March 2013

Technorati Claim Code

Brief post as part of my Technorati blog claim.

Claim token: 43Y45EJXR2CU.

Cheers,

R.

Photographing Garden Birds in the Snow

Photographing Garden Birds in the Snow

Photographing Garden Birds in the Snow

This weekend was a busy weekend with several major commitments. I have to edit our local Parish News magazine and my daughter has a choir performance. Then there is the snow! What a fantastic opportunity to get some interesting new shots of the garden birds in a snowy setting. But here’s the rub, I’ve got so little time and the weather will probably be gone in time for my return to work. Photographing garden birds in the snow is tough but here is a tip. Shooting from the house can pay dividends and may impact on quality less than you think. It certainly allows you to keep dry and warm.

Does Shooting Through Double Glazing Have to Ruin your Images?

Shooting through your double glazed domestic window does present certain problems. It helps if they are reasonably clean, and you will have to accept a small loss of contrast and sharpness as a result of adding an extra barrier between yourself and your subject, but these effects may be less than you think if you take steps to make sure that contrast is not further reduced by shooting through reflections in the window before you. I have also found that, I suppose intuitively this would be true, that the sharper the lens I am using the better the result through the window.

Reducing Reflections

Photographing Garden Birds in the Snow

Room Setup

The traditional approach, for instance at a zoo, is to get your lens as close to the window as possible, to eliminate any light hitting the surface in front of the lens. This is pretty much your only recourse if you are shooting from outside in, but shooting from inside out increases your options. Clearly, you don’t want to have your lens touching the window when shooting garden birds for a couple of reasons. Firstly you will be presenting a man like image close to your subject that will frighten them and secondly you won’t be able to adjust position when your subject moves.

Photographing Garden Birds in the Snow

The Garden Outside

For my shots I discovered that I couldn’t focus on the nearest perch (my beloved antlers – thank you Jo!!) as it was too close (there is a way round this, see later) to the window anyway, so I needed to retreat into the room, way back from the window. I still had a good view, but there was more glass in front of me to reflect objects in the room. This had the added advantage of reducing my presence in the window. In fact, hiding behind my camera and the piano at the window (see production shot above) meant that I had frequent visitors to the perches. There were some reflections from objects in the room (my daughter’s playroom), but these were quite easily countered by turning off the lights in the room.

Our house has glass doors to capitalize on borrowed light, so I was getting an annoying reflection from the front door which also has glass panelling. Drawing the curtains over the front door removed these completely. In a way, you want your windows to be reflecting black, so another tip is cover up any highlights in the room you are shooting in with black sheets, either of paper, or perhaps a black panel reflector or two if you have them lying around. The ideal scenario would be a black painted room with no contents, though this is unlikely to find favour with the spouse or partner.

Finally it is best if the window that you are shooting through doesn’t have direct sunlight shining onto it as this reduces your chances of getting the light levels in your room down to a reasonable level, and causes reflections and flare on the window itself. It’s not so easy to fit a lens hood to a window frame!!

The Setup

For photographing garden birds in the snow I used the following setup. I had my D4 on a Gitzo Carbon Fibre Tripod (though any would have done), with a Wimberley Gimbal head Mk II, and a 600mm f4 Nikkor lens, though I could have used something like a 70-200mm f2.8 with a 2x teleconvertor. This would have had the advantage of a close focus point so I wouldn’t have had to be so far back in the room. On the question of how to make the 600mm nearest focus point closer to the front of the lens, the solution is simply to add an extension ring between the lens and the camera body. You will lose a small amount of light, and you may lose infinity focus, but this doesn’t really matter in a situation like this where nothing is too far away.

Gallery

Cheers,

R.

Match Flare Photography

Or How to Ruin a UV Filter (Without Really Trying)

I was at a loose end this weekend, so settled upon taking some match flare images. I’ve not tried this before, but how difficult could it be? I purchased a few bits and bobs to help, including some long barbecue matches from the supermarket, some small spring clips (to fasten them on to the post) and a cheap toilet roll holder, again from the supermarket. The toilet roll holder didn’t look like it would be brilliant for its intended task because the stem was very thin, but it did look spectacularly handy for my intended task i.e. holding barbecue matches steady whilst I photographed them. My final purchase was a gas hob lighter. You use this to heat the match-head from beneath until it starts to flame. You quickly move it away (you don’t want two flames in the shot) and take a picture.

