Most years we have the good fortune of seeing many sturdy, winter-hardy Downy and Red Bellied Woodpeckers in our yard. But Hairy Woodpeckers….just a few.
The Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers are examples of convergent evolution –in that both species live in similar habitats and have evolved to be almost identical in shape and color, despite not being closely related biologically. I’ve learned to tell the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers apart by first checking the length of the bird’s beak and then overall bird size. (The Hairy is the larger of the two.) The beak of the Downy is dainty and better “fits” his face. The drilling beak of the Hairy Woodpecker is more formidable- as long as his face – and appears oversized. Predictably, both display typical woodpecker-ish behavior…. probing into tree cavities, scooching up and down tree trunks and clinging to the suet feeder. (NOTE: Sometimes a young fledging Hairy will look as though he has a smaller, undersized beak, causing me to wonder about ID.)
I learn a lot about birds and photography by exploring the web. NOTE: I don’t have a lot of friends who are nature photographers.
Since I started this website 4+ years ago, I have grown to be a better bird photographer and a better writer. I have more knowledge and more skill. I am less of a pretender.
Sense of Exclusivity
I’m always watching photographers…. looking to see what gadgetry is around their necks. I can be a little dismissive if I notice an unglamorous “consumer market” camera, even though I know that brand names, high prices and the air of professionalism do not an artist make. For some reason, I simply pay more attention to individuals carrying “professional grade” cameras. It is as if all those superior imaging components and high prices allow me to elevate the photographer on to an artistic pedestal, even though her skill level may not allow her to venture past the camera’s auto settings. Snob appeal I suppose.
Few Barriers to Entry
Modern dSLR cameras are not a study in simplicity, but that doesn’t matter. The imaging technology contained within these cameras is geared to eliminate or at least reduce barriers to becoming a photographer, so much so that a lot of people don’t think of nature photography as an art or a skill. Almost anyone with a dSLR camera can present herself as a pro. Understanding the fundamentals of composition and exposure is simply not necessary. Just show up, display a little panache, take hundreds of photos (professional quality is to a large extent about numbers) and let the camera figure out the details. No mastery necessary.
Whatever you own, all gear is limiting in some way. Very different camera equipment, methods, and motivations lead photographers onto divergent paths. The skill and talent of the photographer, not the quality of the equipment, will ultimately be the key differentiator between photographer and dabbler.
“The Camera is an Instrument that Teaches People How to See Without a Camera.”
I think Downy Woodpeckers are one of the loveliest year-round residents in our yard. They are as numerous and predictable as Mourning Doves in Southwest Michigan. The ones around us have become acclimated to the camera and appear tolerant and watchful when I come around.
Like most birds, Downy Woodpeckers spend more time looking up toward the skies in search of predators than they do watching me. When they sense danger, most other birds quickly scatter, but Downy Woodpeckers often hide in what appears to be plain sight, hoping to camouflage themselves by being silent and motionless until the danger passes.
Downy Woodpeckers are not much bigger than the other familiar song birds at the feeders (titmice, chickadees, nuthatches). A small patch of red on the back of the head distinguishes the Downy male from the female. Their bills are straight and sharp, but do not look oversized on their faces like the beaks on larger woodpeckers do. In the winter you can often hear them excavating tree trunks and branches probing for deeply embedded insects and larvae. As Spring approaches they will drum more to communicate and entice partners.
Sharing Bird Photos
I love the challenge of photographing birds and publishing my experiences on a weekly web blog. Where else can photographers connect and share their work with so many people all over the world? Best of all, it gets me out to explore nature with my camera.
Anyone who maintains a blog knows that concealed naysayers and marauders come with the web publishing territory. Putting my images (good and bad) out there also makes me vulnerable to everything from condescending feedback to outright thievery.
The web is a treasure trove of art that is technically easy to snatch…and apparently lots of thieves do so without a care. I was not surprised to learn that some individuals are illegally stealing my images and posting them elsewhere on the web without permission.
