do butterflies have four wings ? and....
it's not too early to start thinking about Christmas cards !
I have been doing quite a bit with butterflies this month. I came
across this comma which was pretty obliging. I noticed that it
was a creature of habit and it kept returning to the same leaf.
The trouble was, the leaf was not in a very photogenic position.
After a stealthy approach, being careful not to cast my shadow
over the butterfly (for that would almost certainly have made
it fly) I grasped the stem of the plant it was sitting on with
my left hand and carefully twisted it up into position against
the beautiful blue sky. In my right hand I bore the not inconsiderable
weight of my Canon 1DsmkII camera plus flash (turned off at the
time!) and struggled simultaneously to set the aperture to f16
(for good depth of field at this close range) whilst ensuring
that I still had sufficient shutterspeed (1/250th sec at the pre-set
ISO of 800 with a 100mm f2.8 macro lens). At this point the wind
blew and blew the butterfly off the leaf !
However, the comma soon returned and I tried again. The wind did
the same thing. So I tried again and again (six times to be precise
until I got this shot). So I guess this teaches us that you have
to persevere (as the old saying goes - "if at first you don't
succeed, try and try again"). Also, that knowledge of your
subject is sometimes imperative if you are to get the shot.
The comma was very territorial and it often flew after rivals
that came near its bush. One intruder was one of the tattiest
butterflies I have ever seen. Its rear wings had all but disappeared,
presumably chomped by a bird or caught on thorns. But it could
still fly with consummate ease - gliding up and down the ride
both gracefully and effortlessly and with enough control to chase
and spiral around with its four-winged rival. So this raised the
question that prompted the title of this article - why do butterflies
have four wings ? Are the back ones just spares or for show only?
RSPB Christmas cards
It's not too early to start ordering your Christmas
cards. How about an Ophrys Photography squiggy in the snow card
this year ? The 120x120mm cards come packed with a wonderful fallow
deer from Duncan Shaw. Priced at a mere £3.99 for a pack
of ten - and 100% of the profit goes to charity - so get some
Click here for link to RSPB Christmas cards
Click the above image for more images of red squirrels.
July - Experiences with a Canon EOS
50D, another Canon 1Dmk III and black admirals.
Following the demise of my previous 1DmkIII, I am eagerly awaiting
its successor - the 1DmkIV or whatever it will be called. I am
really hoping that this camera will be a 1.3x crop camera, ten
frames per second motordrive with around 16Mp but with equivalent
noise performance to the D3 that I tested back in June. Add totally
bullet-proof AI servo autofocus tracking performance (to Nikon
D3 standards) and the latest super-quality rear screen as fitted
to the 5DmkII and 50D and I will be a very happy bunny ! I really,
really, hope it is not 21Mp with no better or worse noise performance
than before, plus the gimmicky video that I have no use for and
seems to be appearing on most new models these days.
In the meantime, I need a backup camera to support
my 1DsmkII, so I purchased a Canon 50D.
I don't know if I got a bad copy, but the 15Mp 50D was a disappointment
and was returned after one-day of use.So what went wrong ?
I took some macro images with flash as the sole light source
but they were not bitingly sharp, so I set too on the micro calibration
that this camera permits. I used my usual test chart at 45 degrees
mounted on a board. For those interested, it is Tim Jackson's
chart that you can download here.
The tests opened up a can of worms. First, if I looked through
the viewfinder and got the central AF square exactly on the focus
line, then took a picture, the image review showed the AF point
above the target line. This effectively made the micro calibration
very difficult to achieve.
Then there was a distinct magenta cast to the white paper background.
A quick search on Google showed that this has been a common issue
with the 50D apparently. There have been a couple of firmware
upgrades (which presumably were supposed to fix it) but it is
still obviously present despite my camera having the latest firmware.
This is admittedly not the end of the world, as a quick tweak
in the magenta/green slider in the RAW converter can correct it.
Finally, if I looked at the black test chart calibration lines
at 100%, one end of the line was magenta and the other end red
- or sometimes green! Not good. This was not chromatic aberration
- I was using the 100mm f2.8 macro at the time - and I have never
seen a whiff of CA in this excellent lens before.
