I’m not the kind of guy that keeps track of all the different birds I encounter. I’m not that guy even though apps like iBird Pro make it very easy to keep track of sightings. After a while though, you just don’t see many new species of bird without making plans to do so with a trip to a new place. I doubt that it is a bird I have not seen before as it is rather common but it is a bird I have not noticed or specifically photographed and that is kind of cool. With a moderate amount of rainfall here in Southern California everything is once again turning green, something we have not seen in a very long time.It made for a fun afternoon shooting and discovering the new bird.
You can’t tell from the image above but the bird I am writing about is the Say’s Phoebe an unremarkable and common bird that just happened to stand out in the fields of green, but still something new is fun to see.
Contrary to what some people believe birds don’t generally fly for the fun of it. As far as I can tell and all things being equal, they would just as soon remain stationary. Food, shelter, saftey, and procreation are a birds motivation in life and all of their flying time serves one of those needs. They are creatures of habit and are always going to perform repeating patterns in flight. They like to fly along a shore line for example, and you will often see birds carry twigs on the exact same route when nest building. I know of one osprey that has a favorite fishing hole and most every day that bird can be found sitting on a branch above the hole waiting for the right fish to come along then swoops down to grab it.
Generally, they will also take off and land into the wind. That tells us that most birds very seldom fly in straight lines. All birds are going to circle around the nest at some point or follow the curves in the shoreline or river bed looking for food. Soaring birds always make circular patterns. Use this to your advantage, set up and track from profile all the way to head on and get a series of images. Many cameras acquire and track focus much better when the subject is moving across the field of view rather than straight at you. Using that technique will make things easier for the camera to do its job.
The one thing that will always make or break a photo is the background. Second to the subject the background is the single most important feature that must appear in every photograph. Most of the time the photographer wants to have the background blurred out as much as possible. This allows the viewer to concentrate on the subject which presumably is in focus. I always hear that a good photographer should buy a really fast lens and shoot at a wide aperture to get great blurred backgrounds, also known as “bokeh”. That is great advice but in the world of avian photography it is more complicated than that and I will try to explain a couple of things that have worked out for me in getting pleasing backgrounds.
There are also times when you need to have the background in focus and essentially it becomes the main subject. Take for example a bird silhouette against a sunset or moonscape. This may sound like a fairly easy, straight forward type of photograph but there are some important things that have to happen in order to get both your bird and background in focus.
Just to illustrate how big a deal the background really is, look at the image at the top. It is one of my favorite pictures of a Raquet Tailed Roller from a trip I made to the San Diego Zoo. Now look at the image below. That is the same bird on the same branch taken less than a minute apart. Look at how awful that background is. You may think that one of these images has some clever Photoshop work done to it. Well I am here to tell you that I am not that clever. The whole secret to getting that more pleasing image was to take about a half step closer to the subject and a couple of steps to the left. That is all a product of being mindful of both the subject and the background.
- Always be mindful of both your subject and the background. It is very helpful to search for the background you want in a target rich area and then wait for the birds to come into that background area. It will take experience to know if the background you want is an area where the birds will want to go but just remember that birds are creatures of habit, if they do it once chances are they will do it again. Be careful of branches, twigs, and hotspots. Some of this stuff can be photoshoped but it is always better to get it right in camera.
- The ratio of focal distance to the distance between the subject and background has the most profound effect on the detail of the background. This is true when using any super telephoto lens especially when using a crop sensor camera. So, if you are looking for that super blurry background you want to be as close as possible to the subject and have as much distance as possible between the subject and the background. conversely, if you want the subject and background to be in focus you will want to have some distance between yourself and the subject and also stop down the aperture as much as possible.
- Don’t be too concerned about the aperture settings effect on the background. Typically I only concern myself with aperture settings in regards to the subject. I set it so I will get the detail in the birds where I want it and no more. When using a lens 300mm or more at close distance the depth of field is going to be very shallow anyhow.
- Search for complimentary colors. If you have all those other things working for you the background will very often be just a swath of color. Try to choose colors that will compliment the subject. For example, one of my favorite photos is a white egret against an all blue background caused by the ocean.
