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

Archive for April, 2018

I think that it will work

In one of my recent posts, I said that I was thinking of doing outings where I’d shoot mainly close-ups and macro photos, and that I should arrange the required photo gear for the dedicated outings accordingly. While I didn’t find many subjects suitable to photograph on my last day out with the camera, and a stiff breeze would have made such photography very difficult, I did manage to shoot this image.

British soldier lichens hiding in the fruiting bodies of moss

That was shot with one of the 60D bodies and my 100 mm macro lens. I think that I’ll use that camera body for all of my close-up and macro photos from now on, as the image quality is more than good enough. Plus, I have found that the less often that I change lens and/or accessories on my cameras, the less often I have to clean the sensors to get rid of dust spots in my images. Using the 60D body will also reduce the wear and tear on the 7D bodies that I have, which will help to prolong their lives.

In addition, once I have a full frame sensor body and the wide-angle lenses for it, I can still make use of the wide-angle lenses that I have now for my close-up photography of smaller subjects on the 60D body, which is a good use for them.

News flash:

I went to the Muskegon County wastewater facility yesterday, April 17th, and I was able to add another species of bird to my photo life list, a Franklin’s gull.

Franklin’s gull in flight

That’s hardly a good photo of the Franklin’s gull, but what I saw through the viewfinder told me that it wasn’t one of the more common Bonaparte’s gulls…

Bonaparte’s gull in flight

…as the Franklin’s gull has very dark red, almost black, legs, and Bonaparte’s gulls have bright reddish-orange legs, as you can see.

I stuck with the Franklin’s gull, and it landed to do a little preening, so I managed a few photos of it then also. You can also see another difference between the two species in this photo, the Franklin’s gull has a larger, dark red bill compared to the all black bill of the Bonaparte’s gull.

Franklin’s gull

This gull was probably forced down in the storm that we had this last weekend, and was actually just ending as I shot the photos of it that I did. It was still snowing lightly as I reached the wastewater facility, with the temperature well below freezing still. I shot two photos to show the difficulty of shooting photos of a rare gull on this day.

One thing is the number of more common species of gulls there, here’s just a few of the gulls hanging out there.

A mixed flock of gulls

Those are mostly ring-billed gulls, with a few herring gulls in the flock, and there was also a lesser black-backed gull in the flock that I didn’t get a photo of. You can also see that the road was covered with snow, here’s a photo to show how much snow fell this weekend, and it also gives you an idea how strong the wind was with this last storm.

Is it really the middle of April?

That looks more like the dead of winter than the middle of April. But, at least by then, the snow had ended and the light was improving a bit.

One thing that I have to remember is how much the weather plays a part while birds are migrating. A nasty storm like the one this weekend forces birds to seek refuge from the weather, especially when high winds are part of the storm as they were this past weekend. I found another bird that was probably knocked down by the storm…

Eastern Phoebe

…I’m not 100% sure of my identification of the bird as a Phoebe though. It appeared distressed, so I shot that photo and moved on.

There were also thousands of ducks at the wastewater facility, but it’s hard to say how many were forced down by the storm, when thousands of ducks on any given day during migration isn’t unusual there. I was able to shoot some of my best images of a male ruddy duck in full breeding colors though.

Male ruddy duck

Since ruddy ducks are so small when compared to other ducks, it’s harder to get close enough to them to show the details in their feathers well.

Male ruddy duck

I also love the shade of blue that their bills have during the mating season.

Male ruddy duck

That ruddy duck was a little mixed up though, as there were many flocks of that species scattered across the lagoons at the wastewater facility, while that one male was hanging out close to shore with a large flock of coots.

American coot bathing

 

American coot bathing

 

American coot bathing

 

American coot bathing

 

American coot bathing

Other than finding the Franklin’s gull, and despite the large number of waterfowl and gulls there at the wastewater facility, it was a pretty boring day. The light was so poor that I had to be very close to the subjects that I was trying to photograph, but that isn’t always possible, as you know if you’ve ever attempted to shoot birds. So, going back to where I started this post, I did some lens and equipment testing to help myself think through a few things.

You may remember this image from my last post…

Herring gull

…as I said then, it isn’t just tack sharp, it’s razor-sharp. I attempted to duplicate that image which was shot with the 100-400 mm lens and 1.4 X extender using the 300 mm lens and 2 X extender that I have.

Herring gull portrait

That’s “only” tack sharp, not razor-sharp, still, for close-ups and near macro photos, the 300 mm lens and 2 X extender is a very good option for me to use. Although, I may have to repeat that test on a day when the light is better. Both images were shot at ISO 100, so the camera’s resolution should be equal, but better light would help to define the details in the gull’s feathers more. The 300 mm lens and 2 X extender does get me a little closer to the subjects than the 100-400 mm lens and 1.4 X extender.

