Category Archives: Warblers

Photographing A Thirsty American Redstart Warbler at the Fountain

Photographing An American Redstart Warbler

It’s been partially sunny with cool refreshing winds for 5 days now and the forecast predicts much the same for the next three days. Tree canopy above the house is fully leafed out. Petals from the tops of the blooming locust trees float into the house onto the carpet. Plants are looking dry and droopy. The few mosquitos I encounter are sluggish.

Squirrels and chipmunks scurry along the cedar mulch paths to the fountain to get a drink from the water flowing down. Titmice and Robins pay me no mind as they bathe and drink from the bubbler. This Spring, a pair of American Redstart Warblers have returned to nest in our yard. The male, adorned in his spring finery, visits the fountain often.

Male American Redstart
Male American Redstart Warbler
He’s Shaking and Fanning His Feathers
To Dry them Before He Goes In for
Another Dip. ISO1600; f/9; 1/250 Second

High in the Treetops

Here on ground level, the only warblers we have noticed are the Redstarts. My bird books confirm that 43 wood warblers species nest in MI… most of them arboreal.  An arboreal bird is defined as: “A type of bird that relies on trees and dense foliage, spending much of its life in trees and rarely either descending to the ground or otherwise leaving the cover of the canopy.”

A wide diversity of highly specialized birds and other creatures live in this upper layer habitat created from the crowns of trees. This obscured community rarely needs to venture down to a ground level water source. They drink from the near billions of lighter-than-air floating water droplets carried in the fog and intercepted by tree leaves.

Is it too much to hope that other species of warblers actually live high in our tree canopy and that they might one day come down?

Hope Springs Eternal

I set up my camera, 500mm lens, 1.4 tele extender, and bracketed flash on to the tripod inside the house (with one tripod leg outside on the step of the deck). Sunlight on the deck slowly transitions, uneven and patchy, as the morning sun rises in the sky. I set the focus limiter switch on the lens barrel to restrict the len’s autofocus to 3.7m-10 m.

Male Redstart Warbler
American Redstart Warbler
Luxuriating in the Fountain.
ISO1250; f/7.1; 1/250 Second

ISO Settings With Flash

I keep my Canon camera in Manual (M) mode, but set the flashgun to Auto. E-TTL II will compensate as the exposure parameters change with the shifting light. I play around with the ISO settings, raising it to brighten the background. If I leave the camera’s ISO setting in auto mode, the camera automatically sets  ISO to 400 when a flash is attached and activated. (NOTE: There are times when the flash can not recycle fast enough to keep up with the shudder action. If Auto ISO is set, the ISO will rise to compensate and correct exposure when the flash does not fire. If I set the ISO to a specific value, the camera will be in complete manual mode and will not override the aperture, shutter, and  ISO set by the photographer.  In this instance, the camera will still take the shot, but the images will be underexposed.)

Working on Glare Control

Mid day rolls in. The sun is casting glare and shadow and the blinkies are flashing through the viewfinder. I can feel the hot sun on my face as it clears the trees and bears down on the house. The brim of my hat does a good job blocking the sun from my eyes, but whenever I try to place my eye on the eyecup, the hat pushes back on my head, moving the camera and tripod. The hat comes off.

Instead of packing up, I consider inserting the circular polarizer into the lens. Then, possibly I could effectively boost color and contrast in an otherwise washed out scene. The reduction of light with the polarizer inserted sends the ISO soaring. For birds I can only lower the shutter speed so much….so I turn on the flash with extender again. I rotate the polarizer to get the maximum reflection reduction, but the resulting images shone on the LCD screen come back full of glare. The polarizer can not eliminate the glare caused by the elevated flash gun. That beam probably needs its own polarizing sheet. Too much hassle for such a beautiful day. I power down the camera and flash and put everything away.

Photographing a Magnolia Warbler — Battery Maintenance

Spring Bird Vigil

It’s Spring migration time again. My eyes are continually scanning the outdoors for birds newly arriving or just passing through. I know that I must be missing most of them. If they do venture down to rest and replenish, the vast majority are hidden in the foliage or high in the trees or off in somebody else’s yard. The number of transients that come within my purview–at a time when my camera and I are ready –seems minuscule compared to the billions of birds on the move.

