I wrote a few months ago about the wildlife refuge trips I take in the winter, and I finally was able to carve out a Saturday to drive up to Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge on a day trip. The trip was fairly productive and a lot of fun, and I came home with some rather nice images, some of them rather unusual for a typical birding trip.
I thought it might be interesting to do a post-mortem on the trip and go into some detail on how I plan a trip like this, what happens while during the trip, and the image editing and selection process after the trip when I figure out if the day was productive or not.
I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to include every image that made my final selection and talk about it and why it made the final group, because I think it will help show my image creation and editing and give you some ideas you might take with you on future photo outings.
Oh Dark Thirty
Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge is the northern-most refuge that I try to visit regularly in the winter. It’s one of the larger refuges and one of the older ones in the central valley, the lands organized to house tens of thousands of geese and ducks for the winter as well as many other species. It has become rather famous among birders and bird photographers for Bald Eagles and other raptors as well.
Sacramento NWR is near the town of Willows along I-5, and it’s about a 2 1/2 hour drive one way from my house, if weather and traffic cooperate. For a road trip, the goal is to get there early, especially on a weekend, before the refuge gets busy, which tends to push the birds to a distance and some of the more discrete species into the brush for the day. On the other hand, I am not a morning person, and in terms of weather, the central valley is known for tule fog, convention fog that hugs the ground and makes visibility poor.
I decided to compromise a bit and set the alarm for 5AM, which allows me about an hour to get out the door, and with the drive I ought to be on the tour by 9AM, hopefully 8:30. As it turns out I was out the door about 5:40, on the road and hit the entrance of the refuge about 8:15. The only real glitch was a nasty traffic accident in Walnut Creek that had traffic backed up and cost me about 10 minutes.
When I hit the refuge, I was happy to see no tule fog and good visibility. In fact, Mt. Shasta, about 150 miles north, was out and in full, glorious view. It really caught my eye, and it got my thinking about ways I could integrate it into the landscape, so I found myself looking out for possible compositions, as you’ll see.
One thing to realize about a location like Sacramento NWR: You visit it via an auto-tour route, a gravel road that wanders through the refuge. Sacramento is rather firm that you stay in your car while on the route. Photographically, this implies a number of things, starting with everything being shot out the window of the car, and that implies things like “no tripod” and “don’t expect to get low to the ground”. You’re basically shooting outside the driver window at eye level. I use 100% natural light, no flash, and so I’m at the whim of sun location and the shape of the route whether I have good light or backlight or just weird, harsh light.
“No tripod” also implies things like “No ND filters”, so your options for landscape work as we traditionally do it is somewhat limited. I’ve been experimenting with a foam pad on the window as a pad to stabilize the camera with some success, but that’s about as much stabilization as you’re going to get. It’s handheld all the way (and so camera stabilization really helps).
Birds as Landscape
As I hit the refuge roads, my car tells me it’s 41 degrees outside. I’m about to drive around the refuge with my window open for the next few hours. On the other hand, I’m not about to go hiking out into 41 degree weather, and I have a car heater, so I’m not complaining, well, much.
My first photo of the day was taken at 8:36 in the morning. It was a field with Mt. Shasta in the distance. Not an overly interesting composition but it’s when Shasta caught my eye and made me start thinking about landscapes as well as birds. The only reason this composition is remotely interesting to me is that in the distance there are streams of geese and other birds crossing the sky on or above the mountain, and I wanted to try working that into a nice composition.
Last year I started working on a concept I’m calling Birds as Landscape, where I’m integrating birds as compositional elements of a landscape image. The simple way to define it is, if you look at an image and ask if it’s a landscape or a bird photography image, the answer is yes. It makes for some fun experimenting and I think it has zero significance beyond that, but it’s a way for me to think about ways to create photos that are different from the normal, sometimes cliche, imagery.
I ended up shooting about 50 images here, and decided to keep two. I would define them both as spearcarriers — the kind of thing I might use in a blog post or a piece of writing as a nice complement, but they don’t stand alone as really strong or interesting images. They’re nice supplemental filler images. But in some ways I think they do a nice job of defining what my mind was now trying to do on this trip, rather than just trying to get super close ups of birds.
Of the two, the second is, I think, the stronger image with the tighter crop on Shasta and with the larger dark silhouettes of the birds in the sky to draw the eye a bit and balance the image. The first one would be something I’d use, say, as the banner image for a piece on the refuge, but I’m not sure I’d expect more than that of it.
