Ophrys Photography

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News and Blog 2009

News archives :

 

Latest images:
Updated 3rd Dec
Updated 25th July- 30th Aug
Images of the month -
Yawning cheetah and hunting hyena
Flamingos
Pelicans
Showcase gallery

Major update - lots of new favourite images
- You will need free Adobe Flash Player to view - downoad here free : Flash player
Zebra
Cheetah
Leopard
Lion
Jackal
Hyena
Rock Hyrax

New for 2010 - Come on safari with Ophrys Photography !!

Bookings are now being taken to accompany me on the trip of a lifetime - to the legendary Maasai Mara in Kenya in conjunction with Freeman safaris. You will receive tuition and assistance from me in getting the best out of your digital SLR - so you should come back a better photographer with some fabulous images!

Dates are September 14th/15th- 28/29th 2010. There is more information here: Kenya Safari. Places will be strictly limited to 12 participants, so book early to avoid disappointment.

If you would like to make a booking or are interested in receiving a free copy of Brian's DVD please click here to be redirected to Brian's website Freeman Safaris



- December-


Winter preparation


A combination of terrible wet and windy weather and a nasty chest infection has put my photography onto the back burner this month. However I have been getting the garden ready for winter birds by feeding regularly and setting up some nice logs and branches as "props" in front of the new hide. After observing the birds for a while I have started to notice which branches they like to land on when coming to the feeders. I have then been taking my secateurs to straggly twigs and crossing branches in the background that would spoil my images.

My new toy camera

I have been wanting a small pocket camera for some time. I find that when I am lugging my 1 series camera and 500mm lens around I have no means of capturing nice landscapes and sunsets that I come across in my travels. Unfortunately the image quality from compacts can not possibly match that of a digital SLR - or can it ?

I have bought a Canon G11 which fits the bill and also fits my coat pocket. It is rumoured that Getty and Corbis will accept images from this 10Mp camera and like its predecessor the G10, it is tough enough to accompany photojournalists visiting war zones. Canon have made the sensible decision to reduce the G10's megapixel count down from 14Mp to 10Mp and improve the noise performance considerably in the process.


Here are some links that lead me to decide to purchase this camera :

Lawrence Kim
Take a look at these sensational images taken with the G11 in studio conditions.

Imaging resources Here are some images courtesy of the Imaging Resources website. They are taken at ISO 200 and are 100% crops from a still life. I chose the 10Mp Canon 40D as a point of reference.

40D 100% crop
G11 100% crop

Surprisingly the G11 beats the 40D at ISO's up to 200. At 400 ISO it is a dead heat and above this, the 40D pulls ahead as it should with a much bigger sensor ! This is fine by me - I will not be using the G11 for action or shooting in low light. I would call it a day at 800 ISO.

The G11 has nice chunky switches for exposure compensation, ISO and aperture/shutterspeed. It has a 4 stop image stabilisation that works really well and a viewing screen that rotates through any angle to permit ground level or overhead shooting. The lens is a 5x optical zoom and offers 28mm - 140mm equivalent focal length.

Finally it has one last ace up its sleeve - the small sensor gives huge depth of field that is ideal for macro work. Actually there are two aces - the other one is that the camera can be used with the Canon macro ringlight or MT-24 ex flashguns when an adapter is fitted.

Here is a handheld snap I took of a pinned specimen of a butterfly with the G11 and its inbuilt flash:



100% crop :


The only minuses that I have detected so far relate to the physical size of teh camera - I find it hard not to start pushing buttons unintentionally on the right hand side of the camera. As with all compacts, the buttons and menus are a bit fiddly and over-specced which makes them a bit more complicated to use than they should be. Still, I can see I am going to have a lot of fun with this little camera !

A very Merry Christmas to you all !

 


New for November - Colour-themed canvas prints
and new tutorial on photographing wild birds


Colour- themed canvas prints


Last month I told you about our new canvas prints. This month I have been going through my images to locate those that I think would be particularly well-suited for printing large onto canvas and colour-theming them to make your choice simpler for purchasing. So, if you are looking for a predominantly pink theme to match a bedroom - no problem - just take a look at the "pink selection" there are also blues, blue/yellows, blue/green, green,oranges, reds, greys, whites etc etc.

Although I have narrowed the choice down for you, but don't worry - you can of course still choose any image out of my image galleries if you prefer.

To take a look at the colour-themed print selection click here: Colour themed prints


New tutorials on Photographing wild birds

I have written a monster 8 part tutorial on photographing wild birds which addresses many of the common mistakes that I have observed people making.
I have covered topics ranging from getting close, eliminating camera shake and motion blur, obtaining critical focus, long lens technique, necessary equipment, getting correct exposure through to lighting and composition and photographing birds in flight. It contains many hints and tips, that I hope you will find useful in improving your photography.

To read part 1 click here: Photographing wild birds.

To access a list of all my tips and tutorials please click here.


October - Canvas prints


I appreciate that traditional framed prints are not to everyone's taste - particularly as the minimalist style currently in vogue dictates a large piece of canvas artwork in the right overall colour to look right on a wall.

For some time I have been looking for a supplier that can provide the quality that I feel my images deserve .I have at last found such a company who can print my images to canvas that meet my fastidious quality standards. These are printed with pigment inks onto 300 gm/100% cotton canvas and life expectancy is 200 years against fading ! The wooden frames are made of museum-quality artists kiln-dried fir wood. The print surface is matt-coated and may be gently wiped down with a damp cloth if necessary. The print edges are wrapped with an extension of the picture itself.

