Cheating at Bird Photography

Northern Cardinal (male)

Bird photography is my idea of going to hell holding a camera.

As a ponderous, molasses-slow landscape photographer, I am fully aware that photographing these tiny, unpredictable, fast-moving creatures is way beyond my technical limits as a photographer. The high-end skills of panning, locking on and tracking focus, all while shooting eight frames per second are not ones I have practised nor believe I could ever master.

Song Sparrow

However, I do appreciate the beauty of birds and certainly admire the many spectacular examples of bird photography that I see online, by photographers such as Maxis Gamez, Andy Nguyen and my friend Jeff Johnson, who is one of the finest bird photographers out there.

Inspired by a class I recently took with Jeff, I decided to try my hand at capturing some bird images but knew that I would have to find a way to do so within my technical limits. I found the answer in a YouTube video, in which a photographer located a spot that birds frequent, picked up a small branch that had fallen from a tree, sawed off one end, used a drill to hollow it out, creating a bowl, which he filled with bird seed; he then affixed the branch to a fence post, using some string, in a spot with some colourful vegetation in the background. He set up his camera on a tripod a few feet away, pre-focused on the end of the branch and waited for birds to land on it to eat the seed. And bingo! He produced sharp images with pleasing, colorful backgrounds without requiring any of the advanced shooting techniques normally employed when photographing birds.

Carolina Wren

I thought, “This is for me!”

I have the perfect spot in my back garden, where one of my bird feeders is just a few feet from a wooden fence where birds often land to check out the area before flying on to land on the feeder. So, I set up my branch-feeder on a fence post, opened a window that looks out on to the back garden and sat inside, invisible to the birds, shooting out through the window with a Nikon 200-500mm lens on my Nikon D810 camera. Even with that focal length lens, as the subjects were at a distance of about 30 feet, I still had to crop these images heavily to produce a useable image. However, I knew that the 36.3MP FX-format sensor on my D810 would allow heavy cropping while still delivering good image quality.

American Robin

My retreat from the world of real bird photography was completed by the fact that I focused all of these images manually using LiveView, as is my preferred way of shooting landscapes. Even then, using a shutter speed of 1/1250th sec at f5.6, I captured plenty of blurry images. These little critters sure are twitchy!

Finally, as if to prove that I am not a complete fraud as a bird photographer, I walked to my local park, where I managed to photograph this great blue heron as it perched high in a tree.

Great Blue Heron

No bird-seed trap was used with this beauty. But I did have my camera on a tripod and focused manually. But, then again, herons are such big, slow-moving birds that even I can photograph them.

(Click on an image to view it in a lightbox)



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More Infrared Cows

A friend of mine mentioned how much she enjoyed an image of a cow, photographed in infrared light, that I published in a recent blog post.

Her comment reminded me that I had a few more images from the same shoot that I had not yet processed, so I went back and prepared these three images to form the basis of this post.

I find that there is something otherworldly yet strangely beautiful about the look of these images, as if the cattle take on a different character.

It intrigues my eye to see these most familiar of domesticated animals in such an unfamiliar light: the invisible light of the infrared spectrum.


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Twenty Trees in the Peak District

Infrared 590nm, converted to faux colour.

This elegant copse of trees stands high on a hillside overlooking the village of Hayfield, along a footpath called The Snake Path.

While the copse retains its name, “Twenty Trees”, there are, in fact, only nineteen.

There were twenty until 1944, when a local farmer sent two young lads out to saw down one of the trees so he could make gateposts. After felling the tree, the lads used two horses to pull out the stump, so there is no evidence of the missing tree today.

Infrared 590nm, converted to B&W with Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.

Twenty Trees is one of my favourite locations in the Peak District of England to photograph and a place I always visit when I am in the area. Its location high on a steeply sloping hillside makes it possible to create clean, uncluttered compositions and the dry limestone wall adds extra interest.


