Peaks Island, Maine

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Peaks Island is located off the coast of Portland, Maine in Casco Bay.  Once arriving into Portland, it’s off to catch the ferry for the fifteen minute ride. We’ve been going to Peaks for about 25 years to visit our friends, Debbie and Dave, among others. Our last trip was this past Memorial Day week-end. Dave and I went into Portland to shoot some photos (shown below). On our way back along the unimproved dirt road leading back to their cottage I noticed a bird in a tree overlooking a small pond–a Black-crowned Night Heron. These birds typically feed at night. There I was with only my 15-85mm lens, not the ideal equipment for bird photography.  The camera was set for aperture priority but I figured I should take the hand-held shot before the bird decided to fly, then reset the camera to shutter priority to assure a sharp shot.  Sure enough, the bird bolted. Nevertheless, the photo came out great–at 1/20 sec!

Supertanker

Portland is a deep-water harbor, enabling large vessels to come in.  As a result, a lot of crude comes in from the Middle-east–Portland can unload 4 supertankers at one time.

Long gone
The Porthole

Front Street runs along all the piers in Portland.  Although there has been substantial gentrification, including several investment houses for the New Yorkers and Bostonians who summer on the islands, there are several “seedy” areas still to be had.  Many of them provide the best atmosphere and food, such as breakfast and lunch at the Porthole.

Gentrification

The last photo shows one of the examples of gentrification, new condominiums located across from old the warehouses of the past.

Action birds

My wife heard that the Batavia water treatment plant was a pretty hot spot for birding.  And why not? Birds are attracted to water and most of these facilities are not open to the public, or only with special permission, so wildlife get a fair amount of privacy.  However, this facility is open to the public seven days a week from 7:30 AM to 3:00 PM (longer if you want to park your car outside the gate that closes at 3:00 PM). You do have to sign-in, however. This plant is also different from most in that it uses natural bacterial processes to treat the water before it is re-introduced into the environment.  Since this is a much slower process, the facility is huge with several man-made ponds. Surrounding many of these ponds are marsh areas along with their tall marsh weeds–providing perfect hiding for many wildlife species.

Each pond is ringed by a gravel road in addition to the gravel road the goes around the entire facility. We drove down to what appeared to be a good area to get out and have a closer look. We immediately spotted several Green Herons, not to mention Great Blues that occasionally flew over. There were also what appeared to be dozens of Swallows (both Tree {Stable} and Barn {Decreasing} varieties) darting around snapping bugs from the air. I’ve tried to photograph these birds on the wing in the past–to no avail. They are too small, too fast, and quick maneuvering, turning 90 degrees or more in an instant.

Nevertheless, I decided to try my hand (and camera) at this again since I’m getting better at understanding the best settings to use and my panning technique is improved. As with sports photography, the name of the game is to skillfully shoot and hope 2 or 3 percent of your shots produce a “winner.” I set my Canon 100mm-400mm zoom lens to 300mm with a shutter speed of 1/2000 secs.

The first of these to turn out, sharp at least, was a Barn Swallow swooping low over the water. Not only do you have to get the bird in the viewfinder, you’ve got to get one of the nine auto-focusing points superimposed on the bird to lock in the focus. Then press the shutter, letting the camera rattle off at 5 frames/sec.

Low Swoop: Barn Swallow

However, the “Gold” goes to the Tree Swallow image; here the bird is about to swallow what looks like a bee.  The subject was about 70 feet away as it raced towards me.  I had no idea he was closing in on breakfast. Pretty amazing–especially for me!

Intercept: Tree Swallow

After about a couple of hours we drove to Iroquois National Wildlife Preserve. It was getting to be mid-day and hot!  Not the best time for bird photography. We set out along the Kanyoo trail to one of the ponds and marsh areas.  There we saw Green Herons galore on the ground, in the air, and in trees. Unfortunately, my shots were only of documentary quality. I tried several flight shots, but I was not able to get a single one come out as anything but a blur.

Iroquois: Southwest–from the boardwalk along the Blue Loop

I did, however, get several excellent Great Blue Heron (Increasing) shots–the best one, below. Note the green undersides, this is the result of light reflecting off the heavily green-slimed water. The bird is landing in the central portion of the scene, above.

Touch-down
Touch-down: Great Blue Heron

Right now I’m behind on my image processing, however, more of these and other photos will be appearing in my gallery and other blog posts over the coming weeks.

I’ll be spending the second week of September in Adirondack State Park to capture birds on their return migration, along with some great landscape shots of their environment.

