Making travel just a bit easier

In recent years travelling with camera gear has been an increasing problem as carry-on requirements become more restrictive, and actual application of weight limits more regularly applied. Indeed, when travelling to Turkmenistan on Tukish Airlines they were actually asking me to buy an extra seat if I wanted to take my Thinktank Roller as cabin baggage. After much argument and telling them I would prefer to return home they finally relented and allowed me on board but it was certainly a touch and go situation. (On the return journey I wore my photo vest to get on the plane and loaded it up with cameras and lenses to educe the weight of my rolling bag to below the limit, and, of course my bag was not weighed)

One of the problems is that in addition to the weight of the gear itself, there is the added weight of the bag or box that it is in. My Pelican hard case shipping box weighs 17.6lbs, before I put anything in it. That’s already a fair percentage of the 50lbs per bag limit. My Thinktank Airport International rolling bag that I use for all International flights as my carry-on weighs 11.5 lbs empty. Weight restrictions for carry-on varies tremendously between airlines (check yours before you go) but some restrict to around 20lbs – that means my empty bag accounts for half of that.

I was therefore very interested to read the announcement by Thinktank Photo that they have a new version of the rolling bag for International travel that weighs in at just 7.5 lbs yet still offers Thinktanks superb protection of your valuable equipment.

Specifications

Interior Dimensions:
13.3” W x 18” H x 6.5–7.5” D (33.8 x 45.7 x 16.5–19.1 cm)
Exterior Dimensions:
14” W x 21” H x 8” D (35.6 x 53.3 x 20.3 cm)
Laptop Compartment:
13.8” x 17.3” x 2” (35 x 44 x 5 cm)
Tablet Compartment:
10” x 10” x 1.6” (25.4 x 25.4 x 4 cm)
Weight:
7–7.8 lbs. (3.18–3.59 kg)

As I move toward smaller and lighter DSLR’s (I will travel with my D850 without the additional grip) and mirrorless bodies that are of course considerably lighter than their DSLR counterparts, I hope this will make future travel a less stressful and more pleasurable experience.

Get your new Airport Advantage XT by clicking here and get free shipping and an additional free gift from Thinktank.

 

Photographing Shorebirds

As we move into September the Southern migration of shorebirds is in full swing. The main way station beaches are full of life as these long distance travellers rest and fuel up for their long journeys, in some cases thousands of miles well into South America, but photographing shorebirds can present some challenges.


Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) foraging on beach Cherry Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D3, Nikon 500mm f4 lens + TC14 (700mm), 1/800th sec, @ f7.1 with aperture priority mode with ISO 400, + 1.3 stops exposure compensation

It can be difficult to get frame filling shots, even with the longest of lenses as the majority of shorebirds tend to be nervous, quick movers and relatively small. Maybe this is in part due to their habit of wanting to use the same beaches popular with humans, resulting in constant disturbance from their feeding areas, and, not least by dog owners who find great amusement in allowing their pets to chase the birds.

Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) foraging along shoreline, Crescent Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f4 lens + TC14 (700mm), 1/800 sec, @ f5.6 manual mode with Auto ISO active at ISO 500 with + 1.3 stops exposure compensation from metered value

To stay away from the crowds I get out early and late, coinciding with the best light of the day. The other thing I check out is the state of the tides. High tide tends to be poor as there is little sand and mud for the birds to feed on. Low tide is much more productive and the best of all is when the incoming tide coincides with the early or late period.

 

Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) foraging along shoreline, Crescent Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f4 lens + TC14 (700mm), 1/2500th sec, @ f5.6 manual mode with Auto ISO active at ISO 400

The reason for this is it’s the easiest way to get close action. By getting in position well back from the flocks of feeding birds and getting low to the ground the birds will totally ignore me. Then I just let the incoming tide bring my subjects to me until I am forced to move.

Getting low also gives a much more natural perspective, in fact a birds eye view!

Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla) Cherry Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D3, Nikon 500mm f4 lens + TC14 (700mm), 1/640th sec, @ f8, ISO 800, aperture priority mode, + 2/3 stop exposure compensation from metered value off wet sand

Identification of shorebirds can be a real challenge, especially at this time of year when breeding plumage is being shed for their winter look, many of the birds now looking incredibly similar. One should make a habit of making a note of behaviour of each of your subjects as you shoot them, especially when working with mixed flocks. The relative size of each species is much easier to determine when they are stood close rather than in trying to determine the size of a single bird in a photo. I highly recommend ‘The Shorebird Guide by O’Brian, Crossley and Karlson’ for help in identifications as this book attempts to provide details on each different plumage and between the sexes.

Birds in flight

For shorebirds in flight I have given up trying to work from a tripod. They move so fast that it’s almost impossible to keep them individual birds in the frame, although much easier when shooting the vast flocks that can form.

Willet (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus), in flight, Cherry Hill Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D3, Nikon 500mm f4 lens + TC14 (700mm), 1/1250 sec, @ f8, ISO 400, aperture priority mode, + 1/3 stop exposure compensation from metered exposure off sea

I handhold the Nikon 500mm, both with and without the TC-14 converter. The Nikon D850 bodies I am now using are remarkably accurate at locking on to these fast moving subjects and retaining focus. Use a fast shutter speed, keep your vibration reduction turned on, and swing the lens rapidly with the subject, ensuring you keep the lens moving the whole time you are shooting.

For fast moving birds in flight I keep a minimum shutter speed of 1/2000th second, stop down to f5.6 to give a little extra depth of field and use auto ISO in manual mode to ensure my shutter speed does not drop. In fact, I am finding myself using auto ISO more and more.

