Black Friday in Boxley Valley

When I moved to the Ozarks I imagined that I was leaving behind the pressures of city life, that I would be living at a slower and more manageable pace. I’ve always avoided the mall on Black Friday like the plague. People change under the pressure of the potential deals laid out before them. You won’t catch me camping out at Best Buy for a week or fighting off another shopper for the last bathrobe on sale. I’m not opposed to Black Friday at all, it’s just that for me the three dollar savings on an iPod is just not worth the stress. I have also found that with all those rabid shoppers occupied there are other places that are magically tranquil and serene – at least that was what I expected to find as some friends and I made our annual Black Friday pilgrimage to the Boxley Valley to visit the elk.

Now I have posted about Boxley several times, it’s not like I only visit on Black Friday – but it is a day that is typically quieter. Shoppers are otherwise occupied. It is the last half of the rut and action is often sparse. Personally, I find these creatures to be magnificent and love to see them any time – in velvet, during the rut, in the dead of winter – I’m game for the drive over.

The peaceful setting of Boxley Valley is no stranger to the pressures of Black Friday...

The peaceful setting of Boxley Valley is no stranger to the pressures of Black Friday…

Sadly, the consumerism and pressures of the outside world have intruded into my peaceful valley sanctuary.

It all begins with the crowds lining up to get a look at sales and specials.

It all begins with the crowds lining up to get a look at sales and specials.

They're opening the doors - I'm headed straight for that shiny new crock pot!

They’re opening the doors – I’m headed straight for that shiny new crock pot!

Listen up! Don't even think about heading to the crock pots - that new red Sunbeam is mine!

Listen up! Don’t even think about heading to the crock pots – that new red Sunbeam is mine!

I'm not kidding - I will fight you for that crock pot! Don't even think about it!

I’m not kidding – I will fight you for that crock pot! Don’t even think about it!

The doors are finally open - crock pot, today you are mine!

The doors are finally open – crock pot, today you are mine!

I told you buddy, that crock pot is mine!

I told you buddy, that crock pot is mine!

There is no way I'm losing out on this crock pot to a crack pot like you!

There is no way I’m losing out on this crock pot to a crack pot like you!

I'm gonna have to dig deep to hold onto this crock pout!

I’m gonna have to dig deep to hold onto this crock pout!

Can you believe these two are tussling over a crock pot when everything is half off at Old Navy?

Can you believe these two are tussling over a crock pot when everything is half off at Old Navy?

You messed with the wrong bull buddy - you are going down. No crock pot for you!

You messed with the wrong bull buddy – you are going down. No crock pot for you!

I can fight on forever knowing that I will get 20% off that crock pot! Savings like that fuel my fire!

I can fight on forever knowing that I will get 20% off that crock pot! Savings like that fuel my fire!

I will never surrender my crock pot!

I will never surrender my crock pot!

Victory is within my grasp - I can see that crock pot and it has my name on it!

Victory is within my grasp – I can see that crock pot and it has my name on it!

Victory is mine! A red Sunbeam self timing crock pot with a thermometer and a locking lid - I'm living the dream baby!

Victory is mine! A red Sunbeam self timing crock pot with a thermometer and a locking lid – I’m living the dream baby!

You cows can't touch this! I got the crock pot! I got the crock pot!

You cows can’t touch this! I got the crock pot! I got the crock pot!

Doing my crock pot victory dance!!

Doing my crock pot victory dance!!

Victory is so sweet, but not as sweet as the deal I got on that crock pot!

Victory is so sweet, but not as sweet as the deal I got on that crock pot!

Maybe I should go over and check out the specials at Old Navy...

Maybe I should go over and check out the specials at Old Navy…

Meanwhile at the Food Court…

Family Dinner

Family Dinner

Girls night out

Girls night out

Open Seating

Open Seating

Frozen dinner

Frozen dinner

Kids Meal

Kids Meal

Meanwhile our victor is enjoying the spoils of his shopping day…

Wanna come to my place and check out my crock pot?

Wanna come to my place and check out my crock pot?

