the images loaded into Lightroom, I correct the exposure if required, then add a little Clarity and Vibrance to them. Clarity increase the contrast in the mid-tones, making the images appear sharper, and of course, clearer. My personal belief is that’s enough to make up for the softness of images caused by the low pass filter in the camera. Vibrance doesn’t increase the color saturation, it makes the colors pop more without increasing the saturation, which I do to make up for having my cameras set the way that they are, rather than using Canon’s settings within the camera to get the colors accurate. Lightroom does a much better job.

For the first photo in this post, I also corrected the white balance to accurately reproduce the warmer tones of the late afternoon sun, since I had the camera set for daylight when I shot that image.

I’ll also reduce the noise in some of my images, mainly bird and wildlife images, shot at higher ISO settings. The truth is, I’m lazy, and for many of the images you see here of birds, I don’t even bother with noise reduction unless it is very noticeable. That’s about it. I can think of only a few photos that I’ve posted here that I’ve used any of the other tools in Lightroom to improve the look of my images.

I have tried them all though, and in doing so, I’ve learned how to shoot images that don’t require that I make use of those other tools, except under very difficult conditions, when I can’t pass up the chance to capture something that I see. Wait, I sometimes dodge or burn, using the correction brush, to lighten areas of an image that are too dark, or more likely, to darken areas that are too bright, just as what used to be done in the darkroom when making prints. But, that gets back to the fact that the sensors in cameras can’t handle the dynamic range of light as well as our eyes can. I try to avoid having to do any dodging or burning, as that’s quite time-consuming, and time is in short supply for me. The better the images are when they come out of the camera, means less time spent editing the images on the computer.

That’s the real “secret” to photo editing, not having to do very much of it by creating the best images that the camera can produce in the first place.

For my landscape photos, that means using the tripod, setting the ISO of the camera to 100, the lowest setting available, and focusing correctly. I think that the last item, getting the focus correct has made a huge difference in the quality of my landscape photos. Using a tip that I learned in one of the many online tutorials that I’ve watched, I set the focus one-third of the way into a scene, turn the auto-focus off, and no longer “waste ” depth of field by allowing the camera to focus at infinity. The added bonus to that is that I no longer have to stop the aperture of the lens down as far to get everything in focus, and therefore I see less diffraction in my images.

The last thing software related that I have to bring up is using Photomatix itself. If you get the exposure correct for the images that you load into Photomatix, you really don’t have to do very much within that software. I prep the images in Lightroom as far as removing lens distortion and chromatic aberrations, and if I have the exposure correct, I simply send the images to Photomatix, it aligns the images, blends the exposure, and gives me a preview. At that point, I only have to hit the enter key to finish the process, and send the HDR image that Photomatix created back into Lightroom. Typically, that’s all that I do, select the images, send them to Photomatix, accept the preview, and I’m done. If I see some ghosting due to movement caused by the wind moving foliage around for example, I will have to go back and start over, telling Photomatix to remove the ghosting, if it can. I make no adjustments within Photomatix other than for ghosting.

Photomatix does a great job, as you can see, but the controls within that software aren’t easy to figure out, and it’s much easier for me to get the images correct in the first place, rather than try to use the controls to improve images within Photomatix.

The other really big thing for me this year has been the purchase of the Canon 7D Mk II camera. It’s everything that it was cracked up to be and more! I’ve gone on at length about many of that camera’s features, the auto-focusing, how fast it can shoot, and so on. Still, the two things about it that I find myself loving most of all are its fantastic metering system, and the 65 auto-focusing points. I prattled on at length about the exposure system before, so no need for me to repeat myself more than I do already. Having focus points available that cover nearly the entire frame of the camera allows me to get a focus point on the eye of a subject to make sure that I get the eye in focus, even if some of the rest of the subject is a bit soft from being slightly out of focus.

Male mallard

Male mallard

Now then, an excursion off the topic at hand, although related to that last photo. I don’t know if you saw it, but a few weeks ago, a photo was circulating on the web of the “perfect photo” of a kingfisher as it dove into the water. The person who shot that spent 6 years, and shot close to 3/4 of a million images to capture the kingfisher as its bill touched the water, with great lighting, and the image as sharp as any that I’ve seen. In the interview that I read, the guy said that he’d sometimes shoot over 600 images in a day, and end up deleting them all. I know that I don’t have that kind of patience.

Because mallards are so common, most people tend to dismiss them, but because they are difficult to photograph well, I’d like to come up with the perfect photo of a mallard one of these days. The one above certainly isn’t, neither is this one.

Male mallard 2

Male mallard 2

However, every image is a learning experience, I was learning to make use of the higher burst rate that the 7D is capable of. In the rest of the series that I shot, the mallard rose up so high that I was cutting off part of its head, so I thought to myself, I should have shot those with the camera in the portrait position. Maybe, maybe not. 😉

Pekin duck

Pekin duck

I was too close to both the mallard or the Pekin duck to get them entirely in the frame, I should have been using a shorter lens.