Mixed flock of shorebirds in flight Cherry Hill Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f4 lens, 1/1600th sec, @ f5.6 manual mode with Auto ISO active at ISO 200

When setting out to the beach for shorebirds you need to be ready for other subjects that may suddenly present themselves  a couple of days ago I was heading over the stone berm leading to Cherry Hill Beach when a sudden flurry of movement in the water attracted my attention. This turned out to be a Blue Shark in the surf right up by the beach. You just never know what might turn up!

Blue Shark (Prionace glauca) in surf close to beach, Cherry Hill Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D3, Nikon 70-200 f2.8 lens, at 200mm, 1/1000th @ f5, ISO 800, aperture priority automatic

Workshop news

I will soon be announcing the first workshop series since I have arrived in Nova Scotia. These will include classroom workshops for post-production work using Lightroom, Capture One and Photoshop and the always popular  ‘digital workflow’ where you will learn the complete process involved for every one of my images from camera to final archive. Spring 2020 will see several practical ‘in the field’ workshops learning a variety of photography techniques.

 

To see a wider selection of new photos go to the Recent Images gallery. This is updated regularly.

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Nikon D3 for sale – SOLD

This item is sold – there will be another available soon

I have one of my Nikon D3’s for sale.

Body only (no lens) in excellent condition. No dings, or scratches other than a couple of small wear marks on top of pentaprism. Regularly serviced by Nikon. Sold complete with two EN-EL4a batteries, charger and Sandisk Extreme Pro 16GB compact flash card.

If interested please send me an email at peter@peterllewellyn.com

 

Sharpness issues

I have recently been having real difficulties with getting really sharp images with my 500mm f4 lens. I have tried different camera bodies and re-calibrated the lens using Lens align with Focaltune software, with each of them, both with and without the TC-14 teleconverter I regularly use, with no real sense of the problem.

Then I spent a couple of hours on Cherry Beach shooting shorebirds, both foraging along the tide line and birds in flight at varying distances. On examining the images in Photomechanic the light suddenly went on! All the images shot at closer distances were sharp, most of those beyond about 40 feet were decidedly not, yet occasionally even an image further out would be sharp as a pin.

 

Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) grabs a worm while foraging on beach, Crescent Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D3s, Nikon 500mm f4, Gitzo tripod with Flexshooter head. 1/1250th @ f5.6, ISO 400

Obviously the issue was not with the camera bodies but decidedly funky behaviour form the lens, so it’s on it’s way to Nikon service in Toronto.

This left me with a problem as I have been waiting several days watching a nearby Osprey nest as the youngsters were obviously very close to taking their first flights. Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity yesterday I grabbed the 200-400mm f4 zoom with the 1.4 converter and hoped that I would have enough reach if there was any action.

Sure enough almost as soon as I arrived I could see the two youngsters were testing their flight skills, launching themselves a few feet above the nest and hovering on outstretched wings before landing neatly back on the nest. By adding the TC-14 converter, zooming in to the 400mm setting I was able to get a focal length of 560mm and by stopping down to f8 to give me a little more depth of field and sharpness came away with a good set of usable images.

Young Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) tests it’s wings while learning to fly at nest on artificial nesting perch, Petite Riviere, Nova Scotia, Canada

Nikon D3s, Nikon 200-400 f4 zoom + TC-14 converter (effective focal length 560mm), Gitzo Tripod with Flexshooter head, 1/1600th @ f8, ISO 320

To see a wider selection of new photos go to the Recent Images gallery. This is updated regularly.

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Giant Mesquite Bug

What is the ‘best’ lens

People regularly ask me what is my favourite lens, and what lens do I use for this or that subject? The answer may not be a simple one. While the ‘best’ lens for a close-up or macro photo would undoubtedly be my Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f2.8. Yet, it’s entirely the wrong lens if it’s sitting at home in the equipment cupboard when I suddenly come across a macro-type subject.

This is precisely what happened a couple of days ago when I went for a hike up in the Sierra de San Juan Cosala above my home in Jalisco Mexico. At this time of year the region is beginning to see the return of the migratory bird species. So there I am, out with my 500mm AF-S ED VR f4, a tripod, and a couple of converters in my pocket and not much else .

Setting up to photograph an Ash-throated Flycatcher I was standing in some small acacia trees when I noticed a large bug at the top of the bush that I had never seen before. So suddenly the ‘best’ lens to get a shot turned out to be the only lens I had with me.

Ash-throated Flycatcher
Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens) perched in a tree, San Juan Cosala, Jalisco, Mexico

Nikon D4s, 500mm AF-S ED VR f4 +TC-14 converter, (effective 700mm), 1/1000th at f8 ISO 800

Solving the problem

The minimum focussing distance of this lens is 4m not ideal for the subject but, what many don’t realize is, that by adding a converter you will increase the size of the subject (by the magnification factor of the converter) but the minimum focussing distance does not alter. You do however suffer a bit of light loss, 1 full stop with the TC-14 and 1 and a third with the TC-17.  In this case I added the TC-17, increasing the focal length of the 500mm to  850mm. This gave me a plenty of a large enough view of the bugs which were around 1.5in in length.

Giant Mesquite Bug
Giant Mesquite Bug (Thasus gigas) on an acacia bush, San Juan Cosala, Jalisco, Mexico

Nikon D4s, 500mm AF-S ED VR f4 +TC-17 converter, (effective 850mm), 1/500th at f8 ISO 800

Isubsequently found a pair of the bugs, which I identified later as Giant Mesquite Bugs mating at the top of another acacia bush.

