Waterbirds are among my favorite subjects and, as often as not, the surface of the water itself becomes a major compositional element within the photo. Some photographers tend to shoot at a very low angle to show the bird at eye-level. In doing this, though, the surface of the water is lost, which is why I prefer to shoot at a slight downward angle . . . .
I love the colors of water and the features that form and travel across its surface. Waves, rings, and wakes add a level of energy and context to the avian subject. The color and surface texture of the water inform the viewer about the day the image was taken. The winter colors of the Willet below, for example, indicate the season, but the chaotic, deep blue surface of the water tells the viewer that this was a cold, clear, blustery day.
Water, of course, is charismatic enough to be more than just the setting and can become the subject itself. The raging torrent below beckons to the stunning mountains of the West. I wish we were there . . . .
Water is the driving force of all nature.—Leonardo da Vinci
Back when I was a geologist and in the field my eyes were almost always turned to the ground. I was looking for fossils, minerals, sedimentary structures—in short, anything that could tell me about the depositional setting of the rocks I was studying . . . .
Having an interest in the life sciences, though, I would from time to time notice a plant here or a lizard there. I would perhaps even make a mental note about field marks and look up the species in question once back in the museum or departmental library.
Back in those days, I carried either my Yashica Super 2000 (w/55mm f/2.8 ML Macro), until the Canon EOS 7D my most beloved camera, or a Contax RTS II (w/CZ 50mm f/1.4 Planar) 35mm film camera to document what I saw geologically in the field. Thinking back, it’s almost comical how little photographic firepower I carried into the field in those days: I might bring two or three rolls of 24- or 36-frame rolls of film!
At first, I was skeptical about the digital photography revolution, worried that digital cameras offered quantity and ease at the expense of quality. Now a digital convert, I’m armed with more equipment than I can carry at any one time. The current challenges are having the right lens at the ready for any given situation and making optimal use of each piece of equipment.
Although birds are my primary target, I am always looking for new things to photograph: plants, fungi, and vertebrate and invertebrate animals are all potential subjects. I scan the trees for squirrels, frogs, lizards, and snakes, jelly fungus and mushrooms; bromeliads and other epiphytes. I scan the sky for birds, bats, and insects, and the brush for what’s lurking there. I might even pull the ultra wide angle lens out of the bag to document the context of what I’m seeing, the habitat itself.
Every image is now a potential research project. Insects (that need identification) are perched on flowers (that need identification). Birds grab unfamiliar bugs, fish, and lizards—all these critters are crying out for study and identification. Now that the weather is getting nice again, I can’t wait to get out there, feel the stress of daily life melt away, and find out what’s going on!
In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Although we delight in getting properly exposed and sharply focused images of birds sitting innocuously on branches, we’re most excited to capture birds in epic battles with their prey! The Gulf Coast is an exceptional place to live if you’re interested in spotting and photographing birds grappling with fish, frogs, snakes, salamanders, and crayfish and dragonflies and a host of other invertebrates. In our photo presentation, Stalking the Hunters: Observing and Photographing Birds and Their Prey,we will focus on our adventures photographing birds hunting, fishing, and otherwise engaged in the struggle for existence (mostly) along the Gulf Coast. For logistical details, please visit the Houston Audubon Nature Photography Association (HANPA) site.
“To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.”—Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers
The best technique for shooting birds in flight (BIF) arguably involves spotting a bird at distance and then tracking it in the viewfinder until it fills a significant part of the frame. For this technique to be employed, the photographer must be able to predictably track the bird over a long distance without significant obstructions. A large number of birds following along a similar glide path is also helpful. Because of these requirements, getting BIF shots is highly dependent upon a special place.
East Beach, Galveston is such a place. Numerous shorebirds and waders typically fly parallel to the shore. Obstructions are few–mainly ships that appear in the background. The morning sun is at your back while you shoot toward the sea. And after a blue norther, with a cold wind in your face the place is . . . paradise.
The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides.–Jules Verne
During the summer in Gulf Coast Texas, when bird diversity is relatively low, there are generally lots of insects–especially dragonflies–to draw the photographer’s attention. Clearly dragonflies, although small, cannot be treated like typical macro subjects, at least most of the time. First of all, they are highly aware of their surroundings and sometimes won’t let you get close to them. Second, along the Gulf Coast they are often perched on emergent vegetation in alligator- and water moccasin-infested water, or chigger-infested grass.
