Points in Focus Photography

I’m not usually big on photographing gators, most of the time they just lie there in front of the worst possible background you can imagine. Sometimes you get lucky though. The water levels in Lettuce lake in the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary have dropped so much that at this point there’s only a few very small pools, the one this gator was in wasn’t much bigger than the gator itself.

An American Alligator in small gator hole with head raised just prior to snapping a warning bite, photographed at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
Before the Bite

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The trip wasn’t only shooting pelicans, and while the population of shorebirds I’ve been shooting on the past couple of trips wasn’t there, there were birds.

A Semipalmated Sandpiper stands just at the edge of the surf on a beach on Sanibel Island on Florida's gulf coast.
Semipalmated Sandpiper

One of the few peeps (small sandpipers) I saw, I think all told I only saw a handful on the beach all day.

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Wildlife photographer Moose Peterson posted an entry on his blog regarding a question he is apparently asked with some regularity “which is better, FX or DX, for wildlife photography”. I think the most appropriate and telling comment though is his closing sentence, “Oh yeah, photo taken with FX or DX? Does it matter?” I think the answer is clearly no.

The thing that I think needs to be stressed, and that in my experience most people loose sight of, is that a camera is a tool. It’s a like a saw, hammer or paint brush, though considerably more complicated than any of those. Certainly, people will have preferences to which brand, platform or format; but ultimately, it’s a tool to arrive at a creative end and this is something that shouldn’t be forgotten.

This brings us back to FX and DX question. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to either format. The biggest advantage crop formats offer, to me, is ability to use shorter lighter less expensive lenses for the same reach (a 400mm lens instead of a 600mm for instance). On the other hand, there are disadvantages, the smaller denser sensors tend to fare worse in lower light levels and demand the higher quality lenses to get optimal results.

As I was writing this, I started to consider the depth of field differences and whether they were an advantage or not. Crop formats have more depth of field for the same composition than a full frame variant, keeping equivalent focal lengths the same. In other words, shooting a bird on a perch from the same distance using a 400mm lens on a DX body and a 600mm lens on an FX body, the DX body will have deeper depth of field at the same aperture. When I first started writing this, I assumed depth of field would be both an advantage and disadvantage. An advantage because you could shoot at wider aperture and have the same depth of field as a full frame body thus use lower ISOs or higher shutter speeds; a disadvantage when you wanted to have narrow depth of field to isolate a subject.

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Sanibel Pelicans

One of the nice things I find about the Sanibel beaches is that you almost always have large easy to track targets moving along the beach continuously. Those targets, are Brown Pelicans, and I find them to be quite nice in many ways. They are fairly predictable in their flight patterns, and are very clear about their intentions when they are going to dive. They are also large and not super fast, making them easy to track with just about any auto focus system, as well as giving frame filling images with moderately long glass.

A Brown Pelican flys directly towards the camera while searching for prey in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Sanibel Island on Florida's gulf coast.
If I was a fish, this would probably be quite. well terminal.

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I just got back from a brief overnight sojourn to the west coast of Florida, specifically Sanibel Island. I had gone over mostly to stop at and check out the Audubon Society’s Corkscrew Swam Sanctuary, but it’s hard to pass up a sunset over there.

Sunset Stroll

This one shot (above) poses a bit of a dilemma for me, as I can’t deciede which variation I like better. The image shown above, is processed to recover and accentuate the blues of the ocean water. This was done by using a slightly tweaked florescent color balance and a selective color shift to return the sky back to a nicer shade of orange. An alternate less shifted version can be seen here.


The final, well next to final shot of the day. The final moments of the sun, shot at the equivalent of 896mm.

As I mentioned on twitter I was out scouting Shark Valley on the north edge of Everglades National Park and the Loop Road in Big Cypress National Preserve. Neither of which turned out to be all that stellar but the day was redeemed by a single Red-Shoulder Hawk that was nice enough to pose for us. I also spotted a Swallow-tailed Kite, though there was no possibility of photographing it.


Big Cypress is very much a challenge for me, I find it very difficult to find and visualize an image when the majority of the soundings are green and leafy. Doubly so when I’m merely passing though on one of the scenic drives in the middle of the day and not actually able to really get out and explore. Of course exploring almost anywhere in Florida almost invariably requires getting wet or having an air boat. Which makes being creative a lot more challenging.


What I did enjoy about Big Cypress, even after blowing an awesome shot of a Great Egret perched on a cypress knee, was the change in backgrounds. While the birds were nowhere near as approachable as they are at places like Wakodahatchee, the change in background more than makes up for that in my opinion. This though, it s one of those places where you really want a beanbag, and some mosquito/fly netting and to shoot from your car window.

Red-shoulder Hawk

Or the problem with umbrellas, shiny objects and reflections. Either way I was fooling around with decorations and lights on my desk and cooked up this in the spirit of Easter.

Fooling Around with Easter Decorations

Black cloth forms the background, the light is provided by a single Canon 580Ex II to high and to camera right tripped by Pocket Wizards, shooting into a Westcott 43″ Double Fold Umbrella, there are white reflectors to camera left, camera center, and camera right to provide fill.

Racooin in ReedsIt’s the wrong time of day, the lighting is all wrong, and I wasn’t even there to shoot but just incase I had my camera and apparently just incase isn’t a bad thing. The short of it, I was at Green Cay this afternoon, showing my grandmother around before she goes back home. 1100 to 1300 (that’s 11 AM to 1 PM) is really not the time to be out trying to make good pictures, the light is too harsh, it’s usually hot and often much of the wildlife is back under trees and in the shade. But that’s when most people are willing to go out in the big scary world, not 2 in the morning when I want to be heading out to be in position for the sunrise light.

