Sunday, December 23, 2012

So I decided to take up Birding....

And So It Begins

After being in the US for nearly 6 months now, I've become interested in taking photos of birds.  Here are the reasons:
  1. In the last 26 years in Asia, I've only really seen birds on plates in restaurants or in zoos.  Seeing birds in the nature is a pretty cool experience for me.
  2. I really enjoy taking shots of people and will continue to do this, but taking shots of birds is a whole new experience and is teaching me a lot about my camera and it's capabilities.
  3. It's healthier to be walking about in nature rather than stuck at home on the computer or in the mall shopping (unless it's for cameras!)
Naturally my wife, Christine, is very concerned about me taking up this type of photography, as the cost of long lenses is ridiculous! So I've pretty much committed to do this with the lenses that I have EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM with the Extender EF 1.4X III. I mainly use my Canon EOS 1D X and sometimes my Canon EOS 5D Mark II. The 1D X auto focus functionality is amazing for following birds and I find myself changing between One Shot and AI Servo mode as well as adjusting the Auto Focus area depending on the environment I am shooting in.

My aim is to post one photo of each of the different birds I see each month - hopefully I'll post the right names, but if not, let me know and I will change accordingly.  You can see all the photos of the different birds in my Birding album where I will also tag the birds with the right names.  I currently use the iBird Pro app on my iPhone and iPad to help identify the birds - but don't always get it right!

A Brief Background

My interest in birding started when I took some photos for a friend of mine, Darlene Sillick, on a business trip from China to the States, who works with the Ohio Wildlife Centre, an organization that is a leader in wildlife rehabilitation and conservation education.  Since moving to Ohio in the US, I have subsequently photographed the birds there on a number of occasions and each time became more fascinated by the birds themselves.  Attending a release of a Red Tail Hawk that had been nursed back to health was a wonderful experience and was probably when I first thought about getting involved.

Red Tail Hawk - Release

Recently another friend from work, Matt Erickson, invited our family to his house for Thanksgiving lunch where I was introduced to the hummingbird world and subsequently wrote about my experience on a cold Sunday morning.

Allen Chartier: Banding a Rufous Hummingbird

This was when I decided to get involved in photographing birds.

The Birds - December 2012

American Goldfinch (Winter Plumage)

Blue Jay

Red-bellied Woodpecker (male)

Rufous Hummingbird (Female)

Downy Woodpecker (Male) - Backyard feeder

Downy Woodpecker (Male) - Prairie Oaks Park
Downy Woodpecker (Female) - Backyard feeder

House Finch (Red - Male, Brown - Female), Sparrow (Dark Brown) and a Mourning Dove

Northern Cardinal - Male
One point to note: do not use the the 61-point automatic selection AF in AI Servo mode when it's showing unless you want to see a really pretty display of moving focal points in your viewer :-)

Northern Cardinal - Female

Eastern Bluebird

Carolina Chickadee

Brown Creeper

Red Tail Hawk

Red Tail Hawk
The last photo of the Red Tail Hawk was shot using AI Servo mode and was flying through a wooded area and I took a number of shots while following the bird through the lens and had a remarkable high level of success when you consider the branches in the way!

Other birds spotted but not photographed include:

Please feel free to leave any comments if you have any more information about the birds above.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Big Year - Thanksgiving Style

This is our first year living in the US and we were expecting a quiet Thanksgiving, staying at home watching TV.  Thankfully it was not quiet at all and a good chunk of time was spent with a new crowd of unfamiliar people known as "Birders" on the hunt to find, capture, tag and release a rarely seen species of hummingbird in Ohio called the Rufous Hummingbird.

This whole experience reminded me of a movie I saw last year called "The Big Year", which you can see the trailer here

The adventure began after my colleague Matt Erickson invited our family round to their house for lunch and he asked me to bring a camera to take a "few" photos of a hummingbird that was visiting their feeder on a regular basis.

