Photographing Pelagic Birds

Black-footed Albatross

Black-footed Albatross

A large number of birds spend nearly their entire lives at sea – only begrudgingly landing on remote islands to breed for a couple months a year. The rest of the time, they’re aloft or afloat – following the rich food sources that lie just beneath the waves. If you’ve only been as far as the shore, it’s doubtful you’ve seen any of these birds. We’re not just talking seagulls, but Petrels, Shearwaters, Jaegers, Skuas, Albatrosses and more – these are the Pelagic birds (a fancy word for “the open ocean”). If you want to see – or photograph – them, you simply have to get out there.

Just about anywhere there’s coastline, you’ll find someone who has set-up a Pelagic Birding guide service. Generally, these will be operated by a few guides familiar with the species – their habits & appearance, and a charted boat more accustomed to fishing trips. Just let Google do the work, and find a trip that works for your schedule. On the central coast of Oregon, The Bird Guide Inc. is one such service, and I highly recommend them – the guides are excellent & knowledgeable, and the atmosphere is fun.

These trips can take place any time of the year, but most are scheduled when the weather is favorable, and the birds more interesting. In the northern hemisphere, the shoulder seasons of fall and spring see a lot of migrating species that spend the rest of their year in the far north, on remote breeding islands, or to the south. The summer can yield more locally-breeding birds, but those tend to be species you can see from shore nearly as well. Most guide services will have detailed information about their scheduled trips, including lists of birds and what was seen during the most recent similar trip.

Most guide services will have their own tips and advice about what to expect, what to bring and what to wear, but just a few general tips…

Don’t overpack: Space will likely be at a premium, and you’re not going to want to fiddle with a lot of stuff while you’re out there; try to get everything into one bag.
Food: If you think you can eat and not get seasick, bring a few simple snacks… Save complicated meals for after your return. Very simple foods like saltines can help settle your stomach a bit.
Clothes: Dress in layers, avoid cotton. Even if the weather forecast is clear and dry, wear a waterproof outer layer – expect that an errant wave will give you a good soak.
Camera: Bring the longest lens you can hand-carry, and a lot of memory. A clear plastic cover to keep the salt spray away from your electronics would be a good idea.
Bleeeeeaugh!: A lot of people get sick on these boats regardless of the conditions… I can’t add a lot to what’s written elsewhere about this. Just… good luck!

Shooting on a pelagic boat trip

Here are a few general tips, and things to think about…

Lens & support

When you’re shooting birds, you can never have a long-enough lens. However on a boat like this, you have to balance focal length with weight & maneuverability. You’re simply not going to be able to use a tripod & Whimberly head to mount your 600mm F4 monster. I have a 400mm f4 DO (diffractive optics) lens that’s a good balance of length vs. weight. To this I add a 1.4x extender to give an effective 560mm f6.3 lens. Any lens can become heavy to hold for extended periods. If you’re not actively shooting, rest your arms and back. Don’t hold that lens up to your face waiting for the next shot – before long, you’ll be tired or hurting, no matter how good of shape you’re in. It’s just a matter of physics. If you can rig some kind of small strap or monopod to help support the weight of the camera, go for it… But that monopod will work better if it’s secured to your body somehow. As the boat rocks around, your body will be adjusting and compensating. If you have a monopod resting on the boat, it can be hard to keep your eye in position. And speaking of straps – it’s a good idea on a boat. There are a lot of expensive cameras at the bottom of the sea.

Focus

Pink-footed Shearwater

Pink-footed Shearwater

Continual auto-focus will almost always be a better choice. On Canon, this is called AI Servo (AF-C on Nikon), this will constantly adjust the auto-focus, locking-in on the nearest focus-able item within one of your selected focal points.  You’ll generally have better luck using a zone-focusing pattern, and not a single focus point. It can be very hard to get the target in the part of the frame you intend, so the bigger the focus area, the better.  However, this can be a problem when a bird is on the water, as your auto-focus will often lock-in on the water in front or behind the bird. In that case, a  small zone or a single focus point would be better. Trouble is that the boat and bird are usually moving so much that you have a fraction of a second to get it right. More than anything, you’re going to need some luck.

If your telephoto lens has a switch on it to limit “autofocus searching” to a particular range, use it. For example, on my 400 f/4 lens, I can switch between “3.5m to ∞” or “8m to ∞”. Nearly all the birds I was shooting were more than 8m away. So, the autofocus was much quicker with this switch set to “8m to ∞”, as the camera would not try to focus on anything closer than 8m away.

Even with all that, expect a lot of blurry birds. In fact, expect a lot of shots that were nearly fantastic but the @#^%@$^!!! autofocus was about 1m off – such is life.

A special note for Canon users – know the difference between AI Focus and AI Servo autofocus modes. AI Focus is supposed to be a smarter mode that can anticipate a moving subject. However, I’ve found that it almost never works as you’d like. Just stick with AI Servo.

Exposure

First thing: Put your camera on manual exposure. This is one of the most important tips on this entire page, and one that few people take to heart. If you rely on auto-exposure, your exposure settings are going to fluctuate wildly – one second, you’ll be pointing at a dark ocean, the next at a bright sky. These two environments are going to be telling your auto-exposure very different things, however the correct exposure setting will nearly the same for either situation. So, how do you pick the right manual setting?

California Gull

California Gull

Start with your camera in aperture-priority mode (Av), and lens “wide open” – at the lowest aperture setting (for the lens I described above, that’d be f4, or f6.3 with the 1.4x extender attached). Then let the auto-exposure work… take a few shots, and look at the histograms on them. Ultimately, you’re going to want two things: a good histogram, and a fast-enough shutter speed.

Got a good histogram? Good… now look at the exposure settings for that shot: shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO. Let’s say for example it’s: 1/200 seconds, f6.3, and ISO 800.

