Winter Weary

Old Man Winter has been giving us all he’s got this year. He started in Autumn and it looks like it’s doing his best to drag things out into Spring. Here in the Ozarks, we typically get a light snow before Christmas and we have a cold and sometimes snowy January. This year we’ve been pounded by storm after storm. I’m tired of shoveling and I miss the sunshine. It’s hard on us humans, but I have to tell you that the birds at the Stonehouse are over it. Yesterday when  forecasted “light afternoon flurries” turned into 7 inches of wet sticky snow, I did what I always do. I took out my camera. My friends at the feeders have lost their sweet Christmassy look – gone are the noble poses with perfectly coiffed tufts and wings. Haggard cards and finches continue to feed, but clearly they are over this whole “polar vortex” thing. Don’t worry, my little feathered friends, Spring is on the way – it’s supposed to arrive on Thursday, but don’t count your chicks before they’re hatched.

Click through to see what the diners at the Stonehouse Buffet have to say about Winter 2014:

 

Shutterbug Notes:

I have a weather sealed camera, but my bird lens is not sealed – I use a sandwich bag to give it a bit of protection, while still allowing me to focus in the weather. Shooting birds in falling snow is tricky, your AF will try to lock onto snowflakes so try focussing first on something at the same distance as your subject – I find that nearby branches work well – this makes it easier to fine tune your focus on your subject. When shooting birds I always focus on their eyes and I use the smallest AF target box that by camera has. I think the eyes help to capture their personalities. A motion blur on a wing can add to a shot, but a face out of focus is not a keeper for me. 

2013 – Ten shots that I love

Editing is crucial for me and I often put myself through the process of narrowing my shots to find the ones that really work – my blog helps with that. I take about 10,000 photos every year. I shared about a thousand with you in 2013.  As the old year closes, I thought I would take a minute to post the shots that stood out for me.

10. Orange Stairs Orange Stairs

I shot this in an architectural salvage store in Chicago. The color captivated me. It was a great day of shooting and shopping, but this is my favorite shot of my time in the Windy City.

9. One Way20130513-163959.jpgI actually shot this on my last evening in Chicago. I used my fast 50 and it let me get lots of detail even late at night. This year I challenged myself to try things to find the limits of my equipment.

8. The Friendly Yearling20130324-103214.jpgThis is probably not one of my better photos, but it was an amazing moment for me. As I looked at this young buck looking back at me I realized he was the friendly fawn I had met the year before. I was Freshly Pressed for that post, and while that was great, the moment I recognized him was something I will never forget.

7. The Fly In20130119-111408.jpgThis was one of those shots I didn’t know I captured until I reviewed the shots. I thought there was no shot with the chickadee flying in – but it is one that I just love. This shot is one that encouraged me to keep shooting even when the scene looks pretty boring. After all, if I had decided to put my camera away because all I saw was a couple of finches eating, I would have missed this shot.

6. A Frosty Windshield

The payoff, sunrise out my driver's side window.

I took this shot waiting for my jeep to warm up one morning. I was so glad to have my macro lens with me. Macro shooting makes you look deeper into an unexplored world.

5. The Dancing Elk

Blitzen

I love shooting the elk during the rut, but this day was magical. The ground was frosty and there was a full on bull-fight. This bull was the victor and danced his way across the valley letting everyone know.

4. Stop Action Hummer

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After trying every shutter speed and lighting combination to try to capture a shot of a hummer in flight I decided to try a flash. This was taken right before sunset and I was running out of light – the flash was a gamble, but it worked so well that I began to use it in the daylight to stop action.

3. Tilt Shift Ben

This is my friend Ben. He lives across the road from me and sometimes visits with me while I get my mail. I never noticed how close in color he is to the road before. I shot him as he moved towards me and lucked out on the focus.

This is an experimental shot I took with a tilt shift set up. It was manually focused right after sunset. I was pleased with how it turned out, but this really feels like Ben to me – he is a neighbor dog that drops by to make sure I make it home OK.

2. The Swimming Dog

Speed

This shot of my brother’s dog in the swimming pool took a grand champion ribbon at the county fair – but even if no one appreciated the technical process of stopping the action, I love how that spit second of bliss shows in her expression. The color of the pool in the sunlight made for a great setting.

1. The Blue Jay

Eat and glare

This is my favorite photo I took this year – the attitude of the blue jay, the color of the bokeh, the late afternoon lighting. The funny thing is that I was trying to stop action and this guy just stopped to pose for me.

I’ll admit it, as soon as I got to 10, I wished I had made a top 20 list. Are there any you think should have made the cut? What did you post in 2013 that you are especially happy with? Happy New Year!

