I just spent five fabulous days at my Ramrod Ranch, setting up my photo blinds for bird photography, adding new perches, and preparing backgrounds by clearing grass around the ponds.
Because of my serious back injury, there was a period of 767 days from early 2015 through early 2017 that I was unable to go to my sacred place. During this visit, I reconnect to this place again, emotionally and spiritually. These five days I soaked in all the bird life. I took moonlight walks each evening, hearing a Great Horned Owl hooting its deep voice on a nearby hill. Each day I was surprised by a special and rare bird species. First, it was a Yellow Warbler, then, a Nashville Warbler—my first real photographs of this bird. The next day a Sharp-shinned hawk came by the cabin pond searching for its next meal.
The third and four days a Pacific-sloped Flycatcher made an appearance. I love Flycatchers; they are very shy but I got some very good images with good backgrounds of this wary bird. It seemed to favor the five o’clock hour to make an evening show.
However, it was the fifth day and my last morning where up by the water tank and the large main pond that I was graced with a special visit by a Gray Fox. They are so beautiful. It was thirsty and ran around the pond just feet away from me. For once I was prepared by having my 100 – 400 mm lens ready so I could zoom back and forth, getting wide-angle full body shots as well as tight portraits. This moment lasted only a minute or so but was so wonderful it seemed to last much longer. It is also forever imprinted on the view screen of my mind.
That’s not all, the Gray Fox, made a second appearance twenty minutes after the first, still thirsty. It drank again. The few quail around scattered deep into the brush. I was blessed and felt honored by sharing these few moments with this beautiful fox.
Due to a recent cancellation, I have spaces available for the October 6 and 7th, if you would like to share nature with me, and take the journey to become a better nature photographer.
It’s an incredible experience to watch birdlife so close, behaving so naturally as if you aren’t even there. I have included a couple of images of this beautiful Gray Fox and one of the Pacific-sloped Flycatcher. If I can capture these images, it possible for you to do so too. Let me teach you how.
For more information and to register, follow this link to my signup page.
I went to Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto on my way back home, after I had visited my photographer friend who was selling his prints at the Saratoga Art Festival. Last year, another friend got wonderful shots of White-tailed Kites on some dead oak tree branch at this preserve. At the time, she describes the path and location of this particular dead oak trees. Yet, I couldn’t find it. Also, Arastradero is known for having a lot of Lazuli Buntings; I have seen countless images of this species taken there. These were my target species. However, all though, I did see White-tailed kites flying around, and the same for Lazuli Buntings. I could never find a good place to photograph them. Also, I never found the particular location from last year where my friend got those excellent White-tailed Kite images.
However, I wasn’t dismayed or discouraged. I just took what was there, and what I did find. I used my powers of observations as a naturalist, and check all the dead oak trees that I came upon. I brought my carrying cart and pushed my 600 mm lens and tripod around. If I found something, I need to be sure that the situation was going to be productive. It becomes extremely tiring very quickly, if I have to take my lens, tripod, and camera body out of my cart, repeatedly taking them out and putting them back.
Observing from a distance, I saw one dead oak tree with some birds flying around and on it. At this point, I didn’t know what species they were. As I got closer, I saw that they were Acorn Woodpeckers. They were sallying back and forth between this tree and one farther down the hill. As I got set-up I noticed that if I moved around to the other side of this dead tree; I would be able to put the coast ridge of mountains in the background, at least for most of this perch. The sky was an ugly gray color, and the clouds covered most of the sky. Rather than having the sky as a background, I preferred the tree-covered hills in the distance.
Then, I waited patiently for the Acorn Woodpeckers to come back to this dead old oak tree, a truly a landmark sentinel of the past. It had some orange lichen on its bark, which also excited me. I just had to wait and see if the Acorn Woodpeckers would come back with my presence 40 feet away.
Being spring now, the grasses were tall, still green, plenty of food to go around. I did notice the crane flies hovering and flying around this dead oak limb perch. However, I did expect that when the female woodpecker came back she would have a captured crane fly in her beak. As I composed and pressed the shutter button, I noticed a few crane fly buzzing around the woodpecker. However, there was a little serendipity and luck that I got a live crane fly flying around in my image.
