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

Now’s a fine time

Spring is here, it officially arrived in the early hours of Sunday morning. However, it felt nothing like spring as I nearly froze my fingers off shooting poor photos of a ho-hum sunrise at Duck Lake. More on that in a few, but first, I need to apologize in advance for more of my babbling about my photography and gear.

I’ve been taking a long hard look at the quality of the images that I’m shooting now, I can see that I’ve made a good deal of progress in improving my photos. That always happens when it’s been a while since I shot what I consider to be a really good photo that stands out well above the average photos that I shoot. As my average photos improve in quality, it’s harder to shoot a photo that does stand out as being exceptional for me.

Give me a willing subject that asks me if I’d like it to pose for me…

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

…then I do reasonably well…

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

…if only all my photos turned out as well as these, minus the branch in the background of this next one.

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

At least the branch isn’t growing out of the chickadee’s head. 😉 And, I do continue to get better photos of species that I’ve photographed often.

Tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse

Okay, I’ve watched a few more “how to” videos, mostly about shooting birds, but also one on flowers, and another on landscapes. Even though I didn’t pick up many useful tips, seeing great photos is always helpful, and watching those videos gives me a target to shoot at while I compare my images to those shot by professionals. I realize that when it comes to small birds that spend all their time in trees and bushes, that getting a good photo of one completely out in the open is mostly a matter of luck, or perseverance I should say, waiting for one of the birds to land in a spot were a very good photo is possible.

The same applies to photographing the birds in full sun, as were the photos so far. I’ve been shooting in high-speed burst mode more often lately, shooting away as the smaller birds twist and turn even as they’re perched to eventually get an image with no harsh shadows on the birds. I think that I shot around ten photos of the titmouse to get the one good one.

However, even on days when the light is about as close to perfect as it gets, with just a few high clouds diffusing the light, yet with enough light falling on the subject to allow me to keep the ISO down, there can still be shadows, although not as noticeable as on a completely sunny day.

Cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwing

Of course, there’s the busy foreground and background in that photo which preclude it from being excellent, it’s just a good photo of the waxwing. On top of that, there’s the bright white background caused by the cloudy sky. Okay, so I catch one of the waxwings a bit lower in the tree so that there’s not the white background…

Cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwing

…and there’s still all the twigs, branches and berries in the scene. I also had to edit that photo quite a bit to bring out the waxwing’s eye, as there was still a shadow from a branch right across its eye. When it turned…

Cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwing

…the shadow was gone, replaced by a twig, argh!

I’ll get back to the waxwings in a second, but for now, I should stop comparing my photos of small birds in the brush to the images that I see in the videos of much larger species of birds that are also much easier to photograph.

Juvenile bald eagle and red=tailed hawk sharing a thermal

Juvenile bald eagle and red-tailed hawk sharing a thermal

By the way, that was shot with the camera pointed nearly straight up through the moon roof of my brand new pretty blue Subaru. If you’ve ever wondered just how much larger an eagle is than the much more common red-tailed hawk, that photo should clear things up.

In analyzing that image, on the plus side, the settings that I have programmed into the second rear focusing button on the 7D work great on a sunny day like that. I didn’t have to adjust the shadows slider in Lightroom at all, the exposure compensation that I have dialed in worked well to get the under-wing details of the birds very good as they circled directly above me. On the downside, I forgot to turn off the image stabilization, so that image isn’t as sharp as it could have been, due to the “ghosting” that I get with the IS on, and the birds directly overhead of me.

Now, before I get even more sidetracked, back to where I was going with this. When it comes to birds, the videos I watch to learn how to shoot better photos deal with lager birds, herons, egrets, raptors, and so on, very seldom do the photographers show any species of birds smaller than a duck. While even the larger birds are no piece of cake to photograph well, small songbirds in the wooded areas of the eastern United States are an entirely different ballgame. Photographing a three-foot tall bald eagle perched in the top of a tree…

Bald eagle looking regal

Bald eagle looking regal

…is much easier than photographing a three-inch tall goldfinch perched in a similar tree, and, trying to hide.

American goldfinch

American goldfinch

I’ve gotten better shots of goldfinches in the past, my reason for posting this one is that he’s about halfway through molting into his much brighter yellow summer plumage, another welcome sign of spring!

