Tuesday, April 22, 2014

When The Stars Align

Sometimes when you are out photographing, the perfect shot presents itself with no effort on your part. Just being observant is good enough. This phlox was just such a situation.

Walking slowly along a narrow roadway, I saw many phlox in prime condition. Strolling at this pace was a lesson I learned several years ago from a man I passed along a trail here in the Smokies. He was walking very slowly, pointing out several plants and flowers along the way. He said that this approach enabled him to spot things that a faster pace would not. So I learned to slow down and REALLY look.

When you slow down, it gives your mind a chance to absorb all that is around you, and for your eyes to find some ideal subjects. As I began to view each plant, not just the overall expanse of phlox, I spotted this grouping. This is one plant that amazingly has three phases of the blooms  -  tight buds, a partially opened flower, and a fully opened flower. The spacing created by Mother Nature between each bud was perfect and all I had to do was click the shutter.

This flower was in full sunlight, and I shot some as-is, and others with a small white nylon diffusion disk. I selected this image, shot with the diffusion disk, for today’s blog. 

The diffusion disk works well when photographing flowers in sunlight since it creates soft light and eliminates harsh shadows. This is a small folding disk of translucent nylon measuring about 12 inches in diameter. It folds down into a very small 4-inch package with its own zippered carrying case.

It is small enough to hold in one hand and shoot with the other, even when not using a tripod. If you happen to be out with a friend, it can be helpful for one to hold the disk while the other person shoots, and then trade off. Hold the disk as close to the flower as possible without it showing in the frame.

When photographing close-ups of flowers, shallow depth of field creates soft out-of-focus backgrounds. An aperture of f/2.8 or f/4 is a good starting point.

Shutter Speed 1/100 sec.  Aperture f/3.5.  ISO 100.  Lens: Canon 100mm macro f/2.8L IS.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III, handheld.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “…when the stars aligned, I was ready.”  --Shannon Lucid

Sunday, April 20, 2014

When Pink Is White

Spring is very late in coming to the Smokies this year. The hard, cold winter has delayed the blooming cycle. Some wildflowers are in bloom, but others are just beginning to peak above the ground.

This trillium is a white flower that turns pink when it is nearly finished. The pink color can range from very pastel to a deeper tone like this one. Often by this stage in the life cycle the petals are pretty beat up, but this one still looked fresh and undamaged.

I wanted to showcase not only the color, but the delicately curled petals as well. A very shallow depth of field did the trick. It allowed the leading edges of the two front petals to be sharp while the rest of the flower is slightly soft.

The green background sets off the warm pink color and helps to make the flower look three-dimensional.

Use all the tools in your arsenal, and learn all you can, to create images that pop off the screen.   

Shutter Speed 1/200 sec.  Aperture f/3.5.  ISO 100.  Lens:  Canon 100mm macro f/2.8L IS.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Handheld.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “ The mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.”  --Confucius

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Morning Has Broken

What a glorious sunrise. After being rained out and unable to see the lunar eclipse Monday night, hit with car trouble on the way to Wednesday’s sunrise, today was successful on all counts. We arrived at the top of Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park an hour before sunrise.

It was 27 degrees so we bundled up in warm coats, hats, and gloves. We set up at a good vantage point and waited. Other photographers arrived a little later and had to hurry to get set up. Whenever possible it is better to arrive a little early rather than a little late. Sunrise can be manic enough, since the light changes very quickly and focusing can be difficult, so it is best not to add to the stress by running late.

When photographing sunrise from a high elevation, the sky gets light much earlier than you might think. It is best to be there, ready to go, about an hour before official sunrise time.

When you arrive it will be dark, so be sure to have a flashlight or a headlamp handy to light your way to your vantage point, and to double check your camera settings. Everything will be easier in the early morning darkness if you prepare things the night before:
1. load and format the memory card in your camera;
2. make sure your batteries are charged and that one is loaded in the camera;
3. put the lens you want to start out with on your camera;
4. set the ISO to 400
5. set your camera on Aperture Priority at f/16 or f/22 or greater (the shutter speed will set itself)
6. be sure to pack your tripod
7. have a cable release or remote trigger to minimize camera shake

Determining focus can be difficult in low light situations. Live View does not work well in low light. Either manual focus or autofocus can work reasonably well. If your eyes are sharp and you are comfortable manually focusing, try that. I prefer to use autofocus and use one focus point only. I place that focus point on an area of most contrast, finding a line between a dark area and a lighter area. Focus on that and then recompose. The autofocus mechanism is designed to work best when it can grab onto a point of contrast. In this image I focused on the middle ridge line, where its top edge meets the lighter area of the back ridge.