Google Analytics has web diagnostic programs that provide a multitude of reports about how my site appeals to readers. It calculates how many people visit my site, for how long, and from whence they come. However, Google Analytics does not spotlight web pilfering. To find out if your web images are being used for unauthorized purposes, tools like “Google Image Search” and “TinEye.com” are available. You simply upload an image and these tools will point to where else that image can be found on the web.
What to Do
One of the the most logical ways to foil attempts of thieves to sell hard copies of copyrighted images is to reduce the size of the image file to 1020×800 pixels, at 200 PPI resolution. The photo still looks decently clear and large on the web, but can not be used to print images larger that 4″x4″ or 5″x4″. This also has the added benefit of reducing site load times. This strategy won’t do much to thwart those individuals who want to display your images on a website or use them as a model for their art work.
Note: I don’t actively market my photographs, so I always appreciate it when artists contact me to ask for permission to use one of my bird images. My fee for a one-time use non-exclusive license is $15.00 per image for reproduction up to 5″x 7″.
Some Northern Flickers hang around Southwest Michigan year around, but most retreat from the Michigan cold. This photo of a wary juvenile contemplating his options was taken this past fall in our yard. He never did muster the courage to hop down to the fountain and imbibe with the other birds. I was lucky to get in this one shot before he flew off.
Another member of the hammering Woodpecker family, Northern Flickers are brown and tan all over with distinctive face markings, richly patterned plumage and long sticky tongues. They don’t use their tails as a prop like most woodpeckers do and can mostly be found on the ground with the Robins and Blackbirds foraging for ants and beetles.
DSLR Camera Fluent
I love posting my images and writing about how DSLR technical competency translates into rewarding nature photography. Spending time and energy learning to be DSLR fluent gives me more control over the camera’s digital imagery. I find it challenging to navigate the labyrinth of precise terminology needed to figure it all out. It’s my path to creativity.
Techno Talk Isn’t for Every Photographer
I know a few photographers who choose to concentrate only on the artistic components within the frame and let the camera handle the rest. They reject my approach and ignore the mechanical, electronic, chip oriented functionality, like they do (most likely) with their computers and smart phones. Just not their thing.
These photographers are more interested in how the image strikes them emotionally. Wildlife photography is more about the challenge to create rather than working through exposure conundrums in their head.
Camera automation is their key to artistic vision and therefore they don’t often cross the line into the technical. Manual Mode is a layer they don’t want or need. The practicality of learning how cameras work is superfluous to achieving the end game. Why bother when you can instantaneously see your image on the LCD screen? If it doesn’t work…move on and try something else.
Very different methods, motivations and interpretations lead photographers onto divergent paths. Every photographer has to decide how much she will let the camera do the thinking…..how much she will detach from the techno to accomplish her vision.
One thing bird photographers have in common. Birds come and go so fast. Often there’s only time to lift the lens and press the shutter (assuming you’ve got the camera setup on the tripod). There’s not much time to think it through right before taking the shot, artistically or technically.
So…..To bird lovers and photographers everywhere, whatever your philosophy and however you use the tools of the trade, Best Wishes and Merry Christmas!
The perching bird looked like a newly fledged Red Bellied Woodpecker….innocent, very shaky, possibly on her maiden voyage out into the wild. No trace yet of the red tinted feathers that will soon appear on her head and belly. (For a moment I wondered if this bird was another species of woodpecker but the black and white streak patterns on her wings were very distinctive.) She used her oversized clutching zygodactyl feet to latch onto a cracked and decayed tree bough that had been pock-marked with dozens of woodpecker holes. It was an ideal perch for bird photography- one that we had erected between two trees in front of a lush green background and away from distracting branches.
The fledgling looked around for a moment, spotted her parent, then began her harsh rattling call to be fed.
LCD Screen Glare
My camera was setup on a tripod with the low morning sun behind me. I positioned the lens to capture (as the bird’s background) a multilayered forest of feathery ferns huddling at far end of the driveway. I adjusted the aperture a little wider than usual to transform those individual fronds into lush, polished buttery green swirls- picture perfect bokeh.
At first when I magnified the camera’s LCD screen to take a look at the images, I saw only a harsh glare. I could not review the quality of the background or see any detail on the woodpecker’s feathers. Hoping for more bird action, I stayed in that location until the light was no longer appealing and then went into the house to review my images.
