Monday, 29 December 2014

My year in pictures

2014 as it happened did not seem a good year. I suppose it might look different by the time I get to the end of this post but as the year progressed it didn 't seem very enjoyable and a large slab of it was decidedly unpleasant.
The year started quite well though not in Kent. For something interesting I had to travel to Hove for the grey phalarope, which after the rain cleared and the sun came out, performed fantastically often being too close to focus on - Kent obviously needs to invest in more paddling pools and forget about spending a fortune on nature reserves that end up as dog-walker parks and on reed beds where you can't see anything..

A Humes warbler hung around in Ramsgate cemetery for a long time. Initially I resisted (I wanted to find my own......stupid idea)  but in the end I folded and managed a couple of record shots and a little gull hung around Dover Harbour for a few weeks.

At the end of January came the Gambia..........and this undoubtedly spoiled the rest of my year. It might even spoil the rest of my photographic life. It was warm, it was sunny, there was hoards of birds and they were approachable. It's difficult to choose highlights - yellow billed shrike, white crowned robin chat, yellow crowned gonolek, broad billed roller - they were all fantastic....and that's before breakfast on  day 1 in the hotel grounds.

Outside the grounds the list continued - little bee-eater, swallow tailed bee-eater, veraux's eagle owl, pied king fisher, great kingfisher but one of my most pleasing shots was of the black winged stilt.

The rest of Feb was a bit of a non-event. A few nuthatch pictures, some very distant lesser spotted woodpecker shots but nothing notable.
March continued in a similar vein until I had another away-day into Sussex for the little gulls at Worthing...............

followed an hour later by the mergansers at Widewater ..............

and then the mealy redpoll at Warnham local nature reserve - the latter visit demonstrating to me just how varied redpolls can look.

Another day trip to Dunge had me connecting with a firecrest in Dengemouth gully - the first of what was, photographically, an excellent year for firecrests.

Locally a Baltic gull showed briefly on Restharrow scrape and left within the hour leaving me asking the question why do local birds only stay a few minutes?.

April was actually quite noteworthy. There was a strong showing of ring ouzels at Sandwich, fulmars kept falling off the cliff face and getting stuck in the brambles at the base of the cliffs  - I had to get 2 out but did they thank me for helping them? Did they heck. I got my best ever shots of a grasshopper warbler at Grove. Finally on Restharrow scrape I saw my first ever blue winged teal, and managed my best shots ever of a little ringed plover.

May started with a bang - a black-winged stilt on the Scrape ( a first for the SBBO) which flew off 2 minutes after I arrived, May went downhill rapidly after that; in fact I'm not sure I saw or photographed anything locally.

We did have 2 trips to Marquenterre in May - only the normal stuff but on the second visit Steve and I spent half the day in the car park photographing juvenile crested tits.

Our luck with the weather on our annual birding trip (to Wales this year) finally ran out. We hardly saw any sun, the cool wet spring had everything several weeks behind in their breeding, and the staff at Gilfach were a pain in the arse having taken an extreme dislike to photographers. Wood warblers were easier to find than previously and still singing heartily but the light was universally poor.

The puffins on Skomer didn't have chicks so the birds weren't returning with sand eels and the kites at Gigrin were a challenge in the poor light - I sound like Marvin.
June was another real struggle.  Rye was visited a couple of times for the terns and provided one of the most pleasing shots of the month but it wasn't a tern it was a tufted duck in flight....I'm easily pleased.

The stars of late June/early July were the peregrines on the cliffs - 3 juveniles were fledged and these were almost totally indifferent to the attentions of the photographers.

Mid July saw the start of my salivary gland problems which continued into November. Whilst I did get out it was often only for a short period. Most of the time I felt ill - I was on antibiotics for a total of 8 weeks during the 4 months it took to get it sorted.
August started with the white wheatear - or should I say the white northern wheatear. Spotted flycatchers seemed to be around in decent numbers and my perseverance in looking for rarities on the rifle range at Kingsdown was rewarded with a wryneck (the fact that I was too ill to walk far and the only birding I did was on the rifle range doesn't come into it). Unfortunately this was a particularly un-cooperative wryneck and I never saw it after the first 2 seconds.

