Monday, October 3, 2016

Photographing Hummingbirds

I originally wrote this post in August, 2013, but it needed updating, so I copied it from the public blog page, and I am rewriting it here. Google, in their amazing incompetence, will not allow me to go back that far for editing, nor will they respond to any of the several nastygrams I have sent them. In other words, if you want to do a blog, use Wordpress or some other platform.

I have to tell you that this article is not coming from one who has lived in hummingbird Nirvana. It is about the right equipment for the job and the technique. I am going to break this essay into three parts: flash equipment, supporting equipment including backgrounds, and technique.  I shoot with Nikon gear and have since about 1980. Consequently, I cannot convert much of my equipment specific information for Canon or Sony, although unlike a number of brand-idolizing camera owners, I have the utmost respect for these other companies' products. 

Shooting hummingbirds is equipment intensive; no way around it. You will need a camera which can respond to a remote trigger, preferably a radio-controlled transmitter and receiver, such as PocketWizard, and a 200mm or longer lens.  You will also want a sturdy tripod, 2 lighting stands, 5 flash units which can be wirelessly controlled, support for the flash units, and a master flash commander,  Add to that a hummingbird feeder, a background on a second tripod, and, of course, hummingbirds.

Flash Equipment

I just looked at what each piece of high-speed flash specific equipment cost me since 2005 and the figure is about $3000. (That does not include camera, lenses or tripods.) It is spread unevenly over 11 years, but less than $400 per year, not an unmanageable amount, if this becomes your thing. I haunted eBay, Craigslist, B+H used, and Amazon for bargains. The Nikon SB-600 (8) and SB-800 (2) flash units I own, all with wireless remote capabilities, and all older technology are still available on eBay. The latter units are great, but you don't really need one unless you are going to use it as a command unit. If you are just now entertaining this specialty you may wish to consider some of the much cheaper Chinese brands. If you are in a camera club with like-minded individuals to contribute equipment, you are in luck!

For me wireless remote is the key contributor.  I have SU-800 command units for both my cameras. This device sits in the hot shoe and its infrared signal sends the commands to each bank of flashes to fire.  It also sets the power for your flash units. The flashes themselves are programmed for 'remote', channel 1,2, or 3, and the flash group; A, B or C. So in summary, I use 5 or 6 flash units grouped around a hummingbird feeder, all set for 'remote' and group 'A' and channel '3'.

So why the flash commander?  Well, the pop-up flash in your camera will work as a commander as will the SB-800.  The built-in flash is close to worthless because it must recycle and its infrared range is limited. The SB-800 is a better choice, but again the same two limits become an issue at some point, and with both these options you will get a shadow on your background unless you can disable the actual flash. That can be done with the pop-up. With the dedicated commander
 the cone of the infrared signal is wider and deeper. Plus, you are using such a small fraction of each flash's power to achieve an  exposure that flash recycling is almost instantaneous for a burst of 3 or 4 frames. By then your subject is probably gone.

(The latest generation of cameras/flash units actually use radio transmission, but they are currently very expensive. Nevertheless, there will be no real aftermarket for much of this stuff as the new technology takes hold.) 

Supporting Equipment
You obviously have to support the flash units around a target location. This I achieve with two lighting stands on to which I have mounted an arm to hold two flash units. In the past I have used a strip of 1 X 3 wood which is drilled for a 1/4-20 wood insert and 1/4 inch (6 mm) hole for a bolt to hold the flash unit support. I have just recently switched to a stereo microphone bar, K+M 23550 from B+H and others. They are much more elegant and much more permanent.  Also, you will get multiple points of light in the eye of your subject which have to be removed in post processing.  Keeping the flash units facing the eyes of the bird closer together will help eliminate that problem. 

(Note the [+]) mark between some names. Apparently HTML does not like ampersands.)

Flash units on the microphone bar with small Manfrotto
ball heads.The bar is slotted to allow for variable distances.

