All posts by nmckown

Photographing Chipping Sparrows and Thoughts about Computerized Metering

Photographing Chipping Sparrows

Chipping Sparrows nest in our yard each summer.  They are bold and persistent warbler size sparrows, especially when ground foraging in the yard or at the feeder. During the Spring plumage cycle, the male sports a bright rust cap and a lot of distinguished looking gray, black and brown on his body and long notched tail. Except for the size, Chipping Sparrows look similar to American Tree Sparrows and Clay Colored Sparrows.

Photographing Chipping Sparrows
Chipping Sparrows
A Variety of Background Tones
Reflecting Back Through the Lens.
ISO800 f/8; 1/400 Second

Chipping Sparrows are common in our wooded yard. They don’t spook easily while foraging and that gives me time to experiment with the camera. These three photos were taken in different settings, with different backgrounds and at different times of day in order to better understand how the camera’s light meter discerns light.

Computerized Metering

For most photographers, “perfect” exposure depends on how effectively the camera’s light meter analyzes the scene.  When I’m out in the field, my go-to metering mode is Evaluative,  a “smart” system with a multi-level internal light metering system.

The Light Coming Through The Lens

Internal light meters, regardless of the meter mode set, will not read the light falling upon the subject and its surroundings, but only the light reflecting off of them and back through the lens. A black iridescent Crow is not going to reflect back as much light as a Snowy White Egret. A brown tree lined background is not going to reflect the same light as a highly reflective mix of spring colors.

Conditions affecting the light’s direction, intensity, absorption and bouncability also impact how light travels through the lens.  Attach a flash and a whole new level of light meter E-TTL analysis kicks in, gauging the ambient light reflected off of the subject and calculating how much flash is needed to maintain exposure parameters. (NOTE: To read about the physics of how light travels and reflects off an object, visit this link.)

NOTE: You don’t often see bird photographers carrying around hand-held or separately mounted light meters. These exterior meters calculate the amount of light falling on the scene….the “incident” light, not the light reflected back through the lens (TTL).

Photographing a Chipping Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
An Even, Brown Colored Background
ISO500; f/8; 1/400 Second

Light Meter Calculations

Modern in-camera light meters do more than just average the light reflecting back through the lens. The camera’s micro computer divides the scene and separately analyzes each zone. It then weighs the focus point placement, reflectivity, color, distance, and lots of other variables. Too many dark or light tones reflecting back without the balancing act of middle gray shades will throw off your meter and result in overexposed or underexposed images.

(NOTE: The histogram is a reliable way to see how the light meter is balancing the light coming into the lens.)

Restricting the Metering Area

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. No matter the size of the area being metered, if the subject and/or its surroundings are bouncing back wildly unbalanced light through the lens, your exposure will most likely not be calculated correctly.

Spot Meter Off of Middle Gray Tones

It’s helpful to understand how best to override the light meter when it is handicapped by confusing incoming data. A well known strategy: Try spot metering off middle gray tones that you know won’t confuse the meter (like grass down by your feet) and then set exposure based on those readings. If your camera is set to  Manual (M) Mode, set exposure parameters and then recompose, making sure that Auto ISO is not engaged. If you prefer to use one of the auto modes (Av, Tv, P, A), have the camera take the exposure readings of the grass by your feet, lock down exposure settings using auto exposure lock and then recompose the scene.

Photo of Chipping Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow with
with Flash Enhancement
to Lower ISO and Better Light the Subject.
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

If the photographer is not quite happy with the results of these fixes, she can fine tune with Automatic Exposure Compensation (AEC–Right is Bright) to help balance the light meter reading. If you know your light and use the histogram as your guide, you can probably make an educated guess and get it right. (NOTE: Sometimes knowing your light is not enough – you must know your camera. AEC tends to be variable – depending on the DSLR in use.)

Know Your Light

After years of being a photographer, I like to think I know my light without the help of an in-camera light meter. Still, I rely on the meter all the time. It helps to understand  how this highly complex meter system thinks and how to work with it to produce images that are exposed to your liking.

Photographing a Red Breasted Nuthatch Against A Dark Background

Photographing a Red Breasted Nuthatch

I search out Red Breasted Nuthatches when I’m birding. Tiny, gregarious, and bold birds, they seem to always pause, like they are formulating a plan before they rush off. Gives me that moment I need to get a focus fix. Last summer, we had a pair that stayed in our yard to nest. So far this Spring, we have spotted two of these nuthatches. Sadly, they seem to be only passing through.

