Backyard Animals- Summer 2017

In the spirit of celebrating photography done close to home I offer a small selection of animal subjects photographed in and around our backyard this summer and early fall. Producing quality images from such close proximity to the house does depend on a number of factors, many of which can be controlled by the photographer.

Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) Eating a wild blueberry. I placed a piece of old log on my deck rail and offered a few blueberries.

I always have my cameras ready and easily accessible when we notice a photo opportunity. Battery charged, memory card formatted, lens attached, tripod ready for action. These encounters are often fleeting.

Horned clubtail dragonfly (Arigomphus cornutus) Female preying on another dragonfly. After noticing the subject I grabbed my 200 micro on a tripod and approached slowly. I had about 10 minutes.

It’s important to provide habitat for local critters. Things like feeders (when bears are not around), butterfly gardens, trees and shrubs for cover are important. Also important is good local knowledge of animals and their habits. Having a solid naturalist background gives the nature/wildlife photographer an advantage.

Red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) Foraging in spring maple tree

Large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) Mating pair on a milkweed leaf. The milkweed patch is a hive of ecological activity.

I sometimes create natural perches or settings for animals like chipmunks and frogs. Some natural treats like blueberries help coax them to the preferred spot.

Wood frog (Lithobates sylvaticus or Rana sylvatica). Sitting in some dried leaves I collected.

Most important is having great spotters like my wife Brenda. She noticed the sharp-shinned hawk flying into the tree with its prey. My son Matthew spotted the very well camouflaged wood frog near our garden.

Sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) Eating a songbird it had captured.

And of course, luck plays an important role. While I was waiting for the chipmunk to climb up to the log for some blueberries I noticed a deer fawn approaching the back yard from the bush behind. It stayed out on our lawn, eating some grass and bouncing around for a good half hour before it wandered off.

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Curious fawn visiting our rural backyard.

While trying to photograph chickadees eating pine seeds (again spotted by Brenda!) I noticed a pair of ruffed grouse eyeing each other in the margins of our driveway. They worked their way down towards me, oblivious to my presence.

Black capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) Foraging for seeds in red pine tree cones

Red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) Foraging for pine cones in a red pine

Ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) Two individuals confronting one another in early autumn.

Bad Light- There is no such thing

Jay Maisel, in his book Light, Gesture and Color, presents many compelling images made in ‘Bad Light’. Mr. Maisel’s contention is that there is no bad light in photography, only vision and opportunity.

Nature and landscape photographers usually do not care for high, hard, midday light although there are always backlighting opportunities and blue skies. This is especially true in the forest where the combination of trees and light present huge ranges in tonal contrast, that at times overwhelms the sophisticated modern DSLR sensor.

Autumn foliage on Vancouver Island, Sooke, BC- straight shot

Such was the case for this picture (above). While touring on  Vancouver Island I stopped for the backlit red and green foliage and used a polarizer to try and tone down some of the highlights glinting off the leaves. In post processing I was able to tone down highlights and reveal some detail in the shadows but the straight image is still very contrasty and pedestrian.

Thinking ahead I decided to make duplicate images partially and completely out of focus. I thought I could combine each one later with the ‘straight shot’. This is a digital version of the Orton effect, pioneered in the slide film days by Vancouver Island photographer Michael Orton.

Autumn foliage on Vancouver Island, Sooke, BC- Combination-1

Autumn foliage on Vancouver Island, Sooke, BC- defocused-1

This can be done in camera too, certainly with Nikon DSLRs, but the drag and drop approach for two images is very easy to accomplish in Photoshop. Once combined, I adjusted the opacity slider in the layers window to reveal about 50% of the focused image. I think the results are keepers! What do you think?

Autumn foliage on Vancouver Island, Sooke, BC- Combination-2

Autumn foliage on Vancouver Island, Sooke, BC- defocused-2

Street Photography with a Tripod

I’m a bit out of my element in an urban environment but as generalist photographer I do not shy away from such settings if I have the opportunity. Such was the case when I joined two friends for a street photography workshop in Central Havana with Dan Callis.