In order to gain maximum flexibility in how I orient the units around a feeder I have bought several of the Manfrotto 492 micro-ball heads. I definitely comb the used equipment ads for these, and I have gotten them as low $25. I mount the Nikon AS-19 flash stand on the ball head and attach the flash. Keep in mind the stereo bar has 3/8 inch bolts to secure the flash unit, so you will need the micro ball heads, or a little brass 3/8 female to 1/4 inch male converter. Those ship with the lighting stands as I recall. For even more flexibility I use Manfrotto 494 mini-ball heads between the lighting stand and the arm.  These small ball heads are overkill, but they are useful. This set-up is illustrated here.

For the background I use an old tripod and larger ball head to support the background frame, and a utility tripod.  This 1960 era Gitzo ball head, #275 is my bargain du annum. I paid $35.00 and shipping for it. The Arca Swiss compatible quick connect is from China. These clamps and plates are utility quality, but they are cheap and they work.

Chinese made Arca-Swiss dovetail components
on a 1960s Gitzo head
I preach about backgrounds. With the short duration of the flash units grouped around a target, the background will be featureless black without a way to illuminate it by artificial light. So, one of your flash units will have to be employed against an artificial background.  I have painted them either sky blue or to affect foliage and sky on a piece of foam core, but I have never been quite satisfied.  The better solution for hummingbirds is to photograph a suitable landscape - blurred out of focus - and blur it even more in Photoshop if necessary, to a pleasant bokeh. I have them printed on 20 X 24 (32cm X 39cm) canvas which I stretch over a wood frame  They are light and the texture of the canvas does not show.  Spray Krylon uv-resistant clear matte acrylic on them to protect them against sun and the elements - including bird poop. (Dick Bick Art).  Use the coating only once.  More coats will cloud your background image.  Been there...

I am a glutton for comfort in what could be a long session, so I purchased a pair of PocketWizard Plus II remote units which are attached to my camera's accessory port with a pre-trigger cable, now reasonably priced.The units themselves are no longer made, but can be had on eBay for $85-90. They work great on my D700, but not on my D800E.  For later technology you will need the PocketWizard Plus III. One is the remote transmitter and the other the receiver, and allows me to trigger multiple shots with either camera by swithcing channels on the one transmitter.. These are radio controlled units, so you do not have to be in sight line with the camera and they will work at great distance.  I can sit inside reading a book, get up and go for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine (after wineo'clock), and not miss an opportunity. Carefully research the compatibility of any remote control system with your camera, and be aware that different countries require different frequencies, so if you are in Europe and buy something from eBay US, it may not work for you. 

I use a very small tube feeder, and none others close.  If it can be disguised with a flower in bloom, so much the better and your job of pre-focusing will be much easier. It is very effective and adds interest to your composition. (I had been using a small three hole feeder, on which I cut off the perching ring, and then duct taped over two holes. The bird can only feed from that one location and must hover.) I pre-focus on the spout of the feeder and switch my lens to manual. I can set my camera up as close as I dare. This eliminates the need for any super expensive monster lens. Although I have used a 300mm f/4 with a teleconverter, I prefer a 70-200 set at 200mm. This arrangement also gives me a little more useful depth of field than a longer lens. However, the greater distance with the longer lens may mitigate the sound of the shutter, which may startle some subjects. The focal point is just away from the feeder where I expect the subject to hover. With a flower you would want to include it. My lament is that fall and winter (some western birds come in) when I do this, there is nothing in bloom that works.  I am still working on that solution.

Set-up at a hummingbird feeder

Your flashes are probably best set for 1/32 power to start unless you have four or fewer units.  The flash duration is set on the back panel of the SU-800 commander or similar Canon product.  Recall that flash units do not have variable light intensity, only shorter or longer duration. With the Nikon equipment I use, the flash duration is about 1/20,000 of a second when the units are set as above. That essentially becomes your shutter speed, and it stops the subject cold, illuminating even the tiny details of feathering.

The critical factor is blocking ambient light on your subject, otherwise you will get ghosting. To do this set your camera to manual mode with a shutter speed of about 1/250. Close down your aperture and shoot an exposure until you can see nothing but blackness. Your camera is now essentially set - on a tripod of course.  Now turn on your flash units and adjust the distance to the focal point, or the number units you are employing, or the flash intensity, until you get a proper exposure.

