Not knowing anything is the sweetest life. –Sophocles
Last night the Moon passed through the Earth’s shadow. As complete astrophotography neophytes armed with the wrong equipment and only the basic principles of photography, we parked our photo-birding super-telephoto rigs in the driveway and attempted to document the event . . . .
As the eclipse progressed and the moon darkened, we were forced to move from the suite of familiar camera settings that could possibly be used in normal (i.e., bird) photography into the realm of madness. Goaded by Elisa, eyes like burning coals in the darkness, to ever higher ISOs and absurdly low shutter speeds, I barreled into the night until a case of warbler- . . .er, lunar neck, shut down the operation. Transit of Mercury here we come.
I can’t even say the word “titmouse” without giggling like a schoolgirl ee hee! Ee hee hee hee hee hee!–Homer Simpson
Nothing messes up a bird photo more thoroughly than a feeder being present in the shot. A fairly straightforward solution to this problem is to build your own feeders out of attractive pieces of found wood.
As I’ve been clearing brush, I’ve made a point of setting aside particularly nice pieces of deadfall, mostly Arizona sycamore logs. Knots, rotted out cavities, woodpecker holes and granaries all make for visual interest.
The biggest problem with bird feeders still remains: mammalian pests. The feeders I have built with found wood are set up on 3 5/8” bird feeder posts. One anti-squirrel/raccoon baffle I have foils chipmunks and coatis. I watched a coati (from no more than ten feet away!) tear down a feeder I had just built on a post without a baffle. Can’t skimp on baffles: any but the expensive metal kind will be torn up in a heart-beat out here in the Arizona sticks!
Nothing’s beautiful from every point of view. –Horace
From time to time, I like to revisit old work and give it a tune-up. Perspective in Nature Photography was one of the weaker past offerings that I have polished and expanded in light of greater knowledge and experience.
In this expanded article, I attempt to tackle the topic of perspective from several possible angles. Ha! I offer a few tips and techniques and opine and philosophize about a few aesthetic matters. Enjoy!
Contrast is what makes photography interesting. –Conrad Hall
Many consider the complete isolation of the subject to be an ideal in photography. This is often accomplished by photographing the subject against a contrasting, clutter-free backdrop using a shallow depth of field. Ironically, the bridge at Fiorenza Park in southwest Houston allows this sort of image to be taken in several different ways. And depending on the direction you shoot near the bridge, you can capture portraits of birds with remarkably clean backgrounds in a variety of colors.
Cormorants and a Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Green Heron, and a Great Blue Heron typically fish around the bridge, and are about the only subjects you’ll find in this area. The waders stand on the bridge and pluck fish from the water. Sometimes they turn around and eat the fish while standing on the bridge. Neotropic Cormorants (and a few Double-crested Cormorants in winter) fish from the water, often emerging with a wriggling fish in their beaks . . . .
I should note that photographing around the bridge presents a number of challenges in addition to the usual ones nature photographers face. Heavy human foot traffic often spooks the birds–but they return quickly. The bridge itself with its white hand railings is an eyesore that you definitely want to keep out of your shots. Because the cormorants often swim beneath the bridge, the action switches from one side to the other. Using a ground pod clearly helps to photographically isolate the birds, but greatly limits mobility leading to missed opportunities when the action shifts to the other side of the bridge. Finally, there is no shade for a photographer working the bridge. I generally shoot in the early morning before it gets too hot, so I will stand on the east side of the bridge with the sun at my back.
In general, a photographer has a number of choices regarding the bridge. They can position themselves on the sidewalk, or north or south of it. If you stand on the sidewalk when a wader grabs a fish and turns around to eat it, you can capture images like the one immediately above. Shooting slightly downward from a tripod, the sidewalk cement makes a uniform backdrop slightly darker than the bird. Shooting from the sidewalk or south of it allows you to capture images like the others in this post.
Sometimes the waders will have shaded or unshaded water behind them leading to dark green or blue backgrounds. I generally photograph cormorants fishing on the south side of bridge form a standing or kneeling posture and capture a wavy background. From a ground pod, you can achieve maximum isolation of the birds, but with the opportunity cost noted above. If you stand north of the bridge you will generally be at a disadvantage–with one exception. When birds fish on the north side they are very close close to the shore, allowing for some really tight shots . . . .
