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

In search of perfection

Of course one can not attain perfection, one can only come close. Still, that doesn’t stop me from trying, because when I do, I get the best images that I can under the circumstances at the time.

But, I’m learning that it isn’t just the photographer that can’t reach perfection, neither can the manufacturers of cameras and lenses. As good as the camera gear that I have now is, each item is lacking in one way or another.

Take the Canon 100-400 mm L series lens that I recently purchased. Its auto-focus is much faster than any of the other long Canon lenses that I own. However, when I’m chasing small birds in low light as they are when they’re in their normal habitat…

Male yellow warbler

…I believe that the Beast (Sigma 150-500 mm lens) is even better as far as auto-focus. However, that lens can’t match the image quality of the Canon lens in those situations. I love the soft light in that image, along with the pose that the warbler struck.  But, something that I can’t control is the fact that this individual doesn’t have the pronounced red streaks on its chest as most males of this species have. So my pursuit of perfection is dependent on the individual birds that I find to photograph as well as my skills as a photographer.

I can’t use the Canon 400 mm L lens in those situations, its minimum focus distance is just over 11 feet, meaning that I wouldn’t be able to get as close to small birds as I do at times, like this one. Since I know that, I have’t tried using that lens to chase small birds where they live.

The Canon 300 mm L lens was great for close-ups, but its performance tailed off as the distance to the subject that I was shooting increased.  I could go back in my archives and find numerous images shot with the 300 mm lens that are close to macro shots because that lens was at its best the closer I was to the subject. However, I could also go back in my archives and find even more images where the 300 mm lens was softer than it should be when the subjects were farther away from me.

Theoretically, the 100-400 mm lens is supposed to be just as good up close, its minimum focusing distance is just a hair closer than the 300 mm lens is. However, in practice so far, I’m having trouble getting super sharp images from that lens down near its minimum focusing distance. There have been exceptions to that though.

Iris and pollinators


Eastern swallowtail butterfly


Eastern swallowtail butterfly

Still, I believe that the 300 mm lens was even sharper up close than those images shot with the 100-400 mm lens are. I’ve spent very little time with the 100-400 mm lens shooting at very short distances, so maybe it’s me and not the lens that’s responsible for the poor performance so far. Every bit of camera gear comes with a learning curve, since the 100-400 mm lens can produce images as good as the butterfly, I may have to practice with that lens more at very close range to get the best out of it.

Those images bring up a weakness in the Canon 7D Mk II camera that I use most of the time as well. Being a crop sensor camera, its low light performance and dynamic range aren’t as good as a full-frame camera’s would be. I pushed the adjustments in Lightroom quite a bit to bring those images of the butterfly into something worth posting.

It’s the same with this one.

Male mallard

You should see the detail in the image above viewed full screen in its full resolution, you can see each individual feather on the mallard’s neck!

That brings up something else that I have to say, and I hope that it doesn’t sound as if I’m bragging, not too much anyway. When I get things right with one of my best lenses, the image has to be viewed as large as I can blow it up on my computer, or print it out very large if I have it printed, to truly see the level of detail that there is in my best images these days. When viewed as the images are presented here, you can not see the fine detail like the individual fibers that make up the mallard’s feathers, or individual scales in the butterfly’s wings as you can when I blow them up on my computer, or have them printed at 11 X 14 or 14 X 20. So, I am making progress, even if I have already reached the limits of the quality that you can see in the images in my blog.

Anyway, what good is dramatic lighting if camera that I’m using can’t capture it as well as it should? Both the butterfly and the mallard images could still use some dodging and burning, but I’d rather not spend all my time editing images on the computer. I’d like some time to be outside shooting more photos. I could post an unedited photo of both the butterfly and mallard to show you how much I had to work on them in Lightroom to make them as good as they are, but I won’t. I’ll only say that I’d still like a full-frame camera one of these days for its better low-light performance, and higher dynamic range. You may not notice it, but I’ve lost some of the detail in the feathers of the white ring around the mallard’s neck because it was blown out too much for Lightroom to recover. I still had to push the shadows more than I would have liked to get the greens and blues of the mallard’s head right the way that I saw it when shooting that image. Because the ISO setting was low to begin with when I shot those, I didn’t get much noise by boosting the shadow detail as much as I did.

