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

When it’s too cold outside

Since my work schedule has me up in the wee hours of the morning, and it’s too cold to spend much time outside even after the sun comes up, I was sitting around thinking about photography and how to improve the images I shoot. These days, I almost always use a tripod for landscape photos, so that I can dial the ISO down to 100 for the best image quality, and let the shutter stay open as long as necessary, since landscapes don’t generally move to blur the image.

Snow scene before dawn

Snow scene before dawn

That was shot on my way to the Muskegon County wastewater facility well before the sun came up. I know that because here’s the view that I had as the sun came over the horizon once I had arrived at the wastewater facility.

Sunrise January 8, 2017

Sunrise January 8, 2017

That scene lasted for only a few seconds, long before I could get somewhere for a better shot of the sunrise, the color was gone.

It turned out to be another very slow day as far as photography, I shot a couple of more snow scenes.

The creek still flows

The creek still flows

 

Looking down the trail

Looking down the trail

On this day, instead of shooting only fair photos of flying Canada geese, I shot fair photos of mallards in flight as soon as there was enough light to do so.

Mallards in flight

Mallards in flight

 

Mallards taking off

Mallards taking off

 

Mallards in flight

Mallards in flight

 

Female mallard in flight

Female mallard in flight

 

Female mallard in flight

Female mallard in flight

 

Female mallard in flight

Female mallard in flight

I suppose that those aren’t too bad considering how gloomy it was and that they were all shot with the ISO set to 6400 trying to get enough light into the camera. I did find a few eagles, only one perched though, and it was in a bad spot.

Juvenile bald eagle

Juvenile bald eagle

 

Juvenile bald eagle

Juvenile bald eagle

There was a flock of crows on the other side of the road keeping their eyes on the eagle, here’s one of them.

American crow

American crow

A brief thin spot in the clouds allowed me to shoot this mourning dove at 800 mm, the 400 mm lens plus the 2 X tele-converter.

Mourning dove

Mourning dove

In fact, I spent most of the day practicing my manual focusing techniques with that combination.

Fidgety Herring gull

Fidgety Herring gull

 

Horned lark that wouldn't stop moving

Horned lark that wouldn’t stop moving

 

American tree sparrow that finally posed for me.

American tree sparrow that finally posed for me.

Those were the best that I could do yesterday, and I saw no point in going back today, which is Monday as I begin this post. By the way, none of the photos from the morning dove on were cropped at all, that’s why I’m trying to get better with the 400 mm lens with the 2 X tele-converter behind it.

Instead, I decided to do some indoor testing relating to the thoughts that I began this post with, how for landscapes, I use a tripod and can therefore set the ISO much lower. At first I couldn’t think of a suitable indoor subject for such a test. Over the past few winters, I’ve used a few different ones indoors as I experimented with my macro lens, my wide-angle lenses, or the extension tubes that I have. None of the subjects that I used for those tests really represented birds or wildlife well, even though one of the test subjects was a rubber ducky. The problem with it for testing is that it doesn’t have the fine detail of a real bird’s feathers. Then it hit me, I have a stuffed animal that an ex-girlfriend gave me 40 years ago.

My stuffed dog

My stuffed dog

That was shot with the 100-400 mm lens set to 400 mm, the camera ISO set to 100 and a several second exposure.

I learned a good deal in my testing, some of the things that I learned surprised me, but one thing that didn’t was that the 100-400 mm lens isn’t quite 400 mm even when zoomed all the way. That was confirmed when I switched to the 400 mm lens.

400 mm prime lens

400 mm prime lens

I hadn’t moved the dog or my tripod, yet the 400 mm lens gets a little closer than the 100-400 mm lens does. It’s common for zoom lenses not being quite the focal lengths that they are rated as.

But, here’s where the subject of image quality gets tricky. When I zoomed in on the stuffed dog’s eye in Lightroom, the 400 mm prime lens was significantly sharper than the 100-400 mm lens, even though it’s hard to see much difference in the full size photos. But, I prefer the color rendition of the 100-400 mm lens.

