What you see is…what?

Speed makes all the difference

So they say seeing is believing.  But seeing what?  We want to believe the nature of reality is that it is perceiveable, that we can look out and see what is really there.  But what is really there?

The one dimension we think is unseeable is time.  The other three make themselves obvious with any three dimensional object, but time is perceived as the now, a unitary thing.  We can’t “see” the past or future, we simply see NOW.

Unless we have a camera.  Two shots above, one taken at 1/8th of a second, the other at 1/640th of a second.  Both of the same subject, within a minute of each other, both a NOW.

Which is the real fountain?  Photography enables us to “see” different versions by freezing time at a moment (or very short duration) and examine what’s happening.  I stared at this fountain for a bit and neither of these images was apparent to me – I saw something in between.  Yet here’s proof of a reality imperceptible to me.  So it must exist.

What else is going on around us that seeing doesn’t reveal?

Long lens close-ups

The Canada geese in the area are herding their goslings around showing them the ropes on survival.  It’s fun to watch the adults try to threaten a big car with hissing and advancing motion while the young blithely wander around poking their noses into everything.  In general, though, mom and dad keep the group together and moving in the same direction.

It was an overcast, rainy day and the goslings were in the tall grass, either stripping the water drops off the leaves or picking at the grass itself.

I was using a 300mm lens for my OM-1 film camera on my digital camera, shooting out the car window.  The geese were so close at times I had to wait until they walked out of my close-focus point.  It was great to be able to fill the image with the birds but handholding a long lens like this (and manually focusing) meant the images aren’t as sharp as I’d like.  Still, you can see details on them nicely.

Whenever the parents felt we’d gotten too close or had seen enough, they herded the goslings further into the grass.  With all the rain we’ve gotten the stems were tall enough to easily hide the young birds, although a few of them still were curious about all the fuss.

We expected to see sandhill cranes in this area as they use it for feeding and nesting.  And sure enough, we saw one walking along the side of the road in the grass.  He pretty much let us coast along beside him while he nosed around for bugs and periodically called out to see if anyone was in the area.  Although this was our only sandhill crane we did see a cousin.

At a nearby visitor’s center we heard a whooping crane had been sighted so we drove off in that direction hoping for the best.  Luckily, the bird was still in the field so we got to see one of our most endangered birds, just wandering around in a field behind a farm house.  What a great opportunity for us to see the “other” American crane.

We learned later whooping cranes have been transplanted to Wisconsin but the efforts are not going well.  The percentage of successful nesting and raising of young is very small.  One surprising issue is the black fly population, which harasses the adults so much they leave the nest and eggs behind.  A tactic managers are using is to get to the nest soon after the eggs are laid and remove them to be hatched by humans.  The birds will apparently lay more eggs later, which is after the black fly population drops off.  Sometimes even evolution needs a hand….

A few things about this image.  It’s an extreme crop of an image made with the 300mm lens resting on the window of my car so it’s nowhere as sharp as I’d wish for such a great occasion.  But, you use what you got as best possible.  Also, see the bird on the right?  From other images it’s obviously a crane but I can’t find anything online about whooping or sandhill cranes being this black at any stage in their life.  Either it’s been rolling in mud or it’s some other type of plumage.  Finally, if you look closely behind the white whooping crane, about an inch in this image, you’ll see a little orange spot.  This is the head of a chick that followed the adult around.  At the distance we were from the birds it was invisible – I only noticed it when zooming in on the images in Photoshop.  Hopefully this will be one of the chicks that make it to adulthood!

Watch me go by

I’m not an active bird photographer, just the annual sandhill crane migration and bald eagles when I can find them.  I admire people who create the stunning images of waterfowl, raptors or even backyard birds, especially where movement is involved.  It takes a lot of practice to use your gear effectively when sharp images of flying birds is your expected product.  Cameras have gotten more sophisticated, yes, but for bird photography the practitioner is still an essential part of the equation.

Which brings me to seagulls.  Hang around the Lake Michigan shore and you’ll see them everywhere.  They are so ubiquitous it’s easy to ignore them until they walk up and take food out of your hand.  Still, they do present the perfect subject to practice flying bird photography.  Think about it – here’s a brilliant white bird with black markings against a very blue sky or lake, generally cruising at a steady pace just above eye level.  Plenty of contrast, steady level movement, details to measure sharpness against – see, the perfect subject.