My mind was elsewhere as I swapped out the spent batteries in my Canon 1 DX Mark II camera and set up the camera near the deck. I had spent much of the day behind the viewfinder photographing the familiar birds when a stunning male Magnolia Warbler appeared right in front of my lens. I got off one shot, then nothing. The camera went dead.

Photo of Male Magnolia Warbler
Magnolia Warbler, male.
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second
With Flash Enhancement

No Power

Ack!!!  No power!  And no swappable moment…. the warbler was gone.  I had just changed the battery pack in the morning and couldn’t have taken more than 100 shots during the day. Why did it fail?  It is true that Canon new flagship…the 1 DX Mark II is power hungry, but the newly designed battery pack is supposed to be up to the task. The specs boast that battery pack (less than a year old) will provide up to 1210 shots per charge, optimally. (Battery life for Video = approx 1-1/2 hrs). I do have power hungry functions engaged (flash, focus points, IS, Al Servo auto focus, etc.), but nothing unusual for bird photography.

Frustrated, I swapped out the dead battery with another recharged battery pack and scrolled down to battery info in the menu system. In big red letters at the bottom of the screen it read: Calibration is recommended when charging battery next time.

Battery Calibration

Batteries don’t stay young. Battery calibration is the process of maximizing electrical storage capacity and insuring that batteries hold their charge. It also resets the gauge of the battery freshness indicator to better match the actual power remaining in the battery.

The solution to fast draining batteries is to attach the exhausted battery to the charger and press the calibration/performance button. The charger will go through a calibration procedure which fully discharges any power left in the battery. It then fully recharges it. If you try to calibrate a charged battery, the depleting process takes much longer.

Over the next two days, I re-calibrated both lithium ion batteries. The recharge performance indicator in the camera menu now shows that they both can adequately retain a charge.

It costs $169.00 for a new battery for my camera. From now on, I will pay more attention to battery maintenance.

Photographing Yellow Rumped Warblers – Spring Migration

Warbler Spotting

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

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

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

Deep, Demanding Blood Lines

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

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

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

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

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

Factors that Trigger Bird Migration

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

Photographing a 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.

Photographing an Immature Chestnut Sided Warbler – AEC in Manual Mode with Auto ISO

Photographing an Immature Chestnut Sided Warbler

This little immature Chestnut Sided Warbler visited the fountain late in October, 2016. He is very unlike his swanky male counterpart photographed last Spring. Plumage on his crown and back is a chartreuse yellow resting atop a solidly gray base. Prominent white eye rings stand out. No chestnut color markings are apparent.

Photo of Female Chestnut Sided Warbler
Female Chestnut sided Warbler.
ISO5000; f/6.3; 1/400 Second

It was early in the morning of what promised to be a sunny day. The flash was not attached. As usual, the camera was set to Manual Mode with Auto ISO.

The heavily filtered light was spotty and uneven, enough to throw off the camera’s light meter (set at evaluative metering mode). In Manual mode, I can ignore the camera’s meter readings and underexpose or overexpose as needed, adjusting one or more of the exposure variables to compensate for uneven light. This shoot was a good opportunity to play with the Automatic Exposure Compensation dial with the camera set to Manual mode and Auto ISO.

Automatic Exposure Compensation in Manual Mode with Auto ISO

Automatic Exposure Compensation combined with Auto ISO and Manual functionality in some Canon DSLR cameras seem to me very peculiar.

I had mistakenly assumed the AEC function on my Canon 5D Mark III DSLR worked in Manual “M” Mode as long as I set the camera to Auto ISO. After all, the camera could adjust exposure compensation by changing the ISO. However, on many Canon Cameras, setting the AEC function does nothing at all when the camera is set to “M” Manual mode. The AEC function on the camera will not work because it will not override the M manual settings (aperture, shutter, ISO) the photographer has set, even if the photographer set the camera to determine the ISO (Auto ISO).

As Canon keeps adding cameras to its fleet, this functionality of allowing automatic exposure compensation to integrate with Manual mode and Auto ISO was included in the following (and most recent) Canon DSLR cameras: EOS-1D X, EOS-1DX Mark II, EOS 5DS / EOS 5DS R, EOS 7D Mark II, and EOS 80D. Manual Mode with Auto ISO is essentially an “auto exposure mode” without a label.

