All posts by nmckown

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.

Photographing Wood Thrushes in Near Darkness

Photographing Wood Thrushes

Over the years, I’ve photographed the migrating  Veery Thrush and Swainson’s Thrush as they were passing through our yard, but never a resident Wood Thrush. 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.

Photo of Wood Thrush
Wood Thrush
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

Photographing in Evening’s Twilight

Around evening’s twilight, four or five Wood Thrushes quietly congregated at the fountain after all the other bird species had left. At first, only one or two bold and curious birds came. I could see a few more of their wary companions hiding in the dimness beyond the fountain. Light was quickly declining.

Metering and Managing the Light

They came in the near darkness, so that’s how I had to manage exposure. I switched the camera’s light meter mode from “Evaluative” to “Partial”.  Metering modes tell the camera system WHERE in the scene to meter the reflected light. If you change the metering mode from “evaluative” (total scene) to “partial” (approx 6-10% of the area) or “spot” (approx 2.5% or less of the area), the light meter will narrow the area it takes into account when metering and possibly use different algorithms to read the reflected light. (NOTE: The histogram is a reliable way to see how the light meter is balancing the light coming into the lens.)

It’s always a challenge to control the light intensity of the flash and properly expose the subject (and not the background) especially when there’s so little ambient light to help out. The background area was so dark as to be indiscernible. The camera was set to Manual Mode and the flash (with fresnel flash extender) to E-TTL II so that the camera would automatically calculate the burst needed based on the exposure settings I chose. I toned down this burst by setting the flash exposure compensation (FEC) to -2/3. It turned out to be a good place to start. (NOTE: Often the sudden flash blast will disturb wary birds, but the thrushes did not scatter or even flinch when the flash went off.)

Wood Thrush
Wood Thrush
A Twilight Dip
In the Fountain.
ISO1000; f/8; 1/250 Second

A Lens Can Not Focus in Darkness

As it got darker, my eyes and the lens struggled to find edges and contrast on which to focus. (NOTE: 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 moonlight and starlight that night offered some help. In addition, the fresnel attached flash emitted a light beam (auto focus assist beam) so the lens could do its calculations for autofocus to work. NOTE: That assist beam only travels so far, and no doubt not as far as the fountain…a good 20 feet.

As you can see in the photos above, the lens did have sufficient light to lock focus.

Thrush ID

In January, 2017, I published a post on what I thought was a Wood Thrush, but when I looked back at those photos and compared them to the boldly colored Wood Thrushes included in this post, it was clear that I made an ID error and instead posted photos of a Hermit Thrush.

A rather obvious mistake, considering how distinctive looking Wood Thrushes are. I’m getting better at bird ID as time goes by, but I still have trouble telling the difference between thrush species. Wood Thrushes are one of the easiest thrushes to identify with their rich cinnamon feathers and bold brown densely spotted white breast. Like Robins, they spends most of their time hopping around on the ground flipping leaves and pouncing on whatever little creature surfaces. Most of the time, if I am at all unsure, I don’t publish without having the experts at What Bird.com verify a species ID. Clearly I skipped that step when I posted in January.  Corrections have been made.

Photographing Nashville Warblers and Thoughts About HDR Images

Photographing Nashville Warblers

Nashville Warblers have been our most common visitor during this Fall’s migration. Individuals don’t stay long and they are as skittish and unpredictable as most other warblers. I’m always very pleased when I get at least one good, unobstructed shot.

If a warbler pauses for a few seconds and I do get more than one shot, (assuming the flash keeps up with the shutter action) there is always bird movement within the sequence. Warblers don’t sit still, calmly, quietly, motionless. And that makes HDR bird photography impractical.

Nashville Warbler
Nashville Warbler
With Colorful Fall Plumage
Tonal Richness Sparse on the
Right Side of the Histogram.
ISO800; f/8; 1/250 Second

What HDR Does

Whenever I come across well done, realistic HDR photography on the web, it is most often a promotion for high-end housing or other real estate on the market. A High Dynamic Range (HDR) photo is the compilation of multiple exposures into one and works well with static subjects like fancy interior housing layouts.

The purpose of HDR photography is to capture a careful blend (usually AEB bracketed) of identical images, and then digitally combine them to create a single photo that has a wide dynamic range ..much wider than the camera’s sensor can capture with only one photo.

Photo of Nashville Warbler
Nashville Warbler
ISO400; f/7.1; 1/250 second
Could not create a Decent HDR image
with the Dozens of Shots I Took of
This Nashville Warbler.

