Robert’s BLOG

Note:  I don’t plan to update this BLOG until the Judging Event in July.  Poke around the Website while you are here and see what else we are doing.  Robert

PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 06/11/201

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks fly off our pond as I approach with my camera and lens. I heard them whistling a happy tune, “THE CONTEST, THE CONTEST, —- CONTEST IS OVER.”

Shooting is over!

Today, June 11, 2017 is the final day to take photos for the Wildlife in Focus contest.  I have arrived at this terminus with mixed emotions.  I have spent every single day for the past five months either in the field taking pictures, in my study processing pictures, or scheming about how to get that special shot assured to drop the jaws of the judges.  I think I am glad it is over.  I am positive that my wife and friends are thrilled it is over.  Maybe I will shut up about it and have something else to discuss at our weekly luncheon get-to-gathers.

They are being ambitious. Now begins a month-long post picture-taking period.  I cannot begin to count the total number of photos I have taken.  It must surely be several thousand.  I have culled most of these out and just 231 remain as possible submissions to the judges.  Of these, I am allowed to submit only 100.  I think many of these are good enough to win, but judging is a subjective process and I could come up without a single winning photo.  It could happen.

I took the camera out for a final walk around the place hoping to get one last smashing picture.  No luck: nothing was moving accept a couple of whistling ducks that flew off the pond and waved goodbye with their wings.  I cannot remember how many times I have bumped them off their afternoon feeding hoping to get them to do something to make an interesting shot.  They will be glad it is over too.  It feels like summer out there anyway.  Let’s go to the house.

PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 05/05/2017

John West Photo

Really Big Trees

For extraordinary beauty, it is hard to beat a stand of old-growth forest.  How fortunate I am to be spending so many hours on John West’s Spring Creek Ranch in Refugio County where stately live oaks guard the banks of Blanco Creek and its tributaries.  I cannot help wondering how old they are.  What was going on in the world when these massive specimens peeked their first leaves above the litter and raced toward a patch of sunlight?  On a recent scouting adventure along the back fence line, I decided to photograph what may be the oldest tree on the ranch.  Unfortunately, I did not have an accurate way with which to measure, but its circumference had to be at least 20 feet.  What an incredible tree.

I did some research on aging oak trees and came up with a very rough estimate of its longevity.  One formula says multiply the tree’s diameter at breast height (Wikipedia says that is 4.5 feet above ground) in inches by five to get the age in years.  If my estimate of the circumference is close, that means this sentinel is 420 years old.  It was a seedling in 1597!  That was 239 years before Texas became a republic.  Who knows how many more baby raccoons will gambol on its boughs long after we are gone.

PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 04/27/2017

Your intrepid photographer shivering inside a walk-in freezer loading meat scraps into a pickle bucket.

Vulture Food

One afternoon last week, I noticed a flock of vultures and caracaras frolicking over some slab of carrion hidden in the grass down by the vineyard.  I moseyed down to check it out and found the shell of an armadillo – not much meat left there.  What an opportunity though.

I do not yet have one image in the vulture and caracara category.  I threw up a chair blind and grabbed my camera, and moved inside to wait.  No vultures.  I waited some more.  The sun was bearing down on the blind and it was really getting hot inside.  The famous line in Jim Carey’s movie Ace Ventura came to mind, “It’s kinda hot in these rhinos, WARM”

I waited and I sweated until the sun eased its way below the brush line.  This effort produced zero images, not even a shutter release.  I reflected on the fact that, save one, I have never been able to capture a single good vulture photo.  I needed a better plan.

At dinner, I questioned Karen about that big butterball turkey in the freezer.  Hadn’t it been in there past its eatable date?  She smiled and permissioned me to go ahead and use it for vulture bait.

Next morning, I hauled the butterball out in the pasture and dumped it about 30 feet from the blind.  By the tail, I dragged the armadillo shell next to the turkey.  I retreated to our front porch and waited to see some action.  About ten-thirty, a huge passel of vultures were on the turkey.  It had to be frozen.  What were they doing down there anyway?  We had a luncheon engagement and some shopping to do in town, so I figured the scavengers would be at their job for several hours and the light was really harsh anyway.  I would get in the blind after we returned from town.  OH NO! – The turkey was gone when we got back.  I still cannot believe it and I do not expect you to believe it either.  I needed some more bate.

The next day I made a visit to our local butcher shop and begged a five-gallon bucket of meat scraps.  At this very moment, I am waiting for the vultures to find these tidbits and swarm in on them.  Wait wait.  They are out there now – got to go get in that rhino.

PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 04/21/2017

Gulf-plain Toad Incilius nebulifer calling for a mate

To find a prince, you gotta kiss some toads

If you need to “kiss” (in my case, photograph) a toad, now is the time.  We have two ponds within earshot of our house.  Stand outside and all you hear are choruses of anurans so charged up to mate that they are jumping on the backs of anything slimy, no matter the species.

I am an early to bed, early to rise kind of photographer so staying up to photograph frogs is hard for me.  When the lightning storm came through a few nights ago, I was awakened by the thunder.  It would have been a perfect opportunity to get some nighttime shots of bolts streaming from the clouds, but I did not drag myself out to do it.  I made up for that laziness by staying awake to capture some frog images.

The smallest of the ponds afforded the best approach.  I fitted together a string of extension cords and put up a very bright Zenon light that shown down onto the lily pads.  The frogs and toads were so crazily involved they ignored the light and my presence with a camera.  Within 10 feet of me, there were more than a dozen Gulf-plain Toads and almost as many Rio Grande Leopard Frogs.  Some were on the bank, some on the lily pads and some floating in the water.  The toads were most active.  I would fix my eye on one individual mounted on top of another.  After a few grunting sounds, the encounter ended and back on the lily pads they would go.  Several times, I saw toads mounted on frogs.  The frogs did not like this much.

I did get a few decent images that I have not processed yet.  Does this make up for missing the lightning? No – but it helps.

PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 04/14/2017

One of my first photos (Black-chinned Hummingbird) taken with this setup. It is encouraging.

Hummingbird Photography

TECHNICAL ALERT:  Getting a decent photo of a hummingbird is a true challenge. They are tiny, they dart around like fighter jets, and their wings blur out at around 50 beats per second or faster in some species.  To get the kind of professional photos you see in magazines, it takes good equipment and careful planning.

Hummingbirds began frequenting our feeders about a week ago.  I wanted to try my hand at capturing a few good images using professional techniques (a feat I have never attempted before).  I have made some progress, but still have much to learn.

An image of a hummer sitting on a feeders sucking sugar water from a hole, just will not do.  They must be photographed hovering, or flying in the air, with the least amount of wing blur possible.  This means the exposure time has to be fast – really fast.  My best camera’s shortest exposure is 1/8000 of a second.  In natural light, there are not enough photons hitting the sensor to make an image at exposures that short.  The best solution is artificial lighting (flash photography).

Canon 7D Mark II and 300mm lens.  A cheap Yongnuo YN560 IV flash is set to its lowest power and used to trigger (optically) the other flashes near the feeder.

Two SUNPAK DF3000U flash units (Walmart) almost on top of the target feeder.  These are set at 1/16 power and optically triggered by the camera flash.

