Robin

Turn a White Background Black

Turn a White Background Black

Really, Are You Having a Laugh??

I’ve watched several YouTube videos on taking pictures in adverse circumstances, including how to turn a white background black. Have you ever tried this yourself? It may not be as easy as you are made to think.

The Basic Principles

Turn White Background Black

Underexposing for Black..

In order to turn a properly exposed, non-clipping, bright white background to black it will need to be under-exposed. How much may depend on the contrast of the light used and the reflectivity of the surface, but is likely to be between 6-8 stops. In the example at left, the bright white, non-clipping exposure was 1/4s at f5.6 and ISO 400 whereas the dark exposure was 1/500s at f5.6 and ISO 400, some 7-stops less.

The chart at left shows the incremental reduction in exposure, one stop at a time, of a small white Lastolite reflector. Although, at a distance, a 5 stop reduction looks adequate, you can clearly see the reflector in the image on the computer.

The ambient exposure needs to be reduced substantially in camera, and the subject re-illuminated, to compensate for the reduction, usually with flash. Shooting in manual, most flashes have a range of 1 to 1/64 or 1/128 power (6 or 7 stops respectively). This may sound a little close for comfort (which it may be), especially when using light modifiers that reduce the flash by 2+ stops. You can also place the flash nearer to the subject if needs be however.

What Can Go Wrong?

When trying to turn a white background black, the re-illumination of the subject has to be specific to the subject. In other words, the 7 stops of flash that you add back in must not travel to the background and re-illuminate it as well! This is awkward in smaller studios (or a mostly white painted kitchen as in this case) where flash bounces round the room increasing the ambient again.

Mitigating The Re-Illumination Light Spill

There are two main ways of managing light spill, firstly to manage the direction of the subject re-illumination light (so that it misses the background) and secondly using the inverse square law in setting the flash to subject and subject to background distances. In the smaller studio it may also be necessary to mitigate bounced spill by using flags or black reflectors or covers.

Managing Light Direction and Spread

Two main strategies will help here. Firstly, avoid front lighting if you can because the spill will necessarily hit the background. Try and use side lighting or lighting from high up and to the side so that the spill-light travels past the side of the background or down to the ground. Secondly, use light modifiers to narrow the direction of light rather than having light going off in all directions. Choose your modifier based on the following priority list (worse to better) for best directionality.

  1. Shoot through umbrella
  2. Bare flash with wide spread
  3. Shoot back umbrella
  4. Bare flash with narrow spread
  5. Softbox
  6. Deep Softbox
  7. Softbox with grid
  8. Grid Spot
  9. Snoot

Finally, you may need to control spill by reducing reflections from large reflective surfaces. This can be achieved by using large black panel reflectors (or non-reflectors) or covering with black sheets or a roll of black paper. Obviously, if you have these to hand, I have to question why you are trying to turn a white background black in the first place!

Inverse Square Law

What is it?

What is the inverse square law, and how does it help? Basically the inverse square law states that the intensity of light from a source falls off with the square of the distance from the light source. So if the intensity of light is X at 1m from a light source, at 2m it will be X/4 and at 3m it will be X/9 and at 4m X/16. This has some interesting implications for the photographer. Firstly it means that every doubling of distance from the light source delivers a 2-stop fall in light. So, for an example, if you had a subject lit by flash at 0.5m then at a background set at 4m there would be a reduction of 6 stops of light, and at a background set at 8m an 8-stop reduction. A small increase of flash to subject distance from 0.5m to 1.0m doubles the necessary flash to background distance to get the same reduction in light (namely 8 and 16m respectively – better order your new kitchen extension now!!).

How is it Used?

Secondly, and perhaps rather confusingly, the proportional light fall off with distance is greater close-in than it is far out. This is because the light intensity is the reciprocal of the distance squared so that, for larger distances, the difference between the fractions is necessarily less than for shorter distances. So light intensity at 2m is a quarter that at 1m, ie a 3/4 (0.75) reduction between 1m and 2m. At 4m the light intensity is 1/16 reducing to 1/25 at 5m. So the difference in intensity between 4m and 5m is 9/400 (0.0225). This is useful where subjects are at different distances from the flash. Moving the flash back to say 5m from the subjects would mean that there was virtually no difference in illumination between subjects at 4m or 5m (for instance in a wedding group shot).

Other Confounders

Managing light spill can be harder where you have, for instance, a white tiled floor, or a low white ceiling. The floor can be covered in extremis (beware the trip hazard though) but there is very little you can do to mitigate a low white ceiling.

Production Images and Results

Here is the setup for this shoot. You get some sense of the restricted space and can see the camera, subject and strobe positions clearly.

Turn White Background Black

Kitchen Studio..

Post Processing

The three wine bottles shown below were all straight off the camera card and, apart from a small crop, completely unedited! So I’d have to say that the morning spent trying to turn a white background black was a complete success. I’m bound to also say, though, that I’ve no intentions of abandoning my beloved black velvet Lastolite panel background anytime soon.

Equipment Used

Equipment used was a Lastolite large panel Black/White reversible background, a Lastolite black velvet background to control spill (out of shot), 3 x Nikon SB900 Speedlights, 3 x Bowens Light Stands, assorted cold shoe clamps to attach the Speedlights to the light stands and a Gary Fong Collapsible Snoot with Power Grid for the key light. For convenience I was using 3 x Pocket Wizard Flex-tt5 radio triggers, with the mini-tt1 and AC3 controller on the camera. As you can see there is much white and silver in this room to bounce spill light around. The main kitchen lighting is daylight balanced and camera left sits a large kitchen window and patio door.

Camera and Flash Settings

The eventual camera settings were ISO 200, f11, 1/125s. The key light was set to full power and the rim lights adjusted to give a pleasing result at a much lower power (around 1/32).

Turn White Background Black

Key Light with Grid Fitted..

Use of the kitchen studio was only possible in the absence of other family members, so thanks also to them for leaving me with the house for the morning too. I think that it must be so lovely to have a permanent and dedicated studio where you are not hunting round the house for your equipment because it is all in one place. Or having to move chairs and furniture to create sufficient space. Perhaps when I retire.. You can only dream I suppose..

I feel a large man-shed coming on..

 

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Final Thoughts

Small Kitchen Woes..

To pull this off in my kitchen studio I had to use all available space and had to keep the subject size down as I was rammed against the range cooker. You can’t see it in the production shot, but I had to manage some light spill with a large black panel reflector out at camera right. For me this was a technical exercise, just to see if I could do it. I have tried without success previously as I could not manage the light spill effectively enough. The subject to background distance, for me, was only about 3m so control of light spill was essential as I couldn’t afford to only rely on the inverse square reduction.

Controlling the Spill..

If I had needed more control of light spill, I would have thought about reducing the light from the white floor tiles and used flags on the rim light flashes to stop light getting onto the ceiling. Finally it might have been necessary to use another black panel reflector on the wall behind the camera to further reduce spill.

Could do Better..

As a technical exercise, I have added to my own difficulties by using my Fujifilm XT-20 travel camera instead of my Nikon kit. I don’t have a full flash setup dedicated to this camera system so I was working with manually. I was, however, very pleased to find that my flex-tt5s and SB900s could be used on my Fujifilm XT-20, controlled by the flex-mini tt1 and AC3 controller combo on camera in the usual way. The only concession was that I had to drop the shutter speed on my XT-20 to 1/125s in order to get reliable syncing. The XT-20 maximum sync speed is 1/180s which I am confident would have worked ok with optical syncing, but didn’t with the radio kit. Since my Flex kit is for the Nikon, I’m pleased that I was able to use it on the Fuji at all, so this was a small sacrifice to make.

Cheers,

R.

Shooting Macro

Shooting Macro

I love shooting macro, though inspiration can be a little tough to find at times. I already have a 105 mm Micro Nikkor, but had been thinking about a longer focal length for some time. After some research, it seemed to me that, rather than buying the 200mm f4 Micro Nikkor which has a 20 year old design, I’d be better off going with the Sigma 180 mm F2.8 APO Macro ED DG OS. My thinking was thus. Firstly it is a faster lens, very sharp and has a good reputation. The 200 mm Nikkor, is also stunningly sharp, and built like a tank, but it is very much a one trick pony. The autofocus is very slow (though satisfactory for things a long way off apparently) and it has a maximum aperture of f4.

Making a Purchase, Checking It Out..

So, at the last but one photography show in Birmingham, I visited the Sigma stand and spoke to a representative. After looking at the lens, and hearing about it’s performance, a purchase was made from London Camera Exchange. It duly arrived, at our local store, about a week later. Had it not been a bank-holiday weekend it would have been even sooner. It’s been superb! Out of the box, the Sigma appeared well made and robust. I fitted a Wimberley Arca Swiss lens plate and set about shooting tethered using Helicon Focus. This revealed an unexpected, yet key, difference with the 105 mm Nikkor.

Bearing in mind that I had always considered the 105mm Nikkor to be an excellent lens, I was not prepared for the stunning absence of chromatic aberration. It’s not that the Nikkor is particularly bad, it’s just that the Sigma has no chromatic aberration. None at all. At least, I haven’t come across it yet. There must be some somewhere mustn’t there? But the visible difference was remarkable. With the same subject you could see the artifacting on the Nikkor but not on the Sigma. Amazing!

Choosing Between Macro Lenses

Shooting Macro

Back Garden Birds, Hide, Backlit

Choosing a lens for shooting macro requires a little thought. Firstly, what do you tend to shoot? If it’s wildlife, there is something to be said for a longer focal length to keep you more distant from your subject. This is not the only relevant factor however. Most of my outdoor shooting uses available light, sometimes with a reflector or torch to provide fill or dimension. The physical length of the macro lens I use makes little difference in this scenario, but if I’m to use flash then I need to consider two other issues.

Flash and Macro Lens Choice

Clearly, for macro shooting with flash, the length of the lens itself makes a big difference to the type of flash you might use on camera. Will the flash be a Speedlight on a flash bracket? If so, a 105mm or 150mm lens will be more useful as you can get the flash nearer to the subject. The flash bracket can reach over the lens (as opposed to be in the lens’ shadow). Here I’m using a Custom Brackets CB Folding-T folding flash rotating bracket to hold an SB900, with a Neewer SB1520 small softbox attached, to light a subject from above and to the side.

