Readers’ Wildlife: The Birds & The Bees. Also, Stars.

by Grania

Regular Stephen Barnard sent us these gorgeous photos from his piece of paradise in Idaho.

As always, click through twice on a picture to see it in its original size.

Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor).



Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata), trying to hide.


Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), busy bullying the Black-chinned.

RT9A0597 (1)

Landscape looking North from Silver Creek toward the Big Wood Valley
and the Pioneer Mountains.



Just-as-regular Ben Goren sent some beautiful finches and a bee. He writes:

For the photo geeks: everything was taken with a Canon 5Ds and either Canon’s EF 180mm f/3.5 L Macro or their TS-E 24mm f/3.5 L II. Processing is minimal, limited to exposure, white balance, cropping, sharpening, and noise reduction. Color profiling is done with my new spectroscopic workflow…which has most, but not all, of the kinks worked out. That is to say, the color _should_ be very accurate, but I also know it’s not perfect.

This is a typical early morning scene at the main feeder in the Houle’s back yard: a constant flurry of several birds of various species. At times, quail will gather below to eat what falls to the ground. There’s another feeder to the right that Mike puts peanuts in for the jays. I’ve no clue of species, but I know there’re readers (including Mike, if he sees them) who can identify them.

[ Color corrected by ArgyllCMS ]

[ Color corrected by ArgyllCMS ]

The finches get their breakfast by the driveway.

[ Color corrected by ArgyllCMS ] [ Color corrected by ArgyllCMS ]

[ Color corrected by ArgyllCMS ]

Around on the north side of the home is a bush positively exploding with honeybees. This is a 1:1 macro picture; if you make a 24mm x 36mm print of the entire frame, the bee will be actual size.

[ Color corrected by ArgyllCMS ] [ Color corrected by ArgyllCMS ]

[ Color corrected by ArgyllCMS ]

And finally, reader Tim Anderson sent this stunning shot of the South Celestial Pole – you have to click through on it to view in its enlarged glory). He writes:

This is a long-exposure photograph (15 minutes) of the sky directly south from Tumut, Australia. It shows the South Celestial Pole – the imaginary point around which the stars appear to rotate. It is, in fact, the point that is exactly parallel to the Earth’s axis of rotation, and its elevation above the horizon is therefore exactly equal to the observer’s latitude.

One of the more arcane skills required for astrophotography is being able to locate the SCP and align your telescope’s right-ascension axis to it (told you it is arcane). In the northern hemisphere, you simply point the telescope at Polaris, which is close enough to the NCP for practical purposes.

In the southern hemisphere, there is no bright star close to the pole, and you have to dance a complicated mathematical jig with a compass, magnetic declination and whatnot, or else embark upon the fearsome procedure known as “drift alignment”. In winter, this requires thermal underwear and a balaclava.


Thanks guys, those are incredible!


  1. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 19, 2015 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Love love love that hummingbird photo, Stephen! Can you give the photo deatils of how you captured it? I suspect you were using a higher f/stop than f/4 or so?

    Just when I started thinking more seriously about capturing hummingbird photos the little beasts decided to frequent my feeders less often!

  2. Stephen Barnard
    Posted July 19, 2015 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    ISO 2000, 700mm, f/5.6, 1/8000
    7:33 pm

    The evening light on my back porch was very good — direct but muted by surrounding clouds. I set ISO 2000 so I could get 1/8000 sec. at f/5.6, which is wide open on my lens.

    I’m shooting from inside my house, out the back door. The feeder is about four meters away — just about as close as I can focus.

    I’m using a Whimberley gimbal mount that I bought specifically for hummingbirds. I can shoot them hand-held, but the gear is heavy and tiring. Another advantage is that the birds get used to the tripod and camera, so they don’t spook as much.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted July 19, 2015 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      Continuing with the technical questions:
      a) How do you get 1/8000 shutter speed? Maybe that is a feature of your EOS 5D MarkIII (I am spying on your Exif data). My T5i tops out at 1/4000. Is there a trick that I do not know about? That is likely as I am a newbie…
      b) How can you have ISO at 2000 without the picture getting pretty grainy? I try to avoid going that high for that reason.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 19, 2015 at 11:03 am | Permalink

        The shutter speed depends on the lens I believe. The 5D MkIII is a full frame camera. This means you can push the ISO much more without it getting noisy because the sensor is bigger. This is why I can’t deal with the size of a point and shoot camera’s sensor.