I have to admit that flash photography is something with which I have very little experience.  Canon, Nikon, and some other brands support a technique known as High-speed Sync (Nikon calls this Auto FP).  This mode causes the flash unit to spray out thousands of very short blasts of light, so that even at shutter speeds of 1/8000, you get enough light in that short time to make a picture.  Flash units with this feature are expensive ($500 each) and it takes more than one.

Before I studied up on hummingbird photography, I (possibly foolishly) bought some cheap flash units hanging on pegs at Walmart (about $60 each).  They were Chinese-made and advertised to be “like” the more expensive Canon and Nikon flashes – NOT.  If these things support HSS, it is impossible to understand that using the worst Chinese-English translation I have ever seen.  So what to do?

There is another way.  What you do is close down the natural light entering your camera (lowest ISO, small aperture, etc.) and use multiple flashes set at low power output.  With this setup, you are using the short duration of the flash rather than the short duration of the shutter to do the exposure.  It actually works pretty well.  As soon as I get this BLOG in the mail, I will be back at my setup on the front porch trying to get at least three good hummingbird photos for the contest.  Learning is so much fun.

Camera caption – My Canon 7D Mark II and 300mm lens.  A cheap Yongnuo YN560 IV flash is set to its lowest power and used to trigger (optically) the other flashes near the feeder.

Feeder caption – Two SUNPAK DF3000U flash units (Walmart) almost on top of the target feeder.  These are set at 1/16 power and optically triggered by the camera flash.

PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 03/29/2017

Mammal fishing rig hanging over the deck

Fishing for Mammals

Earlier this week on a particularly dark night, I sat on our deck with a “sort of” language translator in my hand.  It was a small palm-sized box sporting two knobs and crammed with tiny electronic circuits inside.  It was a kind of Superheterodyne receiver similar to a radar unit that the police use to catch speeders.  This kind works with sound and not radio waves.  It is used to translate the ultrasonic echolocation chirps issued by bats down to the range of human hearing.  It really is one of the coolest toys I have.

When I turn it on, an unheard world opens up to my ears.  I can visualize the cadre of attacking bats, like little fighter jets, chasing down the flying moths that emerge on spring and summer evenings.  A bat will patrol around barking a sharp pulse of acoustic energy into the surrounding night.  That pulse travels from the bat at 1125 feet per second. When a hapless juicy insect is within range, an echo is returned to the big ears of the bat.  Bats can see in the dark with this system; objects as tiny as a human hair.

It did not take long.  Fewer than twenty seconds after turning on my bat detector, I heard the characteristic speeding up machine-gun-like rattle of an attacking bat.  As the bat made in for the kill, the sound pulses got closer and closer together, much like the sound of a steel ball bouncing on a concrete floor (only faster).

I would love to photograph a flying bat.  Flying bat photography is some of the most stunning imagery of the modern technological world.  It is hard to do and requires specialized equipment.  I think I have the equipment and I read up on how to do it.  Now I just need bats flying near my setup to practice the art.  Why not fish for them!

Bat Photo = Flash Units + Good Camera + LIDAR system to trigger camera + Bats flying into the sweet spot where flash and pre-focused camera and LIDAR trigger are waiting.

So how do I get the bats to drop by for a portrait?  Bat fishing.  I rigged up an ultraviolet lamp (blacklight) at the end of a pole and dangled it over our deck.  Moths are attracted to ultraviolet lights and bats are attracted to moths.  That is my theory anyway.  I don’t know that this has ever been used by contest photographers, but it certainly has been used in scientific work.  I read a paper where researchers disabled the sound producing organs of Tiger Moths and returned them to join other Tiger Moths swarming around a blacklight.  It appears that the Tiger Moths have a sonar jamming system that protects them from bat attacks.  Moths without sound-producing organs are 10 times more likely to be eaten by a bat.

Getting all of the equipment working together and taking home a decent bat photograph will be challenging.  I love a challenge!

PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 03/21/2017

Beetles in the Night

What you call these denizens of the evening varies depending on where you were raised. A recent linguistic study asked 10,000 people what they called these little beetles. Folks from the green area on the map say “firefly” exclusively. Those in the blue sections only say “lightning bug” and those in the red area use both names interchangeably

My daughter (recently returned from Thailand) was sitting on the deck enjoying a classic springtime evening.  She called me to see a spectacular sight.  Filling the night air were hundreds of fireflies, or lightning bugs as I learned to call them as a kid.  We wanted to see one up close.

What you call these denizens of the evening varies depending on where you were raised.  A recent linguistic study asked 10,000 people what they called these little beetles.  Folks from the green area on the map say “firefly” exclusively.  Those in the blue sections only say “lightning bug” and those in the red area use both names interchangeably.

This is not a true lightning bug, but a type of click beetle. Photo courtesy of www.firefly.org

I grabbed my butterfly net and we raced into the darkness to attempt a capture.  It was seriously dark.  Some of the lights were moving on the ground and some were flying around blinking sexual messages to potential mates.  I noticed that the ones on the ground had two bioluminescent spots on their heads.  I had seen these cool beetles before.  They are not like the tail-flashing lightning bugs we kids captured in our summer backyards back in the 1950s.  I wrongly assumed that the ones flying around us were of the same species.

This is not a true lightning bug, but a type of click beetle.  Photo courtesy of www.firefly.org

I got lucky.  It only took one deft swing of my net to bag one of the flying creatures.  When we got my prize back to the house, it did not have the two “eyes” on its head that I expected.  It was one of the standard tail-blinking types.  We put it under the microscope to get a better look.  It was clearly a beetle of some sort, but what species, I had no idea.

Being a master of modern technology, my daughter held her iPhone over the eyepiece of the microscope and snapped a picture.  She posted the photo to Instagram (@boldleego) within seconds of getting the image.  I tried the technique using my little point-and-shoot Olympus camera and it worked pretty well!

Lightning bug/firefly under the microscope

Hey, maybe with some tweaking (focus stacking and such), I can use this technique for a category in the photo contest.


PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 03/13/2017

Newspaper photo of a Sasquatch body (discovered in 2008) lying in a ice cooler

SASQUATCH IN THE WOODS
Sometimes believers confront me with arguments that large hairy secretive apes roam the woods, in various forests around North America.  I never assert impossibility, but my training as a scientist forces me to require evidence.  These believers are more common than you might imagine.  There is even a Sasquatch Society right here in Beeville and they report numerous sightings along Medio Creek, about two miles from our house.  They find imprints of their feet, detect smells from their hairy bodies, observe broken limbs along their trails, and actually see them from time to time.  My standard response to these good souls is, “Show me the Body.”

Amusingly back in 2008, a policeman and former corrections officer unveiled a frozen Sasquatch body stuffed in a big Igloo cooler.  You could see the face and hairy fur down in the ice.  I was excited to see this on the news.  I even heard that someone had paid them $50,000 for the thing.  After collecting the money, the two finders promptly left town.  When the ice thawed, it was discovered to be a rubber gorilla outfit!  The hoaxers were found and fessed up.  This event proved how ready some folks are to believe that a large primate still roams all over the country.