Two Giant Mesquite Bugs
Two Giant Mesquite Bugs (Thasus gigas) mating on an acacia bush, San Juan Cosala, Jalisco, Mexico

Nikon D4s, 500mm AF-S ED VR f4 +TC-17 converter, (effective 850mm), 1/500th at f8 ISO 800

I would have also been well served to have had a set of extension tubes with me which would have allowed me to substantially decrease the minimum focussing distance but they too were in the equipment cupboard.

So – the lesson is the best lens for a shot is the one you have with you, just find a way to make it work.

To view more wildlife and nature images enter keywords in the search box below




 

 

New Thinktank Products

Our friends at Think Tank Photo have released two new concepts in camera gear protection.  The Emergency Rain Covers, that come in two sizes, are small, lightweight, fast-deploying protective covers you can have on hand when weather conditions change swiftly and you need to protect your bodies and lenses.

CLICK HERE TO ORDER

The Lens Case Duos are protective lens sleeves that can be used both when transporting your lenses in transit and while shooting.  They are available in a range of sizes to fit most DSLR and Mirrorless lenses.  Don’t forget that when you use these special URLs you will receive free gear and free shipping on all orders over $50.

CLICK HERE TO ORDER

 

 

 

Turkey vulture

Photographing birds in flight

Several times I have been asked how it is that my long-time career as a sports photographer gels with the wildlife and nature work I now mostly shoot. The fact is that there are a great many similarities. 

First let’s look at the equipment…  Pretty much identical, rapid-focus cameras using large telephoto lenses.

Second… similar techniques, long periods of waiting around with not much happening while trying to maintain a high level of concentration so you don’t miss the decisive moment!

Birds in flight - Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias bringing a stick to nesting mate Arthur R Marshall National Wildlife Reserve Loxahatchee Florida

Nikon D2x, 600mm f4 lens, mounted on a Gitzo tripod with Wimberley head, 1/3200th sec ISO 200 @ f5.6. You can certainly shoot low slowly flying birds from a tripod but it’s much harder to acquire focus and stay locked on than with hand holding. Here, as I was still shooting with a D2 series camera  that does not handle high ISO settings as well as more modern cameras, I have opted for a larger aperture than I would choose today.

One area of wildlife photography where all the above is particularly true is in capturing images of birds in flight. Often fast moving, unpredictable, with difficult lighting, much the same as with so many sports events.

My preferred lens for in-flight photography is the Nikon 500mm f4, either with or without the TC-14 1.4x converter, and occasionally the 200-400 f4, more often than not hand held with image stabilization turned on, depending on the size of bird I am working with and the distances involved. I never use the converter on the 200-400, which slows down autofocus to an unacceptable level. This technique results in more ‘keepers’ than using the 600mm f4 on a tripod with a gimbal head. The 600mm is just way too heavy to hand hold, at least for me, not being a muscle-bound body builder!

Camera settings

Just like photographing high-speed sport it’s essential to set your camera effectively to freeze the action (unless of course you are going for intentional blur, but that’s a whole other subject – coming soon!) I never let my shutter speed drop below 1/2000th sec, adjusting my ISO settings to ensure that I stay at this speed or above. Remember, birds can be very high-speed subjects, often cruising at 30 mph, and can reach enormous speeds of 60 mph or more when diving or hunting. I will generally stop my lens down to around f8 to give a good depth of field and also because this is the ‘sweet spot’ on my 500mm producing the sharpest corner to corner images. Unlike sport and ground-based wildlife subjects – where I will often use my telephotos wide open (largest aperture) to limit depth of field and isolate my subject from the background – this is rarely necessary with in-flight photography as, in the majority of cases, your subject is against the sky or is already distanced from any discernible background.

Birds in flight - Great Egret
Great Egret (Ardea alba) in flight over Lake Chapala, Jocotopec, Jalisco, Mexico

Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens hand held, 1/2500th @ f8, ISO 800. Look for the unusual bit of action such as when this bird dips his toes into the lake.. 

With my Nikon bodies I use continuous autofocus, AF/C (AI Servo on Canon) and select 9-point autofocus when photographing single birds, or 51-point 3D-tracking when shooting more than a single bird. I always use the highest frame-per-second rate possible and, like capturing sporting action, will often shoot in short bursts.

Shooting birds in flight I almost always use manual exposure, unlike sport where my preferred method is aperture priority. Primarily, in sport, I generally aim to keep my subject isolated from the backgrounds which, most of the time, are fairly constantly lit. With in-flight photography, backgrounds can constantly change as you continue to shoot; i.e. the birds move from blue sky to white cloud, or from a dark vegetation background to a more open area, and it’s really important that the exposure is based on the bird and not on the background. To set my exposure I get in position and shoot a few test shots ensuring my minimum 1/2000th sec is achieved, checking my histogram, and adjusting my shutter speed and ISO to move the histogram to the right without it actually touching the right-hand edge and blowing out highlights. It is essential to keep detail in the brightest, often white, part of your subjects.

For white balance I invariably just leave the setting at auto. As I shoot 100% in RAW format, I can always change the white balance in post production, if I need to – which is rarely. I find it all too easy when manually setting a white balance to forget I’ve done so and end up with extra work on a whole bunch of photos.