These prints are available in a range of sizes from 12"x8" up to a monster 60" - that's five feet !!
Although you will always be able to select any image from the image galleries I have plans to produce a "recommended range" of images that I feel lend themselves particularly to this medium.

To read more about sizes available and the ordering procedure, please see the Print Sales page.


 

September - Kenya safari


Welcome ceremony at a Maasai manyata (village)

We finally got back to Kenya this month to finish the Safari that we had to cut short in September 2007. We started with a few days at Lake Nakuru - famous for its countless flamingos, pelicans and numerous white rhinos. The remainder of our time was spent in the incredible Maasai Mara.


Lake Nakuru

We had no qualms in re-booking our safari again with Brian Freeman (Freeman safaris) as Brian caters exceptionally well for photographers. There are countless tour operators operating in Kenya and it would be all too easy to end up with a bad experience if you booked with the wrong company. Brian is a photographer himself, and all his vehicles (landrovers) are well suited for photography and are not overcrowded as so many vehicles are. Drivers are trained to position the vehicles correctly according to the lighting conditions or in accordance to your wishes and are exceptionally patient. They will not leave a photo subject until you give the instruction "Sawa sawa" which means it is OK to move off.

I was very fortunate to be provided with a specially converted Landrover Discovery (Disco) to evaluate for the duration of my stay on the Mara. (Note - you will get severely reprimanded if you call this a Jeep/truck/bus/van etc !) Brian is about to make this vehicle available to other photographers in the future for an additional fee. It is very well thought-out and must represent just about the ultimate wildlife photography vehicle for the purposes of safari photography.

Disco

The Disco has been strengthened and has had its doors removed and replaced with a horizontal shelf that is positioned at just the right height to comfortably take a bean bag (provided). It is possible to shoot anywhere along the side of the vehicle at eye level to your subject. As there is only the driver's seat plus two passenger seats (which swivel) there is a great deal of space inside and there was plenty of room to put my 1Dmk III camera plus 500mm lens on the floor in front of me.Brian also kindly provided me with a bespoke padded canvas bag to protect the equipment from dust and knocks. I additionally used a full frame camera plus 70-200 f2.8 IS lens which I kept in an old unfastened camera bag for the animals that were close to the vehicle. I strongly recommend operating two rigs like this on safari as it saves time when something unexpected appears and it reduces the need to change lenses in dusty conditions - although there wasn't much dust this year as we had frequent rain showers in the late afternoons.

The Disco also has two closable roof cutouts so you can still shoot in any direction unhindered when standing up. It is nice to be able to stand up to act as "spotter" or just to enjoy a cooling breeze in hot weather. The area which used to be occupied by the side windows has been fitted with roll-up plastic screens. I used these to great effect keep me and my lens dry while photographing cheetahs in a rain storm. Finally, the area below the shelf where the doors used to be is covered in canvas and held in place by velcro. They can be rolled up for ground-level shooting if required. I will never forget the sight of photographing two exquisite cheetahs walking straight towards me to within a couple of metres while I laid on the floor at slightly below their eye level - now that was a wildlife experience! I wouldn't be that brave with a leopard though.


Disco special - lion cub at eye level in beautiful evening light

If you don't go for the Disco, the normal Landrovers are still very good for photogaphy. The side windows have been modified to open on telescopic struts. Also there are no roof pillars to get in your way anywhere when standing up, but as you are exposed to the sun, a sun hat and suncream are essential. As the Mara is at quite a high altitude it is a very pleasant temperature most of the time despite being located on the equator. Mornings and evenings are surprisingly chilly, so a fleece and hat are required. The only time that it gets uncomfortably hot is around midday if you are static waiting for an animal such as a leopard to appear, but we usually returned to camp for lunch at this time anyway - so it was not a problem.


Long lenses in action from the roof of a landrover.

The Mara camp is exceptionally well situated in an idyllic location beside a hippo pool within 45 minutes drive of anything you need to see.


Hippo action at the camp's pool

Our accommodation was in luxury tents sectioned into three areas and fitted with proper beds, a loo and wash basin, and even an integral shower cubicle.
As you are camping, you hear all the sounds of the night and we were serenaded by hippos, hyenas, lions and the occasional leopard in the knowledge that we were being constantly guarded by six Massai warriors armed with spears outside the tents.

You are called to breakfast before first light and are able to get out as the sun rises to enjoy that wonderful "golden hour" before the light becomes harsher and more contrasty. This is an ideal time to try those arty backlit subjects like these Topi.


Topi at sunrise

The food at the camp also deserves special mention - it is just wonderful, and all the more remarkable when you see how Obe the Chef makes much of it in outdoor charcoal-fred ovens.

We were very lucky that our group shared the same sense of humour and we all got on exceptionally well. We had many a wonderful evening chatting around the campfire after enjoying another of Obe's exceptional dinners.


Our fantastic Safari group. That's Brian on the left of the picture.

The animals in the Mara are just incredible. There are photo opportunities wherever you look. If you are into cats as we are, you will be in paradise. We saw leopards, lions and cheetahs with cubs and had a quick sighting of a serval. We were fortunate to witness several lion and cheetah attacks plus several kills.


Cheetah chasing a warthog


Lion attacking wildebeest

In September, many other animals had young too, including the giraffe (three species) hyenas and warthogs. September is the time of the famous wildebeest migration and it is a very spectacular sight to see a "crossing" when thousands of wildebeest and zebra cross the Mara river from Tanzania into Kenya , running the gauntlet of waiting crocodiles. Unfortunately the Mara river is exceptionally shallow this year due to the failure of the normal "long rains" so crossings were not as good as they usually are.

