This page will act as a photographic journal. What I'm using, why I like various bits of kit, how I set up certain shots. Stuff that on the whole would act as a massive turn-off for anyone not interested in wildlife photography. 

Pied Wheatear

June 10, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

A return visit to Cape Kaliakra, a mere six years after my last visit, expressly to photograph the resident Pied Wheatear.  There were three things that were different this time.

1) I was on a purely photographic trip and could take my time

2) I have a much better camera and the lens has seen an update too

3) I am a better photographer 

The birds are extremely tolerant of people as the site is well visited. Too well visited in my opinion, there were times when I struggled to get a shot without people in the background! The tactic here is to first observe what the birds are doing, and then set up somewhere close to a favoured perch and see what happens. There are many pairs, however you do need to find the right one that will let you get especially close. Once the birds were identified, find your position and set the height on the monopd for a pleasing background. And then the waiting game begins. As with the Paddyfield Warblers I used the 800mm and Canon 1DX body.

There are a few more images in the gallery.


Paddyfield Warbler

June 05, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

I've recently returned from a weekend in Bulgaria and Romania photographing birds. Intensively photographing birds - the last few months have predominantly focussed on birding, that is to say seeing birds, listing birds and experiencing birds. I've put almost no effort into photographing them as a form of art, any photos have been taken on the fly so to speak and are generally what I call record shots. Proper photos, as I like to call them, have been few and far between.

This trip was different - there were no new birds, only a desire to get better images of a few key species. My last trip to this area had been a birding trip in 2012, this aimed to build on that list of birds with decent images. Paddyfield Warbler was one of target species, and so on my second morning in Bulgaria I was up for first light and standing at a large reedbed on the Black Sea coast. The Warblers were all around, singing, trying to make themselves heard over the guttural chatter of Great Reed Warblers. The light was heavenly, the reedbed faces east and you can have the soft morning light precisely behind you. There were lots of birds, however one was frequenting a very small stand of reeds set slightly apart from the main area. As well as having less of an area to concentrate on it also allowed some potential for a clean background or of the bird on an isolated stem - the kind of image I really wanted. Rarely is anything perfect in wildlife photography, and this morning's trial was a stiff breeze which caused the camera to repeatedly lose focus on the bird as reeds came in front, or indeed the bird itself was swinging wildly on a stem and simply would not stay still. What I was after of course was a bird on a clean stem with nothing else at all!

My kit this morning was a Canon 1DX, a new camera body that I only purchased about three months ago as I needed something with high ISO capability for the dark rainforests of Costa Rica (more on this later!). Mounted on this was my 800mm lens, perfect for small subjects like Warblers. As usual I had this on my Gitzo monopod, the freedom of movement that this allows versus the more traditional tripod set-up proves its worth time and again in my style of bird photography. As the bird moved around in a small patch of reeds, I could move with it extremely easily in comparison with somebody with a tripod. The lens is mounted directly onto the top of the monopod using the integrated lens foot, there is no head. Instead I leave the lens loose in the collar, and by swaying the monopod away from 90 degrees whilst rotating the lens to compensate I can cover a fair area without needing to move. I can also switch rapidly between vertical and landscape compositions. 

Anyway,  my choice of kit was perfect for the application and using 800 ISO meant I could stop the lens down to f7.1 or f8 for a bit more depth of field and retain decent shutter speeds in the range of 1/1600s. The closer you are to the subject the shallower your depth of field, leaving the lens wide open at f5.6 risked a sharp head and a soft body, as it is I have barely got away with it. Compromises, compromises. 

Here are a few of the resulting images from the session. Note that almost all of them have had some degree of photoshop work to clear out distracting elements. I took many frames, and in all of them I had in my mind how complex the separation of the bird would be in post-processing. I only took a shot when I felt that the areas of clear space on the frame would make it worthwhile. For some images I nearly managed it, for others the bird was in the clear but various stems interposed. Some people find editing images in this way acceptable, others do not. As you can probably guess, I don't have an issue with it, but bear in mind that some spheres of photography - particularly competitions - do not allow anything other than the most minor dust removal as it otherwise becomes impossible to draw a line.

 


Cyprus Pied Wheatear fun

April 29, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

It has been a very long time since I posted anything here. Mainly I feel that it has been a very long time since I have taken anything worthwhile. All that changed on a quick visit to Cyprus over the first bank holiday weekend. The target bird was Cyprus Pied Wheatear, a monochromatic bird of arid environments, and one in my experience that you can get relatively close to if you persevere. They arrive back in Cyprus in March, unfortunately after the wintering Finsch’s Wheatear have departed so you can never see both on one trip, and in mid-April are firmly on territory. Whilst they are no doubt at many spots on the island, my favourite place to see them is Cape Greco, as in addition to being able to photos against the more typical sandy backdrops, there are areas where you can get them against the pure blue of the Mediterraenean Sea.

I only had two mornings (which is when the light is best and the birds are at their most active and conspicuous) so I needed to work quickly. At the first site I tried on the peninsula I found a pair of birds straight away. With the benefit of hindsight I spent far too long trying to get shots of these birds when they were simply not playing ball. This is often the trouble with more than one bird – they feed off each other’s anxiety almost, but I am so rusty at the moment that I failed to recognize this and wasted a lot of time on what was never going to be a successful outcome. I could get close to one of the birds, but not both together, and whenever they were separated they liked to join up. One had far less tolerance and this affected the other bird too. I eventually gave up after about 90 minutes, but I had wasted the best light of the day.