The Setup and Camera Settings

The beauty of a match flare is the combination of flame and smoke. In order to be able to see the smoke clearly you will need to back-light it with a strobe. Obviously you do not want to see the strobe in the shot, so it really helps if you shoot upwards at about 45 degrees from a position both beneath and behind the match assembly. In my case this meant raising up the aforementioned toilet roll holder a little because it wasn’t tall enough on its own.

You will need a black background, I used my trusty black-velvet Lastolite panel, and it’s a good idea to take a few test shots to make sure that the ambient light in the studio does not cause the background to show. You will want plenty of depth of field so try f11 or smaller if you have to. Next take a test shot or two of a flaring match without the flash. This enables you to get a feel for how much you might need to adjust your ISO and aperture combination to avoid burnout in the flame. This then allows you to get the flash settings right as you will have the correct aperture setting already so you just adjust the power to suit.

As usual I used an SB900 with Flex TT5 controller set to manual. This works well as the lower power settings will usually be enough, and this means that you can take several shots using continuous high speed shooting without the problem of the flash refusing to fire. After the flare, you can blow out the match, and fire off a few more shots to show the smoke trails. I’m not one for excessive anthropomorphization, but they often do look like something (watch out for a witch on a broomstick!!).

The UV Filter Disaster

If you try this, there are two things not to do. Firstly, don’t burn your house or studio down. Secondly, don’t shoot too close. You really need a 200mm Macro lens, or perhaps use a 2x teleconverter on a 105mm Macro. Sadly I shot with my 105mm and did not use the teleconverter. The end result of this was that hot sulphur particles stuck to the front of the filter and could not be wiped off without marking the coating. Thank goodness it was a cheap UV filter rather than the front lens element!! Don’t make the same mistake that I did. Fortunately, Premier Ink and Photographic to the rescue again, they have a great selection of filters at a range of price points.

The Results

Cheers,

R.

Shooting Garden Birds

Frosty Mornings are so Cold

Shooting Garden Birds

The Hide and Feeders

On a frosty Sunday morning in March (the 3rd 2013 to be precise) I had the urge to pop up my hide and go shooting garden birds. We do have feeders in our garden, to which we have a steady stream of Goldfinch visiting along with a variety of Tits (Blue, Great and this month Long-Tailed), but I had shot these before and was keen to try a different position in the garden. Our garden is L-shaped so there are a few different angles from which to shoot, and I have not yet tried them all. So the day before I visited one of our local garden centres and purchased some fresh feeders on sticks and placed them round the corner so as not to disturb the current visitors to our existing feeders. This turned out to be a very helpful strategy for reasons I did not yet fully appreciate. I did not particularly want to shoot Goldfinch, but rather a selection of other garden birds, but I expected them to make an appearance (ie the Goldfinch) round the corner if I put out more Niger seeds. You can probably see the three feeders on the right hand side, beyond the hide in the picture above. The feeders are stocked with, from left to right, high energy bird feed, peanuts and Niger seeds. You may also be able to see, by zooming in, that there are 3 perches attached to the poles underneath the feeders. Obviously the plan is to have the birds land on the organic looking perches for some of the shots. I can’t stand birds on feeder shots actually – but nevertheless everyone takes a few whilst your waiting for better shots on the perches – unless you are exceptionally disciplined.

Shooting Garden Birds

A Gnarly Perch

Here is a close-up of one of the gnarly sticks used as a perch for shooting garden birds. Usually you need about 10m or so beyond the focus point in order to blur the background. For this reason, I positioned the perches so that, by shooting from the hide level, I would be taking in a background beyond the fence (mostly). It was a dull and overcast day, so the background was either distant tree foliage or dull sky. As it happened, towards midday the sun came out and I was treated to lovely blue skies as well. The day was bitter cold, so I set up with plenty of layers and my trusty flask of coffee in the hide and waited, and waited some more. The joy of shooting overcomes the feeling cold, but I was shivering for hours afterwards. Make sure you eat regularly to keep the cold out.

