All posts by nmckown

Photographing a Rush of Kinglets- Photographic Muscle Memory

Photographing A Big Kinglet Party

It was late in the migrating season when a dozen or so Kinglets descended near the fountain in our back yard. These tiny birds streak past and leave only a blur in my mind. Thankfully, my trusty camera can stop the action.

Ruby Crowned Kinglet
Ruby Crowned Kinglet
ISO800; f/8; 1/250 Second

Kinglet Visual ID

It’s relatively easy to distinguish between the two kinglet species.

  • Most noticeable is the dashing splash of color on the foreheads of spring males…bright red for the Ruby Crown Kinglets and yellowish gold for the Gold Crown Kinglets.
  • The Gold Crown males and females have bolder facial markings while the Ruby Crowns have more of a plain face.
  • The eyes of Ruby Crowns are accented with white oval, incomplete eye-rings, widest and most prominent on the sides.
  • Rubys are larger and more olive green – where Gold Crowns are more gray.

(NOTE: Over time, my visual ID abilities have improved, but not my audio detective skills. I must rely on my eyes and camera lens.)

Gold Crowned Kinglet
Gold Crowned Kinglet
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

Photographic Muscle Memory

My daily bird photography goals and setup procedures with the cameras are very often at odds with the ever changing light and the birds at hand. Consequently, I try to be nimble, adaptable, and confident in the moment. The time to dwell on opportunities lost and “I should have done that” reviews is after the shoot.

Lately I have noticed that my camera skills are becoming second nature. Abundant practice over the years (not to mention understanding the techno part and being prepared) have honed my photographic muscle memory to be disciplined, quick and agile. I spend a lot less time fumbling and bumbling with my equipment. My body and mind warm up nicely to photographing birds, and I experience less anxiety, even in the most pressurized and fleeting moments. (NOTE: When photographing people, I become more jerky, less adept. You would think these skills would be transferrable, but apparently not.)

We Get Better…or Worse

Practice makes perfect! Of course bad habits and behaviors can become part of muscle memory as easily as the productive ones. I do have bad habits that need correcting…..

  • Bursting Away…making much more work for myself in post instead of shooting strategically. (Usually a consequence of being inattentive or excited.)
  • Becoming so captivated by a bird that I forget to look for distractions that might wreak havoc on an image.
  • Missing critical shots because I lifted my head and moved my eye away from the camera’s eye cup instead of making the necessary exposure adjustments on the fly.  (NOTE: It is not uncommon for me to spend many frustrating moments trying to re-find a fast moving warbler that I saw with two eyes, but lost once I peered through the lens. I must direct the lens and quickly re-locate that spot while looking through the much narrower field of view of the lens, all in a highly charged instant. If the warbler is bouncing in and out of the viewfinder, and then gets lost in densely packed undergrowth, there is no choice but to lift my head again until I catch sight of it and am able to redirect the lens.)

So many more bird photography skills for me to learn.

Ruby Crowned Kinglet
Female Ruby Crowned Kinglet,
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

Photographing a Black and White Warbler- A Tight Frame

Photographing a Black and White Warbler

It’s always an exciting challenge to follow a fast moving target with the lens. Like most warblers, this little guy was busily on the move. Even though the Gimbal head performed flawlessly, I had trouble tracking him.

In the image below, the warbler was quickly making his way out of the frame. He was heading up… in the direction of his gaze..and moving so fast toward his probable exit point that I could not keep up with the lens. As I pressed the shutter, I knew the image would be tightly cropped and consequently create a sense that there was no place for the bird to go. No clipped body parts, thankfully, but still inadequate space for the top of the frame, and no room to creatively crop.

Black and White Warbler
Black and White Warbler
Too close to the top edge of the frame.
ISO1000; f/8; 1/250 Second

Compositional Challenges

My camera is often set at one shot auto focus simply because little birds far away tend to conceal themselves behind brush and in hidey holes. If I need to tunnel into these places with the lens, having a single autofocus point with which to direct the lens and lock focus is helpful. Plus, the flash is more likely to be able to keep up in single shot mode.

