Category Archives: Photography tips

Bald eagles

A recent article in The Calgary Herald mentioned a big influx of Bald Eagles along the Bow River in Calgary, with as many as 20 being viewed on some days. This is probably due to less freeze up occurring on the Bow in the City itself, keeping open water available for waterfowl, the eagles main prey.

Since the beginning of December I have been closely following two of these eagles as they build their nest in a tall cottonwood tree situated on a small island in the Bow,

Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) delivers nest material, Calgary, Carburn Park, Alberta, Canada

Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f4 lens on Gitzo tripod with Flexshooter head, 1/1600 sec @ f5.6, ISO 500. Exposure set manually with auto ISO selected

Baldies are among the first birds to begin the nesting process each year, often adding layer upon layer to nests from previous years until the nest can become too big for the tree to support.

Although regarded as a top predator, in fact bald eagles are an opportunistic hunter, regularly stealing prey from other birds, feeding on old carcasses. Scavenging roadkill, can prove disastrous as many are subsequently hit by passing traffic.

Two Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) feeding on a duck carcass on an ice flow in Bow River, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f4 lens with TC 14 converter (effective length 700mm) on Gitzo tripod with Flexshooter head, 1/3200 sec @ f6.3, ISO 400. Exposure set manually with auto ISO selected

Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) places a nest stick, Calgary, Carburn Park, Alberta, Canada

Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f4 lens with TC 14 converter (effective length 700mm) on Gitzo tripod with Flexshooter head, 1/3200 sec @ f5.6, ISO 500. Exposure set manually with auto ISO selected

It is evident from sightings reported to e.bird.org run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, that numbers of bald eagles are on the increase, a far cry from being placed on the endangered species list in 1973 due to illegal hunting,, habitat destruction and the disastrous effects of DDT which caused the birds to lay non-viable eggs due to very this shells, a problem associated with the decline of many birds of prey around the same time.

Long may then continue to increase in numbers as it is always a thrill to see these birds soaring along the rivers and lakes of Canada.

Photography tips

Only adult bald eagles have the white head – forming in their third year. The big difference in dynamic range between the white head and the dark body means it is essential to get your exposure correct so as not to blow out the highlights on the white feathers. I generally choose to set the exposure manually but use auto ISO to compensate for changing light conditions. I generally set my auto IOS to go no higher than 2000 as this is the level at which the D850 begins to exhibit more noise than I find acceptable. Lower resolution cameras can tolerate much higher ISO

Bald eagles are big birds, which fly relatively slowly, making flight images quite easy. However a few things to be aware of. Because they are big they have a huge wingspan, (between 6′ to 7.5′) so watch your depth of field, it is very easy to get the wing tips out of focus so close down a stop or two to add that little bit of depth.

Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in flight carrying nesting stick, Calgary, Carburn Park, Alberta, Canada

Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f4 lens with TC 14 converter (effective length 700mm) on Gitzo tripod with Flexshooter head, 1/2000 sec @ f6.3, ISO 250. Exposure set manually with auto ISO selected

Even though they are relatively slow you still need fast shutter speed to freeze the motion of flight. I recommend at least 1/2000sec. Make sure you pick up your subject as early as possible to lock the autofocus and pan quickly. I use a tripod and Flexshooter head for most of my birds in flight images, unless I can get really close to use a shorter lens.

For autofocus I generally use dynamic area AF set to 9 or 25 AF points. For static birds I tend to switch to single point AF so that I can lock the single point on the subjects eye.

Fox family

Driving to one of my regular beaches to search for migrating and resident shorebirds a few days ago I suddenly glimpsed a flash of red in the sand dunes beside the road. Pulling over I was astonished to see a fox sitting in the narrow strip of dunes between the coastal road and the beach.

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), Crescent Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon Z6, Nikkor 70-200 f2.8 lens at 130mm, 1/320sec @ f8 ISO 320. Manual mode with auto ISO turned on.

Switching off the engine and lowering the car window did not seem to disturb the animal one bit, then suddenly another head popped up out of the dunes followed by another. I had inadvertently discovered an active foxes den.

Normally to shoot foxes near their den requires staying well back, using very long lenses, lots of patience, using a long slow approach. Often a blind is necessary or, at the very least, remaining in the vehicle while shooting. Remaining in the vehicle in this case was entirely impractical as there were only a couple of small pullouts to get off the road, neither in a position where I could photograph from.

Red Fox among sand dunes, Crescent Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D850, Nikkor 500mm f4 with TC14 teleconverter (700mm) 1/2500sec @ f8 ISO 800. Manual exposure with auto ISO

I was creeping out of my vehicle while trying not to disturb the foxes when I suddenly noticed a runner coming up the road, not only that but she was going to pass within a few feet of where the foxes were sitting. ‘That’s that’ I thought, expecting to see the foxes vanish in an instant, but they took no notice whatsoever. I realised that they had become completely habituated to traffic, joggers and walkers on the road side of the dunes, and beachgoers on the other.

I have now returned several times, always early in the morning when the sun angle and direction is absolutely perfect for photography. Each time I have learned more about the individual characters of each animal.