So rather than use a lens requiring a close approach (the super sharp 100mm f/2.8L IS macro, for example), the question becomes which super telephoto is the best dragonfly lens? Further, is flash necessary or even best? Should the 1.4x teleconverter be used? What about extension tubes? With this many questions and permutations of possible combinations of equipment (plus field considerations), I’ve come nowhere near a definite conclusion, but at least I have identified some issues–and I’m excited about further experimentation!
Although I know that some photographers use extension tubes in this application, for the moment I’m taking them off the table primarily because these devices (hollow tubes inserted between the camera and lens that decrease the minimum focus distance while retaining most camera functions) significantly decrease the flexibility of the set-up. Extension tubes cost image brightness, slow autofocus (if they allow it to function at all), slightly shift the focal point of the lens, and degrade the ability to focus at a distance. I’m looking for a rig that will allow excellent captures of dragonflies while preserving my options should a bird or other animal suddenly appear at a larger distance.
That said, the different super telephotos I have access to (100-400mm, 300mm, 500mm; 600mm) have different minimum focus distances (MFD) and magnifications. Of these, the 100-400mm is definitely out: It is a versatile lens, but it just isn’t as sharp as the primes (fixed focal length lenses). The 300mm has the closest MFD (4.93 ft), but in my experience that is often irrelevant because the bug won’t let you get anywhere near that close.
On the other end of the scale, dragonflies will almost always let you get to the MFD for the 600mm (18.04 ft), but that’s pretty far away for such a small animal. Teleconverters do not affect MFD, but they soak up a little light and degrade sharpness (only slightly for 1.4x on a prime). So far, I have liked some shots taken with the 600mm (+1.4x TC). This is probably because of the number of opportunities I’ve been able to take with such a large MFD–I don’t risk trying to get too close and chase the subject away.
Of the three primes (with teleconverters attached) being discussed here, the 600mm should give the worst results on theoretical grounds. The ratio of focal length (the longer, the better) to MFD (the smaller, the better), is a way to think about this issue. The larger this ratio, the better because it expresses how much focal length “firepower” you have per separation distance. For the 300mm (+1.4x TC), the focal length/MFD ratio = 85 mm/ft. For the 600mm (+1.4x TC), focal length/MFD ratio = 47 mm/ft. The ratio for the 500mm has a value of 48 mm/ft, nearly the same as the 600mm. So if you could get close, the 300mm should be best–but often you can’t get that close. Compromise strikes again!
As far as flash is concerned, it seems to be primarily a matter of taste. Natural light, of course, looks more natural. The flash reveals fine details, especially in the shadows, sometimes not visible in natural light. Flash can sometimes create a magical, almost surreal effect as in the case of the Halloween Pennants above. One clear problem with the flash is the same as in the case of birds: the flash adds an extra catchlight in the eyes. Because dragonflies have large compound eyes, the effect can be pronounced.
So . . . what to do? For now, keep working, trying new combinations, and see if a clear choice emerges that preserves options and image quality. Finally, all this thought about dragonflies has clearly benefitted my bird photography in one way. I can now easily recognize all the common dragonflies around the places I normally shoot, and thus can put a technical name on some of the meals my beloved waders are enjoying!
“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” ― Henri Cartier-Bresson
I feel incredibly lucky to have a wife who shares my passion for nature and bird photography: not only for companionship in the field, but for constructive criticism, technical help, and tolerance for acquisition of expensive pieces of equipment. One frustration of having a photographer partner, however, has been having to share the “big” lens.
Buying the 500mm f/4L IS two years ago was a life-altering experience for us. Before that, we had to share the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS: a nice lens, but nowhere in the same league as the 500mm in terms of autofocus speed, sharpness, image quality, and reach. With a 1.4x teleconverter (not to mention the 1.6x crop sensor EOS 7D) our new 500mm set-up really expanded our capabilities and started to land us some really nice results. No wonder this is such a popular combination of equipment among serious amateurs and professionals.
That said, the 500mm rig is heavy and awkward, especially with tripod, Wimberley gimbal, flash and “Better Beamer” flash extender attached. Lugging it through the brush can be exhausting, especially if there are low-hanging branches or tangled ground cover. It also attracts attention from the public who feel compelled to comment about the size of your “camera.”