Slightly down the road, I ran into this turkey vulture. Turkey Vulture is a species known for this kind of wing spread while roosting; in the early morning it’s a way to catch the sun and warm up, and also dry off the mist and dew that accumulates on the feathers overnight. There’s some research to indicate this helps control parasites as well. Turkey Vultures are a bird that loves to soar, so they often get a later start to the day than other birds, because they’re waiting for the air to warm up a bit and the thermals they use for altitude to gain strength. It’s not unusual to see them hanging out on a tree in the mornings.
Conditions right now are both good and challenging. The entire area is covered by a thick overcast, blue cast in the previous images notwithstanding, the sky is a darkish, even grey. The good news for bird photographers is that this creates a huge softbox leaving really soft and gentle light on birds, so no harsh shadows to try to manage. The downside is it’s rather dark and dim, and you don’t get many highlights and no warmer tones or highlights.
So the camera is set to 1600ISO to adapt to the lower light, and yes, I’m encouraging a cooler style to the images and emphasizing what blue in the skies I can find (or fake in a non-fake-looking-style) because I find that a lot more attractive in images than blah grey backgrounds.
An interesting editorial choice is needed here: those blurred birds in the background. There’s a fine line between having a set of blurred birds in the background and someone looking at your image wondering if you even know how to remove sensor dust spots; you also have to decide whether they add to the image, or whether you want to try to grab an image with now/few birds in the background, or clone them out. The answer is “it depends”, but I like them because they show the activity in the refuge going on around this bird. It’s important that you don’t choose an image with birds too close to the main subject; there’s nice separation here in a way that almost puts a subtle frame around the bird.
The sun at this point is still very low on the horizon and you can see that in how it’s lighting the bird and the snag it’s on. Soon it will head into the cloud and not be seen in any significant way again for hours, but instead power up that huge softbox.
I am, unless otherwise noted, shooting at F/8, ISO 1600, and this shot is with my 100-400 with the 1.4x teleconverter, so we’re at effective 560mm. This one was shot at 1/4700 shutter speed; 99.9% of my images are taken in aperture priority, and I’ll use exposure compensation to adjust shutter rather than shift to full manual most of the time.
A bit more down the road, and out pops a Ring-Necked Pheasant. What my wife calls the Insane Clown Posse species of bird-dom, these are flamboyant and stupid birds that are often hunted. These are originally an asian bird that was introduced to North America for hunting, and can be found in lots of locations around California, although their population seems to be in decline as their preferred habitats get developed.
This is one of the species I was hoping to see early on the visit, because I know once the number of people visiting the refuge starts going up, they’ll disappear for the day into the brush. I ended up seeing two on my first run through the refuge, zero on the second. Their feathering, by the way, can drive many autofocus systems crazy, and then throw in the brush clutter in front of them, and getting really great focus results on this species can be a challenge.
About a third of the way around the refuge course, there’s an area where you can stop and park, get out and stretch your legs, with an observation platform giving views of more distant ponds, and access to one of the first good goose/duck ponds on the refuge. Many of the ponds on the refuge are ringed in brush to give the birds a bit of cover between them and the people visiting, and this can make photography challenging, but here, the shores are clear and everyone’s in full view.
It is also one of the places where I can basically guarantee seeing Ring-Necked ducks every year, and it’s a species I’m still trying to build my portfolio of images, since it can be hard to find in my home county reliably.
These are both decent images, but nothing special. The Ring-Necked Duck is named for a faint lavender ring on the neck that is impossible to see in the field, and can only be seen when examining a duck while holding it, which implies you’re looking at an ex-duck. Fortunately, that beak is an easy identifier, which is why the nerds that worry about bird names occasionally suggest renaming this species to Ring-Billed Duck, but I haven’t seen much enthusiasm for that idea. The female, as usual, is less flashy than the male, and if you aren’t careful, might be mistaken for a female wood duck.
Female ducks, in general, are one of those things that if you show one to a birder and say “what species is that?” they will look at you and answer “Why do you hate me?”
We’ve now turned a corner on the Refuge, so instead of the light hitting birds from the passenger side, it’s now coming in from behind the car, so while the cloud softbox minimizes it a lot, it’s now a sidelight situation, so not only are you trying to line up good shots of the birds, you’re hoping they angle themselves so that they aren’t cloaked in shadows. Which sometimes they do, and sometimes they laugh and wave at you.
