All posts by nmckown

Photographing Hairy Woodpeckers – The Lure of Fancy Camera Equipment

Photographing Hairy Woodpeckers

Most years we have the good fortune of seeing many sturdy, winter-hardy Downy and Red Bellied Woodpeckers in our yard. But Hairy Woodpeckers….just a few.

The Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers are examples of convergent evolution –in that both species live in similar habitats and have evolved to be almost identical in shape and color, despite not being closely related biologically. I’ve learned to tell the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers apart by first checking the length of the bird’s beak and then overall bird size. (The Hairy is the larger of the two.) The beak of the Downy is dainty and better “fits” his face. The drilling beak of the Hairy Woodpecker is more formidable- as long as his face – and appears oversized. Predictably, both display typical woodpecker-ish behavior…. probing into tree cavities, scooching up and down tree trunks and clinging to the suet feeder. (NOTE: Sometimes a young fledging Hairy will look as though he has a smaller, undersized beak, causing me to wonder about ID.)

Photo of Hairy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
About the Size of a Robin
A Little Brown Stain Is Evident
On the Outer Wing and Tail Feathers.
No Doubt from Being
Constantly Dragged Across
The Bark of Trees.
ISO1250; f/9; 1/250 Second

Nature Photographers

I learn a lot about birds and photography by exploring the web. NOTE: I don’t have a lot of friends who are nature photographers.

Since I started this website 4+ years ago, I have grown to be a better bird photographer and a better writer. I have more knowledge and more skill. I am less of a pretender.

Photo of Hairy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Red splotch at the Rear
of His Crown.
ISO1250; f/9; 1/250 Second

Sense of Exclusivity

I’m always watching photographers…. looking to see what gadgetry is around their necks. I can be a little dismissive if I notice an unglamorous “consumer market” camera, even though I know that brand names, high prices and the air of professionalism do not an artist make. For some reason, I simply pay more attention to individuals carrying “professional grade” cameras. It is as if all those superior imaging components and high prices allow me to elevate the photographer on to an artistic pedestal, even though her skill level may not allow her to venture past the camera’s auto settings. Snob appeal I suppose.

Few Barriers to Entry

Modern dSLR cameras are not a study in simplicity, but that doesn’t matter. The imaging technology contained within these cameras is geared to eliminate or at least reduce barriers to becoming a photographer, so much so that a lot of people don’t think of nature photography as an art or a skill. Almost anyone with a dSLR camera can present herself as a pro. Understanding the fundamentals of composition and exposure is simply not necessary. Just show up, display a little panache, take hundreds of photos (professional quality is to a large extent about numbers) and let the camera figure out the details. No mastery necessary.

Divergent Paths

Whatever you own, all gear is limiting in some way. Very different camera equipment, methods, and motivations lead photographers onto divergent paths. The skill and talent of the photographer, not the quality of the equipment, will ultimately be the key differentiator between photographer and dabbler.

“The Camera is an Instrument that Teaches People How to See Without a Camera.”

–Dorothea Lange


Photographing Ruby Throated Hummingbirds Near the Crocosmia

Photographing Ruby Throated Hummers Near The Crocosmia

The Crocosmia (Lucifer) flowers…with their arching stems and bright green pleated blade-like leaves are showy and exotic-looking right now. The Hummingbirds are buzzing in and out, attracted to the intense scarlet red of the tubular flowers.

The flower clusters sport lots of blossoms which poke out every which way. Some of the blooming and almost blooming flowers reach out above the 3′ high stems, affording one or two places where the camera’s lens could isolate the delicate petals from the busyness of foliage.

My goal:  Set up the camera on the front porch, approximately 14-16 feet from the Crocosmia and try to capture an uncluttered image of a hummer very near, but not drinking from the flowers.

Photo of Female Ruby Throated Hummer
Ruby Throated Hummingbird, Female.
With Fill Flash
ISO1000; f/9; 1/250 Second

Judicious Cropping

This grand Lucifer patch is too lovely to prune so I have to manipulate the camera rig in to just the right position, and perhaps gingerly fold or tuck a few of the stems to one side or the other. (NOTE: Most of the judicious cropping will have to be done in post processing.)

