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

The turning points, time, patience, and places

We’re about to close out the year 2015, and begin a new year, 2016, and even though I know that dates are just arbitrary numbers on a calendar, a new year always seems to be a good time to take a look back, and also to look to the future.

On Christmas Eve, I took delivery of the last package in that I’ll be getting from the company I have been purchasing my camera gear through lately for the foreseeable future. The package contained a 4 Tb hard drive, so now I can fully back-up all of my photos, and a better quality polarizing filter to fit the 300 mm L series lens that I use for birding most of the time these days.

Everything else on my camera wish list relates to the Canon 5DS R in one way or another, and that camera is at least two years away unless things change drastically in my life, and I doubt that they will. Besides, my skill level as a photographer still doesn’t warrant a camera that good, yet.

Over the past few months, I’ve felt that I’m reaching yet another turning point in my photography, my images have shown a great deal of improvement over the past year, but I feel that I still have a long road ahead of me.

The first big turning point took place towards the end of 2012, and the first few months of 2013, when I decided that I was going to get serious about photography, and that it required much better equipment than what I had at the time, a Nikon D50 camera, and one of the worst lenses that Nikon ever put the Nikkor name on, a 70-300 mm lens. In addition to those items, I also carried a Canon Powershot point and shoot that I used for landscapes and close-up photography. I’ll admit that my back and my knees still look back fondly at those days, when the entirety of my camera gear at that time weighed less than just the birding set-up that I carry these days does. 🙂

April 4th, 2013 is when I made the switch to a Canon 60D camera, along with the Beast, a Sigma 150-500 mm lens. There was an immediate increase in the quality of the photos that I shot, right from day one. Over the next two years, there were many small turning points as I learned new skills and how to get the best out of the 60D camera and each of the lenses that I’ve added to my collection since then.

It was during the summer of 2014 that I finally realized that almost every one else was right, and that I was wrong, you do have to do at least some post-processing to most of the images from even the best digital cameras. I began experimenting with HDR photography, and eventually added Lightroom to the software that I use earlier this year.

The next big turning point was the acquisition of the Canon 7D Mk II camera in the spring of 2015, which I’ve raved about enough here since I got it. It makes getting photos such as this…

Snowy owl in flight

Snowy owl in flight

…so much easier than what it would be if I were still trying to use the 60D for bird in flight photos.

That photo brings me to where I am right now, that was shot on Christmas day, and it leads to what I think this next turning point will be, and it has nothing to do with cameras or lenses, but how I approach photography and the subjects that I shoot, and where I go to photograph them.

The owl serves as a great example of what I’m going to try to explain, I spent most of the morning with the owl, shooting several hundred photos of him to get one good one.

In the past, I would have shot a few images of the owl as it perched on a power line pole. By the way, I know that the sky is too dark in most of these images, I was trying out the new polarizing filter, and I was too tired when I got home after a very long day to lighten the sky in these. That’s a bit surprising, as I’m getting much pickier about my images than I would have imagined a year ago. I find myself using the healing brush in Lightroom to “paint” the correct color temperature onto waterfowl when the blue from the water reflects on the waterfowl to the point where they are too blue. I could warm the image up overall, but that turns the water to a muddy blue when it shouldn’t be. However, since the owl was perched where it was, none of these are going to be winners unless I master software editing to the point where I exchange the power pole for something natural, like a dead tree. Then, I could always go back and lighten the sky. 😉

Snowy owl

Snowy owl

In the past, when I was sure that I had gotten a good photo of the owl, I would have moved on in search of other subjects to shoot. For one thing, with the owl on top of the pole, I’d never get a great photo of it, he was a bit too far away, and with him perched on a man-made object, a truly great photo was impossible. But, I hung around anyway, trying different things, for example, that was shot with the 300 mm lens and 2X extender mounted on my tripod and with the ISO set to 100 for the very best resolution that I could get. However, that resulted in a shutter speed of 1/100 second, which would have been too slow if the owl had even twitched while I shot that series of photos with the effective focal length of 600 mm.