        There are also most likely other engineering feats to make the camera able to handle high ISO. I know the 5D MkIII excels at low noise and this is why I was so attracted to it.

        • Stephen Barnard
          Posted July 19, 2015 at 11:35 am | Permalink

          You’re correct about the high-ISO sensitivity of the 5D3. That’s one the main reasons I bought it. I usually like to shoot at ISO 800 or below, but for in-flight hummingbirds shutter speed takes priority.

          The shutter speed doesn’t depend on the lens. The maximum shutter speed of the 5D3 is 1/8000 sec.

          The lens is a Canon 500mm f4 II, but I’m using a 1.4x adaptor that takes the maximum aperture to f/5.6 (and the focal length to 700mm).

          • Mark Sturtevant
            Posted July 19, 2015 at 11:47 am | Permalink

            That reminds me of a recent picture of you with your gear. It looked like you were hauling a big white fire extinguisher and then I realized ‘oh, that is your lens‘!

            • Posted July 19, 2015 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

              …that, or he was very happy to see somebody….


          • Posted July 19, 2015 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

            For the astronomers out there: Stephen is hauling around a 125mm / 5″ refractor.


            • Diane G.
              Posted July 19, 2015 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

              Thx, my telescope’s an 80mm, & heavy enough. Old though, I suppose newer ones are lighter.

              Actually I’ve seen bird photogs here with similar behemoths.

              • Posted July 20, 2015 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

                Canon’s latest round of “Great Whites,” their supertelephotos, are significantly lighter than not only their previous generation but also anything anybody else has ever made. You really can hand-hold them, though you’ll get quite the workout if you try to do so for an extended period of time.


        • Posted July 19, 2015 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          Actually, the maximum shutter speed is a function of the camera, not the lens, and it has to do with how fast the shutter curtains can move across the focal plane.

          Another related but more esoteric specification is the flash sync speed, which relates to the shortest interval in which the entire sensor is fully uncovered…for really long exposures, the one curtain drops down, fully uncovering the sensor, and then the other drops fully covering it. At the maximum flash sync speed, the second curtain starts moving the instant the first curtain has uncovered the whole sensor, and that’s also the instant the signal is sent to fire the flash. (Of course, flash durations aren’t instantaneous, so there’s some additional delays involved; this is just a conceptual explanation.) Any faster than that, and the second curtain starts to close before the first shutter reaches the bottom, meaning only a slice of the sensor is exposed at any given point in time.

          What you might be thinking of is the minimum aperture, which is a function of the lens and relates to how small an hole the blades can leave as they close down without blocking all the light. Most non-macro lenses stop down farther than most anybody is likely to want, to the point where the effects of diffraction are such that there’s no more resolution to be gained in areas outside the focal plane — and, of course, at that point, the focal plane itself has been significantly softened by diffraction as well.

          As for noise…these cameras are unbelievable. I’ve done damned little handheld macro work, so I went conservative with the bee shot: f/16 (which gave me pretty much exactly the depth of field I was looking for) and 1/1250s…which, in retrospect, was likely a lot faster than I needed. Because scattered clouds were changing the light quickly, I let the camera pick the ISO, which turned out to be 6,400 for this shot. That, in turn was about a stop underexposed, so I pushed it in post-production. The development above I went about half a stop too bright; I’ve since done another development that doesn’t blow out the highlights of the flowers and has better sharpening and noise reduction. Yet, despite shooting at, effectively, ISO 12,800, I could make a razor-sharp noise-free 8″ x 10″ print, and easily do a 13″ x 19″ print in which the noise isn’t objectionable. (And, remember: the original scene is 24mm x 36mm, or about 1″ x 1 1/2″.) With a bit (maybe a lot) of practice, I now know that I could make a similar photograph that would be noise-free and tack-sharp even printed at 44″ x 66″, which is as big as my printer will go.

