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

20130917-122612.jpg

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. 

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…

20130917-122612.jpg

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?

Didn’t Your Mama Ever Teach You Any Table Manners?

Mid summer is a time when the Bird Buffet is inundated with fledglings – last week I wrote about a titmouse who was unwilling to cut the apron strings. I’m glad to report that I witnessed him opening and eating his own sunflower seeds today. Still, his screeching for his mama continues unabated. I have the feeling he’ll be living at home until his student loans are paid off.

Todays subject on Fledglings Behaving Badly, is not a mischievous titmouse, it’s a youngster from a fine upstanding family, known for their fine manners. They don’t screech, they don’t fight, they don’t hand upside down from the chandeliers. The Downy Woodpecker is the very picture of a well-mannered bird.

This is a Downy being a Downy - walking along a tree limb looking for bugs.

This is a Downy being a Downy – walking along a tree limb looking for bugs.

Downies are sweet birds, they become accustomed to humans very quickly and even share their feeders easily. They are likable little birds – the kind who grow up to be upright citizens. Every once in a while there’s a bad apple, a bird that no amount of parenting and discipline can manage – a hellion that upsets the whole neighborhood.

This kind of behavior cannot be tolerated at the Buffet! I suppose she thinks that if it’s alright for the hummers to dive bomb each other over this feeder that she can do whatever she likes, well she’s wrong – dead wrong (not really, I could never hurt her).

Click through this next gallery to see our stop action surveillance of the perpetrator.

After this incident, the youth in question was seen hanging upside down on the woodpecker feeder. She was last seen leaving the Buffet on a motorcycle with a sketchy looking bluejay.

She's gonna have one heck of a hangover in the morning.

She’s gonna have one heck of a hangover in the morning.

Parents – tell your fledglings about nectar. There’s nothing sadder than a young woody throwing her life away for a sugar high.

Shutter Speed – A Month of Hummers

Over the course of the last month I have been experimenting with shooting in Shutter Mode – a departure from my beloved and comfortable Aperture Mode style of shooting. You can read about my progress here, here, here, and here.

If you don’t want to bother with clicking all those blue words – here’s my journey in a nutshell:

1. I like to shoot birds and wish I could capture more action shots.

2. Shooting in Aperture Mode focuses on light and not speed, so while I can easily control the depth of field, I miss a lot of that action.

3. Most wildlife photogs shoot in Shutter Mode, because controlling the speed gives you a better chance at stopping motion – this prompted me to get out of my comfort zone and give it a try.

What I have learned in the last month is that great light increases your camera’s ability to get you great results, and that you need to know the limits of your camera’s ability to handle lower light with higher ISO settings. ISO is crucial in allowing more light in when you increase shutter speeds even in sunlight.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that my camera can push these settings pretty far and still yield good results. I would encourage you to find a review that assesses your camera’s capabilities to see where the experts draw the line on ISO performance. For my camera, the line seems to be at 6400 with the experts in a controlled lighting situation – in the field I find I prefer the results at 3200 and lower. That’s twice the limit I have ever been comfortable trying, and reading up on my camera convinced me that my thinking on ISO and grain was stuck somewhere in past with my first Canon Elph (circa 2002).

When starting down this road my goal was to try to get shots of hummingbirds with definition in their wings. I have hundreds of shots from the last year with eyes in focus and wings that are barely discernible – now I love some of these shots, but getting wings with actual feathers defined was a rarity. Now I am not at the point where I am completely stopping motion on a hummingbird – honestly, I think that to do that dependably would require the use of a flash, and that is way outside my comfort zone. What follows are my favorite shots from a month of shooting in Shutter Mode.

Click on any image to start the slide show!

Now I know that last shot is not really an action shot. That girl worked her heart out for me – she’s out there on the front lines everyday defending that red bottle feeder, and her exhaustion is starting to show. She’s the acrobat diving into frame in so many of these shots. Well done, my little friend, well done.

Shutter Speed Part 1 – It Gives You Wings!

In photography there are always trade-offs. Modern DSLRs try to balance the trade-offs to give you the perfectly exposed photo.