Hummingbirds appear confident and fearless once they get used to you. My plan required that the hummers cooperate by choosing one of the designated patches of flowers upon which to drink and pose. After only a day, this little one zoomed in close to my face, chittering away as she looked me over. She then proceeded with her nectar drinking routine..sip-back away-hover-look around-repeat.

Flash or No Flash

The morning light was filtered by the fully leafed-out tall trees above and around the house.  As I set up, I noticed that the wind appeared uncertain about its direction and intensity. The hummers didn’t seem to care, but an unexpected gust would certainly impact my efforts to achieve image clarity.

To stop wing motion on a hummer (without flash), I have had to set the shutter speed to as high as 1/6400 second. (NOTE: Think about how fast that is! I remember when the shutter speed on a couple of my old cameras did not go above 1/1000 second.) Setting the shutter speed that high in our sun filtered yard would send the ISO soaring to unacceptable levels. I attached the flash.

Stopping wing motion with flash requires that I set the exposure parameters to shoot with little or no ambient light. With the flash attached, the shutter is synced at 1/250 second or slower. The more I tightened the aperture, the less the ambient light creeped in – the darker the background became. It would then be up to the synced, instantaneous and powerful flash burst to not only illuminate, but freeze all movement.

Ruby Throated Hummer
Female Ruby Throated Hummingbird
With Fill Flash.
ISO1000; f/9; 1/250 Second

More Ambient, Less Flash

I have to choose between freezing the hummer’s wing motion or maintaining a more natural look. An exposure conundrum because I can’t have both. The more ambient light I let in, the more natural the image looks, and the more impossible it becomes for the flash to freeze the wing action. This is especially true if the overall ambient light illuminating the flower and bird scene meters out to be very similar to the exposure settings required for the background.

For this shoot, I raised the ISO settings in order to let the ambient light on the scene dominate exposure settings more. This strategy helped reduce the impact of the flash blast on the subject, creating a better balance of light.

Ultimately, I liked the look of ambient light more than I liked the look of tack sharp wing feathers. I chose to set the exposure parameters so that ambient light dominated and the flash provided only fill light.

Photographing a Fledgling Brown Headed Cowbird- and Her Surrogate Parent

The Way of Brood Parasites

Looking around the yard, I see many foraging Brown Headed Cowbirds. A member of the stocky Blackbird family, they feed together in groups, mostly on the ground. It is fascinating to note that even though every single Cowbird out there was nurtured in some other species’ nest, they still hang out together.

Photo of Brown Headed Cowbird
Fledgling Brown Headed Cowbird.
Waiting for Surrogate Parent to Feed Her.
ISO1000; f/9; 1/250 Second

Cowbird parents do not build their own nests. Instead they rely on other species to incubate and rear their young. Cowbirds (and all brood parasites) generally receive heaps of distain for abandoning their young. But abandonment implies that they leave and do not intend to return. Apparently, there is some evidence that Cowbird females do not abandon their eggs in a nest and then forget their biological progeny.

These furtive birds have been shown to return to observe their eggs, chicks and fledglings who were surreptitiously deposited in multiple nests. Scientists speculate that Cowbird parents go back to watch their young to determine (for future reference?) if their eggs were successfully placed and perhaps to establish a Cowbird “return to the fold” connection with them during their fledgling days. After all, if no connection is made, how are young Cowbirds to know their own species’ songs and behaviors as opposed to those of the hosting birds.

A Heartache to Watch

It still gives me somewhat of a heart-ache to watch and photograph a small Chipping Sparrow attempting to feed a large and very hungry Cowbird. The insistent demands of this sizable interloper probably kept the female Chipping Sparrow from raising her own brood. NOTE: Her own babies in her nest most likely were starved or pushed out.

Get over it!  Time to put my maternal inclinations aside and think about improving my bird photography.