Basic Auto Exposure Compensation -AEC

The light metering systems on modern cameras have all sorts of algorithms to figure out what exposure is proper for the scene. Many times lighting conditions are not average and the camera’s light meter can calculate the wrong exposure for the existing light.

Most digital cameras allow photographers to over ride the camera’s exposure settings with an “auto-exposure compensation” dial. When you play with the AEC dial on your camera, you are essentially changing the camera’s “optimal” autoexposure reading.  NOTE: A simple formula to adjust exposure using the camera’s histogram can be found at this post.

Photo of Chestnut Sided Warbler
Chestnut Sided Warbler –
Immature male (or female?).
Motion Blur on the right wing and tail feathers.
ISO5000; f/6.3; 1/400 Second

Overriding Auto Exposure Settings

AEC is all about overriding some component of the automatic exposure functionality of your camera. If you use Manual mode to specifically set fixed values for shutter, aperture, and ISO, no AEC is possible. In Manual mode with Auto ISO engaged, ISO is the only exposure variable accessible to change exposure. The AEC dial can be turned to the right (+) to add light, thus raising the ISO; or turned to the left (-) to subtract light, thus lowering the ISO. The shutter speed and aperture settings that the photographer manually set will not change.

Pre-Set Thresholds for Auto ISO

Whenever using Auto ISO in any auto mode (P, Tv, Av) or Manual mode (M), take the time to go into the camera’s menu system to constrain auto ISO with pre-set thresholds. This will prevent the floating ISO from going sky high and producing speckled unusably noisy images. The minimum and maximum ISO ranges that you set should be based on your personal preferences and the noise reduction technology built into your camera’s sensor.

NOTE:  When the light is low, take a second to check the exposure readings on the meter bar in the viewfinder to determine if your pre-set ISO value limitations are preventing the camera from achieving proper exposure. This meter bar is informational only and will not change the exposure parameters set in Manual mode by the photographer.

Photographing the Northern Parula Warbler and Thoughts About Canon’s New Flagship Camera

Photographing the Northern Parula Warbler

This migrating Northern Parula Warbler posed for me for only a minute… but it was long enough capture the details of his striking array of pattern and color. Ample fill light from the flash accented his delicate profile, white eye crescents and the sunshine on his breast. An enticing bokeh complemented his beauty.

I am enchanted by his shape, colors and form, features I did not notice when I photographed this species in the Fall of 2015.

Photo of Northern Parula Warbler
Northern Parula Warbler
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

I attribute the stellar quality of these images to a very cooperative bird, the wrap around fill light provided by telephoto flash extender, an isolated perch with no foliage distractions, and my new camera; the Canon 1 D X Mark II.

The Canon 1DX Mark II DSLR Camera

I am still giddy about owning the Canon 1 D X Mark II. I’ve had it for close to 6 months now and I find myself wanting to use it for bird photography almost exclusively. I read everything I can find about this new camera (much of it covering features that are too technical for me to understand) and spend a lot of time putting this fabulous camera through its paces.

A few thoughts and observations.  (NOTE: All comparisons made are based on my 5D Mark III or my 7D Mark II. I have never owned a Canon Flagship DSLR camera before.)

