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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Monday, May 09, 2016

'tis the season...

This certainly is the season for outdoor photography. Birds, wildlife, landscapes, flowers, people coming out of hibernation. So get out there and enjoy it.

I need to take my own advice. I've been terribly one-dimensional lately but I have to admit that I'm fascinated by bird photography. I'll make an effort to include other genres in this blog so I'm not boring everyone and I'm also going to get out and shoot other stuff. Since I got the Tamron 150-600mm lens, I don't think my Nikon 70-200 has been on the camera more than a couple of times. Gawd, it's the sharpest lens I own! That and my 105mm macro. So I will make the effort. Stick around!

Photo Fads

If you hang out on Social Media at all, especially the Photoshop groups, you'll have noticed how there are fads in photography. For example, there was the "Twirl" — someone figured out how to do a kaleidoscope-like manipulation in Photoshop and suddenly dozens of people were doing it (to the point where some were calling for a ban in the Photoshop and Lightroom group!). "Frequency Separation" is suddenly THE technique for skin softening, everyone's trying it. Lately there's been "Big Eyes", now everyone's doing that (use the Liquify tool in Photoshop. Reminds me of people painting Elvis on black velvet 50 years ago!).

It's also what happened in the nature groups. Last year, a couple of people posted pictures of Snowy Owls, now everyone says, "me too!". Then it was foxes. And Pine Martens. And moose. Aurora Borealis. The Milky Way. Star trails. It's hard not to follow suit: nothing wrong with it, you see a technique, want to try it and show the results. But how do you avoid just being a sheep? I wonder what the next fad will be?

"WOW" image

I follow Vincent Versace on Facebook. He is a photographer and a teacher extraordinaire and a Nikon Ambassador (come on, Canon people, I admire great Canon photographers like, um, like... I'll get back to you on that!). Search for him on FB and look on his timeline for the picture of the raging waters coming over the road in Havana, Cuba from April 26th. [I won't post other people's pictures on my blog, certainly not without specific permission]. It has every "wow" element I strive for in my landscapes. Come on folks, you don't expect ME to do all the work! Research it.

Oh, all right. Here's the link:

I do want to quote what he said about the Nikon D5, four days into shooting with it:
'There is no image I cannot capture. The ability of this camera to shoot in lighting conditions so dark that you have to [imagine] that there is light to provide illumination. Spot on color, speed touch screen focus in live view. Whoa.....' 
The D5 can shoot up in the millions range of ISO, which is, I suspect, not what most people will do but by derivation allows it to shoot ridiculous quality at ISO's like 6400 or more. Imagine being able to do an exhibition quality hummingbird shot at 1/8000 sec @ f/8 on a cloudy day...

Last week, I said my first stop after picking up my lottery winnings would be the Swarovski store for that outstanding spotting scope, my second stop would be the Nikon store for a D5. Imagine that optic on that camera! Sadly, the probability that will happen has too many zeroes between the decimal point and the first significant digit.


As I read about the Nikon D5 and muse about better and better lenses and optics, I wonder when enough is enough. I remember when I bought the D800, I said that would be the end of the line for me. I thought the same when I got my Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VR. I discovered that wasn't good enough for birding, so I added the Tamron 150-600. It does the job. National Geographic quality? No, but good enough. The other day, I found something that I could not do with it: I couldn't take a sharp picture of a Loggerhead Shrike on a bush 200 or 300 meters away. I wanted that 500mm f/4.

That's what happens when you push the edge of the envelope. I have to ask myself, "would having all that new stuff make me a better photographer?" No it won't. It would enable me to shoot in situations that I can't right now but it won't make me better at what I do. If I were a portrait photographer, would a D5, with its crazy 3 Million ISO and 12 fps give me better results? No, not really. What would? Understanding lighting better and how to relate to people.