Malecón (officially Avenida de Maceo) Seawall with fishermen silhouetted against the Vedado neighbourhood. 1/15@f20

Malecón (officially Avenida de Maceo) Seawall with fishermen silhouetted against the Vedado neighbourhood. 1/15@f20

Street photogrphy in central Havana- Calle Escobar with dawn streetlights

Street photography in Central Havana- Calle Escobar with dawn streetlights. ½ s@f5 ISO 1600

Iglesia San Francisco de Paul - Stained glass interior

Iglesia San Francisco de Paul – Stained glass interior 1/30@f16 ISO 200

Street photogrphy in central Havana-

As morning progressed, doors opened to building interiors. 1 s@f16 ISO 400.

I was the only one in the group who used a tripod for the majority of the work that week but I thought I was able to acquire unique images that would not be easy or possible if I was handholding the camera. Certainly with image stabilization and better quality at higher ISOs handholding has become more the norm.

Street photogrphy in Old Havana- reflections in a water puddle

Street photography in Old Havana- reflections in a water puddle. 1/80@f18 ISO 400

Street photogrphy in central Havana- Painted wall detail

Painted wall detail 1/4s@f16 ISO 125

While having the camera mounted to my tripod (Gitzo carbon fiber) added some weight, reduced mobility when working a subject and made me more conspicuous in the street I still felt it was the right approach for me. I carried accessories and lenses in my trusty photo vest and felt pretty comfortable for the week in the streets of Havana. It was a fantastic experience, full of colour, atmosphere and friendly people.

Bicycle taxi and colourful building, panning with camera. ½ s@f16 ISO 100

Bicycle taxi and colourful building, panning with camera. ½ s@f16 ISO 100

Here are some of the advantages to using a tripod in the streets:

  1. Once I picked my spot for composition I could ‘fade into’ the background and wait for situations to develop. That could be as simple as waiting for someone to walk into the composition or wait for distracting elements like people or vehicles to move on. While I was initially conspicuous the local people quickly ignored my presence and I could photograph the scene using a cable release so I would remain inconspicuous.
  2. By precisely framing the composition I could make more than one exposure as people moved if I thought it would be better to be able to clone them out in a composite image.
  3. I was able to work at lower ISOs and at longer exposures, in the shadows, in interiors, at night and early morning.
  4. I could set up my composition and wait for peak moments of activity.
A lady peeking through a curtain and security fence. 0.6 s@f11 ISO 800

A lady peeking through a curtain and security fence. 0.6 s@f11 ISO 800

Trained dog on the Obispo promenade with passersby. 1.6 s@f22 ISO 100.

Trained dog on the Obispo promenade with passersby. 1.6 s@f22 ISO 100.

I waited for passersby with umbrellas to walk through this scene. 1/10 s@f16 ISO 800

I waited for passersby with umbrellas to walk through this scene. 1/10 s@f16 ISO 800

Revolutionary wall art with blurred pedestrian. 1/13 s@f18 ISO 640

Revolutionary wall art with blurred pedestrian. 1/13 s@f18 ISO 640

Wall mural on Calle Neptuno with pedestrians cloned out (composite of 3 exposures)

Wall mural on Calle Neptuno with pedestrians cloned out (composite of 2 exposures)

Maybe I missed some spontaneous shots but I think I got photos that fit my style that otherwise would not have been able to capture hand-held. The tripod is not just a useful tool for obtaining sharp images, it is also a useful compositional tool.

Straight Shots

Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) growing at the edge of small river, with sunlit highlights from the river water.

Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) growing at the edge of small river, with sunlit highlights from the river water.

I love making abstract, interpretive, impressionistic images with my camera. It’s satisfying to be able to create these types of  images, straight out of the camera. They are less documentary and in some cases inspire ‘what is it?’ comments. These images emphasize colour, texture, shape and line. They convey feelings of delicacy, fragility, lightness and euphoria or spirituality. It is possible to achieve these types of images without the use of image altering computer software. All it takes is careful observation and imagination along with a good knowledge of how the camera captures images.

Here are some recent images that illustrate some techniques I like to employ. I include some tips and advice to help you produce your own interpretive images, straight from your camera.

  1. Shallow depth of field- I begin by setting the lens to f4 or so (wider aperture) with the intention of selectively focusing on my subject. I scout the composition  while handholding the camera to give freedom of movement and then when I find the angle and focus point I desire I mount the camera back on a tripod for a more careful composition. This is often called ‘selective focus’ because something will be in focus while much of the subject will be rendered as out of focus colourful blobs.
Birch trees in spring. Selective focus. f 5.6 210 mm

Birch trees in spring. Selective focus. f 5.6 210 mm

One subject I tried this spring was a birch woodland with emerging (backlit) leaves in birch saplings nearer the camera. I was fortunate to finally notice an excellent example below me as I stood on a hillside rock outcrop. My original intention was to climb the hill and photograph emerging foliage in distant trees on a hillside. I still photographed that hillside but I spent most of my time on the hill photographing the birch tree trunks and fresh new leaves.

