Thursday, 28 May 2015

Messing about on the river

Had a great day out this week with Charlie Bishop on one of his Kingfisher courses. 

If you want the opportunity to take great photos of Kingfishers catching fish then Charlie can sort it out for you.

Over the last four years he has been cultivating a secret spot on a Somerset river where a family of Kingfishers nests every year. Fully licensed to photograph this beautiful bird in the vicinity of its nest, he has set things up to make it easy for the visitor to get the shots they may have been dreaming of for ages.

Here is Charlie, probably engaged in erecting the two hides he sets out by the riverbank - can't quite tell from this shot, but he could be.

He has placed a number of branches for the birds to use as perches, and attracts them with a tub of minnows which he catches fresh on each visit. Here he is descending into the river with his net and minnow bucket.

It is quite a walk for him to catch the minnows whilst his guests can use the time to set up their camera and make themselves comfortable in the camouflaged hide. When he returns with the fish he pours them into a semi-submerged tub resting on a platform in the river.

In addition to taking the normal photos we were trying to use one of my electronic bird detectors to catch the Kingfisher in the act of landing on one of the branches. You can see the special stand that Charlie made to hold the detector in this next shot. A cable comes back underwater to my camera apparatus which is on dry land.

Charlie can be seen in the photo above setting up a video camera and microphone close to the nest. The photo below shows him fixing the camera and mike to a support rod prior to entering the river for the umpteenth time.

The mike he is using is radio-linked to a receiver in his hide. Everytime the Kingfisher returned to the nest with a fish he told me he could hear the chicks cheeping! Excellent.

Anyway, the sad news is that I did not have much luck with my electronic detector. First the motion of nearby foliage set off numerous false alarms. Then, once the wind had died down, we noticed that the bird was not approaching the branch on a path which would take it over the detector. Despite Charlie plunging back into the river on several occasions to adjust the detector position, we never did sort this out. Often the bird would leave the branch and set off the detector on its way back to the nest, but that was no good! So back to the drawing board on that one.

Here are a couple more shots of Charlie wading about in the river. He is such a hard-working chap and brave too - his waders were leaking at the crotch!

He did eventually manage to clamber out. Mind those stinging nettles!

Even if there were no Kingfishers, all this carry-on is pretty entertaining in its own right! But actually, there were plenty of opportunities to photograph the beautiful bird.

You can tell if the Kingfisher intends to eat the fish itself or return to the nest to feed the chicks by the way it holds it in its beak. If it manipulates the fish to face head out, it is going to feed the chicks, and vice versa. This one is destined for the nest.

So, what a great day, and hundreds of photos to sort out afterwards. Here are some links for you to follow:

Charlie's webpage again

My webpage where some of my best Kingfisher shots from the day will soon appear 

My Facebook page (which you may like to "like")

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Hobbies and other challenging birds in flight

After writing my last blog on "Birds in Flight with the Canon 7D Mk2 Autofocus"
I have been more than usually careful to inspect my images for signs of bad focus.

I have continued to use the settings I recommended and have been practising on Hobby falcons.The result? Well, I have to tell you that autofocus is something of a lottery no matter what camera and lens you have and despite using the best settings. I am pretty sure that the settings I recommended work most of the time, but there is no such thing as a perfectly reliable autofocus system.

This is hard to come to terms with after paying an arm and two legs for the best available kit, but the plain truth is that the autofocus system does its Hi-Tech best for you, but there is scatter in the results. Sometimes it will nail the bird dead on, no messing, other times it focuses just a few inches further away and sometimes just a few inches too near. It is the inescapable nature of all physical systems. It is just the way the world is and we have to accept it.

More than that, the system may focus on a wingtip when it is the bird's eye you desperately want to be in focus. If you have the skill to keep just the centre point locked firmly on the bird's eye as it sweeps past then this is perhaps the setting you should use. I have to say that you would be in a very small minority of photographers if you can do this reliably every time.

The best you can do, in my opinion, is to set the camera up to give you the best chance, and take as many shots as you can squeeze off. That way you will get some good ones. If not "good ones", at least ones that can be tickled back into life with your photo processing software. Some slight sharpening in Lightroom or Photoshop can work well, but the image has to be almost right to start off with.

Here are a couple more of the better Hobby shots I took over the last few days. As a matter of interest, I was using the "Auto" setting within the 65 point auto-select mode, i.e. letting the camera decide which AF point to use to establish initial focus from the 65 available. I said before that this can work well against a plain sky, and it does! Normally I would have the centre point selected as the initial AF point.

