Photographing Pied Billed Grebes and Face Recognition Software

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Photographing Pied-Billed Grebes

Pied Billed Grebes are water birds easily identifiable by their black chin and white, chicken-like, thick black ringed bills. Commonly referred to as little submarines, their quick and nimble diving behaviors allow them to rapidly disappear when threatened.

Photo of Pied-billed Grebe
Pied billed Grebe
ISO400; f/6.3; 1/800 Second

Elusive Diving Birds

I have never seen this bird flying, tending a nest, or venturing up on land. Last Spring, I found two promising locations near a local pond, visited both every day, and readied my camera whenever I spotted a Grebe. My goals were challenging: 1) Avoid the brown gunky look of dead vegetation floating in the pond water; 2) Capture a take off or landing shot of this water bird; and 3) Photograph one or two baby Grebe chicks with their parent(s).

Not much luck. When I did see a Grebe swimming toward the camera in open water, I was barely able to press the shutter (set for high speed continuous shooting mode) before he suddenly plunged under water, only to surface again clear across the pond.

Photo of Pied-billed Grebe
Pied-billed Grebe
ISO100; f/5.6; 1/500 Second

Intelligent Tracking and Recognition

Look at that face! I was surprised to see little square boxes in the camera’s viewfinder indicating that the camera had found and classified a round shape with 2 eyes as a face and was trying to prioritize focus and exposure by tracking that face. (NOTE: I had turned on facial detection for a family event I was photographing the week before.)

Face detection in DSLR cameras is mostly designed to recognize human faces, but many mammals and birds have faces that contain the same basic attributes as humans. This technology searches for facial key points like facial outlines, eyebrows, eyes, nose, ears, chin, and mouth.

Facial Detection Auto Mode

With facial detection engaged, Canon’s “intelligent focusing system” will search for face(s) and, once found, will track and prioritize certain focusing and metering functions on those face(s).

  • Some of the more advanced camera systems allow you to “confirm” the face rectangle(s) upon which focusing and metering will occur.
  • The need to use AE focus lock and AEC will probably be reduced since the camera will automatically meter and focus on the faces it finds.
  • Since the face detection system algorithms are programmed to follow the faces around, it is logical that the focus points previously set on the camera will not engage while facial recognition is operational.

Bird Recognition Built into Cameras

Face detection included in most modern smart phone and DSLR cameras is not face recognition. Face recognition goes beyond detecting by registering human face information and matching that info to a database of faces to specifically ID individuals.

The Merlin Bird ID app, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, incorporates a bird ID process and a database of bird photos and characteristics to help the user identify birds. You simply upload a photo of the bird you want to ID and answer a few questions.

Bird recognition systems built right into the camera or lens can not be far away. 😎

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Photographing Downy Woodpeckers – Thoughts About Web Predators

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Photographing Downy Woodpeckers

I think Downy Woodpeckers are one of the loveliest year-round residents in our yard. They are as numerous and predictable as Mourning Doves in Southwest Michigan. The ones around us have become acclimated to the camera and appear tolerant and watchful when I come around.

Like most birds, Downy Woodpeckers spend more time looking up toward the skies in search of predators than they do watching  me.  When they sense danger, most other birds quickly scatter, but Downy Woodpeckers often hide in what appears to be plain sight, hoping to camouflage themselves by being silent and motionless until the danger passes.

Photo of Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
ISO1600; f/7.1; 1/250 Second

Little Drummers

Downy Woodpeckers are not much bigger than the other familiar song birds at the feeders (titmice, chickadees, nuthatches). A small patch of red on the back of the head distinguishes the Downy male from the female. Their bills are straight and sharp, but do not look oversized on their faces like the beaks on larger woodpeckers do. In the winter you can often hear them excavating tree trunks and branches probing for deeply embedded insects and larvae. As Spring approaches they will drum more to communicate and entice partners.

Sharing Bird Photos

I love the challenge of photographing birds and publishing my experiences on a weekly web blog. Where else can photographers connect and share their work with so many people all over the world? Best of all, it gets me out to explore nature with my camera.

Anyone who maintains a blog knows that concealed naysayers and marauders come with the web publishing territory. Putting my images (good and bad) out there also makes me vulnerable to everything from condescending feedback to outright thievery.

Photo of Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
ISO1600; f/71; 1/250 Second

Pilfering Images

The web is a treasure trove of art that is technically easy to snatch…and apparently lots of thieves do so without a care. I was not surprised to learn that some individuals are illegally stealing my images and posting them elsewhere on the web without permission.

Google Analytics has web diagnostic programs that provide a multitude of reports about how my site appeals to readers. It calculates how many people visit my site, for how long, and from whence they come. However, Google Analytics does not spotlight web pilfering. To find out if your web images are being used for unauthorized purposes, tools like “Google Image Search” and “” are available. You simply upload an image and these tools will point to where else that image can be found on the web.