Photo of Chipping Sparrow with Cowbird YoungChipping Sparrow with Her Cowbird Fledging.
Looking Rather Stunned I Think.
ISO 1000; f/9; 1/250 Second

AutoBracketing ISO

Altering exposure parameters using Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB) is pretty basic stuff for most photographers. The camera’s automatic bracket functionality quickly and efficiently changes exposure parameters within a sequence of shots with one shutter release. Essentially it varies the degrees of brightness within that sequence according to the specifications you set.

However, you rarely come upon a photographer using AEB to bracket only ISO. Why not?  Some thoughts:

  • High ISO settings allow the camera’s sensor to be more receptive to ambient light. Low ISO definitely means finer grain… and thus cleaner, sharper images. The higher the ISO, the more you can expect noise, or speckled images. The prevalence and appeal of the noise depends on the quality of the camera’s sensor.
Photo of Chipping Sparrow with Cowbird
Chipping Sparrow with Cowbird Fledging.
This Image Shows the Size Difference.
Quite a Mismatch!
ISO1000; f/9; 1/250 Second
  • The “look” of high ISO grainy images can be appealing, especially if produced with a high-end sensor.
  • If the photographer wants depth of field (aperture) and sharpness levels (shutter) settings to remain constant in a low light scenario, bracketing the ISO parameter can help achieve the right balance of brightness and grain.
  • But why not adjust exposure to your liking in post processing? Why bother using AEB to bracket ISO…. or any exposure parameter?  The most compelling reason I can find to bracket ISO is as follows: Pushing up that exposure slider in post processing to achieve the right exposure balance can seriously harm the “look” of high ISO images. Exposing correctly in camera will give the grain a more consistent look, especially compared with the grain you will see after fixing exposure in post.

Yet another reason to get exposure right in camera instead of relying on post processing to correct your exposure mistakes.

Photographing a House Wren and Thoughts on AEB

Photographing a House Wren

Every morning in the spring and summer, the bubbly songs of little House Wrens greet me in our front yard. Hard at work, they zip about in the understory trees and bushes to snatch small arthropods and take them back to feed their nestlings. Their almost constant, somewhat scolding songs help me find and track them with the lens.

House Wren
House Wren
With Flash
Taken Earlier in the Morning.
ISO1000; f/9; 1/250 Second

Automatic Exposure Bracketing

It was coming upon mid-morning and way past the time when the summer sunlight was low and complementary. The light in our yard was contrasty, uneven, and patchy…the perfect formula to misdirect the camera’s light meter. Instead of packing up, I removed the flash gear and started playing with the Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB) menu.

NOTE: There’s a big difference in the quality of light between the top photo (even, early morning light, with flash) and the bottom two photos (late morning, harsh light, no flash). I have to admit that it felt good to take the flash assembly off (flash bracket, telephoto flash modifier, off shoe flash cord and lithium battery pack). The camera foot and tripod head are better able to balance and maneuver the lens without the extra top heavy weight.

House Wren
House Wren
Without Flash- AEB -1
Unattractive Contrasty Light.
ISO1600; f/14; 1/800 Second

Thoughts on AEB

If you wish to improve the exposure balance in difficult lighting situations, then automatic exposure bracketing (AEB) can help. The camera’s automatic bracket functionality quickly and efficiently changes exposure parameters within a sequence of shots. Essentially it varies the degrees of brightness for each shot based on the designation you set in the menu. Your specifications can be programmed to use either broad or narrow image sequence sets. The camera will maintain the exact same metering while changing the exposure parameters.

Photo of House Wren
House Wren
Such Different Color Tones!
Light is Still Unappealing,
ISO1600; f/8; 1/800 Second
+1 Exposure Compensation

For instance, if you think the light meter is incorrectly gauging the scene to be brighter than it is, set the AEB to take 3 or more shots in negative exposure range. Conversely, if you think that the light meter is incorrectly gauging the scene to be darker than it is, set the AEB to take 3 or more shots in the positive exposure range.