Focusing challenges change dramatically If the bird is out in the open. For this shoot, it was more advantageous to track the warbler with a small cluster of autofocus points in Al Servo mode.

NOTE: There’s a lot more on your focusing plate than just keeping up with a tiny, fast, zigzagging bird…ie focus limiter, back button focusing, image stabilizer, bursting speed, continual refocusing and shooting, enough megapixels for zooming.

Artful Compositions

Most birds are all curves. Lots of curves can make for an elegant and artful composition. They add energy, movement, and balance to the photo. If you crop too abruptly close to the edge of a frame, you can mess up the composition.

Black and White Warbler
Black and White Warbler
Ample Room to Frame.
ISO800; f/8; 1/250 Second

When the frame of an image is inadequate, photographers often try to creatively zoom and cut. A “cut off” is a deliberate attempt in post processing to include only a portion of the shot to create a compelling image. You zoom in and fill the frame artistically (or as tight as you like) and leave the rest to the viewer’s imagination.

I’ve tried this technique, and have to admit that the results do not appeal to me in my line of bird photography. Overall, I like the visual flow of a complete image that includes the context… and consistently try to “back off” a bit more in my zooming. Unfortunately, giving the image plenty of room in the frame is often not an option.

Photographing A Laysan Albatross – Holiday Greetings

Holiday Greetings From Kauai, Hawaii

Laysan Albatross
Laysan Albatross
ISO1000; f/10; 1/800 Second

Here in Kauai, finding and photographing a Laysan Albatross is relatively easy during the December nesting season. Seemingly unafraid, these birds build ground level nests made of sticks and palm fronds and settle in to wait for their chicks to hatch. These images were captured near our rented condo on the North Shore.

Soaring Beauties

Laysan Albatross
Laysan Albatross in Flight
ISO800; f/8; 1/2500 Second

Layson Albatrosses are a common seabird in Northwest Hawaii and abundant numbers can be seen gliding gracefully over the Pacific waters. Despite their size, these birds are masters of energy efficient flying, otherwise known as dynamic soaring. It was fascinating to watch them take flight on a calm day…. stretching out their 6 ft wings and running along the grass toward the steep cliffs to launch their large bodies into the winds.

NOTE: I had considered not expending the time and effort to haul my dSLR camera and f/2.8 Canon L 300mm telephoto lens from Saugatuck MI to Kauai Hawaii – 4366 miles.  I’m glad I did.

Happy Holidays!


Photographing Black Throated Blue Warblers – Long Lens or Digiscope?

Photographing Black Throated Blue Warblers

A pair of Black Throated Blue Warblers arrived together at the fountain this Fall just before we shut it down for the winter. The male hopped around on the stones near the base of the streaming water, making for a colorful image. The female alighted on the nearby perches near the fountain. I was at the right place at the right time with the right equipment. Minutes later, this pair disappeared.

Photo of Black Throated Blue Warbler
Black Throated Blue Warbler, male
ISO800; f/8; 1/250 Second

Sexual Dimorphism

The male and female Black Throated Blue Warblers have very different coloration- so much so that they do not appear to be the same species. The male sports lustrous blue plumage atop his head and on his back and tail feathers. A black face mask extends down his throat to meet a bright white underbelly. He keeps this striking plumage year round. The female has none of the prominent black or blue colors of her mate. Her plumage is a soft olive brown contrasting with wisps of yellow on the breast. If you look closely at the contour of the pale stripes above the female’s eyes, you can see an outline of the male’s facial pattern. Both the male and female have small white spots on the edge of their folded wings.

NOTE: Any time you see blue feathers on a bird, it’s a trick of light. If you are interested in reading more about blue colors in nature, I recommend this article: Why Most Animals are Not True Blue by conservation biologist, Steven D. Faccio. It can be found at this LINK.

Female Black Throated Blue Warbler
Black Throated Blue Warbler, female
ISO800; f/8; 1/250 Second

Lenses v Digiscopes

The birding list-serve that I subscribe to recently reported a Barrow’s Golden Eye Duck associating with the more frequently seen Common Goldeneye flocks out on Lake Michigan. This news brought out a half dozen birders –all peering through their long spotting scopes, eagerly searching for this unusual bird.

