The Sony Alpha a1 Meets a Redhead, Field Report
Last week's goal was to put a significantly challenging subject in front of the Sony Alpha a1's AF system.
This project started with 350+ images of whitetail deer captured with the outstanding Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens. At f/4, this lens produces a shallow depth of field that presents an AF challenge. Initially, the deer were milling about (erratic motion), but the game was quickly upped when a large group of deer came in fast, primarily single file, leaping toward the camera position. With animal eye detection and the entire AF area selected, the a1 easily and impressively tracked these subjects' eyes and produced an extremely high in-focus rate, including when the deer were leaping at close distances.
Despite the in-focus aspect of the image, none of these pics were worth keeping as the deer were shedding their winter coats and looking shaggy. I needed pictures that would look good in a review. From a wildlife perspective, birds, primarily ducks, were the acceptable subject I had access to.
After watching the weather forecast and the migration reports for some hotspot locations within driving distance, I made a final decision. On this day, the temperature was going well above freezing, and clear skies were forecasted. Bright sunlight brings out birds' iridescent colors, and the sky color reflects in the water, which, in this case, provided a surrounding blue color in the image (deep blue late in the day). The wind speed was supposed to be light for calmer water. The temperature was going to be comfortable — sitting in the water in the wind and sub-freezing temperatures complicates duck photography.
On this morning, I drove to the closest of the four selected locations, about 2.5 hours away. Unfortunately, the perfect subjects, the wood ducks reliably found there, were not there. While Canada geese were plentiful, I was looking for something different.
Plan B was immediately implemented. The Chesapeake Bay location was 2+ hours farther away, but this location is best in the afternoon, so there was still time to make it there for the ideal lighting.
Upon arrival, I discovered that the huge winter flock of ducks was down to a small fraction of the count. I expected a reduced count, but not this reduced. Fortunately, a selection of the ideal species was there, and with fewer birds, it was easier to isolate individual subjects, making the situation was ideal.
The scenario was ideal except for some wind that made the water choppy. Ideally, swimming duck photography is done at the water level, with the camera just above the water. This low camera position provides a side view of the duck, with a more-distant background, meaning the background has a stronger blur, making the subject pop.
When photographing floating ducks, getting the camera low involves sitting in the water, with chest waders and thick insulated pants required at this time of the year. With the high-frequency wind chop, splashing salt water was an issue, requiring a slightly higher camera position (a LensCoat rain cover protected most of the camera and lens). An unexpected wind complication was that bobbing with the ducks while looking into the viewfinder contributed to a strong sense of motion sickness.
Ducks floating on water may seem a low challenge to photograph (the proverbial sitting duck), but this scenario was the completel opposite. Many near-1' (0.3m) waves rocking the already-twitchy, constantly-erratically moving ducks and me (at different frequencies) made keeping a duck in the 600mm frame (I started at 840mm with a 1.4x teleconverter) extremely challenging (especially when the duck was obscured by a wave). I monitored image sharpness until becoming confident that a 1/3200 shutter speed eliminated motion blur in most pictures.
One of the biggest wildlife (and portrait) photography challenges is to keep the proper AF point selected. A motionless subject permits a focus and recompose strategy, but moving subjects require selecting a specific AF point that produces the optimal composition while remaining on the subject's eye. Fast AF point selection is an especially big challenge for unpredictable wildlife. Tracking a twitchy, bobbing duck with a specific focus point held on the eye would have been nearly impossible. However, the 600mm, f/4, close distance combination's shallow depth of field made focusing precisely on the eye a requirement.
Eye AF eliminates this challenge for a significant percentage of subjects. With the Sony Alpha a1's eye AF enabled, bird selected as the subject, and the entire AF area chosen (most of the frame), I was left to concentrate primarily on framing the scene and timing the shutter release press. Note that, when eye AF is locking on the subject, gloves are no longer an impediment to cold-weather wildlife pursuits.
When many changes are happening simultaneously, a fast frame rate has your back. I began shooting in the 30 fps drive mode but backed off to 20 fps when I saw how fast the image count was increasing.
Twenty fps is still an exceptionally fast frame rate. Most 20 fps shot sequences captured, minimally, a properly-framed duck image, and often, many well-framed shots, despite all of the motion (ducks would sometimes bob from one frame border to another during a short burst). With 20 fps capture, I didn't feel the need to repair closed necessitating membranes as the previous or next image still had the ideal pose. The foreground and background matter, and wave and reflection nuances vary constantly. These elements can be the deciding factor for selection, and the 20 and 30 fps capture rate provides considerable options in this regard.
That the a1's viewfinder responded fast enough to keep the birds in the frame was remarkable, and the lack of viewfinder blackout was also critical. Even more remarkable was the extremely-high in-focus rate the a1 delivered. In this 3:45 shoot, 8,985 images were captured, and in almost all of them, the eye was in sharp focus – even when the eye bounced into the periphery of the frame.
When packing, four batteries seemed a lot, but 4% of the fourth battery was consumed by the time I walked out of the water. That said, capturing nearly 3,000 images per relatively-small battery is great performance.
Similarly, taking a full terabyte of memory cards seemed overkill, but the last 256GB card was half-filled when shade reached the water. As much as I want to purchase CFexpress Type A memory cards for the a1, I can't get past the current price. Let's put a Type A number on this day. As I write this, adequate 160GB Type A memory cards to contain this under-4-hour shoot would have cost $2,394.00.
In comparison, four fast Lexar 256GB Professional 1667x V60 UHS-II SDXC Memory Cards currently cost $300.00.
With these Lexar cards, the a1 was writing the buffer to the card most of the time. This writing prevents some camera features from being accessible, though image playback functions during the writing process.
Ultra-high performance AF combined with an extreme frame rate results in a problem, albeit a great problem — too many excellent images yield a long selection process. You may have foreseen this issue: reviewing nearly 9k photos is a massive project, and the phenomenal in-focus rate makes that job far more difficult. It is hard to delete excellent pictures, but the quality bar must be raised (or considerable hard drive storage space acquired). Again, the a1's extreme performance create a problem you want to have.
I didn't mention the a1's 50MP resolution in this post, but the bouncing ducks were often not ideally framed. This camera's high resolution meant that significant resolution remained even after cropping deeply.
The Robus RC-8860 Vantage Carbon Fiber Tripod (great tripod, excellent value) provided the support for this shoot. With the tripod leveled, the two-way pan and tilt of the smooth-functioning Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head ensured that every shot was level (though the wave action diminished this requirement).
The bottom line is that Sony Alpha a1, and especially its AF system, is an outstanding performer, as expected.
It was -4° F (-20° C) this morning and the wind was howling. The meteorologist was warning of frostbite occurring to exposed skin within 15 minutes.
I can take cold weather, but wind chills approaching -30° F (-34° C) are getting uncomfortable enough to keep me and a large majority of other photographers indoors. What is the answer for someone wanting to photograph outdoors when weather conditions reach this extreme? Wait until warmer weather arrives or go somewhere that is warm. The latter is of course my preference. Where to go? Closer to the equator, of course. Or, cross the equator to find summer.
One example of a winter photography location is southwest Florida. This location is renowned for its bird photography and the weather here is very comfortable most of the time including the middle of winter. Take you long lens and migrate with the birds.
This Roseate Spoonbill was found at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, Florida in late winter. The spoonbill was standing in place for a long time and I had taken plenty of shots of various standing poses – and insurance shots of the same. I was waiting, looking for a new and hopefully more interesting behavior. A preening session provided just that.
800mm f/8.0 1/400s ISO 100
Canon 7D II and 100-400 L II Get Close to a Royal Tern
There was a small flock of royal terns on the Captiva, Florida beach just north of Blind Pass and Sanibel Island. It would have been easy to stand and capture distant photos of the flock resting in the sand, but I was looking for something better. By lying down in the sand and moving forward slowly, the beautiful birds allowed me to get quite close without showing any signs of stress. So close that I had to zoom out somewhat to get the framing I selected for the bird in this photo.
That the 100-400 L II focuses so closely is a big benefit when the subject is small and you want to fill the frame with it or a portion of it. The close focusing is also useful in situations such as this one – when I got too close. As I said, there was a flock of birds and I was photographing various birds as their positions and behaviors warranted my attention.
A low shooting position often has the benefit of a clean background (the sky in this case) and provides a nice angle on most small birds and animals located on the ground. To make shooting while lying flat in the sand easier, I utilized a NatureScapes Skimmer Ground Pod II. To help darken the sky in the background, I used a circular polarizer filter.
Early and late in the day sunlight often provides the best lighting for bird photography, but nice images can be made at other times of the day. This royal tern photo was taken at 11:44 AM. At this time of the day, the sun is near its highest point, making shadows harsh and the color temperature of the light cool. By carefully timing the shutter release, I was able to catch bird positions that minimized shadows (especially on its head) and that included a catchlight in the eye. Sunlight reflecting on sand also helps minimize shadows (though not as well as the snow that was on the ground at home on that date does).