Now put your camera in manual exposure mode. Yes, manual exposure mode, not Av, not Tv, but M. Dial-in those same settings: 1/200 seconds, f6.3, and ISO 800. Every shot you take will now use those same settings, no matter where you point. However, you have a problem – 1/200 seconds is way too slow to get sharp photos of fast-moving birds from a rocking boat with a long long lens. You could maybe get away with 1/400, but 1/800 will be much better. So, let’s get to work…

First, adjust your shutter speed to 1/800. But, while you do this, count the number of “clicks” the little dial on your camera makes… click, click, click, click… you’re at 1/800. The number of clicks will depend on how you have your camera set-up, but let’s just say it was 4. So, to keep that same exposure you’re going to have to adjust your f-stop or ISO “4 clicks”. You can’t adjust the f-stop, it’s already as low as it’ll go. So, you have to adjust the ISO an equal number of clicks upward – click, click, click, click… and you’re at ISO3200. Yikes!?!? 3200?! A lot of photographers eschew these high ISOs because they think it’s too grainy. Well, grain is better than blur, and frankly, that’s all there is to say about that. You could maybe try to compromise, and get away with 1/400 at ISO 1600 –  you just might get a lucky shot, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Common Murre

Common Murre

Be sure to check the histograms of your shots from time to time. You’ll probably start your trip in the dull light of dawn. As the day lightens-up, you will need to start backing-down the ISO to keep the histogram looking nice. If you get down to about ISO 200-400, you can start bumping-up the aperture to give you a little more room for error in the focus. You might even try bumping-up the shutter speed to 1/1000 or more – remember grain is way better than blur!

One more tip about exposure – it’s better to get a few shots in good light, than a zillion backlit ones. It’s best facing where there is good light, and wait for birds to pass by – either with your back to the sun, or to one side. There may be cases where you can’t avoid this however – if there is a flock on one side of the boat, that’s where you have to go. Plus, the boat can move quite a bit, and you might just have to go with the flow.

Shooting modes

A lot of people like to put their camera into “rapid-fire” mode and shoot away. I’m a bit mixed on this. The biggest issue is usually focus – best to make sure you can nail that. But getting a good in-focus shot requires luck too, so simply clicking away can increase your odds. One situation where the rapid-fire approach works very well is shooting large flocks of birds. Just snap a zillion of them, and maybe one will be really interesting!

Flash

A fill-flash with a Fresnel lens (like a Better Beamer) can be handy – often the lighting can be a challenge, and I’m of the opinion that fill-flash on birds is almost always helpful. However, it can be windy on boats, and that Better Beamer can act like a sail. In addition, a flash is one more thing that’ll add weight to your setup… and it’s one more thing that can get doused with salt water, or knocked sideways by an off-balance fellow passenger. So, this one is up to you; none of the example shots on this page used a fill-flash, as it was just too much to deal with.

Important: A flash is not intended to help “add light” when it’s too dark. That’s not the purpose – the flash should not affect your exposure settings. The flash is there to fill-in the shadows on an otherwise contrasty or shadowy subject. This is the purpose and very definition of a “fill-flash”. A fill-flash can help turn a photo that’s mostly silhouette into something where you can actually see the details. If you use a fill-flash, be sure to set it to high-speed sync mode. In this mode, the power of the flash will be reduced, but it will actually work at a fast shutter speed like 1/800.

And in the end…

Enjoy your time out there – live in the moment. Don’t get discouraged, expect a very low success rate – the boat is moving, birds are moving (pelagic seabirds are very fast), people are moving around the boat, and light & environment will be problematic. But, the experience is one that can only be lived.

Black-footed Albatross and friends

Black-footed Albatross and friends

 

Enchanted

Growing up in the lowlands, I was sold an image of mountains. Mountains had pointed peaks, steep granite cliffs, gnarled fanciful forests, tranquil reflective lakes… surprises at every turn. As I grew up, I realized the reality of mountain landscapes doesn’t always live up to the dream. Sure, they were big, bold and beautiful… but usually missing some secret ingredient.  However, there is a place where that childhood vision becomes real; it’s located on the eastern flanks of the North Cascade mountains in Washington State. And it’s aptly named: The Enchantments.

Click here to see the Enchantments gallery

Getting There

As with many of the best places in the world, this one is hard to get to. There are no shortcuts; it simply takes a lot of effort and determination.

Prusik Peak and Perfection Lake

Prusik Peak and Perfection Lake

That effort starts with getting a permit. In an effort to reduce the crowds of well-meaning interlopers, the forest service limits the number of overnight camping permits issued for various areas in and around the Enchantment Lakes basin. Advance permit applications have to be submitted by a deadline in the spring. That takes a lot of advance planning. Alternately, you can simply show up at the ranger station in Leavenworth, WA early in the morning, and try to get a limited number of same-day permits. But, it’s hard to count on that. (Though, there are other very nice permit-limited areas nearby, and you can usually get a permit for one of them).

I’ve never seen this stated, but my suspicion is that in order to get an overnight permit for the lakes basin proper, you’ll need to request at least 3 nights. My hunch is that the forest service thinks people overestimate their ability to get to or from the lakes basin in one day, so they want make sure you have ample time to cover the distance.

Rainbow Over Nada Lake

Rainbow Over Nada Lake

The effort continues with a brutal approach hike. The high alpine terrain of the Enchantment Lakes basin is usually the goal. To get there, you have two choices of trail – long and steep, or not-quite-as-long and steeper. The first choice approaches from the north, heading a dozen miles up 5500ft in elevation gain, past some burned forests, a couple lower forested lakes, and finally over a series of steep granite slabs, where the “trail” becomes more of a suggestion. And that’s the easy way. The other approach is shorter – only about 7 miles – and requires less climbing – only about 4400ft. But, the last 1000ft is a nearly vertical scramble up a crumbly and often icy indistinct route over well-named Aasgard pass. It’s certainly hikable – hundreds do it without incident. But, there have been accidents as well. Be careful, and know your abilities.