I mentioned multiple exposures above. Often, it is not the first shot you prize, but the second, or third it if the bird reacts to your triggering a shot.  On my Nikon D700 I have the MB-D10 battery pack, which gives me an 8 frames per second burst rate. Since recycling is not a concern with 1/32 power lighting, I will get an equally well exposed shot on the second, and maybe the third frame. If you are a Nikon shooter do not over look this older professional camera; it is very versatile still. I have yet to spring for the similar accessory for the D800E. The PocketWizard Plus III will trigger multiple exposures on the D700 with Pocket-wizard Plus II attached, but not the other way around. If you have one of the newer technology cameras you will need two Plus IIIs for multiple exposures.

Keep in mind that aperture is a compromise. You are probably out around f/11 to f/16 if you are using 1/250 sec. and an ISO setting of 200  All the while you will want as much of the hummingbird in focus as possible. With a little practice you will be very pleased with your results. In low ambient light your flashes may spook the bird, but if the sun is out and the light is fairly strong they may not notice the flash and keep on feeding. If you live in a hummingbird-rich environment I really, really envy you, but I still wish you many dazzling images.

Buff-bellied Hummingbird in Georgia
Rufous Hummingbird wintering on the island

Ruby-throated Hummingbird in good lighting 

Note the gorgets in the images above.  You have to set one or two flashes right where you think the bird will be looking. I missed on the beautiful male Rufous Hummingbird

This technique will work just as well with song birds which use your water feature.  Find a nice prop, stick on top of the bird bath, and pay attention to where the birds like to perch - probably at the very end, but not always.  With song birds you will probably have more success from a photo blind which will eliminate the need to pre-focus. Keep in mind that burst of exposures; they can yield some dramatic shots.  In October 2014 I photographed 8 or 10 different warblers looking for water when they were coming through on migration.  It was like a dream.

Set-up at a water feature with a prop for song birds.  The SU-800 commander is mounted on a flash bracket which is totally unnecessary.

Carolina Wren
American Redstart

An important element for success, which should not be overlooked, is the proximity of cover in the shrubs and hedges in my back garden. If you are just beginning to lay out your feeders and props you will want to keep this in mind. 

Here I will summarize the equipment you will need to get into high-speed flash photography. This assumes you already have camera and one tripod.  Prices are B+H as of October, 2016:

Manfrotto 367B light stand, 2ea @ $80.99ea
K+M 23550 stereo microphone bar @ $13.49
Manfrotto 494 mini ballhead @ $69.88
Manfrotto 492 micro ballhead, 2ea @ $59.88ea
Command yunit for your system @ $250
Background photo on canvas, stretched approx. $75
Arca-Swiss compatible QR clamp and plate, approx. $25
Pocketwizard Plus III, 2ea at $135ea
Rechargable AA batteries, 20ea, approx. $45
Powerex charge for 8 AAs @ $60  
Five flash heads capable of wireless triggering approx $125 ea to $400 plus.
Utility tripod with head or stand to illuminate background
Threaded 1/4-3/8 adapters

Yup, expensive. But these are prices for new products. I would urge you to carefully shop eBay or other online sources, and you can come close to halving this investment. For instance the very capable Nikon SB-600 is now on eBay for $125 or less.  The Chinese models for less than that. You can get along without the little ball heads, but they area a real convenience to precisely locate your light source. I bought all mine used or phased out models.

Finally traveling with your equipment.  Read my recent post on "Air Travel with Equipment- the New Normal".  Airlines and electronics are essentially incompatible. Regrettably I am over 1800 miles from the places I would like to take my stuff. That is a lot of driving. The only solution is to buy Pelican cases. Airlines will reimburse you for lost luggage, but not damage to your equipment. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Barred Owl Bath

This morning I read on a local eBird alert that someone had found Blue-winged Warbler. That didn't surprise me too much since I had one on my bird bath in August a couple of years ago, but there is nothing quite like a surprise visit from a a migrant at the bath to re-energize the excitement of bird photography.  So I resolved before going down to breakfast that I would set up a camera overlooking the bath for the coming season.