Birch trees in spring. Selective focus. f 5.6 320 mm

Birch trees in spring. Selective focus. f 5.6 320 mm

This technique also works well for flowers especially with the camera set low to the ground and a focus point set on more distant blossoms. You can even try it with super telephoto lenses!

Texas wildflowers, telephoto lens, selective focus 300 mm @ f7.1

Texas wildflowers, telephoto lens, selective focus 300 mm @ f7.1

Texas wildflowers, 80-400 @ 280 mm f8.

Texas wildflowers, 80-400 @ 280 mm f8.

  1. Macro lens painting- This is a technique I tried after reading a posting from US photographer and photography educator Janice Sullivan. The technique employs long exposures (5 seconds or so), the camera hand-held on colourful subjects such as garden flowers. I started the exposure on a blossom and then pointed the camera at nearby colourful displays, all in the same exposure.
Macro lens painting in a flower garden. 5 seconds @ f18, 105 mm

Macro lens painting in a flower garden. 5 seconds @ f18, 105 mm

Macro lens painting in a flower garden. 5 seconds @ f18, 105 mm

Macro lens painting in a flower garden. 5 seconds @ f18, 105 mm

  1. Camera movement/panning- This is a tried and true technique for creating impressionistic images of subjects like woodlands. I use it extensively in spring and fall. For the images below I moved the camera up and down during a lengthy (5 second or so) exposure while I was photographing a pine woodland in fog. The vertical lines certainly suggest I should use a vertical composition but I often do this horizontally to include more Vertical lines- tree trunks. Telephotos work best but I have tried this technique with wide-angle lenses too with interesting perspective results.
Red pine woodland in morning fog- camera movement, 5 seconds, f20, 125 mm

Red pine woodland in morning fog- camera movement, 125 mm, 5 seconds @ f20

 

Red pine tree trunks in morning fog- camera movement, 3 seconds, f20, 34 mm

Red pine tree trunks in morning fog- camera movement, 34 mm, 3 seconds @ f20

  1. Natural distortions- I often like to photograph the reflective surfaces of lakes and ponds, in spring, summer and fall, concentrating on the gentle distortions of the reflected shoreline features created by the water. In the examples below however, I was stuck in my car, waiting out a thunderstorm. I left the wipers off and decided to photograph the distorted autumn woodland through the rain-soaked windshield. I hand-held and used my 105 mm macro. Focusing on either the subject or the windshield yielded different results and these can be evaluated immediately by reviewing images in the camera monitor. That’s the beauty of digital photography- being able to see the results in real time so adjustments or refinements can be made!
  2. White birch tree woodland in autumn colour at Lake Laurentian Conservation area as seen through a rain-soaked windshield. 105 mm lens f 3.5

    White birch tree woodland in autumn colour at Lake Laurentian Conservation area as seen through a rain-soaked windshield. 105 mm lens f 3.5

     

    White birch tree woodland in autumn colour at Lake Laurentian Conservation area as seen through a rain-soaked windshield. 105 mm lens f 3.5

    White birch tree woodland in autumn colour at Lake Laurentian Conservation area as seen through a rain-soaked windshield. 105 mm lens f 3.5

     

Utah’s ‘Big Five’ in Winter

Fountains of Bellagio with the Paris Hotel and Eiffel Tower, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

Fountains of Bellagio with the Paris Hotel and Eiffel Tower, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

For the second time in three years Brenda and I travelled to Las Vegas to watch international curling- the Continental Cup of Curling that pits 6 North American teams against 6 World teams over the course of 4 days. It’s similar to a Ryder Cup/President’s Cup (golf) in this case featuring Olympic level teams at the Orleans Arena.

Mesa Arch in winter, with morning fog, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA

Mesa Arch in winter, with morning fog, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA

Snowy landscape at Green River overlook, Canyonlands Nationa Park, Utah, USA

Snowy landscape at Green River overlook, Canyonlands Nationa Park, Utah, USA

Driving that far, I decided to combine the Vegas visit with some winter photography in State and National Parks nearby. There are 5 famous National Parks in the state of Utah. We towed our trailer with the intention of camping in parks like Zion and Capitol Reef which keep campgrpunds open during the winter. I was under no illusion that it could be cold and snowy and this year’s El Nino seemed to ensure that notion by amplifying winter in that part of the continent. Ontario, on the other hand, was experiencing a mild winter- the first first brown Christmas I have experienced in a long time, but the west seemed to be getting its share of snow and cold temperatures.

Balanced Rock with fresh snow, Arches National Park, Utah, USA

Balanced Rock with fresh snow, Arches National Park, Utah, USA

Turret Arch, Arches National Park, Utah, USA

Turret Arch, Arches National Park, Utah, USA

As a photographer I was looking forward to seeing the fabled red rock canyonlands of Utah with snow and winter conditions. After all, it is a high desert, with little precipitation and the region has been photographed extensivley over the years during the more tourist friendly seasons, so I was hoping for some unique images. It was our first visit in twenty five years (!) and I was not disappointed. Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce, Zion and Capitol Reef were blanketed with fresh or recent snowfalls. Some of the trails and viewpoints were icy and slippery but a pair of slip on ice grips made the footing safer.

Hoodoos and winter snow from Inspiration Point at dawn, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA

Hoodoos and winter snow from Inspiration Point at dawn, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA

Hoodoos with winter snow and ice fog at dawn, from Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA

Hoodoos with winter snow and ice fog at dawn, from Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA

The snow and cold temperatures drove us into motels at times especially at Bryce Canyon when one of California’s winter storms moved east and dumped about 40 cm of fresh snow, driven by a howling wind. At its peak the weather resembled the worst of what we can get in January in Northern Ontario. But the roads are well maintained in Utah. The only exception was the main park road in Bryce, closed temporaily past the first couple of viewpoints. The park service did an excellent job under the prevailing conditions, maintaining the road in to Sunset Point and even snow-blowing the viewpoint paths.

Alpenglow in Zion Canyon-Towers of the Virgin, Zion National Park, Utah, USA

Alpenglow in Zion Canyon-Towers of the Virgin, Zion National Park, Utah, USA

Ice formations along the Pine River with Zion Canyon wall reflections in open water, Zion National Park, Utah, USA

Ice formations along the Pine River with Zion Canyon alpenglow reflections in open water, Zion National Park, Utah, USA

The Big 5 National Parks of Utah were not our only ports of call. For more images of the parks and other locales in the Grand Staircase please visit these galleries on my 500px site. https://500px.com/don_johnston/galleries/utah-s-big-five-in-winter and https://500px.com/don_johnston/galleries/red-rock-country-winter-2016.

Snow dusted canyon walls in the Capitol Gorge, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, USA

Snow dusted canyon walls in the Capitol Gorge, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, USA

Recent snow in the high desert featuring Twin Rocks, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, USA

Recent snow in the high desert featuring Twin Rocks, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, USA

 

Thanks for reading! Please share with others.

Revisiting a subject and locale

Happy New Year dear readers. All the best in 2016.

Trapped leaves and grasses in an ice-covered puddle

Trapped leaves and grasses in an ice-covered puddle

At this time of the year it is customary for many to conduct year-end reviews, whether they be sports stories, news stories, movies or books but for me I’m going to finish 2015 by exploring my Close to Home theme from the standpoint of revisiting a favourite location and subject, in this case one that I have neglected for several years.

Ice coated grasses on the banks of a small stream

Ice coated grasses on the banks of a small stream

Flowing water and ice formations

Flowing water and ice formations

It’s important to stay fresh, to keep exploring new dimensions in nature photography. Returning to the same subjects time and again puts one at risk of being labelled repetitive and not willing to take chances by exploring new approaches and subjects. There’s a risk of becoming stale and staying safe with tried and true. A risk of becoming boring and bored. As Freeman Patterson puts it “Inspiration begins with work” Can an old subject still be inspiring?

Trapped leaves and grasses in an ice-covered puddle

Trapped leaves and grasses in an ice-covered puddle. I noticed this as I walked toward my second stream.

Nothing stays the same in nature and my approach to nature photography continues to evolve too. That is the beauty of nature photography. Changing seasons, ecosystems, climatic patterns together with the photographer’s evolving vision and technique make for an unending photographic potential. My earlier images of these places were created largely from slide film so I did not have the luxury at that time to change the look of an image simply by changing my ISO and therefore the shutter speed for the exposure. Sometimes a longer exposure time works best, sometimes short exposure times produce more pleasing results. And the instant feedback from the review screen allows me to decide what is working best or go in a different direction.

Trapped grasses in an ice-covered puddle

Trapped grasses in an ice-covered puddle. Before I photographed the second stream and its tiny waterfall I photographed this large puddle with trapped grasses.

In this El Nino year I decided to revisit a couple of nearby locales because I thought the conditions would be roughly similar to what made them great years ago: below freezing temperatures, no snow and plenty of runoff from recent rain. Usually I visited these locales in late autumn, not so close to Christmas as I did this year, for streamside ice and flowing water photography. I forced myself away from the computer and drove along Gibson Road toward two small streams. I was not disappointed. The flowing cold water and cold air created numerous beautiful and intricate ice formations along these streams. Along the way I noticed a scenic on the rocks that caused me to pull over but I quickly became attracted to patterns in a roadside puddle where I then spent most of my time exploring the ice patterns with a macro lens (lead image).

Ice coated grasses around a small waterfall

Ice coated grasses around a small waterfall

Later I visited another small runoff stream on Jarvi Road, one that I have photographed off and on recently, but more in springtime when the moss is green. The small birch twig trapped in the ice was not there before. The moss was duller at this time of the year but there was so much water and the ice formations were exquisite.

Ice coated grasses and flowing water

Ice coated grasses and flowing water

Ice build-up around a birch tree branch

Ice build-up around a birch tree branch. New this year.

 

Rainy Day Photography- 2

In another life I taught High School Science. Biology was my specialty. One of the topics I presented was ‘water- it’s special properties’ something that all Biology students need to understand in order to study Biology at any level of Biology, be it biochemical or ecological.

Raindrops collect on the waxy surface of a fallen leaf

Raindrops collect on the waxy surface of a fallen leaf

Safe to say this was not the most exciting topic for biology students, especially at the start of the semester but I endeavoured to make it as interesting and applicable as possible using some simple but very cool demonstrations that always captured student interest and helped make them appreciate the topic.

Raindrops cling to a garden flower stem.

Raindrops cling to a garden flower stem.

Water molecules are peculiar and one can demonstrate their fascinating nature by observing the behaviour of water drops. I sprinkled some water on a sheet of wax paper placed on an overhead projector. With a toothpick I towed water drops around on the slippery surface and the students could watch them merge when they got close together- always retaining their round shapes. Terms like hydrophobic and hydrophilic could be introduced. In another demonstration (which needs low humidity btw!) I combed my hair to put an electrostatic charge on the comb and then used it to attract a thin stream of water from the faucet.

Interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana) fronds with raindrops

Interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana) fronds with raindrops

Canada blue joint, Calamagrostis canadensis. Raindrops on leaves

Canada blue joint, Calamagrostis canadensis. Raindrops bead up on the waxy leaves

Living things take advantage of these peculiar properties in many ways and it was then my task to try and make those connections over the course of the semester.

Yellowing garden iris leaves and raindrops in autumn

Yellowing garden iris leaves and raindrops in autumn

These days I am a photographer, but still fascinated by water drops clinging to stalks of grass, glistening on spider silk or beading up on the waxy surfaces of leaves. To photograph these phenomena I need a macro lens, tripod, calm conditions and preferably soft overcast light, but backlighting could work occasionally too. Shallow depths of field and careful framing are important factors to achieving success. Keywords such as ’round’, ‘fresh’, ‘delicate’, ‘reflections’, come to mind when photographing. I like soft backgrounds achieved by using shallow depths of field. Keeping the raindrops in focus requires careful camera position, parallel to the main plane of the drops or sometimes I use Helicon focus stacking techniques to merge different areas of sharpness.

Raindrops clinging to strands of hairgrass in late summer

Raindrops clinging to strands of hairgrass in late summer

Raindrops on grass spider web with red blueberry leaf

Raindrops on grass spider web with red blueberry leaf

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) Autumn leaves with raindrops

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) Autumn leaves with raindrops

After a light rain I hope for calm conditions and then venture out. Normally I do not need to go far.

Brenda and I will be away for over a month, exploring the Northwest Territories to Wood Buffalo NP and up to Yellowknife, with another tour in to Arctic Haven Lodge in Nunavut included. I won’t be blogging until after I return but until then good shooting!