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.
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.
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.
Taken for granted are the sounds of nature, bird songs in the morning’s dawn, the whispers of the wind gently touching your face, and the powerful smell of raw wilderness. These are a few of the healing and soothing gifts of the natural world.
Too often today, we have divorced ourselves from nature. This loss of connection has sent us adrift. Most of us are ill without even knowing it. There is so much nature can bestow upon us if we accept its gifts and live close to it. A timeless peace, a sense of harmony and balance, and a belief in the essential goodness of life are a few of the benefits of living with nature.
I have a friend who is a morning person. He would get up very early before dawn and prepare some coffee on the gas burning stove at the cabin we shared. Then, he would go outside with his cup of coffee and wait for dawn to break and watch the day begin. He would listen to the birds’ songs begin as the night passed to day, as the darkness faded minute by minute. This simple act gave him peace and rid him of the anxiety created by life in the modern world. I treasured sharing these moments with him; they became part of my early exposure to tranquil powers of the wild.
We shared another passion. He fueled my desire to learn about the birds whose calls we heard, to distinguish one from another, to learn their calls by heart, and discover their unique behavior of each individual species. I started my first species list. The mysterious California Thrasher whose spring calls from the tops of the chamise bushes first intrigued us became the first species on the list.
Yet, at some point keeping a list was not enough, nor was just taking their pictures. After a few years, I took my creative passion to capturing their beauty, their very essence, and their spirit of life. I now have gone a step further with my art and my photography to capturing the sacredness of life itself.
In this way, I can share this sacredness of nature with others. Through my images, they can glimpse within their hearts and minds the mystery and wonder of the natural world–regenerating the strings that once connected and attached them to the earth. They can learn not to take nature for granted, especially the morning serenade of bird songs, and again become part of the sacred circle of life itself.
Here with my Wildlife Beyond Borders collection of bird images, I hope to ignite the love of birds, spark feelings of marvel in their brilliant colors, and open people’s hearts to their unique world. Wherever we are in our daily life we must listen, and not take nature’s gestures for granted, for bird songs are windows into the natural world.
Some may say this is the fanciful thinking of an idealistic dreamer. Yet, I believe in the power of nature to heal, comfort and soothe the human soul. All my life experiences with nature have led me to know this truth.
Come to the Wildlife Beyond Borders reception at Keeble and Shuchat and learn more. Meet my fellow artists Mary Aiu, Susan Carnahan, Diane Rebman, Wendy Hannum, and Oliver Klink. Reception is Saturday, April 16, 2016, from 2:00 PM to 5:00 PM at Keeble and Shuchat, 290 California Avenue, Palo Alto, CA 94306.
To register for the VIP at 1:00 PM and/or Main Event click register link below
What Goes into a Spectacular Wildlife Portrait? (5 Essential Ingredients)
A portrait without a great subject just doesn’t work; there is nothing to catch and hold the eye, nothing to draw and elicit emotions from the viewer. Some would think a green lynx spider is a great subject, it can be, for spiders and insects strike a chord in some. Yet, sea otters who have a human baby like face, and other attractive animals especially cats and members of the dog family, are more popular subjects and really strike the emotional heart of humans. Young mammals have that “cute” factor that always touches people and produce that “ah” and “wow” response. Many nature photographers capitalize on this reaction and develop much of their efforts in photographing the young of many mammal species. Yet, I still believe that any wildlife subject photographed extremely well can be a great portrait.
How clean is the image? Are there distractions? Where does the eye go to? Whatever the subject is it cannot stand out or sing, unless the background is clear and clean. Ultimately, a complex and busy background will draw the viewer’s attention away from the subject itself. The background’s color, line, and content need to compliment the subject and add to the overall impact of the image, not detract from the subject. Sometimes the background is just as important as the subject.