One of the things that surprised me right off the bat was how wobbly my tripod set-up is when using the long, heavy lenses. I had to set the shutter release to a two second delay to let everything stop moving before the shutter fired. The tripod legs are steady enough, as well as the head that I have on the tripod, but the quick release system that I have, along with the way that it mounts on the lenses seems to be where all the motion came from.

Also, the three-way head that I have may be rated to carry the weight of the long lenses, but getting aimed at the exact spot I wanted was a pain. I’m already planning to upgrade to a more suitable tripod system for my longer lenses, so that’s not really an issue, but it did open my eyes a little to how important that will be if I do begin using a tripod more often when shooting birds and wildlife.

Neither lens would auto-focus accurately in the low light in my kitchen, in order to get a sharp image, I had to manually focus to get a good sharp image. That led to the next surprise, the 100-400 mm lens is a royal pain in the you know where to manually focus. I think that it’s because of how fast it is to auto-focus, it requires only minute adjustments of the focus ring to make large differences in where it is focused at. I gave up testing that lens, and worked with just the 400 mm prime from there on for the most part. The 400 mm lens is a bit slower to auto-focus, and it requires that I turn the focus ring much more to make significant changes to where it is focused at, much like an old film era lens.

Next up, I added the 1.4 X tele-converter to the 400 mm prime lens. I found that I couldn’t manually focus accurately through the viewfinder, but if I went into the live view mode, and zoomed in on where I wanted the image to be in focus, I could pull off images like this.

400 mm lens and 1.4 X extender

400 mm lens and 1.4 X extender

That surprised me also, the 1.4 X extender didn’t seem to work well with that lens when I tried it in the field, but there was almost no loss of sharpness when mounted on the tripod.

Of course the next step was to switch to the 2 X extender on the 400 mm prime lens for this image.

400 mm prime lens and 2 X extender

400 mm prime lens and 2 X extender

There is a little fall-off in sharpness, but it still performed much better than I had expected, and better than cropping an image down to make the subject appear as close. That confirms the limited testing that I’ve done in the field with that lens so far.

I also learned a few things about my Canon 7D Mk II that I didn’t know before I did this testing. I had the ISO set manually to 100 for these test shots, or so I thought. When I went into live view to focus, I would see ISO 16000 appear in the screen while I was focusing. That makes sense, the camera had to turn up the ISO to form the live view image for me to see. Most of the time, I would switch live view off before I pressed the shutter release, but there was one time that I forgot to switch it off. Then, the  camera stayed at ISO 16000 even though I have it set in the menu system to never go higher than 12800. But, the results weren’t that bad.

800 mm ISO 16000

800 mm ISO 16000

You can’t see the noise in the image as it appears here, but when I zoomed in using Lightroom, I could see the noise then, not as much as I thought there would be, but there was some.

Yet another surprise was that when I forgot to turn off live view before taking the shot is that the camera crops the image slightly as you can see by comparing the last two photos. When I viewed the images in the camera, it showed the entire image with bars across the image, but when the images were sent to Lightroom, all that was sent were the parts of the image within the bars.

I went back and tried the 100-400 mm lens again, using live view, but that was my last surprise, that lens can not match the 400 mm prime lens in sharpness, at least not in this test. I would have guessed that the two lenses were about equal, that’s what I had found from using both in the field. I should repeat this testing someday when there’s good light outside to see if I get the same results.

Having had more time to think about my unscientific testing, I should have turned off the Image Stabilization of the 100-400 mm lens since it was mounted on a tripod. The experts say that isn’t necessary to turn it off, but I always do on my short lenses when I’m shooting landscapes, and it seems to work better.

I did switch the lenses to manual focus while I was manually focusing. Despite what Canon says about manual over-ride, I found that the camera would fight me as I manually focused, and it would attempt to set the focus where it wanted.

Okay then, this very unscientific testing did confirm my original thoughts, that if I were to use a tripod and set the ISO much lower, I can get better quality images that way, if the subject sits still long enough.

