Backyard Birds

American goldfinch

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying my hand at bird photography in my back garden. The images featured in this post are the product of these efforts.

I first put up feeders in my garden a couple of years back and, as my knowledge of birds and which foods they prefer has slowly grown since then, I have managed to attract different types of birds by putting out specific foods that they like to eat. 

I recently put out nyjer seed in a purpose-designed finch feeder and, as if by magic, American goldfinches started showing up in my garden within only a couple of days. I have to say goldfinches are ludicrously pretty little birds and it always makes me smile when I glance out the kitchen window and see a flash of bright yellow as one flies in to land on the feeder.

Male northern cardinal

A regular visitor to my garden is the northern cardinal. We have a pair that live in our garden year-round and I never tire of seeing the brilliant orange-red flash of the male as it swoops in to the black oil sunflower seed feeder, placed there specifically to attract him and his partner.

Grey catbird

One bird that is common on the eastern seaboard at this time of year is the grey catbird. It spends the winter in Central America and the Caribbean and migrates back north from May to September. While unspectacular in color – this bird is all-gray with a small black cap and reddish-brown patch under the tail – I still find them pretty due to their slender profile and long, rounded tail. The grey catbird’s call resembles the meow of a cat. Hence the name.

I’ve also been fortunate to have a visit from a yellow-bellied sapsucker, a North American species of woodpecker, which hung on to a tree for several minutes, no more than three feet off the ground, boring holes in the bark to seek sap or insects.

I hope to attract and photograph further species of birds during the approaching summer months and, if successful, will publish photos of them in a future blog post.

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Caribbean Shipwreck

I have flown into Hewanorra Airport, on the south coast of the island of Saint Lucia, several times over the past few years and, like many photographers, I had invariably requested a window seat.

On a few of those occasions, looking down from the air during the final descent into the airport, I spotted a shipwreck, stuck in the sand along an empty stretch of coastline with no buildings or tourist hotels nearby.

On other occasions, although I was looking out for it, I didn’t see the wreck, presumably because I was sitting on the wrong side of the airplane.

Over the course of several visits, I became intrigued with this wreck and, having spotted it again upon flying into Saint Lucia last week, I made my mind up to find and photograph it.

Although I had asked several Saint Lucians about this wreck, no-one knew its whereabouts and, certainly, nobody was able to give me any information about the ship. It seems that there are so many shipwrecks strewn around the island’s shoreline, stranded in the wake of the various hurricanes that have blown through the eastern Caribbean over the years, that Saint Lucians pay little attention to individual wrecks.

There are several well-known shipwrecks laced around the island’s shoreline but most are underwater, sunk deliberately to provide attractions for scuba-diving tourists.  This one, however, enjoys no such glamorous purpose. It seems to have been a working freighter that reached the end of its useful life and was simply abandoned on this isolated stretch of coastline to avoid the cost of a more purposeful disposal.

Whatever its history, this beauty looks like it has been here for many years. The hull is heavily rusted, with several gaping holes in the metal and, if ever there was a name painted on the hull, none is visible now.

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What’s Left of Spring

Daffodils photographed using a “find a pattern and break it” compositional technique

Back in February, as winter was turning to spring, I made a promise to myself that I would get out more often to photograph the flowers that would soon be blooming in the Washington region’s many gardens.

Tulip photographed using a shoot-through technique

Predictably, life, work, travel and study got in the way and undermined my good intentions. Yet, I did manage to get out on several weekend mornings, mostly to Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland, a favourite haunt of mine for photographing flowers.

During my many hours in the gardens, I spent most of my time standing around not taking photos, seeing nothing and devoid of any ideas about how to go about the task.

Multiple exposure moving the camera in a circular pattern after each exposure to create a swirl

Flower photography used to come easily to me. When I first got back into photography about ten years ago, flowers were the first subject to which I was drawn and were where I learned the skills of digital photography. Because I was photographing flowers regularly and taking workshops with talented professional photographers, such as Joshua Taylor, Corey Hilz and Mike Moats, it seems my eye became practiced at seeing good compositions. I had no difficulty in deciding which technique to use when photographing a particular flower or garden scene.