When I want to photograph predators (Coyotes, Foxes, Bobcats, etc.), I dress up in my Ghillie suit and sneak secretly into the woods with my camera.  I have an electronic predator call that broadcasts loud screams of a “distressed” Eastern Cottontail.  Distressed is a euphemism for whatever the recordist was doing to that rabbit to get it to issue such a sound.

I find a clearing in the brush and erect my rabbit decoy, hide the speaker beside it, and creep into the edge of the Blackbrush and Colima to wait for the varmints to come running to an easy meal.

Me in my Ghillie suit attempting to photograph Coyotes

If you have not seen a man in a Ghillie suit, you would be shocked at how much he resembles a live Sasquatch.  My suit is remarkably shocking if you are not expecting to see me in it.  With all those Sasquatch believers roaming the woods hoping to bring in a real Bigfoot body, I am very careful about where I wear the thing.  I definitely avoid Medio Creek just down the road from our house.  Yesterday, I was ensconced safely on the ridge west of our house.  Coyotes were calling all around, and closely too, but none believed that my calls and decoy were for real – no predator picture that evening.

If you should read in the Beeville paper that someone has a Sasquatch body in a cooler, please let Karen know where I am.


PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 03/11/2017

IT’S FUN TO PLAY WITH HDR

NOTICE: TECHNICAL ALERT.  The last few days have been gray and rainy.  Grasses and forbs are shooting up around our house with amazing vigor. Evidence suggests that this is the earliest spring in recorded history.  I could not stand being indoors all day, so I grabbed a camera and walked to our front gate where an impressive Spanish Dagger is in full bloom.  The rain was exhibiting a short hiatus but the ground was still very wet.  The light was odd, reminiscent of eerie skies I have seen after a good old Texas hurricane.  I decided to snap a few images using exposure compensation with the aim of applying HDR algorithms.

HDR is a high dynamic range technique used during image processing that overcomes one limitation of digital photography.  Even the best cameras today cannot capture the remarkable sensitivity range of the human eye.  Our visual system (including our brain) allows us to see in deep shadows while compensating for bright skies (i.e. High Dynamic Range), a thing cameras cannot do.  By merging multiple images taken over a larger range of exposures, the cameras modest dynamic range is improved.  Let me show this rather than tell.

As you will see above, I have taken three photos of the Spanish Dagger at our front gate, each with a different exposure (from over exposed to under exposed).  Notice how blown out the sky is in the over exposed left image and how lighting on the vegetation is acceptable.  The middle image is better but the sky is still over exposed.  The right hand image has a better sky but the vegetation is too dark now.  Adobe Photoshop has a module that will examine each of the three photos and pick out the regions with proper exposure.  Regions with improper exposure are masked out.  Once this is done for all three images, the pieces are superimposed to get a much better overall picture.  There are lots of adjustments that can be made to vary the look and feel of the image.  I have gone for the surreal look below.  Notice the ominous clouds now visible that were not obvious in the three originals.  It may be a little much for your taste, but I think it captures the feeling I had standing in the light rains and pushing the shutter release.  This HDR stuff is pretty easy.  It is a lot of fun.


PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 02/28/2017

If you do not look closely, this image could pass as a photo of a painting created by the impasto method (a technique of laying on paint thickly so that it stands out from a surface)

I WOULD NOT CALL IT ART.

This time of year, my favorite wildflower pokes its blossoms above the short grasses in our front pasture.  It is Fringed Puccoon.  I have been taking a little time off to prune the vineyard, tighten up the trellis system, and repair the drip irrigation.  Our 10-year-old vineyard has about 300 vines.  Only a few feet from the first trellis, is a patch of puccoon calling out to be photographed.  Yesterday I put the macro on the 5D and shot some images of this little beauty in its prime.

As you probably know, the depth of field with a macro lens is very shallow.  Even with the smallest aperture, it is not possible to get all of a spreading plant in focus at once.  The way around this problem is to apply a technique called “focus stacking.”  In this case, I took 16 individual images of the plant, each time moving the focal plane slightly from front to back.  There are many software solutions available to pick out only the “in focus” parts of an image and throw away the out of focus parts.  It took Photoshop about a minute to go through my stack of images, aligning them and stitching together the in-focus parts into a single final image.

Can you imagine what went into the planning and writing of the software module that does this?  You may think of modern photography as an art form, but behind the images you admire, are thousands of hours of development time by mathematicians, scientists, and engineers.  Being a physicist myself, I see Fourier transforms, Markov chains, and giants like Johann Friedrich Gauss working behind the scenes to make all this magic happen.

Modern photography is supported by a vast industry of people and products designed to create art from digital images.  How times have changed.  Back in the film days, the person behind the camera had to have it all right just to get that single artistic image he or she wanted.  Nowadays, one may shoot hundreds of images of the same subject.  Unlike film, space on memory chips is cheap.  One exposure is selected from the array and its defects corrected during post processing.  All manner of problems can be corrected by relying on a boggling number of products either free or available at modest costs.  There is even room to play.

After focus stacking and other adjustments, I decided to play around with some special effects.  One program I have converts images to simulated artistic forms.  I can have my images made to mimic methods like color pencil, comic books, crayon, oil paint, pastel, pen and ink, pencil sketch, pointillism, watercolor, impasto and more.  I chose the impasto method for the image above.  I would not call it art, but it is fun to play with these effects.  Don’t you think?


PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 02/24/2017

A recent rain flooded Blanco Creek for a couple of days and I was not able to get out there until yesterday. The waters reached about eight feet over the top of the weir, bringing with it a full-sized tree (now blocking the road).

NIGHT RAIDERS

Yesterday morning I loaded up my truck with cameras, varmint calling equipment, and bait for my kingfisher setup.  A recent rain flooded the creek and I was hoping the water was down enough to get onto the ranch.  The plan was to spend the whole day and early evening behind the lens. The water was down but a large dead willow tree was blocking the only entrance to the property.  Evidently, the 60-foot tree had floated downstream (who knows from where) and lodged right there in the road – no getting around it.  It will need to be cut with chainsaws and moved off the road.  On the way back to Beeville, I formed a backup plan.

For the past several days, some night-prowling creatures that climb trees have been raiding my suet feeders at the big live oak set at Pauraque Ridge.  I do not think I have mentioned that Karen and I call our place Pauraque Ridge because there is an exposed ridge of caliche southwest of our house where Pauraques always find a spot to nest.  Pauraque (PAH-RAH-KAY), you say?   A Pauraque is a medium-sized bird with a huge frog-like mouth that haunts the pastures and country roads all over the northern part of Bee County.  You have likely seen them sitting in the road, eyes shining like demons, as they wait to spring into the air and grab an insect with that wide-open mouth.

Back to the night raiders.  Since I was not able to get on the ranch, plan B was to set up the laser camera trap and see who is gobbling down suet at night.  It took me about an hour to deploy the trap and this morning I retrieved the memory chip to see what was there.  My suspicions were correct – a family of possums.  Secretly, I had been hoping for ringtails but that is sort of like winning a minor lottery.  At least it gives me a chance to show off my homebuilt camera trap.

