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

Same photos, a lot more words

This post will be my thoughts on photography, with no, or very few new photos, so most of you reading this will probably want to skip this post.

I began my last post with this image of a white-throated sparrow, and there was a very important reason for that.

White throated sparrow

That was shot with the Canon 5D Mk IV, 100-400 mm lens, with a 1.4 tele-converter behind it. That set-up has a maximum aperture of f/8.

There are times when I start drooling over the thought of owning one of the even longer Canon super telephoto lens, say the 600 mm f/4 lens which sells for $12,999 or perhaps the 400 mm f/2.8 lens, which is a bargain at $11,999. The thing is, neither of those lenses would have gotten that image of the sparrow, as neither will focus as close as the sparrow was to me.

I’ve read articles, watched videos, and done other research on those very expensive lenses, and the lengths that people have to go through to photograph small birds is ridiculous, like stacking extension tubes behind those lenses to get them to focus a little closer to the subject, which then limits how far from the subject one can be and still shoot a photo. You’re stuck shooting photos of subjects within the narrow focusing range of such a set-up.

It isn’t just the focal length that makes me wish for one of those lenses from time to time, it’s also the wider maximum aperture. Not only would that allow more light into the camera, meaning that I could shoot at a lower ISO setting, but it would also limit the depth of field more, causing better separation between the subject and the background.

That may be the case with larger subjects shot at a longer distance, but it doesn’t apply to the sparrow photo above. If you look at the sparrow’s shoulder, it is already going out of focus due to the shallow depth of field, even at f/8, I could have gone to f/11 or even f/16 and still have gotten good separation between the sparrow and the background, for the sparrow’s tail is completely out of focus.

You can’t really see it in the reduced quality JPEG image above, but the amount of detail in the sparrow’s feathers in the original RAW file, or the print that I made of this image, is beyond what the average person viewing this image is probably going to notice. Shot at ISO 2500 with the 5D, there isn’t much noise in this image either, at least not so much that the average person would notice it. If the amount of noise was objectionable, it could be removed easily in Lightroom at that ISO.

So, what does all of this mean? It means that I already have the best set-up that I can get  to produce very good images of smaller birds, and that there’s no reason for me to continue drooling over those longer, expensive lenses, that I’ll never be able to afford any way. It also means that unless I want to impress other photographers rather than the average person, that the cameras that I’m using now, the 5D Mk IV and 7D Mk II, are all that I’ll ever need. That more or less applies to lenses as well, it’s better to get closer to the subject than to rely on longer focal length lenses to get the image, as atmospherics come into play with long lenses at greater distances.

Everything that I’ve said so far also applies to this image from my last post.

Male rose breasted grosbeak

Yes, he was on one of the feeders at the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve, but that image is too good not to use. The other photos of him as he approached the feeder a little closer in steps as he decided whether or not I posed a threat to him are also good.

Male rose breasted grosbeak

The background isn’t quite as out of focus as I’d like, but it isn’t bad, and the emerging leaves near the grosbeak tell you that this image was shot in the spring, so I like this shot.

Now then, back to photo gear. It becomes more apparent to me all the time that one of the biggest things having to do with image quality is knowing your equipment inside out and upside down. The combination of cameras that I’m using now, the 5D Mk IV and the 7D Mk II make this easier because the controls on both bodies are almost identical. I don’t have to fumble around and remember how to set each of them, it’s becoming automatic, my fingers and thumbs know from muscle memory where the controls I need to adjust are. I’m to the point now where I can use either body at night in almost total darkness because I know exactly where the buttons and dials that I need to use are located without even looking at the camera.

That was made clear to me when I looked at one of the new Canon mirrorless cameras in the store. I was at a complete loss how to set even the most basic functions because that camera is completely different that the ones that I’m using now. The salesman had to give me instructions on how to make the changes that I wanted to make. I’m sure that it wouldn’t take me long to learn a new body, but why should I?

