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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Australia's Avian Master Builders

At last after several years of documenting the wildlife of Europe and other areas, I have returned to the great land down under – Australia. When I was last in Australia film was still in vogue but now I have returned with great expectations of what I can achieve with the latest in digital camera technology.

All images of Satin Bowerbirds were captured with
NIkon D300S plus 70 - 200 F2.8 AFS-VR lens.
1/320 sec @F11, 2 x Nikon Speedlights SB800 plus
SB28 triggered by Nikon SU4.
Wireless SB800 flashes triggered by cameras popup flash used
as a commander unit. Tripods plus dome hide.

I have long been fascinated with those avian builders – the bowerbirds and so was most excited when a Ranger friend showed me the active bower of a Satin Bowerbird. This particular bower was in some dry Eucalypt forest in the ACT and contained the greatest collection of blue objects I have ever seen at any such bower.

Firstly I began by introducing a camouflaged dome hide which was slowly moved closer over a period of a few days. Then 2 small tripods plus Bogen Super Clamps were erected close to the bower to support the 3 or 4 Nikon speedlights. As the bower was in shade, but with patches of harsh sunlight, it was necessary to use several flash units as the main light to fill the harsh shadows caused by the strong sunlight filtering through the canopy.

Satin Bowerbirds are among the world’s most remarkable birds and are only found in far eastern Australia. For those people unfamiliar with the antics of Satin Bowerbirds, the male constructs a bower by sticking twigs in the ground to form a double avenue. The bower is not a playground but in fact the psychological centre of the males territory. The male collects an assortment of mainly blue objects plus a few yellow ones which are displayed in front of the bower. There is a distinct correlation between the plumage colours of the male and the colours of the displayed objects, the male having an overall satin blue plumage with a yellow-tipped bill and pale yellow legs.

The adult females are a sombre olive green above with a tawny brown tail and wings. The feather margins are darker giving an overall attractive scaly appearance. One day while watching the male displaying I noticed 3 separate females had been attracted near to the bower which is where mating takes place.

In fact Satin Bowerbirds are not really difficult to photograph at the bower being quite tolerant of the close proximity of the hide and tripods. I am always excited when entering a hide for the first time and on this occasion I was not disappointed as the male began singing nearby within 30 minutes of me entering the hide.

In the past, when using film, achieving a correct exposure was problematical to say the least. Now I am able to expose a few frames and to immediately check the exposure via the histogram on the cameras rear view monitor.

I have mounted 2 x SB 800 flash units in front of the hide. These Nikon speedlights are operated wirelessly via the pop-up flash on my Nikon D300S which is being used as a commander unit – how smart is that! A third and fourth flash units are mounted above and behind the bower. These older Nikon SB28’s are triggered by the incredibly useful Nikon SU – 4 wireless triggers which convert older non-wireless flash units into wireless TTL flash units.

From within the hide I am able to monitor and control the amount of light emitted by the flash units to achieve the aperture and lighting of the scene I require. Many thanks Nikon you have just made my work so much easier.

When viewing the results on the cameras monitor I am thrilled at the image quality of the D300S. I loved the D300 but the D300S is a distinct improvement with visibly enhanced image resolution.

There is no doubt that the latest Nikon digital cameras particularly when combined with wireless flash units have enabled me to obtain higher quality images of Australia’s unique wildlife which was so difficult or even impossible previously with film.

I will now be driving north to the wet tropics of northern Queensland hoping to photograph some of the regions rarer kangaroos and other species.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Camargue

Greater Flamingos in flight at sunrise. Nikon D300 plus MB-D10 plus Nikkor 500mm F4 AFS lens. ISO 500. 1/1000 sec @ F8. Tripod.

One of my all time favourite areas is “La Camargue” in southern France. This vast area of lagoons, marshes, dunes, reed beds and rice paddies is the ancient delta of the river Rhone and is one of Europe’s premier wildlife sites. Much of the area is privately owned where access is restricted, however there are extensive reserves, many with excellent public hides.

Greater Flamingo taking flight. Nikon D300 plus MB-D10 plus Nikkor 500mm F4 AFS lens. ISO 320. 1/1000/sec @ F 7.1. Tripod.

Any time of the year can be rewarding although it is not recommend that a wildlife photographer visits during July or August due to the high number of tourists and hordes of mosquitoes.

Grey Heron Courtship display,
Nikon D300s plus MB-D10 plus Nikkkor 500mm F4 AFS lens.
ISO 400, 1/125 sec @F6.3. Triggered within hide.

My favourite time to visit is April/May when the summer migrants are arriving and most of the breeding species are in their prime nuptial plumage. It is always such a pleasure to be driving east along the northern shore of the Etang de Vaccares, that vast coastal lagoon which is completely protected within the Camargue National Reserve. The sense of space is exhilarating and everywhere there are birds, jet black bulls and the regions famous white horses.

From a photography viewpoint my recent visit in early May was one of my most productive yet. Many of the regions water birds seem to have increased in recent years with that European rarity, the Great White Egret, now breeding in small numbers. Grey Herons, Little Egrets and Black-crowned Night Herons appear to me to have all increased in recent years.