With a white bird in full sunlight and under a cloudless sky, the exposure decision was easy. Lock in manual mode settings that included a shutter speed fast enough to stop any movement present (there was lots of action happening), an aperture that provided adequate depth of field and an ISO setting that caused the brightest areas of the photo to be *just* below blown (pure white) in brightness.
The 7D Mark II and 100-400 L II performed extremely well on this trip. The alert among you will notice that the reported full size pixel dimensions for this image are larger than those native from the 7D Mark II. I framed this bird tight to the top of the frame and used Photoshop's content aware fill to extend the canvas, creating more sky in the final image. This tactic created a modestly higher resolution image overall. Another option for increasing resolution would have been to capture a similarly-focused second frame with more upward angle, taking in much more sky for later stitching to the bird image.
I spent hours focusing on these birds and will try to share some additional images when I get time.
360mm f/8.0 1/1250s ISO 160
Cardinal Sitting on Snowy Spruce Branch
While the Canon EOS 7D Mark II is without a doubt an awesome bird photography camera, the Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM Lens is near the bottom of my bird photography lens list. Don't take me wrong – the 24 STM is a great little lens (a great bargain), but making a bird large enough in the 24mm frame to be relevant requires a very short subject distance or a short subject distance and a very large bird.
But, as this image proves (to me at least), the 24mm focal length can capture birds under ideal conditions. These ideal conditions with a wild bird in them come very infrequently, but ... one came to me this week. Here is the story:
I was outside giving the 24 STM lens a workout prior to wrapping up its review. We had a light snow followed by freezing rain overnight and warming air temps created a dense fog. Dense fog means low contrast which means evaluating lens image quality performance is compromised. But, these conditions can make for moody images and I was searching for something interesting.
After exploring the yard and surroundings, I came to like this lightly snow-and-ice-covered spruce tree best. I honed in on the set of branches shown in this image, working on placing the lines of branches and needles into an interesting composition. Still, I was looking at an only average image. It needed something.
Then my daughter walked out of the house announcing "I have a cardinal!" The unfortunate bird had made a navigational error and impacted a window of the house. Brittany had rescued the bird from the shrubbery.
In this part of the world, at this time of the year, no other bird is as beautifully colored as the cardinal and perhaps no other subject can make a snowy image pop more perfectly than a cardinal. As the bird gathered its wits, I placed it on the ideal branch in my composition and captured some images of it – from any distance I desired.
I knew that I wanted the cardinal large in the frame. Large in the 24mm frame meant moving in close, which also helped reduce the amount of background showing in the modestly-wide 24mm angle of view (on an APS-C/1.6x DSLR). Being close enough to the bird for the ideal large-in-the-frame composition meant that I had to be very careful to not make one part of the bird (such as the wing) look unusually large in relation to the rest of the bird (perspective distortion). A slightly forward-of-the-bird position seemed to work the best and the spruce branches provide leading lines to draw a viewer's eye to the bird (in case the color contrast was not enough). The bird was not completely still and capturing the right head position (looking slightly toward the camera) required good timing.
To have this ideal subject show up and cooperate for a few minutes at this exact time was divine. The cardinal flew away, apparently unharmed, not long after this picture was captured.
24mm f/8.0 1/30s ISO 200
Canon 7D II Captures Bald Eagle in Flight at Conowingo Dam
I generally prefer to avoid the hand-of-man in my wildlife images and when setting up at the Conowingo Dam, I positioned myself to best avoid the dam, wires and other non-natural objects in my backgrounds. But ... those man-made objects were not always avoidable and ... the Conowingo Dam is a big reason why the eagles are there in the first place. And, it is a landmark among bird photographers. It is not unusual to find half a million dollars worth of gear on the shoreline below this dam. So, I find it fitting to include the dam in the background of a bald eagle image. In this example, I like the evenly-repeating pattern of the heavily blurred dam in the background.
The 7D II performed very well this day. I used the 600 L II IS lens for maximum reach and used the 1.4x III extender some of the time. The 1344mm effective angle of view proved challenging for tracking the erratically-flying eagles and I eventually removed the extender. However, some of my favorite shots of the day would not have been nearly as good without the extender in place. So, the with or without extender decision must be weighed in light of circumstances.
840mm f/5.6 1/1600s ISO 1600
Strutting Turkey Close-Up Picture
Turkeys are challenging subjects - they don't stop moving. This movement combined with a background that is not great in all of the directions the movement goes makes getting nice pictures challenging. For this shot, I moved in to completely remove the background from the frame.
600mm f/5.6 1/320s ISO 400
The 7D II, 100-400 L II and a Great Egret
The Canon EOS 7D Mark II, EF 100-400mm L IS II Lens and a great egret make a great combination. With the egret perched above me and the setting sun behind me, the remaining challenge was to catch the constantly moving bird in ideal positions with AF locked on the eye. The camera and lens performed really well on the latter requirement and my own performance on the former was good enough to land me a pile of shots that I like.
What are the ideal subject positions for bird photography? There are many, but side-on to the bird with its head straight forward or turned slightly toward the camera is a basic ideal position. While this bird was directly facing me, that long neck could position the head in a variety of positions and the sideways but turned slightly toward me position worked well in this situation. The gust of wind ruffling the egret's feathers added the extra interest I'm always watching for.
Compositionally, I like the two black legs (leading lines) coming up into the frame, positioning the bird at about 1/3 of the way into the frame. The bird looking into the frame adds the needed balance to the image. Cropping the legs (vs. including the entire legs and feet) in-camera allowed the bird's beautiful body to be larger in the frame and allowed me to avoid the background distractions that lower framing would have included. With the wide zoom range available in this lens, I had a large variety of framing options available and I used many.
The 7D II's top-center AF point was selected and placed on the on the bird's eye. That the 7D II's AF system covers an area that close to the edge of the frame made capturing this particular image very easy relative to the focus and recompose technique most other DSLRs require in this situation. The great egret's long neck was constantly moving the head to new positions and I had only an instant to catch any of these positions. By the time I would have recomposed after focusing, the bird would have been in a new position most of the time.
Though an f/10 aperture used with the 7D II will show some softening due to the effects of diffraction, I wanted as much of the close bird to be in focus as possible. A low sharpness setting of "2" was used in DPP with very light/fine sharpening added in Photoshop CC for a very sharp end result. Even with f/10 selected, I had enough light to use a 1/320 sec shutter speed (though marginal for the moving bird) at ISO 100.
My "great" image is basically straight out of the camera with a small amount of bill cleanup done and white balance cooled slightly as the light was extremely warm at the moment of this capture.
200mm f/10.0 1/320s ISO 100
Bald Eagle Flying with a Fish
"How well does the Canon EOS 7D Mark II perform when shooting birds in flight?" has quickly become a frequently asked question. The Canon EOS 7D Mark II, especially because of its high performance AF system, high density imaging sensor, fast frame rate and modest-for-what-you-get price, is quickly finding favor with bird photographers. And, one of the biggest challenges faced by bird photographers is maintaining focus on birds in flight. Thus, the question is getting asked.
I had the privilege of spending the larger part of a day shooting bald eagles below the Conowingo Dam in northern Maryland with the 7D II this week. My goal was to discern how well this AF system could track the often-erratic movement of these beautiful birds in flight (and to hopefully come away with some nice images).
The day's moderate-to-heavy cloud cover eliminated any harsh shadow issues, but made the sky a white canvas (white sky is OK, but is not my favorite) and provided low light to further challenge the AF system. The bottom line is that I'm really impressed with my success rate from this day.
I was using the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM Lens with and without a Canon EF 1.4x III Extender behind it. Tracking these fast and erratic-moving birds with such a narrow angle of view was quite challenging, but when I kept the selected center AF point or one of the 4 neighboring AF points (based on the AF area I was using) on or even close to the bird I was tracking, most of the images were properly focused. Especially impressive was the ability of this camera to maintain focus on the birds even with backgrounds that the birds visually blended into and even more impressive was this camera's ability to maintain focus on the birds even with high contrasting backgrounds including electrical line towers and bare tree branches against a bright sky. I was using the AF Case 2 to instruct the camera to be slow to leave a tracked subject due to obstacles.
This camera is a great choice for bird photography. The consensus that I'm hearing from the other photographers frequenting Conowingo Dam is that their 7D Mark II experiences mirror my own.
After catching its dinner, this eagle in the above picture flew directly toward the camera. I began tracking and shooting at 10 fps. I have numerous good images of this eagle, but this was the most-frame-filling that did not cut off any significant amount of the bird. This image is essentially right out of the camera. I extended the canvas slightly to the bottom, added the extreme tip of the two bottom-most feathers and removed imperfections from a couple of other feathers. I changed the Picture Style to Standard (in DPP), changed saturation to "1", white balance to "Cloudy" and added a touch of noise reduction.
I have added a 10 fps burst example of flying eagles (a juvenile chasing an adult with a fish) to the Canon EOS 7D Mark II Review. The wing positioning shown in this series of images will assure you that 10 fps is definitely not too fast and at times, I needed a frame between the neighboring frames – such as at the moment the eagles grabbed a fish in the water.
