Thursday, December 20, 2012

Eat, Drink and be Merry

We have an outdoor Christmas Tree for the first time this year.  It's on the deck behind the house next to the bird feeders.

The tree is decorated with strings of Cranberries and fruit loops.  It also has pine cones filled with peanut butter and dusted with bird seed.   What more could the birds want?

The birds ignored the tree for a week.  Perhaps it frightened them when it was blown over by strong gusts of wind.  We tied it down better.  A raccoon stopped by at night and nibbled on a couple of pine cones.  Too much fiber - he moved on to the next house. 

Last night we had 8 inches of snow.  This morning Starlings and House Sparrows flocked to the Christmas tree like there is not tomorrow.  Actually tomorrow 12/21/2012 is the day the Mayan calendar says the world ends, so today may be the day to Eat, Drink and be Merry.

I used a Canon 5D Mark II with a 400mm lens for these photos.  I shot them at 1/125 of a second with the lens set to f4. Even though it was mid morning,  it was a challenge to use natural light.  I had to set the ISO to 640.  Post processing was done in Lightroom.  Every image required noise reduction and cropping.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Fontenelle Forest - September 1

The Fontenelle Forest Wetlands looked different today.  Summer is turning into fall.  Birds are beginning to flock.  The backgrounds of some of my photos are turning into shades of yellow and orange.  Birds are more difficult to identify as the youngsters mix with the older birds.  Sunrise is arriving later every day.

A Ruby-throated Humming bird visits a flowering Bull Thistle in search of nectar.

A sparrow searches for another bug.

A Raccoon  searches for food along the back of the pond.

A young Cardinal  is learning to live on his own.

A Red-winged blackbird watches from a Maximilian Sunflower plant.

A couple of young Red-winged Black Birds enjoy a September morning.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Hummingbirds - August 13

This isn't the best photo becasuse of the placement of the wing.  It does demonstrate the stopping power of the 550EX at 1/64 power.  The wings are frozen. Notice the detail in the feathers.

I set up 3 550EX Speedlites to photograph hummingbirds tonight.  They were triggered by Pocket Wizards.   I placed one light on each side of my target area.  The third light was placed above the center of the target.

When I started, I set the shutter speed to 1/8000 ISO 1000 f2.8.  This worked well - the speedlites provided fill.  When it was darker, I switched to using flash as my main light.  ISO was set at 200, aperture was set to f8 and shutter speed was set at 1/250.

The hummingbirds did not tolerate the flash - immediately flying away.  As it got darker, I lost all color in the background and depended completely on the speedlites.  Unfortunately one speedlight was not firing - it wasn't properly seated in the hot shoe.  Two speedlites were not adequate and my shadows increased as it got darker. 

1/8000 and high speed flash worked surprisingly well.  I definitely need to light the background in order to prevent a black background.  The flashes were able to stop the wings in most cases.  When I set the aperture to f8, the increased depth of field was very useful.

This is my favorite shot today. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Fontenelle Forest - June 17

The Fontenelle Forest Wetlands were completely flooded all of last summer.   In an ironic twist of fate,  these photos were taken near the beginning of a drought.  It will not rain for over a month.  It will be a summer with record breaking heat.   The wetlands are covered with dew this morning, unaware of the pending dry months.

Foxtail Barley with dew

A Downy Woodpecker looking for lunch

The bullfrogs are bigger this week

Black-Eyed Susans


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Spray and Pray

This is my favorite of the hundreds of hummingbird photos I took today. 

If you read the forums, you will discover that photographers often dismiss the work of their successful peers by claiming that their own techniques  are a purer expression of the art.  Some brag that "I didn't use any Photoshop" or "my colors are not enhanced".  Others boast "No HDR" or "This panorama was made from a single image".  They complain that the other guy spent too much on equipment.  They boast  "I shoot JPEG instead of RAW because I know how to get it right in the camera".    The implication is that a photographer with a better image cheated by breaking an unwritten rule.

"I don't spray and pray - I get it right the first time" is a boast often heard.    The implication is that if  you fire off hundreds of shots, one of them is bound to be good.  No one could afford this technique in the days of film but digital has made it affordable.  