AEB Procedures and Settings

  1. On some dSLR cameras, including mine, the photographer can use AEB with the camera set to Manual (M) mode and precisely control all exposure parameters independently. Since I most often vary only the shutter speed parameter during the AEB sequence, I use the shutter preferred semi-auto mode (TV) instead of Manual mode and choose a low and unchanging ISO setting. (NOTE: Not AutoISO).  Lastly, I engage continuous shooting mode, otherwise the shutter will stop after the first shot and wait for me to continually press the button before it fulfills its AEB mission.
  2. In the semi auto modes… the camera will operate outside of optimal exposure limits to achieve the auto bracketing exposure parameters set. If minimum and maximum hard limits have been set up in the menu (ie…shutter should never be slower than 1/30 second), the camera might be forced to alter more than one exposure parameter (ISO and shutter) to achieve the bracketing sequence.
  3. On this shoot, I changed the AEB parameters quite a lot without thinking it through. At times, camera would not execute the AEB sequence (shutter speed as the variable), and take only one shot instead of the whole sequence of shots. I finally figured out that the number and variation in exposure parameters that I set up were just not possible to execute in AEB given limitations on the shutter preferred auto mode, the ambient light and the len’s max aperture settings.
  4. You can set the camera to discontinue AEB after each sequence….but re-engaging it every time is a hassle….. especially with a highly active bird like the House Wren.  I left AEB set to “On” until I was done with the shoot.

Manual Bracketing

Bracketing can be done manually if you wish to be more precise in your exposure manipulation deliberations. This means that instead of setting up an automatic 2-3-5 or 7 AEB shot sequence in the camera’s menu, you dial in whatever exposure compensation you wish using the camera’s Manual mode and then take each differently exposed shot one at a time. (NOTE 1: Exposure Compensation Dial on the LCD panel will not work in complete Manual mode. NOTE 2:  Birds are highly uncooperative during exposure manipulation.)

AEB Rarely Does the Trick in Bird Photography

Sometimes the balancing act that makes up AEB does not work because the exposure on one portion of the image causes problems in another part of the image. AEB sequencing will only produce many poorly exposed images.

NOTE: You can combine multiple images into one by using the High Dynamic Range (HDR) process.

When photographing birds there is no substitute for well balanced light. AEB can not fix poor lighting conditions, but it may help you balance exposure parameters to create a more usable photo. Overall, judging by the results, I would rather wait for good light.


Photographing an Unexpected Yellow Warbler – Taking Cover

Photographing An Unexpected Yellow Warbler

It’s was a rainy July day in late morning when this dewy, unspoiled Yellow Warbler appeared in front of my lens. I took a few through-the-window shots to confirm ID…. and then noisily cranked opened the library window. I was surprised to find him sitting in our Magnolia tree. Generally, we see Yellow Warblers (sometimes just a blur) in our yard only during the fall migration cycle. He looked young….so perhaps he ventured out of his familiar territory to explore. Why ever he came within view, I was very pleased to see and photograph him.

Photo of Young Yellow Warbler
Yellow Warbler.
Looks Fresh and Young.
Right Before He Noticed a Predator.
ISO400; f/6.3; 1/250 Second

Take Cover and Freeze

We do not live in an open habitat, so there are plenty of places for a bird to hide from the camera and from predators. When I notice a warbler who is not obsessively flitting about searching for food, driving off the competition, or singing his heart out to attract a mate, it gives me pause. Something is wrong.

Birds alter their behavior when there’s a risk of a predator attack. Most fly off fast and erratically, searching for distant cover. This Yellow Warbler was utilizing the crouch-and-stay-put strategy that is so prevalent with Downy Woodpeckers. He was quiet, hunkered down, immobile mostly, and looking up to the sky. He most certainly saw me, but had more to worry about than the camera.

Yellow Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Barely Moving–for more than 10 minutes.
On High Alert-Watching the Sky.
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

Tele Flash Considerations

The ISO was reading 5000+, compelling me to attach and connect all of the flash gear. It was much easier to manage the flash blast in the first photo because the background was free of nearby distractions. In the second and third photos, the warbler was hiding from his predator within the branches near the truck of the tree… so he was right up against his background. The Magnolia tree is 20+ feet away and the tele flash extender did a good job of lenghtening the light beam to effectively spotlight the bird.