Most of the birders I saw had digiscopes…a manually focused digital spotting scope paired with a dSLR camera and secured on the scope by a mounting bracket near the scope’s eye piece. (Some high quality digiscope-cameras have auto exposure and autofocus capabilities.) Along with their scopes, these birders packed sturdy tripods and tripod heads for optimal image steadiness and smooth maneuverability. They also had high powered long range binoculars hanging at the ready around their necks. I could see no one in this party using a dSLR camera and long lens.

(NOTE: Some of these scopes reach the equivalent of a 1250-4000mm lens…a size that’s only a dream in the world of weighty, magnification challenged, and very expensive dSLR telephoto lenses.)

Different Priorities

Even though birders and bird photographers both tend to love birds, be abundantly patient and haul around similar equipment, they have different priorities when out in the field.  Birders with digiscopes are more interested in using their scopes to record distant images of birds and to use that image to document a sighting. Like bird photographers, they devote time, serious study and money to their endeavors in an effort to capture high quality images or videos of distant birds.

In terms of image quality, a good lens will outshine a digiscope any day- the closer the proximity, the better.  In terms of capturing birds at a distance, especially a distance not possible with a camera lens, a digiscope is the tool of choice.

Photographing a Blue Headed Vireo – The Distance Factor

Photographing a Blue Headed Vireo

Blue Headed Vireos appear more gray than blue during Fall migration. What makes them unmistakable are those lavish white spectacles on that gray hood. It starts with a heavy but incomplete eye ring that extends down to its thick hooked beak and into the neck and breast areas. The colorful olive green with black yellow and white patterns on his back don’t quite cover up the flecks of gray that trickle down from his head.

Photo of Blue Headed Vireo
Blue Headed Vireo
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second
Curious Enough to Pose patiently

Flash. Figuring Out This Essential Tool

Flash enhancement has proven to be an essential tool when photographing in my darkly lit woods, assuming I get it right. As I set up the flash for this shoot, I planned to selectively brighten the vireo’s face and body, while leaving the background dark. My exposure parameters worked well partly because this smallish bird was only 15-16 feet away – an excellent distance for the fresnel enhanced flash.

The Distance Factor

The flash is designed to work with the camera to gauge the ambient light reflecting off of the subject and calculate how much flash is needed to maintain exposure parameters. The flash sends a weak pre flash to determine the amount of flash needed- but if the subject is distant, that pre flash would most certainly fall off and be unable to send critical info back to the camera. So experimentation using flash exposure compensation (FEC) becomes necessary, assuming the bird sticks around. (NOTE: I could always boost underexposed images after the shoot in post processing. I rarely do this because I simply can not replicate the quality of brightening in post processing that I can achieve in camera, at least not without repercussions to the final image.)

At times, ETTLII Flash with fresnel extender delivers too much  light…depending on how close the lens is to the subject. This is because the blast from fresnel flash extenders are always head-on… and concentrated. It is not suppose to scatter in multiple directions, but instead narrow its angle of coverage and gain distance. Perch location is critical. (NOTE: The flash bracket is essential to raise the flash off of the hot shoe and over the axis of the lens, hopefully casting the unwanted shadows to places where they won’t be bothersome…like below or behind the subject.)

Photo of Blue Headed Vireo
Blue Headed Vireo.
More of a Frontal view.
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

Computational Powerhouses

My dSLR camera and flash are designed to work together in the way of sophisticated computers. Trying to understand precisely how the camera and flash use their computational power to meter reflected light is beyond me…. especially since it is so difficult to predict what a Canon camera will do when Evaluative mode is engaged. This multi-level internal light metering system evaluates whatever fills the frame using algorithms covering a complex arrangement of variables including the parameters preset in the camera and information taken in through the lens. (NOTE: Conditions affecting the light’s direction, tone, intensity, absorption and bouncability will impact how light travels through the lens and is evaluated by the camera and flash. To read about the physics of how light travels and reflects off an object, visit this link.)

