Points in Focus Photography

If there’s one thing I’ve learned today, it’s that auto focus alignment tests are not for the faint of heart. Better yet, as I’m slowly becoming convinced, anyone. I certainly wouldn’t recommend even bothering unless you are almost certain that your lens is consistently misfocusing with significant repeatability.

I spent the better part of today working with a fellow photographer testing and adjusting the auto focus on both my EOS 1D and his Nikon D700. We were using the target from here. Our initial objective was to determine how viable testing and adjusting was using a simple target or whether a lens-align should be purchased. Suffice to say, our results were mixed and raised several questions about the overall accuracy and repeatability of these tests.

We started our tests using the 25% target as suggested, with mixed results. I have since repeated the tests with the 10% and 5% targets to insure that I was actually focusing where I was suppose to and not accidentally  locking on to the faint gray markings. We also worked as carefully as possible to align the camera to the target so the reading would be as accurate as possible. For starters, this is easier said than done.

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House of Refuge at Dawn
House of Refuge at Dawn

I was going though my reading list in Google reader and realized that Moose Peterson, is probably the most prolific poster of imagery of all the people I follow, not to mention he’s posting something like 2 or 3 times a day. Of course if you ask me, he’s lucky living somewhere with more accessible shooting locations.

I on the other hand, am trying to get out and shoot more, especially when the light is good, i.e. sunrise and sunset. Only so far it seems like a much harder thing for me to address living in south Florida. Most of the coast line is rather boring sandy beaches, and most of the interior locations are either parks that are closed for dawn and dusk or a long drive to get there.

In the name of getting out and shooting more sunrises and the like, I made the long drive up to Stuart, FL and Hutchinson Island to shoot the historic House of Refuge, the last one in the state of Florida and the oldest building in Martin county.

House of Refuge and Rocks at Dawn
House of Refuge and Rocks at Dawn

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 width =

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.

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