100 Birds – #61 Calliope Hummingbird

Worldwide, there are about 300 species of hummingbird with most occurring in the tropics. All these birds are mystical and magical. People can’t help themselves when they get a glimpse of a hummingbird. They pause and gape. The fast but well controlled flight and hovering creates a bit of awe. They can fly backwards as easily as forward. Their small size makes one wonder how they survive. How fast are those wings going? What is the heart rate of a hummer in flight? How do they survive the cold? So many questions, most of which have scientifically proven answers.

The number of stunning hummingbird photographs on the internet is mind numbing. The variety of colors, feathers, beaks and sizes is mind boggling. Add in instantaneous iridescence and these small birds are, simply put, magical. I study every hummingbird photo I see. First, to appreciate the bird and, second, to reverse engineer the photographic technique used to get the photo. Are the wings blurred? How many catchlights are seen in the eye. Where are the shadows. All these things are clues to photographic understanding.

There are two primary ways to photograph hummingbirds. One is to use natural light. For me, the ultimate goal is to show sharp wings. This requires a very fast shutter speed (1/5000 to 1/8000 second). Below these speeds and the wings will be blurred. This is not a bad thing and can actually impart a sense of motion in the photo. But f you want sharp wings you need a short shutter speed. That frequently means the use of high ISO and a possibility (certainty?) of digital noise. It’s always a balance.

The other photographic technique is to use controlled flash. Some people consider the use of flash as “bad form”. The key to using flash that does not adversely affect the birds is to use very low power. Using flash that have the power dialed way down (1/16th to 1/64th power) shortens the light burst to 1/10,000 second or faster. This is a sure way to make sure the wings are sharp. Multi-flash setups are a common technique for photo tour guides.

We are fortunate to have friends who own a home on Badger Mountain east of Wenatchee. At this time of year 4 species of hummers visit their feeders: Anna’s, Calliope, Rufous and Black-chinned. Why not try to get a decent photo?

The setup for this photo was simple. We took some fresh flowers with us and set them out among the feeders. I mounted the camera (Fuji X-T2) and lens (100-400mm with a 1.4 extender) on a tripod. The exposure was set at ISO 10,000 (gulp), 1/8000 second and f/8. No flash. I set the camera to continuous focus mode, set a coarse focus and waited. And waited. And waited. When this female Calliope started exploring the flowers I started following it in the viewfinder and urging it to move into the position where it would be against a clean background. It did. I got 5 frames, 2 of which are nice renditions of the bird doing what it does. I wish the image showed a male Calliope in full display but this female is the best Calliope image I have. I’ll try again in a few weeks when there will hopefully be more birds.


100 Birds – #20

Only four of the seven species of chickadees in North America are likely to be seen.  The other 3 species are limited to far northern latitudes or small geographic ranges in Mexico. In the western United States we get to see the Chestnut-backed Chickadee, the Mountain Chickadee and the bird shown in this photograph – the Black-capped Chickadee.

When I first started posting bird photos to Google+ I was told by one prominent site moderator that I’d quickly learn that chickadee images are always crowd pleasers.  It reminded me of another saying that I first heard at a workshop with photographer John Shaw.  John was talking about the commercial aspects of nature photography when he said “Adorable sells”. The chickadee certainly falls into the group of cute, likeable or adorable birds. They don’t migrate great distances and it is possible to see them all year if you live in a favorable location.  Their call is easy to distinguish and their fast, frequent flights around an area draw your eye to them fairly easily. As a photographer I am always happy to see chickadees since they tend to sit still longer than other small birds.  I’m not saying that they pose for extended periods but compared to a kinglet or wren the chickadee seems to stay put a bit longer.

This photo was taken in the backyard of our old house in Portland, Oregon.  We put out feeders for the birds and welcomed them to our small patio.  I spent way too much time sitting at the doorway to the patio waiting for birds to come in and perch on one of the many perches that were there naturally or on one or more that I’d positioned to provide good photo backgrounds.  The perch in the photo is a stick that was located next to a tree rose in a pot on the patio.  I was always amazed to see a bird perch on top of the skinny, rough stick when they had smooth, more horizontal perches easily available.

To entertain myself and pursue high quality images I invested in a device known as a CamRanger (http://camranger.com/).  This little device connects to the camera which is placed on a tripod and positioned near the perch of choice. The CamRanger makes its own little WiFi network that can be connected to a smart phone WiFi settings. The CamRanger app lets you sit inside and control focus, exposure and remotely trigger the shutter.  The fact that a person is not evident to the birds is a HUGE advantage to capturing good photos.  Of course there is the limit to the scene that is observed at any given time but controlling focus and exposure while you sit on the couch reading and relaxing has a lot going for it.  Since the time I bought the CamRanger they have added a motorized tripod top that allows you to pan the camera as well as control exposure and shutter.  Those who know me know that I enjoy such things and can appreciate that there is one sitting in my camera storage area.  Someday soon it will come out to play in the Wenatchee area.