When it comes to shooting mode, I’m an Aperture kinda girl. I love the control I have over the DOF (Depth of Field). WIthout thinking I can spin that adjustment dial until the image is bright enough and the subject is isolated to my satisfaction. I developed my love of the Aperture Mode over the course of years of shooting things that don’t move a lot, like flowers and rusty things. When I started shooting birds, I started in Auto to see what the camera would choose for the situation. I noted the shutter speeds seemed to be between 200-350. Moving to Aperture mode, I kept that number in mind. Since I hate noise (grainy-ness) and love bokeh (the cool blurry swirly backgrounds in photos that make the subjects pop), I kept the ISO low and the Aperture pretty close to wide open. That is my comfort zone. Unless I am shooting in a studio under a light kit I keep to that formula.

That brings us to the trade-offs. What I give up for my love of a shallow DOF and lots of creamy bokeh is the ability to stop action unless there is a ton of light. Sometimes I have gotten pretty lucky, but not nearly as often as I would like. I see in focus action shots of wildlife all the time, I see them taken with mirrorless cameras too – there has to be a way. Trying a new mode would prove to be part of the answer. It’s time to leave my comfort zone and tread out into the wilderness that is Shutter Mode! After reading some articles I have decided that since this whole bird obsession thing is an exercise aimed at becoming a better photographer, I owe it to myself to try this long neglected mode on my camera.

This weekend I was pretty much house bound with a nasty bug courtesy of a tick bite acquired on a recent hike, so I read a few articles about shooting birds. Something I had never considered was increasing the ISO – for me the low ISO has been like a treasured idol in my toolbox of predictable outcomes, even though my camera has one of the highest ratings for performing at higher ISO settings. Another thing I had to give up was the image review feature – the more I shoot the more I have seen how that third-of-a-second image in my viewfinder has robbed me of shots, losing my subject as the image flashed onscreen. By Sunday I resolved that I was ready to take off the training wheels and try this out.

I decided to start a quest to understand the structure of a hummingbird’s wings. I have shot lots of hummers in the last year and have always focused on their eyes whenever possible. I still did that, but I did a few things to increase my odds of getting a good shot. First, I made my focus point as small as possible so that I did not have to pre-focus on the feeder first and hope to get a focus on the bird. Next, I chose certain feeders to focus on – ones that were in bright sunlight. Finally, I deleted all shots of birds not in motion – I have hundreds of clean focused shots of birds sitting still – I want to see motion. I also deleted shots where the wings were not definable. I took some test shots at different shutter speeds – 500, 640, 800, and 1000 – each of these settings required a change in ISO to produce an image bright enough to use. I used to work with ISOs from 200-800 – now I would work as high as 2500. Beyond that I was just not happy with the grainy nature of the test shots in the available light on that day. This required me to change settings as the light changed – it was a partly cloudy day so I got lots of practice.

The shots that follow are not great, but I am seeing that it is possible for me to get closer to capturing or potentially stopping movement. Stopping a hummingbird’s wing is an unrealistic challenge – but I do think that I understand the structure better now.

I started with some of my better shots in my old mode taken in the last week – usually in pretty good light to begin with.

f6.7 1/250 sec ISO 100o This is one of my better efforts in Aperture Mode

f6.7 1/250 sec ISO 1000
This is one of my better efforts in Aperture Mode

f6.7 1/250 second ISO 1600 This is a shot where I just increased the ISO - the light was almost perfect so even in Aperture mode I got a sense of the feathers.

f6.7 1/250 sec ISO 1600
This is a shot where I just increased the ISO – the light was almost perfect so even in Aperture Mode I got a sense of the feathers.

F6.7 1/250 sec ISO 1000 Switching to Shutter Mode and bumping up the ISO first

F5.9 1/250 sec ISO 1000
Still in Aperture Mode and bumping up the ISO first – still wonderful light

f6.7 1.250 sec ISO 250 Starting to loose the light - but because the feeder was close it still worked - I can see the ribs of the feathers

f6.7 1.250 sec ISO 250
Starting to lose the light – but because the feeder was close it still worked – I can almost make out some of the structure of the feathers – last shot in Aperture Mode.