Shutterbug Notes:

If I could offer any advice, it would be to try new things. Your camera is capable of so much more than you imagine. Shoot the shots you want in Auto and then try the other modes. Push the ISO. Try that lens that is sitting around gathering dust. You’ll be a better photographer. 8 of these 10 shots would not have happened if I had stayed in my comfort zone. 

Out on a Limb

Winter Storm Cleon has moved east and it’s finally possible to get out of the Stone House and get back to work. It’s still unseasonably cold, and today I got my first mail delivery in almost a week. During the storm I worked from home and stayed warm and mostly dry by the fire. By day two the symptoms of cabin fever were starting to set in. I was getting up every thirty minutes and walking up and down my hallway several times. I constantly stocked the indoor firewood pile. I starting to feel restless and cooped up. I decided that to clear my head that I would take a walk outside over my “lunch hour”.

I put on my Carharts and tucked my weatherproof camera and lens inside my jacket. The activity around the house was extraordinary. Cardinals were hanging onto the branches of the crepe myrtle for dear life. A fallen tree limb over the pergola was a lifeline to a small woodpecker as winds blew snow almost sideways. Birds that typically dart away held fast in hopes of spotting fallen seed below on the patio.

I came in almost soaked through and freezing, but invigorated and ready to focus – on work.

Shutterbug notes:

Shooting birds in the snow can be tricky. Your camera’s autofocus wants to focus on the nearest object in your field of view – I found that if I made my focus point as small as possible and tried to get it to lock onto a bird’s eyes or beak that I could eventually get a focus between flakes. I took all of these shots in shutter mode at 1/400 second and an ISO of 1000. The white of the snow added ambient light that made a moderate ISO setting sufficient. A slower shutter speed would make the flakes look more like streaks – a faster one would require a higher ISO and would create unnecessary noise in a limited light situation.

Trying Something a Bit Flashy

I’ve been working getting a good library of photos built for stock photography sites and it’s been a humbling experience. The sites critique your work and the issues are very plainly stated. The artistic quality of a photo is not considered. It’s all about fundamentals.

Here on this blog I have been talking about pushing my photography in order to accomplish tasks like stopping the motion of a hummingbird’s wings or capturing the joy of an OCD dog in swimming pool. These exercises have pushed me to capture things I never really thought my micro 4/3 system was capable of. This has been great for me as a technician and I feel more capable of shooting things that I had not even considered before. The down side is that it has pointed out the flaws in the give-and-take when you trade shutter speed for ISO – the end result is more noise. Although this might be great for a photo that I would publish here or even one that I would sell a print of, it doesn’t cut it in the stock photography world. Noise is a no-no.

I’m also finding that my artistic leaning towards a very shallow DOF is not what these sites are looking for either – so I have culled my archives to find the best shots where the focus on the main subject is deeper – all-in-all I am starting to find the right mix. My autumn leaves seem to be hitting the mark as well as some wildlife and some flowers.

This whole process got me thinking – is there a way to get a very sharp image of a hummingbird (or any bird) in less than perfect lighting conditions? In motion? Without a lot of noise? I recently attended a family wedding and I brought my portrait lens. As the ceremony moved from a lakeside sunlit venue to a rather dark reception hall I was forced to take out my least favorite piece of photographic equipment – my flash.

I have never liked shooting with a flash. I don’t like the way it can change skin tones and the shadows it can cast. I prefer a fast lens and available light, but as the days start to get shorter, that means I might have to shoot only on weekends with great weather. The hummingbirds are here now – and they’ll be headed south by mid October. Although I find the flash intimidating, the time has come for me to give it a try.

All of the shots that follow were shot in overcast conditions after 6:00pm. Some were shot on the west side of my home where the house casts shadows on my shooting area after 4:00pm.

I’ll start with a hummingbird on a limb. I was concerned that once I fired the flash that my subject would bolt, but my worries were unfounded. I shout about 10 frames of this fellow and he was unconcerned with me. He was in the shadow of the house, backed by a cedar beam.

There is the problem of the flash needing to recharge between shots – so I have to go back to my process of stalking and waiting for a good moment rather than firing off dozens of frames – but I kind of like that.

Of course, there is still the issue of hoping to stop the action of a hummingbird in flight. The flash certainly helps…

This shot was taken at about 6:00 in the evening - I had to get a focus on the bird and wait for it to flutter backwards from the feeder to make the capture. Since a bird does this about 5-6 times when feeding you are lucky to get two chances while a bird is at the feeder with the flash recharging between shots.