Technique for birds in flight

Even though my Nikon lenses autofocus extremely rapidly, you often have little time to acquire sharp focus as a subject might suddenly appear. To ensure the most rapid focus I will, if at all possible, find a subject that is at approximately the same distance as I predict my subjects might appear and pre-focus on that. This means that when a bird appears in the right zone my lenses have little work to do in locking on to the bird and I find I am shooting sharp images way earlier. I always use the rear focus button on the camera and not the half-depressed shutter button, as I like to decide when the cameras actually focus on the subject… Another throwback to how I shoot sport.

If you can, keep your selected autofocus points on the eye of the bird, which is easier with large birds than with rapidly moving, smaller subjects. When photographing more than one in-flight bird, ensure that your focus points are on the leading bird, because if the leader is ‘soft’ and the following bird(s) is sharp, it produces a very strange look.

Birds in flight - American White Pelican
American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) flying above of Lake Chapala, Jocotopec, Jalisco, Mexico

Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens handheld, 1/2000th @f8, ISO 320. When shooting more than one bird ensure you focus on the leading subject. Also remember that many birds have large areas of white colour so it is essential that you don’t blow out your highlights.

Just like shooting sports, with birds in flight it is essential to develop good panning technique. You MUST keep the lens moving, locking your subject in the same position in the viewfinder as far as you can, and keep shooting. A common error is to shoot every image with the bird dead centre in the frame. I often shift my focus selection points slightly to one side of the frame or the other depending on the flight direction, to allow space for the bird to move into. This generally gives a much more pleasing composition. The best bird images, particularly with larger species, tend to be when the wing is at the highest or lowest position during the flapping motion, aim to hit this spot consistently.

Birds in flight - Turkey vulture
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), in flight, Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico

Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens with 1.4 teleconverter (effective focal length of 700mm) hand held, 1/2000th sec @ f8, ISO 1200. Try and time your shots so the wings are either fully elevated or fully down, relatively easy with soaring birds like this vulture

Perhaps more-so than with other forms of wildlife photography, it is practically essential to shoot with the sun at your back with a useable arc of around 30°. Backlit and sidelit subjects rarely work well as you will invariably end up with very harsh shadows. The angle of the sun is also a huge factor. Photographers talk about the golden hours, around two-and-a-half hours after sunrise and two hours before sunset, when the light has a soft even feel and has a golden glow that lends itself well to all wildlife subjects. A further advantage of a low sun angle is that it will often result in a great catchlight in a subject’s eye. In general, high sun angles during the middle part of the day are not workable if the sun is out, but you can extend the shooting day with more overcast conditions.

Birds in flight - Caspian tern
Caspian tern (Hydropogne casoia) flying above Lake Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico

Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens with 1.4 teleconverter (effective focal length of 700mm) hand held, 1/2500th sec @ f8, ISO 800. Give a little more space on the side of the image that your subject is facing to allow room for it to ‘move into’

Another weather condition to keep in mind is wind direction. Birds, like aircraft, will tend to take-off and land into the wind. Absolutely the best conditions for in-flight bird photography is when both the sun and the wind are at your back.

Birds in flight - Great Egret
Great Egret (Ardea alba) landing on edge of Lake Chapala, Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico

Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens with 1.4 teleconverter (effective focal length of 700mm) hand held, 1/1600th sec @ f8, ISO 800. Birds take-off and land into the wind, try and have both sun and wind at your back

Remember, like all photography, the foregoing suggestions are guidelines and not set-in-stone rules! I still experiment with different shutter speeds, camera movement, lighting angles etc. but, my experience has been, that using the above guidelines will generally produce the most pleasing images.

To see more flight photography go to the wildlife and nature galleries and  choose Birds in flight or enter the keyword ‘flight’ in the Search box. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ashgabat 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games

I returned a couple of weeks ago from the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan where I worked as Photo Manager for the Equestrian Events and as part of the Official Photographer team for other sports. An ‘interesting’ experience for sure as I got to photograph a few sports that I had never seen before, even after 35 years+ as a sports photographer. In fact, when I found out I was going to the Games I actually had to look up several of the martial arts as I had never actually heard of them.

After an incredibly long  journey of almost 40 hours I arrived in Ashgabat – pity my baggage did not also arrive! (It would be three days before it was found at JFK and another day before it arrived in Ashgabat). Fortunately my essential photo equipment was all carried as hand baggage.  The first thing one notices on arrival, apart from the heat, is the incredible whiteness of the city. Ashgabat was entirely destroyed in an earthquake in 1948, one of the most powerful ever recorded,  with reports varying between 110,000 and 176,000 deaths. This resulted in a rebuilding programme that has seen every single building clad in white marble. More marble here than any other city on earth. What is remarkable is that this tragic event was not reported to the world until after Turkmenistan gained independence from the USSR in 1991.

Typical marble clad buildings, Ashgabat – Nikon 1 V3, 1/4000th at f5.6, ISO 400

The sports facilities constructed in the centre of Ashgabat are truly remarkable – worthy of any world class event, and again completely clad in white marble. Spent the first few days getting to know my way around before the Games actually started. 

Opening ceremonies were of the highest order featuring a wide range of Turkmen culture and ending in a spectacular firework display.

5th Asian Indoor & Martial Arts Opening Ceremonies – Nikon D3s, 200-400 f4 lens at 340mm, 1/125th @f4, IOS 3200

Unfortunately the following day I came down with a bad bout of ‘Turkman Tummy’, a condition shared at some point with just about every person working at the games, and which, unfortunately lasted to some degree throughout the two weeks of competitions and even after I got home.