- Try to get the background lighting similar to the lighting of the subject. Doing a high key or dark background is very dramatic but a little goes a long way and in general you will want to have the whole scene evenly lit.
Those are my few tips for getting pleasing backgrounds. Thanks for reading and I hope you comeback soon.
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Every time I have a sunset shoot there is always a Golden Moment. After most of the action has settled down and most of the birds have wandered off for the evening comes the golden moment. Look around, the light is weak but the colors are most saturated to the eye. It will only last a few minutes. Look around and often you will find a lone bird, maybe fishing or just hanging out. Make that your last salute to the day and I bet you will get a bunch of keepers. A couple of things to remember though, the light is always very weak so make sure you check any exposure compensation settings in the camera and always have support available because you will probably need it. Try to make portraits during the golden moment because birds in flight are not only sparse but are a lot more difficult to make.
One more quick tip. Many DSLR’s have a fine tune function. Nikon calls it “AF Fine Tune” and Cannon says “Micro Adjust”. These features are to compensate for any Front/Back focus problems. There are devices to check for focus problems but a very cheap and straight forward way to check is to take repeated photos of newsprint at a variety of settings, compare them and obviously use the one that is best. I have not to date deeded to make any adjustments for lenses but I have made a very slight adjustment on a lens and tele-converter combo. When adding a TC the chances of errors is increased because the lens is now passing its data through a second connection and another device. With time and wear I think the ability to adjust the focus plane can be a valuable tool. If your camera supports it give it a check, you just might get yourself some sharper images.
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed todays photo Snowy Egret in “Fortress of Solitude”
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There is nothing blue about them. They are white, gray, black, and even some yellow and green but no blue. I’m talking about the misnamed Great Blue Heron. I guess one could say that the light grey takes on the look of a bluish gray but that is stretching it in my opinion. Great Blue is the largest of the Heron family and is considered a coastal wading bird, they are common along the East and West coast and in the Southern states of the United States.
The photo here with the adult feeding the young has special meaning to me as it was the first series of images I made of the Great Blue Heron. It was also the first time I photographed at 500mm focal length. The lens was a brand new Tamron 200-500 on an old rickety tripod and ballhead. The scene was actually quite dark with the sun at my back completely covered in clouds. Shutter speed was down to 1/160 or below and I was pretty much holding on for dear life trying to keep the camera steady watching the young pop up from the nest from time to time when all of a sudden the adult circled above my head and came in for a landing. I was in the right place at the right time and got one of the more memorable images of my life. All the feeding was over in remarkably short order and in moments the sun was completely obscured and fog rolled in. How did I know to find these birds? Well that part was pretty easy. In the parking lot of the reserve I followed the guy with the most expensive gear. Yup, he hiked in before sunrise about a mile with me trailing him, he set up and waited and I set up right behind him and waited, he didn’t say a word, I didn’t say a word. Many other photographers came by took a few shots and wandered off and not a single one of them got the feeding shots that we both did. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss and it pays to play follow the leader when you don’t know what you are doing.
I have photographed the Great Blue Heron many times over the years and in spite of their size they can be rather challenging to shoot. Every time out I do better than the time before but still I am often disappointed. Perhaps I trick myself into thinking that it is easier than it really is and get lazy about it all. Big slow-moving birds that have neutral colors, what more can you ask for? They tend to be shy and separate themselves from humans on a three-dimensional level (they always want to be higher or lower as well as distant) and that makes things extra tough. When they are hunting or hanging out in a tree these Herons will stand perfectly still for long periods of time so there is never a rush to get the shot just realize that you are going to be at a distance. The best literature I have read about photographing the Great Blue Heron is located on Moose Peterson’s website and rather than trying to repeat what he wrote I will link to that post and let you enjoy it in all it’s glory here.
It may just be bad memory but I think I am drawn to the Great Blue Heron from a sinister cartoon character in my childhood. Sometimes they just look like they are pondering some evil deed.
