Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Real Animal Farm

The Muskoka Wildlife Centre
In January I attended a field trip to the Muskoka Wildlife Centre (MWC). It was organized by Janet Balon and Myrtle Herzog for the Richmond Hill Camera Club. It was a weekend long excursion but I could only stay for the day on Saturday.

It was quite a challenging experience. The temperature, when I left Minden, hovered around –30°C. The snow was white and crisp and squeaked underfoot. I dressed rather warmly in anticipation.

MWC is a unique facility. Their mandate is to provide a haven for rescued wild animals. Much of their funding comes from the government but they supplement it with revenue from visitors. To that end, they have put a program together to accommodate photographers who want to get up close and personal with wildlife. A team of keeper/handlers take photographers right into the enclosures with many of the animals and are skilled at getting the animals to pose in fence-free locations.

Some of the animals we got to visit were owls, wolves, a lynx, wolverines, foxes, a hawk and even a non-cooperative porcupine. In addition, there were some too dangerous to get too close to, such as a cougar and a moose. The bear, of course, was hibernating.

Winter photography is a bit of a challenge. You can read some technical details here.
I used fill-flash some of the time. Some of the techniques I used were wrong. I learned a lot from my mistakes and won’t repeat them. Here’s an article in my technical blog about using fill flash.
Anyway, I did manage to get some decent pictures. Here are a few of them.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Things behaving badly, or...

Camera-less in Minden

…and yes, I’m whining about it. It’s like stopping smoking. Or going on a diet. It’s painful to be without a camera.

“Why,” you may ask, “are you without a camera”?

Well it’s like this. As I write this, my D300 and 4 Nikon lenses are in a box safely (I hope!) enroute to Nikon Canada in Mississauga. The D300 needs repair. We were shooting the Winterfest games and at the end of the day on Wednesday, I uploaded my 500 images to Lightroom and gasped when I looked at them. Here’s an example:

Notice how the sign in the upper right corner, and the people in the back are in focus but the sweepers are not? Clearly there's something wrong...
I was tracking this guy for a while and released the shutter when he was in a good position. This one is not full frame: he filled about 1/3 of the frame and I cropped it to show the problem more clearly.

I was shooting in continuous focus mode. Canon calls it “servo” mode. What is supposed to happen is, you put the crosshairs on whatever it is you want in focus and hold the shutter release halfway down. When the subject moves, the autofocus is supposed to follow it and keep it in focus. As long as nothing moved, I was fine. But as soon as the subject started moving, the tracking motor kicked in, and then the camera blew it. It took the focus somewhere else: generally to the back of the image. So I essentially had 500 images with sharp advertising on the boards and fuzzy hockey players. Or curlers. Or skaters. And it did it on more than one lens, so it’s the body.

I talked to Nikon. They said, “send it in”. At least a week and a half, possibly more. As long as I was sending the camera in, I asked them to check out my lenses at the same time. So everything is in a heavily insured box, on its way to Nikon. Now I have to wait for “the call”. You know, the one that starts, “Mr. Springer? This is the technician at Nikon. Do you want the good news or the bad news?”. Would you like some cheese with that whine?…

Yesterday, I changed techniques. Do you have ANY IDEA how hard it is to shoot hockey without predictive autofocusing? Point at a hockey player. Press the shutter release to autofocus. Wait for it to lock in. Press it the rest of the way. If the player is still in the same place, maybe. But if there’s actually a game going on? Forget it. I took most of my shots by focusing on the goalie. Not what I wanted.

To top it all off, to stop the action in hockey, you have to shoot at a very high shutter speed. It begins at 1/500 second, but you really should shoot at 1/1000. How do you do that? You shoot wide open with your fastest lens (I have a 70-200 f/2.8 and a 50mm f/1.8). If the player moves one foot between the time you lock in the focus and fire the shutter, you’re SOL. AND in that lousy lighting, I had the ISO cranked. Minimum was 1600, I also tried 3200 and 6400 ISO. How did they do it in the old days? Shooting with a Speed-Graphic and at the most, TRI-X film which was rated at ASA 400 that you could MAYBE push to 640 or 800.

Shooting hockey is TOUGH. They move SO SO fast! I was camped out in the penalty box – the rest of the rink was covered with a mesh so that spectators wouldn’t get hit with a flying puck. A stick swung past me, just brushing my face when a player was bodychecked into the boards right in front of me. A high speed puck whizzed past me about a foot away, between me and Midori, the lady shooting video for the Games. Yesterday, I blocked another stick with my arm and ducked away when a couple of players hit the boards right in front of me. At least I didn’t break a monopod like Scott Kelby.

To say I was disappointed in my performance would be an understatement. I just hope the Winterfest people won’t be. I’ll start vetting pictures for them right after I finish writing this (OK, it's tomorrow and I already did that. I've got 305 images to send in. Another 300 or so that are garbage).

So on my way back from the post office where I dropped off the camera, I reveled in the wonderful sunshine and warm temperatures. The melting ice turned to vast puddles out on the lake where the ice fishermen were still plying their trade and there were even a couple of cars out there. The ice road to the huts was under water. You could see blue/green reflections in it and the effect was wonderful. Lighting was great. And I didn’t have a camera. {Sob}. I fully expected a deer to step out and pose by the roadside with a bald eagle sitting on a branch above him.