September started with what was possibly the most unusual find of the year - a juvenile turtle dove in my back garden (a reward for being ill and housebound). Quite amazing really in that I didn't see another one all summer - it was gone within the hour though.

Mid September and I had another lifer in the form of an ortolan bunting at Fan Bay - thanks to Phil Smith for letting me know about that.

Late September saw an influx of crests to Kingsdown with both gold and firecrest being present. They ( 2 fire one gold) were inhabiting the last bush on the footpath on the rifle range along with 2 chiffs, a robin and a wren. I stayed for an hour or so snapping away and they were still present when I left.

The end of September brought more firecrests... another 2 but this time in the garden.
October was very quiet photographically but another large influx of ring ouzels mid month brought the normal mixture of pleasure (seeing them) and frustration (not being able to close enough) then came one of the years highlight - an Isabelline shrike on Worth Marsh. I was feeling particularly grim that day but I managed to be there long enough to see it and get a few shots (those who stayed longer did significantly better). Whilst this bird had the decency to hang around all day by the next morning, in accord with most local birds, it was gone.

An unexpected find on the local patch (by the public loos again!) was a late hobby; only the second I have seen in Kingsdown, and there was a pair of stonechats who would almost come "to hand" - well to meal worms only 5 yardsaway.

November started with me in twitch mode (well twitching that didn't require much walking). Lapland buntings are birds I have always had trouble with - difficult to find and even more difficult to get good pictures of. They either don't let me get close or the weather/light is foul (normally both).The lapland bunting was at Swalecliff for several days and despite seeming to be very confiding it remained ignored by most. Given the good weather and I could park close by I went. The sun was shining, the bird was remarkably confiding and I enjoyed a wonderful hour with it.

Then came the desert wheatear. Fantastic.  The only downside being I could only get there the first day.

I did get back to Reculver after the w/e but it had gone and I had to be content with shorelark and snow bunting.
Mid November I had my op to have the salivary gland (and stone) removed and to help my recuperation I invested in the Canon 7D mk 2 - the photographic equivalent of comfort food. As a consequence of the operation it wasn't until late November I finally caught up with the long-staying great grey shrike.

December and another visit to the Kingsdown public loos resulted in some more shots of crests - I was working on the assumption that since the autumn migration had been rubbish there still might be a few late comers waiting to be discovered. I often have these stupid ideas but very occasionally they work out. In this instance in the form or 2 or 3 firecrests and 5+ goldcrests.

Not too bad I suppose but one can always hope for bettER.
Next year things should be a bit better in that I (already) have 2 trips planned - one an actually birding trip to The Gambia and a family holiday to Sri Lanka; both should provide a few photographic opportunities. I might even try twitching a bit more (and perhaps moaning a bit less).
Happy new year to you all and thanks for reading.


Tuesday, 23 December 2014

More on the focusing of the Canon 7D mk 2

This is the third blog on the mk 2 and probably the last.
In the last few weeks I have used a few different settings for the focus and will comment on them. It is difficult to provide "proof" that what I say is correct so you'll have to take my word for it (or not).

Focusing and focus options.

I spent 2 sessions at Seasalter trying to photograph the waders in flight. In general the birds were low hence I was trying to photograph small, fast moving, birds against the sea rather than the sky due. For the bulk of the 2 sessions I used the expansion options (center spot surrounded by the 4 or 8 adjacent points). In a previous posting i have already discussed how with these options only the center point is actually focusing the others just assist.
Well trying to photograph small waders against the back ground of the sea was very difficult. The camera took a long time to focus on the bird  (if it managed it at all), though once "locked on" it did hold it very well. I think the problem is that the target was so small the camera had trouble deciding what it was I was actually trying to focus on ( the bird or the sea) and once locked on (which could just as easily be the sea as the bird) it held on to it very well. Anyway it was a frustrating experience even though I managed a few reasonable shots.
As a last resort towards the end of my second session I switched over to spot focus and immediately enjoyed far greater success. The camera locked onto the bird very quickly and once locked on held onto it pretty well (using "case 1" for the tracking) even if I drifted slightly off target now and again.