When to Go

Next, you’ll have to decide when to go. The lakes basin melts out in July most years. It’s a pretty destination in the high summer and home to a healthy population of friendly mountain goats. But, if you can get lucky with good weather, the fall color of the larches is really over the top. From a distance these distinctive trees look like typical conifers. But, their needles turn golden and drop off in the fall. The color usually peaks around the first week in October. After the 3rd week in October, no overnight permits are required, but the larch needles will have fallen, and the snow and cold will be taking over.

For this most recent trip, I left the Snow Lakes trailhead (the long route) in the early morning, and got to the far end of Snow Lake by evening. Just beyond Snow Lake is a steep ascent to the lakes basin. I technically had time to get up to the lakes basin for sunset, and return. But, it would have meant coming down steep granite slabs in the dark, and alone – not exactly a safe idea. Plus, the weather was still clearing from a recent storm. Often, those conditions are great for dramatic photos. But in this case it was mostly socked-in up there.

Shooting in the Enchantments

So, I got up early to clear blue skies, climbed up the slabs, and arrived in the basin in about an hour and a half.  If the weather cooperates, there is good shooting much of the day in the Enchantment Lakes basin. As the sun travels, it matches the slopes of some of the nearby mountainsides, casting some dramatic side-light even hours after sunrise.

Enchanted Reflection

Enchanted Reflection

Calm winds are more common in the early morning and late in the evening,  giving great reflections of the trees and peaks. I prefer just a tiny ripple of wind to give a hint of water, and a “ground” to a photo. A pure reflection is neat, but it can make a photo hard to frame, as there is no obvious base. Think about how things look when you press that shutter button. If I’d taken this photo 20 seconds earlier or later, the reflection would have looked very different. The clouds were changing rapidly too – this image caught a good mix of interesting balanced sky and a reflection that was “just right”. It would have been nice if the mountain was illuminated too, but I’ll take what I can get.

Prusik Peak

Prusik Peak

The sharp spire of Prusik Peak is the most prominent feature on the ridgeline, and can be a convenient exclamation point in a composition. The shape of Prusik Peak changes radically depending on the viewing angle. From some directions, the peak doesn’t look much higher than the nearby ridge.

The most obvious stars of the landscape at this time of year are the Larch trees. The golden Larches glow in the light, and provide great contrast against the white snow or deep blue skies. Look for all kinds of light – sidelight, backlight, frontlight… each can make a scene glow in a different way. One of my favorite angles is to get the light coming from the back/side. This way, the individual needles glow from the light, but the background isn’t all washed-out from the sun. This angle of light can yield shots illuminated like the image below/left. This image also captures the uniquely twisted spine of these hardy trees. Another approach is to use a tranquil lake to fill in the color. The other images below use this approach. The image to the right is a reflection rotated 180 degrees – remember, there are no rules in photography – present your images however you wish!

Twisted

Twisted

Reflections

Reflections

Ripples

Ripples

Equipment

Because this was a longer and relatively difficult hike I had to carefully pick which lenses and other equipment I brought. On these hikes, I always start with my most versatile lens – the 24-105 zoom. Next, I added a few accessories like a close-up lens, some graduated ND filters, a remote timer. I still had a little weight left, so I splurged and brought my heavy 100-400 zoom. I’m not sure if that was the wisest choice. As it turns out, I didn’t use it much… and hauling that heavy hunk of metal and glass was a bit of a burden. But, I’ve had too many instances where I’ve seen a once-in-a-lifetime shot that I could only get with such a lens. So, it’s like an insurance policy. Lastly, of course, I brought my tripod. I have a lightweight carbon-fiber Feisol tripod with a Really Right Stuff ball head. All this stuff (and my camera body, an extra battery, memory cards and some cases) probably added up to 10-15 pounds. But, I made it there, and made it back. Whatever extra pain the weight caused is dulled by the results!

Time-Lapse Photography

Sometimes, the most interesting aspect of a scene is impossible to capture in a still frame – swirling clouds, the movement of tides, patterns of shadows, the moon or sun… these all make excellent subjects for time-lapse photography.

But, how do you do it?

In short: set up your camera on a tripod, take a series of images every 5 seconds or so, and later assemble those stills into a video. Simple?… Ok, maybe a little more explanation would help.

First, you need an interesting scene, where something is happening… slowly. Clouds are nearly always in motion, and make great time-lapse subjects. Likewise, the shadows of clouds can add real drama to a scene. Maybe you’d like to show how a frosty leaf melts in the morning sun. Your imagination is the only limit.

Just remember – if you have a single camera and are using it to shoot a time-lapse movie, that’s all you’ll be shooting while it’s happening. Sometimes, you just have to make a choice.

Ok, so now you have an interesting scene. It’s time to go manual – manual focus, manual exposure. If you leave your camera on automatic exposure, the settings will change as the light changes. This will lead to some really distracting flickering as individual frames will be slightly brighter or darker. While there is software available to fix this (more on that later), it’s a lot easier to avoid this problem. If you’re doing something really fancy – like a time-lapse that goes from day into night… you might need to use auto-exposure, and fix the flickering later.

If the scene is getting brighter through time, best to start the first image underexposed, so that by the end of your shooting period, the scene won’t be over-exposed. Vice-versa with scenes that are getting darker.

For this reason, I almost always shoot time-lapse scenes in RAW. Yes, the individual images use more memory, but the results are far better, and this gives me the ability to adjust my exposure settings with a RAW converter.

In the following example, the sun was rising. I knew the scene would be getting brighter, so I started the time-lapse with the scene under-exposed. It turns out that I didn’t compensate as much as I should have. by the end of the video, the bright clouds were fully blown out. Luckily, the video medium is a little more forgiving with these things:

My camera includes a small-RAW (sRAW) shooting mode. Time-lapse is a great application for sRAW. The image files will be smaller, but still give the flexibility of RAW. You won’t need all those extra pixels for the final video. High-definition video (1080p) is at a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels, that’s only 2 megapixels. My smallest sRAW mode is about 6 megapixels, leaving me plenty of cropping options.

