Monthly Archives

May 2009

Photographing Birds at Bill Forbes Place, The Pond at Elephant Head

Arizona, Birds, Wisdom

I recently spent a couple days photographing southern Arizona critters at the Pond at Elephant Head and the Upper Madera Drip with the help of Bill Forbes. Bill is the inventor of the Phototrap, a device for remote camera triggering using infrared beam, perfect for capturing difficult images of wildlife behavior. (For some stunning examples of what can be accomplished with the Phototrap, see Scott Linstead‘s website. Scott was kind enough to give me lots of good information about what to expect at Bill’s place.)

Northern cardinal, male, Cardinalis cardinalis, Amado, Arizona

Northern cardinal, male.
Image ID: 22891
Species: Northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis
Location: Amado, Arizona, USA

Bill Forbes owns a small ranch south of Tucson, Arizona. On his ranch the visiting photographer finds Bill’s workshop, which is overflowing with tripods, flashes, snakes, wires, birdseed, electronics equipment, along with everything he needs to build the Phototrap. You name it: if it is part of small critter photography it is somewhere in his shop. In the back of his property Bill also keeps a small pond, surrounded by two in-ground blinds and several movable blinds. The pond is known among photographers as “The Pond at Elephant Head“. The pond is maintained year round, so all the local wildlife, both nocturnal and diurnal, comes by seeking water constantly. It is a real magnet for animal life. I spent a few sunrise and sunset sessions at Bill’s pond, alone in a blind at the edge of the tiny pool, photographing springtime migrating and resident birds as well as several small mammals. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. A few minutes after I entered the blind, birds would arrive and begin lighting upon the many movable perches that I had set up around the pond. A little later, rabbits and squirrels would show up too. Periodically I would get out of the blind to stretch my legs, put out some bird seed or pieces of fruit, or move perches around. The animals would flush, but would return in a few minutes once I went back into the blind. It was amazing to me how much wildlife Bill has in his backyard, and I only saw the daytime visitors. (Bill uses his Phototrap to shoot stunning images of several species of bats that visit the pond at night, something I would really like to see one day.)

Greater roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus, Amado, Arizona

Greater roadrunner.
Image ID: 22902
Species: Greater roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus
Location: Amado, Arizona, USA

Photography around the pond is a morning and evening thing. During midday it is too hot for my taste, and the light is too harsh for good photography. I arrived each morning at Bill’s about 5:30am to be ready for the first animals’ arrivals at 6am sunrise. I would shoot until 10am or so, then break until about 3pm to get some lunch in nearby Green Valley. One day I drove up at lunch to the nearby observatory in the mountains for some sightseeing. If desired, during the midday hours one can also shoot hummingbirds, provided it is the right season (spring I think). Bill had a hummingbird setup, with four strobes, a feeder and a colored backdrop, in the shade of his workshop while I was there. The setup was perfect, but the day I was there not many hummers came by. I only managed a few keeper frames, however, I did learn much from seeing how Bill set his equipment up and listening to him speak about how to best use it. He is a wealth of information for those so inclined to learn.

When shooting from the blind, I was using a 500mm lens and 1.4x converter on a full frame camera body. I would have preferred a 600mm or 800mm lens for the small birds, but the 500mm was sufficient and I am pleased with the many “bird on a stick” photos I got. Not long after sunrise one finds that the light gets harsh. By this I mean that shadows begin to appear strongly on or around the subject. Even when the photographer has his shadow pointed directly at the subject (easy to accomplish with the lightweight movable blinds!), the height of the sun above the horizon will still result in increasingly contrasty images as the morning progresses. The solution is to use fill flash. I put my strobe on a Wimberley off-camera pedestal, and put a Better Beamer in front of the flash. The Better Beamer effectively doubles the throw of the flash, or conversely can be thought of as effectively lessening the strobe’s recycle time. The perches are elevated, most of them right about eye level when sitting on a chair in the blind, so there was no real need to lay on the ground for bird shots. For some of the mammals (rabbit, squirrel) I might have improved my images be getting a little lower.

For sunset on my second afternoon with Bill, I decided to forgo his pond and instead shoot at a “drip” that he maintains on private property in nearby Madera Canyon. At about 5,000 feet, the drip attracts a different species than one sees at Bill’s pond. Madera Canyon is famous for the number of different hummingbird species that can be found there in spring, and sure enough when I got up into the canyon there were dozens of bird watchers walking along the road with binoculars and ID books. Bill’s “Upper Madera Drip” is about the size and height of a pool table. It is a basin of water surround with natural rocks, set in a clearing with plenty of movable natural perches that one can position around the drip in infinite variety. Once the perches are setup properly, one enters a lightweight, movable blind and waits a few minutes for the birds to arrive. While the pace of activity at the drip was less than what I observed at Bill’s pond, it was a pleasure to see the different species. I even had wild turkey and mule deer walk right up to the drip, although too close for the 700mm lens I had on at the time. I could have had a second camera setup with, say, a 300mm on it, but in the spirit of keeping life simple I used only the 700mm and that was great for both the pond and the drip.

