I had a rare mid-week day off last Wednesday and decided to spend the morning making photographs.
First up was a site I’ve driven by many times and always said “That looks like a great place for a photo”. It’s the boat ramp off of Highway 50 where it crosses the St. Johns river. I was there before dawn and had a good time watching the sun come up and the clouds evolve. And yes, it is a good place for a photo.
Dawn on the St. Johns River at the Highway 50 boat ramp
Next, I drove over to Viera Wetlands. I haven’t been there recently and wanted to see what’s going on.
Palms, clouds, and marsh at Viera Wetlands
There are a lot of the usual birds around: Herons, Egrets, Ibis, Anhingas, Coots, Grebes, Limpkins, Ospreys, Cormorants, a Caracarra, a Hawk, Gulls, etc. I also saw a lot of winter visitors there, including Kingfishers, Mergansers, Caspian Terns, Tree Swallows, and Northern Shovelers. By the way, another good place to find out what’s going on is the Viera Wetlands group on Flickr. I usually check it before I go so I’ll know what to watch for when I get there. Other folks are seeing Northern Harriers, Loggerhead Shrikes, Horned Grebes, American Kestrels, and many more.
Caracara with prey
The Great Blue Herons are all busy courting and building nests. This is a wonderful time to get some action shots, especially of these birds in flight. If you watch one of the couples for a while, you’ll likely see the male leave repeatedly to gather nesting material. They tend to leave and return from the same direction and this gives you a big advantage when setting up to take flight photos.
Great Blue Heron pair
You can see other photos I’ve made at Viera Wetlands in this set on Flickr. If you get some spare time over the holiday break, this would a good place to spend it.
I’d never been to Viera Wetlands in the late afternoon or for sunset and wanted to see if the activity at that time of day is any different from the mornings when we usually go. Also, I read yesterday on the Friends of Viera Wetlands blog that several of the winter migrant species (e.g. Belted Kinfishers and Phalaropes) are starting to arrive. I talked Lynn into going with me by promising her a dinner at the Dixie Crossroads restaurant in Titusville. We headed over in time to get into the restaurant before the huge crowd showed up (about 4:30pm) and then made our way down to Viera.
We went round the Click ponds first, but didn’t see much activity. The water levels are still low and the road on the east side is pretty grown up. Next we went into the wetlands. The new paved entry is nice and you no longer have to drive through the water treatment plant. There were some of the usual birds around, although I didn’t see any of the migrants. There was one very tame acting young deer and I was able to get a good close up photo of it. It must be used to having people around. I hope it’s more leery of other large animals.
Young deer at Viera Wetlands: Check out the eyelashes and whiskers!
An enjoyable photo-op, but it would have been nice to see a Phalarope.
The woman I’m with is wonderful! I thought I used up all my husband points yesterday when she went to see Harry Potter with me. But this morning, she nudged me and asked if we were still going birding. So we did.
I’ve been to Viera Wetlands many times since first discovering it in January of 2010. It’s one of the most consistent places for birding in Central Florida. Today was no exception. We went by the Click Ponds first. The interesting thing was that the water level was very low. We saw a huge number of fish concentrated in small areas in the ponds. The birds gathered around the fish feasting on them. Many of the birds seemed sated and were too full to be interested in more.
We saw Black-necked Stilts, Roseate Spoonbills, Ospreys, Red-winged Blackbirds, Great Egrets, Limpkins, Wood Storks, Great Blue Herons, Tri-colored Herons, Little Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Little Egrets, Moorhens, Whistling Ducks, Anhingas, Cormorants, Coots, and other species. You can see a lot of them in this photo:
Click Pond Pano: The water level is low in the Click ponds at Viera Wetlands. This has concentrated the fish and the birds are feasting.
Osprey in flight
Lesson learned: Don’t ignore the Click ponds at Viera Wetlands. Especially at this time of year.
Lynn and I drove over to Viera Wetlands yesterday morning in her Prius. This was our first photo outing with the vehicle and it is outstanding for this purpose. There’s plenty of room. It’s very fuel-efficient when driving in the slow speed mode you use through an area like the wetlands. And, it’s quiet. Cars normally serve as a very good blind for bird photography, but when your vehicle is this quiet, you can get even closer to the subjects without scaring them.