The Kenyan birds are also fantastic with plenty of raptors and beautiful smaller birds such as this little bee-eater


Little bee-eater

There are also lots of opportunities to practice flight shots on the pelicans and vultures for example.


Pelican landing at Nakuru


Rüppell's griffon vulture landing at a kill in the Massai Mara


August - Toads in action !

I have a nice big toad that lives under a piece of old carpet in the vegetable plot. He has become very obliging and looks forward to having his picture taken once a day. I have got some nice portraits of him, but have been trying to get something a little less ordinary looking. It pays to keep revisiting a subject, and I am pleased with my action shots of him walking.

Here is one:

Toad in action

For more toads click here: Toad gallery

Latest articles

Tutorial on using the Canon MPE-65 macro lens

This incredible lens is similar to using a low power microscope. It is capable of showing the hairs on the leg of a tiny spider, but demands a lot of the photographer.

macro of bee


Why do butterflies have four wings ? and.... it's not too early to start thinking about Christmas cards !

I have been doing quite a bit with butterflies this month. I came across this comma which was pretty obliging. I noticed that it was a creature of habit and it kept returning to the same leaf. The trouble was, the leaf was not in a very photogenic position. After a stealthy approach, being careful not to cast my shadow over the butterfly (for that would almost certainly have made it fly) I grasped the stem of the plant it was sitting on with my left hand and carefully twisted it up into position against the beautiful blue sky. In my right hand I bore the not inconsiderable weight of my Canon 1DsmkII camera plus flash (turned off at the time!) and struggled simultaneously to set the aperture to f16 (for good depth of field at this close range) whilst ensuring that I still had sufficient shutterspeed (1/250th sec at the pre-set ISO of 800 with a 100mm f2.8 macro lens). At this point the wind blew and blew the butterfly off the leaf !



However, the comma soon returned and I tried again. The wind did the same thing. So I tried again and again (six times to be precise until I got this shot). So I guess this teaches us that you have to persevere (as the old saying goes - "if at first you don't succeed, try and try again"). Also, that knowledge of your subject is sometimes imperative if you are to get the shot.

The comma was very territorial and it often flew after rivals that came near its bush. One intruder was one of the tattiest butterflies I have ever seen. Its rear wings had all but disappeared, presumably chomped by a bird or caught on thorns. But it could still fly with consummate ease - gliding up and down the ride both gracefully and effortlessly and with enough control to chase and spiral around with its four-winged rival. So this raised the question that prompted the title of this article - why do butterflies have four wings ? Are the back ones just spares or for show only?



RSPB Christmas cards

It's not too early to start ordering your Christmas cards. How about an Ophrys Photography squiggy in the snow card this year ? The 120x120mm cards come packed with a wonderful fallow deer from Duncan Shaw. Priced at a mere £3.99 for a pack of ten - and 100% of the profit goes to charity - so get some in !

Click here for link to RSPB Christmas cards

RSPB christmas cards


Original image:

Red squirrel in snow christmas card image

Click the above image for more images of red squirrels.


July - Experiences with a Canon EOS 50D, another Canon 1Dmk III and black admirals.

Following the demise of my previous 1DmkIII, I am eagerly awaiting its successor - the 1DmkIV or whatever it will be called. I am really hoping that this camera will be a 1.3x crop camera, ten frames per second motordrive with around 16Mp but with equivalent noise performance to the D3 that I tested back in June. Add totally bullet-proof AI servo autofocus tracking performance (to Nikon D3 standards) and the latest super-quality rear screen as fitted to the 5DmkII and 50D and I will be a very happy bunny ! I really, really, hope it is not 21Mp with no better or worse noise performance than before, plus the gimmicky video that I have no use for and seems to be appearing on most new models these days.

In the meantime, I need a backup camera to support my 1DsmkII, so I purchased a Canon 50D.
I don't know if I got a bad copy, but the 15Mp 50D was a disappointment and was returned after one-day of use.So what went wrong ?

I took some macro images with flash as the sole light source but they were not bitingly sharp, so I set too on the micro calibration that this camera permits. I used my usual test chart at 45 degrees mounted on a board. For those interested, it is Tim Jackson's chart that you can download here.

The tests opened up a can of worms. First, if I looked through the viewfinder and got the central AF square exactly on the focus line, then took a picture, the image review showed the AF point above the target line. This effectively made the micro calibration very difficult to achieve.

Then there was a distinct magenta cast to the white paper background. A quick search on Google showed that this has been a common issue with the 50D apparently. There have been a couple of firmware upgrades (which presumably were supposed to fix it) but it is still obviously present despite my camera having the latest firmware. This is admittedly not the end of the world, as a quick tweak in the magenta/green slider in the RAW converter can correct it. Finally, if I looked at the black test chart calibration lines at 100%, one end of the line was magenta and the other end red - or sometimes green! Not good. This was not chromatic aberration - I was using the 100mm f2.8 macro at the time - and I have never seen a whiff of CA in this excellent lens before.

Once I had calibrated the camera as best I could, I took some more shots. I must admit that the colour casts did not seem obvious in everyday use on real subjects. I was impressed with the fabulous rear screen and the autofocus - it worked in very low light and locked onto a couple of flying pigeons pretty well. Initial lock-on was not as fast as a 1 series body of course, but it did seem to track very well, although I did not do any serious testing on this.