On the day of the Thanksgiving meal, we had a wonderful traditional Turkey meal with a selection a delicious pies

Afterwards the children went off to play and we got down to business of photographing the aforementioned hummingbird.  Fortunately we didn't have to wait long before the bird appeared which according to Matt was on a 20-30 minute feeding cycle (he was recording the times when the bird visited - apparently it's a birding thing!).

A had setup my Canon 1Dx with the EF 70-200mm F2.8 II on a tripod and was fortunate to capture a number of images...

Humming bird profile sitting on a feeder

The mouth of the humming is definitely not designed to eat a traditional Thanksgiving meal!

I was unable to capture the bird in flight to see it's wings (it was my first attempt at a hummingbird photo). Fortunately the light started to fade and I used my flash, off-camera, to add some light.  Due to the very short duration of the flash on one of these small units (I shot at 1/16th power which is roughly 1/15,000th of a second) I was able to freeze the humming bird in flight.

Frozen in flight

A perfect shot - well my best for the day.
As is frequent with these shoots, something has to happen to make it harder than it should be.  In this case my remote trigger ran out of battery and I was forced to shoot at ISO 20,000 @1/160 and the wings disappeared...
The Canon 1Dx does a very good job at handling high ISO
According to Matt the Hummingbird could be a rarely seen bird in Ohio, but the only way to tell exactly what kind of Hummingbird it was would be to view tail feathers spread, which, we found out later, mainly happens as a sign of aggression when other hummingbirds are hanging around.

Unfortunately we had a passive happy hummingbird who happily kept her tail tucked neatly behind her.

So it was onto plan B: take as many shots of the bird as possible then upload them and have the "experts" take a look.  This is both the beauty and the beast of the Canon 1Dx: beauty because it takes 12 frames per second, beast because I have to sort through the ~350 shots, crop them to get the bird to a decent size in the frame (they really are very small!) and upload them.

4-5 hours later - Done, 223 cropped straightened and adjusted photos (thank goodness for for Adobe Lightroom). My friend Matt then sent out a message to his "Bird Friends" to try and identify the bird. 3,200 page views later and a meeting has been arranged at Matt's house, Sunday morning at 8:30am to formally catch, tag and release the bird.  8:30am on a Sunday morning, hmmmm......

Well in for a penny in for a pound as the saying goes.  Recharged batteries, three Canon 580EX II flashes, Pocket Wizard triggers, light stands, tripod, my faithfull Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, add in a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM for the people shots and my Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM for close ups.  I also packed my Canon 5D MK II as a backup just in case I ran out of battery power or, as the case turned out to be, want to quickly move from a macro close up to a wide angle shot.  I was definitely ready to shoot.

Bags packed, 7:30am Sunday morning I tried to rouse the family, but to no avail. So headed out to see what the morning would bring.  I thought I would arrive early to get my first cup of coffee before I started.  I walked in to Matt's house and found a number of strangers  all with a similar profile - warm jackets, pair of binoculars and at least one item of clothing advertising the particular person bird of choice (flashback to the movie "The Big Year"!).

Binoculars, jackets and un-brushed hair - a common birdie profile
I was surprised to find out that a number of people had driven a couple of hours to attend this catch, tag and release.  The "main man" was Allen Chartier, who is a licensed bird bander and well known in the bird circles, had driven down from Michigan. (NOTE: bird banding is a controlled practice please refer to the USGS website for more details.)
Allen Chartier (middle), Matt Erickson (left) and Darlene Sillick (right)
The above shot was taken with a flash bounced of the ceiling, which for me is now the standard starting position for any on-camera flash.  I'm grateful that Canon left out the in built flash on the the 5D MKII and 1Dx as it forces you to use an external flash and bouncing lights of the ceiling give you a great large light to give you good overall light coverage.  There are occasion when I will bounce a light off a wall or the corner of the wall and ceiling, but my starting position is bouncing the flash off the ceiling with the flash head at a 90 degree angel to the front so that I can easily switch between portrait and landscape.

Back to the story...

I think I'd taken my first or second sip of coffee when the Hummingbird turned up for her routine feed...
Morning feed - I reckon the bird in the image is close to the original size of the bird.

