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

A new motto to go by, if it’s good enough for Nat Geo

In my last post, I listed a few of the things that I think are holding me back as far as getting better photos.

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

All of these, and more, are inter-related in many ways, and I left what may be the most important thing off from the list, my approach to individual genres of photography. I’ve mentioned this a few times recently, but I’m moving more in this direction every time that I go out to shoot photos, concentrating on only one genre at a time. In other words, if I’m going somewhere to shoot landscapes, then I should only shoot landscapes and not think about shooting other subjects. If I’m going to spend the day birding, then I should only shoot birds, and not think about other types of subjects.

Of course this is easier than it sounds, because you never know when a great opportunity for a photo of any type is going to arise.

I purchased the camera gear that I did with that in mind, I wanted to be ready for anything at any time. However, with all the gear that I have, the backpack that holds it all is too heavy for me to lug around on longer hikes. Well, I can carry it all for 5 miles or a little more, but the truth is, it wears me out. Because of that, I pass on shooting some photos that I should, just because I’m too tired to fool around dropping the pack, digging out the required items, shooting the photos, then putting the pack back on.

I hate to admit that, but I’m no spring chicken any more, and that’s only going to become more true in the next few years as I get closer to retirement.

When I do retire, I plan on spending as much time outside shooting photos as the weather permits, and I’d like to be able to enjoy it, not come home dead tired from lugging excess camera gear around just in case.

Okay then, one thing that I’ve learned over the past few years is that going for longer hikes and shooting “targets of opportunity” so to speak, doesn’t necessarily lead to the best photos, which is why I’ve been breaking up my days doing more specialized photography over the course of a day. For example, generally, the best times to shoot landscapes are around sunrise and sunset. But there are exceptions, an approaching storm, or when the sun pops out after a storm has passed can often yield great lighting for dramatic landscape photos.

When it comes to birds, or any wildlife, generally the best time is shortly after sunrise, when the wildlife is the most active, and there’s enough light to photograph them. Also, the closer that you can get to your subject when shooting wildlife generally produces the best images. At least that’s true when you’re shooting bird portraits…

Male blue-winged teal

Male blue-winged teal

…and it’s really good if you get close enough for a head shot that didn’t need to be cropped.

Pekin duck basking in the sun

Pekin duck basking in the sun

However, what happens if there’s a photo opportunity at the “wrong” time of day…

Male bufflehead at sunrise

Male bufflehead at sunrise

…or if you suddenly get the chance to shoot action shots?

Male bufflehead chasing a female

Male bufflehead chasing a female

That was shot on Easter Sunday as were the others except for the Pekin duck, my best day of photography since Christmas Day, 2015. I’m beginning to think that the Big Guy upstairs smiles down on me when I spend the religious holidays in nature trying to capture the beauty of his creations.

For reasons that I won’t go into, I arrived just a bit late at the Muskegon wastewater facility to get the best photo of the sunrise, as the colors were already beginning to fade.

Sunrise at Muskegon

Sunrise at Muskegon

I shot that one just to remind myself to never be late for a sunrise again! If I had been there on time, I would have gotten a better foreground and even better color in the sky.

It turned out to be a ducky day, as I saw just about every species of puddle ducks at one point or another during the course of the day. Large flocks had just arrived at the wastewater facility, and in the early morning light, I decided to shoot mostly the small flocks of ducks as they were fooling around.

Northern shovelers landing

Northern shovelers landing

 

Male northern shoveler taking off

Male northern shoveler taking off

 

Male northern shoveler in flight

Male northern shoveler in flight

Not only had many species just arrived, but particularly the bufflehead were in an amorous mood as they were pairing up for the spring. I tried to shoot a few photos, and you’ve already seen one taken later in the day, but I decided to attempt a video of them in action.

You may think that I sped up the video, but I didn’t, I don’t have the video editing software to do that, even if I knew how. That’s really how quickly the bufflehead move when their hormones are raging. I wasn’t happy with that first video, so I tried again.

There was a small flock of blue-winged teal flying in loops around one of the storage lagoons, but whenever they were showing their beautiful blue and green wing patches…

Blue-winged teal in flight

Blue-winged teal in flight

…they were so close together that it was hard to pick individuals out of the flock. But, when they were banking away from me…

Blue-winged teal in flight

Blue-winged teal in flight

…then they would spread out nicely, showing me the duller underside of their wings.