Another significant factor is light. Light is the key to any successful image. A great image must have great light. For inherently, photography is essentially capturing light. Many types of light can be used in portrait making. Side lighting can be effective, and with human subjects, the use of flash gives the photographer lots of control over the overall quality of light. The classic Rembrandt technique with its two to one ratio give classic human portraits. Window lightening is also a very simple yet effective light source in the hands of a competent photographer. For outdoor wildlife portraits, my favorite light is diffused light: soft and not harsh, and rendering colors to their most vibrant essence. Not the thick gray clouds of rain, nor the dreary gray of fogging days, but just the thin clouds just obscuring the sun’s direct and bright light–a big giant softbox obscuring the sun.
Another factor is the spirit of life. That twinkle in the eyes that reflect back the spirit and personality of the animal. Black and dull eyes mean lifeless eyes. Without good illumination, you have a stuffed animal look that doesn’t capture the mystery and wonder of life. Eyes must be sharp in focus. As they say, eyes are windows to the soul!
The final element is composition. Like a great painter, you must draw the observer in. Create a three dimension space from a two dimension medium. Diagonal lines are more powerful and less static than horizontal or vertical lines. Use s-curves, color, form, and texture to keep your viewer engaged. Study great art! The composition principals are the same in both mediums. Keep the composition simple, for simplicity clarifies the structure and purposes the image-maker intend. Whereas complexity visually clutters the eye and leaves a general disinterest and disappointment with the viewer. Great composition means a powerful impact that engages on an emotional and spiritual level. Hauntingly drawing the viewer back time and time again, to see with fresh eye once more.
In summary, you need an interesting subject that sparkles with life and engages the viewer with its own unique personality. Where all the elements contribute and enhance the subject. Keeping the background simple and clean lets the subject captivate the viewer and tugs at the strings of the heart. Photography is an evocative art. The making of a great portrait image is accomplished with distinct and interesting illumination and with a creative composition that ties in all the elements together.
Adding a little behavior could also enhance the overall impact, educating the viewer, providing a glimpse or window into the lives of these animals. Here for my example, a fox with a prey animal in its mouth. Yet other than serendipity, this requires lots of time in the field, much studying their behavior and patience and more patience. However, the reward could be outstanding, a portrait with behavior.
Applying these ingredients over time, with practice and dedication, you will develop a style, and furthermore, your vision and unique way of seeing the world will come through in your images, in your body of work, and that’s the making of great art!
Here is a particular wildlife portrait I really love. It’s one of my gray fox images taken at my beloved ramrod ranch from a photo blind. It’s just incredible to watch a wild gray fox come into drink not ten feet away from you. It’s a humbling and spiritual experience. I just love the diffused fall colors in the background. Especially, the diagonal flow of the top part and the subtle warm circular colors in the bottom left. Love also the expression of life in this young gray fox’s face. It’s so alive and alert… One of my best wildlife portraits!!!
This image was taken at the Ramrod Ranch where I offer bird blind photography each spring and fall. Not only do birds come to water, but so does many other animals like this beautiful gray fox.
A compelling, fascinating, and a compassionate look into the “Soul of the Elephant”, done in a very poignant way as if they were telling the story through a poem. Dereck and Beverly Joubert are my favorite wildlife filmmakers. They tell important stories of iconic African wildlife in a fresh way, with breathtaking cinematography, using innovative camera angles. Their expert bush and species knowledge comes through a narration that is just mesmerizing, so lyrical and melodic–the way they switch and weave the stories and scenes between each other’s voice.
If you love elephants, wild places, wild animals, this Nature PBS episode is not to be missed. This is natural storytelling at its best, by those closest to the wildlife, living life with them. Their passion for what they do and the compassion and love for the wildlife comes through in their presentation.
I only wished for more…like their 88-minute film the Last Lions that I saw in the theater.
The original broadcast was on PBS on October 14, 2015, somehow I missed it. However, I found the full episode online at the PBS Nature site.
Take time from your busy life and please watch this Nature episode; it will change you forever, it’s haunting. I have already seen it twice, and I am sure I’ll watch again.
I highly recommend this search for the “Soul of the Elephant”, in fact, I would love to be doing what they are–immersed in the wild: living and breathing the wild smells of Africa.