Tools and Techniques

My Photographic New Year’s Resolutions

Osprey at Indian Point Park, Corpus Christi, Texas
Osprey with Fish at Indian Point Park, Corpus Christi, Texas. Osprey don’t frequent places I normally shoot, but they are fairly common in some nearby areas in winter. Expanding into adjacent areas will certainly expand the diversity of species encountered and photographed.

Over Christmas break and into the new year I have been reviewing my collection of images and deleting clunkers. In addition to freeing valuable hard drive space, this process has been educational. It has also made it possible to set new goals and standards for my photographic work.  Addressing defects in the collection has lead to these new resolutions:

1) I will work harder at having the right lens at hand more often. Many of the clunkers need not have been so. The biggest clunker-maker is trying to use a telephoto in place of a macro. Yes, it is technically possible to take a close-up with a 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L that resembles a macro shot taken with a 100mm macro f/2.8L. The former, however, is a poor substitute that will invariably wind up being deleted.

2) I won’t  take pictures that I know won’t turn out. The laws of physics dictate that if a bird is too far away or if the light is wrong it is pointless to take the shot, not matter how rare the species or how interesting the behavior.

3) I will weed images immediately after the shoot. Digital photography makes taking photos easy. Without diligent and serious-minded weeding, astronomical numbers build up on the computer.

4) I will endeavor to be more adventurous in choice of shooting location. It’s tempting to return to Brazos Bend State Park and Galveston’s East Beach again and again because I know that I will get some good shots. I have enough shots of Blue-winged Teal, Sanderlings, and American Coots, though!

Digitalis at Olympic National Park, Washington
Digitalis purpurea (Common Foxglove) at Olympic National Park, Washington: a very pretty garden escapee (i.e., alien invasive weed). Sometimes you need a macro lens. Hand-held, 100mm macro f/2.8L IS USM.

© 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.


Tracking Swimming Birds: Slow-motion In-flight Technique

Male Green-winged Teal at Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas
Floating Peacefully: Male Green-winged Teal in the freshwater channel, Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas. Ring-shaped ripples behind indicate that the bird was not swimming.

We recently spent three days birding with friends along the Coastal Bend, a great place to practice the art of tracking swimming/paddling birds. Some of the less timid species of ducks and other waterbirds will sit calmly on the surface of the water as a photographer approaches. Most species, though, will slowly begin to paddle away as humans approach. Some, like Buffleheads, will make a bee-line to the opposite shore! It’s easy to tell photos of paddling birds from those of stationary ones: a v-shaped wake spreads out behind the paddlers, whereas stationary floating birds are generally surrounded by a smooth surface or ring-shaped ripples. There is no question about it–the latter is much easier to capture.

Male Greater Scaup at Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas
Gliding Past: Male Lesser Scaup in the freshwater channel, Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas.

For paddling birds, I utilize a technique similar to the one I use to capture birds in flight. With tripod set as low as practicable given vegetation along the shore, and IS set to Mode 2, I pan as smoothly as possible snapping images along the way. A moving target means changing optical conditions–which means that frequent chimping (checking images) and tinkering with exposure compensation are often necessary. While not as technically challenging as capturing birds in flight, there is considerable satisfaction in getting great shots of swimming birds, even though probably not one viewer in hundreds looks closely enough to perceive the
difference . . . But I know it took a bit of extra effort to get the shot!

Female Bufflehead at Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas.
Steaming Past! This female Bufflehead wanted no part of humans! No wonder. Note the crescent-shaped mound of water in front of the bird–she was paddling hard! Photo taken at the freshwater channel, Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas.

 © 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Photographing Birds in Flight: A Challenge

I once read a criticism of bird photographers that went something like this: most of the bird photos out there are of birds sitting on branches or on the ground. Since birds spend most of their time flying, why aren’t there more photos of birds in flight? My first reaction was: here is a person who knows neither birds nor photography. The exact percentage of time many species of birds spend in the air is not known. However, with the exceptions of some pelagic birds (e.g., frigate birds), Common Swifts (famously), and some other birds during migration, many birds do not spend most of the time in the air. Hummingbirds, for example, have been estimated to spend about 75-80% of their time perched. Furthermore, getting a shot of a bird in the air is a major technical challenge–not something the average person with a point-and-shoot is going to be able to do.