I suspect that some who read this post will find the process by which the photo was taken to be unethical or ill advised.  Many people resent “baiting” birds for photographs but I don’t know any people who don’t condone bird feeders in their own yards or nearby.  So yes, I drew the bird into the area by long term access to feed, I provided it a place to perch that I could use to get a nice photo (IMHO) and I sat in the comfort of my own house watching the screen on my iPhone and reading as I waited for a bird to land in front of the camera.  Then it was just a matter of tapping the screen on the bird’s eye to set the focus point and pressing the button to trigger the shutter. Click.  Job done.  Without this explanation you’d be hard pressed to know that this is not a quick capture in the woods somewhere.  The viewing reaction is what is important and I hope you agree that this is a cute little bird. Remember, adorable sells.  You can call me or email me.  Just kidding… or not.



100 Birds – #17

The Gift

I posted a photo of a Bullock’s Oriole on May 20, 2016 (100 Birds – #13).  At the time I was thrilled to not only see the bird but to get a decent photo showing its beautiful colors.  I’ve talked many times about how it is challenging to get a sharp shot of a small bird in variable light and cover.  At the time I thought Bird #13 was going to be THE Bullock’s Oriole in this collection of 100 birds.  Then I got a gift.

I was sitting on the edge of Number 2 Canyon Road about 2 miles from our house.  I had been listening to a wide array of bird calls and was practicing my song ID as I watched a few birds move around in the distant shrubs and trees.  I’ve learned that sitting still in an area with birds will often give you a surprise as a bird pops up from out of nowhere.  That’s exactly what happened.  I saw this Bullock’s Oriole land in the shrub about 15-20 feet from my car.  The sun was at my back and bathing the bird.  It was bright but there sat a beautiful bird.  It sang a few bars and twisted around as it scanned for threats or food. It hit what I consider to be the perfect pose… one with good exposure of the bird’s body, decent view under the bird, a clear view of the legs and then, to top it all, a twist of the head into the light to present a beautiful catchlight in the eye.  Go ahead and snicker but that little bright spot in the eye is what makes a mediocre photo move up a notch or two. I had already set the camera’s exposure and it was just a matter of focusing and composing.  30 clicks later the bird was gone and I sat there feeling like a little kid that had just gotten a free ice cream cone – just a very simple feeling of gratitude. This photo may be my second favorite bird photo ever taken.  Time will tell.


I’ve been asked by some about how photograph birds. It’s not exactly an easy question to answer nor do I feel like I am a good source of education about the subject. I can tell what I know to be true for me with full realization that “the times they are a changing”.  So, with an apology to anyone who did not ask or who does not care, here’s a short bit on bird photography and camera wizardry.

Bird photography is a learned skill.  I understand that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill – or some say. I’ve not kept track of the time I’ve spent but I know that I’m nowhere near close to the mark. Yet I know that I have adopted a pattern or behavior when trying to get bird photos.  When I switched from shooting Nikon to using a Fuji mirrorless camera I needed to change some of my habits.  I now shoot using the Fuji 100-400 lens coupled with a 1.4x extender.  When used on the Fuji X-T1 body the combination results in an 840 mm equivalent if shooting with a full frame sensor such as my Nikon D800.  That’s a lot of focal length and something I’ve never really had in the past.  And yet the birds still seem so far away!!! I enjoy the fact that I can easily hand hold the camera and lens.  The lens stabilization helps a great deal but I still try to shoot at 1/1000 second.  By putting the 1.4x on the lens I lose light and the lens moves to an f/8 lens when zoomed out to 400 mm (where I am almost all the time). This is not a “fast” lens at this point so I appreciate having good light on the bird at the time of the photo.  I shoot in aperature priority and set the lens to be as wide open as possible which varies from f/5.6 to f/8.  I also shoot using Auto ISO to make the exposure.  I will dial in exposure compensation when needed and love that I can see the effects of any changes directly in the viewfinder or on the LCD screen.  I don’t worry about high ISO values much anymore.  I’ve found I can shoot at ISO 1600 quite confidently with the Fuji.  It’s not uncommon to have the camera select ISO 3200 to maintain the 1/1000 sec shutter speed.

