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

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The waiting game, Part II

It’s Saturday evening, after a day spent at the Muskegon County wastewater facility looking for a good opportunity to test out the portable hide that I purchased several months ago, but still haven’t used. I must have been at the wrong place at the wrong time for most of the day, that happens a lot when I get a late start. I never did set the portable hide up.

There were quite a few shorebirds when I arrived, and that would have been the best chance to test the hide all day. I did break out the tripod with the gimbal head later in the day, after I had shot this and other images of Bonaparte’s gulls earlier handheld.

Adult Bonaparte’s gull

The reason that I got the tripod out when I did was to test it for shooting video.

You can see that the Bonaparte’s gulls act nothing like their cousins the ring-billed and herring gulls from that video. They swim around picking insects and other small food sources from the water as you can see.

I’m happy to report that the gimbal head does work well for video, I had no trouble keeping the gull in the frame as it would lunge forward for prey, or turn sharply for the same reason.  Even though I was “filming” a moving bird, I was able to keep the camera steady on the tripod and head. I need more practice, but seeing the results in this one test will prompt me to use the set-up more often in the future.

The hardest hurdle for me to climb when it comes to sitting in one spot to either shoot videos or stills will be my lack of patience. It’s now Monday morning, and I truly tried to find a place to set-up the portable hide this past weekend, but never did. The weather may be playing a part right now as well.

I’ve always said that first thing in the morning was the best time to photograph birds, that’s when they are the most active, and the bonus is that you have good light.

Northern flicker

That was shot Sunday morning at the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve, shortly after I had arrived. However, let me back-up just a little. The first bird that I shot was this grey catbird.

Grey catbird carrying a berry to its young

I don’t know how they do it with their mouth full, but the catbird was squawking at me the entire time that I followed it around within the tree as it moved around.

Grey catbird carrying a berry to its young

I had only moved a few steps away from the catbird when the flicker landed in the same tree, slightly above the catbird, which was still squawking away.

Northern flicker

The flicker seemed to be very interested in what the catbird was doing, and it kept a close eye on the catbird.

Northern flicker

A very close eye.

Northern flicker

I don’t know if the flicker was trying to learn why the catbird was sounding the alarm, or if the flicker was interested in the berry that the catbird had. Flickers eat mostly ants, although they will eat berries at times, but they’re not aggressive birds that are known for stealing food from other birds.

I should have set-up the portable blind near that spot for I saw other species of birds in the same area. However, I wanted better images of the least bittern, so I made my way out to the boardwalk. I should mention that in a very rare event, I stopped at the picnic pavilion and didn’t see a single bird there. I can’t recall another time that there weren’t at least a few birds around there.

Anyway, I made it out to the boardwalk and early on, I shot better images of the least bittern as it flew past me.

Least bittern in flight

 

Least bittern in flight

But, I didn’t get the view that I really wanted. I tried sticking around, and I was able to shoot two more series of the bittern as it flew to or from its nest, but it stayed out of range of any good images.

I tried to keep myself amused by shooting a few of the other things that I saw…

Female yellow warbler

 

Purple loosestrife

 

Jewelweed

 

Jewelweed

 

Marsh wren

 

Marsh wren

 

Joe Pye weed about to bloom

But, I couldn’t make myself stick around in one spot that day. It may have been because I was seeing and photographing the same things as the week before, or it may have been because of what had happened the previous day. It was probably a combination of both.

I should explain what I had witnessed on Saturday that made it difficult to sit in one spot. As I said earlier, early morning is the best time to see birds. I’ve often joked that come early afternoon, all the birds are taking a siesta, and therefore it’s hard to find them. I may say that jokingly, but it’s the truth…

Lesser yellowlegs napping

…by early afternoon on most days, the birds are ready for a nap.

Lesser yellowlegs napping

Usually though, birds don’t nap out in the open like that, they prefer someplace more hidden. Secondly, on both Saturday and Sunday, the birds that didn’t have young to feed began their naps much earlier in the day, late morning rather than early afternoon. By noon on both days, it was tough to find a bird.

It wouldn’t have matter much anyway, as by noon on both days, the sun was heating the air enough to create major heat waves, meaning that any longer range shots I attempted would have been ruined like this one.

Red fox at noon

What the fox was doing out at that time of day, I have no idea. It must have known about the atmospheric conditions though, because it stood there and let me shoot away…

Red fox at noon

…and when it did start to move away, it even paused for a look back at me.

Red fox at noon

There it was out in the open for the first time of all the times I’ve seen one, and the heat waves coming up from the road ruined any chance of a sharp photo. A few hours earlier before the sun began beating down, and I would have had some great images to brag about.

That’s going to lead me to some boring talk about photographic equipment. It’s days like that which lessen my desire for an even longer lens than the ones that I already own. The results would have been just as bad or worse if I had been using one of the extremely long lenses that I can’t afford any way. I didn’t even bother trying the 2 X tele-converter, I could see the heat waves through the viewfinder and knew that going longer wouldn’t help.

The two long lenses that I’m using now, the 100-400 mm f/4.5-5.6 and the 400 mm f/5.6 work well enough when I can use them in tandem, as I do at the wastewater facility. The 100-400 mm lens focuses down close for the flowers that you saw above, and for shots like this…

Unidentified dragonfly

..although the 300 mm f/4 lens was better for extreme close-ups.

I can “make do” with the zoom lens for birds in flight with the correct camera and lens settings.

Great blue heron in flight

 

Great blue heron in flight

I also shot the least bittern with the zoom lens.

However, I believe that the 400 mm prime lens is a tad sharper whether the subject is flying…

Juvenile tree swallow in flight

…or stationary.

Great blue heron

The 400 mm prime has a huge advantage over the 100-400 mm zoom lens for birds in flight, weight, the prime lens weighs about half of what the zoom lens does. I can’t maneuver the zoom lens around to keep up with small birds at all, and it’s more difficult when using it on larger birds as well. But, because the minimum focus distance of the 400 mm prime lens is 11 feet, I can’t get shots of flowers or insects with it the way that I can with the 100-400 mm zoom lens.

My indoor testing of the two lenses confirmed that on a tripod, or when there’s enough light to keep the shutter speed high enough, the 400 mm prime lens is sharper than the zoom lens. Part of that is the lack of Image Stabilization, fewer bits of glass between the subject and the camera’s sensor will almost always result in sharper images. And, because a zoom lens contain more bits of glass than a prime lens, zoom lenses seldom match the sharpness of a prime lens of equal quality in the first place.

But, I need the IS for shots like these, taken in deep shade at slower shutter speeds.

Cottontail rabbit

I went as low as 1/250 at 400 mm for these…

Cottontail rabbit

…and the IS is the reason that they’re as sharp as they are. You can even see the rabbits cute eyelashes in this one.

Cottontail rabbit

Sorry, I’m thinking through a few things right now pertaining to where I want to go with my photography in the future, so you’ll have to bear with me as I do.

The 7D Mk II is absolutely great when shooting action shots in good light…

Great blue heron in flight

…I have it set-up to track a subject even if other things appear in the frame as I’m following my intended subject.

Great blue heron landing in a marsh

There are two more photos from that series where the heron was even further down in the cattails, yet the 7D stayed locked onto the heron. But, you can barely see the heron, so I won’t include those. There are times when I wish that I didn’t have the 7D set to lock onto a subject as well as it does, when the camera locks onto the wrong part of a scene, it can be difficult for me to get it to let go and focus on what I want it to lock onto. However, being able to track a bird through vegetation or other obstructions, and fire off bursts when the bird comes clear of those obstructions is usually a very handy thing.

The last two photos are of the same heron, the first shot in full sunlight as the heron set its wings to make its landing. the second shot is after the heron had entered deep shade, and you can see how much that the image quality went down in the lower light. That’s the reason that I’m pining away for a full frame camera body.

Of course there’s no way that I could have switched camera bodies in that situation, there wasn’t enough time. However, the photos of the rabbit would have been even better if I had shot them with a full frame camera. But, I’ve said all of that before.

One problem that I have to solve is how do I carry even the bare minimum of camera gear that I’d like to have with me. I’d have much rather had the 400 mm prime lens with me for shooting photos of the least bittern in flight, but its minimum focusing distance precludes me from using it on small birds, flowers, or insects. The 100-400 mm lens is a much better choice as an all around lens, but I still feel the need to have the 400 mm prime lens with me for its sharpness and ability to catch birds in flight. Carrying both of them adds up to around ten pounds, which I can manage easily enough, but carrying two long lens set-ups is awkward at best.

I should also add that when I have both lenses available to me at the same time, I have the 1.4 X tele-converter behind the zoom lens to increase its focal length to 560 mm for more reach. That brings my subjects closer, but they almost have to be stationary. With the extender behind the lens, it slows down the auto-focus, and I can only use the center focusing point. That makes it almost impossible to shoot flying birds or any moving subject with the extender behind the lens.

When I get to the point when I am just sitting somewhere, I can carry one long set-up and pack the other one in a backpack, and get the second one out when I reach my destination. But, I’m not to that point yet, so I have to make do with the way that I’m doing things now I suppose. At the wastewater facility, I keep both of the long set-ups on the seat next to me, and grab the one that’s best for the subject at hand. But, I’m getting bored with visiting the same places shooting the same subjects all the time…

Least sandpipers in flight

…even if I try to find new ways to photograph them.

Part of the problem is that I’ve been slacking off as to the other subjects that I shoot. It’s almost all birds, all the time. It’s been a long time since I’ve posted any landscapes for that matter. In the past, I used to mix things up more, a few landscapes, some historic buildings or other things that I saw, and so on. For the past year or two at least, it’s been nothing but birds for the most part.

I do love birds, and I love watching them, even the same species for quite a bit of the time.

Marsh wren on the prowl

 

Marsh wren on the prowl

 

Marsh wren on the prowl

However, I’ll bet that more than a few readers of my blog are tired of seeing the same few species all the time. It’s funny, I could lose myself for hours shooting photos of the marsh wrens as they go about their lives’, but I can’t stand in one spot for the same amount of time waiting to shoot photos of another subject. I also love it when I can update the posts in the My Photo Life List posts that I’ve already published with better images than when I first published the post. I usually get those better shots by hanging around in one place, observing the bird to learn more about it as much as photographing it.

Still, I’m feeling the desire to photograph subjects other than birds all of the time, with a few other subjects on the side. If I was to shoot just birds, I wish that I could do so when they were involved in behavior that lent itself better to story telling than what I’ve seen the past few weeks. It’s pretty bad when my best story is of a flicker watching a catbird intently.

Part of the restless feeling that I have is because I thought that this would be the year when I was finished purchasing any more photo gear for a while, and that I’d be able to travel around Michigan more than I have for the past few years. But, my health issues this spring and the large medical bill that I have to pay off mean that I’m stuck going to places close to home that don’t cost me very much. The good news is that I’ve already paid off one-quarter of the hospital bill that I ran up, the bad news is that it has been at the expense of going anywhere other than Muskegon on the weekends.

And, the question of whether I should wait until I have the best camera equipment suitable for what I’d like to photograph, or try to make do with what I have, always pops into my head. As I’ve explained and shown above, the gear that I’ve spent my money on so far is great, about the best that there is, for birds in particular, and wildlife in general.

Mourning dove in flight

 

Mourning dove in flight

I have a great macro lens, and I do reasonably well with it on either the 60D body, or one of the 7D bodies. But, I could do better with a full frame camera. That applies in spades to landscapes, a full frame camera would be so much better for them, along with better wide-angle lens(es) than I currently own. The point is, that I’ve sunk my money into gear best suited for birds, and that I therefore feel compelled to shoot birds because of that.

It doesn’t help that because of my current work schedule, I find it hard to be in a good spot for a landscape image around sunrise, which is my favorite time of day to shoot landscapes. I do like to get out as early as I can to catch the birds, but that makes for a very long day if I were to try for landscapes around sunset. I’ve also developed some OCD tendencies. I feel the need to download, sort, edit, rate, and add keywords to all of my images on the day that I shoot them. Part of that is wanting to get it done while my memory is still fresh, especially as far as identifying some of the birds that I shoot. I found that if I waited a day or two to add keywords, then I’d forget the exact time and place, along with the bird’s behavior, when I did go to add the keywords, which include the species of bird that the image is of. That was even worse if I shot more photos later, and then tried to get caught up with keeping my Lightroom catalog current. Trying to go through all the photos that I shoot in a weekend isn’t an easy task, and it’s made worse by a lack of time trying to do it in the few hours that I have after work each day.

I may have to give up photographing birds for a day or possibly for an entire weekend, and go out and shoot other subjects. There are some beautiful old churches in Grand Rapids that I could photograph, although they are in locations that make photographing them difficult. One sits right next to the expressway, which is elevated at that point. The best spot to photograph the church would be the expressway, but it wouldn’t be wise to stop and set-up my tripod and camera there. 🙂

Some of the rolling farmlands in the area would make good landscape photos, although they wouldn’t be the natural features that I’m more interested in photographing.

As you may be able to tell, I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately. My first love will always be nature photography, but there’s no reason that I have to limit myself as much as I have the last couple of years. Not only do I think about this while driving across the state every day for work, but also while I’m sitting and playing the waiting game for birds as well. I think about some of the buildings that I’d like to photograph, the scenes that catch my eye as I’m driving for work, and other possible photo subjects that come to mind. It’s hard to stay focused on waiting for a certain bird to appear when my mind is on other subjects that I’d just as soon be shooting.

This growing feeling that I have is also fueled by the photos that I see from other bloggers, and especially from the how-to videos that I watch on improving my Lightroom skills. While there may be an occasional wildlife image in these Lightroom how-to videos, the majority of the subjects that the presenter works on are of different subject matter. They shoot landscapes, still life images, urban landscapes, and many other things that I’d also like to shoot.

A side note here, if you watch the Lightroom how-to videos, you can also see what cameras and lenses that the professionals use as that information is often displayed in Lightroom. However, that information is only useful if you are shooting the same types of photos as the person making the Lightroom presentation.

Babbling on like this has helped me decide a couple of things. One, I am going to go on a day trip or two to shoot subjects other than birds. When I do that will be somewhat dependent on the weather, and if any rare birds are being reported near me or Muskegon. The camera gear that I have now may not be the absolute best for the subjects that I intend to shoot, but I can get by with it considering the nature of the images that I’ll be shooting.

Doing so will also help me decide once and for all which lenses that I’d like to have for a full frame camera body. I know that I’d like the Canon 24-105 mm lens for its versatility, that’s a given. But, I wonder if I’ll need a wider lens than that, and if so, how much wider? The 15-85 mm lens that I have on the crop sensor bodies that I have is equivalent to the 24-105 mm lens on a full frame sensor body. So, if I go out and shoot with the 15-85 mm lens on my crop sensor body, it will tell me if I need a wider lens on a full frame camera or not. If I do, I also have a 10-18 mm lens for my crop sensor body, and that’s about the same as a 16-35 mm lens on a full frame sensor camera. So, if I use that lens, it will tell me if I need to go even wider or not.