Once I had calibrated the camera as best I could, I took some
more shots. I must admit that the colour casts did not seem obvious
in everyday use on real subjects. I was impressed with the fabulous
rear screen and the autofocus - it worked in very low light and
locked onto a couple of flying pigeons pretty well. Initial lock-on
was not as fast as a 1 series body of course, but it did seem
to track very well, although I did not do any serious testing
After calibration I returned to taking macro shots with flash-only
on a 100mm macro lens, and they weren't bad, but still seemed
a bit soft (even when focusing manually) and slightly lacking
in contrast (bite). I also took a few similar shots with my old
s/h 1DsmkII (similar megapixel count but full frame) and the quality
was distinctly better. I also found that the noise on the 1DsmkII
was at least a stop better at all iso's and the image looked less
"processed" - which they almost certainly are. The files
on the full frame camera are also more robust in that they take
firm sharpening better without breaking up into nasty artifacts
and permit harder cropping than the 50D crop camera. So - the
50D is history. I suspect that Canon have stuffed too many pixels
on the small sensor and despite the claimed technology advances
with gapless microlenses, the image quality is just not there
This left me with the dilemma as to what to do now as an
interim. The only solution I could think of was to get another
1DmkIII, but with the current weakness of the pound against the
yen, there has been a horrendous price increase, and the 1DmkIII
currently sells (at the time of writing ) at about £3000
compared to the £2300 I paid for my last one. The solution
came in the form of a Canon refurbished camera from Jacobs in
New Oxford Street. This is a post sub-mirror fix camera with the
latest firmware fitted and came from Canon as refurbished. It
had just 6000 activations (clicks) was in mint condition and a
few tests on vehicles in the street outside revealed that the
autofocus seemed OK .I paid £1999 and I think I got a bargain
- it's just like new.
AF Tests with the 1DmkIII
I was anxious to check out the AI servo focus capability
of my new 1DmkIII, so put a 70-200 f2.8 IS lens on it and set
to photographing a friend's car coming towards me at around 30mph.
I had previously tested the Nikon D3 like this and it had scored
100%. (see D3 test here Canon
To cut to the chase, the 1DmkIII managed an 88%
hit rate and 70% if you exclude slightly soft images - not bad,
but not as good as the Nikon D3. Although in the 1DmkIII's defence,
the silver Honda's speed (used in the D3 test) was probably closer
to 20mph rather than my requested 30 mph and the black Honda (used
in the1D mk III test) was doing a bit more than 30mph I suspect.
But - and it is a big but, the shots that the 1DmkIII did nail
were so much better than all the D3 shots - I was really surprised.
Finally I repeated test 1 (runner at aperture of f4). The Canon's
buffer filled at 45 images vs the D3's 39 so there were a few
more images to include in the calculations. The results were that
2 out of the 45 were out of focus (4.44%) and a further 3 were
soft (6.66%) or to put it another way, 89% of the images were
totally sharp. This compared with 97% sharp for the D3.
So the Canon 1D mk III AF appears to have improved a lot since
the early days, I can certainly live with a 90% hit rate when
the camera produces so many frames to choose from, but the Nikon
D3 still does have yet better tracking ability in my tests. The
D3 has very good image quality, but the Canons do appear to have
the edge here still.
White admirals and a black admiral
I have discovered a wood very close to my home which is excellent
for butterflies. There are white admirals, silver-washed fritillaries,
commas and purple hairstreaks - not bad for a ten minute drive.
The first problem in photographing them is how to get close and
for them to stay around long enough for a picture.
The first time I visited it was very hot and all the butterflies
were hyperactive, so I did not get a single shot. For attempt
two I did a dawn raid - arriving by about 6:45am. This was a bit
excessive as the sun had not had time to penetrate the wood and
I did not see a butterfly feeding until about 8:30am. The magic
time appeared to be from 8:45 to 10am. After this time they returned
to "hyper" mode.
So - here is a white admiral feeding on bramble.
But what is this ?????