So much to think about! Overall, I find that given all these variables and the speed at which calculations must be made, the rate of light metering success is very good, despite the distance of the subject. When the camera, the flash and the photographer get it right, it’s a good day.

Photographing a Tennessee Warbler- The Power of Framing

Photographing a Tennessee Warbler

I still can not ID a Tennessee Warbler quickly. A dark line through the eyes accented with long white eyebrows are most often used as the determining factors. My bird books refer to this species as “dull”, most likely because nothing really stands out color or pattern wise on the plumage – especially compared to other warblers.

I don’t think so.

These warblers are so individually distinct! Different gradations of yellow, gray, black and olive green are entwined throughout the plumage. The first image shows an individual with delicately understated colors…olive gray feathers on the head streaming down into the plumage on his back. The second image captures a very different pose and package, with a burst of daffodil yellow on the breast. No doubt the flash made those flaxen colors pop. Different birds, both captured in the Autumn of 2017.

Photo of Tennessee Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Expansive View of his Background.
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

Creative Anticipation

So…. what to take in when photographing birds? Do I want a tack sharp close-up where the image is so crisp that I can almost touch the playful plumage patterns and textures and count the feathers? Or should I expand the boundaries and create a sense of space, take in more of the mood of the landscape, the intensity and hue of colors, and the expressive lines and curves?

Photographers can create meaning and tell a story through their work. However, in bird photography, it is not often possible to follow through on pre-visualization routines… to capture the image exactly as you imagine it.

Pre-Visualize or Crop

No doubt some artsy photographers might think that the only way to do photography right is to start with compositional building blocks, to thoughtfully pre visualize and then frame in-camera. Zooming and cropping afterwards, (or any post production process for that matter) would be “cheating”.

I tend to operate in the reverse. Given the realities of the fast and frantic world of bird photography, I’d say that I end up cropping at least 90% of my images… and possibly more.

Tennessee Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Close up view.
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

The Power of Framing

The more I look at a digital image of a bird, the more I know what to do. The power of framing through post processing helps me be less sloppy, snip away at the discordant parts, break away from standard aspect ratios. I push and pull the Lightroom crop tool every which way… trying to determine what looks best and to get rid of distractions. Post production is just another set of tools I use to create the look I want.

Bottom Line:  The photographer should decide what looks best, whether it be fanciful or faithful to the scene and subject, and not let other elevated egos decide for her.

NOTE: Pre-visualizing is a more time consuming endeavor when photographing with a long lens. Most often, my binocular vision is not engaged while peering through my 500mm monster lens.  I try to avoid the disorientation that comes with overlapping fields of view that consist of one eye seeing a magnified limited field of vision and the other eye looking without magnification at a much wider field of view.

Photographing a Carolina Wren – Oversized Perches

Photographing A Carolina Wren

As much as I would like to have bright, even light when I photograph migrating birds, I rarely do. The migrators take advantage of the best weather conditions and keep going. The more fierce the rain, wind and cold, the more likely they will descend to avoid the possibility of getting lost, conserve their energy and wait out the inclement weather in the understory trees. Once down, they can take cover, get a little food and rest and keep an eye out for predators. (NOTE: Small birds are not as efficient in flight as large birds, especially when conditions are poor.)

There is little reason to set up the camera rig by the fountain when it’s raining. Instead, I position the camera near low lying trees and bushes and hope a new bird will venture close by. This little, soaking wet Carolina Wren made my day. Despite the rain, he started to  sing….an intricate and lovely set of bird vocalizations. (Visit this link to hear them.) These wrens are large and hardy, as wrens go, and not particularly shy. They are not easily shoved aside by the bigger birds at the feeder or the fountain. The last time I photographed a Carolina Wren in our yard was a feeder shot in January, 2014.

