Monday, March 18, 2013

March Maddness on the Platte River

Each March, hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes travel to a small stretch of the Platte River in central Nebraska.  During their Spring Break, they eat, drink and party before they continue their long flight north.

I enjoy their dances.  Sometimes even the most awesome footwork on the dance floor won't attract a female.

The women are impressed by any guy that can toss a corn stalk and jump up with outstretched wings before the stalk lands.

The One That Got Away

 I have attended many air shows but have never seen any performance to equal the flying demonstration of the Northern Harrier I watched this weekend.  It was flying very low over thick grass and weeds that were about 3 feet tall.  It flew very slow and came to a complete stop at times.  Occasionally it would drop down into the vegetation.  Unfortunately, It was an unsuccessful hunt.

I wasn't totally successful in my attempt to photograph it either.  I parked along the side of the road and photographed from the open window.  The Northern Harrier is a small hawk to start with and it was many yards out in the field.  I was using a Canon 1D Mark IV with an 800mm lens coupled with a 1.4x extender.  The images above and below represent between 1/4 and 1/8 of the original image.

This setting had the potential for a prize winning photograph.  I had a great subject that was exhibiting interesting behavior.   I have years of experience with super telephotos.   I had sufficient light.  The 800mm lens is able to optically shrink the distance between the camera and subject.  The 1D Mark IV  is capable of focusing at f8.  It doesn't get much better than this.  What else could I have wanted?

I had too much hot air between me and the Harrier. The heat causes distortion.  It wasn't possible to achieve the necessary sharpness without moving closer.  I couldn't move closer to it so I needed the Harrier to move in my direction.  It didn't.

The Northern Harrier is an experienced hunter and has mastered flight.  I'm sure that it had captured a meal before the day was over.  I know from experience that if I get this close to a great photo enough times, sooner or later my subject will be in the right place at the right time.  If I'm ready I'll be rewarded with a great image.  In the meantime, I'll enjoy my time with nature and the privilege of watching animals in the wild.

Monday, March 4, 2013

A Beautiful Day

You might look at this sunrise photo and feel that I used too much saturation  in Photoshop.  That isn't true.  Even a mediocre sunrise can look spectacular through a super-telephoto lens.  It allows the photographer to focus on a tiny bit of sky with the best color.

This Bald Eagle wasn't going to take any chances.  He was in a tree near the road.  I had less than a second to stop my vehicle and raise my camera to my eye before he had flown away.

The few Sandhill Cranes I saw today were far from the road.   If I were in the blind on the left side of this photo, I would have a better photo.  The cranes have hundreds of square miles to search for food so you could sit in a blind all day without a crane for miles.  You have a better chance in the evening if you rent a blind near the river.  The few blinds near the river cost hundreds of dollars to rent and the cranes often arrive after dark and leave before sunrise. 

The Crane Migration has Started

I drove over 300 miles yesterday to photograph migrating sand hill cranes.  My trip was at least a week too soon.  The few live cranes I saw were far in the distance.  My final stop was the Crane Trust's Nebraska Nature & Visitor Center near Grand Island  I should have gone there first.  There were cranes everywhere.  There were metal crane sculptures at the entrance.  There were stuffed cranes in glass cases, crane bean bags, crane cups, crane paintings, crane books and crane photos.    

Some of the photos were amazing.   Two of them caught my eye.  One was a crane flying at dusk.   The other was of several cranes silhouetted against the moon.  This second photo made me smile.  It reminded me of a similar photo that I entered in my first photo contest.
The time was many years ago and the place was Monterey California.  There was an interesting tree a few blocks from our apartment.   Every time I passed it I knew that it belonged in a photo.    I took a few photos of it silhouetted against the sky and realized that this amazing tree was surrounded by too much clutter.  Successful photography requires patience.  I kept my eye on an interesting tree in Monterey, waiting for the perfect moment.  It never came.   A year later, I photographed the full moon and created an image that looked like nearly every photo of the moon.  Inspiration struck in the darkroom.  I exposed the Alabama moon on my paper, changed the negative and then exposed the California tree. When I entered my very first photo contest, I used this image.  It won Best of Show.

It isn’t easy to photograph an object silhouetted against the moon without resorting to creative darkroom techniques or Photoshop.  The earth rotates so the moon a moving target.    You need a clear field of view in front of the silhouetted object – sometimes a mile or more.  The sky behind the object needs to be clear from the earth to the moon.  While much of of this can be planned in advance, it remains a challenge.

It’s nearly impossible to plan the silhouette of an object in the sky against the moon.  It has to be directly between you and the moon.  The odds of this happening are small so patience and luck is required.  Yesterday was my lucky day!  The sky was clear, the moon was out and geese were flying everywhere.  All I needed to do was to put my camera on a tripod, focus on the moon and wait for the geese to be in the correct position.

The results were disappointing.  Both the moon and the geese were sharp to my naked eye.  The camera saw a sharp moon but the geese were out of focus.  I changed my technique to focus on the geese instead of the moon.  I liked the results with sharp geese better than those with out of focus geese.  The scene with an out of focus moon is more believable.  With the moon and focus under control, I could concentrate on the pattern of groups of geese and the position of their wings.  These images were improved but not very exciting.

I watched a person judge a photo contest a few years ago.  He was trained by the Photographic Society of America.  He had a system to score each photo based on points awarded for each objective criteria.  The photo of the silhouetted cranes would have scored extremely well using his system.  It was sharp, interesting and well composed.  The photo of the crane flying at dusk would have scored near the bottom.  It was dark, grainy and blurred
I wasn’t judging a photo contest, but I scored the two images in another way.  I rejected the composite with cranes in front of the moon because I knew that it was impossible.  Its flaws ruined it for me.  I purchased the crane flying at dusk - It was the cover of a book - On Ancient Wings by Michael Forsberg.  The image is dark, grainy and blurred.  I’ve photographed cranes on cold dark mornings.  This photo had all the elements necessary to take me back to the sights and sounds of that place and time.