While technically you could stand next to your tripod with a stopwatch and press the shutter release every 5 seconds, it’s a heck of a lot easier with an automated timer/cable release. It just takes a moment to program an interval (say, 5 seconds), and the timer will do all the work. I have a Canon TC-80N3, which works perfectly. There are some other models which work pretty well too.

So, how long to go? A little math can come in handy. If you don’t want your final video to be jerky, you’re going to want a good number of frames per second in the final video. Let’s say your final video will be about 24 frames-per-second. If you shoot a frame every 5 seconds, that’s 12 frames per minute. So, every 2 minutes, you’ll have 24 frames. 2 minutes of real time = 1 second of video. If things are moving really quickly in real time, you might want to take frames faster.  I’ve learned that I can never shoot a long enough clip. If the results are good, I always wish I shot twice as much!

Just make sure to have enough available memory in the camera.  My camera tells me how many more pictures I can fit – a very handy reference. Though, if you do run out of memory part way through a time-lapse photo, you might be able to change the memory card quickly without noticing too much of a gap in the final video.

If it’s dark outside, you might need a pretty long exposure for each shot. For example, the video below starts with a time-lapse of the night sky. Each frame was 30 seconds, and I included a noise-reduction frame which added another 30 seconds. I added a 5 second safety buffer to my interval timer, so I was taking a frame every 65 seconds… It took 3 hours to get about 10 seconds of video!

So,  now we have 300 (or maybe 3000) still images in sequence. From here, I use a similar workflow to still photos. First, I import them into Lightroom. The next steps are easier to describe in a video:

If you’re interested in LRTimelapse, visit Gunther’s site here. The software is free to download, but I’d recommend donating some money to his cause.

Now we have a series of still images. How to make them into a video? There is a lot of fine video editing software on the market. I’ve found that Sony Vegas does a pretty good job for a reasonable price. Plus, it has a capability to handle time lapse images very smoothly:

So, there you have it. I hope you found this a little helpful for getting started creating your own time-lapse movies. Here’s a version of the time-lapse I created in the above two videos…

The Bears of Bella Coola

A Grizzly in the Bella Coola Valley

A Grizzly in the Bella Coola Valley

Halfway up the British Columbia coast – between Vancouver and Prince Rupert – is a wild locale that’s easy to miss, but impossible to forget – Bella Coola.  The complex geography of this area is a jumbled mix of long fjords, glaciated mountains, huge lakes, thick forests, roaring rivers… you name it. The difficult terrain is part of the reason Bella Coola is the only populated settlement on the mainland for about a hundred miles north or south. It’s also the reason only about 2000 people call this place home; it’s an isolated and difficult place to live. The name “Bella Coola” refers to the 50-something mile long valley, the town of Bella Coola at the water’s edge, and foremost to the First Nation tribe who calls this place home.

Getting there
You can drive to Bella Coola. It’s about a 1.5 – 2 day drive from Vancouver, over mostly good  (and lonely) roads. There is a 40-mile stretch of gravel as the road rolls through a section of Tweedsmuir Provincial park, and then down the 18% grade of Heckman Pass. It’s a bit hairy, but the road’s surface is well-maintained. This route (the Freedom Road) is critical to the residents of the valley.

You can also take a ferry to Bella Coola until about mid September. It’s a 24-hour ride to (or from) Port Hardy. The scenery is outstanding… provided it’s not raining or cloudy. If money is not a concern, but time is, you can also fly to Bella Coola… If you’re going with the sole purpose of seeing bears and have made arrangements to travel within the valley, this can be a the most practical option.

Grizzly Bear Grabs a Salmon

Grizzly Bear Grabs a Salmon

The Bears
The Bella Coola valley still retains much of its wild character – including healthy populations of both Black and Grizzly bears. Each year from about August through October, salmon fill the waterways – heading up to shallow spawning grounds. This annual bounty of easy protein attracts both types of bears from the surrounding mountains.

While you can spot bears just about anywhere in the valley, they mostly stick to where the fishing is easiest.  The bears need clear water to see the fish, and shallow water to catch them. The Bella Coola River is deep and clouded with glacial silt, but there are plenty of other streams in the valley. The most reliable area to spot bears is about 40 miles from the ocean, where the clear and shallow Atnarko River flows into the cloudy Bella Coola. There are other similar rivers, but the Atnarko is logistically easier to travel along, and is proven to be a reliable place to spot bears.

The valley is home to healthy populations of both Grizzly Bears and Black Bears. The Black Bears tend to be very skittish and opportunistic. They love the fish too, but will usually settle for whatever they can get (dead fish, left-overs, etc). While you might see black bears in the valley, they’ll take notice of you and run. The Grizzlies know they’re king of the  hill, and don’t mind being visible. The Bella Coola Grizzlies have much darker fur than Grizzlies in other areas. At first glance, you might have difficulty verifying what you’re seeing. But, the Black Bears in the area are jet black, and once you see one, you’ll know it’s no Grizzly.

Atnarko River Bear-Viewing Platform

Atnarko River Bear-Viewing Platform

Seeing the Bears
About 7-8 miles from the start of the slope up to Heckman Pass, the BC wildlife service has installed a viewing platform along the Atnarko River. This platform is protected by an electric fence, and staffed from about 7am to 7pm during peak season. You might be skeptical of how good a shot you can get from such a stationary platform, but it’s right at a bend in the river with a clear view in both directions. For whatever reason, this particular stretch of the river is paritcularly popular with the bears. You might have to wait for quite a while for a bear to show up (bring mosquito repellent), but it’s a decent and reliable vantage point. The bears can get quite close, so you may be happy to have the electric fence!