This first image was one of the scenes that we saw. We’d been there for a while and were just turning a corner out in the middle of the wetlands when we both commented about the light on the left side of the car. The sun through the clouds was changing rapidly and I wasn’t set up for landscapes. I ended up asking Lynn to back up and then scrambling to switch to my wide-angle lens. I made the photo using this two image composite technique I described here. I think it came out pretty well for a hand-held, scramble photo.
Swamp grass, flowers, water, and sky
There is lot less activity at the wetlands than there was a month or two ago, but we still saw a good variety of birds. I’ve included a couple below and you can see more in my Viera Wetlands set on Flickr.
Anhinga drying wings: The bird was only a few feet from the car.I had to stitch together a two image panorama, in Photoshop.
Female Blue Wing Teal: This bird let us approach very closely.
Ansel Adams said that the “negative is the score, and the print is the performance”. In modern terms, the RAW file is the negative and the processed jpg / print is the performance. Ansel was famous for re-printing his photos to try to get the best possible image from his negatives. Some of his later prints are thought to be better than earlier ones as he experimented and gained knowledge about how to “perform” the print.
All photographers should take this to heart and not be satisfied with previous processed versions of their photos. I like to look through my Lightroom catalog sometimes for images that may merit some re-work.
This morning I reprocessed a photo that I made last October at Viera Wetlands. Below is a series of images that show you a progression from the original images to the final result. Look in the captions for details on what I did, and scroll to the bottom of the post to see the most recent version. You can also click on these to see larger versions.
This is the first image I made (RAW, unprocessed). It’s focused on the tree and the two birds are also in sharp focus. Because of depth of field, the moon is out of focus. The color balance could be better.
This is the second image I made to solve the problem with the moon focus.
Step 3: And this was the processed version I posted to Flickr last October. I masked in the in-focus moon, did some sharpening and noise reduction, but didn’t spend too much time on it. It’s since gotten a lot of views, but re-looking at it now, I’m not happy with several things in the photo (e.g. color balance, noise reduction, masking) and this morning I decided to go back and reprocess it from the original RAW files.
And this is the new version that I posted to Flickr this morning. In Photoshop, I was much more careful masking in the in-focus moon. I then created a meticulous selection of the blue sky so I could use it in the follow on steps. Then I applied noise reduction just to the blue sky and sharpening just to the birds, moon, and tree. I also used the Topaz Adjust filter just on the birds, moon and tree. Finally, back in Lightroom I adjusted the white balance off of a sample on the Ibis. I like the vertical crop better as well as the color balance, sharpness, etc.
Sorry for not posting last weekend. Much to do and little time to do it. Here’s an update on three recent Central Florida Photo Op topics.
Ravine Gardens: We made another trip up there and I’ve refreshed the main Ravine Gardens post with a few small revisions and two additional photos following our visit yesterday. Bottom line: A nice place for spring flowers.
Dogwood blossom in front of azaleas at Ravine Gardens
Viera Wetlands: Kevin M. and I went by last Saturday. Highlights of the trip were the White Pelicans in the click ponds (migrants in Florida) as well as getting images of 3 new (for me) birds. By the way, the Tree Swallows are very difficult to photograph. They never seem to perch and their flight patterns are very erratic. But they are good practice for flight shots!
Least Bittern in the reeds
Sigma 150 – 500 OS: I did use this lens at Viera last weekend. It worked well, but started to “chatter” one time. Then it stopped and worked fine after that. Not sure what to make of it, other than to keep an eye on it over time.
It’s been a while since I posted an in depth technique article, so I thought I’d do another one. Warning: Major photo geek out ahead. If you’re not into HDR, panoramas, post processing, etc. please move along.
OK, now that it’s just us photo nerds left, wanna see some sausage made? Let’s get started.
My question to you: What if you want more pixels in your final image, more dynamic range in both highlights and shadows, and better depth of field, all by using a much simpler technique than you might normally use? How would you go about it? I’ll explain one approach I used recently to make this lead photo from my previous post:
Finished image (click to view on Flickr)
I made this with a 12 megapixel Nikon D700, but my final image file is 4238 pixels wide by 5776 pixels tall (about 24.5 Megapixels). It has good depth of field with objects from very close out to the horizon in focus. It also has good dynamic range with both the ground and the sunrise & clouds well exposed.