The holiday season is officially here and I am thinking that the madness of Black Friday will pass soon in Boxley Valley, although I hear that Cyber Monday is madness. Be careful out there, it’s not worth an antler in the ear to save a couple of bucks.

If you want to read more about the amazing Boxley Elk, check out these links:

The Boys are Back

Dancing Elk

Seeing Spots

Stuck in a Rut

Boys will be Boys

Stuck in a Rut

Not me silly – I’m as busy and curious as ever. I honestly don’t have time to find a rut, let alone time to get stuck in one unless we are talking about “The Rut”. The Rut is the magical dance that male elk enter into each fall. Massive bull elk bugle and pose to attract or steal a harem from another massive bull. Sometimes there is a street fight with a clash of antlers – to the victor go the spoils.

The stages of the rut were described to be by wildlife photographer, Michael Dougherty, last week – it’s like a bell curve. The cows are not ready to mate yet, but the bulls are posturing so the bugling and fighting has begun. We are on the front side of the bell curve – rising but no final victors.

I made a trip to the Boxley Valley early last week hoping to see the big bulls and to hear some bugling. The elk are most active an hour before sunset or an hour after sunrise – this was an evening visit, so I was loosing light as time passed. What I saw was a massive harem with a single bull lording over them.

This low field was filled with 35 cows that we could count plus all their calves and some adolescents.

This low field was filled with 35 cows that we could count plus all their calves and some adolescents. I didn’t have a wide enough lens to capture the whole harem. The bull, known as Pretty Boy moves about the harem keeping his girls together.

This is Pretty Boy - he is a 6X6 Bull - about 6-7 years old.

This is Pretty Boy – he is a 6X6 Bull – 6 spikes on each antler. He’s about 6-7 years old.

Pretty Boy defends his harem from intruders…

Pretty Boy sees a threat and moves into action.

Pretty Boy sees a threat and moves into action.

Pretty Boy is serious about his harem - he is chasing off a young male yearling. This young bull is possibly his offspring. It's like telling your teen that it's time to pay his own car insurance and do his own laundry. Soon the youngster will be kicked out and will join a bachelor herd for the rest of the season.

Pretty Boy is serious about his harem – he is chasing off a young male yearling. This young bull is possibly his offspring. It’s like telling your teen that it’s time to pay his own car insurance and do his own laundry. Soon the youngster will be kicked out and will join a bachelor herd for the rest of the season.

Once the threat is addressed Pretty Boy will make is move on the ladies. They express no interest.

Once the threat is addressed Pretty Boy will make is move on the ladies. They express no interest.

With the threat passed, Pretty Boy will sit down for dinner with his leading ladies.

With the threat passed, Pretty Boy will sit down for dinner with his leading ladies. Note that our teenager is eating clearly outside the family circle.

After watching Pretty Boy I made a run down to the other end of the valley and noticed that most of the other bulls were doing their own thing or hanging out with the boys…

This Big Boy is a 6X7 and was hanging out alone in a pasture. He's not wasting his energy waiting on 35 ladies.

This Big Boy is a 6X7 and was hanging out alone in a pasture. He’s not wasting his energy waiting on 35 ladies.

This big fella is killing two birds with one stone. He is eating and polishing his antlers by digging into the grass and brush. He's gearing up for a fight.

This big fella is killing two birds with one stone. He is eating and polishing his antlers by digging into the grass and brush. He’s gearing up for a fight.

Before I left the valley I spotted at least 4 bulls larger than Pretty Boy. None of them were taking care of a harem. There was a lot of bugling away from the harem – boys calling each other across the highway – it was like they were calling each other out, staking their claims.

I returned to the valley on Saturday at dawn with some friends. We saw a few adolescents as we checked out both ends of the valley. As we headed north we saw a lot of parked cars alongside the highway – always a good sign. We parked just in time to see Pretty Boy moving his harem into the river cane. The size of his group was markedly smaller – maybe 20 cows. We saw him at the corner of the meadow, he bugled and all those cows bolted and followed him behind the curtain.

