Saturday, September 29, 2018

Bird photography at very high ISO

Camera settings for a bird in the bush

My new camera (Canon EOS 7D Mark II) has much better autofocus and ISO range than my previous Canon Digital Rebel XTi (bought in 2006). I've mentioned before that the XTi never had enough light with my 100-400mm zoom lens to use ISO 100, and that ISO 1600 was so grainy (digital noise--especially in shadows) I never used it. So I customarily set the ISO at 400 and aperture at f/7.1 and left it there, letting the camera choose the shutter speed.

On the other hand, the 7D Mark II has infinite ISO. Okay, so it's not infinite, but rather than 1600 it goes to 16000! And it even goes beyond that with special settings that I don't know why you'd use unless taking really grainy photos in near blackness.

I have learned to shoot Manual mode recently and often shoot Manual with Auto-ISO, at 1/1250 sec, f/7.1 @ 400mm as a default "birding" setting, as long as light is sufficient. For more active or flying birds a shutter from 1/2000 to 1/4000 sec stops motion as light permits.

However, when shooting "birds in the bush," hopping from sun to shade or backlit by bright skies, I use different settings.


There are a huge number of Autofocus settings on my camera. But for getting pinpoint focus through the branches on the face or even the eye, I use the Spot AF setting. It is smaller than the default single Autofocus point. I use this setting nearly always. Some of the other AF point selection modes are theoretically "better" for focusing, but I haven't found it to be so, at least on my present lens, which is the old Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS. This lens is a bit soft in focus. The new lens in this series is supposedly much sharper. But as long as my present lens works I cannot afford to upgrade. Now that I can take 10 frames per second I am able to get some sharper, some fuzzier, in a burst.


For general bird photography the Evaluative Metering mode is ideal. The Evaluative mode takes into account the entire frame but is weighted more to the center. In RAW you can adjust the color temperature and restore the warm sunny tones you observed. So you don't mess with white balance in the field when shooting RAW.

In recent weeks, however, I've been shooting warblers in the trees against the backlit skies or in dense bushes under a cloudy marine layer and in shade. Jumping from over-bright to over-dark is very difficult--especially if you're chasing warblers through the foliage. If your subject bird takes up at least 15% of the frame width then you can use Spot Metering. In this case your bird is exposed properly even if the background sky is blown out, or the background shadows go to black. It's tricky though, especially for black-and-white birds, or if the bird isn't quite large enough so that you hit part of the bird and part of the background. So frame-to-frame shots may all be exposed slightly differently, depending upon how steadily you hold the focus on the exact spot on the bird. I would not use this Spot Metering mode on a pelagic trip, for instance, where the bird is too small in frame and there the bouncing of the boat, waves, and flying of the bird means that I can't hold steady.

So, I am still shooting Manual with the shutter speeds and aperture that allows me to get good photos with Auto-ISO. Shoot green grass in the open to give you an idea of proper Manual mode shutter, aperture, and ISO settings. Then set shutter and aperture as the green grass would indicate. Set Auto-ISO. Set Spot AF and Spot Metering.

This won't make artistic photographs. But it will give you properly exposed birds for documentation photos, even if the noise is severe. Noise can be smoothed when rendering your RAW files.

The photos below discuss shots of birds on September 16 and 21 of 2018 at Buddy Todd Park in Oceanside, California.