While I had the set-up on the tripod, I shot a video, which taught me another lesson, turn off the IS when shooting a video when the camera is on a tripod.

Another reason that I couldn’t get a great photo of the owl is because the darned thing refused to fully open its eyes, so I have several hundred images of him squinting in the sunshine.

Snowy owl

Snowy owl

 

Snowy owl

Snowy owl

 

Snowy owl

Snowy owl

As you may have been able to tell, I walked around the owl, I even climbed the hill that he was near, hoping to get a better photo of him. When he did open his eyes completely…

Snowy owl

Snowy owl

…it was because he was about to poop.

Snowy owl pooping

Snowy owl pooping

Hey, many of the people who read my blog say that they like the action shots, I can’t wait to hear the comments on that one. 😉 That’s what happens when I have the 7D set to high-speed burst shooting and I think that the subject that I’m watching is about to do something, he did.

A little later, I saw the owl perk-up, as if it had heard or spotted something to eat.

Snowy owl

Snowy owl

He had, but as he took flight, I had to wait for him to clear the power-lines, so I got two shots of him coming at me, neither of which are very good. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to use the second rear focus button, which would have been better as far as focusing, but the way I have it set, it also adds two stops of exposure compensation, which I thought would have been too much for an all white bird. So, here’s the best one of him flying directly over my head.

Snowy owl in flight

Snowy owl in flight

I have a few good photos of its butt as it flew away from me, but I deleted those. I was lucky in a way, the owl flew just a short distance, apparently what it thought would be a tasty meal either wasn’t, or had taken cover before the owl got to it. The owl turned around, coming back towards me, so I did switch to the second focus button to get the first photo in this post, along with a few more like this.

Snowy owl in flight

Snowy owl in flight

The owl came back to the same spot from where it had started, so my photos of him landing were ruined by the power-lines.

Snowy owl in flight

Snowy owl in flight

It was only then that the owl looked at me with its eyes wide open.

Snowy owl

Snowy owl

Isn’t that the way that it goes, I spend well over an hour standing in the cold, waiting to get a good shot of the owl, and I come up with just a couple of so-so shots of him in flight. I waited for a while longer, but eventually the owl flew off away from me, and I never did see him again. But, that does bring me to the title of this post, and the turning point that I think that I’ve reached now.

I can’t afford one of the super long telephoto lenses on the market, at around $10,000 they are way out of my price range. On top of the lens, I’d need an entirely new tripod set-up to hold it, which would cost another $2,000 to $3,000 or more. So, in order to improve my photos, I’m going to have to work harder to get closer to my subjects, spend more time with each one instead of rushing about trying to get as many species of birds in a day that I can.

This new philosophy paid off in these three photos of a kestrel, my best ever, but still not great.

American kestrel

American kestrel

 

American kestrel

American kestrel

 

American kestrel

American kestrel

Kestrels are our smallest, and I think, most beautiful members of the falcon family. I’ve tried for years to get a good photo of one, and have always failed in the past. These aren’t great, but they’re much better than my past efforts have been. Spending more time, and having the patience to do so paid off. Those were also shot on Christmas day, and I spent close to an hour to get those three images.

So, if I can’t afford a longer lens to get closer, then I guess that I’m going to have to do a couple of other things instead. One of those is to break down and begin wearing camouflaged clothing. I’ve avoided that, mainly because I don’t want to look like some redneck yahoo running around out in the woods. Back in the late 1960’s and 70’s I wore came when hunting, before it became some kind of fashion statement that too many people use it as these days. Since I’ll need a few different season’s worth to cover the year here, with green, brown, and white being the principle colors, that won’t be cheap, but it will still be a lot less than a 600 mm lens. 😉