Looking back on this photo, I think I should have reduced the e-TTL II determined flash blast somewhat. I could have pushed up the ISO, enlarged the aperture to let in more ambient light, or adjusted the Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC) by -1 stop or so. NOTE: There are lots of ways to tone down the light in order to minimize the sharpness of the shadows.

Photo of Yellow Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Feeling Safer.
Stretching Out a Little After Watching the Sky for Predators.
ISO800; f/9; 1/250 Second

On His Way

This warbler stayed hidden from the angel of death long after other avian dare devils were comfortable enough to try some quick feeder in-and-out maneuvers. Eventually he felt safe enough to fan his tail feathers and stretch his wings; and then he was gone.


Photographing A Great Crested Flycatcher-Nest Adornment

Photographing the Great Crested Flycatcher

This little Great Crested Flycatcher is a new bird for me. My bird books note that this species is a common neotropical migrant which nests in South West MI and a wide swath of the Eastern United States. The plumage on the males and females looks identical… gray and reddish brown feathers accented with a lemon yellow belly. There’s not much of a crest….let alone a “great crest” on this bird’s somewhat oversized head.

There are so many look-alike species of flycatchers that it is gratifying to photograph one that looks so distinctive and can be easily identified. When I spotted him, I wasn’t quite to the point where I was going to put the camera away, but the windows had been shut, indicating that quality of light and my expectations had seriously dwindled. He perched right near my dirty window. I could not risk cranking the window open, so I took the shot through it, knowing that sharpness and detail would be subpar in the resulting image. After he flew off,  I opened the window and waited for approximately 30 minutes, this time with my camera at the ready. He did not come back.

Photo of Great Crested Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher.
Mid day Harsh Light
Somewhat tempered
in Post Processing.
ISO1250; f/8; 1/250 Second

Nest Adornment

These secondary cavity nesters make their homes in decomposing standing deadwood (SNAGS), frequently in the remains of holes made and abandoned by woodpeckers. They prefer to reside high in the leafy tree canopies and eat a wide assortment of insects -often snatching them in mid air. A quirky habit of the Great Crested Flycatcher is that they often add a scaly shed snakeskin adornment to its nest. If it can’t find that, it may substitute pieces of crinkly paper or plastic. This makes me wonder why some birds go through the trouble of decorating their nests.  Is it genetic or cultural, meant to draw attention or hide something? Is it an attempt to accessorize, or is it just meaningless adornment? Whatever, it is fascinating.

Repairing Image Highlights in Lightroom

The midday sun was creating harsh shadows when I took this photo. The histogram in Lightroom indicated that some of the highlights in the image (above) were overly bright, but not irretrievably clipped or blown out. (NOTE: You can tell there’s no clipping if the Lightroom clipping warning triangle to the right of the histogram is black.) This meant that I would be able to bring back most of the image detail by reducing the highlights… (ie.moving the highlight slider to the left). After a little time in post processing, the resulting image is not as bad as I thought it would be.


When I first spotted this Great Creasted Flycatcher, I secretly hoped that he was an off-course vagrant. He is not. No doubt he is just one of many bird species who lives high above in the tree canopy and rarely makes an appearance. (NOTE: “A bird is considered vagrant if it strays far outside its expected breeding, wintering or migrating range. The key factor in defining vagrant is the distance – a bird that is just barely outside its normal range is not usually considered vagrant, but a bird found hundreds of miles from its familiar territory is a vagrant.”)

Photographing Gray Catbirds – Time, Effort, and Fuss over Flash

Photographing A Gray Catbird

Fleeting glimpses of warbler-ish activity flash before my eyes this morning. Tiny and moving fast, ducking in and out of the foliage, I strain to track them. Reliable ID requires an image, however subpar, to ponder over and compare with the photos in my bird books. I don’t get one, not even close.

No more sightings. Instead, I turn my lens to the Gray Catbirds. A National Geographic writer commented that an upper midwest nesting Catbird may have spent “the winter in the shadow of Mayan ruins in Guatemala.” That gives me pause.

