Friday, November 5, 2010

Florida white tailed deer

White tailed deer are quite common in Florida, though seldom seen in the cities. I have lived in Clearwater for nearly ten years now and have yet to see a deer within 5 miles of my home. I spend a lot of early morning and evening hours out and about with my camera at parks in the area, prime times and places, and still have never seen one. I include the neighboring communities of Seminole, Largo, Pinellas Park and the beach towns of the barrier islands in this lack of deer sightings.

Driving a little farther north to rural Pinellas County, east and north of Tarpon Lake, and I see deer on nearly every trip. This morning I made the 25 minute trip to John Chestnut Senior Park on East Lake Road on the southeast corner of Tarpon Lake. I arrived just after sunrise on a cloudy, cool and blustery day. I saw more than 30 deer during my 1 ½ hour stay, most visible from paved park roads and unafraid of passing vehicles.
This visit also gave me a look at the largest buck I have in Florida to date. He was quite an impressive specimen. He was so busy with his harem that he barely paid any attention to me. The girls were all much more interested in breakfast than one more person with a camera.
Brooker Creek Preserve on Keystone Road, a little farther north and east, is another place I consistently see white tailed deer. Early morning and evening, dawn and dusk, are by far the best times to be out if you want to see these great animals. Florida’s population is so dense, particularly in my home county of Pinellas, that the animals are generally quite used to vehicles and people on foot. As long as movements are kept slow and deliberate and not overtly aggressive, the deer will normally allow quite a close approach. This makes photography much easier and more intimate.
The photos illustrating this post were taken this morning. Digital ISO was set to 800 and lens aperture to f/5.6 for the low light level(cloudy dawn). Shutter speeds were still in the one second range for these photos. A tripod was used and image stabilization was turned off. In this type of situation I like to shoot in bursts of 2-3 shots. Approximately one shot out of ten was useable because of subject movement during the long shutter speed. Fine detail suffers at this high ISO with my Digital Rebel XSi but many newer cameras do a much better job at even higher ISO speeds.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

All Droid, all day

I spent an entire day with my Motorola Droid as my only camera. Minimizing equipment choices is a good creativity spur for me. Occasionally I will spend a full day with only one lens or with just one compact camera, etc… Trying to keep things fresh.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Photography close to home

Many of the best photos are produced within a small area where the photographer lives. For me this is Clearwater, Florida and the surrounding areas of Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties. It is easier to make great photos of subjects and places that you know well and see often. Factors such as when the lighting will be at its best, when wildlife is most likely to be present, where certain flowers are blooming, whether there will be many or few people at a place and having a backlog of new ideas about a subject are all more likely with familiar places.

I am certainly this way, making roughly 90% of my photos within ten miles of my home. There is plenty of variety to avoid creative ruts and boredom. There is also intimate knowledge from repeatedly visiting the same places to know when it is best to go again. This morning presents a good example.

I needed more honey. Rather than going to the super-market, I decided to visit the downtown farmers’ market instead. I knew there would be at least two venders selling local honey not available in the bigger grocery stores. It would also be a good opportunity for me to update my stock of fresh produce photos.

Every Wednesday morning from mid-October through May Clearwater dedicates two downtown blocks for a farmers’ market. The street is blocked to vehicle traffic. There are stalls for fresh produce, fresh baked pastries and cupcakes, burritos and tacos, honey, nuts, potted herb plants and much more. There are many photos for the taking and a chance to interact with the vendors and customers.

Today I concentrated on produce. I came away with good photos of several varieties of tomatoes and onions, red and green bell peppers, chile peppers, garlic, eggplant, turnips and more. There was an interesting conversation with one of the honey venders about the number of writers living in Clearwater, how the stock market was doing and election results. Another vendor selling various pickled vegetables asked if I would bring her a photo of her display stand next week. This was a very productive hour and I got my honey too.