Ask yourself the same questions but substitute the genre you prefer to shoot. What would make me a better [landscape, wildlife, street, macro, travel, astro, studio...] photographer? Sure. You have to have a certain minimum set of equipment. And no, your iPhone or point-and-shoot isn't going to do that for you, unless all you aspire to is to be a snapshot photographer. So it comes down to deciding what you want to be when you grow up.

My problem is, I want to be able to do it all. Two years ago, I shot landscapes. Now I'm kinda into birding (for which, I admit, you really do need one of those $5digit lenses). And astrophotography. To do either of those things and stand shoulder to shoulder with the experts, I would need some specialized equipment. At what point do I have to say, "Enough!"? How about stretching to learn more about how to shoot those genres with what I have?

I can't carry all the equipment I have even now. My gear is divided into 3 bags. When I go out, I have to ask myself, "what should I take with me today?". And as I get older and more arthritic and more out of shape, everything gets heavier and heavier. Can you say "mirrorless"? Not yet...

So I've decided that the D800 is enough for me. Unless it breaks, of course, at which point I have to decide what to replace it with. Maybe that's when I'll go mirrorless. It's time to learn how to use what I already have, to take better pictures by using my eye and my mind, not new hardware. So I won't shoot motion-compensated photographs of obscure galaxies. I'm just going to get better at what I already do.

Algonquin Park

I decided to head up to the Park last Tuesday, well, just "because". People have been posting pictures of moose and I wanted to get my share! I got to wear the camo's I bought at Cabela's a couple of months ago (I wear them at Carden Plain as well; the pants are Goretex and tick-proof!)

The Pine Martens didn't show up at Mew Lake so I killed time shooting a couple of "selfie's". 

I had two moose encounters, one on the way into the park and the other on the way out later in the afternoon.

This young bull was enjoying the salty runoff water beside Highway 60.

This cow was accompanied by a calf. Her coat was rather scruffy, you can see some winter ticks still in position. Her coat looks like that partly because she scraped it off to rid herself of the ticks and partly because moose shed their winter coats and grow summer ones in the spring. She was a bit more shy; or had been driven away from the roadside by a seemingly endless gaggle of tourists. I was amazed by the people who took iPhone or iPad pictures from the roadside and expected them to come out. This shot was at 600mm and cropped to about half the frame.

There are birds in Algonquin Park too. Here's a yellow-rumped warbler and a great blue heron that I saw.

It's not all wildlife, though. Here's the Costello Creek pond on Opeongo Road. Only thing missing was a red canoe! Actually there was a yellow one there, but they were behind the rock and headed the other way.

You don't have to go so far, though...

I shot these pictures at my feeder a couple of days later. I saw at least half a dozen species! I had just installed the "Merlin" birding app on my phone and just for fun, started playing some of the songs of different species. I started with the Rose-breasted grosbeak and about 2 minutes later, this guy and his family showed up!

Rose-breasted grosbeak with attitude! 

American Goldfinch. A whole flock of these showed up and they seem to like the calls on my iPhone. Whenever I stepped outside to shoot them, they'd fly away. Playing the calls made them stick around long enough for a photo. There were so many of them that they emptied my feeder all by themselves in a couple of hours. Must have been a dozen or more!

Pretty sure it's a white-throated sparrow 

Chipping Sparrow. 

Carden Plain

I was there again on Friday morning. Kathy met me there and loves the place. Somehow she sees birds that I can't!

The Eastern Loggerhead Shrike was there again. A little closer this time but we couldn't get him to turn around for a portrait:

Here's a Meadowlark singing on a rock. I think the iPhone call helped bring him in closer. 

Normally they sit further away. This guy was about 200m away and this is cropped from a 600mm shot. I like it because it says something about the environment in which the bird lives. 

Same thing is true of this Savannah Sparrow. I could have cropped it vertically but I like the story the branches tell. I couldn't get him to turn around and look the other way, but that's OK: (1) rules are made to be broken and (2) I like the light on his face. 