To remedy the problem of having to share the 500mm, we recently acquired a used 600mm f/4 IS from B&H in New York. My first impression is that the 600mm is heavy, heavy, heavy. In fairness, it is only about 3 pounds heavier than the 500mm, 11.8 versus 8.5 pounds–but heavy enough to cause the tripod legs (Gitzo GT3541XLS) to slip when only tightened to minimum non-slip tightness for the 500mm. The 600mm is also physically larger–I would say chunkier and more ungainly. The carbon-fiber hood is much larger (I worry how it will behave in a significant wind). If you are not in good shape, these differences are significant–especially after about a four-plus mile hike, which is our typical outing. Furthermore, because the 600mm calls for the P-50 Wimberley lens plate for the gimbal, rather than the smaller P-40, the 600mm is much harder to carry the way I carry the 500mm set-up, namely with the top of the tripod resting on my shoulder. The P-50 digs into my shoulder. If I slide the lens backwards, it feels quite off-balance. I soon discovered that a folded handkerchief under the shoulder of my shirt makes a world of difference. On the second trip I figured out a way to position the 600mm set-up on my shoulder (with handkerchief) without causing pain–at least for about three hours.
My first impression optically of the 600mm is that the extra 140mm of reach (with 1.4x TC) really tests your technique, especially when exhausted, a bit shaky, sweat is burning your eyes, and deer flies are chewing on your face. My sense is that the 600mm focuses slightly faster than our 500mm (which is odd given that the 600mm has bigger elements to move), but I don’t have actual measurements, it just feels like it is faster. The depth of field for the 600mm is noticeably less than the 500mm, which is expected as depth of field is a function of object distance, f-stop, and focal length. This generally means shooting at higher f-stops and slower shutter speeds. I am already automatically nudging up the f-stop on the 600mm above what I would shoot on the 500mm: f/7.1 versus f/6.3 for small, relatively close birds, for example.
In some places we shoot some birds that are quite tolerant of humans, Brazos Bend State Park, for example. Juvenile little Blue Herons and Ibises, when they are focused on tasty frogs and crawfish will essentially ignore humans. They rarely will approach closer than the minimum focus distance (MFD) for the 500mm (14.8 ft.), though. Not so the 600mm (18.0 ft.). On several occasions I found myself having to back up to keep these birds in focus. After shooting with the 500mm for about two years, I more or less automatically and subconsciously adjust the object distance to be outside the MFD. I’m sure with practice my brain will adjust to the 600mm.
As of this writing (after four one-half days in the field), I have not encountered a situation where the 600mm is superior to what the 500mm would have produced. That being said, I also haven’t yet encountered a situation where the 600mm would really be expected to shine: where the subject is about 5-15 feet beyond the ideal distance for the 500mm. The 600mm reminds that photography is all about trade-offs and compromises and diminishing returns. For an extra 100mm of reach there is a large financial cost as well as a physical one. My favorite summer subjects are hunting waders, and I really expect that throughout the next few months many opportunities will arise (such as hunting waders on the other side of a bayou) that will convince me of the correctness of acquiring a 600mm rather than another 500mm lens. Time will tell.
Thus far I have avoided discussing the technical aspects of maintaining a bird photography blog site for a number of reasons. I am definitely interested in neither computers nor the Internet per se, being far more excited about ornithology and photography, and only working my way through the technical computer aspects as needed. Teaching myself to use IBM PC’s in the early 1980’s with their ghastly manuals, monochromatic green screens, and volatile storage media (“floppy diskettes”) left an indelible dislike and mistrust of computers. Not being interested in or knowledgeable about computer science, I have usually deferred to Elisa, who is more of a digital native, on many computer matters.
One technical aspect of the blog that I have taken the slight lead on, however, has been in the area of Internet security. Because I live in a major city and work with the public, I see the world as a vaguely hostile spider web of mostly low quality encounters: spammers, panhandlers, handbill passers, junk mailers, telemarketers, litterbugs, maniac drivers, people who bring crying babies and loose dogs to bird sanctuaries, etc., are all around–and they are up to no good! And so it goes on the Internet. Spam and near-spam vastly outnumbers legitimate e-mails just as junk mail vastly outnumbers letters from beloved friends and relatives, hundreds or thousands to one. Thank heavens for robust spam filters!
One of the lowest quality encounters, of course, is the theft of your material. There is no question that if someone wants to steal your images (or flood your site with rubbish e-mails and thus steal your time), then they can. All you can really do is make your material a slightly harder target than the next guy’s. Some easy, common sense techniques to protect your images include:
1) Signing images in the file names (within the theme) as well as on the image itself (in Photoshop or similar program). I reject watermarks as image-destroyers, and adopt the signing philosophy of W. Majoros in his fabulous Secrets of Digital Bird Photography—namely, inconspiculously and stylishly, often blending in places, and in a shade of the local color.