If you were going to create an image like this using conventional techniques, it could require 6 or more exposures. You’d mount your camera on a tripod and manual focus. You might analyze the scene to decide on an optimum exposure. Then you’d make three bracketed exposures around that, first of the lower portion of the image, then shifting your camera viewpoint up toward the clouds – three more bracketed exposures. Then you’d use panorama software to combine the three pairs of images at each exposure value, followed by HDR software to combine the three resulting panoramas into an HDR file and tone map it. You might have to play with the result quite a bit to eliminate noise, ghosting, etc. introduced by the HDR software. And if you wanted to stretch the depth of field, you might go through this twice with different focus points, and combine them too. In some situations, you could also try using graduated neutral density filters to control dynamic range.
Whew – that could be a whole lot of work! I didn’t do all that. Instead, I used a much simpler idea. Basically, I just combined two images manually in Photoshop.
If you’re still with me, read on (it might look complicated, but it’s actually harder to read about than do). Here are the details.
I hand held my camera and used an image stabilized lens so I didn’t have to worry too much about longer exposures. The camera was in landscape orientation. I used aperture priority, with matrix metering auto exposure, and auto focus using the center focus point. When I made these, I held my camera very carefully to make sure there was no side to side movement and that the horizon was level so there was no rotation between shots, and I made sure there was at least 30% vertical overlap between the two images. I also shot in RAW mode for the best dynamic range and control over processing.
For this first photo, I pointed at the sky and let the camera auto expose for the bright clouds and sunrise. It also auto focused on the clouds in the middle of the frame. It’s at 16 mm, ISO 200, and f/8 @ 1/160 sec. Here’s the unprocessed RAW source image for the sky:
For this second photo I pointed down at the ground and this time the camera exposed for the dark foreground. It auto focused on the ripples in the water just short of the first coot (again in the middle of the frame). It’s at 16 mm, ISO 200, and f/8 @ 1/25 sec. (almost 3 stops more exposure). Here’s the unprocessed RAW source image for the ground:
Then I processed the RAW photos. I used Capture NX2 and converted them to TIF, but you could use Photoshop to convert them and not need CaptureNX2. I set picture control to neutral, white balance to daylight, enabled distortion correction, and tried to bring both photos closer in overall brightness. Here are the two processed images:
Next I loaded the files into Photoshop as separate layers in the same file, and used Photoshop’s Edit / Auto Align Layers function to place the two images relative to each other.
At this point, I added a layer mask (reveal all) for the sky image and then painted black to remove the portions below the horizon that I didn’t need. It was fairly easy to blend the images by changing the brush opacity and either erasing or painting in until it looked correct.
The final steps then are the same ones used for any photo: crop, sharpen, levels, apply any creative filters you like, etc.
Once you go through this a few times, it’ll be easier and you can, of course vary some of these steps based on your own preferences.
I think this “Two Image Pano / HDR / Focus Stacking” technique can be really useful and it has several advantages over standard approaches normally used for this kind of image.
It’s simpler than conventional techniques, and yields very good results.
You can hand hold in many cases, especially if you use an image stabilized camera or lens.
It uses the camera’s auto exposure effectively to expose correctly for the different areas of the image.
You can post process with just Photoshop – other software isn’t required.
It greatly increases the dynamic range of the final image without requiring HDR processing or software. It doesn’t require a straight line horizon like graduated neutral density filters would.
Depth of field can be increased over that in a single exposure or in a conventional pano / HDR approach.
It also substantially increases vertical field of view.
This technique is situation dependent: It’ll only produce portrait or perhaps square orientation output images (although you’ll have lots of pixels to crop to other formats). It only works where the scene is easily divided into two portions where the brightness varies vertically. Also,the dynamic range increase available from just two images may not be enough in all situations.
So, should you use it?
Why not? Under the right conditions, it can generate very good results with minimal effort. Now that you’ve heard about this technique, you can watch for scenes where you may be able to use it.
Then you can try it – and please let me know how it works for you.
Although it was very tempting to sleep in this morning, I was up early and made it over to Viera Wetlands in time to witness another one of nature’s shows. The clouds cooperated and did their part, the sun and calm water pitched in, a couple of coots made just the right ripples, and all I had to do was snap the shutter.