Even slow-moving birds are extremely fast by human standards, and their movements can seem erratic. Lucky shots excepted, the best hope for getting birds in flight (BIF) is to find a spot where birds frequently fly past and try to anticipate their motion along a glide path. Shorebirds, for example, often congregate in large groups along the strand line–and may remain there for hours unless disturbed. Individuals will come and go for their own reasons, but the photographer at least knows the starting or ending point of the bird’s motion.

Brown Pelican in flight over Galveston Bay
Brown Pelican in Flight over Galveston Bay. Pelicans are enjoyable to photograph in flight. They often soar close to the surface of the water. Sometimes they will climb to height and plunge vertically after fish in spectacular fashion. I suspect that pterodactyloid pterosaurs, like Pteranodonmust have looked rather pelican-like as they soared over the Western Interior Seaway of North America during the Cretaceous Period. For this shot, I anticipated the bird’s flight path as best I could and started shooting when it entered the frame. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4 IS USM (+1.4x TC): f/7.1, ISO 500, 1/2500, exposure bias -0.33, aperture priority; spot metering

Although I am still perfecting my technique, I have noticed a few things. It seems that there are really only two techniques that work consistently for capturing a BIF, given that a birdy spot has been identified and the photographer has a good sense of how the subjects will, in general, be moving. It seems that the shooter could either track the BIF by panning as it moves in from a distance or point the camera along the anticipated flight path and start shooting when the bird enters the frame. Of course, both of these approaches have built-in technical challenges. The problem with waiting for a bird to enter the frame and then shoot is reaction time–and as I age, this problem isn’t getting better! Sometimes I get a beautiful picture of an empty sky! Panning, on the other hand, means the camera is moving relative to the ground, so vibration and deviations in smooth linear motion are major concerns.

Many sports and action photographers will simply point and swing their cameras along the direction of subject motion and fire off a burst of frames (without looking through the viewfinder) and hope for the best. But birds are too small in the frame for this approach to work, so the focus point must be on the bird, and the camera must be panning steadily and smoothly.

The last two generations of Canon lenses have image stabilization (IS) in two modes, one for panning (mode 2) and one for stationary shooting (mode 1). Mode 1 is primarily for shooting hand-held at relatively slow shutter speeds. Camera shake is often a problem when shooting at shutter speeds slower than 1/(focal length), and IS addresses this. When my 500 mm f/4 IS is on the tripod (99.9% of the time) the IS is generally switched off (exceptions include very windy days or being on a boat). I have read that most tripod photographers also generally leave IS off when the lens is on the tripod–although Canon literature says it should be left on because the IS system senses the tripod and responds accordingly. In my experience, however, the IS slows focusing and sometimes produces a slight, but annoying torque on the lens. When panning, however, I will leave the IS on. I have not noticed the slowing or torquing while panning–perhaps the whole operation of capturing a BIF is so seat-of-the pants, the IS the least of my worries!

In any case, I can’t wait to get out again and keep shooting those birds in flight–with my perennial goal of continuous improvement in knowledge and technique.

Royal Tern in flight, Galveston, Texas
Young Royal Tern in Fall, Galveston, Texas. I tracked this bird in flight to obtain the shot. Royal Terns have been known to steal fish from the gullets of pelicans. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4 IS USM (+1.4x TC): f/7.1, ISO 500, 1/8000, exposure bias -0.33, aperture priority; spot metering.

© 2012 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.


New Article: The View from the Park Blind

Many parks and wildlife refuges include photography and observation blinds. These can provide some excellent opportunities. In The View from the Park Blind, I consider some of the pros and cons of these structures and the associated feeding stations.

Spotted Towhee at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Spotted Towhee at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. The excellent blind at this park allows the visitor to easily observe many desert-loving species of birds and mammals.

© 2012 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

New Article: Perspective in Nature Photography

Photography is the art of compromise: shutter speed versus aperture (and depth of field), ISO versus noise, versatility (zoom) versus sharpness (prime), and so on. In nature photography, obstructions often give the shooter little choice about tripod and camera position. When choices are available, other compromises come into play. Namely, tripod height affects not only an animal’s appearance in profile and the look of the environment, but also photographer reaction time. In Perspective in Nature Photography I explore these issues.

Broad-winged Hawk in tree, Houston, Texas
No choice: Broad-winged Rodent-hunter in Dense Forest. This Broad-winged Hawk was perched at a height of about ten feet in a dense patch of woods. This shot was literally the only one available, taken through a foot-wide opening in the foliage. After watching me drag my tripod and 500mm f/4L in a semi-circle through a tangle of brush for ten minutes trying to get a better perspective, the bird became annoyed and flew off.