All of the parks within a few miles of my house are in this same “well known” category. If I want to shoot wading birds and it is early November, I know the best park to visit in the morning. If alligators are the subject of the day, another park in the afternoon is more likely to produce results. Peacock photos means a morning or evening visit to a small local cemetery.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Florida's egrets and basic wildlife photography tips

 Great egret fishing

Florida has two common native egrets: the great egret(similar in size to the great blue heron but solid white) and the snowy egret(similar in size to little blue and tri-color herons but solid white). Egret will be found the same areas as herons and share similar habits. The best opportunities for egret photography also coincide with that of herons.
Snowy egret on beach

This post will focus on some of the fundamentals of wildlife photography, applicable to all animal subjects. Keeping these basic guidelines in mind while taking wildlife photos will make for more “ooh’s and “ahh’s” from people looking at your shots. These rules apply just as well to general photography.
Great egret with a large fish for breakfast

Control the background as much as possible. Think about the background before releasing the shutter. Are you trying to show the egret in its natural environment with everything sharp and recognizable or do you want an isolated portrait against a plain background? Quite often both types of shot can be achieved by simply changing the lens aperture to control depth of field. Shadowed areas and bright sky also make effective dark or light backgrounds. The background is a choice by the photographer and moving the camera even a few inches or changing the aperture can have a huge impact on the final image.
Snowy egret against a dark backgound of shadowed, out-of-focus foliage

Use a tripod, or at least a monopod, whenever possible. Carrying a tripod everywhere can seem inconvenient but the improvement you see in your final images will convince you. A tripod allows(forces?) more careful framing of the subject(try to avoid objects jutting into the frame and distracting bright spots near the edges). Tripods permit more careful evaluation of depth-of-field for exactly the effect you are trying to achieve. Slow shutter speeds are not a problem when small apertures are needed for maximum depth-of-field. Just as important as anything else, maximum image sharpness is only possible when the camera is mounted on a tripod. Image stabilization, whether in the lens or in the camera body is a big help when hand-holding but cannot replace a solid tripod.
Snowy egret with back-lighting and out-of-focus water in the background

Pay attention to the exposure histogram. Make sure not to overexpose the highlight areas, especially when shooting white subjects like Florida’s egrets. If needed, and if a tripod is used, two or three frames can be exposed at different exposures and then combined during post-processing to keep all shadow and highlight details. At least be aware if your camera cannot capture the full contrast range of the image and make a conscious decision about where it is better to lose detail.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Photographing Florida's Herons

Tri-color heron

Birds are one of the things I love most about Florida photography, and my favorite birds are the herons. I commonly see six varieties of herons in the Tampa Bay area: great blue heron are the largest, little blue herons, tri-color herons, yellow crowned and black crowned night herons and green backed herons, the smallest variety. All of these birds are commonly seen throughout much of Florida and many varieties are spread throughout North America. Florida, though, is the only place I have been where I can usually get within twenty feet of these great birds.
Immature(top) and mature(bottom) green backed herons

The best places to get great photos of the herons are where two things occur together: water and a steady stream of people. Water is important because these birds live mostly on fish and people are important so the birds are acclimated and allow a close approach. I seldom want more than a 200mm lens on an APS-sensor DSLR(300mm full-frame equivalent). For the best photos it is best to be out when most of the other people are not-the birds are used to people but are more relaxed when there is just one or two instead of a crowd.

  The great blue heron has many color variations

I like to get to know an area very well by going back repeatedly, at different times of the day and different seasons. This adds variety to the photos(differing plumage and stages of development, different foliage and backgrounds) and greater depth of knowledge about the habits of the herons. Going back again and again also makes luck for the photographer, greatly increasing the chances of getting that certain shot.
Immature(top) and mature(bottom) black crowned night herons

I strive for as much variety in my photos of each species as possible. For instance, I will make an effort over the course of several years to get great blue heron photos wading in a pond, on a beach, perched in a tree, flying, in adult mating plumage, in immature plumage, with a fish in beak, etc… For those with only a few days for photography while visiting Florida, such in-depth coverage will not be possible. But it can still be achieved during the course of two or three trips, with careful planning, at different times of the year. But even setting aside a half day for heron photography will pretty much guarantee at least a few good shots in most areas of the state.
Immature(top) and mature(bottom) yellow crowned night herons

My favorite time for bird photography of all kinds is early morning, starting about a half hour before sunrise. The early dawn light is quite flat and even(very low contrast) and is great for color saturation and showing fine detail. A tripod is essential for the longer exposure times required, even if a fast lens is used. Except for flight shots, subject motion is not usually a problem with herons-they are used to standing quite motionless for long periods of time waiting for fish to come to them.
Little blue heron

The night herons tend to be the most shy. Patience by the photographer taking a slow approach will be rewarded with better photos. Sometimes the night herons make a habit of using the same perches at certain times of the day and this knowledge can also be used to advantage.