Despite being crowded, Fiorenza Park is a nice, easy get-away for Houston bird photographers. And there are a number of opportunities that would be difficult to realize elsewhere. I have already discussed some of the weird invasive species that can be observed here in previous posts. The most appealing opportunities, though, are offered by a hill that overlooks the bayou connecting the north and south lakes. A small road leads to within yards of where to stand for optimum shooting on the hill-top—talk about your low-energy photo-birding!
Cormorants can be seen flying from the south lake and along this bayou carrying nesting materials and fish to small islands in the north lake (and back again empty handed, so to speak). Sometimes the birds fly almost at eye-level as seen from the hill. Besides cormorants, waders sometimes fly along the same path. The hill-top also allows the photographer to survey most of the bayou where waders can be seen hunting.
I struggled initially with this spot because the birds typically come in too fast for my normal (albeit unusual) photographic technique: I pick my shots and shoot one frame at a time (with autofocus confirmation). My rationale for this is three-fold. If I am shooting with flash, the flash capacitor can’t recharge fast enough to keep up with a high frame rate. Also, the typical machine gun approach is hell on shutters. This is not so much of a problem with the 7DII, which is rated for 200k actuations, but the old 7D had a life expectancy of only 100k shots. A burned-out shutter is no fun right in the middle of shoot. Just firing away in high-speed mode also means weeding a bunch of junk shots, which is also no fun.
For this locale, I switched to a more typical bird-in-flight (BIF) methodology: I just blaze away in high-speed AI servo (without autofocus confirmation or flash) with image stabilizer in panning mode, and I pick out the goodies from a bunch of baddies. It definitely works better than my initial conservative approach.
Despite the park appearing somewhat sterile compared with, say, Brazos Bend State Park or many of the local national wildlife refuges, Great Blue, Little Blue, and Tricolored Herons and Snowy and Great Egrets enjoy great hunting success along the Fiorenza bayou. South American armored catfish are often taken, and I have heard anecdotal reports of Tilapia, (a South American invasive cichlid) also being grabbed.
Having the camera in the BIF mode described above had one unpredicted benefit in the case of the image below. I saw the bird strike and just blazed away. I never actually saw what the bird had until I chimped for exposure ex post facto. According to the frame rate, the bird was in contact with the snake for about 4-tenths of a second in total. The snake was wound around the bird’s beak for about 2-tenths of a second when the bird dumped the snake. According to long-time friend and herpetologist D.S. who identified the snake for me, the diamondback watersnake is an extremely aggressive fast-biter when cornered or attacked. I can vouch for this expert assessment: This bird wanted no part of that snake once it figured out what it was dealing with.
I wanted to know the name of every stone and flower and insect and bird and beast. I wanted to know where it got its color, where it got its life – but there was no one to tell me.–George Washington Carver
Perhaps it’s ironic to start thinking about insects the week of the first blue norther in Texas, but I have to act on ideas when I get them!
We tend to pay close attention to insects in the field because of the vital connection they have to birds: Insects are a major part of the diets of many birds. And we love documenting birds interacting with specific, identifiable prey! But insects are, of course, interesting in and of themselves.
Back when Elisa was in graduate school, we built a fine collection of insects for her course work. That collection is now on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Soon after building that collection, though, we decided never to harm another wild creature if we could help it.
Since then, we have tried to capture insects through close-up and macrophotography in our travels to photograph birds. As anyone who has ever attempted such a thing knows, this can be a challenge—especially if one adheres strictly to the highest standards of ethical behavior.
In writing this post I am (nearly) violating one of my cardinal rules, one that I acquired from one of my finest teachers, Dr. R. R. West. He said often: “Don’t tell me what you are going to do, tell me what you have done.” Good advice. In that vein, we have designed and started to build a mobile system for collecting, photographing, and releasing insects unharmed back into to the wild. Stay tuned for the results!
If they play dirty, then you play dirty. –Lawrence Taylor
It’s an extremely interesting time to visit the Texas Gulf Coast these days. The fall shorebird migration is in full swing, and there is still plenty of family life to observe. Identifying some birds can be a bit of a challenge, though, as some species are showing immature, breeding, and non-breeding plumages simultaneously.
Last month, it was hard to decide if some of the birds were stragglers on their way north, or if they were planning on sticking around. But by now it’s clearly too late to be moving north, and many of the birds that breed here, like the Least Terns, are on their second brood. I guess I’ve exchanged one confusion for another!