Further down the pond from the Ring-necked ducks I find the first big groups of Geese within photography range. In the winter, these refuges house three major populations: Snow Geese, which are the big white good, Ross’s Goose, which is the Snow Goose’s smaller cousin, and the Greater White-Fronted Goose, which looks nothing like either. Telling the Snow and Ross’s apart can be a challenge, but fortunately, most of the Geese in most of the refuges I visit that are white are Snow Geese, except at Merced where the Ross’s Geese tend to hang out in larger numbers. There are birders out there that worry about counting these tens of thousands of birds and percentages of which species are where, and I am not that birder, but I respect that kind of commitment.
Snow Geese have a rare color variation known as a blue morph. This comes from a single partially dominant gene that covers some or most of the bird’s body with dark blue to grey to black feathering instead of the white. They are more common mid-continent than out here on the coast, but I’ll typically see a few a year. On this trip, I saw two, and possibly a third among the flocks. It’s one of the things I’ll look for and try to make a point of photographing if I can, because I find them interesting.
Dark Morph Red-Tailed Hawk
This is a bird that made me wonder about it’s species for a while, until I finally asked some other birders their opinion. Part of me wanted it to be a Swainson’s Hawk, but those birds should all be in Argentina right now, not in California, and in fact this is a Beautiful Dark Morph Red-Tailed Hawk.
So the Birder joke in California is that if someone points at a hawk and asks what species it is, just say Red-Tailed, because you’re probably right. Red-Tails are resident year round, but more common in winter when we get some migrants popping in for the season. They are also highly variable, both in size and in coloring, so unlike a lot of species they can look quite different from each other. This one is relatively rare and at one end of the spectrum with the feathering that on most birds is white having that rich cinnamon rusty brown.
This is one of those images that I am keeping because it’s an ID record of a notable find, not because it’s an awesome image; note the focus is on the branches in front of it, because, well, I’m still figuring out how to bend the X-T3 autofocus to my will reliably, and sometimes it has a mind of its own.
And, FWIW, that’s not a criticism of the X-T3, but of my learning how to use it, and the AF is a lot better than even the X-T2, which I thought was great, but it’s not perfect without some guidance. Also, FWIW, I think I figured out why it was sometimes misfiring like this on this trip, and when Laurie and I go out on the 26th to Merced I’ll try out some different settings and see if I’m right.
Hey, if your models sit under studio lights critical focus is easy. When they sit in bushes in dark grey morning light, sometimes the birds win the fight. It’s part of the fun and challenge.
The next two images are of the park headquarters, as seen across some of the ponds hosting the masses of geese and ducks. In the foreground you see the Snow Geese with Greater White-Fronted in front. There are some Ross’s Geese in those masses of white, honest, but don’t try to figure it out at this distance without a spotting scope, which I rarely use from within the car because it’s a pain to hold and focus.
This is part of an ongoing set of photos I’m trying to create that show the what of a refuge, rather than the birds, for some writing I’m exploring that goes more in depth about the refuges and what they do, why they exist and how they operate. Plus, I think it’s a nice shot, but it was intended to be a utilitarian shot for use in a future publication rather than having some deeper intent.
While I was working on that image, I noticed some flocks coming in for landings in front of me, so I thought I’d play with bird in flight shots for a while and see what happened. Of course, the wind was blowing in my face, so the birds, which take off and land into the wind like airplanes do, mostly were showing me their butts, but that’s something you can finesse with some luck and patience, at least some of the time.
Or, in this case, realize you show something that looked really good by sheer chance, and run with it. I really like this image, one of my favorites of the trip. And of course, I planned this one out to the smallest detail before leaving on the trip. Honest.
Turkey Vultures Feeding
Circle of life time. I came upon these two Turkey Vultures feeding on the remains of what seems to have been a coyote, given the fur and the fur color I see and that there’s the tip of an ear sticking out underneath the beak of that vulture on the right. The Vultures did not kill the coyote, something else did, and the job of the vulture is to clean up the messes left by other predators, which they do happily. One reason the vulture’s head is bare is so they don’t have feathers to be contaminated by whatever the culture is eating, and if you look at the beak, you’ll see they have huge nostrils.
Vultures hunt by smell, and their noses are finely attuned to allow them to identify and track very faint scents — literally molecules worth — from far away.
By this time I’ve turned onto the third leg of the tour, and technically, these birds are backlit. my shutter’s down to 1/340, and let us stop and revel at the thought I can get a decent photo in a 600m lens handheld at that shutter speed in any situation, but I really should have been paying attention and boosted the ISO a bit in retrospect. And again, the AF seems to have decided to focus just far enough ahead of the bird to be noticable to me, but it’s still a usable, but not a great, image.
Mule Deer Family
And as happens, sometimes you pass around some brush, and, well, hello there, Madame Mule Deer.