The moral of the story is that don’t be rigid and at strictly follow your shot list or goals. Be flexible, nature will open up its wonder and glory, if you have an open mind and heart. I didn’t sulk, nor abandon my efforts, nor close myself off from what was possible. I went with natures’ flow, kept an open mind, taking what she gave me.
In the end, I am ecstatic over the images I did create, and the White-tail Kites and Lazuli Buntings with have to wait for another visit.
Other Technical Considerations for the Lead Image: Female Acorn Woodpecker With a Crane Fly.
Equipment / Source: Canon EOS 7D Mark II camera body, plus 1.4x Canon Tele-converter, at 840 mm focal length, 1/320 of second shutter speed, at f8 aperture, ISO 2000, Aperture priority, Evaluative Metering
Technique: Camera Body and 600 mm lens, plus 1.4x teleconverter on a Gitzo Tripod with a Wimberely Gimbal Type Tripod Head
Processing: I cropped the image. Although, I am sure someone will say that I need to crop more, especially from the left side. However, I like the offset subject and the diagonal line of the perch leading into the image from the left, allowing the mind to flow to the subject. I also increased the overall mid-tone contrast. Used Viveza to lighten the crane fly that was flying. Define noise targeted noise reduction on the background and raw sharpening on the woodpecker itself.
*The Male Anna’s Hummingbird Images Taken On The Same Trip To Arastradero Preserve.
In this post, I discuss a pre-focusing strategy I used in capturing the image above. I submitted this image to my PSA (Photographic Society of American) nature study group. Each month I submit an image to be critiqued by the other members of the group as well as the group moderator. In turn, I critique the other members’ monthly image submissions.
With each monthly image submitted, the makers include information on how the image was made and what factors went into creating the image. I thought that my website followers would also benefit in learning how I used a pre-focusing technique in creating this image of two Acorn Woodpeckers facing off over a post perch. Going into details of the creative process and explaining the goal when I came faced with this particular nature setting and situation.
Title: Two Acorn Woodpecker Face Off Over A Perch
Goal:My goal was to capture Acorn Woodpecker behavior. While hiking at the Stanford Dish trail, I noticed several Acorn Woodpecker granary trees and groups of Acorn Woodpecker flying around. The next time I went there I brought my cart with my 600 mm lens to try to photograph them as the trailhead was a fair bit away. Too far to lug my tripod and camera over my shoulder as I used to do in my younger days.
Unfortunately, these trees granary trees were very tall, and there were several of them. If I staked out one of them, the acorn woodpecker would favor the other trees. Even though, I am normally a very patience person; it one of my best personality traits. I felt frustrated and thought this is not working well photographically. While waiting I thought, maybe, I should bring my portable blind next time, and other thoughts of camouflage ran through my mind.
I was next to the hiking and running trail, so people would look at my large lens and some would comment how big it was, a typical remark. What was I doing questions came to me from some of the passersby too. Once particular observant walker told me that the Acorn Woodpeckers were lining up on a fence just up the trail. He said there was a water trough just on the other side of the fence. Immediately, I got excited about the prospects of getting some good behavioral images.
Technique:As I canvased the area and the situation, I realized that the Acorn Woodpeckers would land on the fence line before head down to the water trough behind the fence to drink. The light was behind me, setting in the west, throwing its beautiful late evening light on the woodpeckers.
My technique was to pre-focus on these fence post-landing areas. There were the traditional metal posts and a couple of telephone-type posts used for perches. I preferred the telephone post, as one was strategically placed right in front of the water trough. The water trough was away from trees in the middle of a grassy field. The only trees were right and left of the water trough but at least thirty to forty yards away. I noticed that the woodpeckers would stage in the trees and then fly out to the posts, land, and then fly down to the water trough.
