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Ophrys Photography News page - Small red damselfly News (Blog) 2007


News archives :

2006

December 2007

Made the annual pilgrimage to Donna Nook in Lincolnshire on the 25th November. It is a bit of a treck from mid Kent (about 4.5 hours) so a 5:30 am start on a Sunday morning was called for. (Remind me why I do this please). Every year the amount of people attending the spectacular seal-pupping event increases. It is just as well that there is now an overflow carpark (complete with toilets) for the masses who just toddle out from their cars, walk along the path by the carpark to see the seals by the fence, and then toddle off home. It is surprising how many photographers also now attend and are prepared to undertake the long walk out to the shoreline where the real action takes place. Unfortnately the sense of wonder is diluted a little by the ever-increasing number of people - such is progress ! Still, it is a great spectacle, and one I wouldn't miss.

Grey seal - taken at eye level with Canon1DII plus 500mm f4 IS lens.

To see more images from this visit click: Grey seals at Donna Nook 2007
Click here: For my article on Photographing seals at Donna Nook

November 2007

Something for nothing! - More free images added

There are four more great free images added this month. You are welcome to download these for use on your computer desktop. There are three sizes available according to your screen size, with very easy instructions for using them.

Shadow/Highlight tool Tutorial

I have extended my collection of Photoshop tutorials this month with a new one on using the Shadow/highlight tool. This tool is fantastic for getting the most out of an already decent image, and can help recover details in a poorly exposed shot. Here is a clip from it where I brought out highlight detail in the breast feathers of a spotted flycatcher without affecting the rest of the image.....

shadow/highlight before
shadow/highlight after
Before adjustment
After highlight adjustment

It is not the easiest tool to get to grips with, as the numerous sliders all seem to be inter-dependant, rather like juggling with eight balls simultaneously. I have found a good method to simply and reliably use the tool to great effect - so I recommend you read it if you have struggled with it.

November has actually been quite dry and bright in the South east, and I have been taking advantage of this weather by taking some shots of shoreline birds - waders. The north Kent coast attracts a lot of these winter migrants, and this year is no exception. The turnestones and sanderlings have been very abundant - scuttling about the waters edge in search of food. They are incredibly approachable with patience.Check out the waders section for the new images.

As a taster, here are a couple of my favourites, the first image is of a dunlin and the second is of a flock of turnestones at sunset. All these new wader images were taken with the Canon 40D.

Dunlin

Turnestones


October 2007

A sad month

September was to be our annual holiday - in Kenya with Brian Freeman - a small and tailored safari company. We were six days into the trip when we received the sad news that my father had taken a fall, broken his leg, and sadly died in hospital following extensive surgery. We returned home on the next available flight and immediately started making arrangements for his funeral on the 2nd October. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him - he was a lovely man.

Anyway, life must go on - so:

Despite such a short trip, I managed to acquire a lot of images at Samburu. There are pictures to be had just about wherever you point your camera. I'm afraid Britain seemed a big anticlimax by comparison to Africa. The shots there included elephants which regularly visited our riverside camp, hippos, giraffe, gerunek ( a very long-necked antelope) the engangered Grevy's zebra, a couple of big cats plus a lot of excellent birds.

We were due to go onto Lake Nakuru - famous for it's flamingos and leopards and then to the Massai Mara for the wildebeast migration. sadly it was not meant to be - but we have vowed to carry on next year where we left off - so watch this space in September 2008!


John at our riverside camp


To see the images from the trip - that I am gradually processing, please go to the list on the world mammals page.

Safari tips

I took my new Canon EOS 40D camera plus a 70-200 IS lens, and my Canon EOS 1DmkII which I fitted onto the 500mm f4 lens. I occasionally used telextenders on the 500mm. Both camera setups were put into old pillowcases (they were pink and frilly - and got a lot of comments!) but saved my gear from the ever-present dust. Lens changes were kept to a minimum, and done inside the pillowcases to prevent dust getting on the sensor. I cleaned the sensor on the 1DII three times, but never cleaned the 40D at all - so the self-cleaning sensor must really work. Once I got home I gave it a going over with the Arctic butterfly cleaning brush - job done.

The one and only thing I don't like about the 40D is the mode switch - which constantly got changed inadvertantly every time I put the camera down. What with this - and the lens switches, which also seem to turn themselves off whenever they are put into a bag or case, I found most irritating. Canon need to address this issue - it is small but very annoying.I can see why a lot of photojournalists tape up there lenses.

The combination of cameras and lenses seemed just right for the safari, as the distant animals, birds and animal close-ups were taken care of by the long lens, and the stuff which ended up right up to the landrover was handled by the 70-200 IS zoom lens. The zoom is very convenient, and the image quality non too shabby either.

I used bean bags (full of real beans) instead of a tripod or monopod etc for maximum versatility.Temperature at Samburu wsa always in the high 40's centigrade by mid day - so a hat and high factor sunscreen is a must. I still managed to blister my hands - so another time I will use some total sunblock on them. I was surprised and pleased to note a complete lack of mossies at Samburu - taking the larium transpired to be a waste of time - but it pays to be cautious.