A terrible picture as it perched too high and would not perform
for me, but this is
something really rare and special. It is a white admiral lacking
the white spots !
Here is it's underside - much more streaky than normal.
This is actually an aberrant form (aberration) of the white admiral
or black admiral if you prefer. I have wanted to see one of these
since I was a kid
This is what a white admiral should look like underneath...
Silver-washed fritillaries are a big handsome butterfly . This
is as close as I have
got to a flight shot!
There was even a silver-washed frit female var. Is this wood radioactive
or something ?
Comma looking like a dead leaf.
Notice the white "comma" mark on the hind wing ?
Commas like to probe for salts and minerals. I have found them
dining on dog poo
and in this case ... a dead crow.
A purple hairstreak resting on a leaf.
Finally, while I was waiting for the butterflies to get out of
bed, I amused myself trying to
get some flight shots of flies ! I was quite pleased with this
one - just about the ultimate
photo challenge I'd say !
News Update - 5th July
Not wishing to be defeated, I returned twice more to the wood
to see if I could track down the black admiral (ab.nigrina). On
my first visit I spotted the butterfly again and once more it
was incredibly elusive, sensing my presence and flying off before
I could get a shot. I did notice that it had a nick taken out
of its hind wing, either caused by a bramble thorn or a bird.
On my next visit, I was amazed to see what I thought was the nigrina
again, but when it settled briefly (in very poor light) I could
see that it had a little more white in evidence than nigrina and
had no nick in the wing. This was a different insect. Surely there
can't be two ? I grabbed a couple of quick shots before it was
off again. So not the world's greatest images once more, but a
decent record of another extraordinary aberration of the white
admiral. According to my reference book, this is Ab.obliterae.
A more respectable underside view..
An arty shot as it took off...
And another normal white admiral for comparison
June 2009 - Canon vs Nikon
My 500mm f4 lens has only just been repaired following it's nosedive
off of my tripod in April on my Scottish trip. I still have not
replaced my 1DmkIII camera which was attached
to the lens at the time and was damaged beyond economic repair
despite still looking fine externally.
I am currently using just the 1DsmkII and making do without a
backup camera. The main reason for my unusual slowness to replace
the 1DmkIII is what to buy ? There are mixed reports as to whether
the latest round of adjustments and firmware - on top of the previous
submirror fix have finally sorted the camera or not. I never got
to properly test the camera after it's return from Canon as my
little incident in Scotland (described in April's News) happened
too soon afterwards to permit this.
I'm sure that Canon want the 1DmkIII fixed to everyone's satisfaction
before releasing the camera's replacement (1DmkIV or whatever).
The replacement is rumoured, and the last thing I want to do is
buy another mk III and the mk IV be released just after. I suspect
that although the 1DmkIII is really still a darned good camera,
it will not exactly go down in history as being Canon's finest
hour. Secondhand values will be affected I'm sure. In the meantime,
I have read so many good things about the Nikon D3 and D700, that
I felt I ought to try one of them with a couple of good Nikon
lenses that I own the Canon equivalents of for comparison.
I decided to hire a Nikon D3 plus a 70-200 f2.8 VR and a 105mm
f2.8 macro from Jacobs in New Oxford Street and take my venture
into the dark side !
To read how I got on, please click here for my article : Full
frame shoot out - Canon 1DsII vs Nikon D3. Without giving
too much away the D3 has given me a lot to think about.
Catch me if you can ... Nikon D3 1/1600 f4 Iso 1600.
May 2009 - Orchid time again.
I have done very little orchid and butterfly-wise so far this year.
The wind has been particularly irritating and is killing any chance
of getting good macros in available light as the plants are not
holding still enough. Thanks to James Hunter I was pleased to find
a colony of early marsh orchids (D. incarnata ssp incarnata) growing
fairly locally. Nothing that unusual other than the fact that this
is the only colony that I am aware of in Kent. I managed to get
up early to avoid the worst of the wind and got a few shots of this
lovely delicate orchid.
