Shutter Speed – on the Road

I’ve written five posts about migrating to Shutter Mode – most of them featured shots taken right here at the Stone House. It’s one thing to put something into practice in a semi controlled environment – it’s quite another to risk the uncertainty of a new skill out on the road when you are shooting subjects that you rarely see.

Thursday a friend texted me at work asking me if I would be up to a drive over to the Boxley valley after work. These long summer days have afforded me more late day opportunities to shoot and I was totally excited about ending a very busy work day with a drive out to elk country. We left at 6 and had about 45 minutes of decent light once we arrived. We spotted an elk coming out of the woods into the meadow, it was followed by another, and another, and another until there were about a dozen young elk. This appeared to be a colony of teenagers – a mix of young bulls and cows. The meadow was their hangout and they were there to feed. I quickly snapped up several pastoral scenes.

So you may be asking what this series has to do with shutter speed – I had the shutter set at 1/640 second with the ISO at 2500. The meadow was in the shade of the mountains to the west – so although we were shooting before sunset, we were doing it in the shade – shooting with that higher ISO in low light can result in lots of grain, but if there was some action a reasonably fast speed would be required to capture it. I was just about to lower the speed and ISO when something happened.

A pair of young elk decided that a pastoral evening dining on grass what not what they were looking for. A young cow taunted a young bull with amazing results…

It was the equivalent of overturning all the tables at Denny’s – the other elk weren’t sure if they should react or finish their dinner. None of them decided to join our happy pranksters, but none of them reacted negatively either – what a great society!

I was losing light during this series and the shots are noticeably grainy as the scene comes to an end – but there’s the dilemma. Do you catch the action and live with the grain, or do you lower the ISO and shutter speeds and deal with blur and darkness? I chose to capture.

I’ve been shooting the elk for a couple of years now and have been admiring the work of other local photogs shooting in the valley for far longer and this is something I have never seen – so capturing it, even a bit grainy was a thrill. Who knew that a Thursday could end so perfectly!

Related Posts:

Shutter Speed Part 1

Shutter Speed Part 2

Shutter Speed Part 3

Shutter Speed Part 4

Shutter Speed Part 5

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 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.

Shutter Speed Part 2 – Catching the Action = More Good Shots

In my last post I talked about my exploration of using Shutter Mode as a means of capturing action that was impossible when shooting in my beloved Aperture Mode. To make these shots I bumped up the ISO far outside of my own comfort level to make it possible to use faster shutter speeds in the available light. Since I am shooting a long lens, the aperture can never be exceptionally wide – there are no really fast zooms for the mirrorless platform yet. f6.7 is as fast as I can go at maximum zoom – so there are limits built in. In Aperture Mode I was shooting at around 1/250 second and I kept my ISO under 1000.

This set was shot with apertures between f6.7-f7.1 at 1/500 second and an ISO setting of 2500. Bluejays tend to be skittish, they bounce from tree to tree deciding whether or not to risk visiting the feeders.  I took these shots in the space of 10 seconds. There are 23 shots – I discarded three that were out of focus. As I mentioned in my previous post, I have disabled my preview so that I can keep shooting. If I had been shooting in Aperture Mode I would have gotten off about 6 shots hoping for one or two in focus, removing preview would have let me shoot more, but I am guessing my percentages would have been the same – 30% verses over 90%. Shooting in this mode gave me lots of options for that best shot.

I have also decided to leave my comfort zone in another way – my photos are in a gallery this time. I didn’t upload large size files because I am just using up too much storage space, but I think these work OK – on a future post I will use fewer images and try it larger. Click on the first image to see the images in the order in which they were shot – this feature shows the camera settings on the lower right of the screen for each image. If you click fast enough you will get a feel for what my encounter with the jay was like.

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.

Bringing Home the Bacon

Today it snowed at the Stone House. I only know this because of Facebook. My friends and neighbors posted about the historic May snowfall in the Ozarks. Seems like tomatoes will be slim pickings this year. As for me, I’m not there. I’m on the road and starting a big adventure today, so I missed the historic snow. My pomegranates, however, did not. Hopefully they will handle this brief interruption to spring.

