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

Spring is Here

I live in Northern Ontario so even though Spring officially arrives around March 20 I know from experience that March is a winter month. A few years back our Science Centre had a spring equinox party- greet the sunrise and celebrate- except that is was -30℃ that morning. Last year was unusually warm and we were spoiled. After enduring a long and seemingly arduous winter (but fairly normal stats-wise, according to Environment Canada) we were longing for warmer days and no snow as March ended.

 

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A varying hare one day before the first day of spring

A varying hare one day before the first day of spring

I’m always on the lookout for photo opportunities, especially during unusual weather. Some recent personal encounters with nature and my resultant photos could be ‘blamed’ on the quirkiness of a slow spring.

For the first time our maple tree dripped sap and it froze to become an icicle on the tree branches. In other years I have observed chickadees, sapsuckers and squirrels sipping at the drips, but this year things were different. The extremely cold overnight and early morning temperatures froze the dripping sap. I observed chickadees hovering below the dripping ‘sap-sicle’, trying to get a drink. I set up the tripod and long lens and attempted to photograph the action. Out of about 600 frames I captured 3 or 4 like this one. I was frustrated by extremely brief, sporadic encounters, but the keepers were very satisfying.

Chickadee sipping from maple 'sap-sicle'

Chickadee sipping from maple ‘sap-sicle’

I have never had much luck photographing varying hares (snow bunnies) in their white winter fur coats. They are active mostly at night and tend to hide under trees during daylight. These rabbits do become more visible and approachable in early spring. This year I had very approachable hare around the advent of the equinox but with all the snow yet to melt and more coming down, I was fortunate to finally capture some decent white rabbit pictures.

The Easter Bunny, posing near the house.

The Easter Bunny, posing near the house.

Finally with only remnant patches of snow, receding ice in the lakes and ponds and returning birds, I ventured out one early morning to a nearby beaverpond. Because the temperature was well below 0℃ there was abundant frost even though geese were calling and ducks were flying into the pond. When frost is backlit, at a certain angle, it refracts into frozen rainbows of colour. I decided to use a long lens with its shallow depth of field to throw these circles of colour in the background into out-of-focus blobs of colour, turning a rather mundane scene into a late winter-early spring wonderland.

A marsh rush with frost and rainbow refractions in the background

A marsh rush with frost and rainbow refractions in the background

Bosque not always for the Birds

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico is the winter home for thousands of waders and waterfowl. The visitor center boasts the bird counts and the snow geese, sandhill cranes and ducks number in the tens of thousands. It is a magnificent spectacle, drawing nearly as many birders and bird photographers (slight exaggeration). The bird photographer needs to arrive an hour or so before sunrise just to secure a decent vantage point for the awesome ‘blast offs’ or fly outs by the geese and later the cranes as they take off to feed in nearby grain fields.

This is what the photographers come for.

Dawn Blast off- Ducks and sandhill cranes

We had the ‘pleasure’ of photographing Bosque under unusual winter conditions. Sure, the refuge gets snow on occasion but never in the amounts, coupled with the extreme cold temperatures as we experienced in early December this year. Our Bosque veteran tour leaders, Gordon and Cathy Illg remarked that not only have they never seen conditions like these before, they have never seen pictures of conditions like these before.

Frosted cottonwoods near the Flight Deck

While I love photographing wildlife I am also partial to landscapes, plants, and abstract patterns. The unusual conditions created by that memorable winter blizzard persuaded me to divert my attention from the birds, for periods of time, to capture some amazing scenes, without feathers. Here is a small selection I hope the reader will enjoy.

Frozen crane ponds with the Chupadera MountainsFrosted cottonwood and Chupadera Mountains before dawn

Cottonwood at dawn

Frosted sunflower seed heads near icy pond

Frosted cottonwood and Chupadera Mountains before dawn

Frosted cottonwood with sunstar