As I continued along Rte. 6, just before crossing the Trent-Severn Canal, I saw this Osprey eating a fish on top of a hydro pole. I have a few shots with the fish, but none as compelling as this closeup! 

It's Trillium Time

A little later than usual but they are here. Not in full force yet, but they're out at the Minden Wildwater Preserve. 

The other day I learned something new about my flash. A while ago my Nikon SB-600 flash died and I replaced it with a Yongnuo YN568EX. Reading the manual (and interpreting the transliterated English!) I learned that it will sync with any shutter speed. Interesting: the Nikon flash only went to 1/320 second with the D800. 
What's the significance? When you use the flash, you are mixing two light sources: the strobe and the ambient light. There are a bunch of ways of controlling the effect of the strobe light (normally aperture, but when you're in iTTL mode it's really exposure compensation), but the way to control the ambient light is with shutter speed (or sometimes ISO). 

This is a normal image that uses both ambient and flash light 

And this shot was taken at 1/1600 second, effectively eliminating the ambient.
The other advantage of high shutter speed is to stop motion, for example, hummingbird wings. I'll be experimenting with this feature.

This is a complex image. Four exposures were focus-stacked to produce the sharp Trillium, and then I swapped out the background with the texture from a nearby rock. Finally, Topaz Impression was used to create the painterly effect. 

And finally, here's the shot I liked best from today. 

The flash made the petals translucent so you can see the leaf through them.  

By the way, all of these trillium pictures were taken from ground level. It's worth the effort to get down and dirty.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Birds and more birds...

This post is all about birds. Well, almost. So if you're not into birding, you can either scroll through and enjoy the pictures, or skip it and wait for next time when I'll put up some more of the off-the-wall stuff you're used to! I wanted to document my two visits to Carden this week so I made this into more of a photo essay than usual.

Carden Plain — a productive morning

I stopped by for an early season visit to the Carden Alvar last Thursday (April 21) expecting that I wouldn't see much. I was passing by, had a couple of hours to spare so I thought I'd see what's what. Besides, I had that new-to-me Tamron 150-600mm f/5.6-6.3 lens and wanted to give it a preliminary workout. Pretty well all of the shots below were handheld at 600mm.

First step, make sure everything is working. So I focused in on a pair of distant Canada Geese on the wing, and here's what I got:

Not bad, given how far away they were.
(you can click any picture to see it full sized)

First up were a couple of horses. Carden is a working farming area, there are horses and cattle there too.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that this little lady was just a wee bit pregnant.Or this is the roundest horse I ever saw!  

This little guy can't be more than a couple of days old. Already running around. Imagine a human newborn...

Here he is doing what mom is doing. Then he gives up and goes for her teat... mom is still very distended so as I said, he's a newborn. By the way, I waited patiently for them to get in this mirrored position. 

OK, off in search of avian targets! A few of the bird species are back and the first I encountered was the "woo-woo-woo-woo" of the Wilson's Snipe, the sound it makes in flight. Their behavior was different from later season, when they like to pose for the camera on a fence post. They swooped around, then landed virtually hidden in the grass. They're hard to see until they move!

It may look a bit darker than the dry grass but so do any number of rocks and clods of dirt! 

I stopped at this stand of deciduous trees because there were birds calling all around me! They were hiding, though. 

Here's one! It's a brown Thrasher hiding in the aspens. 

A little further down the road is the blind, built by the Couchiching Conservancy to accommodate birders. It was still padlocked, due to be opened any day now. By the way, if you want to know more about the Carden Plain, visit their website at, it's a very good read, although it's a few years out of date. The most commonly seen bird there is the Eastern Phoebe, as well as the tree sparrow, who often nest right in the blind. There was a mating pair of Phoebes there.

Posing on a stick out behind the blind. A pair were building a nest.