Why Use HDR?

Photographers practice HDR to enhance tonal richness (expand the dynamic range) of the image. The HDR algorithm incorporated in the camera (or post processing software) pulls multiple images together into one and thus captures more detail on both ends of the 0-256 tonal range spectrum.

Each image file is set up with slightly different exposure settings allowing the camera to create a different dynamic range for each. Most often, the photographer will set up the sequence of shots to use the same ISO, the same aperture, but different shutter speeds. They take the time to measure the shutter speed required for the darkest and the brightest parts of the scene and then add additional shutter stops at the high end and low end. Finally, they blend only those images that expand the tonal range spectrum, i.e. overall dynamic range.

Tone Mapping

At its best, the HDR process exposes different portions of the final image by different amounts. Called tone mapping, the software allows you to lighten shadows and darken highlights in specific regions. Some photographic artists prefer to use tone mapping to make the blended image look surreal and/or unnatural.

How to Know When to Use HDR

There is no point in considering HDR if the dynamic range of the scene does not exceed the sensor’s light intensity range. It’s easy to check.

Every dSLR camera maps the light intensity range of its sensor on its histogram, so a photographer can instantly determine the dynamic range. If the histogram is ‘clipped‘ at either edge of the scale, picture detail will be lost – either in the shadows (if it’s clipped on the left) or in the highlights (if it’s clipped on the right). If the histogram shows large peaks overflowing at both ends and a low dip in the center, the camera’s sensor can not handle the dynamic range of the subject.

HDR with Bird Photography

Certainly a living, breathing, highly active bird in his natural environment looks much better when the light is outstanding–   – when the direction, intensity, and overall quality brings out distinct contrast and eye popping detail.

With HDR, there must be no movement (no discernible heartbeat, no wind, no camera shake) within the sequence of fast continuous shots. In bird photography, there is almost always some evidence of movement between the shots, creating ghosting and alignment issues and making a successful image meld impossible.

Perhaps I should practice on a statue of a bird.

Photographing a Female Hooded Warbler – Image Editing Limitations

Photographing a Female Hooded Warbler

This female Hooded Warbler alighted on a branch near the camera for less than a minute. Right before dusk, she perched 3 or 4 feet above eye level on a Sassafras tree very near the camera. Instead of staying put, she took off like a shot…a yellow blur flying directly at the camera and then swooping up 10 feet or so to avoid crashing into the window. She must have decided that with me there, it was too risky to attempt a drink at the fountain.

There is very little to recommend this image file. The detail is good and the blurred background is OK. However, harsh shadows (created by the flash blast) outline the underside of the warbler’s profile and make the overall image look very unattractive. I was able to minimally correct the darkness of the shadowy outline with Lightroom’s Shadow slider. If only there had been some distance between the tree trunk and the branch on which she perched, the dark shadow outlining the bottom of the bird’s profile would not have been so noticeable.

Hooded Warbler, female
Hooded Warbler, female.
Taken Right before Dusk.
Harsh Shadows in the Background
from Flash blast. Corrected Minimally With Shadow slider.
ISO 800, f/9; 1/250

(NOTE: The shadow so prevalent on this image is not the kind of shadow that would be highlighted in the camera’s clipping indicators. It is just a background shadow created by the flash and made a little less black by pushing Lightroom’s shadow slider all the way to the right.)

Photo Editing

I do not own Photoshop, but maybe I should. The thought makes me weary because I think of post processing as a hateful but necessary chore. Time consuming as Lightroom is, I can not master image editing by using it. I can only minimally fix issues with the shadow slider and adjustment brushes and make minor adjustments with cropping, exposure, contrast, clarity, and sharpening.

Photoshop (and the hundreds of fancy plug-ins designed to enhance this software) would  have helped improve this image. First and foremost, it would give me the tools to separate the subject (Bird Layer) from its tree (Background Layer) and then replace the background completely. There’s also image magic to be had with the Masking, Brushing, Adjusting, Cloning, Layering, Blending, Liquifying, and Transforming tools.

Keep it Simple; Keep it Real

Bottom line: Learning Photoshop is not something I want to do to. When I first go through a day’s shoot, I’m looking for promise and potential – something pleasing that will draw the eye. If I don’t see this, the image is just not worth the time and effort it takes to fix.