April 2009 - Dippers, grouse, otters,
mountain hares and a Scottish disaster
I visited Scotland for a few days with my Photo
buddy, Andy Vidler. We started off in the area around Dufftown
- the malt whisky capital for three days (can't think why?) and
then we went on to the Isle of Mull, largely in search of otters.
On the first morning, Andy was up at the crack of dawn and reported
back at breakfast that he had found a pair of dippers building
a nest on a water treatment plant just 5 minutes walk from our
B&B. We spent a couple of fruitless hours in bag hides trying
to get some shots, but the birds were very wary and we left for
fear of disturbing them.
The weather alternated between warm and sunny and dark and rainy
throughout our trip. Murphy's law was alive and well - it seemed
that the good weather coincided with travelling days or when there
was nothing to photograph. Everything seemed to happen on this
trip on the rainy days in near zero light. It really is important
to have a camera that works well at high ISO in this country.
We concentrated on getting some nice red grouse portraits for
the rest of our stay in this area. I really like these birds -
they make a wonderful noise which is quite comical. The males
in April are in full mating plumage, which includes a bright red
wattle over the eye - rather like a chicken's comb in colour and
It is possible to shoot from the car or to even get out of the
car and stalk the birds on hands and knees until extreme closeups
such as these headshots are to be had :
On the third day of the trip, we visited Loch Garten
RSPB to see the Ospreys nesting. This site had been very fruitful
at our last visit (when the ospreys had gone) as it was much quieter,
and we got excellent opportunities to photograph red squirrel
by the hide and crested tits were to be found around the car park.
Unfortunately the hide is situated a huge distance from the osprey
nest and is hopeless for photography. This is a shot of an osprey
in a tree by the nest at 1000 mm. As it happened, this turned
out to be the last picture I ever took with my 1DmkIII (more below).
The RSPB camera provides a live video feed to the hide and an
RSPB warden gives a running commentary to the captive audience.
I felt that you might as well watch it on TV at home on Springwatch
- so we departed carrying our big lenses and cameras over our
shoulder in case there was a red squirrel on the path on our way
back to the car. This was when disaster struck!
One minute I was labouring under the weight of my
500mm f4 lens and 1DmkIII camera and the next moment, the tripod
went very light and there was a sickening crash behind me as the
precious equipment hit the floor. I hardly dared turn around to
see what had become of my gear. The sight of the 500mm lens with
the attachment collar snapped off and wires hanging out was not
a pretty sight.At first the camera appeared unscratched, but a
look through the viewfinder revealed that it had suffered internal
injuries and would require major surgery. The autofocus points
were misaligned over to the left, there were some strange scratches
on the focusing screen and the camera casing was very slightly
distorted. On returning home, the 1Dmk III, which had only recently
returned from Canon for the latest AF fix and firmware (and was
autofocusing like a bandit) has been declared a write-off by the
insurers. The lens has currently sustained £467 worth of
damage and will require this much repair to enable it to be mounted
again to further test it with the possibility of more repairs
if more problems come to light. Canon has had two huge price increases
this year, and to my dismay I discovered that the camera was under-insured
to the tune of £1000 (as they are now around £3100
new). Lesson learned - keep abreast of prices and be sure your
increase your insurance cover accordingly !
This all happened on day three of an eight day trip.
Good job I always take a spare camera body (1DsmkII) and a lens
(albeit a slower/shorter focal length 400mm f5.6 ). Although the
400mm f5.6 is a great lens, I missed the 500mm badly on the rest
of the trip. That extra 100mm of focal length makes a big difference.
I used the 400mm with an extender most of the time to compensate,
but it effectively became a very slow f8 lens with the 1.4x converter
fitted and my shutterspeeds were badly affected - critical in
the poor lighting conditions we experienced on many days.
After a stop at Loch Ruthven to see the beautiful
(but too distant to photograph !) Slavonian grebes, we moved on
to the Isle of Mull via the stunning road past Ben Nevis.