Photo of Carolina Wren
Carolina Wren
Resting on Oversized Perch.
ISO400; f/7.1; 1/250 Second

Algae, Lichen and Moss

I like the look of the flourishing algae, lichens, and moss that embed themselves in tree trunks and branches in our yard.  These living organisms thrive everywhere in our damp woods and are ubiquitous on the perches of many of my bird images. If the light is right during or shortly after a rain shower, they reflect little explosions of rugged patterns, textures, lines, and lush colors.

Oversized Perches

Does the perch overpower the bird in these images?  Ideally a more delicate natural perch ¼” to ½” in diameter would have looked better- more proportional to the size of the bird. The Serviceberry nearest to the house is a multiple stemmed tree situated approximately 15 feet from the camera. The forked branch upon which this Carolina Wren perches is close to the base of the tree and a little over an inch in diameter. (NOTE: It looks like a bigger branch, but it’s the small size of the bird (4.9 – 5.5 in.) that makes his perch look oversized.)

The bird looks comfortable perching here…and safe…despite the perch’s diameter. Maybe that should be the determining criteria.

Photo of Carolina Wren
Carolina Wren
ISO400; f/7.1; 1/250 Second

Photographing Swainson Thrushes – Finding Complementary Light

Photographing Swainson Thrushes

It was a productive Fall season for Swainson Thrushes this year. Usually we see only two or three stop by on their migrating journey, but this year we counted half-dozen or so bold and boisterous individuals competing for room at the fountain. They mostly came in the evening.

photo of Swainson Thrushes
Two Swainson Thrushes
One Not Willing to Share.
ISO1000; f/9; 1/200 Second

The camera rig straddled the door jam…with one of the tripod legs stretching out to rest on the outdoor deck. The other two tripod legs were positioned inside the house.  The early morning golden hour had long past. The fountain was still draped in shade- the garage blocking its light. As the sun rose over the roof, a bright patch blanketed the camera rig, making the my new oversized Hoodman camera eye cup ever so useful. Trees were still heavy with green leaves. At this mid-morning hour, the background was a good 2 stops darker than the fountain area.

I wondered what impact the stream of sunlight shining directly on the camera would have on my camera’s light meter. The camera’s LCD viewing monitor was compromised by reflection and glare, but I didn’t think light was sneaking in through the viewfinder. The ambient light near the fountain was not evenly spread…only a patch here and there shown through in the foreground and background.  I took a couple test shots and noticed blinkies…a consequence of  reflective and harsh surfaces throughout the frame. The light was transitioning fast.

Exposure Adjustments

I could turn the flash off and get by with sporadic light and most likely a high ISO….as high as 3000+ ISO.  I decided that with uneven light prevailing, it was best to add a little flash fill. I turned the FEC to -2/3  (NOTE: Flash Exposure Compensation won’t work in complete manual mode, so I turned on Auto ISO. Alternately, I could choose to use one of the semi-automatic setting like TV or AV or perhaps even Program Mode.).

The Thrushes were moving so fast that by the time I adjusted exposure for a particular perch, that bird was long gone. Thrushes are ground feeding birds, and they commonly go where they can stay hidden amongst the low lying Hosta or within patches of late season Hellebore, Sedum, Rhododendron, Wood Poppies and bright Coleus. I pointed the lens downward near the wood chips.

Photo of Swainson Thrush
Swanson Thrush
On the Ground, Wings up.
ISO800; f/7.1; 1/250 Second

Pointing the Lens Downward

I don’t often publish photos of birds foraging on the ground…. mainly because I prefer eye level shots and am too hesitant to get down at their level into a bestrewed tangle of debris. The lens had a difficult time trying to lock focus in this jumble. I could have taken the time to lower the camera….the tripod legs are easily adjusted, but any distraction would have sent the birds flying.

Thankfully, there was much less reflecting glare on the ground at that late hour. The wood chips upon which the thrushes landed offered a subtly colorful and complementary palate. All I had to do was wait and hope that a thrush would wander out from under the foliage.  And this one did.

