Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Back to the drawing board

My attempts to capture birds in flight at the woods this morning were not entirely successful (understatement of the week). Even with a shutter speed of 1/1250th I could not freeze the wing movements of the nuthatch. With the ISO already at 1600 and shooting at f/8 to get enough depth of field I could have done with a bit more light - two stops would have been nice. The IR remote release works really well so it was not all wasted time and I'm a step further up the learning curve.

The usual suspects were on the scene. 

Managed to capture with a nice clean background

One has to admire the ingenuity of these guys as they prize nuts and seeds from the feeders
I visited my friend Neil on the Romney Marsh this afternoon and took a walk along the Royal Military Canal at West Hythe on the way - most pleasant.

I was further cheered to hear on the radio on the way home that Andy Gray has been sacked by Sky Sports - RESULT (After all is said and done, he is to punditry what Phil Collins is to music). Let's hope that 'wednap' junior doesn't take over . . .

Thursday, 20 January 2011

If you go down to the woods today . . .

I'm getting to know the wood a bit better now. The feeders are doing their job and there are lots of opportunities to shoot 'portrait' type of shots of common woodland birds.

The challenge I have set myself is to do some birds in flight (BIF). To this end I have invested in an IR remote release for my camera. I've tested this out and it is fairly simple to use - of course the challenge is to get the birds to fly past the end of the lens!! I've got a few ideas on how to achieve this, in the meantime, here are a few shots I took down there earlier.

Great tit checking the coast is clear before raiding the feeder
This nuthatch is a regular visitor to the feeder in a very 'smash-and-grab' style
It did stay still enough to get a couple of shots
An opportunist squirrel came onto the scene too.

Just managed to frame him without cutting off his toes

Monday, 17 January 2011

Technical tip #2 - Composition

After a week of poor weather and a dose of man 'flu there are no new images from me this week. Instead I thought I would share a few thoughts on composition.

The importance of composition

As photographers we want to create images that not only please us but please other people - be it a 'thumbs up' on a web site gallery, acceptance for publication or even someone purchasing one of our photographs. Just to be clear, composition is all about getting it right in camera and, whilst I'm competent enough in Photoshop to perform any number of manipulations I'd much rather not have the bother. Image processing in Photoshop for me is all about enhancing my images rather than fixing them. I've got to a point now where I rarely do any more that levels (possibly curves), cropping and a hint of sharpening - life's too short to be spending large portions of it at the computer.


Composition is as important in photography as exposure and focusing - get all three right and you'll have great images - and it starts before we even leave the house. Below is a kind of mental checklist that I use when planning a bird photography trip.

  • What is my target species and/or location?
  • What is the wind speed and direction? Birds will always take off into the wind and prefer to feed facing into the wind. For example, if the wind is in my face and I'm are trying to photograph waders I may struggle to get anything other than rear-end shots
  • What is the best time of day to go in terms of lighting? Sitting in the Scott hide at Dungeness RSPB first thing in the morning will be straight into the sun, with reflections off the water to contend with too
  • What are the tide times? If I go to a pool near the coast whilst the tide is fully out will the birds be out on the mudflats too? Just before and after high tide will be good times if I want to capture birds in flight as they move from the mud flats to fresh water pools
  • If I am photographing birds in a semi-controlled environment (e.g. back garden) have I done the best to arrange any feeders/perches in their optimal configuration/orientation?
One of the key elements of composition that is often ignored when starting out is backgrounds. There may be times when we want to show the animal in its natural environment or we may wish to fully isolate it as a portrait with a totally diffuse background - or maybe somewhere in between.

In its natural environment, surrounded by grasses and semi-diffuse buttercups, the hare, side on munching on grass [Elmley RSPB taken from car window]
Red-backed shrike (juv) with fully diffuse background  - a portrait of the species. Note the complementary colour of the background too (natural shingle). [Dungeness RSPB]

With the effective depth of field being determined by the lens focal length, aperture and focal distance, we have some level of control as to the degree of focus we have in our backgrounds. We often shoot at wide apertures, say f/4 to f/8 which help to isolate our subject but if we can increase the distance between our subject and the background we can take it further out of focus and leave it more diffuse. This is typically achieved by taking a lower position with your camera as shown in the diagram below.

By shooting from a lower standpoint - camera height [2] - the background will be further from the subject and will be further out of focus and hence appear more diffuse in the image
This american red squirrel photographed by Martin Washford is a excellent example of taking a low standpoint. The background is beautifully diffuse and also, just as importantly, we feel that we are not 'looking down' at the subject but are at its level and in its world.
Getting at eye level with this fox gives a real empathy with the subject [photographed by Martin Washford on a site he was landscaping]
Of course, if you are in a hide or shooting from the car window then you may not be able to get any lower. This is why I prefer not to photography from hides, instead, taking my chances crouching behind bushes or prone on the ground with a beanbag as support.