This was the view from the ferry across to Mull - note the foreboding
On our first afternoon and within minutes of landing on the island
we saw a great-northern diver in summer plumage. These are called
"Loons" in America. A stunning bird that I had only
seen in its drab winter plumage in the south of the country. At
Tobermory harbour where we dined most evenings, there was a large
white gull present amongst the common black-headed gulls. This
turned out to be an Iceland gull in first winter plumage - another
new species for me! We sacrificed some whisky mince pies to attract
the gull for some flight shots. Bread would have been cheaper
if we had had some !
Surprisingly, the next day was wonderfully sunny, and we spent
a lot of time searching for otters.We had great views, but very
little in the way of photo-opportunities with these shy creatures.
This is the best shot I got (no prizewinners this time I'm afraid):
Still, it was great to see them - and we did every day on Mull
- albeit distantly most times. Our very best views were of a dog
otter in Tobermory harbour, which allowed us to within 20 feet
to watch it munch up a couple of fish that someone appeared to
have left out for it on the steps beside a fish restaurant (appropriate).
It was dusk, there was no light for photography - we didn't have
our cameras anyway as we had just been for a meal ourselves -
but it was so wonderful to have such superb close views of a wild
otter. Definitely one of those magic moments.
On our second to last day on Mull we had arranged to do an organised
wildlife tour. Unfortunately it rained all day, so the opportunity
for seeing golden and white-tailed eagles was very limited. We
did see a white-tailed eagle on the nest in the mist through a
telescope though. I think that a trip to Scandinavia is necessary
to photograph this species well. The best photo-opportunity of
the day came in the surprising shape of mountain hares by the
coast at sea level.
It was still raining, so the combination of poor light and slow
lens ruled out any satisfactory action shots as the hares played
in the wet grass. I have to make do with some nice statics instead.
This is a new British mammal for me and one I was fascinated to
see. The hares are white in winter in the highlands, but as it
rarely snows on Mull apparently, they do not go totally white.
In summer they are just white below. They have much shorter ears
than the common (brown) hare, are smaller, and have a more rounded
rabbit-like head. When they walk or run they still have the unmistakable
gait of a hare.
Mull is a lovely island, and I would like to return to have another
go at the otters some time.
March 2009 - India and tigers.
I first visited India to see tigers in 2002. I had
an excellent trip and had some great sightings. I was shooting
video back in those days, so I have been wanting to get back there
and have another go at getting some good "stills". India
is an incredible country and few people could fail to be moved
by the extraordinary cultural differences, the seething mass and
noise of humanity in the cities and the superb wildlife on offer.
Despite the best efforts of a dedicated few, the
numbers of wild tigers has declined badly since my first visit
to India. Poaching is still a problem in most reserves, and tigers
are restricted to a few areas, where they quickly fill the territory
available.When new cubs mature and seek their own territory, they
are forced into buffer zones - and into close proximity to man,
where they are driven to attack cattle and in some cases, people
as their prey species become scarce.
We visited three reserves: Tadoba, Pench (famed
for the recent David Attenborough series of Tiger - Spy in the
Jungle) and Kanha. Our previous visit to Kanha and also Ranthambore
yielded tigers on virtually every jeep drive, but this time, things
were very different. In our two weeks, we never saw a tiger from
a jeep at Pench or Kanha, having to rely on a couple of elephant
rides to see sleeping tigers that the Mahoots at Kanha had found
by tracking them. Pench seemed very quiet and we were informed
that the areas where the BBC programme was filmed is off-limits
to tourists. Finding tigers was also hampered throughout our trip
by controlled burning of the forest edges. This is necessary to
reduce the risk of catastrophic fires and stimulates regeneration
of new young shoots and grass that the sambar and spotted deer
require .Unfortunately there is no co-ordination between the tourist
and forest management departments, so burning appeared to be going
on in some of the areas where some of the best recent tiger sightings
had been made.
