Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Bird in a Herd

Did you know herons nest in bunches?

This is called a "rookery" or perhaps more descriptively, a "heronry". When you see them airborne, they are either sleek and jet-like or when their landing gear is down, prehistoric and awkward. The iconic heron stands by the water in a Zen-like state until suddenly it strikes. This stillness is echoed as they stand guarding their nests.

Did you know that a group of herons is called a "Siege of Herons"? I bet you didn't!

They inspire me to write in rhyme. Like Dr. Seuss...

Are these some herons in a tree?
Yes they are as you can see.
Babies two and mom makes three,
The scene is very clear to me.
Daddy's coming, we really wish,
We hope that he will bring a fish.
Bring us lunch, please do, please do:
Daddy heron where are you?

Now look! Now look! Look now, you three.
Daddy's coming home, I see.
Has he got a big fat fish?
On a plate or in a dish?
Oh no, Oh no that cannot be.
Daddy's got no food for me.
Is it hiding in his foot?
Where's he carrying the loot?
In his neck or in his mouth?
No I think it's further south
I know, I know wait patiently!
It's in his tummy, don't you see?

But I can be serious too. In the style of a Japanese Haiku...

Aloft on giant wings 
Feathers cloak ungainly bones

From another world


In the clinical note on my latest visit with the oncologist, he said, " a pleasant, 69-year old gentleman...". Guess he doesn't really know me — one out of three ain't bad! Looks like you're stuck with me for a while longer, surgery was successful as anticipated, I still have my cancer but it's being managed.

I've developed these really weird sleep habits, I think since my surgery. I used to go to bed late, sleep from, say, 1 am to 6 am, like a log to which the undisturbed sheets and bedding attest. 5 or 6 hours, that was all I needed.

Now: I have dinner, then afterward, no matter what I'm doing, watching TV or at the computer... no matter if it's interesting or not, I fall asleep without warning. I'll close my eyes during a commercial and BANG, it's 1:30 am and I've been asleep for 3 hours. Now I force myself to go to bed (after putting away the milk I took out or sticking the dirty dishes in the sink to soak) and of course it's hard to get to sleep.

Next thing I know, it's 4:00am and I'M UP. I go to the bathroom and read for a while and try to go back to sleep. If I succeed, it's 8:30 or 9am when I wake up. Usually I can't.

My friends tell me, "welcome to the club". No sympathy. I get no sympathy. I'm reminded of a line Bob Newhart said on the Big Bang Theory one time: "I get up, go to the bathroom, then wander around the house for a couple of hours".

So I decided not to feel concerned about it. If I'm up at 4, so be it. I'll catch up tomorrow. Carden Plain is 45 minutes away. Algonquin Park is an hour. Why not greet the sun as it rises and take advantage of that golden hour? Or the birds as they greet the new day? Or if it's ugly out, catch up with all the goings-on on the computer and try to do some of the stuff I never seem to get to anyway.

We'll see how that goes. But right now, I need to take a nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn...

Carden Plain birds

So I changed into my camo's, left the house around 5:30, drove to Carden Plain, and started up Wylie Road around 6:15. Quiet. I wonder why? Still, I heard birds and stopped to look and listen. The woo-woo-woo of a Wilson's Snipe. There he was, standing guard on a fencepost. He was on the east side so the sun backlit him, a challenging shot. Suddenly he puffed himself up, just like we do when we get out of bed and stretch! A Wilson's Snipe Puffball!

This shot is not cropped at all. Here it is in its 36 Megapixel glory! I was surprised he let me get this close but I was wearing full camouflage, so maybe that helped.  

Across the road and down a ways was a Savannah Sparrow. He just stood there, not singing, but hey...

This one IS cropped. I couldn't get that close. 

It's 7am and a black SUV pulls up. Dan Busby, of all people! We chatted for a bit, I mentioned that someone said they had seen an upland Sandpiper a couple of days ago. But he said he was on a mission, to get a Sedge Wren. I asked if he minded if I tagged along, which he didn't.