I have mounted a board under the bottom of a limb and placed the laser transmitter and receiver at each end. This possum is heading for a bowl of sardines (not visible in the photo). His nose is just breaking the laser beam setting off the camera and two flash units. The photos indicate that there were three visits to the dish (8:30 pm, 11:00 pm, and 1:30 am). This is the 11:00 pm visit.

P.S. The flood completely took out my “clever” kingfisher setup.


PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 02/18/2017

A female Northern Cardinal alights on an old stump to admire the new spring huisache daisies growing in the pasture – Maybe not. This image was taken at one of my outdoor studios her on our farm.

Secret Handshakes and Rubbing One’s Nose

During lunch last week, a friend confided that reading my contest reports has diminished his appreciation of wildlife photography.  His vision of us photogs was of an intrepid group of mosquito-bitten outdoor types bushwhacking into exotic habitats to get those magic shots that we all see in the magazines and calendars.  Some of that is true, but much of it isn’t.  He would have been happier not knowing the sneaky deceptions that go into what we know as modern wildlife photography.

Now here I am giving away secrets that some say should not be public knowledge.  I do feel queasy about writing all this down.  What I am doing is like sharing the secret handshake of the Order of Skull and Bones, or even worse, rubbing an index finger across my nose like Paul Newman and Robert Redford did in the movie “The Sting.”  Since I have already started, why stop now?

I have a little outdoor studio built under the oldest live oak tree Karen and I have on our place.  It is a stately thing right on our property line.  Its arms stretch well into our neighbor’s front pasture.  A bobcat sometimes lazes in its boughs.  There used to be a colony of bees in one of its hollow limbs.  The bees are gone.  The birds remain and love its shady protection – a perfect place for photography.

An old tree stump selected for its interesting character and dark color. I avoid stumps that reflect a lot of light.

I have a photo blind, a platform feeder, and a suet feeder and various props to (unnaturally) add to the natural look.  In these photos, you will notice that I have a large camo-colored hand painted cloth backdrop directly behind the line of sight from my camera lens to the platform feeder.  On the platform, is a shallow pan of water in which sits a sawed off piece of huisache limb mounted on a perforated board.  The limb pointed upward looks like an old stump.  The small holes drilled into the baseboard allow displaying flowers that happen to be in bloom.  This breaks up the starkness of a plain old bird standing on a stick (a thing the judges hate).  It works even better if you can get something like a bug in the bird’s mouth.

I have drilled a rather large hole on the backside of the limb in which I can push in some greasy suet to please the woodpeckers.  It is all designed to make the birds feel safe and happy as they gorge themselves on seeds and fruits.

I have drilled a hole in the backside of the stump in which to paste some good gooey suet. This hole will be turned away from the camera so it will not be seen in the photographs.

You will also notice a pole to the right of the photo blind.  A camera and motion detector are perched on top.  This rig is aimed toward a big oak limb where I have stashed a feeding dish stocked with sardines and apples.  Tree-climbing night mammals beware.  I am going to take your picture if you get hungry for sardines.

If you are a naturalist and a purist, all this fabrication could be appalling. You might say we are not presenting nature as it really is.  However, I argue that offering appealing “studio-type” images may get our message to those viewers that are not impressed by a gangs of “redbirds” squabbling over sunflower seeds at a feeder.

You can see the platform feeder and the hand-painted backdrop. On the feeder sits the water pan, the daisies, and the old huisache stump. A suet feeder is hanging in the upper left of the photo.

Notice the camera trap on the pole next to the photo blind. A motion detector triggers the camera and an external flash unit. The system is pointed toward the limb where I have secreted a dish of smelly sardines and a dessert of cut apples. It is only on at night, hoping to capture images of mammals sneaking by for a tasty meal


PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 02/13/2017

Kiddie Pool in which I hope to feed some kingfishers

Photography Studio in the Woods

In 2007 (my first experience with the Wildlife in Focus Contest), I was as green as the frost weed that grew around the Carson/Edwards Ranch.  My only equipment was a Canon Digital Rebel and a Sigma zoom lens.  My technique was attempting to sneak up on birds and snap their pictures.  I have never stopped learning since then.

The most important lesson has been that stalking animals and hoping for a shot is too inefficient.  What the pros did was build a studio in the woods, get the animals to stop by and ring the doorbell, seat them in front of a nice backdrop, and fire away.  My effort to build better studios in the woods escalates every year.

Case in point – I want winning photos of Green Kingfishers but those are hard to come by.  With Karen’s help, I built a special studio at a location frequented by these little master fishers.  I drove a pipe into the sandy bottom of Blanco Creek and tied an inflatable, child’s play pool to the pipe.  I brought a generator and a sump pump with which to fill the pool.  I set up a chair blind about 30-feet away where the afternoon sun will be at my back.  I cleared away distracting brush and debris.  I stuck an inviting perch into the open-topped pipe overlooking the pool.  So then, I had a nice little studio in the woods.  The backdrop is nice and non-distracting, there is a place for my “clients” to sit when they come by, but they are not interested by my offer of a cool glass of white wine.  What could I use instead?

Studio with camera, blind, pool, and perch

Ah – That’s it!  Kingfishers love minnows.  While Karen and I paddled the johnboat up the creek to see what we could see, we dropped a baited minnow trap into the water.  When we returned, there was one minnow and, strangely, a tiny freshwater shrimp in the trap.  I tossed those into the kiddie pool.  The hope is that the kingfishers become accustomed to the studio and will learn that stopping by means a tasty meal.  I just need to catch more minnows.  Didn’t I see some 20-cent goldfish for sale at Walmart?


PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 02/10/2017

Ringtail update:  Not ready for prime time, but my setup is getting better.  Here is last night’s photo of a Ringtail coming to my bait.  This time I used a “real” camera and not one of the cheapo game cams.  After viewing the photos, I tightened the aperture and balanced that with a higher ISO.  Maybe tomorrow’s images will be better.

A new target species

When out in a wild environment, my natural tendency is wanderlust.  While needing to sit still and get images for the contest, I find myself distracted by an intense need to explore.  That was the case as I was setting up some new game cameras a couple of days ago.  Blanco Creek that forms the border of Spring Creek Ranch, has steep high banks and is densely wooded along the edges.  Just a few places allow easy access.

John West showed me these ingress points on my second visit to the property. One of the locations is where he puts in his kayak (not easily, I’m guessing).  A little trail, veering to the right, follows a drainage ditch and winds down to the water.  This day, I decided to not go right but turn left and explore farther downstream.  I began working my way through the dense understory to get to the creek bank.  I found a wide deep segment of water that was so inviting that I decided to perch on a fallen log, sit quietly, and watch and listen.  It was midday, and the wind was still.  Excited Red-shouldered Hawks where calling from all quarters.  A White-eyed Vireo sang from behind me.  Kiskadees and Green Jays were fussing in the background.  Even with all this, there was a sense of calmness as I watched leaves on the creek’s surface move at clock-hand speed downstream.  Life does not get much better.