However, I continued to be able to work and covered a range of interesting competitions, including weightlifting, belt wrestling, kick boxing, sambo and even snooker.

Beltwrestling -Mens +100Kg division – Nikon D3s, 70-200mm f2.8 lens at 116mm, 1/1250th @ f3.5

Kickboxing – Mens LK 51Kg division – Nikon D3s, 200-400mm f4 lens at 380mm, 1/1250th @ f4, ISO 4000

Weightlifting mens 105kg – Nikon D3s, 200-400mm f4 lens at 270mm, 1/1250th @f4, ISO 3200

Mens snooker final – Nikon D3s, 200-400mm f4 lens at 270mm, 1/160th @f4, ISO 2500

A few sample images are seen here, but a wider selection are available by visiting the Latest Images gallery and the Martial Arts Gallery.

The final day allowed myself and a colleague to venture out with the aid of a local taxi driver (read Government minder) to see some of the local colour and architecture. One must be extremely careful photographing in this country, no images with police or military personnel, and great care when photographing certain monuments – if in doubt ask and if told no accept this without question. 

Ashgabat – Ruhy Mosque – Nikon 1V3 10-30mm lens, 1/1600 @ f8 ISO 400

A little background

Turkmenistan is bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran, very much a desert country mostly dominated by the Karakum Desert. It is certainly subject to an authoritarian regime, ruled closely by current president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (a self avowed sports fanatic), who’s photo appears in just about every room of every building, bus, taxi, and sports facility. I’s an Islamic state, although fairly moderate, and was once an important stop on the silk road. It declared itself a state of permanent neutrality in 1995, a state recognized by the UN.

Ashgabat 2017 – Old Nisa – Dynastic sanctuary of the Parthian Kings from late III century BC to early III century AD – Nikon 1V3, 10-30mm lens, 1/200th @f10, ISO 200

 

Image stabilization or fast shutter speed?

Recently while covering the World Junior Taekwondo Championships I was approached by someone asking what my ‘camera settings’ were. I quickly rattled off what I was using “1/1250sec, f2.8. at 4000ISO set manually”. The gentleman replied I must be using old lenses as he did not need to set his ISO nearly this high as all his lenses had ‘stabilization’ so he could shoot at much lower settings and get higher quality pictures, 2-3 stops lower and still handhold “no problem at all” so he was only using 640 ISO.

Now, I am always happy to engage in discussions about photo technique and equipment, just not in the middle of an important competition where I am working, so told this person I needed to concentrate on what I was doing but would be happy to chat if I had the time after competition had finished. Unfortunately I never saw him again so was unable to point out the errors in his thinking.

First would have been – why was I choosing to use 4000 ISO. Of course, had I thought it prudent I would have loved to use a lower setting. The choice of 4000 ISO was to give me a shutter speed high enough to freeze the action when the athletes engaged in their fast kicking movements. This required a minimum shutter speed of 1/1000sec. If I had lowered my ISO to the same 640 that this person was using and assuming I still wanted to make a correct exposure at f2.8 (the maximum aperture of the lens I was using) my shutter speed would have dropped to around 1/250th sec – not nearly fast enough to freeze the action. 

Burnaby, Canada. 16 November, 2016. WTF World Taekwondo Junior Championships, Alan Arcal Alcazar (ESP) in blue and Ilyas Hussain (GBR) in red compete in 48kg class. ALAMY LIVE NEWS/PETER LLEWELLYN
Burnaby, Canada. 16 November, 2016. WTF World Taekwondo Junior Championships, Alan Arcal Alcazar (ESP) in blue and Ilyas Hussain (GBR) in red compete in 48kg class. 

Nikon D4s, AF-S 70-200 f2.8G ED VRII lens, 1/1000 @f2.8 6400ISO – This was on an outer mat where the light was even worse than the main mat hence 6400ISO

Now comes the misconception that I have heard many times since Nikon and Canon brought out their stabilized lenses – I can shoot at much lower shutter speeds and still freeze the image. NOT SO!! What VR (Nikon’s Vibration Reduction) and IS (Canon’s Image Stabilization) actually allow you to do is to avoid camera shake at slow shutter speeds – this has nothing to do with freezing the action.

If you need 1/1000th sec shutter speed to freeze the action and have no movement blur you need 1/1000 sec, period. No amount of vibration reduction or image stabilization will affect this in any way.

Burnaby, Canada. 16 November, 2016. WTF World Taekwondo Junior Championships, Maria Calderon (CRC) blue and Thi Kim Ngan Ho (VIE) red, compete in female 44kg class gold medal match. Ho took the gold medal
Burnaby, Canada. 16 November, 2016. WTF World Taekwondo Junior Championships, Maria Calderon (CRC) blue and Thi Kim Ngan Ho (VIE) red, compete in female 44kg class gold medal match. Ho took the gold medal

Nikon D4s, AF-S 70-200 f2.8G ED VRII lens, 1/1250 @f2.8 4000ISO

Finally I would have pointed out that using 4000ISO ( and higher) is well within the capabilities of my cameras and can produce image files that can be used easily up to a full poster output. 

Shooting raw files and a bit of prudent noise reduction in Photoshop produces remarkably clean images, even in deep shadow areas.