  • Time spent downloading and managing RAW files into Lightroom is about the same. The file sizes are slightly smaller on this new camera (20.2) compared with my 5D Mark III (22.3) with full size sensor and the same size as my 7D Mark II (20.2) with 1.6 cropped sensor. This megapixel size does not overload my 4 year old computer’s processor and hard drive.
  • The image quality right out of the camera is better. Once the images are in Lightroom, my post processing work flow is less time consuming and tedious. There is less need to use the Lightroom sliders that impact sharpening, clarity, vibrance, highlighting, saturation, shadows, and noise reduction. Light metering seems more on target compared with my other cameras, and consequently, I spend less post process time with exposure, brightening and contrasts sliders.
  • New/Improved CMOS Sensor.  Birds are (for the most part) unapproachable and as a result, I often depend on luck to get a close-up shot. The majority of my (warbler size) bird shots (with 500 mm lens and 1.4 extender) are taken at a not-so-close distance of 20-25 feet. My 5D Mark III and the 7D Mark II cameras deliver exceptional image quality at low ISOs if I’m lucky enough to be 13-16 feet away from my subject. As you would expect, the more I have to zoom in on the image, the more the overall quality diminishes. (These are not monster megapixel cameras.) I’ve spent time comparing images from the old and the new cameras. The improved image sensor technologies incorporated into the Canon 1 D X Mark II (20.2) deliver expanded dynamic range, more defined texture, richer colors and more clarity in the details– all of which are noticeable even after extensive zooming. This is especially true when light is sufficient to shoot at lower ISO values (ISO 100-800).
  • Low Light-High ISO quality is very good on the Canon 1 D X Mark II.  I am much impressed with image clarity in the 6000-7000 ISO range- especially when I look back and compare it to the high ISO image softness I got from my previous cameras.
    • NOTE I: To get the best low light results, Canon recommends using one shot auto focus mode with only the center auto focus point activated. Good to know, but not much help when photographing birds on the move.
    • NOTE II: For the last 5 months or so, I have relied on telephoto flash in low light bird photography because I prefer to have more flexibility in my exposure choices and, most importantly, the low ISO clarity this camera delivers is outstanding.
  • Focusing is more accurate and less hesitant especially when tracking birds. This improvement is most noticeable when I attach a 1.4 or 2.0 tele-extender to track fast moving birds. (All 61 focus points are usable even when the camera is at f/8 max aperture.)  In addition, the auto focus coverage area is slightly larger (24%), so auto focus works even when subjects are close to the edges of the focusing screen.
  • The high speed continuous bursting is faster and quite a bit louder. The speedy image transfer rate (thanks in part to the new CFast 2.0 memory card and the unlimited buffer) is highly desirable for capturing (in focus) a rapid sequence of moving birds. NOTE: The duo memory slots have one CFast card and 1 UDMA 7 Compact Flash Card. I would have preferred if Canon had decided to install two CFast cards instead.)
  • Other Camera Choices:  I have researched and seriously considered purchasing the Canon 5 DS or the Canon 5 DS R DSLR camera. In both of these monster megapixel cameras, the sensor’s light gathering potential is sacrificed to bump up the megapixel count. Since I am confronted with many low light scenarios in my bird photography, these cameras are not for me. (I have not researched Canon’s new 5D Mark IV camera.)
  • Ease of use and overall ergonomics: The 1DX Mark II is a heavy and bulky camera that is not easily maneuverable off tripod. (NOTE: I am so excited to be an owner of one that its bulk is only noticeable when I pick up my comparatively light Canon 7D Mark II.) Once you get past the bulk, the function controls are laid out in a predictable “Canon” manner and feel comfortable to use.
  • LCD screen is much clearer – especially when zooming in on detail. Makes me feel more confident about deleting images right from the camera.
Photo of Female Northern Parula Warbler
Female Northern Parula Warbler
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

A More Discriminating Photographer

Anybody who spends a lot of time reviewing images and looking for image quality detail and sharpness is bound to (over time) develop a more discriminating eye. Finances permitting, this may lead some photographers to invest in equipment that will have a better chance of getting them to where they want to go in future photographic adventures.

It is important to note that these detail quality improvements will likely not knock-the-socks-off the typical fan of bird photography. In fact, I have learned NOT to expect people who are not photographers to notice or care.

Challenges, Frustrations and Rewards

Overall, I like the comfortable way this new camera feels and behaves when I use it. As with most new technology, my understanding is incomplete. At times, instead of referring to the manual, I make assumptions that may or may not be valid. There are challenges and frustrations, and sometimes when I’m weary, I think that it’s just easier to let this ultra complex computerized expensive camera do all the thinking.

Slowly but surely, I am figuring it out… and finding joy in the results.


Photographing a Nashville Warbler and the Photo Equipment Conundrum

Photographing Nashville Warblers

I have come to expect to see avian newcomers when the bird activity is busiest… perhaps crowds are a marker of safety in numbers. Despite the constantly moving assembly of birds, it’s pretty easy to spot warblers (profile, behavior, color, markings) as they congregate with the non-migrating bird species in our yard.

Every summer, we strategically placed just a few shiny metal yard ornaments to spruce up the gardens. They are slipped in amongst the ferns and bleeding hearts where they can glisten in the sun. I always hope that the birds will use them as perches.

This little Nashville Warbler with his bright daffodil breast came to momentarily rest on one of the bird-like ornaments. He looked it over with ease…(certainly not the wary stink-eye he used to scrutinize me). I got in 2 shots before he departed. The camera lens was aimed downward and set with a fairly tight (f/9) aperture. The telephoto flash balanced nicely with ambient light–making for a pleasant bokeh.