News on the Canon 1D mk III

Despite many people not having encountered issues with their 1D mk III, and Canon denying that there was a problem, it appears that there is going to be hardware fix for the autofocus woes of this camera, which involves fitting and adjusting mirror sub-assembly parts. There is more about this on Rob Galbraith's website.

To quote Rob Galbraith:

" A hardware fix. Specifically, a component in the camera called the sub-mirror must be adjusted. The sub-mirror - also called the secondary mirror - is a tiny mirror behind the main mirror that passes light down to the autofocus module in the base of the mirror box. The adjustment procedure may include the swapping of one or more parts that make up the sub-mirror mechanism, though the sub-mirror component itself will not be replaced."


Dave Etchells on the Imaging Resource website also reports similarly on this matter...

" The issue apparently revolves around the dynamics of the secondary sub-mirror that directs light to the AF sensors. Without divulging the details, Canon says that the nature of the issue was to cause "unstable prediction performance" in continuous shooting modes. When the problem is manifesting, it's possible to see the focus distance setting on the lens jitter back and forth slightly when tracking a moving subject, rather than smoothly incrementing as the subject approaches or recedes.

Recent reports in online forums saying the fix will require replacement of the sub-mirror are incorrect. Without going into details, Canon says that the fix is more in the nature of an adjustment than a replacement of the mirror assembly.

Canon hasn't yet made a formal service announcement detailing the program to bring malfunctioning units back up to spec, but expects to do so by the end of this month. While the nature of the adjustment is now well-understood, Canon needs to get a system in place to quickly turn around cameras sent in for adjustment. This apparently accounts for the delay between the development of the fix and the formal announcement of the service program. Canon made clear that the service program would be done at their expense, and any cameras returned for service would be fast-tracked through their repair organization."

Seems that Canon will only modify the components on cameras returned to them - there probably will not be an actual recall - so if you already own a mk III - it is down to you to send it in if you have a problem. It will be interesting to see if this (and any accompanying firmware update) fixes the problem to the satisfaction of Rob Galbraith and other respected photographers.
If it does, I will certainly re-instate my order for one after I know which serial numbers are good. The image quality, noise performance and general handling of this camera are already regarded as being exceptional, fixing the autofocus should make this a truly awesome camera for wildlife photography. ( I have my fingers and toes, and everything else crossed - I really, really want this camera to perform as initially anticipated !)

Woodlands Trust Christmas cards

The Woodlands Trust are using two Ophrys Photography images for this years range of cards, frosted rosehips and heath fritillary on bramble. These are available for purchase from :
Woodlands Trust Christmas Cards

 


 

September 2007

Camera "techie" stuff - Canon EOS D40

I finally got fed-up waiting for the autofocus issues to be resolved on the Canon 1D mkIII camera, so in the mean time I decided to upgrade my second camera - my trusty EOS 20D to a 40D instead.
I will always want a 1.6x crop factor camera in my arsenal, particularly for bird photography as the extra pixel-density is very useful when you can't get close to your subject. Don't forget that the recently announced flagship full-frame 1DsmkIII 21Mp camera still only has the same pixel density as a 20D. Put it another way - if you crop a 21Mp image down (because the bird was small in the frame) to the same size as an uncropped image from a 20D, you will end up with 8.2 Mp - the same as the 20D. The 40D has 10.1 Mp - so it could be a great birder's camera.
To learn more about this, take a look at Joe Kirkjian's interesting table of comparisons on DP review and think about it the implications.

Initial impressions of the 40D

I took the 40D to a hawk conservancy centre to test the AI servo performance on flight shots, and also to check out image quality on feathers - a great test. I also set up a tropical orchid in a pot to check for IQ again, and high ISO noise. A few samples are posted here on a thread I posted on DP review.

So what do I think of it ? Well, in a nutshell, I think it is an absolute gem, and probably the best value digital camera Canon has ever produced - I love it.

Likes
Image quality improvement over 20D and 1DII. Presumably thanks to the extra 2 megapixels, latest generation III digic procesor, 14bit processing, and new high-tech sensor with improved micro lens array.
The risk with increasing pixel density is introducing digital noise into the image. This is happily not the case. I find that the 40D has considerably lower noise - especially at high iso (1600) than the 20D or 1DmkII. Take a look at the iso 1600 orchid photo that I posted on DP review it is noiseless. NB it is esential to expose to the right to achieve these results.
The RAW images seem to require far less post-processing than the images from the other cameras.
Autofocus in low light much improved. The 20D failed to lock on to the test orchid's faint veining in low light. The 40D had no trouble at all.
Single shot autofocus is much quicker to achieve focus lock.
AI servo autofocus generally much improved over 20D and is now much closer to 1DII. It still didn't seem great at tracking birds against busy backgrounds - but I don't find the 1DII that good in those circumstances either. It is rumoured that the 1Dmk IIN had "silent upgrades" to the AI servo AF over the 1DII - and is probably still AF king for birds in flight. To check AI servo, try taking pictures of a car number plate as it drives towards you - aparenlty many 1DmkIII's fail this simple test. My 40D passed with flying colours.
Excellent burst rate - 17 raw images - almost infinite jpegs (which I don't shoot) until buffer fills.Images cleared from the buffer at a much quicker rate than the 20D.