I learned a lot. We stood there, listening. Dan said, "there's a sedge wren in those cattails and another across the road. I hear [list of birds I can't remember]". I swear, I heard nothing. It was quiet. Eventually I heard them and I was amazed how Dan could identify what was around us. He knew the habits of the birds, where they might be found, what they would do. And sure enough...

I think I like the second image best. More dynamic.

Borden Airshow June 11th

To preface this, the Snowbirds used my photo of a Harvard trainer taken a couple of years ago, in their 2016 brochure. I was honoured that they chose it, they put my signature on the tail of the plane (in the brochure!) and I had some correspondence with Capt. "Match" Hatta who designed the brochure. Match flies Snowbird 3 and has outstanding credentials with over 2000 hours in the CF-18 Hornet. He arranged for me to get a special pass to access the VIP section at the Base Borden airshow.

Here's the picture they used 

Actually the access pass I got let me into the "Special Guest" area which was less than ideal because there were some vehicles parked in front of it, obstructing the view. Ron and the rest of the RHCC group had a better view from the bleachers! However I talked my way into the actual VIP area which was dead "centre stage" so I think I had the best vantage point possible. I also got to hobnob with some interesting people, including the RSM of the MP's at Base Borden and his wife! He thought my camera/lens was quite heavy: not as much as a loaded C7, sir!

The flying didn't start until 1:00 so we looked around at the static displays. There was a lot of military hardware around, and every second person was in CADPAT BDU's. I decided that now was the time to resurrect my HDR techniques, to emphasize the textures of military hardware.

In the doorway of a Griffon helicopter. These were actually members of the Air Force 443 squadron (Hornets). I offered to swap my leather hat for one of their caps. No dice!

T-33 trainer in HDR.

CF-116 or what the Americans called an F-5 Freedom Fighter.

Here's another shot of the Freedom Fighter. It was impossible to get spectators to stay away long enough to shoot a picture...
aren't you impressed with my Photoshop skills? 

This is the Tudor trainer that the Snowbirds fly. They allowed spectators to sit in the aircraft but the lineup was really long. 

The airshow started on time and the skies cleared up but a few of the 'acts' were cancelled because of the high winds. That included the paratrooper drop and some of the lighter aerobatic civilian aircraft. I won't bore you with tons of in-flight pictures but here are a couple:

An aerobatic squad of Harvards. These aircraft are meticulously maintained but they're about 60 years old!

This is a DeHavilland DH-100 "Vampire" fighter. This plane was test flown in September, 1943 and was adopted by the Canadian Forces in 1948, the first jet fighter post-war. Google it: the history is fascinating!

Today, Canada flies the CF-18 Hornet. Amazingly, they've been in service since 1980 — that's 35 years! There's discussion about replacing the fleet with the F35. 

Heading virtually straight up! What causes the contrails? The air passing the wingtips (and next to the fuselage) has expanded so much that its temperature has dropped below the dew point (the point at which the air can no longer hold the water as a vapour) and it condenses out. But you knew that... (the Ideal Gas Law. Look it up!)

The Snowbirds closed the show. The precision and skill of this team is awesome. They are considered by many to be the best aerobatics team in the world.

Here are a few of my photos from their routine:

Here's where being dead centre had its advantages! One bird is slightly out of position... unless he's preparing for the next manoeuvre  when the remaining four planes split.

I think this was technically one of the most difficult manoeuvres. It's called the "Echelon in Review" and I wondered how they could do it since none of them could see the other planes. Turns out they could, Match told me, by looking up through their canopies

I took this a couple of seconds later. Virtually perfect symmetry.

Speaking of symmetry, here's the Snowbirds' iconic diamond formation. The sky was perfect for photography!

Video Links
This is a 360° video link that Match sent me. If you're using Chrome, Firefox or the YouTube mobile app, you can pan around and see it from all angles! Ain't technology wonderful?

Here's a normal video that was taken at the St. Louis airshow a few weeks ago. Pretty well the same routine that the Snowbirds flew at Base Borden...


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Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Flower Power

Focus Stacking

For the photographers among my readers. 