I know one thing, I used the 400 mm lens to shoot the head shot of the Bonaparte’s gull towards the beginning of this post, and also for this series, showing another Bonaparte’s gull picking a morsel of food out of the water.

Bonaparte’s gull feeding in flight

None of these were cropped at all, that’s how close I was to the gulls.

Bonaparte’s gull feeding in flight

You can see that the gull had plucked something from the water…

Bonaparte’s gull feeding in flight

…and had swallowed it by the time this photo was taken.

Bonaparte’s gull feeding in flight

What I was really trying to do was to get a head and shoulders shot of one of the gulls, but the 400 mm lens wouldn’t focus as close as required for that type of shot. So, I switched to the 300 mm lens with no extender, what a waste of time that was. I couldn’t get that lens to auto-focus on any of the gulls that were flying past me, not even at longer ranges. How I was ever able to get any photos of smaller birds with that lens escapes me now, the auto-focus of the 300 mm lens is as slow as molasses. It’s no wonder that I went back to the Sigma 150-500 mm lens to shoot smaller birds, even though the glass in the Sigma lens is inferior to the glass in the Canon 300 mm lens.

I knew that the 300 mm lens was slow, but this test really showed me how slow it really is. The same light, the same birds, the same distances, the same camera, and the same settings, the only difference was the lens itself. The 400 mm lens was the hands down winner of this test, it’s no wonder that the 400 mm lens is known as being a great lens for birds in flight.

Still, the 300 mm lens does have a few redeeming qualities, it’s ability to focus very close to the subject, and how sharp it is even when using the 2 X extender behind it for near macro photos, even though the already slow auto-focusing of the lens slows down even more when using the extender.

Another news flash:

I decided that rather than prattle on about my future plans, that with the nicest evening of the year so far, I should go out and shoot some of the photos that I’ve been thinking about for some time now.

Actually, the evening was more of a scouting trip along with figuring out which lenses I would need to shoot some of the things that I have in mind when the weather becomes even better. It was still chilly on this evening, but there wasn’t a cloud to be seen. Once the wind died down a little, it felt warmer than it had earlier, even though the actual temperature was dropping like a rock because of the clear skies. I needed the clear skies for an image that will show up later in this post.

I started out shooting photos of a few places in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is my home town. One of the first photos I shot was this building…

The Plaza Apartments in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan

…and the only reason that I’m including it here is because the glare that you see in the lower right of the building was shining on a window facing that building…

Reflections of reflections

…and that led to the image above. If I had been a little quicker in getting that shot it would have been even better, as the reflections were fading away as I got the right lens on the camera and moved to the best position to shoot that image.

I also shot a few photos of what is known as the Blue Bridge, for obvious reasons.

The Blue Bridge

The city spent a small fortune on a special lighting system for this old trestle bridge that has been converted into a pedestrian walkway across the Grand River. I was also trying out the newer 16-35 mm lens and the perspective correction in Lightroom, because I plan to photograph the bridge at night sometime, and I need to have some idea how much space I need to leave around a subject for Lightroom to bend, stretch, and crop an image…

The Blue Bridge in Grand Rapids, Michigan

…so that buildings and other objects don’t look to be falling away from the camera, or much wider at their base than at the top.

While I was scouting the area, a pair of mallards landed in the river below me, and the light at the time told me to shoot a photo of them, even though I had the wide-angle lens on my camera.

Mallards in the evening

Because of the very low sun angle at the time, you can see the undulations in the river, not only the wakes of the ducks, but in the other parts of the river as well.  The undulations in the river are from the rapids that gave Grand Rapids its name, but are now covered be several feet of water behind a low head dam built to make that section of the river navigable by boats. I have plans to shoot more photos of along the river there, I’ll have to remember to shoot late in the day to get the same low sun angle when I do.

I had a little while to go before I could shoot the image that I had come for, so I decided to scout a couple of the old churches nearby. I hadn’t planned on shooting any photos this evening, I just wanted to see if the churches were worth another trip. This one is!

The Basilica of Saint Adalbert at night

It never occurred to me to photograph a church at night, but seeing the light streaming through the stained glass windows from the inside of the church made me get out my tripod to capture that moment. However, the stained glass windows are lost in that image, so I’ll have to return and shoot a number of images with a longer lens to show how beautiful the windows are. There are a few statues on the other side of the church that I’d like to photograph as well.

Because of the way that the basilica is oriented, and the number of different individual subjects that make up the basilica as a whole, I should return several times to photograph them at different times of the day to photograph them all well. Here’s a handheld shot of the basilica to give you more of an idea as to the things about it that are moving me to photograph it better.

The Basilica of Saint Adalbert at night

Because I shot that handheld, there’s a lot of noise in the image, and I couldn’t get far enough away from the structure to leave room for Lightroom to correct the perspective distortion in that image either. That’s why different parts of the building seem to lean in unnatural ways. I shot that one just to help myself plan future return trips and to give my memory a nudge as to what things I want to shoot close-ups of during those return trips.