It also confirms something that I’ve been thinking about as I read lab reviews of lenses, they don’t always equate into real world results. For example, the 100-400 mm lens failed in what I was trying to do inside, but as I’ve used that lens as I normally do outside, it has stunned me with how good it is. I would have rated it equal to or better than the 400 mm prime lens from the images it has produced in the field. I suppose that lab tests have their place, they tell you how well a piece of camera gear will perform in the lab under controlled conditions.

You can’t trust the reviews done by many of the professional photographers, because many of them either receive some form of compensation from the manufacturers, or are angling to be one of those who receive some form of compensation from the manufacturers.

It’s also hard to trust user reviews as well, since one never knows if the person doing the review is being honest, or if they even know how to use the equipment that they are reviewing.

You could rent a lens for a week or two, but I’m not sure that one would become familiar enough with a lens in such a short period of time. If you were to rent it for a long enough count of time to become sure of its capabilities and shortfalls, you may as well have purchased it in the first place.

The manufacturer’s specifications don’t help much either. For example, many manufacturer’s give a spec for the least amount of light required for a camera to auto-focus, what they don’t tell you is how inaccurate the auto-focus becomes as the amount of light approaches that lowest limit. That’s what happened when I started the test that I did, both lenses seemed to auto-focus, however, the fuzzy photos that I got told me otherwise.

As always, I learned a great deal during this little exercise, about my camera, the lenses, and my tripod system. One thing that still puzzles me though is why there isn’t more noise visible in the image shot at ISO 16000. I have to use Lightroom to remove noise in photos shot at ISO 6400 or higher normally. That one is a real head scratcher.

I’ve heard that Live view focusing is the most accurate, because you are seeing what the sensor actually sees as it’s about to capture the image. You’re not using the focusing screen or relying on an auto-focus sensor to make the determination if the lens is in focus or not. I will say one thing though after this test, just how good the auto-focusing systems are today is amazing, despite their weaknesses.

So, another week has gone by, and I’ve made another trip to the Muskegon wastewater facility. It was a rare, almost sunny day, however a ground inversion in the atmosphere created a haze in the light, scattering it in ways that didn’t lead to the best photos. I tried to get my best images ever of a snow bunting using what I had learned from my indoor testing, but I couldn’t use live view focusing for them because they move around so much. Still, these aren’t bad considering that I was manually focusing the 400 mm lens with the 2 X extender behind it.

Snow bunting

Snow bunting

 

Snow bunting

Snow bunting

I’ll save the rest of the photos from my most recent trip for the next post, I’ll fill this one out with a few more images shot over the summer and fall. Heck, some go all the way back to spring.

???

Wood sorrel?

 

Lily of the valley?

Lily of the valley

 

Hawkweed?

Hawkweed?

 

Another that I've forgotten

Another that I’ve forgotten

 

Male brownheaded cowbird

Male brown-headed cowbird

 

I don't know what it is, but it's pretty

I don’t know what it is, but it’s pretty

 

White Pine

White Pine

 

From the viburnum family

From the viburnum family

 

Red-bellied woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpecker

 

Blue-eyed grass

Blue-eyed grass

 

Caterpillar

Caterpillar

 

Female brownheaded cowbird

Female brown-headed cowbird

Looking at these photos from last year make me wish that spring was here already! It’s been even gloomier here than usual this past week, other than on Sunday when I shot the snow buntings. It’s been warmer since then, which was nice, but the warm air has led to the snow melting, and that in turn has led to foggy days and nights with the moisture from the melting snow in the atmosphere. I am so ready for spring!

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

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16 responses

  1. Lots of stunning photographs but the ones that really caught my eye were those mallards in flight, splendid.

    January 19, 2017 at 1:53 am

    • Thank you very much Susan! I hope that even better ones are on their way soon.

      January 19, 2017 at 11:54 pm

  2. Very interesting post Jerry. Not only are the photos so good, but I enjoyed your experimentation with your 400 and 100-400 lenses, with and without extenders. I also have a 2X III, but in the past it has produced such poor results that I haven’t used it in a year. Maybe I’ll try it again with the new lens.

