Thursday, January 30, 2014

Shooting birds with depth

I downloaded an app called "DOF Master" awhile back thinking that this would be used entirely for landscape shots. I figured I would have it handy on my phone while setting up shots. So far, I have not used it as I planned. So I started thinking about depth of field (DOF) when I shoot birds, specifically multiple birds in a frame. Most of the time, I find that some birds lack focus because of my failure to adjust the DOF correctly and while everything else about the image works, that one issue kills it for me. For example, the first image below was shot with an aperture of f8.0 at 400mm focal length. My focus distance was probably less than 80 feet. According to the DOF Master, at 75 ft, the total DOF was 2.93 ft, which means there was less than 1.5 feet of focus behind and in front of the front bird, where I focused. The bird behind it looks to be about 1.5 ft away from it and when you examine the details on the birds, you can see that the second bird is slightly out of focus.

 Here's another one that did not make the grade, a classic flock of ibises coming in for landing. While I like many things about this image, lighting, background, positioning of the birds (and the fact they are all juveniles), the fact that I shot it at an aperture of f5.6 at 420mm killed it for me. With closer examination, the birds in flight are out of focus and at best guess I was about 100 feet away from them. With my settings, my DOF was less than 4 feet, and for sure, the incoming birds were not captured within that narrow range.

In the next image, the birds were much closer, probably 60 feet give or take 10. I shot it at f5.6 at 400mm. According to DOF Master, I had only 1.5 feet of DOF to work with. But, unlike the birds in the images above, these two birds are basically on the same plane of focus, so both are sharp.

Here's another image of multiple birds where one bird (the ibis) appears to be about 1 foot behind the black-necked stilt on the left, where I focused the lens. I was probably at least 80 feet away from the birds. I used an aperture of f8 with a focal length of 420mm. According to DOF Master, I had 3.5 feet of DOF, just enough to get all three birds in focused.

It isn't so much about the wading birds, but rather the nesting birds where DOF becomes such an important aspect of an image. Most of my images from the great white egret rookery include at least two birds in the frame. Last year, I was mesmerized by about 3 or 4 nests that all fell within a frame when I zoomed out to 250mm. The image below was shot at 400mm with an aperture of f5.6. I got away with the narrow DOF because I was about 120 ft away from the birds. I focused on the front parent and chick and according to DOF Master, I had about 3 feet of distance behind the front bird to work with. The second mother and chick focused in quite nicely as a result; but in retrospect, I would have preferred more DOF at f8 or f9.

The next image was at 300mm and f9.0. I was about 80 feet away and the DOF Master indicates that I had almost 8 feet of DOF. The last image was shot at 250mm, f9.0 and here I had over 11 feet of DOF. Both images had plenty of focus to go around to all the birds in the frame.

So with some thoughtful execution, the correct aperture setting will get all your birds in focus. Always consider three things, the distance between you and the subject (the shorter the distance, the lower the DOF), the lens focal length (the greater the length, the lower the DOF) and of course the aperture (the wider the aperture, the lower the DOF).

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Happy to be in Hell

I often take camping trips in the Everglades that begin on the long and tedious Hells Bay Trail. I have dozens of photographs taken while paddling there as I am irresistibly attracted to the morning sun's light on the mangroves and their reflections in the water. For something different, the image above shows a clump of paurotis palms seen along the trail. I keep saying that while mangroves are one of my favorite subjects to photograph, they are also among the most challenging. This is because in full light, mangroves have lots of contrasts. The human eye has no problem with this and can easily discern shadowed objects from highlighted objects. But no matter how well you use it, the camera cannot replicate that scene from a single exposure. Expose for the shadows, and the brights blow out. Expose for the brightness, and much detail will be lost among the darkness.

Of course, one way to overcome this limitation is to use multiple exposures. But, you really need a tripod to do that well. But what the hell, I decided to give it a shot while paddling on the trail. I got the boat steadied and metered the scene. I first metered off the brightest area and then again on the darkest and found that 4 stops would provide the necessary range with three images. I was pleased with the results and have decided that the tripod will start getting more use for shooting mangrove scenes. The two images (one above and one below) are both 3 images merged together.

