JANUARY 2018 ROUND
Title: Male Nuttall's Woodpecker with a Chip of Bark in Beak
Goal: My goal was to capture behavior of the Nuttall’s Woodpeckers who were visiting my dying tree in my backyard where I had my bird feeders placed. The Male Nuttall’s Woodpecker started chipping and peeling away the bark of this tree searching for insects. I fired many frames off in a burst. One capture caught the Male Nuttall’s Woodpecker with a piece of bark in his beak.
Equipment / Source: 7D Mark II camera body, with 600 mm f4.0 IS lens and a 1.4x teleconverter III, at ISO 2000, 1/320 of second at f5.6, Aperture Priority, Evaluative Metering.
Technique: I stood inside my back door to my backyard. My camera and lens was on my gitzo tripod as the birds came into view. I was standing and I had this vertical branch marked out because of the simple background and because the Male Nuttall’s Woodpecker seem to favor it. This image was taken during the heavy rains of February 2017. I particular like photographing in the rain, as long as it doesn’t get too dark. The diffused light renders and saturates colors to their richest form.
Processing: I used Nik tool Define 2 primarily to reduce the noise in the background. I also reduce the contrast with Viveza in order to further eliminate the noise caused by using a high ISO of 2000. I also selected out the background creating a mask, and then, ran a Gaussian Blur filter at a low setting of 2.0 to even out the different areas of gray making the transition between them smoother. I added a little brightness to the bird and the tree trunk with a levels adjustment.
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DECEMBER 2017 ROUND
Title: Two Acorn Woodpecker Face Off Over A Perch
Goal: My goal was to capture Acorn Woodpecker behavior. While hiking at the Stanford Dish trail, I noticed several Acorn Woodpecker granary trees and groups of Acorn Woodpecker flying around. The next time I went there I brought my cart with my 600 mm lens to try to photograph them as the trail head was a fair bit away. Too far to lug my tripod and camera over my shoulder as I used to do in my younger days.
Unfortunately, these trees granary trees were very tall, and there were several of them. If I staked out one of them, the acorn woodpecker would favor the other trees. Even though, I am normally a very patience person; it one of my best personality traits. I felt frustrated and thought this is not working well photographically. While waiting I thought, maybe, I should bring my portable blind next time, and other thoughts of camouflage ran through my mind.
I was next to the hiking and running trail, so people would look at my large lens and some would comment how big it was, a typical remark. What was I doing questions came at me from some of the passersby too. Once particular observant walker told me that the Acorn Woodpeckers were lining up on a fence just up the trail. He said there was a water trough just on the other side of the fence. Immediately, I got excited about the prospects of getting some good behavioral images.
Equipment / Source: Canon 7D Mark II body, EF600mm f4.0 lens with a 1.4 teleconverter III, 1/3200 sec at f7.1, ISO 1000, Aperture Priority, Pattern Metering.
Technique: As I canvased the area and the situation, I realized that the Acorn Woodpeckers would land on the fence line before head down to the water trough behind the fence to drink. The light was behind me, setting in the west, throwing its beautiful late evening light on the woodpeckers.
My technique was to pre-focus on these fence post landing areas. There were the traditional metal posts and a couple of telephone type posts used for perches. I preferred the telephone post, as one was strategically place right in front of the water trough. The water trough was away from trees in the middle of a grassy field. The only trees were right and left of the water trough but at least thirty to forty yards away. I noticed that the woodpeckers would stage in the trees and then fly out to the posts, land, and then fly down to the water trough.
Therefore, I could see them coming in to this particular post. It seemed to be favored by them. I pull out my remote cord from my camera vest, and would fire a bunch of images off when I could see that they were heading to this particular telephone pole perch. I would not even look through my lens as I fire off a burst. Many of the images were blank, as I started this series before they came into my lens view. Occasionally, they would bypass this particular post I was pre-focused on, and I would get nothing. Also, sometimes, I would be late with my sequence, and the Acorn Woodpecker would already be perched on the post or caught half out of the image. This wasn’t all bad, for it seemed like a territorial issue for them, because they would sweep by and try to chase or bluff off the one already occupying the perch.
Using this technique, finally, I got some captures of the conflict. This particular one showed the dramatic engagement of one swooping in on the one trying to defend his perch position. This was the decisive moment as their eye contact and wing positions strengthen the story of their behavior.
Yes, the telephone pole perched shows the hand of man, but in this case, the Acorn Woodpeckers use this perch and have incorporated into their natural behavior.
Processing: In order increase my chances to capture their behavior, I was pretty far back and the woodpeckers were pretty small in the frame. This helped with the depth of field, but lessen the impact of the woodpeckers themselves. I cropped more than usual. Then, I upscaled the image in Photoshop back to the original size, and then, made my small web jpeg files from the upsized image. The frontal lightening was so good, and because I used a tripod with a remote cord. My original capture file was sharp, clean, with a lots of detail. I didn’t lose much detail or sharpness with this upscale. I also think that my fast shutter speed of 1/3200 sec really helped freeze the blink of an eye action.