Were I to attempt this with the Sigma 180 mm F2.8 APO Macro ED DG OS I’d be out of luck. On a D500, with the APSC lens hood extension, it is approximately 330 mm in length compared to the 190 mm of the Nikkor (or aprox 115 mm without the lens hood).

Shooting Macro

R1C1 macro flash kit on a Nikkor 105mm f2.8

Using a Nikon Speedlight Commander R1C1 Macro Flash

If you are going to use the Nikon Speedlight Commander R1C1 Macro flash, for instance, you also need to bear in mind that there is no adaptor ring available in the 86 mm filter size of the Sigma 180 mm. You have to use the SB200s off lens in this case. Personally, I felt this was an inconvenience rather than a deal breaker, because when I work with flash it is usually in the studio and I can easily use stands for the flash.

Multi-Purposing a Macro Lens

It occurred to me that I have used my 105 mm Nikkor as a portrait lens in the past, ideal on a full frame camera. Would a longer prime be useful for some of my larger birds in flight work, for instance Osprey at Rothiemurchus? With a working focal length of 27o mm on a crop sensor camera (my D500), it might be a useful alternative to using my D810 with my 300 mm f2.8 (which is a much larger lens). This could be ideal for the lower light situations pre-dawn when the D810’s ISO performance is less suitable.

Lower-weight, and shorter minimum focal distance, make it a good choice for ad-hoc wildlife appearances closer to the hide.

Depth of Field Calculations

Sigma do not supply depth of field tables for shooting macro with their lenses, so ascertaining depth of field for close up work is not straightforward.

Macro Shooting

Doing the Math..

Some research was required to find out how to do the DOF maths, but with an Excel Spreadsheet I was able to produce a depth of field table. This has helped me appreciate how some of my shots might work – pre shutter release.

I guess, ultimately, if you take enough shots, you learn from experience, but knowing whether to make a virtue out of a wide aperture shot’s limited depth of field can be a little thought provoking if not enough image is sharp. I never mind taking many different shots whilst I’m out in the field, on the basis that one of them might be spot on. When I can get them onto the computer, It’s easy to see how I did, but I’d really rather know how to take the image work with a single click.

Lateral vs Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration (CA)

Types of Chromatic Aberration

Chromatic aberration occurs because shorter wavelengths of light (blue) are refracted (bent) more than longer (green and red) wavelengths of light which are refracted less. There are two types of chromatic aberration. Lateral (or transverse) and Longitudinal (or Axial).

Lateral CA occurs when all the colours are focussed at the same plane, just not aligned. R, G and B light are focussed sharply, but side by side. In Longitudinal CA, the colours are not focussed at the same plane, they are superimposed with blue in front of green in front of red. To observe this, Lateral CA causes coloured fringes around objects of high contrast, whereas Longitudinal CA causes patches of colour (ie. the most in-focus colour predominates).

The 180 mm Sigma Macro lens is particularly good with Longitudinal CA, you do not see colours change as you move up to, and then through, the focal point for high contrast details. Longitudinal chromatic aberration is very noticeable in the Nikkor 105 mm in comparison.

Recent Images

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Building a New PC

Building a New PC

Photography can be an expensive hobby these days! Whilst it is perfectly possible to shoot small jpegs and to print them at a booth in your local store, most serious photographers are shooting RAW images in large numbers, and using Photoshop CC 2015 and Lightroom (or similar) to edit them. If you do any video work, or perhaps need to do some print work with InDesign, suddenly you need acres of storage space and a high-end workstation to make the process flow. 5-years ago, in another Christmas project, I built my first decent PC using an SSD for the operating system and the, then current generation of, Intel i7 chip. This has served me very well, even to the point of adopting Windows 10, but the final nail in the coffin was the recent update to Creative Cloud 2015. These days I use plugins extensively (On1 and the Google Nik Collection) but the combination was only useable with extreme patience! So time for an upgrade. Time for me to set about building a new PC.

Lots of things change over a five year period, in life as in PC tech. My partner in crime Geoff keeps in touch with the hardware developments and is an avid subscriber to Micro Mart Magazine. He put together an initial specification, as the basis for discussion, and together we researched further and finessed our individual computer builds. I’ve been using a Dell monitor for the last 8 years, and it’s been great, but I also took the opportunity to upgrade to a slightly larger 27 inch model with 100% Adobe RGB (and sRGB) colour (Dell UltraSharp Premier Colour UP2716D) on the grounds that it would be better for my eyesight as well as my colour correction. Apparently the colour profile is fabulous straight out of the box. We’ll see and I will comment further once I’ve a few hundred more hours photo-editing under my belt.

The Components

Building a new PC is not a cheap way of getting a good computer, but it is the perfect way to choose precisely the specification, and the supplier of the components, that you want for your build. You need leave nothing to chance! My list of components was, as follows:

Asus X99-Deluxe u3.1 Motherboard
Intel i7 5930 Processor
32GB: 4*8 GB DDR4 Memory
Samsung Pro 500Gb M.2 SSD
4TB Seagate Hybrid HDD * 3
Corsair RM 1000W Fully Modular 80+ Gold Power Supply
ASUS GTX 970 Geforce Graphics Card
Samsung DVD Writer SATA
Fractal Define R4 Case
Windows 10 OEM
Noctua NH-Ul4S Slim U-Series Single Tower CPU Cooler
Wireless Keyboard and Mouse
Monitor Dell UP2716D

The Suppliers

The order was fulfilled promptly by Amazon, Scan and Ebuyer without fuss, though the packaging on the Dell monitor was water damaged on arrival, but the contents were dry and untouched. Close to Christmas, it did not seem worth taking the risk of sending it back and risking not being able to complete my build during the holidays, so I kept it.

Building a New PC

The Grand Unboxing..

It’s a little beyond the scope of this article to describe the full detail of my build, but I will share some of the highlights. Firstly make a big pile of boxes and admire. Next unwrap the goodies and make sure you have everything you need for your build, and that you have looked at the Motherboard manual to know where the different connections are for the Power supply, Fan headers, SATA and SATA Express ports etc. Make sure you also know which memory slots to use if you aren’t using all of them, and finally make sure you understand any restrictions on the PCIe slots for peripherals.

The next thing to do is to think really hard about the order in which you want to do things in order to make it easy for yourself. For instance, it’s easier to fit the processor to the motherboard before you fit the motherboard into the case. Also, when you’re building a new PC, it is easier to fit some of the cables to the motherboard before you fit it inside the case. Which cables to fit depends on your specific board configuration and also your particular case. The Fractal Define R4 is an excellent case. It’s very well made and quite a bit wider than the Cooler Master I used for my previous build (I could hardly fit the GTX 970 in that case) so there is more breathing room than in some boxes. Nevertheless space will be tight in some scenarios, and you don’t want to be forcing cables onto headers as this will stress the motherboard and lead to breakages.

Putting It All Together

It was fun to photograph the various parts as a memento of the build. The Intel i7 5930 Processor was gorgeous to behold, and the Asus X99 Deluxe u3.1 Motherboard looks so stylish that it begs to be lit and viewed through a transparent case (not that I’m keen on that sort of ostentatiousness usually, but you can see why people do that stuff).

Building a New PC

Fractal Define R4..

Here is the case with the sides removed. Apologies for the industrial strength vignette, it does focus you on the case though. The R4 has some lovely detailing with it’s white fans and drive bays etc. It comes with a box full of screws and a manual leading to an easier build experience.

Another benefit of the R4 is that you can fit extra fans in the top (2 fans) and side (1 fan) should you need them for extra cooling. It’s vital to ensure a stable cooling environment if you are minded to overclock your system. The speed of a processor depends on how many things it can do linearly per second (Clock Speed), and how many things it can do in parallel (Cores and Threads). The overall speed of the processor also depends upon the speed at which it can write out to, and retrieve from, it’s supporting memory systems so the RAM bus speed is also crucial. So what is clock speed (and thus overclocking)? Clock speed, or rate, is usually given as a frequency in gigahertz (GHz) these days and it’s the number of times a second that a processing step occurs. Some programming operations can take more than one step so there isn’t necessarily a one to one relationship between the clock frequency and the execution of lines of computer code. As far as graphics processing is concerned though, the faster the better, and the more parallelism the better (at least in graphics cards and some video editing software).

More About the Motherboard

Asus X99 Motherboard..

Asus X99 Motherboard..

Asus are manufacturing a range of motherboards with the so called X99 Architecture. So what does this mean? The new intel Core i7 processor and intel X99 chipset were designed to provide the ultimate desktop PC platform for extreme gamers, enthusiasts and content creators. It has special features which enable it to be overclocked and give great performance for gaming and digital content creation. This includes 6 and 8 core processors on the, so called, LGA2011-v3 socket (that’s an LGA2011 without a processor fitted on the left). Performance is boosted via Intel’s Turbo Boost 2.0 technology and Intel Hyper-Threading technology. As well as ultimate performance, the X99 architecture also maximises input/output and storage capabilities. The Intel i7 5930 processor used here (6 Cores), for instance, and it’s big brother the i7 5960 (8 Cores) have 40 PCIe (PCI Express) Gen 3 lanes, 10 SATA ports (for your disk drives), 14 USB ports (a key factor for me) and 20 MB of Smart Cache. Intel Rapid Storage technology delivers excellent storage performance and features to improve system responsiveness.

More Memory

The new Core i7 processor with the Intel X99 chipset also gives us quad-channel DDR4 memory at 2133 MHz that can support up to 4 unbuffered dual inline memory modules per memory channel with a max DRAM density of 4 GB and 8 GB. So this board can have up to 64 GB of memory in total!

Content Creation

With up to 40 lanes of PCI Express 3.0 the X99 platform gives you the flexibility to plug in up to 4 discrete graphics cards to provide dramatically reduced editing time for RAW photos and HD video. Given that I have a spare GTX 970 now, I may add that into my build once I’m happy that everything is running in a stable setup.