Others might enjoy the images but have no interest in the methods. This first part is a bit of a loose tutorial on Focus Stacking, just from a hands-on, empirical direction. I thought about putting it in the tech blog instead but there's a very popular article there on exporting images from Lightroom, especially for print, that I don't want to push down. If you're at all confused about cropping or sizing images for print, read this article:

Often I like to work on new techniques, or at least techniques that I don't use frequently so that I can improve my skills. A good example is focus stacking. I spent some time on it the other day and at the same time, figured out how to get my camera down to ground level with my 3 Legged Thing tripod. Let's start there.

It's pretty simple, actually. Remove the tall centre column and replace it with the short one they provide. I even left off the collar under the ball head to get an inch or so lower, so I had the camera about 6" (15cm) off the ground. I could have had it even lower, in fact right ON the ground, by inserting the column upside down and hanging the camera underneath (image would be upside down) but that was overkill for what I was shooting. It's good to think about and practice this stuff for when I need it in the future.

This tripod (3LeggedThing "Brian") allows me to put the legs flat on the ground so the minimum height is governed by the height of the centre column and ball head. The camera is  Nikon D800 and lens is a Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 macro. I used a cable shutter release and to help see the LCD, a Hoodman Loupe which you see at lower left. I find shooting multiple shots using LiveView to be cumbersome so mostly I just used the viewfinder.

Focus Stacking is used to control depth of field. I could have used a small aperture to get the whole flower in focus but the background wouldn't have looked the same.

Besides, a small aperture means less light so shutter speed and/or ISO would have to be adjusted. This shot was 1/60 sec at f/18, ISO 100. Note this was after the sequence below and I had spritzed water drops on the flowers.
With a large aperture, depth of field is minimal and when you're shooting macro, often not enough:

1/2000 second at f/3.3 (as wide as this lens will go when you're shooting this close), ISO 100. Note that only part of the back flower is in focus. Click any image to blow it up if you want to see it more clearly.

So I took 7 exposures, each one focused a little closer to the camera than the previous one. I looked through the viewfinder and just moved the focus ring slightly between shots, using the cable release so as to not move the camera. Then I opened all seven as layers in Photoshop, auto-aligned them and then auto-blended them. Photoshop looks for the sharpest focus in each image and masks out the rest. You could do it manually but that would be tedious.

Here's the resulting image. I cropped it before exporting it here, as well as doing some sharpening and toning... notice the great-looking background as compared with the small aperture shot up above!

* You may have wondered why I didn't say "the Bokeh" of the background. Because that would be inaccurate. Bokeh refers to the shape and tonality of out-of-focus highlights, not the background as a whole. 

Faithful readers know me by now... I can't leave well enough alone! Here's my finished image after I applied some Topaz Impression, using the Impasto-1 preset as a basis.

These wild strawberry flowers are about the size of my thumbnail, by the way. When I did the frame for display here (an action I wrote in Photoshop), I took a colour from the image to use as a background. This image itself is ready for printing!

When you focus stack, you have to be careful to get all the slices in focus. Not that easy to do! Sometimes you need to work at smaller apertures than the minimum (deeper depth of field) or use more images in the stack. For the following image, I merged 20 exposures and on close examination, even that wasn't enough (the closer you are, the shallower the depth of field).

This is also a finished image. I added a bit of Topaz Glow and again, Topaz Impression for the painterly effect. 1/1000 second at f/4, ISO 100. 

I shot a couple of others, some worked out, some didn't: here's another focus stacked image:

Look at the delicious Bokeh in this image! I thought of cropping tighter but I thought the yellow corners – especially the flower at lower right – added a depth and balance to the shot. This has the look of a medium- or large-format image from the old film days! It's why I love my D800. This is comprised of 8 stacked images shot at 1/1000 sec at f/3.3, ISO 100.

You can click on any image to blow it up and view it larger onscreen. Pretty sure I'm going to print this one, probably on canvas.

Gales of November news

This was the banner atop the blog until today, when I replaced it with the Sandhill Cranes picture. 

Two more people have signed up for the October 27th workshop so we're slowly running out of room! If you've been sitting on the fence, time to hop off! The closer we come to it, the more excited I am about the experience we're going to have! 

Go to for details and to sign up.

