Category Archives: Upland Game Birds

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.

Photo of RingNecked Pheasant

Photographing Male Ring-Necked Pheasants – The Advantages of Fast Focusing Technology

Photographing the Male Ring Necked Pheasant

Male Ring Necked Pheasants are ground dwelling game birds – one of the most adorned and colorful birds around. Imported to America from China in the mid 1800s, they have survived and thrived in Michigan year round.

The male Ring Neck Pheasants’ plumage, with its red face wattles, green head and shiny copper breast, is spectacular. The males are so conspicuous in the spring that it is relatively easy to find and photograph them foraging for plant materials in agricultural fields, pastures and woodlands.

Photo of Male Ring Necked Pheasant
A Male Ring Necked Pheasant, before He Noticed Me.
ISO 1250; f/9.0; 1/2000 Second
Photo of Ring Necked Pheasant
Two Rather Large “Horns” of Head Feathers at the Back of the Head. They Look Like Pigtails on This Bird.
Close up of a Male Ring Necked Pheasant Running Away from Photographer.
ISO 2000; f/9.0; 1/2500 Second

Know How Your Camera Locks Down Focus

The male pheasant I encountered was quite close to my car when he finally noticed me. He quickly started his evasive maneuvers, weaving in and out of the tall grasses, moving fast and erratically away from me. My camera was set to focus on one single, center point. As I tracked his erratic movements through the grasses, the lens kept losing its focus lock. I quickly expanded the auto focus area mode so the lens would track 8 focus points clustered around the central point as well as the center point. This way, if the central focus point lost track of focus, the secondary surrounding focus points would quickly pick it up.

Photo of Male Ring Necked Pheasant
This Pheasant was Moving Fast as He Ran Away from the Photographer.
I was Glad to Have Set the Camera to Focus at More Than One Point.
ISO 2000; f/9.0; 1/2000 Second

Canon DSLR Focus Points

Sophisticated DSLR auto focus technology is designed to keep up with the action. There are 61 focus points on my Canon 5D Mark III DSLR camera. Each one can operate individually or in conjunction with secondary expanded auto focus points to quickly track and lock focus. The secondary focus points are programmed to be on “stand by”.  If focus can not be locked with the primary focus point (because the foreground or background lacks detail, texture, or contrast) the secondary focus points are automatically activated to get a lock on focus.

Let the Camera Do the Focusing

An advanced auto focusing system offers significant advantages for bird photographers. I can set my camera to focus with one or more focus points anywhere within a range of available focus points or let the camera use all 61 focus points to determine the best focus. Out in the field, when the action is fast and furious, autofocus is the fastest and most reliable way to get a clear shot.

See this post about my experience photographing two immature Ring Necked Pheasants last Autumn.

For more information about automatic focus on DSLR cameras, see this post.

To read about the frustrations of manual focus on DSLR cameras, visit this post.

Photo of Wild Turkey

Photographing Michigan Wild Turkeys

Photographing Wild Turkeys – Watch The Ground Lines

Wild Turkeys are one of the easiest of the large birds to photograph. They are the biggest game birds (by weight) in Michigan. I see them often strutting around our yard and peering through our basement windows. (Looking to see if we have heat? hot water? cable?).

These wild, jumbo birds are also unafraid to fly up and plop themselves atop the platform bird feeders, spewing bird seed everywhere when they land and take off. I have to admit that seeing the large body of a wild turkey precariously balanced on a small feeder space intended for chickadees and titmice is an unexpected sight….ridiculous looking and out of place. “Like a Flamingo in the Cage of a Canary”.  Probably make a good picture.

Be Aware of Ground Lines When Composing a Photograph

I was in my car when these wild turkeys came into view. I had to react quickly to get the shots, and discovered afterwards that I was not holding the camera as straight as I could have.

A very simple but often overlooked image composition problem is crooked ground lines. Straight natural lines like ground lines help organize an image for the viewer and thus add to its appeal.

Whether you are hand holding your camera or using a tripod, it’s an easy task to find the ground lines through your viewfinder and let them be your guide to positioning your camera.

Ways to Keep the Camera Level

There are a few things you can do to help keep the camera level.

  • Take notice and straighten the ground lines by lining them up to the sides of the viewfinder.
  • Use the composition grid display – horizontal and vertical etched lines (and sometimes diagonal lines) that can be set on most DSLR cameras.
  • If you are using a tripod, level the camera by checking the bubble level. This is especially important if your tripod is not on level ground or all the legs are not extended equally.
  • If the ground lines are not straight after you take the photo, make adjustments in post processing by lining them up with a ruler tool.

Post Processing Fixes of Horizontal Lines

In each of the two photos below, there were two ground lines. I had to adjust one or the other in post processing. In the first shot, I leveled out the ground line in the background. This caused the foreground to tilt down, making it look like the turkey was heading downhill and creating the illusion of movement in the scene.

In the second shot, I leveled the grass ground line in the foreground and left the lines in the background to slope downward. This adjustment helped viewers to focused on the turkey’s head and neck.