Unlocked Processors

This means that the user can performance tune the processor and memory frequencies themselves, without having to run any other part of the system above specifications (and hence risking, for instance, heat damage from large voltages).

Peripherals

The X99 chipset has integrated USB 3.0 support and the Rapid Storage technology allows the full Serial ATA (SATA) interface to go up to speeds of 10 Gb/s in keeping with the next generation of fast solid state drives. There is also a Rapid Recover technology that helps users to recover their data and return their system to an operational state and a Dynamic Storage Accelerator which speeds up the performance of your SSDs by dynamically adjusting the system power management to give up to 15% performance boost.

Specific Asus X99 Deluxe u3.1 Benefits

On top of the X99 specification, Asus have built in a number of other benefits

  • Easy-fit 10 Gb/s USB 3.1 type A card
  • 3×3 (3T3R) 802.1 ac Wi-Fi, up to 1300 Mb/s
  • Fan Extension Card
  • Dual 32 Gb/s ultrafast M.2 x4 (onboard plus PCIE add-in card)
  • 5-Way Optimization by Dual Intelligent Processors. One click overclock and cooling
  • Crystal Sound II (a fine implementation of the Realtek ALC1150 8-Channel High-Definition Audio CODEC)

 

All the I/O You Will Ever Need..

All the I/O You Will Ever Need..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Wi-Fi?

What on earth was I thinking when I specified Wi-Fi for a Desktop Computer that would never leave my office next to the superfast broadband router cable? Actually it was just an indulgence in the long term, but very necessary at the point I was doing the build. My office is far too small to build a new computer in and I couldn’t afford, at the point I did this build, to be without a computer. Wi-Fi lets you connect to the internet and get on with your install, until such time that you have a stable setup. I have known network cables to fail sometimes, usually when you haven’t got a spare one to hand and the shops are shut! If that ever happens, I’ll have a very useable setup using wireless.

The Build

Install the Intel i7 5930 into the LGA2011-v3 Socket

The Connected Side of an i7 5930..

The Connected Side of an i7 5930..

I haven’t tried to count the number of pins in an LGA2011-v3 socket, or the number of gold plated connectors on the back of the i7 5930, but there look to be, quite literally, hundreds. In fact, apparently, the clue is in the name, there are 2,011 contact pins in the socket. The Asus X99 Boards have extra pins to help them manage the overclocking functions, which, I suppose, must mean that there are more contact patches on the i7 Haswell-E Processors than there are in the standard v3 socket.

Ok, I admit it, my curiosity has been piqued. How many contact patches are there on my i7 5930? I did count them in the end after all. There were 2,092 including the 8 patches in the inner square, and excluding the triangular patch that tells you which way round the processor sits in the socket. How did I count them? I used Photoshop’s count feature (once I’d located the count tool which is not shown by default in CC 2015, presumably because hardly anyone uses this very useful feature much these days).

i7 5930 Processor in-situ..

i7 5930 Processor in-situ..

To insert the processor you lift up the two retaining springs which allow the hinged cowling to swing up. You remove the plastic pin cover and then place the processor with the triangular marker aligned with the mark in the socket. Next you replace the cowl and the springs (which do require quite a strong force to replace).

Next simply admire to taste. The top of the processor looks just as cool as the contact face after all. You won’t get to see this again (hopefully) because soon we are going to have to install the heat-sink, which first requires you to place a dollop of thermal paste on top of the processor so that you don’t get a metal to metal contact with the heat-sink. Things have moved on since my last build, the heat-sink is no longer a small fan assembly atop the processor, but now a massive radiator with a fan the size of the extractor unit in my en-suite bathroom. No-seriously, it’s pretty much that large!! Or a water cooler of course. I used the Noctua NH-Ul4S Slim U-Series Single Tower CPU Cooler.

Fitting the Motherboard and Power Supply

When building a new PC, to fit the motherboard, you first screw in the mounting posts to the relevant pre-threaded holes in the casing assembly. Next, as mentioned above, you may wish to fit a few of the necessary cables to the more difficult to reach motherboard headers and SATA cable sockets.

SATA and SATA Express Sockets..

SATA and SATA Express Sockets..

Then you drop the motherboard into the case and fix carefully by screwing through the motherboard into the mounting posts that you previously secured. These fixings also serve to earth the board to the cabinet in several places.

Next comes the power supply. In this case a Corsair RM 1000W fully modular 80+ gold power supply. It’s worth investing in a high quality power supply because of the extra stability of the voltage supplied, and a decent wattage, particularly if you plan to have more than one graphic card, or to expand to the max. Generally the fan faces into the casing when fitted and vents waste heat out of the back of the unit.

Fitting the CPU Fan

Noctua are recognized as making the best fans, and many people swap out their case fans for Noctua ones. They are very quiet and provide a constant pressure. The radiator towers can be single or double thickness with one or two fans (push, versus push-pull). I have it on good authority that for the thin tower version adding a second fan makes very little difference to the CPU temperature (Linus Tech Tips).

The Beast..

The Beast..

I’m using the Noctua NH-Ul4S Slim U-Series Single Tower CPU Cooler here, and even this seems massive compared with previous fans I have used. I’d be grateful for an extra fan this size in my en-suite bathroom! This fan gets great reviews for running silent, and for it’s cooling power, so it is ideal for a machine that will be overclocked. It may be that a water-cooler would be better still, but that seemed overkill for this application. Somehow it seems a bit risky to place a water system into a box of electrical components? I’m sure they must be durable and safe though.

The other advantage of this single-tower fan is that it allows easy access to the memory modules which can be easily fitted and removed without having to move the cooling assembly. The fan itself is held in place with easy to remove clips to further improve access. Of course there is another benefit to having a second fan on your cooler tower, which is to provide built in redundancy so that, should it fail, your precious overclocked system will have an extra margin of safety, but at the price of (purchasing an extra fan, obviously) a small amount of extra noise.

Fitting a CPU cooler requires a small blob of thermal compound, and this comes supplied with the Noctua NH-Ul4S Slim U-Series Single Tower CPU Cooler, along with all the other bits and bobs to fit it with.

Memory

In this build I’m using 32GB (4*8 GB) DDR4 Memory in the form of  Corsair Vengeance LPX 2666 Mhz DDR4 which comes in at a great price point. It’s Quad Channel and Intel XMP certified. So what does that mean? Vengeance LPX memory is designed for high-performance overclocking. It uses an aluminium heat spreader for faster heat dissipation and it’s low profile design fits into most microATX and MiniITX systems.

Intel Extreme Memory Profile (XMP) allows you to overclock RAM including compatible DDR3 and DDR4 memory to perform beyond its standard specifications. This is designed to help enhance the gaming features built into other Intel technology.

Four channel? This just means that for any given amount of memory (32 GB in this case) you can have a kit that fits that memory into 4 memory card slots (or channels) on the motherboard in order to get the fastest throughput of data. The Asus X99 Deluxe U3.1 motherboard has two sets of 4 memory-bus slots for this purpose.

How does XMP work?

Predefined and tested Intel XMP profiles can be loaded via the BIOS, or a specific tuning application, through the computer’s operating system. Intel has developed a certification program for memory vendors to test their products for compatibility against the Intel Extreme memory Profile. Intel provide an Extreme Tuning Utility to help with the overclocking process. Asus motherboards come with the AI Suite 3 which serves the same purpose.

Fitting the Graphics Card

The ASUS GTX 970 Geforce Graphics Card slots into one of the 5 PCIe 3.0 slots, then gets power from the power supply. For building a new PC the Motherboard Manual guides you on which slots to use according to whether you want to use a single or multiple graphic cards, and a special linking cable is supplied to sync the cards together if multiple cards are used. Slot 1 or slot 3 would normally be used for a single card, and slots 1 and 3 for a dual card setup. Slot 4 is added for a triple card setup.

Fitting the Disk Drives

When building a new PC, this is fairly straightforward. I have a single M.2 memory module (Samsung Pro 500Gb M.2 SSD) and 3 hybrid drives(4TB Seagate Hybrid HDD) to fit. The M.2 SSD slots into the Motherboard, vertically, with a special bracket, and the 3 hybrid drives go into 3 of the 8 drive bays using the provided screws into the removable mounts. It’s best not to tighten these much as they pass through rubber grommets to provide a less rigid mount.

M.2 Slot with SSD Card in Place

M.2 Slot with SSD Card in Place..

So why choose three 4TB spinners? I’ve been keeping my photos on two external 4TB USB drives recently, and JPEG backups of my favourite images on my Dropbox Pro Account. These drives, one for storage and the other for backup, are 60% full now, and have been quite slow with my D810 files in Lightroom. My old PC only had USB3.0 so, with the optimised USB 3.1 I was hoping for a marked increase in speed. I’m doing more and more photography with my D810, so I reasoned that it’s time to move my storage back to fast internal drives (one for storage and one for backup) for the new stuff. The third drive is for all my non-photography stuff and the backups for that are on yet more external drives. It’s not a perfect strategy, but it’s good enough for what I’m needing to do.

There’s good future proofing with the ASUS board. As SATA Express drives become available I can upgrade to those without shedding the drives I’ve got fitted at the moment, and the spare M.2 slot, via the PCIe card, means that as super-fast SSD storage comes down in price and the drive capacities rise, which they are bound to do, over the next year or two, I can consider adding a further SSD without prejudicing anything else. The future expandability looks very good indeed.

3 Spinners All in a Row..

3 Spinners All in a Row..

Each hybrid drive needs power and a data connection into the SATA ports. These come in at the back, and space is a little tight, so you need to use an angled SATA cable to avoid any pressure being put on the connection when the side is replaced on the case.

According to Seagate, “SSHDs fuse the strength of SSD and HDD into one affordable and powerful device”. This gives you the combined reliability of both in the hybrid drive product. These drives have 4TB of hard disk storage and a very decent 8GB of fast integrated NAND Flash. Basically, the hybrid drive works out which files you are using frequently and uses the SSD to cache them without you having to do anything. As you are probably aware, SSDs have a limited write life, they hate being written to, but you can read from them as many times as you like. The main wear factor for a spinning disk (HDD) is starting them up and shutting them down, though reading and writing have small but equal wear overheads. The benefits of SSD are that they are resistant to fragmentation in the sense that it matters not where various pieces of file reside in terms of speed of access, whereas on a hard disk drive fragmentation is problematic and slows access times down dramatically. HDDs are better for storing large amounts of data, but access is much slower. So in terms of wear, caching data to the SSD cuts some wear and tear on the HDD. You can check out the detail of the technology here.

