Newletter #9


Bird Photography Newsletter #9

 Announcing the Central Florida Instructional Photo Tour

Dates: January 17, 18, 19, 20, 2010 (Sunday through Wednesday)

Limit: 3 photographers

Price: 1400/photographer

Deposit: 350

Includes: Rather large fees for boat and airboat use, licensed boat captains, slideshows and photoshop demonstrations, four full days of shooting in the field.

Snail Kite photographed from Air Boat using a tripod.

After going to Florida every winter for bird photography for many years, it’s finally time for me to show people some of the amazing places I have found. Our focus will be on central Florida raptors such as Snail Kite, Crested Caracara, Bald Eagle, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Barred Owl. We will also make it a point to get such Florida Specialties as the Florida Scrub Jay, Wood Stork, Reddish Egret, Tri-colored Heron, Little blue Heron, Anhinga, Whooping Crane, and many more. Instruction will include how to do successful flight photography using a tripod rather than hand-holding the lens. We’ll be going places in Florida that no other workshop has offered. One of the fun things about Florida is that there is just so many tame birds, you never walk away empty handed. Send me an e-mail to sign up and I’ll pencil your name in until I receive the deposit. We’ll do everything from air boat rides, driving tours, to perch set-ups to get the shot for this workshop. It should be tons of fun and I can’t wait.

Red-shouldered Hawk coming in for a landing


A Word on Focus

 While equipment shake may the number one culprit for soft or blurry images, inaccurate focus probably comes in as a close second. I know of no serious bird photographer who, at the time of this writing, still uses manual focus lenses on a consistent basis. Birds rarely stand still, and auto focus greatly increases the number of accurately focused images. Personally, when I manually focus, I only get about 3 in 10 photos with razor sharp focus, while auto focus often nails 9 out of 10. Auto focus technology is simply too advanced and readily available to seriously consider a manual focus lens for everyday use.  

Tips for Acquiring Accurate Focus:

First, while most modern auto focus lenses are very fast at locking on to a bird when the bird is almost in focus already, most lenses are not very good at searching great distances to find the subject. If your lens is pre-focused at 4 meters and then a falcon flies by 20 meters away, you’ll never find it in the viewfinder in time unless you manually focus to  about 20 meters and then the auto focus lock on and do the fine tuning. The first rule for using auto focus is to make major focus changes by hand, but let autofocus do the micro adjustments and lock on. This principal applies no matter what camera you are using. In fact many of my most successful flight shots were made using a Canon Rebel XT. The higher end camera bodies make life easier, but the same principal applies.

Limiting Focal Range

Many modern auto-focus lenses allow the photographer to limit the range of focus. For example, when photographing large birds far away, one could theoretically switch the lens to only focus 20 meters to infinity rather than include the closer ranges. Because auto-focus isn’t very good at quickly searching the entire focal range for the subject, some bird photography teachers advise their pupils to use the range limitation feature on the lens to limit the range of focus in situations like this. The theory is that the lens will only have to search a more limited range to find the subject. The problem with this theory is two fold.

First, these teachers assume that they won’t have a surprise encounter with another bird species. For example if you were photographing a distant heron nesting colony and set your lens range to distant subjects, what happens when a small warbler lands right next to you with no warning? You try to focus but your range is limited to only distant objects. You fumble to switch your range to close subjects but by then the warbler is gone. Or what happens when an osprey starts flying directly towards you, starting in your distant range, but in a matter of seconds moves into your close range? The camera will lock the focus and you’ll miss your shot.

Second, limiting your focal range assumes that the best way to focus is to let the lens find the bird. As we already discussed, we don’t want the lens to do the range searching – that’s not what auto focus is good at. It’s only good at small micro adjustments for locking on to the subject. So if we are doing 95% of the range searching manually anyway, there’s no need to limit the auto focusing range.  Keep the range unlimited. Do the major focusing adjustments by hand. Depress the shutter half way and only let your auto focus take over and lock on at the last second.

Crested Caracara in flight in central Florida

Focus Confirmation

There are two types of focus confirmation commonly available in today’s cameras. The first is a small beeping noise which sounds when focus has been acquired. This noise is soft enough that it would only bother the most shy of birds. In fact, many birds, if they hear it, are curious and give the perfect head turn towards the camera just as you acquire focus. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s annoying. Once in a while it scares the bird. I usually leave my confirmation beep turned off because I find the noise annoying.

The feature I do appreciate in modern cameras is the focus sensor light. In my sensor array, the sensor(s) which has locked focus turn red for about a half of a second. This lets me know more specifically what exactly the camera is locking on to, and is much less annoying that the beep confirmation.

Shutter Speed

Another critical factor in producing sharp images is using sufficient shutter speed to stop both the motion of the bird and the movement of the lens. IS and VR (Image Stabilization or Nikon’s Vibration Reduction) helps cut down on the negative vibrations on the photographer’s end, but by no means eliminates lens vibrations. Using the right shutter speed is somewhat of an arbitrary judgment call learned with practice, as every lighting situation, bird movement, and photographer is different. There are, however, some basic guiding principals which are universal.

First, lens length and required shutter speed are directly related. In other words, as lens length increases, shutter speed needs to increase in order to compensate for the “magnified vibrations”. Your own experience will verify this. If you look through a wide angle lens, the image in the viewfinder will appear fairly stable.  If you are looking at the same scene through a telephoto lens the image in the viewfinder will appear as if you are violently shaking by comparison – the image is magnified but so are the vibrations. To compensate for these vibrations an increase in shutter speed (i.e. decrease in exposure time) is needed so that the vibrations don’t end up effecting the image sharpness, blurring the image.

Second, amount of subject movement and the required shutter speed to freeze that movement are also directly related. The faster your subject is swimming, flapping, running, or flying, the faster the shutter speed will need to be. I find that most normal bird behavior is frozen at 1/500 second or faster. Most flight shots and wing flaps are frozen at 1/1000 or greater. Hummingbird wings can be mostly frozen anywhere between 1/1500 and 1/16000 of a second, depending on where their wings are in their figure 8 motion and the size of the bird. Hummingbird wings slow down at the full upward and full downward wing positions, but are incredibly fast in between.

Wood Duck Workshop Report

Wood Duck drake on old stump

This year we had enough demand for the wood duck workshop to run three weekends, and all three were fabulous. We had to dodge some raindrops on all three but were also rewarded with golden sunlight for at least part of each workshop as well which gave us a nice variety of shooting conditions. The drakes were in tip top plumage and as tame as ever, and put on quite a show.

Photographing Wood Ducks at point blank range

Even though I have photographed at the wood duck ponds for years now, even I came away with photos of behaviors and situations that were new to me such as this female wood duck preening her mate in early morning light.

 This year I taught the ducks a new trick and we had opportunities to photograph them landing on some natural logs around the pond’s edge.While Wood Ducks steal the show, we also had a few opportunities at other species like this little guy:

Pied-billed Grebe swimming through orange reflections at last light



Most of my 2010 workshops are sold out but aside from the new Florida Workshop, we still do have one space on the Lake Hope Warblers and Michigan Warblers workshops, along with some openings on the Northern Ohio Warblers workshop. I feel bad for some folks who wanted to go but didn’t realize the workshops would sell out so early. I do intend to expand my offerings in years to come but may not be able to until 2012 or later. Visit my website to see the most recent availability


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