Pushing and learning
With winter here, and no light to work with for good images of birds, no flowers or insects to photograph, and a general feeling that I’m wasting my time going out with a camera this time of year, I’ve decided instead of giving up, I’d work on pushing my equipment to the limits and beyond, and to also learn to tweak my camera settings to get the best possible images that I can, no matter what time of year it is.
But first, I’m going to go back to an idea that I had a long time ago, that having two cameras with me at all times is a good thing despite the weight of carrying them, along with the expense.
I stopped at the beach at Muskegon State Park more or less on a lark, just to see the waves crashing into the breakwater there. I noticed a hole opening in the clouds, so I put the 24-70 mm lens on the 5D body, and I shot a series of images of the magic light that appeared, here’s the best of the series.
It was a raw, windy day, if you look closely, you can see that there’s sand being blown around, which is the reason that they put the snow fencing up along the beach, trying to control the sand.
But, as I was watching the light change, I noticed a bald eagle flying along the beach. So, I grabbed the 7D with the 400 mm prime lens on it to shoot the eagle.
I didn’t crop that image much, as it would never be a great image of the eagle itself, I wanted to capture the moment, with the eagle flying above the waves of Lake Michigan as it looked for prey. I was hoping that I’d be able to record it diving down to capture a fish, but that didn’t happen.
I wished that I had a better foreground in the landscape image, but as quickly as the light was changing, I didn’t dare move at that time. Later, when the light had mostly gone over to plain grey skies, I did test the new tires on my vehicle to drive through piles of wind-blown sand to what would have been a better location for the first image.
You can see that the great light was all but gone, but I did have a better foreground and middle ground in the second landscape.
That location was also better to shoot photos of the eagle as it looked for food.
I still hoped to capture the eagle catching a fish, but it turned out that the eagle had spotted a dead fish on the beach to eat.
I could tell what was going on by the gulls and crows nearby waiting for the eagle to eat its fill. As soon as the eagle left, the other scavengers moved in to get their portions of the remains.
Anyway, having two camera with me allowed me to get photos of both events as they occurred, the crepuscular rays over the beach, and the eagle on the prowl.
Two other things come to mind about that time at the beach, one is that the 24-70 mm is an excellent lens, as you can see how sharp the landscape images are from corner to corner. It’s funny though, I still like the 16-35 mm lens more, even though the 24-70 mm lens is its equal. I think that my preference is based on what I use each lens for, rather than image quality though.
The other thing is that the new tires on my Subaru work well, I drove through some drifted sand that many other vehicles would have gotten stuck in. In fact, I had turned around the first time that I saw the sand drifts, as I could see where other vehicles had gotten stuck in the sand.
Okay, my images of birds in flight have improved a great deal over the past few years, and now, some of them are better than my images of stationary birds from the past.
However, back when I was still using the Nikon D50 before it died, I shot a photo of a flock of mallards that I would like to have a do-over on.
There are several things that I really like about that photo, but there’s also plenty that I don’t like about it. I like the facts that the mallards in flight are mostly frozen and sharp, other than some blur in their wings as they flapped. But, the background is blurred because I was following the mallard with the camera, and the blurred background adds to the sense of motion in the photo. I also liked the soft light that allows the colors of the mallards to show without any harsh shadows.
I don’t like the way that the mallards are “clumped together” in several places within the image, nor do I like the horizon being off because I had the camera tilted when I shot that one. I also wish that I had been able to zoom in just a tad more to make the mallards in the frame slightly larger.
That photo was pure luck, it’s one of the few times that the old Nikon performed well. Also, I didn’t have time to zoom in very far with the old 70-300 mm lens that I used at the time, which actually worked to my advantage this one time.
So, one of the things that I’m going to work on this winter is getting better images of flocks of birds in flight. I should add that I’ll be able to spend the time that it takes for this because I no longer have to struggle to come up with any good shots from a day out with a camera. This also goes along with my plans to shoot in the manual mode more often. The settings that I have saved in all of my cameras for birds in flight are all manual mode settings, and I’ve also learned that when I use a flash for extra light in macro photos, switching to manual is a must. I also know that my long lenses, both the 100-400 mm zoom and 400 mm prime, are too long for the image of a flock of birds that I have in mind.
And now that I’m typing out my thoughts on this subject, I remember that this spring, I shot a number of images of gulls in flight with the 16-35 mm lens that I really liked.
With all of this in mind, last week I set out to begin playing with my lens selection and camera settings to learn how to get better images of flocks of birds in flight. Wouldn’t you know, as always, the best laid plans of mice and men seldom work out as their plan was laid out. Typically, the mallards at the Muskegon wastewater facility prefer to hang out in the flooded fields of the rapid filtration cells rather than the large storage lagoons. In fact, I should mention that mallards and many other puddle ducks love freshly flooded land, even if the flooded area is just a large puddle. I don’t know what it is that they find to eat in these flooded areas, but it has to be something that puddle ducks love, because they can be found in such places more often than not.
I got my equipment set-up in advance, using the 70-200 mm lens on the 7D, choosing that lens to prevent myself from zooming in too far as I do most of the time. Usually, I can drive to next to one of the rapid filtration cells and I have to wait until the mallards become nervous by my presence before they take flight, and this is where my plan failed.