What to Do

One of the the most logical ways to foil attempts of thieves to sell hard copies of copyrighted images is to reduce the size of the image file to 1020×800 pixels, at 200 PPI resolution. The photo still looks decently clear and large on the web, but can not be used to print images larger that 4″x4″ or 5″x4″. This also has the added benefit of reducing site load times. This strategy won’t do much to thwart those individuals who want to display your images on a website or use them as a model for their art work.

If you wish to read more on this topic, this link provides excellent information: “What to Do If Your Photographs are Stolen” by KeriLynn Engel.

Note: I don’t actively market my photographs, so I always appreciate it when artists contact me to ask for permission to use one of my bird images. My fee for a one-time use non-exclusive license is $15.00 per image for reproduction up to 5″x 7″.

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Photographing An Eastern Screech Owl – Part II

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Photographing an Eastern Screech Owl

He’s back!

Photographing this little Eastern Screech Owl intrigues me. He is keenly adapted to flying and hunting under the cover of darkness. Light and opportunity rarely allow for night time bird photography, so I was very excited to be able to capture sharp images of him.

For the photos in this post, our resident owl did not fly off into the darkness like he usually does, but instead perched on a nearby unobstructed, camera level tree branch. It was very dark, but a low beam flashlight illuminating the branch on which he perched allowed enough light for the camera to calculate exposure (with E-TTL II Flash) and the lens to auto focus. His head and body were facing away from the camera, but when he turned to look back at me with those remarkable eyes, I was lucky enough to get two full body shots. He flew off to parts unknown seconds later.

NOTES: This owl’s raised tufts of feathers where his ears should be look very distinctive, but do not function as ears or horns. The Horned Lark is another bird species with conspicuous ear tufts. The Snowy Owl that I photographed in the Allegan State Game Area did not have noticable ear tufts.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl
Out of His Owl Box.
FEC set to -1.
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Night Time Photography Considerations:

  • Flash Failure!  My Canon 580 EX II, purchased in 2008, was no longer communicating efficiently with the camera. It operated erratically and seemed to burst without regard to the E-TTL II exposure calculations issued from the camera. (NOTE: This is probably the first time I have relied on this flash to provide more than fill to existing ambient light.) I can not be without an E-TTL II flash gun, especially when photographing nocturnal owls. I bought a new Canon 600 RT Flash Unit.
  • The camera was set to Manual Mode and the new flash to E-TTL II so that the camera would calculate the burst needed based on the exposure settings I chose. I toned down this burst by setting the flash exposure compensation (FEC) to -1. It turned out to be a good place to start.
  • The open window through which the camera points is not far from the furnace PVC exhaust vent pipe. On cold windy days, the discharge turns into a floating mist that obstructs my image making. Easy fix…bundle up and turn the furnace way down.
  • Fresnel flash extenders are intended to direct light more efficiently onto distant subjects. For this shoot, the tele flash extender was too close, causing the owl to be “spotlighted” or partially lit around the center of the frame, leaving extremities of his body and his nearby surroundings insufficiently illuminated. I removed the fresnel flash tele extender and set the flash to its 200mm max zoom. The flash beam was wider and more on target. The new extended zoom flash capability on the Canon 600 RT II doesn’t eliminate the need for a fresnel flash extender for bird photography, but you can get by without it when the subjects are in fairly close proximity to the flash. (NOTE: On my old flash -580 EX II -the max zoom setting was 105mm.)
Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl
Out of his box for the Night.
Flash Exposure Compensation -1
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Next Challenge

As night approaches, the owl is clearly more visible and alert. He looks as though his feet are perched on the opening of his owl house giving his head maximum freedom to look around. I have been trying to capture a shot of him at take-off, right as he exits his box, but I have been unable to do so because he jets out of there in the blink of an eye. The minuscule lag time between when I see him exit the box and when I press the shutter is long enough to miss the shot, even when I pre-focus by pressing the shutter release half way.

I need strategies to get exit shots. NOTE: I’ve been considering setting up a few low lights, using my camera’s video function and then processing that video in slow motion. It might work on those days that he exits at twilight when there is still a touch of ambient light. This of course assumes that this little Eastern Screech Owl decides to stick around.  More to come……

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Photographing Wood Thrushes – Correcting Mistakes in White Balance

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Photographing Wood Thrushes

Wood Thrushes tend to be very camera shy. I was familiar with their captivating flute like spring songs (filled with low mellow notes and high pitched trills) long before I connected the voice with the vocalist. It wasn’t until we installed a fountain near our deck that I realized that these handsome birds must spend the summer nesting and foraging in our back woods. NOTE: I’ve photographed the migrating  Veery Thrush and Swainson’s Thrush as they were passing through our yard, but never a resident Wood Thrush.