After watching the hummingbird go through her routine, it was a time to get ready...

Preparing for the capture...
The original feeder was replaced by the cage on the floor in the image above.  This cage has a remote trigger that allows the door to be shut when the bird is inside and feeding, keeping it out of harms way.

Next was preparing the band for the Hummingbird, which was incredibly tiny...

No it is not an optical illusion - it really is that small

The band had to be stretched open using a thin knitting needle...
spreading the band on a knitting needle
Both of the above shots used a macro lens, but still used bounced light off the ceiling.  The trick when getting this close is to ensure that you are not blocking the bounced light.  Otherwise you end up with some really ugly shadows.

Finally the number on the band was registered in Allen's bird banding book...
Recording the details

Once the bird was captured it is put in a special bag to take out of the cage (all with great care and expertise).
Careful handling of the bird throughout the process

The following indoor shots were taken with a flash bouncing off the ceiling and show a variety of activities...

Blowing on the breast separates the feathers and gives a view of the breast. This helps is seeing how much fat the bird has... a gauge of overall health



Counting spots on the neck...

Spots on the neck...

Closely examining the beak to see tiny grooves on the bill which can age the bird. They grooves disappear after maturity and can only be seen with 10x viewer in the hand

marveling at the ever changing color of the spots...

Measuring of the tail feathers...

Looking at the tail feathers...apparently they are critical in determining the type of bird

Keeping everyone informed...

and finally weighing of the bird...

After all of the activity it was time to go outside and let the bird fly free...

A few last minutes photos by Allen for reference...

another good look at the tail feathers...specifically the fourth feather from the left

Getting ready to release the bird....

and finally waiting for the bird to leave.
I was a great day and very informative, even for us non birders.

Photography wise it was a challenge to keep moving with the flow, so as not to interrupt the banding or the delay of the release.  Having great cameras, with bounced light kept it simple.

Thanks to everyone who was involved in making this work.

If you'd like to contact me regarding this article (or to correct any birding terms that I am still learning) feel free to email me at

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Taking Smoke Photos - Updated

I spent a lot of time admiring images of smoke from a lot of great photographers as I was intrigued by the randomness of the beautiful curves and shapes formed by the smoke.  Most people I’ve met like to look at abstract photos of smoke and, like me, are drawn to the random smooth flowing shapes with the wide range of shades that are captured in each photo.

As my own interest for off-camera flash photography grew, it was a natural choice to try to shoot some smoke images for myself. It seemed a popular topic to try and with a bit of research and quite a bit of practice I was finally able to put together a portfolio of images.

As you will see from my final images I ended up using one of three different post-processes techniques in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop:
  1. Natural Colors: Contrast or Curve Adjustments
  2. Coloring: hue or photo filter adjustment layer
  3. Creating an image: masking and coloring with a hue or photo filter adjustment layer

The photos of smoke I typically saw on the web used the first two post-processing techniques above.  During the post processing of the photos I started to see certain shapes that seemed to stand out in each image and that’s when I started to use the last post-processing technique to create some of my more interesting “art”.

Lighting Setup

The diagram below was my starting setup which was typical of what I had read about on the web for taking photos of smoke.

I used 2 x Canon 580EXII flashes with Pocket Wizards, one either side of where I would place the smoke device. These were set at 24mm @1/8 power.  I placed a black felt cloth on the background to create contrast between the white smoke.  The gobos placed in front of the flash units blocked out the light from getting into my lens.   I also placed a black cloth on the table where the incense was placed.

After a few initial shots I saw I was getting unwanted light spilling onto the background. I then realized that the room was fairly small (it was my spare bedroom) which meant that I wouldn’t be able to separate the lights from the background enough to get rid of the unwanted light.

To counter the spilling light I added additional gobos behind the flash units to separate them from the background.

A few more test shots showed I was still getting some unwanted light spilling into the photo.  The problem here was that the walls in the small room were all white and were acting as large reflectors from the flash units creating the unwanted light.

I then added two large black flags behind each flash unit to stop the light reflecting off the walls.  Below is the final setup that I used for the smoke images.