For some reason, long before I approached the cell that the mallards were in, the entire flock took flight, so this was my best shot in this attempt.
At least you get an idea how many mallards were there, although that’s just a small portion of the flock. And, I learned a little from the camera settings that I used for that image as well, so it wasn’t a total waste of time.
Just as the mallards all took flight long before I got into the position that I wanted to be in, you can never predict what’s going to happen when attempting to photograph nature. Earlier on that day, I had been parked where I could look out over mixed flocks of ducks to see if there were any species in the flock worth trying to photograph. Suddenly, wave after wave of northern shovelers came flying towards me to join the flock that was already there. Each wave consisted of about a dozen to about twenty ducks, but I had my long lenses on both cameras, and this is what happens most of the time in that situation.
In all, I’d say that well over 100 northern shovelers came flying towards me, but as in that photo above, there was an out of focus duck in the foreground to ruin the photos. I did better when a lone male approached from the other direction a bit later.
I love it when I catch the moment of touchdown, if only the light had been a little better. From all the photos of waterfowl landing on water I shoot, you may have noticed that northern shovelers lower their bodies into the water so that their butts and spread-out tail feathers slow them down much more quickly than some other species of waterfowl. Mallards and Canada geese in particular seem to enjoy skating across the top pf the water on only their feet for extended distances as if they were waterskiing. That may have something to do with the way that shovelers feed, I don’t know. Shovelers strain the surface water for their food, so maybe they prefer not to disturb the water any more than necessary. That’s just a thought of mine, it’s not based on any scientific study.
In some ways, having fewer subjects to photograph during the winter is a good thing, for it allows me to slow down while watching a flock of birds since I’m not in a race with myself to try to photograph everything that there is to see in nature in one day. Then, when I see a northern shoveler in a flock taking a bath and at about the best distance from me as possible…
…I know that it will dry its wings when finished, so I can be prepared…
…and capture the entire sequence…
…from start to finish…
…and show his beautiful coloration while he’s doing his thing…
…and the best part was that I was able to keep him in the frame…
…because I’ve practiced shooting this sequence so many times in the past.
Slowing down and paying more attention to the background also pays dividends.
I also tried to shoot a few snow scenes this past week, nothing great though.
These would have been better with a little sun and blue skies…
…something that I may actually see this week.
I have some ideas about some other things to try this winter, one is shooting snow scenes at night under a full moon. However, that’s so dependent on the weather that I’m not sure if I’ll ever see the right conditions on any of my days off. I do stand a better chance of that than a sunny day though, because the wind usually drops off at night, which allows the lake effect clouds to break up until sunrise. As soon as the wind picks up, the clouds soon follow. At least I now have a camera and lenses for such photos if the weather does ever cooperate.
Switching gears, there has been a northern shrike that has spent the winter months at the Muskegon County wastewater facility for several years, until last year. I never saw it, and I never saw one reported there on eBird when I’d check what species were being seen in Muskegon County. I don’t know if the shrike that had been seen there for years died of old age, or if it had chosen a new area to spend the winter. But last week, I saw this one there.
That’s one of last summer’s young, you can tell from the way that its chest is brownish, with bits of white to go with the brown.
Its chest will eventually turn all white as it grows its adult feathers.
I was much closer to the shrike when I first spotted it, but it was mostly hidden by a few remaining leaves along with branches of the bush it was perched in. As I followed it with my camera, I caught this.
Owls are known for regurgitating the indigestible parts of critters that they eat in the form of pellets, but it turns out that most, or all raptors do the same thing, even the smallest ones such as the shrike. As I’ve sat watching eagles and several species of hawks, I’ve seen them regurgitate pellets, but I’ve never been able to photograph it. This photo of the shrike doing so was mostly luck, I was just shooting away hoping for a good pose with a clean foreground. I was able to see the pellet drop right after that photo was recorded, but I was hooting in slow continuous rather than high-speed, so the pellet was out of the frame before the camera fired again.
Thanksgiving Day was another cold, dreary day here, and the majority of the photos that I shot were almost identical to those that I’ve already put in this post, so I’ve decided not to use most of them. I did catch a juvenile bald eagle flying overhead early in the day.
And, I caught yet another northern shoveler drying its wings…
…and I’m including this one to show how birds “blast a hole in the water” as they bathe…
…along with two different versions of how shovelers form tightly knit rafts as they feed…
…as I can’t decide which of these two I like the best.
We have more species of birds moving into the area to spend the winter, I’m not sure if I shot a photo of a rough-legged hawk at all last winter…
…so it was good to see one this early this winter.
Also, the snow buntings have returned…
…but for some reason, neither of my cameras seem to be able to produce a sharp image of one, these were shot with the 5D…
…and this one was shot with the 7D.
This species is going to be a challenge for me this winter, to get an excellent image of one. They are very flighty birds, that form large flocks. Just when you think that you’re close enough to one to get a good image, one of the other members of the flock will take flight, and away they all go. They seem to expend far too much energy as they fly from place to place, and in the way that they feed. Many small birds are always in motion, no species more than snow buntings, they’re always moving.
Well, the good news is that there were a few hours of sunshine last Friday, the bad news is that by noon, the clouds rolled back in and have been here ever since. I’ll save those images for my next post, as I’m up to my limit for this post already.
That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!