Therefore, I could see them coming into this particular post. It seemed to be favored by them. I pull out my remote cord from my camera vest and would fire a bunch of images off when I could see that they were heading to this particular telephone pole perch. I would not even look through my lens as I fire off a burst. Many of the images were blank, as I started this series before they came into my lens view. Occasionally, they would bypass this particular post I was pre-focused on, and I would get nothing. Also, sometimes, I would be late with my sequence, and the Acorn Woodpecker would already be perched on the post or caught half out of the image. This wasn’t all bad, for it seemed like a territorial issue for them because they would sweep by and try to chase or bluff off the one already occupying the perch.
Using this technique, finally, I got some captures of the conflict. This particular one showed the dramatic engagement of one swooping in on the one trying to defend his perch position. This was the decisive moment as their eye contacted and wing positions strengthen the story of their behavior.
Yes, the telephone pole perched shows the hand of man, but in this case, the Acorn Woodpeckers use this perch and have incorporated into their natural behavior.
Processing:In order increase my chances to capture their behavior, I was pretty far back and the woodpeckers were pretty small in the frame. This helped with the depth of field, but lessen the impact of the woodpeckers themselves. I cropped more than usual. Then, I upscaled the image in Photoshop back to the original size, and then, made my small web jpeg files from the upsized image. The frontal lightning was so good, and because I used a tripod with a remote cord. My original capture file was sharp, clean, with lots of detail. I didn’t lose much detail or sharpness with this upscale. I also think that my fast shutter speed of 1/3200 sec really helped freeze the blink of an eye action.
I lighten the underwing on the approaching Acorn Woodpecker a bit with Viveza. I also intentionally chose a non-sky background, a non-distracting brown field rather than the blue sky.
Equipment/Source:Canon 7D Mark II body, EF600mm f4.0 lens with a 1.4 teleconverter III, 1/3200 sec at f7.1, ISO 1000, Aperture Priority, Pattern Metering.
Here is my response to the moderators and other group members’ critiques. One consistent comment was about the composition and the extra space above and below the Acorn Woodpeckers. The moderator pointed out that the one side of the post was a bit bright, and drawing the viewers’ focus to it and away from the subject. Afterward, I revised my image based on their comments. I think I improved the visual impact and overall aesthetics of the image. What do you think?
Hello Moderator and Study Group Members,
Thank you for your comments on my December image of the “Two Acorn Woodpeckers Fighting Over A Perch”. I agree with your suggestion to darken the right side of the post perch. I am surprised I did not see this; I am usually very perceptive in seeing lighter areas that draw the eye.
I cropped the original capture quite a bit, that’s why I was reluctant to even reduce the image file further in order to make the birds larger in the frame. At the time of processing, I was a little uncomfortable with the composition, yet I didn’t see a better one. Sometimes I get tied to the 2 x 3 format too much.
Therefore, I went back and took Fran’s suggestion and made a square format for the capture, and also darken the right side of the post. I think these changes improve composition and the overall impact.
To Butch’s comment and question about the focus wandering, I primarily used AF focus and sometimes will tweak it manually. The second time I was there when I took this image I did bring my cable release. Thus, I did pre-focus on the top of the pole and wasn’t even looking through my lens. I was tracking the birds with my eye, starting my burst when the one Woodpecker was little ways away in its flight to the post. I have found this technique works well with a repeatable landing spot.
Also, I use rear button focus practically all the time unless the situation specifically calls for shutter button focus. This separates the shooting function from the focusing function and means I can focus on the eye of the bird, and then recompose for composition. Whereas with shutter button focusing when the bird changes position quickly it’s much harder to get the focus correct. The tendency also with focus button focusing is to have center subject compositions, rather than creating more dynamic off-centered subjects. Especially with bird photography, off-center subject placement so much easier with rear button focusing.
Title: California Gull Shakes Feather Off While Bathing.
Goal: I belong to three Bay Area birding lists or groups, East and South Bay, as well as Peninsula Birder’s Group. I receive email postings by members as to rare and unusual sightings. Birders also just publish their adventures and sightings to share with other birders. Its focus is birding, but many bird photographers use these postings to find and photograph rare and uncommon species. I am no exception! However, there is a big difference between birders and bird photographers. One obvious difference is that birders take pictures mostly for identification, whereas bird photographers are trying to create art. Another one is photographers need to get close, very close to make compelling beautiful imagery. I could go on with the differences, as I have in a previous blog post.