That’s the exposure…now on to focus.  Focusing using an electronic viewfinder is a very different beast from the clear view of a high quality DSLR body like the D800.  Like most things, there are pluses and minuses.  The viewfinder is bright but has a lag when actually shooting. Combining a high burst rate of 10 frames a second and continuous focus results in a burst rate that varies and never comes close to 10 frames a second.  Very frustrating. I want that burst rate to be reliable and consistent.  Even for birds perched on a stick I want the fast burst to get multiple frames from which to select a pose.  A very slight tilt of the bird’s head can add or remove a catchlight in the eye.  Yes, I want a lot of frames from which to pick. So I’ve learned a new trick or two.  My approach now is to find the bird with my binoculars or bare eye, bring the camera up to find the bird in the center focal point and at 100 mm.  Then I zoom in on the bird by pushing the lens hood forward rather than twisting the zoom ring (thank you Mr. Barta). I have found that if I stay with manual focus set on the camera that the burst rate will always max out for me – never fails. So I use back-button focus to get in the ball park and then manually focus the bird. The Fuji excels at this because when I touch the focus ring on the lens the camera automatically zooms in to show a 10x magnification.  Magic.  Touch the shutter button and the magnification goes away.  Perfect. Also, I have my manual focus set to use “focus peaking” which allows me to easily see exactly what is in critical focus.  It takes a bit of getting used to with all the high contrast edges jumping at my eye but the results speak for themselves. None of this is quick for me at this point but I’m getting better. Other photographers are probably shaking their heads and wondering about my sanity.  Their “big boy” camera bodies are miracles of technology and I still enjoy using my D800 and 300 f/4 lens.  But the fact remains that no matter what body you use or which lens, when the bird is sitting in nice light and is open to view except for that one or two branches in front of it, the camera is most likely to focus on the branch and not the bird.  With Nikon’s lenses I can manually override the autofocus…another miracle. But I bet that any bird photographer can talk about lost shots due to the camera’s autofocus finding the foremost object or the one with the most contrast.  Just sayin’.

There are many reasons I enjoy the Fuji camera.  Cost, weight, control but a subtle and highly valuable characteristic that often goes unnoticed is the color palette the Fuji sensor and electronics create.  That may sound weird from a color blind guy but the colors I see on my monitor are richer and more pleasant to my eye.  I like the Fuji for portraits, landscapes and birds.  I have my wishlist and hope that some will show up in the X-T2 if and when it is released. If so, I will need to evaluate the merits and make a choice.  I can’t wait.

Waterfront color

My recent visit to the Portland Eastside Esplanade with Eric Vogt  gave us the chance to witness a sunset which, by all accounts, was pretty spectacular.  I’ve seen many photos from around Oregon and SW Washington that show the beauty of the night sky near Mt. Hood, The Three Sisters and White Salmon.  Eric told me that the color was as good as he has ever seen when shooting on the waterfront in Portland.  I trust his judgement.

Yesterday I posted a long exposure photo of the Willamette River reflecting lights from the city.  I mentioned that the photo with the boat in the foreground was NOT taken at the time of peak color.  I also mentioned that I was working on another image that needed some quality control before I posted it.  What I mean by “quality control” is that Dianne needed to help me ensure that the colors were OK.  She frequently gets pulled into service when I am concerned about color accuracy.  My color blindness means that I can (and have) posted photos that are, well, ghastly.  They look fine to me but people with normal color vision just cringe and look for ways to gently tell me that I’m way off.  Every time I calibrate my monitor I chuckle inside since I know that the colors I see on the monitor are nowhere near accurate.  That’s just the way my brain registers the colors.  I know the monitor is accurate and the colors that Dianne sees are as good as an RGB interface can render them.  I take some comfort knowing that I am doing the best I can to present color accurate files.

Sunsets and sunrises are frequently frustrating for me.  If the colors are super saturated and bright I know that the sunset/rise is spectacular.  Even then I sometimes seek confirmation.  I stood in front of one the most wonderful sunsets I’ve ever seen at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge years ago.  I shot and shot.  About midway through the event I leaned over to a photographer next to me and asked “There are reds in there, right?”  She gave me look of “you’re kidding, right?” and simply shrugged and said “yes”.  And so it goes.  The other night Eric got my attention when he asked me “you’re shooting this, right Bruce?”.  I was but I knew his asking meant that he was seeing something worthwhile.

During my lifetime one of the most perplexing questions people ask me when they learn that I am colorblind is “What do you see?”  I really can’t answer that because I don’t know what they see.  My vision is full of color… just not accurate for parts of the visible spectrum.  As a kid the question never really bothered me. The question usually turned into a guessing game where I was subjected to a series of “what color is …” challenges. I actually enjoyed the game.  As I grew older I began to be a bit flummoxed and felt that I needed to have a satisfactory answer.  It wasn’t until the surge in digital photography and digital applications that I found a way to answer the question.  Not with words but with photos.  Years ago a company (www.vischeck.com)  developed a way to simulate different forms of color deficit using Photoshop.  I learned to use the plug-in and truly enjoyed showing people the results of a simulation.  When I ran the simulation I saw that nothing happened to the colors in the image… for me.  Shocked feedback from my color-normal friends was amazing.  I’d hear things like “bummer for you, Dude” or “I’m sorry”.  Side-by-side comparisons showed no difference for me but dramatic differences for others.  What a miracle.  I now carry around a simple business card that shows a box of crayons using normal and color blind versions.  When asked “what do you see?”  I just pull the card and hand it to the questioner.  The photos do the work that I’ve never been able to do.  Thank you genius color scientists and Photoshop engineers.  The Vischeck simulation program is no longer necessary to add to Photoshop as a plug-in since it is now a part of Photoshop when it is installed.  I think that is a great sign that sensitivity to color vision deficit is becoming more pronounced as people rely more and more on web-based presentations and digital applications.  Hooray for scientific evolution.

