Friday, October 24, 2008

Owling at the Marin Headlands

During a recent business trip to the San Francisco Bay area, I made a trip up to Point Reyes National Seashore, and on my way back to my hotel in San Jose (on the opposite end of the bay--quite a haul), I stopped off at the Marin Headlands to take some sunset photos of the Golden Gate Bridge.

While walking near some old bunkers built originally to defend the bay against hostile ships, I heard the distinct sounds of an owl--and given the sole clump of trees atop the ridge, I set out to find the source of the hooting.  I had to climb from the old concrete fortification (where once a large piece of artillery had apparently stood) and follow a deer trail--yes, I even saw the deer, a nice 6-point buck!--through the low coastal scrub about thirty feet to the trees.

I still couldn't see the owl, but he obliged by hooting several more times.  And then there he was, perched on a limb about six feet in front of me at eye level!  I can't believe I missed him or that he let me get so close.  I managed to snap a couple of photos before backing up, trying not to frighten the owl, but unfortunately, he took (silent) flight before I could go more than a few steps back.

Warning: for the non-Photoshop geeks out there,  I suggest skipping ahead several paragraphs...

Now, it was close to dusk, and we were in the shade beneath several branches, so my camera (set to aperture priority at f/8) didn't have a great shutter speed: 1/50th of a second, or just less than half what I need even with my Canon 300mm f4L lens' image stabilizer activated: at 420mm effective (I always use a 1.4x teleconverter) and two stops' worth of stabilization, the reciprocal rule says I should have a shutter speed no slower than 1/105th of a second (I try to avoid less than 1/125; using 1/3-stops, the next-slower stop is 1/100).  That meant a generally soft image overall even with my monopod, as I was obviously a bit shaky at seeing this wonderful owl so close up!

Enter Photoshop.  In post-processing, I ran a light bit of noise reduction (Noise Ninja with the luminance and color noise reduction and their smoothness values all set to 11), then began sharpening.  My first (and perhaps most important) sharpening step involved building an edge mask and then using the Smart Sharpen filter--with the filter's "Remove" set to "Motion Blur," a special setting which helps compensate for loss of sharpness due to motion by the camera or subject.  (In contrast, I typically use either the "Lens Blur" or "Gaussian Blur" removal settings for normal edge sharpening; each has its strength for particular applications.)  My motion blur compensation layer was set to "Luminance" blending mode as I always use for edge sharpening adjustment layers.

I then did a normal edge sharpening pass (using the same edge mask and basically the same sharpening settings, though I used the "Lens Blur" removal and cut the opacity for the layer slightly to soften the effect).  To help bring additional sharpness, I ran the High Pass filter on a duplicate of the (noise-reduced) background layer with a high radius--around 25--and set it to "Overlay" blending to act as a midtone contrast boost.  As the background thus ended up with way too much visible noise, I added a black-filled layer mask (hiding the layer's effects) and painted in the owl's outline and fill in white, limiting the contrast boost to the owl itself.

To help smooth the background a bit more (there was still some fairly visible noise, between the high ISO I'd shot at, the low light and slight underexposure, and all the sharpening done so far), I added another copy of the background layer, then ran the Gaussian Blur filter on it (radius 5), and added 1% monochromatic Gaussian noise back in to make the effect more natural.  Using the inverse of the layer mask I had made for the midtone contrast boost (touched up slightly around the edges), I limited the blur effect to the background only.

So, re-enter the Photoshop-averse: simply take a look at my end results.  Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.  And a new "lifer" for me in the Great Horned Owl!  I still can't believe how close I got to him without spotting him or having the owl fly off--that is, if I hadn't had a similar experience at Payne's Prairie near Gainesville, Florida, a couple of years ago, when I spent an afternoon's walk "communicating" with a Barred Owl, calling out "who, who cooks for you, who cooks for you aaaaalll?" before turning around and finding the huge owl perched just a few feet away.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Slow Season for Fall Migrants

Beth and I made it out to our favorite local park, Huntley Meadows, this past weekend to do what we expected to be some good birding, hoping to spy out some good fall migrants.  In past seasons, we've caught sight of large mixed flocks of wood warblers headed south, and I've gotten some great photos of them (in particular, of Palm Warblers in the low brush alongside the park's boardwalk).

However, Saturday morning's birding was something of a disappointment.  We did see plenty of Eastern Bluebirds--though none in a good position to photograph--and a Red-shouldered Hawk (again, not a candidate for my camera, unfortunately), and even a few Common Yellowthroats.  But so far, fall migration has been something of a disappointment.

Looking back at some of my fall migration photos from prior years, September and October yielded a wide variety of birds and photos at Huntley Meadows; not so yet for 2008.  Perhaps migration is a bit behind schedule in our area, and things will pick up as the month wears on.

