Category Archives: Sparrows and Finches

Photographing a Fledgling Brown Headed Cowbird- and Her Surrogate Parent

The Way of Brood Parasites

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

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

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

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

A Heartache to Watch

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

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

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

AutoBracketing ISO

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

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

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

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

Photographing White Throated Sparrows -Two Color Morphs

Photographing White Throated Sparrows

It is a somber morning. As I set up the camera, I’m grateful that the heavy clouds at least provide an evenly lit prospect. The long hanging stems and flowers of the Bleeding Hearts droop and sway with the wind. Small flocks of White Throated Sparrows forage on the ground in our yard….using their anisodactyl toes (3 facing forward and 1 pointing backward) to rake layers of wet leaves and snatch whatever treat surfaces.

Unless I want to get down on my belly with the camera and long lens, capturing ground foraging birds at eye level in their natural environment is not an appealing idea. So I wait for these birds to rise up onto a stump pedestal or into one of the understory trees.

Photo of White Throated Sparrow
White Throated Sparrow,
Bright Yellow Supraloral
Contrasting with Bright White Eyebrow
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second
White Throated Sparrow
White Throated Sparrow,
Bright Yellow Supraloral
Contrasting with Bright White Eyebrow
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Distinct Color Variations

While tracking the ground foraging birds, I notice that some White-Throated Sparrows have distinctive bright white stripes on their faces and foreheads, while others sport more mellow, creamy versions of the same stripes. With birds, I always assume that the drabber version is a female or immature male. I tend to pick and choose from a group and track the more distinctively colored birds with my camera, especially in the Spring. Consequently I pay less attention and take fewer photos of the birds with lackluster colors.

This time I paid more attention. I noticed that the less distinctive birds are not just drab….but atypical in their coloration. With the help of detailed photos, the two distinct color variations are pronounced enough to make me think that I am photographing two different species. A quick check on line quickly solves the puzzle.

White Throated Sparrow-Tan Stripe
White Throated Sparrow
Tan Stripe Color Morph
ISO400; f/10; 1/250 Second

Subspecies v Color Morphs

Subspecies are defined as “distinct populations within a species” that overlap and interbreed in those geographic locations where the two subspecies populations meet. Color Morphs are defined as “distinctly different plumages within a species”.

White Throated Sparrows come in two different color forms. The not so subtle differences in the genetically determined plumage color within this species include:

  • “…….Clean black-and-white head stripes (vs. dark brown/black and pale tan)
  •  unstreaked gray breast (vs. drab gray-brown, streaked and mottled darker)
  •  clean gray cheeks (vs. mottled and washed with brown)
  •  sharply-contrasting clean white throat with clean border (vs. drab white with mottled border and divided by dark lateral throat stripe
  •  brighter and cleaner yellow loral spot (vs drabber)……..”

What is really interesting is that the tan morphed White Throated Sparrows almost always prefer to mate with the white striped individuals and vice versa. Different behavior and breeding habits between the two color morphs have also been documented.

NOTE: Two excellent articles about  White Throated Sparrows are: “A Closer Look At An Ordinary Species” by Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center scientist Brent Horton; and “The Fascinating and Complicated Sex Lives of White throated Sparrows” by Audubon field editor, bird expert, environmentalist, and artist, Kenn Kaufman.

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 Grasshopper Sparrows Singing their Hearts Out

Just Birdsong

On my way to the Allegan State Game Area, I always stop to admire a little patch of coreopsis established in a grassy field. These vigorous yellow flowers, all dewy and intermixed with a few showy purple pea flowers, are luxuriously tucked in with the tall looping grasses. Their gleaming and peaceful countenance always gives me pause. On this particular morning, the sky is cloudless, and looking west above the coreopsis, a partial moon sits illuminated in the daylight sky. Every time I go, I hope that I will see some bird, any bird, bobbing in and around this lovely scenario. Just birdsong so far.  Perhaps I’ll have better luck when the flowers go to seed.

Photo of Grasshopper Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow in Full View,
ISO320; f/9; 1/800 Second

Photographing Grasshopper Sparrows

Other more productive bird photography locations awaited. When I took these photos in late May, 2016, Grasshopper Sparrows were singing their little hearts out in the tall gold prairie grasses. The males were tirelessly on task and not about to be diverted from their mating rituals.

And thank goodness for that! Despite the easy photographic pickings right in front of my eyes, I was momentarily captivated. The birdsong, the caressing breezes, the rhythmic motion of the golden grasses, and the sublime morning light came together to form a breathtaking convergence of shape, sound, color, and form. So soothing….easy to drift away and get lost in the moment.