Dozens of these raucously loud and expressive song birds are flitting about, filling the air with their feline-like songs. A shared community Catbird space must have been declared for the trees and bushes around our yard. Everyone is friendly and cooperating.

Photo of Gray Catbird
Gray Catbird
All Puffed Up and Singing.
ISO400; F/9; 1/250 Second

My Flash Routine

Summer is here and the dense foliage blocks much of the sun light to the understory trees below. I attach the flash with fresnel extender to the camera.  While I wait, I wonder if the light would be more natural looking if I attached the kind of camera shoe bracket that sports two or even three flash gun mounts on the top and sides of the telephoto lens.

After visualizing this setup, it seems rather too much. In order to attain enough reach, each flash unit would have to have its own better beamer type device to extend and spotlight the flash beams. The cost and effort outweigh the benefits.

My current light setup is already formidable and takes considerable time and fuss to haul around and properly set up. In sequence:

Photo of Gray Cat Bird
Gray Catbird
Perky Tail High
ISO400; F/9; 1/250 Second

Enhancing Ambient Light

Nature photographers all must make decisions about adding/manipulating ambient light with flash. I started out proselytizing about the benefits of using only natural light…but that was just because I didn’t take the time to learn the fundamentals of good flash photography.

Bird photography opportunities abound… but many of them do not come with complementary light. Instead of waiting and waiting for the perfect circumstances, open up a whole new world by attaching a flash to your camera. There is no getting around the thought, effort and time that must be put into balancing the light—achieving a light that’s natural, subtle, warm… almost like you did not use a flash. It’s worth the effort.

An excellent article: “The Catbird Has a Simple Trick to Outsmart Deadbeat Brood Parasites”, by Audubon field editor, bird expert, environmentalist, and artist Kenn Kaufman can be found at this link.


Photographing Rose Breasted Grosbeaks – Masking in Post Processing

Photographing Rose Breasted Grosbeaks

It’s quite a treat to be able to photograph a species of bird throughout the spring and summer seasons. At least six pairs of barrel chested Rose Breasted Grosbeaks nest in or near our yard each year. They arrive in late April/early May around the same time as the Baltimore Orioles. Most are bold individuals, rarely willing to wait in line at the feeders or the suet. The fledglings start following their parents to the free food in mid-June- lots of them all at once. (NOTE: My bird books note that Rose Breasted Grosbeaks produce only one clutch per season.) The females of this species look quite plain compared with the males and can be mistaken for a large female Purple Finch..until you get a look at their size and sturdiness at close range. Rose Breasted Grosbeaks head south for Central and S. American while it’s still warm….. in early September.

Male Rose Breasted Grosbeak
Male Rose Breasted Grosbeak in Spring Finery. Looks Young,
Perhaps a first year Male.
ISO 400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Masking in Post Processing

Anybody who spends a lot of time reviewing images and examining them for detail and sharpness is bound to (over time) develop a more discriminating eye. With my newest camera, the Canon 1D X Mark II, I find there is less need in post processing to use the Lightroom sliders that impact sharpening, clarity, vibrance, highlighting, saturation, shadows, and noise reduction. Once in a while though, I like to experiment with the sharpening sliders, especially the one labeled “masking”.

When I first started loading my images into Lightroom, I never really paid much attention to how the process of masking affected my images. I knew that this Lightroom post processing slider was not intended to fix out of focus photos…. I knew procedurally that I had to hold down the option key while I moved the slider to the right…. and that I was to stop moving the slider when the pebbly background looked completely black.

Female Rose Breasted Grosbeak
Female Rose Breasted Grosbeak
Young Female Rose Breasted Grosbeak
(or, with that splash of color, is it a young male?)
ISO400; f/10; 1/250 Second

Post processing is very time consuming and not especially fun. It’s best to know the what and why of those procedures before spending time on them.