The natural starburst occurred automatically because of the small aperture. As long as a bright light source is partially blocked by something dark like a mountain in shadow or a dark cloud, the starburst will occur.

This is a great time of year for sunrises since the sky is generally not as hazy or humid as it will be in the summer. So find some photogenic spots, get up bright and early, and head out!

Shutter Speed 1/15 sec.  Aperture f/25.  ISO 100.  Lens: Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS set at 70mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff ballhead and Wimberley Sidekick.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “There was never a night or a problem that could defeat sunrise or hope.”  --Bernard Williams

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Same Only Different


Compare these two images of a female cardinal. They are the same shot. The BEFORE image is how the original looked as shot, and the AFTER image is with some quick optimization in Lightroom.

Notice how the AFTER image shows more detail in the head and body, as well as the twig. Notice that the colors are improved but still look natural. The overall look is brighter and punchier in the AFTER image.

After cropping, only 5 quick steps were needed to create the final image:
1. Shadows were increased to +100.
2. Highlights were reduced to  -70.
3. Clarity was increased to +32.
4. Vibrance was increased to  +63.
5. Noise (Luminance) was reduced to 30.

That’s it. In about 5 minutes or less this so-so image was improved and brought to life.

Image optimization does not have to be complicated or time-consuming. Just spend a little time learning the software and practicing, and before you know it you will have elevated your images to a much higher level.

Shutter Speed 1/640 sec.  Aperture f/11.  ISO 800.  Lens: Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS with 2x extender for an effective focal length of 800mm. Camera: Canon 5D Mark III. Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff ballhead and Wimberley Sidekick.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”  --Confucius

Monday, April 14, 2014

As Cute As It Gets

In the middle of all the fast and furious shooting of wild songbirds last week, a few chipmunks took advantage of the abundant food supply. This one spent quite a while gorging himself on seeds and grains, and posed nicely for the camera.

As he brought the food to his mouth, his little hands took on a prayerful position. I guess he was thankful for the abundance of food that had come his way.

If you go out in search of a particular subject or species, always stay alert and be aware of other opportunities that might present themselves. As you have read many times in this blog, it is important to be an opportunist and be prepared to photograph subjects in addition to your main ones.

Keep your eyes and ears open for anything that might prove to be photogenic.

As you can see below, this was shot at 800mm. Even at that, some cropping was needed to eliminate part of the extraneous background. If you do not have access to long lenses, you can often still get what you want by cropping. Most cameras and lenses today are sharp enough with good resolution that will allow for a high degree of cropping. Often extreme crops will hold up well for electronic transfer (for email, web postings, etc.) but will lose quality if blown up too much for a print.

Shutter Speed 1/160 sec.  Aperture f/16.  ISO 1600.  Lens: Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS with 2x extender for an effective focal length of 800mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff ballhead and Wimberley Sidekick.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness.”  --James Thurber

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Beauty And The Beast

Grackles. Not the most popular or most beautiful bird in the woods. They have a fearsome visage, a rather grating and demanding call, and most of the time appear to have deep black feathers. But in the right light, they glow with iridescent colors.

Look carefully at all the colors in this image. The feathers glow with shades of pink, green, and blue. The just-blooming pink dogwood and azaleas in the background create a pleasing backdrop.

The diagonal line created by the branch and the angle of the grackle's body provide a simple yet strong composition. His position and the turn of his head give him an almost regal appearance.

Very often nothing complicated is required to create a pleasing image. The simple approach can be the best approach, depending on the subject and the lighting.

The Wild Songbirds Photo Workshop Part 2 concluded yesterday, and like Part 1 it was spectacularly successful. Each and every participant created truly world-class images, kept their good humor throughout each day, worked well together, laughed at my jokes, and generally had a blast. I want to thank each of you for making the entire week so successful and fun.

I'd also like to thank Gary and Janice, our hosts at their fantastic bird habitat, for being so gracious and good-humored, and for going out of their way to make everything perfect in all respects. Gary, thanks for your constant tending to keep the birds close to the blind, your bird identification skills, and the care and forethought in creating such a perfect shooting area for photographers. Janice, thanks for all your time and work creating those delicious lunches, your kind and smiling face, all your input throughout the week, and keeping Gary on the straight and narrow!