2) Resampling, resizing and web-optimizing (in Photoshop or similar program). Making the file size from about 150 to 250 kB in size allows it to load fairly fast and isn’t high enough resolution to be much worth stealing. If someone wants a higher quality version, then they can ask.
3) Using a right-click disable plug-in. Only people with more than a modicum of computer ability can get around this.
4) Do not link to the image within the theme. This can render some right-click disable programs useless.
5) Copyright notices in every post and page and in the margins at least informs would-be thieves that you care about your material and may fight back.
6) Google yourself from time-to-time to see if anyone has stolen content.
7) Try to maintain a sense of humor.
“Nature photography is not easy. If it was, then everyone would do it.” –C. Cunningham
We are honored to have been invited to present Behind the Blogwith the Two Shutterbirds at the HANPA meeting at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary at 7:00 pm on April 17th. Find a description of the talk here. Hope to see you there!
Compositional rules apply to all the arts, and they are critical to producing interesting photographic images. Many rules exist, but a handful are simple and powerful. In this article, I discuss the rules I implement to produce my favorite images of nature.
It took me quite a while to try flash nature photography, and I am still a bit uneasy about my decision to do so. The decision: to use flash on a very limited basis, only when no other technical solution is possible, and when I am sure that the animals are not too upset by it. Some bird photographers consider flash absolutely necessary, and others vehemently reject it. I come down somewhere in the middle, but tending toward rejection in many cases.
To be clear, I know of no evidence that flash photography harms birds–if I did, I wouldn’t use flash. Period. We have all had our pictures taken with flash, and I know that I have not been injured by it. The question of whether or not birds (and other wildlife) are upset (i.e., stressed) by flash is a different matter, and I know that some species are clearly annoyed by it. Of course, many species of animals are stressed simply by humans being in the wild. In many cases, birds react no more strongly to the flash than they do when I move an arm or click the shutter. This is probably because I use the high-speed synchronized flash setting with a fast shutter speed (1/800-1/1250). This “fill flash” approach means that the flash output is much lower than it would be if the flash were used as the primary light source. In general, it seems that birds notice the flash less when there is a significant amount of ambient light–which makes sense.
I began using a ring flash for botanicals and macro. I shot a variety of herps with the flash on the high-speed synchronized setting and saw no reaction whatsoever . . . until I tried shooting an Ornate Box Turtle (Terrepene ornata). This fellow startled every time the flash went off: no more flash photos of ornate box turtles. Indeed, no more flash photography of any terrestrial chelonians (turtles and tortoises). Aquatic turtles apparently ignore flash.
When flash can be used ethically, it provides an incredible expansion of possibilities for bird photography. For example, It allows photography throughout the day, especially in dark or contrasty heavily-wooded areas–where many of the most exciting and challenging species are to be found. I no longer feel confined to the optimal shooting times in the early morning and late afternoon (the “golden hours”). On the down side, it is very easy to blow out whites or to make the bird appear as though it was suspended in a cave, surrounded by a severely underexposed background. Despite numerous technical challenges, I look forward to exploring the possibilities in the world of avian flash photography.
Common Loons are reported to be common along the Texas Gulf Coast during winter and spring, and we do see them from time to time. Often, however, they keep their distance from humans. At a few spots in the Galveston Bay area, loons are reported to come in fairly close to shore. We plan on visiting a few of these places before spring ends and the birds return north. This morning we went looking for loons along the Texas City Dike. From a photographic perspective, this is a location that is going to require some further study, as is usually the case when one first tries to shoot somewhere new.
We were thrilled to see about two dozen Common Loons, mostly along the South side of the dike–as one would expect after reading the literature. The problem is that the sun is in the southern sky at this time of year, and so most of the time the birds are back-lit. A few birds were present on the north side of the dike, but they stayed much further off shore. The reason is possibly that the water is too shallow for them close to the dike on the north side. Loons prefer clear deep water for fishing, and we observed numerous fish being taken by these submarine hunters.
On this trip, we tried our usual tripod techniques as well as using our car as a blind while driving down the dike (a method often recommended for this site), trying to anticipate where the birds would surface next. I did notice distinct patterns of loon behavior relative to differences in water surface texture, no doubt reflecting water depth and currents. The loons were also fairly consistent in the amount of time submerged/distance travelled underwater. In the future, I hope I can become better at connecting water texture and loon behavior so as to predict more precisely where these fascinating creatures will next surface after diving. Can’t wait to get out there looking for loons again: Offatts Bayou is next on the itinerary!