Testing..

This is where the rubber meets the road. Plugging in the monitor and the power supply and pressing the on button! No problem, it all worked.. Next install Windows 10, setup the wireless connection and update everything. Install the motherboard and graphics card drivers and then the hardest part of the build is installing all of the software and copying over all my data from the internal drive of the outgoing PC. Fortunately, with 8 drive bays, it was a simple matter to remove my data drive from my old PC and install it into the new one for a rapid copy and paste. Lots of my software is licensed however and needs to be deactivated from the old PC before it can be activated on the new build, but the Wi-Fi made this easier than it would have otherwise been because I could run both PCs at the same time.

Testing and Installing Windows 10

Testing and Installing Windows 10

And herein started the real ordeal. I had several problems which involved corruption to vital windows files that were not that easy to fix, and, for stability sake, I ended up doing 2 complete installs before everything worked as it should. There is a bios update for the Asus board which will undoubtedly improve stability and I will flash the bios with the update once I’ve been running the new build for a few weeks and feel I really understand the stability issues.

Overall Impressions

I’m very pleased with the new build and I will certainly be keen on building a new PC in the future. Things I like about this build:

  • It’s much quieter than the old one, so much so that the hum from my powered 50w Genius Multimedia Speaker System became very noticeable and distracting. It’s been necessary to research an alternative and in the end I went with a pair of Audioengine A5+ (powered) Speakers. These play very nicely with the Crystal Sound II on the Asus X99 Deluxe U3.1. It’s said that the Audioengine D1 24-Bit DAC/Headphone Amp can improve quality still further by circumventing the built-in Crystal Sound System, so I may look into that further at some point.
  • The Dell UP2716D Monitor is a real step up with an excellent built-in profile straight from the box. It’s sharp and clear with excellent colour and a decent fit for my desk. Much less tiring for my eyes.
  • USB 3.1 is noticeably faster on my external WD 4TB drives, making Lightroom much more useable even on my huge back-catalogue of photographs.
  • I’m loving the increased performance of Lightroom and Photoshop CC 2015, including my plugins, all in all it’s much more useable now.
  • I have learned lots about the up-to-date technology in general and building a new PC in particular. Next time I might go with a transparent case and multi-coloured lighting plus a CPU water-cooler!!

Problems

There have only been minor issues so far. Windows 10 didn’t want to recognize my old HP LaserJet P2200. I’m not sure what the problem was at its core, but it was resolved by switching the USB lead into a USB 2.0 port instead of a 3.0.

Until next time,

R.

Photographing Osprey

Photographing Osprey

Photographing Osprey

Full Gas: Osprey Leaves with Trout..

I’m just back from an osprey shooting workshop in the Scottish Highlands. Photographing osprey is a new experience for me, and there are a number of differences in approach to assimilate. But first let me describe the workshop in general terms, before moving into the particulars of the photography, and telling you a secret or two about my personal journey in photography!

 

Images In Nature

My long-time shooting buddy Geoff and I had booked the Osprey Workshop with Images In Nature earlier in the year. Images in Nature, run by Lee Mott, offers small group nature photography workshops and tours. We stayed in the Osprey Hotel where we were very well looked after by proprietor Sue and her husband John. Lee is a hugely personable, experienced and knowledgeable photographer. He talked us through what to expect the night before, showing us pictures of the venue, describing the hides and, of course, discussed camera settings and the itinerary.

Itinerary and Venues

Photographing 0sprey involves an early start as you ideally need to be in-situ before sunrise. We were to meet outside the Osprey Hotel at 4:40 am and drive the 11 miles or so to the Rothiemurchus Estate in the Cairngorms National Park, Aviemore. The purpose built hides are based in the Rothiemurchus Fishery where they look over a purpose built pond, well stocked with rainbow trout, for the osprey to dive for and catch. You can book the hides at Rothiemurchus independently if you wish, and the Wild Scotland link gives you a sense of what is available. I can, however, unreservedly state that these are the best designed hides that I have shot from in the UK.

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View from the Hide..

On arrival at the fishery, we had a quick coffee and were installed within the hides by 5.30am. There are 4 hides around the fishing pool. The best hide choice depends on the prevailing wind direction because the osprey prefer to take off into the wind (as it helps with lift) and, hopefully, it also helps the photographer to be positioned to see the bird moving towards the camera rather than away from it. During our time at Rothiemurchus the conditions were very still, so we picked one of the middle hides to see what happened. The scenery is spectacular giving multiple possibilities for decent backgrounds and different shot styles. Osprey are not the only visitors to the pond, we had a visit from a field mouse, a family of mallard, rooks, kingfisher and several heron so there is always plenty going on in-between the drama of the osprey diving shots.

After the morning shoot, it was back to the hotel for a fabulous full Scottish breakfast (thank you Sue) and then back to the Rothiemurchus estate to shoot red squirrel, and more traditional garden birds, in the forest in the afternoon.

Key Technique Issues for Photographing Osprey

There are a number of issues to consider, namely, camera settings, fieldcraft and good lens technique.

Camera Settings

Ok, we are only talking Nikon here (I can’t speak for Canon shooters, but if you do shoot Canon you may find these Arthur Morris links useful – Getting the Right Exposure, Camera Settings, Tele-Extenders).

Autofocus Settings

AF-C priority selection  = release. Dynamic AF area 9 points. AF activation = AF on only. AF Point selection = 51. AF Continuous and Focus Tracking with Lock on (3-normal). Back button focus is mandatory (well not mandatory, but certainly a lot easier). It’s only fair to say that Lee disagreed with me on the Focus Tracking setting, which he prefers to be set to 1-short or off altogether. I find that I sometimes lose the focus point on the bird and then my focus snaps to the background, or something in front of the bird, before I can get it back again, losing me time and plenty of good shots. For me Focus Tracking is best left on 3-normal or even 5-long (which I use for my red kite shots). If I had Lee’s experience and skill I could probably get away with 1-short, but that’s the benefit of being a professional, you get loads more practice! Use what works for you. It goes without saying that you will be shooting above a 1/500th second so Vibration Reduction should be set to off.

Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO

As I have mentioned in my blog before, exposure is a perennial difficulty when shooting birds in flight, especially ones like osprey with an intrinsic high dynamic range against a rapidly changing background. I like to shoot manual for this, and so too on this occasion!

At 5.30am in mid-August it is pretty dark so you are dancing a very thin line in order to get useable pictures. Lee’s, very sensible, approach is to start off wide open at 1/500th second with whatever ISO gives a decent exposure. Clearly you risk subject movement at a 1/500th second but, in a way, this can paradoxically enhance a shot with an osprey taking off from the water because it gives a dynamic sense of movement and action with blurring of the wing-tips and water splashes, but still good potential for tack sharp eyes and fish. As the light improves you can increase shutter speed up towards 1/1600 and then reduce ISO to reduce noise. I tend to make 1/1000th second shutter speed my initial priority and then reduce ISO and increase shutter speed in tandem. It’s a percentage game really. Finally, if the sun comes up (it doesn’t always) you can also increase aperture from f2.8, f4.0 or f5.6 (depending on what lens/teleconvertor combination you have) up to about f7.1 for optimal depth of field. On two of the days we had mostly dull and overcast weather and I never got out of f2.8 on my 300mm Nikkor.

Avoiding blown highlights remains something of a tricky issue, and even shooting manual, you have to take account of changing contrast levels in the scene and leave more leeway as the contrast increases. So in dull flat light you can expose further to the right than you can in bright sunlight for a given exposure reading taken from an average tone in advance. As I have said before, I will often use a patch of grass, but this is not always available, and the direction that it is lit from (and how wet it is) can all give a misleading result. I don’t think there is a hard and fast answer to this. On this occasion I knew more or less where the osprey were going to dive and I used the whole scene to take my initial exposure via matrix metering, leaving 1/2 to 1/4 of the histogram width in leeway (i.e. shooting markedly to the left) according to the contrast in the scene. On other occasions I might use spot metering, it just depends on what’s around to take a reading from.

In the interest of full disclosure, we had a heron at the poolside for the majority of the shoot and this was perfect as a cross check for blown highlights. Still, heron images beats endless photos of an empty perch by a huge margin!!

Lens Choice

The Rothiemurchus setup is really excellent and the birds are fishing very close to you. I used my 300mm f2.8 on my D4 (better for me on this occasion, given the light, than the D810, at least until the sun came out!) without any teleconvertor assistance. This was perfect! In fact, I could probably have used my 70-200 f2.8. The wingspan of the osprey can be up to 6 feet so it is really easy to get clipped wings as they fly past. It may be that a 70-200mm with a 1.4x tc would be the perfect setup to begin with – but hey, I’m addicted to sharpness, so what can I say, I used the 300mm!

Fieldcraft

Osprey Re-CC. Lighter Overal.

Osprey Landing..

The Rothiemurchus Fishery setup is particularly helpful for photographing osprey because they provide an experienced gillie to spot for the photographers. The gillie watches the osprey and keeps the hides informed on what the osprey are doing via two-way radio communication. The gillie tells you when they are circling over the pond and when they are diving. These guys are all very experienced (we had 3 different gillies over the 3-morning shoot, all excellent) and they don’t waste your time getting unnecessary hopes up. They all know the osprey behaviour well and can often recognize the different birds by sight. The heron can be problematic photo-bombers if they are standing opposite the hides. The gillies would even tell us when it was safe to leave the hide to move them away. It took me a while to realise that this was an opportunity for heron flight shots (but it was 5.30 am after all!).