          In short, we’re rapidly converging on a camera that surpasses any practical utility for photography. If your printer sits on your desk, you will never ever even theoretically need more than the 50 megapickles of the 5Ds. If I go all “what if,” I can’t think of a theoretical need for more than 200 megapickles, which is as much of an increase in density of today’s cameras as today’s cameras have over the first generation of professional digital cameras, and likely in the same range of pixel density as some of the smaller cameras already have. The noise performance of the 5Ds is still somewhat limited by its electronics, but it’s not that far away from having the electronics contribute less noise than the quantum efficiency of the photons themselves. The only shortfall of this camera is that it can “only” shoot five frames per second, compared with the six frames per second of the 5DIII and the twelve of the 1Dx…yet its autofocus system is so fast and accurate that no camera made before the 1Dx will produce as high a rate of “keepers” as it does; had Canon made the 5Ds before the 1Dx, the 5Ds would have been the ultimate sports camera ever made.

          Sorry for the rambling…I’m kinda thrilled and amazed, if it doesn’t show….


          • Mark Sturtevant
            Posted July 19, 2015 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

            Oh, I don’t mind talking about camera gear! While we are geeking out, do you know about the light field cameras like the Lytro Illum? They are not yet ready for a general market, but if this keeps going it will become harder to have a picture that is not focused the way you want it. They kind of blow my mind.

            • Posted July 20, 2015 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

              Much promise, but a loooooooooooong way to go before it’s anything more than a gimmick. Still, things happen fast these days, so a loooooooooooong way might not be that many years in the future.


  3. Posted July 19, 2015 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Love the iridescence on the hummer.

    I assume you’re using autofocus? Have you made enough sense of the myriad case configuration options of the 5DIII to make an intelligent choice of how to set it all up?


    • Stephen Barnard
      Posted July 19, 2015 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      For action shots I use AI-servo mode and spot focus (not the finest spot) and spot exposure. AI-servo mode is AMAZING. 🙂 Once you lock focus on a moving subject the camera takes over with the rest of the many focus points and tracks the subject, keeping it in focus. It isn’t perfect, but it’s very good. Nikon has a similar feature.

      • Posted July 19, 2015 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        Have you played around with any of the “cases” in the first screen of the autofocus menu? The one that starts with:

        Case 1: Versatile multi purpose setting Case 2: Continue to track subjects, ignoring possible obstacles Case 3: Instantly focus on subjects suddenly entering AF points

        …and so on?

        For the bee, I just racked the focus to the minimum distance and moved the camera to adjust focus. Most of what I’ve shot until now doesn’t move, so I typically manually focus with live view at maximum magnification. Once it cools off, I’m looking to start taking the camera with Baihu to the park…and, as you know full well, birds don’t tend to stand still….


        • Stephen Barnard
          Posted July 19, 2015 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

          I use case 1: versatile multi purpose setting. The other cases may be useful in specialized situations (race cars with obstacles come to mind), but I usually never know what I might encounter.

          • Posted July 20, 2015 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

            Thanks. That’s what I’ve left it on out of ignorance…sounds like it’s a good idea to not futz around with it until I know why it needs to be futzed with.


        • Mark Sturtevant
          Posted July 19, 2015 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

          When I do my macros I also pretty much eschew the autofocus. I focus manually by just sort rocking forward and backward. When I got started with my camera this Spring, the autofocus would drive me crazy by frequently refusing to take the shot b/c it decided it could not find a focused structure in the center (even though it goddamn was).
          It is routine for me to take more than a dozen pictures, subject willing, to maybe keep two or three. What is critical for me is to have the eyes in focus, and I also really like to have feet in focus as well.

          • Stephen Barnard
            Posted July 19, 2015 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

            If you’re into post processing you might try focus stacking.

            • Mark Sturtevant
              Posted July 19, 2015 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

              Well, that would require having a series of pictures at slightly different focus positions while the camera itself has not moved. The majority of my pix are handheld, and so I think it will not work well. Besides, the software is not free beyond the trial period.

