Sunday, June 5, 2011

Baltimore oriole/Orchard oriole nest

It appears that my esteemed colleagues at the Birmingham News incorrectly ran the photos for today's story concerning a shared nest between Baltimore and Orchard orioles. For those News readers who follow this blog, allow me to post the images that should have accompanied the article:

(Click on the image to enlarge it.)

This is the adult male Baltimore oriole who appears to have usurped the role of male parent from a subadult Orchard oriole. This bird is gleaning and transporting food to dependent nestlings in the nest which wsa evidently woven by  this female Orchard oriole:

(Again, click on the photo to enlarge it.)

The tale is this: a male Baltimore oriole appears to have developed parental instincts toward the younf in the nest of an Orchard oriole in Roebuck Springs, AL. The bird has shoved aside a subadult male Orchard oriole, and is capturing and delivering food regularly to the young in the nest. The female Orchard oriole is also actively involved in supporting the young, while the male Orhard oriole seems to be dominated and confused by the presence of the larger Baltimore oriole. I have been unable to find any citiations in scientific litereature about this interaction between thses species, and wonder if it is unprecedented.

The photo that did run with the published story is not particularly well-reproduced, and the photo of the male Baltimore oriole -- pretty much the reason for the story -- was sadly omitted. I thought I would use this blog space to attempt to clarify by using my original images from the scene.

Hope this helps.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Hot Air Balloons

A trip to Decatur, AL, over the weekend just past, and some time spent with one of my truly favorite photographic subjects -- hot air balloons. I can easily recall how in my earlier days I'd concentrate on balloons in the air.

(Click on the image for a full-screen view.)

But the thing is, it taks effort to avoid redundancy, where all the shots seem to be variations on the same theme -- only the color and the cloud formations change. So I turned back to my photojournalist's training. Set the story up, I thought. Involve the audience in the subject; explain...demonstrate. So I tried some of that, too, the 'splaining thing. And congregations of balloons, too. Lots of colors, shapes, forms...playing with the late-afternoon's directional light.

(Click on the images to enlarge.)

Eventually, it came back to me trying to show just what is is that attracts me to the balloons: I love the interplay of the colors; and I find the shapes and textures fascinating. And then, I love discovering how things work, so I get a huge charge out of looking "under the skirts" as the balloons are being inflated And that I do sincerely love, leaning into the gondola and shooting straight up into the envelope of the balloon. Great stuff.

(Click on the image to enlarge.)

The balloon shots are generally shot off-hand -- no tripod -- in order that I can be mobile, moving from ballooon to balloon, changing angles and lenses rapidly. In this instance I went onto the field with a single camera body -- my Nikon D700, the SB-900 flash to use in opening up shadows and compensating for backlighting situations, and the essential 3-lens kit: 14-24, 24-70, and 70-200, all 2.8 lenses.

The big deal is getting close enough to the subject, or zooming sufficiently, to eliminate distracting elements -- there are, after all, always scads of people wandering around a balloon event, not to mention all the ropes, fans, tanks, and trucks involved in the process.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Flash Techniques - 1

I love to use my flashes. Love them. I own 4 hotshoe-type flash units and use them on a vast preponderance of all my photos. Can't remember the last time I photographed a person without flash. BUt even though I'm always using a flash or flashes, I endeavor to "hide" the effect of the flash -- to make the light soft and subtle.

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I try never to shoot direct, undiffused, on-camera flash at my subjects. In this instance, I'm using a Gary Fong Collapsable Light Sphere with the convex dome facing outward, pointed at Avera, allowing the dome to spread the softened light over the model. There's a softboxed remote flash fired from the left and another flash with a shoot-into umbrella on the right. The shots I'm posting were shot with a Nikon D700, a Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 lens, and there was a Nikon SB-700 on the camera's hotshoe, an SB-600 left, and an SB-800 right. Periodically, there was an SB-900 firing into a gold reflector behind the model to better light her hair.

(Click on the image to enlarge it.)

I'm using flash to place highlights in the eyes, to correct the color balance to roughly 5000 K, and to shape the face most pleasingly. The moderate telephoto focal length compresses features (particularly desireable for a very thin subject; less so for what we will refer to as an unusually well-nourished individual.) Notice how soft and even the lighting on the the face appears.

(Click on the image to enlarge it.)

To me, the greatest asset the flash offers is that it allows me to open up the lighting on a face, which then allow me to concentrate on the eyes. And yes, I do use flash even on black-and-white images, as below.

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Notice, too the way in which flash, properly utilized, can allow the photographer to exert control over the background and create a sense to separation from the background, as in this shot:

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Notice how...rounded...this image seems. It's telegraphing a third dimension, making the set look large and deep, when in fact Avera is only about 4-5 feet from the back wall. Much of the light in this image is coming from the sides, with the flash on-camera used as fill to open up shadows and add highlights. Notice how much you notice the green background.

(Click on the image to enlarge it.)

This is pretty much all front-light, but diffused and soft front-light. It can be done. The combination of front-light and a long focal length obliterates the background and makes the image look intimate -- as though you are very close to Avera.