Anti-Glare LCD Viewfinders
It’s not uncommon to have the DSLR camera’s LCD viewing monitor compromised by reflection and glare. LCD protectors (for phones, computers, cameras) are available to help alleviate this problem. They purportedly let you closely inspect your images outdoors without the distractions of reflections or shadows. An added benefit is the claim that these anti glare covers help prevent scratches on the camera’s LCD screen.
My experience has been that these covers do work to reduce glare, but the additional layer of plastic or glass on the LCD screen make the images less sharp and colors less vibrant -especially when I attempt to closely inspect with magnification. I don’t apply them to my DSLR cameras, phone or computer.
These days, DSLR camera LCD screens are engineered to be resilient. They can still be scratched if the camera is crammed into a bag along with piercing keys, zippers or anything sharp. The scarred LCD screen will most likely still display your images – but who wants to look at surface scratch marks every time you review your images? Professional level DSLR cameras are constructed to be ruggedly handled, but it’s best to treat them with deliberate care.
This spring, we spotted a pair of Red Headed Woodpeckers in our yard. (It’s hard to mis-identify this bird species.) They stayed for a couple weeks, long enough for me to wishfully assume that they had chosen a towering dead oak in our yard to set up housekeeping. But then one morning, they were just gone.
Red Headed Woodpeckers are very skittish around humans and quick to pick a fight with other species of birds, especially other woodpeckers. They consume a wide variety of seeds, fruits, nuts and any insect they come across while foraging in trees and tree bark. Unlike most of the year-round woodpecker residents in our yard, Red Headed Woodpeckers will head south in the Fall to escape the harsh Michigan winter.
This species of woodpecker is considered uncommon, and according to the “IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species” is on the decline to the point where they are listed as “near threatened”.
Controlling Color Intensity
The head on this Red Headed Woodpecker is vividly red. How the camera captures the color intensity of that red (and other colors) will vary from camera to camera, depending on the camera’s settings. Most DSLR and point and shoot cameras allow you to express your color preferences by configuring the “picture style” settings in the camera menu. You can choose neutral tones or vivid, knock-your-socks-off color renditions. It’s all about artistic preference.
NOTE: Other camera settings also impact color rendition. For this shoot, the camera was set to Canon’s “Evaluative Mode” which I think does a nice job of rendering colors in nature.
Managing In-Camera Color
In Canon cameras, you can manage in-camera color and contrast by adjusting “Picture Styles” settings. Your menu choices are: Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful, and Monochrome. Once the appropriate picture style has been selected, you can further customize that choice by refining attributes like sharpness, contrast, saturation and color tone.
If the presets offered by the in-camera menu are not to your liking and you wish to customize and save your own favorite interpretations of color, Canon cameras allow you to “register” three of your color preferences. For more information, press this link to review Canon’s Publication “Quick Guide to Picture Style Settings and Customizations”.
My camera (set to “standard” picture style) did a good job balancing the intense black, white and red colors. Once I loaded the images into Lightroom, almost no adjustment was needed to improve on the hue, saturation and luminosity. I moved the “white” slider a touch to bring out more detail in the breast feathers. The histogram showed no overly exposed bright spots.
Setting and refining Picture Styles can be a very creative undertaking, but it is important to remember that as long as your camera is set to RAW format, the camera will NOT apply the picture style settings to your images. You may see the impact of your picture style choice in the camera’s LCD screen, but only because you are seeing a JPEG rendition through that screen. I always shoot in RAW format, consequently, I make all picture style adjustments in post processing. (NOTE: RAW format produces a huge image file that is processed minimally by the camera. Further processing is done once the files are loaded into your post processing software.)
NOTE: Canon includes post processing software with all its DSLR cameras. If you shoot in RAW, you can easily apply the in-camera picture style settings you chose if you use this software.
An assortment of Woodpeckers live in or visit our heavily wooded yard, but the Red Bellied is the most prominent year round resident. (Odd name, since only a slight tint of red can be found on their bellies.) The males sport a prominent red crown, right above that chiseling beak common to woodpeckers. While probing and excavating for food, these birds strategically prop their tail feathers down on their perch for balance. Most prominent on all woodpeckers are their oversized clinging 4 toed feet (zygodactyl – two toes forward, two toes back). Drumbeat roll from these guys tap-tap-tapping on trees =19 taps per second.
