Am I a twitcher?

January 25th, 2013

ABSOLUTELY NOT!

When people find out that I like photographing birds, some exclaim that I must be a twitcher. Actually, I detest that expression when applied to me. I am definitely not into twitching. Uuuuuuuuurgh! Yuck! When I checked the definition of the word it said: Twitchers are willing to go to great lengths, including extensive travel and dedicated monitoring of local and regional birding hotlines, to see new bird species.

Tawny Frogmouth. Boring and common if you are a twitcher.

Tawny Frogmouth. Boring and common if you are a twitcher.

Now I cannot see anything wrong with seeing a new species. I like seeing them too, especially in my local area so I can see the biodiversity and the changes in weather patterns that may bring a

new species into my home range. However, for me, it’s all about photographing a group of wonderful animals that have feathers, beaks and can (mostly) fly and honing my photography skills in the process. I would not want to spend all my life looking at reports of rare birds in far away places with froth dribbling from the corner of my mouth in anticipation. I don’t see a problem with that though and if people want to twitch, so be it. But to me it’s kind of like taking a plane trip to Paris just to see the Mona Lisa in The Louvre, stand in the queue and quickly glance and her then keep walking along until I see the next artifact that is well known without taking in the beauty of the “old” lady. Of course, also having a list of artifacts to see and tick off and….you get the picture.

I love to sit/stand/crawl/crouch and observe. Even the same old boring birds many of these true twitchers would not even bother looking at. I always giggle when I see some of them say online that now they can add another species to their local list, their month list, their day list, their week list, their life list. Hey, don’t forget your shopping list. Know what they say? You don’t eat you don’t crap, you don’t crap you die. Don’t forget to eat! It’s far more important than flying to Broome to see a European Roller that somehow got lost with some wind and ended up in NW Australia. Well, in my opinion anyway.

 

So for the record, I don’t twitch. I don’t even keep a list at home. The only records of my observations are on an online database called Eremaea and they’re for the records. I am not fussed if I don’t ever get to see more than 300 species of birds in my life. Actually, I probably will, eventually. I think my total species I’ve seen in Australia is around 275. See? That’s how little I am interested in a tally. They are just birds, well not in a negative sense, as in boring, useless things. No, just birds, from the perspective that I love seeing and photographing them, observing their life cycles and recording those the best I can for myself and to share with others. Birds are beautiful creatures that need our help with survival due to many external factors (many caused by humanity) that put pressure on their well being and day-to-day lives.

If you wanna twitch? Be my guest, just don’t call me a bloody twitcher, for that I AM NOT!

Australian-White-Ibis_0154
Australian White Ibis. Yuck, how could I waste my memory card on this? Get off it! They are gorgeous birds in their own way.

 

Nature Photography

Questions about this image

November 28th, 2012

Recently, a friend of mine Derek sent me this image he captured out near Broken Hill NSW and asked what I think is the problem with it. I was given full permission to post his images here for the purposes of this blog post. I took a look and could conclude this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It looks like he’s not included some EXIF such as subject distance. It appears that settings are fine for the focal length used, that is 1/2000th for an 840mm outfit with a 1D4 should still give more than enough freeze the frame ability (due to the sensor crop factor of 1.3x). I can immediately think of a couple of things:

1)      If it’s full frame, and even then, you were just too far to get a sharp enough photo with enough detal. Zooming into 100% view (Photoshop shortcut = CTRL+1) shows shimmering or a kind of haze.

2)      That shimmering, or lack of definition is probably a better description of the view, is perhaps caused by:

  1. Distance from the subject – I can and sometimes will also get the same results if I do not get close enough.
  2. Some heat already lifting off the tarred surface causing the mild haze. Especially if there was a lot of heat the previous day and the night was warm, then the road surface may still be radiating some heat upwards and warming up quickly, despite being just around 07:00.
  3. Lack of proper window support, I am assuming he had used a bean bag or something to hold the rig steady on the window sill. Even at that fast shutter speed a tiny bit of shake at the wrong time will give disastrous results.

 

So to answer Derek’s query, here are a couple of thoughts and you should take note if you want to improve your photography!