I took hundreds of shots of hummingbirds today and picked my favorite five.  If that isn't spray and pray - I don't know what is.  I could have gotten a sharp and well exposed  photo of a hummingbird at the feeder  with fewer shots.  Spray and Pray was a choice - let me tell you why.  Sharp and well exposed photos of hummingbirds at a feeder are a dime a dozen - I wanted images that were more interesting.

Notice the tongue,  I'm not sure if this is an attempt to capture an insect.

I prepared for weeks.  Hummingbirds are not extremely common in Nebraska.  My feeder has been out all summer.  Spray and Pray humming bird photography is more successful if you have a hummingbird.

I'm still learning.  I tried a 200mm lens this time instead of the 600mm I used last time.  I used all natural light this time instead of flash.  I wanted to see if the hummers were less skittish without the flash.  I put up a Woodland Green Camo blind on my deck so I would be less intrusive to the hummingbird when I got closer.  I didn't fool the hummer but my neighbor got a good chuckle out of me sitting in a blind on top of my deck in the middle of a hot August day.  

I had several goals in addition to sharp and well exposed photos.   I wanted to stop the wings.  I wanted a natural background.  I wanted to capture details that were difficult or impossible to see in normal viewing conditions.

The eyes are in sharp focus - is this skill or a prayer answered?

Spray and Pray actually started as a military term for using a fully automatic gun.  If you fire enough bullets, you should hit something.  The army has found that using a short burst is more effective than using up all the ammo with a long burst.  I used short bursts as well.

My hummingbird feeder was actually a battle zone.  One hummer had staked a claim and would chase off any other hummers that tried to invade the area.  Foreign hummers were attacked when they got close to the feeder.  Birds at the feeder would back out and check for danger for a split second and then return to the feeder or fly away.  

I used the fastest shutter speed on my camera - 1/8000 second to try to stop the tiny wings that beat 60 times a second. This fast shutter speed meant that I needed to make other compromises.  I used an aperture between  f 2.8 and f 3.5.  I had to up my ISO between 640 and 1000. My feeder has white flowers on the feeding ports.  I used these to set my exposure.  I increased the aperture until the flowers blinked  indicating overexposure and then backed off to the point where the blinking stopped.

My feeder has four feeding ports.  I could have closed three of them and forced the bird to eat from the port best suited to my photos.  I choose not to do this - my big camouflage  blind was enough change for today.  I set my initial focus on the port that was orientated correctly for my photos.

When a hummingbird appeared; I waited for it to feed at the proper port and attempted to focus on the point that it stopped when looking for danger.  This is harder than it sounds because it usually stayed there for a split second.  When I felt that I had achieved focus, I sprayed using as many frames per second as my camera could deliver. In between feedings, I reviewed the results of the previous burst.  I checked the exposure and made any adjustments I could in preparation for the next burst.  

When I decided I had enough images, I downloaded them and started my culling process with Breezebrowser.    I selected all images and evaluated each one in the Slideshow setting that only moves to the next image after the image on the screen has been rated.    The first evaluation  sorted the images into two groups - God Awful and shots with a Hummer.  40% were God Awful.  

The second pass was a more critical evaluation.  I compared 4 images at a time and selected those that had the eye and beak in sharp focus.  I compare 4 at a time because images that appear to be in focus might not be the sharpest example.  It's amazing how much two images taken a split second apart can vary.   I tried to eliminate 3 of the four being compared but sometimes eliminated all four and occasionally chose several.
The third pass was more subjective.  When I had several similar images from a single burst, I chose the one with the best wing placement.   The remaining images were the best from each burst that had produced sharp well exposed images.  These were the images that were placed into Lightroom.

Lightroom is nondestructive.  I cropped the images and adjusted the composition.  I adjusted highlights and shadows as needed.  Since all the images were taken in the same setting, I usually could sync an adjustment to many other images.  When the adjustments were complete I exported the images as JPEGs.  I used Breezebrowser to pick my favorite five.