After calibration I returned to taking macro shots with flash-only on a 100mm macro lens, and they weren't bad, but still seemed a bit soft (even when focusing manually) and slightly lacking in contrast (bite). I also took a few similar shots with my old s/h 1DsmkII (similar megapixel count but full frame) and the quality was distinctly better. I also found that the noise on the 1DsmkII was at least a stop better at all iso's and the image looked less "processed" - which they almost certainly are. The files on the full frame camera are also more robust in that they take firm sharpening better without breaking up into nasty artifacts and permit harder cropping than the 50D crop camera. So - the 50D is history. I suspect that Canon have stuffed too many pixels on the small sensor and despite the claimed technology advances with gapless microlenses, the image quality is just not there for me.

This left me with the dilemma as to what to do now as an interim. The only solution I could think of was to get another 1DmkIII, but with the current weakness of the pound against the yen, there has been a horrendous price increase, and the 1DmkIII currently sells (at the time of writing ) at about £3000 compared to the £2300 I paid for my last one. The solution came in the form of a Canon refurbished camera from Jacobs in New Oxford Street. This is a post sub-mirror fix camera with the latest firmware fitted and came from Canon as refurbished. It had just 6000 activations (clicks) was in mint condition and a few tests on vehicles in the street outside revealed that the autofocus seemed OK .I paid £1999 and I think I got a bargain - it's just like new.

AF Tests with the 1DmkIII

I was anxious to check out the AI servo focus capability of my new 1DmkIII, so put a 70-200 f2.8 IS lens on it and set to photographing a friend's car coming towards me at around 30mph. I had previously tested the Nikon D3 like this and it had scored 100%. (see D3 test here Canon vs Nikon).

To cut to the chase, the 1DmkIII managed an 88% hit rate and 70% if you exclude slightly soft images - not bad, but not as good as the Nikon D3. Although in the 1DmkIII's defence, the silver Honda's speed (used in the D3 test) was probably closer to 20mph rather than my requested 30 mph and the black Honda (used in the1D mk III test) was doing a bit more than 30mph I suspect. But - and it is a big but, the shots that the 1DmkIII did nail were so much better than all the D3 shots - I was really surprised.

Finally I repeated test 1 (runner at aperture of f4). The Canon's buffer filled at 45 images vs the D3's 39 so there were a few more images to include in the calculations. The results were that 2 out of the 45 were out of focus (4.44%) and a further 3 were soft (6.66%) or to put it another way, 89% of the images were totally sharp. This compared with 97% sharp for the D3.

So the Canon 1D mk III AF appears to have improved a lot since the early days, I can certainly live with a 90% hit rate when the camera produces so many frames to choose from, but the Nikon D3 still does have yet better tracking ability in my tests. The D3 has very good image quality, but the Canons do appear to have the edge here still.

White admirals and a black admiral

I have discovered a wood very close to my home which is excellent for butterflies. There are white admirals, silver-washed fritillaries, commas and purple hairstreaks - not bad for a ten minute drive.
The first problem in photographing them is how to get close and for them to stay around long enough for a picture.
.
The first time I visited it was very hot and all the butterflies were hyperactive, so I did not get a single shot. For attempt two I did a dawn raid - arriving by about 6:45am. This was a bit excessive as the sun had not had time to penetrate the wood and I did not see a butterfly feeding until about 8:30am. The magic time appeared to be from 8:45 to 10am. After this time they returned to "hyper" mode.

So - here is a white admiral feeding on bramble.



But what is this ?????
A terrible picture as it perched too high and would not perform for me, but this is
something really rare and special. It is a white admiral lacking the white spots !



Here is it's underside - much more streaky than normal.


This is actually an aberrant form (aberration) of the white admiral called Ab.nigrina
or black admiral if you prefer. I have wanted to see one of these since I was a kid
whoopee !

This is what a white admiral should look like underneath...


Silver-washed fritillaries are a big handsome butterfly . This is as close as I have
got to a flight shot!


There was even a silver-washed frit female var. Is this wood radioactive or something ?


Comma looking like a dead leaf.
Notice the white "comma" mark on the hind wing ?



Commas like to probe for salts and minerals. I have found them dining on dog poo
and in this case ... a dead crow.


A purple hairstreak resting on a leaf.


Finally, while I was waiting for the butterflies to get out of bed, I amused myself trying to
get some flight shots of flies ! I was quite pleased with this one - just about the ultimate
photo challenge I'd say !



News Update - 5th July

Not wishing to be defeated, I returned twice more to the wood to see if I could track down the black admiral (ab.nigrina). On my first visit I spotted the butterfly again and once more it was incredibly elusive, sensing my presence and flying off before I could get a shot. I did notice that it had a nick taken out of its hind wing, either caused by a bramble thorn or a bird.

On my next visit, I was amazed to see what I thought was the nigrina again, but when it settled briefly (in very poor light) I could see that it had a little more white in evidence than nigrina and had no nick in the wing. This was a different insect. Surely there can't be two ? I grabbed a couple of quick shots before it was off again. So not the world's greatest images once more, but a decent record of another extraordinary aberration of the white admiral. According to my reference book, this is Ab.obliterae.

From above....


A more respectable underside view..


An arty shot as it took off...


And another normal white admiral for comparison



June 2009 - Canon vs Nikon

My 500mm f4 lens has only just been repaired following it's nosedive off of my tripod in April on my Scottish trip. I still have not replaced my 1DmkIII camera
which was attached to the lens at the time and was damaged beyond economic repair despite still looking fine externally.

