2017 Photography Goals

Ten percent of 2017 is already in the rearview mirror, so if I don’t quickly post my photography goals for 2017 I may miss them entirely. Last year I completely failed on my first goal of learning new post processing techniques, but spent a large part of my free time in 2016 on my second goal of organizing my digital photography catalog. The catalog is nearly 5 TB in size, and I had made a huge mess of it in my first six years of serious photography. It feels so satisfying to have completed that goal and to have my photos all sorted and backed up (one copy locally and one off site, just in case). My photography work really suffered in 2016 due to the severity of this much needed organizing. I spent many free evenings sorting files rather than processing current photos, or learning how to better process photos.

While quite pretty, I need to explore the city of Portland more and find some new compositions of my home town's skyline

For 2017 I have a simple list of goals. I know with a young family and coaching my oldest son’s tee ball team this spring I won’t have as much time to spend doing photography as I’d wish to have, and that’s just fine with me. Nothing gives me more joy than those three little kids! Anyways, here are my goals for 2017:

  1. Learn to proficiently blend exposures in Photoshop. There is no better way to process some of the landscape photos that I’ve already captured but don’t yet have the processing skills to finish with the vision I have for them.
  2. Double my stock photo portfolio. Stock photography is far from what it used to be a couple of decades ago (so I hear), but the passive income suits me well in this hectic season of life.
  3. Explore more, shoot a minimum of 6 new cityscape locations and at least two new landscape locations in the Pacific Northwest. My personality is one that can easily get stuck in ruts. I need to force myself to out of these ruts and work more out of my comfort zone. I’m beginning to get a little tired of going to some of the same locations at the same time of day, even if there is some specific weather and light combinations I haven’t captured there yet.
  4. Make at least one blog post each month. I know it’s recommended to post much more often than this, but at least monthly would be more consistent than just an annual post of last year’s best images. Please let me know if there is anything specifically or any genres of blog posts that you would enjoy seeing, I’d be glad to try my best to accommodate any requests!
  5. Start an Instagram account. I feel old and out of date not having a photographic presence on Instagram yet, but that needs to end this year. I still actually prefer the way Flickr is organized over Instagram, Google+ and 500px, but Flickr is pretty much a ghost town now unfortunately. So like it or not, Instagram, here I come!!!

I’d love to see your top photographic goals for this year if you have made your own in the comments section below. I hope I can complete each of mine and have better, more striking and more engaging photos to show for it a year from now.

My most popular image to date in 2017

Top Ten Photos from 2016

Yikes! It’s 2017 already. Though I think someone who takes their craft of photography seriously should always be improving, 2016 was not a very productive year for me. A year ago this past September my wife and I had our third child, which now gives us three kids five years old or younger, and the opportunities I had to get out and shoot seemed to almost completely dry up. I made it a priority to get out to photograph birds a few times times, because that is the photography I enjoy most and it is just so good for my soul. It helps that I’ve created a great place in our little yard to take photos of the Anna’s hummingbirds that reside along our street, often while our kids take their afternoon naps (not during the day’s prettiest light). Apart from birds, the rest of my favorite ten images from 2016 are all photos I captured early in the mornings on my way to work. This is tough for me to accept since there is so much more to the beautiful pacific northwest that I would really like to see and photograph. Lastly, as in years past, I have taken some photos that I think should really be included in this list, but I haven’t taken the time to date to process these to the satisfaction of my vision. Without any more excuses then, here are my favorite ten photos from this past year. I hope you enjoy them, and thank you for your support!

2016 Photography Goals

The holidays have come and gone, and many of us are struggling to come to terms with 2016 already being upon us. I've enjoyed reviewing 2015 photographically and looking through the past year's family photos as well. I'm not a big fan of New Year's resolutions, I'd rather continuously make improvements and changes in life, I don't need to wait to change calendars to make changes. It's part of the curse of being educated as an engineer and working for a manufacturing company I suppose.

With the new year, I've made a short list of goals for the new year rather than resolutions. These are the highlight points I want focus on to improve my craft over the coming twelve months.

  1. I've purchased a few post processing videos from photographers whose work inspires me. Finding the time to watch these can be challenging, but I need to watch these sooner rather than later so I can make photographs than I envision when capturing spectacular scenes and landscapes.
  2. Get organized. I made a mess of my photo catalog a few years ago. I began working in a more organized fashion about 18 months again, but my older work still needs to be consolidated into a unified catalog., and for that hard drive to be duplicated for backup.
  3. I need to explore the beautiful city I call home, and take some more original photos. The cityscapes I've taken to date are from easy to get to and overshot view points. I need to make some more original work now that I feel I've nearly exhausted the easy photos.
  4. There are a couple of locations just a little further away from my home than is convenient, but I'd like to visit one of them once, and commit to visit another at least four times in 2016.

I hope to check each of these goals off throughout 2016, and I hope in one year from now I have better photos to show you all as a result of this work. If you haven't yet, have you made photographic goals for this next year? Are there places you'd like to visit, books you'd like to read, training you'd like to take, a workshop you'd like to attend, or new gear you'd like to acquire in order to improve your work? If so, please let me know below in the comments or in the comments on Facebook, I'd love to hear!

Top Ten Photos from 2015

Unfortunately you don't need to scroll down too far in my blog to find my "top ten photos from 2014" post. It's been a very busy year for my family as we were thrilled with the arrival of our third child. Though my wife is much more generous than she should be with letting me get out to shoot, time spent out with my camera is becoming even more scarce. Even so, I am still pushing to try push and improve in this craft that brings me so much joy.

My brother kindly mentioned over the Christmas holidays when I showed him my favorite 35 photos from 2015 how my photography is still improving. This was a huge and very kind compliment, and I think my favorite ten photos from 2015 show this. As I've said in years past, it's rewarding to compare your favorite ten images from year to year and measure your growth as a photographer. I really enjoy this annual January exercise. 