The point is that I was following a lead to find and photograph phalaropes in Sunnyvale, in the South Bay. When I saw the poor digiscope camera image from a birder; I knew that I was chasing a “wild goose”. Yet, because of his effort to tell me where the phalaropes where, I went anyway. I tried hard by putting my big 600 mm lens and tripod on my Rolle cart and got about a mile out, but the phalaropes were way out there another couple of miles. Too much for me to physical at this stage in my life. I decided to head north on the west side of the bay instead. I ended up at Atascadero in Palo Alto, here not that far from my car I found a shallow pond that must have been fed by some underground water source. It was July, not April and most or practically all non-tidal water had disappeared. I noticed a large collection of gulls in this pond, and I notice the center area seemed to be a little deeper and flowing or upwelling with water. The gulls were taking advantage of this relatively fresh upwelling and flowing water by bathing.
Even though it was still hard to get close to them because the water surrounded by a dry pan and the levy I was on was still farther away than I liked. Nevertheless, I had the reach with my 600 mm lens and a 1.4x tele converter and a cropped sensor with my 7D Mark II camera body.
The light was working for me; the sun was setting in the west behind me. Perfect conditions for creating painterly nature images. I kept waiting for them to bath and then jump up in the air which is their typical behavior, not all the time, but most of the time. I also took a few flying in and out images as well. Trying to take advantage of the beautiful photography conditions in any way I could.
You are waiting for the moral of the story or the point. Well, I could have given up twice: once by not going at all, second throwing in the towel after my researched location was a bust, but I didn’t give up and persisted in my efforts. As a result, I think I was richly rewarded. Nature is full of surprises, and it never disappoints if you’re opened to its secrets and its mystery!
Equipment/Source: 600 mm IS f4.0 lens, 1.4x tele converter, 7D Mark II camera body, on a Gitzo 3025 tripod. Shot Information: 1/6400 sec; f7.1 aperture; ISO 1000, Aperture Priority Shooting Mode, and Evaluative Metering, No Flash.
Technique: The light was so good I didn’t do much to the raw capture file. Some slight cropping targeted noise reduction and sharpening. Also, I did a mid-tone contrast enhancement technique using the RGB channels layer.
There is one point or criticism of the image that I know of, but it couldn’t be helped. I am interested in seeing if anyone mentions it.
My Response To My Fellow Study Group Participants Critiques:
California Gull Shakes Feather Off While Bathing
Bob Brown correctly pointed out the flaw or possible flaw depending on your viewpoint. I took the photo from a top of a levee. I was higher and above the gull and the bathing area. Ideally, I would have like to be at eye level, for the possibility of a more dramatic image. Looking down on a subject is condescending and implies an inferior place or position. However, since I was so far away, my angle of view above eye level was minimized with my 600 mm and 1.4x teleconverter. David is right there is a slight very slight tilt of the horizon to the left. Also, if I tried to get lower, picking my way through the tule reeds covering the bank, I would have disturbed the birds, causing them to disperse and possibly abandon the bathing site. In this situation, the view angle above couldn’t have been helped.
Yes, I would like a little more room on the bottom too. However, I purposely left more space above as the gulls would jump up a lot of the time after bathing. I didn’t want to miss or crop out parts of the bird, especially its wings. If you don’t pre-plan for the jumping out of the water, you are going to have a lot of images where the wings will be clipped. I don’t have a 50 MB camera body. Thus, no option to crop post capture by using a smaller sized lens or less magnification.
The water disturbance made for a poor reflection, more important to me was to contain the image of the gull in the frame.
As far as cropping, I did want to include the concentric rings of the water at the legs and the jumping off point. Cropping this out, I think would take something out that is contributing to the nature story. It’s a third or four element that adds to the story and the composition, not subtracts. I am pretty tight as is, as Steven says.
I hope this helps in the understanding of the choices I made here and gives you a feel for what is necessary to think about when you are faced with a wildlife moment.
* I changed the names to protect the privacy of my fellow nature study guide participants.