Anyway, it was almost dark, so I returned to the spot where I shot the mallards and set-up to shoot a night view of part of the city of Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids, Michigan, at night

You may remember that I mentioned that I had shot photos of the last full moon to use to produce fake images of the full moon appearing where it can’t be except by stacking images together. My 7D Mk II will shoot multiple images, and you can use an image already stored on the memory card as one of the images in a stack. So, I selected a shot of the full moon as the first image in the stack, but the moon was in the wrong place…

Oops!

…that was a little too low in the sky!

I had actually planned on that problem to some degree, I had shot the full moon at a number of different focal lengths and in different areas of the frame. I finally was able to produce the image that I wanted.

The full moon over Grand Rapids, Michigan

Totally fake, but I like it. The full moon would never appear in that position naturally, it’s too low in the sky for one thing. Also, there’s no way that I could have gotten the exposure for both the moon and the city lights correct in one image. And, I shot the moon at 200 mm and the city lights at 28 mm, which makes the moon appear much larger in the image than it would otherwise. However, what motivated me to shoot that image the way I did was seeing a very similar scene of the full moon over Grand Rapids as I was driving for work one night. I thought that the full moon shining down on the city as it was all lit up and the lights reflecting off from the river was a beautiful thing to see at the time that I saw it.

I’ll have to be careful, this may start a dangerous trend for me, for seeing that image has me thinking of ways to add the reflection of the moon on the river to that image. 😉 However, there are times when our eyes see things differently than a camera possibly can record a scene, so is it wrong to produce images that are closer to what we see in real life than what a camera can record, even if it means doing things like shooting multiple exposures? All that I’ve done in reality is to produce an image very similar to what I saw in real life, even if it took trickery to record what I saw in a camera.

The full moon may not ever rise in that position to allow me to shoot that image straight without resorting to multiple exposures, but in the past, when I have tried to show the rising moon in an image, the moon tends to fade into the background and not appear to be as large as it looks to me as I watch the moon rise.

I didn’t produce that image to learn how to create fake images, but to use the same techniques in the future to produce better realistic images. There have been several times when I was shooting landscapes as the full moon rose, and as I said, so far, I’ve found it impossible to get both the landscape and the full moon exposed correctly, even shooting HDR images. That’s because the moon is so much brighter than the landscape to the camera. Our eyes can adjust for both, but the camera can’t. I hope to use what I learned in making the image above to shoot landscapes at moonrise and have them look natural, rather than the moon blown out to being a giant white blob in the sky. Or, to have the moon disappear in the background when it appears so prominent to the eye when looking at the scene before me.

All in all, it was an enjoyable evening spent learning a great deal about photography, and I was able to get a few very good images in the process. If my work schedule continues as it’s been for the last month, and as the weather improves, you may see more night photography from me in the future. That’s because I have a good deal of time off from work with my current schedule, but other than Tuesdays, most of the time off is at night, when nature photography isn’t possible for me. That’s okay with me, this was a nice change of pace from what I usually do.

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

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Finally? Have we turned the corner?

Could it be? I have the day off from work and the weather forecast is for a nice sunny day for a change. Not only will it be sunny, but it will only be about ten degrees below our average high temperature for this time of year, not the more typical twenty degrees below average that’s been the norm around here this year. Best of all, no snow today at least, when we’ve received at least some snow on 9 of the last 11 days. If only I hadn’t overslept, but that’s the way it goes. At least by over sleeping this morning, I’ll avoid having to scrape the frost off from the windows of my Subaru.

I’m off, be back later.

I was wrong, even though I got a late start, I still had to scrape the frost off from the windshield of my car, but at least it warmed up later in the day. And, the day turned out to be pretty good as far as the quality of photos that I shot, along with the variety of birds. I’m going to begin this post with an image which is just okay, but I worked very hard to get it.

Golden-crowned kinglet

I had forgotten just how quick those little buggers are as I tried to find it, or keep it, in the viewfinder long enough to get any photo of it.

Golden-crowned kinglet

I shot more than a few photos of empty branches where the kinglet had been as I began to press the shutter release, they’re that quick. I had to get back in the thick brush with them in order to get close to them, which also made it tougher to shoot photos of them, because not only was I trying to find small openings in the vegetation to shoot through, but the vegetation limited my movements by snagging on my clothing as I tried to move.

By the way, those were shot at the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve later in the day after it had warmed up a little. My day began on my way to the Muskegon County wastewater facility, when I pulled over to the shoulder of the road to shoot this photo.

Snowy owl on the roof of a house

The light was all wrong, but I had seen the same snowy owl on the roof of the same house on my way home the last time I was there, and that’s a for the record type photo to record my sighting(s) of the owl. You can see frost on the roof of the house in the shadow of the owl, it had been perched there for quite a while. And as I said, it had been perched on the same house last week when I drove past the house, so there must be something that the owl likes about that house.