I don't claim that these five shots are the ultimate Hummingbird photos.  They were the best I could do today using this setup.  Next time I can try something different to see if my results improve.  It isn't fun evaluating hundreds of shots.  If I learn that certain conditions cannot  produce a good photograph,  I can avoid them and concentrate on better opportunities.

I learned several things today.  I learned that blinds become sauna when they are on the deck in August.  I learned more about hummingbird behavior and got some practice focusing .  I learned that 1/8000 of a second isn't adequate to totally stop the wings.  I learned that the end of the beak also is in motion or at least often  appeared to be less sharp.  I learned that I don't  get a black background shooting in natural light.  I learned that ISO 1000 grain can be adequately reduced in Lightroom.   

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Backyard Hummingbirds

Nebraska is a poor place to photograph hummingbirds.  For the most part, we are only visited by a single species - the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.   The majority of hummingbirds that arrive in Nebraska,  stay a day or two and then depart for other locations.

I've been fortunate to be able to attract hummingbirds at all.  Truth be told, I stole mine from the neighbors.  I thought that putting up a feeder in my yard would attract a bird of my own.  But, the little birds are very  territorial and the bird next door now has to keep all other hummers away from my feeder too.  My feeder doubled his workload. 

These photos were taken with a 2 flash setup.  I used Einstein strobes, set to their lowest level.  I had too much ambient light to completely stop the wings.

This is my favorite shot from today.  I like the way that the wing on the right is twisted as the hummer makes a turn.

I didn't have many opportunities to photograph the male - he was too busy guarding the feeder to eat.

I liked the way that the natural background works in this shot.

Hummingbird Photography - Skill Trumps Cash

Hummingbirds are deceptively easy to photograph.  They will hover by a feeder in bright sunlight long enough for just about anyone to snap a couple of shots.  The market is saturated with excellent photos.  I have no illusion that the world needs any new photos from me this year. 
I photograph hummingbirds because I'm fascinated by their grace and beauty.  I relish the challenge.  When I get a good shot, I raise the bar and challenge myself to do better.  I'll stop when I start taking photos that cannot be improved.

Hummingbirds are deceptively difficult to photograph.   The birds are tiny - so tiny that it's difficult to make a photo large enough to show detail that is also completely in focus.  Depth of field is so shallow that the bird has to be perfectly still in order to focus.  When they aren't hovering, the hummers move very quickly.  The wings area problem because they beat 60 times a second.  The only way to stop the wings in with a very fast shutter or flash.  The only way to get the wings in an exact position is to take a lot of photos.  We are attracted to the hummingbirds iridescent color but this color only occurs when the light hits the feathers at a specific angle.

Problem solving in photography depends on skill and cash.  Skill trumps cash.  I've identified several budget levels that you should consider if you want to give hummingbird photography a try.

Entry Level SLR and entry level lens.  Find a feeder that attracts hummingbirds.  Increase the ISO on the camera so that you can use the highest shutter speed on the camera.  Get as close as can focus.  Move very slowly and you may be able to get a hungry hummer to come to a feeder next to your camera.  With enough practice, a $500 to $2000 investment can produce remarkable results.

Use all the techniques listed above.  A more expensive camera would give you more shutter speed and ISO options.  A more expensive lens would make a sharper photo, allow  you to move further away from the bird and you might be able to lower the ISO.  Purchase a tripod. With enough practice, a $2000 to 4000 investment can produce remarkable results.

Moderate with Flash
Add one or more speedlights that have adjustable power.  As you lower their power, the speed of the flash will increase.  If you can get the speed higher than 1/8000 second, you can stop the wings better than the camera shutter could.  Use manual settings on the camera and buy cheap radio controllers to fire the flashes.  With enough practice a $3000 to $5000 investment can produce remarkable results.

High End
Get the best camera your brand manufactures.  Get the best good long focal length lens you can afford. Buy 6 or more speed lights and the most dependable radio controllers you can find.  Purchase light stands and backgrounds to use with the lights.  Upgrade your  tripod. Travel to places that have an abundance of hummingbirds.  With enough practice a $10,000 to $50,000 investment can produce remarkable results.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Ghost in the Woods

My wife and I traveled along the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2007.  We stopped at the Jesse Brown cabin along the way.  I never intended to write about what I saw there, but I've been informed that it something that needs to be shared.