Creating panoramas

Seneca Lake Sunset

My last few outings have focused on improving my landscapes. I not only enjoy shooting these, I also plan to use landscapes to provide the context for many of my bird photographs. Just as the best bird photographs involve capturing the bird in an action situation, so with landscapes the trick is not only to pick the most aesthetic or dramatic scenes, you also need to take the shot when light and perhaps shadows really set the image off from the run of the mill scene.

Sunsets are always appealing, as they set off a burst of colors.  To take these one step further I thought it would be challenging to create a panorama.  The image above is a series of three photographs, each overlapping about 25%, taken with my Canon EOS 60D camera mounted on a tripod–level. I used the manual exposure setting ( f16 @ 1/15″ , ISO 100, EFS-15-85mm lens @ 15mm). This exposure is based on the center sunset photo.  To get this exposure, I increased exposure with shutter speed until the histogram’s right tail just touched the edge of the histogram’s window (i.e., exposed to the right, ETTR). By keeping the diaphram stopped down to f16 I was able to maximize the depth of field. I stitched the photos together using Photoshop Elements 8. I then brought the resulting .TIFF image back into Lightroom 4 for final image adjustments.  This process enabled me to capture a wide expanse of the largest of the Finger Lakes at Sunset. I included the barrier wall and people (my wife is sitting on the wall) to add depth and interest.

I would be more than happy to answer any questions you might have about this process.

Chimney Bluffs, Lake Ontario

My wife and I were on vacation last week so we took a few day trips to capture some of the countryside. Two of these trips took us to Chimney Bluffs State Park in Wolcott, NY. These dramatic Bluffs were formed from drumlins, which in turn were created by glaciers in the last ice age. The erosive power of wind, rain, snow, and waves—both from above and below—has formed the landscape into razor-sharp pinnacles. Rapid erosion prevents any plant life from establishing on the Bluffs over the many millennia since the ice age.

View of a drumlin from the Northwest
View of a drumlin from the Northwest

We arrived about one-and-a-half hours before sunset hoping to catch a heightened reddish hue to the Bluffs’ faces. I used a circular polarizing filter to deepen the sky and sharpen the other colors.

View from the West

The last image was taken just as the sun passed behind a thin layer of cirrus clouds about 30 minutes before sunset.

Turning the camera to the West: view from the East

We plan to return to photograph some of the birds on their return migration via the Bluffs later this summer and into the fall. Perhaps you have been to Chimney Bluffs, or drumlin fields elsewhere. Please let us know.

Neutral density graduated filters

If you ever tried to photograph a high contrast scene such as a late afternoon landscape or sunset you know that it is almost impossible to get a good exposure of the sky along with detail in the foreground or shadow areas. One way to get around this problem is by using high dynamic resolution (HDR). This process requires photo software to merge several photos, each exposed for a particular section of a scene, into one photograph that is properly exposed in all areas. HDR, however, requires more screen time, something I would gladly reduce.

Neutral density graduated filters provide an alternative for capturing high contrast settings.  By sliding the filter through its lens holder to the point just before any of the foreground starts to darken you will reduce the intensity of the sky so that you can get a more evenly exposed photograph.

I recently purchased a set of Cokin P series filters (H250A). The kit contains the filter holder and three neutral density graduated filters: 121L, 121M, and 121S. The first reduces exposure by 2, the second by 4, and the third by 4 with a more gradual shading from clear to neutral gray (the adaptor ring that connects the filter holder to the lens is extra). The total cost was $105, before tax.

I took a few photographs so you can see their effects (I made no processing adjustments to the photographs, other than applying lens correction to minimize distortion). The photographs were taken in mid-July at about 4:30PM. The first photograph was taken without a filter. Here, I exposed to the right (in this case 1/25 @ f22, ISO 100)–only the partial disk of the sun is overexposed.

In the next photo I used the 121L (ND2) filter (1/20 @ f22, ISO 100). Notice that the sky is a deeper blue and there is somewhat greater detail in the trees’ foliage.

The last photo shows the same scene with the 121M (ND4) filter (1/20 @ f22, ISO 100). Here the sky is darker still, yet with even greater detail in the trees’ foliage. You can also see that I did not lower the filter quite enough, as there is a lighter sky immediately above the trees. Had I lowered the filter more I would probably have even greater detail in the foliage.

Since landscapes are best shot at dawn and dusk, these filters should enable me to produce images with less contrast and more detail. Though I do like landscapes in their own right, I plan to shoot more of these to illustrate the habitats of my bird photographs. By so doing I anticipate providing greater context for describing the birds and the state of their respective populations over the past 30 or more years.

If you have been using neutral density filters in your work I would be happy to hear about your experiences with them.