Photo of Nashville Warbler
Nashville Warbler with
Garden Ornament.
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Photography and a Minimalist Lifestyle

As I assembled and set up the equipment for this shoot, I couldn’t help but reflect on the mountain of things that has become a part of what I do. Labor of love or not, this compulsion to buy one more tool in the hopes of acquiring that creative edge seems to never end.

Yea it’s me, taking the time to re-evaluate my buying habits and the attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions buried underneath acquiring all this camera gear. Seems like a good time now that the excesses of the holidays are upon us.

The Equipment Conundrum

Camera companies aggressively market consumer and pro grade equipment to photographers hoping to steer them onto a long and expensive road. I have listened to that seductive song, felt that fleeting rush of buying something new and convinced myself that each and every item I buy will improve my bird photography. I can even talk myself into buying something on an “I might need this later” basis. My only guarantee so far is that I am on track to own a mountain of out-of-date stuff.

(NOTE: It’s important to state up front that great bird photography is not necessarily a consequence of using expensive equipment.)

Less is Better Philosophy

Here are a few questions to consider in light of the less-is-better philosophy:

  • What amount of photo equipment does it take for you to be successful as a bird photographer?
  • What offers the most chance for growth, joy, a sense of calm and balance, interaction with friends, personal satisfaction, and accomplishment? (NOTE: Try to keep self aggrandizement out of the mix.)
  • Is what you buy practical and worth the cost and effort you’ll be putting into hauling, storing and maintaining?
  • Can any tool be a permanent solution with camera technology changing so fast?
Photo of Nashville Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Posing on a lone branch near the fountain.
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Renewal Takes Time

Some photographers interpret minimalism not as an exercise to get rid of stuff, but as an intellectual challenge intent on reducing an image to its “essence” to capture its intrinsic nature and thereby create a simple and beautiful two dimensional scene.

I’m more interested in the renewal that comes with ranking and sorting and paring down what you have and what you want. Backing away from what may be obsessive behavior is a good idea, especially if it helps you to be more discriminating about image quality. It won’t happen over night, but it’s worth the investment, if only to avoid a depleted wallet.

Wishing you all a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Photographing the Blue Winged Warbler and Beam Concentrating Fresnels

Photographing the Blue Winged Warbler

The last time I photographed a Blue Winged Warbler was in the summer of 2015. I found him preening within his nesting area….a cluster of dense, brambly foliage at the forest edge in the Allegan State Game area. He was a good distance away from the camera, but sedate and cooperative.

This Fall, a Blue Winged Warbler came to our back yard fountain. It was a rather gloomy day, so I had the flash attached. He perched just for a moment on a lichen covered branch in front of a nut brown tree trunk- making for an image with a rather dark cheerless background. Quite a few other year-round birds were clustered on the water feature at the time, so this warbler flew away without a drink.

I stayed next to the camera hoping he would return, but he didn’t – at least not while I was watching. I had my computer next to me because I wanted to investigate a new type of telephoto flash beam-concentrating fresnel attachment recommended by a friend.

Photo of Blue Winged Warbler
Blue Winged Warbler
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Beam Concentrating Fresnels

Ambient light is often not enough – so fill flash is fast becoming an essential tool to photograph birds in my yard.

Beam concentrating fresnels fasten a compact fresnel lens to a traditional flash gun. It is positioned 6″ or so from the light bulb on the flash. The whole shebang is then hoisted on a bracket and secured half way down the lens barrel. The goal: To better illuminate distant subjects by refocusing the broad beam of a flash (that would normally be spread wide and wasted) so the light extends farther with a tighter more spotlighted beam.

The Better Beamer works fine with my 500mm and 300mm telephoto lenses, and provides better long distance light compared with the max zoom setting on my flash. It is mostly trouble free once I take the time to velcro it tightly to the flash head. It even stays put when I rotate the camera from a horizontal to a vertical position.

Better Light Projection For Telephoto Flash

There are, however, frustrating issues that have sent me to the web to look for other solutions. First of all, some of the flash beam is lost because there’s no cover or snoot to wrap around the light to keep it contained while it is being re directed.(How can ETTL measure exposure accurately with all this waste?). The biggest problem is mounting and tear down. Essentially, for $30+ you get a flimsy, awkward piece of equipment that is troublesome to securely fasten to the flash head with velcro. It’s particularly exasperating when a bird is nearby and I’m trying to hurry and get this thing attached to the flash before she flies away.