This shot was taken at about 6:00 in the evening – I had to get a focus on the bird and wait for it to flutter backwards from the feeder to make the capture. Since a bird does this about 5-6 times when feeding you are lucky to get two chances while a bird is at the feeder with the flash recharging between shots.

There is something else the flash does that I hadn’t really considered. All that extra light assists the camera in getting some pretty tight focus…

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I can see the veins of individual feathers in this shot, but the beak is what really got me. I have never gotten a shot this sharp of a hummer. The flash makes the wings transparent so that you can see her body through it. A shadow is cast of the wing on her left by the one in front.

This whole process has made me think about using a flash when I have plenty of sunlight. Can I get a really sharp image by adding just a bit more light into the mix? Or is that just too flashy?

It’s Time to Leave the Nest Already

Titmice are pretty much identical. I can pick out two that I have had at the feeder for a couple of years because of scars they have. Recently I have been watching a young titmouse – he stood out from the cool grey crowd. I was pretty sure it was a youngster because it’s plumage was a bit rough and it still had the yellow edging on its beak that baby birds had. It’s about the same size as the other birds so it seemed like it should be more confident. It looked to me like it was having a hard time mastering basic titmouse routines.

A couple of days ago I witnessed an altercation. The young bird would vocalize and make lots of screeching sounds whenever a mature bird got close – I assumed that this was about a young bird proving himself. He seemed to be incapable of holding his own.

I started to notice this bird regularly. In this screen door weather it’s clear when he is on one of my pergolas. He seems to be able to screech even with his mouth full. He also puffs out his feathers – this has made him an attractive subject as I study capturing movement through setting changes.

Last night, just before sunset I saw the following interaction – as I watched I assumed it was a tussle over a peanut, but as I looked at the next to last shot I wondered if I had been looking at this all wrong…

As I watched the scene above I was sure that there was a fight over a peanut, but as I looked at the photos afterward, I wasn’t so sure.

Today I saw the two birds again and it became clear that my impressions were wrong.

Once I saw this play out I had to revisit the other photos and look at them through a different lens. I have never seen this type of behavior before, was this youngster just not ready to leave the nest? Does he just want to live beyond his means and eat peanuts all day instead of sunflower seeds? Was he the oldest child who wishes he got more time with mom and dad? Was he the middle child who grew up believing that he didn’t get enough attention? Was he the youngest who like to play the baby card to keep from having to fix his own supper? EIther way, he’s got his parents snowed.

Shutter Speed Part 4 – My Blue Heron

I’m becoming more comfortable working in Shutter Mode. There are some times when it fails me, but that most often has to do with extreme light or shadow issues, the things that make getting a good shot almost impossible. As I discovered in Part 2, my camera can handle pretty high ISO settings. I did some research on some real world reviews and found that I could push the ISO up to 3200 with little or no noise and that as high as 6400 a clean image was still possible.

On July 4th, like most people, I like to watch fireworks. I prefer to do it from a kayak out on a lake or river if possible. Since last summer we were in a drought and had no fireworks we were set for a super-sized show this year. I like to get to the lake at around 7:30 and get out on the water before it gets dark to set my bearings and get in a short paddle before sunset. Right after dusk I spotted a great blue heron. They are one of my favorite birds – standing over 4 feet tall with a six-foot wingspan, they are a sight to behold. This was my chance to push that ISO and try to keep a reasonably fast shutter speed. To be sure, there is some grain in some of the shots, but keep in mind that this is dusk – a full half-hour after sunset. Pushing the ISO let me keep the shutter speeds between 1/320 and 1/400 second, not fast enough to stop most action, but enough to capture pretty sharp images given the conditions – low light shots from a kayak.

I have found that I can get closer to these birds later in the evening and have always looked at these encounters as pictures I take only with my eyes, because I didn’t think I could get decent quality with a camera without a tripod on dry land. Pushing the limits is teaching me otherwise.

Click on the gallery – all shots were taken at an ISO setting of 3200. There is definitely some grain, but considering that I needed a flashlight to see the buttons on my camera I am pretty happy with the results.

No Bird Left Behind

When sorting through my shots with an eye towards putting together a blog post, sometimes I find that some of my favorite images just don’t find a place. I have never really liked posting a single image – I like making sets, so what do I do with these shots? Today I decided to put the orphaned shots together into a set of my favorite leftover shots of the Spring of 2013.

Not all of these are perfect or in focus, with wildlife sometimes you take the shot because it just happens. Where a shot fits into a previous post, I have placed a link into the text.

