I was late… Sunday at the Post Office, there was even a line at the self-service postage machine as I tried to mail out my Costa Rica Hummingbird calendars to my nieces. This put me behind schedule and meant that there was not much light left in the day to get from the East Bay to Coyote Point. When I got there after 4:00 PM, I found that it was extremely low tide. I was initially disappointed because there was no water for ducks or shorebirds.
Knowing I only had about 45 minutes of beautiful light at best, I let go of my feelings of disappointment and just decide to see what nature had to offer. Out in the mudflats, there were two Snowy Egrets in the small ponds left by the receding tide. As I watched, I noticed that there were feeding, and in a fleeting moment, this Snowy Egret pulled a tube worm out of the mud from the bottom of one of these small ponds.
If I hadn’t set aside my preconceived thoughts of photographing ducks and shorebirds, I wouldn’t have been open to what nature had in store for me. I also could have taken one look and said to myself, nothing here, not much time left of extraordinary light, so I could have left and gone home.
If I did listen to all these voices of doubt, I would not have gotten this incredible image.
I have always wanted to go see the Ancient Bristlecone Pines. Seeing other photographer’s images from there only heighten my desire to do so. Only one little item held me back; it’s the fear of heights. As a young boy, I would always close my eyes and pray, as my parents would drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. Mountain roads with steep drop-offs would especially terrify me.
One time in the middle of the night my two amigos and I, in separate cars, were heading for Mono Lake on the dreaded Tioga Pass road. I was behind them as we started down the steep backside toward Lee Vining. Soon they were out of sight as we headed down. I, on the other hand, was slowly hugging the inside part of the road, the part that normally automobiles use for going up the pass to Yosemite National Park. At 1:30 am, I didn’t think anyone would mind me using the wrong side of the road. Well, I let a big breath out, as I got down to the Mobil Gas Station parking lot near the bottom. As I got out of the car, my two friends mercilessly teased me about making them wait for me. “Where have you been”, they demanded!
I feared the road to the Ancient Bristlecone Forest would be just like the Tioga Pass road down to Highway 395. In my mind, I imagined it to be so. This always held me back. Finally, last week, with a little trepidation, I push these fears aside. Every time I would feel the urge to turnaround and go back, I would tell myself to relax and say to myself that it can be all that bad.
When I got to the Schulman Grove Visitor’s Center in midday. I bought a nice green sweatshirt with an ancient Bristlecone Pine emblazoned on the front as to always remind me I can indeed conquer my fear of heights and steep mountain roads with big drop-offs.
I climbed up the Discovery Trail looking for a particular pictorial Bristlecone Pine. As it happened, I found the one stitched on to my sweatshirt just like the park service employee at the visitor center said I would. However, I had a problem; it was four o’clock in the afternoon. I had over three hours to kill before the stars would come out and show themselves in the sky.
To idle the time away, I sat down and watched a few cars down below me, coming back and going to the other Bristlecone Pine Grove—the Patriarch Grove. I also spend some time examining the intriguing small little “purple” pine cones. Mostly, I would walk back and forth along a small stretch of the trail underneath this giant Bristlecone Pine. Other times, I would take some images of the late sunlight striking its hard-dense branches that reach for the sky.
Finally, it was a night, a few days before the full moon. I was a bit disappointed because there was so much light; I wouldn’t be able to capture a starry sky behind the Bristlecone Pine.
At home many days later, after reviewing my images, I am proud and happy. Proud that I conquered my fears, and happy with the image I created. I realized my dream; I “didn’t let my music die within me”. This beautiful image will always be a testament to my perseverance.
What do you think? Does this image stir your soul like it does mine?
Supermassive Black Hole Within The Sagittarius A Galaxy
The base image or original image is a deep dark red bearded iris from my mom’s garden. When my mom was still alive, I used to take a lot of images of her bearded irises. They are a very deep flower, and I used to have to set my aperture to f32 or f64 to get the back parts of the flower somewhat sharp. If done properly, the macro images resemble a very colorful cathedral.
For camera club competition, I would wait to the last minute to come up with a title. I would insist that the image title had to be the real name of the iris. My mom and I would pore over her iris catalogs looking for the right iris. This would exasperate her, especially the time crunch of my waiting until the last moment. These were the days of slide shooting for me, and I would write the title information on the slide then dash off to the camera club meeting.
Looking back, I feel bad that I put my mom through this every time I entered an iris image. She could have refused to help, but her character shined true and her love for me was always there. I think she would be happy and proud of me with the creative art I created from an image of one of her irises.
The technique is from a tech tip column from a PSA (Photographic Society of America) magazine. “Put a little twirl into your work”, was the title of the article. I look for colorful graphic images that have a significant negative space. Then, I follow this technique of creating lines, blurring them, and then using Photoshop’s twirl filter, making a twirl with a positive setting, then on another layer using the opposite twirl with a negative setting.
For me, these images remind me of deep space. Thus, my space portfolio was born. With other base images, I have created a group of a dozen or so of these types of images. One base image is an image of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, another is orange wet sand from a beach at sunset in Santa Cruz. I never know exactly what I get when I play with this technique, but that’s why it is so fun.
In memory of my mom, Lillian A Finocchio, I dedicate this image to her. It is like she is still here with me. We were so close. I miss you so much; I’ll always love you, mom!
Metal Print of this Image is now showing at the Avenue 25 Gallery through January 18, 2019. 32 West 25th Avenue, 2nd Floor San Mateo, CA 94403, Open: Monday to Friday, 8:30am to 5:00pm
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”.