My “Little Bee Eater Toss Moth In Air Before Swallowing” image made the top one hundred images in the NANPA Expressions 2016 photo contest.
My 2016 NANPA Expressions Top 100 Winner
My “Little Bee Eater Tosses Moth In Air Before Swallowing” image made the top one hundred images in the NANPA Expressions 2016 photo contest. There were around four thousand images submitted, to make the top one hundred is a high honor indeed.
STORY BEHIND THE IMAGE:
We were in Tarangire National Park, the fourth day of our three-week safari. We had driven most of this particular morning and were at the edge of the large Lormakau Swamp. My friend John who organized the trip is a bird photographer like me. As a result, we weren’t just after the big five. In fact, John knew our driver and had especially requested him, because they had built up a good relationship over John’s previous trips to East Africa. Both the guide/driver and John loved birds and shared that love with each other. On the most difficult sightings when they would disagree about the identification, I would keep a mental scorecard of who was right and periodically announce who was ahead. They were very competitive in a friendly way.
John’s wife and I were keeping a bird species list as we went from National Park to National Park. During this particular moment, we were photographing a big bull elephant feeding on the edge of the swamp. On the hillside above the swamp where we were parked, there were several large bushes with open branches on top. Since we had been stationary for quite a while. The little bee-eaters resumed their hunting and sallying from these bushes. They came down the slope sparsely dotted with acacia trees. Important was staying put, this allowed the bee-eaters to become accustomed to our presence. Because they were so close, both John and I were watching this particular bee-eater with our cameras trained on it. When it sallied out it would usually come back to the same perch; we didn’t attempt to track our cameras out trying to get an image of it flying. Our focus remained on the perch when it came back with the moth, we were ready when it tossed the moth into the air, before eating. John and I got the shot. A fortune shot, yes, but those who are prepared and observant do get the prize.
A fortune shot, yes, but those who are prepared and observant do get the prize.
Equipment: Canon D7 body, 600 mm IS f4.0 lens, with a 1.4x Canon III teleconverter, 840 mm at 1/3200 of a sec, f6.3, ISO 1250, Pattern Metering, no flash.
Technique: 600 mm lens mounted on a bean bag from the top of A Safari Type Landrover vehicle.
Processing: Some darkening of the background and slight reduction of overall contrast with Nik Viveza. Raw conversion with Photoshop ARC, some cropping.
Fantastic animal and bird photography can be done close to home. You don’t have to travel to faraway lands. I am advocating for taking images in your backyard and at local wild areas around where you live. Of course, if you love wildlife and can afford to go, a safari to Africa is a trip of a lifetime. So yes, definitely go if you can, but if you can’t travel to these iconic wildlife destinations. Concentrate on practicing your craft locally. Even if you are in an urban area, there are still places to go. One of my places to practice nature photography is at your local zoo.
Now, I am not a supporter of having animals in small cages or animals treated without care, dignity, and proper respect. Wildlife Parks and zoos have become much better recently at providing good care for animals that cannot be released to the wild. In fact, I would not go to or support, any place that mistreats animals within their care. Most of us can go to local wildlife areas, preserves, shorelines, parks, preserves without the exorbitant costs of foreign travel. Here in the Bay Area, we have been blessed with a large green belt that surrounds our mostly urban areas. The San Francisco Bay itself provides great shorebird photography opportunities, being a special place on the western migration route of many birds.
Even if you are planning a trip abroad or to Africa, a trip to your local zoo, can be beneficial. By learning a new camera’s menu and controls of a recently purchased camera body, so when you get to Africa you are not fumbling with these controls and making the wrong settings decisions. Practice makes perfect or at least gets photographers a long way towards making great images. The process of photography and making images becomes second nature with practice, and allows you to be in that focused Zen-like state of total concentration.
For beginners especially, a local zoo can be a great place to learn, improve, and develop your technical as well as your visual skills. My favorite technique is to use a 600 mm lens to isolate subjects and remove the man-made elements that you naturally find at zoos. I have used this lens for a long time and have had much practice with it.