I still owe you some Muskoka Wildlife Centre shots. Next time. I had to get this off my chest. BTW another group is going there this weekend. I hope they’re as lucky as we were.

Selective shots from Winterfest 2011 will be up on my Smugmug gallery in a little while: I haven’t had a chance yet. You’ll probably find them in the February monthly gallery but it’s the 18th and I haven’t even created it yet! With no camera, I guess I’ll have time over the weekend. Here are a few to tide you over.

Speaking of things behaving badly, do you use Photoshop CS5? The content-aware fill tool is unbelievable, but sometimes it does odd things. I found a good trick to prevent that from happening and I wrote it up in my technical blog here: Drop in and have a look-see.

They said there's a gigantic solar flare out there, so we should be able to see the aurora borealis tonight. Better not. I DON'T HAVE A CAMERA! {whine}

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Times, they are a-changing

Up to now, this blog has been a mixed bag of photography-related tips, techniques and procedures, a journal and a showcase of some of my photographic work. I've decided to focus my blog(s) on more directed topics, to provide my readers with a more useful experience.

This blog will remain as my journal. What that means is, I will share what I've been up to. A good example is the post that follows, where I talk about my visit to the Minden Ice Races, I'll show a few selected pictures and give you links to where you can find others. If you are a photographer (not all of my readers are!), you might be interested in the techniques used to capture these pictures and to manipulate them in-computer. If so, I will provide a link to a new blog that focuses on Photography, Photoshop, Lightroom and other procedures, the technical "How" side of things.

I'll also provide connections to my galleries and to the gallery that contains the images that I have for sale. I plan a third blog which will feature one image and offer a discount code on a regular basis, but I have to figure out how to do that, and to get the other one, the technical one, up and running.

I chose to use WordPress for the new blog.  I want it to contain searchable topics and to make them clearly visible. So far, it's eluding me somewhat. Still, I can post there, but that's going to change in appearance.

This means that I have to prepare my blog posts more carefully, and in multiples. For example, I want to tell you about my visit to the Muskoka Wildlife Centre and show you some very neat animal and bird pictures, but I can't yet because I have to finish writing up the techniques I used, and give you some tips about shooting in the winter and with flash fill. That's what I meant above: if you're not a photographer, you don't give a damn about flash fill, you just want to look at pictures. So I'm separating that stuff.

I plan to post every couple of days. I hope that people will make it a habit to drop by regularly. I think you'll find it interesting. Onward and upward!

Ice Racing: a truly Canadian sport

For 6 weeks, the Canadian Automobile Sports Clubs ( sponsor weekend ice racing on a track constructed at the Minden Fairgrounds. They can only race when there is enough ice -- and local contractors maintain the track all week. I learned that the studded tires on the race cars chew through as much as 5 inches (25 cm) of ice in a day.

They throw up a cloud of ice dust which, depending on whether there's wind, and on the temperature, can be so thick that you can't see the cars. Imagine driving in it! The only car who has a clean look is the race leader.

I call this image "Leader of the Pack" (Vroom, vroom!), and it has an alternate name, "Sometimes when we Touch". There's a lot of touching.
See the orange light on top of car 113? They all have bright lights in back so the car behind them knows where they are in the ice fog!

There are several classes: rubber tires, street studs (you can still use studded tires on the street in Northern Ontario), racing studs (big mean ones). There's front wheel drive, rear wheel drive, all wheel drive classes. You have to watch the cars with the big racing studs flip sideways in a corner and drift around it, then hit the throttle and straighten it out for the straightaway.

Sometimes you think they're not going to make it, but somehow they pull out of their slide:

w-w-w-Wipeout! Well not really, he made it. You can see the track in front of him and where he wants to go is straight towards the camera. He's moving dead sideways in this shot!
Here's another image showing a pack of cars coming right at me

Like it says in your rear view mirror, "objects may be closer than they appear". This is the other way around because I'm using a long lens.
They're moving pretty fast: I'm guessing they reach over 100kph on the straights. Remember, they're on ice! How they make it through the corners, I'll never know (sometimes they don't! Check it out)

The driver walked away from this one. He ploughed into the embankment virtually head on. He said he'll have a ton of black and blue marks from the restraint system, though!

I was lucky to get this shot. I had been playing with the shutter speed of the camera and it was really low: 1/10 second when this happened. I took 4 shots, this is the only one that sort of came out. The best part is that Jimmy, a pro photographer who shoots these and other racing events, was standing right near me and said he had his hands in his pockets and didn't get any shots! Ha-Ha.

There are really two ways to shoot action scenes like this: at really high speed to freeze the or at slow speed and pan with the car, or track it.

To read about shooting action scenes, visit my technical blog at this link:

I was having some focusing issues with my camera. It had to do with the format of the pictures I was taking: JPEG or RAW. You can read about that in the technical blog at this link:

And finally, I've put some galleries of images up so racers can visit and buy pictures. The best way to see a whole bunch of ice racing pictures is to go here: I got an amazing number of quality images at these races. How do I decide which ones to put up in my galleries? Tough call!

Catch you later!