Around evening’s twilight, four or five Wood Thrushes would quietly congregate at the fountain after all the other bird species had left. At first, just a bold and curious few came. They did not scatter or even flinch when the flash went off. I could see a few more of their wary companions hiding in the dimness beyond the fountain. It was a thrill to watch and photograph them.

Photo of Wood Thrush
Wood Thrush
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Combining Ambient Light with Flash

When I took these photos of the Wood Thrushes, the camera’s ISO registered at ISO 12000, so I used the telephoto flash. It was simply too late in the day to rely only on the diminishing ambient light.

Combining ambient light and telephoto flash can cause color temperature imbalances and throw off white balance. It’s an easy enough fix if you shoot in RAW and train yourself to be attentive to it in post processing.

Photo of Wood Thrush
Wood Thrush
Gathering in the Evening.
Overall a good image, except for the Unsightly
Lens Flare right of center.
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Realistic Color Rendition

Once in a while, I go through my images in Lightroom to review, organize, delete and otherwise cleanup my stash of digital photos. One of the most common post processing mistakes I find are those related to white balance. Time after time, I unconsciously skip over or ignore an unnatural color portrayal in my images, even if it is clearly not a realistic rendition of the color at the scene. I think this is not an uncommon oversight for photographers, despite how fast and easy it is to test for and fix white balance problems in camera and in post processing.


  • Programmed “presets” (auto, incandescent, fluorescent, flash, cloudy, open shade, sunny) are white balance correction processes that are built into the camera and do a precise job of rectifying white balance for most lighting situations.
  • White balance fixing algorithms built into post processing software are, for the most part, amazingly accurate. If tonality of an image seems “off”, correction is wide open in post because all color data has been retained (assuming you shoot in RAW).
  • Information about balancing light is probably one of the most published photographic fixes on the web.
  • The Live View function on your DSLR camera can give you a real time comparison of the impact that white balance will have on your images. With the camera set to Live View, you can flip through the various light balance settings (auto, incandescent, fluorescent, flash, cloudy, open shade, sunny) and observe in real time how the different color casts will look before you take the shot.

Quick Tutorial in Correcting White Balance

To achieve proper white balance is to remove unrealistic color. Your goal is to “fix” the color temperature of the light source and thereby correct warming and cooling color tones that don’t belong.

Most post processing programs have a white balance correction tool. Lightroom provides an icon that looks likes an tiny eye-dropper.

  1. Make sure the white balance is set to AS SHOT– so all previous attempts to correct WB are erased.
  2. Find a neutral color that you know to be true… a light gray or white component in your photo. This is your sample of realistic color upon which all color correction will be based.
  3. Activate the eye dropper (white balance selector tool) by clicking it on. Use this tool to hover over that neutral gray/white space in your photo, and watch the live preview of the white balance adjustments in the Navigator Panel. Once you touch down the eye dropper onto the image, temperature and tint functions automatically adjust the rest of the color in the photo.
Photo of Wood Thrush
Wood Thrush
Getting ready to Lift off.
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

A Problem of Perception

Color Realism should be the “first things first” job in post. It’s essentially a problem of perception – one that (at times) needs more than the naked eye to see.

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Photographing a Sharp Shinned Hawk on a Snowy Morning

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Photographing a Sharp Shinned Hawk

Baby it’s cold outside.

I’ve been inside the house with my camera, watching the year-round birds at the feeders and looking for behaviors that might indicate that a hawk was lurking nearby. These include eerie silence, no activity, and perhaps one or two Downy Woodpeckers clinging to a branch, still as death.

I spotted a Sharp Shinned Hawk obscured in the foliage of one of the tall arborvitaes (Northern White Cedar) on the property line. This perch was distant and too heavily obstructed for the lens to focus accurately. I only saw the concealed bird because another Sharpie rousted him from his hiding place. After a fast paced and aggressive chase, the dominant raptor finally managed to force the interloper out of her hunting territory .

Photo of Sharp Shinned Hawk
Sharp Shinned Hawk.
Look at that fierce face and towering demeanor!
Makes you glad you’re not a small mammal or songbird.
Notice the Seed Pod from a Red Bud
Tree Entangled in Her Splayed Tail Feathers.
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

Prepping for a Possible Encounter

Once I spotted the hawks, I opened a couple windows in the library (despite the wind, snow and intense cold), and maneuvered my rig into place. The scene was heavily clouded, so I attached the flash, hoping the fill light would enhance the color and sharpness of the images. After 30 bone chilling minutes, the Sharpie did fly in and perch on a nearby branch.

A Little Too Close

The perch upon which the Sharpie alighted was slightly above camera level, but too close for the 500mm lens to include all of the bird and leave a pleasant frame. Notice that in both images, the bottom parts of the splayed tail feathers are cut off.

During camera setup (when I am not rushed), I always try to position the lens so as to optimally frame whatever bird I hope to photograph that day. The goal is to visually balance the setting to include some context for the viewer.