The forest trackers have incredible skill at following
pug marks (footprints) and alarm calls of the spotted deer (Chital),
sambar deer and langur monkeys, plus they have incredible eyesight
- they manage to spot a highly camouflaged tiger walking through
dense undergrowth that anyone else would have driven straight
past.. There is still an awful lot of luck involved in seeing
tigers, it can become very frustrating bouncing around the very
dusty tracks for hours on end and not seeing anything, but then
getting back to camp and having to listen to the tales of the
wonderful sightings that others have had. I can't complain, I
had seven tiger sightings in two weeks - which is more than any
of the others in our party of sixteen, but I never did get to
have a prolonged photo-session with a tiger in good light as I
Tiger show - Khana
Jeep track - Tadoba
My best photo-opportunity came with a fantastic
male tiger at Tadoba, who was following a female that we had noticed
a few minutes before.The time was 6am and in the forest the light
levels were very poor at this time of the morning.
This is what our guide managed to spot in the bamboo
as we sped along in our jeep....
Spot the tiger......
Having found our tiger, we parked at the end of
a little path which lead through the undergrowth and we waited
for our boy to appear. In time, he started moving again and came
within ten feet of the back of our jeep. As we were blocking his
path, he seemed undecided as to what to do next, so he sat down
and just stared at us....
It is moments like this that make me do what I do.
To be so close to this fantastic, rare, beautiful, powerful, awesome,
secretive creature for those few brief moments is a very emotional
and almost spiritual experience. The park guide sitting next to
me must have thought the same, as he had his hands clamped together
in prayer and was chanting under his breath. I learned afterwards
that there had been a recent tiger attack on a jeep under similar
circumstances, but at no time did I feel threatened at the time.
The open jeep is just a few feet off the ground and there was
nothing between us and the big pussycat - but all I could think
of was - wow !
The tiger then stood up and doubled back on the
path and came out onto the jeep track behind us. I was able to
take some more shots, but was thwarted by the very low light levels.I
could only achieve around 1/20th sec shutterspeed at f5.6, 1600
ISO, so I later had to discard most of my shots for being soft.
The sitting male above was taken at 1/10th sec at 800 ISO and
is mercifully sharp thanks to the image stabilised lens and the
closed tripod that I was using as a monopod at the time.
The tiger headed back into the bamboo forest and
our guide correctly predicted that it would reappear at the end
of the track to cross a road in pursuit of the female. We parked
on the road and waited. Sure enough, he appeared again and crossed
the road while I fired off a sequence of shots with the big 500mm
lens mounted on the Canon 1Dmk III. The shutterspeed was still
low at 1/160 sec at 1600 ISO, but the little light that there
was had a nice feel to it. I love the colours in this shot and
it really shows the beast in it's natural environment.
When I had fired off some shots of the tiger crossing the road,
I grabbed a few action shots as it ran into the forest on the
other side of the road. I tried a couple of the increasingly trendy
"blurry/arty" shots at 1/30th and 1/40th sec as it ran.
The 1/30th sec shot was too diffuse, but I was really pleased
with the 1/40th sec shot...
To see more of my tiger shots, see this months Image
of the month and the Tiger
There was plenty of other wildlife to be seen on this trip, and
I shall be adding pictures to the galleries as I get around to
sorting them. Here are just a few to whet your appetite..
Young sambar deer in grasses at dawn
Male sambar in golden bamboo forest
Wild boar leaping up a bank
Rare sighting of a sloth bear
There were some good butterflies - like
this stunning Blue Mormon
The birds weren't too shabby either
- Changeable hawk eagle
Another Canon 1DmkIII/1DsmkIII fix, firmware
and a new AI servo manual
There has been an announcement from Canon regarding AF accuracy
in EOS-1D Mark III and EOS-1Ds Mark III cameras. "We have
learned that some EOS-1D Mark III and EOS-1Ds Mark III digital
SLR cameras have a problem in the accuracy of the AF (autofocusing)
feature.If an AF point other than the center AF point is used,
focus may become soft."
Canon are offering free AF accuracy checks and adjustments will
be provided to "affected products." However, there does
not appear to be a list of affected serial numbers like there
was with the sub-mirror fix recall. Owners are required to complete
a registration form and arrange for a service. After you have
submitted the form you should be contacted by a representative
of a Canon Service Centre within one week for a service appointment.