Shutter Speed 1/800 sec.  Aperture f/9.  ISO 800.  Lens: Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS with 1.4x extender, set at 400mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III. Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff ballhead and Wimberley Sidekick.

TODAY'S QUOTE: "I get by with a little help from my friends."  --song lyrics by Paul McCartney and John Lennon

Friday, April 11, 2014

Color Harmony

Today is the last day of the Songbirds Photo Workshop Part 2. It has been another wonderful group of happy campers. Everyone has been good-humored, easy-going, and each person has created beautiful images. The sheer number of birds has been amazing, and the action has been exciting.

This landing zone with pansies in the background was the perfect spot for a yellow bird to light. But it was just not happening. I waited and waited. And waited. And waited. But finally this tiny pine warbler landed in exactly the right spot.

When photographing wildlife of any kind, patience is crucial. Often many minutes or sometimes hours pass while you wait for the action to occur. During those times it is important to keep an eye on other action as well. While you wait, you don’t want to miss other action or species that are also photo-worthy.

So multi-tasking, at least mentally, is crucial. And when you are finally rewarded with what you had hoped for, the feeling is sweet!

Shutter Speed 1/200.  Aperture f/9.  ISO 400.  Lens: Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS with 2x extender for an effective focal length of 546mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff ballhead and Wimberley Sidekick.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”  --Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Red Bully

At the ongoing Wild Songbirds Photo Workshop, the cardinal action was fast and furious. Many males and females darted back forth, posing for our cameras. The males engaged in some territorial displays, with the dominant ones banishing the others.

This guy, a beautiful specimen, was clearly in charge of his range. He comfortably sat on this tree trunk, feasting when and where he chose to.

We have seen so many different species and each behaves slightly differently. Some flit quickly from perch to perch, others are calmer and stay put for longer periods of time. When photographing wildlife of any sort, observation is vitally important. Give yourself time to be observant in order to capture the best images possible. It is tempting when arriving at a new location to start shooting indiscriminately right away. While that might net you some good shots, a better approach is to be calm and  to observe activity and behaviors. Once you have a better sense of the action, then begin shooting.

A good frame of mind to maintain is that even if you miss a shot, you can still enjoy the experience and can keep that pleasant memory throughout your lifetime.

Shutter Speed 1/160 sec.  Aperture f/5.6.  ISO 800.  Lens: Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS with 1.4x extender for an effective focal length of 560mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff ballhead and Wimberley Sidekick.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “You can have no dominion greater or less than that over yourself.”  --Leonardo da Vinci

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Bird Bonanza

Part 1 of the Wild Songbirds Photo Workshop has just concluded, and Part 2 begins later today. It was an incredibly successful workshop with more species of birds than we could have hoped for, and constant bird activity throughout most of each day. And the best part is that each and every participant came away with beautiful, professional quality images.

We spent each day in a very large blind surrounded by birds constantly coming and going, while we were fully protected from the elements. And we were treated to birdsong all day long. It doesn't get any better than that.

We saw several Red-Bellied Woodpeckers like this one, plus Downy Woodpeckers as well. We also saw the usually elusive Towhee, White Breasted Nuthatches, Thrushes, Goldfinches, Bluejays, Cardinals, House Wrens, Pine Warblers, and dozens more. We were also treated to the comical antics of a very hungry chipmunk who filled his cheek pouches beyond huge.

We had lots of laughs, we enjoyed sharing images with each other and hearing comments, had great food and great camaraderie throughout the workshop.

Some of the participants have already expressed interest in coming back next year, so if you are interested, please send us an email to let us know. There is no obligation to be placed on the "Interested List."

Stay tuned for more images as the week progresses.

Shutter Speed 1/200 sec.  Aperture f/8.  ISO 400.  Lens: Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS with 2X extender for an effective focal length of 546 mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff ballhead and Wimberley Sidekick.

TODAY'S QUOTE: "A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song."  --Maya Angelou

Monday, April 7, 2014

Songbird Photo Workshop Begins Today

The long-awaited wild songbirds photo workshop begins today. There is an excited and happy group of participants ready to go!

Watch the blog later this week for some photos and stories of our wonderful week.

TODAY'S QUOTE: " Life is either a great adventure or nothing."  --Helen Keller