20090303-60015I brought my camera, because hey I feel wierd with out it, and who knows, the one day I don’t bring my camera there’s going to be a tap-dancing eagle on the side of the boardwalk or something equally incredible. Oddly I always seem to like the images that come from these little excursions more than the ones where I’m trying to find something to shoot. In my non-shooting today, shot 65 frames, of roughly 4 subjects. The first was garbage, a couple of quick snaps of Pruple Martains, just so I could toss them in the ever growing Lightroom keyword library. From then on things picked up.

Along the eastern boardwalk the raccoon (at the top of the post) showed up. Further along, there was a pair of mottled ducks standing on a log. I don’t usually care for head on shots, I find birds heads look very odd from that angle, but every now and then they work out fairly well.

The real catch was the 3rd worked bird of the day, a Palm Warbler (show below). Much like my arch-nemebird the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, they are small, fast, tend not to stay around long, and are often back far enough away from the boardwalks to make shooting them next to impossible. Only once have I had one bold enough to come pose for me on the edge of the boardwalk. The final bird I worked was a Great Egret, but it yielded nothing quite as interesting as I would have liked.

Palm Warbler

Otherwise, Green Cay was pretty quiet today, I heard two Red-shouldered hawks off in the distance, but they never showed up.

I’m not <insert big name photographer here>, I don’t have the luxury of investing massive amounts of cash into protecting my digital photography. For the last 4 years or so I’ve relied on a 3-disk RAID 5 array to safeguard my data. Yes, I know RAID isn’t a backup nor will it protect me against accidentally deleting something. Unfortunately I didn’t have the money (or data important enough really) to worry about it, I was protected in the even a hard drive failed, and would just have to live with it  if anything went further south.

The Nomming Jaws of InevitabilityThat was until I started feeling the pinch of my array’s pathetic 500GB capacity and punctuated by the nomming jaws of inevitability, that I started rather hurriedly trying to do something about my lack of backups and my ever shrinking amount of available space. This was about the time I posted Just a Friendly Reminder, Backup Your Data.

Since then the nomming jaws of inevitability haven’t been far behind. Trying to do things on a budget I elected to go with a pair of new 750GB drives. I of course wanted to source them locally as I didn’t want to keep my now degraded RAID 5 array running that way for any length of time. Besides terrible performance, if anything else happened I was pretty much screwed. Of course, all I could get locally was a  pair of Seagate 7200.11 SATA drives, ones that happen to have a firmware issue that under certain conditions can cause the drive to fail when the system boots. Fortunately, Seagate had a firmware fix for that issue so that sorted out the first bump in the road.

You’ll notice that I’m using consumer level disks, this of course was mistake two. Oddly enough I never had a problem with running consumer level disks in my raid array prior, the 3 Western Digital drives in my old array were just run of the mill consumer grade drives. Oh how things have changed. Not long after I had the new array was online, I had my first consumer disk in RAID hick-up. One of the drives was slow in responding to a disk operation and the Intel RAID driver failed it. Lovely, the drive was fine, but the array now needed to be rebuilt. Two or three days later the other drive did the same thing, and back to rebuilding the array again. At this point I was concerned that if this continued I’d be in serious trouble, especially if the active disk was failed during the rebuild.

At this point I broke down and ordered a enterprise grade WD RE3 drive. Which sat on my desk while I was in Sanibel shooting shorebirds, only to be quickly swapped on my return as one of the disks timed out for a second time and I was forced into another time consuming array rebuild.

On the up side, of all of this, I’ve been left with a perfectly good 750GB drive that just can’t coexist in a RAID array–as an aside, you’d think that the Intel StorageMatrix controllers that are integrated into their desktop motherboards would be designed to be more forgiving of these types of problems as most people wouldn’t be running RAID ready SATA drives in their desktop computers. Slapping that extra drive in a USB2 external enclosure and I’ve got the start of a backup strategy.

Now the only question left is how long is this going to last before I have to figure out how to replace it. If I shoot 16GB a week–that’s about 1200 frames on a 40D or 600 frames on a 5D-II or 1Ds-III, I will run out of storage space in 46 weeks with out aggressively deleting bad frames. That puts my need to address this again point at sometime in the fall or early next year. So until then we’ll just have to see what happens.

Back from Sanibel

I just got back from an interesting trip to Sanibel and Ding Darling NWR. I had been hoping to get a couple of decent sunsets, I even borrowed some grand ND filters to have better control over the lighting as the sun was setting. Anyway, if you don’t follow my twitter feed, the entire time I was there the island was socked in with sea fog, except for a couple of brief clear times. The total lack of a decent sunset was definitely disappointing.

Anyway, Ding was pretty quiet, though crowded compared to the last time I was there in December. The highlight of that excursion was when a Bald Eagle showed up, though it was to far away to really warrant shooting. I’m not convinced that Ding is really practical for shooting, there haven’t been great numbers of birds when I’ve been there, nor are they close enough to be practical to shoot without some seriously long glass. All in all I find shooting shorebirds on the beach to be much more productive and enjoyable.

Taking a Break
Taking a Break

All in all I didn’t shoot a whole lot, but I’m still slowly working though the images, and mostly trying to ID shorebirds as that is still a big weakness for me. Anyway more to come.


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