Flower Power

Carden Plain isn't just for the birds! There's interesting flora there as well. Among the many varieties there are two in particular that I photographed third week of May, the "Prairie Smoke" and the "Indian Paintbrush". I can't say that either are unique to the area but the word 'ubiquitous' comes to mind. Large bands of both plants give the Alvar a spectacular colour and texture in the Spring.

Bands of Prairie Smoke (and of course dandelions. Where AREN'T there dandelions!)

The buds of the Prairie Smoke are beautiful in their own right. Here I did a multiple-image focus stack while lying on my stomach in the grass. "They" are right when they say you have to get down on your subject's level! 

When the flower ripens, this is what you get. The tendrils give it a smoke-like appearance.  

That's more obvious when you get a whole bunch of them together. This was another focus-stack. 

A patch of Prairie Smoke. Now you can see where the name comes from!

Indian Paintbrush is a brilliant, photogenic Orangy-red and it also grows in bands across the open grassland. The bird in the distance is a Sandhill Crane! 

Here's a bunch of them. You can figure out where the name came from. This plant is more indigenous to the Pacific Northwest.  

I chose to do an artistic, painterly rendering using Topaz Impression. Many of the presets yielded interesting images, it was hard to choose just one! 

What I love about this shot is how the colours of the two flower species' work together on the green and yellow background to produce a coordinated palette of colour. Looks like this will make a fine abstract print on canvas. 

Next on tap is the trillium. Several species of these abound in Ontario for a short time in the Spring. One variety I haven't seen this year is the "Painted Trillium", but it ain't over 'till it's over!

Last week I posted some trillium shots that I painstakingly lit and stacked and crawled on the ground to capture. Then again...

I shot this one hanging out the car window with my long lens! We were driving on a dirt road just North of Carden when we saw these. The white trilliums turn pink as they fade and die. 

This specimen was so beautiful I had to give it special treatment. Another one I shot from the comfort of my car seat!


Yeah, well! I'm definitely not an experienced birder but I'm an enthusiastic one. I don't know what I'm looking at, it's hard for my eyes to pick them out, but it's a challenge. And I don't have the best optics, just adequate. It's good to know some really qualified birders such as Dan Busby and Bill Bunn, and some people with phenomenal eyes like Kathy McKelvey-Brown and Linda Cresswell to shoot with.

I just went through the list at the back of my Peterson's Field Guide and I came up with 84 species that I've seen (I may have seen others but haven't recorded them). I don't necessarily have photos of all of them. I look forward to seeing more!

Grey Catbird, seen behind the Cultural Centre in Minden. There were lots of birds there, I'm looking forward to
going back. 

Brown Thrasher at Carden Plain 

If Dan hadn't told me what this was, I'd never have guessed! But now that I look at it, I realize, well, it's obvious! This is an American Robin fledgling just out of the nest, wisps of down still on its head. Shot right behind my house! 

I have some spectacular bird pictures for you for next time, so stay tuned. To get an email note that a new Blog entry has been posted, please click the newsletter button at top right.

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Friday, May 20, 2016

Spring at last!

Someone came up to me yesterday and said, "I didn't get your blog reminder this week. Something wrong with your list"? No, it's because I didn't get the blog finished yet! Nice to know that people actually look forward to reading this! 


I just watched a Nikon product tutorial about "wireless flash" presented by Moose Peterson. Two things occurred to me, I'll mention the second one first: "why do you need it?" Yes I get why it would be useful in certain situations, like when you are in a huge studio, but no, wait, when you're in such a studio you are most probably using studio strobes, not little speedlights... but sure there must be situations when the standard built-in infrared commander mode flash controls don't work.
Actually they wouldn't if you have a D3 or D4 or D5 because they don't have pop-up flashes.
But here's the thing. Moose was espousing this thing for use in wildlife photography, "so you don't have that distracting cable running from the camera to the flash" (which was mounted on a bracket above the camera on his tripod). To use it you need to buy a flash controller ($200) which you plug into the camera and of course the new SB5000 flash which sells for $600 at BH. And that brings me to my second point...