 

1)      Always try to get as close to the bird as possible. This is particularly true when there is heat lifting off road surfaces, but in my experience the closer I can get the better detail I can retain in each and every image each and every time. This also supports my argument for getting as close as possible and not be sloppy or lazy because of the large number of megapixels and go shooting with the attitude that “I can just crop lots later since I have umpteen megapixels”. That’s the attitude of many photographers ( I know Derek’s not like that and he strives to improve and does some great photography) that I’ve come across and it does nothing for photographic skills development. If I shoot from a distance, I can also often get some hazy look to my shots, such as this shot here, and that is despite using good long-lens technique and support. It is easy to say to get close, but it’s not always possible, so go to point two. This is also the case with using a 2x converter or stacked converters. The number of times I’ve heard (apparently) competent photographers talk about not being able to take sharp images with a 2x is ridiculous. Most good quality lenses, when matched with good quality teleconverters (not cheap third-party ones) should be able to get you GOOD results. Period. You will not get the same blazing image quality as with a 1.4x teleconverter or bare super telephoto lens, but you WILL get good images. It’s about matching the glass (eg. Canon with Canon) and using good, solid technique and getting close to the subject.

2)      Get close. It’s not that easy, but it is not impossible. I’ve attached two images of how large the bird would’ve been had I have had the opportunity Derek were blessed with here. There are ways to slow your approach and closely scrutinizing the bird as you slowly creep upon it (even in a car, which makes an awesome mobile hide) observe the bird’s behaviour and how it is perceiving you; the possible threat. If you see any inclination of the bird about to flee, stop, relax and let it settle, then once you see it resume normal duties, slowly creep up again. It is a very frustrating task and can still end in failure many times, but I’d rather try to get close (see point 1 above) than shoot from far away and hope the image will hold up. Of course, it’s always good to get an insurance shot in case I cannot take more as I get closer. As you approach and shoot away, the bird will also get used to the sound of your camera’s shutter, so it will not suddenly spook when you let the frames rip up close. That’s happened to me as well, don’t you worry! It’s all a lifelong learning experience for anyone interested in learning to become a GOOD photographer! Getting close will reduce the distance and you should be able to minimize or eliminate the haze at this time too! So getting close is vital in my opinion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3)       See the extra images that I cropped? The vertical crop is approximately 15% of your image since the original is 4,896 x 3,264 pixels. If that were the full frame image in the vertical crop I suggested, I think the detail would be more than sufficient! When you look at my horizontal crop presentation, that is 25% of your full frame image. Thinking of the fact that magnification increase is in fact a function of the square of the focal length used (see explanation in point 4), going the other way your distance should’ve been half of what it was to obtain the bird at that size in the full frame shot if it were my horizontal crop (2,436 x 1,624 pixels).

4) Let’s say you photographed a bird and the full frame of your image taken with a 300mm lens is 3,000 x 2,000 pixels, giving you 6,000,000 pixels in total, or 6 megapixels. If you think about getting the bird bigger, that is using a longer lens, then this is what actually happens. Say you put a 2x converter on and get a 600mm lens. Since you’ve doubled the focal length, you will halve the image length AND height as well, meaning you really have one quarter of your frame size when taken with 300mm; get it? So really, you don’t double your subject size with doubling the focal length, you’re quadrupling it.  Do the maths. An image with 3000 x 2,000 pixels is 6,000,000 pixels. Now if you halve the frame size on both long and short sides by doubling the focal length, you get an image area of 1,500 x 1,000 pixels, or 1,500,000 pixels, exactly one quarter of 6,000,000 pixels.

Hope that answers some questions and offers some suggestions for future photographic opportunities.

Nature Photography

Photography workshop a success

November 26th, 2012

A few months back I was contacted by Keith Brandwood of the Cumberland Bird Observers Club whether I would be willing to offer my time and give a complimentary bird photography workshop for interested club members. I jumped at the chance since I love sharing my knowledge with fellow enthusiasts and it also helps me learn along the way. The date was set for November 24, 2012 at one of the member’s properties in the gorgeous northern suburb of Dural. John, the owner, lives on five acres that he landscaped to attract Aussie native birds. His gardens are magnificent and offer food and shelter for so many species that it is hard to keep tab on them all. Needless to say, that after yesterday he added a new species to his list of 109 seen, bringing the total to 110 species. Not bad for a Sydney “suburban” garden.