When it comes to wide-angle lenses, it isn’t only the amount of a scene that you can fit into the frame that matters. It’s also how much they distort the perspectives of size and distance. The wider the lens, the more it makes things up close look larger than things in the background, even if the things in the background are larger than what’s in the foreground. Wide-angle lenses also distort the distance between objects in the frame, making the objects appear farther apart than they really are. If you use that distortion of distance correctly, it adds depth to an image.

I’ve never used my wide-angle lenses enough to become skilled in their use, and I’ve said that before. I was improving my landscape photography quite a bit when I was shooting more landscapes, you know what they say, practice makes perfect. I’m afraid that as few landscapes as I’ve shot lately, it will be like starting over from scratch. So, I’d better get out there and shoot some before I’ve lost what little skill that I had.

I have purchased a filter that will allow me to shoot the solar eclipse later this month, and I put in a request to have the day off from work. We’ll see how that works.

I’ve also decided to purchase a photo printer soon, not that I plan on producing that many prints. But, by having my own printer, I can check my progress as a photographer more often than I can by waiting to send a batch of images to an outside lab to receive a volume discount. Most of the prints that I have had made were tests of the capabilities of the equipment that I have, more so than my best images overall. For example, I printed some images that I shot at night, even though they weren’t very interesting, just to see how much noise that appeared in the printed images. That’s the reason that I shot them in the first place, to test the long exposure noise reduction in my camera. If I branch out more as I hope to, then I should be able to shoot more interesting subjects, such as the Milky Way, and star trails.

Sorry for babbling on for so long once again. Hopefully, I’ll have images other than just birds for my next post, and a lot less talk of photo gear.

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

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The waiting game

I said in my last post that I stood on the boardwalk at the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve for several hours waiting to get photos of the least bittern which I needed for the My Photo Life List that I’m working on. It didn’t used to be in my nature to stand in one spot like that, I’m the type of person that prefers to keep moving. There had been better lighting during one of my earlier visits to the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve, and I had seen the least bittern, but it flew past me as I was talking to some one that I see regularly there. So, he and I were chatting, and I didn’t notice the bittern approaching until it was too late for me to get a photo. I did however see where the bittern dove into the vegetation, and that gave me a few clues as to its behavior. I also walked up and down the boardwalk several times, shooting other subjects that I saw as I walked, but I wasn’t able to get the bittern.

Over the past year or so, instead of walking or driving around the places that I go, I tend to sit in one spot longer all the time. For one thing, there are spots within the places that I go where I find that I’m much more likely to get the photographs that I’d like to be able to get in those spots than moving from spot to spot and wasting time covering “unproductive” areas between. However, when I’m staying in one spot, I always have the feeling that I’m missing things that I’d otherwise see and be able to photograph.

Male American goldfinch

I have the feeling that I may be missing things because the truth is, I do miss things when I’m not moving. I know this because I see things happening in the distance out of camera range that I wish that I had been able to photograph, but there’s no way that I can be everywhere all the time.

The day when I stood in place waiting for the bittern was a very cloudy day, with fog and even a few sprinkles of rain at times. It wasn’t a good day for photography at all, except that the poor weather kept most people away from the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve, leaving it all to me alone. I thought that it would give me a good chance of catching the bittern, or any other critters that shy away from people. I have a photo to illustrate the weather that morning.

The B. C. Cobb power plant in Muskegon

That’s the B. C. Cobb power plant near Muskegon, a coal-fired plant that was decommissioned earlier this year, and is slated for demolition in the near future. You can also see the end of the boardwalk that runs through the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve, and how it ends in an elevated viewing platform. The Muskegon River runs between the nature preserve and the power plant.

So, I was standing there waiting for the bittern when I spotted a bald eagle flying past…

Bald eagle in flight

…and even though it was out of range of a good photo, I shot a few photos of the eagle as it spiraled down.

Bald eagle in flight

What I can’t show you is the eagle diving down to the river and snatching a fish from the river. I could see the event happen through an opening in the cattails, but there’s no way that I could have gotten a focus lock on the eagle as it caught its lunch, darn!

Had I been out on the end of the boardwalk, I would have had a front-row seat of an event that I’d absolutely love to photograph. But then, I wouldn’t have gotten the poor photos of the bittern that I was able to shoot a few minutes later.

Least bittern in flight

 

Least bittern in flight

I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve stood out there at the end of the boardwalk, hoping for something to happen such as the eagle fishing, but I usually see only gulls flying past, occasionally a tern perhaps, or an eagle at a higher altitude on its way to another location.

As it was, I amused myself by shooting other poor images of things that I saw while waiting for the bittern.

Great blue heron in flight

 

Great blue heron in flight

Isn’t it amazing how the position of the heron’s wings makes the entire bird have a different look about it?

Wood ducks staying hidden

That’s as far out in the open as any of the family of wood ducks would come. If you look very closely at that photo, there are three wood ducks in the frame.

Muskrat working on its den

Because there were no other people there at the nature preserve, and because I was standing still most of the time, I was able to watch the wildlife there in action going about their business in a way that isn’t possible when the wildlife is on alert due to the presence of humans.

I knew that would be the case, it’s the reason that I purchased the portable hide earlier this year, although I still haven’t tested it out yet, I should do that soon. I can never decide where the best spot to just sit would be though, even though I’m learning the best spots within the places that I go.

Here’s another example.

Assorted wildflowers in bloom

That was shot along the road that runs back to one of my favorite spots to sit, the man-made lakes at the south end of the Muskegon County wastewater facility. The lakes are behind the trees in the far right of the frame, and there’s a line of cottonwood trees that always hold birds along the road up to the lakes. In addition, there’s a creek that crosses the fields that you can see in the image above, right at the far end of the line of cottonwood trees.

While I’m waiting for birds, or letting them settle down after some one else has driven down the road, I can shoot macros of the wildflowers you can see in the photo above, and insects that are attracted to the flowers.

Unidentified bee on a purple coneflower

After I had a good image of the bee, I was hoping that it would move to a different flower so as not to distract from the flower itself. But, the bee stayed put.

Unidentified bee on a purple coneflower

 

Purple coneflower

 

Purple coneflower

 

Unidentified flowering object

 

Unidentified flowering object

 

Teasel

 

Queen Anne’s lace

 

Viceroy butterfly

 

Viceroy butterfly

Along the line of cottonwood trees, I can shoot the birds that perch there.

American crow

 

American kestrel

 

Merlin

 

Merlin

 

Northern flicker

And, back at the man-made lakes, I can shoot the birds that I find there.

Juvenile tree swallow in flight

 

Great egret in flight

 

Great egret in flight

 

Great egret

Keen observers may notice that the egret is perched on the same tree as the juvenile green heron from my last post.

It’s about a quarter of a mile from where I shot the landscape photo of the wildflowers to where I sit at the man-made lake. So, when I think about sitting someplace along the road, I can never decide where the exact spot to sit for the best images would be. The spot from where I shot the egret above is where I set-up my tripod with the gimbal head on it a few weeks ago to shoot the swans in the man-made lake.

That would be a good spot to sit in my hide, but there’s a fence that blocks access to the lake to deal with, along with vegetation that grows between the lake and the fence that I have to shoot through openings in the vegetation to get the shots there that I do. That requires that I move around some, depending on where the subject happens to be. I’ve thought about going over the fence to get closer to the lake, it’s obvious that many other people have done that. However, because it’s a man-made lake dug out using a crane, the banks of the lake are too steep to set-up my tripod any closer to the lake than what the fence is.

The line of cottonwood trees almost always provide an opportunity for a photo or two, but it’s seldom the same tree, so I’d have a hard time choosing one or two trees to watch. If I were forced to sit someplace along the line of trees, it would be near the creek that flows at the end of the line of trees.

Juvenile raccoon

The raccoon’s mother and sibling had already moved back into the vegetation and out of sight by the time I got the camera ready.

And, if I set the hide up near the wildflowers, I’d probably end up with just a few more photos of the dickcissel that likes that spot.

Dickcissel

Going back to the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve, I’d look like a fool setting up my tripod and portable hide on the boardwalk as dozens of people per day walked or rode their bikes past me as I sat in the hide. With my luck, one of the cyclists would plow into me and damage my camera and/or lens if I did try setting up there.

On the dry land portion of the preserve, the vegetation is so thick in most places that one can only see a few feet in any direction while sitting in one spot. It’s much easier to walk slowly along the trails there and look through openings in the vegetation to see and photograph the birds there.

Song sparrow

 

Brown thrasher

 

Brown thrasher

 

Cedar waxwing

The only clearing of any size there at the preserve is around the picnic pavilion, and I have sat at the picnic tables there to shoot some of the photos that I’ve taken there.

However, a strange phenomenon occurs whenever I try to get serious about photographing the birds from the picnic pavilion, no one uses the pavilion until I get set-up for some good photos. Of all the times that I’ve been to the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve, I can only remember seeing two people at the pavilion when I arrived there, no matter what time of day it was. Those two people are Brian Johnson, whom I’ve mentioned in my blog before. He does his bird banding using the pavilion as his base of operations when banding birds. The other person is a woman who I bump into regularly, she’s a fellow nature photographer who will fill the bird feeders there at the preserve, then shoot photos of the birds as they come to the feeders. So, most of the time I have the pavilion to myself.

But it never seems to fail, if I bring all the gear I’d need to shoot some very good photos of the birds around the pavilion, then people decide that it’s time for a picnic, or to just sit and talk. If I take just one long lens and no tele-converter with me, then I can sit at the pavilion for hours and no one shows up there, other than to walk past on the trail there. I get a few good photos that way, but not as good as I could get if I were fully prepared with all the equipment required.

You may think that I’m being paranoid, and maybe I am, but I don’t think so. I’ll tell one story of what happened there at the pavilion. I arrived early in the morning, and taken both of my long lenses on both cameras, a wide-angle lens, and both tele-converters back to the pavilion. I had just gotten sat down, when four elderly people decided to have their morning coffee at the pavilion, so after a few minutes of listening to them chattering away, I moved on. They got up and followed me after just a minute or two. As slowly as I was walking, they stayed behind me, chattering away the entire time. So, I took a dead-end trail, and waited until they finally passed by. I then returned to the pavilion and began to get set-up again, and the four elderly people returned and sat down again, still chattering away. I gave up, and returned to my car, putting most of the gear away, as those four followed me, chattering the entire way. I half expected them to follow me back into the preserve, but they didn’t.

I’ve complained about the way that people behave in the past, but I’ve gotten tired of complaining about it. I still have people walk right in front of me as I’m trying to get a photo, and people who shout “What are you taking pictures of?” as I’m trying to shoot photos. So, I try to avoid people as much as I can when I’m out with my camera.

I had hoped to go searching for a really good place to get set-up in the portable hide, with all the gear that I’d need for good photos, but because of my health issues this spring, a lack of time, and wanting to avoid insect repellent for the summer, those plans have been put on hold for the time being.

I’ve heard that there used to be an elderly gentleman who would bring some sort of portable hide with him to the wastewater facility, and that he was able to shoot some fabulous photos that way. About this time last year, I spent a good portion of one day sitting on a large rock watching and photographing lesser yellowlegs in action and perched.

Two lesser yellowlegs fighting

Those are things that I keep in mind this year as I’m photographing the things that I see. There may well come a time when setting up the hide that I have at the wastewater facility is the way to get some even better images than the two yellowlegs fighting that I’ve just shared. I could get much better photos than that one this year since I have better lenses and I’ve learned how to take advantage of the power of the 7D Mk II.

I have been keeping my eyes and ears open, hoping to learn of a good place that I could go to set-up the hide, and the tripod with the gimbal head on it. I may not have used the portable hide yet, but from my limited use of the gimbal head, I know that using it more often would result in better images. However, I don’t want to turn this into another post of photography equipment and techniques.

I do have some spots in mind where I could make full use of the equipment that I have, under the right conditions. Once we get a hard frost, and the insect population falls off, then I’ll begin my search for a place where I can just sit and wait in earnest. Actually, I think that I’ll have to find several places, depending on the season of the year, time of day, and weather conditions. Probably the biggest item of the list of things that I need to find is a lack of people.

If I’m going to attempt to just sit in one spot, I don’t want other people walking or driving by at just the wrong time to spoil the opportunity. And, if I find a good quiet spot, I may well begin to shoot more videos of the things that I see. That’s when the gimbal head will be an essential thing to use, as it will allow me to produce videos that aren’t ruined by my inability to hold the camera absolutely steady as required for good video.

I’ve learned another trick to get better images when using the 2 X tele-converter on the slow lenses that I have, use live view focusing whenever I can.

Pectoral sandpiper

I won’t go into the reasons for that, but I know that if I were to use the tripod mounted gimbal head whenever I’m using the 2 X extender, and switch to live view focusing, then the quality of the images that I shoot will be better. But, only for still subjects, as live view focusing is slower than molasses in January when using the 2 X extender.

Well, I went back to the technical side of photography, I’m sorry, I can’t help it. When I’m thinking about places where I could set-up the portable hide and tripod with the gimbal head, then the photo equipment that I have, and how to get the best out of it, weighs heavily on the decisions that I make. It would be worthless to go to a place where every thing that I saw was out of range all of the time. And, knowing me, I know that I wouldn’t be able to sit still for very long if I weren’t getting at least an occasional image now and then.

There are limits as to how long I can play the waiting game.

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

The beauty of flight

Since before mankind began keeping records, we have been fascinated by birds in flight. I’m no different, I’m fascinated by the flight of birds as well, and this post will be mostly photos of birds in flight.

First, I’ll begin by saying that I have no idea why the number of some species of birds fluctuate the way that they do. Great blue herons are common here in Michigan, but over the last two previous years, I didn’t see many of them, and even had a hard time finding them. That isn’t the case this summer, they’re everywhere! I see mostly juveniles…

Juvenile great blue heron

…so the adults that remained from the past few years must have had a very successful breeding season this spring. That was one of the three head shots of three different herons that I shot in less than ten minutes time a couple of weeks ago. It’s rare for me to get that close to one, let alone three of them so quickly. It helped that they were chasing each other around which I supposed was part of their way of establishing the pecking order among themselves.  I have no idea if they were from the same nest or not though.

But, this post is about birds in flight, so I’m going to begin with this series that I shot at the local park where I walk when I have the chance.

American robin in flight

 

American robin in flight

 

American robin in flight

It’s much easier to shoot larger birds in flight, like this sandhill crane.

Sandhill crane in flight

I have no idea why the crane took off as far away from me as it did, normally they allow humans to get reasonably close to them. The result was the typical butt shots of a bird flying away from me, and not very good ones at that.

Sandhill crane in flight

Just a few minutes later, I was driving over a bridge across one of the drainage creeks when I saw a great blue heron flying along the creek. I was able to get set for the heron, and I fired these off as it turned away from me.