The first time I looked at this photo - the hair stood up on the back of my neck.  Susan and I had both felt there was something eerie about this location.  We were so spooked that we searched the area for signs of other people.  Even though we didn't see anyone, we felt like we were intruding and vulnerable so we left after taking a few photos. According to the data embedded in the photos, I only took photos for 2 minutes. 

Months later, I thought about making a print of the cabin, so I gave it increased scrutiny.  That's when I noticed a man in the photo  He is also in a second photo that was taken 32 seconds later.
If we hadn't searched for signs of another person, I would have assumed that I just didn't see him in the fog.   He was moving.  Over the years of nature photography, I've learned to notice moving things in front of my lens.  I would have noticed him.

Who is he.  A tourist would have a car in the lot - we were alone.  He didn't live there.  The cabin was built in 1840 - before the Civil War.  Jesse Brown and other tenant farmers lived there before the park was created.   It has been abandoned for years.

I've enlarged the figure as much as possible.  He is carrying something.  During the 32 seconds between photos, he has moved it from one shoulder to another.  I'm not sure what he is carrying.  The closer photo may show two legs over his shoulder.  I hope is isn't a dead person!.  He isn't dressed like a hunter.  It could also a little girl wearing a long dress. 

Many years ago, I met a European photographer who made frequent trips to America to photograph the Southwest.  He confided that he sometimes found images of native Americans in his photos.  He was convinced that they were ghosts from the past.  I listened politely and didn't believe a word of it.  Now, I'm not so sure.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite - No Thanks

Canon has a new top of the line speedlite.  It is slightly more powerful, has built-in radio control and works with on-camera menus if  you have a new Canon camera.  Based on the internet response, these units will be best sellers.

The euphoria is somewhat justified.  Digital Cameras have made multiple flash photography less difficult.  The internet has made it easier to learn how to control them well.

      1  Radio is more reliable.  Previous generations of Canon's top line speedlites used pulses of light to communicate their remotes.  Canon users have been begging for radio control for years. 
      2  The new 600EX-RT is only $100 more than the 580EX II and have radio control built in.  It costs over $200 to add a Pocket Wizard to the 580EX II so if you want radio control you are already saving over $100.

     3  The Pocket Wizard and 580EX II needed to be connected.  This added extra steps and weight and contributed to communication problems.

To sum it up, the 600EX-RT is cheaper, lighter, more powerful and more reliable than the flash it replaces.   

      What isn't there to like? 

             1  I no longer automatically assume that Canon products are developed with the photographer in mind.  It's  obvious that the 600EX-RTwas designed to put Pocket Wizard's share of the market dollars into Canon's wallets.  They are engineered to make every generation of Pocket Wizard obsolete.  Unfortunately, this attack on Pocket Wizard means that the new speedlites will not work as well with any of the older Canon cameras or flashes.  Canon cut off their nose to spite their face.

      2  Canon's previous speedlite - the 580EX II was an engineering disaster.  It leaked so much electromagnetic radiation other nearby devices were not able to use their assigned portion of the spectrum. 

            3  Many of the 580EX II speedlites had a manufacturing defect that caused them break when certain features were used.   Canon never took responsibility for this defect.  Hopefully the 600EX-RT is more reliable.
      4  Canon has a flat rate for may repairs regardless of the difficulty of the repair.  The 600EX-RT has more features to break. If the built-in radio transceiver develops problems, a Pocket Wizard would have been much cheaper.

Earlier this year, I purchased several used 550EX speedlites and Pocket Wizard Flex TT5 units to trigger them.  The 550EX is nearly as powerful as the 600EX-RT.  It doesn't leak electromagnetic radiation and is considerably cheaper.  Unlike the 600EX-RT, the 550EX works with all my Canon cameras.

Pocket Wizard is in serious trouble.  On one side they have big corporations like Canon trying to sabotage their market share.  On the other side, they have Chinese manufacturers making cheap copies of their products.

I hope that the 600EX-RT lives up to the hype.  Canon users have patiently waited for a better flash.  I'll wait a little longer.