I missed the mark. This was a large Sharpie (female raptors tend to be approximately 25% larger than males) and she was just too close to the lens to include a pleasant border.

Possible Remedies

There are strategies that I could have used to remedy the situation.

  • Reorient the tripod collar to a vertical position. I did not do that because the tele flash on bracket and battery pack were attached (and necessary – ISO reading at 8000), so turning the tripod collar to a vertical position would have thrown off the trajectory of the light beam and possibly upset the weight balance of the gear.
  • Move the whole tripod setup farther back into the library. Re-situating a large, heavily laden tripod only takes a minute to do, but it does cause a distraction. Birds don’t wait around for you, so I attempt that move only after I get in the first few shots. I was glad I did not take the time to move the gear because the Sharpie perched less than a minute.

(NOTE: I love the quality and precision of prime lenses, but for situations like this I wish I had a quality zoom lens. Canon makes a 200-400 F/4L zoom lens with a built-in 1.4x extender, giving the lens a range of 280-560mm (f/5.6) on my full frame DSLR. This means optimal versatility when out in the field photographing birds, especially in situations where it is difficult or unwise to move the camera or attach or detach an extender. (NOTE: One day I plan to rent this lens. It is ridiculously expensive to purchase…$10,999!)

Photographing Birds in Falling Snow

Snow flakes can float down gently or fall fast and furious. To capture them, you need to decide what look you want and adjust the exposure settings appropriately. The slower the shutter and the faster the snowfall, the more fog-like blurring and streaking you will see.

Photo of Sharp Shinned Hawk
Sharp Shinned Hawk
Taken with tele flash
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

During this shoot, the snow looked picturesque (big, soft, feathery ice crystals) and fell  fast. I kept the telephoto flash on bracket turned on because heavy cloud cover darkened the scene and I needed some fill light to reach my preferred aperture and ISO. The shutter speed was set to the camera’s flash maximum sync speed of 1/250 second. The flash did a good job of illuminating the scene but flash will not freeze motion if there significant ambient light on the scene. In addition, the notoriously shallow depth of field on the 500mm lens was blurring the snowflakes in front of and behind the Sharpie.

End result: The camera captured a few snow flakes that look like round unattractive blotches. The flash illuminated the large snow flakes in the foreground, causing those splotches to stand out the most.

On-The-Job Training and Hindsight

Take-away from this shoot: Lots to things prepare for when photographing birds in the snow. I’m hoping that all this on-the-job training and hindsight will eventually translate into better bird photography.

(NOTE: Flash has been an essential tool to photograph birds this winter. Per our local weatherman’s blog (Bill Steffen), “….between Dec 1-18, 2016, SW Michigan had only 2 hours and 41 minutes of sunshine, or 8.9 minutes per day…. Jan 15  was only the 4th day since Nov. 29th with more than 45% of possible sunshine. Twenty-six of the last forty-five days have had zero sunshine…not even a minute.”)

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Photographing a Female American Redstart- Experimenting With Shutter Release

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Photographing a Female American Redstart

A pair of American Redstart Warblers nested in our yard this past summer and they reliably visited the fountain every day. I watched this conspicuously lovely and hyperactive female American Redstart from a distant back window. Unlike her male counterpart, she was wary of humans and would not come near the fountain with me sitting behind the camera. She regularly perched in the same spots, constantly on the move as she surveyed the surroundings. If it was clear, she would dive down for a drink. If she saw me, she was gone. (NOTE: This individual was very unlike the female Redstart who slipped into my house last summer.)

Photo of Female American Redstart
Female American Redstart
Flash Engaged.
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

I set up my blind for a while in the hopes of fooling her, but she was highly sensitive to any movement made by the camera and blind. It became obvious that capturing an image of this little warbler would require that I hide somewhere out of sight with a remote shutter release.

Remote Shutter Release

A remote shutter release is an electronic trigger that allows the camera’s shutter to fire from a distance without the need to directly press the shutter button. Using a shutter release definitely has advantages in bird photography as long as the bird lands upon the one spot on which the lens is pointed. I have watched birds long enough to know that it is possible to predict their behavioral patterns, especially near feeders and fountains.

My Failed Bluetooth Experiment

Recently, I bought a fairly inexpensive new shutter release (wired and wireless radio remote combo). WHY?  Something just snapped and I was sick and tired of messing with the troublesome 5 year old  bluetooth shutter release that I had in my camera bag.

Bluetooth is a wireless technology standard that allows you to connect and exchange data (wirelessly over short distances) between different electronic devices. Theoretically, all you have to do to get this device operational is download the appropriate app to a smart phone and “pair” the phone to the camera connected detector, thereby turning the screen of the smart phone into a remote shutter release.