Burnaby, Canada. 20 November, 2016. WTF World Taekwondo Junior Championships Georgii Tandelov (RUS) blue, and Aleksandr Keselj (GER) red compete in the male +78kg. final won by Tandelov.
Burnaby, Canada. 20 November, 2016. WTF World Taekwondo Junior Championships Georgii Tandelov (RUS) blue, and Aleksandr Keselj (GER) red compete in the male +78kg. final won by Tandelov.

Nikon D4s, AF-S 70-200 f2.8G ED VRII lens, 1/1250 @f2.8 4000ISO

By the way – pretty much every lens I own has VR, including the Nikon AF-S 70-200 f2.8G ED VRII lens I was using that day. And the VR was turned OFF. I find my images are actually sharper with it turned off when using fast shutter speeds. I only ever turn VR on if hand holding at slow shutter speeds (who said better to get a decent tripod?) or if I am working from a moving platform such as a boat, helicopter or vehicle.

Burnaby, Canada. 17 November, 2016. WTF World Taekwondo Junior Championships, Chan-Ho Jung (KOR) blue and Houssam El Amrani (MAR) red, compete in the semi-final of male 55kg won by Jung  Photo: Peter Llewellyn
Burnaby, Canada. 17 November, 2016. WTF World Taekwondo Junior Championships, Chan-Ho Jung (KOR) blue and Houssam El Amrani (MAR) red, compete in the semi-final of male 55kg won by Jung 

Nikon D4s, AF-S 70-200 f2.8G ED VRII lens, 1/1250 @f2.8 4000ISO

 

Attila the ‘Hum’ – how to photograph hummingbirds

Since being back in British Columbia we have had our hummingbird feeders out and have seen more of these mini wonders than in any previous year. We have been filling the feeders every day and if we are a little late the birds soon mob us as soon as we go outside and let us know.

Female Rufous Hummingbird
Female Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) in flight at a feeder

One feeder is situated on our upstairs deck, overlooking the garden and this is jealously guarded by one male Rudous Hummingbird who sits nearby waiting for intruders. As soon as another hummer appears anywhere near the feeder he rockets across the garden and there ensues a round of astonishing aerial combat – this is ‘Atilla the Hum’ who terrorises the rest of the hummingbird flock. However as soon as he is otherwise engaged other birds will rapidly take the opportunity to visit the feeder.

Male Rufous Hummingbird
Atilla the Hum – Male Rufous Hummingbird

Photographing hummingbirds can be a little challenging – their wings beat at some 60-70 times per second, and can fly at 25-30 mph in normal flight and attain 60 mph when they make their spectacular dives. Fortunately they are also able to hover virtually motionless when feeding and are the only bird that can fly backwards.

Even with today’s modern DSLR’s and their ability to shoot at shutter speeds of up to 1/8000th sec this will still not be fast enough to get those wings completely frozen. In addition to obtain these fast shutter speeds you will often need to dial up the iSO setting resulting in  loss of image quality, and open up the lens to it’s maximum aperture resulting in limited depth of field.  The answer is to use high speed flash to freeze the action.

My technique for high speed flash

There are number of ways to set up for high speed flash, but here is my method. (When I talk about high speed flash I am using regular camera speedlights, not studio strobes)

Flash settings

I set all my flashes to manual. Some photographers use TTL but I find that for this sort of work I prefer to have complete manual control. The main reason for this is that flash is providing 100% of the illumination for the photograph, therefore, once you have your camera and flash settings giving a correct exposure, you are not subject to any changing light conditions so you can be guaranteed that every exposure will be the same.

Flash duration is directly related to the output setting on the flash. The table below gives the power output and corresponding flash duration for settings with a Nikon SB910 Speedlight. Other Speedlights will be broadly similar including those by other manufacturers.

1/1 (full) output = 1/880 sec
1/2 output = 1/1100 sec
1/4 output 1/2550 sec
1/8 output = 1/5000 sec
1/16 output = 1/10000 sec
1/32 output = 1/20000 sec
1/64 output = 1/35700 sec
1/128 output = 1/38500 sec

As you can see, when you dial down the power, the flash duration gets progressively shorter, and these durations are way faster than any camera shutter. So how to put this to good use.

Camera settings

I also set my camera to manual mode when using high speed flash. Again, once you have a correct exposure there is nothing to change and you need to gain complete control for this first stage.

You need to determine a base exposure – this is an exposure at which the camera will register no ambient light in the image. (To help with cutting out ambient light it is helpful if your subject area i.e. the feeder and background are in a shady area rather than full sun). Start by setting your camera to it’s lowest ISO setting, which will additionally give the best quality in your file and the fastest flash synchronization speed. (Nikon and Canon users should not use high speed flash settings as, to achieve these fast synchronization speeds, the flash emits multiple burst of light that will have a slightly stroboscopic effect and result in blurring of the wings – the very thing we are seeking to avoid). Turn off your flashes, focus on the feeder and take images adjusting your camera aperture until you get a completely black frame, i.e. no image registering at all. I generally find something in the order of ISO 200, Shutter speed 250th (my fastest sychronization speed) and an aperture of around f11 does the trick in a shady location.

With regard to lenses you need something that focusses relatively closely whilst allowing you to remain far enough form the feeder to not disturb the birds. Something in the 300mm to 400mm range is ideal. I pretty much always use my 200-400mm f4 for these shoots as it focusses right down to 2m (6.2′) allowing frame filling shots of these tiny birds.

Finally – use a tripod! You cannot possible hand hold a long lens, focus and frame the birds with any degree of accuracy.