An interesting sidebar about this picture if you're a photographer... I'm new to the world of 600mm lenses. The few times I've tried one in the past (even Dr. Ron's world class Nikon 600/f4) I've had little success capturing sharp images. Practice, of course, but in the meantime I've erred on the side of faster shutter speeds. This image is no exception, it was shot at 1/1600 sec at f/7.1 (why not f/8? I dunno...), matrix metering with +2/3 stop exposure compensation, and that exposure combination bumped the ISO up to 5000.

Other than normal sharpening and a bit of cropping, the only thing I did to this image was to run it through Topaz DeNoise 6 and then I masked the effect on the bird itself, so what you see is what I got. I'm very pleased with the tonality of the image and you will be seeing it in competitions!

Why did I write this detail? Because what I didn't say was I had dragged out the tripod and gimbal mount and there was absolutely no reason to shoot at such a high speed! I probably could have shot this at 1/250 sec, ISO 1000 and pulled more detail out of the feathers.

Unfortunately, the spot they chose was on the sill in front of one of the shutters. So either it's going to get knocked down when the shutter opens, or the conservancy will latch this shutter closed for the season.  

Across the road, at the top of a cedar tree, this Brown Thrasher was singing his heart out!  

I drove down to the Sedge Wren trail and walked in just to the corner. Nothing happening. Because I had to get going, I headed back down the road. On the way out, I passed through a flock of at least four-and-twenty (red winged) blackbirds

Near the entrance to Wyllie Road, on the west side, I saw two Pileated Woodpeckers

Then finally, I saw a pair of tree swallows building a nest in a bluebird box:

Probably the male, standing guard while wifey did all the work! 

All in all, a productive couple of hours on an early season day. I'll be baaaack...

Hi, I'm Baaaack...

An early morning Facebook post from Rico Forlini saying he was at Carden Plain got me into the car and enroute there on Sunday. I did run into him and Tim — they were just leaving as I arrived. We did get a quick look at an Eastern Meadowlark but out of photo range.

Carden is interesting because you never know what you'll find. When Rico told me he saw an Eastern Loggerhead Shrike at the blind, that's where I headed! So without further ado...

This guy was quite far away, so this is a 100% crop – 1:1 – at 600mm. I tried a series of different exposures and chose what I thought was the sharpest one: 1/2000 sec at f/8, ISO 3200, a lot of sharpening and noise reduction! It's perched on top of a Hawthorne bush, it's favoured nesting tree since the thorns protect the nest from predators. 

The Eastern Loggerhead Shrike was listed as a critically endangered species in Canada back in 1991 and the population has shrunked even more since then. According to Wildlife biologist Don Sutherland (who happened to be standing beside me when we (ok, when "he"!) spotted this bird), there are fewer than a dozen mating pairs in the Alvar. He remarked that this one was not banded, so it isn't one that was re-introduced, it's native.
Don had an outstanding piece of optics with him. This is similar to the model he had...

It was astoundingly clear when you looked through it. I'll make the Swarovski shop one of my very first stops after leaving the lottery office the day I cash my winning ticket. With camera adapter, you're looking at about $5K. If you've never looked through one of these and you do, have your chequebook handy! 

OK, back to the planet Earth! The usual culprits were on hand to be photographed. Although I already have a picture of a Phoebe, I like this one for the sharpness and tonality

Eastern Phoebe with nest-building material 

You don't only see exotic and rare birds. This American Robin posed precisely so that he could be framed by the tree

Carden Plain is well known for its bluebird population. This early visitor was basking in the momentary sun as the clouds split for a minute. 

This is a female yellow-shafted Northern Flicker who popped by for a look-see but never came out far enough to give me a shot of the whole bird.  

And finally, here's another Brown Thrasher in mid-song. I thought the composition and framing of this shot was worth posting here, even though I have another couple of Thrasher shots up above. 

I'm reasonably happy with the Tamron lens, for birds at a middle-distance but not with long distance stuff. Maybe it's me, I need more practice. I seem to get less sharp results when I'm on the tripod than I do handheld, there are some techniques I need to work on, I imagine. 

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