Photo of Red Breasted Nuthatch
Red Breasted Nuthatch
on Oversized Perch
With Dark Background
Taken With Flash Enhancement
ISO 400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Collecting Perches

I often venture out into the woods to collect moss and lichen coated pieces of deadwood, drag them back to our property, prop them up near the library windows and hope the birds will use them as a perch. It’s not hard to strategically arrange these perches against the forest of trees that surround our yard.  Sometimes, I have to twist and turn the camera and tripod (left, right, up, down) to build the perfect vantage point from which to shoot.

This photo shoot took place in early evening under a cloud covered sky. Ambient light provided some illumination to the perch, but very little into the woods beyond. (As the season progresses and the trees fill with leaves, less and less sun penetrates these woods.)

As I was lugging this burly piece of deadwood, it occurred to me that it was oversized for most of the birds in the yard- and might cause the perching bird image to appear unbalanced in the frame.  I used it anyway because I liked its character…. the texture, color, shape, peeling sides, notches and curves. Plus its very heftiness would give it some stability in the wind.

Red Breasted Nuthatch
Red Breasted Nuthatch
More Light Creeped in.
Some Indistinct Green Hues Blend With
the Dark Brown.
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Movement Caused By the Wind

Birds don’t seem to mind the swinging copper, aluminum, bamboo and wood chimes in our yard that resonate with the wind. This music portends that the camera will likely record swirling background patterns caused by movement within the distant woods and perhaps even little blotches of white and pink from the airborne blossom petals. This evening, I would just have to hope for a spot of calm when a bird alighted on my new perch.

Methods and Observations

  • While a cluttered natural environment does give a sense of place, it also tends to distract the viewer from the bird and its perch. I was aiming for less distraction…a plain darkish background, no swirls or fancy colors, no playful bokeh, no indication of the twigs and branches protruding out.
  • The subtleties of lighting (i.e. shadows and details) on your subject are much more apparent against a plain, dark background. For this shoot, I set the flashgun to Manual “M” so I could more efficiently control the light intensity and properly expose the subject but not the background. The most efficient way to darken an image background is by experimenting with the factors that you can control: 1) Flash intensity….The stronger the flash blast, the more likely the light will travel past the subject. 2) Subject and background distance….the wider the distance between the subject and the flash the farther light will have to travel;  and 3) Aperture setting….if the camera is set to a tight aperture, the light will fall off more quickly. It’s a balancing act.
  • Since birds are often tiny and distant, they don’t come within the normal range of a flash. For most of my birding adventures, I attach a fresnel flash extender on the flashgun to create more of a spotlight effect. NOTE: Without the extender, the light blast will spread wide, bounce and scatter depending on what’s in its path and the proximity of the subject.
  • The ambient light illuminated the perch as much as 2 stops more than the wooded background. I used the DOF button to see how much darker the background would appear compared to the subject. The more I tightened the aperture, the less the ambient light creeped in. I then played with the flash intensity, trying to control background exposure…. figuring out how much ambient light to record to produce a brown background.
  • My 500mm lens naturally creates a separation between the subject and its background. The longer the focal length, the more the angle of view is diminished.
  • I set the camera to partial metering, so exposure settings would not take into account the darker background.
  • After taking dozens of photos of a barren perch trying to get the light right, I sat back to wait for a bird to complete the picture. It did not take long for this Red Breasted Nuthatch to give me an opportunity to test out the exposure.

A Compelling Moment

Mixing up the exposure parameters in order to capture a compelling moment takes time. Doing this in-camera – not in post processing – is more desirable and rewarding.

NOTE: If you are looking for a nature photographer who is very skillful creating black backgrounds for his images, check out Joel Sartre, National Geographic photographer.


Photographing Purple Finches – Thoughts About Focus Points and DOF

Photographing An Eastern Purple Finch

Purple Finches are irregular visitors in SW Michigan. We hear them singing high in the trees (gushing and emphatic) and love to watch them as they cluster in with the other finches at the feeders. When they do come, they stay only a few days.