Great blue heron in flight

 

Great blue heron in flight

 

Great blue heron in flight

The heron continued on, and so did I, but I didn’t shoot any more photos of it because it was flying away from me, and out of range of a good photo. It was going to perch in one of the aeration cells at the Muskegon wastewater facility that is under going major repairs. However, there was already an adult in that cell, and it didn’t take to the juvenile joining it in the same cell, even though each cell is several acres in size. The adult chased the juvenile off, and then I lucked out, it came flying straight towards me. I was able to get a good focus lock on it, and as it got as close to me as it came, I fired off this burst.

Great blue heron in flight

 

Great blue heron in flight

 

Great blue heron in flight

 

Great blue heron in flight

If only there had been a better background than the aeration cell in those photos! Those aren’t cropped at all, I was able to keep the heron in the frame as it made its turn away from me. Every time that I get to shoot a series like that, I get a little better at it.

When it comes to small birds, you’d think that it would be easier to shoot a flock of them in flight…

Swallows in flight

…but then, they’re so close together that it’s hard to pick out just one.

I think that those are all juvenile tree swallows, as I saw a few adults in the flock at the time I shot those. However, I’m not positive about that, because of an event that you’ll see later in this post.

By the way, those were shot a couple of weeks ago. On the same day as I shot the great blue herons in flight, I stopped for a while at the man-made lake south of the wastewater facility proper. I was hoping to catch green herons in flight, but this was the best that I came up with.

Green heron in flight

There are a pair of adults and their young…

Juvenile green heron

…hanging out at the man-made lake most of the time, but they’re good at staying out of camera range the majority of the time.

There was also a flock of barn swallows hunting insects over the lake, and occasionally dipping down to drink from the lake as they flew. I couldn’t resist the challenge.

Barn swallow in flight

It suddenly slammed on the air-brakes…

Barn swallow in flight

…and I think that it caught a flying insect…

Barn swallow in flight

…but you can’t see the insect in these images.

Barn swallow in flight

The swallow then went on its way.

Barn swallow in flight

I tried to get a shot of them drinking from the lake as they flew…

Barn swallow in flight

…but I missed it every time.

Barn swallow in flight

I did get a good reflection shot or two…

Barn swallow in flight

…before the swallows would gain altitude again.

Barn swallow in flight

 

Barn swallow in flight

 

Barn swallow in flight

 

Barn swallow in flight

The best part of those is that you can see how they use their tails for both drag to slow down, and for turning as sharply as they do.

Now then, back to flocks of swallows. I noticed a flock of tree swallows in a dead tree, they were coming and going as they paused to rest and digest the insects that they had caught. It seemed like a good place to hang out and try for a better image of a swallow in flight, so I did. However, the first swallow I shot wasn’t a tree swallow, it was a barn swallow…

Barn swallow in flight

…and as it approached the tree swallows…

Barn swallow in flight

…they exchanged a few words before the barn swallow perched in the same tree.

Barn swallow in flight passing a perched tree swallow

It was then that I noticed that there were a few other barn swallows mixed in with the flock of predominantly tree swallows. They were all chattering away, I wonder if the tree swallows and barn swallows understand each other’s chattering? I also wonder if in the chattering within one species if they are telling each other where the best insects are to be found, or if it’s part of social bonding, or part of establishing the pecking order within the flock? Occasionally, an adult would chase one of the juveniles off from the perch the juvenile had been on, but it happened behind tree branches whenever I attempted to photograph that behavior.

Since most of the photos have been of birds in flight, I suppose that it’s fitting that the latest species that I can cross off from the list for the My Photo Life List project is a least bittern in flight.

Least bittern in flight

They’re not great, but at least you can identify the species, which is all that matters. I got these by standing in one spot on the boardwalk at the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve for several hours. The bittern made the mistake of flying about the same path each time it came and went from where I believe that it has its nest.

Least bittern in flight

Smaller but chunkier than their cousins the green herons, they fly surprisingly fast for a member of the heron family. This one at least stayed just above the vegetation most of the time, making it even harder to spot and photograph.

I’m going to finish this post with three images of a bird not flying. It’s a juvenile grasshopper sparrow limbering up its wings…

Juvenile grasshopper sparrow

…it had made a rough landing on the dead stump it was perched on…

Juvenile grasshopper sparrow

…and I believe that it was doing some stationary practice before its next attempt at flight.

Juvenile grasshopper sparrow

Well, that wraps up this post, sorry for so many photos of the swallows, but I love the challenge of trying to photograph birds as quick as they are.

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

For the love of nature

My main reason for wanting to improve the quality of the photos that I shoot is to show the beauty of nature in the best light possible (pun intended). However, there are other reasons as well, and there are even times when I’ll shoot bad photos on purpose, knowing that they’ll never be seen by any one but myself.

Greater yellowlegs

Since I began with the image of the greater yellowlegs, I’ll get right to the point here, my photos prove invaluable in helping me identify the birds that I see. I wasn’t able to get as close as I would have liked, but here’s a stilt sandpiper.

Stilt sandpiper

The first time that I attempted to identify shorebirds, it was in the fall when they were all in their eclipse plumage, and I hard a very difficult time making the correct identifications. I even made a few mistakes back then. I chose the photo of the stilt sandpiper above, even though it’s at a bad angle to me, for a reason. It shows that the bird in question has the brown barring on its entire underside, all the way to its tail.

Another mistake that I made in the beginning was trying to isolate each bird in the frame. Sometimes, it’s helpful to compare two birds when they are seen together.

Stilt sandpiper to the left, lesser yellowlegs to the right

Then, other differences between the two birds becomes more apparent. The stilt sandpiper does show more barring on its underside, but that could be the difference between two individuals of the same species as seen in that image, or perhaps the difference between a male and a female. However, the differences in the two bird’s beaks becomes very apparent. The stilt sandpiper has a longer beak in relation to its head, and it is also stouter with a blunter end than the lesser yellowleg’s beak. Those are some of the things that you can see better when looking at a photo than you can when surveying a mixed flock of 20 to 40 shorebirds all moving around as they look for food.

I should say that the differences between those two birds is now obvious to me, I doubt if they are for most people reading this though. I don’t think that the differences seemed as pronounced when I attempted to ID shorebirds the first few times. Like most things, identifying similar birds takes practice.

Shorebirds, warblers, and gulls are notoriously difficult to identify, as so many species look very much alike. I should also add flycatchers to that list, as in some cases, the only difference between two species is the call that they make, and no photo can capture that. That also applies to the differences between eastern and western meadowlarks, the most reliable way to differentiate those two species is by their songs, although there are some visual differences also.

As you know, I started a project that I called My Photo Life List a few years ago, it’s my attempt to photograph every species of bird regularly seen in the State of Michigan. I’ve made better progress than I expected to when I began the project, and it has taught me a great deal about birds along the way.

One thing that I’ve learned when it comes to identifying birds is that every detail in a bird’s plumage helps one make a positive identification. The more of those details that you can capture in a photo or a series of photos, makes it that much easier to make the identification while viewing the photos and checking them against a field guide while sitting at a computer, rather than as a bird flits through the brush. There is the possibility that if I wasn’t trying to shoot photos, I may remember more of the details of a bird than I do now. But, I find it easier to shoot photos and go by them, rather than trying to remember the details as I saw the bird moving around. I do have a pretty good memory for overall color patterns though, so when I see a bird in the viewfinder that doesn’t match the patterns of a species of bird that I see frequently, I do know that it’s time to shoot as many photos of that bird, at as many angles as I can get.

So, last weekend I was at the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve, and I saw a warbler size bird in the brush.

Female black and white warbler

I wasn’t sure which species it was, but I was sure that it was one that I didn’t see very often, if I had ever seen it before. Because of that, and I’ve learned that in some cases you need to see most of a bird to make a proper ID, I began tracking the bird through the brush. This image will never win an award, but I saw the two white patches under the bird’s tail, and the voice in my head said shoot, they may help me ID the bird.

Female black and white warbler

Normally, I wouldn’t post that photo, but it helps explain how I use my photos to identify the birds that I see. As it turned out, the white patches on the bird’s tail weren’t important to make the ID, but the black spots on the shorter feathers at the base of the tail were.

One of the many things that I’m learning as I try to identify birds is that every section of a bird’s plumage has a name. In this case, the feathers with the black spots under the warbler’s tail are known as the undertail coverts.

There are two species of warblers with close to the same color pattern, black and white warblers, and blackpoll warblers. Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of a blackpoll warbler to show you the difference, but they are both black and white overall.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the two photos that I’ve already shown you were enough to make a positive ID as to the species, and neither shows the bird very well. I continued shooting and came up with this one.

Female black and white warbler

That’s my best photo of the warbler, and although I didn’t know it at the time, it gave me enough clues to make the correct identification as to its species. Still, I was missing the top of the bird’s head, which often provides clues as to the bird’s species. I kept shooting, and got this one just as she turned to fly away.

Female black and white warbler

Because she was turning her head, it’s a bit blurry, but you can see that the top of her head is streaked black and white, and not solid black.

If it had been a blackpoll warbler, the top of the bird’s head would have been solid black, and the undertail coverts would have been all white, with no black spots. There are other slight differences between the two species, but I had gotten photos that showed the major differences between them. I have shot photos of black and white warblers in the past, but they’ve always been males of the species. The males have a slightly different appearance, they have a black mask on their face that the females lack. I could go back to the archives to show you, but I have too many recent photos to share, so you’ll have to take my word of it. 😉

The diversity of birds found in nature is one of the things that I love about nature. That brings me to my main point, the thing that motivates me the most concerning nature is that there’s so much to learn. There’s no way that any one person could ever hope to learn it all. I should do a better job of identifying the flowers that I see…

Unidentified lily

…and the insects…

Unidentified butterfly

…but it’s tough enough trying to do just birds.

Some times I luck out, and some one else will ID a flower or insect that they see in one of my posts, and I can go back into Lightroom and add the species in the keywords within Lightroom. Or, I’ll see the same flower or insect in some one else’s blog, and I can make an identification of something that I’ve seen that way.

I find it easier to remember things if I can add keywords in Lightroom, although I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s putting a name with a photo that helps. Also, since many flowers only bloom for a short time, I can go back to the same time in previous years to see if I was able to identify a flower then. The same is true of insects to some degree, many of them have very short life spans as adults, so they are only seen for a short time in their adult form.

I do need to get better at identifying flowers and insects, but I’ve been so busy the past few years working on improving my abilities as a photographer and bird identification, that I haven’t had the time to put into other types of subjects. I hope to change that, along with getting better photos of the things that I see in nature.

Adult mute swan

I haven’t posted many photos of mute swans lately, as they are quite common here and I used to go overboard with the number of photos of them that I did post.

Mute swan cygnet

But the cygnets are too cute not to post a few images of them.

Mute swan cygnet

It’s unusual to be able to get that close to a cygnet without one of its parents attacking you, but I guess that the parents had gotten used to people nearby for some reason.

Mute swan cygnet

I wanted a photo showing one of the cygnets flexing its tiny little down covered wings, but I wasn’t able to get that shot.

I had gone to the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve in search of a least bittern that had been seen there, because that’s a species that I need photos of for the My Photo Life List project. I did hear it calling, and saw it in flight once, but I was too slow with the camera to get any photos as it flew past me. I was able to shoot a few images of a marsh wren though.

Marsh wren

They’re hard to see, but not hear, as they’re always singing, or so it seems when you’re around them. They exude attitude in the jaunty way that they hold their tails straight up and give you the stink eye when they know that you’ve spotted them.

Marsh wren

Several people commented that they liked the indigo bunting from a recent post. I shot a series of images of it as it shook itself…

Male indigo bunting

…took a look around…

Male indigo bunting

…and began singing again.

Male indigo bunting

To me, there’s no better time of the year than when the birds are singing…

Male common yellowthroat

 

Male common yellowthroat

 

Male common yellowthroat

…and there are flowers blooming all around…

Grey coneflower

 

Purple prairie clover

 

Unidentified lily

 

Unidentified lily

 

Purple coneflower

 

Purple coneflower

 

Bee balm

…as I watch the birds.

Male American goldfinch

 

Male American goldfinch

Why I never thought of this before, I don’t know. I love getting head shots of larger birds, such as this great blue heron.

Great blue heron

Occasionally, I luck out and get an image of a smaller bird where it fills the frame…

Male dickcissel

…but I seldom think to crop such an image down to give me a head shot of a small songbird.

Male dickcissel

I suppose that it’s because I’m so pleased to fill the frame with a smaller bird in the first place that doing a head shot of them doesn’t occur to me.

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

How do they do it?

I was somewhat back to story telling to go with my photos, but then I made the mistake of watching a few more of the how-to videos online. I shouldn’t watch any more of those videos, not because I know how to do everything well, but because every time I watch one of them, my mind gets stuck on the photography aspect of my life. I then forget about why I’m shooting the photos in the first place.

In watching all of the how-to videos that I’ve watched over the last several years, I’ve come to the conclusion that how professional photographers go about getting the fantastic wildlife images that they get has less to do with camera gear and settings, and more to do with how they go about getting to the point of shooting those images in the first place.

Right from the first of those videos that I’ve watched, I’ve thought that if I were in the same situation that I could get images just as good as the pros do. Back then, that wasn’t true, and I’m not sure that it is now, but I’m getting closer all the time.

Let me explain. One subject that comes up in many of the videos that I’ve watched are brown bears fishing for salmon in Alaska. There’s a lodge in one of the National Parks where one can rent a cabin, and be within walking distance of one of the rivers where the bears come to fish. You can get up in the morning, walk down to the river, and spend the day shooting the bears. Bears are large subjects, relatively easy to photograph. You know where the bears are going to be and what they’ll be doing, in the river looking for salmon. You can position yourself so that you have good light on the bears as they fish. For the photography, all you have to do is press the shutter release at the right time.

Well, it isn’t quite that easy, but close to it, they still have to compose the shot and get the correct exposure, but when you’re shooting one subject in the same light for the most part, that is relatively easy. I’ve never photographed brown bears fishing for salmon in Alaska, but it from what I’ve seen in the videos, it is easy in my opinion.

On the other end of the size spectrum, there are the hummingbirds. From the videos that I’ve watched, the way to get good shots of the hummers in flight is to mix up a batch of sugar-water as you would for a hummingbird feeder, and use an eye-dropper to put a few drops in the same flower all the time. The hummers soon figure out that the one flower has a never-ending source of food, so they return to it again and again. Then, the photographer can pre-focus on the flower, and wait for the hummer to return. They can even set-up a few strobes on stands to both light the hummers and to assist in freezing the motion of the hummer’s wings. Silly me, I try to follow them in flight and catch them as they feed on one flower after another.

Then, there are tactics such as baiting, or going to a private nature “preserve” where semi-tame animals are brought out by handlers to perform for the photographers.  The professional photographers also know the areas where large numbers of their intended subjects gather naturally, but one has to be able to travel to those areas at the right time of the year to take advantage of it. An example of that would be the huge flocks of snow geese, sandhill cranes, and other species of birds that gather around the few sources of food and water that they need in the arid southwest part of the United States, to either winter over, or on their way south to better places to spend the winter. We do get flocks of the same species here in Michigan, but Michigan has an abundance of good places for the birds to hang out in, so the flocks are much smaller here because they’re spread out more.