Most of these images were taken close to home this past year. I just managed to take one photography trip, to Washington State's Palouse region. I have struggled to find the time to sort through and process the more than 1,000 files I came home with from that trip. I have yet to process what should become my best photo from 2015, a stunning sunrise over Portland, because I am not yet confident my current post processing abilities will do justice to the scene I stood amazed in front of at on that October morning. So, here are the favorite ten photographs I made in 2015 that I have already finished, shown in the order I captured them. I hope you enjoy these, and if you enjoy making your own photos, please take the time to reward yourself by making your own top ten list!

Sharing the Moment with Photos

Last week my wife gave birth to our third child. Most everything went smoothly, and for that we feel both fortunate and thankful. I left my DSLR at home for our third child, not because I didn’t want nice photos, but rather my Olympus OM-D E-M10 is small, compact, unassuming, but best of all, is capable together with a smartphone of sharing high quality photos with the world in just a few minutes.

Many of today’s compact cameras, mirrorless cameras and some DSLRs can transfer jpeg images straight from the camera directly to a smartphone or a tablet by way of the camera creating an ad hoc wifi network. Within minutes of the birth and of these photos being taken, I was able to share them with family and friends, by text and on Facebook, after I had copied the jpegs files I chose from the camera to my phone, and then quickly edited the photos using one of my favorite (and free) apps, Google Snapseed (available for both iOS and Android phones). So many dear friends were excited to get these updates soon after the moment was captured. It was satisfying and rewarding sharing this family moment we will always cherish with so many friends and family so quickly and effectively, and capturing photos our family will always fondly review to remember this precious day.

I always leave my OM-D camera set up so take both medium quality jpeg files as well as RAW files. This leaves my wife and I the option of quickly sharing photos just taken with this small, but very capable and high quality camera and lens system, but also leaves me the option of doing some more in depth editing on my desktop computer to the RAW file, should the file and the moment captured demand it. This is such a flexible way to capture so many family and travel photos. I’ve really come to enjoy packing this little kit along every time I want to capture photos better than today’s phones are capable of, while still not making photography the focus of an outing and being burdened by a large and heavy bag of camera gear.

Note that the photo of my wife’s first moments with our new son (the middle photo above) was processed on my desktop computer, as I needed the greater dynamic range held by the RAW file. The remaining two images were processed on my phone and quickly shared.

Realized Vision - Getting the Shot

When my wonderful wife gave me hummingbird feeder last spring for a little birthday gift, I immediately had dreams of capturing this image below. This is the best shot of the 2,000 frames I've still got left on my hard disk that I captured this past  autumn of the Anna's hummingbirds that frequented our feeder. I just got around to choosing the best image that included the male's magnificent and iridescent gorget and just processed the photo this past weekend. The male's gorget looks like velvet from most angles, but when he looks right at you or in the right light, his gorget explodes in magenta glory. This color is not faked, though a little saturation was used in post. I had to bring the rest of the colors up in saturation a lot more to match that of the gorget in post processing. But let me assure you, this color will "wow" you when you witness it up close for yourself.

This shot took a lot of commitment, persistence and luck too. Since setting up the feeder in the fall, I have washed it and refilled it weekly with fresh, home made syrup (simply 4 parts water to 1 part sugar saturated with heat on the stove, no food coloring which is damaging to the hummingbird's health). I spent many pleasant autumn afternoons waiting patiently near the feeder, being as still as I could, waiting for a willing model to come to feed and hover (or pose) for me. For all of the twenty hours or so I spent waiting and the thousands of frames I captured, this below photo is my favorite single frame that includes a razor sharp eye, the gorget showing nearly complete iridescent color, and all with a pleasing out of focus background of autumn color (maple trees a full block away down my street). Note that the hues of the maple color in the background was changed a little to allow the bird to stand out more and give a little more variation in the color of the photo. Even for the time I committed to trying to get this one shot, no others of the thousands of frames captured came nearly as close to including all these elements that I was hoping for. Even with the commitment I put into getting this shot, I was still very lucky on this particular frame.

For the technical details, this photo was taken on an overcast early November afternoon, using my Canon 5D MkIII body with my trusty 400mm f/5.6 L prime lens, and my full kit of Kenko extension (73mm in total) tubes between my camera's body and the lens, to allow for a closer minimum focus with this tiny little subject. I used no flash, instead brightening the eye and bring out the shadows on the bird in processing. I used the following camera settings; 1/250 second shutter speed, f/5.6 aperture, ISO 2,500. Even if I wasn't fortunate enough to capture this frame, I truly enjoyed the time watching these little guys feed, watch the street for predators and rival hummingbirds, and even battle each other and stake their territory. Hopefully there will be some new little hummingbirds I will be able to photograph at the feeder this spring from the family that visited much of the fall and winter! I've got a hunch!

Anna's Magnificent Glance

Top Ten Photos from 2014

Another year has passed, and it's time again to review my favorite photographs from the last year. I've mentioned before how much I enjoy this process. For the thousands of images on my hard disk taken in the past year, these ten stand out most to me. My family takes priority over making photographs, so as a result I didn't travel too far from home just to take photos, I didn't get the time I had hoped to process a lot of photos, and I didn't get the free time I had hoped for to learn and grow my post processing skills. Still, I can't help but review my favorite ten photos from 2014 without getting a big smile on my face. I am reminded of some of the most special light and moments I had the treat of witnessing with my camera, and I can still see improvement from 2013 in what I made of these moments.

But I am cringing a little while writing this post, because I know that I captured some special light a couple of times in 2014, but I have not yet processed the files that should really be in this top ten list. Maybe in a few months I'll post the images that should've been included in this list now. None the less, here below are my favorite photographs from 2014, shown in chronological order. I’m already eager to see how 2015’s top ten list will look.

