Fall migration

I look outside, and I see new faces. I paddle the waters of Tomales Bay, and I begin to see species that weren’t here a few weeks ago. When I kayak at night, I begin to hear the whistle of surf scoter wings, as I inadvertently paddle through a group of them. The fall bird migration has been well underway for several weeks now, and some of my feathered friends have left for the season. It’s okay though, as others are arriving to share the winter sunlight with me.

These massive flocks of Surf Scoters are some of my winter time visitors, that are now arriving in large numbers

So, if you are interested in photographing birds, now is a great time to make it out and about. Some species have already peaked on their pass through the northern latitudes, but others are on their way, and some will settle in. You have your chance to capture images of birds that aren’t always around. Enjoy it, and take it as an excuse to make it outdoors and explore.

Where I live there are both resident and migrant Marbled Godwits, it is their numbers that vary

Who are your favorite migrants to photograph?

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Posted in birds, kayak photography, nature photography, Photo Essay, photography, wildlife photography | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Chickadee in a spider’s web

One day while kayaking with a friend, I saw something I never imagined to see. A Chestnut-backed Chickadee with its wind stuck in a spider’s web. There were actually many of these thick spiderwebs around, and several chickadees, but only one that I saw with its wing enmeshed in a web. I took some photographs from my kayak before beaching on the shore to try and free the poor thing, but it was a ways back in some very thick trees.

I searched for a way in, an approach, but before I could find one it freed itself. It had been stuck there in the web for at least a few minutes however, straining against those gossamer strands.

The Chickadee with its wing stuck in the web

It was a cold, gray day. The light was dim. There was no real reason for me to head out and explore, except that I knew there might be something out there that I had never seen before (that and it always feels good to be moving around outdoors). Little did I imagine that it would be something so macabre.

So much larger than the frail strands of the spider's web, yet it sits there trapped

I’d seen specials about spiders in other parts of the world that actually have captured and eaten birds. That sounded so remote and far away though, reserved for those “exotic” locals. It didn’t seem a part of my normal world, although I don’t think that these spiders (they were rather tiny) were really equipped to eat prey such as this small feathered flyer. It seemed that in such a case, letting nature take its course would have been the tragedy, since if it hadn’t escaped, it might have been doomed to a slow death of thirst (unless some enterprising predator came along… perhaps it does all balance out).

Trying to pull away from the sticky strands

Looking to see what has it so firmly in its grasp, its view is blocked by its own wing

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Moonfire on the beach

I went kayak camping the other weekend, and the tides were especially high. The small, remote beach we were camping on had a fire ring built by previous occupants. Normally, the pit would have been usable for a normal fire, but with the extra high tide, the water levels and the bright moon made a new type of fire possible- moonfire. The tides left us with little room on the beach, but with a new experience.

Warming (or would it be chilling) ourselves around the moonfire

The photographs are nothing exceptional, but they were very fun to make, requiring us to hold still for 30 seconds at a time. It also was fun playing with the placement of the moons reflection. A tripod was used, as was the camera timer to reduce shake, since I forgot to bring the cable release along.

Moonfire and a glassy bay

Cameras, kayaks, and camping… what could be better?

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Photographer’s dream

I just found out that Air New Zealand and NZ’s D.O.C. have come up with the Great Walker contest, and it sounds like a photographer’s dream. Nine weeks to walk New Zealand’s Nine Great Walks, all paid for. All you have to do is get some exercise, take some pictures, and blog about it. Four winners total. I’m working on my entry now, so that means there will be three spots left. I hope my followers and blog friends enter and win at least one other spot, so that they can join me for the most epic photo outing ever imagined.

Normally I wouldn’t promote a contest, but this opportunity sounds too amazing, and I would love it if I was responsible for helping a winner to learn about this fantastic chance. New Zealand is a beautiful country, and made for cameras, hiking and backpacking (of course one of the “Great Walks” is actually a river that you have to canoe or kayak down! Sweet as!)