When you look past the actual photography aspect that I’ve seen in the videos that I’ve watched, in most of them, when you get right down to the nitty-gritty, it’s more about controlling the subjects and less about camera controls. And, I suppose that you can say that it takes money to make money. Guided wildlife tours, renting cabins close to an abundance of willing subjects, time at a private nature preserve, all those things cost big bucks, more than I’ll ever be able to afford.

I’m not complaining, just pointing out the fact that the wildlife photographers who shoot stunning images time and time again have many more advantages than just great photo equipment and the ability to use it.

The professionals have to give themselves every advantage that they can get, they are in a highly competitive market where it’s hard to earn a living.

That brings us back to the videos that I’ve watched. Most of the photographers who give the presentations are sponsored by a camera company or a company that runs the photo tours, or both. The videos are in some respects, very long commercials for the companies that sponsor the presenter. By the end of the videos, you’ll think that you need every one of the expensive lenses that the sponsoring company produces, and that the only way to get truly great wildlife images is to go on one of the tours. Very often, the person doing the presentation heads up those tours, or holds workshops on their own, and that’s how the presenters make their money, or they at least get to go to fabulous places for wildlife photography at no charge as the headliner for the tours. But, most of us don’t have the financial resources to do those things.

Looking back, my two best images of a perched bald eagle were both shot using the Beast (Sigma 150-500 mm lens) on the 60D camera body, a set-up that I’d never use for a bald eagle photo now that I have better gear.

Bald eagle

I was able to get close to the eagle and in a position where I had good light for a change.

My best eagle in flight image was shot with the 7D Mk II, with the lowly 70-200 mm f/4 non-IS lens, which is the cheapest L series lens in Canon’s line-up at the current time.

Juvenile bald eagle in flight

The funny thing about that image is that I was doing a test at the time to see if it was the IS that was causing my images of birds in flight to come out as poorly as they were at the time, and it was. That led me to purchase another of the lower cost lenses in Canon’s L series line-up, the 400 mm f/5.6 non-IS lens. I’ve also found that turning the IS off on the lenses that I have that have IS is also effective, but then there’s the time factor of searching for the right button to slide on the lens to turn the IS off, and in most instances, I don’t have the time to do that.

That’s because of the way that I go about getting the images that I do, there’s a day-night difference in the way I get my photos as compared to how the pros get theirs. I seldom have the chance to get set-up to shoot just one species of bird or animal, I generally shooting targets of opportunity that I see while walking, or driving as I do at the Muskegon County wastewater facility. I do get my best images there at the wastewater facility when I have the time to exit my vehicle and prepare to get the shot though.

I’ve always tried to keep the fact in mind that you don’t need the very best gear to shoot great images, although as I said in a recent post, good gear does make it easier to get good images, up to a point.

I am attempting to shoot as the professionals do more often, as far as limiting myself at the time as to what subject I shoot, and the way that I do things overall. For example, when I’m at the wastewater facility, I’ll often park in an area where I know that certain species tend to hang out. Then, I’ll sit and wait to see if they do show themselves, but I have limited patience for doing that. That’s the way that I’ve gotten some of the recent photos of green herons that I’ve posted, I know where I’m most likely to see them, so I sit and wait for them. Sometimes, I’ll grab my macro set-up to shoot flowers and insects to help pass the time, but then, I may spook the birds that I’d like to photograph.

One thing that the pros universally teach is that you have to use manual mode for wildlife photography. While I do use manual more often these days, in tough situations, it still doesn’t work for me most of the time. That goes back to how I shoot the images that I do, I seldom have the time to dial in the correct adjustments in the manual mode to get the shot before my subject disappears from view. I shoot in the aperture mode most of the time, and allow the camera to set the shutter speed and ISO for stationary subjects. I’ll also make use of the exposure compensation dial on the back of the camera to correct the exposure when shooting a very light, or very dark subject, or for shooting with the sun behind me versus shooting towards the sun.

There are times when I think that the differences between what the pros teach and the way that I do things is mostly a matter of semantics. The pros tell you to shoot a few photos to get your camera dialed in using the manual mode to begin with. Then they will say that they know if one thing happens, they should move the dial two clicks to the right, or if another thing happens, that it’s three clicks to the left. They never specify what setting they’re changing, I assume it to be shutter speed, but that may depend on the situation. I’ve never quite understood what the difference was between their clicks in one direction or another was compared to my changing the exposure compensation dial a few clicks one way or the other was until recently.

One presenter in a video was adamant about not trusting the exposure meter in the camera, and if you did, you’d have to be changing the exposure compensation all the time. He was another that said that he knew how many clicks to spin the dial of his camera and in which direction when certain things happened. Then it hit me, to his thinking, he was adjusting the exposure, not using exposure compensation. I accomplish the same goal by using exposure compensation, which adjusts the exposure for me. To him, it’s not so much the end result, but how you go about getting there. To me, I don’t care how I arrive at the correct exposure, as long as I get there. When the light changes, something in the exposure triad of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO has to change to account for the change in light. Not even a professional photographer can change that fact.

It helped that I had recently set-up my tripod and gimbal head to shoot the swans that I wrote about in an earlier post. While my main goal was to test the gimbal head, I also switched the camera to manual mode to practice what the pros teach. It was the day after a cold front had blown through, and the sky was filled with puffy white cumulus clouds, along with remnants of some of the storm clouds from the front that had passed. The light was changing constantly, going from bright, unfiltered sunlight, to deep shade as one of the large black storm clouds blocked the sun. In between, one of the puffy cumulus clouds in front of the sun often created nice diffuse light as well.

When the light was constant, I had no trouble getting well exposed images in the manual mode, I shot a few test shots, got the settings right, and it worked great. But then, in the middle of one of the times when one swan was chasing another, a cloud moved in front of the sun, and there was a dramatic fall-off in the light. The images that I shot then were under-exposed of course. I admit, I saw it in the viewfinder, but I was lost as to how to correct for it. My shutter speed, aperture, and ISO were all set manually as recommended by the pros, and I forgot which dial changed which setting at the time. Maybe all of that is automatic for the professionals, but I found it much easier to go back to the aperture mode that I usually use, and trust the meter in the 7D to correct when the light changed when I was shooting portraits of the swans. I’d switch to the shutter priority when one of the swans assumed the aggressive posture alerting me that a chase was about to take place. Then, the 7D adjusted the aperture accordingly.

However, I could see what you wouldn’t want to allow the camera to adjust the aperture if you wanted to limit the depth of field, or to extend it. So, I did shoot in manual mode for a while, but with the ISO set to automatic, so my shutter speed and aperture stayed constant, with the camera changing the ISO when the light changed as the light meter read the scene. I do understand that for creative control of your images, you need to have the aperture and shutter speed set to produce the look that you desire in your images. There are times that you want a wide aperture to isolate your subject as much as possible as I said in my last post.

Male Indigo bunting

There are also times when stopping down the lens to get more of the background in focus is the correct choice, as when you want to show the environment that the subject inhabits.

Great blue heron at home

Actually, I think that I have a firm grasp on how to shoot in the manual mode and why you would want to, especially for birds in flight. The saved settings that I programmed into the 7D body that I use for flying birds are based on the manual mode, and it works very well. The manual mode also works very well when a subject sits still long enough to use it. I can see why the pros use it in the situations that they typically shoot in, larger subjects where they have some control over the light to begin with. However, that’s not the way that I shoot most of my images.

That’s especially true of most of my small bird images. Even at the wastewater facility, I’ll walk through or around the woodlots there to find the species of birds that live in wooded areas.

Great crested flycatcher

 

Male Baltimore oriole

 

Male Baltimore oriole

 

Male Baltimore oriole

 

Juvenile Baltimore oriole

During those times when I’m walking, whether at the wastewater facility, around home, or anywhere else, I never know which direction that I’ll be shooting in next. I could be shooting a flower…

Pink

…or an insect…

Unidentified butterfly

…almost at my feet. A moment later, I could be shooting a bird flying almost directly overhead.

Upland sandpiper in a steep dive

I don’t know why it was doing it, but that sandpiper dove like a peregrine falcon from a higher altitude than they typically fly at. The sandpiper wasn’t coming at me, it dove into the weeds in the grassy cell there and disappeared from view. I don’t know if it thought that something was endangering one of its chicks or what, but I’ve never seen that behavior from a shorebird before. As it was, I got it just as it began to pull out of the dive that it was in when I first saw it coming. I was lucky at the time, thick clouds were obscuring the sun, because I was shooting almost directly at where the sun was behind the clouds. There’s no way that I could have gotten that shot on a sunny day.

Okay, so what’s the purpose of all my babbling so far for, it’s this. If you have the chance to photograph subjects as the professionals do, in situations where your shooting just one subject for the most part, and you have some control over the light, then doing everything exactly like the pros is probably the best way to do things. But, if you’re like me, the average Joe wandering around outdoors looking for things to photograph, then doing it like the professionals may not work for you at all.

I shoot fast and loose, as I usually don’t have very much time to do anything but get the subject in focus, and press the shutter release before it moves.

White-breasted nuthatch

It’s too many photos of the nuthatch, but this series of images illustrate just how I get the images that I do. I shot the nuthatch in four different spots in the branches where it was foraging for food, and each time it moved, I had to move to get a clear view of it.

White-breasted nuthatch

You can also see how much the light changed each time the nuthatch moved.

White-breasted nuthatch

Even when it perched for a few seconds as it debated where to look for food next, it wasn’t motionless.

White-breasted nuthatch

 

White-breasted nuthatch

 

White-breasted nuthatch

Any one that’s attempted to photograph small birds knows exactly what I’m talking about. It isn’t easy to get close to them where you also have a clear view of them, and good light as well. There are many more images that I shot in that series, I picked out the best of the lot to post here. Maybe I haven’t mastered shooting in manual yet, but I can’t imagine trying to do so as a small bird like the nuthatch flits about. Maybe that’s why I seldom see small birds like that in the presentations that the professionals give?

I do rely on the light meter in the camera, but maybe I’m spoiled. I think that I raved about the excellent metering system that the 7D Mk II has as much or more than its other features, like its auto-focusing capabilities or that it can shoot at 10 frames per second, when I first began using it. I also relied on the metering system of the 60D, but I’ll admit, I did have to make more and larger adjustments with that body than I do with the 7D. It didn’t take me very long to learn the metering system of the 60D and how to adjust for it though.

I’m not saying that there aren’t advantages to using the manual mode when you can…

Green heron in flight

…I saw the heron coming, and had the time to switch the camera to the saved bird in flight settings based on the manual mode for these. The heron had been flying almost directly at me, I got a good focus lock on it, and fired off a few short bursts as it approached. Just as the heron got close to me, either the heron saw me, or a boat going up the river right behind me, and the heron veered off.

Green heron in flight

That’s when shooting in manual works well, although it took me a while to get the right settings saved in the camera for just such an event.

Green heron in flight

There were a number of green herons flying around the area, so I was keeping an eye out for an opportunity to catch one of them in flight. But to pass the time, I was shooting other things, like the series of the nuthatch, and these subjects also as I typically do.

Unidentified dragonfly

 

Unidentified dragonfly

 

Unidentified dragonfly

 

Backlit berries

There’s another reason that I’d prefer to retain my ability to shoot fast without having to make any adjustments, identifying the birds that I shoot through the aid of my photos. But, that’s another post, since this one is too wordy already.

I’ll sum this one up by saying that there are two things that you really have to do to get great images, one is spend time outside, the other is to master the photo gear that you have. When you have the time to make full use of the manual mode, then do so, it’s probably the best way to get exactly the shot that you’re after. But if you’re like me, and it takes you too long to get all the settings correct in manual, then you can shoot in either aperture or shutter priority and get almost the same results.

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

I’m loving it

There are times now when things get a little slow while I’m out shooting photos, since I now restrain myself from shooting small birds that are really beyond the of range of my lenses, and I doubt if I will ever purchase a longer lens than I have now. That doesn’t matter, as I know that on any given day, I’m bound to get a very good image of something.

Great blue heron

That’s one of the reasons that I continue to visit the Muskegon County wastewater facility on weekends, and to do my almost daily walks around home during the week.

Chicory

 

Unidentified sunflower

 

Unidentified sunflower, closer

 

Unidentified sunflower, closer

 

One thing that I love about going to the wastewater facility is that I can load all my photo gear in my car, and that I’m usually close enough to it to put any of the gear that I have to use when circumstances warrant it. The bad thing is that other than my long lens set-ups and my macro lens, I seldom need any of the rest of it. There are times, like when I had the tripod and gimbal head set-up to photograph the swans from a recent post, I’ll play around with my wide-angle lenses, the 70-200 mm lens, or some of the other accessories that I have. The landscapes that I shoot aren’t worth posting, I know that when I shoot them, but it keeps me in practice. The 70-200 mm lens does an excellent job on gulls in flight, but it isn’t as if I need to post yet another gull in flight image unless it were to be exceptional in some way. But, I stay in practice that way, and it reminds me that the 70-200 mm lens is one of my best, and that I should use it more often.

Even though I know that no one is ever going to see most of the photos that I shoot, I still love doing it, and I learn something every time that I go out shooting them. Even around home now, even though I shoot fewer photos all the time, I’m still learning. The things that I learn may not be directly related to photography, it may be something about the behavior of birds and other critters that may eventually lead to better images in the future. I’ve said it before, but becoming good at nature photography demands that you immerse yourself in nature, and that’s what I love about it.

Tree swallow in flight

 

Tree swallow in flight

 

Now, I have the time to do that while I’m out shooting photos, because I don’t have to spend as much time thinking about the photography aspect, that’s becoming ingrained in me. I know what to do when automatically most of the time. I now have equipment that’s good enough to allow me to do that as well. When I started my blog, I was using a Canon Powershot camera for most of the photos that I posted, even though I had a Nikon camera and lens at the time. I spent two years fighting that Nikon and the very low quality lens that I had purchased with it. The camera itself was full of bugs, nothing worked quite like it was supposed to. If I’d have known then what I know now, I would have returned it and demanded my money back, but I thought that it was me. The lens that I purchased to use on it acquired the reputation of being one of the worst that Nikon had ever produced.

When the Nikon died, I made the switch to Canon, with the 60D body. It took me a year to get past all the bad habits that I had acquired while using the Nikon, but then, my images began to improve. I was using the Beast (Sigma 150-500 mm lens) back then, and while the quality of the glass in it can’t match what I have now, it did have one thing going for it, the best auto-focusing that I’ve used to this day as far as small birds in the brush. The Beast can still hunt down birds trying to hide better than any of my other lenses, but at the price of reduced image quality, especially in lower light. Also, the weight of the Beast was something that was a drawback to using it, that’s how it became known as the Beast in the first place. Even the much better Canon 100-400 mm lens weighs considerably less, and it’s no light-weight by any means.

