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

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!

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12 responses

  1. I do hope you eventually get some spring weather – or maybe you’ll go straight into summer? I was really pleased to see both the grebes at the start of the post. I like grebes very much – they seem to have such a lot of character. I am also looking forward to seeing more of your flower and insect shots. You always manage to get such a lot of detail into your photographs. I loved the crow landing series of shots with the feathers reacting to the airflow. Thanks for a fascinating post, Jerry!

    April 8, 2018 at 8:03 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare! I agree with you about grebes, they do have more character than some other species of birds. I’ve been working very hard to increase the details that people can see in my photos, because it opens up an entire new world to many people. That’s also the reason that I included the series of crow photos, so people could see how birds use their feather to control their flight.

      April 9, 2018 at 6:44 pm

  2. A great post, as always. I do so enjoy your photographs.

    April 9, 2018 at 1:38 am

    • Thank you very much Susan!

      April 9, 2018 at 6:44 pm

  3. I agree, it’s a good idea to focus on one type of subject when you’re out shooting. I usually try to do too much; a small flower, then an eagle flying by, then . . . . and end up with some pretty mediocre results.

    April 9, 2018 at 8:26 am

    • Thank you very much Bob! I know exactly what you mean about wanting to photograph anything that comes along. I think that I’ll never change my ways completely, but I can change a little at least.

      April 9, 2018 at 6:46 pm

  4. Thank you for such an interesting and fascinating post with all your amazing photos. The grebes look such characterful birds and the bluebird is so pretty ..you are very fortunate to have so many different birds of all types not too far away. Look forward to seeing your adapted moon photos-sounds a great idea. Looking outside the box again some of your photos could be from an alien planet: the lichen, praying mantis and the dragonfly! Love the decaying wood too with all the ‘faces’ peering out. Hang in there until the warmer weather arrives and then we can all enjoy more of your close up photos which are always stunning…pleased that you aren’t going to go out and buy a frog!

    April 9, 2018 at 8:59 am

    • Thank you very much Marianne! I think that there are more species of birds in most areas than most people think, I just take the time to track them down to show others what’s to be seen in nature. It’s the same with the close-up photos that I shoot, most people never get a chance to see what insects look like when viewed closely. No, I’m not about to buy a frog so that I can shoot it inside, nor will I bring in dead insects and pose them in front of backdrop created inside. The good news is that it’s going to warm up for at least a short time, I hope that I’ll be able to take advantage of it.

      April 9, 2018 at 7:01 pm

  5. I’ve never seen a rusty blackbird but I have seen a whole flock of turkeys fly across a road. The person in front of me slammed on their brakes and we sat there watching about 10-12 birds fly across in front of us. Maybe a bobcat was after them, I don’t know.
    Nice shots of the crow, and that bluebird is beautiful.
    I like that shot of the old wood too. Those are the kinds of things I get lost in sometimes.
    I like the macros / closeups too. I agree that depth of field is tough with macros but a light does help. I use the on-board LED I have quite often but I have to be careful because it can really affect colors in certain light conditions. I used to use a piece of tissue paper over the flash for a diffuser and it worked well.
    Spring is here but it’s going to be a cool one. I’m guessing that we’re going to go from winter right to summer this year as far as temperature goes. I hope yours gets better and you get a shot at a real spring!

    April 9, 2018 at 5:57 pm

    • Thank you very much Allen! Come to think of it, I’ve seen more turkeys flying in the past year than ever before, it’s probably because there are more than ever in my lifetime around here.

      I shoot many photos of wood that never make it into any of my posts, I’m fascinated by the way that trees grow and then rot over the years. I thought that it was because I also love woodworking, it’s nice to find out that I’m not alone in my love of wood.

      The LED light light that I have is color balanced to daylight, but it does add a bit of a blue cast to my photos, easily corrected in Lightroom. The flash unit that I have came with a shaped protective covering of tissue like paper, it makes a good, but not great diffuser, and it does stay put on the flash unit. But, the best way is to get the flash unit further from the camera so that it can fire at more than its minimum output without drastically over-exposing the photo. There are ring-lights that they sell, but I’ve never seen them used by serious macro photographers. My brother tried one, he hated it. I’ll come up with something to provide a natural looking soft light, one way or another.

      April 10, 2018 at 12:02 am

  6. I enjoyed reading your post and admiring the photos that go along with it. The ones of the Bluebird are outstanding! I’ve have yet to get a sharp image of these birds as they are usually too far away, or behind branches, or both.

    You macros are superb and all the ones you post here are amazing images. On the subject of flash, have you considered wireless flash and remote triggering? The flash I have has that capability, but I don’t have a trigger/receiver yet so for now I can only use the flash when it is attached to the camera.

    April 10, 2018 at 7:34 am

    • Thank you very much Hien! It was luck to get that close to the bluebird, but of course there wasn’t enough light for a good image, but I’ll take what I got.

      The flash unit that I have can be triggered remotely by the on camera flash, and I’ve had some luck using it that way, mostly for flowers close to the ground. There are problems with that set-up though, the speedlite needs to be able to “see” the flash from the camera, and there’s always the question of how do I hold the speedlite where I want it. I don’t want to carry light stands to hold the flash unit in place along with everything else that’s needed. I think that some type of bracket to hold the speedlite above and in front of the lens, and triggering it through the cord that I already have is the way to go.

      April 10, 2018 at 8:00 am