To access the form click
Although my 1DmkIII appears to work fine, I considered that it
prudent to return it regardless. My logic is that a) It might
focus even better after returning it as Canon may have discovered
something fundamentally wrong and are playing the issue down by
craftily not calling this a recall and b) I will have a piece
of paper from Canon to show that the Canon has serviced the camera
up to latest spec when I come to sell it. There is also a new
firmware update which will be installed during the service and
Canon have provided a new on-line
AI servo autofocus manual. Hopefully after all this action,
at last all mkIII Canon's should be able to autofocus as intended
My camera is going to Canon UK on Friday (collected by UPS at
Canon's expense I'm pleased to say) I will let you know how I
get on when it returns. It will be interesting to see if all the
autofocus micro-adjustments will need to be reset .
February 2009 - Hilary does it again
and Garden birds in snow
In previous News I have written about a talented painter who has
been using my images as inspiration for her paintings. The artist
is Hilary Mayes. Here are two hares that Hilary used as source
material for a wonderful new painting:
And this is the painting...
If you would like to see more of Hilary's paintings or order a
print, here is a link to her website:
Hilary Mayes paintings.
There are more of my photos of hares in the hare
This has apparently been the coldest winter for 18 years and we
have had some snow in the southeast of the UK where I live. This
is great news for the bird photographer as the cold weather makes
birds bolder and they will come to feeders that you put out for
them. What's more, I usually find that the snow brings in a few
new species. For me this year it has been redwings and fieldfares.
I often see them fly over but they never usually come down to
feed. I had just a few old apples left from last autumn and although
these looked pretty awful and smelled of cider, the birds still
seemed to love them. Blackbirds and starlings soon got stuck into
them and presumably gave the fieldfares and redwing the confidence
to join them. They are right to be wary, I watched a sparrowhawk
flash by a couple of times while I was photographing them .Shame
the hawk didn't hang around for a picture session.
Fieldfare on a snow-covered log .
Exposure details : 1/320 sec at f10, ISO 800 + 1.33 exposure compensation.
Canon 1DsmkII plus 500mm lens.
Redwing with rotting fruit - Nice colour co-ordination
between the old apple and the bird I thought.
Exposure details: 1/500sec f8 ISO 800 +1.33 exposure compensation.
Canon 1DsmkII plus 500mm lens.
Here are a few tips for getting
photos of winter birds in your garden:
Set up a feeding station and feed the birds regularly every day.
You will need to keep it up though as the birds will become dependant
on you .Rather than taking pictures on the feeders, put a nice
looking perch next to a feeder and the birds will hopefully land
on it on their way to the feeder.
Put out different kinds of food - peanuts or butcher's suet for
greater-spotted woodpeckers and tits, niger seeds for goldfinches
and mixed wild bird seed for greenfinches, sparrows etc. Don't
forget ground feeders - apples attract green woodpeckers, thrushes
Place the perch in a position with a good uncluttered
background. You can also stick a cutting from a bush or tree into
the ground - oak with copper-coloured leaves on it or an evergreen
such as scots pine can be good. Hide a feeder inside the bush
or adjacent to it and birds will probably use the upper branches
to perch on as they land. Taking some of your feeders down at
photo time will force the birds onto your baited perches.
Unless it is a sunny day, low winter light levels
will mean low shutter speeds and therefore blurry pictures if
you are not careful. So to overcome this, increase your camera's
ISO setting until you are getting about 1/500 sec minimum speed
to prevent subject motion blur. Use a tripod to eliminate camera
shake. To keep digital noise levels (grain) down at high ISO it
is important to expose to the right. There is a tutorial on this
technique here : Exposing to the
You will need to keep yourself concealed from the birds in order
to get close, so you will need to use a small hide. I recommended
an inexpensive portable hide in the December
In snow, your camera's meter will try to turn white snow into
a midtone grey, so remember to overexpose the camera's reading
with the exposure compensation dial. The amount you over-expose
will depend on how much snow there is in your image compared to
subject. A lot of snow will require more compensation than an
image where the subject is very large in the frame and there is
very little snow. Another factor is whether your subject is an
easy subject by equating to a midtone grey (e.g. a house sparrow)
or whether it will confuse the meter again by being predominantly
black (e.g. a crow) or white (e.g. a seagull). These are the things
to bear in mind, but getting the exposure right is actually pretty
simple with a digital SLR camera and particularly if you are shooting
RAW. Shooting RAW is far more forgiving of exposure errors than
If a subject suddenly appears unexpectedly in front of me against
snow I would quickly dial in + 11/3 of over-exposure in the evaluative
(matrix) metering mode. The correct exposure will be pretty close
to this and if you shoot RAW, you will be able to tweak the exposure
a little in the RAW converter and still get good results.With
a little more time, I would take a test image and then look at
the camera's histogram. If this is bunched to the left I would
add more positive exposure compensation, and if the histogram
is off the scale to the right I would take some compensation off.