As I said, unless I’m trying to impress pixel peepers, what I’m using now is more than good enough, as I hope that my images show.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher

I’m thinking about reviving a second blog that I was using to post my best images in, and posting my best full resolution images there so that viewers will be able to see the details in a bird’s feathers, or…

Unidentified purple flower

…in the flowers that I photograph.

One of the things that’s helping me to improve my macro photos is using one of the 7D bodies that I have and leaving it dedicated to macro photography. The rig that I came up with to hold my flash unit also helps, and in addition, I’ve begun using the LED light that I have on sunnier days when the flash is too much, but there are still shadows that need to be filled.

To be honest, the LED light didn’t help much when I was using a 60D body the same way, dedicated to macros, due to that camera’s lack of dynamic range. The 7D may not be able to match the 5D’s dynamic range, but the LED light seems to be enough to kill shadows with the 7D, so I’ll stick to that for now. And by the way, I’m shooting macros in the manual mode these days, and I often opt for manual focus as well, as with the photo of the purple flower above.

My basic settings are 1/200 second at f/16 to prevent camera shake and still get the depth of field required. If I’m using natural light or the LED light, I use auto ISO and let the camera set the exposure by adjusting the ISO. If I’m using the flash, then I find it best to set the ISO manually so that I can control the output of the flash better.

When it comes to manual focus, I try to nearly fill the frame with the subject, and that’s usually close to the minimum focus of the macro lens. However, auto-focus doesn’t seem to work well near the limit, so I set the lens manually, then move myself into position where the subject is in focus.

However, I think that what has helped me improve my macro photos the most is that I seldom try to shoot them on a windy day any longer, unless I have to. I seldom go looking for opportunities to shoot macros on windy days, and instead, on calm days, I’ll devote much more time to macros than to chasing birds. I miss a few flowers because of that, since some flowers are done blooming by the time that I get a day off from work and it’s calm enough to shoot macros.

Okay, I said that I’m very happy with the gear that I have now, and that I see no reason to upgrade any of my existing cameras or lenses. However, I’m leaning towards purchasing a fish eye lens, even though most photographers consider them to be a novelty lens. Canon makes a 8-15 mm true fish eye lens, which has a 180 degree field of view at 8 mm. This is what you get with the lens at 8 mm on a full frame camera.

Testing a fish eye lens

Sorry, I didn’t remove the lens hood as I’ve never shot with such a wide lens before, so the lens hood was captured in the shot. I was about 6 inches away from the package of socks, which is what intrigues me about this lens.

I’m not a huge fan of the circular image produced by that lens, but it can also produce rectilinear images as well as the circular ones, as this next image shows.

 

Testing a fish eye lens

Using Lightroom, I can correct the distortion even more if I want to, but I don’t have an example of that worth posting.

I like the idea of being able to get as close as 6 inches away from a subject and still get everything in focus due to the large depth of field of a lens that wide. By the way, those two were shot a f/4 because I wanted to see the depth of field of that lens wide open.

It is a novelty lens, not really suited to landscapes or interior photos the way that most people use a fish eye lens. I think that it would work well for flowers, lichens, and other small things seen in nature where I have a hard time getting everything in focus using my 100 mm macro lens. And, that lens will also work on the crop sensor 7D, where it would become a 12-24 mm lens, and I’d use it for the same types of subjects on the 7D, but it would also be useful for landscapes on that body at times.

I’m sure that there will be a huge learning curve with that lens as I learn to balance the field of view, depth of field, and the distortion inherent in a lens that wide. But, I have seen a few nature photos shot with a fish eye lens, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen. I’ve tried to duplicate those photos with my 16-35 mm lens, but its close focusing ability is a foot, and I’ve not been happy with the results. One thing that I’ve learned is that when it comes to extreme wide-angle photography, every mm of focal length and every mm of distance between the camera and the subject make huge differences in the final image produced.

I can also play around with cropping a rectilinear image from a true fish eye image as produced by this lens, I’d guess that you’d say that I’m excited about the possibilities.

The 8-15 mm fish eye lens would also come in handy for night photography of subjects such as the Milky Way, and star trails as well.