John has some feeding stations set-up and he also has strategically placed bird baths, which the birds just LOVE! At 06:00 the group was gathered and after a quick introduction we broke them into smaller groups of five to go along so that birds don’t get as spooked by the sheer number of people around. I did suggest that they may be somewhat more flighty, so be careful, talk softly and don’t wave arms around.

I was so pleased to see so many enthusiastic photographers! They were off shooting in different parts of John’s garden and I tried to spend as much time as possible talking with the folks, discussing processing methods, in field techniques and so on, that before I knew it was 08:30, time for morning tea and I barely took one photo. Of course, that is also because a couple of club members kidnapped my outfit and fell in love with it.

   

During and after morning tea, most of us stayed around the garden patch immediately near the house as it is here where John has put in a rocky feature with a small pond, bath that uses recirculating water and has a nice low tree with pretty branches right above it, making for nice landing perches. The action was fierce at the main feeder with Red-browed Finches and Crimson Rosellas eating harmoniously, soon joined by Galahs and Brown Cuckoo Doves.

  

People were laying low on the grass – getting to the best perspective for the birds on the ground level – and were shooting frenziedly. We hope to see many photos in the coming days to be able to judge a mini comp we ran. Best photo of the day by a club member and a visitor. I bet it will be a hard one to judge as so many passionate snappers were actively clicking away.

 

  

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


After all the participants left, I stayed a while to enjoy the water feature and managed to get some very nice photos as well.

Below the photos is a list of the tips I gave to the members and visitors who turned up. The list is not exhaustive, but it covers some basic points that all photographers wanting to become more skilled at bird photography should consider.

 

–          Read your camera manual and learn the basic controls; i.e. how to change shooting modes, apertures and shutter speeds for a start.

–          Understand some basics about how exposure works and how the ISO, shutter speed and aperture combinations can be used to your advantage.

–          Shoot RAW files and be ready to spend a little time in post processing to optimize your images. (Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom or Elements (Aperture for Apple people) are all good programs to use)

–          Learn to read the histogram. This is important to get the best image quality in all situations.

–          Learn about your subject(s). Nothing can get you better shots than understanding bird behaviour. E.g. if you watch a perched bird and see it defecate, there is a very good chance that it will fly off shortly after relieving itself and you may get a take-off shot (easier said than done).

–          Get eye level with the bird if possible. Nothing is less appealing than looking down at one from a human perspective, or seeing its bum high in a tree.

–          Use a fast shutter speed to freeze motion. This means you may need to shoot a higher ISO value to get a fast shutter speed. Learn to expose digital files to minimize noise.

–          Aim to get the eye sharp! At least the eye. Even if most other parts of the bird are slightly softer, a sharp eye will make for an overall aesthetically pleasing image than a sharp bird with a soft eye.

–          When photographing flying birds, try to capture them flying towards you, not after they just passed you or have long passed you.

–          Leave a little more space in front of a bird than behind it when in flight. You need space for it to “fly into”.

–          Try to keep yourself between the bird and the sun. In most instances this gives you the best light angle.

–          Avoid photographing white birds in the middle of a sunny day.

–          Overcast conditions give nice flat lighting all day without harsh contrast. These conditions are perfect for shooting white birds and everything else.

–          Most importantly, shoot lots and often – it is the best way to build confidence and experience to make sure you can capitalize on the opportunities during your outings.

–          Have lots of fun along the way, this is probably THE best advice!

 

 

 

Nature Photography

Realization of a dream

September 12th, 2012

My interest in nature photography developed from watching many documentaries as a kid, teenager and generally having always had more interest in what the natural world is all about than spending time in the pub or night clubbing (in those stupid younger years).

I have been seriously into photographing birds since March 2006, when I bought my first ever digtal single lens reflex camera (DSLR). The wonderful Canon EOS 30D began to refresh my enthusiasm for nature photography, open up new opportunities, and gave me instant feedback on my technique (which kind of sucked then) and started an obsession with bird photography. Now most bird photographers (including me) are keen bird observers. Many keen bird observers dabble in photography, take shots of birds they see and are happy with the results in general. They are not necessarily into the photography bit as much. I am more a photographer than a bird observer, but needless to say, without my burning passion of birds in general the photography part would be rather dismal. One needs to know about bird biology (to a degree anyway), understand behaviour, read habitat and know where a particular bird could be seen. One needs to trawl internet resources for sightings, or just be out and about as much as possible and pick up every clue. Learning as many calls of species also helps a ton. Being cluey about what’s where at what time of the year, being observant and developing a sixth sense and having an ounce of luck complete the picture. Pun intended. The photography part is a little like hunting. However, this is REAL hunting with a camera and big lens instead of a guide and big guns, which just about any fool can do. They (strangely) often refer to the big super telephoto lenses as big guns; an odd reference indeed.