Is there a "magic bullet" -- a secret method -- for flash? No. But using flash is not hard, just arcane. Start using it as early as possible, and make your mistakes early. Get them out of your system, learn what works for you, and incorporate flash into your bag of tricks. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Painted Redstart

"Been away so long I hardly know the place..."
                                               - Paul McCartney

So welcome back, dear readers. Sorry that it's been so long since the last post, but the vicissitudes of my day-to-day existence caught up to me and allowed no time to add to the blog. Nevertheless, I'll make every effort to be better and more regular with my posts in the future.

I've had requests for my most recent bird photographs from the Birmingham News, so I'm going to post the Painted redstart from last week now. I will freely admit this is not the best shot I've ever taken, but the problem is that these little guys move. Constantly.

(Click on the image to enlarge it.)

Tech data is as expected: Nikon D700 camera, 300mm/2.8 lens w/2X teleconverter. Shot at f/6.3 equivalent, from atop a Manfrotto carbon fiber tripod, and Arca-Swiss head, and using a Nikon SB-900 flash with a Gary Fong Origami diffuser.

Photographing wildlife is difficult to begin with: you're often dealing with tiny, easily frightened subjects who may be in semi-permanent motion. Add to that the fact that most wildlife is most active at dawn and dusk, and that many species have camouflaged plumage or coats, and that most individuals make every attempt to work from behind cover, while avoiding you, and you see the dilemma. Wildlife photography is HARD. And it's vastly under-appreciated. Take a photo of somebody's kid and the world reacts with awe and wonder. But you worked out location, time of day, lighting, wardrobe, hair, and told them where to stand and how to look. Yeah. Not saying it's easy, but try the same thing on a warbler. Not happening. When you see a great wildlife shot, you are seeing the combination of art, technology, zoology, a dollop of psychology...and a huge pile of good luck. One in a hundred critters will allow close-enough approach to get a "decent" photo, and only one in a hundred of those will be so cooperative as to allow a really satisfying shot. Live for those. Live for those. 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Smoke Photography

Let me show you a photo:

(Click on the photo to view it full-screen)

Interesting? Want to do something similar? Here's they way it goes:
Start with some incense sticks. You do want the long sticks, not the cones. Get a bottle or can to hold the stick(s) upright once lit. Use a black background. A proper muslin or paper photographic background is to be preferred, but a length of black cloth works equally well. Try to set the incense holder several feet in front of the background. You'll want a stool, a tabletop, or some other flat surface on which to mount a flash. Use a short telephoto...a macro lens is great, but any moderate telephoto is good.

Let's shoot. With the smoking incense a close in front of you, shoot directly toward the black background with the flash coming in from the side. Trigger the flash remotely or by a synch cable, if necessary. Be careful not to allow the flash to hit the background or the lens, as that will result in flare. You may want to use the flash's manual zoom or employ a snoot to narrow the angle of the flash. Turn off the lights and cover up any open windows. Turn off autofocus -- it's too dark for it to function. You'll also want manual exposure mode, and you'll have to set the exposure by a procedure that I'll refer to, successive approximation. This needs to be a pure flash exposure -- no ambient light registering -- so be sure you use an ISO, shutter speed, and aperture at least three stops less than would be required to properly expose the ambient light. Start out at f/8 at 1/125, for instance, and use ISO 400. Take a shot and evaluate the exposure. Vary the shutter speed as necessary to eliminate motion blur, the aperture to gain more depth-of-field in focus, and the ISO as necessary to accommodate the desired shutter speed and aperture. Aim for a tightly-cropped patch of the wisps of smoke as they rise from the incense stick.

Here's an example of what you may get:

(Click on the image for a full-screen view.)

Now the game is afoot. You MAY stop right here, but there are options:
open up the image in Photoshop or whatever program you use to edit your images,
and begin to play. Either:
Desaturate the image,
Adjust the Hue/Saturation/Lightness, or
Invert the image, then adjust Hue/Saturation to taste. Example:

(Click on the image to enlarge it.)

Play around. You may want to rotate the image a little or a lot. And having shifted the colors, you might want to take a look at re-inverting the image and shifting the Hue/Saturation again. Play with Levels and/or Curves, too. Here's another example:

(Click on the image to enlarge it.)

We're in the home stretch. You might want to experiment with Posterizing, with Ink Outlines, or Poster edges. And after any of these operations, go back and revisit Levels and/or Curves, or at least Brightness and Contrast. Such as:

(Click on the image to enlarge it.)

(Click on the image to enlarge it.)

 This is a shoot that you MUST do. It's a great drill to learn to use your flash, and it's an opportunity to hone your Photoshop skills.

Friday, March 11, 2011

American Pipit -- Water Pipit

Here's a shot of an American pipit (formerly known as a Water pipit):

(Click on the image to enlarge it.)

The photo above was taken with a Nikon D700 camera, a 300mm f/2.8 lens and a 2x Teleconverter.The shot was a f/6.3 at 1/60/sec. I used a Nikon SB-900 flash. The camera was balanced on the sill of the car window, as I was using my BMW as a photo blind (!?!)