After about thirty minutes of sitting, I decided to move farther down the bank.  Suddenly a crashing sound exploded in front of me.  It startled me like nearby lightning bolts startle me when I am out in the open away from shelter.  The splash was much too loud to be a gravid momma Red-eyed Slider dropping off a basking log.  All I could see were concentric expanding rings of wavelets emanating from the spot where some creature lunged into the deep.  My heart was still racing, but I rushed ahead to a clearing to get a better look.  Then it appeared. Its whole head rose from the water and its reptilian eyes watched me.  I could see the yellowness under its chin.  It was an alligator.  I could not see its full body, but from the size of the part above the water, I guess it was about 10-feet long.  Beautiful!  It sank below the surface.  I waited there, knowing it was watching me, but I never saw the creature again.

As I made my way back to the truck, the serene spell of nature I had experienced while sitting on the log was gone.  I was scheming to get a photo of the beast.  Could I hang whole HEB chicken bodies on ropes from overhanging trees?  Could I canoe in the blackness of night and capture its eyes shining back at me from my headlamp?  What I knew is that I needed to add American Alligator to my target species list for the contest.  I am really a competitive sort. Being out in nature combined with pitting my photography skills against 30-plus accomplished competitors gets me all in.


PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 02/05/2017

Ringtail image with simple game camera

Rattles and Ringtails

Karen and I made a run to the ranch this afternoon to check the game cameras that I mounted in trees a few days ago.  As always, it was nice out there.  I suppose that my “search image” for what a ringtail likes for habitat was right on target, because the first photo on the memory chip was a ringtail!  It was a poor quality image, but you can tell that it is one of those precious miner’s cats.  This gives me great encouragement to attempt some contest-worthy shots of these critters.  There were thirty-three images on the chip and these were made up of mostly raccoons, ringtails, and possums.  As you can see, I had the camera way too close to the bait dish (too much flash).  Karen has never seen a ringtail in the wild, so she is about as excited as I am.

Male Green Kingfisher

As we were leaving the ranch, a Green Kingfisher flew right in front of us, making its rattle call.  It landed in a small tree out in the water.  It was too far away to get good photos, but this adds another target species to my ranch list.  Green Kingfishers are so neat.  I feel sorry for city folks who never get out and see all the wonderful plants and animals that make up the better part of our world.


 

These are the IR transmitters and receivers for the system. I used two pairs of these.

PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 02/03/2017

TECHNICAL ALERT: I will be looking at the world with crossed IRs this weekend.  Okay, what do you mean by that?  I just completed rigging up a home-brewed camera trap that I hope will deliver some hard-to-get images of elusive creatures that mostly roam around at night.  A good number of winning images from past contests were captured using camera traps.

A camera trap is a system that detects the presence of a bird, mammal, or insect and automatically snaps a photo.  Camera traps can be deployed along trails that animals are known to travel.  Or set up as part of systems to lure critters to the camera locations with bait.  Game cameras are simple camera traps.
It is possible to buy ready-made camera traps to which you may connect your camera.  Compared to professional camera bodies and lenses, commercially available traps are not that expensive ($500 or so).  The innards of such a device did not seem all that complicated to me, so I decided to build one from scratch.  I wanted mine to use two laser beams instead of a single beam.  As far as I can tell, dual beam camera traps are not available readymade.

A single-beam trap involves establishing a light ray (usually from a laser) between a transmitter and a receiver. If an animal breaks the beam, the camera snaps an image.  This is the same technology that stops your garage door if there is an obstruction.

The problem is that breaking the beam anywhere along its length will release the shutter.  The location may not be exactly where you have pre-focused your lens.  This difficulty can be solved by placing the receiver at an angle to the transmitted beam and relying on reflection from the target animal to “make the beam” rather than break the beam.  Nice soft furry animals do not reflect light well, so this approach is problematic.

My idea is to use crossed beams that will only trigger the camera when an animal moves to the very point where the two beams cross.  This way, I can pre-focus my camera to that exact crossing spot and have an advantage over the single beam systems.

I searched around on the Internet and found some inexpensive IR lasers and receivers ($10 a pair from China).  I coupled these with two reed relays, also from the Internet.  With 9-volt batteries as power, I wired up the system and put it in a $5 plastic box from Walmart.  The only hitch? The output at the laser receivers was not strong enough to actuate the relays, so I had to design a single-transistor amplifier to boost the power.

This is the completed dual-beam IR Laser Camera Trap in its box.

These are the innards of the camera trap.  Pretty Kludgy?

I tested it yesterday by setting it up in the living room. I arranged it so that the two beams crossed at the middle of our glass-topped coffee table.  I hooked up my Canon 5D Mark II and tried it out.  Beautiful!  I could slide a coffee cup across the table, and, only when it passed directly through the crossed beams point, would the camera trigger.  My system looks kludgy, but since I have spent fewer than $50 on it, I am pleased.  Cannot wait to get it in the field and see some contest-quality images.  I am the optimistic type.  If anyone wants more information on how to build this thing, I am happy to share.


PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 02/01/2017

Game Camera deployed in large live oak tree

Most secretive animal in the world

What is the most secretive animal in the world?  Please exclude Sasquatches, Yetis, and Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.  High on my list is the cat-sized Ringtail.  As a kid growing up in the Post Oak Savanah of south Texas, I used to love to trail along with the local Coon hunters.  Almost every weekend, four or five local farmers would load up their hounds and we would head out to the woods to let the dogs chase and “tree” (tree is a verb) the members of the abundant raccoon family.  These huntsmen were into competition hunts that followed a strict set of rules.  It was all about how the dogs performed and not about bagging animals.  I can still hear the lingo echoing from my youth.  “Hear that? That’s little Belle running way out in front” or “I call Ole Blue struck” were voices that planted the seeds that made me into a naturalist.  The old men often referred to the voices of their hounds as like bells ringing in the forest and to have struck meant that Ole Blue (a bluetick hound) who had a cold nose (could follow a very cold Coon trail) had just struck (found a Coon trail) and was bawling to alert the other dogs to come join him. I cannot tell you how this stuff thrilled me.

The bait! A mixture of sardines, apples, honey, and cheese

Quite often the younger hounds in training, would tree a Ringtail and not a Coon.  The hunters hated this because if their dogs treed ringtails in competition, they would be disqualified.  Being a kid, I fell in love with the long skinny little bug-eyed mammals.  I probably saw hundreds of them in my youth, but since growing up, I have only seen a handful.  Still, the hope of seeing one awakens deep emotions that date back decades.

John West tells me there are many Ringtails on his ranch.  It is the perfect habitat along the clear clean Blanco Creek lined with ancient live oaks.  So on my must photograph list, are Ringtails (good luck, Benson).  The first step will be to find them.  A couple of days ago, I began deploying game cameras and bait in likely looking oak trees.  Trees with low horizontal limbs seemed best.  I read that scientists who trap them for research use a mixture of sardines, apples, and honey.  I have modified this recipe slightly by adding cheese.  So far I have placed two cameras and have a couple of more to set up during my next visit to the ranch.  I really want to photograph a Ringtail.  Wish me success.


PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 01/31/2017

Excitement at the Pigeon Loft

Yesterday as I went down to feed my pigeons, I noticed a lump on top of the building.  I froze in my tracks.  The lump moved its head.  I was not close enough to make out details of the animal, but I knew it was a Cooper’s Hawk, and by her size, I knew she was a female.

