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

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

     

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.

 

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

The Five-Day Black and White Challenge

My friend and professional Canadian photographer Mike Grandmaison was challenged by his editor Roy Ramsay to produce a black and white image each day for five days. Mike then passed along the challenge to me and others in his photography network. Pictures were uploaded to Facebook pages. You can see some other excellent efforts at ‪ http://on.fb.me/1tQ9EoK

Larch trees in autumn at dawn. Lively Ontario

Larch trees in autumn at dawn. Lively Ontario

Eroded landforms at Zabriskie Point. Death Valley National Park

Eroded landforms at Zabriskie Point. Death Valley National Park

I will preface my comments by admitting that while I enjoy black and white photographs I have never made any images on B&W film nor have I spent any time mastering B&W software techniques. So this indeed is an offering made by a ‘newbie’ to the greyscale game. That being said, B&W software is fairly easy to use, whether it is embedded in a Raw processor or is a third party stand-alone plug-in. I chose the Photoshop third party route, using Perfect Photo Suite by onOne Software. I found it easy to use, offering a robust set of features and adjustments together with pre-sets. I did not use any pre-sets for this assignment although there are plenty from which to choose.

 

Spring deciduous woodland with carpet of blooming trilliums

Spring deciduous woodland with carpet of blooming trilliums

My main goal was to select images with good contrast that would feature elements of visual design, such as perspective, line, shape and texture, all created with variations of tonal contrast. I tried to retain shadow and highlight detail and I tried to select from a variety of subjects from my files, both close to home and abroad, landscape, abstract and wildlife.

 

Frost patterns on a windowpane

Frost patterns on a windowpane

Canadian Mountain Grizzly Bears

These first five images in this gallery represent my selects, followed by a short slide show of also-rans. What’s your favourite? Would you have chosen any from the ‘also-ran’ list to take the place of my 5-day picks?

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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