Red Fox among sand dunes, Crescent Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D850, Nikkor 500mm f4 1/2000sec @ f7.1 ISO 560. Manual exposure with auto ISO

One of the kits is completely laid back and pays no attention to any disturbance, traffic or human. The other is a little more wary, always keeping one eye on anyone nearby, but still never seems to feel threatened. In fact, the more I return the more they completely accept my presence as part of their normal life.

Red Fox among sand dunes, Crescent Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D850, Nikkor 500mm f4 1/1000sec @ f6.3 ISO 360. Manual exposure with auto ISO

Interestingly, foxes generally mate for life, and after the kits are born both parents generally attend to their needs. At this den I have only ever seen one adult, so I am not sure if one has gone missing or that is simply a coincidence. Looking carefully at my images it does seem that it is always the same adult, so I assume it is the vixen. If she is on her own she is doing a great job as both her and the kits are in fabulous condition.

Shooting Etiquette

Remember that at all times when photographing wildlife no image is worth causing distress to the animals involved. If you are changing their normal behaviour in any way you are too close.

Approach slowly, a bit at a time. Keeping a low profile often allows you to get much closer to your subjects without unduly disturbing them. Using your vehicle as a blind is a great way of getting close, animals don’t usually associate cars, which of course they see all the time, with a threat.

You can see from all the images above that these foxes are certainly concerned by my presence and are totally relaxed.

To view more fox images and a selection of my latest images please visit the main web site.

Unusual Osprey behaviour

I was out working our local Osprey nest (while sitting in my car to ensure I adhered to our social distancing rules) and photographed an Osprey behaviour I had never seen before.

The male Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) retuned to the nest with a fish that it had taken head off. While the female remains at the nest the male will bring fish to her and the young, but invariably feeds first by eating the head.

Very unusually this bird seems to be taking an extra nibble while flying. Normally Ospreys do not eat on the wing but take their prey to a perch before consuming it.

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) carrying fish, Petite Riviere, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D850, 500mm f4 lens with TC14 converter, (effective focal length 700mm), 1/2000 sec @ f6.3 (manual mode) ISO 450 (Auto ISO activated) with +0.7 exposure compensation. Shot with lens resting on bean bag on car window frame.

While the coronavirus restrictions remain in place I am doing my photography either from the car window or here in my own back yard. Fortunately there is still a few subjects worth shooting. Hopefully we will get out of this mess soon and life can begin to return to some sort of normality, although I think that normal will be very different to what it was before.

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) in fight, Broad Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada,

Nikon Z6, 500mm f4 lens with TC14 converter, (effective focal length 700mm), 1/2000 sec @ f5.6 (manual mode) ISO 50 (Auto ISO activated) with +1 exposure compensation. Shot with lens resting on bean bag on car window frame. I needed to add a full stop to the metered exposure to punch some detail into the very dark areas of the bird and show the amazing iridescent colours of the feathers

To see a selection of my latest images click here

Stay well and stay safe.

Winter surfing

The recent storms that have hit the coast of Nova Scotia have brought the winter surfers out in force. Even with temperatures well below freezing this does not stop these hardy souls getting out on the water to ride the huge incoming waves.

Inevitably, to get good surfing images, you need to either get in the water with the surfers with a waterproof camera or use a long lens. I certainly choose the second option, preferring to stay on dry land, well protected in my down jacket.

Fortunately a short distance from my home there is a great spot to shoot from, where I can stand on a concrete outflow pipe and the surfers end up almost 90 degrees to my position at the end of their rides. This makes for some great images, especially late afternoon with the sun behind me.

Winter surfers riding waves Cherry Hill, Arties Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Nikon D850, 500mm f4 lens + TC14 converter (700mm), manual exposure, 1/2000 s, f7.1 ISO 800, auto white balance. Gitzo GT5540LS tripod with Flexshooter Pro head

Shooting surfers requires a very high shutter speed, to freeze not only the athlete but also the rapidly moving water. Due to the large contrast range between the whites of the cresting waves and the blacks of the wetsuits I used manual exposure settings. A shutter speed of 1/2000th sec and an aperture of f7.1  produced a well exposed raw file from my Nikon D850. These were then processed in Capture One 20. Each file required a little work to display the full dynamic range by pulling the highlight slider down to put detail back into the brightest areas of the waves and the shadow slider up a little to render detail into the blacks of the wetsuits. I am able to preserve much more detail in wide dynamic range images using these sliders in Capture One than I was ever able to do in Adobe Lightroom. You can try a 30 day, full working copy of Capture One by clicking here.