Ever since reading Bill Majoros’ Secrets of Digital Bird Photography, I’ve had shooting from a ground pod in the back of my mind. A ground pod is a dish-like affair that sits right on the ground and serves as a support for your tripod mount. Using a ground pod means, for the photographer, lying down on the ground. Many prefer the look of bird photos shot from as low an angle as possible to get, ironically, a bird’s eye view. Such a low angle makes the foreground and background disappear and gives the impression of a very narrow depth of field, regardless of f-stop, thus isolating the subject. My desire to give a ground pod a try was given another nudge by a nice talk on this subject by Tim Timmis that Elisa and I saw at the Houston Audubon Nature Photography Association meeting last May.
As in all things photographic, shooting from a ground pod is a compromise. Use of a ground pod is also a highly specialized technique. This device can only work on level ground, free of any obstructions. A ground pod is therefore impractical in most of the places we normally shoot, like Brazos Bend State Park.
Ground pods will also not work well if the photographer needs to react to a birds moving around a lot or approaching from a variety of heights and directions. A stable place from which birds come and go is therefore needed. On certain beaches and tidal mudflats, then, the ground pod will work admirably for shorebirds and water birds—birds that tend to stick consistently to a choice patch of beach.
A photographer using a ground pod will also typically get filthy, and dirt, mud, and water can very easily be transferred to equipment—a big concern if you’re not using professional-grade equipment. Shooting from such a low angle also causes all the context of the bird to disappear in a dreamy haze, so you will lose all or most of the ecological information in the shot. But what context you fail to capture in the shot, you can bring back on your clothes!
My usual response to the multiple considerations and compromises on the beach is to shoot shorebird photos from my knees. A recent mishap has made ground pod shooting more likely, though. Through over-tightening, I broke the threads of the bolt that controls the stiffness of the pan control on my Wimberley II gimbal tripod mount. I soon realized that I could permanently mount the broken gimbal on our ground pod, a NatureScapes Skimmer Ground Pod II, because panning can be achieved by turning the whole apparatus.
Having to move a gimbal from a tripod to ground pod is an odious operation and not recommended in the field given that such mounts are prima donnas as regards fine adjustments of the center bolt, and you have to worry about getting grit in the threads. Now, with a new gimbal mounted on my tripod and the old, broken gimbal on the ground pod, I’m ready for action on the beach—I just have to talk myself into schlepping all those contraptions around!
Lockwood, Mark W., and Brush Freeman. 2014. The Texas Ornithological Society Handbook of Texas Birds. Texas A&M University Press. 403p.
Nostalgia is not what it used to be.–Simone Signoret
My father had an interest in German optics and occasionally used a twin-lens medium format Rolleiflex with Carl Zeiss lenses at work. He also had a Rollei SL35 (with Schneider-Kreuznach glass) and a Leica R8 of his own. I inherited his camera equipment last year. A few years ago, Elisa also inherited some nice old Canon equipment from her grandfather. With my collection of old Contax/Yashica stuff, we now have access to a variety of quality glass from the 70’s through the present available for reversed-lens work.
Oklahoma artist Thomas Shahan has achieved some spectacular results with pretty modest equipment, namely a Pentax DSLR and old manual focus lenses mounted in reverse on extension tubes for macrophotography. Inspired by Shahan’s work, I’ve started experimenting with old glass, rigged for macro.
My recent tentative macrophotography experiments have involved reversing old lenses with an adapter, Fotodiox or Promaster. These adapters are available from Amazon for about ten bucks. This reversal process essentially turns a short focal length lens (in the normal range) into a powerful macro lens.
Disappointingly, my dad’s Leica 90mm f/2 Summicron-R will not form a focused image on a Canon EOS 7DII when reversed. The focal length is likely too long. In contrast, my old Contax/Yashica-mount Carl Ziess (Japan) 50mm f/1.4 Planar from the 90’s worked very well reversed (for both Elisa and me). Likewise, I had Elisa’s grandfather’s Canon FL 55mm f/1.2 from the 70’s taking pretty nice images in a matter of minutes—but the Planar has a slightly greater depth of field. Incidentally, along the way I thought I had a brilliant idea by buying an inexpensive ($35) LED video lighting panel for outdoor macro work, but it simply is not bright enough. I went back to flash.