I should also come up with some kind of portable blind, or hide as they are called on the other side of the Pond. There are many on the market to choose from, but I think that they are over-priced, and also quite heavy, for a bit of camouflaged cloth stretched over a couple of cheap poles like a tent. It wouldn’t take too much, if you watch birds or any other critters, as long as something doesn’t move, they get used to it quite quickly, and will come very close to man-made or new objects in their range. The Muskegon wastewater facility is a perfect example, there are pipes, structures, and equipment everywhere, and that place attracts more birds than any other that I’ve ever been to. It’s nothing to see a bird such as a peregrine falcon which I saw a few months ago…

Peregrine falcon

Peregrine falcon

…perched on the plumbing there. One day, I waited in vain for one of the kestrels to return to the crane that it had been using regularly as a perch as it looked for prey. My car being close by bothered it, but a crane that hadn’t been used and had just sat for a month became a favorite perch for the kestrel, until the crane was moved.

Then, I’m going to have to come up with a way to carry everything. The backpack(s) that I have are good, however, I hate to admit it, but strapping 20 pounds of camera gear to my back and hiking 5 miles is not my idea of fun. If I add even more weight to what I carry, then I’ll start leaving things behind, even more often than I do already.

That’s a bad thing, for macro photography not only requires time and patience, but also a lot of gear. Even on a bright sunny day, getting enough light to get a good shot with enough depth of field to get the subject in focus requires extra light most of the time. Here’s one way that I do it, a LED panel light mounted on a Gorillapod.

LED light mounted on a Gorillapod

LED light mounted on a Gorillapod

I like that set-up because it’s so versatile, not only can the Gorillapod function as a regular tripod with the legs resting on the ground, I can wrap the legs around things like branches, as you can see in the photo, and get the light right where I need it.

These are the tiny fungi that I photographed at the time. I saw these first…

Tiny shelf fungi?

Tiny shelf fungi?

…they were about a half an inch wide. As I was setting up to shoot that image, I saw these nearby…

Tiny jelly fungi?

Tiny jelly fungi?

…which were about an eighth of an inch in diameter. Even with the 100 mm macro lens and Tamron 1.4X extender, I still had to crop an image to really show what the fungi looked like.

Tiny jelly fungi(?) cropped

Tiny jelly fungi(?) cropped

Just a short time later, I was shooting landscapes.

Muskegon State Park dunes

Muskegon State Park dunes

Then, it was a sunset…

Muskegon Lake channel sunset

Muskegon Lake channel sunset

…and as if I didn’t already try to photograph enough subjects as it is already, I’d like to branch out and try my hand at night photography.

Use Silversides submarine and other boats at the docks

Use Silversides submarine and other boats at the docks

 

The Muskegon Lake channel at night

The Muskegon Lake channel at night

I shot those in the last vestiges of twilight, as I was waiting for the full Christmas moon to rise.

Full moon on Christmas over Muskegon Lake

Full moon on Christmas over Muskegon Lake

And although I didn’t shoot these next ones on Christmas, I have to throw them into the mix because I shoot flowers…

Teasel in bloom

Teasel in bloom

…as well as insects when I have the opportunity.

Unidentified dragonfly

Unidentified dragonfly

I know that I should specialize more, rather than shooting everything that I see, but I can’t help myself. It wouldn’t be so much of a problem if each genre of photography didn’t need its own lens(es) and other accessories.

Of course I could rely less on the camera gear and use software instead. For example, there’s specialized focus stacking software that many people use to get the really great macro images that you see. Instead of using a tiny aperture to get the required depth of field, and therefore need less light, you can use that software to stack multiple images taken with the focus set slightly differently with each shot to produce one image that has everything in it sharp and in focus.  The problem with that is that it doesn’t work when shooting live things that move.

There’s specialized software that can be used to create star-trails, which gets around the noise issue when taking long exposures with a digital camera, and so it goes. There’s specialized software for nearly every genre of photography, but that’s not cheap either.