The above setup diagrams were created in Photoshop using a file created by Kevin Kertz (  The file contains multiple layers with different light modifiers, cameras, backgrounds and models.  It’s an excellent tool for illustrating setups like those above.

You can download the file from

Creating The Smoke

There are several ways to create smoke and the safest and easiest way is to use joss sticks (incense), which is specifically engineered to create smoke.  There are a few things to note about smoke:
  • Smoke is affected by wind, no matter how weak, so having a draft free room is critical.  This includes minimizing the amount of people movement in the room (not really a good group activity!), switching off any device that creates winds, including fans and air conditioning as well as closing doors and windows.  Just the heat from the incense stick itself is enough to generate the necessary movement to create the patterns that I captured.
  • Smoke, in a draft free environment as described above, can become overwhelming (even if it does smell good).  You need to take breaks to get some fresh air and clear the room of the smoke
  • Smoke can annoy people.  Be sensitive to others in the place that you are taking the photos.
  • Burning incense creates a lot of ash, put the incense on something that will catch the ash so it’s easier to clean up afterwards
  • Burning incense can cause fires. Please be careful and take precautions to keep the incense from falling onto anything that could potentially cause a fire.  NEVER leave the incense burning unattended.

Another aspect to take into consideration is the size of the incense. A thinner device will create a thinner stream of smoke and a fatter device will create more smoke.  Try different types of incense and see which one you prefer.

In the end I chose cone shaped incense as it created the right amount of smoke for me.  It was also easy to place on a metal dish and didn’t fall over easily.  Below shows the setup of the incense on the metal dish.

Taking the shots

I did not have any particular expectations or concepts in mind when I started taking the photos of the smoke.  All I knew is that I wanted to create similar images that I had been drawn to on the internet.

After I had lit the incense and started to take a few photos I soon discovered that I was not able to focus on the smoke which forced me to switch manual focus and to consider what aperture I should shoot at to get the maximum depth of focus whilst allowing the flash units to recycle fairly quickly.

Using a tripod I focused on the tip of the incense using auto focus and then switch to manual.  I originally set the aperture to F7.1 but then switch to F5.6 which gave me a good depth of focus but also created some pleasant soft areas when the smoke drifted out of the focus plain.

I initially used a Stofen filter to ensure the whole area was covered, but I ended up using just bare flash which gave a stronger contrast and brighter smoke.

Once I had got the setup that I wanted I started to take photos at random, which didn’t create any exciting images. After a while though, I started to recognize when patterns were starting to form towards the middle on the area and to take a few shots.   I realize that this sounds obvious, but it was harder than I initially had thought.

Once I had the settings right and started to shoot I didn’t have time to really review any shots as the smoke continuously shifted and shaped and I was focused on capturing images at the right time.

FRIENDLY WARNING: being so completely focused on taking great images like this has the side affect of ending up with lots of images, which ultimately you will spend a lot of time sorting through and turning into works of art.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Post Processing

I use Adobe Lightroom for all my image processing and I also shoot in RAW to ensure maximum flexible in post processing.  When I need to use masking and layers I switch to Adobe Photoshop.  The explanations use these programs but can be replicated in any other image editing software that have the same capabilities.

I have a normal post processing routine that I go through in Adobe Lightroom after photo shoot.  This is:
  • Review each photo and mark the out of focus ones as rejected.  After reviewing all photos I delete those marked as rejected.  I used to just remove from them the library, but I don’t do that anymore.
  • Straighten and crop photos as necessary.  I use frequently use the “Sync…” function here.
  • Enhance each photo individually.  I always start with a few customized presets that I have created in Lightroom.  In this particular case there was not a lot of work to be done due to the controlled manner in which the photos were taken.
  • Use Adobe Photoshop to further enhance the image that can’t be done in Lightroom, e.g. masking, stamping, etc.