I like the light weight of the camera (compared to the 1DII) and feels grippy in your hand - and is well balanced.It is heavier than the 20D and feels better built.
I think that the 3 inch screen is awesome. It may not have the resolution of the latest Nikon D300, but it is still very good. It makes reading histograms much easier
6.5 frames per second is very respectable. Not up to the 8.5 fps of the 1Dmk II, but still very respectable.
The shutter is quieter than the 20D and much quieter than the 1DII - which often frightens subjects away.

I think that Live view (where you raise the mirror and get a live view of the scene) is really cool. I can see this being really useful for macro shots and checking focus as you can zoom in to x5 or x10 magnification and manually focus very precisely. I can see me using this feature outdoors when working at ground level when stalking waders on my belly..
Live histogram is brilliant. You can adjust the exposure compensation before you take a shot.
The menu system is far more logical than the 1DmkII and I love the "My menu" feature where you can set frequently used functions such as - Format card, set liveview mode, mirror lock-up etc, and have very quick and easy access to them.
There is a C1, C2 , C3 position on the main selector dial which enables you to assign any combination of camera functions to the dial. This means that on C1 - you could programme-in AI servo, ISO 400, exposure compensation +1, motordrive high, etc for birds in flight. On C2 - you could set Single shot, Av mode, ISO 100, single frame etc for close-up photogrpahy.

The self-cleaning sensor is working faultlessly to date - but I haven't changed lenses in the field much yet, so I will need to see how it fares.

Dislikes
Not much!
My Kirk quick-release plate no longer fits the camera - so I must wait for one to be released. (more expense!)
Not Canon's fault - but the camera is not compatible with Photoshop CS2 and probably never will be as a ploy to get you to upgrade to CS3 or Lightroom - neither of which currently support the 40D raw files. Both Breezebrowser and Bibble were quick to issue updates and now support it - so no need to use the awful Canon DPP software any more - hoorah!
Weather sealing is not as good as it should be. A few rubber gaskets and O rings can't cost much!
I wish the camera autofocussed in liveview as the newly-announced Nikon D300 can. You need to lower the mirror first. The 1Dmk III is strictly manual only.
There is also a "silent" shutter mode in live view mode - it is quieter but certainly not silent. I think this is a bit cheeky, as the mirror is already raised - to enable liveview, so yes it is quieter by default. It does have a second position 2 in which a second motor lowers the shutter when you choose to take your finger off of the half-depressed shutter button - so it is not bad, bad not as quiet as I had hoped for.
Still lose autofocus when using a 1.4x converter on an f5.6 or slower lens.
The C1, C2 dial should have a lock on it - it might be too easy to change the settings by knocking it.

In summary
I absolutely love this camera. It has so many new and wonderful features, plus it is a step in the right direction in terms of IQ too ! Highly recommended. The D40 was going to be my backup camera - but for the time being, it is going to be the first one I go for in my bag ! I am off to Kenya mid September on safari- so it will get a real workout then.

Other camera news

The top of the range Canon 1DsmkIII with 21 Mp has been announced.This is essentially a 1Dmk III with a huge pixel count. Time will tell if the autofocus performance is better than the blighted 1Dmk III.

Although I don't know much a bout Nikon cameras, I happen to know that Nikon have also announced two new cameras - the D300 with 12 Mp and a 1.5x crop CMOS sensor and , and a full frame model - the D3 with 12 Mp. Both of these look (on paper at least) to be very exciting cameras. The competition must be good for us consumers. The D300 is priced above the 40D and has what could be a very advanced focussing system which detects colour as well as contrast.
It has a couple more megapixels than the 40D or 1Dmk III crammed onto it's crop sensor, so it will be interesting to see if Nikon can get noise levels down to Canon levels at last despite the high er number and closer proximity of pixels on the sensor.

Nikon have also announced some new lenses including an image-stabilised 500mm f4 - ho ho.

August 2007

What a frustrating summer this has been for photography in the UK. The light levels have been very poor, and to make matters worse, the wind never seems to abate. Plant and butterfly photography has been a nightmare - the subject frequently blowing right out of the frame!

All this is not good for photography, but at least it has enabled me to catch up on updating the website. I have been gradually trying to get away from the classic black "photography website" look and replacing it with a fresher more modern look. I am pretty pleased with the latest incarnation, I would be pleased to know what you think!

Hares and owls

After the terrible flooding that hit Gloucestershire and the surrounding counties in July, August at last appears to be bringing some sunshine, so I took the opportunity to visit my local rapefield hares to see how they were getting on.

The field where the hares lived is now looking very tatty and is well overdue for cutting. The hares are also not much in evidence, but I was tipped-off by a friend that some of them had relocated to a new site about half a mile away. There we found about twenty of them playing in the middle of a very large field of short, succulent herbage, chasing each other around in the evening sunshine. But how to get close to them in a big open field ? hmm..that is the question.

A commando-style crawl in the open grass and a 30 minute wait was rewarded by a young hare that eventually came too close for my 500mm lens! It is strange, but despite their normal timidity, hares will sometimes come within a metre of you if you just lay on the ground up-wind of them and keep pretty still. I should also add that I was not wearing any camouflage gear on this occasion! They must have known I was there, but they didn't seem to consider me a threat until they caught my scent when they had moved downwind of me, or when I eventually raised my aching body up off the ground to go home.