The trail continued to delight me when at one point Vivian, who was a 1/4 mile or so ahead of me called me to say that hundreds of black birds where flying everywhere around her. I could see them ahead of me and as I paddled closer, realized they were tree swallows (I recently learned how to identify these birds!). There were hundreds of them swirling around above the mangroves, most likely catching insects in flight. What a treat to see them here!

Soon after that, I spotted a large flock of white pelicans. The wing span of these birds is so great that even 1/2 mile above ground they appear large). Their high wing aspect ratio (wing length squared to surface area ratio) and relatively low wing load (9-ft wings carrying 15 lb of body weight) allows them to soar effortlessly in the air thermals and currents.

While the trail offered some pleasant surprises to photograph, I was looking forward to some night photography while camping on the chickee. Pearl Bay chickee is challenging for sunset and sunrise shots because the sun sets directly to the right and rises directly to the left. So, for this trip, it was the moon that offered some opportunities. While I exposed for the night scene, I added a little artificial light to illuminate the foreground, which was the chickee and a tent. The first image below is taken just before the moon rose over the mangroves and the next one was taken in the morning, facing west. So surprisingly, this one overnighter in the Everglades turned out to be a fun experiment in photography with use of flashlights and multiple exposures. The learning curve remains steep.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Celebrating Biscayne Bay

Most days of the week, I commute back and forth to work, a 25-mile trek one way. On a good day, it takes about 45 minutes and I will spare you the gory details. When I describe my commute to those that are not from these parts, their reaction is shock, prefaced with a statement like, "How can you live in Miami". Or at least I can see the big cartoon bubble over their heads when they think it. I even have friends and family that refuse to come to Miami because of the traffic.

On my days off, I can wake up early and drink my coffee in the peace of the predawn morning. In an instant, I can say to myself, "I think I will get on the water this morning". I gather up my canoe and photography stuff, hoist my 39-lb canoe onto my car, make the drive east to the shoreline and be on the water all within an hour's time. Not to mention, my canoe and I can be in the Everglades within two hours.

This is how I can live in Miami.

Miami has Biscayne Bay and there is not a day that goes by when I don't give thanks for that. As I drive east on the 836, I watch the sun rise over the Miami skyline knowing that on the other side of the city, it is rising over the bay. And dang, it's a national park too!

Soon, I will be displaying my work at the national park's visitor center and will be focusing on it for the next several weeks. With that, I celebrate Biscayne Bay and share with you here, a variety of images taken over the years from my favorite bay.


Friday, January 10, 2014

Metabolic machines with feathers

I've been reading The Immense Journey by anthropologist Loren Eiseley. At one point in the book, he talks about the evolutionary achievement of a high metabolic rate and body temperature regulation, supreme characteristics of warm-blooded birds and mammals. The advantage of high metabolism is the ability to escape extreme environmental temperatures while maintaining peak mental abilities ( as opposed to hibernation that leaves an animal vulnerable to attack).

The downside of the high metabolic rate is that it requires great quantities of energy intake to support it. And with this, birds are amazing metabolic machines. It seems a bird's life consists almost entirely of obtaining food for itself and sometimes for its chicks. That, and the fact that birds have feathers and fly, make them one of the most appealing animals to photograph.

The technique of capturing food varies among the waders, but I can distinguish them into two distinct groups. On one end you have the exciting quickness of the egret or heron, or the "strikers". These birds puncture the water with their sharp beaks with dramatic results. This happens so fast that the naked eye cannot distinguish the details of the event that begins and ends within a fraction of a second. Only with a fast camera that can shoot at least 5 frames per second can you see how the event plays out. Of course to capture any of that, you have to be ready with finger on focus button while aiming right between the eye and the beak (the lores) with a steady camera. You have to anticipate where the bird's head will end up in the frame and prepare to focus on that spot. Area focus that can be easily moved around is a beautiful thing in this regard.

 Despite my efforts to capture the moment, most of my successful shots are the end results of the bird's success, as seen here. This is fine because having the bird's prey in the image is dynamic and interesting to look at.