When the bird were in the sky focusing was very fast no matter which option I used (no background to confuse the point expansion options).

Tracking larger and slower moving subjects such as a gull was very easy with either of the options discussed above. The camera locked on instantly and held onto the subject very well.
Until I discover more about the camera the spot focus will be my default setting from now on.

Another example of the use of spot focusing and tracking was provided by the goosander that were on Restharrow scrape. I've already published some shots of the birds against the sky (Flickr. and of them taking off. However I took around 10 shots of them in flight just after take off with grass/fences as background. For the first 3 shots fired the focus missed the birds but the next 6 or 7 were excellent and not once was the focus lost..

Again I was using spot focus and for tracking I was using "case 2" - all in all I think this was a very impressive performance and one that I'm sure I could not have achieved with the old 7D.

Speed and accuracy of focusing.
A few days ago I had the pleasure of finding a flock of crests at Kingsdown - 2 or 3 firecrests and 5 or 6 goldcrests. As always these were flitting about in the scrub at a great rate of knots. Now I have on a number occasions taken excellent crest shots with my old 7D but in this session the focusing of the mk 2 was superbly fast and extremely accurate with the vast majority of shots being of a usable quality (from a focusing perspective).
It's difficult to illustrate just how well it performed with images but hopefully some of the attached shots will demonstrate how good the focus was - in the examples shown the birds were partially obscured and/or suffering from a lot of shadows over the subject (and didn't make it onto Flickr for this reason). For cleaner shots see my Flickr site -

There is actually a twig between me and the bird in this shot - can just about be seen obscuring the crest

Only a small gap to get through on this one.

A lot of shadow that failed to fool the focus

So it's my belief that the mk 2 focuses a lot faster and more accurately than the old 7D.

As things stand I'm sure I will continue to use spot focus, even for bids in flight. For in-flight birds in the sky the expansion options may be used but at the moment I can't see why I'd use some of the larger arrays. I have yet to try my luck with small fast flying birds in the sky (eg hirundines/swifts) but this will have to wait 'till next summer or possibly my visit to The Gambia in late January. During my last visit to The Gambia my success rate with palm swifts was deplorable so it will be a real test.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

A bit more on the Canon 7D mk 2

Since my last post I've not actually been out very much due to the gloomy weather and the near total lack of anything to point the camera at locally (here I am assuming there are people, less sensible than me, who are out there looking). I keep seeing and hearing comments about the mk 2 some of which are complimentary some less so, some from people who have one and some from people who don't. Here's where I am to date.

As I said in my previous post, straight out of the box the focus was clearly off and I had to do some work to sort out the best setting on the focus micro adjustment - I settled for +7. I have since adjusted that to +8 (I did this whilst photographing the great grey shrike - it wasn't moving so I had a chance to experiment in the field). It seems a few people have had trouble with the focus straight out of the box.

Noise and Resolution:
To my mind the noise is noticeably less than the old 7D to the extent that I'm happy to use ISOs above 400 with the mk 2. I have no idea just how high I can go because I haven't tried it but I have taken what I regard as decent shots at ISO 640, and 800 and reasonable shots at ISO 1000.
However increasing the ISO isn't only about noise. It also affects the resolution.
The Review by Techradar assessed the drop off in resolution with ISO setting

Using raw at ISO 100, 200 and 400 the mk 2 scores 30, at ISO 800 this drops to 28, at ISO 1600 it's 26 and at ISO 3200 it's down to 24. Up to ISO 1600 these are better than achieved with the old 7D by 2 points i.e. at ISO 800 the old 7D scores 26 but at ISO 3200 the old 7d scored the same as the new. The resolution differences are larger using JPEG but since I don't shoot in JPEG and I don't know what in-camera processing is going on I have ignored these results.