I am currently using just the 1DsmkII and making do without a backup camera. The main reason for my unusual slowness to replace the 1DmkIII is what to buy ? There are mixed reports as to whether the latest round of adjustments and firmware - on top of the previous submirror fix have finally sorted the camera or not. I never got to properly test the camera after it's return from Canon as my little incident in Scotland (described in April's News) happened too soon afterwards to permit this.

I'm sure that Canon want the 1DmkIII fixed to everyone's satisfaction before releasing the camera's replacement (1DmkIV or whatever). The replacement is rumoured, and the last thing I want to do is buy another mk III and the mk IV be released just after. I suspect that although the 1DmkIII is really still a darned good camera, it will not exactly go down in history as being Canon's finest hour. Secondhand values will be affected I'm sure. In the meantime, I have read so many good things about the Nikon D3 and D700, that I felt I ought to try one of them with a couple of good Nikon lenses that I own the Canon equivalents of for comparison.

I decided to hire a Nikon D3 plus a 70-200 f2.8 VR and a 105mm f2.8 macro from Jacobs in New Oxford Street and take my venture into the dark side !
To read how I got on, please click here for my article : Full frame shoot out - Canon 1DsII vs Nikon D3. Without giving too much away the D3 has given me a lot to think about.

cats playing - action shot Nikon D3
Catch me if you can ... Nikon D3 1/1600 f4 Iso 1600.


May 2009 - Orchid time again.

I have done very little orchid and butterfly-wise so far this year. The wind has been particularly irritating and is killing any chance of getting good macros in available light as the plants are not holding still enough. Thanks to James Hunter I was pleased to find a colony of early marsh orchids (D. incarnata ssp incarnata) growing fairly locally. Nothing that unusual other than the fact that this is the only colony that I am aware of in Kent. I managed to get up early to avoid the worst of the wind and got a few shots of this lovely delicate orchid.

Early marsh orchid




April 2009 - Dippers, grouse, otters, mountain hares and a Scottish disaster

I visited Scotland for a few days with my Photo buddy, Andy Vidler. We started off in the area around Dufftown - the malt whisky capital for three days (can't think why?) and then we went on to the Isle of Mull, largely in search of otters. On the first morning, Andy was up at the crack of dawn and reported back at breakfast that he had found a pair of dippers building a nest on a water treatment plant just 5 minutes walk from our B&B. We spent a couple of fruitless hours in bag hides trying to get some shots, but the birds were very wary and we left for fear of disturbing them.

Dipper

The weather alternated between warm and sunny and dark and rainy throughout our trip. Murphy's law was alive and well - it seemed that the good weather coincided with travelling days or when there was nothing to photograph. Everything seemed to happen on this trip on the rainy days in near zero light. It really is important to have a camera that works well at high ISO in this country.

We concentrated on getting some nice red grouse portraits for the rest of our stay in this area. I really like these birds - they make a wonderful noise which is quite comical. The males in April are in full mating plumage, which includes a bright red wattle over the eye - rather like a chicken's comb in colour and texture.

Red grouse in heather

It is possible to shoot from the car or to even get out of the car and stalk the birds on hands and knees until extreme closeups such as these headshots are to be had :

red grouse head

Red grouse portrait

On the third day of the trip, we visited Loch Garten RSPB to see the Ospreys nesting. This site had been very fruitful at our last visit (when the ospreys had gone) as it was much quieter, and we got excellent opportunities to photograph red squirrel by the hide and crested tits were to be found around the car park.
Unfortunately the hide is situated a huge distance from the osprey nest and is hopeless for photography. This is a shot of an osprey in a tree by the nest at 1000 mm. As it happened, this turned out to be the last picture I ever took with my 1DmkIII (more below).

Osprey

The RSPB camera provides a live video feed to the hide and an RSPB warden gives a running commentary to the captive audience. I felt that you might as well watch it on TV at home on Springwatch - so we departed carrying our big lenses and cameras over our shoulder in case there was a red squirrel on the path on our way back to the car. This was when disaster struck!

One minute I was labouring under the weight of my 500mm f4 lens and 1DmkIII camera and the next moment, the tripod went very light and there was a sickening crash behind me as the precious equipment hit the floor. I hardly dared turn around to see what had become of my gear. The sight of the 500mm lens with the attachment collar snapped off and wires hanging out was not a pretty sight.At first the camera appeared unscratched, but a look through the viewfinder revealed that it had suffered internal injuries and would require major surgery. The autofocus points were misaligned over to the left, there were some strange scratches on the focusing screen and the camera casing was very slightly distorted. On returning home, the 1Dmk III, which had only recently returned from Canon for the latest AF fix and firmware (and was autofocusing like a bandit) has been declared a write-off by the insurers. The lens has currently sustained £467 worth of damage and will require this much repair to enable it to be mounted again to further test it with the possibility of more repairs if more problems come to light. Canon has had two huge price increases this year, and to my dismay I discovered that the camera was under-insured to the tune of £1000 (as they are now around £3100 new). Lesson learned - keep abreast of prices and be sure your increase your insurance cover accordingly !

This all happened on day three of an eight day trip. Good job I always take a spare camera body (1DsmkII) and a lens (albeit a slower/shorter focal length 400mm f5.6 ). Although the 400mm f5.6 is a great lens, I missed the 500mm badly on the rest of the trip. That extra 100mm of focal length makes a big difference. I used the 400mm with an extender most of the time to compensate, but it effectively became a very slow f8 lens with the 1.4x converter fitted and my shutterspeeds were badly affected - critical in the poor lighting conditions we experienced on many days.