The first impression you get when the video starts is, "yeah, must be nice". You never see the tripod itself, except the top of it but it's probably $1000 Really Right Stuff or Gitzo legs. The gimbal mount looked like a $1500 Zenelli. Mounted on it? A Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR Lens ($16,500) and a D5 ($6000). Total cost of the setup in the video? Somewhere North of $25,000 US dollars.

I get that there are people who have that kind of money to spend on toys. But why make a general distribution video about it, and put it on a channel (Nikonos Tim) where they also have tutorials on how to set up your camera's diopter, or explaining what "depth of field" is?

So that's my gripe. Are you mass-marketing to the regular photographers out there (pro's too: most people don't have black Amex cards) or to the high echelon elite? Kelby does the same thing: he writes for the mass market but looks down his nose on anyone who doesn't have $25K of studio lighting, the ability to fly to India and shoot the Taj Mahal or press access to the sidelines of NFL games. I guess he sells more books if he maintains the mystique.

Mechanic in a Can

Every year I seem to want to write about a magic "mechanic in a can", then I look back and discover that I've already written about it. But every year I'm amazed.

Suffice it to say that I have an old lawnmower. When I put it away last fall I filled the tank, put in a couple of ounces of SeaFoam, ran it for a few minutes to mix it in and parked it in the back of the garage. Today I took it out, pushed the primer a few times as usual, and pulled the starter cord. Nothing. "Uh-oh", I said, "my luck has finally run out". I pulled the starter again. The motor started immediately and ran smoothly.

So once again, I'm amazed. Canadian Tire sells it now and every mechanic I know is aware of it. Now you are too. "SeaFoam Motor Treatment". It's magic.

Don't take my word for it. Google is your friend. Here's an example: 

I used it in my motorcycles. I use it in my ATV. I used it in my snowblower. I use it in my lawnmower. I DON'T use it in the car (don't ask me why!) but I will. I use it in the gas but not the oil: again don't ask why, I will next week.

I'm the type of person who shouldn't own tools. I couldn't fix an engine if my life depended on it. But this stuff is so good, I don't need to!

So now you know. I'll probably write this again next spring!

Don't deal with PosterJack

I just spent the better part of the day preparing some images for print. I had decided to print at a company called "PosterJack" in Toronto because (1) they had a special on and (2) I've printed with them before (some time ago) and had good results.

Before getting down to work on the images, I contacted them to find out what they needed. I was ordering some 16x20 canvas wrapped images and needed to know how to deal with the edges so that the image would wrap around the frame. They told me they needed 1.5 inches all around, so I diligently changed my images to reflect that.

Here's a screenshot that illustrates the work I did. I used content-aware fill and other techniques to extend the image so that it would wrap correctly. The outside guidelines are at 16x20", the image itself is at 19x23", The double guidelines were there to indicate the safety zone for the signature at lower left so it wouldn't be near the edge. 

When I uploaded the image to their site, it told me it had to be cropped. Why? I sized it PRECISELY the way they told me to. So I phoned them and got a very unpleasant CSR on the phone. In the end, she explained that they needed an additional 1/4" all around to avoid problems at the back of the wrap. If I'd been told that initially, I would have added it, so I said I'd go back and add it in then re-upload. Just for verification, I said, my image was 5700px x 6900 px. She told me don't bother, their software will resize it (yes but then the proportions would be wrong!) and that I didn't need more than 100 pixels per inch for an optimum print.

I get that we're talking about canvas, so you don't need full resolution. But it was the way she treated me as if I were an infant that left a bad taste. Then she refused to let me talk to a manager, saying she was an expert. I ended up calling back and talking to someone who may or may not have been a manager, who defended the CSR and said that I don't understand photography.

So: I highly recommend that you do NOT deal with PosterJack. Dealing with their customers this way is not how to conduct business. Too bad, because I have an acrylic print they did for me a couple of years ago that's really excellent.

PS: yes, I'm writing this while I'm pissed off. That's my privilege. If I prevent just one person from dealing with them, I've done my job. Hope they hear about it.