Back to our sunset photo session from the other night.  The two images below present two color versions for your entertainment.  The first is “color normal”.  The second image, clearly labeled “simulation” shows what I see.  Again, I see NO DIFFERENCE in the images.  I’m just guessing that you will.  If you don’t, well, welcome to my world fellow protanope.

Color normal
Color normal
Color deficit simulation
Color deficit simulation

Power curve

This story centers around a young lady named Katy Gillingham.  Katy is the grand-niece of my long-standing friend Jon Brazier.  We first met Katy several years ago when I was asked to take family photos for a Brazier family reunion in Sunriver, Oregon.  Dianne and I traveled to Sunriver and joined the family for a marvelous dinner and an evening in which they endured a lengthy photo session of individuals, families and the whole group.  Katy sat for her individual photos in our makeshift studio, smiled nicely and, I’m sure, was relieved when she was “done”.  I remember her as being a bright eyed, smiling and pretty young lady.  That hasn’t changed over time.  Katy is now a Junior at Holy Names Academy in the Seattle area.  Katy rows as a varsity member of the schools rowing team.  That’s where this story really begins.

Last year Katy’s rowing team was entered in a major northwest regional rowing competition staged at Vancouver Lake just north of our home.  Jon and I talked a bit and agreed that we would like to see what this sport is all about since neither of us really knew diddly about rowing.  I did a bit of research on how to photograph what may be the world’s worst spectator sport… rowing… and found little to assist me.  We knew the times and category for Katy’s races and were given some help finding her and her team among the crowded lanes as the boats came into view.  Getting the photos isn’t really all that hard as long as other boats don’t clog up the view between Katy’s boat and the camera.  Not to worry… they are usually out in front.  Katy has the habit of wearing her HNA ballcap backwards on her head so she stands out from others in her boat and among boats around her.

So I tried to focus on Katy and capture the “peak moment” of the rowing cycle even though I had no idea about the rowing “power curve” that happens each cycle.  My solution was to shoot bursts through as many complete cycles as the camera could buffer. As the boats come into view the photography begins.  It hits its peak as the boats pass by near the finish.  Maybe a couple of minutes total.  Done.    We got some decent photos and sent them off to Katy’s mother, Anne, for distribution to the team.  Well, it turns out that Katy’s team won the Regional Championship and went to Nationals in Tennessee where they proceeded to win the national championship.  These ladies are the REAL DEAL.

Now the story I really want to tell.  It’s told really well in the book “The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown.  The book is about the 1936 University of Washington rowing team winning gold at the Berlin Olympics.  The book presents what it means to be on a crew team.  Each person linked to the power and rhythm of the others in the boat.  Conditioning is critical and hours of rowing and strength training are buried in the muscles of a rower.  Their hands may tell the story of the wear and tear they endure for their sport.  Keen coaches know that the team members aren’t perfectly matched in size or strength so they put their rowers into specific assignments on the boat.  The rowers learn to read each other’s stroke and cycle.  Each can feel the power of the others as the coxswain calls for power or calm.  The coxswain is in charge of everything that happens on the boat.  It starts when they give orders to move the boat to the water, to enter the boat, to move away and, in the race, they call for cadence and power.  They know how to move the rowers to their pain threshold or to save their strength.  They are responsible for assessing their position relative to the other teams and to meter out the rowers’ strength over the distance with surges and recovery as needed.  The goal is reach the sweet spot where everyone in the boat, rowers and cox, all move and respond in harmony.  Technique and strength united into fluid movement down the course faster than the other teams… or not. Katy and her team seem to know the sweet spot pretty well.

Katy rowed in two races in this year’s Regional Championship at Vancouver Lake.  She rowed with her friend Marlee in a pairs race, winning the final race decisively. They both joined in the 4+ competition a few hours later.  After winning their race Katy’s team watched as the team from Mt. Baker won a second semi-final heat race, finishing only 0.02 seconds behind HNA.  The finals were held today and HNA finished second to Mt. Baker by about a boat length.  Disappointing for the HNA team I’m sure but both teams earned their places at the National Championships near Sacramento next month.  Losing today likely ignited a fire in the HNA team and we look forward to the rematch to come.