600mm f/5.6 1/1250s ISO 1000
Bird of Prey Feather Close-up
When photographing this close to a subject, it becomes difficult to get light past the lens. The Canon MR-14EX Macro Ring Light makes this task simple. The feather is evenly lit and, with the quick burst of flash providing all of the light, very sharp even though shot with a narrow aperture under dim lighting.
100mm f/11.0 1/160s ISO 100
The 7D II and 100-400 L II Rocked in SW Florida
I took my own advice and left the crazy cold N 40° latitude (-4° F/-20° C) for the warmer weather of Florida and just over a week of (primarily) bird photography. Although I had a 5D Mark III and 1D X along, the Canon EOS 7D Mark II was glued to my hand for most of this trip and the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens was glued to the camera most of that time. As noted in the title, this combination rocked and with relatively-cooperative birds, my take-home is a bit voluminous.
The subject shown here is a Great Blue Heron in breeding plumage. To capture this image, my first priority was to get in line between the sun and the bird with the low, late-day sun creating good subject lighting. By maneuvering to a slightly lower vantage point than the bird, I was able to create a background composed completely of blue sky. No distractions there.
A big challenge remaining was to get the bird properly aligned for a pleasing composition. A side-on angle to the bird with the head straight or turned slightly towards the camera usually works great. The challenge in getting that angle was that the bird, especially its head and neck, was constantly moving. I selected the top-right AF point in the center block of AF points (closely aligned with the bird's eye) and when the bird was in a position that worked for me, I quickly captured the image.
I was shooting handheld for maneuverability and setup speed reasons. The 7D II and 100-400 L II combo's size and weight are especially nice for this type of shooting.
Some are asking if the 7D II images are sharp enough for serious work and I can assure you that the answer is "Yes." EOS 7D II images are very sharp. Because ultimate image sharpness capabilities are not completely discernible from reduced-size images, I have made the full-size version of this image available for download here. You are granted a license to use this image for personal gear evaluation purposes including further processing of the image. This is a 10.2 MB .JPG file that was sharpened very lightly. Sharpen to your taste (perhaps add a little saturation) and then follow the plane of sharp focus through this image to see what the 7D II and 100-400 L II can do.
182mm f/8.0 1/500s ISO 100
Drying Brown Pelican
A Brown Pelican dries itself in the warm late-day sunlight.
For ideal bird photography lighting, I oriented myself so that I was between the sun and the pelican (or nearly so).
600mm f/8.0 1/250s ISO 160
A Pied-billed Grebe swims across tidal waters in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
I liked the small wake showing motion, but the frame had a lot of nothing above and below the bird and its wake. So I cropped it to a wide format.
800mm f/8.0 1/640s ISO 200
One method of getting a clean background at Venice Rookery is to shoot into the sky. This Anhinga cooperated long enough for me to take advantage of the clear background.
800mm f/10.0 1/500s ISO 400
American White Pelican
In the right location (such as Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge) and on the right day, the biggest challenge to photographing American White Pelicans is to keep them properly framed and in focus - at the same time of course. But, always look for something more than a simple portrait of the species (after you have a few dozen of those). In this case, a tiny fish is about to become breakfast.
800mm f/8.0 1/800s ISO 160
Black-capped Chickadee in the Sun
A late afternoon winter sun casts a warm light on my cute little Black-capped Chickadee subject. The White Pine branch was clamped to a hanging feeder.
500mm f/8.0 1/250s ISO 200
Wood Duck Drake
Photographing amazingly-colored wood ducks has been on my bucket list for a long time and, when I located some potential subjects, I dropped everything and made the 6-hour round trip drive to photograph them.
While I had done some intelligence gathering (via a friend), I went prepared for the full range of bird photography scenarios. This included taking the just-reviewed Canon EOS 80D mounted to a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens and a Canon EOS 5Ds R mounted to a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM Lens with a Canon EF 1.4x III Extender behind it in a MindShift Gear FirstLight 40L Backpack.
Upon arrival, I was able to quickly locate the wood ducks. However, they proved to be a big challenge to photograph due to their constant, often-quick movements and the ideal lighting angle required, minimally, for their iridescent colors to show.
I ended up using the 600 with 1.4x on the 5Ds R the entire time due to the distance and rather small size of the ducks. The 840mm focal length gave me a deep ideal subject framing distance. I captured environmental portraits when the birds were distant and tight portraits when they came close, a logical tactic that provided a variety of subject framing in the take-home.
The subjects were in constant motion and that means AI Servo AF mode was required to keep them in focus. Specifically, a focus point needed to be constantly placed on the wood duck's eye. I shot in Case 1 (general purpose) and Case 5 (instant adjustment for erratic motion) AF Modes on this day with Case 1 showing the best results. I also used the 5 fps burst drive mode, in part because birds blink with some frequency. Capturing minimally a few frames at a time usually results in at least one fully opened eye.
In the end, the daytrip was very worthwhile, with hundreds of keeper-grade images resulting from the effort.
As seems often the case (I think that Murphy has a law to cover this), the image with my favorite pose had some minor motion blur due to the drake raising its head rapidly. To counter this, I reduced the overall size of the image (down-sampled) modestly. Along with some modest cropping, the remaining 5Ds R-captured image still has about 15 megapixels of resolution, an adequate amount for many uses. I used a layer mask to darken the background modestly, helping to place emphasis on the drake.
840mm f/8.0 1/1600s ISO 840
Great Egret Eating Grass Shrimp Picture
A Great Egret eats a grass shrimp. This frame is from a 10 fps burst of the quickly eaten meal. The little shrimp's last moment in life is captured in the middle of the Great Egret's open bill.
150mm f/8.0 1/400s ISO 400
Rufous-sided Towhee Picture
A Rufous-sided Towhee about to take flight. I like how the tail angle matches the angle of the log it is perched on. A 25mm Extension Tube was mounted for this shot (though maybe not needed) - corner darkening is from the ET.
800mm f/6.3 1/80s ISO 400
Florida Brown Pelican
A Florida Brown Pelican sitting on a pier preens in the late afternoon sun.
The relatively flat Captiva Island landscape means that the warm late-day sun reaches the island's eastern/bay-side dock piers - providing great lighting for photographing the pelicans that like to sit on these piers.
I carried the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens with the Canon EF 2x III Extender for my lightweight bird lens on this trip. The f/8 image quality this combo delivered is impressive.
600mm f/8.0 1/640s ISO 400
Capturing the Little Green Heron
This little green heron was hunting for early morning breakfast in a relatively thick-growth area over shallow, duckweed-covered water. While the bird was not at all concerned about my presence, I was struggling to acquire a clear view of it, and finding a good body angle along with a pleasing background aligned within such an opening was especially challenging. When the bird hopped up onto this dead limb and walked to the end of it, pausing to determine its next move, I at least had a few seconds with a relatively still bird.
And at that moment, I had two of those three goals met. The heron was horizontal to the camera and the background was distant with good color. The foreground obstructions were the remaining issue.
I shifted my position enough to get a clear view of the bird's head, focused and held the shutter release down for a short burst (always photograph birds in high speed burst mode as you, minimally, never know when a nictitating membrane is going to come across the eye). When reviewing the result, I was pleasantly surprised to see how well the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM Lens faded the foreground obstructions into a "dreamy" look. Note that calling any kind of photo effect "dreamy" always put a positive spin on an effect that might otherwise be used to downgrade an image, but ... I do like how this one turned out with this photo having a unique appearance.
The lighting conditions for this shoot were ranging from direct early morning sunlight to full shade. I was using Manual exposure mode with the aperture set to wide open (f/4) and ISO set to Auto, allowing the camera to adjust to the lighting conditions as needed with me adjusting the exposure composition as lighting situations required. While shooting, I could quickly adjust the shutter speed by simply rolling the top dial. When the bird was about to strike at prey or otherwise move, I quickly selected a fast shutter speed (such as 1/1600 or higher).
Of course, when the subject was in full shade, as seen here, 1/1600 meant a very high ISO and that of course means higher noise level in the image. When the bird paused at the end of this dead limb, I quickly rolled the shutter speed down to 1/400 with ISO 2000 being camera-selected. Full frame ISO 2000 looks great. And, that is my little green heron story for today.
600mm f/4.0 1/400s ISO 2000
Don't like shooting in the extreme heat and humidity of summer? Be like the birds – migrate! For most of us northern hemisphere residents, the preferred direction is north.
I was recently privileged to do just that, spending a week 26 miles from the grid in the North Maine Woods, just below the Canadian border. The temperature here in late July was very pleasant during my entire stay.
The North Maine Woods are sometimes referred to as the "Silent Woods" by my family, referencing specifically the lack of crickets, cicadas, katydids, etc. making the loud night music we are accustomed to at home. But that declaration is not completely true. Along with some frogs, the clear, eerie call of the loon is a common night sound heard around the silent, pristine northern Maine lakes. It is a sound that I love to hear and a photo of that audio source brings back great memories.
I have photos of common loons, but ... none that stood out to me. I have wanted change that problem on this trip and to do so, I spent just over hour early each of four mornings attempting to photograph these beautiful birds.