At the next site I tried I struck gold immediately. A lone bird that was staking out a relatively small territory and had not yet paired up – yes! Now it does depend on the personality of the individual, but in some cases you get birds that are far more tolerant of a close approach than others. Despite the physical size of SLR telephoto lenses, for small birds like Wheatears you do need to be pretty close to them for a decent photographic result. This is one of the main reasons for conflict between photographers and birders in my opinion, the latter don’t understand that a camera does not magnify in any way to the same extent as a spotting scope, and for many photographers an image taken at the same range as somebody using a 50x zoom simply isn’t worth taking. The counter argument is that the person using the scope will very likely not disturb the bird, whereas the person with the camera runs much more of a risk. With care this can be minimized, or avoided altogether, and I certainly left this bird exactly as I found it, singing away from atop its favourite perch, in this case a yellow sign – the highest vantage point in this particular landscape. As the light was getting harsh, I only took a few photos at this point, I was mainly watching the bird and planning for the following morning as I felt sure it would still be here.

Just after dawn the next morning I was back on site, and the bird was indeed still present. Now I don’t want a yellow sign in my photos, so before I started in earnest I went on a scouting mission for pleasing rocks. I have found this to be an excellent tactic in creating natural-looking images of birds whilst still allowing those birds to remain in their favourite places. I simply placed rocks on top of all the Wheatear’s non-natural perches and retreated. In this instance the bird did not even hesitate and was perching on ‘my’ perch on his perch within a couple of minutes. It was still the best vantage point, and from a Wheatear’s point of view there was nothing suspicious about a rock. Frankly I probably could have placed a tin of beans on the sign and it would likely have perched on it. To get the biggest photos I could, that is to say as many pixels as possible on the bird, I took the longest lens I own with me and added a teleconverter to it. No bird (well, there are a number of exceptions I can recall) will let you walk right up to it, so the longer you lens the ‘closer’ you can get without spooking it. I found that I could almost fill the frame on this bird and it would just sit there as I was still outside of its perceived danger zone. If I had taken, say, a 400mm lens I probably would have flushed it repeatedly. As it was it only flew from me a few times when I pushed my luck, and even then it just went to a different perch that I had also pre-loaded with rocks.

The following are all taken with Canon’s 800mm f5.6 lens, frequently with the 1.4x teleconverter. This gives a minimum of f8 and restricted me to a single central focus point, but with a focal length of 1120mm. Add to this the natural cropping factor of my now ancient 1D mk 4 and I had a staggering amount of zoom. This allowed me to get the bird extremely large in the frame whilst staying back - ultimately the less you flush a bird the more time you can spend taking photos of it. I used my monopod as support, something I have not done for a while – essential with this set up. By adjusting the height of the monopod I could change the background – sea, sky, a distant bush, or simply the sandy coloured rocky ground. So the following represent probably the best from that morning’s wonderful session with an incredibly cooperative bird – I hope you enjoy them as much as I reveled in taking them. The last thing I did before I left? Removed all the rocks. Before I was back in the car the bird was back on the metal edge of the yellow sign.

 


Florida - Brown Pelican

June 02, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

I never saw many Brown Pelicans, but when I did I often saw them spectacularly well. Typically there would always be one cruising up and down whatever beach I was on - the trick I never managed was being exactly parallel to the bird as it either dived or landed, but I had a lot of fun trying! They're enormous, so big that even I can manage to lock onto one in flight - as you may have gathered not exactly a forté of mine. I mostly concentrated on the waders on the beach, but when a Pelican came close I rose from my prostrate position on the sand, changed camera settings and had a go. Some of the images I really like, but as always I know I can do a lot better if I spent some proper time concentrating on them. The trouble with Florida is that there is too much to do. 

As an aside a dear friend of mine, now sadly departed, used to call Pelicans Pelihonks. He was not much of a birder to be fair, and his ID skills were somewhat lacking, but during a long trip we took together up and down the East coast of Australia many years ago I gradually got him to at least start looking at them. Predator Budgie was his generic term for any bird of prey, but it is Pelihonk that has somehow stuck with me for nearly two decades - so much so that whenever I see a Pelican of any species I am immediately reminded of him. So here's to Pelihonks and great guy who went too soon.

The image above reminds me of a 747 coming into land with flaps extended. They're actually quite nimble in the air despite their size, and like a Gannet can twist and turn at the precise moment to time their dive to perfection. I however had trouble timing my coordination to perfection, and did not manage a perfect dive shot. The image below is probably the closest I came.

All of the images above were taken on an uncharacteristically murky day on the Gulf Coast. On my final morning however the sun came out which made a huge difference. I probably already mentioned it but I was so unused to the brightness that it took me a long time to control my whites. Not that there is much white on a Brown Pelican, but on adults the neck can bleach out - as can be seen on a couple of these images. Not enough to worry me, but then bright whites seldom do!

 

 


Florida - other Terns

June 02, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Whilst Royal Tern was the dominant species in terms of numbers during my November visit to the Gulf Coast, some other species were present too - Sandwich Tern and Forster's Tern. They were most transient than the larger species, seemingly dipping in and out only briefly, particularly Forster's Tern. I managed a few frames of both in overcast conditions one morning.

The American form of Sandwich Tern, known by some authorities as Cabot's Tern, is a breeder on the atlantic coasts of the USA, and 90% of its population winters in the Gulf. Although the european version has made it across, the overwhelmingly likelihood is Cabot's - and they can be separated by better birders than I on a more robust bill structure and on moult timing at certain times of year. Sound tough? You bet, but below are two images of Cabot's from St Pete Beach.

Below are two images of Forster's Tern, which is a much smaller bird. I wasn't certain I'd ever seen one before as I didn't know what it was when it landed in amongst the throng. It didn't stay for very long unfortunately and I would very much have liked longer with it as it seemed very characterful. I'm racking up a good list of terns now, what with all the species in Dubai last year and then various odd birds on my travels, including a Black-naped Tern from Thailand identified from a nearly 20 year old 35mm slide!

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