But, the 100-400 mm lens I have now hadn’t been built at the time, so I tried to make do with the 300 mm lens and 1.4 X tele-converter. While the results were better than I could get with the Beast most of the time, it was still far from the ideal set-up to use for birds. The auto-focus was too slow and imprecise. I’d often go back to the Beast when chasing warblers or other small birds of the deep woods. However, the 300 mm lens has produced some of my best close-ups, and there are times when I wish that I had it with me when shooting near macro photos.

I’d better pause for another photo or two here.

Juvenile tree swallow in flight

 

Muscovy duck

 

Muscovy duck

Next up was the 7D Mk II, a truly remarkable camera in my opinion, it was the answer to almost everything that I wanted in a camera. I had never used a camera as sophisticated as it is before, and it’s taken me a while to learn most of what the camera can do. I say most of what it can do, because I’m sure that I still haven’t gotten the best that it can do yet. Still, as I’ve said before, being a crop sensor camera, it struggles more in low-light in the form of sensor noise. That’s also true when I raise the shadow detail in an image, like when I’ve shot photos of birds in flight when the birds are above me. The underside of the birds’ wings are often black, or at least very dark, as the images come out of the camera, I have to raise the shadows in Lightroom to make the image appear as I saw it when I shot it. That introduces more sensor noise in the image. I can live with that amount of noise, but there are times when there’s too much noise in the image overall when I’ve shot the image in lower light.

Bank swallow

 

Bank swallow

Since I shoot nature photos, many of my best opportunities are around sunrise and sunset, when the light is low, as that’s when critters are most active. That’s the only reason that I’m even considering a full frame camera. Well, that and the fact that the 7D is a 1.6 X crop factor body, meaning I’d have to purchase a very expensive lens to get a wide enough field of view for many landscape images if I were to use the 7D for those. For example, the EF S 15-85 mm lens that I have is a 24-136 mm equivalent on the 7D, and there are times when 24 mm isn’t wide enough for landscapes. I suppose that I could make more use of the panorama capabilities in Lightroom to overcome that, but that’s another story for another time.

One more thing, being a 1.6 X crop sensor means that the image from the sensor has to be expanded that same amount to reach the size of the image produced by a full frame sensor. That causes a reduction in the final image quality as a result. Since a full frame sensor produces a larger image to begin with, it doesn’t have to be blown-up as much to be viewed as we view them. Think back to the days of negatives and slides, you’d have to use a magnifying glass to see what was in an image as it came out of the camera. That’s how small the image produced by a full frame camera is, the 7D produces an even smaller image to begin with.

I think that we forget about the good old days of film, getting the quality of large prints that I can get with the 7D would be like attempting to print that same size from images shot with one of the old Kodak Instamatic cameras. It wouldn’t be possible, the small size of the recorded image wouldn’t produce an acceptable print as large as I can make now.

It’s an absolute joy for me to be out shooting photos with the equipment that I have now, and that’s only going to get better. For one thing, as I said before, my images have a more three-dimensional look to them. Part of that is learning to use the light and shadow on a subject better, but a big part is better lenses.

Woodchuck

 

Chipping sparrow

 

Female eastern bluebird

 

Spotted sandpiper in flight

 

Barn swallow

 

When I first began using the 100-400 mm lens, I wrote that I thought that it produced more depth of field at the same aperture as my other lenses. So, I’ve been shooting at wider apertures with both that lens and the 400 mm prime lens. I’ve changed my thinking, it isn’t that those lenses produce a wider depth of field, it’s that both of them are tack sharp even with the aperture wide open.

By opening up the aperture and getting less depth of field, my subjects stand out from the background better, which helps to produce the 3D effect that I’m getting now. To get my subjects as sharp with my other lenses, I’d have to stop down more to overcome the inherent softness of the lens at maximum aperture. That brought more of the background into focus to some degree at least, which meant that the subjects in my images tended to fade into the background. I always wondered how the professionals got away with shooting at the apertures that they said that they did, now I know, it’s because they use quality lenses. To get a good sharp image with the Beast, I’d have to shoot at f/8 to f/11 if there was enough light. I now have no qualms about shooting at f/5.6 with either of my newer lenses, unless I’m very close to my subject, as in less than 10 feet. Then, I do need to stop down a little to get the entire bird in sharp focus.

Female orchard oriole

 

Juvenile killdeer

 

Cedar waxwing

 

Cedar waxwing

 

Juvenile eastern kingbirds

Being the stubborn, pig-headed fool that I am, I have to know the why of something that I’m told to do before I’ll do it. In fact, even though I had been told why, I had to see it for myself before I believed it. Of course that couldn’t happen until I had lenses good enough to see it for myself. But, that applies to many of the things that professionals say to do,  I have to see it for myself before I take their word on it.

I had intended to go into the differences between how the professional photographers do things when compared to how those of us who are hobbyists do things, and why the camera settings that the pros use aren’t always the best for the hobbyists. But, I’ve already babbled on too long as it is. Maybe I should lay a little more of the foundation for what will be in that post.

I’ll start with the exposure meter in the cameras, they are programmed very well these days, but they can still be fooled. Say that you’re shooting a white bird or flower that almost fills the frame. The meter in the camera doesn’t “see” color so much, it thinks that the white that it does see is too bright, and if you allow the camera to set everything, the result will be an under-exposed image most of the time. The camera is attempting to render the white of your subject as 18% grey, as that’s what the system is programmed to do. You have to over-ride the system to allow more light in if you want the white of your subject to be white in the image that you shoot.

Mute swan

Just the opposite is true if you’re shooting a very dark or black subject, the camera is going to try to render the black as 18% grey. The result will be an over-exposed image, even though from my experience, no camera raises the exposure to the point where black becomes 18% grey, I don’t think that they can. But, they do try, and you’ll need to adjust for that.

Sandhill cranes landing

 

Eastern Phoebe

 

Cottontail rabbit

 

Yarrow

I’ve done a dumb thing. I went to the local camera store and tested the 6D Mk I against my 7D Mk II in order to see how much of an improvement in low-light situations I’d see, and whether going to a full frame camera was going to be worth it. Was I ever surprised, I thought that there may be some difference, but you’ll see just how much of a difference there is. All of the following images were shot with my 100-400 mm lens and the ISO set to 12800 for both cameras. The lens was wide open, f/5.6 and the shutter speed at 1/200 with both cameras. I applied the exact Lightroom adjustments to the images from each camera. I added 25% each to the clarity and vibrance, turned the lens profile correction on, and removed any chromatic aberrations. The only thing that varied was if I cropped an image, and that’s noted in the caption for the image.

Canon 6D Mk I at 400 mm, no crop

WOW!

Canon 7D Mk II, at 400 mm, no crop

It’s hard to see the noise as noise in the photo above, but you can see that even the colors are off compared to the 6D. The reason that the subject looks closer in the image from the 7D is due to the crop factor of the sensor, the 400 mm lens is effectively a 640 mm lens on the 7D. Okay, so I’ll crop one of the images from the 6D to get as close.

6D Mk I, 400 mm and cropped slightly to match the 7D

WOW! again! There’s very little noise in the image from the 6D, and the image quality is much better overall.

The 6D won’t auto-focus with the 1.4 X tele-converter behind the 100-400 mm lens, but the 7D will.

7D Mk II, 100-400 mm lens and 1.4 X extender, not cropped

So, I took another of the images from the 6D shot at 400 mm and cropped it to match as closely as I could.

6D Mk I, 400 mm, and cropped close to 100%

I’m looking at the printing on the package that I shot, and it’s about as sharp in both images, even though the image from the 6D was cropped close to 100%. I later went back to the images shot with the 7D and corrected the color cast by using the white balance adjustment. I also tried to reduce the noise in those images as well, but I was never able to get rid of the noise to the point where the images from the 7D were as free from noise as the images from the 6D were straight out of the camera. Reducing the noise also reduced the sharpness of the images shot with the 7D as well. I was also able to remove most of what little noise was present in the images shot with the 6D.

I’m convinced, I could make good use of a full frame camera for what I photograph now, and what I’d like to photograph in the future. If the original 6D can outperform my 7D by that much in lower light, the new version should be even better. But, I’ll probably do the same test again when the new version hits the stores to be sure. I also want to verify other features that the new 6D is said to have also.

The good thing is that I don’t have to rush into anything, for most of my images, the 7D is still the better camera. That way, I can wait until Canon begins to offer rebates on the new 6D Mk II, so that it won’t cost me as much. That also gives Canon time to work out any of the bugs in the camera. I’ve learned that some of the first copies of both the 7D Mk II and the 24-105 mm lens that I’d like to purchase had issues that required that customers return the item to Canon to be repaired. I believe that Canon has replaced some of the first 24-105 mm lenses that they shipped, and issued a recall for auto-focusing issues. I don’t need another buggy camera, or a buggy lens that doesn’t perform well, so I’ll wait.

A few other random thoughts about the 6D. One, it weighs next to nothing compared to the 7D Mk II that I use. As I told a reader recently, shooting with the 7D Mk II is like driving a tank that handles like a sports car. The lower weight of the 6D tells me that its construction isn’t as robust as the 7D, but I don’t abuse my equipment the way some photographers do.

One of the reasons that my 7D weighs so much is that I have a battery grip with two batteries in it. Picking up the 6D, I found that even though it’s a full frame camera, the body is smaller than the 7D, even without the battery grip. With my big hands, it took me a few seconds to figure out how to hold the smaller body well enough to shoot at the slow shutter speeds in the test. The way that I’ve come to rely on getting a firm hold on the 7D with the battery grip reinforced how much the battery grip aids me in holding the camera still while shooting, even when used in the landscape orientation. I will definitely be adding a battery grip to the 6D Mk II or any other full frame camera that I purchase in the future, I feel that it does make that much of a difference in how steady I can hold the camera, especially with the long lenses that I use.

I could go on, but I think that I’ll add one more photo, then stick a fork in this post.

Grass seeds in the sun

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

Good things come

To those who wait! Or, another old cliché that fits here is that patience is a virtue.

I’ve been hankering a full frame sensor camera body for some time now, and I had Canon’s 5D Mk IV on my wish-list for that reason. However, Canon has just announced a major upgrade to their 6D model of full frame cameras. I’ll have to wait for the reviews, but I think that it will be the full frame camera that I end up purchasing. It will do everything that I want a full frame camera to do, albeit at a much lower cost than the 5D Mk IV, since it doesn’t have all the sophisticated features as the 5D, or even the 7D Mk II that I’m using now have.

For example, the new 6D has 45 focus points, up from just 11 in the original. My 7D has 65 focus points, the 5D has 61. I know from using the 60D that I’ve had for years now, that 11 isn’t enough at times to get the composition in the camera the way that I’d like. But, I think that I can live with 45 focus points. The new 6D has a less sophisticated metering system, a 7,500 pixel metering sensor versus a 150,000 pixel system in the 7D or 5D, but I have to remember what type of images that I’ll be using the full frame body for.

The full frame camera will be used for landscapes, macros, and low-light critter portraits, along with video at times. For those things, I generally have time to shoot test shots and adjust the exposure anyway. The more sophisticated system in the 7D is great for those times when I’m shooting quickly, and don’t have time to review the resulting images before my subject disappears from me. The 7D has spoiled me, but I still use the older 60D often enough so that I remember how to shoot test shots and adjust the exposure. Most of the macro images from the last post were shot with the older 60D.

The new 6D will do in camera time-lapse photography, as well as having a built-in long exposure timer for shooting things like star trails or the Milky Way, which I just mentioned in a recent post, are things that I’d like to shoot in the future. It also has better weather sealing than the original as well, although I don’t think that the construction of the 6D matches either the 7D that I’m using now, or the 5D. It’s probably plastic and aluminum rather than magnesium as the 7D and 5D are.

One of the other features that I really like is the vari-angle LCD display on the rear of the camera. I know that some people don’t like the vari-angle display, but I have it on my 60D and I love it. When I’m not using the display, it folds into the camera body where it’s protected from damage, an important feature in its own right. But, when I set the camera on the ground for a shot of something such as an insect, I don’t have to lay down to see into the viewfinder, I can use the live view display instead. There have also been times while I’ve been shooting landscapes that I’ve had the camera low to some very wet ground that I’d rather not lay in to get the photo that I wanted. It was much better to use the vari-angle display and live view during those times. The vari-angle display would have also come in handy when I was shooting the swans as seen in my last post. With the sun falling directly on the screen, I had a hard time seeing the swans in the display. With the vari-angle display, I could have rotated the display so that it was shaded and I could have seen my intended subjects on the screen much better.

The original 6D had less noise at the same ISO as my 7D does, and from what I’ve read so far, the low-light performance of the new 6D is even better. That’s true of most of the full frame sensor cameras on the market today, that’s why I’d like to step up to one. The new 6D should also have better dynamic range as well.

Best of all, I can purchase the new 6D with a battery grip, extra batteries, and the 24-105 mm lens that I’d like for the full frame body for about the same price as the 5D Mk IV body alone. I have to remember that I intend to use the 6D as a replacement for the 60D camera that I have and still use, not a full frame replacement for my 7D Mk II. Actually, Canon doesn’t make a full frame replacement for the 7D Mk II, not even their top of the line 1DX has everything that the 7D has as far as I’m concerned, and the 1DX is well out of my price range anyway.

By the way, it’s time for a few other photography related thoughts. To begin with, not every one needs the same gear that I do, it always depends on what a person is shooting, and how they are shooting it.

Another thing, for each and every expert that says that their way is the right way, there’s an equally qualified expert that does things differently than the first expert, but still says that their way is the only way.

Take back-button focusing for example, many experts swear that it’s the only way to get good sharp images, but there are other experts that swear that back-button focusing is the wrong way to do it, because it ties up your thumb on the focusing button, and you can’t make exposure adjustments at the same time as you’re focusing.

But, I’ll have more to say about how the professionals do things in a later post, right now, it’s time for a photo or two.

Upland sandpiper

It isn’t the prettiest bird that there is, but I love that image, it’s another mark of how much my photos have improved over the years. The sandpiper looks three-dimensional, not flat as the subjects used to look in my images. That images goes with the ones from my last post of the milkweed flowers and the insect macros that I shot. It’s so much fun for me to be outside with all my gear, and having it work so well for me now that I’ve learned how to use it.

Maybe my gear just works well on ugly birds. 😉

Turkey vulture

Actually, I don’t think that vultures are ugly, just different from other birds. They are social birds, that often pause to talk things over.

Turkey vultures

And, having a great long zoom lens lets me show that. I think that these are two adults and their young one for the year.

Turkey vultures

While I was shooting the macro photos seen in my last post, I also spotted a spicebush swallowtail butterfly, but it was on the other side of the fence, and I couldn’t get close to it to use the 100 mm macro lens, so I used the 100-400 mm lens and 1.4 X extender for these.

Spicebush swallowtail butterfly

Not bad, but you can see that there was far too much dynamic range in the scene for my 7D to capture well, even with the aid of Lightroom. The milkweed flowers are blown out when the black of the butterfly is correct. But, that’s what I get for shooting in direct sunlight in the middle of the day. A diffuser and some one to hold it would have come in handy, or I could wait until I see the same butterfly on a day when the light is more diffuse naturally, from clouds.