My craft was a canoe. Being solo in the canoe with light and changing winds added to the challenge of positioning for the photos. Getting close enough for adequate frame filling while positioning between the loons and the sun all while not concerning the not-too-tame birds was not easy. A light wind being able to rapidly turn the canoe was definitely not helpful.
My case was a Pelican. As it is only fitting to use a case named after a bird while photographing birds, I stored the camera and lenses in a "Pelican" 1510 while in transit between shore and actively photographing the birds. While the Pelican case lacks official approval as a PFD, it floats very nicely in the event of a worst case scenario. There was no worry about water from the paddle dripping on it and no worry about water on the floor of the boat reaching the gear.
The Canon EF 100-400mm L IS II was my Lens choice for these outings. While a 600mm lens would have been more ideal from a focal length perspective (due to the distance that the loons were comfortable with), it would not have been easy to handle this lens in the canoe, especially when alternating between paddling and photographing. The 1.4x behind the 100-400 L II would have also been helpful, but ... that option was not available to me.
The Canon EOS 5Ds R was my camera choice. Having the tremendous resolution of the 5Ds R allowed me to crop deep into the frame with significant pixel dimension remaining. At least 24 megapixels remained in most final images and some required no cropping for a frame-filling loon. Framing loosely had some advantages. For one, the loons were seldom still. And, by sticking one leg straight out the side, loons can change directions 180° almost instantly. That is much faster than I could change the canoe's direction and faster than I could change an AF point to the opposite side. With the center AF point locked on the bird's head, I was ready for any direction change with the bird (often) remaining (relatively) easy to keep entirely in the frame with only slight recomposition needed.
While I cropped the loons rather tightly in most images, being able to go back to the RAW file means that I can open images up if/when more space is needed around the birds such as for titles and text. The background, primarily reflections of the forest with some sky, are beautiful in their own right and in this photo, I especially liked the reflected colors of the forest being hit with early morning light. The white birch tree reflection is another key location identifier to me.
Photo trips such as this one provide extremely educational firsthand experience. One of my take-aways from this loon photography experience is that loons blink a LOT after surfacing into bright sunlight. Once I noticed that behavior, I was careful to time the shutter release with an open eye (and utilized burst mode more frequently).
Crossing this photo off of my bucket list was not a small effort (some might say that I went "loony"), but the pile of keeper-grade loon images I brought home was a bit daunting to sort through. Selecting the one to share with you first was an even bigger challenge. Being in a far north latitude meant that this effort was "no sweat."
400mm f/6.3 1/500s ISO 800
Snowy Egret Picture
A Snowy Egret stands on a stump in the water at Assateague Island National Park.
800mm f/8.0 1/400s ISO 160
Double-Crested Cormorant Drying Wings with White Pelican Background
It is not unusual to find double-crested cormorants drying their wings. Images of these birds doing so are often entertaining, but I am always looking for positive additional elements in my images.
The first positive additional element in this image is the still, shallow, reflective water the bird is standing in. The reflection doubles the primary subject of interest and brings in the blue sky color.
The reflection also pulls in the white and orange color of a flock of white pelicans standing in the water behind the cormorant. White pelicans are not so common in the places I frequent, so having a large flock of them behind my wing-drying bird provides me a positive additional element. That the light-colored reflection provides higher contrast on the cormorant's dark head, where the viewer's eye is to be drawn, is also positive.
The location for this photo was Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, Florida. The choice of the 600 f/4 L IS II Lens with a 1.4x III behind it was made for maximum reach for the 1D X (along with the superb image quality the combo provides).
I love tightly framed bird portraits, but in this case, my 1D X was focal length constrained, limited to the angle of view provided by the 840mm lens combo (unless I cropped and that option still remains). Composing good environmental bird photos is often more challenging tightly-framed portraits, but when done well, they can look great. In this example, I chose to have a clean bottom border of water and a mostly-white top border. If you follow my work, you know that I like how borders free of contrasting lines keep the viewer's eye within the frame. Beyond that strategy, I was trying to balance the elements remaining in the frame.
While that last sentence may sound easy, the cormorant was constantly changing its head angle. If the bird was looking to my right, I needed to frame farther to my right. And, vice versa. That meant that I had to either change the selected AF point very quickly or that I had to recompose after focusing. My choice here was to quickly select the AF point to one that landed on the bird's head. I made this choice over the recomposing options because I was counting on capturing more than one image before the head moved to another position.
I ended up with many keepers from this short session, but ... I think that this image is my favorite.
840mm f/8.0 1/500s ISO 320
Tufted Titmouse 3
A beautiful Tufted Titmouse stands atop a dead tree.
840mm f/7.1 1/160s ISO 200
Sharp-Shinned Hawk Picture
This Sharp-shinned Hawk made an attack on the birds I was photographing. He appropriately perched on a Blue Bird Box nearby after the failed attack.
840mm f/7.1 1/100s ISO 200
Common Tern in Flight Picture
Tracking in AI Servo mode was used to capture this Common Tern in fast downwind flight. A fast-focusing lens is required to catch this type of shot.
400mm f/5.6 1/1250s ISO 640
Photographing Birds and Other Wildlife on the Water and Ground
The ideal height to photograph wildlife, especially birds not flying (perched, standing, walking, swimming, etc.) is most often when the camera is level (pitch) and the bird is properly framed. Basically, this is the same level as the subject.
If the bird is on the ground and the ground is flat and void of visual obstructions, getting flat on the ground is a great option and a ground pod is a great support for this position.
If the bird is in or on the water, getting to their level immediately becomes more complicated. The embankments of most water bodies are raised at least somewhat over the water and that makes it hard to get down to bird-level from outside of the water. If possible, and you are OK with the risks involved, getting in the water can be a great way to get down to close to the ideal level. Still, the comfortable/safe height of the camera (and likely the tripod head) above the water usually leaves the bird at a still-lower elevation.
The next option is to get farther away. If the bird is near you, the camera will be angled downward more than if the bird is farther away. Of course, moving farther away means the bird is smaller in the frame. That is, unless a longer focal length is used.
Very long focal lengths are ideal for bird photography for a couple of reasons. The obvious reason is that they make the bird appear large in the frame from a less-frightening (mattering only to the bird usually) distance. The other reason coincides with one of the reasons for shooting from a level: to strongly blur the background.
Long focal lengths magnify the background blur, giving images a more-strongly blurred background that makes the subject stand out. Aside from the perspective making the bird look good, shooting from a lower position pushes background farther into the distance, farther outside of the depth of field and making your long focal length lens blur powers even more magical.
For this image capture, I was wearing chest waders and a Gore-Tex coat and sitting in the water up to my elbows (where the Gore-Tex jacket became an important part of the wardrobe). The temperature was in the 40s F (single digits C) on this day, so I had many layers on in addition. The tripod was positioned so that the apex was just above the water line and I was bent over to reach the viewfinder. Note that I'm not saying that a low shooting position is comfortable, especially after over 4 hours of not moving. But, what is comfort when making a good image is at stake?!
Being as low as I could go and using a long focal length (840mm) on a full frame body provided a great background blur right out of the camera. Of course, it is hard to take a bad picture of a subject as beautiful as a wood duck.
840mm f/8.0 1/1600s ISO 2000
Great Egret with Dragonfly Picture
This Great Egret struggled to get this large dragonfly down its throat for several minutes. It just couldn't get those big wings past its beak.
800mm f/8.0 1/320s ISO 100
White Ibis with Shrimp
This shrimp-hunting White Ibis was in a tidal pool at JN (Ding) Darling National Widlife Refuge in Sanibel Island, Florida. Bird photography at Ding Darling is hit or miss with tidal schedule being a key factor. Due to visitor restrictions, getting down to the bird's level is not possible at many of the better shooting locations in the refuge.
This White Ibis was looking forward with what I thought to be a not-pleasing eye position. A little Photoshop magic resulted in a centered eye.
800mm f/8.0 1/500s ISO 125
Great Egret Preening Picture
A Great Egret in breeding plumage preening. The dark legs anchor the picture. The body and neck flow around the picture into the beak cleaning a feather.
135mm f/9.0 1/160s ISO 250
Snowy Egret Headshot
While this beautiful bird had its eyes on dinner, I focused on getting a tight headshot with blue sky framing. The bird was in constant motion, so I aligned myself with the sun and held the single selected focus point (one to the right of top center) where I wanted the bird to be in the frame. As soon as the head turned to align with my vision for the shot, I pressed the shutter release. While my timing and/or framing was not successful on every attempt at this image, I really only needed to nail one of them. Persistence paid off.
The sky was clear (late in the day) and that meant the required exposure was not changing quickly. Stable exposure needs combined with a bright white subject shout "Manual Exposure" to me. I selected a manual exposure setting that made the brightest whites nearly blown and reduced brightness by 1/6 stop during post processing.
The sharpness of this image, captured handheld on the pixel-dense 7D Mark II with the 100-400 L II at 400mm, is really impressive. I see a lot of images, including a lot of sharp ones, but what I see here catches my attention. I highly recommend this lens (and camera), especially for birding and wildlife.