A terrible choice of perch by the harrier.

My favourite birds to photograph are birds of prey, raptors, those that kill and eat other animals; mammals, birds, reptiles etc. Raptors are an amazing group with incredible adaptations, exceptional vision, hearing and flight skills. Many also possess absolutely gorgeous plumages and it is here I introduce a raptor I’ve long wanted to photograph and finally had the opportunity to do so this morning. It was September 11, 2012 in suburban Cranebrook, near Penrith about as far west in Sydney as it gets. The raptor was a Spotted Harrier; a bird of the drier inland regions, though interestingly more commonly observed in the west of Sydney in recent times. There have been many regular reports especially from Cornwallis and the Richmond Lowlands areas. Luckily, Cranebrook is the next suburb to our home in Cambridge Gardens, so only a stone’s throw away. I pass Cranebrook daily; whether I am taking our three gorgeous doggies for a walk and run, or whether I am en route to check on my wife’s horse. I know the areas like the back of my hands. If you are familiar with Birdline, you note that I regularly post sightings from Castlereagh 10’ Cell, which are observations I make around my home turf. My first ever sighting of a Spotted Harrier was at the Penrith Quarries, at my friend’s place, which is all private property. That was January 8, 2012 and all I managed was a mediocre, no terrible, ID shot from a couple of hundred meters away. Over the past eight months I dreamt, and dreamt and dreamt of capturing this beautiful raptor with my camera and the only times I would have had a good chance I didn’t bother taking my gear with me, for I was tired and just could not be bothered. Idiot! Yes, I was. Lesson learned, and those little – albeit costly – mistakes will never happen again.

This gorgeous morning I wanted to check on my beloved pair of Swamp Harriers near the baseball fields in Andrews Road, which back onto the Penrith Sewage Treatment plant and there is a large swamp, which holds a breeding pair of these Swamp Harriers. It was on this day over two consecutive years that I was able to observe the pair perform courtship flights over the swamp. How incredible a sight it was too! I chose to bypass this spot as I took our three mutts for their morning run to my friend’s place at the quarries instead. Boy, did I say luck also plays a part in bird photography? You bet! Had I not have gone to Castlereagh, had I not have been coming home at exactly the time the harrier crossed in front of me I would’ve still been dreaming.

Chased by a Red Wattlebird.

On the way home, I was passing the spot where I saw a Spotted Harrier glide SW over two mornings in a row in early August; at the same time as well. This morning, I saw the Spotted Harrier coming in from the SW towards the NE and lucky I decided to pull over, do a quick U-turn and head east along Nepean Street (runs off Castlereagh Rd). The bird was quartering low over the little swamp and headed in the direction of Camelot Drive where it quartered low over some suburban gardens. It then disappeared. Now I also mentioned about knowing bird behaviour and I will refer to knowing about this twice now. The first thing to look for when chasing a raptor is annoyed birds. Local birds can be very defensive and now in spring when many species breed, it is even more prominent as the smaller birds are mad as cut snakes, protecting their home territories and nest sites. I stopped halfway up the hill in Camelot Drive and noted a bunch of crazy Noisy Miners and a Red Wattlebird. The harrier was given up by its enemies. It sat on a bare branch, beautifully surrounded by some foliage. The only problem was the direction of light. Not good!

Great pose, great light. Everything worked. A dream came true!

I took some photos anyway just in case it’s the best chance I would have. Luckily it wasn’t as the light angle was poor (had to shoot straight into the sun) and today those backlit images have made it to the digital compost bin.  So I was lucky to be able to drive a few houses up and into a back street, which again had a cul-de-sac that led me close to where the harrier was perched, preening. I had a very poor view, through sticks and foliage. I just waited until it had to fly. I knew that sooner or later it would. This is when understanding bird behaviour and being able to pick up on body language can help anticipate the moment. The moment came, and about 10 seconds before the bird flew, it defecated. Defecation is a sure way to tell when a bird is about to take off. For me it comes through every time. So the bird flew, I was ready as I had already taken the 1.4x converter off knowing that 700mm was going to be too much lens and I fired.