Yesterday I asked Katy’s parents if there was a single moment in the rowing cycle that was “the peak moment”.  Was it as the oar entered the water and the pull began?  Was it when the legs were fully compressed and ready to straighten and release all their power?  I’m sure there is a diagram of the physics and force diagrams for a rowing cycle.  Katy’s dad, Jim, explained that the power curve is steepest as the legs straighten and the arms are pulling for all they are worth.  That makes sense.  Trying to time photos to capture that peak moment is not that easy.  My camera does not shoot more than 6 frames a second so I am at a bit of a handicap to blast away during the event to truly capture the peak.  I shot several sequences of shots and, like shooting birds in flight, tried to make sure that the subject is in focus and that the movement of wings or oars is such that they coincide with the shutter release.

The photo below shows the Holy Names Academy 4+ varsity team during their semi-final heat.  I almost gave this post the title “Rip City” since I am so impressed by the musculature in these ladies backs, arms and legs.  Please click on the image to see a larger view.  While not at the precise moment when the legs are fully extended you can can see the power of the ladies in their shoulders and arms.  You can see the power in the bend of the oars used by Katy and Megan.  Look at the matched hand positions and postures.  You’re looking at a team that knows what the sweet spot in rowing feels like.  They have worked harder than I can imagine to get where they are.  After their loss today I know that they are motivated to succeed at the Nationals next month.  Amazingly, we are planning to be there along with the Braziers when the coxswain calls for the boat to once more enter the water.  We wish them all the best possible and look forward to seeing the famous Katy smile on the podium.  Rip it up Ladies.

Left to right:  Marlee Blue, Katy Gillingham, Madison Morris, Megan Del Possi and Louisa Abel (coxswain)
Left to right: Marlee Blue, Katy Gillingham, Madison Morris, Megan Del Possi and Louisa Abel (coxswain)

Hummingbirds…well, one bird at least

The Magenta-throated Woodstar is the smallest hummingbird I’ve seen in the last 3 days at Monteverde.  It is a frequent visitor to the feeders at the hummingbird deck near the entrance to the Cloud Forest Reserve.  I’ve spent hours on this deck watching a variety of hummingbirds come in to feed and socialize.  It is farily easy to get a decent shot of the birds sitting on a branch with a nice background.  Not so with the in-flight shots. Discounting the ever-changing light on the background, the biggest challenge, for me, was finding the focus point for approaching birds.  There is not a prayer of following them and catching focus… at least not for me.  I quickly learned that this tiny Woodstar (about the size of a large bumblebee) would approach the feeder, feed, back away about 4-6 inches and come in to feed again.  It rarely lands that I saw.  So, it became my focus tool. I would find a background that looked decent and wait for the Woodstar to approach.  I was able to grab focus on the Woodstar as it fed, shoot and confirm focus (or not) and then switch to manual focus so I didn’t mess it up.  Then I would wait for another species to come into the same location on the same feeder.  Like I said, I spent hours here and I don’t know too many who would have the patience to wait, and wait, and wait… shoot… ooops, too late, wait some more.  At least there was a lot of action around to keep entertained – not just the birds but the tour groups and guides.  It was fun to watch the excitement of adults and kids as they watched the birds.  Could it get any better or easier?

Magenta-throated Woodstar
Magenta-throated Woodstar


Photographing hummingbirds is an art and I feel like I’m in the “chunky crayon” stage.  There are two basic schools of thought: (1) use of flash to stop the wings, or (2) no flash but good light and an ISO high enough allow for a shutter speed of 1/1600 or faster to stop the wings.  In scenario one, the flash is powered down to a very low power which effectively decreases the duration of the flash burst.  Durations of about 1/40,000 second are quite possible with a modern speedlight.  The folks who really specialize in the use of flash for hummer photography will employ as many as 6 flashes and will often bring their own backgrounds and flowers to the “field set”.  Me, I had one flash and was stuck using it on camera since had no way to place it off camera.  I could have triggered it off camera if I had some sort of stand to hold the flash.  I didn’t so I settled for using the flash as a minor amount of fill.  I was on Manual exposure at about 1/200 sec at f/8 to f/13 depending on the ambient light.  Glenn Bartley and Greg Basco are masters at using flash to provide off-camera directional fill or main light.

Scenario two is often similar in that a set is created to entice the birds into a known source of food…often a lovely flower arrangement.  The set is located so that sunlight is abundant and the photographer plans the shot using a very fast shutter speed and small f/stop to get depth of field.  This will frequently require a boost in ISO to make it work.  Raymond Barlow is a master of this type of photography and I encourage you to visit his website if you want to see some amazing, natural light images.