(Click on an image to enlarge it)

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(click to enlarge)

These two pretty girls confronted me, as I entered their field near the hamlet of Foolow in Derbyshire one recent afternoon, to photograph the picturesque tree in the background.

They seemed to think I was there to feed them, as they immediately stood directly in front of me, staring  at me fixedly. Within a few minutes, I was surrounded by a herd of about twenty cattle: all immobile, all staring.

As I was raised in rural Ireland, I am accustomed to being around cattle, so I was not cowed (terrible pun intended) by their behaviour.

The least I could do was take their photo. However, as I had only my infrared camera with me, it turned into this rather otherworldly-looking image.

After about five minutes of our standing staring at each other like this, I pushed past them to get to the tree in the background, which was the real object of my attention.

As I kneeled down to get a low angle from which to shoot the tree, the cattle made a close circle around me, standing no more than five or six feet from me, as I set up my gear.

It was unnerving to feel their presence encircling me, their hot breath against the back of my neck as I worked. I had to shoo a few of them away repeatedly to get them out of the frame.

After about fifteen minutes, probably when they realized that I wasn’t going to feed them, they lost interest in me, which allowed me to get an unobstructed view of the tree and to capture the second image.

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That Abandoned Feeling…

I happened upon this abandoned barn while driving alone through the countryside of Derbyshire in June.

I don’t remember where it was: somewhere alongside one of the many roadsides that I traversed in my six-day visit to the Peak District. I spent those days driving alone, aimlessly, following my nose, my instinct, turning left or right as the notion took me, in a trance.

I photographed the barn in infrared at 590nm and processed it as faux colour. Usually, as the final stage of post-processing, I convert such images to black and white but, in this case, I kept it as faux color. I liked the range of yellow tones and flecks of red in the clouds; the colour elements seem to combine to bring out the pathos of the place.

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The Barn at Wildboarclough

The famous barn at Wildboarclough in the Peak District of England (click to enlarge)

For a couple of years now, I’ve been admiring photos of this pretty little stone barn in the Peak District Photography Group on Facebook and hoping to have an opportunity to photograph it myself one day.

That opportunity came during my six-day solo photography tour of the Peak District in June.

The barn sits a few hundred yards on the north side of the A54 road that crosses the high, desolate moorland between Buxton and Macclesfield in east Cheshire, not far from the famous Cat and Fiddle Inn (see location map, below).

On the afternoon when I visited, the sky was dark and gloomy with heavy cloud cover and a blustery wind that threatened to bring rain at any moment.

As the light was flat and uninteresting, I knew that colour photography would produce drab images, so I decided to photograph the barn in infrared. Because infrared photography requires direct sunlight for best results, I was faced with long pauses of thirty minutes or more between exposures, while I waited for the clouds to break and a shaft of sunlight to illuminate the land. This happened only a handful of times during the four hours or so that I was there, allowing me to capture these two images.

The barn shot from the roadside on the A54.

It was a pretty lonely and depressing experience to be up on that bleak, windswept moor on my own for four hours. I would have traipsed off back to my hotel in low spirits had it not been for the fact that, just as I was packing up my gear to leave at about 6 o’clock, a strikingly glamourous female fell runner came bounding over the moorland, accompanied by her dog, a loose-limbed, gangly German shepherd puppy.

Improbably, given the chilly, swirling wind, she was wearing the type of women’s athletic gear that amounts to little more than a bikini, her bare midriff showing off her impressively toned body. I held open a gate to allow her to run through without stopping and, in response, she rewarded me with a cheery smile and shouted “thanks”. I was quite taken aback by the incongruity of encountering such an attractive woman running alone in this bleak, lonely landscape.

Had I been thirty years younger, I might have run after her…


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The Staden Barns

It’s been almost a year since I made any kind of serious attempt at taking a photograph. During that time, neither my head nor my heart has really been in it. In the past few weeks, I have been trying to feel my way back into photography, albeit cautiously.