It’s really important that you do not track, and photograph, the osprey in flight before they dive for fish because this tends to spook them and that bird will not return that day. Luckily, during the osprey season, there are many local pairs of birds with young to feed so you do typically get quite a few opportunities. It is crucial to wait until the osprey has hit the water, then you get focus and keep it as the bird exits the water and flies away with the fish (hopefully). The osprey will be in the water for a few seconds as it has to kill the fish and then manipulate it into a carrying position before exiting. The osprey can move through 180 degrees during this process so it’s worth waiting until you get a pleasing composition in the water, rather than wasting buffer capacity taking shots of the back of the osprey’s head. Once the osprey start to exit the water things start to happen really fast. The wings are enormous and it’s very easy to underestimate how far up the frame they will travel as the bird flies off. Using the central focus point makes sense because you have the fish to worry about at the bottom of the frame and the wings at the top, plus it is the most sensitive focus point in low light.

Gimbal Head Technique

Have you ever had that experience where something you thought you understood (and worked well for you) was completely wrong? Well this happened to me on this shoot, and here’s how! On Friday 25th September 2009, Geoff and I attended our very first raptor shoot with Mark Sisson (another phenomenal wildlife shooter and author). Arguably the very starting point of my journey into wildlife photography! I was using my new gimbal head for the very first time with my 70-200mm f2.8 VRI with 1.7x teleconvertor on my D3, and was having a great deal of difficulty getting a sharp shot! This was a tad disappointing given that I was using my best kit and the raptor wasn’t even moving! Mark came over and suggested I try a few things, namely switching my gimbal head from right facing (as I had it) to left facing. The benefit of this would be that I could lean down on the gimbal with my left hand to steady the shot.

Left-Facing and Right-Facing Gimbal Positions..

Left-Facing and Right-Facing Gimbal Positions..

This worked out pretty well for me and I’ve used it ever since. I went on to learn that steadying the lens with a hand on top was also useful, and a rubber eyecup to make it more comfortable to press the camera against your eyebrow also helped long-lens technique. Mark definitely put me on the road to better long lens technique, and I’ve been getting sharp shots with very long lenses ever since. But left facing is NOT the best for me, right facing is! Thanks Lee, for pointing this out, not least because I didn’t want to hear it, and you kept going irrespective of my arrogant unwillingness to listen! Here’s the crucial thing. I’m right eyed! This means that I sight with my right eye to the viewfinder but, if the gimbal is left facing, I cannot see a lot of what is coming in from my left-hand side because my open left eye is hampered by the locking ring and upright arm of the gimbal head.

In retrospect it’s all too painfully obvious. I have frequently been reliant on colleagues calling the arrival of wildlife subject matter that I haven’t yet seen. I’ve been amazed that they spot things so quickly when I don’t, I just thought I must be slow, or old, or needing stronger glasses, but actually, there may have been a more obvious reason all along — I was blind-sided by my gimbal head!! Actually, if you think about it, right-eyed people are at a disadvantage anyway because there is more camera body to the left of the viewfinder which tends to obscure the view from the open left eye anyway, so a left facing gimbal head just makes things worse.

I think that the proof of the pudding was that I had no trouble at all sighting a (very small in the frame) kingfisher hovering over the pool, focussing and getting some sharp shots. See them below. The other clear advantage of using the gimbal head right-facing is that you have better access to the lens controls for VR-On and Off and Manual focus adjustment. I found myself more willing to adjust manual focus in the moment as it had been quite awkward with the left-facing setup.

The Images

Heron (the Vital Bit-Player)

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Osprey (the Main Event)

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Kingfisher (Proof I CAN Still Learn New Stuff)

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The Ducks (Who Can Resist Them?)

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So, in summary, I had a great time with Images in Nature and would recommend them to anyone interested in an immersive wildlife photography experience. Thanks again Lee!

Enjoy your photography,

until next time (woodland birds and red squirrel coming soon..),

R.

 

Kingfishers Fishing for Fish

Kingfishers Fishing for Fish

Nature Photography Hides Diving Workshop

Nature Photography Hides recently hosted a diving workshop for a group of 4 intrepid souls (myself included) at their new Hide and Diving Pool setup. This is so new that it’s not publicised on the website yet, but nonetheless available, and worth the trip down to Bromsgrove in the West Midlands to see Kingfishers fishing first hand, and photograph the process in detail. The set is sited down on the river bank. In the distance is a large buff coloured fence which blurs out as a background nicely. In front of the tank is a sheltered mount for the cameras, secured by four Arca Swiss style tripod heads. The sloped roof keeps the rain off, and the height of the mounts leaves the cameras in position to shoot parallel to the water surface.

Kingfishers Fishing

Diving Pool

The tank itself has a relatively shallow surface and a deeper centre portion in which the fish swim. This cuts down the area in to which the Kingfishers will dive (the rest is too shallow), which is important because of the limited depth of field. The cameras are fired by remote control from the hide itself which is in front of the setup visible here.

Just above the diving tank there is a perch holder, which is again positioned in order that the Kingfisher will dive into the tank facing backwards from the Hide. This way they turn in the tank and fly out either sideways along the length of the river, or towards the hide, for better looking shots. No one wants to see the Kingfisher’s backside as it flies away from the camera. In order to get sharp shots the cameras have to be set up in a very particular way, at their highest frame-rates. See ‘Camera Settings’ below for more information.

Camera Settings

To catch the Kingfishers fishing we need the birds to be in the correct place at the right time. You can’t alter the camera settings once you are in the hide, and you must try not to disturb the birds by going in and out of the hide too frequently. So we were using manual focus, having pre-focussed on the most likely diving spot.

Kingfishers Fishing

The Tricky Task of Focussing..

Our guide, Mick, was really helpful in making sure that we got everything right, and all came away with some excellent shots. Here Mick is holding a bar across the centre of the pool and using a handy finger knuckle placed mid tank for us to focus on (you can just see a head at a camera in the lower right hand corner). This is crucial because we were all using 70-200mm lenses at 200mm on full frame bodies. As you can see from the pictures, the Kingfishers were about 1.5m away, and this would mean a depth of field of about 2cm at f8 so there is no room for error and a certain amount of luck is still required.

F8 is about all you can afford in the dance between exposure value and ISO. To guarantee sharp shots you need a shutter speed of about 1/2500 of a second. We set auto ISO and aperture priority (i.e. to keep the camera set at f8) and a minimum shutter speed of 1/2500 s in the auto-ISO settings. We had great light and, with a 1 stop negative exposure compensation set to avoid blown highlights, the ISO ranged between a minimum of 720 and a maximum of 11,400 during the day. This said my keepers were evenly spread between ISO 800 and 7,200. No problem at all for the D4. You still need to take lots of shots however, because only some of them will be critically sharp and in frame. This depends partly on your timing, but mostly on where the Kingfisher dives and where he comes out again.

Participants were mostly shooting Nikon (1 D4s, 2x D4s and a Canon 5d MkIII). We were all using the Hahnel Giga T Pro II Wireless Timer Remote (by complete coincidence) and were able to set separate channels in order not to fire each other’s cameras. We were also able to help each other out because 3 of us hadn’t got much experience with the remote trigger, presumably purchasing them for this workshop! They worked flawlessly throughout the day though so they can be recommended as a reliable radio trigger.

Two Camera Setup

Having a perch, as well as a diving tank, gave the opportunity to shoot two cameras simultaneously (slightly tricky the first few times). This is made easier  by the remote control, but you do have to watch that the handset doesn’t time out because it defaults to single shot when you first turn it on. This can be deceptive because you do get 3 shots if you hold the button down and, with other cameras firing at the same time, it’s easy to think that you are shooting continuously when you are not. So this is me in the hide with my D810 feeling very lucky indeed (though looking like I’ve just seen an alien)!

Selfie..

Selfie..

Not the best picture of myself I’ve ever taken, but I suppose given the conditions, my old Galaxy S4 did a decent enough job with it’s microscopic sensor, lens and 8 bit jpeg files. I’d probably just realised that my shutter speed was too high!

For the perch shots, given the very short distance to the perch, from the hide, it suited me to use my 300mm f2.8 with 2x teleconverter rather than my usual 600mm f4. I have been caught out once or twice recently by the 5m minimum focus distance on the 600. The 300mm Nikkor can focus down to 2.2m, which was crucial here. I must say that even with the 2x teleconverter the results are still very sharp, but you do lose 1 stop of light (f5.6) compared to f4 with the 600. This isn’t really a problem provided you keep your brain engaged!

One of the worries, with a shoot like this, is that you will miss a crucial setting on the camera. Prior to arriving at the hotel the night before, I had set both camera bodies up for the diving shots (i.e. auto-ISO and a minimum shutter speed of 1/2,500). You don’t need that kind of speed on the perch shots, unless you want to capture an in-flight arrival or departure from the perch. It’s not that there is really a problem with auto-ISO per se, but you do need to remember to tone down the minimum shutter speed, or better still (for me anyway) move to aperture priority with a fixed ISO. I prefer to use VR on the D810 with a shutter speed close to 1/500th second for the Perch Shots. This is plenty stopping power for subject movement and camera shake, providing me the sharpest results on the high-res sensor. On the D4 my VR threshold on the 600mm is 1/160th second (I prefer 1/250th second if I’m shooting with the 1.4 teleconverter) but this doesn’t give a tack sharp result on the D810 so I like to go higher. Obviously above 1/500th second you can introduce shake with the VR so you need a shutter speed to match the reciprocal focal length (1/600th s or above in this case).

The End Result

The setup above may appear Heath-Robinson, but it is just perfect for the task. Take a look!

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Until next time..

Cheers,

R.

Kingfisher Diving Supplement

Kingfisher Diving Supplement

How do Kingfishers Dive for Fish?

This Kingfisher diving supplement adds to my post from yesterday A Few Days Out. I’ve examined my images from the Dumfries and Galloway shoot very carefully and I have realized something else important that I wish to share.

To recap:

  • The Kingfisher eyes up the fish from the side of the tank
Kingfisher Diving Supplement

Eyeing up the Prey..

  • The Kingfisher points his beak at the fish he wants several times
  • Then there is an extra long stretch, and you see the bird go into the water

New Insights..

Having looked at my images very carefully, here is what happens next:

  • The Kingfisher gives the extra long neck stretch then
  • Flies upwards and backwards along the line of his beak keeping the fish in sight
  • Then after gaining sufficient height, dives down and forwards again into the water to catch the fish
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Flight Path for a Dive..