I’m getting sidetracked again, back to the subject at hand. I’ve considered going on excursions to shoot specific subjects, such as landscapes, and ignoring anything else that I see on one of those excursions. That way, I could cut back on the amount of gear that I need to carry with me at any one time. That would also give me more time to work on a specific genre of photography, say spend a day chasing birds. Or, I could devote an entire day to landscapes, etc. The problem with that is getting the best lighting for each genre. You don’t want to shoot landscapes in the middle of the afternoon, and while I can make mid-day light work some of the time for critters, the golden hours just after sunrise, and just before sunset are also the best light for them.

Juvenile ring-billed gull

Juvenile ring-billed gull

 

Ring-billed gull

Ring-billed gull

 

Pekin duck

Pekin duck

 

Female mallard

Female mallard

 

Male mallard

Male mallard

 

Female mallard

Female mallard

But as I’m trying to get the perfect photos of those species, I’m wasting good light for landscapes.

Muskegon State Park dunes

Muskegon State Park dunes

Instead of spending an entire day on one type of photography, I’m breaking up my days into segments, spending some time birding, then allocating the afternoons and evenings for landscapes. The problem with that is whatever I leave in my car is what I need for something that I see but wasn’t thinking that I would see, such as insects on the beach while I’m shooting landscapes. Or, a pretty scene in the woods while I’m chasing critters.

My brother took my suggestion and uses a large wheeled baby stroller to carry all of his camera gear with him, I should do that also. That does bring up other problems though, how to keep some one else from taking off with all my stuff while I’m off in the brush chasing birds for example. Many of the places I go can be very crowded, especially in good weather over the summer months. And, I wouldn’t want to try pushing or pulling any wheeled cart of any kind through the beach sand or dunes along Lake Michigan.

If I were to spell out the ideal situation for myself, it would be that I could devote myself to photography full-time, so I wouldn’t have to worry about how long I spent photographing one particular bird, or how long it took me to set-up for a macro shot, or landscapes, and so on. I’d also have sole access to land that attracted almost every species of birds, with the ability to set-up permanent hides in spots where I knew that I’d be close to birds and able to get good images from those hides depending on the time of day and weather. But, that isn’t going to happen, so I should stop dreaming about it.

Still, it was great having the entire day, from just after sunrise to well after sunset on Christmas Day to spend outside in all of the various locations that I went that day, and having the time to get the photos that you’ve seen in this post so far, and to also have the time to spend working on my camera settings and techniques for birds in flight.

Juvenile ring-billed gull in flight

Juvenile ring-billed gull in flight

 

Mallards in flight

Mallards in flight

 

Mallards in flight

Mallards in flight

Even if I did forget to set the range limiter on the 300 mm lens back to the full range so that I wasn’t able to get as close to these lichens as I would have liked.

Unidentified lichen

Unidentified lichen

But, how I allocate my limited time being outdoors, as well as the places that I spend that time is still a big issue for me right now. So, as the sunsets on another day…

Sunset over the Muskegon Lake channel 2

Sunset over the Muskegon Lake channel 2

…and the moon is rising…

Christmas Day full moon rising over Muskegon Lake 2

Christmas Day full moon rising over Muskegon Lake 2

…I’ll post one more image of the snowy owl, with him waving goodbye to every one.

Snowy owl

Snowy owl

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

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30 responses

  1. You are such a versatile photographer! I hope you will get that 5 DS-R, or maybe something even better by that time.

    December 27, 2015 at 10:15 am

    • Thank you very much! A 5DS R will do me just fine, even if there’s something better on the market by then.

      December 27, 2015 at 9:20 pm

  2. I love the snowy owl. I always think of my Uncle Jim when I see them. He used to smoke White Owl cigars.

    My favorites are those nighttime photos of the lake – the colors are beautiful and intense.

    December 27, 2015 at 10:31 am

    • Thank you very much Lavinia! The snowy owls are breath taking, that’s for sure. One of the reasons that I’m attracted to night photography is because of the color saturation that comes with long shutter openings.