Photographing a Brown Creeper- Considering a New Camera –Again

Photographing a Brown Creeper

The treasure trove of thrushes, warblers, finches, sparrows, and juncos are so obviously gone from our yard now- no doubt embarking on their seasonal cycles. But the tiny Brown Creepers are still here. They forage year-round in our woods (whether they are the same birds or newly arrived migrators I do not know). As they scootch up a heavily crusted dark tree trunk, they are amply camouflaged. The beautiful patterns and colors of their plumage are concealed…looking more mottled as they blend against the mature, thick bark. It’s only when I am able to capture them atop a lighter colored perch that the intricate designs and patterns of the plumage show themselves.

Similar to woodpeckers, Brown Creepers use their tails as props while hitching upward and spiraling in jerky motions from the bottom of the tree to the top to probe for small arthropods in the crevices of the bark. They even build their nests under loose pieces of tree bark.

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second
Objecting to Someone
In his Path

Crop Sensor Decision

When thoughts of new birds are not dancing in my head, my mind wanders to the joy of getting my hands around new and fanciful electronic toys.

I’m looking to replace my Canon 7D Mark II DSLR camera. It’s been a reliable camera, but over the years I’ve become partial to full sensor digital SLR cameras. Three years ago, I bought the 7D Mark II cropped sensor camera to take advantage of the increased focal length:

  • Attach a 500mm lens to a Canon 7D Mark II with 1.6 cropped sensor and your lens is effectively transformed into an 800 mm lens (1.6 x 500).
  • Attach a Canon 1.4x III telephoto extender to the 500mm lens and the magnification becomes 1120mm (800 x 1.4).
  • Attach a Canon 2.0x III telephoto extender to the 500mm lens and the magnification becomes 1600mm (800 x 2.0).

A 1600mm focal length opens a lot of doors for bird photographers.

Photo of Brown Creeper
Brown Creeper
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second
I like the intricate feather patterns
and colors on his back plumage.
Made more obvious by the
light colored perch.

Impact of Camera Sensor Size

Theoretically, when comparing Canon’s modern, high quality DSLR camera sensors of different sizes, and using similar lighting and distance parameters and similar megapixel counts, the full frame sensor (because it is twice the size of the cropped sensor and brings in more light) will likely deliver a broader dynamic range and better quality low light resolution (less noise) than the cropped sensor will.

Over the years I’ve learned that the difference in quality between Canon’s high end full sized sensor and cropped sensor is pretty small when the subject is well within range of the telephoto lens. (NOTE: To capture tack sharp images, there’s no substitution for getting as close as possible to your subject.)

Distance Matters

If the subject is too far away, and you are unable to (mostly) fill the frame with the bird and its surroundings, you are then forced to zoom-in dramatically during post processing. Digital images consist of pixels/dots. You enlarge those dots whenever you zoom-in, more so if you are zooming into a relatively small component of the photo. The more you zoom, the more the image degrades, causing image detail and quality to suffer.  A larger sensor provides more megapixels, causing less image degradation when zooming. Essentially, when you pay for 30.4 million (or however many) pixels on a larger sensor- you gain an advantage in cropping.

Exploring the 5D Mark IV

Why buy this new DSLR camera? (NOTE: It’s not a good investment, financially.) I have owned two of the Canon 5D series (II and III) and liked them a lot.  Not unexpectedly, this latest 5D Mark IV is purported to have superior image quality and speed. But the main reason I am interested in this camera is because the full frame sensor (36.0mm x 24.0mm) records a hefty 30.4  Megapixels- quite a bit more than the Canon 7D Mark II (20.2MP) or the Canon Flagship, 1DX Mark II-(20.2MP)- but not as much as Canon’s megapixel monsters–the Canon 5 DS cameras with sensors holding 50.6 Megapixels.

Advantages of More Megapixels

  • The main advantage of having a DSLR camera with densely packed megapixels is that you can capture an enormous amount of detail. (The 50.6 monster megapixel cameras would definitely appeal to specialized markets; those photographers who crave detail and are equipped to incorporate artificial light when needed to keep ISO levels low.)
  • Distance between the lens and subject would be less of an issue because the high megapixel count would give photographers more freedom to crop (in post processing) without denigrating the image too much.
  • High quality enlarged prints would be possible.