This seems to be a mother Mule Deer and her fawn from last spring, now almost as large as mother but still traveling with her. One way you can tell it’s a younger deer: when I popped into view, both deer froze and watched me to see if I was a threat. The younger deer quickly lost interest, and went and feed, groomed itself and generally wandered around. Mom? She struck that pose when she saw me and did not move until I left, other than an occasional ear twitch. The good news is they didn’t run away, but I’m also clearly worrying them, so I try to get my shot in and move away and let them get back to their business; my total time parked and photographing was under a minute before moving on.
I actually saw the younger deer again — I’m pretty sure the same animal — later in that general area without mom, who was probably by then sitting in the brush out of site wishing her child had a brain and had learned to be wary of humans already.
Deer are really common on the refuges, but you’re more likely to see them early and late when the visitors are thin. It’s one reason I like to visit week days instead of weekends when I can, because the people on refuges those days tend to be a bit better educated and more likely to be discrete around the animals.
The deer wasn’t the only animal I saw this trip, I also happily stopped and let a skunk cross the road without any pressure from me at one point, although it wasn’t in any position I could photograph (safely). No coyotes this trip, but they’re also common on refuges, although as you saw above, this refuge seems to have an opening for one.
There is a tree on the refuge that’s known as the Eagle Tree. Not entirely sure why, perhaps tied to some local first nation’s legends or stories, perhaps.
Well, okay, Sacramento NWR is well known for hosting Bald Eagles, and this is their favorite tree. It’s not guaranteed you’ll find one here, but wait long enough, and one will probably stop and roost. It’s near ponds where they like to hunt, and it gives them great views of large swaths of the refuge.
This morning, there were three: one full adult and two sub-adults. In talking to others who were at the refuge the same day, 20 minutes earlier there were five, but the ravens were being annoying and a couple left and I missed it.
This is also that point in the day where the photographer deep in the brain started muttering “you never remember to shoot verticals. You were going to shoot more vertical images, remember?” So yeah, I actually shot this as a vertical, because, well, trees tend to be tall, not wide, and smart photographers do that.
More Turkey Vultures
If it seems like there are lots of turkey vultures on the refuge, you’re correct, there are. Not unusual numbers, but one reason you’re seeing images of them is that with the cold morning weather they’re still up in the trees hanging out (when they aren’t eating leftover coyote), and it’s way too cold and early for most raptors to be out and about and flying around.
Also, one of the things I try to do when I upgrade cameras is try to get fresh images of many species, hoping to use the new, hopefully better camera sensor to get new, hopefully better images of the species to replace older images that used to be awesome but somehow turned crappy over time…
The Eagle Tree redux
This shot is from another spot on the auto-tour where you can get out and stretch and walk a bit, and so was almost the only shot I took that wasn’t out a car window for the day. We’ve gone past the Eagle Tree, and when I looked back at it, I liked it and so tried to build a nice composition of it.
This is one of those shots that I look at and ask myself if it’s bird photography, or is it a landscape image? And I think the answer is “yes”, and that makes me happy.
This shot was the last of my first pass around the refuge. The loop is roughly six miles, and the first loop took just under 2 hours. Along the way, I shot about 550 frames, all with the X-T3 and 100-400, and I ended up keeping 17, or about 3%. That’s not atypical for my shoots, since I use a lot of burst mode trying to get good gestures or good layouts of birds in movement, but it requires a lot of thought and rigor in culling and editing to not inflict 20 decent by mostly identical images on a poor viewer instead of being willing to choose one as the best.
I know some photographers who come back from a shoot with 100 images and dump them all on Flickr expecting us to look at them all and decide on what we like best, and that drives me crazy. I think it’s part of my job to figure out which is the best and make decisions rather than foisting them on the viewer, because frankly, if I don’t care enough to make those choices, why should anyone else?
My editing philosophy for a shoot is always “How few images can I use to uniquely show what I photographed?” and not “how many images did I make today?” — this is something I keep thinking about writing about, so maybe in 2019…
Going around again
So, as soon as I finished my trip around the tour, I started again. It’s typical that when I can I’ll do the circuit twice, once to see what’s going on and where the birds are and photographing what I find, and a second circuit where I can focus on hot spots, or choose to stake out a location like the eagle tree and put some time seeing if something special happens. The Eagle Tree would be a place to stake out, if there weren’t already half a dozen or more other photographers with the same idea.
But even before I started the 2nd tour, I saw a bird I missed on the first round, a Shrike, so I grabbed the camera and snapped off a few shots from the parking lot outside the bathrooms, marked it off on the species list and didn’t think about it too much.