For each shot that I dare show I have thrown away many more. We drool over the brilliant images produced by the best professionals, but they are only showing you the best, not the hundreds they have been obliged to ditch. It is sometimes said that the only difference between us ordinary photographers and the best pros is the size of their waste bin! If you can get just one sharp photo of a Hobby careering about the sky you are not doing too badly. It shows that your camera can take sharp autofocus photos. Some of my shots will soon be uploaded to my website so you will be able to see them a little larger.

As proof that my set-up can take sharp photos, here is a shot of a dragonfly - the sort that Hobbies chase and eat!

There is one more important aspect of using Autofocus and that is that it must be micro-adjusted to match your lens. I will write a blog on this soon. If you do not do this, you will be unlikely to get a good sharp shot however hard you try.

So apart from worrying about whether I have given you good advice on the 7D MkII, I have been enjoying the activity at the #RSPB Ham Wall reserve in Somerset. There are thousands of dragonflies, that is why the Hobbies are there of course, but even this Moorhen was making repeated trips into the reeds to gather them to feed to its chicks. Here it is is with a beak full.

There are young chicks everywhere on the reserve, here are some young Canada geese with their parents.

It is a good thing that the parents are keeping a close eye out for them because the level of predation is enormous. Regular bird watchers witness the day-by-day reduction in the number of chicks as the multiple predators take their toll. One such predator is the Mink. I caught this one on its way to raid the nest of a Moorhen.

Another "bad guy" - yes, I know it is just nature, but I cannot help taking sides - is the Carrion Crow. This one has just stolen an egg, possibly from a Heron's nest.

But it did not keep it for long as this next shot shows it dropping it! A few seconds later I heard the splash as it hit the water. Small comfort for the robbed parents.

Marsh Harriers, much as I love them, pick of young birds with ease. They are constantly on patrol over the reed beds.

This cute looking Coot chick, with its red face and orange hair, is taking a big risk in open water. Thankfully it was OK.

There are still plenty of these, Bitterns.

 And these, Great Egrets

Always a pleasure to see them both. Such dramatic birds in flight.

This Great Crested Grebe had caught a fish that was marginally too large for it. I think it managed to swallow it in the end, but probably did not need another meal for a while.

And finally, is this just showing off do you think?

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Sunday, 17 May 2015

Birds in flight with Canon 7D MkII autofocus

This is an in-depth blog for all you bird-in-flight photographers. Hints and tips on using the Canon 7D MkII autofocus system for photographing birds in flight.

Many of us who used to shoot with the Canon 7D (MkI) have switched to the MkII, but from what I have observed in the hides and on the marshes, many new users are probably not getting the best out of the improved autofocus capabilities of the new camera.

          Figure 1

If I am right, and there are people out there confused by their new camera's options, it is hardly surprising. The CD manual supplied with the Canon 7d MkII is well over 500 pages long. In addition, there is another dense manual dedicated just to the autofocus (AF) system - this can only be found on the web.  You can download the pdf version of this manual by clicking on the download link on this page:

I thought it might be helpful to pass on the hints and tips that I have accumulated in using the camera over the last six or seven months. It might help you to decide whether my opinion is worth listening to if you have a look at earlier entries to this blog - all taken by the 7D MkII - or visit my website to see a mixture of photos taken with the MkI and II - please visit

There are five aspects to setting up the MkII properly:

1. Set your Autofocus to AI Servo
2. Choose the optimum arrangement of active AF points for birds-in-flight shooting.
3. Set the broad AF characteristics to their optimum values.
4. Set the iTR option to "ON".
5. Micro-adjust the AF settings to suit the lenses you will be using.

and, optionally

6. Set up an alternative selection of active AF points reachable by just a single button click.

All will become clear as we go through each aspect in detail. I am only treating points 1 - 4 in this Blog. I will follow up with the rest if there is any interest - please let me know.

So, here we go!

1. Set your Autofocus to AI Servo mode

You are probably already familiar with this, but just for completeness. Press the DRIVE-AF button (A) then turn the small cogged wheel (B) until "AI Servo" shows up at the lower right of the camera LCD screen.

   Figure 2

2. Choose the optimum arrangement of active AF points for birds-in-flight shooting

The 7D MkII has a total of 65 AF points. Some of these are not available depending on which lens you are using. You can look up these details in the little paper booklet supplied with the camera. Generally though, if your lens + extender combination gives you an effective f number which is equal to or brighter than f5.6, all 65 AF points will be available to you.

    Figure 3

You are very probably already very familiar with how to select your AF points. In brief, you look through the viewfinder and press the button marked with a white square containing five small squares in the shape of a cross (A). This is the very right hand button in the group of three on the back of the camera. When you do this, you will see the selected AF points appear in the viewfinder. You can cycle through the available patterns of points by pressing repeatedly on the M-Fn button on the top of the camera (B). Your options vary from selecting just a single AF point, right through, in ever increasing group sizes, to allowing the camera to auto-select from all 65 AF points. This last one (65 point auto-select) is in my opinion the one to go for. 