If the light is constant, it is often good to change from AV (Aperture
priority) to Manual mode and set the pre-determined exposure into
the camera. Now wherever you point the camera, the exposure will
be correct regardless of background - be it white snow or dark
conifers. This technique is not so useful if the sun keeps coming
Don't give up in low light levels or if it starts to snow. You
can get some very atmospheric shots in falling snow. Here is a
grey squirrel that posed in a snow flurry - it will make a nice
Christmas card for next year !
Grey squirrel on snowy branch.
Exposure details: 1/500sec at f5, 400 iso, exposure compensation
+0.67 Canon 1Dmk III plus 500mm lens.
January 2009 - Waxwings
Firstly, let me wish you all a very happy and prosperous
new year - the latter bit may be a bit optimistic considering
the current financial climate, but here's hoping !
The weather forecasters are encouraging us to "wrap up warm"
so this is music to the bird photographer's ears as it means that
some good winter birds should be coming our way. How much nicer
to have crisp,cold weather with blue skies than the tedious grey
gloom that we are all too familiar with in the UK in winter.
There has been quite an influx of waxwings into
Britain over the Christmas period along with some of the nice
bright, crisp weather. Unfortunately I missed most of the action
due to the usual family commitments but did manage to spot my
own waxwing and a distant short-eared owl on the Isle of Sheppey
on a late afternoon foray. The light had all but gone, and all
I got was this record shot of the waxwing, but I was pleased regardless
as there is always something special about finding your own rarity.
Waxwings are another one of those birds like kingfishers and puffins,
that makes them everyone's favourite. It is possibly due to their
scarcity and exotic beauty, but also due to the fact that their
crest makes them quite comical and they often oblige onlookers
with very close views. "Berry-eating machines" is a
good description of them. Once they start, they seem to have infinite
capacity to eat berries. The inevitable consequence is that they
seem to produce what is left of a berry with similar frequency
from their other end !
On the 30th December I did a "twitch" to an industrial
estate at Folkestone where some other photographers had previously
got some really nice shots of waxwings. Unfortunately the birds
had stripped the bushes of berries and moved to a different location
opposite B&Q. It never ceases to amaze me how these birds
often seem to turn up in busy town centres in noisy, awful, locations.
Also I can't get over how fearless the birds often are - On this
occasion they were so consumed with eating berries that they totally
disregarded the fact that an artic lorry was being loaded with
much accompanying crashing and banging about 3 feet away from
the bushes that they were in!
The light was in completely the wrong direction for any shots
of the birds on the berries, so I had to make do with just one
shot of a bird that flew into a tree with a nice blue sky behind.
Oh well, better luck next time!
I suppose that as a consolation, the quality of the light on this
bright winter's day at noon is just beautiful in this picture-
not at all harsh and contrasty as it is in summer. I like the
nice warm glow on this one, even though the image itself is nothing
to get too excited about.
My best images of waxwings to date were taken in a cemetery in
Finland a couple of years ago.My main issue was avoiding tombstones
in the background! The birds were very approachable as usual and
they were feeding on some mouldy old apples left in the trees
from autumn. When we produced some nice fresh red berries which
had been stored in a freezer, this caused much excitement - the
birds tore into them like mannah from heaven - which in it's way,
to a waxwing, I suppose it was.