I still haven't managed to get the action shots that I am really after, I know that I will have to just keep returning again and again until I strike lucky.

Hare in evening light
Little owl on window ledge
Hare in evening light
Little owl on window ledge

On the drive home in the evening, I spotted a little owl sitting on a window ledge of an old farm building. Fortunately the owl tolerated us turning the car around and going back to snipe a few shots with the 500 f4 lens and converter before flying off into an old apple orchard. What a cutey !

Butterflies and damoiselles

I also tried repeatedly at three known sites in July (for the second year running) to locate purple emperor butterflies. These are stunning insects, probably Britain's most beautiful butterfly in my opinion. The male has a purple sheen on it's wings that looks awesome when the sun catches it at the right angle. Trouble is, it is very rare and prefers the tops of oak trees. I saw a couple at a favourite hot-spot, but none came down to the ground to be photographed.

I have video footage of a male purple emperor, shot a few years ago, when it settled on a piece of dried horse dung for about 30 minutes while a few of us lucky people were able to admire it at our leisure. I was even able to pick the little piece of dung up with the butterfly on top, without disturbing it. What I'd give to be able to have that opportunity again to photograph it - but it was probably a once-in-a-lifetime treat.

By way of consolation, this time, the Surrey site is also home to the big orange silver-washed fritillary, white admiral and the occasional second-brood wood white butterfly - all of which are pretty scarce. I was delighted to find a mating pair of wood whites which you can see below on a prunella (self heal) flower. To get the soft background I used a 180mm macro lens fitted with a 2x converter. I took many shots to be sure of getting some sharp ones (as the wind was horrendous and the light very poor), the exposure right (as it is very easy to over-expose the subtle grey scales on the wings), and the aperture right (to blur the background whilst keeping the whole insect sharp). All in all, a tricky shot to get in the field under poor conditions!

I am certainly no expert on dragonflies and damselflies - I'm ashamed to admit that I have trouble identifying them without reference to a field guide book. I don't know why I haven't given them more attention - they are beautiful things and very photogenic. One of my favourite smaller ones is the banded damoiselle. The male is a beautiful blue metallic colour with black spots on the wings and the female is emerald green and lacks the spots. (see - I'm learning!) They often land on the same leaf or twig repeatedly - which is useful for the photographer.

wood white butterflies mating
banded damoiselle
Wood whites mating
Banded damoiselle female



Equipment

I pre-ordered a new Canon IDmkIII when it first became available, but subsequently cancelled my order when I read the numerous reports of AI servo focussing issues on DP review and Naturescapes.net forums.

It is all most curious, as there are many well-respected photographers who don't seem to have a problem with their camera, but there are just as many that do. In a poll on the Fred Miranda forum, the voting was pretty much 50:50 as to whether or not the camera has an inherent focussing problem or not. Rob Galbraith has tried numerous bodies - all of which show the same AF problems. Canon USA attended his most-recent testing session and now have his files for examination. Can there really be so many "bad cameras" out there ? At the moment, getting a good one (if such a thing really exists) seems to be a bit of a lottery. There is no official statement from Canon currently - only that Canon are issuing documents to assist photographers adjust their custom functions to get the best out of the complex beast. There is no product recall, but they have updated the firmware to 1.10 (which Rob Galbraith thinks solves the problem of the AF grabbing the background too readily, but doesn't cure the basic issue of the unnacceptable rate of out of focus shots - when compared to his 1D mkIIN). I guess that the motto of this story, is don't be an early adopter on any new product - leave it for a few months for the bugs to be worked out before purchasing. I really hope that Canon admit to and fix whatever ails this camera - as the image quality and low noise performance is reputedly the best currently available. I'm itching to get my hands on one - but not until I am satisfied that it has been "sorted".


Software

In anticipation of purchasing the new Canon 1D mk III, I have been evaluating Breezebrowser Pro and Bibble for processing the raw files - as Photoshop CS2/Bridge and ACR 3.8 is not compatable. I am perfectly happy with CS2 - it does everything that I want, I don't see why I should be forced by Adobe's marketing department to upgrade to CS3 and ACR 4.1 - just because they won't support the new camera.

This has proven to be a blessing in disguise, as Breezebrowser is staggeringly fast at handling the raws off of a CF card - far,far, quicker than Bridge. I find that I can load a 4 Gb card into the card reader, and watch as all the thumbnails fill the page at lightening speed. Once they are all on, I "select all" and switch to Slideshow mode and start viewing and ranking - much as I do in Bridge. The big difference is that I need to go away and make a cup of tea before I can start sorting my images with Bridge!