400mm f/8.0 1/500s ISO 100
Little Blue Heron Picture
A Little Blue Heron searches for breakfast in Assateague Island National Park.
800mm f/5.6 1/250s ISO 100
Snowy Egret with Fish
Assateague is filled with Snowy Egrets (during the right seasons of course).
400mm f/7.1 1/2000s ISO 400
Black-Capped Chickadee 5
A Black-Capped Chickadee stands on a piece of dead wood in this picture.
840mm f/8 1/160s ISO 100
A 5-Step Recipe for Bird Photography Success
Cookbooks are filled with successful recipes and successful bird photography is similarly not limited to a single recipe, but here is a recipe that works every time.
1. Start with a great camera and lens.
The Canon EOS 7D Mark II and Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens are excellent choices.
2. Find a beautiful bird properly posed against a clean background.
A snowy egret in breeding plumage easily qualifies for this main ingredient. A practically uninterrupted clear blue sky background frame keeps the viewer's eye on the main subject.
3. Time the bird meetup with an early or late day sun at your back.
Lighting is one of the most important ingredients to any photo. Early and late day direct sunlight, generally warm in color and slightly diffused in hardness, is a highly desired source of light. The 5:50 PM light was so warm in this case that I decided to cool the 7D II's AWB (Auto White Balance) choice very noticeably in post processing. Because the sunlight was directing my shadow toward the bird, subject shadows are very minimal.
4. Cue a side or tail wind to ruffle the bird's feathers.
Birds like to face the wind, keeping their feathers in line. When a side or tail wind presents itself, I like to take advantage of it. The ruffled feathers add a character to the image and in this case, the wind pushed the breeding plumage into better view.
5. Carefully time the shutter release
Birds are often constantly moving and timing the shutter release, in conjunction with balanced framing and accurate AF, is a challenge. With the 7D II's wide-set AF points, I was able to select a point that covered the bird's head without recomposing needed. When the bird turned its head to the side, I quickly pressed the shutter release and the 7D II's short shutter lag did not get in the way.
Compared to the effort required for many of my photos, this was a very easy photo to capture. Being at the right place at the right time to apply the recipe was all that was needed.
371mm f/8.0 1/200s ISO 100
A Mourning Dove sits on a large, dead tree limb. The 800mm focal length completely blurs the distant background. The Ameristep Stackhouse Ground Blind I frequently use for my bird photography was employed for this shot.
800mm f/7.1 1/160s ISO 640
Blue Jay Picture
A Blue Jay ruffles his feathers while sitting in the sun.
700mm f/6.3 1/100s ISO 100
Red Breasted Nuthatch Picture
I have a lot of favorite birds - the Red Breasted Nuthatch is one of them.
600mm f/5.0 1/200s ISO 320
Snowy Egret Showing Plumage
A Snowy Egret shows its beautiful plumage at the water's edge in Assateague Island National Park. The 1/1000 shutter speed was overkill, but I was shooting other action that required it - and didn't have time to change between opportunities.
800mm f/8.0 1/1000s ISO 400
Stellar Jay on Granite
The light-colored Yosemite National Park granite contrasts nicely with the beautifully-colored Stellar Jay. The Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens is not a good bird lens - unless the bird wants your lunch.
I liked this angle on the Stellar Jay because it shows a bit of the back coloration - the head turned slightly toward the camera makes this angle work for this shot.
105mm f/9.0 1/250s ISO 400
Great Egret Cleaning Feathers Picture
A Great Egret in breeding plumage cleaning itself. With a subject so beautiful, it is hard to get a bad shot.
150mm f/9.0 1/160s ISO 250
European Starling Picture
This European Starling is checking out dead trees in search of a nesting site.
600mm f/6.3 1/250s ISO 200
American Widgeon, Chesapeake Bay, Maryland
I'm evaluating Canon EOS-1D X Mark III images, selecting a few for inclusion in the review, and thought I'd take a moment to share an image of another amazing-looking duck, the American widgeon. The goal of this short trip to the Chesapeake Bay, in addition to testing the 1D X Mark III in the field, was to photograph canvasback ducks. Like most other wildlife photographers, I'm opportunistic and it wasn't hard to be attracted to the beautiful American widgeon. The colors, patterns, and shapes of this bird's feathers are incredible.
Again, I was sitting in very cold water just upriver from the Chesapeake Bay wearing chest waders (and a heavy layer of fleece insulation under them) to enable a low camera position.
The Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head held the big lens and mostly submerged under the Wimberley was a
Robus RC-8860 Vantage Series 5 Carbon Fiber Tripod.
Great Egret in Pine tree Picture
A Great Egret sits in a large pine tree in Assateague National Park. This is a common site in this great birding location.
800mm f/8.0 1/320s ISO 100
Dark-Eyed Junco 4
A Dark-Eyed Junco in the sunlight.
840mm f/8 1/500s ISO 200
Preening Sandwich Tern
What was the hardest part of this capture?
It was not the exposure. With a solid cloud cover, I was able to lock in a manual exposure for perfect results on every shot. In this case, I chose a 1/1000 shutter speed (the bird was moving a lot and quickly), an f/5.6 aperture (to isolate the bird using shallow depth of field) and ISO 160 to bring the brightest whites up to near RGB 255,255,255.
The challenge was not the tight framing of the bird. I was able to slowly belly-crawl close to the small flock of terns. So close that I only needed a 234mm focal length in front of the 7D II's APS-C sensor. I should have used a slightly wider angle still as I added a small amount of canvas on the left in post, providing additional breathing room for the wing.
The challenge was also not the low shooting position. Using the NatureScapes Skimmer Ground Pod II, I was able to push the camera forward as I crawled in the sand. Shooting from on the ground gave me a clean background (only sky) and the remaining land in the frame is primarily a blur of texture.
The big challenge? Timing the shutter release in conjunction with using the proper AF tactics to get this specific composition with the head included in focus. The sandwich tern cleaning process involved a wide array of moves, few of which I was able to predict and all of them fast. The head was constantly moving in what seemed like all directions and fast framing adjustment with a properly-selected AF point proved very challenging. A narrower aperture would have reduced the AF task, but the result would have been more ground in focus for a different look.
One aspect of this image that I like is the complete separation of the head from the body. Many of the preening positions did not have this attribute (and many had a completely hidden head). I also like the balance. While I don't often place my subject in the center of the frame, I felt that centered worked best in this case. The wing and tail balance the bird over the dark, eye-catching legs. The head extended to the right caused me to want the legs shifted just left of center to get what I felt was the right overall balance. My shooting position was low enough that only the legs intersected the color of the sand. The small amount of feather pulling through the bill is the bonus feature. I'll credit the 7D II's short shutter lag for enabling that timing.
This sandwich tern was on the gulf shores of Captiva Island, just north of Blind Pass. This location in southwest Florida is ideal for expanding one's bird photography portfolio.
234mm f/5.6 1/1000s ISO 160
Snowy Egret Flying with Fish
The Snowy Egrets would stand around the edge of the water, then take off, catch a fish and return to the banks eat it. Assateague Island National Park is loaded with the bait fish these beautiful birds are looking for.
800mm f/8.0 1/1600s ISO 500
Great Horned Owl in Nest Cavity
This mother great horned owl may be the most popular and most photographed of its species in the Mid-Atlantic states at this time. Being able to photograph a primarily-nocturnal bird, very visibly sitting in its nest throughout the day, is an unusual situation and MANY photographers took advantage of this opportunity. I made this opportunity a priority and carved most of a day out of my schedule to get my great horned owl photo.
The viewing area of this nest is in a public park with a significant bank and stream separating viewers and the owl family (two owlets are deeper in the cavity). This meant as much focal length as possible was needed in front of a full frame camera (and a significant amount in front of an APS-C model). For me, this meant the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM Lens in front of an EF 2x III Extender along with the ultra-high resolution Canon EOS 5Ds R.
While this uncropped image indicates a clear view on the nest cavity, that was not completely the case. Getting the right position for a semi-clear view of this owl was challenging and I spent much of this day leaning to the side so that I could use a tripod position immediately next to another cooperative photographer for the best-available view. My primary concern was getting a clear view through the tree branches on my side of the creek as these branches became very defocused and lowered contrast over a significant portion of the image if in the frame. The branches on the nest tree were of a lower concern as the healing brush in Photoshop made branch removal a trivial task.
While the owl spent most of the day sitting nearly motionless, it occasionally changed positions. When a loud motorcycle came into the park, the mother great horned owl showed her personOWLity, making for one of my favorite shots of the day.
1200mm f/11.0 1/500s ISO 800
Immature Black Crowned Night Heron
An immature Black Crowned Night Heron perches on a large, dead pine tree over the water.
800mm f/5.6 1/50s ISO 200
Tufted Titmouse in a Basket, Isolating with 85mm f/1.4
An 85mm lens is usually not my first choice for bird photography, but ... I can be an opportunist. When this shot presented itself, I saw the opportunity for demonstrating this lens' minimum focus distance combined with the look of the 85mm focal length and f/1.4 aperture. The shallow depth of field makes the tufted titmouse stand out in an image containing many potentially distracting details.