To get you in the mood, here is a shot from this geothermal wonderland called New Zealand, where hot springs actually bubble out of the beach, and you can dig your own pool to soak in, as the waves lap over you-

Getting ready to dig into the sizzling sands of New Zealand

Deadline is Monday, October 22nd, 5 pm New Zealand time. Which is a day earlier in the U.S.- 9 pm Pacific time on the 21st! Don’t let the time zones mess up your entry. Good luck- I hope to be tramping with one (or even three of you) come February.

Posted in New Zealand, photography | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Simple security for your lost camera

I was listening to one of my favorite radio shows the other day- The Vinyl Cafe with Stuart Maclean- and he had a story about a woman that had lost her camera, and it had several years of photos on it. She was lucky. A good samaritan found the camera smashed on the side of the road, rescued the memory card from it and looked at the photos for clues. She was able to identify a school in the photos, and tracked down the owner, returning hundreds of memories to her. Imagine however if there were no easily found places on the camera however, like a school, if all of the photos were inside a house or yard, or of hiking… no way to find the owner.

There’s a simple solution for this that I’ve used over the years (other than making sure you regularly download all of your photos and back them up). It is not fool proof, as it depends on the goodwill of others, but each time you format your memory card, a picture of your business card, or of a piece of paper with your name and address, and make it the very first photograph that you make. Like so-

A simple statement is all that is needed. Name, phone number, and email. If you want you can include your address too, but it can be nice not having everyone know where you live

You can also do this with your smart phones and other devices. Have a laptop? Put the information in your photo library. I also do a similar trick with all of my travel documents, whenever I am going on a trip. I don’t keep an image of them on my phone, but instead in my email. I wrote a post about it recently for Matador travel. You can read it here- Keeping copies of travel documents, even when you lose them

Again, it won’t work in every case, and it won’t always get your camera returned to you, but hopefully someone will at least send you your memory card, which can be worth so much more.

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Focus on the eyes. Really.

I’ve written about this before, and I’ll write about it again. Ask almost any photographer, and they will tell you the same- Focus on the eyes when taking pictures. It doesn’t matter whether you are photographing people or animals, birds or bobcats, this is advice to shoot by.

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The windows are, as they say, the windows to the soul, and when we truly capture them in a photograph, they can draw us in and let us feel a powerful connection to the subject. Eyes that are out of focus will not do this. Our own eyes will automatically be drawn to the parts of the image that are in focus, and it seems a little harder to establish a rapport with someone’s nose.

This was shot at a very shallow depth of field, and you can notice the tip of the nose and the hair are already out of the focal plane

It’s more than just drawing the audience in. It is also hedging our bets on making sure that more of the important details are in focus. The eyes are sort of mid way (distance wise) between the tip of the nose and the ears. Go ahead, imagine there is a camera right in front of you, staring back at you. Touch your nose, then your eyes, then your ears. Your eyes are right in the middle. This means that if you focus on the eyes, you are more likely to have the entire face in focus. If you aim for the nose, the ears have more chance of being out of focus, and vice versa. This can be minimized to some degree by adjusting your aperture so that you have a larger depth of field (although when shooting in low light this is not always possible.)

With the shallow depth of field, there is no way to have both the nose and eyes in focus. You can use this however for a more dynamic photo

When shooting profiles, the difference in focal planes is usually minimized. Think about how far a beak or a nose can stick out, when facing toward the camera. Rotate that same face sideways, and many of the facial features will be in a single plane that runs parallel, or nearly parallel to the camera’s focal plane. This makes it easier, but it is still a good idea to pay attention to the eyes and try to focus on them.