Close-up of a clematis, taken with a 105mm macro lens

What I learned from the many barren, miserable hours I spent standing around in the cold early-morning light in Brookside Gardens this past spring is that, through lack of practice, I have lost that facility. And, so, I have only these five images worth showing from all my spring flower photography efforts, each of which took far more thought, effort and time than is apparent from looking at them.

And this last one isn’t even a flower.

Cherry tree in bloom, with reflection





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Old Trucks in Infrared

Mail Pouch Barn and 1935 Ford three-window coupe, discovered in Pennsylvania.

Having recently upgraded my hardware to a new MacBook Pro and software to Adobe Creative Cloud, I was sorting through old RAW files when I happened upon several infrared photographs of old trucks that I took back in 2012.

The McKenna truck.

These photographs were all taken using a Nikon D200, converted to 720nm, that I bought used from Tony Sweet. Because the D200 has only a 10MP crop sensor and no Live View, I wasn’t expecting much of these images but was pleasantly surprised by the quality of some them. So, I decided to re-process the original RAW files, using the additional knowledge of IR post-processing that I have gained in the interim. These are some of the results.

While the first image of the Mail Pouch Barn and old Ford sedan has the most successful composition (the balance between the main compositional elements seems to work well), I was particularly pleased with the post-processing on the second image of an old Ford truck, previously owned by the McKenna company, as one can see from the lettering on the driver’s side door.

The E. P. Martin truck.

When capturing this image, I first set a custom white balance in-camera (the D200 is the last of the Nikon DSLRs that allows this). In post-processing, I ran the Khromagery infrared action in Photoshop, then adjusted the individual color channels to achieve a pleasing balance between the cool blue/grey of what’s left of the paintwork and the warm red of the rust on the top of the bonnet, then desaturated the rest of the image to bring out those colours.

Tony commented on the McKenna truck image a couple of days ago, describing it as “not too bad”, which is the nearest thing to a compliment I’ve ever had from him. I was hoping for an upgrade to his famous “not too shabby” rating, but fell short.

The third image, of a Ford truck formerly owned by “E.P. Martin, Plumber”, is from the same truck graveyard at Point of Rocks, Maryland which, sadly, is no more. In this case, the RAW file did not offer the same promising base colours after the IR conversion, so I processed it as black and white.

With all three of the truck images, I used the Detail Extractor filter in Nik Collection 2.0  selectively on the paintwork to bring out the texture and applied the Glamor Glow filter selectively to the vegetation to accentuate the characteristic luminous look that greenery takes on when photographed in IR.

One of the most welcome developments in the photography software industry recently has been the French company DxO’s takeover of the Nik Collection from Google, who bought it from Nik of Germany some years ago and, having obtained Nik’s innovative U-point technology that it wanted for use in its smartphone apps, decided to cease maintaining the software. For a while, photographers were faced with the bleak prospect that this indispensable suite of plug-ins would become unusable. DxO recently issued version 2.0 of the Nik Collection, which I immediately bought (the upgrade price is only $60) and used in processing these images. All the suite’s original functionality is still there, plus DxO has added a set of “recipes” to accompany each filter, so the software feels similar to how Topaz Labs’ plus-ins function. I haven’t explored the recipes yet, as I have my own way of processing images in Nik, but plan to do so in the future. My images tend too look rather samey, so I’m hoping the new recipes in Nik 2.0 might offer me a way to break out of the post-processing rut I’ve been in for a few years now and develop a different look.

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First Lotus Images of 2019

On the first morning in July, I made my annual visit to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in northeast Washington to photograph the lotuses.

Lotus bloom and bud

It was a really tough morning for flower photography. The sky was bald and cloudless and the sun came up fast and harsh, splattering the lotus ponds with the kind of bright, ugly light that drains flowers of their rich colours. To make matters worse, a blustery wind kept buffeting the gardens, so a lot of time was wasted waiting for the wind to calm before tripping the shutter. Inevitably, this also required re-composing the image, as windblown flowers, especially lotuses with their heavy blooms atop long, spindly stems, never end up in exactly the same place once a gust of wind has passed.