I have to be up-front with the ethical issue of using flash for bird or wildlife photography.  I’ve had an enlightening dialog with a friend as the result of my stating I used flash in some hummingbird photos in a previous post.  There is certainly a risk that a short burst of light can startle or affect a bird’s behavior.  Some folks find the idea of using flash a crutch and are quite set against it’s use anytime for bird photography.  Other folks maintain that the short burst is of no consequence…especially if it is meant to fill shadows rather than be a main light on the subject.  In reading Bartley and Basco’s ebook on Tropical Nature Photography they clearly fall into the camp that flash can be used safely if the bird is not nesting or in another sensitive situation.  I have not seen any writing by Raymond Barlow about his thoughts but I do know that he frequently cites “no flash used in any of my photographs” which leads me to believe that he would be firmly in favor of natural light.  And he’s darn good at it.

My recent discussion with my friend made me think about my use of flash.  I decided to ask the local guides about using flash for bird photography.  I asked 7 local guides and one back in Portland about how they saw the use of flash.  One local guide was adamantly against it based on his belief that it scares all the birds away.  The others saw no reason why flash should not be used.  A few guide brought out their own cameras and showed me images they had taken with flash.  I heard one guide encouraging his group to use flash so the colors would be better.  All this limited sample means is that the majority of the guides I interviewed did not object to use of flash. But there’s that other guy who did.  Therein lies the problem or issue.  I concluded that my goal was to utilize flash to open shadows and stop motion.  If the brilliant colors were enhanced I was OK with that.  I did this with full realization that it may irk some but, at the same time, there were as many as 20 people on the deck with point and shoot cameras flashing each bird they could find in their viewfinders.  Being part of a large population of flash users does not necessarily make it an appropriate technique but, if used with purpose and intent, I felt that the images I made benefited.

One of my main reasons for coming to Costa Rica was to stand on the hummingbird deck to watch and photograph these amazing birds.  I have decent photos of 7 species.  I had hoped for 30.  I will move on from Monteverde now and will drop elevation to the Pacific coast.  New species await.

Pintails in fog – a review

I hit a bit of a gold mine at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge on the 14th of January.  It was a foggy day and I was looking mostly for birds that were close by or big so the camera would have a fighting chance to catch focus.  OK…. I try to see all the birds but I was paying attention to the ones that I felt I could actually photograph well.  On my second lap around the 4 mile loop I noticed some pintails on the pond across from the Kiwa trail parking lot.  Three pintails were circling on approach to land so I pulled over to watch.  I’ve been having a bit of a conversation over on Google+ with Susan Wilkinson and her husband, Allen, about “birds in flight” photography and how challenging it can be.  As another group of 4 pintails showed up and started circling I thought I should concentrate on technique and see if I could pull of a decent shot of the birds.

Let me define “decent” in my terms…. eye is sharp, background is clean or diffuse, light on the subject is defining.  Since the birds are obviously in motion it is a common practice to slow the shutter speed so that wings will tend to blur.  Therein begins the technique challenge.  To shoot at a slow shutter speed and track the bird with a focus point on its eye/head, keep the horizon level and shoot properly exposed images as the light varies across the shot is NOT EASY.  My friend Eric has deliberately worked hard at this and has produced some remarkable shots that convey motion so clearly yet you can still home in on a bird’s detail in the head.  I still look at a business card left by my friend Gerry Ellis that shows an American bald eagle flying by.  Again, great sense of blur in the bird’s body and wings and background but great clarity in the head and the all important eye.  Panning technique takes practice to succeed.  I’ve begun my lessons lately by going to the local pond and tracking everything from gulls to geese to ducks in order to get some real life experience.  So far all I can say is that I need a LOT more practice.

At my level of photo skill I am really quite happy to get birds that are sharp against a decent background and in good light.  At Ridgefield I was shooting at 1/800th second at f/5.6 using a 300mm lens with a 1.4x extender and with the camera body set to a DX crop mode to get a 630 mm equivalent focal length.  I was really just trying to practice panning with the birds and shooting when the backgrounds looked decent.  The fog really helped achieve the background but meant that most of the photos were shot at ISO 1600 or higher.  The D800 can handle that if the exposure is proper.  Underexposure gives more noise than I like to deal with.  I know I can recover some detail in over-exposed images but I prefer to not have to do that if possible.  The goal is really pretty simple to state… hit the exposure, maintain focus on the bird(s) and shoot when the background is good.  “Easy peasey” as granddaughter Gina likes to say.  Well, not so much.

In the past few days I’ve posted several photos of the Northern pintails that gave me many opportunities to learn through failure.  The first one I posted was well received but not my favorite since the birds were not, in my opinion, separated enough from the background.  My eye tends to have to hunt to see the birds in the image.  The bird that is positioned against the sky works well for me but I lose track of the others.  I’d give the photo a B-   I like that there are no merged birds and that they are reasonably sharp.  I think the background looks OK but I’d perfer less clutter and more diffusion.  It’s always something….. I know, I know.