Notice how just the head of this east Sandpiper is in focus. The body, legs, and beak tip are all fading into blur

Now look at this profile of the Least Sandpiper. Much less is blurred out, although the camera settings are identical

Another advantage to focusing on the eyes, is that you can notice when there is sunlight or another light source sparking or glinting in the eye. That glint can add a lot of life to the photograph. I know of several professional photographers that will add that light afterwards in post production, or will use a flash, just so that it will light up there eyes with that spark. I myself don’t really see the need for that, since, with a little attention, you can get that light there naturally, just by paying attention and timing it right. Also, if you are shooting wildlife, that flash can be rather disturbing and can scare them off, ruining your chances for more photographs.)

Notice the light reflected in the eyes?

There are however times, when it is best not to just watch the eyes. Safer.

Sometimes its best not to focus on the eyes, but to pay attention to other things

Posted in How To, nature photography, photography, portraits | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Silhouettes: An essay in photos

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I was feeling a little inspired by my post of a few days ago- Silhouettes on the water, and thought I would post some of the silhouettes I’ve photographed over the ages. And if any of you would like to post a link to your favorite silhouettes that you have taken, feel free to do so in the comment section below. Happy shooting,


PS if there are particular images that people like, I can go over their creation in a future post

Anything can become a silhouette in the right light, even a cattle chute

Silhouettes are not limited to nearby objects

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Silhouettes on the water

Creating a silhouette can be a quick, yet powerful way of making a dynamic image. They cut out the extraneous details, bringing the photograph down to a simplified field of light and dark, to outlines and shapes. The fine details are removed, and only the big important shapes remain.

Today I will talk mostly about making silhouettes of a kayaker, while photographing from a kayak, but many of the technical details will carry true, whether you are on or off the water, shooting animals, people or plants, since creating a silhouette is essentially placing your subject between you and a light source.

The brightest light source is behind, under, and around the kayaker, turning them into the essence of kayaking, by removing the individuality and fine details, that sails through a sea of light

Notice that the kayaker is in mid stroke. She is in movement, frozen in action. Which makes sense, since kayaks are for movement, transportation, paddling. She is facing to the left, so I placed her on the far side, so that the audience feels like she has plenty of open space that she will be traveling through- it helps to lead them through the photograph instead of right off of the edge and out of the image (as would happen if I placed her on the left hand side of the frame).

A very nice image as far as exposing for a silhouette goes, but the audience’s attention is partially grabbed by the pelican flying by in the background, since that is where the action is. The kayaker isn’t doing much of interest.

A silhouette is created by exposing for a very bright light source behind the subject, and allowing for the subject to be completely underexposed. It is important to pay attention to things such as arms, legs, and head however, since the placement of these can become more powerful during a silhouette. Notice the kayakers arms and hands aren’t very visible. The head is blocked up within their shapes… we can’t really tell what they are doing (looking through binoculars), because not enough attention was paid to their outline. If the kayaker was seen in more of a profile, it would be a better image, with better defined body shapes. As it is, the pelican is the most interesting part of the image. A relative failure as far as photographs go.

A partial silhouette. We can make out some of the color and detail of the kayaker, yet they are backlit by strong light.

This image has nice composition. The sky and water have good color. The kayaker however is only a partial silhouette. It would be a more powerful image, if the contrast was a little greater, and the details of the kayaker disappeared into shadow a little more. As it is, the partial colors and details can be a little distracting. It begs the question of whether it was a poor attempt at creating a silhouette, or of only properly exposing the kayaker. Whole hog or half hog, which is better? Sometimes the light and composition can still carry the photograph through, other times…

In the end, silhouettes are really fun to play around with. Your best times will be early morning and late evening, when the sun is lower in the sky, and therefore easier to place behind your subject. When kayaking it can be a little easier, since the water will spread out the sunlight, creating a larger light source. Light mists and fogs, can serve the same purpose as they diffuse the sun into a greater source.

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Posted in How To, kayak photography, nature photography, photography, portraits | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

How to photograph fireworks

I wrote this last year, and decided I should repost it…

It’s actually pretty easy to get the technical parts right, when taking pictures of fireworks, which means the important part is to think ahead and decide where you want to be in relation to the firework display, and what else you will want in your photograph.