    January 19, 2017 at 8:26 am

    • Thank you very much Hien! It takes some work and practice, but the extenders can be a big help in getting closer to your subject.

      January 19, 2017 at 11:56 pm

  3. A dull, foggy day here has been brightened by your lovely photos! I love the action photo of the six mallards taking off – everyone of them has a different wing position. The snow bunting and the American tree sparrow are attractive birds and your photos show all their feather patterns and colours so clearly. Your furry friend is photogenic whichever way you look at him and whichever lens you use! My favourite photo though is the lily of the valley -I can almost smell it from here! Roll on the Spring…for all of us!

    January 19, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    • Thank you very much Marianne! I’m really glad that some one else appreciates the leftovers that I have from the past year, it does help to make winter seem not as bad as it really is.

      January 19, 2017 at 11:58 pm

  4. I love the mallards too, especially the shape of the wings in the taking off shot and also the way all the drops of water are visible in the female mallard in flight shots. Other favourite shots are the mourning dove, the tree sparrow with the seeds all over its beak, and the snow buntings. The shot of the red-bellied woodpecker made me laugh!

    January 19, 2017 at 4:31 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare! I love photographing woodpeckers, they are curious by nature and want to keep an eye on me. At the same time, they don’t want to be seen by me, so it’s like a game of peek-a-boo as I try to photograph them.

      January 20, 2017 at 12:04 am

  5. Jerry, I fell in love with the flock of Mallards taking flight over the water….and then I saw the Snow Bunting captures…..GORGEOUS! I love their colors and patterns. 🙂

    January 19, 2017 at 7:49 pm

    • Thank you very much Donna! I think that snow buntings are one of the most under-rated birds as far as how pretty they are. Maybe that’s because they are so hard to see as they forage for seeds on the ground.

      January 20, 2017 at 12:06 am

  6. I like the landscapes, especially the glow of that sunrise. It doesn’t look like you’re buried under snow just yet!
    Great shots of the mallards and that snow bunting is too cute.
    That yellow flower does look like some type of hawkweed, but I’m not sure which one. I think the small white flowers are chickweed.
    The pollen cones on the white pine were a good find. The often appear so high in the tree you can’t see them.
    I can’t think of hardly anything that I’ve had for 40 years. The stuffed dog must be special!

    January 20, 2017 at 4:59 pm

    • Thank you very much Allen! We get a couple feet of snow, then most of it melts before several more feet get dumped on us so far this winter.

      I’ll never be good at IDing flowers, I don’t have the patience that you do, so I do the best that I can.

      I liked the shapes and structure of the pollen cones, even though I wasn’t sure what they were, pretty sad.

      The stuffed dog isn’t that special, but the woman who gave it to me and the memories are, which is why I keep the dog. 😉

      January 21, 2017 at 12:23 am

  7. I like ducks a lot so I really enjoyed your duck shoot. The indoor tests were very interesting, My eyesight is so ropey that I find manually focussing almost impossible.

    January 20, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    • Thank you very much Tom! I find it difficult to manually focus using the focusing screens that Canon uses these days, and I have to wear my glasses to use the live view feature, so I’m close to being in the same boat that you are.

      January 21, 2017 at 12:17 am

  8. I really like the very subtle color in the first flying mallard shot. It gives a cool, wintry impression. Also loved the snow bunting photos (have to admit that I haven’t paid much attention to your previous snow bunting photos). The feather patterns really are quite vivid.

    Love your test model – so much easier to have a cooperative subject for experiments. I was surprised to see so much snow in your landscapes – guess I thought most of it was gone. At this time of the season, it always seems like winter digs in and tries to stick around forever. Hope things ease up, and you are able to actually enjoy being outside again soon.

    January 24, 2017 at 9:40 am

    • Thank you very much Judy! I like the snow buntings, they may not be brightly colored, but they are nicely patterned, and most people never see them.

      Most of the snow is gone again now, but it will return later this week, again. I’ve been switched from the night shift to days, and working longer hours, so I won’t make it out until the weekend.

      January 24, 2017 at 11:21 pm