One of the great attractions of the Camargue are the ubiquitous Greater Flamingos. These ridiculously shaped, gangly pink birds are so evocative of the windswept marshes, and so photogenic. The breeding colony now numbers around 10,000 pairs with 7 – 8,000 chicks being produced most years! The breeding colony is located on a custom made island in the Etang du Fangassier, a few kilometres west of Salin de Giraud.

Two juvenile Grey Herons in nest. Nikon D300 plus MB-D10 plus Nikkor 500mm F4 AFS lens. ISO 250. 1/640 sec @F7.1. Fill Flash with one hot shoe mounted Nikon SB800 (plus Fresnel flash extender) set at -1.3 stops.

The gravel track which passes along the north side of Fangassier and leads to the Digue à la Mer is I believe the finest site in Europe to photograph Greater Flamingos in flight. These bizarre, yet magical birds were at their best last May with long lines frequently passing to and fro between the colony and the distant feeding grounds to the north and west.

Early mornings and late evening are by far the best times to be set up with cameras and long lenses on tripods. I like to be in position about one hour before sunrise when the wide Camargue sky is suffused with a pale pink and orange glow which spreads from the east. The long lines of magical flamingos continually appear in silhouette as in a masterpiece in oil.

Mediterranean Gulls in flight at island colony. Nikon D300 plus MB-D10 plus Nikkor 500mm F4 AFS lens. ISO 400. 1/2000 sec @F7.1. Tripod mounted in a hide. No I had not disturbed the colony, they had taken flight momentarily in response to a passing Black Kite.

My D300 with its high ISO ability allowed me to capture images at 400 – 800 ISO in the low light of pre-dawn. My preferred lens is my trusty Nikkor 500mm F4 AFS lens with a 70 – 200mm F2.8 AFS VR kept handy in case of some closer flying birds. I do find the autofocus capabilities of the D300 to be quite superb once you have mastered the numerous settings.

If the infamous Mistral is blowing then the flamingos heading north fly low across the water. This powerful wind also helps to keep the myriads of mossies at bay. The long lines of outstretched birds only rise at the last moment to pass over the gravel track making for the most wonderful photo opportunities.

Without a doubt the Greater Flamingos of the Camargue are a living symbol of a conservation success story and I cannot wait to return.

Black-crowned Night Heron on flowering Tamarisk. Nikon D300 plus MB-D10 plus Nikkor 70-200 F2.8 AFS-VR lens. ISO 400. 1/640 sec @F6.3. Tripod mounted in a hide. Fill flash with one hot shoe mounted, Nikon SB-800 set at - 1.7 stops.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Using Flash for Small Mammal Photography

Edible Dormouse

Welcome to my new Blog. I understand that a blog is now vital for achieving improved search engine ratings so here goes.

Following one of the coldest winters in Wales for many years I couldn’t wait to head south to France for some warmth. A friend in southern France has an outbuilding where some Edible Dormice had taken up residence. As you may be aware they are truly delightful creatures and resemble a small squirrel. Of course you would not have wanted to be an Edible Dormouse during Roman times as they kept these little cuties alive in jars and fattened them up for eating, hence the name. One particular individual had become quite tame and would appear during daylight to feast on pieces of fruit which we placed on a work bench. Edible Dormice just love pears, nectarines and raisins.

I was most keen to try out the Nikon D300 together with several wireless speedlights so I built a natural looking set on the work bench. Being a dimly lit outhouse I needed to utilise flash as the main light source. I used 2 x Nikon SB800 speedlights mounted on tripods and set them to wireless function. My Nikon D300 plus a micro NIkkor 200mm F4 was also mounted on a tripod and hidden behind a hanging sheet of camouflage netting. An SB800 was positioned either side of the camera. A third speedlight – an older SB28 was mounted on a Nikon SU-4 wireless remote flash controller which was mounted on a Bogen Super Clamp attached to an overhead beam.

The SU-4 is an extremely handy gadget allowing incredible flash flexibility by turning most of Nikon’s older speedlights into wireless flash units. The SU-4 is powered by the batteries in the attached flash unit and has an effective range of up to 23 feet and weighs only 2oz! How could any Nikon photographer manage without one. In case they go out of production I suggest you rush out and buy 2 or 3.

You may have realised by now that I am a huge fan of Nikon. One of the main reasons is that I believe that Nikon speedlights remain the most user-friendly and versatile small flash units available being ideally suited to wildlife photography. However I would suggest to any prospective purchaser that they first of all throw away the far from user-friendly instruction book. Any instructions for use can easily be found on the internet.

Finally the “piece de r√©sistance” of the D300 camera body is that the pop up flash can be programmed to act as a command unit to trigger the 2 x SB800 speedlights wirelessly which then trigger the SB28 via the SU-4. In fact all these flash units are able to fire simultaneously.

Believe me, the whole system worked like magic and the Edible Dormouse appeared on cue. I only had to check the LCD screen and histograms on the rear of the camera to ensure I had the correct exposure. The camera settings were set to 1/250 second F11 – 14 on manual mode. The flash units were set to TTL. How did I ever work with flash on film cameras when I had to sometimes wait for weeks to see the results?