Making Christmas Memories

I’m obsessed with making the prettiest photos I know how, each that I hope would be destined to be printed large and featured in a living room. But that’s not the purpose and the end destination for most photos. I rarely feature people in my photos, and I’m not proud of this. As an introverted engineer, photographing people doesn’t come natural to me. I do enjoy photographing family and friends that I dearly love, but I’d prefer to photograph inanimate objects and non-human subjects. But, there’s no landscape, or photo of the city I live, or a photo of a bird that I will love and appreciate more than those of my family.

Last year Apple featured a commercial on TV that told the story of a withdrawn teen, or so it appears, who spends the holidays making a movie of his family’s Christmas without their knowing. This ad inspired my wife to do the same for my family last year. She made the movie compilation on her phone, put together with movie clips and photos, but when set to music it was transformed into living memories and loved by my family. Simply put, the photos we all cherish most are of the family and friends we hold dear.

I’d encourage each of you then who enjoy photography to record the story of your family’s holidays. Make photos of people, that goes without saying. But remember to tell a story. Photograph the food being prepared, the table being set, the gifts under the tree, the decorations and especially the lights. Then make sure to capture the action. Get down to the kid’s eye level, get in their faces with a wider angle lens. You'll love the results you get with this combination. These photos don’t all need to be processed to perfection, just try to keep a consistent theme throughout. Then put these photos together with some movie clips and set it to music. It will melt the hearts of your family. There are a myriad of ways to make these slideshow type movies on many different devices, and do it well and easily. This may be the best gift a photographer can give their family. Photos and videos of ones you love set to meaningful music is simply a recipe for magic. Lastly, don’t park behind the camera all Christmas, make sure you are captured by the camera too. Your family wants to see you in the movie, they don’t just want to see the photos you make! This is a special season, use your interest in photography to make beautiful and lasting memories, with your own artistic twist on it.

Our little daughter taking in the Christmas tree - photo by Traci Vogt

A Hobbyist's Review of the Canon 200-400mm f/4 L Lens

A few weeks ago I rented the Canon 200-400mm f/4 IS L lens with the built in 1.4x extender. This lens has received raving reviews from many nature and wildlife photographers, so I couldn't keep myself from renting it over the first cold and clear weekend I had the opportunity. The $130 rental cost for one weekend with this lens from Pro Photo Supply in Portland is a lot easier to swallow than the $11,799 purchase price tag. It was a bird intensive weekend for me with the 200-400mm lens, beginning with Saturday morning at the nearby Commonwealth Lake Park where I was lucky to have about a ten minute portrait session just 15 or so feet from a great blue heron, albeit not in the best of light. I was also fortunate to capture a beautiful male hooded merganser catching a fish. Commonwealth Lake is such a great place for photos of birds catching fish, since this lake is stocked with fish. I spent the entire day on Sunday at Ridgefield NWR, and frankly that was too much of the birds and not enough of my wife and kids for one day. I love photography as a hobby, but blowing a whole weekend day with the birds (and with this great lens) was too much of a good thing. But enough complaining. My favorite shots from Ridgefield on this bright Sunday were of a female northern harrier gliding over the fields, and of a red-tailed hawk posing on post number 12.

I really enjoyed the 200-400mm lens. It's very sharp, and the focal length range offers perfect flexibility for a location like Ridgefield. But the 200-400mm lens is much larger and heavier than the 400mm f/5.6 L lens I typically photograph birds with. The 400mm prime lens doesn't have IS, and just has one two position switch for minimum focus distance. The 200-400mm lens has more switches with more positions each, in addition to the zoom ring and the teleconverter lever. I'm not used to the complexity of such a lens, as well as the girth. My shots from this weekend certainly suffered from this increased complexity.My time with the 200-400mm lens gave me a new appreciation for the ease of use my 200-400mm lens offers.

Apart from the obvious things to love about the 200-400mm lens, the focal zoom range and convenience of the built in teleconverter, the creamy smooth bokeh from the 9 aperture blades left my jaw hanging when I processed these files on my 27" monitor, it was really, really pretty.

Some things that I wasn't as impressed with on the 200-400mm, aside form the size and complexity (I can't hold this against the lens while at the same time I enjoy its flexibility) was the sharpness and the autofocus performance. This lens is very sharp, but I felt it was no more sharp than my prime 400m lens is. The autofocus was slower than it is on my 400mm f5.6 lens, especially when the teleconverter was engaged. This really surprised me. I was not expecting my old 400mm f/5.6 L lens to autofocus faster and be no less sharp than this new lens that costs 10x more than my old prime lens, especially since the new 200-400mm lens is the envy of so many bird and wildlife photographers. Maybe I was doing something wrong with the new zoom lens, but I doubt it. I prepared and read the new lenses' user manual, and played with the focus tracking settings on my Canon 5D MkIII camera body. I just couldn't get the 200-400mm lens to feel as snappy as my 400mm lens does. 

All in all, I had a lot of fun with this lens a few weekends back. It's sharp, the improved IS is really nice to assist getting sharper images while bracing the lens without a tripod, and the bokeh is perfectly dreamy. However, I found the size and weight of the lens limiting given I'm not used to shooting with these large lenses, and the autofocus with the extender I found underperformed. Shooting with this new and already revered lens for a weekend made me appreciate my own 400mm lens more, and made me look more closely at a couple factors that aren't typically discussed often when lenses are reviewed. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to own Canon's new 200-400mm lens, but if I had $12,000 burning a hole in my pocket that I had to buy a new lens with, I think I'd look more closely at a prime 400mm, 500mm or maybe even the 600mm lenses from Canon rather than the 200-400mm. Especially since the vast majority of bird photos are taken racked right out at the end of a zoom lens. But with new budget lenses aimed right at serious bird photography hobbyists from Nikon, Canon, Tamron, soon from Sigma, and even from Olympus (for the micro four thirds system), there's never been a better time to enjoy bird photography.