As an informal comparison, I also shot some images of similar-sized objects (from a few millimeters to just under a centimeter) under identical conditions with our 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro plus 12mm extension tube II. The 100mm Macro is, of course, easier to use with autofocus and metering. My sense is that the Planar, despite being almost twenty five years old is very sharp and has better color than the 100mm f/2.8 L Canon Macro. It also produces a dreamy, Leica-like quality not present in any of the other lenses.
On the other hand, the Canon 100mm is a really nice lens and a real workhorse with great functionality over a range of sizes and distances. If I needed to get a shot, it’s what I would reach for. The Planar, however, seems to have potential for making some really gorgeous images, albeit with lots of effort and trial and error. The results with the Planar were encouraging enough for me to order a Fotodiox reverse adapter for my dad’s old Rollei Schneider 50mm f/1.8 from the 70’s. We’ll see.
In our throw away society, it’s nice to find a way to use and derive unique benefit from some “obsolete” technology. Can’t wait for the warm buggy and flowery Texas weather! With lots of practice I hope I can at least get in the same ball park as Mr. Shahan.
A cloudy day or a little sunshine have as great an influence on many constitutions as the most recent blessings or misfortunes.–Joseph Addison
I am sometimes surprised by which images turn out and which don’t. Light is magic, and photography is all about light. By magic I mean inexplicable—or at least very hard to explain in the context of how a camera records light. Case in point: we were recently attempting to photograph Sandhill Cranes in a field on Galveston Island. It was a clear, beautiful day, and I had a distant but unobstructed view of the birds. I wasn’t expecting National Geographic results because the cranes were too far away, but shot after shot was utter garbage.
The humidity was low (which was good), but it was windy (which was bad). I could tell that the UV index was high (I got a sunburn through sunscreen), and I just couldn’t achieve focus using autofocus or manual focus. I first tried bracing the lens on a fence post with image stabilization turned on, then off. When that failed, I returned to best practices: tripod with cable release. But still, everything farther than about ten yards away was blurry and washed out. Was invisible (to the unaided eye) turbulence creating some sort of mirage-like effect? I turned the camera on and off—even switched bodies thinking that there was a malfunction. Somehow, conditions simply weren’t right for photography—black magic. The next day I looked like W. C. Fields with windburn, sunburn, and a bar tan.
Other days, with fog or rain or lots of gray gloomy clouds, strangely, and against all odds, some nice images can be captured—white magic. I know that some photographers and viewers even prefer the look of results achieved during these dark, gloomy overcast days. All the images in this post were taken on a road trip to South Texas a few years ago. In fact, all were taken on the same day, except the kingfisher. And it was a winter like this one, with lots of rain and clouds and fog and mist and cursing by yours truly.
Of course, these dark days test your skills. To keep ISO below 800 for reasonable image quality means shooting at ridiculously slow shutter speeds (like 1/80 to 1/320) and breaking the 1/f shutter speed rule that I like to follow–even on a tripod with cable release. At these slow speeds, you’re in mirror-slap territory, especially on a tripod, and any puff of wind or contact with the gear can have deleterious effects. And patience is required to capture even the hint of a catchlight, an important aspect of wildlife photography.
Finally, because I pursue this hobby for personal growth and physical and mental health, seeing sunlight is so important. Like most Americans I suspect that I am Vitamin D deficient due to being cooped up so much at work. On these gray days, the spirits lift during an occasional sunbreak. The image of the Common Yellowthroat below was happily captured at the end of a gloomy, misty day just as the clouds parted (finally!) at dusk.
Pick a flower on Earth and you move the farthest star.–Paul Dirac
We’ve gotten into the habit of stopping at the Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary (QNBS) on the way back from birding Bryan Beach and the lagoons behind—even outside the times of spring and fall migration, when it’s unlikely that there will be many birds around. I am interested in having a feel for Gulf Coast migrant traps year-round. These migrant traps are, to my mind, some of the most precious natural resources along the Gulf Coast. Likely the first major trip we’ll take upon retirement will be an April coastal road trip from Dauphin Island, Alabama to Paradise Pond, Texas hitting as many migrant traps as possible. On our last trip to Quintana, though, we saw only Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Brown Thrasher, and an Eastern Phoebe in the sanctuary itself.
The Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and the Town of Quintana, the entities that maintain the QNBS, have planted a number of native and non-native nectar plants for birds, hummingbirds in particular. The taxonomic diversity of nectar plants insures that blooms will be present when the birds, mostly Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, pass through in spring (March, April, and into May) and late summer (August and September). The plants also attract insects which serve as food for insectivorous birds like warblers, tanagers, vireos, and flycatchers. I much prefer the aesthetics of food plants, even if they are not native, to feeders. What could be better than a sighting or an image of a hummingbird or oriole drinking nectar from a flower, especially a native flower? These food plants are part of chain of resources that allow the movement of birds back and forth between the Neotropics and North America . . . they literally reach out and touch the entire biosphere of the Americas . . . .
Not having many birds around allows me to focus on my neophyte macrophotography skills. Blooms can be beautiful, but clearly the presence of an insect adds a lot to any flower image. No matter how spectacular the bloom my eye is always drawn to the bug, no matter how drab or nondescript (as in the shrimp plant above).
In conclusion, one piece of advice for budding flower photographers: get a macro ring flash. Are you reading this, MP? The naturalist at the Red Slough Wildlife Management Area (southeast Oklahoma), David Arbour, was kind enough to take us on birding tour of the refuge several years ago and said that flash was not only helpful, but necessary for macrophotography. After several years in the field since then, I completely agree.
He that will enjoy the brightness of sunshine, must quit the coolness of the shade.–Samuel Johnson
In the summer, especially after about 9:30 am, it’s generally way too bright to do much good photo-birding (except maybe with some fill-flash), so I like to wander off into a grassy area and take advantage of the fireball in the sky and shoot some macro. Shooting with apertures smaller than f/11 requires intense light, so rather than being an obstacle to overcome, the blistering summer sun is actually a help.
Birds of the grasslands are notoriously uncooperative photographic subjects, so I am used to coming away from prairies empty-handed as far as bird photos are concerned. Further, I have learned to be satisfied with other kinds of images from this habitat. I know that some can entertain themselves by shooting wildflowers, and I can too for a while, but I need to see an animal now and again to stay interested for more than an hour or two.
Because the majority of wildflowers are yellow or white (I think), I will often times make a special effort to track down and identify plants with blooms of different colors. Purples, oranges, and reds are my favorites because of the richness of the images they can provide. The Western Wallflower below, for example, attracted my attention from the road while driving through Rocky Mountain National Park. This plant produces a spectacular multicolored bloom to which no mere photo can really do justice.
Although we can get away from the Texas Gulf Coast for a few days now and again during the summer, the harsh reality its that we are stuck here most of the time. The Texas Gulf Coast summer is a nice mix of hurricanes, blistering sun and drought, and floods. And staying happy in the field at this time of year requires flexibility, a sense of humor, and the capacity to remain interested in a wide variety of photographic subjects—many times not including birds.
Although any break from work is welcome, spring break is almost always my most problematic free time. I want to make the best of any opportunity, but man and mother nature seldom co-operate at this time of year. Coming in the middle of March, spring break is just a bit too early for big-time migrant action, and the weather is iffy to say the least. This winter, with clouds streaming in from the Pacific nearly all the time, has been especially vexing. Furthermore, the Texas Coast (where I really want to be) is cluttered with teeny-boppers—and the parks everywhere are loaded with noisy school-age children who should be at home in their rooms silently studying McGuffey Readers.
Time off with bad weather can lead to lapses into unproductively, so I have tried to take the gloom as an opportunity to get some practice shooting hunting waders in low light. Who knows, I may find myself under similar optical conditions in Hawaii or Olympic National Park some day, and the practice may pay off.
Like most bird photography, shooting hunting scenes is best accomplished on a bright, clear morning before about 10 am. Ideally one would have a thin veil of cirrus clouds to keep the whites from being too much of an overexposure problem (while I’m wishing!). For hunting, I like to keep the shutter speed well above 1/1000, the ISO below 800 (crop sensors are noisy), and the aperture around f/7.1 (waders are big birds). Alas, such a combination of settings has generally not been possible for months. The setting information on the above two shots indicates the recent realities.
Rarely, there have been a few sunbreaks (it’s so bad I’m using Pacific Northwest lingo!) lasting from a few minutes to a few hours. Of course, being in the right spot with a bird in the viewfinder at the precise moment when a few rays of sunlight come streaming onto your subject is like winning the lottery. But you can’t win if you don’t play!
Expectation is the mother of all frustration.—Antonio Banderas