Once the bird left the area, I quickly reviewed the images on the LCD and knew that finally I was rewarded for months and months of chasing, observing, anticipating and hoping. It was the best bird photography moment of 2012 for sure. Even better than mating Powerful Owls! Well, on par then OK?

Stay safe and happy bird photography or observing to you!

 

Nature Photography

Minimizing noise when shooting at high ISOs.

June 5th, 2012
 

I am always baffled when people talk about noise and high ISO use. Yes, there is a possibility that your images will be more noisy at ISO800 than say at ISO100. However, it is also important to know that digital exposure is not quite the same as looking at the photo on the LCD and judging the exposure that way. There is a useful tool, and it’s called the histogram. This tool tells you what tones you have recorded in every single image. Due to the sensors’ characteristics the signal to noise ratio is what defines the final image quality; thus level of noise. Signal-to-noise ratio is defined as the power ratio between a signal (which is the meaningful information) and the background noise (which is the unwanted signal).

Speaking digitally, this means that we need to use a method of exposure, which effectively reduces this unwanted signal; the noise. So the principle of shoot-to-the right was born. This simply means that when you take a frame, you review the histogram, which shows the image tonalities and push the graph towards the right (overexposure) until you hit the dreaded blinkies (clipped highlights). Then accept that as the correct digital exposure. This shoot-to-the-right method maximizes the amount of good data captured in the right side of the histogram.

I will now demonstrate with some images I took of one of my trusty dogs – Biscuit – on a dreary winter afternoon when it was dark and cloudy. I deliberately chose to shoot all images at ISO1600 with my Canon EOS 1DmkIIn camera body. Sure it’s a 1D series, but the principle remains the same for any digital SLR camera and should yield very similar results.

I took shots at five exposure correction settings in Av mode, using evaluative metering, which is my standard daytime operating method (EC = exposure compensation).

This is how they stack up in Digital Photography Professional.

This is how the images look in Digital Photo Professional. See exposure compensation applied written in RED over each image. That is compensation applied in camera, using the quick control dial on the back, at the time of capturing the RAW images.

ISO1600 underexposed by -1 stop. Check the histogram leaning to the left. Bad!

 

This was shot at -1EC. Check how underexposed it looks, but the histogram tells you all you need to know. It’s very badly underexposed. A serious candidate for ugly noise when corrected.

100% crop before exposure was changed in Digital Photo Professional.

See the noise when the underexposed image is corrected. Yuck!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ISO1600 with 0EC applied during capture. It looks good on the LCD.

 

 

 

100% crop from 0 EC applied image above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ISO1600 with +1 EC applied. Check histograms in ALL shots!

 

 

 

 

100% crop from above image shot at +1 EC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ISO1600 shot with +2 EC during capture. It is looking washed out and there were just a little too many blinkies.

 

 

 

100% crop from above shot with +2 EC applied. Looks very washed out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ISO1600 with +1 2/3 EC applied during capture. To me this had the best histogram.

  

 

 

 

100% crop of above shot with + 1 2/3 EC applied.

 

100% of shot taken with + 1 2/3 EC during capture, but it was reduced back by 1 2/3 in Digital Photo Professional.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now compare the below two shots that essentially look the same at first glance, but one is very noisy and the other, well not at all.

The first is the one taken with an exposure compensation of -1, which was then boosted up +1 stop in Digital Photo Professional. It is very ugly with noise. Then compare it to the second shot, which was captured as a RAW file too, with +1 2/3 stops of exposure compensation applied. That is a total of 2 2/3 stops of light. It makes a HUGE difference and the proof is in the pudding.

ISO1600 shot at -1 EC then increased in DPP by +1 stop.

ISO1600 shot at +1 2/3 EC then reduced in DPP by -1 2/3 stop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you learn to expose properly, using the histogram, you can minimize noise in your RAW files and shoot at relatively high ISO values. It’s about knowing the way to bring out the best results from your equipment.

Take care and happy shooting.

Nature Photography