Category Archives: Ducks

Photographing A Red Breasted Merganser and Thoughts about Monster Megapixel Cameras

Action in the Early Morning Light

The photo below was shot early in the morning, before the sun had a chance to spread its light into the dark shadows of this local church pond. This female Red Breasted Merganser had just captured a sunfish almost as big as her head, and was holding on tight with her sharp serrated beak. The sunfish was not about to submit without a fight, and the Merganser swam in wide circles as she tried to position it so she could safely swallow it whole.

Photo of Red Breasted Merganser, female
Female Red Breasted Merganser trying to Swallow a Sunfish.
ISO 8000; f/8; 1/2000 second

With all this fast and frantic activity, I didn’t dare lower my shutter speed below 1/2000 second. The 500mm lens with 1.4 extender delivers a very shallow depth of field, so I preset the aperture at f/8. The auto ISO evaluated the light and responded to these exposure parameters with an ISO of 8000!  A very high ISO – yet the clarity the 5D Mark III sensor (22.3 MP) delivered in this low light was good. I am happy with the results.

NOTE:  The Merganser did eventually manage to swallow the fish (see photos below).

DSLR Megapixel Race

Canon has introduced two new 50.6 megapixel full frame DSLR cameras- (5DS R and 5DS). It’s an effort to move closer to the detail and quality produced by a medium format camera sensor. Somewhere in the mix of sensor size, pixel size, pixel density and software processing algorithms, the design engineers still can not devise a DSLR sensor (36 x 24 mm) that has both exceptional low light performance and 50 megapixel detail. In both of these new cameras, the sensor’s light gathering potential is sacrificed to bump up the megapixel count.

Photo of female Red Breasted Merganser
In this photo, the Merganser turned toward
the sun as she wrestled with the sunfish, lowering the ISO.
ISO6400; f/8; 1/2000 Second

Advantages of Monster Megapixels

  • The main advantage of having a DSLR camera with densely packed megapixels is that you can capture an enormous amount of detail. The 50.6 cameras would definitely appeal to specialized markets; those photographers who crave detail and are equipped to incorporate artificial light when needed to keep ISO levels low.
  • Distance between the lens and subject would be less of an issue because the high megapixel count would give photographers more freedom to crop (in post processing) without denigrating the image too much.
  • Photographers would be able to print super sized, high quality enlargements never before possible from a DSLR camera.
  • The new Canon DSLR cameras include new in-camera cropped shooting modes. (Note:  I bought a cropped sensor camera – a 7D Mark II – to get the extra reach. See this post.)  These settings cut back on the megapixel count (the 1.3x crop produces 30MP images, while the 1.6x crop produces 19MP images) and consequently take a small toll on resolution. Photographers benefit from the extra lens reach that cropped sensors provide and possibly better burst rates than the advertised 5 frames per second.

Drawbacks of Monster Megapixels

  • The main disadvantage for photographers who rely on natural light is the mediocre low light performance of the new Canon 5DS cameras. (ISO recommended range = 100-6400)  My guess is that the light gathering potential of the new sensor could never produce the low light quality achieved by the 22.3MG sensor in the Canon 5D Mark III, once I strayed above ISO 1000 or so.
  • Photographers would not be able to see the high level of detail on most computer monitors.
  • The size of the files is huge. The smallest part of a digital image is a pixel -one dot of information- measured in PPI (PIXELS PER INCH). A megapixel is approximately a million pixels. Currently, my full sensor 22.3 MG 5DMark III DSLR camera exports images that take up massive amounts of hard drive space. You must ask yourself:  Do you have the computer processing power and the hard drive storage needed to process 50.6 million pixels per photo?
  • Despite the in-camera Digit 6 processor improvements and USB 3 port, the new 5 DS cameras will use more power and take longer to process, store and transfer all that data. (Amazingly, these cameras are still capable of shooting 5 fps continuous shooting. NOTE:  Canon 5D Mark III is not much more….burst rate = 6 fps.)
  • Bigger compact flash and SD memory cards to accommodate the massive storage requirements will set photographers back a bit. At this writing, a SanDisk 128GB Extreme Pro CompactFlash Card, with UDMA 7 Speed Up To 160MB/s, costs $467.00
Red Breasted Merganser
The Merganser about to swallow
the sunfish whole. I set the shutter
speed a little higher in this photo, raising the ISO to 10,000.
ISO 10000; f/8; 1/2500 Second

Photographers Who Rely Exclusively on Natural Light

For a bird photographer living in cloudy SW Michigan and reliant on natural light, one of the major draws of a well balanced full frame sensor is its superior low light performance. As much as I try to wait for bright sunny days before I take my camera out, inevitably the clouds creep in or birds I want to photograph perch in the shadows. I need a CMOS sensor that delivers outstanding detail and excellent low light performance.