Ideally you should avoid bright highlights in your image backgrounds as these are very distracting - they should be natural and complementary. Often by moving a few metres from one side or the other it is possible to take a bright reflection out of the background and replace it with a dark, complementary one.

By ensuring a small bush was behind this reed bunting there are no distracting highlights [Oare Marshes]

Typically we shoot with the sun at our backs or from the side but there are occasions when backlit subjects, with the correct exposure, can give something a little different.

Female kestrel with low light from behind and to the right gives a nice fringing to the feathers below the beak [Oare Marshes]

Monday, 10 January 2011

Sunday am - Dungeness

Dungeness RSPB

Had friends coming over for lunch but managed to get out for a couple of hours in the morning. Bitterns on the move constantly, seeing at least three different individuals flying at distance on the Denge Marsh side of the reserve.

Decided to set up in the Christmas Dell hide as light was good. Not a great deal of activity but a couple of coots decided to have a bit of a scrap. They went at it hammer and tongs for about 10 seconds. I managed to capture some of the action but the tips of the reeds were in the way which hampered focusing and intruded into the lower part of the image.

More that just 'handbags at dawn'. All I can say is 'I hope she was worth it!'
Martin W's wood

On the way back we stopped off at Martin W's wood, where he has built a hide and set up feeders. As he works away during the week I've volunteered to maintain food levels. Hopefully we can get some shots of woodland birds over the next couple of months.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Technical tip #1 - Canon lens AF microadjustment

Lens AF microadjustment - the why and the how


If you take your photography seriously and often work with telephoto lenses at wide apertures then read on.

When shooting wildlife one is often working with very limited depth of field (DOF). For example, with a full-frame camera (1Ds), a 500mm lens at aperture f/4 with a focal distance of 10m will give you just 9cm DOF, meaning that accurate focusing is paramount. [Note: With crop-sensor cameras (with APS-H and APS-C sensors) DOF will be even less!]

Many of us make significant investment into quality prime lenses and digital SLRs but are we getting the best focusing performance from them? Despite stringent quality control in the manufacture of such equipment there will be differences in tolerances in the lens mounts and positioning of key glass elements and sensors. To ensure that you are getting the best performance from your camera/lens combination(s) you should calibrate them via 'lens AF microadjustment'. There are many ways to do this but outlined below is my simple method which I find works well. Please note that it is specifically written for Canon equipment although other manufacturers (Nikon, Sony, Pentax) also have this feature built into their high-end cameras.

Please note: Other methods are available which may be more appropriate for shorter focal length lenses. There is an excellent article on Northlight Images covering these methods.

If you are unsure if your camera supports AF microadjustment please refer to the documentation. Recent models such as 1DIII, 1DsIII, 50D, 7D, 5D Mk II and IDMk IV all have this option.


What you need

As well as your camera and lens, you need: 
  1. A sturdy tripod, plus an additional form of support, which could be another tripod, the back of a chair or something similar
  2. An opaque 30cm/12" ruler
  3. An angle bracket or similar means of supporting the ruler
  4. An extra weight to hold the lens down - I use a pair of binoculars
Setting things up

I made a simple bracket from wood to support the ruler at a 45 degree angle and screwed it to a trellis post in the garden (excuse my fat balls!).

 Side view of ruler on support

Front view of ruler on support
Equipment mounted on two tripods with binoculars to keep it all steady (second tripod is supporting the lens hood)

The next part is the fiddly bit....

  • You should set up your camera at a distance from the ruler that you typically shoot your subjects at - say 10-30m. Make sure it is roughly the same height and perpendicular too. I put a red dot with a felt-tip pen in the centre of the ruler to make setting up easier
  • Next, adjust the tripod supports so that the central focus point is exactly on that red mark on the ruler

Equipment settings

  • If your lens has image stabilisation, turn it off
  • Auto focus should be turned on
  • The central focus point (only) should be enabled
  • Set your camera to aperture priority and select the largest aperture (lowest f/number). You should try and get a shutter speed of at least a few hundredth of a second (if necessary, wind up the ISO).
  • Set the focusing mode to 'One Shot' (not servo)
  • If you have a cable release you should use it in combination with mirror lock-up. However I find that just using the timer delayed release (2 seconds) works just fine
  • Take a set of three images, ensuring that before each one you manually adjust the focus ring on the lens to defocus the ruler
  • Review the images on the LCD screen on the back of the camera to check that you are getting consistent results (If they are indistinct on the LCD, load them onto your computer to view in more detail). If they are variable check that stability of the equipment
You are looking to see which part of the ruler is in the sharpest focus and, once this is ascertained, you can use the microadjustments.
In this example, the lens is 'front-focusing' i.e. the sharpest part of the image is at the bottom of the ruler, which is closest to the camera. This example was taken using a 1.4x converter with my EF500 and 1D without any adjustment. As you can see the focal point (where the red dot is) is very blurred.
Making the adjustments

The lens microadjustment is located in the 'Custom Functions' section of your Canon camera's menu system. On a 1D MkIV and 50D it is C.FnIII 7 - refer to your instruction manual for full details.