Now onto Shutter Mode – these shots were all taken yesterday.

f6.1 1/250 sec ISO 1600  After a short rain shower I switched to Shutter Mode - kept the speed low and pushed the ISO a bit. I focused on the closer bird and can begin to see definition in the feathers.

f6.1 1/250 sec ISO 1600
After a short rain shower I start a new day in Shutter Mode – kept the speed low and pushed the ISO a bit. I focused on the closer bird and can begin to see definition in her feathers.

f6.1 1/250 sec 1250 ISO The same bird moves to the other side of the feeder - you can clearly see the layers of feathers that I have previously been unable to capture. The ISO is making a difference.

f6.1 1/250 sec 1250 ISO
The same bird moves to the other side of the feeder – you can clearly see the layers of feathers that I have previously been unable to capture. The ISO is making a difference. I only got this shot because I disabled the preview feature. With no image to review I can keep shooting.

f6.7 1/640 sec ISO 2000 The bird is scratching in flight - in Aperture Mode this shot is a goner, it would have been a blurry mess. In Shutter Mode it is fairly clear and you can see the underside of his wing.

f6.7 1/640 sec ISO 2000
The bird is scratching in flight – in Aperture Mode this shot is a goner, it would have been a blurry mess. In Shutter Mode it is fairly clear and you can see the underside of his wing, plus it stopped the action of his foot.

f6.7 1/800 sec ISO 2000 A bit too much sunlight, but this shot captures the recoil motion of a wing flap. Personally I like the inverted image of my pergola in the feeder too.

f8 1/800 sec ISO 2000
A bit too much sunlight, but this shot captures the recoil motion of a wing flap. The smaller Aperture setting has slightly reduced DOF – just a bit deeper focus on the bird and feeder. Personally I like the inverted image of my pergola in the feeder too.

f6.7 1/800 sec ISO 2000 This is more detail than I have ever seen on a wing - the sunlight was pretty intense, blowing out a couple of areas, but the grain is OK so far.

f6.7 1/800 sec ISO 2000
This is more detail than I have ever seen on a wing – the sunlight was pretty intense, blowing out a couple of areas, but the grain is OK so far.

f6.7 1/640 sec ISO 2000 It's clouding up and I'm losing light. More grain than I like but I am still seeing feather structure - managing ISO is the crucial.

f6.7 1/640 sec ISO 2000
It’s clouding up and I’m losing light. More grain than I like but I am still seeing feather structure – managing ISO is the crucial.

f6.7 1/640 sec ISO 2500 Same bird - another shot I would have missed if I hadn't turned off the preview feature and an angle I rarely capture because the movement is the closest thing making focusing a crap shoot. I' still seeing feather structures even in this lower light.

f6.7 1/640 sec ISO 2500
Same bird – another shot I would have missed if I hadn’t turned off the preview feature and an angle I rarely capture because the movement is the closest thing making focusing a crap shoot. I I’m still seeing feather structures even in this lower light.

f6.7 1/500 sec ISO 2500 The sun peaks back out and I get a shot with a bit lower speed - you can see how much feather detail is lost by moving below 1/640 second.

f6.7 1/500 sec ISO 2500
The sun peaks back out and I get a shot with a bit lower speed – you can see how much feather detail is lost by moving below 1/640 second.

So to sum up – speed + ISO + good lighting = better ability to stopping action, but the trade-off can be grain in your image unless the light is really great. My camera has a huge ISO range and I just need to push it to see how far it can go on a good sunny day. This probably seems like old hat to most wildlife photogs, I was probably doing things the hard way and I clearly was not making use of my camera’s capabilities. I have been resistant to trying to shoot fast-moving things like sports events because I have limited myself by staying in that comfort zone – it’s time for me to break things loose.

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.

The Sentries

As we move into summer here at the Stone House, there is a battle raging. Volleys are launched from every side. Airstrikes, dive bombs, there’s chatter in the wind. The fighting is fierce, but before summer is over one will reign supreme…

Back off!

Back off!

…over the Hummingbird feeder.

Today I salute those bold men and women on the front lines – staking their claim to that sugary water and holding off all comers.

Here’s to the heroes of summer – the sentries.

Looking skyward

Looking skyward to face the enemy

Fending off an alien invasion

Fending off an alien invasion

Keeping watch over his prize

Keeping watch over his prize

Watching for an areal assault

Watching for an aerial assault

Keeping the enemy in her sights

Keeping the enemy in her sights

Out on a limb to protect his supply line

Out on a limb to protect his supply line

Going the extra mile to spot the threar

Going the extra mile to spot the threat

Stalking the enemy

Stalking the intruders

Staring down the enemy

Staring down the enemy

Ducking for cover

Ducking for cover

Tracking the enemies movements

Tracking the enemy’s movements

Arial reconnaissance

Aerial reconnaissance

Preparing to strike

Preparing to strike

Holding onto the high ground

Holding onto the high ground

The summer skies belong to you – the bold, the fierce, the hummers.