If you’re looking for some different views and a little more mobility, you might consider a guided boat trip down the river. Starting in 2012, these will more tightly regulated, to better balance the demands of tourism with the the needs of the bears. In essence, the number of allowed trips will be similar to what they were in recent years… but future “boat jams” on the river will be prevented. The boat trips start just upstream from the bear viewing platform, and continue just a few miles to a boat launch at a campground. This doesn’t seem very far, but it’s prime bear habitat, and good guides know the best places to wait for bears. The bears are more active in the early morning, and near dusk. So, you might want to plan your trip accordingly. Expect a tour to take a couple hours.

Grizzly on a Log

Grizzly on a Log

As of this writing, there are 2 active companies doing the tours. One of them uses MacKenzie drift boats – wooden boats with two swivel seats at the bow. The guide controls the boat with oars. This setup gives you a nearly 360 shooting angle, and direct communication with the guide… It’s also simply more peaceful.  But it costs more. The other company uses inflatable river rafts that hold 6-8 people. The river in this area is usually 5 feet deep or less, and not whitewater (of course, these conditions can vary widely). You can book trips well in advance, but it’s certainly practical to book only up to a day in advance if you’re not sure of your travel plans.

The guide I used (with a drift boat) had been doing this for many years. His record was seeing 8 bears “at once”, and he’d only been “skunked” twice.

Remember that the health of the bears, and wild nature of the area is the first priority.  The guides will try to keep their distance as not to disturb the bears natural behavior. Ideally, the bears shouldn’t even notice the human interlopers.  Though, sometimes a closer encounter is impossible to avoid – the river isn’t very wide, and if a bear is headed your direction, there are only so many options. If you do get close to a bear, the guides will keep the boat moving… so shoot quickly!

Photography
Whatever your longest lens is, bring it. As with  most wildlife photography, you can never get close enough. While you might get some decent shots with 200mm, you’ll be a lot happier with 300-400mm options (or longer if you have it). To capture some of the fast movements of the bears, you’re going to want a shutter speed of about 1/400th of a second. In order to get that shutter speed, you’re mostly likely going to be shooting with the aperature wide open… and at a higher ISO. My recommendation is to determine what exposure settingsyou need to use, switch your camera to manual exposure, and lock-in that exposure. This will prevent accidental metering mistakes at critical times. For example, if you meter on a dark bear, you might not get the exposure you intended. Make sure you have plenty of available memory, and leave the flash at home – it’s not allowed on the boats, or on the platform.

A Wet Grizzly

A Wet Grizzly

More images from the Bella Coola valley are in my gallery here.

Blending Images in Photoshop

Sometimes, there simply isn’t any way to get the image you want with a single frame.

Most often, this will occur when an image has a very high dynamic range (a mix of very light and very dark areas). Just about everyone has encountered that dilemma – a photo with a blown-out sky, or a nearly black foreground.

Another situation is an image where a polarizer filter works well for only part of an image. This can happen when you’re using a polarizer with a wide-angle lens, and shooting clear blue sky. A less-common situation is using a polarizer to “see through” water, while also increasing contrast in a sky. Each of these actions might require the polarizer to be twisted in different directions, so there’s just no way to do it in one shot.

Some blending is straightforward… when you can make a smooth transition from one image to another, it’s not too difficult to do. But, when you’re faced with irregular edges – especially trees that line the horizon, it’s gets very difficult.

In a nutshell; you can’t darken the sky without also darkening the trees. Often there isn’t much you can do… the trees will have moved slightly from frame to frame, and no matter how skilled you are, you’re going to get jagged ugly edges. But, sometimes, you can use a couple tricks to help out.

The following 3-part tutorial is about 15 minutes long, and covers a couple of these situations. In this tutorial, I’ve taken 3 images and assembled them into one.

The first part introduces the 3 images. Each of these images is a separate frame with a unique RAW file.

The second part is a straightforward blend using the gradient tool.

The third part is a more complex blend including an irregular edge of some distant trees.

 

Rowena Crest / Tom McCall Point

I left home around 5am to drive the 1.5 hours out to Rowena Crest to catch the sunrise.  It might seem a bit extreme to get moving so early for something that’s supposed to be “fun”, like photography. But, the early morning light has a quality that can’t be duplicated.  Getting up early is just one more ingredient to making compelling images.

Click here to see the Tom McCall Point gallery

Grass Widows are the first flower to pop out of the ground in this area. When they’re at peak bloom, they can fill some areas with a wash of magenta. I started at one field I’d visited before, about a mile west of Rowena Crest. The grass widows here were still about a week before peak, but there were a number blooming already. The sun was going to rise soon, so I scoped out a spot with an interesting mix of flowers and rocks, and positioned myself so that the field would be cross-lit, hopefully giving me a good mix of light and shadow to add some more depth to the image. The sun lit up some trees to my side with a deep orange glow, and the shadow line crept toward me. However, it was not to be. Just before the sun arrived at my location, a band of clouds moved in and squashed the moment. Oh well, that’s the nature of nature.

Three Grass Widows

Three Grass Widows

I made the most of it however. The flowers were covered in dew in the early morning, and the air was relatively still. The light was still coming from one direction, filtered through the clouds near the horizon. These are all conditions that only exist in the early morning in a place like this. So, even though I didn’t get the full sunrise experience, conditions were still pretty good – especially for some closeups.

With this shot, I liked how the 3 flowers all showed different sides or stages of the grass widows.  I moved my angle to get some separation between the 3 flowers.  I had to be very careful not to bump the flowers, as I didn’t want to knock off the dew. One of the hardest things with images like this is picking what to focus on. The two things I wanted most in focus were the dew on the front flower and the stamen of the front flower. Keeping the tip of the front flower in focus was also important. The viewer’s eye expects this to be a sharp edge, so it just wouldn’t look right if that was not in focus. I tried  number of minor variations on the focus.  I was using a 90mm tilt/shift lens, so that gave me even more options than usual.  I was able to tilt the focal plane to more closely align with the main elements of the image. While it’s fine that the flowers in the rear are out of focus, I wanted them to be recognizable as flowers.  Since one of the flowers is in focus, the brain can easily imagine what the other flowers look like, and isn’t left guessing.