Red Bellied Woodpeckers are easy to photograph because they often cling to bare tree trunks and inch up and down methodically with their back feathers dragging behind. This male Red Bellied posed for me on a limb with ample morning light and no background distractions. He stayed less than a minute, but it was long enough for me to capture a couple shots.
Red Bellied Woodpecker
ISO500; f/7.1; 1/640 Second
Read all About It
Can’t help but notice that Canon’s newest flagship camera (EOS-1D X Mark II) was due out in the Spring of 2016- right about now. Apparently, stores like Adorama, B&H, and others offered sample prototypes (for a day, a week?) to their favorite (and incredibly lucky!) photographers in exchange for writing a review. (Some restrictions did apply on the type of photos they could publish.) These teaser reviews get photographers like me salivating about owning a camera that is packed with spectacular image quality and state of the art creative control.
Am I CRAZY to want to own this camera? The updated EOS-1D X Mark II is very pricy–$5999- too pricy considering that it’s not a good long term investment. Top of the line DSLR professional cameras do not keep their value like Canon’s premium lenses.
Like computers, every camera upgrade brings enhanced speed, quality, and capacity- so much so that, after getting use to it, you wonder how you got along without it. For the last 15-20 years, I’ve always purchased Canon’s 2nd tier and 3rd tier more affordable DSLR cameras. These cameras are enticing because they typically contained two or three components that have trickled down from Canon’s best imaging technology.
Bottom line: 5 years ago I would have scoffed at the idea of buying this camera. I always presumed that the whole flagship DSLR camera package was not only out of my reach, but unnecessary. At this point in my photographic adventures, I’m considering it.
Expectations and Potential
This newest flagship camera is all about expectations and potential. A few reviewers out there grumble that it’s a toy for the rich and that the enhancements over the last flagship model are just superficial- not worthy the upgraded “Canon D X Mark II” label. But I don’t think so. This camera is an admittedly expensive investment for bird photographers (professionals and amateurs) who take their work seriously and find pure, unadulterated delight in the possibilities of a cutting edge tool.
I’ve always been a camera aficionado, carefully attentive to equipment and always tuned in to pioneering developments as they relates my extravagant fondness for bird photography. New, more complex electronic and mechanical contrivances are an essential part of my challenge. A new camera brings with it an aura of wonder – surprise mingled with admiration–not only because it’s bigger- better-faster, but because I have to understand what makes it tick.
Make no mistake. This new equipment won’t solve problems of poor lighting, entice a Red Bellied Woodpecker to come closer or even show up in the first place. The challenge, the rewards, the adventure, the striving to get better, the thrill of success—all these things are possible with a lesser camera.
But that’s not what I’m looking for at this time in my life. I want to devote time and initiative to new gear (trappings?) that force me to be quick and nimble, go past old boundaries and struggle to better understand the potential and rewards of the new imaging technology.
A Girl Can Dream
When everything’s said and done, this camera sounds fabulous and I want one. It has an advanced Digic 6+ processor and faster bursting, (with enhanced buffer and memory card storage to accomodate), a more precise 360,000 pixel RGB+IR metering sensor, and a more advanced 3D auto focus and tracking system. I can expect to see more comprehensive dynamic range in my images, better detail (in the shadows) at higher ISOs, and better camera stability due to a new springless mirror assembly that minimizes bounce.
I write a lot about sensor quality…. so this is my favorite part. The full size sensor is 20.2 megapixels with increased sensitivity engineered to keep the ISO low when light is scarce, especially in the dark portions of the image. When the light is so inadequate that ISO must rise and compensate (especially in my yard) the quality of high ISO images from this new sensor promises to be much better than its predecessors.
My biggest disappointment so far: No cropped-sensor options; no 4:5, 1:1, APS-C or other crop options as have been included on the 5DS megapixel cameras.
The list goes on and on. Build-wise, it most certainly is rugged enough to outlive me –though probably won’t outlive my interest for the new and exciting.