Another thing I like about Breezebrowser (BB) is the quality of the Raw conversions it produces. They appear to contain less noise in the shadows than Bridge/ACR - even when the in-built noise reduction filter (Noise Ninja - a very good one!) is switched off.
BB is cheap to buy ($69.99 - £35 at the time of writing this), simple to use and is very intuitive, I didn't need to consult any instructions before using it. It is not perfect however - I find that the raw converter is just a little too basic - it doesn't have a slider for white balance for example- a major omission in my opinion. ( You can set a white balance using the dropper tool, or with a preset or by entering a Kelvin value, but why not put in a slider ?) Same goes for saturation. Also, on the slideshow, you can rank images 1-5, but I don't see the ranking displayed on the screen at the time - strange. Don't let this put you off though, BB has sped up my processing time enormously over Adobe Bridge. I think that the best of all worlds would probably be to use BB to load/rank and sort images initially, and then use ACR/CS3 to process them. Having said that, BB does create very excellent low-noise conversions, it just doesn't offer the same degree of control.The jury is still out as to whether or not this really is an issue.

I didn't spend much time with Bibble. It seemed to be the antithesis of BB - overly complicated. I would definitely need to slog through a manual with this one, and quite frankly I couldn't be bothered once I had become addicted to BB's speed!


 

July 2007

Photographing water droplets

Water droplet
The weather has been wet and windy, so I have been having a lot fun indoors taking pictures of water droplets. This looks an awful lot harder than it actually is. All you need is a flashgun, a macro lens or short telephoto plus a dripping tap !

I have written a tutorial on this, so when you get a spare moment why not have a go yourself ? You will find the tutorial here : Photographing water droplets.

In the meantime - here are some more of my water droplets.


Adventures in Finland - close encounters of the bear kind

I spent a few days in Finland from the 22nd June - I know, it's starting to become a habit, but I do love it there. Such a civilised place, so clean, nice people, great food, but best of all - it still has unspoilt wilderness and great wildlife.

Ok, so in June the mossies are bad, but nothing that a few sprays of insecticide can't keep at bay, and the weather varies from sunny and pleasantly warm to wet and cool, so it's best to add on a few extra days to allow for rain-stops-play days. As I went close to the longest day, it never got dark - just went to late-evening light levels but no darker.

The main purpose of my visit was to photograph the wild brown bears on the Finnish/Russian border, with a few bird opportunities too with any luck. I went with Naturetrek, with Chris Gomershall leading a photo group to save myself the logistical problems of booking flights/accomodation/transport to the hides at the Martinselkosen wild centre. The bears have been fed salmon here for eighteen years, so come every night to collect their free handout.Don't get the impression that these are not still 100% wild though - they certainly are!

Martinselkosen
The comfortable accomodation at the Martinselkosen
Wild Centre. You can just make out "Willy" the tame
reindeer who thinks he is a dog - and loafs around
the centre grounds and greets visitors as they arrive.


The first nights bear-watching was spent in a large public hide which offers comfy reclining chairs (actually recycled car seats) a few bunk beds, and a room with a chemical toilet. It is an 8 Km drive from the Wild Centre to the car-parking spot, and a futher 30 minute walk through mosquito-infested pine forest to the bear hides. Once installed at 5pm we were locked in until 7:00 am. Almost immediately after we entered the hides the show began - and we were treated to a continuous performance from about 16 different bears which came and went until around 1:00 am when things went quiet. During this time there were always between 3 and 8 bears in front of the hide at any one time.

Bear cub up tree
brown bear

In the above pictures, you can see (left) one of a pair of cubs that put in an appearance - but shot up a tree when a large male appeared (right).

The evening started off quite light as the day had been sunny, so light levels for photography were good.However, the light was harsh and caused the pine trees to cast dark shadows across the bears.The qualtiy of the light improved as the sun became lower in the sky, but then the light levels became very low for photography, necessitating high ISO settings and low shutterspeeds at wide apertures. The ideal lens for the bears was a 70-200 f2.8 zoom, as they came amazingly close at times, and the "fast" aperture of f2.8 was very useful as light levels plummetted. I resorted to ISO 800 and shutterspeeds of around 1/40th second at times, which resulted in some discards, but the bears would pose nicely at times so this didn't matter too much.

For my second night I had pre-booked one of the small Pro- hides. This proved to be quite an adventure. The hide measures around 8 feet long by 4 feet wide by about 5 feet tall. You crawl into it, and most of the space is taken up by a platform bed with a small footwell at the front in which to put your legs. There is a pot in which you can relieve your bladder, but too small for anything else!

Pro hide

In the above picture, you can see a Pro hide. You will notice a grey drainpipe is fitted into the roof - to take the occupants scent away from the bears. The brown flaps you can see are opened up at night, and are covers for the 4 lens holes - which are about 2 feet square and covered in fabric with a hole for your lens to poke through.

The Pro hides enjoy more pristine backgrounds, are a little less shaded and offer a lower viewpoint than the public hide. As the lens is just 3 feet off the ground and the bears are literally just outside the hide- you have a far more intimate encounter with your subject !

I was locked into the hide just after 5:00 pm, given some food and drink and left alone until 7:00 am - a nice wilderness experience. Within minutes, bears started to appear and I was able to get some decent shots in good light. At times I could have used a wide angle lens - the 70-200 mm lens was too long at the short end - the bears really come that close.