It’s not uncommon for the species list to shift even if you run the auto-tour back to back; some birds, like me, aren’t morning people. Birds move around over the day. As the number of cars and visitors increase, some move out of view, like the Pheasants. I wasn’t surprised to not see a Shrike on the first round, but also not surprised to see one pop up later, either.
Except… California is generally populated by Loggerhead Shrikes, but Sacramento NWR has hosted a rare Northern Shrike in the winter the last few winters, and it’s a bird some birders will chase. At one of the stops on the first route, I actually heard a couple of other birds talking about having not seen the Northern Shrike that day. So it was in the back of my head, but I didn’t think about it much; I wasn’t there to chase rarities.
But when I started processing the images, I started thinking the Shrike looked a little weird. Which got me wondering whether I’d — purely by happenstance — found the Northern Shrike. After research and some study in the guides and online, I was thinking it might be, but I wanted more experienced eyes on it. So I posted it to a Facebook group, and got a couple of immediate “yes, Northern Shrike!” responses. Followed 90 minutes later by the first, “no, it’s a Loggerhead” responses, of course.
Personally, I’m still leaning to Northern Shrike, but what I ended up doing was posting the image to eBird as part of my trip report, and I know flagging that species will get the reviewer to take a look, and they’ll be familiar with the individual bird and can give me a yes/no answer. Whatever they say I’ll accept as gospel, and either I’ll have a really great find almost by accident, or a nice image of a Loggerhead Shrike. Either way, I’m happy.
This, by the way, is one of the things I love about birding: ID is nuanced and subtle and complicated, because each individual is different and the choices are sometimes conflicting and unclear. I find it a great challenge and ever time I figure I have it figured out, a bird comes along to humble me and make me go back and study some more. If birding was easy, I probably wouldn’t do it, and that challenge is nicely layered into the ambiguity that is this shrike.
I’m now back on the route again, and I almost immediately run into a Northern Harrier, sitting in a field doing… nothing. It’s not on a kill, so it’s not feeding. It’s just sitting there.
Harriers will do this. It’s on a bit of a rise so it has some visibility on the field around it. Harriers hunt rodents — field mice, voles, etc — primarily by hearing where they catch the sound of the animals moving through the brush. If you look at the face, you’ll see it has that round, owl-like face. That round facial structure helps funnel sounds into the ears to help hunting, and in many ways, the Harrier is an owl that works the day shift.
It’s possible it’s sitting here after a failed hunt because it hasn’t decided to take off and go back to work. It’s possible it just feels like hanging out. The harriers are one of the few raptors actually out and about today, because like owls, they tend to hunt close to the ground and so they don’t use thermals or warm air to help gain altitude as much as other hawks do.
Red-Tailed Hawk and Mt. Shasta
Speaking of, here’s another Red-Tailed Hawk, with more normal coloration than the one I showed above. I was really taken by this composition, and yes, the answer to “is this a bird photography image or a landscape image?” is “yes”.
But more seriously, one of the things I keep working to do is show birds in the context of the environment they’re in, and I think this is a nice image of that style.
And now, another ring-necked duck. And the image most likely to not make the cut when I do a second review of these images in a month or so — or at least get some serious rework. There’s a fine line between going dark and cool to set a mood and going muddy and I’m not sure I’m on the right side of that line in the sane right now
I have come to realize that there’s some conflict in my image processing I have to manage. When I get back from a shoot, I want to get images processed so I can get bird images up and talk about the trip, like I’m doing here. But I also realize that I work best when I process images and then let them marinate for a while, then come back and re-evaluate the processing to consider changes, improvements or fixes. And I’m already thinking this image is the poster child for why I need to do that.
But I’m not going to go in and rework it now, because I know I’ll just rework it again later when I revisit it.
This is also why I am careful not to be over-enthusiastic about defining an image as “wow, this is portfolio quality!” right after taking it; I’ve found defining the best images is best done after some time has passed, not two days after shooting them.
Great Horned Owls
One of those fun finds, as I was looking for something else, I noticed two lumps in a tree that shouldn’t be there. Once you see those lumps, you can be pretty sure they’re Great Horned Owls, and I was right.
This is the kind of bird find that when I’m out with less experienced birders, they ask how I ever saw the birds. The answer, of course, is “practice”, and in fact I think the most important skill a birder can have is recognizing something that’s different or unusual, whether it’s an owl trying to look like the branch in the depth of a tree, or staring out across a flock of a thousand ducks in the water offshore and realizing one of them is different from the rest. That’s real life Where’s Waldo, and learning to see those weird differences is one of the great joys of birding.