Just a short distance away, I found this bald eagle looking for a snack.

Bald eagle

I hadn’t even arrived at the wastewater facility yet, and already the day was looking good.

Bald eagle

It was nice to have good light for a change…

European starling

…even if I shot just a starling in the sun.

I went looking for waterfowl first, and found the same two species of grebes that I had photos of in my last post.

Male horned grebe

While not yet in full breeding plumage, this one shows the “horns” that are the reason they are named horned grebes.

Male horned grebe

The eared grebe…

Eared grebe

…was still hungry, and wouldn’t pose for a photo.

Eared grebe diving

You can see how smoothly they enter the water as they dive in that photo.

A short time later, I found a male horned grebe looking great in his full breeding plumage.

Male horned grebe

Of course I wish that I had been closer to it so that you could see the details in its feathers, but at least you can see its colors.

Closer is usually better, as this image of a female bufflehead shows.

Female bufflehead

She was tired of the males chasing her, and so she waddled up on a rock…

Female bufflehead

…as her mate fended off the advances of the other males in the area.

Male bufflehead

Here’s the female watching her mate in action.

Female bufflehead watching her mate fend off other males

These bufflehead were too close to me to shoot a video, or at least that’s what I thought at the time. A little later, I saw another flock of them coming my way, so I shot a number of videos of them in action.

 

I did most things wrong while shooting that, I should make a cheat sheet to remind me of the correct camera settings to produce better videos.

I didn’t speed up the video, that’s how quickly the bufflehead move, which is what makes shooting still photos of them in action difficult. I think that you can see the posturing that the males do, a lot of head bobbing, short but fast chases, and short flights as the males try to attract the female’s attention. You can also see how hard the male works to keep the other males away from his mate, he must burn a lot of energy swimming in circles, always on the look-out for other males getting close to her.

It would help if I found a place where I could shoot videos without the sounds of heavy construction equipment, or the wind for that matter, from distracting the viewers of my videos from the action that I’m trying to capture.

I sat in one place for a while, as a small flock of northern shovelers fed in front of me.

Male northern shoveler

I was hoping that the shovelers being so close to me would make a flock of lesser scaup coming in my direction feel that it was safe to keep coming…

Male lesser scaup

…but, that was as close as the scaup would come, so I shot a few more of the shovelers.

Male northern shoveler

I love photographing waterfowl, especially in the spring when the males display their breeding plumage and you can see how colorful they are. But, capturing all their glory in one image is close to impossible from what my efforts so far tell me. Take wood ducks…

Wood ducks

…that first image is a good one as far as the male looking towards the camera, but when he turned his head away from me, it shows more of the colors of his feathers on his head and neck.

Wood ducks

Even then, the second photo only shows the colors on the top of his head, not the colors in his cheeks when the light hits him right.

Male wood duck

Those were shot later in the day at the headquarters area of the Muskegon State Game Area.

Still later in the day, I found another pair of wood ducks at the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve, and shot this image that shows the purple feathers under the tail of the male wood duck.

Male wood duck

However, in that image, the wood duck’s face looks black because the light was wrong for its face.

I was thinking of doing a post about the difficulties of photographing ducks well, since I saved more photos from this day than what I have room for in a single post. But what the heck, here’s another example of how the feathers on a duck’s head seem to change colors as the way that light reflects from the feathers changes.

Male bufflehead

Neither of these photos show the bufflehead in a good pose though, as he’s looking away from the camera.

Male bufflehead

Yes, I shot quite a few photos of the bufflehead that morning…

Male bufflehead landing

 

Male bufflehead landing

 

Male bufflehead taking off

 

Male bufflehead taking off

 

Male bufflehead after landing

…as they’re even more fun to watch than mallards are.

It looks like we haven’t fully turned the corner towards spring yet, there’s another winter storm bearing down on Michigan as I type this on Friday morning. This one is forecast to be the worst of the string of winter storms that have hit us since spring officially arrived. While the weather may not have turned the corner yet, my photos have.

I may not have gotten a perfect image of any of the species of ducks that I shot on this day, it has struck me that even in the actions shots of the bufflehead, I have been able to show at least some of the colors of their heads in most of the images. That applies to the wood ducks also, I’m now getting images that seemed impossible to me just a few years ago. Some of that is due to my improved skills in Lightroom, but most of it is because I’m still improving as a photographer. Still, I can’t explain all of it though, such as why the sharpness of the images that I shoot continues to improve.

I wasn’t going to post any more images of gulls for a while, but I have a couple of images that are just too good not to share.

Herring gull

I was going to avoid the gulls during this outing, but some one told me that there was a laughing gull in with the ring-billed and herring gulls, so I had to check it out so that I could add that species to my photo life list. It turned out that the person who told me they had seen a laughing gull was mistaken, it was a Bonaparte’s gull, not a laughing gull. However, I couldn’t resist shooting this herring gull as I was looking for the other gull.