Precision extraction

Precision extraction

I adore nuthatches, but almost all of my shots are upside down or their swooning pose. These are really adroit birds and can climb almost any surface. I like this shot because it shows off his dexterity. He will take that single seed and fly to a secure perch where he will carefully open and eat it.

Rainforest Cafe

Rainforest Cafe

Robins are everywhere and I loved seeing them in the rain forests of Washington. They are usually spotted on the ground looking for worms – I like the chance to see one at eye level.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas down there…

Our local hardware store has a facade covered with signs that the house sparrows nest in. They hop all over the roof and barely take notice of customers passing below them. I though it was interesting to see how this little guy has made use of even the Christmas light brackets as a perch. Ho Ho Ho!

Talking with his mouth full

Talking with his mouth full

The red-bellied woodpecker is one of my favorite birds. They can be shy, but once they get used to your proximity to the feeders they stick around unless you make sudden movements. I love it when they look back at me.

Off balance

Off balance

This hummer prefers to drink from the feeder with no perch, sadly she almost falls off every time she sits up after drinking. She flaps her wings to regain her balance before drinking more. I rarely get a good image of the wing structure of a hummer. She reminds me of a gymnast trying to stick the landing.

Out on a limb

Out on a limb

This male goldfinch was the first to return with his new yellow summer outfit. He is unflappable. Dogs barking and racing below his feeder don’t bother him. Yesterday a crow zipped by and almost carried him away – I watched in horror as the collision happened right in front of me. He did a tumble and landed on his feet on the porch – I saw some white down float upward. He took a perch a few feet off the ground and caught his breath. 10 minutes later he was back on his perch feeding. As I have said before, goldfinches are badasses.

Hunkered down

Hunkered down

There is just so much going on when you look at the feathers on a peacock – stripes, eyes, shimmer – I liked getting a shot of most of it happening in one spot.

That boy's wearing polka-dot panties

That boy’s wearing polka-dot panties

If you’ve read my blog before you may recall that I have recently discovered a northern flicker near the grocery store where I shop. I am officially his stalker now. I know where he lives and I know where he likes to eat. Kinda creepy, I know, but he’s the one with the silly underwear.

Solar lighting

Solar lighting

These late spring evenings have been producing some interesting lighting – as the sun sets behind the trees at the Stone House the light breaks into pieces – when that combines with iridescence it can make for some interesting shots. I love how the feathers on this guy’s throat switched from black to this amazing bronze as he turned his head.

Covert operation

Covert operation

The pileated woodpecker was shot through a window, he’s so shy that it’s taken me a year to get an in-focus shot of him, and as soon as I moved closer to the window to frame a better shot without the pane showing, he bolted. Lesson learned, always take the shot before improving your position.

Mohawk

Mohawk

My goldfinch friend reacts to me whistling – often they will cock their head in an effort to catch the sound in one of the earholes they have on either side of their heads, but this time he just puffed up his head – I’ve never seen that before.

Puff Daddy

Puff Daddy

This male hummer is guarding his feeder. As intruders approach he leaves his post, flying sortis to defend his position. When he lands back at base he puffs up to add to his intimidating presence.

Krishna in the grass

Krishna in the grass.

My friend Krishna is a little camera-shy these day. The lawn has been cut down at the Grange Hall and he is lacking cover, so he heads off towards the woods. Sometimes a man needs to be alone with his thoughts and away from the prying eyes of the paparazzi.

Seeing red

Seeing red

Another shot of that late evening sunlight – for just a moment the sun shone right through the red bottle and onto the hummer – this is one of those you wish you could get another crack at – in low light focussing is more difficult. Imperfect or not – it was an unusual moment.

Focused on his next meal

Focused on his next meal

I rarely get a shot at a hawk near the house. I spotted this guy yesterday on my drive home. The woods here are so thick that I almost never see one in flight, but he passed right in front of my Jeep. I pulled up and turned off the motor. Shooting through thick woods made focussing tricky but I finally dialed in on his eyes and then he took off – an encounter of seconds. I love his intensity, but I am glad that he feeds far away from my feeders.

Bliss

Bliss

This photo is the one that made me decide to write this post. I almost posted it alone, but decided to give the library another once-over after deciding against it. Who knew that hummingbirds have eyelashes? I rarely suggest clicking on an image, but I do on this one – the structure of this birds eyelids are amazing! I occasionally get a shot of a bird in the process of blinking – and I typically discard those, but this one seemed different – serene, graceful, poetic – and none of those things have to do with me and a camera. It was just a moment and I happened to snap at just the right time.

So far the springtime has been amazing – birds are singing, I am shooting, and all is well with the world – at least it is here at the Stone House.