Water pipits are neat little winter visitors to wet meadows and shorelines, as well as newly-plowed fields here in the American South in winter. They are not particularly hard to find, but they are hard to photograph, as they are (a) sparrow-sized, and (b) plain brown and buff birds against a background that's generally plain and brownish, complicated by (c) the fact that they are always moving...head, legs, tail...always moving.

So the topic today is sharpness -- eliminating blur. I've had multiple people spend time with me this week talking about issues relating to "blurry pictures." Some blame the lens, some blame the camera; but the fact is that both assertions are generally incorrect -- the problem is typically user-based and can be user-remedied.

I saw shots of a kid running indoors, taken hand-held at 1/20 second. They were blurry. The shooter said the camera used to do a better job. But this is not the camera's fault -- the 1/20 sec shutter speed was simply too slow to "freeze" the subject. Because during that 20th of a second that the shutter was open the subject was moving. And during the exposure, he went from about HERE                                                                to HERE on the frame, and that produced the "ghosted," blurry image.

Another shot was a hand-held macro photo of flowers. Upon close examination, the shot was indeed soft...not sharp. But looking at the shooting data revealed that the photo was taken at 1/30 second. Again, too slow for hand-held, high-magnification work. And to attempt life-size macro-photography with a hand-held camera is to set oneself up to fail. The camera needs to be steadied with a tripod.

Blur comes from one of two sources: movement by the subject or movement by the photographer/camera. If you want consistently sharp images, you must control for both. Photographer/camera movement is the easier of the two sources to control. Use a tripod whenever possible. use a cable release when you can...anything to keep the camera from moving or being moved as the exposure is being made. And when you can, use the old rule: try to shoot at shutter speeds above the reciprocal of the focal length (i.e., 1/200 sec for a 200mm lens, 1/50 sec for a 50mm lens.) Yes, I know about VR and IS, but caution adds a useful buffer for creating sharper images.

Subject movement is a trickier issue. You may "stop" motion with relatively slow shutter speeds when the subject is moving directly toward or directly away from the camera. This is because the subjects position on the sensor doesn't change as much during the exposure as a subject moving laterally across the frame. And subjects that are small in the frame are easier to "freeze" with a slower shutter speed that a larger subject for the same reason: not much change about the space the subject occupies during the exposure. 

Subjects that occupy much of the frame, or that move verically or laterally during the exposure are tricky, though, and they require techique. Keep your shutter speeds relatively high. Lenses with fast maximum apertures are a boon here, and I think this is a major reason that you see professionals carrying "fast glass" -- lenses of f/2.8 or even faster. You may need to use high ISO settings in order to achieve your fast shutter speeds. So be it. Most modern DSLR's are pretty good up to and sometimes beyond, ISO 1600.

And for me, this is a major reason I use flash on such a high proportion of my photos -- the duration of the flash is extremely brief, and as a result, it gives the effect of a very fast shutter speed. Learn to use your flash: it is the Unfair Advantage!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Whitewater Rafting -- Bulldog Bend

This weekend saw the annual whitewater rafting festival in Blount and Cullman Counties in north-central Alabama. For the most part, it was a tough weekend for the kayakers, with intermittent hard rain on Saturday and chilly weather on Sunday.

Here's a shot of an intrepid whitewater kayaker:

(Click on the image for a full-screen view of the photo.)

This shot was taken with a Nikon D700 camera and a Nikkor 80-400mm lens. The ISO was 400. Amazingly enough, I shot the entire event hand-held (no tripod or monopod), owing primarily to the difficulty in getting to down a steep, damp hillside to my vantage point while carrying anything more than the absolute minimum amount of gear.

The photo was taken at 400mm. Notice the compression -- how the foreground and background are brought close together. Compression is a side-effect of using telephoto lenses, and this is often a reason to make the selection to use a tele- lens rather than a shorter lens and a closer approach. The compression (and the associated loss of focus in the background) can be used to add emphasis to the subject, and to separate the subject from the background.

Colors were tricky. It was a heavy overcast, and Lord knows what "auto" WB would have given me. I used an Expo Disk to calibrate the White Balance, and it looks pretty accurate. Technically, the hardest aspect of delivering this shot had to do with getting consistently sharp focus on my shots. Here's how it was done:

Use AF-C, the Continuous Autofocus setting. This employs predictive autofocus, where the camera detects and follows motion, using the speed and direction of the subject to predict its position at the moment of exposure. Then, I used the 51-point 3-D tracking setting. This alloed me to select an active AF point, locate my subject and focus on it, then allow the system to continuously track the subject as it moved through the frame. Then, finally, I had to get a shutter speed sufficient to stop the subject's motion as the kayak bounced and glided through the course. I found it took about 1/250 second to stop that motion and generate a sharp shot. To get that, I found that I needed to use and ISO of 400 to get 1/250 second or higher at f/5.6.

All in all a fun day at the river, and lots of good shots to remember the occasion.