In the Spring, the raspberry feathers draping the male Purple Finches glimmer in the sun. (This fresh breeding plumage makes it easier to tell Purple Finches apart from the more numerous and year-round House Finches). The females and immature birds sport crisp brown and white facial marks, not unlike the patterns on the female Rose Breasted Grosbeaks, who come to nest in our yard in early May.

Male Purple Finch
Male Purple Finch
Colorful, Haphazard and Somewhat
Distracting Background
ISO1250; f/8; 1/400 Second

Focus Point Sensors

For unpredictable and highly active birds like Purple Finches, engaging the camera’s army of focus points (primary/secondary and cross type) to quickly acquire sharp focus is a good idea. (NOTE: This assumes that you’d rather use the camera’s multiple focus points rather than frantically chasing the bird around the frame with one central point.) The complex array of focus point sensors connects, communicates and exchanges data with other systems in the camera to weave together an almost immediate, very precise and user directed autofocus.

Photo of Purple Finch
Purple Finch, Female
or Immature Male.
ISO640; f/8; 1/400 Second

It’s Not Magic

This process seems magical to me…so it is not surprising when I make assumptions about the capabilities and connectivity of the focus system that are just wrong.

What I know about the auto focus process on modern dSLR cameras:

  • Canon’s Al Servo focus mode puts the lens on high alert for movement. Designed to work hand-in-hand with whatever focus points are activated, it efficiently adjusts and readjusts focus the second it senses motion.
  • Empowering a mass of auto focus points without specific instructions can cause problems. It is advisable to pair the engaged focus points with an intelligent tracking mode that predicts movement and direction (mathematically); and then configure the behaviors that tracking mode should follow.
  • Judiciously choosing a selection of auto focus points helps the camera decipher what it sees. It takes practice (under pressure) to merge focus points into groupings with the rocker switch .
  • Maximum aperture on a lens is integral to focus – the more light it lets in, the more responsive the focus sensors.
  • Restricting the light metering mode narrows focus point activity.
  • Engaging your camera’s extra sensitive cross-type auto focus point sensors, (within zones or not) allows autofocus to read across vertically and horizontally placed lines for more precise focusing.
  • This highly configurable mass of focus points automatically re-orient (vertically or horizontally) if the camera is rotated- assuming you’ve set this function in the menu.
  • Focus point tracking sucks up battery power.
  • Even with all this user preparation combined with the camera’s complex and predictive algorithms governing movement and focus, ultimately only one little soldier point will be called upon to make the focus call.
Male Purple Finch
Male Purple Finch
Early Evening Profile Shot.
Flash Engaged
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Do Autofocus Points Work With DOF?

I had assumed that depth of field calculations would be included in all the focus point sensor math.  After all, locking down accurate focus is the goal and the camera and lens are interacting in a very sophisticated way. But that assumption is not logical.

Through the viewfinder, the photographer sees an assortment of things at a variety of distances. No matter how many AF points light up, the camera will follow specifications set up in the menu and do the math on the distances to ultimately select one point upon which to lock focus -most likely the closest object.  This one chosen distance is the point upon which the lens must physically position itself to focus. The specific aperture that you (or the camera) select makes no difference to the auto focusing calculation process….even though it will most certainly affect your range of focus….ie, how much your subject (in front of and in back of the chosen focus point) will be in focus.

Question Your Assumptions

So why did I think that depth of field would be integral to the complicated algorithms made by the auto focus system? Just because connecting the two can lead to more completely focused subjects doesn’t mean the camera is going to automatically do that for you.

I think it’s important to question the attitudes, beliefs and assumptions that a photographer brings to the art and science of bird photography. It’s a clarifying exercise well worth the effort.

Photographing a Northern Mockingbird -Canon’s Quick Control (Q) Button

Photographing a Northern Mockingbird

We were just getting going on our birding adventure when a Northern Mockingbird flew by and settled on a nearby camera level tree branch. I was excited that he was so close, not only because it is so much more gratifying to be physically close to a bird I’m photographing, but also because I did not have my longest telephoto lens with me.

This bird is not a common sight in SW Michigan, though the e-bird maps show them as prevalent and nesting in this region. Northern Mockingbirds remind me of another acoustically gifted mimic…the Brown Thrasher.

Photo of Northern Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird
A Talented Vocal Mimic
ISO1600; f/9; 1/2000 Second

Branch Shadows Everywhere

I set up the tripod and camera, keeping my back to the mid-morning sun. The Mockingbird was constantly flitting about, so I set the shutter to 1/2000….. never mind (for now) the auto ISO shooting up to 2000. I kept a tight aperture (F/9) to increase my DOF as much as possible and keep his slanted body sharply in focus. The angle of sun light was rising fast…long past the time I could expect a complementary soft glow on my subject.

The bird’s face and body were lashed with unappealing shadows that had crisp high contrast edges from the branches and twigs on the trees. No natural reflectors were evident and the dark ground and tree branch perch were certainly not going to bounce light upward to the bird’s undersides.

My options were few:

  • Wait for the bird to move to a more evenly lit location.
  • Have my assistant (?) string up a large diffuser in the trees and hope the bird stays put.
  • Move the tripod to a place that would not create such unsightly shadows.
  • Shoot toward the sun..and try for a halo effect, being sure to spot meter the bird so exposure would not take into account the bright background.
Photo of Northern Mockingbird
Profile of a Northern Mockingbird
Perpendicular to the Line of Sight- In Profile
ISO2000; f/9; 1/2000 Second

For most of this shoot, the bird and I were constantly on the move. After a while he hopped to less shadowy places, giving me the opportunity to photograph him in better light. The resulting images still show patches of uneven, blotchy light, especially in the background.

Quick Control Button

Once in a while during a shoot, I like to get out of my comfort zone. If the bird gives me more than a minute to photograph her, I relax and luxuriate in the added moments I have to be adventurous and test my photographic skills and knowledge. (An intellectual challenge…given the light and circumstances of the scene.)

In this instance, I used the Quick Control “Q” short cut to functionality located on the back of the camera. Without this convenient panel, I would have to stop and dig through multiple menus to make adjustments. This Quick Control button, allows me to quickly review the image settings currently applied and adjust (using the cross keys) whatever I please….. image size, quality, metering mode, drive mode, exposure settings, FEC, EC, picture styles, white balance, AF operation, etc.

NOTE: The Q panel is highly configurable allowing you to place those functions you use most- or want to experiment with- on the back Q panel and at your fingertips.

Photo of Northern Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird
Looks Like She’s Consuming Some Sort of Seed Cluster.
ISO1250; f/9; 1/2000 Second


It’s stimulating to dabble in uncertainty and respond with agility- even if the result is a failure. Given time and opportunity, it’s fun to abandon the comfort and security of what you usually do and be adventurous. If it comes to nothing, it’s still a worthy intellectual exercise sure to come in handy sometime in the future.


Photographing An American Kestrel -A Belly Shot

Photographing An American Kestrel

Some days, all I can manage on my photography adventures are shots of tail feathers and bellies.

We saw very few American Kestrels last year, though we visited all their usual open territory hangouts. Kestrels in the northern most range (like MI) migrate, so it’s always a joy to see them in the Spring. They usually perch on poles and utility lines near country roadways that give them a clear view of movement within the low lying vegetation. If I’m lucky and they are unconcerned with the camera, it’s a good opportunity to practice my birds-in-flight photography skills as they swoop down to pounce on insects and small rodents, then fly upward to their perch to feast.

NOTE: These little falcons are close to the size of Mourning Doves, a species that also likes to perch on utility lines. (I often have to look twice to ID them correctly.)

NOTE:  The nest box that we bought for Easter Screech Owls is also designated for cavity dwelling Kestrels. We knew when we erected the box that our wooded backyard would not be suitable for Falcons.

Kestrel at takeoff
American Kestrel
A Belly Shot.
ISO640; f/8; 1/2000 Second

Depending on Readiness and Luck

Being lucky is oh-so-important in bird photography, but it’s not enough. You’ve got to be prepared. I was ready to photograph this falcon during her hunting ritual. (Low sun at my back, background not cluttered, fast bursting shutter, al servo focus, plenty of focus point sensors engaged, Gimbal tripod head set to efficiently track). The Kestrel’s perch was high- so much so that I had to dramatically tilt the lens upward and dip my knees in order to keep my eye on her in the viewfinder. I hoped that I could track her as she swooped down to pounce on a ground spider and then flew up again to her perch. Not surprisingly she was too suspicious of my behavior to indulge me.

Best capture I could manage was a clean belly shot showing off her lean and muscular underparts. I caught her right when she leaped from the light post. Her angle allowed the camera to catch a good view of her face, her fanned tail feathers and her splayed toes. She then banked her strong, lithe body and flew away in the opposite direction. (NOTE: Rufous streaking upon white on her underside indicates that this is a female Kestrel – males are white with black spotting.)

My neck ached from looking up so much. Feeling that my luck for the day was spent, I packed my gear and went home.

Photographing Yellow Rumped Warblers – Spring Migration

Warbler Spotting

Warblers are on the move…. just two sightings in our yard so far, but they have set free within me an outpouring of hope and expectation.  On March 30, a pair of  Yellow Rumped Warblers descended into our yard to rest and replenish before continuing on their migration path. NOTE: This species is known to be one of the first to migrate in the Spring and last to depart in the Fall.

Spring Migration is always a compelling time for me, though we see far more migrating birds in the Fall. In Spring, all the transients (especially the males) seem to be in a rush to get on with the business of perpetuating their species.  I look harder and longer for warblers during March, April, May and June… and see fewer birds compared with Fall counts. This highly adorned male (plumage in shades of brown, gray, black and white accented with bursts of yellow) is the first Spring Yellow Rumped Warbler that I have ever been able to photograph.

Yellow Rumped Warbler
Male Yellow Rumped Warbler
In his Spring Finery
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Deep, Demanding Blood Lines

Spring male warblers are decked out in spectacular fashion– displaying outwardly to better compete. Size, color and strength are all on display. They struggle to be first at the best sites, traveling long distances through dangerous conditions. When male warblers at last arrive at their destination, they must prove that they are more than just eye candy…fighting off competitors, predators, and interlopers, all the while continuing to mate, hunt, and help rear their young.

For this shoot, I used the Canon 1 DX Mark II DSLR camera with the Canon 500mm L II Lens. I wanted close up shots of both Butter Butts, but especially the male. I attached the 1.4 tele extender to the 500mm lens to give the lens that extra reach. (1.4 x 500=700mm). The day was dark and drizzly, sending my ISO readings above the 10,000 point and convincing me to attach the flash and fresnel extender.  The warblers stayed only a few hours, but were patient and curious subjects, intent on recharging themselves for another long flight.

Photo of Yellow Rumped Warbler
Male Yellow Rumped Warbler.
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

The phenomenon that is Spring migration fills me with curiosity and awe. How enchanting these elusive feather pots…. so unconcerned with me. Every March, I plan to be out there, hoping to capture a small sliver of the intricate and perplexing beauty that is Spring renewal.

“Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all, And sweetest in the gale is heard; And sore must be the storm That could abash the little bird That kept so many warm.”                                    —Emily Dickinson

Factors that Trigger Bird Migration

An interesting Audubon article (March 22, 2017, author: Ken Kaufman) about the external circumstances and biologically determined factors that trigger bird migration can be found at this link.

Photographing a Kingfisher in Flight – Controlling Overall Sharpness

Photographing A Kingfisher in Flight

Kingfishers hunt from above, intently watching the water in search of a wide assortment of aquatic creatures. Avian predators with oversized heads, they hover above their unaware prey seconds before commencing a beak-first precisely controlled dive. These images of a Kingfisher were taken as she transitioned from water to air and rose up (with prey) to her waterside perch. Traveling much slower than when she made her missile-like descent, it was easier to anticipate and capture her flight with the camera.

On this shoot, the autofocus system was set to the predictive Al Servo. Because the bird was not close, I restricted the auto focus to a cluster of 6 central points, hoping that I could effectively track and frame her.

Photo of Kingfisher
Heading Up After Her Successful Dive.
ISO2500; f/8; 1/3200 Second

Optimal Sharpness

Flying birds are a challenge to photograph. To achieve optimal sharpness, the photographer has to take into consideration:

The list goes on and on.

Angle of Flight

Photographing birds in flight also requires consideration of a host of complex interacting circumstances, some of which will be beyond the photographer’s control. One such uncontrollable is the bird’s flight path and how it aligns with the camera’s focal plane.

When focus is soft on one or more parts of the image, I check and recheck my settings. If these settings appear to be optimal for the shoot, I try to figure out if the bird’s flight trajectory is aligned with the camera’s focal plane.

All long telephoto lenses inherently deliver a very shallow depth of field. If your subject is not flying on a path with the camera’s focal plane, parts of the bird (depending on your aperture setting) will be captured while they are outside the optimal depth of field range. The larger this discrepancy, the more softly focused your subject will be.  (NOTE: To get an idea of how thin your depth of field can be on long lenses and wide open apertures, see this DOF calculator. If you want this information readily available in the field, there are DOF calculator apps available for iPhones and Droids. )

Photo of Kingfisher
Kingfisher ISO1000;
ISO1000; f/8; 1/3200 Second

Lightroom Plugin

In your search to discover why an image is not tack sharp, you might investigate a Lightroom add-on tool that can pinpoint exactly which focus points the camera selected when you captured the image. It’s a free and easy to use plugin available at It works best with RAW data. In addition, if you have a Canon system, the software included with the camera (Digital Photo Professional) will also indicate which focus points were active.

Photo of Kingfisher
Dripping Wet and Readying for her Next Strike
Ragged Crest Held High
ISO1000; f/8; 1/2500 Second

Photographing An American Robin – Red Eye/Blue Eye Effect

Photographing a Young Robin

Autumn leaves were falling when I took these shots. Many species of fledglings were bravely taking to flight to test their new wings. This immature American Robin clumsily touched down on a perch near the fountain, no parent or other means of support in sight. While I photographed him, he scooted down to the end of the branch, testing his balance. He felt secure enough to direct a warning call at a smaller female Scarlet Tanager on the same branch.

Photo of American Robin
American Robin – Immature
ISO400; f/5.6; 1/250 Second

Red Eye/Blue Eye Effect

We live on a densely wooded lot in SW Michigan onto which summer’s light filters down rather sparsely. When I photograph birds in this environment, it’s best to amplify the ambient light with fill light from a flash. One of the most frustrating things about using a flash for bird photography is the annoying red eye/blue eye effect.

That red or blue glow smack dab in the center of the subject’s eyes only happens when a flashgun is used. The lightning-fast burst floods the eyes with intense light and gives the subject’s unprepared dilated pupils no time to constrict. The light ricochets off some of the blood vessels at the back of the eyeball(s) and is recorded by the camera’s sensor. (NOTE: Birds sometime show a blue glow instead of red because the camera is picking up other reflective surfaces in their retinas.)

Photo of American Robin
Extreme Zoom of American Robin –
Slight but Noticable Blue Eye Caused by Flash

Preventing Red Eye/Blue Eye

  • Some cameras – especially those with built-in flashes, have a two flash system. First a pre-flash is emitted forcing the subject’s eyes to contract immediately before the burst of the main flash. This gives the pupils time to react before the photograph is taken. (NOTE: DSLR built-in flashes do not have the range or intensity needed for bird photography.)
  • Photographing birds looking away from the camera does help to substantially reduced the effect of blue eye, but not completely. (NOTE: See above photo…even though the American Robin was not looking directly at the camera, blue-eye is still evident.)
  • I’ve done the obvious flash fix to avoid the blue eye problem by hoisting the flash off of the hot shoe and positioning it higher above the camera body and nearer to the front of the long lens. This strategy does help, but not consistently. (NOTE: Raising the flash above the camera requires a modest investment in flash accessories. 1) Camera flash bracket made for telephoto lenses that will raise the flash off of the camera; and 2) an TTL off-camera flash cord so you can sync the flash’s E-TTL II functions to the camera.)
  • Repositioning the flash completely off of the camera and to the side would eliminate red eye/blue eye. However, doing this would necessitate photographing birds in more of a studio setting. I much prefer the freedom of situating the flash so it can follow the lens as I track birds.
  • The angle formed by the flash head, the bird’s retina and the camera lens has to be just right to produce red eye/blue eye. If you expand the angle at which the light enters the eye, there is less of a chance that the light will ricochet straight back through the lens. This angle adjustment can be made by repositioning the direction of the movable flash head or by changing the height of the tripod (up or down) so that the camera’s lens is not at eye level with your subject.
  • Bouncing the flash blast off of a wall or other surface widens and diffuses the impact of the light and eliminates red eye/blue eye. This strategy does not work for bird photography unless the subject is very close. Instead of diffusing brightness, a fresnel extender acts as a spot light in order to illuminate distant birds. Bird photographers who use flash need that spotlight effect to sharply capture distant images.
Photo of American Robin
American Robin Extreme Close up 
As He Squawks at a Nearby Tanager.
Blue Eye very evident.
ISO400; f/5.6; 1/250 Second

Post Processing Image Correction

Avoidance is preferable, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way. Imaging software like Lightroom or Photoshop have tools that will easily cover up the effects of both red eye and blue eye effectively and efficiently in post and go so far as to provide an option to insert a little catchlight within the repair.  It is a correction I use often.

Photographing Ring Necked Pheasant- Active/Passive Autofocus Systems

Photographing a Ring Necked Pheasant

The last time I photographed a Ring Necked Pheasant it was early Spring. At that time of year, these flamboyant birds have reason to be out-and-about to conspicuously flaunt their stuff. In the Fall, they’re still highly adorned and colorful, but they seem a bit more cautious.

Photo of Ring Necked Pheasants
Ring Necked Pheasants.
ISO800; f/9; 1/1250

How do Modern Cameras Acquire Focus So Fast?

I came across this stunning male pheasant while driving in the Allegan State Game Area. He wasn’t especially close, but I knew that I would spook him if I got out of the car to get closer. I rested the camera and lens on the car door and prepared to shoot. The lens (500mm f/4 L II –always well behaved) rested comfortably with no obstacles in its trajectory. The camera was set to Al Servo focus mode and high speed continuous shooting.  When I half pressed the shutter button, the len’s quiet ultrasonic focusing motors immediately activated, shuffling just a touch to lock focus. I took a few shots to test the area of focus (DOF), then waited hopefully for the bird to move closer to the camera.

Passive Auto Focus Systems

The most common modern DSLR focusing system is referred to as “passive”.  A passive auto focus system waits until light information passes through the lens to the sensor and light meter – and then makes its calculations to determine focus. Precisions systems on modern cameras are capable of achieving a near instantaneous and accurate fix on focusing even in low light by using sensor based sharpness detecting/gauging tools, referred to in the literature as “phase detection” and “contrast measurement”. For more details on these systems, press this link.

Light is key. As the light dims, the camera’s sensors have more difficulty seeing edges and contrasting tones. Auto focus takes longer and becomes less accurate.

Active Auto Focus Systems

Active systems don’t wait for light to pass through the lens to determine focus. Instead these devices emit (infrared or visable) light or sound and then measure it when it bounces back. This DSLR camera auto focus technology is considered old school. (NOTE: Auto focus assist lamps that throw light to help cameras focus are not considered to be Active systems, but instead serve as a “second opinion” for a Passive focusing system.)

Photo of Ring Necked Pheasant
Ring Necked Pheasant
Alert and Tail High
ISO 800; f/9; 1/1250 Second

Circumstances That Impact Passive AutoFocus

  • Some cameras include a “focus beam emitter” which facilitates focusing. Canon cameras do NOT, so I either carry around a flashlight to help the lens see, or heaven forbid, switch to manual focusing and rely on my eyes to accurately focus.
  • A focus assist beam on an external flash device can shed more light and thus assist the autofocusing system. This assumes that the subject is stationary and close enough to the camera to be affected by the beam. (NOTE: Canon cameras utilize flash based focus assist beams only when the camera is set to one-shot autofocus mode.)
  • High quality, expensive lenses are designed for speed and precision and are more likely to deliver tack sharp results. I’ve purchased mediocre lenses (Canon and third party) and had to deal with tight max apertures, slow autofocus and subpar image quality, not to mention distortions and chromatic aberrations.
  • Lenses on which the aperture opens wide (greater than f/2.8) are referred to as “fast” lenses. The wider an aperture opens to allow maximum light on the focal plane, the “faster” and more accurately the lens can focus. The more light transmitting through the lens, the more flexibility the photographer has with exposure parameters. (NOTE: A DSLR camera always auto focuses with the lens set on its widest aperture. It immediately switches to the aperture set for proper exposure when the shutter is depressed.)

Auto Focus Magic

It is nothing short of remarkable how fast and precise high end DSLR lenses acquire focus, no matter what auto focusing mode is set. It’s easy to forget how much bird photographers depend on this technology to get their shots. If you need a reminder, just try switching it off and depending on manual focus for a while.

Photographing An Anna’s Hummer — Long Lens Polarizers

Photographing An Anna’s Hummingbird

Bird photography opportunities rarely come at times when the light is optimal.

These images of an Anna’s Hummingbird were captured in sunny San Diego at mid-day. The camera and 300mm lens with 1.4 extender were pointing downward toward a row of flowering bushes. I took a few shots using only the drop-in gelatin filter that came with the lens. (See image directly below.) I then removed the gelatin filter and dropped in Canon Circular Polarizing Filter (PL-C52). It took a while for my hands to get used to positioning the filter with the external control rotation wheel. Eventually I got the hang of it.

What a difference! (See second image below.)

Anna's Hummingbird
Anna’s Hummingbird
Mid day Sun Overhead. No Polarizer on Lens.
Colors are Muted. Image Looks Washed Out.
Lots of Flare and Glare on the leaves
ISO1000; f/6.3; 1/500 Second

(NOTE: This drop-in circular polarizing filter will fit in both of my telephoto lenses – the EF300 f/2.8 L IS II and the EF500mm f/4L IS II.)

Long Lens Circular Polarizers

A polarizer manages reflections and cuts glare in much the same way as polarizing sunglasses do.

  • A polarizer will reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor and impact your exposure settings (from 1-3 stops).
  • Circular polarizers have dials which must be rotated to optimally cut glare. As you rotate the polarizer, your goal is to dial-in the best color saturation and contrast and dial out reflection and glare. The end result should be more balanced light on the scene. (NOTE: You simply can’t do this much glare reduction in post processing).
  • If a bird flies to a shady spot– a no glare zone– the polarizer does not negatively impact the image, except for light loss.
  • Wearing polarized sunglasses while using a circular polarizer on your lens will prevent you from seeing all the leafy glare and rotating the filter optimally. In addition, polarized sunglasses on top of polarized drop-in filter make for dark and difficult viewing.
  • Polarizers are most effective when the lens is pointed at a right angle to the sun. Depending on the location of the bird and the angle of your lens, the polarizing impact may not be uniform across the whole image.
  • Because you must dial in the best position for optimal glare control, composing may take longer. (NOTE: Repositioning the polarizer was a constant battle as this hummer flitted up and down forcing me to change the len’s trajectory and re-rotate the polarizer’s dial.)
  • Linear polarizers are cheaper, but won’t work with auto exposure and auto focusing functions– making them pretty useless for bird photography.
Anna's Hummingbird
Anna’s Hummer
300 mm lens with 1.4 extender
and Circular Polarizer Inserted.
Did Not Remove All Reflections
But the Image Looks Much Better.
ISO1600; f/7.1; 1/1000 Second

Lens Flare and Lens Glare

Lens flare is no more than stray light (usually unintentional and undesirable) sneaking in and bouncing around the inside of a camera lens and leaving on your images an assortment of light specters, streaks, fogging and ghost images shaped like the diaphragm of the lens. Lens Flare is almost always a consequence of backlighting coming into the lens. To control or otherwise reduce flare, you either move the lens or attempt to shield it, using a hood on the lens barrel, your hand, your hat, or a polarizing filter.

Glare is reflected and scattered light on the surface of water, leaves, flowers, glass, bald heads, etc that does not necessarily originate from the lens.

Filters On A Long Lens

In all my long years as a photographer, I never purchased a polarizer or any kind of filter for my lenses, until now. I assumed that these tools were better suited for landscape photographers even though I often found unbalanced light and shimmery glare on my bird images. I should have known better.

Soft, diffused natural light is elusive….even when you show up at the right time and follow all the rules. Too much mid-day unshielded sunlight... contrasty and harsh, is impossible to avoid and hard to control without proper equipment to make shade or reduce shadows.

You can’t purchase filters large enough to put on the end of Canon’s big telephoto lenses. Most of Canon’s longer telephoto lenses come equipped (close to the base of the lens) with a drop-in gel filter holder (with a clear glass filter installed). Quality drop-in circular polarizers are expensive, and only useful on longer lenses.

Bottom line, the best quality of light for bird photography is still sun rise or sun set. However, opportunities abound for bird photography at mid day.  A polarizing filter is a good light weight solution to tame the sun.