If not, I am still headed on several fall trips to the west coast (for work) which ought to yield some good birding in my spare time.  Late October brings San Jose and the San Francisco Bay area; early November will see me in Monterey, CA, and later in inland Washington.  Fingers-crossed that I'll be able to share some good birding photos soon!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Summertime in D.C. = Swallow Photos

Summertime birding in the Washington, D.C., area can be a beast at times; it's hot and incredibly humid, and most of the neotropical migrants are somewhere up in the arctic working on that next generation.

The heat of summer, though, brings one of the rare reliable occasions for photographing swallows in our area. Not that they're not around during the spring or into the early fall, mind you--it's just that the many swallows you'll see outside of the summer are flitting about nonstop, zooming and arcing this way and that. I'm not a good enough flight photographer to catch them reliably in the air (nor, for that matter, is my Canon 300mm f4L lens up to the task, focus-speed-wise; perhaps the 400mm f5.6L, favored by many a birder for flight photos is better, but no one has fronted me the $6k to try one yet).

Last summer, I took my sister and her family out to my favorite birding spot in the D.C. area, Huntley Meadows Park in southeastern Fairfax County. It was nearly 100 degrees with stifling humidity to boot, making for fairly miserable birding--but one thing that stood out were the many swallows perched around the park's wetlands instead of zipping across the skies. Tree after tree held small flocks of the birds, many of them juveniles by their appearance, with some trees holding mixed groups of Tree and Barn Swallows.

Fast-forward to this summer, and again on a hot, stuffy morning, the swallows had come to perch in the park. Small groups of four to five Barn Swallows took to the elevated walkways over Huntley Meadows' wetlands.

I stopped to take several photos, and though the boardwalk didn't make for the most natural of backdrops, I got several fairly nice captures nonetheless. In the photo above, this youngster was begging for food from one of the adults flitting about in the air. Though he looked old enough to fend for himself to me, you can bet he wasn't about to turn down a mooched meal.

The focus point is perhaps just a bit behind where I'd have liked (ideally, on the bird's eyes), but the swallow's head is still in good focus, and the low shutter speed gave me some good blurring of the wing motion.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Making the Most of Poor Conditions

Earlier this summer, I made a brief Memorial Day weekend trip to the San Francisco Bay area, with a planned stop at the Point Reyes National Seashore, one of the best birding areas in the continental United States.

I've birded SoCal fairly extensively, with several trips to the San Diego and Orange County coasts and inland to the Anza-Borrego Desert resulting in a lot of great bird and scenic captures, but the Monterey Bay on the central coast was as far north as I'd birded previously, so I was really looking forward to the two-day trip (which I'd booked to take advantage of a frequent-flier promotion).

Unfortunately, we landed at San Francisco International Airport to totally overcast skies (not uncommon for the area), chilly temperatures in the upper-50's, and drizzle. The week prior, the Bay area had regularly been topping 90 on the mercury readings. Despite the poor birding and photographic conditions, I'd come several thousand miles, so off to Point Reyes I set.

Despite the poor weather, traffic was still a beast up the 101 and across the Golden Gate Bridge (where I stopped for a few photos and spotted several Wilson's Warblers and White-crowned Sparrows singing). Eventually, though, I arrived at the National Seashore to rain heavy enough I didn't risk taking my camera out into the elements for long--neither the Canon 30D nor the EF 300mm f4L lens I use are weather sealed.

I really want to pay another visit to Point Reyes during better weather, but at least while I was there, I saw several dozen California Quail, darting across the roads and even hanging out in a picnic spot, like this one I caught posing atop a table:

Other than a natural perch and somewhat better light conditions, I don't think I could ask a lot more of this image. Well, a longer lens, I suppose, so I could get better bokeh, but unless someone out there is willing to front me five grand or so, I'm stuck for now with my 300mm lens and 1.4x teleconverter.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Kicking Things Off

When I first stated my blog "View from the Exerda," I had intended bird photography to be one of the recurring topics there--yet even before the first post on the topic, I realized I wanted a forum where I could talk about just photography and birding, somewhere discussion of my most recent birding expeditions and favorite digital captures wouldn't be lost amidst ruminations on buying a home, brags about Didi and Chance's latest accomplishments, my favorite new recipes, and so forth.

Thus was born "Digital Feathers," a blog where I can focus on one of my favorite creative pursuits. Herein I plan to share details of my birding trips, be they to far-off, exotic locales or just around the corner to the neighborhood pond. I'll post bird photos both of what I feel to be excellent quality and also the occasional far-from-perfect, blurred & fuzzy capture of a rarity or "new lifer."

I'll post on techniques and the tools of the trade (hey, if you're willing to donate a Canon 500mm f4L lens for the cause, I'll be happy to review it here!), as well as the technologies I use in taking bird photos from the field to the screen.

And though Digital Feathers will primarily be a blog on bird photography, I won't promise not to share landscape and nature photos, or the occasional portrait of one of the many pets of our fauniferous zoo.