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OK, so I am going to get all technical on you today. Recently I heard a very informed person mention the Brown Pelican was not hurt by the chemical DDT which was banned back in the ’70’s. While this is technically true in that the birds themselves were not effected by the chemical in the environment, there was, it is thought, a significant impact on the population. I thought another person duped by clever manipulation of the facts. Rather than making the birds sick the chemical is thought to cause significant thinning of the egg shells (about 12%) of many bird species including the Brown Pelican. After a moment of satisfaction on my part, the informed person caught himself and stated just that, but then went on to say that even the thin shell theory is subject to debate. That led me think it may be true that the evil chemical DDT did not cause the thinning of the egg shells either. Let’ take a closer look.
On Nov. 17, 2009 the Department of the Interior removed the Brown Pelican from the Federal list of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. The 29 page document goes into great detail about the measures taken to help the Brown, population changes, and even the impact of global climate change, but I did not find any reference to DDT or any other toxin once thought to be the primary cause of threatening the existence of the Pelican. During the time of protection many steps were taken to support the birds, creation of natural habitats, responsible management of oil spills were 2 large factors. Not only did the government take actions to stop the things leading to population decreases but created factors to increase populations. It worked. Still I thought it odd the main culprits not referenced in the document. A little more research uncovered some facts about DDT and the impact on egg shells.
First of all DDT actually has no effect on the eggshells is in fact thought to be a compound known as DDE (Dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene) a by-product of DDT that is stored in the body fat of raptors and waterfowl. There is a measured correlation of DDE levels and shell thickness but also there is conflicting data. For example the Brown Pelican shells improved with the removal of DDT from the environment but after 40 years of the chemical being banned, California Condors still suffer from thin shells. It is thought that 6-10 years is required to flush traces thought the environment. It is even admitted the DDE damage is a hit and miss effect completely unchanging many bird species, in particular domestic breeds.
So yeah it is subject to debate, not only if it causes shell thinning but also how the DDE is introduced to the birds that are impacted.
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“To be the business or interest of”, that is how Merriam -Webster defines the word concern and the conservation status of many birds is called “Least Concern”. Obviously that means that there is no concern or danger of that type of bird disappearing from the face of the earth. Ironically, the moniker also translates in another way. It seems as though the common birds draw least concern from those who photograph them. It kind of makes sense in that it is believed to be more of a challenge to make images of birds that are hard to find but in reality isn’t that just matter of patience or having the ability to purchase air fare to travel to where the bird is in promising numbers? The question being, does that make one a better photographer? It may indeed be rightfully so but it seems as though the more money spent making an image the bigger the treasure and that for some least concern falls on the common bird.
I like to photograph these pigeons but they are plentiful in my area and so I seldom show pictures of the pigeons. I never think about whether or not they are common to other people in other parts of the world, they are just the same old pigeon. The pigeon is not super easy to photograph, no bird is, either. Reality is that if you can make a nice sharp picture of any bird it is in its self an accomplishment. Believe it or not there are many very accomplished photographers out there who do not have a prayer of making a bird image on the fly. Photographing the pigeon is not as easy as it would appear either, for one thing they often bob their head back and forth making it hard to get real sharp eyes, a common characteristic of some raptors.
If you follow this blog regular you may notice that we have had some rain the past few weeks and that background has come back to the normal green and Fall colors it is supposed to be. A little late in the season but I will take everything I can get :).
One thing that is of great concern to me is sharing the latest version of my iPad application Nature and Wildlife Wallpapers. Get it at theApp Store today.
Last week I lamented the fact that I did not like the two images I was presenting and that at times there can be overriding factors as to whether an image is worthy of publication. I didn’t like the photos because they were of poor quality in my opinion. The stuff was worthy of publication because it documented strange and unusual occurrences. Today lets take a look at the hawk image and first focus on why I think it is of poor quality. There are three things that I don’t like about the image, what do you think they are? Take a moment, look at it, and make a note of what you think is wrong.
OK pencils down.