Photographing a Pileated Woodpecker and Boosting Exposure in Post

Photographing a Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpeckers are year-long residents in SW Michigan, but rarely have I had the pleasure of photographing one. These woodpeckers are startlingly large (the size of a crow) for a forest dwelling bird, and spend much of their time excavating high-in-the-sky trees to forage for carpenter ants and beetle larvae. Pileated Woodpeckers are primary cavity excavators (PCE) who tunnel broad and deep to shape a deadwood cubbyhole in which to raise their young. Once abandoned by the woodpeckers, SNAG dependent birds and mammals move in.

I love that conspicuous Woody Woodpecker-ish red crest atop his head and I get goosebumps when I hear the wild whinnying calls of these dashing and pre historic looking birds reverberating high above us. Pileated Woodpeckers are known to be very skittish around people. Most often by the time I see one, he has already spotted me and is headed the other way, giving me only belly or tail feather shots. This individual (see below) is obviously a male, as indicated by the mustache-like red patch of feathers on his cheek.

Photo of Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
A Little Too Much Flash.
ISO800; f/8; 1/250 Second

Patience Pays Off

It was early evening with patchy light covering the foreground off the deck. The meter calculated the woodsy background at approximately 2 stops darker. I heard the Pileated Woodpecker before I saw him…something probing, prying, hammering and clawing behind the thick trunk (of a live Maple tree); and then some rustling, possibly from him hopping around on the ground amongst the wide reaching hosta leaves.

I quickly reset the len’s focusing range to 4.5m to infinity. The focusing mechanism was noisily hunting in and out, trying to pinpoint something within the darkness on which to focus. (NOTE: The Canon 500 mm 4.0L II IS USM telephoto lens has 3 specific options from which to choose a working distance or focusing range. A focus limiter switch on the lens barrel allows you to choose from 3 distance ranges: 4.5m to 10m, 10m to infinity, or 4.5m to infinity. )

It took a long 5 minutes before this Pileated Woodpecker showed himself, emerging slowly around the bend of the tree trunk. The lens immediately locked focus. As he began circling the Maple, he ignored the camera, intent on pounding the tree bark and lapping up insects with that long, sticky tongue. I pressed the shutter, set to silent, continuous shooting and held it just long enough to burst 3 shots.

(NOTE: When I first spot a bird, I always assume that the encounter will be fleeting. My camera is usually set to silent Low Speed Continuous Burst Mode, just in case I need it to capture some action. When using flash, there is no choice but to slow down to allow the flash to recycle.)

Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Slowly Moving Around the Tree Trunk and into View. Flash Worked,
Very little boosting needed in Post.
ISO800; f/8; 1/250 Second

Manual Mode Without Auto ISO

The flash did not fire in the 3rd photo of this sequence…causing a 3-stop underexposed image…no doubt because there was no time for the flash gun to refresh. See photo below.

Note: The ISO on all of these images was set to a relatively low ISO800. Generally, when I set exposure parameters for flash use, I leave the ISO at “Auto”. When the flash fires, Auto = ISO400. If the flash does not fire, Auto ISO will automatically readjust the exposure parameters for the scene. Since ISO was set to ISO800 during this shoot, the camera was in total manual mode. The ISO exposure parameters did not auto adjust and the image was underexposed.

Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Flash Did Not Have Time to Fully Recharge.
Boosted Exposure in Post Processing +3.06
Creating Noise on Bird and background.
ISO800; f/8; 1/250 Second

Fixing Underexposure Problems in Lightroom

It’s relatively easy to remedy underexposure in Lightroom by fine tuning the Brightness, Highlights, Shadows and Contrast sliders until you get the look you want. In the severely underexposed image shown directly above, I had to boost exposure +3.06 in Lightroom. I used as much of the noise reduction slider as I dared and that helped to soften the gritty look. You can see in the last image (especially if you enlarge and compare the images) that the bird’s crest lacks feather detail and the dark background looks as though it has a grainy image lustre coating applied. Evenly distributed background noise is prevalent, even though: 1) I was shooting in RAW; 2) Used a low ISO; and 3) Applied noise reduction in post. Even with my camera’s high end sensor, there was not enough data in the darkest portions of the image, forcing Lightroom to insert a good amount of amplified pixelated noise in those areas.

The image above looks OK, especially when I don’t enlarge and examine it carefully. Would the image have been as noisy if exposure parameters had been correct “in-camera” (with an auto-adjusted and sky high ISO) as opposed to a post processed exposure adjustment?  I don’t think so.  Dramatically pushing up those exposure sliders in post processing to achieve the right exposure balance can seriously harm the “look” of low and high ISO images. In general, getting exposure right in camera instead of relying on post processing to correct your exposure mistakes will give the grain a more consistent look, and create more pleasing images.