Field of Grass Widows

Field of Grass Widows

I then moved up the road a bit to Rowena Crest. The grass widows here were more in full bloom. I wanted to capture a whole field of these flowers, but still get one of the close enough so you could see the detail… and show enough of the environment to give a sense of place. I again used a tilt/shift lens (24mm this time), and moved in very close to this clump of flowers. These were probably only ~6 inches from the front of my lens – right at the minimum focal distance for the lens. I tilted the focal plane to match the ground… this helped, but I still had 2 problems to deal with. The wind had picked up, so I needed a fast shutter speed. I bumped up to ISO1250 (I try not to go much higher than that for these kinds of nature images, as it helps give a more accurate tonal balance). That still wasn’t fast enough, so I had to use a slightly wider aperture than I might have prefered, around  f8 I think. This did bring enough focus so that you can see there is a whole field of flowers, and see the mountain in the distance.

Finally, I hiked up that mountain… Tom McCall point. Along the way, I came across these oak trees. The moss was so thick and heavy, it was dripping down the sides of the trunks. I wanted to capture the thickness of this moss.

Oak Forest

Oak Forest

An added bonus was the soft directional light, which really makes scenes like this glow. The sun was a little higher in the sky now, and being filtered through some high clouds. This softened the light just enough to reduce contrast, but was still directional light – which adds depth. I tried a number of locations before finding one that had a good number of the trees showing. Again, focus is difficult with shots like this. When you have a situation like this, focusing on the subject nearest the lens can work best. These subjects will have the most detail, and let the viewer see that detail, and imagine the same detail in the background. One thing I was surprised and happy with were how the weeds below the trees hid their bases. So, it looks like the green trunks are growing out of a brown fur. This gives a little dreamy quality to the image.

It was a lot of driving on little sleep… but all in all, I was happy with the results!

And It Was…

And It Was...

And It Was...

Another in my short series: “About the Shot”… When you see a set of aging building with this much character, it’s not hard to know there’s a good shot to be had… somewhere.  Sometimes, the trick is simply finding the right place to stand.

This old homestead was once someone’s brand new dream. Someone nailed all those shingles to the wall with plans in their head, hope in their heart, and a world of possibilities on their horizon. Maybe their dream turned out well. Maybe they lived a long happy life here. Whatever the truth of the matter, these old buildings are decaying, and that’s the story that can be told in this photograph.

One thing I try to do with nearly every scene is bring a sense of depth to a two-dimensional image. Most directly, the human brain perceives depth because our heads have two eyes. Each sees a slightly different image, and our brain interprets these to realize a 3 dimensional world. But, there are more ways for the eye and mind to perceive depth.

One approaches that’s strongly employed in this image is what I like to call near-and-far.  The building at the center and the building in the distance are both familiar human-scale objects. We know how big the house is, and we know how big the barn is. When we see them both together, we know about how much distance is between them. This brings the viewer’s mind “into” the picture… into the space between the buildings. Can you imagine how far it is between these buildings? It’s easy to get a sense for it. The windows and doorways on both buildings just add to this effect.

Similarly, the grasses in the foreground, and the grain of the wood at the left repeat further away from the eye. Even though we can’t see all the detail in the grasses and grain in the distance, we know it exists. We know what it looks like. This gives the image more perceived detail and depth.

Probably the most obvious depth element is the angular view of the house at the right. Straight lines converge as they go to the distance… and that’s easy to see here.

The framing of this photo is obvious (if anything, a bit too obvious and contrived). I took care to make sure the edges of the buildings all had space around them. The building at the left is simply foreground. It can be a little difficult to know just how much of such a building to leave in the frame. My rule is to leave just enough so that it’s obvious what the cropped item is, but not so much that it overwhelms the image. If I had left less of the building at the left, it would have looked like a sliver, and made the viewer curious to know what it was… and been a distraction. If I had left more of the building, it would have crowded the frame and become the subject of the image. As it is the building serves two purposes – both a “frame” and a foreground.

The original image was quite pretty in full color. The grasses were green, the sky a powder blue with white streaking clouds, and the buildings a nice silver. However, this conflicted with the story I first was drawn to in this image. The colors were all “alive”, but the buildings were dead, and that was too much conflict. An autumn or winter scene would work well in color, but there was so much lively green in this image, it just had to go.

One last comment about the wires connecting the buildings. I was shooting this with a number of other photographers standing nearby who declined to take the image because of the wires. While I can understand that you might want to crop-out wires in many landscape situations, this is one case where the wires added to the scene. The wires connect the two buildings, and frame the barn. The wires are decaying and drooping as well, and part of the story. It’s easy to get something in your head as a rule (must… not… photograph… telephone… wires!!!), but just remember that every rule needs to be broken from time to time – otherwise, the world would be a boring and predictable place. I love the wires!

Birds On a Log…

Feed Me!

Feed Me!

Photographing birds is not easy. It requires a good amount of patience, luck and skill… and having the right equipment helps too. This particular shot would have never happened if I hadn’t first used my ears. It was early in the morning… the time when hungry birds have just woken up, and are most active – looking for food to start their day. I heard some loud persistent peeps, and took a look.

Two American Dipper chicks were waiting on a rotten log on the shore of the Deschutes River.  An adult was fetching insect larvae out of the rushing waters, returning with a new bug every few minutes. It seemed the chicks had bottomless stomachs.  I figured the parent would make at least a few more trips. So, I thought I’d see what I could get.