I should mention that Bill has a spartan but comfortable bunk house on his property that is available for photographers wishing to stay there rather than in nearby Green Valley. I opted to stay in Bill’s bunk house for a night.

Thanks to Ron Niebrugge and Scott Linstead for their comments in helping me decide to visit Bill Forbes and his Pond at Elephant Head, and for making sure I had enough batteries to keep up with the fill flash. I shot about 3500 images in two full days, and kept about 200, of which about 20 are appealing enough to go into my gallery of bird photographs (the good stuff!). The 28 species I saw in those two days, none of which I had photographed before, were:

At the Pond at Elephant Head
Harris’ antelope squirrel (Ammospermophilus harrisii)
Black-throated sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata)
Gambel’s quail (Callipepla gambelii)
Cactus wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus)
Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus)
House finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)
Greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus)
Bullock’s oriole (Icterus bullockii)
Hooded oriole (Icterus cucullatus)
White-sided jackrabbit (Lepus callotis)
Gila woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis)
Bronzed cowbird (Molothrus aeneus)
Brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater)
House sparrow (Passer domesticus)
Horned lizard (Phrynosoma)
Canyon towhee (Pipilo fuscus)
Round-tailed ground squirrel (Spermophilus tereticaudus)
Desert cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus audubonii)
Curve-billed thrasher (Toxostoma curvirostre)
White-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica)

At the Upper Madera Drip, in Madera Canyon
Mexican Jay (Aphelocoma ultramarina)
Bridled titmouse (Baeolophus wollweberi)
Acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus)
Wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)
Black-headed grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus)
Arizona woodpecker (Picoides arizonae)
White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)

plus a couple of hummingbirds I have not yet identified. Not bad for my first time shooting from a blind!

Predawn Flock of Snow Geese, Abstract Photo


Last winter I joined friends Skip Stubbs and Ken Howard for a few days of bird photography at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. I would get up early each morning to watch the enormous flocks of snow geese that overnight on the ponds take off in a massive predawn exodus, up up and away to the crane pools or corn fields nearby, where they would spend the day foraging and quacking. Due to the dim light a long exposure was required, rendering the geese as streaks across the background. Today’s abstract photo, #6 of 15:

Snow geese at sunrise.  Thousands of wintering snow geese take to the sky in predawn light in Bosque del Apache's famous "blast off".  The flock can be as large as 20,000 geese or more.  Long time exposure creates blurring among the geese, Chen caerulescens, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, Socorro, New Mexico

Snow geese at sunrise. Thousands of wintering snow geese take to the sky in predawn light in Bosque del Apache’s famous “blast off”. The flock can be as large as 20,000 geese or more. Long time exposure creates blurring among the geese.
Image ID: 21799
Species: Snow goose, Chen caerulescens
Location: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, Socorro, New Mexico, USA

Optimal Contrast and Saturation Settings for RAW Photographers

How To, Wisdom

Are you using the best in-camera settings for contrast and saturation? If you shoot RAW and think these settings don’t affect you, think again. If you judge your exposure settings on whether you are clipping the highlights on your histogram, you may be underexposing unnecessarily. Here’s why.

Note that this post is primarily intended for photographers who shoot RAW. (If you shoot JPEG you may benefit from what follows simply by having a better understanding of what is going on inside your camera, but you probably do not want to use this technique.)

Exposing to the right. Many photographers trying to maximize the amount of data collected in their captures expose to the right, pushing the histogram as far to the right as possible without clipping the highlights. Essentially, when determining what the correct exposure is for a given situation, one takes a shot, considers the resulting histogram and then increases exposure until the histogram just touches the right extreme, indicating that pixels are about to be clipped. By shooting to the right one gathers as much shadow detail as possible and minimizes noise in the shadows. Granted, there are some esoteric reasons for not exposing to the right, but by and large it is an accepted and effective technique for today’s digital cameras.