Hutton's Vireo
Hutton's Vireo in deep shade. 1/1250 sec, f/7.1 @400mm, ISO 10000.
It's grainy, but still usable.
Red-eyed Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo against bright sky. 1/1250 sec, f/7.1 @400mm, ISO 2500. 
Evaluative metering would have turned the sky gray and the bird very dark.
Black Phoebe
Black Phoebe and background in nice even light. 1/800 sec, f/7.1 @400mm, ISO 500.
Evaluative metering would have worked "better" but this came out perfect with Spot metering.
Townsend's Warbler
Townsend's Warbler in deep shade. 1/400 sec, f/5.6 @400mm, ISO 16000.
This is as shady a condition as one could obtain a sharply focused bird with my image stabilized lens.
Nuttall's Woodpecker
Nuttall's Woodpecker strongly backlit. 1/640 sec, f/5.6 @400mm, ISO 2000.
If Evaluative metering had been used the sky would have been gray and the bird and tree trunk black.
Western Tanager
Western Tanager in front of deep shadows. 1/1250 sec, f/5.6 @400mm, ISO 4000.
If Evaluative metering had been used the yellow parts of the bird would have been blown out.
Allen's Hummingbird
Allen's Hummingbird in shade. 1/1250 sec, f/7.1 @400mm, ISO 8000.
Evaluative mode would have turned the bird dark to compensate for some foliage in the light (cropped out).
With my previous camera only the phoebe had enough light to take a shot! While many of the "high ISO" shots aren't all that great, they are still sufficiently acceptable for documentation photos.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Photogenic Western Bluebirds at Buddy Todd Park

Close Bluebirds in the morning sun are always a joy to photograph.

Here are two pair of photos of Western Bluebirds that are more artistic than many of my shots.

The first pair of photos show a male Western Bluebird in a tree with reddish leaves--perhaps a plum tree, but perhaps something totally different. Ornamental trees in San Diego can be native to any other part of the planet. I thought the contrasting color of the wine red leaves against the dark green background was nice, and love that the background of more distant trees was pleasingly out-of-focus. the little branch up the breast detracts a bit, but perhaps not too much.

Western Bluebird
Western Bluebird. Oceanside, California. September 16, 2018.
Western Bluebird
1/800 sec, f/5.6 @400mm, ISO 160.
The second set of bluebird photos came from a few minutes later. One is cropped more closely than the other. The background is similar to the first set of photos. So is the angle of the light. For all I know it might have been the same bird in the same tree as the first set!

Western Bluebird
1/800 sec, f/7.1 @400mm, ISO 200
Western Bluebird

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Mountain Chickadees in Oceanside

One of the surprises I had moving from Oregon to San Diego was hearing Mountain Chickadees in the palm trees. Of course, they are quite rare away from the highest mountain conifers... except in the North County from Escondido to Oceanside, where they are merely fairly rare residents, not "quite rare." And they are more often found in ornamental pine trees planted in town rather than palm trees. But here are two photos of birds in palm trees in Oceanside.

Mountain Chickadee
Mountain Chickadee
Mountain Chickadee in palm tree. Oceanside, California. September 16, 2018.
I've recorded Mountain Chickadees 122 times in San Diego County from November 2013. Of these, 63--just over 50%--have been in the lowland towns away from the typical mountain habitat. Most have been near my residences--heard while outside doing other things. I've detected them in Escondido, San Marcos, Fallbrook, and Oceanside, all in the NW corner of San Diego County. I've found them in every month of the year, more often in March and April when they are singing more frequently, and August and September (Perhaps when some may be moving out of the mountains?).

So, 63 "backyard" birds in 5 years. That is not really all that rare, after all, is it?

Friday, September 21, 2018

Rare bird: Red-eyed Vireo

Fall migration continues strong through September in southern California. As I explained recently, nocturnal migrants heading for Mexico may find a point of land sticking out in the ocean as a refuge at dawn. Other birds, flying all night, choose irrigated greenery, feeding on insects in tree-tops first lit by the rising sun. That mean parks on the tops of hills near the coast are often prime places to find lots of migrant birds.

Thus, Buddy Todd Park, on the top of a hill in Oceanside, has been quite productive at delivering exciting migrants that are rather rare in southern California. A couple of weeks in spring and a few weeks in fall are your only chance to see many species of migrant birds that may breed in northern forests and winter in the lowlands of Mexico. Buddy Todd isn't nearly as productive as Point Loma, but it is much closer to my home in San Diego's North County region.