The Tree

As I began to see the colors finally change in the Portland area this autumn, I started to see the annual train of photos from "the tree" at the Portland Japanese Gardens showing up on social media. For those who may be reading this who aren't Pacific Northwest photographers, the Portland Japanese Gardens has one specific beautifully manicured Japanese maple tree alongside a paved path which looks unassuming at first glance, but when this tree is seen from underneath its maple canopy, especially when the tree is decorated in rich autumn burnt orange color, the tree comes alive. The wandering direction of its trunk and branches create fascinating photographic lines. This tree is simply a work of art, a natural piece of art that many a photographer shoot each year. And by many photographers, I mean hordes of them.

For the week or so in autumn when the tree's fall color is peak, a dozen or so photographers can often be seen squatted down under the canopy of the tree to get their own photo of this classic subject. It's quite the site for passersby who aren't aware of the celebrity status of this tree in the world of photography. For this very reason I have been hesitant to bother getting out to shoot this maple tree in the past, let alone standing in line and battling the hordes to shoot it in autumn.

This leads to the broader topic of photographing scenes which countless other photographers have also shot. Delicate arch is a legendary American landscape photography location. I've heard stories of a hundred or so photographers gathering at Delicate Arch for sunset on many evenings, to each capture this now famous scene for themselves. I experienced a line of fifty or so photographers capturing sandhill cranes coming in to roost at sunset at the Bosque Del Apache NWR. Every fall photographers flock to the Columbia River Gorge to shoot the waterfalls surrounded by golden color. When the full moon rises behind Portland, photographers gather at Pittock Mansion to make a classic postcard style photo of the city. It's discouraging to a degree to get a great shot that is just the same as everybody else's great shot. It simply points out such a photo is not unique, but is instead normal for that location or subject. The world isn't clamoring for MY Japanese Garden maple tree photo, and it probably doesn't need your photos from popular locations either. But fortunately I don't believe that's the point here.

These popular locations are just that for a reason, and a very good reason; they're AMAZING!!! When I got to the front of the line at the maple tree, set up my tripod and composed and made my photograph, and then saw it on my camera's LCD, I got a huge smile on my face. That tree, the tree, is really special, it's a piece of art. Experiencing it that close, studying it, working with and making the most of the current light and conditions, and then processing these files with your own style and preferences is very rewarding. Experiencing these treasured locations and subjects for yourself, experiencing a place at the optimal time of day and season of year is the peak moment of a successful hunt for beauty. While I enjoy the hobby of photography, I wish I could share such moments of shooting with those who enjoy my photography. The odd time that I do get the chance to share a shoot, that photo means so much more to that both other person, and to myself.

I would encourage you then from resisting not shooting something or some place just because it is overshot. Go add it to your portfolio. Don't dismiss others' photos from such places, but rather look for ideas and inspiration from their work to incorporate in your own work, both at that overshot location and at others as well.  When I shot last month at the Japanese Garden, the fellow just to my right that was hunkered under the tree's canopy next to me said that he had driven all the way from Los Angeles just to shoot this very tree. And here this tree was just five exits down the freeway from my house and I hadn't bothered to photograph this treasure up until that day. That's a shame, but I'm glad finally made the small effort to get this shot now. And, I'll be returning in years to come to improve upon my work, just like every other photographer in line at the tree.

Forest Grove Concours D'Elegance

Last month a neighbor of ours and I enjoyed a morning together at the Forest Grove Concours D'Elegance classic car show. It's far and away the best show I've attended with regards to the number of cars on display, but also the quality of the restorations. The muscle cars often featured in a classic car show were off somewhere in the back of the Pacific University grounds, as my favorite era of cars were prominently displayed. I love the big long cars from the twenties and the thirties, with their dramatic sweeping fenders and decorated spare tires. There were also custom cars, newer sports cars and older imports as well.

Just like shooting animals at a zoo, I tried to isolate portions of cars and not give away too easily that I was merely an attender at the car show. I'd really like to spend at minimum of an hour each with so many of the cars shown on this day in great light, but I did not have that luxury. Instead, I found it tough to take a single shot that didn't include several legs of people reflected in the body panels. I shot all of these photos with my new Olympus micro four thirds camera and the kit 14-42mm zoom lens it came with, as I had just picked it up from Pro Photo Supply the day before. I'm eager to go back to the car show again next year with a sharper prime lens on this camera (more on this new compact mirrorless camera soon). I really couldn't have enjoyed myself much more than I did, spending the morning another car nut in perfect weather with so many beautifully restored works of art, and with a new and very fun camera. The above gallery are my favorite 25 photos from the show, but it was tough to limit this little gallery to 25. There just too many beautiful cars that I couldn't help but say "Wow!" when I first saw them.

A Long Time Coming - Common Loons

I have many fond memories from when I was young of camping with my parents and brothers, and fishing the mountain lakes in the interior of British Columbia. Each lake would typically have a pair or more of common loons. These birds are unusually pretty and are covered with a detailed pattern of mostly black and white, but their bright red eyes are even prettier yet. In addition to seeing their beauty, the male loon's territorial tremolo call echoing through the mountains simply must be heard in nature for its' complete wonder and mystery to be experienced and appreciated in full.

Since I became interested in photography, I've wanted to get back to these lakes to photograph these birds that I have such fond memories of. This past week my family visited my home at the perfect time of year to see these loons. My dad and I choose a morning with a favorable weather forecast of clear skies and little wind and set our alarms for 3:15am. Yikes, that's early! We woke to see the east sky already getting light, it's definitely nearing the summer solstice already. We arrived at White Lake, a lake with which my dad is very familiar, and put his old Folbot (a brand of two man open kayak) into the calm water about half of an hour after the sun rose. Though we sacrificed to allow as many factors as possible to be in our favor, we saw few birds in the first thirty minutes of exploring this pristine lake's shores.