              • Posted July 20, 2015 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

                The software “just” aligns all the layers and auto-creates masks. And it “just” creates the masks using a similar algorithm as Photoshop’s “find edges” filter. I’ll bet you a cup of coffee somebody’s created an action / script / whatever for Photoshop that does focus stacking, though it’s likely going to need more manual attention than the dedicated software.

                …and, if I remember right, the best way to do it is to not touch the lens’s focus ring, and, instead, move the camera on a rail. I’m sure there’re automated motorized rigs coupled with software for those with lots of money or who make a profit off of such photography, but you can get a macro rail for a moderately-inordinate amount of money from somebody like Really Right Stuff.


          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 19, 2015 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

            My eyes are crap and I’m not coordinated enough to focus manually. I find messing with how your camera is focussing makes a big difference. I noticed with the 5D and my L series lens that the focus is very fast and very accurate.

            • Posted July 20, 2015 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

              If you rely on autofocus, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of Reikan FoCal:


              Set up the camera (tethered to the computer with USB) pointing at a printed target, press a couple buttons, walk away…and, a short while later, it’s dialed in the optimum autofocus adjustment for that combination of lens and body.


          • Posted July 20, 2015 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

            What you described is, fortunately, what I quickly settled on for the bee shot. Very good to know.

            …and I probably took dozens of dozens of pictures of bees that morning, kept only the one….


        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 19, 2015 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

          I’ve messed with those. I forget what I settled on but I think I had googled the best settings for shooting what I normally shoot.

          Damn cameras are so complex.

  4. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted July 19, 2015 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm. One of these days, if I reclaim my driven scope from #2 Sister, I may try a 20 minute driven exposure followed by a 20 minute exposure with the drive off. Might be interesting.

  5. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted July 19, 2015 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    I was appreciating all the pictures today, but i want to say that taking a Southern Celestial Pole shot seems especially tricky. If i understand it, you need to take into account the time of year since the earth wobbles a bit on its axis, right?

  6. Diane G.
    Posted July 19, 2015 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    What a great set of photos! Hey all, the nighthawk is a nightjar. Hope everyone found it.

    Stephen, that Hummingbird is exquisite!

    Ben, you have House Finches (Carpodacus mexicanus) and Lesser Goldfinches (Carduelis psaltria. Sweet macro on that honeybee!

    Tim, what a treat! I’ve often wondered (but been too lazy to look up) how the South Celestial Pole was found.

    Nowadays I understand you can also just program certain ‘scopes to find and follow anything you want; which seems to annoy the hell out of traditional star gazers.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 19, 2015 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

      Yes many come with a good catalogue of objects &a a GPS and they polar align on their own so you can set up really fast.

      I have to polar align by hand and find objects using my scopes digital setting circles or by star hoping.

      I suck at both those things.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 19, 2015 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

        Should be star hopping but there is a lot of hope involved.

        • Diane G.
          Posted July 19, 2015 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

          LOL, I read it as “hopping” automatically. Probably ’cause I do that too.

      • darrelle
        Posted July 20, 2015 at 9:04 am | Permalink

        My old scope is a 90mm catadioptric & the mount does not have GPS. But it is still fairly easy to accurately align as long as viewing is reasonably good.

        Find north, tell it where you are and what time it is, then it will attempt to find target stars. You manually fine tune and it notes the correction. Two or three star references like that are good enough for a regular viewing session. For photography you might do 5 or 6 reference stars.

        That method of alignment is called and Equatorial Mount. Another is the Alt/Azimuth which is very much the same except that instead of starting by manualing aligning to the North or South pole you manually align to some other point (a prominent star) and then tell the mount what that point is, where the mount is and what time it is.

        If you need even better accuracy, say for serious long term exposures you should do a Polar Alignment. Just as the term indicates, for this method you align the rotational axis of the mount with the rotational axis of the earth. Doing this reduces the alignment problem for the mount from a 3d to a 2d problem. I have the equipment to do this but usually don’t bother taking the extra time to do so as I am usually just viewing.

  7. Posted July 19, 2015 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I think I’ve spotted the nightjar: it’s in the center of the first photo, and surprisingly easy to spot, for a nightjar.

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