Recently I arrived at Buddy Todd Park at the same time as Tito Gonzales. We walked around together for a while and gradually split up. We exchanged numbers to text, in case we found anything interesting. I took many photos of regular migrants and residents. I was actually back at the car ready to be done for the morning when I got a text from Tito. He had found a Red-eyed Vireo on the other side of the playground.

Red-eyed Vireos nest in hardwood forests across southern Canada and the eastern United States, but not in most of the West and Southwest. They have been fairly regular migrants through southern California, but perhaps not found as frequently in recent years as in the 1980's and 90's.

The bird had disappeared soon after Tito found it. It took a good while to relocate the sluggishly moving bird in a dense California pepper tree (Peruvian peppertree Schinus molle). And it wouldn't come out, so I sat under the tree on the grass and shot up against the strongly backlit sky. Thus these photos are less than ideal. Nevertheless, you can clearly see the diagnostic black lateral crown stripe that separates the white eyebrow from the pale gray crown. The eye is more brownish than red, indicating an immature bird perhaps only 3 months old.

Red-eyed Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo. Oceanside, California. September 16, 2018.
Anyway, this was my first Red-eyed Vireo for California, and my first Red-eyed Vireo in over a dozen years. So I was very happy to refind it. And many other people came to see this bird after Tito got the message out.

Red-eyed Vireo

Red-eyed Vireo

Red-eyed Vireo

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Bath time with a White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatches are common enough in interior oak woodlands and also in the pines that top the highest peaks in San Diego County. Nearer to the coast, however, they are much less common. I found several at Buddy Todd Park in Oceanside recently.

Usually they are constantly on the move crawling up and around tree trunks, in and out of shade and foliage. So getting good photos is not easy. But I found one out taking a bath on a sidewalk irrigation puddle. Here are two decent photos to share.

White-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch. Oceanside, California. September 16, 2018.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Osprey portrait: Oceanside

Marlene and I invited friends to make a quick jaunt to the beach after work to "watch the sunset" and have dinner. Something so simple on Friday evening can often make a routine weekend seem like a "3-day weekend."

I was able to walk across the road and do a bit of birding and photography at the mouth of the San Luis Rey River [site guide] while the others sat in the sand staring out to sea. Then we ate! [Rockin' Baja Lobster]

An Osprey was perched on the light pole I had to walk under, so it was close!



Osprey. Oceanside, California. September 7, 2018.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Rare bird: Greater Pewee

Well, it's not a very good photo. The best that could be said of it is that it is a diagnostic documentation photo.

Here it is, a Greater Pewee I discovered at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. I put the word out and several people were able to view it later that day and even to the next morning. Several people obtained better photos. [eBird photos here]

rare Greater Pewee in San Diego
Greater Pewee. San Diego, California. September 2, 2018.
It is always more exciting to me to find a rare bird to share with others than to go and see a rare bird someone already found (a so-called "stake-out").

I had looked for a long-staying wintering Greater Pewee last December (2017) in Balboa Park, but missed it on the one morning I tried for it (see what I mean about my lack of enthusiasm for finding "someone else's" rare bird?). The previous San Diego sighting was in 2005, and just over a dozen birds since the first in 1974 (San Diego County Bird Atlas, Unitt, 2004). This is the first Greater Pewee for me in the United States (new "ABA bird" for me). My only other sighting was in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, in 2003 (6 birds on a hike through the "jungle").

The bird looks like an Olive-sided Flycatcher. But the wispy crest and long bill with bright orange lower mandible clinches the identification. It is found from the pine-oak mountains in SE Arizona and SW New Mexico south into Nicaragua.

My first field guide (Field Guide to Western Birds, Peterson, 1969) has this bird listed as Coues' Flycatcher, named after Elliott Coues, 1842-1899 (pronounced "cows"), a naturalist and ornithologist trained as a medical surgeon and working for the army in Arizona (a frequent occupation for ornithologists of that period, it seems).