I have in the past used this bluetooth shutter release successfully. Problem is, the pairing doesn’t seem to “hold” making it unreliable and causing me to miss many shots. By far the worst irritation is when I connected this device to a camera set to continuous shooting mode. In this shooting mode, one lighthanded touch of the blue tooth connected smart phone and the camera’s shutter would start tripping– fast, erratically and non-stop — until it reached the upper limit of the the compact flash memory card’s capacity. The only way I could get the camera to stop was to power it down. Afterwards I had to delete dozens of unintended shots from the memory card.

Photo of Female American Redstart
Female American Redstart
With Flash
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Useful Gadgets

When using a remote shutter release, a photographer is bound to miss shots simply because she is not in control at the helm and unable to swivel the Gimbal tripod head to capture the action. Still, there are advantages to getting the photographer out of the picture.

Why Bother With A Shutter Release:

  • I tend not to have a gentle touch when I press the shutter button, thereby causing slight movement to the camera rig while the shot is being taken. A long telephoto lens will magnify that vibration.
  • The slower you set the shutter speed, the more you need a shutter release:  (NOTE: Shutter speed is probably the most likely cause of blurry photos.) There’s a simple reciprocal rule to remember for setting the lowest shutter speed possible for hand holding your camera. If you have a 600 mm lens, set the shutter for at least 1/600 of a second. With long telephoto lenses, the shutter speed/focal length reciprocal rule does not just apply to hand holding, but tripod mounted rigs as well.
  • Vibrations cause by mirror slap should not impact focus at shutter speeds above 1/60 second. (NOTE: In the newest DSLR cameras, mechanical parts of the shutter have been re-designed to reduce vibration, especially at slower speeds.)
  • Dangling the cabling from the new shutter release could cause very slight camera shake….which is why it’s a good idea to fasten it somewhere.
  • I usually use back button focus…but not with a remote shutter release attached. If back button is activated on your camera, the shutter will fire, but auto focus will not engage. Since I have pointed and pre-focused the lens to one spot in the hopes of a bird perching there, it’s not really necessary to activate autofocus again…. but, just in case the camera catches some action off perch…. I keep the focusing function activated when I’m away from the camera.

There’s always the hope that completely removing myself from view may bring new varieties of timid newcomers. That alone is reason to attach a shutter release to the camera.

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Photographing an Immature Chestnut Sided Warbler – AEC in Manual Mode with Auto ISO

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Photographing an Immature Chestnut Sided Warbler

This little immature Chestnut Sided Warbler visited the fountain late in October, 2016. He is very unlike his swanky male counterpart photographed last Spring. Plumage on his crown and back is a chartreuse yellow resting atop a solidly gray base. Prominent white eye rings stand out. No chestnut color markings are apparent.

Photo of Female Chestnut Sided Warbler
Female Chestnut sided Warbler.
ISO5000; f/6.3; 1/400 Second

It was early in the morning of what promised to be a sunny day. The flash was not attached. As usual, the camera was set to Manual Mode with Auto ISO.

The heavily filtered light was spotty and uneven, enough to throw off the camera’s light meter (set at evaluative metering mode). In Manual mode, I can ignore the camera’s meter readings and underexpose or overexpose as needed, adjusting one or more of the exposure variables to compensate for uneven light. This shoot was a good opportunity to play with the Automatic Exposure Compensation dial with the camera set to Manual mode and Auto ISO.

Automatic Exposure Compensation in Manual Mode with Auto ISO

Automatic Exposure Compensation combined with Auto ISO and Manual functionality in some Canon DSLR cameras seem to me very peculiar.

I had mistakenly assumed the AEC function on my Canon 5D Mark III DSLR worked in Manual “M” Mode as long as I set the camera to Auto ISO. After all, the camera could adjust exposure compensation by changing the ISO. However, on many Canon Cameras, setting the AEC function does nothing at all when the camera is set to “M” Manual mode. The AEC function on the camera will not work because it will not override the M manual settings (aperture, shutter, ISO) the photographer has set, even if the photographer set the camera to determine the ISO (Auto ISO).

As Canon keeps adding cameras to its fleet, this functionality of allowing automatic exposure compensation to integrate with Manual mode and Auto ISO was included in the following (and most recent) Canon DSLR cameras: EOS-1D X, EOS-1DX Mark II, EOS 5DS / EOS 5DS R, EOS 7D Mark II, and EOS 80D. Manual Mode with Auto ISO is essentially an “auto exposure mode” without a label.

Basic Auto Exposure Compensation -AEC

The light metering systems on modern cameras have all sorts of algorithms to figure out what exposure is proper for the scene. Many times lighting conditions are not average and the camera’s light meter can calculate the wrong exposure for the existing light.

Most digital cameras allow photographers to over ride the camera’s exposure settings with an “auto-exposure compensation” dial. When you play with the AEC dial on your camera, you are essentially changing the camera’s “optimal” autoexposure reading.  NOTE: A simple formula to adjust exposure using the camera’s histogram can be found at this post.

Photo of Chestnut Sided Warbler
Chestnut Sided Warbler –
Immature male (or female?).
Motion Blur on the right wing and tail feathers.
ISO5000; f/6.3; 1/400 Second

Overriding Auto Exposure Settings

AEC is all about overriding some component of the automatic exposure functionality of your camera. If you use Manual mode to specifically set fixed values for shutter, aperture, and ISO, no AEC is possible. In Manual mode with Auto ISO engaged, ISO is the only exposure variable accessible to change exposure. The AEC dial can be turned to the right (+) to add light, thus raising the ISO; or turned to the left (-) to subtract light, thus lowering the ISO. The shutter speed and aperture settings that the photographer manually set will not change.

Pre-Set Thresholds for Auto ISO

Whenever using Auto ISO in any auto mode (P, Tv, Av) or Manual mode (M), take the time to go into the camera’s menu system to constrain auto ISO with pre-set thresholds. This will prevent the floating ISO from going sky high and producing speckled unusably noisy images. The minimum and maximum ISO ranges that you set should be based on your personal preferences and the noise reduction technology built into your camera’s sensor.

NOTE:  When the light is low, take a second to check the exposure readings on the meter bar in the viewfinder to determine if your pre-set ISO value limitations are preventing the camera from achieving proper exposure. This meter bar is informational only and will not change the exposure parameters set in Manual mode by the photographer.

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Photographing an Eastern Screech Owl –Nocturnal Birds

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Photographing An Eastern Screech Owl

My camera, 500mm lens and tripod are now facing a vacant wooded backlot.  An Eastern Screech Owl moved in to our owl house around Christmas, 2016. We erected this house almost 3 years ago, so a resident has been a long time coming. Up until now, we had only squirrels and a mob of European Starlings (Yikes!) look it over.

Front Row Seat

The owl house is positioned approximately 15 ft high on an Oak tree in front of and at eye level with a bedroom window. There’s plenty of room to move the tripod around for both close-up shots, full body flight shots and everything in between. The window at which the camera waits is approximately 20 feet from the opening of the owl house.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl,
Poking Out His Head to Check on The Disturbance.
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 second

Pretty Exciting, Right?

I’ve been dreaming of photographing these majestic creatures for a long time. If I am to believe the looks in his large and striking eyes, he is weary and disinterested in my shenanigans and thinks that the camera and I are pretty boring.

Photographing Birds in Near Darkness

Eastern Screech Owls are little raptors, (6-10″ long; 4-9 ounces; wingspan 18-24″) short and stocky with an oversized head and no discernible neck. They do not screech as their namesake would imply, but instead sound more like the somewhat spooky whinny of a horse. Eastern Screech Owls are for the most part nocturnal and highly camouflaged, and therein lies my problem.

A lens can not focus in darkness. If it’s too dark, it won’t even go thru the motion to hunt back and forth. There is nothing upon which its technical eye can fix – no contrast, no color, no edges, nothing. The fresnel attached flash will try to emit a light beam (auto focus assist beam) so the lens can do its calculations for autofocus to work- but that assist beam only travels so far…. most certainly not 20 feet. So far, moonlight and starlight have not been bright enough to be helpful.

Use Manual Focus?

I could turn off autofocus on the lens and work with manual focus. This would require that I pre-set focus on one target when there is light and then guess when to press the shutter when my eyes detect motion in the near darkness. This is a desperate measure for me. I’m not yet at a place where I will forego the benefits of autofocus. (NOTE: Perhaps I should read up on motion sensors that automatically detect movement and trigger the camera.)

A Light Fix for the Lens

A light that casts a versatile, wide, even illumination for night vision is needed; perhaps LED video lights, a rechargeable lantern (180 degree or 360 degree coverage), or just an adjustable flashlight. All these devices emit light that: a) Is easy to prop and point, not directly on the owl, but perhaps on the branches below; b) Too weak to register on the digital image and screw up light balance; and c) Strong enough to give the lens a fix on focus. Most importantly, the beam intensity on these lights can be set to low power making the light too weak to disrupt the owl’s nightly routine or impair his remarkable dark adaptation vision.

Unexpected Daylight Commotion

One cold, cloudy afternoon, I opened the bedroom window, turned on the heater and positioned myself with a shutter remote. I hoped that my new neighbor would abandon the cover of darkness and take an impromptu daytime flight. During this surveillance, I noticed a few of my less tolerant wildlife neighbors fearlessly patrolling the owl box and expressing their dissatisfaction with a nocturnal predator trespassing within their boundaries. (NOTE: At the risk of anthropomorphizing here, perhaps they object to the Owl’s presence because he regularly and methodically strikes terror in the dead of night.) The rather loud rattles, chirps and thumps on and near the owl house could not help but interfere with the owl’s beauty sleep -so once in a while he stuck his head out of the box to see what all the commotion was about.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl with
a Red Squirrel atop His House.
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

Photographing the Agitators

During these raucous times, I did manage to photograph the owl’s heavily feathered head while he sluggishly perched at the circular entrance of his box. I did use the tele flash for these shots, but for the most part, the ambient light dominated the scene. (NOTE: I assume that his feet are propped on the ledge of the entrance but it’s hard to tell what’s beneath that thick blanket of feathers.) I was also able to photograph a few of the owl’s protesters. (In one afternoon, I saw and photographed the following owl agitators: A black squirrel, a gray squirrel, a Tufted Titmouse, a Chickadee, and a White Breasted Nuthatch.)

Photo of Eastern Screech Owl Hiding from a Tufted Titmouse
Eastern Screech Owl Hiding from a
Complaining Tufted Titmouse.
(Titmice are usually timid and not aggressive.)
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

I have not seen the owl for a few days but I am hoping he’ll be back. In the meantime, I’ll keep the camera rig in place and research less invasive methods for night time wildlife photography.

Wishing you all much joy in the coming New Year.

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Photographing a Juvenile Northern Flicker – Techno Talk Isn’t For Everyone

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Photographing a Northern Flicker

Some Northern Flickers hang around Southwest Michigan year around, but most retreat from the Michigan cold. This photo of a wary juvenile contemplating his options was taken this past fall in our yard. He never did muster the courage to hop down to the fountain and imbibe with the other birds. I was lucky to get in this one shot before he flew off.

Another member of the hammering Woodpecker family, Northern Flickers are brown and tan all over with distinctive face markings, richly patterned plumage and long sticky tongues. They don’t use their tails as a prop like most woodpeckers do and can mostly be found on the ground with the Robins and Blackbirds foraging for ants and beetles.

Photo of Northern Flicker
Juvenile Northern Flicker
Contemplating His Options
ISO2500; f/5.6; 1/320 Second

DSLR Camera Fluent

I love posting my images and writing about how DSLR technical competency translates into rewarding nature photography. Spending time and energy learning to be DSLR fluent gives me more control over the camera’s digital imagery. I find it challenging to navigate the labyrinth of precise terminology needed to figure it all out. It’s my path to creativity.

Techno Talk Isn’t for Every Photographer

I know a few photographers who choose to concentrate only on the artistic components within the frame and let the camera handle the rest. They reject my approach and ignore the mechanical, electronic, chip oriented functionality, like they do (most likely) with their computers and smart phones. Just not their thing.

These photographers are more interested in how the image strikes them emotionally.  Wildlife photography is more about the challenge to create rather than working through exposure conundrums in their head.

Camera automation is their key to artistic vision and therefore they don’t often cross the line into the technical. Manual Mode is a layer they don’t want or need. The practicality of learning how cameras work is superfluous to achieving the end game. Why bother when you can instantaneously see your image on the LCD screen? If it doesn’t work…move on and try something else.

Photo of Northern Flicker
Northern Flicker. Taken near
Lake MI a few years ago.
A Better View of the Backside
of this Beautiful Woodpecker.

Different Paths

Very different methods, motivations and interpretations lead photographers onto divergent paths. Every photographer has to decide how much she will let the camera do the thinking… much she will detach from the techno to accomplish her vision.

One thing bird photographers have in common. Birds come and go so fast. Often there’s only time to lift the lens and press the shutter (assuming you’ve got the camera setup on the tripod). There’s not much time to think it through right before taking the shot, artistically or technically.

So…..To bird lovers and photographers everywhere, whatever your philosophy and however you use the tools of the trade, Best Wishes and Merry Christmas!









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Photographing the Northern Parula Warbler and Thoughts About Canon’s New Flagship Camera

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Photographing the Northern Parula Warbler

This migrating Northern Parula Warbler posed for me for only a minute… but it was long enough capture the details of his striking array of pattern and color. Ample fill light from the flash accented his delicate profile, white eye crescents and the sunshine on his breast. An enticing bokeh complemented his beauty.

I am enchanted by his shape, colors and form, features I did not notice when I photographed this species in the Fall of 2015.

Photo of Northern Parula Warbler
Northern Parula Warbler
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

I attribute the stellar quality of these images to a very cooperative bird, the wrap around fill light provided by telephoto flash extender, an isolated perch with no foliage distractions, and my new camera; the Canon 1 D X Mark II.

The Canon 1DX Mark II DSLR Camera

I am still giddy about owning the Canon 1 D X Mark II. I’ve had it for close to 6 months now and I find myself wanting to use it for bird photography almost exclusively. I read everything I can find about this new camera (much of it covering features that are too technical for me to understand) and spend a lot of time putting this fabulous camera through its paces.

A few thoughts and observations.  (NOTE: All comparisons made are based on my 5D Mark III or my 7D Mark II. I have never owned a Canon Flagship DSLR camera before.)

  • Time spent downloading and managing RAW files into Lightroom is about the same. The file sizes are slightly smaller on this new camera (20.2) compared with my 5D Mark III (22.3) with full size sensor and the same size as my 7D Mark II (20.2) with 1.6 cropped sensor. This megapixel size does not overload my 4 year old computer’s processor and hard drive.
  • The image quality right out of the camera is better. Once the images are in Lightroom, my post processing work flow is less time consuming and tedious. There is less need to use the Lightroom sliders that impact sharpening, clarity, vibrance, highlighting, saturation, shadows, and noise reduction. Light metering seems more on target compared with my other cameras, and consequently, I spend less post process time with exposure, brightening and contrasts sliders.
  • New/Improved CMOS Sensor.  Birds are (for the most part) unapproachable and as a result, I often depend on luck to get a close-up shot. The majority of my (warbler size) bird shots (with 500 mm lens and 1.4 extender) are taken at a not-so-close distance of 20-25 feet. My 5D Mark III and the 7D Mark II cameras deliver exceptional image quality at low ISOs if I’m lucky enough to be 13-16 feet away from my subject. As you would expect, the more I have to zoom in on the image, the more the overall quality diminishes. (These are not monster megapixel cameras.) I’ve spent time comparing images from the old and the new cameras. The improved image sensor technologies incorporated into the Canon 1 D X Mark II (20.2) deliver expanded dynamic range, more defined texture, richer colors and more clarity in the details– all of which are noticeable even after extensive zooming. This is especially true when light is sufficient to shoot at lower ISO values (ISO 100-800).
  • Low Light-High ISO quality is very good on the Canon 1 D X Mark II.  I am much impressed with image clarity in the 6000-7000 ISO range- especially when I look back and compare it to the high ISO image softness I got from my previous cameras.
    • NOTE I: To get the best low light results, Canon recommends using one shot auto focus mode with only the center auto focus point activated. Good to know, but not much help when photographing birds on the move.
    • NOTE II: For the last 5 months or so, I have relied on telephoto flash in low light bird photography because I prefer to have more flexibility in my exposure choices and, most importantly, the low ISO clarity this camera delivers is outstanding.
  • Focusing is more accurate and less hesitant especially when tracking birds. This improvement is most noticeable when I attach a 1.4 or 2.0 tele-extender to track fast moving birds. (All 61 focus points are usable even when the camera is at f/8 max aperture.)  In addition, the auto focus coverage area is slightly larger (24%), so auto focus works even when subjects are close to the edges of the focusing screen.
  • The high speed continuous bursting is faster and quite a bit louder. The speedy image transfer rate (thanks in part to the new CFast 2.0 memory card and the unlimited buffer) is highly desirable for capturing (in focus) a rapid sequence of moving birds. NOTE: The duo memory slots have one CFast card and 1 UDMA 7 Compact Flash Card. I would have preferred if Canon had decided to install two CFast cards instead.)
  • Other Camera Choices:  I have researched and seriously considered purchasing the Canon 5 DS or the Canon 5 DS R DSLR camera. In both of these monster megapixel cameras, the sensor’s light gathering potential is sacrificed to bump up the megapixel count. Since I am confronted with many low light scenarios in my bird photography, these cameras are not for me. (I have not researched Canon’s new 5D Mark IV camera.)
  • Ease of use and overall ergonomics: The 1DX Mark II is a heavy and bulky camera that is not easily maneuverable off tripod. (NOTE: I am so excited to be an owner of one that its bulk is only noticeable when I pick up my comparatively light Canon 7D Mark II.) Once you get past the bulk, the function controls are laid out in a predictable “Canon” manner and feel comfortable to use.
  • LCD screen is much clearer – especially when zooming in on detail. Makes me feel more confident about deleting images right from the camera.
Photo of Female Northern Parula Warbler
Female Northern Parula Warbler
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

A More Discriminating Photographer

Anybody who spends a lot of time reviewing images and looking for image quality detail and sharpness is bound to (over time) develop a more discriminating eye. Finances permitting, this may lead some photographers to invest in equipment that will have a better chance of getting them to where they want to go in future photographic adventures.

It is important to note that these detail quality improvements will likely not knock-the-socks-off the typical fan of bird photography. In fact, I have learned NOT to expect people who are not photographers to notice or care.

Challenges, Frustrations and Rewards

Overall, I like the comfortable way this new camera feels and behaves when I use it. As with most new technology, my understanding is incomplete. At times, instead of referring to the manual, I make assumptions that may or may not be valid. There are challenges and frustrations, and sometimes when I’m weary, I think that it’s just easier to let this ultra complex computerized expensive camera do all the thinking.

Slowly but surely, I am figuring it out… and finding joy in the results.


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