I’m on the third leg of the second trip around the tour, so I’m now facing into the sun again. With the heavy overcast, not such a big deal, but I’m now noticing some breaks in the cloud and some rather subtle color, which has my thinking silhouettes. It’s a technique I like to use at times but don’t use often enough. It also happens to be the subject of the image challenge for a photo mentor group I’m in this month.
So I start looking for compositions and I try various ones and none of them seem special or interesting, but I like this one. When doing this kind of shot I like building in the colored reflections to add some complexity and structure into the composition, and the flocks of birds in the distance become something the viewer can see and take a closer look at, adding some texture to the clouds. I would define this one as good-not-great, but worth keeping around some uses on things like blog articles.
Then I ran into these snipes. Wilson’s Snipes are a shorebird well known for being hard to see, because their plumage melts into the surroundings so well. These are hanging out on the shoreline in plain view, and you’ll still miss them if you aren’t looking carefully.
The thing is, once you see a snipe in the field, it’s easy to see, until it moves and fades into the surroundings again. It’s easy to wonder how it can be hard to see them — after you’ve seen then. But before then….
My favorite Wilson’s Snipe story is this: I was at Merced NWR one day working near one of the rear ponds, and I noticed a couple of snipes on the shore in the grasses taking a nap. I grabbed the camera and took a few images, just as ID references for later.
And when I got home and looked at the photos later, there were a dozen snipes visible in the image, only two of which I saw on site with my own two eyes. The change in magnification and field of view in the photo brought them into clear view, where even in binoculars, the sleeping snipe just looked like the ground they were on.
That’s why I’m always happy when I both run across Snipes in the field, and actually SEE that I have.
Working my way along the tour, I found another composition I liked. If it seems like I’m really focusing more towards landscape over pure bird photography this trip, you’re correct, I am, and it wasn’t planned, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how I want to focus my landscape work moving forward, and seeing Mt. Shasta out and about just triggered me into thinking those paths, and nothing about the birds this trip really pulled me back and made me focus on them.
It should be noted that these images were being taken at 1PM in the afternoon. In other words, while I’ve processed them to have a late afternoon or sunset look, that is very much an artistic interpretation, and while I approve of this, I know National Geographic would not. Your mileage may vary on this choice, and that’s fine. I used to be a lot more hard core about images being “realistic” or “not modified”, but in reality, what I care about now are images that are really good looking and I’ll leave journalistic integrity to the journalists. But I did want to call it out because it’s the sort of thing that sets some people off (for some reason), and if that’s you, well, let’s just not have this argument again, okay?
I like this composition a lot more than the previous. I think the two ducks down in the bottom right corner really make this image, but there’s a trail of dark duck spots leading out to where the flock is in flight, and that flock is a lot closer so the outlines of the birds are more birdlike and the dark spots have a much bigger impact than the previous image has. Overall, I was thinking this might be my favorite image of the day.
But then I found another location I liked, with the tree in the distance and the flocks in flight, and I started experimenting around that, and then this happened.
That is why burst mode can be your friend, as long as you’re smart enough to throw out all but the best images — because you’ll never time a shutter right for a shot like this except by pure luck. It’s not spray and pray, but strategic acquisition (and culling later).
To my eye, those are Northern Pintails, but I could be wrong, and they happened by at exactly the right time. I ended up shooting four bursts of about 50 images, and that flight is in 8 of them, of which only one was composed where I thought it looked right. The rest of the images are just entirely forgettable.
That’s one of the things I try to remind myself: the shots are there, if you can slow down and think about what you need to find, and take the time to be ready to grab them when they appear. It would have been easy to look over the composition, take a couple of shots, declare it boring and move on. I see that a lot with photographers who seem intent on speed dating the refuge as if there’s some trophy for being fastest to finish. Instead, I try to slow down, consider options and try to be ready for opportunity. Here, it all came together. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.
But if you aren’t trying, and you aren’t ready, it definitely won’t happen.
Details about the outing
As it turns out, that was my last image I felt like keeping. After finishing the Sacto tour for the second time, I decided to go grab lunch and explore Colusa NWR, which is about 20 minutes away on the road towards home. To be honest, I find Colusa’s auto-tour boring photographically; the birds tend to be distant, the few close-by ones are common species like Coots and Northern Shovelers, and while you’ll get the occasional find like a feeding White-Faced Ibis, it’s rare to see something you won’t find at Sacto or another refuge.