However, I believe that I’ve been concentrating too hard on getting technically good photos, and forgetting that the general public doesn’t care that much about the technical quality, they want to see pretty or interesting things. Here’s an example of what I mean.

Fox squirrel

Fox squirrel

Technically, that’s a great photo, I got the exposure correct, the squirrel’s eye is in sharp focus, I got down to the squirrel’s level, the composition is good, and there’s nothing distracting about the background. However, I think that it’s a boring image because the squirrel is staring at me with a blank look on its face. I have dozens of photos of squirrels that I like better, even though they may not be as good technically, because the squirrels were up to something at the time that I shot them, most of the time it was something humorous. The photo above doesn’t tell a story, it doesn’t show the squirrel’s personality, and it isn’t artistic. So, just because a photo is technically good doesn’t mean that much. I prefer this one more…

Grey squirrel dozing in the spring sun

Grey squirrel dozing in the spring sun

…because I caught the squirrel as it was snoozing in the warm early spring sun. At least the second one tells a bit of a story.

Of course I’d love to do both, get technically good photos that also capture the personality of the subject, tell a story, are artistic, or simply capture the beauty in simple subjects.

Pine needles in the early morning sun

Pine needles in the early morning sun

So, in taking a hard look at the quality of the photos that I’ve been shooting, there are several impediments that are standing in the way of my shooting better photos all the time and they are, and this list applies to all the genres of photography that I shoot, not just wildlife in general, or birds in particular, except for the third item on this list.

  • Time
  • Weather (lighting)
  • Getting closer to wildlife subjects
  • Camera gear (and being able to carry it all)

I’ve listed them in the order of their impact on my photography, I believe that the lack of time is now the major thing holding me back. That’s unfortunate, as there’s not much that I can do about that at the current time. Because of my work schedule, I have two days, Sundays and Mondays, each week that I can devote to being outside for longer periods of time, and possibly two to three other days each week when I may be able to sneak in a quick walk through the local park if I have a short day at work.

In many ways, the second items on the list, weather and lighting are related to lack of time, since I have only the two full days off from work each week, I have to photograph in whatever weather that there is for those two days. I debated listing weather and lighting separately, as I can often work around bad lighting. What I can’t work around is weather so bad that I can’t find anything to photograph with all the wildlife having found shelter, flowers being beaten by the wind and rain, or temperatures so cold that I’d rather not risk frostbite to shoot a few photos.

For wildlife photography, getting closer to your subject is almost always better, and it’s in this area that I have the best chances of doing things differently to get better photos. I’ll expound on this more shortly.

You may have noticed that I listed camera gear last, as I’ve got some very good cameras and lenses already. I may not have been able to afford to buy the top of the line stuff, but I was able to purchase items that perform well for what they cost. The Canon 7D Mk II is an amazing piece of technology, and the more that I learn how to take advantage of its abilities, the more amazed I am at what it can do. For example, I was walking in the local park last week on a cloudy day. I spotted one of the resident red-tailed hawks coming towards me, and coming from the direction that the sun was in at the time. To make the set-up even more difficult, the hawk was flying lower than the tops of the trees, so there were tree branches to contend with. I got a focus lock on the hawk, then let the 7D do its thing shooting in high-speed mode for these.

You can see that the hawk passed in front of branches…

Red-tailed hawk in flight

Red-tailed hawk in flight

…behind branches…

Red-tailed hawk in flight

Red-tailed hawk in flight

…yet the 7D kept tracking it…

Red-tailed hawk in flight

Red-tailed hawk in flight

…and the hawk eventually came to a small opening in the branches for that last photo. I suppose that I could spend a few hours in Lightroom or Photoshop removing all the branches from that image, but I’d still be left with the blown out sky as a background. But, as I’ve said before, with the limited time available to me, I’d rather be outside taking photos than inside editing them.

My workhorse lens set-up for wildlife has become the 300 mm L series lens with the 1.4 X Tele-converter behind it. While the Beast (Sigma 150-500 mm lens) is a good lens, it’s too heavy for me to carry when I’m trying to also carry my other photo gear, and I’ve never been able to get good photos of birds in flight with it on a reliable basis. The 300 mm lens and extender also have the advantage of being a near macro lens for shots like this.

