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

     

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.

Va Va Bloom!

Brenda and I are spending over a month in the Hill Country of Texas during the latter part of March through April. We planned our trip to coincide with the spring wildflower bloom. Texas wildflowers: legendary, diverse, vast expanses of colour ranging from orange, magenta, blue, yellow and red.

Roadside oak tree and bluebonnets

Roadside oak tree and bluebonnets

The rainfall patterns in fall and winter are important factors that determine the quality of the spring bloom and we are fortunate this year to have had sufficient precipitation to promise an above average bloom. I feel fortunate, especially after experiencing the brutal winter in Northern Ontario this year. Texas has been in a protracted drought in recent years and the wildflower bloom has been less than optimum these past few years, the last good year occurring in 2010, according to noted wildflower photographer Gary Regner who lives in this area. Gary’s website and blog http://www.texaswildflowerpictures.com/update.htm is a great source of information and updates for the visiting photographer.

Ranch fence and Texas paintbrush

Ranch fence and Texas paintbrush

Oak trees and Texas wildflowers- paintbrush, phlox and bluebonnets

Oak trees and Texas wildflowers- paintbrush, phlox and bluebonnets

The pictures I present at this point have been harvested from areas south of San Antonio. We are still awaiting the full bloom in the Hill Country around Austin, Johnson City and Marble Falls but patches of colour are appearing every day as March slides into April with an expectation of a mid April peak.

Texas paintbrush and bluebonnets surrounding a cactus

Texas paintbrush and bluebonnets surrounding a cactus

Diverse patches of clourful flowers

Diverse patches of clourful flowers

The areas south of San Antonio are flatter with pastures and farmland dominating the scene. Travelling the country roads we find flowers in the roadside and in the fields beyond. When the sky is clear I can include the blue sky. When the light is soft and overcast I try to exclude the white sky, concentrating on more intimate scenes. Focus stacking technique is sometimes necessary to extend the range of sharpness near to far in these flat landscapes.

Texas wildflowers bloom on the grounds of a country residence

Texas wildflowers bloom on the grounds of a country residence

Bluebonnets and paintbrush with spring trees

Bluebonnets and paintbrush with spring trees

The traffic at times is fearsome, especially on the major highways around Austin and San Antonio but the smaller side roads are well maintained, less heavily travelled with wide shoulders for safe pull-offs. With careful planning it has been possible to use secondary routes to avoid the bumper-to-bumper traffic in and out of the big cities.

Texas paintbrush and spring trees, Somerset TX

Texas paintbrush and spring trees, Somerset TX

Texas  bluebonnets and oak trees, near Somerset TX

Texas bluebonnets and oak trees, near Somerset TX

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

Christmas Images

Seasons greetings, Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to one and all!

Christmas morning light on trees in the yard

Christmas morning light on trees in the yard

After the family traditions on Christmas morning have been attended to there is sometimes an opportunity for me to do some nature photography, something that I always ask permission from the family before venturing forth, sometimes just on the deck, sometimes in the driveway, never too far from home nor for too long.

Christmas morning light and fresh snow on spruce trees

Christmas morning light and fresh snow on spruce trees

 

Christmas morning sunrise

Christmas morning sunrise

Christmas is one of the quietest days of the year to be outside. The winter weather over the past 8 years- the time period from which these images were chosen- has been variable in the extreme. Cold days, El Nino warm days. Days with little snow but morning frost and days with beautiful fresh snow. This year is promising to be gloomy and wet but I am hoping the rain turns to snow in time.

A red fox lounging on a small roadside mound

A red fox lounging on a small roadside mound

 

A chickadee spreads its wings near the bird feeder

A chickadee spreads its wings near the bird feeder

Through these past 8 years, when the conditions were excellent and the light was magical, I knew I had to forgo some of the family traditions and take time to make some pictures. Please enjoy these images made on a very special day.

Junction Creek snowfall 2012

Junction Creek snowfall 2012

Ice formations along Junction Creek

Ice formations along Junction Creek

A dusting of snow on grasses along the driveway

A dusting of snow on grasses along the driveway

Garden grasses

Garden grasses

Tree shadows on snow drifts in the yard

Tree shadows on snow drifts in the yard

An ice puddle at the edge of the lawn in an El Nino year

An ice puddle at the edge of the lawn in an El Nino year

Santa Claus takes the kids for a ride

Santa Claus takes the kids for a ride