The Grasshopper Sparrows no doubt would have continued their songs, but the soft early morning light would not stay for long. I captured a dozen or so images and then sat back to enjoy.

Territorial Songbirds

Spring brings many rewards for bird photographers. Once these Grasshopper Sparrows reach their nesting destinations, the males sing with great enthusiasm, in full view, especially in the early morning. They defend their nesting territories robustly with song, threats, dive-bombing – whatever it takes. If a weaker/younger male bird is forced out by a more powerful bird of the same species, he will try again in another territory or simply wait until the following year when he is stronger and more vigorously appealing.

Bonding with Song

By mid-June, fewer birds are out in the open. The nestlings and even the fledglings are tucked away, listening and learning. Survival depends on the young being able to bond with parents.  At some time, very early in their lives, these young birds learn to recognize, imitate and then replicate their species’ song.

Grasshopper Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow Quivering his Feathers between Songs.
ISO320; f/9; 1/800 Second.

Learning v Genetic Predisposition

Research out of Australia – and associated with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology- suggests that some song birds are capable of learning their mother’s special calls during the embryonic stage of development and then reproducing those calls as nestlings begging for food. Included in this fascinating research is how ornithologists were able to discover and analyze these embryonic voiceprints using spectrographs and computer analysis. Visit this link to learn more.

Vocal Gymnasts

Every morning whether I’m out in the field or in our yard, I hear breathtakingly sonorous bursts of bird song carried in the wind. The musical vocalizations of song birds are much more complex than any other species can produce. Two sets of vocal organs (called the syrinx) have evolved to allow birds to sing multi-layered, acoustically diverse songs (with region specific dialects). In addition to bird song, many species of birds use non acoustical sounds (like hums made with beating wings or tails, or drumming made with chiseling beaks-or enticing dancing and quivering.) to increase their chances of being noticed and successfully reproducing.

Life Affirming Repertoire

It’s an enduring and life affirming repertoire that I love to listen to. Makes bird photography a most enticing and calming endeavor.



Photographing a Henslow Sparrow In His Element

Photographing a Henslow Sparrow

We arrived at 7:00 am – long past the late May sunrise. Dew drops on the long gold and green grasses sparkled in the morning sunlight. Stinking of bug repellent, we parked the cars on the side of the road, grabbed our camera gear and followed our friend down and up through the wet ditch, then trekked onward through the fields toward the grasslands where he had spotted a couple Henslow Sparrows. Careful to stay on the field path so as not to disturb the nests in the grasses, I set up my camera, 500mm lens with 1.4 extender.

Photo of Henslow Sparrow
Henslow Sparrow.
ISO800; f/9; 1/1000 Second

NOTE: I had thought my Rolly cart would be useful to haul camera equipment on this trek, but after learning about the saturated fields and deep ditches, I was convinced otherwise. Note #2: Cradled in my arms, the camera gear stayed dry, but my cotton jeans were soaking wet minutes into this adventure. I really need to get those multi pocketed, bug resistant, quick drying nylon trail pants.

Photo of Henslow Sparrow
Henslow Sparrow
ISO800; f/9; 1/800 Second

Two Extroverted Henslows

The Henslow is a strikingly handsome sparrow. His back and breast feathers sport black teardrop shaped patterns atop a background of chestnut brown. His heavy beak protrudes prominently on his large, somewhat flat head. Thick black lines accenting his dark eyes blaze across his yellow face– with one black stripe extending down the center of his face and onto his upper beak. His uneven, straggly tail feathers fanned out when he perched.

According to my birding manual, the Henslow Sparrow lurks unseen in the tangled grasses and often slips away undetected if an intruder appears. This was not our experience.  We saw at least two extroverted and spunky males in the distant grasses, each carving out a smallish territory and boldly flying from leaf to branch to defend it. We heard their lusty songs before we parked, and they sang vigorously atop grasses and raspberry stalks the whole time we photographed them.

Beauty Enhanced in Its Element

So often in bird photography, the image background, though pertinent because it is part of the bird’s natural environment, is unmanageable, distracting, overbearing or sadly detrimental to the overall artistic layout of the image. This is especially true in warbler habitats.

A Ready Made Flawless Bokeh

A grassy field in early morning is different. If the field is full of tall and wild golden grasses and the sun is low in the sky (and you make sure that the skyline is not in the viewfinder) it’s hard not to create a fabulous Bokeh infused with soft and seamless shades of glowing gold.