Pussy willows

Pussy willows

Still one can’t help but wonder if some other lens may be the magic bullet that help improve their photos, and I’m guilty of that.

In a way, I miss using the Beast, as I could zoom out to find a bird and get it in the frame, then zoom in for the photo. Trying to find a marsh wren flitting around in an ocean of cattails and reeds while looking through what becomes a 420 mm lens is no easy task. In fact, it was so difficult that I never managed to pull it off, despite my standing there for a good 30 to 45 minutes. Talk about frustrating, the wren was singing the entire time, and I’d catch occasional glimpses of it once in a while, but by the time that I’d get it in the viewfinder, it was either partially hidden, or already on its way to the next spot to sing from.

Another frustrating event occurred while I was shooting the photos of the cedar waxwings that you saw earlier in this post. There had been just a few of them in the tree, when I was suddenly surrounded by an entire large flock of them that were arriving to eat the berries that had fallen from the tree. It was a feeding frenzy that I wish that I could have photographed much better than what I did. Even as I was bringing the camera up to my eye, I was wishing that I had a shorter lens on the camera so that I could capture more of the waxwings as they scarfed down the fallen berries as quickly as they could. I’ve gotten close-ups of one waxwing swallowing a berry before, but even as tight as the 300 mm lens and extender are, I got three, with two actually in focus, although I cut the beak off from one of them.

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

It was a crazy scene, that lasted all of about thirty seconds before some one walked out of the apartment building nearby and spooked the birds off, but here’s a few more of the photos that I shot.

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

They apparently were hungry…

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

…and more arrived all the time…

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

…but in the end…

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

…I settled for trying to get a good photo of one of them, because I knew that I couldn’t get all or most of them.

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

Cedar waxwing feeding frenzy

At the time that I was shooting those, I had one of the 60D bodies with the 100 mm macro lens on it in the holster bag that I use to carry extra gear while walking around home. It would have been a better choice to use, but the camera was turned off, and set-up for landscapes. The feeding frenzy would have been interrupted by the time that I had removed the lens cap from the lens, and made all the adjustments to the camera that would have been needed. If I’d have had it ready, I would have been able to show you how large the flock was, and due to the increased depth of field of the shorter lens, most of the birds would have been in focus.

Come to think of it, there was another time this past week when I wished that I had a wider lens on the camera, I caught a pair of female downy woodpeckers in a territorial dispute. Even though they stayed close together as they went from branch to branch threatening and even dive bombing one another, I was so close to them that I could only get one in the frame…

Female downy woodpecker

Female downy woodpecker

…as she watched the other fly over her…

Female downy woodpecker

Female downy woodpecker

…until the second woodpecker landed on a branch above the first…

Female downy woodpecker

Female downy woodpecker

…and in this photo, you can see just the tail of the second woodpecker.

Female downy woodpecker

Female downy woodpecker

Here’s the rest of the one on the upper branch.

Female downy woodpecker

Female downy woodpecker

They moved to a different tree, where I could get them both in the frame, sort of…

Female downy woodpeckers displaying to one another

Female downy woodpeckers displaying to one another

…until the one on the right attacked the other one.

One female downy woodpecker attacking another

One female downy woodpecker attacking another

Doesn’t it figure, when I had a clear view of the woodpeckers, they were so close that I could only get one in the frame at a time. When I was able to get both of them in the frame, it was just barely, and the birds were partially obscured by the vines and branches in front of them.

I began this post by saying that I had gone to Duck Lake State Park to shoot a ho-hum sunrise. It was below freezing when I arrived, and to make things worse, I was feeling a bit under the weather that day. Still, I hauled most of my camera gear with me, and set-up the 60D body with the EF S 15-85 mm lens on my lightweight tripod to capture what I hoped would be a good sunrise, it wasn’t.

Frosty Duck Lake sunrise

Frosty Duck Lake sunrise

I took the rest of my gear to the Lake Michigan side of the bridge, and after shooting this song sparrow…

Song sparrow

Song sparrow

…I set the 7D up with the 70-200 mm lens on my good tripod in hopes of improving on a photo that I shot the last time I was there. Since there was little color in the sky, that didn’t pan out either.