After a stop at Loch Ruthven to see the beautiful (but too distant to photograph !) Slavonian grebes, we moved on to the Isle of Mull via the stunning road past Ben Nevis.

Ben Nevis

This was the view from the ferry across to Mull - note the foreboding clouds !:

Isle of Mull ferry

On our first afternoon and within minutes of landing on the island we saw a great-northern diver in summer plumage. These are called "Loons" in America. A stunning bird that I had only seen in its drab winter plumage in the south of the country. At Tobermory harbour where we dined most evenings, there was a large white gull present amongst the common black-headed gulls. This turned out to be an Iceland gull in first winter plumage - another new species for me! We sacrificed some whisky mince pies to attract the gull for some flight shots. Bread would have been cheaper if we had had some !

Iceland gull


Surprisingly, the next day was wonderfully sunny, and we spent a lot of time searching for otters.We had great views, but very little in the way of photo-opportunities with these shy creatures. This is the best shot I got (no prizewinners this time I'm afraid):

Otter - Mull

Still, it was great to see them - and we did every day on Mull - albeit distantly most times. Our very best views were of a dog otter in Tobermory harbour, which allowed us to within 20 feet to watch it munch up a couple of fish that someone appeared to have left out for it on the steps beside a fish restaurant (appropriate). It was dusk, there was no light for photography - we didn't have our cameras anyway as we had just been for a meal ourselves - but it was so wonderful to have such superb close views of a wild otter. Definitely one of those magic moments.

On our second to last day on Mull we had arranged to do an organised wildlife tour. Unfortunately it rained all day, so the opportunity for seeing golden and white-tailed eagles was very limited. We did see a white-tailed eagle on the nest in the mist through a telescope though. I think that a trip to Scandinavia is necessary to photograph this species well. The best photo-opportunity of the day came in the surprising shape of mountain hares by the coast at sea level.

Arctic hare

It was still raining, so the combination of poor light and slow lens ruled out any satisfactory action shots as the hares played in the wet grass. I have to make do with some nice statics instead. This is a new British mammal for me and one I was fascinated to see. The hares are white in winter in the highlands, but as it rarely snows on Mull apparently, they do not go totally white. In summer they are just white below. They have much shorter ears than the common (brown) hare, are smaller, and have a more rounded rabbit-like head. When they walk or run they still have the unmistakable gait of a hare.

Mull is a lovely island, and I would like to return to have another go at the otters some time.


 

March 2009 - India and tigers.

I first visited India to see tigers in 2002. I had an excellent trip and had some great sightings. I was shooting video back in those days, so I have been wanting to get back there and have another go at getting some good "stills". India is an incredible country and few people could fail to be moved by the extraordinary cultural differences, the seething mass and noise of humanity in the cities and the superb wildlife on offer.

Despite the best efforts of a dedicated few, the numbers of wild tigers has declined badly since my first visit to India. Poaching is still a problem in most reserves, and tigers are restricted to a few areas, where they quickly fill the territory available.When new cubs mature and seek their own territory, they are forced into buffer zones - and into close proximity to man, where they are driven to attack cattle and in some cases, people as their prey species become scarce.

We visited three reserves: Tadoba, Pench (famed for the recent David Attenborough series of Tiger - Spy in the Jungle) and Kanha. Our previous visit to Kanha and also Ranthambore yielded tigers on virtually every jeep drive, but this time, things were very different. In our two weeks, we never saw a tiger from a jeep at Pench or Kanha, having to rely on a couple of elephant rides to see sleeping tigers that the Mahoots at Kanha had found by tracking them. Pench seemed very quiet and we were informed that the areas where the BBC programme was filmed is off-limits to tourists. Finding tigers was also hampered throughout our trip by controlled burning of the forest edges. This is necessary to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires and stimulates regeneration of new young shoots and grass that the sambar and spotted deer require .Unfortunately there is no co-ordination between the tourist and forest management departments, so burning appeared to be going on in some of the areas where some of the best recent tiger sightings had been made.

Forest burning india
Controlled burning - India
Controlled burning

The forest trackers have incredible skill at following pug marks (footprints) and alarm calls of the spotted deer (Chital), sambar deer and langur monkeys, plus they have incredible eyesight - they manage to spot a highly camouflaged tiger walking through dense undergrowth that anyone else would have driven straight past.. There is still an awful lot of luck involved in seeing tigers, it can become very frustrating bouncing around the very dusty tracks for hours on end and not seeing anything, but then getting back to camp and having to listen to the tales of the wonderful sightings that others have had. I can't complain, I had seven tiger sightings in two weeks - which is more than any of the others in our party of sixteen, but I never did get to have a prolonged photo-session with a tiger in good light as I had hoped.

Tiger show
Jeep track Tadoba
Tiger show - Khana
Jeep track - Tadoba

My best photo-opportunity came with a fantastic male tiger at Tadoba, who was following a female that we had noticed a few minutes before.The time was 6am and in the forest the light levels were very poor at this time of the morning.

This is what our guide managed to spot in the bamboo as we sped along in our jeep....

Tiger
Spot the tiger......

Having found our tiger, we parked at the end of a little path which lead through the undergrowth and we waited for our boy to appear. In time, he started moving again and came within ten feet of the back of our jeep. As we were blocking his path, he seemed undecided as to what to do next, so he sat down and just stared at us....