If you wish to read about the technical aspects of higher megapixel sensors – there is lots of info on the web. Unless money is not an issue, I recommend that you take the time to learn about how sensors work and use that knowledge to figure out what camera works best for you.

Male Mandarin Duck

Photographing Mandarin Ducks

Nature’s Fabulous Design

What a knockout!  The Mandarin drake’s plumage is an unrestrained assortment of different patterns, colors, arrangements, textures, shapes, and lengths. Showing off a preponderance of gold, he also sports blue, green, and copper on his crest; white, orange, and olive in his mane, white, gold and black on his underparts, a bright purple breast, yellow feet and legs and a white tipped red bill. Large, dark eyes are emphasized with sleek white feathers that extend past his mane. Lustrous, iridescent blue colors shimmer on his back. Best of all, orange and gold sail feathers protrude 2″ or so up from his back. The Mandarin is definitely the most beautiful duck I’ve ever seen.

Photo of Male Mandarin Duck
Textures and Colors Abound on This Male Mandarin Duck Posing in His Spring Plumage.
ISO3200; f/4; 1/800 Seconds

Photographing Captive Mandarin Ducks

Mandarin Ducks are native to east Asia and symbolize happiness and faithfulness. Mandarin pairs are often presented as wedding gifts in Japan and China. Brought to Europe and America as captives, many escaped into the wild and thrived. I photographed these individuals in the extensive, lush garden area of the Catamaran hotel on Mission Bay, San Diego, California. The Mandarins and three or four other species of ducks were provided with an abundance of food and water in an extensive aquatic environment set up by the hotel.

To photograph these exotic waterfowl, I walked to the Catamaran Hotel with my 7D Mark II, 135 mm lens with 2x extender. Focal length on this setup was 135 x 2 = 270. The cropped sensor gave an additional reach: 1.6 x 270 = 432 mm. A good focal length in a fairly compact camera setup made it easy to walk long distances. I did not bring my tripod.

Mature palm trees blocked a lot of the light coming into the gardens. After I manually set the exposure, the ISO was reading very high; 3200. The Mandarin Ducks at the hotel seemed accustomed to humans, but did not seek them out. I sat down on a sidewalk near the stream with my camera and waited. After 10 minutes or so, a pair of Mandarins swam by, the drake stopping to climb a rock and preen. Very easy shots and close enough to help counteract the high ISO.

Photo of Female Mandarin Duck
Subtle Colors of the Female Mandarin Duck.ISO3200; f/5.6; 1/640 Second 

Shedding His Beauty

The extraordinary adornment on the Mandarin drake indicates health and vitality and thus good breeding potential to a female Mandarin Duck. After the male flashes his extraordinary plumage for the females, completes the mating ritual and helps incubate the eggs, he leaves the family to commence extreme molting behavior. His work done, he transforms from spectacular to drab- perfect for blending and evading predators. The molting is so extreme on this species of duck that he temporarily looses his primary feathers and is unable to fly.

Read more about the defrocked Mandarin Duck in the March 2015 edition of National Geographic by pressing this link . Click to page 28. The one page article is entitled “Looking Hot, Then Not“.

Male Red Breasted Merganser

Photographing the Red Breasted Merganser

My Favorite Duck to Photograph

This time of year, most species of male ducks sport their breeding plumage. Often, their feathers are full of glorious colors that shimmer in the sunlight. Perfect for eye popping photos.

One of my favorite duck species to photograph is the red breasted merganser. These diving ducks are just passing through southwest Michigan in the spring, so there’s only a short window of time to photograph them before they fly north to breed. Red breasted mergansers can be seen in almost every river and pond during the spring, diving and swimming under water and foraging for small insects, fish and other aquatic creatures.

Photo of Red Breasted Male Merganser
Red Breasted Male Merganser, Calling Attention to Himself.
ISO 500; f/8.0; 1/2500 Second

The Business of Courtship

Going through my shots of the red breasted merganser makes me laugh out loud. Even the goofy poses look charming, charismatic and lovable. The glossy plumage (color, patterns, and arrangement of feathers) on the red breasted merganser is nothing short of delightful, especially on the males. Mergansers have bright red “devil eyes” and long, thin, serrated red/orange bills. Their ragged head feathers, especially after a dive, point out every which way, producing comical and sometimes absurd poses. While his head feathers go boinnggg, this punk bird proceeds to take care of business. This time of year, he is in the business of courtship; showing off and letting the females know how strong and desirable he is.