      December 27, 2015 at 9:22 pm

  3. A wonderful post with great photographs.

    December 27, 2015 at 10:38 am

    • Thank you very much Victor!

      December 27, 2015 at 9:23 pm

  4. There was a real treasure trove of shots in this collection. The snowy owl, is fascinating. Actually, I love all owls, probably because I so rarely see one. I hear a barred owl near my house everyday, but have yet to actually see her.

    Your dedication to your craft is impressive – dawn to dusk on Christmas is a long day, no matter how much you love being out with your gear.

    Hope you have favorable weather on New Year’s weekend, since you’ll probably have a bit of time off again. Ready for a bit of snow??

    December 27, 2015 at 11:01 am

    • Thank you very much Judy! I hope to get a few more photos of snowy owls this winter, they seemed amused to watch me walk around them as I talk to them. They may have never heard a human voice before. Since I’ve been carrying a camera all the time, I’ve seen one great horned owl and a few barred owls, when I used to see both of them all the time BC (Before Camera).

      I never noticed how long that I was out there Christmas day, until I got home. If the light would have held an hour or two more, I’d have stuck it out no matter what. It was one of my best days ever, even if you discount the photos.

      We’re supposed to get an ice storm tomorrow, no fun, but it’s easy for you to toss around the snow word since you’re not stuck in it. 😉

      December 27, 2015 at 9:29 pm

      • OK, no more “s” word from me! The bad word here is wind! We’ve really been getting pushed around by massive cold, dry winds. It’s been very unpleasant to be outside.

        December 28, 2015 at 11:02 am

      • We’ve had the wind also. There are still people without power from the storm before Christmas, today it will be freezing rain with storm warnings out on the Great lakes for winds approaching hurricane force. Lovely weather I must say.

        December 28, 2015 at 12:14 pm

  5. You take photography so seriously it’s no wonder the results are so good. Like another of your commentators I too loved the snowy owl and the sunset pictures.

    December 27, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    • Thank you very much Susan! One of the best days of my life, even if I hadn’t had a camera with me, I hope that it came through in the photos.

      December 27, 2015 at 9:31 pm

  6. I like that first shot of the owl, and the others too since I’ve never met one in person.
    I think the small fungi are probably crowded parchments, but I’m not sure about the jelly fungi. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them. They almost look like jelly babies but they usually grow in soil.
    I like that shot of the teasel. That’s another one I never see here.
    I think my favorite of all is that first shot of the Muskegon State Park dunes. That light is magical and It should be framed.
    Just think of how much fun you’re going to be able to have when you retire! Six more years and I’ll find out too. I’d like to sell everything and build a cabin in the woods and just stay there!

    December 27, 2015 at 5:17 pm

    • Thank you very much Allen! The snowy owls are special, which is why I devoted so much time to one this time. I could, and should, spend a good portion of a day shooting nothing but macros on one log, for overtime I get really close to something small like the jelly fungi, I see even smaller growths in the photos that I can’t see with my eyes.

      They say that for landscapes that you have to love what you’re shooting, and really feel it. Maybe I do so well with the dunes because I love them so much. It helps to have a very large body of water like Lake Michigan reflecting even more blue back into the sky to create scenes like those.

      I’ve got about 6 years until retirement as well, and I may not have a cabin in the woods, but I’ll be spending most of the daylight hours out there. 🙂

      December 27, 2015 at 9:59 pm

  7. What a great day’s work. I enjoyed following your train of thought about your methods and needs. I often think that I would do better to go out with a definite purpose rather than just wandering about in hope. The problem of the weight of the equipment is very real once you get to my age not to mention clumsy fingers when swapping lenses or setting up tripods. I think the idea of the hide where birds and animals approach you in order and where the light is always perfect definitely seems like the best plan. I hope it all comes together in 2016.