Since it is a novelty lens of sorts, a few of the people who purchase it aren’t happy with it, and sell them without having really used them much. I may pick-up one of the slightly used copies that are often available, and save a few hundred dollars on it that way.

I should add that this new found focus on ultra-wide angle photography is due to 16-35 mm lens that I purchased a couple of years ago. I still love that lens as much or more than any other that I own, even though I haven’t had much of a chance to use it lately. I haven’t been shooting many landscapes lately, and the few that I have shot, I’ve done so with the 24-70 mm lens.

It may sound funny since I’ve had the 24-70 mm lens for about a year now, but I’m still learning that lens. Heck, I’m still learning the 7D Mk II, and how to get the best from it. Of course that applies to the 5D Mk IV as well. But that is something that I absolutely love, learning that is, and seeing my images continue to improve over time as I do learn my equipment inside out and upside down.

Changing gears a bit, I’ve been thinking of getting the Sigma 150-500 mm lens out again because it’s the warbler migration season, and the Sigma lens always worked better for me as far as the auto-focus in picking up small birds in the brush. I probably should do that just to see what the image quality is with the Sigma lens on the 5D Mk IV. I still remember making the switch back to the Sigma a couple of years ago while I was on vacation photographing small birds near Alpena, Michigan. However, the image quality that I get from my Canon telephoto lenses is superior to what I get from the Sigma, if I’m able to get the birds in focus.

I spent a very frustrating day at the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve yesterday. I was surrounded by hundreds of small birds such as warblers, vireos, and kinglets all day long, but came home with very few photos to show for my time spent there. I grew arm weary, lifting the camera and lens to my eye hundreds of times, but never shooting a single photo most of the time, for the birds moved before the 100-400 mm lens with the 1.4 X tele-convertor could get the bird in focus.

Since the 5D Mk IV has so much more resolution than my older crop sensor cameras, the image quality that I may get with the Sigma lens on the 5D may be a worthwhile trade-off for the much faster auto-focus. At least I’d get more images, even if they would be slightly lower quality than I’d get with the Canon lens. I’ll have to try that next week.

Weather, and how good the light is, will be the deciding factor next week. If there’s good light, I think that the Sigma lens will produce images with high enough quality for my current standards. But, I know that in poor light, the Sigma lens can’t hold a candle to my Canon lenses.

This image didn’t appear in my last post, because I shot it yesterday as I type this.

Red-tailed hawk

I shot that just after I had packed most of my camera gear into my vehicle. I had noticed the hawk perched near my apartment, and despite the poor light, decided to try for a photo. That was shot with the 5D, 100-400 mm lens, and 1.4 X tele-convertor, my normal set-up. The ISO was 3200, and the 5D produced an image with what I think is great detail in so low of light at that ISO setting. I know that the Sigma lens can’t match that, but if there’s enough light the results will be closer to what I get with the Canon lens.

That also reminds me to whine about the weather, and the weather forecasters. It seems like every day that I’ve had off from work for over a month has been either rainy, or the day begins with rain, and eventually the rain ends and there’s been a little sunshine in the late afternoon. On a couple of those days, there wasn’t any rain in the forecast at all, and even if they were predicting the rain would end and the sun would break through the clouds, the forecast has been for that happening much earlier in the day than what actually happened. It’s been disheartening to watch the weather forecast at 11:30 PM showing no rain, only to wake up early to find that it is raining again. It’s pretty bad when they can’t even forecast accurately less than 12 hours out.

Since I plan my days out off based on the weather reports, it’s been a frustrating month or more for me. I’ve gotten up early to take advantage of the fact that birds are most active early in the morning, even migrating birds. I look outside to find that the clouds haven’t moved out as forecast, or that it’s still raining, even though the rain had been forecast to move out by then.

In fact, the weather patterns on my days off from work have been amazingly similar, with the clouds finally starting to break up around noon or a little after each and every day that I’ve been out with my camera. By then, the chances of any dramatic landscape images as the clouds break up are close to zero. It also seems like the clouds continue to move on all afternoon long, so that as sunset approaches, the sky has become cloudless, or nearly so. With no clouds to catch the sun’s fading light, there’s been no reason for me to stick it out until sunset either.