Male tiger

It is moments like this that make me do what I do. To be so close to this fantastic, rare, beautiful, powerful, awesome, secretive creature for those few brief moments is a very emotional and almost spiritual experience. The park guide sitting next to me must have thought the same, as he had his hands clamped together in prayer and was chanting under his breath. I learned afterwards that there had been a recent tiger attack on a jeep under similar circumstances, but at no time did I feel threatened at the time. The open jeep is just a few feet off the ground and there was nothing between us and the big pussycat - but all I could think of was - wow !

The tiger then stood up and doubled back on the path and came out onto the jeep track behind us. I was able to take some more shots, but was thwarted by the very low light levels.I could only achieve around 1/20th sec shutterspeed at f5.6, 1600 ISO, so I later had to discard most of my shots for being soft. The sitting male above was taken at 1/10th sec at 800 ISO and is mercifully sharp thanks to the image stabilised lens and the closed tripod that I was using as a monopod at the time.

Tiger

The tiger headed back into the bamboo forest and our guide correctly predicted that it would reappear at the end of the track to cross a road in pursuit of the female. We parked on the road and waited. Sure enough, he appeared again and crossed the road while I fired off a sequence of shots with the big 500mm lens mounted on the Canon 1Dmk III. The shutterspeed was still low at 1/160 sec at 1600 ISO, but the little light that there was had a nice feel to it. I love the colours in this shot and it really shows the beast in it's natural environment.

Tiger in forest

When I had fired off some shots of the tiger crossing the road, I grabbed a few action shots as it ran into the forest on the other side of the road. I tried a couple of the increasingly trendy "blurry/arty" shots at 1/30th and 1/40th sec as it ran. The 1/30th sec shot was too diffuse, but I was really pleased with the 1/40th sec shot...

Tiger action blur

To see more of my tiger shots, see this months Image of the month and the Tiger gallery.

There was plenty of other wildlife to be seen on this trip, and I shall be adding pictures to the galleries as I get around to sorting them. Here are just a few to whet your appetite..

Young sambar
Young sambar deer in grasses at dawn

Sambar
Male sambar in golden bamboo forest

WIld boar
Wild boar leaping up a bank

Sloth bear
Rare sighting of a sloth bear

Blue mormon butterfly
There were some good butterflies - like this stunning Blue Mormon

changeable hawk eagle
The birds weren't too shabby either - Changeable hawk eagle


Another Canon 1DmkIII/1DsmkIII fix, firmware and a new AI servo manual

There has been an announcement from Canon regarding AF accuracy in EOS-1D Mark III and EOS-1Ds Mark III cameras. "We have learned that some EOS-1D Mark III and EOS-1Ds Mark III digital SLR cameras have a problem in the accuracy of the AF (autofocusing) feature.If an AF point other than the center AF point is used, focus may become soft."

Canon are offering free AF accuracy checks and adjustments will be provided to "affected products." However, there does not appear to be a list of affected serial numbers like there was with the sub-mirror fix recall. Owners are required to complete a registration form and arrange for a service. After you have submitted the form you should be contacted by a representative of a Canon Service Centre within one week for a service appointment. To access the form click here.

Although my 1DmkIII appears to work fine, I considered that it prudent to return it regardless. My logic is that a) It might focus even better after returning it as Canon may have discovered something fundamentally wrong and are playing the issue down by craftily not calling this a recall and b) I will have a piece of paper from Canon to show that the Canon has serviced the camera up to latest spec when I come to sell it. There is also a new firmware update which will be installed during the service and Canon have provided a new on-line AI servo autofocus manual. Hopefully after all this action, at last all mkIII Canon's should be able to autofocus as intended !

My camera is going to Canon UK on Friday (collected by UPS at Canon's expense I'm pleased to say) I will let you know how I get on when it returns. It will be interesting to see if all the autofocus micro-adjustments will need to be reset .


 

February 2009 - Hilary does it again and Garden birds in snow

Hilary's hares

In previous News I have written about a talented painter who has been using my images as inspiration for her paintings. The artist is Hilary Mayes. Here are two hares that Hilary used as source material for a wonderful new painting:

Hare
Hare 2

And this is the painting...

Hilary Mayes hares

If you would like to see more of Hilary's paintings or order a print, here is a link to her website:
Hilary Mayes paintings.

There are more of my photos of hares in the hare gallery.


Snow birds

This has apparently been the coldest winter for 18 years and we have had some snow in the southeast of the UK where I live. This is great news for the bird photographer as the cold weather makes birds bolder and they will come to feeders that you put out for them. What's more, I usually find that the snow brings in a few new species. For me this year it has been redwings and fieldfares. I often see them fly over but they never usually come down to feed. I had just a few old apples left from last autumn and although these looked pretty awful and smelled of cider, the birds still seemed to love them. Blackbirds and starlings soon got stuck into them and presumably gave the fieldfares and redwing the confidence to join them. They are right to be wary, I watched a sparrowhawk flash by a couple of times while I was photographing them .Shame the hawk didn't hang around for a picture session.

Fieldfare
Fieldfare on a snow-covered log .
Exposure details : 1/320 sec at f10, ISO 800 + 1.33 exposure compensation. Canon 1DsmkII plus 500mm lens.

Redwing
Redwing with rotting fruit - Nice colour co-ordination between the old apple and the bird I thought.
Exposure details: 1/500sec f8 ISO 800 +1.33 exposure compensation. Canon 1DsmkII plus 500mm lens.

Here are a few tips for getting photos of winter birds in your garden:

Set up a feeding station and feed the birds regularly every day. You will need to keep it up though as the birds will become dependant on you .Rather than taking pictures on the feeders, put a nice looking perch next to a feeder and the birds will hopefully land on it on their way to the feeder.