The other type of wader that I call the "forager" are the woodstork, roseate spoonbill and white ibis. I have very few good images of a woodstork and even fewer of them foraging. I also have very few good images of roseate spoonbills and frankly, if it were not for their colorful wings, I would probably ignore them as they are relatively boring foragers. There is very little pazazz in their technique; sorry roseate, I know you are a favorite among bird lovers. Now for flight shots, they can be the deal breaker in making a superb image. The white ibis is a different story and I also have endless opportunities to photograph them foraging. They tend to poke and jab at the water, and often bring their prey out of the water before swallowing it. This gives them a dynamic quality much lacking in the roseates.

And last, a tribute to the nesting parents that must feed their relentlessly hungry chicks. This blog is a celebration of the bird and its survival. May they live on this earth forever.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Challenging light for bird photography

I recently spent nine days paddling through the Everglades. A significant portion of the route was in rivers and small creeks, but a small part of the trip was coastal. I blogged earlier about the challenges of bird photography on long paddle trips, but for this particular one, I had another challenge. In all the years that I have paddled 5 to 10 days at a time over the holidays into the new year, I have never seen as much rain and overcast skies as I did on this trip. With low light, photographing birds was not going to be on my agenda for this trip.

On our fourth day, we left Graveyard Creek to head up to Highland Beach, the one day where we would spend our entire paddle along the coastline. This section of the coastline shows serious damage from hurricane Wilma that passed through in October 2005. The storm surges destroyed some beautiful sandy beaches, including the Graveyard Creek campsite. Where there was a beach, there are now fallen trees that line the edge of the muddy banks of the deep set forest that currently serves as a small camp area. "Dark and buggy" does not begin to describe this once popular campsite.

The one nice thing about Graveyard Creek is that it attracts feeding brown pelicans and dolphins. At dawn, the pelicans were en masse, lining the mouth of the creek where several at a time would dive bomb the water while others rested on dead tree branches sticking out of the water and mud banks. It is a spectacular thing to watch these birds dive and make fantastic splashes. As I paddled away from the campsite, the sky was completely overcast as it was much of the prior days on the water. I paddled out and turned back toward the coastline where I could watch the birds diving between me and the mangrove shoreline. I wanted to photograph them as they group dived, knowing it would be extra difficult.

Brown pelicans obviously are not white birds and therefore, require more light to expose them properly, making my quest to photograph their diving feats more difficult on this gray day. I bumped up the ISO to 2000 (noise be damned!) and used the widest aperture reasonably possible in order to capture four or five diving birds at a time and went to work. They were loads of fun and I stayed on for about 30-40 minutes. Here are a couple shots, not rendered black and white.

Alittle slow on the take sometimes, it finally occurred to me that the diffuse lighting and the dark and light contrasts of the shoreline might make for some interesting compositions. And if I can find a white bird or two to throw into the mix, that would be even better. So I set the camera on black and white creative mode so that I could see the images in black and white. Please note, I shoot RAW only, which means the color data are not lost, rather I am using the creative mode as a way to see the black and white images. Once downloaded, they will appear with their color, and I simply have to re-convert them to black and white. I tried this in the Big Cypress awhile back and played around with selective coloring. Beware, you cannot do that with jpeg, if you shoot in black and white, that's all you get.

As I continued paddling north, I looked for scenes to capture in black and white. Normally, mangroves do not lend themselves well to black and white because their leaves are thick and formless when you take away the color. But on this hurricane damaged shoreline, I saw lots of opportunities for contrast and shapes. Later on the trip as I paddled down Roberts River, I came across an active osprey nest (same one I attempted to photograph four years ago) and was lucky to see both ma and pa osprey in the nest which was built on a strange looking tree.

Overall, I managed to capture a few good images of birds during this trip and have been inspired to look at black and white as another way to present them.  Below are a few more images. At one point, I saw several Magnificent Frigatebirds fly over. The first image below was an unintentional blur of two birds in one scene. I liked the effect of the blur well enough to keep it. The image of the royal terns is actually from four images. I cut and copied each bird into one image and arranged them as seen here. I rendered it black and white while deselecting the orange beaks to keep the color there. 

Lighting is key to excellent photography, but we can't always get what we want. So, remember the folksy saying "When handed lemons...", and look for unexpected opportunities.