There are only three kinds of hawks common around here now, the Red-tailed Hawk, the Red-shouldered Hawk, and the Cooper’s Hawk.  Who loves pigeon for dinner?  Redtails like rats and rabbits, Redshouldereds like mice and frogs, but Coops are bird specialists.

Could this be a photo opportunity?  I stood right there in the open in bright sunlight.  The hawk watched me but did not fly.  She must be a very hungry hawk (hunger overcomes fear). I took a few more steps and she still did not fly.  Okay, maybe.  I turned around and rushed to get a cage to hold a couple of pigeons, my chair blind, and my camera with the long lens.  My idea was to put pigeons in the cage (they would be safe from the hawk) and put the cage out in the open with a dead limb over it for a perch.  I knew I would flush the hawk when I entered the pigeon loft to grab the pigeons, but maybe she would hang around and go for the pigeons after I settled into the blind.

All went as planned.  Remarkably, the hawk remained right there on top of the loft until I was within ten feet of the door. She finally took off and landed in a dead huisache about 50 feet away.  I took the first two pigeons I could lay hands on, closed the cage and walked it to an open area.  My hawk did not move.  I turned to fetch my blind and Wham!  She blasted from the tree and landed on the cage right behind me.  I was only a few steps away.

Karen had to see this.  I put my camera down in the grass and ran for the house.  Both Karen and I were back within a few minutes, and the beautiful Cooper’s was still there trying to find a way into the cage using her very small brain hardwired with mostly instinct.

I picked up the camera and started shooting, no blind or anything.  I got so close (Karen right behind me), I could not focus and had to back up.  I dropped down on my belly to be at birds-eye level and kept on shooting.  I signaled for Karen to move toward the hawk to try to get her to stand on the dead limb lying over the cage. The devil eyed raptor complied.  I burned off a good fraction of my allowable 200,000 shutter releases on the 7D.  I only wished it had been overcast or later in the day.  The bright sun would cause undesirable harsh shadows and possible blown out regions in my photos. One must work with what he has.

I began to worry that I was causing this hungry (and possibly weakened) Coopers to burn too much energy, so I stopped shooting and put the pigeons back in the loft.  My gorgeous model moved away to find a bird meal elsewhere.  I wish her success.


PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 01/24/2017

The photo above is a 30-sec exposure of the night sky at Spring Creek Ranch.  The foreground has been “light painted.”  Later during post processing, this shot will be blended with 25 other star field shots to create a nice (I hope) entry in the night photography category.

Have you seen the nighttime sky

Have you seen the nighttime sky?  The last couple of days have provided cool clear nights with lots of stars.  I made it out to Spring Creek Ranch on Saturday evening to photo the night sky and all those stars.  During an earlier daytime trip, Karen and I picked out a special dead post oak tree that would make a good foreground subject.  There was an open space to the north of the tree so that I could shoot to the south, the direction of dense star fields.  This “astrolandscape photography” is new to me and poses a rather steep learning curve.  One thing I have never tried before is light painting.  This is where you shine a flashlight over objects in the dark during a long exposure (in my case 30 seconds), thus providing enough light to see the foreground.  This takes some practice.

I arrived at the ranch gate at 10 p.m.  About a half mile into the ranch, and through another gate, I came to the crossing at Blanco Creek.  It was pitch black – wonderful.  There is a concrete ford (little dam) at the creek crossing and water was flowing over.  I was by myself.  I knew not to drive into water of unknown depth flowing over a narrow dam, but how many more clear nights was I going to get this winter?  I judged it to be five inches deep, so took the “plunge.”  I got across safely and hoped the water did not rise while I was at the chosen photo location.  It was an eerie feeling though, crossing that creek in a super dark night by myself.

I had the coordinates of my selected tree (about a mile away) programmed into my GPS unit, and had no problem finding the spot.  I turned off the engine and stepped outside.  Wow – what an impressive night this was.  The darkness evidently provoked a nighttime chorus of all the larger animals on the ranch.  Barred Owls were calling everywhere.  Great Horned Owls were joining the cacophony already filled by packs of coyotes.  I heard deer snorting and what sounded like Barn Owls in the distance.  Some sounds I could not identify.  I wanted to sit and take it all in, but started moving my equipment into the clearing north of the tree.

The little bluestem was high and thick but my tripod would get the Canon 5D Mark II with its 14mm f/2.8 above the grass.  After a few trips back and forth, I had a table and camp chair in place, the camera on tripod, the laptop fired up and humming and I was ready to shoot.  I programmed the computer (sending commands to the camera) to take 25 thirty-second images with a five second break between shots to allow downloading the image to the laptop.  After this, I placed the lens cap over the lens and shot 25 more “dark” images. Darks are required in post processing to get rid of “hot pixels” that are always present in the camera sensor during long exposures.

It was time to do the light painting.  I started an exposure and used my big flashlight to illuminate the dead tree and surrounding area.  Once the image appeared on my computer, I was shocked to see that it was blown out completely.  I switched to my low-intensity headlamp and tried painting the foreground several more times, with decreasing amounts of light.  As I mentioned, this was my first attempt at light painting.  I was shocked at how little light was needed to get the job done.  One sweep of the headlight (about one second’s worth) was enough light to balance out the foreground.  This foreground shot will be blended into the stacked star images later.  I hope it works.

The water at the dam was still about the same depth, and I made it home about 2 am.  I had trouble falling asleep as I turned over all the post-processing steps remaining to make these images into a suitable contest photo.  The nighttime sounds are still in my mind.  I hope these beautiful dark night skies are in all of our futures.

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PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 01/16/2017

NOTICE: TECHNICAL ALERT.  While I was driving to Corpus Christi on Saturday, and old thought occupied my time.  I have a tendency to analyze things; some might say over analyze things.  You may have heard of the Golden Ratio or the Golden Rectangle.  Quite a few artists and architects (mostly from the twentieth-century) have proportioned their work to the Golden Rectangle, believing this proportion to be aesthetically pleasing.  So what is the Golden Ratio?  Two quantities are in the Golden Ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of the sum to the larger of the two quantities.  What?  Say that again.  Let me put it in terms of a formula.

Golden Ratio = ½(1 + √5) = 1.618

So as I was driving, I was thinking about the three judges that will be deciding whether my images are worthy of joining the winners.  Could there be a certain aspect ratio that (subconsciously) was most pleasing to them?  Was it the golden rectangle or some other rectangle?  I needed to know and I thought of a way to test the idea.  Two of the judges will be returning this year to judge the 2017 competition.  All the winning photos from 2015 are printed in a book, so all I needed to do was measure the aspect ratios of the images that won last time and sort them by their place in the competition.  Yesterday, I measured all 285 images in the book and did an analysis.  Here is what I found.

The graph above shows blue triangles for every winning image in the 2015 contest.  On the vertical axis, the positive numbers are aspect ratios for images captured in landscape orientation (wider than tall).  The negative numbers on the vertical axis are aspect ratios of images in the portrait orientation (taller than wide).  The horizontal axis represents winning positions one through five.  The red dots represent the Golden Ratio.