After around 2 hours, the skies greyed-over, the wind picked up and it began to rain. The bears were obviously agitated as they could not hear or smell properly. The wind continued to build strength until it reached storm force, shaking the hide alarmingly and the trees were almost bending almost in two. The wind was roaring in the drainpipe chimney and at times blew the unoccupied lens-hole fabric wide open despite being weighted-down with two heavy beanbags - often leaving an unhindered view of any bear which happened to be literally just outside ! On more than one occasion I came face-to face with a bear, and could have stretched out and touched my subject - had I had a death wish that is! I kept telling myself that only one person had been killed by a brown bear in Finland in the last 70 years - so I should be OK. As photography was out of the question for the rest of the night, I improvised some earplugs out of loo-paper, snuggled into my sleeping bag and slept until morning - only occasionally waking to the sound of bears just outside....

Brown bear adult

For pictures of bears, please click here: Brown bears


My last afternoon and morning was spent doing birds. The weather was not great, which unfortunately stopped any attempts of action shots of a family of red-throated divers. Nevertheless, I got some nice shots of the parents in summer plumage with their not-so pretty chick

red - throated divers

The next day brought sand martins, capercailllie chicks (the female flew off of a nest as we were walking) and lesser-spotted woodpeckers at nest sites - three good species photographed in three hours before we rushed off to the airport. All in all a fantastic trip, can't wait to return !


 

June 2007

New tutorial: Macro lenses - choosing and using

elephant hawk moth

I have been doing a fair bit of macro-photography recently, following a great influx of new subjects as a result of my purchase of a Mercury Vapour (MV) moth trap - see below for more on moths.

This prompted me to write this new tutorial, as I became aware that I select my macro lens according to what I am trying to do. Canon make at least 5 macro lenses - this tutorial (hopefully) helps you choose which one is right for you and illustrates the strengths and weeknesses of each. I concentrate on the 50mm, 100mm and 180mm macros as these are the ones I own and know best.

I also cover using extension tubes and tele-extenders in close-up photography.

To read the new article please click here:
Macro lenses - choosing and using

Moths

Towards the end of last year I bought a mercury vapour moth trap with the hope of starting to catch moths for photographic purposes. My favourite species are the big showy hawkmoths and I was really hoping to get one or two of those turn up when I started running it in May this year.

On my first night, a lime hawk turned up soon after dark, so I thought "wow", this is going to be really good. I let the moth go as it is one of the commoner species and I didn't want it fluttering around in the trap all night knocking all the delicate scales off of it's wings.Unfortunately I am yet to catch another one!

The next night brought a poplar hawk, and the following nights saw: An eyed hawk, then a pine hawk, two more poplar hawks , two more eyed hawks and a large elephant hawk in addition to various other smaller species of moth.

Large elephant hawk
Large elephant hawk

The trap has exceded all expectations and I have been able to get some cracking shots of the moths when I open the trap at dawn each day. I have to rise at 4:00 am because many moths sit around the trap on the grass and bushes and these make easy pickings for the birds which were very quick to notice the free breakfast ! So painful as it is to leave the comfort of my bed, it has to be done!

The moth trap I use is a variant on the Robinson trap, but much cheaper. The Robinson is around £350, but Paul Batty's excellent Hawk traps are just as good and cost just £110. You need to add a bit more if you want waterproof electrics, a rain shield, and a light sensor to turn it on and off automatically, but it is still excellent value.

moth trap

I found that the best way to get good pictures of the moths is to carefully get the moth off of the egg-box that it sits on inside the trap, and get it onto a log, tree trunk or leaf for pictures. I use a 100mm macro lens and twin flashguns - mainly using an aperture set at f22 for maximum depth of field. The big moths have curved bodies and they often hold their wings up at interesting angles which demands f22 - if everything is to be kept sharp from antennae to wing tips. Particular attention has to be paid to getting the camera parallel to the wings in all planes, as it is so easy to get one wingtip sharp, and the other blurred due to the tiny depth of field at this level of magnification.

I used two photo-techniques for my moths:

1. Set camera to manual and the maximum flash sync speed (1/250th sec for 1Dmk2) and dial in an aperture of f22. As the moth is on a leaf or log, the background is very close to the subject, so there will be no tell-tale black background (which is normal when flash is used as the only light source). It is not essential to use a tripod as the flash duration is around 1/50,000th of a second. That said, I still use one as I like to ensure that everything is just right before taking the picture - which can take some time. I also like to use manual focus, as the camera doesn't know what I want to focus on.

2.The other method is to set the camera to Av and an aperture of f22 with the flashguns set to under-expose by 1.5 f-stops. The camera will automatically set the shutterspeed - usually around a very slow 1/20th second in order to expose the picture correctly. The flash is only there to fill in shadows and lower contrast, so it is imperative to use a tripod. As the low shutter-speed is in the danger zone for vibration from mirror slap, I also use mirror lock-up and a remote cable release to fire the shutter. Neglect any step, and you will get a less than 100% sharp picture.

To see my new moth images click here:

Hawkmoths
Moths




May 2007

In April, Gail and I visited Romania for a 17 day photo trip. The first half was spent in the Danube Delta and Dobrogia for the spring bird migration and the second part was sent in Transylvania in the Carpathian mountains in hope of seeing spring plants, mountain birds and possibly a glimpse of European brown bear - if we were really lucky.