Even though I’ve got much more to say, it’s time to wrap this one up with a couple of quick thoughts.

I’ve had the 5D Mk IV for almost a year now, and I’m loving it and the images it produces.

I’m thinking about doing another road trip on one of my next two days off from work, that will depend on the weather. In the meantime, a not so good image…

Male ruby-crowned kinglet

…but at least I caught him displaying his crown.

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

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13 responses

  1. Very thoughtful post, Jerry. I have most of the same photo equipment you have, and at this point in retirement I probably won’t be getting any more. What I have keeps me busy enough, and as you said, it is good to learn to know how to use it in many more ways.

    Like

    May 16, 2019 at 7:38 am

    • Thanks Hien! Yes, we have about the same equipment, but while some people will say that equipment doesn’t matter, it definitely does when shooting the subjects that we shoot. At least we’ll soon both have the time to devote to learning to use what we have.

      Like

      May 16, 2019 at 9:03 pm

  2. Very interesting post, Jerry. You and your photographs prove that by taking to time to learn all that your lenses do in all sorts of weather there is often no need to pay extremely large amounts of money for new and more powerful ones. It will be good for you to be able to go on a road trip at last. It’s been such a long time since you managed to get away.

    Like

    May 15, 2019 at 9:03 pm

    • Thank you Clare! It’s funny that it was hard for me to accept the idea that one of those really expensive lenses would make it more difficult for me to match the images that I shoot now, but it’s true.

      I used to go on road trips all the time until I became a truck driver, now doing more diving isn’t as appealing to me as it used to be. But, I would like to visit a few other places from time to time, so if the weather holds, I will.

      Liked by 1 person

      May 15, 2019 at 11:34 pm

  3. Great photos of all those characterful little birds especially the Blue-gray gnatcatcher- such a sweetie! On the other hand I love that red tailed hawk too with just his eye and beak showing and a flash of his red tail…very hawkish! A second blog sounds a good idea! Hope the weather gets better for you. We are enjoying a week of sunshine!

    Like

    May 15, 2019 at 3:31 pm

    • Thank you Marianne! Big or small, I shoot them all. 😉 It’s finally going to warm up for my excursion, but I’ll probably be dodging rain showers again. We’ve had a ton of rain around here this spring, but never enough to cause any flooding, it’s been light to moderate rain that comes in waves almost every day.

      Liked by 1 person

      May 15, 2019 at 11:37 pm

  4. An interesting post. Nature photography is tricky in a way because if you get your picture too perfect, too frozen in time, it tends to look quite unnatural. I like your pictures because they are both good pictures and interesting and full of life..

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    May 14, 2019 at 6:29 pm

    • Thanks Tom! I never considered that my images may be too perfect, but I do try to make the subjects look alive in the pictures, and even capture a bit of the personality, as if I were a portrait photographer.

      Like

      May 15, 2019 at 7:13 am

  5. nice captures. tripods(s) or other things you use to steady your camera. blinds? special clothing?

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    May 14, 2019 at 5:57 pm

    • Thank you Buddy. I have a tripod with a gimbal head, but seldom use it, only for larger subjects when I’m using a 2 X tele-converter behind my lens. Everything else is shot handheld, I don’t know how one would go about using a tripod for warblers and other species of small birds. I have a portable blind, but I’ve never used it yet, for much the same reason. I have no idea where I’d set it up in hopes that a small bird would land in the right place to shoot a photo. As far as clothing, I try to wear muted colors, but I am going to be adding some camo to my wardrobe in the future.

      Like

      May 15, 2019 at 7:17 am

  6. Though I know nothing about cameras it always gives me pleasure to look at your wonderful photographs even if they have been on your blog before.

    Like

    May 14, 2019 at 5:24 pm

    • Thank you very much Susan! I did attempt to flag this post as one that people not interested in camera talk could skip, which is also why I repeated the same photos for the mot part, but I’m glad that you enjoyed it anyway.

      Like

      May 14, 2019 at 5:51 pm