Reading all the posts about snow made me think about my Bluebirds of Happiness. It’s been about a month since they moved in. After the male approved the new digs, they set about to nest building. In my view he seemed to leave most of the nest building to the female. He stood watch while she made hundreds of trips back and forth with twigs and grass. He would look in from time to time, but I thought he was taking the easy route – just watching her do the heavy lifting….

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In retrospect, I think I have been a little hard on Mr. Happiness. I haven’t dared to look into the bird houses, but it’s clear that there is a big need for protein these days. The Mrs. makes it out of the box occasionally, but Mr. Happiness is definitely carrying his weight. Mother and young are eating up a storm…

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In one ten-minute period I saw him make 5 deliveries to the birdhouse. I never saw him eat anything himself – he would hit the ground, grab some grub, and take a quick look around from one of his favorite vantage points, before hitting the doorway of his home. I wonder how many mouths he has to feed. I wonder how long it will be before he can get back to sitting pretty and keeping watch…

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They’re Back…

Springtime has brought strange buzzing sound on the patios of the Stone House. It’s not safe to stand too close to anything red. Sometimes the buzzing comes from multiple directions and a black flash loops overhead. This can only mean one thing…the Hummers are back!

The first scout arrives.

The first scout arrives.

The local legend is that scouts arrive first and take word back to the glimmer that feeders are plentiful here or there. I don’t know if that’s true or not but I put out feeders two weeks ago. Last Saturday this female arrived and spend an hour looking around. By Wednesday I was inundated.

Perched...

Perched…

...and parched.

…parched…

...and perturbed

…and perturbed.

Males and females alike are staking their claim on the feeders. One will start feeding and suddenly they are taking cover…

Sitting tall..

Sitting tall..

...ducking for cover.

…ducking for cover.

It’s been cloudy all week so I’ve yet to get the kind of shots I love to take of these guys – ones where their feathers reflect in the sunlight. For now I will have to settle for low light shots.

Heavy Drinker

Heavy Drinker

Mowhawk

Mohawk

Of course the fun of shooting hummers is trying to catch them in flight. Sometimes I just point in the direction of the sound until I spot one in the viewfinder…

A 10 for style

A 10 for style

Hovercraft

Hovercraft

Soaring upward

Soaring upward

Coming in for a landing

Coming in for a landing

I’m fascinated by the iridescence of the throat feathers on the males…

Ruby throat

Ruby throat feather glow when they catch the light

The same male, turned away from the porch light

The same male, turned away from the porch light

He turns slightly and catches the light again

He turns slightly and catches the light again

And finally he turns back to feed - his back feathers are pretty impressive too

And finally he turns back to feed – his back feathers are pretty impressive too

So far I have counted 6 different hummers – and they’ve only been here a week.

This small female is very assertive about her feeder territory

This small female is very assertive about her feeder territory

This shy male waits for the others to leave before feeding

This shy female waits for the others to leave before feeding

They all are already putting on quite a show…

Squeegee's nap is interrupted by the arial display above

Squeegee’s nap is interrupted by the aerial display above

…and this is just the prelude. Spring is officially here!

Coming into Focus

A couple of years ago I bought my first “bird” lens. There were a couple of options for my camera set up and budget played a big part in my decision. I read a lot of reviews and there were some who leaned towards the more expensive option as being a bit sharper, while others said that the small increase in sharpness was not worth twice the price. I went for the budget option and it served me well – until recently.

I began to have focus glitches – the lens didn’t seem to be communicating with the camera. So I sent the lens in to the manufacturer who cleaned it and told me it was fine and sent it back. Perhaps the glitch was always there and I just didn’t notice it – perhaps I just got a less than great version of the lens – these things happen. I have read of people returning a lens and buying the same model and seeing a major improvement. I decided it was time to make a change.

The higher end lens I opted not to buy has been discontinued – but they have come out with a quieter and thankfully much more economical version. I went through my bag and reviewed all of my lenses – anything I hadn’t used in a year was fair game. I put a list together and sold them to fund the purchase of that new bird lens.