So, even if the photo is less than good, I hope the story makes it interesting none-the-less.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Up Close with a Pacific-slope Flycatcher

Pacific-slope Flycatchers are San Diego County's most numerous resident and migrant Empidonax flycatchers--those little (4.75-6 inches long) olive-green look-a-likes with wing bars and eye rings.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher

I was able to get these photos recently at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery which is a location where many migrants pass through in fall.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher

Key field marks for this species include the long primary extension, wide bill all-yellow underneath, teardrop-shaped eye ring, and yellow throat. The buffy wing bars--rather than white--indicate this is likely an immature bird.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher
Pacific-slope Flycatcher. San Diego, California. September 2, 2018.
Usually they are tucked up under the lower shady branches of forest trees--miserable conditions for photography. I was delighted to find this bird out in the open.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Female Hermit Warbler at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery

Autumn is the time migrant birds across North America wing their way south at night. Many of these birds are heading southwest to Mexico, but sometimes they (especially the young of the year) overshoot too far west. Thus, they may find themselves out over the ocean--especially on overcast nights. As the sun rises and the low fog lifts they spy land....

Point Loma sticks out into the ocean and it is covered with trees and bushes. The lush residential yards are inviting to migrants, but many birds first make landfall at the tip of Point Loma. The top and outer portion of Point Loma is the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. It is here that birders poke around from late August through October, hoping for rare lost birds that nest in the north or northeastern portion of the continent, and typically don't show up in southern California. [Birding site guide for FRNC]

I went birding there last week. There had been a marine layer covering the ocean. But migration during the previous night evidently wasn't heavy. There were actually not that many birds present. I did encounter a couple flycatchers and a tanager. I spent a couple of hours but birded only about a third of the large cemetery area.

My photo today, though, is a rather common migrant Hermit Warbler, a female or immature bird. Hermit Warblers nest primarily in the Cascades from southern Washington through Oregon to northern California, then down the Sierra-Nevada range. They pass through the San Diego region in the spring and fall, but you really have to be looking specifically for migrant warblers in order to find them. As you can see, they love pines. So in San Diego you can look for them in spring on the forested tops of the highest mountains or eastern desert oases. In fall, the residential plantings along the immediate coastline are your best bet.

Hermit Warbler
Hermit Warbler
Hermit Warbler. San Diego, California. September 2, 2018.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in Chula Vista

There are several regularly-occurring herons and egrets that are at the extreme northern edge of their range in San Diego. These include Little Blue Herons and Reddish Egrets, which are increasing, and Tricolored Herons, which have been decreasing in recent decades. It also includes Yellow-crowned Night-Herons.

There was a single resident Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in the San Diego area from 1981-2001. And there were several records of individual visitors that showed up occasionally during this same period of time.

juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. Chula Vista, California. September 2, 2018.
I'm not sure of the history between then and when I arrived in 2013, but in the past 5 years or so these stocky herons have nested at Sea World. This colony accounts for sightings at Mission Bay, San Diego River mouth, and Famosa Slough. Another smaller nesting site is in Imperial Beach accounting for sightings at the Tijuana River mouth and, perhaps, the south end of San Diego Bay.

[eBird records of Yellow-crowned Night-Heron 2013-2018 in San Diego County]

There was a one-year-old bird in July 2018 here at Bayfront Park (known to birders as the "J Street Marina"). Otherwise, this juvenile is the only other reported Yellow-crowned Night-Heron from this well-birded site in the middle east side of San Diego Bay. I wonder which local breeding site it came from?

Friday, September 7, 2018

Sora in low light

This past weekend I wanted to get in a full morning of birding and photography. So I timed my arrival at the Dairy Mart Ponds for sunrise: 6:15am. I was kind of hoping for the first lovely golden rays of dawn's light.

 As often happens in San Diego, though, a marine layer forms at night and overcast skies are frequent into late morning. So "sunrise" in the Tijuana River Valley this morning was a very gloomy dark gray.