Aligning the edge of the bird within the gold ribbon also aids in isolating the subject and the Christmas-decorated basket "ties" the image into the season.
85mm f/1.4 1/200s ISO 200
Willet Standing on One Foot
Under a cloudy sky, the lighting was right at any subject angle and throughout much of this day at Blind Pass in Captiva, Florida. This giant softbox-like lighting permitted me to maneuver to the ideal angle for this subject (from the side) and the NatureScapes Skimmer Ground Pod II allowed me to comfortably work from right on the sand.
This low perspective caused the background content to be farther away. That distance, combined with a long focal length and close primary subject, meant that the background became significantly blurred. When it becomes a blur, the background's color and shapes become the primary concern.
In this case, the ocean was my background. The wave patterns, including breaking waves, supply the gently-changing color and shapes.
When the ocean is in your frame, shutter release timing often matters as the ocean is constantly changing. A wide variety of waves shapes worked well for this situation, but my final selection included not only the willet with ideal head and body angle, but also with most breaking waves (white color and shape) avoiding the bird's outline.
As I've said before, the Canon EOS 7D Mark II and EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II Lens make a great birding combo.
400mm f/5.6 1/320s ISO 100
Canvasback Duck, Chesapeake Bay, Maryland
The Canon EOS-1D X Mark III arrived mid-afternoon and immediately the battery went on the charger. Setting up the camera came next (didn't wait for a full battery charge) and shooting the noise test followed. Late-night packing ensued and the road trip started the next morning.
The goal of this trip was to give the 1D X III a workout and the Chesapeake Bay ducks seemed a good choice.
One of the challenges I frequently encounter when photographing ducks is selecting the correct focus point(s) in time to get an image before the duck changes direction again. Those webbed feet can make 180° turns very fast but the 1D X III's new Smart Controller is a game-changer in DSLR focus point selection. Simply slide a thumb (even with a glove on) across the AF-ON button's Smart Controller feature and the AF point moves in the same direction. Keeping up with the ducks is now considerably easier thanks to the Smart Controller — this feature is awesome. I'm now less-satisfied with my other DSLRs.
When photographing ducks, I seldom appreciate a downward camera angle. This means getting the camera down to the level of the duck which becomes complicated when the duck is swimming. Sitting in the low-40-something-degree-F water just upriver from the Chesapeake Bay wearing chest waders (with a heavy layer of fleece insulation under them) was the option selected. Obviously, the camera cannot go right on the water level, especially with saltwater sometimes having splashing waves, but getting into the water helps reduce elevation.
Another aid to a flatter camera angle is using a long focal length lens. The longer the focal length used, the farther away the subject needs to be for proper framing and to frame a farther-away subject requires the camera angle to be raised, creating a closer-to-level shooting angle.
Prior to leaving for this short trip, I had a number of accessories sent to me for testing.
Holding the camera and lens in the river was a Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head. The Wimberley Tripod Head II (full gimbal head including the cradle) is an awesome choice for holding a big lens. This head is very solid but the Sidemount version is even more rigid, weighs less, consumes less space, and provides a better handle (such as for lifting the tripod out of the river). The only downside to this side-mount head is that some lenses, primarily very large lenses with high-profile tripod feet, may not be perfectly centered over the head. This slight offset didn't seem to matter in my use with a 600mm f4L lens. My cradle will not likely see any future use.
Mostly submerged and holding the Wimberley Sidemount tripod head was a Robus RC-8860 Vantage Series 5 Carbon Fiber Tripod. This solid, heavy-duty tripod was a superb solution for anchoring (literally in this case) a 600mm f/4 lens on a pro body. I continue to be impressed by the quality of the Robus products, especially for the price. They are great values.
I might share another Canvasback photograph with you soon as I struggled to select between this one and a looser-framed shot (and many others).
The warm lighting on this duck is from a setting sun and the blue water color is courtesy of a blue sky.
Patterns in Nature, Snow Geese in Flight, Middle Creek WMA
I love images featuring patterns and textures and thought I would share one today. One way to find patterns is to look for large numbers of a similar subjects (practically anything qualifies) that are close together or can be moved close together.
Subjects for pattern and texture images can be found anywhere, including in:
I am especially fond of patterns/textures that occur naturally. When this flock of snow geese took to the sky, it was a matter of zooming to appropriate focal length and photographing the most-dense area of the flock. The thousands of white, orange and black birds against the blue sky resulted in a bright, colorful image. So, on this day, a frame filled with a random pattern of snow geese worked for me.
While texture and pattern images will not usually become the most-liked in your social feeds, they can work very well for wall art, in commercial advertising and for a large variety of other purposes. And, if you like them, that is reason enough to create them.
400mm f/7.1 1/1600s ISO 640
Great Egret with Speared Fish
A Great Egret has just speared its breakfast. Looks like a challenge to swallow.
800mm f/8.0 1/320s ISO 100
Gull Diving for Fish
A gull dives for fish in Assateague Island National Park.
800mm f/5.6 1/2000s ISO 400
Snowy Egret Hunting for Shrimp
This Snowy Egret is very intent on catching its shrimp breakfast. If the light is unchanging, I'm probably using manual exposure mode - especially when shooting a white subject on a dark background. I set the exposure so that there are no more than a few blinking highlights on the LCD with a Neutral Picture Style. Nearly every shot will then be properly exposed for ideal post processing image quality.
800mm f/8.0 1/500s ISO 125
Ovenbird with Ruffled Feathers
One of the keys to getting good wildlife photos around the house is of course having wildlife around the house. With even small yards able to attract wildlife (especially birds), the next key is having a camera with a good wildlife lens mounted and ready for immediate use when the wildlife shows up.
The incredible combination of the 1D X Mark II and EF 200-400mm f/4L IS lens has been taking on this duty for me recently. I have had a very high number of black bear sightings this spring (most frequently after the sun sets), and the range of focal lengths this lens has, including up to 560mm with the built-in extender, along with the f/4 aperture has been valuable.
On this rainy Wednesday, it was an ovenbird that made my day. This bird is typically found deep in the forest. While they tend to be low to the ground, the light levels there are dismal. On this day, heavy cloud cover provided reasonably bright and very soft lighting at the edge of the forest where this bird happened to be. The wet conditions provided a saturation boost and some tiny water droplets on the bird. The situation was ideal.
I quickly grabbed the camera and lens combo, threw the switch to place the extender in the optical path and went into action. I worked into a position that gave me an attractive background with a clear view of the bird, initially a profile. While I captured some ideal profile images, the bird began hopping into different positions and in this one, the tail wind ruffled its feathers. I'm still undecided between which of the two poses I like best, but decided to share this one as it appears more lively.
What is in the ovenbird's mouth? Good question. One item is an insect leg, perhaps from a grasshopper. The other is unknown, but perhaps a piece of moss or similar.
On this day, having a camera and lens ready to use for wildlife gave me a nice set of photos out of a very brief encounter with circumstances aligning nicely. The entire session only took a few minutes out of my day. Be ready and when opportunities arise, make the effort to go after them.
560mm f/7.1 1/200s ISO 2500
Cormorants, when fishing, spend much more time under water than above water. And where they surface is a big guess. Eventually this one and I got together for a shot.
800mm f/8.0 1/500s ISO 160
Great Egret Portrait
A resting Great Egret poses for a side portrait. It is certainly easier to keep the bill in focus with this pose compared to a front-on shot.
210mm f/10.0 1/160s ISO 250
Courting Blue Heron Pair
A pair of courting Blue Herons entertain in their Venice Rookery nest. Venice Rookery is a great location for birding, but a challenging location for photography. Getting a clean background is one of the challenges as you are basically shooting a small island full of nests in the middle of town complete with various structures.
I much prefer to shoot big lenses on the Wimberley Head II, but I had already limited out what I could get on a domestic flight - had to leave the Wimberley at home.
800mm f/8.0 1/250s ISO 100
Great Egret Preening Feathers Picture
A beautiful Great Egret preens its feathers on this overcast day. The breeding plumage really sets off this bird.
230mm f/11.0 1/200s ISO 320
A Black Duck duckling dabbles in the water, causing small waves to radiate from it. While I would have preferred a closer to water level shooting position, such was not available at this time. But, the higher shooting position better-captured the circular ripples and their reflections.
600mm f/5.6 1/640s ISO 200
Great Egret and a Fish
Well, it used to be a fish. It turned into Great Egret breakfast a few moments after this shot.
800mm f/8.0 1/250s ISO 100
Magpie, Rocky Mountain National Park
Eurasian magpies are common in many locations, but not where I live. Thus, they are more interesting to me than others. Especially interesting is that they are extremely intelligent (relative to animals in general). That these birds' loud calls can become annoying surely leads to local disinterest, but with their great colors and shape, it is hard to argue that magpies do not look amazing.
Magpies are not a subject I have set out to specifically target with a camera, but I will take advantage of incidental encounters. When one landed in a tree in front of me as I was chasing elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, I went into opportunistic mode. I had the right lens in hand and all I had to do was adjust the monopod height, direct the camera at the bird, focus on the eye and press the shutter release.
I of course pressed the shutter release many times in the short period of time the bird cooperated with me. Why did I select this particular image to share? Here are some reasons:
First, I like the head angle, turned slightly toward me with some sky reflecting in the eye to add life to the subject.
I also like the body angle. While the bird may be turned very slightly away and that is not usually my favorite angle, in this case, that angle allowed the iridescent feathers on the wing to show their colors prominently. The tail was angled downward enough to fit in the frame (that can be an issue when photographing magpies) and with a slight toward-the-camera angle, the iridescent tail feathers also showed their colors.
Aspects I like that were common to this set of images, in addition to the beauty of the magpie, include:
I was able to get to eye level with the bird (by quickly adjusting the monopod).
The background was very distant and became completely blurred with a close subject photographed at 600mm f/4. With all details in the background eliminated, the bird stands out prominently.
I also like that the lighting was very soft with a touch of rim lighting happening. Looking closely at the catchlight in the eye tells me this day was partly cloudy and that clouds were blocking the sun during this exposure.
Unless flying, birds are on something – a branch, sand, rock, water, etc. In this case, that something was a dead tree limb. That this particular limb did not distract from the bird and even had a little character was a positive aspect.
While Rocky Mountain National Park is an awesome location for elk photography, it offers much more.
Blue Jay Close Encounter
When reviewing a lens, I'm always looking for ideally suited subjects to photograph. The Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG DN OS Contemporary Lens is a great option to have on hand. It is perfect for wildlife photography, and this amazingly-colored blue jay timely volunteered a moment to pose for me.
When this bird showed up, providing a unique scenario, I was in full reactive mode. This fleeting opportunity was not expected, leaving no opportunity for preparation.
Working quickly with the Sigma telephoto zoom lens mounted to the Sony a7R IV, I first switched to Av mode. The overall scene was not especially dark or bright, so letting this competent camera determine the exposure was a logical, fast move.
A cloudy day meant that the late morning lighting remained soft and that the sun angle held little relevance. The camera could be positioned for the ideal bird angle, sideways or slightly facing the camera.
A cloudy day also meant somewhat dim lighting that called for a wide aperture. Not so fortunate is that wide open isn't especially wide for this lens. Very fortunate is that this lens is very sharp wide-open.
An additional benefit to this lens's specific wide-open f/6.3 aperture selection at 400mm is the relatively strong background blur, making the subject stand out, yet providing adequate depth of field for this close subject. Birds are seldom still, and ISO 400 seemed the immediate logical guess to go with this aperture, providing an adequately short shutter 1/160 speed.
After quickly capturing some insurance shots, the next move was to continue to work the scene, optimizing the composition. In this scenario, optimizing the composition included juxtaposing the background elements with the primary subject, primarily avoiding distractions around the bird's head and adjusting the camera elevation. More specifically, I moved to the left and slightly down.
With the next round of images on the card, moving closer seemed the next best option, and as close as the lens would autofocus was the subject distance for this image. While the entire bird was not close to fitting in the frame at this distance, I liked how much of the frame was filled with this bird's incredible colors. Of utmost importance is keeping the head entirely in the frame and providing some breathing room around the head. That concept meant cropping the tail out of the picture.
The next move was to rely more heavily on the Sigma and Sony coordinated optical stabilization, reducing the ISO setting to only 100. The bird was still enough for some of those images to be rendered sharply, but my eye preferred this overall composition better.
Those looking for a compact, lightweight, highly affordable telephoto zoom lens for Sony (or Leica) cameras should seriously consider the Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG DN OS Contemporary Lens.
How to Photograph a Flock of Flying Snow Geese
I've wanted to add an image of a densely-packed flock of flying snow geese to the porfolio for a long time. But, it was not until this year until I accomplished this task.
The first priority for photographing a flock of snow geese is ... to find a flock of snow geese. For many of us, when flocks of snow geese arrive is based on the birds' migration patterns. Find where these flocks typically travel and time your visit with theirs.
A good method of determining when the birds have arrived (or are expected to arrive) is to use wildlife management area status reports, including the historical reports as history in this form tends to repeat. While these reports are great aids to finding the flocks, remember that an entire population of these birds can completely leave an area within minutes. A location that is great on one day may be completely empty the next.
With a warmer winter than normal, the snow geese migrated early this year and, at the urging of two friends, I too went early. The location was Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area. Located at the border of northern Lancaster County and southern Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, this WMA is an about-2-hour drive from my house. While this is not a famous snow geese bucket list location that photographers most-target, the population at this location was estimated to be at least 50,000 on this day. And, that's a LOT of geese.
Mostly the white geese were swimming on the small lake, appearing as a large iceberg, or they were feeding in a nearby field, causing a small hill to appear snow-capped. While the huge numbers of geese in either of these two environments were interesting, the real show happened when they flew as a group. Even if one wasn't paying attention when the geese took off, a low thunder-like rumble was unmistakable and, if the flight path was overhead, the sky would darken (and an umbrella may be desired for protection from the strafing).
When photographing an individual bird, framing decisions are made in an at least somewhat more-controlled manner than when photographing a flock of birds. One reason that geese flock together is to make it more difficult for a predator to single out one bird as its prey and these flocks can have the same effect on photographers. With seemingly random chaos occurring, how does one create an attractive image?
Here are some thoughts for the flock:
The first thought is to simply go back to the basics. Start with focal length selection.
Perspective comes into play, but if you are photographing a flock of now-flying geese, it is likely too late to get a different perspective. Plan for that earlier, but ... geese always fly wherever they want to and predicting where they will fly will often be challenging. Predict as best you can (they like to take off and land into the wind) and react quickly to what happens.
How far away are the geese, how large is the flock and how wide of an area are the birds covering? If it is a small flock a long distance away and the birds are densely packed, a longer focal length will likely be best. That is, best unless more of the landscape is desired to be in the frame in order to create an environmental-type image. If the geese are close, the flock is large and/or the birds are widely spread out, a shorter telephoto lens might be a better choice.
For my Middle Creek WMA shoot, the birds went where they wanted to go, access was limited and even if it wasn't, moving fast enough to catch a flock of geese required some form of powered mobility. So, embracing what was available was, as often is, the thing to do. To handle this situation, I had a full frame Canon EOS 5Ds R and 600mm f/4L IS II Lens tripod-mounted using a Wimberley Tripod Head II. In the MindShift Gear FirstLight 40L at my feet was a second 5Ds R with a 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II mounted. When the flocks were far away, I used the 600. When the snow geese storm moved overhead in big numbers, I grabbed the 100-400. And when the squall became widespread overhead, I had the EF-M 15-45 on the EOS M5 ready to catch that scene as well.
Note that I started out this day with a 1.4x extender behind the 600mm lens, but quickly determined that the heat waves were too strong and sharp results were not possible at this magnification. Even at 600mm, many of my distant images were not tack-sharp until after the sun went low enough in the sky to end the heat source creating the air disturbance. So, yes, it is very possible to have too much focal length even if that focal length is more ideal for the scene as the additional magnification may be wasted.
The shutter speed required for sharp birds depends on how fast their details are moving across the pixels on the sensor. A large-in-the-frame bird moving at high speed across an ultra-high resolution imaging sensor requires a much faster shutter speed than a small-in-the-frame bird sitting on the lake does when using a lower resolution camera. Aperture and ISO settings are then balanced for depth of field and noise with the desired brightness being the other side of the equation. In regards to brightness, use care to not blow the white highlights on the birds, leaving no details in the white. If the birds were flying, I was mostly using a 1/1600 shutter speed and an aperture of f/8 or narrower was usually best to keep more birds in focus. Once the light faded, I began experimenting with much longer shutter speeds for a panning motion blur effect.
Bryan's Law of Bird Photography: The frame in a high speed burst containing the perfect wing position, head position, background alignment and lighting will time perfectly with the bird's blink.
When photographing birds, using the camera's high speed burst mode is often the rule. Especially with multiple birds in the frame, having many images to select from is going to be a big advantage for many of the above reasons.
I usually use only one specific AF point or one point plus the surrounding points. But, when a huge flock of geese is filling the frame, using the all-points-active can work very well, allowing you to concentrate on composition while the camera figures out which of the closest birds should be focused on.
Composition always matters and usually, the goal is a balanced composition. When such a huge flock of birds is flying, you need to figure out what a balanced composition is very quickly and see that in the frame no later than as it happens. The bottom line is that, unless you are shooting for someone else, if you are happy with the image, you nailed it. But, we are always trying to improve our skills and there are some composition variants that work well for the snow geese storm.
If the goose density is extremely heavy, just fill the frame with the geese and shoot away. Singling out specific birds is very challenging if they are not large in the frame and you are unlikely to notice the background through all of the geese. The huge quantity of birds essentially becomes a pattern and everyone likes pattern images, right?
If possible, determine which direction (in relation to the camera) the birds are flying and focus on your preference. I prefer an approaching side view, but all of the other directions have their own photogenic advantages, showing differing views of the geese bodies. If a large flock is flying within a location, such as over a lake, they may fly in a circular motion and you may sometimes have a choice. So, be ready to identify what you are looking for.
If the birds are not dense enough to hide the background, the background showing through must be considered in the composition. If the background is mostly a solid color, such as the side of a mountain, there may not be much concern in that regard. The background will be evenly colored and that often works well for flock backgrounds. It is hard to go wrong with a blue sky background for the white birds and images with birds flying against a sunset sky often look great.
Contrast draws the viewer's eye. If the background includes strong lines of contrast, such as where the land and sky meet or a waterline (often present where there are waterfowl), it is good to carefully position these lines in the frame. Use your landscape photography skills here – perhaps taking advantage of the rule of thirds.
When sitting or swimming snow geese flocks take off, they often peel away from one side of the flock in a surprisingly orderly fashion. The line between the stationary and flying birds can be incorporated into the composition.
When the birds are not filling the entire frame, additional compositional elements must be considered. Where the flock is positioned in the frame is a big consideration and again, the rule of thirds may be a good choice in these cases.
In the image I am sharing here, I could have filled the entire frame with a rather-high density of geese, but chose to include the water in the very bottom of the frame. I often like to keep a clean bottom frame border, giving the image a base to be built upon. Having the water in the frame in this case meant that some geese can be seen landing in addition to those still in flight.
When the flock was farther away, I often kept additional frame borders clean (void of geese) as well (especially the top border).
Especially if using an ultra-high resolution camera, don't forget that you can crop the image to create a better composition later.
Lighting always matters. At this location, I arrived early in the afternoon, giving me time to do some on-site scouting and planning to be ready for the late-day, low-angle, warm-colored light. Again, the birds fly when and where they want to fly and good images can be made at various light angles, but the sun at your back, your shadow towards the birds, early and late in the day is usually a sure-thing for wildlife lighting conditions. As mentioned earlier, shooting into the sunset can also work well, but be very careful to not look at the sun through a telephoto lens as serious permanent eye damage can occur. On a clear day, the sky opposite the nearly-set sun will also turn pink, creating a pastel background for your birds.
While a cloudy day will not provide the same illumination, the giant softbox effect from a cloudy sky results in a soft light with a lower dynamic range for greatly-reduced shadows and easier to control exposures. Ultra-bright, solidly cloudy skies may cause a background brightness issues when the birds are above the skyline. In this case, consider exposing the sky to be pure white for a high key effect. Or, there is nothing wrong with a gray background and silhouetting the birds is a strategy that can work.
At the onset of this trip, one of my goals was to capture frames densely-filled with geese, perhaps even with no background remaining. While I don't think any of my images were completely void of background, many images have multiple thousands of geese in them and some have very little background remaining. In addition to getting some fun images, it was a great learning experience and it was especially great to experience this phenomenal nature event.
Now, check the forecast and go find your own snow geese storm!
600mm f/8.0 1/1600s ISO 500
Snowy Egret with Shrimp
A Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge shrimp breakfast is about to be had by this Snowy Egret.
800mm f/8.0 1/500s ISO 125
A large gobbler struts to impress the ladies. A picture does not do justice to the show these birds put on - complete with thumping sounds.
600mm f/5.6 1/320s ISO 400
Roseate Spoonbill Feeding
A beautiful Roseate Spoonbill feeds at low tide in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida. The constantly moving back and forth head makes composition and critical focusing a challenge.
800mm f/8.0 1/400s ISO 125
Tricolored Heron Portrait
A simple portrait of a Tricolored Heron. Nothing exciting is happening here, but the bird is beautiful and the clean blue background is complementary.
800mm f/8.0 1/500s ISO 100
Wood Duck Close-up
This happy-looking wood duck drake was swimming in the Wissahickon Creek just outside of Philadelphia.
A key to good swimming duck photos is to get as low to the water as possible. Then, use a long focal length and a more-distant duck to get the camera angle even closer to level.
840mm f/8.0 1/1600s ISO 1250
Loon and Chicks Swimming in Liquid Gold
The titles "How to Turn Water into Gold" and "On Golden Pond" seemed also appropriate for this image. Regardless, gold was the theme here.
During my stay at Red River Camps in northern Maine this past summer, a pair of loons were raising their chicks on Island Pond. Especially unusual was that the chicks were very small for the mid-August timeframe. The loon's first nest had been attacked by a predator and the adult pair started over. With winter arriving early here, there was concern that the chicks would not be able to fly in time for migration and biologists were monitoring their progress. But, having small chicks available was a bonus from a photography perspective.
Hanging with these loons required a watercraft and a small canoe was my best option. A light wind made keeping the canoe properly positioned a big challenge and probably more time was spent paddling than photographing. The sun was setting and maintaining a position between the sun and the loons was the goal.
The adults were constantly diving for food and moving around the lake while doing so, but fortunately, they were in the area of the lake receiving the latest direct light when the sun went behind the trees. The color difference between shade light and a late day sun light is dramatic with shade light typically being very cool and direct setting sun light being very warm. As the sun went down, the water became shaded before the shoreline and shaded water usually shows reflections very well.
The photograph shared here was only lightly processed. The primary edit was selecting a custom white balance point using a patch of the adult loon's solid white feathers as the basis. Those feathers were in the shade and the result was a color temperature setting of 10500 K being established. At this setting, the reflected sunlit background becomes very golden and a slight saturation increase (+18 on a -100 to 100 scale in Lightroom) finishes off the liquid gold.
Be looking for opportunities to use the light color mismatch of sun and shade to your creative advantage when out photographing. The subject in the shade, background in the sun option as shared here often works well, but the opposite can also work, creating a blue-toned background with a properly white-balanced subject.
For those with Nikon-based kits, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E AF-S VR Lens is a great option for handheld wildlife photography.
The D850 is my current Nikon camera of choice for this purpose.
Knowing Your Subject: Mid-Air Bald Eagle Attack
Knowing your subject allows you to predict their behavior and to be prepared for the optimal moment. Knowing that bald eagles will frequently attack another eagle with food is one key to getting great photos of these birds. Of course, capturing the initial attack on the prey is great, but the secondary eagle against eagle attack is often at least as appealing.
In this example, the eagle on the left had just caught a perch out of the Susquehanna River. The rightmost eagle had been watching and almost immediately attempted to steal the fish from the rightful owner.
Knowing that an air-to-air attack was a high probability, I continued to hold the shutter down after the initial catch. The EOS 7D Mark II's fast frame rate (and deep buffer) was able to catch this ideally-timed action – the moment the opposing eagles met. In this case and in many others, neither bird ended up with the fish and the fish is seen flying through the air in subsequent frames.
840mm f/5.6 1/1600s ISO 1600
Laughing Gull, Island Beach State Park
Here are some tips for a sure-thing bird photo.
First, photograph with a level camera which means from the same level as the bird, potentially right at sand level when the bird is tight in the frame. The bird tight in the frame also lends to a successful bird photo.
The bird being oriented parallel to the imaging sensor usually works well and you can seldom go wrong with the head facing straight forward or angled slightly toward the camera. If you can see through the hole on the bird's beak, you are likely at least close to parallel. The bird is nearly centered in the frame with some extra space in the direction it is looking. Bonus points are awarded if the entire feet are visible.
A close bird, long focal length, wide aperture, and distant and uncluttered background combine to create a strong blur that makes the bird stand out.
Direct sunlight from low and directly behind the camera usually works well and the catchlight in the eye brings life to the subject.
The Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM Lens is an awesome lens and a great bargain but it is not the foremost bird photography lens ... unless the bird wants your lunch.
Canvasback Duck, Chesapeake Bay, Maryland #2
Do you like your bird images cropped tightly or do you prefer some breathing room around your birds?
I shared a canvasback duck image earlier today and mentioned that I was struggling to decide which of two images I liked better. While that topic is fresh on my mind, I thought I would share the looser-cropped image and get your opinion.
Which image do you like better?
The composition with the closer duck filling a greater percentage of the frame or the more-distant duck showing more surroundings?
Canon RF 800mm F11 IS STM Lens Catches Little Green Heron in Hunting Pose
When Canon introduced the RF 600mm F11 IS STM and RF 800mm F11 IS STM Lenses, a primary shortcoming was recognized. The F11 in the name gave many of us reason to pause – who would want a lens that only opens to f/11?
When shooting birds at relatively close distance with a long focal length, it is challenging to keep the entire head and bill in focus, and a narrow aperture is the solution. This lens is built for that specific solution, and bird photography is a good use for this lens.
The f/11 fixed aperture brings significant benefits, including light weight, compact size, and low price, and these features meet a range of other needs. Those not able to (or do not want to) carry heavy gear around, those not able to afford the expensive glass, beginners, kids, etc. are loving this lens and its 600mm sibling. These new RF lenses fill that niche.
The Canon EOS R5's animal eye AF performs incredibly well with this and other bird subjects.
While the f/11 max aperture reduces the camera's AF area (and pushes ISO settings up), there was no need to select a specific AF point to keep this little green heron's eye in focus within that area.
Simply frame and shoot.
The bird turned its head?
Frame and shoot.