As I went into the kitchen, which looks out on said water feature, wow!  There stood a beautiful Barred Owl readying for a bath. Remarkably this top-of-the-food-chain predator (except of the Great Horned Owl) hesitated and looked around as if to judge if it was safe to bathe, just as a song bird would.  While all this preparation was taking place I sneaked off to the living room where I had a camera bag, assembled my gear, and then crept up behind a chair. Nevertheless the owl riveted its coal black eyes on my slinking and furtive movements while it was in the bath.

I had to shoot through glass into early morning shade, and then increase exposure two stops, but here are the results.

Note the owl garden statuary behind and in the lower right 
Still looking around

Never taking its eyes off me

Done; time to go.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Air Travel with Equipment; the New Normal

This past May I showed up in the local airport full of anticipation for my trip to Southeastern Arizona.  I had packed really carefully to get as much stuff out there as safely as possible. Lo, at the baggage check-in counter: "Do you have any camera equipment in your checked luggage?  Delta no longer covers damage to  any electronic equipment."

Well yes I did, as a matter of fact. A minute later I had laid out on the floor two back packs, a wheeled carry-on, a duffle, and I was frantically repacking them. The larger of two back packs held my recording equipment.  Microphones were safe in a case specifically designed for them, but I had to remove two recorders from that bag and put personal articles in their place, a camera from the duffle, and move all this stuff to the carry-on which meant I had to check the backpack with the microphones.  I then had to repack the duffle with the camera backpack and remove two camera bodies to the carry-on.  Doing this on the fly, I neglected to take a flash unit from the camera bag, and paid the price. Through the duffle, and through a padded camera bag, they (Delta or TSA) crushed the flash enough to allow the fluid in the display to bleed all over the inside of the LED. Nikon couldn't fix it, and now that flash is next to useless for my purposes.They also crushed a lens hood for a 17-35mm lens, but thankfully no damage to the lenses.  I remember writing shortly after this trip that if airlines want to improve their lot with the flying public they can start with the baggage handlers.

And what if they had lost my luggage?  I was staying 190 miles away in a remote location.

I don't know how TV networks and production companies handle air travel today.  Maybe there is insurance, maybe they pack their equipment so well and mark it fragile. I am sure they use Pelican cases. I still have small (#1400) and medium (#1504) Pelican cases that I use only occasionally because of their weight, and they could probably survive airline abuse. However, the larger one is padded; it does not have pre-cut foam to hold equipment firmly in place. Now, with this new normal I am not so sure I want to chance even that.  One experiment I might try is to pack all my lenses in the larger case and check that, then buy new foam and cut it for two camera bodies in the smaller case and check that inside the duffle. Then again, I would have to know that if Delta lost either one that would stand up to the cost of that missing equipment, even while they do not cover damage to the same equipment!

The only other options open to me are to drive the 4,000 miles out and back, or take my wife on birding and photography trips for extra carry-on privileges. I don't think so...

Addendum 1
I just found that Pelican has responded to the need for lighter cases with all the airline toughness of the originals.  They claim up to 40% lighter on some models.  You can check them out at B and H.  Look for Pelican Air cases, but don't look for lower prices.

Addendum 2
I called Delta a few days ago and posed the following question: "Okay, you won't cover damage to electronics equipment in baggage, but what if I packed all my stuff in Pelican cases to protect it, and checked it anyway, will you cover the gear if you lose it?"    The answer is yes, with a qualification. Their normal limits are like $2500 per bag.  Photo equipment can soar past that in a heartbeat.  So, you have to list the contents and present that document to Delta BEFORE you depart.  Again, I cannot speak for the other carriers.  Do your homework.

Addendum 3
October 27: I took a Pelican 1504 case with equipment into the UPS store this morning and asked how much it would cost to ship from my ZIP to the lodge I frequent in SE Arizona.  I assumed insurance on $6,000 worth of equipment. Mindboggling; $250 each way! On to plan C or D.  I took the case, which is small enough to fit under the seat in front of you, but heavy with equipment, and slipped it into my carry-on luggage piece. It fit, with a little room to spare. So now I have the case on wheels, and I am inching toward a solution for my complete load.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Copying Old Photos to the Computer

My son-in-law recently slid into his 50s, and my 12 year old granddaughter wanted to give him pictures from his past.  So guess who picked up the tab on a Shutterfly book?  Of course that also meant copying and digitizing about 40 old photographs.