I quickly put on my 100mm-400mm zoom lens – with the lens hood on (I mostly use the lens hood for protection – to prevent bumping the glass against something). For most bird photography, it takes all the reach you can get, so I extended the lens out to 400mm and kept it there.

I knew that I’d need a pretty fast shutter speed. 1/400 second or faster if possible. First I flipped the camera to Aperture priority and moved the lens to wide-open (in this case f5.6) to let the most light in as possible. I pointed the camera at a few things near the scene and looked at the auto-metering the camera was giving me. When you’re zoomed-in this tight, metering can be all over the map. If you move a few feet one way or the other, the camera will meter on a dark log or the bright rapids… the difference in shutter speed can vary a ton. In this case, varying anywhere from 1/10 of a second to 1/100. So, I picked something in the middle of the range…  f5.6 & 1/25 of a second.

I then switched the camera to Manual exposure, and dialed-in these same settings – f5.6 & 1/25 second. Now, I didn’t have to worry about the camera metering changing the exposure and messing up my shots. Of course, 1/25 of a second was way too slow. These quick little birds would be nothing but gray blurry blobs at 1/25 of a second. My camera was set at ISO=100. I had to bump up the ISO sensitivity to get a faster shutter speed. It was time to count clicks.

I clicked the knob that controls the shutter speed to something much faster… say 1/400 second. Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click… 12 clicks. Each click of a knob represented changing my exposure by 1/3 of a stop of light. After 12 clicks, I was at 1/400. While it helps to know how many stops you’re clicking through, in the field, you often don’t have time to do the calculations. It’s a heck of a lot easier and faster to count clicks. You don’t have to know any math to do this. If you can count, you can do it.

Before I adjusted anything, I had a good exposure. Now, I was “12 clicks off”. I needed to make up for all that clicking. So, I started clicking away on my ISO to compensate… click, click, click (now I was at ISO 200), click click click, (ISO 400), click, click, click (ISO 800), click click click (ISO 1600). That’s 12 clicks. I was back at a good exposure, and now I had the shutter speed I needed. ISO1600 will be a little more grainy, but grainy is better than blurry!

One more quick item was to make sure my focus was set for the center point. This way I’d know what I was focusing on. If you leave your autofocus to pick whatever point it wants, it’ll invariably pick the wrong point… and you’ll get a very crisp image of a log with some blurry birds in the background. At 400mm & f5.6, with a subject ~20ft away, the depth of field is very shallow – maybe half an inch at most. There just isn’t any room for focus error.

This whole business of changing the lens, and getting the shutter speed I needed (and making sure that switches like the autofocus and image stabilizer were flipped correctly) took about a minute, max. I simply had to ignore the birds while I did this. There’s no point in skipping any of this. There’s no point in shooting before you’re ready to shoot. I don’t care how good the scene is. If your camera isn’t adjusted correctly, the results are going to suck. Further to that point… you simply have to know this stuff to get a shot like this. If you’re relying on your camera’s automated controls to do the work, you’re going to be disappointed again and again.

So, now I had a camera ready for action. It was time for the patience and luck.

The chicks were moving up and down the log. Sometimes they’d go out of view, and other times they’d come very close. With the noise and movement of the water, they were fairly oblivious to me. It helped that some low bushes partially obscured my body. My first goal was to just get “something”… getting something is always better than waiting and getting nothing. So, I stood where I was and snapped a few shots of the chicks. I checked the histogram on the shot to make sure my exposure was still good. If it wasn’t, maybe I could click the ISO up or down a couple clicks to compensate.

I decided it was better to stay where I was rather than risking large movements and chasing the whole family off. My next goal was to get “something a little better”. I waited for the parent to return with some food, and tried to get a more expressive shot. The results weren’t bad, but I didn’t really like the background I was getting. The chicks were on the side of the log, so that the wood was immediately behind them. With this setup, I wasn’t getting much blur to the background, and not much contrast between the dark gray birds and the dark brown wood. I crouched down in hopes that the birds would jump up on the top of the log. Crouching down also enabled me to hide a bit and get a little closer to the action – which is always helpful in bird photography.

The whole family moved to the other side of the log for the next couple bugs. I was getting a little frustrated, but understood the value of patience. The birds moved fast, and I had to be ready. Before I knew it – bam. There was the parent with a juicy bug, and two chicks on top of the log with gaping red mouths. I nailed the focus on the chick and immediately snapped off a series of shots. The whole scene lasted maybe 5 seconds at most.

There are some things I wish I could fix with this shot. The blurry branch above the center chick is a little distracting, and it’d help if the birds had a little catch light in their eyes (that little sparkle that quite often comes from a flash). But, I didn’t have a flash with me, and I couldn’t direct the birds where to go. So, I can’t really complain. There’s a lot more that I like about the shot – all the birds are in nearly the same focal plane. Their feet show some action, the bright red mouths of the chicks are a great contrast with the otherwise drab colors, and the texture of the log is nice, the surface of the log makes a nice diagonal line, the lighting is smooth and indirect, and the whole thing tells a story. I’ll take it!

Crashing Waves

A really quick post this time… At the coast the previous night, there had been a windstorm which created gigantic waves. The following afternoon, we passed by a roadside lookout near Depoe Bay, where the waves were still crashing-in. Of course, I couldn’t resist taking a few shots.

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Central Oregon Coast

Central Oregon Coast

Waves are pretty unpredictable, so I took dozens of shots of the action. I was trying to get a good mix of rock and crashing waves, and timing was key. Sometimes the waves would cover the rocks in the foreground… sometimes the mist from the crashing waves obscured the rocks in the distance.

By using a long focal length – near 400mm – I was able to compress the elements in the image. Things both near and far look of similar size. This can work well for busy scenes like this. The layers of rocks and mist help maintain a sense of depth – you can readily see what is in front and what is in the distance. Another thing that really helps with this shot is the lighting. The scene is lit from the back/right side. This makes the mist glow, and adds a lot of dramatic shadow to the waves.  In the opposite direction, the waves were front-lit. That added a lot of color to the waves, but there were no shadows,  and the sense of depth was lost. A cloud passed by for part of the time I was watching the waves, and this also killed the depth in the image… this was one scene that really worked best in full sun.