Except for the observation platform at the entrance to the refuge, which opens up on a pond, which is full of geese and ducks, and where a patient photographer can mine many really nice and interesting images. Today, the platform was full, and so I spent about ten minutes parked on the side of the pond watching and trying to decide if it made sense to haul out the camera, decided it didn’t, and so I ended up hitting the road for home.
So, some details about the trip. Alarm goes off at 5AM. Out of the house around 5:40. Arrived at Sacramento about 8:15. Two trips through the refuge, about 12 miles total driving. First trip took 110 minutes, second trip started at 10:35 and took about 95 minutes, so I spent about 205 minutes, or just about 3 and a half hours on the refuge.
I then did a short trip at Colusa, which went from 1PM for an hour, including time sitting watching the pond.
After that, another 2 and a half hours driving home, arriving a bit before 5PM, so the trip was a little over 11 hours, of which 5 were transit travel, 4.5 working the refuges, and the rest logistics (food, bathrooms, filling gas tanks). Total Mileage for the day was 370 miles.
When I got home, I pulled out the cards and imported them into Lightroom. I used three cards, which is typical: I only had the big camera (X-T3/100-400) set up for the first run, and swapped card and battery before starting the second. For the second run, I also hauled out the X-T20 as second body and put my new 40-150 (the Fuji Equivalent of a 70-200 F2.8) on it. Those last three silhouette images are all of that camera, the rest off the X-T3.
I’m happy with battery life on the X-T3, although I’m still validating how long batteries last. Right now I’m seeing about 500+ images per battery for the Fuji branded batteries, and I’m testing a third party battery that seems able to produce 400-500 images for a lot less money. More on these when I have better data, but that works for me (but I still carry more batteries, just in case).
I loaded 1,526 images into Lightroom for evaluation from the three cards.
Culling the images
One thing that intimidates people who aren’t used to using burst mode is they get intimidated by large numbers of photos. My advice and the way I try to handle it: don’t overthink it, and make decisions first, and do detailed processing second.
So after the images are imported and previews are built (a good time for dinner and a chat with Laurie), I go in, sort the images by capture date, and start looking. This is my first cull, and I’m doing two things: First, I’m identifying and deleting the obvious fails: test shots, AF failures, that image of my heater vent I took while picking up the camera. Second, if I did panormals, HDR, Focus Blend groups or any other type of multi-image shot, I stack them together now so I can keep them together and find them later.
For this trip, my first kill deleted 356 images, or about 23%. That’s higher than normal for me, but not terribly. Some of that is because I was experimenting with compositions a lot and many of the experiments didn’t work at all on screen. Some of that was that Autofocus shifting around I talked about causing focus fails. I used to try to clean up failed focus and make them usable, I’ve learned the hard way (I hope) to just nuke them and move on.
The first cull is quick: you’re stepping through every image, and you’re either hitting NEXT or DELETE. It’s a quick reaction thing, don’t think too hard. You’re getting rid of the obvious cruft. The first cull took me about 30 minutes; I’m not trying to get into detail here, although occasionally an image will really stick out and I’ll flag it so I will find it in the next round, but mostly, it’s pass/fail, and all fails get nuked.
Second cull happens after the first, and now what I’m doing is looking for the images I like rather than the images I hate. This round takes a little longer, but I’ve learned to trust my initial reaction, so it’s NEXT NEXT NEXT PICK NEXT PICK NEXT NEXT. Also the occasional DELETE where on closer look it fails sharp focus or some other technical botch. Second cull started with 1170 images and took about 70 minutes. At the end, I’d flagged 129 images, and sent off 1036 into retirement on the NAS; another 15 failed sharpness on the second look and got deleted.
At the end of the second cull, you have a few images you’ve picked that caught your attention, and a lot of images you haven’t. At this point, I delete the images I flagged for nuking, and all of the images that I have NOT picked are given two stars, and I copy them off to my NAS into an archive, and they no longer exist as far as my work on this trip’s images. They’re not deleted, they’re retired so they don’t get in the way. I will go through them again in a few months to see if I find a gem I’ve missed, but in reality, I rarely do and it’s more to allow me to feel comfortable letting them go away now than expecting to find something special later.
So the first phase of editing the day’s images took roughly 90 images, and purged the pile of images from a massive 1500+ down to 129. The third pass is where I start doing processing, cropping and detailed evaluations and start making choices of which images from a similar set will get selected.