Photo of Wild Turkey
Michigan Wild Turkey
Ground Line in Background Leveled
ISO 3200, f/5.6, 1/1250 Second


Photo of Wild Turkey
Wild Turkey Taking a Look Around
Ground Line in Foreground Leveled Out in Post Processing
ISO 2500, f/5.6, 1/1250 Second


Photo of Wild Turkey
Wild Turkey Gingerly Crossing a Waterlogged Ditch. The Branch Serves As My Ground Line.
ISO 12800!, f/6.3; 1/1250 Second

In the photo above, I used the branch as my guide to straighten the camera before I photographed the scene.

Image Composition is a Visual Language

I don’t consider myself knowledgable about art and design. It’s a visual language and I am definitely not proficient. I recently purchased an ebook that helps me better understand design principles, especially when it comes to nature photography. This guide helps me understand why I like what I like and how to better frame my photographs so they have more visual appeal. I highly recommend this ebook: Natural Design: Image Design for Nature Photographers, by Gloria Hopkins.

Waiting Until Spring

As with most birds, Spring is a fun time to photograph wild turkeys because the males are all puffed up and strutting around, doing their little turkey trot to attract the females. This coming Spring, I hope to photograph their mating behavior and elaborate plumage.

Until then, I wish you a very Happy Turkey Day.

Photo of Immature Male Ring Neck Pheasant

Photographing the Ring-Neck Pheasant

Photography Opportunities on the Back Roads

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time in my car, traveling down the back roads in the Allegan Forest & Allegan State Game Area, near “Todd Farm”, the Fennville Farm Unit. Todd Farm is a wildlife refuge, located at the west end of the forest. It is full of corn and soybean fields planted specifically for migrating and gaming birds. The DNR officers who work there are friendly and helpful to bird lovers.

The Leaves, They Are A Changin’

Michigan is a great place to be in Autumn. The weather has been sunny and cool. Todd Farm will be open for hunting (in designated areas at designated times), so it won’t be long before the hunters dominate the fields and the birds (and this photographer) will not be out and about.

Photo of Immature Male Ring Neck Pheasant
Immature Male Ring Neck Pheasant on the side of a Country Road.
1/640 second, ISO 200, f/3.5

Photographing Male Ring-Neck Pheasants

Recently I came across 3 immature male ring-neck pheasants on the side of the road near a large, waterlogged ditch. They tolerated my car’s approach, but stayed close to the tall corn stalks and brush in case it was necessary for them to make a quick get away.

What a study in fall colors!  The feathers on these birds are bright, varied, spectacular and yet blend with the early autumn landscape. The mature males have elaborate green head feathers and a white ring around their necks. The hens’ feathers are a soft brown, quite plain in comparison to the males.

I have seen groups of these birds running off  in the distant fields, but have yet to digitally capture a mature ring-neck pheasant – male or female. The DNR officers said that they see pheasants drying themselves on the road after a rain. I’m hoping to be lucky enough to spot them before hunting season starts in October. I will add those photos to the end of this post if/when I do.

Stabilizer Tools for Photographers

Since the birds were not in a hurry to leave, I had time to try out my new stabilizer tool, a bean bag specifically designed for photographers to use in the field. I needed something to help stabilize the camera and heavy lens on the window ledge when I am in the car and out on the backroads. A quick response to photographing birds demands that the camera is in place and ready to shoot. A bean bag helps to provide quick and easy support on the window ledge. It would also work on a tree stump or post if I wanted to use a remote shutter release out in the field.

The bean bag offers some tension relief for my neck and back. It also allows me to quietly swivel the camera as needed to follow the action without scratching the window ledge or the camera lens. NOTE:  I usually have the camera strap around my neck just in case of a spill.

Unfortunately, the bean bag supports the camera right on the window ledge and consequently, does not always give me the height I need for some shots. For eye level support, I rest my camera on a contoured, high density foam neck pillow.

One More Support Tool for Photographers

Often times when I’m driving, I see the bird I want to photograph through the passenger side window.  This requires that I quickly move the camera from my window and point and shoot out the passenger window. Since I can’t reach the passenger window from the driver’s side, I can’t rest the lens on it, so I am hand holding that heavy camera/lens – trying to compensate for the inevitable shake with a high shutter speed. (The image stabilizer helps with the shake too.)

I bought a rather large storage bin that rests on the passenger seat; upon which I can stabilize the camera before I aim and shoot through the passenger’s window. This bin also provides enough space inside to store the camera when needed.

Photo of Two Immature Male Ring Neck Pheasants
Two Immature Male Ring Neck Pheasants
1/800 second; ISO 200, f/3.5

Upland Game Birds

My husband said that ring neck pheasants are upland game birds, along with grouse, prairie chickens, partridges, quails, and wild turkeys. They are not native to Michigan, but brought over from China in the mid 1800’s as game birds. They do fly, but their get-aways are more successful if they duck and run. (Survival of the fittest, the flyers were more likely to be shot by hunters.)  These young males have probably not yet experienced a Michigan hunting season.

And finally, just in case you need a refresher of the Autumn colors to come, here’s a close-up photo showing the variety of Autumn colors and intricate designs sported by the immature, male ring-necked pheasant.

Photo of Pheasant Feathers
This Young Male Pheasant sports a Cornacopia of Autumn Colors, not to Mention Gorgeous Feather Designs