The next photo I posted was also well received and comes closer to my short-term goal.


Actually, I’d give this one a B+.  The ducks are reasonably sharp and set off clearly against the background of nice, diffuse sky and trees.  Thank you fog.  I really think that some “grounding” of the photo by including the trees and ground vegetation really helps add to a photo.  Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of birds in flight phots where the bird(s) are set against a bald sky or, with luck, some clouds.  I just think that images that have some sense of the ground in them have a higher visual impact.  That is all a matter of personal taste, of course. The photo would have gotten a A if there was no overlap in the group of 4 ducks.  Picky, I know.

The next photo I posted was again received well.  I’d give it a solid C.  Here the birds are sharp, have no mergers and their synchronous positions are wonderful and dynamic.  I’m very grateful for the variety that the one hen adds to the shot since it gives the species a better representation in the photo.  What I don’t like about the photo is the centered tree behind the birds.  Again, it’s just me but I’d prefer the tree to be offset to a side (in this case to the right) and that the birds were not set against the tree.   I understand that my color vision issues may be part of the problem and that for normal vision folks the birds may just pop right out.  It’s a nice image but the tree/bird overlap drops the grade substantially.20140114_105253_DSC_1545

Late last night I went back to the image collection to see what else was there that I could post for reaction.  I came across a single image sitting in between several shots of birds on the water.  Usually there are 3-7 images in a sequence as I shoot in burst mode while tracking the birds.  I probably missed the image in my early postings simply because it was a solitary frame embedded in many other image files.  When I looked at it critically I decided to go ahead and process it for posting.  Yes, I give this one an A even though it violates some of my personal criteria for “keeper”.


As mentioned, I usually reject photos of bird groups when birds are overlapping.  I just don’t care for “mergers”.  In this case I can easily overlook that since all the heads are evident and the overall beautiful positioning of the birds with slight wing position variation adds a wonderful dynamic to the photo.  The birds are nicely set against a non-competing background but there are sufficient trees and ground vegetation to add the context that is needed.  The light on the birds is sweet.  Again, I thank the fog for creating a nice, even and diffuse light source.  So this one gets printed and hung above my desk to enjoy on those days when Ridgefield is not on the schedule.  Maybe the next time I go there I’ll have more beautiful light and fog so I an practice creating blur while holding sharpness in critical areas.  I’m fortunate to have the ability to pursue such a goal.

Stacking it up

One of the things I hope to do well when we visit Costa Rica next spring is to take clear photos of a wide variety of orchids.  I’ve always loved orchids and have spent inordinate amounts of time trying to take pictures of them in the past.  It’s not as easy as it might seem if you want to get the bloom in sharp detail throughout its depth but leave the background blurred out so that it does not compete with the bloom.  Shooting with a macro lens allows you to get in tight and, likely, fill the frame with the bloom.  That’s usually a good start.  Without the ability to move the bloom around you then need to move the camera around to help isolate the bloom against the background of your choice.  I don’t expect to have a lot of control on this in Costa Rica so I am going to experiment with small background cards that I hope to place behind the blooms if I’m allowed to.  Again, I don’t know that I’ll be allowed to do that but I hope to be ready if I can.

Shooting small objects with a macro lens means that you have a very shallow depth of field.  Frequently the depth of field does not cover the entire bloom.  If you shoot with a small aperature such as f/22 you can extend the depth of field but you also start to bring the background more into focus.  Trying for the maximum depth of field often results in background details that I do not enjoy.  So… what’s the solution?  Many of us resort to “image stacking” which is a technique where you take a series of photos at a wide aperature and adjust the point of focus between each shot to provide a set of images that each have a small zone in focus and the rest is blurred out.  So, in theory, you can cover the bloom with zones of crisp focus by blending the images together and still leave the background out of focus so it does not compete.

I’ve experimented with this several times in the past with varying success.  I’ve used software called Helicon Focus with good results but I don’t care for their licensing approach.  Recently I’ve been using the “auto-align” and “auto-blend” features in Photoshop.  The Photoshop routine can produce great results but frequently ends up with parts of the image being out of focus due to inability to mask an image well or it creates halos around the edges.  Neither of these results appeal to me.

I read about another approach to stacking images and downloaded the trial software from Zerene.  I don’t have any orchids in bloom right now but we do have a shamrock with small blossoms (~1.5 cm across).  So, I set up the camera, attached the CamRanger to make the routine of taking a stack of images easier and more consistent and created 15 files that gradually move the focus from the front-most petal to the back of the bloom… a depth of about 1.5 cm.  I shot at f/3.2 using a 105mm macro lens.  I then loaded the images into Zerene Stacker and ran the program using all the default settings.  The result wasn’t bad but there were the same halos and zones of less than crisp focus.  I went to the Zerene website and watched one of their videos on retouching in the application.  Holy Cow… how easy is that ?  Adjusting the masks that Photoshop creates is a huge challenge.  Zerene Stacker has an easy way to isoloate the single file that has all the sharpness in an area that you need in the final image and then you simply paint it back in.  No hassle.  Zoom in and out easily. Very cool.  I’m sure that one could become quite proficient with the program after a few trials.

Here’s the result of the shamrock stacking photo after my initial attempt at using the Zerene software.  The front edge of the lower right petal is not sharp but that’s my fault, not the software’s.  Lesson learned.  You be the judge.  Yes?  No?



Time will tell if I can do any stacking in Costa Rica.  There’s always that pesky wind thing to deal with.   We’ll just have to wait and see.

Give it a try

I posted a couple of macro shots of an aster patch yesterday and it appears that some people really like them.  Thanks for the feedback.

We went to a friend’s house last night to listen to a trio of Scottish musicians play and sing for a small group of enthusiastic listeners.  The group consisted of Linsey Aitken, Ken Campbell and Andy Shanks.  The three had been in the USA for about a week and were working their way north from San Francisco, singing as they go,  and were soon to turn around and head back south.  They loved being in America (darn good to hear) and were impressed with the land and the open, friendly nature of the people they encountered.  They loved being able to play in the living  room of a wonderful home where the audience was right with them… close and participatory.  Thanks Laurie and Bill for opening your home to us.  This was really an unusual experience for us.  One week prior, to the day, we were in a barn in Vermont celebrating my mother’s life with family and friends.  As I listened to the music and words I could not help but think of the Vermont gathering and the contrast between situations.  I drifted and fell into the music.  Nice.

I’m sure that Dianne and I both left thinking “what an amazing evening”.  The trio played guitar, cello, bagpipes and sang along to each other’s creative, original music.  I’m not sure if it is the Scottish brougue, the sense of humor, the stories they told but amid the laughter and singing there was an unmistakeable passion for what they do.  At one point, Linsey, the cello player and vocalist, described the house and setting in which she and Ken live on the west coast of Scotland.  Her words were like the music.. poetic and painting a picture for me.  I loved having the opportunity to hug her and thank her for the intense visualization of the setting with ever changing light and thousands of birds calling into the night.  She hooked me with that description and I told her we wanted to come see this magic place.  She smiled and said “Oh, you must”.  Di and I agree that Ireland and Scotland are now at the top of the travel list after we return from Costa Rica.  Is this the way it happens?  Situations breed friendships that open avenues of exploration and richness?  So far, for us, that is exactly the pattern.

The passion of the three musicians/artists got me thinking about another artist who I’ve recently discovered and am enjoying.  Mark S. Johnson is a photographer who creates images using both the camera and Photoshop.  No apologies are given for his manipulation of images using a wide variety of techniques.  Sometimes it is in-camera manipulaton and sometimes it is done with Photoshop – sometimes both.   I really enjoy the majority of his images that I’ve seen.  I also enjoy his writing and description of the joy he feels when he sees an image come to life on the camera’s LCD or his computer monitor.  I was reading through his ebook called Luminescent World, a compilation of 25 photos and the storys of how they were created, and got caught up in an image of a clematis patch that seemed to radiate out in a vortex of shooting stars.  I expected that I’d read about a lot of Photoshop layering and playing to achieve the image.  Not the case.  Not at all.  He described a simple technique to create an in-camera multiexposure image using manual zoom prior to each of the many exposures that the camera then blends into one magical result.  I thought “What the heck?  I can do that”.  Off I went.  Back to my little patch of asters growing outside our kitchen window.  I won’t say that this is a great example (darn breeze) but it is proof that images like this can be created in-camera and do not require a lot of post-processing manipulation.  This image was cropped a bit and enhanced just a bit with some detail extraction in places.  Other than that, it is all done by the engineers that built the brains of my Nikon camera.  A simple image to make if you are open to such things.  If you have the passion.

Aster explosion
Aster explosion

Recess – a time to play

I think that Dianne and I are both committed to looking for brightness and beauty in our lives more than ever.  We know that the rains are coming and with them, the long period of gray skies and flat light.  As I sat eating breakfast I looked out at our flower bed and enjoyed the brightness of the asters that will soon be gone.  I discovered Mark S. Johnson’s work recently and have enjoyed his writing and photography.  He stresses the joy of photography and creative approaches to emphasizing not only the beauty of a scene but of the discovery process when preparing images.  I figured I could use a bit of that so I mounted the camera and macro lens to the tripod and went out into the drizzle to rediscover the magic of closeup photography.  I’m going to study Johnson’s work via his tutorials and ebooks and hope to retain the inspiration he is providing me at the moment.  For now, two images from the garden.