As we neared the far side of the lake we saw a pair of loons poking their heads under water looking for fish. These birds routinely make short work of trout as large as two pounds. They were wary of our presence, but grew more comfortable while we kept our distance. As time passed and we peeled off bursts of frames when the loons circled into nice morning sunlight, a third loon joined in fishing, and we were able to get a little closer. After about twenty minutes of excitement for dad and I, these loons dipped below the water's surface and wouldn't surface anywhere near us for the rest of the morning, they'd had enough of us. We were never able to get close enough for me to fill the frame with my 400mm lens with the birds, so I was forced to do some heavy cropping again, as I described in the last post featuring the auklets. I would have loved to have had Canon's 600mm lens on this morning, but I am still pleased with the images I was able to get, and enjoyed a beautiful morning chasing these magnificent birds with my dad.

Cropping Auklets

My family spent this past weekend up at Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound with some dear friends. I brought my camera gear hoping to get out and shoot a sunrise or two, but as things have been going of late, the challenges of parenting two kids in diapers ran my landscape photography hopes and plans for the weekend off the road. But that’s a topic for a separate post.

Friends and I took our kids out on the Puget Sound in a small bay off Whidbey Island just afternoon, and I noticed a lot of bird life quite active out on the water. I recognized a flock of about fifty rhinoceros auklets, as the Oregon Aquarium has a pair that I remember seeing a few years ago. We were able to get the boat closer than I expected to these birds, but it’s really no surprise with the amount of boat activity around them most of the time. It’s no different than visiting Commonwealth Lake near my home, a lot of nearby human activity makes it so much easier to get close when shooting birds. Once we dropped the kids off at shore, I grabbed my gear and my friend Jon drove me back out to make some seabird photos. The birds were wary of our presence, as they are mostly used to boats blasting by at speed, rating than stalking them slowly (just like a predator). That said, we still got close, but not near enough to the auklets to fill the frame of my full frame DSLR and using my light little 400mm f/5.6 lens.

However, this Canon 400mm f/5.6 L lens is so sharp, and the file quality of the Canon 5D MkIII is so good that I knew I could heavily crop a sharp file to achieve results easily good enough to post on the web. These photos won’t be hanging in anyone’s living room, but then bird photos rarely do any ways. I’ve heard from podcasts, most recently the Improve Photography Podcast, as well as learned from experience that cropping files taken with my 400mm lens and Canon 5D MkIII yield better cropped results than do shooting birds from a distance with a crop sensor  camera, or from using a teleconverter (extender) with the full frame camera. Simply to much detail is lost, and too many photos are unacceptably soft. And by cropping, I mean that I heavily cropped these three photos shown here. They range finished from 2.9 to 6.8 megapixels in resolution, cropped from the 22.1 megapixels of my 5D camera. Chances are here on the web that you would have never had known had I not mentioned it. It's what I needed to do given the equipment I am fortunate to have at my disposal.

The 5D paired with the compact 400mm lens proved to be a great combination to shoot the active auklets diving, surfacing, and flying past from all directions. These little guys are really fast in flight. Though I’d love a larger and more expensive telephoto lens, like the Canon 200-400mm f/4 L IS or the Canon 600mm f/4 L IS lens, these lenses I lust after are so much larger and heavier that I doubt I would have bagged as good of results as I did with my nimble setup. My friend Bruce has been shooting birds lately more with his light 300mm f/4 lens than his Nikon 200-400mm f/4 lens because of the 300mm lens' compactness.

I would have loved to have shot these birds in warm golden hour sunshine, but I was lucky to get the chance when I did, so close to where we were staying for this family weekend vacation, and while both my kids were napping! The mid-day light was a little overcast, and the water acted a large reflector, mostly negating the typically harsh and contrasty shadows cast by mid-day light. It was sure fun watching and shooting these unique and interesting birds, and sharing this moment with a good friend who enjoys nothing more than simply being out on the water.

Bittern's Call

Last weekend and the one previous I made morning visits to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, the first visit with my dad and the second with my good friend Bruce (check out his recent post including a report from our trip to Ridgefield together). As I've written before, I love this location, especially in spring when the birds are so active as they move north for the warmer months and have young. But a spring visit is best when it's shared with good company, someone else who loves the peaceful tranquility of nature on a cool morning at first light. Ridgefield is an excellent place to see the American bittern, a very unique and reclusive bird that I am particularly fond of. It is a cousin of the more common great blue heron, but is less than half the size of the heron. The bittern is the same color as dry grass, in which it spends much of its' time, and is incredibly difficult to spot in. When the wind stirs, the bittern will often point its' head straight up and sway its' throat side to side, so it blends in to the long grass even more than it already did. It's truly an amazing bird to watch in person.

But it had been over a year since I had seen a bittern, and I was seeing fewer photos taken by others of them at Ridgefield NWR (the only place I've ever seen a bittern at). But on my dad's an my last lap of our trip two weeks ago, we spotted two bitterns just beside our car in a marsh. We enjoyed watching and peeling off one burst after the other while these two birds slowly meandered through the reeds just feet from off road and from our lenses. It was marvelous, in spite of us meeting these birds in harsh mid day light. Lucky for us, this harsh mid day light was balanced out some by the water acting as a reflector. My dad took this first photo which shows just how difficult it can be to spot a bittern in a marsh.

Bittern hiding in a marsh. Photo taken by Don Vogt.