So when choosing an ISO setting I consider the shutter speed, noise and the a consequence I tend to shoot on lower ISOs and shutter speeds than I really should and hope that by taking enough shots some will catch the bird not moving. For the Chilham great gery shrike I used ISO down as low as 160 to try and maximise resolution - the bird wasn't moving so a high shutter speed was not required. Other factors that come into the equation are whether or not I'm hand holding and how close is the bird. The closer I am to the bird the more relaxed I am about choosing a higher ISO because resolution will be less of an issue.

The other factor that will impact the apparent noise level is what size of image is required. A lot of the time my post cropped images are 2,500 to 3,500 pixels wide. Reducing the pixel count to 1800-2000 (my typical Flickr size) has a beneficial effect on the apparent noise level. The extra pixels of the mk2 therefore has an additional beneficial effect on noise.


First up I must say the mk 2 is a lot qicker to focus than the old 7D.
I'm still getting to grips with the focus settings but I think I now understand what is going on. There are 2 "spot" settings and an additional 2 settings where the center spot is surrounded by either 4 or 8 adjacent focus points (called "AF point expansion" settings by Canon). In all 4 of these settings it seems that it's only the center point that actually does the focusing. In the 2 "expansion" settings it seems these additional focus points only "help", the focusing is still only done by the center point. I naively thought they were all actively focusing and couldn't understand why the outer points weren't being used when the center point had slipped off the subject (eg when in flight).

There are 2 other settings where large blocks of focus point can be selected. In these all the spots can focus and when looking through the viewfinder you can see the active focusing point jumping around. The problem with these settings is you have no control which one will be used when the shutter goes off. If you have a decent depth of field it may not matter that much but if the DOF is short the shot could still be unsatisfactory eg focused on the nearest wing tip and the head is soft.
So in general if the bird is on the ground/perched I use the most accurate spot setting. I did try the AF expansion on the snow buntings but they were rubbish and went straight into the bin. I assume the camera couldn't decide whether it was the bird or shingle I wanted to focus on.
Successful flight shots have been best with the AF expansion options though I've not tried the block options when the subject is difficult to keep the center point on (swallows for example).
Some final thoughts on this section. There were often times with the old 7D when it really seemed to struggle to get an accurate focus (for example high contrast situations or unfavourable light direction - had a lot of this with the juvenile peregrines). This doesnt seem to be a problem with the mk 2; when it has focused it seems to have been very accurate. Whilst the 7D mk 2 can shoot at 10 frames per second there are times when I think the focus is struggling to keep up with the shutter. This, to me, was a very obvious problem with the old 7D where almost every other shot was soft. It is less of a problem with the mk 2 but it still seems to be there. I can't show any examples because I delete all the shots I'm not happy with. I'll have to try and remember to keep some sequences that show this for a future blog.

Tracking Options.

Still in the dark with what's best here. Need more time. I will say the tracking even on the basic setting is superb and far superior to the old 7D and it seems to hold onto the image even when the background gets confusing (using the AF point expansion) as shown in this gadwall shot:

Shot at 1/800th sec at ISO 640

Below are some shots I've taken over the last few days with the ISO listed. I think they are not too bad. In all I have cropped in a lot further than I would normally do for my Flickr posts.
Shot at 1/200th at ISO 800
1/2000th at ISO 400 - these were quite a long way away so pleasing.

1/500th at ISO 400

1/1000 sec at ISO 400

1/160 sec at ISO 640

1/250 at ISO 640

One final thought.

With greater pixel count comes the ability to zoom in further during the processing .......and the more you zoom in the worse the picture will look (same is true for noise). And nobody zooms in as much as a bird photographer. Could it be that (some of) the softness being suggested with the mk 2 is actually down to the inherent sharpness of the lens or even the individuals ability to hold a camera steady enough as these greater magnifications..
On the former point I use the 400mm f5.6 because it's the  sharpest lens at that focal length for the price I'm prepared to pay. On the latter point people have asked me whether I will hand hold now I have more ISOs (and hence shutter speed) to play with. Simple answer..... no. I know how much worse my hand held pictures are to those on the tripod at any shutter speed. The extra ISO/shutter speed may mean I get a few more (hand held) flight shots that are acceptable but it won't change my use of the tripod. I know my limitations.