There’s also one element in this picture you don’t see – the house perched on the rocks just outside the frame. The right kind of house might have added to the drama of the scene, but this particular house wasn’t right for that. This did limit my framing somewhat – I couldn’t go any further to the left, but in the end, wasn’t too much of a problem.

One thing I wished I’d done at this shot was to take some video. The scene was so chaotic and ever-changing, I think video would have done it better justice… well, next time!

Drift Creek, and Drift Creek

Along the central Oregon Coast, there are two creeks named “Drift Creek”. Each is a window back in time to when the coastal forests were intact and pristine.

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These destinations are within about 50 miles of each other, which can lead to a bit of confusion. On this trip, I was joined by a friend who recently moved to the coast & looking to explore the area a bit more. Neither of us had visited these forest trails before. We first visited the northern Drift Creek, not far from Lincoln City. This is certainly the more well-known of the Drift Creeks, because of both the proximity to Lincoln City, the easy trailhead access, and a short rewarding hike to a stunning waterfall – Drift Creek Falls.

The trail is very well maintained (actually gravel for a good part of the way) and heads downhill about 1.5 miles through second-growth to the waterfall. Along the way, there is an alternate trail – the north loop – which detours through a small stand of old-growth forest. It’s not a huge section of old growth, but very nice for what it is. It’s also striking to see how the character of the forest changes when it’s dominated by large old trees. Soon after this alternate loop re-connects with the main trail, the path crosses above Drift Creek Falls on a large suspension bridge. The bridge and the falls is what brings most people to visit.

This isn’t the best time of year to photograph this area. The autumn leaves have mostly fallen from the trees, leaving them looking like a random bundle of barren twigs. But, this isn’t all bad… views are more open, and the moss is a richer green in the winter months. Plus, a recent downpour of rain made Drift Creek Falls gush. Many waterfalls look more elegant with a lower flow – more detail in the rocks under the falls is revealed. I’m not exactly sure if Drift Creek is better with a low flow or high flow, but I think the higher flow did make the falls expand horizontally – adding more side channels, which adds a bit of interest. Also, the higher flow made this waterfall stream away from the wall a bit… during times of lower flow Drift Creek Falls slides down against the face of the canyon wall, which isn’t as photographically dynamic or interesting.

Drift Creek Falls

Drift Creek Falls

I tried some very wide angle shooting from the base of the falls. My goal was to stitch together up to 15 images all taken at 24mm to make a giant mosaic that was otherwise not possible. Sure the result is pretty, but perhaps a bit too straightforward. When you go this wide, you are basically capturing “everything”. Much of what makes photography interesting and challenging is deciding what to leave out of the frame. Here, everything is in the frame – there is not much visual choice.  Anyway, with a subject like Drift Creek Falls, there is only so much you can do. There isn’t a lot of room to work with at the bottom of the falls, and you get what you see. Another issue is that such a wide shot creates a lot of distortion. Often this isn’t noticeable with landscape images, but when the image contains elements that are supposed to be straight, the distortion is a real problem. I had to work a little Photoshop magic after this image was stitched together in order to straighten the tree at the left, and attempt to straighten the bridge (which is still a bit bent, but that’s ok… I mean, lots of bridges are curved, right?)

Forest Near Drift Creek Falls

Forest Near Drift Creek Falls

Near the falls, I was delighted to find this scene. One important key to photographing old forest like these is looking for just the right lighting. In direct sunlight, there is simply too much harsh contrast for pleasing results. I’ve very rarely seen images of forests in full sunlight that “work”.  If the light is flat (i.e. from a solid gray sky), the results will be much better, but the forest will look as flat as the light. Ideally, I look for diffuse but side-directional lighting. This puts a soft cast on the sides of the tree trunks, giving them a three-dimensional feel. This kind of lighting is not always easy to come by however. In early morning or late evening, most of the light from the sky will be coming from one direction.  If there is an isolated cloud bank diffusing the sunlight, all the better.  But, even this kind of diffuse lighting can be shaded by a thick forest canopy, and down where you are, the light becomes flat again. The best situation to look for is a “hole” in the forest canopy that allows the diffuse light to come through from one direction and light up the lower trunks. Often these holes in the forest will be at the edge of a forest, or where some large tree has fallen down. An added bonus to a hole in the forest is that it’ll give you room to shoot – giving you more options to move around and play with the composition. The image at the start of this paragraph was an almost ideal situation – I had a nice foreground with some great roots for leading lines, space behind the foreground, and some large softly side-lit trees in the background. Compare this to the more flat image below… which is still nice, but missing the lighting and foreground that works so well in the first forest image.

There was still a bit of daylight remaining, so we decided to head down the road to visit the other Drift Creek –  the Drift Creek Wilderness (the largest designated wilderness area along the Oregon Coast). This is a completely different area, closer to Waldport – perhaps 50 miles to the south of Drift Creek Falls. There is no dramatic waterfall along this Drift Creek, and the road we took to the trailhead, while in good condition, was a narrow and winding 20 miles. This trailhead accesses the northern portion of the Drift Creek Wilderness.

Drift Creek Wilderness

Drift Creek Wilderness

It was nearly dark by the time we arrived, so we only had the opportunity to hike a small portion of the trail, and get a taste of what was there. Certainly, this is a place I’ll have to return to. The trail passes through a substantial old growth area – mostly Western Hemlock and Douglas Fir. The last giant mushrooms of autumn were melting in the wetness… and a few leaves hung on in the understory. I did manage a few shots of the forest, but the light was pretty flat, and exposures were running at 30 seconds. So, we turned around before too long, determined to return again on a day where we had more time…