On Saturday morning last week, Bruce and I did three laps of the auto tour route at Ridgefield NWR, and on the back half of our first lap, I spotted an American bittern hunkered down in the grass. The warm morning light was at our backs and in our favor. We enjoyed watching this bird for some time as scattered clouds moved in front of and then out of the way of the sun, forcing me to change to aperture priority mode on my camera to deal with the ever changing light, a mode on the camera that I rawly use. In such conditions, the quantity of light can quickly change, often by a factor of two or three. Unless people pay close attention to this change in light, our eyes and brain will barely even notice, but the camera sure does. After several minutes of watching this bird, it began to heave its' body, making what has to be one of the most unique calls in the bird world. This was the first time of the many bittern sightings I have had where I was treated to watching one call. Bruce described the sound as "someone beating the side of a half filled fifty gallon barrel." I'd encourage you to click through this link to the All About Birds website and check out this bird's call in the Sound tab. Just maybe, you'll be treated to hearing it some time in the wild, and will know what that bizarre and unique noise is. It really must be heard to be appreciated.

Limiting Vision To Get Better Creativity

I've made two visits now this spring to the Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival, in Woodburn, Oregon.  I hope to make several more trips soon, as the tulips should be hitting their peak color in the next week. I really get a kick out of shooting these flowers. I enjoy colorful photos, and most often try to make very colorful and vibrant images. So it's only natural that tulips would be one of my favorite subjects.

When I get the chance to visit a single location many times, such as the tulip farm this month, or the sandhill cranes and the snow geese over the course of a week as during my trip to New Mexico two years ago, I prefer to try to limit the lenses used during each day, or at least for chuncks of time in a day. This forces me to think more precisely about the photos I want to make, and to more carefully choose each composition.  I've found that I can be more creative within the bounds of a single lens, rather than look each way, or at each flower, and think how I can shoot each scene or each subject with every lens in my bag.  I don't have the mental capacity to run every focal length in my bag at each aperture and different shutter speed through my limited and inflexible imagination. If I try it will only be a burden and will result in fewer photos in which I am satisfied with, as a result of my scattered thought. Rather, I put one lens on my camera body as I set out, and I am more free both in the weight of my gear burdening my shoulders and of the equipment through which to see burdening my mind.

Those three factors of shooting with one lens alone are enough to run through one's imagination while looking at a landscape of tulips, contemplating making each different flower the subject of one's next photo. Yes, I do have to pass some great opportunities by as I only stick to one lens, and I'm still learning to let those possible shots go. But those potential shots which are lost contribute instead to the refining of the photos that my course was set towards on that day or that hour.  Of course, conditions may change. The weather may break and a dramatic sky may reveal itself and beg to be shot with a wide focal length.  I am not contractually bound to this idea of shooting with one lens, but until a photo must be taken with another lens, I prefer to stick with the lens on my camera.

During my first two trips to the Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm this spring I chose to use my 70-200mm lens. While chosen more because of the weather and light conditions, the first visit was cloudy with a bland sky, and the second was raining off and on (the 70-200mm lens' large lens hood kept the front element of the lens virtually rain drop free all morning), I do love the compressing effect that the telephoto lens has, especially on scenes with flowers, and how artistic shots with this lens can be.

Here are five of my favorite photos from my first two trips this spring. The first evening gave a spectacular sunset, and I have yet to take the time to process these images. I'm doubting my Photoshop skills will sufficiently translate the beauty of the light and the fields that I had the joy of experiencing and capturing! Until then, these five photos will have to do.

Recipe for a Great Sunrise

Over the past three years or so I’ve been paying attention to weather forecasts, weather patterns and to the resulting light that is produced. A few times I’ve thought of shooting the next morning, only to look at the hourly forecast and see clouds on the way, and instead decided against going out. But too often I ended up so disappointed to see a beautiful sunrise the next morning as I woke or during my morning commute to work. I kept this in the back of my mind, and suggest to my friend Dave earlier this month on a Saturday morning, that we stop by Pittock Mansion before we hit the gorge for a hopeful sunrise, based on past experience of weather conditions that were just shaping up.

These conditions are to watch when an evening is clear and sunny, especially windy, and when the forecast is calling for clouds to arrive the following morning. When these conditions play out, put your camera bag by the door and set an early alarm, and go no matter an voices in you head telling you not to. Too many times in such conditions I’ve seen spectacular sunrises, but only to be followed by cloudy and colorless days. Those that slept in on these mornings would never know what they had missed. So here is the first photo I’ve got from such a morning, where I saw this changing weather pattern come and where I just stuck with it in spite of what the forecast predicted. Needless to say, it paid off. This was a special sunrise which thrilled many photographers in the Portland area. Below is my take from this morning of magic over the beautiful city which I call home. Of course, these conditions in no way guarantee a special sunrise, but there’s likely a coin flip’s chance it will be worth the early start to your day.

Just a Sparrow (Artistic Bird Photography)

I went to Yaquina Head, just north of Newport, Oregon this past weekend, the purpose of which was to shoot birds, and this photo of a sparrow was all I got. Bummer. The common murres and pigeon guillemots had not yet arrived at Colony Rock in force, if even at all.  The first signs of these bird’s spring arrival at this special wildlife location was barely visible. I was a little down, just ask my wife.  Instead, I put the camera away for most of the weekend, slept in both mornings and enjoyed the time with my family.  My little guy had the time of his life running along the beach and diligently trying to empty each beach puddle of its’ water. This is too precious to watch for this dad, and I know this season of life will not last as long as I want it, so I made the most of it.