I learned how to photograph fireworks, well, ummm… two days ago on the fourth of July, and it only took a simple web search and a few minutes of reading. Here is what I learned, but simplified.

1. Use a tripod. Your exposures will be 1-15 seconds long. You need to keep your camera still. Use a remote shutter release or your camera’s timer.

2. If you have the option to set your ISO, set it between 100 and 400. (Many of the articles I read in my search said 100, but I found I prefered 320 so that I could have a faster shutter speed.)

3. If you can set your aperture, set it between f8.0 and f16. This gives a good depth of field, without slowing down the shutter speed to much.

4. Turn off your autofocus if you can and focus on infinity. If you can’t, try to focus on a point near where the fireworks will be and lock your focus on that.

5. Set your shutter speed between 1 second and 15 seconds. The length of the shutter speed should depend on bow many bursts you want in the photograph at one time. The longer the exposure, the busier the image. The shorter the exposure, the more you are focused on just one or two explosions.

6. Start taking the picture when you see the firework launch. Your exposure is long, so it will catch all the action you want and more.

That covers most of the technical aspects. You should also think about what lens to use. If you are close to the fireworks, use a wide lens. You won’t be able to track the rockets very easily, so you will want to improve your chances by photographing more of the night sky. When I took my photos, I was mostly using a 70-200mm because I was farther away, and my only other lens I had brought was my 16-35 mm. The lens I wish I had brought was my 24-70 mm, which would have given me a little more of the boats and water, while still capturing the action.

Happy shooting,


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In honor of the Golden Gates 75th

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Today there were many celebrations for the Golden Gate Bridge’s 75th anniversary of its opening up to the public. While I was not able to attend the celebrations, I thought I would post some of the photographs I have taken over the years of this iconic creation.

I’ve noticed that nearly all of the photographs I’ve made of this bridge have been from the northern side, up in the Marin Headlands. There have of course been the occasional forays to Fort Point on the San Francisco side, and even a few shots taken while passing under the bridge on the way to and from fishing… I suppose I am largely a creature of habit however.

Watching the surfers from the San Francisco side of the bridge

No matter where I stand however, this bridge has always impressed me, as it sits there, guarding us, guarding the ocean, acting as a portal to our dreams.

Such a different bridge from underneath, so little of its red color noticeable as it is cast in shadow

For more detailed information on some of these photographs you can read

Photographing the Golden Gate Bridge at sunrise
The Surfer and the Bridge
Or you can look at my photo essay of people as they surf by under the bridge

Posted in landscapes, Location, nature photography, photography | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Photographing the common in preparation for the uncommon

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One of the greatest aids to becoming a good photographer is to create images of what you find around you. Photograph what interests you, what you can find easily in your day to day life. We are used to seeing what is around us with our eyes, but need to learn how to see what is around us with our cameras. Photograph something that intrigues you from all angles- from the side or up high, from down low or a strange angle. Move close, move away… play.

Me, I like birds, so I take pictures of my local common birds. They are easy, yet challenging, and even better- I learn about their behavior as I try to see how close or how expressive I can make my photographs. I create portraits of my local sparrows.

Close up portrait of a White-crowned Sparrow

And I don’t stop there. I also photograph the various gulls that I see on the beach. The Blackbirds that land in the grasses and willows not so far from my house. Even though I’ve captured great images of more “interesting” and even rare and endangered birds, I will keep shooting photos of these more common locals, and not just for a single reason, but for many.

It’s always good to stay in practice. The more we are handling our cameras and viewing the results of our actions, the more reliably we can take the types of photographs we want. If I go a week without really taking any photographs, I can notice a difference in how many times I click the shutter before I get the image I want. When I am shooting regularly, things just seem to “click” better.

If I wasn’t taking pictures regularly I might not have photographed this rare Yellow-billed Loon so nicely

As I learn to follow the behavior of my local birds, I can predict their actions better, which means I can be ready when they are about to do something interesting. I learn clues that help me prepare for those “moments.” And I find that learning the behavior of one bird helps me to also understand how other, similar species of bird may act.