Anyway, back to the perfect photo of a mallard, there may not ever be one perfect photo of one, since much depends on the background as well as what they are doing.

Male mallard 3

Male mallard 3

 

Male mallard 4

Male mallard 4

 

Male mallard 5

Male mallard 5

 

Male mallard 6

Male mallard 6

 

Male mallard 7

Male mallard 7

 

Mallards

Mallards

 

Mallards

Mallards

None of those are close to perfect, but I learn more with every image.

Now then, back to the 7D Mk II and what it’s capable of. On Sunday evening, as I was shooting some of the mallard photos above, there were a couple of gulls circling the area, so I decided that it was time to put the camera through its paces to see what it could do if I set it up specifically for birds in flight. Before I get to the photos, a few more words, sorry. 😉 Earlier this year, not long after I was starting to become comfortable with the 7D, I stopped at the Muskegon County remote control airplane club’s area where they fly their planes, and shot over 700 photos of the RC planes in flight. In a way, it was both too easy, and I learned very little, for even as fast as RC planes are, keeping them in focus was a piece of cake for the 7D. Almost every photo was in focus.

RC plane

RC plane

Birds are a different story, as they aren’t predictable in their flight path, and even larger birds such as gulls, hawks, and eagles can change direction much faster than a RC plane can. I’ve posted a few good photos of birds in flight, but I would say that the good ones that I have gotten have been mostly luck, for it isn’t very often that I change the settings of the 7D specifically to shoot birds in flight. I keep the camera set to what works best for portraits with the possibility of getting a bird if it’s flying as a bonus.

Not on Sunday, I changed the auto-focusing, exposure settings, and everything else that would make it easier to get good photos of the gulls as they circled around me. I shot in high-speed burst mode, and I could easily fill several posts with the photos that I shot. However, I’ve narrowed the photos down to just a few of the better ones.

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

 

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

 

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

 

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

 

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

 

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

 

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

 

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

 

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

 

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

 

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

 

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

 

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

 

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

 

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

The last one is the only one that was cropped at all, only because I caught the gull with its mouth open as it screamed at one of the other gulls nearby.

In some ways, I feel as if I should apologize for so many photos of the mallards and gulls, but I have to shoot things that I see, and this time of year, they’re two species of birds that I can find in good light, and get good photos of.

Also on Sunday, before shooting the gulls and mallards, I walked some of the trails at Duck Lake State Park. I saw birds, I think that there were more than I’ve seen anywhere other than the wastewater facility, but getting good photos of smaller birds in the low light this time of year is much tougher.  Here’s the perfect example.

Golden-crowned kinglet

Golden-crowned kinglet

I pressed the shutter release as soon as the kinglet was in focus, and continued shooting in the burst mode…

Golden-crowned kinglet

Golden-crowned kinglet

….and got a grand total of three photos, including this one as the kinglet flew off to the next spot.

Golden-crowned kinglet

Golden-crowned kinglet

All of the other times that I tried for one of the kinglets, it was gone before I could get it in focus. I had slightly better luck with a tufted titmouse.

Tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse

These were shot after the titmouse surrendered and decided to pose for me. The first three shots were blurry as it was hopping across the ground in search of food.

Tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse

 

Tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse

I may have to spend a lot more time at Duck Lake, given how many birds that I did see while hiking the trails there. There are also plenty of other subjects that I found to photograph along the trails, as you will see in my next post. For right now, I’m going to go back to where I began this post, landscape photos that I shot on the beach. I’ll start with my second attempt at this scene.

Duck Lake sunset over Scenic Drive

Duck Lake sunset over Scenic Drive

I know that there’s a good photo there, if I can figure out a way to keep the road out of the frame. 😉

Duck Lake beach looking north

Duck Lake beach looking north

 

Duck Lake beach looking south

Duck Lake beach looking south

The next time I shoot something like this, I need to remember to erase the footprints in the sand first. 🙂

Driftwood

Driftwood

The same applies to every photo that I shoot along the beach, but before I could erase all the footprints, people would be making more of them. I know this because I often have to time my shots between when other people are walking the beach.

Duck Lake beach looking west

Duck Lake beach looking west

It wasn’t much of a sunset, but the main thing is that I’m learning how to shoot better landscape photos at any time of the day.

Sunset at Duck Lake looking southwest

Sunset at Duck Lake looking southwest

I know that I’m a little early doing a year in review type post, made worse by the fact that I used all photos from my most recent outing, including too many gulls and mallards, but that the way that I do things. I was getting good photos occasionally at the beginning of the year, but they’re coming more often now, and the average quality of my photos has risen substantially. That’s what matters the most to me, the overall average quality of my images. One of these days (or years) I may actually get good at this.

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

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22 responses

  1. Your photo series is amazing, love the beach images.

    December 7, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    • Thank you very much Charlie!

      December 7, 2015 at 3:20 pm

  2. That first image that you concocted was really special. I loved all the mallards and the gulls too.

    December 7, 2015 at 3:36 pm

    • Thank you very much Susan! I just happened to be in the right place at the right time for a change to get that first image.