My new lens arrived last weekend and I am seeing a significant change in sharpness – maybe I am the only one who sees it – but I like the look of what I’m seeing so far…

Bird on a wire

Bird on a wire

Goldfinch face off

Goldfinch face off

Posing sparrow

Posing sparrow

Cowgirl at the feeder

Cow girl at the feeder

A cardinal ignoring me

A cardinal ignoring me

Out on a limb

Out on a limb

Woody in the myrtle

Woody in the myrtle

Bringing home the bacon

Bringing home the bacon

Bluejay in the walnut tree

Bluejay in the walnut tree

Titmouse in the house!

Titmouse in the house!

Up on a roof

Up on a roof

The biggest difference I see is that I am getting more sharp shots in the trees – shooting in the trees has not always gotten me good results because of the distance. I am fascinated by feathers so seeing this detail really encourages me. I started shooting birds to teach myself to make faster decisions and I it has grown into a genuine interest in birds and their habits – this new lens looks to let me look deeper into the world just off my porch.

Cowbird Dance-off

Last weekend I wrote a quick post about Cowbirds. At the time I thought I had a single pair of the odd creatures. Over the last couple of days it has become clear that I have a single female cowbird who is being courted by a group of males. Last night she was feeding in the lawn and they all followed right behind her. She couldn’t have cared less. She stayed at the front of the pack and her entourage followed. I noticed that they each took turns showing off for her, but she never gave any of them the time of day. It was at dusk so I didn’t get any good shots of this odd dance.

This morning as I got ready for work I saw the whole thing playing out in the walnut tree. It was a foggy morning at the Stone House, so I apologize for the photo quality in advance…

I spotted the makes on the swing - the third entered my frame as I snapped this shot.

I spotted the makes on the swing – the third entered my frame as I snapped this shot.

Where is the Cow-Girl? She’s way up in the top of the walnut tree ignoring these guys. They spot her and the competition begins. Who will win her favor – I think it will be the one who wins the Dance-off…

First the cow-boy on the right sounds a call - it sounds like dripping water in a tunnel - then he struts his stuff.

First the cow-boy on the right sounds a call – it sounds like dripping water in a tunnel – then he struts his stuff.

Round 1 of the dance-off – while one cow-boy struts his stuff the others watch the cow-girl to see if she takes note…

The male on the left does the cowbird version of the Electric Slide.

The cow-boy on the left does the cowbird version of the Electric Slide. He’s looking a little tipsy.

Round 2 – the male on the left takes his shot, the male on deck checks out his groove while the other keeps his eyes on the prize…

The center cow-boy sings his heart out and puffs himself out like a down jacket.

The center cow-boy sings his heart out and puffs himself out like a down jacket. Note the dramatic posture and twisting of his wings.

Round 3 – the center male sings louder than the others. He has been leading the charge since last night, but is his footwork fancy enough to keep him in the competition?

The cow-boy on the right answers his competitors with a dramatic song and sly stepping.

The cow-boy on the right answers his competitors with his best impression of an eagle. They seem unfazed.

Round 4 – the male on the right flexes his muscles, the others don’t bother watching…

The cow-boy on the left may not get any style points for this performance, but he does commit 100%.

The cow-boy on the left may not get any style points for this performance, but he does commit 100%.

Round 5 – the male on the left gives it his all. There are times when practicing in a mirror could really help a guy out, this is one of those times…

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Not to be outdone, the cow-boy in the center answers in kind. What form!

Round 6 – the male in the middle throws down – he lunges forward and twists his wings like canoe paddles. The bar has officially been raised…

The cow-boy on the right answers with an amazing extension of plumage.

The cow-boy on the right answers with an amazing extension of plumage.

Round 7 – the male on the right completely takes his rival to the left out of the competition. The male on the right is no longer watching the female, he is transfixed by the grace of his better…

Who won the dance-off? Well, I had to go to work, so I don’t know. They could still be up in the tree strutting their stuff.