Once you are inside the AF Microadjustment menu, use the quick control dial to adjust the settings as required.
If your lens is front-focusing you will need to adjust to the right, i.e. +ve adjustment. To correct for back-focusing you will need to adjust to the left, -ve adjustment.

When setting the adjustment you will need to bear in mind the types of subjects that you commonly shoot. If you photograph butterflies you may want to err on having virtually all the DOF in front of the focal point (you can focus on the head of your subject and keep the wings as sharp as possible). For bird photography you may want to maintain the DOF more behind than in front.

One of the great things about these adjustment settings is that it is possible to save settings for all your lens/converter combinations. Once this is done you can just shoot away!

Without any calibration my 1D/EF500/1.4x combination was front focusing badly, which would have resulted in very disappointing results. I had to adjust to +15 to bring it to where I wanted. Interestingly, without the 1.4x converter no adjustment was required.

I hope you found this article useful and if you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact me.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Thornham before the mist rolled in

[Firstly, thanks to all the staff at the Lifeboat Inn for a great Christmas lunch -  great food, excellent service - even if I went a bit off-piste with the sirloin of beef and ricotta & cranberry cake for afters!]

The early morning light on Boxing Day was very good. We sneaked down to the creek and managed to photograph roosting golden plover and snipe before the dog walkers arrived. 

The battery on Martin W's 1D could not stand the cold weather and gave up the ghost so I lent him my 50D for the remainder of the morning (luckily we both shoot Canon). You owe me one bro'

'The eyes have it!'

As with any animal photography, the eye (however small) is the most important part of the image. It must be unobstructed, pin sharp and have a natural catch-light.

Golden Plover are totally resplendent in their summer plumage but even in winter the light makes them glow. This little fellow was very obliging and hung around long after the snipe had left the scene.

Another day, another challenge

What a difference a day makes . . . the bright skies of Christmas and Boxing Days made way for fog for the remainder of our week. There were plenty of birds around but flat light made for lifeless images. 

Sound and vision

Geese were constantly on the move - this telephoto shot only shows a fraction of the skene - numbering in their thousands, as they took to the skies from fields around Holme. I love to hear them calling to each other as they make their way across the landscape.

Wading about

I nestled down in the mud at the side of the creek before the tide came in, bringing the waders past me. Lots of dunlin . . .

and the odd grey plover . . .

and the ubiquitous redshank!

Sea duck

And then, purely by chance, a female red-breasted merganser dropped in about 30 feet from me - nice! [Possibly the same one that was seen at Titchwell the previous day]

Christmas on the north Norfolk coast - a.k.a. my first blog

I've been thinking of writing a weblog for some time now but have always been too busy. Hang on - that's just a lame excuse. If something is important, whatever it is, then one must make time for it. Why is a blog important you may ask? I guess it's a form of self expression but, unlike graffiti, it is not imposed on anyone - if it's a good blog then people will read it and if not . . .(have I lost you already?)

My whole family spent the Christmas week at a cottage in Thornham, giving me and my brother-in-law, Martin Washford, who is also a keen photographer, the opportunity to shoot some of the local wildlife (digitally of course). Our plan was to restrict ourselves to the local area - we were on holiday after all and did not want to be charging around too much. We were restricted slightly by the fact that the freshwater parts of Titchwell were completely frozen over and the only incentive to enter their funky new hide would have been to get out of the wind!

Barn Owl - one of Norfolk's finest

North Norfolk is a stronghold for barn owl - a species that we see only rarely in Kent. We knew of a regular hunting ground for these and set up our gear. Within 10 minutes one was quartering the meadow and, at one stage, two were hunting at the same time. Below are a selection of shots taken on Boxing Day and the day after.

The bird approached from the far end of the field, still covered in frost at 11.00h. The pheasant was looking for lunch too.

Photographing birds in flight is a real art and the number of 'keepers' you get can be quite low.

Despite the frozen ground and an air temperature of -2 centigrade the owl was successful in reducing Norfolk's rodent population.

Timing is everything

Martin W managed to grab the owl as it came up with its prey -handsome!

I am particularly pleased with this shot as the bird stands out well against the bramble/hedge background and the wings are in perfect symmetry - in terms of composition it's something a little different from the stock images we are used to seeing.