But all was not lost photographically. While walking out to the Yaquina Head Lighthouse, I heard a song sparrow singing, announcing the end of winter on a perfectly clear and calm morning.  I strained my eyes to find the little brown bird (my friend Bruce just calls these and other common bird species LBB’s for short, hinting at their plainness with this acronym). I found the little one singing for a hopeful mate while perched on a drab looking brown stick in the middle of a brier patch, all of which were uniformly blown toward land by the ocean’s relentless winds.  This shown composition was already in my vision before I could raise my camera to my eye. Choosing a focus point right on the bird with the frame composed as I wished, I was able to catch this little fella’s tongue showing as he sang mid note (though this small detail may not be seen on the smaller web sized photos), and the sparrow is tack sharp.  I just love this Canon 400mm f/5.6 L lens. It’s a great lens for beginner bird photography, especially if you’re on a budget and appreciate sharp results.  So even though this photo is just of a sparrow, I love it still for several reasons:

  1. The composition. All of the windswept twigs are bending in the same direction, the pattern of these sticks is visually intriguing.
  2. The moment. Mid note, this little is singing his heart out, and this frame shows this story.
  3. The simplicity. There is little distracting in this frame, a factor I strive for more often than not.  While there is one prominent stick in the left third of the frame that distracts a little, I otherwise love what these brambles bring to this scene. Also, the color pallet is quite clean.  Just two main colors make up this photo.
  4. The light. The catch light in the sparrow’s eye shows that the sun is in a location near where many portrait photographers would place the light if this sparrow were a model.  As a general rule, I try not to press the shutter on a sunny day if there won’t be a catchlight in the bird’s eye.  I just end up deleting these photos on the computer later on, and waste more of my time.
  5. The bokeh (out of focus components). Especially foreground bokeh can be interesting and give a dreamy and artistic look to a photo. Some photographers use foreground bokeh like this frequently to give their work a look and style. Note though that this technique is not guaranteed to make pleasing photos, at least from my experience.

Singing Winter's End

The cleanliness and simplicity of a frame is something I most always strive for.  I love what I was able to capture in this frame, even the subject is merely that of a sparrow. Each time I head out to photograph birds, I hope to capture a shot that includes many of these qualities. In the near future I will try to get a blog post or two up that includes more technical bird photography requirements (in my opinion), and also some tips I use to  get better bird photographs. As always, please feel free to email and ask any photography questions should they cross your mind. I hope this was of help and inspires you to see and photograph the world of detail and interest that exists in seeing and photographing the many birds around us every day, but especially now in this spring season. Thanks for hanging in there! I promise the next post won't be centered on birds!

Spring Is Near at Ridgefield NWR

I paid a visit to my favorite local place to photograph birds, RIdgefield National Wildlife Refuge this past Tuesday afternoon once I was done for the day in the office.  I’m sure eager for spring to arrive in force.  I’m already excited to see the rich pink plum blossoms opening all over town, but am even more excited in anticipation of the cherry blossoms downtown, and for the spring bird action to heat up as the birds begin to prepare for their young one’s arrival.  One thing that makes bird photography so great at Ridgefield NWR is that through the months of October through April, visitors are required to stay in their vehicles which act as bird blinds and allow great access to the birds.  Many birds then have little idea a human threat is anywhere near, even when I get as close as 10 ft away, as I did on this trip with a few red winged blackbirds and a great blue heron on Tuesday.

The first photo here from this trip is of one of my favorite ducks, the northern shoveler.  This brightly colored male has a iridescent green colored head and a much larger beak than other ducks have, though it’s not visible in this photo since it was dabbling.  This drake had his eye on me as he passed me by, just as I had my lens on him.  I think this look from this duck makes this shot, as looks and expressions so frequently do.

Next I was treated to getting very close to a great blue heron preoccupied hunting for frogs in a flooded field, just barely outside of my minimum focus distance distance.  The bonus here was that this bird was bathed in gorgeous late afternoon sunlight.  Only the grass that cluttered the frame took away from this experience being completely perfect.  I’ll take it!

Nearing my last lap of the evening around the 4.2 mile auto route, as the sun was near setting, one last brightly colored male red winged blackbird sang for me across the road from Rest Lake, and again, with great light on him.  I got countless images of this pretty fellow and the heron both.

But, my luck had not yet run out on this day.  As I finished shooting the blackbird, I heard sandhill cranes calling.  Their call is so unique, and can be heard from a ways away.  It simply must be heard in person to appreciate, along with their graceful flight.  Check out the crane’s call here at the All About Birds website.  I estimated about 150 sandhill cranes coming in to roost for night on Rest Lake and Campbell Lake at Ridgefield NWR (Campbell has no public access, but I saw the cranes headed and defending to the lake’s location).  A couple groups each of several cranes made a couple of passes across the setting sun, as it glowed yellow and orange over the horizon.  Picture perfect as they say!  I had to act quickly to get my camera set up to shoot directly onto the bright light, and managed to get a couple shotes I am very happy with.  Shooting often and being familiar enough to operate my camera with my eyes closed led to me being lucky enough to capture this fleeting moment.

Getting four shots I’m very pleased with makes for a special trip to this refuge, but as spring hits its’ peak next month, the chances of repeating a special outing like this will only increase.  I sure hope to return a few times in the next seven weeks or so to try to duplicate this outing.

Back to the Birds

I have not had much opportunity or made much of an effort to photograph birds in the past year or so. There are a few reasons, but it’s definitely not because of any waning interest. With two little ones in diapers now, I have not had the time it takes to make the bird photos I desire. This type of photography takes so much patience, and such a deep time commitment to get great results. I love the time spent in solitude, just surrounded by peaceful nature. That, and I find it a challenge to get top notch avian photos with my long birding lens, what Arthur Morris refers to as his “toy lens”.  My 400mm f/5.6 L lens (non-image stabilized) is a little short and slow when it comes to bird photograph, but that in no way means great shots can’t be made with this lens. They just take more effort, that’s all.