In fact, these type of images has become a calling card—my style. One problem with long lenses is the weight, and thus I have a special cart(1) that I can wheel around with my lens, tripod, and camera, securely tied down, and ready to use at a moment’s notice. This allows me to create engaging animal portraits, without showing the hand of man.
The composition of animal portraits is very similar to that of people portraits. What to include and what to exclude decisions, posing, and the position of the animal in the frame, as well as learning how light affects your final image. Making decisions on aperture, exposure, and which shutter speed and ISO combination to use, all the while waiting for the decisive moment to occur. With the goal to capture arresting behavior and interesting facial expressions. Focusing is another element where practicing is essential. Decisive or peak moments of action and behavior are fleeting and almost split second in nature, with practice, you can capture a great percentage of these moments. Before taking that once in a lifetime trip to exotic lands like Africa, go to your local zoo or wildlife preserve and enhance your skills by practicing. I have included some of my best zoo images here for review so you can see for yourself that works of art and wonderful portraits of animals are possible.
Become experience and competent with your camera, develop and improve your skills before you go to Africa, you will be rewarded that you did make this effort and happy taking the time to do so.
If you love wildlife photography like I do, then, you’ll have fun and the exciting experience watching your efforts come alive as works of art that “sings with beauty”.
She was the most beautiful and spiritual animal I saw on my September 2005 South African photography trip. I was enchanted with her; it was more than just a fancy or fanciful thought. She was everything that was wild and free about the unique animals of Africa. She embodied all that is Africa. The intense look in her eyes as she surveyed the savanna was mesmerizing. I was completely under the spell she cast with her enchanting yellow-green eyes.
Before Londolozi, my photography friends were chiding me about a leopard sighting earlier on our trip in Kruger National Park. I was driving and it was very late; I missed seeing a leopard in a tree flash lighted by a parked tour bus driver. Who at almost dark was shining light into a tree with a big flashlight alongside the road for his passengers.
We had stopped, my friend in our first vehicle was leading, and she engaged the driver and he pointed out the leopard to her. However for me, driving our second car the angle for viewing was wrong; the leopard was hidden by a big branch that hung down to the road. My companion in the back seat and I searched and searched for at least twenty minutes in vain and could see nothing, no leopard.
While my friend in the first vehicle chatted away with the tour bus driver, precious time was ticking down. We needed to get to Lower Sabie camp, a camp we had yet to visit before they closed the gate. Otherwise, we would face a large fine. Already there was hardly any light left in the sky.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, my friend driving the first vehicle took hurriedly off as her companion in the back seat, the fourth member of our group, made her aware of the ticking time. She was leading; I was following. It was almost completely dark now and I did not want to lose her. Actually, I had no idea where we were and where was Lower Sabie Camp. I was just following.
Concentrating on my driving, I drove by the “viewing window” to see the roadside leopard. Later, my companion in the back seat when asked said, yes, he did see the “leopard but only at 30 miles hour for a few brief seconds.” I was the only one of our group that missed seeing the leopard.
Afterward, in the Lower Sabie parking lot, my friends were riding me so hard for missing this leopard sighting that I actually got angry. Something I never do. They said that I might never see another leopard and I possibly blew my one and only chance of seeing this elusive cat. “You missed your one and only chance, Bruce. You might not have another opportunity to see a wild leopard, you came all this way to South Africa and mess up your only chance.” I could not believe we were fighting over this missed sighting. In my anger, I told them to go to hell.
I need not have worried, for our visit to Londolozi, in the nearby Sabi Sands game reserve, was just days away. Where I would have the destiny to meet this beautiful and enchanting leopard called Maxabene. It was like she was waiting for me—just for me alone. We saw other Leopards too, like the Short Tailed 5:4 Male. We had more sighting of leopards than we could have hoped and dreamed for. Not only sightings but the chance to make compelling photographs of this elusive feline species. It’s where I fell in love with the lovely and mysterious female leopard called Maxabene. Our time together was brief. However, she’ll never leave my memories of my time at the place they call Londolozi—a place that truly is a “protector of all living things”.
Plus, I have these images of Maxabene that will be with me always, as a remembrance of our brief time together.