Put out different kinds of food - peanuts or butcher's suet for greater-spotted woodpeckers and tits, niger seeds for goldfinches and mixed wild bird seed for greenfinches, sparrows etc. Don't forget ground feeders - apples attract green woodpeckers, thrushes and blackbirds.

Place the perch in a position with a good uncluttered background. You can also stick a cutting from a bush or tree into the ground - oak with copper-coloured leaves on it or an evergreen such as scots pine can be good. Hide a feeder inside the bush or adjacent to it and birds will probably use the upper branches to perch on as they land. Taking some of your feeders down at photo time will force the birds onto your baited perches.

Unless it is a sunny day, low winter light levels will mean low shutter speeds and therefore blurry pictures if you are not careful. So to overcome this, increase your camera's ISO setting until you are getting about 1/500 sec minimum speed to prevent subject motion blur. Use a tripod to eliminate camera shake. To keep digital noise levels (grain) down at high ISO it is important to expose to the right. There is a tutorial on this technique here : Exposing to the right.

You will need to keep yourself concealed from the birds in order to get close, so you will need to use a small hide. I recommended an inexpensive portable hide in the December 2008 News.

In snow, your camera's meter will try to turn white snow into a midtone grey, so remember to overexpose the camera's reading with the exposure compensation dial. The amount you over-expose will depend on how much snow there is in your image compared to subject. A lot of snow will require more compensation than an image where the subject is very large in the frame and there is very little snow. Another factor is whether your subject is an easy subject by equating to a midtone grey (e.g. a house sparrow) or whether it will confuse the meter again by being predominantly black (e.g. a crow) or white (e.g. a seagull). These are the things to bear in mind, but getting the exposure right is actually pretty simple with a digital SLR camera and particularly if you are shooting RAW. Shooting RAW is far more forgiving of exposure errors than shooting jpeg.

If a subject suddenly appears unexpectedly in front of me against snow I would quickly dial in + 11/3 of over-exposure in the evaluative (matrix) metering mode. The correct exposure will be pretty close to this and if you shoot RAW, you will be able to tweak the exposure a little in the RAW converter and still get good results.With a little more time, I would take a test image and then look at the camera's histogram. If this is bunched to the left I would add more positive exposure compensation, and if the histogram is off the scale to the right I would take some compensation off. If the light is constant, it is often good to change from AV (Aperture priority) to Manual mode and set the pre-determined exposure into the camera. Now wherever you point the camera, the exposure will be correct regardless of background - be it white snow or dark conifers. This technique is not so useful if the sun keeps coming and going.

Don't give up in low light levels or if it starts to snow. You can get some very atmospheric shots in falling snow. Here is a grey squirrel that posed in a snow flurry - it will make a nice Christmas card for next year !

Grey squirrel in snow
Grey squirrel on snowy branch.
Exposure details: 1/500sec at f5, 400 iso, exposure compensation +0.67 Canon 1Dmk III plus 500mm lens.


January 2009 - Waxwings

Firstly, let me wish you all a very happy and prosperous new year - the latter bit may be a bit optimistic considering the current financial climate, but here's hoping !

The weather forecasters are encouraging us to "wrap up warm" so this is music to the bird photographer's ears as it means that some good winter birds should be coming our way. How much nicer to have crisp,cold weather with blue skies than the tedious grey gloom that we are all too familiar with in the UK in winter.

There has been quite an influx of waxwings into Britain over the Christmas period along with some of the nice bright, crisp weather. Unfortunately I missed most of the action due to the usual family commitments but did manage to spot my own waxwing and a distant short-eared owl on the Isle of Sheppey on a late afternoon foray. The light had all but gone, and all I got was this record shot of the waxwing, but I was pleased regardless as there is always something special about finding your own rarity.

Waxwings are another one of those birds like kingfishers and puffins, that makes them everyone's favourite. It is possibly due to their scarcity and exotic beauty, but also due to the fact that their crest makes them quite comical and they often oblige onlookers with very close views. "Berry-eating machines" is a good description of them. Once they start, they seem to have infinite capacity to eat berries. The inevitable consequence is that they seem to produce what is left of a berry with similar frequency from their other end !

waxwing

On the 30th December I did a "twitch" to an industrial estate at Folkestone where some other photographers had previously got some really nice shots of waxwings. Unfortunately the birds had stripped the bushes of berries and moved to a different location opposite B&Q. It never ceases to amaze me how these birds often seem to turn up in busy town centres in noisy, awful, locations. Also I can't get over how fearless the birds often are - On this occasion they were so consumed with eating berries that they totally disregarded the fact that an artic lorry was being loaded with much accompanying crashing and banging about 3 feet away from the bushes that they were in!

The light was in completely the wrong direction for any shots of the birds on the berries, so I had to make do with just one shot of a bird that flew into a tree with a nice blue sky behind. Oh well, better luck next time!
I suppose that as a consolation, the quality of the light on this bright winter's day at noon is just beautiful in this picture- not at all harsh and contrasty as it is in summer. I like the nice warm glow on this one, even though the image itself is nothing to get too excited about.

Waxwing blue sky

My best images of waxwings to date were taken in a cemetery in Finland a couple of years ago.My main issue was avoiding tombstones in the background! The birds were very approachable as usual and they were feeding on some mouldy old apples left in the trees from autumn. When we produced some nice fresh red berries which had been stored in a freezer, this caused much excitement - the birds tore into them like mannah from heaven - which in it's way, to a waxwing, I suppose it was.

Waxwings eating berries

Waxwing with red berries