Tony Beck - Photography, Nature and Birding Tours, Local Birding Excursions

Archive for the ‘Technical Discussions’ Category

Polar Photography – Dealing With The Challenges

Adelie Penguins - black & white subjects are a challenge for the camera meter

Adelie Penguins - black & white subjects are a challenge for the camera meter

As adventurers, we tend to seek unusual travel destinations. We need to satisfy an insatiable appetite for discovering remote parts of the world. Inevitably, these isolated destinations come with extreme conditions – rugged landscape, unpredictable wildlife, inhospitable environments and harsh weather. Yet the wilderness calls us. And, we answer.
Fortunately, thanks to advances in digital photography, it’s never been easier to document such adventures. Even tiny cameras can produce high-quality images with just the push of a button.
But, extreme conditions come with challenges. Polar regions in particular will test the limits of any modern electronic gadget. Beware of ice, snow, wind, salt, moisture and extreme light.

Here are a few simple recommendations:

1) Cold temperatures eat battery power. Battery life is much shorter in the cold. Keep spare batteries handy – ALWAYS! If possible, keep them warm in a pocket close to your body. When you replace batteries, return the used ones to your warm pocket. There may still be some juice there.

2) Keep things dry / protect your equipment. I use a large, padded, weather-resistant backpack with an additional rain-cover that folds out from the lining. I sometimes also use a solid waterproof Pelican Case. There’s a lot of protective gear available on the market. Search for the right products that match your needs and equipment. At the very least, carry a large plastic garbage bag or heavy-duty zip-lock bag. It will keep your equipment dry for short periods, or during less severe situations.

3) Watch your exposure, especially with black or white subjects – both ends of the visible colour spectrum. In Polar Regions, you can expect a lot of highly reflective snow cover. Camera meters are calibrated to read mid-range colours, and have trouble dealing with extremes like snow scenes. Black & White subjects, like an Adelie Penguin or Thick-billed Murre, can pose severe exposure challenges. I deal with exposure issues later, while viewing my images on a computer. I fix imperfections with a photo editor like Photoshop, Elements or Nikon Capture. However, learning to use the editors takes time. Fortunately with digital cameras, we have the advantage of reviewing the image immediately after exposure. Look at your results right away, and compensate your exposure with your camera’s exposure controls. Try using several different exposure settings (bracketing), take lots of pictures, and review your results as you go. At least one of the images is bound to work. Many new digital cameras have auto-braketing functions.

4) Bring two of everything. You never know when something will fail, break, or even disappear. Although doubling your camera inventory isn’t always practical, if you have the capacity, it might save you in time of need. I always travel with two cameras, and several lenses. But, even a little compact camera will work as a spare. It may not replace your DSLR. But, it’s better than nothing if your good camera expires.

5) Memorize your owner’s manual. At least, bring your manual with you when you travel. Most digital cameras have a myriad of functions and features. Your manual will familiarize you with them. It should also inform you how to deal with extremes such as snow and cold.

6) Take lots of pictures. Bring plenty of memory cards. And, don’t ever hesitate to press the shutter release. You can always delete the bad pics if necessary.

You’re about to travel on the trip of a lifetime, a place where few have dared to venture. Be prepared, and you’ll capture all the beauty, drama and joy to share later with the world.

Polar Bear - another tricky exposure challenge

Polar Bear - another tricky exposure challenge

The immaculate beauty of our vast polar regions are waiting to be discovered

The immaculate beauty of our vast polar regions are waiting to be discovered

Humpback Whales from the Zodiac - be prepared to capture the excitement

Humpback Whales from the Zodiac - be prepared to capture the excitement

Beginning Birdwatching

Northern Raven chasing light morph Rough-legged Hawk

Northern Raven chasing light morph Rough-legged Hawk

So, you want to start birding?

You’ve got Blue Jays, Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees and White-crowned Sparrows visiting your back yard – little treasures brightening the day as they frolic through your garden. But, where are all those other birds I see in books, TV, and postage stamps? Do I have to be a part of  David Attenborough’s camera crew to see those?

If you only birdwatch from your back-yard, then you’ll only observe a limited number of species, typically ones that prefer suburban habitats.

If you’d like to enter an entirely new world of birds then you’ll need to travel beyond the neighbourhood. Many species prefer different habitats to urban settings. And, each different habitat attracts different species. In order to see great diversity, you’ll have to visit as many different environments as possible.

Most communities have set aside greenspace for recreational use – walking trails through forests, boardwalks through wetlands, even grassland trails and open space along water edges…  There’s likely several of these within proximity of your home. And, then there are the more elaborate parklands, often federally funded and organized. Take advantage of these whenever you can.

But, where do you start?

Try Google first. The internet is full of good information about where to find birds in your area.

Use the word “birds” plus the name of your town, city or neighbourhood. Enter them into the search engine and see what comes up. You might find volumes of information there.

Next, make sure you have a good set of binoculars (click here to read my blog entry about selecting binoculars for birding: ).

You’ll  also want a good reference book to check your sightings.

The “field guides” I recommend the most for North America are as follows:

1)  National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America

2)  National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America

3)   National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Western North America

4)   The Sibley Guide to Birds

5)   The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America

6)   The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America

You now own good binoculars, a couple of excellent field guides, and you’re keen to observe new species. Is there a way to observe more effectively and efficiently?
Although each of us observes birds differently, there is a general, systematic approach to bird-identification.