Maybe I’m getting too picky as I try for the best images possible. I didn’t use to worry as much about noise in the shadow areas of an image or if a few highlight areas were blown out as long as the overall image looked good. I suppose that it’s because the overall quality of the images I shoot continues to improve, that I’m bothered by those things now when it wasn’t that way before.

I have learned to get good images of birds in flight with the 100-400 mm lens.

Red-winged blackbird chasing a red-tailed hawk carrying a young robin


Red-winged blackbird chasing a red-tailed hawk carrying a young robin

However, the 400 mm prime lens is still easier and a better choice to use for flying birds, especially in poor lighting.

Male wood duck in flight

Now, if I can get a wood duck to repeat the same flight path someday when the light is better, I’ll really have a great shot that shows all of the duck’s colors!

Anyway, if it were a perfect world, camera manufacturers would develop a sensor that recorded light exactly as our eyes see it. That’s not likely to happen, as it isn’t only our eyes that see light. Our brains adjust what we see, much like we can adjust images with the various types of software on the market these days.

And if it were a perfect world, lens manufacturers would produce lenses that produced exceptional results through the lens’ entire range of focus and aperture. Maybe some one does, but not in the price range that I can afford.

If it were a nearly perfect world, I’d be able to carry all of my camera gear with me, and the correct lens would magically be mounted to the camera for the next opportunity that I have to shoot a photo. But, that isn’t possible either, the weight is prohibitive.

Shooting photos at the Muskegon County wastewater facility tends to spoil me. Most of the time I’m in my vehicle, with the two 7D bodies, one with the 400 mm prime lens on it, the other with the 100-400 mm lens and 1.4 X tele-converter on it. When I see a stationary bird…

Male ruddy duck

…I grab the second set-up for a portrait like that one.

For birds in flight…

Green-winged teal landing


Green-winged teal landing


Green-winged teal landing

…I grab the camera with the 400 mm prime lens on it. Those aren’t great, but at least you can see why green-winged teal are named what they are. These next two are better examples of what that set-up can do.

Male mallard landing


Male mallard landing

I’d love to be able to carry both of those set-ups with me all the time, but they’re too heavy and cumbersome for longer walks, so I normally bring just the 100-400 mm lens with me.

As I’m walking more for health reasons than for photography these days, I’m faced with the question of what do I bring, and what do I leave behind. It almost always works out the same, what I leave behind is what I need for what I see on any given day. If I bring my macro lens expecting to shoot insects or flowers, then I don’t see any insects, or the wind kicks up so much that trying to photograph flowers is more frustrating that I have patience for.

If I bring my wide-angle lens expecting to shoot a few landscapes, then good opportunities never present themselves, but then there are insects all around me, and no breeze at all, so flower photography would have been easier.

I think that the plan that I came up with a while back is the right choice for me to make.

As I use the newer 100-400 mm lens more, I’m getting much better results with it, both as a near macro lens…

Ox-eye daisy?


Bird’s foot trefoil


Six spotted tiger beetle

..and for birds in flight, as the red-winged blackbird and hawk photos from earlier show.

Of course it’s great on birds that are perched.

Grey catbird singing

Even in low-light situations.

Grey catbird singing

Eventually, I’ll purchase a full-frame sensor camera and Canon’s 24-105 mm lenses. Along with the 7D and the 100-400 mm lens, that will cover everything from most landscapes, near macros, birds in flight, as well as bird portraits. I can easily carry that, along with just two accessories, the 1.4 X tele-converter, and the set of extension tubes that I have. The tele-converter extends the 100-400 mm lens to 560 mm for longer shots, and the extension tubes will convert the 24-105 mm lens to a macro lens of sorts. Along with the close focusing ability of the 100-400 mm lens, I should be set for almost anything, and all of that will weigh much less than half of what I tried to carry with me in the past.

That will mean that I’ll have to do some swapping of lenses and accessories, but the weight reduction for longer walks will be worth it.

Now then, I’ve received the bill for my stay in the hospital, and the bad news is that the health insurance that I have through work covered very little of it. The good news is the hospital doesn’t seem to be in any hurry for me to pay the entire bill as quickly as possible. I’ve talked to one of their financial representatives, and I have two years to pay the bill interest free. If I went longer than two years, they would charge interest, but paying it off in two years is something that I can do fairly easily. I’ve already made a lump sum payment of almost 1/5 of the total bill, and my monthly payments for the next two years will be easy for me to make, it will be less than what I was spending on camera gear.

Finally knowing how much the hospital bill is and what terms they offer has been a huge load off from my mind. I knew that the insurance I have through work isn’t very good, so that my portion of the bill would be large. The insurance company paid about $250 dollars of my hospital stay, with me picking up all the rest. That makes me wonder why I “contribute” towards the insurance at all, but enough of that for now.

That will put an end to any purchases of camera gear, except for a few relatively inexpensive things that I have on my want list. That’s okay for now, I can work on improving my skills with what I already own as I pay off the hospital bill. Once that bill is paid, I can begin saving for a full-frame camera and the 24-105 mm lens.

Another weekend has come and is almost gone, and I should begin another post with the images that I’ve shot the past two days in an effort to keep my posts shorter. However, that’s not going to be the case.

I still need to improve my action photography, but I feel as if I’m making progress in the right direction.

Red-winged blackbird and common grackle exchanging words in flight

Those two were on the wrong side of me as far as the position of the sun, but at least you can identify the species of both birds. The grackle by its pale eye, and the red-winged blackbird by its red shoulder patches.

I was lucky in one way, the two of them hovered there squawking at one another long enough for me to switch to the saved settings for birds in flight, and get a good focus lock on them with the 100-400 mm lens.

Red-winged blackbird and common grackle fighting in mid-air

Grackles are not shy, retiring birds at all, and they are a bit larger than the red-winged blackbirds, so it surprised me that the red-winged blackbird…

Red-winged blackbird chasing off a common grackle

…was able to drive the grackle away.

Red-winged blackbird chasing off a common grackle

Maybe it’s because the red-winged blackbirds are fearless, and will take on birds much larger than themselves.

Red-winged blackbirds attacking a sandhill crane


Red-winged blackbirds attacking a sandhill crane

Those were shot early in the morning at Muskegon, and I was going for portraits of the cranes, so I had the 1.4 X tele-converter behind the 100-400 mm lens. But, the red-winged blackbirds chasing the cranes put an end to any thoughts of a good portrait shot. In the low-light at the time, my shutter speed was too low to freeze all the movement going on…

Red-winged blackbirds attacking a sandhill crane


Red-winged blackbirds attacking a sandhill crane


Red-winged blackbirds attacking a sandhill crane

Finally, I got the shots that I was hoping for…

Red-winged blackbird attacking a sandhill crane

…with the one crane asking the other, “Does this bird make my butt look big.”…

Red-winged blackbird attacking a sandhill crane

…and the second crane replying, “Only when it spreads its wings out.”…

Red-winged blackbird attacking a sandhill crane

…until the cranes moved into taller vegetation and the blackbirds gave up the chase.

I think that this is a good place to end this post. I have some other action shots to share, but I can use them in another post which explains why I’m working so hard to improve my photography skills. I’ll end this post with one more close-up shot this weekend with the 100-400 mm lens.

Skipper butterfly

I shot quite a few photos at close range this past weekend, and I am getting better results with that lens in those situations. I think that I may have to calibrate the focus of that lens to the 7D body though, as part of the problem I was having seems to be that the lens focuses slightly behind the subject at close range. But, I’ll work with it a bit longer before I do that, as I’d hate to spoil how well it works at longer distances.

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


21 responses

  1. It is a great pleasure to scroll. through your post looking at all the stunning photographs you take. I think, perhaps, that the closeups you posted at the top of your post are my favourites.

    June 12, 2017 at 10:49 am

    • Thank you very much Susan! I’d love to shoot more butterflies, but they’re even harder to photograph well than birds are.

      June 12, 2017 at 9:14 pm

  2. The yellow warbler is a sweet little thing and that’s a great shot of it.
    I’m sorry to hear about your insurance situation. Insurance is such a racket. Something really needs to be done about it. If you’re anything like most people you’ve probably already paid them 5 times what the cost of the hospital stay was. And then they only pay $250.00? Until we get a single payer plan nothing is going to change,
    That does look like an Ox eye daisy. It’s got a little blue in it but that was probably just the low light.
    I’ve seen a lot of butterflies but I can’t get them to hold still. Your shots came out excellent despite of having to tweak them a bit.
    As I seem to do every year I stumbled into a red winged blackbird nesting site last week, so I know just how the cranes felt. Those birds really are fearless!

    June 12, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    • Thank you very much Allen! I loved the yellow warbler photo, I think that in ways, it’s one of my best so far.

      I’m not sure what the answer to health care is in this country, other than it’s greed that drives the entire process, with doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, drug manufacturers all looking to boost their profits at the expense of one another, and the poor patients. The only other time that I filed a health insurance claim was back in the early 1970’s, for a wisdom tooth extraction. I’d love to have all the money that I paid in insurance premiums over the years.

      You’re right, the blue in the daisy is because of the low light at the time, I moved the flower so that the center of the flower was in a tiny shaft of sunlight, while the rest of it was in the shade. That’s something that I seldom do.

      I’ve been trying to shoot more butterflies this year, but they seldom sit still, and they can cover a lot more ground in a short time than I ever imagined. More than I can when I try to follow them.

      I’ve never been hit by a red-winged blackbird, but they’ve come close to me at times. I’ve seen them attack deer, horses, cows, and even a car once.

      June 12, 2017 at 9:25 pm

    • By the way, I had to do far more to the butterfly images than just tweak them. I was pushing the limits of what I know how to do in Lightroom. I wasn’t sure why at the time, both the flowers and the butterfly were in full sun, but now that I’ve thought about it more, I believe that it’s because the flowers and leaves reflected much more light than the wings of the butterfly did. Why our eyes don’t see that I don’t know, but the camera sensor certainly did.

      June 12, 2017 at 9:42 pm

  3. Eh, perfection is overrated. You’re making a fine run at consistent quality shots. You’ll just make yourself crazy, being such a harsh judge. Besides, would it be proper to caption a “perfect” photo with “honey, does this bird make my butt look big?” I think not!😊

    It’s always a shock to get a medical bill, and find out what your own portion to pay is. Yours must have been particularly hideous, and I’m so sorry for that. I would (if I were in your shoes) try contacting your insurance company and raising hell with them about it. Perhaps you can win some kind of reduction – what have you got to lose? It has worked for others that I’m aware of. Anyway, it sounds like you’re feeling much better these days, and I’m happy to hear that.

    Love the last shot of the skipper butterfly.

    June 12, 2017 at 5:55 pm

    • Thank you very much Judy! It’s because I try as hard as I do that my photos are constantly good these days. If the shot of the blackbird riding the crane’s butt was better, I wouldn’t have used that caption.

      I had a good idea of what the total bill was going to end up being, so it wasn’t that much of a shock. I was more surprised that Spectrum would give me two years interest free to pay it off when I was expecting that they would charge an interest rate slightly lower than a credit card if I was lucky.

      The shot of the skipper is one where I tried shooting it in various ways at different angles, and some of those may be technically better than the one I posted, but that one is more artistic, at least to me.

      June 12, 2017 at 9:32 pm

  4. Reading about the medical situation of my American correspondents always makes me feel grateful for our National Heath Service. It is a mystery why you let your politicians get away with not providing sensible health care for everyone. It is the mark of a civilised country and what governments are for.

    I loved the butterfly pictures. They were sensational. The ducks landing were very good too.

    June 12, 2017 at 7:13 pm

    • Your system of health care does seem to work quite well, but I’m not sure that we could ever make the transition here because of the way our system has been needled with by politicians already,and the huge expensive of buying out all the private companies here in the states.

      I’ve been chasing butterflies since I’ve been able to get outside again, those little buggers are hard to track down and they seldom pose for me as birds do.

      June 12, 2017 at 9:38 pm

  5. Jerry, I’m glad that you are feeling better, notwithstanding the insurance situation and the financial burden on you. They keep telling us that medical insurance is to cover catastrophic events, but when that happens the insurance companies somehow end up paying for not much at all.

    What you wrote about the 100-400 is quite interesting.I have not used it a lot, especially at shorter distances, but I will be watching out for the weaknesses that you noted. Thank you for sharing your experience, and for those amazing photos, especially of the Blackbirds and Grackles!

    June 12, 2017 at 8:50 pm

    • Thank you very much Hien! Insurance is for only one reason, to make the shareholders rich. Despite their ads to the contrary, they are in business not to pay claims.

      The 100-400 mm lens is a great lens, I love it more each day. Now that I’ve used it up close for a second weekend, it seems to be working better. I’ve speculated in the past that lenses need to be broken in for lack of a better term, for all of mine started working better after a few weeks of use. It’s either that, or I learn how to use them better. But, I truly believe that they work better as the moving parts loosen up a little from how tight they are from the factory.

      June 12, 2017 at 9:50 pm

  6. A beautiful series of photos, Jerry, as always! I would have a hard time picking a favorite. And the ones of Teal and Mallard Airlines coming in for a landing bring a smile.

    I am sorry about the insurance situation and the hospital bill, but at least the hospital will work with you. Many of the affordable insurance plans seem to be of the “midnight buffalo” type. If one is gored by a buffalo at midnight, then they are covered.

    June 13, 2017 at 10:06 am

    • Thank you very much Lavinia! I think that most affordable insurance policies are really just a scam, but I could be wrong. I like your analogy very much.

      June 13, 2017 at 11:16 pm

  7. I too, am sorry for the medical insurance problem you have. I am glad you are back photographing birds and other wildlife – I’ve missed your posts. My favourites are the yellow warbler and the iris with pollinators.

    June 13, 2017 at 4:56 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare! Yes, I’m back to photographing things again, if only one or two days a week. The other days are for exercise walking, and I don’t bring my camera with me.

      June 13, 2017 at 11:17 pm

  8. Brilliant! Love these snaps

    June 14, 2017 at 9:10 pm

    • Thank you very much!

      June 14, 2017 at 10:38 pm

  9. SunFreeStar

    Really great pictures! Beautiful Butterfly! There isn’t one I do not like. They are very perfect to me!!!Thank you for sharing all the information about what you use. Reading your post is not only beautiful to see but very educational. I am happy you are getting better and sorry for the Health bills, I will never understand the American Health Care system, it so different here in Europe.

    June 17, 2017 at 8:58 am

    • Thank you very much! I do reasonably well for some one who shoots as many photos as I do. There are times when I think that I should wait to shoot photos when conditions or the setting that a subject are in is better, but then I’m afraid that I would shoot very few photos.

      June 17, 2017 at 7:40 pm

  10. The Canon 100-400 looks like a winner for close-ups. Recently purchased a Panasonic G7 with the Panasonic/Leica 100/400 lens for my wife which has worked out well for everything she’s pointed it at. The great part is that you can take it on a long hike and that’s the challenge we always face as we like to integrate some exercise with the photography. I’ve done some testing of my Sigma 150-500 for close-up work and notice that when mounted on a solid tripod with a stationary subject it does a decent job, but out in the field, hand held, and chasing a butterfly it’s a different matter. The FZ200 and Donna’s G7 with the 100-400 consistently give better results of insects spiders and the like.

    June 19, 2017 at 6:58 am

    • Thank you very much Bob! Now that I’ve used the 100-400 mm lens for more close-ups, it seems to be working better. That could be that I’ve just gotten better using it that way, but I still believe that many lenses have to be “broken in” before they work as well as they should. Of all the lenses that I’ve tried, the Sigma 150-500 mm is still the best at finding birds in the brush, if only it could match the image quality of the Canon L series lenses in low light, I’d still be using it.

      I’m happy for you that your recent purchases are working so well for you, both of you are doing very well judging by the photos that you’ve posted to your blog lately.

      June 19, 2017 at 7:34 am