Another sunrise over Lake Michigan

Another sunrise over Lake Michigan

Part of the problem was that the 70-200 mm lens wasn’t wide enough to compose the scene exactly how I wanted it to look. My only other option would have been the 10-18 mm lens, and that would have been too wide for that scene.

When that view didn’t pan out, I played around shooting alder catkins with the light hitting them from different directions. These next four photos should demonstrate why you should try different lighting on the same subject.

Alder catkins back lighting

Alder catkins back lighting

 

Alder catkins front lighting

Alder catkins traditional front lighting

 

Alder catkins side lighting

Alder catkins side lighting

 

Alder catkins slightly backlit

Alder catkins slightly backlit

Even if the sunrise itself was a bust, it was still fun to explore the possibilities, including getting a better shot of the glowing rocks from an earlier post that I did.

Glowing rocks again

Glowing rocks again

I think that I can do that last scene even better, we’ll see. This is the scene where the 70-200 mm lens would have been the correct choice. Still, it’s a good example of why I like getting out before sunrise, and photographing in the warm early morning light as the sun climbs above the horizon.

Even if I made some poor choices that morning, I still learned a great deal from my mistakes, and that’s always a plus. Having all my gear with me was a good thing as well, but it’s too much for me to carry on longer hikes, as much as I hate to admit that.

Another thing that I hate to admit is that I made some poor choices when it comes to the lenses that I have purchased, sort of. Things have changed a great deal since I began to get serious about my photography, as manufacturers continue to introduce new lenses all the time.

Take the Beast (Sigma 150-500 mm lens) for example. When I switched to Canon equipment, the two affordable zoom lenses on the market for birders were the Beast and Canon’s 100-400 mm lens. While the Canon lens may have produced slightly better images, it was also known as the dust pumper. The way that the zoom mechanism worked, the lens would draw dust from in the air into the lens, requiring that the lens be sent in for cleaning if it got much use. I’ve run into people who used that lens, almost all of them have had to send the lens in for cleaning, and that doesn’t come cheap. So at the time, the Beast seemed to be the best choice.

Since then, several manufacturers have introduced better zoom lenses in that focal length range that would have been a better choice for me, if they had been available at the time.

At the same time, I didn’t think that I would get as serious about photography as I have, I thought at the time that there was no way that I’d ever need more than a crop sensor camera. But, as I’m trying to shoot more landscapes, a full frame sensor camera is beginning to make sense. The problem with the lenses that I purchased is that they were designed to be used on only crop sensor cameras.

That’s not all bad though, as I do quite well with those lenses on the 60D, but the more that I shoot sunrises and sunsets, the more that I see that I could use a second wide-angle set-up, rather than trying to rush around changing my set-up all the time. One thing that I’m learning is that sometimes I luck out and a great scene presents itself in such a way that it photographs well without putting much thought into the photo, but most of the time, I’m much better off taking time to think through everything before I press the shutter release.

So, I’m developing some plans for the future which I’ve hinted at before. Some of those plans involve the purchase of more camera equipment, but most of them have to do with the way that I go about photographing the things that I do. The good thing is that as I change the way that I approach photography, I’ll learn more about what it is that I really need, although I can already see some of the things that I could use right now.

Since this post is too long already, I’ll continue into the future in my next post.

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

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23 responses

  1. This is such an interesting post where I learned a few things about bird behavior and how one should go about photographing them. I especially like the photos of the waxwings and the red-tailed hawk. The former because I haven’t ever seen one yet, and the latter because I see them all the time making circles overhead, but was never able to capture them in a photo, let alone several like you have shown here. Have a great weekend!

    March 25, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    • Thank you very much! The more that you photograph birds, the more that you’ll learn about their behavior, which in turn, make it easier for you to photograph them. I hope that you’re able to see a waxwing soon, they are the definition of subtle beauty.

      March 26, 2016 at 10:39 am

  2. Jerry, some nice shots! I’d say you’ve made significant progress. We’ve been in Florida for the better part of two months so I’ve been out of the loop but hope to get posting again soon.