I will sell the old to make way for the new and bite the bullet. I might hold off on this purchase just to see if other photographers who use this camera day-in and day-out are impressed.
Buyer’s remorse may come, but, on the other hand; “You can get what you want or you can just get old.” (Billy Joel)
NOTE: Press this link for more information on my thoughts about the Canon’s 50 DS R 50 Megapixal cameras.
Everybody has heard of this bird. Its name has been used in cartoon comedy for decades. The first time I saw a live Yellow Bellied Sapsucker was last week, clinging with its large, sharp claws onto the crusty trunk of the red bud tree right outside my window. I’m used to seeing lots of woodpeckers, most of which stick around all winter. But photographing this transient, so distinctly wood-peckerish with its shock absorbing thick-head, chisel bill, and oversized clinging 4 toed feet (zygodactyl – two toes forward, two toes back) was a treat.
Drummer of Tree Bark
Yellow-bellied Sap Suckers are long distance migrators whose plumage looks quite different from our resident woodpeckers. Sapsuckers are woodland cavity nesters whose stiff tail feathers act as a prop as they hop up and down on tree trunks and drum on the bark. Like most large and mucivorous woodpeckers, they excavate the tree bark for sweet sap. Once these neatly arranged shallow holes are drilled, they feed and re-feed at their dripping “sap wells”, using their brush-like tongues to suck up the sap. A good part of their daily routine involves maintaining and protecting their oozing sap wells from other sap loving marauders.
Insufficient Contrast and Light
My ISO readings soared as I photographed this Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker clinging to the shedding red bud tree trunk. Despite my exposure settings, (low shutter speed and wide open aperture, mostly), conditions were just too dark to get a decent ISO.
Even sophisticated autofocus systems can only do so much when insufficient contrast and light are available. In addition, too much noise (caused by high ISO) disrupts the edges of an image, making them lose clarity and detail. The noise reduction software in Lightroom helps, but the more you try to reduce the noise in post processing, the more sharpness suffers.
The Canon 5D Mark III DSLR camera has a well balanced 22.3MP sensor, but the lack of sharpness on these images is readily noticeable. The only real noise reduction advantage I had during this shoot was that I photographed this woodpecker at fairly close range, thus reducing the need to zoom in and crop.
The Sensors of Tomorrow
Since I photograph birds in low light conditions so often, I take notice of the research about new DSLR sensors under development. A new and improved 120MP sensor working prototype was introduced at the 2015 Canon Expo. Good thing hard drive space is cheap because each exported raw image gobbles up 210MB. This incredible resolution means that you can keep zooming and cropping in post processing (on a video monitor with enhanced resolution) and still see only fine detail, not pixels.
At this point in development, the 128MP sensor demands the brightest of light to achieve sharp resolution. The DSLR camera that housed this new sensor was fixed at ISO100. Too bad.
See this post about the advantages and limitations of the 50MP sensor Canon introduced this year on the Canon 5DS.
Addendum: To my surprise, the Yellow Bellied Sapsucker came back the next day. The light was better, so the ISO was considerably reduced. (See photo below.)
It all progresses pretty fast in the bird world (and ours) … mating, nesting, (2 or 3 times) – and then migration comes around again.
This time of year, the parents are looking haggard and spent…. but they keep at it, even feeding the fledglings who are as big as they are. (Is it possible that these birds are doing double duty….. feeding the begging fledgings while at the same time gathering food for the nestlings?)
Flown the Nest
A fledgling is a young bird who has grown enough to acquire its initial flight feathers and has flown out of the nest. They look babyish and are unsure in flight. Inexperience and immature feathers make them especially awkward when taking off and landing.
There are lots of fledglings of many different species to photograph in our yard. Young birds fledge as soon as 7-11 days after hatching. These curious young birds have not yet learned to feed themselves. They look so new, so vulnerable as they ignore the camera (and potential predators) and follow their parents around begging for food. It takes them a couple weeks before they can fly confidently and acquire food without parental help.
The light is not optimal in my heavily shaded yard, but I will continue photographing the newbies as they struggle to become independent.