Last month, I spent six days driving alone through the Peak District of England, exploring the area and looking for subjects to photograph.

Among the most elegant subjects I discovered were these two old stone barns, called the Staden Barns, outside the town of Hartington in Derbyshire.

Straddling a narrow country lane lined by dry stone walls, it took a lot of searching and a long, arduous hike to locate these beautiful barns. I finally found them high in the hills south-east of the town. They were worth both the search and the hike.

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Saint Vincent

Saint Vincent is one of the lesser visited of the Windward Islands in the southern Caribbean, mainly because its beaches are black, formed from volcanic lava, not the white sand beaches that attract so many tourists to neighbouring islands.

A “Vincy”, as the locals call themselves, told me, “The further you go from the volcano, the whiter the beaches.”

The volcano is La Soufriere, whose periodic eruptions, the most recent of which happened in 1979, have shaped the island’s history and economy as far back as the 17th century.

While the white sand beaches of Barbados, 110 miles to the east, attract a million tourists each year, Saint Vincent attracts only a fifth of that number.

The upside of this fact is that, driving around the island’s coast recently, I stumbled across many deserted beaches, some of which, like the one in the second image, are unreachable from the road and look as if no-one has ever walked on them.

Even in the coastal towns that I passed through, all I would see were a few local children playing on the beach or jumping off concrete piers into the water.

By contrast with the pristine beauty of the remote beaches, the urban beaches were strewn with litter. It seems that, without the need to please tourists, the locals feel no motivation to keep their beaches clean.

Heading northwest out of the capital, Kingstown, I drove as far as I could up the west coast until the paved road ran out at a small town called Richmond.

After turning around and heading back down the same coast (there are no roads crossing the island, either north-south or east-west), I passed through Kingstown again, then drove north all the way up the east coast until the road again ran out at a remote northern hamlet called Fancy.

There was nothing fancy about it.

In the small, westcoast town of Layou (next image), the beach is dominated by a huge, rusted barge. I initially assumed that this behemoth had been abandoned there but subsequently learned that it is occasionally pulled out to sea by a tugboat, hauling rock, hewn from the island’s mountainous interior, to construction sites on neighbouring islands.

And so it was up and down the island’s west and east coasts: pristine, unreachable beaches, interspersed with small towns whose beaches were littered with trash or the detritus of basic industry.

On the west coast, the town names are French (Barrouaille, Chateaubelair) while, on the east coast, English names (Argyle, Georgetown) dominate, testimony to the number of times the island has changed hands between French and British occupiers from the early 17th century until the late 20th century.


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Walking the Streets of Buenos Aires

I spent a recent Saturday afternoon walking the streets of Buenos Aires with my friend Steve and our guide Amelia, a locally-based photographer whom we had hired for the day to show us around the city and help us find places worth photographing.

In this my first visit to Buenos Aires, I have to say I really liked the city. It reminded me of Paris when I first visited there as a young man in the mid-1970s, when Paris was still beautiful.

Buenos Aires is a European city stuck way down at the bottom of the South Atlantic Ocean. So many aspects of the city reminded me of old Europe. The architecture is French, the cafe society Italian.  The people are stylish and well-dressed and spend their time seeing and being seen.

Just like the French.

And the Italians.

Life in the city is chaotic, helter-skelter and not always elegant. The sideways are covered in dog shit – just like Paris! – because the Argentinians are too haughty to stoop to pick up their own dogs’ mess.

Street markets are a common facet of city life. People selling clothes, kitchen utensils and roasted peanuts, the warm, reddish smell of which seemed to envelope my head and induce olfactory orgasms on every street corner.

While I excluded people from the photos I took, as is my preference, there are lots of traces of human activity in all these photos.

Like seemingly all South Americans, the Argentinians love their cars and they are everywhere. While most are sleek and stylish, I found a few quirkier ones that said a lot about their owners: an old black Peugeot, parked on its own under an awning on a vacant lot, and a bright green Citroen 2CV, which looked incongruous parked beneath the imposing columns of the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Buenos Aires.