Well, okay, I've also been watching YouTube videos extolling the virtues of the even light produced by overcast skies or fog. At least there shouldn't be any harsh shadows. And newer cameras can shoot at high ISO without too much graininess. If I take lots of shots , a couple of them might have acceptable sharpness, even at slower shutter speeds--especially with my image stabilized lens.

There was a cooperative Sora out in the open on a pond. Unfortunately, the little trail gave me only one view through the foliage. The bird was 20 feet away and below me about 10 feet. I had to stand up and shoot down at the bird below me. So these aren't artistic shots. They only show the exposure possible with my bird photography gear: Canon EOS 7D Mark II camera with Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens.

I attempted several photos early, 6:38 am. Only the one below turned out acceptably. I've been doing a lot of Manual Mode photography. But in this low light I didn't want try to guess the difficult exposure in Manual mode with the Evaluative exposure metering mode and dialing in a couple of stops of Exposure Compensation. Instead I chose Aperture Priority and Spot Metering and let the camera do all the hard exposure work as the bird moved from dark background to backlit.

6:38am, heavy overcast: 1/60 sec, f/5.6, 400mm, ISO 4000
I set ISO to 4000. The camera can go higher. But anything more than 2000 produces notable grain--especially in darker areas. The sweet spot on my zoom lens at 400mm is f/7.1. But I set it down 2/3 of a stop to f/5.6, which is wide open at 400mm. That does three things. It lets in more light (good), gives a very shallow depth of field (bad for focusing on a bird more than an inch or two in depth-front to back of focal plane [tail is too far away and out of focus]), and isn't the sharpest lens setting (bad). With me choosing ISO and aperture, I let the camera choose the shutter speed, to make the exposure correct.

At only 1/60 of a second, the above photo suffers a bit of blurriness from camera shake and bird movement. It's not very sharp, but it's the best that could be done with the available light. Handheld at 400mm I should be shooting at least 1/800 of a second or faster, but the image stabilization on the lens helps greatly. Still, I shouldn't shoot that long lens handheld at less than 1/250. I don't use a tripod so it is unlikely I can take those "blue light" bird photos before sunrise or after sunset unless I really change my birding/photography technique and habit.

It was an hour later when I went back and got additional photos with the bird still out in the open!

Heavy overcast, 7:42am: 1/320 sec, f/5.6, 400mm, ISO 2000.
So, the light came up enough I could set the ISO to 2000. I left the aperture at f/5.6. The shutter speed came up to 1/320 of a second. That is sufficient for stationary birds only.

Sora. Tijuana River Valley, San Ysidro, California. September 2, 2018.
Later in the morning I was able to photograph some other birds under bright overcast skies. I'll share those in future posts.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Coot photography challenge

If you live in North America like I do you probably see American Coots every time you visit a pond or other wetland. If you photograph birds you probably have a bunch of photos just like this one:

American Coot
Typical coot photo.
There's nothing wrong with the photo above. It's just common. It looks like any other photo of American Coot on a sunny day.

Only a couple of minutes after I took the above photo, I took the photo below. What changed?

American Coot
American Coot. Dixon Lake, Escondido, California. August 31, 2108.
First of all I got down a lower so I wasn't shooting down at the bird, but joined it on its level. I wasn't able to get down completely to water level, such as laying on my belly on the shore. I sat on a low rock. But since the bird was a bit farther away the angle was more horizontal than the first photo where I was standing up on a bank.

Second, I chose a more muted background. In this case the bird was in a little inlet. The brown water color is the reflection of the nearby curving shore.

Because I wasn't photographing the bright reflected sky, I was able to adjust the exposure properly. This third change is that the white bill isn't over-exposed and blown-out as on the first photo.

The next time you are looking at a coot, grebe, or duck in your viewfinder I want you to remember this. If you find it looks like the first photo, then stop. Change your shooting angle. Change your composition and background. Change your exposure. I challenge you to take a more interesting shot!