Photo of Blue Winged Warbler
Blue Winged Warbler
With Light from Telephoto Flash.
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

I started looking for a fresnel device that would change my telephoto flash attaching workflow, one that not only fit tighter to increase the efficiency of the flash blast, but also fasten to the flash gun in a less trembly way.

There are lots of flash altering devices out there… but not many telephoto beam concentrating flash extenders. I found instructions on how to make your own fresnel extender for very little money, but the final product looks much like the Better Beamer with all its wobbly features.


The MagBeam Wildlife Kit was the only fresnel extender that I found that was sturdy and easy to apply. Magnets embedded in the base (wrapped around the flash head) and on the fresnel extender make it effortless to attach. The expandable rubber allows less light leakage. One disadvantage, because it is not flimsy and weighs more than the Better Beamer, the flash head on which it is attached tends to bend a touch downward.

Overall I am pleased because my bird photography setup and teardown routines are much simplified. I wish I had been more investigative and discerning before I bought the Better Beamer.

Photographing the Black and White Warbler and Relying on the Gimbal Head

Photographing a Black and White Warbler

I see the boldly striped Black and White Warblers only during migration. They behave more like nuthatch than a warbler, moving up and down tree bark probing for food. Not a lot of warbler color, but distinctive and fun to track with the lens. This little one gave me plenty of time to photograph him because he ignored the camera and proceeded to drink, bathe and preen at the fountain.

Photo of Black and White Warbler
Black and White Warbler
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Watching and Waiting

On slow birding days, I don’t spend all my time watching and waiting for migrating birds. This Fall, I have 2 cameras set up in different rooms. With windows and doors open wide (despite the cold), I can monitor the bird activity while I attend to other chores around the house.

The two camera setups have proven to be a convenient way to either sit there quietly to wait for birds or to get up to do other things without worrying about the cameras. This is true because the heavy and unwieldy gear can be locked down and secured on the tripod supported Gimbal heads.

Photo of Black and White Warbler
Black and White Warbler
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Gimbal Tripod Head Balancing Act

Gimbal Tripod heads are smooth and steady swing mounts designed to fit atop tripods and maneuver long lenses easily and quickly. A Gimbal head will support heavy equipment and enable the photographer to easily move it around horizontally and vertically. This includes the weight of not only the camera and lens, but also the lens hood, the flash and its fresnel extender, battery pack, flash bracket, telephoto extender and various straps.

I use to think the art of balancing the camera rig on the Gimbal tripod head worked like this:

1)  Level and secure the tripod.

2)  Slide the (Arca-Swiss type) mounting plate (which is attached to the camera’s lens foot) onto the Gimbal head platform until you sense that the center of gravity of the equipment load is balanced.

3) Tighten the horizontal and vertical adjustment knobs.

4) Keep the vertical knob tightened so the lens doesn’t tip too far up or down until you are ready to loosen it to control camera/lens movement and track effectively.

WRONG- at least partly.   8-(

I should not have to do #4….tighten the vertical knob to insure that my rig stays level.

Once the weight of the camera setup is properly balanced, the Gimbal head should stabilize the gear so it flows effortlessly (sideways and up and down-concurrently) with a touch of your hand. Left unattended, the camera and lens should return freely to a level position on its vertical axis. It should not tip up or down when the vertical adjustment knob is loosened.

Achieving the Correct Balance

No matter how much time and effort I put into sliding and shifting the mounting lens plate trying to correctly balance the weight of my rig on the Gimbal head, the equipment setup still tilted (lens forward) with the vertical knob loosened. I simply could NOT equally distribute the weight of my camera equipment on the Gimbal head. Something was wrong.

I called the very helpful sales and service reps at JOBU Design, the manufacturer of the tripod Gimbal heads that I use. They said that the removable lens foot designed for the Canon 500mm 4.0 L II lens was incorrectly placed on the lens. It’s situated too far forward to balance properly. The solution: I would have to purchase and install a lens replacement foot for the Canon 500 f/4 L II lens. Since the JOBU replacement foot does not require a mounting plate, JOBU offered a $30 credit off of the lens replacement foot if I sent back the mounting plate.