  • This allows you to aim your camera along the flight-path much more accurately because you don’t have to overlap both sides of the tank just in case.

Some Action..

This is a little better than the Gif I published yesterday as it does show part of the backward flight prior to the dive. The shot 3 seconds before this sequence (not shown) has the Kingfisher looking at the fish, but before committing to dive. Fascinating stuff!!

Kingfisher Diving Sequence..

Kingfisher Diving Sequence..

Until next time,

R.

A Few Days Out

A Few Days Out

Setting the Scene

It’s been quite a while since I could afford the time, and the cost, of having a few days out of my local area, just for the purposes of shooting wildlife! This trip had been planned for a few months and you often have to book very early just to get places. My pal Geoff and I have often gone with Natures Images (Mark Sisson and Danny Green) in the past, and their workshops are universally fantastic! This time we booked with Nature Photography Hides (Mark Hancock) for the hides in South West Scotland. We had used Mark’s hides in Worcester to shoot Kingfisher previously (on a Nature’s Images workshop), so knew they would be of good quality. The plan was to work with the Sparrowhawk hide, the Red Squirrel reflection pool and the Buzzard Hide. Unfortunately the reflection pool was frozen so our host, Alan McFadyen, swapped us to one of his personal hides to shoot Kingfisher in order to avoid disappointment. As it happened, that was to work out very well indeed! Alan was a great host, and very personable, and the hotel we stayed in (the Selkirk Arms Hotel in Kirkcudbright) were fantastic. Great food, and they pulled out all the stops to provide early breakfast and packed lunches for our demanding schedule.

Day One

We met with Alan in the small village of Ringford at 7.15am and moved on to the hides from there. We negotiated the Buzzard hide for the first day, and made our way up a short climb, through the snow, to a hide looking out into an initially very foggy scene.

 

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And my was it cold!! The mist cleared to reveal a really beautiful view of the valley and yes the Buzzard did arrive and sit on an awesome perch. He was there for 20 minutes and we never took a shot!! There is a serious learning point here, which is this: Having taken due note of all necessary advice, sometimes you just have to go for it! We knew that he tended to be very twitchy before eating, and would usually fly off if he detected any lens movement from the hides. We were advised to wait until he had flown to the rocks to eat the rabbit or mice on the rocks. Unfortunately he had obviously eaten before arriving and had no interest in the free meal on the rocks. He was very twitchy on the perch and we might have only got one shot before he flew off. We will never know. The main thing is that we did no harm!

Feed on the Rocks

Feed on the Rocks

The Buzzard retreated to the distant tree line and seemed happy as Larry, preening and sunbathing. Just too far away for anthing other than a context shot. I would have struggled even for that were it not for the mega-resolution of the remarkable D810.

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Buzzard in the Trees

 

Day Two

This was the bonus day of our plan for a few days out. Kingfisher diving shots. Wow! Alan has a couple of hides down in a secret location by the river estuary. One hide is actually in the river at high tide! Fortunately for us, we were in the dry hide as there is quite a large tidal surge during the day. Yet again the weather was perfect, sunshine but frosty and cold.

An Early Fright

We met Alan at the hotel and he asked what lens I’d be using. 600mm I said. He looked horrified. Haven’t you got anything smaller? 200mm is all you will need!! Fortunately I had my 70-200mm f2.8 VR2 with me, plus teleconvertors, and Geoff was using his 200-400mm f4. Drama over. I was concerned about the quality though, and whether I’d get enough background blur with this kit. As you can see by the final shots below, I needn’t have worried. Most of my shots were taken with my 1.7 teleconvertor, and if I hadn’t been shooting full frame then I wouldn’t have needed one at all. A zoom definitely helped too because I could swap from wider to narrower view depending on whether the Kingfisher was on the perch or diving into the tank.

So How does it Work?

It would take a remarkable amount of patience, luck and time to catch Kingfishers fishing in their completely natural habitat, so photographers increase their chances with a staged set that includes perches and fish tank. Et viola, now you have a place, and a 2 hour window of time, in which you can see a Kingfisher fishing. The utilitarian looking setup shown below is perfect for the job.

Riverbank Set for Kingfisher Fishing

Riverbank Set for Kingfisher Fishing

As you can see, the river bank sits below and in front of the tank and perch. Beyond the tank you can see the reeds which are sufficiently far away to provide a very blurred out background when you are focused on the fish tank or perch. You can see the fish bait in the bottom corner of the tank.

Kingfisher Bait

Kingfisher Bait

Taking a Shot

It took me all day to realize what I am about to tell you now. So if you want to know how to take diving Kingfisher shots, listen up!!

The Kingfishers know the deal. There are fish in that tank, and like an expensive fish restaurant, they can choose which one they want. Every two hours or so they need to feed, so along they come, as regular as clockwork. They land on the side of the tank and take a good look, they peer in, and look round, apparently sizing things up then — whoosh — with a splash they are in the tank and emerging with a fish. At least that’s what it looks like. But actually, that’s not what just happened, not even close!

To take an effective image of a diving or hovering Kingfisher you need a few things in place:

  1. An exposure of 1/2000 second or faster to freeze the motion
  2. To test the exposure in advance to ensure that you don’t get any blown highlights, or blown colors, on the Kingfisher itself
  3. Pre-focus on the mid point of the tank
  4. Your fastest frames per second set in camera
  5. A wide-enough field of view to capture the action

1/2000 Second Exposure

This can be a bit of an ask at the beginning and end of the day. Depending on your maximum aperture, your ISO might have to go way up. Let’s consider some scenarios. I was shooting a full frame Nikon D810 with my 70-200mm f2.8 zoom Nikkor. I ended up using my 1.7x teleconvertor which gave me sufficient reach for a reasonable crop on the perch shots, and a wide enough crop on the tank. This gave me an aperture of f4.8 which at the start of the day meant an ISO of 2500,  1/2500 second and a reach of 340mm. Had I been shooting cropped sensor then I would have had an effective reach of 300mm at f2.8 and an ISO of 1000 with 1/2500 shutter speed would suffice. Either scenario means minimal depth of field so precise focusing is essential.

I had my D4 available, and, despite the phenomenal dynamic range of the D810 sensor at low ISO, the D4 beats it from ISO 400 upwards. Did this matter? Actually, no it didn’t. What you need to remember is that at dawn, and dusk, the light becomes flatter and much less contrasty so dynamic range is less of an issue than noise is. Interestingly, despite the poor reputation of the D810 for noise at high ISO, it is still 2 years newer than the D4 and the difference is less than I might have expected (for noise).

Check Exposure

This is also crucial. The Kingfisher has very bright and iridescent colors that are very easy to blow out. This is one of those circumstances where you really need to use your 4-channel histogram display (RGB, R, G and B) to check than none of the channels are blown. You have a couple of choices here. Take a few shots to ascertain the best exposure value and then switch to manual mode. The down-side of this is that you will have to check the light levels during the day and adjust accordingly. This can be especially problematic if the sun is in and out behind clouds. Alternatively you can shoot aperture priority with negative exposure compensation. This is what I did in fact, using -0.7 ev exposure compensation. Again there is a caveat, which is that if the light becomes very contrasty (eg. in bright sunshine) you might need to increase the exposure compensation. If the light is very flat though you may have to reduce it, or even use positive exposure compensation . There’s no substitute for experience here unfortunately.

Pre-focus and Its Implications

You know where the edges of the tank are, and you know that the Kingfisher will fly in between them. Manual focusing is arguably the best, and Alan had a suitable target for us to pre-focus on. With manual focus you help optimise your frames per second because the camera doesn’t have to waste time focusing.

Focusing Target

Focusing Target

I didn’t use manual focus though. This was because the perch and the tank were at different distances from my shooting position in the hide. With this in mind, I used my back focus button and set my shutter to release priority. This gives you the best of both worlds. You can pre-focus on the mid-point of the tank (it just so happened that there were some glue drops on the outside of the tank in the middle of the side face which worked perfectly), and fire at will when the Kingfisher dives. Or you can auto-focus on the bird on the perch if it lands there when it emerges from the tank.

Fastest FPS and Gotcha’s

I really wanted to use my D810 which gives 5 fps at full frame 36mp. Partly because it still feels very new, and I’m getting to know what it is capable of and also because I hoped for a few images that could be printed full detail at A2. I suspected that I would use the D4 first when the light was low, and the D810 when the light was better and the contrast higher, to optimize both noise performance and dynamic range. But actually, a new priority presented itself that meant I was willing to use the D810 from the start (see below). I only used the D4 at the end of the day when the light was really terrible and I needed to get my frame rate up (or so I thought).

I have a battery pack on my D810, and at Dx crop (15mp) it can shoot 7 fps. At full frame I was only getting 3 fps at the start of the day and, what I didn’t realize until I got home was that, I had my camera set to backup the main SD card to the secondary CF card (as opposed to overflow which I normally use). There’s no doubt in my mind that this slowed down the frame rate at full size, but was less of an issue at 1.2 crop (24mp) which then gave me 6 fps which was much more satisfactory.

A Wide Enough Field of View

I mentioned above that the Kingfisher appears to go off the side of the tank directly into the water, but that this is not what actually happens. In reality, faster than the human eye can register it, the Kingfisher flies up into the air and then dives down into the water to get the fish. The problem is that you just can’t see it so you don’t realize where you need to point your camera to get the best shots. Here’s an example of the sort of issue that occurs. First frame the Kingfisher is barely in shot, next frame he’s half into the water, so at 6 fps you are nowhere close to a satisfactory shot. It’s just happening too fast.

In and out in 1.5s

This took 1.5 seconds, start to finish

Here I’m burst shooting for 10 consecutive frames at 6 fps. You would need to be precise to a level of approximately 1/100 of a second in your timing to get the bird central in your frame every time. So what’s the trick? Well it boils down to this. To have a fighting chance you need your camera set to its fastest frame rate, and a wide-enough angle of view to improve your chance of getting an image in frame within any particular 1/10 second.