    December 27, 2015 at 5:38 pm

    • Thank you very much Tom! Yeah, I often think that I’d do better if I had a set goal for the day rather than catch as catch can, however, then the weather and the critters (if that’s what you’re after) have to cooperate, and that seldom happens. So, I lug as much stuff as I can and shoot the opportunities of the day. I’m not that much younger than you, about ten years, but a lot changes physically in ten years, which is what I worry about. I have 6 years to go until retirement, and I’d like to enjoy it, that’s why I’m considering setting up hides so I can sit and relax for at least part of the days.

      December 27, 2015 at 9:52 pm

      • That sounds like a good idea. Nailing peanuts to a branch works too though I know you disapprove of that sort of thing.

        December 28, 2015 at 4:51 pm

  8. A fascinating and interesting review Jerry! I hope you manage to solve your problems of getting close enough to the birds and how much weight you can reasonably carry around with you. I love those shots of the Kestrel – it really is a lovely-looking bird!

    December 27, 2015 at 6:16 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare! I think that I’ll come up with solutions to the problems of weight and getting closer to birds, even if I don’t, it will be fun trying. Kestrels are one of those rare birds, they are both cute and beautifully colored, which is why I’d like to get a better photo of one of them.

      December 27, 2015 at 9:35 pm

      • I am sure you will resolve most of your problems as you are very thorough and methodical. Best wishes for a happy new year! Clare

        December 30, 2015 at 9:25 pm

      • Thank you and a Happy New Years, Clare!

        December 31, 2015 at 4:34 am

      • Thank-you Jerry!

        December 31, 2015 at 5:32 am

  9. A fabulous and inspiring post to complete the years. Good luck and best wishes for a big year in 2016.

    December 28, 2015 at 6:54 am

    • Thank you very much Simon! The same wishes for you as well.

      December 28, 2015 at 8:50 am

  10. My favorite was the kestrel shots. I love those tiny little raptors. They’re so colorful and the first raptor I ever learned to identify. There used to be several hanging out on the fenceposts in Utah on my way home. I know I’d never be able to come up with the sort of dedication you put into your photography, but it sure pays off in the results. You’re getting so damned good. It seems you almost take it to the next level with each and every post now. What a great way to spend Christmas. I, on the other hand, had one of the most rotten ever… sick as a dog, coughing my lungs out. Still not fully recovered. Blah!!!

    December 28, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    • Thank you very much Gunta! Sorry to hear that you’re not feeling well, and I hope that you’re doing better in time for New Years.

      Sometimes it’s almost painful to look at what I used to think were good photos, but on the other hand, it’s also very satisfying. I love kestrels also, but they are so small and so easily spooked, that it’s hard to get a good photo of them.

      December 29, 2015 at 9:53 am

  11. Outstanding post and photos, Jerry, very much enjoyed! Your dedication and passion clearly shows in your work. Very impressive! Peace & happiness to you for 2016. 🙂

    December 28, 2015 at 9:51 pm

    • Thanks again Donna! I had reasonably good light for an entire day, the sunset could have been better, but that’s being too picky for what a great day it was.

      December 29, 2015 at 9:48 am

  12. Hi Jerry,
    Am just starting to catch up on reading blogs and commenting again after a break. What a wonderful post. You certainly deserve to get such great results given all the time, reading, patience and practice you’ve put into it. Like other readers I admire your dedication. My favourites are the snowy owls and sunsets. although really all the shots are outstanding. I’m very fond of the macro world too. You should be proud of how far you’ve come. Outstanding. Thanks for sharing your progress with us. I appreciate the time it takes to produce each blog post. Best wishes for 2016. 🙂

    December 29, 2015 at 11:23 pm

    • Thank you very much Jane! My dedication to photography is driven by my love of nature, which makes all that I do as far as photography seem like fun and games rather than work. I hope the same, best wishes for 2016, for you as well!

      December 30, 2015 at 3:14 am