All posts by nmckown

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.

Photographing a Green Heron – Such Clever Birds

Heading for the Sun

We spent some time in sunny Arizona recently. (NOTE: This excursion took place before it became so unseasonably sunny and warm in SW Michigan.) I don’t mind the cold Michigan winters so much, but this year’s dreary cloud packed skies were just too much. Just had to get away, so we packed our bags and camera equipment (Traveling light with the 300mm lens and 1.4 extender. No flash unit) and took off.

We rented a condo for a week in Scottsdale, AZ with the 71 acre Vista Del Camino Park as our back yard. The park includes 3 small lakes and attracts a wide variety of waterbirds.

Green Heron
Green Heron,
Sedate and Watchful.
ISO1250; f/9 1/2500 Second

Photographing A Rather Sedate Green Heron

Green Herons are usually solitary and secretive birds. This stocky specimen, obviously acclimated to humans, let us get closer with the camera than I expected he would. He stood motionless, alert and hunched, not bothering to watch me. As I slowly moved the camera closer, he descended the steep bank and eventually rested on a partially submerged rocky perch. I moved my rig down the bank as well, trying to get the camera closer and at eye level.

It was early morning and the bird’s glossy plumage blended appealingly with his dappled surroundings. His back shimmered with rich multi-layered contoured feathers in tones of green, teal, gray, black, and olive. Yellow streaks above his beak pointed to his striking gold eyes and black crest. The large rock in the back ground had burnt umber earth pigment tones, (possibly iron and magenese contained within the rock), with some light colored organic deposit on the sides closest to the water. Illuminated by soft, warm, dimensional light, the umber tones perfectly matched the feathers on the heron’s face, neck and breast.  (NOTE: I was hoping he would extend his bushy crest, but no luck.)

Green Heron
Green Heron Just Before Lift Off.
ISO1250; f/9 1/2500 Second

I had to reposition the rig multiple times, trying to level the tripod on the steep incline of the bank. Eventually one leg of the tripod dropped into the goopy mud- so there I stood, sinking with my tripod and taking lopsided photos of this beautiful bird. (NOTE: The lopsided images were easily remedied in post processing by using the Crop and Straighten image rotation tool in Lightroom.)

Clever Water Birds

A quick read of the literature about Green Herons reveals that these are very clever tool wielding birds. Multiple videos on the web show that these herons will drop a bait-like object onto the water’s surface and wait for an unsuspecting creature to nibble at it. The heron will continually reposition his lure to keep it within his grabbing reach. He is quick to snatch anything that takes the bait. This heron did not exhibit this behavior, but it was exciting none-the-less to observe and photograph such an engaging bird.

Photo of Green Heron
Ultra Zoom-Green Heron -Extending his Body
Slowly to Reach Something in the Water.
ISO1250; f/9; 1/2500 Second


Photographing An Eastern Screech Owl – Experimenting With Video – Part III

Photographing An Eastern Screech Owl

I have been photographing this little Eastern Screech Owl on and off for more than 4 weeks now and have been unable to capture him as he flies out of his box for his evening hunting excursions.

He exits his box at twilight, quickly, unpredictably, and without fanfare. I ready the camera and 500mm lens by connecting the shutter remote and locking focus. The flash is the main source of light, with some ambient light enhancement.

At the ready with the shutter half pressed, I’ve tried over and over to anticipate when he will make his speedy departure. No luck. I end up with images showing a whole body motion blur, streaking from the 3″ entrance/exit hole to the edge of the frame.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl, Looking Back
At Me In the Misty Rain.
Is That Blood on his Upper Beak?
Camera set to Program Autoexposure
Mode (P). Please Note Program
Mode’s Unaltered Exposure Settings
ISO400; f/4; 1/60th second

Experimenting With Video

In bright daylight, I can set the camera to burst (up to 14 frames per second) and easily capture flying birds with an ultra fast shutter speed. But owls are nocturnal creatures and my flash gun would never be able to keep up with the camera’s fast bursting. In addition, the flash gun is set at the max sync speed of 1/250 second and will not freeze the action with E-TTL II metering a combination of flash and ambient light.

What if I was to video the Screech Owl exiting his box and then slow down the video in post processing? From there, it might be possible to extract a single captured frame from within that video file.

The video functions on both of my DSLR cameras are unexplored territory for me. Time to learn something new.