Your view through the eyepiece should look something like this, although the centre square point may not be enlarged at this stage. The important features by which to recognise this screen are the curved lines delineating the area, and that all 65 AF points are visible - I am sure that you will know when you have got there!

    Figure 4

Why is this configuration the best? Well it is the one that unlocks the full power of the AF system that you have just paid a lot of money for. With the correct ancillary settings, which we will come to in a minute, this option allows the brainy AF system of the 7D MkII to track your bird between AF points as it wobbles about in the viewfinder whilst you strain to keep up with its 30mph passage. Some people, based on their experience with the 7D MkI, select the centre point only. If that is what you choose, then you might as well have saved your money on the MkII because it is not being allowed to do its best for you.

So why is the centre point highlighted in this viewfinder shot from my camera? It is because I have chosen to have this point as the initial AF point. If I can get this on the bird and half press the shutter button to get it in focus, the AF system should then do its stuff keeping the bird in focus as it inevitably shifts about across the field of view - just keep the shutter button half pressed and do not let go unless the bird pops out of focus. If it loses focus just try again.

(There is another possible option here, which is to allow the camera absolute freedom of choice about which AF point it uses to acquire first focus, and this can work well with a bird against an empty sky as there is nothing else for it to lock on to. This is the AUTO option which I discuss below.)

Here is how to set it the way I normally use it (centre spot selected).  Open the Menu and select the option highlighted in the figure below . Press the SET button in the middle of the large wheel on the back of the camera.

    Figure 5

You will then see this:

   Figure 6

Turn the big wheel until the purple highlight is on the first option as shown and press the SET button again.  Now when you half press the shutter button prior to taking your shot you should see the view shown in the Figure 7 below. The centre AF point will appear surrounded by the bracket-shaped lines, the other 64 points will not be visible

   Figure 7

If you do not want the centre AF point to be your initial focus point, just press the white square button (A) that I told you about in Figure 3 and move the selected point about with the tiny joystick button just above and to the right of the Q button on the back of the camera.

The second option that you could have selected in Figure 6 allows the camera to use as its initial focus point the single AF point that you might have been using before changing to the 65 point auto-select option. I don't really see much value in this, but you might!

The third option labelled "AUTO" dispenses with an initial AF point altogether and allows the camera to make its own choice of what to focus on once you half press the shutter button. As I said, this works well with birds against a plain sky. In general, the camera focuses on the nearest object within its field of view if you choose this option. The arrangement I use however also gives the camera a chance of locking on to a bird flying against a background because it is you who selects the object of first focus rather than the camera - and of course you will pick the bird rather than a neighbouring tree!

3. Set the broad AF characteristics to their optimum values.

So, you have now set up your camera to ensure that it has complete freedom to exercise its expensive brain power on your behalf trying to keep the bird in focus. But that is not the end of that particular story. You need to set up the camera so that it is best configured to be able to do that. Go to the first AF menu screen (purple highlight at the left of the five dots at the top of the screen) and have a look at one of the AF cases - you can move between cases by turning the big wheel. I have chosen Case 3, but it doesn't matter which because you are going to change it anyway:

   Figure 8
Within each "Case" there are three performance aspects which determine how the camera is going to try to chase the bird around your frame. It does this by switching between AF points to keep the bird under one of them. Getting the right settings tells the camera what to expect and what rules to apply when it is considering changing AF points. There is a long discussion on this in the special Canon 7D MkII autofocus pdf document I gave you the link for.

You can customise each aspect by highlighting the Case you are going to edit, Case 3 is highlighted in the screen shot above, then press the "RATE" button.

Firstly, you will see this. You can scroll down to highlight the other aspects in turn using the big wheel.

   Figure 9

Once you have highlighted the performance aspect you wish to edit, press SET and you will see something like this. Move the white pointer to the chosen value using the big wheel and press SET. Then move to the other two aspects in turn.

    Figure 10

Here are my reasons for choosing the settings that I use.

Tracking Sensitivity - this determines how long the AF system is going to try hold on to a focussed bird whilst other things like branches and reeds might temporarily block the view as you sweep your camera along with it. If you choose a high value, i.e. 2, it will quickly switch to focus on pesky twigs. My choice has been to set it to -2 so that the AF system sticks with the bird even if temporarily lost to view.

You can see the effect in these two pictures of a flying Swan. The first is plain sailing, because it is in the open - no problem.