This line of river cane separates the elk's public and private spaces. After feeding they bed down on the other side for the day.

This line of river cane separates the elk’s public and private spaces. After feeding they bed down on the other side for the day. Pretty Boy guides them to a more secure area.

Michael, the photographer I mentioned earlier, told me that he moved the harem because he knew there was a rival in the area.

We cruised the valley hoping for another siting and were about to call it a day when we saw the same harem emerge in another meadow downstream.

Pretty Boy positioned himself between the cows and the line of river cane - clearly he was concerned about a rival beyond the cane.

Pretty Boy positioned himself between the cows and the line of river cane – clearly he was concerned about a rival beyond the cane.

He gradually moved the cows away from the river and they came very close to the road where we were watching.

He gradually moved the cows away from the river and they came very close to the road where we were watching.

We were standing along a treeline - shooting through it - when the cows started checking us out.

We were standing along a treeline – shooting through it – when the cows started checking us out.

The harem was getting restless - wanting to move away from the road...

The harem was getting restless – wanting to move away from the road…

But Pretty Boy was holding his ground - barring them from the cane.

But Pretty Boy was holding his ground – barring them from the cane.

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Even our young teenager is moved along with the cows.

Pretty Boy moves even closer to the road - barring the harem from the cane.

Pretty Boy moves even closer to the road – barring the harem from the cane. He bugles to let the girls know that he is the man in charge.

In chaos, the cows turn as they hear another voice in the distance...

In chaos, the cows turn as they hear another voice in the distance…

Pretty Boy looks on as the cows start to move.

Pretty Boy looks on as the cows start to move.

Pretty Boy Bugles in an attempt to stop the cows from running towards the cane.

Pretty Boy Bugles in an attempt to stop the cows from running towards the cane.

The cows break for it and run to the cane. They hear a new voice calling from the river.

The cows break for it and run to the cane. They hear a new voice calling from the river.

Pretty boy sings his heart out as the girls run for the river.

Pretty boy sings his heart out as the girls run for the river.

Calling the cows is not working, Pretty Boy heads for the river.

Calling the cows is not working, Pretty Boy heads for the river.

As the cows leave, we hear chirping from the cows, calling to their calves. This youngster ran with the lead pack of cows only to discover his mother wasn't there - he seemed caught in no-man's-land, not sure which group he belonged with.

As the cows leave, we hear them chirping, calling their calves. This youngster ran with the lead pack of cows only to discover his mother wasn’t there – he seemed caught in no-man’s-land, not sure which group he belonged with.

Pretty Boy drops his head and moves towards the cane. We hear bugling from him and from the river as the cows leave him.

Pretty Boy drops his head and moves towards the cane. We hear bugling from him and from the river as the cows leave him.

Pretty Boy looks crestfallen as he moves towards the cane - but he has a plan...

Pretty Boy looks crestfallen as he moves towards the cane – but he has a plan…

Pretty Boy shows his stuff - he digs those antlers into the ground and calls to the girls...

Pretty Boy shows his stuff – he digs those antlers into the ground and calls to the girls…

They are not impressed. He loses all but 4 cows in less than 5 minutes.

“Don’t go!” They are not impressed. He loses all but 4 cows in less than 5 minutes.

Michael told us to watch for a potential fight, but the rival beyond the cane never appeared. Pretty Boy had put in so much work and lost it all in moments. According to Micheal, this is the third year he has lost his harem – he’s had his pocket picked three times now. He’s just not big enough to take on the big boys yet. His strategy was to start with a large harem and try his best to hang onto them, meanwhile his rivals rest and eat and wait for their opportunity to steal the cows. The good news for Pretty Boy is that the big boys will tire out before the rut is over. There are 4 cycles of mating and by the end of the third they are spent. That’s when the fellas like Pretty Boy take over. Between now and then he will likely spar as he tries for a piece of the harem, but the truth is that he only really has a shot at the last cycle.

Until next year, Pretty Boy really is stuck in a rut.

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?

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.