Disadvantages of More Megapixels

  • The higher the megapixel count on the sensor, the more you sacrifice low light performance. Canon introduced two monster mega pixel cameras (Canon 5DS)in 2015. I seriously considered buying one of these cameras, but the mediocre light gathering potential (ISO recommended range = 100-6400) of the sensors put me off.  At that time I relied exclusively on natural light and did not attach a flash to my cameras.
  • Photographers would not be able to see the high level of detail on most computer monitors.
  • The computer processing power and the hard drive storage needed to process 30.4 million pixels per photo is massive?
  • Despite the in-camera Digit 6+ processor improvements, the Canon 5D Mark IV will use more power and take longer to process, store and transfer all that image data.
  • Bigger compact flash and SD memory cards to accommodate the massive storage requirements will set photographers back a bit. At this writing, a SanDisk 128GB Extreme Pro CompactFlash Card, with UDMA 7 Speed Up To 160MB/s, now costs $149… and slowly coming down.

    Another Door Opened

    I would like a camera with a CMOS sensor that delivers not only outstanding detail and excellent low light performance, but also provides substantial pixels so that the image stays sharp when I need to zoom in post processing. I think the Canon 5D Mark IV will do those things.

Photographing Yellow Throated Vireos – The Impact of Stray Light

Photographing a Yellow Throated Vireo

Lots of warblers coming through….. mostly drab coloring on the plumage. In most cases, I rarely get more than a glance. The camera’s lens is crucial to successfully examine colors and patterns.  Without it, I certainly couldn’t ID most migrators with any conviction.

Based on this bird’s shape, size and elusive prowling behavior, I was pretty sure I had some kind of a warbler. Then I took a close look at the digital image…examining the size of her beak and her lemon yellow chest, throat and eye rings. Not a long, thin, pointy bill like a warbler, but thick; more like a Shrike with that large hook at the end. And what about those large bluish gray feet? Definitely not a warbler.

Photo of Yellow Throated Vireo
Yellow Throated Vireo.
Circular Orbs Obstructing Left Foot.
ISO800; f/8; 1/250 Second

Stray Light

The sky was dark and pouring rain when this little Yellow Throated Vireo plopped down on a nearby branch in front of the camera. Small, drenched service berry leaves in front of and around the bird prevented the lens from getting a clean shot.

Somehow, on 3 sequential images, the camera recorded foggy looking circular overlapping orbs on the foreground of the bird’s left foot and all across the bottom of the image. This despite low ambient light, E-TTLII flash, lens hood attached, and advanced optical design multi-coating technology on my 500mm Canon L lens.  OUCH!!

But Why?

  • It was a dark day. There was no background source of ambient light equal or stronger than the existing light on the subject.
  • The flash (with FEC set at -1/3) was doing most of the work.
  • No pieces of dust, debris or water droplets were on the camera’s front or rear lens elements. (NOTE: Dust on the front of the lens hardly ever impacts image quality.)

It looks like overexposed lens flare, possibly combined with an out-of-focus elliptical Serviceberry leaf in the foreground. I can only surmise that those wet leaves in front of the bird bounced the light back toward the lens, causing not only lens flare, but also spotty reduction in saturation and contrast. (NOTE: Long lenses are more likely to produce pronounced lens flare.)

Yellow Throated Vireo
Yellow Throated Vireo
Thick Branches Obstructing Line of Sight,
But No Lens Flare.
ISO800; f/8; 1/250 Second

Unpredictable Lens Flare

Flare doesn’t require sun, just a light source. The light’s angle must have been just right to pass through multiple lens elements (and ultimately reach the sensor) and blast the images with little orbs. It all disappeared when the bird moved to a higher branch. I countered by moving the lens up, thus altering the angle of light. (See second photo.)

Flare and glare are unpredictable (for the most part) and can show up on digital images even when photographing on a dark day. In bird photography, I find these artifacts to be unattractive and distracting- an operator error which can be remedied if you notice it soon enough…. and the bird sticks around.