Spicebush swallowtail butterfly

That’s another example of when having two cameras, actually three in this case, came in handy. I had the long set-up sitting on a large rock near me as I was shooting macros with the other camera, so all I had to do was set the macro set-up down on the rock and grab the long set-up in a lot less time than it would have taken me to switch one camera over. Chances are, the butterfly would have flown away if I had to take the time to change lenses and camera settings. Even if the images aren’t the best in the world, I did manage to capture the butterfly, then go back to shooting macros having hardly missed a beat.

Good gear doesn’t guarantee great images, but it does make getting great images easier on a consistent basis. That goes for the gimbal head that I showed in my last post as well, I have the feeling that I’ll be looking for chances to put it to use, rather than avoiding the hassle of getting it set up. While nature photography can be frustrating at times, very frustrating in fact, having good reliable gear, that works as it’s suppose to, eases the frustration, and makes the process fun, even when I do miss shots.

Good weather helps too, and it was very nice last weekend, other than the strong winds on Sunday.

It turns out that I should have waited to begin this post, for I have already put an image of an upland sandpiper in it that will run in the slide show at the top of the page. I thought that it was a good one, and it is, but these two shot this weekend are even better.

Upland sandpiper

 

Upland sandpiper

For that matter, I should have waited to begin the My Photo Life List project that I’m working until I had good photos of every species. As my equipment, photography skills, and my skills at getting closer to birds have all improved, I’m getting better images of the species that I have already done all the time. In the beginning, I didn’t expect to get images good enough to be used in a field guide for birds, but given how much time I spend shooting birds, I think that I’ll end up with images good enough for a field guide for most species.

I actually zoomed in too far on the upland sandpiper for those to be useful in a field guide, but I have good images of them already. So, I can play around getting head and shoulder photos of them. Not so with this species.

Male bobolink in full breeding plumage

I’ve been trying to get close to bobolinks for years, and they never let me approach them. I snuck up slowly on this guy, shooting lots of photos whenever there wasn’t a lot of vegetation between us. When I finally had a clear view of him, he knew that I was there, but hung around anyway, and he even began singing, and what a pretty song it was.

Male bobolink in full breeding plumage

Luckily, I can go back and add these to the post on this species that I’ve already done. It’s the same with pie-billed grebes…

Pie-billed grebe

 

Pie-billed grebe

…and least sandpipers also.

Least sandpiper

 

Least sandpiper

 

Least sandpiper

While these are far from my best of a bald eagle, I had better put them in this post for the 4th of July, since that’s about when this post will go public.

Bald eagle in flight

 

Bald eagle in flight

The eagle landed on the wall of one of the cells where the gulls and ducks like to congregate, and the gulls weren’t happy about that.

Ring-billed gull attacking a bald eagle

But, I was on the wrong side of the cell, almost 300 yards (275 meters) away from the action, so the images aren’t very good. At least the image doesn’t show a white blob over a brown blob the way my images used to look. I sat there for quite a while watching, but the eagle seemed content to stay, as the gulls gave up trying to chase it away. I drove around to the other side of the cells there, but by then, the eagle was gone.

I had another disappointment earlier in the day, I was close to a green heron with good light for a change…

Green heron

…but that branch was in the way, and I couldn’t find a line of sight where I had a clear view of the heron. I ended up cheating, and removing the branch in Lightroom.

Green heron

That looks okay here in my blog, but if you were to see it as I see it blown up on my computer, or if I were to print it, then you’d see how poor I am at editing things out in Lightroom. Still, I’m quite proud of those because of the way they show the true colors and patterns of the heron, it helps that I had great diffuse light at the time. enough light for a low ISO setting, but no harsh shadows to deal with either.

You know, it’s funny, I went back in my archives to find the photo of the female dickcissel that the American Bird Conservancy asked to use, and seeing the photos that I shot back then, it was almost hard to look at those photos, as poor as they were. I chalked most of the improvement up to a better camera body and better lenses, but that doesn’t explain why the macros that I shoot now using the 60D body and 100 mm macro lens are so much better now.

Unidentified sunflower

 

Moth mullein

I could see gear being the reason for the improvement if I wasn’t using the exact same gear for macros most of the time now as I did back then. I shot over a dozen photos of the moth mullein hoping that one would be good, they were all good. In the old days, I’d be lucky if I did get the one good one.

I did use the new 100-400 mm lens for this one though.

Black-eyed Susan

It may sound as if I’m bragging, and maybe I am to some degree, but for the most part, I’m basking in the joy of doing something that I love to do and doing it well. The only thing that I love more than being out in nature and seeing the beauty there, is photographing what I see, well to share with others, and for my own memories as time marches on. It may have been painful to see the poor quality of some of my older photos when I looked through my archives for the image that I mentioned earlier, but the images still brought back the memories of where and when those images were shot.

In some ways, nature photography is like the game of golf. It can be so frustrating at times that one wonders why they took on such a challenge, but when things go well, there’s an incredible feeling of satisfaction that one gets. It’s also like golf in that no matter how skilled one becomes, there’s always room for improvement.

I’m still often frustrated, on Sunday I came upon a great blue heron very close to me. I assumed that it would fly off as soon as it saw me, so I grabbed the bird in flight set-up. I got a focus lock on the heron, but it hesitated, watching me as much as I was watching it. I saw how the eye of the heron looked through the viewfinder, and knew that I had excellent light for a head shot if I switched to the bird portrait set-up. In the split-second it took me to set the one camera down and grab the other, the heron did take off. Lesson learned, if I ever get light like that again, I’ll shoot a few frames even if it’s with the wrong set-up for what I’m hoping for as the final image.

But most often, it’s the behavior of my intended subject that leads to the frustration, like this juvenile raccoon.

Juvenile raccoon staying hidden

In the few seconds that I had to shoot it before it disappeared, it never let me see both of its eyes at one time. I suppose that I could say that the image shows how wary even young raccoons are, but I’d have much rather shown you a good image with nothing in front of its face, even if its body was still mostly hidden.

As good as my gear is, there are still times when it is the source of my frustrations. There are times when the 7D will focus lock on the wrong part of what’s in the frame, and as good as it is in tracking something that it locks onto, it’s difficult to get it to “let go” of what it wants to track, and switch to what I really wanted it to track. And, there are still times when it simply refuses to lock onto anything in the frame, but those times are few and far between, and usually in very difficult circumstances. But, as you can see in the photo of the raccoon, I can get it to look past the vegetation in the foreground and focus on my intended subject most of the time. That’s a good thing, because when I’m shooting smaller birds, there’s almost always some vegetation in the foreground.

Male yellow warbler

 

Male yellow warbler

 

Male rose-breasted grosbeak

The warbler and the grosbeak are great examples of when waiting, or my new-found patience, paid off in a better than average image. In both instances, the birds perched to preen and take a break from looking for food, and I kept the camera on them, snapping what I used to think was way too many pictures of them. But, I was able to sort through all the pictures that I shot, choose the best ones out of the lot, and delete the ones that weren’t up to snuff. The ones I deleted were ones where the bird had its head turned slightly the wrong way, or was blurry because the bird moved while the shutter was open. I could shoot at a higher shutter speed to freeze the bird’s movements, but that would require a higher ISO setting and a resulting lack of resolution because of it. I find it better to shoot more images at the best possible settings for a portrait, and delete the poor images later.

One last thing before I end this one, I’m noticing that I’m getting much better color rendition in my images lately, mostly due to the better lenses that I’ve purchased. You can’t go wrong with quality glass, no matter what camera is behind it.

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

The money shot

Sometimes I get the shot that I’m hoping for, or at least I come very close. It was a rather slow day of birding at the Muskegon County wastewater facility, I ended up shooting far more macro photos of insects and flowers than I did of birds, as you will see later. It was so slow that I stopped off at the office building where they have a few bird feeders out, hoping that I could catch a few of the birds as they came and went from the feeders.

The feeders are on the north side of the building, and very close to it, so the feeders are in deep shade for most of the day. There are some ornamental trees planted around the office building, and the birds use them as a stopping point as they come and go to the wooded area on the other side of the driveway to the office building. My goal was to catch one of the hummingbirds, since I haven’t been able to get a photo of one this year, but the hummers were too quick for me. By the time that I had located where they had landed in one of the trees and begun to work my way to where I could get a good photo of it, the hummer was already gone.

I did find this juvenile downy woodpecker though.

Juvenile male downy woodpecker

As I was photographing it, I saw its mother feeding it.

Juvenile male downy woodpecker being fed by its mother

I was using the 100-400 mm lens with the 1.4 X tele-converter for the close-ups of the juvenile, so I missed getting mom in the frame. I zoomed out for the next time she fed Junior.

Juvenile male downy woodpecker being fed by its mother

The mother was bringing food from the suet feeder in large chunks, then she would jam the suet into a crack in the bark of the tree, where she could break the chunk up into smaller bits for Junior.

With them behind the branches, the photo above isn’t very good, so between my moving around a bit, and Junior moving to a spot where I had a clear view of him, I was getting a few portraits of him until mom returned, but she came back sooner than I expected.

Juvenile male downy woodpecker being fed by its mother

I couldn’t just yank the camera over to get more of her in the frame though, that’s what I get for zooming in all the way.

Juvenile male downy woodpecker being fed by its mother

You can see Junior using his barbed tongue to pull the tiny bit of suet mom is giving him, so I’m happy with that shot, and also this next one.

Juvenile male downy woodpecker being fed by its mother

You can see that I was easing the camera to the left, but mom took off right after that.

After that, Junior went to the crack in the bark where mom had been putting the suet when she first arrived from the feeder. It turned out that mom had left some of the suet there that Junior found and devoured, but not before showing me that he had found it.

Juvenile male downy woodpecker

Okay, I got some good photos of mom feeding Junior, but in analyzing the entire event, I wonder if mom was also teaching him how to find his own food by putting the suet in the crack of the tree bark, and leaving some of it for him to find. I also wonder if Junior learned how woodpeckers store food for the winter, by putting the food in places like the crack in the tree bark by watching what she was doing.

Just a few more words about how I got the photos. Mom never seemed stressed by my presence, she never sounded her alarm call, nor did she hesitate as she was feeding Junior. If she had, I would have left the area immediately, as I usually do when I see an adult bird feeding one of its young. Of all the species of woodland birds in Michigan, the two that don’t seem to mind my being very close to them are chickadees and downy woodpeckers.

Female downy woodpecker

That was shot a few days earlier here where I live, and that image wasn’t cropped either.

Now for some boring talk about camera gear. I had put a spotting scope and the accessories that would allow me to mount my camera on it on my wish list at B&H photo. However, the manufacturer just boosted their prices by more than 25% for each piece that I would need for what is called digiscoping. That price increase makes that look a lot less attractive to me, and in thinking it over some more, I’m not the kind of person to set-up a spotting scope and check out every one of the thousands of gulls in a flock to find the one rare gull.

After all, I’ve been doing quite well without a spotting scope, although there have been times when another birder nearby has allowed me to look through their scope to find the rare bird that I was looking for. I think that I could do without the scope and get a pair of very good binoculars instead, for a lot less money. As in almost $3,000 less now that the prices of the items that I would need increased as much as they did.

I’d be more happy with a full frame camera and only one other lens to carry around with me than I would be with a spotting scope. I’m growing tired of trying to increase the dynamic range of my crop sensor 7D Mk II in Lightroom, along with the noise reduction required at times. I know that a full frame sensor camera won’t eliminate all the editing that I’d have to do to my images, but it would help. I’m almost to the point where I’m going to set Lightroom to bring down the highlights 100% and raise the shadows 25% as I import images, since those settings are where many of my images end up. But, part of that is because I do expose to the right of the histogram, meaning slightly over-exposing my images, to cut down on noise in the shadow areas. And, I do that because in most of my images, the subject is the shadow to Lightroom.

The events of this past weekend helped me make that decision concerning the spotting scope versus a full frame camera. On Saturday, it was a slow day for birding as I’ve already said, so I decided to do some macro photography since the wind wasn’t too bad at the time. That idea came from seeing this butterfly.

Unidentified butterfly

I then decided that it was time to get a good macro photo of one of the milkweed flowers there. At first, I was settling for longer shots that I thought that I could crop down, but then I told myself that I was being lazy again. I went back to my car and grabbed the long extension tube from the set of three that I purchased a while back, and that was enough behind the 100 mm macro lens to give me these, which weren’t cropped at all.

Milkweed flower side view

I think that these show the complex structure of the milkweed flowers very well.

Milkweed flower front view

Then, I got really lucky. As I was shooting those, one of the green bees that I’ve tried to shoot a good photo of for years showed up on the milkweed flowers.

Unidentified green bee on a milkweed flower

Isn’t it pretty?

Unidentified green bee on a milkweed flower

I did cheat a little, I flipped those images because the bee was facing down as I shot the photos, and I thought that the images looked better after I flipped them. But, the big thing is that I happened to be ready with the extension tube behind the macro lens when the bee landed. I probably could have spent the day there, shooting macros of the various insects that came along to feed on the nectar of the milkweed. The scent in the air almost convinced me, as I love the smell of the milkweed too.

I’ll have some other macro photos shot shortly after those shortly, but first, more gear talk from the next day, Sunday. It was another slow day for birding, and the wind was whipping up quite strong very early in the day as a cold front pushed through the area, so macros were pretty much out of consideration, since all the flowers were being blown around by the wind.

However, there was a flock of seven mute swans in the small man-made lake just south of the Muskegon County wastewater facility proper. So, since I haven’t used the new gimbal head on my tripod much, I thought that it would be a good idea to set-up the tripod and gimbal head to practice on a species of birds that I wouldn’t care if I messed the photos up or not. I have plenty of good images of mute swans, so I decided to turn the day into a practice day.

My new tripod and gimbal head set-up

The gimbal head was not locked when I shot that, that’s the beauty of it, the camera stays pointed where I want it pointed, even as windy as the day was. The Benro tripod that I got for half price because they discontinued that model has no center post, but does have a substantial hook under it where I can hang my second long set-up to keep it close by and ready, but off the ground or trying to hold it as I use the camera on the tripod. That also helps to steady the set-up, it’s almost as solid as a rock as I move the camera on the gimbal head around to follow the action. Here’s a closer look at the gimbal head.

My gimbal head on the tripod with camera and lens attached

My plan almost worked well, but the swans stayed on the other side of the lake, since that side was sheltered a little from the wind. But, as I was just getting set-up, one of the swans assumed its aggressive posture…

Mute swan getting aggressive

…getting ready to chase one of the other swans away.

Mute swan getting aggressive

With the gimbal head, I was able to track the swan very well.

Mute swan getting aggressive

In the old days, I’d post dozens of images of the swans chasing each other around, but I’ll be able to get much better images at another time, when the swans are closer to me. But, as a test of the tripod and gimbal head, it was a complete success. Well, maybe not a complete success, I did do one thing wrong, I didn’t use the portable hide that I also recently purchased. I didn’t need the hide to get closer to the swans, but to block the light from hitting the LCD display on the back of the camera when I tried live view focusing with the 400 mm lens and 2 X tele-converter.