I ordered and received the JOBU replacement foot, carefully removed the original lens foot that came with the Canon lens, screwed on the new JOBU foot, and the Gimbal head balancing act was corrected.

NOTE:  Not every long lens requires that you replace the lens foot to balance your rig properly on a Gimbal head, but the Canon 300L f/2.8 II lens and the Canon 500L f/4.0 II lenses both do.

BTW…..Just a little irritating to own the top of the line expensive Canon telephoto lenses that come with lens feet that won’t properly balance on a Gimbal head.

Photographing A Black Throated Green Warbler with Flash and Higher ISO

Photographing the Black Throated Green Warbler

As I look back on the Fall Warbler images taken in previous years (2014, 2015), I see a lot of photos full of high ISO pixel noise. Back then, I had convinced myself that despite the poor image quality ( IQ), I didn’t want to use anything but available light.

NOTE: Eugene Smith’s reaction to the philosophy of using only natural light:
 “Available light is any damn light that is available!”

Photo of Black Throated Green Warbler
Black Throated Green Warbler
Too bright uni-directional light.
ISO1000; f/9; 1/250 Second

Balancing the Light

In general, I am pleased with the light provided by the fresnel directed telephoto flash. (NOTE: It is set to automatically manage exposure settings (ETTL) while camera is in manual mode (M). I do fiddle with the FEC to help control the intensity of the light.) The resulting image clarity and color and saturation improvements look much better then the crazy high ISO photos I took in previous years.

At times however, the subject looks too intensely spotlighted and the background is mostly black. This usually happens when the subject is close to the lens, the ambient light is low, and/or the background is just too far away to be affected by the flash.

Ambient and Flash Light Scenarios

Without flash, ambient light is often evenly spread; it may be dim, but the exposure readings for the front and back of your subject should be similar. (NOTE: When your subject is silhouetted because the background is too bright, it’s easy enough to take the exposure readings from the background, lock the exposure settings, recompose on the subject and shoot. The flash should nicely fill in the subject with a more natural looking soft light.)

When you add flash without a fresnel directional enhancement attached, your distant subject will most likely not be sufficiently illuminated. A lot of the light blast will spread wide, bounce and scatter depending on what’s in its path and the proximity of your subject.

When you add uni-directional fresnel telephoto flash lighting intended to spotlight a distant subject, it is more difficult to balance flash and ambient light in the foreground and background. The best you can do is try to control the artificial light’s intensity by modifying the exposure parameters and tweaking the flash exposure compensation (FEC). (NOTE: Other less manageable elements impact exposure parameters; like distance between the lens and your subject and tonality of the subject.)

Exposure Tradeoffs

We all know the low light exposure conundrum. Low ISO settings, tight apertures and fast shutter speeds make the flash work harder to achieve proper exposure and at the same time reduce the impact of ambient light on the scene.

Widening the aperture lets in more light, but sacrifices depth of field (NOTE: On long lenses, depth of field is very tight). As for shutter speed, I am hesitant to try to capture moving birds with anything lower the the flash sync speed  (1/250 second on my DSLR camera).  So that leaves adjusting the ISO.

Photo of Black Throated Green Warbler
Black Throated Green Warbler.
ISO 1000 helped… but not enough. 
It is still obvious that this image was taken with
Flash attached.
ISO1000; f/8; 1/250 Second

Raising the ISO to Bring in More Ambient Light

Ultra sharp image quality is directly related to low ISOs, so when I started using the telephoto flash in our heavily shaded yard, I was thrilled to be able to set the ISO at 400 or below.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with raising that ISO when using flash in order to let the ambient light on the scene dominate exposure settings more. This strategy not only helps reduce the impact of the flash blast on the subject, but also creates a better balance of light.

Pushing up the ISO to reduce the intensity of the flash is a very enticing alternative, given the high quality of modern sensors in DSLR cameras. For this photo shoot of the Black Throated Green Warbler,  I experimented with ISO1000, but the flash was still too intense for my liking. The question becomes: How high can I go with the ISO (with fresnel telephoto flash attached) in order to get a more natural looking image and still maintain image quality?

This Black Throated Green Warbler took off before I had a chance to push the ISO above 1000. However, I plan to keep experimenting… raising the ISO up to 5000. We will see what happens.