First the image is not as sharp as it should be. True that, but exactly why is it not so sharp? Shutter speed is indeed quite low we all have to agree, crop sensor, 300mm with a 1.4x teleconverter says I need around a 1/500sec shutter compensate with the Nikon VR vibration reduction and maybe one could push the speed down to around 1/125sec. So it is simple, not enough shutter speed. But wait, look close and you will see the feet of the hawk are quite sharp. Oh you might say, in that case the depth of field is just too shallow because the head is not nearly as sharp as the feet. Nope, I won’t go into the detail here but given the distance math proves the focal plane should have both the head and feet in focus, in fact the head and feet are very close to being on the same plane in the first place. The real culprit does go back to shutter speed but it about movement related to the scene not the camera and lens. a theory that I have yet to confirm or deny it’s that many bird and raptors in particular quickly oscillate their heads as part of their focus mechanism. It makes sense in that it would help aid in-depth perception to have more than one perspective to reference in your vision. In any case, it is important to remember that movement in the scene is in no way effected by and VR, IS, OS, or any other optical stabilization offered by the camera or lens. Movement in the scene also is not in any way effected by the focal length that is being used, so if you scene requires a minimum shutter of 1/160sec that is it, no further math involved, and no way to get around it.
The key to making the sharpest possible image at extremely low shutter speeds is to make a lot of images. Set that frame rate as high as it will go and burn a bunch of images but it also increases the chances that it will capture that very brief moment when you the camera and lens are free of movement as well as the subject in the scene. Yeah it really works. When in doubt drop the hammer and chances are pretty good the will be a sharp one in the group.
Another thing I don’t like about this photo is the background, in a word it sucks. Even though it is nice and blurry there is a pattern in the background and that pattern is the tell-tale curse of the chain link fence. It is fairly easy to eliminate chain link fence infant of your wildlife subject but behind is another story. In this case it was at an effective focal length of 630mm shooting wide open at f4 fence about 15 feet behind the subject. As you can see it is nice and blurry but the pattern of the chain link is visible. Because this fencing is often coated with a bright galvanized finish it usually contrasts with the rest of the background, overly bright if in sunlight or dark in shade. Removing the unwanted lines is more difficult than it appears in Photoshop also, so don’t think it is easily fixed problem.
Lastly, I just don’t like the colors. It is OK I suppose but there is a sharp contrast between the ground and the rest of the background. It creates a horizon line with a hard transition from tan to green. We are in the midst of a severe drought this year and much of the foliage is off-color. Normally this time of year that chain link fence would not even be visible, it would be covered in green and gold making a sometimes spectacular background. Mother has given us a difficult situation and the is only one good way to handle that, try different perspectives. Go higher or lower than the usual comfort positions and always be mindful of the back ground.
Today I am also including one of my favorite hawk pictures so you won’t feel cheated on a good image for another week :). Thank You for stopping by, I hope my little reminders and failures help you and your photography.
Please, don’t forget you can download the latest version of my iPad application Nature and Wildlife Wallpaper below.
Alright people this is the year to step up and give out full size candy for Halloween. No body wants to get their ass kicked by Snow White.
I have a vague relocation of going there as a young child. Busch Gardens in Van Nuys California was a tropical themed amusement park attached to a brewery. It was Busch Gardens from that Busch, the Anheuser-Busch (aka Budweiser) company. It is no real surprise that one of my only memories of Busch Gardens is free beer, and I didn’t get any. Busch Gardens is also one of the leading theories as to the origin of wild parrots that have been living in Southern California for many years. In fact according to LAlist.com Busch gardens was paid by the Federal Government to take care of Amazon Parrots. They write:
For one 3 1/2-year period, Uncle Sam paid the company $110,000.00 in bird sitting fees related to a flock of fugitive parrots. Federal agents had thought the sanctuary a perfect nesting place for a seized shipment of 205 noisy and colorful Amazon parrots, smuggled in illegal through Mexico.
In all Busch Gardens was home to about 1,000 exotic birds. When the park closed in 1979 the legend says many birds were lost or let go and the run of wild parrots was born.