How do you do this? My advice is shoot portrait orientation with the base of your frame about twice the width of the tank to start with. Move wider if you still are not getting anything and shorter as you get better with your timing. The more pixels you have the better, but there is a tension between your number of pixels and your frame rate, and the size of the bird in the frame and your success rate. Simple as that!

Finally, how do you know when the Kingfisher will dive? Actually this is very straightforward, but can be easy to miss. The Kingfisher points his beak towards the fish a few times first and then gives a single longer neck stretch towards the fish and flies. As soon as you see that longer neck stretch start shooting and keep going until the Kingfisher has left the scene.

Putting it all Together

In the final analysis it just takes practice, once you have your settings. In reality you only need one good shot for a day’s shooting, so try to be patient. There’s a lot of waiting around between the bursts of action, but that’s wildlife for you! Don’t forget that Kingfisher are protected and don’t try any of this without the proper supervision. Definitely never approach a Kingfisher nest in the UK with your camera!

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D4 or D810?

I think that you can use either camera successfully. There is clearly a difference between 6 fps and 10 fps in terms of the number of successful frames you can catch, but you can shoot a wider area on the D810, at 24mp, thereby increasing your success rate, so in the end there is not as much difference as you might think between the two. I was forced to switch to my D4 at the very end of the day in order to minimize noise, but I would still have come away with sharp shots even if I hadn’t switched.

Final Day

And what of the challenges on the final day? We were blessed with lovely weather yet again. A backdrop including some snow and woodland, fearsome cold (of course) and the expectation of a Sparrowhawk called Mad Max. Unfortunately Max didn’t show, but lots of other cool birds did. The Woodpeckers were spectacular. Did I have any problems, well yes in the sense that I needed to use my beanbag rather than my tripod, which works well enough, but I’m less used to it. The balance point on my Nikkor 600mm is on the focus ring, a terrible design flaw in my view, meaning that when you turn the camera to portrait orientation, the focus changes if the lens isn’t lifted completely off the bean bag (easier for body builders, less so for me), so you have to refocus. The 600mm Nikkor is a full 5kg in weight, even without its camouflage kit. Also, I had not brought my extension rings.

Extension rings I hear you ask. Are you crazy? You shouldn’t be shooting macro with a 600 you fool!! No, quite so. Here’s the thing. Some of the perches were set up for shooting with a 70-200mm or 70-300mm lens and they were just too close for the 600 Nikkor which has a minimum focus distance of 5m (autofocus), 4.8m (manual focus). You can bring this forwards (at the possible expense of infinity focus) by using an extension ring! Old-school, but useful..

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And for the portrait shots..

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Don’t forget that you can follow me on twitter or G+, but for now, until next time..

R.

Rediscovering My Photography

Rediscovering My Photography

Rediscovering My Photography

My Journey Back, This Year in Pictures..

Background

I’m sure that I am the same as every other working individual. Work-life, home-life and chores expand to fill all available time — that’s Robin’s Law, one of many! The balance of these three may change from time to time, but essentially, hobbies are squeezed into any free time that you are not too tired to use. Over the past 12 months I’ve been focused on my cycling, as this has been making me feel better emotionally, and physically, but whilst doing so I’ve had a nagging feeling that something else is missing. I’ve known that it is my photography well enough. I’ve been thinking that I may as well dispose of my cameras, and other studio equipment, because they represent a large investment and I’m not using them. Fortunately I have managed to resist the urge, and in an effort to re-balance things, have started making time to take a few images again.

Recession and the Cost of Living

In reality my retreat from picture taking has been multi-factorial. I have read a lot of recommendations along the following lines: “Take loads of pictures, it doesn’t cost you anything to experiment with digital photography”. In one way this is true, well almost, it doesn’t cost very much to press the shutter button. The only real costs, once you have purchased the machinery, are for electricity to charge the batteries. Beyond this though, if you want to keep your photos safely, you need storage space in the form of multiple hard drives (or DVD’s if you have the patience to record them), and these do cost money. If you want people to enjoy your work you may also choose to purchase a website with it’s own attendant charges etc. There may be other expenses too, after all, there are only so many photographs you can find in your garden or front room. There comes a time when you have to invest in some form of subject-seeking. This can take many forms from the full-octane photography holiday, through to purchasing multi-colored knickknacks from a stationers for your macro photography. For some of us, the true joy of photography lies in the execution of a fabulous print. These also cost money, especially the A3 and A2 ones, and if times are hard, and you can’t afford the ink and paper for your printer, some of the joy of photography is leached away. The improvement in the UK economy has therefore also been one factor in my rediscovering my photography again.

With all this in mind, I took a day out to replenish my soul with one of my favorite subjects, a variety of birds of prey on an organized shoot at a falconry center. Some out-doors in natural settings, and others in the studio. Easy-peasy..

 

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Gauntlet Birds of Prey, Eagle and Vulture Park

If you would like to visit the Gauntlet birds of prey, eagle and vulture park I can strongly recommend it. The vulture collection is a particular treat. In addition to photography workshops they have flying displays at 12.30 pm and 3.00 pm, Vulture feeding at 12.00 pm and a meet and greet at 2.00 pm as well as other attractions.

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A Photo-Walk Around Chester

Invigorated by shooting wildlife again, albeit in captivity, I next tackled a photo-walk around Chester. Not a brilliant day, in fact quite dull, so I had to keep my wits about me. Black and white to the rescue..

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A Visit to Oxford

In our only city-break this year, we went down to Oxford to see Ceri, the daughter of some friends of ours, as she started her final exams. The weather was not kind to us, unfortunately, so we had plenty of time to look around the shops, and drink the occasional cup of tea and coffee.

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A Visit Thurstaston

The next step in my rehabilitation occurred during a drive out to Thurstaston with my daughter. The plan was to find some coastline, and take a few pictures along the way. As good fortune was to have it, the North Wales Hang Gliding and Paragliding Club were flying, and we got a few shots of them, plus the visitor center had a photography exhibition and a public hide with views out onto some well stocked bird feeders. Heaven!

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The Journey Continues

Sadly, these trips were still not quite enough, on their own, to get me taking pictures regularly again. Have you had the experience of wanting something all the more, when you knew you couldn’t have it? Well, my D300 broke! I hadn’t been abusing it, I’d just been updating the firmware to include compatibility with the 800mm f5.6 Nikkor extreme telephoto (it’s not like I will ever own one, but I like to be up to date), when to my astonishment, it just stopped working. In all honesty I hardly ever use the D300. It’s old technology now, but it is my backup camera and I do like to use it for macro shooting extreme close-ups with an old 300mm zoom and a 50mm reversed onto the end. And now, suddenly, I couldn’t. Should I buy a new camera? Probably not worth it if I’m not using my cameras much, but should I get the D300 repaired? Well probably, yes, was the conclusion I came to, if a camera that old can even be repaired? Well it turns out that it could. Nikon UK have a fabulous online system for repairs. You can say how much you would be prepared to pay without seeking permission to proceed, and even get the free postage label printed out from the website. They prepare an estimate and you say whether you want to go ahead or not and that is pretty much that.

Needless to say, once the D300 was returned to me in good working order, I couldn’t resist using it for some macro shots, and generally loving it and reminding myself of all its settings. Sad I know.. In fact, the challenge was as much to produce some good looking and clean shots with it as I could. I’d forgotten how noisy and textured D300 images could look. Sensor technology, and the supporting electronics behind them, are so much better now than even 5 years ago! Here’s how I got on:

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Oulton Park Track Day

By this point I’m fully engaged with the drama and creativity, seeking new photographic experiences and subjects again. I’ve said before on this blog that, for me, it is more about the photography than the subject. Novelty and complexity are always the way for me. I’ve never shot cars or bikes on a track before, so this would be a great entrée. Is it difficult? Depends. If you want a straightforward shot, tack sharp, just set a monster shutter speed and shoot away. If you want a sharp bike and rider with spin-blur on the wheels done in camera, on a bend, yes that’s tricky first time out. Impossible? You be the judge!!

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Hooked Again!!

The Inevitible Consequences..

And so it was, hooked again. Desperately fighting the urge to buy a new camera, but eventually succumbing to the temptation. A couple of years ago I blogged about wanting a Nikon D4 and a D800, but having to choose just one. That time it was the D4, this time the siren call of 36mp detail was too much for my battered psyche, and so to the D810..

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More later,

 

Robin.

The World in a Droplet

The World in a Droplet

Macro Photography can be a Challenge

The Basic Premise

My inspiration for the world in a droplet idea came as a result of seeing an image of a drop of water on a hypodermic needle on the web. You could see a thin reflection on the base of the droplet, which was very small in the frame, but you couldn’t see what it was. I had the idea that I could have the reflection of a world atlas in the droplet and, of course, larger in the frame.

Testing the Theory

Although I was confident that I could pull this off, I knew it might be difficult. I thought I could get the magnification, but I wasn’t sure about the rest. How to get a drop on a wire (I don’t have a hypodermic needle), how to get the map reflected and what about the necessary depth of field. A pilot project seemed the thing to test the theory. I didn’t take any production shots of this, so you will have to use your imagination.

Daylight seemed perfect, so I set up on the surface by the kitchen window. I took my floor stand (a light stand) and, using electrician’s tape, fixed a cardboard tube from a roll of aluminium basting foil leftover from the Christmas turkey. To this I taped an empty Bic biro carcass with a blue paperclip wedged into the end, and bent it into a sort of hook shape. Using a second biro carcass, I poured water into the open end until I got a droplet on the end of the paperclip hook. Actually, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to get this to happen quickly because it proved a nightmare to reproduce when I did the final world in a droplet image.

Equipment wise, I used my old D300 Nikon as it would give more magnification than a full frame (the droplet was only 1.5-2 mm wide). I fitted an old 75-300 mm Nikkor lens, and using a set of reversing rings, fixed an old 50 mm f1.8 Nikkor to the end. I quickly found that I had more reach than I really needed so zoomed the 70-300 to a wider setting, and took my shot.

The World in a Droplet

First Stab..