Many factors (both objective and subjective) make up the judges’ decisions to place an image in a winning category.  It appears, based on these data that aspect ratios are among them.  Notice that the triangles representing first place are clustered more tightly than places two through five.  In fact, as you move farther away from first place, the clusters of triangles are more spread out.  This tells me that the judges are considering the aspect ratios of the entries.

The average aspect ratio of first-place winners is 1.39 with a standard deviation of 0.12.  This means that 68 percent of the winning photos had aspect ratios between 1.27 and 1.51.  Ninety-five percent of the winners had aspect ratios between 1.15 and 1.67.  Notice that the Golden Ratio is almost two standard deviations from the average, so it is not playing much of a role in the judge’s decisions.

Here is my advice.  If you are entering images in a wildlife photo contest and your art will not suffer, try to crop for an aspect ratio of 1.4.  That is a 5 X 7 crop.  It might just give you a minor advantage over other entries with alternate cropping.

The contest is officially underway.  I am feeling a bit behind in getting my set ups as I want them.  I am getting there though.  Robert

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PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 01/13/2017

House set looking toward the photo blind

Getting the Shot
There are two main ways to photograph wild animals.  You can go to them – or, you can induce them to come to you.  It is possible to get great images by either method, but getting animals to come to you offers far more opportunities.  Ways of attracting wildlife to you (a set), are numerous but feeding and watering stations are at the top of my list.  I spent yesterday refurbishing old set ups and making a new one under an oak tree where there are a family of squirrels and plenty of birds.  I still need to add water drips at both locations and I will add strategically-placed perches made from native plants later.

Feeder at the House set

The two photos above are of the House Set.  It is a feeding station offering a variety of seeds (black oil sunflowers, cracked corn, millet, peanuts, suet, and mealy worms).  The feeders are concentrated for now.  I want the bird activity to be as high as possible as we approach the first day of the contest.  I will probably remove some of the feeders later.

Feeders at the Bobcat Tree

This one is the Bobcat Tree Set.  It is in a tunnel through the brush under a large live oak.  It is away from the house and along a fence line where a lot of birds and other animals move about. Even though it appears that the cluttered background will present a problem, the trees and bushes are far enough back so they will be blurred if I watch my aperture setting.  I have a mental image of fat squirrels and Green Jays fighting over who gets that last peanut.

Old homemade blind at Caliche Hill (we also call it Coyote Rock)

Feeder at Caliche Hill

The two images above are of the Caliche Hill Set.  The homemade blind has grown into the weeds, so that will make a great hide.  I have a corn feeder about 30 feet in front of it.  I hope some larger mammals come in to this one.  Think Peccary – Robert

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PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 01/12/2017

My trusty sensor cleaning tools

Squeaky Clean

I took the plunge!  Early this morning, I went through the process of cleaning the sensors on all three of my camera bodies.  It really was not so bad.  My tools were a dust blower, two sizes of sensor swabs, and some optics cleaning fluid.  One body has a full-size sensor (the same size as the old 35mm slides), but the other two have smaller ASP-C sensors (about 2/3rds of full size).  Each size requires a unique sensor swab.

I re-read what I could find on the Internet and watched a couple of YouTube videos of other brave souls doing the job.  The first step is to take a picture of a white sheet of paper.  It is quite easy to see the dust spots on a plain white background.  The Canon 5D Mark II had half a dozen ugly particles leaching on its sensor.  It was the worst of the three bodies.

I dove into the camera menu and found the entry that allows for locking up the mirror to expose the sensor. I took the lens off and faced the body downward.  I vigorously blasted air into the innards of the camera.  The idea is that some dust will be knocked loose and fall out of the camera by the force of gravity.

Next, I cut open the sealed package containing a sterile sensor swab.  I applied a few drops of cleaning fluid to the edge of the swab and carefully (I do mean carefully) situated the swab at one end of the sensor, applied some pressure, and wiped across the sensor.  I put the lens back on and took another photo of the white sheet of paper.  The dust was gone!  With bolstered confidence, I cleaned the other two sensors.  I felt proud of myself.  It is satisfying to do a tedious job using the proper tools and have a positive outcome.

While I had all the cameras out and on the desk, I reset their internal date and time to my computers clock.  Can you imagine going through the entire contest and then discovering that you had the wrong year set in your camera?  No amount of groveling and begging would convince the contest officials to allow your images to compete.  All the time and money would be for naught.

Oh by the way, the feeding station near our deck is now a regular stop for Green Jays, Audubon’s Orioles, House Finches, and several other photogenic species.  These guys don’t know that I am about to capture their essences (without their permission) for my own purposes.  I will add a blind to the setup sometime today – Robert

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PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 01/09/2017

Scary Sensors

Yesterday was lovely weather – the sort for which south Texas winters are known.  We undressed the Christmas Tree in the morning and I spent the afternoon trying new custom settings on my Canon 7D Mark II.  I mounted the 300mm f2.8 with a 1.4X teleconverter and drove up to Pawnee to look for ducks and hawks for practice.  I wanted some birds-in-flight shots, but no one cooperated with my plan.  I chased a lazy Red-tailed Hawk down a powerline for about 10 minutes.  She would land on a pole and glare at me.  I would have to get out of my pickup, walk under the pole and wave my arms to flush her into the air.  She would glide down from her perch, dropping below the horizon so I could not get a clear picture of her in the blue sky (the shot I wanted).  She would swoop up to the next pole in the line and wait for me to do it all over again.  Finally, I gave up and let her continue surveying her domain for cottontails and woodrats.

The Contest begins in just six days.  I am excited about getting started soon.  I have several tasks to complete this week.  Some are scary and I am apprehensive about tackling them.  The scariest is cleaning the dust off my camera sensors.  As you likely know, every time the lens is changed on a DSLR camera, the precious internal sensor (that forms the image) is subjected to the surrounding atmosphere.  The sensors can and will pick up dust particles over time.  The cameras have a sophisticated internal system to remove this dust involving shaking the low-pass filter in front of the sensor at ultrasonic frequencies and collecting it onto an adhesive pad.  This does not always work.  After time, stubborn particles build up on the sensor and show up in the images.  Unacceptable.  The only thing to do is clean the sensor.  Disregarding the wiser plan of sending my camera bodies in to Canon for cleaning (time consuming and expensive), I plan to attempt it myself this week.  Making the slightest mistake can destroy the camera and put me out of the contest.  Some of my colleagues scream, “don’t try it” but I am ignoring their admonitions.  I have three camera bodies to do and I will let you know how I fare.

I have picked up a few new subscribers over the last few days and I want to thank you all for spreading the word about my BLOG and email newsletter that you are receiving.  I am measuring my success (partly) by the number of subscribers, so please do let anyone know, that might be interested, to contact me at benson.farm@gmail.com or go to the left-hand column to sign up – Robert

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PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 01/06/2017

A Study in Full-stall Landings
Modern DSLR Cameras are amazing.  There is a constant war between the top manufacturers to snatch away every fragment of market share they can manage.  Although there are several players, Nikon and Canon squabble at the top of the pile.  Their weapons are better and faster sensors, higher quality lenses, and more features (think watchmaker-like design and clever in-camera software).  These regular innovative improvements have made previously impossible images within the grasp of most photographers.