PPS: too bad. I've been shopping around to try to get these prints done economically (with all due respect to the pro printers out there, I'm donating some prints to Toronto General/Princess Margaret Hospital and can't afford much. If any of my readers do canvas and want to help out, please get in touch). Just about everyone is double the price I got from them... I ordered one via a Groupon but when you add the shipping...

Oh no! More birds!

It's an addiction, I tell you! I don't think they make a nicotine patch for bird shooters. Maybe there's a 12-step program out there... and when I see what REAL bird shooters are doing, they're much better than my shots. But it's a challenge, with this Tamron 150-600 lens. One day maybe I can get a 'big boy' lens like Ron and Mark and Dan and... that said, when we were at Carden Plain last week, I could do things they couldn't, because both Ron and Mark commented that they can't shoot those big 600 f/4 Nikons handheld. 

When Ron and Mark were here, I was editing the following image and we got into a discussion about cropping. In competitions, the judges seem to prefer tightly cropped images. I'm not sure that's always right. Yes, there's a composition rule that says "Fill the Frame" but I believe that sometimes including more of the environment tells a better story. You be the judge: here are two versions of the same image:

Both images show a meadowlark perched in a hawthorn shrub. But I find the first one more interesting because there's more to look at than the bird and it says something about the environment. 

The original shot does say more, but it includes too much detail and the subject is lost:

That's at 600mm. Pushing the edge of the envelope!  Besides, it's poorly composed. I put the bird in the centre so I could use the best focusing sensor point in the camera.

I saw a few other birds at Carden Plain that day, and again the next day when I went back.

Wilson's Snipe. Composed with a lot of white space to tell a story. By the way, this bird did a little dance in the air just before I shot this. I had just brought the camera up to my eye and wasn't ready to shoot. Too bad, it was a National Geographic moment!


A bobolink and a Baltimore Oriole. It was a rainy day... Remember, you can click on any picture to blow it up.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch... a busy day at the bird feeders here at home. 

The hummingbirds are back! Female ruby-throated at the feeder. Amazing toning and textures in the feathers. 

Here's a female American Goldfinch in the Scotch Pine tree. There's been a whole flock of these birds hanging around. The males are more brightly coloured, but I liked the textures and composition here. 

Not just birds... too! It is that season. I took the ATV out in the woods, spring is kind of late getting here, things are just starting to green up. 

Long time readers of my blog might recognize this spot, I've shot from the same place during all seasons in the past. Looks like a tree came down over the winter. I just like the textures and tonality in this shot. 

I shot four different varieties of trilliums, all within a few feet of one another. Three were shot with off-camera flash, varying the shutter speed to change the brightness of the background. I mentioned the technique last week. This is something I want to explore further and I'll bring out the light tent to work on it in upcoming weeks. 

Here's another flowering plant, also in the same spot. It's called a "Bellwort" if anyone is interested. How do I know? Google is my friend! I plan to do more shooting with the macro lens.

,,,speaking of macro... this is a Prairie Smoke bud shot at Carden Plain. When the flower blooms, its tendrils look like pink smoke, hence the name. I'll go back to Carden next week to see what's what.

I did ONE abstract landscape picture that day. 

"Blur on the Water". I can't think of a better name for this image, any suggestions? I took a suggestion on Facebook "Smoke on the Water" as the basis for this one. Now the interesting thing is: no Photoshop! This is exactly as it came out of the camera (except for the crop). I came across this fleet of rental fishing boats on Lake Dalrymple, bobbing around in some rough water, so I slowed down the shutter speed, and moved the camera slightly when I shot it.

Two quick updates:

Topaz Labs is offering a 40% discount on their complete collection (or upgrades to it for existing customers), but it expires at midnight MAY 22! Hurry. It's a great deal. Here's the link to their store, and enter the code "SPRINGSUMMER2016" in the checkout box to get the discount.

There are still some spaces on the October 27-30 Gales of November workshop. I'm really excited about it, it's a low-cost opportunity to pump up your skills in a phenomenal environment, in the company of some great photographers. Book now to reserve your spot!

It's 23°C outside and sunny as I write this, and the bugs aren't active yet here, so why am I in here? This weekend promises to be the first really nice one of the year. Hope it is where you are too!

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