Our time in the Delta was spent with Atu travel - a sister company of Ibis tours, which specialises in small or individually tailored bird tours. We spent most of our time on a boat cruising the backwaters of the Delta with our guide Florin Palade. Florin really knew his birds, and we were soon seeing fantastic species such as pypmy cormorant, black and grey-headed woodpeckers.

Florin Palade rowing us back from a heron colony
Florin Palade rowing us back from a heron colony


Typical scene in the Danube Delta
Typical scene in the Danube Delta

The number of species in the Delta itself were good, but it was the sheer numbers of birds such as squacco herons, little and great white egrets, night herons, spoonbills and waders etc that makes it so special. We expected to see large numbers of white (and the rare Dalmation) pelican, hoopoos, bee-eaters and rollers, but we were too early for most of these.

Spoonbill in flight
Spoonbill in flight


On our last day with Atu we spent a day with Romania's leading bird photographer - Daniel Petrescu. Daniel is a great character, and helped us find and photograph some species such as Ortolan bunting, White pelican (at last - thank goodness, I thought we were never going to get a photo) and we were challenged to photograph collared pratincoles as they wheeled around catching insects at about the same speed as a swift ! An hour in Daniel's small portable hide brought great images of Sousliks - a type of very cute ground squirrel, which can be seen as my image of the month this month.

We had a great time in the Delta, with excelent guiding, great company and excellent food. Many thanks to all at Atu and Ibis !

After picking up a hire car from the horribly congested streets of Bucharest, our second week was spent in beautiful Transylvania - famed for it's cheeses, sausages and Dracula's castle !

Traditional house and haystacks - Moeciu de Jus, Brasov county
Traditional house and haystacks - Moeciu de Jus, Brasov county

We stayed at the Pension Elena in Zarnesti . We had really fallen on our feet again with this accomodation, there is such a wonderful friendly family atmosphere, with comfortable accomodation in good-sized rooms and Elena's cooking is just superb. The proprieter - Gigi Popa was able to recommend walks in the mountains with good chances of seeing some of our target species. Gigi and Elena's daughter, Beatrice runs the Transylvanian Eco Travel company, so any prospective guests with wildlife interests are well served.

Gigi very kindly put us in contact with Bogdan Costescu - the chief ranger of the Piatra Cralului National Park. Bogdan took us on a one-day itinerary from Zarnesti. Little did we know at this point, that this day would transpire to be the highlight of an already excellent trip.....

The weather was not kind to us, we had light snow for much of our time walking up to the ridge, but we enjoyed looking at some of the early flowers and birds, such as Ring ouzel which was abundant at a shepherd's hut. We were very pleased to be accompanied on this walk as mountains can be unpredictable places in such conditions. We were shown signs of bear, red deer and wild boar activity on our way, as these animals had left tell-tale signs such as clawmarks on a tree, soil disturbance and prints in the mud near drinking places. We were also shown a wallcreeper nest and the site where the final scenes in the film "Cold Mountain" were produced.

After lunch at the Curmatura chalet, we walked back down to Bogdan's car, and we set off to a bear hide deep in the forest in the hope of seeing and photographing wild bears! Apparently there is about a 75% chance of seeing them. Near the hide we met up with another local ranger who brought food to tempt the bears (a sack of maize kernels). We quickly and silently entered the hide at around 17:30 and waited in hope for a bear to pay a visit. At around 19:45 we were both astonished and delighted to see not a bear, but a lynx appear, which casually crossed the clearing, stopping twice to spraymark it's territory before disappearing off into the forest. We could not believe our luck - sightings of lynx can be a once in a lifetime experience !
As if that was not enough, we were also treated to two good sightings of brown bears before the light failed and we headed for home. What a day - fantastic!

Lynx
Lynx

Brown bear
Brown bear


We had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed both the things we saw, and the company of our excellent Romanian guides - thank you so much to all the people I have mentioned who made our Romanian trip so enjoyable and successful - I highly recommend their services to anyone interested in being guided in Romania.

You will see many images of species I photographed in Romania as I gradually sort though the hundreds of images I took and add them to the website.


After returning from Romania, I settled down to photographing hares at a fantastic site I have discovered thanks to a friend and fellow photographer - Andy Vidler. There are many new images of these wonderful creatures in the hare gallery.

I aim to add to these images over the coming months as I gradually learn the hares' habits and hopefully gradually work my way into their private world !

hare

 




April 2007

I was aware of the fact that I had turned into a bit of a "bird photographer" of late, so I thought it time to try another type of subject. I had an opportunity to photograph adders in the wild in Kent this month, so I have some new shots of this wonderful creatures. I was fortunate to be accompanied by a friend - Brett Lewis who is an experienced herpetologist, and he kindly handled the snakes for me in order to get them into photogenic positions. Usually the only sight one gets of an adder is the tail disappearing into a bush - so I am very grateful to Brett.

These are such malligned creatures, despite being caught and handled, not one of the twelve or so snakes we caught attempted to strike or bite. They are placid creatures that just want to be left in peace.

To see some images of them please visit my new "Reptiles" gallery.

 


 

March 2007

Equipment update

I have been looking to reduce the weight of my super-telephoto set-up, as it is both a bear to lug around and I have been missing shots as I can't carry the gear on the tripod on my shoulder. Learn how I have reduced the weight of my set-up by 21% with no loss in peformance. Equipment II - update. There is also news of an exciting new wildlife camera - the EOS 1D mk III.