Happily there started to arrive a series to blue and great tits, mostly to the high energy feeder and the peanuts. Sadly, not one alighted on my special perches. Actually there is a bit to know about perch diameter. It is essential that the perches are not too wide as this hurts the bird’s foot musculature and they don’t stay on them very long. Moose Peterson says that being uncomfortable in this way also affects the bird’s eyes in an unhelpful way. So titrate the diameter of your perch to the size of your intended bird’s feet!! I wasn’t sure what to do. Was it just a matter of waiting (a very long time, as opposed to just a long one) or was there something that I could do to improve my odds?

Field Craft for Shooting Garden Birds

So here’s what I did. I took down the peanut feeder. It was getting a lot of traffic, but not so much the Niger seeds, and actually the peanut feeder had the least visually appealing perch. I also put an assortment of peanuts, meal worm and high energy feed on the top of the fence in the distance to see if I could encourage some birds onto that. Et Viola, a Great Tit landed on my gnarly perch. Boom he was gone. It was so unexpected I wasn’t ready and missed the shot. And then, something even more unexpected. Siskin. And at least 3 males. All loving the Niger seeds, greedily feeding on the built-in perches for minutes on end. Bright yellow and gorgeous. Visiting only from mid-March to mid-May, and completely unnoticed in the garden so far. Still no gnarly stick action though. But in-between plenty of birds on the fence in the distance, and still within reach of the 840mm combination of Nikkor 600mm plus 1.4x teleconvertor. These interventions did make a difference to my hit-rate on the organic perches, but even so these shots were few and far between. I could have put suet on the back of the thicker sticks, but I am loath to do this in case it shows up in the photograph.

Shooting Garden Birds

Close-up of the Hide

So, what about the Hide? The hide is an F1 Fold Out Hide from Wildlife Watching Supplies. This is a cube shaped hunting style Hide with a built-in metal frame. It folds down to a small case that has two straps for easy carrying by hand, or on your shoulder, or back. It comes with pegs and guy ropes (although you usually don’t need to use the guy ropes). For shooting garden birds it really is very easy to put up, but if you are on your own it is necessary to peg the base out in order to pull up the roof frame. The hide is very well made and has viewing “windows” at the front and at the sides in addition to the rear. Each window has a cover attached by toggles (like an old duffel coat) and velcro’d on scrim netting. The inside is matt black coloured so provided you are wearing dull coloured clothes the animals don’t know that you are there. Clearly from this photograph you can see that the Hide cannot be said to be inconspicuous in my back garden, yet I am constantly amazed at how close birds, squirrels etc will approach. Sometimes too close for the 600mm to focus on!! I purchased my Hide with a handy portable chair (the C25 Fold-Out Chair). It has a handy shoulder strap, and a fabric pocket beneath the seat. The only down side is that there is no ground sheet, though I haven’t really found that one is essential.

The Photography

There was quite a range of lighting between the various places that the birds were landing so, at least until the sun came out, I was forced to select a pretty high ISO to keep the shutter speeds up to a reasonable level. I find that I can reliably shoot at a 160th with the 840mm set up on a tripod with gimbal head, and can get away with a 125th of a second on a good day. This meant sometimes rising to ISO 2500. When shooting garden birds that are fast-moving, I find it difficult to change the ISO at a moment’s notice, so this is something I tend to do in-between shots. I live in hope that practise will eventually make perfect for this issue. It’s certainly easier to change ISO with your eye to the viewfinder on the professional bodies like the D4. It’s strange, but I can adjust aperture and exposure compensation whilst juggling back focus and firing but really struggle with the left hand adjustment of ISO, which means I slightly lose control of the camera bracing and positioning is critical for rapid shooting within frame. But setting a high ISO in advance does let me increase depth of field for the brighter perches by stopping down, which I can do very quickly. Once the sun came out I was able to get down to ISO 200 for some of the shots again. Usually I shoot wide open at f4 or f5.6 with the 1.4x teleconvertor, but I have found it beneficial to stop down to f8 or f11 respectively to get slightly more feather and beak in focus, particularly when the bird is face-on.

The Photoshop

There isn’t a great deal to say about this. The images were prepared in Lightroom 4 and finished in CS6. All that was required was some mid-tone contrast adjustment via the ever amazing Color Efex Pro 4, and some sharpening using my usual sharpening actions in a 3-pass routine with additional local creative sharpening where required and sharpening for screen to finish. I must discuss sharpening as an issue in-depth some time.

Glad to be back in the warm,

Until next time,

Robin.