Let me mention just one example.  Automatic camera focusing systems have become so sophisticated that sometimes all one needs to do is point the camera in the direction of the subject. The camera evaluates what it sees through the lens and decides what you must mean to be the target of interest, and maintains focus (focus following) on that target even if it moves up or down or right or left or backwards or forwards.  Even if the subject moves out of the frame, the camera predicts its future position so that when the photographer does get the lens pointed in the right direction, the subject is already in focus.  All you need do it push the shutter release.  Look at this Green Heron flying across a pond and landing on the other bank.

I was creeping up the dam’s embankment hoping to get a shot of some ducks that were loafing on the surface.  I was carrying my Canon 7D Mark II with a 300mm lens attached.  My camera was preprogrammed to lock on to the nearest object at the center of the frame and then follow that object, keeping it in focus, even if it rapidly moved from its initial position.  I had not seen the Green Heron.

As I peeped above the dam, the ducks lifted off almost vertically with splashing sounds and throaty squawks, leaving a trail of water behind their webbed feet.  The much slower Green Heron came up from the edge of the water and dashed across the pond from left to right.  She headed into the wind toward the cattails.  At the last second, she pitched her wings upwards to slow for full-stall landing.  The normal laminar flow of air across her body was disrupted and turbulence formed in curls among her feathers.  This all happened fast and the good old 7D kept focus as I wheeled around to follow the action.  I snapped this image just before she landed.  Every feather outlines the contours of the stall-induced turbulence.  Before cameras like the Canon 7D Mark II, this would have been an almost impossible shot.  I can now do this sort of thing routinely.

Eight days until the contest begins.  I cannot wait.  Robert, www.reflectionstexas.com

p.s. When the streamlined (laminar) flow of air over the wings of an airplane is broken, the wing loses lift and the airplane falls.  Some people mistakenly think that a stalled aircraft means the engine stopped.  Not so.  Even a sailplane (glider) without an engine can stall and regularly does that on purpose at landing – Robert.

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PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 01/03/2017

The Contest

One reason the Wildlife in Focus photo contest attracts some of the top photographers in the world is its unique balance between prize money and conservation.  The photographs taken during the contest enhance the appreciation of wildlife and its habitat while showing landowners the aesthetic and economic rewards of avoiding land fragmentation.  Wildlife in Focus, a non-profit organization, has several programs intended to promote a closer connection to the natural environment.  An example is Kritters 4 Kids aimed at elementary and middle school education.

All of this is good, but let us not forget that this contest offers photographers and landowners the largest purse of any wildlife photo contest out there (at least that I can discover).  Photographers and landowners in 2017 are competing for $60,000 in prize money.  This arrangement always attracts top photographers from around the country and sometimes even outside of the United States.  The quality of the competition is very high.  I think there will be more than 30 photographers in the contest.

Any time money is involved there must be rules.  Along with the highest prize money, this contest has the most extensive set of rules I have seen.  I read over and study these rules on a regular basis.  Who wants one of his or her best images disqualified owing to a rule violation?  Most of the rules have to do with assuring bookprint-quality images and ethical use of the wildlife and habitat being photographed (all important and good).  With a pot like this at stake, there is a chance that an occasional photographer will be tempted to violate rules to get that special shot.  I choose to believe that this will not happen.  I will follow the rules precisely.  I will work right up to the edge if necessary, but I will stay “legal.”  It would be an empty win otherwise – Robert.

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PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 01/02/2017

NOTICE: TECHNICAL ALERT.  One of the contest categories is Night Photography.  I have never entered an image into this category before, but I am going to give it a go in 2017.  There are several ways to approach taking photos at night. All methods are intended to overcome insufficient lighting.  Using a flash or some other form of artificial illumination is one way.  Another is to open the camera shutter and allow photons to pour in for a long time, thus accumulating sufficient natural light to form an image.  Long exposure is one method that I want to try.

If you do a long exposure with stars in the sky and a camera on a tripod, you will get star trails in arches around the celestial pole (North Pole in our case).  Star trail photos are easy to do and we have all seen them before.  So have the contest judges.  I may enter one like that myself, but I want to try some more challenging techniques too.

What’s needed is a method of collecting vast numbers of photons and avoiding star trails.  This can be done by taking a series of relatively short exposures (star trails will not be noticeable) and then stacking (aligning) the individual images to get the necessary light.  A few nights ago, I tried this technique just for practice. I programmed my camera to take 15 sequential photos of the northeastern sky, each individual image exposed for 25 seconds.  That is a total exposure of 6 ¼ minutes.  Below is just one of those 15 images.

Just one of the 15 exposures I used to create the final image. Only the brightest stars can be seen.

I downloaded a free program, Deepskystacker (DSS) from the Internet.  I fed all 15 images into DSS and let it slide around and rotate the images so that the stars in each image were right on top of each other.  The result was impressive.

The composite image after all 15 images were stacked.

I will need to improve my technique to make these images competitive.  This is a start.  Notice the blurred leafless trees at the bottom of the image.  Since the star movement has been subtracted, the stationary trees are now moving (blurred).  This must be fixed by using masking in Photoshop.  Isn’t modern photography fun? – Robert.

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PHOTO CONTEST BLOG – 01/01/2017

This little guy with dirty feet was in the greenhouse sharing a hanging basket with some Yellowjackets.

Green Frogs

It’s not daylight yet and it is peaceful.  I had my first cup of coffee on the deck just to get a sense of the beginning hours of the New Year.  It is dark and still.  The unseen flotsam from last night’s fireworks litter the yard.  I have to be very quiet not to wake a house crowded with sleeping grandchildren and their parents. There are a few sounds propagating through the opaque atmosphere.  I hear a band of coyotes howling toward the south and my wife’s rooster is crowing from the chicken pen.  Behind the house, is a pair of Eastern Screech Owls calling softly to each other.  It is hard to imagine a better start to the year.

Yesterday in the greenhouse, we discovered an appropriately “Green” Tree Frog peering from vegetation in a hanging basket.  I have ordered everyone to leave him or her alone and to not venture into the greenhouse at all. With absolutely no evidence, I am calling it a “him.”  I want the “little green man” to stay right there in that pot until the 15th of this month!  That is when the Wildlife in Focus photo contest begins and I am a contestant for the fifth time.  In previous contests, I have never fared as well as my enthusiasm had predicted.  This time I am putting everything I’ve got into winning.  If the frog stays there, he will be my subject on the first day of the competition.

This BLOG will be an admixture of my thoughts, planning, execution, techniques, successes and failures over the next five months.  I’m not the best photographer in the contest and my equipment is not the most expensive, but I have a good mind (at 73) and my energy level is high. These will be my winning assets, even if I cannot afford a Canon EOS-1DX and an 800mm f/5.6L IS USM lens.

Oh, here is one more thing.  This BLOG is not meant to sell you anything or to use your email address for any reason other than sending you this text.  It will feel good to have you all along on the journey, looking over my shoulder and keeping me on task.  The more of you the better, so if you know someone that might enjoy vicariously experiencing the life of an obsessed naturalist and photographer, please ask him or her to contact me about receiving the BLOG.  Robert Benson benson.farm@gmail.com. – Robert