Mute swans in action at 800 mm and live view focusing

The camera, lens, and extender seemed to do well enough, but I couldn’t see the white swans in the LCD display well enough to keep them in the frame as they moved. The 7D Mk II will not auto-focus while looking through the viewfinder with the 400 mm f/5.6 lens and 2 X tele-converter due to the loss of 2 stops of light because to the tele-converter. However, I can use live view auto-focusing as I did earlier this spring with the golden eagle, or these swans here. It does work, and I think that the results are more consistent than when I try to manually focus while looking through the viewfinder. It is very slow though, better suited to perched birds than action shots.

I did consider shooting some video of the swans, but I would have gotten too much wind noise if I had shot video. Oh well, some other day when I’m closer to the swans and there’s less wind.

So, what does any of this have to do with whether I purchase a spotting scope or not, it’s this. I’d rather be shooting photos than scoping out a flock of birds for one that’s different, or one hiding somewhere that it takes a spotting scope to find it. And, there’s always something to photograph no matter what the weather or other conditions are at the time. The more time that I put into photography, the better my photos are. If I had spent the day scoping out the gulls, I would have missed Junior being fed by its mother, or the green bee on the milkweed. The time that I spend practicing with the gear that I have will pay dividends down the road as well. While the 800 mm of reach that I get with the 400 mm lens and 2 X extender are less than I’d get with a spotting scope, I do pretty well with it, well enough to get birds for the My Photo Life List project that I’m working on.

I had a lot of fun playing with the new gimbal head, learning what it can and can’t do. As far as what it can’t do, there isn’t much, I’m learning that there’s a reason most serious wildlife photographers use a gimbal head. The one that I purchased is a cheaper off-brand than what most professionals use, but I don’t have the super heavy telephoto lenses that they have either. For my mid-weight lenses, the one that I bought works just fine, better than I had hoped. I am glad that I set-up my camera and lens in the store before I purchased it, even a cheap off-brand isn’t that cheap compared to the other types of tripod heads.

Here’s another example of why I’d rather be shooting photos than scoping out birds, I was following a male yellow warbler around as it flitted from branch to branch looking for insects.

Almost a male yellow warbler in flight

While I didn’t get a clear shot of him in flight, I did catch him as he looked for the insect that was trying to hide from him.

Male yellow warbler searching for food

 

Male yellow warbler searching for food

Sometimes the story is more important than image quality, and I think that these three images show you exactly how many warblers go about foraging for food. The insect saw the warbler coming, and was doing its best to hide, but the warbler tracked it down.

By the way, I’ve received an inquiry from some one on the staff of the American Bird Conservancy asking if they can use one of my images of a female dickcissel. Of course I said yes, even though I won’t get paid for it. To have one of my photos posted online by such an organization, which is similar to the Audubon Society, is payment enough.

It’s funny in a way though, the image they asked to use is one of my older ones shot with the 60D and the Beast (Sigma 150-500 mm lens) and I have better quality images shot since then, but in the image they asked to use, the dickcissel is holding a grasshopper in her mouth. Here’s the image that they asked to use.

Female dickcissel

Once again, the story trumped image quality.

Still, I prefer to get the best images that I can.

Juvenile tree swallow, classic pose

 

Juvenile tree swallow, fun pose

I love the way that it’s staring into the lens so intently in that second image. I’ve had chickadees fly into the lens hood of my lenses a couple of times. I don’t know if the birds see their reflection in the front element of the lens, or if they think that there may be insects hiding in there. But no matter the reason, some birds seem to take a great interest in the front of my camera lens, which is lucky for me.

Anyway, I promised more macro photos, so I’d better get back to them.

Butterfly weed

 

Bumblebee on butterfly weed

 

Unknown flowering object

I just read something online about how many bees look like flies, and vice versa, so I’m not sure what the insect on top of the flower is. You may have to take a close look, but there’s a beetle with a long snout to the lower left of the image, it looked as if it was using its long snout to feed on nectar. The bee or fly seemed to be gathering pollen, but I could be wrong.

Bee? and beetle on a Black-eyed Susan

 

Bee? on a Black-eyed Susan

Then, a honeybee came along, and the smaller insect and the honeybee took turns chasing one another away.

Honeybee on a Black-eyed Susan

Finally, they struck an uneasy peace and decided to share.

Honeybee and friend on a Black-eyed Susan

I had to find one of the flower buds just beginning to open to find one without an insect on it.

Black-eyed Susan flower bud opening

For being shot outside on a somewhat windy day, those aren’t bad. I just watched another how-to video on macro photography, and once again, most of the images were shot inside using several light sources for each image. I’ve done that before, and it is the best way to get the eye-popping macro images that you see, but I prefer to wonder around outside and shoot what I see when I see it. My images may not be as good, but it’s more fun to me.

One last image for this post before I publish it.

Male Green-winged teal

I thought that both days of the weekend were slow for birding, yet I’ve got more than enough photos left over for another post. I’m spoiled.

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

How the time does fly

It’s now officially summer already, and I’m seeing evidence that the waterfowl are beginning to molt. That means that I won’t be shooting many photos of them for the next few months, until they return to their breeding plumage or something spectacular happens that’s too good not to photograph. So, I’ll begin the photos in this post with a portrait of a male redhead duck while he’s still looking so dapper.

Male redhead duck

Once again, I blew it, I was using the bird portrait set-up to shoot that, when the duck turned towards me to stretch its wings.

Male redhead duck

 

Male redhead duck

 

Male redhead duck

He gave me ample warning of what he was about to do, but I suffered a momentary brain freeze, forgetting that all I had to do was make a quick turn of the mode dial to switch to settings that would have frozen the movement of his wings. The thought went through my head at the time to switch to the second body that was already set for action shots, but I didn’t have time for that. I would have had time to turn the dial if I had remembered that it was all that it would have taken to get the correct settings. My one excuse is that I had no idea that there was still a pair of redheads around, and that I’d be so close to them.

In fact, my first instinct had been to grab the action set-up first, expecting them to take flight, until I saw that the pair of them were going to pose nicely for me. It was then that I grabbed the portrait set-up.

Redhead ducks

I try to anticipate what’s going to happen in every situation, but most of the time, I guess wrong. The darned birds and other critters seldom cooperate with me. They seem to get some enjoyment out of doing the unexpected. I was lucky in some ways, I had good soft light for the portraits, so I’m very pleased with them. If I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t have the polarizing filter on the lens to cut down on the glare from the water, but as low as the light was, I wasn’t expecting the glare to be so harsh.

Anyway, I have a couple of photos from a few weeks ago that I haven’t posted yet, as they’re not very good.

Whitetail doe, fawn, and a meadowlark and male bobolink

The deer running across the field must have gotten close to the nests of the meadowlark and bobolink, causing them to take flight. They didn’t attack the deer as red-winged blackbirds would have, but waited for the deer to pass, then settled back down into the grass and out of sight. I thought that it was interesting to get them all in the frame at one time though. Here’s a slightly better photo of the doe and her fawn.

Whitetail doe and her fawn

It’s already so late in the season that the fawns are following their mothers around now instead of staying hidden most of the time and waiting for the mother to return so that the fawns can nurse.

I’ve been chasing sparrows around a lot the past few weeks, hoping to find a species of them that I’ve never photographed before. I haven’t had any luck with new species, but here are two species that I haven’t posted photos of lately.

Chipping sparrow

 

Chipping sparrow

 

Vesper sparrow

 

Vesper sparrow

The male chipping sparrows will perch up off the ground to “sing” although their song doesn’t amount to very much. The vesper sparrows never seem to leave the ground, I see them running through the fields at the Muskegon County wastewater facility, but I seldom get this clear of a view of them. It was only because this one was keeping an eye on me that I got those photos. Most of the time it was hugging the ground staying below the level of the top of the vegetation.

Changing gears, how do male squirrels find females that are in heat and ready to mate?

Male Fox squirrel tracking down a female

They follow the scent trail that the females leave behind, just as a dog follows a scent trail. I don’t know if he caught up with the female, I didn’t watch him that long, but his nose never left the trail he was on.

This chipmunk was climbing a tree to reach the berries in the tree.

Eastern chipmunk

I have two versions of motherwort flowers to share, one taken with the sun behind me…

Motherwort

…and one where the sun was on the other side of the flowers, backlighting them.

Motherwort

Those were shot while I was walking more for exercise than for photos, so I didn’t have my macro lens with me for a close-up of an individual flower.

I found a dragonfly that was willing to pose for me while I explored different lighting options, this first one is with the sun behind me.

Dragonfly, traditional lighting

I moved to the side for this one.

Dragonfly, side lighting

And, I went to where the sun was shining through the dragonfly for this last one.

Dragonfly, back lighting

I should have used a little, very little, fill lighting for that last one, but I’m still quite pleased with the results. I love the way that the dragonfly’s body glows from the light passing through it, and it also shows the wings the best of any of these shots. If only I could have brightened up its face a little more.

As long as I can press the shutter button on my camera, I’ll continue to experiment in different ways.

That’s what Michael Melford, the Nat Geo photographer whose videos I’ve watched many times, would call working the scene, just like the motherwort earlier. B&H Camera has many good how-to videos from presenters like Michael Melford, although I don’t always agree with how the other presenters go about getting their photos. For example, one well-known wildlife photographer who has many videos on Youtube through B&H, baits almost all of the subjects to bring them up close, from hummingbirds to large raptors, to the big cats of Africa. That’s cheating as far as I’m concerned.

Recently, I’ve watched a couple of videos through B&H with a new to me presenter, Ron Magill. He’s a zoologist by training, and a bigwig at the Miami, Florida zoo, and as such, many of his photos are of captive animals. But, he tells you straight up which of his images are of captive critters, and which are not. What I love about his presentations are his passion, enthusiasm, and love of nature, which really come through as he gives his talks. Even though he’s sponsored by Nikon, there’s no talk of camera gear to speak of, it’s all about getting the shot, the thrill that comes with it, and the reasons why those of us who love nature photography continue to shoot away.

Great blue heron in flight

He also talks about saving the memories with the photos we shoot, telling the stories of nature, and also photography as a learning tool.

For example, the beaks of most birds are solid and inflexible, however, some shorebirds have flexible beaks.

Semi-palmated sandpiper

You can see in that image that the sandpiper’s bill is curved one way as it preens…

Semi-palmated sandpiper

…and in that image, the bill is back to its normal curve, which is down. Having flexible bills makes it easier for them to probe for food in the mud. I’ve read that before, but I never saw it with my own eyes until I shot the series of photos of the sandpiper that I did.

When I began blogging, my goal was to share the places that I went and the things that I saw that few people get the chance to see in person.

However, even though I was able to photograph some aspects of animal behavior that I wanted to share, my photos weren’t very good, and they did a poor job of conveying that behavior. So, I got caught up in working to improve the quality of my photos so that people can see in them what I see in person. But, I lost track of what my original intent was when I started my blog.

In the beginning, I hoped that people would be able to tell that the subject I was shooting was a bird. As my photos improved, I hoped that people would be able to identify the species from the photo. But, in reading and watching videos about good wildlife photography, I went too far, and tried to make the judges of photo contests happy, even though I had given up on entering any of my images in contests in the first place. That meant that you had to be able to see the critter’s eye(s), and that they were in sharp focus. I went on to always wanting to get the catch light in a critter’s eye, and now, I’m to the point where I don’t think that an image of a bird is a good one unless you can see the bird’s iris in its eye.

Male northern cardinal

That’s fair, but it’s still a little soft because I was quick on the shutter release. This next one is sharper, but by then, the cardinal had turned slightly so that part of its bill is hidden behind the branch.

Male northern cardinal

I suppose that learning that a bird’s eye is much like ours, with an iris, that there’s a color to a bird’s eye, and that their eyes aren’t just a black bulge on their face is something new to most people, it was to me. And, while I’d love every image to be perfect, that’s never going to happen.

If I were willing to take the time to learn Photoshop, I could probably remove the branch from the images above completely, and “construct” the cardinal’s bill by cutting and pasting the tip of the bill from other images. But, I don’t want to sit in front of my computer that long, I’d rather be out shooting more photos instead. Now that I have the equipment and proficiency to get images like those on a regular basis, I was a little lost as to where to go next. It’s not as if my quest for quality had been reached completely, but I can’t foresee any huge leaps in the quality of my images in the future. When you can see the iris in a bird’s eye, and see the individual fibers of its feathers, then that’s doing pretty good.

So, that’s why watching those videos of Ron Magill happened at the right time. As I said, his passion, enthusiasm, and love of nature really comes through in his presentations. He gets so excited that I wondered at times how he ever managed to hold the camera still enough to get the great images that he does. Not only that, but there’s a great deal of humor in his talks as he describes his journey as a nature photographer, and how he gets his images. He’ll keep you laughing, that’s for sure.

Part of the answer is going back to what I was trying to do when I started my blog, telling the stories that I saw in nature. The other direction that I’m going to take is to use the skills that I’ve acquired to create more artistic images.

Newly opened leaves

 

Sulphur cinquefoil

A couple of years ago, I read on another person’s blog that the hardest thing about reading other blogs as a photographer is the urge to critique every one else’s images. That’s not the case with me, as my photos continue to improve, I find it harder all the time to comment on other people’s photos. Part of that is because photography is subjective, like all art forms. Just because some one else has a different style of photography than I do does not mean that they are wrong and that I’m right, or vice versa. That’s what makes photography so great in my opinion, we all see the world differently, and I like seeing how other people view the world around them.

Another reason that I find it harder to comment on the photos shot by others is that not every one wants to spend their last dime on camera gear, or lug it all around with them. That’s okay with me, I understand that some people are content with their images the way that they are, and that I can still appreciate the beauty of the subjects that they shoot, and learn from their photos at the same time.

I still have a lot to learn, both in the way of photography, but especially about the things that I photograph. On the evening that I shot the sulphur cinquefoil image, my plan had been to shoot St. John’s wort flowers, as I had great light, and not a hint of any breeze at all. However, the flowers of St. John’s wort must close in the evening, for I couldn’t find a single open flower on the plants. Yes, it’s that time of year already, when mid-summer flowers are blooming. At least it seems like mid-summer already, as short as our summers are here in Michigan.

I did attempt to shoot the sunset, but the 100-400 mm lens isn’t very good for landscapes…

Sunset in Creekside Park

…and trying to find a pleasing view of the sunset was problematic. You can see a short stretch of the expressway in that photo, at least there were no cars going past at that instant. In the twilight after sunset, I shot these three bunnies enjoying the perfect summer evening.

Cottontail rabbits at sunset

I must be getting lazy, I didn’t even bother to reduce the noise in those images, even though they were shot at ISO 12,800 and could stand some noise reduction. These were shot mostly as a test, since it’s only been a short time since I’ve been shooting at an ISO setting that high when required.