I had absolutely no real appreciation for the invasion of wild parrots. For a few years I had occasionally seen 4 wild parrots in my neighborhood, but nothing like what happened a few weeks ago. I never researched them because the parrots are not native to North America. For sixteen straight days a large band of wild parrots invaded my neighborhood in the morning. Almost like clockwork at around eight-thirty the racket started off in the distance and grew louder. in a minute or two the birds descended and caused nothing but commotion. At least a hundred to my count and I soon found out that parrots are not easy to photograph. They move around quickly and are hard to spot in trees because they are green. I have one large oak tree that is owned by a squirrel and maybe that is the reason why the parrots refused to fly to my tree but for whatever reason it was off-limits to them making it even harder to get a descent photograph. The wild parrots were very aggressive and disrupted the overall ecosystem for birds forcing unusual behavior and stress. One day I was visited by my local hawk. Usually very skittish the young bird paid absolutely no attention to me during its hunt. It makes me wonder if the hawk was deprived of food because of the parrot disruption.
Neither of these photo is of any quality and normally I would not even consider posting them but somehow I feel there is some sort of news worthiness in them, and that will be a topic for another day, just what to do when you are caught off guard or just plain can’t get the shot your need. When do you pack it in, when is it worthy to document with poor quality. But that is a topic for another day. Today it is the fighting parrots and the little hungry hawk.
See you next week.
I originally wrote this post for another website but it was never published so lucky us, I am going to put it up here. You often read me referring to the “golden hour” and how magical it is, well this is my explanation of how it all works. Enjoy.
The golden hour, it’s that time right after sunrise and around sunset when the light is best for photography. Shadows are softer, colors bright and golden. So just what is it that makes the golden hour golden? Anyone who says its because the red color spectrum is increased please go to the back of the room and stand in the corner because that is not what I am going to tell you.
It all starts over at that fireball called the Sun. Our Sun emits rays of light that is called clean white light. White means that is contains all the colors of the spectrum. These colors are violet, indigo, blue, green ,yellow, orange and red. Combined there is no perceptible color and this light simply illuminates. All the colors in the ray of light are defined as waves and each color is a wave of a different length so for example the color red is the longest wave length and violet is the shortest. This is important to remember.
Light rays travel toward the earth at breakneck speed, so fast that people often refer to it as the “speed of light”. To be exact the speed is 299,792,458 m/s or 671million miles per hour. As that ray of light approaches the earth in the eight or so minutes it takes, it may encounter things like asteroids, planets, space debris, satellites, and the occasional Yugo, but in general it is unaltered until it hits the earth’s atmosphere. That’s when things change big time.
The earth’s atmosphere is made up primarily of nitrogen, oxygen, argon and water vapor along with trace amounts of chemicals, other gasses, with soot and dust particles. It also becomes more dense the closer it gets to the surface of the earth. The atmosphere does a bunch of cool things to protect us from harmful emissions but it also changes the quality of light that travels through it. Going back to those different colors of light having a different wave lengths now comes into play. The short answer is that the longer wave lengths are more durable than the short. You might think of it this way. Long wave lengths that make up red and orange light are like football players and the shorter lengths compromising violet, indigo and blue are like ballerinas. As the light travels through the atmosphere it encounters obstacles like water vapor, dust and Oxygen molecules. Often times the football players are able to brute force their way through the obstacle while the ballerinas have to go around. They are elegantly sent off in another direction essentially stripping that ray of light of that color. This stripping of color and diffusing it throughout the atmosphere is also the reason why the sky is blue. This phenomenon happens 24/7 but is not noticeable during most of the daylight hours. It is only when sun light is forced to travel through the greatest length and densest parts of the atmosphere that it becomes most noticeable. That is the golden hour.
So the notion that the red and yellow light actually increases during golden hour really is not possible. You would need to have a pretty substantial strobe mounted on the moon to actually increase any portion of the light spectrum. You might ask yourself, “if the sunlight intensity is greatly reduced then why do I get crazy fast shutter speeds while shooting sunsets”? Probably because most photographers won’t even try to capture the sun at any other time without some extra protection. Your camera wouldn’t even be able to handle all the light. Since the sunlight is less intense in the golden hours, you also have the added benefit of softer shadows an in general a softer quality to all natural light.
And that is what makes the golden hour gold for photographers.
Thanks For Reading.
You can see more of my photos at www.ronboyddesign.com