A typical sequence of this phase is I might have picked six images out of a burst of 30. I’ll pick one that at first glance I like the best and do a first pass processing: crop, exposure, maybe some color adjustments, generally trying to enhance it to see what pops out. I’ll then sync those settings across the rest of the groups and start looking critically at them; the goal is to pick the one best, or in some cases, find a set of unique gestures within the batch that don’t duplicate each other — the ring-necked duck spitting water is an example of a unique gesture. So would an image showing the bird in left profile vs. straight on or right profile, if I think I want all three views in my collection. But four images of a left profile duck? I pick one.
Anything not picked? off to the NAS with their friends to hibernate.
I’m not processing images right now; some photographers I talk to call this a normalization phase, where you’re doing basic adjustments to bring then into a basic look that you can evaluate and really start seeing the details and deciding what detailed work is needed to get the most out of them. Sometimes images really bloom when you do this, sometimes they fall apart. Mostly what you’re trying to do is take a raw image and clean it up enough to decide if it warrants putting the effort of the detailed processing. During this phase, some of the images get retired as effective duplicates of other, better ones, and other images get retired because when you look at them compared to the other selected images, they just don’t match the quality, or on review after cropping the compositions just don’t work, or there’s something that you don’t like that didn’t show up initially.
For me, this third pass took 90 minutes of time across two sessions; I like to take breaks because if I spend too much time in Lightroom I start deciding everything sucks, or everything is wonderful. Both are bad, so I stop and do something else and come back later.
During this phase I went from 129 images to 28, the other 101 being retired to the NAS with their buddies.
Processing for posting
I now have my candidate list of images. We’ve gone from 1526 to 28. For those counting that means I have thrown out 98.2% of the images I shot. It’s taken me three passes and just under 3 hours (40 + 70 + 90) to get here, the first two passes Saturday night after the day’s shooting, the third Sunday morning.
Each of those images now gets detailed processing to bring it into its initial final form. That can take anywhere from 10 minutes to some number that starts to feel like infinity, depending on the image needs. This is where I do local adjustments, clean up dust spots (or bird dots masquerading as dust spots), cloning, sharpening, etc. Occasionally I realize an image has a flaw I can’t fix, or which is more effort than it’s worth, and it gets retired.
For these images, I put in a bit over 3 hours in four sittings, taking breaks to make sure I didn’t get tired or fall into bad habits. The idea is spend as little time as possible figuring out which images deserve a lot of time spent on them, and then focus on those.
We can get into a discussion of photographers who are hoarders or purgers, but clearly, I’m a purger. My view is I’d rather spend my time improving my best images or creating new ones that putting energy into images I’ve already defined as marginal hoping by magic to make them great.
I started out with 1500+ images, and spent a total of about 7.5 hours in post processing, of which half was spent on those final 26 images that I posted on Flickr and you see in this article.
Wait, I hear you ask, isn’t that 28 images? It was, but two of the images didn’t pass final evaluation, one because I decided it was just too similar to another, and another because after I got deep into processing it, I decided it just didn’t work.
When I finished the first cull pass, I estimated I’d get 12-15 usable images out of it. I got 26. 15 is a typical number for a shoot like this with me, 26 indicates it was a really good shoot. Of those 26, 19 are what I consider Spear Carriers, and 7 enough above average to consider them portfolio pieces, meaning I might consider showing it off on its own or printing it. I break my images into three general buckets: “Good enough”, “Portfolio” and “Best of Breed”; I rarely add an image to the latter immediately, they have to marinate a while before I can pick rationally.
Seven “Portfolio” images in a shoot is a high number, it might change when I review them in a month or two. Then again, it might not; some days things click. And my initial rating and processing are just that: I tend to look at images after a few weeks or as I go through the year, and it’s not uncommon for me to re-rank an image rating (usually down, sometimes I start liking it even better over time, though) or decide an image needs some tweaking. I rarely, if ever reprocess spear carriers. Why? Focus your time on your best images, or making new better ones.
And then there’s the next trip…
So what started out at 5AM on a Saturday morning finished up in the Evening on a Sunday when I pushed the publish button to send the images to Flickr. 11 hours field work, 7.5 hours digital darkroom, for 26 usable images with 7 pretty good ones. I’m happy with that.
And I learned some things about the X-T3 I’ll test out on the 26th when Laurie and I head out to Merced, and I spent some time getting familiar with the 40-150, which is the new puppy in my lens collection, and I’m really liking that lens.
And hopefully this piece gives you some insight into how I go through this kind of shoot and how I go through the darkroom bits of the process to get the best images out and ready for use while the images are timely, so I can write about them.
I have some ideas what my favorite images are, but I like waiting a bit to see how that changes, because it will. But those last two silhouettes and perhaps the deer shot will be the ones that will stick with me over time and the two deer may be my next printing project. We’ll see.
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