I even found a pickup truck, parked in front of what looked like a disused cinema.

Buenos Aires is a very walkable city. We were out and about from 8:00 in the morning until gone 3:00 in the afternoon and, other than talking a taxi from the port area to downtown, walked everywhere.

Most of the time, I felt perfectly safe. There was only only one unpleasant incident when a group of guys sprayed some foul-smelling liquid on us, after we had walked past them on the street. At first, I thought we had been hit by pigeons overhead but it seems that was not the case. As we stopped to clean off our clothes and backpacks, the guys hovered around us, apparently hoping that we would put a bag down for a moment, at which point they planned to grab it and run off. Happily, we didn’t fall for their scheme but the incident did leave an unpleasant aftertaste, not to mention that we stank for the remainder of the day from whatever they sprayed on us.

As you may have read on the “About” page of this website, I like to try to show the familiar in an unfamiliar way in my photos and that was certainly what I was doing while walking the streets of Buenos Aires. I’d like to think I achieved it with the lead image of a dog sitting in front of a metal statue, with the shadow of bare, winter tree falling over both figures. This is just the kind of quirky vignette of daily life that I love to find. But, while I don’t usually do touristy photos, I broke my own rule just to be able to show you what a pretty city Buenos Aires really is.

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“Wings of Fancy”

A week ago, my photography friend Linda kindly invited me to go with her to the “Wings of Fancy” butterfly exhibit at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland.

For two hours from 8:00am until 10:00am, when the public was admitted, about a dozen photographers were left alone inside a large, flower-filled conservatory with hundreds, maybe thousands, of butterflies: a rare privilege.

While the butterflies were undoubtedly beautiful and enchanting to watch, as they flitted from flower to bush, they were maddeningly difficult to photograph because of their constant, erratic motion.

As a slow-working, methodical landscape photographer, I simply don’t have the speed of reaction to make the many decisions and adjustments to my camera controls that are necessary to capture great photographs of fast-moving butterflies.

Unsure of what to do, I first hit upon the strategy of stalking individual butterflies around the conservatory from one plant to another, hoping to catch one in a perfect pose on a pretty flower. At first, I stalked an orange one, hoping it might land on a blue flower, willing it to enter the perfect colour theory composition that I envisaged in my head. That didn’t work.

Next, I decided to kneel by an individual flower, focus my camera on it and wait for an unsuspecting creature to land on it. I must have wasted a good 15 minutes on this ill-judged approach.

Finally, Linda took pity on me and pointed out that the best approach, and the one being employed by all the other photographers in the room, was to prowl around the various flowers and bushes, carefully examining them for a butterfly that had come to rest. This approach worked better than the others.

The next set of decisions I was faced with had to do with lens choice and whether to shoot on a tripod or hand-held. My camera is always on a tripod. I hate hand-holding my camera because it makes precise control over composition nearly impossible. So, I started off shooting with a 70-200mm lens on tripod-mounted camera but it quickly because apparent that this approach slowed me down so much I was unable to keep up with such fast-moving subjects. I then switched to a 105mm macro lens and hand-holding the camera, which at least enabled me to keep up with and get closer to a few subjects, though it did, predictably, lead to a whole host of other technical challenges.

Despite the newness of this photographic challenge, I stuck resolutely to my established method of using my camera in Manual mode, selecting aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings myself and adjusting them for each shot, as I judged necessary. The hardest choice in every case was that of the aperture. What little I know about butterfly photography tells me that a successful image demands perfect sharpness in the head and throughout the wings. To achieve this, I was working mostly in the f8 to f11 range but, with the subject’s wings in constant motion, even that wasn’t enough to guarantee sharpness in many cases because of motion blur.

Over the course of two hours, I shot about 150 images, of which fewer than 10 are usable.

I can’t wait to get back to landscape photography.


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