Most times, all we need is a quick glimpse of something and we know what it is. A bold colour, a certain shape…  our mind reacts instantaneously to what we see.  And, the more we observe, the quicker we’re able to react.

However, there are other times we need to think carefully before making an identification – the bird might not be familiar, or the bird is not clearly in view.

Here are some of the steps to follow:

* SIZE – compare the size of your bird to other birds you’re familiar with. Common species like sparrows, crows and geese all offer a reference in which to compare a bird you’re unfamiliar with.

* SHAPE – This is critical! Often this is the easiest way to recognize differences between similar species. How long is that beak? How short is the tail? How plump is that bird? Is the tail forked or flat? Is the head round or square? What do the legs look like? What shape are those wings? Even when you can’t see colour or plumage detail, subtle details of shape can stand out.

* BOLD CHARACTER – When we observe birds, some characters are obvious – bold colour, distinctive shapes, bold contrasting marks… Some species have unique characters that stand out. Once you’ve recognized them, your identification process need go no further.

* HABITAT – Every species has adapted to a specific set of conditions. In order to survive, each species needs to associate itself with the environment it’s best adapted to. Otherwise, it has to re-adapt, and that requires effort and energy.

For example: a Wood Thrush is comfortable in a deciduous woodland. It will have trouble surviving in a wetland, or urban environment – habitats they’re not adapted to. A Bobolink requires grassland to breed, and find food. It can’t find what it needs in a forest or swamp. If you know which environment the species prefers, or which species you’re likely to find in the habitat you’re exploring, you are better prepared to make correct bird identifications.

* TIME-OF-YEAR – Birds have wings, and can travel great distances. Birds sometimes breed in different places to where they spend the non-breeding season. Understanding this dynamic will help you identify species. A Chipping Sparrow looks a lot like an American Tree Sparrow. However, an American Tree Sparrow has never bred in my home-patch while the Chipping Sparrow is a common nester. The reverse is also true – A Chipping Sparrow is rare in winter while the American Tree Sparrow is common. Some species are common as passage migrants (spring and/or fall) while some species are here only in the summer . Others are here all year. Knowing what time of year each species is present in your area will greatly enhance your ability to make correct identifications.

* BEHAVIOUR – As unique as a bird’s appearance is the way it behaves. Each species moves in a way that can sometimes assist in revealing its identity. Does it pump its tail? Does it bob its head? How does the bird fly? Does it fly straight, or does it undulate in a rhythmic pattern? How deep are its wing beats? How does it forage for food? On the ground, does it hop or walk? How does it perch – vertical or horizontal? Does it swim, soar, run, swoop, flap, glide… all these things can help in determining its identity.

* SOUND – every species has its own unique language. Some species have a wide variety of sounds it makes. Many have elaborate vocalizations during courtship. Some have simple call notes while others make sounds with body parts. Recognizing the language of each species will enhance your birdwatching experience greatly.

* PLUMAGE DETAIL – finally – after sorting through all the above items, you need to study plumage detail. This is when you need to know the birds “topography” – like studying a map of the bird. You can start by looking at the bird’s head, working your way down the back, side, front, wings, rump, legs then tail… constantly noting colour, pattern, shape, or any other subtle characters. With difficult bird-identification challenges, this is the only way to make a correct bird-identification.

Now you have it… you’re a birdwatcher. The exciting world of birds awaits you. There is adventure around every corner!

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

My Camera Equipment

male Wilson's Phalarope

male Wilson's Phalarope

The question most often asked of my photography is “what equipment do you use?”.
I’ve been a Nikon user since I bought my first SLR back in the early 1980’s.
For many years I used the dependable Nikon FM2, later adding Nikon F4 to the mix. I resisted the change to digital until the end of 2006 when I finally bought a DSLR in the form of a Nikon D200.
I quickly realized the versatility of a good digital camera.
Shortly after, the D300 came out, and everything changed for me.
I immediately became comfortable with a fast and responsive auto focus (I preferred  manual focus up to this point).
With the D300’s clean, high-quality sensor, and the ability to change ISO in the middle of a photo-shoot,
I found myself capturing images under conditions I never would have tried with film.

Now, with Nikon’s amazing D3s (possibly the best commercial camera ever made), I feel unstoppable as a photographer, approaching any assignment with complete confidence.

Here is what I’m currently using for the vast majority of shoots.

* Nikon D3s
* Nikon D700
* Nikon D300

* AF-S Nikkor 300mm f4D ED-IF (two of them)
* AF Zoom-Nikkor 80 – 200mm f2.8D ED
* AF-S ED Zoom-Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G
* AF-S DX VR Zoom -Nikkor 18 – 200mm f3.5-5.6 GII ED IF

* AF-S Teleconverter TC-14E II

* Manfrotto Monopod with joystick head
* Various generic gunstock shoulder supports.
* (rarely used anymore) Manfrotto Tripod

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Making Bird Noises

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

A sunny winter’s afternoon, inside a sheltered woodlot, strolling along a well-packed trail, I encounter a family -parents with their youngsters. “Have you seen the owl?” I ask. “No.” they respond, “… is there one here?” I then proceed several metres along the trail, veer off the beaten track another few metres and say, “Up there, in the upper quarter of the cedar.” There it is, a gorgeous Barred Owl, seemingly oblivious to our presence. The young, rosy-cheeked boy, about 10 or 11 years old, lifts his binoculars. “It’s beautiful!” he exclaims. Hearing his innocent enthusiasm and seeing his look of amazement, I’m overcome with feelings of satisfaction and hope.