Placement of the flashes

Note that I say flashes – you need more than one flash for a number of reasons. First, the output is going to be dialled right down so output is going to be low (although we are going to compensate by placing the flashes close to the subject area). Second we need to light from multiple directions to avoid shadows, and third we are going to need to light the background otherwise it will register as jet black (although this in itself can lead to interesting photographs).

Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) in flight
Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) in flight – no background

Many articles will show setups with between five and seven flash heads but you can certainly get great photos with as few as three as I will demonstrate. (Note that because you are using fully manual settings you do not need thousands of dollars worth of camera brand flashes – a few cheaper models with manual settings will easily suffice such as those made by Vivitar and others).

Your flashes do need to be close to the subject area as your flash output is going to be low and will not have a lot of reach, around 12″ to 18″. To use a three light set up I place two of the flashes at around 45º with one set slightly higher than the other to give a balanced light, and a third above the background pointing straight down.

Set up using three flash heads
Set up using three flash heads

Most modern flashes also have a zoom setting. I set the two flashes in front of the subject to their maximum zoom settings to concentrate the throw of light and the background flash to 50mm to give a bit of spread over the background.

I generally start with an output setting of 1/32 or 1/64th, either of which will give an action freezing flash duration for a hummingbird wing. Take a photo, doesn’t have to have a bird in it, simple image of feeder or a flower head in the correct location will do just fine. Check the exposure on the camera and watch for flashing highlights and blown out area on your histogram. Adjust your camera aperture (never the shutter speed) until you have a spot on exposure.

Female Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) feeding at a Hosta flower
Female Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) feeding at a Hosta flower

You are going to need a method of firing the flashes. I use Pocket Wizard Radios along with some flashes set to fire  using IR slave. You can also use a sych. cord to one flash and set others to fire using either built in optical slaves or cheap add on optical triggers. Check your manuals to see what works for you.

Feeder set up

To attract the birds it’s best to set up at a feeder station they have already been habituated too. Hummingbirds are remarkably tolerant, allowing you to be very close whilst they feed. When you start shooting don’t simply fire away every time a bird arrives at the feeding station. Give them a break once in a while and allow them to feed without the flashes popping of every time they get near. It is amazing at how quickly they will get used to the flashes and other ‘stuff’ you have placed near their feeder.

Start by placing the feeder to one side of the frame. Cover any feeder holes you don’t want them to visit. If your feeder has perches remove them as the hummingbirds will provide better subject material as they hover rather than sat on a plastic feeder.

Once the birds are habituated you can start changing things up. I usually start by placing  suitable flowers close to the feeder which can give the illusion of the birds feeding on the flowers. (Make sure you only use flower heads that the hummingbirds would normally visit to avoid a false looking image). The ideal way to position your blooms is to use a Wimberley Plamp. (http://www.tripodhead.com/products/plamp-main.cfm) The next step is to remove the feeder completely and replace it with a suitable tubular shaped bloom. Grab a syringe (I have often been described as a photo junkie!) and some sugar water and ‘inject’ the flower bloom with sugar water. They may be confused for the few few visits but will soon latch on to the idea that the bloom is fill of nectar. Regularly re-fill the bloom to keep them coming.

Sit back and wait for the hummers to arrive and make great images.

Female Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) feeding at a Petunia flower
Female Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) feeding at a Petunia flower

The Nikon 1V3

Throughout the PanAm Games I had, as my constant companion, a Nikon 1 V3 mirrorless camera along with a 10-30mm lens and FT1 lens adaptor, courtesy of Nikon Canada. This camera boasts an 18megapixel 1″-type sensor with no AA filter (offering a multiplication factor of 2.7 for your regular DSLR lenses, but more on that later. It can blast through images at 20 FPS, captures 1080/60p video, and features wi-fi connectivity through an IOS or Android Ap.

Nikon 1 V3How did I find it – in short absolutely incredible – by far the best small lightweight camera I have ever handled.

TECHNICAL DETAILS

  • 18.4MP  CMOS sensor
  • 20 fps with continuous AF and subject tracking
  • NEF Raw and JPEG file capture
  • 3″ tilting touchscreen with 1.04M dots
  • 1080/60p video capture
  • Wi-Fi connectivity with IOS and Android smartphone connection

HANDLING

In Canada the camera is delivered with the additional grip and the electronic viewfinder both of which aid the feel of a traditional DSLR.

Without even referring to the instructions manual the controls on this camera will be instantly familiar to any Nikon DSLR user.  The same as any DSLR the camera offers all the conventional shooting modes, programmed auto, aperture and shutter priority, as well as metered manual.

As a DSLR user I always find it difficult to compose my images using the LCD screen on the back of a compact camera. With the 1 V3 you have the option of using the supplied electronic viewfinder, which I never took off the camera. I had no trouble composing my images on the electronic finder, although viewing an electronic version of your subject material takes a bit of getting used to

AUTOFOCUS

The Nikon 1 V3 has a hybrid auto-focus system that combines 171-point contrast- and 105-point phase-difference detection systems. The Nikon 1 V3 to focus extremely quickly in good light, even on a moving subject. As the light levels drop, the camera switches to contrast-detect AF which, which is not a fast as contrast method but still fast enough for every situationI encountered. The camera that decides which AF method to use – the photographer has no influence on this.

Shooting sequences, even in 20 FPS mode, resulted in almost every frame being pin-sharp, impressive stuff!

SPEED

As a sports photographer I thought great, 20 FPS and quickly switched to this mode. I just as quickly switched back to single shot mode for all but real action situations as I realized I was shooting 15-20 almost identical images of fairly static subjects. Even though I have got my workflow tuned to a fine art I still don’t want to look at dozens of essentially identical shots!