Herring gull

The images of the herring gull that I shot are beyond tack sharp, they’re razor-sharp, and I can’t explain why the sharpness of my images continues to improve.

Even in the low-light conditions that I had on the last few outings, my images are getting better all the time, which is my goal. I continue to wonder just how more improvement there can be, other than through purchasing better equipment. Then, I have to ask myself, is there better equipment than what I have already? Other than upgrading to a full frame sensor body with better dynamic range and lower noise at higher ISO settings, I don’t think that there is equipment that I can purchase that would improve my images enough to be worth the cost. Those two images of the gull are as good as any image that I’ve seen, not that I’m bragging of anything. 😉

By the way, the gull was shot with the 1.4 X tele-converter behind the 100-400 mm lens, so don’t believe it when some one says that using a tele-converter results in images that are not sharp. And, that gives me an idea to try on my next outing when I have light that’s equally as good as it was on this day.

As I typed this and proof read it, it occurred to me that it could be that my images continue to improve because I’m always trying new things out as far as getting the best from the equipment that I have, and trying new techniques as well. It’s also because I’m always looking at the flaws in my images and finding ways to eliminate them, or work around them. It would be easy to look at some of the photos in this post so far and be content with them as being the best that I can do, but I don’t do that. No, I still see flaws in even my best images, and unless some one is willing to do that, they will never improve. That doesn’t apply to only photography, but every aspect of a person’s life.

Part of what drives me to improve my photos is to show others the wonders of nature. The behavior of the bufflehead is one example, another is the way that the feathers of birds differ depending on the species of bird. Look at how sleek the gull looks in the images above, and how fine the individual fibers of its feather are. Then, look at this chickadee…

Black-capped chickadee

…and you can see that the fibers of its feathers are coarser than those of the gull. It’s the same for this tufted titmouse.

Male tufted titmouse

Its feathers are also made from fibers that are coarser than those of the gull. By the way, I know that the titmouse is a male…

Male tufted titmouse singing

…because he was singing to attract a mate.

Male tufted titmouse singing

After a quick look around to see if he was having any success…

Male tufted titmouse

…off he went.

Male tufted titmouse

That also shows you how much I had cropped the previous images of him.

You know, I could be wrong about the size of the fibers that make up the feathers of various species of birds, it could be that the fibers of the smaller species of birds only look larger because of the relative size of the birds, but I don’t think so. But to prove that, I’ll have to get even closer to one of the sleek-looking species of birds, such as the gulls or a cedar waxwing to be 100% sure of it.

I had a theory that the smaller birds had coarser fibers in their feathers as a way to trap more insulating air in their feathers to help them stay warm during the winter, but that’s just a theory of mine.

So much for signs of spring coming soon, it’s a miserable weekend around here with copious amounts of rain, sleet, freezing rain, and of course, more snow on the way for later in the weekend. To make things even worse, if that’s possible, all the precipitation is being accompanied by a very cold, very strong, northeast wind. I’m afraid that I have a couple of very long nights ahead of me at work, as it will be very slow going as slick as the roads are forecast to be. I may not have recovered enough to go out with the camera next week, even if the weather does improve slightly. That’s okay, I have a few photos left from the day that I shot the ones in this post.

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


The little spring that couldn’t

I’m starting this post on Easter Sunday, April 1st. When I woke up this afternoon and checked the weather, the temperature was right at the freezing mark, with a 20 MPH wind out of the northwest, and occasional snow flurries floating past my window. The first half of the month of April is forecast to be very cold and wet for this time of year, so I’m not sure when I’ll get out with my camera soon.

I thoroughly enjoyed my last time out with my camera, exploring the world through the wide-angle lens, I have to do that more often than what I have been the past few years.

I have some ideas in mind for future outings, but then, I always have ideas in mind, but I usually end up doing the same old thing, going to the Muskegon area and chasing birds in hopes of getting better photos than I have in the past, or finding new to me species of birds. I’ve said it before, but I think that I really mean it this time, I have to change things up at least a little, and go back to shooting a wider variety of subjects than just birds.

To that end, I went out the other night and shot a few images of the full moon, for use at a later time. My camera will shoot multiple exposures, so I’m thinking about altering reality by using the full moon image as a background with other night-time subjects in the foreground. I’m anxious to see how that experiment works out.

Well, despite a sketchy weather forecast, my one day off from work this week turned out better than expected. I had planned to spend the day doing some shopping and running some errands, but a quick check of the regional radar when I woke up told me that I’d have several hours at least before the storm that was coming this direction hit. So, I packed my camera gear into my Subaru, and set off for Muskegon again, as the temperature was only slightly above freezing, and my car makes a fair hide in such conditions. I found that more species of birds are returning, in spite of the fact that winter seems to be firmly in place yet.

Horned grebe

A little later, I found the horned grebe’s cousin, an eared grebe.