Yesterday afternoon my friend Bruce sent me a text message teasing that he was looking at two little green herons at Commonwealth Lake in Beaverton, not too far from my home. My gracious wife let me grab my gear and go as quickly as I could grab my gear and get out the door. When I arrived, the herons had fled their ideal spot that Bruce had sent me the message from. The spring bird activity was definitely picking up, but we saw no green herons as we walked the park. It was a stretch anyways, hoping to get shots anywhere close to as good as the work Bruce put together a short while ago (check out his blog post on his successful outing here). Bruce left, and I slowing made my way along the south side of the lake, and saw no sign of my prize. I was just about to go, when I saw one little heron on the rocks near the water’s edge. Though they don’t blend in at all to the shore rocks at this park, the green herons stay so still that it’s very difficult to spot these birds, even when it’s exactly what you are looking for. I walked down to the edge of the water a ways west of the heron, who was busy catching little fish while walkers and joggers strolled near on the park’s paved path. This works to the photographer’s advantage, as the birds here are more accustom to people. I got a few shots off, but was disappointed with the light. The sun was shining when I first arrived and was diffused by some high clouds. By now, the weather had changed to become more overcast, and I had left my flash in the car. There was no going back for it now, but I did miss the flash in reviewing these photos on the large monitor.

My little green heron did let me get pretty close to it, within the bird filling half of the frame. I slowly got down onto my belly, certainly not for comfort reasons on the muddy rocks, but in order to get down to eye level with this pretty little bird. I was able to shoot well over a hundred frames of the green heron, including an action sequence of it catching a little fish. Not a surprise in this man made and stocked lake. But, the heron got too concerned about me and fled the scene. I am no where near the patient and experienced birder that Id like to be, and it cost me here, but not before I got some nice frames. I would have preferred the heron get up on one of the higher rocks to separate itself from the out of focus foreground rocks, but it was not to be.  It leaves a reason to go back I suppose.

After my portrait session with the green heron, I was playing with house money. The little outing away from the family on a Saturday afternoon was certainly worth the short trip, I had already bagged all the shots that I was hoping to get. But not far away there was a little pied-billed grebe that caught my eye. These little fish eaters typically hurry away when a photographer, myself especially, approaches, and then dives once the camera lens is raised in their direction. This particular grebe dove before I could even raise the lens. As soon as it was under the surface, I ran to the muddy shore to hide behind a large rock before the grebe surfaced. Once surfaced, the grebe looked around for its’ would be predator or the photographer. This poor little bird now looked quite confused. I was hidden behind the rock, taking far too many photos, as I’m accustom to doing, and this grebe couldn’t find what it was fleeing from. There’s a reason we use the term “bird brain” to describe something lacking intelligence. As the scene unfolded, I was able to grab many frames of the pretty little grebe not rushing away from me, but instead looking more natural. My favorite was a photo of the grebe looking right down the barrel of my lens, not even aware it was that of the evil human, as seen through their point of view.

Any photo opportunity of wildlife looking right into the camera is always a treat, these photos are so often quite engaging.  Even though I went to the lake on this afternoon hoping to get a chance to photograph a green heron and had my expectations with the heron met, this photo of the pied-billed grebe is my favorite from the day.  It was so nice to get back behind my long lens and hunt some birds, photographically of course.  Much thanks to Bruce for letting me know of this early spring action at Commonwealth Lake.  Without his prompting I definitely would not have run into this good fortune.

Winter Simplicity - Snow

I love snow, as long as it’s prepared for.  Even though I grew up in Canada and saw it up close and in person each winter, I have not yet had much of a chance to photograph it.  I strive to make clean and simple images, and snow makes this process so much easier to accomplish.  Like during the cold week of weather we had in the Pacific Northwest back in December, photographers piled outside when the snow hit two weeks ago trying to capture and make their own artistic interpretations of this rare weather event.  While I didn't get up to see some of the frosted waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge, on Saturday morning my Friend David Leahy and I explored some of the country roads between Hillsboro and Forest Grove, looking for wintery scenes that caught our eyes and imaginations.  I was so excited at what lay ahead that morning.  The further west we drove, the more snow we saw that decorated each stark branch on every tree.  It was perfect!

The historic Scotch Church was a natural first stop.  From there, we shot a nearby beautiful red barn that really stood out in the fresh snow.  While at the barn we started to see the odd snow flake fall, and within ten minutes the snow was dumping down.  I found shooting in heavy snow fall a little difficult, in spite of it being so pretty to watch.  The falling snow left white streaks or dots on the images and on the lens that I kept removing with my air blower.  I took photos in bursts so I could easily clone or brush out though layers the worst of the flakes, but the falling snow was simply too much and kept me from getting the really clean images I was hoping for.

Still, I was so glad to be able to get out and find some simple, clean and bright scenes to shoot during this snowy weekend, and especially since fresh snow hanging in trees the morning after a snow fall is so rare in the Portland area.  Typically when we get snow, it is wet and is melting on contact when its’ descent to earth ends.  All of my favorite shots from this morning begged to be processed in black and white.  I did like a couple, but the black and white versions still won out when compared side to side.  Winter scenes are often so dull in color that the drab color can be a detriment to the aesthetic appeal of a photo, at least in my opinion.  Of course, you’ll see the red barn had to be left in color, I didn’t even bother to process it in black and white!

Lastly, here’s a tip for shooting in snow the next time winter’s icy grip locks onto the Pacific Northwest, or sooner if you live somewhere colder (like Winnipeg).  Many of you ambitious hobbyists and pros will already know this, but it should help out a lot of you.  If you’ve ever taken photos in snow or in ice rinks that came out too dark, it is simply because they are underexposed.  This can be overcome when using point and shoot cameras or consumer level SLR’s by selecting the snow scene auto mode, or shooting in a manual mode such as aperture priority, and increasing exposure compensation by one full stop of exposure or so.  If you’re not familiar with exposure compensation, please see your camera’s manual for more detail.  If you already shoot in full manual mode, all you need to do is increase your exposure by either slowing down the shutter speed, increasing your ISO setting, or opening up your aperture (choosing a smaller aperture value).

If you’re shooting with a cell photo, tap on the subject for focus and exposure.  The subject will likely be darker than the bright snow filling most of the frame.  Since the photo will then gauge the exposure on the subject, the snow should then be exposed much brighter, and the image should look more natural.  Try it out next time you're having fun in the snow!