Photographing a Gray Cheeked Thrush and Bokeh Blur Quality

Photographing a Gray Cheeked Thrush

The Gray Cheeked Thrush is a long distance migrant who travels back and forth between its remote breeding areas in Northern Canada/Alaska and South America. It is known to be shy and unobtrusive, spending a lot of time hidden in the brushy undergrowth. It’s a new bird for me. In this shot the thrush turns his head to give us a full view of its cheeky namesake.

Migrating Thrushes at the Fountain

The migrating thrushes have been dominating the fountain area lately. Swainson and Wood Thrushes arrive a little before dusk and gather in the gushing water or on the ground near to where the water dribbles down. The thrush numbers are highly variable day to day…depending on the migrating stream. For the most part, they have the fountain to themselves during the evening hours.

photo of Gray Cheeked Thrush
Gray Cheeked Thrush
Acting Very Suspicious of His Surroundings.
ISO800; f/8; 1/250 Second

Noticing That A Bird is Slightly Different

With a half dozen or more birds flocking the fountain area, it often takes a while to notice if one of the thrushes is a different species. It may have similar size, shape, beak, or plumage colors, certainly enough to blend in with the other thrushes at dusk. Something usually sets the newcomer apart, like her overall comfort level, behavior, or perhaps an understated but distinguishing feature.

Some of the time, I don’t notice if a bird is different than the other birds until after it’s long gone…when I’m processing the photos the next day. Unfortunately, if I don’t notice, I’m less likely to train the lens onto that particular bird and take lots of photos. In this instance, I took one shot because I liked a radiant glow in the background…and not because I spotted a new species perched in front of that warm light.

The Quality of Image Bokeh

Our human eyes combined with a big brain see things very differently than a camera lens. Photographers don’t really see bokeh– good or bad – until they look through a camera lens and examine the out-of-focus areas of an image.

Unlike the human eye, the camera’s lens can blur the image in front of and behind its points of focus. The area of focus and the areas of blur depend on the aperture setting and the type of lens. In general, the more you open up your aperture, the thinner your area of focus and the more blur the lens delivers.

Bokeh is defined as the quality of the out-of-focus blur areas within your image. This blur  – how much it enhances or diminishes the subject – has everything to do with aesthetics and feelings…quality and character. Essentially, rating the quality of bokeh is a judgement call.

Regarding Bokeh, Ask Yourself…..

  1. Does it have an abstract character or any attributes that enhance the subject?
  2. Does it give the image a more 3D quality by adding depth and dimension?
  3. Do the out of focus blurs meld together in a pleasing, creamy sort of way, or do background details individually appear and stand out, showing off their hard edges?
  4. Does the background blur accomplish what you want for your bird images, perhaps achieving what looks to be smooth isolation from the subject or telling details of a natural habitat?

What Defines Bokeh:

  • Lens design…. the more precisely the aperture blades within the lens form a circle, the more likely they will intersect smoothly and minimize defined edges within the blur. (Quality, high-end professional lenses generally have 9 or more rounded blades.)
  • Fast lenses…. the wider your maximum opening is,  the more you can blur.
  • Quality of light….harsh, overhead or insufficient lighting will cancel out a good lens any day.
  • Background detail… is it mellow or crazy?  What blur will it create? Can you get out there and clear unattractive background debris before the shot or possibly reposition the camera?  (NOTE: It’s very difficult to reposition the bird.)
  • Background color…..is the background evenly lit and full of complementary colors?
  • Distance between the lens and the subject… It’s best to get as close as possible to your subject to optimize blurriness in the background.
  • Distance between the subject and its background. It’s best to have the background well outside of the focus area… so individual details are not in focus and not close enough to be distinguishable.
  • Long lenses (300mm+) have shallow DOF– so much so that when they are wide open, much of your intended subject may not be in focus. (See depth of field calculator for your lens.)

Talent and Luck

When an uncommon bird presents himself, there’s rarely time to consider how the blurred background will impact the overall ascetics of the image.  Some bird photographers strive to capture the perfect bokeh by setting up the scene during optimal light and targeting the lens onto an ideal perch pre-positioned in what amounts to a sumptuous background. Luck has a lot to do with success in these situations.  I haven’t had much luck with setups, mainly because it has been my experience that birds descend and settle whimsically, mostly alighting in all the wrong places.