Winter surfers riding waves Cherry Hill, Arties Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Nikon D850, 500mm f4 lens, manual exposure, 1/2000 s, f7.1 ISO 800, auto white balance. Gitzo GT5540LS tripod with Flexshooter Pro head

Equipment

All images were shot using the 45.7mp Nikon D850 with the Nikon 500mm f4 lens both with and without the TC14 converter. When shooting action such as surfing there is always a tendency to just put the longest lens you have on the camera and fill the frame with the action. However, here much of the action is also the movement of the waves so I ensured I had a range of images placing the surfer in different parts of the frame. Often the most powerful images concentrated on the form of the wave with the surfer placed quite small in the frame. You can view a full selection of surfing images by clicking here  

Winter surfers riding waves Cherry Hill, Arties Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Nikon D850, 500mm f4 lens + TC14 converter (700mm), manual exposure, 1/2000 s, f5.6 ISO 800, auto white balance. Gitzo GT5540LS tripod with Flexshooter Pro head

Photographing Shorebirds

As we move into September the Southern migration of shorebirds is in full swing. The main way station beaches are full of life as these long distance travellers rest and fuel up for their long journeys, in some cases thousands of miles well into South America, but photographing shorebirds can present some challenges.


Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) foraging on beach Cherry Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D3, Nikon 500mm f4 lens + TC14 (700mm), 1/800th sec, @ f7.1 with aperture priority mode with ISO 400, + 1.3 stops exposure compensation

It can be difficult to get frame filling shots, even with the longest of lenses as the majority of shorebirds tend to be nervous, quick movers and relatively small. Maybe this is in part due to their habit of wanting to use the same beaches popular with humans, resulting in constant disturbance from their feeding areas, and, not least by dog owners who find great amusement in allowing their pets to chase the birds.

Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) foraging along shoreline, Crescent Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f4 lens + TC14 (700mm), 1/800 sec, @ f5.6 manual mode with Auto ISO active at ISO 500 with + 1.3 stops exposure compensation from metered value

To stay away from the crowds I get out early and late, coinciding with the best light of the day. The other thing I check out is the state of the tides. High tide tends to be poor as there is little sand and mud for the birds to feed on. Low tide is much more productive and the best of all is when the incoming tide coincides with the early or late period.

Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) foraging along shoreline, Crescent Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f4 lens + TC14 (700mm), 1/2500th sec, @ f5.6 manual mode with Auto ISO active at ISO 400

The reason for this is it’s the easiest way to get close action. By getting in position well back from the flocks of feeding birds and getting low to the ground the birds will totally ignore me. Then I just let the incoming tide bring my subjects to me until I am forced to move.

Getting low also gives a much more natural perspective, in fact a birds eye view!

Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla) Cherry Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D3, Nikon 500mm f4 lens + TC14 (700mm), 1/640th sec, @ f8, ISO 800, aperture priority mode, + 2/3 stop exposure compensation from metered value off wet sand

Identification of shorebirds can be a real challenge, especially at this time of year when breeding plumage is being shed for their winter look, many of the birds now looking incredibly similar. One should make a habit of making a note of behaviour of each of your subjects as you shoot them, especially when working with mixed flocks. The relative size of each species is much easier to determine when they are stood close rather than in trying to determine the size of a single bird in a photo. I highly recommend ‘The Shorebird Guide by O’Brian, Crossley and Karlson’ for help in identifications as this book attempts to provide details on each different plumage and between the sexes.

Birds in flight

For shorebirds in flight I have given up trying to work from a tripod. They move so fast that it’s almost impossible to keep them individual birds in the frame, although much easier when shooting the vast flocks that can form.

Willet (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus), in flight, Cherry Hill Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D3, Nikon 500mm f4 lens + TC14 (700mm), 1/1250 sec, @ f8, ISO 400, aperture priority mode, + 1/3 stop exposure compensation from metered exposure off sea

I handhold the Nikon 500mm, both with and without the TC-14 converter. The Nikon D850 bodies I am now using are remarkably accurate at locking on to these fast moving subjects and retaining focus. Use a fast shutter speed, keep your vibration reduction turned on, and swing the lens rapidly with the subject, ensuring you keep the lens moving the whole time you are shooting.

For fast moving birds in flight I keep a minimum shutter speed of 1/2000th second, stop down to f5.6 to give a little extra depth of field and use auto ISO in manual mode to ensure my shutter speed does not drop. In fact, I am finding myself using auto ISO more and more.

Mixed flock of shorebirds in flight Cherry Hill Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f4 lens, 1/1600th sec, @ f5.6 manual mode with Auto ISO active at ISO 200

When setting out to the beach for shorebirds you need to be ready for other subjects that may suddenly present themselves  a couple of days ago I was heading over the stone berm leading to Cherry Hill Beach when a sudden flurry of movement in the water attracted my attention. This turned out to be a Blue Shark in the surf right up by the beach. You just never know what might turn up!

Blue Shark (Prionace glauca) in surf close to beach, Cherry Hill Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D3, Nikon 70-200 f2.8 lens, at 200mm, 1/1000th @ f5, ISO 800, aperture priority automatic

Workshop news

I will soon be announcing the first workshop series since I have arrived in Nova Scotia. These will include classroom workshops for post-production work using Lightroom, Capture One and Photoshop and the always popular  ‘digital workflow’ where you will learn the complete process involved for every one of my images from camera to final archive. Spring 2020 will see several practical ‘in the field’ workshops learning a variety of photography techniques.

To see a wider selection of new photos go to the Recent Images gallery. This is updated regularly.

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