Light and Wind

Bright light is essential. If the morning sun is heavily filtered, you won’t see the background vibrancy in your images. A spirited wind buffeting the grasses adds more dimension because the background blur becomes more curvy. Wind swept grasses fashion their own animated, artful flow that express themselves in complex, undulating seamless patterns once the shutter is released.

A soft and gentle breeze can change instantaneously to a vigorous surge and compromise sharp focus. I had to be watchful of my exposure settings. NOTE: Instead of being displaced by the wind, little songbirds are generally agile enough to to balance their weight, go with the flow, and hold on.

Adjusting Camera Position

Framing an authentic and beautiful image background was not a problem in the wind blown grassy fields where these Henslow Sparrows nest. The whole time we were there, I could easily move the camera and tripod, enabling me to not only better track the sparrows’ movements, but also recompose the scene. I was able to change out the green and gold background colors and the lines and curves of the grasses and branches around which the sparrows perched. NOTE: Repositioning the camera also helps when the photographer wants to adjust exposure settings, avoid lens flare, or take advantage of different types of directional lighting. The freedom to frequently recompose the scene during a bird photography shoot is uncommon, but can produce a collection of vibrant image backgrounds.

Photo of Henslow Sparrow
Henslow Sparrow
ISO1000; f/9; 1/1000 Second

On the Decline

Everything came together that morning- creating perfect conditions in which to photograph this lovely Sparrow. Sadly, Federal and State agencies report that the Henslow Sparrows are hard to find and their numbers are on the decline due to the loss and/or fragmentation of their breeding habitat; open field prairie filled with dense grassland. More information on the Henslow can be found at this link.

Photographing The Dark Eyed Junco and Thoughts About Resizing Images

Photographing Dark Eyed Juncos

Abundantly distributed in the U.S. in the winter, these dark topped and white bellied sparrows are easy to find everywhere I go. There’s a wide range of variability in the black, gray and brown color patterns of this species, but the black eyes and pinkish bills are consistent.

If I was going for boring, I would photograph the flocks of Dark Eyed Juncos competing for seeds on the ground nearest to the feeders. Sadly, most of my images from that particular morning shoot are departing shots of their bright white outer tail feathers as they fly away.

I did manage this one-sided profile pose. Notice the exposure readings shown beneath the photo below. There was enough light that morning to play for a change.

Dark Eyed Junco

Dark Eyed Junco
ISO640; f/9; 1800 Second

Preserve those Megapixals

In post processing, whether I upsize or downsize my photos, my goals are to preserve the quality while also preparing the file to download faster on the web. NOTE: Minimal cropping and zooming were needed in post processing for the above photo because this little sparrow came in very close to the camera.

I am aware that pixel density is just not that important for web viewing. Judicious cropping also helps change the proportions of the image for the better. However, there are loss-in-quality consequences to resizing and zooming (technically and ascetically) because these processes eliminate data. The more you do, the worse it gets.

Over Zoomed

This is pretty basic stuff for a photographer, but for some reason, it took me a while to figure it out. Going back over my portfolio, I find way too many over-zoomed photos that, way back when, I considered excellent. Now they are nothing short of embarrassing.

A Practiced Eye

This bird photography blog has helped me to be more self critical — to be practiced at discerning what’s bluster and what’s skill.  When I first purchased a high-end DSLR camera and professional quality lenses, I was overly dazzled with the clarity I saw in the photos. I magnified and cropped the photos way too much in post processing. Overemphasized detail masqueraded as quality. For the most part, whatever artistic merit these photos had was squandered.

Perspective and Humility

I’ve grown over the years as a photographer. Knowledge, experience, skill, perspective (in the field and in post processing) and not a little humility (the mother of all virtue) all contributed to this growth.  

For better or for worse, I’m quick to recognize the post processing “flaws” in others’ photos displayed in art shows, on Facebook, Etsy, etc. (NOTE:  You never really know if the original image was as badly flawed as what eventually shows up on social media. Many of these digital showcases automatically downsize a photo using a process that does not retain the image quality.) I also enjoy examining the bird photos of several outstanding bird photographers and learn from them about what constitutes quality…..and what does not.

BTW- There are many other artistic and technical problems in my photography screaming out at me now. A lot of them have to do with too little planning and too much reliance on random shots….- but that’s for another blog.

Photographing An American Tree Sparrow and Savoring the Moment

Familiar Species to Photograph

It’s December and bird activity is dominated by the more common bird species who reside in SW Michigan. Since these birds are familiar to me, I feel less rushed and anxious about photographing them. My approach to bird photography changes.