Cottontail rabbits at sunset

No award winners there, but the memories of that evening will stay with me whenever I view those images. It was getting dark, the people had left the park so it was quiet, the temperature was perfect for me, it was just me and the three bunnies sharing a most pleasant evening.

Changing gears, there’s going to be a total eclipse of the sun this August, but to view the total eclipse, I’d have to travel a few hundred miles south of where I live. It will be very close to a total eclipse here, so I’m thinking about purchasing the neutral density filter that’s required to photograph the event. In the grand scheme of what I’ve spent on photography equipment, the ND filter is peanuts, but the question is, do I want to spend that for a one time use when it may even be cloudy here that day? That, and to do it right, I’d have to take the day off from work. It would be nice to catch a once in a lifetime event like that though. I’ll think about it some more.

I’m also thinking of trying more night-time photography, shooting few star trails and the Milky Way. I wouldn’t be able to do those from home because of the amount of light from the City of Grand Rapids, but they’re something that I’m keeping in mind for the future.

Having the psoriasis flare-up and having to spend time in the hospital this spring sure screwed up my plans for this summer. I was hoping to spend less money on camera gear, which has happened, but more on weekend trips to northern Michigan where I could probably end up shooting photos 24 hours a day if I didn’t need sleep. Oh, well, there’ll be other years for that, I hope.

I have 4 long years to work before I can retire and devote myself completely to photography. The more that I shoot, the more that I believe that I could keep myself occupied 24 hours a day. I shot this image of a red-winged blackbird well after the sun had dropped below the horizon and for this one, I did some noise reduction.

Red-winged blackbird

That image would have been impossible for me to get just a couple of years ago, and while it isn’t great, it’s pretty good. It’s the same for these.

White-breasted nuthatch

I don’t know if it was just about sunset when I shot those, but the nuthatch actually stayed in one place looking around long enough for me to get several good photos of it.

White-breasted nuthatch

I have two more images from last night, shot before the sun began to set.

Day lily

 

Male American goldfinch

It’s now Saturday morning, and I’m going to eat breakfast and then go out and see what I can find to photograph today.

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

Telling the story well

My last post was another of my boring ones on camera gear and my efforts to improve my ability to use what I already have to get better images. In this post, I hope to better explain why it’s so important to me to improve my images.

Nature is full of stories, whether it’s a simple, but beautiful one, of a small bird singing its heart out trying to attract a mate…

Male dickcissel singing

…or a more complicated one of how birds fly.

Green heron in flight

I want to improve my skills as a photographer to better tell the stories that nature presents us if we take the time to observe those stories.

Added to that is my curiosity of how animals learn how to live. By that, I mean such things as how do birds learn where and how to build their nests. Most species of birds build their own distinctive style and size of nest, and how do the young know how to do that when they’ve never seen an adult build a nest? Do they learn by growing up in a nest, seeing how it is built? Or, is building a nest “hardwired” in their brain at birth so that they know what to do when the time comes?

That story is a little problematic for me to tell, as I seldom sit near a nest as it’s being built, nor do I sit and watch the adult birds feeding their young.

In the past, when I’ve seen a bird building a nest out in the open where I can see it easily, I’ve shot a few photos, then moved on to prevent disturbing the bird building the nest. It’s usually the same when I happen upon a nest that has young birds in it, I may shoot a photo or two, then move on so that I don’t disturb the adults.

Adult blue jay feeding its young

As you can see, the blue jay had built its nest in a thick tangle of branches and was well hidden from view. The dense branches surrounding the nest also makes it harder for a larger raptor to find and raid the nest.

The way that I found the nest was by watching the adult, hoping for a clear photo of it. The adult took a circuitous route to the nest, pausing often to look around in a way that made me think that it was foraging for food, not on its way to a nest. After watching the entire event play out, I now know that the blue jay was being careful not to let any potential predators know where its nest and young were hidden.

Blue jays are members of the corvid family of birds, the most intelligent birds that there is. Apparently, their intelligence extends to where they build their nests, and how they come and go as they feed their young.

On the other hand, there are the American robins. I’ve posted photos of them building their nests right out in the open, shown photos of them feeding their young in those nests, and even posted a series of photos last year that showed a hawk taking one of the young robins from such a nest.

It’s easy to find a robin’s nest, find an adult collecting food…

American robin collecting food for its young

….follow it as it moves around…

American robin collecting food for its young

…and eventually, the robin will go straight to its nest.

Unfortunately, many predators have figured that out, and find that young robins are a good meal for themselves or their young.

Red-tailed hawk taking a young robin back to its nest

Corvids, being as intelligent as they are, have also learned to watch adult birds bring food to their young also.

American crow carrying off a baby bird

In some ways, crows are even better predators of young birds, although they may not take as many as raptors do in total. On the day that I shot the last photo, a pair of crows were acting as a team. One crow was distracting the other species of birds in the area by circling low to draw the attention of the other birds…

American crow in flight

 

American crow being attacked by a Baltimore oriole

…while the crow in the first photo in this series raided one of the other bird’s nest.

Even blown up on my computer, I can’t identify the species of young bird that the crow is carrying away, but I don’t think that it was a Baltimore oriole. There were several other species of birds attacking the crow, including a red-winged blackbird and an eastern kingbird. I chose to use the image of the adult Baltimore oriole chasing the crow as I’ve never captured that in the past, and as a way of showing that many species will defend their young against much larger predators. And, not all the species of birds present at this spot attempted to chase off the crow,  although they probably would have if it had gotten very close to its young.

That’s one of the darker stories that nature has for us if we take the time to observe what’s happening around us. Here’s a much more pleasing story, although I missed the best part.

I was shooting a few portraits of a cedar waxwing…

Cedar waxwing

…because it’s been a while since I’ve posted any photos of them.

Cedar waxwing

A second waxwing landed in the same bush, and it looked to me as if it had food in its bill. Cedar waxwings are social birds that often share food with others in the flock, especially males that are wooing a female. The waxwing that I was photographing moved right next to the one that had just arrived that had the food, but there was a branch full of leaves blowing right in front of the pair as they sat there perched.

If the second waxwing did share its food with the first one, I missed it while moving to a spot where I had a clear view of them.

Cedar waxwings

I hope that I have better luck the next time.

In a way, the My Photo Life List project that I’m working on is a story as well. It’s the story of the diversity of birds that can be seen in Michigan, or most parts of the world for that matter. With that is the behaviors of each species, although I could do a better job at that.

When I first began trying to identify shorebirds, the easiest one for me to ID was the spotted sandpiper, so for a while, I posted quite a few images of them. I’ve since gotten better at identifying the other shorebirds, but I still remember how many photos of the spotted sandpipers that I posted, so I haven’t included any photos of them for a while.

Spotted sandpiper

It’s easy to see how they came by their name, the spots on their bellies. By the way, I had inserted a different photo of a spotted sandpiper here, but then I went out and shot this one, which is much better.

On the other end of the spectrum as far as the number of images of a species of bird that I’ve posted is this one, the red-necked phalarope.

Red-necked phalarope, probably female

These are long distance migrants that only stop in Michigan on their way to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. The females are typically more colorful than the males, which is unusual in the bird world, and I’m not sure if I’ve ever posted photos of this species in its breeding plumage before.

Red-necked phalarope, probably female

Those two species remind me to say a few words about their preferred habitat, and by extension, how to make identifying all birds, but especially shorebirds, a little easier.

You can see that the spotted sandpiper was walking along the rocks along the shore, that’s their preferred habitat, rocky areas from what I’ve seen. They seldom venture out into the water, but instead, they walk around the rocks looking for insects there.

On the other hand, the phalaropes prefer shallow ponds with smooth bottoms, i.e. gravel or sand, and they are typically the shorebirds out in the deepest water when compared to the other species of shorebirds. They will even feed while swimming, although they seem to prefer to wade if they can.

So, when I went looking for the red-necked phalarope after others had reported seeing it, finding it was relatively easy for me now, even though there were hundreds of other shorebirds very close by at the time. The phalarope was the one in the deepest water, while all the others were wading closer to shore. A quick look through the viewfinder of my camera confirmed that it was indeed the phalarope, so I began shooting.

It’s also because of each species of bird’s preferred habitat that makes it easier to photograph some species well, such as the spotted sandpiper, while others, like the phalarope are more difficult to get good images of. The spotted sandpipers stick to land, meaning that I can get closer to them, while the phalaropes are the farthest from shore, so I can’t get as close to them.

Here’s another species of bird that it’s rare to get such a good look at.

Eastern towhee

Towhees are a species of large sparrow. As such, they spend most of their time on the ground in thick brush where they are difficult to see. This spring, I’ve been lucky enough to catch two of the males out in the open singing to attract a mate. When they’re down on the ground foraging through the leaf litter in search of food, they are almost impossible to see.

Here’s another story for you, small birds can often find cover from the rain, but most larger birds can’t. Here’s a miserable looking turkey vulture doing what it can to stay dry during a downpour.

Turkey vulture in the rain

I don’t know why they held their wings out as the rain fell on them, but many of them, although not all, did hold their wings open.

Turkey vultures in the rain

But it didn’t matter if they held their wings open or closed, they were some of the saddest looking birds that I’ve ever seen. After the rain let up, all the vultures opened their wings to dry off.

Turkey vulture drying its wings

On the other end of the emotional scale, tell me that this guy doesn’t look happy and even a bit proud of his catch.

Belted kingfisher with its catch

 

Belted kingfisher with its catch

At first, I couldn’t think of a reason for this kingfisher to be where it was, since there was no water nearby. Then it dawned on me, it was on its way back to the burrow where its nest was, and the kingfisher was pausing to look around to see that no predators were watching it before it flew into the burrow to feed its young.

I’ve gone on at length about how I’m working to improve my photos, working towards having great images to tell the story of what I saw happen. In a way, that’s a two-edged sword. I’ve not posted some photos of interesting happenings that I’ve seen because the image quality was so poor. I’ve forgotten that there are times when the story is more important than the quality of the images that I post here, especially since I’ve already surpassed the quality threshold of how my images will appear in my blog. Let me show you what I mean with these two sets of images.

I came upon a family of sandhill cranes at the Muskegon County wastewater facility, and of course, the red-winged blackbirds were making the crane’s lives miserable.

Female red-winged blackbird attacking sandhill cranes

You can see that the crane in front has ducked to avoid the blackbird, which is something that I wanted to capture. That image was shot with the 100-400 mm lens with a 1.4 X tele-converter behind it, and cropped slightly, because of how far away the cranes were. I was also using my bird portrait settings, so my shutter speed was relatively low, and the camera is set to tick off 4 frames per second maximum, which is as fast as I can get for the best quality images. In reality, it seldom manages the 4 frames per second due to the slow shutter speeds.

Anyway, the second crane didn’t duck, and the blackbird slapped it in the face with its wing as it flew past. I missed that shooting at the slow frame rate I was using, but I did capture this as the next frame.

Female red-winged blackbird attacking sandhill cranes

You can see that the blackbird is already landing in the weeds, but the best part of that image is the look on the second crane’s face. Unfortunately, you can’t really see the look on the crane’s face the way that the image is presented here. So, I thought about that overnight, and I decided the absolute image quality wasn’t as important as the story and the look on the crane’s face. I went back into Lightroom and created a virtual copy of both images, then cropped the copies severely, even though I knew that the images would suffer as far as sharpness.

Female red-winged blackbird attacking sandhill cranes

Of course I couldn’t create the missed image of the blackbird slapping the crane in the face, but you can now see the look of innocent terror on the crane’s face, as if it were asking what just happened, and why me?

Female red-winged blackbird attacking sandhill cranes

Yes, action happens fast in the wild, too fast for me to always be able to capture the precise moment that it happens.

Anyway, that little exercise has taught me a great deal, that for my blog, cropping an image that much works fine, even though I’d never print the cropped images. I wouldn’t have to, blown up on my computer or if I printed the images to a large size, I don’t need to crop the images for people to see what I want them to see, but in the small size that images appear in my blog, then I should make virtual copies and crop the copies much more than the originals. In the future, I’ll skip the normal size images, and only post the severely cropped images in an instance such as this one. I should have thought about this before.

But, it’s only because the quality of the images that I copied and cropped so severely was so good to begin with that I was able get away with cropping as much as I did. The severely cropped images look as good or better than my best older images from a few years ago. So, all the work that I’ve put into learning photography is paying dividends now.

Anyway, if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I use gulls as practice subjects for birds in flight because they’re so common, and easy to photograph well. I still practice on gulls to stay sharp, the problem is that there are times when I get an image so good that I just have to share it, despite how my images of gulls in flight that I’ve posted here.

Ring-billed gull in flight

If only I could get lighting like that when I’m trying to shoot these guys.

Cliff swallow in flight

There’s too much noise in these images for them to be considered good ones, but as quick as the swallows are, almost any image of them in flight is a keeper.

Cliff swallow in flight

I was surprised that the 7D Mk II with the 400 mm prime lens could keep up with one flying directly at me in the low-light at the time.

Cliff swallow in flight

 

Cliff swallow in flight

It seems like whenever all the other conditions are good for me to try photographing the swallows in flight, the light is poor. On this morning, there was an insect hatch taking place close to shore, which brought in a large number of the swallows. Believe me, trying to photograph one or even a few swallows close to me is a tough proposition, I need many of them in the area to get one or two good shots of them. For the few images that I did get, I shot quite a few more with the swallow out of focus, or even out of the frame as they darted about picking off the insects.

There were 20 to 25 swallows there at the time, flying in a circular pattern of sorts, and for once, the wind was right for me to try to shoot the swallows. They would fly at full speed very close to shore for a ways picking off the bugs as they hatched. Then, they would turn out over the water farther as they turned around to get back to where they had started. I would try to get a focus lock on them as they came back to where they started down the shoreline, and attempt to keep them in the viewfinder as they came towards me, then turned to go along the shore. I only sat there for about half an hour, but my arms were growing weary from trying to track the swallows as quick as they are. But, I learned that my equipment is up to the task, now all I need is better light and stronger arms. 🙂

I have one more short story consisting of four images to share before I end this post. Another thing that I’ve been doing lately is shooting a lot of images of any subject that will pose nicely for me. I used to stop when I thought that I had a good image, to try to find another subject to shoot. Now, I’ll keep shooting until I grow tired of it, or the subject takes off. The first image is of this whitetail doe.

Whitetail doe

I shot about twenty images of her before I got that one with both of her ears turned towards me as she listened to the shutter clicking away and no shadows in her ears or on her face. This may be my best ever portrait of a doe, as you can really see her beautiful long eyelashes, although if she would have turned her head slightly, the eyelashes would have shown up even more.

The other example of shooting a lot of images of the same subject is this grasshopper sparrow. This first image shows it shaking itself like a dog.

Grasshopper sparrow

I think that it shook itself so much that it became a little dizzy from its expression and body language in this image.

Grasshopper sparrow

After a few moments, it went back to singing again, and I was able to get this shot.

Grasshopper sparrow

It may be just a grasshopper sparrow, but I think that they are pretty birds in their own way, and I hope that it shows in the images of it that I’ve posted here.

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