I lighten the underwing on the approaching Acorn Woodpecker a bit with Viveza. I also intentionally chose a non-sky background, a non-distracting brown field rather than blue sky.
PS: I am using my long explanation as a blog post too, so that’s why I go into a lot of detail setting the scene and the photography situation, so others can learn from my experiences.
Question? Can you tell me if these are male or female acorn woodpeckers?
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Review by Commentator Rick C.
A fascinating narrative. You put a lot into getting the image and I feel you got a lot out of it. You definitely succeeded in capturing the behavior you were looking for. Primary focus and DOF both look good to my eye. Your exposure looks good for the lighting. The slight warm cast also speaks to the lighting and compliments it. I think your choice of the field for a background rather than the sky was well considered. It does not compete with the subjects and also echoes the lighting somewhat tonally. The action is excellent. The behavior is clear and well captured. I agree that the post in this instance is a case of “adaptive behavior” and as such is a non-issue relative to the hand of man considerations. Your composition is strong from a classical vertical perspective but, for me it brings a little too much of the post into play. Not that I object to the post so much as with the right side of the post as light as it is, having that much showing constantly tugs my eye away from the birds. That said, this is a near perfect composition were you shooting for a magazine cover as it allows room for the masthead and contents to be dropped in above and below without impacting the key story elements. Since you indicated this is a significant crop off the original, I wonder what you might get if you were to go for a horizontal composition with less post and more room behind each of the birds. It’s hard to say without having the full file to experiment with. I’m assuming you checked both ways and preferred a vertical. My counsel would then be to burn in the post a bit more.
N-3, T-3, P-3 = 9 (The extent and light tone of the post is what is keeping me from awarding the 10th point.) Well done.
Review by Mike P.
Review by Dorothy P-R
Review by Fran M.
Review by les L.
Review by Butch S.
response to critiques from Bruce F.
Thank you for your comments on my December image of the “Two Acorn Woodpeckers Fighting Over A Perch”. I agree with your suggestion to darken the right side of the post perch. I am surprised I did not see this; I am usually very perceptive in seeing lighter areas that draw the eye.
I cropped the original capture quite a bit, that’s why I was reluctant to even reduce the image file further in order to make the birds larger in the frame. At the time of processing, I was a little uncomfortable with the composition, yet I didn’t see a better one. Sometimes I get tied to the 2 x 3 format too much.
Therefore, I went back and took Fran’s suggestion and made a square format for the capture, and also darkened the right side of the post. I think these changes improve composition and the overall impact.
To Butch’s comment and question about the focus wandering, I primarily used AF focus and sometimes will tweak it manually. The second time I was there when I took this image I did bring my cable release. Thus, I did pre-focus on the top of the pole and wasn’t even looking through my lens. I was tracking the birds with my eye, starting my burst when the one Woodpecker was a little ways away in its flight to the post. I have found this technique works well with a repeatable landing spot.
Also, I use rear button focus practically all the time unless the situation specifically calls for shutter button focus. This separates the shooting function from the focusing function and means I can focus on the eye of the bird, and then recompose for composition. Whereas with shutter button focusing when the bird changes position quickly it’s much harder to get the focus correct. The tendency also with focus button focusing is to have center subject compositions, rather than creating more dynamic off-centered subjects. Especially with bird photography, off-center subject placement so much easier with rear button focusing.
Anyway, in your opinion, please let me know if these changes improve the image.
Thanks and Happy New Year.
Bruce, Yes. I think the square crop is stronger. Darkening the post is also a positive change. Great image. Try it in the salons.
I am a wildlife, nature, and scenic photographer. I now live in San Mateo, after spending most of my adult life in Millbrae. I previously worked full-time for Applied Biosystems and Life Technologies as a senior business analyst. I left this position a few years ago to concentrate on my true passion of nature photography. My Dad was a deer hunter and bought some property in Monterey County, so he could have a place of his own to go deer hunting. We have owned this property since 1946. I grew up spending my summers down there, following in my father's footsteps, hunting quail, dove, and black tailed deer--using a b-b gun, graduating up to a powerful hunting rifle. When I was eighteen I had to kill a black-tailed buck up close shooting him in the neck, since my first shot from afar had only wounded him. I saw death up close and personal, deciding from that moment on I didn't not want to be part of death, but to cherish life instead.
My friends and I do a lot of bird photography at my ranch in rural Monterey County, using photo blinds extensively; and recently we have built a few permanent ponds to attract wildlife.
I was a Minolta user, but switched to Canon in 2001. I used to shoot extensively with slide film; now I strictly use digital camera bodies, specifically the Canon 7D and 40D bodies, previously the Canon D1 Mark II and as backup the Canon 20D. I primarily use RAW capture, and process the images in Photoshop. I recently upgraded to CS5, and also have many external hard drives to store my raw files.