Eared grebe

Since I haven’t posted as many photos of eared grebes as I have horned grebes, here’s another photo of the same bird.

Neither species of grebe had completely changed to their full breeding plumage yet, I don’t know if the extended winter has had anything to do with that or not, but I hope to catch them both once they have reached their peak breeding plumage.

I thought that I had stumbled across a very rare visitor to Michigan when I saw this duck through the viewfinder…

Oddly colored male common goldeneye duck

…however, after checking my Sibley’s field guide and other sources for bird identifications, I have concluded that the bird is just a common goldeneye that has much more white on its face than normal. Here’s how 99.9% of male common goldeneyes look.

Common goldeneye

It always pays to be careful when identifying birds, because while all members of a species generally look very much alike, there’s a chance that it could be an individual that for whatever reason, looks much different from other members of the same species.

Update:

The duck in question has been tentatively identified by others as a common goldeneye X bufflehead hybrid, and that does make sense.

While I’m on the subject of identifying species of birds, I suppose that this is a good place to throw this photo in.

Male rusty blackbird

To be honest, I can’t be 100% sure of my identification of that bird from my photo alone. It could be a Brewer’s blackbird if you only see the photo. However, from the fact that I found it in a swamp, you can see water under the vegetation, and from the calls that the flock of blackbirds were making, I was able to identify the bird as a rusty blackbird. Brewer’s blackbirds prefer drier habitat, and their calls are completely different from that of rusty blackbirds.

That’s the second time that I’ve seen rusty blackbirds that I know of, and both time it was very difficult to get a photo of one, despite the fact that I saw flocks of them both times I’ve seen them. They’re very wary of humans from what I can tell. If the weather had been better, I could have tried out my portable hide in an attempt to get better images, as I spooked the flock away twice, and each time they returned to the same area to search for food again. I managed a couple of photos of the blackbirds by hiding behind a tree and waiting for them to return. But I was getting chilled as raw as the weather was, even though it didn’t take very long for the birds to return.

I also attempted a few photos of moss and lichens…

Unidentified moss

…shot first with the 16-35 mm lens above, then with my 100 mm macro lens below…

Unidentified lichen

…all the while dealing with windblown rain and ice pellets hitting me in the face.

Unidentified moss

That’s the way the weather was for most of the day, some periods when it was dry but windy, then squalls would move through the area with light rain, some if it frozen, as it hit the ground. Had the weather been better, I would have put much more effort into getting better images, but that applies to all the photos that I shot this day.

Male eastern bluebird

At least I caught the bluebird in a good spot for photos, but the low light means that there’s too much noise in these images to be good ones.

Male eastern bluebird

I did practice a few bird in flight photos, despite the dreary light.

Female mallard in flight

 

Male mallard in flight

 

Male northern shoveler in flight

 

Male bufflehead in flight

Later, I spotted a very large flock of turkeys, here’s one of them…

Turkey on the run

…and to my surprise, some of the youngsters in the flock took flight…

Turkey in flight

…while the adults were content to stick to the ground and run from me the way that turkeys normally do. While they are capable fliers, turkeys seldom take to flight other than to roost in trees at night, or when a predator is very close.  It was odd to see the younger turkeys in the flock take flight when I wasn’t very close to them, I had to crop the image above quite a bit because the turkey was so far away from me.

By the way, it’s 11 AM as I’m working on this post, and it’s still below freezing outside, there’s snow covering the ground, and snowflakes blowing past my window, on April 4th. That’s the forecast for the next week as well, cold with mixed rain/snow showers, will this winter ever end?

Anyway, you can see that in the backgrounds of most of these photos, everything is still brown, with only a hint of green in places. Here’s three images of a crow landing that show how the feathers on its back and wings react to the airflow past them, and these photos show how brown everything is yet.

American crow landing

 

American crow landing

 

American crow landing

Here’s the same crow a little later, as it searched for food.

American crow

I can’t wait until the grasses turn green again, I’m sick of seeing brown, and sick of seeing the white of snow for that matter.

I wasn’t able to get photos of some of the new spring arrivals yet, such as ruddy ducks, which have returned from down south. There were quite a few of them around, but they all stayed out of camera range.

More bufflehead have also returned, this is a typical scene.

Female bufflehead surrounded by five males

There seems to be an excess of males in relationship to the number of females, because if there was a female, she had many more males around her. They seem to have paired up for the spring, but that didn’t stop the other males from showing off.

Male bufflehead showing off for a female

This male seemed to be saying “A pox on you!” to a rival male.

Male bufflehead showing off for a female, when another male got between them

I’m still hoping for a day with good light and light winds, so that I can set-up the camera to shoot videos of the male bufflehead antics as they try to impress the females, it is entertaining to watch, much more than my still photos show.

My last bird images from the day are of a juvenile Bonaparte’s gull feeding.

Juvenile Bonaparte’s gull

 

Juvenile Bonaparte’s gull

And, my last photo from the day is this old stump that’s decaying.