I didn’t really have the right lens today while wandering along the beach, but it’s a pretty sharp one and I figured I’d test the limits of enlargement on images made from it.  All these images have been seriously cropped – probably more than 60% of the image is gone.  My technique was to put the lens on my tripod, turn on the continuous focusing, set the aperture around 4-5.6 (to get fast shutter speeds), and follow the flying bird while holding the shutter release down taking multiple images.


Most of the birds were 50-100 feet away, cruising the shallow water for food.  The wind was blowing just a little, although I think they get some updrafts off the water since they weren’t having to flap their wings very much as they swept back and forth over the water.


Every once in a while a bird would stop cruising, perform a complex aerial acrobatic maneuver and suddenly drop to the water face first, landing in a big splash and sitting for just a second or two.


Not sure we fully understand how sharp a bird’s vision is but I’m impressed at how they can spot a small fish under a highly reflective surface and then dive to that exact spot to grab it.  Lots of complex math going on in that little brain, that’s for sure, although it’s all hardwired I’m sure.  Only Jonathon Livingston Seagull seemed to be capable of asking Why? to such exertions.

Fishing for seagulls, like for humans, isn’t always successful.  But they have the advantage over us – they can go to where the fish are and follow them around in order to catch them.


All in all a good practice run for a non-avian photographer.  My next challenge is to take the right lens out and see if I can get similar results, but with images that don’t need so much cropped out.

I can hand hold that picture

Well, no, you probably can’t.  As much as wildlife photographers want to believe they have rock solid biceps and a shooting stance that anchors them with a firm foundation, long lenses and physics render this belief moot.  A long lens shakes and because it magnifies things (why else would you use a long lens, right?) every little shake gets magnified as well.  So you end up with blurred images.  And usually just when you don’t want them.

ISO 100, 300mm, 1/125 sec., f/11

ISO 100, 300mm, 1/125 sec., f/11

Sucks, doesn’t it?  Just when the eagle does something interesting I’m trying to hand hold my longest lens at an aperture that at least gives me some depth of field but at a lousy 1/125 sec. when I should be at least using 1/600 sec or faster (see below for why).  Why would I do this?  Because I wasn’t ready and thought a snap shot would work.  Hey, my camera has in body stabilization – that should count for something, right?  No, not really.  The stabilization is meant to give you more latitude on aperture or shutter speed selection, not counteract the wrong decision.

Rule of thumb – shutter speed at least as fast as the reciprocal of your focal length.  In my case, a 300mm lens on a Four-Thirds camera, meaning a 600mm equivalent.  I thought I could just stand by my car, lean on the door, and let technology handle my bad judgement.  And I missed a good image opportunity.

Use a tripod.  Use a monopod.  Rest your camera on a really solid object.  Do something to eliminate those little jerks and shifts your hands and arms make when holding something.  Actually, use a tripod and be done with it.

How much difference does it make?  I continued to use poor judgement for at least half the images during the shoot so here’s a comparison.  These two shots were taken within a minute of each other.

ISO 100, 300mm, 1/160 sec., f/11 - tripod

ISO 100, 300mm, 1/160 sec., f/11 – tripod

ISO 100, 300mm, 1/160 sec., f/11 - hand held

ISO 100, 300mm, 1/160 sec., f/11 – hand held

Even on the computer screen the difference is very noticeable.  Bird images must be sharp – our eyes are too used to seeing details in feathers, eyes, beaks and claws.  When I use a tripod with this lens, use the mirror lock-up (to reduce vibration even more) and apply just a little post-processing sharpening, a correctly made image just works.

ISO 100, 300mm, 1/125 sec., f/11

ISO 100, 300mm, 1/125 sec., f/11

Some photographers claim to never use a tripod – great, they have better muscle control than I do.  But I bet they don’t photograph wildlife.  You can get away with hand held images with short lenses, bright flashes (they freeze action), incredibly fast shutter speeds (1/1000 sec or faster) or an artistic decision that all your images will be blurred.  But to present reality as people are used to seeing it, many times a sharp image is important, by which I mean not blurred.  Long lenses are great tools but you have to use them correctly and respect their limitations.  Get a solid tripod and use it.  Hang your camera bag from it to stabilize it more.  Learn how to lock up your mirror and do so (except for you high-end Sony users with the semi-transparent mirror!).  Overcome your feeble, shaky hands with rock solid technique and produce the images that amaze viewers.