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Osprey at Imperial Beach

Generally I schedule to get out birding locally one morning per week before work. And I often get out on a day-trip with Marlene during one or two weekends per month. While I take lots of photos to document the birds I see on each excursion, I don't always get pictures I'm proud to share. Here are three photos of an Osprey from a trip last week--the only photos that I really felt were good enough to share. It was flying nearly overhead along the beach in Imperial Beach.

Osprey. Imperial Beach, California. August 26, 2018.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Bow-riding Red-footed Booby

This is the seventh and final post showcasing photos from the full day pelagic trip off San Diego on August 19th. We were mostly done birding at the end of our trip. But there was one more rare bird we wanted to see and photograph.

The Captain got word that a fishing boat that was about 15 minutes behind us had a bow riding Red-footed Booby! Even though we had all gotten great looks at a different Red-footed Booby only 4 hours earlier at sea, this was too rare of a bird to pass up.

As we dallied in the mouth of the bay, we soon spotted the Liberty and could make out the booby. The boat then pulled alongside and we rode together for 20 minutes back to the dock. This bird remained at least 3 days on this boat, riding out to sea and back to the dock each day. Evidently on the 4th day it flew from the boat while at sea. I hope that means it survived. Ship riding is not unusual behavior for boobies, frigatebirds, and some other seabirds. But a bird remaining aboard for several days likely means the bird is ill.

Fishing Vessel Liberty, San Diego Bay

I took over 300 photos of this bird. These are the only ones I kept. Most were quite similar. I just tried to get less distracting and blurred backgrounds with the bird looking my direction. Failing that (for the most part) I then tried quite a few shots with small aperture to see if I could get the bird with the San Diego skyline in focus too. Here are my shots.

Red-footed Booby, San Diego
Red-footed Booby. San Diego, California. August 19, 2018.
Red-footed Booby, San Diego
Red-footed Booby, San Diego
Red-footed Booby, San Diego
Red-footed Booby, San Diego
Red-footed Booby, San Diego skyline

Monday, September 3, 2018

Brown Pelicans photographed in golden light

Returning from the August 19 pelagic trip I noted that we had excellent warm "golden hour" light. As our boat entered the bay I obtained several photos of Brown Pelicans specifically to practice creating artistic photos in this soft light. I present them here with some commentary on the artistic aspects of each photo. [Read "7 elements of an artistic bird photo"]

Brown Pelican

#1. The photo above has soft light, is in focus, and has a good pose. The wind-rippled water background is perhaps just a bit too strongly patterned and distracting. This is alleviated in the following photos by getting closer to the bird and having more distance between the bird and the background elements.

Brown Pelican

#2. I really like the pose in the above photo. The background is clear blue sky. But the shadow on the underwing might be a touch too distracting for some. I'm shooting up at the bird just slightly, which isn't ideal.

Brown Pelican

#3. This photo above doesn't have quite as an interesting wing pose as the previous photo. But it is better in two other regards. It doesn't have a distracting shadow across the breast and the perspective is perfect at eye level. This might be the most technically "correct" of the photos here, though it is not my personal favorite.

Brown Pelican

The photo above really has nice warm golden light without any harsh shadows. The background has a couple of slightly distracting "blobs" on the water, and the brighter shoreline is a bit distracting too.

Brown Pelican
Brown Pelican. San Diego, California. 19 August 2018.
This final photo is one I really like. It really catches the golden glow of the late afternoon sun on it's brown feathers. The pose is really interesting. The wing is extended down and forward for added lift, the hand twisted slightly to reduce air drag as it is just beginning the upstroke. The wing is pleasingly patterned with all the parallel lines of the perfect juvenile flight feathers. The almost scale-like body feather texture is replicated on the wing coverts. You can really see this well if you click on the photo and bring up a size about 3 times larger than what appears on the screen. The shoreline is so subtle at the top that I don't think it detracts. The original had more shoreline, but I cropped as much out as I could. I could wish the faint darker wake shadow didn't go all the way across the frame and through the head. That's my only "complaint."