Decaying wood

In case you hadn’t figured it out, decaying wood fascinates me because of the patterns that are formed by both the growth of the wood when it was still alive, and by the way that it slowly rots away to reveal even more of the patterns to us. In some ways, the patterns in decaying wood remind me of places where rock has been weathered away over eons to produce landscapes such as Monument Valley, or the hoodoos of the Badlands in the Dakotas.

I never got close enough to any of the birds to try to use the flash again, as I had finally learned how to do on my last outing. I should have used it for the moss and lichens, but the weather was just too miserable at that point to play around with the flash unit. But, now that I have finally gotten my cameras to function with high-speed flash synchronization, it will be another tool in my toolbox to use when the conditions warrant it. If it works well, I may purchase a flash modifier that will throw the light from my flash unit farther, as the flash modifiers, like a Better Beamer, are relatively inexpensive. All that a Better Beamer does is to focus the light from a flash unit that is designed to spread the light from the unit over a wide area, into a narrower beam of light more suited for use with a telephoto lens.

It’s now Thursday afternoon, I have a couple of errands to run today, but I may make it out this evening for a little while around home. That’s before the next storm hits, there’s yet another winter weather advisory for tonight and tomorrow for a few more inches of snow. This is a rhetorical question being asked by most of us in the northern hemisphere, will there ever be a spring this year?

It was still quite cold while I ran the errands that I had to do, so I decided not to go out with a camera after all. The temperature outside never made it close to what had been forecast, and the wind was still stiff and cold out of the northwest. To be fair, the forecast called for lighter winds, but since the winds yesterday were of gale force, the wind today was lighter, but not what I would classify as light.

There is hope though, the longer range forecast do show a warm-up coming the middle of next week, I sure hope that it is correct this time. This equilibrium between the rate that fresh snow falls and then melts again is getting to me, it seems as if it’s been going on forever. We never had a warm spring day in March, and not a single one yet in April. The last nice day was back in the end of February, no wonder it seems like forever ago.

It’s now Saturday afternoon, and I have to work tonight. No big deal, it may not make it above freezing at all today. The good news, if you can call it that, is that my next day off from work may be a little warmer, the first day of a forecast short-lived warming trend that will last for a few days at least. Then, it will be back to unseasonably cold again.

Snow in Michigan in April isn’t unusual, we often get at least some snow during the course of the month. What’s unusual this year is that the temperature is staying 20 degree Fahrenheit below average, with some snow on most days, for day after day after day, with no warm spells in between. At least we may get 3 or 4 days of near average temperatures next week before it turns cold again.

So once again, I’ve turned my thoughts to how do I improve my photos. In my last post, I identified three species of warblers that I hope to add to my life list of birds seen and photographed this summer, in this post, I’m going to discuss my close-up or macro photography.

There have been a few times when I’ve lucked out and gotten a good macro image.

Dragonfly

However, it’s been mostly luck, because I don’t put the required effort into most of my attempts at close-up photography, as the photos of the moss and lichen earlier in this post show. So, I have decided that this will be the year that I concentrate on working harder to get better close-up images more often.

Praying mantis

You really can’t call the mantis image a macro, as it was shot with my 300 mm f/4 L series lens and 2 X tele-converter behind it. That’s a great combination to use for insects, because I’m able to stay farther away from the subject, but still get close to macro images.

Flowers don’t run away…

Purple coneflower

…but they do present other challenges, such as how to get the entire flower in focus at such close range, when there’s very little depth of field when shooting that close.

I know that there are at least two things that I need to do more often to improve my close-up photography, manually focus more often, and probably the most important thing, make use of auxiliary lighting.

On the subject of manual focus, I’ve found that it doesn’t matter if I’m using my macro lens, one of my long lenses, or a wide-angle lens, when I get down close to the limits of the minimum distance that the lens will focus to, auto-focus isn’t that accurate, if it works at all. For all three of the images above, I turned the auto-focus off, manually focused the lens to its minimum distance, then moved towards the subject until I had a sharp focus, then pressed the shutter release. I did the same thing for this image as well.

Monarch butterfly

That brings me to the subject of auxiliary lighting, something that I know would improve my close-up images the most. When shooting so close to a subject, you have to stop the lens down to get any depth of field at all, and when you do, the ISO goes up and/or the shutter speed drops to the point where it’s impossible to get a sharp image due to camera movement.

Both of the camera bodies that I use for close-up photography have built-in flash units, but those are worthless when you’re that close to the subject. That’s because the built-in flash is so low that the lens casts a shadow over the subject, meaning no light from the flash reaches the subject.

Using the speedlite that I have takes care of that problem to a degree, but it’s hard to control such a powerful source of light that close to a subject. I need to diffuse the light coming from the flash unit, and/or get it off from the camera and further from the subject. I have a cord that allows me to use the flash unit off from the camera, but it’s a royal pain trying to hold the flash with one hand, while trying to steady the camera with just the other hand, it doesn’t work. That, and the remote cord that I have is coiled, and the memory of the coils is so strong that it takes a good deal of effort on my part to stretch the cord out as far as I’d like to move the flash away from the camera.

I watched several videos from some one who is excellent at close-up and macro photography in my opinion, and took note of the set-up he uses. The problem that I saw with his set-up is that it was held together with tape and rubber bands for the most part, and I don’t want to fool around taping my flash unit to the camera, then fashioning a diffuser together the same way, with tape and rubber bands, although he used his makeshift rig very well. But, all that he does most of the time is close-up photography, so building his set-up the way that he does is no big deal for him.

So, what I need to do is come up with something that holds both the flash unit and a diffuser in their proper places that can be easily used, but also removed from the camera easily when I’m not shooting close-ups. There are brackets made just for that, and they aren’t that expensive.

I also need to use the LED light that I also have more often, alone, or in conjunction with the flash unit. The few times that I’ve put forth the effort to do that has paid off most of the time, but I keep the LED light buried in my camera backpack, and seldom make the effort to dig it out.

What I really need to do most of all is to simply devote days to close-up photography, and ignore most other subjects on those days. That’s something that I’ve known for some time as well, but I’ve never acted on that thought before, I will this year if the weather ever improves.

In my last post, I had a few photos that I shot on a day when I took just the 16-35 mm lens with me, and some of the images that I shot were close-ups of smaller subjects such as lichens. But as I noted in that post, the 16-35 mm lens on my crop sensor 7D Mk II is the equivalent of a 24 mm lens at 16 mm. So, I dug out my 10-18 mm lens and made some test shots inside with it. On the 7D, the 10-18 mm lens is close to what the 16-35 mm lens will be on a full frame camera, such as the 5D Mk IV that I plan on purchasing. My problem is that I have so much camera gear, I forget to put it to use most of the time.

Hopefully, that will change if I devote myself to close-up photography on days when the weather is right for it. I get frustrated easily if it’s a windy day, and everything that I attempt to photograph is swaying around in the wind so much that I can never get a sharp image of the intended subject. I’ve also been frustrated when trying to use a tripod for close-up photography, the camera may remain motionless, but the subjects often don’t. However, if I pick days with little to no wind, I should be able to put my tripod to better use, and combined with using auxiliary lighting, improve my images quite a bit.

One thing that I should mention also is that in some of the videos that I’ve watched on the subject of macro and close-up photography, the photographers go to great lengths to create scenes indoors so that they don’t have to deal with the wind, and they have full control over the lighting. One of the presenters of a video that I watched built a tiny pond in his home, then purchased a frog, from wherever it is that one purchases frogs, then shot excellent photos of the frog in the pond that he had created indoors.

Another photographer had shot scenes outdoors that he then printed out to use as backgrounds for his macro subjects shot indoors, in much the same way that filmmakers in Hollywood use painted backdrops as a replacement for shooting on location.

While such efforts make for excellent results, that’s not my cup of tea. I’d rather deal with the frustrations of shooting outdoors than to spend my time inside building sets to use in the background of my photos.

Anyway, in playing around with my wide-angle lenses, I’ve found two things to be true. One, I need to turn the auto-focus off and focus manually when shooting at the close end of their focusing range, just as I have to do with my longer lenses. Also, they are a good option to use when I need more depth of field than what I get with my longer lenses. While the subjects appear smaller when using the wide-angle lenses, it isn’t by very much at the close end of their focusing range, and I can always crop down if needed.

Another thing that I should note is that the camera body isn’t that important. In the four example images from the past that I added at the end of this post, two were shot with my 7D Mk II, and two were shot with the older 60D body. There’s no difference in image quality that I can see. That’s one of the reasons that I’ve continued to use the 60D body for macros, since I’m focusing manually when I’m doing things the right way, the image quality from the 60D is more than good enough. If I come up with a rig that helps me to master auxiliary lighting, both the flash unit and constant LED light, then I can keep the ISO settings low enough that noise isn’t an issue in my images, as it is most of the time when I use only natural light.

Unidentified skipper butterfly

That was from last spring, and another lucky shot.

Crown vetch

If my work schedule continues as it has been, I’ll have the time this summer to get out around home to shoot more photos like the last two. With so much development going on around where I live, birds and other wildlife has become very scarce, but there are still flowers and insects to photograph if I spend more time outside at home. Other than the park down the road, most of the vacant land has been cleared for a storage unit, more apartments, and a condominium development, it just isn’t the same place that it was when I moved here.

So, what I think that I’ll do is to set-up one of my camera bags or backpacks specifically to hold just the items that I need for close-up photography, and concentrate my efforts on those type of images when the weather is suitable. That would be days with good light, and light winds, and I could spend all my time shooting only close-up photos.

That is, if it ever warms up around here.

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