Also my thoughts on Gimbal style heads.

Manfrotto head

 

New free images!

I have added eight brand new free images that you can download to use as wallpaper on your computer desktop. These are now available in three screen resolutions to exactly match the size of your screen.

You can find them here : Free images

Finland - Owls and waxwings

A trip was planned for January to hopefully photograph golden eagles in the snow in a remote part of central Finland. Flights and accomodation were booked, but I was forced to cancel at the eleventh hour as there was no snow! Finland experienced it's first "black Christmas" in over 100 years and the weather had continued mild throughout January. I rearranged for late February/early March following a week snow and temperatures as low as -34c. The lowest I experienced was -17c on one day which felt quite cold enough to me!

Finland in snow
Typical Finnish road in February. Note the thick
grey cloud that lasted for the whole of my trip !

Getting up at 4:30 am each day for three days, I had to be installed in the eagle hide long before dawn as the eagles are very wary and must remain totally unaware of human presence. Similarly at the end of the day, I could not leave the hide until after dark - a very long day !

Eagle hide

Just as the light began to break, the calls of nearby ravens were heard, and this is the signal to remain totally silent and to keep away from the small viewing window in case seen. After a while the ravens came down onto the snow in front of the hide, and this is usually a sign to the eagles that it is safe to come down.

Although I had numerous sightings of the magnificent eagles, they didn't come down to the bait (a dead hare) that had been laid for them. The birds had been coming down almost daily onto the snow just a few metres from the hide for several weeks before my visit, but not for me! I spent three long days in vain. Such is wildlife photography - it is certainly not always very glamorous!

The rest of my week was dogged by heavy, snowcloud-filled skies, barely sub-zero temperatures and lots of light snow - not condusive to good photographic opportunities! Even the birds had the hump - owls remaining nocturnal as there were plenty of voles around in the forest, and the smal bird feeders that usually buzz with activity were very quiet.

The highlights of the week were an obliging hawkowl, and a group of waxwings which came down onto the snow to feed on some lovely bright red berries on my last morning - the one bright day of the trip!

hawk owl
waxwing

Here are links to galleries containing the new images from Finland:

Waxwing
Hawkowl
Willow tit
Great-spotted woodpecker
Raven
Grey-headed woodpecker
Crested tit
Siberian jay

Oh well - looks like another visit is called for next year, just hope my luggage makes the Helsinki to Heathrow connection next time!


February 2007

New tutorial on working at high ISO added - not to be missed !!!

I feel that I had a really exciting breakthrough when I discovered my technique on working at high ISO. This has transformed my photography, and I no longer fear using ISO settings as high as 1250 - as noise is not really an issue if you follow my advice. Imagine being able to shoot at high shutter speed in low light - or to freeze birds in flight or to generally elimate motion blur or camera shake !

Before reading the working at high ISO tutorial, please first read last months tutorial on exposing to the right - as it will make much better sense.


January 2007

Six new tutorials added! :
Composition part 1
Composition part 2
Evaluating images on your computer screen
Adjusting levels and understanding histograms
"Exposing to the right"
Photographing the moon

Moon

I had this crazy idea that I would like to push my equipment to the limits to get a good close-up shot of the moon. I couldn't believe how fascinating the results were going to turn out to be- so I put a quick tutorial together to show how I got the results I did. check out this link :
Photographing the moon.

On 24th January we had a light sprinkle of snow, which gave some opportunity to obtain some nice images of some common birds in snowy conditions.

The snowy pictures can be found under blue tit, buntings, robin and goldfinch.


bluetit in snow


I always get a buzz from seeing my images published, but I am particularly pleased with the latest Digital Photographer magazine (January edition - Issue 52) which has a 10 page feature section on wildlife "Photo Safari" in Britain which was derived from Josie Reevley's interview with me. It features six of my favourite images including three which go over two pages.

All images were shot with the 1Dmk II - an eight megapixel camera. I think that the double page spreads that the article includes, illustrate the point that you really don't need more than this to reproduce to A3 in a high-quality magazine. Some snobby photo agencies that insist on 50Mb files (which can only come from scanned film or a 1Dsmk2 16.7 megapixel camera) please note!


Digital photographer


 

The grey winter days are continuing and are really not good for photography, so I am using this opportunity to continue updating the image galleries into the new improved Porta gallery format. You will notice lots of new images if you search through the following galleries:

Parakeets
Pigeons and doves
Crows
Ducks

Showcase
Seabirds

Buntings
Goldfinches
Waders
Photographing seals at Donna Nook
Tits
Gulls
Woodmouse
Brown Hare
Hedgehog
Image of the month
Domestic animals
Fallow deer
Red deer
Red squirrel from Formby and albino grey squirrel!
Purple sandpiper
Sanderling
Grey seals from Donna Nook
Puffins
Lemurs
Polar bears
Woodpeckers
Owls


 

I am also using the time to plan some of this year's trips abroad. As the January light here in Britain is currently driving me nuts, I have booked my first trip away in mid January. I'm not disclosing where yet - you will just have to wait and see! Suffice it to say that there will be lots of great photo opportunities I hope.