Clipping highlights. Key to shooting to the right is one’s ability to discern when highlights are being clipped. This is where the in-camera settings for contrast and saturation play a part. Current digital cameras base the histogram on an in-camera JPEG, even when shooting RAW. Typically, the in-camera JPEG has a greater spread in its histogram than is contained in the RAW data, due to the fact that the in-camera JPEG has contrast and saturation enhancement applied to it. Think about it: when you look at your RAW files they have low contrast and saturation, and really don’t come alive until after you have bumped these up a bit. Well, a similar difference occurs between the in-camera JPEG — upon which the histogram is based — and the underlying RAW data. The default in-camera JPEG has, by design, increased contrast and saturation compared to the RAW file, which translates into (among other things) a histogram that is “more spread out”, with tails reaching further to the left and right.

Now consider this: if the in-camera JPEG has a histogram that is more widely spread than the RAW data, it will show clipped highlights “earlier”. In other words, you won’t push the exposure as far to the right as you might, because the in-camera JPEG — upon which the histogram is based — is indicating highlights are clipped.

The solution is to turn down the contrast and saturation settings for the JPEGs that are created in-camera. On my Canon cameras I turn them each down two notches below the middle setting. Doing this produces an in-camera JPEG that more closely approximates the distribution of the actual RAW data, resulting in a histogram that is more accurate for my purposes. Since I want to maximize the information in the RAW file, I want a histogram that depicts the RAW data not an in-camera JPEG.

The bottom line is that by using lower settings for contrast and saturation I obtain a histogram that is more representative of the data in my RAW file, I can push that exposure further to the right and be confident that I am not clipping the highlights in my RAW data. If I were to use the default settings for contrast and saturation, the histogram would indicate clipping before it was actually occurring, leading me to unnecessarily underexpose the image.

Don’t guess, don’t approximate: take control of your exposures. As we all know, underexposure with digital cameras leads to noise. If you underexpose your RAW file, and you plan on compensating for it later in the RAW conversion, you’ll get some noise in the shadows. Perhaps not much, but as the ISO increases and the amount of underexposure error increases, the noise just gets worse. Why tolerate this at all? By understanding that the histogram is based on the in-camera JPEG, and taking control of the contrast and saturation settings that are used to create the in-camera JPEG, you can obtain a histogram that is more representative of the RAW data and eliminate a potential source of systematic exposure error.

Give it a try.

Thanks to Master Photographer Charles Glatzer for originally pointing out this important exposure issue in the discussion forums. Want to learn how to control your exposures and take better photos? Take a workshop from Chas…

Post up … Shoot … Score!

How To, Wisdom

I haven’t paid much attention to web site design and optimization for a few years. Recently, however, I have noticed and read a few posts around the internet discussing how to make one’s website rank better, look better, work better, be greener and more politically correct, etc etc. Besides the great tutorial from Photoshelter on how to tailor a photography website intended for editors and photo researchers, I also found WebsiteGrader. This nifty site “grades” a website on its SEO (search engine optimization) using a scale of 0 to 100, relative to the rest of the web, using criteria gathered from Google, Yahoo, Alexa, DMOZ, Zoominfo as well as examining the webpage coding itself.

However, if my experience is any indication, these scores may be just a tad bit inflated. WebsiteGrader gave my website a score of 98.8 and my blog a 98.7, considers the content of my blog appropriate for high school and doctorate-level visitors, and it informs me my website has a Google rank of 6 (of a maximum 10). Mondo Teknospheric! Comon, are these for real? Seriously, these seem like pretty good scores, particularly for an individual photographer shooting stock “when able”, especially in comparison to some large agencies for some of the specialized subjects I shoot. Important to remember that these are just scores and what really matters is how many phone calls come in from buyers wanting to use an image. These scores are transient benchmarks, somewhat arbitrary and could change at any time.

You might find it illuminating to see how WebsiteGrader grades your website. In my case it offered some good feedback. For example, I had no idea the main page on website had NO KEYWORDS in the metadata. Ooops! In spite of having had a website up and running for over 12 years (that’s 583 in www-years) I am still making rookie mistakes. It also said something about making a “301” to redirect “” to “”. Hello, English please? My initial reaction is that I should figure out how to fix that stuff soon. Upon further thought, I realized that I would likely screw something up and kill my own rating. Better leave it alone!

Light Rays on Ocean Bottom, Abstract Photo

Abstract, Bahamas, Underwater Photography

I made a number of trips to the Bahamas to film Olympic champion swimmers and wild dolphins. While we were roasting in the Bahamian sun, waiting for dolphins to appear, we could swim as much as we wanted in the clear shallow waters of the Little Bahama Banks. I really enjoyed watching the sunlight move over the white sand bottom, and took many photos during those trips trying to capture the beauty of those patterns. Today’s abstract photo, #5 of 15:

Sunlight spreads across broad sand plains, trochoidal patterns

Sunlight spreads across broad sand plains, trochoidal patterns.
Image ID: 03185
Location: Bahamas