I’m going to skip ahead at this point, to mid-morning when the ducks began to calm down and snooze for the most part. I decided to park my brand new pretty blue Subaru next to the east lagoon while I ate lunch to see how close the ducks would come towards it if it wasn’t running.

My brand new pretty blue Subaru

My brand new pretty blue Subaru

I’d better not start telling you how much I love this car already, that could be an entire blog post if I were to get started.

Anyway, a small flock of bufflehead were drifting towards me getting closer all the time. Since I wanted to get a good close-up of one of the males showing their iridescent head, I put the 2 X tele-converter behind the 300 mm lens…

Male bufflehead

Male bufflehead

…with them facing me for a change, instead of swimming away from me.

Male bufflehead

Male bufflehead

Even at 600 mm of focal length, I wasn’t getting as close to the ducks as I had hoped, but that suddenly changed. Their hormones kicked in again, and they were going just as crazy as in the videos earlier, then that 600 mm f/8 lens was too long and too slow…

Male bufflehead chasing a female

Male bufflehead chasing a female

…I was a bit slow trying to keep up with the action as well…

Male bufflehead chasing a female

Male bufflehead chasing a female

…and most of the time, I couldn’t keep both of them in the frame…

Male bufflehead chasing a female

Male bufflehead chasing a female

…although the male did slow down to catch his breath, then he was off again…

Male bufflehead chasing a female

Male bufflehead chasing a female

…overall though, I’m surprised that as many of these came out reasonable well as they did…

Male bufflehead chasing a female

Male bufflehead chasing a female

…as the combination of the 300 mm lens and 2 X extender seems to focus as slow as molasses…

Male bufflehead chasing a female

Male bufflehead chasing a female

…but they tracked the bufflehead well and did a respectable job here…

Male bufflehead chasing a female

Male bufflehead chasing a female

…then, I don’t know if they noticed me, or something else spooked them, but they departed for good…

Male bufflehead in flight

Male bufflehead in flight

…maybe the female was tired of being chased…

Male bufflehead in flight

Male bufflehead in flight

…and so it goes. I probably shouldn’t have posted all of those, but since bufflehead are small ducks ( Just over a foot in length), I don’t have that many good images of them.

You can never predict what wildlife is going to do, making the camera settings/lens selection difficult. If I had known that the bufflehead were going to go nuts as close to me as they were, I wouldn’t have put the 2 X extender on the lens. Although, it worked out reasonably well here, it would have been better if I could have kept both the male and the female in the frame to tell the story by having them both in the frame.

I don’t want to get into he technical details of photography, I’ll just say that neither the lens combination that I was using, nor the camera settings were as good as they should have been to capture the action. That goes with the two examples from my last post, the waxwing feeding frenzy and the downy woodpecker territorial dispute where because of my equipment and settings, I wasn’t able to tell the entire story of what was going on. Then, there’s the fact that shooting video may be the best way to tell the stories that I’d like to tell when it comes to when it comes to wildlife.

I’ve been mentioning things such as wearing camouflaged clothing, or using hides to get closer to wildlife, along with specializing more when it comes to the time that I spend outdoors. It’s time to start putting that all together in the form of a plan.

On a nice warm, sunny day as Easter was, I’d love to sit back in a hide and let the birds come to me. Just as I parked my brand new pretty blue Subaru in a spot where I knew that I’d have good light and that the ducks seemed to like to hang out at, I could have set-up a temporary hide there, and taken two cameras, lenses, and just a few more bits of gear and waited for the ducks to return so that I could have gotten even better images than I did. I’d have one camera set-up for action, the other for portraits. I may even start doing things right by mounting the portrait set-up on my tripod if I know that I have another good set-up ready for action photos ready to go right next to me.

But, I don’t want to completely give up my longer hikes, I do enjoy them, and frankly, I need the exercise, so there’s the weight of my gear to consider.

I think that I have a solution, a better long zoom lens than the Beast (Sigma 150-500 mm lens) for action, and I can use the 300 mm lens with the tele-converters for portraits when I’m in a hide. The new Canon 100-400 mm zoom lens is still a full pound lighter than the Beast, is much shorter and compact, and it focuses as close as the 300 mm lens does for near macros, so I could carry that on longer hikes since it’s so versatile. If that lens had been available when I made the switch from Nikon to Canon, it probably would have been the lens that I purchased rather than the Beast. The 100-400 mm lens is a bit heavier than the 300 mm lens alone, but I always have the 1.4 X extender behind that lens, so the weight difference between what I use now and the new lens is minimal.

Thinking along those same lines, versatility, I have been trying out a few things on my longer walks the past month or so. When the weather is suitable for good macro photography, and I know that I’ll likely want to shoot macros, I’ll carry the birding set-up along with a 60D body and the 100 mm macro lens. On days when it’s windier, or I think that I may shoot a landscape or two, I carry the birding set-up, the 60D body, the 15-85 mm lens, and one or two of the extension tubes which convert that lens to a near macro lens. Since I have learned that software can help almost as much as extra light sources, it works quite well.

Decay

Decay in HDR

I’ve struggled in the past with similar photos, as there would be deep shadows in places in that photo. I’d have to dig out the LED light that I have, and/or the flash unit, set everything up, take a few test shots, then rearrange the lights as needed. By shooting to produce a HDR image, I find that I seldom need to fool around with the extra light sources to kill the shadows that the camera produces in a scene like that one. While that one isn’t a true macro photo, I used the same technique to shoot the crocus flowers recently.

Crocus

Crocus

I guess that you could say that I’m still learning how to get the best out of the gear that I have now.

That still doesn’t deter me from wanting a full size sensor camera body though, no matter how good that I get with my crop sensor gear, it can never match what’s possible with a full size sensor.

I’m in no hurry though, since Canon introduced the 7D Mk II, they’ve upgraded the 1DX, their top of the line camera, to match all the capabilities of the 7D, such as the dual Digix 6 processors, the better metering system, built-in intervalometer, and so on. I don’t think that it will be long before they upgrade the 5D Mk III to include those features as well.

Then, I have to think about lenses, actually, I’m thinking about that now. I had two wide-angle lenses picked out, but I’ve changed my mind. That’s where the new motto comes in.

In the videos that Michael Melford did, he listed the gear he used, and one of the lenses he used a lot before he switched to Nikon was the Canon 24-105 mm L series lens. I’ve also noticed that many of the professionals who do the online tutorials on Lightroom or Photoshop use that same lens, even though it is getting long in the tooth.

It’s easy to understand why, that’s about the ideal focal length range for an all around lens unless one is into specialized subjects, such as wildlife or macro photography. The 24-105 mm lens goes from wide enough for most landscapes, to enough of a telephoto lens for portraits, still life photography, and subjects such as flowers. In fact, it was one of the lenses that I considered early on when I bought the 60D camera, but that’s a crop sensor camera, and the 24-105 mm becomes a 38.4 – 168 mm lens on the 60D, not wide enough for what I wanted on the crop sensor body. That’s why I chose the EF S 15-85 mm lens, because it is to a crop sensor camera what the 24-105 mm lens is to a full size sensor body.

But, the venerable 24-105 mm lens is getting old in the tooth as I said, and it’s never had a reputation for being extra sharp. But, the way I’m looking at things now, if it is good enough for the professionals, then it’s good enough for me. Or, to put in a slightly different way, if the photos that it produces are good enough for Nat Geo, then it’s good enough for me.

Since my goal is to shoot photographs that come close to the ones that I’ve seen in the National Geographic, I’d be a happy camper if I could achieve that goal.

Canon is currently updating both their cameras and lenses, maybe they will update the 24-105 mm lens soon. That would make that lens a sure bet, but I’ll probably purchase the old style if that’s all that’s available.

So, what I’m thinking of in the future on my longer hikes is carrying the 7D Mk II with the new 100-400 mm lens on it for birds, wildlife, and near macros, maybe even a landscape now and then. I’ll carry the full frame camera with the 24-105 mm lens on it for landscapes, still life photos, and so on, and I’ll have the extension tubes with me that weigh next to nothing to convert that lens to a macro lens. I’d be able to cover all the bases pretty well without trying to carry a full studio around with me as I’m doing now.

If you think that the rest of the gear that I’ve purchased so far will go to waste, it won’t, it will get used when I go on the more specialized photo outings. But, rather than pack it all, all the time, I’ll just take what the specialized outing calls for.

Okay then, back to Easter Sunday at Muskegon. I said that it was a ducky day, and that I saw a wide variety of species there, so here’s the photos of them.

Pie-billed grebe

Pie-billed grebe

 

Male greater scaup

Male greater scaup

 

Snow goose in flight

Snow goose in flight

 

Lesser scaup pair

Lesser scaup pair

 

Horned grebe

Horned grebe

 

Redhead ducks

Redhead ducks

 

Female or juvenile ruddy duck

Female or juvenile ruddy duck

 

Northern pintail ducks in flight

Northern pintail ducks in flight

 

American widgeon

American wigeon

 

American widgeon

American wigeon

 

American coot

American coot

 

Female common goldeneye

Female common goldeneye

But the stars of the day were the bufflehead, there were hundreds of them, everywhere, so here’s three more photos of them, even though this post has been full of them so far. These are more artistic images, the species doesn’t matter as much as the lighting…

Bufflehead in flight at dawn

Bufflehead in flight at dawn

…the angle that I shot the image at…

Bufflehead taking flight

Bufflehead taking flight

…or capturing the shot at the right moment.

Bufflehead taking flight

Bufflehead taking flight

I also spent some time adding to my collection of photos of gulls in flight, here’s just one of them that I shot on Easter.

Ring-billed gull in flight

Ring-billed gull in flight

Gee, I posted so many photos of the bufflehead that I don’t have room for the snowy owl, I guess those photos will have to wait until the next post. That’s okay, this snowy was in no mood to pose for me, so the photos aren’t that good, and it’s no big deal if I hold off posting those.

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

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32 responses

  1. Excellent article and photos.

    March 30, 2016 at 3:15 pm

    • Thank you very much Belinda!

      March 30, 2016 at 11:57 pm

  2. Loved the close ups and that sunrise. The videos were great too.

    March 30, 2016 at 4:07 pm

    • Thank you very much Susan! My videography skills need much improvement, but they are the best way to show the way that the birds behave.

      March 30, 2016 at 11:58 pm

  3. Great read some lovely captures and video made me smile

    March 30, 2016 at 4:39 pm

    • Thank you very much! I need to work on my skills at shooting videos.

      March 30, 2016 at 11:59 pm

  4. I think the colors in that sunrise shot are beautiful. I’d sure be happy with it.
    That car should last you a while. I work with people who drive them and they like them too.
    I like the shots of the ducks exploding from the water or tip toing across it.
    I also like that decaying log. Nice colors!
    If you’ve got crocus blooming then spring must be taking hold there. Here too, but ever so slowly.

    March 30, 2016 at 5:26 pm

    • Thank you very much Allen! If you think that the sunrise in the photo was good, you should have seen the sky 15 minutes earlier. A lost opportunity on my part.

      I have no doubt that the new Subaru will last, they have that reputation. The new one is so much better than the old one, I’m glad that I updated. Nothing big, as I told the salesman, they made hundreds of little changes that made it seem like a different vehicle.

      Watching ht ducks in action keeps me entertained for hours, so I’m glad you liked those photos.

      Spring is on hold here for another week, they’re talking about snow this weekend, and it will be cold enough, Bah!

      March 31, 2016 at 12:05 am

      • It sounds like we’ll see the same weather this weekend. It’ll be challenging!

        March 31, 2016 at 4:46 am

      • I’m afraid that it will be another lost weekend. I suppose that I’ll work on making space in the garage for my new car.

        March 31, 2016 at 2:07 pm

  5. Easter ducks are definitely better than Easter bunnies! Love all the photos and videos especially the close ups, the sunrise, the crocus and the shiny new car!

    March 30, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    • Thank you very much! I should have gone looking for a bunny, since it was Easter, but I suppose that the ducks did well to provide the entertainment.

      March 31, 2016 at 12:07 am

  6. An excellent with plenty of interesting reading and some wonderful duck pictures. I can certainly tell you that you are right in thinking that carrying gear about does not get any easier with age.

    March 30, 2016 at 6:16 pm

    • Thank you very much Tom! Getting old is no fun, but it sure beats the alternative!

      March 31, 2016 at 12:08 am

  7. I enjoyed very much reading this post and admiring your photos. They are so sharp, well lighted and I am amazed at how you were able to capture the shenanigans of those Buffleheads! 🙂 I have not yet tried shooting a movie with my camera, thinking I should try to master still photos first, but perhaps your example will spur me on.

    March 30, 2016 at 7:03 pm

    • Thank you very much! I was blessed with very good light that day, and I was determined to take advantage of it for a change, I’m glad that you liked the results.

      In some ways, shooting video is easier, the motion of the subjects hold people’s interest, you don’t have to be as close. In other ways, it’s harder, like trying to keep the camera steady for as long as the videos run when shooting at 420 mm.

      March 31, 2016 at 12:12 am

  8. Great action shots to bring the story to life,

    March 30, 2016 at 8:25 pm

    • Thank you very much!

      March 31, 2016 at 12:12 am

  9. I can certainly understand your issues with pack weight and the hassle with stopping to unpack the best gear. I do quite a lot of long walks and find my very basic safety equipment, water and one lightweight camera more than enough to carry! I can’t imagine lugging around all your heavy gear. I often wish there was someone to take something out of my backpack for me so I don’t have to take the whole thing off! Photography is always a bit of a compromise isn’t it with equipment. Loved all the gorgeous shots and the vids! The sound and action of the videos helped me feel like I was there. I also approve of the colour of your new vehicle. Very pretty indeed. 🙂

    March 30, 2016 at 11:48 pm

    • Thank you very much Jane! I forgot to add, not only does the weight wear me down, but it interferes with my mobility in getting the shots while I’m wearing the pack. I do have to learn how to shoot better videos, many times that’s the best way to tell a story.

      March 31, 2016 at 2:09 pm

  10. My favorite of all of these wonderful images is the pie-billed grebe. Love the lighting, the color and the detail. I think it comes up to your Nat’l Geo standard!

    April 1, 2016 at 11:27 am

    • Thank you very much Gunta! That one has way too much noise, it was shot minutes after the sun popped over the horizon, and I didn’t have time to make the right changes to the camera settings.

      April 1, 2016 at 1:30 pm

  11. Great photos as always, Jerry! The Buffleheads do move very fast, including the head bobbing. The crocus is beautiful, orange-gold on purple! one of my favorite color combos.

    Yes, you are right it doesn’t get any easier carrying equipment around with age, including music equipment.

    April 1, 2016 at 6:32 pm

    • Thank you very much Lavinia! My brother is a musician that has been in several bands, I used to help them set up, and you’re right, all that stuff is heavy.

      April 1, 2016 at 11:11 pm

  12. I am amazed at the amount of ducks you saw and photographed, and what great shots too! The close-up of the Pekin Duck is fabulous and like Gunta, I loved the shot of the Pie-billed Grebe. Great videos and great series of Bufflehead photos too.

    April 1, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare! It was a great day, good light, and plenty to see and photograph, so I’m glad that you enjoyed the results.

      April 1, 2016 at 11:17 pm

  13. Wow, Jerry. What a great collection.

    When I saw your photo of the northern shovelers landing, I was reminded of a passage from a book about the Wright brothers that we received tly listened to. The author mentioned that the brothers spent hours watching birds flying and landing, flapping their arms and hands to imitate the position of the wings. If only they had your shoveled photo to work with – you captured the birds in every stage of landing.

    I especially love the takeoff photos though, where those few running steps across the water are evident. You see this with your eyes, but the photo really shows how much effort it takes to get aloft.

    Thanks for a fascinating article – it took a long time to get through it, as I kept going back to some of the photos. Didn’t watch the video, due to bandwidth restrictions. I’d like to say that I’ll catch up when I get home, but I know that will never happen.

    Retirement will be here before you know it. Hang in there.

    April 2, 2016 at 11:44 am

    • Thank you very much Judy! I liked both he videos and the photos, the videos are humorous as they show the courting behavior in full, and what clowns the males are. However, the stills are more dramatic, and they do show a lot more of the details that go into a duck taking flight. Don’t worry about having skipped the videos, I plan on shooting more as my skill level, increases.

      April 2, 2016 at 6:06 pm

  14. I understand your comments regarding pack weight and the type of equipment to select from. I find myself doing the same with my pursuits. I really enjoy your photos, they are very professional and take me outdoors when I am stuck inside.

    April 3, 2016 at 8:08 pm

    • Thank you very much for the very kind words! I do appreciate them.

      April 4, 2016 at 3:01 am

  15. Fantastic photos, Jerry! Buffleheads are one of my favorites to watch, you showed their crazy antics so well! I really love the blue-winged teals, the flight captures are superb! I’m still trying to find one of these for my collection. 🙂

    April 4, 2016 at 8:47 am

    • Thanks again Donna! The bufflehead are a hoot to watch in the mating season, as are most ducks. I can’t help you with the blue-winged teal, they are common around here.

      April 4, 2016 at 8:57 am