By watching Common Loons and Red-throated Loons, I was able to predict this rare Yellow-billed Loon rising up out of the water and shaking off droplets

Another bonus to learning and photographing your local birds is that it makes it easier to notice when an uncommon bird comes around. It helps us to be ready and to notice things that are different.

The Willit is a common bird where I live, but is it common where you are?

What is common where I live, may be a nearly unheard of species where someone else lives. By taking a photograph of a common, local bird or object, you are creating something that can be shared with others that might not ever have a chance to experience it otherwise. I live near the ocean, so I have many types of shorebird and seabird that I encounter. I travel an hour inland, and see species that I never even realized lived so closely, that I’d never seen before. Different habitats, different birds. If I go even farther- say to the East Coast or to a different country, the differences can be even greater.

Two different species of Shag, that I had to travel across oceans to experience, yet since I had practiced photographing my own local birds, I was ready for them

Finally, someone, someday has to take the best photograph ever of that local species of bird… why shouldn’t it be you?

Posted in birds, How To, nature photography, New Zealand, Photo Essay, photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Photographing a skunk… sort of

I sometimes wonder what it says about me, that when I see this-

A skunks tail waving like a flag above the grass

I do not turn my own tail and head the other direction. Instead, if it is not already in my hand, I grab my camera and set off in pursuit. Judging from my own case, there is a short circuit within a photographer’s brain, and the danger and self-preservation sections are bypassed. There are so many possible pictures out there, yet I am always convinced that by dangling from the safety railing that is meant to keep me out, by scaling things I shouldn’t unencumbered (yet attempt with thirty to forty pounds of camera gear strapped to various points of my body), by entering the cow pasture with the serious looking bull with large horns, weighing in at well over ten times my own weight, or, in this case following around a wild skunk that is not used to the presence of humans, that I can get a better photograph… And sometimes I’m right… and sometimes, not so much so.

Following the skunk through the grass I was able to get some images of the tell-tale stripes on the back

First off the Mandatory Disclaimer: I do not recommend that anyone try to photograph a wild skunk that is spotted out and about in the day time. Skunks are nocturnal, and if you see one during daylight hours, (especially around midday like this one) it is usually a bad sign, as it often means there is something wrong with the skunk… fun stuff like rabies or distemper. Also skunks can spray, and that spray, especially if it is a direct hit, can cause all sorts of bad reactions like blindness, vomiting, burning sensations, and not to mention you, your clothes, and all your gear will be coated in a stench that takes a lot of time (days or weeks) and effort to remove. That said, I will keep photographing skunks when the opportunity permits.

Luckily I was able to get one or two decent face shots, even with all the long grass

There are a couple of things going for the wildlife photographer that tries to photograph a skunk-

  • They don’t like to spray. They can, and they will, but they prefer not to.
  • They have poor eyesight, especially during the day. This means you can be standing fairly closely, and they won’t necessarily see you.
  • They are pretty confident in their defenses, so they won’t bolt away like some other animals will
  • If you find one to take photographs of, chances are you won’t be competing with other people also trying for pictures.

This particular skunk seemed healthy, in spite of the fact that it was out foraging during the day (the act of foraging actually helped it seem healthier, as unhealthy animals aren’t as interested in food). It wasn’t too easy photographing this skunk however. The grass was mostly taller than it was, so it was very difficult to ever see, much less photograph, its face. It found a small animal to eat for instance- I could hear it crunching and munching away from where I was several paces away, but I have no idea what the creature that it ate was… I could never see it for the long grass. I was mostly limited to photos of the tail and the back, which can be fun for a photograph or two, but get pretty old after a while… which means that while I got a few decent shots in, next time I see a skunk wandering around out there, I’ll foolishly grab my camera once more in the hopes of even better shots.

Posted in How To, nature photography, photography, skunk, wildlife photography | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments