Creative springtime approaches

Greetings to all my new outlook followers. Welcome aboard!

Green starts to appear in Northern Ontario in early to mid-May, along with the blackflies! The first blush of green in the aspens is always a delight and I make sure to get out with the camera to some of my favourite locales.

Looking up in an aspen woodland. f22, 1/160 @ 35 mm

When the sun is bright and the skies are blue I resort to backlighting to take advantage of the translucent green glow in the emerging leaves. I prefer soft overcast with these first spring colours but I have to ‘go with the flow’ and make the best of what mother nature offers me.

Trying to be creative I usually drift toward some interpretive techniques, most of which are ‘in camera’. I hope to communicate the essence of spring with these approaches- delicacy, freshness, transience to name a few.

One technique I like is to look for emerging leaves in smaller trees near the camera. Positioning them between me and the lens I then (manually) focus on background subjects such as these birch tree trunks. With a telephoto lens and shallow depth of field I created this image (below), all in one shot, in the camera.

Birch woodland. In-camera selective focus. f/4 @ 86 mm

Another in-camera technique I like to occasionally use is multiple exposure. I choose six to ten frames and with a wide aperture I expose 5/6 or 9/10 with varying degrees of ‘de-focus’. I have to deselect autofocus and manually change focus, sometimes accompanied with a bit of zooming.

Aspens on a hillside. In-camera 6 frames. 240 mm.

Birch woodland. In-camera multiple exposure. 10 frames 155 mm f4 manual focus.

Birch woodland. In-camera multiple exposure. 10 frames 155 mm f4 manual focus.

Finally, with stands of tree trunks like these aspens I move the camera slowly up or down or up and down during a long exposure. I obtain longer exposure times using low ISO, small apertures and a polarizing or neutral density filter. This photo was made @200 mm and 3 seconds.

Aspen woodland. 3 seconds @ f20, ISO 31.

The advantage to employing these techniques is that the photographer can make interesting, unique images close to home.

Falkland Islands part 1: Stanley to Volunteer Point

 

Countryside with rainbow

In December Brenda and I joined Joe and MaryAnn McDonlad plus three other participants for a two week wildlife tour of some of the Falkland Islands hotspots. The Falklands is a bucket-list destination for birders and bird photographers. There are 5 species of penguins plus elephant seals, sea lions and many other song birds. Many of the animals display Galapagos-like fearlessness, allowing close approaches, when done with patience and care. It’s been said that one does not need big glass for the bird photography but I brought my 600 Nikkor and used it a lot. It was heavy to carry to some of the colonies but not unbearable and it allowed me to capture tight portraits and bring in the smaller songbirds when necessary. The flexibility and lighter weight of a 150-600 could be an alternative but I have not yet compared such a lens to the 600 for sharpness and contrast.

Residential details in the town of Stanley- painted building walls and fences

The tour began in Stanley with a day trip to Volunteer Point, site of the largest king penguin colony in the Falklands, followed by a day trip to the less visited Cape Bougainville for macaroni penguins, rockhopper penguins, sea lions and king cormorants. Since we were in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months the sun rose around 4:30 a.m. and set about 9:30 p.m. Late December brought long days and plenty of light.

King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) Adult feeding juvenile

The Falklands are very British, bleak and windswept, perhaps similar to the British moorlands. Sheep farming is the dominant industry but tourism is important too, along with other ventures. The terrain is treeless with occasional rock outcrops and the dominant grass is called white grass, whose colour tends to mask the summer greens, furthering the appearance of bleakness. But the terrain is undulating and dotted with small ponds and crossed by occasional streams. Our inter-island FIGAS flights gave us excellent views of the island landscapes.

King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus). The colony

Getting to Volunteer point requires driving 4WD Rovers over a mix of paved and gravel roads (mostly gravel) followed by 10 miles (15 km or so) of slow, careful off-road driving over some very uneven terrain at times, about 2 1/2 hours from Stanley. The anticipation of seeing our first penguins made the final off-road portion of the day-trip excruciatingly drawn out- “Over there? That far still?”

King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) The colony

We had about 4 hours with the animals at Volunteer Point but it was a very satisfying start. Joe and MaryAnn advised us to concentrate on the kings but how could you pass up the gentoos feeding their newborn chicks? Impossible.

Gentoo penguin (Psygoscelis papua) with newborn chicks

For a fuller portfolio of images please visit my 500px page and click on the Volunteer Point Gallery https://500px.com/don_johnston/galleries/falkland-island-part-1

King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) Marching to the sea

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.

Friday the Thirteenth

I suppose it is bad luck when the morning brings temperatures much lower than they should be for this time of the year. This morning I heard the news reader mention that the dreaded ‘Polar Vortex’ has returned. I took my iphone out on the deck this morning along with bird seed for some extremely fluffy chickadees, redpolls and pine grosbeaks. I stopped for a photo of our deck thermometer. It is the coldest morning of the year so far and January has come and gone.

The deck thermometer at sunrise 2015 02 13

The deck thermometer at sunrise 2015 02 13

But for me the photographic silver lining in this Friday the 13th cloud is the potential for some good window frost photos from the back window of the garage. We have an unheated garage and the back window looks out on an expanse of snow covering the lawn. My woodshed casts a blue shadow for the first hour or so of morning after sunrise. In addition there is a band of dark spruce trees behind the lawn so I have a choice of backgrounds ranging from pale blue to dark. Sure enough the frost feathers had formed. I remember Dennis Fast lamenting that he has lost the opportunity to photograph the buildup of window-frost that occurs on cold mornings now that he has a newly renovated sunroom with more modern air-tight windows.

Garage window frost feathers. Blue shadowed snow background.

Garage window frost feathers. Blue shadowed snow background.

Garage window frost feathers. Spruce woodland background.

Garage window frost feathers. Spruce woodland background.

Achieving sharp macro photos is one of the biggest technical challenges for this project. I have to improvise a support for the camera and lens in the optimum position for these photos. I need to support the camera during exposures on a rather unstable wooden workbench. I found that a beanbag on a milk crate, shimmed if necessary to prevent wobble, works better than trying to set the legs of my tripod on the workbench. The micro lens has very limited depth of field, even at f22, so to achieve sharpness everywhere in the frame I need to position the camera and lens so that its sensor is absolutely parallel to the window frost. I use extra boards under the milk crate to add or subtract height depending on where I need to frame the frost, choosing the nicest swirls against a blue or dark background. The backgrounds are so distant that at f22 they remains soft.

Garage window frost feathers. Sometimes a 2-3 frame focus stack is needed if sharpness varies from top to bottom.

Garage window frost feathers. Sometimes a 2-3 frame focus stack is needed if sharpness varies from top to bottom.

For my frost photography I use a 200mm micro Nikkor with or without a close-up diopter (for extra magnification) that can be attached in front of the lens. The D800 produces such large files that any one can be judiciously cropped if necessary and still produce a Tif of adequate size. I always shoot RAW with a manual exposure of about 0 to +1 depending on the background. I prefer manual White Balance that I can adjust afterwards too. I use my hand to dampen the camera into the bean bag. I use Mirror lockup and a cable release to further ensure sharp results. After each exposure I check the histogram and zoom to 100% on review to assess sharpness (there is a menu setting that activates a button for this action).

Working inside the garage keeps me out of the wind but it is still very cold so I need to dress warmly and use gloves to handle the camera. I like the Freehands photography gloves with flip-back fingertips (held back with neat magnetic buttons). Once I finish I wrap the camera in a big plastic bag and let it warm up inside the house. In a few hours the beautiful frost feathers will sublimate off the window.

Interior window frost with rising sun @ -40

Interior window frost with rising sun @ -40C

Interior window frost with rising sun @ -40

Interior window frost with rising sun @ -40C

On and off the deck

 

Male ruby-throated hummingbird perched on a branch on the deck, near the nectar feeder

A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches on a branch on our deck, near the nectar feeder

 

Brenda and I are about to hit the road again and I thought I had better get in a blog post before leaving for the Northwest Territories and Vancouver Island. We usually stay home for the summer, preferring to avoid the crowds, traffic and higher prices.

 

A male goldfinch forages among the goldenrods behind our lawn

A male goldfinch forages among the goldenrods behind our lawn

Brenda enjoys her gardening and we tend a vegetable garden and milkweed patch that was finally visited by monarchs. It has been a cool summer thus far, perhaps following upon the very cold winter and its lingering effects. Blueberries were late this year but the crop was quite good in places. Nonetheless birds, small and large mammals, insects, snakes and spiders continue their seasonal rituals around our property.

 

Geranium flowers in a basket after a morning rain

Geranium flowers in a basket after a morning rain

During the summer I stay close to home with the camera too. Not surprisingly, if I am ready and the equipment is at hand there are photo opportunities awaiting in Brenda’s gardens, on the lawn and on the deck.

 

A moth rests on red flower petals, chilled by raindrops

A moth rests on red flower petals, chilled by raindrops

Here is a collection of examples from the last couple of months. Please enjoy!

This red squirrel has mastered traversing the clothesline to venture out to a hanging seed feeder

This red squirrel has mastered the art of  traversing the clothesline to venture out to a hanging seed feeder

On the way out to the seed feeder

It swiftly moves out to the seed feeder

Sheep laurel and birch near a blueberry patch behind the shed

Sheep laurel and birch near a blueberry patch behind the shed

Raindrops on fern fronds at the edge of the lawn

Raindrops on fern fronds at the edge of the lawn

Swallowtail butterflies visit a patch of hawkweed I leave un-mowed on the lawn

Swallowtail butterflies visit a patch of hawkweed I leave un-mowed on the lawn

Butterflies are attracted to Brenda's flowers too

Butterflies are attracted to Brenda’s flowers too

A patch of summer flowers with camera movement during the exposure

A patch of summer flowers photographed with camera movement during the exposure

After a bear left a 'calling card' on our lawn the chipmunk moved in and scavenged the seeds in the flop

After a bear left its ‘calling card’ on our lawn this chipmunk moved in and scavenged the seeds in the flop

Dip Snack!

Brenda and I are foreigners when it comes to wildlife encounters in the deep south. We’re used to blackflies and black bears but not cactus and venomous snakes. I suppose common sense should work well- stay on the path and stay alert, but inexperience can lead to potential trouble. While our main objective in South Texas was bird photography I did hope to supplement my species list with non avian subjects like tarantula, horned lizard, scorpion and/or rattlesnake, so long as things were done safely.

A tarantula photographed under controlled conditions at Hardy Jackson's ranch

A tarantula photographed under controlled conditions at Hardy Jackson’s ranch

It was our fourth day of Sue Jarrett’s South Texas Birding Safari in Steve Bentsen and Hardy Jackson’s bird blinds. Steve is the guide and owner of Dos Venadas ranch and Hardy along with his mom Nora Nell run the Campos Viejos ranch. Both these ranches are beautifully set up for photographing birds and other critters that might visit their ponds. It was late in the day at Dos Venadas when we decided to start packing equipment to meet Steve in his ATV for the ride back to our vehicle. About an hour earlier we listened to green jays and other birds- at least five species- causing a raucous commotion in the tree beside our blind. I guessed they were annoyed at the presence of a potential predator such as a snake or an owl, but we could see nothing in the tree.

Bathing cardinals are highlights of the South Texas bird photography tours.

Bathing cardinals are highlights of the South Texas bird photography tours.

We did not look under the tree. Coiled under the tree beside the path out was an enormous diamondback rattlesnake. I was within a metre and about to walk right by her when I caught the movement of the snake pulling her head back. I froze. I gingerly stepped back and informed Brenda behind me what I had encountered. To my horror she approached me, flicking her tongue. Then she retreated to the coiled position. Once I felt out of danger I whipped out my iPhone to send a text message to Steve. After all there appeared to be a photo opportunity developing.

The snake alerted me to her presence near the path by pulling back her head

The snake alerted me to her presence near the path by pulling back her head

My text to Steve was intended to inform him of the coiled diamondback. In the excitement of the encounter I did not pay attention to the body of my text message before pressing Send. I thought I had typed “Big diamondback near the path by the hose. Coiled”

In his reply Steve queried “Dip Snack?”. Time for a head slap. The smart phone’s Auto Correct feature had changed ‘Diamondback’ to ‘Dip Snack’. Steve was wondering what I meant by a coiled dip snack. “Diamondback” I replied, this time making sure the iPhone did not override my spelling. “OK. Coming” he replied.

Steve (a practicing veternarian and experienced photographer/naturalist) figured the snake was female, one of the biggest that he has encountered. She was too large to handle with his snake tongs. Fortunately she was fairly docile and came back to the edge of the path so the rest of the participants could get some pictures in the fading light. She never displayed any aggression or tail rattling. Probably this was one of her regular ambush locales for nabbing unwary prey coming down the path to the small pond near the blind.

The snake crawled back to this position and the other tour photographers got some shots.

The snake crawled back to this position and the other tour photographers got some shots.

After all, we were warned by the birds.

A late-emerging Monarch

As a follow-up to my last post I’d like to announce the successful emergence of the cucumber patch monarch. This is the chrysalis yesterday. The adult butterfly can be clearly seen through the now-transparent chrysalis.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) Chrysalis

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) Chrysalis

 

Later that afternoon I saw that the adult had successfully emerged and was clinging to the empty chrysalis. It rained yesterday, but the cucumber leaves provided protection for the butterfly.

Canadian Insects (Ontario)

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) Emerged adult clinging to empty chrysalis.

Last night turned very cold and windy. Once the wind subsided it was cold enough for frost to paint our garage roof white. Surprisingly, the cucumbers and beans survived the night, as did the monarch. This afternoon it flew off, hopefully to begin its North American migration.

Canadian Insects (Ontario)

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) Adult awaiting first flight

All photos were made with Nikon D800 and 200mm micro lens.