Hoot shoot

Pleasantly surprised to find a family of Great Horned Owls living in and around our new backyard. Somewhat photogenic and spectacular at keeping squirrels away from our feeders. A few early snaps below. Time will tell if there are improvements to be had. 

A body of work - Spring 2018

I'll get right to it - any spare time I had during spring 2018 was spent birding, rather than photography. BUT - that often means standing still somewhere, waiting for birds to fly past! Which also allows me to keep my proper camera gear on hand...

Per my "Fall 2017" post, I was reasonably confident this spring was going to be spent blasting neotropic migrants (i.e. warblers) in flight at a few previously untested locations. Boy was I wrong! The spoils were limited, and rather than getting any real keepers... 

SO - in the end, I pulled together a few mediocre shots from this spring and decided to leave them uncropped. There was something about the vignetting that appealed to me, and reminded me of some great birding days from this past spring. 

Results of fall 2018 - TBD! I expect a similar haul, with passerines in active flight a priority target. 

South Texas - Winter 2018

While not a photography-specific trip, I was lucky to spend some time in far southern Texas in January & February - AND - had some time to shoot the birds. Nothing specific here, and a bit overdue, but a few favourites from this adventure. 

Songbirds in flight

One of my favourite activities in recent years has been trying to photograph songbirds in flight. Prior to this fall, almost 100% of my time has been spent trying to photograph "reverse migrants" at the tip of Point Pelee during the peak of spring migration. Long story short - it's really hard, and opportunities are sporadic at best. During the fall of 2017, I spent some time working on ways to improve the volume of opportunities, the number of sharp images and ways to improve image quality when rapidly firing at these little guys. By the end of the fall migration, I was seeing significant improvement and wanted to post a few images and share some changes in technique. 

I think the most important adjustments (beyond finding cooperative birds) has been related to my gear. I used to shoot with the Version 1 Canon 600mm (F4) IS lens. Simply put, it was too heavy to capture quality images of flying songbirds. At that time, I found more success through use of the 300 mm F2.8 lens. The focus was lightning fast, but there wasn't enough reach to get 99% of the birds... Then along came the 600 mm IS V2 lens!  

The reduction in weight helped a LOT, but what helps even more is that the lens is BALANCED. The old version had a significant piece of glass near the very end of the lens - so any hand-holding produced this odd leverage effect making it seem 2-3 x heavier than the new version II. It blows the two previously mentioned lenses out of the water for this type of shooting. Not much more can be said about it!

Next up are settings. There are a few critical items that have helped significantly: 

1. I have ALL (~60) focal points turned ON
2. Limit my focal range (on the lens) 
3. Internal camera settings: Fast to focus, rapid adjustments, yet slow to "refresh" focus
4. Internal camera settings: set highly to FOCUS over shot priority

The last point seems to be particularly effective. The camera WILL NOT shoot unless it confirms focus. This is BAD NEWS bears if you want a quick shot of a rarity, but great for locking focus and greatly increasing the likelihood of the first shot being sharp. Rapid and constant small focus adjustments following the first shot increase the odds of subsequent shots being in focus; however the "slow to refresh" focus means that if (when) you lose focus, it will try to re-find focus from it's current position longer before re-trying the entire focal range (when your camera aimlessly tracks focus from the minimum distance to infinity and back).

 So what does it all mean? When a bird flies past, I can spend 100% of my time trying to get the damn bird in the centre of the frame - and the camera is primed to do everything else... I can literally hold the shutter down, and it won't take the shot until something comes in focus. On a clear day, the only thing to focus on is the bird! So by late fall, I was getting comfortable with this approach and the images were starting to happen... Unfortunately there were only "late fall" birds left, so the goal is to not forget everything come Spring 2018!

Drama in the Skies

And by "in the skies" I mean: dramatic skies. Perhaps this is a sign of my lack of creativity... But my favourite days of shooting (and subsequent photographs) are those where the light conditions are atypically good. With exceptional light, which is generally outside of my control, practically any passing bird creates a better photo opportunity than the combined opportunities presented on an "average" day. 

The images in this post were made during a ~35 minute window on Oct 17, 2017. All manner of birds were flying under stormy skies, with breaks in the cloud providing irregular bursts of light. Songbirds were generally flying the "wrong" direction (away from the light), but ducks were crossing at 90 degrees and provided the most opportunities (albeit somewhat distantly). 

In an extreme case of luck, an adult Bald Eagle (as shown in the title card and below) came cruising along quite close, and did NOT notice I was present until I had my camera ready! And managed to do an odd yet interesting evasive roll while I had it in focus. AND managed to conduct said roll while sunlit, in front of a sunlit cloud background, at a suitable light angle... No real planning involved, other than lots of previous practice (regardless of light conditions) which might have helped nail the final shots.