Video and Program (P) Auto Exposure Mode

Rather than experimenting with the DSLR video function in Manual (M) mode, I set the camera to Program (P) autoexposure mode. In Program mode, the camera automatically makes all the exposure decisions, like it does in Auto (A) mode, but it doesn’t prevent the photographer from changing those settings. If the photographer alters one of the many settings originally set by Program mode, (ISO, picture style, white balance, aperture, etc) the camera will compensate on-the-fly, re-metering light levels and making the necessary exposure adjustments. Program mode does this by changing the variables that the photographer did not change, taking into account all resources available, including flash settings (not useful in video) and type/focal length of lens. (NOTE: You can even influence how the camera changes exposure parameters in P mode by  fiddling with AEC or changing the light metering mode.)

My First Videos

I started out my DSLR video training one evening by producing a couple 2-3 minute videos. (Seemed like an eternity when I was filming). Filming conditions: Cloud-covered twilight, steady rain, 40 degrees, a bit foggy, window open, portable heater going in the background. (NOTE: I do not own video or studio lights.)

As with most learning endeavors, the more I read the manual and the more I practice, the better I get. I found that one of the most useful controls for video was the Q button (Quick Control) on the back of Canon DSLR cameras. It gave me access (in real time) to all sorts of video related functions, including Auto Focus, Frame Rate/Image Size/Compression, Audio Input Control, Headphone Volume, White Balance, Picture Style, and Auto Lighting Optimization.

Watch the Owl Exit in Slo-Mo

The 34 second slow-motion video of the owl flying out of his owl house is below. I slowed down this video clip 50%. (NOTE: The original video was close to 3 minutes long, however, my web hosting server has file size limitations. I had to reduce the length, resolution and quality of this video and eliminate all sound in order to get the file size small enough to upload it to my website.)


Pre-video preparation included the following:

  • Load a fully charged battery.
  • Insert the fast, high capacity memory card.
  • Set the video mode. The camera manual advises that 120fps in 1080p mode is best for slow-mo playback, and it did do a good job, allowing me to see fairly sharp individual frames despite the low light. (NOTE: Be sure you understand the options available in your DSLR for max video size and max video time.)
  • Review web resources for DSLR video advice.

Live View

Once I put the camera in video mode, the viewfinder shut down. I had to control the settings via Live View from the LCD screen. Live View on the new Canon 1 DX Mark II camera is crystal clear and very agile. I can pin-point focus by using the touch screen (even at the edge of the frame), dial to loop through exposure settings, white balance, etc., and watch the LCD screen to see how my changes impact the picture quality in real time.

Post video production was done with I-Movie on my Mac Pro. Thus far, I have been unable to grab what I consider to be a high quality frame from the videos I shot. I will continue to try.

There is so much more to learn. Next time I will experiment with video with the camera in Manual (M) Mode.

Photographing Pied Billed Grebes and Face Recognition Software

Photographing Pied-Billed Grebes

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

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

Elusive Diving Birds

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

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

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

Intelligent Tracking and Recognition

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

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

Facial Detection Auto Mode

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

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

Bird Recognition Built into Cameras

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

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

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

Photographing Downy Woodpeckers – Thoughts About Web Predators

Photographing Downy Woodpeckers

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

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

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

Little Drummers

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

Sharing Bird Photos

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

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

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

Pilfering Images

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

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

What to Do

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

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

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

Photographing An Eastern Screech Owl – Part II

Photographing an Eastern Screech Owl

He’s back!

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

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

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

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

Night Time Photography Considerations:

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

Next Challenge

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

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

Photographing Wood Thrushes – Correcting Mistakes in White Balance

Photographing Wood Thrushes

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

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

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

Combining Ambient Light with Flash

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

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

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

Realistic Color Rendition

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


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

Quick Tutorial in Correcting White Balance

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

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

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

A Problem of Perception

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

Photographing a Sharp Shinned Hawk on a Snowy Morning

Photographing a Sharp Shinned Hawk

Baby it’s cold outside.

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

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

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

Prepping for a Possible Encounter

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

A Little Too Close

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

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

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

Possible Remedies

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

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

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

Photographing Birds in Falling Snow

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

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

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

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

On-The-Job Training and Hindsight

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

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

Photographing a Female American Redstart- Experimenting With Shutter Release

Photographing a Female American Redstart

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

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

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

Remote Shutter Release

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

My Failed Bluetooth Experiment

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

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

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

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

Useful Gadgets

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

Why Bother With A Shutter Release:

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

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