A few thoughts about the process and benefits of masking:

  • When in Lightroom’s Masking view….. while you are holding down the option key (or alt key with PC) with one hand and moving the sliding bar with your mouse, you will see only a grey scale overlay of your image. In this mode, you can observe that the areas in white will be sharpened and the areas in black will remain unsharpened. No distracting colors are observable.
  • When the slider is set to 0, everything looks white so the entirety of the image gets the same amount of sharpening, as specified in the 3 sliders directly above the masking slider (amount, radius, detail).
  • When the masking slider is set to 100, only the strongest whitest edges of the image get sharpened. (You can see these edges when you hold down the alt or option key while moving the slider.)
  • How do I know how much masking to use? As you move the slider toward 100, watch how the graininess in and around your subject and in the background slowly turn SOLIDLY dark. At the point where you see the graininess disappear and only a black background remains, you stop moving the masking slider. Lightroom will then apply sharpening only to the white areas… and leave the dark areas unsharpened.
  • It’s important not to go overboard with any of the sharpening tools in Lightroom. Over sharpening brings out more noise, zigzag lines and/or unnatural looking borders around your subject.
  • Sharpening your subject and not the other parts of the image helps to make it stand out more.
Male Rose Breasted Grosbeak
Rose Breasted Grosbeak
A Flash of the Rose-Red Feathers Under His Wing.
The Enormous Bill Still Stands Out.
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

NOTE: It is important to note that the detail quality improvements brought about though the process of masking 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.

Photographing Cedar Waxwings Attracted To The Serviceberry

Positioning The Camera

It’s a cold rainy summer morning….so dark I keep thinking I have my sunglasses on. I’ve cranked open the library windows and faced the camera toward the Serviceberry tree. My rig is positioned farther from the windows than usual because if it wasn’t, the 500mm lens would be too close to focus on the nearest berry branches. (NOTE: Minimum focusing distance =  12.4′ or 145.7″). The portable heater is resting on a book to insure that the floor under which it sits does not vibrate the camera. I positioned the lens to capture (as the bird’s background) a multilayered forest of feathery ferns huddling just beyond the Serviceberry tree. The f/9 aperture setting will transform a few of those individual fronds into lush, polished buttery green swirls.

Photo of Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing
Silky Back Feathers with
Wing Feather Tips Dipped in Red
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Photographing Two Cedar Waxwings

Birds constantly forage, even in the wettest and coldest of conditions. The bolder, familiar frugivores in our yard (Jays, Catbirds, Robins, Titmice, Nuthatch, Woodpeckers, Finches, many of them tending to their fledglings) swarm the Serviceberry tree, acrobatically maneuvering to pluck the ripe berries at the ends of the branches.

I can see Cedar Waxwings in the distance. They are cautious, watching me, coming in a little closer and then doubling back for safer grounds. They are better at waiting and watching than I am- and I’m pretty good.

Cedar Waxwings are nomadic birds and thus do not establish territories. This species is highly social and travels in cooperative flocks – moving often from one place to another and settling down for a short time during breeding season to build nests and raise young. The only way I can reliably find and photograph these fruit eating birds is to look for trees and shrubs that bear small fruits- huckleberry, serviceberry, juniper, hawthorn, cedar, honeysuckle and winterberry. Assuming the fruit is ripe, there’s a good chance that Cedar Waxwings will be found voraciously eating the berries until the bushes are bare.

Photo of Cedar Waxwings
Male Feeding Female Cedar Waxwing
The Male Offers the Female a Green Berry.
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Flash Limitations

The cedar paths beyond the Serviceberry tree are obstructed with thick foliage, so much so that I no longer can see through the woods to the houses beyond. The only trees that aren’t completely fleshed out are the high in the sky Locust trees. The ostrich ferns have unfurled, no longer reaching. It’s very difficult to get a clear line of sight into the understory trees or through the woods beyond. It’s best to be patient, wait and hope that the birds will perch closer to the camera.

The woodlands in the background are darker than the foreground…almost 2 stops darker. I set the camera to spot metering so E-TTL II is better able to read the light and emit the appropriate amount of flash if the bird happens to be farther off. I have the Beam Concentrating Fresnel attached to concentrate the light beam so it can travel greater distances. (NOTE: This is an essential piece of equipment if you want a flash blast that better fits the angle of view of a long lens. However, a flash extender will not be able to project enough light to the smaller distant birds if they are perched more than 25 feet from the camera.)