Sunrise at Viera Wetlands
Once the sun was up, we parked the cars and walked for a while, thinking that the slow deliberate approach would yield better photos than the quick drive method. It didn’t – we failed to find much of interest on foot. The light wasn’t very good either – due to the clouds that made the sunrise so nice. We ended up getting back in the cars and using them to find things of interest. And after a while, the clouds cleared and we had better light for bird photography.
Last week we saw several Snipes, but couldn’t get good photos since they took off and flew fast and erratic as soon as we got close. This week our luck was better (or this bird was a bit tired). He stayed still for us to make his portrait.
Wilson’s (Common) Snipe
We saw the usual Heron and Egret suspects, along with Anhingas, Hawks, Black Crowned Night Herons, American Bitterns, Savannah Sparrows, Northern Shovelers, and Sandhill Cranes. I was able to photograph two new (for me) species – Ring Neck Ducks, and Lesser Scaups.
We also took a turn ’round the click ponds and there was a great deal of activity there. This Cormorant surprised me when he came up with his breakfast.
Cormorant with fish
We had a great time. Clicking on these photos will open them on Flickr, where you can view larger versions. You can also visit my Viera Wetlands set on Flickr to see other photos I’ve made there.
Our local photography club organized an expedition to Viera Wetlands yesterday. It was one of our larger outings, with 8 people from the group there, including one new member. We arrived just after sunrise and spent a little over 2 hours exploring the main site, and also took a quick tour of the click ponds.
Great Blue Heron: These birds aren’t nesting yet, but they do seem to be reserving their spots.
Wow – what a day for avian variety and nature lovers! The weather was quite nice too – sunny with temperatures in the 50s. There isn’t much nesting going on yet, but we did see an amazing number of both year-round and winter visitor species. Several of these birds are difficult to spot and / or photograph well and it helps to make multiple circuits of the wetlands. It also really helps to have multiple sets of eyes watching for and pointing out interesting things. About the only thing we struck out on was the River Otters, but we did hear others talking about them – so they were around somewhere.
Belted Kingfisher: There were several of these at Viera Wetlands yesterday. They generally stayed out in the middle of the cells and so were hard to photograph.
I’m coming down with another cold and wasn’t very enthusiastic about going to Viera Wetlands yesterday. Actually, “not very enthusiastic” is a big understatement. I almost didn’t get out of bed – but now I’m glad I did.
We had to leave at “O dark thirty” to get to the west side of the wetlands just before sunrise. I wanted to try the D7000 out on landscapes and it performed very well. The image below is a single exposure of the sunrise. I don’t care too much for silhouettes – I like to have some detail and color in the shadows. For this one, I exposed at -2 EV to prevent blowing out the sky and then brought up the shadows in post processing. The D7000 recorded a very broad dynamic range and has remarkably little noise in the shadows at base ISO, even when under exposed. This real world example, along with the the results from the recent DxOMark test of the D7000 indicate it’s going to be a very fine landscape camera. The only problem is that I don’t have a very wide lens for it.
Sunrise at Viera Wetlands, D7000, ISO 100, 1/100 sec. @ f/11, 16 mm
As we were photographing the sunrise, an otter swam by right in front of us just past those reeds (about 8 – 10 feet away). That’s the closest one’s ever come to me in the wild. Of course, I didn’t have the right camera set up so I didn’t get a photo. I think the otter knew that, and swam by just to tease us. We saw it a couple more times but could never get a shot off. Those things are quick. And black. And hard to photograph.
After the sun was up, we drove around the wetlands and came up on this:
Bald Eagle on dead tree, D7000, ISO 320, 1/500sec. @ f/8, 500 mm
This eagle was just surveying the area. I did get a few images when it flew off, but none blog worthy. I need more Birds in Flight practice, especially at 500mm!
The sun was up, but still low in the sky as we saw some cormorants sitting on a viewing platform. The light was hitting this one just right to show off the detail in his dark feathers.
Cormorant, D7000, ISO 220, 1/500 sec. @ f/8, 500 mm
Here’s one more photo I want to show you. This little fellow was digging around in the reeds along with several birds. I’m not sure what they were after, but it might have been snails – we saw a lot of them yesterday. This image is a good example of the D7000 at ISO 1600. Very usable with minimal noise.
Rocky Raccoon, D7000, ISO 1600, 1/500sec. @ f/9, 500 mm
Today I feel a bit worse, so I’m glad I went out yesterday. Hopefully I’ll start feeling better tomorrow.