Photo of American Tree Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow, Blending Into the Branches on Which He Feeds
ISO2500; f/8; 1/1000 Second

My Usual Photographic Routine

Usually when I go out in the field with my camera, the anticipation is high. Long before I start scanning the scene for birds, I watch the light and choose my approach based on its direction and potency. If I see a new bird, the excitement is palatable. My first thoughts are to be immediately prepared and get the shot. I’m afraid to jinx the moment by taking time to enjoy what’s in front of my eyes.

Photo of American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow
ISO1600; f/8; 1/800 Second

Background and Blending

I noticed movement before I actually observed this American Tree Sparrow as he feasted on seeds. He was inconspicuous at first because he enshrouded himself within the bush. In the photograph, the fuzzy, white, gold and brown seed pods that he consumed match his head feathers in color, pattern, shape and texture. Even his lower yellowish beak blends into the seeds. A beautiful sparrow concealed so serenely- but still not lost to view on his perch. He eventually made his way up to the top branch and rested long enough for me to take the second shot.

Take Photography to a Whole New Level

Sadly, I find it easy to block from view the enchanting qualities of the moment and instead focus in on the object of my quest, heedless of the ephemeral qualities that bring shape, color, form to life. Being overly attentive to the technical camera details can cause me to overlook the sublime magic contained within my surroundings.

With the familiar birds, I’m able to relax more and enjoy how beautifully they harmonize with their environment. Then, if I’m lucky and the light is right, I might capture that common place beauty in a way that is compelling and exceptional. 

It takes capturing to a whole new level.

To read more about the ephemeral qualities of photography, click this link.

Happy Holidays and best wishes for 2016!

Thank you for taking the time to read

my bird photography blog.


Photographing Pine Siskins and Thoughts About Blinds

Photographing Pine Siskins

Pine Siskins are nomadic songbirds that do not migrate through SW Michigan every year. When they do grace us with a visit in the spring or fall, they come loudly in flocks of 25 or more. Pine Siskins are darkly streaked small finches with flashing yellow wing markings and notched tails. Their beaks are slimmer and more pointy than the gold and house finches that are plentiful in our yard most of the year. Pine Siskins stay only a few days. When they depart, tranquility returns to the feeding area.

Photo of Pine Siskin
Pine Siskin
Beak does not look Finch-like to me.
ISO800; f/5; 1/1600 Second

Getting Closer to Wildlife

I set up my blind in our yard one bright, warm morning in early October. I gathered everything I needed (camera, 500mm lens, tripod, and stool) and then stealthily prepared myself to photograph the Pine Siskins I had seen the previous day. After 10 minutes or so, the Pine Siskins came, as well as several persistent bees who squeezed their way through the crevices and into my blind. I got out, sprayed the blind with insect repellant, re-entered and rearranged myself and my equipment. Despite all this commotion, the Pine Siskins perched at the feeders or in the tree nearest to them. Apparently, there is no need to be sneaky with this species. Bold and tame, the Siskins will come regardless of whether I am hidden inside or out in full view.

Photo of Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin, waiting his turn at the feeder.
ISO800; f/5; 1/640 Second

New Photography Accomodations

My current blind is more like a tent that collapses whenever the center crossbar is disturbed. It’s advertised to “hunters and photographers”, but I think the “photographer” keyword was an afterthought. The blind is wide, but not quite as tall as I am, so I must remain slightly bent over during setup, entry, equipment installation, and exit. I use it only in my yard because it’s heavy and awkward to transport. I’ve spent many uncomfortable hours in it and when bird activity is slow, I ponder acquiring a new cloak.


First and foremost, my car is my main blind. For those times when I need to be more secretive, a more photographer-centric blind has caught my eye. It’s the Rod Planck’s N-Visibag. No set up is needed. You just climb into this cameo sack with your stool, DSLR camera, and tripod and pull it up around you. It’s made of light, breathable, water repellant 100% polyester. Teardown is a quick and quiet process. According to the manufacturer, this blind is roomy, windproof, covered with concealing camouflage and has a wide screened view port big enough to fit a 600mm lens. 

Sounds so much more convenient than my current blind. Guess I will put these accommodations on my Christmas list.


Photographing A Dickcissel and Field Sparrow – and Fun with Nik Plugins

Making Adjustments in Lightroom

Post Processing is a necessity for today’s digital photographer. I use Lightroom by Adobe. The fun part of bird photography is watching the birds in their natural environment and then sizing up the light, equipment and scenery to most effectively capture what I hope will be beautiful images. I don’t spend a lot of time with post processing chores. Usually, I just apply one or two global adjustments.