    March 25, 2016 at 3:36 pm

    • Thank you very much Bob! I’ll bet that you were able to photograph a good many birds down in Fla!

      March 26, 2016 at 10:40 am

  3. I’ve been far too sick to do any shooting for several weeks. I’ve only missed a few nice days with sun and clouds. Mostly the weather tended to reflect the way I felt. Dreary… Nice to see that you have signs on spring showing up. It’s well on its way toward summer here. Or so it seems.

    March 25, 2016 at 4:21 pm

    • Thank you very much! I hope that you’re feeling well now, and haven’t missed all of spring there.

      March 26, 2016 at 10:41 am

  4. Beautiful photos as always, Jerry, including the experiments! Chickadees will always remind me of one of my aunts, who used to feed them out of her hand. They are quite inquisitive little birds.

    March 25, 2016 at 5:00 pm

    • Thank you very much Lavinia! I’m glad that I could bring back a few good memories for you.

      March 26, 2016 at 10:42 am

  5. I feel your pain as far as not having enough time. I had to shoot on only weekends all winter and it was tough. I was glad when the time changed!
    I like all the bird photos but since I don’t often shoot birds it’s hard for me to think of what I would have done differently. I like both squirrel shots too. The squirrel in the first one looks like he was just wishing you’d go away.
    You got a lot of detail in the pussy willows. That’s not easy to do, so more often than not I’m not happy with my photos of them.
    I also like the backlit alder catkins. That’s something I haven’t tried. You’ll have to find the female flowers and try that macro lens on them. They’re just about the smallest flowers I know of.
    I kind of like that sunrise shot. It reminds me of what I used to see in the morning when I did a lot of camping.

    March 25, 2016 at 5:32 pm

    • Thank you very much Allen! Photographing birds well is the toughest subject that I’ve found so far. And yes, the squirrel did wish that I would go away, so it could continue the meal that I interrupted. Artistically, the backlit catkins were my favorite, but I think that the combination of side with a little back lighting showed the most detail. I looked for the female flowers, maybe they were too small for me to notice, but I’ll look again this weekend and give them a try if I find them. I hope to do more camping this summer, maybe I’ll get a good sunrise or two for you.

      March 26, 2016 at 10:50 am

  6. Impressive post and photos!

    March 25, 2016 at 5:55 pm

    • Thank you very much Belinda!

      March 26, 2016 at 10:42 am

  7. I liked your catkin shots very much. The reason other photographers get bird shots with no twigs in them is that they put bird seed down and have their cameras set up beofre the birds arrive. That’s cheating though, isn’t it?

    March 25, 2016 at 6:26 pm

    • Thank you very much Tom! Feeding birds and photographing them isn’t cheating, but it does make it too easy for me, I like banging my head against the wall doing things the hard way. 😉

      March 26, 2016 at 10:43 am

      • I would never have guessed that from reading your posts!

        March 26, 2016 at 4:07 pm

  8. It is always a pleasure to read your posts particularly when they have squirrels in them, thank you very much!

    March 25, 2016 at 6:56 pm

    • Thank you very much Susan! I try to remember to include a squirrel or two just for you.

      March 26, 2016 at 10:44 am

  9. The catkins shots are very appealing, especially the first one that is backlit. Beautiful! I actually liked the subtle colours of the sunrise and the detail of the soft pussy willows is lovely. Your waxwings are gorgeous birds and very well photographed by you. I enjoy all your photos for a variety of reasons, but the most important thing is that you are happy with your progress and finding pleasure in what you do. 🙂

    March 26, 2016 at 5:17 am

    • Thank you very much Jane! I appreciate all the kind words and support!

      March 26, 2016 at 10:51 am

  10. I love the backlit alder catkins too and the series of cedar waxwing shots are fascinating. Perhaps with the longer days and spring weather coming you’ll get more opportunities to try out all the new things you’ve learnt over the winter. Time is definitely what we all need more of!

    March 26, 2016 at 9:15 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare! You’re right, I’m sure that we could all use more time, especially this time of year.

      March 27, 2016 at 2:56 am

  11. Great post/info, Jerry, and so many awesome shots! 🙂

    April 4, 2016 at 8:40 am

    • Thank you very much Donna!

      April 4, 2016 at 8:55 am