Open lotus blossom shielded from direct sunlight with a diffuser

Although I reached the gardens before 6:00am, I had only about 30 minutes of good light before I had to start using a diffuser to shield individual blooms from the harsh sunlight in order to photograph them, as I did with the above image. Blooms further out in the ponds, that I couldn’t reach with a diffuser, I photographed with an infrared camera and a 200-500mm telephoto lens (see final image). Infrared works best in bright sunlight, though the resultant images don’t achieve the pleasing, natural look of colour photography.

Partially-opened lotus blossom in sweet, early-morning light

Having such a short period of good light to work with in such huge gardens presents the photographer with the challenge of rushing to find good compositions before the light deteriorates. For me, at least, this is an uncomfortable feeling, as I work slowly when taking photographs, particularly photographs of flowers, which require close attention to detail to achieve successful compositions. I can easily spend 30-45 minutes photographing a single flower, experimenting with backgrounds, different angles, compositions and focal length lenses.

Lotus photographed in infrared in bright sunlight

I hope to get back to the gardens on another day when there is some cloud cover but, in summertime in Washington, that is a rare event.

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Back to the Staden Barns

View of the Staden Barns looking west

The first thing I did after picking up a hire car from Nottingham on a recent Sunday afternoon was drive to the picturesque hamlet of Hartington in Derbyshire to photograph these iconic stone barns – known locally as the Staden barns for the family who built them – which lie about half a mile southeast of the village.

I blogged about these barns last year when I first discovered them, so I won’t describe them further here, except to say that I find them an irresistible photographic subject, one that draws me back time and again to capture them under different conditions of light and weather.

Looking east

As a photographic subject, this scene contains many compositional elements that are pleasing to a photographer’s eye: the gentle curve of the lane, the converging lines of the two stone walls that lead the eye to the subject, the repeating yet asymmetrical shapes of the barns themselves, the gritty textures in the stone walls and patched-up slate roofs of the barns, the gently rolling hills in the background and the occasional trees that dot the surrounding landscape.

And, on a day like this, brooding clouds overhead that create a dark mood and add visual drama to the the scene.

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Three Shires Head

18th-century packhorse bridge across the River Dane at Three Shires Head

Last week, for the second summer in a row, I had the opportunity to spend five days alone photographing the Peak District of England.

While last year’s trip was a satisfying experience because of the perfect summer weather, this year’s was thoroughly disappointing, as England experienced one of its wettest weeks on record: a whole month’s worth of rainfall fell in a single day while I was there.

Persistent rain precludes the photography of many subjects but facilitates one: waterfalls. They look their best under subdued light, when rocks are slick and vegetation lush.

With this in mind, I headed for Three Shires Head on Axe Edge Moor, a point so called because it is where the counties of Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire meet.

Falls on a tributary of the River Dane

The best-known landmark in this location is a packhorse bridge, which was built in the 1700s to carry trade in different types of goods. Silk was produced at nearby Hollinsclough and transported to the mills at Macclesfield, while coal was mined on the moor from the 1600s onwards and sent to the industrial cities of northwest England.

Packhorse bridges were typically simple, single-arch structures, built from local stone. They were designed to be just wide enough for one heavily-laden horse to cross and without parapets that might interfere with the horse’s panniers.

In earlier centuries, when the jurisdiction of county police forces ended at the county border, Three Shires Head was a favourite refuge of fugitives from the law, who crossed from one county to another, in a remote, steep-sided valley no wider than a few hundred yards, to evade the reach of whichever county’s police force was pursuing them.


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Antigua Revisited

El Arco de Santa Catalina with El Volcan de Agua in the background

I recently returned from a second visit in two years to Antigua, Guatemala, which is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the best-preserved colonial towns in all of Latin America.

Street scene in central Antigua with El Volcanic de Agua in the background

Everywhere one walks in Antigua, the Volcan de Agua (“the Water Volcano”), a 12,000ft volcano six miles south of the town, looms large. Each morning, upon walking out of my hotel just after sunrise, it was an almost unconscious act to glance up at the volcano to see what kind of mood it was in today, to wonder whether today might be the day when it chooses to bury me alive in hissing streams of hot, molten lava and, with me, all of the other residents of this impossibly pretty town. I remember reading somewhere that people who live in the shadow of a volcano have an elevated risk of stress-related mental health disorders. After only a few hours back in Antigua, I was already starting to feel twitchy. Fortunately, throughout my two-week stay, the volcano’s mood remained benign.