      December 7, 2015 at 3:45 pm

  3. When you shoot the duck lake sunset over scenic drive shot again is there a way you can lower the camera down enough so the grass in the foreground hides the road? That’s a beautiful shot even with the road, but I think it would be better without it.
    In fact all of these landscapes are excellent but my favorites are the first one, duck lake beach looking north, and that last one. It’s a beautiful spot and the lighting is fantastic.
    Speaking of light, I love the blue and gold water in those mallard shots! Keep up the great work.

    December 7, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    • Thank you Allen! I tried setting the camera as low as I could for the shot with the road in it. The lens was only about 6 inches above the grass, any lower, and I’d have caught it waving in front of the lens. I know I can get a good shot there next spring and summer when the sun sets farther to the north. Right now, the best place to set up would be in the road, not a good idea as busy as it is and right in a curve.

      For that first photo, I was set up and waiting for the sun to come out from behind a cloud to give me that wonderful lighting, the same is true of most of those photos, but I also waited for the clouds to line up the way that they did as well.

      I’m loving Bear Lake channel as a place to shoot the mallards and gulls, not only are the birds tamer there, I also get the different colors reflected off from the water. I just hope that the wood duck hangs out there again this year like it did last year.

      December 8, 2015 at 2:55 am

  4. Wonderful post.

    December 7, 2015 at 5:58 pm

    • Thank you Victor!

      December 8, 2015 at 2:56 am

  5. I think that the mallards may be a snare and delusion becuase it is very hard to get all the colours just right. They change colour by moving their heads! The perfect picture may not be available and you might have to settle for one of your pretty good ones.

    The gulls pictures on the other hand were great.

    December 7, 2015 at 6:26 pm

    • Thank you very much Tom! It’s because the mallards are difficult to photograph well that I use them as practice subjects so often. I may never get a perfect photo of one, but it’s fun to watch them while I’m trying. I knew that you’d like the gulls, there may be a few more of them in the near future. 😉

      December 8, 2015 at 3:01 am

  6. Interesting post Jerry with so many gorgeous shots. I ‘liked’ Allen’s comment because he has said most of the things I was going to say. The little Tufted Titmouse is so sweet!

    December 7, 2015 at 6:32 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare! The titmouse has such big eyes in relation to the rest of it that they are one of our cutest birds, even if they are rather drably colored.

      December 8, 2015 at 3:05 am

  7. I love what you were able to do to create the first image. I am so pleased that your hard work and passion have led to such improvements in your photography. It is a wonderful reward for the effort you’ve put in, Jerry. I’m afraid I’m not as dedicated to improving my shots. It’s more just fun and therapy for me. A way to relax. But I admire your own dedication to improvement and certainly enjoy the results each week. I’ve also loved seeing all the critters and the scenery from Michigan, a place I hope to visit eventually when I do a little tour of the US. The Great Lakes are a huge attraction. Well done on a great year of learning, observing and creating and sharing. 🙂

    December 8, 2015 at 5:24 am

    • Thank you very much Jane! As I told Judy, I’m not good as describing scenes in words, which is why I’ve been working so hard to improve the images of Michigan that I post. I love it here, and I hope to show others why that is through my photos. You’re so much better at writing than I am, so I have to use images to convey my thoughts. Also, working to improve any skills is very rewarding to me, which pushes me even further when I begin to see results.

      December 8, 2015 at 11:42 am

  8. The water color in the mallard shots is fantastic. I love how it goes from icy blue to that brownish-gold color. And the deep blue behind the pekin duck….just love how that all works out. And your landscape shots just glow – they make me proud to live in Michigan.

    Just for laughs, I looked at the earliest posts I could link to in your blog archive. It’s been a good five years for you behind the camera. Same sassy writing, though.

    Hope we’ll soon get some snow to provide you with some new challenges (not the driving kind, the photographic kind!)

    December 8, 2015 at 8:27 am

    • Thank you very much Judy! I didn’t think that you’d like some of the mallard photos due to the background colors, but what do I know. I am learning that the location where I shoot birds is almost as important as the birds themselves, to get good backgrounds.

      I never think too much about my writing skills, if you can call them that. I suppose that it’s like photography, I’m my own harshest critic. I’m not good as describing scenes in words, which is why I’ve been working so hard to improve the images of Michigan that I post. I love it here, and I hope to show others why that is through my photos. I’m ignoring the snow remark for now. 😉

      December 8, 2015 at 11:35 am

  9. Sounds like you are having fun with the 7D II. Great camera, greater photographer!

    December 9, 2015 at 8:42 am

    • Thank you very much! However, you have it backwards, I still haven’t learned the 7D II well enough to take full advantage of its capabilities.

      December 9, 2015 at 10:32 am

  10. Splendid pictures, as always. I love the shots of Duck Lake beach!

    December 9, 2015 at 8:46 am

    • Thank you very much Sue!

      December 9, 2015 at 10:31 am

  11. Stunning captures, Jerry, both beaches and birds!

    December 18, 2015 at 8:12 pm

    • Thank you very much Donna!

      December 19, 2015 at 4:52 am