Depth of field? What depth of field?

Giving your images a distinctive and interesting look is always a challenge but there are several tools available.  Depth of field is a popular “art” tool that enables you to quickly bring the viewer’s eye to the exact subject you want them to pay attention to right from the start.  To use effectively, though, you need to understand what is the depth of field you’re going to get for your composition?  It’s a tricky question – each lens behaves differently based on aperture, distance from subject, focal length, etc.  You almost have to experiment with your bag of lenses and learn.  Or  you can look up the depth of field chart for your lens and memorize it.  My problem with the latter option is I have a hard time visualizing what a 3 inch depth of field or a 500 foot depth of field looks like.  I usually just play around with my lenses and see what they deliver.

It’s especially daunting with telephoto lenses.  The depth of field for these starts out short and seems to only get smaller.  Here’s an example:

I liked the little snowball sitting in the sunlight so I wanted to make an image of it.  I was sitting at a picnic table with my camera on my tripod, using my 300mm manual focus Olympus lens (from the OM film camera days).  On my digital Olympus body this is equivalent to a 600mm lens on a full format camera.  I’m about 10 yards from the snowball so this long lens really gets up close.  I think the aperture was around f/11 or f/16 since I was looking for maximum sharpness.  Notice the area that’s in focus – it’s a narrow band where the snowball is in the sunlight.  The grass in the foreground and snowbank in the background are completely out of focus.  Which is what I wanted – you eye should go right to the snowball.  But how much depth of field is really there?

100% crop from previous image

100% crop from previous image

If I zoom in on the image you can see the depth of field is REALLY narrow; according to one online DOF calculator it comes in at 4 inches.  Which means if I was making an image of a deer’s face using this distance and settings, their eyes would be in focus but their ears and nose might not be – and this is at a small aperture (not that I expect to be 10 yards from our local deer, at least not unless I’m holding a handful of corn for them).  It does give a cool look, though, as it centers your eye right on the subject I want you to pay attention to.  Like most specialized tools – and a long telephoto lens is definitely that – you get the best results when know the lens’ limitations and operating within them.

In my youth as a photographer I was always trying to get maximum depth of field, especially with landscapes.  I’ve learned now that shortening it up can truly bring some interesting features to your pictures.  Just have to know when and how to use the technique effectively and what tools work best to deliver on it.

Landscapes at all levels

5x7" Fuji Velvia slide

5×7″ Fuji Velvia slide

One of the iconic images of the western plains is this formation – Devil’s Tower.  I looked up some of Willliam Henry Jackson’s images of the monument and except for the trees nothing much has changed.  (Geologic time doesn’t lend itself to photographic motion unless you’re willing to leave your camera set up on a tripod for several thousand years and who’s going to change the battery?).  Call me traditionalist but I like discovering some of my images look very similar to the great photographers of the American west.  There’s a connection that spans the technology of photography to realize you have stood where these legends placed their tripods, looked over a scene they would find familiar, and made similar decisions as they about composition and exposure.  Using a camera similar to the one they used just reinforces the connection, especially when you’re under the dark cloth staring at the ground glass screen to focus and compose an upside-down image.

One tool I have that the 19th century photographers lacked is a way to portray the human element in the context of the landscape.  Long lenses were not readily available back then for a number of reasons – weight, sharpness, exposure times – so you rarely see telephoto images like we’re used to seeing.  Long lenses give me the ability to reach out to where people are in the landscape, to portray their interaction and scale as part of the grander scene.

These images were made with a digital camera, not a view camera.  Not only is it easier to move around and get the desired composition, but the range of lenses available brings a whole new dimension of possibilities.  The image on the right was made using a 600mm telephoto lens, something the 19th century photographers would have probably marveled at.   You have to wonder what they could have done with such tools.

Sort of like wondering what Einstein could have done with a personal computer….