So what did I learn? Firstly, I’d have been better off setting up somewhere other than the backlit kitchen window, because I was getting a lot of flare and unwanted reflections in the droplet and had to shutter out the window. Secondly, focusing is really difficult because there is so little depth of field. If you move the tripod it can take an age to even locate the droplet again, never mind focus on it. You aren’t able to clearly see the text on the map when you focus on the droplet, so it is very hard to get it sharp (at least with my eyes). Partly because you can’t define the letters, partly because it’s hard to make fine enough adjustments to the focus (more on this below).

Secondly, the map image appears to be on the rear surface of the water droplet, so you have to focus there to get the map sharp. This means you can’t see sharp edges on the droplet itself, and the paper clip is not properly in focus. In fact the paperclip would have been better parallel to the plane of focus to avoid so many depth issues. When I do this for real, I will have to use focus stacking.

Thirdly, the map was upside down in the droplet (of course you idiot!!), so that needs turning upside down before you start.

Doing it for Real

Household chores notwithstanding, it was a few days before I got to try this again. Time to approach things more professionally and turn the house upside down in the process! Clearly this is best when your wife is out for a few hours. I wanted a more adjustable setup as I’d had real problems changing the position of the map first time round. I wanted to be able to adjust the field of view in the droplet, so that meant adjusting the position for and aft, as well as from side to side. Secondly, I wanted to be able to position the wire with the drop on it a little more precisely (there was no adjustment on the cardboard tube setup) too. Finally I wanted the droplet to be side lit to avoid flare.

The World in a Droplet

Getting the Droplet on the Paper Clip

This was the hardest part of the shoot bar none! After much trial and error I came up with the setup shown. I was able to use an old Lastolite reflector holder on my floor lighting stand as shown. This worked out fabulously because the spring grip made the perfect holder for the biro, which could then be slid backwards and forwards for perfect positioning in the frame. My only regret was it took a couple of hours, and a roll of electician’s tape, for me to realize I could do this!!

_DSC0146-Edit

Getting the droplet on the paperclip proved difficult, but here are a few tips. The angle of the biro carcass needs to be quite steep so that water runs out of the end quite quickly. This makes it more likely to run around the curve of the paperclip, and consequently to leave droplets. Too slow and it just drops out of the end of the tube (counter-intuitive to be sure). Don’t forget to place a cloth underneath to catch the drops! The attachment system for the clip that worked best, and I tried many, was to have a cable tie underneath the clip as shown below. The cable tie slows the water down and ensures that it is running over the paperclip.

_DSC0168-Edit

The Photography, Getting in Close

Firstly, don’t forget to turn the map upside down if you haven’t already. Given the size of the droplet (approximately 2 mm) you need considerable magnification to fill the frame. My solution was to use a reversed 50 mm lens on the end of a longer lens. The longer the second lens, the greater the magnification. I used an old 75-300 f4.5-5.6 Nikkor from my film camera days. You will need a reversing ring to join them together, and I purchased mine (52 mm to 62 mm) from a UK company, SRB Photographic (formerly SRB-Griturn) that make and sell a wide variety of these specialist items.

Both lenses were focused at infinity, and the 50 mm aperture was set to f1.8. I’m not certain that a wide open aperture leads to the best quality/depth of field, but that will be an experiment for another day. The 75-300 zoom was set to f32 and I used the zoom control to finesse the magnification.

To focus, I moved the camera / lens setup back and forth on a Manfrotto 454 Micropositioning Sliding Plate. You can just see the lock screw poking out above the D300 on the tripod in the picture above. It can be surprisingly difficult to find an image at this magnification so be patient!

It goes without saying that to avoid camera shake you should use a remote release and mirror lock up.

Watch-Out!! Don’t Damage the Lens…

The rear element of the 50 mm Nikkor is flush with the back of the lens which is problematic. It is very easy to flick the paperclip onto it, and there is a risk of scratching the lens or getting water into the electronics. Even though this was a very old lens, I didn’t want to damage it, so after a few near misses I decided to use my smallest Kenko auto-extension tube as a lens hood for the back of the lens. I used the shortest one in order to minimize the risk of extra vignetting.

Focus Stacking

Depth of field at this magnification is very narrow and both the map, the paperclip and the edge of the droplet need to be sharp in the final image, so take separate images at each depth. The front of the droplet is unnecessary as it would obscure the view of the map. Using the 454 it was possible to get the 3 images required for the blend.

Post Processing

The images for the focus stack will be pin registered if you haven’t moved the tripod, so they can be loaded as layers into Photoshop without issue from Lightroom (or whichever way you choose). Any adjustments in Lightroom or Camera Raw should be made to each of the images before stacking them. In Photoshop, the sharp paperclip and map images can then be blended into the final image using layer masks. Here I took the opportunity to desaturate the background (i.e. the full sized map) a little to make the map inside the droplet all the more prominent. After that, some sharpening using your preferred method or plug-in finalizes the image.

The World in a Droplet

The World in a Droplet!

Cheers, R.

Red Kites at Gigrin Farm

Shooting Red Kites at Gigrin Farm

Time-off is Precious!

It’s been a while, in fact, as I think about it, I haven’t been to Gigrin since I purchased my D4. The last time I was there would have been 7th April 2011, 3 whole years ago to the day. Since I adopted cycling as a new pastime there has been increased pressure on my photography time, to a point where it can be months between structured shoots. But this week, I’ve booked in a couple of days shooting, of which this was the first.

Facilities at Gigrin

Hides for Photography & Filming

There are a range of Hides for the photographer. The ground level hides are adequate for photography for those with compact cameras and DSLRs, whilst the tower hides have been built for photographers with more professional equipment in mind. The Gateway hide is around 4m closer to the kites than the towers. The tower hides have a partial roof as protection, and a bench fitted to the rear of the hide with coat hooks on the left-hand side. This arrangement is ideal for panning overhead and gives a superb view of the kite’s surroundings. Newcomers to the tower hides should be aware that there is a green line on the floor that marks the most forward standing position so as not to frighten the birds.

Disabled Access

Four of the hides are wheelchair friendly, with ramps and internal access, and there is parking for up to four vehicles right outside the hides for those unable to walk the 100m from the regular car park. There is even a wheelchair accessible photographic hide with the same roof arrangements as the towers.

The Red Kite Shop

In the handy Red Kite Shop you can purchase a range of goods including binoculars, note pads, mugs, bird feeders and Red Kite clothing (T-shirts, Sweatshirts, Fleeces, Caps) books, paintings and videos.

The Photography

Equipment

For our trip, we booked the larger tower hide, and I shot with my D4 and 600mm F4. To begin with I was using my 1.4 teleconverter as well, but, to be honest, that amount of reach really handicaps you because it restricts you to birds beyond the feeding zone where there is sufficient space in the viewfinder to pick them up and pan with them. You need too much precision to pick up birds in the middle distance, and this is unrealistic unless you are a seasoned professional wildlife photographer. Birds near-to will have their wings cropped, also not a good look! My pal Geoff was shooting with a D4 and a 200-400 F4, he had also started with a 2x teleconvertor but also found that he was better off without one.

Focusing

To begin with it is very difficult to track the birds. You must practice shooting with both eyes open (to help you lock on, and see the best action coming) and over half an hour or so you will find you can pick the birds up in the viewfinder more easily. Even then you are at the mercy of your camera for finding focus. Always use continuous auto-focus and the highest frame rate that your camera can manage. To make life easier we were both shooting with Gimbal Heads. I found it best to focus on the tree line first. This makes the acquisition rate much higher when you target a bird in flight because the distance is much closer to that of the bird.

Another problem comes with losing focus when the birds dive for food. Red Kites do not land on the ground (though interestingly one did just that on Monday, and it is the first time I have ever seen it), so they dive steeply and swoop down picking up their food (or prey) in one really fast action. I found that I would lose the birds on the way down, and when I found them close to the ground again I had lost focus. I think that one technique that may help you with this is to stop focusing once the bird dives, then pick it up again on the floor. This works because the Kite will be at about the same distance from the camera and you won’t have been risking a refocus on the background as you swing the camera downwards once the bird has gone. On Nikon professional cameras you can adjust the timing of the refocus pause, which can also help you stay on the target.

I find that the best technique is to pick up a Kite in the distance, then follow it until it has filled the frame, or done something interesting. It is very tempting to take thousands of photographs of very distant birds because they seem larger to your eye than they do to the lens, but by being patient you can get some good shots that fill the frame. Make sure to start shooting just before the kite is large enough in the frame because they move very quickly and you can end up with clipped wings. Be careful to avoid shots of the bird flying away from your viewpoint or turning away from the lens. Some of your best shots will be obtained once the birds have thinned out (and the other visitors have gone home). This is because you are sufficiently practiced by then, and there are fewer birds to contaminate your shots. If possible you want to get the kite with space to fly into the frame. It can help to use the central focus point because it is more sensitive and also guarantees space in the frame, which ever way the bird is travelling, if you focus on the head.

Finally, don’t forget to try some vertical shots, and shots with more than one bird. Odd numbers seem to work better than evens for this.

Settings

In a change to my usual practice of using a couple of manual exposure settings (one for light and the other for shade) described elsewhere, I used a different technique due to the very flat lighting conditions. I set my camera to auto-ISO, with a minimum speed of 1000th of a second, then set a manual exposure of 1600th second at f4. I took a couple of test shots (repeated through the afternoon) to judge the exposure compensation that I would need shooting against the white sky. This ranged from 0.3 – 1.0 stops as the afternoon wore on, but this gave great results and I didn’t need to worry when the sun came out for the odd shot.

I usually turn vibration reduction off for shutter speeds above 500th second, but (in the heat of the moment, against the breeze, I didn’t realize it was turned on – easily done when you’ve covered up the switch with a waterproof camo-cover) I’m pleased to say that it didn’t seem to make any difference to the image sharpness.

Post Processing

These days I’m using lightroom for initial adjustments, then adding a quick mid-tone contrast boost to the bird itself using Tonal Contrast in Color Efex Pro, followed by my 3 or 4-pass sharpening routines in photoshop. Though I must say that the Raw Pre-sharpener algorithms in Sharpener Pro 3 are just as good and much faster to implement.

Spoils of the Day…

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Cheers,

R.