It was during post processing that I started to realize that post-processing was not going to be a simple task of minor adjustments but each image needed to be studied and appropriately manipulated.  These basically fell into three categories:
  1. Images that were naturally pleasant and needed little work
  2. Images that had a natural predisposition to being in color
  3. Images that had been created by the patterns and shapes created by the smoke that were enhanced by using multiple colors to enhance the image created.
As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the techniques used within each of the categories were very similar and are described in detail below.

Natural Images

These were images that are naturally pleasant and needed little work

This is the original shot that I took.  The patterns that I was looking for generally tended to form in the center of the photo.

After playing with the cropping I landed with this image.

Using the Highlights, Whites and Blacks I adjusted the contrast of the image..

...until I found what I was looking for.

You can do something similar in Photoshop by creating a “levels” adjustment layer and playing with the white and black levels.

Another area I tend to look at adjusting is the tone curve. 

In this case I used the strong contrast, which I didn’t like.

The final two adjustments that will look at are Clarity and Vibrance. 

Here I have adjusted the clarity to created a very soft focused image, which, in this case, is over the top.

Here’s final settings that I landed on. 

I have adjusted the Clarity and added some Vibrance to the image to enhance the natural blue of the smoke (I thought that it would be grey and was surprised by the natural soothing blue).

Images with predisposition for color

These were images that seemed to have a natural predisposition to being in color

This is the original shot taken and I was drawn to the smooth shapes from the bottom to almost the top.

I started with the same settings as the first images...

...which gave me a pleasing looking image and used a standard 8x10 crop. 

However the notch like shapes on the image made me feel that it would look even better in a wood like brown / orange. 

To do this I opened it in Photoshop as a “Copy with Lightroom adjustments”

I first added a “Hue/Saturation” adjustment layer and played with the Hue and Saturation sliders to get the color I wanted. 

Adding saturation meant that the black also had a slight orange hue, so I added a “Levels” adjustment layer and changed the black and white levels to get rid of the orange cast on the black background.


Images created by the patterns and shapes created by the smoke.

These were images that had been created by the patterns and shapes created by the smoke that were enhanced by using multiple colors to enhance the image created.

This was the starting image...

Naturally drawn to the shapes in the middle which reminded me of people.  Once cropped it looked like a cartoon picture I had seen from Beauty and the beast.  I applied similar changes to the images in Lightroom, except I increased clarity to better define the shapes.

Problem was that the beast shape was a lot darker than the beauty shape... I needed to balance them out in Photoshop using masks, levels and curves.

The Beast side was adjusted brighter using Levels and Curves, while the Beauty side toned down slightly using levels. The black background was added to get rid of the slight color cast seen on the above image.

Once balanced I decided to color in Beauty in yellow which is the color of her dress in the cartoon and then deepen the blue of the beast to add to the contrast.

After all the adjustments were made the final result was great...

Inversing the image

One of the other things to try is to inverse the image in Photoshop to create a white background.  This creates an unusual twist to smoke photos that makes them look very similar to color dye in water.

A simple inversed image with a purple hue added.

A colored inversed image to make it look like an Alien with bad breath.


The shots below are some more of my favorite images.


Angry Snake


Grandfather giving grandchild a piggyback

Goat blowing smoke rings

Alien with big lips

Dancing Girl

In the end I really enjoyed doing this and seeing the results. However be warned sorting through over 300 photos to find the few good ones and then manipulating them takes a lot of time!

Things I would next time

Although pleased with the results I have decided that next time there are a few things that I would do different or in addition to what I have done here:
  1. Use a smaller aperture to create more depth of focus - I have battery packs for my flashes now and using bare light flash would still allow me quick recycle times on one set of batteries.
  2. Separate the distance between the background and the smoke - I had to modify each image to get the true black background I was looking for.  Creating a bigger gap between the lights and the background will mean less work to be done in Lightroom or Photoshop.
  3. Use different size incense and mixture in one image - I'm intrigued with what different patterns and shapes would be produced by using multiple types of smoke in a single photo.
  4. Use "shape shifting" devices - I would play with utensils that would change the shape of the smoke, such as spoons and sieves

You can see more of my images here:

Please feel free to leave comments or questions below or email them to me.