IMAGES

Of course, the proof of the pudding for any camera is the quality of the images it captures. Here I was far from disappointed. Shooting with both the Nikon1 10-30mm lens and using the adaptor with a range of DSLR lenses produced spectacular results.

8 August 2015: TO2015 Panam Games, Cycle road race, William Lachenauer (USA) competes in the H3-M cycle road race, Ontario Place
8 August 2015: TO2015 Panam Games, Cycle road race, William Lachenauer (USA) competes in the H3-M cycle road race, Ontario Place

 

Nikon 1 V3, 10-30mm lens 1/500th @ f5.6 400 ISO, aperture priority automatic

Parapan Am Powerlifting, Mississauga Sports Centre, Toronto 2015 Parapan Am Games: Photo Peter Llewellyn
Parapan Am Powerlifting, Mississauga Sports Centre, Toronto 2015 Parapan Am Games: Photo Peter Llewellyn

Nikon 1 V3, FT1 Adaptor, 24-70 f2.8 lens 1/350th @ f4 1600 ISO, aperture priority automatic

8 August 2015: TO2015 Panam Games, Track Cycling - Mens Individual Pursuit C1-3, Todd Key (USA), Milton Velodrome, Milton, Ontar
8 August 2015: TO2015 Panam Games, Track Cycling – Mens Individual Pursuit C1-3, Todd Key (USA), Milton Velodrome, Milton, Ontario – Photo Peter Llewellyn

Nikon 1 V3, 10-30mm lens 1/1000th @ f2.8 1600 ISO, aperture priority automatic

The FT1 adapter provides some really unique shooting opportunities. Mounting a super telephoto and the 2.7 multiplication factor results in one monster lens. Take for example the image below shot with a the V1 and a 500mm f4 a windsurfer competitor. That’s a 1350mm f4 lens – this shot was taken from approximately 500 meters away!

PL_20150718_0824027

Nikon 1 V3 plus FT-1 adapter, Nikon 500 mm f4 lens 1/1600th @ f5, 400 ISO, aperture priority automatic mounted on Gitzo tripod with Wimberley head.

Close ups are also a joy to shoot with the extremely close focusing distance of the supplied 10-30mm f3.5-5.6 zoom of only 0.7ft (0.2m)

Close-up of strawberries - St Lawrence Market, Toronto
Close-up of strawberries – St Lawrence Market, Toronto

Nikon 1 V3, 10-30mm lens 1/120th @ f5.6 400 ISO, aperture priority automatic

Overall, this is the the small camera I have been searching for. It offers unparalleled versatility, is light to carry everywhere you go, and produces professional quality images.

WIRELESS CAPABILITY

One feature I loved about this camera was it’s built-in wireless capability allowing me to transmit images across to my iPhone using the free Nikon Wireless Mobile Utility ap, the images appearing almost instantly in my photo library. Perhaps this is the answer to me doing more with Instagram!

My verdict – highly recommended.

Time to re-activate

Ok, I know, this blog has been pretty stagnant over the past 12 months. A little thing called the PanAm Games and my role in making it the best PanAm’s for photographers kind of got in the way.

Well, I am officially no longer the Photo Chief for the Games, the Parapan’s finished a week ago and I am back, for the time being, to just a sports photographer. What does the future hold? I really have no idea. For the immediate future I am shooting Blue Jays (here’s hoping they make the playoffs and extend the season) Baseball and other sports for some major national and international clients and will be doing some other shooting work in the coming weeks. I am also currently working on a new range of workshops – more on that soon.

14 August 2015: TO2015 Parapanam Games, Wheelchair Rugby Gold medal match Canada v USA, Mississauga Sports Centre. Mike Whitehead (8) (CAN) with the ball takes a fall as he is tackled by Josh Wheeler (10) (USA): Photo Peter Llewellyn
14 August 2015: TO2015 Parapanam Games, Wheelchair Rugby Gold medal match Canada v USA, Mississauga Sports Centre. Mike Whitehead (8) (CAN) with the ball takes a fall as he is tackled by Josh Wheeler (10) (USA): Photo Peter Llewellyn

Nikon D4s, 300mm f2.8 IF-ED lens, 1/2500th @ f3.5, ISO 6400 – hand held

As for the Games – from the press perspective it was a great success. I had an amazing team of venue photo managers who worked ridiculously long hours, under sometimes trying circumstances, to provide the photographers with the best possible photographic opportunities – a task that they pulled off with spectacular success.

Parapan Am closing ceremony fireworks, Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto 2015 Parapan Am Games: Photo Peter Llewellyn
Parapan Am closing ceremony fireworks, Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto 2015 Parapan Am Games: Photo Peter Llewellyn

Nikon 1 V3, 10-30mm zoom, lens at 10mm, 1/25th at f3.5 @ISO 1600, hand held

Coming soon to this blog:

  • Shooting with the Nikon 1 V3 – This spectacular little camera was my constant companion during the PanAm Games. See my review of it’s performance.
  • Review of the new Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR for the start of the NHL (Ice Hockey for non North Americans) season
  • Details of a new range of workshops to start in fall 2015

Please also check out the main web site at https://peterllewellyn.com where many new images will be filed over the next week.

As you might gather from the above it is my intention to stay in Toronto, at least for a while. There are a number of things I am working on that might dictate where and what I will be doing next, all will be revealed in due course.