More Precise Post Processing Tools

At times, however, I recognize that more precise adjustments are needed to portions of my photos. For instance, some images just need a little light on one side of a bird’s face and breast, or just a tweak of sharpening around the outline of the bird’s head, while leaving the background blur alone. I was pleasantly surprised to learn how easy and effective it is to apply partial and subtle improvements to my images with specialized post processing tools.

Photo of Dickcissel
Male Dickcissel
Blurred Golden Grasses in the background
gave me the perfect opportunity
to use Nik to fiddle with the background color.
ISO800; f/8; 1/1000 Second

For the Artistically Inclined Photographer

A quick search on the web brings up several post processing toolchests that work with Lightroom and Photoshop. According to the reviews, these work well if you wish to selectively add a little drama through intensifying certain colors, or if you wish to fix one little thing so it draws the eye more (or less), or you want to massively change all aspects of an image to your liking.

I downloaded the 15 day free trial (no credit card required) of Nik Software, mainly because it came highly recommended by a friend. My favorite tool was Vivenza 2. You can purchase the package from Google for $150. It’s a good deal.

Warning: Artistic inclination is a must.

Nik Software, by Google

It was fun to play and it didn’t take long to figure out the functionality of the seven plug-ins included with NIK software.  These include:

  • Simulate the retro film emulsion look with Analog Effects Pro 2,
  • Selectively sharpen portions of the image with Sharpener Pro 3;
  • Selectively reduce noise to portions of the image with Define 2;
  • Selectively adjust color (and add borders) with Color Efex,
  • Selectively adjust brightness, contrast and white balance with Viveza 2
  • Be creative with black and white with Silver Efex Pro.
  • Process HDR images with HDR Efex Pro.
Photo of Field Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Coming in for a Landing
I sharpened the sparrows head and beak.
ISO800; f/8; 1/1000 Second

Shine Light into Dark Corners

Certainly it’s easier and more gratifying to get everything in the image perfect right when you snap the shutter. That doesn’t happen very often in bird photography. Lightroom does have the functionality to allow the user to tweak portions of an image by setting up “masks”, but I find that to be a tedious process resulting in unimpressive results. It’s so much easier to download a set of plugins that offers user-friendly options and good results. You can remove all or part of the adjustments if you don’t like them.

An excellent description and review of the Nik Software package by William Beem, is available at this link.


NOTE: As of May, 2017, Google will not update the Nik software suite. Specifically, “We have no plans to update the Collection or add new features over time.” 

To read another blog posting on Dickcissels, press this link.

To read another blog posting on Field Sparrows, press this link

Photo of White Crowned Sparrow

Photographing the White Crowned Sparrow with a SLOW Shutter

Photographing the White Crowned Sparrow

The leaves are thick on the branches, making for a very shady yard. My camera, 500mm lens and tripod are setup on the front porch while birds flash by me on their way to the feeders. This is not the time to be freezing wing motion, or even trying for an action shot with motion blur. It is so shady that I am playing limbo with my shutter speed, experimenting with how low I can go without sacrificing clarity with too low a shutter speed or too high an ISO.

Photo of White Crowned Sparrow
White Crowned Sparrow
Even at 1/500 Second, (with the aperture wide open)
the ISO is above 1000.
ISO1600; f/4; 1/500 Second

 Migrating White Crowned Sparrows

White Crowned Sparrows arrive in flocks (Spring and Fall) and forage on the open ground under our feeders. We see them migrating through for weeks and then suddenly, they are gone. The adult White Crowned Sparrow is one of the easiest sparrows to ID, with its black and white striped head (the white strip looking like a rather large eyebrow) and light gray breast. The juveniles have quite different coloration (a reddish brown with creamy head stripes), so much so that I thought they were a different sparrow species.

Photo of White Crowned Sparrow
White Crowned Sparrow
The Wind was calm, so I lowered the Shutter to 1/320 Second.
A Little More Light Peeking Through the Clouds
Allowed me to Lower the ISO and Tighten the Aperture.
ISO 400; f/5; 1/320 Second

Shutter Speed as Low As 1/320 Second

When photographing birds with a long telephoto lens, I am rarely successful in locking down a sharp focus when the camera is set to a slow shutter speed. Lots of factors come into play, but if the wind is calm and the White Crowned Sparrow is waiting patiently for his turn at the fallen seed, I can achieve a sharp photo with a shutter speed as low as 1/320 second. When I try a shutter speed setting below 1/320 second, I am usually disappointed with the clarity.

So many issues to consider when balancing exposure settings. To read more about factors that may impact image sharpness, visit this blog link  Photographing Savannah Sparrows – Understanding Focus.