Then it passes behind some trees, but the Autofocus stays with the Swan and ignores the trees, at least for a while.

Accel./Decel. - As I usually get the bird wobbling about a lot I have set this to value 1. Not quite sure if this makes a lot of difference or if this is the best value. I would be grateful for feedback on this.

AF point auto switching - This is obviously very important as it determines the readiness with which the camera will move to another AF point if it detects a change in the bird's position. You want to do this as soon as possible, so select numeric value 2.

4. Set the iTR option to "ON"

iTR AF stands for Intelligent Tracking and Recognition Auto Focus. This is the magical feature that tells the AF system to remember the shape and colour of the object which it first locks on to. Obviously with this extra information it can much better track the object which you are actually interested in - i.e. the bird.

    Figure 11

Select the item highlighted in purple. Press SET to see your options, and move the selector with the big wheel until ENABLE is highlighted, then press SET. This screen is not shown, but it is very obvious.

Note, that the iTR feature only works when multiple AF points are available to choose from, just as I have described above. It does not work with just the centre point selected as there are no other active points for the system to switch to!

OK, now you are good to go! Happy shooting!

NB The second part of this article on Autofocus adjustment is now available and may be found at:

You will also probably be interested in this blog on the use of Lens Extenders or Teleconverters

My Website showing a selection of my photographs can be found at:        

You can also "like" my page on Facebook and keep up with all the latest goings on at:

You may also like to read my Blog article on the effect of Lens Extenders, or Teleconverters, on the quality of wildlife images.

It has some perhaps surprising conclusions!
Meanwhile, here are a few shots to view just before you go. Thanks for visiting and please do share this blog with your friends.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Recent round-up

The Axe Estuary reserve at Seaton, Devon, often delivers just that bit more than you think it is going to. #axeestuaryreserve  I have gathered plenty of Rabbit photos over the years, but this is my first with one in mid-air!

 Here is another Rabbit on the move.

The Seaton reserve always seems quiet when I arrive. To be honest, if often stays that way and I go home without anything. On many occasions however, if I stay long enough, something pops up.

To many of you a House Sparrow will be nothing special, but I only see them quite rarely in Somerset and then only in small numbers. So I was quite pleased when this male posed for me in decent light. Likewise, this obliging Canada Goose was a welcome portrait subject when it posed in front of the hide window.

Shelduck can always be counted on for a fly-by at Seaton. I can never resist them.

My relationship with common birds is an odd one. Because I see them so frequently I usually ignore them - they just do not seem interesting enough to photograph. But, of course, that is just my perspective on it. If there are parts of the world, or even the UK, where Shelduck are not often seen, people there would wonder why I am tempted to ignore such glorious birds! Just like I marvel at photos of American Bald Eagles, although I understand that there are locations where you can't move for them. Perhaps the locals there do not take pictures of them.

One of my most unsatisfactory relationships with birds is with the Red Kite. This photograph was taken some years ago when I drove especially from Somerset to Oxfordshire where they are common; we only get the odd few passing through here. Even though it was nice to see what for me was an unusual bird, I have never warmed to them as a photographic subject. If I lived in their area and had them pestering my bird table every day, I would certainly not bother to photograph them! Don't know why, they have never done anything specifically to upset me.

Coming back to the Axe Estuary reserve though, Little Egrets are often obliging there and make a fine picture, especially if they come close enough that you can pick out the details of their plumage.

Before Little Egrets became common in the UK, I would have travelled quite a long way just to see and photograph one. Now, I have to remind myself that they are really quite beautiful. Mute Swans are also two-a-penny, but that does not detract from their grace and beauty. Photography is all about keeping your eyes open, and that means your mental eyes too - your willingness to see everything as fresh.

Just to finish with Seaton for the time being, here is a shot of a passing Oystercatcher.

Moving from Devon to Somerset now, I recently visited #RSPB Ham Wall. The Great Egrets are putting on quite a display at the moment and, before even these magnificent birds come to be regarded as too common to bother with, I am keen to photograph them. Here is a small selection of shots; notice the glistening water drop just fallen from the feet of the first bird below.

Sadly, these photos are not at their best when viewed at the small size necessary for this blog. Please visit my website where photos are just that bit bigger.

Hobbies abound at Ham Wall at the moment, they are very difficult to photograph satisfactorily against the sky even if they do condescend to come a bit closer. This is probably the best Hobby shot of the day for me.

Great Crested Grebes are normally seen like this.

Only occasionally do we see them in flight, like this. Weird!

Finally, just a shot of a Ham Wall Coot enjoying itself.

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It is all very exciting! My next blog will be a technical article on using the Canon 7D MkII to photograph birds in flight.