Berry Eating Birds

If you want to attract and photograph birds into your yard, plant Serviceberry Trees. If that’s not possible, just search out the locations of the wild berry bushes around you and do a little research to determine when the berries will be ripe. You won’t be disappointed.

Photographing A Thirsty American Redstart Warbler at the Fountain

Photographing An American Redstart Warbler

It’s been partially sunny with cool refreshing winds for 5 days now and the forecast predicts much the same for the next three days. Tree canopy above the house is fully leafed out. Petals from the tops of the blooming locust trees float into the house onto the carpet. Plants are looking dry and droopy. The few mosquitos I encounter are sluggish.

Squirrels and chipmunks scurry along the cedar mulch paths to the fountain to get a drink from the water flowing down. Titmice and Robins pay me no mind as they bathe and drink from the bubbler. This Spring, a pair of American Redstart Warblers have returned to nest in our yard. The male, adorned in his spring finery, visits the fountain often.

Male American Redstart
Male American Redstart Warbler
He’s Shaking and Fanning His Feathers
To Dry them Before He Goes In for
Another Dip. ISO1600; f/9; 1/250 Second

High in the Treetops

Here on ground level, the only warblers we have noticed are the Redstarts. My bird books confirm that 43 wood warblers species nest in MI… most of them arboreal.  An arboreal bird is defined as: “A type of bird that relies on trees and dense foliage, spending much of its life in trees and rarely either descending to the ground or otherwise leaving the cover of the canopy.”

A wide diversity of highly specialized birds and other creatures live in this upper layer habitat created from the crowns of trees. This obscured community rarely needs to venture down to a ground level water source. They drink from the near billions of lighter-than-air floating water droplets carried in the fog and intercepted by tree leaves.

Is it too much to hope that other species of warblers actually live high in our tree canopy and that they might one day come down?

Hope Springs Eternal

I set up my camera, 500mm lens, 1.4 tele extender, and bracketed flash on to the tripod inside the house (with one tripod leg outside on the step of the deck). Sunlight on the deck slowly transitions, uneven and patchy, as the morning sun rises in the sky. I set the focus limiter switch on the lens barrel to restrict the len’s autofocus to 3.7m-10 m.

Male Redstart Warbler
American Redstart Warbler
Luxuriating in the Fountain.
ISO1250; f/7.1; 1/250 Second

ISO Settings With Flash

I keep my Canon camera in Manual (M) mode, but set the flashgun to Auto. E-TTL II will compensate as the exposure parameters change with the shifting light. I play around with the ISO settings, raising it to brighten the background. If I leave the camera’s ISO setting in auto mode, the camera automatically sets  ISO to 400 when a flash is attached and activated. (NOTE: There are times when the flash can not recycle fast enough to keep up with the shudder action. If Auto ISO is set, the ISO will rise to compensate and correct exposure when the flash does not fire. If I set the ISO to a specific value, the camera will be in complete manual mode and will not override the aperture, shutter, and  ISO set by the photographer.  In this instance, the camera will still take the shot, but the images will be underexposed.)

Working on Glare Control

Mid day rolls in. The sun is casting glare and shadow and the blinkies are flashing through the viewfinder. I can feel the hot sun on my face as it clears the trees and bears down on the house. The brim of my hat does a good job blocking the sun from my eyes, but whenever I try to place my eye on the eyecup, the hat pushes back on my head, moving the camera and tripod. The hat comes off.

Instead of packing up, I consider inserting the circular polarizer into the lens. Then, possibly I could effectively boost color and contrast in an otherwise washed out scene. The reduction of light with the polarizer inserted sends the ISO soaring. For birds I can only lower the shutter speed so much….so I turn on the flash with extender again. I rotate the polarizer to get the maximum reflection reduction, but the resulting images shone on the LCD screen come back full of glare. The polarizer can not eliminate the glare caused by the elevated flash gun. That beam probably needs its own polarizing sheet. Too much hassle for such a beautiful day. I power down the camera and flash and put everything away.