I was okay with that since I picked up a Gitzo lateral arm on eBay for $59.00 when it retails new for $175-$200.  A little about this first. It is made to fit a 2 series Gitzo tripod, and it is only about 13 inches long.  I thought that was going to be short, but no problem. Once you add the ball head to the arm - which you just removed from the tripod - and then add the camera you can extend about 18 inches; way more than enough. To stabilize this thing I added a 4 lb. bean bag to the tripod center post hook, and looped a shower curtain ring to another bean bag and suspended that from the end of the lateral arm.  Ergo: stability.

(I have 6 or 8 of these bean bags, made from the leg of a pair of jeans. I have them sewn on two sides with a zipper on the remaining side.  Buy the cheapest large beans you can find - great northern I think. The beans - as opposed to rocks for example - provide a rest for your long lens that can be shaped when you need that support,  Empty the beans and pack the bag in your duffle for travel. Also, if you have access to someone who can press a grommet into a corner of the fabric you will want to do that. I run a cheap carabiner through the grommet hole to hang it.)

For this copying exercise I used  a bubble level to square away the camera vertically and horizontally and also the table itself.  You can buy a 2 or 3 way bubble level to fit in the hot shoe of your camera, and then use it on the table. They are dirt cheap from China on eBay. My excellent 105 macro lens was too long for this set up, or the 'copy stand' was too far away and I lost stability. Back to eBay. I have had my eye on a 24-85mm f/2.8-4.0D lens with aperture ring and a macro switch for some time. This lens has been out about 15 years and is still offered new at $740 even while they also offer a similar G lens with VR. I got a used one for just over $250 and it is perfect for copying, for the FE2 film camera, and as a street photography lens. Shop carefully and take your time. It didn't bother me that his was a Canada market lens, because it was too cheap to be repaired when and if necessary anyway.

I took a piece of scrap 3/4 inch plywood and painted it 18% gray.  I had a sample mixed at Home Depot for less than $4.00.  I took in an 18% gray card and they hit it perfectly.  You could also print a square around RGB values of 120,120,120 or so.  There is no consensus, most suggest 118 to 125.  All that said, I also found that digital light meters are actually calibrated to 12 or 13% gray.  That was after the fact, so I added a third of a stop of light as exposure compensation and the shots are right on. Some suggest setting the camera on manual, but I found aperture preferred works better with matrix metering because the values in the pictures change.

While I was in the store I picked up a bar of 1/8" X 1" X 36" aluminum, and at home cut it in half to shape the light brackets for two flash units and drilled 1/4 in holes; two for attachment underneath the table and one on the other end for the cold shoes. When you shape these things try to keep the angle at or under 45 degrees to reduce shadows. Support them in a machinists vice to bend them. The diffusers on the flash heads are important since they render a 14mm field and illuminate the subject to be copied evenly, although they do not focus on it. In fact, they are pointed at the lens in this instance. If your lighting is uneven when you shoot just the painted table for exposure reference, try standing a piece of white paper or mat board behind any underexposed area as a reflector. Turn off the room lights to avoid glare on the texture of the print.

Pictures are worth a bunch of words, so here is what I ended up with:

By-the-way, bend the bars out, not in like I did. It makes the screws holding the cold shoes more accessible and presents a more downward angle. Also, I set this up in my carpeted man-cave. If you have a hardwood or tile floor for the tripod it will be much more stable.

Although it may seem pretentious, I have taken to wearing archival cotton gloves, which I do routinely when I am handling prints and paper. There is some very old stuff I copied, in excess of 100 years, and the fingerprints are there for good. Pretty cheap at 12 pairs for about $7.00 from B&H.

Finally you probably don't realize how much your pictures have faded over the years.  I was playing around in Photoshop, and on one from 1977 I experimented by clicking on Auto Tone under the Image tab. Shock!  Look at the difference:                                                                          
After Auto Tone

Before Auto Tone

You not only digitized your family's history for permanence, you restored the images to their original state.