The Capuchin Convent

Perhaps due to the ever-present dual threats of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, the Antigüeños are a deeply religious people. Churches, convents and monasteries dot the town and religious symbols, statues and imagery are to be seen in every home, through every window and on every wall. It was the Spanish, of course, who first introduced Christianity to Guatemala from 1519 onwards and, although the conquistadors’ suppression of the stubbornly resisant indigenous Mayan people took almost two hundred years, the population has now clearly embraced Christianity, particularly Catholicism, which, although not the official religion of the country, is recognized as “a distinct legal personality,” enjoying certain privileges from the State.

View from the Plaza Mayot looking south towards El Volcan de Agua

View from the Plaza Mayor, looking south towards the Volcan de Agua

Even apparently secular buildings often have hidden religious significance. Indeed, the picturesque Arco de Santa Catalina, the structure most often used to advertise Antigua as a tourist destination, was originally built to serve a religious purpose.

El Arco de Santa Catalina looking north along La Calle del Arco

The cloistered nuns of the Santa Catalina convent, situated on one side of the street that is now called La Calle del Arco, were prohibited by their vows of seclusion from crossing the street to reach the school on the opposite side, as this would have involved their mixing with the general population of the town. So, in 1694, the Church built the arch which contains a secret overground tunnel that allowed the nuns to cross unseen above the street to teach at the school opposite.

La Iglesia de San Jose El Viejo

Over the centuries, the arch has come to be regarded as a symbol of the town’s resilience, as it was one of the few structures that survived the cataclysmic earthquake of 1773, which flattened most of the town and led to its being uninhabited for a decade. The earthquake also resulted in the relocation of the capital to Nueva Guatemala (“New Guatemala”), now Guatemala City, and to the name of the town being changed from the original Santiago de los Caballeros (“Saint James of the Knights”) to the current La Antigua Guatemala (“Old Guatemala”).

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Blood Wolf Moon

The Blood Wolf Moon on January 21, 2019

I took this photo of the blood wolf moon at 12:12am on Sunday January 21st, which was the moment of peak eclipse.

Nikon D810, Nikon 200-500mm lens at 500mm; f5.6 at 1.6/sec; ISO4000; manual mode.

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Favourite Images of 2018

This has been a fallow year as far as my photography is concerned.

I ran out of inspiration some time in mid-2017 and didn’t make a serious attempt at creating an image until June of this year, when I spent a fruitful week in the Peak District of England.

Although my muse deserted me for some unknown reason, I know exactly what brought her back – the natural beauty of dramatic landscapes. In June, it was the Peak District of England and, in October, the wilderness of West Virginia. Both had the same effect of inspiring me to take photos again.

It is not surprising, therefore, that images from those two locations feature prominently in this collection of my favorite photos of 2018. Nor is it surprising that barns, waterfalls and sunrises, among my favourite photographic subjects, dominate this collection of images.

All but two of these photos were taken on just two photography outings, which I suppose shows that I didn’t have a prolific year. However, when I did head out with my camera, I tried to focus on creating good-quality images, rather than shooting lots of exposures.

The year now closing has been a year of loss and deep sorrow. Here’s hoping for happier times ahead in 2019.

Roach End Barn on the western edge of the Peak District, Staffordshire, England.


The Staden Barns, near the village of Hartington, Derbyshire, England.


The Barn on Bonner Mountain, Tucker County, West Virginia.


The view from Dolly Sods wilderness, West Virginia, looking northeast at sunrise.


The view from Bear Rocks in Dolly Sods wilderness, West Virginia, just before sunrise.


Another view of the Staden Barns near Hartington, Derbyshire with the golden light of the rising sun bathing the side of the barns in warm light.


The North Forth of the Blackwater River tumbles over Douglas Falls in West Virginia.


Sunrise photographed from Bear Rocks, Dolly Sods wilderness, West Virginia.


Trees shrouded in early-morning fog on Bonner Mountain, Tucker County, West Virginia.


Twenty Trees above the village of Hayfield in the Peak District in Derbyshire, photographed in infrared at 590nm and converted to faux colour.


A male Northern Cardinal, photographed in my back garden.


The ruins of Ballygawley House in my native County Tyrone, Northern Ireland.


(click on an image to enlarge it)

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