Photo of Male Red Breasted Merganser
At first I Thought This Male was Caught in Barbed Wire,
But It’s Only Plant Debris He is Trying to Get Off His Back
ISO400; f/8.0; 1/2500 Second

Photo of Red Breasted Merganser, Male
Photo of the Spiky Head Feathers of the Male Red Breasted Merganser.
ISO 1000; f/9.0; 1/2500 Second

Photo of Female Red Breasted Merganser
The Female Red Breasted Merganser is Also Very Colorful.
ISO 800; f/7.1; 1/2500 Second

Eclipse Plumage

The plumage on most male ducks does not stay shiny and new all summer, but becomes quite drab as the summer progresses and breeding has ended. This drab look is called eclipse plumage and makes duck ID very challenging for me. Luckily, the experts at are always able to help. More information on eclipse plumage is available at this link.

An Anthropocentric View

I can’t help but be endeared to this species of duck. Somehow, I can relate to their absurd looks. I know that I’m transferring human characteristics onto animals, but as I wrote in my introductory post, taking the time to notice the similarities in the looks and behaviors of humans and birds is gratifying on a personal level. And when I get a good photograph, well that’s the best of all.




Photo of Pelicans in Flight

Photographing Birds On Water Using Automatic Exposure Bracketing

Photographing Birds On or Near Water

I spend a lot of time walking on the shoreline with my camera. Generally the birds keep their distance from intruders, but once in a while they fly or swim close enough to challenge my photography skills.

Choppy waters, glare, uneven lighting, and erratically moving birds all present different challenges for photographers. The merganser duck in the photo below kept bobbing and ducking under the water and then coming up quite a distance away from where he originally ducked under. The pelican flying low close to the surface of the water would continually circle and then dive in head first.

Whenever I am presented with unpredictable bird activity near or in choppy waters, I set the camera to Automatic Exposure Bracketing. The camera take several shots of the same scene instead of  just one, thus increasing my chances of getting the right exposure.

Photo of Merganser Duck
Merganser Duck Swimming. Seemingly Unaware of the Choppy Waters. Lots of Glare and Uneven Lighting
ISO 800; f/3.2; 1/2000 Second

Automatic Exposure Bracketing

Most DSLR cameras offer the option of AEB, Automatic Exposure Bracketing. At the very basic level, engaging AEB sets your camera to take 3 shots instead of 1 of the same scene, using different exposure values – in 1/3 or 1/2 stop increments.

DSLR cameras have highly sophisticated light meters, but  around water, when conditions are not average, they can give you the wrong exposure. The goal of setting your camera’s AEB is to increase your chances of nailing the exposure, especially in uneven lighting conditions or high contrast situations.

The easiest and most basic way to set AEB is to have the light meter choose a starting exposure, and then bracket that starting exposure. (NOTE:  The camera must be set for continuous shooting.) Once set, the camera will automatically take 2 extra shots, and include 1 shot underexposed and 1 shot overexposed.

Photo of Pelican in Flight
Pelican in Flight Over Choppy Waters. Set AEB to Different Shutter Speeds ISO 250; f/4.0; 1/3200 Second

Multiple Options Available When Using Automatic Exposure Bracketing

AEB is not just about setting the camera to take one shot over-exposing and one shot under-exposing from a pre-set starting point. You have more flexibility than that. If the lighting is such that you need only negative compensation (or positive compensation) you can set the camera’s bracketing settings to take 3 shots in the direction of the desired exposure values. 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 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 shots in the positive exposure range.

Many professional DSLR cameras allow the photographer to specify 2, 3, 5 or 7 exposures (instead of just 3) within the AEB set. Choosing the number of shots is usually on the menu where you choose the 1/2 or 1/3 exposure increment. Check your camera’s manual to learn how to get to this menu.

Getting the Best Exposure Value Before Post Processing

It is true that post processing software enables the photographer to fix most exposure adjustment problems. So why bother with AEB?  I use AEB because wild birds move unpredictably and fast. When shooting in uneven or problematic light, a primary concern is to preserve as many tonal values as possible on your image. Engaging the AEB function reduces the chances that your exposures will overshoot the right edge of the histogram, thereby losing critical detail data forever. (For more information on why  using the camera’s histogram is important, see Photographing Sandpipers on the Beach).

How Does the Camera Calculate AEB?

AEB sound complicated?  It’s not. One of the best web resources I’ve read on the functionality and use of AEB for Canon Cameras is available at this link: Guide to Auto Exposure Bracketing on Canon DSLR. The author is Jason Franke. I especially like the charts the author includes that precisely explain how the camera alters shutter speed or aperture to achieve AEB. Definitely worth a look.